It's fair to say that the gaming public's interest in clones of vintage consoles hasn't diminished over the past few years; in fact, interest in such hardware is arguably on the rise. We've seen a raft of systems which aim to replicate the performance of retro hardware, including the Hyperkin Retron 5, the Cyber Gadget Retro Freak and the RetroUSB AVS, and there are more devices on the way this year - the most interesting of which has to be the modular Polymega. Clearly, imitating vintage systems is a steady and growing business, but as is the case with all sectors of the consumer electronics market, there's quite a varied selection when it comes to cost and quality.
In the early days, such devices relied almost entirely on software emulation, where a system's specs and performance are simulated using code. However, more and more modern examples are using Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA) - a hardware-based solution which offers a degree of accuracy that software emulation can never hope to match. For the uninitiated, the FPGA approach replicates hardware at a low level without the use of code. These chips are being designed to act like another chip, so when a game is inserted it interacts with that chip just as it would with the original hardware. The benefits are obvious; FGPA allows for better accuracy and higher compatibility, but the downside is that it's a more expensive solution compared to traditional emulation.
Regardless of the costs involved, the use of FPGA tech is arguably the future of clone hardware, and nothing proves this better than the existence of the Analogue NT Mini. If you're a long-time follower of the site then you'll already be aware of Analogue and the amazing work the company has done over the past few years creating truly unique pieces of gaming hardware. Previous projects - such as the Consolized Neo Geo MVS and the original Analogue NT - took pre-existing internal hardware and placed it inside a bespoke casing to craft a truly unique product, but the NT Mini is the next exciting step. Original components are naturally no longer being made so there's a limit to what Analogue can do with existing parts; instead, the company teamed with Kevin Horton - creator of Kevtris and the HiDef NES mod which allows you to use your NES on a HDMI TV - to produce a new machine which would boast the same design aesthetics as the original NT but would use FPGA tech to replicate the performance of the NES and Famicom.
Horton - who has been praised for his efforts in the field of video game preservation - has spent over 5000 hours engineering the internals of the NT Mini to ensure that it offers 100 percent compatibility and 100 percent accuracy. What you get is a system which outputs RGB, Component, S-Video, and Composite signals, works with every NES and Famicom cartridge and is housed in a casing fabricated from a solid block of 6061 aluminium. The cost of such a system? You might want to sit down first. Things start at $449 for the standard silver model, with the black version costing another fifty bucks. That's a long way from being chump change, but is the NT Mini worth it?
Analogue NT Mini: The Hardware
Each Analogue NT Mini comes in a handsome, premium-feel black box which you'd be totally insane to throw away. Inside you'll find the console itself, an 8Bitdo NES30 controller (complete with a Retro Receiver), a multi-region power supply, a Micro USB cable for charging the pad and a HDMI cable. If you want to run any other AV connection you'll need to source those leads separately. Also included inside is a sheet of instructions which offer advice on how to pair the 8Bitdo controller as well as basic hints and tips for getting connected.
The NT Mini itself is a gorgeous piece of gaming kit. The aluminium casing is very weighty which gives the console some reassuring heft, but the underside is clear plastic, allowing you to gaze upon the bottom of the mainboard designed and engineered by Horton. The unit is 20 percent smaller than the original NT, and will slot effortlessly into most entertainment setups. The front is home to four controller ports - no need for a Four Score adapter here - while the top has NES and Famicom cartridge slots, complete with metal flaps that make a satisfying noise when opened and shut. On the back there's an array of connections, including HDMI, audio, USB and power, as well as an RGB / Component / Composite multi-port, a microphone socket (for Famicom games which require it) and a Famicom expansion port, which can be used for connecting peripherals manufactured for the Japanese system. The right-hand side of the system is blank, but the left-hand side has an SD card slot for installing firmware updates - as well as other neat things, which we'll come to later in the review.
The bundled 8Bitdo NES30 is an incredibly faithful replication of the original NES pad, but is totally wireless and has four face buttons and two shoulder buttons. Naturally, if you have some original NES controllers lying around then you can use those. The bundled Retro Receiver will also work with other 8Bitdo pads, such as the SNES30 and NES30 Pro.
Analogue NT Mini: Performance and features
Booting up the NT Mini presents you with a menu from which you can perform a wide range of tasks, the most obvious of which is loading up an original NES or Famicom cartridge and playing. It's possible to alter aspects of the image to get the best picture on your TV, or even add CRT-style scanlines for a truly authentic feel.
It should come as no great surprise to learn that the NT Mini performs flawlessly when running software. The hardware-level replication of the original system means that vastly improved image quality aside, this is exactly how you remember the NES; there's no lag, slowdown or emulation issues to speak of, and we didn't encounter any games which failed to load (although some dusty cartridge connections were to blame for a few failed boot attempts, but the fault for that lies with our lackadaisical approach to game storage and not the NT Mini). Likewise, there was no noticeable input lag when using the wireless 8Bitdo controller, but for those of you who are quite particular about this kind of thing, the option exists to use wired pads.
Simply put, the NT Mini is the best way to replicate the performance of Nintendo's 8-bit system that money can buy; sure, you can augment the original NES with Horton's aforementioned HiDef NES and fix the terribly-designed zero insertion force cartridge slot to get a few more years of use out of it, but you're still missing out on support for western and Japanese games out of the box, as well as a myriad of other benefits - one of which we'll address in the next part of this review.
Jailbreaking the Analogue NT Mini
When you buy an expensive consumer product like a smartphone or games console the last thing you'd expect the manufacturer to do is suggest that you "jailbreak" it to unlock new features. Tinkering with the firmware on any device is a risky business at the best of times, but with the NT Mini things are a little different - the person who has cracked this console wide open is none other than Horton himself.
Horton wasn't merely content with engineering one of the most accurate NES clones in existence - he also wanted to fully exploit the unique nature of the system's FPGA-based internals. As a result, he has been diligently working on a jailbreak solution for the NT Mini which not only unlocks the ability to dump your original cartridges direct from the device, but also offers the chance to run ROMs from an SD card and install other "cores" so the unit can replicate the performance of a wide range of other vintage systems - including the Sega Master System, Atari 2600, Sega Game Gear, Game Boy, Game Boy Color and even the super-obscure Bit Corp Gamate, a Taiwanese handheld we have a twisted affection for here at Nintendo Life, for reasons we still can't adequately explain. The most amazing thing is that Horton has reverse-engineered all of these systems himself to ensure incredible accuracy, and his hard work turns what was an already remarkable system into one of the most powerful multi-game platforms available, complete with 1080p output and perfect performance.
Jailbreaking the device is easy, too - you just need to download the firmware update to an SD card, load it up and power on the console. It will automatically install the firmware and add in the new options. Horton is continually working on fresh features and the list of supported systems is only going to grow as time goes on, giving you even more reason to invest in this unique console. There's even talk of Horton creating adapters which will allow you to run original cartridges for some of the new formats.
Below you'll see a video which not only shows off what the jailbroken menu system looks like (it's very much like the original menu system, to be honest) but also contains footage of NES, Master System, Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Gear games in action. All of this footage was captured with an Elgato Game Capture HD60 and no post-production effects were used on the footage. Out of the titles shown, only Star Force has scanlines applied - all other titles are shown running in the default output settings the Analogue NT Mini ships with.
Analogue NT Mini: The Verdict
The response to the original Analogue NT was overwhelmingly positive, but the fact that it uses original components means that it will only ever support NES and Famicom games. The NT Mini's use of new hardware may cause purists to turn up their noses, but the FPGA architecture offers much more potential. A jailbroken NT Mini is basically an all-in-one 8-bit powerhouse with numerous classic formats supported - albeit via the use of ROMs, the procurement of which is something of a legal grey area.
Given how much Horton has achieved in a relatively short space of time it's not unreasonable to expect even more features in the future, which makes NT Mini ownership a very exciting thing indeed. However, despite the amazing performance of the console and its tantalizing potential, the cost is always going to be an issue; $450 isn't cheap by any means, and the fact that there are much cheaper alternatives - such as the RetroUSB AVS, which also uses a FPGA solution - should give you pause for thought when it comes to making a purchase. However, if money is simply no object or you feel you absolutely have to own the ultimate means of playing your dusty old NES carts, this is the best option by a country mile.