Hardware Review: Hyperkin RetroN HD (Nintendo NES Clone)

Hyperkin-RetroN-HD-Console-Review“Where do you put the old carts”? I heard this bizarre question far too frequently when I showed off my NES Mini. I would argue the reason for this was down to the fact it’s pretty much the size of two stacked cartridges. While adorably cute, having something as tiny as the Nintendo NES Classic Edition meant comprises, and I thought the ability to use original NES cartridges was the cost. Elsewhere in the market, Hyperkin have proved me wrong with their RetroN HD. It's a system that’s only slightly larger than Nintendo’s NES Mini console, (5.5" x 2" x 6" compared to 5” x 1.5” x 4”). However, this piece of hardware is a miniature console that not only looks similar to its inspiration, but also one that actually plays NES cartridges instead of emulated ROMs.

Hyperkin are of course known for their emulation machines. Or, to be more specific they’re known by many for the use of other people’s emulators in their console (without giving the creators suitable credit). Their most famous product is the Retron5, which while impressive, launched under a cloud. The Retron5 was initially positioned as nine consoles mashed into one, but what eventually launched didn’t entirely fulfil that promise. Rather than playing the cartridges inserted, the Retron5 reads the inserted cartridge and extract a ROM file for emulation. It was a new approach to playing legacy games that hasn’t continued with this, their more recent console. The RetroN HD is a clone console; it behaves in exactly the same way to the original NES.

Reinventing the Wheel

Hyperkin haven’t stumbled across a brand new idea here, there’s dozens of (typically Chinese made) Nintendo NES clone consoles on the market. In the eighties they attempted to poach potential customers from Nintendo, luring people with knock off consoles known as Famiclones at knock down prices. The build quality was naturally inferior, they broke easily, and some games just didn’t work.

Like their customers, clone consoles have changed over the last thirty years. Analogue Interactive has even shown that there’s a market for their premium copy-cat machine; the Analogue NT. With an eye watering price tag that eclipses modern premium 4K consoles, the NT is only aimed at the most serious and rich NES obsessive.

However the RetroN HD sells for a tenth of the price typically less than £50. This makes it ridiculously good value when you consider how much the NES Mini sells for on eBay. For the price you’d be forgiven for expecting a cheaply made ugly machine, but as soon as you open the box you realise just how much love has gone into it. Like the RetroN 5 before it, the RetroN HD looks attractive and well made. If you didn’t know better you’d assume that it was an authentic Nintendo product, with its grille-like texture on the top and almost identical power and reset buttons. It simultaneously reminds a player of the original NES while also looking surprising modern with a glowing logo that shows when the system is on.

The Retro-reinvented approach is epitomised by the back of the console which notably offers various ways to hook the RetroN HD to a TV. The need for a HDMI port is obvious; without it the promised 720p HD output resolution would not be possible. The inclusion of the AV ports is more unusual. They’re there to connect the console to a traditional CRT TV presenting a 240p resolution that’s a truer representation of our eighties experience. More importantly though light gun games don’t work on modern TVs, so if you want to hunt some ducks you’ll need to use composite video output.

Of course, to use an original Zapper you’ll need somewhere to plug it and the RetroN HD has two traditional NES ports on the front of the machine. For someone that’s become accustomed to playing retro games via USB through a Raspberry Pie based machine this was a surprise. Indeed Nintendo’s own NES Classic Edition used WiiMote style controller ports rather than the original NES 7pin sockets. The zapper isn’t the only original peripheral to be supported. Any controller that worked on the original hardware will work here, although you may find that the NES controller Gunpei Yokoi designed isn’t as comfortable to use as you remember. The hard sharp corners of the original controller seem uncomfortable now and thankfully Hyperkin have provided an alternative. The “cadet controller” included with the RetroN HD feels very much like an evolution of the original NES pad. It looks almost identical and the changes made not only dodge copyright infringement, it also provides a far better experience for the player. The slanted beveled edges eliminate corners digging into palms and the bulges on the underside greatly help you grip the controller.

The controller included with the NES classic Edition had a laughably short control lead of just 30 inches. Many found this impractical and it meant that to play a game you literally had to sit on the floor right in front of the console (just like you did as a child). The original NES controller’s cord is 91.5 inches long which is more than three times the length. The Cadet controller included with the RetroN HD trumps them both, with a cable that measures 120 inches. However sadly only one of these fantastic controllers is included, so to play two players you’ll either have to dig out your old pads or buy a second cadet controller for $13 directly from Hyperkin.

Power is supplied via a Micro USB cable. I used the PlayStation 4 controller lead plugged into the USB socket on the front of Sony latest console as no power adapter is included in the box. Realistically most households have Micro USB chargers lying around, (the same used to charge most tablets and phones currently) so it’s not a massive issue. It would have been nice if you could charge the RetroN HD but an extra lead in the back is not an issue when the console sits under you TV anyway.

A switch at the back allows you to alternate between 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios on the video output, with a region switch found on the underside of the console. While it’s a little bit of a faff to have to flip the unit over to change between NTSC and PAL modes, it’s a relief to see that the RetroN HD actually plays both. This was a huge problem with the Super Retro Trio for example, where PAL games would either not work or ran far too quickly.

Hyperkin-RetroN-HD-Console-Ports

Gaming on the RetroN HD

Every Nintendo endorsed game I've plugged into the RetroN HD has worked first time. The breaking point for most clone machines is the legendarily fussy Japanese version of ‘Castlevania III’, with its on-board audio co-processor known as the VRC6. Although I don’t own the game, many sources have stated it works flawlessly on the RetroN HD and I’m left thinking that if this works, then the vast majority of the vast Nintendo NES library will too. In fact, more recently released homebrew games also worked fine, as did an unofficial ‘150 games on 1’ cartridge. The only surprising aspect of this compatibility was that flashcards like the Everdrive and RetroPak didn't work at all.

While all my games might run on the RetroN HD, some certainly run better than others. While the gameplay is smooth and there were no noticeable issues with framerate, there were issues with colour palettes. In ‘Super Mario Bros 2’ for example Luigi had a bizarrely white face and it wasn’t down to the game being too bright. Adding to this the blue sky behind him was actually less vibrant than normal. The title screen of ‘Chip and Dale’ seemed to lack pinks, looking practically monochrome. There’s certainly colours the RetroN HD simply won’t, or struggles to show. This doesn’t affect gameplay (unless you own an oddly specific colour matching game I’m not aware of) but it’s still pretty poor. Despite the use of a 720p signal, the visuals are still blurrier than I would want. For example, ‘Snake Rattle and Roll’ requires you to quickly eat Nibbley Pibbleys which bounce around on screen in a fast and erratic way. Playing the game on the RetroN HD was harder than it needed to be simply because they blur so much on the screen it is difficult to tell where they actually are in the game world. When I looked closely at the items screen in ‘The Legend of Zelda’ it was also obvious that the colours were misaligned by a pixel. This isn’t a game specific problem, across the board games are certainly not as clear as they are on an emulation machine. Both the NES Mini and the Retron 5 display a sharper image.

Thankfully audio fares better and the ‘Mega Man’ games all sounded amazing through the RetroN HD. Soundtracks that emphasise synthesised drums sound slightly muffled through. The majesty of the ‘Silver Surfer’ soundtrack was lost on the RetroN HD and In ‘PunchOut’ the cheering crowds sounded rather distorted.

Conclusion

If you want to play your NES cartridges on a HDTV specifically through hardware (not emulation), there are of course better ways than the RetroN HD. You could use an up scaling unit like the Framemeister. You could even get the incredible Retro USB AVS or the Analogue NT. But all of these options are extremely expensive and occasionally technically demanding.

The RetroN HD is at least a third of the price of other options on the market. For that price maybe the visual shortcoming are easier to accept. For me, an extended Nintendo NES play session would still involve hooking my original hardware up to an old CRT. I want to enjoy all the colours the 8-bit system can produce, even if that means a marginally fuzzier image through an RF cable. But I must admit the RetroN HD Cadet controller will always be preferable over Nintendo’s own.

Do you need the RetroN HD under you TV? Well it is cheap but elegant, nostalgic yet modern. Most of all its convenient and at such a tiny size I’m sure you can find a space for it. It’s not flawless but it’s a machine Hyperkin should be proud of and it sets high hopes for the Supa RetroN HD that’s just around the corner.

Link: Buy RetroN HD from Funstock


Last Updated ( 02 January 2018 )  

Julian Hill

Julian is the author of the popular blog Boxed Pixels, and is currently on a mission to document his thoughts as he buys boxed complete SNES Games.

Described by PlayStation Access as a "gamer, Dad and all round hero" he has been playing games since they had four colours on screen and blips for music.

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