In the field of 'new' retro hardware, one name arguably stands out. Analogue started its life with the gloriously insane (and incredibly expensive) wooden Neo Geo MVS, but it was the Analogue Nt that really took the firm to the big leagues. Authentic NES hardware contained in an aircraft-grade aluminium frame – this was a true connoisseur's console, and it flew in the face of the accepted trend of 'clone' systems built on flaky emulation and generally lacklustre construction quality.
Last year, Analogue delivered what has been perhaps its most acclaimed console to date, the Analogue Super Nt. Harnessing the incredible power of Field-Programmable Gate Array chips (something the company had previously dabbled with when it released the Analogue Nt Mini), it represents the ultimate way to experience the SNES library in 2018 – and for the foreseeable future, for that matter.
During email conversations with Analogue CEO and founder Christopher Taber around the launch of the Super Nt, I expressed the opinion that, as a rabid Sega fanboy (as well as a staunch supporter of all things Nintendo, of course), I'd personally love to see him tackle the SNES' big rival in FPGA form: the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive. "Stay tuned" was his reply. I was quietly confident that sooner rather than later, Analogue would tackle the challenge.
Those suspicions have proved to be true because today the company has lifted the lid on the Mega Sg, its next FPGA-based console project, and perhaps its most ambitious yet. The Mega Sg doesn't simply recreate the performance of Sega's 16-bit hardware with complete accuracy and zero-lag – it's a gateway to the company's entire console history prior to the launch of the 32-bit Saturn.
Powered by the same Altera Cyclone V FPGA that's found inside the Nt Mini and Super Nt, this system is capable of playing every single European, North American and Japanese Mega Drive game out of the box, and – via special cartridge adapters – can also play Master System, Mark III, SG-1000 and Game Gear software, all with the same unparalleled degree of accuracy. A Master System cartridge adapter will be included with every console, but the others will come later with a price tag of around $9.99. The 'OMG' moments don't end there, however; the system will also be compatible with both variants of the Mega CD add-on, allowing players to experience CD-based games with the kind of accuracy that emulation can't touch.
For Taber, the shift to Sega was an obvious one; like myself, he was actually a Sega fan first and foremost. Even so, he's been careful to not allow his own rose-tinted memories cloud his judgement. "I grew up as a Sega kid and never owned any Nintendo systems until I was an adult," he explains. "Neo Geo and Nintendo were the first systems Analogue tackled because those are the systems I personally wanted to explore. Our approach to making systems has nothing to do with nostalgia – our own or otherwise – it is consciously something we stay away from. We design systems to celebrate and explore the history of video games with the respect it deserves. We've got no interest in nostalgia gimmicks or making toys. Either way, I've always wanted to do the be-all and end-all Sega system – and here it is."
All of Analogue's previous consoles were focused on a single hardware format, but the Mega Sg can run games for multiple systems. Factoring this functionality into the hardware was down to Kevin 'Kevtris' Horton, the same genius who worked on the company's previous FPGA-based systems. "Kevin is a one-of-a-kind talent," says Taber. "He is extraordinarily good at what he does; I really cannot overstate that. Nobody can do what he does as well as he does. Over the years we've continuously refined and re-structured our product development process. This has allowed us to continue pushing the boundaries and offer as much value as possible in each product. We're always looking to categorically outdo ourselves with each product; otherwise, what is the point?"
Taber is keen to stress that the level of accuracy present in the Mega Sg – and indeed any FPGA system produced by Analogue – is second-to-none. "Each Sega system is implemented 100 percent in FPGA – there's no BS fake 'hybrid emulation', or an FPGA in the hardware but only being used to read cartridge or controller inputs. Did you know the Retron5 has an FPGA in the hardware? Having an FPGA in a product doesn't mean anything; FPGAs are highly versatile components – they can be nearly anything. It's how the FPGA is used that matters. Like all Analogue products, Mega Sg is designed with the core functionality of each and every system implemented 100 percent in the FPGA. It's important for users to recognize that as FPGAs become more popular, there are going be other companies who intentionally manipulate technical details to make it seem like they are offering something they aren't."
Taber finds it hard to conceal his annoyance at rival firms who, in his eyes, are jumping on the FPGA bandwagon in an attempt to legitimise their products. However, his bitterness isn't trivial; the effort involved when replicating each system using FPGA tech is almost superhuman, and Horton has expended countless hours of his life fine-tuning performance – there are no 'off the shelf' emulators present in the Mega Sg, and no deals have been inked with existing emulator owners to achieve this degree of faithfulness.
"It is a ton of work to implement an entire system via FPGA from scratch versus including software emulators on a PC box and skinning a user interface," Taber continues. "It's a walk in the park compared to building a system from scratch in an FPGA. Just our Mega Drive/Genesis core took one year to develop. Including Master System and original Mega / Sega CD compatibility is something we're really stoked to offer. SG-1000, SC-3000, Mark III, MyCard/Sega Card – the goal with Mega SG is to be the ultimate Sega system; everything pre-Saturn. We'll nearly be there at launch; only 32X remains."
Indeed, the ill-fated 32X is the only format that the Mega Sg isn't currently capable of supporting – but Analogue is working on a solution. "The original 32X is incompatible in HD due to its complex reliance on analog multi-link cables," Taber explains. "We're exploring solutions for using the original hardware in conjunction with Mega Sg post-launch. There are no promises just yet, but what I'd really love to do is implement the entire 32X in FPGA – no need for the original 32X hardware then."
As was the case with all of Analogue's previous systems, there are original controller ports which mean you can connect up your battered Mega Drive and Master System pads with no trouble whatsoever. However, an optional wireless controller produced by 8BitDo – the M30 – is also going to be available at launch, and Taber is confident that it will find favour with the Sega faithful, many of whom will have cut their teeth on the peerless Mega Drive 6-button pad. "It's perfect," he says when asked how the M30 compares. "Honestly a bit better, tighter, and more responsive than the originals. 8BitDo takes perfecting retro controllers to the highest level; nobody does it as good. I cannot wait to get it into everybody's hands. I'm also stoked that we're able to offer an M30 and 2.4g receiver for $24.99. Identical quality as always, but sans-Bluetooth in favour of faster and easier connectivity via 2.4g."
Just as the Super Nt and Nt Mini were timed to ride the wave of interest in systems like the NES and SNES Classics, it won't escape the notice of many people that the Mega Sg is launching in March - around the same time as the delayed Mega Drive Mini, Sega's latest attempt to cash in on the gaming public's seemingly unending appetite for retro. For Taber, the increased exposure is welcome because he's confident that Analogue's machine will prove to be the superior option. "If the Mega Drive Mini is anything like previous licensed Sega systems, it will sadly be abysmal quality," he laments. "Hopefully Sega isn't working with AtGames again and they're going to redevelop it to at least Nintendo Classic Edition quality. Anything less would be a shame and disappointment, especially with the new standards that have been established. In terms of performance and accuracy, at best it will be like Super Nt vs. SNES Classic Edition. Mega Sg will blow it away in every category; it's an enthusiast product versus a toy – there is no contest."
Sega, Nintendo and SNK are all active in the 'new' retro sector, and the hunger for these reheated vintage platforms shows no signs of slowing. Firms such as Hyperkin and Retro-Bit – which have been around almost since the revival began – continue to release new systems, and newcomer Polymega is attempting to disrupt things with console that runs physical media for a wide range of platforms, albeit almost completely via software emulation. What does Taber make of this increased competition?
"Nintendo's Classic Edition line is great; it's wonderful they are making something like this finally," he replies. "Outside of Nintendo's Classic Edition line, no other company is making anything close to that level of quality. Let's be real here – they're all sad disappointments. Then the third party guys are still shovelling out the same junk they always have been; poorly designed, poorly manufactured, virtually unusable controllers, terrible emulation (typically because of the low-powered hardware designed around it). Analogue is the antithesis to companies like this. Yeah, we're accuracy snobs. What Analogue is doing is one of a kind – we're bringing totally new products to users, designed completely in-house from scratch. No compromises. No licensing (or stealing) the same software emulators and sticking them on a low-powered Android or Linux box, ad nauseam. And this isn't a criticism towards the actual software emulator authors – the authors are the ones doing the real work – but their work just isn't going to shine on cheap hardware versus a full-powered desktop computer, which even then has its limitations, such as latency."
The Altera Cyclone V has been instrumental to the success of Analogue's consoles, but does this FPGA chip have a limit? Can it replicate the performance of systems beyond the SNES and Mega Drive? "It's roughly up to 16-bit with some exceptions, and then we'd need to utilize a larger FPGA for beyond," explains Taber. But exploring new horizons is what Analogue is all about; a fresh hardware challenge is unlikely to dissuade Taber and his team, and it's genuinely tantalising to think what the company could create next. "The systems that I'm the most inspired by are the ones that never received the recognition that they deserve. You know what I keep thinking about lately? A Wonderswan with an OLED screen. That would be good. Whatever we do next, you can count on Analogue continue to raise the bar. That's what we're here for. Moreover, like Super Nt, we're going to continue to develop for Mega Sg after it's released, taking user feedback onboard and developing new features. I'm beyond stoked to have an audience that loves what we do. It's a pure pleasure."
The Analogue Mega Sg launches next March for $189. Pre-orders are live now. You can view Mega Drive (Gunstar Heroes), Master System (Golden Axe), Game Gear (Ristar) and SG-1000 (Girl's Garden) footage captured directly from the system below.