Like any good hacker, Benjamin Heckendorn knows that the best way to pay homage to a beloved piece of gear—say, a classic Atari 2600—is to rip it apart and transform it into something else, preferably something portable, with wood grain. So when the sign shop he was working at got a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) milling machine—an industrial device that cuts three-dimensional parts from solid blocks of metal or plastic—he used it to craft a custom-designed handheld case from two 1-inch-thick slabs of acrylic. Then he stuffed in a 2.5-inch screen from a portable TV and the guts of an Atari 2600, which he´d chopped up and resoldered to make more compact. Powered by three AAs and a 9-volt, that first portable system came complete with a brightness switch, speakers, buttons from an old Nintendo controller, and the signature faux-wood-grain trim.

  • Dept: DIY
  • Tech: hand-built portable games
  • Cost: $150 to $400
  • Time: 18 hours
  • Difficulty: practical | | | | | popcorn (Editor’s note: 4/5)

Heckendorn, a part-time filmmaker and graphic artist, has since created several more portable Ataris, including one with a solid oak case, as well as portable PlayStations and Nintendos. Most of the newer systems run on rechargeable batteries and are more energy-efficient, thanks to active-matrix screens modified to be lit by white LEDs. As soon as Heckendorn finishes a system, he puts it up for sale on his site,, to pay rent and fund his films.

But why buy when you can build? Heckendorn has just written a how-to book, Hacking Video Game Consoles (Wiley, $30), with detailed instructions for eight different portables. And because few people have milling machines in their basements, half of the projects use hand-cut engraving plastic for the body, including the SNES system illustrated at left.

Peering into the SNES Portable

  • A. Power on/off slide switch
  • B. Directional pad and buttons, from original NES controller
  • C. Front plate of unit, cut from 1/16-inch textured gray engraving plastic and hand-painted
  • D. Stereo speakers taken from a PlayStation One console
  • E. Custom-built circuit boards with push-button tact switches under the controls
  • F. Five-inch screen from the PS One console modified to be illuminated with three white LEDs
  • G. Motherboard from the small-style Super Nintendo (circa 1997)
  • H. Rear plate of unit, also cut from engraving plastic
  • I. Game cartridge slot
  • J. Battery compartment cut from block of balsa wood
  • K. Six AA nickel-metal hydride rechargeable batteries, good for about three hours of playing time

This story has been updated. It was originally featured in the March 2005 issue of Popular Science magazine.