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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(Almost) every Nintendo console ever released in Japan

With my recent acquisition of a Color TV-Game Racing 112, My collection now includes almost every major revision of every Nintendo home console ever released, complete in box.

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  1. Wii U
  2. Wii
  3. Gamecube
  4. Nintendo 64
  5. Virtual Boy (I’m counting it as a console, since it is really not portable)
  6. Super Famicom Jr.
  7. Super Famicom
  8. Famicom AV
  9. Round Button Family Computer
  10. Square Button Family Computer
  11. Famicom Disk System (a separate platform, but not a console)
  12. Color TV-Game Block Breaker
  13. Color TV-Game Racing 112
  14. Color TV-Game 15
  15. Color TV-Game 6 CTV6G (orange)
  16. Color TV-Game 6 CTV6S (white)

A small confession: My Wii U is not a Japanese model.

There were a few more minor revisions of the consoles along the way – FF logo/non FF logo Famicom, output changes, different coloured consoles of various sorts (even shapes like the Pikachu N64), but these are all the major Japanese revisions. The Wii Mini revision was not released in Japan.

There’s one major item missing – the Computer TV-Game. I’ll almost certainly never get one of these. This ‘console’ is incredibly rare, insanely expensive, and its questionable if it was even a consumer product since it was literally an arcade game with TV out. It sold for ¥48,000 in 1980. For comparison the Color TV Game Racing 112 was selling for ¥5000 in 1980, and the Famicom launched in 1983 for ¥14,800.

The Sega set is on its way, but will take a few more years I think. So many revisions…

Famulator (ファミレータ) Famicom clone (+mod to fix the audio)

I’ve always been fascinated by Famiclones.

The first Famiclones were straight pirated Famicom hardware clones, but by the 90s this had been consolidated down to single chip designs, usually referred to as NOAC – NES on a chip. While NOACs lose accuracy, they can be produced very cheaply and thus proliferated as the gaming machine of choice throughout copyright-infrinegment playgrounds like Eastern Europe, South America and greater Asia throughout the 90s. If you take pirate consoles into account, the Famicom is surely by far the highest selling system of all time. There’s a decent number of Famiclone models documented here.

Famiclones had a second life in Japan after Nintendo’s patent on the hardware expired in 2003. Due to the vast majority of Famicoms in Japan being RF-only, there was a market for a cheap AV Famicom as the retro boom began. One I’ve always wanted to get my hands is was the Famulator, released in early 2008, and I finally grabbed one recently.

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One reason is simply the name Famulator, which is too cute, but the tasteful design, of course evoking the original Famicom, sets it apart from your average junk looking Famiclone.

Famulator_8814   Famulator_8818

And it’s tiny, barely bigger than a Famicom cart, and less than half the size of the original. Kawaii as hell. The controller, which connects via standard Famiclone DB9 connector, is also quote excellent, there’s very low travel on the buttons, giving it a Game Boy Advance SP feel.

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It’s great looking and plays well, and is a pretty decent NOAC Famicom. There is one catch. The earliest release of the Famulator overamplifies the the sound, leading to peaking levels and distortion. And the expansion audio is not connected, so Famicom Disk and other expansion audio games are missing the extra sound channels. Luckily I found quite an easy fix for both on this Japanese website.

The audio can be fixed simply by chopping off the transistor at the position marked Q2, and soldering the right two leftover legs together. It worked perfectly and the regular audio was fixed.

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To add support for expansion audio, you can simply insert connections for pins 45 and 46 to the circuit at positive leg of the capacitor at C9.

Of course with plenty of real Famicom hardware around it’s not like this will get a lot of play time, but it’s a cool little toy to have, and yet another part of the rich tapestry of Famicom history.

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The Complete Konami Famicom Set

Following my complete Konami Famicom Disk System set, I have finally completed the other half of the full set, every Konami cartridge exclusive Famicom game.

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This set has taken over 20 years to complete. It was finally done when I managed to find a rare boxed copy of Exciting Boxing for a good price.

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The first Famicom game I ever got was The Goonies, since it wasn’t released in the west and I loved The Goonies II. I originally played it on my NES via a converter, but it started my Famicom obsession.

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Another early pickup was Parodius Da.

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The rarest item is possibly Geki Kame Ninja Den (Legend of the Radical Ninja Turtles) – the Japanese version of the first Ninja Turtles game. Or maybe the third party published Konami arcade game Circus Charlie. Most valuable could be Geki Kame Ninja DenBucky O’Hare or Exciting Boxing.

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I don’t have the DoReMikkostyle big box for Exciting Boxing, or the late-era cartridge re-releases of the FDS games Akumajou Dracula, Bio Miracle Bokette Upa, or Moreo Twinbee, so there’s a small amount of room to grow the set. Unfortunately all four of those items are hilariously expensive.

Here’s the full set with the Famicom Disk Games added to the photo, including the large DoReMikko box up the back.

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As for favourites, it’s pretty hard to go past the Contra games, Arumana no Kiseki, and Akumajou Densetsu.

KonamiFami_Contras KonamiFami_Kiseki

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Also Akumajou Dracula, Ai Senshai Nicol, King Kong 2, Gradius II, Salamander, Crisis Force, Maze of Gallious, Wai Wai World 1 and 2, Tiny Toon Adventures 1 and 2, Bucky O’Hare, Metal Gear, Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa, Exciting Soccer, Exciting Basket, Ganbare Goemon 1 and 2, Meikyuu Jiin Dababa, Falsion, Dragon Scroll… so many classics.

Konami were at their peak in this era, and I believe the single greatest developer in the world at that point. How the mighty have fallen.

KonamiFami_4   KonamiFami_5

KonamiFami_2   KonamiFami_3

KonamiFami_FDS2   KonamiFami_FDS3

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1983 Face Off: Donkey Kong (Famicom) vs Congo Bongo (SG1000)

It is July 15, 1983.

Two new consoles have been released by two prominent Japanese arcade developers – the Family Computer from Nintendo, and the SG1000 from Sega.

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The big game in the arcades is still Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, featuring future superstar-to-be Mario. But the bigger name in arcades right now is Sega, whose Turbo and Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom are doing incredible things graphically. And Sega now have themselves an answer to Donkey KongCongo Bongo. Essentially a conceptual clone of Donkey Kong (and in the later stages Konami’s Frogger)Congo Bongo differentiates itself with an innovative and incredibly impressive isometric 3D perspective.

Donkey_Kong_arcade    CongoBongoArcade

In turn, both companies’ new consoles have launched with home ports of these killer titles.

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Of course, this isn’t the first time Donkey Kong has been made available at home. Aside from a variety of home console ports (including the solid Colecovision version), there is the fantastic Donkey Kong Game & Watch from Nintendo’s smash hit line of handhelds. The Family Computer itself has taken many design and packaging cues from the little handhelds, and this, along with Nintendo’s earlier Color TV Game series has given them valuable experience in the retail space.

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So how do the two ports hold up compared to their arcade originals? Sega is taking the lead in the arcades, but are they up to the task of meeting Nintendo’s challenge in the home space?

Donkey Kong

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First up is the original. Firing up DK on the Famicom, the first thing that’s apparent is that the game has transitioned quite well from the arcade’s 3:4 aspect ratio to the regular television 4:3 aspect ratio.

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It’s a little squished, but overall it works and is a very faithful port. Gameplay is replicated near perfectly, if anything it plays more smoothly, though it may have to do with the Famicom controller being more suitable for platformers than arcade joysticks.

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The ‘secret’ safe spot to avoid the spring

The major omission is the third ‘cement factory’ stage, so DK on Fami has only three stages before looping.

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There’s even the ending screen where Mario is reunited with Pauline (briefly).

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The arcade intro and interludes are missing, and there are a few sound effect and animation omisions, but it looks and sounds great overall. It’s a clear step above the already excellent Colecovision version, and Donkey Kong on Famicom is likely the most advanced game available on any home platform to date.

Congo Bongo

Congo Bongo has a very interesting history, directly linked with Donkey Kong. It was developed for Sega by a software engineering company called Ikegami Tsushinki – the same team that did the programming work for Donkey Kong. While Donkey Kong was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo assumedly didn’t yet have the software development pipeline to make a top arcade game in 1981, and hired external software engineers. Sega grabbed the same team for their answer to Nintendo’s smash hit.

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As soon as you hit start on Congo Bongo‘s title screen, the disappointment begins. Where is the isometric 3D? As a 2D game Congo Bongo is very much a poor man’s Donkey Kong.

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What’s even more disappointing is that the Colecovision, a console with basically identical hardware to the SG1000, managed to have a port which maintained the isometric perspective.

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The Colecovision version is very impressive

And unbelievably, a port to the ancient Atari VCS somehow did too!

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This should not work but it somehow does…

But the poor SG1000 got a 2D version. There are only two stages, the Donkey Kong style stage plays from a side view, and the Frogger style stage from the top.

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Despite all this, it still plays okay, if a little awkwardly, and in the grand scheme of things it’s not too far below the Famicom version of Donkey Kong. It’s not helped by the terrible SG1000 joystick, but even if you get around that by playing on an SG1000 II pad, controls are a bit loose.

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I’ll take the one on the left please.

The SG1000 hardware could have done much better, and Sega proved it in 1985 when their isometric 3D shooter Zaxxon (which was also programmed by Ikegami Tsushinki and used the same arcade hardware) was ported to SG1000 with the 3D effect intact.

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It’s little wonder the Family Computer took off. Donkey Kong was a premium product. Congo Bongo for SG1000 is decent enough fun and about as good as most games before that point, but is just an interesting artefact now.

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Famicom games with insane packaging: Relics: Ankoku Yosai (レリクス暗黒要塞)

Quite a few Famicom games, in particular Famicom Disk games, came in very fancy packaging. Many came in large boxes with extra stuff like figurines, cassette tapes, large format manuals, and in some cases even more outrageous things, like Exciting Boxing‘s giant inflatable controller. These are not like modern special editions, as in most cases these were the only release of the game.

For classy packaging, it’s pretty hard to go past Bothtec’s Relics: Ankoku Yōsai.

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Inside the huge PC-game style outer slip is a metal case.

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And inside the case, you have a large full colour manual, a sticker sheet, a disk-sized full colour monster manual, and the disk itself.

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The disk case and monster manual fit inside foam slots, presented as valuable items.

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The case allows removal of some of the foam, so if you want you can use the metal case to store 4-6 FDS games in style.

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The monster manual gives every character in the game in a two page spread.

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And the large manual is even nicer. Beautiful artwork is used throughout the presentation, and it does its job of making you excited to get into the game.

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The game itself is almost as ambitious as the packaging. A Metroid-style sprawling action-adventure, it features huge sprites (for the time), large environments and a huge list of enemies and items. Set in a post-apocalytic world where dark forces have enslaved humanity, in the game you play as some kind of robot spirit guy who can possess the bodies of the dead. You must defeat all the enemies in a ‘sun fortress’ to free the good spirits (as well as the ubiquitous princess) to save humanity.

Relics.000  Relics.001

The graphics are pretty good for the time, and the music is catchy. Despite the immediately noticeably clunky controls, it is not hard to be impressed early on, as the world of Relics is intriguing.

Unfortunately the game doesn’t live up to its ambitions. Bothtec’s roots were in PC games (including some predecessors to this game) and it Relics plays very much like a home computer game of this type, it’s quite rough around the edges. Controls are not only clunky but glitchy, and it’s very very difficult to outmanoeuvre many enemies. It gets better as you power up later on, but getting to that point is a huge slog.

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Worse than this are the load times. This game is always loading, I have not experienced any other FDS game like it. It does big loads every time you change screen, but there are small loads even within a loaded scrolling area when a new type of enemy appears. It’s really quite horrendous.

Despite these flaws, the adventure and exploring elements work quite decently in the traditional ‘try every direction in every order with every item’ classic 80s kind of way. Finding keys and power-ups in order to progress and remembering paths is always kind of fun when the world looks this mysterious, it’s just that it’s buried under layers of clunk.

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It still feels like a somewhat genuine retro experience, playing a game like this with the large manuals and packaging in front of you. But I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone except 80s adventure fetishists.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.