The NES Classic Mini is dead, but has retro gaming gained an extra life?
Nostalgia is a drug. You see one screenshot of Donkey Kong throwing barrels at Mario, and you’re instantly rummaging around in the attic for your old NES.
The NES Classic Mini did a wonderful job of giving reminiscent gamers their retro fix, but when Nintendo pulled the plug on its production earlier this month it turned a host of retro gamers sour.
Fortunately, the history-addicted won’t need to go cold turkey for long: Retro Freak has conveniently stepped into the void.
In what threatens to be an overdose of joy for 8-bit fans, the Retro Freak not only runs NES titles, but can also handle games from 11 other throwback systems.
With a $US280 price tag, though - not to mention a raft of other frailties - is it capable of bringing throwback fun to the masses?
ONE UGLY BOX
The Retro Freak doesn’t have a nostalgia-inducing design that harks back to the good old days. It’s just a grey plastic box with more slots than a Vegas slot machine.
Instead of chomping on your cash, though, it consumes your old game cartridges and spits retro delights onto your TV screen. Without a cartridge or controller plugged in, though, even the most capable of detectives might take a while to determine that this is a games console. The HDMI port on the rear is probably the best clue.
Otherwise, it just looks like a lump of plastic that stinks of cheap tack. Even the power cord feels flimsy and took a lot of brute force to lock the UK adaptor plug safely in place.
For $US279 you’d expect a more premium design, yet it seems more like one of those forgotten relics that you stow away in the attic than a welcome addition to your TV setup.
PAD FROM THE PAST
The one element of the Retro Freak’s design that will send you all dreamy eyed about the past is the controller. It looks almost identical to the SNES pad.
No attempt has been made to hide the fact that they just recreated the SNES controller and whacked their own branding on it, either. Even the diagonal “start” and “select” buttons feature.
But, while Nintendo’s pad had a splash of colour, Retro Freak has decided to go all grey – because we can’t get enough of that off-white tone.
Committed to the retro theme, the controller is also wired. While the wires are considerably longer than they were for the NES Classic Mini, I still wish that I was free of such constraints. Yes, it's a throwback machine - but it's also a 2017 throwback machine.
You can also use a PlayStation 4 controller, but you’ll need to keep it plugged into the system via a USB cable - and I found that the button configurations could be a bit of a faff, so it's probably as easy to stick with the bundled pad. Still, it’s a neat option if you want to play multiplayer.
A GAMER’S DOZEN
The Retro Freak is ugly, then - but who cares if it does its job? Since it can play games from 12 different retro systems, even the most superficial of nerds will find it hard to resist.
In all, the Retro Freak Supports NES, Famicom, SNES, Super Famicom, Genesis, Mega Drive, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, TurboGrafx-16, PC Engine and PC Engine Super Grafx.
Its ability to run Game Boy Colour and Advance titles is particularly impressive, as I can play the likes of Pokemon Yellow and Advance Wars on my television. The days of hunching over a tiny games device are over.
I expected these portable classics to look stretched and warped on my 40in TV, but they were always displayed with clarity and little distortion. In fact, they looked as great as ever.
RESURRECT THOSE CARTRIDGES
Booting up a game is ridiculously simple, too: it's pretty much plug in and play.
The Retro Freak does have a special magic trick, though, as you can save your games to a SD card or the system’s internal storage. By doing this, you don’t have to rummage through your cartridges if you suddenly fancy a bit of Sonic speedin’ as opposed to Goomba crushin’.
Sadly, not a single game comes pre-installed on the console. There’s no online store for digital downloads, either: you’ll have to go on a bargain hunt on Amazon or eBay for preowned cartridges in order to get your retro fix.
I found some cartridges at a decent price – Super Mario Bros. was only £6 – but many games are just as expensive as a PlayStation 4 title, despite being more than 30 years old.
Given the accumulated cost, you’re not really getting good value unless you already have a stash of old Nintendo and Sega games hidden under your bed - in which case, the Retro Freak is a dream all-in-one console.
HIDE YOUR BITS
If anyone has turned up their nose at a classic because of its 8-bit graphics, then the Retro Freak can knock some sense into them, and not just because it can be used as a blunt instrument.
Through HD-upscaling, you can improve the picture of many old games. The included filters give grainy games a noticeably improved facelift. Ridding Mario of his surrounding blur, for example, contributes to a picture that’s a significant improvement on what you’d find on your original NES.
While the visual upgrade isn’t going to make you whoop in awe, it’s nice to see your ancient games get a boost.
If the pixelated visuals give you a warm nostalgic glow, mind, then you can switch off all of the filters to maintain that vintage look.
SAVE A LIFE
You’ve probably started to notice a theme about the Retro Freak. In many aspects, the console is grey and boring - but also effective. This pattern continues with the interface. It’s hardly a looker, but it's simple to navigate.
Games are arranged by the system that they were originally from. For example, you’ll find Super Mario Bros. in the NES folder and Sonic the Hedgehog stored under Sega Mega Drive. It couldn't be simpler.
Save files work via “snapshots”: rather than using the game’s own save system, you can take a freeze-frame to which you can return at any point. This means you can save in the middle of a Mario course, just before that one obstacle that always gets the best of you.
The only issue with this system is that you have to remind yourself of it and save regularly via the “home” button, otherwise you might find yourself starting from scratch on your next load. You can also create multiple save files for each game, so you can let your friends have a go on Pokemon without the fear of them releasing your most treasured critters.
RETRO FREAK VERDICT
The Retro Freak’s ability to run almost any retro game is staggeringly impressive. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple getting your hands on those games. Want to play A Link to the Past? That will cost you $100 on Amazon – and that’s for a preowned copy.
Satisfying your nostalgia urge, it turns out, is expensive - and that cost is accompanied by other issues, too.
The hardware is tacky and a blatant eyesore in your living room, while the odd technical hiccup caused my system to crash a couple of times within a single week.
If you already own a sizable collection of Nintendo and Sega cartridges spending $US279 on the Retro Freak is justifiable. You might as well play your treasured games than keep them in a dusty box.
If you don’t have a collection of vintage titles, though, then you’re better off buying a preowned NES Classic Mini or waiting until the Nintendo Switch launches its eShop. If you’re going to revisit your cherished childhood, you might as well do it in style.