Super UFO Pro 8 Review
It goes without saying that we're huge fans of classic games here. It seems we're not the only ones either - whether it's clone consoles, HD updates on modern hardware or even brand new games like Shovel Knight that play like a love letter to the 8 and 16-bit days gone by, retro gaming has never been bigger and is practically an industry of its own at this point. Emuparadise is all about giving people the opportunity to play these classic titles in any way possible, but as much as we love emulation, there's a lot to be said for doing so on the original hardware. Whether it's a console you owned growing up or one you never had the chance to play when it was current, there's just something inherently magical about picking up the proper controller and experiencing these games as they were intended. Unfortunately though the growing popularity of retro gaming means it's not a cheap hobby anymore. The SNES in particular was my childhood console but thanks to grossly inflated second hand prices it's become one of the more frustrating systems to collect for. Obviously emulation is a lifesaver in this situation and provides a great way to try the more expensive games before you buy them, but even we have to admit this doesn't always give you a good feel for them. So what other option do you have?
Enter the Super UFO Pro 8, a flash cart that allows you to play ROMs on a real Super Nintendo. This was very kindly supplied for review by the lovely people at Retrotowers.co.uk. Upon opening the box you're greeted by the following:
- Super UFO Pro 8 cartridge
- USB Micro B cable
- Samsung MicroSD adapter
- Driver & Software CD
The Pro 8 supports games up to 32Mbit (basically everything except Tales of Phantasia and Star Ocean) and is compatible with all major SNES ROM formats. At first glance you'll notice it possesses one major advantage over its competitors, and that's the presence of a cartridge slot on top of the device. The immediate purpose this serves is to backup your own games to an SD card, but perhaps even better, it also allows you to copy save files both to and from cartridges. All SNES games store their saves with the help of a CR2032 battery; good quality affordable flash memory was still a way off in the early 90s, and with a projected lifespan of around 10 years, battery backed SRAM was the best choice at the time. Unfortunately in 2014 this means the battery in your copy of Chrono Trigger may not last much longer, and when it goes it's taking your 50 hours of progress with it. With the Pro 8 you can backup your save file to an SD card, replace the battery in your ailing cartridge and then copy it back across unscathed. This feature worked like a charm with every game I tested, and even on its own makes the Pro 8 something I would happily recommend to any SNES collector, regardless of whether they intend to make use of its other capabilities.
By this point you've probably realised the Pro 8 is a little different to other flash carts. That's because at heart it's not really your typical flash cart at all. In truth it's an updated version of a previous Super UFO product, the confusingly named Super UFO Super Drive Pro 8. In the days before flash carts were available, you had cartridge copiers. These were amazing pieces of kit that offered a massive amount of functionality beyond what the name suggested, but they were bulky, slow, required external power supplies and used floppy disks for storage, with larger games requiring several that all had to be loaded one by one before play. Many companies manufactured them back in the day - the various iterations of the Super Wild Card and the Game Doctor were probably the most well known - but the original Super Drive Pro 8 was among the last to be produced in the mid to late 90s and is generally regarded as one of the better, more advanced units. In this sense a new updated version is a dream come true. By condensing everything into a cartridge shell, swapping the floppy drive for an SD card reader and eliminating the need for a power brick, the major drawbacks of the old-style copiers have been done away with. Games now load in anywhere from three to thirty seconds depending on their size, and along the way the new Pro 8 has also gained support for USB 1.2 connectivity, firmware updates and apparently more of those pesky SNES enhancement chips.
Yes, enhancement chips. This subject is the elephant in the room with every SNES flash cart at this point. While most of them can be made to work with the basic DSP1 chip (provided you're handy with a soldering iron), the Super UFO Pro 8 claims to support... well, all of them. Considering the only other product to offer anything close to this sort of functionality is the SD2SNES at nearly three times the price, the Pro 8 looks like the bargain of the century. Unfortunately the way it achieves this is a little different to other flash carts. First off, support is via pass-through compatibility. This means you should be able to take a game cartridge containing for example the SA1 co-processor, plug it into the Pro 8 and then use it to play any other game on your SD card requiring that same chipset. Before I go any further it has to be said there's a lot of confusion online regarding this feature. The first thing I must stress is that plugging in the same cartridge as the game I was loading off the SD card worked in all cases; I mention this because it proves the device is capable of using the enhancement chips in cartridges to play ROMs. Using this method I was able to play Starfox using a ROM dumped directly from my own cartridge - for whatever reason I couldn't get downloaded copies of this particular game to work on the Pro 8. Beyond that though we're in uncharted territory. Stunt Race FX and Dirt Trax FX as the names suggest both use the same Super FX chipset as Starfox, yet using that cartridge as a key, they either outright refused to boot or crashed at the title screen with corrupted graphics. Games using other enhancement chips exhibited similar issues too. Pilotwings and Mario Kart for example both use the comparatively simple DSP1 chip and once again worked fine with their respective cartridges connected, but plugging either game into the Pro 8 and using it to play the other caused crashes and blank screens. Again, I tried this with downloaded ROMs as well as ones dumped straight from my own cartridges only to get the same results each time. Based on these tests I can conclude that yes, this pass-through feature does technically work, but is so patchy and impractical in execution it's more like a proof of concept than something you'll actually use. In short, if you're purchasing the Pro 8 for this feature alone you'll be disappointed.
Unfortunately save states are a bit of a mixed bag as well. The first thing you need to do is activate Hyper Mode on the main menu before choosing your game. Once enabled, hitting L + Start saves while R + Start loads, with the screen flashing black to indicate a successful save. This feature worked perfectly with about half the games I tested. All the breakable objects in your house will be pleased to know the gleefully sadistic ROM hack Kaizo Mario is one of the titles included on that list, but many other games will often glitch or freeze outright when you try to load a state. It seems this is because the state of the sound processor isn't restored upon loading. The precise effect this has depends entirely on the individual game - some don't care and continue to play quite happily, whereas others crash so spectacularly you half expect trollface.jpg to be displayed on the screen. There's also another potential deal breaker in how regular SRAM saves are handled: the Pro 8 can only hold one save in its memory at a time, so if you start playing a different game the previous save will be overwritten. This means after playing you need to power off the console, switch it back on and manually copy them to the SD card. Personally I only found this to be a minor inconvenience once I got into the habit of transferring my saves after each session, but if this sounds like something that might cause problems for you, you may be better off with the Super Everdrive or SD2SNES since they apparently do this automatically.
But it's not all doom and gloom. One thing the Pro 8 DOES support perfectly is cheat codes. These apparently need to be in X-Terminator or Goldfinger formats, and if you're scratching your head wondering what they are... you're not the only one. A little digging online reveals that the X-Terminator is based on the Pro Action Replay, while the Goldfinger appears to be some sort of proprietary cheat system used in many old-school cartridge copiers. You're probably not going to have much luck tracking down codes for the latter but Pro Action Replay codes are plentiful and easy enough to find. Thankfully the Pro 8 also has a number of cheats built-in; when loading a game you'll often get a popup box that tells you codes have been found and gives the option to view and activate them. As with save states, activating cheats will enable Hyper Mode, and once in the game you simply use L + R + Select to toggle them on or off. There's really very little to nitpick here, with invincibility and infinite ammo cheats behaving precisely as you'd expect on all the games I tried. My one complaint is some of the built-in code descriptions aren't particularly clear (what exactly does “Super Action Code” do and why is it listed twice?), but based on my experiences with other cheat devices this seems par for the course.
My absolute favourite thing about flash carts is the ability to finally play ROM hacks and fan translations on original hardware. The Pro 8 doesn't disappoint in this regard, making it one of the most affordable and convenient ways to play Bahamut Lagoon, Seiken Densetsu 3 and a whole host of other Japan only titles in English on a real SNES. For many people this is worth the price of entry alone. It's also capable of bypassing basic region protection on ROMs, which is great news if you're gaming on a PAL console. Some later games however are a little more advanced and check what speed the console is running at. Unfortunately neither the Pro 8 nor any other flash cart can bypass this on unmodified consoles as it's a hardware level check, but it's simple enough to patch affected ROMs with a utility like SNES Tool. I did this with the European PAL version of Terranigma and I'm happy to report it played perfectly on my NTSC console. It's sadly also unable to defeat any sort of region protection on actual cartridges, refusing to boot PAL cartridges on NTSC consoles or vice versa. Again, this is a little disappointing but it's something you can't be too upset about it since it's another hardware level lockout - import adapter cartridges only get around this by having an extra slot for a home region game so they can piggyback its security chip. It's also worth mentioning that the Japanese Super Famicom and North American SNES share the same NTSC region and are the exact same console internally, meaning that other than the cartridge shape their games are 100% interchangeable with each other. The usual trick here is to cut the tabs inside the SNES cartridge slot so Japanese games fit, but if you'd prefer not to do that for whatever reason, the Pro 8 functions perfectly adequately as a passthrough device.
I did mention earlier in the review that this product is based on an older device. Although this does give it some features that other flash carts lack, there are caveats. The OS for example is positively archaic and adheres to the dreaded 8.3 filename system that was phased out with the introduction of Windows 95. This means all filenames have a limit of eight characters and anything longer is truncated, so when you're scrolling through your game list, Mortal Kombat becomes MORTAL~1. If you're prepared to do some creative renaming this is perfectly manageable, otherwise for a console where half the library begins with the word Super you may have to put your thinking cap on. File management capabilities on the device are equally cumbersome so if you want to delete or rename anything you'll have a much easier time doing so on your computer. There's also the previously mentioned option for USB 1.2 connectivity, but sadly I was unable to use it as my main computer is a Mac and there are no compatible drivers available. My understanding is rather than showing as an external drive or giving access to the SD card, all functions are handled through the software included on the bundled CD and it simply allows you to load ROMs directly into the Pro 8's memory from your computer. This seems to be another holdover from the original Super Drive Pro 8 which had a parallel connector to allow for faster loading than the floppy drive. As good as it is to still have the option, it honestly feels a little redundant in 2014 when even the device itself has moved onto using an SD card.
Throughout this review I tested the Pro 8 on several different SNES consoles - a PAL unit, a Super Famicom, a North American Model 1, a North American Model 2 and a Retro Duo clone console. I'm happy to report the Pro 8 worked beautifully on every single one, even the Retro Duo. This was a very pleasant surprise as flash carts are notorious for misbehaving on clone hardware. Try as I might I couldn't catch the Pro 8 out when it came to compatibility. Even Earthbound and Demon's Crest were playable, although they did need patches to remove their notoriously problematic copy protection. Strangely enough the only major issues I encountered in my tests were with two very unlikely games on the Model 2 SNES: Super Street Fighter 2 had severely corrupted graphics that definitely don't occur when using an authentic cartridge, and I encountered similar problems with Super Ghouls & Ghosts that rendered it practically unplayable. Some research suggests this is due to a more advanced security chip used in later SNES consoles, which seems plausible as my particular Model 1 is a very early revision and handled everything I threw at it without complaint, the above games included.
So that's the Super UFO Pro 8 in a long, rambling nutshell. It's not the most current technology, the OS has its quirks and it may not do everything it says on the tin but I'd still recommend it whole heartedly. Why? Because while additional features are always welcome, the reason you buy a flash cart is to play games, and in this area the Pro 8 can't be faulted. Discounting the 70 or so titles that use enhancement chips and the small handful that are over 32Mbit in size you're still looking at a global library of nearly 2,000 unique commercial releases. That includes the usual suspects like Zelda, Final Fantasy and Castlevania as well as some seriously expensive and sought after games such as Metal Warriors, Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, Terranigma, Demon's Crest, Ninja Gaiden Trilogy and EVO Search for Eden. In addition to that you're able to play a veritable treasure trove of ROM hacks and fan translated RPGs, and unlike any other SNES flash cart on the market you can also use it to backup your cartridge games and their saves. It's not an SD2SNES and it never will be, but then again it's not £130 either. It's £50, and this is ultimately why I feel it's so hard to find any serious fault with it. Maybe I like it because it's based on old hardware. Maybe it's the fact it's a little rough around the edges. Maybe the Robocod soundtrack that plays on the menus for reasons beyond comprehension has simply done something terrible to my brain. Either way there's a certain charm to the Pro 8, and whether this is your first foray into flash carts or you just want something basic and affordable to test SNES games before you buy them, I honestly don't think you can go far wrong with it. If you pick one up I'm sure you'll agree too.
Where to Buy
You can buy the Super UFO Pro 8 at Retrotowers.co.uk. It's currently listed at £49.99