Game consoles that respect your freedom

This article is a list of so called "open source" handheld gaming devices. They will be judged by the following criteria:

  1. Free OS: All of the software that ships with the system is free software.
  2. Free repo: Non-free software is not promoted within the OS. This means any software center, app store, or repo preinstalled on the system should contain only free software. Not applicable if the device doesn't have this feature.
  3. Free games: There are many freedom-respecting games available for the system. This is considered separately from whether the repo is free.

In my search, I discovered that there are a frustrating number of proprietary systems on the market that claim to be "open source" when they are clearly not. In this article I'll list some of the popular devices and determine whether they live up to the name or fall short. Spoiler alert: most of them don't.

TV consoles

This article will focus on handhelds since "open source" TV consoles are pretty sparse. But to touch on TV consoles briefly:

  • The Ouya and its proprietary blobs come to mind.
  • I did find the Fuzebox which appears to be fully free, but you have to source the parts yourself and build it. I couldn't find any games for it, though. Nevertheless, it gets an honorable mention.

On to the list!

GCW Zero

Link: http://www.gcw-zero.com/

GCW Zero

An Open Source Gaming Console Built by Gamers for Gamers...
—[Source]

Free OS Free repo Free games
No n/a Yes

The GCW Zero is the first thing that comes up when I do a web search for "open source handheld." Unfortunately it contradicts itself on its own website.

[...] all the games you'll see in this video are Open Source, and are running right now.
—[Source]

Are any of the games shown in the Kickstarter video commercial or closed source?
Yes. Two games presented in the video are not open-source. Sqrxz3 is a closed-source freeware title, while Unnamed Monkey Game (UMG) is a commercial closed-source game. Other games featured in the video might require commercial data files (ie. Duke Nukem 3D), but the game engine to them is open-source
—[Source]

The system apparently ships with a plethora of non-free programs. There are a lot of games for the platform, but many are unlicensed or proprietary. Still, a decent number of free games do exist, but it could take digging to find them.

If the non-free software is removed and libre games are carefully chosen and installed, this could theoretically make an inconvenient libre handheld. Unfortunately I couldn't find any information about whether the device contains binary blobs, so it's likely safer to avoid it until we get that answer.

Pandora

Link: https://pyra-handheld.com/boards/pages/pandora/

Pandora

Open OS & Active Community Forums
Choose from a quick-launch, ultra minimalist OS, a fully-featured XFCE desktop environment with window management, multi-tasking and everything you would expect from a full linux laptop.
—[Source]

Free OS Free repo Free games
No No Yes

The original "open source" handheld, Pandora, was a revolutionary GNU/Linux device with a DS-like clamshell design. Apart from being obscenely expensive, unavailable, and outdated, the OS contains many non-free blobs and the repo contains troves of non-free games. To be clear, this is the repo preinstalled on the system. Many of the games are proprietary or unlicensed. Even commercial games like VVVVVV are in the repo. It seems the developers didn't care about freedom at all, which I am very confused by since this platform was supposed to be a departure from traditional gaming systems. They also don't seem to want to fix these issues.

In its defense, it does have a decent collection of libre games in its repo. Many of these games are unavailable in Ubuntu-based distros (like Trisquel) without compiling from source or fiddling around. I wish it were easier to tell the libre games apart from the non-free ones, but the repo has no quality control in that respect.

Regardless, I suggest avoiding this device because of the proprietary blobs.

PocketSprite

Link: https://pocketsprite.com/

PocketSprite

The PocketSprite is too good to keep to ourselves: everything we’ve done is open source and will be posted in our GitHub repositories.
—[Source]

Free OS Free repo Free games
No n/a No

NOTE: The PocketSprite hasn't been released yet. This is based on the information we currently have, but this is certainly subject to change once the device is released.

It's unclear what OS the PocketSprite runs, but it must be non-free because it's nowhere to be found. Their GitHub org is sparse and contains only the modified emulators they've made for the system. It's possible they'll release more code later, but the fact they haven't yet is concerning. I couldn't find whether the device uses non-free blobs, but the system has Bluetooth and WiFi which commonly require proprietary blobs.

Since we don't know much about the OS, we also don't know what games can be run outside of emulation. This device says it emulates Nintendo and SEGA consoles, so the majority of games would be proprietary ROM files. While some free games do exist in those formats, the majority are demos and not real games, so I've ruled that out.

In its defense, the system supposedly comes pre-loaded with Open Source ROMs, but they encourage users to replace them with proprietary ones:

When you’re tired of the pre-loaded open source games, uploading a new ROM is literally a one-click process.
—[Source]

Arduboy

Link: https://arduboy.com/

Arduboy

Arduboy is a miniature 8-bit game platform that makes it easy to learn, share and play open source games online. Make a game and carry it in your pocket!
—[Source]

Free OS Free repo Free games
Yes n/a Yes

The closest I've been able to find to what I want is the Arduboy. It's basically an Arduino with buttons on it. The Arduino requires no non-free software and it's an open hardware design. Nearly all the games are source-available, but many of them are unlicensed.

Still, there are a ton of original games licensed under GPL and MIT available for this platform. There's an uncurated list of 200+ community-made games, and a nice curated list of 150+ games. You'll still have to check the license for each game.

This system seems like the best bet for a gaming platform that respects the user's freedom. It's biggest downside is that it's not very powerful. It can only have one game loaded on at a time, and its limited RAM makes complex games hard to build. That said, there are some gems like Arduventure, an MIT-licensed RPG featuring a larger map than Link's Awakening. TEAM a.r.g., an Arduino development group, have released some fantastic games for the system, all libre. I recommend it.

PocketCHIP

Link: https://getchip.com/pages/pocketchip

PocketCHIP

Is CHIP open source? Where are the docs?
YES! Very open source! We are still in the process of testing and refining the whole C.H.I.P. family. As we hit design completion, we’ll release our design files. We’ve already released quite a bit! Check them out at our GitHub repo!
—[Source]

Free OS Free repo Free games
No n/a No

The PocketCHIP looks like a very promising device at first, but unfortunately it ships with non-free blobs. In particular, the WiFi chip and GPU seem to need them. The WiFi blob can be removed and a libre USB WiFi adapter can be added, but it's unclear if workarounds exist for the other blobs.

Also, the games demonstrated in the videos are all proprietary. For one, they run on a proprietary software platform called PICO-8. PICO-8 is sort of like an emulator for a pretend console. People make PICO-8 games and then play them in the PICO-8 software. The games themselves are all source-available (because the PICO-8 platform requires it), but I couldn't find a single game with a license. I did find a free reimplementation of PICO-8 called picolove, but it's barely worth considering when all the PICO-8 games themselves are also proprietary.

This one seems worth skipping. I'm really surprised by their supposed commitment to Open Source contrasted by the reality of this device.

FEZ Game-O

Link: http://old.ghielectronics.com/catalog/product/448

Fez Game-O

Free OS Free repo Free games
Unknown n/a No

Open-source programmable hand-held console, FEZ Game-O
—[Source]

This product seems dead. There's very little information on it available, nor is there an active community. It seems like more of a development tool than a real console, so there are also no games I could find for it either. I can't determine if the system is fully free due to the lack of information.

GameShell

Link: https://www.clockworkpi.com/

GameShell

Free OS Free repo Free games
No Unknown Yes

Open Source Retro Gaming & STEM Portable Console
—[Source]

This device, like many others, looks pretty promising, especially with the picture of the penguin on the screen. The system runs GNU/Linux (ARM) so any games on that platform should work. It's unclear whether the included repos will be free, although the Raspberry Pi's repos aren't free.

Unfortunately the included Clockwork Pi requires proprietary blobs for the AP6212 Bluetooth/WiFi chip. The real Raspberry Pi requires non-free software just to boot into the OS, so if this board is based on it, that might be a requirement for it, too. I suggest avoiding it.

Conclusion

Video games are the number one thing free software advocates compromise on. It's understandable when many of us have grown up forming deep emotional connections to proprietary games. It makes it even harder when games are a social experience that help us connect with other people.

Still, another way is possible, and we should do whatever we can to achieve that vision. Fortunately there are a number of initiatives to bring libre gaming to the masses. For instance, Libre Game Night is an open group where people play libre games online together each week.

The majority of the devices in this list came about from crowdfunding campaigns. It seems clear that people want Open Source devices, but all except the Arduboy have failed to deliver. It goes without saying that most of these devices are better than mainstream ones like the 3DS in terms of freedom, but these manufacturers have put convenience above freedom and deceived the public into believing their products have the moral high-ground when they don't.

Device Free OS Free repo Free games
GCW Zero No n/a Yes
Pandora No No Yes
PocketSprite No n/a No
Arduboy Yes n/a Yes
PocketCHIP No n/a No
PEZ Game-O ?
n/a No
GameShell No ? Yes

Don't give in to these phony exploiters (sans Arduboy). The environmental impact of manufacturing these restrictive products makes them an utterly senseless waste. FLOSS gamers may feel tempted to compromise, as they often do with games, but unless we start getting stricter and demanding what we really want we'll never get it.

Game consoles that respect your freedom
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