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Meet The Hardware Artisans Keeping Classic Video Games Alive

For companies like Analogue, retro gaming is about more than nostalgia.

Meet The Hardware Artisans Keeping Classic Video Games Alive
[Photo: courtesy of Analogue]

Immediately after loading Super Mario World on the Analogue Super Nt, I began to regret it. It was just too good.

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A couple of years ago, I turned part of my basement into a shrine to gaming history. Every console I ever owned–from the original Nintendo to the Xbox One–finally had a proper home. I even imported an upscaling box from Japan so that my aging standard-definition gaming boxes would run in their native aspect ratio on my 70-inch HDTV.

The Analogue Super Nt–essentially a reverse-engineered Super Nintendo, rebuilt with modern programmable circuit boards–put my own setup to shame. It plays the same SNES cartridges, uses the same controllers, and performs in the same way. But there is one crucial difference: Analogue created its system with HDTVs in mind, so every game looks as good or maybe even better than I remember from childhood. Playing the same cartridges on my actual Super Nintendo is more like looking through a dirty window.

Analogue isn’t the only company bringing retro games to high-definition televisions. Nintendo came out with its own NES Classic Edition and Super NES Classic systems, which have sold more than 6 million units combined since late 2016. Other companies such as AtGames and Hyperkin also offer throwback consoles based on vintage Atari, Nintendo, and Sega systems.

But with those products, the primary goal is to provide a quick, inexpensive hit of nostalgia. Many of them have only a narrow selection of preloaded games, and the ones that support real cartridges render the games through quick-and-dirty emulation, which is prone to audiovisual glitches. Analogue, by comparison, is trying to present the entire SNES catalog in sterling quality.

“The whole purpose of what we’re doing is, we’re making a call to respecting and elevating the history of video games, because it’s worth it.” says Christopher Taber, Analogue’s founder and CEO, of the company’s products. “We’re not making them as gimmicks. We’re not making them as nostalgia tools.”

The Analogue Super Nt [Photo: courtesy of Analogue]

Recycled History

Before creating the Super Nt, Analogue had a reputation for turning classic consoles into statement pieces. Its first product, from 2012, was a $650 Neo Geo system that used actual arcade motherboards from the 1990s and came in a wooden enclosure. A $500 aluminum-clad Nintendo Entertainment System arrived a few years later, using some of the same components as Nintendo’s original console.

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While those early products didn’t turn much of a profit, they did turn heads. Tech and gaming sites such as Engadget and IGN wrote about the Neo Geo-based CMVS, and press coverage was even broader for the Nintendo-based Analogue Nt. (“If Jony Ive designed the original Nintendo, it would look like this,” a FastCo. Design headline said at the time.)

In the meantime, Analogue was developing a hardware strategy that didn’t depend on salvaging old consoles. Taber hired Kevin Horton–a brainy engineer and friend through the retro gaming scene who’d contributed to some of Analogue’s previous efforts–as a full-time hardware and software developer. The company then started building proprietary hardware that copied the inner workings of a real Nintendo system.

The key to these efforts is the Field Programmable Gate Array, a type of integrated circuit that imprints custom layouts of electrical gates and transistors. By figuring out how old consoles operate, Analogue can re-create them using FPGAs, then send a digital signal to modern televisions. Taber says that this approach doesn’t violate any Nintendo patents—which, in the case of the NES and Super NES, have already expired, he adds.

The Super Nt is hardly wider than the vintage game cartridges it uses. [Photo: courtesy of Analogue]
By Taber’s estimates, Horton spent about 5,000 hours the developing the core of Analogue’s third system, another aluminum Nintendo clone called the Nt Mini, which launched last year. While it still cost $500, it was a major step forward for the company.

“Kevin should be working for the government cracking codes or something,” Taber says. “We basically have someone who’s obscenely talented at what he’s doing, and he’s applying it to making perfect, faithful, aftermarket video game systems to preserve playing these systems in an unadulterated way.”

The Super Nt uses the same FPGA technology as the Nt Mini, but as a product it feels like more of a turning point. It’s smaller and lighter than Analogue’s other systems, it uses plastic instead of luxurious wood or aluminum, and–most importantly–it’s a lot cheaper at $190. In a way, it’s an acknowledgement that Analogue’s previous products distracted from the higher purpose of helping more people appreciate old games.

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“My biggest problem with the Nt Mini was that it was too good to be hanging out with these other video game systems,” says Marc Duddleson, the cocreator of a popular retro gaming YouTube Channel called My Life in Gaming. “It’s made out of metal, and it’s this art piece, whereas the Super Nt–it’s still attractive, but it’s not afraid to be a video game console.”

Use a Super Nt instead of an original Nintendo Super NES, and you won’t just get sharper graphics—you’ll save space. [Photo: Jared Newman]

The Case For Consoles

Why go through the trouble of re-creating classic gaming systems in the first place? Emulation software is easy enough to find on the internet—along with ROM files of questionable legality, containing the actual code of classic games—and allows people to play their favorites on practically any device, from Android phones to Raspberry Pi boxes to desktop PCs. And if you don’t want to deal with putting those pieces together, maybe a ready-made product like the NES Classic is good enough.

Taber’s answers to these questions are somewhat contentious in retro gaming circles. He argues that software emulation is inherently less accurate than re-creating systems at the hardware level, a claim that some die-hard PC emulator developers dispute.

Still, he has a point about the consumer products that use emulation: They either offer a limited number of polished games–as with Nintendo’s Classic systems–or they support a broader catalog with less attention to accuracy. Instead of preserving the fidelity of classic consoles, these systems are more interested in stirring up old memories.

The Super Nt lets you amp up the classic Nintendo experience by simulating the scan lines of a CRT-based TV. [Image: Jared Newman]
“People allude to us being a competitor to Nintendo, which we’re absolutely not at all,” Taber says. “The Super Nintendo Classic and the NES Classic are toys.”

While Taber admires Nintendo’s products for what they are, he has lower regard for other companies like Retro-Bit and Hyperkin. Most of these products, he says, come from a single manufacturer in China, which developed a cheap emulation system years ago and sells it to other companies with slightly different enclosures. (Hyperkin has also been accused of stealing code from open-source emulators.)

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“These guys are not making these products because they care about it, they’re not making it with the preservationist’s perspective, and they’re not doing anything proprietary,” Taber says. “They’re literally doing the easiest thing imaginable, which is repackaging the same thing that’s already been developed in the last decade over and over and over again. And that’s why no clone system–and anything that’s ever been made in this category–is good.”

There’s also one important factor that distinguishes a system like the Super Nt from even the best software emulators: It just feels more like the real thing. Unlike an emulator, the Super Nt doesn’t let you save games from any point or switch to slow motion, and the only modern gameplay concession it offers is the ability to reset the game through a controller shortcut. Switching to a different game still requires you to get off the couch, retrieve another cartridge, and put it into the system, which feels kind of like listening to a vinyl album instead of a Spotify playlist.

“The intentionality of putting a cartridge in and turning it on, that makes you stay with the game, rather than saying, ‘Oh, I missed this jump, I don’t know if feel like dealing with this right now,'” My Life in Gaming’s Marc Duddleson says. “If you can just back out and turn on another game, you don’t commit to any one of them for more than like 10 minutes.”

Super NT [Photo: courtesy of Analogue]

A Cottage Industry

For all those reasons, Analogue isn’t alone in trying to keep retro hardware alive. Another company called RetroUSB has also used Field Programmable Gate Arrays to create its own version of the original Nintendo. And if you already own any classic systems like I do, there’s a miniature industry of aftermarket hardware that will make those consoles look better on modern televisions.

The reason my old Super Nintendo seems so hazy, for instance, is that it’s feeding into my upscaler box with lowly composite video cables. To get crisper visuals and more accurate colors, I would need to use an obsolete European cable format called SCART. And because I have multiple systems, I would also need a SCART switcher that routes all those inputs to a single SCART output, which in turn would feed into my upscaler for sending a digital HDMI signal to the television. It’s dizzying to just think about.

Yet a cottage industry does exist to make those things happen. A Florida-based shop called Retro Access, for instance, is in the business of making and shipping SCART cables and related accessories. Rachel Seleski, a classic gaming enthusiast who’s originally from the U.K., started selling the cables as a hobby about seven years ago, and it’s since exploded into a full-time job. Over the last year, she estimates having shipped about 6,000 cables, and plans to hire more employees to keep up with demand, especially after her husband graduates from college and can no longer chip in with manufacturing.

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“It’s not an option for me to keep doing it by myself,” Seleski says. “It’s just gotten too popular.”

Seleski has seen business surge as more people learn about retro gaming on the internet, and demand for certain products often correlates with a related video becoming popular on YouTube. Like Analogue’s Christopher Taber, Seleski believes her customers are a separate audience from the nostalgia seekers who might buy a NES Classic or Super NES Classic.

On the Super Nt, Mario is blocky—but on a real Super Nintendo hooked up to an HDTV, he’s downright blobby. [Image: Jared Newman]
“A lot of younger people, in the 1990s and early 2000s, were playing on emulators, which are just not quite up to the feel of playing it on a real system,” she says. “So when they’ve got income, they can afford to buy the original consoles. It’s just more authentic.”

Markus Hiienkari has seen similar success with Open Source Scan Converter, a crude-looking device that converts SCART input to HDMI output with no distinguishable lag from the game controller. (Incidentally, Hiienkari accomplished this using Field Programmable Gate Arrays.) Hiienkari, who started working on the idea in his spare time in 2013, estimates sales of at least 4,000 units since they started shipping in 2016.

“The people who still have the original hardware often prefer it over emulators due to authenticity, and purists don’t accept any latency or inaccuracies caused by emulation,” Hiienkari said in an email.

The Analogue Super Nt isn’t quite like those products, but it’s not like Nintendo’s Super NES Classic either. Instead, it’s straddling both worlds, providing the accuracy and authenticity of a real Super Nintendo without having to make sense of SCART cables and upscalers. Given that Nintendo is selling millions of Classic consoles, and individuals like Hiienkari and Seleski are selling thousands of handmade products, Analogue could carve out a nice business somewhere in between, especially if the company expands beyond Super Nintendo systems. Taber won’t get into specifics, but suggested that there’s more to come on that front.

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“We want to continue making systems with the respect that they deserve that allow you to explore pieces of video game history in the right way,” Taber says.

In the meantime, I’m finding it harder not to fall down the rabbit hole of making my own gaming setup look better.

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About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com

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