Best of 2017: Analogue Nt Mini, the ultimate NES (and then some)
A high-fidelity one-stop shop for 8-bit gaming.
Through the end of the year, we'll be looking back daily at the best classic gaming news and releases of 2017. Not just remakes and rereleases of old games, but the best retro-centric new games and other classic-game-related happenings that have transpired over the past 12 months.
If you've been following me on Twitter or on YouTube for any amount of time, you've probably heard or seen mention of the Analogue Nt. Announced back in 2014 and launched midway through 2015, the Analogue Nt is an over-the-top concept for a collector's item: A $500 Nintendo Entertainment System. Most people looked and the price tag and did a hard "nope," but in practice that steep entry cost tended to obscure the fact that the Nt was an incredible piece of engineering. Analogue Co. salvaged a bunch of Famicom motherboards and refurbished them into something even better: An aluminum-bodied console capable of supporting every known NES and Famicom game and peripheral, built to support either RGB analog video or HDMI digital video, and offering 100% software compatibility. Expensive, yes, but essentially the ultimate evolution of the NES. I dug deep into my gaming budget and bought one, which paid for itself in the end; I used it for the entirety of the NES Works 1985 video series. Many people have remarked on the clarity and fidelity of the footage in those videos, and all credit for that goes to the Analogue Nt.
The long-term shortcoming of the Analogue Nt, however, was that its creation depended on pillaging leftover Famicom consoles. From what I understand, Analogue's supply dried up, which should have been the end of the line. Rather than pulling the plug on the Nt, however, Analogue regrouped and relaunched, putting together a new version of the machine: The Analogue Nt Mini. I've been using a Mini since it debuted at the beginning of this year, and it immediately supplanted the original Nt as my go-to device of choice. The Nt is amazing, but the Mini sacrifices a tiny bit of fidelity in exchange for an absolutely staggering feature set. It is, quite simply, the single greatest way to experience more than a dozen different 8-bit systems… and on top of that, it costs about $100 less than the original Nt.
You can read my in-depth review of the Nt from two years ago over at USgamer. Nearly everything I said about that system holds true for the Mini, but the Mini adds a whole lot more to the mix. By default, the console ships with the same basic feature set as the original Nt. It can play NES, Famicom, and Famicom Disk System games (there are some claims of less-then-perfect FDS compatibility, but I haven't experienced any real issues). The backs of the two consoles contain more or less the same ports, with a few notable differences. The Mini drops a few of the analog switches present on the original Nt, handling things like player compatibility and audio patching and volume in software. Meanwhile, it adds three new items: A USB port, an HDMI port, and an SD card slot on the side.
The original Nt could be equipped with an HDMI mod, but installing HDMI would lock out the system's analog video capablities. That meant no light gun games, and no R.O.B. The Mini, on the other hand, has the ability to switch between high-definition digital and 240p RGB analog video on the fly. It can't output both formats simultaneously, but you don't have to make permanent choices between one or the other.
The secret sauce that makes the Mini so much more versatile than the original Nt is the same thing that makes it a viable long-term product. Rather than running on a foraged board from a 35-year-old console, the Mini instead runs on a field-programmable gate array — a chip that simulates the original console's motherboard in hardware. This is not the same thing as emulating a console in software, and (when done correctly) yields more accurate results with no emulation lag. The Mini's FPGA core is similar to the solution used in RetroUSB's AVS clone console, but it's far more powerful: Where the AVS tops out at 720p video, like the NES and Super NES Classic Edition consoles, the Nt Mini is capable of a full spectrum of output up to 1080p. (Not to mention that all-important analog-out RGB function, which has provided many hours of entertainment for the Zapper-loving kids in the family.)
The fact that the Nt Mini runs on a FPGA also means it gives you more options and flexibility at startup than the original Nt was able to offer. The Mini's core was created by Kevin "Kevtris" Horton, the same engineer who handled the Nt's HDMI mod, and it's hard not to see the first Nt as a sort of dry run for the Mini. At launch, you can choose from a staggering array of game options. Besides being able to choose between analog and digital output, you can also choose your analog display standard (PAL or NTSC), your HDMI resolution, apply a variety of scanline options, switch color palettes and even define your own, and fuss around with the audio enhancement capabilities associated with a number of custom Famicom cartridge chips. I ran through the basics of the system in a Bionic Commando live stream early this year, but the console is capable of far more than that.
The real strength of the Nt Mini didn't come to light until after the console preorders had shipped. At that point, Analogue Co. revealed the Mini's secret asset: The FPGA can support far more than just NES games, and Kevtris had created a special jailbreak firmware option that allows users to dabble in, shall we say, grey areas. The jailbroken firmware allows you to boot games from ROM files via the SD card slot, and it also adds a huge number of cores for other systems. The alternate consoles the Mini can support range from the extremely popular (Game Boy, Atari 2600) to the insanely obscure (Gamate, Videobrain). Not every core works 100% yet, and I'd been waiting on writing a formal review of the Mini until Kevtris had finalized his firmware. Unfortunately, other projects — specifically, the upcoming Super Nt — demanded his time, so at the moment it looks as though those final updates won't happen for quite some time (if ever). There was also talk of cartridge adapters for non-NES systems, but those seem to have gone by the wayside for the moment as well.
The complete list of supported devices includes:
- Atari 2600
- Atari 7800
- Adventure Vision
- Arcadia 2001
- Fairchild Channel F
- Game Boy
- Game Boy Color
- Game Gear
- RCA Studio 2
- Sega Master System/Mark III/SG-1000
Some cores work better (logistically speaking) than others, of course. For example, the ColecoVision and Intellivision used controllers with keypad-style interface options, and Odyssey^2 relied on screen overlays for many games. Still, the sheer breadth and accuracy and quality of these cores makes the Mini a no-brainer proposition. Each core comes with its own display options for fine-tuning, too. While the console has an strange and somewhat annoying tendency not to retain all user settings even when you choose "save" to log them into the firmware, that mostly seems to affect audio output options and ultimately isn't a deal-breaker — not in light of all that the Nt Mini can do.
As with the Nt, the Mini is an aesthete's delight. The anodized aluminum shell gives it weight and heft and a sense of permanence. And the transparent bottom, which shows off the underside of the motherboard, is a frivolous touch, but connects back to the transparent plastics craze of the ’90s. If I have one complaint about the Mini's case, it's that it no longer fits perfectly atop the Famicom Disk System:
The original Nt was specifically designed to have the precise footprint required to sit atop the FDS hardware, and there's something a little awkward about the way the new model perches on the peripheral. Which, of course, is a goofy and insubstantial complaint, all things considered. But you know, if you're going to shell out nearly $500 for a video game system, this is the kind of thing that nags at the back of your mind.
I realize the Mini is still a pricey console — it costs nearly as much as an Xbox One X! But in a very real sense, this console represents to 8-bit systems what the Xbox One X does to modern devices: It's about power and potential. Beautifully designed, solidly built, and extraordinarily capable, I can easily say that this is the first console I'd try to rescue in a home fire. Its compatibility and flexibility are unparalleled by any other commercial system, and the precision and responsiveness of its gameplay performance makes it a better choice than any emulation box. Sure, a Retro Pi can approximate the workings of the Nt Mini, but this system tips the experience just over the edge. It's one of the best things to happen to classic gaming in 2017, and if the upcoming Super Nt offers a similar feature set at a budget-friendly $200, it will be without question the ultimate, must-have, classic gaming console.
As a final note, if you're curious to see the Nt Mini in action, well, about 2/3 of NES Works 1986 was captured from the Mini (240p RGB out, upscaled via Framemeister to 720p). Likewise, every NES game I've streamed this year for Gintendo except G.I. Joe and Zelda II were also broadcast through the same hardware setup. It comes in at a premium price, yes, but unlike many retro gaming purchases… it's absolutely worth the cost.