Over the years we’ve seen plenty of homebrew handheld game systems that combine an AVR microcontroller, a few buttons, and an small OLED display. Some of them have even been turned into commercial products, such as the Arduboy. They’re simple, cheap, and with the right software, a lot of fun. But being based on an MCU, most of them share the same limitation of only being able to hold a single game at any one time.
With the microcontroller on the cartridge, the only hardware that stays behind on the Game Card is the SSD1306 128×64 OLED display, buttons, and the battery. That means the handheld is effectively non-functional unless a game is slotted in, but that could be said of most early cartridge-based game systems as well. On the other hand, it also opens up the possibility of producing cartridges with more powerful microcontrollers down the line.
We’re big fans of the Arduboy here at Hackaday, but we’ll admit its tiny screen isn’t exactly ideal for long gaming sessions. There are some DIY builds of the open source handheld that use a larger SPI OLED display, though you’re relatively limited on what kind of changes can be made to the hardware before the games start balking. But as [Nick Bild] shows with his Arduboy home console, hacking the core system library opens up a lot of interesting possibilities.
Games written for the Arduboy make use of a common library that handles all the low-level hardware stuff, which includes a display() function to push the graphical data out to an SPI-connected OLED display. What [Nick] has done is re-write that function to instead output to a custom VGA generator running on the TinyFPGA BX. He had to delete support for the Arduboy’s RGB LEDs because he needed the extra pins, but that shouldn’t cause much of a problem in terms of software support.
This does mean that games need to be recompiled against the modified library to work on his hardware, but as the vast majority of Arduboy software is open source anyway, that’s not much of a problem. We particularly like the Super Game Boy style border you get around the display at no extra cost.
At this point the hardware looks less like a console and more like a breadboard filled with jumpers, so we’re interested in seeing this project taken to its logical conclusion. A custom PCB, enclosure, and possibly even support for using the original NES controllers would turn this into proper system worthy of any hacker’s game room. You could even put the games on custom cartridges if you wanted, though a flash chip that holds the system’s entire library would be quite a bit more convenient.
The key to this project is a pair of transparent CrystalFonts OLED displays, just like the ones [Sean Hodgins] recently used to produce his gorgeous volumetric display. In fact, [Kevin] says it was his success with these displays that inspired him to pursue his own project. With some clever PCB design, he came up with some boards that could be manufactured by OSH Park and put together with jewelry box hinges. Small flexible circuits, also from OSH Park, link the boards and allow the frames to fold up when not being worn.
The Arduglasses use the same ATmega32U4 microcontroller as the Arduboy, and with a few basic controls and a small 100 mAh rechargeable battery onboard, they can technically run anything from the open source handheld’s extensive software library. Of course, technically is the operative word here. While the hardware is capable of playing the games, [Kevin] reports that the OLED displays are too close to the wearer’s eyes to actually focus on them. That said the ability to easily create software for these glasses offers plenty of opportunity for memes, as we see in the video below.
For reasons that are probably obvious, [Kevin] considers the Arduglasses an experiment and isn’t looking to turn them into a commercial product or kit. But if there’s interest, he’s willing to put the design files up on GitHub for anyone who wants to add a pair of Arduino glasses to their cyberpunk wardrobe.
Traditionally, a forum full of technical users trying integrate their own hardware into a game system for the purposes of gaining unfettered access to its entire software library was the kind of thing that would keep engineers at Sony and Nintendo up at night. The development and proliferation of so called “mod chips” were an existential threat to companies that made their money selling video games, and as such, sniffing out these console hackers and keeping their findings from going public for as long as possible was a top priority.
But the Arduboy is no traditional game system. Its games are distributed for free, so a chip that allows users to cram hundreds of them onto the handheld at once isn’t some shady attempt to pull a fast one on the developers, it’s a substantial usability improvement over the stock hardware. So when Arduboy creator Kevin Bates found out about the grassroots effort to expand the system’s internal storage on the official forums, he didn’t try to put a stop to it. Instead, he asked how he could help make it a reality for as many Arduboy owners as possible.
Now, a little less than three years after forum member Mr.Blinky posted his initial concept for hanging an external SPI flash chip on the system’s test pads, the official Arduboy FX Mod-Chip has arrived. Whether you go the DIY route and build your own version or buy the ready-to-go module, one thing is for sure: it’s a must-have upgrade for the Arduboy that will completely change how you use the diminutive handheld.
One of the selling points of the Arduboy is how slim [Kevin Bates] was able to get the Arduino-compatible game system, which is perhaps less surprising when you realize that it originally started out as a design for an electronic business card. But compared to the recently unveiled Nano version, it might as well be the old school “brick” Game Boy.
Now to be clear, [Kevin] isn’t looking to put these into official production. Though it does sound like the bare PCBs might be going up for sale in the near future. This was simply an experiment to see how far he could shrink the core Arduboy hardware while still keeping it not only playable but also code-compatible with the full-size version. While “playable” might be a tad subjective in this case, the video after the break clearly demonstrates that it’s fully functional.
Inside the 3D printed case is the same ATmega32U4 that powers the Arduboy, a 64×32 0.49″ OLED display, and a tiny 25 mAh pouch battery. There’s even a miniature piezo speaker for the bleeps and bloops. All of the pinouts have remained the same so existing code can be moved right over, though the screen is now connected over I2C. [Kevin] has released the schematics for the board in keeping with the general open nature of the Arduboy project, though for now he’s decided to hold onto the board files until it’s clear whether or not there’s a commercial future for the Nano.
We’ve been big fans of the Arduboy since [Kevin Bates] showed off the first prototype back in 2014. It’s a fantastic platform for making and playing simple games, but there’s certainly room for improvement. One of the most obvious usability issues has always been that the hardware can only hold one game at a time. But thanks to the development of an official add-on, the Arduboy will soon have enough onboard storage to hold hundreds of games
The upgrade takes the form of a small flexible PCB that gets soldered to existing test points on the Arduboy. Equipped with a W25Q128 flash chip, the retrofit board provides an additional 16 MB of flash storage to the handheld’s ATmega32u4 microcontroller; enough to hold essentially every game and program ever written for the platform at once.
Of course, wiring an SPI flash chip to the handheld’s MCU is only half the battle. The system also needs to have its bootloader replaced with one that’s aware of this expanded storage. To that end, the upgrade board also contains an ATtiny85 that’s there to handle this process without the need for an external programmer. While this is a luxury the average Hackaday reader could probably do without, it’s a smart move for an upgrade intended for a wider audience.
What is part way between a printed circuit board and a rats-nest of point-to-point wiring? We’re not sure, but this is it. [Johan von Konow] has come up with an inspired solution, 3D printing an Arduboy case with channels ready-made for all the wires. The effect with his 3DPCBoy is of a PCB without the PCB, and allows the console to be made very quickly and cheaply.
The Arduboy — which we originally looked at back in 2014 — is a handheld gaming console in a somewhat Gameboy-like form factor. Normally a credit-card sized PCB hosts all the components, including a microcontroller, display, and buttons. Each has a predictable footprint and placement so they can simply be wired together with hookup wire, if you don’t mind a messy result.
Here the print itself has all the holes ready-created for the components, and the path of the wires has a resemblance to the sweeping traces of older hand-laid PCBs. The result is very effective way to take common components — and Arduino pro micro board for the uC, an OLED breakout board, and some buttons — and combine them into a robust package. This technique of using 3D prints as a combination of enclosure and substrate for components and wiring has an application far beyond handheld gaming. We look forward to seeing more like it.