Is the SNES mini just a NES with more S?
The time has come, the SNES mini is safely in my hands and hooked up. You can read and watch my comprehensive full review and comparison of just what nostalgic nibbles it offers up, and how it compares to its old skool original.
Ahead of getting hands on for release we already knew that the machine would be based on an identical board and SoC as the previous NES mini machine, this is something I talked about in my preview back in the summer which you can view below. But is this really a surprise on that score? It would seem some expected the machine to house purpose built PCB and extra power to emulate the 16-Bit machine. This is of course no surprise as I covered in detail with my preview or if you are aware of such areas. The NES mini hardware ( which is also an R16 ARM SoC ) far exceeds the requirement of both of these machines and the inevitable N64 Mini next year.
This includes more than enough computation to supplement the extra co-processors that Nintendo and 3rd party teams regularly included within many game cartridges over the consoles lifespan. These all shared a similar trait, an extra chip inside which can be used to supplement the weak 6502 family 5A22 CPU that became a ball and chain due to cost cutting and an early attempt to deliver backwards compatibility with the NES/Famicom it replaced. This fell through but left the console with a huge chink within it's armour compared to the Megadrive/Genesis it was up against and thus gave it more than a bloody noes at times. As usual software skills helped reduce the deficit here with multi-platform programmers becoming skilled in getting around some of the machines limitations. Rare stood proud for Nintendo on many occasions and stood equal with the mighty N on the 16 and 64 bit consoles throughout the generations.
With the need for extra processing clear from the start, launch titles in the UK such as Pilot wings used the DSP-1 chip to deliver the impressive and typical Nintendo style of non-categorized games. StarFox and it's UK developed RISC based MARIO chip (Mathematical Argonout Rotation Input Output) with later versions simply called the GSU-1 grabbed all the headlines for the machine later in the lifespan, but the need for these was consistent if not exhaustive. This new Mini has many titles that rely on these extra chips including the more powerful GSU-2-SP1 (SuperFX 2) which had better yields and as such was allowed to use the complete set of pin outs giving it access to the full 21Mhz rather than 10.5Mhz and twice the ROM size from 8Mbit to 16Mbit (something which Yoshi's Island used well for animations and content). So how can the same 4-core @~1.5HGz ARM CPU and Mali GPU cope with this extra horsepower? quite easily as these are simply another CPU that Nintendo just so happen to have all the relevant documents and instructions sets, timings etc for. Therefore the SoC can quite easily be throttled back to emulate all these commands that would have been split off over multiple chips and IRQ's within the single environment. Most of these comprise of another CPU, to the point which the largely used SA1 chip was just that. An improved processor that was from the same family as the Ricoh CPU in the SNES itself. Boosted with faster clocks and some extra modes via its DMA channels which helped improve many aspects of the games that used it, such as more scaling effects or faster animations. The SuperFX chips also created other issues such as them hogging the ROM bus when they operated, which meant the console CPU sat idle, the FX2 offered up extra benefits such as being able to draw into the Sprite tile format in addition to the background tilemap format that the FX1 chip could only use. The horsepower in the new SMINI is ample and perfectly suited for the largely CPU driven environment it is cloning. Some of this is used for the boost up to 720p via it's HDMI output and the single CRT post processing filter applied to the image along with a choice of borders around the 4:3 display or Pixel Perfect options you can display the image within.
This extra option may be an odd one to some, but the process allows each title to match the pixels from the original 256x224 art (256x288 in Europe but these tended to be black borders for us to rub more salt in the ~16% slower frame-rates) into a collection of Horizontal and Vertical pixels that remove any upscale artifacts and blending present in the other 2 options. Although this slightly squishes the image on the screen it does help sharpen those pixels on these modern fixed resolution displays over the required sizes that CRT could adapt to without any upscale required. Although the CRT filter does add in some faux scan-lines to the image it also softens it with a linear blur that mimics the standard TV style CRT prevalent at the time, but far from the best. It is a shame that the option is not here to have another set or mix up pixel perfect with the CRT filter. The sharper one we saw in Sonic Mania was very good and would look equally brilliant here but alas what we have is welcome if not as good as it could have been.
The feel of a 90's console
This family reunion nearly 30 years after it launched is packed in a nostalgic box that mimics the launch console from the 90’s right down to the photo and collection of titles included all it requires is a mullet or maybe curtains and it would be the real deal. The plastic casting is a carbon copy of the PAL and Japanese machine casing, right down to the eject, reset and power button (only 2 out of the 3 work mind). Connections at the rear show the first differences, a powered slot that requires a separate plug or other USB supplied power source to get the thing turned on via the supplied cable and then the proprietary Nintendo AV connection is replaced with a uniformed HDMI to output the native 720P image of the machine that all games are upscalled too, from the largely 256x224 resolution of the SNES catalogue.
The front hides the pop out connections for the 2 supplied and equally perfect matching controllers that are, for all intents, identical to the originals aside this connector and the shorter leads, around 2/3rds the length on the new machine. Being such a tiny unit with all games pre-loaded this can be simply hooked up to your TV or capture device of choice in seconds and then you are ready for a trip down memory lane. It is well made but aside the outer case mold this is identical in all other aspects as last year’s NES mini, you are paying for the new games and where you place the need for them or another retro machine within your collection. I am sure it will be open soon to allow it to play other titles and even NES games as well, although they have a machine for that, it is called the NES mini.
Once into the main screen it is a suitable bordered and themed Super Famicom display, all the games can be easily picked from and not all things are left in the past. Not only can games be saved mid progress on the machine so you can resume when needed without the need for single sitting completions that was common then. But you can also rewind large chunks of the game in real-time, just to help out on those tougher moments. I am sure Ghouls & Ghosts will max this feature out in no time. These boosts along with the extra visual features are a welcome addition to the device and offer something new over the base machine and allow a more modern style of game play that accompanies the pristine shine the digital out delivers.
The boy got game!
So what about those games that are included in the pack then. StarFox and its long since MIA sequel along with Yoshi’s Island are the stress tests of how good the emulator is, right now we have many ways to play these games on a variety of devices, including the original machine using an Everdrive or SD2SNES if you want the widest catalogue going. But even the mighty SD2SNES cannot emulate all the extra chips that shipped over the consoles life. Using an FPGA within the cart allows microcode to be altered to mimic the functions and timings more importantly of the target hardware, but this is largely achieved via reverse engineering. The NERD team have no such limitation and have full access to all the required info making this much easier (although not simple) to mimic the host hardware required across all the variety in this pack like a digital chameleon. The results are excellent, comparing the StarFox title between original and new we see a 100% accurate reflection, movement and frame-rates you would not know you are playing this all under a Linux based emulator with no Mario Chip in sight. The code would also limit the frame rate to it's maximum, (a theoretical 20fps) but even the same bandwidth limits and overall throughput have been factored into the experience to keep everything authentic. An option to Virtually overclock the machine would have been nice but this is Nintendo and was never going to be on the cards, maybe for a later mod perhaps. This does little to diminish what is a superb experience more so for those that have not played the machine in a while.
Another boost to us Europeans here is all games are based on the NTSC (National Television Standards Committee) originals so 60Hz rather than the PAL (Phase alternating Line) standard 50Hz is the order of the day, we are talking fields per second here not frames. This even gives StarFox a boost to performance that us Europeans were accustomed to, as does the mighty sequel. This has been a long time coming and I am enjoying my play through of this title from beginning to end, I never completed the released ROM's and I am happy that I can experience a brand new SNES title after all these years. It feels better/different to the first and it is clear they really tried to expand the mold of that, with walker sections, random encounters and a futile tone with bigger bosses. It maxed out the improved FX chip and although Dylan Cuthbert created a parallel engine by splitting work off into separate ROM and RAM parts which allowed the GSU-2 to render its workload and the main CPU could still process functions in conjunction. This reduced the refresh cycles on the V-blank by 1 which offered up a new 30Hz ceiling over the first games 20, but we still see rates and times way below that threshold often enough to hamper the control and this was true even then, when slowdown was a common thing, specifically for this very console. It looks more extravagant than the first but performs close enough to confirm the double performance was used to increase the content rather than the frame-rate. A welcome title in the pack and one that I am sure has done the job of drawing many to part ways with the £65 or $80/E it costs, a "Stellar" entry.
Other titles are as equally matched with Super Ghouls & Ghosts being a personal favourite, I always love really tough titles that take skill and effort and this delivered, it still looks, sounds and plays excellent and can suck hours of your time as it balances that one more go factor. Contra 3 is another fan favorite and although I really enjoy it and the dual play action it I am not as enamored with it here over other titles that could have taken its place, I would have preferred a Turrican game or some Super Star Wars action ,although these have not aged as well.
The wealth of Mario games is obvious but misses out on the chance to offer a wider selection, the SNES was known for its huge RPG titles which did not require a beefy CPU and fast animations. Boosted with the depth of colour the console had they played into the machines strengths and we get some of the best of them here, Earthbound is a popular one, just not in Europe, as unless you imported (just like Mario RPG) not Secret of Mana was which released here) they were never released here, Secret of Mana was though alongside the almighty Final Fantasy III, which plays and sounds as excellent as ever, the custom created tunes and character pieces are a joy to listen to on the emulated box.
Streetfighter 2 is a given, but this is not the best version, even on this machine which is a shame as is some of the other titles, the Japanese release has the best Streetfighter version. I would have loved to see Axelay make the cut as that was not only a simply incredible shooter on the machine that defied expectations of what it could do, but is a superb shooter overall. Super R-type could have been another one, but maybe these are more euro inspired titles and as such the list is largely taken from the North American target audience. A decent beat-em-up would not have gone a miss either, dropping Super Punchout for say Final Fight or Turtles in time is another shocking omission in my book. But I could go on about the games that I wish had make the cut and ones that should have stayed in retro obscurity. I would also like to know what games you would have liked to have seen or if you are happy with the list, maybe I can cover some of them in future Retro Episodes.
It is again a simple Raspberry PI 2 powered device, but that missed the point of the machine, this is a trip down memory lane and the looks, sounds, feel of the controller are as much a part of that as the games themselves. A return to a time when many of us were at school, and I do miss the infectious and funny times they were. Advertising for example has never been anywhere near as good, dramatic and at times shocking as the 90's but I enjoyed every second of it. A low asking price for pixel and pitch perfect ports of 21 titles (almost), 1 of which you can only get officially here is a bargain, even more so when you look at the second hand prices of some of the games in that list. It offers up a simple way to dive into classic 16-bit action without the need for a SCART lead or connection. For the full experience on real-hardware then grabbing a second hand machine and a SD2SNES or Everdrive from Retro Towers would be an equally, if not more so, worthy investment. Offering up over 95% of the entire catalogue with no need to swap carts, hunt for them in the box and blow away the dust completed by the fact this is all being run on real hardware with no emulators in sight. The fact Nintendo have stated they will supply more to the market is a good thing, but the chances of getting one for Xmas or the holiday season are low at this point. So if this has sparked your nostalgic bone, then check out Retro Towers and your local Bay to see what a full Super Nintendo suite could cost as an early present to yourself or significant other.
Pride of place
I will leave my new SNES mini in-place for the foreseeable future and enjoy some replays at leisure of the best titles in the pack. Nintendo have the largest heritage in video games of all the active hardware platforms, after single handedly saving its life & more-so turning it into a multi-million-dollar business, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. The arguments and playground battles the 2 16-bit titans created are a thing of legend that created the whole "Platform wars" that still endure today. The red plumber and blue hedgehog became the figures heads for this war that I covered in a previous retro article.
The price of nostalgia
These little time boxes offer a cheap way to re-live some of those past glory’s and can you really put a price on that? If so, I am almost certain it would be higher than the cost of the machine itself.
I will see you all next year when we repeat this analysis with the N64 mini and can start another argument over just what games have been robbed from that list.