When Blaze launched the original Evercade back in 2020, it felt like a pretty bold experiment.

The concept of a physical-only gaming portable which played retro games might not sound outlandish on paper, but the video game industry is moving closer towards a wholly-digital distribution model with each passing year, so there was a very real concern about whether or not people would actually buy a machine that relied solely on physical cartridges.

A few years on, it would appear that such pessimism was unfounded. While the Evercade clearly doesn't need to sell in Switch-style numbers to be considered a success, it has nonetheless performed admirably in commercial terms – so much so that we've seen a steady stream of cartridges since 2020 and even a home console variant in the form of the Evercade VS.

Now, more than two years after the launch of the Evercade line, we're getting a new handheld console, the EXP. Is it a solid evolution or a step backwards? Let's find out.

Evercade EXP
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Evercade EXP Review - The Hardware

Compared to the original Evercade, the EXP is slightly wider and thinner, which makes it a little more comfortable to hold for prolonged periods. The rear of the device is made from textured plastic which provides enhanced grip, and, on the whole, the EXP's design feels like a proper evolution over its predecessor.

The unit feels solid and sturdy, with no movement in the casing when gripped tightly, and makes us think of the iconic Apple products of the 2000s, as well as the Nintendo DS Lite. The only real black mark against the EXP from a pure design perspective is the fact that, when played in complete darkness, you get some ugly light bleed on the bottom edge of the unit. During our initial hands-on with a pre-production unit back in October, we noted that it got quite hot after a few minutes – the final EXP model still gets warm, but it's nowhere near as extreme, even after a long period of use.

The rolling D-Pad and buttons are slightly spongey, but they're perfectly responsive. The shoulder triggers are much easier to use – and there are now L2 and R2 triggers with a nice curve on them, allowing them to sit underneath your fingers more easily during use. The additional buttons give the EXP parity with the controller that ships alongside the Evercade VS.

The 800x480 pixel 4.3-inch IPS screen is a massive improvement over the rather dismal one seen on the original Evercade; it's sharper and brighter and has rock-solid viewing angles – something the original machine didn't possess. It's also covered by a sheet of tempered glass rather than cheap, easily-scratched plastic – another big improvement.

The screen is definitely a step up, then, but's not totally perfect; the overall level of brightness is decent, but we'd argue it could perhaps have been a touch higher – although we'd imagine this would have had a detrimental impact on battery life. We have to admit, we've been spoilt by the screens on the Switch OLED and Analogue Pocket, both of which (it should be noted) cost significantly more than the Evercade EXP.

Evercade EXP
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

The real star of the show is the EXP's 'TATE' mode. A button on the bottom edge of the Evercade EXP rotates the screen so you can play arcade titles like Truxton and MERCS in the correct orientation. Two additional action buttons – located on the left-hand side of the screen – complete the control setup when played in this way.

It does take some getting used to playing in TATE mode, as the unit has been primarily designed with 'horizontal' play in mind; it sometimes feels like it's too top-heavy and is going to slip out of your hands. This is a minor complaint, however, when we're really pleased to see such a cool function included in a device like this – it certainly opens up the door for more authentic support for a wide range of arcade titles, including some of the best coin-op shmups.

Evercade EXP
The light bleed on the bottom edge of the unit is regrettable, but it's only really noticeable when you're playing in total darkness — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Battery life is rated at between 4 and 5 hours per charge, according to Blaze, which is close to what we found during our review period; if you have the volume high and the screen brightness to max, you might find that the stamina falls short of that estimate. The unit uses a USB-C connector for charging, which is another improvement over the original, which used old-school Micro-USB. Wifi is included this time around but will only be used for firmware updates, according to Blaze – any dreams of a digital store packed with downloadable retro titles must sadly be put to rest for the time being.

Finally, there's 720P HDMI out via the mini-HDMI socket on the top of the unit, but you'll need to source your own cable.

Evercade EXP
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Evercade EXP Review - The Software

Alongside the amazing TATE mode, the headline news regarding the EXP when it was first announced was the fact that it would ship with 18 Capcom titles pre-installed. This caused quite a bit of consternation among hardcore Evercade fans, as they felt this ran contrary to the platform's ethos of providing software on physical cartridges.

From what we can gather, it was Capcom that was the sticking point here rather than Blaze – and, given the quality of the included titles, we're sure most people would rather have them pre-installed instead of not at all. Sure, it's annoying that you can't take these games and play them on your Evercade VS, but it's certainly not the end of the world.

So, while we're on the topic, let's discuss those Capcom titles. 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)

As you can see, there's a mix of arcade and home console titles there, and while they've all been seen elsewhere (Capcom itself has released many of these games on modern platforms via its Arcade Stadium series), few would argue the fact that this collection represents some of the most exciting games to come to Evercade so far. Final Fight, Strider, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Captain Commando and Street Fighter II’: Hyper Fighting are some of the most acclaimed arcade titles of '80s and '90s, and having them in portable form is a real delight. Factor in the ability to play 1943 and MERCS in 'TATE' mode, and the package becomes even more appealing.

Evercade EXP
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Also in the box you get IREM Arcade Collection 1, a physical cartridge which includes:

R-Type will need little in the way of introduction and is likely to be a title that will convince many to plump up the cash for this device. However, our personal favourite on this cart is In The Hunt, which was created by the same team that would later produce the seminal Metal Slug. A shmup set underwater, it's a gorgeous-looking title – and it packs a serious challenge, too.

Battle Chopper is also worth a look, as is the Shinobi-style action title Lightning Swords. We'd like to have seen a few more of IREM's arcade classics included here – Undercover Cops, Image Fight, X-Multiply and Gunforce, to name just a few – but we'd imagine that Blaze intends to produce more IREM collections in the future, so there's plenty of time.

While it's not included with the base version of the EXP, the console is launching alongside another new cartridge which covers some of Toaplan's greatest hits:

  • Tiger-Heli
  • Alcon / Slap Fight
  • Flying Shark
  • Truxton
  • Zero Wing
  • Guardian
  • Snow Bros
  • Teki Paki

Given Toaplan's reputation as one of Japan's foremost shmup factories, it should come as little surprise to learn that the likes of Truxton, Flying Shark and Zero Wing are the highlights here – the first two of those titles benefit from TATE support on the EXP, too. However, Bubble Bobble clone Snow Bros is also superb, while Teki Paki – a rare puzzle release from Toaplan – is something of a hidden gem and is sure to gobble up a lot of your spare time.

Because the EXP boasts an improved 1.5Ghz chipset, the emulation on all of these games is pretty much flawless. We also like the ability to play the games in 'competition mode', which disables save states. You can also set a coin limit for games to avoid the temptation of simply feeding credits to beat them.

In terms of software options, save states are something of a godsend, especially on tough arcade titles. Purists might see them as a cowardly aid, but if your playtime is limited or you have the need to pause your progress often, then you'll begin to wonder how you ever coped without them. Another welcome feature is dynamic rate control, which synchronises the screen update for those titles which, in their original form, exhibit odd frame rates. Oh, and there are also CRT-style scanline options – but, for once, they actually look decent.

Evercade EXP
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

The single biggest issue we have with the Evercade EXP's options at present is the fact that it's not possible to remap the buttons for each game. So, for example, in Final Fight, the 'B' button (which is on the right side of the action button cluster) is attack while the 'A' button is jump. This might be personal preference more than anything else, but we've grown up with those button positions reversed. Thankfully, Blaze has confirmed to us that button remapping is coming as part of a firmware update in 2023, so we won't have to complain about this for much longer.

Finally, it's worth noting that, in the best tradition of old-school cheat codes and secrets, there are five hidden games to unlock – if you know where to look. This is a cool little touch which acknowledges a key part of gaming history.

Evercade EXP
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Evercade EXP Review - The Verdict

The original Evercade handheld was a welcome surprise but one that certainly left room for improvement. The EXP is an important step in refining the concept thanks to its superior design, improved screen and amazing TATE mode, the latter of which will make the device even more attractive to serious arcade fans.

Despite the polish, a few rough edges remain – battery life could be better, the screen isn't quite OLED standard and the fact that light bleeds through the casing is unfortunate – but, on the whole, the EXP is everything we could possibly want from the next Evercade handheld.

The Evercade EXP used in this review was kindly supplied by Blaze.

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