Game Boy and all its incarnations and successors, from the Nintendo DS to even the Switch, are wonderful, but I’ve always wanted a portable NES. Yes, there are ways to emulate NES games on phones and handheld gaming devices (I’m currently using an R4i Gold card in a DSi LL), but I wanted a self-contained, dedicated piece of hardware that accepted the bulky cartridges and had only one purpose: to play 8-bit Nintendo games on the go.
Over the years I’ve seen Chinese knockoffs, DIY mods, and a couple of commercial products that basically do the trick, but they’ve never looked that polished and/or they were extremely expensive. Last month I decided to look again–and at first I didn’t find much on offer. The only real commercial product at the moment was Retro-Bit’s RetroDuo Portable, which is a portable Super NES with an adapter for NES games. It works, but it looks a bit unwieldy with the adapter plus a cartridge, and it received some mixed reviews; I also tried one at MAGFest, and it felt somewhat light and cheap, though I couldn’t test out the controller buttons because it was being used to run an NES music cart. Nonetheless, just as I decided to bid on a cheap one on eBay–figuring why not?–I learned that there was a new contender on the horizon: the Gamerz Tek 8-Bit Boy XL. I ordered it immediately, despite its $99 price tag, and I didn’t even have to wait long for it to arrive (though apparently it had been delayed a bit from its original Fall 2017 release date).
I’ve posted a video review of my unboxing and first impressions, but since then I’ve been putting it through its paces and testing some more games on it. My opinion hasn’t changed much–I really like it, and with some caveats, it’s pretty much what I’ve always wanted and could ever want. If you’re looking for a portable NES, and you’re willing to deal with a few compromises, this could be the device for you too.
First of all, though the “XL” seems to have been dropped from its official name, it’s still significant–the 8-Bit Boy is large, perhaps too large to truly be considered portable in today’s age, particularly with the need for cartridges which stick out of the top and add to its overall size. It feels a lot like the Wii U Gamepad, which may not be much to recommend it considering how unsuccessful that console was, but the controller was one of the things I liked about that system. However, since the 8-Bit Boy is a good size, it also has a large screen–7 inches to be exact, making it bigger than the one on the Nintendo Switch!
Here are some of the 8-Bit Boy’s key features, broken up into pros and cons, some of which I will go into more detail on later:
- It’s well-built, extremely sturdy with a nice weight to it and an NES-inspired design
- Cartridges fit snugly and aren’t difficult to remove, with no wiggle while playing–no fear of your game freezing or restarting!
Comes with a stand and connector for external controllers (included) for tabletop multiplayer
- The controllers are terrific, particularly the D-pad, which so far is every bit as good as an official first-party NES controller, with snappy B and A buttons
- 7-inch screen
Loud speakers, headphone jack
- HDMI output in 720p; the screen blanks when output to a TV, but the 8-Bit Boy still plays audio through its speakers, so you can play on a HD computer monitor even if you don’t have computer speakers
Video can be switched from 4:3 to 16:9 on the included screen and a TV (I actually would prefer just 4:3, but at least it doesn’t default to or force a 16:9 aspect ratio); moreover, this is a true 4:3, not a “pixel perfect” square ratio (see comparison photos of Kirby’s Adventure below)
Supports external controllers via an adapter (two controllers included, which themselves are pretty decent, but you can use your original accessories as well)
- Includes a Gamerz Tek branded carrying pouch and screen protectors; the protectors are kind of cheap, but they’re still two more than you get with any other Nintendo portable device
- Two-year warranty
Screen is a bit washed out with a narrow viewing angle and faint “jailbars” (see photos below)
- Battery meter displays over the game picture on the TV all the time, whether on battery or charging
- Slight lag on handheld screen (more details below)
- As a “Nintendo on a Chip” (NOAC) clone console, the color palette may seem off
- The sound is definitely off, worse for some games than others, seemingly due to reversed duty cycles
- Only 97% compatibility with the NES library, with some glitchy behavior possible
Controller adapter is a tight fit when using the attachable stand (presumably because this was planned to support wireless controllers)
- No Everdrive support; PowerPak unknown, but unlikely
- B and A buttons are angled upward, like on the NES dogbone controller, NES Max, and SNES controllers, with turbo buttons above them–and they can’t be remapped. They also aren’t concave like NES controllers, nor quite convex–they’re just flat buttons.
- Kind of cheap USB charger (5v, 2000maH)–the USB plug doesn’t quite fit in the wall wart the way it should)
Of the pros, I’m most impressed with the build quality and feel of the device in the hand. I love the large, bright screen, which makes it even more of a comfortable alternative to gaming on my HDTV or even my CRT. (In fact, one of my CRTs is only 9-inches, which isn’t much bigger than the 8-Bit Boy’s screen.)
Although I have a RetroN 5 (yeah, I know) and I play and stream via original hardware on a CRT, I’ve been wanting another way to play my original carts through hardware on an HDTV. I’ve had a hard time justifying the $500 price tag of an Analogue NT Mini, or even the more reasonable $190+ expense of a RetroUSB AVS, so I was considering one of the current generation $40-60 HD clone consoles, including the Gamerz Tek 8-Bit HD–which is basically included in the functionality. And while the handheld is bulky, it doesn’t weigh too much and is truly portable–I brought it with me on a train commute one day, and it was a pretty positive experience.
Of the cons, the one I suspect most people are going to be concerned with is the compatibility and emulation quality of NES games. This is basically the same as most other NOACs out there, and if you go into it knowing and accepting that as a compromise, as I did–if you are a retro “enthusiast” but not necessarily a “purist”–it isn’t that big a deal.
The picture is plenty clear and bright when looking at it head-on, which also happens to be the most comfortable way for me to hold it, but there’s some light bleeding around the edges, and you can see how the picture varies depending on your viewing angle. The only really bad angle is from the top down. Also note this is on the maximum brightness setting, which the unit defaults to; if you cycle through them with the brightness button, at first you only have three brightness settings, but another cycle through shows four. It will not remember your last settings. I find it works best at the lowest brightness. There’s also no way to adjust contrast, which could be annoying on some games.
Super Mario Bros. sounds, to quote Try from My Life in Gaming in his unboxing video, “VERY STRANGE!” I always thought sound would be a deal-breaker for me too, but I do get used to it after a while, and emulating games on my DS also requires a bunch of compromises which are even worse, most notably the altered screenresolution.
While the colors don’t quite match what I’m used to on my NES on a CRT, they’re pretty comparable to the RGB picture of the Nintendo Playchoice-10. On the screen and output to a TV, the picture is sharp, with perhaps a little softness around the edges but certainly far better than pushing a composite signal through an upscaler. The larger your TV, probably the less satisfying it will be, but I’ll still probably stick to my CRT and a RetroN 5 or the NES Classic unless I’m on the go or want to switch back and forth between the TV and handheld mode–just like on the Switch!
I should also mention that while I seemed to have trouble with the included HDMI cable in my video, it did later work fine; I think the problem may have been in how my TV detects signals and how the 8-Bit Boy pushes them to the TV. It works best when I turn it on and then switch to the correct input.
I don’t know how long the batteries last or how quickly they hold a charge, but upon opening the battery compartment, which is secured with a small Phillips-head screw, they appear to be two 18650 rechargeable batteries–user-replaceable parts which cost around $12-16. I don’t like that the battery meter is displayed at all times, especially when output to a TV. When they system is running, the LED on the top left glows blue, and when it’s being charged, the indicator is red.
Updated 4/7/18: I’ve discovered that when you’re down to one bar on the battery and play a little while on a low charge, at some point the sound cuts out. You can still hear the game faintly through good headphones, but it looks like the speakers don’t get enough power when the battery is almost depleted. I was wondering if the LED would change colors to indicate imminent shutdown, but I didn’t take it that far because I couldn’t play without sound :) Another data point: The LED turns off when the battery has been fully charged. I didn’t record how long it takes to a full charge, but I will at some point.
GamerzTek promises 97 percent compatibility; they haven’t published a list of incompatible games, but I bet it includes some of the usual, like Bandit Kings of Ancient China, Uncharted Waters, etc., most of which I don’t own anyway. (See list below of commonly incompatible games.) I haven’t tested every game I do own, but it also seems consistent with most NOACs. Castlevania III plays with some glitching, Kirby’s Adventure looks and sounds fine (a problem with an the 8-Bit HD version 1), Tetris and Tengen Tetris are good, and so is RC Pro-Am II (which I tested instead of Rad Racer II by mistake.) I tested some homebrews which worked: Battle Kid, Mystic Origins, Chunkout 2, Haunted Halloween ’85, Cowlitz Gamers 2nd Adventure (screen glitches when you first turn it on, but it works fine when you reset it).
As you can see in my video, Battletoads locks up in level 2–though you can circumvent that with a Warp at the beginning of level 1, and keep playing. Which brings me to another problem: lag. And this one I do care about.
I didn’t notice this until Try commented on it in his video, but then I specifically tested for it using two games that require precision input and impeccable timing: Ninja Gaiden III and the Turbo Tunnel in Battletoads.
I may have been a bit out of practice with Ninja Gaiden III, but I’ve played it a lot recently so I’m sensitive to lag, and my timing was off enough that I had a hard time getting past 2-1–while I can usually make it with minimal damage on a CRT or the RetroN 5.
The real kicker though is Battletoads. I always can make it through the Turbo Tunnel with at most one or two deaths, but after many attempts on the 8-Bit Boy’s in handheld mode, I couldn’t succeed once–the game felt sluggish in places, not exactly input lag but more like… it wasn’t refreshing quickly enough? On closer inspection, there’s a small bit of stuttering on the screen, as if it can’t quite keep up with the scrolling. That’s no good.
I tried Battletoads on my NES emulator on the DSi, and had no trouble though, so I know it’s the 8-Bit Boy. Thinking it might be the unfamiliar controller, I hooked up the 8-Bit Boy to my low-lag HDTV (or at least it has an acceptable bit of lag which I’m used to), a 40-inch TLC, and I was able to clear the Turbo Tunnels with no trouble. After successfully repeating the experiment on another, laggier TV, I was finally able to clear the Turbo Tunnels on the handheld screen–but it was much more of a struggle, and I found myself anticipating the delay more than responding to what was on the screen.
The lag is the biggest disappointment to me, though I’m pleased that there is no additional lag added on HDMI output. I just can’t figure out why the built-in screen would have more lag, except that it may not be displaying the video quickly enough; considering the washed-out image, it’s clearly a budget component that perhaps is a necessary evil to keep the price point just under $100. If anyone knows, please leave a comment!
However, although many NES games require fast reflexes, this slight lag won’t affect have as bad an impact on the majority as it does on Ninja Gaiden III and Battletoads. So a deal-breaker for me? Not quite–I can still use this thing happily for many games.
Other issues and observations
The lack of Everdrive is enough to rule this out for a lot of people, but not for me. I own 320-plus games, and don’t really mind being forced to carry only one or two with me on the go; I tend to stick with only a few games until I complete them these days anyway. Save states sure would be nice though.
The main reason we don’t see more of these devices is probably the cartridge size; for some reason SNES handhelds are easier to sell because of their smaller form factor, and there are a couple of competing units available now. The cartridge slot on the 8-Bit Boy is very good. Initially it felt a little too tight, but it has settled at being comfortable to insert and remove, depending on the cartridge. Your games do need to be pretty clean to work, and even then I did have some trouble with it recognizing some games, like Metroid, right away, even though they worked immediately on my front-loader NES.
The trick in those cases seems to be to push down evenly on both ends of the cartridge to get a good fit. But there’s no wobble, and games aren’t affected while running even when you put the unit down on a table and the top half is essentially resting on the cart. I may get a Famicom adapter and test it out with my only Famicom game, Super Mario Bros. 3, but I am not going to risk ruining it by jamming a Game Genie in there.
As for other peripherals, it was silly to test because there’s no composite output for a CRT, but the Zapper does not work with the included controller-port adapter. Original and other third-party controllers do work, including the RetroUSB Wireless controller (presumably the 8BitDo wireless controllers will also work). I’ll also note that the display stand only just allows enough room to clear the cord of the controller adapter, likely because wireless controllers were originally intended for this device. (For the record, I prefer the external, wired controller support, rather than proprietary wireless controllers which likely would have been laggy.)
In the comments on my video, YouTube gamer Nefarious Wes thought the placement of the reset button might be a problem, but I have yet to hit it accidentally. I’m less happy with the placement of the volume dial on the top right shoulder, where I naturally rest my index finger while playing.
I can see myself using this thing around the house, like the Wii U or the Switch, rather than lugging it around with me in public too often, or taking it on trips–especially since I can just plug it into a TV whenever I feel like it. (I just ordered a flexible 15-foot HDMI cable for just this purpose, as I’ll probably use the 8-Bit Boy itself as a controller rather than bother with the adapter and stand.) If you don’t think this is an ideal solution for the portable NES of your dreams, I still maintain it’s the only good option on the market right now, and possibly the better option in the foreseeable future, depending on what you’re looking for; even when the reported RetroUSB AVP becomes available, it could still have its uses for budget-minded players. Here’s how the two handhelds will compare based on everything I know about the AVP so far, subject to change:
|Feature||Gamerz Tek||RetroUSB AVP|
|Emulation||NOAC, 97% compatibility||FPGA, 100% compatibility|
|Display||4:3 or 16:9||Variable horizontal scaling|
|Video||Digital||Digital, “native resolution”|
|Power||Rechargeable batteries (unknown charge time or duration, but they seem replaceable)||Rechargeable batteries (8-15 hours)|
|Turbo||Yes (dedicated buttons)||Maybe (adjustable)|
|Flashcart||No (Everdrive Tested)||Yes (PowerPak confirmed)|
|External Controller Support||Yes (via proprietary adapter)||No|
|Availability||Now||Unknown, perhaps 2018|
You make up your own mind, but for my money, I can put up with some of these compromises to bring NES games with me and have the added functionality of an HD NES when I need one. Even with some of the audio and video issues, this is still feels like a more “authentic,” no fuss, way of playing NES games, and it feels more comfortable than holding and using the controls on a DSi LL for a retro game.
- Battletoads – crashes in level 2, skippable via warp
- Castlevania III – plays with video artifacts
- Gauntlet – corrupt data and graphics
- Gauntlet 2 – will test
- Dragon Warrior – will test
- Paperboy – starts and seems to play fine
- Bandit Kings of Ancient China
- Challenge of the Dragon
- Cheetahmen II
- Cobra Triangle – will test
- Crystal Mines
- Incredible Crash Dummies
- Jordan vs. Bird One on One
- King Neptune’s Adventure
- Krion Conquest
- Laser Invasion
- Menace Beach
- Nobunaga’s Ambition II
- Pipe Dream
- Rad Racer II – won’t even turn on
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms II
- Uncharted Waters
- WWF King of the Ring
- WWF Wrestlemania Challenge