Analogue NT Review: For the Niche (and Rich) Of Retrogaming

Analogue NT Review: For the Niche (and Rich) Of Retrogaming

Analogue's aluminum-wrapped custom NES is as high-dollar as it is high-end, but does the system deliver the performance it promises?

As a policy, I never factor price into reviews. It's always struck me as the height of arrogance: I don't know your personal finances, and nothing could be more presumptuous than me telling you how to spend your money. A good review should provide enough information (and opinion) so you can decide if the product in question seems like a good use of your cash, whether your game budget is three games per week or three per year.

However, in the case of the Analogue NT, a boutique-style reworking of Nintendo's 8-bit NES hardware, I have to make an exception; price is, after all, a big part of the story here. With a base price of $500 for the privilege of playing 30-year-old video games — considerably more if you add options — the NT is by no means a mass-market device. If your response to the NT has been bewilderment or even anger about its price tag, I can tell you right now whether or not this is the NES retrogaming solution for you. It's not. Move along, nothing to see here.

Analogue Interactive has positioned the NT as a premium device for serious collectors and retrogaming enthusiasts. It's not meant as an alternative to throwing a bunch of downloaded ROMs into a free emulator and mucking around with Mario hacks or whatever; for that sort of casual approach, a bumper crop of other options have sprung up in recent years, including the RetroN line and RetroArch, all priced anywhere between zero to 100 bucks.

No, the NT is for serious — perhaps "fanatical" would be a better word — NES fans. Please understand that I don't use the terms "casual" and "serious" in the snobbish sense that typically defines conversations about personal devotion to video games. Having a casual interest in decades-old games is no better or worse than becoming caught up in a mad quest for maximum video game authenticity. It's all a hobby, after all, and a potentially expensive one at that. I've fallen more into the "serious" side of things myself, but I will never be dismissive of anyone who just wants to fire up an emulator and take a quick run through Ninja Gaiden with the help of much-needed save states. When it comes to gaming, as long as you're having fun, you're doing it right.

Analogue NT. While the system is available in multiple anodized colors, anything besides silver comes at a premium. I did have the controller ports customized to white, however — the one free mod available.

All of this being said, the Analogue NT exists for NES devotees determined to create an optimal, "authentic" play experience on modern television hardware. $500 is a lot to spend on an 8-bit console, but it's targeted toward people who already intend to invest hundreds into acquiring modded hardware capable of outputting a clean RGB video signal — the enthusiasts who will already be sinking a considerable chunk of change into an upscaler or a high-end broadcast monitor that will allow them to play NES games from their original cartridges, on original hardware, and experience as little lag as possible.

In that light, the NT's asking price isn't too terribly out of line with the investment required for this luxury approach. RGB-modded NES hardware usually sells for about $250 these days, and while it's possible to tackle the modding yourself, it requires a modest degree of electrical engineering expertise and a fair amount of research to ensure you're using the optimal components for the task. On top of that, whether you mod an American NES or a Japanese Famicom, you'll still need to deal with adapters for playing carts from other regions, which adds to the cost and complexity of the setup.

Analogue NT with U.S. NES cartridge (The Goonies II) inserted into front slot.

Personally, I bought an NT only after several months of careful deliberation. The device came along right as I began to take a serious interest in classic gaming fidelity, and I looked into several different NES/RGB solutions before making the plunge. The NT was one of the most expensive options on the table, but none of the options I explored were particularly cheap. High-end retrogaming is a spendy hobby, and ultimately the NT's cost is only slightly greater than that of similar solutions (and actually smaller than that of some options). In the end, I decided the premium was worth the convenience. Having used the NT for several weeks now, I don't regret my choice.

At its basic level, the NT consists of an old, discarded Famicom CPU and a scavenged PPU integrated into a newly produced motherboard housed in a machined aluminum casing. The heart of the system, in other words, runs on authentic, Nintendo-manufactured chips, while everything else, inside and out, is new rather than old, salvaged, or previously owned by god-knows-who. The NT was also built from the ground-up for the purposing of outputting a high-end NES video signal rather than having that ability grafted on as a modification. In theory, at least, this means the NT should last longer than an old, modded console.

Analogue NT with Japanese Famicom (Salamander aka Life Force) cartridge inserted into rear slot.

Obviously, I won't know whether or not that turns out to be the case for quite some time. But the NT's build quality at least makes me optimistic; it seems quite well-made, with great little details and a wealth of options even on the basic model. (I opted for the standard model rather than getting the version with the $79 Kevtris-designed HDMI daughterboard add-on; this means I have to run my NT through an upscaler to convert the signal from analog to digital and don't have access to the various system-level output features the HDMI daughterboard offers.) The aluminum case is nicely designed and quite compact, an aesthetic cross between an Apple laptop and Nintendo's N64 hardware. I've seen complaints that the metal case can scratch and even shave the plastic of cartridges, though I've swapped dozens of games in both cartridge slots without incident — which isn't to say the system can't damage carts, simply that this hasn't happened to any of mine.

The back of the system sports a number of physical switches, all of which feel solid. The NT uses an NES controller button for its power/reset switch, which pops into place with a satisfying click: When the system is running, a quick press resets the hardware, while you hold the button for a moment to shut down. Compatibility seems flawless; every game I've plugged into the system, even legendarily fussy ones like the Japanese version of Castlevania III, has run without issue. The NT also works with the Everdrive flash cartridge, which isn't the case for many emulator-based devices. When a cartridge doesn't read due to dirty contacts, the system simply shows a black screen rather than blinking to white as on the original NES hardware, as Analogue did not include the 10NES security chip in the system.

Back view of system with all ports and switches visible.

Even without the HDMI add-on, the hardware offers much more granular output options than real NES hardware. Sound outputs through a separate port than video, requiring a set of red/white RCA cables, and two tiny buttons on the back of the system allow you to adjust the audio volume at the system level. It also includes a pair of switches to allow you to alternate between U.S. and Japanese controllers, which are wired differently from one another (in part because of the Famicom's player-two mic feature).

Video itself is output through a VGA port that, I'm told, carries every possible signal format in parallel, from composite up to RGB. The system ships with an S-Video cable, and all other cables options are available as paid add-ons. Analogue will custom-build cables by request, and currently they're putting one together for me that splits to component video (for a CRT monitor) and RGB (for upscaling to an HDTV). Fine-tuning the output has definitely the trickiest part of the NT experience for me; my shipment originally included the wrong type of RGB cable (European SCART versus Japanese RGB-21) and wouldn't work with my setup; once this was remedied, I found the video too washed out for my liking, so I exchanged that cable for one wired with resistors to darken the output.

Front (NES) and rear (Famicom) cartridge slots shown with aluminum flaps held open. The hinged, spring-loaded slot doors protect the cartridge connectors from dirt, though some users have claimed the doors can damage carts.

Ultimately, of course, video output is a matter of taste, and I'm still fine-tuning my system to fit mine. I've noticed video capture tends slightly too much toward red, which seems to be a function of my capture device (an Elgato HD60) rather than the NT itself; the color balance and brightness of its output to my television look practically perfect. I've noticed a few other quirks, like a very faint audio buzz during silent parts of games and a sort of shimmering effect on areas of flat color, but all of these represent natural defects resulting from analog output being converted to digital; the shimmering, for example, is a known issue with the Framemeister upscaler, not a flaw of the system. No doubt the HDMI add-on would moot these problems.

You can see both the strengths and weaknesses of the NT hardware in this full playthrough of Bionic Commando:

WATCH: Direct feed footage of Bionic Commando on Analogue NT. Do you see a difference in visual clarity between this and playing with standard NES hardware? Can you hear a difference between this audio and that of an emulated game? If those small differences don't stand out to you, hardware like the NT isn't really something you need to worry about investing in. Again, no snobbery here — $500 a lot of money to sink into sorting out trivial details that don't bother most people. Type-A personalities are expensive.

At this video's beginning, the video cable wasn't seated as firmly as it should have been, resulting in red-shifted hues. The color flickers and changes for the first 30 seconds of the video as I adjust the connection. The somewhat muted colors of the rest of the video are a result of the capture settings I was using — again, the output looks perfect on my television — but otherwise the quality and fidelity of this video are excellent. Edges are clean, sound is flawless besides the faint buzz during silent sequences, and the game plays perfectly. Too perfectly, almost; this was the first time I'd played through Bionic Commando on real hardware in more than a decade, and I had to relearn the timing of the hero's bionic arm — there's less lag than when I've played on real hardware without an upscaler, and there's more flicker and slowdown than on an emulator. Area 6 in particular frequently slowed to a crawl at times, something I'd forgotten about after years of emulation.

To be honest, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what the NT is really capable of. I'm currently in the process of acquiring a CRT monitor and a Zapper light gun in order to record footage of light gun games — something impossible with a standard HDTV setup, but possible via the NT with the proper cables to split the video signal to a CRT. I also haven't had a chance to take advantage of its compatibility with the Famicom Disk System; Analogue designed the NT to sit perfectly atop the Japan-only peripheral, which was the original format for a number of beloved games including Metroid, Zelda, and Castlevania. Those versions usually offered enhanced audio over their U.S. counterparts, so an FDS is definitely on my Tokyo Game Show shopping list.

Several rear details, including the Famicom expansion port (labelled in Japanese) and stereo audio jacks.

I'm not really qualified to offer a comprehensive technical breakdown of the FDS, but besides fine-tuning my cable situation, the drawbacks I've experienced to date have been mostly on the price side. The $500 base price of the unit ramps up quickly once you begin adding cables, controllers, the daughterboard option, custom shell colors, etc., and you could easily invest $700 or more into the system. I've seen considerable outrage over the company's handling of the project, which has suffered nearly a year's worth of delays; I've personally found Analogue quite responsive and accommodating, but I realize that, being in the press, my experience with the company probably hasn't been typical.

Likewise, my needs for the NT aren't typical, either. For me, the system represents a professional investment, something I'll be using both for work and for side projects. Like a photographer buying a high-end camera or a guitarist buying reliable amps, the system is something I'll be using extensively and which, I would hope, will pay for itself many times over.

Controller setting switches, audio volume buttons, power adapter plug, VGA video connector, and power button.
Macro view of Analogue NT output at 720p on a Sony Bravia, upscaled through an XRGB-mini Framemeister. (Video is set to 720p despite the television's native resolution 1080 for video capture purposes: 720p is an even multiple of the NES's native output and results in a cleaner recorded image.)

Does that make it a good choice for someone without my specific needs, though? Well, again, I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to tell anyone how to spend their money. But I can definitely say that playing NES on the NT is far and away the most impressive and satisfying medium through which I've ever seen these games. Coupled with a low-latency television and a good upscaler (ideally with scanlines on), it really does provide the optimal NES experience I've been chasing for so many years. There are certainly other options out there for getting the most out of the NES library, and as with any investment I strongly recommend doing research before making any costly commitments. The NT was definitely not a trivial purchase for me, but as I said before, I don't regret my investment in the least.

Mikey Walsh killing a giant scorpion with a yo-yo, photographed off-screen. Blur/distortion on character due to motion.

Pretty straightforward, with a number of options wired into the system. The proprietary cables are unfortunate — they add to the cost.

Lasting appeal
Playing perfect, low-latency NES games on an HDTV has breathed new life into my 8-bit library.

Despite a faint buzzing, games sound perfect. I'm hearing details I never noticed in emulators or on my crappy TV speakers as a kid.

With the proper setup, absolutely stunning. Note that great HD video with the NT isn't as simple as plug-and-play, though... unless you pay extra for the HDMI add-on, of course.

The Analogue NT is the very definition of luxury item: A way to make old video games look and play perfectly on HDTVs (or on high-end classic sets). For most people, it's a needless luxury. Serious enthusiasts, however, will find a beautifully made device that makes NES games viable on modern hardware. It's definitely pricey, but "expensive" is relative when it comes to collecting and retrogaming. Most importantly: The system performs as advertised.


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