Back in ‘94, Nintendo released the Super Game Boy, a cartridge adapter that made Game Boy games playable on a TV through the SNES. Hyperkin’s new Retron Sq does the exact same thing, but as a standalone console that offers modern HDMI connectivity. Its simplicity makes it easy for anyone to use, but it also holds the console back from being a truly great gaming accessory.
The Retron Sq actually got its start in 2017 as a prank April Fool’s Day product announcement—it was assumed that no one would actually want to play games designed for a tiny 160 x 144 screen on the kind of 50-inch 4K behemoth many of us now have hanging on our walls. But the demand was there, and after being revealed as a real product at CES 2020 (where it was called the Retron Jr.), a few months ago its availability was officially announced, along with a name change to the Retron Sq.
Unlike the Super Game Boy cartridge, which allowed the color palette of Game Boy games to be changed when played on a TV and fancy decorative borders to be added, the Retron Sq offers no customizability at all. Like Nintendo’s consoles of yesteryear, you simply plug in a cartridge, power it up, and you’ve got your handheld games on the big screen. The Retron Sq is primarily designed to play Game Boy games, but Hyperkin says it should work with many Game Boy Advance games too, although support for them is only included as a beta feature at this time.
But there’s more to the story on customizability and GBA support, which I’ll touch on later.
There are two versions of the Retron Sq available: one with a black and gold finish, and the other a teal and pink eyesore channeling the ‘90s called Hyper Beach that has actually grown on me since I first sneered when taking it out of the box. On the face you’ll find self-explanatory Power and Reset buttons, as well as a USB port for attaching controllers.
Games simply plop into the cartridge slot on top and you’re good to go (it can only play games on cartridges, not ROM files) but the Retron Sq takes a lot more time to load a game than even the original Game Boy, despite that classic console’s hardware being more than 30 years old now. That’s because the Retron Sq runs an emulator, and when a cartridge is inserted the game needs to be copied to its system before it can run. This is evident when you yank out a cartridge (the console allows carts to be hot-swapped) and the game keeps running for a few seconds before shutting down. This approach means that larger GBA games take even longer to boot up, often several minutes depending on the title. (It also means the Retron Sq isn’t compatible with multi-game flash carts.)
On the back of the Retron Sq you’ll find an HDMI connector (Hyperkin does include a cable), a removable microSD card where all of the console’s software is stored, allowing for relatively easy firmware updates, a USB-C port for power, and a switch that toggles between a 4:3 aspect ratio for Game Boy games and 16:9 for GBA. Neither of those settings are the correct aspect ratios for either console, but games don’t look too horribly stretched in either mode.
Hyperkin also includes a matching controller with a 10-foot-long USB cable, and while it doesn’t feel as sturdy as the OEM SNES gamepad, it still feels solid and very playable. This is the controller you would have made friends use when they visited your house to play Super Nintendo. Why it has four action buttons when neither the Game Boy or GBA had that many is a mystery, but it’s safe to assume that Hyperkin re-purposed one of its existing replacement SNES gamepad products to bundle with the Retron Sq, which is no big deal.
If you’re not a fan, it’s easy to upgrade thanks to the console’s USB port. You can even plug in one of 8BitDo’s wireless USB controller adapters and use everything from a Switch to a PlayStation controller with it.
Given the games were designed for hardware that’s now 30 years old, the Retron Sq has no issues playing classic Game Boy and Game Boy Color games flawlessly. And thanks to a couple of software updates shortly after launch, the pixelated games look incredibly crisp on a 4K TV. There are no options to turn on interpolation or smoothing or to even simulate the softening effect of an old CRT, but to be honest they’re not needed. Game Boy and GBC games look great, and play without any dropped frames, hiccups, or audio issues. In fact, I have a new appreciation for the music in a lot of my Game Boy games after hearing them on bigger speakers.
As I mentioned earlier, support for GBA games is included as a beta feature on the Retron Sq, but out of the box they’re completely unplayable. One of my favorite handheld games of all time is a simple baseball game on the GBA called Baseball Advance, and the performance of it on the Retron Sq was so bad that I couldn’t nail the timing to hit a single pitch—on a game I’ve been continuously playing for almost 20 years.
It’s almost a dealbreaker because many of my favorite games were GBA titles, but it turns out the Retron Sq can be customized, because under the hood it’s actually running open source emulators, including mGBA—Hyperkin just doesn’t provide easy access to the emulator’s settings through a controller. As RetroDodo and YouTuber Too Many Handhelds discovered, you just need to plug a computer keyboard into the Retron Sq (through a USB hub works just fine) and hit the F1 key to access all of mGBA’s settings.
The reason GBA games play so poorly on the Retron Sq is because the frame-skip option in mGBA set to four by default. Dropping the frame-skip setting to zero, and then hitting the ESC key to save that change, made every GBA game I tested play as perfectly as Game Boy games do on the console. Not only that, through the mGBA settings you can also set the correct 3:2 aspect ratio for GBA games, and make countless other tweaks to make games look exactly how you want.
Many have lamented how bad the support for GBA games is on the Retron Sq, and even though it’s not listed as an official feature yet, it’s something I was really looking forward to on the console. Were the Retron Sq only able to play Game Boy and GBC games, the $75 price tag would be a hard sell. There are definitely some classic titles on the handheld, including the original Pokémon, but there are cheaper ways to play those again. But if you’re willing to grab a keyboard and make some small tweaks, the Retron Sq is suddenly an entirely different machine.
Since its release, Hyperkin has already released a couple of updates for the Retron Sq, and I’m hoping that eventually it comes up with a way for advanced users to easily access the settings menus for the open source emulators the console relies on (be it a special button combo on the controller, or even using those extra X & Y buttons). Sacrificing a bit of its ease of use would make a solid product a truly excellent one, and a must have for any devoted Game Boy fan.