Clockwork Pi GameShell Review — Building Your Own Handheld Console Is the Most Fun You’ll Ever Have
The Clockwork Pi GameShell creates a unique and memorable DIY experience that allows you to play all of your favorite retro games with ease
Ever since I felt the cool, smooth body of the Nintendo Game & Watch in my hands as a young child, I’ve had unconditional love for handheld consoles. There’s something pretty magical about them – maybe because they fit into your world so inconspicuously and conveniently, never looking for too much of your time as you seamlessly jump into one of your favorite games.
When asked by Clockwork if I would like to review the GameShell portable “Do-it-yourself” console, I jumped at the opportunity to build my very own retro open source Game Boy. Described as “the world’s first modular, portable game console with a GNU/LINUX embedded operating system”, it has raised nearly $300,000 on Kickstarter with the help of 2,620 backers.
The message that Clockwork aims to get across is that they don’t want to solely push out a retro handheld, but more an experience; a journey of exploration and discovery, too. I spent some quality time assembling and trying out everything this portable game console had to offer.
Upon opening the box, you’ll find five individual boxes of components, as well as trays of plastic waiting to be popped out and assembled, an array of shells for the system, and a set of stickers to plaster on your completed GameShell, if you wish. Your best bet to avoid any mishaps is to categorize all the parts into groups so it’s easier to grab a piece rather than wasting time trying to fiddle about wondering what you’ll need.
The build process will take you around an hour or maybe two if you take your time. Thankfully, you don’t have to acquire a soldering iron or a screwdriver as all that’s needed is a steady hand and the ability to snap pieces together and plug in some wires. One point I’d like to make is that you may require a razor blade at hand for when you are popping out the plastic parts as a little leftover plastic still lingers. Removing this cleanly will allow for a cozier fit when piecing it together. All of the more delicate electronics, like the main motherboard, the screen, and the keypad, are encased in their own protective, modular plastic shells so they can be assembled without too much fear of damaging them.
Some areas of the assembling process could be quite fiddly especially when inserting the extremely small wire plugs. If you find that you haven’t inserted them correctly, you’ll have to spend some time dismantling which is never ideal. Fortunately, this only happened to me once, so all in all, the entire process was fairly simple and really enjoyable to put together. With the GameShell completed, I had in my hands my very own retro handheld console that actually works, giving me a great sense of achievement and pride.
A slight negative about the GameShell is that the D-pad is quite clicky. It could definitely use some kind of a rubber housing to stop it from making an irritating noise but after a while, I didn’t notice it too much as I became more interested in the gaming side of things. The only other downside is that even though it came with a Sandisk 16 GB MicroSD card, you can only replace it by taking the entire GameShell casing off, which doesn’t make for an ideal situation if you ever wanted to upgrade.
The entire system runs on Linux so you really are spoiled for choice when it comes to what you want to do on it. The boot-up was quick and timely and the D-pad responded promptly with the navigation menu allowing me to scroll through the system with ease. The Clockwork Pi GameShell came pre-installed with Cave Story, a port of DOOM, and RetroArch.
It took me very little time before I got stuck in my old childhood game of DOOM, which ran remarkably well on a bright and vibrant color display. You don’t need a vast amount of knowledge to add games through the RetroArch system and ROM files can quickly be dropped directly onto the storage drive via USB or the built-in Wi-Fi file server. In no time at all, you can dive into whatever classic game you desire.
The hardware is powerful enough to run anything you throw at it from the NES and Genesis era. It does state that you can play some low-powered PlayStation games but I haven’t tested this out at present. Due to its comprehensive modular design, excellent instructions, and super user-friendly software, the entire package makes a great introduction to the world of do-it-yourself electronics and I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the experience. It’s certainly something that will stay with me for quite some time and is a device that I will whip out at every occasion possible to show my interested and disinterested friends my craftsmanship.
This GameShell is currently selling for $160 which may seem quite steep for something that isn’t exactly a new concept on the market. For any retro gamer who misses the days of the Game Boy and wants the satisfaction of putting together their own handheld though, the GameShell is well worth the money – even if it’s only for the experience alone and the bragging rights that come with building your own console.