From old consoles to new TVs: a brief history of clones, minis and remakes

Not everything used to be better. Nevertheless, more and more players are pining for the days that were characterised by modulars, 2D graphics or the campy Sega vs Nintendo battle. When terms like season pass, microtransaction and lootbox didn’t yet exist. And interestingly enough, 2018 offers plenty of opportunities to skillfully revive the past!

The gaming is special. Bigger, taller, farther, faster – that’s the motto. Hardware makers, game developers and their customers always seem to be hungry for faster processors, higher resolutions and new input methods; and what came before likes to recede into the background. Media such as film , music and literature, for the most part, know their history and tend to stay true to their roots. Video games, on the other hand, have had a hard time for a long time. Developers often seemed ashamed of their pixelated, colourful origins.

Now the situation has improved. Depending on your system, various classic games are available as streaming solutions, downloads, discs, modules, or backwards compatibility with your previous hardware. But that’s not enough for everyone. The display on today’s HDTVs might not match the memory of the earlier days of tube TV. Or you appreciate the original controllers and are unhappy with the emulation provided. Then a hardware clone might be an interesting alternative. It’s an unlicensed replica of old console hardware, most of whose patents have now expired – often with modern TV connection options, sockets for older controllers and (ideally) a slot that reliably absorbs the good old modules.

Old clones: cheeky and breezy

Ideally, hardware clones today are carefully crafted devices for connoisseurs and nostalgics. This was not always the case. Back in the 1990s there were unlicensed copies of technically outdated hardware, but these were mostly cheap technology designed for one purpose only: to quickly take a few German marks out of the pockets of uninformed contemporaries. As it is, in many electronics shops you can find consoles whose look and feel is strikingly reminiscent of the first Playstation, popular in the mid-1990s. Underneath the CD cover is not the expected CD-ROM drive, but a modular slot: finally a flimsy replica of Nintendo’s good old 8-bit hardware in a grey pseudo-Playstation case.

Such systems are commonly known as “Famiclones”, a hybrid of the 1983 Japanese “Famicom” (known locally as the NES ) and “clones”. Plagiarism was widespread at first, especially in the Far East. In Japan, Nintendo’s 8-bit console is still arguably the most popular system of all time, but it’s just as popular in other regions – there’s no official licence for replicas, of course. Then the clone consoles spread to Europe by roundabout means. These extremely cheap devices have very little in common with the quality and stability always associated with Nintendo . Nevertheless, they represent an exciting part of gaming history.

Russian Dandy

Russia, in particular, has an interesting history of cloning consoles: there was no mass-produced gaming equipment in the USSR. But about a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a system called Dendy saw the light of day. Produced in Taiwan and offered by a Russian company called Steepler under the tutelage of a clever guy called Viktor Savyuk, the Dendy was an untouched unlicensed hardware clone. It was based on the Famicom, but was perfectly legal in Russia. There were no relevant copyright laws in 1992, and in the manufacturing country of Taiwan in the early 1990s, they weren’t too picky about such things. Thus the term “dandy” became synonymous with video games for Russian gamers.

There were options with Nintendo or Sega hardware . As none of the major suppliers had a Russian subsidiary, and there were no legal options to take action against the elephant mascot system (for which Dendy is often erroneously credited to German toy manufacturer Simba on online auctions), the system enjoyed its popularity in the former Eastern Bloc for some of its greatest years. Finally, Dendy opened the gates to licensed hardware: Nintendo itself had entered into an agreement with Stipler and Savuk in 1994. This allowed the former hardware cloners to officially offer the Super Nintendo in Russia.

Mini consoles conquer the world

After more than two decades, clone consoles have suddenly become a big topic, and we have Nintendo to thank for that. In 2016, the traditional company unveiled a product with the rather unwieldy name “Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo

format, including 30 permanently installed games. Gamers took the announcement with universal glee, and when the little console went on sale, the shelves emptied in a very short time. Each successive delivery caused a raucous fortune. In the end, 2.3 million copies of the cutesy hardware were sold – and had Nintendo shipped more units and, unsurprisingly, halted production in spring 2017, the numbers would probably have gone up.

Now Nintendo isn’t the first to offer such hardware. Clone systems with embedded games, including Mega-Drive-based handhelds and home consoles, have existed before, numerous Atari-2600 replicas and Competition Pro joysticks with embedded C64 games that connect to the PC via USB. However, none of these systems were as implemented as the Mini-NES. There are many possible reasons, such as poor processing, average emulation quality or lack of known titles. There’s no denying that Nintendo is in a league of its own when it comes to video game nostalgia. So it doesn’t matter if the sound emulation doesn’t always convince every 8-bit connoisseur, the controller cables are too short or not all the included games are timeless classics. The prospect of playing Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man 2 or The Legend of Zelda via HDMI on a modern TV on a beautiful copy of the NES is too tempting.

This unexpected success naturally left its mark on the rest of the industry. In addition to the C64 Mini (with a dummy keyboard that unfortunately can’t be used) and the new incarnation of the officially licensed but technically mixed Mega-Drive replicas from AtGames, Atari is also attempting a comeback that’s probably doomed to fail with the odd console. concept. Nintendo, for its part, launched the Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System in shops in early autumn 2017: €30 more expensive than the Mini-NES, with nine fewer games, but with a second controller (slightly) longer. cables and the previous unreleased Star Fox 2 . Because production this time was not as tight as with its 8-bit predecessor, this system sold more than five million copies worldwide.

Retro and retro freak

US company Hyperkin has been active for a few years now and has often appeared with technically average players, mostly based on Nintendo software emulators. But with the 2014 release of the Retron 5, the company has created a furor – for better or for worse. On the plus side, there are five module bays: Famicom, NES, SNES, Mega Drive and Game Boy . The device runs games with all country codes, the Game Boy front slot is compatible with the classic original, the colour version and even the advanced version. The picture is sent to the TV via HDMI. Fan translation patches are supported. There are several graphics options, and those wishing to do so can connect the original NES, SNES and Mega Drive controllers – a good decision, as the included Retron pad has weaknesses in comfort.

The all-in-one needs about 200 euros for it. It sounds almost too good to be true – and from a certain point of view it is. For home use, the Retron 5 is a great console. However, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll quickly recognise the Android system , working internally with the relevant emulators. Retron reads the modules, loads the data into memory and runs the appropriate emulator. And since the emus were developed under a Creative Commons licence, but Hyperkin sells them for a lot of money, it’s a morally questionable proposition. In any case, the quality of the actual emulation is a matter of taste.

The situation is very similar to that of Japanese rival Retro Freak. The modular console from Cyber Gadget uses separate components for the processor, module slots and controller connections, offers the whole family of PC engines (except CD-ROM games of course), another supported format and even allows games to be copied from the module to an SD card. Nevertheless, the point remains: the Retro Freak also relies on Android-based emulation and offers a decent display, but pixel connoisseurs and retro-gourmands turn up their noses at it.

Analogue luxury

Original equipment – there hasn’t been anything better for unbending pixel ultras for years. From the old console via RGB via Framemeister to an HDTV, or better yet, directly via RGB to a high-quality tube TV, which has long been the unrivalled reference class. In the meantime, things are no longer so clear-cut – thanks to US company Analogue. Their aim is to produce definitive versions of classic consoles. The team’s debut project from Seattle is called Analogue CMVS. It’s a console version of the SNK MVS hardware encased in a sleek wooden case. Priced at around $650, it was a real collector’s item in 2011. The Analogue Nt was a similar situation: unlike other NES replicas, this console in a noble metal case didn’t rely on emulation, because a real Famicom or NES processor, including PPU chips, was ticking inside. Images were output via the finest RGB or (with the appropriate adapter) via HDMI in 1080p resolution with plenty of digital features. In this case, the price was well above the $500 mark.

With the Analogue Nt Mini and the current Super Nt Analogue is changing its approach: instead of the original hardware, the Americans now use FPGA (“user-programmable gate array”). Behind this is quite modern technology in which a dedicated chip mimics the inner workings of older devices as closely as possible. With careful programming, the FPGA hardware cannot be distinguished from the actual system – neither for you nor for the software. At around US$400, the Analogue Nt Mini, currently unavailable, is the ultimate NES or Famicom: perfect compatibility, multiple connections from RGB to HDMI and excellent graphics options for resolution, aspect ratio, scanlines and more let your 8-bit friends drool.

From Raspy and Emus

If you have an online discussion about various retro consoles, it often only takes a few minutes. There are free emulators online for (almost) every conceivable system from Atari VCS to Wii U , related ROMs and CD images 

If you have a little Retro Pi under the TV, you play (at worst on the keyboard) one or two classics and you can immediately lose motivation. With overdrive, the craving fades quickly, and besides, ROM downloads are also illegal: right now Super Mario Bros., which remains one of the best and undoubtedly most influential games of all time, is available for around €5 on both 3DS and Wii U. On the other hand, the somewhat more exotic arcade port of Super Mario Bros. VS appeals to the Switch faction. Unsurprisingly, Nintendo doesn’t like it when the 1985 classic is illegally offered on dozens of ROM sites. And before you start arguing that you can’t ask for money for such an old game these days: could you say the same about movies like Back to the Future, Say, The Goonies or The Breakfast Club, released in the same year? Probably not. Unfortunately, when it comes to video games, there is a different understanding of values in some places.

Rubbish from China?

For a few months now, the retro community has been looking towards China: where pirated copies and scrappy clones used to dominate, standards have recently risen unexpectedly. Manufacturers such as Retroad and HaoLong are offering a variant of the legendary Sega Mega Drive for the equivalent of around €60. The case is the same as the original console except for slight colour variations, with Japanese and American modules mostly ingested. EU cartridges without country protection – so pretty much everything that came out before 1992 – also work without problems.

The highlight: in addition to the usual A/V connectors, there’s a genuine HDMI output that sends the picture to a modern HDTV in 720p format. However, the handsome box has some drawbacks: the sound is only output in mono and does not sound perfect in all games. In addition, only the audio/video signal is converted via HDMI, pure RGB quality unfortunately remains a dream. You’ll be looking in vain for rival machine options too, and state save or graphics options (filters; bitmap lines) are not offered here – the Chinese Mega Drive is just a system on a chip. But until Analogue’s FPGA mega drive is available, Sega’s friends should definitely consider buying an unlicensed Chinese product.

The real surprise from China is the TimeHarvest Jamma CBox MVS. The name is long and complicated, but the device behind it is very interesting. The Neo Geo arcade system is encased in a beautiful transparent shell – that is a variant that absorbs arcade modules, which are much cheaper these days. And it’s not a replica, it’s a real MVS-1C board. After all, original hardware means: no compromises, no display errors, no emulation problems, no delays! There are also a number of interesting links. Sure, you can access the image via A/V, but if you appreciate quality, you’ll love S-Video, YUV and beautiful RGB – it’ll make your retro heart smile! Only RGB upscalers should be careful, as the connection puts out a few more volts, which in turn can cause damage. And for stereo sound you need a small but not too complicated mod. Controller connections are pleasing without any mods: in addition to two SNK connectors for the wonderful Neo Geo and Neo Geo CD sticks and tablets, there are two connectors for Sega Saturn controllers. Fans of 2D have trusted Saturn Japanese pads since the mid-1990s, and, unlike the SNK-produced controllers, Saturn hardware is still available today. As is the MVS system itself: the product costs around $200 and is cheaper than comparable MVS consoles. 2D fans have trusted Saturn Japanese pads since the mid-1990s, and unlike controllers made by SNK, Saturn hardware is still available today. As is the MVS system itself: the product costs around $200 and is cheaper than comparable MVS consoles. 2D fans have trusted Saturn Japanese pads since the mid-1990s, and unlike controllers made by SNK, Saturn hardware is still available today. As is the MVS system itself: the product costs around $200 and is cheaper than comparable MVS consoles.

the price is hot

The price is a double-edged sword anyway, given the whole retro theme. Who more than

pays quite high prices for the original modules, especially if value is still attached to packaging and instructions. Packaged Nintendo games in particular are now often reaching the highest prices because of the very sensitive cardboard envelopes that used to be thrown away. Things are a little better in Sega’s camp, but they also make a lot of horizontally or vertically scrolling shooters .Traded in triple digits. Of course, all this is nothing compared to the neo-geo scene: apart from a few games that do get released frequently – such as the Japanese versions of Fatal Fury Special, Art of Fighting 2 or Samurai Shodown – the AES module prices are good to bad in many cases. The later editions in particular are outbid by dealers in gold thanks to the often tiny print runs.

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