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Evercade review: the cartridge-based retro handheld that works

A new take on collecting and playing classic games.

On the face of it, Blaze's Evercade joins a long line of emulation-based multi-game handhelds - but this is a system with a twist. It uses actual cartridges, licensed games and bespoke emulation software included with each cartridge. It's a fascinating approach but also a contentious one. Surely it's all too easy simply to dump a complete set of game ROMs onto an SD card and call it day? Clearly that's one way forward, but the curated approach provides some interesting benefits, while behind the scenes emulation choices deliver a level of quality beyond my expectations.

Hardware-wise, the Evercade is a well-designed piece of kit. It's a reassuringly sturdy handheld with four face buttons, a pair of shoulder buttons and a surprisingly decent d-pad. It's also rather chunky which is perhaps it's best design feature - it's more holdable and surprisingly comfortable. Handheld systems have been focusing increasingly on thin design, but I feel this reduces overall comfort especially with buttons pushed out to the edge. By contrast, the Evercade, is a thick beast that sits more comfortably in the hand as a result. It has a nice weight and doesn't feel like a cheap, hollow device.

The system includes the expected inputs and outputs including a micro-USB charging port, a 3.5 minijack for headphones and a mini-HDMI output for playing the system on your television if you're looking for a big screen experience to complement handheld gaming. Inside, the Evercade features a 1.2GHz Cortex A7 SoC running a customized Linux setup. The 4.3-inch screen delivers a resolution of 480x272 just like the PSP. Battery life is listed as four to five hours which is consistent with my experience as I ran the battery dry three times during capture.

Turn on the machine with no cartridge installed and not much happens, and this leads us on to what sets Evercade apart from the pack - its status as a cartridge-based system. All emulation software and games live on these carts. Insert one, and it loads up very quickly with a slick menu design that is responsive and easy to navigate. The carts themselves contain the emulators and games stored using flash memory. What makes these carts appealing, though, is the overall packaging. The games ship in plastic cases complete with full colour manuals within, while the quality of the packaging is surprisingly high - and recalls systems from the past.

The DF Retro verdict on Blaze's Evercade.Watch on YouTube

Getting into the action is quick and easy to set up and feels great in the hand, but there are a couple of critiques I have regarding the hardware functionality. Firstly, I ran into an odd issue when using HDMI output - if I started the unit with a certain cable plugged in, I could hear an audible squealing noise from the internal speaker. The solution I found was to power on the unit and then plug in the HDMI cable, but it is strange that this should be necessary.

Secondly, the viewing angle on the internal LCD isn't great - tilting the unit forward or backwards reduces visibly significantly suggesting a cheaper TN panel. It's not a big deal during normal play, though, but it is worth noting. At least LCD blur is kept to a reasonable level - motion resolution is superior to all iterations of the PSP, for instance. Even so, the hardware itself feels well made and is enjoyable to use despite these two flaws.

The most important element lies in performance. While emulation seems trivial these days, very few devices really get this right. Delivering high quality software emulation requires a mix of accurate, fast software, attractive scaling options and minimal input latency. The Evercade, in its current form, emulates a handful of platforms - 8-bit Atari, NES, Super NES and Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. To give an insight into the thought put into Evercade, the Mega Drive emulator is a port of BlastEm - a cycle-accurate emulator on PC that offers exceptional accuracy and performance. BlastEm author Michael Pavone handled the Evercade port himself, optimising it for the mobile hardware.

As far as the other systems go, it's not clear which emulators are in use but the result is great in each case, with accurate audio and glitch-free visuals. I ran the emulation up against captures from real hardware and Evercade holds up overall, only noting that the Evercade appears to emulate the arcade-based PlayChoice 10 RGB colour palette for its NES emulation, which can appear somewhat garish. As the Evercade is designed around these removable carts, this does limit our testing to the games included. We can't put these emulators through the same torture tests as the Analogue Mega Sg, for instance. However, in this case, the key takeaway is that the included games all run correctly. The quality of the emulation is a step above various other portable systems especially where the Mega Drive/Genesis is concerned. Plus, the cart design means that we'll see other systems emulated in the future.

Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks and all of these stem from the limited set of options for tweaking the experience. Firstly, the controls - buttons cannot be configured and not every default setup quite works for me. With NES games, for instance, A and B are mapped to the corresponding buttons where I would typically prefer X and A. Mega Drive/Genesis games also make use of A, B and Y which, again, doesn't feel entirely natural to me. Super NES is fine, of course, but it can be an issue with other platforms. At least some games allow for button configuration changes.

The other issue stems from video output options. Pop open the menu and you have a 4:3 option and a stretched 16:9 option and that's it. The issue here is that there are no adjustments available for scaling the image to your liking and the default isn't brilliant. Unfortunately, the 480x272 pixel LCD screen doesn't quite fit any of these games - the image is simply scaled up to fill the appropriate sized screen with some light interpolation. Shimmering is kept to a minimum in most cases but you'll notice it on vertical scrolling, especially in Mega Drive/Genesis games. Any areas with a tight grid pattern also exhibit noticeable issues as a result of uneven scaling.

This is a problem that PSP owners faced for years when dealing with emulation of older games and it's the same problem here - only this time, there is no 1:1 pixel option to overcome the problem. Basically, the LCD choice and the options don't really mesh that well and image quality isn't quite where I'd like it to be. That said, the choice does make sense when considering the broad focus of the device - the Atari Lynx, for instance, features a wider aspect ratio which utilises more of the screen and there's potential for other applications in the future as well.

HDMI output, however, fares much better. The system displays at 720p with mostly solid scaling options - it's very similar to recent Mini consoles in that there is some very slight shimmering visible on 256-pixel width games but it's not too severe most of the time. So, in that sense, HDMI works well. In all cases, though, I would like to have seen more advanced scaling options included allowing users to tweak the image beyond the default.

If we step back and look at the big picture though, a lot of this starts to make sense. The Evercade will sell for $80 with one pack-in cartridge or $100 with three pack-in carts, while each cartridge will cost $20. In that sense, they're really targeting a budget price here so it's easier to forgive some of the shortcomings. In fact, given the price, the build quality is surprisingly great. That's where this idea of collecting for the system becomes more interesting as well - it's not a huge investment and it can be fun to collect these carts.

The thing is, as I mentioned earlier, it might seem strange to go back to the cartridge medium when you could just drop entire ROM sets on a portable unit but, in reality, there is method to the madness. Beyond the collectability, I've found that by focusing on a smaller selection of games, it becomes easier to enjoy each one. At least for me, a giant list of ROM just leads to not playing anything at all and there's the sense that games don't get the focus they deserve, while also feeling somewhat disposable. In this respect, my feeling here is similar to that from the Capcom Home Arcade: because there were fewer games and a curated choice, I spent more time on each title and gained a greater appreciation of some lower profile games that actually turned out to be very, very good.

Clearly, this approach isn't going to appeal to everyone but as a retro enthusiast, seeing the owners of classic properties compensated for their games while at the same time opening the door to a new kind of collecting seems like a really good idea to me. In the case of the Evercade, the core hardware is well-made and very nicely priced, so I can definitely see the system finding an audience - and I hope that it does.