Here at Ars, we’re big fans of situations where emulation creates a classic gaming experience that’s actually better than what you could get with original hardware in some way or another. In the past, that has meant upsampling rotated sprites in SNES’ “Mode 7” games or adding “widescreen” support to NES games or mitigating the controller lag that was built into certain older consoles or overclocking an emulated SNES to remove slowdown without ruining gameplay timing.
The latest emulation-powered retro-gaming upgrade to cross our paths greatly simplifies an oft-overlooked capability built in to many Game Boy Advance titles. Namely, it adds the ability to play multiplayer titles in split screen on a single display.
This upgrade is the work of Robert Peip, a developer who’s spent years working on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). These days, Peip works primarily on the MISTer FPGA an open source project that recreates classic gaming hardware extremely accurately through emulation “cores” that replicate every single logic gate involved in the schematics of the original system (most of Analogue’s high-end retro hardware is similarly powered by FPGA cores). Such cores are currently available for consoles ranging from the Odyssey 2 through the Neo Geo era and more.
Peip’s new “special version” of the Game Boy Advance FPGA core works relatively simply, running two GBA cores in a single MISTer. As Peip explains, “you get 2 raw GBA cores, one connected to SDRAM, one connected to DDR3, communicating directly inside the FPGA. Sound is used from Core 1 only.”
Thus, games originally designed to be played on two consoles connected via link cable can now be played in split screen on a single MISTer with a single connected display, as shown in this demonstration video. Peip says that “most multiplayer games should be supported,” a statement that presumably includes original Game Boy games (which work on a GBA link-cable through a supported secondary mode).
Playing these multiplayer GBA games on original hardware required two separate consoles, two copies of the game, and a GBA link cable, ensuring most casual players probably never even bothered (some GBA games offered limited multiplayer with just one cartridge). And while previous GBA emulators have offered link-cable support, even that required a LAN or Internet connection between two separate machines with two separate displays. While some RetroPie users have done a bit of finagling to get multiplayer games for the original Game Boy working via split screen, we’ve never seen a similar one-machine, one-display solution for Game Boy Advance multiplayer games before this.
Peip’s turnkey test core for multiplayer GBA emulation is currently only available by supporting his Patreon, and it is currently missing features like savestates, fast forward, and visual filters available on other GBA cores. Still, we’re excited to have a new, easier-to-use method to try the oft-ignored multiplayer modes in some classic portable titles. Now if we could only get split-screen support for those four-player GBA titles…
Listing image by Nintendo