MetalFRO's Blog

Posted on Nov 7th 2019 at 08:00:00 AM by (MetalFRO)
Posted under Analogue Pocket, Game Boy, Game Gear, Atari Lynx, Neo Geo Pocket Color, FPGA, retrogaming, portable gaming, handheld

Image shamelessly linked from TechCrunch. This thing looks GORGEOUS.

By now, most dedicated retrogaming enthusiasts should be familiar with the name Analogue. They make FPGA-based consoles that mimic original hardware, so that older, cartridge-based games can be played on modern hardware, and output to modern TVs. Analogue's first product was the premium Analogue NT, a clone of the NES that utilized the same CPU and PPU as the original consoles did. Unfortunately, it had a small manufacturing run, and sold at a staggering price tag. After that sold out, they retooled the design to make it smaller, but also less expensive, by making future units (under the Analogue NT Mini moniker) utilize FPGA technology. FPGA is better explained in detail elsewhere, so here's the 10,000 foot overhead view: FPGA stands for Field Programmable Gate Array, and instead of software emulation on a standard architecture (like an ARM processor, for example), the FPGA can be programmed in such a way that it mimics the hardware of the original device, because it can be made to produce the same results that the original CPU, and other components, would produce. This means that FPGA technology can be used to mimic all sorts of hardware. Notably, it has been seen as quite successful in mimicking video game console hardware.

Analogue has seen success with this line, from the Analogue NT Mini, which works with NES and Famicom carts, to the Analogue Super NT, being a Super NES hardware clone, and most recently, the Mega SG, their newest FPGA-based system that mimics the Sega Genesis and Mega Drive hardware. RetroUSB also made their own NES/Famicom FPGA clone, the AVS. For the geekier hardware enthusiast, there's also the MiSTer line of devices that use the DE10-Nano board, among other optional components. This system can mimic all kinds of hardware, from arcade games to consoles, and the project is ongoing with more "cores" being written all the time, to allow it to do more and more every day. FPGA technology has been seen as the next evolution in retro game preservation, because it can almost perfectly capture the feel of the hardware as much as possible, without sacrificing the various quirks and idiosyncrasies that players not only have a fondness for, but some of which are actually essential to the game experience, due to the way many of them were programmed to either take advantage of, or work around, some of the hardware limitations. FPGA is an important development in helping those of us who love old games, continue to play them, but make them more accessible, with native ability to connect to new TVs and displays, and opening the door to more easy streaming and game capture.

Image shamelessly linked from TechCrunch again. The Analogue Pocket Dock accessory will
make playing games on a TV seamless, not to mention footage capture, and streaming.

Enter the Analogue Pocket. There have been other handheld clone consoles, attempting to improve upon the original Game Boy formula somewhat, or bring it up to date, such as the GB Boy Color, with its backlit color screen. But nothing has taken the FPGA route so far, until now. Analogue's track record being as successful as it is, and it's not hard to see why there's been such enthusiasm for this device. As solid as the NT Mini, Super NT, and Mega SG have proven to be, that level of FPGA tech in a portable system is a dream come true for gaming enthusiasts who love the game boy line, as well as those with busy lifestyles that are on the go a lot. For myself, as a Game Boy enthusiast, and someone who enjoys handheld gaming in general, it's a big deal. Not only because it gives us another way to play these games, but because it could turn out to be the ultimate way to play them.

Tinkerers and engineering types have spent a lot of time and money to improve portable game systems over the years. There are kits you can buy to 'bivert' and back-light your original Game Boy, should you have the soldering skill and soft touch to do the work yourself. Or, for a nominal fee, you can pay someone to do it for you. There are LCD screen replacement kits for Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear systems, and most of us who own original versions of the latter either already have, or are in need of having the capacitors replaced in our aging Game Gear systems. Over a decade ago, I spent well over $100 to ship my Sega Nomad to the UK so that an industrious modder would replace the stock LCD with a newer, brighter, more energy efficient one, that wasn't so prone to screen blur, like the original. He also converted the battery pack with a larger cell battery meant for a digital camera, so I can get somewhere around 6-8 hours out of the Nomad on a full charge. It certainly made that bulky handheld system far more enjoyable to use.

Once again, image shamelessly linked from TechCrunch.
The promise of additional cores in the Analogue Pocket, and adapters to play other games
is not only enticing, but also exciting, especially if it means mimicking hardware for some
of the more obscure handhelds, like the, Super Boy, Microvision, and others.

Likewise, modders have taken to putting Game Boy Advance SP AGS-101 model screens (the later, backlit style) into original wide GBA's, as well as replacing the stock GBA speaker, adding rechargeable batteries, and adding LED lit buttons for effect. Hardware mods for old consoles are for more than just region unlocking. They have added all kinds of neat things to them, or enhanced the experience. But you have to have working hardware, and then spend the money on the kits or parts, and either have the knowledge, time, and patience to do the mods yourself, or spend a fair bit of cash to get that done. And if your Game Boy or Lynx suddenly die, that money may no longer be thought of as well spent.

Thankfully, Analogue's approach should help, by giving use consumers more options, and potentially offering a better alternative. Right out of the box, a $200 Game Boy Advance clone with a 3.5" screen and bright, backlit screen might seem a little steep. But consider the other features that are planned. The screen resolution is supposed to be 1600 x 1440, a full 10 times the original resolution of the Game Boy. So playing Game Boy games on this screen will be a very clean experience, because they'll be scaled in a pixel-perfect fashion. With additional adapters, and a 2nd on-board FPGA, the Analogue Pocket promises to offer even more functionality beyond just the Nintendo platforms. It will also come pre-loaded with Nanoloop, a Game Boy homebrew program that allows you to compose and play back music, based on the Game Boy's sound chip. Many retro-DJs already use Nanoloop in live DJ setups, and this will give them even more flexibility.

In addition, the hardware will include an original Game Boy-style link port, so linking systems together (or linking a Pocket to an original Game Boy) will be possible, making your high-resolution Pokemon and Tetris dreams come true. Analogue is making a dock as well, which will allow the system to be output via HDMI to a TV, and allow for external controllers to be used with it, either Bluetooth, or USB. Stereo speakers, a 3.5mm headphone jack (no doubt with some kind of built in DAC), USB connectivity and charging, programmable buttons, and a rechargeable battery, this device is shaping up to be an amazing piece of hardware. Of course, we'll need to reserve judgment, until it's out, but with Analogue's track record so far, it definitely shows a lot of promise.

I'm excited for this product, if it's not already obvious. As someone who is trying to review the Game Boy library, this device would make it infinitely easier, and more convenient, for me to play, capture, and stream these games. It also will open up legitimate options for playing Game Gear, Lynx, and other portable game platforms, to be played on a TV in a way that will truly be reflective of the original hardware, but with the modern accouterments afforded with larger, brighter screens, HDMI out, and longer battery life. I've been thinking about the possibility of an FPGA-based portable console since the announcement of the RetroUSB AVS, or the Analogue NT Mini. I'm happy to see Analogue leading the charge, and I sincerely hope that the product looks as good as the promotional materials suggest. I also hope it plays as well as they're suggesting as well. If so, they'll have a dedicated user in me, and I will definitely be interested in what other systems they plan to mimic down the road.

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As soon as I read about the upcoming Analogue Pocket I thought about you. Smiley This will be paradise for a handheld gamer! I'm not a handheld gamer (I have merely 10 GBA titles  because of the Gameboy Player for the GC) so I won't buy it but I have the Analogue NT and the Mega SG by Analogue, and they are fantastic! Considering the track record of Analogue with their first-rate FPGA-consoles this will be the ultimate way to play handhelds.
I cannot wait for this!

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