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5 Retro Consoles, 1 HDMI Cable
July 21, 2014 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Hyperkin's Retron 5 hardware plays real cartridges using original controllers from a variety of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles (including the NES, SNES, Sega Master System, Sega Genesis, and Game Boy Advance), converts the output to HDMI for moderns TVs, and includes all the advanced options you usually only find in software emulators. It's winning over even the most skeptical retro gamers.
posted by 256 (47 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
The most important thing to me, after not-horrible-video-effects-in-the-upscaling (which is a very tall and complicated order) would be using the original controllers. It looks like it has ports for that, so I'm intrigued to see how the signal looks. There are tons of "get your old crap to 1080p HDMI" dongles and widgets out there and almost all of them result in horrid looking video that's inferior to just using an emulator.

Very excited to check this thing out though, not everyone has an extra room in their house for shelves of hardware and a heavy huge CRT on which to play their classics!
posted by trackofalljades at 8:07 AM on July 21


My second thought is, the success or failure of this thing will likely lie in how they handle the software as time goes by. If it's abandoned after a while, it will fade almost certainly. However if they offer a healthy stream of firmware updates to handle bugs as they're discovered and patched in the emulation software they're using, that could be a very welcome switch for people who are already doing the "system administration" themselves on a living room computer that they use for this purpose.
posted by trackofalljades at 8:09 AM on July 21


From what I've read elsewhere, it really is the best emulator on the market now, even though it still has a few problems, especially with certain oddly sized cartridges. And you're going to want to use your own controllers, because the controller it comes with is complete dogshit. (I think "worse than the Ouya controller" was even uttered by some, though I can hardly believe how that can be true.)
posted by kmz at 8:10 AM on July 21


heavy huge CRT

Just for people who aren't Into Retrogaming: the sort of vintage TV an aficionado gets to play their old consoles weighs only slightly less than a neutron star.
posted by griphus at 8:11 AM on July 21 [3 favorites]


heavy huge CRT

If you're into old consoles then I highly recommend the incredibly cute LG Serie 1 Retro Classic TV. You'll need a converter since it's Korean, but it's just everything you want a TV to look like, and sells for under $250.
posted by furtive at 8:29 AM on July 21 [3 favorites]


I like pretty much everything about this, but there is no way I am going to go back to cartridges again, so it's not for me.
If someone takes this and hacks in all of the ROMs for the supported system, I'm in. It would be great to just have this console and a few classic controllers, and plug that in to my TV.
posted by Theta States at 8:31 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


From what I've read elsewhere, it really is the best emulator on the market now, even though it still has a few problems, especially with certain oddly sized cartridges. And you're going to want to use your own controllers, because the controller it comes with is complete dogshit. (I think "worse than the Ouya controller" was even uttered by some, though I can hardly believe how that can be true.)

Not to derail, but what's wrong with the Ouya controller? I admit I've never used one, but looking at it, it looks like a perfectly fine one. The Retron's does look like it'd hurt your hands, though.
posted by kafziel at 8:33 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


I totally don't get this. It's a software emulator, but then you have to have original cartridges to play it? That's kind of like having a record player that doesn't actually play vinyl but uses the needle to recognize the album and then play a shitty 128kbps copy of it off of Youtube.

Other than the joy of being an atavism, what's the point of the cartridge requirement? A baroque nod to copyright licensing?
posted by Nelson at 8:33 AM on July 21 [5 favorites]


I'm pretty sure it's actually reading the cartridges. The emulation is of the system softwares.
posted by kmz at 8:34 AM on July 21


If someone takes this and hacks in all of the ROMs for the supported system, I'm in.

This kinda already exists in the usual IRC groups. You can download literally all the ROMs for any particular old system in a single package. The best way I've found to play these is honestly with an original hacked XBOX.
posted by odinsdream at 8:35 AM on July 21


I totally don't get this. It's a software emulator, but then you have to have original cartridges to play it? That's kind of like having a record player that doesn't actually play vinyl but uses the needle to recognize the album and then play a shitty 128kbps copy of it off of Youtube.

Other than the joy of being an atavism, what's the point of the cartridge requirement? A baroque nod to copyright licensing?


Distribution of ripped game roms is copyright infringement, yes.

This is more like having a record player that doesn't translate the bumps of a needle directly into music like a victrola, but reads the surface with a laser and has a processor that does the conversion to audio. The original console hardware is emulated with software, but it still needs a game rom to run, and here you feed it a rom by plugging in the cartridge instead of illegally downloading one.
posted by kafziel at 8:36 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


kafziel: "This is more like having a record player that doesn't translate the bumps of a needle directly into music like a victrola, but reads the surface with a laser and has a processor that does the conversion to audio."

Yes, like a laser turntable.
posted by Malory Archer at 8:40 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


Although, seeing as how you could fit every rom of every game for every cartridge system on a single microSD, it could be a little up in the air. That's not what it purports to do, though.

On preview: Ah, good to know that what I was describing actually exists.
posted by kafziel at 8:40 AM on July 21


Ok, but how many people still own their old cartridges?

You can play hundreds of roms online. I get the nostalgia factor, but in-browser games are a lot easier to use and more accessible.
posted by zarq at 8:41 AM on July 21


If someone takes this and hacks in all of the ROMs for the supported system, I'm in.

You can buy flash-based cartridges for many systems, although that may defeat the entire point of this thing.
posted by griphus at 8:42 AM on July 21


Yes, like a laser turntable.

Holy crap! That's so cool!

"The Finial turntable never went into production."

Fuck.
posted by zarq at 8:43 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]


I was disappointed that the second link glossed over the only possible saving grace of something like this: the introduction of artificial scanlines. The graphics were designed to work with low resolution displays, so you were never intended to see the sharp, crisp blocky pixels, but a smoother, rounder image using only 240 lines of resolution. I hate to sound like a snob, but for me it's something as critical as the widescreen vs full frame ratio debate from years back.

If the software scanlines are well implemented this could be worthy beyond just being able to play those games, but to also to play them the way they were intended to be seen.
posted by infinitelives at 8:43 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Ok, but how many people still own their old cartridges?

Many, many thousands of people, dude. It's a huge subculture with it's own web fora, online stores, conventions, and sense of community (and unlike vinyl collection the membership skews rather young and has more gender parity than you might think).
posted by trackofalljades at 8:44 AM on July 21 [3 favorites]


Interesting! Had no idea.
posted by zarq at 8:44 AM on July 21


You can buy flash-based cartridges for many systems, although that may defeat the entire point of this thing.

I don't think that would defeat the purpose at all really, it would be a great way to play some of the rarer games that are either impossible to obtain physically or too valuable to wear out inserting and removing them over and over. Plus there's that whole pesky "nuke the real saved game data" issue they need to fix.
posted by trackofalljades at 8:46 AM on July 21


There's also a huge collection and speculation boom going on in cartridges right now so they're changing hands every day.

I don't think that would defeat the purpose at all really...

I'm still sort of trying to wrap my head around using a cartridge emulator (or whatever the flash cart is considered to be) inside a console emulator. I understand how using a flash cart in the original hardware is different than everything in software, and I understand how using an original cart in emulated hardware is different than everything in software, but is there a distinct difference between sticking one of those carts in a Retron and just playing everything purely in software?
posted by griphus at 8:48 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


When do I get one that plays Coleco and Atari?
posted by RobotHero at 8:51 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]


I've got a buddy who's been working on procuring the entire NES and SNES cartridge library, sans the crazy-rare ones that were only made for special events. So far, he's about 75% complete on collecting the NES games, and they only take up about 15 feet of IKEA shelves in his basement, which is a lot less than I would have thought. Compared to a lot of other kinds of collecting/hoarding, it's downright accessible.
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:51 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Do you still have to blow on the cartridges? That was integral to the feel of the old NES.
posted by mrgoat at 8:52 AM on July 21


You never *had* to blow on the cartridges. It was a mass delusion we all partook in because it made us feel like we had some control over what was essentially a random glitch.
posted by Think_Long at 8:58 AM on July 21 [5 favorites]


You can do that if it floats your boat, but it's been shown that it never helped.
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:59 AM on July 21


Ok, but how many people still own their old cartridges?

I've got Final Fantasy I, Baseball Stars, and a few other OG NES games, probably a few more (and some SNES games) moldering in my parent's attic/basement. I keep 'em in the box with my ColecoVision (also with carts) and the Dreamcast. I'm probably not a typical person in that I'm a bit of a video game hoarder (apparently) but that makes me pretty much the target market for something like this.

For the price though? I think I'd rather get an XBone. Or upgrade my PC.
posted by davros42 at 9:02 AM on July 21


instead of all the SCIENCE Think_Long and Strange Interlude are bringing, I'll offer a more comforting possibility:

Since this console still requires cartridges, the real question is whether blowing was for the consoles or the cartridges...since you blew on the cartridge (not the console), the same should be true here.
posted by subversiveasset at 9:02 AM on July 21


Considering the uh, price advantages of emulation (though I'm sure we're all only downloading ROMs for games we own, right? RIGHT?) I'd think the real money would be in using the technology they've developed to make a hub that connects original controllers to another system via USB.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:05 AM on July 21


Why spend a bunch of money to bring something to market to try to sell to people who are demonstrably avoiding spending money? I think the hobbyist is the exact right target for this type of product. Give them the features they want and make it a quality product and you'll do well.
posted by ODiV at 9:14 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


Hobbyists can and will spend money on absurd gadgets to support their hobbies. Par example...I just bought a hardware scanline generator (the SLG3000) to purposefully degrade the video signal going in to my HDTV so I can avoid storing a big-ass CRT arcade monitor.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:19 AM on July 21 [8 favorites]


If you’re the type of person who is sick of replaying the entire last level of Ninja Gaiden every time the final boss defeats you,

then what are you even doing reading this article amirite
posted by RogerB at 9:25 AM on July 21


The folks at Giant Bomb bought a Retron and have tried it out on a few video streams. It seems pretty slick, for the most part. Plug in a cartridge and the box scans it and automatically recognizes which game it is - when it works. A lot of the games they tried didn't work for mysterious reasons. It relies on a game library that's programmed into the firmware (on a removable SD card), so as the developers make more games compatible with the device they push firmware updates. However, it doesn't have network connectivity built in (I think), so you have to pull out the SD card and program it on your desktop.

That being said, I'm really impressed how well it appears to work. I don't have any of my old cartridges and would never try to build a new collection at this point, but if you've got boxes of dusty games in your basement, this seems like a very convenient way to play them again.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:47 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


I know you didn't, strictly speaking, *have* to blow on the cartridges, but it was part of the ritual. You didn't have to sit on the floor two feet from the TV either, but you know you did.
posted by mrgoat at 9:55 AM on July 21 [3 favorites]


It most certainly does interface with cartridges, and the Venturebeat calls that "Retron 5′s foulest problem"
A serious bug with this save feature wipes out the save data on some carts. From my experience, the machine erased all of my saves on a Pokémon Blue cartridge for the GameBoy Color, and on a copy of The Legend of Zelda for the NES!
But you don't need to save onto the cartridges themselves. In fact,
One of the coolest features is that you can transfer a save file from a cartridge to the console’s internal file system. Also, you can move saves from the console to the cartridge. I am in love with the idea of backing up all of my old NES game saves and being able to transfer them back and forth.
I love that it has the "vintage" matte grey plastic for much of its case.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:39 AM on July 21


The problem with ROMs is the Tyranny of Choice. We have every game at our disposal, right here, right now. Every NES, SNES and Genesis game from my childhood is accessible to me today if I want to play it, along with thousands of others I never dreamed of being able to play back then. So why do I end up playing none of them? Or why do I start a game, play it for a little bit, and then put it away in favor of something else? We have too much choice, and we're paralyzed by it.

I don't have a collection, but the best case for starting to buy an old cartridge here and there is that, along with the Retron and its ability to emulate the CRT experience for modern TVs out of the box, I buy something and actually play it, like I used to back in the day, when that game was the newness and it was all I had available. It's a similar thing with vinyl vs MP3s. The element of digging for a great find shouldn't be underestimated, either. Granted you need a little bit of disposable income, but there's great joy in that sort of thing.
posted by naju at 10:42 AM on July 21 [3 favorites]


mrgoat: "I know you didn't, strictly speaking, *have* to blow on the cartridges, but it was part of the ritual."

I think it depended on whose house you were at. My father, a TV/radio engineer, raised me to handle recorded media with care. Not necessarily like they were ancient and holy relics, but I learned that it was best to pick up records by the edges, keep cassette tapes away from magnets and heat, and put CDs label-side down to avoid scuffing. I think I was maybe 10 years old the first time I saw one of my jam-handed younger cousins blow his gross salami breath into an NES cartridge, and even then I knew that it wasn't a good idea at all.
posted by Strange Interlude at 10:48 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


I just installed shelving last weekend for all of our retro console games and controllers. So I guess I'm the target market for this thing. It sounds great to me. I don't live in a big city at all and know of multiple shops nearby that sell cartridge games.

We had a break in several years ago and the perps took off with all of our disc games but left the cartridges and their consoles... Still got that Glove!
posted by heatvision at 10:49 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


There was more in the cartridges than ROM. Many of them had extra chips in them that enhanced the console's built-in abilities. The most ridiculous example of this is the SNES Super FX chip, which was a whole 3D accelerator in the cartridge.

Of course, the Retron might just be emulating those too, and just ROM dumping the cartridges.
posted by neckro23 at 11:23 AM on July 21


Retro gaming was/is a hobby that consumed far too much of my time and personal space. After I had to dispose of my overhead-mounted virtual boy couch adapter I seriously downsized my entire library.
I purchased a game boy micro, a flash cart that accepts micro sd cards, and the necessary emulator software. I can carry my entire nes/snes/gb/gbc/gba library in my pocket. It doesn't port to the tv but it scratches the itch.
Incidentally, I also bought a pile of replacement game boy micro batteries because I have a sneaking suspicion that at this stage in my life... this could be the last handheld system I ever own.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 12:08 PM on July 21 [3 favorites]


overhead-mounted virtual boy couch adapter

Tell me you have photos.
posted by griphus at 12:32 PM on July 21


I've still got my Virtual Boy. Just waiting for the day that they become worth thousands of dollars.....I've been waiting awhile.
posted by Twain Device at 12:37 PM on July 21


griphus: I assure you it wasn't as cool as you might think. It was basically a big, articulated floor lamp stand like this, bolted to the back of the couch, with the shade and socket removed and the VB attached to it with wing-nuts. It was kind of cool in a sort of 80s-futuristic way - you could plop down in the couch after a long day, lean back, reach up and pull the virtual headset over your eyes and go bowling.

This is assuming, of course, that you belong to a segment of the population that isn't instantly and profoundly debilitated by piercing headaches brought on by the VB's baleful rays, which I have written about elsewhere.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 2:13 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


Those flash carts for the SNES and other systems are also really cool, even though at first glance you'd think it's just an SD card slot with circuitry to load a rom and feed it to the system.

The fact is that not every cartridge contained just a ROM chip, as some also contained chips to improve the system's graphics/processing. The intuitive solution might be to put a clone in of the Super FX chip and other popular chips on the board, which sounds like a good idea until you consider expense and space as there was not just one hardware enhancing chip in the SNES library. The solution used in cartridges such as the SD2SNES is to use a FPGA* to imitate the desired chip.

Of course, there are still a lot of chips that aren't compatible yet, but it's a very cool approach to fixing the issue. This chip, as used in Super Mario RPG, is particularly impressive. It contains another processor very similar to the one in the SNES itself.

Most emulators with "good enough" accuracy can emulate these games well enough, and a super-accurate emulator, like Higan (formerly BSNES) which tries to emulate the systems down to the behavior of the chips with cycle-accurate emulation, can do it on a recent computer. I'm curious what the exact emulators are like on this system, since it's a lower-priced Android board. However, I get the feeling this system really delivers in terms of the parts people would notice/care about, such as the way the graphics appear onscreen, the sensation of plugging in a cartridge to a system next to a TV (instead of using a menu to sort through an SD card or double clicking a rom on a laptop), and using the correct controllers for the system. I'm not really a snob for retro video game accuracy, but most video games from the SNES era or so can be emulated to the point they look identical to system playback in my experience.

*If you're curious about what a FPGA is, it's basically a bunch of logic gates that can be rearranged via programming, which makes them good for creating a logic circuit to do a specific task quickly. They're often used in signals processing, and other tasks that are hard for CPUs to perform efficiently compared to a specific design for the task.
posted by mccarty.tim at 2:47 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


Also, isn't the correct thing to do for a NES cartridge to not blow on it since your breath can get it wet and cause rust on the contacts? Isn't the correct solution, if reseating the cartridge doesn't work, to wash the contacts with high-concentrated rubbing alcohol to remove dust/dirt?
posted by mccarty.tim at 2:49 PM on July 21


This is intriguing. I recently discovered that many Sega carts have batteries inside to prevent the loss of saved games. The only way to access the inside of the cart where the battery lives is with a security Torx bit, not commonly found in most b&m stores but pretty easy to find online. So, maybe it's time to do some maintenance and get my old carts some new batteries...
posted by krinklyfig at 10:08 PM on July 21


A friend of mine manages a large retro game shop, part of a local chain that has multiple stores in my area. In addition to getting a pre-release model of that hunk of shit portable SNES from a while back(cool concept, chintzy execution with terrible materials/build), they've had a relationship with retron for a while and have carried their systems for ages. They've had a pre-release of the 5 for quite a while now and i've gotten to play with it a lot, including the current end-user revision.

The most important thing to me, after not-horrible-video-effects-in-the-upscaling (which is a very tall and complicated order) would be using the original controllers. It looks like it has ports for that, so I'm intrigued to see how the signal looks. There are tons of "get your old crap to 1080p HDMI" dongles and widgets out there and almost all of them result in horrid looking video that's inferior to just using an emulator.

It has all the same "supereagle" and etc scaling modes as stuff like snes9x. none of it looked that special to me, but it's a HUGE leap and jump better than say, the internal scaling in my samsung tv. Or even the honestly very nice older(think xbr8 era) sony tv they had in the shop with sonys really nice scaling chips in it. It looks like running a good emulator and using it's internal scaling, and it has several modes that basically look like a sharper version of it being linearly scaled on an analog TV. Whatever is handling video processing in this is fairly decent. Reminds me of what microsoft bragged about when the 360 came out, with relation to the video processing chips.

The video stuff is great, i don't have any issue with it.

From what I've read elsewhere, it really is the best emulator on the market now, even though it still has a few problems, especially with certain oddly sized cartridges. And you're going to want to use your own controllers, because the controller it comes with is complete dogshit. (I think "worse than the Ouya controller" was even uttered by some, though I can hardly believe how that can be true.)

The controller really is that bad. It can't be overstated how bad it really is. I have no idea why they fucked this up so bad, it seems willful. The actual electronics of the controller seem great, and it seems like it would be a great project to just rip the guts out of it and put them in you know... a decent controller. It's bluetooth i think, it has VERY impressive range and never loses sync. The battery lasts ages.

But the joystick really has to be felt to be believed. I've seen crappy famicom clones with those "160 in one" cartridges that were head and shoulders better. The d-pad is a ball-joystick with basically no springs in it. The buttons feel like they're made out of blister pack material... with that material being the spring. And the really cheap thin stuff, like what dollar store toys come in. Even the actual controller itself is made out of hilariously cheap feeling plastic. Paradoxically, the "menu" button is the best button on the controller. It's nice and snappy like the GBA-SP buttons. While not preferred to NES/genesis/SNES style buttons that actually move a lot it's still somehow the most functional button on there.

Not to derail, but what's wrong with the Ouya controller? I admit I've never used one, but looking at it, it looks like a perfectly fine one. The Retron's does look like it'd hurt your hands, though.

You really have to hold or use one. It looks nice. It's even made of nice materials... but it was just crap. The extra-shady thing is that they've cycled through like 5+ revisions of controller, and basically told no one until way later. Early backers got one, later backers got another, then in retail there's been at least 3. They barely acknowledged changing them, and they're cosmetically very similar. It's just that the buttons and joystick and such were tweaked. The final, newest versions are close to being great and are very serviceable. The early ones are turbo-shit.

A friend of mine who has an enormous collection of games/consoles/paraphernalia has an ouya, and at least 3 or 4 controllers. I'm pretty sure he has 3 different versions of controller.

I have a feeling this will happen with the R5, because the controller is just so bad.


Overall, i find myself really confused by this thing. Even more confused than i was by the Ouya. It seems like that they had a fairly coherent idea of what they wanted to make, got like 75% of the way there... and just stopped. The unit itself feels well built and well designed, but the OSD/firmware is confusing(several times i got stuck in it and a friend had to go "oh no, you push this button to go back, you can't just press B or the menu button"), the controllers are garbage, and it just makes it feel like a not fully baked experience. And its sort of expensive for being totally "beta" like that, which... yea.

The thing is, the people making this know what they're doing and weren't clueless fucks like the Ouya hucksters. I just... don't get it.

It could be a fairly decent machine if you used your own genesis/SNES controller the whole time, but you need their controller to get into the menus and use the special functions/settings of the thing. What confuses me more is that similarly ambitiously designed clever emulator systems like this had totally kickass wireless controllers. How did they fuck it up so hard?
posted by emptythought at 4:11 AM on July 23 [4 favorites]


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