New Limited Edition Street Fighter II Cartridge Could Literally Burst Into Flames — or Just Ruin your SNES

September 1st, 2017 by Benj Edwards

iam8bit Street Fighter II limited edition reproduction cartridge is a fire hazard on fire

This is really bizarre.

News hit a couple days ago that “iam8bit,” a boutique retailer of video game nostalgia products, is releasing a limited edition Street Fighter II cartridge for the Super NES.

It is part of a Street Fighter 30th Anniversary package for US $100 (plus $24 shipping, inexplicably) that includes trinket bonuses designed to lure cash out of a video game collector’s wallet.

The cartridge looks and supposedly plays like a real Super NES cartridge on a real Super NES console. There’s only one catch: iam8bit says it might catch on fire while you play it.

I am not making this up. Here’s a quote of the actual product page:

WARNING: Use of this reproduction game cartridge (the “Product”) on the SNES gaming hardware may cause the SNES console to overheat or catch fire. The SNES hardware is deemed a vintage collectible, so please exercise extreme caution when using the Product and make sure there is fire extinguishment equipment nearby. Use of the Product is at the sole risk of the user. The Product is sold “as is”. Neither iam8bit, Inc. nor Capcom Co, Ltd. make any representation or warranty, express or implied, of any kind, including any warranty of merchantability of fitness for a particular use, or that the Product is safe to use, and iam8bit, Inc. or Capcom Co, Ltd. shall have no liability for damage to property or persons arising from use of the Product. Nintendo of America is in no way associated with the release of this Product.

And here’s a screenshot of the warning:

iam8bit Street Fighter II Super NES SNES Fire Hazard Warning Screenshot

That sounds pretty bad! Who knew that retrogaming could be so dangerous?

Since we do not know the exact internals of the new Street Fighter II cartridge yet, we can only speculate about the reasons for this warning.

Or, heck, we could ask.

Just yesterday, I sent iam8bit an email about this issue. I have not yet received a response (I will update this post when I hear something from them).

Melting Super NESWhile waiting to see if I ever hear back, I decided to consult some knowledgeable friends via the oracle known as Twitter.

I received a quick response from Chris Covell, a respected video game tech enthusiast.

Covell said, “As long as modern ‘professional’ retro publishers use 3.3V flash chips without good 5V level translation everywhere, yeah, there may be fire.” Although by email later, Covell said to replace the word “fire” in his tweet with “heat and/or magic smoke.” Not very reassuring, Chris.

The 3.3V Problem

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know what’s inside the iam8bit SFII cartridge, so we’re only speculating here. But when there’s a potential flaming Super Nintendo console involved, it’s for a good cause.

In his Tweet, Covell pointed to a common problem with improper or missing level translation in flash or pirate video game cartridges. Level translation is a term that describes changing the voltage coming from a power supply to fit your needs using a small circuit (such as this product on SparkFun).

Sparkfun Level TranslatorIn this particular case, a Super NES supplies +5V to the cartridge slot. Iam8bit could be using flash chips that need 3.3V and somehow improperly powering them with 5V. Without translation between them, you could be left with excess heat in the circuit that could melt the cartridge. Covell told me more about this in an email:

It has been pretty well known for a while now that homebrew/pirate cartridges for retro systems made in recent years don’t contain the usual CMOS (5V) EPROMs, or even PROMs, but bog-standard modern flash chips that run on 3.3v.

Some pirate carts built this way that don’t have proper level translation have actually failed on NES/Famicom systems, as reported in threads on NESDev. Kira Kira Star Night on FC, and other music carts have famously failed on actual NES/FC hardware. The Shubibinman Zero re-release did bad things to Jeremy Parish’s SNES, didn’t it?

I don’t know about Jeremy Parish’s particular problem with Shubibinman Zero, but as Covell mentioned, there have been a few recent music game releases for the Famicom, and they have been problematic for certain Famicom/NES consoles out there.

In the email, Covell also mentioned a neat electronics blog that explains the dangers of driving 3.3V chips with 5V in detail. There, the author Rene writes: “When the console outputs 5V into a 3.3V input the extra voltage must go somewhere; 1st law of thermodynamics. It is converted to heat through the unintended conduction of clamping diodes, which can be harmful to integrated circuits.”

The level of heat involved might just melt the plastic or ruin the hardware, not burst into flames — and if that’s the case, then iam8bit is just covering all legal liability angles with their disclaimer. But man, why risk it?

Why are modern cartridge manufacturers using these 3.3V chips if they don’t work properly in retro consoles? Covell says it comes down to scarcity of original compatible parts on the market:

It’s sad that 5V chips are getting scarcer. It is merely “ROM” for now but it’ll mean that other chips (4-bit SRAMs & DRAMs, TTL logic ICs) may eventually be hard to come by for repairing old consoles & computers.

Even with scarce parts, it is possible — almost trivial, if you know what you’re doing — to design a game cartridge that uses both 3.3V chips and incorporates level translation, thus completely avoiding any possibility of meltdown or fire.

As to why iam8bit is using an inferior hardware design in an expensive boutique product — insert sigh here. I think video game historian Frank Cifaldi had the perfect response to that in a tweet:

A Profound Ethical Problem

So in the end, what do we know? We know that even if your console doesn’t literally catch on fire from using this SFII release, you could either a) ruin the cartridge you paid $100 for, or b) ruin your console. Sounds like a pretty bad deal.

I’m no philosophy major or consumer rights advocate, but it is not ethical to sell a product that might spontaneously catch on fire while you use it — especially if the manufacturer knows it might happen.

Heck, it might even be illegal in some way.

So stay far away from this one, folks. In fact, I recommend staying away from any of iam8bit’s products in general, because if a firm is willing to sell an openly defective product such as this SFII release, then it is liable to have much deeper ethical and business problems. They do have a few standing complaints against them that don’t inspire much confidence about their ability to deliver a good product, period.

And what about Capcom? I hope they’re listening, because if I were them, I would pull their license to iam8bit quickly before they ruined their reputation with melting cartridges.



One Response to “New Limited Edition Street Fighter II Cartridge Could Literally Burst Into Flames — or Just Ruin your SNES”

  1. Geoff V. Says:

    Not to get too nerdy, but a better question is why the heck didn’t they just add a 3.3V linear voltage regulator with thermal protection? Expensive ones cost pennies.

    Depending on Amps, you may not require a heatsink. All you’d need is a cap on either side of the regulator for clean power.

    I honestly couldn’t imagine someone laying out the board without considering input voltage.

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