Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Famicom Console Stacking: The Next Olympic Sport

I believe I may have set a new world record today by stacking 8 Famicom consoles on top of each other.

Actually I just base this on the fact that a very brief google image search did not turn up any pictures of more than 8 Famicoms stacked on top of each other. Likely someone has at some point stacked more, I only stopped at 8 because I only had 8 Famicom consoles at hand. If you've got more than 8, you can probably stack more than that. Though I should stress that you should be careful, my stack of 8 was getting pretty wobbly.

At any rate, until someone shows me evidence to the contrary, I stand by my claim to have the world record. So there.
You have to admit though, 8 Famicoms stacked on top of each other look pretty cool.
You may ask (and why wouldn't you?) what on earth I am doing with 8 Famicoms. To this I answer that I don't actually own 8 Famicoms. I own 12. But the other 4 are Twin Famicoms and AV Famicoms and they would have made my stack look stupid so I excluded them on artistic grounds.

I guess the next logical question is why the hell do I have 12 Famicoms. Good question. I think I am kind of addicted to acquiring Famicom consoles. Whenever I see a cheap one in some bargain junk bin I just have to buy it. Then I take it home, clean it up and try to fix it with my limited knowledge of electronics (ie I bang them until they start working).
My ultimate intention is to somehow find good homes for them, probably via ebay or something. But I don't have an Ebay account or anything and can't be bothered to get off my ass and figure out how to set one up. Thus a bottleneck has developed in my spare room where Famicom consoles just endlessly pile up. Its a vicious cycle.
Mind you, as far as destructive habits go, I think this is a pretty mild one to have. Much better than being addicted to heroin or something. Though I will say this: Heroin addicts don't need to devote anywhere near as much shelf space to their habit as Famicom console addicts do. So, you know, they've got that going for them.

Apart from the minimal joy I received today from stacking them up, the extra ones don't really have much other purpose in life at this point other than to deny me the use of several square feet of the above-mentioned valuable shelf space. So I tried to make the most of it by arranging them in various poses on the floor of our living room and even going so far as to be-deck them with some pulse-line carts:
I spent 4 years in the army back in the 90s. I think this may have been the inspiration for the drill-square precision with which I insisted on arranging them:
Nothing prettier than a cleanly-dressed line of Famicom carts.
I then put them through a couple of other Family Computer maneuvers:
And then back onto the shelf with them.

Related Posts:
- Famicom Console Wars
- Fight Climate Change: Buy a Famicom
- Why the Famicom Has Aged Well Part 2: No Planned Obsolescence

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Star Wars and the Famicom: A Tale of Two Games

As astute readers are undoubtedly already aware, the Famicom was first released in Japan in 1983. In that same year, half a world away in the picturesque village of Dunrobin in eastern Ontario, a 7 year old kid was anxiously awaiting the release of the mega-film event of the year: the Return of the Jedi.

At that early stage in my development, Star Wars had been an all-encompassing presence in my life for about two years. In 1981 for my 5th birthday my heroic dad had gone and somehow gotten his hands on a VCR (a pretty rare item back then) and a copy of Star Wars. I had about half a dozen of my kindergarten classmates over for my party and it was decidedly THE event of the Dunrobin social calendar among 5 year old boys that year. I remember sitting on the shag-carpeting of our rec-room floor, watching in eager anticipation as my dad tried to figure out how to hook up the wires to our TV, which was one of those big types in a wood frame designed to be a piece of furniture in its own right. Of the lot of us, only one had ever seen Star Wars before and he assured us, as the film was about to begin, that it was the greatest thing. Ever.

It turned out that my 5 year old classmate, whose name is now lost to the ages, would probably be the only person in my life to ever offer such high praise for a film and subsequently be proven correct when I watched it. We were all blown away. Bouncing off the walls. It was insanely awesome. From the moment “Star Wars” flashed on the screen we were hooked. The Star Destroyer passing overhead, blasting away at the little rebel ship. The camera pauses on an older looking rebel trooper with his gun poised, waiting for the impending assault. The hero of the film? Nope, he is one of the first to die when the stormtroopers blast their way in. Wow. My life would never be the same again. A few weeks later my parents took me to a repeat screening of the Empire Strikes Back at a theatre in the big city of Ottawa. The silver screen experience that time.

Two words: AT ATs.

My fragile mind was blown away. Within a year my room was overflowing with massive quantities of Star Wars merchandise - the interior decorating choice of pre-pubescent males with discerning taste in the early 1980s.

Anyway, enough with the historical background and back to that Famicom-getting-released-in-1983 thing. I find it interesting that Return of the Jedi was released in the same year as the Famicom and yet in the entire 11 year life span of that amazing console they never got around to making a Return of the Jedi game for it. Actually it took them about 4 years to even get the first Star Wars game out and they barely squeezed in an Empire Strikes Back game in the console’s 9th year.

I own 2 of the 3 Star Wars games made for the Famicom. One is the 1987 Namcot Star Wars, released in Japan only and the other is the Empire Strikes Back game released by Victor in 1992. Victor also released a version of Star Wars, which I don’t have (but really want).

Of the two games that I do own, there is a striking difference in style between them which is what I kind of want to talk about in this post. I really like both games, but in terms of Star Wars nostalgia value they are worlds apart. I hate to pick favorites among my Famicom games (you never know, they might have some sort of hidden innate intelligence and it might hurt the feelings of the ones that get shunned). Still though, the Namcot Star Wars blows the Victor Empire Strikes Back away. Let me explain why.

I preface my explanation with a question. What is the best Star Wars film to be released post-1983?

If your answer included anything made by George Lucas, you are wrong. The correct answer is the mind-blowingly fantastic review of Episode 1 by Mr. Plinkett of RedLetterMedia. If you haven’t seen it yet, then watch and learn. He succeeds where no sci-fi geek has ever succeeded before: tearing apart the minutia of a sci-fi film in a way that is both entertaining and hilarious. I think I’ve watched it 3 or 4 times. It is that good.

OK, this praise is getting unseemly so let me qualify it with a point of disagreement with Mr. Plinkett. He says that the moment at which Star Wars was ruined forever occurred during Episode 1. In other words, it happened in 1999, the year of that film's release. That is incorrect. It happened a few years earlier – 1992 to be exact. Coincidentally, the year the Empire Strikes Back game was released on the Famicom.

In 1992 I was in high school. My childhood obsession with Star Wars was by then a faint memory as throughout the mid to late 80s my interests had naturally moved on to other things. The seeds for a nostalgic revival of my interest were there though. I happened to be in a book store sometime that year when I saw a Star Wars book. This piqued my interest. The Star Wars merchandising machine had dried up sometime in the late 80s and for a few years the store shelves had been completely empty of Star Wars stuff. I took a look at it. Some guy named Timothy Zahn had written a sequel trilogy to Star Wars. Wow. I had to have it.

I read that trilogy with a great deal of enthusiasm sometime in 1993. It was a big let down. Zahn seemed to be a reasonably capable writer, but it was also blatantly obvious that his license to write the books had some sort of provision that read “You may NOT kill off any of the established characters from the films in your books.” Of course the books centred mainly around putting the established characters from the films into dangerous situations. Once you realized that nothing would ever happen to any of them, the whole thing just became boring.

Unfortunately that trilogy led to a revival of interest in Star Wars that spawned a whole shitload of other insanely boring Star Wars books and merchandise which eventually led to the god-awful prequels being made. So I say that 1992 is the year that Star Wars officially began to suck, not 1999. It’s a relatively minor point, but one that is relevant to my two Star Wars Famicom games.

One side effect of the explosion of Star Wars crap that occurred in the 1990s was that Star Wars fans started to become extraordinarily anal retentive about this thing called “canon”. I think this may have been the result of an unhealthy influence of Star Trek fans on Star Wars but I’m not sure. At any rate, suddenly every Star Wars related work that was produced had to fit exactly into this established story line and anything that didn’t was by definition bad. This was like putting a huge ball and chain on the creative process of anyone writing about Star Wars and this is reflected in the shit quality of a lot of the crap that has been produced in the past 18 years – prequels most definitely included.

Now compare my two Famicom Star Wars games – one made in 1987 and the other in 1992. The 1992 Empire Strikes Back game is usually praised for being a faithful reproduction of the film. They stick more or less to the storyline and don’t make any radical changes or anything. And I should stress that it is a good game – but it needs to be said that it is a good game not because it sticks closely to the original movie but despite the fact that it sticks closely to the original. Its just a fun game to play.

The 1987 Namcot game is another story – it belongs to an era before anal retentiveness overtook the whole Star Wars universe. The makers of that game clearly had no concept of “canon” in mind when they made that game. The storyline is only tenuously connected to the original film and they throw all sorts of random stuff into there – a world of frogs, Darth Vader turning into a giant scorpion, Luke slaying Jawas with his light sabre, etc – that have nothing to do with the film.

I find it surprising that some people actually criticize the game for this: to my mind this makes it a much better game. In fact I would go so far as to say this is one of the best Star Wars video games ever, at least from a creative point of view. Playing the Empire Strikes Back I basically know what the next level is because its whatever would be next in the film. Which, I guess, is fine. Playing Star Wars though you don’t know what is coming next. What are these? Frogs? I’m on Kessel? That wasn’t in the film. Wait, why did Darth Vader turn into a scorpion? Screw it, this is cool.

The closest cousin to the Namcot Star Wars game I can think of are the Marvel Star Wars comics from the late 70s/ early 80s. I used to read those when I was a kid. They were awesome. They probably had the same licensing deal that Timothy Zahn later got (don’t kill off any main characters) but they got around it by just making up a crapload of random characters to shove in there – I remember a green, humanoid rabbit for some reason – and most of the issues I remember barely featured the main film characters at all. Probably I’m viewing this through rose-tinted lenses, but I remember those comics being really creative and fun to read - something the 1990s books were definitely not.

Anyway, that is my view of Star Wars through the prism of two Famicom games (or vice versa I should say). I should stress that I don’t think everything about post-1992 Star Wars is bad. Some of the video games have been great – I play Episode 1 pod racer on the N64 all the time. But they are great despite the fact that they are connected to the current Star Wars marketing machine, not because of it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Retro-game Shopping will never be the same again

Apologies for not updating this blog as often as I should, this was a busy summer around here! I should take the opportunity here to thank Bryan for the flattering write-up he did about Famicomblog on his wonderful blog here. Much appreciated!

Anyway, as is often the case with my recent posts, in this one I will be describing another one of my Famicom-related shopping experiences. Over the past two days I have gone on a massive buying spree at my favorite retro-game store, Omocha Soko.

I am sometimes given to exaggeration, but I think I can confidently say that I made retro-game shopping history over the course of the past 24 hours of shopping. I was fortunate enough to hit the greatest bargain the world has ever created. Even by Omocha Soko's generous standards this blows away every other sale they have ever had. Remember last month when I was bragging about getting two Twin Famicoms for 100 yen each? That was nothing. THIS was the motherload.

My story actually starts about 3 days ago when I popped in to Omocha Soko to see if they had anything new. The Famicom game racks were pretty much the same as usual - I've picked them over for the past two years and now basically have every game they've got out there. I also checked the console and controller sections but not much new there either.

At the back of the store, however, something really caught my eye. Stack upon stack of these black plastic crates filled to the brim with old consoles, controllers, cables and games of every type. Usually when they get new stuff in (they buy stuff from people who come in off the street) they'll just dump it in the back for a few days until one of their employees gets around to sorting it out and putting prices on it. Normally they might have at most one or two of these boxes out and when I see them I know that within a couple of days they'll have new stuff on the shelves so I make a note to visit again in the next day or two (you have to hurry when they put new stuff out, otherwise other people will beat you to the good stuff).

This, however, was unlike anything I had ever seen before. They had these things stacked almost to the ceiling, row upon row of them. Somebody must have literally dumped an entire truckload of old video game stuff and just said "Just take it all."

Because they hadn't put the stuff on sale yet I couldn't see exactly what they had, but it looked promising so I made a note to come in soon and have a look at the stuff when they put it out for sale.

Yesterday I made my second visit and, sure enough, all the stuff was out for sale. But nothing could have prepared me for the sight that beheld my eyes. Apparently, due to the sheer volume of stuff they had gotten and the massive pain in the ass it would be to sort it all out and untangle all the wires, they just put the crates out with signs saying (basically) "Everything in these boxes is 50 yen. Nothing has been tested so buy at your own risk." I snapped a couple pictures of some of the crates. You aren't allowed to photograph so I did this somewhat surreptitiously (gee, I hope nobody from the store reads this blog), apologies for the blurry pics. These ones had controllers, consoles and a million cables in them:
And these ones had tons of games (only the stuff in the crates were 50 yen, the stuff on the walls was seperate):
The above pictures only show about 1/3 or so of the total amount of stuff. It was massive.

Now, 50 yen is only about 5o cents US so you might expect these crates were full of crap. Not so. Well, not exactly so. Most of the stuff actually was crap, but there were a lot of GOOD things in there too. And by virtue of having arrived at exactly the right time I had first crack at picking them over!! My retro-game shopping dream come true!!!

Being bicycle-bound I had some finite limits on the amount of stuff I could carry, so I ended up making two trips, one yesterday and the other today. This was today's haul, still in its bags:
In total I spent 3450 yen (1600 yen yesterday and 1850 yen today), which is about 40$ US at today's exchange rate. Lets take a look at what I got.

Fist, the consoles. One (working) AV Famicom with both controllers (this counted as just one item despite really being three):
One functioning, clean old-school Famicom complete with the expansion port cover (those things are hard to find):
One PC Engine complete with Disk drive and interface unit (as with the AV Famicom, this only counted as one thing despite it, really, being 3). I have all the cables and a controller for another PC Engine which has a busted console, so this works out perfect for me:
Two Sega Mega Drives. I actually didn't want two of them, but ended up getting two kind of by chance. On the first day I picked up one that was just console-only. On the second day I rummaged through the bins looking for an AV cable and AC adapter for it. At the bottom of one of the bins I found a bag with another Mega Drive complete with the cables (though missing the controllers) and I figured what the hell:
And next, the Famicom controllers.

First, the Famicom Joystick 7 Mk II, which looks pretty damn cool:
And a Famicom Hori Controller:
And two Joycard controllers, one boxed with a picture of Takahashi Meijin on it:
And did I get games? Yes I certainly did.

First I got this fantastic copy of Lode Runner for some 1980s 8-bit Sony console that I don't own (edit: this is a game for the MSX "Hit Bit", a home computer released in 1983). I'll probably never be able to play it but man, I could not resist buying this for the awesomeness of that cover-art. This is without a doubt my favorite box-art of any video game I've ever had:
And Famicom Carts? Oh, you bet they had Famicom carts. GOOD ones, not just a bunch of baseballs and golfs. I picked up 32 of them. To be honest I already owned copies of most of these games but I got these mainly for the purposes of future trades or something. These ones I got today:
And these ones yesterday:
I had been wanting "Crazy Climber"for a really long time and was really excited to find it.

They also had a bunch of Disk System games. I have 3 disk systems now (two in Twin Famicoms and one FDS) but none work. Still for the future day when I actually get one of them up and running I now have some awesome games to play:
And I got these games for other consoles. Perfect Dark for the N64 is one I've been looking for a long time for, but the cheapest I've ever seen it was 3,000 yen (ironically almost the same amount I paid for everything here). I just got the Sonic game so I'd have something to test my new Mega Drives with (when I get a bloody controller for them anyway. Of the hundreds of old controllers in those endless stacks of crates I couldn't find a single Mega Drive controller):
The coolest thing I found though was hidden at the bottom of one of the games crates. I though it was just some piece of junk at first and almost ignored it, but when I took a closer look I realized that it was an original Game and Watch from 1982:
I've really wanted to get a Game and Watch for a long time, but they are so expensive (hard to find for less than 5000 yen) that I've never bothered. I probably wouldn't have gone for Mickey and Donald, but beggars can't be choosers and it was still a good find. I have to get some batteries for it to see if it still works, but its in pretty good shape (edit: got the batteries and it does work!):
And rounding out the purchases were a bunch of miscellaneous cables and stuff that I needed to "complete" some other old consoles I have lying around:
All in all, an amazing haul when you consider how little it all cost. If I can just repeat that total: 3450 yen. Yup. For less than the cost of a single Wii or PS3 game I got all of the crap in the following photo. Is it any wonder that I don't buy current generation console stuff?
The missus might not be happy if I don't get our living room looking like normal again by the time she gets home though, so I better finish this post here and go tidy this up.