Evercade Review© Nintendo Life

A digital future for gaming is all but assured, as much as we fight against it tooth and nail. Just as movies and music have embraced digital distribution, gaming is slowly but surely following suit – which is what makes a product like Blaze's Evercade so interesting.

This new handheld system lacks any kind of online connectivity and instead uses physical cartridges as its software delivery method. Bandai Namco, Interplay, Data East, Technos and Atari have all signed up to support the machine with their games, which means there will be over 120 titles available when it launches on May 22nd – but is it worth a look when we already have the Nintendo Switch catering for our portable gaming needs? Let's find out, shall we?

Evercade Review: The Hardware

Evercade Review© Nintendo Life

Fashioned from white plastic and around the same size as a Sony PSP, the Evercade is chunkier than you might expect. Despite sporting an engaging retro aesthetic that calls to mind the classic Famicom branding, it does look a little cheap when compared to the portables Nintendo has produced in the past. Still, it feels solid enough when you're actually using it and there are no creaking parts or joins in the casing.

The console's striking dimensions have much to do with the big 480x272 LCD screen and reassuringly large D-Pad. There are also four face buttons (which are made from transparent plastic and look pretty smart) as well as two clicky shoulder buttons and three function buttons (Menu, Start and Select). On the bottom edge, there are two volume keys, a 3.5mm headphone socket and Micro-USB charging port, while on the top you'll find the power switch, cartridge slot and Mini-HDMI port – the latter of which connects the system to your TV, Switch-style, for 720p gaming.

Because it's such a wide system, the Evercade is very comfortable to hold for prolonged periods; those lovely rounded corners help too, of course. The face buttons have a nice amount of travel and are very responsive, while the D-Pad is fantastic – it's clearly been modelled after the Sega Saturn's lush rolling pad, and is a joy to use. Blaze – the company behind the Evercade – has clearly invested a lot of time into making sure the controls are as good as they can be, and all that effort has paid off handsomely.

The console's screen might not be particularly impressive in terms of resolution, but it's large and reasonably bright. Viewing angles are solid for the most part, although the image does 'invert' the colours when you tilt it at an extreme angle. Flanking the display is a pair of speakers which are pretty loud at maximum volume. The whole shebang is powered by a 2000mAh battery which provides around 4 to 5 hours of gameplay on a single charge.

The system comes in two SKUs – a starter pack (£59.99 / $79.99) which comes with the Atari Collection 1 cartridge and a premium pack ($99.99) which comes with three cartridges – the Atari one as well as Namco Museum Collection 1 and Interplay Collection 1.

Evercade Review: The Software

Evercade Review© Nintendo Life

There are no games pre-loaded onto the Evercade; instead, the system accepts old-school cartridges which are around the same size as a Neo Geo Pocket game. There will be 10 different collections available at launch, with each one containing between 6 and 20 games and costing a very reasonable £14.99 / $19.99 a pop. Two more carts – an Atari Lynx Collection and Xeno Crisis / Tanglewood bundle – are also on the way later this year, and another cartridge is due to be announced before the system launches in May.

Each cart comes in its own plastic snap case, complete with a lavish full-colour instruction manual packed with information on every title included in each collection – something even Nintendo Switch games lack these days. Collectors will love the fact that they can stack these uniform cases on their shelves, so the Evercade definitely services that desire for tangible, physical items that drives many dedicated collectors and retro gaming fans. And, in an age where the consumer only owns the right to play a game and not the game itself and digital titles are often 'delisted' without warning and lost forever, the fact that nobody can take your Evercade cartridges away from you will be instantly appealing.

Given that there are over 120 games available across all 10 launch carts, that's a pretty impressive lineup of games for anyone contemplating buying an Evercade. Emulation across the board is decent, but what's even more impressive is the sheer volume of quality featured on many of these cartridges; Earthworm Jim 1 and 2, Splatterhouse 2 and 3, Midnight Resistance, The Immortal, Ninja Golf, Dig Dug, Xevious, Pac-Man, Metal Marines, Mappy, Double Dragon, River City Ransom, Top Racer, Bad Dudes and Magical Drop II are just some of the more notable games you can play on day one.

However, it's worth noting that although there are some famous arcade names included in that list, the Evercade is currently limited to emulating home systems, so Double Dragon is the NES port, as is Pac-Man. Midnight Resistance and Two Crude Dudes, on the other hand, are based on the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis versions. Likewise, all of the Atari games across the two available Atari packs are based on console titles from the 2600 and 7800 rather than the infinitely better arcade originals. Blaze has argued that this is necessary because using the arcade editions would cause display problems (Pac-Man uses a vertical screen in its original coin-op variant, for example), but it has also stated that it is looking into perhaps putting together a cartridge in the future which is based on arcade ROMs, and is confident that the 1.4GHz quad-core processor which powers the machine is more than capable of handling '80s and early '90s coin-op releases.

While big-hitters from Bandai Namco, Interplay and Atari are sure to attract the attention of seasoned retro gamers, there are a few unknown gems scattered across the 10 carts which are also worthy of investigation. Joe & Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics is a decent SNES sequel to the beloved original, while the Piko Collection is home to such varied delights as the SNES RPG Dragon View, an enhanced version of Core Design's Atari ST title Switchblade and the previously unreleased SNES platformer Dorke and Ymp. This cart also has the Chinese RPG Canon: Legend of the New Gods and Taiwanese title Brave Battle Saga, both of which offer many hours of role-playing action – even if they're not quite as polished as the Japanese classics they seek to emulate.

The hit rate across all 10 carts is pretty good, then, but therein lies a problem – you really have to buy all 10 carts to get all of the best games, and some of the collections are padded out with filler that you'll play once and forget about. Namco's Quad Challenge / Mega Trax on the Mega Drive has to rank as one of the worst racing games of the 16-bit era, while Sofel's Titan – included on the Interplay collection – is an obscure and unremarkable puzzler that was largely ignored upon its initial release, with good reason. Mixing high-profile games with no-name filler is forgivable given that there are a whopping 10 collections available at launch, but unless you want to be a completist and snap them all up, you might want to be very selective when it comes to deciding which packs to purchase.

During gameplay, it's possible to bring up a menu which allows you to toggle the screen ratio and access save states. These are supported across all cartridges so you can retain your progress in any game. Sadly, it's not currently possible to remap the console's face buttons, which is unfortunate as some of the games are saddled with unusual button mappings. Mega Drive games, for example, map the 'C' button – traditionally used for jumping – to the Evercade's uppermost 'Y' button, which isn't a deal-breaker but certainly takes some getting used to. Blaze has told us that the option to remap controls may be added to future games, though.

The console's UI is functional but quite rough-looking in places, and each movement of the D-Pad and press of a button is accompanied by an annoying 'bloop' sound effect which sadly cannot be disabled. Still, given the small amount of time you'll be spending in the menu system, it's not a huge problem.

Evercade Review: The Verdict

Evercade Review© Nintendo Life

For those of you who grew up in the '90s and fondly recall the thrill of investing in chunky plastic cartridges for your Game Boy or Game Gear, the Evercade scratches an itch we didn't know needed scratching. It might sound silly, but the simple act of slotting in a cartridge comes with its own nostalgic connotations, and being limited to the cart you have in the console at any one time encourages you to extract the maximum enjoyment out of each collection – another throwback to the days when we had less money and therefore fewer games.

Despite the Evercade's impressive selection of launch cartridges, the library still feels like a work in progress; while having Bandai Namco and Atari on board is great, we'd like to see a wider selection of companies signed up to support the console. Blaze previously had Sega on-board with its ill-fated Game Gadget handheld (which was pretty much the same concept as the Evercade, but with games delivered digitally rather than physically), so there's a chance we could potentially see the likes of Sonic, Streets of Rage and Shining Force come to the machine – which, we'd imagine, would dramatically enhance its appeal with retro gamers all over the world. For the time being, however, there's almost certain to be more than a few games that take your fancy across the 10 existing carts, and the fact that the Evercade is getting 'new' games like Xeno Crisis and Tanglewood hints at an exciting potential future where 'faux-retro' indie games get high collectable physical releases on the system.

Evercade is a solid platform, then; while we can't imagine it's going to be a mainstream system which will sell tens of millions of units like the Switch, it's appealing enough to surely sell in the modest numbers required to build a fairly robust audience and thereby attract the attention of other publishers who are keen to monetise their back catalogues in physical rather than digital form.

The Evercade used in this review was kindly supplied by Blaze. Thanks to the ever-dependable Noah McFerran for his assistance with the product photography.

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Hardware