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Super Nt review: the absolute best way to play Super Nintendo in HD

Tim Biggs

Published: March 9 2018 - 6:09PM

Super Nintendo games are in the midst of a widespread revival, but if you've ever tried to connect something that's almost 30 years old to a modern television you probably have some idea of how fraught it is to play these games in an authentic manner today.

If you think of a Super Nintendo cartridge as a vinyl record, an original Super Nintendo is kind of like an ancient turntable: unreliable, possibly dirty, impossible to connect to modern equipment without modification or extra hardware.

And Nintendo's own SNES Mini might be easy to use and offer more than a dozen good games, but it isn't completely accurate and it's useless if you want to play original cartridges. In the vinyl analogy the SNES Mini is a Spotify playlist of 20 classic albums.

Enter Analogue's Super Nt. To continue the metaphor, this machine is like a reference quality turntable, engineered to read the old media exactly as designed decades ago, but output to modern equipment in high fidelity.

For all intents and purposes this is a brand new Super Nintendo, capable of playing any original cartridge with amazing accuracy in up to 1080p, with awesome sound and close to zero lag.

The first thing you notice about the Super Nt is how much care has gone into its physical design. In contrast to many of its light and toy-like contemporaries in the retro gaming space, this machine is heavy, featuring thick matte plastic and a beautiful miniaturisation of the original SNES silhouette. The machine comes in jet black (which I chose, as it sits nicely next to the current generation consoles on my entertainment centre), a frosty transparent or paint jobs that call back to the original SNES.

The console does not include a controller, but it works with original Super Nintendo pads. Analogue has also teamed with 8bitdo, which is selling versions of its excellent wireless SNES controller solution — colour-matched to the Super Nt designs — through Amazon. And speaking of partnerships, famed developer Factor 5 has provided two excellent games that are built right into the console; a never-released director's cut of Super Turrican and the original version of Turrican II.

Playing anything else on this machine will require cartridges and, as someone who has spent a lot of time and effort trying to get my old games running nicely on modern TVs, believe me when I say the Super Nt's solution is close to perfect.

The most important difference between this and other solutions, and the reason playing on Super Nt is such an absolute joy, is the lack of lag. Playing on an original system requires additional cables, transcoders or other equipment that will always add a delay between your controller inputs and the action on screen. Meanwhile official versions of old games on Nintendo consoles, or retro boxes like Hyperkin's Retron line, use software to emulate the internal workings of the Super Nintendo, which also adds lag (as well as inevitable inaccuracies). You may not be able to directly perceive the delay, but you'll certainly notice that Mario falls in a lot more holes than he ought to.

The Super Nt uses a special chip called a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) to mimic the original system's functions at a hardware level. Combined with some technical wizardry that plays with the system timings in the background and allows for a level of speed and stability the SNES itself just could not pull off (and never needed to, on an old CRT display), this allows for games that feel exactly like they were designed to feel.

As a quick example I played a lot of BlackThorne as a kid (originally released in Australia as Blackhawk), and I got pretty good at the timing-based gunfights, popping out of cover in between enemy shots to interrupt with a blast of my own. On Hyperkin's Retron 5, I've found this technique impossible to pull off because of the extra time it takes, and I've had to be a lot more conservative. On the Super Nt, the delay is gone.

The FPGA has other advantages too. To my knowledge, anything that you used to connect to a SNES will work here, including the Super Game Boy that lets you play those old black and white portable games on your big TV.

On the few occasions compatibility issues crop up (for example, when the machine launched Mortal Kombat II looked very weird), Analogue can issue an update via the internet that tweaks the FPGA and fixes the issue. The company has, thus far, been incredibly quick to do this.

Games look and sound brilliant when running on default settings, but for those who like to tinker there's a complex suite of options available. You can adjust the resolution, add scanlines to simulate a CRT screen or scalers to give a less pixelated image. The nerdiest options let you change the way the SNES works at a deep level to improve the performance of certain games on a HD or 4K screen.

For example you can set the system to PAL mode, which is important when playing Australian games that were optimised for our 50HZ displays and need to run slightly slower to be correct. Or you can allow for extra sprites to appear on screen at a single time, eliminating the flicker that happens in particularly hectic games. I was able to remove the "combing" artefacts that appear in Jungle Strike by tweaking the interlacing options, and make the clouds in Kirby's Dream Land 3 — which usually show up as a jarring  series of lines on flat screens — render as semi-transparent as originally intended.

The menu can be brought up at any time by hitting a button combination, even while you're in the middle of a game, which is incredibly impressive when you realise it's all essentially running on a computer that was designed in the 80s. The depth of customisation here really does help this feel like a machine for enthusiasts. You can even program the console's power LED to display a colour or pattern of your choice.

Unfortunately there's no way to connect the system to an old CRT TV if you want to straight up use it as a SNES replacement. It's kind of ironic for a company called Analogue to release a machine that only has digital output, but it's an understandable decision given how few customers would want to go full retro. To its credit, Analogue says it is working on a digital-to-analogue adapter that would allow this functionality.

While the Super Nt does add some legitimately useful extras the original SNES never had, and while it saves you having to find an original console in good condition and having to splash out for a complicated AV solution to get it looking nice on your TV, it doesn't eliminate all the pain of maintaining an accurate SNES gaming setup.

First of all, prices for old SNES games are pretty inflated right now, even for common games in fairly ordinary condition, so unless you already have a collection you could be forking out a lot more than the $243 you're already dropping on the console, plus shipping and controllers.

Secondly, these games are all around 30 years old by now, and unless they've been sitting in a sealed box the whole time they will be filthy. Not the kind of thing you want to be shoving into a box you just paid good money for. To properly clean a cartridge you'll need, at minimum, a special security driver and some high-concentration cleaning alcohol. Both items are inexpensive, and cleaning is easy, but it's still a chore.

More concerning is that some games will require a battery replacement, and that's a job that requires soldering. The authentic design of the Super Nt does not allow for save states, so unless your favourite games are the arcade-style ones that don't need to save, or ones that include a password system, there's a 30-year-old watch battery in your cartridge that you need to keep your progress alive, and it's probably dead or close to it. For most Super Nintendo fans, the idea of desoldering a lithium battery and attaching a new one will be, understandably, a turn-off.

Still, the ability to plug in a single HDMI cable and have accurate SNES gameplay in 1080p, from an original cartridge, is absolute magic. There are a handful of very famous games that you can get on modern systems or through products like the SNES Mini but for everything else, or if you want to experience those games in a format closer to their creator's original intentions, there's no better way to do it than with the Super Nt.

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