Hardware Review: Hyperkin's RetroN 5

Hardware-Review-Hyperkin-RetroN-5Waiting. It's not something retro collectors are used to doing. By definition the things we like to buy are old, they are games from bygone eras on systems that are no longer made. Unlike our current gen collecting friends we don't have to wait for midnight launches or DLC release dates. Perhaps this is why when we are forced to wait for something, we're not very good at it - and we have been waiting a long time for the RetroN 5. It really is impossible to look at the console without being reminded of the catalogue of PR errors manufacturers Hyperkin have made throughout its development.

The machine was initially said to be going on sale in October 2013. It's taken 14 months for the RetroN 5 to reach the UK and in that time anyone who dared ask Hyperkin was met with anything but a direct answer. That is if their query was acknowledged at all. But now the machine has been officially released in the UK, available through online stores like FunStock it's important to try and cast any negativity you feel towards Hyperkin aside and look at the machine they have created. To do otherwise would deprive you of an excellent system and one that most retro collectors come to adore.

An all-in-one solution

It is worth making absolutely clear from the outset that despite being initially labelled a "clone console" the RetroN 5 is actually an emulator, or more specifically nine emulators. The console runs games designed for the Nintendo NES, Famicom, Super Nintendo, Super Famicom, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, Game Boy Color and even the Master System (using 'The Power Base' convertor). Unlike systems such as RetroBit's 'Super Retro Trio', the RetroN 5 does not play the games inserted through on-board hardware. Hyperkin have never been crystal clear about the exact way the RetroN 5 works but the general consensus is that the machine scans an inserted cartridge for a recognisable ROM file (the electronic game data). It then loads this ROM through an appropriate emulator using an Android based operating system.

Consequently, many have argued that you're not actually playing the game you've just put in the system. Instead all you are playing is a digital version of it. This raises the question of why you would want to buy a RetroN 5 at all - especially as the Ouya or even a modestly powerful laptop plugged into your TV would be able to do exactly the same thing. Better yet, with any of these options you would simply need to download the game ROMs you want to play from the internet, removing the need for physical cartridges at all. If you're of this opinion, the RetroN 5 is most likely not for you. If you're used to playing retro games through the latest versions of emulators installed on your gaming laptop, then you'll find you're already doing everything that the RetroN 5 does and if you're probably able to do it better. You're also probably not the audience this console is designed for.

If you're interested in the RetroN 5 you're most likely someone who doesn't want to go through the process of downloading game ROMs, finding an appropriate emulator and setting it up correctly. Nevermind connecting your device to a TV screen and finding a compatible gamepad. The RetroN 5 is the machine for you if you have a big library of games and want to see these on a high-definition display in the best possible way, for minimal effort. The RetroN 5 offers convenience over other emulation alternatives and eliminates the technical barrier that keeps some from discovering the superb possibilities offered by optimising the raw data file rather than simply playing the cartridge.

You would be wrong to think this is a small audience. Anticipation for the RetroN 5 has matched that of a new current generation console and this has translated into sales. FunStock had the largest allocation of units in Europe and sold out within 20 minutes of the console going on sale. Clearly there are a lot of people who see a need for the RetroN 5 and they seem perfectly fine with the idea that it emulates rather than plays retro games. The big money question though is; does it do this well enough to warrant the £140 price? This is after all, more than every other clone consoles, more than an Ouya, and even more than the new and rather mighty JXD S7800 tablet.

Hardware-Review-Hyperkin-RetroN-5-In-Action

A Heated Battle with Original Hardware & Compatibility

Often when critiquing traditional clone consoles, the bulk of a review is devoted to discussing compatibility. If you are buying a machine simply to play your old games, you want to know that it is able to run the majority of your collection. This really was the undoing of the Super Retro Trio which is the RetroN 5's closest rival. While the 'SR3' played Sega games from anywhere in the world almost without fail, support for PAL Nintendo games was hit and miss to say the least. Compatibility issues really aren't a problem with the RetroN 5. Owing to the way it works, provided the machine can find the ROM on an inserted cartridge it will, for the most part, play it, especially if it has the latest firmware. During some quite exhaustive testing, it proved quite the challenge to find an officially released cartridge that wouldn't run. From obscure Japanese Famicom games, to the more recent Game Boy Advance releases, games seemed to run without fail.

Emulators often struggle with Super Nintendo compatibility in particular. Many SNES games have built in proprietary chips, which provide countless headaches to those designing emulators. Super Nintendo games are not, however, a challenge for the RetroN 5. StarFox (which uses the Super FX chip), Mega Man X3 (the cx4 chip), PilotWings and Super Mario Kart (using the DSP chip) and even Super Mario RPG (with the SA1 chip onboard) all worked fine, at full speed and full screen. The only game that simply wouldn't run was Street Fighter Alpha 2 which is no doubt due to it being the only game that uses the SDD1 chip. So while it may not be hitting 100% compatibility, one game not working out of many, many, Super Nintendo games tested is quite an impressive result.

In terms of Sega Mega Drive, Virtual Racing on its giant cartridge claims to have "The Sega Virtua processor" chip inside, but that didn't stop it working fine on the RetroN 5. Lock-on carts even work, meaning Sonic The Hedgehog 2 and 3 could both be combined with Sonic and Knuckles and the RetroN 5 ran the modified games perfectly. Other lock-on cartridges such as the Super Game Boy, however, didn't work, but you would never really need it to when you can simply put a Game Boy cart in the front of the RetroN 5. However, Game Boy games are only playable in one player mode though, which isn't that surprising considering you traditionally had to link to machines together to make multiplayer modes possible.

The previously tested Super Retro Trio refused to Castlevania 3 on the Nintendo NES owing to its unique MC5 Chip. The RetroN 5, however, ran this perfectly. Amazingly, I have also heard stories of games that glitch on their original OEM consoles, coming back to life through the RetroN 5. An aging Legend of Zelda cartridge, which wouldn't run without screen tare, worked perfectly when emulated by the RetroN 5. Likewise, games which owing to their age, have failing battery backup can once again be played as intended. This is because the RetroN 5 doesn't write to the deceased cartridge battery, but instead saves games internally.

Regardless of which system you are using, there's a bit of a lag between inserting a cartridge and actually playing the game. This is while the RetroN 5 scans the cartridge looking for content. Sometimes this can be almost instantaneous, but for Game Boy Advance games and those with larger ROM files you'll find yourself waiting up to a minute. It's a noticeable delay if you're eager to play. Once found, the name of the game is displayed and then it can be played. What's significant though is that even if the RetroN 5 has no idea what the game is, if a ROM file is found it will sometimes still play, even though the machine will warn you that an "Unknown Title" has been inserted. Potentially this means that reproduction and homebrew games may run in certain circumstances. Furthermore, a '100 in 1' Game Boy cartridge bought years ago from a street trader in London - despiteonly featuring five games repeated twenty times - worked perfectly on the RetroN 5.

TimeWalk's reproduction copy of the SNES classic Mega Man and Bass ran perfectly fine, and likewise, a homemade copy of a the Game Boy Advance port of Team 17's Amiga platformer Qwak ran (even though this could only be bought on a cartridge directly from the game's creator). Frustratingly, the powerful flash cartridges Super Everdrive and the Mega Everdrive both wouldn't work. It feels like these have been purposefully disabled in an attempt to avoid anyone labelling the RetroN 5 as "a pirates dream", but it's disappointing none the less.

Similarly, 'Action Replay' cartridges are not supported, nor are region unlocking cartridges like 'The Universal Adaptor'. The reality is though you wouldn't ever need to use either of these, as both perform functions that the RetroN 5 does anyway. The machine can play games from anywhere in the world and game speed can be toggled between 50 and 60hz to ensure they work exactly as they should. This is all done automatically depending on the region of the inserted cartridge, or can also be changed manually through the console's attractive streamlined home menu (accessible from a button on the system's controller). 'Game Genie' cheats can also be applied to games from this menu, which excuses the incompatibility with the 'Action Replay'. Hyperkin clearly see this internal cheat-code feature as a major feature of the machine, always talking about it during interviews. However, in practice it's not as good as touted. Out of the box, cheat codes can't initially be used and they are only accessible when the "cheat database" is downloaded from Hyperkin's website. Even with this database installed to the console, most PAL games aren't supported and selecting the cheat mode from the menus simply gives a message saying "no cheats for this game". Your own codes can't be inserted, so unless you own only the handful of supported European games (only one PAL SNES game is supported for example) you won't use this in built cheat feature.

Taking Control Of The Action

Hardware-Review-Hyperkin-RetroN-5-Control-Pads

What works a lot better is the option to save the state of play. At any point when playing, your position in a game can be recorded. Should you wish to return to it, it can be reloaded with ease. This is hardly a new feature to emulation, but it's probably one of the best features of the RetroN 5 from a practical point of view. As adults, the way we play games is different to when we were children. In our youth we could devote hours and days to a game, but with jobs and our own children, often it's now a case of grabbing a few minutes whenever the opportunity arises. This is why the ability to use save states is so fantastic, since it allows for quick bursts into our beloved and time deprived games.

Provided you shut the RetroN 5 down using the home menu, the machine will even record where you were the moment you finished your last session. No longer is playtime dictated by a when the game allows you to save, sessions can be as long or short as you desire. As "Save State" progress is recorded to the console rather than the cartridge, it's worth keeping an eye on when the game does normally allow you to save though. Only these native saves (rather than the artificial save states) can be transferred from the console back onto the cartridge should you wish to continue your game on the original hardware or on a portable device like Hyperkin's own 'SupaBoy'. This, however, is a less than perfect science. Some game saves couldn't be transferred between the cartridge and the console at all and file corruption occurred for other games. On some occasions, a save transferred back to the cartridge simply wasn't recognised when the game was inserted in the original machine and any existing saves had been wiped. In one instance (when playing The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages on the Game Boy Color) the game itself simply wouldn't load until the save that had been transfered from the RetroN 5 was deleted from the cartridge. In reality, if you start a game on the RetroN 5 you will need to finish it on the RetroN 5. This really isn't a hardship though, as once you have seen how good your games look on the machine it's highly unlikely that you will want to put them back into the original consoles.

Some may argue that classic games should never be played on a modern TV as they weren't made for such presentation. They are appearing in a pin sharp way that developers never imagined would be possible at the time of their development. Colour gradients in skies look speckled for example and games that were designed with the technical limitations of the display taken into account suffer as a result of crisp screen clarity. They are wrong, however, as every game inserted in the RetroN 5 looks glorious on a HDTV, sharp, bright with no ghosting or colour-bleed. If you do dislike sharp pixels the display can be softened using a range of visual filters including Super Eagle, hq2x/lq2x and 2xsal. Scanlines can even be added to give an appearance more in keeping with memories of old. It's worth mentioning that Hyperkin have not suitably credited the creators of these filters or indeed the creators of the emulators used in the system. They have acknowledged this "oversight" but it does seem almost criminal considering how essential the onboard emulators are and how much these filters improve the visuals in many games. With the right options selected, many games look very similar to the HD re-mastered versions of games, such as the PlayStation 3's Sega Mega Drive Collection.

But the reason the system looks so good on modern HDTVs (especially compared to other clone systems) is due to the fact the RetroN 5 outputs a 60 frames per second, 720 progressive signal through its included HDMI lead. However, this is the only way you can plug the RetroN 5 into a TV as there is no composite or aerial outputs to connect to an old CRT. If you favour playing games on older standard definition TVs, this is not the machine for you. That is unless you are happy to get around this with a HDMI signal converter and sacrifice the upscaling the console offers. As great as this is, it does have one downside: no light gun compatibility.

Power On The Inside...

Although the base of the console is a solid plastic that should resist the ravages of time, the casing on top that separates the different system card slots is thin; bending and warping as various cartridges are inserted. Despite the comparatively high price point, it feels that some cheap materials have been used and there is a good chance that the top section will snap or at least bend after prolonged use. The cartridge connector pins themselves are also very tight; gripping inserted games like a vice. Hyperkin have even had to make videos showing how cartridges need to be removed safely (by pulling from the right corner rather than directly up) to avoid damaging the pins. To make this worse, switching between emulated machines requires all cartridges to be removed as the RetroN 5 will not run with more than one game inserted. Conversely, the games can't be removed during play even though they are technically not being used by the system once the ROM file has been ripped.

The other big disappointment with the RetroN 5 is the included controller, which surely ranks amongst the worst included with a machine since the 8-bit era. Gone are the wireless Saturn-eque controllers of the RetroN 3 and in their place is a hideous boxy design. The thumb stick, like all the buttons, use micro switches which prove imprecise and noisy. Playing games similar to Street Fighter 2 which require circular movements of the D-Pad is somewhat pointless, as the face buttons inputs don't register if they are pressed lightly. The controllers are significantly worse than the superb equivalents bundled with the Super Retro Trio, proving to be nothing more than glorified home menu buttons.

While the included controllers are wireless and connect to the system via Bluetooth, the RetroN 5 does not support other Bluetooth controllers. Thankfully, It does allow you to use original system controllers which can be inserted into designated ports on the sides on the console. As is the case with the Super Retro Trio, you are also not forced to use a controller that matches the emulator. Mega Drive games can be played with the superior SNES controller and buttons can even be re-mapped to suit player preference. Though four player adapters like the 'NES Four Score' do not work, the fact that the RetroN 5 has six controller inputs (and two extra if you can cope with playing a game using the included controllers) means you don't really need them. For example, a game of Super Bomberman 2 could be played with four players using two SNES controllers, and two Super Retro Trio controllers plugged into the matching Genesis ports.

The one saving grace of the pad is the inclusion of two extra face buttons which can perform pretty much any task you desire. With a quick press of one of these buttons, it is possible to save or load a game state, take a screenshot or even manipulate the game's speed, all of which prove very useful. This is all only possible thanks to the RetroN 5 being an emulation machine, rather than a clone console - and there are other benefits that come with this choice of architecture. The system has 1.2gb of storage memory built-in, which is used to save games and screenshots. These can be also be transferred to a SD card (which isn't included), but more importantly, the inclusion of the SD card slot also allows Hyperkin to upgrade the software should they need to. So far, two firmware upgrades have been offered, both of which improved system stability and added compatibility for games that early adopters reported not to work. It's worth keeping on top of these updates. Hyperkin have pledged that they ultimately want 100% of games to be compatible with the RetroN 5, and unlike clone consoles, the fact that the machine is software based, means the catalogue of supported games can be improved. The process to upgrade though is far too complex. It was only possible to do it following a step by step online guide and even then it took twenty minutes to do. It's worth the effort for the improved compatibility, but when you're used to modern systems doing it effortlessly via WiFi it does seem harder than it needs to be.

RetroN 5 Gameplay Sample

Conclusion

Clearly there are benefits to the RetroN 5 being "only a glorified emulator". Those who don't see the point in the system will not be convinced by the fantastic video output, the impressive software compatibility or the versatility on offer by playing the ROM files rather than the cartridges. Maybe this hatred of the console (without actually playing it) comes from Hyperkin's early approach to the audience. Though this is understandable, critics of the RetroN 5 are the ones missing out, as anyone willing to try the very modern things the console does will not be disappointed.

The RetroN 5 really is the ultimate machine for modern gamers who like retro games. What it puts up on your HD screen looks better than ever and sounds superb. The emulation approach suits the way we play games now. It allows for shorter play sessions and the use of save states removes a lot of the frustrations that comes with returning to brutally hard retro games when you're used to the all too frequent continue points in modern games.

Anyone buying a new machine to play their old games ultimately desires just two things: They want their games to work and they want them to play well, ideally better than their original machines. The RetroN 5 confidently ticks both of these boxes. It may have an awful controller and a bendy plastic case but that doesn't stop the console from being a superb machine that every retro gamer should have. If you like old games you owe it to yourself to buy a RetroN 5, either to sit alongside your legacy consoles or to replace them for good.

Link: RetroN 5 Console at FunStock

Link: Official RetroN 5 Website at Hyperkin.com


Last Updated ( 08 January 2015 )  

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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Comments 

(Link to this comment) Alienjesus 2015-01-09 13:14
The best feature of the RetroN5 for me is that it has patching support. This means you can run a lot of Japanese games in English, whilst still using the real controllers and cartridges and playing on your TV instead of a laptop. You will need to update to the newest firmware to do it, but after that it's pretty easy - just go into game options, select your patch and go. There's a few other things to take into account (especially around ROM headers) but it's easy to figure out with a little trial and error

So far, I have the following games patched and playing in English:
Fire Emblem 1 (Famicom)
Fire Emblem Gaiden (Famicom)
Joy Mech Fight (Famicom)
Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem (Super Famicom)
Fire Emblem: Geneaology of the Holy War (Super Famicom)
Live a Live (Super Famicom)
Final Fantasy V (Super Famicom)
Wonder Project J (Super Famicom)
For the Frog the Bell Tolls (Game Boy).

...TBC
(Link to this comment) Alienjesus 2015-01-09 13:19
(continued)
It's also possible to play certain game mods on the Retron5 using patches - I found a 'patch' that lets you run Star Fox 2 on the system using a copy of StarWing which can be found below:

For PAL StarWing 1.0 carts: http://www.mediafire.com/download/su6vui79s06zu11/StarWing+%28PAL+v1.0%29+to+Star+Fox+2.ips

For PAL StarWing 1.1 carts: http://www.mediafire.com/download/vqpk8bvc2a9v3cr/StarWing+%28PAL+v1.1%29+to+Star+Fox+2.ips

Just try both and see what works!
(Link to this comment) Welshwuff 2015-01-09 16:45
I supported this thing up until i actually got one. It felt really cheap and flimsy and well, It broke beyond repair the same day i got it and hyperkin offered no help as i was in UK. Metal pins were flying out with the carts barely getting any use of the thing. At the end of the day, all it needed to be was an android/OUYA with cart ports, and they messed up the ports so bad its useless. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone, if you can live with emulation, then use a PC, OUYA, android or whatever, but the retron5's build quality is so poor it is not worth what so many other things have always been able to do better. If you HAVE to use carts like me, use real hardware. The only thing the retron5 has successfully done is prove there is a market for this sort of thing and will shortly be outshined by a competitor.
(Link to this comment) HankTzar 2015-01-09 17:02
(Link to this comment) DemonicNinja 2015-01-09 21:23
Great review
+1 (Link to this comment) BuckoA51 2015-01-09 22:08
You buy this thing you are supporting a product that basically steals code from open source emulators http://www.libretro.com/index.php/retroarch-license-violations/

Just saying.
+1 (Link to this comment) ewjim 2015-01-09 23:19
Quoting BuckoA51:
You buy this thing you are supporting a product that basically steals code from open source emulators http://www.libretro.com/index.php/retroarch-license-violations/

Just saying.


I'm happy with my purchase. So I'm supporting a group of terrible people. Oh and if you've EVER stolen a single.ROM from the internet, welcome to the dark side.
+1 (Link to this comment) ewjim 2015-01-09 22:15
Great in-depth look at the machine, thanks! Both controllers I got with the machine were both faulty straight out of the box - had to get them replaced. Luckily they are awful controllers and I didn't want them in the first place but seeing though Funstocks are FORCING an extra controller purchase with the machine* then they may as well work in the first place!

*In Funstocks money grabbing defence - their customer service is top notch and they sorted me out promptly.

Its a wonderful machine for people who are wanting to play their old games in HD in an all in one unit. Just don't pay over the odds for one if interested. Don't listen to the hardline retro police about emulation and bla bla bla - it sounds great and looks great without making a HD telly bleed like original hardware through non RGB.
+1 (Link to this comment) charityshopgamer 2015-01-09 23:09
I'm really enjoying my console. I've managed to play Street Fighter Zero 2, but I don't have any PAL or US copies to test.

It's nice to be able to play my FFIV cart in English using the patches. It really does bring life to games that are cheaper to import than to buy locally.
(Link to this comment) LDman95 2015-01-10 18:44
So basically the console £164.99 for a console that's not technically a console at all but an emulator machine, so isn't your cartridge is meaningless if it's going to just play the game through a digital ROM rather than the actual cartridge (even though you're playing a ROM, as long as you own the physical game, it's all fine). I understand that people don't have enough space at home, fair enough. I don't trust machines like this after I brought a Sega Mega Drive Handheld system that only worked for three days. I definitely wouldn't pay £164.99 for this, maybe £40. I would rather have the separate systems, having the real systems make me happy, but I would recommend it if it works for you, though sadly Street Fighter Alpha 2 doesn't work and I love the Alpha series.
(Link to this comment) DarakuTenshi 2015-01-11 00:27
I have a feeling all of the roms are actually loaded on this thing and the games are used as a key to let you access the game.

The reason for this is:
1. I put Wonderboy III the Dragon's Trap and instead of playing WBIII the game came up as Monster World II Dragon's Trap. The SMS did not have the ability to switch graphics depending on the region it was played like the MVS/AES.
2. The system is unable to play most reproduction carts. I tried all my reproduction carts and it would not play any of them except for Donkey Kong Complete, but it played it without the Pie Factory level.
(Link to this comment) BuckoA51 2015-01-11 16:02
Quoting DarakuTenshi:
I have a feeling all of the roms are actually loaded on this thing and the games are used as a key to let you access the game.


Lol no it doesn't have all the ROMs stored away secretly, you really think people went and picked the code to bits and found it was ripped off of open source emulators, but somehow missed the fact that the device had the entire back catalogue of Sega and Nintendo ROMS secretly stored on it?

The SMS does have the ability to detect what region it's running in, actually the code to do so would be fairly trivial I imagine.

Quote:
Oh and if you've EVER stolen a single.ROM from the internet, welcome to the dark side.


I have, but I didn't then modify them and/or try and pass them off as my own work and sell them commercially.
(Link to this comment) DarakuTenshi 2015-01-11 20:34
Just curious as to how you explain both situations that I mentioned? If it was strictly and emulator reading the ROM off of the cartridge why would the game all of a sudden become a different ROM all together? Why can the console not play Homebrew games or games that have been reproduced from sac carts? And the one reproduction cart that it did play all of a sudden not able to play a stage that was added to the cart when the original sac cart did not have it? It's just a theory, but your rebuttal has no information to the contrary.
(Link to this comment) BuckoA51 2015-01-11 21:56
Your SMS game is simply changing it's graphics based on its region, lots of games did this, not so much on the SMS but it is possible.

Your reproduction carts aren't working because the Retron 5 is an emulator and those cartridges are sufficiently different from the norm to trip up the software.
+2 (Link to this comment) Galgomite 2015-01-12 21:16
I own this machine and would like to add a few of my own observations. When playing with your classic console's wired controllers, it's about as good as emulation gets, since it can load up the inserted cart automatically, display visuals that match a high-end scaler, and produce only minor lag (with NES and Genesis, anyway). Wireless pads can work when precision doesn't matter (TMNT Arcade, RPGs, party games).
In some ways it's more than it's cracked up to be, of course-- wired controllers mean you're probably sitting closer than you like to your HDTV, kind of defeating the purpose (I actually have to sit on my coffee table to play). The Retron5 ends up being great for the classic gamer who wants to eliminate the CRT in his/ her small game room. But for people who imagined a wireless system elegantly integrated into their living room entertainment center, well, the crap-laggy wireless controllers, scary cart slots and single cartridge rule make the Retron5 kind of a catch-22.
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