Gaming on the go

The Game Zip 64 is a breakout board that converts a micro:bit into a games console. Well, when we say games console, don’t expect to challenge the graphics on the latest PlayStation, or for that matter a Nintendo Entertainment System. Even our yellowed and ageing Commodore 64 can outdo the graphics powers of the Game Zip 64, but it is a little less portable. This is a games console stripped almost all the way back. For a display, it’s got an 8×8 grid of NeoPixels that you can control using six buttons. There’s also a buzzer and haptic controller for feedback. The only bits not included are three AA batteries to provide power, and the micro:bit that controls everything.

The NeoPixels can display any RGB colours, but the 8×8 grid doesn’t give much space for output. It’s just enough space for basic games – Snake and Pong are obvious examples, and it just so happens that these are the example games that are available for download. You can still use the LEDs on the micro:bit itself. These could be useful for displaying meta information, such as the current score or the number of lives remaining.

Get creative

The Game Zip isn’t for downloading other people’s games, though, it’s for creating your own. You can program it using either MakeCode (blocks for the specific hardware are available for download from the Kitronik website) or MicroPython. At the time of writing, only the latest beta version of MicroPython had support for the Game Zip, but that should filter through to the release version in time. Take a look at the Kitronik product page for the latest information.

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With this support in the main languages of the micro:bit, it’s easy for anyone with experience on this platform to get started writing games on the Game Zip. You do have to be able to think of your game in terms of a grid of pixels, rather than manipulate sprites as you might in other game development environments, but given that you’re limited to an 8×8 grid, everything stays quite simple.

Playing on the bare PCB does work, but there’s a bit of flex in the board, and it’s going to be vulnerable to knocks and spills if you use it as a portable games centre. Fortunately, Kitronik provides plans to a laser-cuttable enclosure that you can build to make your Game Zip tougher. We’d recommend doing this if you’re going to use it for anything more than light development. You can also laser-cut (or buy) matching cases for your micro:bit, to keep everything safe and sound.
You don’t have to limit yourself to just the hardware that’s included by default. Although this hardware takes up all the pins, it does break out the I2C bus, so you can hook up more hardware that understands this protocol. For example, this could include adding extra buttons for two-player games.
If you’re a teacher or working with young makers learning to code, there’s a series of lesson plans to help you get started. You can take a look at these on the Kitronik page, and see if they’ll fit in with the curriculum you’re working through.

back to basics

Simplicity can be both a blessing and a curse. As the display options are limited, this automatically simplifies the games that are possible, and without even the possibility of complex graphics, users can get started easily and focus on the programming rather than the graphics. However, such limited graphics can put people off. This controller certainly pushes the boundaries of how simple a games controller can be yet still be fun to create and play with.

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In our opinion, it’s too limited to have popular appeal and will only attract a niche audience. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing – what the Game Zip does well (portable games using a small grid of multi-coloured pixels), it does really well. It’s easy to get started and fun to play about with. For this price, it’s a great way to have a retro-style portable console, especially if you’re already familiar with the micro:bit.

The integration with MakeCode and MicroPython mean that you can be up-and-running really quickly. The example games give you a place to get started, and provide plenty of scope for adding extensions to play around with in other ways.

Kitronik £39.98 kitronik.com

Verdict

Limited graphics, but still scope for some great games.

8/10

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