In recent years, it looked almost certainly like the end of the line for portable consoles, made ever more redundant by smartphones and tablets. Yet this year’s announcement of both Panic’s indie-friendly Playdate and Nintendo’s handheld-specific Switch Lite seems to have reignited our love for beautifully designed and quirky hardware we can hold in our hands – a sentiment not to dissimilar with how retro consoles are getting re-released in miniature form.
But if you’re particularly caught up in handheld nostalgia, then you’d do well to take a look at the Clockwork GameShell, which not only resembles a Game Boy but also reminds me of Nintendo’s other recent innovation: Labo.
You see, the GameShell isn’t just a handheld console you can use to play old games on emulators, it’s one you put together yourself from a kit out of a box.
The above shows all the components for putting the GameShell together, which includes the shell itself, the main board, a 2.7-inch screen, keypad, speakers and battery pack, as well as an add-on for more buttons that can fit on the back.
You can twist and break off the plastic pieces quite easily, though you’re advised to use a modelling knife and side-cutter. Otherwise, putting each part is actually quite straightforward, everything fitting snugly in its own case with a cover attached like hinges.
As someone who grew up as a console kid (if I was to use a PC, I’d sooner buy it brand new from PC World over building a custom one myself), this was in itself a fun and accessible exercise of seeing the innards of a handheld device and how they connect with one another.
I have to say this was a sense of wonder first instilled by folding sheets of cardboard with Labo in the past year. Sure, cardboard isn’t the same as actual circuit boards and wiring, but the time spent putting it together still had a playful aspect about it – even if it just relies on old-fashioned instructions on paper rather than an interactive video step-by-step.
Just like Labo however, how much fun you get out of the GameShell after the assembling is over depends on your own curiosity and capabilities.
It might look like an admirable Game Boy clone that can play old games, with pre-installed emulator programs that allows you to play a whole range of retro platforms from the NES, Game Boy, GBA, SNES right up to PS1 (which the RGB screen can output at 60fps), but it’s not as simple as I remember my childhood family trips to Hong Kong.
The good old days when I was able to pick up a Game Boy cartridge packed with over 100 games (and look, how was I to know back then they weren’t legit?)
The legality of emulation and ROMs is something of a grey area, with some well-known ROM-hosting sites being shut down in recent years, and that’s no different with the GameShell, which would explain the lack of instructions in the box.
You can of course consult forums (including the GameShell’s own community), but the point is that none of this is particularly straightforward. In other words a newcomer looking for a consumer-friendly one-stop shop solution for playing a load of old free games is going to be disappointed.
Rather, the GameShell is for hacker-minded folks who might have already been enjoying GBA emulations on their PC but actually want to have it as a portable experience as intended. In fact, when you turn on it on, its boot-up screen even comes up with the message, ‘Happy Hacking’.
Assuming that you do have a plethora of ROMs on your PC or phone, the process of transferring them over to the GameShell is easy. The mini-console supports Wi-Fi, and instead of the long-winded process of transferring data via microSD card (it comes with a 16GB card), you can just transfer using the system’s Tiny Cloud app.
Bedroom coders can even use it to mod or even create their own games for the system, and it supports a variety of programming languages including Preset C, Python, Lua, JS, and LISP, as well as ‘fantasy console’ PICO-8.
You don’t even have to use it as a portable console either. Due to its modular nature, you can for instance use the keypad to control a Lego-made robot or make use of its impressive speakers as a portable radio – indeed, instead of ROMs, you can also just transfer music files to the GameShell so that it doubles as a music player.
Which all sounds fine, if you’re into that sort of thing. But it’s called the GameShell after all, so how about the games?
Fortunately, it does actually come pre-installed with the rather brilliant Metroidvania Cave Story as well as Free Doom, an open-source version of the seminal FPS (incidentally now available on all other handheld devices), and a few other bits of shovelware you’re better off leaving alone.
But considering getting hold of a base unit is $US159 ($235, shipping worldwide), it’s far from a cheap handheld if you don’t plan to make the most of its hacking functions.
It’s worth noting that the battery is charged via a micro USB port, while there’s also a headphone jack, but there is a micro HDMI port if you want to hook it up to a big screen. Sadly in its hands-off DIY approach, you’ll need to source those components yourself.
You’ll also notice that the GameShell has four face buttons, which makes it fine for playing NES, Game Boy, GBA or Game Gear games, but fall short once you get to SNES or PS1 games.
The kit tries to compensate with an additional module with five extra buttons, though having this strapped on the back is a rather awkward compromise that’s not really the same as having shoulder buttons. Frankly, if you wanted to play PS1 games on the go, you’re better off trying to get hold of a PSP or Vita.
Nonetheless, if you’re into home-brewing and know your way around emulation, the GameShell is a fascinating piece of hardware to invest in, and it’s assuring to see that we’re far from seeing the last of handheld gaming. Now if Nintendo would just get onto releasing a Game Boy Mini.