How Analogue remade the Super Nintendo

Super Nt
Vox Media

Like all the best gaming stories, the project that would eventually lead to the Analogue Super Nt started with an obsession. As the CEO of Analogue, a company that specializes in high-end retro hardware, Christopher Taber remains bound to the tech of yesteryear. Soon, Analogue will release the Super Nt — a pristine, sub-$200 Super Nintendo clone that uses cutting-edge proprietary tech to replicate the original’s guts — that represents the culmination of Taber’s passion for high-fidelity retro gaming, which he describes as “totally unreasonable, nauseating, all-consuming.”

Over the past eight years, Taber’s company has clawed its way from the depths of obscure gaming forums to become a recognized name in gaming culture. And now, on the eve of the launch of the most commercially-viable product in his company’s short history, Taber couldn’t be more ecstatic.

Super NT review
Analogue’s case for buying an SNES again

“When I first started, it was like there was this closed door and I kept knocking on it and knocking on it,” he says. “And now, maybe the door’s not open, but I’ve got a hell of a lot of people knocking here with me.”

Super Nt boxVox Media
Super Nt boxVox Media
A Super Nt next to a Super NintendoVox Media
Super Nt with controllerVox Media
8Bitdo Super Nt controllerVox Media

Hi-fi origins

For the current generation of young players with an abiding interest in gaming history, it’s never been easier to delve into the back libraries of the medium’s most celebrated consoles. Thanks to decades of slow-but-steady progress in the emulation scene, aging gamers looking to revisit the golden hours of their youth have an embarrassment of options at their disposal, from the typical PC-based setup to dedicated retro-boxes like the Hyperkin Retron or Nintendo’s own Classic series.

But while software solutions like ZSNES or Project64 might deliver the platforming perils of Mario or the beast blasting of Metroid basically as well as you remember, no matter how hard the developers try, the games will never be exactly the same as the browning lump of plastic in your closet. Slight imperfections mar even the best emulators: the audio will bleep out for a second, or a sprite will flicker when it should fade. Many gamers won’t even notice these issues; of those that do, some will just dismiss it as a “tax” for not lugging around the original hardware. But for a small but utterly committed clique of hi-fi gamers, playing classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6 in these admittedly-suboptimal settings isn’t just an annoyance — it’s downright unacceptable.

Taber is a deeply devoted member of this group. Mention the word “emulator” to him, and he’ll immediately rev up his proselytizing process, complete with anecdotes and analogies designed to convince you of the virtues of original hardware. It’s downright convincing, too — 10 minutes into our first conversation, I was already beginning to question the legitimacy of the $50 Raspberry Pi currently plugged into my TV. But Taber’s concerns aren’t just rooted in his business interests, or a fanboy’s sense of old-school superiority. Rather, he’s upset that future generations will experience the story of video game history through an imperfect lens, a palimpsest of glitched textures.

Christopher Taber with a batch of Super Nt circuit boards
Viola Gaskell

“I come at everything from an enthusiast’s mindset,” says Taber. “When I was in high school, I listened to Frank Zappa and I became obsessed. Soon enough, I [got] all his records on vinyl and I started listening to them in chronological order. And when I was done with that, I did it again, and I read about them while I was doing it. In other mediums, that sort of thinking is really common — you want the complete experience in the best format possible. In games, only now is it starting to take off.”

Taber attributes his steadfast adherence to this enthusiast mentality to his late teenage years, which he spent re-evaluating the games of his childhood with his younger brother. Once they depleted their considerable collection of Genesis games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Streets of Rage — Taber describes himself as “more of a Sega kid than anything” — the Tabers decided to browse eBay to check out the games they missed. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, what if there were other games that were even better?’ And that just fed into the hobby,” he recalls. He points to the oft-overlooked late Genesis cult classic Ristar as an ideal example of this sort of legwork paying off. “That set the precedent for me,” he says. “That’s when I first encountered the enthusiast community, reading about forgotten gems like Ristar. I joined those communities. I was hooked.”

Analogue programming the Super Nt circuit boards
Christopher Taber

Considering his self-professed Sega fandom, you might find it surprising that Taber has spent a half decade ensconced in the court of Sega’s most heated rival, Nintendo. But while the irony isn’t lost on Taber, he has no illusions about which company ended up having the bigger impact on gaming. “I never really explored the SNES’s library until I was an adult,” he says. “It was only when I started playing games like Chrono Trigger that I got really hardcore. We started going to garage sales, flea markets, asking friends and family. Everybody’s got a box of games in their attic. We would pay $50 for a box of games, get a couple we were looking for, then sell the rest to buy more boxes.”

Once the boxes piled up enough, Taber was selling more than he was buying, and making a fair bit of change at it. It was only then, in college in Montana, that he realized the commercial viability of his hobby. Eventually, he took the plunge, opening a small online storefront. But it was when he started futzing with the electronic components inside his prized plastic that he started to make a name for himself.

“Back then, there was a huge advantage to doing it in such a rural region,” he says. “I was one of the only people doing it. Now, everybody’s tapped into it. Basically, I had all of video game history pass through my hands, hundreds of consoles, thousands of games. I would fly in stuff where I didn’t even know what it was. Like a Wonderswan, or a Turbo Express. I was basically refurbishing old retro stuff for a living.

“I would get a broken 2600, or a Dreamcast, or a SNES. I was able to differentiate myself by always offering something for everything, even broken games. My customers knew they were always getting something, even just a few dollars, and I built up referrals based on that. I taught myself electronics — amateur at best — to be able to repair these systems. Today, if you bring any console to me, before the original Xbox, I can fix all of the common issues that people have, and even some of the esoteric ones.”

Inside the box

Though mending the wounds of these ancient machines kept him afloat, Taber slowly grew more ambitious, learning how to modify the consoles to keep pace with modern technology. He cites the Atari 2600’s video output issues as one of his most common jobs: without a handy fix, the famed VCS only outputs in RF, which is incompatible with essentially all modern televisions. While most fans would just order a $10 adapter off Amazon to fix the problem, for the more discerning clientele Taber would install another modder’s DIY kit to upgrade both the visual and audio output of the console. “I would take a broken 2600 that I bought for $10, install that mod kit I bought for $30, and turn it around and sell it for $200,” he recalls. “I would do a batch of 20, advertise them on a forum, and they would sell out instantly. That’s the kind of thing that made me realize that there could be something more to this than just a one-man job.”

As he grew more and more comfortable mucking in the electronic innards of even the most obscure consoles, Taber began to grow frustrated with the limitations of decades-old engineering. He still worshipped at the shrine of original hardware, but he was beginning to run into the same sets of issues again and again, solving them with relative ease. He could only fix so many consoles at once, and he was beginning to grow tired of manual solutions. This boredom drove him to examine the problems that couldn’t be solved — problems that would require him to develop his own products. “There wasn’t a good way to play Neo-Geo arcade games on your TV,” he says. “Well, I took four grand of my money from flipping VCS’s and decided to hire an engineer make my own board, hire a designer to make my own enclosure, and make a solution to that problem. I had no idea how to make a video codec, but we did it. And that was Analogue’s first project.”

The Analogue team testing the Analogue Nt in 2015, using the same software Nintendo used to test the original NES in the ‘80s
Christopher Taber

Though Taber describes the solid-wood Neo-Geo CMVS as a success, he admits that the market for it was relatively small. After proving that they could make a quality machine, though, Taber and co. set their sights on bigger game: crafting the ultimate aftermarket Nintendo Entertainment System, the original “Analogue Nt,” with a price to match. Taber describes it in mythic terms, calling it a “quest for the Holy Grail.” “We made a wishlist of everything we wanted — every NES game, every Famicom game, analog audio, original hardware, every video output we could think of — and after all that, it ended up being $500.”

Though Taber clearly relishes the infamy that comes with producing “the Ferrari of aftermarket consoles,” he admits that even at the time, he knew that the Analogue Nt would prove an aberration for the growing company. “With $500, you’re talking hardcore enthusiasts only, guys who work at Microsoft,” he says. “If we could get it under $200, that’s a whole new crowd.” Taber knew that cutting the expensive analog outputs from future consoles would cut the price significantly. But, better yet, he finally found a way to divorce his device from the original hardware without resorting to the imprecise software emulation that every competitor in the space relied on.

Starting with the Nt Mini — a $450 revamp of the original Nt led by electronic engineer Kevin Horton — Analogue began to use a component called a field-programmable gate array that could function essentially identically to the original hardware. While the technical details can easily fill a tome, the basic idea behind an FPGA is simple: it’s a chip that you can program to act like another chip on the hardware level, with theoretically perfect accuracy, given enough time and dedication. It also eliminates the pesky 15 to 40 millisecond input latency that remains the bane of every emulator out there.

Hundreds of Super Nt boards side-by-side
Christopher Taber

“The difference is exact cycle-timed gaming with zero lag,” says Horton, who Taber says spent over five-thousand hours designing the core that powers the FPGA at the heart of the Super Nt. Taber sums up the difference between the Super Nt and traditional software emulators: “Emulators are great, and the guys who make them work their tails off to get [them] to work. But, ultimately, they’re making one-off patches to fix when the ROM is off by a microsecond, when it goes into Mode 7 or whatever. An FPGA works on a circuit level — it runs in parallel, like a true PCB. It works by replicating the cause, not the effect.”

Despite his stated focus on making the Super Nt his company’s most accessible machine to date, Taber says he feels less pressure than before. “When I was working by myself, repairing every console by hand, teaching myself electronics — that was hard. To me, with this incredibly talented team that I’ve been lucky enough to build over the years, everything is just a matter of execution. Especially now, with the versatility of the FPGA design.”

Still, even after forging hardware-level parity with the original SNES, the quality assurance process of a console like the Super Nt still takes considerable effort, especially for a company as tiny as Analogue. Meta elements like the machine’s video codec or proprietary menu system — which runs entirely within the SNES hardware — can cause bugs within the games themselves, and Horton remains committed to stamping them all out. To this end, Analogue employs a fleet of ultra-hardcore enthusiasts to serve as beta testers, including several who own complete collections of SNES and Super Famicom games. “These guys play every game to check for inconsistencies,” Taber says. “With the Nt Mini, we’ve eliminated every reported bug through firmware updates, and we remain committed to that. We’re dedicated to it on that level.”

Uncovering the past

Though Analogue has shifted from revamping the faded relics of the past into indulging more mainstream tastes, it’s clear that Taber remains committed to the esoterica of yesteryear. “That’s just me,” he says, laughing. “I’ll always have way more enthusiasm for the forgotten stuff than the big-audience stuff. That’s why we started with the Neo-Geo. It’s just who I am.” True to form, every Super Nt comes packed with a previously unreleased “director’s cut” edition of the beloved Factor 5 classic Super Turrican, as well as its sequel. As Factor 5 president and co-founder Julian Eggebrecht recalls, the team behind the Turrican series wanted to release this expanded version of the game back in the ‘90s, only to find themselves held back by their lack of clout in the U.S. market.

“It was a publishing issue,” Eggebrecht says. “Our U.S. partner at the time wanted us to use 4 megabit cartridges to keep costs down, despite the fact that everybody else was already using 8 megabit carts at the time. I told everyone on the team to keep going past the the 4 megabit mark while I tried to find a different publisher. Konami almost did it — we had a good relationship at that time — but they didn’t want to release a game that similar to Contra. So, we spent the period right before Christmas butchering our own game down, reusing assets, even cutting a sublevel. It was very demoralizing, to say the least.”

Julian Eggebrecht
Julian Eggebrecht

Though it might seem like fortuitous timing for Taber, both he and Eggebrecht have tried to release the complete version of the game multiple times over the past decade, only to find themselves stymied at every turn. “Originally, we pitched Nintendo together to try to get it released on an original cart,” says Taber. “Now, of course, I recognize that I was extremely naive, because Nintendo would never do that. Then we tried the Virtual Console. Well, it was never released on the original hardware, so Nintendo wouldn’t let that happen. So we just had to wait for the right opportunity to do it, and the Super Nt is it.”

Eggebrecht notes that it was dumb luck that allowed him to discover the original code more than a decade after its creation. He had assumed that no one had bothered to keep the full version, and then one day he dug it out of an old pile of floppy-based backups. “It’s extremely fortuitous that I never happened to stick a magnet anywhere near it,” he says, laughing. “It’s a debug version, so the level select cheat is an fairly simple button combination. That was typically the last thing we would change before sending the game off to be printed, making the code a little harder to guess. But we wanted to keep it authentic.”

As far as how the license agreement benefits Factor 5, Eggebrecht says it’s more of a personal triumph than a financial one. When asked how much money changed hands, he laughs. “Let’s say it was a very nominal amount,” he says. “We definitely aren’t feeding the team off it or anything. But Super Turrican is very important to me, because it was Factor 5’s big chance to go from a local European developer to make it out in the wide world, having a game in the U.S. and Japan. It made my career, in a way. When I went to CES in 1993 and I met people at LucasArts, they had all played Super Turrican. And that’s why they wanted to work with me, and that’s how my later career happened. Of course, I didn’t have the heart to tell them it was an incomplete version.”

Super Turrican isn’t the only retro relic that Taber has tried to resurrect from the cultural dustbin. As Analogue has grown in stature, Taber says he’s found it easier and easier to convince licensees to hear him out, to the point where several unannounced projects are already in the works. “I can’t talk about them right now, though I really wish I could,” he says. “At the very least, there are a lot of forgotten relics out there, and you can bet we’re interested in pursuing them.”

Still, they can’t all be winners, as Taber admits. As an avid fan of shoot-’em-up games, Taber says he’s always lamented the genre’s niche status in the West, with legendary developers like Cave — perhaps best known for its DonPachi series — going mostly unrecognized by the gaming establishment. Back in the early 2010s, Taber wanted to help rectify that.

“I’m a DoDonPachi fanatic,” he says. “Right around the same time I pitched Julian, I pitched Cave on releasing an unreleased version of the game, called Blue. It’s an alternate version they produced for a contest. It changed the mechanics significantly, especially the scoring. Knowing that there’s another version out there, that’s even harder, it kinda haunts me.”

Prototypes for both the Super Nt and the Nt Mini
Christopher Taber

Taber pitched Cave on licensing a limited run of DoDonPachi Blue arcade boards, so that enthusiasts could finally experience another version of a classic game. But, unfortunately, the components required to build the PCBs were no longer in production, and Cave didn’t have any left lying around. As far as Taber knows, there are a few boards left in existence — probably in the hands of contest participants — but he’s still never had a chance to sink a quarter into that particular cab.

“The history of games is littered with that sort of thing,” he says. “And only now does anybody care. All of the earliest games were designed by engineers who just took them apart without a second thought. I don’t blame them, of course. But that’s part of what Analogue is all about — respecting the history of games.”

On the eve of the launch of the Super Nt, Taber recalls the door analogy that he used in our very first conversation. “I’ve been knocking on that door for a long time,” he says. “With the Super Nt, I feel like it’s opening just a crack.” Though some might view Analogue’s commitment to hi-fidelity gaming at almost any cost as a sort of elitism or snobbishness, Taber casts it in more egalitarian terms. “Not everybody wants a museum-grade experience when they boot up their old console. But, for the people who do want that, I want them to know that we can make that happen.”

And now, thanks to Horton’s mastery of the FPGA component, Taber is convinced that they can give almost any classic console the Analogue treatment. “I mean, hey, I’m a Sega kid,” he says, laughing. “Who knows? Maybe we’re already working on it.”

But it isn’t the Genesis that Taber describes as his dream project. True to form, it’s Steve Russell’s Spacewar!, one of the earliest space combat games, developed back in 1962 on the PDP-1 computer, which boasted a little over 9 kilobytes of memory. “Almost everybody has played Spacewar!, but almost nobody has played it on the original hardware,” he says.

“I want to make that happen.”

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Comments

I am curious, how they can do that ? Isn’t the super nintendo hardware still under protection of some sort ? Does nintendo has to approve the project ?

Was going to ask the same
Anyone making a Pokemon game is blocked but he can sell a custom-made Super Nintendo
How does this work ?

Patents expired and he isn’t using any trademarks or copyrighted works. 3rd party consoles have existed for a long time, most of them were just shit.

To expand on the Beer Baron’s comments: The hardware itself isn’t protected by copyright, but parts were protected by patents. Since those have expired (~20 years IIRC), there’s not much Nintendo can even do as long as they avoid copyright or trademark issues. Since copyright has a pretty ridiculous term right now (Life + ~70 in the US), that’s why the games are better protected than the hardware.

But even then, there’s still some wiggle room as long as you can dodge the patent issues at play. And in general, the emulators that Nintendo and Sony have gone after were done from the "contributory copyright infringement" angle saying they enabled pirated copies to be played, and primarily required a pirated copy to be used with them.

Well that was interesting, thanks to both of you

I agree with Taber’s sentiments. Original hardware over emulation, any day.

Eh, completely dependent on the tools that are available. Emulation onto a screen with a Framemiester in tow is pretty fantastic.

Why would you need a Framemeister for an emulator?

I watched MLIG’s RGB 101 video eons ago, and have owned a Framemeister for quite some time, although I’ve since retired it in favor of a OSSC… I still don’t understand how that video you linked in response to my question explains the benefit of using an emulator with a Framemeister. It’s meant for the actual consoles.

It’s meant for both things. Since piping a console over HDMI will lead to the same issues that piping an emulator to HDMI.

You’re correct Rob, not quite sure what Dr. Panda is trying to say. The reason for a scaler like the Framemeister or OSSC is to pre-scale the signal so the TV doesn’t have to, generally modern TVs aren’t the fastest at scaling older 240p – 480i signals that many CRT era consoles output. A good emulator doesn’t require this as it should is configurable to output the image already scaled to a compatible size without a latency penalty.

I’m very glad that someone is doing this work.

I, along with many others, really hope Kevin "Kevtris" Horton releases a jailbroken firmware for the Super Nt, as he has done for the Nt Mini.

The ability to play his 20, or so 8-bit system cores for the Super Nt would be fantastic! This, along with the ability to dump and play your original SNES carts, as well as backup or write your SRAM battery save data, would add an immense amount of value to these consoles!

Being that this is a more powerful Cyclone FPGA board, as well as the SNES being implemented, one would also assume that other 16-bit consoles could also be reproduced on the Super Nt as well.

Though, based on what Chris Taber had said in another interview, about being interested in releasing other FPGA systems (Genesis, TG-16, etc), I’m guessing these are not going to just be given away for free here.

Not to mention it sounds like it would take Kevin several months to dump and tweak all of the original chip data.

Well, here’s hoping anyway.

**Also, here are the system cores which Kevin has made and so graciously released for free for play on the Nt Mini…

  • NES/Famicom
  • Sega Master System
  • Game Gear
  • Colecovision
  • Gameboy
  • Gameboy Color
  • Atari 2600
  • Atari 7800
  • Supervision
  • Gamate
  • Game King
  • Channel F
  • Arcadia 2001
  • Creativision
  • Adventure Vision
  • Videobrain
  • Odyssey^2
  • RCA Studio 2
  • The following are in the process of being ported:
  • Intellivision, SPC Player

Yeah, it’s probably reasonable to see the 8-bit cores eventually find their way over (he’s alluded to this), but I would temper expectations on anything beyond that. If I recall correctly, he said something like a 6-month timetable just to build something like a Genesis core, without factoring in any debugging or testing. That’s a non-trivial amount of work given the number of viable 16-bit systems that would warrant inclusion on the Super Nt’s FPGA. I agree though, just the backup and dump features for SNES would make a world of difference. The Nt Mini was secretly the best 8-bit system ever created thanks to the jailbreak features.

What we really need are clones of KevTris to split up the work.

Rather, he’s upset that future generations will experience the story of video game history through an imperfect lens, a palimpsest of glitched textures.

Incredibly well written review, but this was the icing on the cake. Replace the comma after "lens" with a semi-colon and it’ll be perfect.

Actually, you would not just want to use a semicolon, as that last part is a phrase and does not meet the semicolon requirement of being an independent clause. Perhaps informally put a hyphen in the place of the comma instead, or it could actually be just fine as is (imagine continuing the sentence with something along the lines of "…glitched textures, that is simply not accurate". In that case, the final phrase is simply a modifier of "lens", and that shouldn’t change just because the sentence ends there). Conversely, the sentence could have been written "…will experience the story of video game history through an imperfect, palimpsest of glitched textures lens"). Haha, I would need to consult a manual or something to be sure!

Right you are! That last part would have needed the words "it is" for a semi-colon to have been required. Nice one.

Mention the word "emulator" to him, and he’ll immediately rev up his proselytizing process, complete with anecdotes and analogies designed to convince you of the virtues of original hardware.

Let’s not be mistaken, FPGA IS AN EMULATOR, a very sophisticated emulator.

A spin around the sites of some software emulator developers show how unhappy they are about this story.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is a sophisticated hardware emulator. However I think some comments were mischaracterized; the problem with many of the software emulators or cheap clone console boxes (that run software emulators, with or without a UI) is they aren’t as accurate as the real thing or they can be laggy. Even official software emulators like the official Sega 16 bit collections on Steam have unfavourable comments and reviews about sound or frame rates. But not all software emulators are junk. It depends on how and where and why you use them.

So, Analogue’s team set out to make a low latency, high quality, highly accurate emulator by programming a a chip and making a well designed box. Cool. As one emulator dev said, "FPGAs aren’t magic." They no doubt built on knowledge gleaned by the work of emulator developers past and present. They’re no doubt in business because Nintendo themselves had such wild success with their Classic Mini series of official emulator boxes. But that’s OK.

Let’s also not forget that original hardware can have design flaws. The original equipment was designed on a tight budget and compromises were made. And they were of the moment, not designed for 21st century TV screens. For example, the composite video output on many Sega Genesis machines can show artifacts, vertical lines, and other issues, even if you use an old CRT television. There’s a few solutions out there, but they aren’t plug and play on a new TV, and not really for your average joe.

So, this product looks to be a good solution, a well thought out hardware emulator that plays original games on a modern TV and that also solves some of the limitations of the original hardware along the way. I’m looking forward to seeing what else Analogue comes up with.

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