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|
|Retro USB AVS|
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.