The Ultimate Nintendo Entertainment System
I got my first NES on Christmas eve 1985, when I was 7 years old. Despite our family being poor, my mother saved up and purchased the Deluxe Set for me, which featured Gyromite, a game that required the use of R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy — R.O.B. sucked!) and Duck Hunt, which required use of the NES Zapper.
I can recall opening the box, and smelling the new plastic as if it was yesterday. I remember what it was like to unpack the devices, feeling joy as the items were pulled out of their protective plastic bags.
Upon powering the system on, I was immediately hooked. Throughout my life, I’ve enjoyed endless Zelda, Mario, and Mega Man adventures.
I’m now nearing forty years of age, and still play original NES games on original NES hardware using a pure digital 1080P signal and crisp digital audio.
In case you’re wondering, yes it matters!
NES Mini and Emulation
Retro gaming — it’s been a thing for over 20 years. I remember playing emulated NES games on my Windows 98 PC.
Today, there is an entire industry of retro-consoles, such as the Hyperkin Retron 5, which reportedly plays games from ten different consoles with emulation running on an Android operating system.
For many years, enthusiasts have been modifying various systems, including original 1985 NES consoles to play games via emulators running on the Raspberry PI.
In the gaming industry, it’s known that Nintendo has worked hard to capitalize on the retro-gaming scene with many of its systems. The GameBoy advance, the Wii and Wii U, all had ports of NES games. All these means of playing these games meant you had to repurchase them for the new system.
With much fanfare, Nintendo announced the NES Mini in July 2016. This new system comes with 30 built-in games, drives modern HDMI displays, and is powered by a standard USB micro connector. The system is controlled by Wii-compatible controllers and they even have retro-styled controllers for sale.
The news of a Miniature NES was music to the ears of many who love the idea of going back in time to play classics, such as Castlevania and Kid Icarus. But again, you had access to these games by other emulation means.
News of the NES mini is so hot that it inspired Daft Mike, a maker, to design and 3D print his own NES mini with miniature 3D printed carts that, when inserted, instruct which game to load and execute in the internal Raspberry Pi. It’s by far, the slickest known custom NES system.
Demonstration of this awesome machine can be viewed via his video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dgnD93pwX0. You can read about this project at his blog here: http://www.daftmike.com/2016/07/NESPi.html
The NES mini has yet to be released (with most recent reports suggesting a release date in November 2016), so little is known about the console. It’s rumored that the NES mini will be yet another emulation engine. The reason such rumors exist is because this new console will have the ability to save game state, something that the original NES did not have and requires a separate Operating System outside of the original NES hardware.
From what I know about the NES Mini, I like it. With the price point of $59.99 USD, I might actually buy one.
But, if you’re like me — a retro gaming purist — then having emulated systems isn’t the same. There are specific quirks in the hardware that we got used to, which are really difficult to emulate appropriately. Not to mention, I love playing games with the NES MAX controller.
Original NES vs. NES Mini
It could be said that comparing the Original NES to the NES mini would be unfair. But I’m going to do it anyway. Why? Because the end result is the same: enjoying retro 8-bit NES games.
Below is a chart that I put together of some high-level features that compare what is known about the NES Mini to the original NES hardware.
As we can see, the original NES doesn’t have much going for it. The NES Mini wins in just about every category. The Original NES only wins where I have access to any NES game (includes unlicensed and beta games) and original peripherals.
The original NES loses in everything else because it has dated hardware for video and audio and touts some serious design flaws that required fidgeting with the caddy system, cleaning, or even blowing into cartridges to get games to operate. Hassle free usage is a key component to modern video game enjoyment and is a huge win for the NES mini.
What if I told you that we could not only even the score, but that with a little bit of work and some hardware and electronics sold online, we could build the ultimate NES system?
Almost all of the winning traits of the NES mini can be carried over to the NES with these mods and addons, with the exception of USB power.
Here’s what the score looks like after these modifications.
Building the ultimate NES
In order to even the playing field, the original NES needs to:
- Eliminate the requirement of blowing into cartridges once and for all
- Include some mechanism to save game state
- Output pure digital Video and Audio via HDMI
Eliminating the need to blow on your cartridges
The NES drawer system was designed to give a modern feel to a game console that was marketed as a toy in Japan (The Famicom). Instead of placing a cartridge into the console in a top-down fashion, you loaded the game from the front of the console, which gave the console the modern nick-name “Front Loader”, and pressed down onto the cartridge to lock it in place. This feature mimicked the loading of VHS Tapes, but was far from perfect.
What Nintendo of America’s designers didn’t realize is that this bad design flaw would plague use of the system so badly.
To get the games to work, their customers would blow on cartridges, exhausting moisture onto the connectors. This allowed the carts to work for the time they were inserted into the system. But over long periods of time, this action increased the corrosion of the connectors and decreased the likelihood of the game working in the future without a really good cleaning job.
The drawer system forced you to press down onto the cartridge to lock the game in place. This action ensured that the cartridge hit the perfect angle for the 72-pin connector to provide proper electrical conductivity. The problem is that the 72-pin connector gets worn out over time, reducing your ability to enjoy the console.
You have a few easy choices to fix this issue. Some people have reported success with bending the original pins back into position, but it’s more of a temporary fix and you risk breaking something.
The most common resolution is to replace the 72-pin connector with one that is new and has more robust angles for the pins themselves. IFixit has a great guide on how to do this.
While replacing the connector is the most common fix, it’s not the best solution because your replacement connector will need a new replacement over time because it suffers from the same design flaw.
For $29.99, Arcade Works has the perfect solution called the “Blinking Light Win”, where you replace not only the 72-pin connector, but also the entire drawer assembly that forces you to press down.
This mod is a huge win for the NES retro gaming community. This is the way the NES should have been designed from the beginning and I am so glad that Arcade Works has made this product.
Saving state on games
To add save state capabilities, we’ll need to purchase a modern cartridge called the EverDrive N8. This is no ordinary game cartridge, however and costs a hefty $118 USD. It’s well worth the money. Here’s why.
In the handsome red shell, the EverDrive N8 features a custom cart powered by a Cyclone FCPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array), and runs its own operating system independent of the NES hardware. The purpose of the cartridge is to allow you to play your legally-owned backed up cartridge ROMs without having to wear out your precious collection on your original NES hardware by inserting/removing cartridges.
It does this by featuring an SD Card slot, which you fill with the OS and your ROMs from your computer.
The N8 also allows you to play beta and unlicensed content, which includes games and hacks that are made for emulators, but also run well on hardware. Lastly, this cartridge is awesome because by pressing START and DOWN, you can save state of the current game. To restore state, you can press START then UP. It’s almost like magic.
Output pure digital Video and Audio via HDMI
Lastly, we have the most expensive and most difficult of all mods — enabling your original NES to output pure 1080P Video and crisp digital Audio.
Starting at $120 USD the Hi-Def NES Mod kit, sold by Game-Tech US requires soldering skills and can cost up to $142 with some add ons, but boy is it worth it.
This Mod Kit works by intercepting the signals from the NES’ CPU and PPU (Picture Processing Unit). This is super important to understand because the CPU is what provides audio and the PPU is what generates the video signal for the original hardware RF and composite outputs.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the process:
The CPU & PPU must be desoldered from the board to make room for the interposers.
After desoldering the CPU & PPU, you solder sockets in their place, then place the interposers in the sockets you just soldered on.
The CPU & PPU are to be placed into the interposers, and ribbon cables attach to the interposers. These ribbon cables are what drive signals to the HDMI processing unit.
The HDMI processing board is what interleaves the CPU’s audio & PPU’s video and outputs the result onto the HDMI cable to be displayed by your HD or 4K TV.
Below is an image of the HDMI processing board connected to the interposers via ribbon cable and a custom routed 5 Volt power wire soldered directly to the NES’ power source.
The bottom half of the NES’ shell will need to be modified to make room for the HDMI board to rest and to expose the HDMI port itself.
All of that soldering might scare some folks, but for some reason, I found that cutting the plastic was the hardest part of the job.
My wife snuck up behind me and secretly captured my reaction to seeing the Hi-Def NES mod work for the first time.
For a more professional video review, check out the following video from “My Life In Gaming”.
Compared to the NES Mini, the modified NES tips the scales on pricing and is ready to go without having to modify it.
The NES Mini is $59.99 and is definitely the most affordable way to get a really good modern 8-bit experience.
The price for the modified NES comes in around $300 when you factor in all of the pieces ($10 NES, $118 EverDrive N8, $29.99 Blinky Light Win Kit, $142).
Factor in any tools you might need (soldering & desoldering irons, flux, solder, Xacto Knife), and you’re looking more in the $500 range.
(If you don’t want to mess with desoldering and cutting plastic, chances are, you can find a Hi-Def NES on sale via eBay.)
Despite the major difference in price and the extra work required, I prefer the Ultimate NES over the NES Mini. Having the flexibility of any game and any peripheral (sans the Zapper), running on original hardware is really worth the money.
After all, the 8-Bit NES gaming experience far surpasses the 30 games that Nintendo is pushing with the NES Mini.