Last month, at a huge gaming expo in the US, an incredible breakthrough in console gaming was announced to the world. One new all-in-one machine, a console that doesn’t just play Super Nintendo titles on modern HDTVs, it plays Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance games, older Nintendo Entertainment System titles, even obscure Famicom cartridges (The Japanese version of the NES).
Here’s the thing though. This wasn’t a Nintendo press event; this wasn’t even a Nintendo console - it plays Sega Mega Drive games too, something that would have been unthinkable during the two companies’ vicious 90s rivalry.
Meet the Hyperkin RetroN 5, an inexpensive console that plays games from five defunct consoles - not only that, but it’s not fussy about format either, running European PAL cartridges as well as American NTSC ones - with a bang up to date wireless controller. It’s the Swiss Army Knife of video game systems, in other words.
The team at Hyperkin, based in an almost windowless warehouse in El Monte, just east of Los Angeles, cut their teeth selling video game accessories, but the RetroN 5 is far from their first system. There have been three RetroN models already (The team skipped 4, a number considered unlucky in some Asian countries), each providing a way to play ancient games on modern TVs for well under $100 (£60), and providing support for more and more gone-but-not-forgotten systems.
Then of course, there’s the Supaboy, the handheld Super Nintendo with a 3.5-inch screen and a five hour battery life that you can hook up to your TV when you get home. Sure, many classic games can now be replayed on your smartphone - but where’s the fun in that?
Hyperkin started out as something much more ordinary - a start-up making video game accessories. When games with unusual accessories and controllers like Guitar Hero were at the height of their popularity, the company, founded by brothers Thomas and Steven Mar, carved out a business making and selling Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) mats.
“Retail partners kept asking for other video gaming accessories and peripherals, and as [we] started dealing with larger quantities of goods, they needed to establish a trademark,” Hyperkin marketing director David Yu tells Red Bull UK. In 2009, the Hyperkin brand was born.
Things change quickly though, and the era of the Wii Fit and Rock Band didn’t so much come to a close as fall off a cliff. Hyperkin needed a new business.
“As the dance-pad craze started to die down, they remained in the video game industry, but realized that they needed a niche to survive. [The Mar brothers] identified that the classic/retro video game market was underserved, and focused their efforts toward catering to this market,” says Yu.
Hyperkin found a new lease of life selling controllers and accessories for everything from the Sega Dreamcast to the long dead NES. From there, it was only a short hop to making the consoles themselves. At least, deciding to make them. Engineering them is something else entirely.
“One of the challenges I keep hearing from our hardware team is how complicated our PCB [printed circuit board, the green card that plays host to all the vital electronics] has become,” says Lawrence Lee, project manager for the RetroN. “Currently, we support five cartridge ports, six controller ports, a USB and an SD Card. That’s a lot of traces to route.”
Then there’s simply trying to find the parts. Nintendo hasn’t manufactured a NES or a SNES in a decade, so the components aren’t exactly easy to find. In fact, until now, Hyperkin’s been forced to buy old gear to raid them for parts, something the team knows can’t last.
“We have two ways of producing these retro consoles,” says Lee. “The first is to use chips that are very similar to what was found in the original consoles, the majority of which are still manufactured today. The challenge here is sourcing the other chips that are no longer in production. We find ourselves cannibalizing old electronics from the 90s. This method of manufacturing will eventually be impossible.”
For the RetroN 5, they’ve changed things up, and got down and dirty with the electronics to come up with a permanent solution. “The new way of producing these retro consoles is what the RetroN 5 will have. Although I hesitate to use the word for fear of misinterpretation - we are using hardware emulation, not software emulation.”
Lee’s surprisingly honest about what he sees as Hyperkin’s previous failings. “Having been in this market for some time, we have a chip on our shoulder that we have yet to bring anything to the market that truly surpasses the original. Besides portability, we are still no better than what was manufactured two decades ago. This is the reason why we wanted to take this bold step with the RetroN 5.”
To that end, the team have come up with an unusual new controller - it’s wireless of course, connecting to all the systems inside the RetroN 5 via Bluetooth, and you can configure the buttons as you please. The team’s still using parts that are easy to come by (the controller’s rechargeable battery is the same as that found in the Nintendo 3DS handheld), but trying to put their own stamp on things nonetheless.
“What we have now is a very angular and ergonomic controller designed by a former colleague or ours by the name of Roy Roh,” says Lee. “Despite the fact that it is flat and rectangular in design, it’s very comfortable to hold, and has a retro appearance with modern comfort and features.”
Incredibly, the company seems to have flown under the radar when it comes to any legal issues. Nintendo particularly guards its brand fiercely but Hyperkin haven’t heard so much as a peep from the Japanese gaming giant, or its former rival Sega. “We have never had any issues with Nintendo or Sega, nor have we ever had any contact with them,” says Yu.
Unless that changes, expect Hyperkin to keep on refining and combining all your classic consoles from yesteryear. Lee won’t say what comes after the RetroN 5 - though you’d have to figure Nintendo 64 compatibility is high on the To Do list - but he does see the team moving on to CD-based systems eventually. Hello PlayStation.
“I do tend to think, long term, that retro gaming will eventually encompass disc based platforms, however, those are just ideas at this point. Nothing is set in stone, but if possible, I will definitely be working on an all-in-one disc system someday,” he says.
In just a few short years, retro gaming gear has become Hyperkin’s biggest product line - even though national retailers won’t stock accessories for consoles you can’t buy anymore. “By a very small margin, retro gaming related products do more for Hyperkin than modern equivalents, and the demand for retro gaming is definitely on the rise,” says Yu.
That’s despite how easy it is to play buy retro games on modern consoles, or play them on computers or even smartphones today via apps known as emulators, which sit in something of a grey legal area. They may be old, they may be slow and they’re prone to getting blocked up with dust, but gamers still love old school cartridges. “Emulation has been around for a very long time, and not just on mobile devices. What is surprising is that it does not seem to really affect our market,” says Lee.
“What we offer is similar to vinyl records or straight edge razors. Although modern alternatives are available, people are happier with the old school equivalents.”
Retro gaming’s not just a hobby - it’s a lifestyle. “It’s been said that a person develops their taste in music at the age of 14; perhaps this may hold true for video games?” asks Yu. “If so, we are trying to capitalize on a generation of gamers that want to play the games that they always wanted, without having to ask their parents for the money.”
Those gamers are all grown up now: Hyperkin’s going to have its hands full for some time to come.