A little while ago, I had a conversation with my 10-year-old son when he asked what type of iPad I had when I was his age. The notion that iPads weren’t around when I was 10 had him flabbergasted, which then led to a conversation about the games I played. From here I mostly reminisced about how we never had ways of “saving” my games and had to start at the beginning each time, slowly honing our craft with a measly D-pad and only two buttons. By this stage, he had left the conversation, but it did make me miss those days. Fast forward a few months and a new project came up in my feed from Kickstarter - The Clockwork Pi GameShell.
Looking very much like the original Nintendo Game Boy, it brought back some great memories, so I quickly ordered one so I could school my kids on how to play “real games”.
Now, it’s not all about retro gaming. The real party piece of this unit is that it is entirely open source; open software and open hardware. Out of the box, it is quite a competent little unit. Similar in power to other embedded systems and running Linux. With the WiFi connection, it is simple to get into the system via SSH to perform any upgrades or hacks.
The unit is powered by a Quad-core Cortex-A7 1.2GHz CPU, 512MB Memory, Mali GPU, and WiFi onboard mainboard module. It is possible to not only run the Clockwork OS, but Debian, Ubuntu and Raspbian OS.
I was a little overwhelmed when I first opened the box, which contained the outer shells and then five main boards that made up the unit. Each of these boards had two clamshell parts to hold it in the game shell package. These parts were injection moulded and looked similar to a model kit. The package also contains a pair of safety glasses, which I highly recommend after having to extract a piece of clear plastic from my eyes.
The process of putting the unit together took around 30 minutes; each plastic part was removed and then clipped together before placing the relevant board in place. With the five boards built the unit can be connected together. I found the trickiest part of this whole process was connecting the video cable from the screen to the main board. It was easier to pull both units out of the assembled cases to ensure a proper connection. The modules are linked together with some basic cables and headers. The documentation shows how to route them through the system before snapping the shell together. With this in place, the two outer locking nuts complete the assembly. Power up was a breeze, and I had the Freedoom FPS action game running in less than a minute.
With the WiFi setup, it is easy to connect via your file manager or SSH to the device. From here you can add files or work in the system as you would any other Linux device. However, where this device comes into its own is that you can really modify it to be anything you want. You do not need to use the screen or the keypad. You can keep one section and design the boards to suit. On visiting the community pages and GitHub, you will find a vast amount of content and information. Personally, the keyboard is something that amazes me. It is based around the Arduino family, and the full schematics are in the GitHub repository. You could very easily create your own interface reminiscent of the arcade cabinets of old simply with an Arduino!
At times some sections of the software do feel a little unfinished. It is difficult to fault the hardware other than the occasional sticky button. The operating system is a constant evolution, and its very nature means that you are encouraged to change things you do not like. The novice user may find this a little overwhelming, but the online community is very strong and supportive of users of all skill levels. The battery life was somewhat less than I would have expected, but considering the battery being used, it seems acceptable. For the Kickstarter price (US $99) I feel that it was great value. At the time of writing, the “regular” price has yet to be released, however it is my understanding there will be some additions including HDMI output and 1GB RAM.
While this pack included all the shells, the STL files are available to 3D print an entire unit yourself.
Overall, the GameShell is a lot of fun with a lot of potential. Based on the fact that my non-maker friends didn’t want to return my GameShell to me after a short loan, I can recommend it to both makers and retro enthusiasts. Keep in mind though that it is not plug-and-play. You will be required to dig in and read some information as you go, but it really does not take much to get it up and running. You’ll quickly remember how frustrating those 8-bit games really were.
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