Smash Ping Pong (スマッシュピンポン) – The Secret Konami Disk System game

There’s one Konami game on Famicom Disk you probably didn’t know about – Smash Ping Pong (スマッシュピンポン).

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Originally released as ‘Konami’s Ping Pong’ in the arcades, Nintendo published the Famicom Disk System version as part of the Famicom Disk launch library. As such, the FDS version is not part of the Konami catalogue, though it is Konami branded on the disk and title screen, and it maintains the official Konami artwork from the arcade and MSX releases.

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It’s a pretty nifty and quite realistic take on Table Tennis. The simple graphics bely a quite sophisticated and challenging control scheme and physics system.

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Unlike most tennis-based games, you don’t hit the ball with A or B and move around with the d-pad. B throws the ball up for service, and A changes between forehand and backhand. Your disembodied hand moves around automatically to meet the ball. All hits are done with the d-pad left, right and up, and the timing controls the angle and power.

It reminds me a lot of Wii Sports Tennis, released 20 years later.

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It’s a very faithful translation of the arcade game, the biggest change being he swapping out of Konami’s Pentaru (from Antarctic Adventure and Parodius) for Donkey Kong in the crowd! Disk-kun (the FDS mascot) also appears in the title screen in his first ever digital appearance.

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The Goonies (グーニーズ) Famicom Disk – Retail Release Reproduction

There were two Konami games on Disk System which were not released at retail, and only available as re-writes via Disk System Writer Kiosks – The Goonies and Twinbee. After much searching I managed to get my hands on a single disk with both games on it.

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Disk Writer games came with a nice official printed disk label and fold-out paper manual.GooniesFDS_3

But it doesn’t match the rest of the otherwise beautifully consistent Konami Disk System catalogue.GooniesFDS_5

Since FDS inserts are just thin cards, I decided I could make up a reproduction retail release for Goonies, based on the cartridge box.GooniesFDS_6

I scanned the nicer quality image from the cart label, and got going in photoshop.GooniesFDS_7

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For the logo, black looked a little bland, so I took inspiration from Goonies 2 and Akumajou Dracula, and went with red, using the original black logo from the cart release as a drop-shadow. I used Akumajou Dracula and Exciting Basketball as templates for the basic formatting of the disk case label and outer-box label.

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I had it professionally printed on 200gsm satin printing paper, and here’s the result! Goonies on side A, Twinbee on side B, so Goonies gets main billing.GooniesFDS_11

Looks great in disk-case format and full case format!GooniesFDS_12GooniesFDS_13GooniesFDS_15GooniesFDS_14

Now Goonies/Twinbee can take its place with the rest of the Konami FDS set!GooniesFDS_16

And I can finally play Goonies with additional load times!Goonies1 Goonies2

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Goonies Family (Computer) photo.GooniesFDS_17

Rollergames – NES

Rollergames belongs to an interesting sub-category: Japanese developed games unreleased in their homeland.

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Why does this sometimes happen? Perhaps the domestic market for that type of game had dried up during its development, but the game was still suitable for western release. Or the Japanese version was cancelled at the last minute because of a clash in release schedules.

But sometimes games were specifically developed for western markets, often based on a western-only licenced property. Such as Rollergames.

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These games are interesting because they offer an insight into how Japanese publishers viewed American audiences. In Rollergames case, it appears Konami management showed the developers the source material, and said ‘make an action adventure game from this’.

Rollergames is based on a professional wrestling-esque dramatised fictional version of roller derby. Apparently it was a big deal for its single season in the US, but non-Americans would just assume it was a purely original Konami title, particularly given the arcade-style content.

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The gameplay is a unique mixture of beat-em-up and action platformer. Taking some cues from Double Dragon and Konami’s own Ninja Turtles games, and combining that with speedy momentum-based movement, isometric platforming, and Konami’s own brand of tricks and traps. Ultimately I’d describe it as a beat-em-up action platformer on wheels.

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I consider it the sister game to another Konami release heavily adapted from an external source: Bad n Rad: Skate or Die on the Game Boy. Similarly based on an existing property (in this case Electronic Arts’ sub-standard Skate or Die series of games, which Konami published on the NES), like Rollergames it deviated from its source material so much as to be basically a unique property. Bad n’ Rad is a sort of racing action platformer, and has a very similar setting and feel to Rollergames. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had designers in common.

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Rollergames has a setting and story that takes the basic branding and teams from the (nominally) sports-based show, and throws them into a standard videogame fictional world. A bad guy has taken the head of the league hostage, pick a Rollergames team and set out over a variety of themed stages to defeat bad guy.

You choose a team at the start of each round.

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T-birds – Chunky fat dudes (I’ve now learned based on a particular fan favourite character)

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Hot Flash – Pink clad females

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Rockers – Axl Rose lookalikes

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T-birds guy is slow to accelerate but powerful, Hot Flash girl is fast but weak, and Rockers dude is the Goldilocks selection. I always choose Hot Flash because quicker control is more valuable in platforming (which are the most difficult parts of the game), and who can resist 80s girls in hot pink?

Most stages are centred around an evil team, with a set theme and featuring the team leader as the end boss. Main levels are broken in two, and you get an energy bar refill at a mid-stage checkpoint. They’re a mix of platforming, beat em up, and traps.

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The alternate stages are constantly moving highway stages, where a variety of traps appear to try and stop you making it to the next stage. These are very similar to the skateboarding levels in Konami’s Turtles games.

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The beat em up elements feel a lot like Turtles. Fast and smooth, but relatively loose and forgiving hit detection. Once you work out the exact angle to attack enemies from, you feel pretty powerful.

Bosses are atypically well designed for a beat-em-up. They follow unique patters of attack, more like a good action platformer boss than your typical ‘big brute’ fighter boss. While they are cheap at times, you can see how you could technically not take a hit with a perfect run. More variety than normal is afforded by the premise, so not all bosses are just guys to beat up.

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The platforming has two things going against it. The isometric-ish/3D movement (sometimes referred to as ‘belt scrolling’ because you can move up and down the ‘belt’ with perspective at an angle) makes judging jump distances much more difficult than in a standard 2D space.

You are also on wheels, and have momentum to deal with. In a sense the whole game plays similarly to an ice world in a Mario game, all slip and slide. Combine the perspective with the momentum and it’s a recipe for frustration for those without quick fingers. Add to this banked surfaces (which feature heavily in a later stage) and speed and this becomes a tough game to beat.

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But it’s not unfair or impossible. It will require level memorisation and quick reflexes, but all traps are passable every time.

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Presentation wise, it’s classic high-quality Konami. The graphics are fantastic, Konami’s trademark ‘faceless’ characters are big and well defined. Detailed colourful environments, a rock solid engine with basically no sprite flicker, and some excellent parallax effects on the highway stages mean this is a top-shelf NES game graphically.
Sound effects are good standard NES stuff, and the accompaniment is a series of excellent catchy tunes (by one of the Castlevania series’ composers) which perfectly match the solid game mechanics. The music also has a very ‘Konami Turtles’ feel.
Rollergames is a hidden gem on the NES.

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Contra (コントラ Kontora) – Famicom

How good is the original Famicom Contra?

Kontura_2118 So good even the cut-down American version and robotomised Australian/Euro versions are still awesome.

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What is it that makes Contra so great?

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The whole idea is off the charts awesome from the start. Rambo and Dutch (Arnold’s character from Predator) vs the Aliens from Alien. Much like how Castlevania was a pastiche of classic monster movies (Dracula, Frankensten, Mummy Man etc) Contra is based on an 80s dream movie we never got.

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Lush jungles (apparently New Zealand), futuristic enemy bases, a subterranean alien lair – so many classic 80s macho-man settings are covered. And it looks fantastic, particularly the Famicom version (over the NES versions) with more effects, animated trees in the jungle and snow field levels, and animated alien squirming in the final stage. The music is packed with ‘big action movie’ tunes that could have been written by Jerry Goldsmith himself, and the sound effects are suitably chunky and expressive.

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The Fami version also has cut-scenes and a rather cool Ghouls n Ghosts style overworld map.

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Of course ultimately it’s the killer gameplay that makes it an all time classic. Taking shooter and platfomer and melding them into a cohesive whole for the first time.

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It has literally perfect controls. I wish every game on the Famicom had such amazing controls. It’s satisfying just to move and shoot, and you always know a death was your own fault.

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Enemy and boss designs are tuned to offer a pitch-perfect challenge. The variety of tasks, settings, and ideas was top of the industry at the time of release.

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The arcade game was very good, but the team that ported it to the Famicom are the ones who got it most right. The more colourful, tighter controlled home version is one of the rare times that a home port eclipses an arcade original.

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The Contra series unfortunately didn’t last as long as it should have as a top-tier franchise. Two equally excellent sequels (Super Contra and Contra Spirits) and a very good side game (Game Boy Contra, known as Operation C in the U.S.) got the formula right, but after that a series of missteps basically killed the brand.

A pretty bad NES spin-off (Contra Force, which was originally an unrelated project known as Arc Hound) started the trend, and was followed by a Mega Drive spin-off (Contra: Hard Corps) which was good, but in my opinion messed with the formula too much. Fiddly controls, drab settings, bad overly crunchy sound effects, and a techno soundtrack that ruined the 80s action movie feel.

Four terrible-to-mediocre games followed on PS1/PS2, all of which continued to misunderstand what made the first four games great. The first PS2 game (Contra: Shattered Soldier) was the closest to understanding Contra, but still wrecked the formula with mushy controls (likely due to the game’s 2.5D presentation which almost never works well), a stupid cycling weapon system and a lame ’emo teenager’ techno-metal soundtrack and presentation style.

It was’t until the brilliant Contra 4 for Nintendo DS in 2007 that we finally got another game that got the formula correct again, and was truly worthy of the Kontora name.

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But here’s to the original Famicom game. It has been equalled, but has never been topped in its genre, even 27 years later.

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The Japanese version is one of the games that came with a collector card. I finally got a copy with the card recently of a decent price, so now I’m up to 9/20!

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Miracle of Arumana (アルマナの奇跡 Arumana no Kiseki) – Famicom Disk System

Of all the Konami Famicom/FDS games that didn’t leave Japan, this one is my favourite.

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In the same way Castlevania was inspired by old monster movies and fantasy novels (including the Frazetta-esque art), and Contra was inspired by Aliens and Rambo,  Miracle of Arumana is pretty much Indiana Jones. It’s so close in fact it even seems possible development began on the basis of gaining the licence at some point. I mean, look at these screenshots:

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There’s even a mine cart level

 The plot is a slightly more cartoony version of Temple of Doom – the miraculous Arumana stone has been stolen from a remote (presumably Indian) village by some powerful supernatural force, and without its power the people are helpless against the evil. The land is ruined and the peaceful locals have been turned to stone.

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You play as a younger, more Japanese looking Indy, who has come across this injustice during his adventures and sets out on a quest to defeat the evil force and restore the Armana stone to its rightful place.

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It’s a jolly little platfomer with a fun (if not particularly accurate to the laws of physics) grappling hook mechanic. The hook feature is nowhere near as involved as the one in Bionic Commando, but definitely adds to the experience, allowing interesting navigation possibilities around the levels.

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What sets it apart are the graphics and music. It’s in the top tier of that era’s Famicom games graphically, with that fantastic slightly gritty Konami look (including the trademark ‘faceless’ characters). The music is in my opinion literally the best use of the Disk System’s extra sound channels. This is almost Akumajou Densetsu (Castlevania 3) level here, among the absolute best on the Famicom. It uses the louder extra wave channel for a ‘horn’ type sound, for an 8-bit version of a classic  adventure movie score.

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It’s also a vastly superior Indiana Jones game to any of the official 8-bit Indy games. In fact it’s the best Indy game on any consoles at all until the excellent Nintendo 64 version of Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine.

Here's the collector card that came with this copy
Here’s the collector card that came with this copy

An English translated version is out there with the title ‘Miracle of Almana’. While that is legitimate translation of アルマナの奇跡 without context, it’s clearly incorrect. The product code of the game is ‘ARM’ – including the R means it was meant to be translated ‘Arumana’ or simply ‘Armana’.

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This is my sealed copy.

This is an amazing game. If this had made it to the west, I’m sure it could have been a long running series, just like Castlevania and Metal Gear. But perhaps Konami were afraid of Lucasfilm’s lawyers.

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Full colour manual with that classic Konami manual art.
Full colour manual with that classic Konami manual art.

More screens:

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I first leaned about this game about 15 years ago on Tsr’s NES archive. The piece is still alive today, check it out!

Konami’s Famicom Disk Manual Back Covers

 There was a point in time where Konami were the world’s best developer of video game software.

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They also had the best box art and the best presentation. Today, I’ll focus on one element of this – the back of Konami’s Famicom/FDS manuals.

While their box art was the best in the business (I’ll save that for another day) an awesome little detail they started right off the bat on the Famicom was unified presentation. Their first gen of games came in Orange boxes, and had a unified design that mimicked Nintendo’s ‘pulse line of games.

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The manuals similarly were uniform, with a plain (old) Konami logo on the back.

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Upon rebranding the company with their awesome ‘two ribbons’ logo, a new motif began, and was maintained for the rest of their Famicom/FDS run. All boxes (or manual covers which doubled as box art in FDS games) would have the Konami logo top left, and the back cover would feature a single small image representative of the game.

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Pennant Chase Baseball back cover

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It’s most prominent on the Famicom Disk games, as they had full colour manuals.

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While Konami had similar branding discipline for at least a few years in the US with their awesome silver box line, their NES manuals simply had the game logo on the back. But interestingly, their silver box Game Boy games continued the trend.

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8/20 Konami Famicom Collector Cards

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

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There were multiple cards for each game, so perhaps Konami thought kids would be encouraged to get the same games their friends had to trade cards? Apparently it didn’t work, so they stopped including cards a couple of years later,  and only the following 20 titles ended up with the cards:

  1. Ai Senshi Nicol
  2. Arumana no Kiseki
  3. Dracula II (Castlevania II)
  4. Contra
  5. Do Re Mikko
  6. Dragon Scroll
  7. Exciting Baseball
  8. Exciting Basketball (Double Dribble)
  9. Exciting Billards
  10. Exciting Boxing
  11. Exciting Soccer
  12. Falsion
  13. Getsu Fumaden
  14. Konami Wai Wai World
  15. Majo Densetsu II (Knightmare II)
  16. Meikyujin Dababa
  17. Metal Gear
  18. Salamander
  19. Tetsuwan Atomu (Mighty Atom aka Astro Boy)
  20. Top Gun

I have the bolded ones already, and I always like the idea of complete sets of something (when the goal is achievable) so I’m on a mini-collection quest to get one card of each game that had one.

Of the ones I have, I like Arumana no Kiseki and Astro Boy best.

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So now I have 12 to go. Some will be easy to get (there are plenty of cheap copies of Konami Baseball and Basketball), some will be harder (popular titles like Salamander and Metal Gear). Do Re Mikka will likely be hardest, it’s a very expensive music game that came with a piano keyboard controller.