The MiSTer FPGA Project in 2022 A Review

In a moment of being sad and stressed and having the money to burn it away I ordered a MiSTer from Aliexpress. I immediately regretted it. I had watched too many excellent hour long reviews. Boy what if I had another way to play these games I already have another way to play? That was supposedly accurate and had less features than emulators.

Mine came full furnished from TheRetroCastle on Aliexpress. In the 8 months since I’ve ordered I think there has been 3 price increases. It is already an expensive investment then. Now it’s more iffy.

Good thing is a MiSTer is great. It is basically an emulation box that is in its own fashion recreating the hardware on a chip scale. I am not going to pretend like all the reviews to understand it but there is a fun tutorial to learn how to program for FPGA on youtube.

The dream is it is going to be accurate to the original hardware. If I was being fare to myself I don’t even want this. I want save states and screenshots. Turns out the MiSTer does allow screenshots as a keyboard shortcut.

See it was first made to recreate old computers. The name is some terrible pun I refuse to remember. So the intended environment is with a mechanical keyboard trying to make Amiga programs run just like they did 30 years ago. There is a 486 core that seems like a job and hours to get work.

I have spent time with the Sharp X68000 core. A Japanese computer that many of your favorite games were programmed on. Now you can watch the games load in real time. It is weird to be back to my childhood waiting for a game to load. Except you don’t have the fun hardware sounds. The MiSTer is almost completely quiet (and supposedly has a very small electric imprint.)

The games run beautifully and there are a lot of them. A dark point in my year was trying to look at the dating/simulation/visual novels of the 68000. A large field that defined a lot of otaku culture in the 90s and in the west has been pretty backgrounds posted on tumblr with a wistful “I wish I spoke Japanese.” Looking at game after game only filled me with more hurt towards humanity and what they wanted to do towards the opposite sex. I eventually found the courage to wipe the genre from my memory card and my investigation. It still scars me.

But The Cockpit and all the shooters and the weird platformers are fantastic. It is fun to go into the action folder and just click randomly. Then it loads for 5 minutes and I try to understand the controls.

A core is the shorthand for what hardware is being recreated whether an arcade board, a console, or a computer. The MiSTer is at its technical limit as people try to shove the Atari Jaguar and the Sega Saturn onto it. Both those are in Pre-Alpha proof of concept.

Let me shortly summarize using the thing, mine came more or less ready to use. I put the various bios (the copyrighted software that makes a core work like the real thing) in the right folder, my roms in the other right folder. Then it kind of just works.

The incredible thing is then you grab update_all a script that does not just update the MiSTer proper, but downloads the roms for any new arcade cores, which is more or less weekly. Through almost no effort every week I get to try a new old arcade game. Now the update script works so fast you can’t catch the name of the game, so you are best served by watch each week’s Lu’s Retro Source.

Shortly after getting the MiSTer the Playstation 1 core got finalized. It is the best way I have ever played Playstation games. This core supports save states and seems to come out every week with a way to “improve” PSX games in a way I don’t care about. I can’t imagine playing PSX games like I used to, on a Playstation 3.

The save states make it easily playable for the busy dad. I can pick up where I left off and cut out anything I find as wasting my time (getting back to the challenge that killed me.) There are no save states for the computer, arcade, SNES, or Genesis cores. Supposedly maybe next year it will go back and be inserted. I have doubts. The description of enabling save states for the PSX core meant the save state feature was built first and then everything else worked around it.

Let’s talk about some downsides and wrap this up. The battlecry of rubes tricked into buying this 200-400-600 dollar box is it will be completely accurate to the real thing. Except looking into the arcade cores for games like Donkey Kong and Pac Man, the De-10 NANO FPGA board can never be arcade accurate because it cannot match old arcade boards’ refresh rate. It is incapable of doing so. That’s fascinating. As the threads show it’s linked to obscure bits of the physical boards logic. Suddenly the ghost doesn’t behave as it should, or how it acts on the board I have at home. The actual art of accurate recreation gets murkier than you could imagine. If one sound was generated every time, what does that mean now that it is constant?

Does this bother me? Well yes as a shooter-maniac I am most concerned slow-down being in the right place. But I’ve been playing these games inaccurately for my whole life and only accurately on PCB rarely. I can just get over-myself and not care.

And as I mentioned before the 16-bit cores do not have save states so playing those is as time-intensive as the real hardware.

I find using the MiSTer easier than emulation ever has. It just works. I can dip out and in from different games was easy on a controller with a menu button. Resetting controls is easy. The visual and audio filters are easy and instant. It’s fast, responsive. Games feel better than they do on a PS4. It’s a great piece of hardware that only gains new things to play illegally on it. Also if you are a real sicko you can emulate a Dos 486 with all the troubles it would originally come with. I haven’t felt that sicko yet.

If you like video games it is one of the best ways to spend that amount of money. You have to have that amount, which increases even as I finish writing this. And honestly for all its features you can do everything it can do on the thing you are reading this on through retroarch. Probably better, probably worse. When I mess with games on a PC I fiddle and organize and fuss and troubleshoot. When I turn on my MiSTer I play games. Many I mentioned in that Games Of The Year List.

Now if I can trick myself into not wanting a CRT or trick my family into letting me have a CRT I can end this foolish nonsense until it begins again.

– Rudie Dec 23rd, 2022


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