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.

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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.

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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.

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The NintendoSega Mark IIIDS

There’s a Mark III 3DS theme out. Looks perfect on a white New 3DS.M3DS_4775

Now we just need some Mark III faceplates. It’s still crazy to me to see the Sega and Nintendo brands together like this, even after all these years of it being normal (the dual branded F-Zero GX launch screen was the first real time they co-branded, back in 2003!)

Check out the theme itself here:

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 NTSC-J consoles cannot ever display properly on your screens. You can usually tune in a fuzzy black and white picture with no sound at best. Even your TV is NTSC compatible via other inputs, it’s extremely unlikely to support NTSC over RF.

You can mod most RF-only systems to output composite video or better, but I am not touching my SG-1000, Color TV Game 6, or some of my original Famicoms, so they simply cannot be used easily.

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 composite, but they’re getting hard to come by, are cumbersome, and you also end up with additional artifacting from the composite signal.

I now have a cheap solution. I got myself a $20 NTSC RF to VGA box on ebay. It’s effectively 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 all these consoles, and the output is fantastic. Video is really quite comparable to good composite, and sound is great. The scaling, for what it can do with a fuzzy RF image, is quite solid too. 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

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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. So I couldn’t get the SG-1000 working perfectly, the colours were off. Color TV Game 6 worked great, as did two different Famicoms, and a Super Famicom vis RF.

It seems to have particular trouble getting sync with primarily plain background games. It eventually clicks and then stays in sync however, 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!

Sega SG-1000 (エスジー・セン)

Following my post about the first Nintendo console, here is the first Sega console.

It was in 1983 that this website’s co-namesake entered the home video game market, with their first machine, the Sega SG-1000.SG1000_4408

Released the same month as the Famicom (some sources claim the same day), it was a generation behind it in technology and design, featuring performance equivalent to the ColecoVision and first generation MSX. Sega couldn’t have predicted hurricane Famicom was about to redefine video games.

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It plays Atari-style tall cassettes (cartridges), and features and Atari style joystick which is tethered  to the left of the console.

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The back features a port to attach a keyboard. ‘Home computer’ versions of the hardware with the keyboard integrated were released as the Sega SC-3000.

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It can also play Sega My Card software (like Dragon Wang here) with the ‘Card Catcher’ adapter, which was released to coincide with the launch of the SG-1000 II a year later.

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About that SJ-200 joystick – it’s pretty awful. Very similar in responsiveness to an original Atari VCS joystick, but with a worse design. Both the joystick and buttons are stiff and unresponsive, even in a perfectly working controller. Inside it uses a primitive bending metal ‘leaf connector’ system, which was cheap but no substitute for the microswitches in arcade joysticks, or the innovative rubber membrane system Nintendo utilised in its Game & Watch series and brought to the Famicom.

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On the right of the console there’s a standard Sega controller connector plug, which unfortunately is only for player 2. Sega actually released an adapter that allowed you to open the console and replace the player 1 SJ-200 with another controller port, but it’s apparently impossible to find. I might try and make up a home-made one to use Mark III controllers.

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Size-wise it’s comparable to a Mark III, and deceptively flat.

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Output is RF-only, which means a classic fuzzy picture, if you can even tune it in (depending on where you live).

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The Konami game ‘High School Graffiti: Mikie’ where you play as a teen heart throb, to the tune of Beatles classics.

It’s a pretty cool collector piece, but due to the joystick and RF-only output is not the best choice to actually play on. The Mark III is fully backward compatible with SG-1000 games, has the card slot built in, and (with a bit of ingenuity) has very nice RGB graphics output.

 

Sega Mega Drive (メガドライブ)

Here’s the very first model of the Sega Mega Drive.MegaDrive1

That little ® next to ‘Sega’ at the bottom right means it is the first, Japan-only model.MegaDrive2

The next batch of models, like this one, are missing the ®.MegaDrive3

Sega loved covering the top of their consoles with semi-nonsensical text. For the Mega Drive it’s ‘AV Intelligent Terminal High Grade Multipurpose Use’.MegaDrive4

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Following the the tradition of the Mark III‘s amazing console top-promise (pic taken from my Mark III restoration article, hence no reset button and cassette slot flap)Makutree_1122

And of course the inaccurate and needlessly complicated usage diagram on the top of the Master System.MasterSystemTop

Time for some launch games. The only true Alex Kidd sequel may be dated, but would have been pretty impressive in 1988. Especially because the early, made in Japan models have far better audio than later made in Taiwan models.MegaDrive6

For more info on the numerous Mega Drive models, see this legendary Sega 16 thread.

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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Alex Kidd in Miracle World (アレックスキッドのミラクルワールド) – Sega Mark III

Alex Kidd – Sega’s most direct answer to the popularity of Mario

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Much has been written about Sega’s history of creating ‘answers’ to Nintendo’s ideas. The reality is almost everyone in the space has copied Nintendo to some extent and in some capacity, it’s just that Sega was the closest similar competitor for longer than anyone else, so the examples pile up higher.

Which brings us to Alex Kidd in Miracle World, released a year into the life of the Mark III, and in the wake of Super Mario Bros. explosive popularity. Miracle World is such a straightforward answer to Super Mario Bros. nobody ever tried to deny it.

I'm noticing some familiarity here...
One of these things is a lot like the other…

Starring a red-jumpsuited monkey boy clearly designed to evoke ‘young Mario’
It’s quite typical of the platfomers released on Super Mario’s wake.

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It has the destroyable blocks with money and power ups in them, plus land based platforming and swimming levels. Its efforts to differentiate itself from Mario include vertically scrolling levels and stores in which to buy power-ups.

It also has its own combat method (punching), and jump and attack are reversed from Mario’s rapidly-growing standard layout. You get used to it, and it can actually be advantageous depending on how you hold the pad, but it’s jarring to start with. In a later western release of the game, the buttons are reversed to the Mario standard in a full admission of defeat.

Jumps are a bit floaty, and movement a bit mushy overall, but the controls are decent. Moving carefully you can make your way through the game fairly easily, punching away at enemies with relative success.

It seems likely the game was developed by the same team as Ghost House, since the controls and graphics, and even main character, are quite similar.

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What Alex Kidd has going for it are a variety of environments and gameplay styles. As mentioned, just like Mario there are swimming levels, but Alex has a few vehicles available as well. The motorcycle is an optional power-up, purchasable using the in-game cash at stores in some levels. It works somewhat like the skateboard in Wonder Boy, in that you career headfirst at a super fast pace until you hit a hard object and the bike evaporates. There’s also the Ballon Fight like helicopter levels and a water based motorcycle equivalent in the speedboat.

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While the game is otherwise mostly a standard meandering platformer with fairly mediocre level design, some later levels resemble action puzzlers, such as Utopia’s Montezuma’s Revenge, or Konami’s Goonies, except much more basic. Overall it’s fairly boring from a gameplay perspective, even with the gimmicks.

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Boss battles are the worst feature of the game. Instead of any kind of action, in most cases the battles are largely decided by a paper scissors rock game. It’s like you leave action-game land and enter a casino where your opponent can view your moves. Following the ‘Janken’ match, most bosses then attack physically in a limited fashion, usually by throwing their disembodied head around the screen in a random pattern.

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It’s a pretty good game graphically for 1986. Nicely dawn characters with lots of detail, and colourful worlds to explore.

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The music isn’t that great. While the tunes are catchy, they’re no Mario theme, and like SMB there are only a few pieces that repeat throughout the adventure. The Mark III has worse sound hardware than the Famicom, and unfortunately there’s no FM soundtrack.

Alex Kidd’s first adventure also unfortunately remains his best. A bunch of what were essentially spin-offs followed, none of which were much good. The only actual sequel was a 1988 Mega Drive launch game, known as The Enchanted Castle in the west, and while it’s easily the second best ‘Kidd, it’s pretty janky.

Alex Kidd in Miracle World didn’t set the world on fire in Japan, but is a fondly remembered game in many PAL territories due to it being built-in game of the majority of Master System consoles released. But while the original game isn’t exactly a classic, it’s surprising Sega never did a revival.

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