The NEC PC Engine – The Original Hardcore Machine

After the Famicom, The MSX personal computer was the next biggest player in Japanese gaming in the the 8-bit era, followed by Sega’s SG1000/Mark III series.

Sega had to settle for third place again in the next round, thanks to another type of PC: NEC’s PC Engine console.
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The PC Engine was a collaboration between software developer Hudson Soft and computer manufacturer NEC. Released in 1987, the timing of the PC Engine’s release fit perfectly in a lull in the market, between the dominant but ageing Famicom, and the long awaited release of the Super Famicom. I believe was the highest selling console in either 1988 or 1989.

Keen Japanese gamers jumped at the opportunity to own a more powerful gaming box, and partly due to a smart hardware design that could draw lots of sprites with no hiccups, right from the start the PC Engine thrived on ‘hardcore’ arcade genres like shooters and other action games.

PCE R-Type Part 1.002
Irem’s R-Type port is one of the defining games of the system.

Partly because of this arcade focus, the PC Engine was also able to maintain a market position even after the release and eventual domination of the Super Famicom. While Nintendo and other industry leaders like Squaresoft and Enix were pulling the industry away from its arcade roots with longer-form games like RPGs and adventures (Zelda, Metroid, Dragon Quest – even Mario had save features and became more of an exploring game than one you defeated in a single sitting), there was a place for a console which was a haven for games of the old paradigm.

As co-creator, Hudson produced many of the key titles, including mascot titles like PC Genjin, and shooters like the Star Soldier series. But the console had relatively wide third party support, and many of the defining titles were high quality arcade ports from third parties.

PCE PC Genjin 2.000   PCE Soldier Blade.001

PCE Parasol Stars - The Story of Bubble Bobble III.000   PCE Makyou Densetsu - The Legendary Axe.000

The PC Engine was also the first ever system to have a CD attachment released, which attracted PC developers and ambitious multi-media projects from console developers. This was yet another point of differentiation from Nintendo’s machine. CD players were expensive at the time, and so the price required to join the CD party locked the platform into its already established hardcore niche.

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Many great games, but a high price to pay for them. Some things never change it seems…

A notable feature of the PC Engine is how tiny the pre-CD console is. The original release is dwarfed in size by the contemporary consoles. It’s a really nice piece of engineering.

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One of the reasons the console can be so small is that the games came on credit-card sized ‘Hu-Cards’ and fit in a front-loading slot.

PCE_04  PCE_05

Hu-cards are pretty much a straight copy of Sega’s SG1000 and Mark III ‘My Card’ format. They even came in the same type of vinyl sleeve inside the packaging, though thankfully PCE games also came in a CD case sized plastic case, instead of Sega’s cardboard boxes.

PCE_06   PCE_07

The original PC Engine only had an RF connection in the box, but the console included a huge external out connector, allowing peripherals access to many system functions and chip outputs, including composite, RGB and audio out pins. A peripheral known as the ‘AV Booster’ was released allowing composite outputs, and it’s even relatively easy to make your own simple composite cable that connects to the correct four pins:

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My $2 ‘AV Booster’

PC Engine, being an 80s Japanese console, also has very short controller cords. But luckily the controller used a standard 8-pin mini-din plug (commonly used to connect Apple Macintosh computers in the 80s and 90s) so you can grab an extension cable much more easily and cheaply than for other consoles. It did however only have one controller port, meaning a multi-tap is required even for two player games.

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Partly due to the success of the CD add-on, it’s also the console with possibly the most versions ever released. There were several versions of the original console released (one each from NEC and Hudson adding native composite output), a couple of different CD interface units to add a CD drive to these consoles, along with several generations of ‘system cards’ which contained software and RAM upgrades for the CD system’s use. There was also a weird semi-upgrade called the SuperGrafix, and finally several units combining the PCE, CD unit, and system cards.

This is the final version, the PC Engine Duo RX.

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While the original console was famous for being small, the final PC Engine release is quite large, dwarfing the original unit.

PCE_09   PCE_10

So that’s the PC Engine. In a lot of ways it’s appealing as the ‘last gasp’ for the idea of a home console bringing the arcade experience home, with its many great arcade style action games.

PCE Saigo no Nindou - Ninja Spirit.000
Ninja Spirit – another Irem arcade classic

At the same time, it was simultaneously a glimpse at the future, with its successful CD implementation.

The appeal of the PC Engine matches up well with the wants of many dedicated gamers, and as a result it remains an expensive console to collect for.

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The alpha and the omega
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Nintendo and Sega’s 8-bit Controller Rivalry

Nintendo and Sega had a famous rivalry in the 80s and 90s. In this post I’ll focus on a single element – the first party controllers of their 8-bit consoles.

———-

1981

The story begins before either company has released a cartridge based console. In 1982 Nintendo completely reinvents cheap directional input with the calculator style ‘plastic button above rubber membrane’ design of the directional controller pad (d-pad) in the Donkey Kong Game & Watch.

It’s equal to expensive microswitch arcade joysticks in speed, reliability and precision. It has great tactile feedback thanks to the ‘give’ of the rubber.

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1983 Donkey Kong II

It is a vastly superior solution to the standard Atari-style joysticks of the time, whose sticks and buttons use primitive leaf connectors (bending metal) to register button/direction presses.

———-

1983

Nintendo releases the first edition of the Famicom. The controllers feature the Game & Watch d-pad, and like Donkey Kong, soft rubber action action (A/B) buttons. Also like Game & Watches, it features soft rubber function buttons (Start and Select).

Nintendo continue the ‘metal plate on top of coloured plastic‘ styling of the Game & Watch series.

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The rubber buttons are usable, and suitable for simpler games, but are not as responsive as the d-pad is, and on hard presses can get stuck on the corners. For this reason (combined with a rare graphics glitch issue) Nintendo recalls these models in early 1984 and replaces them for customers. As such they’re relatively rare in the wild.

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Of note, the Famicom features controller docks on the side of the console, so cords come out the side of the controllers to facilitate this.

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Still 1983, Sega releases the SG1000 console. The console itself is a generation behind the Famicom, and the SG1000 controller (SJ-200) is a primitive old-paradigm joystick that uses the unreliable old leaf connectors. It also only has two buttons to the Famicom’s four (the console itself features a ‘Hold’ (pause) button on the main unit).

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It’s an absolutely terrible controller. The mini joystick is equally as bad as an Atari VCS joystick, but cannot be as easily wrenched around to ‘force’ it to work like an Atari one, due to the small size and the way you hold it.

———-

1984

Nintendo updates the Famicom controller to have hard plastic over rubber membrane A/B buttons for better responsiveness. They leave the less commonly used function buttons as soft rubber.

A brilliant controller that basically sets a permanent industry standard.

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Later in the year, Sega releases the redesigned SG1000 II console, with the Famicom inspired SJ-150 controller.

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The SJ-150 has a round variation of the Famicom d-pad, and a copy of the original Famicom soft rubber A/B buttons.

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The new console ditches the unique look of the original SG1000, and takes more than a few design cues from the Famicom, including controller docks on the side of the console. Controllers are detachable from the console unlike the Famicom, but they plug in at the back, using an Atari-style DB-9 connector – a legacy of the original SG1000, which had a DB-9 plug for an optional second controller.

SegaNintendoPads_8

Interestingly, the SJ-150 tries to keep one foot in the old ‘joystick’ world, and comes with a little plastic stick which can be screwed into the middle of the d-pad, presumably for players who want some kind of joystick feel.

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———-

1985

Sega releases the SJ-151 controller with later SG1000 II consoles, and it is moved up to the latest Famicom design, with hard plastic with rubber membrane A/B buttons.

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This is the first all-round good Sega controller. It keeps the weird mini-joystick option.

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Later in 1985, Sega releases their upgrade to the SG1000 – the Mark III, with the SJ-152 controller, which is basically just a redesign of the SJ-151. It has more Famicom-like styling, with a reflective metallic sticker on the top mimicking the metal faceplate of the Famicom controller. Possibly due to the SG1000 legacy of the Mark III hardware, Sega is stuck with only two buttons for each controller.

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The console continues to feature controller docks like the Famicom, though the controllers now plug into the front of the console.

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It also retains the mini-joystick option. Someone must have liked it.

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Later in 1985, Nintendo brings the Famicom west as the NES, with an externally redesigned (more squared off) controller that keeps all internals of the hard button Famicom pad as-is – it even uses the same board.

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Due to the NES having no controller docks, Nintendo improves on the Famicom pad design slightly by having the cord come out the top instead of the side of the controller. It is however slightly less comfortable to hold due to the harder edges; the Famicom controller was nicely rounded.

———-

1986

Sega brings the Mark III west as the Master System, with an externally redesigned (more squared off) controller that keeps all the internals of the Mark III pad as-is – it even uses the same board.

SegaNintendoPads_17

It has some weird raised sections making hitting the buttons and d-pad less comfortable, though the d-pad is still the half decent one from the SJ-152. It is also less comfortable to hold due to the harder edges. Unfortunately, despite the Master System having no controller docks to necessitate it, the cord still comes out the side. It still has the mini-joystick option.

———-

1989ish?

After the release of Sega’s next system the Mega Drive, Sega begins positioning the Master System as a budget system in some of their more successful territories (mostly Europe and Australia/New Zealand). They revise the Master System pad to have the cord come out the top like the NES, and finally drop the mini joystick attachment.

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At some point along the way Sega farm out all Master System production to China, and the non-Japanese controllers (and consoles) were much lower quality, and broke incredibly easily. Especially the d-pad, which had a cost-cutting redesign, making it less responsive as well as more prone to breaking.

SegaNintendoPads_20
No first party controller breaks as easily as the ‘top cord’ Master System pad.

———-

1993

After the release of the Super Famicom/Super NES, Nintendo repositions their older Famicom console as a budget machine – in Japan as the ‘AV Famicom’ and as a Top loading NES model in the USA/Europe.

The new Famicom/NES comes with a new Game Boy/Super Famicom inspired controller, affectionately known as the ‘dogbone’.

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It’s a great controller, a very high quality build, and easily the most comfortable controller of the generation. Some players prefer the ‘flat’ AB button orientation over the Game Boy/SNES-style angled orientation. I prefer the angle.

———-

And that’s where that battle ended. Poor Sega were 1-3 years behind at every single step.

Here’s the whole lot in one shot.

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My favourite Nintendo controller is either the beautiful round button Famicom pad (or my hybrid Famicom/NES controller), or the dogbone.

My favourite Sega controller is probably the SJ-151. It has the better buttons, and the round d-pad works just a little better – the square one has a bit too much face surface. The SJ-152 is also quite decent, and it looks less plain.

First Edition Square Buttons Famicom (ファミリーコンピュータ)

Paying attention to eBay auctions can get your some cool stuff. This Famicom was listed with just a picture of the box as the main image. One tiny detail stood out to me, so I bought it (for a quite low price).
SquareFami_1

It’s an original model of the Family Computer from either 1983 or possibly early 1984.

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It features square ‘squishy’ rubber buttons for A and B on the controllers, much like the start and select buttons, and the action buttons on an early Game & Watch.

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The other difference of note is a shiny finish on the bottom, compared to the textured finish of all later models.

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I’ve done some restoration and cleaning including a peroxide treatment, and it turns out after the yellowing is removed, the console itself is a slightly different colour to other Famicoms, it’s got a slight red tinge. This solves the mystery of the reddish Famicom on the front of all Famicom boxes not matching the whiteness of later models – they changed the plastic around the time of the button change, but didn’t update the picture.

SquareFami_12

As far as I can tell, the early models didn’t feature an expansion port cover or arrow sticker on the front right – hence them not featuring on the box either. So these are not ‘missing’ here, they were never there.

Nintendo recalled all early consoles because of a bug that could cause it to crash, and because the square squishy buttons damaged easily and could get caught on the corners. After playing a few games with these controllers for a few minutes, they’re quite solid, but definitely inferior as buttons the the hard round ones with membrane switch that replaced them (Nintendo also phased out this button style in later Game & Watch releases. They have a long travel distance, and while they work fine for holding or pressing sporadically, if you have a game that requires hitting a button in quick succession (e.g. a beat em up), it feels ‘slow’ as you have to do a more substantial press each time.

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The manual has square buttons featured as well, so this set is all-original.

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Here are the three generations of original Famiom. Square button, round button, and round button with Famicom Family ‘FF’ logo. Note the slightly different colors of plastic, my second gen Famicom is the only one I would actually call ‘white’, it makes the ‘normal’ beige colour one on the right look yellow.

SquareFami_X1
Intesrtingly the console box was never updated to feature the ‘FF’ logo.

A Family Computer portrait.SquareFami_X2

SquareFami_8  SquareFami_9 SquareFami_10  SquareFami_11

How to play NTSC-J RF-only consoles on PAL televisions

Sometimes it’s difficult being a fan of Japanese games when living outside of Japan. If you’re in a PAL country, older RF-only NTSC-J consoles cannot ever display properly on PAL screens. You could possibly tune in a fuzzy black and white picture with no sound, at best. Even if your TV was NTSC compatible via other inputs (eg composite), it is  unlikely to support NTSC over RF.

You can mod most RF-only systems to output composite video or better, but personally I prefer  not to mod rarer or older consoles such as the SG-1000, Color TV Game 6, or some of my original Famicoms.

No modding for you!
No modding for you!

The traditional method was to use an NTSC-J compatible VCR which takes in the RF signal and outputs in PAL composite, but they’re getting harder to come by, are cumbersome, and you also end up with additional artifacting from the composite signal itself.

So here is a cheap solution, a $20 NTSC RF to VGA box – essentially designed as an external analogue NTSC TV capture card. It takes in RF (or composite via side inputs) and outputs in VGA plus 3.5mm stereo jack for audio, with various scaling options.

RF_4231  RF_4234

It can tune in these older consoles, and output via VGA, and the results are much better than I expected. The scaling, for what it can do with a fuzzy RF image, is quite solid. Options are selectable via an on-screen menu, and it even comes with a remote control.

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And here are the results, Turtles 2 on on original Famicom to a 1080p Panasonic plasma.

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The distortion lines are just from photographing the TV, it’s actually quite clean.

I’ve made a video of it running here:

The downside is that the tuner is NTSC-U, so still not 100% compatible with all Japanese consoles. I couldn’t get the SG-1000 working perfectly, the colours were off. However the Color TV Game 6 worked great, as did two different Famicoms, and a Super Famicom via RF.

It seems to have particular trouble getting sync with primarily plain background games. It eventually clicks and then stays in sync, but this can take a couple of minutes. However, in all these cases, sound is pretty much perfect the whole time.

Overall, it’s a pretty cheap solution to at least test RF consoles, and good enough to play many!

Update: I’ve since gotten a new TV which has no VGA input, but which has an international analogue tuner, so I no longer need or can use this box, but will hang onto it for possible future usages.

Sega SG-1000 (エスジー・セン)

Following my post about the first Nintendo console, here is the first Sega console.

It was in 1983 that this website’s co-namesake entered the home video game market, with their first machine, the Sega SG-1000.SG1000_4408

Released the same month as the Famicom (some sources claim the same day), it was a generation behind it in technology and design, featuring performance equivalent to the ColecoVision and first generation MSX. Sega couldn’t have predicted hurricane Famicom was about to redefine video games.

SG1000_4409

It plays Atari-style tall cassettes (cartridges), and features and Atari style joystick which is tethered  to the left of the console.

SG1000_4411

The back features a port to attach a keyboard. ‘Home computer’ versions of the hardware with the keyboard integrated were released as the Sega SC-3000.

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It can also play Sega My Card software (like Dragon Wang here) with the ‘Card Catcher’ adapter, which was released to coincide with the launch of the SG-1000 II a year later.

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About that SJ-200 joystick – it’s pretty awful. Very similar in responsiveness to an original Atari VCS joystick, but with a worse design. Both the joystick and buttons are stiff and unresponsive, even in a perfectly working controller. Inside it uses a primitive bending metal ‘leaf connector’ system, which was cheap but no substitute for the microswitches in arcade joysticks, or the innovative rubber membrane system Nintendo utilised in its Game & Watch series and brought to the Famicom.

SG1000_4413

On the right of the console there’s a standard Sega controller connector plug, which unfortunately is only for player 2. Sega actually released an adapter that allowed you to open the console and replace the player 1 SJ-200 with another controller port, but it’s apparently impossible to find. I might try and make up a home-made one to use Mark III controllers.

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Size-wise it’s comparable to a Mark III, and deceptively flat.

SG1000_4426  SG1000_4429

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Output is RF-only, which means a classic fuzzy picture, if you can even tune it in (depending on where you live).

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The Konami game ‘High School Graffiti: Mikie’ where you play as a teen heart throb, to the tune of Beatles classics.

It’s a pretty cool collector piece, but due to the joystick and RF-only output is not the best choice to actually play on. The Mark III is fully backward compatible with SG-1000 games, has the card slot built in, and (with a bit of ingenuity) has very nice RGB graphics output.

 

Sega Mega Drive (メガドライブ)

Here’s the very first model of the Sega Mega Drive.MegaDrive1

That little ® next to ‘Sega’ at the bottom right means it is the first, Japan-only model.MegaDrive2

The next batch of models, like this one, are missing the ®.MegaDrive3

Sega loved covering the top of their consoles with semi-nonsensical text. For the Mega Drive it’s ‘AV Intelligent Terminal High Grade Multipurpose Use’.MegaDrive4

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Following the the tradition of the Mark III‘s amazing console top-promise (pic taken from my Mark III restoration article, hence no reset button and cassette slot flap)Makutree_1122

And of course the inaccurate and needlessly complicated usage diagram on the top of the Master System.MasterSystemTop

Time for some launch games. The only true Alex Kidd sequel may be dated, but would have been pretty impressive in 1988. Especially because the early, made in Japan models have far better audio than later made in Taiwan models.MegaDrive6

For more info on the numerous Mega Drive models, see this legendary Sega 16 thread.