As the trend for retro remakes and re-releases grows, there has been a concerted drive to push the nostalgia-driven envelope into peoples homes so as to allow gamers to be able to experience software titles of yesteryear. And whilst companies like GOG have done an admirable job of making previously unavailable PC titles be readily playable on modern Windows machines, the same can’t be said for cartridge based console games that came out during the 8 and 16 bit era.
When the Virtual Console service first launched on Nintendo’s Wii console in November 2006, the Japanese console manufacturer was universally hailed for its forward thinking approach in embracing the industry’s illustrative back catalogue – as games from Neo Geo, Mega Drive and PC Engine all jostled for prime attention alongside Nintendo’s more traditional console fare. But as time went on, and with Nintendo easing back on its retro focused strategy, the Virtual Console came to resemble an empty husk of its former self, as eminent titles like Final Fantasy 6 (known as Final Fantasy 3 in USA) failed to transition over to more modern Nintendo systems (like 3DS and Wii U).
In a classic example of the company creating new markets, whilst simultaneously failing to foster and nurture the audience for what they had created, Nintendo’s reticence in giving more prominence to software partners that were instrumental in the success of its own heritage revealed a glaring inconsistent inadequacy in seeking new third party relationships whilst actively taking steps to maintain the libraries of existing ones.
Having disappointed many gaming fans in the past with hollow promises, many have come to speculate that Nintendo doesn’t like making money. And with the company actively allowing existing hardware patents to expire, some have even suggested that Nintendo has purposefully given its retro market away as it strives towards blue oceans whilst actively failing to cater towards the needs of retro enthusiasts who want to play old games. Certainly, a number of companies have emerged to fill that demand, and with Nintendo not aggressively pursuing the re-release of classic games or old consoles, the path has certainly been left open for organisations like Retro-Bit and Hyperkin to satiate the growing thirst.
A cursory glance at Retro-Bit’s Facebook pages gives a brief overview of why companies like it exist: The big name manufacturers of our favorite gaming systems have simply moved past these items. They are progressively moving into the future, while those of us who still want to enjoy the classics are left with broken items, and non working systems. What are we to do?
That is where Retro-Bit steps in; they provide these accessories for us. They have even moved into re-manufacturing the consoles themselves! When a company takes this type of initiative, they can play stackable compatibility on each system. Now you can play your SNES games on your NES system, and Sega Genesis Games on your SNES system. Amazing!
So when one has a broken NES, SNES or Mega Drive, what are they to do? And at the same time, what happens if one is devoid of space in the living room? It’s for these reasons that I was intrigued by Retro-Bit’s ‘Super Retro Trio’ machine when I saw it at Game Outlet’s booth at this year’s Gamescom.
Billed as a nostalgic gaming fix, the Super Retro Trio allows owners to “play classic NES, SNES, and Genesis games with the original cartridges”. But given that software compatibility via clone hardware has never been 100%, I wanted to know as to how adequately Retro-Bit’s machine was able to live up to consumer expectations, and whether it could play some of the more technically challenging titles (like Stunt Race FX). To answer these questions (and more), I sat down with Ali Manzuri (Senior Key Account Manager International Sales for Game Outlet) and discussed at length as to why anyone would even consider the Super Retro Trio when clone consoles have such a poor reputation. Enjoy the interview…
You are the exclusive distributor of the Super Retro Trio which is a Retro cartridge playing device that plays NES, SNES, and Mega Drive cartridge medium games on conventional modern televisions. Is that correct?
Yes, that’s correct.
The Super Retro Trio doesn’t come with HDMI output, but does come with composite and S-video connectors. Do you think that even though the recommended retail price for the Super Retro Trio is £80 in the UK, do you not think that omitting the feature to output in HDMI would probably limit and undermine the commercial appeal of the Super Retro Trio?
It’s because of the production cost. As soon as you add an extra component (like HDMI output), the cost will rise from the production to distribution to retailer. And this why the direct competitor of the Super Retro Trio – which is Retron 5 in this case – is almost double the retail price when compared to the Super Retro Trio. And the second thing, and this is my opinion, is whether you really want a HDMI output for a retro 8-bit, 16-bit console? Of course, for the next generation consoles you definitely do need HDMI for 1080p etc, but for retro the pixels will… they can’t look too sharp. Of course it’s playable and of course it will be compatible with older TVs but the feeling will still not be the same. And we have also noticed that most of the retro players usually use their old consoles, either the original ones or the Super Retro Trio… they prefer to use it on old CRT TVs.
Obviously the competitor to the Super Retro Trio is the Retron 5. One of things that the Retron 5 suffers from is… well, there’s a couple of things and I could possibly compare and contrast, but from the outset, there are compatibility issues. How are you able to ensure that the Super Retro Trio is able to accommodate for things like lockout Super FX chips? What’s the compatibility rate like for the Super Retro Trio when it comes to playing NES, SNES and Mega Drive games – including games like Star Fox?
Mega Drive is no problem because Mega Drive was region-free from the beginning. You could play Japanese Mega Drive games on European or USA consoles. The Genesis games on European consoles… there was no problem. However it was much more tricky with the Nintendo systems – since the beginning as well as today. We have tested specific games – like Star Fox and Stunt Race FX. Star Fox worked, even though there were some issues, and this sometimes happened with Stunt Race FX. While the other older Rare games – like the Donkey Kong Country – they worked. Even some of the more tricky games like Super Mario RPG, which I know didn’t work back then even with converters, it worked with the system.
Super Mario RPG does work with the Super Retro Trio?
Yes, as we have tested. And there was another game that didn’t work, it was Super Street Fighter Alpha 2 I believe, otherwise the rest are working. Of course for future productions, the development team is trying to sort out these problems as well as with cartridges that didn’t work on the current production.
For those people that still do have a Super Nintendo… And I come at this more from a Super Nintendo perspective as I was a Super Nintendo fan-boy, so excuse me if I don’t talk about the NES and the Mega Drive consoles as often. For those who still own a Super Nintendo, why would you urge them to “upgrade” to a Super Retro Trio?
The thing is that we are not urging anyone to upgrade…
Why would they buy the Super Retro Trio?
In case they are collectors. Usually collectors are like this when they get a certain item, they’d rather not unpack it or start using it. We do know that there are a lot of collectors who already own all three system (and even more) and they have everything packed still in their original boxes, but when it comes to playing games they can try them on the Trio and have their consoles remain untouched or unboxed even. So they don’t necessarily have to unpack it, play it and then pack it up afterwards… It’s kind of easier. They don’t have to bring out three consoles to play all the games. They can simply play all three systems with one console, instead of having all the consoles in the front or underneath the TV.
With regards to the Super Retro Trio and its ability to be able to play SNES games, my Super Nintendo is switched and also RGB converted which means that I can basically play all NTSC 60Hz games on PAL TVs. I just need an RGB lead. So in that way, my Super Nintendo, as opposed to being a PAL-only cartridge playing device, opens itself up to Japanese Super Famicon cartridges, and through an adapter, can also open itself up to American Super Nintendo games. Does the Super Retro Trio have that facility for… I know you’ve talked about the Mega Drive and how its games were region-free. But one way as to how the Super Nintendo cartridges were able to distinguish themselves for different markets was by their shape and size, and let’s not forget how PAL cartridges had their own separate issues entirely. Obviously I was able to circumvent all of those issues. The thing is… for somebody who may have a collection of PAL games, but also has a collection of American games, is there a way for the Super Retro Trio to be able to play games from any region? Or is it locked to a specific region? And in this case PAL?
In one way, yes, it’s locked to PAL versions but not entirely locked. The main difference is that it is still region free for Japanese games, PAL games and US games. But since this machine is the PAL version, the problem can be that the NTSC version will instead run slower than the normal speed… because it was the same problem with PAL games on an NTSC machine in that they ran too fast. They developed a specific PAL version. It got reversed instead, you can still play it but it might be a little bit slower than usual but still fully playable.
One of things that people talk about with these retro playing devices is the sound quality, especially the Mega Drive which never had the best sound chip on the planet anyway, as well as the Super Nintendo which had a phenomenal sound chip courtesy of Sony. A lot of these retro devices have major problems in emulating the sound to any reasonable degree… What’s the music emulating facility like for the Super Retro Trio? Is it “good enough” or is it perfect emulation?
To be honest, I haven’t noticed any difference in the sound at all. And it’s not emulation either like the Retron 5. Retron 5 emulates, and when you insert the cart it loads the cartridge then you play it. The Super Retro Trio has hardware components that are just like the original ones – as we have been told by the manufacturer, Retro-Bit. So those games that I have tested on regular TVs, I haven’t noticed any difference in their sounds at all.
Can the Super Retro Trio play ROMs either via an SD-ROM card or anything like that…
As far as I know, I don’t think so. I haven’t tried it and I do not have any information from the manufacturer that suggests that it is compatible with those cartridges with ROMs built in.
I think you can load ROMs with the Retron 5, and I know it has the HDMI cable, which both are major reasons for why people… because cartridges are so expensive nowadays. I know that the collectors market has driven up prices for Super Nintendo games, and some games which you could have picked up for around £5-10 are now costing in the region of £50 today.
Exactly, and even more… much more.
I know this because I had games like Terranigma which I bought for “not that much”, which I then sold for “not that much”… this was a good condition game with a good condition box and everything, and I’m a bit of a fool when I admit that I sold it for not much at all. But obviously cartridges are becoming more expensive and therefore the viability of being able to play these kinds of games legitimately is becoming increasingly rare. Nintendo also aren’t really doing that great a job with regards to the Wii U VC retro releases. Having said that, a lot of cartridges had battery backup… Now a lot of these old cartridges have had their batteries run out. Is there a way for somebody who owns a game like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and the battery no longer works and they therefore cannot save progress within the game… Is there a way for the Super Retro Trio to be able to backup someone’s progress on maybe an SD-card? Or another internal…
Unfortunately no. The Super Retro Trio acts just like the original. If the battery is out, the only thing to do if you own a Super Retro Trio, unlike the other brands that perhaps save the player’s progress, is to exchange the batteries inside the cartridges. I do know that there are plenty of batteries for Game Boy, even some NES games and probably Super Nintendo games that can be replaced, but then you have to open up the cartridge to change the battery.
What about the controllers? Can the Super Retro Trio accept original controllers?
Yes, it can.
And like the Retron 5, does it also have its own custom controllers?
Yes, you get two wired controllers with the machine. The controller for the Super Retro Trio is very similar to the original Super Nintendo controller but with different colors.
The Super Retro Trio is part of a growing market where manufactures are looking to ultimately exploit expired hardware patents. Why do you think there is a growing market for these retro game playing machines?
Retro playing games… I think that the average retro gamer is probably between 30 to 40 (or even older) and it’s kind of a nostalgic feeling to… because I’m almost 40 and I remember when I was a kid, those were the consoles that I played. And this is why you get flashbacks, when you want to try something, even if you’ve just seen it on YouTube or elsewhere. That’s why the interest grows, and you want to go back and try it out. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as much fun as it was back then, but it’s the feeling. And I have also noticed that younger audiences today – the iPad, PlayStation 3 and 4 generation – have also found the whole retro culture interesting. It’s kind of an education for teenagers and kids on how everything looked back then and how it looks now. Especially with Nintendo’s IPs – with the Super Mario and Zelda games… how it was and how their evolution got to where they are today.
Obviously the Super Retro Trio exploits the current industry predicament by which it capitalizes on patents that are now no longer valid, therefore circumventing licensing problems that may occur as a consequence of that. The thing is… Nintendo has been extremely lazy with regards to getting third parties onto its Virtual Console marketplace, even though there is a growing market for the games and machines. Why do you think the market for licensing games, and maybe the printing of cartridges – for example, I just mentioned Terranigma, and that game is worth over £100 now… why do you think there aren’t more people taking the initiative and going to these Japanese developers and saying “Hey, Nintendo aren’t approaching you. Can we license your game and put it out on cartridge again?”. We’ve seen the Super Nintendo controller clones, and I’m sure there are Super Nintendo clone cartridges out there. Why do you think there aren’t more publishers out there that are…
That are doing what Nintendo does or should do?
Yeah, and maybe not going to Nintendo because Nintendo will charge them a lot… and because they obviously are able to take care of their own audience. There’s obviously a sizable Super Nintendo audience that’s being neglected by Nintendo’s own actions. Because they aren’t approaching the people behind say, Terranigma, and saying “Come to our side and release your games on our Virtual Console”.
I think that it’s really hard to answer this question. I think that the third party publishers that have been developing for Nintendo… their games didn’t get as successful as Nintendo’s own IPs. The only third parties that are still successful on Nintendo consoles are Capcom with Mega Man. Perhaps Konami… But all the other publishers don’t think that the audience is there, or that they don’t have a big enough fan-base of their old retro generation products. Everyone’s looking at the mass market today, and retro is quite niche – even if that niche is growing all the time, it’s still niche. So most of the people that remember retro are thinking about Mario, Zelda, Kirby or even Mega Man. But games like the old Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles maybe weren’t as big as Mario or Zelda.
There are companies today that are developing 8-bit or 16-bit games and are actually looking to release these in an original NES or Super Nintendo cartridge, but the numbers are very few. It’s not for the mass market. It’s very niche, and maybe at the very most, it’s a thousand units of games. The Virtual Console is the same thing. It’s just like the Apple model. They simply don’t believe that’s it’s worth the hassle to convert or make it compatible with the Virtual Console or PlayStation Network etc unless it is a strong IP like Mega Man or Castlevania perhaps.
But if you think about it also, and if one just makes the analogy with the music market… in the age of the digital, and most people don’t have (and I certainly don’t have) a vinyl player, but the vinyl is obviously having a resurgent interest from music collectors and music enthusiasts. And if we are to make the analogy, because obviously there is still that strong demand for the physical, the tangible essences which cartridges do possess, but ultimately it’s the case that people like to hold and touch things. They still like to smell things like new cartridges but if all of these… and record stores have ‘Record Store Day’, that have proven that there is a strong interest in independent artist releases who release one time only limited edition “best of 300 copies” or something vinyls. Why isn’t that sort of model translating over to say the retro cartridge model where ultimately you go… I mean, I’ve just seen clone controllers for dead retro consoles, so I’m pretty sure that it can’t be that hard. There should be sufficient enough demand for somebody out there to go, “Hey let’s make a clone cartridge”, as I’ve said before, “but let’s license all these games and just make limited edition versions of these cartridges”. For example, you know how Nintendo purposefully limit the amount of Amiibos that are out there in the market. They control the “quality”, so maybe somebody could as license Terranigma and do a 300 cartridge run and release the game that way?
That’s a… and I definitely agree with that, and it’s a good question. Why is nobody doing it? It could be in license issue. It could be that the publisher that made the game doesn’t exist anymore, like back in the day Ocean made games, however Ocean is no more. No one knows who owns the license anymore. It’s also about a cost. How much does it cost today to manufacture a proper good cartridge with a nice box and how many units should it be, because when it comes to production they are always looking at quantity – minimum quantity. Maybe a thousand or two thousand is too much for a niche market cartridge game perhaps. So it’s very hard to talk about licensing issues… production costs… I think everything is connected together. That they’d rather release it on Steam, and not even on Nintendo VC. Another thing is that collectors number very few in comparison to retro players and there a lot of emulators out there. There are still a lot of ROMs that can be downloaded one way or another and people maybe just feel like trying out the game and not feel like wanting to spend money on it. So there are many factors that I think are the main reason as to why no one just manufactures
Thank you very much. Thank you…