Optimal Hardware:
The NES / Famicom
11 November 2011
Updated 13 November 2011

Welcome to the second entry in this series, where the goal is to recommend the best hardware solutions today to play classic video games. The first big question is compatibility/accuracy. How well does the hardware play games? Next up, video output is very important, considering that cathode ray tube TVs are no longer all the rage. It's also important that hardware is durable and at least reasonably affordable. Let's move along and show you the best options for the NES/Famicom!

#1 Original NES (aka Front-loader, Toaster)

This choice should be rather familiar and comfortable, especially if you grew up in the eighties or early nineties. While there are some issues with the original design of this hardware, I think that calling it "The most challenging video game system ever developed" is a fair assessment when you consider the likes of Battletoads and Contra (without the 30 lives code).

Out of the box (i.e. without any hardware mods) you can't beat the A/V quality of the Toaster. You can support up to composite video (much better than RF), and the audio is at least as good as any other hardware variation. As the hardware that developers first designed games for, it's also is #1 in terms of game accuracy and compatibility. The rectangular controllers can get uncomfortable during long gaming sessions, but they are extremely durable. That this is such a common hardware model also helps keeps prices rather low.

On the other hand, the original NES features some significant shortcomings in design. There are some fundamental design flaws concerning how cartridges are loaded. You may notice that—like with old VCRs—to load a cartridge you push it in and down into the console. As you can imagine, this is not exactly a foolproof mechanism for lining up the contact points of a cartridge with the NES. All of that space between the working mechanics of the NES and the actual games also makes it very easy for dust to build up, which further challenges efforts to line up a quality connection between the cartridge pins and the innards of the console. After hitting the power button, you often end up with a blinking red light, indicating that the game isn't connected properly. So you start all over again, power down, yank out the cartridge, blow air into it for good measure, and give it another try. Though this blowing technique can miraculously fix things, in reality the moisture of your breath improves the conductivity of the cartridge pins—a solid ploy in the short-term—at the expense of further oxidizing them and making them even more problematic in the future.

Why not buy a Famicom instead? After all, the Famicom supports the many Japan-only cartridge releases. (For those not aware, Nintendo practiced region-locking during the 8-bit era, so you could not play U.S., European, or Japanese cartridges on hardware that wasn't designed for their respective regions.) The big problem is that the Famicom only included RF output for video. This may have not been a big deal 10 years ago, but with the advent of HD TVs, it's a huge issue.

You'll also probably find it very annoying that the Famicom featured hard-wired controllers. Sure, there was a handy area built into the side of the Famicom for storing the controllers, but that didn't change the fact that you could travel little further than three feet from the Famicom to actually play games! Even with it's cartridge-loading design flaws, the NES is a better choice than its Japanese counterpart unless you absolutely have to play Famicom cartridges (something that will be addressed with the next console in this list).

#2 Retro Duo

This may invite some controversy. How can a dedicated retro video game site recommend knock-off hardware? Aren't these clones crap in terms of collectability? Doesn't this amount to flipping Nintendo the bird? Well, the main goal is to provide you with the best options to play retro video games. Given how good this Nintendo clone is, one day is may actually become collectible in its own right. In a perfect world, Nintendo would market its own current generation retro NES/SNES combo unit. I'm sure it would be a great product, and I'd happily buy it. Unfortunately, Nintendo is asleep at the wheel, so in the meantime there's no reason to feel guilty about picking up the Retro Duo, especially when you bear in mind that many of Nintendo's patents for the NES expired in 2005, opening the door for competitors to—at least in a fairer fashion—beat them at their own game.

As you can tell from the pictures above, there's a lot to like here—at least aesthetically. Fortunately, the quality here transcends mere looks. Most importantly, the Retro Duo's top-loading design addresses the flaws of the original NES console. Your carts simply make better contact with the hardware and dust cannot as easily become a problem. Moreover, you retain a composite A/V connection. (There's an s-video option as well, but it actually looks worse, because the NES was never originally designed to support such a video feed).

Game compatibility improves as well, since the Retro Duo can naturally support both US and European cartridges—Nintendo's regional lock-out efforts be damned! You can even use Famicom carts with a little extra effort; all you need to do it acquire a 60-pin to 72-pin pass-through converter, a solution that doesn't work with the original front-loading design of the original NES. Only a remarkably small number of games don't work on the Retro Duo. For the most up to date information, check out Wikipedia's Retro Duo entry. Currently there are a grand total of five NES games, 20 SNES titles (most of them only the PAL versions), and three peripherals for the NES that are not compatible. You can even use the Retro Duo with the Super Gameboy. If any doubts remain, then check out these videos where Satoshi Matrix makes a valiant effort to thwart the Retro Duo's impressive compatibility.


Alas, not everything is a panacea with this console. The two biggest drawbacks are that its 8-bit sound is inferior to the original hardware and the SNES controllers don't accurately replicate the feeling of a real NES joypad in your hand. Sound for NES games is recognizable, but it could be much better. To address the audio quality issue, you need to perform a simple mod that only involves a little bit of sodering. Check out this mod guide by SatoshiMatrix to fix the Retro Duo's audio.

The NES joypad issue can also be addressed without too much trouble. Basically, splice the wires from the Retro Duo SNES pad cord into those for an original NES joypad. It's simply a matter of connecting each wire from the Retro Duo cord to those for the NES controller, conveniently explained below:

As you can see, the Retro Duo may not be the perfect solution, but it offers excellent compatability and reliability. The niggling issues that remain can be addressed with some simply mods, so straight-forward that if you've never done a mod before this is a great place to start.

#3 NES-101 (aka Top Loader, Dog Bone)

With the incredible success of the NES, Nintendo was bound to redesign and repackage its 8-bit powerhouse at some point. Conveniently enough, the creation and release of the SNES provided some design cues, and you'll see that the revised NES bears more of a resemblance to it's more powerful successor than to the Toaster that stormed its way into so many peoples homes.

Like the Retro Duo, once again you're looking at a top-loading console. Thankfully, that brings with it the same improved reliability and friendliness to cartridge adapters that allow you to play Famicom games. Shockingly, the Dog Bone also lets you play American and European carts. Nintendo apparently figured that since this hardware revision was released so late in the 8-bit era that there would be few new pirated games, so they didn't bother including the lock-out chip.

Chances are, you can also score some redesigned controllers with your NES-101. The ergonomic improvements are welcome and—let's be honest—they're just so damn cute, bestowing the Dog Bone nickname to this hardware model.

So far everything probably seems too good to be true—better game compatibility, better controllers. You're going to take a big hit on video output for the American and PAL versions of this console, because for some reason, Nintendo decided to scrap composite video output. Not only are you stuck with RF, but the quality of the signal is worse than on the original NES. If you play your 8-bit games on the type of TV for which they were designed (CRTs!), then the Dog Bone is still a great choice. Otherwise, you should stick with the first two recommendations above.

For those who are focused on playing Japanese games and willing to pay the high price (around $120 to $150), it is worth mentioning that the Nintendo AV Famicom (aka HVC-101, which looks nearly identical to the American and PAL Top Loaders) does include composite video output.

Never a Better Time to Play Nintendo

There will never be another market-dominating cultural video game invasion like Nintendo's 8-bit era again. Indeed, it's possible that we will never another console produce a library of such incredibly strong titles. Fortunately, the ability to find great hardware to play classic Nintendo games isn't disappearing any time soon. It's actually getting easier to play NES games, thanks to better clones than ever before, like the Retro Duo, hitting the marketplace. Whether you're rocking your retro games on a modern television or a CRT one, the accessibility of NES hardware is phenomenal. If you have the slightest interest in playing original NES games, there's no excuse, go get one of these consoles!