Blaze Entertainment's latest Evercade-compatible device makes for an excellent entry to licensed emulation on Linux. NOTE: Personal purchase.
Originally launched in 2020, the Evercade line is seemingly not often mentioned in Linux-gaming circles, even though the consoles are Linux-based - I find this curious, since in my experience Linux gamers generally tend to be supportive of projects that make use of our software of choice. With a focus on (usually multi-game) cartridge releases instead of digital ones, specifically covering retro and retro-style titles, the platform has seen steady support over the last few years, and now has a sister-brand called Hyper Mega Tech!. This new offshoot offers a line of lower-priced Evercade-compatible handhelds that contain a selection of officially-licensed pre-loaded games, under the name of Super Pocket. I discovered these devices whilst perusing videos about interesting and unusual handhelds recently, and when I saw that they're Evercade-compatible I was intrigued - and, of course, I ended up getting one. I couldn't resist - I might just have an addiction to portables...
At the time of writing there are two versions of the Super Pocket - the Capcom Edition (containing 12 games) and the Taito Edition (containing 18). Though both versions of the Super Pocket offer excellent game-collections, for me the Taito one has more titles overall that are my sort of thing - and the fact that it includes both Bubble Bobble and The NewZealand Story on the same device is a big selling-point for me. Reason being, for Brits who grew up during the 1980s and 1990s home-microcomputer boom, these two Taito titles occupy the same cultural-space that Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 do for gamers in North America and Japan, except they were available on just about every system going. With the exception of Space Invaders '91, the included titles are all the original arcade versions, not any of the later home-console conversions that so often appear in licensed collections like this, which is really nice to see!
The Taito handheld includes Bubble Bobble, Cadash, Chack'n Pop, Don Doko Don, Elevator Action, Football Champ, Growl, KiKi KaiKai, The Legend of Kage, Liquid Kids, Operation Wolf, Puzzle Bobble, Rastan, Space Invaders, Space Invaders '91, The Fairyland Story, The NewZealand Story, and Volfied (all arcade games, except for Space Invaders '91, which is a Mega Drive title). Meanwhile, the Capcom device includes 1942, 1943, 1944: The Loop Master, Bionic Commando, Captain Commando, Final Fight, Forgotten Worlds, Ghouls 'n' Ghosts, Mega Man, Street Fighter II': Hyper Fighting, Strider, and Wolf of the Battlefield: MERCS (also all arcade games, except for Mega Man, which was originally released for the NES).
Compared to the pricing of the other currently-available Evercade machines (£130 for the Evercade EXP handheld which offers TATE mode for vertical games, and £90 for the Evercade VS home-console which supports up to four players), the Super Pocket at £50 makes for the cheapest way by far to get into much of the Evercade library if you're interested in doing so. The Super Pocket is compatible with most Evercade cartridges (which cost £18 each), though at the time of writing, the game Cathedral, on the Alwa's Awakening/Cathedral twin-pack does not work on these machines, and Future Wars on the Delphine Collection 1 cartridge has been reported not to work on at least some units, as well. Even with those caveats, you still get access to the vast majority of the library.
The machine is made from a nice-feeling matte-plastic with a black front panel and a green back, with the buttons on the front and back contrasting in line with this colour-scheme. I'm not quite sure why they went with black-and-green for the Taito machine - it looks more like something that I would associate with Gremlin Graphics' Zool than with Taito, whose classic logo typically used red, yellow, or orange with a splash of white, and whose later iconic triangular logo was blue-and-white. Still, it looks really nice, and evokes a strong 1980s/1990s feel, which is clearly what they're going for considering the release-years of the included games. It's compact but feels good in the hand, and the controls are mostly excellent; The d-pad is superb and feels very definite when you push a direction, and the buttons are somewhat clicky and rather reminiscent of those of the Game Boy Advance SP.
The only real issue is with the L1/L2 and R1/R2 "shoulder" buttons on the back, which are incredibly awkward to press, and would be much better if they stuck out a little more and were less firm and clicky than the buttons on the front of the unit - however, as far as the built-in games go, you're not likely to be using the shoulder-buttons, so it's only a potential issue when using certain Evercade cartridges (and, indeed, on the Super Pocket Capcom Edition, which I'm told does use the rear buttons for some of its games). That said, these buttons are bad, and not fit for purpose if you're planning for this to be your only Evercade-compatible device and intend to pick up games that use them. This is quite surprising considering how good the rest of the controls are, which makes this particular element feel like an afterthought. Since the Super Pocket handhelds are numbered, implying more to come, hopefully future revisions can fix these buttons in some way.
The battery lasts for 4 hours, which is about the baseline for most handhelds today. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it lives up to the claimed time exactly! It's always nice to see a company not exaggerating this - well done, Blaze.
The screen is pretty good for a device that only costs £50. It's not top-of-the-line or anything (there's a tiny bit of light-bleed at the top-left edge on my unit, but this sort of thing doesn't tremendously bother me for a device in this price-bracket, and I never notice it during gameplay and barely notice it in the menus), but it doesn't need to be considering that the hardware is intended for very old games that were made for displays that weren't perfect themselves. The only feature, or rather lack thereof, that makes it stand out is that there's no way to change the brightness, which is something I've never seen before on any backlit display. Luckily, it's not set either too bright or too dim - it's perfectly fine for the task at hand. Games look nice on it, although even if you use the system's "Pixel Perfect" display option, there are always some soft-edged scaling artifacts (which is particularly noticeable on the vertical titles that are included) and "shimmering" when scrolling, which I presume is because the Super Pocket's 320x240 resolution is lower than any of the other Evercade consoles out there; Again, though, for £50 I'm much more willing to let it slide than I would be if a more expensive device did this.
It's worth pointing out that the price-point of the Super Pocket also means that there's no multiplayer or TV-out functionality, as other Evercade consoles have - this is purely a single-player console.
I picked up a handful of cartridges with my device, some of which (particularly the arcade-game collections) include titles that have not seen a re-release on current PC-gaming platforms at the time of writing, and they're an ideal fit for a device like this, especially since most Evercade cartridges include multiple games. Unlike the retro systems that inspired the Evercade line, you can hot-swap cartridges while the system is powered on, as long as a game isn't running at the time, which is very convenient and something that I became accustomed to back in the days of the Nintendo 3DS. However, it's probably worth being somewhat cautious after saving and exiting a game, just to be on the safe side, as, much like the cartridges of the NeoGeo Pocket Colour, Nintendo 3DS, and Nintendo Switch, they're flash-based rather than using mask-ROMs.
For those who remember Ocean Software's famous home-microcomputer budget tape range, The Hit Squad, the way that the cartridges are packaged is something of a callback to that - they come in cute little boxes with co-ordinating artwork and collectible numbering, to hook you if you're inclined towards collecting and displaying them all. They're also colour-coded, with red boxes representing retro console/handheld and native titles, purple representing arcade games, and blue representing software originally made for home computers. And, unlike full-priced releases for major platforms, you also get a full-colour manual as well, which contains details about the games and those behind them. (Note that, though Evercade cartridges on the standard consoles display an information-page replicating the relevant part of the manual before you jump into a game, this does not happen on the Super Pocket machines - on those, your chosen game loads immediately without showing anything else first.)
Just like those curated collections of tapes, so too are the Evercade's cartridges curated, and this is one of their great strengths. You'll typically select a cartridge on the basis of a few games that interest you, and end up discovering other games you like along the way. This has happened to me with every single cartridge I've picked up so far. Moreover, not only do the collections sometimes include games that were never released in English before, or finished versions of "lost" titles that weren't released at all during their time, sometimes they'll also come with little bonus surprises like art-cards and posters (I've also heard that some offer stickers too, though I haven't come across any of those myself yet), which I was absolutely delighted by - it reminded me of when older games would include these little goodies, which of course is the intent. I'll definitely be displaying these!
When you load up a cartridge, the menus are well-presented, displaying the games using either their original key-art or arcade-flyer in a scrolling horizontal format; This reminded me of the likes of EmulationStation, though it's not quite as snappy and responsive (it feels like there's some room for improvement here, but it's not a huge issue). It's easy to switch between the Super Pocket's selection of built-in games and those on a cartridge by pressing the Menu button located just under the screen, which will let you access either one of the gaming options, as well as the system's Settings menu.
The emulation is, as anyone who's familiar with the usual suspects from the Linux emulation scene will already know, pretty much spot-on. I'm actually pickier about this than most, because even though I'm an emulation enthusiast, at one point I was also a major real-hardware-only stickler whilst waiting for the emulation of certain systems I knew well to improve (I'm the sort who wouldn't put up with inaccurate SNES audio emulation or incorrect Z-fighting in PlayStation emulators); Those improvements became reality before too long, and what's presented by the Super Pocket (and by extension the wider Evercade line) is more than good enough for me. I suspect that folks without specialised emulation knowledge would never notice any difference compared to their memories of the real thing. The only downside I found is that you can't remap the controls on this device, though given the price, size, and form-factor this didn't bother me like it otherwise would - they're aiming for a no-fuss console experience, after all.
The Super Pocket (and its Evercade kin) won't be for everyone, especially in a world where it's competing against low-cost emulation handhelds that seem to multiply by the month and don't require cartridges, but if you're looking for a simple Linux-based way to get into retro-gaming (plus some modern indies made in the retro style), where some of the money goes back to the rights-holders for the games and you get some neat little artifacts to use and display, then this is a damn fine place to start. Even with the awful shoulder-buttons, I've been left very impressed by the entire experience and its presentation, inside and out.
Did you know that the Evercade devices are Linux-based? Are you interested in grabbing one? And are there any retro or indie games that you'd like to see come to the platform? Please share in the comments, below!