How bad are famiclones in 2015? The answer is, predictably, “very”.
A couple of years ago, my curiosity got the better of me, and I ordered a famiclone system from notorious sellers of cheap Chinese knock-off products, DX Online.
Famiclones, for those not in the know, use a cheaply and easily produced Nintendo Famicom (the system known as the NES outside of Japan) SOC to provide simple and almost always illicit 8-bit thrills.
In fact, as I look it up right now, it was five years ago. My, how time flies.
Anyway, you can read my review of the quite terrible Digital Dragon System GB-150 over here, if you’re so inclined. Regular traffic figures suggest that the review seems to have found a weird little niche on the Internet, which got me thinking.
I’m going to quote directly from me, five years ago, though, to set the scene:
I’ve got this weird soft spot for gaming tat. Games in general, of course, but specifically wonky pirate knockoffs amuse me no end.
I once spent a highly enjoyable thirty minutes haggling in a Kuala Lumpur market with the vendor of a dodgy GBA cart, not so much because I wanted the games on it, but simply to see how low a price could actually be achieved before they gave up on me. They started out wanting (after conversion) the equivalent of $120 for the cartridge (which promised a feast of then-current games including Zelda: Minish Cap and The Road To Wrestlemania, amongst others — more on this shortly).
After walking away more than a dozen times — with them calling after me each time — the price had dropped to a level where I felt compelled to buy it purely for the humour value.
The original price: $120
The price I actually paid — and which they were clearly happy to get: $3.50
I could live with that, even though I knew exactly what was on the cart in question. Not a bevy of pirated current generation gaming, but instead a bunch of very old NES roms that would happen to fit on the cartridge. Call me weird, but I find it amusing to check the exact lies they’re telling in the name of a sale.
Have things really improved in five years? The only way to find out was to track down a “current” portable system making outrageous promises, and see whether we’d progressed any down this peculiar technological niche.
Plus, I’ll be honest, I wanted to see if there was an update to the totally insane game on the Dragon system that cast you as Evil Santa dropping presents into an Elf’s underwear. It’s a lost classic, I tell you!
As I noted in my review of the Dragon, this is a curious fascination of mine, not because I want the games, but because I love the underlying hype of these systems. They’re nearly always rife with terrible grammar errors (which I can understand — more on that later) and promises of hundreds of games that usually end up as the same fifteen reskinned versions of Super Mario Bros, Pinball and other early-era NES “classics”. All without licences, I hasten to add, but again I’m not interested from a piracy angle. I own all the NES games I actually want to play in their original form, so this is just a review of the hardware.. such as it is.
DX’s current famiclone-du-jour is described as, and I quote, the “2.5” Screen 168 Built-in Games Game Console Machine – Black + White (3 x AAA)”. That just rolls off the tongue, right? It’s currently listing at $23.35, but I paid around $15 for mine, and, as is always the way with these things, waited an age for it to arrive. Finally, a little over a week ago, it did.
I should stop and note that it came from, and I quote, “Ruancuihua Guangdong Province Jiangmen city Hecheng Songshan village 12 villagers committee”, according to the address label. There’s something undeniably cute about such absolute specificity, not that I can really return it to speak of.
Here it is in all its glory… and, predictably, hype it can’t possibly live up to.
Should I feign outrage that I’ve not been shipped the “2.5” Screen 168 Built-in Games Game Console Machine – Black + White (3 x AAA)” I ordered, but instead the “RS-8 Game Player”?
Probably not. Still, RS-8 is nowhere near as sexy a name. It sounds like a rejected Star Wars droid. It’s probably one of the ones you see being tortured in Jabba The Hutt’s palace, not because it’s disobedient, but simply because people hate it so much.
The instructions and box are labelled with the usual mechanically translated English that you find on this kind of thing. It’s intermittently amusing and/or confusing, but I’m not for a second going to claim that I’d come up with anything more legible if you gave me English and told me to translate it to Chinese.
I’m not going to shock you if I say this thing feels like cheap tacky plastic, right?
Weirdly, there’s a mini USB port. That seems to be because there’s a variant — not this one — that comes with an inbuilt Lithium Ion battery that would need recharging. It seems to be a power-only port, however; plugging it into a PC does force it into its on state regardless of where the power switch sits, but mounts no obvious drives to sort out what lies underneath the surface of the mighty RS-8.
In terms of buttons, the RS-8 has a squishy set of A, B, Turbo (A only) and reset button, alongside a circular D-Pad. It’s not actually the worst D-Pad I’ve ever used, but it’s quite close to that notable contention.
The 2.5″ display is extremely flickery and cheap — again, to be expected — but this sometimes has an odd effect on the Famicom/NES’ infamous sprite flicker as well. Depending on what you choose to play, some characters can end up very hard to spot on the tiny screen. Weirdly, the included composite video cable works very well when plugged into a TV, which only highlights how bad the RS-8’s screen actually is. You’re still stuck with the RS-8’s lousy controls when playing on the big screen, however.
Powering up the RS-8 brings you to a selection screen where you can choose between Chinese or English menu selections. That doesn’t affect the actual ingame characters or selection in any way, but if (like me), your Chinese reading capabilities are nonexistent, there’s some random fun in choosing the Chinese menu system just for the random roulette nature of things.
What really surprised me with the RS-8 is that while so many of these systems do just offer repeating and slightly altered ROMs, the makers of the RS-8 appear to have actually shipped a product with 168 different ROMs on it. There are actually 168 games on here, or at least it seems so, although that does include some content I wouldn’t call NES classics. Nobody should ever play Donkey Kong Jr. Math, for example.
Also, the RS-8 has that well known NES-era classic, Angry Birds 2.
Yeah, Angry Birds… 2. Not the Roxio game, quite, but instead a weird ROM hack of a somewhat obscure Konami NES game called Moai-kun, with the main sprites swapped out for the Red angry bird and plenty of pigs.
Even as NES game it’s relatively unremarkable. But wait — there’s more!
Angry Birds 3!
Only… erm.. not.
This is Angry Birds in that you have a slingshot, some pigs, and the worst looping theme music in the history of mankind. Possibly in the history of intelligent life itself. Angry Birds 3 is simple, and simply bad, with none of the charm of the mobile original. I guess in terms of what the NES hardware is capable of it’s an interesting effort.
Less interesting is Plants Vs Zombies, another NES ROM hack that the Internet informs me is built on the same engine as Angry Birds. It certainly shows, with the same horrible theme tune and a very limited challenge that puts you on the classic game, but with a limited number of onscreen sprites. This means you quickly reach a point where it’s not actually possible to place any more plants, if you’ve got the patience to even get that far.
Then there’s “Small Mario”. I really don’t know what Small Mario is. It looks like a board game, appears to do some things like a poker/fruit machine type game, and doesn’t seem to feature Mario at all. You press buttons, and lights flash, and then not much happens. Still better than Donkey Kong Jr. Math, obviously.
You also get Sonic The Hedgehog in NES form, but this is a pretty well known hack. Of the three obvious hacks, it’s by far the most technically competent, which isn’t to say that it’s all that accomplished a game. It’s just a thing that exists that somebody did, but you’re not likely to play it for long beyond the novelty value.
There’s also a number of — to the western world — relative rarities in NES terms on the RS-8. I’m still not sure what to make of Super Chinese, for example, or Hello Kitty for that matter.
There’s also some weird hackery behind the scenes as well.
Take Megaman 3, presented on the RS-8 in its Japanese form, so it’s Rockman 3 instead. A great, classic, tough game, but on the RS-8 it’s been modded to give Rockman infinite energy. As such, it has zero challenge, so the point in playing it is… what, exactly?
I do get what the “genuine” market for these systems is. They’re sold to unwitting grandparents who want a simple games system for their kids without the price tag of a New 3DS, iPod Touch or Playstation Vita. I’d hate to be a kid getting this thinking they’re getting an iPod Touch, for example.
They’re a ripoff in every sense of the word, though, because they don’t live up to the hype, they’re packed with illicit and sometimes nerfed ROMs, and of course they’re built as well as you’d expect from a $20 gadget. If you’re after gaming fun, buy something significantly better built, and significantly more legitimate.
As for famiclones, while it’s interesting to see that the costs of memory have dipped so much in five years that the clone makers can throw on the promised number of games, which means the amusement of their sales fibs is significantly reduced, they’re still built as poorly as ever.