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.

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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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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.

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.

 

Dragon Wang (ドラゴン-ワン) and Makai Retsuden (魔界列伝)/Kung Fu Kid – Sega Mark III

This one is a weird little series.

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I was introduced to Kung Fu Kid when my family rented a Sega when I was young. It wasn’t the first console game I ever played, but it was the first one I ever played in my own house (i.e. the first game I played for hours and hours in a single night).

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The ‘amazing’ western box art…

It’s a fun little ‘Kawaii’ rendition of the classic Kung Fu Master template (kick waves of bad guys and move up levels) starring a Chinese kung fu master called Wang. It adds in a dash of platformer with a much higher jump, more variety to the settings (not just a tower) and quite nice colourful graphics.

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Years later I found out it was actually called Makai Retsuden (Demon World Story) in Japan and was a sequel to an SG1000 game called Dragon Wang(!). Thanks to eBay and Yahoo Auctions I now have my own copies of both, and it’s time for a write-up.

Dragon Wang (ドラゴン-ワン)

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It turns out Sega were quite accurate in their translations, and the original game was named after Wang.

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It came on the SG1000 card format

The title of Kung Fu Kid now makes more sense, as Dragon Wang is very much a straightforward clone of Irem’s Kung Fu Master, with a tower to climb, full of bad guys to kick. This format was itself based on the unfinished Bruce Lee movie Game of Death, hence ’Dragon’ in the title. As with most action games on the primitive SG1000 hardware, the graphics are quite simple, the scrolling is choppy, and it is very difficult to progress.

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You fight through waves of regular bad guys, and on each level you pick a fight against a couple of bosses, like nunchucks guy here.

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D-Wang…

It’s pretty limited and clunky, but it has a nice rhythm in the way bad guys attack, and can be fun in shorter bursts.

Makai Retsuden (魔界列伝)

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I love it how the ‘Gold Cartridge’ is white…

While the original game was a pretty straightforward kung fu romp, For the Mark III sequel, Sega got weird, and it’s a ghost/zombie martial arts game. After saving the day in the first game, Wang could afford to relax and put a shirt on. But an ancient evil named Mandala has awoken and brought with him an undead army.

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Instead of nunchuck guys, you now fight various Chinese-themed ghosts and zombies and possessed creatures. As a kid I missed all this and just thought it was standard Japanese weirdness, like a Mario game. The game was released in the wake of Mario, and you can see Nintendo’s influence here – jumping is now a much bigger part of the game. Wang has one of the highest jumps in 8-bit games.

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The first two levels are straight left to right affairs, but after that it returns mostly to the more claustrophobic ’tower climb’ structure of the first game.

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The graphics are great, the music catchy, the mechanics solid and fun, and like most Sega games of this era it’s a mean challenge. Overall a top Mark III effort.

More screens:

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