Written by Damien McFerran
We don't mind admitting that we're absolute suckers for handhelds here at Nintendo Life, so it's hardly surprising that the GameShell caught our attention late last year. Described as a hackable open-source console, it raised $290,429 on Kickstarterand is now reaching the hands of backers. We were lucky enough to get an early unit and have spent the past week fiddling around with this intriguing device.
Much was made of GameShell's modular setup in the initial Kickstarter pitch, but that still won't prepare you for when you actually open the packaging; "some assembly required" is an understatement. Almost everything has to be put together by the end user, and it's quite a fiddly process, especially when you think you're done but then find one of the wires isn't quite in properly and you have to take it all apart again.
Once that's out of the way, you can get stuck into actually playing with the thing. The console runs on an open-source GNU/Linux OS that supports programming languages such as Preset C, Python, LUA and LISP, which – we're sad to admit – means little to us because we can barely program a washing machine, let alone a computer. Still, even if you're in no way inclined to code, the potential of this tiny device is staggering. Out of the box, it features support for MAME, Game Boy Advance and NES titles, as well as Cave Story and an open-source iteration of the original DOOM (both of which come pre-loaded). It also comes with support for Retroarch, a popular multi-system retro gaming emulator, so the sky really is the limit here.
Performance is generally good, although we noticed that the audio is slightly delayed on MAME and GBA games, and there's a bit of screen-tearing at points. Cave Story runs perfectly though, and it's vital to remember that as the OS and software matures, we'll see these little kinks disappear. We'll also see loads of apps and emulators spring up, as the whole thing is marketed as hackable and customizable – it's clear that the developers behind this project want the community to make it grow and evolve over time.
Even the modular element of the GameShell is smart and forward-thinking; in the future, you'll be able to swap out parts for better ones. The 2.7-inch LCD screen does the job, but it has poor viewing angles and a relatively low 320x240 resolution – so being able to change it in the future for a better screen without having to fork out the cash for a whole new system is a real bonus. The same can be said for the motherboard (which could be supplanted by a more powerful one in the future) and the 1050mAh battery. Storage comes via MicroSD cards, with an 8GB one coming in the box.
Speaking of storage, the inclusion of an app called TinyCloud means you can connect to other computers on the same WiFi network and share files that way, avoiding the need to remove the MicroSD card every time you want to load up some new software - a wonderfully elegant system. Slightly less elegant is the controller module, which, when fully assembled, has a D-Pad, four action buttons and four function buttons (Menu, Shift, Select and Start). Control is generally good but the rather ramshackle assembly (the pad and buttons simply slot onto the rubber membrane and are only held in place by the front casing) means it feels a little off during use. However, as we've already said, the modular nature of the system means that improved controls are an option in the future.
All in all, the GameShell is a fascinating example of how modern technology is changing the face of portable gaming. Very much like the Pocket C.H.I.P., it reminds us of how disruptive the original Game Boy was back in 1989; a small yet potent portable that, despite its crude nature when compared to other consoles, ended up triggering a handheld revolution. GameShell certainly has enough charm to perform the same trick on a smaller scale, and its modular nature and hacking potential could give it impressive longevity.