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Retron 5 Review: How does it stack up to the original consoles?


One amazing trend throughout history is how everything old becomes new again at some point.  With the average computer, tablet, smartphone, and even watches having more than enough power than the average person knows what to do with, it is absolutely amazing that retrogaming is making a comeback of sorts.

As a child of the 80's and 90's, I was fortunate enough to live through an era of unprecedented innovation within the home entertainment market.  From VHS tapes to computing, and gaming,  this era shaped the current day by providing us all with so many options for our TV sets. Starting with the Atari 2600 to the Gameboy and so forth, many of my childhood memories were spent playing a console around my TV, on my couch, or over at a friends home with a group.

Unfortunately, as technology has advanced, many of these older systems are not fully compatible with our modern era television sets.  In most cases, the best connection that you can get is S-video, which most current TV sets do not include therefore reducing you to play through the lower quality composite (red, white, and yellow) cables, or even worse, the old fashioned RF cable. While these options are serviceable, they are also deliver the worst quality of all the possible ways to connect a console to a TV.   To complicate things further, if your TV has a low quality upscaler, then your image will look even worse than it has to.  There are options such as converters that help clean up the picture, but they can be expensive for anyone but the most diehard collector.  Some may choose to mod their consoles to output a more modern signal, but that requires cracking open your console, and it's also fairly pricey, especially if you have multiple consoles.

Just some of the console options available to the Retron 5


This is where Hyperkin's Retron 5 clone console comes in.  For $139, you get a multi-game console that plays:

  1. Nes/Famicom
  2. Genesis/Megadrive
  3. Snes/Super Famicom
  4. Gameboy/Super Gameboy/Gameboy Color
  5. Gameboy Advance
In one console, you get the ability to play 5 consoles, (if you stick to American consoles) or 10 if you count the japanese versions.  If you have a master system converter, then you get eleven consoles altogether.  As of the time of this article, there is no option to make the 32x work with the Sega Genesis slot.  


In addition to the ten or eleven systems, you also have the option to plug in and use the original controllers for the Nes, Snes, or Genesis consoles.  The Retron console includes its own Bluetooth controller, that will be discussed and reviewed later in this article.  The system is flexible enough to allow you to use any compatible controller with any supported console.  It also supports multiplayer games (even on the Gameboy systems) allowing for multitap compatibility in in supported games such as the "Secret of Mana" for the SNES, which is a great feature.  With Gameboy games, you can simply play with two controllers instead of connecting multiple consoles through a link cable.



Packaging and Contents:

The Retron itself comes packaged in a nicely designed box that still manages to feel a bit cheap.  This is something that I am willing to overlook since the company itself is not a major player, and the package is still serviceable.  They still have to make a profit somewhere. I'm fine with not having the highest quality cardboard packaging versus losing out hardware features or raising the price.

In the box, you get the console, wireless controller, manual, a fairly robust HDMI cable (which surprised me), power cable with adapters for different countries, a USB cable (to charge the wireless controller), and some stickers.

The console was packaged in a plastic bag, and looked fairly clean and shiny.  The plastic feels much lower in quality than the original consoles that it's replacing.  That thick, durable plastic that your Snes, and Genesis had?  You won't find it on the Retron.  What you will find, is a very attractive (beauty is in the eye of the beholder!) design that has a very hollow feel to it.  The bottom half of the system that houses all external connections feels decent, however, the top half that houses all of the cartridge slots has very hollow plastic that will flex when inserting or removing your game cartridges.  The sole exception to this is the Gameboy slot, but that is on the bottom (and better built) half of the console.

I also noticed under certain light that the console appeared to have scratches on it.  I'm not sure if that means that mine was a refurb, or simply that they are rushing them through the assembly line to meet demand.  As these are still rare and sold out in most places with inflated prices on ebay due to their scarcity, and may not be available (more on that later) in the future, I left the issue alone as long as the console worked as intended.


Connecting the Console:

Connecting the Retron 5 to your HDTV is very straightforward, plug the console into the electrical outlet, and then plug the HDMI connection into your TV.  Turning the system ON however, may prove challenging to some.  To power on, simply hold the power button down for about 10 seconds.  It's a strange way to power on a console, and frankly, a little annoying, but it works once you know what to do.  System output is natively 720p, and the menus should fill up most HDTV displays completely.

Controller:

Once the console is on, you will be greeted by a splashscreen, followed by the main menu.  Apparently, when powering on your console for the first time, there should be a pairing menu to sync your wireless controller.  I did not get this option, which would have made it impossible to navigate the system if I did not have have my original wired controllers handy.  Definitely sloppy on Hyperkins part to not have an easy way to sync a controller if one needs to especially if one does not happen to have a wired controller handy.  Perhaps this is something that could be fixed in a firmware update.

Hyperkin's wireless controller
The wireless controller itself has an interesting design that is a hybrid of the Snes, Genesis, and Neo-Geo CD or pocket controller.  You get six front facing buttons layered in a Street Fighter style formation, start and select buttons, a home button, two shoulder buttons, and finally, 2 programmable buttons.  The joystick is of the microswitch variety instead of a standard directional pad.  One can tell that Hyperkin did put some thought into this controller, with its grooves on the bottom corners that allow your thumb to rest comfortably.  The problem is that the controller feels hollow and thick.  I'm personally a huge fan of the microswitch thumbstick on the Neo-Geo pocket, but Hyperkins version just isn't as accurate or responsive.   At minimum, it works depending on the game, but don't expect to perform precision moves, or complex maneuvers with it in games like Super Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog, or Street Fighter 2.  The Home button brings up system menu's at any time and will allow you to access most options.  One strange omission is that this controller cannot power on the Retron 5 on its own.  Lastly, it has a built in battery and can charge directly from the console via the included USB cable. Unfortunately, there is no type of battery meter, so you will not know if your controller is low on power until it's dead.

 If you have Snes, or Genesis controllers, then definitely use those controllers instead.  As mentioned earlier in the review, there are Nes, Snes, and Genesis ports on both sides allowing for up to six wired controllers to be connected at any time.

Three of Six controller ports

The controller menu allows you to use any controller with any console.   You can also program button combinations for the in game menu, and various functions, such as turbo functions.  In addition, the Retron controller has programmable buttons that allows one to change filters, fast forward, take a screenshot, change aspect ratio, turn scanlines on/off, change volume, save or load states, etc.  All extremely handy options to have.


Some of the many option embedded in the system menu's
Usability:

The NES and Genesis ports are extremely tight on this system, and make inserting and removing cartridges more of a chore than it needs to be.  Your best option is to pull out your carts by wiggling left and right from the edges.  The Snes, and Gameboy slots work well, and do not have those issues.    As mentioned earlier, the top of the console will bend and flex when inserting or removing carts, so one may want to take care when doing so.  In spite of having five controller ports, the Retron can only use one cartridge at a time.  Attempting to insert a second cartridge will yield an error until removed.

Graphics and Gameplay:

Super Mario Bros 3 as displayed via the Nes, Wii U, and Retron 5
Surprisingly, 8-bit games look stunning under the right settings while 16-bit games look great.  Maybe this is because the simpler art styles of 8-bit sprites work better with the various filters.  The graphics on screen are rendered at 720p and they are very bright with sharp details.  In my case, I tend to leave most games in their original aspect ratio, along with the lq2x filter, and scanlines.   Not all games look great with the same settings, so it's best to try different settings per game until you find the option that looks best for you.

Above is a comparison screenshot showcasing Super Mario Bros 3 on the (top loading) Nes via RF cable, the Wii U via Hdmi, and the Retron 5 via Hdmi.  As you will see, the difference in picture quality is apparent when comparing the best output available from all systems.  Purists can turn off all enhancement options, and even display a game in its original resolution if they do not wish to have their games upscaled.  I don't see why anyone would want to do that, and if they do, then it may be best to stick to the original console.

The Retron works using emulation through an android based OS.  What this means in this case is that when inserting a cartridge, the Retron will dump the game into its internal memory as long as the cartridge stays in the system.  The system will then play the ROM file.  Game saves will also be imported and can be exported back to a cartridge.  This can be very handy if the battery on your cartridge dies, and you need to replace it since you can simply upload your saves back into the cartridge.  The system can also keep game saves on an SD card, and it does have a very basic file management system.  Save states are supported, and can be manually created at any time.  In addition, whenever you remove a cartridge, a save state is automatically created, allowing you to resume exactly where you left off the next time that you load a game. It's a modern feature for classic games.  Hot swapping games is also supported, even through different consoles.  Considering that it takes about 10 seconds to power on the system, it's a great feature to have.

Emulation works great on the many games that I have tried, and to me, most look very faithful to the original consoles.  As an owner of a Retron 3, Castlevania 3 was a game that worked, but the music was completely inaccurate when compared to the the original NES.  On the Retron 5, the music was faithful to the original.  Gameplay, especially when used with the original controllers is faithful to the original consoles.

This means, however, that not all games will be 100% compatible or rendered exactly as they were on their original consoles.  Depending on the game that you want to play, this may mean that your game may not run perfectly, or even at all.  To Hyperkin's credit, I have had the system for about two weeks, and they have pushed out quite a few firmware updates that fix bugs and improve compatibility.   Updating the system requires an SD card (the system does have a slot for this) and a web browser.  Otherwise, updating requires a file from your Retron to be uploaded to Hyperkin's website, which in turn will allow you to download the files needed for a firmware update.  Their site also allows cheat files to be downloaded for use with various games.  The cheat file is just one small file, and fairly pain free to use with your system.















Conclusion:

For my needs, I enjoy using the Retron 5 immensely.  As a retrogamer who owns and enjoys the classics, it's great to fire up this system and have quick and easy access to so many console classics.  The upconversions are (mostly) great, and it keeps cable clutter in my entertainment center to a minimum.  With that said, it's not for everyone.  Some may wonder why not just use one of the many emulation options available these days?  After all, Roms are easily obtainable online though not exactly legal.  The answer is that many of us prefer to play our physical carts on the TV with the original controllers on the couch with the best graphics possible.  Some may not want a PC in their living room.  True collectors will still have the original games and consoles for backup.

...and the bummer:


Unfortunately, the emulators used here seem to have been used without permission from one of my favorite projects known as "Libretro." Most people into emulation better know them as "Retroarch."   Due to this, there may be a lawsuit brewing since some of the licenses do not allow for commercial use.  This may mean that Hyperkin may have to either start over with their firmware, or stop making the Retron 5 altogether if they are unable to reach an agreement with the libretro developers.   This may have the unfortunate side effect of making this console even more rare in the long run, as well as have prices for it skyrocket.  Hopefully, that will not be the case.

Other options such as the Wii shop have draconian policies and limitations such as not being easily transferable to another console, and games being stuck at their original resolution.  The standard Wii is stuck at 480p, other consoles need more invasive hacks.  Consider your options carefully whether you decide to purchase or emulate through your own means.

...or maybe Hyperkin and the Libretro developers will bury the hatchet, and create that Retrobox console that was brought up a few months ago.

A retro gamer can only dream....
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Comments

  1. They say that libretro is an open specification that is 100% free to implement, with no licensing fees or hidden strings attached. So what am i missing here ?

    But if i take a look on what kind of open source code Retron5 is using, then your libretro guys also stole it and of course Apple stole unix open source code as well in order to make money with Mac hardware.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I know this is years old, but can you explain how to play multiplayer Game Boy titles?

    ReplyDelete

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