Gamebuino - the Pico 8 hardware device I always wanted

November 17, 2017

A mini computer called "Pocket C.H.I.P." was released, which kinda fell flat on it's face - the company quickly stopped supporting it properly, and it never really was what it probably looks like in the trailer - the physical handheld version of the virtual "Pico-8 fantasy console", an adorable but very well designed retro computer with a great retro colour scheme and sound hardware - which doesn't actually exist outside of the "Pico 8" program that you run on your regular desktop computer.  This is a "fake" computer that only exists in software - but it would be super-cute if there was a physical version of it.


The biggest letdown of the Pocket C.H.I.P. is not that the hardware is essentially a lame copycat of the Rasberry Pi hardware, but the hardware is very unfinished, it's effectively unusable until you 3D print some sort of keyboard, particularly a D-Pad - otherwise you have 4 difficult to press, separate metal buttons - good luck pressing UP+LEFT with one hand, let alone one thumb... Oh, and it doesn't come with speakers - you have to purchase and solder them up yourself - oh you can't solder them directly, you actually also need to purchase a small amplifier circuit too.  No I'm not joking.  It's only $5 but you have to basically finish creating the rest of the thing after you've already paid for it.  It's pretty disappointing.


And on top of that, it's essentially a PC on a chip - not actual Pico 8 hardware, so it has to boot Linux for half a minute when you turn it on, before you can even run the Pico 8 software.  The whole experience is very frustrating.


But the Gamebuino looks like the "Pico 8" style hardware device that I wanted.  

Gamebuino META Kickstarter

Gamebuino META official site


Conceptually, you'd think the smartphone is enough - you can run emulators and other games etc.  But it's still not as convenient as a dedicated piece of hardware. 


One big aspect is "battery life".  Games and emulators kill the battery on a smartphone because they're very CPU intensive - and you don't want to flatten it because you need your phone for other things, like reminders and messages.  Whereas the low-end dedicated hardware in the Gamebuino runs 8 hours straight of gaming on a very small battery.


What about the Rasberry Pi? It's still a fully fledged computer, which has a boot sequence of about 30 seconds.  (Compared to the SNES Mini, which is 5 seconds - that's the difference with a dedicated peice of hardware). Also the Pi requires a huge battery for a decent usage.  Look at the "portable Pi" mockups, they're the size of tablets, and you won't get a huge amount of play time out of it.  The Gamebuino on the other hand, has a relatively small battery, and can last around 8 hours of constant play time.


The Rasberry Pi was always designed to be a fully fledged computer, that you can run a traditional looking operating system on and traditional software programs, it can compete with your laptops or desktops.  This is not an optimal situation for an on-the-go gaming device, since it's very power hungry and potentially bulky, and more expensive.


Pico 8 inspires us with the kind of low end dedicated hardware games that we could make for low end dedicated gaming hardware.  But in reality it's just an emulator with made up hardware restrictions that aren't based on any real-world electronic components.  If we were to attempt to design a physical version of the Pico 8, it would have to be custom built from the ground up, rather than from components (like every game hardware has been, to keep the cost down) and as a result, would be very, very expensive.


The Arduino on the other hand, is a much simpler computer than the Rasberry Pi.  It was originally designed to be programmed directly, not run an operating system as we know it.  It's for small electronic projects, making AI for little robots or reading a light sensor to turn a motor that automatically shuts your blinds on your window, that sort of thing.  It's evolved a little bit though, you can now drive a colour screen and output sound.  But you're still programming very close to the hardware, almost in assembly.  I'd say "game engines" will be made, or have been made already, to make creating games easier.


So the Arduino is a good basis for a Pico-8 style portable retro gaming computer. And look at the specs - it's got Pico 8's 16 colour limitation, which is great.  But it doesn't have its storage restrictions, so your levels can be as big as you want.  I remember confirming this with the creator of the Gamebuino a year ago when this project first caught my interest, back in 2014 when it was in black & white.


This new one, Gamebuino META, has colour and sound.  It's only just been released and I'm never on to jump immediately on purchases for anything, on principal (especially now when I'm trying to go into business for myself) but I would like one of these very much.  €79 ($122 AU!) seems a bit steep right now, but maybe the price will drop.  Once it's been out for a while and there are more games for it (proving it is what it seems to be) I'll get it - even if the price hasn't dropped.  But in an ideal world, something like this would catch on and be mass produced to be really cheap.

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