When I first heard about the Smach Z (initially revealed as the Steam Boy) back in 2014, I knew it was something I wanted. In addition to being a Sonic fan, I’m also a big portable gamer, so a console that could allow me to take some of my favorite Sonic games (and some other titles like NiGHTS and Witcher 3) on the go for the first time immediately caught my interest. Unfortunately, the reality has been a bit more complicated than what the initial pitch promised.
Since its announcement, the system’s price has more than doubled, from $300 to $699, to accommodate more ambitious hardware (though it is currently possible to pre-order the console for $629). The system has also had to change its internal hardware twice. This and other development issues have caused the system to be delayed for nearly two years so far. But now, the console may finally be hitting the home stretch, with hardware that is supposedly on the verge of being finalized and a planned September shipping date for backers. As the company revs up for a planned 2018 holiday launch, it invited both press and backers to check out a prototype during E3.
So when I was offered the chance to check out the hardware myself, I had one question on my mind: how does it run Sonic Generations? The Smach Team was willing to indulge my curiosity when I went to check out the Smach Z prototype in a small room situated right across the street from the LA Convention Center at Hotel Figueroa. While I don’t have the best eye for things like frame rate, my fellow Sonic Stadium staffer Jason Berry does, and luckily he was with me to help me determine exactly how well the Smach Z hardware handled the game. These impressions are based off of a prototype of the 8GB “Pro” SKU, connected to an external display and played with a Steam controller.
So how did Sonic Generations perform? Pretty well. We first tried the game out at its default settings: 1080p resolution, FXAA anti-aliasing, letter box display mode, v-sync, and low shadow and reflection quality. At these settings, the game managed 30 fps with occasional frame skips. At basically the same frame rate as the 360 version, that may not seem too impressive…until one considers that the Xbox 360 achieved this frame rate at a resolution of 720p, and that the PC version was actually rather demanding when it came out in 2011. As someone who was fine with the frame rate on the Xbox 360 original, I was happy with this result. Things got even better when we decided to go into the settings and drop the resolution down to 720p. This allowed the game to hit a silky smooth 60 fps.
So this portable is capable of running Sonic Generations pretty well, which means it should also be quite capable of running many of the other Steam games I was hoping to play on it, such as NiGHTS into Dreams and Sonic Adventure 2. From a performance perspective, the Smach Z looks like everything I was hoping it would be. But does that mean I’d recommend you go out and pre-order right now? Well…no.
For one, despite the system’s expected September shipping date, Smach Team still doesn’t have a fully functional portable prototype available to show to the press. The prototype I got to see was connected to a flatscreen TV and operated with a mouse, keyboard, and Steam controller. This means I have little to say about the system’s comfort or build quality. The Smach Team did have a 3D printed mold of the final casing on display, which was fairly comfortable to hold, but being comfortable to hold and comfortable to play are two different things.
Team Smach told us that they intend to demonstrate a fully functional Smach Z prototype at Gamescom in August. As it stands, I’ll be surprised if the console meets its planned September shipping date to backers. While I don’t buy into talk that the Smach Z is a “scam” or that the people behind it are crooks, hardware development is expensive and complex, and there isn’t technically a real guarantee that this thing will even make it to production.
The Smach Z is, on paper, everything I’ve wanted from a portable device for a long time, and then some. It will be able to not only run games like Sonic Generations, NiGHTS into Dreams, and a variety of other officially released SEGA games on Steam, but it will also be capable of running a variety of PC emulators (the Smach Team confirmed Dolphin to us, though I can’t vouch for it myself), and supposedly even current triple A PC titles at medium to low settings. Users will apparently even be able to customize the Smach Z’s button layout with “z-pads,” circular button inputs that will “click into” the two circular touch pads on either side of the device. These z-pads have been shown taking the form of directional pads, a second analog stick, and even different console button layouts. As a concept, it has a lot of potential, but it remains to be seen how well the Smach Z will be able to fulfill that potential, or if it will even be able to do it at all.
In addition to the regular and Pro SKUs, there is also an Ultra SKU with 16GB of RAM and a 256GB of SSD. All three SKUs can currently be pre-ordered from the website for 10 percent off retail price at $629, $809, and $989 respectively. Pre-orders can be canceled, according to the website.
As a matter of disclosure, the author of this article has invested in the Smach Z Indiegogo campaign.