Nintendo Family Computer — The odd little console that saved video games

December 7, 2008

In the 80’s, the American video game market was initially booming, then tanked under the weight of too many consoles and a flood of poor quality bootleg games. In 1985, Nintendo would pull the American market back from the brink when they imported their popular Family Computer (Famicom) as the Nintendo Entertainment System. We’ve all heard that story a million times, but what about the Famicom itself? What was different and interesting about it, and what was maybe improved by the NES?

I had long been curious about the Famicom. Nintendo Power briefly mentioned it a couple times, giving glimpses of the nature of this mysterious machine in the age before the Internet. Fortunately, we do live in the age of the Internet now, and information on the Famicom is plentiful, and Famicoms themselves are not difficult to obtain. I bought one recently from Rising Stuff, a used/retro game dealer run by a couple of American ex-pats out of Japan. I highly recommend buying from a dealer like them rather than a random eBay user as they have some accountability if your equipment doesn’t work. Rising Stuff’s prices are very fair as well.

Beginning as a maker of playing cards, Nintendo eventually began to make electronic toys (many designed by Yokoi Gunpei), and eventually simple video games like its now-legendary Game & Watch series. Building on its successful arcade games and its line of TV games, Nintendo decided to throw its hat into the ring of modular, cartridge based game consoles. The Famicom was released July 15, 1983. The Famicom retailed for ¥14,800 and did not include a pack-in game. After some initial manufacturing issues were resolved, the Famicom quickly became a runaway success.

As you can see, the Famicom is externally very different from the NES. It sports a primarily red and white color scheme and a top-loading cartridge slot. The controllers are permanently wired and come out of the back of the console on very short cords, as the intention was that it would be pulled out from the TV and sitting next to you. The second controller did have a built-in microphone which would play sound out through the TV’s speakers, and was utilized in certain games. The only expansion port on the Famicom was a 15-pin connector under the little red cover on the front edge, which was used for external controllers. For output, the Famicom had only an RF-out. Adding AV jacks to the Famicom is doable, and a popular mod among owners with electronics skills.

Compared to the NES, the Famicom’s primary weaknesses are its short, permanently attached controller cords and its lack of AV outputs. It does have some advantages, however. The Famicom’s cartridge connector  sports pins for expansion of its audio capabilities, pins the NES lacked. Also, since it uses a more standard top-loading cartridge connector, and does not have a lockout chip for unlicensed games, the Famicom is not nearly as susceptible to cartridge reading issues. Just cleaning the cart’s contacts with something as simple as cotton swabs and off the shelf rubbing alcohol will take care of most game-related issues.

As for the games themselves, the Famicom had most of the games that were released for the NES, as well as a wide library of Japan-only titles. Some were deemed inappropriate for US audience, like Miyamoto Shigeru’s Demon World with its religious imagery. Others were tie-ins to anime not released in the US, or otherwise deemed not likely to sell in the US. Occasionally, a tie-in game would make it over despite its source material being unknown in the US. Golgo 13 saw US release, and a game based on the tokusatsu series Solbrain was reworked and released as Shatterhand. The process sometimes worked in reverse as well. The first Ninja Turtles game was released in Japan ahead of the Turtle’s Japanese debut, so it was retitled Gekikame Ninja Den.

I’ve accumulate a total of 18 Famicom carts in the time I’ve had the system, most for pretty cheap. I’ll just run down them really quickly.

Chou Jikuu Yousai Macross — A side-scrolling shoot-em-up based on the highly influential Macross mecha anime. The game is ambitious in that it tries to take advantage of the Valkyrie’s transformation abilities. However, like many early Famicom games it just repeats the same basic level with it getting harder each time. Not a terrible game, but probably only worth it for Macross fans.

Chou Wakusei Senki Metafight — Released on the NES as Blaster Master. Graphics are really good for the Famicom, and there’s some good gameplay variety as you could be either driving your vehicle, walking around on foot, or on foot in an overhead view. I need to look up a guide for the game though, because I’m not completely sure what I’m supposed to be doing.

Kage no Densetsu — A brutally difficult side scrolling adventure where you try to save a princess from ninjas. It’s fairly successful at reproducing wire-fighting martial arts movie style action on the Famicom. Released in the US as Legend of Kage, I think pretty much unchanged.

Kidou Senshi Z Gundam: Hot Scramble — Another ambitious anime adaptation, as the first two parts of each stage are in first person and resemble a primitive version of the Super Famicom’s Mode 7. The third segment of each stage you infiltrate a base or ship in side-scrolling view where you can transform the Zeta Gundam into waverider to fly around. It’s a solid game, but like Macross merely repeats the same basic stage structure over and over.

Lode Runner — A port of Broderbund’s classic computer puzzle game where you attempt to collect gold and avoid robots with little more than your wits and reflexes to help you.

Mach Rider — One of the NES’s launch titles, I don’t believe anything is different here. It’s a fast, challenging bike racing/combat game.

Saint Seiya: Ougon Densetsu — An RPG based on Kurumada Masami’s fighting manga, and its insanely popular anime adaptation. The battle system is absurdly confusing, and it has nothing to do with being in Japanese. Even reading up on how it’s supposed to work doesn’t help, as the game gives no indication of how much energy you should use for an attack, and once you run out you’re screwed.

Seicross — You race a sort of hover bike through a landscape full of obstacles and hazardous terrain while trying to bump or shoot other riders out of your way and pick up people stranded on the course. Or something like that. I really have no idea what the plot is supposed to be, but it’s fairly fun.

Star Force — This game’s only failing is that it doesn’t do anything in particular to set itself apart from the masses of vertically scrolling shooters. There’s nothing terribly wrong with it, but nothing terribly compelling either.

Super Mario Bros. — We all know this one. In fact, I haven’t noticed a single difference from the American version. The Toadstools even speak the same English. If anyone knows of any differences, feel free to point them out. I know the Disk System version had a different Minus World though.

Super Mario Bros. 3 — As above, this game needs no introduction. The primary difference is that when hit you will go directly back to regular Mario as in the first game, not to Super Mario as in the US release. There’s also minor graphical changes like an iris effect when you enter a stage similar to Super Mario World, and power-ups sort of fall out of you when you get hit. Also, this time the characters do speak Japanese.

Takahashi-Meijin no Boukenjima — A classic side scrolling platformer released in the US as simply Adventure Island. What the US release doesn’t mention is that the titular character Takahashi-Meijin (lit. “Master Takahashi”) is a real life person, and was a sort of mascot for Hudson. If you watch the episode of GameCenter CX where Arino attempts to get a bonus in Star Force, Takahashi comes on as a guest to show off his legendary fast button mashing skills. Who needs a turbo controller anyway?

Thexder — One word describes this game: Brutal. I can barely get anywhere before I’m mobbed by enemies. What makes it bad is that getting hit knocks you from jet back to robot form, and it’s hard to get away because you wind up like stuck on the enemies somehow. It’s nothing to get hit once, get stuck, and have all your health drained in seconds. It’s no wonder Square was in such dire financial straits by the time they made their “Final” Fantasy.

Tower of Druaga — Starting life as an arcade game, and later ported to many consoles, this game somehow never made it to the US despite its popularity. You guide Sumerian hero Gilgamesh through each maze-like floor of Druaga’s tower, seeking to find the key to the next door while avoiding all sorts of monsters. The game is simple, yet addictive and extremely challenging. I have yet to get past floor 5. Damn wizards.

Transformers: Convoy no Nazo — Convoy is missing, and it’s up to you as Ultra Magnus to defeat the Destrons! This side scrolling platform shooter is notorious for its difficulty. Once I got used to its quirks though, I actually kinda grew to like it, and I have beaten it. Check it out if you like a serious challenge, just make sure to remember that you hold B+A and hit Start to continue!

These last games were randomly included with my Famicom:

Mahjong — I wish I could comment on this, but I have no idea how to play Mahjong, and don’t really like luck-based card games (though Mahjong uses tiles, not cards)

Moero! Pro Yakyuu — A baseball game which was also popular in the US under the title Bases Loaded. I’m not much of a baseball person, but as I understand it this was one of the Famicom/NES’s better baseball games.

Shinjinrui — Released in the US as The Adventures of Dino Riki, this is essentially a vertically scrolling shooter where you are a caveman on foot rather than the typical spaceship. This game would be great if not for two problems. One, you can’t shoot through power-ups, which is real irritating when enemies wind up right on top of you when you could have shot them from across the screen. Secondly, and this is the big one, you are required to jump over water at certain times, but the jumping controls are extremely awkward making this task very frustrating.

I also have what may be the Famicom’s most unique aspect, its add on floppy disk drive known as the Famicom Disk System. I’m waiting for a couple more games for it though, so that will be a post for another day.

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5 Responses to “Nintendo Family Computer — The odd little console that saved video games”

  1. […] 30, 2009 Back when I talked about the Famicom I mentioned it had an add on floppy disk drive as one of its most unique features. This was known […]

  2. ant1ph0n said

    this was an amazing machine as a kid, lived in the philippines and this whole time it thought it was a pirated version. well, it might have been but the design and model is legit nonetheless. only reason i didn’t bring it here because my mom was concerned about the outlets in the u.s. at the time.

    would have been one lucky fellow if i had brought it here.

    my version didn’t have the floppy disk just the top loading console and those sweet ass red/gold controllers.

  3. i would really love to play card games, it is also a very addictive game ;**

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  5. Austin said

    Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It in reality was
    a leisure account it. Look complicated to more brought agreeable from you!
    However, how can we keep in touch?

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