Review by Chet Breaux. the University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Hyperkin's RetroN 3
Scholars and researchers invested in retrotechnologies often find themselves in methodologically complex territory. We are often approaching artifacts long after their moment of prominence, and the physical state of such artifacts can often pose difficulties for research. Game studies, in particular, faces a unique set of obstacles when dealing with the retro. It has not yet become an overly-burdensome task to locate an an Atari 2600 at a garage sale, or an original Nintendo in an attic. These devices were notoriously well built, but there will come a time when these consoles fail, and replacements will become increasingly scarce. The availability of platforms on which to play retro titles is becoming an increasingly important methodological issue for the field. Can we study retro video games purely through computer emulation? To what extent does the game change when played through computer emulation?
These questions are not easy to answer, but I can certainly see a need to study retro games in a way that reproduces the original experience as closely as possible. At present, researchers can download any number of emulation suites, and a large amount of rom files (games) to play on any platform (PC, MAC, and mobile devices). Playing these retro titles via computer emulation may be convenient, but they can and do skew the original analogue video often producing screen tearing, inaccurate color reproduction, and awkward aspect ratios, and inconsistent audio. The problem of control is also considerable. The default control scheme for many emulation suites is a keyboard, a far cry from a solid controller. While many do allow for controller input, and there are a large number of controller clones available (an original Nintendo controller converted to a USB device), they still fall short in reproducing accurate play. A far more dubious prospect in the computer emulation scheme is the copyright question. The DMCA lists provisions for emulation, namely that a user must possess an original hard copy of the software before downloading a rom. Purchasing the original hard copy would be the safest course legally. As systems break and continue to disappear, new solutions for study retro games must be utilized
The RetroN 3, manufactured by Hyperkin (hyperkin.com), is a partial solution to these problems. The console was designed specifically to play retro games. In the case of the RetroN 3, users can load their own cartridges from the Nintendo Entertainment System, The Super Nintendo (this slot also plays Super Famicom cartridges for those interested in Japan-only titles), and the Sega Genesis.
The console features a toggle mechanism to easily bounce between emulating each of the consoles, a power button, and a rest button. The console itself is relatively small in form factor, adding convenience for a researcher studying multiple artifacts across platforms (even contemporary televisions have a limited number of inputs, and many are now reducing the number of analog inputs in favor of HDMI). The console outputs video through either composite cables or an S-Video cable which are both included. Cartridges are top loaded and fit tight, preventing any accidental dislodging during play. The system includes two wireless controllers, and unfortunately, their quality is severely lacking. The controllers are small, and feature an unusual layout. A directional pad is on the left side, but the play is loose and imprecise. The button layout on the right side is designed to accommodate play on any of the three available platforms, but the layout is ultimately problematic due to a lack of shoulder buttons (which dramatically throws off control in Super Nintendo emulation). Overall, the button response is spotty at best. The wireless connection is also line of site, so moving even a few inches from a center field can result in lost connection. Fortunately, the console features two controller ports for each system allowing for use of original controllers. I contend using original controllers is a must on this platform (hyperkin also manufactures/sells retro controllers at very reasonable prices).
I tested emulation of all three systems, and the experience was positive overall. Emulation runs smoothly without any noticeable impact on the play experience. Coupled with an original controller, this system accurately reproduces gameplay that one would experience on any of the three original consoles. There are, however, some stipulations. First, video quality was off when I used a standard HDTV with composite cables. The aspect ratio when playing on widescreen display is frustratingly off. Colors are reproduced well, but many HD displays will render color so well that the game looks markedly different (extreme color saturation). Screen real estate is poorly utilized, and the system stretches the onscreen image resulting in distortion. Audio is also problematic when using a contemporary display, and sounds are often distorted on higher volumes. Many of these problems can be addressed by tweaking options on a contemporary display. I tested the console on an analog display, and all of these issues were corrected. I would recommend anyone using this device for research purposes to play on an analog display for accuracy. At 69.99 USD, the device is a bit expensive, but a very functional replacement unit for the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and Sega Genesis. Paired with a video capture unit, the console would be suitable for recording audio and video of retro games for use in publication, presentation, or teaching.
Hyperkin is currently working on a newer version of this console, the RetroN5 which is slated for release in the Fall of 2013 at a price point under 100 USD. This console has been demoed at multiple consumer trade shows, and is much improved over the RetroN3. According to Hyperkin, the console will support cartridges for the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Genesis, Gameboy Advance, Gameboy Color, and original Gameboy.
The console supports up to 4 Bluetooth controllers (addressing the limited range of the RetroN3 controllers) which feature a much better design than the RetroN3 (players can also custom map buttons). The RetroN5 will also utilize a custom interface allowing players to select which system they wish to play on, and the UI will also allow for digital saves at any point in any game, an incredibly useful feature for conducting research. Players will also have the option to choose custom aspect ratios, and the console supports a custom shader and audio interpolation for improved performance on contemporary displays in addition to an HDMI. The improvements Hyperkin has made in the RetroN5 should make this console a must have for any researchers interested in retro games.
Chet Breaux is currently a PhD student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He studies the rhetoric of technology, and is currently researching low-cost DIY tech in relation to new media and writing.
© 2013 Chet Breaux, used by permission