Famulator (ファミレータ) Famicom clone (+mod to fix the audio)

I’ve always been fascinated by Famiclones.

The first Famiclones were straight pirated Famicom hardware clones, but by the 90s this had been consolidated down to single chip designs, usually referred to as NOAC – NES on a chip. While NOACs lose accuracy, they can be produced very cheaply and thus proliferated as the gaming machine of choice throughout copyright-infrinegment playgrounds like Eastern Europe, South America and greater Asia throughout the 90s. If you take pirate consoles into account, the Famicom is surely by far the highest selling system of all time. There’s a decent number of Famiclone models documented here.

Famiclones had a second life in Japan after Nintendo’s patent on the hardware expired in 2003. Due to the vast majority of Famicoms in Japan being RF-only, there was a market for a cheap AV Famicom as the retro boom began. One I’ve always wanted to get my hands is was the Famulator, released in early 2008, and I finally grabbed one recently.

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One reason is simply the name Famulator, which is too cute, but the tasteful design, of course evoking the original Famicom, sets it apart from your average junk looking Famiclone.

Famulator_8814   Famulator_8818

And it’s tiny, barely bigger than a Famicom cart, and less than half the size of the original. Kawaii as hell. The controller, which connects via standard Famiclone DB9 connector, is also quote excellent, there’s very low travel on the buttons, giving it a Game Boy Advance SP feel.

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It’s great looking and plays well, and is a pretty decent NOAC Famicom. There is one catch. The earliest release of the Famulator overamplifies the the sound, leading to peaking levels and distortion. And the expansion audio is not connected, so Famicom Disk and other expansion audio games are missing the extra sound channels. Luckily I found quite an easy fix for both on this Japanese website.

The audio can be fixed simply by chopping off the transistor at the position marked Q2, and soldering the right two leftover legs together. It worked perfectly and the regular audio was fixed.

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To add support for expansion audio, you can simply insert connections for pins 45 and 46 to the circuit at positive leg of the capacitor at C9.

Of course with plenty of real Famicom hardware around it’s not like this will get a lot of play time, but it’s a cool little toy to have, and yet another part of the rich tapestry of Famicom history.

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The Complete Konami Famicom Set

Following my complete Konami Famicom Disk System set, I have finally completed the other half of the full set, every Konami cartridge exclusive Famicom game.

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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.

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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.

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Another early pickup was Parodius Da.

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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 DenBucky O’Hare or Exciting Boxing.

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I don’t have the DoReMikkostyle 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.

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As for favourites, it’s pretty hard to go past the Contra games, Arumana no Kiseki, and Akumajou Densetsu.

KonamiFami_Contras KonamiFami_Kiseki

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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.

KonamiFami_4   KonamiFami_5

KonamiFami_2   KonamiFami_3

KonamiFami_FDS2   KonamiFami_FDS3

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Nintendo Color TV-Game Block Kuzushi (Block Breaker) (カラーテレビゲームブロック崩し)

The Color TV-Game 6 was Nintendo’s first console. But there were four other single game Nintendo consoles before the Famicom. This is the second last one, the Nintendo Color TV-Game Block Kuzushi (Block Breaker). It plays several variations of Breakout.

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Unbelievably, despite not being advertised as such, the one I bought was actually brand new.

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It’s pretty much the most 70s looking device ever made.

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It’s a really great looking device, and that may have to do with the fact it was designed by a new Nintendo recruit – a freshly graduated industrial designer named Shigeru Miyamoto! Block Kuzushi and Color TV-Game Racing were Miyamoto’s first two jobs at Nintendo.

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Was the Color TV-Game Block Breaker designed here? (Most likely not as this was their 60s headquarters).

Nintendo Color TV-Game Block Kuzushi is also the first 100% Nintendo console, since Color TV-Game 6, 15 and Racing were co-developed with Mitsubishi. On a related point, it’s also the first Nintendo video game with the Nintendo name displayed prominently on the console.

The top of the device allows selection of the game, with a handy picture of each Breakout arrangement.

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In order from 1-6 they are: Standard Block Kuzushi, Easy Block Kuzushi (with a line missing), Safe Block Kuzushi (with a safety net on the bottom of the screen), Block Through (a time based score game where the ball goes right through the blocks), Block Flash (where you have to get the middle blocks hitting as few of the others as possible), and Block Kill (a combination of Block Through and Block Flash, with a new block arrangement).

ColorTVGameBB_11   ColorTVGameBB_12

ColorTVGameBB_13   ColorTVGameBB_14

ColorTVGameBB_15   ColorTVGameBB_16

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Game explanations in the manual.

It’s powered by an external adapter, available separately for 1500 Yen. The same adapter powered all of the Color TV Game series consoles, so you only needed to buy one if you didn’t already have one (sounds familiar, New Nintendo 3DS owners?). It has the same specs as the Famicom power adapter, so can be powered anywhere with a local Mega Drive adaptor.

The adapter plugs into the right side of the console, which is also where the RF output cable is attached.

ColorTVGameBB_6   ColorTVGameBB_10

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Pricing for the previous models in the manual, with price update stickers! Looks like the CTV Game 6 was discontinued between this manual’s printing and release.

Overall it’s a really cool device, and the breakout games are very tightly designed and fun. CTV 6 and 15 are kind of basic pong clones, but this one is a really classy product.

ColorTVGameBB_7   ColorTVGameBB_5

1983 Face Off: Donkey Kong (Famicom) vs Congo Bongo (SG1000)

It is July 15, 1983.

Two new consoles have been released by two prominent Japanese arcade developers – the Family Computer from Nintendo, and the SG1000 from Sega.

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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 KongCongo 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.

Donkey_Kong_arcade    CongoBongoArcade

In turn, both companies’ new consoles have launched with home ports of these killer titles.

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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.

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DKvsCB_6256   DKvsCB_6199

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?

Donkey Kong

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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.

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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.

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The ‘secret’ safe spot to avoid the spring

The major omission is the third ‘cement factory’ stage, so DK on Fami has only three stages before looping.

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There’s even the ending screen where Mario is reunited with Pauline (briefly).

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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The Colecovision version is very impressive

And unbelievably, a port to the ancient Atari VCS somehow did too!

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This should not work but it somehow does…

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.

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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.

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I’ll take the one on the left please.

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.

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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.

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Famicom games with insane packaging: Relics: Ankoku Yosai (レリクス暗黒要塞)

Quite a few Famicom games, in particular Famicom Disk games, came in very fancy packaging. Many came in large boxes with extra stuff like figurines, cassette tapes, large format manuals, and in some cases even more outrageous things, like Exciting Boxing‘s giant inflatable controller. These are not like modern special editions, as in most cases these were the only release of the game.

For classy packaging, it’s pretty hard to go past Bothtec’s Relics: Ankoku Yōsai.

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Inside the huge PC-game style outer slip is a metal case.

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And inside the case, you have a large full colour manual, a sticker sheet, a disk-sized full colour monster manual, and the disk itself.

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The disk case and monster manual fit inside foam slots, presented as valuable items.

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The case allows removal of some of the foam, so if you want you can use the metal case to store 4-6 FDS games in style.

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The monster manual gives every character in the game in a two page spread.

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And the large manual is even nicer. Beautiful artwork is used throughout the presentation, and it does its job of making you excited to get into the game.

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The game itself is almost as ambitious as the packaging. A Metroid-style sprawling action-adventure, it features huge sprites (for the time), large environments and a huge list of enemies and items. Set in a post-apocalytic world where dark forces have enslaved humanity, in the game you play as some kind of robot spirit guy who can possess the bodies of the dead. You must defeat all the enemies in a ‘sun fortress’ to free the good spirits (as well as the ubiquitous princess) to save humanity.

Relics.000  Relics.001

The graphics are pretty good for the time, and the music is catchy. Despite the immediately noticeably clunky controls, it is not hard to be impressed early on, as the world of Relics is intriguing.

Unfortunately the game doesn’t live up to its ambitions. Bothtec’s roots were in PC games (including some predecessors to this game) and it Relics plays very much like a home computer game of this type, it’s quite rough around the edges. Controls are not only clunky but glitchy, and it’s very very difficult to outmanoeuvre many enemies. It gets better as you power up later on, but getting to that point is a huge slog.

Relics.005  Relics.008

Worse than this are the load times. This game is always loading, I have not experienced any other FDS game like it. It does big loads every time you change screen, but there are small loads even within a loaded scrolling area when a new type of enemy appears. It’s really quite horrendous.

Despite these flaws, the adventure and exploring elements work quite decently in the traditional ‘try every direction in every order with every item’ classic 80s kind of way. Finding keys and power-ups in order to progress and remembering paths is always kind of fun when the world looks this mysterious, it’s just that it’s buried under layers of clunk.

Relics.011  Relics.014

It still feels like a somewhat genuine retro experience, playing a game like this with the large manuals and packaging in front of you. But I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone except 80s adventure fetishists.

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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.

———-

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.

———-

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.

———-

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.

———-

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.

———-

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.

———-

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.

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.

SG1000_4426  SG1000_4429

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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.

 

Nintendo Color-TV Game 6 (カラー テレビゲーム6)

Do you think Nintendo started in home video gaming with the Famicom? The Game & Watch?

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It actually all started in 1977 with this, the Color-TV Game 6.CTVG6_7199

Pre-dating the Famicom by six years, The Color-TV Game 6 was a Pong clone, offering six variations on the basic light tennis formula. Above is the first edition, CTG-6S, which came in a creamy white colour. Subsequent releases were orange, below right is the most common variant, the CTV-6V.

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You can play a classic Pong type game, plus variations with half sized paddles, and a mode with four paddles.

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It runs off six C batteries, and connects via RF as per all consoles of the era.

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The orange re-releases also added the ability to use an external power adapter.

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The orange ones also had improved dials. They rotate more smoothly, have less ‘give’ before they star registering, and stop rotating when your paddle is off the screen. CTG-6S dials just keep rotating, and your paddle comes back from the top of the screen after moving off the bottom, and vice versa.

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The manuals of these two variants.

It’s pretty primitive but works perfectly 38 years later. The simple circuitry is pretty sturdy and will likely outlast most consoles easily.

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It was followed up by the Color TV-Game 15 which featured more pong versions, Color TV-Game Racing which played a car game, Color TV-Game Block Breaker which was a Breakout clone, the Computer TV-Game which played Othello, and finally the Family Computer.

But it all started here.

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This one is still in the original shipping box.

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Circus Charlie (サーカスチャーリー) – Secret Konami Famicom game #2

Similar to Smash Ping PongCircus Charlie is a Konami arcade game that was released on the Famicom, but published by another company. In this case the publisher is the mysterious Soft Pro International, who dropped a few 8-bit games in the 80s then disappeared.CircusCharlie_3460

Circus Charlie 1In the game you play as Charlie the clown, and must perform various stunts for the crowd over five levels. The first level has Charlie riding a lion and jumping through rings of fire.

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There’s also tightrope walking, trapeze, balancing balls, and a strange level where you jump onto trampolines from the back of a pony.

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It’s very much in the early 80s arcade mould of simple, short levels which repeat after a loop, and the goal after seeing each level is simply to get the high score (think Donkey Kong).

Circus Charlie 14It’s a relatively faithful adaptation of the arcade game. Five out of six levels are intact, and they play almost identically, despite the move from vertical to horizontal orientation.

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But while sound effects and music are pretty much on par, the graphics have taken a pretty big hit. Gone are the bright, colourful tones of the arcade, replaced with a sad, drab circus right out of the Communist Bloc.

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Comrade Charlie?

Matching the early Famicom arcade heritage gameplay and presentation, Circus Charlie comes in the original small size Famicom box, much like the first Nintendo games, and the original Konami orange package line.CircusCharlie_3473

Circus Charlie was later released in original arcade form in the compilation packages Konami 80’s Arcade Gallery on the original Playstation and Konami Arcade Collection on Nintendo DS. The Playstation version is pretty much the go-to if you want to experience Circus Charlie properly. The DS version is a nice novelty but to view the game in correct vertical resolution you need to hold the DS sideways which is pretty awkward.

ArcadeCharlie_3748 ArcadeCharlie_3739

As for the Famicom release? It’s still pretty fun, in that pre-Super Mario Bros arcade gameplay kind of way. It is however extremely rare. I bought the only boxed copy I have ever seen.

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