Polymega HD Modular Game Console: Best Retro System Ever Or Impending Disaster?

Some products, especially ones that make bold claims about unique features, can seem too good to be true. Such is the case with today’s device in question, although to be fair, it may be a little too early to tell for sure.

The newest clone hardware to generate notable buzz within the retro gaming community is Playmaji’s Swiss Army knife of an emulation box, the enigmatically titled and incredibly slick Polymega. The nerdy fervor is for good reason—this thing is being touted as the first emulation unit capable of playing games from old-school disc-based systems like the PS1, Sega CD and the Sega Saturn (let’s quietly forget about that abysmal Seedi, okay?). This is in addition to all the usual cartridge-based suspects like the Famicom/NES, Super Famicom/SNES and Genesis/Mega Drive. It’s “the world’s most compatible game console” according to the official website, which experienced an alleged DDoS attack when pre-orders went live on September 5, crippling operations for several days and leading many wary customers to assume that the whole business was a giant scam. Must all of these ambitious emulation machines be mired in controversy? I guess so. It’s like a rite of passage.

But early sales difficulties aside, we’re still left with the burning question: Is the Polymega everything it claims to be? And is it worth plunking down the cash for an April 1, 2019 ship date of “the world’s first HD modular game console”? Well, that depends on several important factors, so let’s get right into it, shall we?

Will you pre-order a Polymega? CREDIT: PLAYMAJI

Let’s first talk about what this thing is, or rather, what it says it’s going to be. So for a cool $279.99 (or $249.99 as of this writing) you’ll get a universal wireless controller paired with the infamous Base Unit, which should play most of the physical media from your Sega CD, Sega Saturn (a huge get if true, given how notorious the Saturn is to emulate—we’ll see), TurboGrafx CD, Neo Geo CD, and PS1 libraries, and from every respective region, no less. No Dreamcast quite yet, but it’s a campaign pre-order reward level possibility, especially given the recently updated internal specs reported by Nintendo Life. You can also rip your own purchased games onto the Polymega’s storage for easy access and preservation. Supposedly, the console will grab box art from a database to help archive your entire collection, which makes sense, since the device is partnered with The Video Game History Foundation. Portions of sales proceeds are said to be going toward funding various retro gaming grants. That last bit seems kind of vague, but given the inevitable onset of disc rot and Nintendo’s recent takedown of various prominent emulation websites, I’d say it’s a somewhat noble cause.

Basically, if you’re into CD-based games, you’re theoretically covered on day one, just as soon as you open the box and power up. However, if you want to play cartridge-based games, you’ll need to purchase separate Element Modules, which retail for $59.99 a piece and look to be shipping alongside the Base Unit in early 2019. These include add-ons for the NES, SNES, Genesis and TurboGrafx-16. If you want all the modules on launch, you can buy a Base Unit bundle that includes them all for $519.99, or an even more expensive pack for $659.99 that also includes a bunch of the Polymega-created retro controllers modeled after the classic gamepads. On that note, Playmaji is saying that their new console is compatible with ‘30’ systems, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration—they’re including each individual region as its own ‘system’, so when you parse out the platforms in a common sense sort of way, that giant number basically halves itself.

There’s also talk on the official website of a future online Polymega Shop, which will supposedly sell digital copies of both CD and cartridge-based titles. This is particularly intriguing, especially in terms of games preservation. While I’m really curious to see what, if any, publishers express interest in making games available on this unproven storefront, I’m honestly having a hard time imagining this avenue providing any modicum of real quality offerings. Like, is Sony going to license out the PS1 Medieval/Twisted Metal/Legend of Legaia games to Polymega? Or SEGA with Burning Rangers and Panzer Dragoon Saga? Highly doubtful. I like the idea, but the market’s just too competitive, so I’m sure we’ll only see obscure third party stuff on the store, if even that.

The Polymega wireless controller CREDIT: PLAYMAJI

Even with those concerns, the Polymega still seems like a really cool retro gaming option. So what are the problems? Well, for starters, it’s expensive. The Base Unit alone is more pricey than most clone systems out there, and that’s not even including the extra modules you’ll want to buy for cartridge play. This isn’t for the casual classic player who wants to relive Parasite Evefor 15 minutes and then move on. This is for the hardcore collector who has amassed a giant room of old games and wants to conveniently play everything in 1080p on their modern TV. Then there’s the emulation itself. Originally this thing was supposed to provide in-house hardware recreation via some kind of hybrid FPGA/software emulation deal, but now it seems that Playmaji is just licensing pre-fabricated software emulators for use inside the Polymega.

From what I can gather, this is the biggest contention people currently have with the console, which is the sudden removal of base-unit FPGA integration, something that’s now only being touted for choice add-ons like the upcoming Famicom extension. Which, it seems, is mostly to ensure that peripherals like the Disk System will work with the module. There are vague promises of FPGA inclusion in future modules, but who knows if or when that will happen.

For those of you unfamiliar with FPGAs, or field-programmable gate arrays, they’re basically chips that can be programmed to very accurately mimic specific pieces of gaming hardware, in some cases much more effectively than traditional software emulation. Higher-end retro consoles like the Analogue Nt Mini utilize this technology to reverse engineer the real deal, thereby running games directly off the cartridge in many instances. It’s as close as you’ll get to having the actual hardware without, well, having the actual hardware. The benefit shows via an almost 100% game compatibility list, whereas options like the RetroN 5 basically rip games from the cartridges, run them via software emulation and are more prone to glitches and bugs because of it. Interestingly, I’ve read that FPGA isn’t as necessary for accurate emulation of CD-based consoles, though I’m not sure how true that is.

A look at one of the modules CREDIT: PLAYMAJI

So, without base-unit FPGA integration, the Polymega might turn out to be just another glorified software emulation machine, something that can be had elsewhere for much cheaper, and a millions times over. There’s also the issue of Playmaji getting caught using Sega Rally arcade emulator footage in a Polymega trailer as a stand-in for Sega Saturn compatibility, which isn’t a good look and doesn’t bode well for that particular console’s functionality. Maybe that was just a marketing snafu, but given the crash-and-burn of past retro ventures like the Coleco Chameleon, I can understand why people might be apprehensive to invest after witnessing such disingenuous practices. Twitch support was also recently removed, which seems like a huge mistake to me, given how many people are probably looking to this hardware as a slick streaming solution for older games.

On a positive note, the guy behind the Polymega, Bryan Bernal, is actually an ex-Insomniac Games project manager, so it feels like if anyone might be able to pull off something this ambitious, it would be an industry veteran like him. And it is an ambitious project, possibly the most ambitious of its kind, which is probably why that, despite some of the potential roadblocks and drawbacks, I’m still looking forward to seeing how the Polymega shakes out. And more importantly, how accurately it emulates all ‘30’ systems. Performance is what it will either live or die by.

Really, it’s still early days, so a lot could change between now and next April. As of this article, the Polymega website pre-order campaign is sitting just shy of $400,000, with a funding goal of $500,000 and 27 days left. Apparently, Playmaji has received additional funding from at least some behind-the-scenes investors, which has allowed it to bypass Kickstarter and the like. And if funding isn’t met, Playmaji “will immediately refund all pre-orders and halt additional sales of Polymega”. Well, at least you won’t be out money if this thing doesn’t take off.

It remains to be seen if the Polymega can deliver on its Sega Saturn promise CREDIT: PLAYMAJI

Despite a few PR stumbles and the product changing shape from its initial inception, I think they’ll still hit that main target goal. Beyond that, I’m not sure. Still, I’d love to get my hands on a review unit at some point, just so I can put it through its paces and post some hands-on impressions. After all, I still own hundreds of PlayStation, SNES and NES games that are just begging to be played in 1080p. Fingers crossed this turns out well. Thoughts and prayers if it doesn’t.

I’m a freelance writer with work appearing in various Scholastic publications like ‘Game On!’ and ‘Ready, Set, Play!’ (fun books on video games for kids), in addition to websites like GamesRadar+ and Wired UK. I’ve also contributed quite extensively to the monthly print maga…

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– By Mitch Wallace

Source – Forbes.com

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