Review: BittBoy: NES/FC Emulator (Hardware)
The BittBoy is the first product released by the team simply known as “BittBoy”, which advertises itself as a pocket/plug-in console NES/FC emulator containing 300 NES and Famicom titles all in one little package. It comes in yellow, black, blue, red, and white, and is available at https://www.bittboy.com/collections/handheld for $39.99.
Show me your package.
Upon initially cracking into this bad boy, the first thing I notice is the company's catchphrase adorning the top of the maroon box, which proudly proclaims "Everything Old Is Retrolution." Ignoring for a moment that the term "retrolution" sounds like the name for a solution of old game consoles dissolved in acid, I am immediately reminded of popular, retro-inspired, game controller manufacturer, 8bitdo's, tagline of "Everything Old Is New Again." Perhaps it’s a deliberate, yet still legally distinct, nod to the catchphrase?
The box itself is unassuming and squat, but its colors and design are pleasing enough to the eye. On one side of the box, there is a diagram of the unit, labeling every button and doo-dad with their respective functionality. This is the best and only thing you’ll get in the way of a user’s manual with this product, but as I soon discovered, that’s more than sufficient, as the device really needs no explanation beyond the immediately visually obvious. Aside from the console itself, the box only contains 2 cables, a 77” (~196cm) Audio/Video cable, in composite format, and a 20” (~51cm) USB A to USB Micro cable for charging.
The physical console
(This battery compartment will break your fingernails off if you try and open it. I only wish it weren't locked up tighter than a Swiss bank who’s waiting until marriage.)
As advertised, the BittBoy is rather petite, but not so small as to feel dwarfed by my mighty man mitts as I attempt to grasp it. Its official measurements are, according to the box, 6.8x9.9x1.3 cm. The dimensions of Nintendo's own GameBoy Pocket come in at around 7.6x12.4x2.3 cm, so comparatively, it's just a touch shorter, a smidgen less wide, and a smattering thinner, to be less than precise. The ratio of the dimensions between the two comes out to be roughly .89 for the width, .80 for the height, and .57 for the thickness, (that’s BittBoy:GBP) meaning that the most drastic difference in form factors is in the thickness, coming in at just over half that of Nintendo's handheld phenomenon. As for feeling, it sits just fine in the hands, with all buttons being exactly where I feel like they should, the spacing of which makes rolling my large, ogre thumb back and forth between them feel easy and natural. It’s never a struggle to reach or depress any of the buttons, so the layout functions well in that regard.
The console boots directly into a games selection screen, so the reset button in the center serves as a quick way to return you to the main menu from within a game without doing a full power cycle. All of the face buttons correspond to those on their NES controller counterpart, but there are two extra face buttons above the A and B buttons which aren’t labeled. After a bit of experimenting, it seems these are rapid-fire A and B buttons, which are barely useful and for very few games, but their inclusion is nice all the same.
Unfortunately, the D-pad, otherwise known as the heart and soul of 2D platformers, is mushy and awful. It lacks a pivot beneath its center, so when you press a direction, the entire D-pad gets pressed down with it. As a result, it's extremely easy to accidentally press a second direction during normal use, something I found myself doing on multiple occasions, to my chagrin. Using this device in either handheld or TV mode requires you use the console’s own controls, so you’re stuck using this D-pad no matter which way you choose to play. The D-pad’s pads feel fine enough, at least, but a there's a noteable feeling of light internal friction between the cross pad and the mold itself with every press. This might very well be fine for someone who happens to be into some hot plastic-on-plastic rubbing, but for the rest of us, it will likely feel a bit odd, distracting, and generally socially unacceptable.
This device sports the ability to output audio and video in composite format through a jack on the bottom of the console. While in that sense, this allows for you to treat the BittBoy as something of a plug-in home console, it doesn't allow for the use of external controllers, meaning no multiplayer action is possible. Even outputting to a TV, you'll need to be holding the BittBoy to play it regardless, so it’s almost tantamount to just playing it as a handheld. The only reason I could see people preferring this method would be if they happened to dislike the built-in screen, and to an extent, I’d forgive you if you did.
See no evil
A 2.2” IPS panel is integrated into the device behind a plastic covering. I must say that I was at first greatly impressed by the vividness and clarity of the screen, being easily visible even directly in the brightest sunlight, but I soon discovered 3 weaknesses that serve to bring it down.
Firstly, there exists rather massive amounts of overscan in both the horizontal and vertical directions on many games, sometimes to the point of being highly disorientating.
Secondly, the screen has trouble depicting the colors accurately in games, particularly when it comes to light reds/peach colors, which appear much darker and more saturated than they should be. As a result, things like characters’ skin colors (especially Mario’s in SMB3) appear as a much deeper red/orange color than they should. This ends up really muddying the whole visual experience and making any humans portrayed look like they have a combination of jaundice and a sunburn. This is a result of the screen itself and not emulation inaccuracies, however, as the same color distortion doesn’t appear when the console is outputting to a television.
The third and last weakness is something only barely noticeable to me, but there is a very tiny amount of screen tearing that occurs when the screen is scrolling quickly, producing a tiny jittering effect. It barely cropped up and had absolutely no impact on my enjoyment of the device or the quality of the gameplay, but I thought it bore mentioning for the sorts who might be bothered by that.
I really must commend them, though, it was an incredibly unique and revolutionary idea to construct the plastic overlay protecting the screen out of pure butter. At least 4 fairly noticeable scratches appeared in the screen after using my soft and snuggly pajama pants to wipe dust from it the morning after leaving the device out to charge for the first time. Not jeans, not steel wool, just the fluffiest and most benign pajama pants you’ve ever experienced. To its benefit, however, with the brightness and clarity of the screen being the way they are, those scratches become absolutely invisible during gameplay.
As for TV play, there are 2 major factors which make it less than ideal.
The first is that the A/V port is incredibly finicky, causing large image distortions or dropping the signal entirely even at the lightest brush of the cable. Since you need to always be holding the console in your hands to play it, I found this happening quite often, even just as I shifted my hands idly.
Secondly, the battery life is terrible, only lasting for an hour. Now, it’s reported by BittBoy to have “2-3 hours per battery charge, depending on temperature and usage”, but regardless of what I tried or how I played, every one of my tests clocked in at a 1-hour battery life. The console has no way of indicating how much charge is left on the device, either. The only warning you’ll get is a slight dimming of the screen seconds before the console freezes in a display of bizarre colors and glitches, which then leads to a full power-down. This wasn’t just a typical soft-locking of the emulator, however, as in each instance the console would need to be plugged back in and charged before it would boot once more. With that in mind, I highly recommend getting a much longer charging cable, because as previously mentioned, the included one is a measly 20” in length, and that’s from connector tip to tip.
As a final feature to the BittBoy, if you look at the top-left corner of the device, you'll find that there’s a Micro SD card slot!
(Hahaha. Funny joke.)
Unfortunately, much like the concept of true love, this is a cruel illusion meant to disappoint and mock you. This port literally goes nowhere, and if you were to try and insert anything into it, it would just drop straight through and rattle around the inside of the rather spacious casing. I can’t begin to speculate on why they would include an SD card slot in the mold of their emulator, yet have it lead into nothing more than a sad abyss, but I image there’s some designer somewhere chuckling to himself as I weep salty tears. In short, that means that there is no such thing as loading your own ROMs onto this device, but with a library of 300 NES and Famicom games, the need to do so must be nigh non-existent, right?
LET THE "GAMES" BEGIN
Haha! Wrongo, boyo. In a sea of exactly 300 ROMs, I was only able to pick out 26 games that were recognizable to me, and even among those, only 4 that I would be inclined to play multiple times. These notable titles (for me) include: Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros. 3, Contra, Super Contra (JP), Contra Force, Double Dragon 1-3, Chip and Dale (JP), Chip and Dale 2 (JP), Ninja Gaiden 2 + 3, Adventure Island 1-4, Bubble Bobble Part 2, Darkwing Duck, ExciteBike, Dr. Mario, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Joust, Mario Bros. (Arcade), Golf, and Pac Man. If you’ll notice, very many ROMs included on the device are the Japanese versions, even for games which had English releases, like Chip and Dale and Super C. The box boasts that the “games are English version and no Chinese”, and while the latter is technically true, the former is patently false.
For having such an expansive library, this device is missing a LARGE swath of staple titles from its emulated console. The Mega Man games, Castlevania, Mario Bros. 2, the Legend of Zeldas, Metroid, Final Fantasy… all these titles and more are completely missing from this unexpectedly sparse catalogue. As a matter of fact, it would almost be easier to list everything that is on the device rather than everything that isn’t, and so I have.
Now, your mileage with this device is, of course, going to vary with taste, but I think that just about everyone will be disappointed with this library for one specific reason:
Asset flips and knock-offs.
You read that correctly; the practice of the asset-flip was prevalent in gaming even before the advent of Steam Greenlight, and the NES was downright infamous for it. Instead of a library of Alexandria-esque compilation of the NES’s greatest hits being contained on this device, what we have is something shamelessly filled to the brim with hundreds of rip-offs and ROM-hacks meant, back in the day, to trick little Timmy’s mother into thinking she was buying him that brand new Mario game he wanted for Christmas, only to come home with a completely different game which had been stolen by some lazy developer, re-modeled to look like Mario, and sold back to the public.
There's one game called "Contra 7” which is just a single screen that loops forever. Considering you’ll see the entirety of the game in just a few minutes, they should have just called it “Contra 7 minutes.” There's one called "Small Mario" which is just a roulette wheel and nothing else. There's another called "Kung-fu Mario" which is just a completely different game with Mario's bulbous head conspicuously superimposed over the main character's. That’s not even to mention that this game appears once more as a duplicate under the title "Mario 10" to pad out the device. Then there's "Mario 14" which is, again, another slap-dash ROM-hack of some unknown game. A game claiming to be “Chip and Dale 3” opens with the line “Mission: Destroy the enemy’s underground artillery base.” as an attack jet fighter drops a soldier onto a battlefield from low altitude. You then play a top-down shooter as a crudely drawn chipmunk firing a rifle at enemy army men. Something tells me that this is not an officially licensed Disney game.
(From left to right: Small Mario, Kung-Fu Mario, Mario 14, Chip and Dale 3, and Angry Birds 2.)
There’s also a game called Nuts Milk, but I was beyond done with self-flagellation at that point, so I reluctantly forewent exploring that little cave of nightmares, despite the admittedly tempting and hilarious moniker.
The list just goes on and on, but I invite you to look for yourself. There’s an Angry Birds knock-off. Does any more really need to be said?
Hooo boy, if there were one area in which I expected this device to crash and burn, it would hands-down be this one. Now, while there are some issues of fairly large significance that came up during normal play, the BittBoy didn’t end up stumbling in the one way I expected most, but we’ll get to that soon.
Firstly, the graphics. Of the games that decide to work, there are almost no instances of massive graphical glitches akin to the kind we’re used to seeing in things like Missingno., but often text strings will be scrambled up and unreadable, most notably in Mario Bros. 3. Aside from that, there’s some sporadic line-flickering that occurs during gameplay as well as the occasional tile glitch, but most of the visual inconsistencies and niggles come from the built-in screen itself.
Now, compatibility. “How in the world could there be compatibility issues with a console only capable of running pre-loaded games?” I hear you ask. Well, you’re asking the wrong person, first of all; all I can report to you is that there are. Some games will sporadically decide to either load properly or glitch out (à la Double Dragon 3), or will simply always load into an unplayable cacophony of graphical and audio glitches. This has only happened consistently for 2 of those “knock-off” titles I talked about earlier, but having not tested every one of the 300 games on the system, I can’t say exactly how many of these broken games are present. To be fair, it’s pretty clear the manufacturers didn’t exactly spend the time to test all 300 either.
As for features, the emulation sports absolutely zero customization or functionality aside from simply playing the ROMs. There are no filters, no settings of any kind, no sleep mode, and most distressingly, no savestates. This device doesn’t support any games with built-in save functions either, like The Legend of Zelda, so you either beat the game in a single sitting, or start back over from the very beginning each time. In that sense, it removes a lot of the flexibility that usually comes with a portable system, making it feel that much more like a plug-in console.
Finally, the input lag. This is the one hurdle on which I expected the device to trip, break both of its legs, and faceplant into a fiery patch of thorns, lemon juice, and dynamite, probably killing a few babies in the process, why not. To my utter amazement, however, it performed very well. Not only that, it happened to soar soundly beyond at least two of its more popular rivals, and impress me beyond even my highest expectations (which were admittedly, not all that high).
I took some rough measurements of the device’s input lag by filming the device with a 60fps camera, pressing the A button and, from contact frame, counting the number of frames until a response shows up on the screen. Of the 58 measurements taken across 8 different games, the average amount of input lag (in frames /60fps) was 2.91, with 2 appearing 8 times, 4 appearing 4 times, and 3 appearing for the rest of the measurements. As a means of contextualizing these readings, the popular all-in-one emulation alternative, a RaspberryPi3 running RetroPie, averages around 5 to 6 frames of input lag for its NES emulators, with a much larger spread in the data. (Depending on OpenGL vs. Dispmanx. Optimized frame buffer. Measurements taken myself, as well as corroborated by @Brunnis here.) Additionally, Super Mario Brothers being played on the N3DS Virtual Console (IPS top screen) has a much tighter spread in its measurements, but still averages around 5 frames of input lag.
As you can see, when considering input lag alone, the BittBoy ends up taking RetroPie out back and beating it with a firm stick, and even edges out Nintendo’s own official Virtual Console, at least on the N3DS. As a result, this is by far one of the best feeling NES emulators I’ve ever played, despite not always being the prettiest, and being bare-bones when it comes to emulation features. It’s really a disappointment that an emulator which feels this good is locked out of playing anything beyond the BittBoy’s lackluster library, but that's without considering the terrible D-pad, which brings the overall feel of the experience significantly back down. In conclusion, with all of the aforementioned flaws in mind, I find it impossible to conceptualize a niche market this product could end up satisfying. Without the ability to load your own ROMs into the device, I can only see this being worth the asking price of $40 if the consumer is morosely delighted by clone games and knock-offs, or if they just can't live without being able to play a small handful of the games they actually want on the go.
+ Phenomenal input lag on the emulation (2.91 avg frames /60fps)
+ Bright, sharp, and clear built-in screen
- Inability to load your own ROMs!!
- Blatant and utterly shameless padding of an otherwise woefully sparse library (many knock-offs, at least one duplicate).
- Inaccurate technical specs/reported features (1-hour battery life and many Japanese, i.e. non-English, games).
- Terrible D-pad which, like a crazy Ex, you cannot get away from.
- Finicky A/V port.
- Color inaccuracies in built-in screen, along with prominent overscan issues.
out of 10
It makes me genuinely sad that such a uniquely low-lag emulator needs to be held back by being trapped in an otherwise necrotic shell of a console. In all honesty, even if we were simply given the ability to load our own ROMs into this device with no other changes, I think I would be singing at least a slightly different tune. As it is, I’d call this product 1 part surprisingly great to 5 parts absolutely terrible, with very little in between those two extremes.