Anyone with a passing interest in old school video games owes Kevin Horton a virtual fist bump. By day Horton, 43, is an engineer at a cryogenics company (he's worked at the same company since high school). But online, he's better known online as Kevtris (in reference to a Tetris clone he developed in the mid-1990s), where he is the brains behind a series of critical technological breakthroughs that allow gamers to play classic video games like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid on modern televisions.
Horton's HiDef NES mod, released in 2014, lets you connect your old Nintendo Entertainment System to your big screen HDTV using HDMI. The Indianapolis resident also designed the internals of the Analogue NT Mini, a recently released (and handsomely designed) console that plays NES cartridges on your TV, from the ground up.
While such efforts may initially seem trivial compared to, say, attempts to keep human rights activists safe online or the continued fight to ensure that the people of Flint, Michigan, have clean water to drink, Horton is in fact part of a new generation of curators who have taken it upon themselves to ensure that these classic works of digital culture continue to be readily available for public consumption, and aren't merely flushed down some memory hole of 1980s nostalgia.
"During my time in the retro gaming community (~10 years), I think that Kevin's work has easily been the most significant and groundbreaking," Christopher Taber, CEO of Analogue, the producers of the Analogue NT Mini, told Motherboard in an email. "Nobody else has invested the time and effort like Kevin has, and to be frank, I don't know of anyone else as talented as he is."
What sets Horton's handiwork apart from the likes of the NES Classic, the Retron 5, or even an Android smartphone loaded up with a bunch of classic games, is that the technology he's developed does not rely on software emulation, which is the traditional method of getting these old games running on modern devices. The software emulation powering those solutions can introduce game-breaking bugs that ruin the playing experience, like dreadfully slow input lag that makes sticking the landing of precisely timed jumps in Super Mario Bros. 3 an impossibility. Such accuracy matters when your goal is to ensure that future generations of gamers can appreciate all of the subtleties that Final Fantasy or Mega Man 2 have to offer.
"Would you rather watch 2001: A Space Odyssey on VHS or Blu-ray," asked Taber, further teasing out the difference between software emulation and Horton's efforts. "Sure, lots of people don't give a shit. Well, we do."
Instead, Horton's efforts are hardware-based: he reverse engineers the target hardware (in the case of the Analogue NT Mini, that's the NES, along with a host of other classic consoles if you flash the device with Horton's semi-official firmware) using methods not dissimilar from the kind depicted in the popular TV show Halt and Catch Fire. The result, programmed onto blank microchips known as Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA), is a level of accuracy that mere software emulation could never achieve.
"The thing about the FPGA is, it replicates the hardware at a very low level," Horton told Motherboard over Skype. "It's not emulating it per se; there's no code running. What it does is, it's like a chip that you can program to turn into another chip, which I program to act exactly like an old Nintendo. It's so close to a real Nintendo console that you can actually run the game right off the real cartridge."
Today, Horton's efforts with the HiDef NES and Analogue NT Mini have catapulted him to something approaching celebrity status in the online retro gaming community, with popular YouTube channels like My Life in Gaming, Game Sack, and GameTechUS regularly heaping praise on his work. These channels' reviews of the Analogue NT Mini in particular noted how big of a debt the modern retro gamer owes Horton.
That Horton ended up becoming such a pioneering force in retro gaming and digital preservation is hardly surprising. Ever since he first looked at a radio at the age of four and wondered how it worked, he's devoted himself to applying his expertise in electronics to his preferred hobby.
"I am working on new stuff," he said, apologizing for not being able to reveal too many details, "and I think people will be happy with it when it finally gets done."