Over the last few years the Android operating system has opened up a whole new realm of affordable gaming options. With Google's policy on what applications are allowed on their digital store being incredibly relaxed, and the ability to manually install software, the platform has become a modern haven for emulators and retro gamers. As a result, a plethora of new gaming hardware has been released as a cheap alternative to the mainstream consoles. One of the more recent ones, the Eagle Box, promises an awful lot from the get go, but how does it hold up against the competition?
Without beating around the bush, the Eagle Box will not convince any traditionalists that emulation is better than using original hardware, but for those looking for convenience and simply the ability to play older games on a big HD TV will be delighted. It may not stand the ravages of time in the way the legacy consoles have, but with an Eagle Box under your TV, a quick fix of nostalgia is never far away. It's safe to say that Nintendo's NES Mini far exceeds the build quality of this machine, but I have to wonder if those who rushed out for the NES Mini know that consoles like the Eagle Box exist. After all, while 40 digital offerings of Nintendo NES games in one handy machine may sound excellent, the customisation options and versatility of the Eagle box makes that look much worse value for money.
Retro Gaming on a Budget
Ultimately though it's highly unlikely you'll be looking into the Eagle Box for anything other than retro emulation on a big screen, and for this, again, it's functional, rather than perfect.
According to the Eagle Box's box, the machine is capable of playing Sony PlayStation 1, MAME (Arcade), Sega Dreamcast, Nintendo 64, Neo Geo AES, Atari 2600, NES, SNES, Gameboy, Gameboy Colour, GBA, SEGA Master System & Mega Drive, Amiga, C64, ZX Spectrum. For earlier consoles I failed to find a ROM that wouldn't play, including some that had had fan translation patches applied. Also notoriously hard to emulate Super Nintendo games that required proprietary on-cart chips worked largely fine; 'Starwing' was flawless as was 'Super Mario RPG', however, 'Mega Man X3' did freeze whenever a wireframe mesh was meant to appear onscreen.
Naturally, the older the console being emulated, the better the results. If you're intending to play games on machines released before the Nintendo 64 you'll find very few problems. Although supported, Dreamcast and PlayStation games appeared to be the cut off point in terms of playability and framerate. Comparatively less CPU demanding games like 'Mega Man X4' on the PlayStation were okay but don't expect too good an experience playing more hardware intensive titles. 'Gran Turismo 2' was rendered almost unplayable due to all too frequent drops in frame rate. Bizarrely, certain specific games really do not seem to get on with the system. The watered down N64 version of 'Resident Evil 2' worked, but both the PlayStation & Dreamcast versions kept on crashing. Cut-scenes in all three PS1 'Final Fantasy' games froze using the native emulator, but some of these problems were eliminated using the emulation station RetroArch and tinkering with some settings.
MAME support was surprisingly good though, even if getting the games to launch was a faff. Admittedly this isn't a problem limited to the Eagle Box though; I simply don't get on with MAME!
£80 of Power
In terms of power and performance the Eagle Box isn’t a console to rival other emulation machines out there; however, it is cheaper than higher-spec alternatives like the Nvidia Shield or superb GDP XD. Before ordering its worth thinking about which machines you wish to emulate and then buy accordingly. If your heart is pixelated and 16bit you probably be satisfied with this machine. However, if you're a polygon-loving gamer with a thirst for more powerful and recent machines you'll be disappointed.
While it’s easy to be critical you should also be mindful of the price paid. For £80 you'd be foolish to think you'll be unboxing a machine that'll shame the build quality of Sony. The Eagle Box has been made to meet a budget, and it's certainly not a premium product. The console itself is very flimsy, with questionable sounds within once moved, and there was a noticeable warping of the plastic shell when the HDMI lead was inserted. It's not a machine that's rugged enough to last being moved about too much but it's hard to imagine it'll fall apart if it's set up and left alone.
For £80 you'd be foolish to think you'll be unboxing a machine that'll shame the build quality of Sony
The controller is a big leap up from the likes of those included with Hyperkin machines but that isn't necessarily an endorsement! It's best described as a functional third-party pad. Button and twin stick placement has clearly been inspired by an Xbox controller, but the buttons are noticeably spongy. There was no input lag and while feeling cheap, the controller was perfectly functional. After a few hours play, it's highly likely you will want to use your own, more expensive Bluetooth controllers. USB ones can also be used, perfect for RetroBit's and RetroLink's superb Retro inspired controllers.
I was slightly surprised to see a 3 Pin UK plug in the box, along with a HDMI lead, an AV cable and a USB to micro-USB lead. The latter is required to hook the Eagle Box up to a PC and add all the ROMs of your choice on to its internal memory. That being said, rather dubiously, hundreds of games and emulators come pre-installed on the 5 GB internal memory. As this was bought from an internet auction site, perhaps the previous owner added them and didn't remove them prior to sale. That being said it was sold "as new" so it's hard to know. To be honest I removed most of the pre-installed content as I found it awkward to navigate quickly.
Eagle Box in Action
With the machine running on Android 4.4 there is slight onscreen navigation issues as touch controls do not carry across to a TV. As with most Android devices, while the Eagle Box is perfectly useable "out of the box" a bit of tinkering works wonders. With the Google Play store accessible you can pick the apps and interface that suits you best and the machine is customisable with only the smallest amount of technical proficiency required. This customisation extends to the apps too, where key mapping and a plethora of display options means the content behaves in the way you wish. Of course the extent of this depends on the apps themselves and while the included emulators are nice enough, for most supported legacy systems there are better emulators available on the Play Store for just a few pounds. You'd be advised to stay away from more modern Android games though, as while even some games released this year will start, in our experience most were close to unplayable. Again, a lack of touchscreen was at odds with the game's design and while controller mapping did alleviate this occasionally the frame rate was wildly inconsistent.
Clearly if you're in the market for any "Emulator Box" you value convenience over authenticity. You want to play your games quickly on your big TV, in glorious HD without the need to get your cartridges off the shelf and out of the box. Of course emulating games is, and always has been, a bit of a legal grey area. However, if you can buy the game either from a digital download platform or on an officially licensed emulator machine, like Nintendo's NES mini, you probably should be parting with cash. Indeed the over excited reaction to this NES Mini seems strange considering it does far less than machines like this Eagle Box. The excitement surrounding it suggests that Nintendo have somehow created a fantastic new piece of cutting edge technology but the reality is that emulation devices have existed for years. From the Ouya to cheap plug and play decides that attach via AV leads, for quite some time if you wanted to use one machine that has many digital games you could.
Many people seem to buy a Raspberry Pie for this reason alone. Even the Amazon Fire stick is sold on its ability to play games; including retro gaming emulators. The Fire Stick was clearly the inspiration for the original Eagle Box. Starting out life as the Eagle XBMC Kodi, it was a device that streamed TV over a wifi network. Perhaps as a response to the Growing thirst for emulated classics, the manufacturer has re-branded. The included software has changed and bundled in the box is now a remote and a Bluetooth controller that'll be familiar to anyone used to Microsoft consoles.
Bottom line - if you want access to thousands of games for cheap, give the Eagle Box a ride. If you're looking for more power for the latter titles, keep saving for a more high-end device.