Retro gaming has had a massive surge in popularity over the past few years, and the RetroStone is a pretty good sign of that. Back in the day, only specialist stockists carried anything more than a few years old, but nowadays everyone from CEX to Game have started selling old consoles and video games. In a similar fashion, your only option for a multi-use retro gaming system was either a highly expensive device crafted by an electronics genius or jailbreaking a PSP and going nuts with emulators. It seems like RetroStone aims to fill that certain gap in the market, billing itself as an all-in-one system for everything from an Amiga to the PS One.
Obviously, there are some pretty shaky legal grounds to owning and operating a machine which is basically designed to emulate a bunch of old hardware. This shaky legal ground is only getting worse and worse as companies figure out new and exciting ways to sell us their old games for the millionth time. Regardless of the legal and moral grey area that emulation leaves us in or how you try to circumvent it, there are certainly legal games to play using emulation, so if you want to have fun without breaking the law (technically), then you’re in the clear with RetroStone.
The RetroStone comes hot off the press from 8-B Craft, a company owned and operated by French entrepreneur and engineer Pierre-Louis Boyer who was the subject of a pretty damn successful Kickstarter campaign. His last project, the Raspiboy, was also successfully funded via Kickstarter and was another handheld gaming device that was sold as a kit and constructed by the consumer. With the experience of selling a product under his belt, Pierre is plumbing for a pre-made device this time around as the RetroStone comes as an already functioning unit.
Well, that’s not strictly speaking true. The RetroStone comes completely functional from a mechanical standpoint. All of its lights light-up, and the screen comes on and everything; however, without installing some software yourself, nothing is going to happen. The main reason for this is because the software being used, ‘Retrorangepi’, is actually based on several people’s work, and a lot of it was produced with a non-commercial license. This means that it would be illegal to sell a product with the operating system already installed, so instead you get a complete device and just do it yourself.
This does mean a couple of things for the end user. Firstly, you need to be at least a little bit computer literate and competent with some more advanced procedures. That is not to say that a novice couldn’t get it done, but then again, the sort of people spending rather a lot of money on a device to play games that are at least a decade old are probably going to be fine.
The price might be something else of a thorny issue for some. All-in-all, the machine costs around 135€ for the cheapest option, which isn’t a small price by any means. On one hand, however, you are paying for a custom(-ish) built machine for a specialist hobby, and yet on the other hand, you’re paying a minimum of 135€ plus tax and customs fees for a product that you still have to mess around with to get working. Whether the price is worth it to you or not is pretty much down to your own discretion, but if you’ve ever paid more than £40 for a decades-old game, then you’re probably coming out on the positive side.
Generally, it’s actually pretty easy to get working, at least from the standpoint of someone who knows their way around a computer. You receive a micro SD card in the package, as well as a bunch of optional buttons you can swap out later, and you simply install the indicated disk image onto it using the program of your choice. If you have to reinstall again later, which is unfortunately a distinct possibility, then you simply clear the SD card off and start again. The process couldn’t be simpler, and the manufacturer has a link on his site that leads directly to a tutorial that details all of the methodology.
It’s somewhat difficult to talk about the RetroStone in purely mechanical and electrical terms. While it is beautifully designed to resemble a more advanced Game Boy and fits pretty ergonomically in the hand, there are a few design flaws. The back buttons, for instance, are pretty hard to press and could probably have done with being moved a little lower, and the screen can be pretty fuzzy. There are some small buttons on the side that can change the LCD’s display settings, which are crucial if you intend to be able to see most of the games you want to play.
The software for the RetroStone actually works pretty well, at least it does now. Back when the device first arrived, the software was a little…unstable. It would only boot 1 out of 10 times, and a lot of the time it would get permanently stuck in a boot loop, forcing you to turn it off at the switch. Needless to say, this was an untenable situation, and eventually the errors piled up and the system just wouldn’t turn on at all, then you’d end up having to re-install the OS, losing all of your ROMs and saves. Luckily, the people who update Retrorangepi are pretty damn diligent, and now the OS is as stable as you could hope. As long as you keep shutting down the system properly, it stays functioning, and you might actually manage to finish using it.
The other features of the system are a huge bonus if you’re a very technology minded person. As well as getting a hand-held gaming system capable of playing a huge section of gaming history, you also get a fully functioning TV compatible system. You can plug up to four controllers into it, plug it into your TV and have 4-player action whenever and wherever you like. Most USB controllers currently available on the market will function with it, including the wireless ones as long as they come with a dongle, so it really is very versatile when it comes to video games.
The system also has Kodi built into it, which is a media centre you can use to watch video in pretty much any format. This means that you can load up the device with videos and go on holiday, taking an entire cinema around with you in your pocket, available anywhere with an HDMI connection. The last major feature is as a desktop computer. Plug in a mouse and keyboard, as well as a TV and an Ethernet cable, and you literally have a fully functioning Linux-based PC on the move, at least as on the move as you can be while requiring an Ethernet connection, a mouse, keyboard and an HD compatible TV.
The extra features are basically just the icing on the cake for a pretty awesome device. A RetroStone is the perfect gift or purchase for an electronics enthusiast with a bent for retro, especially now that the stability issues appear to have been properly fixed. Having said that, it’s definitely not a product for the mass market, at least not yet. Maybe with a custom OS that allows for commercial resale, a sodding WiFi card and a better screen, this product could have taken the world by storm. That is if the companies whose hardware it emulates hadn’t tried to kill it off first.
Developer: 8-B Craft
Publisher: 8-B Craft
Release Date: 2018