The Mini Console Revolution, And Why Hackers Passed Them By

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The Raspberry Pi was initially developed as an educational tool. With its bargain price and digital IO, it quickly became a hacker favorite. It also packed just enough power to serve as a compact emulation platform for anyone savvy enough to load up a few ROMs on an SD card.

Video game titans haven’t turned a blind eye to this, realising there’s still a market for classic titles. Combine that with the Internet’s love of anything small and cute, and the market was primed for the release of tiny retro consoles.

Often selling out quickly upon release, the devices have met with a mixed reception at times due to the quality of the experience and the games included in the box. With so many people turning the Pi into a retrogaming machine, these mini-consoles purpose built for the same should have been immediately loved by hardware hackers, right? So what happened?

Emulation Über Alles

Nintendo fired the first salvo in the mini console wars in late 2016.

The first salvo fired in the marketplace was the NES Classic Edition, launched in late 2016. It quickly took the market by storm, selling 2.3 million units in its first six months. Shipments sold out almost immediately, with many units being scalped on eBay for multiples of the sticker price, with varying levels of success.

The device showed that there was a huge market for classic console re-releases at a low price. This was achieved through the use of emulation, rather than recreating the NES’s bespoke hardware or using something like a Nintendo On A Chip. The heart of the system was a quadcore Allwinner R16 ARM Cortex-A7, kitted out with 256MB of RAM and 512MB of flash storage. This was more than enough grunt to emulate classic NES titles, with ample space for plenty of games, too. Besides people just playing the emulated games there was no shortage of people hacking on the NES Classic to see what made it tick.

The formula was so successful, Nintendo boxed up the same hardware in a new shell and launched the Super NES Classic Edition a year later. Other manufacturers rushed in to deliver similar machines for their own back catalogues. Sega delivered the Genesis Mini, and Konami dropped the TurboGrafx 16 Mini, both based on the ZUIKI Z7213, with similar specs to the Nintendo units. Sony’s Playstation Classic upped the ante, somewhat, needing more power and storage to deal with 3D games from the CD-ROM era. It packed a full 16GB of storage and 1GB of RAM, running a Mediatek MT8167A. Later on, there were further spins on the same concept, like TheC64Mini and even the NeoGeo Mini which shipped in a tiny arcade cabinet, complete with a 3.5″ LCD screen.

Capabilities

It wasn’t long before enterprising hackers cracked the machines; guides to add more games to the NES Mini were online within months of the NES Mini’s release. Similar hacks are available for most, if not all, the systems that have been released this far. Some, like TheC64 Mini, even officially welcome users to add more software which really should have been the standard for all these reissued systems.

Most hacks have focused on adding more games to the consoles, or running RetroArch to enable the emulation of many different consoles.

However, there’s more on the table than just running a different set of ROMs. Packing ARM processors, flash storage, and HDMI outputs, they have the makings of a small single-board computer. While some have limited interfaces, many pack in USB ports too, making hooking up peripherals theoretically easy. Ten years ago, these would have been tantalizing machines for hackers to open up for all manner of projects. However, in a world with Raspberry Pis on the shelf for under $50, it’s difficult to justify the effort required to turn these machines into more fully-fledged platforms.

Efforts thus far have focused almost entirely on gaming. Not content to load more titles from the systems in question, hackers have ported the RetroArch emulator to these micro consoles. This enables the ARM systems to emulate a wide variety of systems, from the dawn of the home console era all the way up to modern consoles like the Gamecube and Wii, for systems with the power to do so.

Getting Retroarch going is achieved using a tool by the name of Hakchi on the NES and SNES mini, ironically the SNES Classic emulated Playstation games better than the PS Classic in some cases. Due to the lack of USB ports, Wii Classic Controllers are the only viable choice for those seeking proper analog sticks for use with their Nintendo Mini consoles.

In the case of the Playstation Classic, running Retroarch is achieved with BleemSync, named for the original Playstation emulator, or the later Project Eris. Reportedly, it too runs better than Sony’s in-house emulator, which may partially be due to the decision to include PAL ports on the stock machine.

Conclusion

What started as the Xbox Media Center was then ported to the Raspberry Pi and other platforms. Our own Mike Szczys called in 2012 for “a streaming media device that could just be stuck to the back of a television.” These days, such devices are commonplace.

For those wanting an emulation system in a funsize package, the Nintendo and Sony offerings may be attractive. The fuss of using hacked tools and limitations on controllers may prove too fussy for most however, when the alternative is simply slapping a Raspberry Pi in a nice plastic replica case instead. While the systems have largely been cracked wide open by hackers, there’s little thirst to get a full desktop OS or other code running on the platforms. Single-board computers are cheap and plentiful, so there’s little incentive to bother with one that has even the lightest of restrictions standing in the way.

It’s a very different scene to the era in which this website was born. In the early 2000’s, torrents reigned supreme, and there were few devices suitable for playing digital video content on television screens. The Xbox was a prime target, featuring USB, ethernet, and an x86 chip all in a TV-friendly package. The Xbox Media Centre project (still around today but rebranded as KODI) and even full Linux distros quickly sprung out of the woodwork, gracing the loungeroom of hackers around the world. Being able to do something no off-the-shelf product readily could, huge amounts of time were poured into developing on the platform.

In the case of these micro consoles, there’s very little they can do that can’t be done better with other hardware. Even their primary role of playing retro games is arguably better experienced on the Raspberry Pi, even for the technologically inexperienced. Ultimately, what manufacturers sold was nostalgia in a cute plastic box, and I imagine that this is a fad that won’t last much longer. As always, time will tell.

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