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What the Blazes?!
Sega Megadrive Ultimate Portable Video Game Player
Member Name: SWSt
Sega Megadrive Ultimate Portable Video Game Player
Date: 27/05/11, updated on 28/05/11 (203 review reads)
Advantages: Impressive specs, 20 in-built games and almost limitless expandability
Disadvantages: Poor sound emulation, slightly tacky looks
You see, back in the Middle Ages of Gaming, the big rivalry was between Nintendo and Sega and Sega's flagship console was the Megadrive, a stunningly powerful machine for its day. Merely mention the name to some people and they will wander off, lost in the mists of nostalgia.
Of course, times change and what was once powerful is can now be shrunk down into a handheld. That's exactly what the Blaze Megadrive Ultimate does, providing a full-blown Sega Megadrive emulator in a handheld format.
First impressions are not that positive. The unit comes kitted out in rather garish black and orange plastic, making it look more like a toy than a serious gaming console. In fact, build quality is not too bad. The plastic casing feels reasonably solid (although I wouldn't rate its chances if it was dropped on a hard floor), and whilst the various buttons feel a little bit cheap, they actually work well.
Initially, there is a bewildering array of buttons on the unit, with a button, switch or slider on virtually all the edges and covering the main face. Even finding the right button to switch it on is challenging, whilst the Start button is somewhat hidden, since it's a black button set into black casing (honestly, who thought up that colour scheme?!)
In fairness, once you've tracked them all down, you'll finding yourself using the console with no problems at all and from an ergonomic point of view, it's actually very comfortable to hold. The screen sits in the centre of the unit with a circular D-Pad on one side and six buttons on the other (in reality, most games only ever use 2 or 3 of these, but some would be unplayable without all 6). This means that, for right handed gamers at least, you can comfortably hold the unit in two hands, using your left hand to control character movement and your right to control jumping/shooting etc. What I don't know is whether this arrangement would be comfortable for left-handed users.
The user interface has been well-designed and is both clean and simple to use. Switching on the console takes you straight to the first page of the menu which lists the built-in games available. Using the Up and Down arrow scrolls you through the items on that page, with the left/right arrow used to move to the next/previous page. Start boots up the game currently highlighted.
The 2.8 inch screen may not be the biggest in the world, but its quality more than makes up for that. I was very surprised by how sharp and clear the images were. I also play games on my iPhone and the sharpness of the Ultimate's screen compares favourably with that. Of course, the size of the screen can be a bit of an issue with some of the games since they designed to be viewed on bigger TV screens, but the Ultimate even addresses that, since you can plug it into your TV using a suitable lead (although this is not supplied). I've not tried this, so can't comment on how it scales up to the bigger screen, but reports I've read elsewhere suggest it's fine.
Battery life on the machine is also pretty impressive. It comes with a rechargeable battery which is recharged by plugging into your computer via the supplied USB cable. This keeps the long-term costs down, since you do not regularly have to fork out for extra batteries. A full charge lasts around 6-8 hours, so there's plenty of time to play those games on the move.
Inevitably, compromises have had to be made and this is most noticeable in the sound. I'm not sure whether it's just really badly emulated, or whether it's just the built-in sound chip is of inferior quality. Whatever the reason, sound is poor. In-game tunes sound like they are being sung by a bag of strangled cats whilst sound effects are just horrible; explosions are weedy and sound like they are being growled by a dog with laryngitis. This is a real shame as sound was a real selling point of the original Megadrive, so to hear it reduced to this is sad. Certainly, I tend to play most of the games with the volume turned down.
You really can't complain about value for money, either. It has an RRP of just £39.99 (although it can be picked up slightly cheaper if you shop around) and comes with 20 games pre-installed. These include classic titles such as Golden Axe, Sonic the Hedgehog and Ecco the Dolphin. Emulation is very strong, with smooth scrolling and faithful reproduction of graphics really capturing that Megadrive look and feel. Of course, the quality of the games is variable. Some are fantastic and have stood the test of time well; others were either never great to begin with, or have dated badly and now provide little in the way of entertainment
The real strength of the console, though, lies in the fact that the unit comes complete with an SD card reader which makes the console infinitely expandable. Essentially, you can go onto the internet, download ROMs of Megadrive games to the card which are then playable on the Ultimate, thanks to the emulation software used (for legal reasons, I ought to point out that you are only technically allowed to download copies of games if you already own the originals.)
Downloading and installing games was also incredibly easy, particularly given my past experience in this sort of area. When I tried to install a card that would allow me to play homebrew on my DSi, it was horrendously complicated. This is the exact opposite. All you need is a standard SD card on which you create a directory called GAMES on your PC. You then download game files into this Directory, insert it into your Ultimate and go to page 3 of the machine's menu screen. From here, you can choose to play any game on the SD card.
There are a few other issues. Sadly, not all games are compatible and I've come across a few that don't work (usually the ones I most want to play!). That said the compatibility rate is estimated to be over 90%, which is not too shabby. Secondly, a lot of the ROM files available on the internet have the extension .smd which bizarrely this unit doesn't recognise, preferring files that end with .bin. Most of the time, though, this can be resolved by using Windows Explorer to rename the file. A bigger annoyance is that the menu screen on the Ultimate lists games in the order in which you downloaded them to the card, not in alphabetical order. This means that if you save a lot of games (and you'll be surprised how many will fit on a 1 or 2 Gigabyte SD card) finding and selecting the one you want can be a bit tricky.
If you're fed up with endless gimmicks (yes, 3DS I'm looking at you) or clunky loading times (hello PSP Go), then this is a great buy. Costing around 5 times less than more modern, trendy consoles, it gives you the chance to play loads of classic games for free. You can't argue that that's not good value for money. Sure, the games might not be as technically impressive as their more modern counterparts, but many of them are still a heck of a lot of fun to play.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2011
Summary: If you were ever a Megadrive owner, you need one of these!