The number of people jumping into vintage gaming grows in number by the day, but not everyone taking the plunge accurately remembers what playing games in the '80s or '90s was actually like. It goes without saying that video technology has changed a lot since the ‘80s, yet one of the first unexpected bumps in the road that many collectors run into is the realization that consoles built for analog tubes don’t always play nice with today’s digital displays. There are expensive solutions for upgrading an authentic systems’ video options, but not everyone wants to spend hundreds of dollars for an idealized retro gaming experience. Similarly, roms and emulators can’t match the feeling of holding a game in your hand--and are generally used outside of the law.
The other option is to look to a company like Hyperkin. Its Retron 5 console can play cartridges from numerous Sega and Nintendo game libraries over HDMI, and allow you to save your game on the fly, or capture screenshots to a memory card. Granted this is because the Retron 5 utilizes software emulation, but the support for real cartridges is enough to give many retro gamers the nostalgic experience they crave. But at $160, it’s also easy to see how this is overkill for someone who’s merely testing the waters, say with a few NES games found at a flea market or discovered in neglected storage spaces.
With the release up the new Retron HD, Hyperkin has a solution for this exact situation. The small, USB-powered console plays NES games (with extensive support for some historically idiosyncratic games such as Castlevania III) and can be used on either a CRT TV with composite video connections, or over HDMI at 720p on modern displays. It also supports both PAL and NTSC games, despite their inherently incompatible video standards. At a very reasonable $40, the Retron HD’s budget asking price is reflected in the finished product to a degree, but the system’s apparent compromises would only really matter to the dedicated purist who probably has access to a more authentic and capable solution already.
A so-called Nintendo-on-a-chip console, the Retron HD plays games via a processor that simulates NES hardware. It’s not quite software emulation, and it’s not quite hardware emulation--at least, not the likes used in the impressive and expensive Analogue Nt Mini. That said, unless you’re a staunch student of the 8-bit arts, you’d be hard pressed to notice minor differences between playing games on the Retron HD and on a real NES--though colors aren't always 100% accurate and sound effects do sound slightly different compared to authentic hardware.
The console itself is also notably different, both in its size, form, and operation from the NES, though it does bear similar colors and design details. Smaller and more efficient than the real deal, the Retron HD is roughly the size of a stack of three NES games. It has two standard NES controller ports on the front, HDMI and RCA (composite video and stereo audio) video connections on the back, and a PAL-NTSC switch on its underbelly. It also comes with a controller that’s a modern interpretation of Nintendo’s classic rectangular model, with with a longer-than-usual cable, newly modeled curves, and agreeable inputs that feel better than buttons on most aftermarket controllers.
Like most systems that play games directly from the cart--as opposed to dumping its content to RAM, as the Retron 5 does--there’s a good chance weathered NES carts will prove finicky on the Retron HD, exhibiting a jumbled picture, if not an entirely blank signal. It’s no fault of the console, but worth considering if you are under the impression that classic aspect of NES gaming will be totally resolved by new hardware.
Our general impression of the Retron HD is that it’s a relatively cheap but reliable means of playing original NES carts. It's also super convenient. Powered over USB, the Retron HD works when plugged into a TV, computer, and even modern consoles. Anyone who uses an original NES can attest to how appealing this sounds given the original “wall wart” power adapter was large, heavy, and prone to concerning levels of heat.
It’s also refreshing to see that the console supports both RCA and HDMI video connections. When connected to a CRT for a more authentic experience, the Retron HD performs as you’d hope, outputting an image with the normal amount of blur and color bleeding, typical of a stock NES. That sounds bad, but it’s got more to do with the limits of composite video than it doesn’t the Retron HD, and again, falls in line with the traditional NES experience.
The real caveat regarding video output is linked to the Retron HD’s HDMI output. Where pure emulation solutions (and expensive hardware upscalers) can make 8-bit, 240p games look crisp at 720p or 1080p, the Retron HD’s 720p output is slightly blurry. It’s not particularly harmful, a side effect of the system’s methodology for upscaling--cheaply expanding the video encoder’s RGB signal. Thankfully, getting ahead of the composite signal in the rendering chain means that, despite the blur, it’s miles ahead of playing over composite, with richer colors, no color bleeding, and no signal noise/interference. It’s worth mentioning that there’s also a toggle for either 4:3 (standard) or 16:9 (stretched) video output over HDMI, though the latter option will make games looks mildly distorted.
At only $40, the Retron HD is such a good deal that the ever-so-slight blur over HDMI isn’t that damning when taken in context. It’s also likely that the budget-focused crowd the console is aimed at won’t care, given the console's overall convenience. Chances are they will be more thrilled to have a new, reliable NES console that’s easy to power, with flexible video options, and a controller that’s surprisingly more comfortable and capable than it looks. In a sea of retro consoles, the Retron HD stands out as the best choice for NES collectors who are just getting started.