Friday, November 28, 2014

Game Boy and Headphones - Better Earpirces do not Always Give Better Sound

The original DMG-01 Game Boy are known for their superior sound quality over their successors, the Pocket, Light, Color, Advance & Advance SP.  I wanted to test that with three sets of Earbuds I have.
Set one are the Samsung Earbuds that came packed with a Samsung Galaxy Note 4.  These earbuds have a second ring for a micrphone (TRRS), a microphone volume dial and flat cables.  Although they came free with the phone, they probably would cost you $5-6 at retail.  
Set two are a pair of Earbuds branded with Disney's Phineas and Ferb cartoon show.  They have rounded cables and no micrphone.  They use gel Earbud tips.  They probably would set you back $2-3 at retail.
Set three is a pair of Earbuds bought at the dollar store.  The cables are extremely thin and the block that allowed for the Earbuds's cable to be retracted broke very quickly.  $1.00.  Unlike Set one and two, they do not use Earbud tips.  The Earbuds Nintendo packaged with the original Game Boys looked very much like these.

Sets one and two are more comfortable in the ear than set one and can fit more snuggly.  Set one, when used with a modern device like a Samsung Galaxy Note 4, sounds crisp and clear with the audio generated from that phone.  Sets two and three have a hard time fitting into the headphone jack.  What you hear from them sounds comparatively muffled compared to set one.  
So, which set is best for listening to the Game Boy?  In terms of Sound Quality, set two or three sound superior to set one.  Set one will give the loudest sound, but the noise floor is also raised.  The result is a constant hiss at any volume.  Additionally, set one will give off a high pitched noise at high volumes and audible hum at low volumes, which can be easily be heard when no music is playing.  
Set two and three will give an appropriate volume, but it won't be deafening like Set one can provide.  Nor will you hear hum or the sharply pitches at the extreme ends of the volume dial.  However, set two sounds way too quiet unless the earphone connector is pulled a few millimeters out of the jack.  Set three doesn't have this problem, but its earpieces are far less comfortable than Set two's gel earbuds.   

This is another example where the latest and greatest is not the best for vintage gaming hardware.  The Samsung Earbuds deliver far more dynamic range than the cheap Earbuds, but this is a situation where an output device gives too much.  I found that headphones that came with a functioning volume wheel could cut down the headphone's own volume range to mask out the worst aspects of the Game Boy's sound without lowering the volume too much.  Without a volume wheel, you are left to the mercy of the earbud's default sound repoduction, and it may not sound pretty.

Even the DMG Game Boy is no audiophile's prize, it is far from it.  It retailed at $100 and used a screen that was unimpressive even in its day.  It did have Tetris, great battery life and a good price, so if the audio quality is less than spectacular, most people did not care.  Also, after the first two years, stereo sound separation was not very noticeable with games.  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Longest Game System's Media Support

From what I have been able to determine, the Nintendo Famicom was the longest known media-based console continuously produced.  It was released on July 15, 1983 in Japan.  At the end of the console's life, Nintendo discontinued the original model with the RF output and attached controllers and released the new-and-improved Famicom AV on December 1, 1993.  Nintendo stopped manufacturing the Famicom AV in September, 2003.  I am not aware of another console being continuously produced for nine to ten years without a redesign except the Playstation 2 slimline.

While the Sega Master System may have had a longer lifespan in Brazil, I have unearthed no evidence that cartridge-based consoles were manufactured for a continuous twenty-year period.  Moreover, Nintendo also holds the record for hand-held systems. Nintendo released the Game Boy on April 21, 1989 and only discontinued its Game Boy Advance (which is backwards compatible with Game Boy and Game Boy Color games) in 2008.  As Game Boy games are region free, that copy of Super Mario Land purchased at launch would still work in the last Game Boy Advance SP handheld systems sold in North America in 2008.

However, Sony's PS3 is still in production and Sony has stated that it will support it at least through 2015. Even today, the PS3's backwards compatiblity with PS1 titles has eclipsed Nintendo's media support. Playstation games have seen continuous support since 1994 even if the consoles were last manufactured in 2004, because they will work on Playstation 2s and Playstation 3s.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Purity of RF Output

Before the NES and Sega Master System, all video game consoles only supported RF output.  RF combines video and audio output and modulates those signals into frequencies suitable for an analog TV.

Analog Television Broadcasting

Until the mid 1980s, there were typically only one type of input on an US TV, RF terminals.  There were a pair of screw terminals to attach the cable for a VHF antenna and a pair of screw terminals to attach a UHF antenna.  The VHF antenna mounted on top of the TV and comprised of two telescopic metal rods that could bemoved, a.k.a. "rabbit ears".  People would have to adjust these rods to get the best signal for each channel or invest in an externally mounted antenna.  A typical UHF antenna was just a big, round loop that was not really capable of adjustment.  VHF used channels 2-13 and UHF 14-83.  Typical TVs would have one dial for each.

With Digital Television, the same VHF and UHF channels are used, but the ATSC signals are digitally modulated and are vastly different from the analog NTSC signals.  In the advent of digital TV, analog TVs cannot understand the encoding of the digital signal and these dials are useless as of September 1, 2015 without a digital converter box.

RF Switchboxes

A typical pre-crash (1st and 2nd generation) console came with an RF switchbox with a pair of prongs that screwed into the VHF terminals with the wire for the VHF antenna.  The VHF antenna would have a wire with two prongs on it which would screw into a pair of terminals on the switchbox.  The old-style switchboxes would have a sliding switch with the label TV/GAME.  When the switch was slid to the TV, the TV would receive regular broadcast reception.  When set to GAME mode, the switchbox would block the over the air signals and let the console's signal go through.

The 4-port Atari 5200 and the RCA Studio II use unique RF Switchboxes which also provide power to the console.  Other US consoles use generic switchboxes.

RF Modulators and Channel Select

All home console systems of the first and second generation of video games connected via this method.  Inside each console is an RF modulator that takes video and audio information and modulates them into a signal a TV would recognize as sufficiently similar to a broadcast signal that it would demodulate it into picture (hue, saturation and brightness/luminescence and sync) and sound.  The original Fairchild Channel F used and internal speaker like many of the Pong home consoles, and the RCA Studio II does not output color.  The difference between the TV station and a console was that the TV station typically broadcast over the air and the console sent its information directly through a wire.

Consoles in the US "broadcast" on channels 2 (54-60MHz), 3 (60-66MHz) or 4 (66-72MHz).  Early consoles may not have had a channel selector switch.  The Fairchild Channel F and some heavy-sixer Atari 2600s do not have a channel selector switch and broadcast only on channel 3.  Channel 3 was not typically used by TV stations.  Channel 2 was usually the local PBS station and Channel 4 often belonged to one of the big three network's local affiliate.  Other heavy-sixers and all later Atari 2600s have a channel selector switch, channel 2 or 3 can be selected.  The RCA Studio II, Atari 5200 and 7800 also use channel 2 and 3.  The Arcadia, Odyssey 2, Astrocade, Intellivision and Colecovision allows channel 3 or 4 to be selected.  This would become standard in post-crash systems.

RF Connectors

Even in the early 1980s, some TVs were coming with a screw-threaded coaxial connector instead of the two screws for VHF.  In this case, early TV switchboxes would require a 300 Ohm to 75 Ohm connector.  Later switchboxes, like for the NES, SMS and every console thereafter, would only use coaxial wires.  To connect to an older TV, reverse connector, the 75 Ohm to 300 Ohm connector, would have to be screwed into the VHF screw terminals of an older set.  Even Atari eventually released a coaxial version of its manual switchbox.

Today, unless you rely on OTA transmissions, typically the only thing a TV coax screw will be used for is cable input.  Newer high definition capable cable boxes use HDMI and Component video for the Hi-Def signals. If you are not using this coax for cable, you can typically connect a simple RCA to coax adapter and toss the switchbox.  Some switchboxes, like the ones you could buy from Radio Shack, degrade the signal.  Other switchboxes, like the most recent Atari switchboxes with coaxial wires, do not, so I have read.

Exceptions to the General Rule of RF Availability

No pre-crash console allowed for composite video output.  Mods were not generally known during the pre-crash era or for many years thereafter.  Composite video monitors were seldom found outside of studios and computer monitors until the mid-1980s when VHS players became ubiquitous in US households.  However, composite video and audio may be appropriate for two systems, the Atari 5200 and Colecovision, due to their computer based roots.  The Atari 5200 uses the same chips and behaves similarly to the Atari 400 and 800 computers.  The Atari 800 had a jack that provided composite and separated chroma/luma output. Composite video was found on computer monitors at this time.  Separated chroma/luma is essentially S-Video.  I would strongly advise against an S-video mod because it eliminates the composite artifacting effect that games like Choplifter on the 5200 use.

The Colecovision uses the TMS9928A Video Display Processor, which natively outputs a form of component video which is converted to RF in the system.  The Colecovision only offers RF, but the Coleco Adam, which can play Colecovision carts, offers composite video and audio.  Coleco composite, S-video and even component video mods exist.  Also, the Colecovision is a very close hardware cousin to the MSX home computers, which could support RGB video.  Many MSX games have been ported to the Coleco in recent years.

3rd Generation & Beyond

The NES and SMS switchboxes did not have a sliding switch. Instead, the signal from the console would switch the signals automatically when the console was turned on.  Earlier consoles do not provide the power to cause the switch automatically.  Both also allowed for composite video and audio connections and came with AV cables.  All post-crash systems could provide at least composite video (in their first iteration at least and some require special cables or an adapter).  For this article, the Atari 7800 is a pre-crash system, it was designed and test marketed before the crash.

Of course, I must make an exception to the exception for the Japanese Famicom, released in 1983 and which would become the NES when released in the US in late 1985.  By its date, the Famicom is in the 2nd Generation, but its graphics and sound capabilities are substantially superior to any second generation console.  I recommend that the Famicom be modded to support composite video like the NES, the Famicom AV, the Twin Famicom and the Sharp Famicom and NES TVs.  However, the best mods may require lifting the PPU out of its socket and placing a copper sheath around it, so that is not for everybody.

The Famicom only supports RF output, but the Japanese TV broadcasting used different frequencies than US broadcasting.  The Famicom broadcasts on Japanese channel 1 (90-96MHz) or 2 (96-102Mhz).  In the United States, these broadcast frequencies were and are assigned to FM radio (87.9-107.9MHz).  Japan's FM radio frequencies (76MHz-90MHz) are mainly taken up in the US by TV channels 5 (76MHz-82MHz) and 6 (82MHz-88MHz).

On higher end CRTs sold in the US, channels 95 and 96 tune to the Japanese channel 1 and 2 frequencies, respectively.  No TV manufacturer ever intended that these channels would be used to receive over the air broadcasts.  These channels were a late addition to the US channel lineup and placed in higher end TVs that were intended to be marked in NTSC countries like the US and Japan with only minor changes to the TV's firmware necessary to assign the appropriate channels to the appropriate countries.

The Famicom came with a white RF adapter with some screw terminals.  A (S)NES or Sega Master System/Genesis RF adapter can be used, but you will need to use the switches on the back of the Famicom to switch the input and the channel.

Home Computers

When the Apple II was first released, it had an RCA composite video output jack and a video pin header on its motherboard.  However, most buyers of the device only had a TV set with antenna leads.  Third parties marketed RF modulators that plugged into the header on the motherboard and connected to an external RF switch.  The most popular one was the Sup'R"Mod. II, which came out in a version that broadcast on Channel 3 and another version that broadcast on Channel 33.  This is the only example of a popularly available RF modulator broadcasting on a UHF channel.

When IBM released the PCjr., it believed that many buyers would want to hook it up to a standard TV set.  It designed and released an RF adapter with a special 2x3 BERG connector that was keyed for the Television port on the back of the PCjr.  This adapter took a standard video and audio signal from the PCjr.  The adapter was in a long, silver box and contained both the modulation circuitry and the switchbox circuitry.  It had a "TV/Computer" switch and a Channel Select (3-4) switch.  Unfortunately it only has screw terminal input and output, so you will need both types of converters to use the box on a modern TV and with cable TV input.  This photo shows a fully modernized version of this beast :


IBM had previously released the IBM Color/Graphics Adapter.  This adapter had an RGB monitor output, a composite video RCA jack and a header for an RF adapter.  IBM never released its own RF adapter for the PC.  The RF is 4 pins and is identical to the Apple II header except it does not have the pin or connection for the -5v line.

Matching Transformers

Twin lead connectors require 300 ohm impedance connections.  Coaxial connectors require 75 impedance connectors.  Therefore, in addition to using completely different physical connectors, electrically these signals are not quite compatible.  If you are trying to use one type of connector with another type of connector, you need an appropriate matching transformer, or Balun.  A 300-to-75 ohm transformer, shown in the top of the above photograph, will allow you to connect to a coaxial connector on a new TV.  A 75-to-300 ohm transformer, shown on the left of the above photo, will allow you to connect a twin lead connector on an old TV.  These can be purchased cheaply at Radio Shack.

Conclusion

Prior to the 3rd generation, home video game consoles were often treated as toys and marketed and designed as such.  High end video connections had barely reached into the home.  Higher end-audio was somewhat more common, but there is not a lot of sophisticated music to be heard in the pre-crash era.  The B&W switch on the Atari 2600s was not placed there simply for cosmetic purposes, many game consoles connected to B&W TVs.  Consumers were generally satisfied when they got the system to work.  RF provided a known quantity for programmers, they had to make their graphics look clear with it.  Tiny text and high resolutions lost much of the detail on the modulated signal.  RF was the way these consoles were meant to be seen.  Except where indicated, it is the way these consoles should be played.  Anything better is not true to the classic console experience.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Latest is not Always the Greatest

Atari 2600 6-Switch and 4-Switch vs. Jr.

Apparently many 2600Jr.s have a buggy TIA chip that causes Kool-Aid Man to be unplayable.  It is possible that it may affect other games, but Kool-Aid Man is confirmed.  See here :

http://atariage.com/forums/topic/165168-kool-aid-man-rom-problem/?hl=+kool#entry2950077
http://atariage.com/forums/topic/45244-why-does-this-2600-game-only-play-on-the-2600-jr/?hl=%2Bbuggy+%2Btia#entry547110

Unlike all 6-switchers and many 4-switchers, the chips in the Jr. are socketed and not easily replaceable.

Some Atari 2600jr. have a single chip instead of the three chips of most Jr.s and all other 2600.  They have video issues with the Harmony Cart's menu, and Kool-Aid Man and some interesting graphical anomalies with Pitfall II : http://atariage.com/forums/topic/196368-unicorn-boards-and-harmony-cart-menus-single-chip-2600-compatibility/

As far as the 6-switch vs. the 4-switch models go, the 6-switches (and the Jr.) have a video buffer chip that provides better video quality than the 4-switch.  Some cartridges or controllers may find it easier to fit in a 4-switch or a Jr. than the Light or especially a Heavy Sixer.

Atari 5200 4-Port vs. 2-Port

Not much of a comparison here, the ability to play four player games on the 4-port 5200 is balanced against  the ability to use the VCS Cartridge Adapter to play 2600 games on the 2-port 5200.  However, the 4-port 5200 can be modded with eight passive components to provide the required compatibility.  See Here : http://www.atarimuseum.com/videogames/consoles/5200/cx55.html

In addition, the 4-port 5200 uses a combination RF and power switchbox that is known for its fragility.  The 2-port uses a simple power adapter and separate RF output.  Fortunately, it is not too difficult to mod a 4-port for separate power and AV output.

NES - Front Loader vs. Top Loader

The Front Loader may have issues with its connector, but typically a good cleaning of the connector and carts a visual inspection of the pins can solve virtually any problem.  The Front Loader has AV out, which the Top Loader lacks.  Top Loaders are RF only.  In addition, the output on a Top Loader is crap.  A fix like this : http://www.stoneagegamer.com/nes-toploader-av.html would will restore the video quality, but you have to drill holes in your system's case or remove the RF unit.  Not a beginner's mod.

Also, Game Genies don't fit properly in a Top Loader.  There was an official adapter made for the Game Genie, but it is extremely rare.  You could use a NES PowerPak or Everdrive N8, which support five Game Genie Codes as opposed to the three codes of the real Game Genie.  Finally, there is no power LED on a Top Loader.

Sega Master System Model 1 vs. Model 2

Compared to the Model 2, Sega Master System Model 1s have a card slot in addition to the cartridge slot. The card slot let you play those games that shipped on a Sega Card.  It also is required for the Sega 3-D Glasses.  They also have an Expansion Port, which was unused officially but can be used for an FM Chip mod.  They have a port with composite video and RGB connections on the back whereas the Model 2 is RF only.  You can officially only play the Snail Maze game on early Model 1s, and the Model 2s lack the Opening Logo and Tune on startup.  There is no power LED or reset switch on a Model 2.

Genesis - Model 1 vs. Successors

The Model 1 is the only system which works as designed with the Power Base Converter.  While there are SMS adapters that fit in the Model 2, they do not offer a card slot.

Most Model 1s do not have the TMSS protection, which adds a second or two to the boot time of any game with the message Produced By or Under License from Sega Enterprises, LTD.  At least five US games will not work with TMSS Genesis machines.

There are two motherboard revisions of the Model 1 with TMSS.  One has the words HIGH DEFINITION GRAPHICS in white around the circle bordering the cartridge port.  The second omits the words.  All consoles with those words are considered to produce the best sound of all Sega Genesis models.  The Model 1 without the text has much poorer sound.  The Sega Genesis Model 2s have variable sound quality.

Model 1s have a headphone jack and use a power adapter with a plug that also fits into NESes, Famicoms and Sega Master Systems.  Model 2s omit the headphone jack but have stereo audio on their AV ports.

Game Boy - Original vs. Successors

The original Game Boy is larger than the Pocket, Light or Color.  It has larger buttons and a larger speaker and better quality audio.  There are games like Castlevania II : Belmont's Revenge and The Legend of Zelda, Link's Awakening which rely on the properties of the green LCD screen found in the larger Game Boy for certain graphical effects.  The Game Boy 4-player adapter does not require a converter.  Batteries last much longer in it than the Pocket or the Light.

SNES - Original vs. 1-Chip & SNES Mini

Most of the original boxy SNESes use a separate CPU and a two-chip PPU solution.  Late SNESes and all SNES Minis combine the CPU and both PPU chips into one large chip, called the 1-Chip.  While the graphics are slightly sharper than on earlier SNES models, some games suffer from graphical inaccuracies on the 1-Chip models, some games with enhancement chips run slower, some colors combinations suffer from ghosting and the whites are overly bright.  See here for more info : http://www.racketboy.com/forum/, go to forum called Guides under The Garage and look for the following thread, "SNES Console Revision Differences. SHVC-CPU-01 vs 1CHIP-Mini".

Playstation vs. PSOne

The PSOne is the slim version of the Playstation console.  It has a different looking menu for CD-audio playing, and a port for a matching Sony LCD.  But it looses the separate reset button, Serial and Parallel Ports, both of which have their uses, officially (serial for PlayStation Link Cable) or otherwise (parallel for Game Sharks).  It is harder to install a mod chip in a PSOne due to the tighter space.  There is an upcoming SD card solution for the Playstation called the PSIO which allows you to play CD backups from disc images, but it fits into the parallel port found on the SPCH-7xxx and lower, so no PSOne users need buy.

Half of Me, Useless to Thee

Some vintage computing and gaming devices came with two interconnected components.  They came with two distinct physical elements that combined together to function.  Here I will give examples of what I mean :

Roland MPU-401 Units

The original Roland MPU-401 unit housed all its circuitry (microcontroller, RAM and firmware) in a metal box.  This box connected via a male  to male DB-25 cable to an interface card or cartridge for the computer in question.  The unit had DIN connectors for MIDI IN and OUT and was intended to connect to MIDI devices.  The interface card (MIF-IPC, MIF-IPC-A) was always a simple bit of circuitry to provide an input and an output port to the MPU-401.  Typically, when a Roland MPU-401 is marketed for sale, it will only come with the unit, and not an interface card.  While the circuitry in the unit handles all the intelligent MPU-401 commands, without an interface card, a PC has no way to connect to it.  Designing a prototype interface board is possible, but not necessarily something that just anybody can do.  Recently, there are clones available for the MIF-IPC-A, which is compatible with just about any PC with an ISA slot.  However, they are really pricey for a simple card with no custom chips.

You can purchase perfectly functional replicas of the interface board here : https://www.lo-tech.co.uk/

Roland MPU-IPC Line

Roland later released the MPU-IPC, MPU-IPC-T and MPU-IMC.  In this case, while there was a combo of an ISA card and an breakout box, this time all the circuitry was placed on the ISA card.  The breakout box contained just the physical MIDI ports and some passive components.  Usually, when these are advertised, only the breakout box is listed.  The box on its own is useless.  The card without the box also has no practical purpose unless you are trying to explore the MPU-401 as a programmer.  Fortunately, if you have the card, it is feasible to solder together a MIDI OUT port so you can connect your MT-32 or other MIDI device to it.  Even implementing a MIDI IN port is feasible with an opto-isolator.  The MPU-IPC-T's manual, freely available online, gives the schematic for both it and the MPU-IPC.

The Roland LAPC-I is not useless without its breakout box, the MCB-1.  The MCB-1 is useless without its card.  However, they were sold separately, whereas for the MPU-IPC packages, card and box came together.  The only thing you miss with an MCB-1 is the ability to connect external MIDI modules.  The same applies for the IBM Music Feature card and its breakout box, but in IBM's case, the card came with the box.  I have read that you can repurpose a common gameport-to-MIDI adapter to substitute for an MCB-1 because they both use a DA-15 connector.  This pinout would almost certainly work :

LAPC I DA-15 Connector
+5v - 8, 11
GND - 9, 11
MIDI IN - 14
MIDI OUT - 13

Sound Blaster DA-15 Connector
+5v - 1, 8, 9
GND - 4, 5
MIDI OUT - 12
MIDI IN - 15

Wireless Controllers : Atari Remote Control Wireless Joysticks to Nintendo GameCube WaveBird Controller

Each Atari Wireless Joystick has an antenna jutting out of it and, compared to a wired joystick, a huge base housing the RF circuitry and the battery compartment.  The receiver is a black box with a retractable metal antenna that plugs into the joystick ports of the 2600.  The 2600's power adapter plugs into the receiver, which then has a cable which channels the power to the console.  The range on these controllers was so poor that they were not worth the all the hassle.

Due to the unwieldy nature of Atari's RF solution, for the rest of the 1980s and 1990s, most controllers used Infrared Receiver Technology.  This is the same type of technology found in your cable remote.  Some controllers had an IR transmitter built into them, which did not add nearly as much weight and bulk (even with batteries) as the RF solutions did.  All required a receiver to be plugged into a controller port. Nintendo released a 4-player adapter called the NES Satellite.  The Satellite had a base where you could plug in four controllers.  It also had a receiver which plugged into both of the NES's controller ports.  Similarly, the SNES Super Scope also used a wireless IR receiver to determine the "gun's" position.

The WaveBird controller was the first modern wireless controller.  It used RF signals in the 900MHz and 2.4GHz bands and did not require an unobstructed line-of-sight like previous IR controllers.  The range was superior to IR controllers, supporting operation 20 feet from the console.  It no longer mattered where the player was in relation to the receiver or what was between him and the receiver (within reason).  The WaveBird was not substantially larger than the regular wired GameCube controller, unlike the Atari Wireless Joysticks.  Unfortunately, the receivers are really small and often times get lost and thus are not included with every WaveBird auction.  By the seventh generation, all wireless controllers used Bluetooth technology, with the transmitter/receiver located in the console.

Game Boy Player

The Nintendo Game Boy Player attaches to one of the ports underneath a Nintendo GameCube.  It allows you to play Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance Cartridges on the GameCube and on a TV screen, similar to the Super Game Boy for the SNES.  However, while the Super Game Boy contained everything it needed to run inside its cartridge, the Game Boy Player includes a software disc.  This disc must be present in the GameCube and must load before you can use the Game Boy Player.  The Player screws into the underneath of the GameCube, but the mini-disc and its small case tended to get lost.  The GameCube's copy protection must be bypassed to use a backup of the software disc.  This is the only official way to play Game Boy Color or Game Boy Advance games on a TV screen.

However, you need not despair anymore if you have the Player and don't have a disc.  You can run Game Boy Interface, which can do even a better job than the real disc!   Start here : http://retrorgb.com/gameboyinterface.html

Games Designed for a Particular Peripheral : R.O.B.

(I am not going to go through every example of a game that works with only a certain peripheral, but a few special cases come to mind)

Nintendo released R.O.B., the Robotic Operating Buddy, with the NES Deluxe Set back in 1985.  R.O.B. came in this set with the pack-in game Gyromite.  R.O.B. was also released alone and without a pack-in game.  It is not uncommon to find loose R.O.B.s or Gyromite or even Stack-Up cartridges.  However, without the special accessories for each game, R.O.B. is useless.  Because the Gyromite accessories came with systems, they are more common than the Stack-Up accessories.  However, finding complete sets of accessories is also a hit or miss affair.  Gyromite has five pieces (two gyros, gyro holder, gyro spinner, controller stand) and Stack Up has ten (five blocks and five stands).

Games Designed for a Particular Peripheral : Miracle Piano Teaching System

The Miracle Piano Teaching System was a peripheral for the NES, SNES and Genesis, and also worked with the PC, Macintosh and Amiga systems.  The Miracle Piano was a 49-key MIDI keyboard and came with software either on cartridge or disk.  It is enormous as far as peripherals go.  It also came with a custom cable to plug into the console's controller port and a foot pedal.  On a PC, a pair of MIDI ports would work.  All sound would be generated by the keyboard's speakers.  The piano itself is the same regardless of the system it was intended for, only the software and cable differs from system to system.  Loose carts do appear as well as loose pianos, but the cables tend to get lost.  Pinouts for the cables can be found here : http://pianoeducation.org/pnompcab.html

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Youtube No Longer Sucks for Retrogaming Videos

Last year, I made this blog post, http://nerdlypleasures.blogspot.com/2013/10/youtube-sucks-for-retrogaming-videos.html, when I complained that Youtube will cut the frame rate of your video in half.  Anything recorded in 60 frames per second will be converted and shown at 30 frames per second.  This can have an awful effect on the resulting video.  Flicker, a frequent issue in retro consoles, will make sprites disappear when, with the full frame rate and proper persistence of vision, they would not completely disappear.

As of October 29, 2014 (a year and a day from my original post, now coincidence there), Youtube now supports 60fps with 720p and 1080p resolution video.  Strangely, it does not support it in lower resolutions, 144p, 240p, 360p and 480p.  However, by upconverting lower resolution videos into higher resolution, we can preserve the resolution of the video and the frame rate.  Take, for example, this sample video I created :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I16xSHMKaLc&feature=youtu.be

The maximum resolution is 720p60(fps).  For once Youtube is not hiding the frame rate anymore.  So how did I get this?

First, I recorded gameplay footage using an emulator that can record to AVI and that supports DOSBox's ZMBV Codec.  This Codec is very friendly to 8-bit graphics, and can provide lossless video compression.  For NES emulators, Nestopia Undead Edition, when the Movie Capture function works, it works perfectly.  Record the movie, export it to AVI and select the DOSBox ZMBV Codec.

Now you should have an AVI video, but the resolution is 250x240@60fps.  We need to convert it to something that Youtube will allow to be viewed at 60fps.  Fortunately, 240 x 3 = 720, which is the vertical resolution of 720p.  256 x 3 = 768, so we will need to add borders to our video to get to the full 1280x720 resolution Youtube demands of the video.  VirtuaDub is a good program to accomplish all this.  The last version of VirtuaDub is 1.10.4, and it only works with AVI files.  Load your AVI file, go to the Video drop down menu, then Filters, and select resize.  On the options dialogue for filters, use New size Relative 300%, Aspect ratio Same as source and under Framing options, Letterbox/crop to size 1280x720.  (If you want 1080p, use Relative 400% and Letterbox to 1920x1080.  I am not sure whether 1200p is supported in Youtube at 60fps)  I would suggest using nearest neighbor as the Filter mode, you should keep your video sharp, Youtube will compress it losslessly.

Next, under the Video drop down menu, there is an option for Color Depth.  You should select 16 bit RGB (5,5,5) or 32 bit RGB (8,8,8 dummy alpha channel), depending on the amount of color your video has.  For NES and SNES games and systems of similar vintage, 16-bit RGB is fine.  Then,  under the Video drop down menu, click on the Compression option.  Select Zipped Motion Block Video 0.1 (that is what ZMBV stands for).  This is the DOSBox compression codec, and it will produce great results.

Finally, go to the File drop down menu, click on Save to AVI.  Type in the name of the resulting AVI file and watch VirtuaDub do its thing.  When the Progress bar is totally green, you will have your HD file.  All you need to do is to upload it to Youtube and tell people to watch it in HD.  Of course, if you want to edit it, add audio commentary or whatever, feel free to do so, but this method will allow you to display 60fps video of retro consoles without difficulty.  It also works with most computer emulators such as DOSBox.  The CGA, EGA, Tandy and PCjr. machine types output 60fps using DOSBox's movie capture function.  The vgaonly and SVGA, on the other hand, outputs to 70fps in most modes, which Youtube does not support.  You should use one of the earlier machine types for any non-VGA mode so you only really need to worry about games using the 320x200x256, 640x480x2 and Mode X modes.  VGA 640x480 runs at 60fps as may SVGA modes unless they allow you to set the refresh rate.

Those videos with output by DOSBox in 70fps will have to be converted to 60fps, which will not affect most games because they only put out as many frames of animation as they need.  For games using any 320x200 modes, you should resize it to 1600x1200 to obtain the correct 4:3 aspect ratio.  Even though a VGA upload will not be perfect, the results are still very good, as you can see here :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jE_IZNHUu08&feature=youtu.be

Additionally, the Hercules machine type and all PAL console emulators output 50fps.  Fortunately, Youtube supports 50fps as well as 60fps, as you can see here :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uH8RPoEo_Mc&feature=youtu.be

While Youtube may not be the perfect video uploading service for retrogaming videos, with support for 50fps and 60fps, although requiring HD, it has come a long way to remedy one of the worst video quality problems for retrogame footage.  While I believe Dailymotion may also support high frame rate videos, few other video sharing sites do, and Youtube is the one that earns the most traffic.  I would hope that the site would eventually add support for low resolution videos (which would allow for smaller files and save bandwidth), but today with simple conversion tools, viewers need no longer suffer from jerky motion, unnatural movement and disappearing sprites.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Famicom Disk System - Impact, Issues and Ports

Nintendo released the Family Computer (Famicom) on July 15, 1983 in Japan for a cost of 14,800 Yen.  Cartridges for the system typically cost 4,500-5,500 Yen.  On February 21, 1986, Nintendo released the Family Computer Disk System accessory at a cost of 15,000 Yen.  Disks with new games typically cost 2,600-3,400 Yen, but the cost to rewrite a game was only 500-600 Yen.  At the time, Nintendo heavily promoted this peripheral as the future of gaming as it saw it.

Nintendo focused its efforts on the disk system for quite a long time.  The last cartridge game it released for the Famicom before the disk system's release , Mach Rider, was released on November 21, 1985.  It did not release another cartridge for two years (Punch-Out!!, November 21, 1987) and only had released ten cartridge games by the end of 1991. By contrast, excluding ports and revisions of cartridge games, Nintendo released twenty-six FDS games during the same time period.

The actual situation with cartridges became more complex than Nintendo wanted.  While Nintendo was off in magnetic-media land, its third parties carried the disk-less console and developed new cartridge hardware to increase drastically the amount of ROM space available to the games.  While the Disk System was not Nintendo's greatest success, it was hardly a failure.  19.35 million Famicoms were sold compared to 4.5 million disk systems.  As it found its way into at least 20% of Japanese Famicoms, as an add-on it would appear to be successful.  This is despite buyers having already paid 14,800 Yen for a Famicom.  Nintendo made money off each console sold.  Also, after the release of Famicom Grand Prix II: 3D Hot Rally on April 14, 1988, Nintendo no longer devoted exclusive games to the system, with the exception of PC-style adventure games.

Third parties interest in the system and the number of games released for it dried up by the end of 1988.  Some major developers like Capcom and Namco did not devote much attention to the disk system.  The main advantages of the disk system, namely space and saving, had quickly become affordable in cartridges and companies would charge extra for the privilege. Moreover, Nintendo's own licensing policies swallowed up a large portion of the profits, already smaller due to the lower prices for disk-based games.  Piracy was pretty commonplace, despite Nintendo's security measures.

Nintendo set up Disk Writer kiosks in stores across Japan to allow gamers to purchase new disks and rewrite old disks.  Considering that renting games was illegal in Japan, this was a good way to allow children to sample many games at reasonable prices.  This may have worked relatively well in Japan's more densely populated urban areas, but the more rural areas may have felt left out due to the distance required to travel to get to a shop with a Disk Writer.  Nintendo had to periodically service these machines with new games.

Unfortunately, this device is probably the most unreliable device Nintendo ever made.  The disk had no dust cover on them, making them prone to dust.  Like floppy all disks, the magnetic media can wear out over time and stray electromagnetism can make bits unreliable.  In fact, I have read of people recently buying disks sealed in the box and having them fail.  ROM cartridges are far more robust.

The disk drive itself has a head that will need cleaning, and the custom format means that getting disk cleaning disks will be tricky.  The drive belts will become loose, can break over time or even melt, and the circumference is a custom length.  Although the NES front loader cartridge connector will win no awards here, the pins can be cleaned and bent back.  Nintendo must have had made a pretty penny replacing drive belts for systems out of warranty and they offered the service until 2003.

The disk system came with a RAM adapter.  Inside this RAM adapter was a custom ASIC chip called the 2C33 that interfaced with the disk drive, provided the extra sound channel and came embedded with an 8KB BIOS ROM.  The sound channel modulates an arbitrary 6-bit waveform.  The RAM adapter also contained 32KB of RAM for Program Memory and 8KB of RAM for Character Graphics Memory.  Not unlike the Starpath Supercharger for the Atari 2600, the use of RAM allowed games to split the amount they would use for code and the amount of extra RAM they could use.  To load new data required reading from the disk.  Reading from the disk introduced load times to Famicom players.  For example, it can take 10 seconds to create a new character in Legend of Zelda and 45 seconds to load a game from the menu in Metroid, not accounting for the time it takes to flip the disk.

The disks are 3" wide, narrower than the common 3.5" disks.  They are Mitsumi Quick Disks with some extra plastic on the end that is molded with NINTENDO.  Real Nintendo disks are usually yellow and have no metal dusk cover, but Nintendo did release some special blue disks with metal dust covers.  This acts to prevent non-Nintendo disks from being used because the drive has a mold that must fit some of the holes in that word, but this was quickly circumvented.  The disks themselves can offer up to 65500 usable bytes of storage for a game on each side of the disk.  However, some of that space is taken up by sychronization bits, checksums and headers, so the actual space available to the programmer is less than the nominal amount.  With a cartridge, just about every byte is freely available for the programmer to use.  Also, there are no load times with cartridges and if the game is larger than 64KB, no disk swapping is required.  Standard Famicom cartridges could store only 40KB without additional hardware.  A 128KB cartridge game has more space available to it than a double-sided disk game.

The drive itself could be powered by the included AC adapter (you can use a Sega Genesis adapter here in the US) or 6-C Cell batteries.  Apparently power strips were not yet ubiquitous in Japan and there was no room left in the outlet when the TV and Famicom were connected.  The batteries, beastly as they are, should last for quite a while because the disk drive's motor is not always active.

Interestingly, Nintendo had already released a keyboard for the Famicom that plugged into the Famicom's expansion port.  This keyboard came with and was only used with the Family BASIC cartridges.  Family BASIC saved data to the the Famicom Data Recorder, a cassette recorder that plugged into the audio ports of the keyboard.  The cartridge contained only 32KB/8KB of ROM and 2KB or 4KB of battery backed RAM.  Nintendo could have had their console behave more like a "Family Computer" had they released a BASIC disk, but never did so.  Disk based storage is far more preferable to cassette based storage.

Most FDS-exclusive games came one disk, using two disk sides.  Many of the cartridge ports only required one side of a disk, leaving the other side free for a different game.  The PC-adventure style games were typically released in two parts with part 2 being released typically later than part one and require four disk sides.

One thing the FDS had going for it is Zelda no Densetsu : The Hyrule Fantasy (The Legend of Zelda overseas).  No console, let alone an add-on, could ask for a finer launch title.  Many game designers would be happy if they produced one bona-fide classic, but Shigeru Miyamoto produced his third indisputable masterpiece after Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros with Zelda.  Zelda offered Famicom players a unique experience.  It had puzzles, tons of secrets, unique enemies, multiple items to equip and for the time what must have seemed like a gigantic world.  Yet though that world was large, it was finite and almost no two screens were exactly alike.  Unlike many other games, then and now, it did not force you to do things in strict sequence.  As icing on the cake, when you completed the game, there was a second, harder quest thrown in for free!

To me and many other non-Japanese NES fans, the most interesting aspect of Famicom Disk System games are the games that were ported to the NES.  Fortunately Nintendo released Zelda as its first battery-backup cartridge overseas.  It knew it had something special on its hands, and sought to impress people with a shiny gold box and cartridge.  Considering Zelda sold several million copies, they were literally on the money.

Zelda cartridge is a good port of Zelda FDS.  You loose the extra sound channel, but it is chiefly used during the intro and ending credits, like most other of Nintendo's FDS games that were ported to cartridge.  Nintendo did not seem to use the extra sound channel for music during gameplay but did use it for sound effects.  Sound effects like Link throwing his sword and the doors opening in Metroid sound much more impressive compared to their NES counterparts.

When Nintendo ported Zelda to cartridge and released in July, 1987, they implemented a battery backed save mechanism.  The battery would keep an S-RAM in the cartridge powered so it would not lose its memory when the system was turned off.  It was the first NES cartridge released with a battery backed save.  The next battery backed cart would be Zelda 2, released in December, 1988.  Battery backed games were expensive, but far less common in the US than in Japan.  Of the roughly 750 US cartridges released during the NES's lifetime, only 56 had batteries.  By contrast, even though there were just over 1,050 Japanese Famicom cartridges, at least 200 had batteries.  Also, every FDS game had the potential to save.

Back in the 1980s, when Japanese games were ported to the US, many had minimal text to translate.  Some Japanese games used English throughout (if the game was fairly light on text) because most Japanese children would be expected to understand some English words and even simple sentences. Other games would use Japanese mostly or entirely thoughout.  The more text, the less likely the port as translation cost time and made things more difficult when porting.  Many of the games that were text heavy and saw ports usually had lots of "Engrish" until development companies began assigning these tasks to people who could actually speak English.  This would be apparent in games with lots of text like both Zelda and Castlevania II.  The Engrish in those games made many dialogues and hints seem truly cryptic.

However, games in the 1980s themselves were pretty cryptic when it came to clues.  Ultima : Exodus, even before it was ported to the NES, was very terse when it came to clues.  Limited disk or cartridge space and the lack of compression tended to cause text to get the clipped shrift.  The FDS version of Zelda also had its obscure hints, as you can read here : http://legendsoflocalization.com/the-legend-of-zelda/first-quest/  Dracula II : Nori no Fuuin, another text heavy FDS game that was ported over to the NES as Castlevania II : Simon's Quest, also has its fair share of head-scratchers : http://bisqwit.iki.fi/cv2fin/diff

Several FDS games, including Link no Boken, Doki Doki Panic and Dracula II, when ported, used 256KB carts.  The porters had more than double the space, and not all of it was taken up by the extra space needed to store English text over Japanese text.  In the US version of Zelda II, each dungeon had its own set of background tiles, some bosses were redesigned and the battle music is more complex.  Castlevania II has much better music than Dracula II, the percussion channel in the NES is used to better effect than the extra FDS sound channel.  Super Mario Bros 2 has much more animation than Doki Doki Panic.  However, Jackal has an extra stage, cut-scenes and can scroll the screen horizontally as well as vertically compared to its FDS counterpart (Akai Yousai) and the cart only has 128KB.

There can be some subtle differences between the original cart release and an FDS port.  Two games that original appeared as a cart, Wrecking Crew and Excitebike used the Famicom Data Recorder (a cassette recorder) to save custom levels and tracks.  When ported over to the FDS (the latter as Vs. Excitebike), they saved to disk.  While Super Mario Bros. for FDS does not support saving to disk, it does have a completely different minus world (consisting of three levels) that can be completed.

Many games, when ported over to cartridge, lost their ability to save games.  This includes Castlevania, Castlevania II, Dr. Chaos, Kid Icarus, Metroid, Mystery Quest and Super Mario Bros. 2., and Section Z.  Castlevania II, Dr. Chaos, Kid Icarus and Metroid use passwords, and the ability to have fun with custom passwords today makes them, in my opinion, more interesting than standard save games.  Of course, Japanese gamers did not have to write down these passwords and hope they did not make any errors or confuse a 0 with an O or a 1 with an l.  (At least we weren't subject to the intimidating 52 character long passwords of Dragon Quest II or the insane 104 character long password of the Japanese version of Maniac Mansion).  The rest allowed for continuing after you died (limited in the case of Super Mario Bros. 2).

Toward the end of the Famicom's life, there were a few ports of games that were released on Disk to Famicom Cartridge.  In each case, Zelda, Akumajou Dracula and Moero Twinbee, the overseas cartridge versions were taken as the base for the reverse port and took what they could and needed from the disk versions.  Cartridge Akumajou Densetsu loses saving, but gains an easy mode.  Moreo Twinbee (released as Stinger in the US) also has the easy mode and retains the three player mode of the disk version, which works by plugging a controller into the Famicom expansion port.

Two FDS games, when ported to NES cartridges were given a complete overhaul.  Roger Rabbit became The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle.  LJN obtained the rights to publish a Roger Rabbit NES game, so Kemco had to replace Roger Rabbit with Bugs Bunny when they released a cartridge based on the FDS game.  The result was little more than a sprite hack, with Roger being replaced by Bugs and the Weasels being replaced by multi-colored Sylvesters.  Crazy Castle also had Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote as enemies, but they appeared far more seldomly.  Roger Rabbit changes them into the Ink and Paint Club Gorilla, the Penguin Waiters from the Ink and Paint Club, and Judge Doom.  The object of Roger Rabbit is to rescue Jessica Rabbit, Bugs Bunny has to rescue Honey Bunny.  (This was 1989, and Lola Bunny, his modern girlfriend, was created for Space Jam in 1996).

In porting Doki Doki Panic to Super Mario Bros 2, Nintendo made major changes.  The replaced the original characters entirely with Mario characters, changed the plot entirely, modified sprites and replaced music.  In Doki Doki Panic, each character had to progress through the levels on their own, and the player could save the game for each world they completed with a character.  For Super Mario Bros 2., Nintendo allowed the player to select from any of the four characters each time they entered a new level or lost a life, but they also eliminated the ability to save your game.  Finally, to see the true ending in Doki Doki Panic, you had to complete the game with all four characters.  The NES version will show you the full ending by beating the game once, but only allows you two continues.  Here is a more visual and detailed depiction of the changes : http://www.themushroomkingdom.net/smb2_ddp.shtml

If you look inside a Metroid or Kid Icarus cartridge, you will see an extra RAM chip.  In fact, these games use the same cartridge board as Zelda, and even have a place on them for a battery.  Apparently, these games needed the flexibility of more RAM than the NES could provide.  The FDS could provide more RAM (at the expense of ROM), but they needed extra RAM for the cartridge versions.  It seems that Nintendo didn't want to spend the extra nickel to put in a battery or the programmer's work on the password system was too far to revert before they discovered that the games needed extra RAM.  Similarly, Super Mario Bros. 2 also has an extra RAM chip, but its board does not have space for a battery.

Super Mario Bros. 2 for the FDS was not released for the NES, but was released for the SNES as "The Lost Levels" and a portion of it (Worlds 1-8 only) for the Gameboy Color as Super Mario Bros. Deluxe.  It is well known that Super Mario Bros 2. FDS was rejected for being too difficult for the US market. However, there are differences between the original FDS version and the SNES remake.  The SNES cart remembers the level saved, unlike the FDS version which only remembers the world.  World 9 requires the player to complete every level of Worlds 1-8 without warping, but the FDS only gives you one life and loops back to 9-1 after you beat 9-4.  This is closer to the original minus world concept of Super Mario Bros.  In the SNES version, you go to World A-1 when you beat 9-4.  Also, the player must beat the game eight times in the FDS version and press A on the title screen to progress to World A-1, whereas you only need to complete Would 8-4 (with or without warping) to get to World A-1.  Thus the FDS game does save how many times you beat the game.

One annoyance with FDS games is that, unless you obtain a pristine, new-in-box copy of a game, you are likely going to be saddled with somebody's old saves.  Most NES games allow you to delete old saves and those deletions will stick  If the NES game does not, the game will be restored to its pristine condition when the battery fails or is removed.  While the two Zelda games allow you to restore the game to a pristine state with no save games, the rest of the games mentioned here do not.  Zelda and its sequel will write to disk if you kill a game or start a new game, but the others will only write to disk if you start a new game.  Therefore you will always have at least one character on your disk.

Friday, November 7, 2014

NES - Famicom Differences

Cartridge Connectors
Famicom - 60 pins

NES - 72 pins, Lockout chip in all licensed carts and lockout defeaters in all unlicensed carts

The Famicom and NES cartridge connectors provide the same signals with some exceptions.  The Famicom has an audio input pin and an audio output pin, see the next section.

The NES front loader has ten pins that run from the cartridge to the expansion port.  It uses four pins for the lockout chip and there is a pin that carries the 21MHz master clock to the cartridge.

The NES top loader does not connect the lockout chip pins and does not physically have pins for what would be pins 18, 19, 54 and 55.  The Everdrive N8 and NES PowerPak use pin 54.  One of the remaining pins (pin 51 has been suggested) can be connected with a 1.2K resistor and the audio output point.

The Game Genie uses a cartridge connector that is slightly thicker than a regular NES cart.  This was advantageous in a Front Loader because the pins on the NES connector could be bent back by the pushing down motion required to get a game PCB's contacts to connect with both sides of the cartridge connector.  In a Top Loader, it is not, and the Game Genie's board requires tremendous force to insert in a Top Loader.  There was an adapter made for the Game Genie that would allow it to fit in a Top Loader without trouble, but they are extremely rare.

Cartridge Design and Boards
Famicom - Nintendo's own cartridge shells come in a variety of colors and are typically shorter than NES cartridge shells.  They are held together by internal plastic tabs.  Some official third party companies (Konami, Sunsoft, Namco, Taito, Irem, Jaleco and Bandai) had the right to manufacture their own cartridges and used their own boards and shell designs.

NES - All licensed cartridges come in dark gray and are held together by five screws (early releases) or three screws and two tabs on the top.  Nintendo always manufactured the boards and the chips, but occasionally made exceptions in the US (Konami, Sunsoft, Virgin Games, Acclaim)  The screws were originally regular slotted screws, but Nintendo changed to using security screws.  Unlicensed cartridges used their own boards and cartridge shell designs.

Cartridge Audio
Famicom - Expansion audio supported

NES - Expansion audio not supported (mod required)

The Famicom routes its internal audio to the cartridge slot on pin 45.  Most cartridges do not generate sound, so they simply send it back to the system by connecting pin 45 to 46, where it is sent straight to the output circuitry in the console.  Cartridges that do generate sound, like Akumajou Densetsu and the Famicom Disk System RAM Adapter, mix their audio with the Famicom's audio, then send it back to the system.

The NES routes its internal audio to the output circuitry, there is no audio output and input pins on its cartridge connector.  The cartridge connector does have extra pins that could be used for this purpose, but the audio will be routed to the expansion port on the front loader, where it can be mixed with the internal NES audio.  There is no expansion port on the top loader and some of the expansion port pins are unconnected, requiring a different mod.

Loading Mechanism
Famicom, Famicom AV & NES Top Loader - Top Loading (Famicom has eject lever)

NES Front Loader - Front Loading

The front loading mechanism was probably the second biggest mistake Nintendo ever made (the Virtual Boy being the first), as its spring loaded mechanism and design that required the cartridge to bend pins would cause the connector to eventually become unreliable.

AC Adapter
Famicom - 10VDC, 850mA, negative tip (Famicom AV didn't come with an adapter).

NES - 9VAC, 1.3A, polarity immaterial (DC conversion occurs inside system)

A Famicom, Sega Master System or Sega Genesis/Mega Drive Model 1 power adapter will work in any NES, the plug is the right shape and DC is unaffected by a DC converter.  The NES power adapter must only be used with a NES, even if it will fit other systems.

Security
Famicom, NES Top Loader - None

NES Front Loader - Lockout chip

Unlicensed cartridges for Famicoms require nothing more than a licensed cartridge.  For the NES, all licensed carts included a lockout chip that communicated with the chip in the console.  If the connection was broken, then the game would constantly reset.  All unlicensed NES carts either cloned the lockout chip (Tengen) or used circuitry to try to defeat the lockout chip.

Camerica cartridges have a switch on them to enable the lockout defeating mechanism.  Position A enables the lockout defeat, position B disables it.  You should always set the switch to Position B when using Camerica cartridges on a Top Loader.

Video and audio output
Famicom - RF (Japanese Channel 1-2)

NES Front Loader - RF (US Channel 3-4) & RCA AV Composite

NES Top Loader - RF (US Channel 3-4) (and AV, but extremely rare)

Famicom AV - Nintendo Multi-out Composite Video & Audio (can be used with Japanese or US RF adapter)

The US RF modulators broadcast on Channel 3 (60-66Mhz) and Channel 4 (66-72MHz).  Japanese RF switches broadcast on Channel 1 (90-96MHz) and Channel 2 (96-102MHz).  The US reserves those frequencies for FM radio stations (frequency spectrum 88-108MHz).  The old TVs with dial controls, which were still used quite frequently in the 1980s, went from 2-13 VHF and 14-83 (UHF).  However, in more modern TVs, some will support the Japanese channels on Channel 95 or 96 and can add channels from 84-158, covering the whole UHF frequency range and more of the VHF frequency range.

The Famicom RF switch-box is not auto-switching, it has a TV-GAME switch on the back of the console which functions like the switch on an Atari-style switchbox.  The NES RF switch-box does not have a TV-GAME switch, its switchbox will automatically change the input when the console is turned on or off.

Controllers
Famicom - Hard-wired to console, 3' cord, microphone on controller 2

NES Front Loader - Rectangular-shaped, start and select on controller 2, 6' cord, detachable

NES Top Loader - Dogbone-shaped, start and select on controller 2, 6' cord, detachable

Famicom AV - Dogbone-shaped, start and select on controller 2, 3' cord, detachable

Japanese households, especially in the cities, had substantially less square footage than US households.  Nintendo did not believe the cables needed to be long for Japan, but changed their minds for the US.

Expansion
Famicom - 15-pin Expansion Port

NES - Controller Port 2 (also Famicom AV if modded)

NES Front Loader - 48-pin Expansion Port, unused

On the Famicom, any peripheral connected to the expansion port unless it plugged into the cartridge port.  This includes the Famicom Light Gun (Zapper), Arkanoid VAUS controller, the Bandai Family Trainer (Power Pad), two extra Controllers for four-player games, the Famicom Keyboard and Data Recorder.  The Expansion port only brought most of the inputs, the three output lines and the two controller enables, audio input and IRQ, it did not serve as a general purpose expansion port.

The NES expansion port has all the functionality of the Famicom Expansion port and much more.  It brings the data lines, the upper address line, audio in and out, video out, all the input and output lines, the two controller enables, the IRQ, NMI and the lockout chip clock signal.  It also has 10 lines that go directly to the cartridge.  With an appropriate RAM cart, this could have been used to implement a NES version of the Famicom Disk System.  Unfortunately it was never used in products that saw a release (and neither were the SNES and N64 expansion ports outside of Japan).  The expansion port can be used to mix audio from Famicom cartridges with the internal NES sound by connecting two pins (pin 3 and typically pin 9) with a 47K resistor.  The expansion pin must also be connected on the cartridge converter for real Famicom cartridges.

The NES controller ports bring three input lines for controllers to use.  By convention, all controllers (Zapper, Arkanoid VAUS, Power Pad) that require more than the controller input line use controller port 2.  Both ports have all three lines.  The Famicom AV, which has the same ports, does not bring the two extra lines to the controller ports, but by soldering two wires from the 15-pin expansion port, the correct inputs can be brought to controller port 2 (but NOT controller port 1).