Tuesday, October 6, 2015

NES Satellite : Pinnacle of Early Wireless Controller Solutions

Ever since the Nintendo WaveBird controller was released for the Gamecube, wireless controllers have finally entered their own.  Using high frequency RF technology in the 900MHz and later 2.4GHz bands, it combined long distance wirelessness without a significant;y bulky design.  Later controllers for the Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii, Wii U, PS3 and PS4

Before the advent of the Nintendo Wavebird, previous wireless controllers, with one important exception, used infrared technology.  Infrared technology is typically used in TV remotes and is a cheap, low powered way to communicate signals without a wired connection.  In the 1980s it was fairly compact and did not add a great deal of bulk to a controller.

The NES was the first console which wireless controllers were fairly common.  Examples include the Camerica Freedom Stick, Supersonic Joystick and Freedom Connection (the latter is an adapter only) and the Acclaim Double Player Wireless Head-to-Head System and Wireless-Infrared Remote Controller.  There was even a wireless Light Gun, the Playco Toys Video Shooter (which looks like a Sega Light Phaser).

The trouble with infrared technology is that the technology requires a line of sight between the controller and the console.  This is why TV remotes tend to work only within a "sweet spot" and the NES wireless controllers were no different.  But while you can typically hold a TV remote in a fixed position, even if channel surfing, the same cannot be true for a wireless video game controller.  Excited gamers will move their controller all over the place, confusing the infrared controller and causing lag and missing hits.

The other option at the time was the rf technology used in the Atari CX-42 Wireless Joysticks.  These sticks came with a large receiver with an antenna.  Each stick required a 9V battery and had an extremely large base compared to the regular CX-40 joystick.  The sticks had an antenna sticking out the side.  In addition to the bulk of the sticks and the ugly receiver box, the sticks did not have a very long range.

Enter the NES Satellite.  Nintendo understood the problem that gamers would not keep their controllers in a straight line with the infrared receiver, so it designed an adapter that was not designed to move.  The Satellite can easily add eight feet of distance to the sev

en and a half foot controller cords Nintendo used with its NES controllers.  This is especially useful if you have AV Famicom controllers, which plug into NES controller ports but have very short cable lengths at less than three feet long.

The Satellite may not look particularly heavy, but it uses six C-cell batteries, adding a bit of heft to the unit. However, with the slack in the controller cable, a gamer is free to move his controller about without disturbing the infrared connection.  It is unlikely that someone will yank it away.

Why large, bulky C-cell batteries?  The NES Satellite is a four player adapter and the infrared unit, the adapter circuitry and the turbo circuitry all need power.  Also, the Satellite has to provide power for four controllers.  The Satellite is rated for 9VDC, 150mA.  Six C-Cell betteries connected in series provide 9VDC and have a maximum 8000mA-H capacity.  Fresh batteries should give at least 20 hours of usage out of the Satellite.  Unfortunately, Nintendo did not provide an AC adapter or plug for the device, but if you can find a 9V brick of sufficient amperage, you should not have a problem with powering the device by soldering the split wire to the battery terminal connectors.

The Satellite has a power button to avoid draining the batteries when the NES is not in use.  It has separate turbo buttons for A and B.  The turbo buttons work, but the turbo cannot be adjusted, so it is not as great as the adjustable turbo of an NES Advantage. When the Satellite is communicating with its receiver, you will see a LED on the receiver light up.

It works with the NES Advantage.  The NES Advantage has an adjustable turbo feature and a slow feature, so it may drain the batteries a bit more quickly than a standard controller when the turbo is active.  It also works with the Zapper, but only in Controller Port 2.  Also, the Ctlr/Gun switch must be in the Gun position.  Finally, you will need to turn the power off and back on again (if the switch was in the Ctlr position) before the device will register the trigger function of the Zapper.  It should work with other Controller Port 2 peripherals like the Arkanoid VAUS paddle controller or the NES Power Pad.

The Satellite's only other disadvantage, other than its battery consumption, is that it must maintain a line of sight with the receiver plugged into the NES controller ports.  Moreover, that line of sight should be dead-on straight and not at anything more than a slight angle, either horizontally or vertically.  If you feel like the game is not responding appropriately, adjust the Satellite unit and turn the power off and back on.

The Satellite, when properly focused on the receiver, does not offer any appreciable lag to your gameplay.  I have tested it with games like Contra, Battletoads and Duck Hunt.  I could observe no appreciable decrease in my performance and no obvious time where button presses and game response seemed out of sync.  Modern RF-based controllers cannot make this claim.  They will add lag compared to a wired controller.  Some people state they notice it, others do not.  This is typically important for systems with a wired and a wireless option like the Gamecube and Xbox 360.  For systems that more or less exclusively use wireless controllers, the programmers should have factored in the lag from the controller.

There were not too many four player games released for the NES.  Here is the list of licensed NES games that support the NES Satellite adapter and its wired version, the NES Four-Score :

Bomberman II
Championship Bowling
Danny Sullivan's Indy Heat
Gauntlet II
Greg Norman's Golf Power
Harlem Globetrotters
Kings of the Beach
Magic Johnson's Fast Break
Monster Truck Rally
NES Play Action Football
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Nintendo World Cup
R.C. Pro-Am II
Rackets & Rivals
Roundball: 2 on 2 Challenge
Spot: The Video Game
Smash TV
Super Off Road
Super Jeopardy!
Super Spike V'Ball
Swords and Serpents
Top Players' Tennis

Of all those games, Bomberman II, M.U.L.E. and Smash TV are the best games in my opinion.  Bomberman II allows for four-player simultaneous fun.  M.U.L.E. has a change to the town area in its NES version that makes purists scoff, but outside that change to the town, the game offers a lot of four player fun and strategy.  Its usually much easier to find a NES and a four player adapter than an Atari 400 or 800 home computer.

Smash TV is very clever, the game only supports two players at maximum.  However, with a four player adapter, each player can use the D-pads of two standard controllers to mimic the arcade controls much more precisely than by using one D-pad for each player.

Gauntlet II allows for four player simultaneous action, but while that port appears to be pretty faithful to the arcade game, it feels a little bland and has no in-game music (like the arcade).  I'm not a huge sports game fan, even on the NES.  Some people like Pat the NES Punk extol the virtues of Danny Sullivan's Indy Heat, but I am not a big fan of Super Sprint-style games on the NES.  R.C. Pro-Am II is a good single player game, but is not good for multiplayer.  I personally have a fondness for Swords and Serpents, but I cannot imagine four people coming together to play this game (the first player controls the movement).

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