Analogue NT Brings Nintendo NES Gaming Back
The Analogue Nt doesn’t look or feel like a retro game system. Its shape is vaguely Super NES-like, but it’s clearly not built to mimic any specific console. It’s a gently curved, machined aluminum slab that measures 1.7 by 9.7 by 5.7 inches (HWD). Its all-metal body is surprisingly heavy and cool to the touch, and its “natural” aluminum color is a unique sort of gray not often seen on electronics. You can get an anodized black, blue, or red finish for an additional $49.
The front of the system holds four NES controller ports flanking an Analogue logo engraved into the aluminum, with a power light just above it. The top panel contains twin cartridge slots for NES and Famicom games. The back of the system holds a red Power button, Audio Adjust Up/Down buttons, and two three-way switches. One switch puts the Analogue Nt in 2-player/4-player US/4-player Japan controller modes. The other sets the 3.5mm port on the back to serve as an auxiliary output or, for Famicom games that support it, a microphone input. There are also VGA, SCART, and HDMI video outputs, and a set of stereo RCA audio outputs. Analogue Nt systems with the HDMI upgrade, like the one we tested, only output video over HDMI; the VGA and SCART connections are disabled.
The Analogue Nt is, effectively, an NES/Famicom system with some very sophisticated components installed after the fact. According to Analogue, the Nt uses the same CPU and PPU chips found in the original NES, making it the only retro system currently available that uses authentic processing hardware. Analog-outputting retro systems like the RetroN 3 and the Super Retro Trio use similar circuitry, but their manufacturers don’t claim to use the exact same chips as the original consoles. This is also a strong contrast to the RetroN 5, which doesn’t directly process game cartridges in real-time but instead pulls the ROM data from the cartridges and runs that data through an onboard software emulator.
Besides the authentic components, the Analogue Nt introduces after-market graphic enhancements. The default console includes the popular RGB modification many enthusiasts get for their original NES systems, and can output in S-Video, composite, component, VGA, and even over SCART. A $79 upgrade adds an HDMI converter built into the system, which lets it output over HDMI at 720p or 1080p. As mentioned earlier, the HDMI upgrade disables the analog outputs.
The HDMI upconverter potentially represents more of the Analogue Nt’s cost, and more of a justification of that cost, than the machine’s aluminum case. Composite-to-HDMI converters can be found for $40 and up, but dedicated retro gamers often use more expensive means like RGB mods on original NES systems and the FrameMeister line of HDMI converters that can only be found for $300 or more through importers. I’ve used one of the aforementioned $40 converters with my old systems, and the Analogue Nt’s upconverter blows it out of the water. I’m not familiar with FrameMeister performance, but among the cartridges I tested, including Little Nemo: The Dream Master and Dragon Spirit, the Analogue Nt output remarkably crisp, sharp video on 1080p screens with a variety of filter, scaling, and palette options to get games to look exactly how you want. It’s simply the best-looking direct feed of an NES cartridge I’ve ever seen.
Of course, because it’s built in, this means the remarkable HDMI upconversion of the Analogue Nt only works with NES and Famicom games. If you import a FrameMeister, you get the capability to upconvert any of your legacy or rebuilt retro game systems.
The Purity of the Experience
This is where we run into the audiophile/enthusiast listener problem, only for gamers. The Analogue’s upconverter looks excellent, but the RetroN 5 looks just as good for a quarter of the price, purely by virtue of its use of emulation. An inexpensive software emulator of a ROM (in this case, pulled directly from the cartridge and not distributed, keeping it legally gray if completely and explicitly kosher) can offer performance on the same level as a very expensive hardware solution. The question is how “authentic” you want your experience to be. Do you worship at the altar of vinyl records, or do you jam to high-bitrate MP3s because they sound just as good to your ear? Are you a gaming cartridge purist, or do emulators look and feel just as good?
Analogue claims exceptional audio performance from the Analogue Nt, but that’s just as finicky an area of discussion. All music and sound effects on the NES are synthesized (with the exception of very rare and ear-grating voice clips), and to my ears, those tones come through perfectly well using the RetroN 5. However, because the Analogue Nt uses the same processors as the original NES, its reproduction of game audio should be more accurate than the RetroN 5. The HDMI-equipped Analogue Nt’s menu includes options for enabling or disabling a variety of common sound chips, and has a display screen that shows sound as it’s being output, from the chip level. To my ear, however, it simply sounds as good as the RetroN 5 or the original NES.
The Analogue Nt is one of the most expensive game systems you can currently buy, and it’s very limited in its scope. However, it also does exactly what Analogue claims to do, and it does so just about flawlessly. Judging a practically bespoke, very specific, solid aluminum, enthusiast-targeted game system for its $500+ price tag and inability to play any non-NES or Famicom games would be like judging a sports car for having poor cargo space and fuel economy. This is a console for hardcore NES fans with deep pockets who embrace the idea of authenticity in experience from start to finish more than purely the end result. It’s the gamer version of an obscenely expensive turntable and speaker system.
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