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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1969 Nintendo Electronic Love Tester (ラブテスター)

The 1969 Electronic Love Tester is Nintendo’s first electronic toy. Designed by Nintendo legend Gunpei Yokoi (the man who sent Nintendo into toys with the Ultra Hand and later created the Game & Watch and Game Boy), it’s a novelty device ‘for young ladies and men’ that alleges to test the ‘love’ between a couple by measuring their electrical conductivity.

It’s presented in a box with oh-so 60s styling, and comes with the device, instructions, and faux-leather carry case.

The instructions show how to play and how to set it up. It’s powered by a single AA battery.

It is possibly the most 60s looking toy ever made, right out of The Jetsons. This one still has the original metal ties for the cords. The cords are a bit stiff after over fifty years, as is the vinyl case.

The cords unwind and couples take one sensor each in hand, and hold hands with their other to get a reading.

To change the battery and access the internals, it’s much like an old transistor radio from the same era, and requires removing the back plate via a single screw. Internally it’s very simple of course.

The Love Tester makes a cameo appearance in the Gamecube and Wii game Pikmin 2, described by Captain Olimar as a ‘Prototype Detector’.

And like many of the older Nintendo products, appears in the WarioWare series, as a souvenir in WarioWare Twisted on Game Boy Advance, and as a minigame in WarioWare Gold on 3DS.

There was also a 2010 re-release, which came in a recreation of the original box. You can tell the new one by the additions to the box design.

GG-WHITE – The Rare White Sega Game Gear (セガゲームギア)

Here is a quite rare and valuable item, the GG-WHITE set. They were not sold and were only given to Sega employees or developers, according to Sega Retro.
It comes in a custom case with matching accessories.

Including of course a Japanese TV Tuner.

Unfortunately this one doesn’t work, and needs to be recapped like most Game Gears.

My go-to is the red model, which was one of the last releases in Japan and used better capacitors, so still works fine.

Well, as fine as a Game Gear ever did…

But it’s pretty nice to have put all the white Sega consoles together! Though I forgot my SG1000s for this picture…

Nintendo Ultra Machine (ウルトラ マシン)

One of the famous Nintendo ‘Ultra’ line toys, the Nintendo 1967 Ultra Machine (ウルトラ マシン) forms part of Nintendo’s transition between card manufacturing to toys in the 60s and 70s.

As may be obvious from the box art, it’s an automatic baseball pitching machine.

It of course comes semi-assembled so as to fit in the box, the packable design and packaging layout is particularly elegant.

Fully assembled, with Nintendo branded bat.

A line up of included plastic balls (with slight shape variations to affect their trajectory) collect in the basket, and fall one by one into position for the flicking mechanism.

Speed selection

Here on the battery compartment is the first ever instance of the modern Nintendo logo appearing on a product. It hasn’t yet got the ‘racetrack’ border, but sits inside a squashed hexagon.

It’s one of those ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of products. The motor doesn’t work in mine but you can manually set a ball to be launched, and it throws the balls quite well.

The Ultra Machine has made several guest appearances in Nintendo video games in the years since, most often in the Warioware series

But more recently in Splatoon 2, where a jury-rigged Ultra Machine serves as a bomb launcher.

Complete Nintendo Classic Mini collection – with the original consoles (ニンテンドークラシックミニ)

Now that I have finally picked up each Nintendo Classic Mini, here they all are with the original consoles.

Nintendo Classic Mini Family Computer (ニンテンドークラシックミニ ファミリーコンピュータ)

Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System.

Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Famicom (ニンテンドークラシックミニ スーパーファミコン)

Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System

And for completeness, the Nintendo Classic Mini Family Computer Shonen Jump Edition… and an original ‘Golden’ Famicom!

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!