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Retro Gaming Hacks by Chris Kohler

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Buy a Famicom from Japan

Import Nintendo’s first breakout hit game system from the exotic Orient.

It would be a very different world today if the Famicom were never released. Sure, at some point the post-Atari U.S. video game market would have been revitalized. But the American gaming industry might have remained under the total control of American companies. Or, Sega might have climbed unimpeded to the top of the Japanese game industry, then proceeded to dominate the rest of the world.

But in 1983, Nintendo did release the Family Computer—quickly dubbed the Famicom for short by abbreviation-happy Japanese consumers—and within months it was a smash success in Japan. It was such a success that Nintendo decided to bring it to the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System. The rest, as they say, is history.

With the Famicom’s crucial role in revitalizing the U.S. game business, and since it is Nintendo’s best-known product, it’s not surprising that game collectors in the West want to get their hands on one, even if they don’t generally collect imports. There’s just something about the Famicom’s fun design and historical importance that calls to them.

That, and the fact that there are all sorts of games on the Famicom that don’t have U.S. equivalents. This is especially true when you consider the Famicom Disk System, a magnetic-disk-based add-on drive that was never released in the US. Add all this together and the Famicom becomes a pretty desirable piece of kit. But it’s tough to know how to go about getting one [Hack #9] , and which model of the system you should go for. In this hack, I’ll run down the pros and cons of the different Famicom systems you might consider buying, and what important things to watch for when you do.

Tip

In general, this hack will not cover the question of where you should buy Famicom hardware. It’s not that I don’t like you or anything, it’s because this information is already given (albeit in a more general sense) in other hacks in this chapter—namely, “Buy Retro Games from Japan” [Hack #9] and “Play with Power: Set Up an NES” [Hack #5] .

Family Computer

The original design of the Famicom, as shown in Figure 1-7, didn’t change much from its release in 1983 until about a decade later.

The Family Computer, or Famicom for short

Figure 1-7. The Family Computer, or Famicom for short

If you want to find a complete Famicom system, it should contain the following items:

  • The console, with two non-removable controllers

  • A white RF switch

  • A black AC adapter

  • Pink and white instruction manual

  • A small comic book about the system; the title roughly translates to "This is the Family Computer!”

This is the original version of the Famicom, and is not especially difficult to find today. After all, millions upon millions of them were mass-produced in Japan. The Famicom is not rare by any stretch of an eBay seller’s imagination. You shouldn’t pay more than $80 for a loose, complete system or $100 for a boxed one.

This is especially true as this model of Famicom almost definitely won’t work on your U.S. television set. As you can see from the list of parts, it only features RF output, and then only using 300 ohm leads (those little screw things that used to be on the back of all TV sets but are no longer).

And even if you could hook the Famicom up to your TV, odds are you won’t see anything. Japan and the United States both use NTSC television standards, but the RF frequencies are different. Some people have reported getting Famicom games running on channel 96 with no sound, but I have never been able to get one working.

I understand, of course, if you want an original Famicom for your collection even if you can’t use it. But if you do want one that you can actually use to play games, you have a few other options.

Tip

I lied a little bit when I said the original Famicom design didn’t change much. The very first design of the system was indistinguishable from later models except for the fact that the A and B buttons were square and made out of a mushy sort of material. Most of these were recalled due to an unrelated hardware issue, and the next run featured the round, concave A and B buttons we know and love. Of course, collectors consider the ultra-rare square-button version to be the “true” original Famicom.

AV Famicom

In 1993, Nintendo released the AV Famicom (Figure 1-8) in Japan. As you might guess from its name, this was done in response to the same complaint that you probably have about the original Famicom: no AV output. Nintendo actually manufactured these machines up through the year 2004, if you can believe it.

The convenience of having AV ports made the AV Famicom a highly sought out item, and it is difficult to find today despite being a much more contemporary product. Thus, you can expect to pay upwards of $150. If you do buy one, note that it only includes the following inside the box:

  • The AV Famicom console

  • Two detachable controllers, same as late model NES controllers

  • Instruction manual

That’s right—the AV Famicom was sold without AV cables or an AC adapter. Nintendo sold both of those separately. This isn’t as harsh as it sounds, as Nintendo was simply assuming that customers already owned the new 16-bit Super Famicom system, which was released three years prior and used the same AC adapter and AV cables.

The AV Famicom in all its redesigned glory

Figure 1-8. The AV Famicom in all its redesigned glory

But this money-saving measure might not work well with Americans. Yes, you can use your AV cables that came with the American Super NES, Nintendo 64, or even GameCube with this system. But you’ll need to track down the AC adapter that was used for the Super Famicom. You can try using your American SNES power supply, although you may be running the risk of sending too much voltage into your poor little AV Famicom and frying its insides.

Famicom Disk System

In 1986, Nintendo had an interesting idea: put games on floppy disks, which were cheaper to produce and could be rewritten with new games (at licensed Nintendo retailers) when players got tired of the old ones. It didn’t work out for a variety of reasons, but they gave it their all for a while. This resulted in many exclusive Disk System games. The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Castlevania, among other series, made their debut on the Famicom Disk System (Figure 1-9).

It is, as you might imagine, another coveted collector’s item. There are, of course, a few caveats for would-be collectors. First and foremost is that the Disk System, though it can hook up to any Famicom system—even some of the third-party Famicom portable systems in [Hack #7] —requires its own power supply. Amazingly, the default option that Nintendo gave to gamers who bought the unit was to use six (6) “C” batteries (not included)! A power adapter was available separately; it is quite rare. (Yes, American “C” batteries will work fine!)

Famicom Disk System (below) attached to the Famicom

Figure 1-9. Famicom Disk System (below) attached to the Famicom

You should expect to pay [Hack #9] around $100 for a working Disk System. And I stress the word working. Disk Systems were notorious for breaking down; the drive belt inside would turn brittle and crack with age. Nintendo used to do cheap repairs on these at their Kyoto offices, but have discontinued the practice. So make absolutely sure that when you buy one, the seller warrants that the drive belt is new and has been replaced or else you are almost assuredly buying broken hardware.

If you hook the Disk System up and turn it on, you will always see an opening screen with the Nintendo logo and Mario and Luigi telling you to “Please Set Disk Card.” This does not mean the system is working. You must successfully load a disk game before you can call it a success, so be sure that when the system is described as “tested” that this is what the seller means!

Tip

The Disk System itself is a cool retro gaming hack. It plugged into the Famicom through an adapter that fit into the cartridge slot, and when you turned the game on a ROM inside the adapter tricked Famicom into thinking it was playing a regular old cartridge game.

Twin Famicom

An easy (but not cheap!) all-in-one solution is the delicious-looking Twin Famicom (Figure 1-10), which was produced by Sharp under license from Nintendo. It has everything you could possibly want from a Famicom system—everything meaning AV outputs and Disk System functionality. Sure, the controllers are hardwired in and the cords are way too short, but you can’t have everything.

The black model of the Twin Famicom

Figure 1-10. The black model of the Twin Famicom

These retail for around $100 in Japan; if you’re buying one from an American auction site it will almost assuredly run you $200. And at that price you’d best make sure that the disk drive works, because otherwise you’re stuck with an expensive cartridge-only Famicom system.

Famiclones

As near as I can figure, the patent on the Famicom expired in 2004. That was around the time that Nintendo stopped manufacturing the AV Famicom and all sorts of unlicensed Famicom clones (shortened by the abbreviation-happy American gaming community to "Famiclones”) started popping up in Japanese retail stores.

I discuss these in a previous hack [Hack #5] . Note that most of these do feature AV ports and will work with the Disk System. The one problem with the clone machines is that they use non-standard joystick ports. Luckily there aren’t that many third-party Famicom joysticks anyway (since the original machine used hardwired controllers), so this isn’t a big deal.

Hopefully, between all these different versions of the system you can find some Famicom setup that fits your needs. No matter what, however, you’ll need to make a tradeoff between originality, convenience, and price.

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