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Reading in New York!

Next Tuesday, Nov. 13, I’m participating in a Serial Box All-Star reading with fabulous authors and friends Andrea Phillips, Michael R. Underwood, SL Huang, Stephen Kozeniewski, and Brian Slattery. Not only is this a rare NYC author appearance for me, but you’ll get a sneak peek at one of my secret new Serial Box projects! (Hint: If you like video games, I think you’ll like this new series.) I hope you can make it! Details below.

The New York Review of Science Fiction Readings
An Evening With Serial Box

Guest curated by Amy Goldschlager

Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, 7 p.m. (Doors open at 6:30. $5 suggested donation.)
The Brooklyn Commons Cafe
388 Atlantic Ave
Brooklyn, NY

Links:
http://www.hourwolf.com/nyrsf/
http://thecommonsbrooklyn.org/
https://www.serialbox.com/

Gamerz Tek 8-Bit Boy Review: Now You’re Playing With Portable Power!

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.

The Dream
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.

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Revisiting the Hyperkin Cadet Controller (NES)

Back in July, I reviewed Hyperkin’s Cadet Controller, a controller in the style of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) controllers; depending on which model you purchase, the controller is designed with different cables for use on the official NES and compatible clone consoles, the NES Classic Edition (Wii connector), and computers (USB connector). I posted both a detailed video unboxing the Cadet, trying it out, and opening it up, as well as a written summary with pictures. TLDR: I loved it.

I was surprised, nay shocked, given Hyperkin’s terrible RetroN 5 controller, and the track record of third party controllers in general–typically, the main thing companies fail at is in replicating Nintendo’s D-pad. No matter how faithful the recreation (I’m looking at you, 8Bitdo), they just can’t get it right even though it’s a little piece of plastic that has been around for more than 30 years. On the other hand, most companies can’t manage to fix the same audio, video, and compatibility problems plaguing “Nintendo-on-a-Chip” knockoff consoles that have been around for decades either.

What’s the problem with the D-pad? It seems the biggest issue is the size and shape of the pivot in the center of the D-pad. Without one, you can press the D-pad down and trigger every direction at once. With a crappy one, you will still trigger unintended diagonals, which is devastating to your performance in games requiring precision, i.e., pretty much NES game that isn’t an RPG, sports title, or board game adaptation–particularly in platformers and shmups that have tight controls. My usual test: Can Mario slide under blocks in Super Mario Bros. 3 easily?

The Hyperkin Cadet controller I reviewed in July, which I still use regularly, passed that test with flying colors. I liked the design, which is comfortable in my hands, and the A and B buttons are also snappy and responsive. When I opened it up, I found that the PCB was much higher quality than virtually every other third-party controller out there; where most use glob top on their board, that controller had an actual chip. I loved the controller so much, it actually replaced the Hudson Soft Joycard Sansui SSS as my favored NES controller, for a time. The only issues I had with the Cadet were the tight fit of its plug in an NES (it fits fine in a Hyperkin RetroN 5, which sounds about right), and the buttons were a little louder, which is only a problem when I’m live streaming.

Then a few weeks ago, user zedeighty commented on my YouTube video that the Cadet controller packed in with their RetroN 1 (Grey) didn’t work, and upon tearing it down they discovered it had a different board with a glob top!

I wish I had something positive to say about this controller but unfortunately the pad I got with my Retron HD was broken out of the box. I can’t get it to work with the clone it came with or a genuine NES (weirdly, the select button works but nothing else). Interesting thing is, I took one apart for curiosity’s sake and found that the circuit board inside mine is totally different to yours (it even has a glob top instead of a proper chip).

They linked me to a YouTube video that showed a PCB from another controller identical to theirs, posted by Gam3Tat0 on July 3, 2017, a couple of weeks before I posted my video. (So much for being the first!)

Source: Gam3Tat0 (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8dUT90-qr8QQ4Ck_QAZc_Q)

Source: Gam3Tat0 (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8dUT90-qr8QQ4Ck_QAZc_Q)

No black glob here! Just a real chip and a pretty clean looking PCB.

The PCB from my first Cadet controller.

Note the glob top and different circuits on the button pads! It seemed clear that there were different production runs on the controller or a change in manufacturing. Perhaps the pack-in controllers with the consoles were cheaper versions for some reason, or earlier production models, or they’re made in different factories…???

But no. I happen to have a second Cadet controller; I had liked the first so much, I was planning to buy the black model when it was released in August, but then I won a contest on Twitter so Hyperkin sent me one for free! When it arrived, I had no reason to believe it would be different from the first one, so I didn’t do another teardown, and in fact I didn’t even bother testing it and didn’t have a chance to use it. So, inspired by all this new information, I cracked the seal on the black controller, opened it up, and discovered it does not have a glob top! It has a chip just like my first Cadet controller; however, it has an entirely different D-pad from my other Cadet. :-o

At first, everything looks okay and consistent with my other controller.

At first, everything looks okay and consistent with my other controller…

This is perhaps even more significant, because when I reassembled the black controller and finally tested it, I found it performs completely differently from the first controller: The D-pad on the black controller is so awful, it is basically unusable. Not only did it fail the slide test in SMB3 miserably, but I couldn’t even hold the Down button to make Mario duck for long. He kept walking to the right instead! That’s no good.

D-pad from the black Cadet controller. Note the extremely narrow pivot in the center.

D-pad from the black Cadet controller, received for free from Hyperkin. Note the rounded pivot in the center, which actually looks like the one in an NES controller, and most third-party knockoffs.

 

D-pad from the white Cadet controller, produced at least a few months earlier and purchased from Castlemania Games. Note the narrower, almost pointed pivot.

D-pad from the white Cadet controller, produced at least a few months earlier and purchased from Castlemania Games. Note the narrower, almost pointed pivot. This is definitely a different mold.

 

Silicon conductive membrane from the black Cadet controller.

Silicon conductive membrane from the black Cadet controller.

RetroUSB Wireless Gamepad for NES and AVS Consoles

I’ve committed another video review — this time for a new wireless controller just released by RetroUSB.IMG_20170720_185051205

Designed by Brian “Bunnyboy” Parker, who also designed the RetroUSB AVS, a console that clones Nintendo Entertainment System hardware via a field programmable gate array (FPGA) for maximum accuracy and authenticity, the RetroUSB Wireless Gamepad (RET-GP) controller has been in the works for a while. It was worth the wait. Some of its highlights:

  • Retails for $65, available now for immediate shipping at www.retrousb.com
  • Wireless over RF, rather than Bluetooth, for minimum input lag
  • Microswitch/tactile buttons vs. traditional rubber membranes in OEM controllers
  • Rechargeable battery that lasts 100 hours
  • Instant on — no need to sync with the wireless receiver
  • Receivers can be assigned to up to four controllers for simultaneous play

I go into a lot of detail and test the controller out in my video review. Check it out if you’re wondering how those buttons sound!

IMG_20170720_185106572In the video, I noted that the casing was slightly separated below the lefthand grip. After I opened it up (see the teardown pics below) and reassembled it, the separation was less noticeable. It seems this isn’t a common occurrence, but it doesn’t bother me too much now.

Some other observations about the controller that didn’t make it into the video:

  • Although I never noticed lag using the 8Bitdo NES30 on my RetroN 5, when I used the RET-GP on the RetroN 5, I suddenly noticed a lack of lag. In other words, it seems ever so slightly more responsive than the NES30; the start of 2-1 in Ninja Gaiden III was a bit easier than it usually is. I’ll have to test more with this controller on my HDTV and a CRT, and I may do record a short video comparing its response times with the NES3o.
  • When using the turbo buttons, the red LED flashes to show you what speed setting you’re on. I’m just so impressed with the whole implementation of turbo on this controller, even if I rarely, if ever, use it.
  • When recharging the controller, you have to press a button to turn it on while it’s plugged in. The red LED will flash slowly to show that it’s recharging, and will glow steady when it is fully charged. I don’t know if it will charge while off, but I assume it will.
  • There’s no manual on/off switch for the controller. As soon as you press a button, it’s on — pretty much instantaneously. It powers off if it doesn’t receive any inputs for a while. I actually found this was really nice because I didn’t have to hold down a button combination for a few seconds like I do with the NES30 on my RetroN 5 (for Bluetooth pairing). I sometimes have trouble pairing the NES30 to the receiver on my NES Classic, and I wonder if people with NES30 receivers on their original console have the same problem. I’m considering getting an adapter to use original controllers on the NES Classic, so I can test whether the RET-GP works with it too.

Apparently you can transplant the guts of the RET-GP into an original NES controller, after modifying the shell. I don’t think I’ll bother with that, because I like the retro design and form factor of the RET-GP more, but here’s what’s inside for the curious:

IMG_20170720_185230131

IMG_20170720_185245010

IMG_20170720_185252130

IMG_20170720_185259714

So what do you think? Will you pick one of these up?

Hyperkin Cadet NES Controller Video Review and Teardown

I’ve branched out a little from my weekly NES live streams and posted my first product review for the Hyperkin Cadet controller for the Nintendo Entertainment System and NES Classic Edition. (They also have USB versions, which I failed to mention in the video.)

I mainly did this because although I’d heard great things about the controller from many reviewers (and only one exception), I didn’t see anyone actually test one out for the things that usually are terrible in third-party NES controllers, particularly the D-pad, which often triggers diagonals accidentally. So I decided I needed to try it for myself. I’ve also been interested in what it looks like inside, since most knockoffs are pretty cheap, but I was pleasantly surprised. This controller looks very well made, with an actual chip like the original NES controller, rather than your typical “globtop”:

No black glob here! Just a real chip and a pretty clean looking PCB.

No black glob here! Just a real chip and a pretty clean looking PCB.

Here's the back. Not much to see here.

Here’s the back. Not much to see here.

The rubber membranes seem very similar to replacement parts for NES controllers.

The rubber membranes seem very similar to replacement parts for NES controllers.

Unfortunately, there's a screw hidden under that Hyperkin label.

Unfortunately, there’s a screw hidden under that Hyperkin label.

I doubt I’ll do too many of these, but I’m very interested in, and picky about, controllers and I thought these details might be helpful to anyone else who is curious or on the fence about these controllers. I’m already planning to review the just released RetroUSB wireless controller as well, which is about six times more expensive than this one.