MARS: Multi Arcade & Retro System

Over the past few months the MARS team has been teasing a new FPGA-based system:  Multi Arcade & Retro System.  The concept is similar to the MiSTer, but running on its own custom, more powerful hardware.  They’re expecting to launch it early next year at a $700 price point, with all the MiSTer cores, as well as some cores that won’t be able to run on the MiSTer ready to go at launch.  While I’ll be doing an interview with some of the team members soon, I wanted to put a post together to answer some of the questions people have about it.  Check it all out after the link:

Main Page:

First off, MARS is a piece of hardware that is similar to a small console, or set-top box.  Once again, the release date is most likely early 2024 and they’re aiming for a $700 price point.  There will be worldwide distribution as well.  Your $700 purchase will get you everything you need inside an injection-molded case, with no other hardware required…other than bringing your own controller / controller adapter / etc.  While this is double the price of a “barebones” MiSTer setup, it’s really not much more expensive than a fully-loaded setup.  Also, you’re only paying for the hardware:  There’s absolutely no paywall or “upgrade” for cores and software – You pay for one piece of hardware, that’s it.

It has a powerful FPGA inside, as well as a ARM64 CPU.  This should allow for more FPGA cores than MiSTer can support and there’s potential for decent software emulation via the ARM chip.  There’s also the potential for hybrid emulation, for things like Mortal Kombat II – The entire arcade board could be FPGA, but the DSP audio chip might be emulated on the ARM chip.

Personally, I’d love to see MAME running on MARS’ ARM64 chip, just to hold people off until more games are ported to FPGA.  I’d also like to see the potential of the ARM chip used to run something like Kodi – This way, if you have it connected to a CRT, maybe you can also use it to play videos like you can do with a Raspberry Pi emulation box.

Speaking of CRT’s, MARS will output HDMI up to 4K, as well as RGB via a dsub connector which will also support other formats (like MiSTer and Analogue consoles);  Definitely YPbPr and VGA, but it should also handle composite and S-Video as well.  JAMMA out will also be supported, by removing a cover on the side of the console (think Sega CD).  You will NOT need to purchase extra hardware for JAMMA (unless you’d like an extension cable or something) – JAMMA’s included in the price.

It’ll also have MIDI in & out ports, as well as gigabit ethernet, bluetooth and a few USB ports.

It will support USB controllers, as well as controller modules that snap into the front.  These work the similar to SNAC adapters on the MiSTer, allowing for non-multiplexed, direct access to the FPGA pins.  This will allow zero latency inputs for controllers and light guns (assuming you’re using a CRT) as well.  Un-like MiSTer SNAC adapters, there’s planned support for full menu control via controller modules…so, no needing a USB keyboard at the same time as a controller.

Also, MARS will be completely open source and operate similar to MiSTer:  The main MARS devs will release all their code and contributors can operate the way they currently do.  Said differently, other dev’s are welcome to continue releasing private beta cores to subscribers, as long as there’s an eventual public release.  The only thing that’s not planned on being open source is the hardware design itself…but neither is the DE-10, so that’s fair.

The team’s caused quite a stir on social media, teasing some future cores they’ll be attempting.  Stuff like Dreamcast, PolyGame Master, 3DO and Jaguar have all been discussed and while they won’t be easy, it’s at least technically possible on that hardware.  Also, they’ve started assembling quite the team, with people to cover many aspects of the project.  One of the most exciting things for me, was seeing Wizzo’s take on the upcoming user interface:

So, there’s obviously a lot more to discuss…and most importantly, we still need to see one in action.  Hopefully this will all happen soon, along with an interview with some of the team members to ask all the little questions that I didn’t get to here.  Overall I’m really excited for the project and think it has tons of potential!

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