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.|
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.|
*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.
|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.|
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.|
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.