Review of the Month; Nintendo home console cartridges

Cartridges or cassettes. Whatever you call them, the bottom line is there is something tactile in holding one. The corners, the plastic and the label artwork’s surface, they all carry something any of the disc based medias just lack. They can take abuse and survive being dropped into a lake below zero degrees after drying them out and other things like that. You can have them without their casing and still be sure that they’ll survive.

While it may sound stupid to review the cartridges Nintendo had for Famicom, NES, SNES and N64, take this as a thought practice. The insides of the carts don’t matter here, just the casing. Of course, you can’t have just the cart, you need to take into notice the overall design of the console. It would be unnatural to design a console and not give a damn about how the cart would look, right? With the exercise I hope you all think what has gone into each and every detail, how and why they were designed. One thing you all notice right away is that none of these carts have sharp corners. Things like that, small but every so vital are hidden in each design. Everything that looks simple has a complex design behind it, and these carts have some simplest shapes with reasons we can’t even begin to think why,

Let’s start with the FC cartridges.

From right to left; Salamander, Kinnikuman Muscle Tag Match and Joy Mecha Fight
From right to left; Salamander, Kinnikuman Muscle Tag Match and Joy Mecha Fight

I admit that I’ve grown to like FC carts more as the time has gone by. My first FC-sized cart was a 64-in-1 multicart that contained not too uncommon set of games. A good set, ranging from shooters like Gradius (renamed Grading) and B-Wings, to platformers like Nuts and Milk and Ninja JaJaMaru-kun, all the way classics like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. Anyway, the problem with the cart is that FC carts need an adapter part in order to be pulled out from a NES that, and the pin layout is different. Still, FC carts are neat little things, combining a good size/weight ratio.

The 64-in-1 open. There's not much room for the PCB in there, but that's as intended
The 64-in-1 open. There’s not much room for the PCB in there, but that’s as intended

The FC cartridges came in variety of colours and shapes. Many hardcore Famicom collectors seem to pride themselves on recognizing the manufacturer of the game simply by glancing at the case’s shape, a deed that is not all too difficult with certain moulds having the logo of the company, like IREM or Jaleco. This is a splitting thing, as some of the designs are good, but some of the designs are just awful. The Bandai cartridge above baffles the mind, as the ribbed sides tend to get caught on the cart slot on the console. Well, this is a problem only if you don’t pull the cart straight up. However, this is not such a huge deal if you have a version of Famicom with the cartridge eject function, like the original or Twin Famicom. The AV Famicom could’ve used the same function, as just pulling the cart from the console isn’t a valid option, unless the accepting pins on the console are loose as hell or manage support your pull against the console with your fingers. It’s just faster and easier to hold the console with your other hand.

Still, the overall design serves the function very well. Sadly, most FC carts lack any sort of end or top label, whichever you prefer to call them. However, in the photo you can see that Konami games usually have a label that wraps to the top whereas Bandai has opted to use a specific slot for a sticker. Joy Mecha Fight actually has a tape on top of it, to which I’ve written the game’s name. Companies also tend to put something in the back of the carts, like a quick guide how to play the game and an area where to write your name in. This was dropped in every other Nintendo cartridge afterwards, replaced with the standardised info box.

The size can be a bit a problem, as the smaller the carts are, the easier they are to misplace and lose. The construction is good and the plastic used is pretty damn high quality, resisting mechanical stress very well. Next to this the plastic just doesn’t want to give in, unlike the plastic used in 64-in-1, from which we can see the insides.

Overall, the FC carts are well designed that have certain elements lacking, but seeing how there are wide variety of different ones to choose from and some of them fix problems that the other ones have. The lack of standard design has allowed more dynamic use of the carts, and everyone will find styles they like, and styles they will deem worthless.

On the other hand, the NES cartridges take a different approach. While some of the FC carts without a doubt look more like toys in comparison to the industrial grey, standard sizes and shaped carts West is more accustomed to.

Go play Sword Master. It has great music with decent gameplay. Frustrating as hell at times, but fun
Go play Sword Master. It has great music with decent gameplay. Frustrating as hell at times, but fun

The design made design choice is easy to understand. As the NES was redesigned to fit the Western sensibilities, the cart is to the console what a VHS tape is to a VCR. The Zero Force insertion, while pretty damn neat idea and functionality, was more or less a flawed design. Still, properly treated consoles didn’t have any troubles, as one of my consoles didn’t saw any sort of maintenance in fifteen years, and it was still working just fine.

Anyway, the NES cart is more utilitarian than the FC carts were. The division of the NES cart front follows the Golden Cut somewhat loosely, having the rectangle pattern on the left, and the label positioned so that its centre is in one of the cross points of the Cut. The label also wraps to the top, allowing for an end label. The arrow, which points what end goes into the machine first, is in the middle of the cart but also positions itself near the lowest line of the cut. Overall, rather pleasant design that allows the label to pop out more. The whole front is also covered in a very slight pattern fine sand-blast like pattern, which is common. It adds a nice feeling, despite the sides and the back being completely sleek.

The rectangle pattern ends with a spot for pulling the cart out from the console. The rectangle pattern also add friction and the whole position is pretty natural. However, I can’t but wonder whether or not it would have been better to shuffle these design bits around and dedicate the whole top for a sort of handle. This would have forced the label to be moved down and could’ve taken most of the cart surface. Could’ve been an interesting take.

The NES cart is about twice as high as the FC cart despite the PCB inside is still the same size. I have seen some people having problems with that, as it does waste space and plastic, but ultimately it is a very good sized cartridge. It offers more tactile experience, but sadly the carts after all these years do look somewhat barren in comparison to the Eastern brethrens. Nevertheless, the standardised appearance and more utilitarian design does work, and as the carts are sitting inside the console, there were no need to add additional bells and whistles to them. The toploader NES did change this, but this is more the fault of the redesigned console than the carts’ had one them.

The NES carts are of good design. Unlike the FC carts, they the standard shape doesn’t leave anyone cold, but at the same time they are incredibly subdued. Not many companies add so much space for the sake of design, and Nintendo did good with these. If you wanted more eyecandy from them, just remember that they’re not something to have your eyes on; they’re just containers for the game inside.

It should be noted that the FC and NES carts use different number of pins and the insides are turned. They don’t mix and match. As such, when you put a FC game into a NES with the adapter, it needs to face wrong way. Same with the NES games on FC consoles. It’s kind of stupid to play Turtles III: The Manhattan Project on my AV Famicom facing the back to front.

Enter the Super Nintedo Family Entertainment Computer System
Enter the Super Nintendo Family Entertainment Computer System

The Super Nintendo never lied. It was essentially a super version of the NES in many ways. Unlike with the NES, all the core designs each side of the ponds adhered to the top load mechanism. Unlike with the NES, PAL region shared the same console and cart design with Japan. For whatever reason the US design saw a change.
The insides of the carts are the same this time around, PCBs facing the same side and all that. The US and JPN Super NES shared the same regional coding, so the shape is different and the US carts have grooves in the back for further prevention. Funnily enough, the PAL carts have nothing to prevent the user from inserting JPN games into PAL consoles.
The JPN/PAL design is more curved and fits most hands just fine. There’s small ridges in the sides of the cart, but they offer no real purpose outside visuals. They could be for adding more friction when the cart is pushed into the console, but it’s far more practical just to push it down from the top. The lines going from the all around the cart are neat little touches on otherwise a very NES like standardised appearance. The slot on the front of the cart is part of the locking mechanism. When the power is turned on, a tab is pushed there and this is what holds the cart in place. It also prevents ejection until power is turned off. The back of the cart has a slight texture, and this adds decent amount of friction, despite the Super NES carts having no need for it.
The size is now utilitarian, build to house just the PCB and nothing more. The plastic quality is still good, thou the larger size means that the same thickness of the shells can raise some worry. I actually own a Super Return of the Jedi with the back cracked in. The PCB itself is still in perfectly fine condition, but the amount of room the PCB has inside the shells is surprising. Next to this, the JPN/PAL carts feel slightly cheap despite the plastic quality.

The Super Famicom cart is pretty neat. It’s like the best of both words of FC and NES cart, but it lacks the end label. Otherwise it’s very pleasing thing to look at. Unlike with the NES cart, the whole surface of the JPN/EUR cart is covered with that fine texture. The cart fits fine with the console design itself, and the slight curves are met with few straights.
The US carts however are… I’ll just say it straight; I’m not a fan of the US redesign of the Super NES with its darker gray and purple. The cartridge of course mirrors the console and follows the similar rugged, almost prototype look the US console has. Gone are curves, in are straight lines and levels. The locking slot is in the exact same position, but lacks the textured lines of the JPN/PAL carts. Instead of vertical lines, the US cart has sectioned 1/6 on both sides of the carts for what I imagine is where you hold the cart from. The rectangle pattern returns from the NES carts in a different form and are much larger and wrap to the back of the cart. They don’t really add much friction, as the lines on the carts are too shallow and too far between to service in this fashion. As such, they seem to be more akin to visual lines, which is not all too horrible. However, the side sections are just perfect size for pushing the carts down with your thumbs, leaving the label nicely into your view.
The US Super NES carts have a juxtaposition where they are just a tad too busy with elements with little to no detail in them. This opposes the JPN/PAL cart, which has less larger areas like that, but has the little details on the side. On the positive side, the US cart has an end label, which is nothing short of great. Perhaps it would be applicable to say that the US cart suffers from having the US Super NES as its parent console. Nevertheless, if you like how the US console was redesigned, then you’ll most likely find the US cartridge more appealing than the JPN/EUR design. It’s interesting to look at the two designs and notice how they both have a mix if FC and NES cart designs, but in different amounts.

Sleek, stylish and surprisingly far removed from the general 90's designs
Sleek, stylish and surprisingly far removed from the general 90’s designs

The N64 cartridges on the hand are meagre in comparison to either 8-bit generation or 16-bit cartridges. The design path from Super NES to N64 cartridges is pretty clear and not necessarily a good thing.

First of all, there is only one version of the N64 cartridge. No regional variations. However, similar physical region locking still applied and the back mould had different slots between Japan and US once more to prevent people from playing games across regions. Let’s get the similarities off the table first.

The N64 cart has the same vertical lines for visual flavour as the Super NES cart and are relatively in the same place, framing the label in the middle. However, the label is now more confined and has more vertical dimension. It would seem similar area for holding the cartridge applies here as it did with the US Super NES cart, but lack any sort of texturing outside the fine grain. The N64 cart has also inherited both curves and straights from both Super NES carts, saving the curve for the top and being otherwise flat. This is closely tied to design of the console too, as the curve is exactly the same the N64’s front. It’s an excellent design consistency, something that lacked in previous consoles. Well, the NES did have it to some extent, but mostly because the NES was a box you pushed the cart in.

N64 carts are hefty. They are smaller than Super NES carts and their weight/size ratio is more closer to the FC carts, and perhaps are too heavy for their size. However, unlike the Super NES design, the N64 carts don’t feel cheap. On the contrary, a N64 cart feels almost like a luxary item with its sturdy build and the ever present high quality plastic.

While the design overall is rather minimalistic, the label is there to draw your eye in. The small concave areas at the lower front corners of the cart are there to add some good visual, but don’t take too much attention. They don’t serve any functional purpose, though adding just ever so slight guides into the cartridge port in the N64 could added some firmness in keeping the cart in place. The lack of locking and ejection mechanism had an impact on the design without a doubt and most certainly were taken away as a cost cutting method.

Sadly, N64 games lack end labels. However, the design doesn’t permit them from the get go. The curved top doesn’t allow the label to wrap to the top, but I would imagine a small section could have been reserved for a separate sticker.

Out of all Nintendo home console cartridges, at least from their main line, the N64 has the least elements to mention about. In a way it is the peak of Nintendo home console cartridge design, however I would argue otherwise. If there had been one more step, other than the 64DD, I would imagine Nintendo could’ve made a cartridge to finish all cartridges. A cartridge that would’ve become the very epitome what it means to have a part of the console itself in your hands. Nevertheless, as a swansong for home console cartridges from Nintendo, N64 carts do an admirable job in showing that a well designed and a well built piece is just a joy to use. It’s a well designed piece of hardware, it can proudly say it was the last.

(The reason why 64DD disks are not included in this is because 64DD was a failed addon and they were Zip Disks and not cartridges. GameCube also had a cartridge, but that was intended only for the developers and never for the home consumer.)

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