Serial Data Transfer (Link Cable)

Communication between two Game Boy systems happens one byte at a time. One Game Boy generates a clock signal internally and thus controls when the exchange happens. In SPI terms, the Game Boy generating the clock is called the “master.” The other one uses an external clock (receiving it from the other Game Boy) and has no control over when the transfer happens. If it hasn’t gotten around to loading up the next data byte at the time the transfer begins, the last one will go out again. Alternately, if it’s ready to send the next byte but the last one hasn’t gone out yet, it has no choice but to wait.

FF01 - SB - Serial transfer data (R/W)

Before a transfer, it holds the next byte that will go out.

During a transfer, it has a blend of the outgoing and incoming bytes. Each cycle, the leftmost bit is shifted out (and over the wire) and the incoming bit is shifted in from the other side:

o7 o6 o5 o4 o3 o2 o1 o0
o6 o5 o4 o3 o2 o1 o0 i7
o5 o4 o3 o2 o1 o0 i7 i6
o4 o3 o2 o1 o0 i7 i6 i5
o3 o2 o1 o0 i7 i6 i5 i4
o2 o1 o0 i7 i6 i5 i4 i3
o1 o0 i7 i6 i5 i4 i3 i2
o0 i7 i6 i5 i4 i3 i2 i1
i7 i6 i5 i4 i3 i2 i1 i0

FF02 - SC - Serial Transfer Control (R/W)

Bit 7 - Transfer Start Flag (0=No transfer is in progress or requested, 1=Transfer in progress, or requested)
Bit 1 - Clock Speed (0=Normal, 1=Fast) ** CGB Mode Only **
Bit 0 - Shift Clock (0=External Clock, 1=Internal Clock)

The master Game Boy will load up a data byte in SB and then set SC to 0x81 (Transfer requested, use internal clock). It will be notified that the transfer is complete in two ways: SC’s Bit 7 will be cleared (that is, SC will be set up 0x01), and also the Serial Interrupt handler will be called (that is, the CPU will jump to 0x0058).

The other Game Boy will load up a data byte and can optionally set SC’s Bit 7 (that is, SC=0x80). Regardless of whether or not it has done this, if and when the master wants to conduct a transfer, it will happen (pulling whatever happens to be in SB at that time). The externally clocked Game Boy will have its serial interrupt handler called at the end of the transfer, and if it bothered to set SC’s Bit 7, it will be cleared.

Internal Clock

In Non-CGB Mode the Game Boy supplies an internal clock of 8192Hz only (allowing to transfer about 1 KByte per second minus overhead for delays). In CGB Mode four internal clock rates are available, depending on Bit 1 of the SC register, and on whether the CGB Double Speed Mode is used:

Clock freqTransfer speedConditions
8192Hz1KB/sBit 1 cleared, Normal speed
16384Hz2KB/sBit 1 cleared, Double-speed Mode
262144Hz32KB/sBit 1 set, Normal speed
524288Hz64KB/sBit 1 set, Double-speed Mode

External Clock

The external clock is typically supplied by another Game Boy, but might be supplied by another computer (for example if connected to a PC’s parallel port), in that case the external clock may have any speed. Even the old/monochrome Game Boy is reported to recognizes external clocks of up to 500 kHz. And there is no limitation into the other direction - even when suppling an external clock speed of “1 bit per month”, then the Game Boy will still eagerly wait for the next bit(s) to be transferred. It isn’t required that the clock pulses are sent at an regular interval either.

Timeouts

When using external clock then the transfer will not complete until the last bit is received. In case that the second Game Boy isn’t supplying a clock signal, if it gets turned off, or if there is no second Game Boy connected at all) then transfer will never complete. For this reason the transfer procedure should use a timeout counter, and abort the communication if no response has been received during the timeout interval.

Delays and Synchronization

The master Game Boy should always execute a small delay after each transfer, in order to ensure that the other Game Boy has enough time to prepare itself for the next transfer. That is, the Game Boy with external clock must have set its transfer start bit before the Game Boy with internal clock starts the transfer. Alternately, the two Game Boy systems could switch between internal and external clock for each transferred byte to ensure synchronization.

Transfer is initiated when the master Game Boy sets its Transfer Start Flag, regardless of the value of this flag on the other device. This bit is automatically set to 0 (on both) at the end of transfer. Reading this bit can be used to determine if the transfer is still active.