Wherein Scott Encounters a Portable Mega Drive

Are you familiar with the term “famiclone”? It’s a pun on the name for the Japanese NES, the Famicom (or “Family Computer”). A famiclone aims to replicate the hardware of a particular console – traditionally a NES, but everything from a Master System to a SNES is not uncommon – usually through illegal means, and often very, very poorly. If you’ve ever seen a dodgy “TV Game 256” system being sold at a stall in your local shopping centre (placed worryingly close to the nearest Gamestation), these are basically the same thing, albeit several generations evolved from what I ran into when I was younger.

You see, I spent some time living in various parts of Asia around 1996, during the rise of the PlayStation and the N64. With Nintendo and Sony focusing on more established markets like Japan and America, it was not rare to happen upon dozens of hilariously-named famiclones stacked high in a shop window, shadowed by ads enticing potential buyers with promising features such as “THE NEXT GENE GARAPHICAL” and “CINEMA SOUNDINGS”. This little back-story ties closely into today’s events: I have been gifted a box which, if the claims on the front of the packaging are to be believed, contains a portable Mega Drive. It also claims to be pre-loaded with “18 classic games”. In an interesting twist, it’s officially licenced by SEGA. A successor to the rare SEGA Nomad or simply a well-built famiclone? Investigation is required.

With Streets of Rage? What could possibly go wrong?!

As it turns out, it’s neither. While it’s officially licensed, this is only for the purposes of the included game selection; some quick research reveals that the patent for the Genesis and Mega Drive expired some time ago, meaning that the manufacturer of this particular unit, AtGames, didn’t actually need SEGA’s permission to build it. In some ways, it shows.

Admittedly, the device is beautifully packaged – a well-designed magnetic box houses the unit, protecting it with shaped foam. The problems start when you pull the device out of there. It’s always a worrying sign when a piece of electronics weighs about the same as four pencils. Fitting the three required AAA batteries add some much needed heft to the device, but I soon ran into my next problem: the screen. Turning the device on, it became apparent that it’s using a display about half the resolution of the Mega Drive itself, which isn’t exactly high. Apart from creating some weird interlacing issues, it makes the text in some games nigh-impossible to read. It’s similar to playing Dead Rising on an SD set and struggling with deciphering the font. On the upside, I bet the battery is pretty decent!

No, my camera didn't do that. It actually looks like this.

Unfortunately, the unit has also fallen pray to a common famiclone issue: inaccurate sound. It’s hard to argue against the power of retro blips and blops in invoking nostalgia. Now, imagine if the classic “dling!” of Sonic collecting a ring was more akin to the sound of, say, a dying squirrel. That’s what happens when you play any game on the AtGames Portable Mega Drive.

But what’s important is that these games still play well, right? Whether it’s the addictive nature of – no, sorry, I can’t do it. Streets of Rage just sounds so wrong! And what’s up with the game selection on this thing? Streets of Rage 1 and 3, but no Streets of Rage 2? Just Sonic & Knuckles, without Sonic 3? Sonic & Knuckles is LITERALLY the second-half of Sonic 3!

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUu5wPUUykg[/youtube]

The bizarre thing about this situation is that it could have easily been avoided. Further research reveals that AtGames have actually been making Mega Drive clones for nearly ten years, and most of their designs do a great job emulating the hardware. Many AtGames consoles even have cartridge slots which are compatible with most of the Mega Drive and Genesis carts out there. Heck, they’re actually SEGA’s official Mega Drive manufacturer for the Greater China area even now!

That said, I still appreciate the gift. With all its problems, the unit is a bit of a licenced-oddity, even among previous efforts from AtGames. It’s really hard to be angry at a hand-held that has Columns, Golden Axe II and Streets of Rage built-in. Plus, my friend gave me this awesome Space Invaders clock as well!

DO… DO… DO… DO… Time to get up! I have the best friends. 🙂

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