FatNicK Reviews Stuff: The Evercade

So, having been lucky enough to receive one of these as a father’s day gift 2020, here’s my review of Blaze’s little retro-themed box of tricks. Sorry it’s taken so long – I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the thing. I still don’t, if I’m being perfectly honest.

Let’s start from the beginning then. Coming from Blaze Entertainment – a company who started life selling a range of cheat devices under the name of Xploder Ltd – the Evercade was announced all the way back in 2019 as a “brand new handheld console with unique multi-game retro cartridges.” As an impressive concept coming from a manufacturer with absolutely no track record of marketing a successful console, the Evercade had vapourware written all over it. When the device failed to meet its original 2019 launch date and slid into 2020 it looked like it was to have the dubious honour of joining the ranks of the Coleco Chameleon and whatever that thing was that zombified Atari were trying to sell.

However, sometimes it’s nice to be proved wrong. Six months, a house move and a global pandemic later and I had the final unit in my hands. And what a handsome thing it was too.

Hardware

Holding the thing in your hand, the Evercade is a nice if slightly unassuming thing. Rather than the sleek shapes of the Switch or the PSP Go, the no-nonsense Evercade fittingly harks back to the classic look of 90’s handhelds. As you’d perhaps expect from a £50 piece of the hardware, the features offer the minimum you’d expect but almost nothing more: you have enough face buttons to meet the demands of a Super Nes game, but no analogue controls. You have a 3mm headphone jack, but no bluetooth. There’s a USB port, but you can only use it for charging. Perhaps the only surprise it the mini-HDMI port that allows you top output the picture to a big screen (as long as you don’t mind being tethered by a cable, that is.)

How does it all work in practice? Again, considering the price bracket it isn’t bad at all. The viewing angle on the LCD is perhaps a few degrees short (it looks a little washed out if you aren’t looking directly at it) but when viewed properly the display is bright and colourful. The device feels a little bit cheap and ‘clicky’ (in the cheap 3rd party peripheral rather than the expensive arcade stick sense,) but in real world testing it has physically outlasted a Switch Lite. The Cortex A7 that acts as the Evercade’s brain might be a bit long in the tooth, but it’s frugal enough to give at least 3 hours of playtime and powerful enough to run the both Megadrive/Snes/Atari games the system was originally designed to run and a number of PS1 titles to boot.

Overall then, my opinions on the hardware are mixed. It’s obvious that the machine had to meet tight budgetary requirements, but despite that all of the key components work. The controls don’t feel the best, but at the end of the day they wont break or bring you out in horrendous callouses. The battery isn’t going to hold a candle to your iPhone, but it will last you for all but the longest train rides (and hey, it wouldn’t kill you to read a book for some of the time either.) It’s just a shame that, for a portable device released this side of Bladerunner, it won’t work with bluetooth controllers or headsets or let you plug anything other than power into its mini USB socket. The hardware does enough to get a passing mark, but to be honest the thing that’s going to see you the Evercade isn’t the hardware – it’s the software.

Software

One of the big selling points of the Evercade is that it’s a genuine old-skol console with physical cartridges that you physically have to plug into the unit. Your £14.99 buys you a nice plastic box, game cartridge and depressingly thin manual that outlines what each game’s about and how you control it on an Evercade.

I suspect at this point you’re probably wondering just how many titles each cartridge contains, however this isn’t a straight forward question to answer. If I’d have got round to writing this review in 2020, there would have been about 10 cartridges to talk about from well established names like Namco and Data East. To Blaze’s credit, this number has now swollen to about 28, with each cart being themed around the output of (or at least the IP currently held by) a particular publisher.

Generally, Evercade cartridges contain between five and twenty games, but the variety of supported platforms mean the value proposition isn’t as clear as the numbers suggest. Though the first Atari and Intellivision carts have 20 and 17 titles each, almost all of them are relatively simplistic 8-bit games from the early 1980s. Though the Gremlin collection contains just six games, two of them are PS1 games which is a bit more impressive. When it comes to judging the value proposition of each pack, a lot may depend on the relative value your place on newer and older retro games.

Still, even at their priciest, the £15 price tag for each cart means that individual games prices are in mobile territory (70p-£2.50), so I don’t think anyone could complain about the value too much. Personally I have only two quibbles: the barebones presentation and the games themselves. The barebones presentation is a pretty clear-cut complaint: Given both the Evercade’s mission and the relatively small number of titles in each pack, it would be nice to have more than just a blurb and a piece of box art for each game. I appreciate that the obscure/ancient nature of a lot of the titles mean interviews with developers etc won’t always be available, but all of these games should have some archive material they could have used to flesh the package out a bit.

A more complicated quibble is the games themselves. The thing with the carts being bundles is that, well, they’ve all been bought from each publish as a bundle. Sometimes this works out quite well – the first Atari compilation includes Asteroids, Crystal Castles, Missile Command, Night Driver along with some later gems you may not have known you required in your life, like Ninja Golf. Other collections feel a lot less balanced. If you think about the kind of titles you’d like to play on the move, Namco’s Strategy-based Metal Marines probably isn’t going to be at the top of the pile, while Bitmap Brothers fans would probably rather have The Chaos Engine than an obscure PS1 remake of Speedball 2.

With that said, bundling comes with its upsides too. Personally I think my most-played game on the original Data East collection was Side Pocket. If the Evercade was internet based and selling games individually for 70p a pop, this is one I doubt that I’d have even tried and I most definitely would have missed out. The same goes for Metal Marines. The ROM would have been sitting on my computer/Everdrive for years, but I only got round to trying it thanks to the curated selection on the Namco cart. Bundling certainly has issues when big titles are absent, but I think it does have its benefits as well.

A less divisive issue is the versions each cart provides you with for a particular title. Blaze hadn’t sorted the Evercade’s arcade emulation until the most recent releases, so although the original Data east collection provides you with Bad Dudes and Midnight Resistance, the versions included are home ports rather than the originals. In the case of Midnight Resistance this makes perfect sense: the Megadrive version is a reasonable facsimile of the original with controls that map much more easily onto the handheld than the spinner-based arcade machine. The NES version of Bad Dudes, however, is slow and flickery and really only of interest to those who owned it as a child and are in need of a nostalgia kick. To get the best version of everything you sometimes need to get multiple carts. The recent Data East arcade collection gives you an indisputably superior version of Bad Dudes, but without messing with the video settings the NES port of Burger time actually fits the screen better than the original.

Verdict

I have to admit I was a bit cynical going in, but I’m happier than I thought I would be with my Evercade. Although I really, really wish it had some sort of bluetooth support, I’ve had it a year and a half and don’t really have any other complaints with the hardware. It may not be the analogue pocket, but it isn’t going to set you back £200 either. I’ve chucked it into my bag on numerous trips into town and each time its kept me entertained for as long as I’ve needed it too and emerged at the end of the day unscathed. As hardware, I like it.

The only reservations I still have remain on the software side. I’ll admit that, for me, everything’s worked out quite well: I’m not a compulsive collector and am more than happy to harvest the handful of carts that interest me rather than go for the set. It’s also nice to have spent some time playing titles I wouldn’t normally have bothered with ( although admittedly ‘step into the unknown’ is a weird hook for a nostalgia-fuelled device’)

If you’re the kind of person who’ll feel the need to acquire all of the numbered carts in sequence, I could see it getting quite pricey quite quickly. Even without a collection compulsion, it is a bit of a shame that you normally need to have multiple carts to have the most playable versions of the best titles from each manufacturer. Not all of the titles seem particular suited to the format either. You couldn’t argue against the inclusion of the likes of Cannon Fodder and Sensible Soccer in terms of prestige, but their diminutive sprites aren’t particularly suited to a tiny handheld environment.

Overall then, I can recommend the Evercade in theory. Even without the likes of Capcom, Sega and Taito, Blaze have pulled together a decent enough variety of games to ensure there’s going to be at least a couple of carts with your name on them. However, the eccentric nature of the Evercade bundling means you might have to do a bit of research to find them.