A Pocket Retro Computer Anyone Can Build

Not satisfied with any of the DIY retro computer kits on the market, [Leonardo Leoni] decided to make his own. Built using only the finest through-hole technology and powered by the ATmega328 microcontroller, his diminutive 8-bit computer is easy to build and even easier to develop for. Whether you’re looking to hone your BASIC skills or play some Zork on the bus, this little computer looks like a great project for anyone who has a soft spot for computing’s simpler days.

All things considered, using this tiny machine looks like it would be relatively pleasant. [Leonardo] is using a common SH1106 OLED display, and there’s a full QWERTY keyboard (with number row) done up with tactile momentary buttons. There’s very few passive components involved in the build, which is sure to be appealing to new players; especially after they’ve finished soldering all those switches to the board.

On the software side, [Leonardo] says he leaned heavily on open source projects to get his machine up and running. Beyond the hardware drivers for things like the display, he specifically calls out the Tiny Basic and Tiny Lisp Computer projects for their code. If small-scale programming isn’t your style, the machine is compatible with the Arduino IDE so you can easily throw something else on it. If you’ve ever dreamed of a QWERTY Arduboy, this might be your chance.

From the way [Leonardo] describes the computer, which he calls the Cobalt 3, we get the impression a commercial kit might be in the cards. We hope the community shows enough interest to make it happen. After all, not everyone was able to make it to Hackaday Belgrade 2018 to get their own pocket retro computer.

You’ll Flip For This Toggle Switch Handheld Game

Teacher says that every time a toggle switch clunks, a hacker gets their wings. Or something like that. All we know is that there are few things the hardware tinkerer likes more than the satisfying action of a nice flip. Which by extension means this handheld game built by [Roman Revzin] and controlled by nothing more than three toggle switches will likely be a big hit at the hackerspace.

The parts list for this game, which [Roman] calls the ToggleBoss, is about as short as it gets. There’s a NodeMCU ESP8266 development board, a common SH1106 OLED display, and a trio of suitably clunky toggle switches. Add a bit of wire, toss it all into a 3D printed enclosure, and you’re halfway to thumb flicking nirvana.

Naturally, you might be wondering about the sort of games that can be played with three latching digital inputs; after all, it’s not exactly the most conventional controller layout. But there is where ToggleBoss really shines. Instead of trying to shoehorn traditional games into an exceptionally unconventional system, [Roman] has come up with several games which really embrace the limited input offered to the user.

In a platforming game not unlike the classic Mario Bros, the positions of the physical switches are mapped to virtual walls that are raised and lowered to control a character’s movement through the level. Another game shows the player three dots which correspond to the intended switch states, which they have to match as quickly and as accurately as possible. [Roman] has released the source code to his current lineup of games, which hopefully will inspire others to try their hand at creating software for this fascinating little system.

With the availability of cheap OLED displays and powerful microcontrollers, we’ve started to see more of these bespoke gaming systems. While some will undoubtedly prefer a pocket full of Nintendo’s classics, we think there’s something special about a game system that you can truly call your own.

Drawing On An OLED With An ATtiny85, No RAM Buffers Allowed

Small I2C OLED displays are common nowadays, and thanks to the work of helpful developers, there are also a variety of graphics libraries for using them. Most of them work by using a RAM buffer, which means that anything one wants to draw gets written to a buffer representing the screen, and the contents of that buffer are copied out to the display whenever it is updated. The drawback is that for some microcontrollers, there simply isn’t enough RAM for this approach to work. For example, a 128×64 monochrome OLED requires a 1024 byte buffer, but that’s bad news if a microcontroller has only 512 bytes of RAM in total like the ATtiny85. [David Johnson-Davies] has two solutions: a Tiny Graphics Library that needs no RAM buffer and an even slimmer Tiny Function Plotter, which we’ll discuss in order.

Tiny Function Plotter works on both SSD1306 and SH1106-based displays.

[David]’s Tiny Graphics Library works by taking advantage of a feature of SH1106 driver-based displays: the ability to read the display over I2C as well as write to it. With the ability to perform read-modify-write on a section at a time, using a large RAM buffer can be avoided. The only catch is that the library only works with OLEDs using the SH1106, but the good news is that these are very common at the usual Chinese resellers. ([David] notes that SH1106 is sometimes misspelled as “SSH1106”, so keep that in mind when searching.)

What about all those other SSD1306-based OLED displays out there? Are they out of luck? Not quite. [David] has one more trick up his sleeve: his Tiny Function Plotter works on the SSD1306 and also requires no RAM buffer. It’s unable to write text, but it can easily handle drawing graphs plotting things like values over time while needing very little overhead.

Another approach we’ve seen for using OLEDs driven by microcontrollers with limited memory is the solution [Michael] used in Tiny Sideways Tetris, which was done in part by realizing the smallest screen element he needed was a 4×4 block, and using that premise as the basis of a simple compression scheme.