Checking out the MiSTer Multisystem

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article on the MiSTer – an FPGA-based retro gaming system that benefits from hardware-level emulation, a large community, and a massive amount of support from developers. As I discussed in that article, I acquired a traditional MiSTer stack setup and customized it with a large external hard drive and minor tweaks to the case to tidy up its appearance. Even with the nice 3D-printed case, however, the standard MiSTer stack looks a little awkward sitting on a desk.

Appearances aside, unless you’re buying a preassembled kit, it can be quite confusing to know what to purchase and how to assemble the MiSTer stack. There are multiple pieces of hardware needed to make it all work; even deciding which ones to purchase can be daunting.

The original MiSTer “stack” is composed of multiple boards

The heart and brains of the MiSTer is a Terasic DE10-Nano FPGA development board (the middle board in the photo above). The other boards add additional outputs, ports, RAM, and other bells and whistles to make the MiSTer playable as a game console. Putting them together can be somewhat of a puzzle.

So, when I came across a project that combines all of those extra boards into one, I was intrigued. And to make it even more compelling, this single-board system resembles a classic, larger footprint gaming console that would be right at home underneath your TV in your home entertainment center. This project is called the MiSTer Multisystem.

The MiSTer Multisystem in all of its glory

The advantage of the MiSTer Multisystem isn’t just that it replaces the multiple add-on boards with a single PCB. There are other added features that the standard MiSTer stack doesn’t provide, such as dual HDMI and VGA output. Or if you’re a European gamer, you might appreciate the built-in SCART connector.

Having to choose between VGA and HDMI bothered me quite a bit when I purchased my original MiSTer stack. I agonized between either an analog output board that used VGA (which I could use on classic CRTs and displays with a 4:3 aspect ratio for an authentic feel), or a digital output board that used HDMI for more modern displays. There wasn’t an option of having both.

The choice of display output isn’t the only thing sure to confuse retro gamer and computer enthusiasts. There are other trade-offs as well, which impact how audio is output and whether or not you get a power switch to turn the MiSTer on and off with.

Fortunately, those compromises go away with the Multisystem.

Examining the Multisystem

I purchased my Multisystem back in Nov. 2022 from the RMC Retro store, when they were still available. Even though there aren’t any in stock at the time that I pen this article, there does seem to be pockets of availability popping up periodically, so keep checking back if you want one. I already had the DE10-Nano FPGA board, which was currently in my MiSTer stack, so my plan was to re-use that instead of spending the $250 to purchase another one. I’m eventually going to use my original MiSTer stack in an arcade cabinet that I’ll be building this spring, so I will need to acquire another DE10-Nano sometime over the next couple of months.

When the Multisystem board arrived, I spent some time looking it over and getting acquainted with it. My initial impression is that it seems well-designed, and I had no major complaints about the production quality. There was one minor issue with the power switch being soldered a bit crooked, but it was still on solid and didn’t interfere with the assembly.

The MiSTer Multisystem, unboxed

Taking a closer look at the board, there are a couple of interesting features that are worth pointing out.

  1. SCART connector – this connector is for a European SCART display. If you’re an American like me, this may not be something you’ve heard of until now, but it’s a fairly well-adopted standard across Europe. I don’t foresee myself using this connector, as I don’t have any SCART display devices in my collection. However, it’s something that the original MiSTer stack doesn’t provide.
  2. 128 MB RAM module – without the RAM module, you’re quite limited in the cores you can run on the MiSTer. Fortunately, the Multisystem includes this module as a built-in component of the board. The board has break-away tabs that you can snip if you choose to remove the module. Though, I have to admit that I’m not sure why you would do that.
  3. Additional SD card slot – you can’t store cores or ROMs on this secondary SD card. Rather, this card is connected directly to the FPGA. Some cores (particularly ones that are still under development) require files on this card, but it’s not something you’ll normally use.
  4. User Port – this is not a standard USB port. Rather, this is used for direct connectivity to the FPGA’s IO pins, which are ADC capable. In short, this allows you to use SNAC adapters with your Multisystem. These are low-latency adapters that enable you to use your original console controllers with analog connectivity. SNAC adapters provide the lowest latency, most authentic gaming experience for classic consoles on the MiSTer. I have an article planned on SNAC adapters coming up soon, so keep an eye out for that one.
  5. HDMI Isolation Bank Switches – if you’ve ever leveraged some of the HDMI features such as CEC, you may have experienced HDMI wreaking havoc on your home entertainment setup. These isolation switches allow you to disable specific HDMI features that are incompatible with your HDMI devices and displays. A very useful feature, indeed.

After being acquainted with the Multisystem board, I took on the task of putting it all together.

Assembling the System

I opted not to purchase a pre-printed enclosure, and instead decided to download the 3D model and print it myself on my Prusa i3 MK3S+. For the color, I chose Azure Blue Prusament PLA, which turned out quite nice, as you can see in the photos.

A set of freshly printed Multisystem case pieces in a lovely Azure Blue

After the case was printed, I followed the instructions in the assembly guide, which were clear and straightforward. The only problem I encountered was with mounting my SSD drive enclosure. The case I printed had a slot in the top piece with mounting holes for a standard 2.5″ hard drive. However, I was using a much smaller NVMe drive enclosure that I already had on hand, which didn’t have any mounting holes. To work around this, I used some double-sided gorilla tape to secure the NVMe enclosure to the inside of the lid. I tested it with a couple of hearty tugs and was satisfied that the drive enclosure wasn’t going to fall off.

Ideally, I would’ve invested a little more time and designed and printed a drive adapter instead… a future project for a rainy day, perhaps.

An NVMe SSD mounted to the inside of the lid

While I was able to get the SSD to fit, there was one other thing about this configuration that was mildly annoying. Even though the SSD is enclosed in the case, I had to use one of the external USB ports to connect it. This resulted in a little pigtail sticking out the back of the unit. Ideally, I would’ve loved to have had all the wires inside the housing for a cleaner look.

Unfortunately, the little cable poking out the clashes with the aesthetics

One interesting aspect of assembly is that the DE10-Nano board mounts to the Multisystem upside down. It then connects to the Multisystem with a really short ethernet and micro-USB cable. The cabling configuration makes the system look a bit like a steampunk butterfly, but it all seems to fit into the case fine.

The DE10-Nano and Multisystem board mounted into the bottom half of the case

The FPGA has a heatsink, but there still needs to be some airflow across the fins. So, to keep the overall system cool, there are mounting holes for either a 3.3v or 5v, 30mm case fan. A 30mm fan doesn’t seem like it would move much air, but it does the job surprisingly well in this case. I’ve had the MiSTer Multisystem turned on for several days in Super Attract Mode, playing it off and on, and haven’t experienced any thermal issues.

Something that I really like about the case design is how easily accessible the board is. The top of the case is held in place with thumbscrews. Once removed, the top slides off, and you have access to the configuration jumpers and DIP switches onboard.

The lid slides back for quick access to the board without tools

Accessing the front USB port, SNAC connector, and expansion slot are even easier. The cover snugly slides into place and lifts off when you want to plug in an original controller.

Lifting the hood to find a USB port, SNAC port, and expansion slot

Using the Multisystem

With the system fully assembled, it was time to turn it on and see how well it works. I should mention that I didn’t change anything on the SD card or change the software configuration from my original MiSTer stack in any way. I used the same SD card and SSD drive, just plugged into the Multisystem board instead of the MiSTer USB Hub board. Moving over to the multisystem was a very simple experience, software-wise.

I found the SD Card slot on the top of the Multisystem to be quite accessible. The case is designed well enough that the card can be easily removed and re-inserted. Directly in front of the SD card slot is a vertical slit. At first glance, I scratched my head and wondered at what this might be for, until I realized that it’s a storage slot for an additional SD card. It’s not a huge feat of engineering, but a clever addition indeed.

An SD card storage slot, so you don’t lose that 2nd SD card

Aside from the oversized power switch, there are 3 buttons, which the Multisystem assembly guide suggests that you print in red, yellow, and blue. This is to make it less confusing when reaching out to support or referencing Multisystem documentation. This makes sense – being told to press the blue button is confusing if none of your buttons are blue.

The front button panel on the Multisystem

The larger red button on top is the reset button. If you’re playing a game and want to get back to the main MiSTer menu, this is the button to press. The yellow button on the front will bring up the on-screen menu. This is where you would change games within a core or modify other settings, such as the controller mapping or display options. The blue button is the ‘user’ button. Each MiSTer core can customize what this button does, but I’ve found that for most cores, it just acts as a reset button for the currently loaded game.

As I alluded to earlier, one of the things that I was most excited about with the Multisystem is its ability to use both VGA and HDMI output, which I had to try out. So, I connected both an HDMI and VGA monitor to the Multisystem to see what the experience was like. And wow, it worked beautifully. This is great for situations where you might want to play a game on a CRT for an authentic experience, while also outputting it to a digital streaming or recording device.

The Multisystem’s dual video output in action

Final Thoughts

There’s not really anything to say here about the MiSTer itself; once assembled, the Multisystem functions exactly the same as the original MiSTer stack. The differences in this case are with the additional features and the physical footprint. And as you can see, the physical device is beautiful and leaves you with the feeling that you’re playing an actual console.

The Multisystem looks and feels like a gaming console, rather than a maker project

Should you fork over your hard-earned cash for one? Well, as I’ve said before – it really depends on what you want. If you want a system that feels like a console, and you want to play classic console-based games on with the most authentic experience possible… then yes, you should buy the Multisystem instead of the standard MiSTer stack. However, if you’re looking to embed your MiSTer into an arcade cabinet, then you’re probably better off with the standard MiSTer stack or even a MiSTercade.

I, for one, will enjoy having the MiSTer Multisystem sitting in my entertainment center, and using it to revisit those classic games I love.

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