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)

Super Cassette Vision Advertisement

 

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!

The abandoned towns of the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone part 2

Part 1 can be found here. 

Earthquake Damage

In the higher parts of town where the tsunami didn’t hit, the earthquake still did a lot of damage to many buildings.

With the streets cleared of rubble by the government workers, abandoned buildings and infrastructure created an eerie post-apocalytic vibe.

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Another classic post-apocalytic image omnipresent in Tomioka was that of the dilapidated vending machine. A friend of mine is a big fan of the Fallout game series, so I made finding a real-life Nuka Cola a priority.

Unfortunately most machines were either all locked up (I wasn’t going to break in, I’m an explorer not a vandal)…

…or already ransacked.

Even the front can sections had been broken into in this machine.

Main Streets

There is a highway running through Tomioka with some traffic heading through town to Iwaki, the power plants, and the next town Namie.

But the commercial centres of town remained shuttered.

A grocery store remains boarded up, almost fully stocked.

This dressmaking shop evidently closed quite quickly.

This poster was advertising a festival to be held in April 2011. It presumably never went ahead due to the March 2011 evacuation orders.

This restaurant is in hindsight grimly named アトム (Atom).

This service station has stood up to the elements surprisingly well.

Inside is pristine

But this external basin is caked with grit.

The signage has collapsed on the reverse however.

Pachinko Grand Hall

I spied this building on the way in, and it turned out to be the main event of the trip. A crumbling local casino at the top of the hill.

Several walls have collapsed.

As has the sign.

As well as pachinko, the place featured a halloween themed Karaoke bar.

Inside is a moment in time, frozen.

Pachinko balls (the equivalent of gambling chips) have fallen to the floor and remained there for over six years.

Products like chewing tobacco remain in their racks.

Apart from items that presumably fell in the earthquakes, shelves remain undisturbed.

A kitchen deserted.

Even in an abandoned wasteland, you still have video games in Japan. Puyo Puyo for Windows XP!

And you can never escape from the omnipresent Hello Kitty.

On the way upstairs there was a commercial kitchen.

The second floor waiting room.

With a shelf full of reading material.

My quest to find a Nuka Cola continued, but these machines were empty.

The new view from the second floor bathroom was… something.

The karaoke rooms.

Heading through the back to get to the final floor, apparently there was a Sauna (セウナ)?

Right at the top, the ceiling was collapsing, parts literally fell just as I walked past this section.

The roof seemed stable enough however.

Heading down via the external spiral staircase.

パチンコ グランド ホール – Pachinko gurando horu

One last look on the ground floor led to Nuka Cola success! I found some mini bottles in a small refrigerator. Use by date: 19 May 2011…

New Buildings

Probably the saddest scene was right up the top of the town. This was a new estate – six years ago.

Brand new homes completed or half finished. The town was clearly growing, and people were starting their lives here.

But now the houses sit abandoned amidst overgrown weeds.

There was a similar scene closer to the coast. This half-built wooden house was never finished and has since been beaten by weather – but the metal and glass door/window fittings remain pristine.

This old man is one of the handful of residents who had returned to the area as of July/August. He was out walking his little dog and heading to the town’s single shop.

Abandoned School

What would a post-apocayptic scene be without some creepy abandoned institutions? Tomioka delivers with an abandoned school.

On the right is a kindergarten.

It’s all been kept in pretty good condition internally, seemingly with plans for the population to return in the future.

Across the road, a middle/high school.

まごころ – magokoro which means ‘devotion’.

It was getting dark and the final shuttle was leaving, so it was farewell to Tomioka, Iwaki and the rest of this area of Fukushima. If I ever return I imagine it will be very different.

The abandoned towns of the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone part 1

One day in late July 2017 I decided to get back into the urban spelunking game, with a trip out to the abandoned towns of the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone. Since the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and reactor meltdowns, the Japanese government has slowly been reopening areas closer to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and while it remains tricky, a lot of areas can now be visited legally and (mostly) safely.

The trip started with a train from Tokyo to the nearest city Iwaki (いわきし Iwaki-shi).

From there it was a slow train to the coastal outskirts of Fukushima Prefecture.

Nearly at the end of the line was the first sight of something soon to be common – stockpiles of large black bags of radiation-contaminated soil. All soil is being tested inside the entire disaster area, and any found to be contaminated is being removed and shipped out for storage.

Tatsuta Station (たつた)

Tatsuta isn’t a town from what I can tell, just a station. It’s on the edge of the evacuation zone and was partially destroyed and shut down following the 2011 disaster. The station reopened in 2014 as a rail terminus. Trains still do not go any further in.

A new station structure was being built/rennovated, presumably with plans to eventually restore the train line to isolated towns like Tomioka and Namie.

This area is far enough inland that the tsunami didn’t hit, and it’s toward the edge of the exclusion zone, but was nonetheless evacuated 2011-2014 and has remained mostly abandoned.

Businesses sat empty, and there were no people around at all, apart from the two other people who were on the train.

Another soon to be common sight – geiger counters. Most areas now read at levels ‘safe for long term habitation’.

From here on you have to get a charter bus to any towns further in.

On the outskirts of the zone, the Japanese government has been building new houses for those who lost theirs in the quake and tsunami. All seem to be empty, possibly because the residents have settled elsewhere by now.

This is the road to the second nuclear plant –  Fukushima Daini. It was successfully shut down after the earthquake.

The cooling tower is visible on the skyline.

The sister plant which suffered the meltdown – Fukushima Daiichi – is just south of the next town, Tomioka.

Tomioka (とみおかまち Tomioka-machi)

While tsunami debris had (mostly) been cleared from the streets, it seemed decontamination work had only just begun at Tomioka, one of the two towns closest to the meltdown. Evacuation orders were only lifted two months earlier, and there were a few hazmat-suited work crews around, and a single shop (a supermarket) had opened to service them, as well as workers continuing the long process of decommissioning the damaged Daiichi plant.

Apart from decontamination workers, the majority of the town was still abandoned.

Half-packed possessions remained just sitting around.

Structures that survived the earthquake better were being used as dumping grounds for goods and possessions from elsewhere

Houses closer to the coast in the lower part of the town suffered huge tsunami damage.

This side-of-the-road restaurant and home had been abandoned and overtaken by the elements.

I went exploring inside.

The whole front of the kitchen had collapsed in

Various stored possessions abandoned
The outside sign is falling apart

Continue reading part 2 here – featuring the main streets of Tomioka, a pachinko parlour (casino), earthquake damaged buildings, an abandoned school, and abandoned newly built homes.

Pre-WW2 Nintendo Hanafuda (花札) – cards and gambling kit

This is my oldest Nintendo item, a set of original Nintendo Hanafuda. I’m not sure of the exact date of manufacture, the seller said the kit was ‘pre-war’. Given the superb condition it seems likely it is from quite late in that prescribed period.

The set is contained in an unassuming wooden box.

In which fit the gambling paraphernalia and cards.

I have no idea if the the non-card items are Nintendo made, but the kit is clearly built around the box of Nintendo cards and it all fits together very neatly.

Various chips for gambling.

Under the main card box is a tray of other gambling related items.

The card with the woman on it says 百本 or something like ‘a hundred points’.

The small Hanafuda box itself is where we can see the original Nintendo branding.

任天堂 – Nin Ten Do – in the original kanji logo.

The lid lifts off to reveal the beautiful Hanafuda (花札) – literally ‘flower cards’.

The cards themselves are quite beautiful and well made.

These three cards are branded. The left card has the Nintendo Playing Card logo, and the middle is branded with 任天堂 Nin Ten Do.

You can see the matching logo on the plaques at Nintendo’s old HQ in Kyoto.

The same logo is on the door on the right!

The whole kit.

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.

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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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Rollergames – NES

Rollergames belongs to an interesting sub-category: Japanese developed games unreleased in their homeland.

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Why does this sometimes happen? Perhaps the domestic market for that type of game had dried up during its development, but the game was still suitable for western release. Or the Japanese version was cancelled at the last minute because of a clash in release schedules.

But sometimes games were specifically developed for western markets, often based on a western-only licenced property. Such as Rollergames.

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These games are interesting because they offer an insight into how Japanese publishers viewed American audiences. In Rollergames case, it appears Konami management showed the developers the source material, and said ‘make an action adventure game from this’.

Rollergames is based on a professional wrestling-esque dramatised fictional version of roller derby. Apparently it was a big deal for its single season in the US, but non-Americans would just assume it was a purely original Konami title, particularly given the arcade-style content.

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The gameplay is a unique mixture of beat-em-up and action platformer. Taking some cues from Double Dragon and Konami’s own Ninja Turtles games, and combining that with speedy momentum-based movement, isometric platforming, and Konami’s own brand of tricks and traps. Ultimately I’d describe it as a beat-em-up action platformer on wheels.

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I consider it the sister game to another Konami release heavily adapted from an external source: Bad n Rad: Skate or Die on the Game Boy. Similarly based on an existing property (in this case Electronic Arts’ sub-standard Skate or Die series of games, which Konami published on the NES), like Rollergames it deviated from its source material so much as to be basically a unique property. Bad n’ Rad is a sort of racing action platformer, and has a very similar setting and feel to Rollergames. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had designers in common.

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Rollergames has a setting and story that takes the basic branding and teams from the (nominally) sports-based show, and throws them into a standard videogame fictional world. A bad guy has taken the head of the league hostage, pick a Rollergames team and set out over a variety of themed stages to defeat bad guy.

You choose a team at the start of each round.

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T-birds – Chunky fat dudes (I’ve now learned based on a particular fan favourite character)

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Hot Flash – Pink clad females

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Rockers – Axl Rose lookalikes

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T-birds guy is slow to accelerate but powerful, Hot Flash girl is fast but weak, and Rockers dude is the Goldilocks selection. I always choose Hot Flash because quicker control is more valuable in platforming (which are the most difficult parts of the game), and who can resist 80s girls in hot pink?

Most stages are centred around an evil team, with a set theme and featuring the team leader as the end boss. Main levels are broken in two, and you get an energy bar refill at a mid-stage checkpoint. They’re a mix of platforming, beat em up, and traps.

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The alternate stages are constantly moving highway stages, where a variety of traps appear to try and stop you making it to the next stage. These are very similar to the skateboarding levels in Konami’s Turtles games.

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The beat em up elements feel a lot like Turtles. Fast and smooth, but relatively loose and forgiving hit detection. Once you work out the exact angle to attack enemies from, you feel pretty powerful.

Bosses are atypically well designed for a beat-em-up. They follow unique patters of attack, more like a good action platformer boss than your typical ‘big brute’ fighter boss. While they are cheap at times, you can see how you could technically not take a hit with a perfect run. More variety than normal is afforded by the premise, so not all bosses are just guys to beat up.

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The platforming has two things going against it. The isometric-ish/3D movement (sometimes referred to as ‘belt scrolling’ because you can move up and down the ‘belt’ with perspective at an angle) makes judging jump distances much more difficult than in a standard 2D space.

You are also on wheels, and have momentum to deal with. In a sense the whole game plays similarly to an ice world in a Mario game, all slip and slide. Combine the perspective with the momentum and it’s a recipe for frustration for those without quick fingers. Add to this banked surfaces (which feature heavily in a later stage) and speed and this becomes a tough game to beat.

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But it’s not unfair or impossible. It will require level memorisation and quick reflexes, but all traps are passable every time.

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Presentation wise, it’s classic high-quality Konami. The graphics are fantastic, Konami’s trademark ‘faceless’ characters are big and well defined. Detailed colourful environments, a rock solid engine with basically no sprite flicker, and some excellent parallax effects on the highway stages mean this is a top-shelf NES game graphically.
Sound effects are good standard NES stuff, and the accompaniment is a series of excellent catchy tunes (by one of the Castlevania series’ composers) which perfectly match the solid game mechanics. The music also has a very ‘Konami Turtles’ feel.
Rollergames is a hidden gem on the NES.

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