Analogue Pocket has just received a long-awaited jailbreak

Analog handheld consoles seem to be breaking through jailbars.

Image: Analog / Kotaku / Se_vector (Shutterstock)

Analog pockets have always attracted attention: firstly, because they The most authentic Game Boy replacement ever announcedthen for takes an extremely long time to finally get out. But he got out and it was pretty good. For some, its biggest drawback was that games required older, increasingly expensive physical cartridges like (mostly) he couldn’t just download the handy ROM files. Pocket really needed something kids call a “jailbreak,” at least if it was going to live out the fantasy of the perfect Game Boy device. Today the jailbreak just slipped through the side door.

Just a little clarification: When Pocket finally came out last December, it had only the bare bones of an operating system, and it lacked many of the system’s long-promised features, like save states, that kept your game progressing. (Analogue also didn’t release the initially announced adapters for the Atari Lynx, Neo Geo Pocket, or TurboGrafx-16 carts.) Early adopters, as excited as they were that their Game Boy uber games would have beautiful retina-quality screens, realized that it would be long before the device in their hands was actually finished.

The same was true for would-be developers looking to make a new machine do cool new things. The pocket contains two Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA)which programmers can reconfigure to closely approximate the hardware of another device. They are great for emulating classic video game systems., and hobbyist developers could certainly put them to great use, perhaps by developing new FPGA cores—that is, software that tells the FPGA how to configure itself—to emulate even more consoles. But this feature has also been delayed.

Fast forward to today. At 8:01 AM PT Analog has finally released a new version analog operating system Pocket. Today’s Analogue OS v1.1 beta adds the long-promised Library and Memories features; the first displays information about the games you insert, the second shows the main save status. v1.1 also finally opened up the system to developers, under the pseudonym “openFPGA”. As an example of what hobbyists can achieve with newly unlocked FPGAs, Analogue released the openFPGA core who imitated Space War!, one of the first video games. Careful.

And that was it. A nice and necessary update, but it wasn’t the jailbreak that many were hoping for. See you in another six months! (Actually, an Analog is an Analog, eight rather.)

But then.

Somewhere in three hours at 11:23 a Github account called Spiritualized1997 created less than 24 hours before uploaded repository called openFPGA-GBA; in a minute it loaded the other is called openFPGA-GB-GBC. Each repository contained one downloadable file. “To play the Game Boy Advance on your Pocket, follow these instructions,” reads the instructions accompanying the GBA repository, which describes five steps to install the Spiritualized1997 GBA kernel version 1.0.0 on the Pocket and run the ROM files. The second repository offered similar instructions, but for the kernel running the Game Boy and Game Boy Color ROMs.

So, to summarize: today Analogue Pocket got the ability to run third-party FPGA cores. Three hours and 22 minutes later, two of the most popular Pocket-supported handhelds mysteriously received new third-party FPGA cores that could do what everyone has wanted from Pocket since its inception: load games from ROM files stored on a microSD card. Is this… is this finally a prison break?

Yes yes it is. Or rather, finally escaping from prison beganbecause today’s two Nintendo v1.0.0 cores are just the first wave of what is clearly going to be a longer and more sustainable rollout.

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

The theory of the majority of observers, which, to be precise, Kotaku can’t confirm – this is what Spiritualized1997 Kevin “Kevtris” Horton, the emulation legend and FPGA emulation guru behind all Analogue FPGA based gaming machines. He worked on Analog NT mini (who played 8-bit NES games), Super NT (games for SNES), Mega sergeant (Sega Genesis games) and, of course, Pocket.

Kevtris checked into the popular Discord Classic Gaming about 40 minutes after two unexpected FPGA cores were uploaded.

Kevtris checked into the popular Discord Classic Gaming about 40 minutes after two unexpected FPGA cores were uploaded.
Screenshot: Kotaku

Horton has a history (now you’re thinking of Dr. Seuss’ book) of releasing an unofficial “jailbreak” firmware for Analogue Co. consoles that he’s been involved in developing since 2017, when he uploaded the first NT mini jailbreak firmware. “The main store is officially open for business!” he wrote on the AtariAge forumreferring to the ability to run NT mini-games on a variety of systems, whereas previously he had only played 8-bit Nintendo games loaded from physical cartridges.

Just in case that left any doubt, he added, “Yes, that means it’s now running ROM!”

And it’s been that way with every analog console ever since. Horton became a bit more cautious after the NT mini-jailbreak, instead releasing his jailbreak firmware through intermediaries such as emulation of the driving force of the Smokemonster scene. But the people on stage, winking and nodding, understand where these popular, hardware-enhancing pieces of software actually come from. (Previous analog consoles were closed platforms, so who else could made them?)

That’s why many people took it for granted that the wonderful Analogue Pocket hardware would free itself 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 loaded via Pocket’s new OpenFPGA feature. Because of this, this “jailbreak” seems a little more subtle than usual. It’s not a firmware replacement, just alternative kernels that you run from a microSD card. Although the end result is exactly the same.

But again, this is just the beginning of a longer jailbreak process that will continue in the coming months. After all, the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance are just three portable devices that people want to play on Pocket, not to mention people who require support for TV consoles like the Genesis and SNES. Spiritualized1997 FPGA cores version 1.0.0 also lack some of the features that the official Pocket embedded cores have, most notably screen filters. These and other improvements are coming; missing filters, presumably just because openFPGA API is still immature.

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

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

Spiritualized1997, whoever they are, are also quite active on Reddit. One user lamented the lack of a Sega Game Gear core, to which Spiritualized1997 replied, “Soon.” This seemingly supernaturally helpful person also released an 80 MB archive containing 6,959 title screen images. from Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, and Game Gear games, which, didn’t you know, are in exactly the special file format expected by Pocket’s new Library feature. So, now you know how to make your library beautiful.

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

“Today was a roller coaster.” said the other. “Respectfully, thank you!”

So while the skies didn’t part and there wasn’t a neon “jailbreak is here!” sign, make no mistake, on July 29, 2022, the Analogue Pocket finally got the key feature that owners have been dreaming of since December. But this jailbreak is not done once; it’s slow and stable, and now that the pump is up and running, more ROM-friendly kernels will come in over time. Game Gear first, it seems.

Kotaku contacted Analogue Co. for comments.

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

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