With retro gaming all the rage these days, there are plenty of companies keen to appeal to the old-school gamers out there with products that appeal to their childhoods.
California-based My Arcade is one such outfit looking to tap into that vein with its Pixel Player gizmo, but it’s gone one step further by securing something others often fail to acquire: an official licence.
Whereas most of these retro handheld thingies tend to chuck a bunch of unofficial, homebrew and bootleg games on there and slap a price on it, My Arcade has teamed up with Data East to include eight of its classic games on the system.
Granted, it does still have said unofficial, homebrew and bootleg games on there too – there are 308 games in total – but at least you know there are some legit offerings.
Just to clarify before we get into more depth, we’re talking NES emulation here. Although most of the Data East games included in the Pixel Player had arcade versions, it’s the ports released on Nintendo’s 8-bit system that you’ll find instead.
That said, let’s break it down a bit more.
My Arcade’s retro handheld comes in two different versions: the Pixel Classic looks like a Game Boy with its upright layout, whereas the Pixel Player – the version I was sent for review – is more similar to a Game Boy Advance.
By all accounts, both offer exactly the same software: it really comes down to what orientation you prefer. Reviews on Amazon also seem to imply the Classic is prone to breakages, though not owning one I can’t confirm this.
Let’s look at the Pixel Player specifically, then. It’s a solid enough little chunk of plastic, the D-Pad feels fine (if a little on the spongy side) and the A and B buttons are nice and clicky.
One thing to note, though, is that A and B are the ‘right’ way round, which is actually the wrong way compared to a standard NES controller. Whereas an NES pad has them laid out ‘B, A’ here they’re laid out ‘A, B’ and the controls are swapped round as a result.
For many people this won’t be an issue, but if you owned any of the Data East NES games included here back in the day and played them enough that their controls became muscle memory, you may experience some teething problems as you get used to the buttons being switched around.
The handheld’s odd angular corners are presumably designed to make it look like it’s made out of pixels, and while it has the potential to be uncomfortable after long periods of play, truth be told it didn’t really bother me as much as I thought it would when I looked at it: the buttons are positioned in a way that the corners don’t dig into your palms while you play.
The screen, meanwhile, is decent enough. The cheap plastic ‘glass’ is a little on the reflective side and is squishy enough that you can press it with your thumb and corrupt the display underneath (as you could with many other cheap handhelds, LCD games and calculators back in the day).
Despite that, the actual display itself is colourful and detailed. It does, however, suffer from some very serious ‘shimmering’, an effect where the background wobbles as the screen scrolls.
This appears to be an issue with the emulation software rather than the screen itself: it’s often seen (to a far less noticeable degree) in emulators that don’t scale the pixels properly.
It isn’t always a problem – there were still plenty of single-screen games in the NES days because smooth scrolling was still a fairly tricky thing to program – but it’s worth mentioning because it can be really distracting in games like Bad Dudes where you’re moving sideways most of the time.
At least it sounds better than it looks: the audio is nice and loud, and the bassy nature of the NES’s audio comes through fairly well. Less welcome is the fact that there are only four audio settings – mute, quiet, fairly loud and very loud – rather than a more nuanced slider.
Worst of all, if you hit the reset button to go back to the main menu it switches back to the ‘fairly loud’ setting, no matter what it was on before. This makes it more or less impossible to switch games if you’re playing in bed with someone sleeping next to you: even if you’re playing with the sound off, when you reset to the menu it starts noising off again.
In terms of power, it’s all fairly straightforward. It takes four AAA batteries, or if you don’t fancy going down that route it also has a micro-USB port you can use to power it instead. It doesn’t come with a micro-USB cable, but pretty much everyone has one of those so it’s no big deal.
It does also have an AV out port on the top, but I’m dubious as to how well it actually works. The port is a small 2.5mm jack, which is smaller than the usual 3.5mm headphone-sized jacks you tend to get: these were traditionally found on camcorders and other small electronics but are hardly used today.
Still, for the sake of journalism and such I ordered a 2.5mm-to-composite video cable from Amazon and… it didn’t work. No picture at all. It’s not clear whether this was a fault with the cable or the handheld, but either way I wouldn’t go buying this if you plan on playing it on your TV because I can’t guarantee it’s well suited to it.
In all, then, this is clearly not a handheld without issues, but given that it currently retails for £14.99 you obviously get what you pay for, and if you’re expecting the quality of the Switch for around 7% of the price then you, my friend, are a slavering goon. A goon, I say.
The important thing is that, taking aside its wobbly screen and its insistence on being loud by default, it’s still essentially a £15 handheld NES with over 300 games. Speaking of which…
The licensed games
As previously stated, there are eight licensed games on the Pixel Player, all of which are NES titles developed by Data East.
At the risk of being a massive shill, seven of the eight can be found in my hefty tome The NES Encyclopedia, which covers every licensed game released for the console in the west, as well as over 160 unlicensed ones (the eighth game was only released in Japan). But I digress.
Here’s a brief rundown of the eight games on offer:
Bad Dudes – Easily the best game on here. A side-scrolling action game where you just kick a load of pricks in the face. Lovely.
Breakthru – An underrated little game in which you play as an armed ATV and have to drive through enemy-infested landscapes, jumping over obstacles.
Caveman Ninja – Also known as Joe & Mac, a fun platformer where you have to rescue a bunch of cavewoman by essentially killing shit-tons of dinosaurs.
Heavy Barrel – A top-down run ‘n’ gun where you have to stop a terrorist from setting off a nuclear weapon. The titular Heavy Barrel is a devastating weapon you build up by collecting parts: once you do, you get to wreak havoc for 90 seconds.
Side Pocket – A pool game with a heavy emphasis on trick shots. In between normal matches against CPU opponents you get trick shot bonus stages.
B Wings – Technically not an NES game, because this one was only released on the Famicom in Japan (which is why you won’t find it in my book). It’s a fairly bog-standard vertical shoot ‘em up.
Karate Champ – A one-on-one fighting game with complicated controls and terrible hit detection. Not great.
Burger Time – An arcade classic: put together your burgers by running over the ingredients, but watch out for the eggs and sausages trying to kill you.
The 300 other games
Those eight Data East games are all well and good, then, but don’t forget there are 308 games on this thing in total. And now I’m going to review them all.
Hahaha, only joking. Fuck that.
Here’s a general summary, at least. What we have here is a bunch of unlicensed and homebrew games (and even a couple of bootlegs) that vary wildly in quality.
Anyone familiar with other ‘Famiclone’ consoles that have hundreds of games built in will know what to expect here: it’s the same sort of library you get on those.
A number of them, for example, were developed by Nice Code Software, a Chinese studio who formed in 1999 and made a bunch of games for fake ‘retro’ consoles and NES multi-carts. Their highlight is a maze game with the hilariously bad name Mike Pig.
There are some genuinely enjoyable games in here, mind. Curly Monkey 2 is a competent platformer, while Invincible Girl is an interesting cross between Space Invaders and bat-and-ball games like Arkanoid: you have to destroy waves of enemies but your shots only hurt them if they bounce off the ceiling and fall back down onto them.
Others, however, are unmitigated spider shit. Unusual Space (which says Unwonted Space on the title screen) is a weird player vs CPU jetpac duelling game that’s more or less unplayable, while Rural Goblin(!) is a terrible whack-a-mole type game where you literally just press the A button each time the goblin comes out of a hole.
It’s also worth pointing out that the list is artificially lengthened a little. 14 of the games are individual track and field events in which the ‘athlete’ is actually a panda, while 17 of them are card games. It feels as if these were each mini-game compilations that have been split up.
Of the games that are worth playing, there’s occasionally a good reason for that: they’re ROM hacks of existing games.
Would it surprise you to know that many of the games on the My Arcade Pixel Player were made in China?
My favourite title screens: a gallery thread. pic.twitter.com/rXWqoMo3f8
— Chris Scullion (@scully1888) June 6, 2019
The terribly named Conte Enegy is actually Hudson Soft’s Lode Runner with a different title screen, while Spar is Nintendo’s Urban Champion with the human characters replaced with green goblin guys.
Worst of all is Air Umbrella, which is what you’d get if you took the fantastic Balloon Fight, removed the Balloon Trip mode and swapped your balloons out for an umbrella.
But hey, as dodgy as it is, at least that means it’s got Balloon Fight on it.
The My Arcade Pixel Player is £14.99. That alone should tell you everything you need to know, both good and bad.
At that price, of course it was never going to be a beast. Of course it was never going to offer the best performance, the best features, the best games.
But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a few fun nights playing through its 300 weird and wonderful games, chuckling away with a “ha, that’s shite” when I found another duffer and raising my eyebrows with surprise any time I came across one I enjoyed.
For the price of a couple of packs of nappies – look, I equate everything to baby costs now – you can spend some time with a few decent Data East NES games and a whole load of occasionally charming rubbish ones.
With that in mind, then, I’d (just about) recommend it, even though “it’s good because it’s a bit shite” isn’t necessarily the reason My Arcade would’ve wanted.
The My Arcade Pixel Player is out now. Amazon UK is currently selling it for £14.99.
In order that I could write this article, I received a review unit from a PR. The content of the article and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.
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