Pros: SNES performance; playable with vintage SNES controllers; space saver; inexpensive
Cons: Tinny NES sound; desaturated NES color; slightly stiff D-pads; S-Video is useless; flimsy controllers
Shortly after writing my review of the Gen-X Dual Station, a clone video game console that plays Sega Genesis and Nintendo 8-bit (NES) games, my Gen-X went kaput. It appeared that, after some testing, the Player 2 controller port stopped responding to input. Now, it may have actually been a problem with one of the controllers (though I cannot say for sure), but I contacted Innex to request an exchange for a new system. Though the Quality Assurance associate at Innex was very friendly and more than willing to make an exchange, he informed me that Innex was not going to import more Gen-Xes until summer, so he offered to replace my Gen-X with a Retro Duo video game console.
Initially, I was despondent, but then I read about the Retro Duo and was immediately encouraged. Basically, the Retro Duo is a video game console cloned from Nintendo patents that had expired recently, which means that this console plays Nintendo games. However, the Retro Duo does not just play Nintendo 8-bit games, but Super Nintendo (SNES) 16-bit games; thus, like the Gen-X, the Retro Duo has two cartridge slots to support games from two different systems. This piqued my interest and started my mental wheels turning. As I did more research about the SNES, I found that a whole new library of games was now open to me: Super Mario World, Super Metroid, Super Mario Kart, Donkey Kong Country, and so on! With new found enthusiasm (and after confirming that my old Genesis could still play the games my family and I had recently acquired), I agreed to the exchange and received the Retro Duo two weeks later.
This article will explore the various aspects of the Retro Duo and how it performs with NES and SNES games.
Console Design and Setup
The Retro Duo console is small and square with rounded corners and a thin side profile. The console features two slots: the back slot is for the tall and wide NES cartridges, and the front slot is for the more squat SNES cartridges. The front of console features two SNES-style controller ports which allows players to plug in legacy SNES controllers, unlike the Gen-X and its inability to support original Genesis controllers. In the front right area of the top of the console, there is a reset button and a three-way switch for toggling between 8-bit (NES), OFF, and 16-bit (SNES); this is easy to deduce by looking at the position of the cartridge slots (the NES slot is near the back, so the switch is toggled back, and the SNES slot is near the front, so the switch is toggled toward the front).
On the back side of the Retro Duo, there are ports for RCA and S-Video cables. Unlike the Gen-X, there are no switches for toggling between Japanese and American cartridge support; this is because Nintendo relied on the form factor of the SNES cartridges themselves to discourage sales across regions, but the Retro Duo accommodates both Japanese and American cartridges. Also, the Retro Duo reportedly plays PAL-formatted cartridges, though I highly recommend checking sites like Wikipedia to determine game compatibility as some PAL games (i.e. games produced for PAL TVs in Europe and Australia) are not compatible with the Retro Duo.
Connecting the Retro Duo to a TV is as simple as plugging in RCA cables into the back of the console and into the Video 1, Video 2, or Front RCA jacks of a television. The console is actually packaged with a four-plug multi-cable that includes all three RCA cables (video, left audio, and right audio) and an S-Video cable that can be plugged in lieu of the video RCA cable.
The construction of the console itself feels solid enough, but made with a cheaper-grade glossy plastic. The cartridge slots are wide enough to insert games easily, though the pin ports inside the console are a tight fit on most games and require players to wriggle cartridges side to side to both insert and remove them. The console is also light in weight, so players would have to hold down the console while pulling out games; I suppose the console’s manufacturer could not install the handy Eject button the SNES console had.
The Retro Duo performs admirably with SNES games. Without a basis for comparison except for comparable footage of certain games I’ve seen on YouTube or Google video, I would say that the Retro Duo virtually replicates vintage SNES console performance: sprites are large and bright, backgrounds are vivid and well-rendered, and there are no detectable artifacts with games such as Mega Man X or Goof Troop. Note: graphic output through the RCA ports is actually better than the S-Video port, so I advise using the RCA Video cable.
Conversely, the Retro Duo does poorly with NES games. Compared to the Gen-X or even a vintage NES console, which produces vibrant colors across the color spectrum, the Retro Duo desaturates greens and renders reds, blues, and yellow as pastel hues. After playing Super Mario Bros. 3 on the Gen-X, I was more than disappointed with the washed-out look on the Retro Duo. Despite this, games like RC Pro-Am, Ice Climber, and Dr. Mario were rendered adequately, though with varying degrees of desaturation. One of the joys of playing those games is the saturation of green, particularly with Super Mario Bros. 3. As my wife put it, “playing Super Mario 3 on this new console just isn’t as fun as the last console (the Gen-X).” Well said.
As with graphical output and performance for SNES games, the Retro Duo generates excellent sound for SNES games. Mega Man X positively rocked, as did the other games I tested. I had no complaints.
Sadly, NES sound is tinny in the treble ranges. The sound while playing Super Mario Bros. 1 and Super Mario Bros. 3 is so staticky and sibilant that I had to turn the volume down AND adjust the treble on my TV just to make the games more bearable. Ice Climber, RC Pro-Am, and Dr. Mario were fine, but the sound reproduction for certain games (namely the well-known ones, it seems) was so poor that I longed for my old NES console, which is hiding somewhere in my parents’ house. I need to go find it…
The controllers are identical in form and layout to the classic SNES controllers, but manufactured with the same slightly chintzy plastic with which the console is manufactured. The button layout involves the L and R buttons on the far edges of the controllers, the D-pad on the left, and the B, A, Y, and X buttons in a diamond formation on the right side of the controller face. There are also Select and Start buttons in the middle part of the controller face.
Understandably, button mapping for Retro Duo controllers is identical to SNES controller mapping, so I cannot comment further about that. However, for NES games, B and A button functions are mapped to Y and B so as to approximate the B and A layout of legacy NES controllers. Though the controllers function well enough, the D-pads are a bit stiff compared to vintage SNES controllers. It is a matter of personal preference, but I have never liked the button layout of SNES controllers; I have always favored the six buttons being laid out 3-by-2 at my right thumb. Of course, nowadays, I have grown accustomed to trigger buttons actuated by my index fingers, but back in the days of SNES and Genesis prominence I simply preferred Genesis controllers because I only had to use one finger to use all six buttons, instead of having to consider buttons for two other fingers. That said, the Retro Duo’s controllers are good enough, and easily swapped with vintage SNES controllers which are readily available through Amazon or eBay.
For SNES games, the Retro Duo replicates SNES gameplay extremely well, as far as I can tell. I have limited personal experience with a vintage SNES system, but I had little difficulty performing in-game functions and navigating menus. Likewise, the D-pad and buttons were responsive (but stiff), and the console’s inner circuitry communicated my button actuations as one would expect. For NES games, the Retro Duo also replicates NES gameplay well, though the button layout, despite being similar to vintage NES button mapping, is something to which I must become more accustomed.
The most definitive list for game compatibility can found in Wikipedia’s article about the Retro Duo. However, beyond this list, I found that Toy Story was unplayable, and Mickey’s Great Circus Mystery was only sometimes playable. My recommendation is (if you can) to borrow a cartridge and try it out.
Moreover, I have found with clone systems like this and the Gen-X that there are two important factors that affect cartridge compatibility: cleanliness of the cartridge contacts and the form factor of the cartridge itself, both the outside and the contacts (Japanese versus American form factor, for example). Of course, contact cleanliness and form factor are essential vis-à-vis vintage consoles as well, but clone consoles are particularly finicky. Therefore, before you insert what will most likely be a used cartridge, please consider the following:
- Use a can of compressed air to blow all debris and dust off the cartridge contacts.
- Wipe the contacts with a clean microfiber or cotton cloth.
- If the cartridge still has connection issues, clean the contacts of the cartridge with either Windex or a 50-50 solution of isopropyl alcohol and water and several Q-tips. Then, dry the contacts with a clean cotton cloth.
- If you can, remove the cartridge screws using a 3.8mm security bit or a pair of needle-nose pliers, and then polish the contacts with Brasso or a similar copper cleaner. For more information about cleaning cartridges, please explore the Internet.
One more thing to remember is that because these cartridges are 15-20 years old, the backup batteries used for storing data on some SNES or NES cartridges are either dead or dying, so you will not be able to save games. If this is the case, please explore YouTube for user videos on how to open cartridges and replace batteries. For SNES games, you can replace the dying battery with a CR2032 watch battery and a battery holder, but you will need a solder gun.
Discussions involving cartridge compatibility aside, I cannot write about the performance of add-ons such as the Super Game Boy adapter or the Game Genie, but I have read anecdotes about how both worked well in the Retro Duo. If anyone has personal experience with these or other add-ons and the Retro Duo, please feel free to comment.
The Retro Duo game console is a fine replacement for someone’s failing SNES console, as it not only reproduces all aspects of SNES games beautifully, but it also allows you to use your old SNES controllers. Also, if you have both SNES and NES games and you are looking for an all-in-one solution that saves space, then the Retro Duo is an acceptable option, though I wouldn’t expect much from NES games. Yet, if you have a library of NES games and you are looking to add some games from another console, I would highly recommend the Gen-X Dual Station over the Retro Duo as the NES performance is poor; with the Gen-X Dual Station, you get great NES game performance and more than passable Genesis performance.
The one thing I can say about the Retro Duo, though, is that it has opened my eyes to a library of SNES games that I had neglected for almost twenty years. Recently, I purchased Super Metroid, which is touted as one of the finest video games of all time across all consoles; I am excited to play it and experience what I never got to experience as a staunch Genesis supporter. In this way, I suppose it was fortuitous that Innex could not exchange the Gen-X for another Gen-X. Now, I get to play some of the best videogames of all time, like Super Mario World and Super Metroid. If anything, isn’t that why people engage in retrogaming – to experience games they neglected in their pasts?
After 9 months of irregular use of the Retro Duo, one of the controllers became problematic; I could push the D-pad or any of the buttons, but I couldn't do both at the same time and get any game response. I cut the controller cable from the internal control board and resoldered it, but the connection problem seemed more inherent to the board and less inherent to the cable. Thus, I confirmed that the Retro Duo's controllers are somewhat flimsy and I suspect that the internal control board is the reason.
To resolve this, I recommend buying original Super Nintendo controllers (not the cheap knock-offs, but bona fide controllers) through eBay or Amazon Marketplace. I won two controllers through eBay, received them last week, and then cleaned them up with alcohol and cotton swabs. The controllers work flawlessly with the Retro Duo and feel much better than the controllers that come with the system. However, I would keep the Retro Duo controllers as back-ups or for spare parts (e.g. the internal button contact parts).
Also, I found that the Retro Duo is very sensitive to any jarring movements, such as when children accidentally jerk their controllers while playing. If inserted cartridges experience any kind of quick movements, any active game is disrupted; this is because the cartridge insertion ports on the Retro Duo are wider than the actual cartridges and the pin contacts inside the console allow for leeway. So, don't jerk your controllers.
Other than these complaints, the Retro Duo is still a viable replacement solution for failing SNES or NES consoles, even though NES performance is sub-par.