The Future Is Retro – ModRetro

I have been working on making the ultimate Game Boy® inspired device off and on as a hobby for almost seventeen years now. Dozens of modified systems and clean-sheet prototypes later, it is finally here: The ModRetro Chromatic. It is, put simply, my ultimate tribute to the beautiful form, technical excellence, and cultural impact of the Nintendo® Game Boy®. Hundreds of irrational decisions made during the development of the Chromatic mean it will be remembered not as one of many Game Boy® clones, but as an uncompromisingly authentic celebration of everything that made the console special. The lab-grown synthetic sapphire screen cover, the fully-custom sunlight-viewable LCD underneath perfectly miming the size/resolution/subpixel structure/color balance of the Game Boy® Color so as to faithfully recreate painstaking pixel art, the magnesium-aluminum alloy shell, the PBT semi-crystalline polymer buttons and d-pad, the perfect compatibility with every known Game Boy® title, full link cable and IR transceiver implementation, and a dozen other superlative investments more typical of the world’s largest technology companies than a hobby project ensure this is more than just a new way to play your Game Boy® games – it is the final form, the best way to play, the end of the line, a work of art designed to last for decades and evade obsolescence. Nobody will do better.

And bizarrely, I am willing to sell you one!

This reveal might seem out of nowhere given that most people know me for my work on virtual reality technology and lethal autonomous weapons systems, but my background in this space is even longer-lived. The first business I ever formed was not Oculus VR, but ModRetro, an internet forum I started with some friends (most of whom joined me in the early days of Oculus!) when I was 15 years old that quickly became the most active hub on the internet for hardware hackers combining vintage game consoles with modern technology. We were doing millions of pageviews a month long before social media made those kinds of numbers blase! Even before I started ModRetro, though, I was something of a Game Boy® hacking pioneer – I was the first person to LED backlight a Game Boy®, the first to LED backlight a Game Boy® Pocket, and the first to transplant the guts of a Game Boy® Advance into an original Game Boy® shell, all mods that would go on to become extremely popular in the retro gaming cottage industry years later.

Working with and building off of original hardware is always the most fun, but I was also deep into the emulation community, both on PC and Linux-based handhelds like the Nokia N800, GamePark Holdings GP32/GP2X, and even the notorious OpenPandora. Yes, yes, I also had a Sony PSP with custom firmware, just like everyone else back in those days. The experiences and ideology I was immersed in during those years are what drove me to become such a big supporter of open-source hardware and software, and eventually open-source the Oculus Rift DK1 and DK2 – I would have open-sourced the CV1, but was unfortunately fired before that could happen. It might not surprise you that I am also open-sourcing the Chromatic.

Even more importantly, I learned how important it was for gadgets and games to be concise and precise in function, for things to simply work the way people expect – it is not at all intuitive when you are technically savvy enough to be doing things like flashing custom firmware and tracking down sketchy BIOS files, but most ordinary people cannot afford to invest the time or money or obsession required to make niche hardware and software work. Playing retro games in any sort of authentic way is actually quite difficult for the average person to accomplish in the modern day, especially on any sort of budget. Some of them end up railroaded into using crappy emulation-based handhelds with terrible flaws and terrible hardware that mangles the art they are supposedly designed around, but most never even bother. Even expensive enthusiast-targeted hardware tends to make a lot of compromises, attempting to do a pretty good job at everything rather than a great job at one thing.

Modern games these days are not much better. It is easy to get going once you create your mandatory online accounts and download all your updates and synchronize your library and turn off all the latency-inducing crap on your smart TV, sure, but the march of technological progress hasn’t come for free. Skyrocketing game development budgets and hardware development costs mean mainstream games are often forced to extract value from players through live service content, play passes, paywalls, DLC, barely-sequels, etc just to keep the studio lights on. It wouldn’t be so bad if the underlying gameplay and content went unmolested, but legions of dopamine hackers and content consultants have been inserted into the development process with mandates to steer gamers into more profitable patterns of play. Yes, there are many notable exceptions, and I love to see those games succeed, but the trend is clear – the days of going to the store, spending some money to buy a complete game, and then simply playing it are fading into the past. And you best not imagine that you might pass that game around to your friends or sit down for some multiplayers after the servers go down. These financial realities are one of the reasons you see a small but significant mass of young people fascinated with retro gaming once they are exposed to it in some way.

They aren’t driven by trends or fashion (N64 speedrunners are not typically fashionable people), but by recognition and appreciation of aesthetics and gameplay loops that have fallen from favor in our modern AAA and mobile driven world. There is so much good shit that has been forgotten or censored, and the only way to bring it back is to remind everyone what they took from us. The very small but very talented ModRetro team is 100% focused on quality and fun, not pushing slop and swill.

I digress. ModRetro is back, baby, and it is here to make the best of the past a staple of the present, to make you feel like you did on Christmas morning decades ago. Chromatic is just the first step, and we are going all in – not just with a console that fully respects the artistic intent of the original game developers, but on the cartridge side as well. We have a huge slate of content coming from some of the best developers in the industry, starting with an all-new physical Tetris cartridge that will come bundled with each and every Chromatic, just as it did with every original Game Boy® released in North America. We will also be launching all-physical re-releases and remasters of classic Game Boy® titles, entirely new IP from incredible indie developers, first-time launches of Game Boy® games that were canceled before release, and even some titles that were canceled before the public ever found out about them.

If you want a First Edition Chromatic, preorder now to claim your spot in line or plan to camp out at GameStop on Christmas. Supplies are limited, and while ModRetro will undoubtedly make other products in the future, we won’t be making any more of these.

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Erica Carnohan