Upgrading My SNES Cartridge Collection

I finally found the means to actually play all the Super Nintendo games that I have been acquiring over the past few years with the purchase of a Super NT. I love the system. Now that I can actually play these games, I felt like my cartridges needed some sort of upgrade too.

I’m a bit of a completionist when it comes to collecting and displaying my game collection. I love showing off the boxes and I have an immense attachment to the little paper booklets games used to come with called instruction manuals. When it is a game or series I care for, I try to own a complete copy of that game. I did it with all the GameCube Zelda games about a year ago. I feel satisfied when a set is complete.

For my SNES games, they are all loose carts. Most of the games I own for the SNES come in around $100+ for a complete-in-box set. Buying the box, manual, and game separate can sometimes be cheaper, but still is costly.

Outside of the price, these boxes are 30-year-old cardboard boxes that vary in condition. These are inherently more applicable to showcasing than storing cartridges these days. A personal example of this is my N64 copy of Ocarina of Time: The box still has the original shrink wrap around all sides except the opening flap. I’ve removed the game and sealed that box right back up in its protective plastic casing. Looks real nice on a shelf (or stored in a cabinet in my case), but still leaves the game loose.

Some of my SNES games came with tiny plastic dust covers that slide over the bottom of the cartridge. I have three of them, so I chose the three games I wanted to protect the most. Not a fair shake to the other gems I do happen to own.

All of this to say, I found a solution that meets my needs quite nicely. I happened across these SNES game cases dubbed BitBoxes from Stone Age Gamer. They offer these sturdy looking boxes in bundles and provide art that you may either print yourself or have their printer create and cut for a fee. They were exactly what I was looking for. Great looking boxes with even nicer art to protect my carts and show them off at the same time. I ordered 10 of them without the document straps and printed the art myself.

The art selection is real expansive. For most games I looked at, there was an option for a horizontal layout that matches the original boxes and a vertical option that takes the art of the original boxes and unifies the design. A good example is Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. The vertical art captures the spirit of the original box. The back text and images are identical; even the barcodes match! If you can’t already tell, I opted for the vertical design. They all came out of my printer looking sharp and clean.

When the boxes arrived, I was surprised at how thick and sturdy the plastic was. The whole box’s thickness reminds me of a VHS tape box. The inside has a cross cutout in the middle. US SNES game cartridges go vertically, while Japanese and PAL game cartridges go horizontally. The sleeve the art goes into has only one way in with the bottom being sealed off, kind of like a protective sleeve for a playing card. These are high quality boxes.

I do wish I had gotten the document straps though. They are just little plastic straps the cross the left side of the box interior for holding the instruction manuals. I only have one SNES manual (Super Metroid and it is missing the cover). It fits perfectly in the prepared area, but it doesn’t stay put when opening the box, since there is no strap. Certainly something to keep in mind if you have or plan on buying instruction manuals for any games.

Top to bottom, I am throughly impressed. Stone Age Gamer sells boxes for NES, SNES, N64, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Master System, Genesis, 32X, and Game Gear. I am already tallying up what it will cost me some day to buy boxes for my N64 and Game Boy collections.

My Journey to Playing with Super Power – Thoughts on the Super NT

Back in December 2012, a friend gave me a Super Nintendo they had lying around. They knew I played games and thought I’d appreciate it. I had no games though and wouldn’t get my first one until October 2013, but I wouldn’t really try to play it until I found the power cable and bought Super Metroid in September 2014.

When I popped my newly acquired Metroid cart, I was met with a bright orange and red screen. My SNES was dead. Probably had been the entire time, but I never gave it a shot until I bought a game that I really wanted to try out. I’d get it fixed in 2015 for $45 from a local game store. It worked for the time being, but more video output issues would present themselves when I bought Donkey Kong County in August 2018. I would confirm my SNES’ death when my wife let me bring my CRT into our apartment in January 2019.

I tell you all this for two reasons: 

  1. I love telling back story and providing context.
  2. To clue you in on my frustrating history with my SNES

Specifically (and obviously), the issue has been the SNES’ visual output. For the past six years I have tried on and off to find the best solution for actually playing the SNES games I have bought. I was not keen on paying to get my console fixed again. That seemed like a short term solution, especially since I never stored the SNES in rough conditions after the first repair.

I fell down the RGB rabbit hole back in 2014 (awfully convenient timing after buying Super Metroid). A Kotaku article by Chris Person introduced me to the YouTube channel My Life In Gaming. Coury Carlson and Marc “Try” Duddleson run the channel with the primary goal of teaching people how to get the best picture quality and gameplay out of their game consoles, from retro consoles to the current generations. Their video on the SNES taught me all about 1-CHIP models and mods. The average going price for a SNES in my local game store scene always seemed to be between $80 to $100, with no real guarantee of a 1-CHIP model, which my quality-oriented brain would prefer to have.

Outside of the cost to replace the SNES, there was the question of how to play the darn thing on modern displays. That’s a whole tangent for another time, but the gist is that going the route of a Framemeister would shoot me north of $300, while an Open Source Scan Converter (OSSC) is around $200. Let’s round it out and just say the replacement process would have cost between $300 and $400. That’s a hefty price, even though an external scaler is useable with multiple platforms.

In October 2017, Analogue announced the Super NT and opened pre-orders. The Super NT would be released four months later in February 2018, which is when I would become aware of both the system and the company, thanks to none-other-than My Life In Gaming. Through the power of a Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA), the Super NT mimics the hardware of the SNES, instead of emulating the games.

I loved the Super NT the moment I laid eyes on it. Analogue gives off a bold, matter-of-fact vibe with clear results of hard work and slick design. Frankly, they remind me of Apple in a lot of ways. 

It also helped that the Super NT sells for $189.99, plus roughly $20 in shipping. Wireless controllers are sold separately by 8BitDo for $40, but the Super NT can use original controllers too. What appealed to me the most financially was the system fused a new SNES with a high quality scaler. Combining the hardware in a slick package means a simple set-up with top tier results. 

I hadn’t pulled the trigger still due to cost and trying to responsibly manage the budget. I kept my eye on it closely after starting my new job in 2019, hoping I could make it happen. Back in April 2019, three of the four color variants were still available on Analogue’s site:

Sometime in the summer I noticed that the Black variant became sold out alongside the transparent edition. Then this past Winter, I noticed that the SF variant also entered the club of sold out. I have to admit that a twinge worry filled me that the whole Super NT line would ride off into the sunset; Analogue doesn’t seem to have a track record of reproducing consoles. For a Christmas gift, my parents graciously contributed a chunk of cash and my wife agreed to let me pull the trigger on my own Super NT. 

So that’s the long story of how I ended up with a Super NT, but what do I think of the thing?

Thoughts on the Super NT

The Super NT provided a complete 180. I went from a twice broken SNES to a stellar 1080p60: From from this to this.

The system is capable of outputting 1080p 60fps and is set to that resolution by default. You can scale it down to 720p or 480p, if you are looking for a specific resolution for a certain monitor. For the pixel peeping crowd, there is an advanced setting that offers height and width options.

I watched tons of videos before my Super NT arrived. I wanted the perfect settings to make my SNES games shine. I had been deprived any form of video quality for so long that I wanted the very best I could get. I trust My Life In Gaming implicitly. A quick search on YouTube will turn up “Super Nt Settings for the Obsessive Compulsive” by FirebrandX. I’ve seen FirebrandX’s name in online discussions about retro game quality before, so I knew he was a solid resource.

When I hooked up the Super NT, I headed straight for the video settings and copied My Life In Gaming’s option of 1365 x 1149, which was modeled after one of Try’s PVMs. Booting up Super Metroid for the first time was, if you’ll allow me to be dramatic, stunning. The pixels were razor sharp. The colors popped. The top edge of the screen was cut off.

This is not My Life In Gaming’s fault. My TV crops on all edges of the screen. I can’t resize the image at all on my TV, so this cropping should not have surprised me.

This did help dawn on me that my current set up, which is just casual living room play; not high-quality capture/streaming. So I ended up with these settings that perfectly fit my set up:

  • 1080p 60fps
  • 4.5x scaling at 1234 x 1080 or 8:7
  • Interpolation on for both axis

These specs are not compliant with FirebrandX or square pixel purists, but I realized with the Super NT in my living room, I don’t need to be a pixel purist. It goes above and beyond the needs of my current set up with head room for any future needs. It is truly satisfying to have options for the first time in six years.

Besides a gamut of video settings, you can tweak a few settings of the system itself. The UI font and colors can be changed, even the power LED has a few options. The system is rather focused in its options, giving just what the device needs to play games accurately and in high graphical quality. There is no bloat here.

There is a method for updating the software Super NT owners. All Super NT systems come with a standard size SD card slot on the right-hand side for the use of updating the firmware from Analogue’s site. Users can also choose to install the “jailbreak” firmware. While jailbreak in regards to software usually means unofficial support, the Super NT’s jailbreak firmware has the support/blessing from Analogue engineer Kevin Horton, from what I can find out. This gave me confidence to go ahead and install the latest version.

I specifically wanted the jailbreak firmware not for playing ROMs, but for the cartridge copying feature. With the CopySNES option, the Super NT will dump the inserted cartridge and its save data. I wanted the ability to back up my save data for my SNES games to help preserve that data against the inevitable death of the cartridge batteries.

I’m not one for primarily playing ROMs. I try to own the games I play, but I do understand the need for ROM preservation and giving players access to games they could never play otherwise. In that vein, I did load up a fan-translated ROM of BS Zelda Satellaview game from 1995. Not only did the ROM play flawlessly and look great, but I got a taste of a game that could not be played by traditional means.

The pixels are not the only element that looks slick. The Super NT’s physical design is a plastic shell, but I have high doubts that it’ll yellow like my original SNES. It has clean, rounded edges with the bold purple power and reset buttons. If you managed to buy one before the other color variants were sold out or you buy one second-hand will have the same form factor, but with the chosen color scheme. On the bottom is a large square rubber foot. I like this base much more than four small feet in each corner. The power supply is a micro-USB cable. I do wish it was USB-C, but I am glad that the upcoming Analogue Pocket does use USB-C. Beside the USB cable and its power brick, the included HDMI cable feature the Analogue logo. It’s a small touch that strikes me as Apple-eque. I like it. I’m surprised an Analogue sticker was not included.

The cartridge port opens smooth and cartridges fit in snuggly. Removing cartridges often required me to use two hands because of how snug the games were. There is no lever mechanism for popping cartridges out here. The Super NT also does not like dirty cartridges. Both my copy of Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past wouldn’t load at first due to dirty contacts. A quick clean fixed the issue for both games.

The Super NT is a long-awaited answer to my SNES problem. It has the power to keep the few SNES games I have playable for far longer than I think a replacement SNES would have. I may have been through the ringer with SNES video output, therefore leading to a form of bias, but the Super NT goes beyond meeting my needs. Analogue’s intense focus on the high end user with pixel perfect output and performance trickles down to benefit the user driven by nostalgia. The Super NT provides a modern design with the respect and quality one of the 16-bit titans deserves. Like the games it plays, the Super NT will stand the test of time.