GCW Zero

Posted March 3, 2014

About a year ago I rediscovered my nearly forgotten Dingoo A320, the notorious Chinese handheld trojan horse whose principle payload is console and arcade game emulation. Ignoring the frustrating memories I had setting it up, I dusted it off and started again, by way of Windows, by way of Parallels. The Dingoo’s small, about the size of two iPhone 5’s sandwiched together, with a 2.8″ LCD at 320×240, 360MHz CPU, 32MB RAM, 4GB of internal storage and a MiniSD slot, a battery that lasts forever, and an FM tuner. Even for 2009 this was low tech, but it’s affordability, and perhaps lack of competition at the time, gave traction to the unfortunately named Dingoo. Pre-Neo Geo X Metal Slug in your pocket. Even Amazon sold it.

There have been endless variations by other manufacturers, with larger screens and juicier specs, many of which look like the PSP Slim, which incidentally, also runs emulators with a modest amount of work. Metal Slug looked even better, but the emulation community seemed less matured.

Then in 2013 came the Kickstarter for the GCW Zero. Created by Justin Barwick, the GCW was the first American born effort at a handheld device created specifically for game emulation. Using a 1GHz MIPS processor and 512MB RAM, it runs Linux (OpenDingux), has a 3.5″ LCD at 320×240 in glorious 4:3 (“ideal for retro gaming”), 16GB of internal storage and a MicroSD slot. The specs felt sufficient, but what really got me excited were videos of the GCW in action by qbertaddict1, who I’d wager single handedly sold more units than by any other means. Nick Nillo gives a closer perspective from GCW’s camp, right up to his final thoughts on the project, post-launch. While they were initially tough to find, you can now order them through sites like Think Geek.

As the GCW is Linux-based, there’s a healthy developer community around an extensive library of emulators: Atari, NES, SNES, Genesis, Sega CD, TurboGrafx-16, MAME, Neo Geo, MSX1/MSX2, DOS, Game Boy/GBC/GBA, Neo Geo Pocket Color, Lynx, and likely even more niche platforms. Most work quite well with minimal fuss, including excellent sound emulation, which is a vast improvement over the Dingoo. It feels comfortable in your hands, with responsive buttons including a standard gamepad, analog stick, shoulder buttons, accelerometer, and, fortunately, no fussy touch screen. Loading games is quick over WiFi, which is a nice touch, though USB is obviously faster for larger uploads. While there hasn’t been a firmware update since October, 2013, the Dingoonity forums remain an active and vital resource for emulators and support.

When turned on, the GCW displays about four seconds of Linux boot process, then a clean and customizable icon-based interface. Most emulators offer their own configuration options, including save states. I spent many hours playing the prerequisite games, from 8-bit Super Mario Bros., Castlevania and Zelda, to Out Run, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, and of course, Metal Slug. While console and handheld are generally solid, as with most arcade emulation your mileage will vary. Even Sega CD games like Popful Mail play great once the appropriate bios files are present (in the case of the emulator PicoDrive, in the hidden .picodrive folder of course!).

At the top of my wish list would be a larger screen, and two analog sticks rather than the one, along with wider analog support. The build quality is pretty decent but could be improved, though I realize this would drive up the cost. I had the sticky gamepad issue that seemed to plague many early units, which graphite lubricant fixed (just don’t get it on the screen’s plastic cover). A real sleep mode rather than the screen simply turning off would be nice, hopefully coming later through a firmware update.

And I see a value in more homebrew games, especially if Justin Barwick hopes to give the GCW an air of legitimacy. A rather good demo of the yet-to-be-released platformer Unnamed Monkey Game is included, which plays a bit like a sea green Super Mario Bros. There are several others but most seem comparable to mediocre iOS creations rather than the allure of a Game Boy adventure.

The GCW is a fun and promising device. Sometimes I just stare at it in my hands, amazed at its versatility, the power to put entire catalogs from dozens of gaming systems in your pocket. Maybe this much range and potential clouds one’s vision in a way, almost too good to be true. For some folks, the effort required, not to mention the ethical ambiguities, may dampen some of the GCW’s shine. But that’s ok, there are numerous next-gen Mario Bros. games for sale, and I love them too.

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