Retro gaming is a hobby that is both rewarding and enlightening; like leafing through an old book or listening to a record from many moons ago, there’s an element of discovery for those who weren’t around to enjoy vintage titles when they were first released. Conversely, those of us old (and wise) enough to remember the classic systems first time around gain a hearty dose of nostalgia from digging out ageing hardware and firing up long-lost favourites.
The trouble is, nothing is ever built to last forever. While gamers tend to believe that their trusty cartridge-based consoles won’t ever fail them, the fact remains that all technology has a finite lifespan. Sooner or later, your beloved NES/SNES/whatever is going to shuffle off its mortal coil and join the great silicon heaven in the sky.
Thankfully, when this event occurs you have several options available – one being the Wii’s handy Virtual Console service, of course. However, for those of you that own games that for whatever reason are not currently available for purchase online (or merely desire something more tangible than digital downloads) there’s always the “FamiClone” route.
FamiClones – which are basically unofficial systems that will play NES and Famicom titles but are produced without Nintendo’s consent – have been around for years. However, it’s only now that these machines have gained larger acceptance, and this is largely due to the fact that many of Nintendo’s NES and SNES-related patents ran out around 2005. Because of this, it’s no longer illegal to produce consoles that play Nintendo software, and this has led to an increase in “fake” systems hitting store shelves. We’ve already seen the likes of the Neo-Fami and FC Twin grabbing the headlines, but arguably the best machine released so far is Retro Bit's Retro Duo.
As the name suggests, this machine plays both NES and SNES cartridges and promises a surprisingly high compatibility with software. You see, many previous FamiClones have struggled with certain titles, such as Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse on the NES and Super Mario RPG on the SNES. Super FX-chip titles – like Star Fox and Stunt Race FX – have also been notoriously difficult to get running on these consoles, thanks to the unique graphics-boosting hardware contained within the cart itself.
The Retro Duo isn’t 100% perfect by any means and according to reports there are some games which still stubbornly refuse to run, but for the most part the compatibility is excellent. It even accepts the Super Game Boy device (for playing handheld Game Boy titles) and the Game Genie cheat cartridge – two items which have confounded previous FamiClones.
However, here at Nintendo Life we know that our readers are going to want more solid evidence than idle rumour and hearsay; to get the official verdict on this intriguing machine we got hold of a unit (thanks to our friends at Stone Age Gamer) and duly put it through its paces. The results are as follows...
The Retro Duo is surprisingly compact, measuring about 6 inches by 6 inches. The version we were sent is fashioned out of glossy white and blue plastic, but black/red, silver/black and metallic red/gold versions are also available. It’s not the world’s most attractive piece of video game hardware, but you certainly wouldn’t call it ugly. Build-quality is impressive for a machine with such humble origins; while it’s obviously not up to Nintendo’s high standards, it never feels like it’s about to fall apart at any point.
Two SNES-like pads are included with the system. When we initially laid eyes on them we expected the worst; they look cheap and nasty, to be perfectly blunt. However, once we hooked them up we were pleased to discover that their performance is pretty decent, offering almost exactly the same degree of control as an official equivalent.
However, if you can’t bear the thought of using these heathen joypads you’ll be reassured to learn that the Retro Duo has two standard SNES controller ports, so you can use your original pads if you so wish.
The machine comes with two AV outputs – Composite and S-Video. The latter offers the best image quality for SNES gaming, but it makes NES titles look washed out and fuzzy (probably due to the fact that S-Video wasn't a common standard at the time the NES hit the shelves), so you're best off using the composite connection to play 8-bit Nintendo games. It’s not a huge problem, though; the included AV cable features both sets of connections so you can just plug everything into your TV and switch between the two settings as you move between NES and SNES titles.
European gamers will be disgruntled to note that the superior RGB SCART option isn’t available here, so there’s a chance that your games will end up looking notably worse on the Retro Duo than they did on your original SNES console. North American gamers will of course be none the wiser thanks to the fact that SCART never really caught on in that part of the world.
Getting Your Game On
From what we've read about the Retro Duo online, there seems to be some confusion as to what games it actually accepts, so here’s the low-down: The Retro Duo will play US/European NES titles and US/Japanese/Euro SNES titles straight out of the box. However, for Famicom (the Japanese version of the original NES) titles you’ll need a 60-pin to 72-pin pass-through converter. These can be obtained online but if you’re tech-savvy enough then you can construct your own, so long as you have a spare NES cartridge lying around that you don't mind butchering.
As we’ve already mentioned, compatibility is excellent. The Retro Duo handled every Super Famicom game we threw at it, and while we only had one NES game to test – the evergreen Super Mario Bros. – the news on the net is that 8-bit titles work just as well.
Because FamiClones effectively “emulate” the original hardware rather than replicate it completely, there have been numerous reports of discrepancies between the way a game runs on authentic hardware to how it runs on “clone” hardware. Issues such as speed differences, graphical glitches and out-of-tune sound have been commonplace, but thankfully we can tell you that such problems don’t seem to affect the Retro Duo. Everything we tested ran as it should, and we played a wide range of titles.
While we’ll always be advocates of purchasing original hardware wherever possible, there’s no denying that the Retro Duo is a fantastic little piece of kit. Not only does it offer tremendous convenience – allowing you to play almost any 8-bit or 16-bit Nintendo release – it also saves space under your TV. As vintage machines continue to rise in value this is going to be cheaper than having to shell out for a second-hand SNES and NES, too.
Considering that it costs around the same price as a full-price Wii game, you can't really go wrong with the Retro Duo. If your SNES or NES has recently bit the dust and you have a massive collection of games you want to continue to enjoy, then this is a thoroughly recommended option.
We’d like to thank Stone Age Gamer for providing us with the review unit. The Retro Duo currently retails for an astonishingly reasonable $38.99 (plus shipping) and Stone Age Gamer’s level of service is incredibly professional and quick.
Gamers ordering from outside of North America will need to purchase a step-down voltage converter to use this system.