Following my popular Goonies for Famicom Disk ‘retail’ release reproduction, I grabbed a separate copy of the other Konami Disk Writer Kiosk exclusive release, Twinbee, with an eye to making similar packaging for it.
As with Goonies (and most Disk Writer Kiosk releases), it came with a proper printed disk label and fold-out paper manual. The manual sheet is in much nicer condition than my Goonies one, having been more carefully folded 30 years ago.
As such, the original box is quite boring, design wise. For more interesting design and logo ideas I looked at the MSX release:
As well as various flyers for the game.
I opened up my Goonies project and whipped up a Twinbee cover in that style.
But it looks a bit fancy for such an early release. Twinbee is old enough that its original cartridge release even had the old Konami logo, so looking so bold didn’t really fit. Instead I looked to its sequel, Moreo Twinbee, which was originally released on Famicom Disk System as one of Konami’s first games with their new logo.
This style would be more period-appropriate, given this edition of Twinbee on FDS was released in 1988.
Pretty soon I had it done and the result back from the printers.
At the same time and on the same sheet did a minor update to the Goonies print to adjust the size slightly, and remove Twinbee’s name from the spine.
Cut to size
Scored for the disk holder
And the end result, for both disc and outer box:
The two retail release reproductions together:
And Twinbee FDS with the sequel Moreo Twinbee.
Now both can be home with their Konami Famicom Disk brethren.
Until the mid 1980s, console gaming was dominated by the American company Atari, and their home platform the Video Computer System, or VCS for short.
Ports of Atari’s own arcade games were the main selling points of the system, alongside Atari’s made-for-home efforts and eventually games by the first third party developer, Activision.
The VCS was not officially supported in Japan in the 70s (it was eventually released in 1983 as the 2800, far too late), but was sub-distributed in the country by Epoch, who also had their own line of consoles at the time. Nintendo was still releasing their single game Color TV Game series consoles. Japan was pretty much just a minor regional market in the grand scheme of things.
However, this changed in 1978, when Space Invaders by Taito became the biggest video game hit of all time to that point.
It was so big in Japan that entire arcades opened dedicated to that single game, but it was a huge hit everywhere in the world where games were played. Space Invaders was the start of what would eventually become Japanese dominance of the video game industry.
It was ported to the VCS in 1980 in the first ever licensing deal, and became the killer app for the system.
It was a decent port that resembled the arcade game well.
And was packed in with every console, leading sales to increase substantially.
From then on, all the biggest games seemed to come from Japan. Nacmo’s Puck Man (renamed Pac Man for the west) was the next big name, followed by Nintendo’s Donkey Kong.
Another small Japanese firm named Sega were also making a name for themselves too, particularly with racing games like Monaco GP and Turbo. Having previously made mechanical arcade games, Sega games were known for fancy custom arcade hardware.
All these Japanese companies’ games made their home debuts on American systems. Pac Man had an infamously bad VCS port which was the start of a downward trajectory for Atari.
Coleco managed to sign up the rights for Donkey Kong and several Sega games for their Colecovision system, but also published them on the VCS. Though the ageing VCS hardware and shoddy ports did not do the games justice.
And thanks to Nintendo taking over Japan and then the world with the Famicom/NES, and then Nintendo or Sony winning every generation since, to this day Japanese consoles have dominated. Though admittedly western software has regained sales dominance worldwide in the last decade.
One final interesting note is that due to some licensing deals of the era, a Nintendo game was released on Atari VCS that never saw a release elsewhere. A 1981 Nintendo game called Sky Skipper was never released in arcades following poor reviews in location testing.
But a port by Parker Brothers made its way onto Atari’s system.
Sky Skipper was never released or ported to any other platform for 35 years, until it was finally released as part of the Arcade Archives series on Nintendo Switch in 2018.
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 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.
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)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
So for robot games, a CRT is required, luckily I keep one on hand for just such an occasion.
Essentially the robot needs to be positioned so he can see the screen clearly in order to respond to the commands he is sent.
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.
The physical game involves manoeuvring the robot to pick up the discs and stack them in a particular order.
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.
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.
There is a powered gyro spinner which gets two tops spinning at high speed.
The robot can pick up the tops from the spinner…
…manoeuvre them over the button levers…
…and release, which presses down on the matching button on the controller.
There’s also a slot over on the right to keep the second top when not in use.
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.
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.