After years of enduring sloppy imitators which offer patchy performance and incomplete compatibility, we're finally seeing clone consoles come of age. The RetroN 5 leveraged the versatility of Google's Android platform to offer HD visuals and save state support, while the super-premium Analogue NT took existing Nintendo chips and placed them inside an aircraft-grade aluminum casing. Even Nintendo itself has woken up to the notion of reproducing vintage hardware with the NES Mini, which offers 30 titles out of the box but lacks the ability to use original carts. There are clearly plenty of options if you're looking for a means of rediscovering Nintendo's 8-bit wonder, and RetroUSB's AVS is another choice you may want to consider if you have an existing stash of games and want to run them on your HD television.
The moment you lay eyes on the AVS (the name is a playful tribute to the original NES prototype, which was called the Advanced Video System) it's obvious that RetroUSB has done its homework when it comes to pure aesthetics. While the wedge-shape design is a peculiar departure, there are plenty of references to the legendary NES hardware, including almost identical power and reset buttons, the iconic cartridge slot flap and even grooves on the bottom which mimic those seen on the original system. The sturdy plastic it's made from even feels like the real deal - many other clones suffer from flimsy case construction but the AVS is as assured as they come in terms of build quality, at least for an unofficial option.
The design may take inspiration from the NES but the AVS isn't just limited to Western software. In addition to the NES cart slot - into which you insert games horizontally, just like in the old days - there's a vertically-orientated port for Japanese Famicom carts. Having the best of both worlds is a real boon and something that the CyberGadget Retro Freak doesn't offer, but when using Famicom carts the plastic flap has to remain open, which looks a little odd but is hardly a deal breaker.
The AVS differs from other clones because it doesn't use emulation or reclaimed hardware - it has a custom Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chip which accurately simulates the performance of the original NES console on a hardware level. This means that the common video and audio niggles which blight clones like the RetroDuo and RetroN 3 are absent and compatibility is superb. While it doesn't offer the purity of the repurposed hardware which sits inside the Analogue NT, it's a cheaper and more sustainable option (the forthcoming Analogue NT Mini adopts the same approach) and in terms of pure performance, there's little reason to complain with the AVS. It behaves just like the original console, despite not having the original hardware inside it.
The system outputs 720p over a HDMI connection, and the results are stunning - despite the lack of 1080p. If you're coming to the AVS with memories of your original NES then it's like seeing these games with a totally fresh pair of eyes; the fuzzy visuals we were forced to endure during the days of RF are replaced by pin-sharp pixels with gorgeous colours. It's possible to drop into the settings menu and adjust pixel proportions, fix overscan problems, add scanlines and even solve the infamous NES sprite flicker - caused by a limitation in the number of sprites the original hardware could display on a single scanline - by enabling the "Extra Sprites" option, should you want to. Another bonus of the AVS is the fact that it has Game Genie cheat codes baked into the hardware, as well as online leaderboards which require you to connect the console to a PC or Mac. The firmware can also be updated using this connection, which means RetroUSB can add more features in the future, if it so wishes.
The lack of legacy connections might come as a blow to truly serious NES players - there are no composite, RF or SCART options here - but the fact that the unit is powered via a USB connection is quite handy. A USB PSU is included but if your TV has USB ports then you can use those to run the console, which frees up a plug socket for other things.
While we naturally weren't able to test every single NES and Famicom game, during our review period compatiblity was never anything but flawless. There are no graphical issues (aside from those which exist in the original hardware, such as the aforementioned sprite flicker) and the audio is also faithful - something which isn't always the case with clone consoles. Those of you who favour flash carts will be pleased to learn that the AVS is fully compatible with products such as the popular Everdrive N8, which neither the Retro Freak or RetroN 5 support. Interestingly, RetroUSB has also released a selection of "new" NES games alongside the AVS, including Twelve Seconds, Solaris and A Winner is You, the latter of which is actually an "album on a cart" which contains classic video game cover versions recorded using real instruments.
The biggest problem we have with the console could either be considered a non-issue or a major oversight, depending on your outlook. NES joypad ports are included but there's no controller in the box - you'll have to source you own. This isn't a massive headache if you already have a NES console, but newcomers could be caught short by the omission. On the plus side, there are four controller ports which means the console has out-of-the-box support for Four Score games, such as Bomberman II, Gauntlet II and NES Play Action Football. Another plus is the presence of the 15-pin Famicom expansion socket on the back, and it's also possible to connect the Famicom Disk System to the machine.
With a price tag of $185, the AVS sits somewhere between the NES Mini ($60) and Analogue NT Mini ($450), and is more expensive than the RetroN 5, a machine that boasts support for more systems. While the cost also places it above some of the cheaper NES clones on the market, the results are more than worth the price of admission for purists. Sure, it's 720p instead of 1080p, but when you're dealing with such pixel-heavy visuals that hardly matters, while the lack of a controller in the box is something that is only likely to annoy those who are coming to the AVS totally cold - and given its nostalgic focus, we'd guess that most prospective buyers have a few old NES pads lying around the house.
The unofficial nature of the AVS and its higher price tag will no doubt ensure that it is comfortably eclipsed by the NES Mini in terms of sales figures, but if you're genuinely serious about resurrecting Nintendo's 8-bit system in your household, then this is by far the better choice. It may lack the 30 built-in games and requires you to invest in carts - many of which are steadily increasing in price on the second hand market - but the video quality, performance, design and support for four players are sure to make this a tempting purchase for dedicated fans who wish to give their existing collection of carts a new lease of life.
Also, it's impossible to deny that a huge part of retro gaming's appeal is searching out hidden gems and expanding your knowledge through fresh purchases, and that's simply not going to be possible on the NES Mini. Nintendo's official option may come loaded with solid-gold classics, but it denies you the opportunity to fully explore the console's rich library of physical carts - some of which will never be re-released due to licensing issues. With that in mind, the AVS comes highly recommended.