Like a great many retro gamers out there, we've been following developments surrounding the Polymega console closely for quite some time now. Originally announced as RetroBlox, this modular system is built on a single goal: to offer modern-day players access to the original, physical-media libraries of as many vintage machines as possible thanks to interchangeable (and upgradeable) modules which come with their own, authentic controller ports.
The system had its first public showing at E3, and pre-orders recently went live. Well, kinda - the Polymega site immediately turned turtle and many people had to wait a few days before they could pledge their support (thankfully it's all working as planned at the time of writing). Then, there was the furore surrounding the use of arcade Sega Rally footage in the latest trailer, and many weren't pleased with the fact that FPGA support has been shifted out of the main console and into the modules themselves.
Keen to clear things up, Playmaji's Bryan Bernal sat down with us for an exclusive interview on all things Polymega.
Nintendo Life: You've obviously been working on Polymega for a long time - how did it feel to finally launch the pre-order phase of the project?
Bryan Bernal: Though we had some difficulties launching the site, it feels great. We've been working on the project for quite a while so it's nice to get on with it and move into production.
The Polymega site was down almost from the moment the pre-orders went live, which led to some disappointed customers. Could you explain what caused the outage?
We're not entirely through with the forensic analysis of what happened, but it was a combination of a bunch of excited people, a handful of malicious users, and a lot of F5-ing that brought the site down. We knew the console was going to be fairly popular, and the site passed load impact simulations prior to the launch. But, that aside, weren't expecting the kind of traffic we received, which was around 400k hits to the site in the first day. Ultimately we ended up moving to a different dedicated host and making a few tweaks that helped with the performance under high loads, and it seems to be holding up pretty well now, despite some new email delivery issues caused by the change in hosts.
Saturn support - which wasn't revealed until very recently - is quite a boon for potential Polymega owners. How have you been able to secure an acceptable level of performance from this notoriously difficult-to-emulate system?
Saturn runs great on the new Intel-based chip. Some people have questioned the performance of Saturn but I can tell you with certainty it runs at full speed on the games we've tested, as seen in the videos we've released. One of the reasons we're able to achieve these speeds is that our Linux-based system software and UI is coded efficiently in low-level languages like C, and doesn't suffer from the same overhead that operating systems like Android, Windows, and even Linux-based desktop environments like Ubuntu have - and this is despite looking as good, if not better, than applications built for those environments. For example, you might need a quad-core 3.8GHz chip to run Saturn on Windows, where our system runs it at 3.2Ghz on a dual-core chip. There's still a lot of testing work to do as the library is huge, especially the Japanese releases, but the emulator author and our team are actively optimizing to ensure it's running at full speed, regardless of the game.
While we're on the topic of the Saturn, a few people picked up on the fact that the footage shown of Sega Rally isn't from the Saturn version. Could you explain what happened there?
Human error, and definitely one on the part of our team. Someone that was editing the final cuts used old footage from a shared team drive that was captured for a previously recorded internal video about 2 years ago, and since everyone was so busy preparing other aspects of the release of the pre-order, it flew under the radar. It just goes to show that you can't get anything by the retro games community, and it's impressive how quickly the discrepancy was identified. Hopefully the follow-up videos we posted to address the question of whether Saturn works, although I know some people are still hungry for more videos of games being inserted into the modules, which we're working on.
You've made some spec changes to the system, pulling FPGA out of the base unit and instead using it in the modules. What's the reasoning behind this move?
This is a question a lot of people have been asking, and the answer is that we removed the FPGA because active cartridge reading tech isn't ready to be released yet for Polymega, and we didn't want to delay the console further. There's no point in charging people for FPGA in the base unit if it isn't going to work with all systems we support, so we made a decision to focus on easier-to-solve problems that give people something else they had been asking for - more system support for consoles like Saturn. If we didn't make that extremely difficult decision, Polymega might not release at all.
Some of the initial modules won't be FPGA-based - isn't this like short-changing buyers? Why would anyone buy the launch modules if they know FPGA editions are coming?
For FPGA modules, we've only really announced a Famicom one if the goal is hit. We did say that a SNES module would warrant development later, but it's not something we're focused on at the moment.
The online digital store is a truly mouth-watering prospect, especially as Nintendo appears to have shelved its Virtual Console service on Switch. Which companies have signed up so far, and can we expect to see a storefront packed with retro games a few months after launch?
We have one very large publishing deal in the works right now which will take the lead for the store. This company actually found us on the show floor at E3 - we didn't have any contact with them previously - and played the system extensively both during the show and a few weeks later at their offices with their staff. For them, Polymega is a very natural fit for their game portfolio. Obviously, we're bursting with excitement about it, but we can't make any announcements until the contracts are final, especially given the size of their company. That said, I honestly couldn't imagine a better and more legitimate company to start off with, and I think people are going to be rather surprised with who it is.
The store aspect of the console is anticipated to launch during holiday 2019.
Many have complained about the fact that flash carts won't be compatible with Polymega. Is there any chance you'll be moving on this stance, or does the way in which Polymega works simply not allow for flash and multi-carts?
They won't work unless it's on one of the future FPGA-based modules. It's not because we hate flash carts or anything; they're great for development purposes and have other uses, but the way they work from a technical perspective is not compatible with the way carts interact with the system at launch.
You've mentioned that third-parties are welcome to create Polymega modules, under licence. How will you ensure that these modules don't impact the performance of the base unit or even damage it if you're not in control of manufacture?
Working under license means conforming to technical rules and guidelines, so it would need to be tested and approved by us prior to the launch of such a module. We'll have more news on this later once Polymega is out, since that's priority number one.
What's the response been like to the pre-order campaign, and how are funds looking right now?
The response has been amazing. We've sold around 1,000 base units so far directly to customers and the average purchase is around $400-450. In total from direct-to-customer pre-orders, we're closing in on $500k in preorders, which is more than enough to finish and release the system. Additionally, we've also begun receiving wholesale orders from distributors around the world, typically in the range of 300-1000 units (not reflected in the rewards totals on the website). If we included those in the preorder total, we'd be well past the goal, somewhere around $1.25-1.5M USD. One insight we've seen is that there has been very significant interest in the system in Japan, we think due to the recently announced Saturn support as well as the design and space-saving utility Polymega provides gamers that live in smaller spaces.
We've seen a lot of sceptical posts online since pre-orders opened. What would you say to those individuals who still doubt you can pull this off?
A healthy bit of scepticism is no problem, and in retrospect, there are things we definitely could have done better - especially with regard to the pre-order site launch and our communications to the public. One thing that may not be apparent from all the marketing glitz is that there is a small team of real people who have poured thousands of tireless hours into this project at great personal sacrifice, born purely out of love for classic games and wanting to help make something cool for everyone who shares that passion. When you've dedicated your life to building something you believe passionately about, no amount of dissuasion could ever make us question doing what we believe in.
Even if we set out with lofty goals and failed to hit some of them in the near term, it doesn't remove the fact that there's a staggering amount of high-quality work that has occurred on this project. We wrote our own emulation API and UI code from the ground up. We've built or legitimately licensed several emulation cores and designed a beautiful machine that will improve many peoples living situations and help classic games live on into the future. We've designed new cartridge connectors with our partners so people don't have to worry about damaging their games when inserting and removing them. We've breathed new life into a classic game system that was deemed unplayable by many by reducing its load times drastically, the Neo Geo CD. We've accomplished a totally unsung task of mechanically engineering a modular game console, an unbelievably difficult problem to solve in and of itself - much more so than your average game console that only has to account for one set of hardware. We've created a database of thousands of games with custom artwork and game information so you can discover new games you maybe didn't know about before and have a nice, modern experience in your living room. We've got ultra-low latency controller input so that when you play, it feels like you're playing on the original game console. We've created controller, motherboard and module PCBs for nearly everything on offer and we've made all of these things work in concert in an incredibly cohesive way.
The list goes on and on, and when you look at the efforts that have gone into this project as a whole, I think there's a lot to be proud of. We're also certain that anyone who had real hands-on time with the system at E3 or otherwise would agree that something like what we've built doesn't just happen without that effort, be it software, hardware, engineering, or design, regardless of the discipline. We still have a lot of work to do to win back people's trust after some marketing gaffes, but we are resolute in making sure that it doesn't happen again, and that we're going to deliver far beyond expectations next year and make a lot of people very happy.
We'd like to thank Bryan for his time. Polymega is currently available for pre-order and is expected to launch early in 2019.