Emulation Boxes: Retro Rubbish or Nostalgic Nirvana? Part 2: The Case for the Prosecution

February 3, 2019

In the first of our two-part feature on emulation boxes, we offered up a case for their defence. Namely, that retro consoles being packaged into neat little boxes and fitted with a HDMI port are a wonderful, convenient way of reliving your favourite gaming memories.

Today, we look at the counter-argument: that this perennial plundering of our gaming history for profit has to stop.

The Case for the Prosecution — Rob Kershaw

It’s pretty simple: we do not need any more plastic crap flooding either our stores or our homes. And whether you’re a fan of them or not, that is exactly what emulation boxes are — a cynical, calculated, pointless cash grab. They’re packaged for a generation of consumers wistful for their childhood, who are desperate to hold something tangible in an age where digital marketplaces are rendering physical media obsolete. All a publisher needs to do to make a quick buck is create a cheap plastic copy of their original gaming machine, whack a HDMI port in it, trawl their back catalogue for a mix of games ranging in quality from above-average to awful, and chuck a couple of “classics” into the mix to properly sell the package. Pin an eye-watering price tag on top, and bingo: a Christmas hit. 

That is, until the PlayStation Classic came out in December 2018 and the market cottoned onto the fact that it really wasn’t very good at all.

Some games age well. Others...

I can only hope that this trend of disinterest continues. If there was a point to emulation boxes, I could possibly get behind them. But there isn’t. The Wii U shop has already proven Nintendo can release old games on newer consoles. Sony has a huge selection of its back catalogue available to download on the PlayStation store without the need for you to fork out ninety quid on a box where three-quarters of the content will be ignored. You can buy a second-hand PS3, hook it up to your TV and enjoy a far better experience with these PS1 games than the PlayStation Classic provides, at a much reduced price. And you’ll get to do so while handling a controller with dual analogue sticks. You know: that incredible, essential hardware addition which has prevented serious hand cramp ever since it was first debuted… by Sony. Don’t be fooled — these mass-produced boxes are designed to cut costs and maximise profits in every conceivable way, whether that’s by cutting the cable length so short that you’re basically kissing the TV (NES Mini), or bundling it with a tacky, unresponsive controller (THEC64 Mini). You want to play old games on a new screen? Get ready for some serious discomfort, because these babies are taking no prisoners with your posture.  

Then there are the games themselves, which should arguably be the selling point of these awful cruddy boxes, but which end up being a mediocre selection at best and a steaming pile of garbage at worst. Nintendo has done better than the rest in this regard, but that’s mainly because the SNES has a timeless pixel aesthetic which is still enjoyable to look at today. If you compare it to the 3D models of original PlayStation games which look horribly dated, even Final Fantasy VII looks blocky and static compared to the likes of Secret of Mana and Earthbound. And don’t even get me started on Ridge Racer Type 4, a game so stuck in the past that even the original in the arcade felt archaic. You want to put this on your 4K display? Really?


But if Nintendo and Sony feel cheap, THEC64 Mini is on another level. This is an emulator of a computer which is thirty-five years old. The games it comes with may have been groundbreaking for a home machine at the time, but in 2018 they look and play exactly as you may expect. Namely: badly. And you’re paying £60 for the privilege of having it in your living room. One curious note is that it comes with external ROM support, so you can attach and play C64 ROMS via a USB drive. This means that the company is presumably happy for you to use an emulator and download ROMS from the net to use on it — something which Amstrad and Spectrum are also fine with. With that being the case, the only reason you would want to purchase THEC64 Mini is to play said games on a TV, out of the box. Do you want to pay sixty quid for the “pleasure” of playing rose-tinted garbage? Instead, why not just use an emulator on your PC, find out if you genuinely do still like Commodore 64 games as much as you did when you were eight years old, and only then consider an investment?

THEC64 Mini’s Cyberdyne Warrior. Someone might like it, I guess?

This approach does throw the whole emulation legality debate further into the light, however. Nintendo has been very clear that it believes third-party emulation of its games is illegal and will clamp down hard on perpetrators. But the home computer licensors beg to differ. This area is various shades of grey it seems, which doesn’t help either consumers or publishers. But it doesn’t stop them making money from the uncertainty for those people willing to fork out for (not so) cheap plastic. Self-titled “video game rockstar” Tommy Tallarico is ploughing history even further, with a new Intellivision console hitting shelves at some point in 2020 featuring “updated graphics”, as if anything on a mobile phone circa 1999 wouldn’t achieve that. At this rate, I’m looking forward to interactive cave paintings being released in time for new 8K screens in a few years, complete with a leaderboard listing how many mammals you clubbed to death compared to other tribes.

No. Stop it.

And if you think this rant against packaged emulation is excessive or unwarranted, I will leave you with this. My Arcade last year launched a tiny portable arcade cabinet on which you can play Pac-Man. You know, that game which can be played on pretty much any console since home gaming began, and for free on a multitude of websites including Google itself?

Yeah. But if you want to pick up a tiny chunk of plastic on which to to play a single four-decades-old game in a cramp-inducing format, go ahead — it’s a mere £26.99.

Case closed.

Do you believe there are better ways of reliving the past than churning out plastic replicas of old machines? Let us know in the comments!

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Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.