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If the brand name Blaze means anything to you, in a gaming context, it's more than likely because you've picked up one of the company's varied retro consoles or mini-arcade machines, pre-loaded with titles from yesteryear. It's produced a range of Atari-badged products in recent years, including the Retro Handheld with 60 built-in games from the 2600 and 7800 consoles. It's not much of a challenge these days to find a version of Pac-Man, Centipede or Asteroids that's playable in the palm of your hands; but nevertheless, it's still nice to see that famous Atari logo on the piece of kit you're holding.
Blaze's latest product really is something else, though. It's still firmly retro, but it's not going for that all-in-one approach that we've seen with so many other throwback consoles, be they portable or mini affairs that only plug into your TV (like the recently reviewed PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini, and last year's Mega Drive Mini).
Said product is the Evercade. It's an all-new proper handheld console, in the vein of the Game Boy, Game Gear and the rest of them, that uses bespoke game cartridges exclusive to the system, each containing a selection of games from some big-name publishers. At the time of writing, i.e. in time for the console's launch - ten cartridges are available, adding up to 122 games, covering legendary stables like Namco, Atari (inevitably), Interplay, Technos and Data East. There are surprises in the ranks, too, but more on those in a moment.
The Evercade has a bright, crisp and sharp 480x272 screen that's much closer to a Vita's level of colour and zest than, say, the more muted nature of a DS display; and it can run games at their native 4:3 ratio or in full-screen, albeit with some stretching. It doesn't (noticeably) blur anything, and if you want to take your games onto the TV in 720p HD, you can, via a mini-HDMI port (though results vary - again, more on that shortly). Its four face buttons all spring back with gusto, and its shoulder buttons give off a satisfying click with each press.
Its d-pad, while appearing a little floaty at first glance, completes a 360-degree spin with reassuring eight-way precision, no one point on its compass dipping down too deep to feel spongy. And the stereo signal that comes through headphones is perfectly punchy, if lacking in quite enough volume to comprehensively cut through a busy commute (though you may want to actively turn down some of the oldest games, here).
TL;DR: this is a quality piece of kit that both surprises with how accomplished it looks and, more importantly, feels in hand, and with the range of games available for it, right out of the blocks. Naturally, if you're not a gamer who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, the Evercade's catalogue is likely to leave you cold - unless you're the adventurous type who enjoys digging around in gaming history, and if so, more power to you.
As someone who plays a lot of handheld games, largely on Switch, I'm pretty used to my hands beginning to ache, and at the worst of times actually cramp up. (I really do need to get myself one of those massive, ergonomic Switch grips.) But across a good few hours' use of the Evercade - a full charge, for which a micro USB lead is included (but you'll need your own plug to go on the end of it), will last over four hours - I never felt like my fingers and thumbs were seizing up like they do after a proper Switcher session, or way too much fishing in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
The Evercade's a lot lighter than Nintendo's obviously more complex and expensive system, but it's also not some flimsy thing that's been thrown together on the cheap. It's lighter than, say, a Sony PSP, but it's of a comparable size and has a similar in-hand snugness. Nothing bends around the edges, and nothing gives where it shouldn't. Again: a quality piece of kit.
As for the cartridges, each comes boxed in a small plastic case with a full-colour manual (oh boy, you have no idea how much I've missed proper manuals with games), and when they're slipped inside the Evercade, they complete its curves (again, very Game Gear-like). Switch the console on and the menu is simple to navigate - left and right to select the game you want, A or the start button to open it, plus instant-access save/load states via the Menu button.
You get a little information on each title, too: its year of release, number of 'bits' or its platform, and genre. So, if you were to slide over to Earthworm Jim, on the Interplay Collection 1 cartridge, you'd learn it's a 16-bit platformer from 1993. But you already knew that, right?
If you elect to grab the Evercade's 'premium pack', which costs £79.99/$99.99, you'll get the console with Interplay Collection 1, Namco Museum Collection 1, and Atari Collection 1 (a one-cart 'starter' pack retails at £59.99/$79.99, bundled with the Namco set).
That adds up to 37 games in total, ranging from the aforementioned super-suited worm and his battles against a psychotic crow, which is collected alongside Boogerman and Clay Fighter, to the properly old-fashioned likes of Crystal Castles, Tempest, Missile Command, Xevious, Pac-Man and Dig Dug. And when I say old-fashioned, I mean classic, obviously - but you've got to be of the right vintage to really get a kick out of such games, in 2020.
But not everything on the Evercade is strictly retro. One of the launch cartridges (each of which costs £14.99/$19.99) is a collection of 10 Mega Cat Studios releases, and Mega Cat specialises in publishing old-style video games that are actually very new indeed. On it you'll find the side-scrolling, alien-splatting brawler Coffee Crisis, released in 2017; Tanzer, a Kickstarter-supported run-and-gunner made for the Mega Drive in 2019; another Mega Drive/Genesis original in the shape of Little Medusa, a puzzler from 2018; and Log Jammers, an axe-tossing semi-sports-sim that was made for the NES in 2017.
Another launch release, the Piko Interactive Collection, will be super interesting for anyone with an appetite for the hard-to-find. Its 20 games are all from the folders marked This One Never Came Out Where You Live, This One Lost Its License And Fell Into Limbo, and This One Wasn't Even Finished Until We Decided To Finish It. Piko's specialism is bringing games back from the dead and translating titles that never received English ports - and a lot of what's on this cart is, actually, a little bit brilliant.
Top Racer is, basically, the Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge game that I poured so many hours into as a kid, on the Amiga, and to have it back in front of me 30 years later is wild. Water Margin is a wonderful romp of an arcade beat 'em, previously only available in China, up that steals from Capcom's Knights of the Round and SEGA's Streets of Rage - but I'll allow it as it's so much fun. And Legend of the Magic Warrior (aka Brave Battle Saga) is a colourful 16-bit RPG, made for Taiwan's Mega Drive market back in 1996, that's a lot more involving than its somewhat generic title implies. That's just three of 20, and I'm buzzing to dig into some of Piko's other delights.
Carts from Technos (eight titles) and Data East (10 titles) deliver familiar names from the 8- and 16-bit eras, and they all play excellently on the Evercade - albeit with the caveat of some of them dating better than others. Forgive me, dear reader, but I've never been much of a fan of Double Dragon, which pops up beside its sequel and Super Double Dragon on the Technos cart; but on the same collection is the still-amazing River City Ransom, so, all is well. (If you loved last year's phenomenal River City Girls, and you've never played this predecessor, get right on it.) Data East serves up Midnight Resistance, Bad Dudes, Burger Time and more - but it's the arcade billiards of Side Pocket that has taken up most of my time so far with this set (I'm probably missing pubs, just a bit).
The Evercade is, first and foremost, a handheld console - and realistically, if you're already thinking of getting one for yourself, that's probably how you're going to be playing it. Should you choose to use an HDMI lead to get these games on the TV, well, that's an option - but whether it's my lead (probably) or the hardware (less likely, but this is a not-quite-final unit I've been using), I've had the sound drop out on the TV several times. I also had one instance where it seemed like all the sound on a game, namely Motor Psycho on the Atari Collection 1, surged through the speakers at once. Reader, it made the cat leap off the sofa, almost to the ceiling. Not fun for anyone.
But I dare say that's something of a moot point for me as I won't be spending much, if any, time with the Evercade plugged into the TV. This is a console that's going to travel with me, once we're allowed to travel again, alongside the Switch. The carts are small and sturdy enough to survive inside a backpack pocket - though I don't doubt that Blaze or a third-party will produce a proper carry case for the console and a few games, before long.
And it's a console that I hope will have a decent shelf life, too. The initial 10 cartridges will soon be joined by two more - one collecting 17 Atari Lynx games including the well-regarded Scrapyard Dog and Crystal Mines II; and the other starring two modern games made for the Mega Drive: last year's amazing 16-bit shooter Xeno Crisis and the cute-but-challenging platformer Tanglewood of 2018. Fingers crossed that Blaze has plenty more in store, beyond that.
If you have a place in your heart still for the games of your ('80s and '90s) childhood - or you're curious about gaming's heritage, its arcade classics and inspirational releases, and want a neat new platform to try them out on at your play-anywhere convenience - the Evercade is warmly recommended. And sure, you can argue about dodgy ROM files on your Raspberry Pi, or whatever - but nothing feels quite so good as plugging in a cartridge, whether you've blown on it first or not, when it comes to this stuff.
The Evercade's not actually due for release until May 22, having been delayed from the start of April for obvious reasons; but pre-orders are live now, and you can click to the Evercade website for a full list of international stockists, as well as more information. A non-final test unit for this coverage was provided by Blaze, along with the launch selection of 10 cartridges. The provision of these items has had no bearing on the tone of this coverage - the author just really likes this stuff, largely on account of being an actual old man who can't play Call of Duty without getting a headache.
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