I think it’s fair to say that the launch of the NES Classic Edition was poorly handled. Once again Nintendo vastly underestimated demand—remember the Wii launch in 2006, or the great Amiibo scarcity? So now we have another holiday packed with desperate, scrambling shoppers, scummy auto-purchase bots and the exorbitant Ebay scalping that results. All this for a device that is long on nostalgia but relatively short on content. On the surface the NES Classic is a no-brainer: its $60 price tag puts it squarely into impulse buy territory, its form factor is undeniably attractive to the 80s crowd, and the 30 games packed in are even upscaled into HD. That said, Nintendo’s inevitable walled garden approach leads to several downsides. With no internet connectivity or cartridge port, those 30 games are all you’re ever getting out of the NES Classic. Nintendo’s puzzling ability to over-deliver on the Wii U, a console nobody really wants anymore, and woefully under-deliver on the NES Classic means that they have another PR disaster on their hands.
But what if there was a better way? An alternative nostalgia machine, more expensive than the NES Classic but also more versatile, capable and ultimately a much better deal for your money? Dear readers, allow me to introduce the Cyber Gadget Retro Freak. The Retro Freak is not a new device, but I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t heart of it; the Retro Freak has been exclusive to Japan since it launched in late 2015. At its core it’s an emulation machine like the NES Classic, but enabled for a whole host of other classic consoles and theoretically capable of running any officially licensed game from any of those libraries.
So-called clone consoles are nothing new, but the Retro Freak (and its American competitor the Retron 5, which released around the same time in 2015) is part of a new generation of clones that use software emulation to play old games instead of trying to reproduce legacy 80s and 90s electronics. Emulation might be a dirty word in the game industry but it’s literally what the NES Classic is doing, and what the Wii Virtual Console, XBLA and PS3 Store have been selling for a decade now. The Retro Freak just does it on a broader scale.
The result is a console that plays a wealth of systems: Famicom, NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, Game Boy, GBA, and Turbografx 16 and its various spinoffs like the SuperGrafx. The Retro Freak is more expensive than the NES Classic, coming in at around $200 depending on where you import from and which bundle and accessories you pick. This cuts down on its impulse buy factor but the initial outlay of cash lets you play so much more than just 30 NES games.
The console itself is noticeably Japanese in its design; unassuming and utilitarian, its form factor is little more than a nondescript, rounded gray box. It has three cartridge slots on top for Famicom, SNES/Super Famicom and Genesis/Mega Drive cartridges, and two slots on the front to support Turbografix/PC Engine and the Game Boy family of systems. The front also hosts two USB ports, which support both the Retro Freak’s included controller and a wide array of third party USB gamepads.
The Japan-centric design of the Retro Freak can be something of a downside, however. To get full use out of the Retro Freak you will need a number of adapters, which can be bought in a bundle package or separately. Most notable among these is a cartridge adapter that lets the Retro Freak play NES cartridges, as the base console doesn’t support them. The NES and its Japanese counterpart, the Famicom, had a different cartridge pinout, so unfortunately you’ll need that adapter to play your NES collection. The Retro Freak also supports a USB dongle that allows you to plug in your original controllers, but with so many excellent USB controllers on the market I see this as less of an issue. The gamepad included with the Retro Freak is a very solid replica of the Super Nintendo controller, and 8bitdo’s superb range of premium Bluetooth pads are supported through a USB cable as well.
If you’re a particularly thorough collector you can also purchase the Gear Converter, which adds Game Gear and Master System compatibility. This adapter is a lot more expensive than the NES adapter, as it’s basically a replica of the original Sega Powerbase Converter. The NES adapter runs roughly $20, the USB controller adapter goes for about $30 and the Gear Converter will cost you anywhere from $70 to $90. All of this hardware does add up and the end result can be pretty expensive, but it also lets you customize the Retro Freak to your needs; for example I had no need for the USB adapter and I don’t have any Game Gear titles in my collection, so I dispensed with the Gear Converter.
In any case the basic Retro Freak and an NES adapter will get you where you need to go as far as NES games are concerned, plus a lot more, and the end result is something to behold. The Retro Freak uses a custom System On a Chip (SOC) running Android and the emulation is spot-on. I’ve thrown my entire collection of NES, SNES, Genesis and Game Boy carts at it and it handled all of them flawlessly. The Retro Freak includes features traditionally available in freeware emulators like save states, cheat libraries, control remapping and graphical filters, but combining it all into a dedicated console with an Android-based OS makes it a whole lot more user-friendly. Like the NES Classic, the Retro Freak also outputs all of your games in 720p HD.
If you’re familiar with the clone console scene you might wonder what makes the Retro Freak better than its immediate competitor, Hyperkin’s Retron 5. After all, the Retron 5 sports a dedicated NES cartridge port and the console is readily available here in the States, so you don’t need to import it and potentially buy a multitude of adapters. Well for one the Retron 5 doesn’t support the Turbografx/PC Engine family so you lose out on a huge library of games, but there’s something else the Retro Freak does that puts it way over the top.
If you want to play an old game on the Retron 5, it requires that you have the original cartridge plugged in at all times. The Retro Freak on the other hand lets you rip your cartridges straight to an SD card and play them at any time. This lets you compile a backup collection of your entire classic library, spanning multiple systems, on one console. Even better, the Retro Freak console detaches from the cartridge ports for easy portability. With the cartridge ports attached the Retro Freak is already small, but the actual guts of the system—the Retro Freak proper—can undock and is roughly the size of an SNES cartridge. This lets you carry your entire game library with you and is perfect for taking some retro fun over to a friend’s house for a quick game of Rampage or Turtles in Time.
Of course this is where the legal gray area of emulation comes into play. Because the Retro Freak effectively lets you rip games to ROM and save it to SD, there’s really nothing stopping you from downloading a bunch of game ROMs from illicit sites and dropping them all onto that SD card, whether you own the original cartridges or not. Ultimately that decision is up to the individual consumer and their conscience but it is worth noting for people who are particularly concerned about piracy. It’s also important to consider that the Retro Freak doesn’t come preloaded with any games—it will support the legacy cartridges you already own (or, again, any ROMs you pilfer online), but don’t expect 30 Nintendo games ready to go out of the box. Then again, if all you want to do is play ROMs then you might as well build a RetroPie machine.
For these reasons the Retro Freak isn’t necessarily a replacement for the NES Classic Edition but more of a superior alternative for the discerning retro collector. It’s more expensive, yes, but it can do so much more. Until the holiday rush dies down in all likelihood you’ll be dropping upwards of $200 on an Ebay-scalped NES Classic anyway, so why not spend that money on something that can do a lot more and, most importantly, is readily available?
Sean Colleli has been gaming off and on since he was about two, although there have been considerable gaps in the time since. He cut his gaming teeth on the “one stick, one button” pad of the Atari 800, taking it to the pirates in Star Raiders before space shooter games were cool. Sean’s Doom addiction came around the same time as fourth grade, but scared him too much to become a serious player until at least sixth grade. It was then that GoldenEye 007 and the N64 swept him off his feet, and he’s been hardcore ever since.
Currently Sean enjoys a good shooter, but is far more interested in solid adventure titles like The Legend of Zelda or the beautiful Prince of Persia trilogy, and he holds the Metroid series as a personal favorite. Sean prefers deep, profound characters like Deus Ex’s JC Denton, or ones that break clichés like Samus Aran, over one dimensional heroes such as the vacuous Master Chief. Sean will game on any platform but he has a fondness for Nintendo, Sega and their franchises. He has also become a portable buff in recent years. Sean’s other hobbies include classic science fiction such as Asimov and P.K. Dick, and Sean regularly writes down his own fiction and aimless ramblings. He practices Aikido and has a BA in English from the Ohio State University. He is in his mid twenties. View Profile