Spending some time with the Sega Genesis Flashback
sega genesis flashback atgames
Having an affinity for and owning Sega Genesis and Genesis 2 consoles, I found myself intrigued by AtGames' new Sega Genesis Flashback. I have experience with AtGames' Sega Genesis Classic and Portable which I found lacking to some degree though usable, but the promises of an updated emulation engine and built-in HDMI were a draw which I could not resist. I have spent some time since the November 10 release to give it a whirl and I am far more satisfied than most early reviewers.
Leading up to the official launch I watched videos and read articles by a number of reviewers who had been graced with review models. I cannot recall one overly positive review. I am not a professional reviewer and I am not a marketer so I shall jump right in to the meat.
First, all of the AtGames Genesis devices are built on an emulator called "FireCore." From my own experiences and what others have posted around the webs I find FireCore has some limitations which seem unnecessary given how well other emulators play Genesis titles, including the free "MD.emu" which I run on my HP TouchPad†. I am left to wonder what the quality would be if Sega rolled its own emulation core the way Nintendo did for its NES and SNES Classic Edition products.
The built-in HDMI makes the device a welcome addition now my entertainment system is digital at its core, though anyone familiar with using emulation on a high resolution screen should be able to relate to its one woe. I really do not mind the large pixels and blocky graphics resulting from scaling a "240p" screen to 720p. Many emulators have some kind of filter which provides output which roughly approximates the output on a TV, CRT, or other low-tech display. The Sega Genesis Flashback has only a scanline filter which puts faded lines between what would be the scan lines in an attempt to achieve the look of TV scanlines, and it really does not look good at all. Clean and crisp audio is also carried on the HDMI. While I lack the abilities to test, I suspect this configuration will not suffer the "240p problem." In fact, the only issue I have with the HDMI port is a problem playing nice with my ioGear Wireless HDMI kit, but a power-cycle of the ioGear transmitter resolves the issue.
Speaking of power, while the Sega Genesis Flashback is rated to run on 5V DC at 2A, AtGames elected to use a barrel power connector instead of a micro-USB port like its recently-released Nintendo competition. I was able to power mine using a USB-A to 3mm/1mm barrel on an appropriate USB power supply, and the system under normal use pulls under 500mA. This made providing power to both the Flashback device and the ioGear HDMI transmitter much easier and makes the system more portable: both run just fine on my Anker PowerCore 26800.
Getting back to the audio, playing some of the games I am certain I hear something different about the FM synthesized instruments, almost like the FireCore emulation uses different but similar instrument set (like a MIDI sound font.) To test this I whipped out my trusty Sega Nomad and ran games on both systems but I was not able to punch down any specific differences. So far on everything I tried the sound was near perfect.
Video was another complaint on just about every pre-release review list. Glitchy graphics and sprites, and lagged screen scrolling being chief among the criticisms. Indeed, my prior experience with FireCore in the previous Sega Genesis Classic edition as well as the portable was not entirely perfect. Several of my cartridge games are not recognized by the Classic, and on both units my favorite game, Skitchin', suffered from missing graphics and sprites making it unplayable. I was very pleased to find Skitchin' works almost perfectly on the Flashback.
I noticed on several games scrolling would suffer a short freeze which does not appear to be a frame-skipping problem as suspected in one of the early reviews. In fact, it appears the problem generally does not affect the entire screen but rather only a portion. For instance, in the original Sonic the Hedgehog one of the background planes stutters while animation on the rest of the screen continues. Realistically, I do not think most people will even notice, and if this is indeed a problem with the emulator or the horsepower of the machine I would further speculate AtGames counts on that presumption, as well.
In this regard I noticed a couple of times when Skitchin' will completely freeze for a few jiffies, more of a short and quick stutter, but ultimately the game is still playable.
Cool Spot is another great game which plays very well, though this is one of the games in which the FM music seems a little off-instrument but still perfectly acceptable. Shadow of the Beast will not play past the Electronic Arts logo, Flashback is not recognized at all while Out of this World plays beautifully, Frogger plays perfectly, and while the system comes with Mortal Kombat 3, my Mortal Kombat 3 Ultimate results in just a red screen.
The last game I tried was Primal Rage, which suffered from strange graphics glitches which did not stop game play, such as a black line separating the vital stats area at the top of the screen from the battle area, and green borders around all screens except the title screen. This does not show on the Nomad, but I have not yet tried the game on a full Genesis console connected via standard video output so I cannot say for certain whether the green borders are normal. I would test with the Nomad but I seem to have misplaced the video output cable. Ah, well.
I will repeat what prior reviews have said about the menu system. It is awkward, non-intuitive, and just weird. I have not found myself using the saved game nor rewind features, but I can see the value of both and imagine I will use them at some point in the future.
Let us now focus for a few seconds on the hardware itself. The included controllers suck out of the box, with a capital "suck." The range is bad enough to prevent sitting across my living room and maintaining control, noting that my home environment is completely devoid of internally-generated 2.4GHz signals under normal circumstances: my phones are DECT, my wireless is 5GHz, Bluetooth devices are disabled unless in-use, and all 2.4GHz-only devices are turned off. Demonstrably, I have no locally-generated 2.4GHz signal interference. Initially it appeared they did not work even close-up, but the rebuild I describe shortly fixed this problem.
The controllers just suck. When I originally un-boxed my Flashback I did not stop when I got to its rather touching rendition of the original console's gloss and textured black body and red "cylon eye" in front of the cartridge port. Inside I found three chips on a small circuit board, and what looks like one of those Arduino add-on modules, reminiscent of a "Bluetooth Shield" module. Soldered onto the antenna of this module is a red wire about six inches long, which is identical in both module and attached wire in each of the controllers. It looks like AtGames was aware of the poor range of the controllers and tried to engineer a quick-fix.
As implied, I did take apart one of the controllers in the hopes of a rebuild improving its functionality. I found the standard complement of button, rubber nipples with contact pads, and exposed circuit pads one would find in regular controllers of the era. I grabbed my contact cleaning pen with harsh fiberglass bristles and gave the metal pads a few rubs each. Upon reassembling the controller I found to my relief it worked far more reliably and I could actually play games and even enter Mortal Kombat's "blood code." Thankfully the Flashback does support real Genesis controllers even if it only supports six-button units -- this remains untested for me, including the six-button arcade controller, as all my Genesis console hardware is stashed away for the moment.
There is a USB port on the Flashback main board. It is a shame AtGames did not expose this out the back as a power port, though I suppose the reason is to prevent easy access to what I suspect is a hackable interface to the heart of the machine, probably in the near future -- not by me as I lack time for that kind of adventure.
My assessment over-all is this is not a bad machine to have and use. If you do not have a Sega Genesis you should consider this as a possibility, weighing the benefits and caveats which are, as I see them:
AtGames Sega Genesis Flashback
- Currently available for under $100
- Built-in games (both Sega and classic Master System games)
- HDMI output (720p)
- Capable of using real cartridges
- Capable of using real six-button controllers
Real Sega Genesis
- Not difficult to find
- Not too expensive depending upon source, most under $100
- Some sellers will include a few common games
- Compatible with all Sega Genesis hardware
- Possible to expand with a Sega CD
AtGames Sega Genesis Flashback
- Alternate source pricing will double or more if and when stock runs out
- Included controllers SUCK
- Emulation is not quite 100%
- Not all cartridges work
- Does not recognize three-button controllers (not verified, and who really cares?)
- No guarantee homebrews or demos will work
Real Sega Genesis
- Analog-only output requires up-scaling for digital home systems (on the up-side, the Genesis 2 has
YPrPb componentRGB output)
- No games built-in
- Upscaling will suffer the "240p problem"
- Old hardware is, well, old and subject to fail
† "MD.emu" is excellent on the TouchPad, including support for the iCade Core Bluetooth arcade joystick. It is available and actively developed for Android in both free and paid editions. I highly recommend this emulator.