RetroN Sq - The Little Console That Can
As gamers get older, so too does the need for nostalgia to feel something similar to the childlike joys of yesteryear. Unfortunately, as the years' pass, so too does the need for said hardware to run nostalgic games increase. These consoles, once a staple of many childhoods, have long since stopped being in production. In comes the demand for such hardware vs the ever-dwindling supply, but not all is lost as consoles like the RetroN Sq are released.
Developed by Hyperkin, a manufacturer known for releasing their own modern spin of retro consoles, the RetroN Sq joins the family. This time, as a console that plays Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance titles at the comfort of one's home. Due to a recent firmware update, the compatibility with Game Boy Advance titles has increased considerably, as per the developer's words.
Upon first inspection, I was thoroughly surprised at how lightweight the console was. In comparison, it felt as light as the portable consoles it was based on. What was even more surprising was how the console could fit in the palm of my hand. This can be compared to peripherals of the past including the Game Boy Player, which took up the same amount of space as a Nintendo Gamecube. Obviously, this was meant to fit the Gamecube, but take the same principle of the peripheral into a small square package.
A Variety Of Colors In Premium Quality
The RetroN Sq comes in two colors, Black Gold and "Hyper Beach," with the former being self-explanatory with its impressive gold accents and clean matte black colors. The "Hyper Beach" color is an interesting electric blue with purple accents and buttons. The palette gives off a 90s aesthetic complete with a see-through skeleton, not unlike other Game Boys from that era. It has reflections of a custom Game Boy colorway while keeping its own sense of originality. It was for this reason I loved this color more than the "Black Gold," despite both colors being impressive.
In the front of the console, there's a Power switch to turn the console on and off as well as a Reset button and a USB slot for the bundled controller. The rear of the console features a switch that toggles from 4:3 to 16:9 display as well as an AC adapter port, an HDMI port, and a Micro SD slot used to upgrade the console. The controller feels just as impressive in quality as the console, featuring notes of the SNES controller including the "X" and "Y" buttons being indented while the "A" and "B" buttons are smoothened.
The method for inserting the cartridges is top-loaded, simply inserting the GB, GBC, or GBA cartridge inside the slot. What's nice is that all the cartridges fit without restrictions, reminiscent of the original Game Boy Advance's ability to play GB and GBC carts. The structure of the console seemed easy to set up without booting the console, leaving a positive first impression. Of course, a beautiful sturdy structure is nice but how does the game actually play? Fortunately, we have games from the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance eras. We took a look at each to see how the RetroN Sq handled it.
Running Game Boy Cartridges On The Hardware
After everything was plugged in, it was time to run the RetroN Sq's first test. How did a Game Boy cartridge run on the hardware and, most importantly, how did it appear on the screen? Released sometime before the concept of "color" was brought to mind, the color from a Game Boy was very limited, to say the least. When played on an output that supports color, such as the Game Boy Color, and other TV devices, some games provided "color," usually of a very limited palate.
Pokemon Blue is a perfect example of this as the game lives up to its title, in more ways than one. Of its limited color palette, there is an over-abundance of blue. There are blue trees, blue grass, blue buildings, blue character models, and even blue Pokemon. I started out with a Bulbasaur and while a shiny Bulbasaur is indeed blue, it's not that deep of a blue. Nor are there shinies in Generation 1.
If you can ignore the blue Pidgeys and Caterpies, it's impressive to see the RetroN run actual cartridges and determine its palette from there. On the back of the device, there is a switch that lets players toggle between 4:3 and 16:9 resolutions. The games look better in the former resolution as to be expected. There is, however, a charm in running a game in 16:9 and laughing at how pixilated the graphics become. Thankfully, the sharp and clear colors save this option from appearing absurd.
Overall, it ran Pokemon Blue without a hiccup. Setting the console up for direct capture was also as simple as inserting it via HDMI and connecting it with our Elgato Game Capture HD60. No extra assembly was required, it was as easy as capturing video from a modern console if not easier.
How Does The RetroN handle Game Boy's Colors?
When it came to running games with more than one color option, the RetroN, as expected, handled the Game Boy Color with flying...colors. We tested Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and the GBC port of Donkey Kong Country, two very dynamic games in terms of quality. While the simple colors of THPS is passable on the machine, it's DKC that looked surprisingly well. The GBC port was already a technical marvel for the handheld just as much as it was on the SNES. The bright colors of the jungle are brought out and look decent no matter the resolution.
For all three games, the controller was responsive but during my DKC run, I noticed a nitpick that was the result of getting spoilt. While the RetroN Sq ran all games played so far with impeccable accuracy, there lacked options for the players to tinker with. The console is barebones, only coming with the ability to play the cartridges and nothing more.
This meant things that players take for granted, including save states, speed boosts, and graphic modifiers, are not included. It would have been cool to have controller mapping as the "X" and "Y" buttons are simply "Turbo" buttons for their "B" and "A" counterpart. While this doesn't hinder the console's capabilities, it is disappointing that such a feature was not included. For players who wish to have a no-frills plug-and-play experience, however, the RetroN Sq is more than capable of its job.
Game Boy Advance - The Newest RetroN Sq Challenge
Unfortunately, the star of the show came with some technical difficulties. Perhaps the most hyped feature of the RetroN Sq was its compatibility with Game Boy Advance carts. While running Game Boy and Game Boy Color carts are simple enough feats, the GBA was made of different hardware. What made the original portable console impressive was that players who owned GB/GBC carts could still play them on the GBA while enjoying the latest and greatest.
Upon launch, it has been noted that the compatibility of the GBA was not up to par with the GB/GBC carts. While those cartridges ran smoothly, the GBA carts we had caused the console to hang on the boot screen. After about 30 seconds, the blue hippo of hope appeared as it began to load, only for said dreams to be shattered back to the boot screen.
It turns out that the Micro SD card on the back of the console can be updated to the latest firmware. This meant removing it (with difficulty nonetheless), finding a micro sd card reader, and following the steps to do so. The main drawback is that a micro sd card reader is something the average player wouldn't have lying around. Another thing is that the instructions and process to upgrade the firmware, while simple enough, are not mentioned in detail in the printed manual.
This means that less than tech-savvy users will attempt to use their GBA cartridges only to find that it doesn't work, not knowing the console needs to be updated manually. The RetroN Sq is a simple plug-in-and-play console for better and for worse, requiring the user to know how to run basic maintenance to ensure the console is up to date.
And So Our Updating Journey Begins
Never ones to leave things half-done, we managed to find a Micro SD card reader only to plug the card into the laptop and come across this...
Before we could use the micro sd card, it asked us to format it, which is fair. What wasn't fair and instead uncommon is to see the SD card split into four partitions. What we obviously want is the micro sd card to have only one partition. After spending longer than I care to admit, I finally cleaned the sd card, leaving me with one working partition as nature intended.
After formatting the SD card and following the instructions to install the latest firmware for the RetroN Sq listed here, I watched in dread as the once-single partition split into four once again. It was then I realized that upon installing the firmware, for some reason, the SD card creates partitions in read-only mode. Whether this is to deter players from running ROMs off the SD card is unknown. All I had to do was to try the Game Boy Advance cart once more. Moment of truth.
And once again, I was greeted to the same boot screen that I was first introduced to two hours ago. Despite cleaning the SD card and installing the firmware update manually, it refused to boot the GBA cartridge, I've tried both Pokemon Emerald and the NES Classics Metroid carts. No dice. Defeated, I tried Pokemon Yellow to ensure the actual console worked, and sure enough, that game booted. Defeated, I turned the console off.
The RetroN Sq Was A Bust, Despite Great First Impressions
In fairness, on the official website, Hyperkin did mention that the Game Boy Advance compatibility was in "beta," with the quote as follows.
Currently, compatibility with Game Boy Advance® cartridges is a beta feature. Some titles may work, but not at 100% capacity and for the most part, not as they are intended to work. This will hopefully be updated once new versions of the firmware become available.https://www.hyperkin.com/retronsq
That said, it's clear that the Game Boy Advance capabilities need work which is a shame as it could potentially be the RetroN Sq's main attraction. Instead, it is a console that can play Game Boy and Game Boy Color cartridges accurately. Players who wish to use those capabilities with the chance of Hyperkin including proper GBA functionality in the future can find the RetroN Sq its worth.
For everyone else, I can't recommend the console in the state that it's in. Its lack of features found in other like consoles, plus a third of its advertised compatibility cut due to a lack of a proper firmware update kills any momentum the small cube had. It's cool to display the RetroN Sq on display and it's lightweight enough to own up to its portability, but it's a console that does the bare minimum. Hopefully, Hyperkin can improve on this model in the near future as it has a potential hit on its hands.
The RetroN Sq is currently available for $89.99 MSRP.