Friday, February 26, 2010
Famicom AV: Best Overall Choice for the running NES & Famicom Cartridges
I am a real fan of the Nintendo Entertainment System. This little gray box is the reason why we still play video games today We have not forgotten about it, we still enjoy playing many, many of the approximately 750 unique North American games released during the console's lifespan. While there is something to be said for emulating the games, there is nothing quite like playing on a real system connected to a television screen.
Using the NES today has one problem, but it is a big one, the gray box (which in enthusiast circles is called the front loader) is terribly unreliable. Back in the day, the push-in-and-down cartridge slot caused stress on the connectors. Eventually obtaining and maintaining good contact between the 72 pins of the cartridge and the connector was no longer guaranteed. If contact was broken, then the game would fail to start or crash. On pressing the power button, if you saw a blinking screen or a solid screen of one color, that meant there was not good contact between the cartridge and connector.
Two other issues exacerbated this unreliable mechanism. First was the NES lockout chip. The lockout chip inside the cartridge communicated with the one inside the system, and if the could not establish or maintain their delicate serial communications, the system would reset about twice a second. This meant flashing screens. Second, children discovered that by blowing on the contacts of the cartridge or system, they could often disperse the dust causing the faulty connection. The side effect is that the saliva being blown onto the cartridge connector would, over time, corrode the contacts. Hence more unreliable connections.
Many companies sell replacement cartridge connectors or refurbished NES units. There are issues here too. First, all connectors are not created equal, and many of them are so tight that you practically need a pair of pliers to extract the cartridge when you want to change a game. Second, the tightness of the connectors causes them to wear out more quickly than looser connectors. Eventually, the connectors will wear out. Refurbishing the connectors yourself requires a lot of time and the patience to slightly bend pins back to give a proper connection.
Fortunately, there are other options. First is the Redesigned NES, better known as the Top Loader. The Top Loader was released at the end of the NES's life in 1993 as a cheap, entry level system. It was a seriously cost reduced design. Gone is the lockout chip and the unused expansion port. As its nickname suggests, the cartridge slot consists of a vertical slot and a dust cover. The PCB is as simplified as it gets without getting rid of any essential components. Games tended to work much more reliably in the vertical slot, no extra stress on the pins from having to rotate the cartridge to make contact with both sets of pins in the slot.
Two issues developed with the Top Loader, one major, one minor. The minor one apparently is that it would not work with certain unlicensed games that relied on the presence of a lockout chip and defeat it before the game would work I have never been able to confirm this, except for the licensed rarity known as the Nintendo World Championships 1990 cartridge. The Game Genie's PCB may be too thick to fit inside the slot, and there was an adapter to make it work, but it is now extremely rare.
The major issue is that the Top Loader has the worst video quality of any official NES-compatible hardware. Vertical lines run down the screen every other pixel it seems. This is especially apparent on backgrounds of certain solid colors, which is common on older NES titles. Add to this the R/F only output, (whereas the front loader has composite video as well), and you have a serious barriers to oldskool enjoyment.
Before releasing the NES in the United States, Nintendo had already enjoyed great success with the basic hardware, the Famicom, in Japan. The Famicom and NES are virtually identical from a programmer's perspective. Hardware-wise, they use different cartridge connectors, the Famicom uses a 60-pin connector while the NES uses a 72-pin connector. Using US cartridges on a Famicom requires a 72-60 pin converter. Other disadvantages of using a Famicom is that the controllers are hardwired to the system and the cables are very short. The cables tend to be approximately 3' long whereas NES controllers are 6' long. Replacing worn out controllers is not as easy as it is for the NES.
The other big issue with using a regular Famicom is that the R/F signal was designed to be tuned to Japanese standards, which are just different enough from US standards to be annoying. While a regular NES or other console RF system tunes to channel 2, 3 or 4, you need to set your TV to channel 95 or 96 to get the proper frequency for the Famicom's RF signal. Not all TVs can do that, although more modern ones can more easily. The Twin Famicom by Sharp (designed by Nintendo) has the same problems but has a Famicom Disk System inside the unit.
More interesting is the Sharp Famicom Titler. While it has the attached controllers, it also has composte and S-Video outputs. While they provide a sharper picture, they have graphics issues. Normal US NES and Famicoms use a 2C02 Composite Video PPU, the Titler and the Playchoice-10 devices use a 2C03 RGB Video PPU. The Titler has a chip that converts the RGB output from the PPU to S-Video, composite video and R/F video. The 2C02 cannot output a good S-Video signal because the luma and chroma signals are mixed within the chip. The RGB PPU generates graphics with some differences from the composite PPU, leading to issues. The RGB and Composite palettes are generally similar to each other but there are color differences. The Composite PPU can generate more gray shades than the RGB. Games like The Immortal will not show graphics on the RGB PPU because they use a feature (color emphasis bits) that works as intended on the Composite PPU (diming the brightness generally) which will give a solid white screen on an RGB device.
Finally, let me discuss the Famicom AV. This unit was first released in 1993 or 1994 just as Nintendo was ready to stop producing games for the Famicom. It is the smallest true Nintendo NES/Famicom device. Because of its relative newness, you can find them in good shape.
It uses the Nintendo Multi-Out A/V connector that the SNES, N64 and Gamecube use. (The RGB and S-Video cables will not output video). Unlike the first model SNES, it does not have an R/F output, but the Nintendo RF adapter which plugs into the Multi-Out should work. It uses the same power requirements as a SNES power adapter but the plug which it expects is different. The system did not come with a power adapter as it was assumed the purchaser would use his or her original Famicom power adapter. The adapter for a Sega Master System or Sega Genesis Model 1 fits and works perfectly with the Famicom AV. The adapter's ratings are DC 10v, 850mA, center tip negative.
The Famicom AV is chiefly distinguished by its video quality. It has the best true composite output of any other NES/Famicom. With licensed and unlicensed cartridges, the vertical stripes are non-existent. Even on the front loader NES they can be visible at times. The audio is still mono as with any unmodified NES/Famicom; each audio outputs jack on any cable will output the exact same sound.
The Famicom AV has the same two controller ports as found in the NES. It also comes with two "new-style" (dogbone) controllers. I personally prefer to use dogbones over the original old-style rectangular NES controllers because they are more comfortable to hold in your hands over an extended period of time and the concave buttons are easier on the thumb than the convex buttons of the old-style controller. However, the controllers that come with the Famicom AV only have a cable length of 3 feet, NES controllers have 6 foot cables. Gamers in Japan generally have less room than US, so the cable lengths are shorter. Top loader NESes came with 1 dogbone controller, but it had a 6 foot cable length.
The Famicom AV, just like the original Famicom, supports all official Famicom cartridges, including ones that have extra sound hardware within. It also supports the Famicom Disk System. However, games that made use of the microphone on the second attached original Famicom controller will not be able to make use of that functionality. Fortunately, the functionality is not important in any game a non-Japanese person is likely to play. The Legend of Zelda uses it to kill the Pols Voice monsters, Kid Icarus to lower the shopkeeper's prices.
The more important limitation of the Famicom AV's second controller port is that it does not support the NES Zapper or the Arkanoid NES Vaus Controller. The reason why is because there are two data lines which are connected on the NES's second controller port but not on the Famicom AV's. Fortunately, soldering two wires inside the unit can fix this, if you are brave enough to take an iron to the Famicom AV.
Playing NES games with the Famicom AV requires the player to use a 72-60 pin converter between cartridge and console. These used to be very difficult to find. 60-72 pin converters (they have ribbons attached) were much more common because more people were interested in playing Famicom games in their NES than vice-versa. However, with the greater availability of Famicom clones, 72-60 pin converters have become more available. Even so, not all are created equal. The "Family Converter" works perfectly with all NES cartridges, but it is no longer in production. More recent converters tend not to connect certain pins on the bus to the Picture Processing Unit & Video RAM inside the NES. While this is okay for almost all released NES games, 10 games (including Gauntlet, After Burner & Castlevania III) will be unplayable due to graphic errors. The PowerPak also will not work with cheap converters. With some soldering and trace cutting on the converter, this problem may be fixable.
Having explained the caveats, I still maintain that the Famicom AV is the best way to go to play commercial NES and Famicom games. You will enjoy the best overall experience.