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The Super NT interface is as beautiful as its hardware

What a 16-bit console interface would look like in 2018

The Analogue Super NT startup splash, with art by Fez designer Phil Fish

With a planned February release fast approaching, Analogue — the company behind the upcoming Super NT console — is sharing some details on the system’s user interface, showing off not only the artwork but the functionality therein.

Aiding the team at Analogue in that effort is Phil Fish, the video game designer best known for his work, including his pixel art, on the indie platformer Fez. For the Super NT, Fish has created 30 different boot-up animations, all transforming Analogue’s new logo — designed by the prolific Cory Schmitz, whose work includes Polygon’s own logo — to the tune of audio done by U.K.-based musician Squarepusher. Here’s one of those 30 in motion:

“[Phil] did 30 different ’90s retro, 16-bit-inspired iterations of the Analogue logo,” Analogue’s Christopher Taber told Polygon. “And when you boot up the Super NT — and I don’t think there’s any video game system that’s done this, I think it’s pretty cool — it randomizes every single time. But they’re all sort of synced up to the same audio that Squarepusher did [...] and end with the same final logo.”

The Super NT is, for all intents and purposes, a Super Nintendo, which means that creating these boot animations, as well as the on-screen interface, was subject to the technical specifications of that console. “It’s literally designed the exact same way a developer from 30 years ago would have designed a user interface, with the same limitations on the Super Nintendo,” Taber said.

And this is where Fish, though not versed in actual 16-bit development, was able to lend his expertise to the project. Analogue had the engineers who could build a user interface — namely FPGA wizard Kevin Horton — but lacked a designer on the team.

“Doing pixel art is a specialty skillset, and even within the pixel artist community, a lot of stuff falls into this retro pastiche that we’re trying to stay away from, and I think Phil has the sensibility and understanding and wanted to do that from the get-go [...] to stay away from trying to do the same thing.”

And certainly, with pentagrams and pills making an appearance in some of Fish’s variations, the Super NT boot-up feels distinct from the kind of pixelated themes we were used to experiencing in the ’90s. Analogue shared four other sets with Polygon, which you can see here:

Super NT boot-up animation 1
Super NT boot-up animation 2
Super NT boot-up animation 3
Super NT boot-up animation 4 Analogue

And finally, here is that final form of the unmodified Analogue logo:

Analogue logo on Super NT Analogue

But the design work doesn’t end at the boot screen. The Super NT has an in-game menu, a feature that certainly wasn’t available to the original Super Nintendo.

“One of the special things about the system is that all of the controls that you have, all are operable live while you’re playing the game. The in-game menu pops up in the middle of the game and you can adjust scalers or scanlines, screen size, proportions, all sorts of other cool stuff — it all happens live,” Taber said. “The goal with the menu has always been to kind of get it out of the way, so that leads you to making something that’s sort of as minimal as possible, which is fortunately kind of what you’re left with when you’re designing something that is running on this hardware natively.”

You can see some of the Super NT’s menu in this video:

You can adjust the highlight color, the highlight animation and the menu bounce as you load different screens, dimming the game while in menu to increase legibility. But one of the most notable design elements in the Super NT menu is the option to toggle between a Super Famicom and Super Nintendo color palette. You can see the color difference in the menu here:

Analogue NT Super Nintendo menu with Super Turrican paused Factor 5/Seika via Analogue
Analogue NT Super Famicom menu with Super Turrican paused Factor 5/Seika via Analogue

But the best part of this change is the loading icon in the lower right, which changes between a Super Nintendo cartridge and a Super Famicom cartridge. For a console that supports both cartridges — and which comes in both styles, with controllers to match — it’s a great touch to be able to modify the system’s interface to support your Super console of choice.

Super NT - Super Nintendo loading icon
Super NT - Super Famicom loading icon Analogue

The interface also hints at some new features on the Super NT that did not appear on the earlier NT mini, including a gamma boost feature and what Analogue is calling “pseudo-hi-res blending.” The gamma boost feature seeks to address the screen dimming when emulators implement scanlines. While CRT TVs benefited from the brightness of the display, helping to bleed over the interlacing lines, scanlines can create a sort of mask effect on a crisp HDTV, dimming the overall image instead of sharpening the pixel clarity.

The pseudo-hi-res blending feature is similarly designed to more faithfully match the original pixel artist’s intent when viewed on a CRT. “On the original Super Nintendo, in certain games, the way that the image was generated on a CRT relied on the technology of the CRT to manipulate the image in a way that generated it on screen the way you would see it,” Taber explained. “When you remove the CRT from the picture — no pun intended — it doesn’t show up the same way.

“So, for example, in a couple Kirby games, clouds in all the levels show up not as fully populated, dense, moving pixel clouds, but they show up as just lines. If you run these games on an emulator, they all generate and appear on your HDTV that way. So what we did, we are literally simulating the way that a CRT blends those pixels, so it generates on screen identically the way it does on a CRT. All of these features, as always, come disabled and you can enable or disable them, they’re not forced.”

Analogue shared this video to illustrate the feature.

Here they are side by side:

HAL Laboratory/Nintendo via Analogue and HAL Laboratory/Nintendo via Analogue

It’s worth repeating that the Super NT is essentially a Super Nintendo. That means it’s not a computer running an emulator, and it can’t do the things an emulation-based platform can do, like rewind gameplay and support save states. Instead, the Super NT is singularly focused on creating a pixel-perfect, lag-free, high-definition Super Nintendo.

Unlike the slick UI of Nintendo’s Super NES Classic Edition, the Super NT’s user interface and boot-up graphics look like they’re running on a Super Nintendo because, in effect, they are running on a Super Nintendo. And if you’re the kind of person who is interested in what Analogue is doing — you know who you are — that purity of purpose is a feature, not a bug. And the upgraded investment in the design of the Super NT’s software, to match Analogue’s hardware, is a testament to a team that is sweating the little things.

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