RetroN 5 Review
By: Josh Davis
From the moment the RetroN 5 was first announced, the retro gaming community has had an extremely mixed reaction. Some saw it as a revolution in the way retro games would be played. Others thought it was completely pointless compared to their current setup. Now that the machine is finally here, what’s the verdict?
Well, I suppose I should start with some basic information first…
The RetroN 5 – What it is & What it isn’t
The RetroN 5 is the newest in the RetroN line of multi-platform clone systems from Hyperkin. These are new, modern-day systems designed to play games from different, older systems of yesteryear. The RetroN 5, specifically, plays games from the following systems:
- Famicom (Japanese NES)
- NES (NTSC or PAL)
- Super Famicom (Japanese SNES)
- SNES (NTSC or PAL)
- Sega Genesis (NTSC US)
- Sega MegaDrive (Japanese or PAL)
- Sega MasterSystem (NTSC or PAL, requires the Power Base
- Gameboy (all regions)
- Gameboy Color (all regions)
- Gameboy Advance (all regions)
What makes the RetroN 5 noteworthy compared to its predecessors and competitors isn’t just what systems it plays, but that it works in a fundamentally different way.
Traditionally, these clone systems work using miniaturized, “system on a chip”, versions of the original hardware. This may sound like a great idea, simple taking the original hardware designs and just making them smaller and cheaper with the more advanced technology of today, but it’s invariably imperfect. Many clone systems have trouble with more advanced games that used uncommon chip sets, such as Castlevania III on NES or Super Mario RPG or StarFox on SNES, and some don’t recreate the original system’s color palette or sound very well. These have been getting better over the years, but they’re still not perfect.
The RetroN 5, on the other hand, is running a custom version of the Android operating system and plays the games through software-based emulators after dumping the ROM from your cartridge. Compatibility isn’t 100% through this method either, but the difference is that anything the RetroN 5 doesn’t play perfectly out of the box can be fixed with a software or firmware update down the line (and Hyperkin have already released one of each of these). It also allows for a lot of fancy capabilities that other clone systems lack. One of the most noteworthy of which is HDMI output.
If you’ve ever hooked up an old videogame console to an HDTV, you’ve probably noticed that the picture quality is pretty bad. It’s a blurry mess. You can improve the quality a little by buying higher quality cables if you system supports it, but without modding the system or spending at least a few hundred bucks on a good upscaler, those systems just aren’t going to look as good on your HDTV as they did on the old CRT TVs they were designed for.
Not everyone has room to keep a CRT around just for their old games, and even for those of us that do, those TVs aren’t going to last forever. By outputting video over HDMI, the RetroN 5 gives us an easy means to play these older games on a modern TV with a pixel perfect picture… or, if you don’t like sharp-edged pixels, to smooth them out with various graphical filters (more on that in a bit). It was originally also going to have composite output, but this was removed during development for cost reasons.
The controller options on the RetroN 5 are multiple. There’s two NES ports, two SNES ports, and two Genesis ports built in so you can use the actual controllers from back in the day, as well as a wireless controller packed in that… Isn’t very good.
As you can see, it has a thumb stick where you would expect a d-pad to be. This isn’t an analog stick (as many would think), but a clicky micro-switch thumb stick similar to the one found on a NeoGeo CD controller or the NeoGeo Pocket. This works pretty good with some games, but not nearly all. It also has two (unlabeled) shoulder buttons; six face buttons bizarrely labeled +, -, ↑, ↓, ←, and →; select, home, and start buttons; and two unlabeled hotkey buttons tucked away in the upper left and upper right corners. The buttons are also all micro-switch based, so they all click loudly when pressed. The default button mapping isn’t very good, the shape is very uncomfortable, etc, etc, etc. I just don’t recommend using this thing at all.
As for the original controller support, (almost) everything seems to work fine. Regular controllers for NES, SNES, and Genesis and anything that acted like a regular controller (like arcade sticks) works fine. Light guns don’t work, which is kind of okay because they don’t work on HDTVs anyway. The SNES works both in-game and to navigate the RetroN 5’s operating system (a nice touch).
I don’t own a Master System controller, but they reportedly do not work. NES controllers are very similar to them, though, and even allow you to pause the game from the controller. Atari 2600 controllers (which if you weren’t aware do work on a Sega Genesis… and vice-versa) also do not work. No word on the Power Glove.
You can choose to use any of the supported controllers on any of the games, remapping their face buttons (and shoulders for SNES) as you like, and can use a combination of the controllers for games that would normally use a multitap.
The Bells & Whistles
So, let’s talk about all the other extra features this thing has that make it noteworthy. The first, and in my mind foremost, is save states.
A standard feature of most emulators, save states let you save your progress anywhere, at any time, in any game, regardless of whether it originally supporting saving. The RetroN 5 has two types of save states: an automatic save state that is generated for each game when you exit out to the main menu, and the save states that you can make or load manually using either the RetroN’s in-game menu or a hotkey combination of your choosing. You get 10 slots per game for these manual save states, and you can select which slot to load or save from the in-game menu. By default the system will automatically load the most recent save state when you select to play the game from the main menu (which you can turn off if you prefer to start from the title screen every time). So even if you never manually save a save state, as long as you exit the game properly it’ll resume where you left off, much like games on Nintendo’s Virtual Console.
Another common emulator feature present here are the image filters that I mentioned earlier. These all use pretty similar techniques to smooth out the picture, but different formulas to achieve their intended look. I’ll go ahead and list these out here:
- Super 2xSaI
- Super Eagle<
I’m not a huge fan of these personally, but to each their own. There’s also a scan line overlay that can be applied separately or in addition to the filters, to simulate the scan line effect of traditional CRT displays. It is a simple overlay, not scaled to the resolution of the game you’re currently playing, so the lines don’t match up perfectly to the pixels. It works well enough, though, especially at a distance.
Speaking of recreating CRT experiences, there’s also an overscan option to recreate how CRT TVs cut off or hid the edges of the incoming video signal… But it’s not perfect, either. You see, with some games back in the day (especially on NES) developers would take advantage of this “hidden area” to hide a lot of garbled graphics that resulted from making the NES do things it wasn’t really designed to do (like multi-directional scrolling). Unfortunately this option is a little conservative on how much it cuts off vertically, so a lot of that garbled graphics are still visible. I know they’re working on this one, since I’ve talked to Hyperkin reps about it, so it should be better in future updates.
In addition to all these graphic-enhancing options, there’s also the sound enhancement option… which “enables Audio Interpolation, a method of taking the original audio sample and creating higher quality sample, thereby creating a cleaner, smoother audio output.” I’m quoting from the manual because I’m a little hard of hearing and can’t tell the difference. There’s also options to boost the bass and/or treble.
Let’s see, what else… You can set the game to either fill the screen as much as possible while maintaining the original aspect ratio (leaving bars on the sides), fill it completely by stretching it out, keep the original aspect ratio while filling it width-wise (cutting off the top and bottom), or scale to the largest exact-multiple of the original resolution for a nice pixel-perfect image with black on all sides.
You can force a specific region and refresh rate or let the system automatically use the one for the region that game is from.
If you have an SD card you can take screenshots… but they don’t include any of the filters and are saved as low-quality jpegs.
Also making use of the SD card is the built-in Game Genie support. You just download a cheat code database from their website pop it into your SD card, and as long as the system recognizes the game you’ve put in, you can select the cheats you want turned on from the menu. They don’t have the cheat database up just yet as of this writing, though.
Compatibility is sort of a big issue with these clone systems, so let’s talk about that a bit.
As I mentioned before, it doesn’t work with lightguns, but neither do modern TVs, so that’s one that probably won’t be getting fixed.
A lot of homebrew and repro cartridges aren’t working just yet either, although Hyperkin are working on that since they want to support the homebrew community.
Any sort of cartridge with special hardware in it, the RetroN can only dump the software off of and cannot access the hardware. So anything with a motion sensor like Kirby’s Tilt ‘n Tumble or WarioWare Twisted isn’t going to be playable (they would be very hard to play on it anyway). Similarly, the e-Reader cannot read cards while connected (but you can play games saved to the e-Reader’s memory). Gameboy/GBA games with built-in rumble won’t rumble but are otherwise perfectly playable.
At present anything that connects through another cartridge isn’t working as the RetroN is only able to detect and dump the cartridge directly connected to it. This includes the Super Gameboy and Game Genies, which are superfluous anyway, but more importantly Sonic & Knuckles’ lock-on functionality isn’t working. Hyperkin are working to fix this.
A problem with testing compatibility on the system is that if a game’s pin connectors are too dirty or damaged, the system will have trouble dumping it and will either not be able to play it or might be able to run it but can’t recognize the game since it didn’t match the system’s database. An unrecognized game can still be played, but may have errors since it didn’t dump correctly and won’t have access to the game genie cheats.
I did a quick testing of all of my games the for the supported systems. Out of my 369 games, 18 are either not being unrecognized or not running as of this writing. I have tried cleaning them, but they may still not be clean enough. This is ignoring the above-mentioned hardware compatibilities (lightgun games, Sonic & Knuckles, etc)
Supervision 76 in 1 (Pirate multicart)†
Batman: Return of the Joker
Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt/World Class Track Meet†
Battle Kid 2 – Mountain of Torment (homebrew)†
Mr. Gimmick (repro cart)†
Nintendo World Championships 1990 (repro cart)†
Kid Klown in Crazy Chase*¥
Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow*
Out of this World
Sonic the Hedgehog†
* = “Unknown Cartridge”
† = “No cart inserted” (system did not detect
the game at all)
¥ = Working fine, as far as I can tell
Some of these I know are issues with my copies. Both Yoshi and Sonic the Hedgehog have been confirmed as recognized and working by other people. So take all of these with a grain of salt.
So what’s my personal opinion on the RetroN 5 after using it for a few days?
Many retro enthusiasts dismissed the system early on, because it’s just emulation and will never perfectly match the original hardware. This is true to a degree, as I don’t expect it to be able to magically play lightgun games on an HDTV, but it’ll get closer than most clone systems, and it can do a whole lot of things that the original systems and other clones can’t.
Many emulation enthusiasts dismissed it early on, because their emulators on their computers could already play all of these games without them having to buy the system or cartridges. This too is true, but also illegal.
For me, the RetroN 5 is a box of convenience. It means five less systems I have to keep hooked up, and the ability to actually finish all of those old games that didn’t have save files without leaving a system running for days on end. It’s a perfect middle-ground between the authenticness of the original hardware and the added functionality and customization of emulation. It’s great.
And if I ever feel like playing Duck Hunt, I can always pull my NES off the shelf and hook it up.