About a year ago, I bought an Analogue NT — a deluxe reworking of the Nintendo Entertainment System, offering near-perfect compatibility with American and Japanese NES carts and accessories, enrobed in aluminum, and capable of outputting either RGB analog video or a 1080p digital signal via HDMI.
I can say without question that my Analogue NT is by far my favorite game system I've ever owned... and I've owned a lot. At the same time, though, the enormous price tag on the NT — the base model cost $500 and could be kitted out with considerably more expensive options — meant I had to dig deep to be able to afford it. And it was ultimately only really worth it because I wanted to be able to produce retrospective videos and streams, and to capture high-definition video of light gun games — something impossible with emulators or even HDMI-only systems. The Analogue NT was not a device that made itself accessible to casual enthusiasts on a budget... and now that it's sold out with, apparently, no more units ever to be produced, the system typically sells for twice its original price on the after-market, putting even further out of realistic reach.
Impractical as the Analogue NT may have been, I've felt all along that it presaged more economical solutions built along the same lines — that is, a faithful hardware clone with support for real cartridges and peripherals, capable of outputting to modern televisions. And finally, a year later, the first contender in the "like an Analogue NT but reasonably priced" race has arrived. Well, almost; Retro USB's AVS console (named, affectionately, for the Advanced Video System, Nintendo's first failed attempt to bring the NES to the U.S.) went up for preorder today, with units expected to ship in late September. And with a price that falls just shy of $200 with U.S. shipping, it seems a vastly more reasonable and affordable solution to the high-spec modern NES problem than the NT.
The AVS features some notable differences from the NT. For one, it's a true hardware clone: Its innards contain a FPGA that emulates the NES, whereas the NT actually contained salvaged NES innards. The AVS also skips out on the NT's machined aluminum shell in favor of simple grey plastic that are clearly far more economical than a custom metal skin. And, finally, the AVS offers only 720p HDMI output; you can't output analog video at 240p, and you can't pump out video at a full 1080p (presumably because 720p is a clean multiple of the NES's standard resolution and prevents ugly, erratic line doubling — I scale my own NES and Super NES output to 720p for recording despite using a 1080p television).
Despite these differences, however, the AVS manages to hit nearly all the features that really count. It runs games off of real carts, both American and Japanese. It also supports "fake" carts: Retro USB is in the business of producing NES homebrews, and the company has promised full support for those and for ROM-based devices like the EverDrive. They've also shown off the system with a Famicom Disk System RAM adapter plugged in, meaning fans of fragile diskette-based games can get some HD use out of those as well... at least until their drive belts die. The AVS also offers a wealth of output options including scanlines and variable pixel proportions; it includes upgradeable firmware, a USB-based online scoreboard system, and five built-in Game Genie slots for all your favorite codes and cheats.
At $185 with no games, Retro USB obviously is aiming for a different market than the Classic Mini NES. It's aimed more at a serious classic gaming fan, someone who enjoys having access to carts and peripherals and playing without barriers on a real television with optimal video-out quality. No doubt we'll see more devices along these lines in the coming years, but as the first out the gate, the AVS will be the standard by which all others are measured. Expect a full review once the console ships — much as I love my Analogue NT, I'm excited about the prospect of a more afforable, more readily available equivalent that will allow everyone to enjoy high-definition pixel-perfect NES emulation.
Of course, the lack of analog video-out means the one thing the AVS can't do is support light gun games. But even that could change — over the weekend, Retro USB posted an update to its Facebook page about developing an HDMI-compatible rendition of the Zapper. We can only dream....