The Analogue Pocket Just Got Its Long-Awaited Jailbreak

Analogue Pocket consoles appear to break through jailbars.

Image: Analogue / Kotaku / Se_vector (Shutterstock)

The Analogue Pocket’s always turned heads: first for being the most authentic-seeming Game Boy replacement ever announced, then for taking an extraordinary length of time to finally come out. But come out it did, and it was pretty good. For some, its biggest drawback was that it required old, increasingly expensive physical cartridges to play games, as (for the most part) it couldn’t just load convenient ROM files. The Pocket really needed something the 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 in the side door.

A little place-setting: When the Pocket finally shipped last December, it had only the most barebones operating system, and lacked many of the system’s long-promised features, like save states that backed up your game progress. (Analogue also didn’t release the originally announced Atari Lynx, Neo Geo Pocket, or TurboGrafx-16 cart adapters.) Early adopters, glad as they were to have their uber Game Boys with beautiful retina-quality screens, realized it’d be quite some time before the device in their hands was actually finished.

The same was true for would-be developers eager to make the new machine do fun new stuff. The Pocket contains two field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), which programmers can reconfigure to closely approximate 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 by developing new FPGA cores—meaning software that tells the FPGAs how to configure themselves—to simulate even more consoles. But that feature was delayed too.

Fast forward to today. At 8:01 a.m. PT Analogue finally released a new version of the Pocket’s Analogue OS. Today’s Analogue OS v1.1 beta adds the long-promised “Library” and “Memories” features; the first displays information about games you insert, the second is basically save states. v1.1 also finally opened the system up to developers, under the moniker “openFPGA.” As an example of what hobbyists can accomplish with the newly unlocked FPGAs, Analogue released an openFPGA core that simulated Spacewar!, one of the first video games. Neat.

And that was it. A nice and necessary update, but it wasn’t the jailbreak many folks’d been hoping for, either. See you in another six months! (Actually, Analogue being Analogue, more likely eight.)

But then.

Some three hours later at 11:23 a.m., a Github account called Spiritualized1997, created less than 24 hours before, uploaded a repository called openFPGA-GBA; one minute later, it uploaded 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 accompanying the GBA repository, outlining five steps to install a v1.0.0 Spiritualized1997 GBA core on the Pocket and get it running ROM files. The second repository offered similar instructions, but for a core that ran Game Boy and Game Boy Color ROMs.

So to recap: Today Analogue Pocket got the ability to run third-party FPGA cores. Three hours and 22 minutes later the Pocket’s two most popular supported handhelds mysteriously received new, third-party FPGA cores that could Do The Thing that everyone’s wanted the 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, yes it is. Or rather, the jailbreak’s finally started, because today’s two v1.0.0 Nintendo cores are just the first wave of what is clearly going to be a longer, more sustained rollout.

So what is happening here? Who is Spiritualized1997, and how the hell did they develop and release GBA and GB/GBC cores for the Analogue Pocket just three or so hours after today’s Analogue OS v1.1 beta release made running such things possible? Why is the account so new?

Most observers’ theory—which, to be clear, Kotaku cannot confirm—is that Spiritualized1997 is Kevin “Kevtris” Horton, a legend in the emulation scene and the FPGA emulation guru behind all of Analogue’s FPGA-based game machines. He’s worked on the Analogue NT mini (which played 8-bit NES games), the Super NT (SNES games), the Mega Sg (Sega Genesis games), and of course the Pocket.

Kevtris checks in on the popular Classic Gaming Discord today about 40 minutes after the two unexpected FPGA cores were uploaded.

Kevtris checks in on the popular Classic Gaming Discord today about 40 minutes after the two unexpected FPGA cores were uploaded.
Screenshot: Kotaku

Horton has a history (you’re now thinking of a Dr. Seuss book) of releasing unofficial “jailbreak” firmware for the Analogue Co. consoles he’s helped develop, starting back in 2017 when he uploaded the first jailbreak firmware for the NT mini. “The Core Store is officially open for business!” he wrote on the AtariAge forum, referring 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 off of physical cartridges.

In case that left any doubt, he added, “Yes, this means that it runs ROMs now!”

And that’s how it’s gone for all the Analogue consoles since. Horton got a little more discreet after the NT mini jailbreak, instead releasing his jailbreak firmwares through intermediaries like emulation scene mover-and-shaker Smokemonster. But folks in the scene, with a wink and a nod, understand where these popular, hardware-enhancing bits of software really come from. (Prior Analogue consoles have been closed platforms, so who else could have made them?)

That’s why many people considered it a given that the Analogue Pocket’s wonderful hardware would itself get liberated to play games from ROM files. It’s been a long eight months, but today’s surprise Spiritualized1997 FPGA cores are pretty much exactly what Pocket owners wanted, just in a slightly different form than usual—discrete FPGA cores loadable through the Pocket’s new openFPGA feature. That’s made this “jailbreak” seem a little more subtle than usual. It’s not a firmware replacement, but just alternate cores you run off the microSD card. The end result is exactly the same, though.

But again, this is just the start of a longer jailbreak process that will play out over the coming months. After all, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance are just three of the handhelds people want to play on Pocket, not to mention folks clamoring for it to support TV-based consoles like Genesis and SNES. The Spiritualized1997 FPGA cores, both at just v1.0.0, are also missing a few features enjoyed by the Pocket’s official built-in cores, most notably screen filters. These and further enhancements are coming; the missing filters are apparently just because the openFPGA API is still immature.

The github profile page of Spiritualized1997 shows the account is only a day old, and only has two repositories.

Spiritualized1997, who only joined Github yesterday, is a very helpful person.
Screenshot: Kotaku

Spiritualized1997, whoever they may be, is also being quite active on Reddit. One user bemoaned the lack of a Sega Game Gear core, to which Spiritualized1997 replied, “coming soon.” This seemingly supernaturally helpful individual also released an 80MB archive containing 6,959 title screen images of Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, and Game Gear games that are in, wouldn’t you know it, exactly the special file format that the Pocket’s new “Library” feature expects. So now you know how to make your Library look pretty.

“This is fantastic! Finally the Pocket awakens from its deep slumber,” said a Reddit user in response to news of the two new FPGA cores. “I haven’t powered on mine [in] months!”

“Today has been a roller coaster.” said another. “Sincerely, thanks!”

So while the heavens didn’t part and there was no neon sign flashing “the jailbreak is here!”, make no mistake, on July 29, 2022 the Analogue Pocket finally got the key feature owners have desired since December. But this jailbreak isn’t once and done; this is slow and steady, and now that the pump is primed, more ROM-friendly cores will come with time. Game Gear first, seemingly.

Kotaku reached out to 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.”

 

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