I keep an early 80s colour TV for that classic vintage video look.
‘Rank Arena’ was a local badge for NEC screens in the 70s/80s, presumably because ‘Nippon Electric Company’ may have put off some buyers due to xenophobia or outdated ideas about Japanese products being unreliable.
It could be questioned why would one use a low-end older screen when there are much better, higher quality, RGB equipped alternatives available. In my case only a few inches to the left.
But this screen in particular is great for a period-perfect look when watching VHS tapes.
It’s also a great screen to play old games with the proper vintage look. But most of my consoles are NTSC, which means a rolling black and white picture.
Luckily, televisions this old still had manual vertical hold adjustment knobs, right on the front in this case.
And so a stable black and white picture is easily attained with a quick adjustment, if squashed due to PAL TVs having 576 lines instead of the 480 of NTSC (or 288 instead of 240 in this case due to old consoles running a 240p signal)
But what about the colour?
There are various cheap NTSC to PAL digital adapters available these days. They work, but they add lag and judder, as they’re essentially buffering frames and rebuilding the analogue signal to display 60hz images in standard PAL 50Hz.
What I really needed was a pure composite colour transcoder. Luckily there was a situation that created demand for such a thing.
In the early 90s, a pseudo-standard called ‘PAL60’ was developed to allow people to watch NTSC video tapes. Compatible VCRs would output in PAL colour, but at 60Hz. Most TVs from the mid 90s onwards could handle a PAL60 signal.
This was fine for a VCR, and the standard was utilised by consoles like the Dreamcast and Gamecube which had PAL60 modes for 60Hz gaming. But if you imported an NTSC console, your PAL60 compatible TV would play at the correct speed – but in black and white, because the TV could not understand the NTSC colour.
Enter composite colour transcoders.
It leaves the signal completely alone apart from analogue transcoding the NTSC colour to PAL. Here’s it running on my NTSC NES.
Voila! Stable full colour 60Hz Castlevania on a very old PAL TV.
The picture remains squashed of course. This could be adjusted via the TV’s geometry controls, but it’s also exactly what PAL games looked like back in the day anyway. Only now they play full speed!
Sure it’s got nothing on playing it via RGB.
But this look has historical value, since it’s what these games looked like for 99% of people in the 80s.
Of course it also works great on the Sega Mark III.
And any console all the way through to the end of the analogue era. Playing Silent Hill on this screen works beautifully, looking even more like the pulpy VHS experience it was always designed to be.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Later in the year, Sega releases the redesigned SG1000 II console, with the Famicom inspired SJ-150 controller.
The SJ-150 has a round variation of the Famicom d-pad, and a copy of the original Famicom soft rubber A/B buttons.
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.
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.
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.
This is the first all-round good Sega controller. It keeps the weird mini-joystick option.
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.
The console continues to feature controller docks like the Famicom, though the controllers now plug into the front of the console.
It also retains the mini-joystick option. Someone must have liked it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
Rollergames belongs to an interesting sub-category: Japanese developed games unreleased in their homeland.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
T-birds – Chunky fat dudes (I’ve now learned based on a particular fan favourite character)
Hot Flash – Pink clad females
Rockers – Axl Rose lookalikes
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.
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.
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.
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.
But it’s not unfair or impossible. It will require level memorisation and quick reflexes, but all traps are passable every time.
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.