The Analog Pocket Just Got Its Long-Awaited Jailbreak

Analog Pocket consoles seem to break jailbars.

Image: Analog / Kotaku / Se_vector (Shutterstock)

Analog Co.’s Pocket has always attracted attention: first because it has the most authentic looking Game Boy replacement ever announcedthan for take an extraordinary amount of time to finally get out. But come out it did, and it was pretty good. For some, the biggest drawback was that it needed old, increasingly expensive physical cartridges to play games, such as (for the largest part) it couldn’t just load useful ROM files. The Pocket really needed something the kids call a “jailbreak,” at least if it fulfilled the fantasy of being the ultimate Game Boy device. Today that jailbreak slipped through the side door.

A small landmark: When the Pocket finally shipped last December, it only ran the most barebones operating system and lacked many of the system’s long-promised features, such as 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, thrilled to have their uber Game Boys with beautiful retina-quality screens, realized it was would be quite some time before the device in their hands was actually finished.

The same was true for future developers eager to make the new machine do fun new things. The bag contains two field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs)that programmers can reconfigure to closely approximate another device’s hardware. They are great for simulating classic video game systems, and hobbyist developers could certainly put them to good use, perhaps developing new FPGA cores—that is, software that tells the FPGAs how to configure themselves—to simulate even more consoles. But that function was also delayed.

Fast forward to today. At 8:01 a.m. PT Analogue finally released a new version of the Pocket’s analog operating system. Today’s beta version of Analog OS v1.1 adds the long-promised “Library” and “Reminders” features; the first shows information about games you are inserting, the second is basically the save states. v1.1 finally opens too the system to the developers, under the name “openFPGA.” As an example of what hobbyists can achieve with the newly unlocked FPGAs, Analogue released an openFPGA core that simulates Space War!, one of the first video games. Correctly.

And that was it. A nice and necessary update, but it wasn’t the jailbreak many people had hoped for either. See you in six months! (Actually, analog is analog, more likely eight.)

But then.

About three hours later at 11:23 a.m., a Github account called Spiritualized1997, which was created less than 24 hours earlier, was uploaded a repository called openFPGA-GBA; a minute later it was uploaded another called openFPGA-GB-GBC. Each repository contained one downloadable file. “To play Game Boy Advance on your Pocket, follow these instructions,” says the instructions accompanying the GBA repository, which outlines five steps to install a v1.0.0 Spiritualized1997 GBA core on the Pocket and ROM files to run. The second repository offered similar instructions, but for a core of Game Boy and Game Boy Color ROMs.

So to recap, today Analogue Pocket has gained 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 everyone wanted the Pocket to do since it came out: load games from ROM files that have been saved. on a microSD card. Is this… is this finally the jailbreak?

Yes yes it is. Or rather, the jailbreak is finally startedbecause today’s two v1.0.0 Nintendo cores are just the first wave of what will clearly be a longer, more sustainable rollout.

So what’s 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 hours after today’s beta version of Analogue OS v1.1 enabled such things to run? Why is the account so new?

The theory of most observers – which, to be clear, my box can’t 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 gaming machines. He has worked on the Analog NT mini (who played 8-bit NES games), the Super NT (SNES games), the Mega Sg (Sega Genesis games), and of course the Pocket.

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

Kevtris checks in to the popular Classic Gaming Discord today, about 40 minutes after the two unexpected FPGA cores were uploaded.
Screenshot: my box

Horton has a history (you’re thinking of a Dr. Seuss book now) of releasing unofficial “jailbreak” firmware for the Analogue Co. consoles he helped develop, starting in 2017 when he released the first jailbreak firmware. before the NT mini uploaded. “The Core Store is officially open!” he wrote on the AtariAge forumreferring to the potential to make the NT mini-games from different systems, when until then it had only played 8-bit Nintendo games loaded with physical cartridges.

Just in case that left any doubt, he added, “Yeah, this means it’s running ROMs now!”

And so it has been for all analog consoles ever since. Horton got a little more discreet after the NT mini jailbreak, instead releasing his jailbreak firmware through intermediaries like emulation scene mover-and-shaker Smokemonster. But people in the scene understand with a wink and a nod where these popular, hardware-enhancing pieces of software really come from. (Previous analog consoles were closed platforms, so who else? could did you make them?)

Therefore, many people took it for granted that the great hardware of the Analogue Pocket itself would be freed up to play games from ROM files. It’s been eight long 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 that can be loaded via the new openFPGA feature of the pocket. As a result, this “jailbreak” seems a bit more subtle than normal. It’s not a firmware replacement, just alternative cores that you run off the microSD card. However, the end result is exactly the same.

But again, this is just the beginning of a longer jailbreak process that will unfold 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 people begging to support TV-based consoles like Genesis and SNES. The Spiritualized1997 FPGA cores, both running only v1.0.0, also lack a few features enjoyed by the Pocket’s official built-in cores, most notably screen filters. These and other improvements are coming; the missing filters are apparently just because the openFPGA API is still immature.

Spiritualized1997's github profile page shows that the account is only a day old and has only two repositories.

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

Spiritualized1997, whoever they are, is also quite active on Reddit. A user complained about the lack of a Sega Game Gear core, stating: Spiritualized1997 replied: “coming soon.” This apparently supernaturally helpful person too released an 80MB archive with 6,959 title screenshots of Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, and Game Gear games that, wouldn’t you know, be exactly the special file format that Pocket’s new “Library” feature expects. So now you know how to make your library look beautiful.

“This is fantastic! Finally the Pocket is waking up from its deep sleep,” said one Reddit user in response to news of the two new FPGA cores. “I didn’t turn mine on” [in] months!”

“Today was a roller coaster.” said another. “Sincerely, thank you!”

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 most important feature owners have wished for since December. But this jailbreak is not a one-time thing; this is going slow and steady, and now that the pump is primed more ROM friendly cores will come with time. Game Gear first, apparently.

my box contacted Analogue Co. for comment.

At the end of today’s announcement of Analogue OS v1.1, the company tweeted“Analogue does not endorse or endorse the unauthorized use or distribution of material protected by copyright or other intellectual property rights.”

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