The original Arduboy made headlines as a credit card-sized handheld you could keep tucked away in your wallet for gaming emergencies, but it was also a great way to get started coding through the Arduino platform. The Arduboy Mini offers the same experience—8-bit gaming and portability—in an even smaller device. It’s also full guts out, so it encourages hardware hacking, too. Its creator is bringing it to consumers next year through a Kickstarter campaign, but we got some hands on time with an early sample of the hardware.
If you’re not familiar with the Arduboy, it’s a Game Boy like handheld console born from a Tetris-playing business card created by Kevin Bates to show off his hardware hacking skills. It didn’t land Bates a job, but the online reaction to his creation encouraged him to take the idea further, eventually turning it into the Arduino-based Arduboy, which currently has hundreds of 8-bit games available for it, all free, courtesy of an ever-growing developer community. If you’re looking for a starting point to get into game development that doesn’t involve going back to school, the Arduboy’s a great alternative.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when the Arduboy Mini was first announced, but the hardware is a lot smaller than I expected it to be. Put a couple of quarters side by side on a table, and that’s more or less the Mini’s footprint.
The original Arduboy was already a satisfyingly small and thin handheld for gamers prioritizing portability, but the Mini shrinks it down to as small as a device like this can possibly get while still being playable... mostly... we’ll get to that later. However, while the Arduboy Mini is easily half the size of the original version, its screen didn’t actually shrink that much, so you won’t need a microscope to use it.
For those now accustomed to the high-res screens on portables like the Nintendo Switch or the Valve Steam Deck, the Arduboy Mini’s 128x64-pixel OLED screen might seem like a step back, but it’s actually a big part of the handheld’s charm. Unlike even the original Game Boy, which could display four shades of gray, the Arduboy Mini is monochromatic—just black and white—but that helps streamline and simplify game development, while encouraging creativity to push what the screen can actually display.
I’ve been comparing the Arduboy Mini to its predecessors (the original Arduboy was followed by the Arduboy FX, which introduced more memory and an updated front-end allowing the handheld to be loaded with over 200 games) but a more apt comparison might be to the original Arduboy Development Kit, since it also lacked a plastic case and finished buttons. Like the ADK, the Arduboy Mini is built on an exposed circuit board that encourages users to not only tinker with the code, but the hardware as well.
Bates is positioning the new Arduboy Mini as a version of the device geared towards schools as a STEM learning tool. To help encourage hardware hacking (and to keep shipping costs down), the Mini comes without a speaker or a battery. Flip the handheld over and you’ll find the solder contacts you’ll need to add both of those components yourself exposed and labelled, with the circuitry needed to facilitate a battery that can be recharged through the device’s USB-C port already baked right in.
As such, as wonderfully tiny as the Arduboy Mini might be, it might not be the best choice for those who just want to dive into the platform’s collection of hundreds of 8-bit games. I’ve been testing the Mini and enjoying its included library of over 300 games while staying tethered to an Anker battery pack that absolutely dwarfs the device, almost comically so. If you’ve never picked up a soldering iron, and never want to, the Arduboy FX is definitely a better option.
The Arduboy Mini might also not be the platform of choice for high score chasers. On the front, it uses four buttons laid out like a directional pad, plus two others that serve as action buttons. (As well as a seventh smaller button on the back for quickly resetting the device.)
They’re useable, but the buttons have a lot of travel and require more force than I was expecting to register a press, and that can make action gaming a little challenging, particularly on a device this small. I definitely prefer the buttons on the larger Arduboy, which are softer and have less travel, but I also understand that when you’re building a handheld this small, there are sometimes compromises that have to be made with the components you can use.
At the time of writing, there are still 13 days left in the Arduboy Mini’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign (it has already surpassed its $10,000 funding goal), just in case you were hoping to get in on the initial production run that’s expected to ship out to backers in June of next year. If you’re already a big fan of the original Arduboy, you’ve probably already backed this one. But if you’re new to the platform and are mostly interested in it for some nostalgic retro gaming action, you might actually be better served with the older Arduboy FX. It’s easier to play, and comes with sound and a battery already included.
The Arduboy Mini’s real appeal lies not with its size, but its potential. I have long been interested in trying my hands at electronics and expanding my coding capabilities, but simply sitting down with an Arduino board in one hand, a soldering iron in the other, and a ‘hardware hacking 101' tutorial on my laptop has never appealed to me. I need a more defined end goal—like making a video game—and I imagine I’m not the only one. The Arduboy Mini is a clever trojan horse for getting kids interested in coding and electronics, and for $24 (when purchased in a 10-pack), I hope it will be embraced as a fun educational tool.