This review was originally published on August 11th 2020 and has been updated to factor in our impressions of the EM03 Element Module.
Originally announced back in 2017 as the RetroBlox, Polymega has endured a fairly tumultuous journey to market. While the system's objective has always been the same – to offer players the chance to access software for a wide range of cartridge and CD-based retro consoles in one place – we've seen a lot of changes over the past few years. FPGA support was dropped early on, something which caused a lot of consternation amongst potential buyers accustomed to the impeccable performance of Analogue's excellent Super Nt and Mega Sg, then the system missed its proposed 'early 2019' release window. Pre-orders opened, but the launch was pushed back again, and now, in August 2020, the machine still isn't in the hands of those who laid down their money all those months ago; it has a revised release window of November – although it's bringing along cloud gaming as a bonus.
Having said all of this, creating and launching a piece of gaming hardware isn't an easy process for a big company, let alone a relatively new one like California-based Playmaji, the team behind the Polymega. And despite the setbacks and delays, this team has persevered; the system may not be totally finished yet, but it's on the home straight, with two waves of beta systems now in the hands of testers all over the globe. We were lucky enough to be included in the second beta test group, and the impressions you're about to read are based on that pre-release variant of the Polymega.
It's worth reiterating that point; the system we have in our hands now isn't the final production model, nor is the firmware anything close to final. The purpose of the beta test is to iron out any issues or problems before the machine goes to retail, and there are still plenty of things that need addressing. On a physical level, there's a gap above the MicroSD card slot which is just big enough for you to accidentally insert the card into the body of the console itself – a problem which the team has already confirmed will be remedied for the final model. Likewise, the fan at the back of the unit is just close enough to the MicroSD slot that it's not inconceivable that someone could accidentally pop a card in there, too – again, this is something that will be solved before release.
On the software side of things, fixes are somewhat easier to execute. Because the Polymega is connected to the internet via Wifi, the system can be updated in the same way a Switch or PS5 can – in fact, we've already had several in the time we've had the console. These updates not only introduce new features and improve compatibility with games – they also fix any bugs or issues present in the firmware. This beta testing phase is vital, as Polymega is expected to play literally thousands of games across multiple formats – and, as has been evidenced during our time with the system, there are often multiple variants of a single game based on production runs, and these all need to be catalogued in the Polymega's database before they can be installed to the console.
Speaking of which, it's perhaps worth talking about how this machine actually works, and how it will run your beloved retro collection. The base Polymega system ($399) comes with a CD drive and will play Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, Sega Mega CD, Neo Geo CD and PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 CD games from all regions. Cartridge-based platforms (NES, SNES, Mega Drive, 32X and PC Engine / TG-16) will be playable using optional 'Element Modules', each of which has to be purchased separately at a cost of $79.99 and come with their own custom controllers based on the pads used with the original machines. The Element Modules also house low-latency controller ports for their respective systems, so you can use original controllers if you have them to hand. Output is via HDMI as you might expect, which pushes a nice, crisp 1080p signal to your HD television.
The Polymega comes with a 9GB pre-installed database which has cover art, text descriptions and screenshots for thousands of supported games across all of these systems. The team behind the system has also spent a considerable amount of time reverse-engineering the BIOS files for each CD-based format the Polymega supports, which removes one of the most tedious (and potentially copyright-infringing) setup procedures normally associated with playing CD consoles via emulation (this has led to some incompatibilities with certain games, so you can side-load original BIOS files if you wish).
When you load a game up, it is matched with its database entry and can be either played from the original media or installed to the system's internal storage; if you choose to do the latter, you no longer need the original cartridge or disc to play that game in the future. M.2 SSD support is also included and comes highly recommended. We've fitted a 1TB SSD to our beta console and even with over 171 games installed, we still have more than 923GB of space remaining.
The interchangeable Element Modules are one of the main ways you're going to access your collection on the Polymega. These bolt onto the top of the machine and allow you to use original cartridges. We've only tested the Mega Drive / Genesis / 32X module so far (Module EM03), but if this is any indication of how the others will work, it's going to be a breeze. You can either choose to play the game direct from the cartridge or install it to the Polymega's internal memory – a process which is practically instantaneous.
We installed over 100 Mega Drive and 32X games in the space of 30 minutes, and most of that time was taken up by physically removing the games from their boxes. The EM03 also worked perfectly with our original Sega Arcade Power stick controller (the same one we got with our Japanese Mega Drive way back in 1990) and Retro-Bit's recent officially-licenced Sega 6-button pad.
The time it takes to install a game from CD varies; some of the discs we loaded up installed in seconds (Guardian Force on the Sega Saturn was done in under half a minute), while others took longer. The process is variable due to a wide range of factors; data size is the most obvious, but if the disc has scratches or marks, it means the Polymega has to take a little longer to properly read the data. In a neat touch, games actually begin the install process the moment you load them into the drive; if you choose not to install and simply play from the disc, that data is deleted the moment you push the eject button.
Once any game is installed, it is displayed in its relevant system menu in the console's pleasantly slick UI; you can also create your own custom playlists for particular titles or genres, to make them easier to find. Furthermore, the console leverages its massive database by giving you recommendations based on the game you're currently playing; so, should you load up, say, Burning Rangers on the Saturn, you'll be able to browse similar games, titles also published by Sega and games released in the same year; these can then be added to a wish list for future reference. You can choose to disable this feature and only get recommendations based on what you have installed in your library if you wish, but we rather liked seeing the suggestions and made more than a few trips to eBay searching for the titles highlighted.
Patches – such as fan-made translations of Japanese games – can be applied to installed software using a USB thumb drive or Micro SD card, and you can even safely 'remove' the patch at a later date, if you so wish. Oh, and while we're here, we should point out that the Polymega is perfectly happy playing and installing copies of games made on CD-R discs, although the intention is clearly for users to digitise their own collections, rather than resort to downloading them from shady sites online. However, Playmaji has been very clear on the fact that you won't ever be able to simply dump a bunch of ROMs onto the console via USB or Micro SD; the system also won't work with flash cartridges, such as the Everdrive range.
All games benefit from creature comforts such as save states and screen filters. The latter option offers two flavours at present: the RGB scanline filter replicates what games would look like on a classic CRT television, while the Composite option simulates that particular AV connection. Both are suitably authentic, but we did yearn for the incredible sharpness of the OSSC's scanline option – but Playmaji has confirmed that it is considering offering more filter options in the future. Should you choose to play without any kind of screen filter, you're getting an incredibly crisp image, just like you'd expect to see if you were using a PC-based emulator. The Polymega's UI also allows you to take screenshots during games as well as tinker with settings such as screen aspect ratio, rapid-fire settings and analogue controls.
While the focus is very much about using your original games, the base unit nonetheless comes pre-loaded with a bunch of NES, SNES, Mega Drive and PC Engine / TG-16 titles, mostly thanks to licencing deals with Piko Interactive and Masaya. Games like Iron Commando, Top Racer / Top Gear, Sword of Sodan, Target: Renegade and Moto Roader II are all included as standard, and while none of the bundled games are what you'd call AAA releases, they do hint at another exciting part of the Polymega's future – the proposed digital store which will allow publishers and developers to monetize their back catalogues in very much the same way that the Virtual Console did on Wii, Wii U and 3DS. Because the team behind the system has done all of the hard work by painstakingly populating that massive database with cover art, screenshots and descriptions, all that's really needed is for the IP holder to grant access to the ROM via a digital store, and they've effectively got a valuable revenue stream that wouldn't exist otherwise.
The base unit comes with its own wireless Polymega controller, which is shaped very much like a PlayStation DualShock pad. It's pretty light and comfortable to use, and the D-Pad is better than you might expect, too. As with any wireless pad, latency is an issue when playing wirelessly, but you can plug it into the machine using a Micro-USB lead to reduce this – we weren't able to test this ourselves, but latency with a wired pad is reported to be about 2 to 3 frames, which puts it in the same ballpark as the SNES Classic Edition's wired pads.
Alternatively, Polymega supports a wide range of wired and 2.4gHz pads, including Retro-Bit's excellent Sega-licenced controllers and even the Xbox 360 pad and the one which comes with the PlayStation Classic. These are all instantly detected by the system with button mapping taking place automatically, so you can play Saturn and PlayStation titles with an authentic controller. Even the on-screen button prompts in the UI change according to which controller you're using, which is a nice touch. While latency didn't feel like an issue to us with USB pads, when using the built-in controller ports on the Element Modules the lag is reduced almost to nothing (a single frame, in fact). While we're on the topic of peripherals, there's a 'next-gen' light gun in the works which will allow you to play titles like Duck Hunt, Time Crisis and House of the Dead on your flatscreen TV.
Now to the important part – how does the Polymega handle emulation, given that it's not using FPGA technology favoured by hardcore retro enthusiasts? Very well, actually. While there are still incompatibility problems to be solved via the ongoing beta test phase, accuracy is impressive. Furthermore, after installing over 170 games to the M.2 SSD we fitted to the Polymega, we only found 3 titles which showed as 'unsupported' (and it is very likely that this is due to the degradation of the original media, as other beta-testers were able to install the same games without issue).
A small number of other titles run fine from the disc but are not recognised by the internal database and therefore cannot be installed; again, this is something that is easily rectified as the beta phase continues and more titles are added to the console's database. Likewise, issues such as games displaying visual quirks, refusing to load past a certain point and other emulation kinks are being ironed out as we speak; the majority of these problems will be related to the aforementioned reverse-engineered BIOS files and loading up the original BIOS via a USB drive or MicroSD card almost always solves them.
Saturn emulation – which has long been spotty, even on powerful PCs – is surprisingly solid. We tested a wide range of games and they look, sound and feel the same as they do on original hardware; even ambitious titles like Virtua Fighter 2, which use the console's high-res mode, run brilliantly. It's worth noting that at this stage, even the acclaimed open-source MiSTer FPGA system doesn't run Saturn titles. Load times sadly don't seem to be any different on Polymega, with the exception of the Neo Geo CD games, which boot practically instantly. All in all, the standard of emulation present here is remarkable; while it's still software-based and therefore will never be a 1:1 replication, it's close enough to be of little consequence to the average user – and as time goes on, it's only going to improve.
Even at this stage, with its little niggles and minor game incompatibilities, the Polymega is a truly mouthwatering prospect for retro gamers. While its cost is indeed high – and launching alongside the PS5 and Xbox Series X at the end of this year isn't going to help matters – the base unit of the Polymega offers incredible value, even at $400; purchasing all of the systems (not to mention regional variants) it supports individually would total much more than the asking price. Factor in the Element Modules at $80 a pop and the cost increases, but even so, being able to expand the system is a real boon and there's no reason why, in the future, we couldn't see support increase thanks to the modular nature of the hardware. N64, anyone?
The delays and lack of FPGA have done much to harm Polymega's standing with a core group of hardcore enthusiasts, and convincing those same individuals to give the machine a chance is perhaps going to be Playmaji's biggest challenge. However, from what we've seen in the week we've spent with the machine, it looks set to become a highly desirable piece of hardware for retro fans; we're not afraid to admit we're utterly in love.
We'd like to thank Playmaji for sending us a beta unit for the purpose of this review. The Polymega is expected to launch later this year. You can find pre-order details here.