We’ve always been big fans of Arduboy here at Hackaday. When creator Kevin Bates showed us the original prototype back in 2014, the idea was to use his unique method of mounting components into routed holes in the PCB to produce an electronic business card that was just 1.6mm thick. But the Internet quickly took notice of the demos he posted online, and what started as a one-off project led to a hugely successful Kickstarter for a sleek handheld gaming system that used modern components and manufacturing techniques to pay homage to 8-bit retro. systems that came before it.
That’s the kind of hacker success story we live for here, but it didn’t end there. After the Kickstarter, the Arduboy community continued to grow, thanks in no small part to Kevin never forgetting the open source principles the product was built on.
He took an active role in the growing community, and when some Arduboy owners started fiddling with adding external storage to their systems so they could hold hundreds of games at a time, he didn’t chastise them for exploring. Instead, he collaborated with them to produce not only an awesome add-on mod for the original Arduboy, but a new version of the Arduboy that had the community-inspired mods built in.
Now Kevin is back with the Arduboy Mini, which not only retains everything that made the original a success, but offers some exciting new possibilities. There’s little doubt that he’s had yet another success in addition to community support – at the time of writing, the Kickstarter campaign for the $29 USD Mini has nearly quadrupled its funding goal.
But even so, Kevin offered us a chance to go hands-on with a prototype of the Arduboy Mini, so anyone on the fence can get a third-party view of the new system. So without further ado, let’s take a look at how this micro machine holds up to its full-sized counterparts.
It may seem silly to say for a product that has Mini right in its name, but the Arduboy Mini is seriously small. Just think how small you are Think that it is, and go a little lower than that. At about 50mm x 35mm (2in x 1.3in), it’s small enough to be a key ring – in fact, the bottom left hole on the PCB almost seems to be begging for a split ring. I wouldn’t recommend it though, unlike the tough plastic and metal case that protects the full size Arduboy, the Mini is just a bare PCB. It is not difficult to imagine that some of the components on the back will be torn off, or that the OLED will start flapping in the wind.
As I said in the intro, the Mini strikes me as an attempt to distill the Arduboy experience down to its core, and part of that is throwing away whatever’s left. You still have the same ATmega32U4 running the show to ensure software compatibility with existing games, now paired with a 16MB SPI flash chip to store them, but other than that there’s almost nothing on the Mini that isn’t there for the express purpose of play games. There isn’t even an on/off button on the thing, you just plug in a USB-C cable and it instantly springs to life.
Speaking of which, you’ve probably noticed that there’s no battery on board. You can only play the Arduboy Mini when it’s plugged in, and while the cord isn’t exactly in the way, it does make it feel less like a portable system. Sure you can use some kind of USB power bank on the go, but it still reminds me of trying to play the Game Boy with the AC adapter as a kid: a workable solution in a pinch, but one that never quite feels natural.
Also the ax in the Mini: the speaker. Normally this would be an unforgivable admission for a gaming system, but having played my fair share of games on the original system, I can tell you that sound design has never been a high priority for most Arduboy developers. Many games don’t have sound in the first place due to the limitations of the hardware, and those that do are generally little more than beeps and bumps.
That said, there are a few games, such as the phenomenal Arduventure (a game so good, a special edition Arduboy was released to commemorate it) that has music and sound effects good enough that you’ll miss them. There’s also a small collection of music-based games and utilities that obviously won’t be playable on the Mini. So while it’s admittedly far less of an issue than it would be with almost any other system, it still stings a bit.
Built to be hacked
That said, the astute reader may have noticed that there are pads on the back of the Arduboy Mini PCB for both the battery and the speaker – that’s because Kevin has decided to leave the addition as an exercise for the more advanced user. While the official position is that Mini does not need either of those things to be a compelling portable gaming device, he’s made sure the option is still there for those who want it.
But speakers and batteries are not the only things that can be connected to the Arduboy Mini. Although this prototype version does not have it, Kevin is currently working on a new version of the PCB that will have an I2C Qwiic connector.
While all the details have yet to be finalized at the time of writing, the idea is that this will allow additional hardware to be connected to the Mini without having to solder anything to the board, which will be a huge benefit for those who want it. to use the cheaper Mini in an educational setting, where the original hardware enjoys a significant following.
Personally, I love the idea. The original Arduboy was a great way to make teaching software development fun for younger students, and this new option can now bring hardware into the mix. It’s easy to imagine a school buying up a bunch of Arduboy Minis for their STEM classes and using them to easily communicate with off-the-shelf sensors and gadgets.
Finally, as you might expect given the fact that the Arduboy Mini is a bare PCB, there will naturally be many people looking to manufacture their own cases for the device. It will be interesting to see what kind of different cases develop over time, and to get the ball rolling, Kevin will provide STLs for a basic 3D printed case that can be modified however you like.
OK, but how is it to play?
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Sure there are all these cool little details about the new variant of the Arduboy hardware, but what you really want to know is what it’s like to play games on the thing.
To that end, I have to say that the standard Arduboy is more comfortable from an actual gaming standpoint. It is more comfortable in the hand, the screen is much larger, and although strictly speaking they are not necessary, I absolutely miss having the speaker and battery built in. If you’re looking for an Arduboy just because you want to play games, the existing FX model is almost certainly the better choice for you.
But if you’re interested in something you can tinker with, the Mini is undoubtedly the more exciting prospect. Customization has been woven into the Mini’s DNA, so whether you come up with a custom rear-mounted amplified sound system or simply spin up your own 3D-printed enclosure, you really have the ability to make the system your own. Then there are the possibilities offered by the proposed I2C interface, which is simply not an option on the original hardware.
Choose your own adventure
If you’re new to the Arduboy world and looking for the ideal gaming experience, the Arduboy FX just can’t be beat. It’s extremely portable, and with built-in storage for hundreds of games, you can take hours of entertainment with you wherever you go. It’s like returning to a bygone era of gaming, except in an alternate timeline that you actually have no memory of.
On the other hand, if you’re more into the hacking and development side of things, the Mini is a fantastic little gadget to mess around with. I can also see it being extremely popular with existing Arduboy owners, who already know which games lend themselves to the short-term pick-up-and-play style for which the smaller system is better suited.
Then again, when you can get both systems for less than $100 dollars total, who says you even have to choose? There are no in-app purchases, subscription fees or annoying ads. Just a community of amazing people making fun games and the best part is you can join them and create your own handheld masterpiece for free. Long live Arduboy.