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Game Gadget Review

The “Game Gadget” is a retro, open source gaming handheld made by Blaze. They describe it over and over in every single piece of PR as being “Like an iPod for retro games”. It is not. It is more like a cheaply made handheld device that barely works with no support from the company that made it. It has had a long and difficult history, but at CDT we can only review what we have in our hands and tell you whether you should spend your money on it. You should not. The Game Gadget currently does not deliver on the promises it makes, and my experiences of using it (when I could get it to work) were mostly negative. If, as a member of the gaming press, I can’t get support when the device doesn’t work then you as gamers (and consumers) have no chance.

I had a lot of problems with the Game Gadget from the moment I took it out of the box. Before I describe the issues I experienced, it’s worth saying what the Game Gadget is SUPPOSED to do. Because what it’s SUPPOSED to do is pretty cool. It’s an open source handheld with the potential to be a jukebox for every classic game released in the 16 bit era (and earlier). Imagine: a handheld with your favourite SNES and Megadrive (Genesis) games in a well designed handheld with a high quality D-pad and buttons and with both an internal memory as well as a slot for an SD card to potentially carry every single game from that era in your pocket. Game Gadget promised all of this and more. It also promised a retro game store based on Apple’s model where you could buy all those titles guilt free, while also allowing you to use your own ROM’s on the device too. All this, and open source games as well as original titles developed solely for the Game Gadget made it sound like not just a great device, but a great platform. It promised to create an eco-space for new games to spring up as well as a market to monetize classic games. Most of all, it promised a working device that was simple, rugged and robust and powerful enough to play all those games as well as we remember them, on a good quality screen with good controls. Blaze did not deliver on that promise.

The first impressions that you get when you take the Game Gadget out of its packaging are mixed. It has a light, plastic feeling to it and a lack of weight, but it is a budget device so you can forgive it. It feels comfortable in your hands, albeit with edges which are a little sharp. It’s not rounded like a DS, but the screen is a decent size and the D-pad feels responsive and not shallow like the early versions of the PSP. The buttons are a little loose and rattly, particularly the shoulder buttons which wobble a lot. They are also bright red and blue; strange colours for a pad and buttons. Still, the device is comfortable to hold and as you remove it from its stylish white packaging you can imagine spending a great many hours on the device playing classic 16 bit titles.

The device takes SD cards but there’s no cover to the slot so it feels a bit like it has a big hole in its side. You don’t need an SD card to get started though, the device has internal storage and as retro titles don’t require much storage space its easy to imagine having every classic 2D retro title you would ever want to play on it.

When you turn the device on there are some issues that are immediately noticeable. First of all, the back light to the screen shines through a gap at the bottom of the device. This is the kind of thing I have seen on devices where someone has tried to replace an LCD screen themselves and not got it quite right. As a result, the bottom of the display has two sections that are brighter than the rest of the screen. Its not a major problem, but it certainly emphasizes the poor build quality. As well as this, the unit also emits strange pops and hisses if you have earphones connected when you turn it on. These sound genuinely horrible and after experiencing this a few times you will quickly get in the habit of putting your earphones in AFTER the device is on. This leads to another issue where the Game Gadget wouldn’t turn on at all when earphones were plugged in, but more on this later. If you play without earphones and reach for the volume to adjust the sound you will also be shocked. There’s no volume controls.

When you turn the Game Gadget on for the first time you are told that it needs to be activated online. In other words, until you do this the device is useless. This seems fair enough. Blaze are going for the App Store model of business and you certainly can’t use an Apple device until you connect to iTunes either. The problem I experienced though was that the software didn’t work. When I entered my details to activate the device (a mandatory step) the submit button didn’t work. The form fields were supposed to pick up my country automatically, but this entry was blank. There was a note telling me that if my country didn’t show up then I should go to a web address for tech support. Going here took me to a page where I could submit a support ticket. I did this, and in the meantime I tried to activate the device with a different browser, then the next day I tried on two other computers. I had no luck on any of them.

I was getting annoyed now. The device was useless. It might as well have been a lump of inert plastic. I checked my ticket, but there was no response. I searched online for an email address to contact for support. There wasn’t one. I went back and checked my support ticket. Still no answer. Next day: still no answer. And the next. I created another ticket (even though the site told me not do do that). No answer to that either. I created an “angry ticket” saying I was “most displeased”. I even mentioned I was in the game media and was going to have to write something bad (but honest) about the device if they didn’t help me. Almost a week later, and I still have a useless piece of white plastic and no guidance on how to make it work.

Now one of the benefits of running a website like CalmDownTom is that you have access to PR contacts to help with this kind of thing. In fact, it was a PR contact that arranged for us to have access to the Game Gadget in the first place. This is not the kind of support you can get if you simply buy the Game Gadget from their site. In this case, even my PR contact was unable to help. In other words, if you buy a Game Gadget and it doesn’t work (as was the case with mine) you have no support at all.

Now after a week of this I was all ready to write a scathing review of a piece of white plastic which didn’t work. Before I did, I tried the activation process for the Game Gadget one more time…. and it worked. Typical. It must be said it did not work reliably. After activation the system would turn on successfully about 50% of the time. I also found it wouldn’t start up properly if headphones were installed; instead it would loop over and over through the start up process without ever fully loading. Still, I could actually use the device now and reclaim the free Genesis and open source games promised on the box.

The software to buy and manange your games collection manages to be both basic and hard to use. It’s not clear how to load your own ROM’s onto the device and dragging them to a pane where it seems they should show up, I was given a “file not supported message” for all the ROM file types I had. The free games that you get with the console seemed to be added easily to the device, but later when I tried to play them on the console I found only a few of them had been copied across. It’s also not clear how to remove games on the device, or if this is even possible.

The few Genesis games I managed to get on the Game Gadget seemed to run ok, but there were often little graphical glitches. The buttons were laid out strangely, with all but the leftmost of the buttons used to represent the Genesis’s pad which is a strange, illogical way to place the buttons, and which cannot be changed. Meanwhile, the open source games were just as bad. A version of Doom seemed to run acceptably, but despite the shoulder buttons (which were not enabled) there was no way to strafe making the game unplayable. Other freeware titles looked like something I could code, and I am no game programmer. Still, I am sure I could make a better game than a deplorably bad Mario clone I played, which made my first computer (a Spectrum 48K) look like a top of the range gaming PC.

Here’s the real problem for Blaze with the Game Gadget. Last year I played around with a bunch of emulators on a Samsung Galaxy Tab and on it I could use a wireless controller and play games from every hardware generation from The Playstation backwards on a big screen with upscalled graphics and with modern controls. Five years before that that I played around with DS homebrew software where the modding scene created an OS that was fully featured and robust and supported emulation of games from every sixteen bit console. And ten years ago I played with a GP32; an open source console that ran a near perfect version of Doom.

So why should anyone buy the Game Gadget? The simple answer is that they shouldn’t. Even if it worked it wouldn’t be worth buying. If after all this you still think you will buy one then just let me know. You can have mine. I’m not joking. It’s a disaster.

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