The Game Boy has flirted with functions beyond games a few times: it was a digital camera, an FM radio, and even an MP3 player with various add-ons. But almost 30 years ago, a Washington company promised to turn the OG Game Boy into a PDA with an officially-licensed keyboard add-on. It never released, but a working prototype has been discovered.
Video game historian Liam Robertson broke down the history of the “WorkBoy” for the YouTube channel DidYouKnowGaming. It’s an exhaustive report, chronicling how Washington state-based electronics manufacturer Fabtek applied to Nintendo for an official license to make the keyboard, with British software maker Source R&D providing the Palm Pilot-like applications, including a calendar, world address book, and a digital checkbook. The WorkBoy was shown at trade shows and even demonstrated in features for a few early video game magazines, including Nintendo Power.
The system consisted of a small, chunky keyboard, about the size of the Game Boy itself, with a slide-in stand for the handheld game machine. The keyboard connected to the Game Boy via the same port used for the multiplayer Link Cable accessory. The WorkBoy was scheduled to go on sale in late 1992 for around $90 (approximately $166 with inflation), but never appeared in any retailer.
Robertson tracked down the history of the WorkBoy’s failed release, tirelessly contacting former employees of Source R&D and Fabtek, including the Fabtek founder Frank Bellouz, who is also a Nintendo veteran. In the middle of his interview on the creation of the WorkBoy, Bellouz told Robertson he still had the fabled device sitting on his bookshelf, and showed it to him across the online video. He also said that he was the one who decided to can the WorkBoy project back in 1992, after hearing that Nintendo planned to slash the price of the Game Boy and make the accessory far more expensive than the hardware it would run on.
The original prototype was in excellent condition after 28 years, with the coin batteries and Link Cable still in place. Bellouz was kind enough to ship the prototype to Robertson, who tried it out for the video. But a software cartridge, previously unknown from the initial press materials and coverage, wasn’t included, rendering the keyboard largely useless. Robertson tried to find an original cartridge with no luck, then dove into the “Gigaleak,” an illicit trove of early Nintendo game data that broke earlier this year. This (technically illegal) leak included a ROM of the WorkBoy cartridge software, provided by a hacker using “Waluigi” as a handle.
Robertson and others tested the ROM on virtual machines, though all of the apps except the calculator crashed when opened. So he flashed the WorkBoy ROM (“Workboy” on the title screen) onto a rewritable cartridge designed to function with an original Game Boy, then plugged in the ancient accessory. It worked exactly as it was designed to: all twelve applications were functional. A highlight is the world map, which includes 8-bit musical versions of national anthems. The WorkBoy lived, for the first time in nearly three decades.
The half-hour video is worth a watch if you love the minutia of old technology design—some of the design that went into the WorkBoy would go on to inspire future generations of PDAs, and there are some interesting looks at a possible GBA version.