By Ellson A. Quismorio
If you had a first generation Nintendo Game Boy growing up, chances are it’s not working anymore and you’ve lost all hope that you’ll ever hear that “pling” sound again — the same one that made you giddy whenever you turned the handheld on.
But what if you knew that somewhere in Kamuning, Quezon City, there’s a self-taught Game Boy specialist who can repair, restore, and even customize your old school portable consoles?
Yes, we’re telling you now — there is such a guy. His name is Jay-Ar Apilan, a tinkerer at heart who turned his passion for Game Boys into a humble yet true-blue professional service.
Apilan’s man cave-slash-repair shop is located along K-E street. There, he has stacks of plastic bins brimming with handheld units, including all seven mainline Game Boy models released from 1989 to 2005; competing handhelds of the era like the Sega Game Gear, Neo Geo Pocket, Bandai Wonderswan; hardcore portable gaming enthusiasts will recognize a Nintendo Virtual Boy, the asking price of which can easily reach five digits.
In short, he knows his stuff. His trusty soldering iron is his magic wand.
You’ll be hard pressed to another one like Apilan, since his profession and circle of interest can be considered double niche–it’s retro-gaming (as opposed to modern, mainstream gaming) that’s focused on handhelds (instead of home consoles).
Apilan’s passion began with depravity. Growing up in Bongabon, Nueva Ecija, handheld consoles were simply too expensive. The Game Boy was his dream toy.
“Nung bata ako, bihira akong makalaro at bihira din mga laruan ko (When I was a kid, I rarely was able to play and rarely had toys),” the 31-year-old said.
As a second year high school student, Apilan eventually managed to buy his classmate’s DMG (the nickname collectors give to the 1989 Game Boy due to its DMG-001 model designation) for P350. “Parang nagkaroon ako ng sariling mundo. Di ako makapaniwala nakabili ako sa sarili kong pera (It’s like I had my own world. I couldn’t believe I bought it with my own money).”
Along with the pea-soup screened DMG came now-classic games such as R-Type, Pokemon Blue and Red, and Motocross Maniacs, he said.
Later on Apilan scored another second hand Game Boy, this time the 2001 model Game Boy Advance (GBA), which is leaps and bounds more power than the DMG. It has a full-color screen, processing power comparable to a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), and a form factor that is regarded as the best in the line.
“Pinagtatawanan ako nung mga kaibigan ko. Uso na cellphone noon. Wala akong cellphone pero yung Game Boy nakasabit sa leeg ko, naka-ID (My friends laughed at me. Cellphones were common at that time. I didn’t have a cellphone but I had Game Boy dangling on my neck with an ID strap),” he recounted.
You could just imagine how Apilan’s world came crashing down when one day, his GBA wouldn’t power up. He then realized that finding someone to fix his beloved gadget wasn’t an easy task.
Throw it away
“Dinala ko sa mga malapit sa’min na gumagawa ng TV, radyo, tinanggihan ako (I took it to nearby repairmen of TV and radios but I was turned way),” he said.
In particular, one of the repairmen’s advice to Apilan stuck with him. “Sabi nila maliit yan lang, laruan lang yan, itapon mo na yan (They said that’s something small, it’s just a toy, just throw it away).”
“Yung pinambili ko dito pinag-ipunan ko. Masakit yun (I saved hard to buy this. Throwing it would hurt),” he said.
“Nung dinala ko sa Cabanatuan, di rin daw nila kayang gawin, wala silang parts. Nawalan nako ng pag-asa (I went to Cabanatuan but they also could not repair it. They didn’t have parts. I lost hope).”
Because of financial constraints, Apilan never set foot on college. He wanted to take up an electronics course.
“Yun dapat kukuhanin kong course kaso wala naman akong pampaaral. Pagka-graduate ko ng high school totally stop na, maski vocational wala akong kinuha (That was supposed to be my course but I didn’t have the funds. I totally stopped after graduating from high school, I didn’t even take up a vocational course),” he narrated.
But Apilan had always been a tinkerer of small electronic devices.
“Bata pa lang ako mahilig na’ko sa mga electronics. Mahilig na’ko magkalikot ng speaker na maliliit, mga relo, kahit anong electronics na pang laruan (I had an interest in electronics ever since I was a young. I like to tinker with small speakers, watches, any electronic toy).”
He likes to experiment, too; one time he rigged his door so that it would set off an alarm whenever it was opened. He also “grounded” his battery charger in order to dissuade his housemates from removing it from the wall socket without permission.
“Nagalit nga lola ko eh, ang ingay-ingay daw kwarto ko (It angered my grandmother, she said my room was so noisy),” Apilan said.
With this technical know-how and some trial and error, Apilan successfully repaired his broken GBA. Shortly after, began to collect various units – including defective ones, since valuable spare parts could be harvested from them.
Gaining more confidence and finding himself in Manila, he decided to offer a Game Boy repair service on the old Sulit.com.ph (now OLX.ph) website. The usual cases he encountered were Game Boys that don’t power on anymore or have nasty screen burns — dark blots on the screen caused by the polarizing film.
Game Boy Philippines
Apilan kept day jobs to sustain his hobby, and it was actually a workmate who pushed him to take his Game Boy repair gig more seriously.
“Promo-dizer ako noon sa mall. Sabi ko sa kasama ko, kumikita ako sa day-off ko ng P5,000 to P6,000. Yun lang kasi ang time ko na mag-repair. Sabi sa’kin, ‘dyan ka na lang kaya kung kumikita ka ng ganyan sa isang araw’ (I worked as promo-dizer at the mall. I told my workmate that I earn P5,000 to P6,000 during my day off. That’s the only time I have to accept repairs. He told me, ‘why don’t you stick to that if you can earn that much in day),” he recalled.
In August 2014, Apilan launched the page “Game Boy Philippines” on Facebook. He fills the page with sample photos of his full restoration services and commissioned modification projects, as well as his occasional console and game cartridge hauls.
Since then, Apilan has been no stranger to receiving packages containing defective handheld consoles. After determining what the problems are, he fixes the gadgets and sends them back to the customer.
Mods and customs
One impressive mod that he recently finished is a back-lit GBA that can be charged via USB cable. For those who don’t know, the base GBA hardware does not have a lighted screen and is powered by two double A batteries.
Apilan has more artistic talents as well: He can also custom paint the swappable face plates of a Game Boy Micro (released 2005, the last in the Game Boy line) to homage the iconic designs of the much older DMG or even a NES.
The outcome is as retro-chic as you can get.
He said that among his most memorable customers were a desperate mother who wanted to have her kid’s busted GBA SP repaired ASAP and a beautiful, chaperoned young woman who stayed in his shop for hours sharing stories about handheld collecting and gaming.
“Nalaman ko anak pala siya ng congressman. Naka-kotse siya. Inabot siya ng gabi dito (I learned that she was the daughter of a congressman. She arrived in a car It was dark already when she went home),” he said.
Apilan says that he now receives inquiries and repair requests from as far as Thailand and China through Facebook. Language difficulties notwithstanding, he said that he wants to repair all broken handhelds sent his way and make his customers happy.
This certainly proves just how “rare a Pokémon” this specialist is.