The Retro Revolution

There is an interesting new trend in gaming that’s been creeping upon us and perhaps fuelled by the pandemic. The rise of new handhelds from small brands from China. As a child the handhelds that I owned were from Casio and two of those Tetris style 1000 games in one. Yet the one console that ruled the roost as a portable handheld during my youth was the Gameboy. I’ve never really owned one. Probably saw it once when someone in school pointed it out to me as the prized possession of some expat kid on the bus ride home. It would be years later that I similarly spied the only console that trumped the Gameboy during my childhood, the Sega Game Gear. On that occasion, I couldn’t have any time with the console itself. Yet to my young mind it looked impressive feat. It looked massive (I think the owner had the optional battery pack grip as well, lending to the size).

But buying these consoles in India? They were scarce and atrociously priced. It would be years later, when I would spy the first and only black Gameboy console for sale. Tucked away in a shelf in a shop in C-Block Market in Delhi. Alas it was way beyond my pocket money. And till date I don’t recall seeing that model since. But a google search proves that it did exist. Handheld gaming wasn’t for me. Which is a good thing as that’s probably why I got into computer gaming in the first place. I did spy some clamshell Gameboy and the Gameboy advance and DS as an adult, if my memory serves me right, but getting games for them wouldn’t be as easy as getting my hands on PC games. The only handheld console of note in the recent past was the Nintendo Switch. But the cost of Switch games rival that of PS4 games. The latter providing a better library and visually appealing games. It didn’t make economic sense and I really wasn’t travelling much to be gaming on the move. And the reason why most kids don’t own handheld consoles these days? I’d think mobile phones have replaced game consoles.

My story really isn’t unique. There are quite a few people out there who wanted to own a Gameboy and who couldn’t. There are also many Gameboy owners who now want to relive their childhood (having owned a Gameboy) but don’t see a similar handheld on the market. This is a niche that gaming enthusiasts in China have understood well and cater for. Over the years several companies have been churning out Gameboy clones. Some of these are one-man affairs, others are small shops while a few probably have streamlined manufacturing lines. Some of them have been built around the Raspberry Pi computer system. Half of these handhelds try to stick as close to the original shape as possible. While others throw in some modern-day twists. Like using the joystick that comes with the switch along with the typical D-pad that you get with any Gameboy. Also, the number of buttons have increased so that you can play Sega Genesis games and PlayStation 1 games on these consoles. The screens used on these devices are also far better than the original versions and the computing power resembles PCs from a decade ago.

The RG351V from Anbernic is a console that takes the Gameboy and adds onto it. It has a vertical form factor like the Gameboy with a 3.5-inch screen with a 640 * 480 resolution. It plays Gameboy, Gameboy Advance games flawlessly. But it also comes with a joystick and four shoulder buttons. What’s more the system uses a Micro SD Card system to store games. You are only limited by the size of the SD card, and I am told the entire Gameboy game library will fit in a 256 GB card easily. It’s not just handhelds. The console allows you to play games from almost all the popular home consoles like the slew of Atari, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) , SNES and there are other obscure ones like the Atomis Wave and the Neogeo series that you probably haven’t heard of. The icing on the cake is the ability to play a lot of arcade games. This console can be a museum of retro games if you want it to be. Sure, there are some consoles that it can’t emulate as well as others. Some PSP games struggle as do Nintendo DS and N64 games. But there are a lot of PC Ports available. Like the original Wolf3D, Doom and more recent games like Cave Story. What’s more you can even play the new Demons of Asterborg (A Sega Genesis game) on it. Some people have even managed to get Shovel Knight to play on it.

This is a console that offers a certain amount of customization and tinkering which some other consoles don’t offer. Which brings me to the social aspect of this console. You can swap out the Operating System or firmware and replace it with alternatives that give you access to even more platforms and with varying visual aesthetics. While the different firmwares have differing user experiences most of them use a base software called RetroArch which helps run the emulation software for these different consoles. You can try out this software for free from Steam. It takes a little time to learn things like how to quit games from RetroArch. But if you use a firmware like 351Elec (which makes exiting games easier), you can minimise having to use this software at all. The popularity of being able to modify your experience and the device in general has meant that there is a strong fan community around this device.

There is literally a fan community building around this console on Reddit. And one of the key resources for the console has to be the YouTube Channel called Retro Game Corps run by a Navy man called Russ. He provides step-by-step tutorial videos and reviews around a lot of these Retro Consoles that are coming out of China.

A handheld renaissance

While Anbernic is probably one of the most popular consoles because of its ease of use there are other brands. These include Powkiddy, Gameforce, PiBoy, Pocket Go and Retroid Pocket. But this is only a small slice of the market. There are handhelds like AYA Neo+ and OneXPlayer which run on Windows and a slew of Android devices like the GPD XD Plus. There are quirky handhelds like the Playdate with its winding arm. And then there is the much-anticipated Steamdeck which will allow you to play Steam PC games on the go. If you (like me) thought mobile killed handheld gaming, well you are wrong.

Buying an RG351V in India

So, if you are in India and want to buy an RG351V, how do you go about it? Well, I ordered it directly from Anbernic, figuring that would be the cheapest option. There were people selling it on Amazon for around 40K (which is a ridiculous price for this computing power) and a direct conversion of the price seemed to indicate around 12K. Such was the stark difference that I decided to take the plunge. You should note that the Anbernic website has been since redesigned since I bought the product from it.

You can understand the trepidation of buying something from China during the COVID pandemic and from a company that I knew little of. I did as much diligent research as I could then took the plunge. The payment was through paypal and the customer service were helpful enough to respond to my queries, though it took them a day or so to reply. The product made a long arduous journey from Shenzen to Hong Kong to Dubai and finally landed in Bangalore via Delhi. The first snag I hit was the lack of proper invoicing. Anbernic ships their product through a third-party agent who then ships via Fedex. The shipper didn’t fill out the invoice details properly in the paperwork and thus the product was held up at Bangalore for customs clearance. This entire process of clearance had to be done by me coordinating with a helpful local Fedex team. But the delay was a bit nail-biting. The result of this debacle was that I was slapped with an additional 2K fine. What’s more there is a steep amount of GST to pay along with the import duties. Which means if you can hop over to any of the markets that Anbernic sells directly in, it would probably be better to buy this from there.

All things considered, if you overlook the issue of invoicing, I was happy to get the product in working condition and there have been no issues with it. Don’t expect a warranty because if there is an issue, you’d have to ship this product back to Anbernic and then you’d again go through the process of importing this. Subsequently there are a lot more sellers on Amazon India. Yet only one of them comes close to the actual price I paid. The security of Amazon is being able to replace it if there was something faulty with it. I am sure that by the middle of next year you will have more sellers on Amazon. But none of them are going to offer any kind of warranty for this device. That said till date I haven’t had any issues with mine.

One last consideration. In India this console costs as much (or sometimes more) than a Switch Lite. So, is it worth it? Well yes and no. It’s worth it if you are interested in retro games from the 80’s onwards. Getting games for the system is easy and straightforward. A Switch Lite has more computing power and a better screen. But the games are expensive and with the cost of even just one game with your initial console you are going to have to pay a lot more. This console offers variety and a trip down memory lane and the chance to catch up with a lot of 2D experiences that you might have missed. That said I wouldn’t peg much hope on playing 3D games, just because those early 3D experiences that this game will support hasn’t aged well.