The Mystery of the Power-Sucking Neo Geo Pocket Color

About two and a half years ago, I finally took the plunge on something I had been wanting for years: a Neo Geo Pocket Color. Or, more specifically, a special edition NGPC themed after the Hanshin Tigers, a Japanese baseball team that I like and follow.

I finally got my hands on one after years of watching eBay and I loved it. It was gorgeous and hit all kinds of pleasure centers in my brain. Retro video games, baseball, the Japanese language… Hell, it even came wrapped in newspaper with an article featuring Shohei Ohtani, a megastar in the Japanese baseball league who, at the time, was making his decision about who to play for in America.

There was just one problem… This was 90s tech. More specifically, it contained 90s-era non-backlit screen tech. I couldn’t see a damn thing unless I played it under a lamp. But you know what? In those times that I could see what I was doing, it was phenomenal.

At the same time, I also got myself a Neo Pocket Flash Masta flash cartridge to better explore the system’s library without completely draining my bank account. Even better, it was a way to play the English fan translation of SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters 2 on original hardware. Well, the flash cart worked, but I noticed something. Any time I played a game with it instead of an original cartridge, it seemed to really drain the batteries.

Supposedly, original NGPC hardware has 40 hours of battery life on two AA batteries. I was getting maybe three to four hours out of some Energizer NiMH rechargeables. I didn’t make much of it at the time and just assumed the Flash Masta drained batteries unusually fast. But between the screen issues and the battery draining, I just didn’t get much use out of the system. It went into my closet and mostly stayed there, until recently.

A full screen IPS mod finally became available for the NGPC and I knew I had to have one. I’d gotten pretty handy with hardware mods in the last couple of years, so it was the perfect project. I ordered up an IPS kit from eBay and a replacement shell from AliExpress (the screen replacement requires a physical modification, and I couldn’t be cutting up a collector’s item!). They arrived safely, and I set to work…

And it came out absolutely amazingly. The new screen is just stunning and I was sucked into the platform in a way that I simply wasn’t when I first bought it. Finally, I could see what I was playing! And the new screen showed how vibrant and colorful the games were truly meant to be.

Replacement Shell and IPS Screen Mod Kits
IPS Mod – Before and After

Then the battery problems started. Forty hour battery life? Yeah, right! We weren’t even talking four hours… It was more like two! But it was strange behavior. As the batteries were dying, the system didn’t just stop working. Instead, it would often power on to a point where the game was booting and there was sound, but the screen wouldn’t turn on. Or, the screen would turn on but it would boot to the system BIOS screen instead of the game. Oddly, if I put in an official cart instead of the flash cart, it would often boot fine and I’d get some substantial extra playtime out of it.

At first, I passed all this off as funky behavior because of power drain. But that left me disappointed and unsatisfied. Did I really do all that work for a system that would only give me a measly two hours of battery life? I wouldn’t be able to take it anywhere like that and might as well just play it at home, plugged in.

So I decided to investigate. I started with the obvious: maybe I connected something improperly during the mod. I opened it up and double checked the screen connections and solder points, but everything seemed fine. Then I got curious about the batteries. I pulled out my multimeter and checked the voltages on a pair of batteries that had just stopped working. These were a fresh set of NiMH batteries rated for 1.2 volts… But the “dead” batteries were reading over 1.3v when I tested them! What the hell? They had plenty of juice still left in them! A newly charged set was reading just over 1.4v, so the power in the pair I used had barely dropped.

Rechargeable NiMH voltage test – 1.35v is above the battery’s rating, but apparently not enough to power the NGPC!

And that’s when it struck me. The batteries weren’t dead, they just weren’t supplying enough power anymore for this specific combination of hardware. A typical alkaline AA battery is rated for 1.5v. Use two of them and you get 3v. As time goes on and the batteries start to drain, the voltage they’re capable of supplying will start to taper off. Usually, the device you’re using them in can tolerate those lower voltages and continue to operate for some time. In the NGPC’s case, its low power demands mean typical batteries last quite a while.

Typical rechargeables, however, are only rated for 1.2v. Use two of them and you’re getting 2.4v. At 2.4v, I’m already at a disadvantage from the start. Add a couple hours of drainage and the fact that the actual voltage under load during operation was likely lower, and apparently we were crossing a point of no return very quickly. It seems the IPS screen and Flash Masta are much more sensitive to voltage drops than the NGPC itself, which explains why the system would often power on without booting a game off the flash cart, or boot without turning on the screen.

So, in summary, the NGPC plus an IPS screen plus the Neo Flash Masta plus rechargeable batteries is a finicky combination. What’s the solution? Well, you could avoid rechargeable batteries and probably get some additional gaming time, but that’s an unsatisfying solution. What you really need is a better power supply: something that will provide a consistent 3v without premature voltage drops.

The obvious answer once I thought of it in those terms was to use lithium-ion batteries, since they do a much better job of maintaining their voltage over time than other types of batteries. One approach would be to mod in a rechargeable Li-ion battery pack into the NGPC, but that felt excessively complicated. Instead, I turned my attention to a relatively new type of battery I’d never used before – rechargeable Li-ion AAs!

These turned out to be the perfect solution. They’re slightly expensive at a little under $30 for a four pack, but proved to be well worth it. I haven’t timed it out, but they seem to power my system for a good 6-8 hours and recharge via USB in only 1.5 hours (compared to about 12 hours for my old NiMHs). Less battery life than original hardware, yes, but plenty for my needs. And the short charge time means a freshly charged set will be ready for me before the current set ever dies out.

So to all you NGPC fans, if you’re thinking about screen modding your system, keep power needs in mind. Especially if you’re using a flash cart, too!

Exploring the basics of PlayStation 2 soft-modding with FreeMCBoot and Open PS2 Loader (OPL)

It’s been possible, even downright easy, to soft-mod a PlayStation 2 for years now. And yet, it never really occurred to me to try to do it. Why is that? Maybe it’s because my PS2 has spent a decade in storage, in favor of a backwards compatible PS3. Or maybe because the PS2’s peak was in an era where I was less active with video games. Or maybe the system just never really captured my imagination. I still distinctly remember getting one on launch night, playing some SSX and TimeSplitters and thinking “that’s it?” It felt like a letdown after how mind-blowing the Dreamcast was on release the year before.

Regardless of my own interest in it, the PS2 is a system that really came into its own after a few years on the market and is undeniably one of the biggest successes the industry has ever seen, so even I ended up with a nice collection of games for it. For whatever reason, I recently took an interest in exploring it more. And exploring it more meant modding it. (Really, the true impetus for this project was probably that I’d been wanting to try out Gregory Horror Show, but didn’t have a PAL system to play it on!)

So with that out of the way, let’s document my setup for future reference or for anyone else who might be interested in doing something similar:

Target State

My goal was to have a handful of unique, rare, or otherwise interesting games available to play on my launch-day (NTSC, SCPH-30001) PS2 without needing to open the system or do any physical or permanent modifications. I wanted to be able to play games from any region without having to keep a stack of discs on hand and also wanted to explore interesting homebrew.

The Materials

This took a mix of items I already had on hand, plus a couple of cheap new additions to “the lab.” In all, I spent about $25 – remarkably cheap for everything the system is now capable of doing. Here’s what it took:

  • PlayStation 2 system (cost: already had) – Like I said above, this is the system I’ve had since launch day in October 2000. I connect it to a 32″ JVC D-Series via component cables. There’s nothing else particularly remarkable about it.
  • FreeMCBoot 8MB memory card (cost: <$10 shipped) – FreeMCBoot is a “Free Memory Card Boot” program that fully unlocks your PS2 at boot time, as long as it’s loaded on a memory card inserted into your system. Want to go back to a stock system? No problem, just take out the memory card! It’s an extraordinarily easy and non-invasive mod and remarkable in its effectiveness. It’s possible to make your own FreeMCBoot card, but it’s a complicated setup and you’re best off using a spare memory card dedicated to it anyway, so why not just buy one pre-loaded? They’re dirt cheap on eBay – less than $10.
  • An old 60 GB IDE hard drive (cost: already had) – I used to have an old Pentium 3, circa the year 2000. It was a high school graduation gift from my parents. I later added a second hard drive to it. I recycled that PC long ago, but I pulled the HDD when I did and it’s been in storage ever since. What a great way to put it back to use, don’t you think?
  • Official PS2 HDD/Network Adapter (cost: ~$15+shipping) – This is something I briefly wanted back in the day because I was convinced I wanted to play the original SOCOM online after trying the demo. Then I never got around to it. I guess I finally found an excuse to get one! A used one was surprisingly cheap. I’m not sure why I thought this would cost more than it did!
  • USB thumb drive (cost: already had) – I’m sure you already have one of these. Probably several. So do I. In fact, mine was free. You probably have free ones, too.
  • IDE/SATA to USB 3.0 adapter (cost: already had this one from Amazon, which runs $16) – I got this a few years ago for backing up old hard drives. Super useful and convenient. There are multiple ways to get data onto your PS2 HDD once it’s modded, like via a network connection, but connected to your PC via USB is absolutely the fastest way to move around large files.

The Procedure

1. Perform the Mod

Plug your FreeMCBoot card into either memory card slot and turn on the system. That’s it. The mod is done. Whew – that was hard work, wasn’t it? Your memory card probably came with some pre-installed utilities and emulators, so poke around a bit and see what’s possible. Hopefully it came with uLaunchELF and Open PS2 Loader (OPL) already installed. If not, add them by copying the .ELF files over to your memory card and running the FreeMcBoot Configurator to add them to the launch menu. I’ll leave that exercise to you, since it’s a procedure best documented elsewhere, and this guide assumes they’re probably already installed. At this point, if you really wanted to, you could even start running games off of a USB drive. That isn’t a great experience, though, since the USB ports on the PS2 are so slow. So let’s continue on to the next steps…

2. Format the HDD

With your PS2 powered off and your HDD’s jumper set to Master (note: this is important, don’t skip this!), plug the HDD and Network adapter into your PS2. Boot the system and run uLaunchELF. Go to File Browser –> MISC –> HddManager. In the HDD Manager program, hit R1 and choose “Format.” This will format your drive to be readable by the PS2. After this, reboot and launch OPL. Launching OPL will automatically create the directory structure it needs on your hard drive. With those two steps out of the way, you should be able to browse your HDD in the uLaunchELF File Browser and you’ll see a “+OPL/” directory at its root.

3. Load some games

Unfortunately, you can’t just copy ISO files over to your HDD like any other file and have them be playable. You have to properly install them. So, power your system down, remove the HDD, and place the jumper into Slave mode. Connect the drive to your PC via your USB adapter. (This part is finicky for me, sometimes the drive powers on properly, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes apps can recognize it, sometimes they can’t. With my adapter, I need to keep trying until I hear the usual Windows USB chime, without an additional drive appearing in Windows Explorer.) Once the HDD is properly connected, run hdl_dumb (note: run as Administrator!) to install whatever ISOs you happen to have on hand. (You’re backing up your own games, right?) This process is self-explanatory, just follow the obvious functions in the UI.

Installing games to the HDD via HDL Dumb (and an IDE to USB adapter for your PC).

4. Add some fancy artwork

You want your loader menu to look nice when you’re picking out what games to play, don’t you? After your games are installed, run OPL Manager (again, run as Administrator) to get box art, disc art, screenshots, and more. The program can auto-recognize which games are installed by choosing “Get Game List” from the “Local HDD Options” menu. You can automatically download the art you want for your installed games, but note that this process is not actually putting the artwork onto the PS2 HDD at this point. You’ll have to do a transfer process to move everything over. There’s a utility called OPL Manager HDD ART Batcher that can do this automatically, but I found it finicky and it would often skip files (especially disc art, for some reason). Instead, I recommend reinstalling the HDD into your PS2 and manually copying the contents of your OPL Manager hdl_hdd/ART directory from your PC to the corresponding directory on your PS2 HDD with a thumb drive via the uLaunchELF File Browser.

5. Configure OPL

You’re almost done! The next crucial step is to get OPL to recognize your HDD when you launch it. So run OPL, go into the Settings menu, and set “HDD Device Start Mode” to “Auto.” Save your settings and from now on, OPL should automatically recognize your HDD and any games installed on it when you launch it.

At this point, you have a fully functioning mod in place, it’s just a matter of setting up OPL to get the look and feel you want. I recommend exploring the various themes that are available for the utility. They can be easily installed by copying over to your +OPL/THM directory via USB drive. (I particularly like the “stone” theme.) Tinker around with whatever other settings you want – for example, the “Enable Write Operations” flag will allow you to delete games or edit their names straight from OPL. Just don’t forget to save your settings each time you make a change.

Also note that a fair amount of configuration is available at the game level. You can do things like change the video mode (useful for playing PAL games in NTSC-land) and use “virtual memory cards” if your memory card is full. Poke around, see what there is to see, and make the setup your own.


And there you have it! At this point, you have a fully modded PS2 with a collection of games and a nice hard drive loader front-end to browse and launch them. Feel free to explore what else you can do with a modded system, but if I’m completely honest, there’s not much I recommend. Yeah, there are emulators and Doom ports and such, but there are a million and one different devices that can do a better job of those things now. Modding a PS2 these days is really all about running games from a hard drive. But hey, that’s a pretty good use if you ask me!