Video game fans of a certain age are rediscovering the old classics and driving demand for new hardware and ports of their favorite classic games from the 80’s and 90’s.
While compilation discs of classic arcade and console games have been around for years, dedicated hardware to play these older games was mostly in the form of cheap battery powered “plug and play” systems found in department store bargain bins and convenience stores. Some of the more notable ones replicated the look and feel of classic systems but many gamers felt like they lacked the luster of the originals.
That was until Nintendo surprised the gaming world with their “NES Classic Edition” console released during the holiday season in 2016. The $59 device looked like a miniature version of their iconic 1980’s game console but included a full size high quality replica controller and 30 built-in classic games that play on modern high definition televisions. The NES classic is built on a modern processor that allows for new features such as the ability to pause and rewind game play and save “snapshots” of the game’s progress.
The system was a surprise hit for the video game maker, with an estimated 2.3 million units sold over the course of just a few months according to an April, 2017 article in Time Magazine. Systems were in such short supply that many sold at significantly marked up prices on Ebay.
Nintendo followed up with the $79 Super NES Classic Edition for the 2017 holiday shopping system, a scaled down version of their 16 bit Super Nintendo console. It too was in very short supply. A Nintendo 64 version is rumored for the 2018 holiday season.
Nintendo’s unexpected success led other companies to jump into this new retro hardware market, with Sony announcing their plans to release a mini version of their original Playstation console. Sega says they have one in the works too.
While most consumers are happy with these mini consoles, enthusiasts are not. The mass market classic systems recreate the original games through a process called emulation, where the original console is recreated inside of a computer program on a cheap processor.
Many enthusiasts say this lacks the “feel” they are accustomed to on the original consoles they’ve been playing for decades. Much of this comes from the fact that original game consoles connected to analog CRT televisions have very little input latency, or lag, between the time a button is pushed on the controller and when that action is translated on screen. In addition to video processing delays from the television, software emulation on the classic console remakes introduces additional latency and changes to program timings that expert players can feel.
This is why old school gamers prefer playing games the old fashioned way: on aging tube TVs.
This desire to keep old technology working in the modern era gave birth to a cottage industry of retro game companies making new stuff for old things. Some are producing new games for long dead hardware, others are developing entirely new hardware like game cartridges that store games on SD cards and plug into original systems.
None of these companies will ever become as ubiquitous to consumers as Nintendo or Sony, but among retro enthusiasts they’re household names. And one company that’s generating a lot of buzz among the retro community is Seattle based Analogue, Inc.
Analogue began operations in 2011 by repackaging SNK Neo Geo arcade boards into meticulously carved wooden cases. They then moved on to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), pairing original NES system boards with high quality video output circuitry and placing them in an attractive aluminum case.
With a diminishing supply of ‘donor’ Nintendo consoles the company decided to make their own NES console from scratch. Analogue enlisted the help of an electrical engineer by the name of Kevin Horton, widely known in the retro gaming community as “Kevtris,” to design their NT Mini console using a special chip called a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA). It released in 2016 shortly before Nintendo’s classic mini system was announced.
FPGA chips are special processors that are essentially blank slates. Horton reverse engineered the entire NES system and programmed every component into the FPGA that powers the NT Mini. The result is a near perfect replication of the original system that’s able to output to modern high definition televisions with minimal input latency. It reads the NES game cartridges just like the actual NES does and even works with the original controllers.
And because the FPGA chip behaves exactly like the original chips did, the NT Mini is able to work with original add-on hardware like the Japanese floppy drive system Nintendo sold in the 80’s along with just about every other accessory.
A few weeks following the NT Mini’s release, Horton released an unofficial firmware update that enabled compatibility with over a dozen more 1980’s game systems including the Sega Master System, Atari 2600, and ColecoVision. The FPGA is simply erased and reprogrammed to work as the desired console with games loaded via an SD Card. This firmware also allowed the NES games to load from the SD card versus having to own physical cartridges.
Horton then took on the challenge of developing an FPGA version of a much more complex system: the 16 bit Super Nintendo (SNES) with Analogue’s Super NT console. It offers an exact replication of the original system for high definition televisions that was widely praised. It too works with original controllers and cartridges. An unofficial firmware release allows those games to be loaded from SD cards.
Analogue’s next project is a much anticipated replication of the 16 bit Sega Genesis called the Mega SG. Analogue says the new console will also be compatible with earlier Sega 8-bit consoles, including the Master System and Game Gear. Like the NES compatible NT Mini the Mega SG can be docked with accessories like the Sega’s CD-ROM system released in 1992.
An open source project called MiSTer has also started making use of FPGA technology to replicate even more classic technology. The team has already developed downloadable “cores” that allow MiSTer boards to run a number of classic computer systems, game consoles, and arcade games in high definition. MiSTer incorporates a widely available $130 development board (affiliate link) along with custom hardware developed by the volunteer team managing the project.
This may all seem like a lot of effort to reproduce obsolete computer and video game hardware. But unlike other mediums like film or literature, game and computer preservation requires not only archiving the art (in this case the game software) but also the hardware required to run it. Reproducing hardware through an FPGA chip offers the single best way to bring this 20th century art form into the future in the most accurate way possible.