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4:12 AM on 10.16.2010 // Metallion
River City Retro: Today the NES turns 25. Happy anniversary!


The early eighties is a time of mixed feelings. A saturated market and abominations like E.T. for the Atari 2600 had thrown the western world into the shambles known as the video game crash of '83. Yet it is this very year that on the coasts of the rising sun a miracle was taking place. A company that was once selling playing cards had released the first version of what most of us know as the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Right now, in its county of origin, everybody's going crazy over the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. While I absolutely agree that this is an event worthy of some serious celebration, there is another anniversary that's being largely overshadowed. After all, Nintendo didn't develop the NES just to remain on the Japanese isles forever.

That's why today, exactly 25 years after the NES was released on the American mainland, River City Retro is taking you on a journey across the world. We are going to take an in-dept look at the various shapes and forms the NES took as it conquered the world. Happy anniversary!

 First of all I'll have to a
The early eighties is a time of mixed feelings. A saturated market and abominations like E.T. for the Atari 2600 had thrown the western world into the shambles known as the video game crash of '83. Yet it is this very year that on the coasts of the rising sun a miracle was taking place. A company that was once selling playing cards had released the first version of what most of us know as the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Right now, in its county of origin, everybody's going crazy over the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. While I absolutely agree that this is an event worthy of some serious celebration, there is another anniversary that's being largely overshadowed. After all, Nintendo didn't develop the NES just to remain on the Japanese isles forever.

That's why today, exactly 25 years after the NES was released on the American mainland, River City Retro is taking you on a journey across the world. We are going to take an in-dept look at the various shapes and forms the NES took as it conquered the world. Happy anniversary!

 First of all I'll have to ask myself what exactly defines a NES incarnation. There are millions of unlicensed clones out there. Even now new ones are built and many mimic the designs of current gen consoles. And then there are these TV game kinds of things. NES consoles built into a controller that plug directly into the TV and have a few games built in. There's no way I can cover all of those. To qualify as a proper NES incarnation, the machine needs to either be official, or be so widespread in a single country that it was generally considered to be the real deal.

 

Japan: The start of it all.



Whenever somebody mentions the console, I automatically think of that classic grey box we had Europe and the USA. However I recently showed mine to a retro shop owner in Akihabara, Tokyo. he reacted as if he has seen a ghost. Never had he seen that box and its huge cartridges before. Unlike him though, most passionate gamers today have spent enough time on the internet to know about Japan's NES which is called the Famicom.

It really doesn't look anything like what we expect a console to look like today. It's got no detachable controllers, the wires are way too short and frankly, the thing's butt ugly. Also cartridges are a lot smaller and don't even fit in the Western consoles. Although it essentially the same NES under the hood, it's life cycle was quite different. For one it didn't need to be masked as a robot toy in order to gain popularity and it got major peripherals that we never got.

Probably the most interesting peripheral was the Famicom Disk System. It looks pretty ugly but despite its looks, it has given us some of the most legendary games of all time. The Disk System put a special ram cartridge in the Famicom and used rewritable floppy-like disks to store its games. Unlike the standard cartridges, these were writable and thus enabled saved games. Making full use of this feature, another milestone released along with the system. That's right. The first disk to land on store shelves proudly sprouted the words The Legend of Zelda. The system went on to produce more classics like Super Mario Bros 2, Metroid and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest



Another notable fact is that the Disk System actually provided its own sound chip. Just have a listen to Castlevania II's Bloody Tears. There are people who swear by the FDS's music and then there are those who say the NES sounds better. Feel free to take your pick. Even after the Disk System was discontinues, some games started providing their own sound chips. The most well known example of this is Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. Unfortunately Nintendo hadn't anticipated this and the overseas NES wasn't able to use these custom chips.

Famicom disks were much cheaper than cartridges and gamers could buy empty disks to download games at special Nintendo vending machines for a measly tenth of a cartridge's price. As you might have guessed, writable disks had a side effect to them: Piracy! It wasn't long before hackers found ways to run illegally copied games. Another problem was reliability. Both the system and the games were so easy to break. Anyone old enough to have used 3,5 inch floppies on the PC probably remembers a similar horror.

Both of these issues provided the add-on with a severely shortened lifespan. Fortunately for us though, most of its notable games finally did get a cartridge release with the save functionality either replaced by passwords or implemented by battery.

Near the end of its lifetime, the Famicom got a revision called the Famicom AV. This fixed the ugly shell and looks nearly the same as top loader revision released in the states.  Just like the American revision, it came with a new dog-bone-like controller design.
 

South Korea: Hyundai's piece of the cake



The Famicom-version of Nintendo's 8-bit beauty is easily the most well spread. It provided most of Asia with their Super Mario fix including China, Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines. Yet there is one little country out there deviating from the rule. A country which is much more known for its professional gaming scene. That place is South Korea. I was amazed when I first dug up this place's 8-bit era. Its NES is the exact same grey box as ours save for one detail. It's got a Hyundai logo right there next to Nintendo's. Why in the world did Korea get the NES while all surrounding countries got the Famicom? And why is Hyundai selling it?

The answer to these questions dates back all the way to World War II. Korea is but one of several countries that suffered from Japanese facist atrocities during this time period. From 1910 until the end of WWII the country was under Japanese rule. With it came a true cultural genocide. Korean cultural objects were either stolen or destroyed, use of the Korean language was made punishable by death, women were coerced into military sex slaves and countless people died in gruesome vivisections. It's no surprise that South Korea was furious with Japan after being liberated in 1945. The country passed a ban on the import of any and all Japanese culture and that included gaming consoles.

Feeling that South Koreans' lives wouldn't be complete without a fat moustached Italian plumber stomping flying turtles, Nintendo struck a deal with Hyundai. As Japanese import was prohibited, Hyundai manufactured the consoles in the US and the design came with it. This incarnation of the NES was called The Hyundai Comboy. Despite its design, the games are incompatible with Western releases and its library was significantly smaller. It's a bit hard to find sources on the little piece of hardware but from what I can tell it hasn't been very successful. I'm guessing that the dominance of PC gaming and competition with pirated Famicom systems led it to obscurity. From what I found out, it does seem like the SNES had a better run as the Super Comboy.


Russia: 9999 in 1



So far we've been covering Nintendo's official releases. Yet there're many countries that the company either couldn't access or simply didn't seem to care about. Lots of these countries had their own way of supplying games that warp their children's fragile little minds. One of such places was Russia. By the time their "NES" surfaced, we were already kicking ass with Super Mario World.

Approximately seven years after Nintendo first released the Famicom, a company called Steepler created their first clone of the system under the name Dendy. The thing looked exactly like a Famicom, save for the colour scheme and the overall build quality. There were a couple of revisions but they never changed more than the type of connection cables and the inclusions of a second controller and/or light gun. One of these Dendy versions actually resembled a Sega Mega Drive rather than a Famicom.

The system used the same type of cartridges that the Famicom did but pretty much no official releases made it over. Instead most of its library consisted of bootlegs and multicarts that claimed to hold 9999 games but in reality only had four. Occasionally there were original pirate productions including ports from popular 16-bit games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat but their quality left a lot to wish for.

 Despite lacking even one shred of an official licence, the system was sufficiently marketed. Next to standard TV commercials, there were actually a couple of shows based around the system. One of these was a kind of magazine showing off new games that came out and such while another was a cartoon about the Dendy Elephant, a cute little character that served as a logo. As piracy tends to work, a lot of other consoles started calling themselves Dendy and not even all of them were actually NES systems.

 

Brazil: battle of the pirates



Let's turn our eyes to Brazil in the same time line. The year is 1990 and back home, the SNES is about to be released. About one year earlier, a company called Tec Toy has actually booked quite the success. They brought over over a fully licenced Sega Master System but that's another story. Just like Russia, it was up to the under the counter markets to bring about the Mario Brothers. The first one to hit the shelves was the Dynavision 2 by Dynacom. As you probably noticed, there's a 2 in the name. What happened to the Dynavision 1 then? That was a clone of the Atari 2600. Anyway the thing was poorly marketed and soon bit the dust but the war wasn't quite waged yet.

One year later Gradiente released their own clone called the Phantom. This one used the NES-style cartridges as opposed to the Famicom-style ones that fit the unsuccessful Dynacom. Piracy was everywhere in Brazil and Gradiente shamelessly released Nintendo's first party games under the name Falcon Soft. It might start to sound very similar to Russia but there's another side to the story.

Next to all the piracy going on, the company actually received licenses from third party developers including Activision and ended up shaking hands with none other than Nintendo themselves. In 1995 they released a fully legal western design NES which they called NES Action Set. Unfortunately it was a bit late to the party and disappeared quickly. Gradiente holds the licence to manufacture and sell official Nintendo hardware even to this day.

This country's piracy scene had one major problem though. Well over 90% of pirate carts including the dendy ones are actually the smaller Famicom version. yet the ever so popular phantom had a NES-style cartridge slot, rendering it completely incompatible. Most people managed to overcome this problem by use of a converter but some people had a more notable solution.

A long time piracy and low quality electronics company called CCE released their own version of the NES which sprouted both cartridge slots side by side. This allowed players to use both pirate releases and Gradiente's semi-official games. One even more inventive company was Hydron. They didn't create their own console but rather made cartridges with Famicom layout on one side and NES layout on the other. Pretty cool stuff.
 

Poland: A winged horse



After Nintendo made short work of both the Japanese and American markets, they set their eyes on Europe and Australia. Deviding the place in two and letting Mattell handle one half. The only difference between the Nintendo and Mattell version is a little label under the logo though. their mustached mascot soon won over the hearts of my seven years old self and millions of others with me. However, once again there was one region they had completely forgotten. That was Eastern Europe. Much like Brazil, the Polish had to make due with their own pirate system before Nintendo finally stepped in around 1996.

Their NES incarnation was called the Pegasus and information on it seems pretty rare. No matter how much I searched, the only info I've been able to find comes from either Wikipedia or the occasional forum post. If you are Polish and you're reading this, by all means send me an email containing every little detail about this thing. For now I will summarise what I have been able to find out. It seems to have a lot in common with the Dendy.

Not surprisingly, the system runs on Famicom-style cartridges. Despite it being a pirate, it came with two years of warranty. Just like the Dendy, it got so much recognition that it was pretty much considered an official product. The console's first edition greatly resembled the Famicom but a later revision made it a bit more original with controller ports on the side. These revisions arranged the power, eject and reset buttons much like the Japanese/European SNES design. Controllers had four buttons. Usually, clones with extra buttons use them for autofire but some sources say these were actually used by certain original unlicensed games. Nintendo eventually sued the Pegasus when they finally did arrive to the scene. Whether they were successful or not, I have been unable to find out.

I know that this list is far from incomplete. There are just so many different countries in the world. The NES' Wikipedia page writes of Indian clones called the Wiz Kid and the Little Master but I haven't been able to find any info on those anywhere on the net. There are websites that list hundreds upon hundreds of pirated NES clones and I bet there are even more waiting to be discovered. If you are from a place not mentioned here and have something to add to the story, by all means let me know. All I can say is it's been a wild 25 years and the NES has truly managed to conquer the world.

This has been Metallion, and thank you for reading River City Retro!
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