Image: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo
I can't remember a time when I wasn't obsessed with retro video games. That's one of the reasons I was so excited about the NES Classic Edition; it's also why I spent my Thanksgiving documenting how to put together a Raspberry Pi-based mini SNES instead of brining turkeys.
But building an emulation console from scratch takes time, and I was curious if there was a more streamlined, turnkey solution. That's when I happened across a Kickstarter for the Allcade 64-bit, a Raspberry Pi 3-based system in a housing that looked just like a classic Nintendo 64 cartridge. It promises all the cool hackery Pi-vibe with none of the command line or soldering.
AU Editor's Note: The Allcade 64-bit is $CAD219 for a console and two controllers, which translates roughly into $220 before international shipping to our fair shores is tacked on. -- Cam
The NES Classic Edition is almost perfect -- short controller cords not withstanding -- and if you can buy one, it's one of our favourite gifts, especially if you don't want to leave the house. But it only plays NES games, and 30 games at that. Plenty of people -- us included -- would love a tiny system to play our favourite Super Nintendo games. Or Genesis games.
I ponied up $US160 for the "console" and two Nintendo 64-style controllers (the system with one controller is $US150.) That's about twice what it cost for me to buy the parts for my mini SNES, but I was curious to see if the expense would be worth the time of doing it yourself. So far...it has been.
The Allcade 64-bit looks and feels exactly like a Nintendo 64 cartridge (maybe a little lighter), only with a Raspberry Pi stuffed inside instead of ROM chips. On the bottom of the "cartridge" are two USB ports, a power port, and an HDMI port. Allcade also sells a 4-player "adaptor" for the Allcade 64-bit, which was included with my Kickstarter package. This is basically just a USB-extender, since Allcade got rid of two of the USB ports that ship on a stock Raspberry Pi 3.
Hey, that's not a real N64 cartridge! (Image: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo)
The system boots in seconds to an "Allcade" home screen which shows whatever games available to play. The Allcade 64-bit is running on a customised version of Lakka, a video game emulation system built on top of Linux, but with some settings hidden from user view. The controllers are mapped to work out of the box -- a major time saver versus my mini SNES build.
The Allcade comes with one homegrown game to show how it works (a Minesweeper-like platformer), but the real point of this thing is to use it with game ROMs. (This is the part where I point out game ROMs are a legal grey area and you should download games you own physical copies of or that are in the public domain. Be sure to follow the laws in your region etc., etc.)
To get ROMs on the system, I was instructed to put them on a USB thumb drive and then plug that drive into the system. The system is then supposed to be smart enough to recognise compatible file types and load them into the system memory automatically.
Games installed on my Allcade (Image: Christina Warren/Gizmodo)
This worked better in theory than in practice. My Nintendo 64 ROMs had the extension *.Z64 and the Allcade 64-bit would only auto-recognise those with the extension *.N64. My games played just fine on the system, but only from the USB thumb drive; if I removed the drive, the games stopped working. Changing the extension on the files fixed the problem, but that was an unanticipated extra step, and one Allcade can hopefully fix with a future software update.
Diddy Kong Racing on a 4K TV is weird (Image: Christina Warren/Gizmodo)
When it comes to actually playing games, the Allcade 64-bit was tops. It's a little weird to play 1080° Snowboarding on a 4K TV, and the upscaled resolution definitely doesn't do those 64-bit graphics any favours -- making poor Diddy Kong into a monstrous mess of pixels -- but I was also playing Diddy Kong Racing in under ten minutes. A feat I never could have managed building my own emulation console. I spent the better part of my afternoon blasting enemies in Star Fox 64 and laughing at Peppy's hijinx before I remembered I actually needed to review the thing.
The performance for most of my Nintendo 64 games was great. Playing Super Mario 64 brought me back to being 13 again and I managed plenty of barrel rolls in Star Fox 64. Yet it's not perfect. Like any other Raspberry Pi setup, some N64 titles, like Conker's Bad Fur Day, have playback issues. Though playing games from older consoles, such as the Super Nintendo, was near perfect.
And I didn't have to break out a single bit of command line. The beauty -- aside from the looks -- of the Allcade 64-bit is that it is a total plug-and-play experience crammed into a old game cartridge. This is designed for people that don't want to spend their time configuring their own emulation box. And on that count, it totally delivers. If $US150 sounds like a deal for something you could build yourself in a day for half the price than the Allcade 64-bit should be on your shopping list.
- The price is high compared to building it yourself, but it still wound up being cheaper than what I paid for a Raspberry Pi 3 and a poorly-made 3D-printed SNES case.
- You can play more than just Nintendo 64 games. Any system that Lakka supports, this supports too. Out of the box only NES, SNES, N64 and Genesis games are automatically imported off a USB thumb drive, however.
- I wish the system would show title information about your games. Lakka supports this, but it doesn't seem to be enabled on this setup.
- I had to install a software update on my system. The process was a little convoluted, but the instructions were very well documented.
- The team has tried to de-geek the system as much as possible; this is great for people who want something easy to setup, but can be frustrating if you're a power emulator user.
- The fact that this Kickstarter arrived on time and as promised makes me hopeful that bigger product runs will be successful.
- After playing this, I miss my actual Nintendo 64 at my parent's house more than ever.