Hard to believe it, but this year's most heated console war isn't about Xbox versus PlayStation, Scorpio versus Neo, 3DS versus mobile, VR versus AR, or any of those other timely conflicts. No, the deadliest console battleground of 2016 is... the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, which celebrated its 30th anniversary less than a year ago.
NES clones have always been a thing lurking in the background (and we've reviewed a few of them), but the concept leapt to the forefront of the public consciousness last month when Nintendo announced the Classic Mini: NES. That news was followed quickly by a plug-and-play clone console by Christian game publisher Wisdom Tree, and more recently by RetroUSB's promising standalone NES & Family Computer clone, the AVS. A few DIY-type NES projects have grown in prominence of late as well, such as the Hi-Def NES. Now, to round things off, luxury console maker Analogue Co. has announced that their highly coveted and out-of-circulation Analogue Nt will be making a comeback in the form of a new, revamped model called the Nt Mini.
The original Nt launched last year in limited numbers, and I've found it to be an excellent investment despite its steep entry price. Unfortunately, the system fell out of production permanently soon after shipping. Analogue Co. built the console around salvaged boards from actual 8-bit systems, which resulted in a finite supply for the Nt. As such, it's become a highly sought-after device — while it certainly wasn't cheap to begin with (the base model began at $500), it's aftermarket value has already more than doubled in very short order.
With the Mini, the company hopes to address all of these issues: The system will cost less, be more capable on a technical level, and will theoretically never go out of stock.
Analogue's Chris Taber describes the Mini as "a completely new system.
"The motherboard is redesigned from the ground up, into a smaller enclosure," he says. "We had to redesign and re-engineer everything to be able to get the price down so much."
Where the original Nt contained repurposed Nintendo-manufactured boards, the Mini will run on a field-programmable gate array core. Lately, FPGAs have become the go-to solution for retro clone consoles, thanks to their combination of high fidelity and updatability. The Mini's FPGA core has been developed by Kevin "kevtris" Horton, a highly regarded emulation expert and the man who designed the original Nt's HDMI mod. RetroUSB's upcoming AVS console also runs on an FPGA, though Taber describes the Mini's as more powerful and versatile.
"The AVS's FPGA is a Xilinx Spartan-6 (about $18 for the part) and the Nt mini uses an Altera 32bit Cyclone V (about $50 for the part)," he says. "This is one of the reasons why the AVS only has 720p [output] — the FPGA doesn't have enough power and space to offer a 1080p output."
Analogue is touting the Mini's output capabilities as its major selling point. It's certainly a more versatile machine than the older Nt, likely thanks to Horton's involvement in the development process. The first Nt model output high-quality analog video by default, a multi-layered signal that supported composite, S-video, component, and RGB connectors; unfortunately, installing the optional HDMI mod overrode the analog signal, stripping away everything except low-end composite support. While the HDMI mod added a huge array of new features, it meant anyone who wanted to play light gun games on a CRT had to settle for a substandard signal. (As such, I've never upgraded my own Nt to use HDMI, as I sometimes need to capture RGB video of games like Duck Hunt.) The Mini, however, will support both digital HDMI at 1080p while still offering a full spectrum of analog video-out in original 240p resolution. It will also offer these digital capabilities right out of the box, whereas the original hardware model relegated HDMI to an optional mod that added another $80 to the console's already sizable price tag.
That said, as Taber's comments about the Mini's FGPA core suggest, the Mini will still command a premium sticker price. Where the AVS sells for $185, the Mini will ship at $449. However, Taber notes that the Mini offers considerably greater value for the money than the original Nt (it also includes a wireless controller, which was an add-on with the older model), and altogether comes in at about $200 less than a comparable standard Nt package did while offering a more impressive feature set. The Nt Mini will carry forward the company's obsession with high-end materials and design; its shell will be a scaled-down version of the older model's machined aluminum exterior, for example.
"Our goal with the Nt mini was to create a sort of template for all the fundamental features we'd like each of our products to have," says Taber. "To be a true reference quality video game system. We refined it based on customer feedback."
In light of the Mini's price and feature set, this year's 8-bit console war is shaping up to be less of a battle and more like a case of separate, complementary markets: Nintendo's Classic Mini for casual players, the AVS for dedicated hobbyists, and the Nt Mini for even more serious enthusiasts. I'm interested to see how each compares to the other, and the first results will be in soon: Our review of the AVS will be up later this week, and we'll have an in-depth look at both "Mini" NES clones — Nintendo's and Analogue's — once they become available as well. In any case, it looks as there should be no shortage of options for high-quality NES gaming, whatever your budget and needs, and Analogue's new mini-console means there's one more choice available.
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