The 1-line review:
It could have been so much better.
In a nutshell:
RetroN 77 is a conveniently packaged, aesthetically attractive $70 box that allows you to play (many, but not all) Atari 2600 cartridges on a HDTV set, or play ROMs for Atari 2600 games off a microSD card, powered by Stella, the most popular emulator for the Atari 2600.
HDMI output is cool, for ease of connecting to modern TVs, and for image quality. But that’s really the only truly good thing about this. And it’s no better than running Stella on a PC.
The other things I liked about this when I first heard of it: the cartridge slot, and the DB9 joystick ports, (which are the same as on the original system, allowing for play with original controllers). But both of these features are compromised — many games will not play on cartridge in the RetroN 77, and the included joystick is, while a nice design that feels comfortable in the hand and includes ambidextrous buttons, is fragile and too clicky in use. Fortunately those original controllers can be plugged into the RetroN 77 and work, but they still should have did better with the included joystick. And frustratingly, Hyperkin knew it, and yet they still shipped this product.
Also worth mentioning, the system offers saving and restoring your game state at the press of a button. But the button is located on the console, where it’s less than easy to reach, not on the controller, where it would have made more sense (although, to be fair, I don’t see how they could have done this while preserving compatibility with the original DB9 controller port, and I definitely would not want to give that feature up just to have easier access to a save/restore button.) But the worst thing about the Save and Restore buttons is that they’re identical to each other, and to the adjacent “game select” and “game reset” buttons. If you want to save your game, you must quickly hit the correct button, and if you screw up and hit any of the other buttons, you’ll either restore a previously saved gamestate, or reset the game, both of which will be ruinous to your current progress. So this feature is just not very well thought out, and not very useful. Also, the RetroN 77 can only save ONE gamestate per game cartridge or ROM file, making this feature extremely limited. This is sad, because the included SD card has a 128MB capacity, and the entire Atari 2600 library will fit easily into less than 2MB, meaning that the memory card potentially has room for virtually infinite save files. So none of that extra space will ever be put to good use. All they had to do was add a menu to the Load button so that you would have to choose which save file to reload, or delete, and it could have been so much more.
RetroN 77 may be worthwhile to own — if you just want to take something simple out of the box, plug it in and go, with no software setup and configuration and have it simple and just work, except of course for the many games it doesn’t support on the cartridge slot. But ultimately it will not satisfy a serious gamer who wants to play his entire library of Atari 2600 games.
Even so, I’m glad that a company is at least trying to make something like this. The original hardware won’t last forever. I just wish that the execution were better.
Let’s get into the details.
- System isn’t instantly on when you flip the power switch to ON. There’s a several second delay, long enough to make you wonder if the thing isn’t broken. Every time.
- Way old version of Stella running on this thing.
- Stella is a great emulator, and even this old version is very good. But emulation just isn’t as cool as ‘real hardware’ or an FPGA implementation of real hardware. In this case, it’s because the RetroN doesn’t REALLY play the game that you plugged into the cartridge slot; it copies the ROM off the cartridge and temporarily loads it and runs it in Stella, but for some reason (maybe because the Stella version is old?) it’s not capable of running cartridges that have extra processor chips in them.
- Doesn’t support many games on the cartridge slot (basically, any of the later cartridges that packed extra chips to extend the capabilities of the obsolescent Atari 2600: Pitfall II, Mountain King, etc.) Update: A Retron 77 user has created a public list of tested games. It would have been nice if Hyperkin could have created this list, themselves, at least for the majority of games, rather than leaving it to users to figure it out for ourselves.
- The joystick feel could be better, and durability is unacceptable. Everyone is reporting that the joystick breaks mere hours into playing with the system. Hyperkin acknowledged this is a known issue and promised to replace broken controllers, and to release a re-engineered controller that will be more robust. But why didn’t they just wait and release when it was ready? This shitty joystick will do nothing for Hyperkin’s reputation or to sell the system.
- They really should have made a modern paddle controller, since original paddles are so fragile and need reconditioning in order to avoid jitter and work properly. Update: Hyperkin now sells a controller called the Ranger, which incorporates paddle features, although it seems that they are decent, but not great.
- System should remember the aspect ratio mode it was last in rather than default to 16:9.
- Button layout for the console switches could have been better (ie, more like the original Atari 2600 6-switch model’s layout, same type of switches would have been so cool).
- Limited number of “slots” for ROMs on the SD card (this is supposed to be fixed in a future firmware update) but it was a deliberate design choice on Hyperkin’s part to limit the number of ROMs that can be displayed in the SDcard menu, and that’s weak.
But this is a Hyperkin product, so what did you expect? Right?
If you have any PC or Mac built in the last 20 years or so, or a Raspberry Pi, and hook it up to a decent monitor, buy a Stelladaptor and plug in an original CX40 joystick, you do not need the RetroN77 — unless you are a completist or enjoy being disappointed.
If you have original working hardware, you may not need the RetroN77, either, depending on if your HDTV can handle the video output, or you can mod your console, or if you still have an old NTSC CRT TV that works.
There’s hope Hyperkin can salvage this with a firmware update that updates Stella to the latest release available, ship replacement controllers that aren’t fragile, but even so it’d be better to hope this sells well enough for them to maybe bother with a “deluxe” 2.0 system that is FPGA-based and addresses the issues I listed above (and supports 5200, 8-bit, and 7800 games!)
But really, it would have been much better if Hyperkin had waited and worked out these issues and released the product when it was ready, rather than push something out to hit the 7/7 release date.
(Did anyone ACTUALLY care that the RetroN 77 was officially released on 7/7?)
No. No one did. Except the marketing department at Hyperkin.
It was pretty nice of them to include a 128 MB SD card with the unit, fwiw.
I will revisit the recommendation once Hyperkin are shipping the improved joysticks they’ve promised, and once they’ve released a firmware update, or some firmware hacks are available to give a better user experience. When a firmware update is available, it will be found here. But as is, out of the box this is a device that feels like it needed more development and refinement before it should have been considered for release.
And if you just gotta have a quantifiable rating…
5-star rating: 2/5 stars
I’d give the RetroN 77 a full star or letter grade better rating if/when they replace the fragile joystick, and another letter grade if/when they release a modern paddle controller. The actual console is not bad, for what it is, but when you understand it as a simple dedicated Stella box, running a rather outdated version of Stella, it becomes much less compelling, particularly with the current limitation of the number of ROMs on SD card that it will display in its UI, and the compatibility issues with various games on cartridge. It’s just not good enough to make me recommend it over downloading Stella, plus as many ROMs as you care to find, and playing them on a PC hooked up to a HDTV, using a Stelladaptor with authentic controllers.
3 CommentsAdd a Comment
Don’t buy anything hyperkin. They are junk. I own 2 and the Nintendo addition broke within a few weeks and the Super Nintendo wouldn’t read cartridges brand new strait out of the box. Hyperkin makes you jump through so many hoops just to return these systems it’s almost not worth returning. On top of all that they make you pay to ship them back and won’t let u return them to the store where u bought them even if they are defective brand new.
Forgive me, but I actually like the Retron 77. It could be better, sure, and I also hope for a “version 2” that addresses much of our wishlist, but I don’t regret buying version 1. Maybe later if things get worse?
For me, it plays most of my cartridges and the display on HDMI is far superior to what I’ve been able to achieve through up-conversion and hardware mods. Framemeister level improvements. They currently-shipping joystick seems robust to me. The stick came unscrewed during some aggressive play, but nothing has broken and it was easy to screw it back in. If it comes undone again, I might add some epoxy as an easy fix. Why do they unscrew? Is an upgrade or mod planned?
As for the issues, I have some of the concerns mentioned in this article, but am less bothered by those.
Other issues mentioned don’t seem to be an issue anymore – They now have modern paddles and the ones they provide (Hyperkin Ranger – paddle and joystick in one) mostly work well, but do seem to require calibration that the user is unable to perform. With the system, I purchased 4 of these controllers so that my kids could play the 4-player paddle games. Some of the paddles cover their range with a lot of twisting movement, and others blow through the entire range with just a small twitch. That’s not right, there should be consistency. Most have slight peprformance defects, specifically – one of the paddle has a range that is skewed too far to one side, making it impossible to move the paddle all the way over. We use it as a handicap between players, but this is not how it should be. Two of the paddles have a range that is too small, meaning they cannot reach the full extent on either side of the range. That’s 3 defective paddles out of 4!! Based on my understanding of what’s under the covers, it seems possible to calibrate the paddles in software. Unfortunately, this calibration would have to be done each time they are used, or I’ll need to mark the paddles to use the same ones in the same ports at all times? Again, I shouldn’t have to do this, but after doing it, it’s something I could live with. Couldn’t you?
Personally, I think the FPGA solution proposed in the article is a bad idea. The skillset is sufficeintly rare (read: expensive) to suggest it would either make the equipment too expensive or too buggy. But hey, “Prove me wrong!!” I think I would rather see a 1:1 rebuild of the original hardware with upgrades where they don’t interfere with compatibility. Small chip manufacturers could be enlisted to produce small batches of “unavailable” chips. No emulation or FPGA needed. Atariage homebrews show what can be done with that musty old hardware.
Bottom line is that I much prefer the Hyperkin soluiton to any of my PC-MAME builds (no cabinets yet) to date. If I scrutinize my thinking it might possibly boil down to something shallow like appearances, but it feels like something more than that. The experience of using the Hyperkin is very much like using my old “heavy six”, and the reaction of my kids to the Hyperkin is unlike their reaction to any MAME setup I’ve made in the past (PC, Raspberry, etc.) There’s a something “intangible” about the setup and use of it as a console/cartridge system.
I am planning on implementing the community/stella upgrade. I understand that it addresses many if not all of the issues that I’m having, possibly the controller mess, too. I want to see if it’s reversible because if I turn the Retron 77 into just another MAME box, I think I’ll regret it.
Thanks for your perspectives, and there’s no need to apologize for them.
I think on its own merits, what the Retron77 is, is fine. But comparing against the alternatives, it just leaves too much to be desired for it to be a product that I can recommend.
Basically, out of the box, it’s Stella + a cartridge slot. An outdated version of Stella,at that. It doesn’t support all games. The first run of joysticks they shipped with it were too fragile and prone to breaking.
I’d rank it slightly higher than a Flashback console, since those care capable only of playing the built-in games that come with it, and with the Retron77 you can play potentially more games (if you have original cartridges for them, and they play) but also you have the SD card option.
I think upgrading the firmware goes a long way toward improving it, and the second batch of Trooper joysticks plus the Ranger with its ability to work with paddle games does help. But then, the firmware upgrade process is not so easy, and removes any “convenience” argument for why this system is a good buy altogether. And, based on your account of what you’ve had to go through with your Ranger paddles, it sounds like Hyperkin have major issues with quality on these, and I wouldn’t call what you’re describing remotely acceptable.
If they had shipped the product with a current build of Stella, and with an easy/built-in updater, and if the initial run of Trooper sticks had been of better quality, and if the Ranger paddles worked, then I could see rating it up from C- to a solid B.
But in the end it’s still “just” Stella in a retail box.
Don’t get me wrong. Stella is great — really, really great — but it’s been around. It’s open source, freeware, and you can play it on a PC for free, and literally the only reason not to prefer that is respect for the copyright for ROMs. Which, in any sane copyright regime, those concerns should have expired quite a long time ago. It’s not like it’s hard to plug a computer into an HDMI input on a TV, so I don’t understand the “convenience” appeal to buying a cheap Stella appliance, when every house already has a computer.
I still play original (modded video-output upgrade) on my original 1977 hardware, on my 2009 TV (which has some legacy inputs for RCA/S-Video, and they seem to process the signal quite well, although it’s my understanding that this is not the experience one gets with every HDTV). And I also play a lot of Stella on WIndows.
As for FPGA, CollectorVision’s Phoenix included an FPGA core for Atari 2600 as a bonus feature when they implemented an FPGA-based Colecovision. So, it’s not only feasible, but it even exists. It’s too bad CollectorVision doesn’t have the same manufacturing and logistics of Hyperkin, but if you ask me they have a far superior product — if you can get one.