As much fun as the Nintendo Switch is, it’s not exactly the most portable or pocket-friendly device. There are much smaller alternatives out there, but the Thumby takes portability to another level with a tiny screen and even tinier controls on a handheld that looks no bigger than a postage stamp.
When we reviewed another tiny handheld gaming device earlier this year, the FunKey S, we walked away suitably impressed with the quality of the GBA SP clone’s 1.52-inch full-color folding screen and its basic controls that were small and cramped, but still very playable. We assumed that the FunKey S represented the absolute limits of how small a handheld could be, but the creators of the Thumby presumably took one look at the FunKey and wondered why it was so gigantic.
The Thumby looks a lot like the original Nintendo Game Boy, but one exposed to Wayne Szalinski’s shrink ray from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Even photos of it sitting atop the original Game Boy can’t prepare you for just how small the Thumby is when you first pick it up, and while its diminutive size means the impossibly tiny ‘Start’ and ‘Select’ buttons on it are just for show, it does include a fully-functional four-way directional pad, two action buttons, and a sliding power button on the top.
The control buttons are all very clicky, with a very audible ‘tick’ every time they’re pressed. But in this case, that’s a good thing because it’s just about the only way you know for sure that you’ve actually successfully pressed one of them with the tip of your finger given how little travel they all have. People with smaller hands might have an easier time with the Thumby, but my big mitts struggled to accurately and reliably use the directional pad. It was ‘playable’, but in the same way that standing at the very edge of an active volcano would be considered ‘safe.’ This isn’t a console for high-score seekers. It’s a novelty first and foremost, a demonstration that a handheld can be made this tiny and still technically work, but at no point are you going to truly enjoy gaming on it.
Handhelds like the FunKey S and the excellent Anbernic consoles provide gamers with access to thousands of games through their use of emulators that can play retro titles released years ago on older consoles. The Thumby instead takes an approach that’s more reminiscent of Kevin Bates’ Arduboy, where a color screen is replaced with a simple 1-bit black and white display, with custom games (often clones of popular titles) sourced from a community of devoted users and developers.
With the console itself measuring just 1.2-inches tall, the Thumby’s OLED display is roughly a third of that height, and it musters a resolution of just 72x40 pixels. Up close through a camera’s zoom lens it certainly looks pixelated, but to the naked eye the screen is so physically small it’s nearly impossible to see individual pixels.
Developers have a little over 2,000 on-screen pixels in total to play with. That might sound like a lot, but in reality, it will force them to become very clever and creative with their game’s graphics. Out of the box the Thumby will include five games to enjoy/attempt to play including TinyTris, a Nokia-esque growing snake game called TinyAnnelid, a dungeon crawler named TinyDelver, TinySaur Run, and RFSD (short for Royalty Free Space Debris) which is a space shooter similar to Asteroids which you can see being played in the GIF below.
There’s no denying the Thumby’s graphics are about as basic as video games can get (despite the handheld being powered by a very capable Raspberry Pi RP2040 processor) but that lo-fi aesthetic will presumably be another part of its charm. Users can also easily develop their own games for the system by simply plugging it into a computer with a microUSB cable and opening a specific website where they can code and edit the Python files directly on the Thumby. If you’ve ever been itching to learn to code, this could be a fun place to start as the limits of the hardware means simpler games are actually the best approach.
A paltry 40mAh lithium-polymer battery still manages to provide enough power for about two hours of gaming on the Thumby, while 2MB of storage should actually provide more than enough room for a decent number of games. The handheld can be charged using the microUSB port on the bottom, but the port also facilitates multiplayer gaming when using an optional Thumby to Thumby link cable. That option wasn’t quite ready for me to test out just yet, which is unfortunate, because multiplayer Tetris is still one of my favorite Game Boy experiences.
TinyCircuits is going the crowdfunding route to bring Thumby to gamers (with excellent eyesight) through a Kickstarter campaign that is launching today. The first 50 ‘early bird’ backers of the campaign can score a Thumby for just $9, with delivery in November. For everyone else, the price will be $19, with delivery expected sometime in 2022 as a result of the global semiconductor shortages. Higher (more expensive) tiers will also be available, with Thumbys in different colors and one that includes additional accessories, like the multiplayer link cable.
The usual risks with crowdfunded products still apply here, especially during an ongoing pandemic that has thrown supply chains and shipping into chaos, but this is far from being the first product TinyCircuits has produced and sold, and the company’s being very upfront about delays for anyone who orders one after the first 50 are claimed. Besides, you’re getting a fully functioning handheld gaming system for just $19. It’s no Switch, but it delivers exactly what TinyCircuits is promising: video games stored on your keychain for extreme emergencies where you have no other way to keep yourself entertained.