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.

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