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.

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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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Adding a Sega controller adapter to an original SG-1000 (home made JC-100)

So you want to play some SG-1000 games old-school style…

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…but the original SJ-200 joystick controller is a complete nightmare to use…

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Sure, there’s a plug on the right for player 2 which can use any DB9 connector Sega pad, but player 1 is stuck with the SJ-200 tethered to the console.

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Sega acknowledged their first controller sucked, and released a small modification/adapter called the JC-100, which allowed original console owners to to use the new pads released alongside the SG-1000 II.

It would be impossible to get hold of a JC-100 now, but you can easily make one yourself. All you need are the following:

  • Mega Drive/Master System extension cable
  • Header plug with crimp connectors with correct spacing and at least seven pins – I’m using a pretty standard eight pin
  • Crimp tool
  • Phillips head screwdriver

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First up open up the console (only four screws) and you can see the controller is removable, plugged in via a PC-like seven pin adapter.

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The way DB9 controllers work is to ground a line corresponding to a button when pressed, so there’s a whole line for each button/direction, plus ground. The pins are handily numbered, and align to the following:

  1. Button 1
  2. Button 2
  3. Right
  4. Left
  5. Down
  6. Up
  7. Ground

To make the adapter, start by slicing the extension cable at whatever length you like, then stripping the cover and the end of each wire. The internal insulation cotton can also be removed.SG1000adapter_5520SG1000adapter_5521

You’ll need to do some tests to see which wire is which, as in my case they wire colours did not line up to the colours of the original controller wires. In mine the colours lined up to:

  • Blue – Ground
  • Red – Up
  • Black – Down
  • Grey – Left
  • Pink – Right
  • Green – Button 1
  • Yellow – Button 2
  • White and Brown – Unused

Crimp the relevant wires to the pins using the crimp tool. You can get away with using pliers, but a crimp tool will make a much cleaner and stronger… well… crimp.

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The pins can then be plugged into the header plug in the correct order. Since I’m using an eight pin connector, it will stick out the back a bit, but there’s room and I’m not using position eight.

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Slice off the unused two wires and we’re done.

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Plug it into the console and close it up.

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Now you can use pretty much any pre-Saturn Sega pad on your console. You can go period-accurate and use an SJ-150

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All the way up to what was possibly the last DB9 Sega controller released – the wireless six button Mega Drive pad (doesn’t actually work but looks crazy)

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Or if you’re insane, the standalone DB9 connector SJ-200, completely defeating the purpose of the exercise!

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The best part about this ‘mod’ is it is completely reversible. However it would be relatively easy to install a DB9 socket on the side if you wanted something more permanent. Similarly, the rest of the extension cable could be soldered onto the original tethered controller, making it a standalone unit.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Sega Mega Drive (メガドライブ)

Here’s the very first model of the Sega Mega Drive.MegaDrive1

That little ® next to ‘Sega’ at the bottom right means it is the first, Japan-only model.MegaDrive2

The next batch of models, like this one, are missing the ®.MegaDrive3

Sega loved covering the top of their consoles with semi-nonsensical text. For the Mega Drive it’s ‘AV Intelligent Terminal High Grade Multipurpose Use’.MegaDrive4

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Following the the tradition of the Mark III‘s amazing console top-promise (pic taken from my Mark III restoration article, hence no reset button and cassette slot flap)Makutree_1122

And of course the inaccurate and needlessly complicated usage diagram on the top of the Master System.MasterSystemTop

Time for some launch games. The only true Alex Kidd sequel may be dated, but would have been pretty impressive in 1988. Especially because the early, made in Japan models have far better audio than later made in Taiwan models.MegaDrive6

For more info on the numerous Mega Drive models, see this legendary Sega 16 thread.

Shinobi (忍)- Sega Mark III

Sega were king of the arcade for most of the coin-op format’s history, and their console efforts often attempted to leverage their arcade success into home success. While this would eventually lead them to release one of their arcade boards as a console (the Mega Drive is basically a cut-down Sega-16 board), on their first two consoles it meant ports.

And so we have the Mark III release of Shinobi.

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It’s a late enough Mark III release to have the Master System co-branding.

Shinobi is a basic 2D side scrolling action game, which was already a fairly recognisable format by 1987. It stars Joe Musashi, on a mission to stop bad guys who are kidnapping children from his ninja clan.

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You move along the stage, attacking bad guys with swords and ninja stars while freeing the kidnapped kids. The game’s gimmick is multiple ‘planes’ of action, and at certain points in stages you can switch between planes with a giant ninja jump. Luckily the bad guys are nice enough to pause and wait for your jump to complete (it’s really supposed to be a sort of ninja movie slow-motion effect I think). Otherwise controls are decent, solid but standard.

It’s broken into five missions of three or four stages each, with a boss at the end of each mission. Along the way you can power up your life bar and weapons, swapping out ninja stars for bombs and a knife, and your sword for nunchucks and eventually what appears to be a Castlevania-style chain whip.

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Some later stages can get quite frustrating, introducing bottomless pits and annoying enemy placements. Enemies get weirder and more supernatural as you progress, including some zombie-ninjas and demons.

Bosses are quite good, and largely rely on you working out attack patterns and counter-attacking. With one exception – a giant wall of hindu (Vishnu?) statues. After a million attempts I finally worked out the only solution was to spam it with knives, which worked. Frustrating.

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There’s also a very difficult bonus stage once a mission, where you throw ninja stars at two planes of ninjas, shooting gallery style.

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Graphically it’s decent, but nothing special. Pretty middle of the road for the Mark III. Some incredibly strange palette choices make some parts, especially the first stage, look quite garish, but other stages are fine.

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What is up with these colours?

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The Mark III version is a reasonable interpretation of the arcade game. The arcade game is a much faster, more fluid experience, whearas the home version is a slower and more methodical. There are less enemies, but despite the very different feel, the levels have been recreated quite faithfully.

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The graphics have also taken a hit from the 16-bit arcade game, but the bright Mark III colours arguably make it more appealing in parts than the drab original.

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One disappointing element is a common one for Mark III games – small cartridge size. The Mark III had some design flaws that meant it got less graphical tiles from the same amount of ROM than most consoles, and on top of that Sega often chose cheap small cart sizes. What this means is only a couple of tunes for the whole game (much like Makai Retsuden). And what happens when you beat the final boss, the Masked Ninja?

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You get this amazing ending:

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Wow, what a reward.

The tunes at least have FM instrument support, and sound pretty cool if you have an FM Unit.

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Overall it’s a pretty nice early ninja game, and pretty fun, even if incredibly difficult at points.

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