Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Taking a Look at the Retron 5

I'm a big retro gamer and have been following Hyperkin's highly anticipated wonder console, the Retron 5, for a long time. Hyperkin is known for making what are essentially modern reproductions of classic game systems. This is apparently all legal due to the patents for the technology of these older consoles having expired. Hyperkin has been releasing their line of Retron reproduction consoles for awhile now and the Retron 5 is their newest showing. The system plays NES, Famicom, SNES, Super Famicom, Genesis, Mega Drive, Master System (with power base converter), GameBoy, GameBoy Color, and GameBoy Advance games from all regions through an HDMI hookup!

One of the problems retro gaming enthusiasts face is how to hook up older consoles to modern TVs.  My main HDTV doesn't have any easy inputs for older retro consoles, and I've tried different signal upscalers with mixed results. Someday I hope to have a room entirely dedicated to gaming, but right now I don't have the space for an extra CRT TV specifically for retro consoles. So, having an easy method for playing all my original games with crystal clear graphics is definitely one of the biggest benefit of the Retron 5 system. 

Now comes the aspect of the Retron 5 that may make hardcore retro gamers grimace, it essentially is an Android based emulation box. After a cartridge is inserted, the Retron 5 performs a quick dump of the ROM to its hard drive which it then plays, so the system isn't technically running off the game cartridges the whole time. However, when a cart is removed, the ROM file is instantly deleted making it necessary to still own the original cartridges in order to play the games. This creates a kind of hardware and emulation hybrid system. Unfortunately, the Retron 5's Android OS has both good and bad points associated with it. I'll start by discussing some of the note-worthy positive aspects the system has to offer.

First up, the Retron 5 outputs at 720p and 60fps. You might think this sounds unnecessary for 8 and 16 bit retro games, but it makes the graphics look incredibly crisp without a hint of blurriness! Additionally, you can apply different graphical filters to the games or apply a scan line effect that mimics CRT displays for a true retro feel. Most of the filters blur or soften the hard edges of the pixels to create a more "painted" look. I honestly prefer playing with no filters, but these are fun to mess around with! Here's some comparison screen shots showcasing a few of the filters using Seiken Densetsu 3 and Sonic 2!

Normal mode without filters:

The sqsx filter:

The hqsx filter:

Normal mode without filters:

Normal mode without filters and scanlines enabled:

Besides just offering clearer graphics, the Retron 5 also has an option that utilizes audio interpolation in order to create clearer music and sound effects. Although, it's hard for me to tell a real noticeable difference.

Another big benefit of the Retron 5 is the ability to save games even if your cartridge has a dead battery. The batteries in retro games usually have a shelf life of around 20 years and when they die, you lose the ability to save your progress. Previously, the only solution was to solder in a new battery. This requires a soldering iron, special security bits, and practice to master. The Retron 5 circumvents this by allowing you to save your games directly to its internal hard drive or an SD card potentially bringing new life to old games with a dead battery. Additionally, the Retron 5 also allows you to transfer your game saves from a cartridge to the hard drive and vice versa. This lets you preserve all your childhood saves for The Legend of Zelda forever without having to worry about losing them to a dead battery.

Another great thing about the system is it gives you the option to plug in original NES, SNES, or Genesis controllers to play the games. As long as the controller has the appropriate amount of buttons, you can also use them to play games from any system. (i.e. using a Genesis controller to play SNES games or a SNES controller to play NES games) Although, none of my original SNES controllers currently work with the system. I checked online an a few people are also having this problem. Apparently some models of the SNES controller just aren't compatible, but hopefully this will get fixed soon with a firmware update.

The Retron 5 also has a built in "cheat code" database which you can download form their website and functions like a Game Genie or Game Shark. Unfortunately, the codes aren't labeled really well, have a lot of duplicates, and aren't available for all games.

Now I want to discuss some of the negative points of the Retron 5.  Mainly the controller!   

I am not a fan of  included the controller at all! It's wireless which is nice, but it has a very boxy design and just feels extremely light and cheap. Rather than having a standard D-pad, the Retron 5 controller uses a micro switch thumb-stick kind of like the Neo Geo Pocket Color, but not nearly as high quality. Also, all the buttons produce annoyingly loud clicks when pressed or moved which can be a pain if you're playing late at night or trying to be quiet. Additionally, the controls feel really imprecise. This isn't a big deal for RPGs, but using it to play platformers or fighting games is really frustrating. Of course you can just use your original controllers instead, but it just seems like a wasted opportunity on Hyperkin's part to create something really great.

I previously mentioned about the save transfer feature, but I want to add, for the time being, use it at your own risk! This feature still has a lot of bugs, and will sometimes just erase the save files from your cartridge. I've had some success with it, but this feature has also erased my Lufia II and Final Fantasy III saves. Both of which had a lot of hours poured into them. But if you don't care about your old saves or you're playing a game for the first time this won't be an issue. 

The last negative point I wanted to mention is that the system is not yet 100% compatible with all games. Hyperkin has been releasing firmware updates every few weeks and with each update more and more games work with the system. Compared to when the console launched, the compatibility has improved a ton. Right now mostly all US released NES and SNES games should work. Similarly, a lot of my Famicom games used to be unplayable, but after the current update the only one that doesn't work for me is the original Dragon Quest which is odd considering 2, 3, and 4 all play fine.  Another thing to mention is that many reproduction and homebrew cartridges don't work either. It seems like those made from original repurposed cartridge parts work a lot more often than those made with entirely new pcb boards. Hyperkin has said they are striving for total 100% game compatibility across all fronts, so hopefully all these issues will also be completely fixed in a future firmware update.     
Here's a recap of all the Retron 5's good an bad points I previously mentioned with a few more added.

  • Combines 10 different consoles in one system
  • Hooks up easily via HDMI with clear graphics (720p & 60 fps)
  • Allows you to save games to the hard drive even if a cartridge's battery is dead 
  • 2 GB of internal hard drive space
  • Allows "save states" for anytime quick saving or loading
  • Allows you to transfer existing save files from game cartridges to the Retron 5 and vice versa
  • Has a "fast forward" button which allows you to speed up gameplay when desired
  • Different graphical filter options available
  • Built in "cheat code" database 
  • Works with FX chip and other specialty chip games like Super Mario RPG and Castlevania III
  • The Japanese version of Castlevania III works and plays the extra sound channels
  • As of the current firmware update, Sonic & Knuckles now works properly with Sonic 2 and Sonic 3
  • Compatible with original NES, SNES, and Genesis controllers
  • Built-in controller is imprecise and makes loud clicking sounds with any button press
  • The save transfer option is still heavily bugged and may erase your save files
  • Doesn't have 100% game compatibility yet
  • Most Japanese Mega Drive games made by Sunsoft don't fit in the system
  • Certain original SNES controllers just don't work with the system at the moment
  • Doesn't work with a lot of reproduction and homebrew cartridges
  • Not compatible with Game Genies or the Super GameBoy
  • Not all of the "cheat codes" seem to work and many are superfluous
  • Allows you to take screenshots but they are tiny
  • Essentially requires an SD card which is not included
  • Updating the firmware isn't very intuitive and may be tough for non-tech savvy people
    So in conclusion, the Retron 5 has the potential to be an amazing system but it's not quite there yet. Even though I mentioned a lot of negative aspects of the system, Hyperkin has been releasing regular firm ware updates which have the potential of fixing most of these issues. But right now, it's hard to completely recommend the Retron 5 and I would suggest waiting a bit longer until more updates roll out. Also, the first shipment of the console seems to be completely sold out and online gougers are trying to sell the system for twice the price so be careful!  The Retron 5 should retail for $140 and comes in either a SNES inspired grey and purple color scheme or a Genesis inspired black option.  I hope this review was helpful to those interested in the system!


    1. Great post, Kaze. Thanks! Sounds like the system's mostly worth it if you're really into retro games, despite the fact that it's far from perfect. That controller, though--ugh! Even without holding one myself I can tell what it feels like. Oh, well, at least other controllers can be used...

    2. Thanks for the comment, Bryan! :D Yeah, it is a pretty nifty console and all my gripes aside I'm enjoying it a lot! ^^ Side note I managed to nab a SNES controller that works with it so I'm excited! lol