Review: Polymega Element Modules

I reviewed the Polymega base unit when it was sent to beta testers a while back, and now I have the final retail release, along with the four element modules (EM). To get caught up with the details of the base unit, you can read the first review here. This review is going to focus on the EMs and their included controllers. 

Guide rails and a locking clasp ensure a secure fit for all modules

The element modules are interchangeable pieces that slide into place on top of the Polymega base unit. There is release button that unclasps the module, allowing you to pull one off in order to slide in a different one. The build quality feels sturdy and is made from a high quality plastic that has a smudge-resistant matte shine. Each module has two controller ports for its respective console, which can theoretically accept any controller that the original console could. I have tried original controllers and they all work fine. I even tried some modern Genesis controllers, like the 8Bitdo 2.4 GHz M30 and Retrobit's 2.4 GHz, and they both work great, except that the home buttons don't function as they were intended for the Switch.   

The Polymega allows you to not only play your original cartridges, but install them as well. This is a huge selling point for me, as once the games are installed, you don't need to fuss with cleaning them each time. The user interface is very sleek and well designed. The games all have custom thumbnails made from the original cover art, and can be sorted a number of ways. Installing cartridge games is nearly instantaneous, unlike the CD based games which take on average about 10 minutes each. If a game is not yet entered into the Polymega database, it is reported by beta testers and a new firmware may possibly resolve the problem. The devs need to have a copy of the original game to program it into the database. I am still waiting for my Japanese copy of Donpachi on PS1 to be recognized since the beta testing period. 

The first Element module is EM01, which is for NES cartridges. There is only one slot, but with an adapter you can play and install Japanese Famicom games as well. Inserting the NES carts is a tight fit initially, but it started to loosen up after importing many carts over time. As I was importing, I was reminded how annoying it is to deal with dirty carts. It became necessary to clean about most of the carts. It makes the importing feature that much more appealing. I have only a handful of famicom games, and those were a pain to import due to the extra contacts that need to be cleaned on the cartridge adapter; I was only able to successfully import a few of them. The black Tengen cartridges were not recognized at all, an intentional omission due to them not being officially licensed. Out of my 160 NES carts, about 20 of them were not able to be imported. These will need to be reported and remedied for a future firmware. Had the EMs been available to beta testers, these would have been ironed out beforehand, but it is a monumental task to catalog every game for that many systems.

The gameplay is very tight, and the emulation quality is quite good. I made sure to play games that I know frontwards and backwards so that I would notices any oddities and issues. In Mega Man, there was what seemed like extra slowdown in certain areas, and the music would get a little glitchy here and there. I could not import certain games that I thought that I should have been able to, like Castlevania III and TMNT. I played with both the original and included controllers, and the muscle memory is still there for nearly all of the games. I played Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! and did not notice any lag. This was a pleasant surprise.

The included NES controller compares favorably, with angled buttons and ergonomic shape

The controller is a fantastic modernization of the original. Any middle aged gamer will understand the need for the angled buttons. Since The first Super Mario Bros., the need to hold the B button to run has been ingrained into muscle memory, and the button placement eases the strain on the wrists. The dpad is always my primary concern regarding third after market controllers. This dpad is a bit stiff, and so I assume that it will loosen up over time. The buttons are convex, which is fine, although I prefer concave for NES. The controller is contoured along corners, and rounded on the back, giving it a substantial and comfortable grip. I have seen people complain about the "sharp" corners on the original NES controller, but I never really though it was an issue. Even still, the rounder shape is hard to argue with. 

The second module, EM02, is for SNES and Super Famicom games. Game importing was a lot smoother, as nearly all of my games were recognized. Again the emulation quality is top notch. The default visuals are sharp, clean, with accurate colors. There is no frame rate issue, nor screen tearing. The audio seems to be just as accurate, but I'm not a SNES guy at heart, so maybe someone else might notice something, but I didn't. 

The included SNES controller is a tad smaller than the original
The back is rounded and very comfortable

The controller is modeled after your general SNES controller, with the select and start buttons moved upward to make room for the home button. The Y and X buttons are not concave, they are convex like A and B. I would have preferred the button styling to have both form factors, but its not a big deal to me. The shoulder buttons have an ever so slightly deeper press to them, with a subtle rubber bounce feel to them, which I like a lot. My only complaint about the controller is the dpad. There's nothing technically wrong with it, and it has a lot to live up, given the excellent design of the original. It just doesn't feel as good, especially with diagonals. In Contra 3, running and shooting diagonally is where I noticed it. I was still able to play the game, but I kept thinking about how that action did not feel as right. Button presses seem to be right on time, and I could play Super Mario World without issue.

EM03 for the Genesis and Mega Drive was the first module I tested, as I have the largest Genesis library out of all of the supported systems. The rectangular cartridge slot easily accommodates all shapes of cartridges, so no filing away at the flaps like with a Model 1 Genesis. The games all installed properly with only a few exceptions, and I think those will be resolved at next update. 

This included controller perhaps strays the most from the original, as it's physical girth is significantly thicker, with a curved contour that almost feels like a banana. This is perhaps an inelegant way to describe it, but it feels different and familiar at the same time; it's like a hybrid between the original Genesis 6-button and a Playstation controller. The buttons are uniformly large and springy, they feel good. The dpad is a little floaty however. It's not bad, but it's not great. The dpad on the original 6-button controller was in my opinion the best, and so this was going to be hard to emulate. A mode button is present on the top right shoulder, where the original was, except that it is a small circular dot instead of a panel button. The first game I loaded up was MUSHA, and it played faithfully. Next I played Thunder Force III, and perhaps here I felt what might have been a tinge of lag using the included controller. It wasn't enough to inhibit how I play, but it was the first time I noticed some. It's definitely not Retropie-bad, but I do think it is there. This is going to be something that each individual will have different levels of sensitivity to. TF3 was perhaps the Genesis game that I have played the most out of the entire library, so this particular instance might just be isolated to me. I noticed no such lag on any other game. Maybe it's in my head.

The pack-in Genesis controller appears very similar to the original 6-button controller from the front, but is has pronounced curvature to it's grip that gives it a modern feel, akin to a playstation controller. It feels good but it is so different. The buttons are all the same size, which is nicer than the original. I always felt that more force was needed to press X, Y, and Z on the original, and here the button resistance is uniform. A small, circular mode button is found in a familiar spot on the right shoulder.

EM04 plays Turbo Grafx-16 and PC Engine games. The PC Engine is king in shooters genre, and those make up the vast majority of my collection. This is where I thought for sure there would noticeable lag. Much to my surprise, the lag was very minimal, on most games I barely noticed it. A few games I did notice on were Coryoon, Winds of Thunder, and Gunhed, although it didn't ruin the experience. I can't explain why its noticeable on some games but not most. 

I played games that I know like the back of my hand over and over again trying to sense it. Playing the games with controllers through the USB connection is a different story. The USB controller port definitely has noticeable lag, I don't think I'll ever use a USB controller on the Polymega. The include controller has six face buttons, which I found curious as there is only one game that requires that many: Street Fighter II'. There is a two or six button toggle switch which changes which type of controller inputs you are using. It wouldn't be a Turbo Grafx controller without turbo switches, and it indeed has them, although they only have on or off settings, no intermediate option.

The decision to have six buttons was a surprising one

Overall my opinion of the Polymega has drastically changed from the beta unit to the retail unit with the Element Modules. The main reason for this is the low latency controller ports on the EMs. When I reviewed the beta base unit, I did not have any EMs and thus I only had access to the USB controller port, which sucks. Any EM can be attached while playing any game, so you can choose to play NES games with a Genesis controller, or vice versa. This versatility isn't the point; its the nearly lag free gameplay that is the biggest surprise of all. 

With all of the modern options for playing retro games out there, the Polymega definitely has a niche existence, requiring physical cartridges and CD games. Many retro gamers getting into the hobby today do not have the extensive collections necessary to warrant such a purchase. This is for the collector who has an established library of games, and wants to play them in a simple HDMI setup, without having to worry about upscalers, special cables, switch boxes, and space. It also has a relatively high price point (arguably lower if you consider the number of systems supported). Many gamers have converted towards the FPGA route, and I agree that they are fantastic, but this product is not that for them, as it is emulation through software; again, a distinction that most will not ever notice. Given this strong performance by the Polymega, I think that it will make a lot of people very happy, once the 2018 preorders finally ship.

Review: The MISTer FPGA

As the concept of retro gaming has matured over the past twenty or so years, the popularity and demand for retro consoles and games has reached new heights. With so much awareness of the great games of yesteryear, and limited supply, playing old games via emulation has become more and more commonplace. Emulation has flirted with mainstream popularity, from plug and play solutions (NES Classic, SNES Classic, Playstation Classic, Sega Genesis Mini, Turbo Grafx-16 Mini, more) to more tinker-based projects (RetroPie). All of these emulation methods are hamstrung by the emulation in software. Because the operations take place in series, each operation must complete before another starts, this is the logic behind code progression. With retro game consoles, the hardware operations occur in parallel, allowing for (yet simple) tasks occurring with brisk pace. If you've ever seen the motherboard inside a NES or Genesis, you can see all the traces between every chip and processor splaying out like an electrical web. All of these traces allow for parallel processing, which is what the console needed to produce the visuals, sounds, and gameplay that you remember. 

Remember when RetroPi was the Bee's knees? 

With good emulation, you might not ever realize there is a difference except for one inescapable tell: input latency. The operating system that is running the emulator will still add some wait time from when a button press is registered on a controller to when the action takes place onscreen. There are things you can do to mitigate input lag: turning off picture processing on your HDTV (using game mode) and using a wired controller. Most people may not even notice that there is any lag at all. But try playing a game from your youth that is heavily reliant on twitch movement, like Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! You may think that you're just old, and forgot how to play the game, and that might be true to some extent, but it's more than likely that the game is not processing your inputs as fast as a real console would. Hence, you will never beat Mike Tyson via emulation.

Enter field programmable gate arrays, or FPGA. These devices are programmed to mimic the operations on a hardware level, in parallel, not in series. This means no delay in signal processing and no lag. The FPGA consoles manufactured by Analogue are renown as the pinnacle of clone consoles for their level of accuracy to original hardware, while directly outputting high definition video to modern displays. They play original cartridges, have a modern design and interface, and can utilize original controllers to boot. As great as these are, they are exorbitantly priced, and in short supply. 

View of the optional IO board

The open source MIST project has many talented programmers and coders contributing "cores", or programs that are designed to mimic specific hardware like the NES, Genesis, Atari 2600, and so on. MISTer project created a buzz like none other. The MISTer name is an amalgam of MIST and Terassic (the brand of field programmable gate array board), hence MISTer. A consumer grade FPGA computer board that can be programmed to mimic nearly every legacy console and micro computer through the 16-bit generation (and possible 32-bit). The MISTer runs on the Terassic DE-10 Nano development board. Everyday it seems more and more cores are available. Just a few days ago the core for the DoDonpachi arcade game was released, and it plays phenomenally well. These are all free to use, because it's open source. 

There was a requisite level of technical know-how to get started, but with the recent release of Mr. Fusion, a program that writes the MISTer image to an SD card, the number of steps to get started has been simplified dramatically. Once you write the image on the card, insert it into the DE-10 Nano, and turn it on. The program will start up, and it will finish once connected to the net. I setup wifi on it first in order to do this (wifi dongle required). After the update, I moved my ROMs onto the card, configured a USB controller, and I was treated to cycle-accurate NES, Master System, Genesis, Sega-CD, SNES, PC-Engine, PC-Engine CD, Neo Geo gaming. 

It's a bunch of boards stacked together alright

The board looks like a science project, with exposed boards, wires, and LEDs protruding every which way. There are a host of optional accessories and add-ons, which add various features. I opted for the USB hub for additional ports, the IO board for a fan, 128 MB SD ram board for complete NEO GEO compatibility, and a USB WiFi dongle for updating and file transfers. It ends up looking like a spaghetti monster when everything is connected. There are cases available that help clean up the package, but keep in mind this was not originally built to be a game console. It also doesn't offer much in the way of menu aesthetics, with it's plain text menu. The polished front ends for RetroPie win one point here. No matter, as once your start playing you realize that software based emulation can't match the accuracy of MISTer. 

Arcade game cores are a FPGA revelation 

Another downside is the ceiling of console programmability. The DE-10 is projected to top out at the 5th generation, and how well it can pull it off remains to be seen. Playstation and Sega Saturn are the hopes, and If indeed they happen, I'd say the DE-10 has had a good run. Anything beyond would require a more powerful FPGA, which is inevitable.

Then there is the sticky issue of ROMs. Do most people extract the ROMs from their own cartridges? The MISTer does not have a cartridge port, let alone one for every supported core. ROM sites have been struck down in recent years, reminders that the legality of sharing/obtaining games is suspect at best. People will make their own decisions on that matter.

The MISTer opens up the costly world of NEO GEO to the masses

The cost of entry is fair, a DE-10 nano board costs around $140. You'll also need a micro SD card, HDMI cable, power adapter, USB controller, and USB keyboard (for setup). These add up to a little more than a Raspberry Pi setup running RetroPie, but again, the higher cost is due to the FPGA processor. All in, it's just a shade of what the equivalent retro gaming setup would cost if original consoles and games were considered. 

Clearly this is not a solution for hardware purists, but that's OK. There will never be a single solution to please everyone. The MISTer provides accurate gameplay without the flash, accoutrements, or ephemera that is strongly associated with retro gaming. For some that is a deal breaker, yet some don't feel they need the physical artifacts of gaming's past. At the end of the day, this is yet another option available to people to have fun and experience games from the the silver age of video games.