A Guide to (Many) NES Alternatives

Big Lots is already consolidating their Halloween shelves to make room for incoming Christmas-themed items. (Yes, in September.) One hot item for retrogamers this holiday season will be Nintendo’s official NES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the classic Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) that comes with 30 games built-in and goes on sale on November 11, 2016.. If the last video game system you owned was an original NES, you may not be familiar with all the ways you can play those old NES games, which vary greatly in both quality and price.

In this post I’ll be discussing all of the methods I’m familiar with when it comes to playing old NES games: original hardware, emulation, Famiclones, FPGAs, plus a couple of systems that don’t fall into any of those categories. For many of you, you are excused — come back tomorrow!

ORIGINAL HARDWARE

Nintendo originally introduced the NES to North Americans in October of 1985. It was the holiday hit of the season, and if you are still reading, it’s possible you spent the following year (along with millions of other people) playing Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and other classic early Nintendo titles.

Millions of NES units have survived the test of time, and it is still possible to pick them up today in video game stores and on Craigslist. The one part most prone to fail are the internal pins where cartridges connect. If the cartridge doesn’t make a good connection, the screen will simply flash when the system is powered on. Replacement pins are available and sometimes they can be bent back into place, but just know if you are seeing these symptoms, the NES most likely needs some minor repair.

Additionally, the NES uses old school A/V (composite) video cables and only provides mono sound. The video signal looks great on old CRT (tube) televisions, but not so much on modern flat screen HDTVs. A later hardware revision solves the cartridge loading problem by moving the slot to the top, but only provides coax (cable) video output. Unfortunately, these “top loaders” are even more coveted by collectors, and the price reflects it.

Summary: While the original hardware provides a 100% accurate experience, expect to buy a few adapters to get this old system to connect to your modern television.

EMULATION

Emulators are programs that run on a computer (or tablet, or phone) that emulate the experience of playing old games. The key is “emulate” and not “simulate” — emulators are often very good if not great at emulating old games, however those looking for a pixel-perfect experience may find minor imperfections to squabble about.

The best thing about emulation is that it’s free. Emulators like FCEUX and NEStopia are free to download. Obtaining ROMs (software dumps of the original games) to play on the emulators is a gray area at best, although archives containing every known NES ROM are not difficult to find.

If emulation is free, why isn’t it the only (or preferred) solution? For starters, setting up most emulators takes more technical know-how than connecting a gaming system to a television. Some people prefer what I call the “living room experience” of inserting physical cartridges into a console and playing the games from their couch. You can simulate this experience by connecting a computer to your living room television. They even sell USB adapters that allow you to connect vintage NES controllers to your computer! These are obviously the exception to the norm. Most people play emulated NES games while sitting in from of their computer.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the Raspberry Pi, a $35 mini-computer that does a tremendous job of playing NES games through emulation. With HDMI output adding a USB joystick, you can be up and running in no time by following any of the easy-to-follow installation guides available through Google.

Summary: Not the most authentic NES experience, but definitely the free’est.

FAMICLONES

In Japan, the NES was known as the Famicom (short for “family computer”). Any unofficial system that plays NES games is called a Famiclone. There are three major categories of Famiclones and literally hundreds of different clones on the market, all of which have different games, features, and quality. The three major categories of Famiclones include the “All-in-One,” the cartridge-based Famiclone, and the Multi-system Famiclone.

The “All-in-One” Famiclones do not include a cartridge slot. These were really popular in flea markets about five years ago, advertising “10,000 games in 1” (and sometimes more). According to Wikipedia there were a total of 713 licensed NES games (826 if you include unlicensed games), To get 10,000 games, these developers cheat in many ways; some of the “games” are simply levels from other games, some of them are games with the graphics modified, and in the cheapest of these units, the menu simply repeats after 100 or so games. The build quality on these all-in-one systems are often shoddy (at best) and the emulation quality isn’t much better. Kids who have never seen an original NES game in their life may still complain about the quality.

Summary: Toys for kids. Fun until they break, which will be soon.

Cartridge-based Famiclone systems allow gamers to use original NES cartridges, but run their emulation from what has been dubbed a “Nintendo on a Chip” (NOAC). The problem with these systems is that they are a dime a dozen, and quality (both build and emulation) varies greatly. The NEX (released in 2005 by Messiah) drew great ire from classic gamers when they learned it played most games pretty well and a few poorly or not at all. Famiclones have mostly been replaced by multi game system Famiclones.

Summary: Tough to know what you’re getting until you get it.

Multi-systems, like the RetroN 5, have largely replaced the original Famiclones. The RetroN 5 has 5 cartridge slots that allow it to accept not only NES but Super Nintendo (SNES), Sega Genesis, and all the Gameboy (original, Color, and Advance) cartridges. The RetroN 5 includes HDMI video, supports cheat codes, and allows vintage controllers to be used. All of these features don’t come cheap, as the RetroN 5 currently sells for $180 on Amazon. It’s a little tough to categorize the RetroN 5 as technically under the hood it’s running an Android emulator, but without removing the case, it’s hard to tell. The older model (RetroN 3) along with other competitors like the Super Retro Trio and FC3 are also still available and cost much less. These systems are all better than generic Famiclones (and leaps and bounds beyond those cheap All-in-One alternatives), but they’re definitely not perfect.

Summary: The best of the Famiclones. It’s still emulation, but it’s better than older models.

FPGA

FPGA stands for Field Programmable Gate Array, and explaining how it’s different from emulation (and why that’s important) can be difficult. Here’s how someone explained it to me, and while it’s not 100% technically accurate, it helps clarify the difference.

Pretend the original NES was an abacus — one of those ancient devices that allowed you to perform math by sliding beads back and forth on a series of rails. An emulator would be like a series of memorized math facts — let’s say the single-digital multiplication table. We know 3×4 is 12 and 6×9 is 54 because we memorized those answers. Note that we don’t need any understanding of multiplication properties to provide these answers; we simply memorized them. If someone asks us what 12×13 is, we don’t know, because that wasn’t on our memorized chart. An FPGA is a chip that has been reprogrammed to perform like an abacus. It doesn’t just provide math facts it has memorized. Because it is acting as an abacus, it acts exactly how an abacus does.

If this doesn’t sound cheap, you’re right. My MiST FPGA computer cost roughly $250 (US). The cool thing about it is it can be programmed with cores to simulate lots of different 8-bit and 16-bit systems. It is also very accurate in the way it does this. The bad thing is, emulators are also pretty good at doing the same thing, and they are free. Lengthy, vitriolic arguments have taken place over which solution is better, and why.

For $250 you can do what I did; purchase a MiST FPGA and play all those old NES games in pure VGA glory. But wait; there’s more.

Last week, RetroUSB announced their all new AVS, an FPGA-based NES console. With FPGA guts, the company is promising 100% compatibility and accuracy. The HDMI connector outputs 720p video (perfect for modern televisions) and it uses the original NES controllers. It uses vintage NES cartridges, supports Game Genie and Pro Action Replay cheat codes, can simulate scan lines, and even connects to some sort of proprietary online scoreboard for tracking high scores. MSRP is $185, cheaper than a MiST and, is probably the best modern hardware implementation of an NES we’re likely to see (at least this week).

Summary: That person in your life who has a hundred NES cartridges and balks at watching movies on a non-HD television will own one of these.

MISCELLANEOUS

For completion’s sake I’ll mention the Analogue NT, a yet-to-be released NES console that combines original vintage NES chips with a new case, multiple video outputs, and some options for configuring and tweaking games. I won’t go into details because, with HDMI output, this unit will cost more than $600 including shipping.

Summary: A unique and expensive solution to playing NES games that nobody you know will ever own.

Finally, to bring things around full circle, there’s Nintendo’s own addition to this already huge market: the NES Classic Edition. Unlike most of the consoles mentioned above, the NES Classic Edition does not use cartridges, nor can it be expanded. It comes with 30 built-in games. The final list of games to be included is:

Balloon Fight, Bubble Bobble, Castlevania 1 and 2, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Double Dragon II: The Revenge, Dr. Mario, Excitebike, Final Fantasy, Galaga, Ghosts’N Goblins, Gradius, Ice Climber, Kid Icarus, Kirby’s Adventure, Mario Bros., Mega Man 2, Metroid, Ninja Gaiden, Pac-Man, Punch-Out!!, StarTropics, Super C, Super Mario Bros. 1-3, Tecmo Bowl, The Legend of Zelda, and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

Many of these games are classics. If these are the only 30 games you want to play, you’re in luck! If there’s one NES game you want to play that’s not on this list, you’re out of luck.

Summary: Great solution for casual NES fans who want a taste of nostalgia.

SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

I’ve presented a ton of options, solutions and choices in this article for playing NES games. Which one is right for you?

– Emulation ($0): If you’re technically minded and haven’t done so already, give emulation a chance. Along with the NES, almost every 32-bit and earlier video game console (and computer) has been emulated. A $35 Raspberry Pi combined with a USB joystick and an afternoon’s worth of configuration is worth the investment!

– NES Classic Edition ($59.95): If you’re looking for a living room solution that plays some common NES games and you don’t own any NES cartridges (nor do you plan on buying any), the NES Classic Edition would be a nice solution, especially for those with little kids.

– RetroUSB AVS ($185): If you’re looking for a modern replacement for the original NES, based on what I have read, I believe this is the best solution. Keep in mind that $185 doesn’t include any game cartridges, but if you’re willing to drop almost $200 on one of these, I suspect you may already own some.

– RetroN 5 ($180): Inside this is running an Android emulator, so as far as quality goes you would get the same from a $35 Raspberry Pi. What you do get is the ability to use vintage joysticks and vintage cartridges. If I were only interested in playing NES games I would go with the RetroUSB AVS listed above; if I also wanted to play Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Gameboy games and had limited space to dedicated to consoles in my game room, I’d consider the RetroN 5.

– Original NES ($100+): Prices go up around the holidays, and based on what I’ve seen on my local Craigslist, are already beginning to do so. An original NES won’t look great on a modern flatscreen television, and may require some minor repairs if someone hasn’t already refurbished it. If you’re not dying to own an original piece of history, there are better options.

– Cheap Famiclones ($20-?): You get what you pay for.
– Analogue NT ($500-$600): I like the $400-cheaper Retro AVS better.

Whatever solution you pick, I hope your children (or you) look like this.

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