There are any number of systems on the market that let you play retro games. A newly revealed one called the RetroBlox takes a novel approach, using a modular design to let you play physical games for systems including the NES, SNES, Genesis, TurboGrafx-16, and PS1, among others.
Following a recent public showing, the team behind RetroBlox shared new details about the system and how it works on its website. In short, by connecting different “Eelement Modules,” you’ll be able to play physical copies of games through what it describes as hybrid emulation. You can get a full rundown on the technical explanation for how this all works here. Suffice it to say, it’s not as simple as standard emulation or FPGA systems.
RetroBlox is “primarily made for people who own physical copies of games,” meaning you won’t use it to boot up ROMs you downloaded online. It does, however, offer something of a middle ground, letting you back up your cartridges and discs to the system. By doing so, you can play without putting any additional wear on your physical games. That said, in the case of a game like Star Fox, which famously used an on-board Super FX chip to power its visuals, “the user interface will prompt you to insert the cartridge to play so that it can run under Hybrid Emulation compatibility mode. Otherwise, installed games will run under normal emulation rules.”
This setup would seemingly lend itself to piracy in its own way if you could rip games to an SD card and then hand that off to someone else. Instead, SD cards will be “encrypted and signed to the individual user of the system so that they are exclusively usable on that one account.
“While this may be an inconvenience to some players, we may never be able to move retro gaming forward if we don’t comply with the completely fair and reasonable request of IP owners to not use their games without permission,” it explained. “In turn, they should acknowledge the need to make classic games more accessible for players in the future.”
In addition to playing games you own, RetroBlox will also allow developers to sell games through the system itself.
RetroBlox does not yet have a price, though we do know it’ll be less than $300. “RetroBlox, including one Element Module and controller, will be much less than a base Nintendo Switch, and additional Element Modules will vary in cost depending on complexity (both software and hardware), but won’t cost any more than a new video game,” the post said.
To get your hands on one, at least initially, you’ll need to back a Kickstarter set to launch in April. There will be three different models available; each includes the base unit and a bluetooth controller, with the difference coming in the number of Element Modules that are included (one, three, or all five).
Modules to support other game systems may be released in the future, and that potential flexibility is called out as a highlight. It’s also a potential point of concern, as there’s no guarantee of what modules will be released down the line. That’s something to keep in mind before backing the Kickstarter if you’re doing so in the hopes of seeing support added for another system in the future.
Regarding Nintendo 64 specifically, there are some legal concerns that stand in the way. “N64 is technically very doable today on RetroBlox, but Nintendo (correctly) filed many, many patents for that system, some as recently as 2001, so it’s not something we’re targeting at the moment unless Nintendo were to provide us with permission to do so,” it explained. “On the bright side, the great thing about having a modular system is that we’re always capable of supporting additional consoles in the future without replacing the base hardware, so you can bet we will be there first when a legal opportunity to support N64 presents itself.”
Here’s what is currently supported, with some added descriptions from the developers:
Via Element Module (for Kickstarter launch — there will be others after launch)
- SNES / SFC (Super Game Boy will work fine for play only — but you won’t be able to back up GB games individually to RetroBlox)
- Genesis / Mega Drive (J) / Mega Drive (E) / 32x / SMS support via Power Base Converter
- Atari 2600 (7800 is currently not confirmed for support, but will be vetted and confirmed before KS campaign in April)
- PC-Engine / TurboGrafx-16 / SuperGrafx
Via CD/DVD Drive (more TBA)
- PSX (PSOne) — all regions
- Sega CD / 32X CD / Mega CD (J and E)
- PC-Engine CD / Super CD-ROM / Arcade CD-ROM / TurboGrafx-CD