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.