Evercade VS
Image: Nintendo Life

Blaze's Evercade handheld was one of 2020's more pleasant surprises; a new piece of hardware that offered an alternative for retro enthusiasts and offered a wide range of physical cartridges packed with classic titles (many of which were originally found on Nintendo consoles) – all for a very reasonable price. Now, its creator is taking the concept in a new direction with the Evercade VS, a system that retains compatibility with (almost) all of the existing Evercade cartridges but is more focused on offering the best possible experience on your TV – and, as the name suggests, the prospect of good, old-fashioned competitive play.

The Evercade VS retains much of the same design language as its handheld counterpart, using white and red as the two main colours. It takes a leaf out of Nintendo's book, too; the cartridge bay (which actually has two slots – more on that shortly) is hidden behind a NES-style flap at the front of the machine. Below this, there are four USB ports for controllers, while the power button is found on the right-hand side of the machine. On the back, there's the HDMI port and Micro USB port (both of which are upside-down, confusingly), as well as a reset button, used in the event of the system crashing (something that mercifully didn't happen during our review period). There's no HDMI cable included in the box, with Blaze claiming that it helps keep down the cost of the unit (most households have at least one spare HDMI cable lying around, so it's no biggie). There's also no power supply unit, but most modern TV sets offer the 5V USB port required to power the Evercade VS.

The Evercade VS' controller offers very much the same layout as the Evercade handheld, but how has two additional shoulder buttons. There's also a menu button that drops you back to the console's surprisingly slick UI during gameplay. The pad is comfortable to use, offers impressive build quality and has an excellent D-Pad (just like the handheld version of the system), but it does feel slightly too light, given its size.

The good news if you have any issue whatsoever with the pad is that the Evercade VS offers support for a wide range of USB controllers – although we must note at this stage that the console's built-in remapping system doesn't always play nice. For example, we found that no matter which USB pad we used – and we tested several, including Retro-Bit's Legacy 16 pad and the controller that comes with the Mega Drive Mini – none of them would work in-game when playing the Data East Collection Evercade cartridge. We could navigate the UI fine and even re-map the buttons, but the pads were not detected by the games themselves.

We've been in touch with Blaze about this, and they're looking into it; clearly, offering such wide-ranging support for so many USB pads is going to throw up teething troubles initially, but the console's built-in WiFi means system updates can be deployed over-the-air to fix these problems (the WiFi sadly doesn't extend to offering online play, it should be noted). It's also worth noting that if you already own the handheld Evercade, you can use a special cable to connect it to the Evercade VS and use it as a controller.

The Evercade VS comes with a revised UI which is considerably slicker than the one seen on the handheld version (Blaze states that the original Evercade will be getting a system update soon that will bring its UI more in line with the Evercade VS). Plug in a cartridge, and all of the games included on it are displayed on-screen, along with a short description and other details.

In a neat touch, plugging a cartridge into the console's second slot adds the games on that collection to the menu, and you can use the console's UI to filter the games on both carts, either alphabetically, by year of release or by the number of supported players. The two cartridge bays means you don't have to swap out cartridges as often, and Blaze also states that there are 'potential secrets' which can be unlocked depending on the combination of carts you use.

The console's UI also allows you to pick a theme, tinker with the sound, set up the network access, choose your system language and even turn on an optional 'high contrast' mode – the latter being a welcome accessibility consideration. The display options are equally impressive; the Evercade VS outputs in 1080p and you can choose to display games either in their original aspect ratio, pixel-perfect (so each pixel is a perfect square) or full-screen. Additionally, you can choose to have subtle or strong scanlines applied to the image to give that CRT look – these can, of course, be turned off if you so wish (you can even separately apply scanlines to the console's UI). It's also possible to apply one of six bezels to the image to fill in the otherwise black space which surrounds it if you use the 'original ratio' or 'pixel-perfect' settings.

The Evercade VS supports almost all of the cartridges which have been released for the Evercade handheld, with the exception of the two Namco Museum packs – the contract between Blaze and Bandai Namco stipulates that these are handheld exclusives and, as a result, they will not boot on the Evercade VS. This is a shame, because there are some brilliant games contained on these two packs.

Even without the Namco packs, there are a staggering number of games available for the Evercade ecosystem, with 'over 280' titles promised by the close of 2021. Emulation is, as far as we can tell, utterly perfect, and there are definite benefits to owning both the Evercade VS and its portable sibling; because all save data and save states are retained on the cartridge itself rather than the system, you can play a game on your big-screen TV and then pop the cartridge into your Evercade handheld when you leave the house, effortlessly picking up where you left off. It's a concept that's very similar to the Nintendo Switch, just not quite as elegant as it requires two pieces of hardware instead of one.

Interestingly, patches and software updates can be downloaded to the console via WiFi and applied to the physical cart itself – something that it's not possible on Switch, with game updates being stored on the console instead. For example, in the case of the Evercade Mega Cat Studios Collection 2, Roniu's Tale wasn't finished in time to be included fully, so what's on the cart is a 'demo' version of the game. However, once the full title is completed, it can be downloaded and added to the cartridge using the console's system update feature.

While it's fair to say that some of the Evercade collections are more 'filler' than 'killer', Blaze has, on the whole, done an excellent job of securing widespread publisher support for the console. The recent Codemasters and Bitmap Brothers packs are near-essential (the former is packed with NES titles while the latter includes the excellent SNES port of The Chaos Engine, as well as the PlayStation Speedball sequel), and the Jaleco collection also benefits from several Nintendo games, such as Astyanax, Bases Loaded, Brawl Brothers, Operation Logic Bomb and Super Earth Defence Force. However, the release of the Evercade VS is accompanied by some of the most exciting packs yet seen – ones that include arcade titles rather than home console releases.

The Technos Arcade pack boasts Combatribes, Double Dragon II and Double Dragon III (yes, the infamous one which basically invented micro-transactions – you could insert coins to 'buy' extra lives and energy), while the Atari and Data East packs showcase coin-op classics like Burger Time, Bad Dudes VS Dragon Ninja, Sly Spy, Asteroids Deluxe, Pong, Super Breakout and more. The most surprising pack has to be the one that covers the arcade output of Spanish company Gaelco; the Operation Wolf-style Alligator Hunt is perhaps one of the best-looking 2D games you'll see on the Evercade, while World Rally is a 2D racing title that could be found in many a UK public house back in the late '90s (we can attest to this personally).

If Blaze can continue to mix well-known classics with forgotten gems in this fashion, the future of the Evercade platform looks pretty positive; we can only hope that it is able to secure some bigger names in 2022, such as Sega and Capcom, two firms which have already licenced out their titles to similar products (Blaze's ill-fated Game Gadget in the case of the former, and Retro-Bit's Generations home system in the case of the latter).

What makes the Evercade VS all the more appealing is the fact that it's so darn cheap. The base set – which includes one cartridge and a single controller – starts from just £89.99. When compared to other competing retro products, that's impressive value for money; for example, the oft-delayed Intellivision Amico will cost you almost three times that amount. Given that the Evercade handheld has found its niche, we'd fully expect the Evercade VS to be even more successful – and we love the fact that it's given players legitimate access to many games which were originally on Nintendo systems, but sadly aren't available elsewhere today.

Evercade VS
Image: Nintendo Life

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Thanks to Blaze for providing the Evercade VS console used in this review.