RetroUSB AVS Review: The All-Purpose Modern NES

RetroUSB AVS Review: The All-Purpose Modern NES

An in-depth look at the new HD-capable NES clone. Is it worth the price?

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The move to high-definition, flat panel televisions took a terrible toll on classic game consoles. The built-in upscalers of HDTVs, necessary to make standard definition visuals appear at HD resolutions, did no favors to great old games: Stretching them, softening them, introducing game-breaking input lag.

Over the past decade, quite a few alternate solutions have appeared for making NES games (and their contemporaries) work on current TVs. Nintendo introduced Virtual Console a decade ago, with rather mixed results. External upscalers capable of converting standard definition visuals to HD far more quickly than built-in upscalers appeared on the market, though the worthwhile ones sell for $300-400. Most people just turned to emulation, since it costs nothing and is certainly no worse an experience than plugging an NES into a modern TV.

It's only been in the past year or two that more satisfying solutions have begun to appear. First a handful of do-it-yourself HDs mods for NES consoles, then the Analogue Nt, and now the RetroUSB AVS. The AVS offers a no-fuss experience — simply take it out of the box and plug it in. The AVS launches into a menu to allow you to adjust some options and jump directly into whichever game cartridge you have plugged in. It runs games in HD with no need for mods, adjustments, or external adapters, making it a convenient replacement for a classic NES.

I've been using an Analogue Nt over the past year and find it to be one of the best gaming investments I've ever made. But the Nt was quite expensive and is no longer being produced, so it's not exactly a practical option for most NES fans. A revamped Nt is slated to launch early next year at a reduced price point, but it's still won't be cheap and currently is half a year away.

In the meantime, the AVS arrives next month for less than half the price of the Nt Mini. It's also not cheap, selling for about the same price as a New Nintendo 3DS, but if it lives up to manufacturer RetroUSB's promises it could make for a viable alternative to the Nt Mini. The question is, does it actually fulfill those promises? I've put the system through its paces over the past few days, and by and large I've come away quite impressed by how much it offers for its price — though I've also found a few sticking points that make me unlikely to retire my Nt anytime soon.

Looks aren't everything (fortunately)

RetroUSB's Brian Parker has designed the physical component AVS to reference the original NES in a clear and obvious way without being quite so specific as to invite legal action. The console resembles a slimmed-down American NES, including a hatch on the top side to mimic the front-loading faux-VCR design of the old console, but seen from above it appears as a trapezoid flared toward the front (presumably to accommodate its four controller ports) rather than a square. It also sits much lower than the real NES, as the AVS does away with the zero-insertion force loading mechanism that pushed carts down into the console.

Truth be told, the system's physical design is easily my least favorite thing about it. While I appreciate the nostalgia-bait of the overall color scheme, its mix of right angles and slanted bezel elements, and even the Power/Reset button typography, the device doesn't quite come together the way I think it was intended to.

The trapezoidal shape of the console makes it an odd fit on any entertainment system — and due to the top-loading design, it definitely needs to sit in a location where it has plenty of overhead clearance — clearance that will allow its shape to be clearly seen.

(That said, I do appreciate how carefully it emulates the bottom case design of the NES, the sort of needlessly precise detail that reveals this project as a labor of love.)

Really, the cartridge hatch is the source of most of my frustration with the console. The AVS attempts to echo the front-loading design of the NES to its own detriment. Again, it wisely abandons the ZIF mechanism of the original console, which had a tendency to bend the cartridge port's contact pins out of alignment. But the alternate interface design here isn't really an improvement, as I find inserting NES carts into it to be a needlessly fussy process. You have to fish around a bit to seat a cart properly, and creating a secure connection requires the application of a little more force than I'm necessarily comfortable with.

Other clone consoles, including the Retro Duo and the Analogue Nt, simply go with a top-loading design similar to the Famicom and the second revision NES. The AVS uses a top-loading port for Famicom carts (which require a separate connector from NES carts due to differences in size, shape, and pin layout between the two), but it uses a horizontal arrangement for NES carts that I find gets in the way.

Once seated, an NES cart sits invisibly in the system thanks to the top hatch. But inserting and removing the carts is a clumsy process.

Famicom carts, on the other hand, sit in the forward slot. This is fine, except...

...the cartridge door can't close completely when a Famicom cart is seated.

And it's probably better not to ask about some of the oversized Famicom carts containing expansion chips.

And... well, that's the bulk of my complaints regarding the AVS. While I do have a few minor concerns in other areas, most of the system's failings concern cosmetics and case design — mildly disappointing, but hardly deal-breakers.

I do appreciate the system's pleasantly simple backside. The AVS features just three elements on the back: A jack for its micro-USB-based power supply, an HDMI port, and a single nonstandard connector for Famicom peripherals. The Japanese Famicom came with both controllers hardwired to the machine, so there were no controller ports to use for peripherals. Instead, the front of the console housed a custom connector that devices like the Zapper's Japanese equivalent plugged into (not that the console works with that peripheral — more on that later).

One crucial absence on the AVS: A mic jack with which to simulate the microphone built into the Famicom's second controller. While rarely used, its absence here does mean you'll never be able to perform the karaoke routine necessary to finish Takeshi No Chousenjou. (Currently the only clone console I know of to offer mic support is the Analogue Nt.)

The HDMI's the limit

So that's the bad of it. Fortunately, more or less everything else about the AVS shines. It's not the most capable or full-featured high-definition NES solution, but it handles its relatively limited suite of features with aplomb.

The AVS is, to my knowledge, the first available NES clone built around a field programmable gate array (FPGA). Previous clones have been built around homemade imitations of the NES hardware or simply software-based emulation, and solutions like the Analogue Nt and Hi-Def NES add high-end output capabilities to original NES or Family Computer motherboards. The FPGA solution sits somewhere in between the two. Unlike software-based emulation, an FPGA core is more like a hardware simulation: A custom CPU that can be made to reproduce the functions of a specific piece of hardware.

In this case, the AVS's innards have been "told" to perform the functions of the NES's CPU, audio processor, etc. If programmed correctly, an FPGA should work indistinguishably from an actual system — or, in the case of the AVS, it should perform all the functions of an actual system and then some. Thankfully, the AVS has rock-solid internals that have performed admirably across a wide array of tests and games. The results aren't 100% perfect, but they're definitely quite excellent; only the most demanding NES enthusiasts will likely find fault with the console.

The AVS does include some innate limitations worth mentioning. For starters, it only outputs video via HDMI, and only at 720p resolution. As such, the AVS appears to be completely incompatible with TV-based peripherals like the Zapper light gun and R.O.B., as they require cathode ray tube televisions to function. Although HD-capable CRTs with HDMI inputs did exist, they're exceedingly rare, and my understanding is that they are not compatible with light gun technology. Parker has hinted at the prospect of developing an HD-compatible light gun solution, so don't throw out that copy of Duck Hunt or Stack-Up just yet.

The 720p-only support also means your games won't look completely crisp on most HD televisions. Unless you're using a decade-old HDTV, you're almost certainly using a 1080p TV, which will have to upscale the AVS's image slightly to fit. A decent television won't add any input lag during this upscaling process, so the resolution discrepancy shouldn't affect performance. However, if you compare the AVS to a 1080p solution (e.g. the kevtris Hi-Def NES HDMI mod used in the Analogue Nt), you'll absolutely see a certain softness to the AVS's visuals. It's no deal-breaker, but it would be nice if the AVS had the horsepower to offer both 720p and 1080p output.

An hour-long demo of many of the AVS's basic features.

The AVS has a straightforward startup menu that allows you to tweak settings before launching into a game. This menu exists separately from the games, and you have to quit out of software to return to the menu. This is, again, somewhat less elegant than the Hi-Def NES mod, which offers its menu options as an overlay while a game is running. The AVS does not offer a save state feature — again, it's simulating the NES hardware rather than emulating the software — so you need to relaunch a game and start from the beginning any time you return to the AVS launch menu. It would be nice if the console offered at the very least a "suspend" feature, or if it could remember video settings on a per-game basis.

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