Resurrecting a Virtual Boy

A few weeks back, I picked up a Virtual Boy. The retailer said it had been ‘tested thoroughly’ but as soon as I get it back, it starts getting glitched graphics in the right display. Sometimes this isn’t a problem, but recently it went to the point of unplayability so I decided to get to work on repairing it.

The trouble is, in addition to having poorly designed ergonomics, the VB has some poorly designed hardware inside, mainly the ribbon cables that connect to the LED projectors. These cables are not very tightly connected and so loosen over time (even if it’s kept in storage), resulting in glitched graphics. To tell which LED panel is the culprit, close one eye and then the other. You’ll have to repair whichever one(s) is glitchy.

There is very little information on the web on how to repair a Virtual Boy. Most of it can be found on the forums of Digital Press, but this is mostly hearsay. One website goes into some detail, but they leave out a few key parts.

The main thing to know is that the VB uses 4.5mm security screws. It also has really deep, really narrow holes for some of the screws. You can use a dremel or a file to whittle down a flathead screwdriver or buy a 4.5mm Gamebit and modify it so it will fit in the holes (I had limited success with the flathead technique). Filing down the Gamebit was a bit easier, but it was impossible to cut a notch at the base for a screwdriver. Using regular files and even a hacksaw just didn’t work, so I ended up asking the neighbor for use of his dremel.

What they DON’T tell you is that you should REALLY make sure you file down that Gamebit REALLY WELL. Otherwise, it will get stuck in the hole like what happened to me. If this happens, you have to take a small, narrow file and cut a notch into the side, making sure to get into the notch you drilled in with the dremel. Once you’ve got enough room, you can grab that sucker with a needlenose and pull it out. You’ll damage the case, but that’s less important than getting the thing to work (at least IMO). You can test the bit by dropping it lightly into a hole. If it doesn’t go in easily, file it down again! I also hear you can get powerful magnet screwdrivers. I haven’t tried one myself, but I know you can get really good magnets if you pull apart an old hard drive!

I replaced all the security screws with 4×1/2 Phillips head sheet metal screws from Ace Hardware (about $3.70 for a box of 100). No electronics stores seem to carry similar kinds of screws and the customer service is poor at best. As these have sharp tips, I take the file and flatten them out.

Inside the system you have to check the LED PCB and ribbon assemblies. The glitchy displays should have glue loosened like in these pictures (I found it funny the manufacturer put blue dots on each of the assemblies to indicate which was left and which was right). The glue keeps the connections from the cable with the PCB. This glue fails over time due to poor hardware design and torsion on the ribbon and the ribbon will eventually bend off.

The three methods for fixing this are 1) ‘the oven trick’, 2) solder it together, 3) use tape. Not feeling confident with my soldering abilities, I eventually decided on ‘the oven trick’ which involves preheating the oven to 190-200 degrees and then sticking the PCB assembly in for about 2 minutes, just enough to soften the glue (I hear some people do it with a clothes iron). In theory, you’re supposed to pull the thing out and rub the glue so it sticks to the ribbon. Works better on paper because you’re not taking into account the hot PCB burning your fingers! (I also tried using a clamp, but that didn’t work). Both the ‘oven trick’ and the soldering technique are described in this article.

I eventually gave up and decided to use tape. Packing tape seems to work fine. The tape is applied first on the back of the PCB (the side opposite the glue) and then the ends are wrapped around the front over the glue. You want a really thin strip that covers the area with the glue and the part where the plastic touches the base. If the tape is placed tightly and evenly and without any wrinkles, it can work just as well as regluing it.

You’ll probably want to keep the system disassembled until you can test the cable out – otherwise it’s a real pain to take out the 12 screws after you just put the whole thing back together!

Next, pop in a game and test the alignment of the mirrors by pressing Left, B, Down, A, Up on the right D-Pad. I honestly don’t know how you’d fix it if it was unaligned, but this probably involves reseating the lenses with the system running.

Next post: why the Virtual Boy isn’t that bad (and the areas where it really DOES suck).

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