The burning trashfire that is bootleg sub-$20 bootleg game consoles never ends. And with free shipping from China, why should it end?
Almost a dozen crap consoles into the exploration of worthless electronics, it’s increasingly clear that they’re all pretty much the same on the inside : a few hundred games shoveled into a memory bank (some official, many not), terrible controls that are unresponsive or get physically stuck on poorly-molded plastic openings, and the occasional shell redesign that only make sense if your fingers are the exact size and shape of macaroni.
But it’s always impossible to tell exactly what you’ll get when you allow yourself to suffer through one of these. Here’s what to expect for these five mini-consoles, and why they matter.
A $12 micro-console, this is probably the weirdest one of all. There aren’t really too many manufacturers who take ownership of their misappropriation of Nintendo games enough to actually create a mascot for their theft, but this mysterious company created JJ, a chicken who occasionally looks like a grown-ass man and wears a gold chain. The console takes the form of JJ’s chicken body, and games are played on his prodigious chin. But the main thing here is that you’re playing a game on a chicken who comes with a super weird lanyard. The lanyard is probably the best part of this whole package.
The first game on the system is Game Mars of JJ, a re-skinned version of Super Mario Bros. None of the replacement sprites are really that interesting, and the soundtrack is a standard 8-bit thing you’d hear behind most crap games, but an effort was made. It’s an interesting example of someone really leaning into the bootleg world. There’s no real good reason for these low-effort Mario parody games continue to be made unless they’re doing something unique, and this isn’t it.
The main problem overall is that the screen is the wrong size on a technical level. It can’t properly display the emulator’s games, so every game will have sprites that are missing lines, or have weird flickery artifacts. When all of that is already compacted into an economic screen size, it’s jarring when even more is clipped out. And because NES games are really only designed for two buttons, two of these buttons are basically vestigial, so for some games, one of them is assigned to a “big jump”, relegating another button to a uselessly short jump. Incorporating a button that purposefully sucks is a weird choice.
Highlights include the unplayable 8-bit bootleg port of Street Fighter II, and a game called Crash which is a terrible reskin of Jungle Book, which I guess is supposed to reference Crash Bandicoot.
If you want a bad Game Boy that’s also a chicken, but you’ll never play, here’s a JJ. It’s obviously not a serious machine for serious gamers, and it’s barely playable, so what’s the point here? It’s eye-catching, but useless, and it’s like nothing else.
At $14.62, the Retro FC has 168 games, starting with Kung Fu Panda, another reskin of Super Mario Bros. in which the main sprite is somehow the wrong size. More than almost any junk mini so far, this one looks the most like a classic Game Boy, but with excess, functionless buttons.
It’s completely unremarkable, with nothing special going for it, except for the fact that it tried so hard to look like a Game Boy that it’s actually almost cool. It’s a tryhard that doesn’t go beyond mediocre, even in appearance. It’s an aspiring influencer with 200 followers on Instagram who demands free food for exposure from Five Guys.
As retro gaming continues to explode, trying to copy a retro clear-shell Game Boy Color is a pretty uninspired choice, but it’s just close enough to the real thing that the subtle shift away from reality is a little disconcerting, like you’ve just woken up in a world that’s just slightly askew. It’s almost convincing at a glance, and if you saw this loose at a tag sale, and didn’t flip it over looking for a game slot, you might be convinced for a moment. A handheld of this size could easily hold a few thousand games if it was upgraded just a bit, some of which might actually use these extra buttons, but you get $15 worth instead.
It would have been much cooler if this $15.20 mini-console was called a Game Bean. Or a Bean Boy. Or anything but Game Box, especially because it doesn’t really have a box-shaped body. But if nothing else, these little systems are always a gallery of missed opportunities, so this is true to form. This has the same games as most other consoles : Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Mario Bros, a thousand versions of Contra… but with the added bonus that the whole system will freeze on a white screen at random intervals. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature, right?
The system’s only real positives are that it’s surprisingly ergonomic, even if it’s hideous, and all of the controls are pretty responsive. It’s still loaded with terrible shovelware that’s a huge pain to sift through to find anything good, and somehow, Excitebike is displayed in the wrong colors, so it’s really hard to see. Random familiar games will be in Chinese, and there’s nothing really curated here. If any one of these mini-systems was even the slightest bit curated, even if it only trimmed away the nonsense fake games, it would be a miracle and well worth the money.
Still, it’s good for a quick game of Snow Bros or Balloon Fight, but because of the system’s tendency to freeze, don’t invest your time into anything with a prolonged play time. Your victory over Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles should be saved for another system. And because it’s a very rare example of a rounded, blobby handheld, it’s kinda cool to have around. It looks like it’s meant to survive a future war… or may have already melted in a past war. Either way, there’s something hauntingly post-apocalyptic about an olive green gameblob.
Imagine a Game Boy Advance SP, but from hell because it’s $14.24. Additions like Castlevania II may be surprising, but then you have a copy of Punch Out!! that crashes the system. Turtles 1 is actually Top Gun… and Turtles 2 crashes the system too. There are lots of games on here that look exciting, but just won’t run.
You know it’s a supertrash system when it doesn’t have a volume dial, but a volume button that raises and lowers the volume in broad strokes. Every time you reset the system, it comes back at top volume, which you then have to bring back down to reasonable levels by hitting a volume button a few times as quickly as you can.
Remember that quick game of Snow Bros that even the worst system can run? Well, try it. You’ll get Tiny Toon Adventures. This system is so bad that they didn’t even name the ROMs correctly. You can, however, play Donald Land, a glitchy licensed McDonald’s game for the Famicom where you use apple bombs to fight through a bunch of levels as Ronald McDonald and fight an evil clown at the end. You can also play Earthworm Jim 3, an unlicensed port of EWJ for Sega. It’s a weird selection of things you probably haven’t played, and unless you’re a completist, you probably wouldn’t want to play.
You’ll also find Hash Cookie, which is Yoshi’s Cookie, but reskinned with a marijuana theme. Instead of a delicious cookies, you actually get a little icon that says ‘ITS 420’, or a bong. Explain that to the 7-year old you just bought this system for. Pokemon Blue is Wacky Races with a poorly-skinned Blastoise. Pokemon Golden is Tom & Jerry, but with an Eevee. Pokemon Green uses an unnaturally green Clefable in a sidescroller I can’t recognize. I thought I’d enjoy a game of Gauntlet, but the levels immediately include invisible walls and walls that aren’t really there. It’s all terrible. I’ve never encountered a system with this many missing or busted games. This may be the most useless console ever, and the streaking inside the screen doesn’t help it much.
Even now, the Game Boy SP isn’t really all that collectible compared to most handhelds. So, the question persists – who buys these things?
Game & Console is very clear mimic of the recent Game & Watch retro systems by Nintendo, and at $18.50, expectations for this system are a little higher…. but it’s exactly the same in general function as the previous system. The larger size is a bit easier to hold, and the volume dial is a bonus. And as a system that plays hundreds of games, it already has an advantage over the official Game & Watch. Kind of. The actual system only plays a few Mario games, a simulation of a classic Game & Watch game, and has a clock function.
Really, it’s the blatant mimicry of the hottest Nintendo product of the moment that demonstrates the real tactless charm of these systems. Are they trying to fool someone, or is their target audience retro game nerds who couldn’t find the real thing? It’s kind of inscrutable, because the only appeal is to add this to a collection of terrible things, which is a pretty specific and weird niche.
All of these are kind of an incredible mess, and a goofy byproduct of the recent popularity of retro gaming, for better or worse. It’s a gallery of lazy shame, if you’re into that kind of thing. If you actually want to play games, you’ll need to go above the $20 barrier.
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.