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Retro Gaming Hacks by Chris Kohler

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Play with Power: Set Up an NES

Discover Nintendo-mania all over again.

If you were born during the early ’80s, the hacks at the beginning of this chapter probably aroused little more than a curious interest in the back of your brain. Yes, you might have some vague memories of the Atari days. But most of your brainpower circa 1983 was probably spent mastering the complexities of toilet training and shoelace tying.

Thinking about the Nintendo Entertainment System, however, probably produces different results more akin to a burning desire to replay everything you used to have when you were a kid—then find all the games you wanted but never had enough allowance to buy. Well, good news: with some standout collectible exceptions, NES games are now cheaper than ever. Be aware: there is no one flawless solution for playing Nintendo games. But there are more than enough options to choose from that you should be able to find the NES hardware to suit your needs.

First, Some World History

When the Famicom (the Japanese version of the NES) was released in 1983, it looked a lot like a traditional video game system. Small cartridges plugged into the top of the unit, which was painted a toy-like red and white. This was perfectly acceptable in Japan, where the video game market was healthy, if relatively untapped—though a great number of different consoles, both imported and domestic, had been released, none had caught on like the 2600 did in the US.

But when it came time for Nintendo to launch the Famicom in the US, the industry crash of 1983 had soured retail buyers on video games. So Nintendo had to dress up the Famicom. It wasn’t a video game system, it was an entertainment system. It included a light gun controller and an amusing plastic robot accessory (both sold separately in Japan). And it didn’t use brightly colored cartridges that plugged into the top of the system like the Atari—it used game paks that slid all the way into the front of the unit, then locked down inside in a manner that, when you thought about it, vaguely resembled a.…

“Toaster” NES

The gambit worked, and the original model NES (actually known as the Control Deck) became one of the hottest consumer items of the decade. As such, the so-called toaster model is the easiest to find today. They are abundant on eBay and stacked to the high ceiling at garage sales. They are also almost invariably broken.

As it turns out, as fun as the lock-down loading was, every time we pushed a game in it was wearing out the internal mechanism. Every NES owner knows that within a few years, the system would start to refuse to boot certain games, and soon enough nearly every attempt to put a game in would be greeted with a blinking power light and a green or blue failure screen.

Though this was sometimes by dirt on the cartridge contacts, it was more because the connectors inside the NES were beginning to bend and wear. Be aware if you do buy an original NES that it will almost certainly have this issue, which may cause you to have to attempt to boot games many times before they load. If this makes you feel incredibly nostalgic, then go ahead. If you’d rather avoid it, there is a cheap and relatively simple way to fix your NES deck for good [Hack #6] .

The NES originally shipped with an automatic RF switch as well as the then very high-tech A/V cables. (Since many TV sets at this time did not feature A/V inputs, most people plugged in their NES systems through their VCRs.) It also shipped with a power adapter that is fairly easy to replace, but is so common that you should probably not bother buying a deck without one. The Control Deck was sold in a few different configurations; the robot, called ROB, is difficult to find nowadays but the Zapper light gun was included with most NES packages. The system generally shipped with two controllers.

“Toploader” NES

After the introduction of the Super Nintendo in 1991, Famicom and NES sales were still going strong; but, both the U.S. and Japanese versions of the hardware were beginning to show their age. Although the original version of the NES featured A/V output as well as RF, the Famicom did not. And U.S. toaster decks were beginning to break down more and more.

So in Japan, Nintendo introduced what they called the AV Famicom—a redesigned unit that replaced the original’s RF switch with AV outputs. (For more information, see [Hack #8] .) A version of the system was released in the US, but its aim was to eliminate the booting problems that older NES decks faced. Priced at a very attractive $49.99, the new Control Deck was sold until 1994, when Nintendo discontinued it.

Not that many toploader systems were sold, and in stark contrast to the price of the original NES (which started at $99.99 and has since dropped to about ten dollars or less), the new model systems routinely sell for over $100. This is even considering the flaws of the hardware—unlike the Japanese system that spawned it, it features only RF output and no A/V support, and light vertical lines can be seen in the unit’s video output.

Many people hunt down toploaders for reasons both practical and collectible; it is coveted as a rare piece of Nintendo merchandise and it will always reliably boot games. If you do decide to buy one, note that it originally shipped with one redesigned control pad, colloquially called a dogbone (probably by the same clever people who named the original system a toaster). You can have a toploader cheaper if it ships with the dirt-common normal NES controllers, but it’s not complete without the “dogbone.”

Warning

Oh… and if you’re one of those dirty cheaters, your Game Genie won’t fit into the toploader’s cartridge slot. Manufacturer Galoob did release adapters that allow its usage, but they are very rare today since they were only sent out on request when a customer complained.

Neo-Fami and Yobo

In 2004, after Nintendo stopped producing Famicom hardware, a Japanese firm called GameTech stepped up to provide their own solution. The company had already achieved some notoriety by releasing attachments that let you play your Game Boy Advance games on a television set (this was before Nintendo’s own Game Boy Player let you do the same thing with much better results) and watch broadcast television on your GBA system.

Their latest product, sold in most Japanese electronics stores, was called the Neo Fami. Although the video quality of the hardware was not as sharp as the original and standard Famicom controllers could not be used with the system (it shipped with two controllers that used an Atari-style nine-pin connection), it was well received by Famicom aficionados worldwide. You can buy Neo-Fami systems in different colors at import shops, such as Play-Asia (http://www.play-asia.com).

If you want to play American and/or European NES games on the Neo-Fami, however, you will need an adapter. A Honeybee adapter, as described in “Buy Retro Games from Japan” [Hack #9] , will suffice, but they are hard to track down. Lik-Sang (http://www.lik-sang.com) offers its own adapters for $9.90 each at the time of this writing.

If your local shopping mall has one of those “As Seen On TV” outlet stores that have been popping up recently, you may want to look around it to see if you can find Neo Fami systems being sold under the name Yobo FC Game Console. These are also available at the Hawaii-based retailer Toys ‘N Joys (http://www.toysnjoys.com) for the low price of $30 and include the Fami-com–NES adapter in the box.

Warning

At many shopping malls across the country, especially around Christmas, you may see kiosks selling all-in-one game systems, usually shaped like a Nintendo 64 controller, that have Famicom games built in. Do not confuse these with the legal Neo Fami units—they are illegal. They are not produced by Nintendo and therefore the makers do not have the rights to include copyrighted video game software inside the system.

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