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Analogue Mega Sg reviewed: cloning a Sega Genesis with FPGA power

It's fun to play on the F-P-G-A!

A field-programmable gate array, or FPGA for short, is the chameleon of the silicon chip world. They're reconfigurable chips that can be programmed to perform a wide array of of tasks. In PC gaming, the most famous example of such a chip at work is probably Nvidia's G-Sync module. Long story short, the ability to recode FPGAs on the fly creates a ton of usage scenarios in the hands of a capable engineer.

In more recent years, they've been held up as a sort of holy grail by the retro gaming community for their handiness in recreating classic consoles. Examples include the SD2SNES open-source design ROM cartridge for the Super Nintendo, and RetroUSB's AVS, an eight-bit Nintendo clone. Seattle-based Analogue released its own upscale FPGA-equipped NES clone called the Nt Mini in 2017. That bit of kit sold for an eye-watering $450 in part because of its aluminum shell.

Each year since, Analogue has released a new FPGA-fueled retro system, and this time around the company has put out more affordable (but still very nice!) systems with plastic shell. 2018's Super Nt is a well-received Super Nintendo substitute for $190. The Mega Sg launched just last month at the same $190 price point, and that's what we're looking at today.

Mega Power on HDTVs

In October of 1988, Sega released the Mega Drive in Japan. Known as the Genesis on American shores, it was the first home console with a 16-bit CPU, and it was loosely based on the company's arcade hardware of the time. It had some beefy specs for its day: a Motorola 68000 CPU, a Zilog Z80 as a secondary processor, a Yamaha YM2612 FM synthesis chip, a Texas Instruments NS76489 programmable sound generator (PSG), and a Sega 315-5313 video display processor (VDP).

The Genesis can output composite and RGB video at a resolution of 320x224 or 256x224 with 64 on-screen colors out of a palette of 512. In the 80s and 90s, that video was sent to to a 4:3 CRT display. Unlike modern TVs, CRT televisions don't have pixels, but instead paint an image line-by-line to the screen. Check out Displaced Gamers video The History of 240p on YouTube for a primer. Lots of folks still love and use their CRT displays with retro consoles, but there are no new CRTs in 2019.

If you'd want to use a vintage console with a high-definition TV, a dedicated upscaler can convert the RGB video to an HDMI output. I use an Open Source Scan Converter, which runs around $210 with a remote and power supply, shipped from the UK. I also needed an RGB SCART cable by Insurrection Industries. After you throw in the cost of a Genesis console, which can be sourced from eBay or the local Craigslist, the whole setup will cost you around $300. Suddenly, the $190 asking price for the Mega Sg doesn't seem bad. There are other ways to play Genesis games, but let's focus on comparing the Mega Sg to the original Sega hardware for now.

Enter the Mega Sg

Analogue's Sega clone was originally scheduled to ship this month, but it ended up releasing early, on March 25. My personal unit shipped even earlier than that, on the 22nd. There seems to be plenty of demand for the Mega Sg, since as of this writing, Analogue's store says new orders will ship in two to three weeks.

The Mega Sg comes in a very handsome, understated black box. There are four styles available depending on your nostalgic bent. JPN has the purple and blue of the Japanese Mega Drive, EUR is just black and white, and USA has a red power button that matches the US version's dome light. There's also a white version if you're into that. The Mega Sg is a hefty little box that measures 5.4 x 6.6 x 1.9" (13.8 x 16.8 x 4.7 cm) and weighs in at 18 oz, or right around 510 g according to my food scale.

The build quality is excellent. While the Mega Sg's shell is made from plastic, it's got a very premium feel. The material is thick and well-supported, and the unit has a rubber pad on the bottom that seems to help prevent slipping around. I couldn't detect any hint of creaks or groans when I squeezed it, and it flexes only minimally. Classic Genesis hardware is pretty stout, and this clone lives up to that legacy very well.

Inside the box you'll find an HDMI cable, a 5-volt, 2-amp USB wall adapter, and a standard micro-USB cable for power. If you happen to own a Sega CD module for the Genesis, Analogue provides a spacer mat to place the Mega Sg on while it's connected to the classic add-on. There's also a Master System cartridge adapter in the box. Original Genesis hardware could play Master System games through a similar cartridge adapter called the Power Base Converter. It's nice to see Analogue provide similar functionality without any additional cost.

The Mega Sg has a cartridge slot wide enough for any region's Genesis or Mega Drive cartridges, and a covered connector to plug into the Sega CD. On that connector's opposite side sits an SD card slot meant for firmware updates. Finally, the Mega Sg has a headphone jack that can drive high-impedance headphones on the front, as a homage to Sega's most successful home console.