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 OTHER HARDWARE REVIEW

Blaze Mega Drive Arcade Ultimate Portable

Pocket paradise for retro gamers
 
Blaze Mega Drive Arcade Ultimate Portable Other, thumbnail 1
Sega’s legendary Mega Drive console has been repackaged and re-released so many times it’s almost disingenuous to refer to it as ‘vintage’ hardware.

The machine’s almost timeless quality has ensured that it remains in production in some form or another, dutifully continuing to entertain legions of gamers more than two decades after its initial launch.

We’ve already been suitably impressed with the GenMobile (which allowed you to make use of original Mega Drive cartridges) and the original Blaze Mega Drive Portable, which came with pre-loaded games for a truly-pocket sized retro experience.

Blaze is now back with a new and improved version of its popular handheld, and although it looks disarmingly similar to its predecessor at first glance, what’s contained inside the almost toy-like black and red casing is a far more impressive proposition than what we’ve witnessed previously.



Pocket power

First impressions of the Blaze Mega Drive Arcade Ultimate Portable (let's call it the Arcade Ultimate) are curiously muted - while it feels solid enough, the casing doesn’t exude the kind of reassuring dependability you expect from modern handhelds.

It’s clearly been manufactured on a tight budget, which is understandable when you consider it’s retailing for a tiny fraction of the RRP of the shiny new Nintendo 3DS.

However, the longer you spend with the machine the more positive the experience becomes. The D-pad is a vast improvement over the one seen on the previous Blaze Mega Drive Portable and feels more responsive and accurate, even when playing some of the more demanding action titles.

The revised six-button arrangement is also welcome, and allows you to enjoy the few Mega Drive games that supported the additional inputs, such as Street Fighter II and Ranger X.

The display on the first Blaze handheld was one of the weakest parts of the system - it relied largely on outdated last-gen LCD technology and had a low resolution which made reading text difficult. One would be forgiven for assuming that the same screen sits inside this updated edition, but mercifully that isn’t the case.



Star of the screen

What we have here is a vastly improved display, with pixel-perfect definition, excellent colour balance, and reasonable brightness. Had a brightness dial been included then it would have been even better, but the default setting is good enough for play in both daylight and in dimmer locations.

The big caveat with the screen is that the image sometimes has to be stretched to fill it. On some games this is barely noticeable, but on others you can tell quite clearly that additional lines are being inserted to ensure that the display is entirely filled.

It’s a minor quirk that's only likely to bother die hard Mega Drive purists, but it bears mentioning all the same. Had it not been present, then this console would boast an entirely flawless visual experience.



Aural accompaniment

The audio fares slightly less well, unfortunately. The console’s single speaker is quite loud, but distorts when turned up too high.

Using a pair of headphones is preferable, but the music in some games is noticeably off-key – this is something that afflicted the previous Blaze handheld, and is presumably to do with the way the Mega Drive’s sound chip is being emulated by the hardware.

Taking all of this into account, it’s clear that the console is less than perfect. However, such quibbles quickly evaporate when you consider the Arcade Ultimate’s secret weapon: access to the Mega Drive’s entire back catalogue of software.

It comes pre-loaded with 20 classic titles – the very same 20 that came on the previous Blaze machine, in fact – but it also boasts an all-important SD card slot. This allows you to use Sega Mega Drive ROM files, and when twinned with an appropriately-sized memory card this mobile marvel can essentially carry every single Mega Drive game ever made.



ROM-ance

Compatibility is impressive. Although a few titles are cursed with minor graphical glitches, practically every single game we tried on the unit worked perfectly. It’s an amazing experience having such a wealth of gaming brilliance on a machine the size of your average mobile phone, and this alone makes the Arcade Ultimate a must-have piece of hardware.

With regards to ROM usage, there are some drawbacks to mention – because the console lacks battery back-up, you can’t save your progress in titles that relied on a save-game feature in their original cartridge guises.

Sadly, this means that games like Shining Force, Phantasy Star IV and Story of Thor are practically unplayable, and other RPGs like Super Hydlide won’t even let you start a game, because a save profile must be registered beforehand.

This might seem like something of a fatal blow, but when you consider the true classics of the Mega Drive library – titles such as Revenge of Shinobi, Sonic 2, Streets of Rage 2 and Thunderforce IV – you’ll quickly realise that none of them requires battery back-up saves.

The Mega Drive’s pedigree has more to do with blisteringly fast arcade and sports titles rather than vast, slow-paced RPG adventures. Those games that utilise password saves are of course entirely playable, so it's not a complete loss.



I fought the law

Of course, the big question with regards to getting games onto the Arcade Ultimate is legality. You'll need to source the ROMs yourself – the console doesn't even come with an SD card.

The subject of ROM distribution is a tricky one, rendered even trickier by Sega’s recent moves to monetise its library of games via services such as the App Store, Nintendo’s Virtual Console, and Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade.

Whether or not you’re willing to flout digital copyright laws by downloading ROMs is a quandary only you and your own conscience can deal with, but it’s fair to say that many of the people who seek out this handheld will already have paid several times over for some of the games they download.

When you add in a rechargeable battery (with around eight hours of stamina) and the ability to play games on your TV set using an additional lead, the Arcade Ultimate becomes an almost indispensable gadget for fans of classic gaming, despite the few minor issues which blot its otherwise impeccable copybook.

Being able to carry around the entire back catalogue of Mega Drive games is worth the cost of the unit alone, and anyone with even the slightest interest in retro gaming shouldn’t hesitate to pick up this stunning handheld.
 

Reviewer photo
Damien McFerran 1 April 2011
A brilliant screen, rechargeable battery and potential access to the entire Mega Drive library make this a highly recommended purchase for anyone who remembers the good old days of 16-bit gaming
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