There’s something about the simplicity of plug and play consoles. While you can’t deny that nothing can recreate the experience of using an original computer or games console for the authentic retro gaming experience, it can not only be an expensive way to enjoy retro gaming but one fraught with problems in terms of software and hardware reliability. Plug and play systems offer a cheaper alternative for many and while they certainly provide a more limited choice of games, they’re quick, convenient, and bring many gamers back to the retro scene allowing them to relive their childhood on a budget.
Despite many hardcore gamers being split over the contributions these systems make to the retro gaming community, none have proved to be more controversial that the official Sega Mega Drive systems produced by the Chinese manufacturer ATGames. This mini console has been released in a number of forms over the last few years offering anything from 20 games up to the current 80 games models and on the surface appears to be a Mega Drive fan’s dream machine. A great library of built-in classic games, wireless controllers along with compatability with existing joypads plus the ability to use original Mega Drive cartridges. So why is it so loathed and is it really as bad as people make out?
Looking at the packaging, the system looks very impressive. Boasting a massive 80 games featuring many of the system’s classics including Golden Axe I – III, Streets Of Rage I – III, no fewer than five Sonic games and many more so on the software front there’s no doubting that you’ll be occupied for a long time with some real gems. On closer inspection, it is a little misleading though. Of the 80 titles, only 40 are commercially released games. The rest have been developed specifically for the console and can at best be described as mediocre to average home brew titles. While some of these are still reasonably playable and are worth looking at, they’re no match for the real “meat” of the content so it’s unlikely that you’ll look at most of them more than once or twice.
Opening the box is something of a surprise. The console itself is a relatively small unit taking up less than a quarter of the space and certainly with a little re-arranging, the entire contents could have fit into a box half the finished size. The machine measures about six inches wide and sports just two buttons on top – one for power and one to access the system’s main menu where you access all of the games. At the rear is the socket for the 9V power supply and composite sockets for the video and audio using the included cable. At the front is the receiver for the two infrared wireless six-button controllers and two traditional 9-pin joypad ports which can accept standard Mega Drive joypads. Finally on top is a cartridge port allowing the console to use most standard EU and US Mega Drive and Genesis cartridges.
Setting up is simplicity itself and you can be up and running with the console in a matter of minutes… as long as you have some batteries to hand. The supplied controllers require two AAA batteries each to work and none are supplied with it so unless you have these at home, you can’t actually use the console out of the box. It’s a minor gripe but one that is easily sorted. Switching on goes straight into the main menu and from here you can select any of the games on offer and then get stuck into the hours of Mega Drive gaming which is what the console is all about.
The controller is about 20% smaller than the original Mega Drive pad and while it may be difficult to use for those with larger hands, it’s not too bad but may be uncomfortable for prolonged periods of use. I found it to be reasonably responsive considering the fact that was infrared rather than bluetooth or connected via any other method although I did forget this at times and felt frustrated when games didn’t respond simply because I forgot to point the controller directly at the console. It does seem to work well over a reasonable range. I tested it with the console over six feet away and had no problems during use so it should be fine for most people.
The key aspect of the console for most is what is under the hood. There isn’t a single Sega chip to be found in this console and everything is handled via emulation. While this is commonplace for plug and play systems, this is what has lead to frustration and anger amongst critics of the machine. History has proven when it comes to emulation that no matter how powerful the hardware is that is being used, it never seems to be 100% accurate when it comes to emulating any other system regardless of the technological difference between the system doing the emulation and the machine that is being emulated.
This has lead to some technical issues with this console with it suffering from some problems with its reproduction of the Mega Drive’s sound chips. I have to be completely honest here and say that I didn’t actually notice anything wrong with the sound while using the console, although Sega purists are a lot harsher with their criticism, citing the sound as being tinny at best and at worst an abysmal rendering of the Mega Drive’s sound capabilities. It’s not the only issue that plagues the console. Because it is emulation-based, it is unable to make use of save game features on original cartridges that support it. While that won’t be a problem for most games, it does mean that RPGs simply aren’t suitable for use on the console unless you’re the type of gamer who loves starting from scratch every time you play.
Others have been critical of the system making use of composite connectors for it’s AV output although this is something that I don’t particularly have an issue with. Most plug and play consoles connect in this way and while most modern systems connect via HDMI or offer RGB output, the reality is that the majority of gamers using the Mega Drive back in the 90s were using CRT screens with composite or RF connectors themselves! The only real let-down for me was the sound. The console only offers mono sound which I did find strange considering the Mega Drive’s original stereo output. Whether this was done as a cost-cutting exercise or because of the emulation I don’t know.
All these flaws do bring me to the real crux surrounding my review of this console and others I have looked at and will be in the future (including the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega I reviewed recently) – just who is this console aimed at and are the hardcore Sega fans right to be angry over the machine’s failings?
The reality is that it’s not us, the so-called “serious” retro gaming enthusiasts. For those of us who are passionate about our retro consoles and computers, the truth is that we are more than likely already playing games on the real consoles and have our own corners of our homes dedicated to classic gaming, our own personal man caves that are treasure troves to a bygone era when video games really were better (or that’s what we keep telling ourselves). For those of us who prefer emulation, we’ll have our PCs loaded with every emulator imaginable, a hacked PSP or even go down the route of opting for a Raspberry Pi. My point is that most gamers already know what games they want to play, have their own personal games collections on hand and have most of what they need to enjoy their retro gaming.
So why are these consoles needed? The fact is that despite these consoles being sold by retro gaming specialists and promoted in the retro gaming press and dedicated video games websites, these consoles are really best suited for the mass consumer market. If you strip this down to what it is really attempting to do, it’s not meant to be a device for the dedicated gamer. It’s a system meant to re-introduce Sega fans to retro gaming. A console for people who used to own a Mega Drive when they were younger and have a hankering to relive their youth. Those who remember playing games like Sonic and Golden Axe as a child and want to play these games again but don’t want the hassle of becoming a retro games collector.
In most cases, people who are looking to buy these consoles (and the countless plug and play joysticks / joypads on the market) do so because these are built with a single purpose – to take advantage of nostalgia and gently reintroduce people to the idea of retro gaming. These systems are popular because they are designed to sell specific games, to make gaming simple and fun again, the way it used to be. For the casual consumer who hasn’t seen or used a Mega Drive for 20 years, they are not going to care that there are discrepancies in the sound quality with this console. They’re not going to be bothered that the console can’t cope with save game functions on original cartridges… all that matters to them is that they can play 40 Mega Drive games on a system that works out at around £1 a game. Composite video instead of RGB SCART or HDMI? It doesn’t matter because it’s just as quick and easy to connect and with the original games being over 20 years old these casual gamers are not going to expect state-of-the-art visuals.
The truth of the matter is that those of us who are serious about retro gaming as a hobby are not the market for consoles like these. Having all of these games pre-loaded on a single console is a convenience, nothing else. Cost wise, there are games we couldn’t afford to buy individually or not without saving up or struggling to justify the expense to our other halves but many simply don’t feel that the drop in quality or hardware limitations are worth it.
However, when you look at it from the viewpoint of the target audience, things begin to look quite different for this console. The ATGames Sega Mega Drive Classic Games Console really does represent fantastic value for money. It manages to provide an incredible amount of retro gaming entertainment with some of Sega’s finest moments on the Mega Drive. These are likely to be snapped up by people looking for the ideal gift for Father’s Day (which is what my daughter did when she got me this), but most importantly to the retro gaming community, these are perfect for people who are curious about retro gaming but who don’t want to take the plunge and spend large sums on old consoles and collections of games to get started. There’s no better re-introduction to classic gaming than an all-in-one system like this, and to be frank, despite its shortcomings this still manages to do a reasonably good job at delivering the Mega Drive experience.