I was so excited to find a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages for a mere $19 today. Normally, I’d seen the game priced for at least $30 at swaps or in hock shops, so I seized the opportunity to snatch it up. It was in okay shape with the label wear you come to expect for cartridges of handheld consoles. It was not nearly as nice as my practically mint version of its counterpart Oracle of Seasons, but nice enough for $19!
I got it home and tried it out a few times in my Game Boy Advance SP, but the game wouldn’t load up. I managed to get the Game Boy logo, but the White Screen of Death appeared afterward. Having bought many used games in my lifetime, I had a few hunches. First and foremost, the culprit is normally dirty contacts. I got out my trusty Windex and Q-tip duo and scrubbed away as I normally would. The contacts were disgustingly dirty, and the cotton turned that horrid grey that it normally will if a game has been left collecting dust for a long time. Feeling confident post-cleaning, I popped the game back into the machine but it was like I had done nothing at all (stupid sexy Flanders). I decided to try the cartridge in my Game Boy Colour instead, just for science. No good. The White Screen of Death even appeared in the Super Game Boy, which I don’t think even plays GBC games! It was quite telling. The game was dead.
I felt like putting this cartridge into a frame with a plaque that reads something like, “Oracle of Ages: There’s a First Time for Everything – Cartridge of Ultimate Disappointment”. There had not yet been a time in my life when I couldn’t coax even the finickiest of cartridges into working. This time though, I felt dread in the pit of my stomach. With the buyer beware policy of this particular shop, I didn’t think it would have been possible to get my money back. Truthfully, if I had wanted to waste money, I could’ve melted down some of our fun and colourful plastic Canadian currency into some sort of illegal money art and consequently spent the rest of my life running from the police for committing a felony. Sigh.
My hopes would not be so easily slain. I took to reading the interwebs and came across a few articles and videos that talked about reflowing solder on specific chips on the game’s circuit board when all else has failed (there’s a good video here by Average Dave). The various sources I consulted make specific reference to two chips in particular on Game Boy Colour cartridge PCBs that can have their solder reflowed for this purpose: the tiny one in the top left corner, and the big one at the bottom right (they’re circled in red below.)
All the videos I watched about this recommended starting with the small chip in the top left corner and using a soldering iron to touch each of the pads to cause the solder to melt again, thereby “reflowing” it. If the game still wasn’t working, the larger chip’s pads could also be reflowed using the same method. Generally, on forums, success levels were very high. However, if you’re anything like us, you might not have a high end soldering station with an iron (complete with a solder sucker) or all the bells and whistles that the forums recommend. We had to implement some drastic, desperate measures. I want to tell you what we tried and what ended up working for us, but I must state something obvious here: you should NOT try this yourself unless you can tolerate potentially permanently damaging your game and rendering it dead forever. I was only willing to try in this case because it was a last-ditch effort to get my non-refundable game going again. You should also try to remove the battery before starting, if possible – heat and batteries don’t mix.
This method required two people. Here’s what we did:
We opened the game cartridge by removing the screw using a special game bit. Then, we removed the PCB from the game cartridge and put it onto the bottom of our biggest cast-iron pan. We chose to work on top of our ceramic flat-top stove in the kitchen. There, we would have excellent lighting and a fan for any fumes that formed.
After that, we took a pop can and using an x-acto knife, we cut off the top and bottom and discarded them. We made a vertical cut down the body of the can so that we could flatten it out into an aluminum sheet. This would serve as a heat shield for the rest of the board. Then, we cut a hole the size of the first chip (the small one in the upper left corner of the PCB) whose solder we were going to attempt to reflow. We positioned the aluminum shield over the PCB so only the chip we wanted to work with was exposed. We used heavy, non-flammable items like pot lids and butter knives to hold the shield flat while we worked.
Because we didn’t have a soldering iron to work with, we used a heat gun instead. We held the heat gun approximately 2-3 cm away from the chip on the highest setting. To monitor the temperature, we used a digital laser thermometer that was pointed directly at the chip. We heated the chip to between 225 -250 degrees Celsius and maintained that range for at least 30 seconds and then allowed the solder to cool and harden again. When things were cool enough, we tried the game in the system but the White Screen of Death persisted. We decided to try again on the larger chip this time, adapting our shield to accommodate its larger size.
After reflowing the solder on the second chip, we popped the game in and it worked! It was like some kind of magical sorcery that I had absolutely no faith in until I saw it with my own eyes. Like Doubting Thomas, I was changed!
Now, there are a few things that we should’ve probably done before we started. As I mentioned above, the battery should be removed from the PCB before heat is applied. Heated batteries can potentially explode and/or leak, which could be pretty detrimental for the life expectancy of the game. Don’t forget the potential for personal injury! Because we couldn’t de-solder it, we left it intact for our experiment and thankfully nothing happened. The other thing to consider is that the battery is attached using solder and glue. When we heated the chips, the glue did melt a little and stuck to our shield. I’m not sure how you could avoid this, but I thought it was worth mentioning. Our battery came through this like a champ. The game saves and everything!
I am very happy that this worked out in the end. Oracle of Ages/Seasons are games I’ve desperately wanted to play since playing Link’s Awakening and falling desperately in love with it. The Oracle games are made in the same engine as Link’s Awakening, so it’ll be a real throwback for me. I wanted to own both games to be able to play the complete story. I’ve heard that you can use a save file from one game to play the other and that there’s continuity between them, so if Ages had stayed dead, I would’ve had to continue the painstaking journey of looking for it. I can put that aspect of collecting to rest.
I truly hope that this method can help someone who might not have lots of fancy equipment at their disposal. It’s not that a laser thermometer or a heat gun aren’t fancy, but they’re a little more likely to be around than a precision soldering station. If you do try this method, please let me know if it worked for you as well as it worked for me.
Thanks for reading, as always!