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Clockwork Pi GameShell Review: The DIY Game Boy With LEGO-Inspired Design

Rating: 8/10 ?
  • 1 - Absolute Hot Garbage
  • 2 - Sorta Lukewarm Garbage
  • 3 - Strongly Flawed Design
  • 4 - Some Pros, Lots Of Cons
  • 5 - Acceptably Imperfect
  • 6 - Good Enough to Buy On Sale
  • 7 - Great, But Not Best-In-Class
  • 8 - Fantastic, with Some Footnotes
  • 9 - Shut Up And Take My Money
  • 10 - Absolute Design Nirvana
Price: $160
The GameShell is an excellent but pricey do-it-yourself portable game machine.

STEM toys and games are all the rage, and video games are as popular as ever. If you’d like to combine some simple electronics with retro games, the GameShell lets you build your own open source Game Boy.

Okay, that’s a bit simplistic. The ClockworkPi GameShell is a modular system, so by “build” I mean assemble, since you’re only snapping together some pretty simple pieces, plugging them into each other, and closing the shell over it. Everything’s included in the kit and already programmed, including the rechargeable battery and software loaded onto a MicroSD card. So if you’re looking for something that challenges your DIY gaming skills, this isn’t it: it’s more like a LEGO kit that you can load up with ROMs when you’re finished.

The GameShell, fully assembled, looks like a more advanced version of the original Game Boy.
The GameShell, fully assembled, looks like a more advanced version of the original Game Boy. Michael Crider

But now that I type that out, “LEGO kit that you can load up with ROMs” sounds pretty freakin’ sweet. And it is! That’s especially true if you’re looking for something for a kid: younger children can put the kit together with a little help from a parent, and kids from about middle school age up can handle most things themselves, with perhaps a little assistance needed to load new games into the included emulators.

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To (But You Can)

The GameShell arrives in a series of segmented boxes and parts trays, like an old model car kit. Pull everything out of the various boxes and bags, remove the plastic from the parts trays, and follow the included assembly instructions, and when you’re finished, you’ll have something that looks like an open source Game Boy from 1989. That’s about it.

The various bits and pieces of the GameShell, prior to assembly.
The various bits and pieces of the GameShell, before assembly. Michael Crider / Review Geek

The build process takes about an hour for an adult, though young kids might need a little longer. All of the more delicate electronics, like the main motherboard, the screen, and the keypad, are quickly encased in their own protective, modular plastic shells so they can be roughly assembled without fear of damaging them. If you’re helping a small child put this stuff together, once the main modular pieces are covered, you can probably leave them to get the rest done at their own pace.

The modular design of the GameShell deserves particular praise. Following along to the clear instructions, it’s pretty difficult to put this stuff together in a way that’s disastrous: unless you manage to snap some of the tough plastic in half, everything can be deconstructed and rebuilt the right way. That’s a notable achievement in the world of DIY electronics kits (I’ll forego detailing how many keyboard PCBs I’ve managed to destroy with sloppy soldering). With this kid-friendly design, anything short of a full temper tantrum is probably reversible.

The modular part design---screen, pad, motherboard, battery---makes assembly safe and easy.
The modular part design—screen, pad, motherboard, battery—makes assembly safe and easy. Michael Crider / Review Geek

I especially like the two optional backs to the gadget: one smooth in original Nintendo fashion, one studded with LEGO-compatible bricks, lest you thought my building toy allusions were merely illustrative instead of literal. The basic kit includes an optional upgrade on the back, five extra shoulder buttons that can light up with included LEDs, which connects to the motherboard and snaps into place via the LEGO studs.

It’s a neat little add-on if you’d like compatibility with more complex classic PC or PlayStation games, though the cable that must be threaded through to the motherboard means it’s probably a little fragile for traveling.

Just Enough Power for the Classics

Once you put everything together and secure the outer plastic shell with the two easily-removable circular snaps, you have a Game Boy-style portable gaming gadget that includes a backlit LCD screen, a familiar key layout, and a pre-programmed user interface. The electronics inside run on a Cortex A7 processor with 1GB of memory and 16GB of storage via the MicroSD card. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and HDMI-out via a mini port are included, and the battery recharges via a direct MicroUSB connection.

Yes, it runs DOOM!
Yes, it runs DOOM! Michael Crider / Review Geek

Though the GameShell is hyping up its “hackable” hardware and programmability, novices like me are encouraged and indulged if we choose to ignore this and treat the thing like an emulation machine.

RetroArch and a few other emulators are built in from the word go, and ROM files can quickly be dropped directly onto the storage drive via USB or the built-in Wi-Fi file server. I was able to drop my trusty Pokemon Crystal game file in there with no trouble.

The pre-installed OS on the MicroSD card is surprisingly flexible.
The pre-installed OS on the MicroSD card is surprisingly flexible. Michael Crider / Review Geek

The hardware is powerful enough to run pretty much everything up to the Super Nintendo and Genesis era, with perhaps a few low-power PlayStation games on occasion. (PlayStation ROMs will make this thing heat up in your hand, though: there’s no fan or even a heat sink.) If you want to avoid any legal gray areas or piracy, you can load up Linux-based software or play the included open source versions of Cave Story and DOOM.

Technically Unlimited Potential

But what if you are incredibly handy with electronics, and you want to turn the GameShell into more than a kid’s toy? You’re welcome to do so, assuming you can work with the custom CPI mainboard. In terms of hardware, the modular hardware pieces are crammed pretty tightly inside the Game Boy shell, but a few access ports for cables means you can add hardware on the outside and stick it to the LEGO studs if you’re feeling creative.

One of the rear panels includes LEGO-compatible studs, a very neat touch.
One of the rear panels includes LEGO-compatible studs, a very neat touch. Michael Crider / Review Geek

Not customizable enough? If you have access to a 3D printer, you can roll your own shell or external pieces, with STL files available for five bucks. That allows you to design theoretically unlimited extra hardware if you have the skill and the time.

In practical terms, I think very few people will actually do this. Anyone with that kind of technical proficiency (and I do not include myself in that group) doesn’t need super-safe modular plastic pieces and pre-installed software to make their own portable console. They’re probably more than happy to start with a project like the PiGRRL, or just start from scratch.

The hardware can be expanded with external hardware, like this included button and LED bar.
The hardware can be expanded with external hardware, like this included button and LED bar. Michael Crider / Review Geek

But I appreciate that true expansion is a genuine possibility with the GameShell: it will allow kids who’ve cut their teeth on this retro-style hardware to use it as a starting point for more elaborate projects.

Not Exactly Cost Effective

At $200 for the full kit, currently $160 on special and as little as $140 if you’re a student, the GameShell isn’t cheap any way you slice it. Those who are just looking for a portable retro console have more affordable options with more power and less elbow grease required to get started. But while the GameShell isn’t cheap, the excellent design work goes a long way towards making up the difference.

The GameShell, running a Game Boy emulator, with the extra button bar in place.
The GameShell, running a Game Boy emulator, with the extra button bar in place. Michael Crider / Review Geek

With a comprehensive modular design, excellent instructions and documentation, and surprisingly user-friendly software, the entire package makes a great introduction to the world of do-it-yourself electronics.

The final result won’t turn any heads with the Switch and Nintendo 3DS currently on the market, to say nothing of mobile phone games. But that isn’t the point. It’s more than capable of doing what it’s intended for, and the extra spit and polish that’s gone into the product make it praiseworthy in every respect.

The GameShell makes a fun diversion for any retro-obsessed adult gamer, and a fantastic beginner electronics project for children. Both of them will appreciate the result of their efforts, and it’s only a stepping stone to a larger world of hardware and software customization. It gets an easy recommendation from me.

Rating: 8/10
Price: $160

Here’s What We Like

  • Easy-to-assemble modular design
  • Good documentation
  • User-friendly software
  • Expandable hardware and connections

And What We Don't

  • High price for hardware power
  • Power and data cables could use better labels

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »