NES remixed and remastered
Before the transition to HD TV sets, retrogaming was as easy as hooking up an old console and turning it on. But today’s modern sets tend to mangle the older analog video signals those classic consoles produce, rendering them as fuzzy, laggy messes.
To remedy this, retrogaming hobbyists have stepped forward to offer new HD-equipped consoles that can play vintage games (even Nintendo is getting in on the act, with its $60 NES Classic due this fall).
One of those solutions is the RetroUSB AVS, a $185 HD reimagining of the 1980s 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. The AVS boasts impressive features, including near-100 percent game compatibility, the support for Japanese NES games (called Famicom games), and more. And all that in crisp 720p high-definition, which scales well to 4K TV sets.
This new “remix console” comes from a small, Redwood City, CA-based company run by one man, Brian Parker, who has created reproduction NES games, specialized controllers, and development tools for hobbyists for over a decade now. His work is impressive to hobbyists, but is it good enough now for the mainstream? Let’s take a look.
Inside the box
The AVS comes retail-ready, packaged in a slick cardboard box. Inside you will find an inner paperboard support that cradles the console itself, a USB cable, a USB-to-AC adapter, an HDMI cable, and a printed instruction manual.
No games or controllers are included in the package. That’s no problem for a NES collector, but for someone hoping to get up and running without a reserve of spare parts, it’s a bummer. I recommend finding a reconditioned original NES pad, or you can try the 8Bitdo NES30 wireless controller with the Retro Receiver dongle for a more modern twist that works well with the AVS.
You’ll have to find games too. Old NES games can be acquired at flea markets, used game shops, or online venues like eBay. RetroUSB is also launching a line of brand-new hobbyist-programmed NES games simultaneously with the AVS, but they are pricey—about $45 a piece.
The console design
RetroUSB worked with a designer named Misha Young to create the industrial design of the AVS itself. The housing, which plays off of the original front-loading unit (seen here below the AVS) is better than most clone consoles, but it strikes my eyes as overly angular and visually unpleasant. Like the original (which I like, even if only for nostalgic reasons), it uses a two-tone gray color scheme, a hinged lid, and a black accent stripe—although the AVS stripe is 90 degrees perpendicular to the front, and the tidy box of the NES has been reduced to an awkward trapezoid that recedes away from you. The blank lid also screams out for a logo like the original.
What the AVS lacks in form, it makes up for in functionality, since the AVS is designed to accommodate four controller ports (with built-in four-score support), 72-pin NES and 60-pin Famicom cartridge support, Famicom Disk System support, and 15-pin Famicom accessory support. It pulls those off fairly well, although inserting the Famicom Disk System adapter is sort of a squeeze. Luckily, that’s a scenario that’s likely limited to die-hard collectors.
The rear ports
Speaking of that 15-pin Famicom accessory support, here is a look at the back side of the AVS. On the right you see the accessory port, which was used on the Japanese Famicom as a way to plug in light guns or other controllers; the original Famicom shipped with two controllers hardwired into the system. (Take a peek inside the original Famicom here.)
Also on the back, you can see the HDMI port on the left, and the USB Mini-B socket (used mostly for 5V DC power, but also for firmware updates) toward the middle. I had no trouble with the HDMI port or the Famicom accessory port, but the USB socket came back to give me trouble later, which you’ll see ahead.
The cartridge bay
And here’s the business end of the AVS: The front of the unit with the plastic lid lifted open. Beneath, you can see two connectors. In the back, there’s a horizontally oriented 72-pin connector used to play American NES games. Toward the front there is a vertically oriented 60-pin connector used to play smaller Famicom cartridges, which were released only in Asian markets.
You can also see the four built-in controller ports, which is a really neat feature. Using these, one can simulate an NES Four Score adapter and play all of the roughly 24 four-player NES games that were released during the original run of the NES console. I tested all four ports with several games, and they work well.
Awkward cartridge operation
This is what the AVS looks like with a NES cartridge inserted. Inserting the cartridge takes a lot of force—it’s not a smooth operation. Since the console itself is so light, it requires two hands: one to hold the cartridge, and the other to steady the console from the back as you force it in. Likewise, the Famicom connection is a little tight, but at least you are pushing down, against a surface when you are inserting a game in that orientation. Sadly, the lid only closes fully when you’re using a NES cartridge. Otherwise, you’re left with a weird-looking half-covered Famicom cart sticking out of the top.
I want to emphasize that cartridge insertion on the AVS is particularly difficult for a young kid to pull off (my 6-year-old simply couldn’t do it), which is a knock against the AVS as a general consumer product. The console holds other hazards too: One stray backwards hit against that huge protruding lid, and well, it’s likely that will be the end of the lid. And the AVS is fragile in other ways, as you’ll see ahead—expect to keep an adult nearby at all times to operate AVS if you want to keep it in one piece.
The AVS main menu
Here I have connected the AVS to a desktop Asus monitor with HDMI support since it fits on my workbench, but I also tested the console with my 70-inch living room plasma TV, and another smaller TV set, and the AVS worked equally well with all of them. The HD display is crisp and bright, and operates as promised.
Upon turning on the AVS for the first time, players see this circular on-screen menu. Its design is nice in that it preserves the pixilated vibe of the NES while smoothly rotating the icons around as you select them. You see five menu items: Start Game, Game Genie, Input Options, General/Video Options, and Scoreboard.
At the time I evaluated the AVS, I did not have access to RetroUSB’s Scoreboard software, which allows players to link the AVS to a computer and upload NES game scores to the internet for competitive purposes. Other than that, I’ll touch on the individual options in the slides ahead.
When you select the wrench icon on the main menu, you are taken to the general options screen, seen here. On this menu you can switch between NTSC and PAL video mode, change the pixel aspect ratio, turn on and off scan lines (which visually simulate CRT phosphor lines), and turn on extra sprites, which is a nice addition. The original NES had a sprites-per-line limit that could result in flickery graphics; with this mode turned on, games perform better but still look authentic.
Also, the Vert Border and Left Side Hide/Show options are nice, since they give you the option to see or hide extra pixels on the sides of the screen that were typically hidden by overscans on vintage CRT TV sets. If you don’t hide them, you can see lots of glitchy graphics on the borders, so it’s best to keep those options on. Finally, the Exp Volume option controls the volume level of expansion audio coming from devices like the Famicom Disk System, which included its own extra sound chip.
All the options work well, and are nice to have.
In this menu, you can assign special button combinations to turn on/off Game Genie cheats while playing a game, and also a button combo to bring you back to the main AVS menu. But beware: If you bring up the menu, the game will not resume where you left off.
Here you can also turn on and off turbo button features, four-score support, and “expansion emu,” which translates U.S. peripherals into Japanese equivalents for use with Famicom games. With Auto Play enabled, the console immediately loads a plugged-in cartridge instead of taking you to the AVS main menu at power-on.
Game Genie codes menu
Back in the day, if you wanted to cheat on NES games, you either needed a secret code (i.e. up-up-down-down-left-right-B-A-start) or a plugin Game Genie device, which modified game software on the fly to enable neat game features like infinite lives, invincibility, or flying in Super Mario Bros.
The AVS has Game Genie functionality built in, and what’s even cooler is that the console will recognize many games and suggest the cheat codes you can select from a menu. Otherwise, you can still enter in codes manually. It’s a very nice touch.
So what do games on the AVS look like? They look wonderful. The HD display, as advertised, is without a doubt the best thing about the AVS. On my large living room plasma set, the graphics are so sharp and the colors so vibrant that each game is like visual candy—a feast for the eyes.
And the experience of playing original NES games with near-perfect compatibility (and original sound), an original controller, and no controller lag is priceless. It’s like rediscovering the NES all over again.
To directly compare the AVS’ fidelity, I set it up right next to an original NES playing the same game with a CRT TV set. Until now I thought I enjoyed the composite video display of the original NES, but the new HD AVS really puts the vintage display to shame.
In the course of testing the AVS, I tried dozens of NES games, including obscure later-release and unlicensed titles, and the AVS handled everything I threw at it with impressive accuracy. The only downside of the HD display is that NES Zapper games won’t work because the sensor in the light gun is tuned for CRT TV sets.
I also tried a dozen Japanese Famicom games, and am happy to report that the Japanese version of Castlevania III (or Akumajō Densetsu, seen here), which is well-known for choking up lesser NES clone systems, plays just fine on the AVS.
One of the neat features of Akumajō Densetsu is that the cartridge includes an extra audio chip used to create richer, more complex music. The Famicom had a spare cartridge pin for expanded audio functionality, and the AVS supports that completely.
Opening the AVS
With all the play-testing out of the way, I thought it would be instructive to take a peek inside the AVS console itself. After removing only four screws, the case came apart with a little jiggling. That red thing you see here is the unit’s main printed circuit board, and there is actually a vertical daughter board for the 72-pin connector plugged into it.
The PC board is speckled with mostly surface mount components and relatively few chips, including an FPGA (which we’ll see ahead), and a PIC microcontroller that apparently handles the USB interface with a computer for firmware updates.
The physical simplicity of the unit’s insides is a relief to see, although interestingly, the power/reset/LED assembly is nearly an exact replica of the original NES assembly, with one main difference: The plastic buttons are rotated 90 degrees. If you unrotate them, you could use the whole assembly as a near drop-in replacement of the original NES power/reset/LED switch bank. Hmmm.
The brains of the operation
The AVS achieves its broad NES and Famicom compatibility magic by using an FPGA chip—this XLINX Spartan-6 seen here—that runs a hardware-based simulation of the original NES circuitry. That simulation, which exists as software until it is used to electronically reconfigure the FPGA chip itself, can be upgraded and modified in the future if RetroUSB improves its simulation or wants to add new features to the console.
FPGAs are incredible devices that make all kinds of technological wizardry possible in the simulation of old hardware platforms—expect to hear more about them as future retro remakes come to market.
USB connector troubles
On day two of my evaluation, I ran into a major issue with the AVS. After moving the console between three testing sites with the USB power cable still attached, the USB socket in the AVS became loose. I thought the connector wasn’t seated, so I pushed it in, and whoops, the USB connector broke clean off the PC board.
In my decades of experience dealing with gadgets and game consoles, it’s disheartening to see the AVS break with what I consider to be minor strain on the power cable. The Mini USB socket used in the AVS is mounted to the board with only solder, and such a mechanically weak design is better suited for a temporary connection like linking or charging (especially with a small device) rather than being used to constantly power a tabletop unit. It really wasn’t designed for this kind of task.
I asked Parker about it, and he said that the power connector will be more robust (a through-hole model with more plastic support) in the Rev. 2 version of the AVS board. However, he did not say, as of press time, whether the initial shipping model of the AVS uses the Rev. 2 board (I don’t think so), and judging by the replacement console I received, this issue will probably affect all first-run units. So unless you are prepared to be extremely gentle with the power connector (i.e. keep it away from kids, don’t move the device), it would be best to wait until RetroUSB itself verifies that the issue has been fixed.
The final word
After evaluating the AVS, I am very impressed at what one skilled and passionate NES fan can pull off in the year 2016. Parker has created an NES connoisseur’s dream console, albeit with a few regretful design flaws. Considering its physical fragility in some areas, the AVS is definitely not ready for prime time as a general consumer product that anyone could purchase on a whim and expect years of trouble-free use. Until durability issues are addressed, the AVS will remain a niche product for adult collectors, and perhaps that’s okay—as long as you know what you’re getting into when you buy it.
Pros: Stunningly sharp HD graphics, accurate color and sound reproduction, excellent game and accessory compatibility, great on-screen menu and options.
Cons: USB power connector flaw; awkward cartridge bay design makes it unsuitable for unsupervised-kid use; kinda ugly; no controllers included; slightly expensive.