Phoenix is a Field Programmable Gate Array-based clone of the 1982 ColecoVision videogame console, featuring old-school input ports for compatibility with authentic Coleco controllers, and HDMI-output for modern HDTV sets. It promises to be 100% compatible with the entire ColecoVision library, including newer homebrew games that have been released in recent years — even those that depend on the Super Game Module expansion by OpCode Games. The Phoenix will have the SGM circuitry built in to its FPGA. The console will have a cartridge slot for plugging real ColecoVision games into, as well as a SD card slot for loading ROMs. Curiously, it will also have input ports for SNES/SFC controller, and for PS/2 keyboards.
This is an exciting development for ColecoVision fans. The system is very similar in concept to the AVS, a FPGA-based NES clone that RetroUSB released in 2016, and the Super Nt, FPGA-based SNES clone by Analogue.
The announced price point is expected to be “around $200”, so right in the same ballpark as these upgraded clone systems. As an owner of the Super Nt and AVS, I’m very happy with both systems, and so am very excited about this news.
The ColecoVision is underappreciated in the history of videogames, as it came out just before the Crash of ’83, and was knocked out of the market after only a few short years by the NES, but Coleco still has a following even today. The system had a solid library of games which featured better graphics and sound than the Atari 2600, its main competitor, and Mattel’s Intellivision, its closest technical rival. The games were not quite as sophisticated as the action/adventure style of games that the NES introduced, but there are many standout ports of classic early 80’s arcade titles for the system — including Donkey Kong, Zaxxon, BurgerTime, Gorf, Frenzy, Pepper II, and others.
I pre-ordered my AVS about a half hour after hearing its announcement, about after carefully reading the details and specs. While waiting on my pre-order to be shipped, I saw many skeptics on RetroUSB’s facebook page, complaining about this or that, mainly the price, or questioning the need of yet another console that plays NES games.
Many people think it’s best to play on original Nintendo hardware, on an old NTSC CRT TV, and have taken to repairing and modding their consoles for improved reliability and improved video, split-mono sound, etc. and a cottage industry has grown up around supporting these enthusiasts in keeping their original hardware running.
Still others think that having access to the entire NES catalog for free via emulation and ripped ROMs is the way to go, and that emulation is good enough that there’s no reason to spend money on games anymore.
To be fair, there have been a lot of other products over the years that have over-promised and under-delivered: Messiah’s Generation NEX, the various Retron consoles, etc. It’s fair for the market to be leery of yet another console promising the moon.
I’m not here to tell anyone how to play, or why they have to buy something new. People can make up their own minds. But I will explain why I was excited to buy an AVS, and share my experiences with it.
The most important feature that the AVS delivers, is HDMI without upscale lag. I have played my NES and Generation NEX on a HDTV, and it’s just not good. I only kindof understand why, and it’s complicated to explain, having to do with the differences between CRT and LCD screen technology, differences between the old NTSC standard and modern HDTV standards, and the fact that the NES doesn’t output a true NTSC 480i signal. This leads to visible artifacts as well as processing lag when an HDTV attempts to handle the raw signal coming through an NES.
Rather than try to explain it all, the TL;DR version is that I wanted a simple way too play NES games on a modern TV without having to educate myself to the point where I could be a video engineer.
Now that the AVS is here, it seems that they really have delivered a high-quality modernized NES that gives gamers everything they would want in a tricked-out NES: HDMI output; built-in 4-score; no problems with the 10NES lockout chip or worn out ZIF socket; and a 100% hardware, no-emulation implementation to provide full and faithful compatibility with the entire NES and Famicom libraries (with the exception of light gun games, where the compatibility is due to the TV display technology, not the console). If you happen to have a CRT HDTV that can handle 720p, however, you may be in luck (I have not tested this).
The top competition to the AVS currently are the Retron 5 by Hyperkin (not recommended, so no link), the HiDef-NES mod from Game-Tech.us, and Nintendo’s upcoming NES Classic. I covered these in a previous article, but to briefly recap:
The NES Classic held no interest for me at all since it does not support playing my vast, existing collection of cartridges, but it may be of interest to more casual gamers who never had (or no longer have) the original games, and want to relive 30 of the most popular NES titles, with the addition of save states. It is official Nintendo hardware, and is the cheapest option at $60.
The Retron 5 does HD output, but has some significant limitations, being an emulator-based solution it cannot properly handle some games, and has some ethical issues with stolen software and comes with a really, really bad controller, but on the other hand it can emulate multiple consoles. Currently it is no cheaper than the AVS, and given the choice I’d overwhelmingly prefer perfect accuracy in playing my NES library to imperfect support of multiple consoles and unethical abuse of software license.
The HiDef-NES mod requires you supply your own NES console, or else buy a pre-assembled one from Game-Tech if one is available for $500. On the other hand, it’s a true-hardware solution and does 1080p while the AVS does 720p, and the firmware on the mod gives you some great options including color palette choices. I’m planning on getting my top-loader modded soon, because I’m a geek like that. Also, Game-Tech have a great YouTube channel and do fantastic work repairing and modding old consoles, and deserve support.
Analogue NT is another modern, upgraded, high end system, and they are rebuilt from original NES components, but very expensive and not currently in production. Analogue are taking pre-orders for a new NT Mini system, at $449. Original NT’s are available on eBay for hundreds of dollars more.
Normally, I’m leery about buying new electronics products, until I’ve heard whether they’re good or not, and to wait for 1.0 bugs to be patched.
However, with the AVS I pre-ordered as soon as I found out about it. I didn’t want to take the chance that the initial product run would sell out. I have ordered other products from RetroUSB in the past: controller adapters, mainly, and knowing the quality of these products made the decision easier.
I first heard about the AVS in early August, so my wait time was only a month. Compared with many other product pre-orders (mostly crowd funded) this was a reasonable wait. RetroUSB promised delivery by mid-September, and importantly they successfully delivered right on time.
Way to go, RetroUSB! This, and their years of presence in the retro game market, inspires a lot of confidence.
Out of the Box
The AVS comes with the AVS console, power adapter, USB cable, and HDMI cable, and owner’s manual.
Audio: 48kHz HDMI output with expansion audio from carts
Display: Variable pixel scaling including integer options(1:1, 4:3, 5:3) with optional variable darkness scanlines
Carts: Front loading NES, top loading Famicom
Ports: Built in NES Four Score Pro, Famicom Expansion Port
Ports: HDMI Type A for video and audio, USB Mini B for power and data
Cheats: 5 cheat code slots with built in code database supporting Game Genie, Pro Action Replay, Pro Action Rocky, and raw formats
Online: NA Scoreboard online score system through USB
Updates: Upgrade FPGA configuration and menu system through USB
The AVS didn’t come with a controller, and before you start complaining — it doesn’t need to. If you don’t have your original NES controllers handy, they’re easy to find and cheap.
Mine arrived on 9/16/16, right on time for the mid-September shipping date promised by RetroUSB.
I didn’t crack the case for a look inside, so this is just a review of the construction of the system from an external perspective. The outer shell feels like it’s constructed from good plastic, not cheap flimsy junk plastic. The Power and Reset buttons look and feel just like real buttons from a toaster NES. The colors of the plastic are accurate to the original toaster NES. The cartridge slots grip games snugly, the controller ports plug in firmly. Everything looks and feels well made.
One thing I noticed, the AVS that I received does not have any UPC symbol or SKU number printed on the box, and the AVS itself does not have a serial number. Based on this, it appears that RetroUSB intend to be the sole distributor and seller of the system. This may be a necessity due to the power that Nintendo still has with retailers, or it may simply be that RetroUSB want to maximize profits and eliminate middleman markup.
The AVS comes with a USB cable and power plug adapter to allow you to plug it into the wall, but if your TV happens to have a USB slot on it, you can use that to power the console.
The USB port is also used for data transfer. Firmware updates are applied over USB with a PC as the host for delivering the update. I haven’t had to do a firmware update yet, but it’s nice that the device has this capability. As of this writing, the current firmware version is 1.10.
You can also use a PC with RetroUSB’s software to copy saved high scores off of the AVS, and upload them to Nintendo Age (and perhaps other participating websites).
Finally, the AVS has a Famicom expansion port on the back, meaning that you should be able to plug in Famicom devices that use this port. I don’t own any, and so am unable to test this out, but it’s very cool to have this option, and I may end up picking up some Famicom accessories in the future now that I have an easy way to play with them.
When you power up the AVS, you don’t see the game right away, but the AVS menu, which shows all the options: Start Cart, Scoreboard, Video Options, Controller Settings, and Game Genie Codes.
Start Cart will play the game currently loaded in the cartridge slot. The NES cartridge slot is very tight, and it’s difficult to pull the game out, mostly due to there being not much room to grab the cartridge with your fingers. I feel that RetroUSB could have done a little bit better here. My preference would have been for both the Famicom and NES slots to be vertical, like the top-loader NES, and lose the cover door. I suspect that RetroUSB chose to design the cartridge slots this way in order to make it impossible to have both slots loaded at the same time, but whatever the reason, I would have liked for it to be easier to remove NES carts.
Scoreboard allows you to store your high scores, which can be downloaded from the AVS over the USB port using a PC, and upload them to Nintendo Age if you want to see how your scores compare with the rest of the world. I have yet to try this, as most games that I play on the NES don’t even have a score, but it’s an intriguing feature.
The video and control options provide you with various adjustments to fine tune how your games look, and how the controllers work. The options are all fairly straightforward. You can adjust the height and width of the pixels, draw simulated scan lines for a more classic CRT look, and enable/disable extra sprites, which helps with flickering graphics that are a result of the limitations of the original hardware. The controller menu allows you to set turbo rates for the buttons, and some other miscellaneous settings.
The Game Genie codes are built-in, so you don’t have to enter them manually; just select them from the menu, and play. This is a great timesaving feature, and recordskeeping feature.
Light gun games do not work with HDTVs due to timing issues with LCD and Plasma based HDTV screens. This is not a shortcoming of the AVS. If you want to play light gun games, go with an old NTSC TV and original hardware. It might be that light gun games could work on the AVS if it is connected to a CRT-based HDTV, but CRT HDTVs are rare, haven’t been manufactured in years. If you happen to have access to a CRT HDTV, give it a try. Fortunately there were never that many light gun titles for the NES.
It may well take months or years for me to exhaustively test the AVS with my full library of NES and Famicom games, but so far everything I’ve tried with it plays. I’ve tried both the NES and Famicom slot, and both work with every game I’ve played in it so far, and, not that I claim to have a perfect memory, but I don’t notice any problems. As I continue to play games on it, if I notice anything I’ll come back and update this article.
Accessing the AVS’s configuration menu is only possible before starting a game; you can’t change settings in the middle of play. Interrupting and going back to the menu kills the game session. This is unfortunate, but I suspect that it is a concession to making the FPGA implementation of the NES hardware as accurate as possible, and there wasn’t a way to introduce a pause-exit to AVS config-resume feature without making some concessions. If not, then who knows, there could be hope for delivering this as a feature in a future firmware update.
It’s hard to see this from the photos on the RetroUSB site, but the AVS is shaped like a trapezoid. There’s nothing wrong with this, really, but it was surprising to me. From the camera angles they shot it from for their site, it tricks the eye into thinking that it’s a rectangle.
From this angle, it is less obvious that the AVS is shaped like a trapezoid.
For aesthetic reasons, I’d prefer if it were a rectangle. It would be keeping more in the tradition of the aesthetics of the original NES. But from a functional standpoint, it really doesn’t matter.
The flip-up door cover that covers the cartridge slots is quite large. Compared with the flip-up door on the toaster NES, it’s much longer. This means that there is potential for much more leverage to be exerted against the hinge, which could make this part prone to breaking. When open, inadvertent force applied to the door could cause the hinge to snap off. Although the plastic feels sturdy enough, I will be treating the door with a bit of care.
Despite being awkwardly large, the door still will not close with a famicom game inserted into the cartridge slot. This is simply a matter of poor design. I can’t understand why RetroUSB didn’t take the time to design a console that either had two vertical slots for NES and Famicom games and no door, or a door that would work with a famicom cartridge inserted.
There is no serial number on the console anywhere that I can find. There is what appears to be a model number, but no serial number. This is pretty unusual, as just about every manufactured thing these days does have a serial number. It seems a bit un-professional not to have a serial numbering system. This could make it harder to do repairs and maintenance if RetroUSB goes through hardware revisions.
The RetroUSB AVS is everything I want in a modernized NES setup, without all the DIY complexity. For the cost of all the mod kits, time spent figuring out how to solder everything together and hope it still works, at $185 + shipping, it’s money well spent.
For people complaining that it costs this much, consider that it’s a small production run, not a mass consumer item made by a manufacturing giant. RetroUSB are hobbyists turned pro and are doing a great service to all gamers by helping to keep the NES alive and relevant.