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…
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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.

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!

Game Box Protectors – Japanese Sizes

I’m a great believer in game box protectors. With vintage games only getting older, anything that helps them (and their related paraphernalia) to stay in great condition without being fully archived is a great investment.

I recently got some box protectors for my Japanese Game Boy/Game Boy Color games. There are two sizes for Japanese Game Boy games, the original size which are very small, and a later size which is about 4/5 of the ‘standard’ Famicom box size. This later size continued through the Game Boy Color era too.

Previously I had stored my small Japanese Game Boy games in Japanese Game Boy Advance protectors, which were okay in one direction, but way too big in the other two.

Similarly, I kept my larger Japanese Game Boy games in Famicom box protectors, which was a closer fit but still quite a lot of room at the top.

It’s great to finally have my Game Boy games secure in snug fitting protectors.

Adaptations for less common sizes

I was glad to find these Japanese Game Boy sizes, as a good fit is important for protection. It’s hard (or impossible) to find decent box protectors for less common box sizes, so here are some adaptations of sizes designed for other purposes that I use. While usually not perfect, they are good enough for solid protection without too much internal movement.

Japanese Game Boy Advance size works very well for the ‘mid size’ Famicom boxes

Only a small amount of room to move.

Western Game Boy protectors obviously work perfectly for Virtual Boy boxes.

NES protectors work nearly perfectly for the large size Konami Famicom games.

The unique Gun Sight box is nearly an exact match for Euro NES size protectors.

Famicom protectors work okay for small SG1000 games. It’s not really the right size in any direction and is very tight, but protects okay.

Large SG1000 boxes are a perfect match for an older style ‘too big’ NES protector size I found.

And these new small Japanese GB work very well for Famicom Mini GBA games

And finally, I’ve recently tried Nintendo 64 cartridge protectors on my small box Famicom games.

The fit is not perfect, much like the SG1000 games in large box Famicom protectors, they’re too tight in thickness, but too large in other directions, so they fit, but are somewhat tight. Until there is a better option, it’s a decent solution.

Customs

I had customs done for all these SG1000/Mark III box sizes. It’s a fully one off for Alex Kidd BMX (it’s the only box of that size), but a few each for the two card game sizes and big box Mark III gold.

Unfortunately the producer of these customs has quit the business, so I’m on the lookout for a new producer, if anyone knows of one!

Complete Nintendo Small Box Famicom Game Set

After a few years of working toward it, I’ve finally collected all the first party ‘small box’ Famicom games.

This is the first ever line of Nintendo console games, covering the Famicom’s 1983 launch through most of 1984.

This set as a whole is often confused with the slightly smaller ‘pulse label’ games line, which features the pulse motif for the cartridge label on each game.

This confusion is common because unfortunately everything doesn’t quite line up perfectly, design-wise. The small box set includes all pulse label titles except one (Devil World, which came in the later standard Famicom larger box). And all small box games are also pulse label titles, except for the three gun games – Duck Hunt, Hogan’s Alley and Wild Gunman, which have the cover illustration on the cart.

So there’s the pulse line set, and the small box set, which almost completely overlap but unfortunately (for those with OCD) not 1:1.

Of course, this is not all small box Famicom games, as many third parties’ initial lines came in the same size. Here’s my Hudson, Taito, and Namco games added to my Nintendo set.

Interestingly, while Konami were there on the Fami in this era (1984), and they followed the initial Nintendo box design motif closely, they skipped the small box size and went straight to a medium size for their initial set of games, the Konami ‘orange box’ line. I charted the rest of the Konami Famicom box design evolution in this article.

So what’s next? I guess I should get around to picking up Devil World to complete the pulse label set, for one.

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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