The NES Classic Mini is proving to be one of the must-have gaming items of 2016 with demand far outstripping supply and consoles selling online for way above the initial asking price. While Nintendo is clearly onto something of a winner here – despite the company's almost habitual desire to annoy buyers by not producing enough units – the concept of vintage hardware being cloned in the modern era isn't a new one, and Retro-Bit is a company which has been fairly active in this arena for quite some time.
The firm has already produced systems like the Super Retro Trio and Retro Duo Portable, and it timed the announcement of its latest system perfectly. No sooner had the hype died down from Nintendo revealing the NES Classic Mini that Retro-Bit proudly unveiled the Retro-Bit Generations, a conceptually similar plug-and-play console that not only showcases classic NES games but also Mega Drive, Game Boy, SNES and even arcade titles. With names like Capcom, Irem, Jaleco and Data East all officially signed up, this pint-sized system looked incredible on paper, but in reality things are sadly less impressive.
What Is The Retro-Bit Generations?
Like the NES Classic Mini, the Retro-Bit Generations uses emulation to replicate the performance of vintage hardware. However, while Nintendo's mini-console was focused entirely on the NES, the Retro-Bit Generations features NES, Game Boy, SNES, Mega Drive and arcade releases. It outputs either via standard composite AV or HDMI, and boasts the ability to save your game data at any point. You can also save your games to an SD card thanks to the included slot, and the custom user interface allows you to configure the button arrangement and tinker with audio and visual settings. The system costs $59 in North America.
What's In The Box?
In addition to the console – which is a close match to the NES Classic Mini in terms of size – you also get two controllers which are modelled on the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis 6-button pad. There's also a power supply (North American, but you can use an adapter if you're elsewhere in the world) and AV cable, but no HDMI lead – you'll have to find your own.
It's worth noting that while the controllers have USB connectors (at the end of a generous length of cable, it should also be noted), we couldn't get any other USB pads to function on the device. The pads are actually really comfortable to use, so the fact you can't substitute them isn't a deal-breaker; the rolling D-pad is precise and the buttons feel decent enough.
What Games Are Included?
Depending on where you look, the Retro-Bit Generations has between 90 to 100 different games included. The finished list is clearly in a state of flux right now; the packaging we received the console in says 90, but the game list has been covered up by a new sticker, which indicates last-minute changes to the line-up. Retro-Bit has informed us that consoles sold after November 25th will boast revised packaging which states that 100 games are included.
Despite securing the official blessing of Capcom, Irem, Data East and Jaleco – or, in the case of the latter three, the blessing of the companies which now own the IP of these firms – there's an awful lot of filler included. Capcom fans will love the fact that Ghouls 'n Ghosts (arcade), Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts (SNES), Mercs (the Mega Drive version), Knights of the Round (arcade) and Captain Commando (arcade) all make the cut, but so many of the company's big hitters are absent. There's no Street Fighter 2, no Final Fight and no Strider – three games that the average Capcom fan would regard as essential offerings. The story is largely the same with the other companies; Data East's biggest games are nowhere to be seen, and in the case of Irem the versions of R-Type that are included are the SNES editions rather than the superior arcade instalments. Even Image Fight is the NES port of the game, rather than the arcade original.
However, there are some interesting picks to be found regardless. SNES side-scroller Legend is an attractive and enjoyable game which is getting a new physical release soon, while Dorke N Imp never actually got released during the lifespan of the SNES and is therefore something of a hidden gem. NES fans who can't get their hands on the NES Classic Mini are well served by the large selection of big-name titles, including 1942, Bionic Commando, 10 Yard Fight, Kickle Cubicle and Kid Niki Radical Ninja.
There are other examples of region-specific titles which will be fresh and new to western gamers, but there's no escaping the fact that the selection of titles feels like a random assortment of whatever Retro-Bit was able to legally get its hands on, rather than a definitive list of solid-gold classics. For example, Sword of Sodan – one of the few Sega games included here – was critically panned even back in the early '90s, so goodness knows why anyone would want to play it in 2016.
The Retro-Bit Generations might have a somewhat random library of games but this isn't the biggest issue with the console by a long chalk. A more pressing concern is the general emulation performance of the platform, which varies from acceptable to downright unplayable. Game Boy and NES titles – perhaps the least demanding from a technical standpoint – run relatively well, although the image quality is quite fuzzy, especially on low-resolution Game Boy games. While you can adjust the display settings to Stretch, Full Screen or Original Size, none of these options deliver a pin-sharp picture like the one seen on the NES Classic Mini. Full Screen mode when playing Game Boy games is practically as bad as using composite AV, with pixels being lost in a soupy, ill-defined mess.
Moving onto the more powerful systems such as the Mega Drive, SNES and arcade, things take a notable turn for the worse. None of the games produced for these systems run at anything approaching full speed, and all are plagued by a constantly fluctuating frame rate and inconsistent audio. Take R-Type 3's opening level, where you pilot your R-9Ø Ragnarök through a debris field. The frame rate plunges alarmingly and the music actually slows down, but once you emerge from the other side and the number of sprites on-screen drops, the whole game speeds back up again. This occurs in practically every game on the console to a certain degree, but is more noticeable on arcade releases. For some reason, the Sega home port of Mercs has worse frame rate problems than almost every other title on the console, rendering it almost unplayable.
Another problem is that sound emulation across all formats is a little off; certain elements of the instrumentation are plain wrong, while others deviate just enough from the original to stick out like a sore thumb. Elsewhere, the audio is so hilariously garbled that it bears almost no resemblance whatsoever to the original music. Jaleco's SNES side-scrolling fighters Rival Turf and Brawl Brothers are the worst offenders in this regard; at times it sounds like the soundtrack has been possesed by some kind of demonic, free-form jazz artist.
An indication of just how little time has been spent fine-tuning the experience is given when you boot up Capcom's arcade-only, vertically-scrolling shooter Varth: Operation Thunderstorm. The entire display is flipped on its side – as it would be in the arcade – and there's no option to spin it 90 degrees so it's playable on your widescreen TV set. While it's still possible to play the game (crippling emulation problems aside), it's hardly ideal.
It's hard to know where to pin the blame here; perhaps the emulator that Retro-Bit has used simply isn't good enough to accurately replicate the performance of these vintage platforms, or maybe the off-the-shelf chipset inside the machine is too weak to do the software justice. Whatever the reason for the dire performance level, the message is clear – don't expect a faithful representation of any of the games included in the system's memory.
The Retro-Bit Generations sounded like the dream console for many players, and that includes us at Nintendo Life. While the NES Classic Mini hits a spot, we've always wanted a system which allows us to not only play obscure classics from back in the day, but also offers a legal means of enjoying coin-op titles which – were it not for emulation – would simply be lost in the mists of time. Just imagine a plug-and-play platform which had Capcom's entire CPS1 and CPS2 arcade output on tap; arcade-perfect replications of the coin-ops you played as a kid that never made it to home systems – or, if they did, were merely pale imitations of the real deal.
The knowledge that the Retro-Bit Generations would showcase some arcade games was enough to get us seriously excited when it came to opening up its packaging, but the actual machine feels like a broken promise. Sure, the Game Boy and NES titles run well enough and you're getting three times the number of games that ship on the NES Classic Mini, but in terms of pure performance and overall user experience, Nintendo's offering wins hands down.
Anyone even vaguely interested in the console and the games it features will no doubt already consider themselves to be a serious retro gamer, and therefore should already be familiar with how to emulate these same titles on other hardware with much more agreeable results. While that might be a legal grey area, that represents a much better option than spending money on a product such as this which, while official, offers an unforgivably compromised experience.