Monday, June 3, 2013

The RF/ AV Divide: The Ugly Carnage the Switch to Digital Broadcasting has Caused for Japan`s Retro Gamers

In the summer of 2011 something happened in Japan that made life a bit more difficult for retro gamers.  One day all the television broadcasts switched from analogue to digital.  For years prior to that the government had been running regular commercials on TV reminding people about the coming analogue apocalypse.  I remember those commercials in particular because they featured a member of the popular boy band SMAP who, right in the middle of the campaign, got caught up in a minor scandal when he got drunk one night, went to a park somewhere in Tokyo, got completely naked and then danced and shouted until somebody called the police.

They dropped him from the TV commercials for a couple of months amid the public outcry over that, but I think they hired him back once the news cycle had moved on and it was deemed that he had apologized enough.  The incident is mainly noteworthy for the fact that it was the only time in history that a member of a boy band has ever done anything that had entertainment value, which is why I mention it here.

Anyway, that is a bit off topic.  The main effect of the switch to digital was that it instantly rendered all analogue TVs completely useless as TVs.  Both of the TVs I had at the time were analogue so I had to go spend 5,000 yen to buy a tuner to make a TV that no longer had any resale value capable of showing the quality programming that Japanese TV networks are known for, like this: 

 When we moved last year I made the massive mistake of ditching our two analogue TVs as we intended to buy a new digital one and figured they weren`t worth shipping.  It was a mistake because, as I only recently discovered, digital TVs come with this awesome design feature known as `RF incompatibility` that allows you to not hook anything up to the TV via RF.  It’s a totally awesome improvement on the old TVs that didn`t have RF incompatibility, meaning that if you wanted a TV that was totally useless and didn`t work at all with RF then you were shit out of luck. 

So anyway, having an RF incompatible TV (and a 1989 Sony Trinitron that I had to buy online specifically for retro gaming purposes) has made me acutely aware of the RF/ AV divide in retro video game consoles, something that I never really paid much attention to before.  It has, for the first time in the history of my collection, caused an ugly social rift to appear within the ranks of my consoles.  

On the one hand is my AV Famicom, Super Famicom, Nintendo 64, Sega Mega Drive and PC Engine, all of which have AV cables and can be connected to the big digital TV in my living room.  They sit in a nice piece of IKEA furniture (at least the Famicom and N64 do, space limitations apply) along with some potted plants, family photos and a few  tastefully arranged knick knacks.  We see them everyday as the living room is the apartment`s centre of activity.  Sometimes we play nice music for them.  They have a view out the 6th floor terrace window from which you get a nice view of the city lights at night.

 In other words, they have a pampered existence.  They are the Carlton Banks of my retro game console collection.

On the other hand are my poor RF-only consoles, which actually make up the bulk of my collection.  My old-school Famicom, Epoch Cassette Vision, Intellivision, Atari 2800, Sega SG-1000, Mark III, Space Vader and Color TV Game 15 are all relegated to the dreaded `spare room` which is mainly used for storage and as the only part of our apartment where we allow the dog to pee and poo on the floor without getting scolded.  The Sony Trinitron is set up in there, but there is no IKEA furniture to support it.  Rather it just sits on a moving box surrounded by doggy pee sheets.  The only place to set a console is directly on top of the TV, so only one console can be used at a time, with the rest just sitting in boxes in the closet.  It is not a comfortable room so they hardly get played at all.

Compared to the systems that work with digital, they have a rough life.  They are the Ron Burgundy-after-getting-fired-from-the-News-Team of my retro console collection:
 I think this is probably a common pattern among the households of retro game collectors across Japan since 2011.  We are probably the only people out there who will actually still pay money for analogue TVs, but owing to the small size of most Japanese homes it is a huge burden to have to maintain two separate TVs (and the attendant seating arrangements, etc) just to play games on old systems.  Until I got that damn digital TV this had never been a problem for me because all of my games worked on our main TV in the living room. 

Now, my collection is divided.  And the part of it I like the best, the really REALLY retro stuff, I can`t even play in my own living room.  Damn you, digital broadcasting, this is all your fault.  And also damn you,  guy from SMAP whose name I can`t remember, its probably your fault too just because you are a member of a boy band. 


  1. Hi Sean,
    There are some solutions for this problem:
    -you can get a VCR, connect your console to the antenna in, and then you the composite out of the VCR to connect to your TV. It's cheap, quality should even be slightly better than RF through the air (less interference), but you need one big VCR in you living room.
    -I know some RF to Composite adapters exist. it's smaller than a VCR but probably more pricey.
    -you can mod your consoles to get composite, or s-video, or RGB (not so useful in Japan). Of course, if you're into iron soldering or don't care to keep your systems in their original state...

  2. Hi Papayou,

    Ah, thanks for the tip, that is a really good idea about the VCR, I can probably scrounge one of htose up somewhere! I`ll also keep an eye out for those adaptors, I prefer not to alter my systems (and I don`t have a soldering iron), so I`ll probably skip the third option!


  3. I also live a split lifestyle. (so much shame) my 'office' has my retro consoles in it along with a comfy chair and an old analog TV. I've found that adding a small table to place snacks or drinks on helps me stay up there more and appreciate my older consoles. It is a simple addition that may help you out. (I also added a big dog bed so my four legged friends could enjoy the old school too.)

  4. Andy - that actually sounds pretty good, I hope that someday I`ll be able to put together an office with a retro TV/ game set up. I will at the very least probably invest in some proper furniture to put the TV on in the near future!

  5. I have to agree with Papayou, definitely get a VCR for your front room. Your poor retro consoles deserve better than the doggie pee room! >_<

    Oh, and while I'm thinking about it... now that you appear to be all settled in to your new place, perhaps you'll look into getting a Saturn now?

  6. LOL, sadly the Saturn is pretty far down on the list of things to get....I have way more consoles than I know what to do with!!

  7. I guess it's a bigger pain for those with smaller homes, as I had to deal with this back in 2010. Cable companies were trying to scam us about digital tv, despite a free coupon for the converter. I still use my Trinitron, and thankfully the new DTV channels have much better content than before: classic movies and Magnum PI.
    I still have my old consoles hooked up, and besides if I want to watch tv in full hd glory, that's why I have a fancy computer monitor.

  8. Yeah, smaller homes have a knack for bringing pain to a lot of things, including retro gaming :)

    Sadly the switch to digital in Japan didn`t bring any such benefits. It was just a big hassle for everyone and then we ended up having exactly the same TV channels as before. Sigh...

  9. I live in a small apartment too, i have 5 crts :D Four 21" and 1 29" trinitron. Has japan started broadcasting 4k content?

  10. I have a similar problem too. I only have one TV with a Famicom and a PC Engine (and my friend's Wii that he let me borrow ages ago... I should really return that...). Anyway, I haven't played any retro games for a while (for various reasons) but while my PC Engine has AV cables, my Famicom obviously, does not. And any time I want to play the Famicom, I have to unplug the TV cable and plug in the Famicom. Such a hassle.

    I've been recently thinking about getting a PS1. They're like 1500-2000 yen for a dual shock model, and most games are like 100-500 yen.

  11. Oooh was about to suggest a VCR, but saw it was the first comment. If you're going to look for a VCR, maybe look for a D-VHS VCR by JVC. I have one and it's actually an HD VCR. The technology came out around the late 90s and could use special tapes which would output at native 1080i. However, you can still play normal VHS tapes and it would clean up and upscale the picture. The main reason I got one is because it has true s-video out capability and I believe component (not just composite) video out. Especially good for transferring old tapes to say a card on a PC for eventual archiving on DVD or something.

  12. Steven - nice collection of CRTs! I don`t know about 4k content but probably not!

    Nate - Yeah, its a pain isn`t it? The PS1s are so cheap they are almost giving them away in some places, and with the games equally cheap they are a pretty good buy.

    Stealthlurker - Thanks, I`ll keep an eye out for one....maybe collecting VHS tapes will be my new retro hobby :)

  13. Hi,
    the ultimate solution a Portable PC Engine GT with its tuner.
    Yes for a VCR or a DVD Recorder, but make a try first, some can't tune the signal correctly... But they can fit secrectly verticaly at the back of your giant HDTV.

    In Japan, you have less problems than antic french pong/intellivision/2600 that broadcast in a kind of larger channel mode, rather than in thick channel (started by circa 1983) making problematic to tune with "younger" TV sets (after 1987).

    In an another end, most machine were equiped with full RGB scart/peritel/euroconnector (color TV sets were equiped with since 1981), just to avoid a costly Secam Conversion ^_^, but some need internal composite conversion to RGB like the french Nintendo NES...
    For some game console like PS1/2,GameCube, they were shipped with poor Composite cable with scart adaptator, but the RGB cable was avaible separetly. Sadly, the french N64 were composite only.

    I modded an original Famicom this summer with A/V output, it was quite easy. The little circuits fits well verticaly at the back of the cartridge port. The only problem is to pass the A/V cable outside...

  14. Good point about the Portable PC Engine....if only I had one of those (pretty expensive)!

    I`ve always wondered about modding one of my old red and white Famicoms. I have an AV Famicom so I don`t have any problems hooking that up to the TV, its the Atari 2800 and Intellivision (which I wouldn`t mod even if I knew how) that I have some trouble with!