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The classic-gaming-as-viable-business landscape looks wildly different from its form a decade ago. Where retrogaming fans once had to make do with Nintendo's haphazard Virtual Console release schedule and an occasional dribble of retro compilations, today we have something approaching an embarrassment of riches: Mini-arcade cabinets of all sizes; Arcade Archives; a revival of massive anthologies produced to higher standards than in previous generations; brand-new games for vintage consoles; and painstakingly recreated high-end facsimiles of the old machines themselves. Whether you want to throw together a cheap piracy box to play ill-gotten NES ROMs or construct a bespoke retro corner of original hardware adapted to run on modern televisions, the business of old games has become nearly as lively a facet of the industry as making new ones.

The business of old games has become nearly as lively a facet of the industry as making new ones

Speaking as someone whose work has drifted into the 'bespoke original hardware setup' area at considerable personal cost, effort, and frustration, I've grown increasingly interested in solutions that can provide authentic retro game experiences without the pain involved in getting, say, a triple-decker Sega Genesis "tower of power" or Virtual Boy set up to run in high-definition on contemporary TVs. There's certainly something to be said for using the real thing, but frankly, if I were to embark on my journey to build an HD retro capture setup today, I'd have taken a radically different approach than I did when I started five years ago. At the time, field-programmable gate array devices like Analogue's Mega Sg and the open-source MiSTer project didn't exist, emulation-based plug-and-play solutions like the RetroN 5 were a far cry from good enough, and PC-based emulation didn't play well with television output and video capture devices. For a proper and satisfying retro experience, you simply had to go with original hardware... not to mention all the hassles their ageing capacitors and inconsistent technical standards brought with them.

So when I say that the enigmatic Polymega retro console system caught my attention when it was announced in 2017, you can understand where I'm coming from. Polymega stood out for its sleek modular design, which made it look like a grown-up cousin to the Retro Freak system, and for its bold promise to operate on a hybrid FPGA / emulation setup. To this point, retro systems have used one approach or the other, either reproducing classic consoles dynamically at the hardware level with an FPGA or else handling games directly in software through emulation. Promising support for (deep breath) NES, SNES, Genesis, Sega CD, Saturn, PlayStation, PC Engine and PC Engine CD-ROM – as well as all of the related regional derivatives of those platforms – the concept seemed almost too good to be true... which in fact turned out to be the case. The Polymega as it exists now is simply a standard PC-style core running a suite of customized emulators; FPGA modules have been mooted, but for now, we're talking exclusively software-based emulation.

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While the news of this tech shift came as a disappointment to many FPGA enthusiasts, software emulation isn't automatically inferior to hardware simulation. Polymega, it turns out, runs several of the best emulators currently available, some of which have been customized (with the cooperation of the original emulator creators) for the system. For example, its Sega Saturn core appears to be a tweaked version of Mednafen. The Saturn demos I went hands-on with recently at Game Developers Conference 2019 certainly ran well, which bodes well for Polymega, given the Saturn's famously finicky internals.

The setup ran games smoothly across a range of formats and styles, with solid frame rates and responsive control input

The Polymega admittedly suffers from a few software quirks that need to be ironed out before it launches (which could be as soon as this summer, according to manufacturer Playmaji). The most notable of these was a bit of stuttering that accompanied the Neo Geo CD title I tested. I was told this was a temporary side effect of the console's disc caching process, and indeed the game we demoed – one of the Sengoku titles – did settle down and play more smoothly after a few minutes. The disc-based games also take a while (roughly 10 seconds) to spin up at launch, which isn't a deal-breaker but can be slightly annoying. And the front-end interface feels a little clunky to learn, especially when you start dealing with imported discs that reverse their confirm and cancel inputs from their western counterparts (the process of swapping between discs for multi-disc games, in particular, is a bit prickly). Polymega could also stand to see a few more filtering and display options; it includes three, ranging from simulated composite video degradation to pure crispy pixel perfection, but the selection feels anaemic compared to the suite of display features available in contemporary classic reissues by the likes of M2, Hamster, and Backbone.

Despite these issues, though, I came away from my hour-long demo impressed by the Polymega system. My session showcased the system's support for advanced, disc-based 32-bit consoles and 16-bit add-ons – devices not effectively covered by existing commercial multi-system emulation boxes like RetroN 5 and Retro Freak. The only significant technical snag I noticed was the aforementioned Neo Geo CD caching issue, and that was balanced (at least in part) by the fact that the first level of Sengoku loaded in about two seconds, considerably less time than it took on the notoriously sluggish single-speed CD drive of the original console. Otherwise, the setup ran games smoothly across a range of formats and styles, with solid frame rates and responsive control input.

I tested several games, perhaps most notably Fighters Megamix for Sega Saturn, which ran at a smooth 60fps throughout according to the (optional) on-screen frame count. On the strictly 2D side, the first couple stages of Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow of Mystara ran without a hitch in two-player mode, despite the original game requiring a RAM expansion cartridge when played on Saturn. Also impressive on a technical level (if not particularly compelling on the gameplay front) was the brief trip I took through Fahrenheit for Sega 32X CD, which is one of the few games not supported by Analogue's impressive Mega Sg. The complex add-on processor and mandatory analog hookups the 32X required make it difficult to emulate that peripheral in standalone hardware, but that's less of a hurdle for a pure emulator to clear – not that much of anyone is clamouring to play the six dreadful titles that comprise the 32X CD library. Still, it's a neat party trick.

Polymega is designed around the idea of 'proper' emulation that doesn't infringe on anyone's copyrights

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Polymega is found in the way in which its modular design correlates to its creators' desire to 'play nice' with game publishers. Unlike many emulation boxes, Polymega requires the use of original media in order to run. You can't simply load up an SD card with a complete ROM pack and have instant access to the thousands of games all the Polymega’s supported consoles can run. Instead, it works more like an actual console: You need to insert a game's actual cartridge or disc in order to play it (though in the case of systems like Sega CD, which lacked copy protection, a 'back-up' copy of the disc will suffice). The add-on platform modules, which are sold separately from the base unit, exist primarily as a conduit for the different cartridge formats used by various older consoles.

While this adds an element of inconvenience and encumbrance to the Polymega, I get the impression its creators have adopted this approach to embrace legitimacy and improve their odds of retail distribution. While emulation and software piracy tend to be somewhat synonymous in the eyes of many gamers, they're not the same, and Polymega is designed around the idea of 'proper' emulation that doesn't infringe on anyone's copyrights. By presenting it as a way to revisit players' existing software libraries rather than launch into a buffet of torrented ROMs, Polymega manufacturer Playmaji distinguishes itself from all those sketchy mall kiosks of bygone days.

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The interchangeable console modules serve a second purpose as well: In addition to a cartridge interface, they also contain 'zero lag' controller ports for the controllers belonging to the system in question. That said, the modules aren't a mandatory constant. While the Polymega doesn't support loading games from ROM files, it does offer a backup feature that allows you to dump your discs and carts to add-on storage (the demo unit I tested had been equipped with a massive solid-state drive, loaded with an enormous library of games). Once dumped, a game no longer requires its corresponding console modules... unless, of course, you'd prefer to play it with the intended controller rather than the all-purpose pad included with the hardware.

Once dumped, a game no longer requires its corresponding console modules

The default Polymega console itself supports all disc-based platforms, and only disc-based platforms, right out of the box. The base of the unit is a flat, low-profile device that contains the disc drive and internals of the system. The forward two-thirds of the unit upper portion is, by default, simply a hollow plastic cover that can be removed to allow the various cartridge modules to slide onto the drive unit and connect to the dock at the system's rear. I didn't really have a chance to experiment with the swappable modules, so I can't speak for how well they do their thing, but I did take a brief tour of the 'backed up' games installed on the demo unit, and they cover a solid range of obvious platforms ranging from NES to Genesis / Mega Drive. Even Master System games should be accessible with the use of the Genesis' Power Base Converter, I’m told.

Noticeably absent from Polymega's exhaustive list of supported games: Anything handheld. This is strictly being positioned as a console emulator, with the potential for a handheld variant down the road. This does, unfortunately, appear to mean that Super Game Boy support isn't included, since the emulator hasn't been given the ability to recognize the individual Game Boy carts. On the other hand, it supports console titles from all regions on each platform, and it includes support for NEC's various Turbo CD System Cards.

There's plenty about Polymega that remains to be seen. Since I didn't experiment with the cartridge modules, I didn't get to test-drive its support for esoteric enhanced carts like Yoshi's Island (Super NES), Virtua Racing (Genesis), and Akumajou Densetsu (Famicom). The games I demoed ran smoothly and accurately, outside of the Neo Geo CD caching, but as I didn't have any of my own disc-based titles on hand we ran through games selected from a set of (I would estimate) around 100 that had been curated by Playmaji. Inevitably, a device that potentially supports as many games as this can't realistically be fully QA-tested for every possible game; when something inevitably breaks, how quickly will Playmaji move to patch those issues via its wireless internet connection? Details like this will ultimately determine the value and longevity of the system.

These uncertainties aside, I found my reservations about Polymega were largely cleared away by my test session with the system. Certainly, it does an impressive job of handling some rather difficult consoles, and the way it embraces legitimate emulation (both in terms of support for original media and its authorized use of existing emulators) while still allowing players to boot their own backups seems like smart business. While Polymega's final form isn't quite what we were promised at first, it's shaping up to be a satisfying take on the TV emulation box, with better performance and greater ambition than currently available multi-platform console emulators... not to mention the promise of continued versatility and expansion down the line. It's definitely one to keep an eye on, especially for players looking to graduate beyond the standard 16-bit platforms that represent the extent of other emulator boxes' support.