Monday, December 28, 2009

The Vaus Arkanoid II Controller

I was at a recycled goods shop the other day when I found an Arkanoid II controller for the Famicom in a junk pile where everything was 100 yen. I wasn't sure if it was still functioning but it looked pretty clean so I figured I'd take a chance. Its only 100 yen after all.

Turns out it does work. It is a pretty simple device, the green button on top is an all-purpose "start" button and the knob on the bottom is a steering device (the other button-looking thing next to the knob serves no purpose that I can devine).

I've been a huge fan of Arkanoid since I was a kid and my dad got me a copy of it for our Apple IIC. This controller takes some getting used to but it allows you to move Vaus at differential speeds, which the regular Famicom controllers do not. Thus far I haven't been able to get past level 3 on Arkanoid using it, but maybe with some practice....
The controller actually works on these 3 games, all of which are quite fun to play:

I understand that they also released a red and black controller to go with the first Arkanoid, though I don't know if it is any different from mine other than the colors. Damn good purchase for 100 yen.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The aesthetics of the Famicom Cart

In my opinion, one of the things that make Famicom carts so collectable is the fact that they come in a wide variety of colors, shapes, designs and even sizes. For reasons unbeknownst to me, from the Superfamicom onwards Nintendo standardized the shape, design and color of the carts for its systems, leaving only the artwork on the label to distinguish one from another. Worse still they chose a drab color of grey to be the standard, meaning that a pile of SuperFamicom or Nintendo 64 games looks about as exciting as a pile of gravel.

At the present I have a collection of about 350 different Famicom carts. When going through my collection I notice that there were a few cart designs that game makers used prolifically on dozens of titles, while others were just used on a single game. I decided to take a look at ten of the most prolifically used designs as represented in my collection and try to rate them based mainly on their aesthetic appearance. This is the list presented in no particular order.

1. The "Classic" Nintendo Cart

This is undoubtedly the most famous design, the squiggly line that is more or less synonymous with “Famicom”. It was used on the first carts released for the system and thus includes a lot of the classics like Donkey Kong and Popeye.

On the plus side the use of vibrant primary colors makes these carts stand out in a collection. On the minus side, the lack of any label artwork (save the squiggly line) makes single carts relatively boring to look at. Still, given their significance I give these carts a thumbs up.

2. The “Second Generation” Nintendo Carts

These are the second generation Nintendo carts, which also boast a lot of classic games like Super Mario Brothers, Ice Climber and SpartanX. A number of carts like Baseball and Golf were released with both this type of cart and the classic squiggly line cart.

This is definitely one of my favorite cart designs. The carts themselves are in vibrant colors and the label designs include some fantastic illustrations (I especially like the Ice Climber Polar Bear and the SpartanX face-kick). Big thumbs up.

3. Capcom

Capcom released carts with a bunch of different designs, but I particularly like the ones with this design that basically mimics the Nintendo second generation design. Colorful carts and good illustrations on the label. Thumbs up.

4. Old-school Taito

It is a sad fact that Taito made some really great games like Arkanoid and Elevator Action but then went and put them on the most poorly designed carts ever made for the Famicom. For one thing, the carts are all solid black, which puts them in the hole already. To make matter worse though the label only takes up about half the front of the cart, with the top third or so devoted to the Taito logo and three horizontal grooves. The funny thing is that when Taito retired this cart design the one they replaced it with was almost as bad. I don’t think the company made a single attractive cart out of all the titles it made for the Famicom.

Big thumbs down on this one.

5. Old-school Irem

I don’t know why Irem didn’t make all of their games using this cart design, it is one of the best out there. On the negative side is the fact that the carts are all the same color plastic, but the brightly colored labels both on the front and along the top of the cart make up for that shortcoming. The red light to let you know when the Famicom is “on” is kind of a cool bonus. Thumbs up.

6. Old-school Namcot

This is the single cart design that occurs on way more games than any other in my collection, the above photo only shows about half of them. My feelings are a bit mixed about this one. On the one hand it suffers from some of the same problems as the Taito carts, with almost all of them molded in black plastic (with a couple of exceptions like the silver Star Wars cart) and with the labels taking up too small a portion of the front. On the plus side though Namcot did have the sense to add a second label to the top of the cart, which makes them significantly more attractive than the boring Taito carts. I give this a moderate thumbs up.

7. Sunsoft

I’m not a huge fan of the Sunsoft cart design used on games like After Burner. They are all molded in primary colors (mostly white but Batman has the same cart design in black) and the artwork on the front isn’t particularly good (Super Arabian seems particularly amateur, though its got kind of a kitsch thing going for it). Nowhere near as bad as the old-school Taito carts but I still give them a thumbs down.

8. Jaleco

One thing that the Jaleco carts definitely have going for them is color – they are about as brightly colored as the Nintendo carts. One thing I really like about Jaleco carts too is that they show a screen-shot of the game play on the cart backs. Not only does this look cool but it also helps when you are browsing through racks of used games and you want some way of determining whether it’ll be a good game or not (obviously they didn’t have this in mind when they designed them that way but I still give them points for it). The ridges on the side of the cart also make them easy to identify when they are stacked. The only down side is that the front labels are too small, but otherwise I give these a thumbs-up.

9. Konami

The only problem I have with the Konami carts is that they are all molded in black plastic, otherwise these are some of the best carts around. Mainly this is due to the large labels that cover almost the entire front of the cart and extend over the top, making them quite attractive and easy to identify. Thumbs up.

10. Bandai

I' m not a huge fan of this Bandai cart design. On the one hand it has a unique shape that distinguishes them from other carts, but on the other hand the front label is just way too small. It has the benefit of a label on the top and the carts are in different colors, but generally I don't think they look too good. Better than Taito but still a thumbs down.