Retro Reviews: Attack of the Retron Clones

We take a look at the Retron line of retrogaming consoles

In North America in particular, Hyperkin has made a name for themselves releasing clone systems for a number of classic consoles. We take a look at the range available, the pros and cons each and what you can expect.

During our brief foray into running a retro-gaming store, the Retron 1 was a hot seller. For people who only wanted to play one game such as Mario or Zelda it was a much cheaper, more reliable way to accomplish that rather than buying a used NES, which at the time was around $100 and frequently has reliability issues. For $40, the cost of the game (or a multicart) and optionally a used NES controller (the one that comes with the Retron 1 isn’t great) you were off and playing – good value.

Retron 1

The Retron 1 (stylised RetroN) was Hyperkin‘s first foray into clone consoles and used NES An A Chip (NOAC) to emulate a Nintendo Entertainment system.  It was primarily notable for being able to use both the controllers and the light gun from the standard NES (with a CRT television only), and provided composite output of for video and audio.  Famicom cartridges were not supported, owing to the different form factor. 

Compatibility was generally good, however some older multicarts and approximately 20 titles including Castlevania III will not work on the device.  There were also some complaints that the pins could bend when removing cartridges from the device, owing to a very tight port. 

The Retron 1 gets the job done but it’s kind of a piece of junk. The Retron 2 on the other hand is much sturdier and easier on the eyes. If Super Nintendo was more your jam, the Retron 2 gives it to you – plus it’s a bit better constructed and comes with nicer controllers that, although still not completely authentic, at least don’t fall apart in your hands! It even has the eject button. Hyperkin’s strategy is to make each Retron model a little more featureful and a bit better quality than the one before it, to encourage upgrading and justify the added cost. From a retail perspective this means having a range of products at different price-points…which is quite desirable for a retro-gaming shop.

Retron 2

The Retron 2 adds to the Retron 1 functionality by adding in support for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). The system has quite a high quality video and audio output adding an S-Video connector to the mix.  It has four controller ports, with on NES port, and one SNES port on both the left and right hand sides.   

The unit seems to feature the same NES slot as the Retron 1 along with the death grip on the cartridge, but thankfully adds an eject mechanism to assist for the SNES portion of the unit.

Compatibility of the system is generally fairly good, however there are about twelve titles (including Street Fighter Alpha 2) which do not work with the system due to having unsupported custom chips – in particular the S-DD1 and SA-1 chips.

If you were more of a Genesis fan, the Retron 3 has you covered – although at around $100, if you have no desire to play NES or SNES games at all, you might consider the AtGames Sega Megadrive Classic or the FEO HAO Retro Game HD, botrh of which we’ve reviewed in previous issues. Otherwise, the Retron 3 is once again better constructed than the 1 or the 2, and comes with wireless Genesis-style controllers.

Retron 3

The Retron 3 upped the ante by bring in support for the Genesis / Sega Megadrive console.  It is based on Genesis On A Chip (GOAC) and as such has issues with PAL games, but supports Japanese and US Genesis cartridges, in addition to the requisite support for NES and SNES.

Video output is similar to the Retron 2, and includes composite stereo output and S-Video output.  There are six controller ports, 2 per supported system.  The console itself comes with two wireless controllers, styled after the Sega Genesis.    

Compatibility is generally fairly similar to the Retron 2 for the NES and SNES portions.  Almost all PAL Megadrive titles will not work with the Retron 3 (this is an issue with GOAC in general and affects most Sega clones), and specialist titles such as Virtua Racing will not work properly due custom chip support.  There have been some reports that multicarts such are the Everdrive will not work with the device.

Retron 4

Hyperkin was expected to release a Retron 4, with support for NES, SNES, Genesis and GameBoy, GameBoy Color, and GameBoy Advance. Slated to be announced at the Midwest Gaming Classic expo, Hyperkin instead announced the Retron 5. 

If you don’t mind that the Retron 5 is basically a Raspberry Pi in a fancy case but want to be able to play a wide variety of cartridges then it could be your dream system. But it violates the GPL and that could be a concern if you’re a geek.

Retron 5

The Retron 5 is what the Retron 4 was intended to be, except with the addition of an extra slot for Famicom cartridges. Hyperkin extended the supported systems list to include NES, Famicom, SNES, Super Famicom, Genesis, Megadrive, Gameboy, Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance.

Video output uses HDMI, and there are controller ports for SNES, NES and Genesis controllers.  The system comes with a wireless controller that can be reconfigured through the in-built user interface.

The system itself eschews the use of custom chips to provide the systems support as used in previous models and instead is effectively an ARM quad core based system running each system under emulation.  People have examined the system and found it appears to be based on Retroarch, an open source emulator platform and library that implements cores for all the specified systems.

Controversially, some of the licences for the cores are incompatible with commercial use, and the retroarch developers were unhappy with the appropriation and use of their work in violation of the licensing.   

Emulation on the Retron 5 does however seem to support a broader range of titles than the On-A-Chip based systems, due in part to the more flexible nature of emulation, and that the core code in question has been refined by the original developers for many years.  There have been some complaints of lagginess with regards to controllers / video with the system (some users claim this is an issue with the TV sets themselves) but generally the emulation is decent.

However, the Retron 5 appears to have been discontinued, although it is still available on Amazon.

Atari 2600s are getting harder and harder to find, and consequently much more expensive to acquire than they once were, making the idea of a modern 2600 clone seem like a great one. But, let’s also consider the now-defunct Atari Flashback 2, which while it doesn’t come with a slot by default, can be made to have one with some straighforward modification. The Flashback 2 uses hardware to emulate the 2600, which provides a more genuine experience (in particular regarding controller responsiveness) than the ARM-based Retron 77 – we’re not sure why Hyperkin went the way that they did (probably to cut development costs) but we don’t agree that it was the right direction. It also made the 77 more expensive – not groovy. If you’re interested, you can find Flashback 2s on eBay, and Google will lead you to conversion kits and instructions. Can’t fault the exterior design of the Retron 77, though – in our opinion it’s much nicer-looking than the AtariVCS (formerly the AtariBox) , which looks like some sort of WiFi router. It’s just too bad that it uses software emulation…otherwise we’d love it to bits! (8 bits, to be exact.)

Retron 77

Most recently, Hyperkin released the Retron 77, its tribute to the Atari 2600.  It contains a cartridge slot, HDMI output and the various toggles and switches needed to play 2600 games.

As with the Retron 5, the decision seems to have been to use emulation to provide the Atari compatibility. The hardware base seems to be a 1Ghz ARM quad core chip (a bit less powerful than the one in the Retron 5).   The system has a slot for reading cartridges and also an SD card slot for using roms.  The emulation is provided by a version of the Stella open source emulator (3.7.5). 

Compatibility with cartridges for the most part is ok, however any cartridges with custom chips such Pitfall II will not function correctly.  Pitfall II can be played as a ROM however.  Cartridge-wise, most of the affected titles are Activision or Parker Brothers.

There were some complaints also with early versions that the joysticks were not quite reinforced enough and the sticks would break with very little use.  This has apparently been addressed in more recent units.

The emulation and video ouput of the HD Retrons isn’t perfect but they are much cheaper than the Nintendo Classic Minis, and they allow you to play your own cartridges, something Nintendo’s offerings do not.

Retron HD, MegaRetron and SupaRetron HD

So, where do you go after the Retron 5? Well, all of the models we’ve covered here so far only have analog video out. Now, whether that matters to you or not is going to heavily depend on what generation you’re from – if you’re an actual former 80s kid, then you’re going to have grown up with blurry video and interference and colour distortion, so blowing up a composite signal on a large flat panel is probably not going to bother you that much. However, if you’re a millennial, you’re going to be accustomed to somewhat better quality in your gaming, and so the HD models are likely to be up your alley. Rather than blowing up a low-resolution screen, each pixel is made larger, filling up a higher-resolution screen. This makes edges of objects crisper.

The updated case and controller designs are also an improvement over previous non-HD versions.

Upscaling also makes game elements look more pixelated, which while attractive to some younger generations, might be enhancing an aspect of vintage videogaming those from older generations may consider undesirable. The HD models also feature redesigned (and in our opinion much more aesthetically-pleasing) cases and controllers.

The Retron HD plays NES games, the MegaRetron Genesis/Megadrive games and the SupaRetron SuperNES games.

They also officially support both NTSC and PAL games unlike earlier models, and have a 16:9 / 4:3 aspect switch.

Conclusion

Devices like these can be a good substitutes for original systems, particularly in the case of an NES, which tends to need regular maintenance to keep running, however they each have their pros and cons, and some may find the emulation aspects of the Retron 5 and Retron 77 to be less to their taste than original hardware. That being said, the more systems there are that can allow their users to keep enjoying their libraries of games for longer, the better.

But there’s still ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby!

So, where can I get a Retron in Australia? The newly expanded amazon.com.au has various Retron models for sale, most of which appear to be coming from overseas. There’s also eBay, which has models available from Australian sellers, but prices vary and ordering from overseas could be cheaper.

While our Retron 2 does play PAL NES cartridges, the music seems to be faster (due to running a 50hz cartridge at 60hz) so that could be a consideration if you’re in Australia and trhinking about getting a Retron. On the other hand, the games run a bit faster too, which livens some well-worn titles up a bit.

Generally, the Retrons are a good choice for affordable retro-gaming, despite their issues.

 

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