Love them or loathe them, clone consoles are very much here to stay. As existing hardware becomes harder to find or fails due to everyday use, the demand for replacement systems grows ever stronger, fuelled largely by the almost insatiable demands of a new generation of retro gaming enthusiasts who crave the experience of using original carts but are perhaps a little dissuaded by the high cost of vintage tech - or its inherent shortcomings.
The Game Boy Advance is a fascinating example of this. The original model lacked a backlight and used AA batteries, while the SP variant - a massive improvement in terms of form factor and stamina thanks to its rechargeable power cell - is somewhat disappointing by today's standards due to its weak front-lit LCD display. It would be the AGS-101 revision which would solve this egregious oversight thanks to the inclusion of an upgraded backlit display, but these units are hard to find and come with high price tags. That's why we've seen an opening in the market for clone consoles which offer bright, colourful screens but come with low price points.
We've already reviewed the excellent Revo K101 Plus, a system which uses an original design that differs from the original Game Boy Advance. However, the Chinese-made, Russian-sold EXEQ GameBox takes a different approach; its design is near-identical to that of the GBA SP, which means it offers that convenient form factor and feels more familiar in your hands.
In fact, at first glance you'd swear this was the real deal. Sure, the plastic used in the case design doesn't feel or look quite as nice as on the original system, and the "GameBox" sticker on the lid of our review unit wasn't aligned properly, but it's nevertheless a close match. The power switch and volume slider are both in the same positions, as is the battery compartment. On the top edge you'll find the power connector and link-up port. We tried using our existing official GBA SP EU power supply with the unit but it refused to charge - instead, we made use of the USB cable supplied. A PSU is included as well, but it requires a plug adapter if you're in the UK.
Opening up the console reveals a 320 x 240 pixel screen which differs from the one on the original SP. The aspect ratio is 4:3, while the Nintendo version has a 240 x 160 pixel panel with a 3:2 ratio. Predictably, this leads to a stretched image when playing games, but it's not as bad as you might assume. Sure, it means that the image has a slightly fuzzy appearance, but after an hour or so of play you don't really notice. Another reason you'll readily forgive this shortcoming is the fact that the display is bright and colourful, and easily on par with the AGS-101 model of the SP in this respect. Viewing angles aren't terrific - tilting the console away from you causes the image to invert ever so slightly - but it's hardly a deal-breaker as you're never going to hold the system in such a manner anyway. A button below the screen allows you to toggle between five different brightness settings.
As for as audio options go, like the SP there's no headphone socket, and we weren't able to test to see if the SP adapter works with this system. The mono speaker located in the middle of the unit is louder than the one on the authentic Nintendo console, but there's a little distortion when the volume is set at maximum. There's something of a trade off here; while the lower quality sound is annoying, we appreciated the fact that it was louder and easier to hear.
One area where clone systems often fall down is interface - as we know, video game hardware makers spend a lot of money on making sure the controls on their systems are perfect, and often the companies that are creating these "tributes" cut corners to make things as cheap as possible. With the GameBox, the controls aren't quite up to the standard of those seen on an authentic SP, but they're as close as you could possibly get. Hitting diagonals with the D-pad is sometimes tricky, but then the fact that the pad sits so low in the casing doesn't help - to be fair, this was an issue with the design of the SP itself. The A and B buttons are responsive, and while the L and R shoulder triggers are a little too clicky for our liking, they get the job done.
Now we get to the most important part of the review - performance. As far as we can tell, the GameBox is a hardware clone of the GBA - it doesn't use emulation like some other imitation systems. That means you should - in theory - get the same performance you'd expect from a standard console. All of the games we tested appeared to run just as well as on our in-house GBA SP AGS-001 (the limited edition Zelda variant you see in the photos on this page), which is encouraging. Sadly, the GameBox doesn't have support for Game Boy and Game Boy Color games, which is a real shame as the ability to play any title from the Game Boy family is one of the things that makes the GBA so attractive to retro fans.
Included with the GameBox is a 999 in 1 cartridge, which is rather misleadingly named. There are 999 entries on the cart, but many of them are duplicates. They're also not all GBA titles - the vast majority are actually NES games (including a few rather dubious ROM hacks) running through what appears to be an emulator. Despite the age of these 8-bit offerings, the overall performance varies from playable to terrible, and to be brutally honest unless any of the included GBA games take your fancy, it's not really worth bothering with the cart.
Battery life is always a worry with such consoles, as this is another area where corners get cut and cheaper components are used; stamina levels of two hours or less are not uncommon. Thankfully that's not the case with the GameBox; during our "highly scientific" test - where we left the console running a game with the volume turned up to the maximum and the screen at full brightness - the unit managed 6 hours and 38 minutes before giving up the ghost. That's not far off the staying power of the original SP system, which is impressive.
We've deliberately avoided mentioning the price of this console until the end of the review, so you can approach this analysis with an open mind. It can be picked up for £40 (approx $52 / 46 Euros) complete with the 999 in 1 cartridge. That's much less than the price of a second-hand GBA SP AGS-101, and while you're obviously missing out on a few features - such as backwards compatibility with older Game Boy titles - it's not a bad price if you're only interested in playing GBA software.
Purists will no doubt feel that clone consoles are a slightly dirty way of experiencing vintage games, and that original hardware is always the best option. This stance is commendable, but has to be balanced out by cost. AGS-101 systems are only going to increase in value as the years roll by, and the GameBox's superior screen makes it a much better option than the original AGS-001. If you're simply interested in making use of your existing cartridges but don't want to shell out for an expensive second-hand system, then this is a worthy option. Just expect to get some snarky comments from trueblood collectors whenever you retrieve it from your bag.