Recently my friends have been talking about getting a Gameboy-style shell for a Raspberry Pi Zero to play emulators on. More than 10 years ago, you would hack a PSP to play GBA and Genesis games on the bus at glorious full speed and sound. I knew multiple people that experienced Mother 3 this way. Before that was Gamepark’s GP32.
Back on the ancient internet website of insert credit, we pretended we were better because we knew about the FM Towns Marty and the GP32. Full of this elitism, (also a coward) I never bought a GP32. Then as an adult I was free to buy my childhood (eh…college-years (oh no I am a man-child.)) So I set an alert for GP32 on ebay and waited.
I think I set that alert two lifetimes ago, because it was only recently that an auction came across that fit what I needed. I bought it. I had a GP32.
One of the games for the GP32 is Her Knights All For Princess. It’s a quite a title, and insert credit’s review made it sound like a good beat’em up. The name dug into my brain. I kept thinking about it. For years. Wondering why I didn’t just buy it at the time. I had the funds to get a GP32. To get Her Knights and Tomeko and play Sonic 2 on the go. It wouldn’t have built this mythical status. I needed to play Her Knights All For Princess.
Because emulation wouldn’t help. Who knew that the emulation community who only recently got Xbox emulation at “eh” wouldn’t be rushing to build an emulator for a Korean handheld that only sold 30,000 units worldwide. Except the selling point of the GP32 was that it was open-software. Which in useful terms meant you could put emulators on it in 2003. But in that framework there was a fully-working PC-emulator by Gamepark in 2003. So that developers could test their games before putting them on the system. It just didn’t have sound. So I could maybe have played Her Knights All For Princess all this time.
But back to my auction. It was for the Gamepark 32 and the GP2X. The GP2X was the successor and entirely an emulation machine without the pesky veneer of having “real games” on it. Unfortunately the GP2X’s card broke in my hands (and almost destroyed the system getting stuck in it.)
Good thing I live in the technological wonderland of Japan, in the suburbs of Tokyo. I had a camera shop and two electronic stores walking distance away. Surely I can just get an SD Card. Which hey I could.
The problem was the GP32’s proprietary media card format. And that it did not come with a USB cable, which was also proprietary. The GP32 used Smart Media Cards manufactured by Toshiba in the early 2000s and not really adapted by anyone. The good thing was my local stores knew what I was talking about when I said I needed a Smart Media Card reader. The bad part is they all went “no we don’t have one of those.” In America I figured my best bet was going house to house in my neighborhood.
“Hi. I’m your neighbor. Did you have a digital camera that took Smart Media Cards? Probably in the back of your junk drawer.”
If It Wasn’t Here It Wasn’t Anywhere
Of course it was 2019. I got the GP32 on ebay. I could just easily get more Smart Media Cards and readers on ebay or the internet (*footnote: about 40 dollars for 128mbs). That’s not the point. Maybe before physical stores disappear entirely they should be used. I needed to go to the Electronics Ghetto. The Nerd Mecca. Akihabara.
If I was going to find 20 year outdated technology on Earth in a real store it was there. Even when I first visited in 2005, people around were saying I had missed the glory days of Akihabara. When I moved here in 2006, it was right at the boom of Moe and Maid Cafes. Every city in Tokyo is constantly being reborn and changed. The past clings though. It’s just eventually the past is newer than it used to be.
I wasn’t hoping for new stock of Smart Media Cards or readers. I was hoping for old dead stock and dusty used copies. I first went to the piles of transistors and LED shops in front of the station. The first clerk said “There’s no way you’re finding that here.” After seven shops, turns out he was right. I went to the electronic stores I know had been there for 30 years.
“Oh yeah…that. Yeah we don’t have that.”
“That’s like a really old format yeah?”
Moving on to the smaller shops, the more common response was “We don’t have that”, in a way that implied “I don’t know what that is and don’t get paid enough to figure it out.” Talking to managers got a response that was closer to, “I don’t think you’re going to find that here.”
That was disheartening but at least I had my arrogance. If it wasn’t here, it wasn’t anywhere. Akihabara is spoken of across the internet as a wonderland. It has everything. Look deep enough and you can find it.
The smallest oldest shops in Akiba are covered with a layer of cigarette ash, soot, and grime. They exist as hearty barnacles before rising land-rent prices and encroachment of tourists to turn everywhere in Tokyo into duty-free drug stores with indoors food courts. These weathered shop owners stared off into a past left behind.
We took a break and a different path. There is a Hard-off in Akiba now. Hard Off is a for profit-thrift store. For years modern Japanese culture has frowned on used goods. You were supposed to throw away things you no longer needed or had space for. Tokyo Edo’s Museum collection was 90% found in the city’s dump. Hard-off has grown larger as people decided their old things could be money. 10 years ago it was just electronics, musical instruments. As physical stores become more desperate to exist they start selling everything.
I wasn’t just going to find it in a glass case. They have junk bins. Piles of old digital cameras, outdated cables, printer ink, memory cards. As my friend debated buying anime-laserdiscs for the art, I dug through. There it was. A media card reader with a SMC slot. I could at least read the one Smart Media Card I had for the system.
It wasn’t in Akiba, in a shop with care or dedication and scrappy survival. It was in a pit of capitalistic greed and survival, a thrift store for profit. I love them, but that it was only happen-stance that someone traded in garbage for 10 yen.
Because as much as I love HardOff/BookOff/BookOff Super Bizaar/LiquorOff I do not call them maintainers of culture. They are a captialistic beast willing to take whatever they can into their mouths hoping someone removes the waste later. I’m just describing thrift stores, but a thrift store is all there is going to be soon. Akihabara is dead.
Exceptional Piracy Was The Only Answer
Even as Nintendo shutsdown the largest rom sites others still exist. It wasn’t hard to find a rom of Her Knights All For Princess. Or to delicately shove and remove my one and only Smart Media Card between the GP32 and my junk reader. The reader worked fine.
There are even as I’m writing active listings for Her Knights All For Princess on ebay. But there was a potential problem. I could spend the 100 bucks for the game. The GP32 despite being open source had multiple layers of piracy protection. In fact to get access to the open source part of the console you had to mail your serial number to Gamepark who would then compile a specific executable for your handheld.
Even back in 2004 they had digital copies of the commercial games, but like the open source software was signed to your handheld. If you handheld died, the game died with it. Nintendo still loves this practice.
Additionally some of the physical package games had a one time license. Upon launching the game the first time it signed to that handheld. Lose the handheld, you are now stuck with a cartridge as useful as MAG for the PS3.
Now the roms you can easily find have this same style of encoding on them. You can get them to maybe launch on the official emulator as a proof of concept but they wouldn’t actually work on a GP32. Gamepark as a company folded a long time ago.
We are talking about early 2000s internet. Where posting a link to a rom meant Metallica was going to come to your house and arrest your grandmother. It was a ban worthy offense on every web forum to link roms or cracks or wares. It was spoken of in code. PM me, sign up for this IRC channel message a specific hashtag and then get a link to ftp folder. A cumbersome straightline that surely no fed or Nintendo would use.
The internet still had scraps of the map. It was actually impressive how much was still there. There’s a fantastic website for all the freeware and indie stuff made for these forgotten handhelds supported to this day. You can find high level insight into how to code for the GP32.
You can also find “hey messsage this user and maybe they can hook you up with a guy that can get cracked games.” Or upset tearjerking treatises on how horrible it is that people would crack and distribute GP32 games. At the time I would have maybe agreed with them.
I tried flashing the system to unofficial firmware. The fragments of forum posts said the last released firmware wasn’t stable and could potentially brick my console. I was in deep. I needed my Her Knights All For Princess. Every method wasn’t working.
I could boot to the offical firmware>boot to the open source launcher>pirate firmware. There it would show the icon, but not launch.
For how much the internet is lost, there are those trying to preserve it. There was one file on the internet archive for a gp32 rom with _cracked_ in the name. Throwing that file into search engines led me to chinese wares and busted image-filled russian sites. Hair-pulling ever more minute searches eventually gave me a romsite that had all of them.
The cracked roms that were the bane and death of the GP32 years ago, were the only way to play the games in 2019. I had them. I had Her Knight and barely enough room on the Smart Media Card for it.
A Short Review of the GP32
The GP32 FLU has a frontlight that slightly washes all the colors, but allows you to play it moderate light settings. The L and R buttons are slightly raised and have a light trigger action. The face buttons are mushy but perfectly useable. Select Button being place on the right side gives you three face buttons on the right side perfect for most Genesis games. And a standard A/B/Select/Start fits it for 8bit games of all strides.
There’s also plenty of emulators for 8bit computers, but not sure why you would.
The important thing is that the analog stick is a clicky-stick. It feels great! I love it. All of the sound out of the console is overblown. I couldn’t tell you if that’s just mine or not.
It runs on AA batteries. It being turned on lights up a Red LED at the top which my modern brain reads as low battery.
My experience with Her Knights All For Princess and Tomak Save The Earth Again is the GP32 can render more sprites than any 16bit system, but these being the exemplary games for a system that was never more realized. The games aren’t amazing but they are fun. I am happy to finally play them. They all get a Hinge Problems 9 out of 10.
Art by Bachelorsoft