The PowerPak NES Flash Cartridge

August 7th, 2007 by Benj Edwards

NES PowerPak Flash CartridgeFor a Nintendo Entertainment System fan, it's a once-impossible dream finally come true: a thousand games at your fingertips in a real NES console. RetroZone has done it first with the PowerPak, a new NES flash cartridge. With the PowerPak, you can fit every NES game ever made, around the world, onto one cartridge. Dumped ROM images of the games are copied to a compact flash card, which slides into the PowerPak unit itself. Turn on the NES with the PowerPak cart inserted, and you'll see an on-screen menu that lists all the games on the cart. Pick one from the list, you'll be playing the game as if you had the game's original cartridge in the console. With a flash multicart like the PowerPak, NES users no longer need to switch cartridges between games. As an owner of over 250 NES games, I personally have been looking for a product like this for a long time.

Perhaps even more exciting is the PowerPak's potential to jumpstart homebrew development in the NES community. Unlike the Atari 2600, Nintendo's most famous console is woefully lacking amateur home-programmed software. RetroZone is out to change that with their new PowerPak products, which significantly lower the barriers to entry in developing games for play on a real NES unit.

Wither Emulators?

Nintendo Entertainment SystemSo why should someone want to easily play thousands of NES games on the real hardware when you could do essentially the same thing on an emulator? Well, for one thing, a NES is easy to hook up to your TV. It's small, it doesn't use much power, and it's quiet. It also has a built-in NES controller interface (imagine that). A big factor for me is that emulators will never be able to reproduce the NES playing experience 100%, especially in the display department. The original NES displays its 256 x 240 image on a television set in a native way that a computer video card never could, short of emulating the video output of the NES with a hardware peripheral (something that Brian Provinciano actually whipped up for himself in 2004).

The PowerPak's Secret Sauce

NES PowerPak Flash Cartridge InsideYou might wonder why no one has made a reprogrammable flash NES multicart before now. The answer takes us back to the early 1980s, during the design of the Nintendo Entertainment System's progenitor.

The hardware capabilities of the naked NES are far weaker than most would expect, as Nintendo directly based the console on their earlier Japanese-only Nintendo Family Computer (Famicom), released in 1983. The NES can load only 32KB of a program from ROM at a time, which became quite limiting by the mid-1980s. Nintendo quickly figured out a way to bank switch additional sections of larger ROM space to improve the quality and capability of their games' graphics. They did this through the use of physical hardware components called memory management controllers (MMCs or "mappers") that were built into each cartridge. These MMC chips added significant expense to production, but without them, impressive games like Super Mario Bros. 3 would never have been possible.

The secret of the PowerPak's ability to pull off multiple game flash support lies in a relatively recent invention called the field-programmable gate array (FPGA). Before the advent of inexpensive FPGA technology, it was impossible (or at least highly impractical) to build all the many dozens of known MMC chips into one cartridge for use with any possible game. The FPGA chip inside the PowerPak can be dynamically reprogrammed to emulate almost all of the NES memory mappers with software instructions stored on the PowerPak's compact flash card, and that's exactly what happens each time a game is loaded.

How to Get One

NES PowerPak Flash CartridgeAs of this writing, The PowerPak is currently listed as out of stock at RetroZone's online store, but RetroZone says more will be available soon. At $135 (US) apiece, the PowerPak falls well outside the realm of impulse purchase, but assuming the cart works as promised, it's well worth the price for all the hard work and development costs RetroZone has put into it. I'd love to get my hands on one and try it out, but I have to wait in line like everybody else. Whenever that happens, I'll let you know if it lives up to its exciting potential.

RetroZone also offers the PowerPak Lite, a fast-cycle RAM cart for all you homebrew developers out there. With any luck, the PowerPak's release will bring the NES homebrew community into full bloom. I, for one, am more than ready to see what the creativity of the homebrew scene will bring to Nintendo's most successful console (not to mention play some new NES games). How about you?

Click here to read VC&G's interview with Brian Parker, creator of the PowerPak.

[ Update (11/02/2007): Click Here to read our review of the RetroZone PowerPak flash cart. ]



26 Responses to “The PowerPak NES Flash Cartridge”

  1. XCALBR8 Says:

    This looks amazing! I'm a sucker for being able to play on the real hardware. The only thing I don't like and seems unreasonable is the price. If they bring it down to $50 or below and it is more readily available I may think about picking one up.

  2. Benj Edwards Says:

    Brian Parker (owner of RetroZone) commented on the price of the PowerPak in an interview that you can read here.

  3. Geoff V. Says:

    Nice. If the quality is up to snuff, he'll have my $150 no problem.
    Thanks for the great find!

  4. KitsuneDarkStalker Says:

    AWESOME!

  5. XCALBR8 Says:

    Okay, the price doesn't seem too bad now. The build quality looks good too. If I have any extra money laying around I may have to get one.

  6. Stoney Says:

    Question on the NES flash cart does it come with a paraell or usb flash drive to plug in the nes cart to dump a rom and to put a dumped rom on the cart differience between the lite cart and the mega expensive 135 regular one if its just a size thing me thinks Im sold on the lite version
    Final question why no fc twin or any other "unoffical console" got boat loads of carts from the day but the actual nes has been dead for over 10 years would rather have a top loading nes knockoff then the real thing a second time around but would love to dump my cart roms and goodwill them to clean out the very cluttered basement and still have the games I love lol. Regardless if any of these questions get answered probaly gonna buy a fc twin locally at target for the huge price of 6.99

  7. Raul Says:

    # Any game with PRG or CHR larger than 512KB will not work. Most are listed as Bad Mappers above.

    # MMC5 support not implemented yet. The PowerPak DOES have enough hardware to do it.

    -Both the above are from:

    http://www.retrousb.com/index.php?productID=133

    What games are thus not supported? And, is MMC5 support the same as PRG and CHR >512K support? I would very much appreciate an answer to this question. I'm definitely going to get one as soon as it's back in stock. I'm been wanting exactly this kind of thing for a while now. Now we just need one for SNES, Genesis, SMS, TurboGrafx-16, etc., etc.

    P.S.

    Nice blog. I'll be frequenting regularly.

  8. Abe Says:

    I consider Brian is a gifted-guy, and of course I WANT MY OWN POWERPACK, no matter if even I'd need to go to Bay Area again just to get it.

    I WANT IT!!!

    Regards
    Saludos

    Abe

  9. Abe Says:

    Ya están vendiendo el PowerPak!!!!!

    Right Now Brian has PowerPaks on stock, GET 'EM ALL!!!

    Abe

  10. Benj Edwards Says:

    Thanks for the tip, Abe.

  11. M. B. Says:

    I ordered mine, but due to a screwup with Paypal, I ended up paying twice. I still have no word on my order, a refund on one of the payments, none of my emails have been answered and I even got hung up on when I called… all I heard was breathing and then "click". I hope I didn't throw my money away. I want this cart. I respect the guy who put so much effort into it. But, why am I now panicking about $300.

  12. Benj Edwards Says:

    M.B. — I ordered one and it arrived quicker than I thought. Brian should straighten things out, even if his bedside manner is a little lacking at times. Keep bugging him politely and he should help you out. If not, let us know.

  13. M. B. Says:

    Alright. I'll take your word for it. He might be ignoring my emails since I did at first fail to read his FAQ and sent an email asking about tracking of the item. My mistake. I'm a bonehead sometimes. But then Paypal had to screw things up, so I definitely had to email and explain the situation. Since my initial payment cleared last Friday.. today is the next business day, so I should be expecting a USPS email. I just hope he realizes the second payment and refunds it. I'm not panicking so much anymore since he has a positive reputation among the retrogaming sites and if you say he's ok. I'll leave him alone for a few days and wait and see what happens this week. Then I'll politely bug him if I have to and of course let you know what happens.

    Thanks for your time and reply. :)

    –M.B.

  14. Abe Says:

    Hey Benji, as a lucky guy owner of this item, would you care to tell us about how it works and what is your gaming experience?

  15. Benj Edwards Says:

    Abe,

    Good question. I'm working on a full review of the PowerPak that I plan to put up on VC&G sometime next week. So far, though, it seems to work pretty well.

  16. M. B. Says:

    Well, it's been four days now.. as an extra precaution, on Tuesday I emailed Brian my receipts (since they include transaction ID's as well). I still have not heard anything. It almost doesn't matter which email account I use, I get no reply. I am being patient, but I wish I could at least have confirmation that he knows my situation. Even just one sentence. My order has been paid, and I don't care if he took 2 more weeks to refund my extra payment.

    I don't know what to do right now. At this point I have a feeling that he is not intentionally ignoring my emails, but rather that they just might be going straight to his junk folder or he's not getting them at all. Or, he's overlooking them as he may not know that I'm a customer. If he has lots of customers to deal with, I wouldn't blame him for forgetting a name or missing someone.

    I'll wait till tomorrow, but if still no word by tomorrow afternoon, then I may have to open a dispute through Paypal. I don't want to, and I don't want Paypal to do anything negative with Brian or his account. But, if Paypal is the only one who can get in contact with him (since obviously, Paypal emails wouldn't go to his junk folder, he needs Paypal) then doing the dispute thing might be the only way. *sigh*

    Speaking of Paypal, since this little saga is Paypal's fault to begin with, I wish they'd be doing more for me. I'm aware it's pretty much free for me, but I wouldn't care if I had to pay for extra support. They supposedly sent him a notification that he had to reply to within 24 hours (which I would be notified of as well). They didn't send it I guess.

    Anyway, I know he can't check emails everyday, but if he has yet to get to and respond to my emails, then all I can do is wait I guess.

    –M.B.

  17. Benj Edwards Says:

    M.B.,

    Sorry to hear about that. I've had trouble getting prompt responses from Brian in the past as well. Not sure why that is.

    I recommend opening a dispute with Paypal and doing it in a polite way. Remind Brian in the dispute note that you tried to email him and got no response. If he doesn't reply or settle the issue to your satisfaction, Paypal will refund your money.

    Good luck,
    Benj

  18. Joseph B. Says:

    A quite sad comment from M.B. it is, I am a customer to, almost it is the same no-reply situation.

    Being myself some all-philosophic, he is not as guilty at all as we do, because he establishes all this on his FAQ, so order and pay this item is under our knowledge, maybe on a court this argument can be valid to prove his innocence, but I think it is kind of unfair this attitude of Brian, because business are business and you have to play with that rules if you wonder to enter on it, and if he’s offering his products, he should know that in America it is kind of fraud not to attend your customers over internet shopping, at least I guess it would be here on Canada, even with more reason on US.

    So, Bunnyboy, if you might be reading this, maybe you should delegate to another more-responsible guy whom his main goal be “Customer satisfaction is our priority” and let him run the business, then you just should ask him for your money as product of your patent and then let this magnifique idea to grown up.

    Any comments? We’ll be greatly appreciated!

    Joshep B.

  19. Joseph B. Says:

    Hey M.B., you mind to tell us what was the end of your dispute with The RetroZone?

    Best Regards

    Joseph B.

  20. Keith Says:

    I had a defective Powerpak, it was two weeks to get a response email from Brian telling me to return it for repair. I've sent it in two weeks ago and heard nothing and received nothing in return. I'm going to do a credit card charge back on Monday. Buyer beware.

  21. ebot Says:

    Hi friends! We can run NSF music files with the POWERPACK ????

    I´m using Famitracker , this is a good software to make Nintendo music in NSF format!!

    I need run the songs in the real hardware!!! my NES!!!

    Thanks…

    ebot..

    http://www.elektrobot.net

  22. Dr. Del Says:

    XCALBR8 You scoff at the price of 135 dollars? I'm sure these arn't being produced in the millions like Most games coming out. These NES games used to cost 70 dollars each when they came out. Multicarts cost 100′s of dollars on ebay if they don't get pulled. here they make a cart that will play every rom for the nes 1000 + titles and you wont pay over 50 bucks? I'll enjoy playing titles like bubble bath babes and stadum events on my Original nes machine without taking out a bank loan! Mine's on it's way!!

  23. Gregory Lyons Says:

    I must admit this is awesome and the SNES version is cool even more. The SNES version of homebrew games could be great with all the buttons available to use. I have MLBPA and the game is incredible. Best Baseball game in my opinion not knowing what the pitcher is doing is awesome. Only thing is car racing games would be not so good but the N64 was good for Nascar and you could use the d-pad. So I wouldn't doubt some homebrew Nascar game is waiting. This is great I am working on some homebrew I have the specs on the game the cpu I think that is all that you need to know besidesw the ppu(picture process unit). I think if they make one for N64 it would be phenomenal. I have the specs on that too. Working for a homebrew game to use with emulators at least.

    Anyhoo, This is great!!!!!!!

  24. allisojn Says:

    I have a nes cartridge with 255 gane son it, any info???

  25. joe r Says:

    can I buy one with all the stuff already downled on the flash drive for me

  26. ramiro Says:

    where can i get one and how much it cost?

    Thanks

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