Retron 5

How much is a memory worth to you? How much would you spend to take some beloved remnant of your past and restore it to its original brand-newness (or maybe even better!) while still being fundamentally, recognizably itself? Probably quite a bit, right? Okay: How much would the pretty-good, decent first effort, needs-improvement “beta” version of a device built to do just that be worth to you?

With The Retron 5, aftermarket game console superstars Hyperkin are betting that the answer is “around $140 retail.” The device is billed as nothing less than a fountain of youth for the classic games of consoles past, promising retrogame enthusiasts, collectors and plain old nostalgiacs a means not just to “Frankenweenie” Golden Age game cartridges back to life but to make the experience of playing them even better than you remember – all the goodies of the classic-gaming emulation scene but without the murky downsides of sketchy downloads and aftermarket piracy issues.

What they’ve actually delivered is a bit more than just that… but also a bit less: a paradoxically vital-feeling novelty boasting a quietly-miraculous onboard operating-system and user-interface that feels very much like the future of retrogaming… that’s unfortunately hampered by hardware that, well… could’ve stood to be a little harder.

Right off the bat, the amount of features and options packed into said hardware is impressively ambitious. There are separate dedicated slots for Sega Genesis, Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo and Japanese Nintendo Famicom cartridges on top and a slot up front for GameBoy, GameBoy Color and GameBoy Advance games. The system comes with one dedicated wireless bluetooth controller of its own (with additional controllers said to be available soon), but also boasts two ports each for original Genesis, NES and SNES controllers – all of which can be customized and remapped from the system’s main menu.

Retron Controller

Unfortunately, all that inner beauty is housed in an outer shell that is rather less impressive. The casing is made mostly from an overly lightweight and cheap-feeling plastic that doubtlessly helped keep the overall costs down but feels too often like a poor fit for its intended use – the games its meant to be used with all hail from the heavy-duty physical-connection era of game/console interface, after all.

I found myself having to find JUST the right balance of forceful and gentle to get certain carts into their respective slots. This was especially true for the bigger, awkwardly shaped NES games – though to be fair, those are the only ones not originally designed for a top-loading console. In addition, the console itself is so lightweight that you’ve actually got to hold it down physically while removing a game to avoid lifting the whole thing. These are all common issues that longtime console gamers are readily familiar with, but one of the hopes commonly pinned to revival devices like this is that they’ll offer a way to introduce new generations to the classics, and the Retron 5 feels like it might be too delicate for younger hands.

On the other hand, the outside hardware (while important) was never going to be the focus of this particular device.

Retro clone-consoles are by now a standard feature of the gaming world, as collectors and hobbyists alike face the uncertain realities of time and breakdown for aging electronics. But while previous clones were a good alternative to buying increasingly expensive refurbished consoles for the budget-conscious, there were often recurring issues like hard to reproduce sound chips and some games being more difficult to interface with than others.

But the bigger problem was that most of these “new” clones were still based off technology that was no longer fully compatible with modern high-definition TVs: Most can’t even output to HD, and even if they could, most HDTVs are pre-set to smooth-out the pixelated textures that were the proper original state of these games – turning what were once sharp, detailed graphics into a blurry mess.

Retron 5

The ability to solve that specific visual issue has been Hyperkin’s main selling point for the Retron 5 over previous console-clones, and it’s here that the system is not just a success but a straight-up unqualified wonder for the dedicated retrogamer. No lie: The issues with the machine’s nuts and bolts construction keep it from being perfect, but on the software side the Retron 5 is as close as these things get to a must-own. A miracle. A (literal) game-changer.

Rather than simply recreating the console-to-screen interface of original systems, the Retron 5 boasts an Android-based custom operating system that loads the cartridge data into onboard emulation software – but only while the cartridge itself is connected, making this not technically piracy. From there, it outputs the games in clear 720p HD while preserving the original graphics pixel-for-pixel. I cannot overstate enough just how good the results of this are, visually: Not only did every console game I tried look as good as new – they looked sharper and clearer than they’d ever looked even on the best oldschool CRT displays. In a few cases, it was almost like seeing them for the first time.

Frankly, the HD upscaling is so remarkable I’d have happily paid twice what Hyperkin is charging (and maybe if I had they’d have made the thing out of materials worthy of its innards); but it’s not the end of its software benefits. The games launch from a main menu packed with user-friendly options allowing you to adjust screen size, volume, customize button maps, change aspect ratios and even apply visual filters like anti-alias smoothing or CRT-style scanlines.

Retron 5 UI

The onboard software also allows for game-specific save states, which remain stored and waiting for whenever you put the game back in (another feature that would’ve made this a day-one must buy even without the other bells and whistles) and it recognizes existing save data from battery-backed cartridges. There’s even a built-in menu for cheat codes, which can be downloaded from a Hyperkin database and added via a rear SD card slot – which is also how the system will handle patches and software updates.

Of course, the retrogaming scene is nothing if not filled with traps and hurdles. The Retron 5 is still brand new, and devout gamers are still putting it through its paces with regard to more obscure titles and peripherals (I’m curious to find out, for example, if there’s a way for it to work around the infamous “soft reset” gimmick from the Genesis X-Men.) I can personally report that my original, not-even-close to “mint” copies of two infamously difficult to emulate classic titles, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and the original SNES Starfox, both booted up with zero difficulty.

Bottom Line: The Retron 5 is not perfect, but while its physical construction leaves a bit to be desired, what it does with regards to the presentation, playability and even full-on resurrection of Golden Age games leaves me quite comfortable calling it one of the most satisfying gaming purchases I’ve made in years.

Recommendation: Absolutely worthwhile for retro enthusiasts, oldschool fans who’ve still got their game collections and younger students of the medium who’d like to experience the games that formed the foundation of gaming for themselves. If that sounds like you, and you can handle some nagging issues with mechanics and casing (which, admittedly, tend to be part of the retro-scene no matter what) I’d call it very close to a must-buy.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to hit every thrift store, yard sale and flea-market between here and kingdom-come – some old and dear friends of mine are out there, somewhere, and I think they’ve waited long enough.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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