Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition became 2016’s hottest Christmas item in large part because of its simplicity. The tiny plug-and-play box is arguably the easiest way to play NES games on a modern television, doing so with minimal fuss. The hardware only plays 30 preinstalled games, and has no optional upgrades or system updates. It is as simple as it is limited. The Analogue Nt mini is a different kind of retro gaming device. Like the NES Classic, it’s a machine designed to play original NES games on a modern television. But whereas Nintendo’s miniature console is akin to a toy — with a small plastic shell and equally diminutive $60 price tag — the Nt mini is the opposite.
It’s a device made for those who have — or want — a huge collection of classic game cartridges. It’s for those who want to control how those games look and sound, tweaking everything from the depth of the scanlines to the vibrancy of the color palette. And it’s for those who don’t mind spending $450 for a sleek aluminum box that plays 30-year-old games.
The Nt mini is essentially a second-generation device, and the follow-up to Analogue’s original Nt. The mini is an all-around improvement. It’s not only smaller and $50 cheaper, but has a more robust feature set and offers HDMI compatibility built right in (the original Nt required a $79 accessory for HDMI output).
Like the original, the Nt mini is a gorgeous machine. Created using a solid block of aluminum, the Nt mini feels luxurious in a way most NES clones don’t. It has substantial weight and a streamlined design that doesn’t look out of place alongside modern machines like the Xbox One or PS4. The front of the Nt mini features four original NES controller ports, and the top-loading console has two cartridge slots: one for NES games, another for Japan-only Famicom cartridges. The device supports more than 2,000 titles, not including homebrew games, and you can increase that number with an add-on that plays games for the Famicom Disk System. In addition to the console itself, the box also includes the excellent Nintendo-like NES30 wireless controller.
Getting the machine up and running, while not as simple as the NES Classic, requires little effort. I tested the Nt mini using the HDMI output, and every game I tried looked crisp and bright — even before I fiddled with the settings. The options are plentiful. There are simple things like adjusting the resolution — you can swap between 480p, 720p, and 1080p — or choosing from a half-dozen different color palettes, which offer various levels of vibrancy and brightness that vary game-by-game.
One option lets you tweak the width and horizontal position of the image, so you can keep the pixels looking tight and crisp, or stretch them to better fill the screen. A good example of the depth of options comes in the form of scanlines, those horizontal stripes common when playing games on old televisions. The Nt mini lets you add a faithful re-creation of the original NES’ scanlines for some retro charm, but you can also multiply the number on screen by anywhere from two to five times. There’s even a slider to adjust the depth of the lines.
The array of options and sliding bars borders on overkill. I have no reason to turn on PAL mode, for instance, and I’m not quite sure why anyone would want to crop the on-screen image unless they’re trying to create a severe multiplayer handicap. If you mess around too much it’s possible to render things unplayable. I can say from experience that Dr. Mario is no fun when it’s in black and white and covered with a ridiculous number of scanlines. Similarly, most of the audio features — like choosing from different expansion audio chips — are completely over my head. But even using just a small percentage of these features is a novel treat, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time mired in the Nt mini’s menu trying to get the best-looking version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles possible.
The customization options also extend beyond the way games look and sound. The Analogue Nt mini lets you add in custom button pairings to perform functions like shutting down the console or opening up the main menu. At any point you can open a menu to type a Game Genie code to alter whatever game you’re playing, earning some extra lives or walk-through walls. You can customize the tiny LED light on the front of the Nt mini. Mine is currently set to slowly cycle through a rainbow of colors.
All of these options, both powerful and frivolous, come at a cost. Compared to the NES Classic, the Nt mini is an incredibly expensive device. Not only does the hardware cost $449 (and $50 extra if you want a slightly sleeker black model) but you have to supply your own games, which increases the price considerably, provided you don’t already have a massive collection.
But despite ostensibly performing the same job — playing old games on new TVs — these two mini consoles are aimed at opposite ends of the classic gaming spectrum. If you just want a quick and cheap way to play Zelda and Mario on a new TV, the NES Classic does exactly that (provided you can find one in stock, of course). But if you’re the kind of person with a huge stack of imported Famicom games, someone who relaxes by listening to the Castlevania II soundtrack and who doesn't need to look up acronyms like RGB, EDID, or DVI, the Nt mini is quite possibly the ideal way to play NES games. You just have to be willing to pay for it.
The Analogue Nt mini is shipping now.