The announcement of RetroBlox came as something of a surprise a few weeks ago, but in many ways this proposed system is a logical evolution in the growing "clone" hardware market. Built around modularity, RetroBlox aims to offer the benefits of next-gen clones like the Retron 5 and Retro Freak but with options for supporting even more systems, the inclusion of CD-ROM support and online functionality - elements which are sure to give it a massive advantage over what has gone before.
Despite the tantalizing potential of this new platform, there are many questions regarding its feasibility, especially as the company behind it - also named RetroBlox - is aiming to use crowdfunding to make it a reality. Keen to get some answers, we spoke to RetroBlox's Bryan Bernal to find out why you should be unreasonably excited about this modular wonder-console.
Nintendo Life: Can you give us some background on yourself and the core team at RetroBlox? What projects have you worked with previously in the industry?
Bryan Bernal: I started at the bottom of the food chain as a QA tester at Interplay in the early 2000s working on Fallout and Baldur's Gate, then worked my way up to Project Manager of Ratchet & Clank at Insomniac Games (if my upward movement shows you anything, its that Insomniac was a great place to work). The last game I worked on there was Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time in 2009 where I served as Project Manager. Between then and now I ventured outside of the games world to digital advertising, building and scaling projects for Google, Sony, Toyota, Lego and others at a few different advertising agencies including F-i and HYFN, as well as social game developer, Booyah.
Our co-founder and RetroBlox CTO is Eric Christensen, who I met while working at Insomniac Games and have been friends with for over a decade. He served in several positions there including Gameplay Director and Principal Software Engineer. Eric has a long history of video game development going back to making Genesis and Saturn games whilst working at Squaresoft and Konami. Most recently he was the Principal Engineer of Titanfall for the Xbox 360 and Lead Engineer of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. At RetroBlox, Eric has been instrumental in the practical implementation of Hybrid Emulation from theory to proven tech.
We also have a broader team of electrical engineers, industrial designers, mechanical engineers, and graphic designers who have all worked extremely hard to help make RetroBlox what you see today. One contributor to the project that was instrumental in devising the original idea for Hybrid Emulation was Rob Wyatt, who was the System Architect of the original Xbox at Microsoft on Seamus Blackley's team.
What inspired you to create RetroBlox and the RetroBlox system?
Like a lot of lifelong gamers, I had always wanted to take a trip to Japan to find some of the more exotic retro game consoles that I had read about in magazines as a kid but never really got the opportunity to own. Of course I had most of the US systems, but in particular, there was a GamePro article from 1990 entitled "The Cutting Edge" that resonated with me heavily in the years since it came out, showing a number of the PC-Engine consoles (TurboGrafx-16 in the states) that NEC and Hudson Soft were releasing that year in Japan. I was literally drooling as a kid and I still look at that article with reverence today.
So, in May 2015 my girlfriend and I took a trip to Tokyo for two weeks. It was my first time there but rather than sight-seeing, I spent the majority of the time on trains and buses traveling to the outer suburbs of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Yokohama visiting recycle shops on a bit of a retro gaming spirit walk. Before I left Japan I had to buy an extra suitcase and dump out all my clothes in my hotel room so I could fly everything back to California.
Naturally, I tried to hook up all of these consoles to my 50-inch HDTV without realizing how much friction was involved in getting good picture quality out of them. So, I started doing some research and ultimately it was down to two options that gave me what I was looking for without adding significant lag, both of which required me to make physical modifications to some of the game consoles. The choice was between a $400 Japanese up-scaling device and an old professional grade CRT monitor. I ended up going with the pro CRT monitor, and after making all of the requisite mods to the consoles and buying some custom cables from the UK from a seller on eBay, my retro gaming rig looked really good and I was pretty happy with the setup. However, the whole ordeal required me to learn how to service and calibrate analogue TVs, replace leaky capacitors and hard mod my original consoles for RGB output, and this left a giant mess of wires and consoles everywhere (which probably is / was a fire hazard). Even though this setup technically worked great, I really just wanted a clean and easy way to enjoy all of my retro games in my living room without the mess.
Of course there was always the option of retro clone consoles like the Retron 5 which solve many of these problems for some gamers, but as you can see from the photo - not all of the systems I was interested in are supported by it, or the Retro Freak. Furthermore, 100 percent emulation-based consoles were known to have numerous compatibility issues, meaning you'll probably still want to have your original consoles hooked up so you can play anything that doesn't work (like indie homebrew games or those with special chips in them).
After getting my setup dialed and enjoying it for a while (without being totally satisfied), I started talking to some friends from the gaming industry about an idea to create a nice FPGA PC-Engine / TurboGrafx-16 (the system I wanted to play most on my HD monitor), and I got in contact with Rob Wyatt, who is one of the top minds around when it comes to video game tech. He was into the idea, so we started working on it. After a few months of research, we discovered the emulation method (which we now informally call "Hybrid Emulation") that would have the potential to benefit quite a lot of different retro gaming fans who were struggling with the same issues we were.
Seeing its potential, we decided to modify the industrial and mechanical design of our yet-to-be named system to be modular, with the intent of supporting a broad range of classic consoles (not just the 3-5 most popular ones). By doing so, it gave rise to the idea of RetroBlox and what you see today.
Could you explain what makes "Hybrid emulation" so special?
Without going into an extreme technical explanation (you can read that here), Hybrid Emulation allows emulators to read cartridges and controllers electrically so that they function like the real consoles did when they're connected to a modern system on a chip (SOC) style processor. So, instead of dumping the ROM file from the cartridge and holding it in resident memory as other consoles do, we read the data that is input and output from the connectors on the Element Module directly to the CPU at a "bare metal" level like the real systems. This means we never have to guess what's happening inside the cartridge, significantly increasing compatibility with homebrew cartridges and other special types of games that aren't likely to work well on a 100 percent emulation system.
How does the core tech in RetroBlox compare to other clone systems, such as the Retron 5 and Retro Freak?
We think the technology being run within RetroBlox could be considered a "generational leap" over other existing retro gaming options on the market. If you're the kind of person who wants a system that provides the best balance of modern features with broad compatibility, accuracy, and CD game support, you're probably going to want a RetroBlox. FPGA devices like the RetroUSB AVS offer fantastic compatibility as well, but they have their own set of limitations in terms of support for other systems as well as connectivity features such as Twitch streaming. It might be some years before we see an FPGA SNES or PlayStation running, for example.
Why did you decide to adopt a modular approach instead of having all of the slots on a single unit, like the Retron 5?
Monolithic console designs are convenient, but they limit you to only a handful of the most popular consoles and draw assumptions about players choice of game systems that might not be accurate. If we were to try to make our system with 10-15 cartridge slots in monolithic design, you might have to lean it up against a wall to get it to fit in your living room!
Further, they don't offer a complete solution for the fans of the consoles they support. For example, you can play Mega Drive / Genesis on a number of clone consoles, but which one offers you the ability to legally play Mega Drive, Genesis, Sega/Mega CD, 32x, all indie titles, using original controllers, in HD, in one box? At the moment, there's nothing that does this except RetroBlox, and we believe providing gamers with these deep compatibility options at reasonable prices will ensure that we can move retro gaming forward out of the dark ages. Our goal is to give you every reason to put your original consoles back on the shelf and make this console your daily driver.
Do you know what the base cost of the machine will be, and how much each module is likely to cost?
We haven't announced the base cost of the system yet, but the basic package you can back on Kickstarter, which includes the base unit, one selectable module and a Bluetooth controller will cost significantly less than a base Nintendo Switch. For the people who are speculating $300, it won't be nearly that much.
What OS is the RetroBlox running? Android, Linux or something else entirely?
RetroBlox runs on Linux. It's reasonable for people to think it runs on Android because we share similar user interface design practices with some Android applications. However, Linux gives us finer control over resource management. With all these features right out of the box, every cycle is going to count.
RetroBlox officially supports the following 3 CD formats for the Kickstarter launch:
- PS1 (all regions)
- Sega CD (all regions / variants)
- PC-Engine / TurboGrafx-CD (all variants)
Also, this may be controversial but for now we define "retro" as anything that shipped with less than 2 analogue sticks on its original controller. So, everything that shipped with a CD-ROM unit on it with less than 2 analogue sticks is fair game for future development on RetroBlox. We have a very significant and real intent to support the systems people want to play, even if it's not announcement-ready yet.
What's so special about the drive inside the RetroBlox, and how have you been working with Hitachi LG Data Services to ensure wide-ranging compatibility?
Some of the retro game systems that use optical media require special ways of reading data off of discs so that original games can be used. HLDS have been working with us to improve the firmware and reading of this data on the optical disc drive that ships with RetroBlox. That's all we can say about that, for now.
You've mentioned that it will be possible to dump games to the system's internal memory. What is the capacity likely to be, and does this extend to CD-based games as well?
Yes, both types of games can be installed to the system in an iPod / iTunes type relationship. Since some CD games are quite large, we anticipate that players who intend to back up CD games will want to pick up an SD mass storage device. On our development kits we're using a 200GB SanDisk SDXC card, which is able to hold around 300 backed up CD games and can be purchased on Amazon for around $69.99. If no SD storage device is available, the system ships with 16GB of eMMC flash memory on the motherboard which is more than enough to hold anyone's personal cartridge collection and media files (though, if you plan to record a large amount of HD video on RetroBlox, you may still want to get an SD card).
Do you have any concerns when it comes to legal challenges from the original hardware manufacturers, especially when it comes to stuff like BIOS distribution for PlayStation titles?
We won't be shipping any of the BIOS files that contain copyrighted code on RetroBlox, though there's a chance we might license some of them for nostalgia purposes as they are quite iconic. It works straight out of the box for all of the supported CD systems.
Everything that's been done on RetroBlox to date has been done under very careful watch from our legal team, which is one of the top firms in the world. As game developers ourselves, and in contrast to 95 percent of other retro gaming products on the market, we take a firm stance against piracy and view RetroBlox as an alternative that could finally move retro gaming forward out of the dark shadows it has been operating from for the last decade or two. We don't expect the hardware manufacturers to warm up to us overnight, but looking past that we think there will be many compelling reasons for them to want to bring games, both old and new to RetroBlox in the future.
There's naturally a lot of skepticism regarding crowdfunded hardware projects, especially in the light of some high-profile failures. What assurances can you give that RetroBlox will make it to market?
Given some of the (how do i say this nicely...) ill-fated attempts we've seen in the last year or so in this space, our team can totally understand and empathize with those who are skeptical about Kickstarter-backed hardware projects. It's not our first choice either, but we didn't just magically get to where this project is at today without money, and a plan to bring the product to market.
However, it's important to mention that some venture capitalists don't look at a product like this and say that there's going to be an easily foreseeable 10x return like the next match-3 app on your iPhone or latest VR tech. Not without seeing a significant reaction from the gaming world in response to what we've built. So, thats why we've announced the product two months before the anticipated launch of the Kickstarter. This will give us time to release more technical information and provide live in-person demonstrations to assuage any concerns some may have. Before even the first second of the Kickstarter campaign, many will have had the opportunity to play their games on Retroblox and have a taste of the final product.
Beyond that, our team has a proven track record of releasing high quality products people already love on time and without failure. We've shipped products like the Google Chrome Store, Titanfall, Ratchet & Clank, SpaceX Dragon Module, Vizio TVs, Roku boxes, at least two game consoles and more. We aren't just retro fans with a wish to make it big. If our team can put a spacecraft in orbit you can bet we're capable of making a damn good retro game console.
You're launching your crowdfunding campaign in April. Assuming that goes according to plan, when will we see RetroBlox on store shelves?
The goal is to ship within 8-10 months after the close of funding from Kickstarter. So, we will be shipping RetroBlox around this time next year.
Thanks to Bryan for giving up his time to speak with us. You can check out the official RetroBlox page here.