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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It's what's inside that counts

So, that's what the AVS doesn't do. What it does do, happily, it does quite capably.

The AVS offers support for three different types of software: NES, Family Computer, and Famicom Disk System. As mentioned before, NES and Famicom games require separate connectors due to their physical differences, and there's just barely enough room in the cartridge port to allow you to plug in a Famicom Disk System RAM cartridge (which connects the FDS to the console). I find I have to crimp the cable on my RAM cart just slightly, which is not really something I'm crazy about doing with a fragile 30-year-old piece of tech, but so far it hasn't caused any trouble.

Watch AVS's Disk System support in action

Disk System is definitely the most complex format to support, since it adds extra RAM to the console, along with an additional sound channel... and there's also the element of needing to pause to flip the diskette from time to time. Happily, the AVS seems to pull all of this off with no trouble. Each of the half dozen games I tested on AVS ran without incident; they loaded, saved, and took side-change breaks as normal.

The extra FDS sound channel functions independently from the console's onboard sound, and the AVS allows you to adjust its volume from the main menu. I find that in most games, the expansion audio needs to be adjusted to its lowest setting, or maybe slightly above, or else it drowns out the regular channels. However, the FDS-enhanced audio of games like Metroid and Zelda sounds correct when properly balanced.

The AVS also offers support for Famicom cartridge-based games with expanded audio features onboard in the form of special chips. These tend to be Konami, SunSoft, and Namco games, and the ones I tested out all sound quite accurate. That is admittedly something of a subjective matter; every NES clone and emulator handles expanded music a little differently, and finding the "true" sound can be difficult. I've put together a couple of videos comparing two high-end Konami games running on the AVS with those same games on the standard issue Analogue Nt (with analog audio-out), the Hi-Def NES modded Nt (digital audio out), and samples of Konami's official soundtrack releases (which for all intents and purposes act as reference material for these tunes).

Lagrange Point (cart courtesy of Aaron Hamel), featuring Konami's VRC7 chip for 11-channel sound and FM synthesis
Akumajou Densetsu (Castlevania III), featuring Konami's VRC6 chip for 8-channel audio

Again, these interpretations of old, add-on capabilities come down to a matter of personal taste. Personally, I find the AVS to sound closest to Konami's official renditions of the music... but I tend to prefer the sound of the Hi-Def NES.

NES games on AVS are much simpler affairs than Famicom and Disk System, since only a handful of U.S. releases included unusual expansion features. I find the AVS to be more or less spot-on in terms of rendering the games. It reproduces both the best and worst of these classic games, including quirks like the "sprite 0 hit" effect that causes a small line of visual glitchiness to appear at the boundaries between static and scrolling areas in certain games (at the upper left of the screen in Castlevania III, or immediately above Shadow Man's portrait on Mega Man III's stage select screen). It also reproduces the slowdown and sprite flicker that plagued the system's more ambitious games.

The AVS accounts for many of these negative elements with optional features that allow players to mitigate them. The "Extra Sprites" menu command allows you to overwrite the NES's horizontal limits on sprites (only eight 8x8-pixel sprites could appear on the same row of the screen per frame). There's also an option to hide the leftmost column of the screen, which removes the distracting dead zone of blank color in games like Super Mario Bros. 3. You can even fine-tune vertical cropping to cover up the top and bottom of the screen; many games display graphical junk at the edges of the screen, which older TVs cut off naturally due to the overscan effect of CRT tech. The junk graphics can be quite jarring in many games that allow scrolling in all directions, so these features come in quite handy.

A before-and-after demo of the vertical cropping feature at work.

Of course, many NES games were built to use the system's limitations and shortcomings to their advantage. In those games, circumventing the console's limits can break or otherwise work against the experience, so you'll need to apply them on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, the system doesn't offer memory for game-specific performance tweaks.

I don't think a feature along those lines would necessarily be outside the capabilities of the AVS. The system recognizes most games as soon as they're plugged in. This comes in handy with the built-in Game Genie feature, which doesn't simply detect which game you're playing but also pulls in the most popular cheat codes for that title when available. The built-in database isn't complete (it seems not to recognize many Famicom titles, even those that are identical to their NES counterparts), but it's a handy tool for instant gratification... for all you low-down dirty cheaters out there.

The console includes four controller ports, which the system automatically treats as if it were the Four Score accessory. The controller menu allows you to confirm or sync controllers and to activate or deactivate the Famicom expansion port. Unfortunately, there's no real customization possible through the controller menu beyond activating Turbo functions. The option to swap A and B button inputs would be nice — there were a few games back in the day that bizarrely got those button functions backward (Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode, for example), and having the ability to make those games work "correctly" would be quite welcome.

Thankfully the system's reliance on a FPGA core means it can be updated to include new functionality quite easily — an update went live this morning to enable the scoreboard feature (an online game-specific leaderboard), and console updates are practically plug-and-play.

The AVS also allows players to set a scanline effect for their games to mimic the intended appearance of the graphics (which were designed for CRTs). The system only offers a single density effect: Every third line of upscaled resolution. The AVS triples the NES's 240p resolution to 720p, which means this feature turns every in-game pixel into two lines of game image and one scanline. You can adjust the darkness of the scanlines, ranging from almost invisibly faint to completely black. Scanlines can help reduce the brightness and intensity of games on large, highly illuminated LED televisions, which can improve their readability.

AVS scanline feature demo

That said, the AVS's forced 720p output can cause scanlines to appear to be spaced unevenly when upscaled to 1080p on certain televisions. I have two different sizes of the same Sony LED television model in my office (for work) and our living room (for entertainment); while the AVS's scanlines look fine on the larger (48") living room set, they look bunched up and uneven on the smaller (40") office television. It seems to be an all or nothing proposition.

Finally, the AVS allows you to stretch the horizontal resolution of games from original resolution (256x240 tripled, resulting in a nearly square screen area and somewhat lanky visuals) to full 16:9 width (which looks stretched and hideous and you should be ashamed of yourself if you use this option). Unfortunately, I find that only original resolution looks clean on my televisions; any other width results in a shimmering effect during horizontal scrolling scenes due to the uneven scaling of crisp, hard-edged pixels. This is not a problem unique to the AVS; the Hi-Def NES mod also suffers from it. This issue isn't a concern for analog-out options, as the nature of analog video results in softer pixels and natural anti-aliasing. The AVS only includes digital-out, though, so you'll have to experiment to find a balance of proportion and distortion that works for you.

Is AVS worth it?

The ultimate question comes down to this: Is the RetroUSB worth it? My answer is, generally, "yes," though not without some qualifiers.

At $185 (basically $200 with shipping), the AVS doesn't precisely come cheap. It's three times as expensive as the Classic Mini NES due out this fall, and for many people the 30 high-profile games included in Mini will satisfy their NES itch.

On the other hand, the AVS lacks certain features that hardcore enthusiasts will expect. Its display and technical options, while decent, pale in comparison to those of the Hi-Def NES/Analogue Nt. It lacks any analog-out capabilities and only outputs video in 720p. Unlike the Hi-Def NES, the AVS doesn't let you fine-tune expansion audio output, control scaling and cropping to the pixel, or adjust scanline density.

What the AVS does offer, however, is a respectable range of popular features in a convenient, no-fuss package. It's plug-and-play, runs every game I could throw at it (including FPGA multicarts like the EverDrive N8), recreates NES video, audio, and flaws with excellent fidelity, and allows just enough fine-tuning to make games run pretty much how I want them. As a vehicle for playing real NES carts on modern televisions, it's a capable, well-crafted, and reasonably priced option.

If you prefer an analogy, let me break down your options for playing NES games on modern technology in terms of cars:

  • Emulation: Jaywalking. You can go wherever you like, any time, for free, but you're technically breaking the law.
  • Virtual Console: Riding public transportation. It's cheap, but you have no control over where it stops or the quality of the ride.
  • Emulation clone consoles (RetroN 5, etc.): Borrowing a car someone else stole. It'll get you where you need to go, but it's not the smoothest ride, and there's a nagging sense of guilt in the back of your mind.
  • DIY NES RGB mods: Building a hot rod from scratch. You have to make it yourself from spare parts, and there's lots that can go wrong. Once you get it working, though, it's a thrill ride.
  • Analogue Nt or Hi-Def NES: High-performance racer. It's expensive, finicky, and requires lots of fine-tuning and maintenance on the upgrades. But for those willing to invest the time and money, it represents the premium experience.
  • RetroUSB AVS: A sporty coupe with automatic transmission. It can't begin to compete with a real racer in terms of features or power, but it's a fun, easy, no-fuss ride that does a little bit of nearly everything and does it well. A little pricey, but still within a realistic luxury budget.

Is the AVS for everyone? No, definitely not. I have no intention of giving up my unmodded Analogue Nt; nothing quite compares to playing NES and Famicom games on a nice CRT. Plus, while I like the clean look of the AVS's video output, the slight imperfections of the Nt's RGB output feel more faithful to the original hardware, which I prefer for my professional retrospective projects. I might move over to the Nt Mini once that ships next year, but in any case the AVS doesn't quite meet my needs.

My needs are very definitely not those of the average NES fan, though. For collectors who want to get some use out of their pricey stacks of cartridges and don't want to fuss with to-the-pixel calibrations or worry about the histograms of VRC6 sawtooth-wave channel expansion audio output, the AVS plays original NES software in an effectively lag-free manner on HDTVs, supports tons of peripherals, and even has built-in cheat codes so you can finally finish Battletoads. There are more powerful and capable options on the market, and there are cheaper ways to play NES games. The AVS's greatest strength is in the way it strikes a nice balance between features and pricing, which makes it a great all-purpose option for most NES enthusiasts.

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