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10 May 2008 @ 05:43 pm

There were some issues with the video capture, but I'll be trying the card with a different PC to see if that helps. I don't think anything will help my voice not lending itself well to narration.
Before we get to the guide itself, let's go over a brief history and overview of the Famicom Disk System. Only four months after the NES was released in North America, Nintendo launched the Famicom Disk System expansion module for Japanese console. The Famicom Disk System, or FDS, was an external floppy disk drive that connected to the Famicom console via the RAM adapter, a large box that had a cartridge slot on the bottom and a cable running out the back that connected to the FDS unit.

At the time of release, cartridge sizes were fairly limited. It was possible to make increased capacity ROM chips, but only at great expense and this was before video game development became a multimillion dollar affair. Another limitation of the cartridge format was the cost of onboard saving. Battery backup was possible, but the technology was fairly recent, not yet perfected, and also expensive. The latter was alleviated with the development of the first generation memory management controller chip (though, as we still know, hardly perfected the art). But that was not ready in early 1986 and games like The Legend of Zelda (Zelda no Densetsu) would need a way for the player to record their progress.

The solution was to adapt the floppy disk which had been an established medium for reading and writing. The FDS used 2.8 inch disks it referred to as “Disk Cards”. The early cards were housed in a rigid yellow casing with no shutter to protect the disk itself. Some later disks had a shutter and were colored blue. The disks were double-sided, each side having a 64K capacity, though not all games used two sides. At the time, the 128K afforded by a Disk Card was far more than a ROM chip for the equivalent cost. Additionally, the RAM adapter housed extra memory for temporary program data and graphical data as well as extra sound synthesizing hardware. This extra capability sometimes led to features being removed, animations being cut, and sound being down-mixed or simplified when it came time for a cartridge port.

The system did have its fair share of problems and concerns, though. The FDS required its own power source which could be either 6 C-cell batteries or an AC adapter which was the same used by the Famicom systems which caused some manner of inconvenience for those with few spare power outlets and the unit itself was rather large, effectively doubling the height of the Famicom when stacked (as they were often depicted). The drive belt was notoriously unreliable and would become brittle during long periods of inactivity. It was a non-standard size and often carried a sizeable premium. The FDS would perform a quick scan on the entire disk upon insertion and render it unreadable if encountered even one error. The FDS ran loud and access was much slower than a ROM-based cartridge and double-sided games would require flipping the disk at some point, usually after the title or load screen. The similarity of the Disk Card to Mitsumi’s QuickDisk format led to piracy concerns (which were later realized) that prevented the system from finding release outside of Japan.

But it did play games, many of which were not possible on a cart at that time. Notable classics such as Zelda no Densetsu, Metroid, Yume Koujou: Doki Doki Panic, and Akumajou Dracula (Castlevania in the US) were only available on the FDS in Japan, though some were eventually ported to the cartridge several years later with noticeable compromise in certain cases. Some titles never made it off of the FDS, though, except in the form of pirated carts which are harder to find, and often more expensive, than the original hardware and software.

An interesting side note, the only time that Nintendo has ever licensed a third-party console was the Sharp Twin Famicom system that featured a built-in disk drive. Unlike the Famicom, the drive was hard-mounted to the main circuitry so no bulky RAM adapter was needed. In fact, the system had a mechanical switch that prevented the insertion of a Disk Card if a cartridge is present in the slot and vice versa. Like the FDS, the belt is still subject to breaking and can still be difficult to replace.

There are no FDS-clones on the market, unfortunately. If you want to play FDS games on your setup, you’ll have to purchase either a Twin Famicom or an FDS (make sure it comes with a RAM adapter). Additionally, if you go the route of the FDS, you'll also need something that can play Famicom games. The shape of the RAM adapter prevents the use of adapters with the front-loading systems, and weaker adapters cannot support the weight of the unit. Not all Famiclones are compatible with the FDS, either, so you'll want to do a Google search for the specific model to see if its been tested. Reputable FDS sellers will advertise a refurbished system or a new belt. Remember that old belts were very unreliable and would frequently break or even melt at times. The systems themselves are very fragile so make sure it is shipped securely. Try to make sure that the system you purchase works (photographic evidence would be nice), has a new, or at least recent, belt, comes with a RAM adapter, as these can be difficult and/or expensive to obtain otherwise, and has some form of guarantee. That last detail may be difficult, but it is certainly worth it even if you have to wait or pay extra; I have a FDS-shaped paper-weight that is testament to that. And one last item of note, the FDS does require power. It will burn through batteries quickly, so the power adapter is surely the way to go. As always, don’t just use one lying around the house just because it fits. If the system doesn’t get the right amount of power, it won’t work (either won’t power on or it will throw an error message) or it will overload and cause serious permanent damage. I believe that the power specifications are AC 100V 50/60Hz @18vA to DC 10V 850mA, inside minus, outside plus. Those are not the specs for the NES adapter, though the plug is the same size.

It is really a shame that this system has to be so difficult. It’s expensive regardless of the route, rarely comes with a power cord (most Famicom consoles don’t), and there are hardly any guarantees that one will work. It’s a risky venture to be sure, but it is certainly a unique item and it has been a prize of my collection.
07 May 2008 @ 12:38 pm
Unlike the SNES and Super Famicom, the NES and Famicom do not share the same cartridge slot. The systems didn’t even look anything alike until Nintendo released a top-loading NES and a remodeled AV Famicom in the early 90s. NES cartridges are square shaped and have a 72-pin connector. Famicom carts are shorter, more rectangular, and use a 60-pin connector. The connector pins are allocated a bit differently in each system, as one might expect. The Famicom reserved two pins for cartridge-mounted sound chips included with games such as the Castlevania series. These pins were removed in the NES, but pins were added for a lockout chip, the infamous 10NES, and an expansion port on the bottom of the system. As such, playing Famicom games on an NES is a bit more complicated than cutting a couple of plastic tabs.

If you have an NES, a possible option is using a 60 to 72 pin adapter to connect a Famicom game to the system. There are some adapters available on the market of varying qualities. Some have a plastic casing while others are simply a bare circuit card with a cartridge slot on one end. On front-loading NES systems, there is the possibility of the Famicom cart and the adapter coming apart in the system during removal forcing you to use pliers to remove the adapter from the system. Particularly on top-loading NES systems, though it’s still a concern with the front-loader, the bare-circuit card adapters can strain and break. The front-loader cannot support the large RAM adapter for the Famicom Disk System (FDS) and the flimsier adapters can’t, either. Another potential flaw comes from the remapping of pins. Remember that the NES doesn’t support the sound-enhancement pins that some Famicom carts had. Some games may not work at all (unconfirmed) or at least cannot take advantage of the improved sound. A decided advantage to this route for some, though, may be the fact that you have already purchased an adapter, albeit unknowingly. In order to reduce lead time and cut some costs, some manufacturers converted Famicom games into NES games by taking the Famicom ROM card, connecting it to an adapter, and mounting the assembly in an NES case. Noted cases are Gyromite and Stack Up. It is possible to open the NES cartridge and remove the adapter allowing you to use it for other Famicom games. There are guides out there to help find copies with the adapter, as not all have one, but it looks like there is no guaranteed method unless you carry a precision scale with you to the store or crack it open while you are there.

A second option is getting an official Famicom system. These come in three flavors: original (HVC-001, referred to as simply “Famicom”), Sharp Twin Famicom, and AV Famicom (redesigned). All three are licensed by Nintendo and should work with all games. As an added bonus, the Sharp Twin has a built-in Famicom Disk System! The Sharp and the Famicom both have two different controllers for players one and two. The first controller has the start and select buttons while the second has a microphone. The microphone was used by a few select games, but that support was eventually dropped by the time the AV Famicom was released and the feature removed. As with all Japanese systems, the controller cables were fairly short. The Famicom and Sharp systems are likely to be quite old, but they are surprisingly reliable and some places will still service them (or sell refurbished items). The disk drive in the Sharp is another matter, but that will be covered in a post specifically covering the FDS and its variants. The AV Famicom is newer, but is also about twice the cost of the original. The extra cost may be worth it for some, though, as the original Famicom and Twin Famicom did not have removable controllers. The AV Famicom came with the “dogbone” controllers that also came with the redesigned top-loading NES and featured the same 7-pin controller port. Look to spend about $100 or so for a Famicom or about twice that for a Twin Famicom or AV Famicom. As with the Super Famicom, the power requirements of these systems are not the same as for the NES. Even if the plug looks the same and fits the respective Famicom, using the plug to power the console can cause serious, permanent damage to the console. If a system you buy does not come with a power adapter be certain that the one you use meets the power standards of the original.

A cheaper alternative is purchasing what are known as “Fami-clones”. These are unlicensed, but not technically illegal, consoles that are capable, to varying degrees, of playing Famicom and/or NES games. Most Fami-clones use essentially a hardware emulator for the Famicom/NES hardware known as NES-on-a-chip or NoaC. While cheaper units have severe compatibility, video, and/or audio problems, better Fami-clones reproduce fairly accurate game playback. The NoaC architecture does have its flaws, however, namely lack of a CMOS battery and lack of support for the expansion port, which can cause games that use it to fail. Also, games with onboard hardware enhancements frequently fail to work (namely Castlevania III), though a recently released one fixes that even if it cannot play Famicom games. Some have odd shapes that cannot support larger cartridges such as the FDS RAM adapter. Many use odd controller ports and only some have microphone support. Some may even call themselves “Famicom” or at least have it somewhere in their title, but only support NES games. Take care in researching ahead of time for compatibility of both games and accessories before you make the purchase. A Fami-clone can cost as little as around $30, but I wouldn’t buy one of them. I got a Yobo FC Game Console (they sell a US version that only plays NES games; beware) for $45; it plays just about every game the other Fami-clones play, it supports the RAM adapter, and it comes with an adapter to play NES games, but it uses a 9-pin controller port (like the Genesis and Atari 2600). For about $60-75 you can buy Fami-clones that play SNES or Genesis games, but I think they are NES only (not Famicom); they may still be worth looking into.

Playing Famicom games can either be really easy or really difficult. The compatibility issues with NoaC architecture and the high price of an actual hardware solution can be problematic for a complete setup. Licensed hardware is probably the way to go, but it requires extra care and units are expensive and often hard to find. Luckily, most games will work with a reasonable Fami-clone and there are enough of them out there. As with all hardware purchases, researching them ahead of time is very important.

I’ll try and keep up with the Fami-clone news as it comes and post about any interested developments.
The Super Famicom and the Super Nintendo look much more similar than their previous incarnations (Famicom/NES) had. They share the same controller ports and styles. They use the same power connectors and video ports. Their hardware looks almost identical. And they practically are. Examine a Super Nintendo (SNES) and Super Famicom (SFC) cartridge near the base and notice the distinguishing characteristic is the ridges on the SNES cart. The SFC cart is rounded on the sides, so the straighter SNES cart won’t fit in a SNES slot, but the plastic tabs in the SNES slot designed for these ridges are all that’s preventing the SFC cart from fitting. They can be removed with a Dremel tool, but I did mine with just a razor blade, hammer, and chisel (not recommended, but possible). The question that remains is what other lockout mechanisms did Nintendo put in place. The SNES and SFC both have hardware-based regional lockout chips. However, Japan and North America use the same region code. That means that with those tabs gone the modified SNES is completely compatible with the SFC library. Be careful when removing the tabs not to damage the cartridge slot connector or the spring mechanism on the dust-cover. The dust-cover isn’t as important, particularly if you don’t mind leaving a cart in the system at all times (I usually have one in there), but if you break the connector, you’ve broken your SNES.

There are a number of third-party consoles reaching the market that can supposedly play SFC and SNES carts, but they can be plagued with compatibility issues and audio/visual glitches and artifacts. The SNES modification is the most reliable system to play both formats without such issues. Some of the more recent clones have shown considerable improvements, but they are about the same price as getting a SNES on eBay. Cartridges that have problems, just like with the third-party Famicom consoles, are the ones that have enhancement chips in the cart itself. It is possible to purchase an official Super Famicom console online, as well, but they are very expensive and serve in less capacity than the SNES (the cartridge slot on the SFC is too small and rounded for SNES carts). If you do get a Super Famicom, remember not to use the SNES AC adapter as the differing power standards can cause serious damage to your system. Also, the controller cables are shorter than those for the SNES, but system is fully compatible with SNES controllers if that becomes an issue. Third-party systems may or may not be compatible with SNES/SFC accessories. You should find out which controllers and cables it uses when doing your research if you decide to go down this path.

The last hardware option is using adapters. They range greatly in price, but some of the better ones can even play European and Australian titles. For PAL games, a North American or Japanese cart will need to be present on the adapter as well as the one you want to play in order to get it to work properly. If you’re only interested in Japanese games, all you need is something to extend the slot past the tabs. The Game Genie, Codemasters’s cheat premier cheat device of the 8- and 16-bit generations, can serve as an adapter, but the plastic casing that is meant to hold the SNES cart steady will need to be removed. It’s another surgical modification, but it’s an accessory as opposed to your console. The problem is that the cart won’t be held steady and that there can be read issues. I’ve only had marginal success using the Game Genie method, so it is not highly recommended but worth a try if you have the means.

Overall, the Super Famicom is a rather easy system to make import-ready. The non-invasive options, such as adapters, are found easily on eBay and some online retailers carry them, too. But modifying a SNES is fairly easy, also. And with the availability and quality of third-party options increasing they may even be fully viable options fairly soon. There are plenty of Super Famicom games floating around, a fair number of which are at least playable without needing to know Japanese, so there really isn’t much reason not to at least look into one of these options if you are at least marginally interested in import gaming.
07 May 2008 @ 06:21 am

While I wait for the equipment to do proper reviews and features of actual games, the first several posts will mainly discuss hardware as well as the structure of Continental Gaming Divide features. Once I get my video capturing/editing tools up and running, I'll probably redo these early posts as video. Until then, text and the occasional picture will have to do.

The most plentiful category of post is the review. While there are quite a few games that can lead to a good Lost in Translation, tracking them down can be difficult and the results are not often noteworthy. Meanwhile, I have over 300 Famicom, Super Famicom, and Famicom Disk System games begging to be played. Because of that, it makes sense that I lay the groundwork for that early, although it may be subject to change if the situation warrants.

The reviews will take much from the generic review formulae. In addition to a brief overview of the game itself, there will be a score, out of 10, for each of Gameplay, Graphics, Control, and Sound. They will strongly influence an Overall score of the game. Unique to these reviews are two more sections: Language Barrier and Culture Clash.

The first is a measure of how difficult it is to play for an English-speaker (namely me). I will, at least attempt to, play through each game without assistance. If that proves too difficult, I'll then resort to searching for help online in the form of translation guides or perhaps even detailed walkthroughs. I will try to provide links to resources if they are necessary. There will not be a numerical score for this section, but rather a label and description. The tentative labels are:

  • No Translation Required - This game doesn't require any particular knowledge of Japanese to play and enjoy. There might be some aspects of the story you'll miss, but nothing that will affect gameplay. Notable examples are Super Mario Bros. and Super Metroid
  • Katakana/Hiragana Needed - Games which require making selections or receiving orders, such as RPGs, will often use the phonetic alphabets hiragana or katakana (depending on the game) for important phrases such as a name of a town or person, an important item, and common actions (attack, save, load, magic). Games in this category are are playable, but a good deal of the story is likely to be lost.
  • Guide Required - The amount and complexity of Japanese in these games makes "feeling your way around" too difficult to be enjoyable. With the aid of an available guide or walkthrough, it becomes possible to play, though it may be cumbersome to constantly need to consult help. In games such as RPGs, side dialog will likely still be lost, though, and named attacks that don't rely on English or phonetic characters will require memorization to deal with appropriately.
  • No Chance - These games are generally no more complicated than those of the previous category, though no sufficient guide may be available. Without a firm grasp of the Japanese language, these games are simply not playable.

 These are not all-inclusive labels, though, and there are special cases. For instance, having played Secret of Mana thoroughly back in the day, I can quite effectively play Seiken Densetsu 2 (the Japanese version) recognizing katakana for people's names and town names. If I didn't have a decent idea of the story flow, I might not have been able to consider it playable without a guide of some sort.

The second review section I'm introducing, Culture Clash, is another scoreless attribute that still has at least some bearing on the overall game score. There are Japanese games out there that have elements or concepts completely foreign to Americans. In the event that a game has content that relies heavily on Japanese culture in a manner that impacts gameplay or enjoyability, it would be noted in the Culture Clash section. These won't contain specific descriptors or labels, rather a an overview of the relevent issues. Think of the Legend of the Mystical Ninja (Ganbare Goemon) series for a good example of a series that even saw US release whose already bizarre stories were further lost on us by lack of explanation of certain cultural references.

Once I have proper video equipment, I'll post reviews in video format so that you can see actual gameplay footage and graphics and hear the sound and music for yourself. Each will be accompanied by the full text review, which may, incidentally, reference the video, and the complete scoring breakdown. Reviews will be given the "review" tag as well as a tag appropriate for its platform to assist in organization.

Thank you for your patience as I get this site up and running. I'll try to have my first hardware guide out later this week.

05 May 2008 @ 09:02 am
Welcome to the Continental Gaming Divide, the weblog dedicated to import vintage gaming. I hope you've read my bio for a description of what the Continental Gaming Divide is supposed to be. I have some rather lofty expectations for this feature and I'll do my best to meet them. The first couple of posts will probably touch on the history of the hardware which will in turn help explain why differences between versions exist at all.

For this first post, though, I'd like to touch on how I got started in importing games in the first place. When I first got to college, I was into anime, including Dragonball Z. The availability of emulators and roms, and a fast network connection meant that it wasn't long before I got to play some of the many DBZ games out there. Most were simply awful, but Dragon Ball Z: Hyper Dimension was actually pretty good once I learned how to play it. So good in fact that I decided it would be worth owning a copy of the actual cartridge when the opportunity came (random searches on eBay served me well in those days). I had no intention of actually playing it, in fact I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to, but I figured it would make a nice mantle piece, so to speak. I eventually looked up how to run a Super Famicom game on my SNES (much easier than I had thought) and a little bit of surgery later, I was playing a Japanese game for the first time.

I also got a Gameshark adapter for my Sega Saturn which happens to enable play of Japanese Saturn games and bought Rockman X3 (Rockman was renamed Megaman in the US release or the series) which never came out on CD stateside and hence left American audiences missing the animated cutscenes throughout. During my sophomore year, my copy of Hyper Dimension was stolen, along with a dozen other choice SNES titles, and I was left with a modified SNES that was putting its added feature to waste. One of the titles I had been trying to get for some time was Super Metroid, but the cost even for just the cartridge was ridiculous ($40 or more at the time). While browing eBay, I found an auction for the Super Famicom version for a very reasonable $10 ($15 shipped). I figured that it wasn't terribly story-intensive and I knew it all anyway so I could handle dealing with it in Japanese. Plus, I had learned the phonetic Japanese alphabets (and some of the important words are the phonetic equivalent of the English: Seibu=Save, Roudo=Load, S[u]taato=start). But I didn't need Japanese for the game. The American version has the option for Japanese language setting. Not only does the Japanese have the option for English, but its the default setting!

The experience increased my confidence enough that when I found an auction for a Seniton, a "Fami-clone", I jumped on it. I'll go into Fami-clones later, but for now, just think of it as a Famicom made by a third-party. I amassed a small collection of titles, finding some very much playable without heavy translating, and others, particularly RPGs like the Final Fantasy series and the Dragon Quest games. I even got a Famicom Disk System as my collection of FC and SFC games increased well into the triple digits. And after a period of them collecting dust, I've decided to start this weblog inspiring me to play the games and perhaps spark an interest in import gaming in a few more gamers out there.