The American Era – Japanese games on the Atari Video Computer System

Until the mid 1980s, console gaming was dominated by the American company Atari, and their home platform the Video Computer System, or VCS for short.

Ports of Atari’s own arcade games were the main selling points of the system, alongside Atari’s made-for-home efforts and eventually games by the first third party developer, Activision.

The VCS was not officially supported in Japan in the 70s (it was eventually released in 1983 as the 2800, far too late), but was sub-distributed in the country by Epoch, who also had their own line of consoles at the time. Nintendo was still releasing their single game Color TV Game series consoles. Japan was pretty much just a minor regional market in the grand scheme of things.

However, this changed in 1978, when Space Invaders by Taito became the biggest video game hit of all time to that point.

It was so big in Japan that entire arcades opened dedicated to that single game, but it was a huge hit everywhere in the world where games were played. Space Invaders was the start of what would eventually become Japanese dominance of the video game industry.

An ‘Invader House’ in Japan

It was ported to the VCS in 1980 in the first ever licensing deal, and became the killer app for the system.

It was a decent port that resembled the arcade game well.

And was packed in with every console, leading sales to increase substantially.

From then on, all the biggest games seemed to come from Japan. Nacmo’s Puck Man (renamed Pac Man for the west) was the next big name, followed by Nintendo’s Donkey Kong.

Another small Japanese firm named Sega were also making a name for themselves too, particularly with racing games like Monaco GP and Turbo. Having previously made mechanical arcade games, Sega games were known for fancy custom arcade hardware.

Steering wheels and sit down cabinets were Sega’s calling card.

All these Japanese companies’ games made their home debuts on American systems. Pac Man had an infamously bad VCS port which was the start of a downward trajectory for Atari.

Pac Man? Is that you?

Coleco managed to sign up the rights for Donkey Kong and several Sega games for their Colecovision system, but also published them on the VCS. Though the ageing VCS hardware and shoddy ports did not do the games justice.

This was the last time for decades Nintendo and Sega games were officially published on the same platform, though some of Sega’s games turned up on Nintendo platforms in roundabout ways, such as Sunsoft’s publishing of some Sega games on the Famicom.

And thanks to Nintendo taking over Japan and then the world with the Famicom/NES, and then Nintendo or Sony winning every generation since, to this day Japanese consoles have dominated. Though admittedly western software has regained sales dominance worldwide in the last decade.

One final interesting note is that due to some licensing deals of the era, a Nintendo game was released on Atari VCS that never saw a release elsewhere. A 1981 Nintendo game called Sky Skipper was never released in arcades following poor reviews in location testing.

But a port by Parker Brothers made its way onto Atari’s system.

The port is not too bad, considering the hardware.

Sky Skipper was never released or ported to any other platform for 35 years, until it was finally released as part of the Arcade Archives series on Nintendo Switch in 2018.

Shortly after release of Sky Skipper on Nintendo Switch, I was #8 in the world on the high score table. I’m sure scores have exploded since then…

Epoch Super Cassette Vision (スーパーカセットビジョン)

Before the Family Computer took over the world, the biggest name in Japanese console games was Epoch. Similar to Nintendo’s Color TV line, Epoch created a series of consoles that played a single game (Space Invaders clones, Baseball etc), and in 1981 the company spun off that hardware design into a cartridge based console, the Cassette Vision.

The original Cassette Vision console

The Cassette Vision did decently enough, but in 1983 arcade players Nintendo and Sega had entered the space with the Family Computer and SG1000, which were both selling well (very well in Nintendo’s case). So Epoch joined the next generation with the Super Cassette Vision. It’s a very interesting machine because it straddles the line between the generations of that era.

The console design itself bears several marks of the transitional nature of the industry at the time. At first it looks like a controller-less unit, but they’re hidden behind the front panel.

Like all Japanese consoles of the era, the controller cords are attached to the console, but the console has slots to store them much like the Famicom. The SG1000 II and Mark III also followed this Famicom design cue.

They fold out to reveal what are essentially a much better version of the SG1000 controller, itself a cut down version of the Colecovision controller. What makes them better are they use Game & Watch/Famicom style rubber membranes internally for buttons and stick directions, as opposed to the bending metal leaf connectors of Atari/Coleco/SG1000 controllers.

Ironically, Nntendo had the exact same idea in 1984, with their Micro Vs System game & Watch design.

The top of the console features a number pad for selecting game modes etc, which is very reminiscent of the Intellivision and Colecovision’s number pads, though it’s much better having them on the console, making the controllers more compact and comfortable. Similar to the SG1000 and Mark III, there is no start button on the pads, but a pause button on the console itself.

One thing that sets the console apart from others of the era is that it supports RGB-out right from the console. While unlikely to have been used by most customers of the era, today it makes it very easy to get great quality output.

Photograph of the game on my LCD via the Framemeister

In terms of power, it’s an odd one. The games have a very stable, sharp graphical presentation, with no flicker (Epoch boasts right on the console that it can handle 128 sprites at once), good bright colours, and decent quality sprites.

On that metric, it had the best quality graphics of any console until the PC Engine. But the system is still clearly in the Intellivision/Colecovision era in what it can handle. Backgrounds are always flat colour (or black), there is barely any scrolling and games are either simple, or slow, with little going on. Sound wide it’s probably about the same as the SG1000/Mark III, which is to say far below the Famicom.

But it’s a unique piece of hardware due to this dichotomy between such clean, solid presentation (especially via RGB) and more primitive style games, and it feels a lot like an 80s microcomputer, like the MSX.

Just like the Famicom, games came in cardboard boxes, with a little manual.

Taking another cue from Nintendo, they were on colourful cartridges, allowing quick selection of the game you want to play.

Short and stubby but with an end label, they’re a hybrid shape between the ‘cassette’ like shape of the Famicom and the long Atari style of the Sega carts of the era.

The front of each game cart shows a quick control reference for that game, which is nice.

Pop & Chips is an interesting cart, as it features saving via battery backup. instead of using permanent internal batteries like Nintendo games started to use in the later 80s, the cart simply has a slot for AAs.

Those character designs on Pop & Chips may seem familiar. they look very much like characters from Taito’s Chack’n’Pop (the 1983 ‘prequel’ to Bubble Bobble). It plays somewhat like Lode Runner however.

Along those lines, Epoch were not averse to ripping off other games to support their system. As seen above in the RGB screenshot, Astro Wars explicitly states it’s a Space Invaders derivative, though being much more advanced it feels more like Galaga, as does its sequel.

But some other ‘familiar’ names pop up too.

Wheelie Racer is a version of Data East’s Bump ‘n’ Jump/Burnin’ Rubber/Buggy Popper

Comic Circus is a limited take on Konami’s Circus Charlie with a bit of Sega’s Carnival.

And Elevator Fight a loose take on Taito’s Elevator Action.

I have no idea what Ton Ton Ball is based on, if anything.

There were some licensed official releases of games too. Marked clearly as being ‘From USA’ there was an officially licensed release of First Star Software’s Boulder Dash.

Other notable releases are games based on licences. There was a Lupin the Third game, a Doremon game, and the first ever Dragonball game.

The Super Cassette Vision faded pretty quickly after the Famicom started taking over Japan. It got a small licensed release in France, but didn’t appear anywhere else in the world. Epoch returned to its traditional strengths as a toymaker, and in 1985 created the Sylvanian Families animal dolls toy line that was incredibly successful and continues to this day. One neat link between the product lines is Epoch makes consoles for the Sylvanian Families playsets as well as various gacha toys, including this mini Super Cassette Vision (and mini TV playing Pop & Chips)

Super Cassette Vision Advertisement

 

First Edition Black Stripe/’Germany’ model Sega SG-1000 (エスジー・セン)

A while ago I got something rather special, the original ‘Black Stripe’ edition of the Sega SG1000. It’s also known as the ‘Germany’ model since it features a front panel with three colours that match the German flag.

This machine is somewhat analogous to the first edition square buttons Famicom model, in that it was the first ever model of the first Sega console, produced as a short initial run, but was quickly replaced by a revised model which became more ubiquitous. As such the majority of original SG1000 consoles feature the revised red/blue colour motif matching the blue Sega logo.

This one was in pretty rough shape physically, and was sold as ‘untested’. But it powered up fine.

And it booted and played a game perfectly the first time!

It obviously needed a good cleaning. For comparison here it was lined up with my restored square buttons Famicom.

On a side note, now that I have both true first edition models I should probably revise my 1983 Nintendo/Sega Face off article.

So I set out to restore it visually in the usual way.

In the meantime, I inspected the board and found something interesting.

It’s such an early model, Sega was revising the PCBs by hand! Later revisions had these trace fixes integrated into the PCB.

And here’s the restored console.

The label on the controller has seen better days.

But the main unit is now in pretty nice condition.

Finally, some glamour shots with its younger brother.

1969 Nintendo Electronic Love Tester (ラブテスター)

The 1969 Electronic Love Tester is Nintendo’s first electronic toy. Designed by Nintendo legend Gunpei Yokoi (the man who sent Nintendo into toys with the Ultra Hand and later created the Game & Watch and Game Boy), it’s a novelty device ‘for young ladies and men’ that alleges to test the ‘love’ between a couple by measuring their electrical conductivity.

It’s presented in a box with oh-so 60s styling, and comes with the device, instructions, and faux-leather carry case.

The instructions show how to play and how to set it up. It’s powered by a single AA battery.

It is possibly the most 60s looking toy ever made, right out of The Jetsons. This one still has the original metal ties for the cords. The cords are a bit stiff after over fifty years, as is the vinyl case.

The cords unwind and couples take one sensor each in hand, and hold hands with their other to get a reading.

To change the battery and access the internals, it’s much like an old transistor radio from the same era, and requires removing the back plate via a single screw. Internally it’s very simple of course.

The Love Tester makes a cameo appearance in the Gamecube and Wii game Pikmin 2, described by Captain Olimar as a ‘Prototype Detector’.

And like many of the older Nintendo products, appears in the WarioWare series, as a souvenir in WarioWare Twisted on Game Boy Advance, and as a minigame in WarioWare Gold on 3DS.

There was also a 2010 re-release, which came in a recreation of the original box. You can tell the new one by the additions to the box design.

GG-WHITE – The Rare White Sega Game Gear (セガゲームギア)

Here is a quite rare and valuable item, the GG-WHITE set. They were not sold and were only given to Sega employees or developers, according to Sega Retro.
It comes in a custom case with matching accessories.

Including of course a Japanese TV Tuner.

Unfortunately this one doesn’t work, and needs to be recapped like most Game Gears.

My go-to is the red model, which was one of the last releases in Japan and used better capacitors, so still works fine.

Well, as fine as a Game Gear ever did…

But it’s pretty nice to have put all the white Sega consoles together! Though I forgot my SG1000s for this picture…

Nintendo Ultra Machine (ウルトラ マシン)

One of the famous Nintendo ‘Ultra’ line toys, the Nintendo 1967 Ultra Machine (ウルトラ マシン) forms part of Nintendo’s transition between card manufacturing to toys in the 60s and 70s.

As may be obvious from the box art, it’s an automatic baseball pitching machine.

It of course comes semi-assembled so as to fit in the box, the packable design and packaging layout is particularly elegant.

Fully assembled, with Nintendo branded bat.

A line up of included plastic balls (with slight shape variations to affect their trajectory) collect in the basket, and fall one by one into position for the flicking mechanism.

Speed selection

Here on the battery compartment is the first ever instance of the modern Nintendo logo appearing on a product. It hasn’t yet got the ‘racetrack’ border, but sits inside a squashed hexagon.

It’s one of those ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of products. The motor doesn’t work in mine but you can manually set a ball to be launched, and it throws the balls quite well.

The Ultra Machine has made several guest appearances in Nintendo video games in the years since, most often in the Warioware series

But more recently in Splatoon 2, where a jury-rigged Ultra Machine serves as a bomb launcher.

Complete Nintendo Classic Mini collection – with the original consoles (ニンテンドークラシックミニ)

Now that I have finally picked up each Nintendo Classic Mini, here they all are with the original consoles.

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)

Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System.

Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Famicom (ニンテンドークラシックミニ スーパーファミコン)

Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System

And for completeness, the Nintendo Classic Mini Family Computer Shonen Jump Edition… and an original ‘Golden’ Famicom!