Evercade: The Case for Curated Retro Gaming

Blaze’s new retro gaming handheld, the Evercade, officially launches on May 22, 2020, with the company hoping to get units in the hands of everyone who preordered by June 12, 2020 at the latest.

Since I’m planning some extensive coverage of this device and its games as soon as mine arrives — fingers crossed it’s towards the beginning of that release window, but we’ll have to wait and see at the time of writing! — I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk a little bit about this new device, why it appeals, and why I hope it ends up being a success.

Plus, if you’ve not yet heard of the Evercade, you can find out a bit more about it for yourself. Everyone wins. Hit the jump and let’s get started!

What is the Evercade?

The Evercade is a handheld gaming device roughly the size of a Sony PSP. In fact, its 4.3-inch, 16:9 aspect ratio, 480 x 272 pixel screen is the exact same size and resolution as the screen on the PSP, meaning that PSP screen protectors and the like will be fully compatible with it. You can also play the system on a TV by using a Mini HDMI to HDMI cable; the output resolution is 720p, so games are upscaled somewhat from how they appear on the unit’s own screen.

On the outside, the Evercade has a D-pad heavily inspired by the Sega Saturn controller, four chunky face buttons plus smaller, capsule-style Start, Select and Menu buttons, and two shoulder buttons with a “click” action to them. Ports on the system include the aforementioned Mini HDMI port and a USB port for charging and firmware updates, plus a 3.5mm headphone jack. Remember them?

Inside, the Evercade plays host to a 1.2GHz ARM Cortex A7 “system on a chip” — a higher-clocked version of the processor that powers some of the earlier Raspberry Pi devices. Technically the system is running a customised Linux setup, but the device is designed in such a way that you never see its “operating system” as such — unlike many current consoles and handhelds, which have things you can do with no media inserted, the Evercade will simply prompt you to insert a cartridge if none is present.

Yep, you read that correctly; cartridge. Evercade has no Wi-Fi, no means of connecting directly to the Internet, no internal storage, no SD card slot. There are no downloadable games here; everything the system plays comes on a curated selection of fully licensed cartridges, featuring a wide variety of games that, at the time of launch, focus on 8- and 16-bit home computer and console hardware.

Pre-launch concerns

The cartridges themselves each contain the appropriate emulation software for the games that are included on the cartridge as well as the games themselves, and they’re based on flash memory rather than old-school ROM chips. The reason for this is so the system is able to save states and emulator settings for each game directly to the cartridge, allowing you to pick right back up where you left off — even if you’re using another system or a future iteration of the Evercade hardware. And future iterations are planned if this initial unit proves to be a success — most notably offering the support for multiplayer, which this version lacks.

For those concerned that flash memory is more volatile and has a shorter lifespan than the ROM chips found in older consoles’ cartridges, bear in mind a few things. Evercade representatives from Blaze have claimed on their official community Discord that the cartridges will last for “at least” 10 years due to the fact that flash memory “wearing out” is primarily down to the number of times you write to it. Since writing to the flash memory on the cartridges will be minimal — at most it’ll be battery backup images for games with a save feature and emulator save states if you choose to use them — this lifespan is plausible, and if you’re a purist who doesn’t use save states at all, it’ll likely be even longer.

Pre-release reviews of the system have noted that emulation performance for all the supported platforms is very strong, with the Mega Drive emulation singled out for particular praise thanks to its use of BlastEm, one of the most accurate Mega Drive emulators on the market. Apparently BlastEm’s original author Michael Pavone worked on a properly optimised version of the emulator for Evercade himself, meaning the Mega Drive games across the various collections perform particularly well.

Two main concerns have been raised in initial reviews: firstly, some people have reported sporadic sound issues with the HDMI connection to a TV, particularly when running through a game capture device. The team at Blaze have found it challenging to recreate these issues since they appear to be confined to particular makes and models of TV, but to their credit, they have been actively investigating, have figured out the list of games affected by the problems and are presently working on a fix that can be applied via a firmware update over USB.

The second issue has already been addressed. A public vote prior to final manufacturing led the Evercade team to label the buttons on the device following the conventions of the Xbox 360 pad rather than the classic Super Nintendo layout — for the unfamiliar, these two layouts have A+B and X+Y the opposite way around from each other. Unfortunately, this led to the default button mapping for some games feeling a little odd for some players, and in games that don’t offer the facility to remap controls, there was seemingly not a lot that could be done about this.

However, once again, the team were quick to respond, and a firmware update will be available on launch day that addresses this issue, putting the button mappings in games back to their original physical positions. Of course, the buttons on the actual system will have the wrong alphabetical labels… but it’s more about muscle memory in a lot of these old games, and the fix is completely optional if you’re happy with the default layout out of the box.

Launch lineup

The Evercade launches with 10 numbered cartridges featuring a total of 122 games between them. Each comes in a plastic clamshell case and features a full colour manual with either a page or double-page spread devoted to each game, depending on its complexity.

The cartridges are mostly themed by original publisher rather than platform or genre: the two Atari Collections that launch alongside the system feature a variety of classic Atari 2600 and 7800 games, for example — with the latter being particularly noteworthy, as they have had no official rereleases over the years, unlike their more well-known 2600 brethren.

The 10 cartridges available at launch include the aforementioned Atari packs along with one Data East collection, two Interplay compilations, two Namco Museum cartridges, a formidable lineup of Technos titles and probably the two most noteworthy and interesting in the mix: the Mega Cat Studios and Piko Interactive cartridges.

The Mega Cat Studios collection includes a variety of “new retro” games such as beat ’em up Coffee Crisis, Euro-style platformer Tanzer and supernatural Punch-Out-like Creepy Brawlers. Many of these games actually had official releases on old-school hardware such as the NES and Mega Drive — in fact, in a few cases, this was previously the only way to experience them! — so they’re an ideal fit for a retro-centric platform such as the Evercade.

Piko Interactive, meanwhile, is a company that has dedicated itself to scooping up the licenses for old, oft-forgotten games from the 8- and 16-bit eras, then resurrecting them for modern audiences. I don’t mean remaking, reimagining or rebooting them, either — I mean releasing them in all their old-school glory for a whole new audience to enjoy, in some cases even finishing up prototypes to make them into full releases.

At 20 games, the Piko Interactive collection is one of the most substantial cartridges available at the launch of the Evercade, and offers a good mix of cult classics such as The Immortal, Drakkhen and The Humans with previously unknown games such as former Chinese exclusives Water Margin and Brave Battle Saga, plus a previously unreleased NES port of classic home computer fighting game Way of the Exploding Fist, polished up and completed from an existing prototype.

With 122 games covering a considerable portion of 8- and 16-bit gaming history, there’s a lot to keep you busy at launch — and the fact you can buy an “All-In” bundle featuring all ten of these initial cartridges means that you can have an immediate library ready to go for the new system.

Post-launch support

Blaze is serious about making this system work in the long-term. At the time of writing, three new cartridges have already been announced, but are not yet available for pre-order — the company wants to get the initial run of handhelds and cartridges into people’s hands before focusing on the future.

The first of the new cartridges to be announced is a collection of Atari Lynx games. If you’re unfamiliar with the Lynx — and I wouldn’t blame you if you are — this was Atari’s ill-fated handheld system that hoped to compete with Sega’s Game Gear and Nintendo’s mighty Game Boy. Offering a 16-bit processor, backlit colour LCD screen and hardware sprite scaling, it was certainly a technical beast — but Atari’s dreadful marketing plus the fact it chewed through six AA batteries in about an hour meant that it was never really a contender in the long term.

It did play host to some great games, though — and best of all, most of them were unique to the Lynx rather than ports from other platforms. There has also been a fairly active homebrew scene over the years — and this first Lynx collection includes a few such efforts alongside former commercial releases such as Dracula the Undead, Basketbrawl and Scrapyard Dog.

Honestly speaking, many of the commercial releases on this first Lynx collection had a mediocre to poor critical reception when they first came out — I recall Scrapyard Dog in particular getting panned by at least one publication. But as regular readers of this site will know very well indeed, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything when looking back on them from a modern perspective, and having the opportunity to play them on modern hardware. Plus there are some genuinely interesting, ambitious releases here; Dracula the Undead, for example, was a ballsy attempt to put out a moody, atmospheric point and click adventure game on a system with no save game facility.

The second new cartridge is a double-pack release of two recent “modern retro” releases: the top-down shooter Xeno Crisis and the platformer Tanglewood. Both of these previously had cartridge releases for Mega Drive; Xeno Crisis also had ports to modern consoles such as Nintendo Switch, while Tanglewood had an emulated version released for Windows, Mac OS and Linux. This package is a great way to get a packaged release of both these games together in one place in a unique format.

The third new cartridge announced at the time of writing is a second Atari Lynx collection, and this time around we’re confronted with many of the system’s very best games. We have the action adventure and scaling showcase Electrocop; the After Burner-like Blue Lightning; legendary puzzle game Chip’s Challenge; quality shooters Gates of Zendocon and Zarlor Mercenary; and, of course, probably the Lynx’s most iconic game, its port of Epyx’s California Games.

It’s entirely plausible that the Evercade could eventually play host to the Lynx’s complete library of released games, which consists of less than a hundred games in total. Some of these — mostly arcade ports and film licenses — are probably caught up in licensing hell, but the vast majority of them were original releases for the platform and, since they have never had a rerelease since the system was current, it would be great to see them again — on a platform where you can save your game and where your batteries won’t run out an hour into a long car journey! Alas, I grieve for that one incredible Gauntlet: The Third Encounter game I lost on the way home from my Nan’s that one time…

Why I’m all about this

As I’ve discussed on here a few times in the past, collecting and preservation are both extremely important to me, and the Evercade offers a new way to do both of those things at the same time. These cartridges are giving some games their first official rerelease after more than 30 years, and that’s awesome, particularly as many of these are from systems that don’t get talked about or explored all that much these days, such as the Atari 7800.

The standard argument against a system like this is, of course, that you can put together some sort of Raspberry Pi or MiSTer system, load it up with all the ROMs and ISOs you can scour from around the Internet and, in theory, never be wanting for anything to play ever again. And this is true — but there’s something to be said for curated collections.

Yes, you can download a complete collection of ROMs for a particular platform or MAME or whatever — but in doing so, you will almost certainly end up suffering from an extreme form of what PC gamers tend to experience when they look at their Steam library: thousands of games to choose from, no idea which one to pick. And if you do manage to pick one, odds are good that partway through that play session you’ll find yourself thinking “well, what if I’d picked something else instead?” — ultimately leading to a broad selection of games that you’ve played for five minutes and never seen the end of.

This is fine if you’re happy to just dip in and out of things as you see fit, and some people prefer to play that way. But for those of us prone to what is affectionately known as “analysis paralysis”, having a curated collection in front of us gives us some direction, and fewer choices to be paralysed by. Plus it makes us more likely to spend a bit more time with each game and try to get the most out of it for our own individual purposes.

The presence of 122 launch games may sound like it will end up leading to this same issue — but bear in mind rather than being confronted with a massive ROM list, you’re just putting one cartridge in your Evercade at a time, meaning you’ll only actually have, at most, 20 games to pick from. Much more digestible.

On top of all this, there’s the legal grey area that is downloading and using ROMs from the Internet with emulators. By supporting a platform such as Evercade, which has officially licensed all the games on offer from their current rights holders, you can enjoy these classic games with a clear conscience, and secure in the knowledge that you have contributed to making modern preservation of old games a reality.

Official rereleases such as these Evercade cartridges give much more visibility to these classic games than a pile of ROMs buried in a dusty corner of your hard drive or an Internet server somewhere — that, in turn, may lead to renewed interest in the games and their original host platforms, and perhaps even inspire some modern remakes and sequels.

Plus with the cartridges being a very reasonable £15 each, you can do all this very affordably. Cynics might argue that Blaze’s decision to number all the cartridges is taking advantage of particularly obsessive collectors and that may well be correct — but realistically speaking, most people who invest in this system are going to be “all-in” at one point or another, whether it’s at launch or down the line. For £15 a pop and maybe four or five cartridges released a year, everyone can afford to do that.

What’s the plan?

At the time of writing, I have an “all-in” bundle of the system and the 10 launch cartridges preordered, so I’m presently waiting for that to arrive — and hoping that happens before my week off from the day job!

Once it’s here, I’ll provide an overview of the Evercade system itself with some photographs and perhaps some video, and from there my intention is to explore all 122 of those launch games here on MoeGamer. Yep, all of ’em!

The reason I want to do this is that there are a lot of interesting and noteworthy games among them that are very much relevant to what we generally talk about around here — particularly bearing in mind the “overlooked and underappreciated” angle that has always been part of MoeGamer’s remit. Even if you don’t own an Evercade, there will be plenty of interesting things to investigate with regard to the history of these games, their original context, what they’re like to play from a modern perspective — and, of course, how they might have shaped and influenced more recent titles.

Some of these games will doubtless be worth more in-depth discussion than others — there’s only so much one can say about Bowling on the 2600, after all — but there’s going to be a lot of interesting stories to tell, and some seriously cool games to enjoy along the way. I’m really looking forward to it; I hope you are too!


More about the Evercade

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8 thoughts on “Evercade: The Case for Curated Retro Gaming”

  1. Great write up and interesting looking hardware. As you’ve pointed out, the temptation to download is strong but can lead to a wasteland of forgotten titles in the ether. It seems you are really into this kit and looking forward to seeing how it works out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do rather like the decision to have an 8 directional D-pad; never realized how nice they can be until I got my F310, and then realized they help quite a bit in 2D games where you have to make extensive use of the diagonals.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Looking forward to reading more here about the Evercade! I’d be curious to see if any future Lynx games would appear that support the vertical mode (like Gauntlet or Klax)… 🙂

    One aspect of the curated collection I think is in its favour too is simply that what you get will (and should) work well. There’s always that risk with a MAME/RetroPie/etc system that an update to emulators breaks games, ROMs aren’t compatible or your hardware simply isn’t up to scratch. But here there’s no need to worry and I appreciate that approach a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review. My main concerns with this product after seeing a few prominent YouTube personalities look at it are potentially noticeable input lag particularly hooked up to an HDTV. Still, I think it’s an interesting retro handheld idea for people who want to legally buy these games but can’t afford the prices for some of the rarer ones.

    Like

  5. I completely agree with the importance of preservation – that’s a passion of mine too. I also love the idea of games getting a port to a modern device, rather than a remake or update of some kind.

    Liked by 1 person

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