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Hyperkin RetroN 77 Reviewed

The 1-line review:

It could have been so much better.

In a nutshell:

Hyperkin RetroN 77

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.

Complaints:

  • 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.
  • 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 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.

Not recommended.

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
Grade: C-

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.

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