Evercade VS Console Review: Your New Retro Games Library, No Hacking Required
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Featured Image Credit: Blaze Entertainment
The Evercade handheld console was my favourite new gaming hardware of 2020. Made by Blaze Entertainment, this wallet-friendly, retro-gaming focused system uses cartridges, specially curated releases collecting an array of (mostly) 8- and 16-bit games from a range of well-known publishers, including Atari, Namco, Codemasters and Data East. While it’s kind of an emululation device, it’s not one that you can load up with a bunch of ROMs (like the Funkey S, or Anbernic’s popular portable devices), be they acquired entirely fairly or otherwise. All of its games - which range from two to 20 titles on a single cart - are fully licensed. At present, there are over 260 games playable on the Evercade - and now, with the Evercade VS, this ecosystem of nostalgia-soaked play and exciting exploration of previously unheralded surprises is coming home.
The Evercade VS is, at its most basic elevator pitch, the play-at-home, on-your-telly version of the handheld console, albeit with some exceptional bells and whistles included. It runs all the same games (with the exception of the two Namco Museum collections, which were licensed for handheld play only), and you can even use your handheld Evercade as an extra controller via a special lead. Whereas you could plug your portable system into a TV via a mini HDMI lead, its 720p output is put in the shade by the VS’s crisp 1080p. Its processor is lightly improved, the VS featuring a 1.5ghz quad core compared to the handheld system’s 1.2ghz - both consoles have the power to run 32-bit games (indeed, some are available now), and quite probably an array of 64-bit titles too. Time will tell, and Blaze is promising plenty of new carts in 2022.
Watch the original announcement trailer for the Evercade VS below
What’s more interesting, though, isn’t what’s under the hood, but on the front of the VS. Count the controller ports… Yep, that’s four, in the manner of classic systems like the Dreamcast and Nintendo 64. The VS is built with local multiplayer in mind - about time really, given the same-sofa rivalries sure to be played out across titles like Sensible Soccer and Worms, both of which are available now. And its dedicated controller - one pad in the £89.99 RRP ‘starter’ pack, two in the £109.99 RRP ‘premium’ pack, and extras available to buy separately at about 20 quid a pop - is of an impressive quality, echoing the design of the handheld while also feeling fairly unique in its retro-centric field.
It’s not as immediately comfortable in the hands as the Mega Drive or Super Nintendo controllers of old, but that may be more down to my own age and experience of playing these 16-bit titles than the actual science of ergonomics. The VS pad certainly isn’t hard to get along with - its d-pad is responsive, albeit more SEGA-style in its movements than Nintendo’s plus-sign-designed alternative; its four face buttons have a satisfying bite to them; and its quartet of pleasingly clicky shoulder buttons are indicative of more 32-bit (and beyond) potential down the road. This is basically a pre-analogue sticks PlayStation layout, in NES-meets-PC Engine colours and bearing a decidedly ‘80s form factor
The controller’s gentle corner curves are welcome, and there’s a little ridge for the shoulder buttons that your middle fingers sit nicely beneath, index fingers up top - most players will feel zero discomfort using these for longer play sessions. The pads are wired, but the lead is long at three metres - certainly long enough to reach across the average living room without representing a pulled-tight trip hazard, which absolutely cannot be said for the Sony and Nintendo mini-consoles of recent years.
Just above the controller ports is a NES-style flap which lifts upwards to reveal your cartridge slot. Sorry, cartridge slots, as the VS has not one but two spaces to slide your games into. The idea here is that players will then have a wider array of titles to pick from, once sat down across from their screen, on the very neat and tidy user interface - as many as 40, if they plug in both Atari console collections (actually 41, as there are a handful of secrets within the VS, but some things are best left for you to discover) - akin to the rosters on mini-consoles from SEGA, Nintendo, Konami’s PC Engine Mini, et al. Unlike those systems, though, you can easily shuffle your selection and swap out certain collections for others, each modestly priced cartridge adding more games to your library - no hacking or warranty-scuppering dismantling required.
The flap on the VS is perhaps the only area where the build quality feels a little off. It’s not going to snap off in your hands or anything, but its movement is oddly cheap, and the plastic used isn’t the premium kind you associate with a PlayStation or Xbox. The pads do seem really well made though, capable of taking a fall or two from a coffee table, and the system’s chunky on/off button, top-right on the console, feels right out of the ‘90s. An illuminated strip between flap and controller ports indicates whether your unit is off or on, and gives the VS a great look when used in low light. On the back you’ve your power in and HDMI out ports, and a reset button just in case the console needs it - in my testing, it hasn’t. Size wise, this isn’t a big console at all - it’s larger than a modern mini-console, but barely wider than its handheld predecessor, which itself is much smaller than a Switch (and the famously barely portable Atari Lynx, which the Evercade range features two game collections from).
One area where I have found a few hiccups is the cartridge slots. There have been times where my review unit hasn’t read one of the two carts, so I’ve had to pull it out and pop it back in again. This is probably a minor alignment issue on this particular unit, and in a way it’s an unintended throwback to actually using cartridges in the 1980s and ‘90s (though I’m yet to blow on anything). You don’t need to power the VS down to swap carts out, though, so if you find one doesn’t pop up on the UI, just wiggle it out and slide it back, and it should be sorted. It's really not a significant inconvenience.
The UI itself - which will carry over to the handheld in the near future - is effortless to navigate, entirely intuitive to anyone who’s used a games console in the last two decades. Initial set-up is simple - it’ll ask for a WiFi connection, essential for firmware and game updates (online multiplayer isn’t an option, but leaderboards and the like may arrive in time) - and once you’re all go, you can breeze on over to a range of display options for your games. There are three screen sizes, including a stretched full-screen option nobody in their right mind would opt for and a much more attractive ‘pixel perfect’ choice; and an array of bezels for folk who like such things, covering some box art, developer logos and more. Three settings are available for scanlines - off, subtle and strong - and every game you select brings up info before pressing play covering its year of release, a little background on its story, and its controls.
Controllers can be remapped to suit the individual’s preferences, and the VS also supports a number of third-party pads and sticks - although one I tested, retro-bit’s eight-button Mega Drive USB pad, would be acknowledged fine on the menu, its buttons suitably remapped, only to become unusable in game. This is an exception to the rule, though, and Blaze is aware of the problem, a fix likely in a future update. Games can be saved into one of six, screenshot-illustrated slots by simply pressing the menu button on the controller, and loaded back up from the game selection screen. Again, this is all incredibly easy to use and very natural, there’s no part of the user experience that seems obtuse or unusual. Save files also work between VS and handheld play, so you can take your progress with you on the go.
The VS’s arrival coincides with the Evercade library expanding from console games only to incorporate arcade titles - and four of these collections, bearing new packaging (purple, rather than red), are available at its launch. These cover Atari, Technos, Data East and Spanish developer and publisher Galeco, and I can guarantee you’ll find some treats you’ve never played before (or, possibly, even heard of). There are familiar franchises and games like Double Dragon (The Rosetta Stone is here, virtual microtransactions included), Burger Time, Bad Dudes Vs DragonNinja, Crystal Castles, Missile Command and Sly Spy. Simply press the select button to insert a credit, and off you go. Infinite lives have never come so cheap.
I found a couple of delights on the Galeco cart that really impressed me, and I’d never experienced either of them before firing them up on the VS. Alligator Hunt is a wild shooter where you, as an impudent skateboarding kid, take to the stars to fight back against an alien menace, barrel-rolling through enemy fire; and the utterly bizarre Biomechanical Toy is kind of what a Toy Story game would be if it was made by Gunstar Heroes developers Treasure and the player given some powerful hallucinogens. These are the kind of games that only the most dedicated of coin-op goers would ever have played, so to see them here, in 2021, and find them to be so much fun is a real treat.
This is a side of Evercade I love just as much as revisiting favourites from 20-plus years ago: discovering niche video games of a bygone era that are just as weird and wonderful played for the first time in the 21st century as they would have been in the 1990s, or before. The fact that buying some of these niche games would cost a pretty penny outside of the Evercade library isn’t lost on me, either - this system is making retro collecting a lot more affordable, as every multi-game cart is comfortably under £20 RRP. As if to make a point of that value, one UK retailer, Funstock, is offering a VS ‘mega bundle’ which gets you the console, four controllers and ten cartridges (that’s 108 games in total) for about half the price of a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X. I’m not on commission here, but that’s a hell of a deal.
It’s the arcade evolution of Evercade that surely explains the VS of the console’s title. I’m not sure whether it’s pronounced “versus” or not - I’ve heard both “versus” and “vee-ess” used - but the letters of V and S together only mean one thing in gaming terms: it’s time to compete against one another. And the multiple controller ports on the VS make this a perhaps overdue option for Evercade players, now freed from their solo-play handhelds.
There’s also the small but interesting fact that when Nintendo took its 8-bit Famicom/NES games into arcades in the mid-1980s, it did so using what it called the Nintendo VS. System. If you’ve ever seen a classic Nintendo game, like Castlevania, Super Mario Bros. or Excitebike, bearing a ‘VS.’ before its name, it means it’s the version used on this arcade system. Whether or not the Evercade VS is a nod to that, I don’t know - but I’d be amazed if it wasn’t part of the inspiration behind this thing’s name.
With its attractive pricing, growing library of compilations, arcade multiplayer potential and supremely easy interface, the Evercade VS is the kind of, I suppose, third console - after a new-gen PlayStation or Xbox and a Switch (our OLED review, here) - that anyone with an interest in gaming history should be looking at. Its diverse library will mean a fair spread of hits and misses for most players - but the hits are well worth the entry price. The controllers on the VS are excellent, and its compatibility with other pads and sticks is a bonus that Blaze didn’t have to make happen. That they did says a lot about the company’s approach to Evercade: yes, this is a product designed to make money, to turn a profit, but it’s also a gaming system that sings of having so much love poured into it. Its makers have learned from the (few, but notable) shortcomings of the handheld, listened to player feedback, and delivered a home console that makes the best of both its worlds: it cherry picks from the past to make the retro-gaming present a much more fun place to be.
A year and a half on from the original Evercade's launch, and the VS might just be my favourite new gaming hardware of 2021.
Pros: effortless to set up and get using; fantastic library of games available; arcade compilations bring greater depth to that library; every game is officially licensed; controller feels great; cross-system saves and third-party controller compatibility; well priced for inquisitive players as well as committed retro gamers; secrets!
Cons: the Namco Museum Collection cartridges don’t work with the VS; doesn’t come with an HDMI lead in the box (but, surely, you have a few lying around); boring people in the comments will say they can already have all this using their Raspberry Pi systems and a load of stolen ROMs… congratulations, tell someone who cares
For fans of: retro gaming; local multiplayer gaming; arcade gaming; having fun exploring unusual corners of gaming history for a price that doesn’t risk your credit rating
The Evercade VS console is available from multiple stockists from mid-December in Europe and mid-January in North America, priced at £89.99 for the starter pack and £109.99 for the premium pack. Find more information and purchase links on the official Evercade website. Premium pack VS console and new cartridges used in this coverage were provided by Blaze… but the author would like to add they bought a Founder Edition of the VS and can’t wait to have this beauty in black. It’s a SEGA thing, I’m sure you understand.