There is something to be said for owning a physical product. Sure, there are sites that house ROMs, both legal and otherwise, for a range of retro gaming machines and there are certainly plenty of options for people wanting to explore decades of gaming via current generation and throwback consoles.

Somewhere, in this ocean of products, sits a newcomer to the gaming seen, the Evercade.  Unlike other consoles, though, it doesn’t come with a fixed number of games or one-size fits all emulation.  This handheld comes with physical cartridges, in boxes and with printed manuals!  This is as close to a throwback as you’ll find in the modern marketplace.

Powered by a quad-core 1.2GHZ ARM processor, the handheld is capable of running 8-bit and 16-bit games though should be thoroughly capable of driving more power games, too.  We could, potentially, see 32-bit and 64-bit software on this device if demand for it is high enough.  The positive about this technical arrangement is that the system doesn’t show much sign of slowdown, even when things get hectic with all the sprites flying around the screen.

With a 4.3” screen, stereo speakers, USB charging, HDMI out, up to 5 hours battery life, the handheld isn’t much smaller than the Nintendo Switch Lite, though doesn’t have the sleek look of that modern-day piece of hardware.  There’s something decidedly retro-looking about the Evercade, and it’s not just the games.  Perhaps it’s the red accents to the white plastic shell or the angles.  Either way, it’s still an attractive piece of hardware.

Each cartridge is a curated collection of classics from some of the finest names in gaming – Data East, Interplay, Namco and Atari are all there, and there’s plenty of potential for the library to grow, including a collection for new games in the form of the ‘Piko Interactive Collection 1’ cartridge containing twenty original retro-styled games.

With ten cartridges available at the time of writing and four further ones scheduled for release (including two Atari Lynx collections), there’s plenty to discuss with the Evercade.  This review will focus on the Premium Pack, which includes the console and three cartridges. There is also a Starter Pack model which comes with the Namco Museum Collection 1 cartridge.

In the box, aside from the Atari Collection 1, Interplay Collection 1 and Namco Museum Collection 1 cartridges, you get the console itself, a USB cable for charging (and firmware updates) and a Quick Start Guide.  There’s no complex set up, you can just stick in a cartridge and get playing (though you’ll want to charge the battery first).

First thing you’ll probably notice is that the cartridge port is a bit tight.  That takes some getting used to the cartridges themselves are robust and chunky, unlike a memory card. Once in, you’re ready to turn on that power button and get into the gaming.

The screen is bright and the colours are vivid, especially when playing the “newer” games from Data East such as Two Crude Dudes or Clayfighter.  The speakers are loud, which is great for some games and just ear-piercing for others.  A 3.5mm earphone jack will allow you to keep all that old-school sound to yourself, although you could dazzle everyone by plugging it into your TV with the HDMI port, though it will output in 720P.  The console, though, really shines for its portability and an optional case will allow you to take it and a bunch of cartridges out with you.

The console has two shoulder buttons, a (slightly spongey) D-Pad and the ABXY buttons, giving you six buttons in total, though not all are used for every game and, as long as you’re running firmware 1.1a, you can remap the buttons to something more conventional.  That said, the layout of the buttons is likely to annoy the true purists who may prefer their controller to better mimic the original hardware.  The one-size-fits-all approach is fine, though it would have been nice to connect a separate controller, especially one of the 8bitdo replicas – sadly, with no Bluetooth connectivity, this won’t be an option in this model.

Turning the Evercade on, we’re presented with an intro screen that showcases the quality of the screen and a menu system that gives a bit of detail for each game on whichever cartridge is plugged in. The menu system is nothing groundbreaking, this isn’t one of those museum collections with tons of additional content, Evercade is committed to giving us games.

As soon as the games start, you’re immediately drawn into the retro charm of years gone by.  Whether it be PacMan or Dig Dug, Earthworm Jim or Clay Fighter, or the simplicity (by modern standards) of Adventure or Missile Command, the Evercade really captures what made these games playable.  The Premium Pack is really a crucible of the good and bad over the decades from three huge companies and what they could do with the hardware of the time.  As stated earlier, there are other ways to play these titles, but very few of the legal methods have such a low entry price point and sense of collectibility.

Evercade has worked closely with the publishers of each game collection to ensure that the games are representative of their originals, though there’s likely to be some purists who will be able to point out things that don’t quite look or play right.  That said, for many of us, the joy is in the playing and there is nothing obviously game-breaking even if the control layout does take a bit of getting used to from time to time.  As with the recent glut of mini console replicas, each game has save slots so you don’t have to go back all the way to the beginning when they get a bit too hard (and some of the games get really hard quite quickly!)

Sure, some of the games on the Atari Collection 1 cartridge are unlikely to attract younger gamers and, for this reviewer, they’re more of a curiosity, but the rest of the Premium Pack cartridges really do have something for everyone (although Dig Dug and Burger Time are probably going to take up a lot of my time!)  Each cartridge contains a mix of games, so gamers are likely to find something to appeal to their preferences and the cost of each collection is relatively low – £14.99/€17.99/$19.99 – which makes the proposition even more enticing.

With an Oliver Twins Collection recently released, including the iconic Dizzy games, there’s hopefully much more coming for the Evercade in the future as there’s a lot of potential in this machine.

There are minor issues with the Evercade, but there’s nothing that should make anyone feel it undermines the successes.  The front of the console is plastic, which includes the screen lens – hopefully, there’ll be a screen protector out there soon for those of us worried about accidentally scratches and nicks.  There’s a curious popping sound when turning the console on, but it doesn’t sound that bad.  There’s a very short delay between selecting a game and the game loading which was a bit of a surprise given the cartridge format – it’s nothing too extreme and it doesn’t reflect in gameplay where the controls are pretty much as responsive as you’d expect.

Without a doubt, the Evercade is something of an achievement, a return to the days when building a game collection involved more than hitting the “download” button and taking your collection with you meant making choices about which cartridges you were going to shove into your bag.  Those were the days.

Evercade is available at major retailers internationally from £59.99/€69.99/$79.99.  Details can be found here.

Videos for this review can be found on the Evercade YouTube channel.