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Evercade’s retro portable made me fall out of love with game cartridges

Gamers of a certain age will always have a special place in their hearts for the humble video game cartridge. There’s something about sliding a thick piece of plastic into a slot before playing that evokes the simple joy of gaming as it was when we were kids. Optical discs, flash-based cards, and game downloads may have won the technological battle in the end, but the nostalgic appeal of cartridges has never faded for some.

That appeal seems to be central to the idea of the Evercade, a portable system from the UK’s Blaze Entertainment. Besides the portable form factor—and the ability to emulate multiple classic consoles out of the box—the $80 Evercade differentiates itself from other recent plug-and-play retro devices in its expandability through various $20 cartridges. Each proprietary cartridge carries anywhere from six to 20 games, grouped by developer and licensed from companies like Namco, Atari, Interplay, Technos, and Data East, with more to come.

I’ve spent the last few weeks tinkering with the Evercade, swapping through dozens of well-known and obscure games on its initial selection of 10 cartridges. In that time, though, I’ve found my annoyance at the inconvenience of swapping those cartridges has overwhelmed my nostalgia. At this point, I think I’m finally ready to leave my nostalgia behind and keep cartridges in the dustbin of gaming history.

Solid hardware

As retro hardware goes, the Evercade itself is a functional if bare-bones example of the form. The internal processor does an able job of accurately emulating consoles ranging from the Atari 2600 and NES to the Super NES and Sega Genesis (arcade titles aren’t supported in the initial lineup but should be available later). The games look great on a bright, sharp, 4.3-inch, 480 x 272 screen, though a lot of that widescreen real estate is wasted for the 4:3 retro titles available here.

Each emulator supports basic save states but not more advanced functions like virtual scanlines, slow-motion, rewind, or button remapping. And while the on-cartridge menus don’t provide any instructions or real historical context for the games themselves, each cartridge comes with a fully illustrated booklet that provides some of this basic information.

The Evercade unit itself is light enough and fits in a pants pocket relatively comfortably, but it doesn’t feel flimsy in the hand. The buttons are suitably springy and comfortable, and the built-in stereo speakers are functional, if a bit tinny. A rechargeable battery delivers an uninspiring three to five hours of play on a full charge, and an HDMI output lets you share your games to a big-screen display at 720p. The only major missing feature is a total lack of support for multiplayer games.

All in all, the Evercade is a basic but solid budget-focused retro machine. If you’re looking for a way to play officially licensed versions of a small selection of retro titles, purchased a few at a time, you could do worse.

But I can’t help but feel it would all be a bit better without the cartridges.

The good old days weren’t always good

Most games on the Evercade are the kind you might play for a few minutes before moving on to another title. If that next title is contained on the same cartridge, then you’re fine. If it’s not, then changing games mean turning off the system, sliding the cartridge out, fishing another cartridge out of your bag (or maybe getting up and retrieving it from the other side of the room), sliding the new cartridge in, turning on the system, waiting a few seconds for it to power up, and then loading your game from the menu.

This cartridge-swapping process, which takes less than 60 seconds, may seem like a minor inconvenience. But at this point in the history of portable technology, I’ve been spoiled by years of using pocket-sized devices that can store multiple gigabytes of media and switch between them in less than a second. Going back to the bad old days of switching between cartridges just isn’t that appealing anymore.

Yes, swapping cartridges might be more “authentic” to the original experience of these retro games. But that authenticity only goes so far. Blaze Entertainment seems to realize this, to some extent, because it packs multiple games on to every Evercade cartridge. To be truly authentic to the original console experience, of course, each cartridge should house a single game, as they usually did through the 20th century.

Of course, single-game cartridges would be both more inconvenient and less economical. Yet multi-game cartridges are also less convenient and less economical than simply downloading ROMs onto an SD card (a la Amazon’s digital MP3 sales). Evercade’s half-measure here doesn’t go far enough.

Physical media has a different place

We can hear the physical media defenders amassing in the comments section even as we write this. And we get it. Some people just like the idea of having a tangible, physical product to hold, complete with a box to put on the shelf. Using physical cartridges means not having to worry about backing up downloadable files or stressing over potential problems with online DRM (if applicable). A physical cartridge will likely work just as well in two decades as it does today.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to those arguments, especially when it comes to my collection of actual retro cartridges for classic consoles. I can even understand why people buy physical versions of modern games that they hope to preserve for the future, share with friends, or resell when they’re done.

But when it comes to portable re-releases of retro games, I’ll take the convenience and easy portability of a downloadable ROM file any day of the week. These are titles that have already existed in an “authentic” physical form for decades, after all. I don’t see a great need for a new, proprietary cartridge format just to put such games on a new portable console.

Let’s extend the analogy to the music world. There, plenty of people fondly remember the Walkman and the cassette tapes that made music easily portable. But soon after the iPod hit the scene in 2001, the appeal of carrying thousands of songs in a single device, without the need to juggle a bunch of bulky physical media, easily won out over cassettes and CDs (the ability to easily play all manner of pirated music likely helped, but we won’t get into that here).

There’s still enough nostalgia for cassette tapes, in fact, that some modern releases still use the format. In the gaming space, some publishers are re-releasing games on actual Super NES cartridges for similar reasons.

But let’s imagine someone created a new portable music player, the RetroMan. Say the RetroMan used a new, proprietary micro-cassette format that could store 300 minutes of audio per tape. Say the RetroMan’s launch included a few “greatest hits” collections from popular bands but was fully incompatible with the massive library of classic cassette tapes from decades past.

As powerful as cassette nostalgia is, I think I would just stick with the music downloads and streams that I’m used to. By the same token, I’m not too eager to buy into a totally new proprietary cartridge format just to collect a bunch of games that are already on other cartridge-based hardware.

The Evercade could have been the game industry’s cheap, retro-focused version of the iPod—a single portable unit that could carry hundreds of legitimately purchased games and switch between them at a moment’s notice. Instead, I’m stuck juggling a bunch of new cartridges that don’t even plug the nostalgic hole in my heart.

Listing image by Evercade

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