10 September 2018

Pandora's Box - The Basics

So, we're going to start this blog off by running through the basics of what a Pandora's Box is, what it does and why you might be interested in such an item. In the near future, we're going to tear one down to get an idea of what it consists of and how it functions and hopefully bend it to our will.

What is Pandora's Box?

Pandora's Box is a series of multi-game bootleg arcade boards created by 3A Game, a Chinese company that has found a lot of success on the black market with arcade enthusiasts. Originally released as cartridges compatible with the popular JAMMA standard for arcade circuit boards, Pandora's Box was one of many pirated multi-game boards available for arcade owners. By popping one of these Pandora's Box cartridges into their arcade machines, owners were hoping the hundreds of pirated arcade games to choose from would help them draw in more players and make more money.

The Pandora's Box and clones are almost all Linux-based machines running upon Allwinner's line of cheap boards using the popular ARM platform.

The Story of Pandora's Box So Far

It's a little tough to piece together the history of 3A Game and Pandora's Box as there is next to no information available out there that I can find on the company and so many of the sites that previously covered them have long since disappeared without much to find in the Wayback Machine. 3A Game released the original Pandora's Box (released in 2013, 310 games) and Pandora's Box 2 (2014, 400 games) without too much fanfare but it seems like the Pandora's Box 3 (2015, blue case, 520 games) was the start of both major success and the rise of clone competitors from other Chinese manufacturers.

Late 2015 saw the release of the Pandora’s Box 4 (orange case, 645 games) followed by the Pandora’s Box 4S (pink, 680 games) in November 2016 and finally the end of the Pandora’s Box 4 series in mid-2017, the Pandora’s Box 4S+ (pink, 815 games). Around this time, we start to see knockoffs of the Pandora’s Box such as the Pandora’s Box 4X and Pandora’s Key 5, both with varying numbers of games, though always more than the originals. (My first Pandora's Box was a Pandora's Box 4X bootleg that contained 1299 games.) The bootlegging of the Pandora’s Box became rampant everywhere to the point where almost every Pandora’s Box you’d find was likely to be one of these bootlegs and it became very hard to find the originals from 3A Game. (We will go over ways to spot the originals versus the bootlegs in a future blog post.)

Advertisement for Pandora's Box 4 (645 games) and Pandora's Box 4S+ (815 games)

Another major development that happens around this time is the creation of game console boxes, essentially consolized versions of the Pandora's Box that come inside of a 2 player arcade joystick. Plug in power and an HDMI cable and you can experience the same fun as the arcade operators in your own home, complete with coin and pause buttons. 3A Game begins creating what it calls the "family version" of it's popular Pandora's Box which forgoes the JAMMA connector and is intended to be used inside of the popular arcade sticks. It also begins selling many, many variations of these 2 player arcade sticks with different fighting game characters, button numbers and features with the Pandora's Box pre-installed. The bootleggers also follow suit and soon there are far more of these 2 player arcade stick Pandora's Box setups than the original JAMMA cartridges. And why not? Having something so easy to setup and get going to play some games with friends is quite appealing. These arcade sticks also usually can have a USB cable plugged in to allow you to use it on a PC, PS3 or Xbox 360 with later clones also boasting PS4 support.

In late 2017, 3A Game releases the Pandora's Box 5 (orange/blue case, 960 games) and with this release, changes from the standard single core ARM CPU to a quad core ARM CPU as well as upgrading the RAM to 2GB. This allows games to run better and also allows games that were previously unplayable to start making their appearance on these boards. Unlike previous versions, the Pandora's Box 5 is mainly sold in the "preinstalled into arcade stick" format while still also pushing out the JAMMA compatible version (orange case). They would also push out the "family version" (blue or green case) which is just the same as the preinstalled Pandora's Box 5 with the intention of allowing players to upgrade their previously bought kits to the latest and greatest.

2 player arcade stick with Pandora's Box 5 preinstalled.

3A Game includes some protection in their Pandora's Box 5 to try to keep the bootleggers at bay for a little while. (It is this protection we intend on taking a look at here on this blog.) The bootleggers instead continue to push out bootlegs of the Pandora's Box 4 but with a lot of the games from the Pandora's Box 5, resulting in even more games being too slow or unusable than usual. A particular mention should be made here for Mortal Kombat and NBA JAM, both running really well on the original Pandora's Box 5 but horribly on all the PB4S bootlegs that come out. (This is one way you can tell whether you have a bootleg or the original.)

As of 2018, 3A Game now is selling Pandora's Box 5 kits in an opaque black case with no other real changes to the hardware. (My PB5 comes from this new 2018 batch.)

At some point after the Pandora's Box 5 release, bootleggers decide to switch their strategy a little bit and start moving over to running Android on various mobile quad core chipsets and recreating similar looking frontends as those they've been using for so long. Allowing the installation of your own ROMs on top of the 1000+ games already preinstalled as well as whatever Android APKs you want, the two player arcade sticks suddenly become decent media centers as well as game playing machines. These new bootlegs, often calling themselves Pandora's Treasure or Pandora's Key 7 and throwing "3D" in the name somewhere, now start advertising the inclusion of a few 3D games such as Tekken 3. Unlike the previous games, these aren't actually the arcade versions but versions for PSX, PSP and others due to the inclusion of these emulators. The older style Pandora's Box 4 clones did keep coming as well, with a bootleg Pandora's Box 6 and Pandora's Keys with varying numbers in the title.

The latest and greatest - Pandora's Box 6

Becoming available in late August 2018, 3A announced the release of the Pandora's Box 6, adding further confusion to the marketplace by using the same name as many, many clones have before. Coming in a yellow/green transparent case, the Pandora's Box 6 features the ability to add your own ROMs to the USB key and will scan to add them to the game list including preview video if you have one. 3A states that the PB6 supports Final Burn Alpha and MAME ROMs as well as PlayStation 1 disc images. While 3A Game claim that they have again bumped up the specs of the Allwinner CPU included in the PB6, it looks like it isn't actually the case. It appears to mainly be 3A Game's attempt to stay relevant in the market of arcade stick setups that have 2000+ arcade games installed along with all the various Android apps.

At this point, the Pandora's Box 6 is new enough that finding reviews or any real info about it is scarce. I've ordered one for myself and will be taking a run at it just like our Pandora's Box 5 as soon as I get it.

Performance Issues

Let's talk a little bit about the type of performance you get from these Pandora's Boxes and their bootleg clones.

Firstly, it's very clear that the people making these Pandora's Boxes and clones don't actually know or care much about the games being played on them as as there's a sizable amount of games on each of them that have problems bad enough to make them problematic or unplayable. You've got games that require a spinner or trackball (Arkanoid), the occasional game that requires a forced reboot after NVRAM has been cleared (certain Williams games like Joust), or have extremely high amounts of frameskipping. There often are also clones or duplicates of games, less so for the original Pandora's Boxes but definitely more on the bootlegs as the bootleggers are simply trying to ship something with as high a number of games as possible. From my older Pandora's Box 4 clone, 1299 games, I probably ended up disabling about 150 games total because of the above issues with most of the rest playing well enough.

Something you are going to have to come to grips with is that most of these Pandora's Boxes have problems with screen tearing. I've been told that connecting through VGA fixes the issue but I haven't had the chance to try that yet myself. The screen tearing is a bit better on the Pandora's Box 5 and presumably 6, but it's still not perfect and you will notice it sometimes.

There are also no save games, no NVRAM writing, no high scores, no typical emulation type options you might expect such as dip switches (no direct manipulation of the dip switches is possible, however most Pandora's Boxes allow you to use the Edit Game function in the Options screen to change the difficulty or lives) or test buttons. This is a problem with games that feature long-term progression (NBA JAM, anybody?) but for the vast, vast majority of the games, this shouldn't be a problem. But this can be a positive just as much as a negative because it keeps your time on the Pandora's Box a very simple and quick experience. (One of the more recent Android clone Pandora's Boxes apparently does now have save state support, but this is not very widespread to my knowledge.)

Look, if you're an emulation purist, these boxes aren't for you. They will likely drive you crazy with all the flaws and issues. You often might be better off getting a small NUC PC and setting everything up there, however...

...Ignorance is Bliss

If you can see past the above issues and just want something simple to set down on your living room coffee table to let your friends button mash their way through some matches of Street Fighter without thinking too much, these Pandora's Box systems can be a great fit for you. Most games run well and I find myself feeling more nostalgic when playing on one of these than I ever did with playing with frontends on PCs. You don't want to tinker and screw around, you just want something you can turn on quickly, play a few games and turn off just as quickly and that's the perfect scenario here.

If you are seeking better performance and don't mind putting in the effort, you can easily use these PB sticks on a Raspberry Pi, or even replace the Pandora's Box entirely with Retropie running on a Pi3B+. (I am currently doing exactly that with the older clone Pandora's Box 4 that I have. It's been a bit rocky and time consuming but it will be worth it in the end. I'll likely detail this in a future blog post.)

What's Next?

Now that you have an idea of what the Pandora's Box is, I've already started writing bits and pieces of the next blog post, mainly taking notes while taking a look at the Pandora's Box 5 and its SD card, trying to figure out what needs to be done to give us more control over the box.

I hope that this has been even mildly informative without being too dry. Let me know what you think so far.

Special Thanks