Analogue Co.’s Pocket has always attracted attention: first for being the The most authentic Game Boy replacement ever announcedthen for taking an extraordinary time to finally get out. But it turned out that she did, and it was pretty good. For some, its biggest drawback was that it required older and increasingly expensive physical cartridges to play, such as (for the most part) couldn’t just load convenient ROM files. The Pocket really needed something kids call a “jailbreak,” at least if it was going to fulfill the fantasy of being the ultimate Game Boy device. Today, that jailbreak just slipped out the side door.
A bit of setup: When Pocket finally shipped last December, it had only the most basic operating system and lacked many of the system’s promised features, like save states that supported game progress. (Analogue also did not release the originally announced Atari Lynx, Neo Geo Pocket, or TurboGrafx-16 cart adapters.) quite some time before the device in his hands was actually finished.
Ditto for would-be developers eager to make the powerful laptop do fun new things. The pocket contains two field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs)that programmers can reconfigure to closely match the hardware of another device. They are wonderful for simulating classic video game systems., and hobbyist developers could surely put them to great use, perhaps developing new FPGA cores—that is, software that tells FPGAs how to configure themselves—to simulate even more consoles. But that feature was also delayed.
Fast forward to today. At 8:01 a.m. (Pacific Time) Analogue finally released a new version of Pocket’s analog operating system. Today’s Analogue OS v1.1 beta adds the long-promised “Library” and “Memories” features; the first shows information about the games you insert, the second is basically save states. The v1.1 beta version also finally opens up the system to developers, under the name “openFPGA”. As an example of what hobbyists can achieve with newly unlocked FPGAs, Analogue released an openFPGA kernel which simulates Space war!, one of the first video games. Neat.
And that was it. A nice and necessary update, but it also wasn’t quite the jailbreak many people expected. See you in another six months! (Actually, Analog is Analog, most likely eight.)
About three hours later, at 11:23 am, a Github account called Spiritualized1997, created less than 24 hours earlier, uploaded a repository called openFPGA-GBA; a minute later, he went up another called openFPGA-GB-GBC. Each repository contained a single downloadable file. “To play Game Boy Advance on your Pocket, follow these instructions,” said the instructions that accompanied the GBA repository, describing five steps to install a GBA v1.0.0 Spiritualized1997 kernel on the Pocket and run ROM files. The second repository offered similar instructions, but for a kernel that ran Game Boy and Game Boy Color ROMs.
In short: Today, Analogue Pocket has the ability to run third-party FPGA cores. Three hours and 22 minutes later, Pocket’s two most popular compatible handheld devices mysteriously received new third-party FPGA cores that could do what everyone wanted Pocket to do since it came out: load games from ROM files stored on a microSD card. Is this… is this finally the jailbreak?
Yes that’s how it is. Or rather, the jailbreak finally startedbecause today’s two Nintendo v1.0.0 cores are just the first wave of what will clearly be a longer and more sustained release.
So what is going on here? Who is Spiritualized1997 and how the heck did they develop and release the GBA and GB/GBC kernels for Analogue Pocket just three hours after today’s Analogue OS v1.1 beta made it possible to run such things? Why is your account so new?
The theory of most observers, which, to be clear, Kotaku I can’t confirm—it’s that Spiritualized1997 is Kevin “Kevtris” Horton, a legend in the emulation scene and the FPGA emulation guru behind all of Analogue’s FPGA-based gaming machines. He has worked in the Analog Mini NT (who played 8-bit NES games), the Super NT (SNES games), the mega sg (Sega Genesis games) and of course Pocket.
Horton has a history (he’s thinking Dr. Seuss book now) of releasing unofficial “jailbreak” firmware for Analogue Co. consoles he helped develop, starting in 2017 when he uploaded the first jailbreak firmware for the NT mini. “The flagship store is officially open for business!” wrote on the AtariAge forumreferring to the potential to make the NT mini run games from a variety of systems, when until then it had only played 8-bit Nintendo games loaded with physical cartridges.
In case there was any doubt, he added: “Yes, this means it’s running ROMs now!”
And so it has been for all analog consoles ever since. Horton (and Analogue) got a bit more discreet after the NT mini jailbreak, instead releasing the jailbreak firmwares through intermediaries like Smokemonster move and shake scene emulation. But the folks on the scene, with a wink and a nod, understand where these popular hardware-enhancing bits of software really come from. (Previous analog consoles have been closed platforms, so who else could have made them?)
That is why many people considered it a given that the wonderful hardware of Analogue Pocket would be released to play games from ROM files. It’s been a long eight months, but today’s surprise Spiritualized1997 FPGA cores are exactly what Pocket owners wanted, just in a slightly different form than usual: discrete FPGA cores that can be loaded via the new openFPGA feature by Pocket. That made this “jailbreak” seem a bit more subtle than usual. It is not a firmware replacement, but alternative kernels that run on the microSD card. It comes down to the same result.
Again, this is just the beginning of a longer jailbreak process that will unfold in the coming months. After all, the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance are just three of the handhelds people want to play on Pocket, not to mention people clamoring for compatibility with TV-based consoles like the Genesis and SNES. The Spiritualized1997 FPGA cores, both at a fledgling v1.0.0, are also missing some features enjoyed by the official Pocket embedded cores, notably screen filters. These and other improvements are yet to come; the missing filters are apparently just because the openFPGA API is still immature.
Spiritualized1997, whoever he is, is also pretty active on Reddit. One user lamented the lack of a Sega Game Gear core, to which Spiritualized1997 replied, “coming soon.” This seemingly supernaturally helpful individual also released an 80MB file containing 6959 images of the title screen of Game Boy, Game Boy Advance and Game Gear games that are in, don’t you know, exactly the special file format expected by Pocket’s new “Library” feature. Now you know how to make your library look pretty.
“This is fantastic! Pocket finally wakes up from its deep sleep,” said a Reddit user in response to the news of the two new FPGA cores. “I haven’t turned mine on [in] months!”
“Today has been a roller coaster,” said another. “Thank you sincerely!”
So while the skies didn’t part and there weren’t any neon signs flashing “jailbreak is here!”, make no mistake, on July 29, 2022, the Analogue Pocket finally got the key feature owners have been waiting for. Wanted since December. But this jailbreak is not done once; this is slow and steady, and now that the bomb is pumped, more ROM-compatible kernels will come over time. Game Gear first, apparently.
Kotaku has contacted Analogue Co. for comment.
At the end of today’s Analogue OS v1.1 announcement, the company tweeted“Analogue does not support or endorse the unauthorized use or distribution of material protected by copyright or other intellectual property rights.”