8-bit Pipeline City
When it comes to anything artisan, the unboxing experience is as important as any other aspect of the product. After all, this is your first impression of a product you paid lots for based on word of mouth and some online photos. So I was curious about what it will be here, especially since I am a sucker for cool unboxing experiences. Jelly Key clearly cares about every single aspect of the product, so much so that there are multiple blog posts devoted to packaging updates. The latest one from last year talks about a more environmentally friendly tweak with the move from Styrofoam to solid paper boxes as seen above. The paper is also made from recyclable materials and has the Jelly Key logo on front. A list of contents has been put inside, on the side, along with a seal with contact information. Opening the packaging reveals the actual product box.
The product box is held in place by a shaped compartment in the solid paper packaging, and then we get wood with no innuendo (unless this gets you very excited, of course). Everything was designed, prototyped, and manufactured to work for Jelly Key's needs. There are three box sizes to fit a single 1u keycap (round box), slightly longer keycaps or two 1u keycaps (also called Enter box), and then an even larger box we will see on the next page. This is the Enter box, so expect to see a slightly longer keycap, too. With the rounded smooth finish to the wood, the box nicely fits into my hands, and there is also a hand-applied seal to.. seal the deal. A marketing tagline is etched into the back, but I suspect most won't even get there before they open the box.
The box opens up like a luxury chocolate gift box, which it might as well given the whole luxury market this operates in. There is a foam lining on the lid, with the actual keycap inside a thicker foam piece with a cutout to snugly host the product. If you order two 1u keycaps, they will ship together in the same box, but of course with a different foam piece with a divider in between.
We finally get to what you are here for! I mentioned before how a Jelly Key keycap in 2021 is pretty much only available from group buys, but that is a white lie. There are some one-off designs that can be purchased directly, as well as some other promotional keycaps the company makes for marketing purposes or giveaways only. Some online vendors also purchase keycaps from Jelly Key and then list them for sale on their store, which is not much different from individuals buying directly from the company.
This is why Jelly Key was not even sure what to send my way, and had to see what was available to begin with. The first keycap, which is also seen above, is from an older group buy for the so-called 8-bit series 1: Pipeline City. It draws inspiration from 8-bit games, and I have the 2u row 3 keycap (Backspace) under the "Mad Artisan's Red Keep" design. Jelly Key has written a nice tale about Orion and his travels through Pipeline City, published on the product page, but let's cut to the chase—it clearly is based on the Nintendo IP involving everyone's favorite plumber. The various designs are color swaps mostly, but unique designs do go from one size to another, making for a lot of combinations to make and keep track of. This particular one uses the SA profile, which also keeps it unique in a sea of OEM keycaps by touch, just in case you didn't keep looking at it often.
So how is it made? As with anything resin, it begins with casting a mold for the base as well as the keycap frame. The base is the simpler part to cast, but it is the core inside that takes forever on more complicated designs such as this. The green grass and red lava spaces, the purple bricks and brown earth, the trees and red bricks above, stars and coins in yellow, a piranha plant poking through a warp pipe, and a random square-shaped Boo to keep things scary. Everything is detailed by hand in the mold before they are all colored individually again for contrast. This is a layer-by-layer approach that finally culminates in the core being applied to the base. The frame is then cast, filled with clear resin, and then sanded and polished to get the final product.
The base in question is where things tie back to compatibility with the Cherry MX stem, and we see a Jelly Key logo in the honeycomb mesh design, too. There is a metal badge applique here, which will have a unique serial number for retail units, and the retail packaging also includes a dog tag medal with the same serial number on it as a keepsake. The 8-bit Pipeline City keycaps are all sold out now, so your best bet at one of these is, again, on the second-hand market.
I chose the Anne Pro 2 to demonstrate the keycap for two reasons. It is a white keyboard that is extremely clean in design, thus allowing the keycap to take center stage. Secondly, the 60% form factor results in the backspace key at the top-right corner of the keyboard, which makes the keycap even more of a focal point when installed. The keycap adheres to the required 2u spacing bounds, and the crosspoint MX stem compatibility is on point, too. The SA profile does give it a taller aspect ratio than the other OEM profile keycaps here, so having it in the corner is a secret third reason for this keyboard. It looks amazing, if I say so myself, with the resin clear enough to where there is something to appreciate no matter the viewing angle.
I am in the enviable position of having access to lots of neat toys, including the environmental hotbox and anechoic chamber used in all the DIY watercooling reviews. I recently got my hands on the highest of high-end digital microscopes, so of course, I had to examine the keycap in more detail. Now, that microscope arguably is all sorts of overkill for what is still a relative large item, and I barely went with the smallest magnification (20x at a working distance of ~3 cm). Even so, it provides a closer look at the handicraft, and we see more details, and minor flaws, too. For example, there are trapped air bubbles from the resin pour which are otherwise extremely hard to see with the naked eye. The appliques are also not all consistently applied, including with minor alignment issues. The etching on the metal badge also looks ugly, with telltale laser etch signs. But then we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, which shows how many detailed layers there are here, and the rich colors provided by the layered approach. The resin finish is also why we can see all these details and flaws, so that is a job well done. Finally, we see the keycap is a whopping 2.03 mm in wall thickness to accommodate a wider base that supports the core. This is more than twice as thick as the average mainstream ABS keycap, and about a third thicker than custom PBT keycaps.