Letting Go of Original Hardware?

CRT setup

When I got back into gaming in 2002, I didn't have my original consoles from my childhood. I went to the local Gamestop and picked up an NES, Genesis, and a box of games. This was right around the launch of the Gamecube/Xbox, and so these were dirt cheap. I had a Sony Trinitron Wega TV, to which I hooked the consoles up to using composite inputs. I played this way for years. Time flew by, and HD televisions were eventually available and affordable. While improvements in technology are normally lauded, this transition was not friendly to retro composite video signals. Thus, the NES and Genesis and the rest of the retro consoles remained hooked up to the CRT. Later I stumbled upon Retrorgb.com, a website dedicated to getting the best video quality from legacy gaming consoles. It was here where I learned about RGB signals and scart connectors. I purchased some cheap scart cables and a scart to component convertor and hooked up the Genesis and SNES to theCRT, and I was blown away. The increase in clarity was something that you never knew you wanted until you experienced it. Eventually, I bought an RGB-modded NES, as the NES does not natively support the RGB signal.

The OSSC multiplies the vintage 240p resolution for use on HDTVs

More time passed, and upscalers/line doublers like the Framemeister or Open Source Scan Convertor allowed the RGB signals to be displayed on modern flat panel HDTVs. However, with the increased fidelity of modern resolutions, certain aspects of the retro consoles began to show their age. Visible video noise, affectionately termed "jailbars" would become apparent when multiplying a 240p video signal to an HDTV. These were probably present all along, but they weren't noticeable on typical consumer CRTs. Depending on your tolerance, these bother some people more than others. For me, once I see them, I can't unsee them and they bother me to no end. There are some fixes that can be attempted to fix the problem, like the RGB Triple Bypass board, but from what I have read, they may or may not truly go away. 

Other issues may creep up, like capacitors needing to be replaced. If left unfixed, the leaky capacitors can eat away at the motherboard, destroying the console. Some consoles are worse offenders than others (ahem, Turbo Duo). Some consoles require a mod to output an RGB signal, like the NES or N64.  Another issue is that light guns do not work on modern TVs, due to incompatible video refresh rates.

Clone console popularity rose in the 2010's, especially the multi-system variety. Various companies tried their hand at making clone consoles, like Hyperkin, Retrobit, At Games, and others. While these had a place in the market due to their newer builds, affordable prices, and ease of use, they never really earned high praise from hardcore retro gamers. They all exhibited varying amounts of gameplay inaccuracies.

The Analogue NT Mini

Mega SG and Super NT


This all changed with modern FPGA clone consoles. FPGA (field programmable gate array) technology creates the most accurate gameplay recreation to date. The FPGA runs the code in parallel (multiple operations simultaneously, like old consoles did), as opposed to software emulation in series (one operation can start after the previous one finishes). This distinct difference is the primary reason why there is no input latency while using FPGA. Visuals are crisp and clean, sound is as it should be. Video output is direct to HDMI from the board, so it is about as easy as it gets to play old games with no fuss, truly plug and play. The consoles are so well made, that the typical maladies of clone consoles and software emulation are no longer present.  All of the consoles are firmware upgradeable, so any issues are generally fixed in a timely fashion with an update. The company Analogue has made its name by producing such consoles, such as the NT Mini (NES), Super NT (SNES), Mega SG (Genesis), and forthcoming Duo (Turbo Grafx). This leap in technology comes at a price, and there is a fair amount of sticker shock to be had. The NT Mini is priced at $500, and the Super NT and Mega SG come in at $200. The NT Mini has a significantly higher price due to a body carved from solid aluminum, and brings more features such as analog and digital video output. The company RetroUSB also makes an FPGA NES console, called the AVS. It has fewer features that Analogue's NT Mini, but comes at less that half the cost and is a quality machine. 

These clone FPGA consoles are so good, that it begs the question: "is it time to let go of original hardware?" The aging hardware is dying off or on life support. There are no capacitor issues, jailbars, or broken power ports with these new clones. The cost of modding a console to fix these issues, and make it HD-compatible is just as high if not higher than the cost of buying an FPGA console. That brings us to a divide. For people who have already had consoles modded, and bought the necessary scart cables, and upscalers, FPGA consoles present yet another cost, and so monetary savings are not viable. For someone getting into retro gaming today, FPGA consoles represent a greater value than trying to adapt legacy consoles for today's HDTVs, but still are priced above the casual gamer market. 

I would be remiss to not mention another FPGA retro gaming option that has swelled in popularity lately: the MISTer. I wrote up a review here, but to summarize, MISTer is a single board FPGA computer that the retro gaming community has written code for (cores) to allow it to simulate nearly all the video game consoles up to the 5th generation (PS1, N64, Saturn), as well as arcade games. It might sound like this has been done before through emulation using programs like Retropie, but once you play on MISTer you'll feel the difference. 

The MISTer requires the main board, the open source software, and a usb controller to play. To play the majority of what MISTer offers, you're looking at about $200 for a bare bones setup. While add ons are available, each one increases the cost. Game roms would have to be provided by the user, as there is no cartridge port. This may factor in to an individual's preference for how to play, as the distribution of roms is generally regarded as illegal, but methods do exist for extracting roms from your own games. 

Speaking of playing roms, unofficial "jailbroken" firmwares have been released that allow the Analogue consoles to play roms without the need for cartridges. This jailbreak is not officially recognized nor endorsed by Analogue. This does increase the appeal for the consoles, as the experience of an FPGA console playing rom is identical to playing an actual cartridge. This has made it easier to stomach the high asking price of the consoles. 

So if one is a longtime retro gamer, what should one do? There are more options available today for playing retro games than there were twenty years ago, and that is a good thing. I had the original consoles and now I have FPGA consoles as well. While I realize that this is redundant, I could not just pack up the originals, so I have two gaming setups. The HD TV with modern consoles, FPGAs, upscalers, etc., and the old Sony CRT with original consoles hooked up via scart to component. Which one I play on depends. If I want booming sound, I use my CRT as the audio is piped through my stereo receiver. If I want to play on a large screen, I use my HDTV. If I want to play light gun games, I use the CRT. Maybe someday I'll have to break down one of the setups, but I'm holding on to both for as long as I can. 

HDTV Setup

The RetroUsb AVS and the Analogue NT Mini Noir

The RetroUSB AVS is a modern clone console of a Nintendo Entertainment System, featuring an FPGA (field programmable gate array) chip that could simulate console hardware in real time with no lag. My RGB-modded NES top loader was OK for use on CRTs, but it displayed all sorts of jailbars and artifacts on screen when piped through my OSSC onto my HDTV. I was looking for a cleaner solution, so I decided to pick one up. 

The AVS (an acronym for  Advanced Video System, the rejected name for what is known as the Nintendo Entertainment System) is a fantastic modern clone console. It has slots for both North American NES cartridges, as well as the Japanese Famicom carts. It also has an expansion port for use with the Japanese Famicom Disk System, if you have one. Video output is 720p, via HDMI. The picture is sharp and clean, and with the recent firmware update, now includes interpolation as an option to smooth out the image further and remove pixel shimmering when the screen scrolls. The proper aspect ratio is subject to interpretation, and can be adjusted to your liking. Four controller ports are built in, and the power and reset buttons are identical to those on an original NES. The cartridge slot does have a firm grip, and it takes much shimmying to wiggle a cart out - this would be referred to as a death grip but I think thats exaggerating a bit. It does read carts reliably, not really requiring much reseating or scrubbing of contact pins. 

The snug fit of the carts is a bit tight

Famicom carts stand upright, preventing the lid from closing completely

I was very happy with my AVS for years. Then, Analogue announced that they would be releasing another batch of their premium NT Mini consoles, in a limited number. The NT Mini was the first FPGA NES clone, engineered by the legendary programmer known as Kevtris. This would be the be-all end-all of NES clones, sparing no expense and costing a whopping $500. The body of the console is machined aluminum, which is where most of the cost comes from. Functionally, it outputs 720p and 1080p, and has an onboard digitial-audio converter (DAC) that enables analog output to CRTs as well in the form of composite, RGB, S-video, and component. Essentially, every kind of output signal is provided. Four controller ports are built in as well. This is the Cadillac of NES clones, and a limited number of people would have the privilege of paying that much for it. I placed my preorder, and waited. 

The gun metal gray is impressive and a bit decadent

When the NT Mini Noir arrived, first impressions matched expectations. The build quality is unlike anything the video game market has ever seen. The weight, build, and packaging all exude quality. The clear bottom proudly exposes the clean circuitry of the motherboard, and the gun metal aluminum screams exclusivity. The cartridge flaps make a satisfying "clink" when released, and they are present on both the NES and Famicom slots. The operating system presents a much more robust set of options when compared to the AVS. Not only are there more video output options, but the customizability for each characteristic of the video and audio signals is dazzling. Youtube videos have been made just to explain how to dial in the various ideal settings that are possible. 

The NT Mini can do it all, as evidence by the multitude of output options

It sounds like a perfect console so far, but there are a few drawbacks to mention. The design of the NT Mini is such that is has a low profile, so that means the cartridge slots have almost no depth. From afar this doesn't seem like a problem, and whether it is one is debatable. Because the slots are so shallow, there is a certain amount of wobble once carts are inserted. This amount of play in the seated position potentially leads to games glitching or resetting if the console or table is bumped. In practice, this is overstated, and how many people are bumping their entertainment centers while playing? For me, the biggest drawback is something else. The games need to be pristinely clean in order to play correctly. I mean, clean with a mirror shine. I understand that as adults we are taking care of our games better now that we did as kids, and I generally clean my games when I think that there's a chance of introducing dirt or grime into my console. But the NT Mini has next-level pickiness about how clean the cart should be in order to run. I keep my NES carts in air tight Bit-Boxes (from Stoneagegamer.com), and I still have to scrub each one no less than two times, sometimes more. It was adding more frustration to the process of playing games than I was willing to tolerate. So I decided to unhook my NT Mini and reinstate the AVS. 

The wobble may be overstated
...but it is noticeable

It is true that the NT Mini outputs 1080p, a higher resolution than the AVS at 720p. This is a difference that can be noticed if you scrutinize for it. However, fans of scanlines like myself will tell you that scanlines do not present well in 1080p, and become uneven. In 720p, which is a multiple of the NES native 240p resolution, the scanlines are very regular with even width, presenting very naturally. When people want to set scanlines on HD systems, a common fix is to reduce the resolution to 720p. It's a personal preference.

I think a lot of the appeal and value of the Analogue systems comes in the ability to jailbreak them with unofficial firmware, and side load the roms so cartridges aren't needed at all. In the case of the Mini, the jailbreak firmware includes a dozen or so cores that allow for access to entire libraries, like Gameboy, Gameboy Color, Coleco, Atari, and many others. The fact that all of the games from all of these systems can be played on one console, with FPGA quality is a major selling point. I do believe that many people buy the NT Mini for this very reason, which is fair. I gave the jailbreak firmware a test drive, and it was fine, but I didn't buy the console with those systems in mind, so personally for me it was a wash. If one is  buying consoles just for the ability to play a multitude of roms for a multitude of systems, then I think the MISTer FPGA project is a better/cheaper option. I reviewed the MISTer here. 

While the NT Mini is all about the premium aesthetic, the AVS channels the NES, from its coloration to its identical buttons. The simplicity of it is unassuming. It is also only $185, compared to the $500 for the Mini. The Mini is very chic, with its aluminum housing feeling like an unnecessary premium. It is little over the top with the amount options. Added features aside, the cost difference is not to be ignored. Yes you are getting every feature that is currently possible, but will you use every feature? Do you need the extra four types of analog video output? Will you play all of the other cores once jailbroken? It is easy to be seduced by the accoutrements. What I hear is many people clamoring for is an Analogue NES console more in line with the Super NT (FPGA Super Nintendo) or Mega SG (FPGA Genesis), which are perfectly functional HDMI clones that are priced just under $200. These would fit the market space better, make a killing, and would probably sell more that all the others combined. Maybe Analogue does have that planned, and are first milking the people willing to shell out half a G for the NT Mini first, before releasing a mass produced $200 model eventually. If they do, great, but so far I'm super happy with my AVS. 

What are your thoughts? Do you have one or both? Do you feel the premium price for the NT Mini is worth it? I am curious to hear other opinions. 

The State of My Retro Game Collecting

There's a saying that your life changes when you have kids, and that's no lie. All for the better of course,  and one side effect of that is you truly become a home-body. After the kids go to bed in the early evening, you're homebound looking for something to do. My wife reads a lot, and that's a great for her, but it's not the first thing I chose to do with free time. 

When you only have enough free time for Contra, but not Breath of the Wild, you tend to prefer pick-up-and-play games.  I realized that I favored pick-up-and-play action games, as they are engaging throughout the usual 60 minutes and have a short learning curve. Shoot 'em ups, or shooters (not to be confused with first person shooters like Call of Duty, etc) emerged to the front of my mind when selecting games to play, followed by beat 'em ups (like Streets of Rage, Final Fight), and run 'n guns (Contra, Metal Slug). 

The gold standard of retro

So I started actively seeking out old cartridges at garage sales, flea markets, thrift stores, and eBay. Having a goal made garage sale hunting an adventure. Having lived through the 16 bit console wars, the memories were still palpable. My first task was to reacquire the games I had when I was growing up. This meant Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Sega Genesis games. This didn't take long, as I only had about twenty games total. Games from garage sales were dirt cheap, and so I was buying up games that I never heard of. As a kid I never would have dreamed of owning as many games as I have today. Back in the 80's, games were too expensive to be everyday purchase, they were primarily birthday and Christmas gifts due to their cost. $50 in 1988 is like a $150 today. There was lots of trading and borrowing between friends. I remember picking up odd jobs around the house and neighborhood, mowing lawns, shoveling snow, and so on. Two months of summer work could net one expensive game or two cheaper games. I remember Contra was $50, and it was a proud day when I took my lawn money to the Toys 'R Us and received that silver box from "the cage". I have several memories like this, and it goes to show the lengths kids would go to get more games. We treasured each one, and played the hell out of each one. Even bad games weren't "bad", because we had such a smaller range of experiences to compare, and if it was one of the ten games you owned, you still played it out of principle. 

Space Megaforce was $20 in 2010

Recollecting my old NES and Genesis games were a gateway to the other consoles that I didn't have but always wanted. The Super Nintendo was next on my list, and not having any specific games in mind, I sought advice from YouTube. Acquiring common games in the wild wasn't too difficult, and I was able to buy the rest of what I wanted from eBay relatively cheaply. I must have been on the forefront of the retro gaming resurgence, because I noticed that game prices started creeping up; slowly at first, then faster. The popular games were the easiest to find, like Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country. Those usually sold for a few bucks a piece. When games fell in that $10 range, I had to stop and think about it. I remember the most I paid for a SNES game: I was debating on whether $20 was too much to pay for the superb Space Megaforce, which now sells for hundreds of dollars. I'm glad I went for it.

Next I discovered the Sega Saturn, and the 2D treasure trove that it hosted. This console was a different animal altogether. The domestic Saturn library, while revered with role playing games and 3D platformers, had a very paltry shmup library, consisting of the excellent Darius Gaiden and Gallactic Attack. It turns out that there was an enormous glut of shooters available only in Japan. Even though the Saturn is region locked, that is very easy to overcome with an Action Replay card that you slide into the cartridge slot (which teases Genesis backwards compatibility). With eBay and the online international marketplace circa 2009, games were easily imported, the only caveat being the lengthy shipping time. At the time, prices were a fraction of what they are now, but still a level up from collecting loose carts from thrift stores. This was my next collection goal: Sega Saturn shooters. While over a decade I was unable to get all of them, I can say that I have nearly all of the ones that I want. As of today, there is one title that I'm OK not seeking out, based on its inflated price: Image Fight/X-Multiply. 

Playing shooters on the 32-bit Saturn led to interest in the Playstation. Despite it being wildly successful with its mass appeal, due to 3D hit games like Crash Bandicoot, Tomb Raider, Gran Turismo, and others, it still had a formidable collection of shooters. As with the Saturn, the best games were imports. 

One of my top 3 consoles: The PC Engine Duo R (Turbo Grafx)

The other console that I took a deep dive into was the PC Engine, AKA Turbo Grafx-16 in North America. It was primarily known for its expansive shooter library, and similar to the Saturn, most of the offerings were Japanese exclusives. It is a near consensus that the PC Engine reigns as THE system for shooters, and its hard to argue against that. Just do a little digging, and it will become apparent.

Trying to figure out which version of the console to buy was a confusing experience. There are too many variants, add-ons, RAM cards, and such that you need to commit to how it all works or you will end up making multiple purchases. I'm not going to explain this all here, but I will say that the easiest way to start playing the PC-Engine is with the Duo console, which can play CD-rom games as well as the standard Hu card games, which are about the same size as a credit card. Because most of the shooters were imports, I went with the Japanese version of the Duo. The PC Engine was very popular in Japan, so there was a much larger supply of games in circulation, lowering the game prices. Playing imports was no issue when you have a Japanese console. Of course, shooters have little to no language barrier. This was my last and current collection goal, to get all of the shooters for the system. Sadly, as with the Saturn and retro games in general, the hobby has caught fire and the demand for games has driven game prices into the stratosphere.  To anyone interested getting started in the hobby today, I think a flashcart like the Everdrive, which allows games to be played from an SD card, is a must. The high game prices in today's market make starting a collection prohitive. The issue of piracy is a touchy one, and people have as many opinions on it as there are wrestling games on the N64. Some abhor piracy outright, some have no qualms about downloading roms, and most are in the middle. My feeling is that if a game is unavailable to purchase through licensed channels, and it is ridiculously expensive, I have no problem downloading it. If a game is made available, I will purchase it to support the developers and increase the likelihood of more games being produced.  If I own a physical copy of the game, I don't have a problem with having the rom on a flashcart. Legal grey area aside, flash carts are in my opinion, the crowning achievement in retro gaming tech today. 

Modern collections of older titles help keep classics alive

I have dabbled in other consoles, but the bulk of my attention goes towards the aforementioned consoles. With all of the advances in graphics and gameplay, I still prefer the simplistic, 2D action games. There has been a resurgence of shmups on modern consoles lately, like the Psikyo Shooting collection, Darius Collection, Ikaruga, and others. These are great for introducing younger generations to the genre, and for older gamers to play these affordably. More options is always a good thing. I know that nearly everything can be emulated these days, but to me its not the same. Emulation is useful at times, but it's not how I prefer to play, the experience is just different when not using original hardware. The emergence of third party console manufacturers has been a boon to the interest in the hobby. Newer tech like field programmable gate arrays (FPGA) combine the lagless experience of hardware with the modern amenities like high definition video output. As much as I love my original model 1 Genesis, the jail bars and finicky cartridge slot have relegated it to the storage bin in favor of Analogue's Mega SG; it's that good.

So today I find myself more focused than ever as a gamer, I just know what I like now. I have taken a hard look at all of the games I have amassed over the last 10 years, and have started purging the games that I know I'll never play. For example, I know that I'm not into RPGs, so those can go. With the advent of GC Loader, I can let go of Gamecube games that I have lukewarm feelings for. I'm recycling the sales into the last few remaining shooters on my list that I still want. The collection has never felt tighter, more curated, with less filler. I feel a renewed vigor, knowing that each game that I kept I have done so for a reason. A recurring question that I periodically ask myself is, "will I really play that?". If I answer no, and have another way to play that game, I'm for purging it. There is the added beauty of an organized, presentable collection that is always present in the back of my mind that acts as a check against hoarding.

How do even move through this space?

For those of you who have been in the hobby for years, have you changed your collecting habits? Has your collection expanded only to contract again? It is always so interesting to me to see what others value in their collections.  



Review: Polymega Element Modules

I reviewed the Polymega base unit when it was sent to beta testers a while back, and now I have the final retail release, along with the four element modules (EM). To get caught up with the details of the base unit, you can read the first review here. This review is going to focus on the EMs and their included controllers. 

Guide rails and a locking clasp ensure a secure fit for all modules

The element modules are interchangeable pieces that slide into place on top of the Polymega base unit. There is release button that unclasps the module, allowing you to pull one off in order to slide in a different one. The build quality feels sturdy and is made from a high quality plastic that has a smudge-resistant matte shine. Each module has two controller ports for its respective console, which can theoretically accept any controller that the original console could. I have tried original controllers and they all work fine. I even tried some modern Genesis controllers, like the 8Bitdo 2.4 GHz M30 and Retrobit's 2.4 GHz, and they both work great, except that the home buttons don't function as they were intended for the Switch.   

The Polymega allows you to not only play your original cartridges, but install them as well. This is a huge selling point for me, as once the games are installed, you don't need to fuss with cleaning them each time. The user interface is very sleek and well designed. The games all have custom thumbnails made from the original cover art, and can be sorted a number of ways. Installing cartridge games is nearly instantaneous, unlike the CD based games which take on average about 10 minutes each. If a game is not yet entered into the Polymega database, it is reported by beta testers and a new firmware may possibly resolve the problem. The devs need to have a copy of the original game to program it into the database. I am still waiting for my Japanese copy of Donpachi on PS1 to be recognized since the beta testing period. 

The first Element module is EM01, which is for NES cartridges. There is only one slot, but with an adapter you can play and install Japanese Famicom games as well. Inserting the NES carts is a tight fit initially, but it started to loosen up after importing many carts over time. As I was importing, I was reminded how annoying it is to deal with dirty carts. It became necessary to clean about most of the carts. It makes the importing feature that much more appealing. I have only a handful of famicom games, and those were a pain to import due to the extra contacts that need to be cleaned on the cartridge adapter; I was only able to successfully import a few of them. The black Tengen cartridges were not recognized at all, an intentional omission due to them not being officially licensed. Out of my 160 NES carts, about 20 of them were not able to be imported. These will need to be reported and remedied for a future firmware. Had the EMs been available to beta testers, these would have been ironed out beforehand, but it is a monumental task to catalog every game for that many systems.

The gameplay is very tight, and the emulation quality is quite good. I made sure to play games that I know frontwards and backwards so that I would notices any oddities and issues. In Mega Man, there was what seemed like extra slowdown in certain areas, and the music would get a little glitchy here and there. I could not import certain games that I thought that I should have been able to, like Castlevania III and TMNT. I played with both the original and included controllers, and the muscle memory is still there for nearly all of the games. I played Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! and did not notice any lag. This was a pleasant surprise.

The included NES controller compares favorably, with angled buttons and ergonomic shape

The controller is a fantastic modernization of the original. Any middle aged gamer will understand the need for the angled buttons. Since The first Super Mario Bros., the need to hold the B button to run has been ingrained into muscle memory, and the button placement eases the strain on the wrists. The dpad is always my primary concern regarding third after market controllers. This dpad is a bit stiff, and so I assume that it will loosen up over time. The buttons are convex, which is fine, although I prefer concave for NES. The controller is contoured along corners, and rounded on the back, giving it a substantial and comfortable grip. I have seen people complain about the "sharp" corners on the original NES controller, but I never really though it was an issue. Even still, the rounder shape is hard to argue with. 

The second module, EM02, is for SNES and Super Famicom games. Game importing was a lot smoother, as nearly all of my games were recognized. Again the emulation quality is top notch. The default visuals are sharp, clean, with accurate colors. There is no frame rate issue, nor screen tearing. The audio seems to be just as accurate, but I'm not a SNES guy at heart, so maybe someone else might notice something, but I didn't. 

The included SNES controller is a tad smaller than the original
The back is rounded and very comfortable

The controller is modeled after your general SNES controller, with the select and start buttons moved upward to make room for the home button. The Y and X buttons are not concave, they are convex like A and B. I would have preferred the button styling to have both form factors, but its not a big deal to me. The shoulder buttons have an ever so slightly deeper press to them, with a subtle rubber bounce feel to them, which I like a lot. My only complaint about the controller is the dpad. There's nothing technically wrong with it, and it has a lot to live up, given the excellent design of the original. It just doesn't feel as good, especially with diagonals. In Contra 3, running and shooting diagonally is where I noticed it. I was still able to play the game, but I kept thinking about how that action did not feel as right. Button presses seem to be right on time, and I could play Super Mario World without issue.

EM03 for the Genesis and Mega Drive was the first module I tested, as I have the largest Genesis library out of all of the supported systems. The rectangular cartridge slot easily accommodates all shapes of cartridges, so no filing away at the flaps like with a Model 1 Genesis. The games all installed properly with only a few exceptions, and I think those will be resolved at next update. 

This included controller perhaps strays the most from the original, as it's physical girth is significantly thicker, with a curved contour that almost feels like a banana. This is perhaps an inelegant way to describe it, but it feels different and familiar at the same time; it's like a hybrid between the original Genesis 6-button and a Playstation controller. The buttons are uniformly large and springy, they feel good. The dpad is a little floaty however. It's not bad, but it's not great. The dpad on the original 6-button controller was in my opinion the best, and so this was going to be hard to emulate. A mode button is present on the top right shoulder, where the original was, except that it is a small circular dot instead of a panel button. The first game I loaded up was MUSHA, and it played faithfully. Next I played Thunder Force III, and perhaps here I felt what might have been a tinge of lag using the included controller. It wasn't enough to inhibit how I play, but it was the first time I noticed some. It's definitely not Retropie-bad, but I do think it is there. This is going to be something that each individual will have different levels of sensitivity to. TF3 was perhaps the Genesis game that I have played the most out of the entire library, so this particular instance might just be isolated to me. I noticed no such lag on any other game. Maybe it's in my head.

The pack-in Genesis controller appears very similar to the original 6-button controller from the front, but is has pronounced curvature to it's grip that gives it a modern feel, akin to a playstation controller. It feels good but it is so different. The buttons are all the same size, which is nicer than the original. I always felt that more force was needed to press X, Y, and Z on the original, and here the button resistance is uniform. A small, circular mode button is found in a familiar spot on the right shoulder.

EM04 plays Turbo Grafx-16 and PC Engine games. The PC Engine is king in shooters genre, and those make up the vast majority of my collection. This is where I thought for sure there would noticeable lag. Much to my surprise, the lag was very minimal, on most games I barely noticed it. A few games I did notice on were Coryoon, Winds of Thunder, and Gunhed, although it didn't ruin the experience. I can't explain why its noticeable on some games but not most. 

I played games that I know like the back of my hand over and over again trying to sense it. Playing the games with controllers through the USB connection is a different story. The USB controller port definitely has noticeable lag, I don't think I'll ever use a USB controller on the Polymega. The include controller has six face buttons, which I found curious as there is only one game that requires that many: Street Fighter II'. There is a two or six button toggle switch which changes which type of controller inputs you are using. It wouldn't be a Turbo Grafx controller without turbo switches, and it indeed has them, although they only have on or off settings, no intermediate option.

The decision to have six buttons was a surprising one

Overall my opinion of the Polymega has drastically changed from the beta unit to the retail unit with the Element Modules. The main reason for this is the low latency controller ports on the EMs. When I reviewed the beta base unit, I did not have any EMs and thus I only had access to the USB controller port, which sucks. Any EM can be attached while playing any game, so you can choose to play NES games with a Genesis controller, or vice versa. This versatility isn't the point; its the nearly lag free gameplay that is the biggest surprise of all. 

With all of the modern options for playing retro games out there, the Polymega definitely has a niche existence, requiring physical cartridges and CD games. Many retro gamers getting into the hobby today do not have the extensive collections necessary to warrant such a purchase. This is for the collector who has an established library of games, and wants to play them in a simple HDMI setup, without having to worry about upscalers, special cables, switch boxes, and space. It also has a relatively high price point (arguably lower if you consider the number of systems supported). Many gamers have converted towards the FPGA route, and I agree that they are fantastic, but this product is not that for them, as it is emulation through software; again, a distinction that most will not ever notice. Given this strong performance by the Polymega, I think that it will make a lot of people very happy, once the 2018 preorders finally ship.

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.