As mass entertainment continues on its path away from physical goods and towards digitisation, a new high-end market is opening for purists who still desire actual things.
We've seen the revival of vinyl amid the wholesale adoption of MP3s, and we're still seeing box-set DVD special editions loaded with extras. Now we're getting beautifully crafted retro consoles, aimed at veteran gamers who love their old machines.
Now available for pre-order, the Analogue Nt is a lovingly produced replica of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the console that effectively saved the games industry after the crash of 1983. Built by the retro hardware specialist Analogue Interactive, each model is fabricated from a single block of aluminium and features all the inputs and technical features of the original machine. Unlike cheaper reproduction units, which often just jam an emulator in a cheap plastic box, this piece of kit contains the same Ricoh 20A3 and Ricoh 2C02 processors as the authentic consoles. So if you still own some old NES carts, they'll plug right in and play as they were always meant to.
But of course, this being a specialist modern intepretation of the original hardware, it is not just about the fetishistic reappropriation of a classic form; it is also about performance. The Analogue Nt is region-free so it'll play UK, US and Japanese games, and it outputs in RGB via composite, component or S-Video cables, meaning the display should be incredibly crisp and precise. There are also four built-in controller ports so teary-eyed veterans will be able to enjoy multiplayer favourites like Bomberman 2 straight out of the box. That's if they can find three friends willing to sit down and play a 23-year-old maze puzzler.
Even better (or weirder depending on your level of fandom), there's a separate HDMI adaptor that will upscale the image to 720p or 1080p HD. For older games, designed to run on CRT television sets, playing on a modern HD TV can produce a hideously distorted picture because the two technologies generate the image in a different way. However, the Analogue Nt even comes with a scanline generator, so the games are reproduced absolutely correctly on modern progressive scan screens. There's also a switch to select between classic, modern and arcade-style colour palettes.
Analogue is shipping the console from Summer 2014 for $499 (about £295) each, in five colour varieties. Sensibly, the company is also offering a variety of leads and controllers, both new and refurbished.
The history machine
The Nintendo Entertainment System was originally launched in Japan in 1983 and went on to become the best-selling console of its era, shifting around 60m units. Arriving after the fall of US gaming giant Atari, it kickstarted interest in the medium once again, introducing gamers all over the world to classics like Castlevania, Metroid, Zelda and Super Mario Bros.
This is not the first attempt to produce an upmarket retro console reproduction for collectors. 2012 saw the release of the Neo Geo X, a handheld version of the cult 90s machine from the Japanese arcade giant SNK. The hardware design was rather cheap, however, and reviews were poor (although the system has enjoyed a new lease of life thanks to hackers). Indeed, Analogue Interactive produced its own walnut-chassis version of the Neo Geo three years ago.
So what next, a gold-plated PlayStation? Actually, that has already happened, thanks to the hardware customising specialist Computer Choppers. Whatever the case, we're entering an era of specialist high-end products, designed to exploit both nostalgia and the desires of audio-visual purists who object to the perceived low quality of digitally delivered media. While video game emulation is rife, and it's possible to play just about any old classic on your PC nowadays, there is usually a certain amount of compromise – a graphical glitch here, a lack of support for certain peripherals there. But in theory, buying a retro machine scrupulously based on the innards of the original means you're getting the experience you recall, only better, thanks to visual upscaling.
Old games, like vinyl records, carry with them not only the content but the rituals of the physical objects: blowing the dust out of carts, putting something heavy on your Commodore 64 Datasette to make it run... Remade hardware brings all that back; and as with the latest vinyl record players, the Analogue Nt seeks to enhance the performance, to ensure purchasers don't suffer the familiar retro culture shock of, "Oh my God, this looks awful now."
Whether or not this intriguing product succeeds is another thing, especially as Nintendo has been efficient in bringing its classic titles back to modern machines via the Virtual Console store. And of course, there's a thriving market in old games hardware on eBay. Nothing gets you closer to the original experience than plugging a discoloured old NES into a humming CRT television. In the end, imperfection may be a more important part of the appeal than we realise.
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