It's taken its sweet time, but the RetroN 5 is finally with us, offering dedicated retro enthusiasts the opportunity to give their dusty collection of vintage cartridges a new lease of life in high definition.
Hyperkin was supposed to launch the remarkable RetroN 5 system at the tail end of last year, but an unforeseen production fault put paid to that, forcing the manufacturer to delay the release for an agonising six months - much to the chagrin of retro players all over the globe. The wait may have been unbearable, but the console is finally available at retail in North America - and I'm pleased to say that it mostly lives up to its tantalizing potential.
First things first, the RetroN 5 supports a dazzling range of old-school formats - in fact, the spec list reads like a "who's who" of the 8 and 16-bit wars. It's capable of playing NES, SNES, Genesis, Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance carts. It can also play Famicom carts - a feat which is achieved by the inclusion of an additional slot, as the Japanese version of the NES uses a different cartridge connection. Region protection is rendered an irrelevance, too - this wonder console will happily run games from any part of the world.
Slotting in a game results in the data being dumped into the RetroN 5's memory, where it can then be processed by the system's Android-based internal architecture. Unlike other clone systems, the RetroN 5 relies heavily on software emulation tricks and is therefore capable of technological magic such as save states, fast-forwarding of play, image filters and cheat code usage. Whenever the word emulation is mentioned, retro gaming purists can be seen to visibly shudder in disgust, but here Hyperkin has managed to combine the best of both worlds. The RetroN 5's performance is exemplary - it only failed to play one of the mountain of dusty old carts I threw at it - and the speed, sound and general gameplay of the games I tested was on par with the original hardware.
Another big plus point is that the RetroN 5 outputs a much better picture than your battered old NES or Genesis could ever hope to. The HDMI connection allows for 720p HD visuals, with the console upscaling the original image to fill all of those lovely pixels on your massive and expensive TV. The result is largely what you'd get if you hooked up a PC-based emulator to your flat screen television, but here everything is contained in a compact system which requires little to no effort to run.
Rather less successful is the bundled wireless pad, which just about gets the job done but pales in comparison to the standard of controller we're accustomed to these days - or even back in the '90s, for that matter. The microswitched stick doesn't feel precise enough, and the fascia buttons emit a rather unpleasant clicking sound when pressed. Add to this a design which is far from comfortable and some truly atrocious shoulder triggers, and you've got a pad which is acceptable in short bursts but won't stay the course for those mammoth retro gaming marathons. It does at least have an internal rechargeable battery, which is more than the Xbox One's pad can muster.
Thank goodness then that the RetroN 5 offers the ability to use your original controllers. There are six ports on the system - two apiece for the NES, SNES and Genesis - and into these you can plug the battle-scarred peripherals of your youth. What's more, you can use the RetroN 5's interface to configure the pads to function on different formats. Ever wanted to rinse M. Bison in the SNES version of Street Fighter II with Sega's excellent 6-button Genesis controller? Now you can. Furthermore, you can use this system to play multiplayer titles without the need for a multitap accessory - within minutes I was able to commence a 5-player battle match in Super Bomberman 3 using two SNES pads, two Genesis 6-button controllers and the bundled RetroN 5 pad. The only downside of using authentic controllers on this system is that you lose the luxury of wire-free play, and you always have to have the RetroN 5 controller to hand as it's the only way of accessing the console's user interface.
The RetroN 5 offers a solid experience out of the box, but there are elements which still require Hyperkin's immediate attention - the most concerning of which relates to the system's advertised ability to import and export original save game data to and from cartridges. In my case at least, this feature was entirely broken - the original save files on the games I tested were wiped when loaded into the console, and I was unable to get the export function to work at all. The existence of an SD card slot will allow Hyperkin to upgrade the RetroN 5's firmware and fix this potentially tragic problem, but for the time being at least, you might want to keep those precious save files you've been nurturing for years away from this system.
Ironically, despite its unwelcome talent at deleting saves, the RetroN 5 could well provide the lifeline for those cartridges which are just about to become useless thanks to failing internal batteries. The aforementioned save state feature not only allows for user-created checkpoints, but also automatically saves your progress the moment you remove the cart. This is naturally useful in games which boast no native save function, but could also make games with dead batteries playable again - there's no need to use the internal save feature when the hardware does it for you. This might come as scant consolation when you've just realised that the RetroN 5 has obliterated the Pokémon save game that you've spent the past decade refining, of course.
Another annoyance - albeit a minor one - is that you can only have one cartridge inserted in the RetroN 5 at any one time. This is understandable on one level - each game is loaded into the machine's memory at the moment of insertion and is wiped when the cartridge is physically removed - but it's a real pain to have to constantly keep returning to the RetroN 5 whenever you fancy playing something different. The ability to load-up each slot with a game would at least offer some convenience, if nothing else.
While some will sneer at the RetroN 5's "unique" shape and scoff at the idea of paying for what is essentially emulation when you can effectively have it for free on any desktop PC, Hyperkin's system is nevertheless a breakthrough for clone hardware. While it has its teething troubles - which I hope will be addressed as soon as possible by the manufacturer - it's something of a boon for those who already possess a sizeable collection of vintage software. Your treasured games can now be experienced in glorious HD and benefit from a raft of welcome features, including handy save states and image filters. It's almost impossible to totally replace the appeal of the original hardware, but the RetroN 5 could be viewed as the ideal companion to your existing collection - an all-in-one system which gives retro games a lick of HD paint and saves much-needed real estate beneath your television set.