Watch on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILeFY3zAXyE
MiSTer MultiSystem Build & First Impressions - From A MiSTer Noob!
The MiSTer MultiSystem is a new product by Heber and RMC Retro which aims to be an all-in-one solution that makes MiSTer FPGA gaming accessible and easy to use. This consolised MiSTER setup also features a very high quality bespoke 3D printed case with .STL files available to print your own at home.
But what is the “out of box experience” like for someone who’s new to the whole world of MiSTer? Find out within, and join me for unboxing, first impressions and setup experience.
Hey everyone, Rees here, and welcome back to another episode of ctrl-alt-rees. In this one I’m going to be taking a look at a brand new product called the MiSTer MultiSystem, which aims to take the MiSTer - which is something I have zero prior hands on experience with although I have been following the project with interest for the past few years - and wraps it all up nicely into a convenient consolised form as you can see here.
Now just before we get started I just want to make it clear that this isn’t a review per se - I paid full retail price for this and just happened to get onboard with the first batch, and it’s a project that I’ve been following closely and that I’ve been very excited about since it was first announced. But I did want to share my genuine experience putting it together and getting it set up just to add to the limited information that’s already out there, as well as my first impressions of the MiSTer itself as someone who’s new to all this.
So with that out of the way, what is the MiSTer MultiSystem?
Well, I suppose we have to start with the MiSTer part, and I know a lot has been said on the history and the technical details of the MiSTer project over the past few years here on YouTube and I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence by oversimplifying too much, but hey, the chapter markers are there if you already know all of this.
So, MiSTer is an open source project built around the DE-10 Nano, an FPGA board aimed at the educational market - and it’s the FPGA, or Field Programmable Gate Array, that makes it particularly suited to the task of running software - generally games in this case - from various old computers, consoles and arcade machines.
You see, the FPGA is a special type of programmable chip which can basically be any other chip, or indeed, collection of chips - provided they’re not too complex. So the FPGA onboard the DE-10 Nano can be programmed to recreate the custom ASICs and CPU found inside a Commodore Amiga, or a ZX Spectrum, or a Super Nintendo, an arcade machine, or even, indeed a PC itself - provided it’s no more sophisticated than a 486.
This is all achieved using a collection of plugins known as cores - one per system - which is a concept that should be familiar to anyone who has used a modular software emulator, such as RetroArch, in the past.
Now on the subject of emulation - and going strictly by the dictionary definition of the word, that’s exactly what the MiSTer project does. But that doesn’t seem to be a popular term in the community, I suppose because emulation conjures up thoughts of software emulation, like you might find running on a Raspberry Pi, one of those mini consoles, your mobile phone or a PC running something like RetroArch.
The difference being that, rather than the whole process happening in software, running on top of a full blown operating system with its preexisting graphics and audio stacks, translating instructions as it goes, the FPGA at the heart of the MiSTer project strips all of that away, and basically emulates those 1970s, 80s and 90s systems at a much more fundamental hardware level, meaning potentially - and I should point out that it’s not necessarily guaranteed - pretty much perfect accuracy and performance with very little input and output latency.
So, we have our DE-10 board with its FPGA and it’s running those lovely MiSTer cores. But like I said before, this board was designed to be used to teach students how to program an FPGA, and not really to be used as a games console. It doesn’t have lots of ports for controller input, for example, it doesn’t have VGA or SCART connectors to hook it up to a CRT monitor - if you were so inclined - and although the FPGA is very capable, it doesn’t actually have enough - or indeed the right type - of RAM to run many of the popular systems that it’s capable of. It also doesn’t have active cooling, which is pretty important if you want to put it inside a case and run the more demanding cores on it.
So a community of hardware add-ons has built up around MiSTer over the past few years, evolving into what’s become known as the “stack” - a collection of PCBs that plug into the DE-10 and add all of this functionality and more.
The cool thing about any hobbyist project like this is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. A few projects have popped up to try to make putting one of these things together as easy as possible - and the MiSTer MultiSystem just happens to be the one that I went for. I’m certainly not saying that it makes those other approaches redundant or indeed any less valid, but for someone like me who’s new to all of this and already has a million and one hobbies, the plug and play aspect of it was very appealing, and I decided it was finally time to take the plunge.
So what of the MultiSystem itself? What’s the story?
The MiSTer multisystem was the brainchild of Neil Thomas - who runs a small and upcoming YouTube channel called RMC Retro that you should definitely check out, and his landlord Richard, who just so happens to own an electronics design and manufacturing company with extensive experience in the gaming industry. That company is Heber.
Together they came up with a concept for an all-in-one, plug and play consolised MiSTer board, which the DE-10 would plug straight into, and a snazzy custom case, all aimed at simplifying the experience and packaging it up into a neat, almost consumer level product.
Combine that with existing scripts like Mr. Fusion and update_all - which I’ll cover shortly - and MiSTer suddenly becomes an attractive proposition for those with a very short attention span. Like me.
So I asked Neil very nicely and he sent me some behind the scenes footage of Heber in action. The MultiSystem boards were designed fully in-house in the UK and are manufactured in the UK as well - in my ancestral homeland of Wales, no less. You can see their test rig for the boards here, and I have to say, I think the DE-10 with the bright yellow handle bolted to the back of it is a very nice touch. I also love the USB tester with the push buttons and LEDs.
As it happens, this is actually very similar to the kind of stuff that I work with in my day job, so it’s very cool to see their approach.
The cases are 3D printed - and I’ve actually been in this room while all of this was running and it’s a real sight to behold. They’re printing everything in-house on Heber’s print farm, which consists of 10 Prusa i3 Mk3 printers, and they’ve all been individually tweaked to minimise potential issues.
So now you know the story of how the MiSTer MultiSystem came to be, lets see how it all fits together.
So here are the various bits and pieces - an 8BitDo M30 controller that I already had, it can be used wired or over Bluetooth with a separate USB dongle…
Speaking of which, the MultiSystem doesn’t have wifi or Bluetooth onboard, which was a conscious decision for various boring legal and regulatory reasons, so I guess I can’t really argue with that. Although compatibility is generally very good, MiSTer doesn’t support all of the USB wifi and Bluetooth dongles out there so I personally recommend these from TP-Link - they’re inexpensive and work perfectly. There are some Amazon affiliate links to those down in the description.
Next up there’s a Mean Well 5V 4A power supply. I bought this from the RMC Retro store along with the MultiSystem itself. It’s important to use a suitably rated PSU with any MiSTer setup to keep it all running well.
In this box is the 3D printed case - I went for style B in black. This design has space inside for an SSD, although I won’t be using one at first as a 128GB MicroSD card will be more than enough for the kind of 8 and 16 bit stuff that I’m interested in. The other style of case exposes the MMS’s onboard SCART connector, which is something I’ll definitely want to hook up at some point, but I’m going to come up with my own solution for this which I’ll cover in a future video - so make sure you subscribe if you aren’t already so you don’t miss that along with my other retro computing and gaming shenanigans.
I’ll take a closer look at the quality of the case as I assemble it.
There’s a card with a link to the manual and build guide, which to be honest I barely looked at because I’m impatient and - well - how hard can it be?
Then the two most important parts - the MultiSystem PCB, and I have to say I love the branding on this, it’s very professional - and of course the actual brains of the operation, the DE-10 Nano FPGA board, which I purchased separately.
So let’s take a look at the MultiSystem PCB. It comes with a sticker - I do love a good sticker so that’s always welcome.
Here’s the connector to hook the HDMI output up to the DE10 - I thought this was supposed to snap out but it seems it was just rattling around inside the box. I’m not sure how that came loose but thankfully it hasn’t damaged anything.
Finally in the box we have the board itself of course, and these dinky little network and USB cables.
So taking a closer look at the MultiSystem board, we can see that SCART socket, and the header where we plug in the DE10. The top part of this is the RAM expansion, and the cool thing is that this can be snapped out further down the line to allow easy future upgrades.
We have some DIP switches for configuring the video output, but I’ll just leave all of those alone for now as the defaults will be fine with my HDMI monitor and capture device.
Across the back we have lots of connectivity which I’ll look at in a second.
At the front there’s this big orange thermal fuse, and it’s important to make sure that’s upright so the case goes together properly without snagging on it.
There’s a second MicroSD card slot, which I won’t be using but it’s certainly nice to have.
And at the front, the built in SNAC connector, which with the right adaptors (which I don’t currently have) allows the use of original controllers and even light guns, among other things, and again, that’s definitely something I’ll be looking at in a future video.
So lets have a closer look at this 3D printed case.
There’s a backplate, and there are actually a few different configurations to choose from. Of course if you change your mind later you can always 3D print a different one or even design your own, as all the files have been made available - which is also true for the rest of the case, as it happens.
There’s this front cover which just slots in - of course, a version of this could be made with those original controller ports built in and connected to that internal SNAC connector, which could be a very tidy solution. There’s also a GPIO expansion connector under here, so it seems there are lots of possibilities for future add-ons - I believe there’s an official version of the mt32-pi in development for this, which is a very interesting prospect indeed for DOS gaming fans.
The top case - and I’ve seen some less than positive feedback on the print quality of the underside of these, but mine looks really nice, I must say. As you can see, this version has the mounting holes for the SSD built in as well. I’ll link to the recommended adapter in the description down below if you decide to go down that route.
On the subject of print quality, I must say I was really pleased with the outside of this - it’s spotless and has a really nice texture to it. Of course an injection moulded case would be a nice option but perhaps not really viable with the kind of numbers we’re talking about at the moment - but you never know, it’s certainly something I’d be interested in in future if it became available.
There’s a small bag of bits - the screws, feet, 3D printed buttons and other bits and pieces I’ll need to put this together.
And finally the bottom case, which as you can see has the fan preinstalled.
The bottom isn’t as nice and shiny as the top - in fact mine has a bit of a rough and inconsistent texture to it - but, well, it’s the bottom, it’s not like anyone will ever see it.
On to assembly, and the first thing I need to do is physically prepare the DE-10. It comes with a protective plastic cover and brass standoffs which aren’t needed for the MultiSystem, so step one is to remove those, and we also need to remove the provided micro SD card. You can of course use this, but I’ll be using a 128GB one that I already have.
The kit comes with a heatsink for the FPGA, so I’ll stick that on now before installing the DE-10 into the MultiSystem board.
Next step is to screw in these 3D printed plastic standoffs.
Then I’ll connect up the USB and network cables before inserting the DE10 into those headers. The network cable just re-routes the DE10’s onboard networking to the back of the case, while the USB connects it to the MultiSystem’s onboard USB hub.
The final step in hooking up the DE10 to the MultiSystem is to connect that small HDMI bridge.
Then it’s a case of inserting the front buttons - these act as core reset and menu buttons in MiSTer itself - and sliding the board into the case from the back towards the front.
Now the backplate goes in, and mine was a bit of a tight fit and did bulge outwards a bit at first, but the case pulled it all straight once it was fully assembled.
Then the fan gets plugged in and the reset button installed. There are 3.3 and 5V fan headers on the MultiSystem board, and the fan runs constantly regardless of temperature, so the quieter the better. The reset button sits on its own custom 3D printed bracket.
The final assembly step is to screw everything together, starting with screwing the MutliSystem into its case. The two halves of the case went together perfectly with no gaps and without having to force anything, the general level of fit and finish is really nice compared to some 3D prints I’ve seen, especially considering the size of the thing.
I’m gonna have to agree with Clint here - black feet are definitely where it’s at.
So here it is fully assembled - on the front we have a generous 4 USB ports - and there are internal headers to add more - the user, menu and reset buttons, the power switch, the MicroSD card, and that removable front panel which gives us access to the SNAC connector, expansion connector, yet another USB port, the second MicroSD slot and an analog audio input.
On the rear there’s the power connector, HDMI, SPDIF digital optical audio output, 3.5mm analog audio output, a sync-on-green switch to allow connection to older monitors that expect to see the video sync signal on the green channel - and I should add that there are jumpers and DIP switches on the MultiSystem board to tweak the video output even further for arcade monitors and the like - a DE15 connector, which can output a standard VGA signal but can also support a lot more with the aforementioned tweaks, 2 USB ports, which as you can see, I’ve used for my wifi and bluetooth dongles, and a standard RJ45 ethernet socket.
The next thing I need to do is to prep the MicroSD card, and for that I’m using MiSTer Fusion. MiSTer Fusion is a Linux-based OS that runs on the DE10 and includes everything that you need to get started, and getting it up and running is just a case of writing the image to the card. In this case I’m using Balena Etcher.
First boot takes around 2 minutes, and includes setting everything up and preparing the filesystem so the whole card is available for use by MiSTer.
After a reboot, I used the included wifi script to connect to my wireless network, and then the updater script to install the latest versions of all of the MiSTer cores, which took about 20 minutes. MiSTer Fusion also includes scripts for things like enabling FTP and SSH - which I can highly recommend as it makes transferring things over and fiddling with the config much easier - and pairing Bluetooth devices like the game controllers I have here.
There are plenty of tutorials covering MiSTer Fusion in depth, so I’ll link to some down in the description, but to be honest, even with zero MiSTer experience I managed to work it all out on my own and it’s all very intuitive.
So, of course, the MiSTer is nothing without something to actually run on it - and as with any emulator, there are legalities and whatnot to consider that I won’t preach about here as I’m sure you’re well versed in it all by now. Personally I’m not a dirty pirate, but if I were I’d probably run update_all next - which I’d need to download from GitHub and copy over to the “scripts” directory on the SD card like so - and if I did proceed to run it, it would look a bit like this and probably take about half an hour.
By default, update_all gets those all important BIOS files for the various computers and consoles, as well as all of the currently supported arcade games. It’s nice to see that it gets all of this stuff from our old friend archive.org rather than some dubious FTP server somewhere. It’s all configurable so you can get the bits that you want.
There’s no automated way to grab all of the game ROMs for the other systems - I’m not going to tell you where to get those - but once you do have them, it’s just a case of copying them to the relevant directory on the card either directly or using an FTP connection.
So, first boot with everything set up and ready to go. And here we have the standard MiSTer menu, and we can scroll through and choose the system that we want to run using either a game controller or USB keyboard.
This programs the FPGA chip ready to run our chosen system, and once it’s loaded up and ready to go, we just press the yellow button to bring up the menu.
In my case I’ve already set the MiSTer up in 1080P mode with integer scaling by editing the MiSTer.ini file, so I don’t need to touch the graphics options, so it’s just a case of choosing a disk or cartridge image from the menu.
Pressing the blue button resets the core.
So lets take a look at a selection of games across a few of my favourite systems.
I should also point out the scandoubler effects - there’s the HQ2X option which kind of softens everything up, I must admit I’m not really a fan of this look but I’m sure there are some games and setups it would work well with so it’s there if you want to use it.
There are also 3 different levels of scanline effect - and while I don’t generally tend to use them, one area I’ve found where they’re actually a big help is on some of the handheld systems, where the graphics were designed for particularly small screens.
For example, there’s the excellent Sonic Advance series on the Gameboy Advance, and I personally find it much easier on the eyes with those scanlines enabled. Although originally designed for a 2.9” screen, it’s a game I’d quite happily sit and play through on the sofa with a bluetooth gamepad.
Of course, you can have a play with the settings yourself and see what you think, and more choice can only ever be a good thing.
So there we have it, the MiSTer MultiSystem from the point of view of someone who’s never owned or used a MiSTer before - and I have to say, I’m very pleased with it.
As you may be aware, I’m the kind of person who loves original hardware, and I do have emulators for various systems as well of course. But one thing that a lot of “MiSTer people” talk about is some vague notion of how the system “feels” much closer to those originals - whether that be down to latency or something else, and much as I hate to say it, I am now one of those people, and it’s something that’s quite hard to put my finger on.
So if you’re into checking out old systems I’d urge you to try out a MiSTer if you can, it’s an overall very nice experience, and it seems that if you do decide to take the plunge like me you certainly can’t go wrong with the MultiSystem if you’re just getting started.
RMC are now taking orders for the second batch - and it’s not a crowdfunding thing - as you’ve seen, it’s a real product that exists and is being manufactured as we speak, but due to the size of their operation and the various ongoing global component issues they are managing expectations by sending them out in batches, with batch 2 due to start shipping early next year.
But as I said at the beginning, there are plenty of other options out there in the MiSTer ecosystem, so do shop around and find the one that works for you.
I have to say I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface in this video and there’s certainly a lot more I want to do with the MultiSystem on the channel in future, so if there’s anything you’d like to see or any questions you have please do let me know down in the comments.
If you enjoyed the video please do feel free to give it a thumbs up, it really helps me out with increasing the visibility of my videos and growing my channel into the future, and its genuinely very much appreciated.
Big thanks as always to my patrons and channel members whose names you can see up on screen as we speak, and finally all that’s left is to thank you very much for joining me, and I hope to see you again soon.
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