Nintendo may be fiercely protective of its vintage games and retro hardware, but former rival Sega isn't quite so precious about where its former classics end up these days. We've already seen the likes of Sonic, Golden Axe and Streets of Rage migrate to practically every modern format under the sun — including PC, iOS and of course the Wii Virtual Console — and Sega has also been more than happy to allow third-party manufacturers to produce clones of its past systems under official license.
One of the most prolific of these clone-makers is AtGames. This firm has already produced products based on the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis, and even cast its gaze farther back into the mists of time to bring the 8-bit Master System (and its largely-identical portable sibling, the Game Gear) to a new generation of players. Ladies and gentlemen, we present to you the "Arcade Gamer Portable" — or, to be more precise, a handheld which doesn't actually have any coin-op pedigree but instead plays emulated versions of old Master System and Game Gear titles. Bizarrely, the packaging doesn't mention either of these systems, instead choosing to allow the games themselves to do the talking.
It's not a bad strategy, to be honest — names like Sonic the Hedgehog, Alex Kidd, Ecco the Dolphin, Golden Axe and Fantasy Zone will arguably mean more to most players than the format that they were originally released on. This piece of hardware contains not one but four Sonic titles (five if you consider Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine to be part of the mainline Sonic series, rather than a spin-off) and three Alex Kidd adventures — Miracle World, Lost Stars and High Tech World (Shinobi World is sadly absent).
Here's the full list of games:
- Alex Kidd in High Tech World
- Alex Kidd in Miracle World
- Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars
- Assault City
- Astro Warrior
- Aztec Adventure
- Baku Baku Animal
- Bomber Raid
- Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine
- Dragon Crystal
- Ecco: The Tides of Time
- Fantasy Zone
- Fantasy Zone II
- Gain Ground
- Global Defense
- Golden Axe
- Kung Fu Kid
- Penguin Land
- Putt And Putter
- Ristar the Shooting Star
- Snail Maze
- Sonic Drift 2
- Sonic Chaos
- Sonic Spinball
- Sonic Triple Trouble
- Super Columns
- Tails Adventure
- The Ninja
Sticking with the software selection for a moment, there are some excellent choices here, but some equally puzzling ones. Where are the Wonder Boy games? Why no Shinobi? These games have been omitted in favour of Assault City, Global Defense and Snail Maze — the latter of which was a "secret game" in the original Master System hardware which was amusing for about five minutes, and even then you only played it because it was "hidden" and felt special as a result. Granted, Sega veterans might find the inclusion of this oddity a bonus, but few would argue that it deserves a place on this system and the likes of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap do not.
Complaints aside, there's no denying that there are some fine pieces of software on the Arcade Gamer Portable. Fantasy Zone and its Master System-exclusive sequel Fantasy Zone II: Tears of Opa Opa are both excellent (the latter of which has recently been remastered for the 3DS in Japan), and the Game Gear version of Ristar is well worth a look, if only to see how closely it matches the 16-bit original. Baku Baku Animal is an excellent way to pass the time, as is Super Columns — both of which neatly satisfy the desire for short-burst puzzle fixes. Even titles which you may have dismissed back in the day — such as Rogue-like Dragon's Crystal and the crusty old arcade port Quartet — are curiously compelling when played on a super-portable system such as this.
Sadly, unlike the Mega Drive Arcade Ultimate, there's no SD card slot and therefore no way to augment the selection of 30 available games. This is something of a disappointment when you consider how handy such a feature was on AtGames' other Sega-focused handheld, but the low price of the system mitigates the issue somewhat.
In terms of design, the Arcade Gamer Portable is a close match for the aforementioned Mega Drive Arcade Ultimate. They both sport the same basic design, which is held in landscape orientation and boasts a surprisingly ergonomic profile. The D-pad is a circular disc with a concave middle section which forms a star-shape, allowing your thumb to "feel" for the four main directions. It takes some getting used to — most pads usually have the opposite arrangement, with the centre being raised — but within a few minutes you'll have become accustomed to it.
Elsewhere, the two action buttons are responsive enough, and there's also a key which doubles as a pause or start button — the reason being that the Master System didn't have a start button, but instead used a button on the main console to pause the action. The Game Gear, on the other hand, had a start key which controlled both functions. There's initially some confusion when playing on the Arcade Gamer Portable because when you're playing a Master System title and it prompts you to "press start", what it actually means is press button one.
The console's backlit 2.4-inch LCD screen is something of a mixed bag; while it's bright, colourful and doesn't showcase any ghosting, the pentile pixel arrangement means that everything looks a bit fuzzy close up. Text can often be difficult to read as a result, and the overall image generally lacks the sharp quality naturally associated with pixel-based graphics of the period. Also, when playing Game Gear titles, the image is often stretched to fill more of the screen, which results in a distorted picture. These aren't necessarily deal-breaking problems, and overall the otherwise excellent quality of the display is enough to make up for any shortcomings, but stuff like optimising the resolution is something that could have been handled by AtGames quite easily.
The Arcade Gamer Portable is powered by three AAA batteries, which is a step down from the Mega Drive Arcade Ultimate's internal rechargeable power cell. You can also connect the console to your television with an AV cable, but sadly one isn't included in the box. The quality isn't spectacular, but it's no worse than running a Master System on a big-screen via an RF connection, like we used to in the good old days.
One final point to cover is the audio quality. The Master System wasn't blessed with the best sound capabilities in the world, and even the best soundtracks for the console bordered on the unlistenable at times. The Arcade Gamer Portable's feeble mono speaker does little to enrich the already grating 8-bit audio, but at least the beeps and squeals don't appear to suffer from any noticeable distortion.
While the Arcade Gamer Portable isn't a perfect product, the small form factor, above-average screen and generally decent controls make up for the few quibbles we have. There selection of games is mostly excellent, and when you take into account the price — £24.99 ($42 / 31 Euros) at the time of writing — then it's even harder to grumble with any degree of conviction. If you're looking to educate a younger member of your family in the way of classic games — or you're a lapsed Sega fan who wants to reacquaint themselves with some 8-bit goodness — then you can certainly do a lot worse than pick one of these up. It's small, cheap and the perfect carry-everywhere answer to your portable entertainment needs.
Kind thanks to Funstock.co.uk for providing the unit used in this review.