Back in the mists of time, when I still owned a PSP, I quickly realised that it held more promise as a device for running homebrew and emulators than it did as a pure gaming machine. Don’t get me wrong, the PSP had some half decent titles, but lugging all those UMDs around and swapping things over every five seconds just seems so, last century.
So it was that my PSP became a device dedicated to running SNES and MegaDrive emulators, at least until a nice chap offered me some stupid money to get his hands on it. So I bade farewell to the little black wonder, and my handheld gaming needs had to be filled by various iPhones, a garish pink Gameboy Micro and latterly Blaze’s cheap as chips MegaDrive handheld.
However, being both an emulation freak and massively restricted in terms of space, I couldn’t resist the lure of a certain line of obscure products from Korea for very long. Collectively dubbed open source handhelds, these little babies are basically Atari Lynx size handhelds with decent screens, gaming controls, an SD slot and a custom Linux operating system. By far the biggest manufacturer of said handhelds is a Korean firm called Game Park Holdings.
With a marketing budget that seems to have been culled from the one of the executive’s loose change pots chances are you won’t have heard too much about GPH or there various products such as the Wiz or the GP2X. Still, despite the ignorance of the vast majority of the world, even those keen on gaming, there’s a keen little community that centres of a few websites and forums, developing original games and, more significantly, porting various 16 and 8 bit emulators to the various devices.
In recent years GPH has had great success with the Wiz, a 533MHz resistive touchscreen handheld console released in 2009. The successor to the GP2X it saw several brilliant ports of popular emulators, most of which were optimised to run well on the Wiz’s ARM processor.
In August of 2010 GPH replaced the Wiz with the curiously named Caanoo. Similar in spec to the Wiz, it included a better screen, more ergonomic form factor and far better controls.
Unfortunately much of the open source handheld community stuck with their Wiz’s (the device still sells more than it’s newer siblings, according to reports from many retailers). That meant that development on ports for the (not quite compatible) Caanoo was slow, and the first emulator releases weren’t very well optimised. As with all things, though, time has proved the answer, and the Caanoo development scene has kicked on to a level where I decided to take the plunge and drop £90 for a nearly new machine on eBay.
First impressions are mostly positive. The Caanoo is no iPhone or PSP. It feels solid, but not expensive. It’s light, and obviously made of plastic. There’s no aluminium chassis or glass front, but for just under a hundred quid frankly I wouldn’t expect one. Build quality seems on a par with the Nintendo DS, and significantly better that cheaper handhelds like the Blaze.
The device falls easily to hand, and is quite a bit smaller than I’d imagined from looking at pictures. It’s about the same size as a PSP, but the controls are more easily accessibly and comfortable over a long period of time.
The fascia sees the four way d-pad of the Wiz replaced with a nice little analogue nub. Far, far better than the pathetic affair on the PSP it’s not exactly a Dual Shock pad stick, but it’s comfortable to use and sized so that the thumb can both rest in the middle of the nub, or manipulate it by pushing from the side of the stick. It works well enough with a huge range of games, providing accurate control of analogue-steering racers in MAME and proving capable of generating fireballs on demand from characters in Street Fighter II.
On the right side of the bright, 320×240 pixel colour screen are the main control buttons. Aping the now ubiquitous four button diamond configuration they prove capable of comfortably emulating most 16 and 8 bit era controller layouts. The face buttons are completed by a home button on the lower right, and two buttons marked I and II on the bottom left, that function as start and select, or coin and start buttons in most emulators. There are also two shoulder buttons on the top left and right of the unit that can team with the four main buttons to provide six button control in a manner that works well for fans of six button fighting games on console.
There’s also a power/lock switch on the right side of the machine, and a curious little slider on the top to control volume. All in all, the controls seem well thought out and excellently placed. I have relatively big hands and have never really found many handhelds to be that comfortable, but the Caanoo is certainly the best I’ve come across.
Of course the other main means of controlling the Caanoo is the resistive touchscreen. It can be used, albeit with limited accuracy, with a finger press, or with the plastic stylus that slides flush into the back of the machine. It’s a nice unit, considering that it uses the older resistive technology seen in first-gen HTC phones and the Nintendo DS, as opposed to the newer capacitive tech on display in ever smart phone and tablet under the sun. In truth most emulators don’t bother using the touch screen, and I’ve barely used any of the web browser apps on the machine. There is a work in progress Amiga emulator for the Caanoo that uses the touchscreen to emulate mouse input, but the developer has struggled with handling things once the stylus leaves the screen and is replaced elsewhere, showing the difficulty of 1:1 touch to mouse emulation. Still, it’s nice to know the feature is there.
So, onto the software side. Set up is fairly easy. Everything runs straight from SD card, with no app store downloads or installs to bother with. You just grab the correct files from a website and unzip them into the relevant folder (game, apps etc) on the SD card. SDHC cards are handled well, and I’m using a 16GB card with no problems.
The director structure is nice and simple. A root folder contains sub directories that correspond to the top-level menu categories Games, Apps, Music, E-Books, Movies and Photos. As we’re dealing with the Caanoo as a games machine here (rather than a media player) I’ll focus on that.
To install a game or emulator, you’ll need to download a zip that contains both the program folder, and an INI file. Both are dropped into the Game folder, with the INI file used to name the programme and point to PNG files determining the programmes icon and menu screen banner image. In the case of emulators you’ll need to add some ROMs (usually into a ROM directory within the apps folder, though most emulators allow you to browse anywhere on the SD for ROMs), and in many cases a legally-dubious BIOS file. Once that’s done, and the SD is popped into the slot on top of the Caanoo you’re just a few button presses away from some classic gaming action.
There are plenty of emulators available, though fans of 32-bit and later consoles will be disappointed. There is a version of Sony PlayStation emulator PCSX4All for the machine, but even with software controlled overclocking the Caanoo struggles to emulate games at full speed. Instead your best bet is to stick with sprite based 16 and 8 bit consoles and arcades, games that suit the Caanoo’s bright, responsive screen and handheld nature.
You’ll find hundreds of hours worth of entertainment using the excellent SNES, MegaDrive, Master System, Gameboy Advance, Gameboy, NES and Neo Geo emulators. All of which run games full screen and full speed. Fans of arcade title are well catered for too with a well-specced build of MAME that supports most mid 90s and earlier ROMs, and even handles the tilt based input of the Caanoo. One of the most impressive emulators available for the system runs arcade title designed for Capcom’s second generation Play System hardware, better known as the CPS2. That means full speed versions of classics like Marvel vs Capcom, Giga Wing and Super Street Fighter II. Handheld gaming doesn’t get much better than that.
There’s even a version of the SCUMM interpreter SCUMMVM available for the Caanoo which allows you to play classic Lucasarts point and click adventures like Day of the Tentacle and the Secret of Monkey Island using the stylus and touch input in place of the mouse – a system that works brilliantly.
So for emulation fans, there’s much to love about the Caanoo. The original games available for the machine are an amusing diversion, but none come close to greatness. Indeed it’s telling that the best non-emulated games for the machine are remakes like the classic Toaplan shooter Hellfire or BomberGames recent feted (and Sega-kiboshed) Streets of Rage.
Setup can be fiddly for the very inexperienced, but no more so than getting an emulator running on PC. Indeed, while the Caanoo’s open source nature means it takes a little tinkering to get the best out of it, it’s ambition as a device for emulation geeks means its core audience will probably enjoy its wide-open architecture and highly customisable nature more than if it were a more stable, walled garden affair.
I’ll run though a round up of the best emulators another time, but for now I’ll leave potential Caanoo owners with one piece of advice. Make sure you downgrade the firmware. Most machines out there will come with the newer 1.5 or 1.6 system software, but by these slow down some of the more system intensive emulators. 1.0.6 is the version to go for, and installation is just a matter of popping some files in the root of the SD card, then holding the right shoulder button during power-up. If only it were so easy to change the firmware on the iPhone.
9/10 for emulation fans, 5/10 for general gamers