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.

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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.

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Nintendo Color-TV Game 6 (カラー テレビゲーム6)

Do you think Nintendo started in home video gaming with the Famicom? The Game & Watch?

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It actually all started in 1977 with this, the Color-TV Game 6.CTVG6_7199

Pre-dating the Famicom by six years, The Color-TV Game 6 was a Pong clone, offering six variations on the basic light tennis formula. Above is the first edition, CTG-6S, which came in a creamy white colour. Subsequent releases were orange, below right is the most common variant, the CTV-6V.

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You can play a classic Pong type game, plus variations with half sized paddles, and a mode with four paddles.

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It runs off six C batteries, and connects via RF as per all consoles of the era.

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The orange re-releases also added the ability to use an external power adapter.

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The orange ones also had improved dials. They rotate more smoothly, have less ‘give’ before they star registering, and stop rotating when your paddle is off the screen. CTG-6S dials just keep rotating, and your paddle comes back from the top of the screen after moving off the bottom, and vice versa.

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The manuals of these two variants.

It’s pretty primitive but works perfectly 38 years later. The simple circuitry is pretty sturdy and will likely outlast most consoles easily.

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It was followed up by the Color TV-Game 15 which featured more pong versions, Color TV-Game Racing which played a car game, Color TV-Game Block Breaker which was a Breakout clone, the Computer TV-Game which played Othello, and finally the Family Computer.

But it all started here.

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This one is still in the original shipping box.

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Circus Charlie (サーカスチャーリー) – Secret Konami Famicom game #2

Similar to Smash Ping PongCircus Charlie is a Konami arcade game that was released on the Famicom, but published by another company. In this case the publisher is the mysterious Soft Pro International, who dropped a few 8-bit games in the 80s then disappeared.CircusCharlie_3460

Circus Charlie 1In the game you play as Charlie the clown, and must perform various stunts for the crowd over five levels. The first level has Charlie riding a lion and jumping through rings of fire.

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There’s also tightrope walking, trapeze, balancing balls, and a strange level where you jump onto trampolines from the back of a pony.

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It’s very much in the early 80s arcade mould of simple, short levels which repeat after a loop, and the goal after seeing each level is simply to get the high score (think Donkey Kong).

Circus Charlie 14It’s a relatively faithful adaptation of the arcade game. Five out of six levels are intact, and they play almost identically, despite the move from vertical to horizontal orientation.

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But while sound effects and music are pretty much on par, the graphics have taken a pretty big hit. Gone are the bright, colourful tones of the arcade, replaced with a sad, drab circus right out of the Communist Bloc.

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Comrade Charlie?

Matching the early Famicom arcade heritage gameplay and presentation, Circus Charlie comes in the original small size Famicom box, much like the first Nintendo games, and the original Konami orange package line.CircusCharlie_3473

Circus Charlie was later released in original arcade form in the compilation packages Konami 80’s Arcade Gallery on the original Playstation and Konami Arcade Collection on Nintendo DS. The Playstation version is pretty much the go-to if you want to experience Circus Charlie properly. The DS version is a nice novelty but to view the game in correct vertical resolution you need to hold the DS sideways which is pretty awkward.

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As for the Famicom release? It’s still pretty fun, in that pre-Super Mario Bros arcade gameplay kind of way. It is however extremely rare. I bought the only boxed copy I have ever seen.

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Shinobi (忍)- Sega Mark III

Sega were king of the arcade for most of the coin-op format’s history, and their console efforts often attempted to leverage their arcade success into home success. While this would eventually lead them to release one of their arcade boards as a console (the Mega Drive is basically a cut-down Sega-16 board), on their first two consoles it meant ports.

And so we have the Mark III release of Shinobi.

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It’s a late enough Mark III release to have the Master System co-branding.

Shinobi is a basic 2D side scrolling action game, which was already a fairly recognisable format by 1987. It stars Joe Musashi, on a mission to stop bad guys who are kidnapping children from his ninja clan.

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You move along the stage, attacking bad guys with swords and ninja stars while freeing the kidnapped kids. The game’s gimmick is multiple ‘planes’ of action, and at certain points in stages you can switch between planes with a giant ninja jump. Luckily the bad guys are nice enough to pause and wait for your jump to complete (it’s really supposed to be a sort of ninja movie slow-motion effect I think). Otherwise controls are decent, solid but standard.

It’s broken into five missions of three or four stages each, with a boss at the end of each mission. Along the way you can power up your life bar and weapons, swapping out ninja stars for bombs and a knife, and your sword for nunchucks and eventually what appears to be a Castlevania-style chain whip.

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Some later stages can get quite frustrating, introducing bottomless pits and annoying enemy placements. Enemies get weirder and more supernatural as you progress, including some zombie-ninjas and demons.

Bosses are quite good, and largely rely on you working out attack patterns and counter-attacking. With one exception – a giant wall of hindu (Vishnu?) statues. After a million attempts I finally worked out the only solution was to spam it with knives, which worked. Frustrating.

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There’s also a very difficult bonus stage once a mission, where you throw ninja stars at two planes of ninjas, shooting gallery style.

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Graphically it’s decent, but nothing special. Pretty middle of the road for the Mark III. Some incredibly strange palette choices make some parts, especially the first stage, look quite garish, but other stages are fine.

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What is up with these colours?

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The Mark III version is a reasonable interpretation of the arcade game. The arcade game is a much faster, more fluid experience, whearas the home version is a slower and more methodical. There are less enemies, but despite the very different feel, the levels have been recreated quite faithfully.

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The graphics have also taken a hit from the 16-bit arcade game, but the bright Mark III colours arguably make it more appealing in parts than the drab original.

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One disappointing element is a common one for Mark III games – small cartridge size. The Mark III had some design flaws that meant it got less graphical tiles from the same amount of ROM than most consoles, and on top of that Sega often chose cheap small cart sizes. What this means is only a couple of tunes for the whole game (much like Makai Retsuden). And what happens when you beat the final boss, the Masked Ninja?

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You get this amazing ending:

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Wow, what a reward.

The tunes at least have FM instrument support, and sound pretty cool if you have an FM Unit.

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Overall it’s a pretty nice early ninja game, and pretty fun, even if incredibly difficult at points.

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Donkey Kong Jr. Panorama Screen – Nintendo Game and Watch

 Managed to get myself one of the most awesome Game & Watch releases – Donkey Kong Jr. Panorama Screen version!DKPano_3380

Originally released as a mini-arcade cab like ‘Tabletop’ Game & Watch, Nintendo re-tooled the basic tech of the Tabletop idea into a portable that folds flat to about the size of a Multi-Screen Game & Watch.DKPano_3376b

The top part is the LCD and a ‘light window’ which allows an external light source (like a lamp or sunlight) to shine through, displaying colour graphics. the image is then reflected on a mirror on the other half of the fold.DKPano_3381

And the results are amazing!DKPano_3384

It’s quite an involved piece of tech, and this version of Donkey Kong Jr. is easily the closest thing you could get to playing the arcade at home in 1982. There’s much more involved than the Widescreen Donkey Kong Jr. It even has a musical intro and interludes!

Here’s a screen of all the graphics lit up, so you can get an idea of how it plays.DKPano_3389It’s easily one of the best Game & Watch releases. Great little game, and it would have blown my mind back in the early 80s.

DoReMikko (ドレミッコ) – Famicom Disk System

DoReMikko (ドレミッコ) is a game I never thought I would ever be able to obtain. It usually goes for hundreds of dollars. But a few months ago on I unexpectedly won an auction on Yahoo Japan for a complete copy, far below usual price!Doremikko_1

The name DoReMikko is a play on ‘Do Re Mi’ – the anglicised versions of the first three notes of the Solfège scale (probably most well known from the song in the musical The Sound Of Music).

It’s a music game/software package for the Famicom Disk System that came with a keyboard controller. The keyboard is pretty nice quality, if a bit small.Doremikko_3

There are three main modes.Doremikko.000

First up is Concert Mode. Here you can play along with a Gradius melody medley with a full band accompaniment.Doremikko.001

You can select the instrument the keyboard sounds like, and set tempo and style, everything from rock to country to techno (and a strangely 4/4 waltz). More options are available in a menu, allowing you to adjust various parameters of yours and your accompaniment’s instruments. You can also record your performances to disk.

If you’re into 8-bit music, it’s pretty fun to fiddle around with the instrumentation, limited as it is.Doremikko.002

The instrument you pick affects the animation that plays. Including a full Chuck Berry/Back To The Future style stage rock-out if guitar is selected.Doremikko.006

Next up, Solo Mode is a simple keyboard-only mode. You can only select Piano or Organ, and play without accompaniment.Doremikko.008

So what’s the point? Well, this mode gives the entire system’s audio capabilities to the keyboard. Effectively it allows you to use your Famicom (with extra Disk System audio channels) as a digital keyboard, allowing up to 10 notes to be played at once in full synth quality. It also features the recording functionality of concert mode.  It’s fairly limited, but would have been impressive in 1987 for the price, quite a decent way to record your compositions.Doremikko.009

Finally, there’s ‘Play Along’ mode. Each of the boxes contains the accompaniment to a song, and these songs have their music written out in the game’s manual. The keys light up on the keyboard on screen, helping you learn to play the piece. Of course the highlight is once again the Gradius medley.Doremikko.010

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Overall there isn’t too much to it. It’s actually more useful as a tool to write music on than as a game for entertainment. It’s so trivial today to make quick digital recordings, but in 1987, on the cheap Family Computer, it must have been some budding musicians’ dream come true.

DoReMikko is also one of the Konami games that came packaged with a collector card.

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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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