Sunday, December 13, 2020

Life After Death - The Unlicensed Market for NES and Famicom Games after their Lifespan

When Nintendo and its authorized third parties stopped releasing new games for the NES and Famicom in 1993 and 1994, respectively, the established pattern would have dictated a period where no new games would be available until the eventual birth of the homebrew scene.  However, this really did not happen for the Nintendo 8-bit platform, games have been development continuously from the birth of the Famicom in 1983 to the present day.  In previous articles I have taken a look into Unlicensed Western and Taiwanese developers active during the active lifespan of the NES and Famicom.  In this article I will give a brief overview the afterlife of this iconic hardware.

Taiwanese Development - The Next Generation

By the end of the NES era, most companies from the previous generation, such as Joy Van, Idea-Tek and NTDEC had been sold or were no longer making NES games.  Sachen was still around but its focus had shifted more toward the Supervision. Mega Duck and Game Boy.  NTDEC had been bought by Asder, but Asder didn't do much. C&E moved on to Genesis titles, where would gain some recognition with Beggar Prince a decade after the fact.  New companies were formed to fill in what could have been a deep gap in game production. Companies emerging and active in the "Second Taiwanese Era" include Kashen. J.Y. Company, Cony, Hummer Team and Super Game.  

Mortal Kombat II Special by Hummer Team and J.Y. Company

In this era, it is readily apparent that there was no money to be made in developing truly new games for the old hardware.  That was the sort of thing which allowed the previous generation's companies to survive even though piracy was rampant in that era and many of them had a hand in it.  But just pirating old games only takes you so far when there were new hot franchises on the market.  Street Fighter 2 received dozens of ports and thinly-disguised clones.  Street Fighter 2 was made to run on vastly more powerful hardware than the NES, so while the 16-bit generation could more-or-less do justice to the 1-on-1 fighter, the 8-bit generation before it really cannot.  Street Fighter 2 was hardly the only game to receive a "demake", Mortal Kombat, Earthworm Jim, Aladdin, Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country were also popular demakes during this era.

Aladdin by Super Game

Generally speaking, many of these demakes are not very fun to play and some of them are barely playable.  Official demakes like Street Fighter 2 for the Sega Master System and Donkey Kong Country for the Game Boy Color are barely a step above most of the Taiwan demakes, mainly because they had more resources to make the port.  8-bit hardware just fails to do these games justice, the sprites tend to be small, flicker is constant, the lack of color tends to be an eyesore, the PSG music is hardly inspiring, hit detection is usually poor, AI is either stupid or likes to cheat and for the fighting games, a 2 button layout is simply inadequate.  One can understand most modern players taking one look at these games and saying "pass."  There are exceptions, however, the most famous being Super Game's releases of Aladdin and The Lion King.  These versions are much better games than the official PAL-only NES versions from Virgin Interactive.  

Lifting the Iron Curtain

The Famicom and NES was made available in what we used to refer to as "First World" countries, those that had accepted democracy and capitalism and could boast a high standard of living : Japan, North America, Australasia, Western Europe.  (It was also officially released in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, South Korea, India and Brazil, but too little or too late).  The Second World countries which had embraced communism did not possess the standard of living for most citizens to afford game consoles.  In addition, the authoritarian regimes which invariably came with communism would not tolerate a new medium of expression which was not strictly regulated.  

Steepler Dendy Junior (manufactured by Micro Genius)

With the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and in the Soviet Union by 1992, video game consoles had a new market of well-educated, up-and-coming peoples which were hungry for ideas and entertainment which had been previously been denied to them.  Computing technology was not exactly unknown before the fall, but tended to be available only for some government and university employees.  While the adoption of free market economic policies did not raise Eastern Europe, the former Soviet satellite states and Russia to the standard of Western Europe overnight, they did raise the standard of living sufficiently to permit the introduction of the Dendy Famiclones into those countries.

The Dendy and its variants used clone CPU and PPU chips designed by UMC.  The Famiclones were manufactured by TXC/Micro Genius.  These chips were something of a hybrid between the official NTSC and PAL CPU and PPU.  Because these former Communist countries used PAL and SECAM, the Dendy chips output PAL video and operate at 50Hz.  Their timings and internal function are very NTSC-friendly.  They had to be because almost all Dendy releases were pirate single and multi-carts and Taiwan always used NTSC games for its piracy (Taiwan is an NTSC country).  The consoles tended to use near copies of the Famicom's enclosure at the beginning.  So while most licensed NTSC games will run correctly, if slower, on a Dendy machine, many licensed PAL games will exhibit the same issues that they would on an official NTSC system.

Rise of the Educational Computer

Taiwan was not the only Chinese-speaking country making Famicom software after the end of the NES's lifespan.  Subor is a mainland Chinese company known for its Famiclone computers, all-in-ones with a keyboard, a built-in program and a cartridge slot.  These computers were aimed at the educational market and sometimes could support .  In China, Deng Xiaoping's market reforms enabled the country to finally raise its standard of living to the point where a Chinese family could afford a video game console.  But China had not abandoned their authoritarian restrictions on freedom of speech and it officially banned video game consoles in China from 2000-2015.  It did not ban home computers, so by including a keyboard and some basic home computing like programs in the device, Subor and others could continue to get around the ban.  Jackie Chan was paid to endorse at least one of these Famiclone computers, the SB-926, which shows how popular they were.  Given how cheap it cost to make these things, I doubt the Chinese government would have had much more success in banning these devices even if it applied a more strict definition of home computer.  Subor-based Famiclone computers eventually appeared in Russia and South Korea. 

Subor SB-97, courtesy of krzysiobal

Given that Nintendo's original console was officially styled "Family Computer", these keyboard Famiclones extended the concept and did more justice to it than Nintendo did.  The Family BASIC Keyboard was the closest that Nintendo came to make it a home computer instead of just a video game machine, but doing something a simple as saving your BASIC program to floppy disk or printing a listing was beyond the capabilities officially on offer.  The Subor keyboards and their competitors supported printers and sometimes floppy drives and often used full PC keyboards.

Eventually the cost of the Famiclone was so inexpensive that Chinese companies no longer needed to hide the video game console underneath a keyboard.  Unlike then-current video game consoles, which were expensive and complex to manufacture, it would have been very difficult to keep the Famiclones out even if the Chinese government took a more active approach to enforcing the video game ban. There was little likelihood of keeping cheap, toy-like consoles out of the huge nation, and no doubt a few Yuan in the right pockets helped keep such goods flowing over the border from Hong Kong and later shipped factory-direct from cities of industry like Shenzhen. 

The Mainland Takes Over - Revenge of the Demake

Toward the end of the 1990s, even the Taiwanese became disenchanted with the aging Nintendo hardware.  The more piratical-minded looked to the Game Boy Color and later the Game Boy Advance for new revenue.  But new software was being developed and released in the late 90s through the mid-00s.  In this era, mainland Chinese companies like Shenzhen Nanjing, JungleTac and Waixang emerge.  

Final Fantasy VII by Shenzhen Nanjing Technology Co. Ltd.

Shenzhen Nanjing is known primarily for its demake of Final Fantasy VII.  Waixang did a port of Pokemon Red which is similarly infamous.  While these demakes and ports took liberally from other sources without permission, a good deal of work had to be done to make sure they resembled something like a playable game upon completion. These companies and others translated some licensed Japanese games into Chinese, something that was not common for their Taiwan predecessors.  They also made original games for the Chinese market.  Waixang was extremely prolific, at one point offering an emulator with encrypted ROMs of its games to play.  The language barrier, the lateness of the releases and a lack of dumping makes these games much more inaccessible to the west than Taiwan-origin games. 

When some of these demakes were translated and improved, they started to gain more notoriety.  The original Chinese cartridges are fairly rare, but translated "homebrew" is easy enough to acquire.  I would not advise putting any of these cartridges in an original console given they are likely using 3.3v flash chips.  Chinese Famiclones are generally less compatible than their Taiwanese predecessors with original NES and Famicom licensed games due to the use of single chip consoles (see below).  

Bio Hazard by Fuzhou Waixing Computer Science & Technology Co. Ltd.

Demakes were exclusively the focus of these companies.  Some of them localized Famicom games by translating them into Chinese.  Some original games were also produced and a few like Journey to the West II, are actually playable.

The Chinese companies introduced the NES and video games to a huge portion of the world's population which had previously been denied the experience.  The population of China is at least as large as Japan, North America and Western Europe combined.  So as many people may have played NES-hardware based games in the 21st century as people played them in the 20th!

Introducing the NES-based Plug 'n Plays and the Enhanced Clones

At some point in the late 1990s, the original NES's CPU and PPU, along with their RAM and support chips, had been condensed into one chip, the Nintendo-on-a-Clone.  This chip made it much cheaper and easier to manufacture Famiclone hardware.  In the early 2000s, there were many plug-and-play consoles released for the budget market.  These consoles and controllers could only play their built-in games and invariably connected to the TV via composite audio and video plugs.  NOACs drove such plug-n-plays as the Atari Flashback and the Intellivision 25 TV Play Power.  They also drove such standalone NOACs PnPs as New York Times Sudoku and Elmo's World.  Even today there are on the shelves of my local Wal-marts for sale are mini-arcades that run the NES versions of Galaga and Q-bert.

The New Yokr Times Sudoku Plug & Play by Excalibur

These PnPs used a NOAC with the same abilities as the original NES console, and if a flashcart supports the mapper used, these games can be run on an original NES or Famicom.  But there were enhanced NOACs which added additional functionality to the console.  The first may have been the UMC 6578.  Later, V.R. Technology introduced their VT-xx series of chipsets, with the VT-02 and VT-03 being the most commonly used variants at first, then the VT-369 being more popular recently.  That recent portable The Oregon Trail handheld uses a VT-369 and uses separate audio playback hardware and sample unit.

These enhanced chips offered a wider palette and more colors per tile, additional audio channels and better support for digital sample playback.  The games using these chips were often new, but they came in PnPs so their gameplay is fairly shallow.  Occasionally a licensed NES game like Slalom got the enhanced port treatment.  Some of the early Wii knockoff consoles, typically seen gathering dust in the downmarket drug and discount stores, would have a VT-xx chip driving their functionality.  

Ending Remarks

This blog entry was intended to be a brief overview of the subject of the continual use of the NES/Famicom hardware.  Each entry above could have its own blog post written about it, and perhaps I may do so someday.  

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