The Arduboy, Ported To Desktop And Back Again

A neat little hacker project that’s flying off the workbenches recently is the Arduboy. This tiny game console looks like a miniaturized version of the O.G. Game Boy, but it is explicitly designed to be hacked. It’s basically an Arduino board with a display and a few buttons, anyway.

[rv6502] got their hands on an Arduboy and realized that while there were some 3D games, there was nothing that had filled polygons, or really anything resembling a modern 3D engine. This had to be rectified, and the result is pretty close to Star Fox on a microcontroller.

This project began with a simple test on the Arduboy to see if it would be even possible to render 3D objects at any reasonable speed. This test was just a rotating cube, and everything looked good. Then began a long process of figuring out how fast the engine could go, what kind of display would suit the OLED best, and how to interact in a 3D world with limited controls.

Considering this is a fairly significant engineering project, the fastest way to produce code isn’t to debug code on a microcontroller. This project demanded a native PC port, so all the testing could happen on the PC without having to program the Flash every time. That allowed [rv] to throw out the Arduino IDE and USB library; if you’re writing everything on a PC and only uploading a hex file to a microcontroller at the end, you simply don’t need it.

One of the significant advances of the graphics capability of the Arduboy comes from exploring the addressing modes of the OLED. By default, the display is in a ‘horizontal mode’ which works for 2D blitting, but not for rasterizing polygons. The ‘vertical addressing mode’, on the other hand, allows for a block of memory, 8 x 128 bytes, that maps directly to the display. Shove those bytes over, and there’s no math necessary to display an image.

This is, simply, one of the best software development builds we’ve seen. It’s full of clever tricks (like simply not doing math if you’ll never need the result) and stuffing animations into far fewer bytes than you would expect. You can check out the demo video below.

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Arduboy In A Dreamcast VMU

The Arduboy is a tiny, credit-card sized sized video game console that you can build yourself. The Dreamcast VMU was also a tiny, pocketable video game system, but really that’s just where we stored our saves for Crazy Taxi. What do you get when you combine the two? [sjm] did just that, giving us an Arduboy tucked into a Dreamcast VMU.

The guts of the Arduboy is simply an ATMega32u4, the same chip found in many Arduinos, an I2C OLED, and a few other various electronics for USB, power, and battery protection. In short, it’s an easy circuit, and something just about anyone with the skills can build themselves. Since just anyone can get a PCB fabbed, and the Dreamcast already has nice silicone buttons built into the enclosure, it was a simple matter for [sjm] to create a Dreamcast VMU-shaped PCB with all the guts of an Arduboy. The only real difference is the size of the OLED — this one uses a 0.96″ 128×64 OLED, where the original used one with the same resolution but with a significantly larger size.

Yes, we’ve seen this same project before, but now thanks to the magic of the Hackaday Prize, it’s now in the running for the greatest hardware competition on the planet. You can check out the entire build video and a short demo after the break. Of course, this isn’t the first repurposing of the Arduboy circuit, we’ve seen a flex circuit version, and a version with a crank like the Playdate developed by Teenage Engineering and Panic.

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The Arduboy Gets A Crank Mod

You’ve seen VR headsets and wearable video game controllers and flight yokes and every other type and kind of video game controller, but a crank? Yes, the Arduboy now has a crank modification in tribute to (or blatant ripoff of) the PlayDate, a video game console created by Panic and Teenage Engineering.

The basis for this build is the Arduboy, a miniature game system the size of a credit card. This game console features candy-like buttons, compatibility with the Arduino IDE, and a community that has produced dozens of games already. Where there’s software developers there’s inevitably a few hardware engineers waiting in the wings, and this is no exception. [bateske] created a crank mod for the Arduboy that gives this miniature, toy-like game console a crank. Ready to write a bass fishing simulator? This is your shot.

The hardware for this build consists of a 360° rotary encoder for the internals of the device. For the handle, [bateske] found an interesting ‘premium grinder for herbs and spices’ on Amazon. Shockingly, this crank handle just sort of works with the rotary encoder.

As for games, this is a brand new user interface for the Arduboy game console, so of course there are some interesting possibilities. There’s a fishing simulator that’s more interesting than real fishing and something like Flappy Bird only instead of flapping it’s bouncing over bottomless pits. You can check out this crank console out below.

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School’s In Session With Arduboy Curriculum

It’s hard not to be impressed by the Arduboy. In just a few short years, [Kevin Bates] went from proof of concept to a successful commercial product without compromising on his original open source goals. Today, anyone can develop a game for the Arduboy and have it distributed to owners all over the world for free. If you’ve ever dreamt of being a game developer, the Arduboy community is for you.

Realizing the low-cost hardware and open source software of the Arduboy makes it an excellent way to learn programming, [Kevin] is now trying to turn his creation into a legitimate teaching tool. He’s kicking off this new chapter in the Arduboy’s life with a generous offer: giving out free hardware to educators all over the world. Anyone who wants to be considered for the program just needs to write-up a few paragraphs on how they’d utilize the handheld game system in their class.

[Kevin] already knows the Arduboy has been used to teach programming, but those have all been one-off endeavours. They relied on a teacher that was passionate enough about the Arduboy to put in their own time and effort to create a lesson plan around it. So one of the main goals right now is getting an official curriculum put together so educators won’t have to start from scratch. The community has already developed 16 free lessons, but they’re looking for help in creating more and translating them into other languages.

While the details are still up in the air, [Kevin] also plans to travel to schools personally and help them get their Arduboy classes off the ground. He’s especially interested in developing countries and other areas that are disadvantaged educationally. Believing that the Arduboy is as much a way to teach effective leadership and teambuilding as it is programming, he thinks this program can truly make a difference.

Since [Kevin] first Rickrolled us with his prototype in 2014, we’ve seen the Arduboy project spread like wildfire through the hacker community. From figuring out how to play its games on other gadgets to developing an expansion cartridge for the real thing, the Arduboy has already done its fair share of inspiring. Here’s hoping it has just as much of an impact on the next generation of hackers once they get their hands on it.

The ArduBoy Community Rolled Their Own Cartridge

The ArduBoy, as you might have guessed from the name, was designed as a love letter to the Nintendo Game Boy that many a hacker spent their formative years squinting at. While the open source handheld is far smaller than the classic DMG-01, it retains the same general form factor, monochromatic display, and even the iconic red LED to the left of the screen. But one thing it didn’t inherit from the original was the concept of removable game cartridges. That is, until now.

Over the last year, [Mr.Blinky] and a group of dedicated ArduBoy owners have been working on adding a removable cartridge to the diminutive handheld. On paper it seemed easy enough, just hang an external SPI flash chip off of the test pads that were already present on the ArduBoy PCB, but to turn that idea into a practical cartridge required an immense amount of work and discussion. The thread on the ArduBoy community forums covers everything from the ergonomics of the physical cartridge design to the development of a new bootloader that could handle loading multiple games.

Early cartridge prototypes.

The first problem the group had to address was how small the ArduBoy is: there’s simply no room in the back to add in a cartridge slot. So a large amount of time is spent proposing different ways of actually getting the theoretical cartridge attached to the system. There was some talk of entirely redesigning the case so it could take the cartridge internally (like the real Game Boy), but this eventually lost out for a less invasive approach that simply replaced the rear of the ArduBoy with a 3D printed plate that gave the modders enough room to add a male header along the top edge of the system.

As an added bonus, the cartridge connector doubles as an expansion port for the ArduBoy. While perfecting the design, various forum users have chimed in with different gadgets that make use of the new port, from WS2812B LEDs to additional input devices like joysticks or a full QWERTY keyboard. Even if you aren’t interested in expanding the storage space on your ArduBoy, being able to plug in new hardware modules certainly opens up some interesting possibilities.

In fact, the project so impressed ArduBoy creator [Kevin Bates] that he chimed in on the topic last month to announce he would start looking into integrating the community’s cartridge modification into the production hardware. If all goes well, pretty soon there might be an official upgrade path for those who want to expand what this tiny nostalgia machine is capable of.

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Arduboy Goes Thin And Flexible For Portable Gaming

We all have a gaming system in our pocket or purse and some of us are probably reading on it right now. That pocket space is valuable so we have to budget what we keep in there and adding another gaming system is not in the cards, if it takes up too much space. [Kevin Bates] budgeted the smallest bit of pocket real estate for his full-size Arduboy clone, Arduflexboy. It is thin and conforms to his pocket because the custom PCB uses a flexible substrate and he has done away with the traditional tactile buttons.

Won’t a flexible system be hard to play? Yes. [Kevin] said it himself, and while we don’t disagree, a functional Arduboy on a flexible circuit makes up for practicality by being a neat manufacturing demonstration. This falls under the because-I-can category but the thought that went into it is also evident. All the components mount opposite the screen so it looks clean from the front and the components will not be subject to as much flexing and the inputs are in the same place as a traditional Arduboy.

cost = low, practicality = extremely low, customer service problems = high

     ~[Kevin Bates]

These flexible circuit boards use a polyimide substrate, the same stuff as Kapton tape, and ordering boards is getting cheaper so we can expect to see more of them popping up. Did we mention that we currently have a contest for flexible circuits? We have prizes that will make you sing, just for publishing your flex PCB concept.

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FPGA Brings Arduboy To The Game Boy Advance

Hackaday readers are perhaps familiar with the Arduboy, an open source handheld gaming system that aims to combine the ease of Arduino development with the seething nostalgia the Internet has towards the original Nintendo Game Boy. While not quite the same as getting one of your games published for a “real” system, the open source nature of the Arduboy platform allows an individual to develop a game playable on a commercially manufactured device.

While the Arduboy hardware itself is actually quite slick, that hasn’t stopped people from trying to bring its games to other pieces of hardware. Now thanks to the efforts of [uXe], the Game Boy Advance is well on its way to becoming Arduboy compatible, in a way bringing the whole project full circle. Assuming this gadget becomes a commercial device (it sounds like that’s still up in the air), Arduboy developers will be able to proudly play their creations on the final and objectively best entry into the Game Boy line.

Getting to this point has been something of an adventure, as documented in a thread from the Arduboy forums. Members of the community wondered what it would take to get Arduboy games running on a real Game Boy, but pretty quickly it was decided that the original beige brick model wasn’t quite up to the task. Eventually its far more capable successor the Game Boy Advance became the development target, and different approaches were considered for getting existing games running on the platform.

While there were some interesting ideas, such as using the GBA’s link port to “feed” the system games over SPI, in the end [uXe] decided to look into creating an FPGA cartridge that would actually run the Arduboy games. In this scenario, the GBA itself is basically just being used as an interface between the FPGA and the human player. In addition to these low-level hardware considerations, there was considerable discussion about the more practical aspects of bringing the games to the new hardware, such as how to best scale the Arduboy’s 128 x 64 output to the GBA’s 240 × 160 screen.

As demonstrated in the videos after the break, [uXe] now as all the elements for playing Arduboy games on the GBA in place, including the ability to disable full screen scaling by using the shoulder buttons. Now he just needs to shrink the hardware down to the point it will fit inside of a standard GBA cartridge. Beyond that, who knows? Perhaps the appeal of being able to run Arduboy games on a real Game Boy is enough to warrant turning this hack into a new commercial product.

Thanks to a hardware swap we’ve seen Arduboy games played on the Dreamcast VMU, and [uXe] himself previously grafted Arduboy-compatible hardware into an original Game Boy, but being able to play these games on an unmodified Game Boy Advance obviously has its own appeal. At the very least, it will be a bit more ergonomic than using a hacked classroom gadget.

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