How One Modder Builds Handheld Custom Consoles Through the Magic of Community and Self-Teaching

How One Modder Builds Handheld Custom Consoles Through the Magic of Community and Self-Teaching

For modder Chris Downing, making his own handheld consoles is even more fun than playing them.

Next time you have a few moments to stop and collect your thoughts, sit back and consider how valuable video games are as diverse learning tools. Games can ignite a person's interest in programming, or mathematics, or even art, writing, and music composition. The industry doesn't get near enough credit for the number of potential hobbies and careers a single console might inspire. Even the cold metal guts of a game system or a cartridge-based game might prompt a budding engineer to wonder, "How can I muck with this and shape it into something even cooler?"

Self-described "modest modder" Chris Downing taught himself how to modify and build game handhelds after performing some fateful repair work. While looking for online instructions on how to fix a loose N64 thumb stick, he stumbled on video of the "Darth 64," a sleek portable N64 by console modder Jonathan Wild. A light sparked in his mind, and he's since cobbled together some cool systems and enclosures with the help and support of the console modding community. He freely shares his creations and process on his YouTube channel and on his blog, Downing's Basement.

"I shudder to think what any real industrial or mechanical engineer with a formal education would think if they saw how some of these projects have been put together in the past," Downing tells me through an email interview. Despite his self-deprecating remark, most of his projects look good and function well.

If you're unsure what qualifies as a console mod, one of Downing's most recent creations, the SNES Box Go, might give you an idea. It's a handheld portable SNES that's powered by original hardware-specifically, the innards of the re-designed SNES released in 1997. The SNES Box Go doesn't have a cartridge slot, so it needs to load games from a flashcart, but the console's hardware isn't emulated. It's the real deal. Downing also designed an accompanying "breakout box" that allows for A/V output to a TV and a hookup for two-player game action. It's a cool piece of work that offers about 4.5 hours of battery life on a full charge, and it's all encased in a stylish shell (colored off-white in grand SNES tradition).

In addition to teaching himself how to engineer his own portable consoles, Downing had to teach himself how to design and 3D print cases that are functional and comfortable. "I didn't even get into 3D modeling until 2013 when it became necessary for a major project I had started," he says. "But I already had several years of portable making experience at that time and this was just the next step in advancing the portable-making process. As it stands now, it's the best skill I've learned."

It's easy to understand why learning how to design competent cases for portable systems would be a trial by fire. Nobody wants to hold an uncomfortable handheld for a long period of time-and if a handheld system can't adequately take your mind off the eight-hour flight you're stuck on, what's the point? "The balance between style and ergonomics of the shell is difficult. However, when you throw in designing for functionality as well, you've got a three-way power struggle with a very small 'sweet spot' where they all agree," Downing says.

Thankfully, big advancements in 3D printing across the past few years are making console modders' lives a little easier. "I'd say that five to six years ago, the thought process in building a case shell was based around the components you were able to acquire. Basically, now you can create your own components and then design your project around them. This single-handedly has been the biggest advancement in case design in the nearly 15-year existence of the hobby, and it's reflected in the quality of work that's come out in the past few years from the community."

In the end, console modding is all about community learning with a dash of wish fulfilment: Nintendo is almost certainly never going to release a portable SNES (the Game Boy Advance doesn't count despite its library of repurposed SNES games), especially one that utilizes original SNES hardware. That's primarily what drives fans to say, "Watch me do this" and take on the challenge for themselves.

Granted, making a little money on the side isn't objectionable. Downing does commissions for console mods, as well as commissions exclusively for cases. One of his most popular commissions is a case he built for a "portable Gamecube." It's a little less elegant than the SNES Box Go, demonstrating how far Downing come as a designer. It's still compact, functional, and quite cute.

Downing is also well-known for his portable N64 consoles, one of which was featured on the channel of popular YouTuber Max Mithzan. But his prototype of a console streaming device called The Cross Plane really generated some buzz, even if the Kickstarter for the project fizzled out at $20,000 USD of a requested $350,000 USD. "[The] Kickstarter had great intentions and a solid concept, but we just weren't far enough into the prototype development to make the idea really shine through," Downing says.

Interestingly, Downing doesn't play much in the way of modern handhelds. His family and full-time job limit the amount of time he has to work on his console mods, let alone leave any free time for gaming. "I have absolutely zero time for playing games if I'm working on a project," he says. "To be honest, the last 'new console' I bought was the PS2, and my most recent purchase on Steam was Doom 2016." His current project is another portable N64 he's making for the BitBuilt's summer 2019 contest.

But for Downing, the real fun of console modding isn't found in playing his creations. It's all about building systems, sharing, learning, and hoping newcomers are similarly inspired. When Downing started, he didn't have much beyond what he learned in his woodshop classes and some YouTube videos. "The amount of knowledge the community has gathered in the past years is what makes [console modding] possible at any skill level," he says.

If Downing was ultimately moved to enter the console modding community through the necessity of N64 controller repair, maybe we'll see a whole new generation of modders get inspired through Switch Joy-Con repair. Always look for that silver lining.

Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. See our terms & conditions.

Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve,, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

Read this next

Disco Elysium Review: The Voices in Your Head Are Real, and They'll Get You in Trouble

This unique RPG highlights everything that goes on inside our heads.

Little Town Hero Review: I Can't Be Your Hero Baby

Game Freak's bite-sized RPG carries a lot of charm, but also a lot of frustration and boredom.

Manifold Garden Launches This Friday After Seven Years of Development

The mind-warping puzzler is finally finished.

I Love to Hate Luigi Mansion 3's Toilet Rats

When Luigi's Mansion 3 invites you to sit down, you might want to refuse.

Blizzard Bans Collegiate Hearthstone Players for Six Months Over Protest Sign [Update]

American University's players have received some late judgment.

PUBG's Next Season Will Have Players Flinging Blades and Pans in a Refreshed Miramar

Season 5 will focus on improving PUBG's second map and adds a number of new features, including the ability to toss items and melee weapons.


Blizzard's Overwatch Team Says the Nintendo Switch Port Has Been "Eye-Opening"

Bringing the hero shooter to Switch took more than just a visual overhaul.

Monster of the Week: The Godfather of the Necromorph on Creating Dead Space's Famous Creature

Dead Space designer Ben Wanat tells us about the creation of the Necromorphs, one of last generation's most iconic monsters.

"How Big Is This Going to Get?“: The Future of Killer Queen And Its Console Counterpart

Talking with developers and a few members of Killer Queen's dedicated New York arcade scene about the new multiplayer spin-off.

Sobble's Popularity Surprised Game Freak, Plus More Interesting Facts About Pokemon Sword and Shield's Starters

Pokemon Sword and Shield's starters can't wait to meet you. Except Sobble. It's shy.

More on Nintendo 64

Why Doom 64's Switch Port Is a Big Deal

One way Doom 64 differs from the original is that it's never officially been ported.

Downhill Jam: The Game Industry Reflects on 20 Years of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater turns 20 in September, so we spoke to people across the industry who remember the series fondly.

Here's What Banjo and Kazooie Look Like in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker

Rare's iconic animal duo weren't originally native fauna on Outset Island, but a mod is changing that.

A New Nintendo 64 HD Adapter Lets You Play Classic Games Like Star Fox 64 on Modern TVs

The Super 64 gives your old Nintendo 64 a second chance.

The Best Resident Evil Games Ranked From Worst to Best

In this ranking of the best Resident Evil games, we decide which ones are Tyrant-grade and which ones are basic, brain-dead zombies.

Best Zelda Games Ranked Worst to Best

We rank the best Zelda games of all time with our definitive list covering more than a dozen consoles, including Breath of the Wild! What is the best Zelda game ever made?