This review was originally published on August 11th 2020 and has been updated to factor in our impressions of the SNES, Mega Drive and TG-16 Element Modules, as well as their respective controllers. This review now also takes into account the final retail firmware for the Polymega system.
Originally announced back in 2017 as the RetroBlox, Polymega has endured a fairly tumultuous journey to market. While the system’s objective has always been the same – to offer players the chance to access software for a wide range of cartridge and CD-based retro consoles in one place – we’ve seen a lot of changes over the past few years. FPGA support was dropped early on, something which caused a lot of consternation amongst potential buyers accustomed to the impeccable performance of Analogue’s excellent Super Nt and Mega Sg, then the system missed its proposed ‘early 2019’ release window. Pre-orders opened, but the launch was pushed back again and once more at the close of 2020, and at the time of writing (early 2021), the machine still isn’t in the hands of those who laid down their money all those many months ago, but, with the final retail unit now in our hands, it would seem the end is in sight.
Having said all of this, creating and launching a piece of gaming hardware isn’t an easy process for a big company, let alone a relatively new one like California-based Playmaji, the team behind the Polymega. And despite the setbacks and delays, this team has persevered; two waves of beta systems were put in the hands of testers all over the globe to speed things up (we were lucky enough to be included in the second beta test group) and, after passing judgement on the pre-release package, we can now give our impressions of the final retail system that buyers will be hoping to get their hands on very soon.
It’s perhaps worth talking about how this machine actually works, and how it will run your beloved retro collection. The base Polymega system ($449, a rise from the initially-advertised $399) comes with a CD drive and will play Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, Sega Mega-CD, Neo Geo CD and PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 CD games from all regions. Cartridge-based platforms (NES, SNES, Mega Drive, 32X and PC Engine / TG-16) will be playable using optional ‘Element Modules’, each of which has to be purchased separately at a cost of $79.99 and come with their own custom controllers based on the pads used with the original machines. The Element Modules also house low-latency controller ports for their respective systems, so you can also use your vintage controllers if you have them to hand. Output is via HDMI as you might expect, which pushes a nice, crisp 1080p signal to your HD television.
The Polymega comes with a massive pre-installed database that has cover art, text descriptions and screenshots for thousands of supported games across all of these systems (however, the actual games themselves are not included, before you get too excited). The team behind the system has also spent a considerable amount of time reverse-engineering the BIOS files for each CD-based format the Polymega supports, which removes one of the most tedious (and potentially copyright-infringing) setup procedures normally associated with playing CD consoles via emulation (this has led to some incompatibilities with certain games, so you can side-load original BIOS files if you wish).
When you load a game up, it is matched with its database entry and can be either played from the original media or installed to the system’s internal storage; if you choose to do the latter, you no longer need the original cartridge or disc to play that game in the future. M.2 SSD support is also included and comes highly recommended (you can also use MicroSD cards or USB storage if you wish). We’ve fitted a 1TB SSD to our beta console and even with over 170 games installed (most of which were installed from CD), we still have more than 923GB of space remaining.
CD-based systems are supported by the base unit without the need to purchase any additional hardware, but the interchangeable Element Modules are required to use cartridge-based titles; these bolt onto the top of the machine and, as we’ve said, come with their own vintage controller ports. You can either choose to play the game direct from the cartridge or CD or install it to the Polymega’s internal memory – a process that is practically instantaneous. For example, we installed over 100 Mega Drive and 32X games in the space of 30 minutes, and most of that time was taken up by physically removing the games from their boxes.
The time it takes to install a game from CD varies; some of the discs we loaded up installed in seconds (Guardian Force on the Sega Saturn was done in under half a minute), while others took longer. The process is variable due to a wide range of factors; data size is the most obvious, but if the disc has scratches or marks, it means the Polymega has to take a little longer to properly read the data. In a neat touch, games actually begin the install process the moment you load them into the drive; if you choose not to install and simply play from the disc, that data is deleted the moment you push the eject button.
Once any game is installed, it is displayed in its relevant system menu in the console’s pleasantly slick UI; you can also create your own custom playlists for particular titles or genres, to make them easier to find. Furthermore, the console leverages its massive database by giving you recommendations based on the game you’re currently playing; so, should you load up, say, Burning Rangers on the Saturn, you’ll be able to browse similar games, titles also published by Sega and games released in the same year; these can then be added to a wish list for future reference. You can choose to disable this feature and only get recommendations based on what you have installed in your library if you wish, but we rather liked seeing the suggestions and made more than a few trips to eBay searching for the titles highlighted.
Patches – such as fan-made translations of Japanese games – can be applied to installed software using a USB thumb drive or Micro SD card, and you can even safely ‘remove’ the patch at a later date if you so wish. Oh, and while we’re here, we should point out that the Polymega is perfectly happy playing and installing copies of games made on CD-R discs, although the intention is clearly for users to digitise their own collections, rather than resort to downloading them from shady sites online. Playmaji has been very clear on the fact that you won’t ever be able to simply dump a bunch of ROMs onto the console via USB or Micro SD; the system also won’t work with flash cartridges, such as the Everdrive range.
All games benefit from creature comforts such as save states and screen filters. The latter option offers two flavours at present: the RGB scanline filter replicates what games would look like on a classic CRT television, while the Composite option simulates that particular AV connection. Both are suitably authentic, but we did yearn for the incredible sharpness of the OSSC’s scanline option – but Playmaji has confirmed that it is considering offering more filter options in the future. Should you choose to play without any kind of screen filter, you’re getting an incredibly crisp image, just like you’d expect to see if you were using a PC-based emulator. The Polymega’s UI also allows you to take screenshots during games as well as tinker with settings such as screen aspect ratio, rapid-fire settings and analogue controls.
While the focus is very much about using your original games, the base unit nonetheless comes pre-loaded with a bunch of NES, SNES, Mega Drive and PC Engine / TG-16 titles, mostly thanks to licencing deals with Piko Interactive and Masaya. Games like Iron Commando, Top Racer / Top Gear, Sword of Sodan, Target: Renegade and Moto Roader II are all included as standard, and while none of the bundled games are what you’d call AAA releases, they do hint at another exciting part of the Polymega’s future – the proposed digital store which will allow publishers and developers to monetize their back catalogues in very much the same way that the Virtual Console did on Wii, Wii U and 3DS. Because the team behind the system has done all of the hard work by painstakingly populating that massive database with cover art, screenshots and descriptions, all that’s really needed is for the IP holder to grant access to the ROM via a digital store, and they’ve effectively got a valuable revenue stream that wouldn’t exist otherwise. There are even hints that Polymega might support non-console formats in the future, such as arcade machines.
The base unit comes with its own wireless Polymega controller, which is shaped very much like a PlayStation DualShock pad. It’s pretty light and comfortable to use, and the D-Pad is better than you might expect, too. As with any wireless pad, latency is an issue when playing wirelessly, but you can plug it into the machine using a Micro-USB lead to reduce this – we weren’t able to test this ourselves, but latency with a wired pad is reported to be about 2 to 3 frames, which puts it in the same ballpark as the SNES Classic Edition’s wired pads.
Each Element Module comes with a controller which is based on the pad that shipped with its respective system. While these vary in design and shape, they’re all produced by Playmaji and are generally well-constructed. The Mega Drive / Genesis one felt a little odd in our hands – at least when compared to the original Sega-made controllers – but the SNES pad is an excellent replacement for the real deal. Likewise, we found the NES pad much more comfortable to use than the original (the A and B buttons are arranged in a more agreeable fashion), while the TG-16 controller uses the 6-button layout seen in the NEC Avenue pad, which was released around the same time as the Japan-exclusive PC Engine port of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition. The bonus here is that all of these pads will work on the original consoles, too, so they’re worth seeking out even if you have no interest in the Polymega system at all but are simply looking for replacements for your old and battered controllers.
Alternatively, Polymega also supports a wide range of wired pads, including Retro-Bit’s excellent Sega-licenced controllers, the iconic Xbox 360 pad and even the one which comes bundled with the PlayStation Classic. These are all instantly detected by the system with button mapping taking place automatically, so you can play Saturn and PlayStation titles with an authentic controller. Even the on-screen button prompts in the UI change according to which controller you’re using, which is a nice touch. While latency didn’t feel like an issue to us with USB pads, when using the built-in controller ports on the Element Modules the lag is reduced almost to nothing (a single frame, in fact). While we’re on the topic of peripherals, there’s a ‘next-gen’ light gun up for pre-order which will allow you to play titles like Duck Hunt, Time Crisis and House of the Dead on your flatscreen TV.
Now to the important part – how does the Polymega handle emulation, given that it’s not using FPGA technology favoured by hardcore retro enthusiasts? Very well, actually. Sure, it’s still software emulation (debate still rages as to whether or not software emulation can ever be as accurate as FPGA, which is effectively ‘hardware emulation’), but we didn’t notice any instances of games playing differently to how they should on original hardware. Also, while there are still incompatibility problems to be solved via future firmware updates, software support is impressive. As evidence of this, during the beta phase, we installed over 170 games to the M.2 SSD, finding just three CD-ROM titles that showed up as ‘unsupported’ when loaded into the console’s drive. We initially assumed this was down to the degradation of the optical media over the decades, but, once the final retail firmware was applied to our unit, these three games worked without issue. However, in a rather bizarre twist, titles that worked fine during the beta period are now listed as ‘unsupported’ by the console, and we also experienced a few instances of discs being ejected by the system in the middle of an install. According to Playmaji, the retail firmware features some low-level changes in the way the system behaves, so these could just be teething troubles that will be fixed with future software updates – or, as we just mentioned, it could be down to decades-old CDs starting to become unreadable.
Likewise, issues such as games displaying visual quirks, refusing to load past a certain point and other emulation kinks are being ironed out as we speak; the majority of these problems seem to be related to the aforementioned reverse-engineered BIOS files, and loading up the original BIOS via a USB drive or MicroSD card almost always solves them. While it might seem disappointing that there are still incompatibilities in the production model of the Polymega, we have to remember that this is a system that is expected to play literally thousands of games across multiple formats – and, as has been evidenced during our time with the system, there are often multiple variants of a single game based on production runs, and these all need to be catalogued in the Polymega’s database before they can be installed to the console. The beta phase has certainly done its job, but complete compatibility isn’t quite here yet (if it ever comes at all – it’s a pretty major task to ensure the system can play every single game for such a wide range of consoles).
Still, on the upside, it’s worth noting that Saturn emulation – which has long been spotty, even on powerful PCs – is surprisingly solid. We tested a wide range of games and they look, sound and feel the same as they do on original hardware; even ambitious titles like Virtua Fighter 2, which use the console’s high-res mode, run brilliantly. It’s worth noting that at this stage that even the acclaimed open-source MiSTer FPGA system doesn’t run Saturn titles currently, and may never get to that point (although developers are working on it). Load times sadly don’t seem to be any different on Polymega, with the exception of the Neo Geo CD games, which boot practically instantly. All in all, the standard of emulation present here is remarkable; while it’s still software-based and therefore will never be a 1:1 replication, it’s close enough to be of little consequence to the average user – and as time goes on, it’s only going to improve.
Despite its long and often painful route to market, the Polymega remains a truly mouthwatering prospect for retro gamers. While its cost is indeed high – and so close to the arrival of the PS5 and Xbox Series X isn’t going to help matters – the base unit of the Polymega offers incredible value, even at the sneakily-inflated price of $450; purchasing all of the retro systems (not to mention regional variants) it supports individually would total much more than the asking price. Factor in the Element Modules at $80 a pop and the cost increases, but even so, being able to expand the system is a real boon and there’s no reason why, in the future, we couldn’t see support increase thanks to the modular nature of the hardware. N64, anyone?
Of course, there will always be those who argue that systems like the Raspberry Pi and MiSTer are more sensible and cheaper routes to embracing old games; the former costs a fraction of what the Polymega will set you back, and while the latter is slightly more expensive (around $300 all-in), you don’t have to have a massive collection to enjoy it. But therein lies one of the core appeals of the Polymega; this isn’t a system for people who just want to bung a load of ROMs onto an SD card and be done with it – it’s a machine aimed at those who already have a sizeable retro collection and want a convenient means of accessing and enjoying those games. As the world becomes more and more digital, the notion of celebrating physical, packaged software is understandably appealing, and Polymega allows you to do that without having to fight with dying hardware and outdated AV standards. It’s also worth mentioning that, with the Pi and MiSTer, there’s a whole lot of user maintenance involved to get them working which could be off-putting to casual users, whereas the Polymega works out of the box – and offers a slick and appealing UI to boot.
The lack of FPGA support, numerous delays, last-minute price rises and sudden cancellation of orders will have done much to harm Polymega’s standing with a core group of hardcore enthusiasts, and convincing those same individuals to give the machine a chance is perhaps going to be Playmaji’s biggest challenge – especially when you combine this with what many have seen to be an unforgivable breakdown in communication over the past 12 months. Some people have been waiting since 2018 to get their hands on this console, and even now, in 2021, it’s still not certain that those who pre-ordered all that time ago will get their Polymega this month.
However, now we’ve had a chance to see what the final system looks and feels like, we can’t help but feel very optimistic indeed about Polymega’s potential, despite all the drama. Sure, it lacks the accuracy that something like MiSTer brings to the table and $450 is a lot of money to spend in order to play old games, but nonetheless, there’s nothing else quite like this machine on the market – and It looks set to become a highly desirable piece of hardware for retro fans. We’re not afraid to admit we’re utterly in love and can’t wait to see where this system goes next.
We’d like to thank Playmaji for sending us a unit and several Element Modules and controllers for the purpose of this review. You can find pre-order details here.