Part of an endless quest for self-imposed miseries to distract from the even-more-crushing miseries of real life is my constant pursuit of terrible little retro video game systems, because there’s nothing like poisoning the well of nostalgia. And then going back for more, and more, and more until you’re finally dead.
The Data Frog (or the Cool Frog as it’s sometimes known) is one of the most unusual mini-systems out there, as well as the smallest. It’s smaller than the palm of an average man’s hand, which makes it annoyingly small. If you thought that the Switch controller was the apex of obnoxious smallness if you have ham-like adult-sized human hands, you don’t even know, buddy. This is another level of finger contortion torture devised by some insidious Cenobite, made only worse by the weird and abrasive keychain nub jutting off of the top left of the device. It’s just one of many engineering mistakes that are designed to create agony.
This little powerhouse takes just one AAA battery, because that’s all that’ll fit in here, and allegedly stores a whopping 89 games. So, what kind of tiny miracle is this Frog machine?
Unlike many other current mini emulation systems, it makes no attempt at mimicking anything actually retro in the gaming world, though it evokes a huge amount of Googie design sensibility. You know, the stuff that looks a little bit like ’50s Vegas by way of West Coast early-’90s design; like Fido Dido and Pee Wee’s Playhouse met and had a really distracted meeting about designing a tiny game console that has no reason to exist other than to fascinate and perplex. It would be perfectly appropriate, and absolutely worth it, if the only game the Data Frog played was the underappreciated puzzle classic Zoop. It looks like the ’90s, but like no game system that existed in the ’90s. That earns a huge amount of bonus points. On a scale of ‘love’ to ‘hate’, this is a solid ‘love to hate’.
The bonuses stop there, though. The standard A/V out cable is your typical red/yellow connection, but it’s also your typical weak connection; visible, playable, but cursed with wavy lines. It’ll plug into any TV system though, and that’s great. You’re not really playing retro games for crystal clear clarity anyhow.
Where the system truly falls apart is the controls. The toggle knob used as a directional controller has many game-breaking problems. It stops, pops, and clicks, it’s overly sensitive, and the ability to control things in infinite directions doesn’t register well with games designed for 8-way control. You may be pressing left, but if you’re a tiny bit off, you might just go down or up instead. It’s a terror, and playing games where quick and precise controls are necessary, like every NES game ever, is a nightmare. If you’ve ever wanted to play a version of Super Mario Bros., where Mario has compromised control of his entire nervous system, your dreams are now fulfilled.
To make things even worse, the position of the A and B buttons on top of one another makes it impractical and obnoxious to control anything in the familiar manner. It’s an unnatural twisting of the thumb to do something as simple as run while holding B and ALSO hoping to make a jump. The design choice completely ignores Nintendo game mechanics, and it’s colossally stupid. It’s so dumb that I kinda love it, as some kind of example of when form defeats function, and no one is the wiser until the product ships… and then, they still don’t give half a butt because it’s a $7 video game system that looks like some kind of fan-fic Digimon thing. It would have been easy to put the buttons where they were supposed to be, but some dingus just had to be different. But maybe the games are cool?
There are 89 game listings on the Frog, and I scroll through them in the video above. Unlike systems that cram 500+ shovelware games into the same small space, all of these are fairly recognizable, even if the names are very stupid. The dog hanging out in Princess Peach’s castle on the menu screen is a nice touch, though.
For whatever reason, Contra is a must to include on every single junk system I’ve ever found. Maybe because it’s early on in the ROM-dump alphabet, or maybe it’s really just such a classic that it always deserves placement before Super Mario Bros. Nuts and Milk is another really common game to find, even though it’s not a game that was ever released in the US, and there are always a few versions of Mahjong that never seem to go anywhere.
Of course, there’s a terrible version of Angry Birds, since most of these were kinda slapped together when that was a thing. ‘Adventure’ is indeed Adventure Island… but after a while things get really fishy. Sea Adventure, Happy Adventure, Forest Adventure, and even Hellfire are just different levels in Adventure Island, presented as new games. ‘Fast Mario’ is just Super Mario Bros. on Level 3-1. A good chunk of these also go to different levels in Circus Charlie, which is one of the most terrible NES games ever made (also played for a bit in the video above). So, like all of these systems, you don’t actually get 89 games, but you’d be foolish to even expect that at this point.
Is it worth it? It’s hard to grasp because it’s so small, the controls are goofy and don’t move smoothly, and the games aren’t that good. The only really unusual one, to me at least, was ‘Jewelry’, which plays like Columns, but incorporates stacks of three international currency symbols, which you can shift around in the column as it drops to the ground. Match three in a row, including diagonally, and they’re cleared. And, I’m not going to lie, the most exciting part was hearing the next soundtrack change when a level was completed. Aside from that, it’s a pretty easy game, only made impossible by the controls constantly getting caught on themselves.
And for whatever it’s worth, I still have no clue why this also includes a non-working flashlight, and that weird white triangle on the front. It’s unmitigated nonsense.
Ultimately, I like it, but it’s useless. There’s a very limited chance I’ll ever plug this in again and suffer through a self-sabotaging controller to play the second level of ‘Dongkey Kong’ – their spelling, not mine. But as a little weird monster that lives in a box as a curiosity that only cost 7 bucks? Sure. It can stay. I’ve had worse roommates.
C. David is a writer and artist living in the Hudson Valley, NY. He loves pinball, Wazmo Nariz, Rem Lezar, MODOK, pogs, Ultra Monsters, 80s horror, and is secretly very enthusiastic about everything else not listed here.