Recently we've been getting quite a bit of use out of our classic handheld systems. It can be a lot of fun to jump back to your original Game Boy or Game Boy Color to play one of the first Pokémon games, or to see how high of a score you can line up in Tetris. If you're playing with a standard non-backlight screen you may have to battle the sun and the occasional glares it shoots your way, but it's all a part of the experience.
However, a lot of people would prefer to play games on a big screen, and with the cost of the GameCube Game Boy Player on the rise, it makes sense that manufacturer Hyperkin would try to give players a more affordable option: the RetroN Sq. a cute and compact console that’ll play Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance games on your big screen. As with most console launches, there have been a few hiccups so far, but we'll spill all the details so you can determine how much they'll affect you.
One of the best parts of the RetroN Sq is how easy it is to use. For the most part, you just plug it into your TV, give it some juice, pop in a game and a controller and you’re good to go. The Sq is also about the size of three Game Boy Advance systems put together, making it compact enough for travel – and it won't take up much real estate on your TV stand, either. The Sq comes with an HDMI cable, USB-C cable for power, a 512MB Micro SD card, and a Hyperkin Scout wired controller. The Scout mimics the SNES controller, and is a really solid effort on Hyperkin's part. The triggers can feel a bit spongy, but the D-pad and face buttons are tight and responsive. But enough about the plastic, you're probably curious how it actually plays games, right?
While FPGA-based systems are the flavour of the moment right now, the Sq uses software emulation. Any game cartridge you pop in will be dumped onto the Micro SD card that’s stored in the back of the system. So when you go to play a game for the first time, the Sq will take a bit of time to dump a game onto the SD card, but sequential plays will be significantly shorter to load from then on. Loading times are extremely varied and sometimes feel like they can last almost a minute long, which for Game Boy games is a bit surprising. During the dumping process, your save file will also get copied, which we have mixed feelings on – but we'll touch back on that soon. You’ll also still need to plug in a game to play it after a game gets transferred to the SD card, so don’t expect to turn this into a one-stop emulation machine.
Game Boy and Game Boy Color games look and play well at 720p in their native aspect ratio. Pixels are nice and sharp and colours really pop. There is a little switch on the back that will stretch the image to fill your screen, if you’re the kind of person that likes that (each to their own, we're not judging here). During our time with the machine, we didn't encounter any frame dips, strange pixels or random sounds popping in. We tested a host of different games like Balloon Kid, Final Fantasy Adventure, Mario Golf and Pokémon Blue, and they all ran just as we'd hope. Although, original Game Boy games will have the same colour palette you’d get if you plugged them into a Game Boy Color. Some games can look a bit messy on a big screen, as they weren’t designed to be blown up on the 50-inch TV in your living room, but if you sit far enough away from your TV (like your mother always told you to), you should be just fine.
Now Game Boy Advance compatibility, on the other hand, is still a work in progress. We’ve been playing with the RetroN Sq for a few weeks now, and in the beginning, the frame rate was pretty rough. However, Hyperkin has been working hard on a patch to smooth it out, and after going hands-on with an unreleased build of this patch, we can confirm it (mostly) seems fixed. We did notice some rather unsavoury pops in the audio department from time to time, while certain sound effects can be a bit ear piercing as well. So it seems like GBA support still needs a bit more time to cook, but Hyperkin has advertised right on the box that GBA support is still in beta and will continue to be updated as time goes on.
The Sq is also so focused on being an easy plug-and-play system that it doesn’t feature any sort of UI. So unfortunately at this time, there isn’t any way of changing colour palettes, logging in save states, or adding in filters like scan lines or pixel grids, which are all features we'd love to see added down the road. Hyperkin has stated its software is open source though, allowing the community to create mods and updates for users to download at their discretion.
Save files are another interesting topic we need to talk about. When you pop a game into the Sq for its first time, the Sq will copy over the save data from that cartridge to its Micro SD card. Then whenever you save your game when you’re playing on the Sq, it will only overwrite the data on the SD card, but not your cartridge. So if you pop the cartridge out to go back and play on your Game Boy or other hardware, you’ll be left with the save data you had before you put it in the Sq.
We chatted with Hyperkin about this, and the reasoning for this decision to make sure that your original save data doesn’t accidentally somehow become corrupted during the writing process. Hyperkin stated it never had any issues with this on its end, but it wanted to protect your potential childhood saves at all costs. We appreciate the sentiment, but not being able to jump back-and-forth between a handheld and TV play will be a bit of a deal-breaker for some. The Nintendo Switch is evidence of how important it can be to continue playing a game when you're on the go. Especially with big RPGs like Pokémon, it would be unfortunate to make progress on the Sq and have that not carried over to your cartridge.
When the system first launched things were a bit rockier, as the aspect ratio wasn’t perfect, visuals were blurry and the frame rate of GBA games was pretty rough, but Hyperkin has already released a few new firmware updates you can download as well to remedy some of these problems. Installing the updates can be a bit tricky as it requires the use of a PC and will overwrite any of your current game save files, but once it’s done, it’s done.
Hyperkin has made a valiant effort towards creating an affordable and easy-to-use console for your classic Game Boy line of games. If you’re okay with the few things it lacks, like save states and colour options, then this is a solid way to play Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and eventually Game Boy Advance games on the big screen.