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!

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:

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?

 

Pre-WW2 Nintendo Hanafuda (花札) – cards and gambling kit

This is my oldest Nintendo item, a set of original Nintendo Hanafuda. I’m not sure of the exact date of manufacture, the seller said the kit was ‘pre-war’. Given the superb condition it seems likely it is from quite late in that prescribed period.

The set is contained in an unassuming wooden box.

In which fit the gambling paraphernalia and cards.

I have no idea if the the non-card items are Nintendo made, but the kit is clearly built around the box of Nintendo cards and it all fits together very neatly.

Various chips for gambling.

Under the main card box is a tray of other gambling related items.

The card with the woman on it says 百本 or something like ‘a hundred points’.

The small Hanafuda box itself is where we can see the original Nintendo branding.

任天堂 – Nin Ten Do – in the original kanji logo.

The lid lifts off to reveal the beautiful Hanafuda (花札) – literally ‘flower cards’.

The cards themselves are quite beautiful and well made.

These three cards are branded. The left card has the Nintendo Playing Card logo, and the middle is branded with 任天堂 Nin Ten Do.

You can see the matching logo on the plaques at Nintendo’s old HQ in Kyoto.

The same logo is on the door on the right!

The whole kit.

Nintendo Classic Mini Family Computer (ニンテンドークラシックミニ ファミリーコンピュータ)

Finally a mini Famicom has been released!

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Hmm not that one, one that plugs into your TV and plays Famicom games!

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No? How about a high quality production made by Nintendo themselves?

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Okay so the concept of a ‘mini Famicom’ isn’t exactly unique. There have been quite a few ‘mini Famicom’ systems released over the years by Nintendo and others, including two Famicom versions of the Game Boy Advance SP, the fancier one on the left being a super-exclusive run of only 200.

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But here’s the latest mini Famicom – the Nintendo Classic Mini Family Computer.

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It’s a tribute console, built as a small Linux computer running an emulator with thirty pre-installed classic games. It powers via USB and outputs a 1280×720 pixel picture, upscaling the original 256×240 resolution of the games. It’s the Japanese counterpart of the Nintendo Classic Mini NES, and much like the western equivalent appears to have been a huge hit.

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The box is identical in size to that of the Nintendo Classic Mini NES

The thirty built-in games cover the entire run of the original Famicom, but there is definitely a focus on earlier titles.

  1. Donkey Kong
  2. Mario Bros.
  3. Pac-Man
  4. Excitebike
  5. Balloon Fight
  6. Ice Climber
  7. Galaga
  8. Yie Ar Kung-Fu
  9. Super Mario Bros.
  10. Zelda no Densetsu
  11. Atlantis no Nazo
  12. Gradius
  13. Makaimura
  14. Solomon’s Key
  15. Metroid
  16. Akumajou Dracula
  17. Adventure of Link
  18. Tsuppari Ozumo
  19. Super Mario Bros. 3
  20. Ninja Gaiden
  21. Rockman 2
  22. Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari
  23. Double Dragon II
  24. Super Contra
  25. Final Fantasy III
  26. Dr. Mario
  27. Downtown Nekketsu Koushinkyoku: Soreyuke daiundoukai
  28. Mario Open Golf
  29. Super Mario USA
  30. Kirby’s Adventure

Right from the start this one is a classy affair, with the packaging and presentation matching up to the original as perfectly as possible.

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Even the manual is a tribute.

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Without context, a photograph of the device itself could be confused for an 80s Famicom even by a fan.

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Nintendo has done some vintage style television commercials for the new console

It’s not quite as small as the NES Mini, at around a 2/3 scale of the original.

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The obvious reason for this is that unlike the NES Mini’s full size replicas of original controllers, the Mini Family Computer controllers are also scale models.

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It’s a take on the mid-period Family Computer, as it has round controller buttons, but lacks the Famicom Family ‘FF’ branding on the left of the front faceplate that Nintendo introduced to the console in 1988.

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Round buttons, but a minor incorrect detail – they are convex compared to the original buttons which were concave.

While the controllers are tiny they remain perfectly usable – the directional pad and buttons are identical in size to those of a Game Boy Micro.

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From the front the system is almost identical, but it is missing the instruction stickers for power and eject buttons and expansion port cover. Which begs the question: did Nintendo mean for owners to remove these stickers on the original models?

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Of course the major change is the back of the system, with new micro USB power and HDMI video output replacing the ancient original selections.

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Just like the original, it is designed for the players to sit near the console to play since the controller cords are very short. The reset button is used to switch games on the mini, so it makes sense here to use long HDMI and power cables and sit near the console.

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Like the western NES Mini, games are selected from a menu, and boot pretty much instantly. There is a save state feature, allowing saving at any time into four slots per game with various cute animations. A brand new mid-80s style 8-bit tune plays in the menu, it’s the same one as the NES Mini and will get stuck in your head.

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There are three scaling options for the games, all of which have issues. 4:3 is the default and displays the games in the correct aspect ratio, but you end up with minor scaling artefacts when scrolling. A pixel-perfect mode allows for no scaling artefacts, but the graphics are stretched vertically.

And there’s a ‘vintage’ mode which applies a scan line effect as well as approximations of various composite/radio frequency noise that you would experience on original hardware. The vintage mode is actually very well done, but more of a novelty since half of the point of a new device is to get a cleaner picture.

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There are some minor emulation issues such as sound lag (and a couple of frames of overall lag), but the presentation is pretty solid overall. It’s not going to replace an RGB modded Famicom and Framemeister combo for dedicated retro enthusiasts, but is still very well done for the price.

Here’s the original Nintendo trailer, which covers most of the basic features in depth.

It’s a very cool toy, and a great collectors item. However in my opinion the classiest ‘mini Famicom’ ever remains the Famicom Game Boy Micro, as that thing is a work of art.

My mini Famicom collection:

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Nintendo Color-TV Game Racing 112 (カラーテレビゲームレーシング112)

First there was the Color TV-Game 6, then the Color-TV Game 15. And the final Nintendo single-game console release was the Color TV-Game Block Breaker. I was missing one – until now.

The biggest, and perhaps coolest of the Color-TV game range, 1978’s Nintendo Color-TV Game Racing 112 (カラーテレビゲームレーシング112)

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It’s a huge game, due to the realistic wheel and gear stick. The wheel is removable for transport so it can fit in a smaller box, but the box is still huge, here it is next to a Famicom for scale.

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The centrepiece of the system is obviously the wheel.

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On the right side of the system is the game modes panel. You can select between one or two player modes, track width, speed level, enemy car behaviour (zig zagging or straight lines), if hitting the barriers counts as a crash, road hazards, and if there are one or two opposing cars at once. Down is the easier position for each of the option switches. The red button is reset/start.

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And on the left is the two position gear shift.

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In terms of design, it’s pretty much a straight clone of Taito’s 1974 arcade game Speed Race, which was the first ever game with a scrolling background effect. You view the track from above, and steer left and right to avoid the other cars on the road. It scrolls quite smoothly, the moving effect being provided by trackside ‘stripe’ markers.

Personal side note: I remember playing Speed Race in a local (ish) arcade in the late 80s/early 90s. The arcade, know as ‘Funland’ opened in 1970 as a pinball parlour (even before there were video games) and collected and maintained games from every era over the years. I didn’t appreciate at the time, but that arcade’s maintenance of old machines gave me some early gaming history lessons!

Back to Racing 112. There are two major variations of the one player game, with wide and narrow roads. You must pass the other cars without hitting them, and last as long as you can. The feature switches allow you to adjust speed, number of cars on the road (one or two per screen/wave) and the way the cars move (straight or in patterns).

Just like the paddles in the previous Color TV games, the Steering wheel is an analogue controller, so the steering speed changes based on how far you turn the wheel. The gear shift is digital, and simply allows you to move between two speeds

It’s pretty basic, but compelling, and the basic gameplay formula remained popular well into the mid 80s with the likes of  Midway’s Spy Hunter, Konami’s Road Fighter, and Sega’s Action Fighter.

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The two player mode doesn’t use the steering wheel, but instead two paddle controllers, which you can pull out from storage slots on the back. You stay at only one speed in two player, but while all game modes remain intact, it’s basically just a head to head for score, as the two players stay on their own track and do not interact with each other.

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Paddle storage slots

Just like all the other consoles in the CTV series, it connects via a hardwired RF cable and tunes to the same Japanese channels (1/2) as a Famicom, and uses an external 9V power supply which was sold separately and compatible with all models. A Famicom compatible power supply works perfectly too.

The Color-TV Game 6 had six Pong variations, and and the Color-TV Game 15 had either seven or about 20 Pong variations depending how minor a variation counts. Does Racing 112 have one hundred and twelve racing game variations? Technically yes, something like that. In an era where adding a feature like zig zagging cars might mean a whole new release (Super Zig Zag racing Turbo III!) saying there were over 100 game variations isn’t actually false advertising.

The Color-TV line ended the following year with the awesome Block Breaker, which was also the first game to feature the Nintendo brand on the casing. But for going all-out, it’s hard to beat the Racing 112.

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