At first, it sounds absolutely crazy. Who would pay nearly $500 ($499 before tax) for a Nintendo Entertainment System?
The surprising answer: thousands of retro fans from around the world!
Retro gaming company Analogue previously sold two different versions of their version of the NES: the NT (which relied on actual scavenged NES hardware) and the NT Mini (which relied on custom FPGA hardware).
They sold out of these models and went on to make their version of the Super Nintendo (the Super NT) and their version of the Sega Genesis (the Mega SG). These were more affordable than the first NT Mini run (the new systems were $189.99 compared to $449 for the original NT mini).
Cheaper systems brought in more new fans, though, and many of them were sad they missed out on the NT Mini. After a successful Change.org petition, Analogue agreed to create one final run of the beloved system.
The NT Mini Noir boasts an improved cartridge slot and an even higher price — $499. However, after a week of pre-orders, it sold out entirely. All of which brings us to the big question: why the heck would anyone pay that much for a modern Nintendo Entertainment System?
The Power of FPGA
Part of why the price seems staggering is that there are so many low-cost NES alternatives out there. The NES Classic, for example, costs only $59.99, though (without an easy mod), you are limited to those initial 30 games. And you can play any cartridges you want with products from Hyperkin (systems are typically $85 or less), or simply load every NES ROM you can find by building a Retro Pi for under $100.
What makes the NT Mini superior to these choices? The fact that it’s powered by a field programmable gate array (FPGA).
All of the previous solutions use software-based emulation. Hardware or no hardware, playing games on these systems is no different than emulating them on the PC. Even the products you can put cartridges in are reading the ROM from the cartridge–they are not “playing” it as genuine hardware would.
With an FPGA, the NT Mini has hardware-based emulation. It runs your actual cartridges or ROMs the exact way that an original system does. To many retro gamers, this is the truest way to relive classic games.
Lag-Free On Modern TVs
I know what you’re thinking: if someone wants to relive classic hardware, why not just buy classic hardware? But the sad truth is that you’ll run into problems as soon as you try to play that old NES on a modern TV.
First, it can be difficult to even get a picture. The original system wasn’t designed for HDMI or composite cables, so you’re either going to have to seriously mod the old system (which can be both complex and expensive) or get an adapter.
With cheap adapters, you’ll quickly discover lag problems. That’s because these systems were designed for clunky old CRT televisions. If you want a lag-free experience on regular hardware, you need to make space in your home for a CRT or make space in your wallet by buying a more expensive external upscaler (such as an OSCC or a Retrotink).
With the NT Mini, you can enjoy lag-free gameplay on a modern TV via HDMI right out of the box. No tinkering or secondary purchases required.
All the Outputs
In addition to its HDMI output, the NT Mini has numerous other video options. Specifically, you can output video via composite cables, component cables, S-video, and RGB. With some third-party SCART cables, true videophiles can even play the system on a professional video monitor.
Thinking of becoming a retro game streamer? Many retro pros (including Jeremy Parish, retro guru and host of the Retronauts podcast) use the NT Mini to stream. This helps you get the original gameplay experience in the highest-possible graphical fidelity.
Compatible With Original Accessories
One of the greatest features of the NT Mini is that it is fully compatible with all of the original NES accessories. This means you can dust off things like your old NES Advantage joystick or the notorious Power Glove. If you don’t mind plugging into a CRT (these accessories will only work on CRT), you can even bust out the Zapper gun and R.O.B. the Robot.
So far, this “out of the box” functionality remains one of the biggest advantages that the NT Mini has over other options. For example, the MiSTer community offers more affordable FPGA solutions for NES and many other systems. However, getting the accessories to work sometimes takes extra effort and add-ons, and some may work better than others.
The Convenience of “Jailbreaking”
Let’s say you plunk down $499 for this system. Obviously, your wallet can now use a break. Here’s the good news: you never need to buy a cartridge again!
While the NT Mini will read NES and Famicom cartridges directly, you can also “jailbreak” the system by downloading a few files and inserting a memory card in the system. After you hit the power button, you now have a modded system that can play ROMs directly from SD card.
That means you can load every single NES and Famicom game ever made onto a single card. On top of that, you can load things like fan-translations and ROM hacks and play them on the modern equivalent of classic hardware.
Really, the only “downside” is that no save states are natively possible (for that, you’ll need a flash cart like the Everdrive). But a Game Genie is built-in, and that may be enough to get you through the tougher games.
Multiple Game Systems In One
On top of the ability to load NES ROMs, the NT Mini has a secret weapon: it’s actually several game systems rolled into one.
After jailbreaking the system, you can load “cores” for different systems onto the SD card. And then you can enjoy multiple awesome systems and games powered by the accuracy of FPGA.
These cores include Gameboy, Gameboy Color, Game Gear, and Master System. Truly old school gamers can also play Atari 2600, Atari 2800, and Colecovision. Heck, the Mini even supports Bit Corp Gamate, a system barely anyone remembers.
While $499 is still quite steep, getting so many systems in one helps to justify the price tag.
Insane Return On Investment
Here’s a purely mercenary reason so many bought the newest run on the NT Mini: they are looking to make a killing on eBay by the end of the year.
When Analogue first discontinued the NT Mini, fan demand rose higher than ever. Suddenly, the system that cost $449 was regularly selling for $1,500, $2,000, and even $3,000 dollars!
Some people are already selling their pre-orders for the final run for over $1,000. And when the system actually comes out in July, the secondary market is likely to explode all over again.
The Best Way to Preserve Gaming History
Ultimately, the reason that most people plunked down this much cash is that they love retro gaming and want to see it continue. The depressing truth is that all of that original hardware is going to stop running someday. When that happens, FPGA will be most authentic way to keep the retro spirit alive.
Right now, Analogue is the public face of FPGA gaming. And supporting them means supporting a number of awesome retro products in the future (such as the Analogue Pocket).