Analogue Duo: The Kotaku Review


You know Analogue: The company that makes those premium-priced retro consoles that sell out in three minutes, at which point Analogue tweets “Sold out.” as if you needed reminding that its damn website crashed while you were struggling to complete your purchase. But while Analogue can be exasperating, its products, which include high-end recreations of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and all the Game Boys, more or less deliver on their promises of exceptionally accurate reproduction of beloved video games from decades past.

Today the company’s launching another retro console recreation, the Analogue Duo. And this time, it’s something of a deeper cut.

Just…god, there’s so much random info you gotta know to understand this thing’s deal. So before we get into it, here’s a tl;dr: Analogue Duo is a very solid PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 replacement that looks pretty good on modern displays and controls pretty well, too. It’s also not for everyone. It may not even be for me.

To get at why, we need to dive into those nitty-gritty details. For starters…

A variety of colorful PC Engine and TurboGrafx-16 HuCards are arranged in a pleasing way.

Love these gorgeous little things. (Don’t play Night Creatures though.)
Photo: NEC / Kotaku

What’s a PC Engine?

If the name “PC Engine” doesn’t ring a bell, that might be because it flopped here, hard. Co-creators NEC and Hudson (the Bomberman people!) saw good success in Japan, but NEC botched just about everything in its attempt to market the sorta-kinda 16-bit system in America as 1989’s TurboGrafx-16, a name which now reeks of death and failure. Many of the best PCE games remained in Japan, and most of the ones NEC commissioned from western creators are best left unmentioned. Sega of America’s Genesis ate it for lunch (CW: vore), leaving the TurboGrafx on life support by 1992.

Not so in Japan. Debuting all the way back in 1987, the PC Engine was a shot across the bow of Nintendo’s dominant Famicom (NES), offering far more arcade-like graphics than the 8-bit king ever could. Barely a year later, the CD-ROM² add-on made NEC’s little square wonder-console the first machine to play games off optical discs, allowing for the creation of far more sophisticated software with lush CD audio, extended animated sequences, and some 1,000 times the storage of the system’s original HuCard format. In 1988!

HuCards are beautiful

HuCards (TurboChips over here) were the PC Engine’s equivalent of cartridges, credit card-sized slabs of plastic that slid into the front of the system with a satisfying click. Often emblazoned with colorful artwork, these diminutive little things are likely the most beautiful physical format ever used to distribute video games. (A few downsides include limited ROM capacities and zero user-serviceable parts.) Over time CDs became the PCE’s dominant format, but consider this: Only HuCards can fit in your wallet. Checkmate, you optical bastards.

NEC had a real passion—some might say a psychological disorder—for releasing new PC Engine hardware. It’s a bit much to cover here, so just know two important facts. First, 1991’s Super CD-ROM² upgrade gave the disc games four times more RAM to play with, which let the new “Super CD” games be more sophisticated, especially graphically. Many of the system’s coolest games, such as Ys IV, Star Parodier, Tengai Makyō II, Dracula X, and Gradius II, are on Super CD.

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Second, 1991’s PC Engine Duo (TurboDuo in the U.S.) was a handy, all-in-one console that could play both HuCard and Super CD games. Duo is the system most people want to own today, because this thing plays everything but the five games released for 1990’s ill-fated SuperGrafx (no one cares) and games that require the later, 1994 Arcade Card RAM upgrade (just pop in the Arcade Card accessory and you’re set).

So the PC Engine Duo is the machine today’s Analogue Duo takes its inspiration from. Except, Analogue Duo can play the SuperGrafx games and the Arcade Card games out of the box, too. Cool!

A 1992 NEC TurboDuo sits next to light- and a dark-colored Analogue Duo consoles, with HuCard and CD games scattered about.

An original NEC TurboDuo alongside two Analogue Duos and a variety of games. IRL the “white” model is actually fairly beige. I prefer the black colorway.
Photo: NEC / Analogue / Kotaku

…And why should I care?

If you’ve ever retrogamed, you’ve probably enjoyed time with a Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo, yeah? Incredibly good consoles, some might even say the best of all time. These 16-bitters, which had their heyday from 1989 to 1995 or so, achieved a very pleasing balance of gameplay, simplicity, and sophistication, and could look and sound pretty great too. What’s the word for “kino” but like, for video games? Because that. These were video games. Ahhh, yes. The good stuff. (I am pantomiming chef’s kisses.)

Well, there’s another whole system full of video games like this that many of us haven’t dipped into at all, a treasure trove of fresh adventures and maddening challenges. I’m talking about the PC Engine, by the way.

Just like the Genesis and SNES libraries have their own distinct flavors and vibes, strengths and weaknesses, so does NEC’s ambiguously 16-bit wonder. The PCE library is particularly strong in arcade-style shoot ‘em ups, RPGs, arcade ports, platformers, and action games in general. Its games tend to be colorful and fast-moving, and its humble but pleasing sound chip can pump out some really catchy melodies (and occasionally amazing tracks like this).

Read More: The Unique Artist Behind Bomberman’s Catchy Beats

Strangely, it also has major Famicom vibes. The PCE’s 8-bit main processor has basically the same architecture as the NES, and it’s only faster clocks and additional graphics chips that make its games so much fancier. A lot of its games, particularly early HuCards, have a sort of loosey-goosey simplistic physics thing going on that feels very NES-like. PCE sorta feels like an evolutionary midway point between Famicom games and 16-bit SNES and Genesis titles, very much its own thing, but sharing aspects with the others.

So is it 8-bit? Or 16-bit?

Oh, yes. Absolutely.

Sadly, PC Engine can’t do convincing parallax scrolling to save its life. But then, neither can I. (So don’t ask.)

An Altera Cyclone FPGA is embedded into a circuit board.

Altera’s popular Cyclone series of FPGAs powers many FPGA gaming devices, including MiSTer and Analogue Pocket.
Image: Humandata / Altera

The most important acronym in retrogaming

It’s FPGA: Field Programmable Gate Array. Stop looking at me like I’m a nerd. I’m aware.

You know how regular microchips are burned permanently onto silicon? They’re ASICs, which stands for “application-specific integrated circuit.” The CPU in your cell phone is good at what it does, but it’s never gonna be anything other than what Qualcomm or Apple designed it to be because its silicon is fixed. Immutable. Set in its ways. Basically, ASICs are the racist grandpas of integrated circuits.

Wait…I am being told that is not a useful analogy. Apologies. Racist grandmas, then.

FPGAs, unlike grandmas, are infinitely reconfigurable. An FPGA is like a blank-slate microchip whose circuits you can lay out and configure through a “hardware description language”—code that defines the hardware, basically. So say you have an FPGA chip to program; if the FPGA were big / performant enough and you really knew your stuff, you could write code in hardware description language and upload it to the FPGA to make it perfectly replicate the functionality of another device. Say, the CPU of the Game Boy. And then you could upload more HDL to reconfigure the FPGA into another device entirely. Maybe…the Sega Genesis’ sound chip?

You see where this is going. While FPGAs are still expensive, they’ve been getting affordable enough to put to use simulating old games machines. And it turns out this is a very good way to go about recreating old computers and consoles, as FPGAs are great at simulating many discrete components at once, all operating in parallel just like they did in, say, a real SNES. In contrast, traditional CPUs execute instructions in a mostly linear fashion, making it difficult to orchestrate all the moving parts of an emulated game console in a way that results in a flawlessly authentic experience.

Read More: Is MiSTer The Ultimate Retro Gaming Device? Yes, Actually

The biggest drawback of traditional software-based console emulators running on CPUs is probably input lag. You press a button, and there’s a delay, and finally you see your action take place on-screen. (The most advanced emulators have pretty cool ways to reduce this delay, but it’s still always a concern.) Some of the main sources of input lag are modern display devices, your choice of game controller, poorly programmed games, and software-based emulators.

A vintage game console properly simulated on an FPGA can respond to input just as quickly as the original hardware did. That’s a beautiful thing, and a key reason many see FPGA-based devices, like the open-source MiSTer FPGA project and Analogue’s proprietary line of FPGA-based console recreations, as not just the present, but the future of accurate, cut-no-corners retrogaming.

Blazing Lazers (Gunhed) plays on a Sony PVM 2950Q via s-video, the glowing phosphor decay exaggerated a bit by the slow camera shutter.

Blazing Lazers plays on a Sony PVM 2950Q via MiSTer s-video. CRTs have character and brightness to spare and are difficult to fully simulate.
Photo: Hudson / Kotaku

CRTs: Slightly radioactive implosion bombs

Until the mid-2000s, most people played video games on heavy glass vacuum tubes that imbued the soft, somewhat indistinct pixels with a pleasing glow, horizontal scanlines, varying levels of barrel distortion, and many other artifacts besides. These standard-definition (SD) analog televisions and monitors, called CRTs (critical race theories), generally enjoyed lightning-fast response times, great motion clarity, vivid colors, and deep, contrast-y blacks. Video games looked and felt a certain way thanks to the particulars of the display tech, granting their low-res “240p” graphics surprising amounts of soul.

The fixed-pixel LCDs that followed usually made vintage SD games look blocky, uneven, and smeared, topped off with delayed input response: No bueno. Since then, software innovations like scanline filters and CRT-simulating GPU shaders, combined with new technologies like high dynamic range (HDR), black frame insertion (BFI), variable refresh rate (VRR), and purpose-made upscaling devices, have started addressing the considerable challenge of authentically rendering SD analog signals on digital-first, HD, fixed-pixel displays. Bolstered thus, today’s high-end OLEDs can finally start to reach or even surpass CRT-like levels of brightness, saturation, contrast, and motion clarity.

In other words, they’re gittin’ gud at lookin’ old.

That brings us to the Duo. At launch, Analogue Duo outputs only digital HDMI at 1080p resolution. Analogue promises that in 2024, support for its Analogue DAC accessory, an additional $80 purchase, will allow the Duo to work with traditional CRT televisions, a combination that will instantly grant its games a near-flawlessly authentic look and feel on SD analog displays. But until then, the Duo is strictly a digital, 1080p device, which leaves its “Original Display Modes” feature—Analogue frowns when you call them “filters”—as the main tool you’ll have to make PCE games look truer to their ‘80s and ‘90s roots.

The first Original Display Mode just spits out the raw pixels with appropriate scaling to the 1080p display: the basic, pixelated emulator look some people prefer. Two other ODMs simulate the ancient, early ‘90s LCDs of the portable PC Engine GT (TurboExpress in U.S.) and the very rare, expensive clamshell form-factor PC Engine LT. Neat little bonuses, but you’re probably not going to want to relive the days of TurboExpress’s ghosting, sub-native res screen garbling up text for very long. (Having never used either device, I can’t comment on their accuracy.)

The most interesting, attractive ODM is “Trinitron,” which seeks to reproduce the appearance of Sony’s famous CRT technology within the limits of Duo’s 1080p resolution, complete with faux scanlines (choose either Light or Heavy, then Soft or Sharp edges) and two possible renderings of aperture grille artifacts (“Medium” or “Fine”). You can also just nix the AG simulation if you want a simple plain-Jane scanline effect.

Two finer points

In the raw pixel and Trinitron modes you can also show or hide the overscan areas—hiding them gives you a bigger screen, but may cut off info in certain games—and choose between two color palettes, RGB or simulated composite. The latter is a relatively recent innovation, as fans discovered that the raw RGB colors put out by the PCE’s graphics chip actually varied from those generated by its native RF/composite output back in the day. It turned out some games have color gradations that are nearly hidden in the very hot, saturated RGB palette. As on MiSTer, I’ve used Duo’s drabber composite palette almost exclusively, because the RGB colors border on garish.

Trinitron mode does a decent job of simulating the basic look of a ‘90s Sony CRT and is my preferred way to play Analogue Duo. It is on par with some of the better CRT simulations seen in today’s commercial retro-themed game releases.

Duo’s undoubtedly pleasant CRT sim likely won’t blow you away if you’re familiar with today’s cutting-edge CRT shaders. It’s good for what it is, don’t get me wrong, but is too neat and clean, and also dim, to actually be mistaken for a real vintage set. CRTs are messy, analog devices, all soft and glowing, geometry at least slightly warped even when well maintained, everything contracting and expanding as scenes change, and bright objects leaving phosphor trails as they traverse inky blacks. All of this wonderful character, which makes CRTs so distinctive, is outside the scope of Duo’s otherwise respectable Trinitron simulation.

Which look do you like best? That’s all that matters.
Gif: Irem / Analogue / Kotaku

I’ve created some comparison sliders, captured over HDMI, to let you see how the various Original Display Modes and their sub-settings look. After clicking the links below, choose an image on the left, an image on the right, and then drag the slider to transition between them. (Thanks to for making these possible—very good website.)


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