Retro gaming enthusiasts have been spoiled for content these past few years. From the rise of clone consoles from manufacturers like Retron and handhelds that can hold thousands of classic games from companies like Anbernic, retro gaming is as popular as ever. We have also seen the exploding popularity of retro-stylized new games from indie developers, some of which have even been released for classic consoles like the Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo. The retro gaming community is thriving along with the business delivering new platformers to play your favorite classic games.
At the forefront of retro gaming technology is the Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA), a hardware-based solution that aims to recreate the experience of playing on classic gaming hardware with accuracy not found in modern PC or Android-based emulation solutions. The rise of FPGA is not only important as a tool to let gamers relive the days of sitting in front of their tube TV, but it also offers the opportunity to preserve the developer’s intended experience.
This may sound like a high-brow approach to playing old video games, but it’s no different than preservation projects for other artforms. Video games are developed with an understanding of how the player is intended to experience them and in recent years a shared collective of like-minded people from around the world have made it their mission to focus on preserving that vision.
One of the biggest FPGA projects is MiSTer, an open-source solution that allows development communities to create and share cores that recreate a cycle-accurate experience of using classic video game consoles. computers and arcade machines.
For those who might be interested in breaking into FPGA gaming, the MiSTer project may seem a little daunting at first with its piecemeal approach to building a complete device capable of running most FPGA cores. Then you must consider how you will acquire those cores and the game ROMs, digital copies of old cartridges or CD games, to play.
Thankfully, the MiSTer community has designed all the tools you need to get up and running. Websites dedicated to selling MiSTer hardware now offer complete builds that include hardware enclosures and everything else you need to get started right out of the box. Some basic knowledge of how to copy game ROM files may still be required, but this isn’t any more difficult than using those all-in-one android boxes available seemingly everywhere these days.
MiSTer is going to be the more expensive option for those interested in retro gaming, but the reward will be a more accurate representation of the games you remember. For most people, software emulation via RetroArch on an Android or Raspberry Pi system may be more than sufficient, but if you have ever tried those solutions and found them not quite representing what you remember loving about classic games, consider MiSTer.
MiSTer isn’t the only FPGA solution to consider. If you’re interested in a more accessible solution to FPGA gaming, you should look no further than Analogue.
Analogue was founded in 2011 by Christopher Taber and initially started as a clone console company that would repurpose components from original hardware and repackage them in stylish modern solutions. The best example of this was the Analogue CMVS, a consolized version of the arcade NEO-GEO hardware that was encased in handmade solid wood. This unique design certainly piqued the gaming community’s curiosity, but it wouldn’t be until the Analogue NT, a $499 US recreation of the Nintendo Entertainment System, that heads started turning.
The Analogue NT, still using original parts and not an FPGA, was encased in solid Aluminum and stood out from the clone console crowd. Despite its steep price tag, critics raved about the console, and it was considered the best way to play old NES cartridges on modern televisions.
It was Analogue’s attention to design that put them on the map but arguably their real success wouldn’t be until they embraced FPGA.
Starting with the Analogue NT Mini, a smaller follow-up to the NT, the company started utilizing FPGA for all its hardware. While the NT Mini still offered a premium aluminum shell and sold at a price tag of $499 US, Analogue finally decided to start offering more affordable solutions starting with the Super NT.
Priced at $189 US, the Super NT, which is an FPGA-based Super Nintendo, was a huge success for Analogue and made their products more accessible to those not willing to shell out premium pricing to play their old cartridges. This philosophy of affordable FPGA continued into their release of the Mega SG, a Genesis/Mega Drive FPGA system, and eventually into their latest release – the Analogue Pocket.
The Pocket, at its current price of $219 US, has proven to be one of the most difficult products to obtain from Analogue’s lineup. Its ability to play Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance games out of the box has people clamoring for Analogue’s latest device. The initial batch of preorders in August of 2020 sold out in minutes with even celebrities like Elijah Wood lamenting their inability to secure a purchase. With the handheld's recent release, a new batch of preorders were made available, but some potential owners will be waiting into 2023 to see their order fulfilled.
While MiSTer may have far more choice in the retro gaming hardware you can simulate it's clear that Analogue’s FPGA offerings have garnered far more popularity. That can be partially attributed to the latter’s easy plug-and-play approach that allows owners to use their own game cartridges. I say partially because I think some of that success can also be attributed to the mystique built around Analogue’s product line. Their attention to ergonomics and style has made them the boutique manufacturer of retro gaming hardware that the entire community never knew how badly it wanted until Chris Taber made it a reality.
If MiSTer is the scrappy garage band it could be said that Analogue is the touring megastar of the FPGA community, complete with all the pageantry of an expensive stage performance. That’s not to suggest Analogue is lacking in substance, but the collective grassroots approach of the MiSTer project means more community support and more updates when something doesn’t work. Analogue does update the firmware on their hardware, but those updates can sometimes be few and far between.
Whether you decide to stick to software emulation solutions offered on PC like RetroArch or take the plunge into FPGA, it’s clear gamers with an interest in retro are spoilt for choice. FPGA retro gaming shows no signs of slowing down. With the MiSTer community thriving more than ever and Analogue looking to release their next console, the Analogue Duo, A TurboGrafx 16/PC Engine FPGA system in 2022, the future is looking bright.
About the Creator
I’m a Toronto, Ontario native with over 13 years of freelance writing experience in the fields of television, video games, and technology. I have written hundreds of reviews and articles for websites like IGN, Vocal, and Medium.