Friday, May 26, 2017

HDMI Solutions for the NES - Mid 2017 Edition

If you want to play NES or Famicom games on a modern TV or monitor with a digital HDMI input, there are many options available.  In fact, there are far more options for the NES than any other console which did not natively have an HDMI connection.  In this blog article I will give a brief overview of the features and drawbacks of each method.  Going by cost and roughly analogous quotations from The Legend of Zelda, let's begin :



It's a Secret to Everybody - Emulator & PC

This is likely the free option for most people.  The computers that most of us are using are sufficiently powerful to run NES games through emulators.  Even games that rely on accurate CPU/PPU timing are no match even for the most modest Intel Core i3s.  You can hook up your computer with an HDMI cable to any TV or monitor, and most good emulators can offer scaling and filter options than none of the other methods can come close to providing.  You can also use original retro gamepads with USB adapters.  So, everything is perfect here, right?

Emulators cannot use original cartridges, you need to dump them.
Emulators come with latency issues because they have to parse layers of protocol to do something as simple as read gamepad buttons
Emulators have issues with skipping, stuttering and tearing because the true NES framerate is not a multiple of 60
No emulator can run every NES and Famicom game accurately

There are many excellent NES emulators, and if a game will not run in one, it will certainly run in another.  Emulators can run NTSC or PAL games without difficulty.

Buy Somethin' Will Ya! - Hyperkin RetroN 1 HD & Gamerz Tek 8-Bit HD

These are new devices that are really cheap at $40.  Both have a 72-pin connector, a pair of NES controller ports and AV and HDMI outputs.  The 8-Bit HD console cones with two controllers, the  RetroN 1 HD comes with one.  Both consoles support 720p output.  The RetroN 1 HD has a 16:9 / 4:3 switch, the 8-bit HD always comes stretched.  The RetroN 1 HD also comes with an NTSC/PAL switch.  The RetroN has controller ports which are spaced close together vertically, so they may be able to connect to an NES Four Score or Satellite, which requires that the two controller ports be placed next to each other vertically.

These consoles are upgrades of the cheap NOAC (NES-on-a-Chip) clones that have been coming out of China for the past twenty years.  You can get Famiclones with similar features from Aliexpress for a similar price.  The only difference between these HD clones and the SD clones is that they contain an HDMI converter chip inside the system.  The converted HDMI will look nicer than most TV upscalers of the native NES composite video signal.  I suspect that these HDMI converter chips are probably converting an S-Video signal from the NOAC, giving a better picture quality.

Being that these devices are NOAC-based, you can expect awful audio, dodgy cartridge compatibility and off-color palettes.  Videos of both consoles show that both suffer audio issues.

The RetroN 1 HD suffers from the reverse duty cycle square wave bug, which means music and sound effects will often be played back in the wrong pitch :

https://youtu.be/VjfFvjqbBOo?t=196

The 8-bit HD has garbled and distorted audio in some games :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIJQFcPzhoA
https://youtu.be/jiecXXImlno?t=1298

Advanced cartridges like Castlevania 3 and Gauntlet will almost certainly not work.  Included gamepads will feel cheap and the buttons will be too mushy or too stiff.  HDMI latency probably adds at least one frame due to the need for the converter chip to buffer an analog video frame.

The inclusion of analog video out allows you to use the Zapper and R.O.B. with CRT TVs.  An EverDrive will probably work with both.

It should be noted that Gamerz Tek has indicated that its more recent consoles have an improved sound chip and that the linked video of the Hyperkin product was a pre-release product.  Actual final products you can or soon will be able to buy may have been improved over what I have seen.

The NTSC/PAL console switch on the RetroN 1 HD is probably just a switch to slowdown the NOAC to a PAL-like 50fps speed.  True PAL NES consoles have timing differences and scanline count differences beyond a simple slowdown.

720p 4x/3x 
Leave Your Life Or Money.- Hyperkin RetroN 5 or Cyber Gadget Retro Freak

Hyperkin has a higher priced product for the gamer who has multiple systems, the RetroN 5.  Cyber Gadget, a Japanese company, puts out a similar product called the Retro Freak.

These are emulator boxes which dump carts and then run them on emulators.  The underlying system is Android-based and runs off ARM SoC hardware.  They support filters and save states, but all the emulator warnings apply.  However, the do not use cartridges beyond dumping the ROMs off them.  If the system does not understand the memory mapping hardware inside the cartridge, it will not run the game.  Homebrew games, mainly of the NES variety, tend to give the RetroN 5 trouble.  Forget using flash carts with these devices.

The RetroN 5 has slots for the (1) NES, the (2) Famicom, the (3) SNES & Super Famicom, the (4) Genesis and Mega Drive, and the (5) Game Boy/Color/Advance.  Sega Master System cartridges and cards and Sega Game Gear cartridges can be played with an adapter.  There are a pair of NES, SNES and Genesis controller ports, and the console comes with one wireless bluetooth controller.

The Retro Freak has slots for the (1) Famicom, the (2) SNES & Super Famicom, the (3) Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, the (4) Game Boy/Color/Advance, the (5) NEC PC Engine/Turbo Grafx 16/SuperGrafx.  An adapter for the NES and an adapter for the Sega Master System/Game Gear/Sega Cards/SG-1000 Cards are supposed to be released this year.  It comes with a pair wired USB controllers and has three USB ports for controllers.  It also comes with a USB adapter that has four vintage controller ports, (1) Sega Genesis, (2) SNES, (3) PC Engine 8-pin mini-DIN and (4) Famicom Expansion Port. If a second player wants to use a vintage controller, you need to buy another adapter box separately.

The RetronN 5 retails for about $140, but the Retro Freak goes for about $200.  Shipping costs from Japan are likely higher for the Retro Freak.  Both systems support 720p.  I have heard that reliability has been a serious issue with the RetroN 5, with grip-of-death pin connectors and systems that tend to die without warning.

The Retro Freak has one big official advantage over the RetroN 5, it has a micro-SD card slot which allows you to transfer dumps from the console and run ROMs off the micro-SD card.  As a dumping device, it may be worth the price alone.  The RetroN 5 can be hacked to do the same thing.

Let's Play Money Making Game. - Nintendo NES Classic Edition

Nintendo's official emulation box caused quite a stir when it was announced, an uproar when it became extremely difficult to find during the 2016 holiday season and profound disappointment when it was discontinued in April with so many people unable to get their hands on one.  The retail price for the unit was $60, but the shortages were so severe that scalpers were at times able to get five times the retail price on eBay.  Today the price hovers around $200 for NIB unit, but if you have the even rarer official 2nd controller, expect to pay upwards of $300.

The NES Classic Edition came with 30 mostly classic or very good games and was not intended to be upgradeable.  However, it was quickly jailbroken and it can hold upwards of 700 ROMs in its 512MB Flash.  The jailbreak requires nothing more than a program called hakchi2, a USB cable and the ability to run an unsigned driver in Windows.  https://gbatemp.net/threads/hakchi2-nes-mini-very-simple-pimp-tool.456256/

The basic NES Classic Edition supports a pair of filters and four save state slots per game.  It outputs in 720p, but the upscaled pixels appear to non-uniform in color across the pixel.  This was apparently done to decrease the likelihood of triggering an epileptic seizure.  Nintendo also edited ROMs to reduce or eliminate many flashing effects that could also cause epileptic distress.

The emulator Nintendo used is reasonably fully featured, it can run MMC5 games for example.  Mappers 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9 & 10 and the Famicom Disk System are supported, which covers much of the Famicom and most of the NES library.  If there is a flaw in the official emulator, it is that the noise channel is off.  The pitch of white noise effects, like the punching sounds in Double Dragon 2 or the explosions in Super C do not sound right.  This is a subtle issue, but once heard it is impossible to unhear.  Fortunately Hakchi2 allows you to install RetroArch, which gives you access to much, much better emulators like FCEUMM and Nestopia.

The NES Classic Edition comes with two Wii-controller connectors, and just about any Wii or Wii-U controller with the plug should work.

A much cheaper alternative is to use a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B, which is more powerful than the hardware inside the NES Classic Mini.  You can use RetroArch or RetroPie or Mednafen or other emulators.  Of course, in addition to the Pi board, you will need an enclosure, a memory card, USB controllers, cables etc.  The result may not look as cute as the NES Classic Edition, but it can do a lot for the money.  Plus, the Pi 3 still supports a composite video connector, so it may be possible to use a Zapper or R.O.B. with it.  $90 can get you everything you need and probably don't have if you go this route.

Boy, You're Rich! - RetroUSB AVS

All the previous systems have used generic hardware running emulators or cheap NOACs with an upscaler.  The RetroUSB AVS was the first device to be built from the ground up to completely recreate the NES in hardware using a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA).  The great benefit of an FPGA is that it recreates the NES at a hardware level.  The FPGA is made up of thousands of logic blocks that can be configured to act like the logic in the NES CPU or PPU.  So if an element requires two shifters and an adder to perform a function, you can designate the FPGA to function identically to that NES element.  FPGA can come very close to eliminating the latency inherent in emulation and upscaling of a software emulator.

The other principal benefit of the FPGA is that it is reprogrammable.  When power is applied to an FPGA, its logic elements are in an indeterminate state.  Firmware tells the logic blocks how to function.  If a bug is found in the recreation, it can be fixed through a firmware update.

The AVS comes with four controller ports compatible with the NES and Famicom 4-player adapters, a cartridge slot for the Famicom and a cartridge slot for NES cartridges.  The Famicom cartridge slot can fit a Famicom Disk System Adapter.  There is a power and a a reset button and the back of the console has a Famicom Expansion Port.  Video output is HDMI only and it runs in 720p.  NES and Famicom internal audio is recreated by the FPGA, but external audio must be generated by cartridges.  The AVS supports the EverDrive and the NES PowerPak.  It can support extra sprites to reduce flicker in many games and also has an online Scoreboard functionality allowing you to upload high scores in recognized games to NintendoAge.

The AVS had two hardware flaws during its first run.  The mini-USB power connector was found not to be sufficiently anchored to the PCB, leading to breakages.  The NES cartridge connector could not handle cartridges with recessed pins, a.k.a. the green strip,  These should be fixed in the second run, which is currently on pre-order for $170.  Firmware updates have fixed reported compatibility issues with games as of firmware 1.20b8.  PAL games are officially supported.

Boy, This Is Really Expensive! - Hi-Def NES Mod

The Hi-Def NES Mod also is FPGA based, but it is an upgrade for a NES front loader, top loader or AV Famicom.  It does not work in unofficial clone consoles, the original Famicom (it can work, but it requires some serious modding skills).  The Twin Famicom is now supported.

1080p 5x/4x























The Hi-Def NES Mod requires desoldering the CPU and PPU chips inside the NES and fitting them on top of interposers which communicate with the FPGA board.  In order to perform the mod with a good chance of success, a proper desoldering tool is required.  Good desoldering tools like the Hakko FR-300 cost as much ($260) as the Mod kit ($135) and the cost for an installer to install the mod (~$85).  Trying to desolder the chips with cheap tools like a manual solder sucker or solder wick will likely cause you to end up with stripped traces or dead chips.

The Hi-Def NES's chief advantage over other HDMI solutions is its support for 1080p.  It can offer 4x or 4.5x nearest neighbor stretching for a sharp picture.  There is very little added latency because the Hi-Def NES only buffers lines as opposed to full frames.  Like the AVS, bugs can and have been fixed through firmware updates.  You need a flashcart to update the Hi-Def NES Mod.  The Hi-Def NES Mod also fully recreates the NES audio and the Famicom Expansion audio in the FPGA.

Unlike the AVS, the original composite video output of the NES or Famicom is supported if the HDMI cable is unplugged.  The Hi-Def NES mod will disappear in this state.  This allows you to play Zapper light gun games and see the true NES video output.  The Hi-Def NES has menus that overlay onto the games played instead of resetting to a full console menu.  NTSC and PAL CPUs and PPUs are supported, but this will not help to get PAL games working on NTSC chips or vice versa.

Master Using It And You Can Have This. - NESRGB Mod + XRGB-mini Framemeister or Open Source Scan Converter

All RGB NES and Famicom systems, except for those rare RGB-native systems like the Famicom Titler and the Sharp C-I TV, must have the PPU desoldered and either replaced with a 2C03 or fitted onto an NESRGB Mod board.  The NESRGB also offers S-Video as well as its own flavor of composite video and, with a small upgrade kit, Component Video.

Most HDMI-enabled TVs do not scale analog video sources particularly well.  Scaling does improve with the better quality inputs, but TVs like to use bilinear-style filtering to scale lower resolutions to the native resolution.  They also tend to take their sweet time scaling the image, leading to lag.  The best gaming-style upscaler on the market is the Micomsoft XRGB-mini Framemeister.  This black box has many inputs and buttons and can upscale games using scaling methods more appropriate to lower resolution pixel art.  It can scale up to 1080p and the added latency is usually about one frame.

The Framemeister has a huge number of options and supports system profiles the user can tailor for each input or console.  While it comes with Japanese JP-21 and D-Terminal inputs, there are adapters for European SCART and RCA Component video, respectively.  It also has a remote for changing settings and English-language firmware.

The Framemeister's Achilles Heel is its cost, it will cost at least $330 to import one from Japan.  Another solution called the Open Source Scan Converter performs a similar function for approximately half the price.  The OSSC only supports 720p (3x) upscaling and its 3x upscaling is not the most HDTV friendly.  Its 480p (2x) upscaling is supported by almost everything.  It has a DVI output port to avoid HDMI licensing fees so it cannot output digital audio.  Inputs are HD-15 VGA, SCART and RCA Component video.  It does not support composite or S-Video input.

Ones Who Does Not Have Triforce Can't Go In. - Analogue Nt /Nt Mini

The most expensive HDMI-enabled NES devices come from Analogue, formerly Analogue Interactive.  They made two runs of the Analogue Nt, which used Nintendo CPU and PPU chips on a PCB with an NESRGB.  This base console cost $499.  Optionally a Hi-Def NES Mod could be installed instead for $579.  They also sold a 24K Gold Plated version for $4999.  The Analogue Nt behaves like a modded NES, but it has 72 and 60 pin connectors, four controller ports, a Famicom Expansion Port and a microphone jack for Famicom microphone-supporting games.

1080p 6x/5x
The Analogue Nt will not be sold again by Analogue.  It had two problems.  The first was that the aluminum cartridge slots could mar, scratch and shave plastic off NES and Famicom cartridges.  The second was that it was usually incompatible with the EverDrive N8.  This incompatibility may have been more pronounced in the second run of the consoles (which have a clear bottom).

There is a similar console called the Super 8-bit, currently at v3.2, which can support an NESRGB or Hi-Def NES Mode and is only slightly cheaper.  It is only made in very limited quantities.

The Analogue Nt has been replaced by the Nt Mini, which corrects all the flaws of the original Nt at a lower price $449.  It uses an FPGA (two actually) from the same person who designed the Hi-Def NES Mod.  No used NES CPUs or PPUs with unknown mileage are sacrificed.  The cartridge slots have more clearance to keep NES and Famicom carts from being scratched.  There is an SD card slot for firmware updates.  All analog outputs are supported in addition to HDMI.  The same input ports are present as on the original Nt.  It comes with an 8bitdo NES30 Wireless Controller and has a USB port for charging the included Retro Receiver.

The Analogue Nt Mini is by far the most powerful FPGA device listed here.  The basic firmware completely emulates a NES or Famicom and Famicom expansion audio and works with PAL games.
One of the best features of the Analogue Nt Mini over the Hi-Def NES Mod is its support for a 5x scale in 1080p.  This allows you to

The unofficial jailbreak firmware from the hardware engineer enables flashcart support for well over 100 mappers.  It won't support the Famicom Disk System, but that is about the sole set of games that may not work on the built-in flashcart.  It also has an NSF player for NES chiptune music.

More impressive are the unofficial firmware FPGA recreations of other 8-bit consoles.  The list is a very long one, with favorites like the Atari 2600, Game Boy/Color, Game Gear, Sega Master System and Colecovision.  It also supports the Atari 7800, SG1000, Channel F, Supervision, Creativision, Odyssey^2, RCA Studio 2, Adventure Vision, Videobrain, Gamate and Game King.  There are even cartridge adapter prototypes for the most popular systems.  These recreations may not be quite as mature as the NES in every instance, but they do very well.  More systems like the Intellivision may become available in the near future.  One downside is that an adapter may be required to interface a keyboard or a Famicom Modem Controller is required to make selections for systems with a numberpad or a keyboard.

4 comments:

anormal said...

Very extensive article. I'd love to see something like this for my dear N64.

AFAIK, if you don't want to use real cartridges (...). Best solution quality and price wise (mi RP3 with a cover costs me less than 40$), is getting a RP3, instaling Retropie, and not only emulates (as you said) the NES with the best emulator right now (with shaders, scalers, etc), but also tenths of other systems, up to Dreamcast, Playstation 1.

It's an incredible project.

Great Hierophant said...

There is a very high quality solution for the N64, the UltraHDMI, see here for more details :
http://retrorgb.com/ultrahdmi.html

RetroRGB is a great site, I often find its information helpful for my own blog posts.

Anonymous said...

Looks like a sentence got cut off prematurely: "One of the best features of the Analogue Nt Mini over the Hi-Def NES Mod is its support for a 5x scale in 1080p. This allows you to"

Great Hierophant said...

This is how the sentence should have ended : "One of the best features of the Analogue Nt Mini over the Hi-Def NES Mod is its support for a 5x scale in 1080p. This allows you to maximize the vertical height of your screen with only a minor sacrifice of the visible graphics area."