Look, I’m a pretty stubborn and obsessive guy when it comes to my classic console games. Whenever someone recommends something to me, I go out of my way to try to find both the original release and the machine to play it on. When I see an old CRT television set dumped onto the sidewalk for garbage pickup, I slam the brakes and toss it into the backseat of the car so I can add it to my pile of backup gaming tubes. When all of my classic consoles are hooked up at once, I’m left with a jumbled system selector matrix that requires a “selection button” code sheet just to turn on a specific machine.
From one perspective on classic gaming, I’m a passionate guy. From another angle, I am fucking insane.
This obsession has also had the side effect of fine tuning my retro-snobbery. Like an audiophile that obsesses over his vacuum tube amplifier to play his miniature warehouse of vinyl records, being handed an iPod: I have scowled and turned my nose up when shown the previous versions of the Retron hardware, which emulates classic consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Genesis.
The thing is, being close-minded is a horrible trait to have, especially as a game-industry writer. The retro-elitist in me may have a knee that is prone to violently jerking toward instant and unwarranted rejection of something like the Retron 5, but one reality-check later, I realize that embracing that sort of pomp only impresses posers at best, and makes me an awkward dick to hang around at worst.
So I took GamesBeat’s Retron 5, stuck it in a brown paper bag, and snuck it home. Can this console break my obsessive prejudices against clone hardware?
The anti-hoarder console
When it comes to hardware, retro gaming is a logistical pain in the ass. The average Ikea entertainment center becomes a battleground in a war for real estate, where the participants are obsolete consoles with an appalling sense of practical aesthetic design. For a good example, ask anyone that wants to play a Sega CD 32X game to take a picture of the evil monstrosity that makes that capable.
You also have to hogtie the spaghetti monster of tangled power and video cords, which all have their own special little design quirks as well. Since every manufacturer has their own philosophy on how far away someone should sit from the console, the varying lengths of controller wires also need to be considered, which can dictate where you physically locate a machine.
The Retron 5 nullified these set up headaches for nine classic consoles. It officially covers the Famicom, Super Famicom, Super NES, Sega Genesis, Sega Mega Drive, GameBoy, GameBoy Color, GameBoy Advance, and Sega Master System (through the SMS adapter for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive).
The pickiest retro gamer will point out that the number of consoles could be, technically, cut down to six with region adapters and add-ons. If you want to look at the situation that way, the Retron is still six machines’ worth of dangling cords and awkwardly shaped contraptions squashed together into one convenient unit.
The taboo of emulation
The Retron 5 is not supporting all nine of these consoles through some hardware design automagic. It uses a form of software emulation. I’m not completely in-the-know on how the Retron 5 is handling this, but it is definitely dumping at least some, if not all, of the contents of the cartridge into memory.
Removing the cartridge from the console (which grips onto the cartridge for dear life) in midplay will freeze the game and cause the Retron 5 to complain. I have a feeling this feature is more as a form of security for IP owners, ensuring that the machine is not just another gray-market ROM dump product and that people actually own the games they are playing. I bet it’s less about console using the cartridge during gameplay.
The insanely hardcore player base will find the emulation concept of the Retron 5 blasphemous, which is not necessarily coming from a place of loony eccentricity. Accuracy is a problem that has plagued video game emulation since its inception. No one wants to pop in Super Mario Bros. for the NES just to have the action lag in an unnatural spot or to have the graphics glitch out in weird areas.
It will be unfortunate, however, if the hardcore shun this unit just based off of emulation’s bad reputation. In my testing so far, I have not run into any glaring accuracy problems with some of the more popular, normal cartridge releases. Normal, in this case, pertains to the majority of games in a single library that uses the average cartridge type — the sort of titles that did not use any special chips or funky hardware add-ons to help run the game.
For shits-‘n’-giggles, however, I decided to also toss a handful of specialized and weird cartridges at the Retron 5 to see what would happen.
For example, Sonic and Knuckles for the Sega Genesis ran fine as a standalone game, but it would not recognize the game’s “lock on technology,” aka piggy-backing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or 3 on the special cartridge slot on top of Sonic and Knuckles in order to receive additional content.
I also tried tossing a Sega Genesis version of the XBAND at it, which is a ’90s era modem for one of the first console online gaming services. The Retron 5 did not even try to recognize that thing.
Next, I tried two different versions of the Game Genie (NES and GameBoy), which the console did not recognize at all. Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hands for the GameBoy Advance booted up, but it had a conniption and froze when it came time to use the UV sensor.
I had some shaky, yet more successful, results with some bootleg Famicom, NES, and GameBoy games that I have confirmed working in other consoles. It was hit-or-miss, but let’s give the Retron 5 the benefit of the doubt here. Bootleg cartridges aren’t known for their reliability.
I had greater success with a couple of reproduction NES carts I had laying around, specifically Recca Pure and Sweet Home. The Retron 5 didn’t officially recognize them, but it still happily dumped the games into memory and allowed me to try playing anyways (which worked just fine). StarFox for the Super NES, a cartridge that used the Super FX chip to compliment the Super NES hardware in order to render 3D polygons, worked just fine.
I realize that some of my experiments are ridiculous. No one is going to be seriously trying to play on the XBAND service in 2014, but it’s worth noting for the completist out there that is going to want to try out some of the fringe stuff.
Helpful save states and vanishing game saves
Compatibility for out-of-the-norm cartridges may be shaky, but the Retron 5 has some nice pros associated with its the emulation route. Save states, for example, is a concept born from emulation and are incredibly useful for people who do not have the tolerance for the anti-save spot, “man up, kid” mentality of the 8-bit and 16-bit libraries. If you’re the type of person who is sick of replaying the entire last level of Ninja Gaiden every time the final boss defeats you, you definitely want to load a save state that was taken at the beginning of the boss fight.
It also has a cheat system that loads exploits from a SD card. Hyperkin is also providing a database of Game Genie codes and cheats that will load right into the console’s cheat system, which will help out those of us that were loony enough to try (and fail) to get our original Game Genie to cooperate with the Retron 5.
One of the coolest features is that you can transfer a save file from a cartridge to the console’s internal file system. Also, you can move saves from the console to the cartridge. I am in love with the idea of backing up all of my old NES game saves and being able to transfer them back and forth.
This function is also where we run into Retron 5’s foulest problem.
A serious bug with this save feature wipes out the save data on some carts. From my experience, the machine erased all of my saves on a Pokémon Blue cartridge for the GameBoy Color, and on a copy of The Legend of Zelda for the NES!
I’m not weeping over the loss of either game’s save files, because I didn’t put much time into Pokémon Blue (I was more of a Yellow man), and I look forward to replaying The Legend of Zelda for the hundredth time (who doesn’t?). Just imagine someone who had put in serious hours into their 16-year-old Pokémon Blue save just to have all that progress wiped out! Until there is a firmware fix, absolutely do not utilize the Retron 5 for any games that require significant save data.
The biggest selling point, and the strongest source of my skepticism for the Retron 5, is the HDMI support. Another one of retro-gaming’s frustrations is playing 8-bit and 16-bit era games through updated video technology. To spare you the long and technical story: It’s messy. Adapters and hacks try to bring these games to a modern visual display, but they bring with them some unlovable quirks like artifacts, stretching, lag, blurriness, and bleeding or dull colors.
I prepared myself for some janky ass results when I first watched the Retron 5 pull an 8-bit game through the HDMI cable.
On my ASUS VH236H, aka “the monitor used at the Evolution world championship fighting game tournament” (chosen for the competition because of its incredibly low lag for a HDMI display), the colors popped almost as clear and as saturated as a RGB display. RGB displays, such as those used for arcade machines and the Commodore 64, are considered as the best for getting the best color quality in 8-bit- and 16-bit -era console games. Pixels on my ASUS display were sharp and in focus, with no weird artifacts or stretching. Most important for gameplay purists, I didn’t observe any lag, either.
The Retron 5 also provides a handful of thoughtful video options to tweak the visual output, of which turning the scan lines option on with my monitor is mandatory. They also offer a couple of filter options, but I’m not that into display specifics to analyze which does what. What I do know is that after playing with this console on my modern display, I was having a difficult time convincing myself to use a tube television to play games the Retron 5 could handle.
The convenient console
Besides a beautiful picture, the HDMI feature does something else that plays into the larger picture of this product: it’s making retro gaming convenient. Being honest, I wish I could play all 30-plus consoles in my collection off of one display. Hoarding CRTs off the street and setting up multiple entertainment centers throughout the house in order to enjoy all of these games becomes exhausting. Having a machine that can nail a modern video standard cuts so much hassle out of the process.
Another minor detail about the Retron 5 supports this idea of convenience: controller support. Although it comes with a controller, it isn’t the greatest retro solution (and I have a feeling it was not designed to be). It’s competently designed, but I am not a fan of a thumbstick over a D-pad, and the buttons are a little too clicky and plasticky.
You’re going to eventually want to replace it with something that feels much more familiar. The cool little detail about this is that any Super NES, NES, and Sega Genesis controller will work with any game from any system. In one night of gaming I was able to play Street Fighter II Turbo for the Super NES, Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising on the GameBoy Advance, and Tengen Tetris on the NES using just a Sega Genesis 6 button controller.
As I mentioned, this seems like a minor plus on paper, but this is just so damned convenient in practice. In my case, it saved me from digging out and untangling a natty pile of controllers. In someone else’s case, it saves them from hitting eBay because they happen to have a Super NES controller but nothing for the Sega Genesis or NES. It’s these little things that relieve the stresses of retro-gaming.
Who should pick this thing up?
My list of people who should not pick up a Retron 5 is considerably shorter than the list of who should. Two sorts of people who should not waste their time on this console happen to occupy the polar ends of the retro-gaming spectrum. There are the people who are so ridiculously hardcore about playing on original hardware that they are always going to reject a clone console like this, no matter how accurate and well put together the product is. Then there are people who don’t care about gameplay accuracy, let alone playing these games in an authentic setting, to give up playing on a free emulator on their modern device of choice.
Every game enthusiast that resides in between these two poles will benefit from owning a Retron 5 on some level. It makes many of the real world hassles of retro-gaming so damned convenient and accessible. You just need a pile of cartridges and a modern HDMI display.
With that said, I don’t think people should be eBaying their authentic machines, either, especially since Retron has still some kinks to work out, such as support for the more experimental cartridge hardware and the horrendous game-save destroying bug (which absolutely needs addressing ASAP).
At the risk of having my hardcore retro-gaming status revoked, even I want one, badly. It’s not going to solve my hoarding problem, because I’m still going to be tempted to snatch a curbside CRT, and you will still catch me trying to play games on their original hardware … but the Retron 5 is just too convenient of a classic gaming solution to not have one hooked up somewhere in the house.