Return to Cartridge Gaming: Retrode

Retrode: The Return of Cartridge Gaming

Behold the Retrode 2, designed to bring old cartridges and controllers back to life on otherwise useless PCs. Finally, emulation gaming can be streamlined into a legal, authentic experience.

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the explosion of emulation gaming became one of the coolest capabilities of any PC. Well ahead of the commercial trend that would form the likes of Xbox Live Arcade, Nintendo’s Virtual Console or re-releases after re-releases, bringing back the glory of the 16-bit (Super Nintendo, Sega Genisis) and 8-bit (NES all the way) eras was as simple as having access to any pathetic Pentium I PC.

Specifically, an emulator refers to any sort of computer or programming subset that can emulate (imitate) another program or device. This imitation often requires vastly superior hardware depending on the dissimilarity between architecture – in this case, a Windows 98 era PC running a SNES emulator.

A $10 Gravis controller made for a decent SNES controller stand-in. There was only one issue: getting game ROMs. Legally, the idea was that a user was free and clear to dump ROMs from their own old cartridges. Naturally, the file-sharing generation was not altogether keen on following the particulars of legal ROM usage. At the time, these classic games were dormant in terms of sales, only available through resale. For example, if someone wanted to play ‘Metroid II: The Return of Samus’ legally, they had better already own it, or look to eBay, another upstart of the time.

Admittedly, one the best emulation feats that I ever took part in was playing through the Japanese versions of old ‘Final Fantasy’ games, including ‘Final Fantasy V’, which had never been released in the West. As with similar file sharing experiences, the novelty was tempered by fakes and error-riddled instances. At the same time, game companies began to realize that a market existed. Even though Nintendo very foolishly limited the Game Boy Advance and GBA SP to only four buttons, the company still planned to bring SNES (and NES) games to the device.

Fast forward to the present, and I still hold those old cartridges dear. Whether purchased new back in the day or acquired in the interim, they still hold a mystique that’s quickly ebbing from current titles. (Just sell it to me digitally, thank you.) Enter the Retrode and Retrode 2.

Essentially, the Retrode is an USB device that can read those old cartridges, and even deliver access directly to an emulator. The Retrode handles SNES and Sega Genesis cartridges by default, and also has controller ports for original SNES and Genesis controllers. The more controllers that debut and imitate, the more that old timers (like me) miss the classics.

With the Retrode able to turn a PC into an instant, very authentic Sega Genesis SNES machine, its value is already certain. And yet, it also promises much more. Through the use of plug-in adapters, the Retrode can access any number of other (obscure) formats, like the plucky (written with full irony) Virtual Boy. Not only will the Retrode 2 allow users to play old games with the right controller on a PC (and Mac), it also promises Android support (limited but growing) and reportedly works on a jailbroken iPad 2.

In many ways, emulation as a hobby began as a means to preserve games whose industry treated them as yesterday’s news. The Retrode 2 does so with a degree of legality and authenticity that is as close to actually pulling out the old systems (finicky as they are) as I have seen. As a bonus, should the user be lucky enough to have an old cartridge whose save battery is still keeping that save file intact, the Retrode 2 can extract it from the cartridge to be archived properly.

The Retrode 2 with Android adapters, shipping and tax, is easily a 100 Euro investment, which is not exactly in keeping with the frugal nature of emulation fans. Nevertheless, I plan to get one, and may just post an update afterwards.


[Retrode 2 discovered through Eurogamer.]


  1. William Henley

    That is indeed cool, but you could probably pick up the obscure systems themselves for that price. Of course, the use of filters on emulators is a plus – such as scalling and smooting, which is handy if you wish to output to your huge HDTV, plus the ability to rerender graphics at higher resolutions for 3D titles. Plus, for people like me who HATE the n64 controller, the ability to use a sidewinder or an XBox 360 controller was a great way to play a few games.

    So is this thing a rom dumper, or do the emulators have to support the hardware? If its the latter, how many emulators actually support this thing? It sounds like something I would be interested in, but if my favorite emulators are not supported, it is going to be fairly useless to me.

    • Don’t forget that the Retrode is multi-region as well.

      The Retrode turns the carts into a kind of usb style removable media. Thereby you can read files off of the carts (like a ROM dumper) or with any emulators that have directory letter access (the more sophisticated do going way back to floppy drive days) can run games straight from the cartridge.

      • Interesting. Certainly sounds useful, but I could see some big company trying to shoot this down. That could make it extreamly easy to copy files and therefore copy games, so it could get classified as a rom dumper. :-/

        Still an interesting idea, just seems like its going to have a very limited audience. For the handfull of retro games that still grab my attention, I found the Virtual Console on the Wii to be a great, cheap, legal way to play the games. At least, until my Wii got stolen and someone told me that your purchaces are tied to your console. 🙁

        The issue with the retrode being region free sounds cool, but as I don’t read Japanese, this requires me to look for patched (hacked) game files. So that is not such a big selling point for me.

        I’m on the fence about this one. It would allow me to play several games, and would be cheaper than buying another Wii, and I could probably pick up cartrages for about the same price (if not a bit cheaper, depending on the cartrages – I have seen some SNES cartrages go for over $60 recently) than a game in the Wii store or XBox Live Arcade.

        May be a toy that I consider here in a few months.

  2. Chaz

    While a cool idea, how many people are still able to access a wide collection of original cartridges, I hardly know anyone that actually hung on to their old genesis and SNES games. I had all of those systems growing up but I certainly didnt keep all those games and I’m not going to try and find any and the good ones, like Final Fantasy III or Secret of Mana type stuff, are really expensive, mostly I’ve been waiting on updated versions of some of my favorites to show up on Steam, the Xbox or the PS3 as a Playstation Plus member I got all the SEGA classics downloaded for free like Streets of Rage, Sonic, Comix Zone, etc.

    Anymore, I’m not sure how big of an audience this will have past people who actually still have those cartridges in a closet somewhere or serious game collectors 🙂

    • I’ve heard a similar logic with the Neo Geo X Gold, that it is a niche product. That is true, but that is part of the attraction. There won’t be a Retrode under every Christmas tree this year and the next. If I want to play ‘General Chaos,’ I can’t rely on a re-release.

      Also, one of the coolest things that Nintendo was talking about when they introduced the Virtual Console was replica controllers. (Instead they just produced the odd classic controller.) The Retrode allows original controllers to be used. It isn’t something that bothers me in say FFIV, but in the Mega Man games, I prefer original controllers.

      Now if the Retrode 3 could play HD-DVDs…

  3. Dan Hirshleifer

    I still own an SNES that I have hooked up to the TV in my bedroom, but this certainly does pique my interest, as the SNES/Genesis era remains my favorite gaming generation.

  4. @William: region-free isn’t restricted to Japan! You could play a lot of European games, who are almost all exclusively in English. Growing up, I never had any SNES/Genesis game in Dutch; it just wasn’t an affordable option for the producers/makers to dub/translate these games. We had to do with a Dutch manual. The upside is that we had to learn English in order to understand our favourite software.
    There are some PAL-games (e.g. Ghostbusters II and Dragon’s Lair on the NES) that are better than their American counterpart. True, very few, but they are out there.

    And why the hate for the Nintendo64 controller?

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