Retro FAQ: Nintendo Entertainment System / Famicom

Discussion in 'Retro & Arcade' started by elvis, Oct 28, 2018.

  1. elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

    Jun 27, 2001
    This is a partner series to our Retro Let's Play FAQ, aiming to assist people finding ways of playing old games from these old systems. All talk of resolutions, PAL vs NTSC and upscaling are covered in the Retro Display Solutions thread.

    The Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, was first released in Japan as the Nintendo Famicom (a portmanteau of the phrase "Family Computer") in July of 1983. The original Japanese unit looked extremely different to what America and Europe would come to know as the NES. Sporting a red, white and gold top-loading case with controllers that where permanently attached to the console, the Japanese unit also had a microphone built into the primary controller that was ultimately phase out of later models.

    Nintendo, originally founded in 1889 (arguably one of the few entertainment companies to have survived across two turns of century), initially found their success making Japanese "Hanafuda" playing cards. By the 1960s the company had been through its fair share of ups and downs, and it was clear they needed to diversify their market to survive. Maintenance repair man Gunpei Yokoi had been tinkering with electronics and calculator parts for some time, and the company took a number of his designs and turned them into various arcade parlour style gaming machines. Throughout the 70s the company moved on to simple plug-in TV games similar to the western Magnavox Odyssey, and then on to the famous LCD Game and Watch series.

    Finally in the early 1980s they would take their standard design tactic of "let's see what we can do with low powered, commodity hardware", and the Famicom was born. Emphasising fast scrolling, the console allowed game developers to make much smoother action games, typically limited to 10FPS or worse on other hardware, at a blistering 60FPS for butter-smooth, arcade-style gameplay that made titles like Asteroids and Donkey Kong so popular, but on affordable hardware for the home.

    After two years of success with the Famicom, Nintendo wanted to release their device in the west in 1985. However, they faced quite a challenge - video games just weren't popular enough in the west! American audiences were famous for their love of television instead, so Nintendo redesigned their console to look more like a front-loading VCR (much more friendly for TV-loving US audiences), and took the bold move of using local popular toy manufacturer and distributor Mattel (famous for Barbie Dolls, Hot Wheels, and many other successful brands) for local distribution. Additionally, it was well known (at least, stereotypically inside Nintendo HQ) that Americans loved their guns. So a special version of the system was designed with a gun and an animal shooting game which we know today as the Zapper and Duck Hunt.

    Nintendo would release a proprietary floppy disk for the Famicom in 1986, which consisted of a RAM cartridge that games would load in to sitting on top of the console, and a disk drive under the console. Customers could either buy games new or pay a fee to have them loaded onto their disks at vending machines in major cities. It also offered a cheaper way to do game saving (no expensive RAM chip and battery required like a cartridge), however the unit was never released outside of Japan.

    Finally in 1987, Australia and Europe would get their PAL version of the US style NES. Like many consoles of the day, 60Hz/60FPS NTSC games designed for Japan and the US would run 17% slower on the 50Hz/50FPS PAL consoles. A very small number of games would be re-written to speed the gameplay and music back up to correct speeds (Nintendo's own Super Mario Brothers being one of them). Amusingly, playing the PAL versions of these games on NTSC consoles seems them run way too fast).

    Here's an example of Contra on NES. NTSC left, PAL right, and the clear speed differences:

    Another iteration of the hardware would follow years later, titled the "AV Famicom" in Japan (noted for offering AV out over composite video, which the Famcom was missing with RF out only). The same design was released in the US, Europe and Australia, titled either the "Top Loader NES" or "NES II". Both have identical hardware inside as the NES, but merely use a top-loading design that helped overcome the "blinking screen of death" problem many front loading NES units had, after years of strain on the pins that connect the cartridge to the main motherboard.

    Import playing

    A quick note that Nintendo did use a region control system in the form of lockout chips. This wasn't as prevalent as with the SNES / Super Famicom later on, but did exist all the same. Additionally Famicom and NES cartridges have different pin counts, requiring a converter if you want to play western games on a Japanese console, or vice versa. These are easy enough to source online, and often come with anti-lockout chips on board too.

    Playing the system today

    While eBay prices of local hardware continue to explode, Japanese units are often found cheaply enough, especially if you're willing to forgo visual quality (i.e.: you can put up with some yellowing of hardware). Even so, second hand prices of all retro equipment is rising at the moment.

    Official re-releases

    Nintendo released their "Nintendo Classic Mini" console some time ago. It's an official emulation system based on an ARM SoC running Linux, and offers simple plug-and-play gaming via HDMI to a HDTV.
    OCAU thread:

    Despite initial stock problems and ultimately some very stupid price gouging on eBay, the units are back in stock again, and can be found easily at RRP or below. Their downside is that, officially, they can only play the 30 games bundled with the system. Although there are now tools to be able to add in extra games (usual caveats apply - don't blame anyone else if you brick your system or void your warranty).

    Nintendo's Switch Online service now includes a number of classic games online, the ability to play over the Internet with friends, and some retro-styled US NES gamepads that work wirelessly with your Switch:

    Previously Nintendo offered their "Virtual Console" service for a number of their consoles, which offered legal access to NES games officially emulated on their platforms. While the Wii is well past its use-by date for that service, and the WiiU can no longer have points added to it, Nintendo's 3DS and New 3DS consoles both offer a number of NES games for purchase and play on their current gen handheld device.

    FPGA Simulations

    Third party hardware is often known for either lag or inaccuracies when compared to the original NES, however two excellent, cycle accurate, FPGA solutions exist currently.

    One is the Analogue Nt Mini made by Analogue Co (and designed by respected hardware hacker Kevtris):

    The other is the RetroUSB AVS:

    Both consoles feature the ability to play games from any region with excellent accuracy compared to original hardware. Both also include internal upscalers and digital outputs to make playing on modern HDTVs a breeze.

    In addition there's the quite new but ever evolving "MiSTer FPGA" console - an open source FPGA system with a functioning NES core:

    Clone hardware

    "Famiclones" are probably one of the most plentiful of the clone hardware system. Sites like AliExpress, Banggood and others list far too many to even begin listing individually, including TV-plug in via composite, upscaled via HDMI or even handhend devices. Western companies like Hyperkin have a number of devices as well. The common element amoungst all of them are sound and picture (typically pallet) inaccuracies.

    It's important to remember that each of these are unique, often coming from different manufacturers. I've got a "Retro-Bit Retro Entertainment System" which I bought from here. Colours and sounds are off compared to my genuine Japanese AV Famicom, however gameplay is spot on, and it spits out a 60Hz NTSC signal (which you can't change) and only takes western style cartridges (although Japanese ones work with a cheap converter). There's no region protection of any sort, but playing games like a PAL Super Mario Brothers that has been speed adjusted for 50Hz gaming results in that specific game being too fast.

    Flash cartridges, clone cartridges

    Several good quality flash cartridges exist for the NES, two popular ones being:

    Krikzz N8, available in two flavours:

    And RetroUSB's Power Pack:

    Bother offer great compatibility with a wide range of games (Krikzz especially continues to update the firmware on his models many years after the fact, adding more and more games to the compatibility list).

    As above, cheaper clone cartridges exist almost everywhere. AliExpress, Banggood, and even eBay are littered with multi carts sporting dozens or even hundreds of games on a single cartridge, most of which work reasonably well. Some have interesting problems, like packing a PAL Super Mario Brothers on an NTSC cart (resulting in gameplay speed problems), but generally most cover off the best 20 or so NES games you'd want to play, and typically with battery backup for games offering save options.

    Third Party Mods

    The NES's PPU (Picture Processing Unit) stores colours defined in the YIQ colour space, and in a limited, hard-set palette. This enabled the very low-end hardware to not have to process large colour spaces, nor convert from RGB to some other system to output over composite video. The PPU also adds sync to the chroma/luma definition in-chip, spitting out composite video from a single pin.

    The downside to this is that there is no way to get a better signal out of the console. Whether you want native colour space s-video (where chroma and luma+sync are split), or RGBS, these simply don't exist.

    Australian hardware hacker Tim Worthington came up with a product to solve this problem for SD/analogue outputs. Worth noting that this requires considerable soldering to install, so approach with care, or seek a professional installation service if you're not used to this level of hardware hacking.

    The NES RGB, which sits in between the motherboard and PPU, and takes digital in-game data before it reaches the output stage and constructs an RGB model. This can then either be taken directly for RGBS style connections (SCART or BNC out to an RGB TV or PVM style monitor), or run through a small on-board converter for encoded S-Video or Composite (the latter useful for comparing to the NES's native composite to check for colour accuracy). These will use the exact same resolution and refresh rate of your native NES or Famicom, and not alter the picture or game speed in any way.

    The second option is a similar affair of a system that hijacks images pre-PPU, but this time scales them using a lag-free line multiplying method and encodes them as a digital picture for output over HDMI, from 480p/576p (NTSC/PAL) up to 1080p

    Both the NES-RGB and Hi-Def NES offer multiple selectable palettes. While an accurate palette exists for the NES (defined in YIQ colour space output measured via colorimeter on a calibrated monitor), as the NES came from an era of low quality consumer display solutions (especially with a love of RF and composite), so there's quite a lot of subjectivity for what people consider "correct". Many emulators have offered a number of NES palettes that aim to satisfy different users, and these are all available on these hardware mods.

    More details, as always, in the MLIG series on the NES:


    NES emulation certainly isn't new. In fact, one of the earliest console emulators ever written was the amusingly-titled NESticle, released by developer Bloodlust Software way back in 1997 (a whopping 21 years ago at time of writing, making it retro software itself!):

    Listing each and every NES emulator is nearly impossible with the number and rate of development. Some good links to available options:

    And of course if you don't care about accuracy, a Raspberry Pi running RetroPie is always a very easy and convenient option, with plenty of guides all over YouTube.
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2018
    Grant and fredhoon like this.
  2. Grant

    Grant Member

    Jan 23, 2002
    Getting nerdy though, what are the RetroArch cores available and does anyone have opinions on them? I'd have thought emulation of 8-bit consoles would be pretty much perfect, even on Pi hardware.

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