Hands-on review: The A500 Mini Retro Gaming Console
Retro Games, the UK outfit responsible for a range of retro gaming devices from joystick to full-sized Vic-20s and C64 emulators, have launched their A500 Mini Retro Gaming Console. Styled on the original Commodore Amiga 500, this tiny console comes preloaded with twenty-five classic Amiga games and the capacity to add even more.
For a whole generation of people, myself included, Commodore’s Amiga 500, 500+, and the 32-bit A1200 were their first introduction to “modern” computers. Building on the strength of early micro-computer trailblazers like the Sinclair ZX81, ZX Spectrum, and Commodore’s own Vic-20 and C64, the Amiga offered a massive boost in performance. It was a real computer on par with the IBM-compatible PCs of the time, but a lot more accessible and affordable.
So powerful was the humble Amiga that it was once the platform of choice for early computerised visual effects. The once industry-standard Lightwave 3D software running on Amigas was responsible for the award-winning effects on the sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. Programs like Imagine and VistaPro allowed users to model and create their own photo-real 3D renders.
Of course, this sort of high-end computing power, just as it does with PCs today, lent itself rather well to state-of-the-art video games. The Amiga put contemporary game consoles like the Nintendo’s SNES and Sega Megadrive to shame.
The A500 Mini Retro Gaming Console is designed as a homage to the original Commodore Amiga 500. The beige unit, mimicking the original’s colour, is about a sixth of the size of the classic home computer. It features a moulded, non-working keyboard, a facsimile of the 2.5” floppy drive slot, and authentic power and floppy access lights.
On the back, there are three USB Type-A sockets, a USB Type-C socket for power, and an HDMI port. The package comes with a working USB replica of the original Amiga mouse (optical rather than the original trackball) and a USB retro-style gamepad. The console will, apparently, work with a USB keyboard, as well. There's also a USB Type-C to Type-A power cable, but bizarrely no plug- so you’ll need to power the unit from another device or use the USB plug that came with your phone charge cable.
Due to the nebulous legal status of Commodore’s machine, the A500 Mini uses off-the-shelf parts to emulate the innards of the Amiga. Neither Commodore nor Amiga is mentioned by name or logo on the machine. Instead of the ground-breaking Amiga architecture, the device runs on an H6 ARM Cortex A53 with 512MB of RAM (the original Amiga only had 512KB of Ram) and 256MB of flash ROM for the operating system and games.
The output has been upgraded from the original PAL/NTSC signal to an HD 720p picture running at either 50Hz or 60Hz. Also, rather than mimic the Amiga’s Workbench operating system, The A500 has a slick new menu that is used to launch the twenty-five included titles.
Whilst the preinstalled compendium of games includes Amiga favourites like Alien Breed, Pinball Dreams, Speedball 2, and Worms, there are some glaring omissions. There’s no Sensible Soccer, no Cannon Fodder, no Lemmings, and no Shadow of the Beast. But more on all that later.
Most of the included games can be played using the included gamepad. The idea is that this is a retro game console rather than a retro computer, so it makes sense for the unit to be pick-up-and-play. Some of the titles are a little more involved and may require the use of the pop-up keyboard. The likes of F-16 Combat Pilot really need an actual keyboard attached to play it properly. For the most part, the included titles work very well and, if you are familiar with the Amiga of old, will likely bring back a few good memories. Some of the games, however, like Alien Breed 3D (a game that was really pushing the Amiga’s capabilities back in the day), serve as a timely reminder of how far we’ve come and what sort of rubbish we used to put up with.
I loved Team 17’s Alien Breed back in the day, and it was a delight for it to be a firm favourite with my kids. Lemmings (not included with the A500 Mini, but see below) was another game that still shines after all this time.
Ignoring the nostalgic design for a moment, twenty-five thirty-year-old games for AU$200/NZ$250 is a bit steep and if that was it, it would be a hard pill to swallow. But that is not the end of it, not by a country mile. You see, players can add other Amiga programs to the A500 Mini Retro Gaming Console, and that really opens things up.
By copying over a program, The A500 WHDLoad Package, which can be downloaded for free from the Retro Games website to a USB drive, archived classic Amiga (both A500 and A1200) programs can be accessed by The A500 Mini. At this point, though, things start to get a little grey, as they tend to be with retro game emulation.
The bush lawyers out there will tell you that as long as you own the original software you can download a version that will work with The A500. Whether that is so, or not, and whether you want to take that approach is up to you. But there are resources available on the Internet, should you feel that you already own a licence, where you can download a copy of most of your Amiga games library for The A500 Mini.
The above can sort out the missing classics. As long as the files are achieved in the LHA compression format used by the WHDLoad emulator, you can place them on the USB stick which is then plugged into one of the USB ports on the back of The A500. Once inserted the USB stick will be accessible from the main menu and additional games selected via a directory system.
The games that come with The A500 Mini have been configured to work with the console without issues. Full instructions for these games are available to download from the Retro Games website. Amiga games that you find on the Internet will likely boot up, but you may need to set up the controls yourself.
It's worth mentioning just who this device is aimed at. Full-beard retro gaming enthusiasts will lament about how this commercial Amiga emulator is really only a neatly packaged plug-and-play device, lacking the flexibility of other Raspberry Pi and PC Amiga emulators. And that may be true. But the A500 Mini is a device for people that don’t necessarily want to be fiddling with Kickstart ROM emulation and the Workbench OS. The A500 Mini is much easier to use than an emulator if you just want to play Amiga games.
I’ll admit to being overcome with nostalgia playing with the A500 Mini, which made it very difficult to subjectively review the device at first. But the fun that my kids had with the review unit, playing Amiga games for the first time, suggests that these games from a bygone era still resonate today. Beyond the classic games, it was potential of the unit kept my interest, giving me a strong desire to find out exactly what I can get running on it- perhaps EA’s Deluxe Paint or even the Amiga Workbench OS. It’s highly likely that once I’ve returned the review unit I’m going to go out and buy an A500 Mini.
The A500 Mini is designed as a fun, easy-to-use retro console that enables veteran players to rediscover old favourites and introduce a classic piece of gaming history to a new generation. The console looks absolutely fantastic and the inclusion of an authentic USB version of the classic Amiga mouse and retro gamepad (that in itself looks very similar to the Amiga CD32 pad) really tops the package off.
The included Amiga gems like Alien Breed, Worms, Another World, Zool, Pinball Dreams, Simon the Sorcerer, and Stunt Car Racer, among the 25 pre installed games, almost makes up for some of the omissions. It’s not a cheap retro console, but the flexibility of being able to fairly easily add extra games makes the price point that much more attractive. There’s never been a better time to step back into gaming history and try out some classic Amiga games with The A500 Mini Retro Gaming Console.