Depending on who you ask, the Kindle is either the best or the worst thing to happen to books in the last century.
Its proponents point to its sheer convenience. “You can carry hundreds of books around!” they exclaim, “and you can download them at the push of a button!”
For others, however, the concept of the ereader represents the very worst way to engage with literature. Without the tactility of a real book, without the feeling of turning the page or the smell of the glue that binds its leaves together, they argue, you’re getting only the smallest sliver of the reading experience.
It's a similar story with retro gaming. When the SNES and NES Mini were announced, there were those who simply could not get their heads around why anyone would spend that much money on such a limited piece of hardware, especially when you could pay just a couple of dollars to buy most of the games on one of Nintendo’s numerous Virtual Consoles or even (perish the thought) download an emulator and play them for free.
In the same way that reading a book on a Kindle isn’t the same as reading a real book (the argument goes) playing A Link to the Past on a laptop’s keyboard is completely different from playing it using a real SNES controller on a dedicated system.
Clearly there were a lot of people who agreed, and both of Nintendo’s mini retro systems have been selling out almost as quickly as more become available.
And now there’s a new kid on the block. Manufactured by Analogue, the Super NT doesn’t just want to emulate SNES games, it wants to run them exactly as an original Super Nintendo would.
If the Virtual Console is a Kindle and the SNES Mini is a paperback book, then the $190 (around £135 or AU$240) Analogue Super NT is a beautiful leather-bound tome – and it makes Nintendo’s first-party retro hardware look like a casual toy in comparison. (It's available to pre-order now from the Analogue store.)
An analogue experience
This isn’t the first piece of Analogue’s hardware we’ve tried out at TechRadar (the Analogue NT did for the NES what the Super NT does for the SNES), but it’s the first one that I’ve personally gotten my hands on.
At first glance, the Super NT is very similar to Nintendo’s own SNES Mini. I got mine in a Super Famicom / PAL color configuration (three other, wrong, color options are also available), and while the dimensions are slightly different, squint and you could be looking at Nintendo’s own machine.
The real genius of the Super NT starts to emerge when you poke your finger into its cartridge slot, which unlike the SNES Mini’s aesthetic strip, actually opens to allow original SNES cartridges to be used with the system.
Well, I say it ‘allows’ you to use cartridges, but currently this is literally the only way to play games on the machine. While the original Analogue NT eventually had firmware released that allowed ROMs to be loaded from an SD card, it seems that, for the time being at least, the Super NT isn’t destined to get that same functionality.
While using flash-carts (cartridges that allow you to load your own ROMs) is a possibility with the console, I opted to go out retro game-shopping to find some titles for the console, and eventually settled on Super Mario World and Super Metroid to fulfill my retro needs (at £32 – around $45 or $AU55 – a Link to the Past was one cartridge too far).
With my two carts safety in hand, I plugged in the micro USB cable to provide power and an HDMI cable to provide a signal, pressed the refreshingly clicky power button, synced the included wireless controller (you can use the original console’s wired version if you have one available) and waited for the console to power on.
A purely retro experience
The Super NT allows itself just a couple of modern flourishes, and I was treated to both as the machine came to life.
The first is a series of absolutely beautiful pixel art animations co-designed by Fez-creator Phil Fish. No description of mine could possibly do these justice, so just watch them for yourselves… please?
The second flourish is more functional, and consists of a series of menus that you can use to customize everything (and I mean everything) about your console experience.
There are options for two different kinds of scan-lines at a variety of intensities, three different resolutions, six different scalers, and four different screen sizes.
You can change the console between an NTSC and a PAL mode, you can switch it between 50Hz and 60Hz display modes, and you can even customize the color of the LED on the front of the machine.
You can do all of this before you even enable the ‘advanced’ graphical options – and from there things just continue their descent into madness.
For my part I appreciated their inclusion, but unless you’re a hardcore retro gamer you’re unlikely to need to tweak them too much – and I was too excited to see if my cartridges would actually work to delve deeper than messing with the LED on the front of the machine.
I pressed my copy of Super Metroid into the cartridge slot until I felt it slide into place, and selected the ‘Run Cartridge’ option from the menu.
An original SNES, for better or for worse
Technically the Analogue Super NT isn’t an emulator. Technically it’s based around a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), which means it’s functionally more or less exactly the same as the original console.
Technically this means that the console runs games as a pixel-perfect reproduction of how they would run on the original console. Technically this means the Super NT can run them at up to 1080p without introducing any input lag.
Technically this is the culmination of almost six years of work, and technically… this is an incredible achievement.
But really, none of this mattered to me as I started to play through the opening level of Super Metroid. As I got re-acquainted with the controls – they never age quite as badly as I expect them to – and remembered sections of the level that I’d passed through dozens of times before, I wasn’t paying attention to the flawless graphics or noticing the lack of any audio glitches.
Instead I was playing the same great game that enchanted thousands of people when it was originally released.
Content that everything was working as it should do, I finished the opening section and went to look for a 'save state' option. On the SNES Mini this was handled by pressing the console’s reset button, but here that would literally just reset the game. I Googled around, but with the hardware yet to be released there wasn’t anyone online who could help me.
Eventually it dawned on me. I would have to save my game as though I was playing on an original console.
I found a save point, and saved my game the old-fashioned way. Then, the next day, I booted up the console to find that my save had disappeared, presumably because the 20-year-old battery in the cartridge had died.
This is basically the same hardware as an original Super Nintendo, after all.
It was a similar story when it came to Super Mario World. I played through its opening levels, but while I was doing so I wasn't appreciating the minimal input lag or the pitch-perfect audio reproduction: I was appreciating the single greatest 2D platformer of all time in all its glory.
Well, I appreciated the game after I managed to get the cartridge seated properly in the slot. The first time it refused to load, presumably because one of the cartridge's contacts wasn't properly inserted.
I took the cartridge out and instinctively did what any child born in the '90s would have done: I blew on it. Naturally, it worked flawlessly after that.
It's these little details that really get the nostalgia going. The games are one thing, but putting a second-hand cartridge in the slot and finding the previous owner's saved games still perfectly preserved on there is another thing entirely.
Authenticity over functionality
The Analogue Super NT mini is by no means the easiest way to play old SNES games. If you want to go cheap and cheerful then there are dozens of SNES games available across Nintendo’s various Virtual Consoles.
Meanwhile, if you want a slightly more authentic experience then the SNES Classic Mini is still your best bet. It’s still based around an emulator, but it’s running inside a great-looking machine, and comes with a pair of Nintendo-manufactured controllers that feel as authentic as you’re going to get without tracking down an original.
It does save states, and wraps everything up in a phenomenally well thought-out interface that even enables you to rewind your gameplay.
But if you don’t want those modern conveniences – if you want to plug a real plastic cartridge into a weighty piece of hardware, and force yourself to play games exactly as their creators originally intended you to – then nothing is going to beat the Analogue Super NT in 2018.
Just don’t say we didn’t warn you about the saves. Those old cartridge batteries can be brutal.
- It might not play real cartridges, but the SNES Classic Mini is still an excellent machine. Check out our full review.