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Retro-Gaming: Emulation Vs. FPGA

At the very beginning of this site, we took a look at Hyperkin’s Retron 5 and came away with a very good impression. As the years have passed, the Retron 5 remains a pretty sound system. Sure the included controller took a crap ages ago, but for the most part, I’d never ran into any issues with 95% of the games I’d get from the various retro-game shops I’ve visited since getting it, and that included the entire range of supported systems (which, strangely enough, exceeds 5): NES, Super NES, Famicom, Genesis, Sega Master System, Game Gear (those previous two through an adapter), Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance.

So what about that last 5%?

Well, that came to my attention in two ways. First, I managed to score one of my favorite shooters for the old NES called Burai Fighter…but my Retron was having none of it. While this made me think about other options, it didn’t push me in that direction just yet. Instead, it was a bit of a double whammy: I’d found a repro-cart of the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy for the SNES (since the third installment of the series is still going for a little more than I’d care to spend for it) and the good folks at Retro-Bit games re-issued MetalStorm by Irem for the NES. The thing is, this wasn’t a straight recreation of the original cartridge. Instead, it actually took elements from the Japanese version of the game (color of your mech, insertion of cinema-scenes)…and the Retron, being an emulation device, wasn’t having any of this variance. As for the repro…I have no idea why it wouldn’t work, but it didn’t.

So it was about this time that I had heard of FPGA consoles, FPGA standing for Field-Programmable Gate Array. These are consoles that are essentially programmed to be an NES or Genesis or SNES, but offer HD graphics compatible with modern day TVs. While the bells and whistles of emulation clone systems, like the Retron 5, are mostly gone, such as save states, FPGA allows for everything…and I mean everything (I’ve found only one exception and we’ll talk about that in a bit). And this is not to say that FPGA doesn’t allow for some tinkering. The three systems we’re going to take a look at here have plenty of display options that allow you to create an image output that either sparks the nostalgia of playing on a CRT-style TV back in your younger days or creates the pixel-perfect HD image you’ve always wanted…and everything in-between. There’s also the matter of emulation vs straight hardware with regards to performance: emulation has a bit of a lag from when you press the button to when Mario jumps. Now, props to the Retron, their emulation minimizes that lag to the point where most gamers aren’t going to notice it (thanks to the many gamer YouTubers that have gone out of their way to show this), but it IS present…whereas FPGA is, again, straight up hardware and thus, no lag.

However, there’s one thing to get out of the way right up front: heading down this path is expensive. Each system runs about $200 (and we’ll talk about the exception) and that’s if you’re able to get it directly from the manufacturer. With the shortage of chips and circuit boards at the time of this writing, this kind of direct availability is EXTREMELY limited…which means you’re likely to be faced with secondary market prices, which, if I may be blunt, are absolutely fucking insane. So you, dear reader, are posed with a question right off that bat: pay around $130-$170 for a system that plays 7 systems right out of the box and 9 with an adapter but only plays 90-95% of games for those systems or shell out at least $200 for each system that not only perfectly recreates the systems you remember, but also the challenges because remember, no save states here, so if you want to finish a game, it’s just like the old days…you sit your ass down and put in the time and the work to beat that no-good, cheating computer bastard.

For this article, we’ll take a look at three offerings: Analogue’s Mega SG and Super NT and RetroUSBs AVS and see what the perks of each of these systems are as opposed to the old Retron 5.

RetroUSB’s AVS

It was the aforementioned combo of Burai Fighter and MetalStorm that led to this being my first purchase of an FPGA system. While Analogue, who we’ll talk about later, did offer an NES FPGA system, the NT Mini and NT Mini Noir, it has three strikes against it: 1) it’s $500, 2) It was never in stock and when it was it was ALWAYS gone in a flash and 3) They’re no longer producing it (but it’s difficult to think that they won’t offer at least some sort of NES system in the future). Coming in at $200 (with tax and shipping) the AVS isn’t only an economical alternative, it has a lot of the bells and whistles that its far more expensive counterpart had: graphics options, Famicom compatibility and a port to connect a Famicom Disk System, as well as a couple unique to the system: online leaderboards and built-in Game Genie codes. [To be fair to the distinguished competition, the Analogue unit did have a connection for a microphone, as some Famicom games used one as a peripheral. – Ed.] Sadly, the Retron doesn’t have any expansion capability as of this writing, but at the same time, incorporation of the Famicom Disk System is really only going to be for those ultra-serious Retro Gamers, which even I’m not one of…yet.

Of course, this system ran Burai Fighter and MetalStorm just fine…and with companies like RetroBit and Limited Run Games continuing to make enhanced reproduction games as well as the swell of homebrew and rom-hacked NES games, the percentage of NES/Famicom games that will run on the Retron is only going to get smaller as time goes on, although the increment is certainly open for debate and discussion. One last thing to consider is the rise of EverDrive cartridges, wherein an SD card can be loaded with game ROMs and then plugged into a ‘blank’ cartridge, which is in turn inserted into your game system of choice to load the game of your choice. Retron doesn’t recognize these, whereas an FPGA does, since these EverDrives are designed to work on the original hardware. So, if you’re planning to dabble in the shadier side of retro gaming, an FPGA might be the better way to go as well.

Granted, I haven’t dabbled in as much, again just sticking with updated repros as well as the classic carts themselves and I have to say that the AVS does a fantastic job of bringing these to life on my HDTV. If I had to make one complaint…it’s that once you get a cartridge in, sometimes it can be like pulling the sword from the stone to get the damn thing back out again…and given what you’ve spent on the system, you don’t want to just grab and Conan the thing out. The best I can recommend is a good grip, a little wiggling back and forth and a touch of patience and you’ll be successful. Still, I could do without that little bit of drama every time I want to play a different game.

Analogue’s Mega SG

Very happy with my first foray into FPGA gaming and still having a little bit of disposable income, I proceeded further down the rabbit hole. You don’t have to dive too far down to hear about the awesomeness of Analogue’s products…in fact, I knew about them before I did RetroUSB’s AVS! So, pulling up their online store, I was faced with a quandary: Mega SG or Super NT? Genesis or SNES? Ah, just like their advertising, the classic Console Wars were back and taking place in my head. To be brief, [Yeah, that’d be a first. – Ed.] the Sega Genesis was the first console I ever worked to save up money for and as such has always had a special place in my heart. Plus, while my best friend and I both had Super Nintendos, there were just some crazy games on the Genesis that scar us to this day (Earnest Evans, I’m looking at you). Needless to say, the choice was obvious and easy.

Analogue’s products, like the AVS, allow you to tinker with the graphics, perhaps even more so than that system and also include a game hard-coded into the system, in this case an unpublished game from Digital Illusions called Utracore…a run and gun shooter that’s pretty fun. Also in-box is an adaptor allowing for Sega Master System games to be played. Additional adapters for Game Gear, SMS MyCard and even some of Sega’s early entries into the PC market can be bought from them to expand the system’s library even further. However, if you have the 3-in-1 adapter from Hyperkin for their Retron console, it will indeed work in the Mega SG, so if you’re only looking to add MyCard and Game Gear compatibility, this might be the way to go.

Aside from the points brought up during our AVS discussion, such as repro carts and EverDrives, where the Mega SG really shines is expansion. You’ve got a real shot at recreating your 90’s “tower of power” here. The Mega SG has a port to plug in your Sega CD system with ease and the games play just fine. The 32X, however, is a bit more complicated. At this time, Analogue does have a bit of a work around, but it requires their DAC (Digital-to-Analog-Converter) and a custom cable…but it is a problem that they are continuing to look at, so here’s hoping there’s a solution coming soon. I’ve been unable to do anything in this regard at the time of this writing as their DAC is out of stock, but it’s not exactly a priority for me either, given my limited interest in 32X games. Don’t get me wrong, there are some I definitely want to play (Star Wars Arcade and Zaxxon’s Motherbase 2000), but I’ve got so many other games to tackle, I’m okay to wait for now.

While the Retron does allow for some limited expansion to other Sega systems through the aforementioned 3-in-1 adapter, it’s the Mega SG’s allowance for the Sega CD expansion that makes the FPGA system really stand apart from it’s emulation counterpart and I could easily see this system being your gateway drug into FPGA gaming, especially if you’re a Sega-Fanboy like me.

Oh…before I forget, there is one downside to the Mega SG. You see, the old Sega Master System had a pair of electronic 3D glasses as a peripheral and, as such, a series of games that were designed to exploit that gimmick. Now, I haven’t seen any of the more professional YouTubers address this (and if they have, please accept my apology in advance), but these cartridges will cause the Mega SG to…well, load up just a blank screen. Or, at least that was my experience when trying to load Zaxxon 3D. I dunno, maybe there’s a firmware update I’m missing. However, the Retron will play these games just fine…without the 3D enhancement, of course.

Analogue’s Super NT

My plan was that after I got the Mega SG, I’d circle back to Analogue’s website and grab a Super NT. Nope. All gone. Ugh. Then COVID happened. But back in March came word that there’d be limited stock available in April. So, a date and time was given and I, like many MANY others given how their site performed that day, was there when those units became available and, through sheer force of mouse pointer and refreshing…along with a little luck…managed to finally get my mitts on a unit. And you know what that means, it was time to give my repro copy of The Ninja Gaiden Trilogy a spin. The results? It worked totally fine.

However, coming to the Super NT in the wake of the Mega SG…well, I mean the system does what it’s supposed to do. Sure, it plays repro carts and rom-hacks and EverDrives, but the SNES never had much in the way of peripherals (we’re not counting light guns as there’s no widely available option that works with current HDTVs…yet) the way the Sega Genesis did. So while you’re getting access to the entire SNES library…well, that’s all you’re getting. Okay, that might not be entirely true, as the Super NT will let you play Super Famicom games too, giving you access to the library of Japanese games as well. (I’m totally tracking down Gundam Wing Endless Waltz and I think there’s a Mazinger Z game out there too.) Almost to make up for the lack of peripherals, Analogue has included two games here, Factor 5’s Super Turrican and Super Turrican 2. Now, while both of these games had releases on the SNES, they had to be pared down due to the amount of memory available on cartridges at the time. As such, they’re presented here in their full form, or “Director’s Cuts” if you will.

The thing is, the Retron 5 is also capable of playing Super Famicom games…I just never did with mine because I wasn’t sure! So while I really do enjoy my Super NT, there’s definitely not enough here to recommend it to the casual gamer. However, if you’re into repros, rom-hacks and EverDrives, then yes, tracking one of these down is worth it…but I suspect that really only applies to maybe…what…a minority of retro gamers at best?

There you go, a brief primer on FPGA gaming and how it stacks up against emulation, in my case the Retron 5. Mind you, there are other emulation clone systems out there, some also by Hyperkin…some look promising, others not so much. The Polymega certainly looks like a game-changer with emulation capabilities for early CD-ROM based systems as well as interchangeable modules to emulate the old-school cartridge 8 and 16 bit era games…but current circumstances (COVID, chip and board shortages) have thrown a shadow of doubt over whether or not that system will ever see wide-spread distribution (in spite of the makers actually having a deal with friggin’ WalMart!). I’ll admit, I’ve enjoyed my descent into this form of gaming and the consoles I’ve been able to get…and I’m looking forward to Analogue’s take on the TurboGrafix-16/PCEngine, but let’s be realistic, this is an expensive rabbit hole. It’s my hope that this article has shed at least a little bit of light on these systems and the more widely available emulation clone consoles out there and whether or not they’re right for you and, most importantly, your pocketbook.

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