Every few months, someone will ask me what I reccomend to play original NES games. It’s not exactly a simple question, there are a lot of variables that change from person to person. However, there are some solutions that seem to come up time and time again, so I figured I’d outline the major contenders.
Bear in mind, this list is designed for the “average” NES fan in 2016, meaning someone who wants to play vintage NES cartridges on an HDTV.
All things considered, playing NES games on the original hardware is still a really good bet. You’re guaranteed full compatibility with all games and accessories. The problem with this approach is that it’s the most labor-intensive. In order to get the most out of 30-year-old hardware, you’re going to need to give it some TLC.
Here’s what you need to do:
- Take care of the cartridge connector. This is the Achilles heel of the system, and is the reason you spent so much time jiggling and blowing into your games as a kid. After this much time, the connector has gotten dirty and bent. If you still have the original Nintendo-made pins on there, try boiling them in distilled water. If that doesn’t work, replace the entire pin connector. Please note that the new pin connectors vary greatly in quality.
- Disable the 10NES chip. This is a good thing to do while you’re servicing the connector. The 10NES is the copy protection chip inside the NES, and is the actual reason many games have trouble booting (the system mistakes a slightly dirty game for a bootleg). Disable the chip, and your success rate for starting games jumps up another 10%. It’s worth noting, however, that some funky unlicensed games actually depend on the chip being there, so if you plan to have a huge collection, try installing a bypass switch rather than totally disabling the 10NES.
- Make sure your accessories are in order. Track down an original Nintendo AC adaptor. As for the video connector, get a standard composite A/V cable with a splitter for the audio.
This option is by far the most work, but it yields the most authentic gameplay. However, looking at the list of chores above, I know what 99% of people reading this article are thinking.
Super Retro Trio:
If getting an original NES seems like too much work, this is probably the next best bet. This is a reproduction system from Retro-Bit that plays NES, SNES, and Genesis games, and while the compatibility rate isn’t perfect, it’s extremely good. Better than any other clone hardware I’ve seen, actually. It also takes the original controllers from all three systems, and supports SD flashcarts (a rarity among clone systems). There are a few games and accessories that won’t work on the SRT, but what you trade for low cost and convenience is probably worth it.
Bottom line: Probably the best compromise between effort and result.
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Possibly the most high-tech solution, and the one that most closely resembles a modern console, the R5 plays NES, SNES, Genesis, Famicom, and Gameboy games right out of the box, and includes it’s own wireless controller in addition to supporting the original controllers. Everything gets pumped to your TV via glorious 21st-century HDMI.
Despite the popularity of this system, I’m honestly not a really big fan of it. If your main concern is playing NES games with perfectly crisp pixels over HDMI, then this isn’t a bad way to do it… But there are a lot of other areas where the R5 just not ideal. First, it’s neither original hardware, nor clone hardware, but is actually an Android computer under the hood running an emulator. Granted, it’s a very good emulator, but it’s still an emulator with all the quirks that come with it. This also means that games with save functions need to take care to back the save back up to the cart. Finally, there are lots of graphical filters to make the games look “better”, but from what I’ve seen they’re all awful and better left turned off and forgotten.
Bottom line: The main selling point to this is the HDMI connection and its convenient setup with newer TVs, but a lot of the flashier features sound a lot cooler than they really are.
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I really struggled on including this system or not, since it’s technically Japanese-only. However, it’s readily available at import shops and there is an English version of the system software available for download. If you can fumble your way through a Japanese website and do a software update, this suddenly becomes a great system for an American audience.
The RetroFreak is very similar to the Retron 5, with two very big improvements: it adds a slot for TurboGrafx 16 and plays ROM files off an SD card. The TG-16 is an already pricey system and is increasing in both cost and popularity. It does need an adaptor to play US NES games. Personally, I think of the RF as a more refined version of what the R5 wanted to be.
Bottom line: if you insist on an HDMI connection, and are willing to do a little extra work to translate the RetroFreak, it’s a much better buy than the R5.
Not even considered
NES2: Top-loading re-release had horrible vertical banding over the image, thanks to a faulty PPU design. And unless you’re lottery-winner lucky, you can’t find one that supports composite video.
Retron 3: For the same amount of money, you can get a Super Retro Trio, which has better compatibility.
FC3+: Crummy compatibility AND weird proprietary controllers.
FC Twin, Retro Duo, Retron 1: These were fine in their day, but at this point don’t stand out in any way except being cheap.