This post is planned as a short series on Mini Consoles, and is part one. The idea is to introduce the four most famous contemporary mini consoles:
Mega Drive Mini
Part two will be all about whether it’s worth buying a mini console or whether it’s worth getting something else.
remember to check back for that
Imagine your face, back in 1990, as you opened up your freshly minted Mega Drive. This 28x21.8 cm block of plastic is what you’ve been told with blow your metaphorical socks off with its blast processor
something which didn't exist; but we all fall for marketing every now and then
and with the inclusion of a game in the box, you knew that you’d have a great time.
Cracking open the box, you’d find a copy of a game called Sonic the Hedgehog - SEGA having seemingly given the mascot of the Master System the old heave ho in favour of a blue, spiky hedgehog.
I don't know whether you've seen a hedgehog move, but they're legendarily slow
Regardless, you spend a little time figuring out how to get your new box of wonder plugged into your TV. You even figure out which channel worked best with the particular frequency used by the console
back then, you had to tune your TV into the game signal
and get the now familiar “SEEEEGAAAAA!”
You sit back and wonder at the marvel of it all. The colours (512); the music (FM synth); the buttons on the controller. And you start playing the game.
It’s a shame that the PAL version of Sonic was hampered by the 50Hz screens we have over here in the UK. Here’s a comparison of NTSC vs PAL Sonic:
Regardless. You don’t know any better, and you’re having a blast collecting rings
which is somehow better than collecting coins
and smashing open robotic enemies.
Less than 20 years later, SEGA would announce a new Mini version of the console, a device which was half the size of the original but was actually an SoC
System on a Chip - think "an entire computer motherboard in a single chip"
running a Linux kernel, and playing games via a custom emulator written by M2.
Here is a photo of a Japanese Mega Drive next to a Japanese Mega Drive Mini:
There have been a lot of these devices released over the years. The first series of which was released in the early 2000s, most where devices which would plug directly into your TV and emulate devices from the Second Generation of games consoles. Most where discrete devices designed to look like the controllers of the consoles that they were emulating and only stored a small subset of games. The Atari 10 in One shipped with… well, 10 games.
Most of the early mini consoles where licensed versions of the Atari and ColecoVision consoles from the second generation, with Nintendo and Sega staying away from the fad. Sega did give AtGames a license to create the Mega Drive Flashback in 2017 but it didn’t sell well; the emulation was terrible; and had a very small list of games (most of which you’ll have never heard of). It did have a cartidge slot, so you could play the real games, but that wasn’t much of a saving grace - due to the lack-luster emulation.
Nintendo Lays Down The Challenge
Then Nintendo announced the NES Classic. This device was really well received; had a respectable list of games; and the emulation was spot on (the emulator having been written by the wonderfully titled Nintendo European Research & Development). The downside was that it was released in very, very small batches.
on a recent episode of Arcade Attack, they talk about having paid over 200 pounds for theirs
that's almost triple the current RRP
It had the same quad core ARM Cortex-A7 that you would find on a Raspberry Pi 2, meaning that it was more than capable of running NES games.
One year later saw the release of the SNES Classic Edition. It had the same hardware (quad core Cortex-A7) and operating system as the NES Classic, and contained another suite of emulators created bt NERD. Just like the NES Classic, the emulation was spot on and it included a seriously good line up of games - including one that had never been released: Star Fox 2.
Both the NES Classic and SNES Classic could be hacked to install emulators for an incredibly impressive list of consoles, some of which included:
PlayStation (we’ll come back to this one)
This was because of the hardware (which was ridiculously over the top for the systems they where emulating) and the fact that it ran on Linux.
Wait! What’s a Kernel!?
I should explain.
There are three major operating systems:
distributions of Linux
You’re probably familiar with both Windows and Mac OS. Linux might be new to you. Here’s some operating system design theory (feel free to skip it):
Operating systems can be thought of as applications which let you run other applications
this isn't really true, but it'll do
on your computer, phone, laptop, games console, etc. Operating systems are designed in parts, from the graphical system to the driver support, all the way down to the file system (how bits are stored on disk to represent files).
Arguably the most important part of an operating system is it’s kernel. This is the one piece of the operating system that everything else talks to. Without this there is no operating system. Windows 10 uses the latest version of the NT Kernel, Mac OS uses the latest version of the XNU kernel, and LinuxIS a kernel.
So when I say that the NES Classic runs Linux, I mean that it runs a Linux kernel with a custom operating system built around it. My PC runs an operating system based on the Linux kernel, and when I run a command to tell me which version it tells me:
Linux omoide 5.3.0-7625-generic x86_64
Even though you might not know it, Linux is the most widely used kernel out of the three major ones - mainly because it’s free, but also because you can easily change the code for it if you wanted.
Suddenly Sony Shows Up
Not one to fall behind, Sony released the PlayStation Classic in 2018, but this was clearly rushed.
The PlayStation Classic had a MediaTek MT8167a SoC with a Quad-Core ARM Cortex-A35, which was the same SoC in the Lenovo Tab 7 Essential and the Acer Iconia One 10
I'm not sure I'd call them powerhouse devices
it runs a Linux based operating system, too. The emulator wasn’t written by Sony, or some subsidiary, it was a popular, free open source emulator called PCSX ReArmed. Some of the games included are real belters:
The problem was that the hardware wasn’t capable of emulating the PlayStation. In fact, a number of the games provided where the PAL versions - meaning that they ran slightly slower than the NSTC version. Here’s a comparison video which should make it a little more obvious:
The emulation was that bad that the SNES Classic is actually able to emulate PlayStation games more accurately than the PlayStation Classic.
like I say, it must have been rushed
On top of that, whilst the software on the console was encrypted Sony decided to store the encryption key on the device
imagine locking your front door, but leaving the key in the lock
so it was only a matter of time before folks figured out a way to replace the games that were loaded onto the PlayStation Classic.
Sega Has Entered The Game
Not to be outdone, Sega announced a mini version of the Mega Drive. But that would be in early 2019, three years after the NES Classic Edition was released. The list of games was impressive, and the emulation was solid
apparently it could outperform the original, as some games which suffered from framerate issues on original hardware ran flawlessly
but the audio was lacking in a lot of places:
The original Mega Drive used two sound chips – the Yamaha YM2612 and the Texas Instruments SN76489 – controlled by a secondary processor, the Zilog Z80. This array has previously proven a challenge for some commercial emulation efforts to deal with, and seemingly remains an obstacle for M2 here… some games on the Mega Drive Mini do sound slightly out of sync. For instance, jump sound effects in Sonic or Castle of Illusion are a few frames behind the player making the action. Curiously, the lag doesn’t seem to be a consistent problem – the chime for collecting a ring, again in Sonic, seems to be appropriately timed.
It turns out that if you want to get the best performance from the Mega Drive Mini, you have to hack it and install a third party operating system, which comes loaded with slightly different emulators. The upside of this, is that you can get better performance and load your own games onto it; the downside is that if anything goes wrong, you have a black box which is worth diddly squat.
What About You?
Did you buy any of the mini consoles? If so, did you feel like they where worth it and did you install any of the aftermarket hacks? If not, what stopped you from buying one? Let us know in the comments, and let’s keep the conversation going.
Also, don’t forget to come back for the next part of the series.
Leave a comment in the section on this page and let us know what you liked, what you didn’t like and which games you’d like to hear us waffle on about next time.