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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Replacing the battery in a Game Boy cartridge (yes, it CAN be done!)

A few weeks ago I found my Game Boy Advance.  Still in pristine condition after being in a really nice case all this time.  Vintage game consoles seem to be enjoying a renaissance lately, like systems that play Atari and Nintendo Entertainment System cartridges on high-def television sets.  And this particular Game Boy Advance holds a special place in my heart, it having been a gift for Christmas eighteen years ago.

I still had a bunch of cartridges on hand: Game Boy Advance ones as well as for the classic Game Boy and the Game Boy Color.  They all still work great!  Except for one small problem...

The cartridges that utilize battery backup have almost all run dry.

Battery backup in game cartridges goes back at least as far as the original The Legend of Zelda for the NES.  After choosing to save a game it would use the built-in battery to hold the game state and vital stats, like which items your character possessed, amount of life it had, whatever.  I guess the most well known example of batteries used in game cartridges are the first several editions of Pokemon, before it went to flash memory starting with the Game Boy Advance (though batteries still powered the internal clocks of those cartridges).

But as with all such things, the batteries eventually go dead.  And along with it any practical means of playing the game again. If only there was a way to replace that battery...

It turns out, that there is.  And it works amazingly well!

Here's what you need:

From left to right: Game Boy cartridge, new CR2025 battery with tabs for soldering (available here), soldering iron (and sufficient amount of solder) such as this set that I used, and set of security screwdrivers (like this set available on Amazon for $6.99).

For the first attempt I used my copy of The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening.  Bought when it first came out in the summer of 1993.  Took me a few weeks to beat it (SPOILER: the entire game is just a dream, sorta like when Pam Ewing found Bobby in the shower).  Twenty-seven years later the battery inside the cartridge had long been dry.  Perfect specimen for experimentation.  In the pic to right you see the cartridge along with the 4.5mm screwdriver.  None of the Nintendo gear seems to have used standard screwdrivers.  Instead they're special "security" screws.  That set for seven bucks I just told you about?  It comes with 3.8mm and 4.5mm screwdrivers as well as a tri-wing screwdriver that's supposed to come in especially handy for Game Boy Advance cartridges.  Along with opening up other Nintendo cartridges and game systems.

So first we open the cartridge (shown with the new battery):


Instead of lifting straight off, the top of the cartridge sort of slides up and out from the rest of the plastic casing.  And then we get to the guts of the thing:

See that round looking gimmick?  That's the original battery, which is what will be replaced.  It looks welded to the board.  Which, it kinda is.  But it's going to be a snap to remove it.

Simply heat up the soldering iron and apply it to the places where the battery is soldered to the board.  It should not take much effort at all to do this to each solder.  Do NOT apply the iron to the battery itself!  Just on the two metal tabs coming off of the battery (which, is what they are there for):

 And here is the old battery now removed from the cartridge:

Make extra sure that you are soldering the right tabs to the proper places on the circuit board (i.e. + to + and - to -.  But if you keep in mind how the old battery was placed, it should be easy to match them up right):

Here is our new battery completely soldered onto the board:

And now the cartridge is closed up and screwed down tight, looking brand new as ever!

But will it work??  The game turned on fine when inserted into the Game Boy Advance.  I started a new game/file and after playing around with it a few minutes I saved and turned it off.  Waited thirty seconds before turning it on again.

And there is the saved game:

The entire operation took less than five minutes!  Emboldened by the first surgery, I now turned the soldering iron to Pokemon Blue.  I bought this on a lark in 1998, out of curiosity about what the Pokemon craze was about.

A few minutes and one new battery later...

My Pokemon Blue now has at least 22 more years left before it needs the battery changed again.  Which means I've plenty of time to catch them all before I turn 70.  Who knows: I may buy a GameCube and the other intervening consoles between Game Boy and Switch or whatever, just to keep expanding my collection until the day I die.  Yes, that too is possible.

So if you want to extend the longevity of your Game Boy cartridges, don't be intimidated by the batteries!  A few simple tools are all you need to keep your games going for the next several decades :-)


Anonymous said...

Yes, it's possible to go from a Game Boy cartidge all the way through to Switch. You need every system between them to make them work along with the various cables. If you want the pikachu you earned in 1999, it can be carried over to Pokemon Home on the Switch. You did a good step by step, I'm going to try it with Super Mario Deluxe soon.

Solomon Grundy

Chris Knight said...

I may do that up to the Nintendo DS at least. I've decide that my next project is to replace the upper screen of my original model DS. And if that works I may give my Game Boy Advance an upgrade to a back-lit screen. There are kits that let you modify it for that.

Tim said...

Do you think the same could be done with an original NES battery equipped cartridge? I have Legend of Zelda.

Chris Knight said...

I did some checking and it can be done with an NES cartridge :-D Here's one page that I found: https://howchoo.com/g/ztm2ymrjy2e/nes-cartridge-game-save-battery-replacement

Same basic technique as replacing the Game Boy batteries. Just that it looks like the soldering takes place on the reverse side of the board from the battery.

Article says that a battery in an NES game will last about twenty years or so. Plenty of time to save Zelda :-P