Nintendo’s Micro Vs. System series was the cutting edge way to enjoy multiplayer gaming on the go in 1984, combining the multiplayer fun of the Famicom with the portability of the Game & Watch line.
With (semi) detachable controllers for player 1 and 2, each unit only played one game, but quality engineering made the whole thing very cool.
Thirty three years later, the more things change, the more things stay the same. The idea has been reborn as one of the key features of the new Nintendo Switch.
If there’s anything Nintendo loves, it’s revisiting old ideas. Dual screens, stereoscopic 3D, and now on-the-go multiplayer have all made multiple appearances in the company’s history. The hybrid Switch has finally fulfilled the promise of the Micro Vs. idea.
Similarly, in the 80s, handheld Zelda was a massive compromise. Now there is no compromise.
In a sense, all of Nintendo’s gaming history has been pointing here. Exciting times.
A small confession: My Wii U is not a Japanese model.
There were a few more minor revisions of the consoles along the way – FF logo/non FF logo Famicom, output changes, different coloured consoles of various sorts (even shapes like the Pikachu N64), but these are all the major Japanese revisions. The Wii Mini revision was not released in Japan.
There’s one major item missing – the Computer TV-Game.I’ll almost certainly never get one of these. This ‘console’ is incredibly rare, insanely expensive, and its questionable if it was even a consumer product since it was literally an arcade game with TV out. It sold for ¥48,000 in 1980. For comparison the Color TV Game Racing 112 was selling for ¥5000 in 1980, and the Famicom launched in 1983 for ¥14,800.
The Sega set is on its way, but will take a few more years I think. So many revisions…
The SG1000 most likely did okay for itself all things considered, but in the wake of Nintendo’s superior (and much higher selling) Famicom offering, Sega pivoted to make their home console platform more Famicom-like.
While the eventual result was the upgraded Mark III console, the first fruits of this pivot were realised with the SG1000 II.
Essentially a repackaging of the original Sg1000, it is also a design link between the two generations of Sega consoles.
Like the Mark III (and Mega Drive) it features English text on the top of the console, explaining its purpose and function. This one is particularly cute and amusing.
Instead of the terrible SG1000 joystick, it now has Famicom-style controllers which attach at the back, and Famicom like controller docks on the side of the console (more on this in the controller rivalry article).
There were two revisions of the SG1000 II. One was a simple re-configuration of the original console, and the second featured major internal revisions – it consolidated several of the original chips (among them the ‘off-the-shelf’ Texas Instruments SN76489 sound chip and TMS9918 video chip) into one new custom Sega part. This later model is much closer to the circuit of the Mark III, and because of these changes can be modded to output an RGB signal.
Both console revisions look the same on the outside. Very late release SG1000 II consoles came with an updated controller, though it doesn’t seem this change lines up with the internal board revision changes.
The Sg1000 II is a somewhat redundant console from a collecting perspective. It lacks the ‘first Sega console’ cachet, but isn’t as useful as the upgraded, more compatible, more user-friendly Mark III.
And in terms of looks, the redesign is more modern but a bit plain. It lacks the nice simple ‘retro evolved’ vibe of the original, but doesn’t quite nail the ’80s futurism’ look that Sega perfected with the seriously stylish Mark III.
But I really like that Sega was developing their own unified design aesthetic, and so it does look pretty cool with this matching joystick.
This set has taken over 20 years to complete. It was finally done when I managed to find a rare boxed copy of Exciting Boxing for a good price.
The first Famicom game I ever got was The Goonies, since it wasn’t released in the west and I loved The Goonies II. I originally played it on my NES via a converter, but it started my Famicom obsession.
Another early pickup was Parodius Da.
The rarest item is possibly Geki Kame Ninja Den (Legend of the Radical Ninja Turtles) – the Japanese version of the first Ninja Turtles game. Or maybe the third party published Konami arcade game Circus Charlie. Most valuable could be Geki Kame Ninja Den, Bucky O’Hare or Exciting Boxing.
I don’t have the DoReMikko–style big box for Exciting Boxing, or the late-era cartridge re-releases of the FDS games Akumajou Dracula, Bio Miracle Bokette Upa, or Moreo Twinbee, so there’s a small amount of room to grow the set. Unfortunately all four of those items are hilariously expensive.
Here’s the full set with the Famicom Disk Games added to the photo, including the large DoReMikko box up the back.
Also Akumajou Dracula, Ai Senshai Nicol, King Kong 2, Gradius II, Salamander, Crisis Force, Maze of Gallious, Wai Wai World 1 and 2, Tiny Toon Adventures 1 and 2, Bucky O’Hare, Metal Gear, Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa, Exciting Soccer, Exciting Basket, Ganbare Goemon 1 and 2, Meikyuu Jiin Dababa, Falsion, Dragon Scroll… so many classics.
Konami were at their peak in this era, and I believe the single greatest developer in the world at that point. How the mighty have fallen.
Ninjas were everywhere in the 80s, and Japanese game developers were happy to fulfil the international demand for martial arts action. Nintendo’s console had Kung Fu, Ninja Gaiden, Ninja Turtles, The Legend of Kage, Shadow of the Ninja and many others. Sega had their Shinobi and Dragon Wang series, as well as their shortlived Ninja series.
Much like the Dragon Wang/Makai Retsudenseries, Sega’s Ninja series is a somewhat convoluted progression of the same basic game template over a couple of generations of hardware.
Ninja Princess/Sega Ninja – Arcade
Ninja Princess (released in the west as Sega Ninja) began as a Sega System 1 arcade game in 1985. It’s an overhead run-and-gun game, one of a batch released around that time, such as Capcom’s Commando and SNK’s Ikari Warriors. Swapping out a warzone and slow moving bullets for Sengoku-era Japan and throwing knives, Ninja Princess is one of the first ever examples of an action game with a female protagonist, a whole year before the highly celebrated Metroid.
The game stars titular princess Kurumi, whose castle has been overrun by bad guys. She escapes a kidnap attempt in a cute animated intro, and sets out to take back the castle with her ninja skills.
It’s a truly great example of the genre, with tight gameplay, great graphics and sounds, and some nice gimmicks. You have two fire buttons – one fires knives (or via a power-up, ninja stars) in the direction you are facing, and the other always fires directly up, no matter which way you are oriented. This innovation completely fixes the clunky feeling the genre can have, as you can actually fire at enemies while retreating. The third button activates a temporary ninja-vanish to evade enemy attacks.
On top of this, Ninja Princess mixes up the gameplay with gimmick/event stages, including a stage where you avoid falling boulders, another with stampeding horses, one set on logs floating on a river, and two stages where you climb castle walls.
The graphics are fantastic, especially for 1985, colourful, detailed and stylish, and Kurumi herself is a particularly cute and nicely designed sprite.
The original arcade version is available on the Saturn, included in the compilation package Sega Ages Memorial Selection Volume 2.
It has a slightly squashed aspect ratio to fit in the Saturn’s resolution (but with no detail loss), and the graphics have been slightly retouched, mostly for the better. But it is a great way to play the game. One of the menu options allows you to play with infinite lives, which is a godsend, as being an 80s arcade game, it’s brutally difficult in the later stages.
Ninja Princess (忍者プリンセス) – SG1000
Sega’s first contemporary home port was for the SG1000 in 1986. As you’d expect, the graphics have taken a fairly big hit, and with only two buttons the ‘ninja vanish’ function has been mapped to hitting both action buttons at once, but it’s otherwise as faithful a port as could really be possible on the hardware.
The event stages are gone, but otherwise pretty much the entire game is intact, including the climbing stages. It’s actually quite fun to see some of the set-pieces from the arcade re-created in a more primitive form, and while the enemy ninjas are mostly single colour sprites in this version, their single colour often matches the primary colour of that enemy type in the arcade – you can see the designers of the port really tried to make it resemble the original.
The dinky SG1000 graphics have their own charm, and assuming you’re using a decent controller it plays really well for an SG1000 game. In an attempt to prolong the life of the title for home gamers, it introduces a ‘secret scroll’ system, and you have to collect all the secret scrolls to access the last level. They’re basically randomly located in the levels, so this is probably the most frustrating part.
While it had no chance of living up to the arcade original, it’s still very fun, and is one of the best games for the SG1000.
Ninja Princess 1 Mega Han (忍者プリンセス１メガ版) – Mark III
When Ninja Princess finally made it to hardware that could do it full justice – in the form of Sega’s newer Mark III console – it was ostensibly in the form of a sequel. Ninja Princess 1 Mega Han.
In what was assumedly an attempt to make the game more ‘serious’ (and perhaps appeal to console gaming’s primarily young male audience), the graphical style has been changed completely, removing any hint of the original game’s cutesyness. And instead of starring Kurumi the Ninja Princess, it stars a goofy looking dude named Kazamaru, who now must save the princess.
Despite the long-winded title on the box, the title screen shows simply ‘The Ninja’.
It’s set up as a sequel story-wise, but is actually another, more faithful, port of the arcade game. All the arcade event stages are back (in re-drawn form), including the falling boulders, stampeding horses, and river. Controls are identical and the scroll system is back from Ninja Princess SG1000, so you have to collect all five scrolls, then perform a particular task at a particular place to access the secret basement level and rescue the princess. There is also a new speed power up scroll.
It plays about as well as the arcade, but the new graphics are kind of badly drawn (especially the main sprites, including Kazamaru who looks as awkward in-game as he does on the cover), and the limited cartridge space meant there is much less detail and animation than the arcade game. Apart from the odd nicely drawn section, it’s not a particularly good looking Mark III game. There are more musical tracks, but they’re pretty bland, especially when your knives are powered up to ninja stars and you hear the same tune over and over.
The Ninja – Master System
Ninja Princess 1 Mega Han was released in the west under its title screen name The Ninja. While many Mark III/Master System games contain a universal ROM with both English and Japanese versions of the game onboard, The Ninja was actually ‘upgraded’ for its release outside of Japan. The western release gets a scrolling text intro, a new title screen, and an extra image on the splash screen when you collect all the scrolls.
Unfortunately the entire second level is missing, no doubt sacrificed to make space for the above. Which is a shame because it’s actually one of the better looking levels. Two of the secret scrolls have also changed location, one in particular makes a heck of a lot more sense in its Mark III location.
And here the Ninja series ended. One fantastic arcade game, a very good SG1000 game, and a decent-but-nothing-special Mark III game. They’re worth a play through, but probably the best experience of the series is to be had on the Saturn port of the arcade game.
Two new consoles have been released by two prominent Japanese arcade developers – the Family Computer from Nintendo, and the SG1000 from Sega.
The big game in the arcades is still Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, featuring future superstar-to-be Mario. But the bigger name in arcades right now is Sega, whose Turbo and Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom are doing incredible things graphically. And Sega now have themselves an answer to Donkey Kong – Congo Bongo. Essentially a conceptual clone of Donkey Kong (and in the later stages Konami’s Frogger), Congo Bongo differentiates itself with an innovative and incredibly impressive isometric 3D perspective.
In turn, both companies’ new consoles have launched with home ports of these killer titles.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Donkey Kong has been made available at home. Aside from a variety of home console ports (including the solid Colecovision version), there is the fantastic Donkey Kong Game & Watch from Nintendo’s smash hit line of handhelds. The Family Computer itself has taken many design and packaging cues from the little handhelds, and this, along with Nintendo’s earlier Color TV Game series has given them valuable experience in the retail space.
So how do the two ports hold up compared to their arcade originals? Sega is taking the lead in the arcades, but are they up to the task of meeting Nintendo’s challenge in the home space?
First up is the original. Firing up DK on the Famicom, the first thing that’s apparent is that the game has transitioned quite well from the arcade’s 3:4 aspect ratio to the regular television 4:3 aspect ratio.
It’s a little squished, but overall it works and is a very faithful port. Gameplay is replicated near perfectly, if anything it plays more smoothly, though it may have to do with the Famicom controller being more suitable for platformers than arcade joysticks.
The major omission is the third ‘cement factory’ stage, so DK on Fami has only three stages before looping.
There’s even the ending screen where Mario is reunited with Pauline (briefly).
The arcade intro and interludes are missing, and there are a few sound effect and animation omisions, but it looks and sounds great overall. It’s a clear step above the already excellent Colecovision version, and Donkey Kong on Famicom is likely the most advanced game available on any home platform to date.
Congo Bongo has a very interesting history, directly linked with Donkey Kong. It was developed for Sega by a software engineering company called Ikegami Tsushinki – the same team that did the programming work for Donkey Kong. While Donkey Kong was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo assumedly didn’t yet have the software development pipeline to make a top arcade game in 1981, and hired external software engineers. Sega grabbed the same team for their answer to Nintendo’s smash hit.
As soon as you hit start on Congo Bongo‘s title screen, the disappointment begins. Where is the isometric 3D? As a 2D game Congo Bongo is very much a poor man’s Donkey Kong.
What’s even more disappointing is that the Colecovision, a console with basically identical hardware to the SG1000, managed to have a port which maintained the isometric perspective.
And unbelievably, a port to the ancient Atari VCS somehow did too!
But the poor SG1000 got a 2D version. There are only two stages, the Donkey Kong style stage plays from a side view, and the Frogger style stage from the top.
Despite all this, it still plays okay, if a little awkwardly, and in the grand scheme of things it’s not too far below the Famicom version of Donkey Kong. It’s not helped by the terrible SG1000 joystick, but even if you get around that by playing on an SG1000 II pad, controls are a bit loose.
The SG1000 hardware could have done much better, and Sega proved it in 1985 when their isometric 3D shooter Zaxxon (which was also programmed by Ikegami Tsushinki and used the same arcade hardware) was ported to SG1000 with the 3D effect intact.
It’s little wonder the Family Computer took off. Donkey Kong was a premium product. Congo Bongo for SG1000 is decent enough fun and about as good as most games before that point, but is just an interesting artefact now.
So you want to play some SG-1000 games old-school style…
…but the original SJ-200 joystick controller is a complete nightmare to use…
Sure, there’s a plug on the right for player 2 which can use any DB9 connector Sega pad, but player 1 is stuck with the SJ-200 tethered to the console.
Sega acknowledged their first controller sucked, and released a small modification/adapter called the JC-100, which allowed original console owners to to use the new pads released alongside the SG-1000 II.
It would be impossible to get hold of a JC-100 now, but you can easily make one yourself. All you need are the following:
Mega Drive/Master System extension cable
Header plug with crimp connectors with correct spacing and at least seven pins – I’m using a pretty standard eight pin
Phillips head screwdriver
First up open up the console (only four screws) and you can see the controller is removable, plugged in via a PC-like seven pin adapter.
The way DB9 controllers work is to ground a line corresponding to a button when pressed, so there’s a whole line for each button/direction, plus ground. The pins are handily numbered, and align to the following:
To make the adapter, start by slicing the extension cable at whatever length you like, then stripping the cover and the end of each wire. The internal insulation cotton can also be removed.
You’ll need to do some tests to see which wire is which, as in my case they wire colours did not line up to the colours of the original controller wires. In mine the colours lined up to:
Blue – Ground
Red – Up
Black – Down
Grey – Left
Pink – Right
Green – Button 1
Yellow – Button 2
White and Brown – Unused
Crimp the relevant wires to the pins using the crimp tool. You can get away with using pliers, but a crimp tool will make a much cleaner and stronger… well… crimp.
The pins can then be plugged into the header plug in the correct order. Since I’m using an eight pin connector, it will stick out the back a bit, but there’s room and I’m not using position eight.
Slice off the unused two wires and we’re done.
Plug it into the console and close it up.
Now you can use pretty much any pre-Saturn Sega pad on your console. You can go period-accurate and use an SJ-150
All the way up to what was possibly the last DB9 Sega controller released – the wireless six button Mega Drive pad (doesn’t actually work but looks crazy)
Or if you’re insane, the standalone DB9 connector SJ-200, completely defeating the purpose of the exercise!
The best part about this ‘mod’ is it is completely reversible. However it would be relatively easy to install a DB9 socket on the side if you wanted something more permanent. Similarly, the rest of the extension cable could be soldered onto the original tethered controller, making it a standalone unit.
Here’s the very first model of the Sega Mega Drive.
That little ® next to ‘Sega’ at the bottom right means it is the first, Japan-only model.
The next batch of models, like this one, are missing the ®.
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’.
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)
And of course the inaccurate and needlessly complicated usage diagram on the top of the Master System.
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.
For more info on the numerous Mega Drive models, see this legendary Sega 16 thread.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s also a very difficult bonus stage once a mission, where you throw ninja stars at two planes of ninjas, shooting gallery style.
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.
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.
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.
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?
You get this amazing ending:
The tunes at least have FM instrument support, and sound pretty cool if you have an FM Unit.
Overall it’s a pretty nice early ninja game, and pretty fun, even if incredibly difficult at points.