I Like Old Stuff
Emotion is what fuels the enthusiast. Desire is the drive of the collector. These are crucial components to this story because in early 2014 when Analogue Interactive announced the NT, their ground-up redesign of the Nintendo Entertainment System, featuring sharp RGB video output, I already owned two other NES machines capable of RGB. A lot of what Analogue was selling with this system was lost on me. I didn’t care that it was going to have four controller ports. The second cartridge slot for Famicom games wasn’t enticing to me because I had never collected Famicom games. I certainly didn’t give a shit that they were making it out of aluminum. But I wanted the NT all the same. I wanted to see what this machine could do with Mega Man 3. I needed to know. Pure emotion, zero logic or fiscal responsibility. Analogue offered just a picture, a promise, and a price. I placed my pre-order, and the waiting began.
About a week after I placed my order for a NT, I also learned of a new mod board for original the NES cooked up by Tim Worthington, called the NESRGB. I had done business with Tim before, a few years prior when I was on a ceaseless quest to get pure 240p RGB output raw on a screen and had acquired a Wells Gardner arcade monitor for the job. I learned that while a Sega Genesis didn’t need any mods to output clean RGB video, just a SCART cable, its signal strength was far too low for an arcade monitor to do much with. It turned out that Tim was selling a purpose built board that would accept RGB input from a SCART plug and amplify it for use in a JAMMA environment. I tried to get a hold of one of Tim’s NESRGB boards immediately, but they were sold out in the few places online that occasionally stocked them. I turned to eBay, as I often do, and found a front-loading “Toaster” NES for sale already modded with Tim’s board. The auction was ticking by the days with zero bids because too few people knew just what the hell a NESRGB was. I won the auction uncontested for significantly less than I had already been charged for my Analogue NT pre-order, as well as what I had paid for each of the other RGB capable NES’s that I previously purchased.
The point where Tim’s NESRGB design differed from my other modded Nintendo consoles was how he achieved RGB on the system, and the NT would supposedly be different as well. The old way of equipping a NES with a better video output than it’s dreadful composite encoder and disgusting RF modulator, was to replace the Picture Processing Unit chip on the NES’s motherboard with one from an old Nintendo arcade machine that played NES games that were in a different format. Harvesting the chip from the arcade board would render it useless, if not destroy it outright; and the just the chips themselves would regularly be sold on the online market for over $200. But the arcade chips got the job done, and once I got my first modded NES, a top-loader sloppily glued together by a Canadian fellow, I would never go back to composite video, even if the mod resulted in the colors looking weird.
Luckily for retrogaming, there are brilliant folks like Tim Worthington out in the wild who can pair the kind of long-lived passion that I am prone to with constructive innovation, and like the NT that would eventually follow, Tim’s NESRGB board saved further Nintendo arcade machines from desoldering by offering a way to play NES games on original hardware with RGB video. But Tim’s board is not a finished product, just a part; so when my NESRGB Toaster arrived from ebay, I had to do a little work on it that the original modder had stopped short of. I also replaced the cartridge loading mechanism that lends the original model NES its nickname, as they are prone to fatigue. I was very pleased with my NESRGB, its video quality was sharp and color correct. It was everything I needed in a NES to try new additions to my collection as well as continue to play the same favorites that I had been playing for thirty years and have them all look their best.
My order for an Analogue NT still stood, though, my account had already been charged. With Tim’s machine hooked up to my CRT, I could be patient and wait for the NT project to be completed, manufactured, and shipped out. I wondered how, when released, the NT could possibly be better than what I already had. The NT’s ship date was listed as a nebulous “summer” in 2014. The season came and went. The new ship date was a little firmer in that they nailed down the exact month in which it could be released, December, which also came and went. The release date changed a few more times, and in between each announcement of a slipped deadline there were almost no status updates being sent out over email. The Analogue Interactive website did not update. The official Twitter broke silence occasionally to post pictures of the same NT mockup sitting on different old wood floors.
At some point it became undeniable to me that Analogue had been lying from the start. There was no honest chance that the machine was going to make the original summer deadline. With dates evaporating and concrete details not materializing, I needed no further convincing that Analogue did not start the process of bringing the NT to market until they had generated enough additional capital from preorders. The options that they allowed me to add to my order on their webstore were options that they hoped to build, and the tentpole features no more ironclad than their third reported ship date. I am no stranger to Kickstarter and similar initiatives; I did help fund a few PC games during the early fervor. I suppose that what I am convinced that Analogue interactive did was no different from a Kickstarter campaign, except that they weren’t upfront about how they were raising funds, and in fact just what the NT would be.
Huge Debacle Meaning Irritation
Vagaries abounded when I placed my order for the Analogue NT in the May of 2014, in regards to when the system was going to be completed, when it was going to be shipped, and about what it’s future-proofed feature set was going to consist of. The NT’s HDMI capability was a $50 line-item at this time, and was sparingly described as being an external adapter. They referred to it as an RGB to HDMI upscaler, and taking the term RGB at its strictest sense would mean that they planned on making an analog to digital device.
I had long been familiar with the how poorly modern TVs and receivers treated standard definition video signals with their half-hearted features and slow processors. Verbiage such as “upscaled” and “processed” were unequivocally derogatory when applied to 240p and 480i content. Sometime in 2013, John took me on a tour of the Micomsoft XRGB Mini and demonstrated that the capabilities and speed of that little machine were impressive, as was its price tag. Yet, with a basement over-full with CRT sets, I simply never bothered to purchase any sort of digital or HDMI adapter or scaler for my 240p game machines. However, it was comforting to know that the XRGB Mini was out there.
I feel now as I felt then that it was quite reasonable to be suspicious of Analogue entering the upscaler market with an undefined combination of hardware and programming that they could let go for a tenth of the XRGB’s asking price. If the day arrived when I decided that I needed, or wanted, to retrogame on a fixed-pixel display, then I would need and want the best tool for the job, one that was effective and flexible, and while Analogue NT was an intriguing prospect to me, their nebulous and exclusive upscaling solution wasn’t attractive even at a measly fifty clams. Thus, when I pre-ordered a NT, I ordered every analog video cable that they offered instead.
As the months turned into a year and change, Analogue sent out precious few email updates with precious fewer salient details. The updates were gilded with promises that their circuit boards would be the most custom and the most extraordinary, that the box that it would come in would be anything but mediocre, and that white controller ports were on offer, if that was your fancy.
What updates did arrive in my inbox were so laughable that I paid them only enough attention to forward them to John so that he could laugh at them, and then inform me via text message when he had laughed at them. So it was sometime in late June, after the tracking numbers had gone out, that John, salivating at the approaching chance to compare the NT against my existing RGB NES stable, began to read up on the NT himself. It was John who informed me, not Analogue Interactive, that the NT was going to be doing direct digital transfer of the video signal for its upscaler.
I immediately drew two significant conclusions to this update. First, that this was of course unprecedented and enormous news. Previously I had every reason to assume that the NT was going to output analog signals only, and leave the digital transference to a shoddy box, and I had assumed just that. A wholly digital NES machine was something quite special indeed, and instantly the NT no longer looked redundant against my existing stock. The purpose of the NT was shifted from being another analog RGB solution to the thirty year-old NES problem in a shallow pool of existing solutions, to being the premier answer to NES HDMI. A quick image search of “HDMI NES” will yield a rogue’s gallery of butchered Toasters and AV NES’s with HDMI ports, each peering out of a rough-cut abscess. The NT looked to be a cut above.
The second conclusion that I drew was that if the video signal was to be lifted directly off of the processor, then the upscaler feature would not be a la carte as described when I purchased the NT, and that the unit that had already been manufactured for me would not only be devoid of the upscaler right out of its un-mediocre box, but could possibly be cut off from the upgrade entirely, depending on how the custom motherboard was made.
Analogue Interactive silently made the decision to turn the HDMI capability of the NT from an external device that I could purchase after the fact, into an internally installed component that Analogue will not ship out for customers to install themselves because we cannot be trusted to do fiddly work. There was never an email update with this information, in which a digital point of no return would have been brought to my attention and I would have ponied up the $80 that the option had then been priced to. Without this update about an integral redesign of the unit, I don’t know when the NT was actually re-speced, but I’d wager it was sometime after the second promised ship date came and went.
John was just as annoyed as I, because we had been toying with the idea of a RGB NES shootout for a solid year, and in that year I had acquired the video capturing hardware and XRGB scaler that would make a comprehensive comparison possible and distributable online, and John had furthered his video editing workflow for a rapid and refined turnaround. However, since the effective selling point of the NT had been realigned from its shiny metal body to its pure digital output, our video would miss the boat, mired in analog alone. We were vexed.
There is much to say, I am certain, about what the NT is equipped to do on your fixed-pixel display. But you won’t read about it in this diatribe. An email from Analogue once claimed that their upscaler was superior to the XRGB Mini, and said literally nothing else about it. I’m curious as hell, because while I didn’t believe Analogue’s boasts then and I don’t believe them now, it isn’t as if the XRGB is perfect. A scaler shootout is another thing altogether, and if it could have happened amidst a RGB NES rumble, Johnny and I could have been poring over the minutiae for weeks.
If I ship my NT back to Analogue in Seattle, they do offer to upgrade my unit with their internal scaler, so my investment retains its potential. After waiting so long for the unit to arrive, however, and having been so under-informed by Analogue Interactive, I believe I will keep my NT locked up a while, and allow my choler to stew. I still don’t want to retrogame on fixed-pixel, after all.
The final insult from Analogue, at least on the topic of HDMI and upscaling, is that they did indeed leave my NT open for upgrade, quite literally, in the form of a gaping hole above the HD15 port where the HDMI port should be.
The Metal Monster
I had been using Super Mario 3 as my test cartridge as I acclimated myself to the video capture I had recently purchased. Since the NESRGB and the NT both supported multiple color palettes, this made Mario 3 well suited to be an early grab for testing due to how drastically the color of the background sky would change between the default palette from the NES and the oftentimes more garish RGB palette borrowed from the Playchoice 10 arcade machines. Not for the first time, Super Mario 3 was the first cartridge I brought to a boutique NES.
As soon as I felt the tension of the aluminum cartridge slot cover flaps as they parted underneath the twenty-seven year-old game I realized the folly of this airstream metal body for which we had waited so long to be manufactured. Every time a game is inserted into the Analogue NT, contact is made between unyielding metal and plastic that may have been molded upwards of 32 years ago.
NES cartridges are not renowned for their reliability, at least not without quick wipe of their scarred electrical contacts. Any user of the NT will be inserting games into the un-beveled cartridge slot, and then retracting the game slightly and wiggling it to affect a realignment which they hope will get the game to boot on the next attempt. This process will result in more rubbing of the old cartridge on the edges of the metal slot, which affords your games an index card’s thickness of clearance on either side.
When I removed the copy of Mario 3 that I had clumsily crammed into the metal maw of the NT, an examination of the sides of the cartridge revealed light scratches at the depth where the game came into contact with the side of the cart slot when I pulled upwards in a slight arc long ingrained in thirty years of game consoles. Later, I inserted an original 1983 Famicom Mario Bros cartridge into the NT and once again did not apply the exquisite care needed to load and unload this machine. I spotted a fresh orange curl of plastic along the side of the cart that was shaved off like a soft bar of soap.
Game cartridges have been accruing scratches since they were introduced to market, to be sure, and no carts in my collection endure more reinsertions than my NES carts thanks to the finicky nature of the Toaster’s loading mechanism, despite my repeated attempts to refresh the relevant parts. But all bumps and friction upon them up until this point had been against comparatively soft plastic. The hard edges of the NT’s slots, and the stiff metal flaps which must be pushed aside, do not make the NT an inviting place for my NES games.
For the first time, flash-memory based cartridges like the Everdrive seemed an appealing prospect to me; the calculated logic of only needing to insert a cartridge once being much louder than the emotional charge of acquiring another piece of classic gaming history at equal market value and becoming its new, and hopefully final, steward.
Other Features \ Irritants
When Analogue Interactive was fretting over the clean lines of the NT, they decided to move all the doo dads to the rear of the console. Around back you will find a selector switch for different modes for the microphone jack, and one to toggle on the extra controller ports for different regions. Two small buttons marked with up and down pictographs are present but do nothing for me; presumably they are for navigating the menu of the upscaler.
Also on the back of the machine is the power switch. It is a software controlled switch, that you tap to reset the console but hold to power off. It is quite a pleasant button, as buttons go, but it is on the back of the unit. By placing the power button where the user cannot see it, Analogue has allowed their system to join the sparse, hallowed ranks of consoles like the FZ-10 and the equally boutique Omega MVS. A bold move.
Like the NESRGB, the NT is equipped with a three position switch to toggle between color palettes, although I assume that the switch only affects the analog output. I didn’t know it was equipped this way at first, because the switch is very small, is not labeled, and is recessed on the bottom of the unit. Should you wish to change color palette modes while a game is running, Harrison Ford will need to visit with a bag of sand to flip over the NT, which is considerably heavy, and change the setting on the switch without the cartridge rattling an inch in the slot and crashing.
It would be silly if the analog video quality of a machine put out by Analogue Interactive was sub par. The NT is not silly. In what now feels to be an aside from the internal digital scaler, the NT offers 240p composite video, s-video, component video, and RGB via optional SCART cables and a four plug BNC cable for direct hook-up to a PVM CRT such as my own.
A female HD15 port is used as the AV-out which means the base for building any analog cable it needs is a common VGA plug. Where I take points off, that I am not actually awarding, is that in all of the cables that Analogue supplied me, only a few of the available pins on the HD15 are being used. The four extra conductors needed for component video could easily fit in the same cable that both composite video and s-video are in. Perhaps I’m just miffed that I was sold four cables when three would reasonably do, or more likely I feel that way because it was super annoying to have to keep switching between the composite\s-video cable and the component cable to capture all the footage. The video that John stitched together from my captures tells the tale of the NT’s analog output better than I can with abundant commas, so be sure to watch that, at 1:1 of course.
I find the composite video from the NT particularly impressive, even if it also highly redundant as anyone who drops $500 on an NT will choose any video solution other than composite. Compared to the composite output from a stock NES, the NT’s composite video is nearly free of all the dot crawl and artifacts caused by a dirty signal that plagued the NES. The NT’s video is brighter than a NES, in composite as well as the other video modes, so if your display is tuned to display NES composite video just as you like it, the NT’s output may seem bloomed and thus a bit blurrier at first blush. The cleanliness of the signal will still come through, and it only gets better when you add an extra conductor for s-video, and then another for component.
The NT’s RGB output and its supplied SCART cable are where the trouble starts. Retrogamers on all continents are by now familiar with the SCART plugs which were denied to gamers in North America during the nineties when we really needed them, as well as with the clean RGB video output that they could bring. Therefore it should be well understood that SCART is no more required to be configured to carry RGB than the more common RCA cables are required to carry composite video, instead of analog or digital audio. SCART is just a type of plug, the type with the most pins; it may be configured to carry composite video, or s-video, or ideally RGB. SCART is highly variable, and any specific SCART cable is configured for the capabilities of the equipment it was designed for.
Yet, with this variably, every purpose-built SCART cable that I have ever purchased has met two common criteria in addition to being configured for RGB. They have all carried stereo audio, and they have used resistors on the RGB lines to calibrate the brightness of the video. The first and third-party manufactured SCART cables that I have for SNES and Dreamcast are equipped this way, and the Micomsoft scalers that are the centerpieces of a large portion of retrogamer setups are designed to accept this configuration, albeit for the Japanese pin order instead of European, which is easily remedied with a common adapter.
Somehow, the SCART cable that I received with my analog-only unit was equipped with neither of these common criteria. Analog audio is output through the RCA stereo jacks on the rear of the NT only, and the RGB conductors are un-metered and wide open, resulting in a brighter than expected image. This issue is not present over the component output because the NT uses entirely different pins in the AV out for component video versus RGB.
I dislike having to adjust the display settings on any TV or monitor for a specific source. Since nearly all my retrogaming is done on a PVM CRT, that monitor is tuned to deliver a consistantly bright image across all my RGB consoles. the PVM has a brightness range of -30 to +30, and I keep it tuned to -10, which is a conservative setting which attempts to take into account the age of the CRT. Nonetheless, completely stock RGB capable consoles like the SNES and Genesis appear evenly lit at this setting, as do consoles modded to output RGB like N64 and some of my PC Engines as well as other boutique devices like the Omega MVS and Super 8 NES. Very rarely do I change the brightness setting, and more often to adjust for ambient light than any other reason. With my supplied NT SCART cable lacking resistors on the RGB lines, the image is much brighter than everything else that I have hooked up to my CRT and SCART switcher.
The situation is the same if I connect my NT’s SCART cable to the XRGB scaler. This popular analog-to-digital converter was definitely tuned to expect a certain video level on its RGB-In, and while it is capable of a much broader range of adjustments than my PVM is, the default settings on the XRGB resolve the RGB output of my consoles to an image that is evenly lit and saturated. When the NT is fed in via SCART, the image is over saturated and blown out, with darker details being hidden by brighter shades from adjacent pixels and the whites blooming. Simply reducing the discrete Red, Green, and Blue levels of the XRGB’s color settings brings things back to the desired image balance, but this process must be reversed for the next console that is connected or else its image will be unpleasantly dim.
If the NT was to be alone in this environment, this would not necessarily be an issue, I could simply reduce the monitor’s brightness below -10, or similarly adjust the gamma or contrast, and the NT’s video over SCART or BNC would look excellent on any monitor sharp enough to fully resolve it. Likewise, the analog stereo that can be tapped at the NT’s RCS jacks is easily enough connected to an open input on a receiver.
The problem is that the NT is not going to be an only child in my retrogaming room, and these deviations from the expected norm of the SCART pinout mean that it will be troublesome among its peers. In order to slip neatly into the status quo of my modded and original RGB consoles alike I must open up my NT SCART cable and solder resistors onto the RGB conductors. A separate stereo cable must also be run into the SCART plug and terminated on the appropriate pins; some of my consoles that were modded by other people employ a similar joining of a video cable and an audio cable under the SCART hood, but at least these modders shipped their cables with the work already done.
Since I can only speak to qualities of the NT’s analog video output, likewise can I only hear the analog audio. There isn’t much to be verbose about on this topic, but of chief importance is that the chiptunes sound accurate to original hardware. I hadn’t doubted that this would be a problem, and after playing through Mega Man 3, I hadn’t found one.
The NT’s audio outputs about the same level as a stock NES, while sounding slightly cleaner. Toggling back and forth between a NES and a NT playing the same game, I could hear the sounds being played just a little clearer on the NT through headphones than on the NES. I have played on some modded NES’s that attempt to do more to the old single channel sound than just double onto a stereo channel and I found those efforts uneven and distracting; I appreciate that the NT doesn’t go down that route.
Analogue advertises the NT as supporting all the audio tricks that certain Famicom games employed that were never heard on a NES, as well as supporting the microphone. I have few Famicom games to test on the NT at all, and none that do anything above what their NES counterparts, if any, supported. An interesting NT exclusive is a standard 3.5mm jack on its rear to support a microphone. If I owned a Famicom copy of Zelda, I could plug in a PS4 headset and yell at those mouse things; I am unlikely to do that.
The final point about the NT’s audio that I can attest to is its susceptibility to what is often called “SCART Buzz.” Anyone who has taken their retrogaming down the SCART path and plugged their audio in a receiver and speakers has heard the electric buzz that creeps into the audio when the volume is increased, often to just over a moderate level. This buzz is generated by electric interference between the video signal and the audio signal and grows in intensity as the video output grows brighter, and SCART cables and thus RGB are not the only video output methods that generate the buzz. As the noise is generated by the reaction between two analog signals, there are always multiple factors at play, and the cables themselves are often a major factor due to the fact that the audio and video conductors run together for the length of the cable and because those who build the cables do not always take proper shielding into account when selecting which spools of structured cable to stock. Often, though, the video signal has ample time to bleed into the audio signal before it exits the AV out the console, and machines equipped with stereo RCA ports exhibit the buzz just the same.
I wanted to see how buzzy the NT was so I carefully loaded a common Super Mario Bros \ Duck Hunt cart. There is no audio output at all as the graphics for the selection screen slide onscreen so I can increase the volume to my speakers and test at what volume the buzz sneaks in. I found that when using composite and component video, the electric noise crept in on the NT at the same level as if I used the mono audio out on my NESRGB Toaster while viewing its RGB output over SCART, which is also fairly close to where I would hear it using composite video out on a stock NES. However, when I switch to using the SCART cable on the NT, the brighter video resulted in a buzzier audio signal, and in this case, getting close to the volume level that I would normally play at.
Presumably, none of this would be a concern when your audio is being transmitted digitally over HDMI. I also believe that I can bring the NT’s SCART buzz down to a more reasonable level when I re-work the cable to meter the video brightness; but then again, since I would also be running the stereo into my SCART switcher and back out again to the receiver, maybe not.
Shoulda Bought a AN-500R
So finally the Analogue NT has shipped, and I have my fourth RGB machine to play Mega Man 3 on. Those are very separate events for me at this point. John is uploading the final edit of the comparison video that he constructed from my raw captures and hopefully that will tell somebody something. Even though all the relevant action has taken place over a long holiday weekend, I still feel as a lengthy chapter has ended, and not in the way that I expected.
I am ambivalent about the NT. RGB modded NES’s are damn important, and I reckon it’s a cinch that the release of the NT has already seen Analogue’s machine outnumber Tim’s NESRGB’s in the wild. I should be able to rectify my issues with the SCART cable and make it fully compatible with my setup without much fuss. The quality of the analog video that the NT puts out is among the best I have seen, but at the same time I am irritated up and down about the HDMI. Also, I have another reason to collect still cheap Famicom carts. The question, then, is will I play those incoming imports on the NT, as well as my old favorites?
The answer is no. Because they made the stupid thing out of metal, and I don’t want my goddamn carts scratched.