It may have launched way back in 1985 (1983 if you're talking about Japan) but the Nintendo Entertainment System is very much back in the public eye thanks to last year's release of the NES Classic Mini, an officially-sanctioned plug-and-play clone which is currently harder to find than an honest politician.
Nintendo's startling lack of foresight when it comes to producing enough units of the NES Classic means there are plenty of people out there who want to see what all the fuss is about, yet are unable to scratch this retro itch. Thankfully, the NES Classic isn't the first NES clone and it won't be the last, so there are plenty of alternative (albeit unofficial) options on the market.
Some of these clones cost relatively little to purchase, but this review isn't for one of those cheap-and-cheerful products. We're looking at what should be regarded as the Rolls Royce of NES pretenders: the Analogue NT Mini.
At $449 / £349 it's not nearly in the same price bracket as the NES Classic Mini, but then this is a very different beast. Not only does it run original NES and Famicom cartridges, it outputs in 1080p HDMI, RGB, component, S-Video and composite, and has four controller ports which accept original NES pads. All of this is enclosed in a case cut from a single block of 6061 aluminium, giving the system a truly premium feel.
This is actually Analogue's second stab at creating the ultimate NES imitator, although the first – the discontinued Analogue NT – wasn't technically a clone as it used original NES internals. The NT Mini is a dead-ringer for its older sibling, boasting the same general case design, but the difference here is that the NT Mini is (as the name suggests) around 20 percent smaller in terms of footprint.
The top of the casing is fashioned from a single block of aluminum, while the underside is covered by a transparent plastic panel, which means you can gawk at the internal circuit board inside.
The front of the unit houses four controller ports (which allow you to play multiplayer titles that would normally require the additional purchase of a Four Score adapter) while the rear is home to a vast array of AV options, with HDMI being the one that is of perhaps the most interest.
However, should you want a more authentic image – and you have a CRT television available – then RGB, S-Video, component and composite are also on the table.
In short, this is the most fully-featured NES clone in terms of AV output. The back of the machine also features a USB port, Famicom expansion port and microphone socket, which means you'll be able to play titles which require additional peripherals – as well as hook up the Japan-exclusive Famicom Disk System. The left-hand side of the machine has an SD card slot, which is used to install firmware updates.
The NT Mini doesn't ship with a wired NES pad, but comes with an 8Bitdo NES30 controller which improves on the Nintendo-made original in a variety of ways – the most obvious being wireless performance.
While it looks and feels very much like the real deal, it has four face buttons instead of two, as well as two shoulder buttons. The pad connects to the NT Mini via a special Bluetooth dongle. 8Bitdo's other controllers (one of which is based on the iconic SNES pad) can also be used with the console via the same dongle.
Most clone hardware uses emulation or “system on a chip” technology to crudely replicate the performance of retro systems, neither of which delivers a totally accurate experience.
What makes the NT Mini unique is that it uses an Altera Cyclone V “Field Programmable Gate Array” chip (FPGA to its close friends) – which means vintage machines can be simulated at a hardware level. In short, a FPGA chip programmed to think it's a NES acts just like a NES.
The chipset at the core of the NT Mini was developed by Kevin “Kevtris” Horton – something of a legend in video game preservation circles – and is the result of countless hours of reverse-engineering.
What this means is the NT Mini is about as close to being a NES as it's possible to get, outside of actually playing one.
Performance is flawless, not just in terms of frame rate and speed, but in color replication and audio as well. While the standard of emulation seen on the NES Classic Mini is so good that you'd be hard-pressed to tell it from the real thing, the NT Mini takes this to another level entirely. Its setup means that it boasts impeccable compatibility with more than 2000 NES and Famicom carts and it also offers a wide range of bonus features, such as screen filters, cheat code support and much more besides.
Out of the box, the NT Mini is a remarkably accurate replication of the original NES system with a myriad of creature comforts, but if you're willing to dig a little deeper things become even more interesting.
Kevin Horton has released “Jailbroken” firmware – installable via the aforementioned SD card slot – which effectively turns the console into a machine capable of simulating pretty much every major 8-bit console of the '80s and early '90s.
Support for Sega Master System, Sega Game Gear, Nintendo Game Boy, Atari 2600 and Colecovision – to name just a few – is introduced with this firmware, and it's also possible to play ROMs directly from an SD card.
While this element of the NT Mini's functionality may be frowned upon by those who detest piracy, there's no denying that with the jail-broken firmware applied, the appeal of the platform increases dramatically.
While the firmware isn't officially endorsed by Analogue, the fact that it has been created by the NT Mini's lead engineer should put your mind at rest if you're worried about any risk from flashing new software to your £350 system.
This is NES gaming at the high end. Not only does the NT Mini boast amazing compatibility with NES and Famicom carts from all over the world, it has crystal-clear AV output, plenty of expansion possibilities (including support for the Japan-only Famicom Disk System) and, when jailbroken firmware is applied, can simulate pretty much any 8-bit console worth mentioning.
Not only does the NT Mini pack in an impressive list of features, it even looks good when it's switched off thanks to its attractive design and aluminum casing.
The biggest sticking point with the NT Mini is the cost. At $450 / £350 it's many times more expensive than the suggested retail price of famous NES Classic Mini (although give it a few years and that impossible-to-find system may reach this kind of price) and other multi-system clones, including the Hyperkin Retron 5 and Cyber Gadget Retro Freak.
You're getting the best NES experience here, but it certainly comes at a steep cost.
The Analogue NT Mini is the dream console for truly dedicated NES fans. It's even better than the real thing, as it not only offers gorgeous 1080p output but also plays NES and Famicom carts, as well as boasting support for Japan-exclusive peripherals.
If we had to stop there we'd still give it the highest possible recommendation, but the installation of jail-broken firmware – created by the console's lead engineer Kevin Horton, no less – adds even more functionality and allows you to play titles from many other 8-bit systems.
The only downside is the cost; the NT Mini is in the same price range as the PlayStation 4 Pro, and therefore its appeal may be limited almost exclusively to hardcore retro gamers.
Price and availability
The Analogue NT Mini is available directly from the manufacturer (opens in new tab) at a cost of $449 / £349. If you want it in black, you'll have to add another $49 / £38 to that price. After incredible demand following its launch in January, the system is currently only available via pre-order – machines are expected to ship in September.