I've written about At Games' long-running line of SEGA Genesis clone consoles, and I'm afraid I haven't had much positive to say; the systems have a terrible reputation, and deservedly so. And yet, I consider myself an optimist at heart. I always want to believe in mankind's basic potential for self-improvement.
Thus did I approach with some trepidation the prospect of reviewing At Games' latest model of their Genesis clone. They churn out a new revision every fall, and it's always basically the same thing with only the most minor tweaks... but dammit, maybe this time would be different. We're starting to see some impressive console clones hit the market, with even low-end Famiclones offering HDMI output and upscaled graphics. At the top end, you have the highly regarded Retrofreak, which takes a Swiss army knife approach to cloning and pulls it off remarkably well. So maybe, I thought, just maybe that trend would extend to At Games and their SEGA churn as well.
The latest Genesis Classic Game Console is largely indistinguishable from last year's model; the biggest difference comes from the presence of a few new games. Notably, it adds Phantasy Star II and III to the mix. Not Phantasy Star IV, sadly, the best and by far the priciest of the lot, but any Phantasy Star is welcome here. Previous Classic Consoles have offered the ability to play games off of cartridges, meaning you could play these games if you owned physical copies, but they curiously lack support for save functions... so, you know, good luck finishing Phantasy Star II in a single session.
The latest system itself is diminutive — just wide enough to house a Genesis cartridge, basically. It weighs practically nothing, too, feeling for all the world as though the tiny amount of plastic that comprises the shell hides nothing but empty space. But that miniature console also includes a miniature amount of features. The Classic Game Console comes preloaded with 80 games, about half of which are real, licensed, classic Genesis releases and the other half of which are flimsy, hacked-together junk. It offers two controller ports for wired Genesis pads (not included), a sensor for the two wireless controllers that do come packed in with the system, a power jack, and an A/V port. Besides the console and controllers, you also get an A/V cable and a power adapter.
It's basic, sure, but that doesn't necessarily have to mean bad. Unfortunately, the Classic Game Console still runs on ancient, obsolete technology. Those wireless controllers don't use Bluetooth or even RF — they work via infrared. Infrared! That's what iffy third-party wireless controllers for the NES used 25-30 years ago... and, then as now, they proved to be spectacularly unreliable. That's because infrared demands a direct line-of-sight to work, and if you don't hold your controllers flat out ahead of your body with their IR transmitter pointed directly at the console's sensor, you'll break the connection.
The controllers themselves aren't too terrible besides their reliance on IR. They're flimsy, sure, but they seem responsive enough. They're also much smaller than real Genesis pads and will probably feel a lot more comfortable for people whose hands aren't the size of catcher's mitts than the original Genesis controllers. Aside from the need to hold them at a very specific, arm-cramping angle and not to get too carried away with action games, they're perfectly decent.
Admittedly, I can't offer a direct comparison between original and included controllers on the Classic Game Console. I'd like to, but for some reason the system won't recognize my hardwired Genesis controllers — even though they work fine with real hardware. Nothing seems to make the At Games device accept input from original controllers, unfortunately: Resetting, rebooting, playing built-in games, playing from cartridges. It's strange, but it means the IR controllers are compulsory... so it's probably worth noting that you'll need two AAA batteries and a tiny screwdriver (not included in the box) in order to use each controller.
Failure seems to be the name of the game with this hardware, though. I only managed to get in about 15 minutes of play time with my review unit before the hardware died. And I mean died — I was midway through the second stage of Sonic the Hedgehog when the screen went black and silent. Nothing I do will resuscitate it, either. The AC adaptor appears to be fine (its red power LED continues to shine), but the system simply won't power up again.
I'd have trouble calling it a loss, though. The latest Classic Game Console doesn't appear to offer any under-the-hood improvements over the previous year's model. In addition to its ’80s-era wireless tech, it also limits its video output to about the same vintage: You can only connect the system to your television with a composite cable. That seems something of a bold risk these days; many modern televisions no longer even offer analog inputs. It also means the system's output is limited to standard definition, so unless you play on a dusty cathode-ray television, you'll have to deal with scaling lag and visual degradation on top of the poor mandatory cable selection.
As for the game emulation, it's no great shakes, either. To the system's credit, it recognized the few carts I had time to test before it died — Castlevania: Bloodlines, Toe Jam & Earl, and a couple more — and played them straight away. (The system loads to a built-in menu if no cartridge is present, but it boots an inserted game immediately, locking out the preload game menu.) And they played decently. It's hard to say if the mushy feeling I experienced with game controls was due to the IR controllers or due to emulation issues, but the action in games like Sonic, Ristar, and Castlevania definitely didn't feel as snappy as I'd hoped despite testing it on a CRT and on an HDTV with a low-lag external upscaler. I managed to try out a couple of the non-licensed games and found them almost completely unplayable due to the control lag — though in fairness that was probably more a function of those being amateurish programming exercises than anything to do with the system itself.
I didn't really play long enough to notice any display issues like screen tearing or out-of-place slowdown. I did, however, notice the awful sound emulation. The Genesis had a tricky sound chip to emulate — even SEGA's own later hardware revisions had trouble sounding quite as crisp and clean as the earliest models! The Classic Game Console's audio doesn't even manage those later hardware revision standards; everything sounds slightly flat and out of key. It's especially noticeable in Sonic the Hedgehog, if only because its sound effects and Green Hill Zone theme have become such iconic elements of gaming history. On the Classic Game Console, however, those upbeat synths become dreary and off-kilter. This version of Green Hill Zone is the dirge they'll play at Sonic's funeral someday.
Given the enormous strides being taken with classic emulation and reproduction — from Nintendo's Classic NES Edition mini-console to projects like RetroArch — there's no place in the world for a device as shoddy as At Games' Genesis clones. Ultimately, it's on SEGA's head to recognize the damage a subpar product like the new Classic Game Console does to the company's legacy and transfer the license to someone willing to put in the effort to do these classics justice.