Handcrafted handhelds

Benjamin Heckendorn turns old-school game consoles into custom-designed portable units. Now you can too.
The pieces of an SNES portable, chopped up to run an Atari 2600. Diagram.
Match the letters here to those in the story below to see which parts are which. McKibillo

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, benheck.com, 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.