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Attack of the Nes Clones: RetroUSB AVS Review

Nostalgia is a powerful force, and with the Nintendo Entertainment System past its 30th anniversary, there are now more choices than ever to play those classic, over-sized cartridges from your youth.  With numerous clone systems out there ranging from under $20, and all the way up to $500, how does the RetroUSB AVS stack up to the competition coming in at $185 before shipping/taxes?  Let's find out.

Upon receiving the RetroUSB AVS, the first noticeable characteristic is that the box itself looks and feels like some cheap Chinese product that you'd likely find at a site like Aliexpress, or in your local Chinatown. Upon opening the box, the experience isn't particularly elegant. It took some work to get the inside cardboard to come out of the box.  The strong suction kept a tight grip and almost made me rip the cardboard in an attempt to get the AVS out of its own packaging.  Once it was finally out, the contents were an HDMI cable, a Mini (not Micro) USB cable with a separate wall adapter, an insert showcasing some new NES homebrew cartridges, and finally, the AVS console.  It's a BYOC party (bring your own controller) as there are no controllers included in the box. You'll have to supply your own. It also doesn't come with any pack in game, nor any built into its firmware.  You'll have to provide your own, or buy some of the newly released RetroUSB games.

Those top buttons are actual NES surplus. Pretty rad.

The bottom is reminiscent of the NES.
For you Four score lovers out there. The feature is built into the AVS by default.
Left to right: HDMI, Mini USB, and Famicom Expansion port.
If one were to judge the AVS purely on aesthetics, the best description would be "polarizing."  This is because it was designed with the form of the original NES in mind instead of utilizing more modern design cues.  Personally, I don't find that the pictures do the console justice, and it looks a lot better to my eyes in person.  With that said, the door that hides your carts is hinged, and reminiscent of the front loader. There are 3 ports on the back for HDMI output, Mini USB, and a Serial type connector that is normally reserved for Japanese Famicom based accessories. (Small disclaimer:  I don't have Famicom games or accessories, so I will be testing the NES functionality.) The two-toned color is a yellowish gray on top, followed by a much darker gray on the bottom, against reminiscent of the original. On these first revision models, the power and reset buttons are actual surplus NES hardware that RetroUSB was able to acquire which gives it a touch of authenticity. After all, if they really wanted to, they could technically advertise that they used authentic NES parts in their console similar to how Analogue has done with their competing NT.  Thankfully, they have not gone that route, and are sticking to advertising based on video quality and compatibility.

Video quality is one place where the AVS shines.  Unlike the original NES machines and most of its clones, it isn't limited to RF or RCA connections that severely limit the video quality between the console and your TV.  As stated earlier, the sole connection on the back is an HDMI port that outputs the NES graphics are a clean 720p. Pixels and colors are sharp, bright, colorful, and well defined. Since there is no analog to digital conversion, there should also theoretically be no lag when playing twitch heavy old platformers like Contra.  This is due to the AVS running on a FPGA chip programmed to mimic the Ricoh CPU and PPU of the NES.  Think of it as hardware simulation. With little to no overhead using system resources, this means that there is none of the gameplay lag that is normally part of software emulation while still allowing the flexibility of firmware updates that allow compatibility fixes and expansion. While it all sounds great, the truth is in the gameplay, and I am happy to report that I detected no noticeable lag when playing with my stock "dogbone" NES controller, and even with my 8bitdo Nes30.

Pixel graphics look clean, colorful, and razor sharp on the AVS.
The first few cartridges that I tried were games that are known to give clone consoles a fit due to various incompatibilities of their NOAC (Nintendo on a Chip) systems.  For example, Castlevania 3, Dragon Warrior, and Paperboy are the usual banes of a clone systems existence, but the AVS ran them all like a champ, almost scoffing at me for testing it to run those games.  While they don't run, or barely run at all on most clones, on the AVS, the graphics and sounds were faithful and accurate to the original consoles. My NES Everdrive also ran without a hitch, and even allowed for save/load states to work flawlessly. This is a feature that works on the original NES, but will absolutely refuse to work on my Super Retro Trio due to the NOAC chip running on the bare minimum specs needed to emulate NES hardware.  The Retron 5, a system that uses software emulation, does not support (or work with) Everdrive carts at all.  With that said, not all is perfect either.  For example, I have a Bubble Bobble NES cart that works perfectly fine on my original NES top loader, but it refused to work on any clone console, AVS included.  My guess is that the contact pins used to grip/read the carts aren't of the same quality and/or conductivity as the Nintendo approved parts causing for the game to load correctly. The original NES consoles used ZIF connectors that had pins forged out of nickel/gold, while these new clone consoles use much cheaper aluminum connectors that are nowhere near as durable or conductive, and sadly, it looks like the AVS follows this tradition. Third party connectors will also typically have a "death grip" effect on cartridges, meaning that they will usually be more difficult to insert or remove than when using a first party connector.  This also leads to another design flaw of the AVS when inserting carts.  There is no track or guide designed to smoothly glide the cart to its proper home.  Instead, you will be fidgeting while attempting to position cartridges at the right angle and height to get them perfectly into the connector.  This could possibly lead to problems down the line, and is something to be mindful of.

*Update*  Certain NES carts, such as my copy of Bubble Bobble have a "green strip" on the edge of their pins, (pictured above) resulting in a shorter length that the AVS connector struggles to connect correctly with.  If your carts won't load, and the pins are clean, check and see if they are of this "green strip" variety.

Known games are: Bubble Bobble, The Guardian Legend, Dragon Warrior, Back to the Future, Blaster Master, Paperboy, and Nintendo's version of Tetris. Some of these games have multiple revisions with different boards, so not all copies may be affected.

A workaround that some gamers are using is to insert their cart into the AVS while pushing in on the left side to get a sort of angle that has the pins get a slightly better connection due to the angle.  I tested it, and it did work, I'm not 100% convinced that this is healthy for either the AVS, or your games.

The other game that I had an issue with, is my reproduction copy of Final Fantasy 7.  Yes, there is a Final Fantasy 7 demake for the NES, and it's actually a pretty decent port!  Getting back on track, my repro cart works flawlessly on both my original NES, and Super Retro Trio.  Instant on, save/load works, and graphics look good in all of their 8-bit glory.  On the AVS however, the game may start normally, but after a single battle, or going in and out of the game menu, the graphics will become corrupted immediately upon returning to the main map screen.  In many instances, it will even start displaying dialogue from a much later part of the game as soon as you return to your main screen. This may be due to the mapper chip used for this game which was originally used by Chinese companies on their unlicensed games. This non-standard mapper is the most probably culprit in causing the AVS not to read the game correctly.  I contacted RetroUSB about the issue via their Facebook page, and uploaded a video showcasing the problem.  Hopefully it is something that can be fixed via a firmware update sooner than later.  This issue could also affect the unlicensed NES version of Pokemon Yellow, which also utilizes that particular mapper.  I am happy to report that this is not the case of all modern unlicensed games, as my copies of recent NES releases Haunted Halloween 85, and The Legends of Owlia ran perfectly well in my tests.  As a side-note, those two games run well on the Super Retro Trio, but in the case of the Retron 5, HH85 is glitchy, and Owlia won't run at all, booting up into a gray screen.

My experience with FF7 on the NES, SRT, and AVS.

*Update* A gamer on Twitch by the handle of PastBlaster was able to play FF7 by playing the Famicom version of the game through a 60pin to 72pin adapter inside a NES cart.  I'm not sure why it worked that way, but be aware that for now, your mileage may vary when attempting to run FF7. My original point stands: The NES is the gold standard, and an accurate clone must be able to run everything that the original system can.

The straight-forward main menu.
Options galore: Left side hides over-scan junk that was normally hidden on CRT's.
Auto play lets your system boot directly into a game like the original NES.
As a retro inspired console in the modern age (and similar to the software based Retron 5), the AVS does provide an optional menu system which has options for screen size, scanlines (with variable degree's of visibility), input options, power on options, a built in Game genie, and finally, a scoreboard where one has the option to upload high scores to the Nintendoage website. There is also an "Extra Sprites" option which allows the normal NES sprite limit of 8 per scanline to be increased to 15.  This won't fix every game, as it cannot overcome poor programming, but it can help greatly reduce sprite flickering and slowdown in certain instances. These are all generally great additions, and are optional.  This being a hardware clone, software options are sparse in comparison to fancier software emulator features such as fast forward/rewind, graphics filters, IPS patches, and save states.  As stated earlier, out of the missing features, save states can be had with the NES Everdrive, or the RetroUSB Powerpak, and that's pretty much it. A firmware update is being worked on to allow different color palettes, to suit the different tastes in what NES colors should look like, but the AVS does not have enough memory to perform any other fancy emulation tricks other than what is already available.

Speaking of firmware updates, and the Scoreboard feature.  They are poorly documented in the included manual.  If you want to update your console, you need to download the Scoreboard software, and then connect the AVS directly to a PC. Don't forget that the AVS has to be powered on in order to be detected.  Your PC's USB port should be able to provide enough power. The Scoreboard software will then allow you to either update your console with a firmware that you download from RetroUSB's servers onto your PC or MAC, or upload your high score if your particular title is supported.  These files can be found here.

Love this? Forget about it, at least for now.
With the move towards HDMI output geared towards modern HD sets, as well as the loss of  legacy ports for CRT compatibility means that the Zapper, or any NES light gun, is out of the question for now.  To put it into the simplest terms, the technology for these light guns revolved around how CRT's worked.  Scanline based, lag free, interlaced displays, and not our High definition, progressive, laggy monitors.  If you are a fan of Zapper games, then your only real options are a CRT attached to a NES, or it's various clones (such as the Super Retro Trio) connected to an (normally non-hd) analog display.  Not all is lost , however, as RetroUSB has expressed interest in eventually offering an AVS only light gun that will work on HDTV's, by leveraging some of the power of the FPGA to assist in target tracking.  Sadly, this means that it won't work on the original NES, but it will at least allow most, if not all of the NES library to be playable.  As per RetroUSB, using an HDMI to Analog converter would introduce enough lag to keep light gun games from being playable on a CRT.  I haven't tested this myself, but if anyone out there is successful using that workaround, I would love to know.

In addition to the Zapper, the original R.O.B. is also stated as not compatible, unfortunately, I do not have that accessory to test.  Other accessories, such as the Power pad, track balls, the NES Max, Power Glove, and third party controllers are all slated to work.  I'm happy to report that 8bitdo's excellent retro receiver and various retro style controllers work great, and really add to the modernization of the NES.

With all the subtleties out of the way, how the AVS actually handle gameplay?  That depends on your TV and its own response time.  With that said, the AVS itself, when used with wired NES controllers, produced no perceptible lag.  Mario, Megaman, Simon, Trevor, Link, Samus, Ryu, and countless other gaming mascots played just as you remember them.  Just remember to turn on the Game mode, or PC mode on your HDTV to reduce latency/lag as much as possible.

With all the talk of compatibility, I nearly forgot to mention sound.  The AVS mimics the sound of the NES eerily well in my tests.  Super Mario Bros 1, 2, and 3 sound effects and music were recreated faithfully, as were the Castlevania 3 and Megaman 2 soundtracks.  The screeching noise in R.C. Pro AM which normally separates the good NOAC's from the cheap imitations sounded accurate through my TV speakers as well as my surround sound.  This is clean, 8-bit music at its finest.


 When compared to the other HDMI clone, it's pricier than the Retron 5 which offers similar graphic quality (720p HD) along with 7 more consoles (various versions of the Snes, Genesis, Gameboy, and GBA) for less money, but is laggier and less compatible with accessories than the AVS.  You also have to wait a few seconds for the Retron to load a game, something that is not an issue with the AVS since it plays directly off your cartridge.

Compatibility is about the same as the Super Retro Trio, with some games working better on the SRT and Vice versa, light gun games in particular.  Of course, the compromise with the SRT is the poor picture quality provided by the RCA connection. The SRT is also about $100 less and provides 4 more consoles while the AVS is more accurate in its simulation. If playing on a CRT, this is probably your best affordable option since you can play most games AND get light gun compatibility.

 The original NES by default works with all games and accessories, but the top loader in particular is limited to incredibly poor RF video quality with jailbars unless modded which generally means purchasing an RGB or HDMI kit, and then mailing out your console to some modder to solder and tinker with your case housing if ports need to be added.  The pin quality on the top loader NES however, is still the best by far, being extremely reliable in playing games that no other clone console can.  The front loader NES has RCA output that is superior than the top loader, but a finicky connector that needs constant maintenance,  and once again, inferior video quality to the AVS.

If Famicom compatibility is important to you, then the AVS is your only complete solution for it as the other clones cannot utilize the expansion port its accessories.

Is the AVS worth your hard earned 185 plus dollars? For NES enthusiasts, there are always compromises. The Analogue NT is over double the price, and will be moving to a similar FPGA setup in the future, but it does provide analogue output for light gun's and CRT's.  Modding a NES costs about the same as an AVS, and is a hassle to ship out and wait for weeks before you can play it again. For the top loader NES, you still can't beat the reliability of it's cartridge mechanism. This leaves the AVS in an interesting position.  Its for hardcore NES fanatics who don't mind trading a little compatibility and light gun support for sharp visuals at a premium. It also means accepting a  design flaw in the pin connector that may or may not be fixed for early adopters.  For everyone else, there are plenty of options out there.  Choose wisely.


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