The announcement of RetroBlox (now known as Polymega) came as something of a surprise a few weeks ago, but in many ways this proposed system is a logical evolution in the growing "clone" hardware market. Built around modularity, RetroBlox aims to offer the benefits of next-gen clones like the Retron 5 and Retro Freak but with options for supporting even more systems, the inclusion of CD-ROM support and online functionality - elements which are sure to give it a massive advantage over what has gone before.
Despite the tantalizing potential of this new platform, there are many questions regarding its feasibility, especially as the company behind it - also named RetroBlox - is aiming to use crowdfunding to make it a reality. Keen to get some answers, we spoke to RetroBlox's Bryan Bernal to find out why you should be unreasonably excited about this modular wonder-console.
Nintendo Life: Can you give us some background on yourself and the core team at RetroBlox? What projects have you worked with previously in the industry?
Bryan Bernal: I started at the bottom of the food chain as a QA tester at Interplay in the early 2000s working on Fallout and Baldur's Gate, then worked my way up to Project Manager of Ratchet & Clank at Insomniac Games (if my upward movement shows you anything, its that Insomniac was a great place to work). The last game I worked on there was Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time in 2009 where I served as Project Manager. Between then and now I ventured outside of the games world to digital advertising, building and scaling projects for Google, Sony, Toyota, Lego and others at a few different advertising agencies including F-i and HYFN, as well as social game developer, Booyah.
Our co-founder and RetroBlox CTO is Eric Christensen, who I met while working at Insomniac Games and have been friends with for over a decade. He served in several positions there including Gameplay Director and Principal Software Engineer. Eric has a long history of video game development going back to making Genesis and Saturn games whilst working at Squaresoft and Konami. Most recently he was the Principal Engineer of Titanfall for the Xbox 360 and Lead Engineer of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. At RetroBlox, Eric has been instrumental in the practical implementation of Hybrid Emulation from theory to proven tech.
We also have a broader team of electrical engineers, industrial designers, mechanical engineers, and graphic designers who have all worked extremely hard to help make RetroBlox what you see today. One contributor to the project that was instrumental in devising the original idea for Hybrid Emulation was Rob Wyatt, who was the System Architect of the original Xbox at Microsoft on Seamus Blackley's team.
What inspired you to create RetroBlox and the RetroBlox system?
Like a lot of lifelong gamers, I had always wanted to take a trip to Japan to find some of the more exotic retro game consoles that I had read about in magazines as a kid but never really got the opportunity to own. Of course I had most of the US systems, but in particular, there was a GamePro article from 1990 entitled "The Cutting Edge" that resonated with me heavily in the years since it came out, showing a number of the PC-Engine consoles (TurboGrafx-16 in the states) that NEC and Hudson Soft were releasing that year in Japan. I was literally drooling as a kid and I still look at that article with reverence today.
So, in May 2015 my girlfriend and I took a trip to Tokyo for two weeks. It was my first time there but rather than sight-seeing, I spent the majority of the time on trains and buses traveling to the outer suburbs of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Yokohama visiting recycle shops on a bit of a retro gaming spirit walk. Before I left Japan I had to buy an extra suitcase and dump out all my clothes in my hotel room so I could fly everything back to California.
Naturally, I tried to hook up all of these consoles to my 50-inch HDTV without realizing how much friction was involved in getting good picture quality out of them. So, I started doing some research and ultimately it was down to two options that gave me what I was looking for without adding significant lag, both of which required me to make physical modifications to some of the game consoles. The choice was between a $400 Japanese up-scaling device and an old professional grade CRT monitor. I ended up going with the pro CRT monitor, and after making all of the requisite mods to the consoles and buying some custom cables from the UK from a seller on eBay, my retro gaming rig looked really good and I was pretty happy with the setup. However, the whole ordeal required me to learn how to service and calibrate analogue TVs, replace leaky capacitors and hard mod my original consoles for RGB output, and this left a giant mess of wires and consoles everywhere (which probably is / was a fire hazard). Even though this setup technically worked great, I really just wanted a clean and easy way to enjoy all of my retro games in my living room without the mess.
Of course there was always the option of retro clone consoles like the Retron 5 which solve many of these problems for some gamers, but as you can see from the photo - not all of the systems I was interested in are supported by it, or the Retro Freak. Furthermore, 100 percent emulation-based consoles were known to have numerous compatibility issues, meaning you'll probably still want to have your original consoles hooked up so you can play anything that doesn't work (like indie homebrew games or those with special chips in them).
After getting my setup dialed and enjoying it for a while (without being totally satisfied), I started talking to some friends from the gaming industry about an idea to create a nice FPGA PC-Engine / TurboGrafx-16 (the system I wanted to play most on my HD monitor), and I got in contact with Rob Wyatt, who is one of the top minds around when it comes to video game tech. He was into the idea, so we started working on it. After a few months of research, we discovered the emulation method (which we now informally call "Hybrid Emulation") that would have the potential to benefit quite a lot of different retro gaming fans who were struggling with the same issues we were.
Seeing its potential, we decided to modify the industrial and mechanical design of our yet-to-be named system to be modular, with the intent of supporting a broad range of classic consoles (not just the 3-5 most popular ones). By doing so, it gave rise to the idea of RetroBlox and what you see today.
Could you explain what makes "Hybrid emulation" so special?
Without going into an extreme technical explanation (you can read that here), Hybrid Emulation allows emulators to read cartridges and controllers electrically so that they function like the real consoles did when they're connected to a modern system on a chip (SOC) style processor. So, instead of dumping the ROM file from the cartridge and holding it in resident memory as other consoles do, we read the data that is input and output from the connectors on the Element Module directly to the CPU at a "bare metal" level like the real systems. This means we never have to guess what's happening inside the cartridge, significantly increasing compatibility with homebrew cartridges and other special types of games that aren't likely to work well on a 100 percent emulation system.
How does the core tech in RetroBlox compare to other clone systems, such as the Retron 5 and Retro Freak?
We think the technology being run within RetroBlox could be considered a "generational leap" over other existing retro gaming options on the market. If you're the kind of person who wants a system that provides the best balance of modern features with broad compatibility, accuracy, and CD game support, you're probably going to want a RetroBlox. FPGA devices like the RetroUSB AVS offer fantastic compatibility as well, but they have their own set of limitations in terms of support for other systems as well as connectivity features such as Twitch streaming. It might be some years before we see an FPGA SNES or PlayStation running, for example.
Why did you decide to adopt a modular approach instead of having all of the slots on a single unit, like the Retron 5?
Monolithic console designs are convenient, but they limit you to only a handful of the most popular consoles and draw assumptions about players choice of game systems that might not be accurate. If we were to try to make our system with 10-15 cartridge slots in monolithic design, you might have to lean it up against a wall to get it to fit in your living room!
Further, they don't offer a complete solution for the fans of the consoles they support. For example, you can play Mega Drive / Genesis on a number of clone consoles, but which one offers you the ability to legally play Mega Drive, Genesis, Sega/Mega CD, 32x, all indie titles, using original controllers, in HD, in one box? At the moment, there's nothing that does this except RetroBlox, and we believe providing gamers with these deep compatibility options at reasonable prices will ensure that we can move retro gaming forward out of the dark ages. Our goal is to give you every reason to put your original consoles back on the shelf and make this console your daily driver.
Do you know what the base cost of the machine will be, and how much each module is likely to cost?
We haven't announced the base cost of the system yet, but the basic package you can back on Kickstarter, which includes the base unit, one selectable module and a Bluetooth controller will cost significantly less than a base Nintendo Switch. For the people who are speculating $300, it won't be nearly that much.
What OS is the RetroBlox running? Android, Linux or something else entirely?
RetroBlox runs on Linux. It's reasonable for people to think it runs on Android because we share similar user interface design practices with some Android applications. However, Linux gives us finer control over resource management. With all these features right out of the box, every cycle is going to count.
The CD drive could be a game-changer. What CD formats will RetroBlox support at launch? Could we see Saturn and Dreamcast support in the future?
RetroBlox officially supports the following 3 CD formats for the Kickstarter launch:
- PS1 (all regions)
- Sega CD (all regions / variants)
- PC-Engine / TurboGrafx-CD (all variants)
Also, this may be controversial but for now we define "retro" as anything that shipped with less than 2 analogue sticks on its original controller. So, everything that shipped with a CD-ROM unit on it with less than 2 analogue sticks is fair game for future development on RetroBlox. We have a very significant and real intent to support the systems people want to play, even if it's not announcement-ready yet.
What's so special about the drive inside the RetroBlox, and how have you been working with Hitachi LG Data Services to ensure wide-ranging compatibility?
Some of the retro game systems that use optical media require special ways of reading data off of discs so that original games can be used. HLDS have been working with us to improve the firmware and reading of this data on the optical disc drive that ships with RetroBlox. That's all we can say about that, for now.
You've mentioned that it will be possible to dump games to the system's internal memory. What is the capacity likely to be, and does this extend to CD-based games as well?
Yes, both types of games can be installed to the system in an iPod / iTunes type relationship. Since some CD games are quite large, we anticipate that players who intend to back up CD games will want to pick up an SD mass storage device. On our development kits we're using a 200GB SanDisk SDXC card, which is able to hold around 300 backed up CD games and can be purchased on Amazon for around $69.99. If no SD storage device is available, the system ships with 16GB of eMMC flash memory on the motherboard which is more than enough to hold anyone's personal cartridge collection and media files (though, if you plan to record a large amount of HD video on RetroBlox, you may still want to get an SD card).
Do you have any concerns when it comes to legal challenges from the original hardware manufacturers, especially when it comes to stuff like BIOS distribution for PlayStation titles?
We won't be shipping any of the BIOS files that contain copyrighted code on RetroBlox, though there's a chance we might license some of them for nostalgia purposes as they are quite iconic. It works straight out of the box for all of the supported CD systems.
Everything that's been done on RetroBlox to date has been done under very careful watch from our legal team, which is one of the top firms in the world. As game developers ourselves, and in contrast to 95 percent of other retro gaming products on the market, we take a firm stance against piracy and view RetroBlox as an alternative that could finally move retro gaming forward out of the dark shadows it has been operating from for the last decade or two. We don't expect the hardware manufacturers to warm up to us overnight, but looking past that we think there will be many compelling reasons for them to want to bring games, both old and new to RetroBlox in the future.
There's naturally a lot of skepticism regarding crowdfunded hardware projects, especially in the light of some high-profile failures. What assurances can you give that RetroBlox will make it to market?
Given some of the (how do i say this nicely...) ill-fated attempts we've seen in the last year or so in this space, our team can totally understand and empathize with those who are skeptical about Kickstarter-backed hardware projects. It's not our first choice either, but we didn't just magically get to where this project is at today without money, and a plan to bring the product to market.
However, it's important to mention that some venture capitalists don't look at a product like this and say that there's going to be an easily foreseeable 10x return like the next match-3 app on your iPhone or latest VR tech. Not without seeing a significant reaction from the gaming world in response to what we've built. So, thats why we've announced the product two months before the anticipated launch of the Kickstarter. This will give us time to release more technical information and provide live in-person demonstrations to assuage any concerns some may have. Before even the first second of the Kickstarter campaign, many will have had the opportunity to play their games on Retroblox and have a taste of the final product.
Beyond that, our team has a proven track record of releasing high quality products people already love on time and without failure. We've shipped products like the Google Chrome Store, Titanfall, Ratchet & Clank, SpaceX Dragon Module, Vizio TVs, Roku boxes, at least two game consoles and more. We aren't just retro fans with a wish to make it big. If our team can put a spacecraft in orbit you can bet we're capable of making a damn good retro game console.
You're launching your crowdfunding campaign in April. Assuming that goes according to plan, when will we see RetroBlox on store shelves?
The goal is to ship within 8-10 months after the close of funding from Kickstarter. So, we will be shipping RetroBlox around this time next year.
Thanks to Bryan for giving up his time to speak with us. You can check out the official RetroBlox page here.
This article was originally published by nintendolife.com on Mon 13th February, 2017.
Great interview. Interesting.
What I really want to know is if I can make backups of my cartridge save data with this system. I have many game paks that have old batteries I'd like to replace but saves I'd rather not. I'd also love to be able to transfer my saves between this, emulators and my actual cartridge. This ignited some interest in me after not really paying much attention when I first heard of the project. If it can do the above, I'd even consider a $300 price point!
Would love to see something emulate Dreamcast and the Saturn. But knowing they are complicated as hell to emulate could be a while.
@artofmana Precisely this! If I can play without the cartridge using my original save data and then just dock the cartridge to sync back up again then I am sold!
EDIT: This picture at least shows the ability to backup saves to the retroblox
As a huge retro gamer, it looks and sounds amazing. But then at the same time also too good to be true...
not only is it a kickstarter, they haven't even started the crowdfunding process. i wish these guys the very best of luck.
Retro is ace so I will keep my eye on this
I will keep a keen, close eye on this one.
I like retro gaming, but not to the point where I want to hunt down a bunch of expensive physical carts/CDs just to play them again. Especially when virtual consoles have so much to offer.
It'll be way less than $300....but the games will cost way more.
Finally a new Retro-System that doesn't allow you to dump hundreds of Roms in there and only works with the original games <3
So glad they stand against piracy! If they also allow for translation packs, I'm fully on board! If not, I still might get it in addition to a Retron 5 :3
"The choice was between a $400 Japanese up-scaling device and an old professional grade CRT monitor."
The classic conumdrum. A Framemeister or a tiny professional CRT (since those pro CRTs are usually old medical monitors, broadcast reference monitors, etc)
I just read a article on another site and it stated that NES MINI will get its last ever shipment in April or May.. This was confirmed by the distribution guys that deal with Nes mini. Last ever shipment or rumour have to wait and see
Edit the article is on social media My Nintendo News site
What this doesn't explain is the software emulation part of the whole thing. Are they rewriting or creating emulators or will they use the libretro libraries?
Because then what wil happen with PSX games, because it doesnt exist the perfect PSX emulator.
This project sounds brilliant, and I would be all over it if N64 were included. Unfortunately, it can't be for the foreseeable future.
As I understand it, Nintendo has N64 patents out the wazzoo.
That's clever of them to approach their sales pitch before doing the Kickstarter.
As a retro collector this seems wonderful. I will follow this project with cautious optimism.
@AlbertXi It would seem like they're adopting a FPGA approach rather than pure software emulation.
I'm looking forward to the 'My Life in Gaming' episode on this when it releases!
Thanks for the article, I'd not heard of this until now. I'm a very keen retro gamer (I went the RGB monitor route) so will do some reading up on this little Blox
Shipping 8-10 months after kickstarter? Good luck guys but I'm not holding my breath.
If they nail the Saturn I am so in
I need the game in order to play with this right? It doesn't have like a download store or something?
Can we finally get a retro box that has emulation that doesn't suck with audio?
Sega can't even get the sound right with its Steam games, if this can the sound as good as the unofficial stuff, then I'm sold.
I hope this turns out well. Going to keep my eyes peeled for this.
ps2, saturn and dreamcast please.
let me put away those systems as well.
let me give guardian heroes, princess crown and popful mail a spin on this buddy.
@Damo Yeah But they said also it will be years before you can get SNES on FPGA so something seems weird there.
I hope this doesn't end up as a Coleco Chameleon disaster.
@AlbertXi this is definitely primarily software emulation, which is fine as far as I'm concerned. I saw elsewhere that this will be running with a Rockchip rk3288. So software emulation for sure. Sounds like the hybrid emulation is fpga or asic dealing with cart access on the fly as opposed to dumping the full rom like the retron, if I understand correctly.
@Tasuki they're already way ahead of the retrovgs/chameleon, at least. They know what a prototype is AND have one(amazing, and no Super Nintendos harmed in the process too!). This guy is clearly more knowledgeable than the retrovgs leader and has addressed various concerns never acknowledged regarding retrovgs. It helps that they're quite aware of everything wrong with that entertaining fiasco as implied by one of his answers. So far, they're doing things right and hope they keep it up.
It's cool that it can play CD games now, but why no support for the Sega Saturn 🙃
I'm very interested. Nice article. I will be keeping my eyes open for Retroblox
Can we apply translation patches to real physical Japanese SNES cartridges?
That is the main thing I'm looking for. games I actually own but need translation. Playing off the original cart is awesome and I do really like the anti-piracy, so that would be great.
@eltomo Actually, only Saturn is difficult. On PC, there have already been several Dreamcast emulators such as Chankast and NullDC which are quite good at emulating Dreamcast games and have a range of additional settings on top of the standard Dreamcast ones.
All you need is isos or burnt discs...
"The goal is to ship within 8-10 months of the close of funding". Well I guess it's good to have goals...
@artofmana you might want to look into a Retrode cartridge adapter.
Regardless on where you stand on the assumed pricing or "clone consoles" in general, this is a pretty dang cool thing. It's neat to see someone identify and forge that next step, as they have seemed to do. Cool stuff! While I may not spend my dollars on it I certainly won't stop others from doing so.
binged it. So that is just a little machine that lets you dump your own games and play them on your computer? which you're saying is an easy way to back up saves? then can it put them back on your cart as well?
sidenote: if only nintendo would offer a "we replace your battery' for their old games. I'd pay $5 a pop for that service rather than trying to solder that stuff myself!
Well, the console itself certainly looks pretty slick from what I can see.
@sdelfin So will they write their own emulator? or will they use someone else? Because there are still lots of emu that are not perfect specially for psx
Great question - If I understand this article right I hope they are doing their own because of the expertise they seem to have in the field AND it sounds like that's what they mean by "hybrid" that it is part emulation, but also trying to get the Retroblox to treat the cartridge like it's original system did by constantly reading it through the electrical connectionn, NOT just dumping a rom and the beginning and then emulating from there. That's why it could handle the FX chip in SNES for example because they wouldn 't have to emulate that, the cart would still be doing it's own FX processing. That gives me hi hope for this system.
(am I getting that right?)
@gingerbeardman I've looked at those before but at the time they were out of production. Also, the ability to do this on a system like this seems logical to me. I'd rather eliminate the need for a computer in the backing up process. Ideally, I'd like to see something like RetroN 5's ability to backup saves to an SD card. Then I would be as sold as @Chrayfish states.
@gingerbeardman Almost a year later before I actually reply but unfortunately, the Retrode project was discontinued in the summer of 2013. I don't believe there is any other similar product out there.
@artofmana the Retrode project was sold by its creator and is now available here: more stock very soon https://www.dragonbox.de/en/71-retrode-2-cart-reader-4260416650091.html
@artofmana No i dont think that is going to be a feature. I haven't heard anything to suggest it would be.
Definitely behind this, a new TG-16 solution will be amazing.
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