Nostalgia is only half of the story.
Analogue, a boutique console designer based in Seattle, started selling high-end consoles back in 2012 with the debut of the CMVS Slim. Crafted from hardwood, the system fit the mold of SNK's NeoGeo home console from 1990 but with a decidedly sophisticated look. Unlike proper NeoGeo consoles, the CMVS Slim ran off of original arcade hardware, allowing the use of cartridges far more affordable than their retail counterparts. It wasn't the first console of its kind, but Analogue's eye for design ensured the CMVS Slim was the classiest, with a fetching look and all the essential bells and whistles a NeoGeo enthusiast could hope for.
The company's next project was the Analogue Nt in 2015, a custom system that played both NES and Famicom games. Unlike the CMVS Slim, the Nt was encased in an aluminum chassis. The $500 Nt, like the CMVS Slim before it, utilized original components--in this case, sourced from broken or otherwise unsellable Famicom consoles. Analogue designed a proprietary board, attached the chips it harvested from worn consoles, and paired its creation with an aftermarket video board that allowed for high-end RGB analog video output, or, HDMI support for an added fee; you couldn't have both. The Nt was yet another great-looking console and made it easy for the enthusiasts willing to shell out the cash to play 8-bit Nintendo games on modern TVs without the usual video degradation or input delay that occurs when using a stock NES or other third-party consoles.
Now, Analogue is back with its follow-up, the Nt Mini. It's 20 percent smaller than its predecessor, $50 cheaper at $450, includes a wireless controller adapter and controller from 8bitdo, and supports both a range of analog video signals and HDMI--gone is the original Nt's HDMI-or-analog video dilemma. Otherwise, the Nt Mini retains the excellent build quality, four controller ports despite the shrunken chassis, and adds support for games from all regions, regardless of whether they were designed for PAL or NTSC video standards.
However, one big change isn't apparent to the naked eye: the shift away from original Nintendo processors. For the Nt Mini, Analogue went with an FPGA solution. FPGAs are, in simple terms, chips that can be configured to act in a variety of ways on a circuit level. In this case, Analogue opted for the the Altera Cyclone V FPGA, which has been programmed to behave exactly like an NES.
Among game collectors and historians, there's always the fear that playing vintage games on aftermarket hardware may result in an inauthentic experience. That's not to say that games are fundamentally different when played on emulation-based systems like Hyperkin's Retron 5 or even Nintendo's own NES Classic, but they aren't pitch-perfect. In other words, they aren't up to enthusiast standards.
The Nt Mini makes 8-bit Nintendo games look better than any other third-party console we've tested--and, of course, far better than Nintendo's decades-old systems on both analog CRT and digital HDTVs.
We've had an Nt Mini for a little over a month, and while it's obviously impossible for us to ensure that every NES and Famicom game runs at 100 percent accuracy, the dozens of games we tested played exactly as we expected, with zero suspicious behavior to report. Famicom games like Akumajou Densetsu (known as Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse outside of Japan) and Gimmick!, with typically difficult-to-account-for audio-expansion chips, stood the test and sealed the deal: Playing games on an Nt Mini feels, looks, and sounds exactly as it should.
More importantly, the Nt Mini makes 8-bit Nintendo games look better than any other third-party console we've tested--and, of course, far better than Nintendo's decades-old systems on both analog CRT and digital HDTVs. Kevin Horton, a legend among vintage computing communities and well-known for his dedication to comprehensive and complex projects, is the driving force behind the configuration of the Nt Mini's FPGA, with a reported 5,000 hours spent on development. His work is the reason the FPGA acts, in terms of computation, exactly like the original hardware. But with the flexibility provided by the chip and Horton's knowhow, the Nt Mini's special features breathe new life into 8-bit gaming.
The Nt Mini's user interface makes it easy to adjust the system's video resolution--only HD output is configurable, where analog signals are rightfully set at the NES' native 240p resolution. You also have control over the size of the onscreen image (with distinct settings for horizontal and vertical scaling), the choice to apply a scanline filter, a selection of color palettes that alter the overall look of games, and the option to double the system's sprite limit. Increasing the number of sprites per scanline will eliminate most instances of visual flickering, a common issue that plagues a large portion of the NES game library.
With myriad options for playing NES and Famicom games on the market, it's a relief to find the one system that can do it all and satisfy the lofty demands of passionate collectors and enthusiasts. Previously, to re-create the Nt Mini's basic capabilities using authentic hardware, you’d have to spend at least $400 to modify (read: physically alter) both a Famicom and an NES. Even if you did that, you’d be stuck managing two distinct systems with bulky power adapters and dated construction. There's nothing inherently wrong with going that route, but for anyone who wants a complete, all-in-one solution, the Nt Mini is the answer.
Previously, to re-create the Nt Mini's basic capabilities using authentic hardware, you’d have to spend at least $400 to modify both a Famicom and an NES.
That's to say nothing of the system's support for external add-on hardware. The Japan-only Famicom Disk System (the debut platform for The Legend of Zelda and Metroid), works as intended, and there's a Famicom expansion port on the back of the Nt Mini designed to work with devices like the Famicom 3D System (Analogue states this particular hardware works, though we didn't have a unit to test.) And for any games designed to take advantage of the microphone built into the Famicom's second-player controller, a familiar 3.5mm audio port allows you to connect any microphone, including earbuds with inline mics. Though you won't be able to use an NES Zapper on an HDTV with the Nt Mini, that has everything to do with how modern TVs operate and nothing to do with Analogue's hardware. That said, it does support the Zapper when connected to a CRT display.
While this level of compatibility already puts the Nt Mini ahead of its competition, the console goes even further than we'd expected. Like other devices, it supports the use of Game Genie cheat codes. We were, however, delighted to discover that it also has a built-in soundtrack player. Simply place NSF files onto an SD card, and not only can you listen to your favorite 8-bit tracks, but you can also view them in action via a multichannel equalizer that's divided to represent each of the NES' specific waveforms--and, when necessary, the aforementioned specialized audio-expansion channels. If you really want to dive deep into NES audio, you also have full control over the various waveforms, even during gameplay, which allows you to tweak or remaster aspects of NES soundtracks.
For all the aforementioned reasons, the Nt Mini is the best NES money can buy. However, it's worth addressing the existence of the RetroUSB AVS, another FPGA-based NES-like, priced at $185--far less than the Nt Mini's $450. It lacks many of the bells and whistles found in the Nt Mini and only supports 720p over HDMI (the AVS doesn't support analog video output). Unless you have a monitor with a native resolution of 720p, which is a rarity nowadays, the AVS leaves a slight margin for error due to the slow internal video scalers in most TVs, which could result in input delay depending on your monitor. That said, for the price, it's a viable option. But it's no Nt Mini.
Analogue has been busy (with Horton's help) upgrading the firmware of the Nt Mini in the months since its release, tidying up the user interface and adding small-but-meaningful quality-of-life options. On the side, however, Horton has taken the Nt Mini in an exciting new direction. When he wasn't busy perfecting his FPGA NES configuration (referred to as a "core"), he was also working on cores for systems like Nintendo Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Sega Master System, Sega Game Gear, and Atari 2600, to name a few of the dozen systems he plans to support through the Nt Mini.
Inside and out, the Nt Mini is an incredible piece of hardware that serves its audience better than any other NES-related product on the market.
For nearly two months, on an almost-weekly basis, Horton has released unofficial firmware files for the Nt Mini that introduce support for a new 8-bit system. Without proper cartridge ports (Horton is working on custom adapters), the only way to play games for these extra systems on the Nt Mini is through the use of ROM files loaded onto an SD card. Horton has extended ROM support to the NES core as well, including the ability to back up physical cartridges through the Nt Mini.
Inside and out, the Nt Mini is an incredible piece of hardware that serves its audience better than any other NES-related product on the market. Analogue has outdone itself, setting a new standard for retro gaming hardware. Its price tag will no doubt scare off some potential customers, but if you’re looking for a way to play NES games on your monitor of choice--without compromises--look no further than the Nt Mini.