Going Pro

8BitCade XL

DIY Retro Game Console

Jack Daly

Issue 38, September 2020

The 8BitCADE XL is an inspiring way to get kids into electronics and coding.

Jack has turned his interest in electronics into a small business to teach electronics and coding by using a fun retro gaming console.

This game console may look like many other gaming consoles available, but it is something that you can build, hack, program and rip apart to learn more about electronics and coding your own games.

We wanted to catch up with Jack Daly, the budding entrepreneur behind this open source 8BitCADE.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with DIYODE Magazine. Tell us about yourself and what got you into electronics and coding?

Hi! I’m a 17-year-old student and founder of 8BitCADE.

Ever since I was young I’ve had a keen interest in anything electronic. It blows my mind how you can create and manipulate computers to execute tasks. My father was a core drive behind my passion and grit in design and electronics. He is a Design and Technology teacher who started in the automotive industry.

As a child, I was consistently exposed to design, engineering and electronics. I remember waiting in his various engineering workshops and seeing the designs they were working on. I remember one of his students working with Lotus Cars in the UK and going on to win a National Award for Design Innovation. It was so inspiring, and the student in question now works for James Dyson.

After school, I would wait at my Dad’s school workshop and be surrounded by design and electronics, helping out my father any chance I could to be even more submerged in the subject. My father loves Arduboy, respects the community and felt that we could all learn so much from the community but more importantly, be able to pass this on to our local community through workshops, clubs and the school curriculum. From there, my passion for electronics was born and my knowledge and skill for coding and been developing ever since.

We admire that you’ve turned your hobby into a product and business. It looks like you enjoy retro gaming as well?

The 8BitCADE is my retro passion packaged in a compact, fun and exciting console - providing endless hours of entertainment.

The CoffeeCADE console was made from coffee grounds.

Previously, my love for retro consoles took me to something with a larger form factor. I designed an arcade machine with a twist. The casing was made of recycled coffee grounds.

That is interesting that you used recycled coffee grounds to make a case for your previous arcade console. Can you elaborate on this a little bit?

Regarding the “CoffeeCADE”, as I call it. It was my IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) project in which I partnered with a multinational coffee brand to create a sustainable statement to promote the companies effort in sustainability. To do this, I designed a one player Arcade machine that ran RetroPi, but the twist was that its casing was made using sustainable coffee material - it was a mix of coffee grounds with recycled plastics. I partnered with Smile Plastics in the UK to create the material and got it shipped to Qatar, where I CNC milled the panels myself.

Brilliant! It looks great. What got you started with Arduino and your thirst to educate other makers?

During my early stages of learning Arduino, I tinkered with a range of mini-projects. From a machine which gave gifts to young children if they solved math problems, to a smart fish tank system that maintained your tank and fed your fish!

I've also dabbled in educational courses. I've helped deliver robotics and electronics courses using Arduino, a “Build Your Own Arcade Machine Course” (in which the arcade machine was designed by myself and a colleague beforehand) and published my own Udemy course online.

Your 8BitCADE retro handheld game project looks awesome. Tell us how you went about designing it.

Original 8BitCADE.

I've been developing the 8BitCADE XL for 6 months, which couldn't have been achieved without the superb kindness and guidance of the Arduboy Community. The 8BitCADE spark begun in 2019, when I was 16, with the 8BitCADE original. This was a small handheld gaming console that was used to run a short after school activity at my school - driven by myself and a colleague. It was used to educate students about product design, electronics, coding and PCB design.

After gaining student feedback and using my own experience, I realised a couple of core things needed to be updated with our existing design. The screen size needed to be enlarged, the casing made more comfortable and the addition of a memory chip to store more of the phenomenal games that the Arduboy community had created, which I truly enjoy playing, over and over again. Luckily, this was all achievable due to open source work that key members of the Arduboy community had been doing. The community has talented people coming together to openly share knowledge and skills and these people give up all their free time to support each other. Using their forums I learned so much about hardware configuration, how to integrate memory chips and use utilities to load game images. Essentially they empowered me to combine different elements with other knowledge to create what I hope to be a really nice console, retaining the making aspect and not just gaming.

It is so incredibly inspiring that makers all want to share their knowledge. We assume you went through numerous prototypes to get to the design you have now?

I was fortunate to have designed and tested the predecessor console - the 8BitCADE Original. This process helped me iron out the fundamental flaws and issues allowing me to focus on other, more advanced, aspects for the 8BitCADE XL. However, the learning process never stopped, multiple PCB versions were created, tested and reevaluated to create an awesome console.

Through a process of iterative design, many prototypes were created, thus the current version of the 8BitCADE XL was born. More screen, compact board, comfortable experience, open-source, loads of games, easy customisation of the casing, programming tutorials, pixel art and character design - a well rounded retro package. We hope to continue its development by getting feedback from potential customers to look at key ways the product can be further improved while keeping cost to a minimum.

You mentioned that your project includes an educational aspect. Can you elaborate on this?

As I had experience creating a curriculum around a gaming console the 8BitCADE predecessor - I decided to enhance the learning potential of the 8BitCADE XL and created the website 8BitCADE.com. I intuitively designed the platform to allow students to access the learning resources on their own accord.

Do you have a good workshop set up at home and what are your essential tools and test equipment?

Based in Qatar, I have a shared design area in my house designated for school work and all my design and prototyping work, containing soldering stations, reflow oven, oscilloscopes and all of our electronic components. I also have a small room for machining, often remarked to by my family as the maker studio! It contains machines like 3D printers and CNC milling. While it is not a complete, full-fledged, workshop, I am very fortunate to have the tools and machines I have that has allowed me to work on a broad range of projects. I do believe this limitation in tools and equipment has helped me utilize, push and deepen my skills with what I do have - forcing me to get creative and think out of the box. It's a bit like the memory of a microchip for Arduino, its restrictions force creativity!

Every maker who wants to get involved in electronics and robotics MUST have a soldering iron. Here at 8BitCADE, I created the 8Bit toolbox, containing all of my favourite tools such as a soldering iron with a roll of solder, a desolder pump, and side cutters. This cool little toolbox can be ordered with your 8BitCADE XL on Kickstarter. With this, you'll have all of the tools you need to start your 8BitCADE XL project - or any electronic project for that matter.

A more advanced tool that has helped me develop as a maker is my 3D Printer. 3D printing technology has not only become very cheap but also very accessible. 3D printing is a great way for makers to start manufacturing their projects and adds a lot of flexibility to your tooling arsenal that other machines can’t offer. I recommend any maker to build their own 3D printer - as an investment in your own learning and will empower you to understand so much more about the technology and CNC machine in general.

With that said, there are services online and locally available that can manufacture your project for you. Which is why the best tool a maker has is their own drive to learn. I self-learned various programs such as the Adobe package, Solidworks and Fusion 360, to expand my tooling arsenal. You don’t need a 3D printer to begin learning and designing in CAD! You need to be able to work with your local maker community.

What inspired you to make your 8BitCADE?

The drive behind 8BitCADE was all about learning - and always will be. For me, it’s not about volume or profit, but rather about the process of bringing a product to market. I understand that designers need to be multi-skilled, and as I want to be a designer as a profession, specialising in electronic products, I want to get a head start on learning the broader range of skills, those around innovation.

My goal is to go to University in 2 years and instead of creating a predictable portfolio from a typical Design and Technology student, to take the opportunity to try to innovate a product. 8BitCADE, with the support of the Arduboy community, has given me the possibility to put into practice my favourite school subjects, combining learning from all these areas.

Can you give us an overview of how it works and what makes it different from some other handheld retro games consoles we see sold nowadays?

Conventional consoles have small screens and few games, limiting your game time to about 30 minutes at most. I wanted to change that. With the 8BitCADE XL’s 16MB memory chip, you’ll be able to store up to 500 games and experience them on its 2.42-inch screen. Its pocket-sized form factor grants easy portability and will survive up to 10+ hours of continuous gaming.

In addition, many consoles come prebuilt/assembled, removing the learning process of soldering and assembling your very own game console - the accomplishment of making your own gaming console is gone. The building process is a missed learning opportunity that I feel many makers should have.

The 8BitCADE XL aims to turn consumers into creators. Nowadays, the bond between consumers and their products is weak - we throw away phones annually to get them upgraded. However, the experience you’ll have with your 8BitCADE XL is a memory. Building your own game console is not only a major achievement but also a learning experience that teaches you about how the technology works. This allows you to fully understand how your product works - giving you the knowledge to innovate or simply repair your console.

What key parts are required?

All of the components and parts are packaged inside the 8BitCADE XL kit. You'll have everything you need to assemble your very own 8BitCADE XL with access to online Make guides and programming tutorials to ensure your learning experience is as smooth as possible.

Adding a rechargeable battery to a project can be challenging. Tell us more about adding a LiPo and charging circuit to the project.

The 8BitCADE XL is continually being updated through feedback from the community. It has a 500mAh battery that can be recharged via a TP4056 board. The onboard battery also has built-in over and undercharged regulators, providing two layers of protection. While charging, users can check the voltage level using an Arduino sketch, preinstalled, so they know when it's charged.

Did you code it yourself, and how does it work?

The 8BitCADE XL is inspired by the brilliant people over at the Arduboy Community. Many of the games on the 8BitCADE XL were created by the community - such as your favourite retro game titles like Virus, 1943, Picovaders and Donkey Kong.

The code varies - some aspects were coded purely by myself, others were adapted and changed from the existing work of community members from Arduboy. For example, the 8BitCADE Loader is based on the work of the talented Mr. Blinky (https://community.arduboy.com/u/mr.blinky/). Because of his hard work, the 8BitCADE XL can also be integrated easily with any Arduboy game using the helpful ‘Home Made Arduboy Package’.

The Arduboy has a large community of makers, programmers and 8-bit game enthusiasts, created by Kevin Bates (https://community.arduboy.com/u/bateske) . It’s the perfect community to help new programmers develop and I’m excited to introduce 8BitMakers to the expertise of the Arduboy Community, allowing them to learn, grow and program within an established community as I did.

The 8BitCADE loader divides over 200+ games into 13 categories that the gamer can navigate through. This menu system comes preinstalled onto the 16MB memory chip meaning you can game as soon as you finish making - without even touching a computer!

What main challenges did you need to overcome with the build?

Initially learning! I always wanted to design a handheld games console, and there are a number of different directions I could have gone, but I chose to integrate with Arduboy because of the brilliant games the community created.

I kept the form factor small and slim. The screen takes up the most space and is a key feature of the build. I wanted it to be as good a gaming console as it was a learning tool - looking stylish and pocket-sized while being an educational DIY kit. A console that you would be proud to showcase to your friends and comfortable playing in public. But also a DIY device that you could plug in at home, hack, program and rip apart to learn more about electronics and game development. Finding the perfect balance of both was a challenge - however, I am confident we found the middle ground!

We see you have designed a circuit board. How did you go about designing this and what is your go-to CAD software?

I self-learned the Autodesk Eagle software. I chose Eagle mainly due to the powerful integration between Eagle and Autodesk Fusion 360 that would allow me to visualize the final product with the PCB, components and casing.

The design process began with creating the console on a breadboard and testing all of the components in unison. It was during this phase that I could experiment with using different parts and configurations and began developing tutorials and sketches. From there, the Eagle software was used to draw a schematic and place the components on a prototype PCB board to ensure all the connections were correct.

Investigating how the components could be placed in harmony was a time-consuming task. I had to figure out the best orientation and part placement to ensure functionality but provide a small form factor.

The PCB files were uploaded to JCLPCB and were received weeks later to be populated, tested and evaluated. This iterative process was repeated until its current version, and of course, will continue to be developed.

The PCB design was then imported into Fusion 360 where the casing was computer generated. The design is then exported and laser cut for testing the assembly. Spacers were resin printed and the whole product was assembled and tested to check for comfort and functionality. We experimented with a range of packaging options, created packaging stickers for the easy identification of parts which integrates with all the support literature.

For the kits, we use acrylic panels that can be easily interchanged and updated. This allows makers to recreate and design their own case. For example, they could customize their design and 3D print their own casings or button caps.

We aim to create a test file for this that will be publicly available online for users to download and print. This will involve makers in CAD and CAM processes more, teaching a wider range of skills, through the design and manufacturing of the case.

Something so simple can be heavily expanded and utilized as a core learning process and foundation for designers. You could say that is the ultimate aim of 8BitCADE, to have every part of the console usable as a learning opportunity - the 8BitCADE XL is one big learning tool!

The Kickstarter Campaign:

At the time of writing, the Kickstarter campaign is live and due to end on September 10th, 2020. Be sure to check it out: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jackdaly/8bitcade-xl-a-diy-educational-gaming-kit

Buy The 8bitCADE:

For those who missed the Kickstarter campaign but would still like to purchase their own kits will be able to do via the official website:

Update: Aug 2021. 8bitCADE Original and XL are also available from Pakronics.

If you were to start over, would you do anything differently?

I would have involved the community more - earlier on. I say this because the maker community is not only the customer base but also a great platform and place to learn and thrive as a young designer.

Yes, good advice. Many heads can be better than one. It’s great that you have made your project open-source.

The 8BitCADE is created for makers, by makers. It's a platform, not a product. I want the 8BitCADE to inspire other makers, like myself, to learn about electronics and get into programming. The 8BitCADE is the bridge into electronics and game development. I would love to see what people do with the 8BitCADE XL and hope to build a community around creating and coding.

Can you tell us the motivation for putting your project on Kickstarter?

Kickstarter is the natural progression for a young person who wants to innovate a product they believe in. My father once challenged me to "prove your passion for design and your ability to innovate, go away and design and sell one T-shirt." Actually a lot harder than people might think! The benefit of Kickstarter is gaining support and feedback from a community of interested people.

We wish you every success with it. Tell us, what are you working on now?

We are working effortlessly on the launch of the 8BitCADE XL, however, future plans involve:

  • Finalizing the next generation of the 8BitCADE XL for the Kickstarter backers.
  • Continue work on the 8BitCADE website, educational resources and more.
  • The development and testing of the 8BitCADE Colour (I’m going to leave it there to keep everyone on their toes! A new and exciting game console!)

Very exciting! Is there anything our readers should know about that we haven't covered already?

It is important to involve the community in the design and prototyping process as much as possible with user testing and feedback. For instance, this is the reason I have held back from ordering the next generation of PCB’s until the Kickstarter is complete, giving me the opportunity to implement any additional enhancements.

If there are any unanswered questions, I would advise your readers to check out the Kickstarter page as I go in-depth about each aspect of the 8BitCADE XL, its specs and the making, learning and gaming value the console provides.

Brilliant. Thank you for taking the time to outline your project and we look forward to seeing how successful your Kickstarter goes.

Update: August, 2021

The 8bitCADE Original and 8bitCADE XL are now available to purchase from our friends at Pakronics.

Buy from Pakronics