Random Thought 0002 – Retron HD Review

Figuring I’d invest a slight amount of money in myself this weekend yet not having conceived of a target, I walked the aisles of a local pop culture brokerage. This lead to an impulse purchase of a retro gaming console and a handful of games to compliment it. However, this console was a little different for me. It was a Hyperkin console. I’d long strayed from these devices since I’d always been concerned about overall quality of the playback, but I’m pleased to say that for the most part, I’m satisfied. Not just with the price, but with the overall performance, capabilities and features of the console itself.

The console I purchased is marketed as the Retron HD, although Hyperkin categorically refers to this device as the RetroN 1 HD (SKU M01888-GR, the SKU M01888-BK is listed on their official website and from what I can tell the only discernible difference is the chassis color; mine is grey and the other is black). It’s a pretty focused console only being able to play NES games. Most of the Hyperkin lineup looks to be multi-platform focused, but they also seem to offer alternatives in their fleet like the Retron HD that are specific. This was fine for me since I’m really only interested in playing the NES titles, but keep in mind that if you want something a bit more versatile in terms of target platforms, then this console isn’t for you. The MSRP from Hyperkin is $39.99 USD, but I managed to get mine for about $10 cheaper, new.

Hyperkin Retron HD Retail Packaging.

Physically, and I hope this isn’t too odd of a comparison, the device reminds me of some larger Raspberry Pi cases you’d see if you had a project that demanded a larger enclosure for either cooling or internal storage reasons. It’s certainly more compact than the original NES, and is a bit smaller in terms of length and width than my Mac Mini. The battleship grey color really brings back a tremendous sense of nostalgia, and in my opinion is the better option cosmetically than its all black contemporary. It weighs a little under two pounds without a cartridge inserted. When a cartridge is inserted, you get the look and feel of the NES top loader, and the unusual weight distribution that brings with it.

Top-view of the Retron HD without a cartridge inserted.

The controller ports are right next to each other as was the case with the original NES. With this arrangement, I suspect the NES Four Score might be an option here, but I don’t have one in my arsenal to try this out with. Inserting a controller connector into a controller port feels good. I’ve never felt like I had to force the connector into a port using either an unusual amount of force or an awkward hand positioning. The power and reset buttons are nicely pronounced for easy access, and have good feedback when pressed. I can’t really remember how the original NES felt with these buttons, so I can’t make a comparison.

Front-view showing the two controller ports alongside the power and reset buttons.

The console comes with one Cadet model controller. This controller’s design derives from the original NES controller design but takes some liberties to cater to a more comfortable experience. Two of the aspects about the original NES controller that have always bothered me were the size of the controller – it felt too small – and the manifest lack of ergonomics. As a kid, this clearly didn’t bother me all that much, but as an adult, this really stinks after playing for about thirty minutes. The Cadet controller bevels down on the two corners that will principally rest in your palms, and on the opposing sides of the rear are large bumps that fill the gaps in your palms. I really like holding this controller, a bit more than I do the original one.

The Cadet model controller, standard with the Retron HD; Front-view.
The Cadet model controller, standard with the Retron HD; Rear-view.
Side-by-side front-view comparison of the original NES controller (left) and the Hyperkin Cadet controller (right).

The console is powered by a very modest 0.4A 5V AC adapter. The console expects a micro USB connection as a power source. Although USB-C is slowly ebbing its way as the dominant connection type nowadays, you should be able to scrounge one of these kinds of cable up from somewhere in your house. The console, at least in the US market it seems, should already come with a wall brick and a 6’ cable that will do the job.

Power brick found in the Retron HD box (might be for US markets only).
Micro USB cable that connects to the Retron HD to provide power. The cable shown was found in the Retron HD box and is 6′ in length.

The bottom of the console features the obligatory regulatory information, but there’s also a switch to toggle between NTSC and PAL operating modes. I imagine this would be good for those of you who import titles. I don’t actually know anything about the Retron HD and its region-related functionality since I’m strictly a NTSC/US player, but evidently the option is there.

Bottom-view of the Retron HD console. Regulatory information and the region switch are shown.

Before getting to the part that most anyone would care about, I’d like to talk about the cartridge slot and the process of inserting and removing a cartridge. This aspect is one of the very few complaints I have about this product. Pictured above is the top-view of the console. Following is a Metal Gear cartridge inserted into the cartridge slot.

The Retron HD console with a Metal Gear cartridge inserted into the cartridge slot.

Inserting a cartridge feels really good. You don’t have to press very hard to insert it, but once inserted, the cartridge feels a little wobbly. There’s definitely some play on the front and rear of the cartridge to wiggle in the slot. I don’t know if this was also the case with the original NES top loader or not since I never owned one of those, but this really means that I have to keep this thing away from the kids while they’re out and about and daddy is looking to get some game time. The other complaint I have here is how truly difficult it is to remove the cartridge. It’s tough. I haven’t yet encountered a situation where I don’t need to physically lift the entire console with my left hand and pull incredibly hard in the opposite direction with my right hand. I can promise you that with the force I’d exert to get a cartridge out, if I’m not careful, I could easily put either the console or the cartridge through a wall. I hope that repeated removals will wear the connectors down a little to the point where this won’t be necessary, but it does worry me some. I don’t remember the top loader having this issue, and I don’t know if this is a problem that manifests across the Hyperkin line, but it’s something to be aware of all the same.

Now let’s look at the rear of the console for the video and power connectors.

Rear-view of the Retron HD console.

From left to right, we have the power port (micro USB), HDMI port for HDMI output, component output, and a switch to toggle 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratio support. The console ships with both a component cable and a HDMI cable, so if you don’t have one of those lying around you should be okay. I’ve played the console with both connection types, and both on 16:9 native aspect ratios and 4:3 native aspect ratios (a CRT specifically). My personal preference is to use the console in 4:3 mode regardless of the display it’s connected to. Both my nostalgia and brain have trouble dealing with upscaling and/or stretching of an image from one aspect ratio to another. The HDMI output is pretty crisp as is the component output, however, with some of my TVs, the ability to adjust settings on HDMI rendered a bit more of a vibrant display than the component was capable of. This has more to do with the TV than with the console itself, but I thought it worth mentioning. The Retron HD is capable of up to 720p for HD, but again, just using the 4:3 ratio is good enough for me.

What I don’t have photos of are the actual gameplay. Despite that, I have quite a bit to say about this.

My NES collection is limited, and I don’t consider myself a collector (not that I’d want to in this climate), so my experiences may not reflect what a true collector would likely be capable of doing simply because of a larger assortment of games to choose from. I tested with three games: Metal Gear, Anticipation, and Xexyz. I’ll examine three aspects about the gameplay and try my best to gauge them against what I remember were my original experiences and thus expectations from the original NES. I’m not entirely sure how the Retron HD is facilitating the NES (i.e. FPGA or emulation), so if some of my ignorance shines through here, just be patient with me. These aspects are audio, frame rate, and control.

Regarding frame rate, I believe the Retron HD is pretty frame accurate in terms of graphics. I didn’t really notice anything here that seemed untoward. All three of my test games were just as I had remembered them in terms of graphical fidelity, and the places where I’d expected a slow down for one reason or another were there perfectly.

Related to the frame rate to an extent is the control, but the additional factor here is the physical controller itself. Although the Cadet controller is really well built, I do feel like I can’t be as efficient with it as I can an original NES controller. I’m not sure if it’s the pads under the buttons, the buttons themselves, or my old age and/or lack of practice, but sometimes it feels stiff. I’m sure I’ve encountered a few scenarios where I’ll be mashing during a shooting scene in Xexyz, completely in rhythm with the fire rate, and I’m visibly missing shots in what would otherwise be a harmonious stream of fire. I’m confident in my ability to pull this off every time, but I’ve seen this happen on more than one occasion and it’s cost me a life or two. The same thing happens in Metal Gear. There’s a rhythm one can get in with the punching to make it pretty efficient for dispatching foes quickly. That rhythm sometimes doesn’t seem obtainable, and I can’t figure out why. The symptom here is that a button press doesn’t yield the expected action in the game. This happens with the original NES controller as well, so I’m not sure what the deal is here. Overall, it’s not a deal breaker. I’m not really striving for frame-perfect gameplay techniques here. However, I do have a set of techniques I’ve developed over the years concerning the rhythm of limiters, and I’ve noticed this a few times.

The audio playback is pretty good, but there’s something not quite right about it. For example, the first level music in Xexyz seems to be playing some notes in either an entirely different octave, using a different instrument, or with a different pulse rendering. This is also noticeable too when Apollo shoots any of his weapons; the sound effects for these events just sounds like it’s missing something. Generally, some of the bass instruments seem weaker than I remember them being on the original NES. A great example of this is Anticipation. Each track in this game has a pretty aggressive bass presence, but on the Retron HD, these frequencies seem a bit muted, if not diluted slightly.

In summary, I’m very pleased with this device. NES veterans can appreciate it, despite picking out aspects about it that differ from the source material. But playing the game with an acceptable level of quality is all that matters here, and the Retron HD fits that bill at an extremely affordable price.

Random Thought 0001 – Mobile Gaming

Foreword: I’m trying out Anchor to see how it works in relation to my WordPress blog. I’ve made an automated audio recording of this post and it’s available here: https://anchor.fm/gregory-martin7/episodes/Random-Thought-0001–Mobile-Gaming-e15kvqa

Being a recent Apple convert, I’m still coming to terms with the idea that gaming on a Mac isn’t quite what it used to be in the Windows world. I’ve spent so many hours in the past on Steam – and with a considerable number of independent games – that are truly Windows exclusives, and this makes it painful when I open Steam on my Mac only to see that maybe 10% of my library is available. As discouraging as this is, I’ve considered it a temperament of sorts. With my family growing in size, any time I can dedicate to gaming is fast dwindling. So I’ve been spending more time gaming on my iPad, which has proven a rather stalwart companion in this regard. One that I’m quickly growing rather fond of.

None of that is to say that Apple doesn’t have good games at it disposal. But if you’re a classic gamer such as myself who desires a specific set of games, you need to be prepared to walk away disappointed most of the time. Apple Arcade is a pretty good service for those who’re willing to pay for it and are invested in the Apple ecosystem. There are some gems on there, and the fact that you can seamlessly transition from iPhone to iPad to Mac and – even in some cases – Apple TV, makes this a worthwhile service itself. However, the severe drought of Triple-A titles and the overwhelming sense that most of these games were created by frustrated art students leaves an uncomfortable itch on your mind. I can say with honesty that there have only been maybe four games in the total lot that I’ve been interested in, and even in that set only two that I’ve been able to spend any serious time with: Fantasian and Shante and the Seven Sirens. I’ve long been bored with the traditional mobile gaming experience, and most of these games trend toward that scheme: controls that a toddler can master with ease, and shallow gameplay that either can’t escape said control scheme confines or require a micro-transaction to expand upon.

All these years later, and to my amazement, some of the publishers that I’ve come to know and love on consoles and PC have started to put some of their greatest titles on the mobile platforms. I had fair reservations when hearing that SquareEnix would be releasing Chrono Trigger on Android, but there it was right in the Play Store. Konami has Castlevania: SOTN up there. And these titles are also available in the App Store too. Several years ago, when I was still playing largely in the Android space, I ponied up for Secret of Mana, one of my all-time favorite games. Thinking I’d stumbled upon a way to relive my childhood with this amazing title, I was soon completely and utterly disheartened. This was my first experience with on-screen digital controls and man did they not map onto the clean experience that the analog version once had. A game like Secret of Mana requires a certain amount of precision in controls to truly enjoy, and these touchscreen controls failed in every way to live up to that basic expectation. Map navigation felt slippery, and handling platforming sections was dubious at best, especially when trying to avoid floor hazards. Combat required an entirely new approach. Instead of advancing confidently either with gusto or tactically, each action now started with reservation. Not because the opponent demanded a change in default tactics, but because there was a more than uncertain chance that you’d miss your target because the controls were grossly inaccurate. Of course, this says nothing about the action buttons. Because you get no feedback from the “buttons” on a touchscreen, I’ve often times found my right thumb drifting away from where it should be to press on a button. In the middle of combat, I’ll be frantically tapping on the screen thinking I should be executing an action only to see my avatar doing nothing but standing idle getting clobbered. It’s only when I’m certain that the game is ignoring me do I realize that I’ve been tapping in the void this whole time. It’s one thing to feel like an idiot because you made the wrong move or poorly planned for the next section. It’s an entirely different thing to know that you’re hindered from standing a chance because you tapped in the wrong place.

Shortly after jumping into the “Walled Garden,” I learned that the iPad could support pairing with either an Xbox or PlayStation 4 controller. Not only that, but that some games actually supported in part or outright required a paired controller to play. Finally!, I thought. This is how games are meant to be played! A controller in hand. Not some goofy DPI-scaled tap range that had no way to tell you “You missed that button!” This is when I started diving deep into Shantae and the Seven Sirens. It’s also when I learned to love the ability to transition between my several Apple devices for a truly seamless gaming experience. At home, I could pair my Xbox controller with my Apple TV and play Shantae on the big screen. With the data always synchronizing to the cloud, I could take my iPad with me to work, pair up my Xbox controller to it, and play during my lunch break. Not only that, but also play by picking up from the same exact place I left off with at home on the Apple TV. But then, if that weren’t enough, if I wanted to cut loose and play a little on my Mac while taking a break, I could easily pair my Xbox controller to it and play Shante there with the same data availability as before. Wayforward seriously nailed it on the head with this title in Apple Arcade. They took advantage of all the technologies Apple has to offer and made one hell of an experience. It made me realize that this is what Triple-A gaming should be like, if not everywhere in principal, then at least on the Apple platform. My games should be playable on all the devices I own, especially the Apple TV, should support a controller as either an option or strict requirement, and if a multiplayer mode is available, certainly have an online option but also support a local option too, reminiscent of days of yore where two or more people were huddled around the TV, each with a controller.

To my dismay, it seems like many game developers and publishers are missing this aspect horrendously, and it bothers me. First of all, there’s incredibly limited support for Apple TV versions of games, and I’m not quite sure why. I’ve recently started developing on Apple platforms, but have been doing so with SpriteKit and Metal – and maybe this is the reason why – and my demos seem to work quite well on any device that I deploy them to. Further, SquareEnix didn’t seem to have any issues making Chrono Trigger work on the Apple TV as well as the iPad and iPhone (no Mac oddly enough). So why does the Apple TV get neglected so much? I just recently purchased Trials of Mana for iOS and not only does it not support a controller, but it also doesn’t support Apple TV. Why? It’s unplayable on my iPhone and barely passable on my iPad. The whole experience would be so much better if a controller were supported and the Apple TV were a viable host to play on.

Second, and I’ve already hinted at this, is the lack of controller support from the gate. As I’d mentioned previously, the newly released Trials of Mana for iOS doesn’t currently have controller support, meaning you’re relying entirely on touchscreen controls. For a game of this sort, you absolutely need a controller. I’ve plenty of recorded video where moving the camera with my right thumb is needlessly complicated and cumbersome because there’s no way to wrap the action. Genshin Impact, which I absolutely love, didn’t launch with controller support either. It only came to iOS several updates later after its launch. That game features fast-paced high adrenaline action, and you’re supposed to handle that with touchscreen controls? One game that had it right, I feel, was Call of Duty Mobile. They had touchscreen controls to be sure, and they’re pretty solid if still a little clumsy, but they also supported controllers right from the gate, changing the whole experience for the better. The thing that baffles me is that you have publishers and developers whose lifespan is well older than these mobile platforms, meaning that within their veins flows the blood of a controller-based interaction scheme, and when porting their legacy titles to newer platforms, it’s almost as if they’ve forgotten completely about having a controller in the mix.

Third, and finally, why does it seem like most of these game publishers and developers can’t handle cloud synchronized data? This is one of the aspects about Apple Arcade that I love a lot, especially because transitioning between devices is a necessity. The landscape seems to be a bit of a mess still. A few games I own flat out don’t support synchronization of any kind, requiring you to manually back the files up to your computer and move them to another device or back onto the same one should you need to DR the thing. Others will still only synchronize with a third party like Facebook, which was usually the result of not supporting synchronization in the first place and then tacking it on several updates down the line (and who the hell wants to use Facebook these days?). Bizarrely, some games do support synchronization, but it’s a manual action relegated to the title screen which is inaccessible in-game; you need to close the app and reopen it to have the option to trigger the action.

Even as my relationship with gaming metamorphoses from a serious to a casual one, I still feel a need to demand a bit of quality out of the games I play. This is doubly true both from publishers I have a tremendous amount of history with and from titles that I have respect for. These recent ports to mobile platforms don’t seem to do them justice, even if the justification is preservation into a new era of gamers or quick cash grabs. If the latter, at least make it seem like you’re making an honest effort, especially when you’re selling a game whose source material is at or over twenty years old. I start to buy into the memes that publishers and developers can grow tone-deaf to their audience, and images of the infamous Blizzard Diablo Immortal fail-conference creep in. I truly don’t mind paying a premium for software, especially since I know what it’s like to try and live off $1 per download for an app you spent months of man-hours creating. But is it too much to ask for a little more care and attention to your products?