A Tale of Immediate Regret

Were you spying through my kitchen window this past Friday night, you’d be forgiven for suspecting the 8-bit graphics and sounds flooding the room were being generated by hardware manufactured while Reagan was still in office. However, upon closer examination, you would have noticed something was afoot… What looked like Nintendo’s Popeye from afar is in fact some game with a teddy bear collecting asterisks from a penguin. Donkey Kong 3 is in fact a gigantic Venom (the Spider-Man villain) wannabe in a world of inverse color being driven up a pair of ropes by a smoke-puffing canon. Things here are certainly askew and we haven’t even gotten to the strangest part of all. The device responsible for these horrible renditions is anything but archaic. Though it’s trying its darndest to convince you otherwise.

Enter the RetroPlay Controller 200 My Arcade from dreamGEAR LLC; one of an endless succession of plug and play consoles littering drug store shelves claiming to provide the retro video game experience for under a 20-spot. In that regard, you almost can’t help but admire the sales strategy here. Many years ago during my own prestigious collegiate years, Marketing 101 taught me that the reason candy bar displays can be found near check out registers at supermarkets is that theirs is the spontaneous purchase marketing strategy. You’re hungry, you’re in a hurry, you’re waiting in line – that $1 Snickers bar wasn’t a premeditated decision.

dreamGEAR is clearly attempting a similar tactic only rather than appeal directly to your stomach, they’re hoping to pull the heartstrings of nostalgia on those poor saps buying their vitamins at Walgreens. Combine a package that sprinkles screen caps of 8-bit games never seen on the NES or Sega Master System, bold lettering proclaiming the inclusion of 200 built-in titles and an MSRP of $15 and you have spontaneous purchase potential off the charts. You may even be able to convince yourself you didn’t need Nintendo’s much-hyped but limited released NES Classic Edition on the ride home. After all, what’s 30 games for $59.99 when you’ve got 200 to explore for a quarter of the price? Expect these thoughts to stave away post-purchase guilt right up until the precise moment you install the required (but not included) three AAA batteries, run the pair of (included) AV cables into the back of your big screen and turn the unit on.

Those expecting the classy Big N interface with retro-inspired tunes and box art images to help make your gaming selections should prepare for disappointment. All you get here is white text of the game names against a bright blue background. Never mind box art scans. Never mind screen shot thumbnails. Just text.

To compound matters, these are about the most generic non-alphabetized titles for video games you’re ever going to encounter; many of which fail to provide even the slightest clue to the game they’re describing. There’s Star and Vigilant and Puzzle and Shoot. That Popeye sprite hack mentioned above? That would be called Dada here. What’s Rescue Kuck, you wonder? That would be Donkey Kong Jr. to you and I. But the prize for the worst named game on this collection has to go to (and I’m not making this up) Assart. Like me, you probably feared the worst; some sort of Mario Paint rip-off designed around a plumber’s crack interface but fortunately it’s just one of many generic garden-themed tile puzzles.

Each screen consists of 8 titles so, you guessed it, there are 25 screens worth of games from which to select and no way to mark where you are or have been. Each time you hit reset to return to the selection menu it’s back to the first page (games 1-8).

From here expect to be introduced to a new form of trial by repeated failures as selecting a game from the menu can only be accomplished by pressing the near microscopic start button in the middle bottom of the controller. Pressing either the A or B button as logic would dictate results in being warped to another screen of game title selections for some reason.

It could be argued trying to find the game you’re looking for is a sort of game unto itself; a kind of scavenger hunt text-based adventure that ends in disappointment even if you’re able to master it. Maybe in future packaging they can change the title to RetroPlay 201.

Once you’ve come to terms with the menu, the time comes to start playing some of the games themselves. Perhaps the best way to prepare one’s self for this experience is to imagine what it would be like if someone took the effort of porting the Atari 2600 library, when it was at its very over-saturated worst, onto the NES. You have a dozen tank game variants- tanks shooting tanks, tanks shooting boats, tanks shooting space invaders. And speaking of, there are countless clones of Space Invaders, at least half a dozen variations of the ever-popular whack-a-mole carnival game, just without the scent of fried dough. And the carnies.

You have card games and tiles games, mahjong and checkers. You have Snake several times over, slots, the board game Battleship again and again. There’s even several Othello attempts (or the original Cool Spot on the NES and Gameboy if you remember such things).

As much as it pains me to admit it, as they are clearly illegal bootlegs, perhaps the most entertainment can be found in the sprite hacked NES classics present here. Pinball, Balloon Fight, Excitebike, Tennis; if you don’t mind some strange and often hideous sprite substitutions, the playability of these Nintendo classic Game Paks is largely in tact.

It’s not just Nintendo’s first party franchises that receive the clone theft treatment either as Circus Charlie, Lode Runner, City Connection, Arkanoid and even Mappy and Centipede all manage to have been included in this collection.

That’s not to say the rest of the selections are unplayable either, however. There’s a decent 3D space shooter called Utmost Warfare and an overhead one in the vein of 1942 called F22 (shown above). A few attempts at light platforming are accomplished via games like Forest Adventure and Jump Jump.

Of course I should mention that while surely designed to look like a micro arcade cabinet, dreamGEAR’s decision to use a tiny thumb-joystick rather than the d-pad as was customary back when most of these games roamed the earth plays its part in making the overall experience far worse than it need be as well. The console itself is barely larger than a 9-volt battery. As such button placement is far too close to be comfortable in anything other than the hands of a child. Factor in the sloppiness of the cheap plastic and unresponsive little joystick and the hardware will take over in the frustration department almost exactly where shoddy game design ends.

All in all it takes only a few minutes with the RetroPlay 200 to realize that not all retro themed plug and plays are created equal. One would think that with this many opportunities to include a decent game worthy of the price of admission, failing to get it right would be impossible. Yet by the time you’ve made it even halfway through this system’s library, the guilt of having wasted $15 will have consumed even the most forgiving gamer among us. Explaining why if you were spying through my kitchen window this past Friday night you heard me say I’d have been better off investing in fifteen Snickers bars.

Jason Russell Jason Russell (34 Posts)

Jason Russell has been working in video game journalism since the early 1990s before the internet existed, the term "fanzine" had meaning and sailors still debated as to whether or not the earth was flat. The first time. More recently he's cofounded the science fiction publishing house Starry Eyed Press , writes and runs the blog CG Movie Review in his spare time and has been corrupting WhatCulture with video game lists. And sometimes, when the planets align and the caffeine has fully left his system, it's rumored he sleeps.