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  • Masayuki Uemura and the Family Computer project

    Posted on April 30th, 2013 keving 4 comments
    Picture stolen from Weekly Playboy (Eigo Shimojo)

    Picture stolen from Weekly Playboy (Eigo Shimojo)

    I mentioned in Episode 1 of FUN that Masayuki Uemura, chief hardware designer for many of Nintendo’s consoles, did an interview with Weekly Playboy magazine in Japan last week to commemorate the Famicom’s 30th anniversary. (I said that the Famicom came out 1982 in the podcast; it was actually July of 1983.)

    As Uemura explains in the interview, he began work on the console that became the Famicom in 1981, not long after Donkey Kong hit arcades:

    “I was in the arcade-game development department, and the president at the time [Hiroshi Yamauchi] sent us a missive to ‘make something that’ll let you play arcade games on your home TV’. I, personally, really didn’t have any prospects of success.”

    Why not?

    “The Game & Watch series was flying off the shelves at the time, so I figured Game & Watch was where our company was going to go for a while to come. Just the fact you could carry those around and play whenever you wanted, I thought that was huge. What’s more, they were taking more and more people away from my department to work on Game & Watch, so my team only had three people in it. So we were given this mission when it was already like we were fighting a losing battle. I still have my notes from the early stages of the project, but it’s filled with all of this pessimistic stuff, like ‘I don’t see any future in this’.”

    Read the rest of this entry »

  • Getting the most out of your new Famicom Titler

    Posted on April 26th, 2013 keving 2 comments

    Someone on the Something Awful Forums’ retro thread finally followed through on his threat to get a Famicom Titler, a device that a lot of collectors have heard of but few have seen in action. (I got to play with one once but it was years ago.)

    Released by Sharp in 1989 (the third hardware device released by them under Nintendo license after the Twin Famicom and the C1 TV-and-FC-in-one), the Titler is a 43,000 yen monster that, in addition to being an FC, lets you edit home video and add assorted computer-generated audio and visual effects to them. There was a small boom in these sorts of amateur-oriented titling devices  in 1980s Japan, mainly targeted to parents with camcorders who loved videotaping every major moment of their child’s life. (These people were everywhere. It’s no accident that America’s Funniest Videos was a concept originally licensed from Japanese TV. And speaking of which, did you know that the US-based stereotype of the Japanese tourist snapping pictures of everything he sees dates back to at least the 1930s?)

    Along those lines, it’s got S-Video and composite audio/video inputs and outputs like a regular TV, as well as a full set of editing software when you select “Edit” with an on-console switch and turn the power on. The built-in software lets you do things like add scrolling messages to home videos, put in still graphic images (there’s a whole line of built-in themed images, ranging from “A day at the beach” to “Our child’s graduation” to “Tanabata“), or add voice-over narration. The user enters the content of message scrolls via the stylus and very tiny touch pad on the console itself; voice-overs are handled using the microphone on controller 2. Flipping the “superimpose” switch on the console puts your finished titling work on the video image. If you want, you can also play an FC game and superimpose that over the video too; the Titler displays your home videos wherever the FC is generating the color black.

    Perhaps more interesting to collectors is the fact that the Famicom Titler is the only official Famicom console to have native S-Video output. To accomplish this, Sharp developed the RC2C05-99 chip, a version of the RP2C02 PPU used in the FC upgraded to provide RGB output. This RGB output is converted into composite or S-Video for output from the console. Getting the system to output straight RGB is a fairly straightforward modification, and some hardware hackers have even salvaged the Famicom Titler PPU in order to install it into regular FCs for convenience’s sake. (Due to this new PPU, a small handful of games (like Just Breed and Paperboy) are incompatible with the Titler, and a few others, like Bubble Bobble, have graphical glitches with their color palettes.)

    The Titler’s existence was never greatly advertised, especially considering it came out just before the Super Famicom in Japan. Sharp offered brand-new systems in their catalogs until at least 1995, however, and a warehouse find circa 2000 led to a fairly large number of systems making their way to collectors over there as well. The prices have been edging up lately, though, and a complete-in-box sample went for 165,000 yen across 42 bids on Yahoo! Auctions Japan in January of this year, a price that even most Japanese collectors thought was way out of hand.

    The above video is a small demonstration of what the Titler can do, including goofy still images, scrolly messages, and superimposing FC games on top of other video imagery. The original video is of After Burner for the SMS for…reasons.


  • Famicom Lode Runner and the early Master Takahashi years

    Posted on April 6th, 2013 keving 10 comments

    The story of Lode Runner on the Famicom — the game that turned Hudson from a computer-oriented developer to a console-oriented one for the rest of its existence — begins in 1983, when president Yuji Kudo decided that they needed to start making games for Nintendo’s new console. Toshiyuki Takahashi, the “Master” of all 8-bit gaming in Japan and a guy working in Hudson’s sales department at the time, wrote about it on his blog a week ago.

    “Game cartridges were all manufactured at Nintendo’s factory, and you needed to pay half the manufacturing costs at the time of making the order and half on delivery. This took a vast amount of money, and the figures we had dangling before us were such that we’d easily go under if it didn’t sell. So, naturally, we needed a known quantity whose popularity we could be sure of.”

    Having been involved with games for Japan’s assorted 8-bit PCs for several years by that point, Hudson had numerous close connections with American game publishers. They decided to pore through the licenses they had at the time and port one of them to the Famicom.

    “As we made our selections, one of our criteria was that it needed to have a lot of stages. Most games in 1983 basically just had three stages that repeated over and over again. It was hard to fit any more into the limited memory space of the time, but we figured that if we were going to go in on this, we needed something that would surprise gamers. So we wanted a game with lots of stages, that still didn’t take up a lot of memory, and would probably become popular. Around that time, Lode Runner was just beginning to get a worldwide following, so that was a top candidate from the start.”

    Lode Runner was ideal for this sort of thing since its simple game world of blocks, bricks, and ladders could be easily compressed to a small space. However Shinichi Nakamoto, the programmer who handled the Lode Runner port and went on to be involved in many other FC and PC Engine titles, wasn’t convinced.

    “He said that giving it the same-looking screen as on the PC wouldn’t be acceptable for kids. He ported it so that the character sprites were the same size as in other games, which had the side effect of making each stage too big for a single screen. That’s why he had it scroll right and left, and this turned out to be a big hit within the office. Lode Runner on a single screen offered a mixture of action and puzzle elements, but this way, you also had the thrill of not knowing when an enemy robot might pop up from outside the screen. It made it more fun as a game. However, Brøderbund needed some convincing — they said ‘This isn’t Lode Runner‘. I don’t know exactly how they were convinced to come around, but I think it was just our president constantly hammering on them what our impressions were inside the office.”

    Development of the Famicom Lode Runner reached its closing stages in the spring of 1984.

    “At the time, in order to get Lode Runner distributed, we had to go through a toy wholesaler called Shoshinkai which Nintendo introduced us to. Myself and Nakano, my boss in the sales department, went around to all the wholesalers across Japan in order to introduce the product to them. Nakano could have gone by himself but we thought it best to show the game in action as we did our little presentation, so I put on a business site and basically went on these day trips around Japan daily for about two weeks. And the thing everyone always asked us was ‘Isn’t the Famicom from Nintendo? Are you sure you can just make games for it?’ There was not much understanding of the concept of a third party yet in 1984. Nakano would have to explain that we had a license from Nintendo and it was all on the up and up.

    So while he was explaining this and outlining our sales plans and so forth, I’d play the game for them and answer questions they had. I had the impression that people really liked it, especially the fact that both this and Nuts & Milk (which we were showing off at the same time) had 50 stages and let kids make their own levels to boot in edit mode. With the level of orders we got, we probably could have placed an order for half a million cartridges and just raked it in, but with the sort of finances Hudson had to deal with at the time, we could only afford to produce 300,000 — and that was combined for both of those games.”

    Hudson wound up going through this entire shipment of both Lode Runner and Nuts & Milk in about a month, midsummer 1984.

    “After the launch, we had heard about this toy distributor conference being held at the Prince Hotel in Akasaka, so we brought in a TV and Famicom and held a presentation. There were four people — me, Nakano, Nakamoto, and Mr. Osato over in PR. So we did the whole thing, and after the end of it, one of the distributors asked us something like ‘You have a game packed with all of these hot-button features and you only produced 300,000 of them? Are you seriously trying to sell this, or what?’ I remember Nakano struggling to come up with an answer, because he couldn’t exactly lay out the whole truth to them.”


  • More on Tokuma’s Mario Guide

    Posted on May 4th, 2011 keving 6 comments

    Back on Monday I talked a bit about Tokuma Shoten’s Super Mario Bros. strategy guide, the one that sold 630,000 copies in 1985 (1.3 million overall, in the end) and became the bestselling book in Japan for two years straight. What I failed to mention — because I completely forgot — is that you can read the guide today even if you don’t know Japanese, because Nintendo of America translated it verbatim into English and sold it via the Fun Club News and early issues of Nintendo Power under the name How to win at Super Mario Bros. (This book was never sold outside of mail order and is now extremely uncommon, but .cbz scans are available on the net thanks to Retromags.)

    The book was entirely written and designed in house by the editors of Tokuma’s Family Computer Magazine in Japan. The first half of the book was largely recycled from coverage originally printed in the November 1985 issue of the mag, while the writing and screenshot-snapping for World 5-1 through 8-4 was handled by Naoto Yamamoto, who was a part-time writer that mostly worked for Technopolis, Tokuma’s computer hobby mag, at the time.

    Here’s a word or two on the ’80s Japan game-mag scene from Yamamoto, courtesy of his weblog:

    “We had planned to launch the guide in Japan with a run of 130,000 copies, but we already had plans for subsequent printings before the book was even released. Tokuma Shoten at the time held itself up to a very refined and literary image as a publisher, so it often divided up publication into several divided releases so it could produce a large number of printings and claim that as a status symbol for the book.

    Famimaga continued on with strategy guides for Pac-Land, Mach Rider, Twinbee and Spelunker, but there was no such thing as a specialist strategy guide writer at this point. They would get written by production outfits that dealt in children’s magazines, or by part-timers hired by those outfits if they had no previous game experience. I moved on to Pac-Land right from Super Mario, and I remember that the sample ROM Namco gave me to work with had a completely faceless Pac-Man in the game. They told me it was in order to keep the ROM from leaking out somewhere in the middleman process, but of course I couldn’t take any screenshots off of that thing. I wound up having my bosses go through these tense negotiations with Namco in order to get me a usable ROM, and ultimately the schedule got so tight that I had to spent four straight nights staying in the office.”

    If you think spending four straight days playing the FC version of Pac-Land sounds like fun, think again.

    “I wound up passing out in the office, I guess because of all the fatigue that had accumulated since that summer, and I was taken to the hospital by ambulance. The hospital was really close by, to the point that the rest of the editorial staff arrived before I did, which became a funny story at parties afterward. I received some gifts and new clothes and such, and ultimately I rested up for about four days. Thus, the release date got delayed. Afterwards — and not that I was the reason for it or anything — but subsequent guides were written by outside production firms. They still had me running around for them with the Twinbee guide, though, since they had trouble finding anyone to play through the game’s ‘second quest’ and they needed screenshots.”

    How much money did Yamamoto earn for co-writing the most successful book in Japan for two years running?

    “The Mario guide was done entirely in-house, so I received no royalties for it outside of my hourly salary. My writing fee, in other words, was zero. Outside of physical production, [Tokuma] spent zero yen making the guide and sold such a vast number of copies of it. I did receive royalties for the English version, though, which arrived in my bank account a long time later — a grand total of 5,555 yen [about $37 in 1987 dollars].”


  • Mario Mania I (1985-6)

    Posted on May 2nd, 2011 keving 3 comments

    How popular did Nintendo’s Family Computer become after Super Mario Bros. was released on September 13, 1985? So popular that, as it turns out, a third-party Super Mario Bros. strategy guidebook was the top selling non-manga book in Japan for the entire year of 1985. And 1986.

    Super Mario Bros.: The Complete Strategy Guide (スーパーマリオブラザーズ完全攻略本) was produced by the editors of Tokuma Shoten’s Family Computer Magazine, the highest-circ game mag in Japan until Famitsu hit it big in the late 1980s. Simultaneous day-and-date guide releases alongside games didn’t really happen until later, so this book didn’t hit shops until October 31 — and still it managed to sell 630,000 copies before the end of the year. What’s more, the 10th best-selling book of 1985 in Japan was another SMB strategy guide — Futami Shobo’s Super Mario Bros. Secret Tricks Collection (スーパーマリオブラザーズ裏ワザ大全集), shown below.

    (In what was perhaps a sign of the times, the book that Tokuma’s Mario guide beat out to be #1 in 1985 was the Japanese translation of Iacocca: An Autobiography.)

    Mario Mania didn’t truly take hold in Japan until 1986, though. In that year, Tokuma’s guide was again the top-selling book in the nation, with Futami’s getting bumped up to third place. What’s more, those two books were joined by five other guides in the top 25 — strategies for Twinbee, The Goonies, Spelunker, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken. In 1986, you could sell anything Famicom-related and rake in massive profits, basically — and then it happened all over again in America two years later. I knew I was born too late.

    Sadly, the guidebook boom faltered in subsequent years as competition increased. From 1987 onward, the only strategy guides that made Japanese bestseller lists were Enix’s official guides for whatever Dragon Quest title they most recently released.

  • Spelunker (Irem, 12/6/85)

    Posted on April 27th, 2011 keving 4 comments

    Spelunker is infamous (in Japan, at least) for featuring the wimpiest hero in video games, a guy who cannot survive a fall of half his body length and who blithely falls right off of ropes and ladders unless you specifically order him to jump off instead. In the hands of the right TASser, however, the dude suddenly acquires Mario-like powers.

    The main trick to this updated run lies in an obscure bug involving the “drug,” the hidden bottles of red liquid that are revealed when your explorer passes through certain points in each map. Drugs double your speed for a limited time, but it turns out that if you pick up a second drug just before your current one expires, the timer will go offline and you’ll keep the speed boost for the rest of the game.

    There’s a side effect to this, however: You cannot board the left-right moving boat in the third section while in double-speed mode, effectively preventing you from going any further. The workaround involves exploiting another obscure bug: If you tap A repeatedly to climb a rope or ladder quickly, the game (for whatever reason) will not reset the Y coordinate it uses to determine whether you’ve fallen to your death or not. As a result, as long as you get the A-button timing right, you can jump off the rope and fall as far as you want as long as you don’t tumble below the starting point where you first “boarded” the rope.

    This TAS uses that bug to essentially force the explorer into the boat. In the process, he also shatters everything I thought I knew about the Spelunker. Maybe he deserves to be treated seriously as a video game hero after all…

  • Atlantis no Nazo (Sunsoft, 4/17/86)

    Posted on April 26th, 2011 keving 1 comment

    A full TAS run of the mid-’80s Famicom platform game, one that has a remarkably detailed English Wikipedia page. It’s so detailed, in fact, that I’d like to meet the guy who decided that translating all the info on the Japanese wiki-page would make for a fun afternoon. I have the impression that he (let’s just assume he’s a gentleman) and I would have a lot in common.

    Atlantis no Nazo is a famous game in Japan for a number of reasons — it’s incredibly hard; your hero controls very wonkily and his weapon is extremely difficult to control; there are warps that’re found only by deliberately committing suicide; a couple of stages flash constantly; there’s a “Black Hole!” stage that is an immediate Game Over if you are unfortunate enough to visit it; and so on. Activision contemplated releasing the game for the NES (under the title Super Pitfall II) seriously enough to create a full-on preview version that even included a few upgrades, but the game was really just too old hat for the US audience by 1989.

    A “full” or “warpless” run of Atlantis no Nazo, as defined by the creator of this TAS, follows two rules:

    – Do not take any doors that are not in plain sight (except for the door between 99th Stage and 100th Stage)
    – Do not take any doors that bring your intrepid hero five or more stages ahead of where he previously was

    Beating the game this way is pretty much impossible for a human being. I tried it back in the day (i.e. 1998), and I couldn’t no matter how much I tried. It’s not a title for weak sisters, or really for anyone besides hyperactive Japanese children, assuming it was still 1986. But nonetheless there’s a certain charm to this title, perhaps because of the hero’s proud, exaggerated marching gait.

    Note that pausing and unpausing the game right after finishing the stage cuts down the length of the little inter-level display, hence the odd sound after going through a doog.

  • Wario’s Woods (Nintendo, 2/19/94)

    Posted on July 21st, 2010 keving 3 comments

    The only NES game (at the time of release) to sport an ESRB rating, Wario’s Woods was always sort of doomed to a minor presence in the litany of Nintendo puzzle games put out over the years. I guess it can’t be helped, given that it’s sort of like Puyo Puyo except rather slow-paced and about a hundred times more difficult.

    Regardless, seeing it played well is still a sight, and so here’s a guy playing in Endless Mode and finding out what happens once you roll over the stage count at 256. The video starts at Round 240.

    Only wimps take the coins.

  • Famicom Grand Prix II: 3D Hot Rally (Nintendo/HAL Laboratory, 4/14/88)

    Posted on July 12th, 2010 keving 4 comments

    Nintendo’s shot at copying Out Run…or perhaps Victory Run, more accurately speaking. Japan was going through something of a rally fad during the late ’80s, mainly because on-board rally computers got cheap and kei cars became powerful enough to be useful for racing under rally conditions. Nintendo also did a reasonable job simulating hills and winding roads with the engine behind this game, better than Yuji Naka managed with the Master System port of Out Run, although it’s still a little jerky.

    This game isn’t exactly a simulator — you can choose from one of three cars at the start, and picking up enough ! marks on the road lets you unleash the “Hot Dash” turbo mode. Hot Dash keeps your car from slowing down in snow or desert stages, which is important because the sports car (the fastest in the game) performs pretty poorly in these conditions.

    3D Hot Rally also marks the game debut of Soyo Oka, a female musician (there were a surprisingly large of these in the Japan industry from the very beginning) who worked at Nintendo from 1987 to 1994. Her contributions to Pilotwings, Super Mario Kart and so on are probably better known, but the little ditty that plays during the races here is remarkably catchy as well.

  • Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari (Technos Japan, 4/25/89)

    Posted on July 1st, 2010 keving 3 comments

    There’s been a lot of activity in TASsing the Japanese version of River City Ransom lately. The current top TAS for the US port beats the game in six minutes, 53 seconds, but for Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, that time’s gone down to 5:53:32, just over a minute quicker.

    A few of the tricks you’ll see in the video above:

    – Riki (aka RYAN) is picked instead of Kunio (aka ALEX) because that makes the conversation with the girl on the bridge go quicker, to the tune of about 8 seconds.

    – Previous TAS runs involved Riki earning enough cash to buy Stone Hands, which lets him rapid-fire punches — a good, relatively cheap way to power up your character. This time, though, Riki instead purchases the Isis Scroll from the hidden shop in the tunnel. This bargain-basement ($20) item upgrades how much damage you cause when you throw objects at people.

    – Pressing left and right at the same time causes your character to do crazy things in this game, usually resulting in him falling off the screen and dying. This TAS uses that to kill off Riki after buying the Isis Scroll; this puts him back at the last mall visited, which is faster than actually running back there.

    – It turns out that your throwing stat is used to determine damage not only when you throw a weapon or item, but when you kick it as well. To be more exact, when you kick an item and it strikes an enemy, it causes the same amount of damage as the last time you threw an item and struck an enemy. Therefore, you can do a jumping-dash-throw weapon at an enemy for max damage, and then spend the rest of the game kicking garbage cans at guys and one-hit killing everyone except for bosses…which, wahey, is exactly what happens here!

    I hereby rename this game The Adventures of Ricky Rude and His Magical Garbage Can.