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Inside the MiSTer FPGA: A Retro Gaming Wonderbox

When it comes to playing classic video games, emulation has long been the most convenient way to access bygone eras of gaming history. Popular emulators like RetroArch and OpenEmu have made it easier than ever to enjoy thousands of retro titles on modern hardware. But in recent years, an exciting project called MiSTer has emerged to shake up the emulation landscape, promising unparalleled accuracy and authenticity.

At its core, MiSTer is a unique emulation device that leverages field programmable gate array (FPGA) technology to replicate vintage gaming hardware at the lowest possible level. Rather than rely on software-based emulation, MiSTer‘s FPGA directly simulates the circuitry and components of classic consoles and computers. The result is virtually lagless, pixel-perfect emulation that looks, sounds and feels just like the original hardware.

So what exactly can the MiSTer FPGA emulate? To put it simply: a staggering amount of gaming history. By some estimates, MiSTer currently supports over 100 unique systems through its ever-expanding library of "cores" – FPGA configurations that each replicate a specific piece of hardware. From the earliest Atari consoles to the 16-bit glory days and beyond, MiSTer is a retro gaming wonderbox with endless possibilities.

Consoles Galore

The vast majority of MiSTer‘s cores focus on classic video game consoles from the 1970s through the 1990s. At the time of writing, MiSTer boasts support for over 40 distinct home console platforms, encompassing hundreds of beloved games. All the heavy hitters are accounted for, including the Atari 2600/7800, Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Master System, Super Nintendo, and Sega Genesis. But MiSTer goes far beyond the obvious choices.

Want to experience some true console obscurities? Fire up the RCA Studio II, Emerson Arcadia 2001, or Casio PV-1000 cores. Interested in underappreciated 16-bit platforms? The PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 and Neo Geo cores have you covered. There‘s even support for fascinating footnotes like the Vectrex and Pioneer LaserActive. Here‘s a small selection of notable consoles supported by MiSTer:

Console Released No. of Cores Example Games
Atari 2600 1977 2 Adventure, Pitfall!
ColecoVision 1982 2 Donkey Kong, Zaxxon
Nintendo (NES) 1983 3 Super Mario Bros. 3
Sega Master System 1985 2 Phantasy Star
PC Engine 1987 4 Bonk‘s Adventure
Sega Genesis 1988 6 Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Super Nintendo 1990 6 Super Metroid

The accuracy and authenticity of MiSTer‘s console cores is simply stunning. Every quirk of the original hardware is perfectly replicated, from the NES‘s notorious sprite flickering to the Genesis‘s signature "Yamaha bass" sound. Games run exactly as they did back in the day, glitches and all.

"MiSTer‘s FPGA cores provide unfiltered access to gaming history," says Alexey Melnikov (Sorgelig), MiSTer‘s lead developer. "No emulation approximation, no compromises. Pixel-perfect, with 100% timing accuracy. It‘s like having all these classic consoles hooked up in your living room at once."

Handheld Heaven

MiSTer‘s accuracy extends to classic handheld consoles as well. With support for over a dozen portable platforms, you can take your favorite on-the-go games anywhere. The ubiquitous Game Boy line is fully replicated, including the original monochrome brick, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance. Sega‘s Game Gear and Atari‘s Lynx – both technologically ambitious for their time – are also well represented.

But as with the home consoles, MiSTer goes above and beyond to preserve handheld obscurities. Game Boy competitors like the Watara Supervision, Gamate, and Hartung Game Master all have dedicated cores. The primitive-yet-charming Game & Watch series can be experienced through MiSTer as well. Even the Japanese WonderSwan and Neo Geo Pocket are accounted for. Here‘s a glance at MiSTer‘s handheld support:

Handheld Released No. of Cores Example Games
Game Boy 1989 5 Tetris, Pokemon Red
Atari Lynx 1989 2 California Games
Sega Game Gear 1990 2 Sonic the Hedgehog
Gamate 1990 1 Bomb Blaster
WonderSwan 1999 2 Guilty Gear Petit
Neo Geo Pocket 1998 2 SNK vs. Capcom

MiSTer‘s handheld cores are perfect for quick portable gaming sessions. Many even include useful features like save states, sleep mode, and link cable simulations for multiplayer. With MiSTer, you can carry a virtual museum of handheld history in your pocket.

Arcade Action

For many retro gaming fans, nothing quite compares to the experience of a booming arcade at the height of the Golden Age. While arcade games have received countless console ports over the years, MiSTer offers a more authentic way to relive those glory days. Rather than rely on after-the-fact conversions, MiSTer‘s arcade cores simulate original arcade hardware itself.

MiSTer users can choose from dozens of arcade systems representing a huge swath of coin-op history. From early black-and-white classics like Computer Space to demanding 3D fighters like Killer Instinct, there‘s something for everyone. Popular JAMMA-based arcade standards are thoroughly covered, including Capcom‘s CPS1 and CPS2, Konami‘s "GX" family, Sega‘s System 16 and 18, and Namco‘s System 22, just to name a few.

But MiSTer isn‘t only focused on replicating the most popular arcade platforms. Many more obscure arcade boards – ones that never received proper home conversions back in the day – have been given new life through MiSTer. The short-lived SNK/Alpha 68K arcade hardware, Fuuki‘s FG-3 board, and Gaelco‘s 2D systems are all preserved via MiSTer cores. You can even play oddities like Sega‘s Zoom 995 motion simulator!

What truly sets MiSTer apart for arcade emulation is its focus on accuracy and authenticity across multiple arcade eras. Every core aims to replicate its hardware cycle-by-cycle, warts and all. The goal is nothing less than time travel back to the arcades of the 1980s and 1990s.

"I‘ve worked on arcade emulation for a long time," says MiSTer core developer Jotego. "MAME is great, but is ultimately a collection of educated guesses. MiSTer‘s hardware simulation removes the guesswork. These arcade cores are the real deal."

PC Power

Though primarily focused on console and arcade emulation, MiSTer also supports a number of classic home computer and PC platforms. The Commodore Amiga line is thoroughly replicated, with cores for the Amiga 500, 1200, and CD32 consoles. All three of the popular Sinclair ZX Spectrum models are supported as well, each with cycle-accurate CPU and video emulation.

Some of the more obscure computer cores are especially impressive. The MSX, Sharp X68000, and FM Towns Marty – hugely popular in Japan but barely known elsewhere – all run flawlessly on MiSTer. Early machines like the Amstrad CPC and BBC Micro have cores too. There‘s even a DOS-based 486 core in active development, opening the door for thousands of PC classics down the line.

In total, MiSTer can emulate nearly 50 distinct computer platforms from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. From 8-bit machines to the 32-bit era, a huge swath of PC history has been preserved through MiSTer‘s hardware simulation. Users can relive the earliest days of computer gaming or discover forgotten pieces of the past for the very first time.

Continued Growth

Perhaps the most exciting thing about MiSTer is that its library of supported platforms is constantly expanding. The MiSTer project is open source, with a vibrant global development community contributing new cores, features, and bug fixes all the time.

New MiSTer cores are released on a regular basis, often developed by single authors in their spare time. In the past year alone, support was added for systems as disparate as Tiger Electronics‘ R-Zone, the Super A‘Can, and Taito‘s F3 arcade board. Seemingly every week brings a new surprise for the MiSTer faithful – be it an unexpected arcade board, computer port, or even arcade prototype.

"The MiSTer project has grown so much in such a short time," says Alexey Melnikov, "and I don‘t see it slowing down anytime soon. More developers are getting FPGAs in their hands, and they‘re doing more ambitious things. Keep an eye on the future – MiSTer is just getting started."

Indeed, the future of MiSTer looks very bright. Its unique FPGA-based approach has the potential to revolutionize retro game preservation and accessibility. No matter how obscure or forgotten, vintage gaming platforms can be accurately replicated and enjoyed on modern displays. MiSTer is opening the door to entire eras of video game history long locked away.

As the library of supported cores grows, so too do MiSTer‘s applications. In addition to direct, lag-free HDMI video output, many users are harnessing MiSTer‘s dedicated analog video options for the most authentic retro experience possible. Enthusiasts are hooking their MiSTers up to old CRT TVs and PVM monitors for scan-line-perfect, zero-lag retro bliss.

Education is another exciting frontier. As author and educator David Pedu notes: "MiSTer is an amazing teaching tool for game design and computer history. Students can experience these platforms authentically, as they really were, and see the connections between different eras. It‘s a powerful, tangible way to explore computing history."

With so many possibilities, it will be exciting to see where the MiSTer community takes the project next. From new cores and features to expanded use cases, the little emulation box seems poised for ever bigger things. The only question is how much further MiSTer will go. One thing is for certain – for retro gaming fans, MiSTer is a wonderbox whose depths we‘ve only begun to plumb.