Sunday, July 5, 2015

Analogue Nt - The NES as a Luxury Retro Console



Nintendo made over sixty million NES and Famicoms systems from 1983-2003.  It is not a rare system and a base system is not particularly expensive on the second hand market.  It was one of the most popular video game consoles of all time.  However, today getting a NES to run on modern LCD TVs and not looking like crap can be a bit of a challenge.  Any of the popular NES or Famicom models, the original Famicom HVC-001, the front loader NES-001, the top loader NES-101 and the Famicom AV HVC-101 output composite video at best and RF at worst.  LCDs usually make this signal look horrible and some newer TVs do not like the 240p signal output by these consoles at all and will refuse to display them.

Now suppose you took the two core custom chips inside every NTSC NES and Famicom, the 2A03 CPU and 2C02 PPU and had the resources to make a totally redesigned system.  Then suppose you wanted to make this redesigned system a luxury item which the press and deep pocket gamers would fall in love over.  Well, a company called Analogue Interactive did just that.  It made an enclosure for its redesign fashioned out of a single solid block of high-grade 6061 aluminum.  It took CPU and PPU chips from a batch of Famicoms in cosmetically objectionable condition and put them in sockets inside a new PCB that it designed.  The result is a redesigned NES called the Analogue Nt that costs $499.00 to purchase.  

Analogue Interactive has had success designing wooden enclosures for consolized Neo Geo MVS arcade PCBs.  These wooden enclosures, with matching enclosures for the joysticks, are beautifully designed, scream quality and come with price tags to match.  Of course, Neo Geo fans are known for deep pockets who will pay thousands of dollars for rare Neo Geo AES home console game versions and can afford an uncompromising attitude toward quality.  While prices for NES-related items have gone up and up over the years, they are not at the average level of Neo Geo-related items.  The NES had many more games, both games and systems cost far less and had a very wide appeal to gamers in Japan, the United States and Canada and to a lesser extent in Europe, Australia, Brazil, Russia and Southeast Asia.  Analogue Interactive has seen this as a market to tap into with its high-end design philosophy.


The Analogue Nt is designed to handle both NES and Famicom systems.  It has a 72-pin connector cartridge connector for NES Game Paks and a 60-pin connector for Famicom Cassettes (no one uses the "official" names for the media anymore, so from hereon out I will use the word "cartridges" like everybody else).  The four controller ports on the front eliminate the need for a separate 4-player adapter for either NES or Famicom games.  The controller pins are gold plated to resist corrosion.  It supports the Famicom Disk System with an FDS RAM adapter and disk drive.  


As you can see from the front of the unit, the Analogue Nt is very minimalist in design except where absolutely necessary.  No unnecessary ridges, no asymmetry, no buttons or switches.  No more vents than absolutely necessary.  The basic silver color looks as if it was designed by or for Apple Inc.  The little dot above the stylized A is for an LED button, something not found on a Famicom or top loader NES.  If you want to be more adventurous, for $49.00 extra you can get the console in red, blue and black.  Pre-order backers could specify white plastic controller ports instead of the Nintendo black.  

The Analogue Nt has more features and in some ways more powerful hardware than any official Nintendo product every boasted.  It has the equivalent of a NESRGB board built into every system.  That gives S-Video and RGB video output and this console also adds Component Video for us Yankees.  The regular 2C02 composite video is also available.  Cables beyond the basic composite/S-Video cable that the base system comes with cost an additional $29.00 each Analogue Interactive offers JP-21 RGB, SCART RGB, BNC RGB and Component Cables for sale.  For an extra $79.00, you can in addition have kevtris' HDMI Mod installed.  


On the back of the unit, you can see a number of ports.  From left to right, we have a Famicom Expansion Port and a microphone jack.  The microphone input mimics the functionality of the microphone on the original Famicom's 2nd controller.  So you should be able to kill Pols Voice without any effort on the original version of The Legend of Zelda on the Analogue Nt.  

After the microphone port are a pair of RCA audio outputs.  The RCA audio out is shielded and amplified for headphones.  The Analogue Nt supports the original mono audio from the NES or the split channels "stereo" audio mod.  The left switch is to select between the 4-player NES adapter, the default of 2-player input and the 4-player Famicom adapter.

The right switch functions with the up and down buttons next to it.  With the switch in the Mic position, you can set the output volume of the Microphone.  With the switch in the Aux position, you can set the output volume of the Expansion Audio from the a cartridge.  With the switch in the Mix position, you can set the monophonic/stereophonic setting

Next comes the power jack.  Finally there is an HDMI port (if you selected the HDMI Adapter Upgrade option) and a VGA-style HD-15 video output port for all analogue video output.    The red button is the power button and is taken from an NES controller.  A quick push acts as a soft reset, holding it down turns the power off.  

The Analogue Nt supports the NES PowerPak and Everdrive N8.  Its power supply supports all worldwide power standards and there are versions for the US and Japan, the UK, Europe and Australia.  It provides additional power for 3rd party devices.

The HDMI Adapter Upgrade offers an awful lot more.  It uses kevtris' (Kevin Horton's) design and has virtually all the features from the HDMI Mod he has been demonstrating for the past year. Here is an unlisted video Analogue Interactive put out showing off the features for its implementation : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXsZ3LvdfCs

For those who prefer their information in text as opposed to video, a listing of the menu and submenus can give you a good idea of its features

Analogue Nt [Main] Menu
  • Resolution
    • 640x480 [60Hz/50Hz]
    • 1280x720 [60Hz/50Hz]
    • 1920x1080 [60Hz/50Hz]
  • Video Options
    • Horizontal Stretch
      • Width [Slider]
    • Scaling
      • None
      • HQ2X
      • HQ3X
      • HQ4X
      • Scale2X
      • Scale3X
      • XRay
    • Scanlines
      • Off
      • NES
      • 2X
      • 3X
      • 4X
      • 5X
    • Interpolation
      • On
      • Depth [Slider]
    • Palette
      • FCEUX'S
      • Beware's
      • Playchoice 10
      • Black and White
    • Cropping
      • Top Edge [Slider]
      • Right Edge [Slider]
      • Bottom Edge [Slider]
      • Left Edge [Slider]
    • Horizontal Position
      • Position [Slider]
    • Despeckle
  • Sound Options
    • Enables
      • VRC6
      • VRC7
      • FDS
      • MMC5
      • N163
      • Sunsoft 5B
      • VCR6 Swap
    • Volumes
      • APU [Slider]
      • N163 [Slider]
      • VRC6 [Slider]
      • MMC5 [Slider]
      • 5B [Slider]
      • FDS [Slider]
      • VRC7A [Slider]
      • VRC7B [Slider]
    • Panning
      • NES Sqr 1 [Slider]
      • NES Sqr 2 [Slider]
      • NES Tri [Slider]
      • NES Noise [Slider]
      • NES DPCM [Slider]
      • Namco 163 [Slider]
      • VRC6 Sq 1 [Slider]
      • VRC6 Sq 2 [Slider]
      • VRC6 Saw [Slider]
      • MMC5 Sq1 [Slider]
      • MMC5 Sq2 [Slider]
      • MMC5 PCM [Slider]
      • Sunsft 5B [Slider]
      • FDS [Slider]
      • VCR7 A [Slider]
      • VRC7 B [Slider]
    • Viewer [visual representation by sliders]
      • NES Pulse Wave 1 [Shows duty cycle, frequency and volume]
      • NES Pulse Wave 2 [Shows duty cycle, frequency and volume]
      • NES Triangle Wave [Shows frequency]
      • NES Noise [Shows short and long noise periods, frequency and volume]
      • NES Delta/PCM [Shows sample address, sample length, whether sample is looped, frequency]
      • FDS Wavetable Main Channel [Frequency and volume]
      • FDS Modulator [Frequency]
      • MMC5 Pulse Wave 1 [Frequency and volume]
      • MMC5 Pulse Wave 2 [Frequency and volume]
      • VRC6 Pulse Wave 1 [Frequency and volume]
      • VRC6 Pulse Wave 2 [Frequency and volume]
      • VRC6 Sawtooth Wave [Frequency and accumuator rate]
      • Sunsoft 5B Square Wave 1 [Frequency and volume]
      • Sunsoft 5B Square Wave 2 [Frequency and volume]
      • Sunsoft 5B Square Wave 3 [Frequency and volume]
  • Settings
    • Menu Hotkey [can select any combination]
      • A
      • B
      • Select
      • Strart
      • Up
      • Down
      • Left
      • Right
    • Overclock Hotkey [can select any combination]
      • A
      • B
      • Select
      • Strart
      • Up
      • Down
      • Left
      • Right
    • Underclock Hotkey [can select any combination]
      • A
      • B
      • Select
      • Strart
      • Up
      • Down
      • Left
      • Right
    • Short Reset Hotkey [can select any combination]
      • A
      • B
      • Select
      • Strart
      • Up
      • Down
      • Left
      • Right
    • Long Reset Hotkey [can select any combination]
      • A
      • B
      • Select
      • Strart
      • Up
      • Down
      • Left
      • Right
    • Controller for Hotkeys
      • Controller 1
      • Controller 2
    • DVI Mode
      • DVI Mode
    • EDID Disable
      • Disable EDID
    • Audio Clock
      • CPU Clock
      • PPU Clock
  • Save and Update
    • Save Settings
    • Update Firmware [via flash cart like PowerPak or Everdrive]
  • About
[Status]
Rez(olution) [Current]
Palette [Selected]
Elapsed [Time]

[Controls, changes with every screen]
Start - Reset Timer
A - Enter     Select - Back

While the NESRGB captures the pixel colors from the graphics more-or-less digitally and then recreates the frame, the HDMI NES has to do much more.  Not only can it output pure digital video, it can also output pure digital audio as well.  Because the audio comes out of the CPU in a strictly analog fashion, the HDMI NES has to emulate not only the internal Audio Processing Unit but also all the expansion audio chips.  It also has to monitor the controller input memory locations/registers to virtually eliminate input lag.  The NESRGB board is only connected to the PPU, but the HDMI board is connected to both the CPU and PPU.  The result is digital audio output at 16-bit/48kHz.


A NESRGB modded console connected to a Framemeister typically adds 1 frame of delay/lag to the input compared to a NES output to a CRT via composite video.  The Framemeister can convert analog audio to digital audio, which has to be converted back to analog for the speakers, so it is more noisy.  An HDMI modded NES like the Analogue Nt typically adds a few scanlines worth of delay, which is imperceptible by human beings.  This is in addition to any processing done by a non-CRT TV.  The NES's frame rate is an effective 60.098 frames per second, but the HDMI mod slows this down to a pure 60fps to avoid compatibility issues with picky HDTVs.  The slowdown of .0016% is unnoticeable to human beings.  If you want to get a better idea of how the HDMI mod works and its development, watch the videos on kevtris' channel : https://www.youtube.com/user/kevtris


Aethestically, the brushed silver aluminum finish may not make the best contrast against the dark gray matte finish of NES cartridges or the colorful plastic shells of Famicom cartridges.  Nintendo manufactured millions and millions of cartridges as cheaply as possible.  The gold Zelda cartridges and gold and silver Camerica cartridges may look most appropriate to the Analogue Nt, at least from a distance. The NES itself was made of plastic and rather boxy, it tried not to look out of place next to the VHS players and cassette decks of the mid-80s.  The Famicom, with its red and white scheme looked like a toy.  Those large NES joystick ports with visible pins are as far from modern interconnections like USB ports as you can get.  The plastic, rectangular NES and Famicom controllers with thick cables are somewhat removed from its descendants.  Today's video game storage media are optical disks and SD-like memory cards, not large bulky cartridges that stick out of a system.  The Analogue Nt may still look a little odd next to the 4K HDTV, the Blu-ray player, the Wii U, Xbox One  or Playstation 4 or the home receiver system.

The Analogue Nt was first announced in March, 2014 with an intended shipping date of summer, 2014.  However, summer turned to winter, winter to spring and spring to summer of 2015 before users have begun to receive their units.  Hard information about the device has been extremely limited, although excuses and apologies for the delay were not in short supply.  You can read a summary of it here : http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1076624  This has been seen by some as rather concerning from a company known primarily for its woodworking skills, not its electrical engineering design.  You had to pre-order the console and your account was charged immediately for the full price.  With the delays some have accused Analogue Interactive of running an unannounced Kickstarter-like campaign to raise interest-free financing.  Considering that the aluminum used for the enclosure and the high quality PCB assembly are large parts of the manufacturing cost, this charge has some merit.  To Analogue Interactive's credit, they offered full refunds to pre-order customers dissatisfied with the wait.  I can imagine some felt unhappy with their money tied up for over a year, but from what I have read, by-and-large most customers have stayed loyal. Analogue Interactive has made regular updates to its pre-order customers.

The superficial mainstream media also deserves some criticism.  A media organization finds a story about an interesting new product to be released and its competitors parrot it and that is often the last you hear about it from these sources.  Often you if do a search for the product, you will see little beyond the articles all originating around the same date.  Information about failed and long-delayed products is frequently harder to find.  You would think that if a media entity felt that this device was so sufficiently newsworthy to devote a substantial article, there would be reviews all over the place by now since it started shipping some weeks ago  There are none.


Analogue Interactive has released the occasional photo to keep up interest in the console and attention from the media.  However, if a photo is worth 1,000 words, a frame of video from the Analogue Nt is worth about 60,000 words.  It took well over a year from the initial taking of preorders to get video.  Last month IGN received a unit with an HDMI mod but at a particularly inauspicious time.  Their reporter received a unit on the first day of E3, and was only able to do a video unboxing.  No games were played on the unit.  I doubt that he had NES cartridges lying around in his hotel room in Los Angeles (but he certainly had a very nice looking pool table in his suite).  Moreover, there was so much other current generation news to cover at E3 and the week following it that there would be no time to make videos about the Analogue Nt.  You can watch the video here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDo0hUHM82s

Since the IGN video, Analogue Interactive released a pair of unlisted Youtube videos to its pre-order customers.  The first showed off the HDMI Mod, and I have given the link above.  The functionality of the HDMI Adapter Upgrade had been a questioned feature because the older photos of the Analogue Nt only showed an analog video out port.  It was presumed that the HDMI Adapter Upgrade would act like a mini-Framemeister.  However, the video shows that the now-internal Adapter is licensed directly from kevtris' design, implicitly confirmed by the man himself.  (My skepticism of the release of the product was mostly eliminated at that point.)  Analogue Interactive has also released a second unlisted Youtube video showing gameplay footage from Mega Man 2 without the HDMI Mod menu, it can be viewed here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NN6qtbWRC5Y.  Analogue Interactive is to be commended for doing the HDMI Adapter right by going with the Master of 8-bit Nintendo Hardware's (kevtris') design.    

Another individual attached to the website USgamer has received an Analogue Nt and did an unboxing video a few days ago.  His unit did not come with an HDMI Adapter Upgrade, so the hole where the HDMI port is supposed to sit is empty.  Unfortunately his video is no longer available.  According to the Analogue Nt user guide, you can send your HDMI-less console back for an upgrade at any time.  That user had a Framemeister, but the Framemeister is a jack-of-all trades while the HDMI Upgrade is designed specifically for the NES and its unique video output.


No one else has done an unboxing video, which suggests that people are still waiting.  Those who ordered the HDMI Adapter Upgrade may still be waiting because as of this date kevtris has not reported that he is done squashing bugs with his design.  If those bugs are hardware in nature, then Analogue Interactive may not have a final board to ship to customers.  Recalls are expensive for large companies and and a small company may get killed either from the cost of a recall or the bad publicity if they do not initiate a recall after a major bug is discovered.  

One other point of criticism about the Analogue Nt is the warranty period offered by the company.  They only offer a 90-day warranty on all their products.  By comparison, the big three, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony offer a one-year warranty on newly purchased consoles.  Considering that the core of the Analogue Nt is using used chips with unknowable prior use or abuse (did a prior Famicom owner try to get to new minus worlds in Super Mario Bros. by switching in and out a Tennis cartridge while the console was on?), the short warranty period is not particularly inspiring of confidence.  Not to mention that the Analogue Nt costs more than any of the current consoles, providing an industry standard one-year warranty would show appropriate confidence in their product and keep faith with customers.  


While unboxing and video capture footage videos are great, a full and real review from an unbiased and knowledgeable source is beyond due.  There are so many questions with using this device that have not been answered and cannot be answered without a reliable review of the whole Analogue Nt experience.  Even the User Guide, found here : http://www.analogueinteractive.com/pages/resources, can only answer so many questions.

For example, do the controller or cartridge connectors exhibit a Grip of Death?  Can you select palettes without the HDMI Upgrade Adapter?  Are there any issues with the FDS RAM adapter sitting flush on the slightly curved surface of the Analogue Nt?  What about more exotic devices like the Bandai Datach Joint ROM System?  Cartridge games like Zelda require the user to hold reset as they turn the power off to avoid RAM corruption, so how does the Analogue Nt deal with that?  Is there really a NESRGB board and an HDMI board inside the fully-upgraded Analogue Nt (seems kind of redundant)?  Is the Famicom Expansion Port sufficiently recessed for peripherals?  What is the experience like using the audio mixer buttons (the User Guide is a bit vague)?  Can you get expansion audio from the 72-pin cartridge slot using the pin 51 method?


There are some things an Analogue Nt will not do.  It will not play troublesome NES PAL exclusive games like Elite, Aladdin and Asterix properly and other PAL releases will run too fast.  That would require replacing the CPU and PPU with the PAL versions and changing the clock crystal.  The Analogue Nt can be opened with a slotted screwdriver, but doing so will void your warranty and there is a sticker on the bottom that acts like an anti-tampering seal.  It may not work with cartridges that require a lockout chip in the system like the Nintendo World Championships 1990 or Nintendo Campus Challenge (1991) cartridges.  Considering how rare those cartridges are (26 total confirmed to exist), their owners can find other ways to play them.  I do not recall kevtris getting the Zapper to work on his HDMI Mod, so it and other devices that rely on the refresh rate and scanline phosphor decay characteristics of a 15kHz CRT (R.O.B., Famicom 3D System) will not work on any LCD TV.  It must passthrough sampled ADPCM speech synthesis from cartridges in the Moero Pro Yakyuu series, no one has ever attempted to emulate that.  

Too often, one sees mainstream press coverage of the NES, whether it be a retrospective or a review of a new homebrew game.  While they may show a genuine front loader, they always actually show gameplay using a hardware or software clone.  There is no hardware clone made in recent decades that can accurately reproduce all the NES's quirks, and many get the basics wrong as with the reversed duty cycles for the pulse wave channels.  The Retron 5 is a popular choice these days because it can accept cartridges from the most popular system and display them via an HDMI output, but it is running on Android and using emulators of variable quality to run games.  Putting the game in the system is only necessary for the Retron 5 to dump the ROM to emulate it.  The bankswitching hardware inside the cartridge must also emulated or the game will not work.  The Retron 5 may also not run games it does not recognize if they use new or unknown bankswitching techniques.  Running on emulators means putting up with inaccuracies and lag.  Using the Retron 5 is something of a morally questionable choice considering that some of the emulators the company used, including the one used for the NES (FCEUmm) violate the terms of the emulators licenses.  More information can be found here : http://www.libretro.com/index.php/retroarch-license-violations/ and it is truly reprehensible to violate the rights of individual programmers who do not have the resources to protect their rights. 

If the Analogue Nt is successful, despite its high price tag, we could see a revitalization of the closest way in which the NES and Famicom were intended to look, sound and play in modern times.  In fact, it looks to produce a better experience than Nintendo's own current limited offerings on the Wii U Virtual Console.  One hopes to have more information online about the console in the upcoming weeks, so hopefully some of the questions above can be answered.  If you have the money to spend and did not get in on the first batch another batch is apparently available for preorder, but don't expect to see it anytime soon (remember those TV commercials with allow 6-8 weeks for delivery, welcome to the modern version of that).

2 comments:

Raifield said...

I went to the website and priced out what I would have ordered and it came to $656 before shipping. That's a steep price to pay for a system that is using the original 80's chips. I still have my NES I originally received in 1986 and it still works perfectly fine with a CRT I bought for ten dollars several years ago.

I guess I just don't understand the point of the Analogue Nt when it expensively sits alongside the original, still-working hardware, the Virtual Console, and emulators. This just seems like a really expensive way for hobbyists to brag about how much disposable income they have as the hobby itself continues to suffer massive inflation.

Anonymous said...

I would have gladly paid $500 for that batch of questionable condition famicoms to prevent them being raped for parts. Just saying.