Over four years after being unveiled as the RetroBlox, being renamed just a few months later, shifting from FPGA technology to software emulation a year later, and then opening for pre-orders a year after that, the all-in-one retro gaming console, Polymega, is finally shipping out on September 12.
That labored chronology is just part of the challenge developer Playmaji has had bringing this device to life but, after spending almost exactly a year with a pre-release device, I’m happy to report it may have been worth it: The Polymega is, after all that, an excellent retro gaming console worthy of your attention.
The Polymega is a software emulation-based console with a custom, Intel-backed motherboard running on Linux with a custom user interface. The hardware includes the usual lineup of HDMI, Wi-Fi, ethernet, USB and SD card support, while including a few other more unique additions, notably a CD-ROM drive, support for the tiny, but speedy m.2 SSD format and support for four console-specific expansions called “Element Modules.” These $80 modules bring cartridge and controller compatibility for NES, Super Nintendo, Genesis, 32X, TurboGrafx-16 … and all of their European and Japanese counterparts.
In addition to those optional cartridge modules, the out-of-the-box Polymega supports Sega CD, TurboGrafx-CD, Neo Geo CD, PlayStation, and Sega Saturn. It’s the Saturn that deserves your attention here. The Polymega uses the Mednafen emulator coupled with a custom BIOS file so playing Saturn games is as simple as popping in your pristine copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga or, if you’re really paranoid, your backup burned CD-R copy (yes, that works).
For any games with compatibility issues — though it’s worth noting here, I didn’t discover any — the Polymega will support loading an official BIOS file onto an SD card, if you have access to one.While the Polymega may be permissive when it comes to BIOS files, it isn’t when it comes to game files. If you’ve already ripped your games to ROM or ISO files, or if you’ve (*ahem*) acquired some ROM or ISO files elsewhere, you can’t manually load them on an SD card. The only way to get games loaded into the Polymega is by ripping them yourself off of a cartridge or a CD. If you’ve already dumped your precious games then … well, you’ll have to do it again here.
Once you connect the Polymega to an internet connection, it downloads the massive game library database which it uses to identify which games you’ve inserted into the console. Insert a disc or a cartridge and you’ll be given an option to either run the game directly, or install it to the console’s storage, at which point you can put your precious (and likely valuable!) game back on a shelf somewhere.
With a scant 32GB inside the unit, you’ll want to expand your storage with either an SD card or an SSD right away. Ripping CD images, especially those multidisc games, is going to fill up your interior storage quickly. I purchased a 500GB SSD and immediately got to work ripping my entire PlayStation library, some of my Saturn and Sega CD titles, and my Super Nintendo carts via the EM02 expansion module they included. In total this was somewhere around 130 games.
There was something physically satisfying about preserving my aging optical media library this way. It was also reminiscent of doing all of this nearly 20 years ago with my music when I got my first iPod. It didn’t take long and with few exceptions — Pandemonium on PS1 and my THQ versions, as opposed to JVC versions, of the Super Star Wars trilogy — my entire library was on the Polymega.
While it certainly wasn’t pristine, I don’t think my copy of Pandemonium was too scratched to be read here. In fact, some of my other, more abused discs loaded fine and didn’t so much as hiccup during the ripping process. And as for the THQ variants of the Super Star Wars games, Playmaji says it’s already ordered those copies so it can manually dump the unique ROMs, and we should see them supported in the console’s October software update.
After ripping all these games, I could use the included wireless controller which strongly resembles a DualShock 4 and was a good solution for most 3D PS1 games. That said, I preferred using some other controllers for other consoles.
My wireless Retrobit Saturn controllers worked perfectly, and once the USB dongle was inserted it was instantly recognized. The EM02 module includes a SNES-alike controller, but I actually preferred using my wireless 8bitdo M30 controller, which similarly worked immediately. Some other tests, including a wired Xbox 360 controller and a wired Retrobit Sega Genesis 6 button controller, both worked without any fuss. I’m sure once more people get their hands on the Polymega, we’ll get a better sense of its overall controller compatibility and, ideally, Playmaji can add support for additional controllers.
Playmaji says the expansion module controller ports should provide a lower-latency input than the USB ports on the base module, but I found the convenience of a wireless 2.4Ghz USB controller preferable to a wired controller. Of course, there’s always the option of a wireless 8bitdo controller and SNES (or Genesis) Retro Receiver, so you can have it both ways, depending on what you’re optimizing for.
That question — What are you optimizing for? — really seems paramount to the Polymega. It’s an all-in-one console that uses your original games to deliver a compelling software emulation-based experience for modern TVs. That means a fancy UI, save states for your cart-based games, and solid controller support. But it also means a lot of expensive hardware and, let’s be honest, many thousands of dollars of software if you intend to have a decent-sized library.
If you have the massive retro library, like I do, it’s a really worthwhile offering … but if you don’t, now isn’t the time to start collecting. (Have you seen auction prices lately?) While there’s the opportunity of an online storefront to sell games directly inside the Polymega, it’s not there yet, and I imagine licensing will be a nightmare. Instead I’m left wondering if borrowing a friend’s library, along with a friend’s expansion module, and sharing isn’t the most obvious outcome of this format. Or maybe Playmaji figures it out, and a digital storefront is a reasonable outcome, just as the iTunes Store did back for my iPod.
At $400 for the base console, and an additional $80 for each expansion module, the Polymega certainly isn’t cheap. But the dedicated retro gamers out there know just how expensive HDMI mods and optical drive emulators (not to mention modding installation costs) can be. The Polymega is an enticing all-in-one solution and while it may not have the FPGA-based bona fides of the MiSTer, it stands on its own as a viable contender for the ultimate retro gaming console crown.
Polymega will be released on September 12. This beta review hardware was provided by Playmaji. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.