Thursday, November 25, 2010

Replacing a Game Boy save data battery

I recently went to a junk store which resulted in the impulse purchase of 9 unboxed monochrome Game Boy games, costing in total $19. Each was $2 a piece, except for the jewel in the bundle Mystic Quest, aka Seiken Densetsu, which cost $3. As luck would have it, the save battery was dead. Join me on my own mystic quest, as I battle magi and dragons to replace the fabled Panasonic CR1616 3V save data battery.

Actually, first I’m going to regale you with reviews of the 9 games I bought. If you just want the battery replacement guide, scroll way down.

I’ve always loved the original GB, since there’s something wonderful about those tiny cartridges and the system’s limitations. I also feel that it’s a comparatively undocumented system, with a tonne of overlooked but awesome games no one talks about. For a bit of fun I sometimes buy random carts without knowing anything about them, and on occasion I strike pay dirt, such as with Mercenary Force which yielded an HG101 article. Maybe there are hundreds of potentially incredible games still waiting to be found?

This lot were tucked away in a series of plastic security boxes at my nearby second-hand junk store. They cost $2 each, except for Mystic Quest which was $3. At those prices, it was kid in a porno store time as I grabbed whatever looked interesting. I left behind about 30 or so cartridges, most of them common (including about 7 Donkey Kong cartridges), and a tonne of Pokemon crap.

Unfortunately when I got home and tried these, I was mostly disappointed.

This was a Japanese import, and a shooter, so I had to have it. Sadly it’s unbearably dull. Imagine Space Invaders, except instead of invaders there’s one guy moving left and right trying to shoot you. Worse than it sounds.

Rescue of Princess Blobette
Sequel to A Boy and his Blob. This is quite cool, but it feels way too restrictive on the small screen, and I don’t like the setting of a run down castle. I prefer the original. It’s not bad, I guess, but not as good as I’d hopped. If you want portable blobbing, get the original NES emulated on a PSP.

Mystic Quest
I’d already finished this years ago, but wanted the cartridge as a collectible. Two things are wrong with it: it’s in French, which I didn’t expect, since oftentimes RPGs are released in English in France. And secondly, the save battery was dead.

Solomon’s Club
Like Solomon’s Key on the NES. Pretty good all in, not sure how long I’ll play it for though.

Darkwing Duck
Played it briefly, seems just like the NES original. Rather good.

Duck Tales
Pretty much the NES game in monochrome I’d say.

Star Trek – Into the nexus
I had hoped this would be a cool RPG like the NES Star Trek games (pictured), but in fact it’s a collection of extremely awful minigames.

Blaster Master Jnr
This just goes to show how much attention I pay to HG101’s many fine articles. If I had read up on this, I’d have known it was nothing like Blaster Master on the NES. I think it’s terrible.

True Lies
I recall seeing a magazine preview for this, which made it look a bit like Die Hard from the NES, which is one of my all time favourite games. Sadly it’s a poorly designed maze shooter, where you can’t make out who is a hostage and who isn’t, resulting to many game overs.

And that’s about it. The Disney stuff is cool, but better on the NES. And Mystic Quest, my prize of this lot, didn’t even work due to battery death. All in all, I wasted $19 which could have been better served on buying a PSN card.

Once I get a chance I’ll be trading this lot in at a nearby retro store. The real nail in the coffin for all of this was, I recently tried for the first time a GB emulator on my PSP. And OH MY GAWD. Never before had I imagined such clarity. I’d tried GB emulators on the Nintendo DS, but the system just didn’t have the resolution to do them justice. You either ended up with a 1x ratio the size of a postage stamp, or you had to go with 1.5x which filled the screen but filtered everything. GB games at x2 resolution on a PSP are the way GB games were meant to be played. It is BETTER than perfect.


Before I could trade it in at my retro store, I would have to replace the battery on Mystic Quest. I’d replaced batteries on NES games, my Sega CD RAM cart, and several Sega Saturns, but I’d never even popped open a GB cart before.

First I’d need to remove the annoying GameBit screw Nintendo uses. I find the inclusion of these in most retro items slightly disturbing, since you need to go out of your way and order a GameBit screwdriver (they come in two sizes). Their use signifies that Nintendo had never considered the possibility of battery death, or if they did, never intended for owners to repair the problem. It’s extremely short-sighted. Does Nintendo’s repair service still exist for retro items? Can I post them my GB cartridges for battery replacement? Why can’t I crack open my cartridge?

The bigger picture here is that all retro items are slowly dying. Meaning if you’re a purist who wants original hardware, you need to find or become a collector who knows how to mod systems such as the SNES, and the Mega Drive for 60Hz, or knows how to build RGB SCART cables, and who can recommend the best CRT TV, all of which are now defunct. NFG has been a leading figure in the technical chop-shop workings of consoles, and there are others online, but I always find it worrying that preservation of this subset of human culture falls to people like us: a few scruffy guys with soldering irons. There should be a museum for this kind of stuff.

The GB uses the smaller of the two GameBit sizes. After it’s cracked you slide the cover-art part of the cartridge down and pop it off. Here’s where it gets problematic. Backup batteries in console cartridges were easy to replace, using bigger batteries such as (I think, maybe) the DL2032. The GB uses the considerably smaller CR1616 battery. Even worse, Nintendo appears to have soldered these in place.

For comparison’s sake, here is the circuit board to the crappy Star Trek game. Notice how it’s smaller than Mystic Quest, lacking the entire upper section which deals with battery save data.

The battery is housed between 2 small horizontal plates, each of which is soldered to the circuit board. The battery is attached to the plates either by 2 pin-head drops of melted solder on each, or a machine actually punched two tiny holes into the plates, which resulted in an embedded spike in the battery. It was too small to tell, but based on how flush the set-up was with the circuit, they obviously made the battery-and-plates component at a separate part of the plant, and then later in the production line a person or machine took the pre-made battery component and then just soldered that in place. There is absolutely NO WAY you could solder the lower plate onto the circuit, then somehow puncture holes or apply solder to this plate in order to place the battery on top of it, before attaching the upper plate with additional solder/holes. There’s just not enough room around the circuit board to work.

This was going to cause me a huge problem, since I had two options: desolder the 2 plates, replace the battery and then try to re-attach this mini component, or try to pry out the battery whilst leaving the plates in situ, and then hope could I wedge a new one in. Feeling lazy I opted for the latter, and had to use one of my super-tiny flat-head screwdrivers to wedge between the lower plate and battery. A few minutes of jabbing and poking broke the seal and the battery lifted up (the bastard was stuck in like an Alabama tick). Then I delicately had to do the same with the upper plate, making sure not to break them. The plates were quite thin, and had a flexibility not too far off aluminium foil.

If you check the photos, you should be able to see the tiny spikes on the plates – now, I’m not sure if these are tiny blobs of solder which held the item in place, or if a machine punctured a hole from the other side to fasten it securely. There were two tiny indentations on the plate’s reverse side.

Next I needed a replacement battery. The CR1616 is easily available but not too common where I live. A local general store didn’t have it and couldn’t get it in. A dedicated electrical store nearby had a wide selection of batteries, but not the one I needed. They could order it in though, which would take 2 take days and cost me $3.75. I could have gotten it slightly cheaper online, but I didn’t feel like the hassle so had them order it. Assuming my replacement plans succeeded, my working copy of Mystic Quest would have only cost me $6.75.

The problem now was how to affix it securely? I’d bent the plates slightly and the whole thing was loose, and even bending them back didn’t fix things because unlike NES batteries, there was no springy cup shape to hold it in place – the plates are just 2 horizontal strips. I considered tiny drops of superglue, but this would create a barrier between the battery and plates. Resoldering was out since my soldering iron is too chunky.

Then I remembered a special tape I had for affixing bandage gauze to human skin, called Omnifix. That stuff sticks like poop-on-a-blanket and is extremely difficult to get off. Perfect! It would look a little Heath Robinson, but once the cartridge was closed you wouldn’t notice.

Before replacement I took some pliers and scrunched the little spikes flat (the fact they crumpled into the plating so easily increases the likelihood they were the result of holes as opposed to solid blobs of solder). Next the battery went back in face down, and I applied two strips of bandage tape. The tape and adhesive are non-conducting, so I didn’t mind it touching various circuit lines.

Although it somewhat resembled a child’s scuffed knee, I was please with how the circuit board still fit neatly in the cartridge casing afterwards. In case any future owners wanted to get at the battery in a decade’s time when it died again, I decided to replace the GameBit with a standard Philips screw. I normally keep a big box of spare-parts, but had recently misplaced it, so in a pinch stole one of the good screws from a broken N64 memory card by Logitech. Et voila. It fit perfectly and kept the cartridge housing secure.

I tested the game by starting two new save files, named after HG101 no less, and then tried them out 5 minutes later, and then a few hours later. Even after switching the unit off the memory data remained intact, and will hopefully give its future owner several years of enjoyment.

As for myself, I am selling off my small GB collection. These things are reaching the age where they’ll need proper restorative care to keep functioning. I’ve already binned one GB due to a broken, dust filled screen, my old Game Gear’s AC input mysteriously died, my CDi’s internal battery is dead and cannot be easily replaced, and I don’t even want to switch my 3DO on for fear of what I’ll find. I only hope that there are collectors who take this seriously and will maintain the skills needed to keep various older pieces of hardware in working condition.


  1. Nice article.

    I've got an old GB that I picked up for 50 yen on one of my "kid in a porn store" game shopping trips. I have to go through an incredibly complicated ritual in order to get it to actually turn on, involving getting the on/off switch balanced at the exact midway-point between "on" and "off". All part of the fun of only buying stuff out of junk bins.

    When my Famicom cart hunting trips don't turn up anything new I usually scour the bins for GB games and have on occasion come home with a little bag full of those little carts and a big smile on my face.

    Like with your experience, when I leave the store I always feel elated at the incredible bargain I found, but when I actually play the games I tend to get that "surely I could have spent this money on something else" feeling.

    I felt the same when I got Volleyfire. It is such an amazing looking cart, with the cool spaceship and explosions and a name that sounds like it absolutely must kick ass. Then actually playing you say, dull.

    I didn't realize until reading this that they had made Star Trek games for the NES. It is one of the great 80s sci-fi movie franchises whose absence from the Famicom catalogue disappoints me.

    Interesting about the battery change too. I will use this as a guide should this problem ever come up and I need a project to occupy my time!

  2. I played Volley Fire on one of those pirate multicarts back in the day. Even then it was cheap and boring.

    Will we even have gameboys left in 50 years? Not likely I'll care much but the tech doesn't seem to be able to survive.

  3. >>>
    I always find it worrying that preservation of this subset of human culture falls to people like us: a few scruffy guys with soldering irons. There should be a museum for this kind of stuff.

    It's not a museum, but a library:

  4. I'm really glad to see this post here. Interestingly enough, I had the same guide planned for my blog soon. But now I'll probably just direct people here, as you did a great job.

    Also... can I have yr Volley Fire cart?

  5. Sketcz I actually really enjoyed that article. Good job, and creative fix with the bandage tape!

    Sorry to hear about the problems with your other systems, but on the bright side, at least nothing you mentioned can't be decently emulated (even CDi). :3

  6. Another way to do this if you're not desperate to get things working immediately is to order some batteries with solder tabs. That's what I did, and just un-soldered / re-soldered in the battery.

    Definitely a creative fix, though, and something I'll keep in mind in the future!

  7. ...and after re-reading, I see your blurb about your soldering iron being too chunky. Doh.

  8. @noiseredux
    I seriously love your GB blog, and I think you absolutely should run your own feature on replacing a battery. It's not just about linking to places that do it, but replicating the information online so there's less chance of it disappearing. Plus I'd be curious to hear how you fared.

    Sadly I traded the Volley Fire cart in... Otherwise I would have just given it to you. I only got about a dollar for it in trade in. My apologies - I traded the collection in a couple of hours before making the post live.

  9. @sketcz

    Awe man, no big deal. Thanks anyway. I'm just always on the lookout for any GB shmups I'm missing (no matter how bad). Haha. At any rate, thanks so much for your kind words on my blog. That means a lot to me. Seriously... because it was actually this blog post of yours ( that made me decide to start my GB blog! :)

  10. I had to do the same thing with a bootleg GBA cart recently (this one, which is pretty awesome) - I used a slightly bigger battery than the one it came with (CR2025 instead of CR1620 IIRC.. or maybe it was 2016. either way the 2025 was easier to find and about a tenth of the price), and stuck it down with electrical tape. but apparently that wasn't good enough, my saves disappeared a few days later :(

  11. Someone's recently started a museum for old games and computer equipment at CU-Boulder: -- disclaimer, I'm going to be helping her out with things. And I'm going to link her to this article.

  12. Only time I've ever tried to do any VG soldering was a disastrous incident trying to mod a Genesis Nomad such that it could play Master System stuff. It ended up getting all over the main IC's pins and I don't know if I can fix it.

    I'm rather soured off the whole soldering deal as a result.

  13. I'm interested in knowing what year that version of Mystic Quest was released. I have all CIB Final Fantasy games for GB, Square releases, and all of them still save no problem.

    @noiseredux: cool blog! I also love the GameBoy and also have various GB reviews on my small site.

  14. Not sure of the year of release. The circuit board had 1989 on it, but that doesn't mean much. Could just be a copyright date.

  15. Mystic Quest's European release was rather late, I think in 1993.

    There are several factors that have an influence in battery life, like usage, storage temperature, etc. I bought Mystic Quest upon release (it was about the first time NoE made a big deal about localizing a game for several different languages, btw.) and my old saves are perfectly intact.

  16. I think the cartridge wasn't looked after. The grey plastic had yellowed, the label was peeling at one edge, and when I opened it there was verdigris (green rust) all over the reverse side. So presumably kept in damp conditions.

  17. @Shallshock: oh man I love blamethecontrolpad!! Yr article on GB Shmups was amazing. And I loved the recent Double Dragon Advance article.