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The Hyperkin RetroN 5 – Real and Spectacular

Well, well, well. Look what the cat’s dragged in.

I preordered Hyperkin’s RetroN 5 console way back in November 2013. Then I cancelled. Then I preordered again this March. Release dates came and went. Sometimes the manufacturer would address the delays, sometimes nothing. I began to think the RetroN 5 might not even exist. I went so far as to call it “the phantom console.”

I grew tired. I moved on.

This Saturday (several Saturdays ago at this point–ER), however, I returned to Le Chateau Radvon (not my apartment’s real name– ER) and discovered an oversized Amazon box sitting on my stoop. I went upstairs, cracked the it open, and there it was.

Oh, there it was.

Hyperkin's RetroN 5 in its posh packaging.

Hyperkin’s RetroN 5 in its posh packaging.

The RetroN5. It was real. It was here. It had a very fancy box.

How do you grade this thing? It’s a tough call. It’s important to keep in mind that there has never really been a product like the RetroN 5 before. There’s little reason for this product to exist, let alone be produced on a mass scale. Without reservation, the RetroN 5 is a first. It’s an innovation. As with most firsts, there are flaws and quirks. Overall, after spending the better part of the last several weeks throwing cart after cart into this emulation machine, I can confidently report that what the RetroN 5 does right far outweighs any of its funky drawbacks.

To recap, the RetroN 5 is a video game console that plays old games. Specifically, it plays old games from the following 10 systems:

  • NES
  • Famicom
  • SNES
  • Super Famicom
  • Sega Genesis
  • Sega Master Drive
  • Sega Master System (with use of Power Base Converter)
  • Game Boy
  • Game Boy Color
  • Game Boy Advance

That’s a bunch on retro gaming goodness, and certainly the most attempted by one console to date. Again, it’s remarkable that this thing exists at all. Add in features like high definition digital output via HDMI, an impressive set of onboard system functionality (save  and load game states, add visual filters, map controllers across systems, etc.) and it’s safe to say the RetroN 5 is a unique first and a must-buy for any old school gaming enthusiast.

The RetroN 5's shitty controller wasn't as shitty as expected. It's still pretty shitty though.

The RetroN 5’s shitty controller wasn’t as shitty as expected. It’s still pretty shitty though.

It’s easy to forget that we’re talking about what is essentially a clone console. The clone market has crept up slowly over the last decade or so, as patents for 8-bit and 16-bit era video game consoles expired. Many of the clone consoles have been functional, almost all have had significant flaws. Color scheme changes, weird sound playback, lagging controls. Over time, the flaws became more limited. 16-bit emulation fared particularly well. 8-bit remained trickier. Yeah, upgrading firmware via an SD card is cumbersome and rife with hurdles, but the fact that we’re talking about firmware on a clone box at all shows a new level of sophistication for retro gaming. If anything, the RetroN 5 is at times a victim of its own ambition, which is tough to fault.

Here’s the bad news. A bunch of games likely won’t work on the RetroN 5. As with all clones, there are some titles that simply won’t play nice. A Google search will tell yield the latest status and some folks have put together a Google Docs spreadsheet keeping tabs on compatibility.  Click here for the RetroN 5 Compatibility List

As stated, the firmware update process is goofy. You’ll need an SD card (I didn’t have one because, like, it’s 2014) and a computer with an Internet connection as well as either a built-in SD card slot or an external USB reader. Still, the ability to update firmware is huge and represents uncharted territory for a retro gaming device. Hyperkin has already fixed a ton of issues and expanded game compatibility in the weeks since the RetroN 5’s release and has even split the update tree into unstable beta releases with more features and stable releases with solid performance. This makes the RetroN 5 as much as a software purchase as a hardware buy. Retrogaming-as-a-Service (RGaaS) anybody?

The RetroN 5 played nearly every cart tested, including this Japanese import baseball game.

The RetroN 5 played nearly every cart tested, including this Japanese import baseball game.

The RetroN hardware is inline with what we’ve seen from the clone market to date. The console is plastic-y and has the unmistakable sheen of “cost-efficient” Chinese production. Inexplicably, you have to hold the power button down for a good 10 seconds to turn the machine on, although this oddity seems to be on the list of firmware updates Hyperkin is working on.

There’s also been persistent online grumblings about games sticking in the RetroN’s cartridge slots, but I find these hard to take seriously. Anyone who has used a clone console or replaced the 88-pin connector on a NES has likely encountered the same. The fact of the matter is that slots with brand spanking new pins will grip tighter than a 30-year-old Nintendo with pins beaten and worn by the ravages of time. Other variables like grime on old cart pins or warped game boards make this a scattershot issue. On my RetroN 5 unit, NES games particularly needed some force to dislodge, but everything was smooth right out of the box. After a couple weeks of use and some cart cleaning, the NES slot works fine. Overall, if you’re giving the RetroN 5 a bad review because you can’t figure out how unload a game, then you probably need to bone up on your basic motor skills.

The good news is plentiful. I tested a crate of old carts across every system the RetroN 5 supports. Only two games out of 50+ didn’t work, and it’s likely because they were old and dirty. Additionally, a 60-in-1 bootleg Famicom cart also failed to load. Aside from that, the RetroN handled everything I threw at it. Everything. In short, the thing does what it claims to do.

Famicom carts, previously playable via RF cables, look particularly upgraded thanks to the RetroN 5's HDMI output.

Famicom carts, previously playable via RF cables, look particularly upgraded thanks to the RetroN 5’s HDMI output.

Playing a Game Boy game on a 50-inch plasma using a Sega Genesis controller is a surreal and downright awesome experience for anyone who enjoys classic gaming. There are a multitude of options and configuration settings. In more than one instance, gameplay on the RetroN was tangibly better than on the original console. The ability to save mid-jump and return where you left off is the stuff of dreams. The numerous audio/visual  options make rendered me a giddy mess.

Mapping controllers is awesome. The included wireless controller is not quite as terrible as I expected it to be and I found myself gravitating toward it more than once just out of convenience. The ability to use controllers from multiple systems simultaneously is fun and makes multiplayer a more flexible experience.  Want to jump in on this game of SNES Street Fighter II? Pick up that Sega controller and hit start. It’s pretty much that easy. Mapping and advanced controller settings are all available via the RetroN’s system menu.

The best news may be for Famicom collectors. Japanese Famicoms use RF connections, producing a pretty crappy picture even on modern flatscreen televisions. AV models were produced but are expensive and have a host of compatibility issues. Before importing a Famicom from Japan, most of my Famicom carts were played via an adapter board sprung from a Gyromite cart (learn all about it) which was also a less than perfect experience. The RetroN 5 presents a super accessible way for North American gamers to jump into the Famicom market and boosts the visual presentation of the games to something better than I’ve ever seen. The clarity of the old Famicom carts was in many cases stunning and the performance rock solid. Goonies in HD is something I never expected. I suspect something a Famicom boom as the RetroN makes its extensive library available to a new audience.

Final Verdict: A

The Hyperkin RetroN 5 represents a new benchmark in retro gaming and is something of a dream come true for vintage game enthusiasts. While not without its quirks and rough edges, the RetroN 5 is well worth it’s retail asking price and takes clone consoles to the next level.