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Romier S

RetroUSB AVS - Nintendo 8-bit FPGA system impressions...

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Those following the Retro Gaming Bug thread know that I recently picked up one of the AVS systems from RetroUSB. This is a clone console using an FPGA (field programmable gate array). What does that mean? Well, it’s not emulation. The FPGA circuit is programmed to mimic the functions of an honest to goodness NES so it’s more like hardware simulation that interacts with your carts in the exact same way as the NES would. It also means that almost no lag is being created by the unit either and it strives for accuracy above all else.

 

Analogue famously released the NT and NT Mini a few years ago for a large price tag. The NT and Mini go a step further by actually using the Nintendo’s PPU units on board but there’s also an FPGA component to the system as well. Even the cheaper mini went for $450 and getting one today will cost you in the $1200-1500 range in the aftermarket. It was the Mercedes/BMW model of Nintendo FPGA systems. The AVS by comparison is a good solid mid-range Sedan with a great feature set, some niggling issues and a price point that’s much easier to swallow.

 

Coming in at $200 shipped, it’s not going for pennies but if you’ve got a substantial NES cart library (and I do), the AVS is a cheaper alternative than having the HiDef NES mod installed or even a good RGB mod for that matter. Add in the cost of a Blinking Light Win 72 pin connector and you’re easily surpassing the cost of an AVS.

 

So what do you get for your $200? You get a fairly good looking little console that is inspired by the looks of the in-development AVS computer. Here’s some pics of the unit including a shot of it compared to the real NES in size.

 

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As you can see, the unit supports both NES and Famicom carts (NA carts are front loaded, Famicom carts are top loaded).  It also has the expansion port for the Famicom disk system as well. It includes a single HDMI out and it uses a standard 5v power supply unit via USB. It comes with both cables and adapter in the box.

 

So with all of the standard info out of the way - how does it work? Well, out of the box, I connected the console to my PC and downloaded the scoreboard software on the RetroUSB site so I could update the firmware. That went pretty smoothly. I hooked the console up and set my video options right away. The unit outputs in 720p maximum which is great as it’s a good 3x integer scale for my 4K set. I prefer it over 1080p for the NES.

 

The menu system is simple and fairly robust. I was happy to find FirebrandX’s unsaturated V6 palette available in the video options. For those unaware, the NES doesn’t support RGB without modification so the colors it has displayed via composite for 30 years aren’t RGB mapped. There’s a lot of consternation in the Retro community about how colors should look in these games. FBX is known for creating some of the best Framemeister profiles out there and he created a color palette for use with emulators and other products to approximate the colors of NES titles based on its composite output.  So you get that as the first color palette selection here which is fantastic.

 

Once I was done setting up the video/scanline options, I proceeded to test 15 or so carts. This is where I hit a pretty nasty roadblock. None of them worked.:( All of them would display a garbled mess as if the cart wasn’t being properly read or was dirty. I tested the carts in my own real NES and they worked fine. So shit! I have a bad unit, right? Well, I watched enough tear downs of this unit over the past two months to know how the pin connector for US carts is mounted. I took the thing apart, removed the pin connector and reseated it. Then I tested it and voila - carts started working. I still had some issues with certain games but those were resolved with a little 99% isopropyl alcohol and q-tips.

 

So build quality wise, not a great start. Once I got to gaming though, the thing produces an absolutely lovely picture and suddenly I understood why I bought it. Here’s a few off screen shots of a number of games running at 720p properly aspect corrected at 3x integer scale.

 

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After about two hours spent with the unit, I have to say that I despise the way carts are loaded into it. You’re meant to slide carts in like a front loader and push them in but they don’t entirely line up well so you feel like you’re going to break the thing with too much pressure and they don’t slide in naturally. Sliding the cart in from a bit higher up helps line it up better but you gotta push in with enough force to hear it click or it won’t read properly. Taking carts out requires the strength of Kratos as well. My advice? Keep your carts clean and don’t try to force it too much. 

 

Frankly, I get the nostalgia play here but they should have just made the thing a top loader and quit fucking around. The front loader NES was a garbage design that the gaming community has spent years creating fixes and work arounds for. I’m not walking away excited to have revisited it here on an FPGA console in 2019 that could have done whatever they wanted design wise. Analogue had the right idea here with the NT and the NT Mini.

 

I used both a standard NES controller and a Bluetooth 8bitDo NES controller with no issues at all. The unit supports 4 right out of the gate and there are button combos to return to the menus whenever you like (though it resets the cart). The AVS also has a built-in Game Genie that auto populates the codes for each game once it reads the cart. Pretty cool!

 

Final thoughts? When putting in the carts isn’t pissing me off, the thing does exactly what it says it does. It produces a gorgeous 720p picture, has just enough video options for tinkerers like me to get things looking just right and feels like playing on a real NES from a lag (or complete lack thereof) perspective. The overall design is solid. It’s damn near 100% accurate down to the visual glitches and audio/music so it takes a right shit all over any emulator box out there. The unit has some decent weight to it so it doesn’t feel cheap but I can’t state my distaste for the overall front load design here enough. It’s not a deal breaker but it’s a huge missed opportunity that I’ll inevitably get used to.

 

I’m going to keep monitoring how well this unit continues to work given the fix I had to do. I contacted the owner and let him know my experience on Facebook (he and I spoke prior to me ordering). If I end up having to replace the unit for any reason, I’ll let know.

 

If you have any questions or want to see more shots, let me know!

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I've been following along another fpga project, the MiSTer, there's some really cool things being one in this space. Not ready to jump onboard yet, but it's fun to read about ;) 

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Yeah, I’m very familiar with it. It still needs to develop but will likely end up being the future over software emulator boxes like the Pi. when the price keeps creeping down. For now, I’m really enjoying these dedicated boxes.

 

Im starting to “get” the quirks of the AVS a bit more. The cart loading is still not optimal but I’ve got a good handle on lining them up now. Oh man the games look fantastic, too. They’re 100% accurate and the built-in Game Genie with auto-codes is an overlooked addition here. It’s so convenient if you just want to dabble.

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