Family Computer Robot (ファミリーコンピュータ ロボット) – The Japanese R.O.B.

You’ve likely heard the story of R.O.B. ‘The Robotic Operational Buddy’ for the NES. The story usually goes like this: when Nintendo wanted to bring their successful Family Computer console to America in 1985, the stores wouldn’t take it because they were afraid of losing money on video games, as there had just been a big video game market crash. So in order to get toy stores to stock the console, Nintendo initially bundled the NES with a toy robot and marketed it as an electronic toy instead.

Some of the story might be true, but R.O.B. was actually released in Japan first, as the Family Computer Robot.

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Nintendo was a toy company before they were a games company, and there were many existing examples of the company combining electronics and toys before this. Among the most notable are the original electro-mechanical light gun games: at home (Electro Safari and Electro Bird) and in the arcade (the original versions of Wild Gunman and Duck Hunt).

So really, the robot and its accessories were just part of a long toy/game continuum that continued throughout the Famicom era with peripherals like the Power Pad and all the way through to today with Amiibo and Labo.

The games that were compatible each came with a veritable toybox of additional parts, and are essentially complex mechanical games that use the robot as a central item. Only two games were released, Robot Block and the more elaborate Robot Gyro.  famicomrobot_0581

The Family Computer Robot uses pretty much identical technology to the light guns of the day, but in reverse, so instead of the screen responding to the peripheral, the peripheral responds to the screen. Like light guns it relies on the screen scanning display technique of a cathode ray tube, and so will not work on modern fixed pixel screens, even via a scaler.

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Sorry Framemeister, you’re not up to this task.

So for robot games, a CRT is required, luckily I keep one on hand for just such an occasion.

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Essentially the robot needs to be positioned so he can see the screen clearly in order to respond to the commands he is sent.

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The robot can receive commands from the screen and execute a simple movements based on them. He can move his arms up and down, left to right, and can open and close his grip. This movement set allows him to pick up and move objects.

The two games approach the concept of ‘robot which can pick up items’ differently. Robot Block primarily makes the physical element of the game the primary one, integrating the Famicom software into the mechanical game. Robot Gyro is essentially a regular video game which includes the robot (and gyro) functionality as a physical gimmick.

Robot Block (ロボット ブロック)

Robot Block is the simplest of the two games, in both set-up and software. It comes with a series of attachments which are slotted into the robot’s base, some discs which sit in these attachments and can be stacked on each other, and some hand attachments which can grip the discs.

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The physical game involves manoeuvring the robot to pick up the discs and stack them in a particular order.

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The game itself features a robot testing tool, and three game modes: Direct, Memory and Bingo.

All the games involve a little professor jumping around the interface. Direct is the simplest, you have to stack up the discs in a certain order as shown on the screen.

In Memory you must set up a series of moves for the robot to execute in order to achieve the required physical result. Bingo is a one or two player game where you have to fill in rows or columns in order to execute commands.

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Essentially the software is useless without the accessories, since it’s really just a tool that is used to play with the robot and pieces. It’s also not very fun beyond the 80s robot novelty.

Robot Gyro (ロボット ジャイロ)

Robot Gyro is both the better game, and has the better toys. It also has a much more elaborate set-up. First of all there is a bracket on which the Famicom player II controller sits, with a levered mechanism which can hit the A and B buttons.

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There is a powered gyro spinner which gets two tops spinning at high speed.

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The robot can pick up the tops from the spinner…

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…manoeuvre them over the button levers…

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…and release, which presses down on the matching button on the controller.

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There’s also a slot over on the right to keep the second top when not in use.

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Here’s a closer look at the mechanism to hit the buttons. The mechanisms are coded in blue and red, which ties into the game.

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The set up is actually a pretty fun toy in and of itself, due to the spinning tops being pretty fun and the whole set-up being nicely done. But what about the game?

Well it’s a pretty standard 80s puzzle action platformer (think Lode Runner or Crazy Castle), where the same professor character from Robot Block has to collect all the dynamite in the stage while avoiding the critters.

 

The gimmick is that the stages are full of red and blue pipes which move up and down when the red and blue switches have been hit. In order to get the robot to do this, you essentially pause and issue instructions. It can often take several moves for the robot to slowly get the top to the right button.

Actually playing with the robot is tedious, but the game itself is a decent puzzler if played without it in two player (with the other player hitting A and B). So while the robot toys are fun to play with, and the game is decent, together they are less than the sum of the parts.

 

Overall, while not being the most fun games to play on the Famicom, the Family Computer Robot games are fun pieces connecting Nintendo’s toy and video game eras.

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TV Games Maya (ゲームズマーヤ) Tokyo

In sad news, famous Tokyo game store TV Games Maya closed on April 8 after 35 years.

Games Maya the last time I visited in mid 2017.

Run by shop manager Hisako Akitani as a family business, the run has finally come to an end due to her retirement. It’s crazy to think the shop has been running since around the launch of the Famicom.

GameCenter CX’s man man Arino hosted an event on the final day, and many famous names in the Japanese game industry paid their respects for such a long-running business.

More info about the final day can be found in this blog post collecting tweets from denfaminicogamer, or this report from magazine Famitsu.

I just wish I had bought this sweet Famicom design gaming chair last time I was there!

Labo 1974 edition – Nintendo Paper Model Series (ペーパーモデル)

In preparation for Nintendo’s return to producing toys made out of cardboard, I thought I should try out a similar item in my vintage Nintendo collection. In 1974 Nintendo entered the paper craft market, with a series of simple cardboard DIY projects known as the Nintendo Paper Model series (ペーパーモデル).

There are dozens of designs available and I personally own around 15.

My favourite is probably the Johnny Walker licensed bus, but most of the houses look quite nice too.

  

Since I was going to open an item that had been in the packaging for 44 years, I wondered if my niece Emma was interested in helping…

 

…I took that as a yes.

We started after dinner. Emma chose the French Castle (フランスのお城 – Furansu o-jo) as our project.

In a nice coincidence 城 is one of the first Kanji I was able to recognise thanks to 悪魔城ドラキュラ(Demon Castle Dracula) – the Japanese name for Castlevania!

Here is the card laid out. It is not pop-out and requires some intricate cutting and gluing.

It was here that we realised this was actually much too fiddly for young kids. I had to do many of the cuts with a knife, and assembly was also going to be very fine work. Emma kept drawing while I did most of the grunt work (continuing after Emma’s bedtime), and we glued it together the next day.

The final result: not bad!

The design seems largely based on Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, which is situated on a river.

As such, Emma grabbed some extra paper from her craft supplies and prepared some grounds and a pond, complete with reeds and ducks.

Final result with grounds and pond:

All in all, we had a decent evening/afternoon of fun. But here’s hoping Labo will be easier for kids to be involved at each step!

20/20 Konami Famicom Collector Cards

Another update on this article on my now never-ending quest to collect a series of Konami Famicom character cards from the 80s.

Recap: at some point starting in 1987, Konami decided to include a collector card with all their Famicom titles. Each card had an illustration related to the game; some cards featured screenshots or pieces of screenshots, others had artwork of scenes in the game.

Last time I decided I was done, having collected a card for 19/20 of the games which came with a card. The missing game was Exciting Boxing (エキサイティングボクシング), which while I’d managed to get a hard-to-find boxed copy of it to complete my complete boxed Konami Famicom collection, I’d never seen one with a card outside of complete large box copies which come with a novelty inflatable controller and cost a fortune when they appear.

But one lucky day I found a regular small boxed game with the card. And now I have a card for all twenty of the games that came with one!

On top of this, I picked up a beautiful near mint copy of Dragon Scroll (ドラゴンスクロール) in Ikebukuro, which came with a different card to the one I had, so now I have entered the murky waters of collecting multiple cards per game.

Dragon Scroll also came with these great advertisements for various Konami games and sountracks. Pretty cool when you have almost every item on a vintage ad!
   

This Japanese site (which I found because it flatteringly used this site as a source) has nicely collated most of the available cards, so this journey may go for many more years. Another great site Video Game Den also has good info on the available cards.

So here is my updated card set:

The whole collection, with cards:

The abandoned towns of the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone part 2

Part 1 can be found here. 

Earthquake Damage

In the higher parts of town where the tsunami didn’t hit, the earthquake still did a lot of damage to many buildings.

With the streets cleared of rubble by the government workers, abandoned buildings and infrastructure create an eerie post-apocalytic vibe.

Nuka Cola side quest

Another classic post-apocalytic image omnipresent in Tomioka was that of the dilapidated vending machine. A special someone of mine was a huge fan of the Fallout game series, so I made finding a real-life Nuka Cola a priority.

Unfortunately most machines were either all locked up (I wasn’t going to break in, I’m an explorer not a vandal)…

…or already ransacked.

Even the front can sections had already been broken into in this machine.

Main Streets

There was a highway running through Tomioka with some traffic heading through town to Iwaki, the power plants, and the next town Namie.

But the commercial centres of town remained shuttered.

A grocery store remains boarded up, almost fully stocked.

This dressmaking shop evidently closed quite quickly.

This poster was advertising a festival to be held in April 2011. It presumably never went ahead due to the March 2011 evacuation orders.

This restaurant is in hindsight grimly named アトム (Atom).

This service station has stood up to the elements surprisingly well.

Inside is pristine

But this external basin is caked with grit.

The signage has collapsed on the reverse however.

Pachinko Grand Hall

I spied this building on the way in, and it turned out to be the main event of the trip. A crumbling local casino at the top of the hill.

Several walls have collapsed.

As has the sign.

As well as pachinko, the place featured a halloween themed Karaoke bar.

Inside is a moment in time, frozen.

Pachinko balls (the equivalent of gambling chips) have fallen to the floor and remained there for over six years.

Products like chewing tobacco remain in their racks.

Apart from items that presumably fell in the earthquakes, shelves remain undisturbed.

A kitchen deserted.

Even in an abandoned wasteland, you still have video games in Japan. Puyo Puyo for Windows XP!

And you can never escape from the omnipresent Hello Kitty.

On the way upstairs there was a commercial kitchen.

The second floor waiting room.

With a shelf full of reading material.

My quest to find a Nuka Cola continued, but these machines were empty.

The new view from the second floor bathroom was… something.

The karaoke rooms.

Heading through the back to get to the final floor, apparently there was a Sauna (セウナ)?

Right at the top, the ceiling was collapsing, parts literally fell just as I walked past this section.

The roof seemed stable enough however.

Heading down via the external spiral staircase.

パチンコ グランド ホール – Pachinko gurando horu

One last look on the ground floor led to Nuka Cola success! I found some mini bottles in a small refrigerator for the special gift! Use by date: 19 May 2011…

New Buildings

Probably the saddest scene was right up the top of the town. This was a new estate – six years ago.

Brand new homes completed or half finished. The town was clearly growing, and people were starting their lives here.

But now the houses sit abandoned amidst overgrown weeds.

There was a similar scene closer to the coast. This half-built wooden house was never finished and has since been beaten by weather – but the metal and glass door/window fittings remain pristine.

This old man is one of the handful of residents who had returned to the area as of July/August. He was out walking his little dog and heading to the town’s single shop.

Abandoned School

What would a post-apocayptic scene be without some creepy abandoned institutions? Tomioka delivers with an abandoned school.

On the right is a kindergarten.

It’s all been kept in pretty good condition internally, seemingly with plans for the population to return in the future.

Across the road, a middle/high school.

まごころ – magokoro which means ‘devotion’.

It was getting dark and the final shuttle was leaving, so it was farewell to Tomioka, Iwaki and the rest of this area of Fukushima. If I ever return I imagine it will be very different.

The abandoned towns of the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone part 1

One day in late July 2017 I decided to get back into the urban spelunking game, with a trip out to the abandoned towns of the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone. Since the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and reactor meltdowns, the Japanese government has slowly been reopening areas closer to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and while it remains tricky, a lot of areas can now be visited legally and (mostly) safely.

The trip started with a train from Tokyo to the nearest city Iwaki (いわきし Iwaki-shi).

From there it was a slow train to the coastal outskirts of Fukushima Prefecture.

Nearly at the end of the line was the first sight of something soon to be common – stockpiles of large black bags of radiation-contaminated soil. All soil is being tested inside the entire disaster area, and any found to be contaminated is being removed and shipped out for storage.

Tatsuta Station (たつた)

Tatsuta isn’t a town from what I can tell, just a station. It’s on the edge of the evacuation zone and was partially destroyed and shut down following the 2011 disaster. The station reopened in 2014 as a rail terminus. Trains still do not go any further in.

A new station structure was being built/rennovated, presumably with plans to eventually restore the train line to isolated towns like Tomioka and Namie.

This area is far enough inland that the tsunami didn’t hit, and it’s toward the edge of the exclusion zone, but was nonetheless evacuated 2011-2014 and has remained mostly abandoned.

Business sit empty, and there are no people around at all, apart from the two other people who were on the train.

Another soon to be common sight – geiger counters. Most areas now read at levels ‘safe for long term habitation’.

From here on you have to get a charter bus to any towns further in.

On the outskirts of the zone, the Japanese government has been building new houses for those who lost theirs in the quake and tsunami. All seem to be empty, possibly because the residents have settled elsewhere by now.

This is the road to the second nuclear plant –  Fukushima Daini. It was successfully shut down after the earthquake.

The cooling tower is visible on the skyline.

The sister plant which suffered the meltdown – Fukushima Daiichi – is just south of the next town, Tomioka.

Tomioka (とみおかまち Tomioka-machi)

While tsunami debris had (mostly) been cleared from the streets, it seemed decontamination work had only just begun at Tomioka, one of the two towns closest to the meltdown. Evacuation orders were only lifted two months earlier, and there were a few hazmat-suited work crews around, and a single shop (a supermarket) had opened to service them, as well as workers continuing the long process of decommissioning the damaged Daiichi plant.

Apart from decontamination workers, the majority of the town was still abandoned.

Half-packed possessions remained just sitting around.

Structures that survived the earthquake better were being used as dumping grounds for goods and possessions from elsewhere

Houses closer to the coast in the lower part of the town suffered huge tsunami damage.

This side-of-the-road restaurant and home had been abandoned and overtaken by the elements.

I went exploring inside.

The whole front of the kitchen had collapsed in

Various stored possessions abandoned
The outside sign is falling apart

Continue reading part 2 here – featuring the main streets of Tomioka, a Pachinko parlour (casino), earthquake damaged buildings, an abandoned school, and probably the saddest part: abandoned newly built homes.

Sega games on Nintendo consoles – a history.

Nintendo and Sega first crossed paths as rivals in the arcade business, and this spilled over into the console business when they both released their first home console on the same day.

Unfortunately for Sega, Nintendo well and truly won round 1, and not having a great income stream from their consoles, Sega allowed their games to be released on competing systems like Nintendo’s Famicom and NEC’s PC Engine. The games were published by third parties, but nontheless there were several official Famicom/NES releases where the Sega logo could be seen on a title screen.

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By the late 80’s everything had changed however. Sega’s third console the Mega Drive was doing  very well, and was eventually a solid competitor to the Famicom/NES and later Super Famicom/SNES. As a result, the concept of Sega on Nintendo (or vice versa) faded from memory as a possibility.

Outside of dodgy Famicom pirates of course…

But by the late 90s, Sega was in a bad position again. All their Mega Drive add-ons had failed to gain decent marketshare, as had their Game Boy competitor the Game Gear. And their latest main console, the Saturn, had been a borderline disaster. While it managed to establish a decent niche in Japan (even outselling the Nintendo 64), their previously strong marketshare in the west had crashed. Their entire legacy rested on the hopes of the new Dreamcast console.

As a result, their publishing rules started to relax again, and they allowed other non-competing platforms to see their crown jewel property Sonic. In 1997 a terrible version of Sonic Jam was released on the Game.com, a terrible console by Tiger Electronics. More notably, Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure was released on SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket Color in late 1999.

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On March 31st, 2001, the battle was no more. Sega discontinued the Dreamcast, and started developing games for the remaining platform holders, including Nintendo. The first release was a port of Chu Chu Rocket to Game Boy Advance. The end of the very same year the previously unthinkable had already happened – An official Sonic game on Nintendo.

Two Sonic games were released on December 20 2001. Sonic Advance on Game Boy Advance

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And Sonic Adventure 2 on GameCube. In a strange twist of fate, Sonic actually beat Mario to a new Nintendo console, as it would be another six months until Super Mario Sunshine.

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It went on from there, and the next Sonic game, while multiplatform, was designed primarily for the Nintendo GameCube. SegaNintendo_8975

But for long term fans of both companies, it really really hit home when in 2003 Sega developed a Nintendo game.

This splash screen blew my mind the first time I saw it.

The game? F-Zero GX. And it was one of the greatest games of the generation, and still a killer looking and playing title today.SegaNintendo_8974

Technically that was about it for Sega. In 2003 they were taken over my Pachinko company Sammy and have continued as an upper-mid-tier third party developer. And over a decade later, despite varied game quality, Sonic is a strong seller on Nintendo.

Who would have thought?