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The mini console phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down, with SEGA's Mega Drive Mini releasing in October 2019, and the Konami-backed PC Engine Mini - called the PC Engine Core Grafx Mini in Europe, and the TurboGrafx-16 Mini in the US - coming in early 2020. These plug-in-and-play boxes of tricks, pre-loaded with a wealth of retro games, follow Nintendo's shrunken versions of the NES and SNES, PlayStation's miniaturised 'Classic' OG console, Atari's Flashback series, and more.
But which is the right mini console for you? Here's a quick guide to what's already out there, what's imminent, and what we'd love to see in the future.
This Atari-branded micro system, modelled on 1977's legendary 2600 console (aka the VGC), packs over 100 games inside it. It's one of several Flashback systems available, all of which collect a multitude of seriously old-school games under the hood (like Asteroids, Pitfall!, Space Invaders and Crystal Castles). The 'Gold' edition of the Flashback 8 includes wireless controllers and a few extra titles, but the basic model's the more budget-friendly option, coming in at under £30. Also available at a similar price point is the Atari Flashback Portable, a handheld system with 70 games included. These are great options for long-in-the-tooth gamers who fondly remember the 1970s and early 1980s, but for modern players they're not much more than a historical curiosity.
If you were a fan of Commodore's 8-bit machines in the '80s, this 2018 release might be your go-to mini console of the here and now. Designed as a downsized replica of a Commodore 64 - officially the biggest-selling home computer of all time - The C64 Mini includes 64 built-in games ranging from Impossible Mission to California Games via Speedball and Attack of the Mutant Camels. It outputs at 720p, meaning that these games have rarely looked better. It can also run additional ROM files, and the BASIC language, meaning you can plug in a USB keyboard and indulge in some rudimentary programming. Its pack-in joystick isn't up to much, however, and truly classic titles from the C64 catalogue of old are thin on the ground.
Didn't like Commodore? Played games in the 1980s? Weren't fussed by consoles? British? Chances are you had a Spectrum. The Vega will reconnect you with the games of said era, for said system, and unlike other mini-consoles here, this one's just a (slightly awkward feeling) controller that you plug into your TV. It doesn't offer HD support, instead using an RCA composite cable. With 1,000 games included there is a lot of filler, but a few Speccy classics are worth revisiting - the likes of Skool Daze, Atic Atac, Knight Lore and Horace Goes Skiing. That there's no Elite, Sabre Wulf or Jet Set Willy, though, shows that it's far from comprehensive when it comes to the best of the Spectrum.
Now we're talking. With authentic-feeling controllers and great emulation, this little treat might only have 30 games included (yes, you can add more, if you want to), but the quality of the selections shoots right up in comparison to what's above. The original Mario games are here, so too the first two Zelda releases, the first Final Fantasy, 1986's Metroid and Castlevania, Bubble Bobble, Punch-Out!! and more. Like the above, this is history, and the games are showing their age in terms of audio and visual appeal. But the great gameplay still shines through - if you enjoy 21st century 2D Mario games, you're going to love 1988's Super Mario Bros 3.
What Nintendo did for their NES 'mini', they did likewise for the 16-bit SNES - but this time, it came with two controllers as standard, essential for really enjoying the likes of Street Fighter II and Super Mario Kart. A total of 21 games are included, with the all-timer likes of Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI, Super Metroid and Yoshi's Island rubbing shoulders with the 'all new' Star Fox 2, originally due for release in 1996 but ultimately debuting, 21 years later, on this 2017 system. The best mini console on the market? I'd say so - for the time being, at least.
Oh, what could have been. Released in late 2018 (and reviewed here), PlayStation's one attempt so far to jump on the mini console hype train really, really failed to stick its landing. Its built-in games didn't include many of the PlayStation's - for want of a better expression - killer apps, and the best of what was included, like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII, were more enjoyable played elsewhere. When you can pick those games up elsewhere for peanuts, likewise Metal Gear Solid and Tekken 3, why would you rush out to get this console when it launched for a hundred dollars? It's since had its price slashed, and was recently available on Amazon for just $20. But even for relative chump change, this 'classic' is a tough sell.
Another 'mini' that failed to deliver what it needed to, this weird micro-arcade-cab slash plug-in-and-play-on-the-TV system neither worked as a portable tabletop device, nor on the big screen. When connected to a TV, its picture becomes stretched, shattering the crisp details of games like Metal Slug, Samurai Showdown II and several King of Fighters entries. It sure looks cute, and if you remember just how much anything with NEO GEO on it cost back when, you'll see this sub-hundred-bucks set of 40 games as a bargain. Control pads are available, too, making the on-telly play a little easier on the hand cramp, even if the d-pad isn't as precise as it might be. Overall, the out-of-the-box console here underwhelms, and even the addition of extra peripherals leaves it far from essential.
Coming soon - we've already played around with it a bit - SEGA's first official entry into the mini-console space is, just like it was back when, a direct competitor to the SNES Classic. With 42 games including two 'new' ones, Darius and Tetris, it packs in double the amount of games as its Nintendo counterpart, albeit with more that fall on the side of probably-give-it-a-miss (Altered Beast, I'm looking at you). The games you need are pretty much all here, though - Sonic 2, Streets of Rage 2, Phantasy Star IV, Gunstar Heroes, Castlevania: Bloodlines, Story of Thor (aka Beyond Oasis) - and the high-quality emulation from M2 absolutely dicks on what we saw in those older, AT Games-released 'Mega Drives'. If you were more SEGA than Nintendo in the 1990s, this has to be top of your shopping list when it releases on October 4 ($79.99/£69.99) - but if you want a wonderful snapshot of what gaming was like before 3D really took over, with the PlayStation, get this and the SNES Classic. So many of these games (find a complete guide to them here) hold up decently, and there's a good chance of discovering a new favourite.
The PC Engine didn't really take off in Europe, and in the US, where it was sold as the TurboGrafx-16, it failed to compete with the Genesis and SNES. But it was a big deal indeed in its homeland of Japan, and that's possibly why so many of the 50 games included on this mini-console, which releases in March 2020, are the original Japanese versions. Yes, that means in order to get the most out of this system, you may have to learn a new language. But what rewards await you, if you do. Hideo Kojima's cyberpunk adventure Snatcher is here in its complete three-act glory - but as it's entirely in Japanese, you're going to need a phrasebook handy. Also included are R-Type, Space Harrier, Bonk's Revenge and Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. At £100, the PC Engine Mini is expensive compared to the Mega Drive Mini and SNES Classic, but if you're a, let's say, discerning retro gamer - god, I already hate myself for writing that - you're going to want this sitting alongside your SEGA and Nintendo throwbacks.
Okay, so now we're entering the fantasy zone, as Nintendo's been quite clear that a mini version of its 64-bit console isn't currently on the cards. But the company has filed a trademark for such a system, so... fingers crossed, right?
And, sticking with dreamland for a while, how about a lil' Dreamcast full of classics from SEGA's swansong console. If the Mega Drive/Genesis Mini does well for SEGA, surely the company would consider another shot at the dinky-system market - and if there's one machine in SEGA's history that deserves a second chance, it's this one. Genuine arcade-perfect conversions, Shenmue and its sequel, a pair of Power Stones, Jet Set Raaaadio, the only two 3D Sonic games worth playing, and so much more - the Dreamcast was a little wonder that burned brightly but all too briefly, at the end of the millennium. Bring it back, SEGA. Come on. Bring it back, and bring Seaman with it.
What mini console would you love to see hit stores? Let us know via the social platforms below.
Featured Image Credit: Phil Boon and Relevant Rights Holders
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