In August 2006, Richard Hutchinson, who also created cool hardware like the VecFlash, a Vectrex flash cartridge, before, started working on a Virtual Boy flash cart based on his Vectrex cart. Now, after more than a year in development, the FlashBoy, the first ever commercially available Virtual Boy flash cart, is finally here, lying on my desk. My review sample is a prototype, but it has the same specifications as the final.

It is a mini USB port equipped Virtual Boy cartridge with 16 MBits (2 MBytes) of internal flash memory, which can hold one game at a time. To load a game to the FlashBoy, you just connect it to the PC using a mini USB cable and send the game to the cart using the supplied loader software.

To be successfully flashed, games have to be padded to 16 MBit to fill the whole chip. DogP has written a very nice util for that, that automatically does the job in seconds by simply drag’n’drop-ing the roms onto it, even several at once. Originally smaller games load faster by skipping FFs (blank writes) generated in the padding process. The padder might also get included in a future revision of the loader software.

For my review, I loaded a lot of Virtual Boy ROMs to the FlashBoys internal memory one after another. When flashing a game, at first the chip is deleted, which takes around 7 seconds, then the new game is flashed to the chip and verified. Loading times vary a bit from game to game, but they’re all somewhere around the following times:
16 MBit: 140 seconds
8 MBit: 120 seconds
4 MBit: 100 seconds
Homebrew: 80 seconds
In all the test writes, I did not get a single write error, everything worked flawlessly.

Besides all the cool sounding stuff, are there any negative points at all? Unfortunately, yes. The cart does not have a backup battery. So games like Galactic Pinball, or especially VB Wario Land are playable, but not fully enjoyable. Also, developers who want backup functionality in their project still need a homemade flash cart. The reason for the absense of an SRAM battery is simple, it would have made the cart design too complicated and obviously more expensive. Don’t forget that you’d also want to backup your save when you load another game to the cart and would want to write your save file back to the cart when you want to play that game again. Sad, but really the only drawback of a very nice product, plus there's so few games with a save battery anyway.

With the vbJAEngine also being available soon, we might see the VB homebrew scene awake fom its sleep. The FlashBoy is the perfect tool for anyone who wants to develop for the VB. It has never been so easy to test your code on real hardware. Which is very important, since emulation is nowhere near exact enough to only use i.e. Reality Boy, plus 3D has to be experienced on the real thing.

Conclusion:
The FlashBoy is a very easy, fast and inexpensive way to test your homebrew projects on real hardware. Also, you can store all your original games safely in their boxes and just load the ROMs to the FlashBoy to play, or play all those rare games you just can’t afford to buy. Groovy! :D


Author: KR155E
09/24/2007
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