Saturday, July 2, 2022

Ayn’s Odin is the retro gaming handheld to beat

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Shreya Christina
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There are tons of ways to play retro games these days. Many of those options are handhelds. But you might be surprised at how many of these devices feel like jury-rigged, cheap, or often both. Worse, there’s a mishmash of open-source emulators that run on different operating systems, and all hardware is different – in short, emulation is a bit of a wild west at times.

Plus, even the better handhelds usually only emulate until around the PS1/N64 era. For example, if you’re a fan of the GameCube or PS2 libraries, the venn diagram of handhelds that are powerful enough and are well-made and reasonably priced is basically three separate circles. Maybe not much longer thanks to the Odin of Ayn.

Yeah, I’d never heard of it either, but it’s not uncommon in the retro gaming scene. The Odin was launched on Indiegogo and immediately attracted a lot of attention. The premise is simple, to put together the aforementioned venn diagram and make a more cohesive retro (and even modern game) handheld.

The Odin starts off well by effectively mimicking the Switch Lite form factor. Although the screen of the Odin is a shade larger (5.9 inches compared to Nintendo’s 5.5) and, at FHD, a higher resolution. Anecdotally, most people who’ve held both find the Odin more comfortable and even prefer the latter’s analog sticks and D-pad, which isn’t bad for a new company in the space.

James Trew / cafe-madrid

I’m personally a fan of how all the controls are laid out. The analog sticks are far enough away not to interfere with the buttons/D-pad, but close enough for quick and comfortable shifting. I also like that the sticks are a bit shallower than on other controllers, meaning you don’t have to push that far to get the movement you need.

There are three different models of Odin available: Pro, Base and Lite. The Pro is the one we used and as the name suggests is the higher specification version. We’re not talking state-of-the-art internals here, but with a Snapdragon 845 and an Adreno 635 doing the processing and graphics, we’re looking at something akin to a high-end smartphone from a few years ago. Keep in mind that the Switch uses an older chipset: as the saying goes, it’s what you do with it that counts, right?

The differences between each model are battery size, SoC, storage, RAM and of course the price. Here’s a cheat sheet for those interested:

It’s worth noting that if you’re just concerned about storage, all Odin’s come with a microSD card slot so you can expand the available memory that way if you’d like. In terms of battery capacity, the 6000 mAh model I tested was good for about six hours of play on systems like the PS2/GameCube and, since everyone seems to be testing this game, about half that time with something like Genshin impact

This puts the Odin in an interesting spot. You can definitely buy a very good retro handheld/emulator for around $100, but probably won’t be able to play nearly that many games from so many platforms. Alternatively, you can spend over $1,000 on something like the Aya Neo which probably surpasses the Odin, but is also four times more expensive. Then there’s the Steam Deck, an entirely different beast, but a viable alternative if you want to play non-retro games as well. It’s also a shade more expensive than the Odin, starting at $400, but it’s clearly not a direct competitor. All to say the handheld market is a bit everywhere.

The Odin runs on Android. If that causes an inner moan, we get it. Android and gaming have a complicated history. But perhaps Android makes the most sense for a device like the Odin. Not least because the hardware is comparable to that in a high-end phone, but Android has also been well catered for in the retro world, with most emulators having mature ports. Oh, and Android has its own good games, so you can play those natively too.

As much as the Odin would like to feel like a complete console rather than a single board PC in a box of apps, there’s a problem. It’s almost impossible to do it any other way without doing a full remake a-la Analogue. That said, setting up the Odin was about as painless as this process gets. Pick the emulators you want, install them, load games and you’re more or less ready to go. Often the physical controls are already mapped out or it only takes a minute to do so.

Ayn's new retro handheld, called the Odin, is depicted with a close-up of the main buttons and analog stick.

James Trew / cafe-madrid

Ayn has given the Odin its own launcher, which makes it feel a bit ‘consoley’ and less like an Android tablet, but honestly the version it comes with is clean enough for you to just stick with that. Thankfully, there’s almost no extra app cruft on the Odin out of the box and, despite it being Android 10, there’s support for Project Treble, which should help keep it up to date for longer.

If your main interest is in the NES/SNES or Sega equivalents, you can simply install RetroArch and sit back. There’s nothing out of the ordinary here for the most favored or classic consoles, so I’ll focus on the more advanced systems.

For many, it’s the promise of portable PlayStation 2 and GameCube emulation that will be a lure here. The PS2 is notoriously tricky thanks to the console’s custom processor. But the emulation community is industrious if nothing else and there are some pretty good options out there right now. Tried out some of my favorites from my physical collection, but of course had to start with rezjust to see what it looked like on that screen.

And sure enough, it looked pretty fantastic. My left thumb is much less agile than it was 20 years ago, but the Odin barely flinched from serving up the game. I may have heard some minor, almost imperceptible glitches in the audio, but they were rare and possibly something that could be fixed in the emulator settings rather than the hardware.

This experience was pretty much the same with every other title I tried. I spent time taking Raiden to crawl in the rain in Metal Gear Solid 2† While about in Grand Theft Auto: San AndreasCJ’s hopes of going straight were as futile (complete with slightly shaky physics) as I remembered. Final Fantasy XIIThe dramatic opening sequence was as smooth as ever and Reks’ brave naivety was almost flawless, save for a few light crackles in the audio here and there.

A close-up of the shoulder buttons on the Odin retro gaming handheld.

James Trew / cafe-madrid

You should reasonably expect a little more success with the GameCube, as it was easier to match historically. That seems broadly correct. It may take some fiddling to get things optimized, but F-Zero GX can run at full speed and there are few games that are more performance hungry than that. You can also get good results here for Wii emulation, but that depends, among other things, on the use of Wiimotes in a title.

Of course, everything at this level is still kind of a crapshoot. Who knows how the game was programmed or how it used the hardware it was built for. There are already several videos on YouTube dutifully going through a number of titles for all systems to show how they work. There is also a blooming subreddit which has spreadsheets meant to list which games are (or not) compatible and how well they perform on the Odin.

There are two areas where you don’t have to worry about compatibility: Android gaming and streaming services like Stadia and Game Pass. Not much to say here except that the Odin was born to do it as long as your internet can keep up. (WiFi performance is comparable to my phone’s, for what it’s worth.)

Some brave people have even tried running 3DS and even Switch games, all with varying degrees of success. What you end up buying with the Odin is a custom gaming handheld that only has the ability to run these apps, there’s no real promise of performance (or real control over it).

The new Odin retro gaming handheld is shown with Launchbox software.

James Trew / cafe-madrid

But it seems to be particularly well designed. The active cooling seems a bit of a secret sauce, so you not only get the most out of the processor, but also for a longer period of time without fear of damage. Some may wonder, why not just buy an old device with similar specs and put it in something like Razer’s Kishi. You could certainly do that, but the cooling of the Odin isn’t the only advantage, the screen is larger and 16:9 instead of super wide like a phone. Besides… it’s about not feeling like you have a phone in a clamp, that’s kinda the point.

It’s not a headline feature, but Ayn thought it appropriate to offer two ways to play the Odin on a TV/screen. There’s a micro HDMI port on the top, which is probably the easiest way to get your game on a bigger screen. I’ll say I didn’t have a great time with it though, as none of my TVs have a great game mode, so latency was an issue. There is also DisplayPort connectivity via the USB-C connection.

If you really want to comfort the Odin, you can do so via a $50 “Super Dock” accessory. This allows you to slide the Odin into the dock just like a switch and pick up where you left off on the larger screen. In addition to USB, there are also dedicated ports for both GameCube and N64 controllers, if you have them lying around. It also adds the option for Ethernet and USB-C/SATA for things like SSDs (after all, more modern games take up a lot more space).

Of course, since it runs Android, you can do everything with the Odin that you can do with a phone or tablet. That means video streaming or listening to music and even productivity. However, the logic might suggest that running things in the background or, heaven forbid, allowing notifications will only do bad things to your gaming experience. But you could.

All products recommended by cafe-madrid have been selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories contain affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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