Plastic and silicon, light guns and robots -- all about the hardware.
By Christian Nutt & Benjamin Turner

Famicom perched on Disk System.
The Famicom was hardly a super-powerful beast, but compared very well to the other hardware on the market. The really intelligent thing about its design was that the system existed in the meeting place between cheapness and capability; it was equal or even better than the other systems in the market in 1983, but was much cheaper than they were, too.

Its processor, the NMOS 6502, was a slightly modified off-the-shelf part selected for its cheapness and ease of use. The processor ran at less than 2 MHz, which is less than 1/1000th the speed of an average Windows desktop CPU these days. Of course, the fact that such a cheap unit was still capable of playing great games well beyond its predecessors was what made it such a smash hit in both Japan and the U.S.

Famicom & carts, back for more.
The look of the Famicom is fairly typical of video game systems of the time but extremely different from what we finally received in the U.S. in 1985 and 1986. It's a top-loading video game system done up in red and white with gold accents on the controllers; the controllers, while we're talking about them, featured square buttons in the initial shipment of the system but round ones shortly after that production run -- square buttoned systems are extremely popular with Japanese collectors for that reason. Since the controllers are permanently attached to the Famicom, you can't just luck into a controller -- you have to luck into an entire system. The second controller, for whatever reason, has a microphone built in.

Why not? They probably had a bunch just lyin' around, and figured it'd be a good way to get rid of 'em.

You know, thanks to the fact that the NES didn't have a microphone in the second controller, American kids weren't able to enjoy such classic Famicom games as ... um, er ... you know, I can't think of a single Famicom game I've ever heard of or played that uses the mic in the second pad.

There's a port on the front that's completely unlike the irregularly shaped controller sockets we know and love, that accepts accessories such as the Famicom Gun. Like the SNES, it features a sliding power button, a large central eject button, and a reset button in front of the top-loading cartridge slot. Famicom carts are roughly the same size as Sega Genesis games -- much smaller than the large grey NES carts we're used to, and they came in a large variety of different colors. Different manufacturers were also allowed to devise and manufacture their own cartridge casings. Jaleco's Famicom games, for example, were almost twice as tall as usual. The cartridge slot is not protected by a spring-loaded door like the Genesis, SNES or N64, but instead by a trap door that must be manually opened up by the user before a cartridge can be inserted. The initial incarnation of the Famicom, unlike the NES, does not allow for composite A/V output through RCA cables -- it only allows for RF.

And its RF signal is not quite compatible with most North American TVs, so if you're importing, the original Famicom is probably not the way to go.

The original design of the Famicom is way cooler, though. Red and white with gold highlights -- it's pure, classy, early-80s chic. Then again, A/V, detachable controllers, and the ability to buy a system that hasn't been sitting in some dude's closet since 1990 is a big bonus to the redesigned unit.

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Specs at a Glance

CPU: NMOS 6502
CPU Speed: 1.78 MHz
Resolution: 256x240 (effectively 256x224 in NTSC mode)
Color Palette: 52
Displayable Colors: 16
Max Sprites: 64
Max Sprites / Line: 8
Sprite Size: 8x8 or 8x16
Picture Scroll: 2 H.V.
RAM: 2 Kilobytes
Video RAM: 2 Kilobytes

It looks pretty weak, but consider that IBM-PC games generally didn't have smooth scrolling until 1990 or so. Ah, now you're seeing the advantages of an architecture devoted solely to playing games. You can do a lot with a little, up to a point.

Familiar Infirmities

While the Famicom was quite capable of playing great games, it wasn't hard to run into the limitations of the hardware. One of these was that it could only display eight sprites per horizontal line. If that number was exceeded, one of two things would happen: slowdown or flicker. (Sometimes, both!) Flicker meant that parts of the offending sprites would rapidly appear and disappear, creating a distinctive and quite noticeable effect.

But given the power of today's gaming machines, flicker is extremely rare. Surprisingly, we kind of miss it. It didn't add to a game, and occasionally impeded gameplay, but it still reminds one of days gone by. These days we just have framerate drops -- ick.

A cooler application of NES limitations was scrolling enemies off the screen. You'd walk forward until the enemy had just appeared, and then hightail it backwards. Done properly, the game would forget the enemy ever existed, and you could walk by unmolested. It sounds silly and glitchy, but this was actually quite an important strategy in games that were susceptible to it, like Ninja Gaiden.