Just over a year ago, I was very interested in Hyperkin's Retron 77 announcement at the 2017 E3 conference in Los Angeles. Hyperkin, who has a mixed record with emulation and product quality, was showing promise by releasing hardware on which you could use your own Atari 2600 cartridges, or homemade ROMs, on modern televisions by use of an HDMI cable.
As any Atari owner knows, hooking up an Atari to any television made in the last twenty years or so is not without it's challenges. The Atari 2600 relied on a coaxial radio frequency (RF) connection -- not something that you'll find too often (though I did, check out this story).
Which is why an HDMI Atari 2600 clone was so promising. But would it come to Australia? And would it have some of the difficulties of the Retron 5, with ill-fitting cartridge slots that make you feel like you are destroying pins every time you use it (not to mention the questionable provenance of the emulation engine).
The Retron 77 has not yet had an official release in Australia, but a store in Sydney, which I've been buying games from for over 30 years is selling what appears to be imported North American versions and selling them for $155 (they sell directly from Hyperkin in the United States for $69 USD ($94 AUD). The delivery time was prompt, and for an Atari 2600 fan, the price was right. Aussie buyers please note that you will need to buy an adapter to connect the USB power source to an Australian power supply, but to most Aussie's this is not a new thing, you can find them on Ebay for less than $5 or at any airport or Big W for slightly more.
When first confronted with the Retron 77, I experienced a feeling of measured satisfaction with the industrial design. It's small, because it makes sense, less than twice the width of an Atari 2600 cartridge this is a pleasing choice, regardless of the technological and economic factors which lead to the finished product. When put in a world of Nintendo's miniature consoles the choice by Hyperkin makes even more sense.
What left me a less satisfied was the quality of the wood grain sticker and die-cut of the plastic molding. Clearly the design was set to the best intentions, but the fabrication could not meet the same level. Even so, it's the best that Hyperkin has managed to accomplish to date, and for the price understandable.
On the front of the system you have original Atari 2600 controller ports (more on this later), skill levels for both players (nice touch), a mode selector and reset button. And, new to an Atari-like device a Save and Load button. The appreciation that Hyperkin included six option buttons was not lost on me (a likely tribute to the six switchers that preceded the four switch option Atari's).
Moving to the back of the box (Game Under Podcast fans rejoice), Hyperkin included even more tributes, which when you think of the extra expense they could have excluded, no-one would have complained. They include a black and white colour option, which is completely unnecessary, but appreciated. They included a memory slot, which appears to have a Micro SD card inserted. I tried to remove it to see what it was, but there was some resistance, so rather than potentially damage my unit I relented.
There is a video ratio button which enables a choice between 4:3 and 16:9, which for classic Atari players is not a choice at all. In fact, one of the few disappointments with the console is that this must be selected each time you play, (to change to 4:3, which really should have been the default).
Hyperkin also included a "FRY" button, which to me, was again an indication that the designers of this hardware were devout in their actual appreciation for the Atari 2600 or at least consultative with the Atari community. "Frying" a cartridge was an activity of turning the off and on button rapidly, either by itsel,f or in combination with other inputs while playing. This would often lead to the game "glitching" in an entertaining manner, sometime opening up later levels of a game prematurely. This is something Hyperkin could easily have left off the design, but chose to include, which even if I don't use more than once, is appreciated.
As for the included controller, a lot of reviews say that the Retron 77 and the original are identical. This is not the case, as you can see from the photograph above. The dimensions are slightly different, but not in an unpleasant manner. If one did not have the direct comparison you would not discern the difference.
Hyperkin has pleasantly dog-eared both lower corners of the controller, consistent with their aesthetic, but also more ergonomic than the original controller.
While they were in an accommodating mood, they also tipped the hat to the lefties out there by providing a second button (much as Atari did with they Lynx design).
The only substantial difference from the original controller is that the buttons on the Retron 77 have half (yes half) of the "throw" of the original button. While the original has a spring, the Retron 77 is purely digital. This more responsive button makes most twitch games way too easy. Fortunately, you are able to plug in original Atari 2600 controllers.
For those that do enjoy the Retron 77 controllers, the uncomfortable question arises, what if you don't already have an Atari 2600 controller for a second player? As of now, you cannot buy a second controller from Hyperkin. Given that the system requires actual Atari cartridges, it is unlikely that you would not already have a second controller ready to go as an aficionado.
Another difference (thankfully) is that the Retron 77 controller has a cable twice the length of the original Atari 2600 controller, a choice that sadly Nintendo went in the opposite direction with it's NES classic.
In terms of actual use, I put almost every cartridge I could find in the Retron 77 and it worked perfectly with both Atari and second party games from Imagic and Activision.
I cannot but heartily encourage Atari 2600 owners to pick up a Retron 77 -- the only way they cold have improved it was by having it emulate Atari 7800's, let's hope that is in the plans.
- Phil Fogg