My son gets in from school not long after three, the bloody part-timer. Just the other day he came crashing through the front door to find me playing The Witcher 3's new expansion, Hearts of Stone. One of the characters spluttered out a "fuck". Yeah, probably time to turn this adults-only entertainment off. Instead, something from the past – or, rather, the present, but with its design entirely based around software that first came out three decades ago.
A beautiful package arrived at VICE earlier this week, all the way from Seattle, Washington. Opening it was like Christmas, when you know what it is that you're getting but to see it, to feel it, to power it up and gawp at it as if it's some entirely alien technology that the Earth should be down on its knees in envy of: something else entirely. And I've got to be careful what I write here because this isn't paid-for advertorial, but on the other hand: fuck me, the Analogue Nt is a gorgeous machine.
It's a single, solid chunk of aluminium with insides that replicate the original technology of the Nintendo Entertainment System, down to using the CPU of the time, the Ricoh 20A3. With the relevant adapter installed it outputs in HD so crisp that Mario's never looked squarer, not even on the side of a lunchbox. That's 1080p Super Mario Bros. 3, people; look excited. You slip a cartridge into its slot (it has two – one for NES carts, one for Japanese Famicom games) and it grips it just tightly enough to feel secure without the need to really yank it out again. It's compatible with all the old hardware, and in the bottom of the box are two NES pads, ready to get sweaty. I could geek out over this something chronic. For the sake of this piece's word count, I won't.
Besides, VICE already wrote about the Nt over here, where we also spoke to Analogue Interactive founder Chris Taber (actually a SEGA kid in his youth). Why do this, at all? The answer's simple: "I wanted to fully explore this piece of video game history, with no compromises." Job done.
As it's really easy for me to mist up over anything 8bit, given I was there at the time, I figured it'd be better to set the Nt up in VICE's screening room and get a couple of the London office's fresh-faced and ever-so eager interns to experience it. (Them, and a good handful of full-time staffers, drawn like nostalgic moths to a pixelated flame by the familiar bleeps coming through the door.) The NES was as good as obsolete when they were born, the Super Nintendo having taken over and the Nintendo 64 just a few years away. What the hell would these comparative kids make of games so many technological worlds away from today's realistic shooters and immersive simulations?
Joe was born in 1994, the same year that the final officially licensed NES game, Wario's Woods, came out for the console. We asked him to play Mega Man 2 (1988), The Legend of Zelda (1986) and Vice: Project Doom (1991).
Do you play video games much at the moment?
I don't play games so much right now, but I was really into World of Warcraft. Like, I'd say I was borderline addicted.
That's good, that's contemporary. Whereas these games definitely aren't. Had you ever had a go on one of these before?
I've never played a NES game before. I wasn't very good at Mega Man 2. I wasn't getting anywhere at all. There's just four buttons on the pad, and I still couldn't figure out how to use it.
To be fair, the Mega Man games are cruel bastards. Do you feel like you're playing a little history here? Can you see anything you know about today's games in these old NES titles?
Well, The Legend of Zelda has a link (genuinely no pun intended) to World of Warcraft in terms of the movement, the four-way direction keys. And there's the fantasy aspect. But beyond that, maybe not.
So you don't feel that people of your age are about to rush out and buy a NES, if not an Analogue Nt?
I can imagine there being a resurgence of this stuff as a cool, retrophile, sort of hipster movement, but that's it. I imagine a lot of people still walk around with Game Boys. Well, you get those Game Boy iPhone covers. I don't know if that means those people actually know anything about Game Boy games.
You won't be playing any more games from before you were born, then?
Umm, no, sorry.
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Tanwen was born in 1992, the year of the first Super Mario Kart and the debut of popular pink bollock-with-a-gob, Kirby. She knows a bit about Nintendo games. We asked her to play Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988), Double Dragon (1988) and River City Ransom (1989).
So you've already told me you had a Game Boy...
I still have a Game Boy. I really like these older games. I'm not really one for playing newer games, I find them too complicated and quite stressful, but playing these NES games was nice.
Was the simplified button layout a factor?
There's not very much to it – you could mindlessly play these things for ages.
As people did, trust me. Did you have a very instant connection with the games, because of their simplicity?
Yeah, I like how they were stripped down and exclusively about having fun, rather than making you think your way through reams of other stuff.
You played two fighting games just then, but obviously they're entirely unrealistic. Is that more appealing to you than today's photo-real-ish games of blood and gore?
I think so, and I like these kind of retro visuals anyway. I suppose they're sort of in fashion again, right now. I find them quite attractive. But yeah, I think when games are too realistic, they lose some of their appeal, for me. I don't know why you'd want to go and play Grand Theft Auto where it really graphically shows people getting beaten up. That doesn't seem all that much fun to me. Better to bash in oversized heads with cartoon bins (as in River City Ransom).
What was your favourite game, of the three you just played?
The second one, Double Dragon. That was good. Mario wasn't bad, but I'm not that good at it. I couldn't get through the first level.
Is it weird to play games that are from before you were born?
I can vaguely remember games that were sort of similar. We had a Nintendo 64 when I was little. So perhaps these NES games are reconnecting me with my childhood.
What do you think the appeal is of a new system that exclusively plays old, original games? Joe said he thought it was a hipster thing.
It probably is a bit hipster-y, but it's fun so I don't care.
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I sit my son, born in 2011, down in front of Super Mario Bros. 3. He's familiar with Super Mario Maker. Loves it. Spends literally minutes stacking up goombas and then running the powerless-to-stop-him plumber into his immediate death, before his attention switches to Cbeebies or asking for a biscuit. The first of Mario 3's rather less-soft-looking goombas comes stomping towards him. Press A to jump, I tell him. He does. Over and over. The goomba kills him. Second life: a dash this time, and death by piranha plant fireball. And so it goes until the question's asked: "Can we just play Super Mario Maker instead?"
Yes we can, but first, anything to tell me about this old game? You know, when this first came out in Japan, daddy was only eight years old.
"These old games look funny. They're all made out of squares and stuff."
Yes, those are pixels. Look, all of the characters are made out of them, and they are literally that in this instance, tiny squares. Clever, isn't it?
"The music sounds odd, not like proper games."
These are classic melodies, mister. Classic.
"I think that the newer that games are, the easier they get."
Well, there's no denying that.
The Analogue Nt makes NES games look phenomenal. Seriously. Like, gob-open, jaw-on-the-floor, tongue-everywhere remarkable. Its makers' website is here, where you can find loads more information and, if you're feeling loaded to the tune of 500 dollars, you can order one for yourself. Yes, that's a lot of money, but what else are you going to spend it on, food and heat? Once again, this is not advertorial – it's just that the product is really quite something, so forgive the gushing positivity. It's nice to get excited sometimes, isn't it? In the interest of disclosure, it's worth me adding that the games we played were in the same package as the Nt, so mega thanks to Chris and the Analogue Interactive team for this awesome trip down memory lane.
Thanks to our brave interns for giving up some of their lunch breaks.
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