Nintendo Color-TV Game 15 (カラー テレビゲーム15)

Released one week after the Color TV-Game 6, the Color TV-Game 15 was the ‘deluxe’ model. Or perhaps the 70s equivalent of the NES ‘Action Set’.

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It was apparently designed to be the more profitable of the two consoles, offering more features for ¥15,000, vs ¥9,800 for the Color TV-Game 6. It dropped to half the price eventually, and outlived the CTVG6, as can be seen from the updated price listing in the later Color TV-Game Block Kuzushi manual.

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It’s not too much larger, but has a more stylised design and detachable controllers for a more comfortable playing session. The first model was made of orange plastic that matched the orange CTVG6. This is the second model, which is a reddish orange colour.

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The controller cords are the standard Japanese controller cord length (short) so you still needed to sit near the console to play. The controllers are pretty decent paddle controllers, definitely higher quality dials than the original white version of the CTV6.

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You can still power the console by batteries or a standard 9V power supply.

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The 15 in the name is something of a misnomer. There are really about seven Pong variations, adding various board options, along with additional paddle number, size and speed changes. There are far more that 15 game types if you count every possible variation, so I’m not sure why they drew the line at 15.

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Here’s a look at the basic board variations:

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It doesn’t quite have the cachet of the ‘first Nintendo’ CTVG6, and isn’t anywhere near as cool as the beautiful Block Kuzushi. But it’s still a nicely engineered Pong game which is more comfortable to play and has more game options, so can be a fun retro afternoon sometime.

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Neo Geo Pocket and Pocket Color (ネオジオポケットカラ)

By the mid 90s, pretty much everyone had given up attempting to compete with Nintendo in handheld video games. Nintendo had seen off every competitor quite easily in the early years, and in the mid to late 90s the release of the first Pokemon games started a new handheld boom period for them.

So in 1998, with the original Pokemon explosion just rolling out worldwide, a struggling SNK thought they’d give it a go, and released a handheld partner to their Neo Geo home consoles – the Neo Geo Pocket. The platform ran through three models in its short life between 1998 and 2001, and while now a footnote on gaming history, it managed to be a worthwhile Game Boy alternative and is now quite a nice little platform to collect.

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The three Neo Geo Pocket models

In terms of capability, the system is somewhat comparable to the Game Boy Color, but what sets it apart from your average handheld is its focus on the fighting game genre, which until then was always quite weak on handhelds.

To facilitate the easier control of fighting games, SNK developed a mini joystick to use as the directional controller instead of a dpad. Feeling somewhere between a genuine joystick and the rather excellent floating dpad of the Sega Saturn controller, the ‘clicky stick’ takes up more profile than a dpad would, but it’s simply a fantastic little controller, much better than dpads for fighting games, and makes playing the handheld a unique experience.

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The original model used a black and white LCD like the original Game Boy, but was quite shortlived, as unfortunately for SNK Nintendo had just released the Game Boy Color to great fanfare. It was followed quite rapidly with the backward compatible Neo Geo Pocket Color, which used a similar non-backlit reflective colour LCD display to Nintendo’s machine. SNK attempted to respect early adopters, and most games continued to be compatible with the original black and white model, which probably held certain games back somewhat. While the original was only released in Japan and Asia, the colour model was also released in Europe and the US.

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The initial colour model is slightly larger in every dimension than the original. But there is also a final Japan-only revision, the Neo Geo Pocket Color ‘slim’ model.

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Each model came in a variety of colours.

The slim is comparable to the original black and white machine’s size, and has a slightly sharper, higher contrast screen. It’s definitely the best model.

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The system has an odd two battery design. In a similar fashion to Sega’s Saturn and Dreamcast it uses a button battery to save console settings, and like those systems it has a bios with some basic built in software like a calendar.

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Of course also like those systems, it has a nag screen about a dead battery, and asks you to set the date when the sub battery has died.

At least it doesn't beep like a VMU...
At least it doesn’t beep like a VMU…

Black and white games can be ‘colourised’ on colour models in a similar manner to original Game Boy games on a GBC, except that the choice is made and saved on the bios screen, instead of selecting via a button combination at boot.

A rather nice official pouch was also available for the slim model.
A rather nice official pouch was also available for the slim model.

The games came in extremely cool little cases fashioned after the Neo Geo AES ‘Shockboxes’.

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At least they did in Japan and Europe. The USA got basic cardboard boxes, and unfortunately late in the life of the system the Japanese games moved to cardboard as well.

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Frustratingly the cardboard boxes are thinner and slightly taller then the mini shockboxes, so the two types of game packaging don’t like up nicely next to each other on a shelf.

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While the system is mostly famous for the handheld versions of many SNK classics such as Samurai Spirits, King of Fighters and Metal Slug, it actually received some support from third parties as well, such as Puzzle Bobble Mini from Taito and a pretty nice version of Pac Man from Namco.

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Quite famously, Sega released a Sonic game on the platform, Sonic Pocket Adventure. A semi-remix of Sonic The Hedgehog 2, it’s probably still the greatest original handheld Sonic game. Sega and SNK entered into something of a partnership, as there was a Neo Geo Pocket Color to Dreamcast cable released that allow transfer of data between certain games, such as the Dreamcast ports of King of Fighters 98 and 99 and the Capcom vs SNK games.

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The system is unique for the many excellent fighting games. While all the fighting games look pretty similar, in a super-deformed style, they evolved and got significantly better as time passed. Earlier games like King of Fighters R1 and R2 and Fatal Fury First Contract are decent, but the latter ones are much smoother. Match of the Millenium: SNK vs Capcom is simply the best handheld fighting game ever released, and the super-kawaii Gals Fighters, with its female only cast, is full of crazy-cute animations reminiscent of Capcom’s Pocket Fighter.

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It’s a pretty nice system to collect. There are decent to great games of most genres (action, RPG, puzzle), and many people love the quite addictive SNK vs Capcom card game. But it’s really about the fighters, as they’re what sets the system apart.

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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Sega SG1000 II (エスジー・セン II)

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.

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Essentially a repackaging of the original Sg1000, it is also a design link between the two generations of Sega consoles.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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More pics:

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Sg10002_16   Sg10002_8

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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