Saturday, October 16, 2010

NES Month: Famiclones

In the intro to NES Month, I explained my love/hate relationship with the original NES hardware. After 20, 15, even 10 years, the connector pins get bent out of shape in such a way they can't read the Game Paks as well, if at all. So, inevitably, you'll have to buy a new system. But many different manufacturers have made their own hardware to run NES/Famicom games, so which one is right for you? Well, I can't very well list all of them - just take a look at this list. So I'll focus on the most notable ones, as well as what was sold in the so-called "third world" markets.

I. NES/Famicom clones

Nintendo's own redesigned NES.
First of all, I'd like to lump Nintendo's own redesigned NES model into this category. It was released in 1993, and at US$50, it was cheaper than the pre-existing NES model. The durability of this thing was vastly improved over the front-loading model, since it had no moving parts and even the 10NES lockout chip was omitted (as a cost-saving measure). This also meant you could play European NES games on it -- but not Japanese Famicom games, the reason being that the cartridge shape is different, and there are different amounts of pins which connect it to the console's motherboard. Adapters to play one on the other are out there, but are way hard to find nowadays.
The Neo FC, by Yobo.
I had plugged the Generation NEX by Messiah before, on my old blog at The system was notable in that it mimicked the NES's front-loading design in a slimmer form with no moving parts. Unfortunately, the thing is very hard to find nowadays, starting at $65, and even then it was out of stock. Nowadays, the big name is the Neo Fami, or Neo FC, sold in the US by Yobo Gameware. This one's also a top-loader, as is everything else I'll be talking about. What's important to know about this one is that it comes in two varieties: one plays Japanese Famicom carts, and one plays American/European NES carts. Since these two types of carts have different sizes and pin counts, you can't just play one on the other; you have to really do the research. sells the US version with light gun for US$30.

II. Multi-system clones

If you want to explore other systems, there's a way to do that and still replace your aging NES Control Deck. The FC Twin (by Yobo) and Retro Duo (by RetroBit) both have ports for NES and Super NES carts. The controller ports on both systems use the Super NES port shape, so you won't be able to use NES accessories like the Zapper or Power Pad. While Yobo does manufacture their own light guns for use with the FC Twin, they are not compatible with the Retro Duo, due to motherboard differences. RetroBit has mentioned intent to sell SNES-NES controller adapters for the Retro Duo, but it has been two years since and they still don't exist yet.
The FC Twin, also by Yobo.
I currently own both a Retro Duo and an FC Twin, and out of the two, I'm giving the FC Twin the edge. Apart from the fact that they make a light gun for it, on the FC Twin, the colors are more vivid and the sound is much better on some games. The controllers are also of a much higher quality, and feel closer to the real Super NES controllers, whereas the Retro Duo's control pad was sunken-in, and easy to slide to a diagonal direction accidentally (which ruined me on Contra more than once). Another advantage of the FC Twin is that the X and A buttons, which are unused for NES games, serve as turbo B and A buttons, a feature somewhy lacking on the Retro Duo. Unfortunately, it's not fast enough for me to breeze through the likes of, say, Track & Field II (review here), but at least you have two buttons to mash instead of one. Still, I can't fault either for having the same reliability advantages of all top-loading NES consoles, so I'll grade them thusly:

FC Twin: 90% (A-)
Retro Duo: 60% (C-)

They also make models compatible with NES and Sega Genesis games. Mario and Sonic on one console... In other news, pigs have been spotted flying outside.  Film at eleven.  The same companies I've been talking about also make the GN Twin and Retro Duo, which fall into this category. Refer to my above comments about the quality of each. And for the big one, there are also consoles that play all three: NES, Super NES, and Genesis. The FC3 Plus is, yet again, made by Yobo. New copies come with two controllers and a light gun, but sadly it does not accept any other kind of controllers. That's a real shame, since the face buttons on the included controllers are a little too small. Instead, consider the Retron 3. It comes with two wireless controllers, but also includes two ports each for NES, SNES, and Genesis controllers. ...WOW. :) I may not own one, but unless you want to keep your existing consoles, I'd definitely recommend this one. Expect to pay $30-50 for the two-system varieties, and $50-70 for the three-system varieties.

NES, Super NES, Genesis...  This is the big one.
III. International clones

So we've had a look at what's for sale in America, now let's explore what was available in places where Nintendo didn't officially have a presence. One of the big ones was the Dendy, sold in Russia and the CIS starting in 1992, just after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Just like the genuine Famicom and NES in their respective regions, the Dendy proved to be mad popular in the newly opened ex-Soviet markets. Like, they made a TV show based on it, and the word "Dendy" became shorthand for video games in general, just as "Nintendo" used to be here in America.

The Dendy Junior, sold in Russia and the CIS.
There were numerous knockoff Famicom and NES machines sold in other places like Poland, Brazil, South Africa, India, and China. China had it especially rough, because that pirate market we know and loathe extends to video games as well. Many of the Famiclone hardware sold in China was unabashedly knocked off from other consoles. I'm talking the exact console gutted and replaced with Famicom innards. The "PolyStation" line, which used re-purposed PlayStation and PSone consoles, is one of the more well-known ones. I supposed it's not too bad for a cheap way to play the many great Famicom games, but could you imagine if you were looking for, say, a genuine PSone and bought a PolyStation III instead!? And worse, they have a tendency towards blatant lies on the packaging. Here's a tip: the real Famicom and NES don't support 3D graphics and stereo sound. Just familiarize yourself with the genuine hardware and you'll be fine.

The PolyStation III.  Buyer beware.
One thing I waited to mention is that most of these consoles, with some exceptions in Brazil and South America, are compatible with standard 60-pin Famicom carts. There was really nothing in terms of original games made in these other regions except for multicarts, which sadly, we'll have to delve back into the seedy underworld to discuss. I hate them in principle, if not in practice. Some advertise bloated game counts in the hundreds, thousands, or in some cases even millions, but unless you count repeats of the same game with different options or starting levels (yeah), the true totals are nowhere near those counts. Some are nice enough to load genuine NES games you've actually heard of, legality be darned, but they may be mis-titled, and "original" games are likely just repeats of existing copyrighted games with different graphics.

So, sorry your blood had to boil along with me. We'll go back to legit games next time.

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