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Jefklaks Codex

The Evercade: A Cartridge-based Modern Retro Handheld


In 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, Brittany-based company Blaze came with the solution: it is not vaccine jabs, but cartridge jabs we require! Salvation at last! The Evercade handheld console site simply states:

Play Retro on the go

Now what sets this device apart from the Chinese arguably high-quality Anbernic RG351P and consorts? The Evercade is cartridge-based. Cartridges! You know, the nineties, shoving in a bug hunk of plastic into the back of your Game Boy? Taking it out again, giving it a good blow, and putting it back? Taking it out again, rubbing the batteries, and putting it back? Taking it out again, running up to your dad for contact spray, and trying it one more time?

Right!

Anbernic devices are very popular at ResetERA, as the high quality screen and aluminum finish attract materialists, and the ability to throw any ROM at it from the 8-bit era to even some 64-bit games attract quite a few (perhaps shady) retro enthusiasts. The problem with this, besides the questionable piracy issues—those like me who rip their own ROM with a GBxCart are excused, but you’re in the minority, you know that, right?—is the overabundance of available games.

Pros and Contras of Cartridges

Sometimes, less is more. Blaze went with another approach: collectable cartridges, which are neatly kept in a mini-DVD style plastic case, accompanied with a nice (albeit very tiny) color-printed manual. They hope you start “collecting them all”, as the back of the box states. I’d rather buy the ones I’m actually interested in, but I digress. The appeal of the cartridges, for me, is the following:

  • They’re officially licensed. It is not said how much money goes to the original developers of the games, but I hope more than nothing. Remember this, ROM downloaders.
  • They’re released in a steady stream of a few each year, meaning not too much. Instead of slamming hundreds of ROMs onto your emulator device, you’re limited to the ones that are there, pushing you to explore not so well-known games you might otherwise ignore.
  • They’re cartridges! It comes with the free physical action of inserting and removing. Amazing. Both game and emulator are apparently contained with in the PCB.

The Evercade, among friends?
The Evercade, among friends?

Many popular game review sites such as Kotaku laud the Evercade for its cartridge nostalgia, and I’m also one of them. However, most of these reviewers forget to mention that restriction is one thing, but a mediocre to plainly put bad offer of games does hurt the appeal of the device quite a bit. Take a look at all the game collections and tell me I’m wrong. My Evercade packet, the “premium” edition, came with three carts:

Atari Collection 1—16 Atari 2600 games and 4 Atari 7800 games released from 1979 to the end of the eighties that have not aged well. I never owned an Atari machine so I’m not emotionally attached to any of these games, but except for a few interesting curiosities (Ninja Golf, Adventure, Food Fight), I can hardly see myself playing this cart.

Namco Museum Collection 1—As the name states, museum, the cart is loaded with NES and SNES variants of Pac Man, Galaxian, Dig Dug, Mappy, and the like. First, why not the Arcade originals? Second, this is another cartridge that is nice for explorers of gaming history, but not for actually playing.

Interplay Collection 1—Finally, we get to the meat of the games. Well, almost. It contains six games: BattleChess and Titan (NES), Clayfighter, Incantation and Boogerman (SNES), and Earthworm Jim (MegaDrive). Obviously, the latter is the most important one, although I had also fun breezing through Boogerman in 2.5 hours. Incantation is the last platformer of the SNES, originally released in 1996, and it is one of the worst I’ve ever played. Classic Gamer concludes:

There are far too many better platformers out there to deal with something so lackluster.

The problem is that on the Evercade, there aren’t that many great platformers out there—yet.

I guess Incantation is another curiosity-include, as the physical cartridge costs €100 now and is hard to find. Still, it’s a big disgrace for the SNES and utterly unplayable, as is BattleChess, with the horrifyingly slow piece movements.

As you can see, the first few cartridges aren’t worth much. Considering they sell for €19 a piece, that’s quite steep. Luckily, the later and to-be-released collections sound much more exciting (Codemasters contains Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder, there’s a Dizzy collection, …). I hope Blaze eventually manages to license some AAA games from the nineties, but considering Nintendo’s own Virtual Console and SEGA’s Sonic Generations re-releases on modern systems, I don’t see this happening any time soon. In sum: the Evercade is a retro handheld for more obscure titles, which can be good, but also bad.

An Evercade cart, instruction booklet and case. Note the alignment of the cart sticker.
An Evercade cart, instruction booklet and case. Note the alignment of the cart sticker.

Oh, and according to John Linneman of Digital Foundry, the emulation is top-notch. Glad we’ve got that sorted out.

The hardware itself

As for the handheld device itself, it feels comfortable enough to hold and play, and the D-pad is good. What a relief. Except that it’s a bit weird to leave gaps in-between the pad and the console plastic itself: an open invitation for lost crumbs and in my case, cat and dog hair. The design is reminiscent of Atari consoles of yore. It’s not the best, but okay. Battery life is four hours, again not the best. It’s disappointing to see manufacturers move from tiny screws towards glue: there’s no way to replace any part, except with a heat gun.

And then we arrive at the screen, the biggest letdown of the system. It is crap. Plain and simple. What a wasted opportunity. For €60, I wasn’t exactly expecting a Switch-like OLED screen, but even my cheap backlit GBA nameless screen replacements are better. Not in terms of resolution, but in terms of comfort: as soon as you hold the handheld at a slight angle, colors seem to disappear and contrast is all over the place. I never know how I’m supposed to hold it to get it right. Here’s a video showcasing the issue (it looks worse off-camera):

Luckily, during those frantic gaming moments, you do not notice it that much. It’s usually when I boot it up and choose a game from the menu that it irritates me. Speaking of irritation: the bloops and beeps of the game menu are horrible, but can be turned off. What cannot be adjusted, however, is the volume of the bloop when accessing a save state. The volume is much louder than the volume of the game, and the latest 1.3.1 patch (which cannot be run on a recent Mac nor Linux machine—thanks Blaze) did not solve this.

The overall quality of the Evercade handheld is a bit questionable. The bad screen, the carelessly implemented OS that does not even allow button remapping, and even the cartridges themselves (the sticker wasn’t placed in the middle, the plastic that holds the PCB seems loose): it’s all a bit telling.

And yet, I somehow like it. There is no other “new old” handheld out there with a cartridge system. I got to explore the Atari 2600’s classic Adventure game, the Easter Egg and action/adventure patriarch from 1979. I’m looking forward to my first meeting with strange eggs from the Oliver Twins. There’s even an Indie Heroes Collection containing “new old” games such as Deadeus, Flea and Foxy Land.

In the end, the Evercade is riddled with questionable decisions: a stupidly bad screen, odd game and port selections, lower production qualities here and there. But there’s nothing better than popping in a cart on the go, is there? The only thing I wonder is, if I can ever get my hands on an Analogue Pocket, will I take the Evercade out for another spin?

Categorized under: hardware

Me!

I'm Jefklak, a level 35 Retro Gamer, and I love the sight of experience points on old and forgotten hardware. I sometimes convince others join in on the nostalgic grind. Read more about me here.

If you found this article amusing and/or helpful, you can buy me a coffee - although I'm more of a tea fan myself. I also like to hear your feedback via Mastodon or e-mail: say hello. Thanks!


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