Jay Little
Paradise Reclaimed: Retro Gaming, FPGAs and the MiSTer

11/16/2019 13:49:28

So in light of the exceptionally serious posts that have graced the front page of this site over the last month I have decided to do something a little different today. Consider this my official attempt to remind you all that I am actually capable of doing something other than bitching about the behavior of corporations and people. The topic of conversation today will be the MiSTer and why I'm absolutely enthralled with it.

So what is the MiSTer? Well sadly the official wiki I just linked to doesn't actually answer that question very well on its front page. This is a device that emulates other devices. So in that basic sense, it doesn't appear very different than something like a Raspberry Pi with RetroPie installed. However it is very different and very notable for a number of reasons.

MiSTer is effectively a collection of non-mass produced add on boards designed to interface with a specific Single Board Computer known as the Terasic DE10-Nano. By a traditional SBC measuring stick it appears to be relatively weak, as it is only equipped with a relatively low speed dual core ARM processor and a gigabyte of RAM. However the real thing that it brings to the table is the FPGA chip it comes with. That chip along with the amazing community around this board form the core of what makes this project so amazing.

So what is an FPGA? Well this this website gives a pretty good answer, so lets start there:

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) are semiconductor devices that are based around a matrix of configurable logic blocks (CLBs) connected via programmable interconnects. FPGAs can be reprogrammed to desired application or functionality requirements after manufacturing.

The basic take away here is that an FPGA chip can be dynamically configured on a hardware level to act as another piece of hardware. In the case of the MiSTer this capability is being used to emulate chips present within retro computers, consoles and arcade machines to great effect. So why should anybody care? What makes this better than a Raspberry Pi when it comes to emulation? Well to be blunt, the MiSTer is using hardware to emulate these retro machines rather than software. This has several advantages and a few disadvantages.

For starters the emulation tends to be of a much higher fidelity on the MiSTer when compared to traditional software based emulators. Not all software based emulators suffer from this, notably emulators like Higan/BSNES that go out of their way to provide stunningly accurate emulation. The problem with those software solutions is that require relatively high powered hardware in order to run them effectively. On the flip side, the MiSTer doesn't require a whole lot of power at all.

Secondly emulating retro hardware via hardware rather than software allows one to reduce the lag present in the typical software based emulation experience. This is something most people don't even notice, because they haven't used the real hardware in so long. I was one of those people. My first time playing a game like Super Mario Brothers on the MiSTer was like a breath of fresh air. I suddenly realized that I hadn't actually lost all of my reflexes for these games over the last 20 years, but instead I've just been getting screwed over by input lag.

Finally the MiSTer hardware offers users the opportunity to decide just how real they want their experience to be. If you want HDMI output, you can have it. If you want analogue output to CRTs, you can have it too. If you prefer the original wired console controllers, you can do it. If instead you prefer a wireless controller, you can have that too (and yeah sadly I'm one of those people, so there will ALWAYs be some level of input lag for me but some is better than more). The reality is that the nature of the project allows you to invest as much money as you'd like to get exactly the kind of experience you desire.

Of course there are downsides. As somebody in the process of building a MiSTer for my living room entertainment center, I will caution you up front: Building a MiSTer is expensive. For starters the basic FPGA SBC board is $130 by itself and you'll probably need to invest in at least an SD Card, some kind of USB hub (so you can actually plug a controller in), a USB controller and a memory expansion just to get started. So in reality the bare minimum entry price is going to be around $200. That's how I started because I was skeptical and that was after spending an entire weekend binging YouTube videos on the topic.

After I received the parts, assembled them and tested a few emulators I was totally sold. I began ordering various add on boards, the largest memory add on possible and have even gone so far as to order a case. The experience of using a MiSTer was simply heads and tails above and beyond any software emulation experience I have ever had. The lag was nearly non-existent, the sound was amazing and the performance was impressive. All said I probably have over $400 invested in this project now and that's just to build a single unit. The harsh reality is that a lot of these add on boards are designed by members of the community and they aren't being mass produced. That means that they are expensive to make and expensive to buy. In addition you can't even order all of these parts in the United States, so I've actually been getting some of them shipped in from the United Kingdom.

As a big believer in doing more with less, FPGA emulation appeals to me because it accomplishes exactly that. The MiSTer isn't sucking down the juice like a high end PC capable of producing remotely similar emulation results would be. In addition, while $400 may seem expensive, it's actually cheap when you consider that companies like Analogue have been releasing FPGA powered clone consoles for years now and just one of those units which is capable of emulating a single console tends to cost at least $200 to $300 dollars.

I won't sit here and tell you FPGA emulation is the future, but it's the easily the most notable advancement I've seen in the retro gaming community since RetroPie first hit and it deserves a serious look from every enthusiast out there. Keep in mind: All of this is only possible because of the dedication and highly skilled members of the MiSTer community. They have spent countless hours of their own time and untold amounts of their own money making all of this a reality and I for one could not be more grateful.

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