Hello, my name is Lucas, and I have played Super Mario Bros. on at least 20 different platforms. I’m not a speedrunner or Mario fanatic, nor am I some kind of professional gaming historian or hardcore collector. Only some of those 20-plus platforms run Super Mario Bros. in an official capacity. What I am is someone who likes to tinker. I’m not savvy enough to be a “maker” or someone who engineers these things myself. But, I think people who muck around with a combination of code, emulators, and hardware are awesome. I mess around with all of it, from basic emulation to custom firmware on consoles, and even unique platforms you won’t find on regular store shelves. One growing interest of mine is pirate hardware coming out of China. These devices have long been droll curiosity, but now they may be on the path to becoming essential.
Currently, China cares very little for international copyright law, so the country is a source for all kinds of bootlegs and knockoffs. At the same time, it’s a booming economic presence in the world, so companies are beginning to offer official gaming options and fighting the government to do so. This could result in long-term impact on games piracy, but for now the scene is only growing. That’s thanks to a variety of what we call “clone consoles.” These exist in addition to software-based devices built specifically to run emulators (and homebrew). There’s a huge disparity in the quality of these devices, but depending on your budget, you could end up with something seriously awesome.
If you use apps like Wish, and clearly a lot of people do, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about. For as low as ten bucks, you can find little plastic gadgets that vaguely resemble Game Boys and boast upwards of 500 included games. Naturally, you get what you pay for. Most of these preloaded devices feel like fast food toys and are largely unmalleable--you can’t change the software on them. They can be fascinating devices, some of them even recreating the NES on a hardware level, but they’re full of bad NES roms and homebrew that doesn’t make any sense. I have one with a Minions game on it, for example. But if you shop around, browse spots like YouTube, and open your wallet a bit more, you can get some amazing devices that are only getting better. For a more authentic experience, you can also drop the coin on a clone console such as the FC Twin, which are typically AV-based, play normal cartridges on your TV, and run on hardware much like the preloaded handhelds.
If you go to the $30 to $100 range, you start running into modular devices that run emulators off of removable storage media. On the lower end, you can get something like the BittBoy, which is functionally questionable but can run several platforms’ games at a low cost. The biggest problem is depending on where you order, you might get an older model that is underpowered or still locked with crappy preloaded roms. However, if you spend more, you can get much more reliable, functional, and even impressive devices. One of the best right now is the Retro Game 350, which is so good that the creators are a “brand” now.
For around $80, depending on where you shop and what you add on, the Retro Game 350 from ANBERNIC is not only a powerful emulation device, it’s also built just as sturdy as official hardware. It feels like a long-lost Game Boy sibling, with all the fixin’s: a lithium-ion battery, IPS screen with solid viewing angles, and open source software that the community is really latching onto. Even better, is it’s one of the only devices on the market in this price range that can play PlayStation games well. It’s even getting close to playing Nintendo 64 games, which is currently the holy grail of this scene. There are more powerful devices of course, but you’re looking at soaring over $100 to $150, which starts to defeat the purpose.
Handheld gaming is, sadly, dying out in terms of official, new hardware. Nintendo is doing something new (and effective) with the Switch, but you also can’t carry that thing around in your pocket and expect long play sessions in-between charges. The competition (Sony) seems to have given up, and Microsoft never even tried. But if you’re okay with emulation and are a retro enthusiast, and don’t mind keeping up with minor hardware and community-driven software updates, the scene in China is thriving. I’m seriously eyeing a Retro Game 350 myself, but might try to wait another year or three to see if ANBERNIC and the open source community can find their holy grail.