[We can all see my camera’s not exactly great, so please consider these photos more generally illustrative than an accurate reflection of the in-hand experience]
I’ve always been fond of the Nomad, Sega’s US-only portable Genesis. It’s a pleasantly chunky machine with a great screen for its time (that’ll be 1995 – the same year the Saturn and PlayStation debuted in the US), and I enjoyed using mine very much when I had one, many years ago.
These days though prices for Sega’s aging handheld hardware start at “expensive” and go all the way up to “absolutely ridiculous” regardless of the machine’s condition, making it hard to enjoy using the Nomad as it was intended – as something carried around and played with in a casual “Oh it’s so nice to have amazing Sega games with me all the time” kind of way.
If only there was a more affordable and readily available modern equivalent out there…
Enter Columbus Circle’s 16Bit Pocket MD Plus, the lightly tweaked successor to their earlier 16Bit Pocket MD. This little blue handheld, measuring about the same height as and roughly 4cm longer than a Japanese Mega Drive cartridge, is an unofficial take on Sega’s beloved 16-bit console that uses nothing but real carts and can run off 4 AAA batteries (there’s a Japanese power supply included in the box if you don’t have any to hand).
These days modern versions of older hardware tend to go down some form of the emulation route, whether a more typical software-based solution or the expensive FPGA kind, but the Pocket MD Plus opts for the older “system on a chip” solution instead – a clone machine designed to recreate the original console’s capabilities as closely (and cheaply) as possible from third-party parts. From the user’s point of view this means there are no save states to fall back on, no scanline or shader features to fiddle with, and no system menus ripe for the tinkering. What the Pocket MD Plus offers instead is something more raw and straightforward – you plug in a game, turn the handheld on, and that’s it.
Just like a real Mega Drive.
I’ll be honest, I made more than a few assumptions about Columbus Circle’s hardware before it had even arrived: I was sure it was going to be tolerable from a casual/novelty point of view but a bit weak in all the usual areas. It was going to have an adequate screen that had obviously been budget-consciously repurposed from something else, poor sound quality, and generally feel OK. If you’ve encountered off-brand hardware before then you’ll know the drill – “Fine and only fine but hey, at least it didn’t cost the Earth“.
I was wrong.
The screen is crisp and colourful and holds up beautifully even when dealing with fast-paced movement (all of Sonic The Hedgehog 2) or fine detail (Phantasy Star IV‘s battle sprites and extensive cutscenes) and it doesn’t appear to squish or stretch the image. It is small – the viewable area only measures around 6.5cm (2.5inch) on the diagonal – but that’s kind of the point of a portable, isn’t it? In any case, I know I wasn’t struggling to read any text as I played a little Shining Force II. Strong direct sunlight does pose something of a problem as the screen’s unadjustable brightness can’t compete with everyone’s favourite burning ball of hydrogen, but even so, in my experience it’s more than bright enough for general use.
A simple AV out port sits on the top-left of the case if you want to use the Pocket MD Plus with a TV, although in this day and age the yellow/white composite cable provided probably presents more problems for HDTV owners (basically everyone) than it does big-screen solutions – I know I couldn’t test this bonus feature out because of it (my CRT TV is safely nestled in a very particular spot and moving it would definitely kill either me or it, sorry).
The Pocket MD Plus uses a built-in six button controller (a “Mode” button sits just out of accidental reach for guaranteed compatibility with those games that need the original three button setup) with no option to plug in an official alternative or a second pad. The d-pad has a satisfying rocking motion to it and the buttons have a definite on/off action when pressed, avoiding that mushy feel these parts can sometimes have. They’re definitely not the same as stock Mega Drive parts, but even so they always felt responsive and I had no issue pulling off any complex inputs or quickly reacting to whatever I was playing.
So the display’s good and it all controls as well as it should, but we haven’t got the the part these Mega Drive replacements always mess up – the sound. Again the Pocket MD Plus surprises with its unexpected quality. Both music and sound effects sounded incredibly accurate to my ears, to the point where I went putting on games I am familiar with to an unhealthy degree just to try and pick fault with it. After some admittedly informal testing (asking myself if something sounded right while switching back and forth between the Pocket MD Plus and my good old Mega Drive), the very worst I can say about it is that when playing something as deliberately fuzzy and bass-heavy as this incredible track from Rocket Knight Adventures the internal mono speaker can’t quite keep up with what’s asked of it at higher volumes and starts to noticeably distort. This is easily solved by plugging in a pair of headphones – a standard headphone port is located on the underside of the unit next to the slide-on/slide-off power switch – instantly bringing it back into “Wow, is this seriously coming out of a cheap clone?!” territory. Further testing with the distinctive sound of a dropping stack of gems in Columns as well as The Story of Thor‘s more delicate tracks fared very well too – I wouldn’t dare claim they were truly 1:1 accurate (there’s always going to be some minor differences between the real thing and a copy), but if you ask me what’s wrong with them I can’t honestly point out a fault.
Of course to play anything at all you’ll need some cartridges to put into the reliable and grippy cart slot, and this is where things get a little tricky. You see, the Pocket MD Plus may physically accept games from any region without modification, but the hardware itself is region locked to Japan with no way around it short of taking a soldering iron to the PCB (in the interests of fairness I’m going to point out here that the original Nomad as well as all other Mega Drive/Genesis consoles are region locked too). Now this may sound bad but the reality is the majority of Mega Drive (and Genesis) games are region free by default, and for the rest the implementation is so haphazard a PAL cart may work elsewhere while a US copy of the same game will not, and in at least one personally experienced case a game was definitely region locked… but this could easily be bypassed by resetting the system while holding down the start button (Castlevania: The New Generation). To put it simply: Some non-Japanese games definitely won’t work on the Pocket MD Plus but on the whole more will than won’t, and that’s true no matter where you’ve amassed your pile of 90’s Sega treasure from.
As always with a clone system there are some further caveats. Micro Machines 2 does work, but the extra controller ports set into its cart don’t (I assume but am unable to confirm other “J-Carts” behave in the same way). Virtua Racing won’t boot at all, and you can forget about using a Master System convertor (official or otherwise) on this dinky little thing. As much of a shame as these points are they’re such unique cases – all custom carts that go above and beyond anything the stock hardware was ever supposed to do – that it’s not exactly a surprise to discover they don’t work, and to hold these obviously exceptional “Ah but” edge cases against the Pocket MD Plus feels like nitpicking for the sake of finding something to complain about rather than highlighting a genuine issue.
The Pocket MD Plus is in all honesty the portable Mega Drive I’ve been waiting for: It works shockingly well, is genuinely portable (it even comes with its own replaceable wrist loop so you don’t have to worry about dropping it), the rechargeable batteries I put in it have lasted me a week of on-off play, and it’s cheap enough – currently around £33/$41USD before shipping on Amazon Jp – to use as intended rather than carefully protected like the irreplaceable retro gaming treasure the Nomad sadly now is. If you’ve got a stack of carts at home and love the idea of getting some use out of them outside of a more formal retro setup, I really can’t recommend the 16Bit Pocket MD Plus strongly enough.