Posted in Video Games

Nintendo’s Forgotten Console Peripherals

In this age of console apps and services, the good old physical peripheral is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Back in the 80s and 90s, barely a console on the market didn’t have a raft of premium add-ons available for it. Nintendo were the master of this (because Nintendo like money) and have created some truly iconic pieces of plastic tat accessories to go with their consoles, from the NES Zapper to the GameBoy Camera.

Not all of Nintendo’s consoles peripherals are as well remembered though, whether they were successful or not. Here is a look at some of them.

 

Primer: the Nintendo Family Computer (the Japanese NES). Photo from National Videogame Archive
Primer: the Nintendo Family Computer (the Japanese NES).
Photo from National Videogame Archive

Famicom Disk System

In the US and Europe, the NES was a pretty simple system – slot in the game cart, plug in some controllers, remove the cartridge, blow on the connectors (actually doing more damage to the pins than helping), reinsert cartridge, wiggle it about a bit and you’re away. There wasn’t much else to it beyond the Zapper lightgun and ROB if you were lucky/rich.

The NES was very different in Japan though. For a start, it was called the Famicom (short for Family Computer), the controllers were hardwired in, the console looked completely different and there was a raft of other accessories that really made the ‘computer’ part of the name make sense. One of these was the Famicom Disk System. By inserting a special cartridge and then running a cable from that to Disk System hardware, the FDS allowed the Famicom to read floppy disks. Why? Well to play games of course.

Famicom Disk System. Bear in mind the Famicom is much smaller than the NES. Photo from Wikipedia
Famicom Disk System. Bear in mind the Famicom is much smaller than the NES.
Photo from Wikipedia

Many titles released in the West on normal NES carts were released in Japan on the disk system, including Metroid, Kid Icarus and even The Legend of Zelda. The Disk System offered a cheaper alternative to cartridges, especially factoring in the ability to save progress. For a cartridge game to offer a real save system, it needs a battery added to the innards of the cart, which was relatively expensive. With a disk, the console can just write the data onto the game disk, no problem. In the West, resuming a game of Metroid requires entering a password (which is essentially a code telling the game your stats), but in Japan, you could save and reload your progress just as you would on any normal video game.

Famicom Disk Card for the original Zelda. Note the lack of shutter (slidey metal bit) on the disk, which made it easy to inadvertently damage the actual disc. Photo from Wikipedia
Famicom Disk Card for the original Zelda. Note the lack of shutter (slidey metal bit) on the disk, which made it easy to inadvertently damage the actual disc.
Photo from Wikipedia

The rewritability of floppy disks provided another cool boon for the Disk System: Disk Writer kiosks. By the mid-80s, renting video games in Japan was illegal (to cut down piracy) and cartridge based games were expensive. The Disk System allowed Nintendo to offer a cheap alternative. You could buy a blank Disk Card at a Disk Writer kiosk, pay a relatively cheap amount and get a new game written onto it, to play as long as you like. It’s effectively an unlimited rental service – you want a new game, you have to write over the one currently on the Disk Card or buy a new Disk Card. A Disk Written game cost about a tenth of the price of a new cartridge game, but obviously had no matching case and the manual would be printed out by the kiosk clerk. You could also buy proper retail copies of Disk System games, which were as swanky as cartridge games, for about half the price.

Size comparison of various NES/Famicom media. Your NES carts are mostly dead space. Photo from Retro Isle
Size comparison of various NES/Famicom media. Your NES carts are mostly dead space.
Photo from Retro Isle

In a way, the Disk System shows the roots of downloadable games on Steam and Xbox Marketplace – they’re cheaper than ‘proper’ retail games, but feel more ethereal due to their lack of physical elements.

Amazingly, the Disk Writer kiosks were still around into the early 00s, around the time of the GameCube’s launch. The Disk System inspired the infamous 64DD, a similar system designed for the N64. Whereas the Famicom Disk System was likely never intended for the West, the 64DD was, but quickly became delayed and ever less likely as it failed to take off in Japan.

General retail version of Metroid for the FDS. Photo from N-Sider
General retail version of Metroid for the FDS.
Photo from N-Sider

For much more on the Famicom Disk System, check out FamicomDiskSystem.com

Nintendo Power

No, not the American magazine, but a service designed to follow on from the Famicon Disk System. Rather than recreate the FDS for the SNES and GameBoy, Nintendo created a similar service using variant cartridges called flash carts. They’re like a USB stick, but cartridge shaped, allowing the user to rewrite data on them. Third party versions are popular with emulator users, who want to play downloaded ROMs on original consoles.

They're bright white because they're flash carts. Photo from Wikipedia
They’re bright white because they’re flash carts.
Photo from Wikipedia

The advantages of using Power cartridges rather than buying full retail games were many. The flash carts were cheap and having the games put on them (from a kiosk system similar to the FDS) was again cheaper than buying a full retail version. You could store more than one game on a cart as well (depending on the size of the game), which was cost effective.

A Nintendo Power kiosk in the wild.  Photo from Dizrythmia's Tumblr
A Nintendo Power kiosk in the wild.
Photo from Dizrythmia’s Tumblr

Again, Nintendo used the Power service to release games not available at full retail (or not initially) such as Fire Emblem Thracia 776, which was released on Nintendo Power in 1999 (and was later given a proper SNES release in 2000). The service was still running as late as 2007, the same time as the Wii and DS were available, the consoles three generations removed from the SNES and GameBoy.

Famicom Data Recorder, Famicom BASIC

The Disk System wasn’t Nintendo’s first attempt to provide non-cartridge save systems for the Famicom. That was the Famicom Data Recorder, which used regular cassette tapes to record data. It was originally designed to work with the Famicom BASIC, a programming kit that came with a keyboard that plugged into one of those mysterious expansion ports on the underside of the Famicom (and which you’ll find on most other Nintendo consoles).

Also doubles as the Famicom bedroom radio show recorder! Photo from Wikipedia
Also doubles as the Famicom bedroom radio show recorder!
Photo from Wikipedia

BASIC allowed you to create your own programs and games (programmed in BASIC, hence the name), essentially making the Famicom the equivalent of a British system like a Spectrum. Games would be saved onto tapes using the Data Recorder and then loaded up whenever, traded to friends etc. Pretty basic stuff (ho ho).

The Data Recorder was also compatible with regular commercial games though. Launch titles Mach Rider, Wrecking Crew and Excitebike offered track and level creators, but in the West, there was no ability to save these for future use. The reason? Because it required the Data Recorder, which wasn’t available outside of Japan, due to hardware differences between the Famicom and NES. In Japan, gamers could save their custom Excitebike tracks for as long as they liked, but the West had to make due til the system powered off, rendering the entire mode virtually useless.

That colour scheme really brings a keyboard to life, eh? Photo from Nintendo World Report
That colour scheme really brings a keyboard to life, eh?
Photo from Nintendo World Report

The Data Recorder doesn’t really have much of a legacy, but it highlights the differences, both in hardware and marketing, between the Famicom and NES. The NES was sold in the US, and thus by extension in Europe, as solely a games machine, a toy even. The earlier crash in the console market meant that retailers were wary of a new console system. Nintendo essentially had to dumb down the Famicom to get US retailers interested. That meant stripping away things like the Data Recorder and BASIC, peripherals that would have put the NES on the same level as the affordable home computers that dominated the British market in the 80s. The success of this really helped to shape the console market as it is now, pushing PC style elements to the side in favour of a simpler gaming focus.

NES Satellite

Wireless controllers are a standard feature on consoles these days, for which I think we can all be thankful. Anyone who’s had to try and pass a TV while four wired controllers are in use or accidentally pulled a console off its table by the controller cable knows what I’m talking about.

Note the four controller ports and the.... I'm sorry, I feel asleep due to how dull this design is. Photo from Wikipedia
Note the four controller ports and the…. I’m sorry, I feel asleep due to how dull this design is.
Photo from Wikipedia

Wireless tech has built up gradually over the years and is ever improving. The Wii U Pro Controller is perhaps the best on the market at the moment, being a solid yet lightweight controller that charges internal batteries through a small port and offers amazing longevity. Nintendo may not have been first to have wireless controllers as standard for their consoles, but they’ve led the way with the technology. And no, I don’t mean the Wavebird.

Released in 1989, the NES Satellite was a wireless controller system. Sort of. More of a wireless range extender. The system came with two parts. The first was an infrared sensor that plugged into both of the NES’ controller ports. This would then communicate with a battery-powered deck, into which you could plug four controllers.

There are a lot of pros and cons to this concept. While you are extending the range of your controllers and even getting a four player multitap out of it as well, you need perfect line of sight between the two components, which isn’t easy, especially if you’re actually making full use of the four ports and have four players in the room. You’re still using wires anyway, between the controllers and deck and between the sensor and console, so it’s not as tidy as modern wireless controllers. Plus, it’s battery powered, which isn’t terribly convenient.

Four Score and seven years ago, I designed a grey brick of a multi-tap. Photo from Wikipedia
Four Score and seven years ago, I designed a grey brick of a multi-tap.
Photo from Wikipedia

Nintendo neutered the Satellite the next year with the FourScore, a wired multitap which offered four player gaming cheaper and with less hassle. But the Satellite shows the roots of wireless controllers and is perhaps surprising in demonstrating how early the technology was (sort of) available.

Famicom Modem, Famicom TV-Net Adapter

You know all those lame online channels on the Wii? The News Channel, the Weather Channel, all that stuff you looked at twice when you got the console and then realised you’d never have any real need to use if you owned a smartphone or PC? Well they weren’t Nintendo’s first attempt at online interaction.

Anyone else getting a kind of Thundercats Lair vibe from that? No? Photo from Wikipedia
Anyone else getting a kind of Thundercats Lair vibe from that? No?
Photo from Wikipedia

The Famicom Modem is exactly what it sounds like – a modem that plugs into the cart slot and an expansion port of the Famicom and allowed it to go online. It was designed to run games, but none was released, so it was instead used for a variety of not terribly interesting sounding activities, such as reading news about Nintendo, game previews and reviews and oh, you know, trading on the stock market.

As we’ve established, the NES and the Famicom were fairly different machines, so you’d hope the user base was fairly different as well. Can you imagine a typical American 80s Nintendo kid taking time out from Super Mario to hop online and buy some shares in a new tech start-up? It would make War Games look credible. That said, I would love to believe there was at least one legitimate Japanese stock trader who made a sweet, multi-million pound deal using the Famicom in his living room.

This card is either for the Famicom Modem or for a very niche strip club. Photo from GlitterBerri's comprehensive Famicom Modem article
This card is either for the Famicom Modem or for a very niche strip club.
Photo from GlitterBerri’s comprehensive Famicom Modem article

The TV-Net adapter was a similar peripheral, allowing the Famicom to connect to a normal phone line, except instead of accessing the Nintendo Daily Joke Service (that’s not a dig, there was a daily joke service), it allowed the user to watch TV channels. I’ve tried digging up information on said channels, but actual details seems scarce (and I don’t know much about Japanese TV networks anyway) but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume they were as vapid and anaemic as things like the Kirby Channel on the Wii, which showed only episodes of that crap Kirby cartoon at set times everyday. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if said TV networks were little more than something like Ceefax or Teletext, but that’s just speculation.

Still, these accessories are another example of Nintendo having bizarrely prescient ideas about where the console market could and would go – a one stop system that covered all entertainment needs – and then abandoning it for decades. Nintendo is still thought of as being behind on online gaming and services (which isn’t entirely fair, as the Wii U is refreshingly nice to use online) so it’s a surprise to find they pioneered such services. Just.

A photo of the mysterious TV Net adapter Photo from Japan Games.
A photo of the mysterious TV Net adapter
Photo from Japan Games.

NES Lockout / Safecare Homework First

Lots of elements of technology that are done digitally or through software used to be physical hardware. Just look at dialling a phone for example. Or region locks on games and media. Now they’re simply a bit of code that prevents you from using an imported product, but back in the day of cartridge based consoles, region locks were enforced by making the actual cartridges different shapes.

The irrational, reactionary qualities run through even to the shoddy packaging. Photo from Tiny Cartridge
The irrational, reactionary qualities run through even to the shoddy packaging.
Photo from Tiny Cartridge

And then there are parental controls. These days you can put settings on media boxes, TVs and consoles to limit what a child can watch or play and even for how long. Back in the 80s, it was a little more physical.

The Homework First is essentially a steering lock, but for your NES. It clamps to the console and bars the cartridge slot, only being released by a combination lock. That’s an admirably blunt way of restricting console use, although better parenting might be a cheaper alternative. I imagine it would also pay to check there’s not a game in there already, because if there is, you’re not so much locking out gaming, just choice.

Famicoin

There’s not really much to say about the Famicoin. It was a small plastic circle with a D-pad indentation on the bottom, allowing you to secure it over your NES controller’s d-pad. Why would you want to do that? Well, supposedly it would make it easier to use and reduce the likelihood of blisters and irritation on the thumb. Given that every main Nintendo controller since the NES has still had a D-pad instead of a large circular glob of plastic, I’m sceptical that it worked really, though I suppose it is the root of the NES Max controller. As well as having a pronged design, similar to those that appeared in the mid-90s, the Max replaced the D-pad with a weird circular alternative. It was not popular. You could argue that was the root of inspiration for the circle-pads found on the 3DS, but that’s really just a flattened analogue stick.

Yep, they're certainly round plastic discs alright. Photo from RetroMMGN
Yep, they’re certainly round plastic discs alright.
Photo from RetroMMGN

Satellaview

Unless you count the slow, buggy and thoroughly lame games that were briefly available on Sky Digital back in the late 90s, video games haven’t really bothered with satellite technology (because really, why would they?) Except they have!

Satellaview was a chunky SNES accessory only released in Japan that, through the most complicated confluence of schedules, peripherals and satellite broadcasting, allowed users to do a) do a variety of internet-lite activities and b) play games sent to them from space!

Not to be confused with the similarly chunky prototype SNES-CD system. Photo from Wikipedia
Not to be confused with the similarly chunky prototype SNES-CD system.
Photo from Wikipedia

Satellaview would broadcast games at set times and users could store information from these (in some cases the full game, in others just save data) onto blank 8mb data cards that plugged into the main Satellaview cartridge (a bit like a Super GameBoy set-up). These games varied from broadcasts of normal retail releases, remixes and improved versions of existing games, beta versions of upcoming games and some exclusive new games, including three Zelda games (so yes, there are Zelda games you can never play, to go with those CD-i ones you should never play).

Assembles in just 39 easy steps! Photo from Wikipedia
Assembles in just 39 easy steps!
Photo from Wikipedia

Some games (such as the Zeldas) could only be played at the time of broadcast, which allowed for specially paced games, enhanced with radio broadcast voice acting woven into them. By all accounts it was an immersive and successful combination. Broadcast limited games also allowed for live competitions between users, an idea that would really take off when online gaming got going. Satellaview wasn’t really online though and is a quaint, technically impressive, dead-end technology. The amount of kit required to get it working, along with the restrictive need to adhere to a broadcast schedule, meant it was completely impractical on a large scale. It worked in Japan, yes, but there’s no way it would have functioned in the US, where even satellite TV has limited practicality. Despite running from 95 to 99 (when Nintendo fell out with the satellite radio broadcaster St Giga), Satellaview really proved that the internet was the best way to go.

Of course the Zelda where you can play as a girl would never see the light of day again. Photo from GameFAQs
Of course the Zelda where you can play as a girl would never see the light of day again.
Photo from GameFAQs

One interesting aspect of Satellaview was that the main system, through which you accessed the broadcast games and other services, was a game itself, called The Story Of The Town Whose Name Was Stolen. This gameified hub menu system was a precursor to things like Microsoft’s Game Room and Sony’s Playstation Home, an attempt to create games within games to enhance the player experience.

 

So those are some of the forgotten peripherals made for Nintendo consoles. I’ve stuck (mainly) with first party ones but there is a wealth of even weirder (and crappier) third party examples out there. What I find interesting about Nintendo’s peripherals is that they show surprising foresight about where console gaming went in the future. Admittedly it wasn’t always taken there by Nintendo, but it just goes to show that there are few truly new and revolutionary ideas. Just lots of weird ones.


If you enjoyed reading this, please consider buying me a (virtual) coffee on Ko-Fi. In the interests of honesty, I should point out that I’m more likely to use the money to buy a hot chocolate, as I don’t drink coffee, but there isn’t a Ho-Cho platform. Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

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Author:

Martin Smith is a writer living in Gloucestershire, England. He also dabbles in design work and is an avid researcher into the psychic potential of armadillos.

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