Updated on February 6: I have updated this review after receiving a working GameShell from ClockworkPi. My original device had a broken component, and it caused all of my original issues. I have added new text and struckout old text that is no longer relevant. 

Ever since the Nintendo Switch came into my life, I’ve played a lot more games. You would think I was already playing them all the time due to my job. And sure, I played a lot. But I spend most days writing about them. And in the evening, I dislike hiding away on my PC in the office or taking over the television to make everyone watch me get frustrated with a race in Forza. The Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild made me realize that I am happy with handheld gaming. And now, all I can think about is getting more handheld devices to have access to games beyond the Nintendo eShop.

That’s where the GameShell from ClockworkPi comes in.

The GameShell is a do-it-yourself modular handheld kit that comes with everything you need to piece together your own portable console for $159 ($139 for students). ClockworkPi has built a Linux-based device that runs on a RetroPi-style micro computer. It comes with a screen, the buttons, a case, and everything elfffffffffffse you need to assemble your own Game Boy-style device. And you do have to assemble it yourself.

But is that process friendly, and what about the quality of the end product? Well, the GameShell has a lot to love.

What you’ll like

Easy to put together

The GameShell comes as a collection of plastic parts and circuit boards (PCBs) that you piece together. This process is painless. I would expect that most teenagers would have little trouble with the assembly. And even most younger children could probably get through it with some supervision.

You’ll just want to make sure that you are cautious when popping out the plastic parts and handling the PCBs. The only issues I had were with excess plastic around certain parts that I had to cut away using a tool. A razor blade and wire cutters are all you really need.

Above: Everything that comes with the GameShell.

Plugging it into and arranging it in the GameShell, however, doesn’t require any tools. You won’t find any screws or bolts. The PCBs and buttons snap into the plastic, and then the plastic parts connect together and hold everything into place.

And surprisingly, the result doesn’t feel cheap or like it’s going to fall apart.

Nice software

One of the best aspects of the GameShell is its operating system. It runs Clockwork OS, which includes emulators for GameBoy Advance and indie game CaveStory.

Above: The Clockwork OS.

Image Credit: ClockworkPi

The menus are swift and simple to navigate. And the system loads content relatively quickly. It also comes with RetroArch, which is a frontend for emulators. RetroArch makes it simple to add support for other platforms as long as you set up an internet connection.

It’s easy to add more apps to the GameShell. If you connect it to Wi-Fi, you can send files over your network from PC. This makes it easy to add other emulators or even your own software. The ClockworkPi website also has great forums with lots of tutorials on how to add specific apps that are easy to follow.

What you won’t like

The screen is underwhelming

After an extended test period with the GameShell, I’m really happy with it. But I would like a sharper screen. The one that comes with the device is OK, but the resolution is low at 320-by-240. Even on such a tiny screen, that resolution looks fuzzy. I would love to have the option to upgrade to 720p.

Beyond the resolution though, the screen does have a bit of ghosting. The LCD display clearly struggles to shift from light to dark and dark to light. And you will notice moving images leaving trails as the pixels try to keep up with the on-screen action.

The D-pad

My major problem with the GameShell is a big one: The D-pad is awful. It only registers a standard press occasionally. If I want to ensure that a D-pad button works, I have to press down with force.

The D-pad requires enough force that I find it uncomfortable to play almost anything. And even when I am pressing deliberately, it still won’t register every input. That is frustrating, and I’m not going to put my hands at risk of repetitive stress injury for that experience.

Now, I’ve reached out to ClockworkPi to see if I can figure this out. Other GameShell owners don’t seem like they are having this same problem. So I’m hoping we can figure out a solution. But the problem is that I assembled this device, so I don’t know if the problem is with the components or with the way I put them together.

I’ve tried removing any excess plastic and cleaning the contacts on the buttons. That seemed to improve things slightly, but not enough to fix the problem.

Conclusion

The GameShell is excellent. I originally told people to avoid this device because the D-pad was unresponsive. But I’m changing that to a full recommendation. ClockworkPi sent out a new unit that worked perfectly. I used that unit to figure out what was broken on the original device, and it turned out that it was a bad keypad board.

From looking around online, it doesn’t look like anyone else is having that issue. So you are likely safe to assume that you won’t run into it.

With working controls, the GameShell is a delightful way to play old games. The screen could be better, but it’s not going to ruin the experience. So if you’re looking for a solid device to act as your portable retro-gaming machine, the GameShell is going to deliver what you want.

At this point, I cannot recommend the GameShell. That will change if I can get the D-pad to work in a way that is acceptable. Right now, this handheld is unplayable for me. And that’s a shame because everything else is so nice.

I will stay on top of this and see if I can get it working. The good news is that since the GameShell is modular, I could perhaps pop in a replacement or completely upgraded control assembly. That gives me hope.

But at this point, I think you should avoid the GameShell unless you are interested in development.

The GameShell is out now starting at $139. ClockworkPi provided a sample unit to GamesBeat for the purpose of this review.