Finally Pocket Gets Access (to software emulation’s best feature)
Analogue, the boutique retro console manufacturer, has made a tradition out of pinning announcements to today’s date, October 16. First there was the Super NT, the company’s FPGA-based Super Nintendo clone, in 2017; then, the Mega SG, its Sega Genesis clone, in 2018; the still-unreleased Analogue Pocket in 2019; the similarly unreleased TurboGrafx 16 clone, the Duo, in 2020, which gets us to this year’s announcement which, for the first time is not hardware.
AnalogueOS is the underlying software that will run the upcoming Pocket and Duo, and other “future” consoles, the company says. (And no, the existing Analogue consoles “are not planned to be updated with AnalogueOS at this time” we’re told.) In addition to a very welcome visual refresh, which should better align the company’s excellent hardware design with its software experience, come some really significant enhancements, most notably “save states.”
Save states are a staple of software emulators, allowing players to forgo whatever built-in save function exists in a game and immediately record their progress at any point, able to be resumed instantly. Anyone familiar with the traditional solution — leaving your game console on indefinitely — has appreciated this feature of emulation. It has also been a feature largely absent from FPGA-based hardware emulation, outside of a handful of MiSTer cores.
“Thank Kevtris,” Analogue’s Christopher Taber told Polygon, referring to Kevin Horton, its Director of FPGA Development. “It is more than just being complex but dually difficult to do this reliably, let alone on physical cartridges. As far as I know we’re the first to ever develop the technology to capture and load save states instantly during gameplay on physical cartridges.”
These save states will also be sharable with other Pocket users. Also sharable with other Pocket users: Screenshots and Playlists. Screenshots are rather self-explanatory, but Playlists are new. “When you create a Playlist, it will generate a file on your SD card and you can share this file with other users,” Taber says. “Simply pull it off your SD card and drop it on another Pocket user’s SD card and they’ll instantly have access to your Playlist on their Pocket.”
Powering the Playlist functionality is a new database that Analogue is calling Library. “It is built around a new level of standardization, in terms of game title standardization, franchise, publisher and developer organization, revision depth and more,” Taber says. “It is being carefully curated by experts and researchers in conjunction with collectors with access to complete game sets. The ultimate goal of Library is to be the end-all scholarly database for all of video game history.
“Library will take full advantage of Analogue-developed proprietary technology to read physical game cartridges and detect all possible information on the game cartridge down to its revision (for example The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening has 18 different versions, regionally and revisions within each). Many of these versions/revisions have differences from game art and graphics, text changes, bug fixes and other quirks. You can walk into a game shop, plug the game into your Pocket to read the cartridge and find out exactly what revision it is and all of its details.”
In addition to the new features coming to AnalogueOS, Taber shared some information on the Pocket’s additional developer-facing FPGA. “Pocket has been purpose built with the optimal hardware to make development and porting pre-existing [FPGA] cores a breeze. Off-the-shelf dev boards are naturally not built for this exact purpose; they’re pricey, require tons of add-ons, difficult technical setup for most users and limitations that cannot be ideally solved (namely different kinds of RAM) without building something exactly for this purpose from the ground up,” Taber notes, clearly targeting the MiSTer platform’s DIY approach, and immense library of cores. “You can expect to see pretty much every single third-party FPGA core out there on Pocket.
“For the non-dev end user, it is as simple as dropping an FPGA core onto Pocket and it will be served by our Library and Database offering an unparalleled experience.” That experience will obviously work on the handheld Pocket’s display, but it will also work on HDTV displays via the optional Dock, and on CRTs using Analogue’s existing DAC product.
While AnalogueOS sounds exciting, the Pocket was announced two years ago now, and it’s been delayed again to December. There are still plenty of frustrated would-be buyers who missed out on a pre-order window for units that still haven’t shipped.
“More Pockets will be back in stock and shipping a bit after pre-orders ship,” Taber says. “Trust me, we’re doing everything we can to keep these in stock. COVID hasn’t done anybody any favors, but we’ve gone to great lengths to produce as many as possible and continue doing so.”