Review of the Month; 8bit Music Power Final

This one has been in the making for some time, mostly thanks to Amazon Japan never shipping my piece. I had to resort to proxy services to get a new copy and the sound jack expansion elsewhere. Rather than keep bitching, let’s jump to the review right away and start with the usual stuff on what’s on the outside.

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World needs more pastel blues

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Review of the Month; Hori Mini Commander for Famicom

Hori’s been a long time on the third-party controller market. Usually they are of pretty high quality, offering relatively cheap price for a solid, no-nonsense controller that serves just fine. I’ve covered quite a few Hori product on this blog, and I have to say that I do have a slight personal bias for their products due to my good experiences with them. Hell, I still use my Rockman.EXE GBA softcase that was designed for the Game Boy Advance, because it’s so well made. Currently it houses my European 3DS.

This time we’re going back to one of Hori’s earlier third-party controllers, the Famicom Mini Commander. It seems like Hori has been doing smaller alternatives since the start. This controller also seems to be relatively obscure, and is the miniature version of the more well-known Hori Famicom Commander. For a more comprehensive review, we’re also going to open the controller to see what it has eaten.

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I’m also using large file size with these photos, because I’m sick and tired of gnat-shit size pictures that are all around the net. Notice how neat Hori’s old logo is. More after the jump

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Monthly Review; Kira Kira Star Night DX

I reviewed 8-bit Music Power earlier this year, a new software title for the Famicom. Now, Riki has produced another title named Kira Kira Star Night under Columbus Circle, and this time it’s an actual game rather than a music album in cartridge form.

Before we start the game up, let’s check whether or not the hardware we have in our hands is as terrible as last time. If you want to be spoiled, the answer is a surprising No.

And now everybody has diabetes
And now everybody has diabetes because of  キラキラスターナイトDX

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Review of the Month; 8bit Music Power

The idea is solid; release an album of chiptunes on the actual hardware. There is an idea there, a niche idea for sure, but when done properly and executed well it should yield pretty damn good results. 8bit Music Power Seemingly does things well at first, but in the end it feels like lacking in quality.

The box is bright and fun looking
The box is bright and fun looking

The packaging itself at first looks pretty good. The cardboard is a bit thin, but for collectors this shouldn’t be an issue. It’s a tightly packed piece for sure and it feels as such in your hand.

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8Bit Music Power’s box is a tad smaller than your standard Famicom, box, a thing that will make it stand out in your shelf or among other Famicom software, and not in the good way.

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The reason why the packaging is different size the real standard sized FC boxes is because the box is just large enough to accommodate the cartridge itself. FC games come inside a plastic tray to keep them in place and add further shock protection, and this is something the 8bit Music Power should’ve done. It would’ve made an impact to the packaging cost, but seeing this is a niche product as it is, they could’ve taken the hit. The same things can be said of the manual, which is just a two page pamphlet repeating the same info that’s on the back of the box with obligatory information.

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The cartridge itself looks for the part at first glance. It’s neat, clean and the right size. However, it is very light and uses cheap and shiny plastic. You could snap it with your two hand without any troubles. It reminds me a lot of these extremely cheap Chinese knock-offs that not even Poundland would stock. The print quality on the label is excellent, just like with the box, but where the label has been put on doesn’t deliver. It simply doesn’t feel right or pleasant to handle. The Everdrive I reviewed last month has far better plastic than this.

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You can see some warping here and there already

Furthermore, whatever method has been used to produce these shells is not all too accurate. The design of the halves leaves a visible groove to the shells and the edges on the shells have sharp extra material. However, because of the cheapness of the plastic, these sharp points won’t cut, but you will feel them every time you handle the cartridge.

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Popping the cartridge open doesn’t take any effort, and I wish I hadn’t checked what’s inside. As you can see, the front of the PCB has two chips, which I assume are flash memory.

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All the logic the cartridge needs resides in that black blob. Under that blob of epoxy resin lies an IC, which handles all the logic the software needs. The two soldered wires, diodes and that cap don’t look too reliable and all this reeks of cheap. I didn’t expect them to produce their own FC cartridges to the same effort as with Everdrives or with official carts, but something better than this for sure. I can’t help but feel disappointed that the build quality doesn’t just feel, but is also visibly this low.

The music itself is what you’d expect from a Famicom/NES. As this is a music album rather than a game, your enjoyment will vary on what sort of tunes you like to listen to. For reference, I tend to favour songs that have a driving force and concentrate on the melody and beat rather than trickery.

There are eleven listed songs, all from different musicians. There is some range between the songs, some employing tricks that Tim Follin and his brother made known on the Commode 64. Some of the songs tend to rely on technical trickery, while others are more robust in their sounds, sounding almost something that you could hear in a high calibre FC/NES game. The composition level varies and because of that four to six are something that can withstand repeated listens. Even from that promotional trailer you can hear the difference in how things sound. Personal best from the album would be track seven, Oriental Mystique by Masahiro Kajihara. Some of them work as great background even if they’re not all that good songs and grow on you with repeated listens, but few just irritated the living shit out of me.

One of the interesting thing this album allows you to do is to turn off the individual channels. Some of the songs almost sound better with just one or two channels on, and it’s fun to mess with them now and then. However, you can’t forward or rewind any of the songs, so you just gotta listen them from the start to the end.

There is more music on the cartridge in form of few short jingles and me Option music. Of course, numerous sound effects are included, most of them used inside minigames the listener can play. They’re nothing worth of mentioning separately, but they visually pleasant.

Overall, the visual representation is beat, and while it doesn’t push the FC to its maximum. There are 41 different pictures, ranging from initial screens and logos to full-blown full screen illustrations. Some of these are impressive on their own rights, whereas others just let you down in terms of visuals. A lot of them are just big pixel reproductions of famous paintings and the like. Sticking with the original productions would’ve been the better choice, even if it had meant to cut down the amount of pictures.

Should you get this? If you’re a big fan of chip tunes and the core idea sounds appealing, search for your best deal. I would still recommend picking some samples off the Youtube or elsewhere, because the build quality did not meet my expectations at all, and as usual with your normal music albums, only few of the songs are actually good. Despite the chip tune market being niche, I wouldn’t outright recommend this to anyone without reservations.

You can check RIKI’s own website here for news and other stuff regarding the album.

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Of course, you need a Famicom or a NES and an adapter to listen to this. I’m running the album on a modified AV Famicom, leading straight to my home speaker set.

Review of the Month; Everdrive N8

Review of N8 Everdrive should really be one sentence; It works as intended with some exceptions. Check the unofficial compatibility list to see what works and what doesn’t.

Flashcarts are essentially a way to play a game’s image on real hardware. This has its benefits in that the game is supposedly going to run exactly the same as the real cartridge would. After all, the two share the exact same data. This is not exactly true, as game cartridges allowed developers to use different chips to add something special to the games. For example, Akumajou Densetsu, the Japanese Castlevania III, has a VRC6 coprocessor chip inside, which adds two pulse channels and a saw-wave channel. This makes the music sound much richer and more robust, and the music had to be simplified for the Western NES release due to the machine lacking support for expanded audio. Everdrive, or any other flashcart for the matter, do not have this chip inside of them. Instead, the chip’s functions are emulated.

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I know, I shouldn’t have my keyboard in the background. The Everdrive logo is pretty useless to have down there, it isn’t visible when its in use. It’s also a bit of an eyesore

Everdrive does admirable job in emulating the hardware the games were on. While NES/FC games have wide variety of hardware inside the cartridges, only handful of games use specialised chips. Some companies put out their own pieces as well, like the aforementioned VRC6 from Konami. While emulation on computer is pretty much wholly accurate, a lot of times they do away with some of the quirks of the original hardware, namely slowdowns. Other additional possibilities apply, like choice of different palettes, which can be a neat thing, even on physical consoles.

The Everdrive handles Famicom Disc System games just without any hitches, assuming your ROM image is good. Side changing is automated. I’ve been playing unlicensed games with the Everdrive, as there as some really mind-boggling peculiarities to explore for whole five minutes at a time. The FDS has a surprising amount of unlicensed games.

As I have the Famicom variant, it came inside a Famicom cartridge style casing. I say styled, because it has screws on the back and a cutout for the Micro-SD card and is made of different plastic. The slot was a bit too high in my piece, which is why I added a sliver of gray plastic to the top part. This stops misplacing the card inside the cartridge itself rather than being pushed inside the card slot. The casing is also slightly higher than standard Famicom cartridge.

No ridges at the sides either. The detailing isn't the best
No ridges at the sides either. The detailing isn’t the best

The plastic used is very similar to the real deal, but slightly softer and allows the cartridge to bend more. My piece also had an awful self-printed label on it, which I intend to replace in the near future. There was no label on the backside at all, which I find lacking in a product of this price range.

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I’ll probably just scan the label from Bug-te Honey and make some stickers that way
As you can see, the Everdrive doesn't fit a normal Famicom style casing. This one is Ice Climbers. I didn't want to pop Bug-tte Honey open, as opening a Famicom cart is relatively challenging and you can crack casing pretty badly if you're not careful
As you can see, the Everdrive doesn’t fit a normal Famicom style casing. This one is Ice Climbers. I didn’t want to pop Bug-tte Honey open, as opening a Famicom cart is relatively challenging and you can crack casing pretty badly if you’re not careful

The main question I had for the Everdrive was whether or not it would ultimately end up being the similarly useless thing as having ROMs on your computer’s HDD. Emulation sure simplifies things, but in the end it’s emulation and not the real thing. It’s like eating a copy of your favourite chocolate. It sure tastes similar, but it’s got that bona fide fake taste. We’ve talked about emulation before, let’s not go into that discussion here.

I have found myself enjoying Everdrive in a very different fashion from emulation on PC. Rather than giving some random game a go for five minutes until I’m bored, playing on actual hardware has that something in it. Putting the cartridge in, putting the console one and the software is on. It’s straightforward and fast. The OS in Everdrive is not pretty, and it only serves as the most minimal way to get you to the games. It’s a bit finicky at places, like how you are to input Game Genie codes before launching the game, but all this seems to be designed speed in mind. You don’t want to dilly dally in the menus.

Anyway, playing games on the real hardware and with the intended controller elevates Everdrive. It’s all in the feeling and looks of it all and how it runs. It is, without a doubt, the best play to a game on a hardware it was intended to be played on without having the real copy. Everdrive won’t ever be the same thing as the real deal, but it comes damn close. It’s an option, if you don’t want to put any stress on your collection, and of course it allows you to try out games before deciding whether or not you want to pay that overly high price some sellers are asking.

Is Everdrive worth it? If you’re in the niche who want to play ROMs on real hardware without collecting physical games, this is for you. Everdrives are constantly being developed forwards and the aim is minimize the incompatibilities even further. I do see it trivialising any game to an extent, as one of the thing with physical medium is that you feel the work you’ve done to gain it in your very hands. Everdrive in itself emulates that physicality, but is that enough? If your answer is Yes, then Everdrive N8 and its brethren might be up your alley.

Games on your wall

There’s a Kickstarter up called Linked to the Wall, which aims to create game cartridge wall mounts. The driving idea they have is that games are made into similar form as paintings, framed to the wall. The idea seems to be solid in principle, but there’s few problems, one logistic, that they are either side-stepping or haven’t thought about.

Looking at the prototypes they have, I have to question why do they need to create separate wall mounts to different cartridges. They want to streamline and eliminate all possible manufacturing problems by creating a solid piece of plastic, which is understandable and admirable to a point, but also tells me they want to produce these as cheaply and fast as possible. Designing a wall mount that would be adjustable according to a cartridge’s width isn’t terribly hard. Designing it well is somewhat challenging. Smaller cartridges, like the Game Boy, Game Gear and GB Advance carts would require a smaller solution, one they are also offering, but again with a different mounts for each cartridge. Their design is also lacking Famicom cart design.

Let’s take a look at the depth of the cartridge connectors’ grooves between a Famicom, NES, Mega Drive, Super NES and N64 game carts. To measure the depth, I am using metal ruler that starts from 0mm at its end and a caliper to measure the width of the connector groove.

The depth of a Famicom connector groove is just shy of 12mm
The depth of a Famicom connector groove is just shy of 12mm
The width of a Famicom cart is 85mm
The width of a Famicom cart is 85mm

Let’s put the NES images up before we compare the two.

19mm, perhaps just slightly over
19mm, perhaps just slightly over
10.5mm
10.5mm

The Famicom cart is shallower than its Western counterpart on either direction. The width is not a problem with either of these in the design they are currently using. The depth is a minor inconvenience, but 10mm is more than enough build a prong that holds  NES cart in place. The plastic thickness is not a problem either, as long as the prongs are not made of too rigid material, which is a given. An adjustable arm could allocate both FC and NES carts just fine, as their design currently places the cartridge on two prongs that supports both front and back with one additional support column going into the groove. This additional piece is what keeps the cart straight, whereas the main prongs take the carts’ weight.

Their prototypes have been 3D printed and it shows. All the larger cartridges they have are slightly slanted forwards. This means they don’t only need to invest into material research than just create injection moulds.

The Mega Drive carts' groove is different shape between Western and Japanese versions. However, their backs are the same width
The Mega Drive carts’ groove is different shape between Western and Japanese versions. However, their backs are the same width.
9mm
9mm
Just a shy of 91mm
Just a shy of 91mm

The Mega Drive carts’ groove depth is a bit shallower than either FC or NES carts’, but the width is between NES’ and FC’s. Because the MD cart is shallower, the support column would need to be 1mm shorter, but at this scale and weight that’s not an issue with the right material.

11mm in depth
11mm in depth
97mm, I most likely jammed the instrument a bit too hard in

Super NES/Famicom cartridges have the same width and depth across the board despite their different outer appearance between US and EUR/JPN region. The NES still has the widest groove, meaning SNES carts shouldn’t pose a problem with an adjustable arm.

11mm in depth
11mm in depth
71.5mm in width
71.5mm in width

The N64 has similar depth to the FC carts, but a Mega Drive cartridge still beats it. It’s width is the smallest, which means the adjustable hand should be at that size, minimum.

Let’s say that the adjustable arm is a design where there’s basically two tubes inside each other and you pull them out. If the minimum width is 70mm, it’s has enough room to spread at least 40mm either direction, adding a whopping extra 80mm to the total width, making the arm at 150mm at maximum, an unneeded amount. The needed width could be marked down with slots a peg slides into or with a small screw, both low in profile if done right. Another option is to position the adjuster the point where the mount is secured to the wall. Just have two slaps of plastic that you screw together at whatever distance from each you want. They wouldn’t even need to make large change in their current design to accommodate this.

If you have an access to a 3D printer, you could actually just use these measurements and do your own mounts if you wanted.

With Game Boy and GB Advance games, you have the exact same width and depth with both cartridges and there’s no good reason why to have separate mounts for both of them. Have the support wedged slightly into the connector groove and it would keep either GB or GBA carts in place.

A thing that I haven’t mentioned at all is thickness. For the record, here are the measurements for the carts used:
FC – 17mm

NES – 16.5mm

MD – 17mm

SFC/EUR SNES – 19.8mm in the middle, 17mm at screw point

US SNES – 20mm in the middle section, 17mm in outer sections

N64 – 18.9mm before tapering out

Having the main supports elongating to 18mm should be just fine, keeping the mount low profile. With the adjustable design, you could have the support prongs holding the cartridge in place with similar level of low profile.

The design given in the Kickstarter also leaves the cartridges’ connectors all open for further oxidation. While this is supposed to be a solution to problem of having games in boxes, which is really a non-problem to begin with, at least in these boxes the games were sealed from excess moisture and other unwanted materials floating in the air.

The problem of connectors being exposed is not really all that easy to solve without additional design tweaking. To keep the production as low as possible, you really can’t have luxuriously separate pieces that would seal the grooves, as they have a different height. The height with Nintendo’s cartridges’ are pretty solid 10-12mm, with N64 having the largest height, but also the thickest wall. Mega Drive’s height is same as N64’s; 12mm. The wall thickness is not the same across the board either. An adjustable solution for this would not be too low profile. A solution would be to have the lower support be thin enough but strong enough to be adjusted according the width and height, but as mentioned that’d skyrocket the costs both in design and production.

They also have basically opened some of the game boxes in their examples. These cardboard boxes are hard to come by as it is, and opening them as such ruins them. I hope they used a scan copy from the Internet.

I also have to question their advertisement slogan “Turn your games into unique wall art!” seeing there are thousands of these games out there.

Of course, you could also do what I did to throw some of my games to the wall and save some room while you’re at it. Just pick some shelves from Ikea and put your games on it. You can put more games on the wall that way, save some money and protect them from dust. Plus, when you’re tired with them you can use the shelves for whatever else than just stash the frames and mounts away.

Not saying this is the best solution, but sometimes the simplest solution is the best
Not saying this is the best solution or the prettiest, but sometimes the simplest solution is the best on the long run

Review of the Month; Hotblooded High school Dodgeball Club: Soccer Chapter/ Nintendo World Club

The end of the month always creeps on me. I never realise that it’s here until I have no time to react. As such, have a game review of Nekketsu Koukou Dodgeball-bu Soccer Hen, or the translation in the title, or the English localisation known as Nintendo World Cup. For the sake of this review, I will call the game as Nekketsu Soccer, even if that’s inaccurate by all accounts. While I would like to use football in this post, I will use soccer to differentiate it from hand egg.

The Famicom and NES saw a lot of great sports titles, and sports titles were the thing adults went for the NES. Some games like Kick Off replicated the real soccer as closely as possible at the time, thou it should be noted that the home of the series is on Amiga, meaning the NES version was a port of a computer game. It showed, and the game ultimately wasn’t really all that fun.

Nekketsu Soccer on the other hand is just fun. It doesn’t concern itself with most rules of soccer, mostly just resorting to the idea of getting the ball into the opposition’s goal with your feet. What adds the flavour to the whole deal is the cartoon violence Kunio games are known for. You can actually tackle your opponents enough times to cause them permanently be floored on the field, and they can do the same thing to you. In addition, some fields are less than properly taken care of, leaving stones for you and other players to trip on. It’s hysterical at times and lots of fun.

Nekketsu Soccer does what the series should be always stick with; simplicity. There’s no unnecessarily complex commands to use, as the player controls just one character at any given time. Because of this, the controls are tight and as responsive as they should be. The team control is done via commands that reflect the overall simplicity very well. When one of your team mate has the ball, you can tell them to Pass it to you or Shoot. Otherwise they will advance towards the goal and act according to their AI. When the enemy has the ball, you are able to tell them either Tackle or Slide. As mentioned, tackle some poor bastard enough and he won’t be getting up anytime soon. I remember playing few rounds so that every single opponent outside the goalkeeper was down.

There’s also a secret weapon; the Super Kick. By hitting A and B together you’re able to hit the ball with a scissors kick, launching the ball towards the goal while sending any opposition flying high. Well, almost. There’s limit how many times you can use it and its power varies a little bit. You also need to hit it while the ball is in the air, meaning that you need to command your team mate to pass it to you. Timing the kick is a bit tricky at first, but once you get the timing right, you’re able to repeat it with ease.

Each round has 1min 30sec timer, and in that time you can usually score relatively high in early games, but later one when the AI actually starts getting competent you might find yourself working hard to keep the ball and enemies dead on the ground. These short burst work the best for the overall pace of the game.

Speaking of the AI, each team has its own strengths and weaknesses, thou some do seem to share similar approaches on how they act. Some tend to pass more often, some just rely on hard tackling while there seems to be those who keep really damn close to your players and steal the ball whenever possible.

The music sounds striking, but it’s not memorable. It gets you pumped and while it does leave a lasting impression, you don’t really hum any of the themes too much afterwards. It’s perfect background music and fits the game.

It’s a damn fun soccer game, one of the few I can pop in and just play for the sake of fun. If you’re looking for some light cartoony soccer, this game is for you. Hell, even if you don’t like soccer, give it a look anyways.

The game is sparse in its graphics department, and there are some flickering and very rare slowdowns. Technosoft did their best giving the stages some variety, but there’s only so much you can do with a soccer field. The characters use the now classic 8-bit Kunio series sprites, and as such are very cartoonish, especially when hit hard with their eyes bulging out. They’re not necessarily very Japanese in their visual, thou if you know where they comes from, it’s pretty clear that the characters are some sort of mish mash of super deformation and mushrooms.

Now, you might wonder what are the differences between Nekketsu Soccer and its Western localisation, Nintendo World Cup. Well, first of all, Nintendo World Cup supports four player mode through the NES 4-Score, and that’s awesome. However, if you don’t have three friends to sit down with you, you can do just fine with the two-player option in Nekketsu Soccer. Additionally, Nintendo World Cup cut all the cutscenes that existed in Nekketsu Soccer, because it has no links tying itself to the previous game, Nekketsu KouKou Dodge Ball club, even if the games was localised as Super Dodge Ball in the West as well. You’re not really missing with the intermissions, they’re just Kunio messing around. Because Nintendo World Cup made the game’s teams international, you do lose that special relation with each of the team, as they originally had a special title card for each of the match. This is understandable, as you really can’t expect to see Buddhist priests as Team Germany or similar. They still have some images showcasing the opposition, but they’re a bit more simpler in overall terms, and they still seem to use the same musical cues as the Japanese version. The round times are also a lot more longer, which kinda forces the game to overstay its welcome.

From the Kunio Sports titles, Nekketsu Soccer is one of the stronger titles. Perhaps it is simplified to a fault, where after exhausting its contents there’s not much to return to, but grabbing a few friends to play this shouldn’t be too much a problem. Despite that, it’s a title worth returning to, especially in an era where most high profile games tend to become unnecessarily complex.

Trivia; my copy of Super Mario Bros., Nintendo World Cup and Tetris was almost destroyed by a dog. The dog managed to get its teeth on the cart when we left it with the game in car for five minutes. It would act strangely, sometimes resetting the game by itself or refusing to play anything but Tetris.