Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The NES Garage Cart - The Father of NES Homebrew Cartridges



In June of 2005, Memblers (Joey Parnell), the webmaster of NesDev.com, offered for sale a cartridge he called the NES Garage Cart.  The NES Garage Cart is significant because it is the first known homebrew NES cartridge ever published.  Approximately 24 were hand-made and individually numbered.  The last Nintendo Entertainment System cartridge that had been officially released was the unlicensed game Sunday Funday in 1995.  In 1998 there was a cache of 1,500 Cheetamen II cartridges found and sold, but no new cartridges thereafter was made available for sale in any kind of quantity, however modest, until Memblers came along.


The NES Garage Cart is a multi-cart containing three games.  The first two, Munchie Attack and Hot Seat Harry, are games from Memblers himself.  The third game is Solar Wars from Chris Covell.  Solar Wars probably has the distinction of being the first homebrew game ever released for the NES.  None of these games were officially released in standalone cartridge form.  The games individually are free to distribute and can be found here : http://www.nesworld.com/index.php in the "Homebrew" section.  They all play well in a NES PowerPak or EverDrive N8.

There are NTSC and PAL versions of the Garage Cart, more of the former exist.  He printed up some rough labels and hand numbered the carts and sold them to NesDev forum members like me who were willing to pay.  No box and no manual were included, it would be years before you could expect such amenities with homebrew cartridges.


Hot Seat Harry is a simple button mashing game that only takes up 1KB of ROM space.  You have to get the dot in the center to touch the CPU player before he gets the got to your player.














Munchie Attack is a simple eat food, avoid non-food game that only uses the D-Pad and takes up 4KB of ROM space.

Both games were made for mini-game competitions held in 2002 and 2003, respectively.  They would easily fit inside the smallest 16KB/8KB NES NROM board, but will require replacing CHR-ROM with CHR-RAM.  Munchie Attack uses horizontal mirroring, Hot Seat Harry uses vertical mirroring.














Solar Wars is a tank aiming game in the vein of Scorched Earth where you set the velocity and angle of your tank's shots.  You have to deal with terrain, gravity (each planet has different gravity) and the position of the other tank, which can be moved on a player's turn.  Solar Wars was originally developed in 1999, but was burnt to EPROMs and tested with a real NES.  Many NES  projects in the early days used inaccurate emulators like Nesticle and would fail on real hardware and later emulators which were more accurate.  Solar Wars is much larger than Munchie Attack and Hot Seat Harry combined.  It uses a 32KB PRG-ROM and a 32KB CHR-ROM and requires a CNROM bankswitching board set to vertical mirroring.














All these games were made long before custom development boards were available.  Homebrew games were tested and made in the early days by cannibalizing cheaper NES boards and cartridge shells.  While they still are to some extent, there are now development boards available in sufficient quantities and from a few vendors (Memblers being one of them).  While they may not rival Nintendo's MMC5 or Konami's VRC VII, they can do a lot more than just simple PRG/CHR bankswitching these days.  They even use replacement CIC lockout chips.

NES Garage Cart Rear - Look Familiar?
While Chris Covell put up instructions on his site for Solar Wars to make your own cartridge copy, he never sold it in cartridge format himself.  Memblers decided to release a series of homebrew cartridges with the label of "Garage Cart".  He has not yet released a successor to the original Garage Cart, but he is still working on it.  For the Garage Cart, he used the most common NES game in existence for his board, Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt.  This game often comes with the Mask ROMs contained within bonded epoxy blobs, but some cartridges use a board with DIP-style packaged Mask ROMs.  The board with real chips is the NES-MHROM board, which supports PRG and CHR bankswitching.  Mirroring is hardwired to vertical mirroring on this PCB, which was only used for SMB/DH.

Garage Cart PCB Front
SMB/DK uses 64KB of PRG-ROM and 16KB of CHR-ROM.  The board itself can accept up to a 32KB CHR-ROM without modification.  The Garage Cart uses a 64KB One Time Programmable EPROM (no quartz UV erasure window) for the PRG-ROM.  However, what makes the cartridge unique, functionally, is that it does not use CHR-ROM, in its place it has 32KB of CHR-RAM (a.k.a. V-RAM).  Only a few cartridges use bankswitched CHR-RAM, such as Videomation.

In order to implement the RAM, a wire has to connect the RAM chip's write enable pin to the CHR-RAM enable pin on the cartridge connector.  It is a very simple modification and no other rewiring is required because the pinouts for the ROM chips Nintendo used and the S-RAM and EPROM chips Memblers used are identical save for the one exception noted above  The game could be dumped with a CopyNES using Mapper 66 parameters and does run in an emulator properly supporting the iNES 2.0 standard.  The ROM is not publicly available but it can be emulated if your emulator or your flash cart supports the proper iNES 2.0 parameters.

Garage Cart PCB Back

When I received my cart, I only had my Famicom A/V and a 72-to-60 pin converter.  It worked just fine except that the title screen in Solar Wars would show some jumpiness.  I sent it back to Memblers who opined that it could have been due to Solar Wars using color palette entry $0D, the "blacker than black" entry.  $0D is so close to a TV's blanking signal that some TVs may show visual anomalies or glitches if it is used.  I have a CRT that will show anomalies when that color finds its way into games.  Memblers patched my copy to use the regular $0F instead of $0D for black, but the problem still persisted when I received the cartridge back.  I solved the problem by using a Game Genie and then later a front-loading NES (it does occur seldomly on the latter).  According to Memblers, no one else complained of the issue, so I would have been the only person to receive a hardware revision of the NTSC version.

When you turn the power on your NES with the cartridge inserted, you are treated to a menu selection screen and given a choice for each game.  Specially-composed music plays in the background and there is animation and a pattern being drawn on the screen until you select the game.  The menu has three pieces of music, the game starts with the piece that will play if you reset the console after selecting Solar Wars.  The other two games will allow you to hear another piece of music if you reset after playing each one.














I bought Garage Cart #5 for approximately $42.00 plus shipping in 2004.  However, other than the menu, there was nothing unique about the software.  The games were all freely available and playable.  I noticed that the Garage Cart had steadily climbed in value over the years.  When the value had increased from $100-200 to $700-800, I knew the day would come when I would have to part with mine.

I decided on using NintendoAge instead of eBay to auction off my cartridge.  I did not want to pay eBay's final value fee on top of the PayPal transaction fee.  Moreover, I believed that any collector who would be interested in the Garage Cart would be on the NintendoAge forum.   I let the auction go for seven days.  I would not use any of that cheap nonsense about extending the auction by 2 minutes past the end time each time another bid came in.  QuiBids this is not!  The final bid came in at $1,870.00 on at 9:22PM on January 29, 2016, eight minutes before the auction end.  The winner paid the next day and made no complaint about the shipping or insurance cost.  I made sure to offer the buyer the opportunity to purchase insurance, the risk of loss would squarely be on the buyer if he did not.  I even offered to deliver the cartridge to the buyer personally, since we both lived in the same state, but he demurred.

As part of my auction I made high resolution, 600dpi scans of the cartridge label, as shown above.  I also made a video showing the cartridge's condition and it working in my front loader NES.  When you have to point a camera at a CRT TV screen, I suggest decreasing the brightness and contrast quite a bit.  I also found that I obtained a better picture by eliminating all ambient light sources in the room, hence I shot it at night.  I shot it using the camera's "60fps" capabilities, but the resulting frame rate of the video is 59.49227fps while the NES's frame rate is 60.098815fps.  So there will be some retrace bar shown as a black line going up the screen, which can be seen when I am playing Solar Wars.  However, it won't be nearly as bad as those thick, slow moving bars you get at the standard "30fps".  Here is a video showing the Garage Cart's menu :



Having parted with this unique piece of history, I am glad that a collector will be able to enjoy it.  Even though the game would be easy enough to recreate, there will never be a replacement for those 24 cartridges sold during the summer of 2005.  Today NES Homebrew is quite the business with many new cartridge games being released each year, but here is where it started and I had the privilege of being there for its birth.

1 comment:

John Smith said...

As far as I know, there are quite some new Famicom cartridges made by Chinese developers.
1993~now 外星科技(means Extra-Terrestrial Technology)
2003~now 南晶科技(means Southern Crystal Technology)
Most of their Famicom games are just demakes, like Resident Evil, Final Fantasy series, Chrono Trigger, etc.