Epoch Super Cassette Vision (スーパーカセットビジョン)

Before the Family Computer took over the world, the biggest name in Japanese console games was Epoch. Similar to Nintendo’s Color TV line, Epoch created a series of consoles that played a single game (Space Invaders clones, Baseball etc), and in 1981 the company spun off that hardware design into a cartridge based console, the Cassette Vision.

The original Cassette Vision console

The Cassette Vision did decently enough, but in 1983 arcade players Nintendo and Sega had entered the space with the Family Computer and SG1000, which were both selling well (very well in Nintendo’s case). So Epoch joined the next generation with the Super Cassette Vision. It’s a very interesting machine because it straddles the line between the generations of that era.

The console design itself bears several marks of the transitional nature of the industry at the time. At first it looks like a controller-less unit, but they’re hidden behind the front panel.

Like all Japanese consoles of the era, the controller cords are attached to the console, but the console has slots to store them much like the Famicom. The SG1000 II and Mark III also followed this Famicom design cue.

They fold out to reveal what are essentially a much better version of the SG1000 controller, itself a cut down version of the Colecovision controller. What makes them better are they use Game & Watch/Famicom style rubber membranes internally for buttons and stick directions, as opposed to the bending metal leaf connectors of Atari/Coleco/SG1000 controllers.

Ironically, Nntendo had the exact same idea in 1984, with their Micro Vs System game & Watch design.

The top of the console features a number pad for selecting game modes etc, which is very reminiscent of the Intellivision and Colecovision’s number pads, though it’s much better having them on the console, making the controllers more compact and comfortable. Similar to the SG1000 and Mark III, there is no start button on the pads, but a pause button on the console itself.

One thing that sets the console apart from others of the era is that it supports RGB-out right from the console. While unlikely to have been used by most customers of the era, today it makes it very easy to get great quality output.

Photograph of the game on my LCD via the Framemeister

In terms of power, it’s an odd one. The games have a very stable, sharp graphical presentation, with no flicker (Epoch boasts right on the console that it can handle 128 sprites at once), good bright colours, and decent quality sprites.

On that metric, it had the best quality graphics of any console until the PC Engine. But the system is still clearly in the Intellivision/Colecovision era in what it can handle. Backgrounds are always flat colour (or black), there is barely any scrolling and games are either simple, or slow, with little going on. Sound wide it’s probably about the same as the SG1000/Mark III, which is to say far below the Famicom.

But it’s a unique piece of hardware due to this dichotomy between such clean, solid presentation (especially via RGB) and more primitive style games, and it feels a lot like an 80s microcomputer, like the MSX.

Just like the Famicom, games came in cardboard boxes, with a little manual.

Taking another cue from Nintendo, they were on colourful cartridges, allowing quick selection of the game you want to play.

Short and stubby but with an end label, they’re a hybrid shape between the ‘cassette’ like shape of the Famicom and the long Atari style of the Sega carts of the era.

The front of each game cart shows a quick control reference for that game, which is nice.

Pop & Chips is an interesting cart, as it features saving via battery backup. instead of using permanent internal batteries like Nintendo games started to use in the later 80s, the cart simply has a slot for AAs.

Those character designs on Pop & Chips may seem familiar. they look very much like characters from Taito’s Chack’n’Pop (the 1983 ‘prequel’ to Bubble Bobble). It plays somewhat like Lode Runner however.

Along those lines, Epoch were not averse to ripping off other games to support their system. As seen above in the RGB screenshot, Astro Wars explicitly states it’s a Space Invaders derivative, though being much more advanced it feels more like Galaga, as does its sequel.

But some other ‘familiar’ names pop up too.

Wheelie Racer is a version of Data East’s Bump ‘n’ Jump/Burnin’ Rubber/Buggy Popper

Comic Circus is a limited take on Konami’s Circus Charlie with a bit of Sega’s Carnival.

And Elevator Fight a loose take on Taito’s Elevator Action.

I have no idea what Ton Ton Ball is based on, if anything.

There were some licensed official releases of games too. Marked clearly as being ‘From USA’ there was an officially licensed release of First Star Software’s Boulder Dash.

Other notable releases are games based on licences. There was a Lupin the Third game, a Doremon game, and the first ever Dragonball game.

The Super Cassette Vision faded pretty quickly after the Famicom started taking over Japan. It got a small licensed release in France, but didn’t appear anywhere else in the world. Epoch returned to its traditional strengths as a toymaker, and in 1985 created the Sylvanian Families animal dolls toy line that was incredibly successful and continues to this day. One neat link between the product lines is Epoch makes consoles for the Sylvanian Families playsets as well as various gacha toys, including this mini Super Cassette Vision (and mini TV playing Pop & Chips)

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First Edition Black Stripe/’Germany’ model Sega SG-1000 (エスジー・セン)

A while ago I got something rather special, the original ‘Black Stripe’ edition of the Sega SG1000. It’s also known as the ‘Germany’ model since it features a front panel with three colours that match the German flag.

This machine is somewhat analogous to the first edition square buttons Famicom model, in that it was the first ever model of the first Sega console, produced as a short initial run, but was quickly replaced by a revised model which became more ubiquitous. As such the majority of original SG1000 consoles feature the revised red/blue colour motif matching the blue Sega logo.

This one was in pretty rough shape physically, and was sold as ‘untested’. But it powered up fine.

And it booted and played a game perfectly the first time!

It obviously needed a good cleaning. For comparison here it was lined up with my restored square buttons Famicom.

On a side note, now that I have both true first edition models I should probably revise my 1983 Nintendo/Sega Face off article.

So I set out to restore it visually in the usual way.

In the meantime, I inspected the board and found something interesting.

It’s such an early model, Sega was revising the PCBs by hand! Later revisions had these trace fixes integrated into the PCB.

And here’s the restored console.

The label on the controller has seen better days.

But the main unit is now in pretty nice condition.

Finally, some glamour shots with its younger brother.

Sega Mark III Telecon Pack (テレコンパック)

The Telecon Pack is a radio frequency broadcaster for the Mark III.

Sega really went nuts with the accessories in the 80s, but this one makes a lot of sense from a Japanese perspective. In Japan, consoles were designed to sit near the player, and run a long cord to the television. This is the reason Japanese controller cords are so short, and why the SG1000, Mark III and Master System have the pause button on the console – because it was assumed you’d have the console next to you on when playing.

The Telecon Pack would allow you to have the console on a side table at the back of the room with power cord tucked away, and avoid needing a wire to the television for the video and audio.

It connects via the AV port, and then broadcasts the composite signal via a Japanese TV channel.

It originally came with a satellite dish you could plug into your TV for reception, which I don’t have right now.

Picture courtesy of Sega Retro

But it actually works fine with a regular television antenna – as long as the TV can tune in Japanese stations. My current TV can, and the results are surprisingly decent. Powering up one of my favourites Makai Retsuden:

RGB via Framemeister for comparison below:

It also works fine with the FM adapter, which has the composite signal passed through the adapter cord.

It looks super neat this way.

FM adapter plus Telecon pack on Mark III is the original Sega Voltron console.

Grand Master Sega Voltron Challenge – Telecon Pack to Game Gear TV Tuner

So now we have a Sega console that broadcasts, and a Sega console that can accept broadcasts. Time for the ultimate combo!

The only Japanese TV tuner I have is from the white Game Gear, but unfortunately the white Game Gear needs repair, so I cannot make an all white Sega Voltron.

So I’ll sub in a working recapped Game Gear. I touched the TV tuner’s aerial to the Telecon pack’s aerial for maximum reception.

And there we have it.

Is it the least convenient way possible to officially play Mark III games? Almost certainly.

Sega Steering Wheel Handle Controller SH-400 (ハンドルコントローラ)

Here’s a pretty cool piece – the Sega Steering Wheel Handle Controller (ハンドルコントローラ)

It was designed for the SG1000, which had a few racing games like Safari Race

As shown on the side of the box.

And it was clearly styled to match the SG1000 II

But personally I think it’s best suited to playing Outrun – with FM audio – on the Mark III!



Mark III set up and ready to rock.

To be honest it’s slightly annoying to use, because Outrun requires you to hold one of the buttons to accelerate. But it oozes 80s charm, and this was the premium ‘Sega at home’ experience of the mid 80s.

Family Computer Robot (ファミリーコンピュータ ロボット) – The Japanese R.O.B.

You’ve likely heard the story of R.O.B. ‘The Robotic Operational Buddy’ for the NES. The story usually goes like this: when Nintendo wanted to bring their successful Family Computer console to America in 1985, the stores wouldn’t take it because they were afraid of losing money on video games, as there had just been a big video game market crash. So in order to get toy stores to stock the console, Nintendo initially bundled the NES with a toy robot and marketed it as an electronic toy instead.

Some of the story might be true, but R.O.B. was actually released in Japan first, as the Family Computer Robot.

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Nintendo was a toy company before they were a games company, and there were many existing examples of the company combining electronics and toys before this. Among the most notable are the original electro-mechanical light gun games: at home (Electro Safari and Electro Bird) and in the arcade (the original versions of Wild Gunman and Duck Hunt).

So really, the robot and its accessories were just part of a long toy/game continuum that continued throughout the Famicom era with peripherals like the Power Pad and all the way through to today with Amiibo and Labo.

The games that were compatible each came with a veritable toybox of additional parts, and are essentially complex mechanical games that use the robot as a central item. Only two games were released, Robot Block and the more elaborate Robot Gyro.  famicomrobot_0581

The Family Computer Robot uses pretty much identical technology to the light guns of the day, but in reverse, so instead of the screen responding to the peripheral, the peripheral responds to the screen. Like light guns it relies on the screen scanning display technique of a cathode ray tube, and so will not work on modern fixed pixel screens, even via a scaler.

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Sorry Framemeister, you’re not up to this task.

So for robot games, a CRT is required, luckily I keep one on hand for just such an occasion.

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Essentially the robot needs to be positioned so he can see the screen clearly in order to respond to the commands he is sent.

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The robot can receive commands from the screen and execute a simple movements based on them. He can move his arms up and down, left to right, and can open and close his grip. This movement set allows him to pick up and move objects.

The two games approach the concept of ‘robot which can pick up items’ differently. Robot Block primarily makes the physical element of the game the primary one, integrating the Famicom software into the mechanical game. Robot Gyro is essentially a regular video game which includes the robot (and gyro) functionality as a physical gimmick.

Robot Block (ロボット ブロック)

Robot Block is the simplest of the two games, in both set-up and software. It comes with a series of attachments which are slotted into the robot’s base, some discs which sit in these attachments and can be stacked on each other, and some hand attachments which can grip the discs.

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The physical game involves manoeuvring the robot to pick up the discs and stack them in a particular order.

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The game itself features a robot testing tool, and three game modes: Direct, Memory and Bingo.

All the games involve a little professor jumping around the interface. Direct is the simplest, you have to stack up the discs in a certain order as shown on the screen.

In Memory you must set up a series of moves for the robot to execute in order to achieve the required physical result. Bingo is a one or two player game where you have to fill in rows or columns in order to execute commands.

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Essentially the software is useless without the accessories, since it’s really just a tool that is used to play with the robot and pieces. It’s also not very fun beyond the 80s robot novelty.

Robot Gyro (ロボット ジャイロ)

Robot Gyro is both the better game, and has the better toys. It also has a much more elaborate set-up. First of all there is a bracket on which the Famicom player II controller sits, with a levered mechanism which can hit the A and B buttons.

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There is a powered gyro spinner which gets two tops spinning at high speed.

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The robot can pick up the tops from the spinner…

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…manoeuvre them over the button levers…

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…and release, which presses down on the matching button on the controller.

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There’s also a slot over on the right to keep the second top when not in use.

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Here’s a closer look at the mechanism to hit the buttons. The mechanisms are coded in blue and red, which ties into the game.

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The set up is actually a pretty fun toy in and of itself, due to the spinning tops being pretty fun and the whole set-up being nicely done. But what about the game?

Well it’s a pretty standard 80s puzzle action platformer (think Lode Runner or Crazy Castle), where the same professor character from Robot Block has to collect all the dynamite in the stage while avoiding the critters.

 

The gimmick is that the stages are full of red and blue pipes which move up and down when the red and blue switches have been hit. In order to get the robot to do this, you essentially pause and issue instructions. It can often take several moves for the robot to slowly get the top to the right button.

Actually playing with the robot is tedious, but the game itself is a decent puzzler if played without it in two player (with the other player hitting A and B). So while the robot toys are fun to play with, and the game is decent, together they are less than the sum of the parts.

 

Overall, while not being the most fun games to play on the Famicom, the Family Computer Robot games are fun pieces connecting Nintendo’s toy and video game eras.

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TV Games Maya (ゲームズマーヤ) Tokyo

In sad news, famous Tokyo game store TV Games Maya closed on April 8 after 35 years.

Games Maya the last time I visited in mid 2017.

Run by shop manager Hisako Akitani as a family business, the run has finally come to an end due to her retirement. It’s crazy to think the shop has been running since around the launch of the Famicom.

GameCenter CX’s main man Arino hosted an event on the final day, and many famous names in the Japanese game industry paid their respects for such a long-running business.

More info about the final day can be found in this blog post collecting tweets from denfaminicogamer, or this report from magazine Famitsu.

I just wish I had bought this sweet Famicom design gaming chair last time I was there!

20/20 Konami Famicom Collector Cards

Another update on this article on my now never-ending quest to collect a series of Konami Famicom character cards from the 80s.

Recap: at some point starting in 1987, Konami decided to include a collector card with all their Famicom titles. Each card had an illustration related to the game; some cards featured screenshots or pieces of screenshots, others had artwork of scenes in the game.

Last time I decided I was done, having collected a card for 19/20 of the games which came with a card. The missing game was Exciting Boxing (エキサイティングボクシング), which while I’d managed to get a hard-to-find boxed copy of it to complete my complete boxed Konami Famicom collection, I’d never seen one with a card outside of complete large box copies which come with a novelty inflatable controller and cost a fortune when they appear.

But one lucky day I found a regular small boxed game with the card. And now I have a card for all twenty of the games that came with one!

On top of this, I picked up a beautiful near mint copy of Dragon Scroll (ドラゴンスクロール) in Ikebukuro, which came with a different card to the one I had, so now I have entered the murky waters of collecting multiple cards per game.

Dragon Scroll also came with these great advertisements for various Konami games and sountracks. Pretty cool when you have almost every item on a vintage ad!
   

This Japanese site (which I found because it flatteringly used this site as a source) has nicely collated most of the available cards, so this journey may go for many more years. Another great site Video Game Den also has good info on the available cards.

So here is my updated card set:

The whole collection, with cards: