The Evercade EXP handheld brings key improvements but it's still a curious concept

An improved display, WiFi and some great included games go along way.

James Trew / Engadget

When we tried the original Evercade handheld, it was a fun-but-curious concept. Old games on a new handheld with cartridges? Nostalgia squared, basically. Whether you thought it was a good idea or not, there are now almost 40 collections available totalling hundreds of games. There’s also the VS home-console for playing against friends on the big screen. Now, there’s the Evercade EXP ($130/£150), a revamped handheld that improves on the original in some key ways. Evercade’s wacky idea, then, seems to be working.

In a curious turn of events, and potential further proof of its popularity, it seems a literal truck-load of EXP consoles have been stolen. Blaze, the company behind Evercade, has stated that it's working to restart production to replace the missing handhelds, so if you preordered one, you might want to check the company website for more information.

The EXP brings with it an improved, 800×480 display - more than double the resolution of the original (480x272). Games look much sharper this time around, though it’s still 4.3-inches diagonally which feels a little undersized for really any type of handheld device in 2022. Though there literally is more actual power with a new 1.5Ghz processor and a larger battery that’s good for about five hours of play.

Rear view of the Evercade EXP retro gaming handheld.
James Trew / Engadget

The new all-white design gives the EXP a bit more of a grown up vibe than the original which looked a little toyish. The D-pad is particularly eye-catching, as it’s a large disc and almost looks like it protrudes from the casing a little too much. In use it’s fine, but something a little smaller and lower profile might add to the quality feel. The buttons, for example, are nice and clicky and are just the right height. It’s a slightly mixed combo but functional though moves in fighting games can be a little tricky to pull off sometimes.

One of the main perks with the EXP are the built-in games from Capcom. The console also comes with the Irem Arcade 1 collection which features six games (including R-Type) but the real fun is among those Capcom classics such as Street Fighter II Hyper Fighting, Mega Man, Ghouls and Ghosts and Breath of Fire (among others). These are some solid titles that mean there are 24 games available to play right out of the box.

If that’s not enough for day one, there’s also a way to expand this number even further to 29 thanks to a large banner on the home screen titled “HIDDEN GAMES” (it’s in all caps yep). This is a carry over from the VS that introduced a “Secret” menu option – which, despite the name, is not hidden, it’s right there in the main menu and it’s literally called “Secret.” Here, you can enter some codes and unlock even more games. No spoilers here, but a bit of googling around might turn up some clues.

Unfortunately, even though you can connect the EXP to a TV over HDMI and there’s a USB-C port on the bottom, you can’t connect a controller – not even a VS controller – to enjoy two player mode on the built-in games. This is a real shame with Street Fighter II sitting right there, begging to be played as nature intended. Blaze told Engadget that it’s something being explored but there’s nothing immediate to share. Games on the VS console can all be played in 2-player mode, but the license with Capcom only really allowed the company to include the games on the EXP itself, not as cartridges.

Evercade EXP retro gaming handheld
James Trew / Engadget

The final main update on the EXP over the original is the inclusion of “Tate” mode. Many of those early arcade games were played in portrait, rather than landscape mode and the EXP has a pair of extra buttons beside the D-pad so you can flip the console 90-degrees and play these titles vertically just like back when quarters were required. Some of the included Capcom titles, such as 1942 and Commando, use this mode, as do many on the bundled Irem Arcade cartridge. It’s nice to see these games with the option to play them in the right orientation and will be of particular appeal to fans of vertical scrolling shooters (of which there are plenty on the Evercade platform).

Finally, the EXP sports a newer user interface than the original. In fact, it’s borrowed almost directly from the VS console. The original handheld was updated to bring a similar-looking interface, but it’s a little lacking compared to that on the VS and EXP. It’s simple and easy to navigate but also has some useful added data in each game’s menu where you can see the how often and for how long you’ve played a game among other information. You can also set a “coin” limit here for truly re-creating that ‘90s arcade experience where you only had seven quarters and had to use them wisely.

Evercade EXP retro gaming handheld
James Trew / Engadget

Most of all, the EXP maintains the same authenticity and nods to the retro era that made the original and the VS more fun. Things like secret games and things to unlock were a mainstay of that era, so combined with the nostalgia of cartridges it all goes a long way to making the Evercade platform something beyond just another way to play old titles. There’s even a “game of the month” program that offers the chance to play forthcoming releases for a limited time free of charge.

It’s not all about vintage games, though. Evercade already has an indie collection of modern retro games, including the very recommendable Game Boy game Deadeus. There’s a second collection on the way, too. Old classics are one thing, but there are many ways to play them. Evercade provides a nice, legal option and one that compensates the rights owners appropriately, but it’s also well positioned to become a destination for modern retro and lighter indie titles.

There are a lot of options for retro games, whether that’s other handhelds, things like Nintendo’s virtual console/Switch online or the semi-recent trend of “mini” consoles. Evercade’s approach is unique but obviously requires a bit of a collector’s itch or a penchant for the lesser-known gems for it to really make sense. One thing’s for sure, there’s already a community gathering around the platform and for them and the like, the EXP elevates the handheld experience nicely.

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