- January 7th, 2015
Hello again. I had planned to provide a complete, unbiased review of Hyperkin’s multi-platform retro-gaming console, the Retron 5... but I’ve been too busy playing a bunch of awesome games and enjoying the heck out of it to cultivate any semblance of balanced insight. While I know the Retron 5 won’t please everybody, I think it’s flippin’ sweet and light-years ahead of other clone consoles when it comes to compatibility and accuracy.
“What is the Retron 5?” you ask. In a nutshell, it allows you to play Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Game Boy cartridges on your modern HD television without the need for a jungle’s worth of cabling just to get a decent picture.
On the unit itself, you’ll notice five cartridge slots: four on top and one in front. The slots on top are for (back-to-front) Sega Genesis/Megadrive, Super Nintendo/Super Famicom, Nintendo NES, and Nintendo Famicom cartridges. The slot in the front is for Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance cartridges. In total, with five slots and no region lock, the Retron 5 actually lets you play games for 9 different game systems. If you buy a Sega Genesis Power Base Converter and insert it into the Genesis slot, you can also play Master System games. So, to be accurate, the Retron 5 supports 10 systems.
It’s hard to not be blown away at the outset by the concept of a system that rescues you from the storage and clutter associated with owning three, four… or ten different game consoles. Don’t even get me started on the cash outlay required to buy Japanese consoles or to modify US consoles to play imported games. The Retron 5 just plays them all; no fuss, no muss.
The way the Retron 5 works is that it downloads the game code from the cartridge and runs it on an emulator built into the system. Purists argue that this isn’t the same as playing games on the original hardware. I tend to agree, but the emulators that Hyperkin stole (er, borrowed) to make their console work are generally very accurate. If there’s an NES or Genesis game that you’re familiar with that slows down when there are too many characters on screen, the same thing will happen when playing that game on the Retron 5.
Ease of Use: 9/10
Setup is a breeze. Have you ever connected a BluRay player to your TV? The Retron 5 plugs-in the same way. To play a game, you simply insert the cartridge, press the power button, wait a few seconds for the game to load, and select the “Play” option from the main menu. Granted, that is one extra step than just pressing the power button, but I think most people can handle that.
When you’re done with a game, you don’t need to turn the system off to switch cartridges. The system will go back to the main menu when you remove a cartridge, and it’ll automatically load the new game a few seconds after you insert the new cartridge. Removing cartridges can be a challenge if you’re used to the loose connectors found on 20 year old game systems. I find that I have to hold the system with one hand while gently pulling up on one side of the cartridge with the other hand. This shouldn’t be a problem for most people, but it’s something to be aware of if you have weak hands. Hey, some people do!
On-screen menus let you access display options, saving options, cheat menus, and a host of other optional but appreciated features. The included controller has a menu button that brings you right to the system menu, but you can also reach it by pressing down+start on any plugged-in controllers.
Design/Build Quality: 8/10
I’m generally satisfied with the overall build quality of the unit. Early models apparently shipped with brittle plastic around the cartridge connectors and with metal cartridge contacts that could easily be rendered inoperable if you bent a game cartridge the wrong way. Hyperkin has been shipping improved models for months now and that’s what I ended up with. The plastic surrounding the connectors is solid and it feels like there’s reinforcement beneath. And, while the cartridge connectors do hold onto games for dear life, I haven’t noticed any bending or breaking after hundreds of swaps.
Since the front of the unit is occupied by the power button and the Game Boy slot, Hyperkin chose to put the controller ports on both sides of the unit (player 1 on the left, player 2 on the right). I am not a fan of this from a space-saving perspective, but can’t harp on their placement too badly since being able to use original NES, Genesis, and Super NES controllers is a huge win in my book. Better still, you can mix and match. So, if you prefer the Genesis 6-button pad for fighting games, you can use it with the Super NES version of Street Fighter 2.
You’re definitely going to want to use an original controller too, since the bundled wireless controller isn’t the best when it comes to actually playing games. It’s very responsive, but the micro-switch style directional stick is totally worthless for games designed for a cross-style directional pad. My timing in games like Super Mario Bros, Street Fighter II, and Sonic the Hedgehog is just garbage with the bundled controller. Nevertheless, the included controller is useful for quickly accessing the system’s menus (instead of pressing down+start on other controllers) and for that reason I suggest keeping it handy and storing it in the system shell’s docking area when not in use.
On the back side of the unit, there’s a mini-USB jack for charging the bundled controller, as well as an SD card slot which allows you to upgrade the system, maintain a Game Genie style cheat database, store save games, and apply “hacks” to your games (more on that later).
When you insert a game cartridge, the Retron 5 pulls the data off the cart and stores it in memory. In an effort to deter piracy, the system deletes that data when you remove the cartridge from the system. Those of you waiting to make a set-top ROM box out of the Retron 5 will need to wait until somebody hacks the system. In the meantime, after the game loads you have the option to play it or to adjust a variety of options that emulator users are already very familiar with. These include visual and audio adjustments, access to the cheat system, access to the save/load system, and an option to load IPS patches (a.k.a hacks) from the SD card.
You might wonder why you’d need to adjust the graphics and sound when the console already outputs clean video and audio, but the reality here is that the output is “too clean” compared to the way the games look on older CRT monitors. You might appreciate the blocky, crisp look. Or you might want to smooth out those rough pixels to give your games a modern style. Or, you might just want your games to look like they did on your old TV back in the day. Two scaling toggles, six different filter settings and a scanlines option allow you to adjust the visuals to your preference. There are also toggles to clean up the audio, boost the bass, and boost the treble.
I’m happy with these options, for the most part. When set to no filter, no scanlines, and “show overscan area,” the output for Sega Genesis games looks and sounds nearly-identical to the Sega Genesis I have hooked up via SCART RGB and a convertor box. The RGB output from the actual system looks richer to me, but that’s something I can match by tweaking the TV’s picture settings. My mom has a Sony Trinitron CRT TV in her room for her NES games. When I set the Retron 5 to the HQ2X filter with scanlines enabled, the output is frighteningly similar to the composite image displayed on the Trinitron. You might think it’s a bad thing that you can set the Retron 5 to look like a fuzzy composite image, but I think it’s actually a positive aspect since it mimics the true old school experience.
I am familiar with how PC emulators work, so I must admit that I’m disappointed by the absence of the xBRZ filter as an option. If one of the purposes of the filters is to transform the blocky pixels of old into the best possible image without sacrificing detail, then it’s a disservice to not include the xBRZ filter. See, the problem with filters is that they attempt to transform square pixels into rounded edges. That’s not a bad thing except when you have single pixels or single-pixel width diagonal lines. Most filters lose clarity when trying to interpolate these fine details. The xBRZ filter preserves these single pixel features and comes the closest to providing the “best of both worlds”: detailed pixel art with appropriately smoothed edges. Most people won’t mind the pure no-filter default or the HQ2X option, so I can’t malign the Retron 5 too badly for this oversight. It’s just a personal pet peeve of mine and something I hope they remedy in an update.
I don’t make use of the audio enhancements. They seem to work without negatively affecting the sound output, but I prefer to hear my games as they were intended. Since I’m a Genesis nut, I wish that they’d included an option to select which Genesis model the audio output would be patterned after. There are clear differences in the audio output of early model 1, early model 2, and late model 2 Genesis consoles. The Retron 5 sounds like a model 2 with the distortion fixed. That’s great, but I personally prefer the bass heavy output of the early model 1 consoles.
Two features I do use heavily are the save/load system and the cheat function. Playing a game that doesn’t have a built-in save feature? No problem, just pull up the menu and save a snapshot. You can pick up where you left off later. Want to play through Contra III with infinite lives and the best weapons always enabled? No problem there either. Just enable those options in a submenu and start the game. Back in the day, I was a huge fan of the Game Genie accessory since it let you do all sorts of zany things in your games. Sure, you might “beat” the game sooner than you otherwise would, but then you’d spend even more time doing goofy things like playing as a boss character or playing Sonic from the beginning as Super Sonic. Kudos to Hyperkin for integrating this into the Retron 5, even if the cheat database is a separate download.
Another feature I enjoy is the ability to load IPS “patch” files when playing a game. These files, many of which can be downloaded from romhacking.net, offer the opportunity to remove censorship, clean up translations, and even totally revamp the layout and graphics of your games. One of my favorite patches replaces the sound driver in the Genesis version of Street Fighter II with one that doesn’t sound like a garbled mess. It works flawlessly on the Retron 5 when I plug in my copy of SF2.
The Retron 5 also has the ability to grab the save data from cartridge that has a built-in save function and to later write the save data back to a cartridge. This isn’t just handy for shuttling cartridges from one place to another, but can also rescue you if the battery dies in your copy of Legend of Zelda and you don’t want to start from scratch when you replace the battery or buy a newer copy. In my experience, this feature works fine. If you pick up a Retron 5, make sure it’s running the latest firmware before you start ripping save data, as older models had a tendency to blank the cartridge after retrieving data.
Oddly enough, the thing that bugs me the most about the Retron 5’s feature set isn’t something you’ll find in the menus. It’s the inability to have more than one cartridge inserted in the system at the same time. If you attempt to insert two cartridges, the system puts up an annoying message and scolds you for doing so. But why? It’s clearly not any sort of electrical issue since the system can detect multiple cartridges. I just think it would be convenient to be able to leave multiple cartridges inserted, so you can switch between them without getting out of your comfy chair and possibly annoying the cat that jumped onto your lap and fell asleep 20 minutes earlier.
My retro game library isn’t huge, so I can’t really say if the Retron 5 has issues with a significant portion of any particular game library. I'd say 98%+ of my two-dozen or so 16-bit games run at the proper speed with the proper graphics, music, and sound effects. I can perform dragon punches at will in Street Fighter II Turbo/SCE. Sonic flies across the screen in Sonic 2. Dracula X still has the beautiful flame effects and the horrible hit recovery. And the lava-themed stage in Lightening Force is just as hypnotic as it is on an actual Sega Genesis. The one 16-bit game I seem to have issues with is Castlevania Bloodlines for the Genesis, which resets the system on stage 2-5. Using a level skip leads to similar resets in at least three other stages. One out of 25 ain't bad.
I own approximately 80 NES games and have tried probably 30 of them. Of those, only one of the legitimate releases has had any issues. Unfortunately, the game in question is Castlevania III, which is one of my favorites. When I encounter the axe armor enemy for the first time, the game freezes. Strangely, if I perform a quick-save prior to encountering the axe armor, shut down the system, and then restart from that save point, I’ll be fine until I encounter the axe armors later in the game. The bizarre thing about this problem is it does not affect the Japanese Famicom release of the game, Akumajou Densetsu. That game works just fine even with the added sound chip.
Game Boy and Game Boy Color games work great. The Game Boy settings menu allows you to select various color palettes, such as green monochrome, black-and-white, and the Super Game Boy palette choices. Game Boy Advance games can take 10-20 seconds to load, due to their large ROM size, but the majority I tried worked fine. One exception I found was Final Fight One, which had an issue with “smudgy” visuals (for lack of a better term), typically in areas with a lot of blue coloring. The music also slows down and speeds up randomly. I haven’t experienced anything like that in other games, thankfully.
One thing I should mention is that the Retron 5 lets you choose to display images in the original console’s internal resolution or to display them as they’d appear formatted on a 4:3 ratio screen. You might think the internal resolution would be best, but that’s not necessarily true. CRT monitors have rectangular “pixels” and game designers drew their characters and backgrounds with that in mind. This is most obvious with the NES and Super NES, in which selecting the original internal resolution causes Mario to flatten out, almost as if he’s had gastric bypass done. My personal preference and recommendation is to set “Force Original Resolution” to off for everything except the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance. That way you get the proper aspect ratio and your timing won’t be thrown for a loop.
I own a number of homebrew games and hacked reproductions for the NES. Only some of these work on the Retron 5. DK Pie Factory and the translated Japanese version of Ninja Gaiden III ran fine, but Mystic Pillars and Recca Pure did not. I’m told that Hyperkin has been improving compatibility for these sorts of cartridges, so perhaps some more of mine will work after the next update. You can use the IPS patch functionality to "create" some of these hacks anyway, so it's not a horrible problem.
I only own one Sega Megadrive and one other Famicom game: Bare Knuckle III and Crisis Force. Both worked. That's pretty awesome since, much like Akumajou Densetsu, Crisis Force contains a special chip that was never used in North American NES games. That's also why you don't ever see reproduction copies of Crisis Force: nobody's cloned the VRC4 chip and the few Famicom donors you could use to make a repro cost about the same to import as an actual copy of the game.
Other clone consoles manufactured in the past could boast maybe 90% compatibility, so I can’t fault the Retron 5 terribly in light of what I’d call 98% compatibility with legitimately published retail games (based on personal experience and reading a list maintained by fans). Nevertheless, as my experience shows, you have to be ready for potential disappointment, especially if Castlevania Bloodlines is one of your favorites.
With regard to controllers, all of the original first-party Nintendo and Sega controllers I plugged into the system worked flawlessly. Third-party controllers also generally work, though I did have problems with one: the GN6 Sega Genesis controller made by Hyperkin. That’s right, I had trouble with a Hyperkin controller on a Hyperkin system. The Z-button is mapped to the up direction on the d-pad. Oops. You can change the layout of the buttons in the configuration menu, but the up direction will still be tied to whatever you bind “Z” to. Good thing I have plenty of controllers laying around. If you don’t, I suggest you stick with the name brand accessories.
It’s not actual hardware, it’s not 100% compatible, and it’s missing some A/V tweaking options that’d greatly improve my enjoyment of the unit. That said, I am satisfied with the Retron 5 because it lets me play most of my favorite games with genuine controllers while solving two very real problems (storage and entry cost). You won’t find another option out there that packs numerous systems into two square feet of shelf real estate. And you’re looking at $100 to get just one system working via HDMI (or $300 in the case of the NES). The Retron 5 itself retails for $120-$140 depending on which retailer you purchase from and what stock quantities are like.
Hyperkin has shown competency at fixing issues with subsequent firmware updates. So it could very well be that my problems with Castlevania III and Final Fight One will be fixed in a few months. Maybe they will add more filters too…
If you absolutely need your games to look just like they do on an old CRT monitor, you’re probably better off sticking with CRT and dealing with the related clutter. Likewise, if money is no object and you want the absolute best picture quality and compatibility, you should invest in RGB modded systems and an XRGB Framemeister box (FYI, the Chinese made SCART-to-HDMI converter that Amazon sells with “HD Video Converter” printed on it is also a viable alternative if you don’t mind the lack of image adjustments or scanlines).
For everyone else, I highly recommend the Retron 5. You’ll be able to play your old games again on your new TV and you’ll probably have a blast if modern gaming hasn’t ruined you yet.