Review: The MISTer FPGA

As the concept of retro gaming has matured over the past twenty or so years, the popularity and demand for retro consoles and games has reached new heights. With so much awareness of the great games of yesteryear, and limited supply, playing old games via emulation has become more and more commonplace. Emulation has flirted with mainstream popularity, from plug and play solutions (NES Classic, SNES Classic, Playstation Classic, Sega Genesis Mini, Turbo Grafx-16 Mini, more) to more tinker-based projects (RetroPie). All of these emulation methods are hamstrung by the emulation in software. Because the operations take place in series, each operation must complete before another starts, this is the logic behind code progression. With retro game consoles, the hardware operations occur in parallel, allowing for (yet simple) tasks occurring with brisk pace. If you've ever seen the motherboard inside a NES or Genesis, you can see all the traces between every chip and processor splaying out like an electrical web. All of these traces allow for parallel processing, which is what the console needed to produce the visuals, sounds, and gameplay that you remember. 

Remember when RetroPi was the Bee's knees? 

With good emulation, you might not ever realize there is a difference except for one inescapable tell: input latency. The operating system that is running the emulator will still add some wait time from when a button press is registered on a controller to when the action takes place onscreen. There are things you can do to mitigate input lag: turning off picture processing on your HDTV (using game mode) and using a wired controller. Most people may not even notice that there is any lag at all. But try playing a game from your youth that is heavily reliant on twitch movement, like Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! You may think that you're just old, and forgot how to play the game, and that might be true to some extent, but it's more than likely that the game is not processing your inputs as fast as a real console would. Hence, you will never beat Mike Tyson via emulation.

Enter field programmable gate arrays, or FPGA. These devices are programmed to mimic the operations on a hardware level, in parallel, not in series. This means no delay in signal processing and no lag. The FPGA consoles manufactured by Analogue are renown as the pinnacle of clone consoles for their level of accuracy to original hardware, while directly outputting high definition video to modern displays. They play original cartridges, have a modern design and interface, and can utilize original controllers to boot. As great as these are, they are exorbitantly priced, and in short supply. 

View of the optional IO board

The open source MIST project has many talented programmers and coders contributing "cores", or programs that are designed to mimic specific hardware like the NES, Genesis, Atari 2600, and so on. MISTer project created a buzz like none other. The MISTer name is an amalgam of MIST and Terassic (the brand of field programmable gate array board), hence MISTer. A consumer grade FPGA computer board that can be programmed to mimic nearly every legacy console and micro computer through the 16-bit generation (and possible 32-bit). The MISTer runs on the Terassic DE-10 Nano development board. Everyday it seems more and more cores are available. Just a few days ago the core for the DoDonpachi arcade game was released, and it plays phenomenally well. These are all free to use, because it's open source. 

There was a requisite level of technical know-how to get started, but with the recent release of Mr. Fusion, a program that writes the MISTer image to an SD card, the number of steps to get started has been simplified dramatically. Once you write the image on the card, insert it into the DE-10 Nano, and turn it on. The program will start up, and it will finish once connected to the net. I setup wifi on it first in order to do this (wifi dongle required). After the update, I moved my ROMs onto the card, configured a USB controller, and I was treated to cycle-accurate NES, Master System, Genesis, Sega-CD, SNES, PC-Engine, PC-Engine CD, Neo Geo gaming. 

It's a bunch of boards stacked together alright

The board looks like a science project, with exposed boards, wires, and LEDs protruding every which way. There are a host of optional accessories and add-ons, which add various features. I opted for the USB hub for additional ports, the IO board for a fan, 128 MB SD ram board for complete NEO GEO compatibility, and a USB WiFi dongle for updating and file transfers. It ends up looking like a spaghetti monster when everything is connected. There are cases available that help clean up the package, but keep in mind this was not originally built to be a game console. It also doesn't offer much in the way of menu aesthetics, with it's plain text menu. The polished front ends for RetroPie win one point here. No matter, as once your start playing you realize that software based emulation can't match the accuracy of MISTer. 

Arcade game cores are a FPGA revelation 

Another downside is the ceiling of console programmability. The DE-10 is projected to top out at the 5th generation, and how well it can pull it off remains to be seen. Playstation and Sega Saturn are the hopes, and If indeed they happen, I'd say the DE-10 has had a good run. Anything beyond would require a more powerful FPGA, which is inevitable.

Then there is the sticky issue of ROMs. Do most people extract the ROMs from their own cartridges? The MISTer does not have a cartridge port, let alone one for every supported core. ROM sites have been struck down in recent years, reminders that the legality of sharing/obtaining games is suspect at best. People will make their own decisions on that matter.

The MISTer opens up the costly world of NEO GEO to the masses

The cost of entry is fair, a DE-10 nano board costs around $140. You'll also need a micro SD card, HDMI cable, power adapter, USB controller, and USB keyboard (for setup). These add up to a little more than a Raspberry Pi setup running RetroPie, but again, the higher cost is due to the FPGA processor. All in, it's just a shade of what the equivalent retro gaming setup would cost if original consoles and games were considered. 

Clearly this is not a solution for hardware purists, but that's OK. There will never be a single solution to please everyone. The MISTer provides accurate gameplay without the flash, accoutrements, or ephemera that is strongly associated with retro gaming. For some that is a deal breaker, yet some don't feel they need the physical artifacts of gaming's past. At the end of the day, this is yet another option available to people to have fun and experience games from the the silver age of video games. 

Retro Shooters for Beginners

Shoot 'em ups, shooters, or "shmups" are two-dimensional games that involve some flying ship that shoots at lots of enemies. They are were one of the most popular genres of video games historically, with roots all the way back to Space War, Space Invaders, Asteroids, etc. The genre remains popular today, with modern releases favoring the 2D style. I prefer the silver age of shooters, which centers around the 8-16-32 bit consoles, including the NES, PC-Engine (Turbo Grafx-16), Saturn, and Playstation. For clarification, the term "shooters" is my preferred way to reference them, as that was how the genre was named back in their heyday. Shooters is not to be confused with the modern first-person shooter war sims like Call of Duty, Halo, etc. 

Shooters are generally known for their difficulty, and to newcomers they can be intimidating, and inaccessible. Many devout fans of the genre are well versed and practiced, so their opinions of the best games will often favor games with high challenge. Examples of highly regarded but very difficult games are Battle Garegga, Gradius, and R-Type. These games have every right to be named in the pantheon of retro shooter greats, but they're not entry level material. I wanted to highlight some games that can ease new fans into the genre, and not obliterate them instantly. Games that allow for clear, linear progression of skill development, even if erring on the side of too easy are the focus. It should be mentioned that games with an easy setting fit in nicely here, especially since the settings can be upped as a player improves.

These are in no particular order:

Strikers 1945 (Saturn, Playstation)

Learning how to use the charge shot effectively is key

Unrelated to Capcom's 194X series of games, Strikers has a similar initial setting and appearance, but quickly eschews the WWII theme for gigantic, robotic aliens and screen-filling fire power. There are three games in this series, but the first is listed here as it is the easiest of the three. The game setup has seven difficulty modes, including the easiest, called "monkey". This is a good place to start for any beginner, as the difficulty increases a bit with each stage cleared. Another reason it is good for beginners is the charge shot system. Once you acquire power ups, you gain little helper drones that increase your firepower. In addition, when you charge your shot by holding the fire button down, your drones assemble in a concentrated fire formation, easing the boss battles. This can be done an unlimited number of times, but you are unable to fire during the charging period, which lasts anywhere from one to three seconds, depending on your craft. It is a tremendously helpful tactic, and enhances the gameplay experience as well as replay-ability as you explore each of the different planes and their unique abilities.  

Gunhed/Blazing Lazers (PC-Engine/TG-16)

The field thunder laser is as mesmerizing to watch as it is devastating

Blazing Lazers is a simple, straightforward game that doesn't do too many things that are flashy, but it is rock solid in execution. Your ship has selectable speed, which is always a welcome feature, but it's probably best for beginners to leave it set to level 2. There are four different weapon power ups, each increasing in power with additional orbs collected. The enemy patterns start out as fairly basic, and gradually become more interesting. The enemy shots don't reach a fervor until about the 5th stage, which is plenty of time for a learning curve.    

Gun Nac (NES)

Robotic Rabbits shoot carrots at you, of course

Good shooters on the NES are a rarity, even though there are a plethora. The programming during the 8 bit era was rough in the early days, which let to a glut of half-baked shooters in name only. The precision of control for the quick pace of shooters was hard to nail down, leading to games that felt slippery and too fast. Examples include Sky Shark, Star Force, Tiger Heli, Zanac, and so on. Gun Nac has the control dialed in perfectly. Power ups are plentiful, and can even be purchased inbetween stages with the cash collected from enemy drops. Bombs are plentiful as well, and come in several varieties. If you refrain from collecting everything, and only collect consecutive bombs of the same type, their power increases. Sporting a linear difficulty curve, Gun Nac lets you enjoy the oddball enemy design during gameplay. 

Final Soldier (PC-Engine)

Oft considered the black sheep of Hudson's soldier series, Final Soldier unfairly gets a bad rap. Just because it is regarded as the weakest of the three does not make it a bad game. I actually prefer this game over Super Star Soldier, which is normally considered the runner up to the magnificent Solider Blade. Final Soldier eases you in, showering you with all varieties of power ups so you can get a taste of each. Like most shooters, collecting consecutive power ups of the same type increase the level of the weapon. In addition, secondary weapons are helpful as well, specifically the options that can be sacrificed as bombs if the need arises. While the game may seem too easy to veterans, it's a lot of fun, and you don't really get bored. For anyone trying shooters on the PC Engine for the first time, I recommend this as the first one to try.

The Raiden Project (Playstation)

Cows help set the scene in Raiden

Raiden was always a game I played in the arcade whenever I saw it. It has textbook pick-up-and-playability. The movement is simple, firing is simple, and the bomb is self explanatory. Power ups come in two varieties, with successive pickups increasing the power. The default arcade game is a classic quarter muncher, accelerating the difficulty by the end of stage one. The game had numerous ports to home consoles, but the one that stands out is The Raiden Project for Playstation. It included Raiden and Raiden II, and was loaded with customizability. The difficulty settings open this game up to all skill levels. Button configs, number of lives, continues, etc., are all included. The game may appear overly simplistic, but it was executed well, and that's what keeps people coming back.

Fire Shark (Genesis)

Screen capture only shows half of the fire, but it's definitely awesome

On the surface, there doesn't appear to be anything special about Fire Shark. You fly a 1920's era biplane, and enemy and stage design is rather pedestrian. The draw here is the fire stream power up. It is a visceral, lashing, death stream that obliterates anything on screen when powered up. Once you are at maximum, all you need to worry about is dodging bullets, as enemies are vaporized the second they appear. It does take time to get to this point, and that might be easier said than done, but with some practice there's nothing tricky or mystifying about it. Some say the game is too easy once powered up, but I say just enjoy it. The other power ups are O.K., but I found myself avoiding them so that I didn't lose the fire stream. That might be the hardest part, since at some parts of the game the screen is jam packed with green power ups that are just as hard to avoid as bullets, as they don't leave the screen for a long time. 

So there are some easy going shooters for retro consoles that I recommend to anyone who is interested in the genre but doesn't know where to start. I think it is understood that original game prices these days can be cost prohibitive, but there are other means to access and play these games. Some of these games are region locked, like Final Soldier and Strikers 1945, but that won't matter if you use emulators, flash carts, or optical drive emulators. I hope some people out there take these suggestions, and start easing into the vast genre of shoot 'em ups.