HDMI FPGA clone consoles over RGB Setups?

The AVS menu screen is simple and straight forward

Hardcore retro gaming setups have evolved over the years, as recent developments introduce new ways of playing classic consoles. Since HD televisions have become the norm, CRT TVs have been phased out of homes and pushed to the curve. Even thought HDTVs are superior tech, they do not aways interpret the ancient video signals of retro game consoles as intended, and there is a gap between intended video output and onscreen results. The video quality of the yellow RCA plug is dreadful by today's standards; back in the day the CRT TVs had lower resolution and this went unnoticed.
A European SCART plug carries the RGB signal directly, if the console has it
To accommodate for the progress in video tech, gamers started to utilize the RGB video output of older gaming consoles to provide the cleanest image possible. This requires some research, specialized SCART cables, and devices called upscalers as translators between the retro consoles and the HD TVs. A SCART setup would provide a vastly clearer image on a modern display. Depending on how many systems you have connected, you may need a SCART switch box as well. This type of setup can be expensive, as the equipment is highly specialized, and not sold in any walk-in store.

SCART switches need to be imported since they were never released here in the U.S.
Some people who feel that retro games are represented best on professional video CRT monitors, like the ones used in television broadcast studios. These do look great, but they are exceedingly rare and expensive now. Even if you managed to find on on eBay, they are so heavy that shipping and insurance is cost prohibitive. Also consider that these are just as old as the consoles you are hooking up to them.
Most will not want to pay $500 for a 20' screen

Some companies are seeing the demand for solutions to bridge the gap between retro and modern, like HD Retrovision cables. These cables convert the RGB signal (if present) from retro consoles into component video signals, so they can be directly plugged into modern TVs. They are a nearly equivalent solution as an RGB setup, with less hassle and cost. The cables receive rave reviews, but are produced in small batches, and sell out quickly. The cables are sold by Castlemania games, and you will most likely have to preorder for the next release batch.

HD Retrovision cables are immensely popular
Emulation has undergone a resurgence as well, officially and unofficially. Nintendo's NES Classic Edition got the ball rolling, and was followed by the SNES Classic Edition, Retrobit's Retrocade, Neo Geo Mini, and eventually the Genesis Mini. Everyday there are more and more options for playing retro games. HD retro consoles are becoming more and more commonplace, and the cost of these systems vary, depending on if it is a single system console or a multi-system console. These are emulation systems that dump the inserted game rom, and hence are prone to the same flaws found in emulation: sound accuracy color accuracy, and input lag.

The Retron 5 has its fans, and may be a fine solution depending on your needs
Depending on the need for accuracy of gameplay and representation, many emulation solutions do not live up to the expectations of the hardcore retrogamer. This is where FPGA hardware comes into the picture.  A field programmable gate array is a means of simulating (on the hardware level) everything that an original game console did, and more. There is no underlying operating system running an emulation program, so there is no lag generated in the process. Couple that with direct HD video output with multiple digital resolutions available, and we have a retro revolution in the making.
The Analogue NT is the Cadillac of FPGA consoles, but is too expensive

The Analogue NT Mini was the first FPGA retro console commercially released.  This premium clone console did everything that the NES did and more. Video output was provided via analog or digital, so it could be used on either a CRT or modern TV. This was priced to reflect its quality at $450. Interesting for sure, but definitely a niche item. It had a sleek, aluminum case, which I'm sure added to the price as much as the allure.

The Analogue Super NT gets the cost/performance ratio right

Analogue's next product was the Super NT, which is an FPGA SNES. It does mostly everything that the NT did and more, while dropping analog video output and the aluminum shell. This change was a smart one, as the new price is less than half of the NT at $200. Reviews have been extremely favorable across the board.

The Mega SG is set to release in the spring of 2019
The company has recently announced its newest offering, an FPGA Sega Genesis console: The Mega SG. This is the first FPGA console based on a Sega system. Preorders are open. It will have similar features as the Super NT, but will also be able to play older Sega console games in addition to Genesis/Mega Drive games. It will even be compatible with Sega CD, through a connection port on the side. 32X compatibility is not possible however.

The Retro Usb AVS is very good, nearly on par with Analogue's offerings
Analogue is not the only company making FPGA retro consoles. RetroUSB makes the AVS (Advanced Video System - named after an early suggested name for the NES), which is an NES clone that also has been favorable reviewed. This once costs $185, and is popular due to its consumer-friendly price point (compared the $500 for the NT).

The Retro USB AVS accepts NES and Famicom carts, no need for a wonky adapter


I like these high quality solutions for a few reasons. For one, they are new tech, and more likely to survive another twenty years compared to the original systems of the 80's and 90's. The built-in high definition video output simplifies the hook up process, eschewing specialized cables and upscalers. This also means you can take them to other places, which is not really possible with a complicated SCART setup. With the going rate of FPGA systems averaging around $200 (not including the $500  NT), these may or may not result in a lower cost for entry. If you only want to play one system in HD on modern hardware, this will definitely be cheaper than all the necessary RGB equipment. If you buy up all of the newer FPGA systems that are released, you're probably spending more than what is needed for the RGB route.
The Super NT, coupled with an SD2SNES flashcart
As retro systems push 30+ years old, the failure rate will start to climb. These FPGA systems are arriving at the right time. Despite being priced higher than emulation clone systems, these consoles are of premium quality, and will not be mistaken for one of the budget HD options. Considering the build quality, the game compatibility, the video and sound accuracy, these check all the boxes. People who look into these know what kind of quality they are looking for.

Its hard to display through a web picture how good the image actually is
Can this FPGA trend continue to provide solutions for other retro consoles? There are lots of consoles that need a high-quality clone system, but is the market large enough to make it worthwhile for companies to do so? What are the limitations of FPGA? Is there a point where the systems cannot be replicated? The Sega Saturn and PC-Engine are two of my favorite consoles, but they may not draw as much interest, at least here in the US. I hope I'm wrong, but based on sales figures of original consoles, these look like a long shot to realized.


So what do you think of FPGA consoles? Are you willing to move on from original hardware? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading.





Top Ten Co-op Games for the NES


Couch cooperative play is an experience that is locked in time, a concept known to all who grew up playing video games in the 80's and 90's. Before there was broadband or dial-up, multiplayer gaming was relegated to sitting on the couch or floor, connected to the same TV, next to your player 2.
For me, most of the co-op games that are burned into my memory are on the NES. These are in my opinion the best examples of co-op play on the system. If you are of a younger age, and missed these games in their day, I recommend you seek them out, grab two controllers, sit in front of the same tv, and experience them the way people did before the internet.


Gauntlet
Was there any way this was going to be left off the list? Gauntlet is remembered most for its narrator announcing who needs food badly. If you play straight up, the difficulty will mow you down. You will need the assistance of turbo fire, and maybe some Game Genie codes to take the edge off, and then you will be able to relax and have some fun. Arguing about who gets which food item, who should use the key, and which path to take is part of the fun.





The Original Mario Bros.
This is not Mario's first outing, but it is Luigi's. Mario has taken on the occupation of plumber in this  arcade port that holds up pretty well. The task is simple enough: rid the sewers of turtles, giant moths, and other oddities that lurk underground. Before Mario could stomp on enemies, he had to pop them onto their backs by hitting the ground underneath them, and then run up and kick them. After playing a few stages it becomes clear that communication and coordination are the only way to prevent you and your brother from accidentally sabotaging each other. Its fairly easy to un-stun an enemy that your brother has stunned, and thus let it loose right as your brother is upon it. Sometime the spirit of cooperative play gets tested, and what started as teamwork becomes something...else.


Rush'n Attack
As one of the earliest infiltration games that I can recall, Rush'n Attack is about taking on the entire Soviet army with only a knife. Luckily, only about one in five enemy soldiers bothers to shoot at you, even if they are all wielding rifles. Occasionally you can kill a soldier inconspicuously uniformed in a yellow jumpsuit who will drop a limited power up to help even the odds if only for a short while. Having a partner join in on the action is a blessing and curse, as one of your will eventually leave the other behind at the end of the screen, resulting in getting killed by oncoming enemies off screen. Oddly enough, that kind of rubber banding in the co-op gameplay adds to the charm. The controls are a little wonky, with jumps assigned to the up direction instead of the A button. As far a the title, is the cold-war play on words 80's enough for you?


Heavy Barrel
This is an overhead run'n gun game, where you invade some terrorist's hideout and blow away waves of soldiers. The title of the game is based on a super weapon that you can assemble if you collect all the parts for it. Certain defeated enemies drop keys that you can use to unlock crates that contain power ups or pieces of the "Heavy Barrel", which is s ridiculously overpowered weapon, with a time limit. I have never obtained all of the pieces myself, but supposedly that's what you get. Either way, it is a great two-player romp through a jungle, with decent pacing and a moderate difficulty curve.


It is way too easy to shoot these POWs by accident
Guerrilla War
Taking jungle warfare to the next level, Guerrilla War plays a lot like Heavy Barrel, but a lot faster. It is a rare instance of an NES game having rapid fire as the default firing speed, which alleviates the need for a turbo controller. Ironically, you will need to learn some restraint while firing as part of your objective is to rescue hostages that more often than not, parked right in front of enemy placements. The game allows you to drive tanks and unleash some serious offensive power, much like its predecessor, Ikari Warriors. As Iconic as Ikari Warriors is, its slow gameplay hindered it from being fun. SNK learned from that, and this is the result. A fantastic two-player game that no one talks about.


DD2 has some rad facial expressions

Double Dragon II
Believe it or not, but there aren't a whole lot of two-player beat'em ups on the NES. For whatever reason; maybe the complexity of sprite animations combined with lots of enemies reduced the amount of sprites that could be onscreen. Games like shoot'em ups and run n' guns don't often have main character animations, but in beat'em ups the sprites have many movement animations to show punches, kicks, head-butts, and so on. The first Double Dragon was a great game but it was also disappointing in that co-op was not included. The sequel fixes this, and includes some new moves and animations as well. There may be some additional sprite flicker as the NES attempts to keep up with the action, but it is worth it. The buttons have been configured differently; instead of punch and kick they are now left attack and right attack, which allows for better defense in a crowd.


Bubble Bobble
Perhaps known best for its infectiously catchy music, Bubble Bobble is a unique platformer/puzzle game. You play as a bubble blowing dinosaur(s), trying to make it to the end in order to be turned back into a boy. In order to advance past each stage, you need to defeat all of the enemies but trapping them in bubbles, and popping the bubbles. It is fairly simple at first, becoming fairly challenging as you progress. The biggest obstacles are the stage designs themselves. You may think that enemies are impossible to reach, until you learn to hold the jump button, which allows you to bounce on bubbles to reach higher platforms. With all of the bubbles, enemies, and other objects on screen the action gets fairly frantic. There is one music track on a loop, and while this would incite a  murderous rage in lesser games, this track never seems to offend - it will be burned into your memory however.

Gaze into my eye...

Life Force
Often thought of as a sequel to Gradius, Life Force is technically a spin off. It was known as Salamander elsewhere, which is why there is an intergalactic snake (?) on the cover. Originally Salamander eschewed the power up capsule meter for a simpler power up pick up system. When this was localized for North America, the capsule system was reinstated, making seem like the direct sequel to Gradius. The gameplay is nearly identical, so it may as well be a sequel. It turns out that adding two-player co-op adds tremendously to the gameplay experience. Gradius was tough-as-nails hard, and this is no deviation. It does accept the Konami code at the title screen, so you can experience the carnage of death upon death as you brute force your way through the game. Just like in Gradius, if you are powered up you can plow through the game, but if you die, you are reduced to a pea shooter and the default speed may as well be a crawl. Lets be honest, you play through most of the game this way, as the cascade of death started in stage two. As with other games on this list, its more fun to die together than to die alone.


Jackal
Jackal is a game that is remarkably underrated when it comes to classic NES action games. Maybe its because it is not quite a run'n gun game, nor shoot' em up; it falls in between the cracks when genre lists get hashed out. You drive a jeep, armed with a forward-firing machine gun, and multidirectional grenades. As you progress, you rescue POWs and carry them to a helipad where they are extracted. If you rescue a general, your grenade gets upgraded to missiles, and eventually missiles get upgraded in range and power. Its hilarious to watch all of these POWs exit the jeep; it reminds me of a clown car. The game tremendously more fun with a player two.

No one is getting that spread from there unless they die

Contra/Super C
How could it be anything else? I include both games here, as they play nearly identically. What makes many "hardest NES games" lists is baffling to me. Then again, I played these games ALL THE TIME, so I memorized every enemy placement and pattern. That's a testament to how good these games are; even though they start out as merciless, eventually you learn the tricks and progress further. Essential is the Konami code to see the stages beyond the waterfall, especially in two-player. The leading cause of death on that stage is an impetuous partner constantly jumping and leaving your ass to die at the bottom of the screen. I always thought that the screen should only advance as far as the player at the bottom stood, and the player near the top should be restricted from jumping...but that would not be as much fun. Did you ever steal the spread power up even though you already have it? What about ducking under a bullet so that it hits player 2? This game teaches a lot of lessons, like whether or not you should trust your partner, and you can past Val Kilmer's face on Arnold's body and nobody will notice. In my opinion, its the best two-player game on the NES.


Flashcarts, ODEMUs, and Laziness


Obtaining the Rhea ODEUM in my Sega Saturn, was a watershed moment for me. Now almost all of my retro consoles are all outfitted with devices that can call up my entire collection for any system. Years ago, I loved getting up, picking a game off the shelf, and changing the game. It was the part of the nostalgic draw: fingering over the spines of game cases, reading over the boxart, and deciding what to play. Lately, I just turn on the console and scroll through which ever menu pops up, whether its an Everdrive or an ODEMU (for those who don't know, Everdrives are cartridges that allow you to play games from an SD card, and ODEMUs are boards installed in a disc-based console, which read games from an SD card as well). I have simply become accustomed to this practice.

My Turbo Everdrive card

There are a few reasons why I play original carts less and less. First, I found myself having to clean the contacts on games more and more. A typical sitting would have me cleaning three to four games, which gets old quickly, and takes a few minutes per. I keep all of my games in cases of some sort; original Genesis clamshells, universal game cases for SNES, and BitBoxes for NES.  I would clean a game if I even suspected that it was slightly dirty. I was always paranoid of putting a game with dirty contacts into my consoles as the that dirt would transfer, and it is way more difficult to clean the contacts in a console than on a cartridge. Granted, the games are thirty years old, and corrosion is expected, but it was getting to be too much. However, with an Everdrive I just leave it in the console, and since it is newer there is no need to clean it - it loads up every time.

There's a reason why game cleaners exist.
Another reason is time. Anyone who has kids will attest that there is less time for gaming, so the act of perusing the collection and selecting a game is time not playing. It sounds weird to say it, as I spent hours curating the reproduction cases for my carts. I still appreciate them, they lovingly adorn my game room, but I don't need to see the case to know if I want to play it anymore.

The Rhea Menu on my Shoot'em ups card

The third reason is game protection. Don't get me wrong, I have always been a gamer first and collector second. I never buy sealed copies of games because I don't think they are worth the premium, and unplayed games take up space. I will play any game that I own, any time. However, there are some games that have steadily climbed in value, and it is almost "safer" to play the roms of games rather than the games themselves. Specifically, Sega Saturn games that are outlandishly valued I would just rather keep out of harms way, especially when playing with the kids or with company.

There are lots of options for displaying/protecting carts 

There was a time when I was determined to play the real cart, convinced that there was a difference in the gameplay experience. This is true of real hardware vs. emulation, but not true between original carts/discs and SD card devices. The data send to the console's processors is still the same data, the console does not treat it differently.

Lastly, its just too easy to play games from these devices, especially when game are organized in menus. I have found myself playing more games that I normally would not have pulled off the shelf, simply because I know that loading it, playing it, and abandoning it takes almost no time at all. I can be reminded of why I don't play a certain game as often, and just press a button combination to get back to the main menu of games. So, maybe it boils down to laziness.

Does this mean that I will never play my original copies of a game again? No, but probably less so. Maybe this is just a phase, maybe next week I'll be exclusively be original discs and carts. Only time will tell if that is truly the case.

Retro Games Rereleases and Piracy


The recent resurgence of retro gaming has caught the eye of game publishers, as we are now seeing a steady increase of retro games being rereleased on modern platforms. Recent examples include the Mega Man Legacy collections, the Sega Genesis Classics Collection, the Capcom Beat'em Ups bundle, Nintendo Switch Online, the  mini consoles (NES, SNES, Playstation, Neo Geo), and others. Publishers are starting to mine the ore of nostalgia that adults thirty years of age and older are susceptible to, and they should. Just because a game was released a long time ago doesn't mean it is no longer relevant or enjoyable.

Movies and music albums are rereleased all the time. How many versions of Star Wars compilations are there? Too many to count! Yet people still love them and snap them up. Some musical groups have just as many "Greatest Hits" albums as studio albums, and yet they still sell. Sega knew this, as there are a glut of Sonic and Genesis collections. This may be annoying to some, but I say more is better. There are so many classic retro games out there that would make a great collection, and the recent Capcom Beat'em Ups collection is a great example. Nearly half of those arcade games did not get an a home port to a console, and were until now, lost to the past. I think Konami should get onboard and put together a series of collections, starting with its Arcade hits.

Rereleases of classic retro games in high definition are always welcome

Some will say these games are available through emulation. While that is true, the issue of roms and piracy jumps to the forefront. Piracy is nothing new when it comes to entertainment media. In the early 2000's the file sharing network known as Napster opened the floodgates to sharing of mp3 music files. Napster was subsequently sued by every meaninful entity in the music industry, and was forced to shut down by the courts. This has since led to changes in how music is distributed, particularly with DRM (digital rights management). The music industry shifted to an open online marketplace for songs priced individually. After doing so, Apple proceeded to sell individual songs in droves as the digital music eclipsed physical music media in the marketplace.

Similarly, recent efforts by Nintendo mirror what transpired nearly twenty years ago, albeit on a smaller scale. Their effors to smash rom sites with litigation have been fairly effective. The major rom sites like Emuparadise, Loveroms, and the Isozone have scaled back or removed altogether copyrighted roms and IPs. Where people stand on the issue is as broad a spectrum as colors in the rainbow, but the writing is on the wall. Nintendo is sending a message, and it was clearly received. This maybe another watershed moment in the history of digital entertainment media, or it may not be. Just like the Whack-A-Mole game at Chuck-E Cheese's, roms may pop up somewhere else eventually.

Retro game collections have been better in recent years
There is an argument that companies don't do enough to preserve their catalog of releases, and this may be true. This can change, if more companies realize the demand, and do something about it. If the companies make these games available, the need for piracy diminishes, and they can actually make money on their IPs again. Win-win, right? I would gladly purchase a legitimate copy of a game, if I could. I'm sure many people out there feel the same way. As long as there is demand for such media, publishers should be able to make a profit  off of selling rereleased games. Part of preserving these retro games is supporting the companies that made them, so that future official rereleases is a realistic possibility.

Some retro-inspired releases
Perhaps the next step in the evolution of video game distribution is a subscription based service, like Netflix, Hulu, etc. This would allow for gaming to be above the table, and also allow for proper rights management to be preserved. It would take some work to track down publishing rights for companies that no longer exist, but it can be done. I don't currently own a Switch, but I like the efforts being made to increase retro game availability. If the same retro releases make their way to PS4 I'm sold. What do you all think? Would you buy rereleases today, even if you have free access to roms online?

Recent gems

Review: Tecmo Super Bowl '19


Tecmo Super Bowl (TSB) is the follow up to the immensely popular Tecmo Bowl (TB) on the NES. It was released in 1991 for the NES, Genesis, and SNES. The gameplay can be described as arcade-like, with fast action, vibrant colors, and simple gameplay. Unlike the Madden football game series, which are considered more as simulation games, TSB has more universal appeal as the controls and gameplay are simplistic enough for most to pick up and play.

Modern versions have all 32 teams are represented

I had both TB and TSB back in the day, as I was/am a football nut. There were a lot of improvements made in TSB:

  • eleven players on the field for each team (TB has nine)
  • official team licenses and NFL Players (TB only had the players, not the real teams) 
  • double the number of plays, sixteen-game season with saving
  • expanded rosters with substitutions
  • season stats
  • and more

This game is so addictive, it makes you want to keep coming back and completing the entire season's schedule. If your team makes the playoffs, you continue play as far as you can make it, and perhaps maybe to the Super Bowl. As far as I can remember, this was the first NES  sports game to offer such a lengthy campaign. Unfortunately, only the 1991 season schedule can be played, but even still, it had immense replayability as you can choose any of the other teams and play through them again.

all eleven players are on field for each team

Other Tecmo Super Bowl games followed during the 16-bit generation, such as Tecmo Super Bowl II Special Edition and Tecmo Super Bowl III Final Edition. These all had upgrades in all departments, but for some reason the 8-bit NES iteration retains a cult following, having annualized rom hacks each year. I ordered a physical cart of this year's edition, TSB 19, from tecmobowl.org. The cart is playable on original hardware, but may not be compatible with emulation based clone systems like the Retron 5 or Super Retro Trio.

Updated rosters are a staple of sports games
The rom can also be dowloaded from that same website for free, if you prefer to play with an emulator or Everdrive. This is just as enticing because there are several iterations of the game that are uploaded by members of the TSB rom community. Each version has tweaks to gameplay, rules, uniforms, colors, and so on.

One might wonder what could be different about a nearly 30 year old 8-bit game that would be interesting these days. Well, TSB 19 has loads of improvements and changes to the gameplay, such as playbook editing, adjustable quarter length, current rosters, to name a few. There is an active fanbase that scrutinizes player attributes, team playbooks, roster changes, and make frequent edits to the rom. There is a cult following for this game to the point where regional tournaments are held all over the country; I think this is awesome. I'm not a pro by any means, so I wouldn't enter one myself, but I'd love to attend one just to watch.

As deep as the TSB has become, you don't need know much about football to enjoy the game. If you understand the basic rules, you can play the game. Of course, those who understand the nuances will fare better than the average person. Anyone can become decent after playing a few games. The real fun is playing another person, and throwing all football logic out the window as you go for it on fourth and eleven from your own twenty yard line.


Additionally, I actually feel like this year's Chicago Bears roster is one that is worth playing, something that I haven't said for a long time. When the Bears traded for Khalil Mack earlier in the month, I was worried that the trade would not be reflected in the game's roster, but to my delight it made it in before pressing.

I love these 8-bit renders of player photos

What appears to be a simple 8-bit arcade-like sports game is surprisingly deep, with loads of replayability. In my humble opinion it is still one of the best multiplayer games not just on the NES, but of all time. Despite its programming limitations, it stands the test of time; the epitome of gameplay over graphics. The modern updates to the game are just icing on the cake. If you haven't ever played Tecmo Super Bowl, or its been a while, do your self a favor and give it a try. Better yet, play with a friend for bragging rights.