Regular visitors to the Infinite Frontiers websites will know that I’m passionate about retro gaming, but even more so I’m a strong advocate of using original hardware wherever possible over emulation. That being said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the release of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega that I reviewed recently and I’m more than a little intrigued and – dare I say – enthusiastic about the upcoming handheld and console system, THE 64, the homage to my all-time favourite computer the Commodore 64.
One thing that these, and many other consoles like them, have in common is a low-cost architecture that not only allows the consoles themselves to be cost-effective but has lead to some controversy amongst those who have considered buying them. While I have talked before about emulation certainly being a cheaper option for gamers, it certainly can’t recreate the same feeling as running a game on a real ZX Spectrum, C64, Megadrive or any other system for that matter but what about the alternatives if using a real machine isn’t an option for one reason or another?
In recent years we’ve seen a wide range of hardware come on to the market offering low cost alternatives to original hardware, and in most cases greater flexibility. We’ve all seen retail stores selling budget prices consoles with what appears to be a too-good-to-be-true deal – a console, controllers, plus anything up to a hundred games for under £30. On closer inspection of these, it’s easy to see just why… they’re part of a console breed all of their own – Famiclones. Cheaply built consoles, usually made in China, around original NES hardware condensed down to a single low cost chip, the consoles themselves are fairly basic having little more than ports for the controllers, AV output and a cartridge port for the bundled games. Cartridge port, you ask? To keep costs down, all the bundled games are included on a single multi-game cart accessible from a menu and looking at these carts across a range of these clones, it soon becomes apparent not only why these machines are cheap, but why they don’t stay on the market for long…
The cartridges are full of NES games… commercial ones at that and none of them are licensed. Whether it’s Konami blockbusters like Gradius, or Namco classics such as Galaga, you’ll discover dozens of classics that astonishingly managed to slip past the lawyers for long enough to get onto the high street shelves. While most have been hacked slightly to have copyright details removed or some minor changes to graphics made there’s no doubt to the dubious nature of the multi-carts. That’s not the real appeal of these systems though – because of their design and their development as a NES-on-a-chip they are fully functional consoles in their own right and work as multi-regional NES systems able to play games from anywhere in the world. They may be cheap, but they’re a great entry point for import gaming. Out of the box they work happily as Famicom clones and with adaptors are proven to be comfortable running games from any region.
While we’ve had a generous number of plug and play systems, many offering rudimentary console-on-a-chip technology designed to fit into a controller to deliver limited gaming on a budget (such as the Commodore 64DTV, several Sega Megadrive based units and Namco models), very few new consoles targeted at the retro gaming community make use of the original system hardware to deliver the technology being recreated. The ATGames Sega Mega Drive series while offering multi-region support through its cartridge based hardware solution still hasn’t managed to recreate Sega’s classic console perfectly and is known to have some sound issues which has left some purists feeling disappointed despite being able to use European and American Genesis cartridges on them.
Instead of sticking to a purely hardware based option, manufacturers generally are opting for a more commercially viable approach – a hardware / software hybrid and this is what is frustrating many gamers who are looking for new versions of some of their favourite machines, either to replacing failing hardware or to recapture their lost youth. While I certainly won’t go into every system right now, I’ll look into the more significant ones and large issues affecting them.
Amongst the retro gaming community, one of the most well-known range of systems are the RetroN consoles from Hyperkin. Now in its fifth iteration and offering support for a staggering 10 different systems, these have proved to be incredibly popular and it’s not hard to see why. Offering HDMI output ensuring compatability with modern TVs (a frequent cause for frustration with modern televisions and retro consoles), it’s the first choice for gamers wanting to be able to use real game cartridges without needing original console hardware. While offering customisable graphics output, multiple controller support and the ability to support most 8-bit and 16-bit cartridge system from both Nintendo and Sega regardless of region has won it countless fans it’s not perfect.
At it’s heart is an Android powered device which is infact running emulators for all of the consoles that it is running. Once games are inserted into any of the consoles multiple cartridge ports (for different systems) they’re dumped into the RetroN’s memory for use from there. It can’t use ROM files as you would expect with an emulator on your PC but essentially it works the same way but just in a physical console form just with original cartridges. That hasn’t stopped it from being loved by all of its fans.
In contrast, the ZX Spectrum Vega and THE 64 have taken a different approach. Both are based around a low-cost processor and are designed more with the overall user experience in mind. In each case, the original machines are being run through emulation. There are detractors who have criticised this approach but the reality is that no other option was available to make either machine possible, or at least one that would make the machines commercially viable, and these are factors that many fans of the original hardware are failing to appreciate…
First, getting the basics out of the way, probably the most affordable element of the new systems is the packaging. Printing costs are incredibly affordable today thanks to digital printing and even small print runs can be handled on a cost effective basis. A system selling just 1,000 units can have packaging and manuals that can equal or even exceed the quality offered by the original hardware back in the 80s thanks to the advances made in technology used in the print industry.
The physical production of consoles is a lot more affordable as well. Injection moulding for plastic used to be an expensive matter. Specialist machinery was needed, moulds were expensive to make and potentially wasteage was high with raw materials as well. It wasn’t a case of simply creating a design and getting the outer shell into production. The early computers needed those high volume sales to offset the cost of the machinery and the moulds that were custom made. Again, it’s easier today. For small runs, designers can turn to 3D printing to produce the hardware they want to bring to market, but if not, it’s still more affordable today to manufacture the casing for a physical console or a computer than it used to be… but to be frank, it’s still not pocket change.
As I said, things have come on a long way since the 1980s in the manufacturing industry. It’s a more cost effective, more efficient and more advanced industry than it was back then but it still has limitations. Producing a computer such as the ZX Spectrum or the Commodore 64 back in the 80s with a production run into the millions made it easy to be able to offer the hardware at the prices they did and still manage to distribute them globally through all manner of sales channels. But this is 2016 and both consoles are being produced with the support of crowdfunding.
Looking closer at either system and what is actually needed to produce a console that modern gamers would demand, it becomes clear quickly that the cost would quickly exceed the budget or a price rise would be inevitable when you aim to please as many gamers as possible who would most likely want a machine that is:
- Offers a good selection of bundled games
- Easy to connect to existing televisions
- Good design aesthetic, faithful to the original computers
- Technically accurate recreation of original hardware
- Ability to use your own software
- Ability to use SD cards for additional software
- Ability to use existing hardware add-ons
When you look at all of this, and the desire to keep costs down, it forces the hand of manufacturers to make certain sacrifices and this has lead to many coming under fire from would-be supporters.The harsh reality is that we are not going to see brand new mass-market Spectrum hardware built using the Z80 processor at the heart of it, nor are we going to see a new Commodore 64 computer with a SID chip and Vic-II graphics chip inside. It’s just not financially viable to get this old technology back into production for what is essentially a niche product.
So what choice is there? While not perfect, I believe that the best that can be offered to modern audiences is a hybrid solution – recreating the classic computers through emulation running on low cost core technology. The reality is that running Spectrum or Commodore 64 software accurately doesn’t need high system resources. What is important is ensuring that it works well and gives the end user the look and feel of the original machine and this is where the new wave of consoles are important.
These are not just a case of putting an “emulator on a Raspberry Pi” as some have argued. Using emulators may recreate the software side of using old games and computers but not the whole experience and feel of using one and that’s what matters. Certainly I’d say that a large part of the success of the Commodore 64DTV was the use of the Competition Pro joystick for its design. Playing those old Commodore 64 games using that controller simply “felt” right and that is what matters most with these new machines.
By using what are in essence off-the-shelf components for the processor, video output, primary connectors, storage etc, it keeps the production cost down as low as possible. It ensures that money invested in the consoles from their respective crowd funding campaigns are not only getting the systems into production quicker, but have helped get bundled software licenced and developed and have offered more to the gamers eagerly awaiting them. It’s keeping the hardware side of things down to what is needed rather than wasting resources on what – in all honesty – most people won’t notice, allows more to be invested in the package as a whole.
When using the ZX Spectrum Vega, I never thought for one moment that I was playing games on a Spectrum emulator (even though that’s what I was doing). I simply regarded the system as being my first Spectrum. It just felt right playing games using it, especially on a television, the way they were meant to be played. The same can be said for The 64. While not on the market yet, it’s promising an equally exciting experience for C64 enthusiasts. Integrated games, SD card support plus the ability to use it like a regular C64.
No, it won’t be a Commodore 64 in the truest sense if you open the casing and look inside for a SID chip, but when playing some of your favourite games on it will you truly care? The reality is that neither maufacturers could give us the systems that we would want as hardened 80s geeks unless we were willing to pay the sort of price that the original computers were when they were first released and that simply won’t happen. If you want a reimagined Commodore 64 using new versions of all the old chips then you can expect to pay the same £400+ when the C64 was first released for the priviledge and certainly not just over £100 for the new The 64.
At the end of the day though, are these hybrid systems really a bad thing for retro gamers? What many of us have forgotten in our senior years is that it’s not the first time that our favourite systems have been relaunched and run under emulation on a commercial basis… from the companies that made them in the first place. In the case of the Commodore 64, for those who were fortunate enough to own a Commodore 128 back in the 1980s that ran C64 software in a dedicated C64 Mode. However, that mode wasn’t 100% accurate and was prone to some compatability errors so even back then the C64 was being run by some under emulation to a limited degree.
Spectrum owners had the same with the release of the Spectrum 128k which suffered compatability issues with some original software when running in 48k mode. The reality is that neither of these original systems included both sets of hardware to feature their predecessors and had to make some compromises to keep costs down and the same decisions have had to be made for today’s market.
Despite my reservations about emulation, I was surprised how quickly I warmed to the Vega and while it’s not a perfect return for my all time favourite computer, with the plans that are in store for it I am excited about The 64 and if its anywhere close to the plans they have in store for it, I think it’s got a lot of potential to really grow over time. Are we looking at the future for all our favourite 8-bit (and possibly 16-bit) systems? I think we’re in for some good times ahead as retro enthusiasts but who knows. But maybe… just maybe we’ll see a return for computers from Amstrad and Atari next…?