Retro gaming is big business these days, and the king of retro systems is unquestionably the Nintendo Entertainment System. The market is flooded with cheap "Famiclones," usually ARM-based Android systems running software emulators. The Big Red N has even gotten in on the game itself, launching the fantastically-popular NES Classic Edition, which allegedly costs $60 (when there’s one available for purchase, anyhow) and comes with thirty games built in.
Into this booming retro NES market wades RetroUSB with its new console, the AVS. The AVS costs $185 and comes with zero games. On the face of it, this seems like it would be a hard sell as against the NES Classic Edition, and indeed it is; the catch is that RetroUSB is not aiming at the same demographic at all. The AVS is actually quite a different beast from most of the "Famiclones," including Nintendo’s official entry, and, while it’s surely not for everybody, there’s definitely a niche out there the AVS aims to satisfy.
The first thing to discuss about the AVS is simple: what, exactly, is it? Unlike the cheap NES clones, it’s not an ARM or Raspberry Pi system running a software emulator. Unlike the Analogue Nt, however, it’s not a system built out of original NES parts either (it’s also not made of gold and doesn’t cost five thousand dollars, so, hey). What the AVS actually is is a sort of hardware reconstruction of the NES — it uses field programmable gate arrays to simulate the functionality of the original NES 6502, with the goal of working exactly like a real NES. RetroUSB’s claim is that the AVS is perfectly compatible with all official NES games, and (of course) with all NES homebrew published by RetroUSB itself; while I surely haven’t tested every NES game, I have tested several, and I’ve encountered no issues. I’ve heard from other users that some carts (possibly of a certain production vintage) have difficulty making contact with the pins used in the AVS’s cartridge connector; I’ve not experienced this problem myself, but RetroUSB has acknowledged it, and allegedly new AVSes ship with a redesigned connector that avoids this problem.
The physical build of the unit is exactly what I’d want. The plastic looks and feels like the original NES, though it is (of course) missing the "Nintendo" logo. The shape is a bit unusual; it’s hard to tell in the official images since they’re all taken at bizarre angles, but the system is trapezoidal. This makes it a curious thing to fit next to other systems on shelves, as it actually takes up more space than it seems like it should. The door covering the cartridge slot is quite a bit longer than on the NES, but there’s a reason for that: underneath the slot itself is a second connector to accommodate Famicom cartridges. The system will play both types of carts, and is also compatible with the Famicom Disk System (though you’ll need to supply your own; it has no built-in hardware for playing FDS disks). The back panel connectors are quite limited: Famicom expansion, HDMI, and USB, the latter for power, and also for data (used for upgrading firmware and uploading scores to the RetroUSB’s online leaderboards). On the front of the console are four standard NES controller ports, meaning that the player doesn’t need a Four Score to play games with four players.
The player does, however, need to provide nearly everything else. The AVS comes with a USB cable (and power adapter), an HDMI cable, and a manual. No games and no controllers are included, meaning that players who don’t already have their own are looking at substantially more than a $185 investment to get a complete system. RetroUSB also does not currently have an AVS controller, though I’m told one is in production; it’s not expected to make it to market until spring, though, so for now, those players without their own NES controllers will have to try their luck with the various Famiclone controllers. Important to note is that the AVS does not support USB controllers; the system’s one and only USB port is for power and data.
For a player with games and controllers, however, the AVS works like a dream. Turn the system on and it loads straightaway, with no boot time and, of course, no 10NES lockout chip resetting the system and giving you the dreaded blinking light of doom. By default, the console loads a system menu from which the player can set video options — like most modern NES-alikes, the AVS allows for changing the shape of the pixels, and also supports emulated scanlines for those who, for whatever reason, want their games to look like they’re printed on graph paper. There are also options to support extra sprites per scanline, which will reduce the famous NES flicker, and to enable turbo A and B on controllers without turbo buttons; useful for buying potions in Final Fantasy, for sure! Perhaps most interestingly, the AVS has built-in support for Game Genie and Pro Action Replay codes, so cheating at and/or breaking your favorite games is easier than ever!
Once in-game, everything’s exactly as you’d expect; the system is not running a software emulator, so there’s no overlay piled atop the regular game. The result is an experience that’s exactly like playing on a regular NES, except much brighter, crisper, and more vibrant. The overall impression is that this is what the NES was meant to look like. The sound is also spot-on; software emulation is notoriously bad at handling NES sound, but the AVS gets it just right. Obviously, it’s not adding anything that wasn’t in the games in the first place — these are still the same old 8-bit games of yore, with the same basic graphics and sound, but with sharp, accurate digital output. The games play just like you’d expect, with no stuttering or lag that wasn’t in the game to begin with. I’ve experienced no artifacting or glitches (again, other than the ones that were always there).
On the down side, since this is not a software emulator, there are several emulator features that players often expect in retro gaming that are not available; the AVS cannot make save states, for example, and cannot play bare ROMs (though it is compatible with both the Everdrive and RetroUSB’s own Power Pak if you wish). There’s no ability to take screenshots or record videos, or to fast-forward or rewind gameplay. Other than the internal cheat device support, the AVS leaves you with the games exactly as they were originally.
So is the AVS worth your money? It depends. If you’re just feeling a bout of nostalgia for your childhood and want to take a quick glance at some of the games you remember, then probably not. The NES Classic Edition is what you’d be looking for; it’s cheaper and simpler, and it comes with everything you need for your nostalgia fix right in the box. If you’re a more serious NES enthusiast, however (and especially if you still have a stock of NES controllers and games), the AVS is going to be right up your alley; it plays all your games just the way you remember them, but prettier, and it plays nice with your newfangled HDTV. If you’re in that camp, I can wholeheartedly recommend the AVS to you; it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than even the Analogue Nt Mini, and it nails the look and feel of the original.
The AVS is available for $185 from RetroUSB.