It’s 2018, and I am legit wild about a $190 Super Nintendo clone. Let me explain.
For the last four years, I’ve been rebuilding a gaming collection that I sold off. I remember the date: 9/9/99. Yes, I traded in everything I had to get a Dreamcast, which was either a really good or a really bad idea. I go back and forth on it still, to be honest. But in rebuilding this collection, I’ve realized something alarming, something I knew intellectually but hadn’t actually internalized: CRTs are rapidly disappearing, and old consoles do not want to work on your new high-definition television. That simple, inherent conflict has plagued not only game collectors, but video game historians, preservationists, journalists and fans for years. And on a long enough timeline, that conflict is only getting worse.
Emulation is one solution and, for the vast majority of people, an incredible one to explore and experience the increasingly vast history of video games. But it’s not perfect. There are clone consoles — by and large, these are cheap knockoffs that can play your carts, but manage to bring not a single iota of charm or style to the process.
Then there was the Analogue NT: an impressive piece of aluminum, stuffed with authentic Nintendo Entertainment System guts, outputting a pristine RGB analog signal or, for a premium, HDMI. Of course, the NT garnered headlines not just for its craftsmanship, but also its impossible price tag: It started at $500. But its creator, Analogue, was on to something. The NT mini, which came 18 months later, was a chance to try again. It wasn’t manufactured with rare NES guts, and had both analog and digital video signals integrated in one box. The NT mini was a groundbreaking console in its own right, but this kitchen-sink approach landed it at $450 — still too expensive for all but the most serious collectors.
Just one year later, we have the Super NT, which promises to do everything — or, just about everything — better than the NT mini, but for a Super Nintendo this time. And it promises to do it for less than half the price. So, what’s the catch?
The Super NT’s secret sauce is a processor called a field-programmable gate array or, as the kids call it, an FPGA. What makes an FPGA uniquely capable for this use is its ability to simulate the actual hardware inside of a Super Nintendo. So instead of Analogue having to stockpile legacy Ricoh 5A22 CPUs — good luck finding a bunch of those without ripping apart Super Nintendos — or using a clone chip designed to closely match the performance of the original, the Super NT’s FPGA can be loaded with a “core” that makes it, for all intents and purposes, a Super Nintendo. It’s this pursuit of accuracy that distinguishes Analogue’s approach to retro gaming from even the best clone systems or emulator-based solutions, like Nintendo’s own Super NES Classic.
Because it’s not a software emulator — meaning, the hardware inside the Super NT isn’t running an operating system that is in turn running software to emulate the Super Nintendo — the Super NT has virtually no lag and has, at least in theory, perfect accuracy across all Super Nintendo and Super Famicom cartridges. Why “in theory”? Because I haven’t tested the entirety of the Super Nintendo and Super Famicom libraries, though Analogue has. Every game I tested from my library of 40-some games worked perfectly, and the NT mini’s reputation can stand in for the rest. Plus, if there are any bugs, they can be patched in firmware (see the NT mini firmware notes).
Not being an software emulator also means that the Super NT doesn’t have some of the modern comforts afforded by emulator-based platforms. Quick x-second rewind? Nope, not here. A save state system? No. (But I can show you how to solder a new battery on that cartridge if you need to.) If that’s disappointing to you, remember: The Super NT is basically a Super Nintendo, albeit a Super Nintendo with a host of bells and whistles unavailable on that console.
Of course, the primary feature of the Super NT is that it works on your HDTV. Getting your original Super Nintendo to output a 240p signal that a 65-inch flat-panel TV will accommodate is a complicated task that, even when done well, has a lot of inherent compromises. But the Super NT accomplishes this goal perfectly. You stick in a Super Nintendo (or Super Famicom!) cartridge, you plug in a Super Nintendo (or Super Famicom!) controller, and then hook up standard HDMI and USB power connections, and you’ve got a lag-free, high-definition Super Nintendo.
You could, of course, purchase an emulator-based product like the Super NES Classic, or build your own with a Raspberry Pi. The former limits you to just 21 games, unless you’re comfortable hacking the console and loading it with ROMs. A Raspberry Pi lacks the user-friendliness of the Classic Edition, but in turn offers you a host of consoles to emulate, and a list of games limited only by your own moral compass. By comparison, the Super NT is remarkably traditional. You plug in cartridges that you own, and they work. Of course, this is far more expensive if you’re starting from scratch, but for those of you with a collection of Super Nintendo games looking for a way to play them on your television, you can’t do any better than the Super NT.
If the Super NT’s predecessor, the NT mini, is any indication, the Super NT will be treated to an “unofficial” jailbroken firmware shortly after release. While the stock NT mini firmware supported NES games using an FPGA, the jailbroken firmware ultimately added support for a whopping 18 consoles: NES/Famicom; Sega Master System; Game Gear; Colecovision; Game Boy; Game Boy Color; Atari 2600; Atari 7800; Supervision; Gamate; Game King; Channel F; Arcadia 2001; Creativision; Adventure Vision; Videobrain; Odyssey^2; RCA Studio 2. Maybe Creativision nostalgia isn’t flooding your brain with dopamine, but it’s incredible to know that the NT mini can accurately and faithfully play software from a console that most people never knew existed.
When asked if the Super NT will get the same treatment, Analogue’s Christopher Taber told me, “We don’t really discourage anyone to do anything with our products. You can do whatever you want with it. It’s not up to us; that’s not what we’re in the business of doing.” I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a “no” to me.
So we understand what’s inside the Super NT, but what about what’s on the outside? When asked how Analogue hit this price point, Taber told me, simply, “The biggest difference is that it’s not in an aluminum enclosure.” After spending a few weeks with all four variants of the plastic Super NT, I can safely say that the plastic is unequivocally an improvement. The aluminum enclosure on the NT and NT mini grabbed headlines and served as a visual testament to the consoles’ unique pedigree. Everything about it screamed, “This isn’t just another clone system.” But it also didn’t look or feel like a video game console. Like Analogue’s first project, a Neo-Geo MVS tucked into an exotic hardwood case, the early NT consoles used material as a shorthand for quality. On the Super NT, plastic — the same material as the consoles it’s simulating, as the clones it’s competing against — has to communicate the machine’s quality by itself. And it does.
Each of the four variants has a unique look, but they all wear the diminutive design of the console well. At 5.2 inches long, 6.5 inches wide and 1.6 inches tall, the Super NT is much smaller than the Super Nintendo. While it recalls the design of the Super Nintendo and the Super Famicom, certainly more than the original NT referenced the NES, the Super NT is its own thing. That’s clear with the new Analogue logo — itself an improvement over its predecessor — emblazoned not only on the front of the console, but inside it as well.
The Super NT’s black and gold circuit board pairs beautifully with the translucent plastic, small Analogue logos printed on the underside of the casing. While the bottom of the NT mini had a clear plexiglass window — a way of highlighting the circuit board and acknowledging the hobbyist aesthetic that dominates this kind of retro game hardware — the Super NT has a thick rubber mat covering nearly the entire bottom, and occluding the screws. Instead of four little feet, the entire base of the Super NT grips the surface. It’s this kind of detail that elevates the kind of finish you might expect from a plastic console to something that literally feels more premium.
So if the enclosure is where the biggest cost savings were to be found, what else is responsible for the massive reduction in price? According to Taber, it’s the removal of the analog audio and video components. While it’s a matter of taste, I can argue that the plastic is an improvement over the aluminum and, for me, that’s true. But it’s hard to argue that the removal of the analog outputs is anything but a loss. More people are going to use the console over HDMI, and that’s the major reason this product even exists. People who’ve salvaged broadcast-quality CRTs and know what RGB video output is probably also know that there are other ways to play a Super Nintendo with crisp analog video. I understand this all to be true and, given the choice between a lower price or analog video outputs, I’d have made the same decision. Analogue suggests it may have an aftermarket solution for this, but until it’s real, it’s not.
The Super NT excels in its digital output, though, delivering a crisp 1080p image. It features an assortment of enhancements, delivered via a live, in-game menu that feels a bit like a time machine. Being able to pause a game, enter a menu that’s also running on what is effectively Super Nintendo hardware, and adjust the resolution, scanlines, scalers or aspect ratio, and then pop back into your game, is a treat. The Super NT is also designed to ameliorate the jump from analog to digital displays. There’s a gamma boost feature to help brighten the image once you’ve toggled the scanlines on, and a “pseudo-hi-res” feature to help simulate some of the ways CRTs affected images in games. The options can get you in the weeds pretty quickly, but trust that you can turn the thing on and, right out of the box, get an excellent experience. If you want to dial the knobs, it’s all there. But let’s go back to something that isn’t there.
While the Super NT doesn’t come with any controllers, the familiar ports on the front mean it’s compatible with any and all Super Nintendo or Super Famicom controllers you may have lying around. If you don’t — which would be understandable, since they’re approaching 30 years old at this point and your parents can’t hold onto your stuff forever — then a quick perusal down eBay’s virtual aisles can reward you with some original hardware, perfect for recreating the tactile sense memory of your youth.
For those hankering for a modern, wireless solution, Analogue has once again partnered with Bluetooth controller specialist 8Bitdo for a series of gamepads designed to match each of the Super NT’s four color offerings, coupled with the Super Nintendo-compatible Retro Receiver, which the companies debuted in 2016.
While the 8Bitdo controllers are a premium beyond the price of used original controllers, they do an excellent job of recreating the look and feel of the originals. And because they’re standard Bluetooth controllers, you can use them elsewhere, like with a PC or Raspberry Pi. They’re charged over USB and, in my experience, last far longer than expected. But if a controller were to die, you can actually pair a lot of others to the Retro Receiver, so you can play your Super Nintendo games with a DualShock 4. Or a newer Xbox One controller. You get the idea.
If I had one complaint about the 8Bitdo controllers, it’s this: I really wish they didn’t have “8Bitdo Gamepad” emblazoned on them. Am I nitpicking? Absolutely. But when paired with the Super NT, there’s something … cheesy about the controllers. Am I willing to sacrifice that for the comfort of being cordless? Yup. But I wanted to point it out, because it bugs me. And now you know what kind of person I am.
Since the Super NT will always be compared to the Super NES Classic, it’s worth highlighting that though it doesn’t come with 21 games built into the console, it does come with two games. Or, really, one game and that game’s never-before-seen “Director’s Cut.” Super Turrican was released by Factor 5 in 1993, and had to be cut down from a 6 MB cartridge to a 4 MB cartridge to accommodate the publisher. Here, it’s included — in its entirety — for the first time ever. Is this as big a bombshell as Star Fox 2, the unreleased title on the Super NES Classic? Well ... no, probably not. But the good news is, we can have both. And thanks to the Super NT, we have this version of Super Turrican, preserved and presented beautifully.
Loading up Super Turrican: Director’s Cut off the Super NT’s menu without inserting a cartridge is a peek at the allure of the console’s possibilities. The SD card slot on the side suggests more, but for now serves to update the Super NT’s firmware. If a jailbreak never arrives, the Super NT still supports flash carts. While I haven’t tested this — I don’t have any flash carts — the support page confirms support for the Everdrive and SD2SNES carts. Access to ROMs has never been an issue for anyone capable of using Google, and I’ll let you decide on whether you’re a bad person for using them, but out of the box the Super NT won’t support them, except through a flash cart. If the jailbreak unlocks this ability, are you “allowed” to load up the 21 games that you have on your Super NES Classic? What if you own the carts but download the ROMs? What if you own the carts and rip them yourself to an SD card, so you’re not banging around a cartridge that’s old enough to rent a car in all 50 states? We all have our own calibration for what is and isn’t acceptable.
You’ll also have to decide on the compromises within the Super NT itself. How did Analogue hit this new low price? The fancy aluminum enclosure is gone, replaced with humble — but in my estimation, superior — plastic. The bundled wireless controller is gone, and is now a $40 upgrade, sold separately. The analog output — the company’s very namesake! — is also gone, an unfortunate omission for the purists among us but an understandable one. And … that’s it. Everything else, from the design to the user experience to the polish of the entire platform feels like an upgrade. Put simply, this is the nicest 16-bit console I’ve ever held.
The Super NT is an easy recommendation, but I suspect you know if it’s for you or not when I say “$190 Super Nintendo.” If you purchased a Super NES Classic and are content with that, or have hacked it and are content with that, well ... then I suspect the Super NT won’t introduce any additional joy into your life. But if you’ve spent hours, weeks, months pondering the investment in a Super Nintendo, the RGB cables, the Framemeister upscaler imported from Japan and flashed with English firmware, knowing full well that it would still introduce some lag — well, have I got good news for you. If the delight of slamming a cartridge (gently) into a console matters to you, if you want to hold the original controllers that have been in your poor parents’ basement all these years, or if accuracy is important to you and owning a piece of hardware that can faithfully render the experiences stored on your carts, then I think you know whether this is for you.
The Super NT was reviewed using final hardware provided by Analogue. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.