Evercade NXT
Image: Time Extension / Damien McFerran

Blaze scored something of an unexpected commercial triumph with its Evercade project a few years back. The concept was a novel one, especially in the realm of modern hardware; a handheld console which relied solely on physical media as its method of software distribution. The gamble clearly paid off – thanks in no small part to some amazing collections from the likes of Namco, Renovation and The Bitmap Brothers – and a home console variant soon followed in the form of the Evercade VS. Now, Blaze is preparing to release the next entry in the family, and we were lucky enough to go hands-on with a prototype version recently.

Announced in May this year, the Evercade EXP is very much designed as an iterative upgrade on the original handheld model, which will be discontinued when the EXP launches in November. One of the most noticeable improvements is the 800x480 pixel 4.3-inch IPS screen, which is covered by a sheet of tempered glass rather than cheap, easily-scratched plastic. It's leagues ahead of the workmanlike panel seen on the original, and while it's not quite as punchy as the screen on the Switch OLED, it's pleasantly bright and has rock-solid viewing angles. This alone makes the device a worthy upgrade in our eyes.

The EXP also comes with Wi-Fi (solely for firmware updates – Blaze says there are sadly no plans to introduce a digital store on the device), UBC-C for charging and a more powerful 1.5Ghz chipset (alongside 4GB of built-in memory) which brings the device in-line with the Evercade VS system in terms of processing grunt. The EXP's rechargeable battery is rated at 3000mA and will offer around 4 to 5 hours of playtime – Blaze notes that this isn't an improvement on the original because the screen and CPU are both more demanding in terms of power.

As previously noted, the Evercade EXP we tested is a pre-production model and, as such, does not represent the final version. The finish on the plastic casing is rough, and buttons don't feel quite right and the unit kicks out a lot of heat when you're playing for prolonged periods (Blaze notes that all of these things will be remedied in the production version, which will also benefit from being lighter). Even so, it's clear that this is a real step up from the original model in terms of design and overall aesthetics; it's slightly wider and a little thinner, which makes it more comfortable to hold, in our opinion. The rolling D-pad is excellent, and the redesigned shoulder triggers feel more premium than before.

The screen retains its 16:9 aspect ratio, which might seem a little odd when the games you're playing are predominantly in 4:3. However, there are two good reasons for this; the Evercade EXP has a dedicated 'TATE' mode, which can be activated at any time by pressing a button on the bottom edge of the device. This rotates the screen 90 degrees, allowing you to experience vertically-scrolling titles the way they were intended to played; there are two additional action buttons on the left-hand side of the screen which support this mode. It might not seem like a big deal, but this feature really elevates the Evercade EXP to the next level, in our opinion - with so many TATE-ready games included on the upcoming collections, it offers a way of faithfully playing legendary titles such as Truxton / Tatsujin, 1944 and Slap Fight.

There's another good reason for that 16:9 screen, too – Blaze is releasing a cartridge which contains Cathedral and Alwa's Awakening, two 'faux-retro' titles which recently launched on modern systems. These won't be 'emulated' titles on Evercade but will be running natively on the host hardware – and that means they will make use of the whole of the screen real estate. We can expect more of these titles as time goes on, which is massively promising for the Evercade project as a whole; it will continue to offer retro titles alongside new games made in a retro style (our most-played version of the excellent Xeno Crisis is the Evercade version, for example).

The other big news, which was only revealed to us during our hands-on session, is that 18 classic Capcom arcade and console titles will come pre-loaded on the Evercade EXP. These include Street Fighter II Turbo, Final Fight, Strider, Mercs (which works in TATE mode, of course) and many, many more. It's a shame that the Capcom collection isn't coming as a standalone cartridge (from what we understand, Capcom wasn't keen on this), but having all of these games on the console at all times is a positive boon.

Here's the full list:

  • 1942 (Arcade version)
  • 1943 (Arcade version)
  • 1944 : The Loop Master (Arcade version)
  • Bionic Commando (Arcade version)
  • Captain Commando (Arcade version)
  • Commando (Arcade version)
  • Final Fight (Arcade version)
  • Forgotten Worlds (Arcade version)
  • Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Arcade version)
  • Legendary Wings (Arcade version)
  • MERCS (Arcade version)
  • Street Fighter II’: Hyper Fighting (Arcade version)
  • Strider (Arcade version)
  • Vulgus (Arcade version)
  • Mega Man (8-bit)
  • Mega Man 2 (8-bit)
  • Mega Man X (16-bit)
  • Breath of Fire (16-bit)

Alongside this, Blaze is giving the Evercade cartridge packaging a fresh look, with a design which allows the game artwork to truly shine. The full-colour manuals remain as excellent as ever (even the Capcom collection, which, as we've already noted, is digital, comes with its own manual).

The Evercade EXP will also come with IREM Arcade 1 cartridge, which includes R-Type, In The Hunt, Moon Patrol, 10 Yard Fight, Battle Chopper / Mr Heli and Lightning Swords. The system will cost £129.99 / $149.99 / 149.99 Euros when it launches on November 24th, 2022. Pre-orders open from September 6th, and you can be assured that we'll have a full review closer to launch.