The Retron 77 is Hyperkin’s latest HD retro console, a tiny Atari 2600 emulator that outputs over HDMI in 720p – instead of the crackly, staticky RF connection you might not have even noticed on your HDTV.
When I received the review unit from Hyperkin, I took the opportunity to do something I hadn’t done yet: unearth my collection of 2600 cartridges from the deepest recesses of my closet, and play them with my 5-year-old twins.
It was immediately apparent that the Retron 77 is the best way to do this. The games look better than they ever have through the Retron’s HDMI connection, bright and colorful and all razor-sharp pixels… and still basically abstract in that 2600 way. You know, sometimes you have to explain that the gingerbread man at the top of the screen is Donkey Kong, or that the triangle is a spaceship, or… actually I don’t understand most of what’s going on in Superman. The unit itself is less than half the size of the big stupid old machine I have. Simply switching to a Retron is, like, 60% of a Konmari.
The included controller feels, to me, just like a real Atari 2600 joystick, but with “ambidextrous” design – cleverly, just a button on two opposing corners instead of one, and with a generous 10-foot cord. Real Atari controllers work too. Like I said, they feel about the same, which both is and isn’t an endorsement. Atari joysticks require a little too much yanking for me, and this is no exception. Hyperkin has informed me that the model I received is prone to “slight wear,” and that the company is working on a sturdier controller. I haven’t had any issues yet, but it’s worth noting.
The device uses the open-source Stella emulator, but makes a good case for dedicated hardware rather than just running Stella on a Raspberry Pi or whatever. For one thing, while it runs homebrew (and even includes some onboard), it also has a cartridge slot for real Atari 2600 cartridges – and allows hot-swapping, an excellently kid-friendly design. It also has the weird switches an Atari needs, like “mode select” and difficulty switches for each player, in the form of buttons on the front. The reset button that you need to press to start a game is there too. I never got used to this aspect of Atari gaming. More buttons are on the back of the unit, including a “fry” button that simulates turning the power on with the reset button held, which can cause some glitches in some games. I never got anything out of frying, but it’s a thoughtful inclusion that suggests the presence of someone at Hyperkin who cares a lot about these games.
No amount of hardware modernization could make the games any less rudimentary. In some ways, this works really well – Catherine delighted in the basic dueling of Outlaw and the Breakout combat of Warlords, games infinitely simpler for a kid to understand than anything on the Switch. But they’re not pretty, even in 720p, and pretty much every sound that comes out of an Atari is annoying. Emily demanded that we never play these loud old games again.
I didn’t hook up my vintage Atari and compare Pitfalls side-by-side. I didn’t calculate input lag or capture video to count frames. I didn’t do any science of any kind to gauge accuracy. I just played a bunch of old games with my kids, and Hyperkin made that easy.
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