The HD Retro Movement: New Systems, Old Games

HD retro

Gotta Go Fast…and Pretty!

As anyone who follows me (all twelve of you) knows, I have my foot firmly planted in retro gaming. There are huge legions of gamers who share my love for all things retro, including Digital Crack mate Cousin Jose. My Facebook feed is littered with posts from the dozens of retro groups I follow. They run the gamut from the Magnavox Odyssey to the PlayStation 3 (which isn’t technically retro, but still). Most are retro purists who own and love the original hardware and games; others are RetroPie enthusiasts who play their favorite retro titles via emulation.

Lately, there has been a rush to modernize the retro experience. In addition to emulation via RetroPie and EmulationStation, several companies have announced or released new hardware that plays retro games. Some, like Hyperkin’s Retron 5 and the Yobo’s FC2 Slim, play original cartridges from several classic systems. These are geared for gamers who have a collection of original games and want an easy way to play them without connecting multiple systems. Others, like Nintendo’s NES Classic Mini and the Atari Flashback, are official emulation boxes that are essentially best-of compilations of the systems’ best games. They’re more geared to gamers who don’t own the games but would like to.

One of the main selling points of these solutions is that they allow gamers to connect them to HDTVs via HDMI. Since the older consoles usually relied on older RF or composite connections, some folks may not be able to connect them to some newer HDTVs. For them, an HDMI connection may be the only option. Additionally, these newer systems offer HD upscaling, which improves the image on newer TVs. The results are mixed; I tend to prefer old-fashioned CRTs for systems like the NES or Atari 2600. But some may appreciate the HD treatment on these games.

This trend, which I tend to call HD Retro for no reason other than I felt I had to call it something, has gained a lot of traction. Personally, I see the allure. In addition to offering modern connection options and crisper visuals, consoles like the Retron-5 help save space. I can play games from the NES/Famicom, SNES/Super Famicom, Game Boy, Cam Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and Genesis/Mega Drive. That allows me to pack up five consoles I currently have out. (I would normally use the Super Game Boy cartridge for the SNES to play Game Boy/Game Boy Color games, and the GBA Player for the GameCube to play GBA games.) Reclaiming that amount of real estate while still enjoying the games is nice.

Over the past few months, some enterprising folks have thrown their hats into the ring with some projects that expand on the HD Retro movement in new and interesting ways. One project, in particular, was successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter and relies on emulation. Another is currently seeking funding on Indiegogo and tackles the ingenious idea of consolidating CD-based systems. Both are creative; one is very dubious legally.

(Note: I’m usually very reticent about mentioning crowdfunding campaigns for retro game systems. Honestly, they’re about a dime a dozen, and many crash and burn. Look up the Coleco Chameleon for an example of one that crashed and burned spectacularly. I mention these because they feature two particular trends: emulation and CD games. Keep the above in mind while reading on.

Also, I’m avoiding the Ataribox into this write-up, even though it fits neatly into the HD Retro conversation, right down to its crowdfunding. I’ve already written three articles about that project, though. Feel free to read them for my take there.)

The successfully crowdfunded HD Retro campaign is for the Dreamcade Replay. It is a take on the RetroPie concept but on steroids. It’s a small console that houses emulators for several classic systems, from the Atari 2600 to the Sony PlayStation, as well as PC DOS and some computers like the Commodore 64 and the Apple II. That system list largely mimics EmulationStation. But unlike the typical RetroPie/EmulationStation setup, which runs on a relatively low-powered Raspberry Pi, this console sports a quad-core Intel processor and runs Windows 10. The HD Retro console also allows owners to do non-gaming things like watch Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and Twitch. Since it’s PC-based, it can also be loaded up with Steam and GOG, although you shouldn’t expect blistering performance there. The features list also lists Games for Windows, which makes sense on an HD Retro machine but makes me sad for the poor person who has to deal with that evil “standard”.

The Dreamcade Replay’s hardware and feature set are actually pretty nice. It hits all the notes the RetroPie/EmulationStation duo hit, but the added power allows it to outperform its weaker opponent. This is apparent in Nintendo 64 emulation. While the RetroPie struggles to play basic N64 games even with massive tweaking, the Dreamcade Replay handles it without breaking a sweat, even with upscaling. Only certain games like Shadows of the Empire give it trouble.

Of course, since it relies on emulation to play the retro games, it suffers from the same legal morass other emulation-based machines do. Emulation is, technically, legal. Owning emulators is perfectly legit. An end user pairing the emulators with ROMs for games that aren’t legitimately purchased by the said end user is frowned upon. A company loading a console with emulators then filling them up with game ROMs and selling them is not only explicitly disallowed by emulator creators but illegal in the extreme.

Emulators are generally open-source. The creators of the emulators love for retro game lovers to freely share and use their creations free of charge. That’s the benefit of open-source; the idea is to make a project freely available for those who wish to use them or improve upon them and share back. But they don’t usually take kindly to folks snapping up their emulators to bundle into retail machines. Retron-5 manufacturer Hyperkin found this out the hard way back in 2014. The authors of some emulators in the open-source RetroArch package accused Hyperkin of infringement. They discovered several RetroArch emulators baked into Hyperkin’s software.

The issue of bundling unlicensed ROMs not an issue with the Dreamcade Arcade since the game ROMs that are planned to be bundled with the console are purportedly on the up-and-up. Without knowing exactly what’s in the Dreamcade Replay’s OS package, I can’t say for certain that they’ll have an infringement issue similar to Hyperkin’s. But I can say without a doubt that one particular feature will raise more alarms than a DEFCON-1 scramble at a Cold War-era missile field in Minot, ND.

On the Kickstarter Page, the features list includes two particular abilities of the Dreamcade Replay: “Google Safe Search” and “Add Your Old Cartridges.” According to the text, a companion app for the Dreamcade Replay allows owners do the latter. With it, owners can take pictures of old cartridges and the console’s OS will add the ROMs for those cartridges to the console’s library. It does this by actually finding the ROM online and streaming it to the console. Retro game aficionado and YouTuber RGT 85 demoed a beta version of the Dreamcade Replay doing the former, and his video detailing its abilities showed him doing a search within the Dreamcade Replay emulator front-end. The text on the Kickstarter page insists that the ROM is also streamed in this case.

As I mentioned before, owning ROMs can open up legal landmines for people. Dreamcade Replay actually streaming ROMs for you cannot be on the level legally. Even if the manufacturers of the console don’t host the servers that house the ROMs for streaming, they are in essence promoting piracy. If they do host the servers, they’re actively engaging in it.

Is what I just said correct legally? Maybe not. Although the law on emulators is solid and the illegality of ROMs is as well, what normally constitutes infringement is murky and actual enforcement is spotty. I’m not sure who owns the rights to the Odyssey2 or Fairchild Channel F, so I can’t say if anyone will seek to prosecute anyone distributing those systems’ ROMs. But Nintendo will famously exhaust every legal option, up and possibly including shooting your dog in front of your kids, if you mess with their IP’s for profit or otherwise. Sony may not shoot the dog, but they’d definitely consider bullying Fido until he or she has a nervous breakdown.

One thing is for sure. Unless the makers of the Dreamcade Replay have the explicit permission of all the IP holders to distribute ROMs of their games, the ability to stream a ROM via either a search bar or a picture of a cartridge cannot be legal. So the Dreamcade Replay is a nice evolution of RetroPie with an admittedly cool feature that can’t possibly have a legal leg to stand on.

The second HD Retro project, currently still seeking funding on Indiegogo, doesn’t quite have the legal hurdles the Dreamcade Replay has. It’s called the Seedi, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

The Seedi is actually a great console idea that fits a potential need with aplomb. Rather than resorting entirely on emulating consoles for ROMs, the proposed console can read actual retail CD-ROM games. Among the systems it supports are the Sega CD, TurboGrafx-CD/Turbo Duo, NeoGeo CD, PC, and Sony PlayStation. It relies on emulation play the games, and among the systems emulated are some cartridge-based consoles. That allows owners to load a DVD full of ROMs and play them from the Seedi.

The fact that it reads legitimate CD-ROM-based games – especially PlayStation, whose CD-ROMs are burned in a non-standard reverse method – is amazing. This allows owners of original games to play their physical collection instead of resorting to burning ISOs onto discs.

My uncertainty with the system sure isn’t from those abilities. I personally think the concept is awesome. Among my collection of systems is a Sega CD Model 2. It’s attached to my Model 1 Genesis and takes up a disgusting amount of space. Replacing that monstrosity with a thin console that is essentially a slim DVD on its side would be great. And the fact that it can also play my PS1 and TurboGrafx-CD games is even better. For gamers who own games for those systems will be able to play them again without owning the original console. Trust me, anything that lets me easily play Gate of Thunder, Suikoden II, and Sonic CD is a technological marvel. The Seedi actually fills a pretty important need.

Then I think about it a little more, and doubts creep up. People who own NeoGeo-CD and TurboGrafx-CD games are usually collectors. They’re the only ones willing enough to spend the ludicrous amounts of money needed to purchase those games in today’s retro market. If they’re collectors, odds are they own the systems. If so, they may not need the Seedi. Collectors take pride in using original hardware, and they may not be too keen on playing their precious games on a non-original system like the Seedi.

Then again, those older consoles are notoriously finicky. The TurboGrafx-16 and Turbo Duo are known to fail due to bad capacitors. The older CD-based systems also suffer from CD lens failure. For collectors who play these games, a relatively inexpensive solution like the Seedi could be a lifesaver.

But what about Sega Saturn and Atari Jaguar CD players? Those systems are conspicuously absent from the Seedi’s feature list, despite the format being a match. The reason why is simple: emulation is not up to par for those consoles. It may take a while for emulation on those systems to be robust enough for general use.

That excuse doesn’t explain the exclusion of the Sega Dreamcast and the Nintendo GameCube. These systems have near-bulletproof emulation but present unique challenges. In the case of the Dreamcast, I’m not exactly sure. My guess? The console’s GD-ROM format might be the cause of some issues.

GD-ROM is a hybrid format that compresses a ring of data near the center of the disc. Back in 1999, this allowed developers to fit up to 1GB of data onto a standard CD-ROM, up from the format’s standard 700MB. But reading that data required a special CD lens that can access that compressed ring of data. Standard CD-ROM drives can’t read that data. If I were a betting man – and I’m not – I’d say that there’s the reason why Dreamcast is absent.

As for the GameCube, the Dolphin emulator handles emulation perfectly. The disc’s format is standard DVD, so there’s no issue there. Why is it not included? Well, remember what I said before about Nintendo shooting Fido?

On the Indiegogo page, they state that “…various technical and cost limitations prevent us from supporting these systems.” The PS2, Xbox, GameCube, Dreamcast, and the PSP are mentioned there. On that vein, they also say they may potentially support the 3DO, Saturn, PC-FX, CD-I, and the Jaguar CD in the future.

One great thing about the Seedi is that it’s striving to be completely open-source. That means that enterprising folks in the community could add some functionality to the still-not-funded console if they don’t. Indeed, both the Dreamcade Replay and Seedi tout the ability to add and share emulators not included as features. So in the case of the Seedi, I could see independent developers porting Chankast (Dreamcast), Dolphin (GameCube/Wii), PCSX2 (PS2), and Yabause (Saturn) emulators to the platform.

Thinking about that runs me headlong into the main legal sticking point for the Seedi: the BIOS. The thing about emulating CD-based systems is that just owning the discs is not good enough to play a game. The hardware has to emulate a console’s hardware, of course, but it’s unable to emulate a console’s brains. Those brains are usually the console’s BIOS. That is not hardware, but software. It tells the CD drive how to access the information on a compatible CD-ROM.

It’s in the BIOS where the legal hurdles return. Since it’s software, hardware manufactures legally state that it’s not part of legal hardware emulation. Here’s where Sony rears its head and starts calling your dog a mangy old cur in an effort to make it depressed. They are extremely protective of their BIOS and fight tooth-and-nail to keep it out of the reach of others. How does Seedi handle this hurdle?

Actually, they handle it easily: according to them, the PS1 games don’t require a BIOS. They suggest adding a BIOS BIN file for better compatibility but say it’s not required. The TurboGrafx-CD, Sega CD, and Neo-Geo CD do. Since Konami owns the rights to the TurboGrafx-16, I’m willing to bet that they will chase down those who use that BIOS. Sega might not be willing to do the same. They’re more willing to allow fan-based projects, and they might not be too offended with anyone who uses the Sega CD’s BIOS. SNK may or may not fight anyone who uses the Neo-Geo CD’s BIOS files. Still, the BIOS BIN issue could be a potential sticking point for the Seedi.

Another potential problem concerns playing ISO, or backup images of games. Users of emulators like ePSXe and PSX know all about burning ISOs onto CDs and playing them on a PC. The Seedi doesn’t explicitly mention the ability to play ISOs or burned CDs on its Indiegogo page. But the page does mention the Seedi supports file transfer via Wi-Fi and includes a burner. The question of its ability to play ISOs or burned discs will inevitably pop up. Currently, there’s no response.

Despite the issues, potential legal problems, and general uncertainties surrounding the Dreamcade Replay and Seedi, HD Retro is something people are interested in. The Dreamcade Replay sought $30,000 in its campaign; it raked in $228,854. As of this writing, the Seedi’s Indiegogo campaign has 21 days to go. It’s seeking $50,000 in funding; it’s 34% of the way there with $16,851 pledged. Clearly, there are folks that desire an HD Retro experience. I don’t necessarily blame them. The Seedi, in particular, tickles my fancy.

What do I make of this HD Retro phenomenon. I kinda like it, actually. Anything that gets people interested in retro gaming is going to get a nod from me. I have some reservations, and I see a few potential legal pitfalls. Hopefully, these and other HD Retro consoles gain a following and make retro gaming more affordable for the masses. That way, it’ll be less about the pitfalls and more about people playing Pitfall!

He has been playing video games for longer than he would like to admit, and is passionate about all retro games and systems. He also goes to bars with an NES controller hoping that entering the Konami code will give him thirty chances with the drunk chick at the bar. His interests include vodka, old-school games, women, vodka, and women gamers who drink vodka.

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