This article was originally published on my personal website, thelostmd.com
This article was later published on Gamnesia.com
Earlier this year, Hyperkin released their long-delayed ‘next gen’ clone console, the RetroN 5– a system that boasts the ability to play games from five different types of cartridge digitally in HD. Think of it as an emulation machine for your TV that plays your old games and then some. By dumping the game’s ROM to the system temporarily, you’re provided all of the conveniences of emulation (save states, controller mapping, cheats, patching, etc.) without having to start all over again or dealing with the legal gray area that is PC emulation. The console itself plays cartridges for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Super NES, Super Famicom, Nintendo Entertainment System, Famicom, the entire GameBoy era of formats, and through the use of an adapter, Sega Master System. That’s ten formats, fifteen including PAL regions, all playable on one machine in nostalgia-defyingly crisp HD. But how does it hold up? Pretty well, actually.
The RetroN 5 works just like any emulator you may have tinkered with on your computer in the past, only with a five-second power button requirement. The basic idea is that you load a ROM (ripped from your cartridge to system memory only for the length of time that the cartridge is inserted), set your controller, and play. The system provides an interesting bluetooth controller that I’ll delve into later, and a power adapter with interchangeable plugs so the system may be used worldwide. Given the fact that it plays every region of games, you can play the RetroN 5 anywhere as long as you have a TV supporting HDMI. HDMI is the only video output the system provides. Being an entirely digital system, games are mathematically scaled (as they are using emulators on your computer) to be in 720p and they look absolutely fantastic. Proper colors, no nasty flickering or fuzz, and no expensive cables or hardware mods required to get the best picture possible from your classic games. This also means that there is no analog video output available. This system is designed to make your classic games look crisp and clean on modern displays, and it does so very well. There are also several common video filters available to toy the image up, including scanlines, though I’ve found them to mostly result in smearing the image and sometimes making it blurry. They are completely optional however and the game does not need to be reset to change them, so you’re free to experiment and see what suits you best.
Sound emulation is something a lot of clone consoles tend to have trouble with, but the RetroN 5 handles just about flawlessly as well thanks to its all-digital design. You have options in the menu to play with treble and bass (and to turn off the awful system menu sounds, praise Helix), and the RetroN offers a unique audio interpolation option that Hyperkin claims makes games sound richer than before. I honestly didn’t care for the option, but I’m a purist when it comes to this stuff. In my tests I’ve found nothing to sound off or strange aside from a few audio hiccups I’ll cover later when I discuss compatibility, and some may be pleased to know that the system recognizes and emulates certain sound chips as well, such as the custom audio byte swapper in Star Ocean and Tales of Phantasia. Early voice acting glory is still intact. Pikachu in Yellow Version and Pokemon Pinball sounds as grainy and mutilated as you remember. Sadly, I don’t own any of the multi-channel NES or Famicom games so I was not able to test whether or not they played properly.
The system UI also offers a few other nice features that emulators have long provided, such as the ability to capture screenshots, load cheats, use save states, and load patches. Screenshots save in either a .jpg or .png format, but are set to the actual resolution of the game, meaning unless you use photo editing tools on your computer, any shot you take will be the size of a postage stamp. Hyperkin actually owns Game Genie and has integrated the cheat system into the console, though an SD card and a download of the database itself are required. Save states work as they do with any emulator, allowing you to capture your game at any time and reload that exact position later. Patching is a fairly recent addition to the firmware that really adds to the value of the system. Let me explain how this works.
For many years, players have been creating custom patches to various games to be used with emulation or written to reproduction cartridges that provide things such as translations to Japanese games that never made it out west, bug fixes, and even complete ROM hacks that utilize the game’s assets to create something entirely new. The RetroN 5 provides the first fully legal way to utilize such things, thanks to using your own actual cartridges. You can now import a game such as Mother 3 and load the fan-made English translation to play the game on your TV. You can play interesting ROM hacks like Super Mario World‘s famous Return to Dinosaur Land hack or the famous Zelda: Goddess of Wisdom and Parallel Worlds hacks. You can also experience an old game like Final Fantasy VI the way it was meant to be played with a fresh and more accurate localization, a myriad of bug fixes and censorship restorations, and even a fixed opera sequence set to the Distant Worlds lyrics. Go ahead and load up that two player patch for Secret of Evermore and have your friend play as the dog. Loading a patch is as simple as copying the file to an SD card and choosing which patch to load from a list after you’ve inserted a game. You’re given the option to use a separate save file from your main game exclusive to the given patch, so if you want to play Final Fantasy III in English for the first time or have a good time exploring New! Yoshi’s Island, you won’t interfere with any normal games you have in progress.
In general, emulation is as you’d expect with some compatibility issues here and there and some interesting features. Sonic & Knuckles lock-on games work fine and Super FX, SA-1, and Cx4 chips are fully supported as well. Even Shantae works perfectly, which is something Nintendo’s own GameBoy Player can’t claim. Due to the way the system loads ROMs from cartridges, things like the Sega 32x, Super GameBoy, and Famicom Disk System are not supported. While I imagine 32x compatibility may be possible in a future firmware update, a recently released update tweaked how GameBoy games worked, and for the better. Now you can choose which color palettes to use for GameBoy titles just as you could on the GameBoy Color using the directional pad when the game started. If the game is supported by the Super GameBoy, the RetroN can now recognize and use the custom color data in those cartridges and, if you so choose, you can even opt to have the game’s custom border show, forcing the game to be boxed in that classic window. It’s a nice addition that utilizes the Super GameBoy features, though due to my lack of availability since this firmware update was posted, I have not been able to test games that have special Super GameBoy audio, like Kirby’s Dreamland 2 and Donkey Kong (1994). The audio enhancements didn’t work before this update, but they might work now. Two player mode in games works as it did on the Super GameBoy though, and like with any system the RetroN plays, you can customize which controllers to use.
Explaining the save system warrants mention. Upon inserting a given cartridge for the first time, the system will copy the SRAM from it and use the digital copy for all future operations. You are given the option to, at any time, download saves from a cart again or to upload saves from the RetroN, or write to and from an SD card. The system does have its flaws, but they’re being worked out all the time through updates. Super Metroid, for example, will delete the saves from the cartridge (based on a firmware version prior to the current one as of this writing), but you can just write them back to the cart no harm no foul. The only games I’ve had real issues with writing save data back to the carts are the GameBoy games, or more specifically, GameBoy Advance games that use flash memory instead of batteries. This problem is being worked on and fixed slowly but surely with every update the system offers. As an example, when the system launched, it would load a save from the Pokemon Trading Card Game but not write it back, and did not recognize auto-save data at all. An update later I was able to write the save back, though I honestly can’t recall if auto-save data worked from that point or not. I got involved in a fierce thirty minute battle and forgot what I was testing for. You know how that goes.
Emulation itself seems to be a bit hit and miss. More often than not, things work fine with slowdown where it’s ‘supposed’ to be and no problems whatsoever, but several games I’ve played have had strange issues, most of which were fixed over the summer with firmware updates. Top Gun used to be unplayable but has since been fixed, and I’ve had strange issues with two games in particular: Star Fox and the SNES version of The Lion King. These issues may have been fixed since I experienced them, but I have not been able to test the current firmware with them and I feel they still warrant mentioning.
In The Lion King, death would trigger a strange audio hiccup where it would jump between stereo and mono, play shrill notes, or mute some channels while making others louder. The further I got into the game, the worse it got, with graphical errors popping up now and then. The game even locked up twice when the leopards were on screen in two later levels. ‘Be Prepared’ would lock up almost every time before I could even get to that damn lava platform part. Star Fox‘s problem, on the other hand, is directly blamed on the Super FX emulation. A prior firmware update claimed to have fixed the problem, but I still experienced it. I should also note that this is the only FX game where I had the problem. Stunt Race FX, Vortex, Yoshi’s Island, and Star Fox 2 did not have this problem at all. The game would run fine but slightly slower as it went on. Given the game’s awful (but necessary!) framerate, it wasn’t really noticeable until Venom, and only became an ‘issue’ when it was made painfully obvious during the credits by the grand finale finishing long before the credits had.
Out of the couple hundred games I tested on the RetroN 5, those were the only two real compatibility problems I experienced. Tales of Phantasia didn’t load at all, but I can chalk that one up to the fact that my cart was made by RetroZone, and printed on all-new materials. Aside from that, and those save problems that are relatively non-issues with how regularly they’re fixed, all of my games worked perfectly. Repros, special chips, the most obscure Japanese games, you name it. Hyperkin’s main goal with the system is to eventually reach 100% perfect compatibility with every retail cartridge and, to the best of their abilities, homebrew and reproductions alike. Firmware updates release regularly that improve compatibility, fix specific game issues, and add features to the system. If you buy the RetroN 5 and have a game that doesn’t work right, don’t worry about it. It will someday. Even if the system says ‘unknown cartridge’, you can still run the game and use save states and every custom feature aside from the cheat database.
The RetroN 5’s bluetooth controller is a bit of a mixed bag. There are six main face buttons mirroring both the Sega Genesis controller and the Super NES gamepad, as well as two programmable macro buttons, start/select, two triggers, and a home button. All of these buttons use a sort of pip-pop clicking rather than the silicon push-buttons players have grown accustomed to over the last thirty-plus years of gaming, so it can feel very foreign and just not quite right when playing your classic games. Think of texting on a cell phone prior to the smartphone era. It’s kind of like that. Each of the buttons is programmable to a custom layout however you like, but while they may not give you the satisfying feedback you crave, they certainly get the job done ninety percent of the time.
The part of the controller you will immediately notice upon seeing it is the eight-way microswitch directional stick, similar to the one found on a Neo Geo Pocket. Each direction provides a nice little click, but it can be a bit disjointed at times and difficult to get used to. While it works wonderfully for RPGs and eight-direction top-down games like A Link to the Past, it can be very awkward and downright abysmal for sidescrollers or anything requiring left-right precision. For example, Sabin’s blitz attacks in Final Fantasy VI are a little easier to execute with precision, but you may accidentally hit ‘left, down-right, left’ instead of ‘left right left’ like you’re trying. However, at least in my personal case, I found sweeping blitzes and fighting moves in games that require partial or full rotation of the stick to be a little easier than on the standard controller. On the other hand, the likes of Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island are incredibly frustrating with the stick as you tend to hit the diagonals way more often than intended, making you stop running and duck unintentionally. All that said, the stick is absolutely wonderful in Star Fox. It felt like it was breathing some new life into one of my favorite games, and it’s currently my favorite way to play it. If only the triggers weren’t so flat and dissatisfying.
With it’s quirkiness, the RetroN controller may not be your cup of tea, but there’s no need to worry. The system has six controller ports, two for each main console, built in. You can customize each controller’s button layout and use them cross-system if you wish. Want to play three-player on Secret of Mana? Feel free to let player 3 use a Genesis controller via an emulated multi-tap. The RetroN is even compatible with the Super NES mouse of all things, allowing games like Mario Paint and Mario and Wario to get their share of screen time in HD. The downside with the RetroN 5 using digital video output means that light guns won’t work. The system’s designed for HDTVs, afterall. Contrary to popular belief, the RetroN controller is not required to have on hand. Once you set any other controller to be used with the system, you can use that to navigate the system menu and return to the home screen via a button combination (defaulted to down+start).
There are a couple more things I’d like to mention about the controller. It has a fairly long battery life and a decent range, and is rechargeable through a strange (but provided) USB cable. The plug itself is just a standard Micro USB port though, so you have other charging options available. Bluetooth means there’s very little input lag. None that I’ve noticed anyway, and I’ve been using the controller regularly since the console’s launch. There is an annoying issue I’ve run into a few times, though. Randomly, it will de-sync from the system, even during a game. The only way to fix it at that point is to pop on another controller to access the menu and manually sync it again via the sync screen under controller options. It’s especially annoying during intense game situations and I haven’t yet been able to figure out what causes it. It’s not a deal-breaker for the controller, but it is regrettable.
Aside from that, the controller is a decent weight, but feels very awkward due to its strange shape. It makes a nice alternative when you just want to play Final Fantasy from bed, but it’s just not suitable for a huge portion of action games. If there were an alternative design released, something with traditional buttons and a d-pad that was more comfortable to hold, it would possibly be the best wireless option for classic games. The biggest flaw with wireless controllers for classic systems before was the tech barrier and in that department Hyperkin’s succeeded very well, it’s just not a very comfortable or useful design. You can also have up to four paired with the console at any given time, which is great, but their usefulness playing that way is pretty much limited to Bomberman, NBA Jam, and not much else.
There has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding the RetroN 5 since its first delay that extends to this day with issues like still-unfulfilled pre-orders from Amazon in Europe to rumors of legal trouble regarding the use of emulators without permission of the programmers, but as an overall package, the system is worth the time if you have any interest in importing or having your old games look crisp and beautiful on your flatscreen. The sheer versatility between consoles makes it a worthy addition to your setup. For me personally, the ability to import a game for $15 and load up a translation patch saves immensely on the cost and legal implications surrounding reproduction cartridges and really opens up accessibility into the import market in a whole new way. The price may have been raised a couple of times since release for various reasons, but the quality of the game visuals, range of games it can play, the patching ability, and the fact that it’s constantly improving and adding new features makes the cost worthwhile. It really is the next generation of clone consoles.