Review: MiSTer FPGA

So this is my first hardware review. I honestly didn’t think I’d end up doing one but here I am, and actually it’s got me thinking a bit about where I want to go with this project. I certainly remember back in its forum thread beginnings the conversation would widen to include the Amiga (boo, hiss) and other machines and it does seem silly not to think about those now I have a device that effortlessly does the lot. However, that way spoilers lie. To business.

So as any regular readers from here or the original forum posts will know, I love old computers. The Atari ST is undoubtedly the machine that led me to where I am today in life, and as such it retains a place in my heart, the machine that made me. The Atari ST hooked me with games, but the freebies on ST Format cover disks and the articles inside introduced me to other things you can do with a computer, MIDI and code being the things that really lit a fire under me. The former led to me getting radio airplay for a truly awful song in the early 00s and the latter led me to my day job. Up til now I’ve emulated the machine and that definitely gave me the nostalgic feeling, the memories of basically the only good thing about my childhood would come flooding back, those long nights in my room with an ST and a crap portable TV playing awesome games and writing thousands of lines of code to make a game which, in hindsight, was not quite PD standard. We may not have invented time travel yet but this is pretty close.

What Is FPGA?

So MiSTer is a descendent of the MiST project which sought to use FPGA to recreate the ST and Amiga lines of computer. MiSTer has expanded prolifically and now contains ‘cores’ (more on that shortly) for a wide variety of machines. FPGA is the technology that powers the project. FPGA is basically magic, but if you want a bit more, it’s a chip whose logic gates can be programmed to a configuration defined using a Hardware Description Language. It’s all way over my head but the gist of it is that the FPGA chip can ‘become’ any combination of chips and motherboard within the limit of the number of logic gates it contains, and in the case of the DE-10 used for MiSTer that places the limit somewhere around Amiga 1200 and Neo Geo plus some arcade machines.

Now you may wonder why not just use software emulation (cheap) or buy actual hardware (expensive)? Well, an Amiga or ST will likely cost about the same as this kit but then there’s a huge amount of hassle getting it to work with a modern monitor and old monitors that will work are a pain in the arse to source. Then there’s hardware rot – you need to get the capacitors re-capped as they tend to be cheap and shitty and can do real damage to the board. Then, assuming you have a working machine with a working disk drive you’ll have disks themselves suffering the effects of 30 years of either use or storage – one can get a Gotek drive of course to solve this problem but that’s further expense, and you’re taking your proper old-school machine and modernising it. Of course you could use disk images and write your own floppies using an external drive plugged into your PC but both floppies and drives will become increasingly difficult to acquire over time. So why not emulate instead? Well, lag. I hadn’t realised just how bad the lag was but even on very powerful hardware it’s there. Software emulation is doing a lot of translation on the fly and this brings about lag. It’s cheap, and a great way to get into this, but the lag is there and when you go FPGA you’ll realise just how bad it was (but that’s another spoiler).

So Why Am I Reviewing This?

I ended up chatting to some geeky types on a couple of Discords and MiSTer kept coming up. In the end, my willpower was insufficient and I bought the kit. Note that nothing was supplied in exchange for reviews or any kind of freebie because I’m not an influencer, thus you can be sure that this review will not be corrupt, but will lack expertise.

What I Bought

Terasic DE-10 Nano Development Kit (Mouser – £129.62 inc VAT – UK company but imports from the US)

So this bit is essential. This board contains an ARM chip to run the linux software that keeps things ticking over, managing the software that lets you choose your cores, set up joysticks and keyboards and so on. It also contains an FPGA chip which will run basically any 8-bit computer or console plus the 16-bits, along with the Amiga 1200 in the 32-bit world. It only has an OTG USB port so you’ll need an external powered hub or a USB hub board (see below) to plug in controllers etc. It comes supplied with a US plug so you’ll need an adapter to use it in the UK. Personally I use a shaver adapter bought for a couple of quid from Amazon. Network connectivity is provided by an ethernet port and I recommend sticking with that for the first boot and initial setup and then you can plug in a wifi dongle into the USB hub later. There is a HDMI port – using it adds a small amount of lag vs VGA (which I’ll come to later). Note that the DE-10 comes with a microUSB card with software pre-installed but it’s only 8GB. I suggest getting a bigger one, let’s say around 128GB, to replace it. I picked one up cheap on Amazon.


USB Hub v2.1 For MiSTer (MisterFPGA.co.uk – £32.99 inc VAT – UK company

While not technically compulsory, this one will help a lot with your cabling. With an external powered USB hub (and it will need to be powered – I have tested this and even keyboards are useless without power) you’ll have another power cable to contend with, and likely you’ll need an OTG to USB converter. The USB hub comes with a little bracket hub connector (also sold separately if you need it for £6.49) to connect to the board. The fit has some flex and that’s not a bad thing, it provides some tolerance which makes fitting everything a little easier. It also comes with an adapter to take your power input (the one that comes with the DE-10) and split it into two to power both the DE-10 and the USB hub. One plug, one cable, much easier. Note that the pictures below show the configuration with an external USB hub because I blew my first of these plugging in an alternative power supply. I am an idiot. Don’t be like me.


Mister IO Board v6.1 With Fan (MisterFPGA.co.uk – £41.99 inc VAT – UK company

So this board does a couple of useful things. First, it provides cooling with its fan. So far, this has proven to be sufficient but if you’re in a hotter environment you might want to grab a heatsink for the main chip on the DE-10 board. Second, it provides a VGA port to plug into your monitor of choice, so if you have a CRT monitor this will be useful for you (and VGA has less lag than HDMI). It also provides a 3.5mm audio jack to plug into external speakers (remember that VGA doesn’t include sound unlike HDMI), some status LEDs which are handy for knowing if the disk drive is doing anything (the cores don’t have disk drive sounds) or if your machine has crashed, buttons to reset game or system and to bring up the on screen display, and a connector to allow you to add a SNAC board (which allows you to plug in proper old-school controllers). This bit isn’t compulsory but it’s useful if only for the lights.


MiSTer SDRam XS-D v2.5 128MB Module (MisterFPGA.co.uk – £52.99 inc VAT – UK company
Most cores require some SDRam, 128MB will be enough to get the Neo Geo cores working, so I’d recommend getting this.


MiSTer Case (Acrylic) (MisterFPGA.co.uk – £24.99 inc VAT – UK company)

I went with a clear case, you might want a different option. I love seeing all the electronics inside and of course the case helps keep everything clean and keeps sticky paws off the boards. It’s well-constructed with a good solid feel, like it could take some abuse and still be ok. Holes for ports are sensibly placed (make sure you choose the correct version to go with the IO board you chose (ie if you went digital you’ll want the digital version), and allow generous room to get to the ports. The closest I could get to a criticism is that it can be tricky to get the microSD card out as pressing it in to eject doesn’t push it out quite far enough to be able to grab it easily with your fingers meaning that it requires a tricky grab with fingernails or tweezers. Given you’ll likely not do that often I don’t consider that to be a big deal.

Total Cost

In total everything came to around 300 quid, so it’s not a cheap endeavour.

Setting Everything Up

So the DE-10 arrived first, and came with a board, a power supply with a US plug, a microUSB card (which I swiftly replaced with a bigger one) and some cables that don’t matter too much. The kit from misterfpga.co.uk arrived a bit later, well-packaged in a surprisingly small box (the case is flat-packed). Physical connection is basically lego. Everything plugs in neatly, there are spacers to ensure the boards don’t sit too closely to each other and it’s basically impossible to fit things the wrong way. The procedure is basically:

1. Take DE-10 board. Plug in the OTG to USB adapter and then use the spacers to put the USB hub underneath it, guiding the pins from the hub into the holes in the adapter.
2. Slot the IO board on top, guiding the pins into place while the spacers keep everything suitably distant. It requires a little bit of force to get in.
3. Plug the RAM into place – there’s a cut-out in the IO board so you can see where it goes.
4. The case slots together around this, slots fitting into holes, and you can screw the case into the spacers provided.

Once that’s done, throw a network cable in, plug a mouse and keyboard into the USB hub’s USB ports, power it up and you’re in. Hit the scripts option and look for an update option, which will update your cores. After it’s all up to date it’s up to you to get games onto the system. If you take the microSD card out and put it into a card reader on your Windows PC you’ll want to put games mostly into the games/machine-name folder. If you’re on linux you’ll find the folder in /media/fat/ and take it from there. The exception is the Amiga which requires you to put the games folder in the SD FAT root (/ in Windows or /media/fat/ in Linux). You’ll need to get kickstart ROMs for your Amiga and TOS ROMs for your ST – the Amiga demands they go in the /Amiga folder described above while the ST is more tolerant and will happily take them from the /games/AtariST/ folder.

Grab your floppy images and put them on, for the Amiga you may want to build a hdf hard drive image as some later games like Monkey Island 2 used a LOT of disks and the disk swaps can be very very annoying.

So Is It Any Good?

Yes. That saves you reading the rest, right? I’ll expand though. So you’ll note that in my Kick Off 2 review I was a little disappointed as the game failed to live up to my memories, in part because it was too bastard hard. Well, either I’ve gotten better (not impossible) or the lag was killing me. My money is on the latter because I found myself able to control the ball far more effectively with this fantastic little device than I ever could on my PC. My attacks were more incisive and I was able to time tackles better. It was fucking glorious.

I tested a wide range of games on the ST and Amiga (see screens below) and found they ran beautifully. A particular treat was Zool’s AGA version running on an Amiga 1200, a true object of desire from my youth. Zool on the ST was always a little less smooth than I’d like, playing it on the A1200 showed what the game was meant to be and it was superb.

I should just talk a bit about the side functionality – as you’ll likely know modern emulators often come with save states, rewind and so on. MiSTer FPGA doesn’t yet have that for most cores but a couple have rewind, and that’s likely to expand. To me, that makes it likely that we’ll also get pausing at some point, which seems to me a pre-requisite of save states (one must pause the core to retrieve its state otherwise there’s a risk of it being out of sync). I can’t give a timeline on those things as I’m not super-familiar with the scene just yet but my gut tells me that this will get stronger over the next couple of years. It shouldn’t be a factor in your purchasing choice of course – you buy what is there, not what might be.

Going back to my experiences, last night my wife was working a little late so I fired up the gadget and I got absolutely lost in a world of retro games. The funny thing is that people had been telling me that it’s more immersive but I didn’t get it – playing my ST games in a window on a Windows PC is just fine surely. It turns out I was wrong. In a way it’s partly the same thing as a Kindle being a better way to read a book than a tablet because it’s a dedicated device without distractions, but it’s more than that. The connection with the machine feels more real, more immediate. I’d liken it to how in VR you have to have input lag super-low or it just feels wrong, especially with head movement (lag causes chunder). There’s just something magic there which can’t be shown with pictures or video, it’s in how it feels. Note this was with the HDMI which induces a little bit of lag – I still need to get the VGA up and running (which requires a little more work) but I’ll let you guys know how that goes. Honestly this thing is absolutely fucking amazing.

What This Means For The Site

So it’s clear I’m going to have to go back and fix some of my reviews as input lag will have been a factor in some poor reviews. Given I’m planning to build a new platform for the site anyway that’s not too big an issue. I also suspect that now I’ve got this super emulation device and I’m starting to see what incredible things older machines that weren’t part of my childhood like the C64 can do I may have to widen the scope and make the ST Format Challenge one series within a wider arc of content. I reckon that’ll be quite exciting, and it’ll get me out of a content hole as 1992 sees the ST start to struggle with ST Format reflecting that and 1993 to 1996 get steadily more grim while the Amiga gained considerable strength. These thoughts will need to be reflected in the new design, let’s hope I get it right.

Pictures

Excuse the mess – the desk has had some abuse with steering wheels regularly attached and detached, such that the paint is chipping off, and there are cables everywhere because I fried the USB hub (got a replacement now and it works beautifully). Testing the ST and Amiga was done with a Speedlink USB joystick which feels super-close to the originals while console testing was done with an 8bitdo mega drive controller. At some point I’ll pick up a SNES one too for the Nintendo games.

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