While the recent explosion of mainstream interest in retro gaming can be partly attributed to the popularity of the NES and SNES Classic Edition micro-consoles, seasoned players will be aware that this sector of the market has been bubbling under nicely for the past decade, with firms such as Hyperkin, Retro-Bit and AtGames all producing "clone" hardware which replicates the performance of the most famous vintage machines of yesteryear.
AtGames in particular has made notable strides in this arena, and was one of the first companies to gain official permission to create such clone systems. It has produced a series of Sega-licensed devices which not only have that reassuring blue logo on the packaging, but also come with a wide range of popular games pre-loaded, including Sonic, Golden Axe and Street of Rage, some of Sega's most beloved franchises. AtGames has been pumping out revised versions of the same basic products for what seems like forever, and the Mega Drive Ultimate Portable Game Player (also known as the Genesis Ultimate Portable Game Player in the US) is the latest in a long line of handheld offerings.
Taking into account that AtGames has had several stabs at this core concept, you'd expect the latest edition to be refined beyond all doubt. The first model - now almost a decade old - was saddled with a poor, low-resolution screen, required AAA batteries for power and lacked the ability to add more games using an SD card. Over time things have changed, but not as drastically as you'd imagine considering the number of years that have elapsed. The white-and-blue 2017 version we've covering is certainly better than what was being offered back in 2008, but not massively so.
Let's get the positives out of the way first. The Mega Drive Ultimate Portable Game Player is small and lightweight, and comes with a six-button layout which ensures maximum compatibility with Sega's excellent 16-bit library. The 2.8-inch LCD screen is actually rather good, viewing angles aside. Colours really pop and contrast is superb; the only fly in the ointment is that certain games have been "stretched" to fill the display, which causes a strange distortion effect. An SD card slot allows you to load up your own games (ROM images, naturally), and the internal rechargeable battery means you no longer have to rely on those pesky AAAs. Another big plus point is the addition of save state support for the host of RPGs included in this year's version: Shining Force, Shining Force II, Phantasy Star II, and Phantasy Star III. In previous models, games of this type simply weren't included as there was no means of saving your progress. In terms of emulation, things are also decent enough; games run smoothly, certainly smoothly enough to be nigh-on identical to how they perform on original hardware.
Now for the less welcome news. The audio emulation is hilariously broken, a fault which has been present in these "Firecore"-based AtGames consoles since 2008 and clearly will never be remedied. The music in certain games just sounds totally wrong, and in some cases the hardware seems unable to play multiple channels in tandem - sound effects get cut off by other audio noises, for example. This isn't a limitation of Sega's hardware, as these problems are not present on the original Mega Drive. As if the poor audio emulation wasn't bad enough, the mono speaker on the unit is terrible quality and distorts alarmingly when the volume is higher than about 70 percent. A 3.5mm headphone socket gives you the best audio option, and doubles as an AV-out port so you can connect the device to your TV (no cable is included for this in the box, sadly).
Another negative is the D-Pad, which behaves itself most of the time but has a tendency to register incorrect inputs, presumably due to the shape of the pad and the way in which it touches the contacts underneath. It's quite a shallow, rolling pad - something which makes it comfortable during long sessions - but the design flaw means that 'down' is sometimes registered as 'right', which can prove to be quite annoying. AtGames has used the same basic design almost since 2008, and it clearly needs an overhaul.
While the system is advertised as containing 85 games, less than half of that figure are Sega titles. The rest are made up of terrible, low-rent offerings to which AtGames presumably holds the rights for. Fish Tank Live? Cross the Road? Yawning Triceratops? While some of these games provide a moderate amount of enjoyment, they're not titles anyone will recall playing back in the '90s, which makes their inclusion here baffling. AtGames clearly just wanted to make it seem like you were getting more bang for your buck (it should be noted that this 2017 model costs around £59.99 in the UK, while previous editions were £39.99).
The most egregious fault of the console is the fact that one of its key selling points - save state support - only applies to the pre-loaded RPGs. You cannot load up other games using the console's SD card slot and save your progress within them. This seems like a particularly puzzling omission, and one we can only assume is down to technical limitations. Whatever the reason, it means that AtGames has failed to properly address one of the biggest failings of previous versions of the same hardware. Sure, the included RPGs are amazing and would cost you an arm and a leg to purchase physically today, but at some point you're going to want to sample other examples (Story of Thor, Shining in the Darkness and Landstalker, to name but three) and you can't play them properly on this machine.
We've been following the evolution of AtGames' Sega-licensed systems for some time and we have to say that it's genuinely sad to see the proud legacy of this illustrious company squandered in such a way. Nintendo has shown with its Classic Edition line that when you give the past the respect it deserves, consumers respond in kind; the NES and SNES offerings have been massive commercial successes for the firm. Given Sega's amazing back catalogue of games, we simply cannot fathom why the company is content to allow a third-party like AtGames tarnish its lineage with such lazy hardware releases; but then again, AtGames' products regularly sell-out whenever they are released so this could well be a situation which Sega - and AtGames itself - see little reason to resolve. Oh, and Sega is too busy mining its library for mobile, of course.
There's still some fun to be had with this device - being able to play Shining Force II on the toilet is a boon, for starters - but the Mega Drive deserves so much more than this.