Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

No More Blinkies: Replacing the NES's 72-Pin Cartridge Connector

Monday, November 7th, 2005

Frustrating NESIt's an endless struggle; an epic, no-holds-barred wrestling match: Man vs. NES in a fight to the death. Or at least, in a fight to get your NES games working on that old front-loading NES. You push, it blinks. You pull, it blinks. You blow, you sneeze, you use q-tips, cleaning kits, and wow…it works? You see the title screen, but it's still a little flaky. Things might be a little garbled, so you hit reset and it looks OK. Then an hour into playing, you accidentally tap the console and the game freezes, forcing you to start your Metroid game all over again. Blast! It's hard to remember that your NES ever worked on the first try. There's a fine art to actually getting a game running on an old NES. It takes a lot of patience and a certain flick of the wrist. I used to impress people at parties with my NES-charming abilities, and boy did the ladies love it.

NES 72-Pin Replacement ConnectorThe crux of this classical problem is a special connector inside the unit that wears out from repeated usage over the years. It was designed in such a way that a game cartridge can be inserted at a slight angle with little resistance, then pushed down in the spring-and-latch loading tray inside the NES, bringing the cartridge's contacts in full contact with the connector's pins. It's sort of like a cartridge port version of a ZIF (zero insertion force) socket (Hmm.. Zero Insertion Force sounds like it would have been a good title for a Japanese NES game). This mechanism seems like a great idea on paper — there's no brute-forcing the game in, and it's easy to pull the game out of the slot when you're done. But this delicate dance between cartridge and machine repeats it self over and over again throughout the years until the the pins in the internal connector start to lose their flexibility and springiness. And when they get slowly bent down from repeated usage, the physical contact made between the connector and the cartridge itself suffers, making it hard for the NES to read the data on the cartridge. On top of that, you have years of dust, dirt, and corrosive build-up on both the internal connector and the game itself. As a result, you get…Dum Dum Dum…The Blinkies.

Back in the day, we just threw up our hands and suffered with the problem, never really thinking there could be a solution — other than buying a later model top-loading NES (released in 1993), which eschewed the high-class ZIF mechanism for a more plebeian (and low cost) approach. And as we all now know, recent attempts at NES replacements just don't cut it. But a few years ago, enterprising young lads on Ebay started selling replacement 72-pin connectors (the cartridge port on the NES has 72 pins) for afflicted front-loading NES systems. The concept is this: you buy a new connector, you disassemble your NES and replace the old one, and supposedly the blinkies will be gone. So about three months ago, I finally decided to buy one and try it out. Sellers want anywhere from $7 to $12 (!) a piece for these things, which is a lot of markup considering they're probably being churned out by Chinese factories at a cost of a cent a piece. However, they are quite unique in the world of connectors and I (in my limited experience) know of no other device that has ever used such a component. So until we find out who these sellers are smuggling these things from, the gaming public will have to put up with the high prices.

NES Apart, RF Shield RemovedI took a dive and went with a $7 connector from HitGaming.com. I bought it through Ebay, although HitGaming has its own online store too. The choice of a vendor for these things probably matters very little. I highly suspect that all of them come from the same manufacturer somewhere in the Far East. Just go for the cheapest price. HitGaming.com's 72-pin connector arrived in a little plastic baggy with a cheaply done single-sheet print out of NES disassembly and connector installation instructions. Having disassembled a number of NESes before, I didn't have any trouble with the installation — it's very easy as far as console fixes go. But for those who are not experienced in taking anything apart, the operation might be a tad tricky. HitGaming.com also has extended installation instructions online with more pictures, which is definitely handy for the inexperienced. I'm not going to go into detail about the assembly and installation instructions myself, since the method to do so has been repeated many times over on the web.

I took everything apart — first the main chassis, then the RF shield, then they tray mechanism, then unplugged the old connector from the mainboard, hollowed out some incompletely drilled screw holes in the new connector, and plugged it in to the mainboard. Then I screwed only the tray mechanism back so I could test it before completely putting it back together. If I had to give one tip for the process, it would be this: there is a black plastic lip/slot on the bottom of the black spring-loaded tray that is designed to go under the front, bottom edge of the main board. Make sure you slide the tray mechanism in parallel to the mainboard and that the lip goes under the board, or else the tray will stick up too much and the spring-locking mechanism won't work properly. After successful testing, reassemble everything else in reverse order, taking care not to mix up which screws go where.

The new 72-pin connector in my NES succeeded in eliminating the confounded blinkies. It should be heavily noted that your game cartridges need to be cleaned before inserting them into your newly refurbished NES, or else you'll still have trouble getting them to work (and you'll get your new connector dirty).

There was only one problem with my connector, though. The whole ingeniously-designed ZIF feature of the tray-loader was somehow negated by the new connector. It requires a strong force to push the cartridge in, and a Herculean effort to remove the cart from the system. The sheer gripping power of the new connector will surely lessen over time and use, but it's definitely inconvenient to have to struggle to pull a game out. It's a disappointment, but at least a cleaned cartridge works on the first try. Also, you can practically throw the NES across the room and not have the game lock up on you; the contact is that strong. Still, I wouldn't try it on purpose (although it might happen spontaneously while trying to get past the first stage of Ghosts 'N Goblins).

Note: Below, I am reviewing my particular connector, not the whole concept of replacing your old one.

HitGaming.com Replacement NES 72-Pin Connector
Good Features: Seemingly good quality construction, same dimensions as old connector. Eradicates the blinkies if installed correctly and used with clean carts. Installation instructions provided on paper and online.
Bad Features: Overpriced. Skimpy installation instructions. Grabs on to your carts for dear life and won't let go. Requires disassembly and possible breakage risk in the process — not a good option for the technically unexperienced.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 6 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles

Late Review: XGaming X-Arcade Dual Joystick

Saturday, November 5th, 2005

X-Arcade LogoYeah, I know, this joystick is old news. It's probably been reviewed dozens of times. But when it first came out, I didn't have a Vintage Computing and Gaming blog. So now I get to play catch-up and review all kinds of nifty things I've been buying and collecting over the years, just to add another voice to the chorus of public opinion, and to help my fellow enthusiasts, of course. And in this case, I specifically wanted to review the XGaming X-Arcade Dual joystick because I definitely think it's worth a mention here.

X-Arcade Dual JoystickI bought my X-Arcade Dual over three years ago, and it has held up very well over the years. I originally used it with a PS/2 to USB adapter on my iMac to play arcade games in MAME. Then for a while I had a dedicated (if pathetic) MAME PC that I used the Dual with to play emulated arcade games, of course. I originally decided to get the Dual model so my buddy and I could play two-player games together (loads of fun and works great), but the extra joystick also comes in handy for games like Robotron: 2084 and Smash TV that use two joysticks in their original cabinets (one for movement and one to fire in a certain direction).

The price is a little steep (currently $129.95 for the Dual, and $99.95 for the Solo, one-player joystick), but I'd have to say that you really get what you pay for here: authentic arcade controls. This thing is made of the real stuff — industrial strength switches for the buttons and joysticks that hold up to intense pounding, while still being quick and responsive — all mounted sturdily in a heavy particle-board base that feels like it could take quite a beating itself (although not a drink spill, if it seeps through the plastic-covering's edges). The eight standard play button positions are well thought out, allowing for the best compatibility with many different arcade games. There are also two start buttons at the top (for added authentic feel) and as a nice bonus, two buttons on either side, which work excellently as flipper buttons for a video pinball game. The overall craftsmanship and quality of the product is exemplary, and it becomes obvious once you hold the Dual in your hands that you're dealing with a well-designed, well-manufactured product.

The X-Arcade Dual, by default, plugs into your computer through its PS/2 keyboard port, with a handy pass-through female PS/2 jack for your regular keyboard. In this way, the Dual emulates a keyboard and has incredibly large possibilities as a game controller, even for games that don't support joysticks. You can program which buttons correspond to which keys on a keyboard using a plugged-in keyboard and a special programming button on the back. The Dual also allows you to save four different button configurations (for different games, for example), which you can toggle with a four-position switch in the back of the unit. It should also be noted that through XGaming, you can purchase various adapters that let you use the Dual (or the Solo) as a controller on traditional console game systems like the PS2 and the Xbox, although I have never tried this feature.

Overall, I'm very impressed, and yes, I recommend the X-Arcade Dual highly to anyone who is serious about playing games with MAME, or even those who just want a damn good joystick. The bottom line is this: if you want an authentic arcade quality feel to your games, look no further than the X-Arcade Dual.

And no, all my reviews won't be this glowing. I'll find something bad to review soon enough.

The Skinny: XGaming X-Arcade Dual Joystick
Good Features: Sturdy, arcade-authentic hardware, excellent craftsmanship and quality, great button layout, incredible compatibility options with keyboard emulation and available adapters.
Bad Features: The price is a little steep, relegating this stick to a hard-core audience. Keyboard pass-through a little awkward. Particle board body construction.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 9 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles

Mini-Review: The AtariAge Store

Friday, November 4th, 2005

AtariAge Store Logo
Part of what I want to do here on VintageComputing.com is to share my experiences with certain products and services related to the vintage computing or gaming communities, so that other enthusiasts might know who to trust and who to avoid (if you trust my opinion, anyway). That's why I'm devoting this mini-review to AtariAge's online store. Yes, to the store itself and its service.

I have ordered twice from AtariAge over the last year and a half. First, I ordered a SIO2PC cable kit and a Hollex Cartridge, both for the Atari 800, and also a Redemption 5200 joystick adapter. Then, earlier this year, I ordered a version of M.U.L.E. adapted to the Atari 5200 (pretty awesome, by the way) and a homebrew game called Skeleton+ for the Atari 2600 (each of these items might be subject to their own reviews in the future). Both times I was very satisfied with every aspect of AtariAge's service.

Skeleton Plus Homebrew CartFirst of all, the store's design and functionality is excellent. It is organized in a relatively easy to understand and navigate manner. If I ever ran an online store, I'd probably shamelessly pattern it after AtariAge's store/shopping cart software (whether custom or a modified package, it's still good). AtariAge's checkout process integrates seamlessly into the PayPal system and payment via credit card is easy and fast (AtariAge also accepts check/money order payment, but I haven't tried that). Their shipping options (typically USPS First Class and USPS Priority Mail) are realistic and actual-cost — no shady handling fees padded onto the total. After waiting a week or maybe less, depending on which shipping method selected, your package arrives. I personally was very happy with the speed at which the products got here, and the professionalism with which they were packed (the padding seemed adequate for the items inside), complete with a packing slip / receipt inside the box. The items that I ordered were exactly as described, obviously handled with care and in excellent condition.

All in all, if anyone is reticent about ordering from AtariAge, don't be. I highly recommend their store and personally consider it a service to the vintage gaming community, not some over-commercial exploitation of the "retro" market. They're the Real Deal, as I like to call it, doing it for the love of the game (those phrases might become VC cliches soon if I keep saying them). So what are you waiting for? Order a homebrew 2600 game now!

The Skinny: AtariAge's Online Store
Good Features: Great store layout, functionality. Realistic prices, good payment options, excellent shipping options, fast and as-described service. The Real Deal.
Bad Features: Selection is a little sparse, but that's quite a stretch for a negative feature. Requires use of PayPal for credit card purchases.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 9 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles

SomethingAwesome: RetroZone's FourScore USB Interface

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

Sorry, but this thing kicks ass.Over the past 6 years I have been looking for an easy way to interface my original NES pad with my PC so I could play NES games on an emulator with an authentic feel. There was only one realistic option I knew of: a parallel port interface hack that had spread around the Net over the years, but I never quite got around to doing it. Then, early this year I stumbled across RetroZone's site. There I found an array of different vintage controllers available for sale with USB (!) interfaces. Now we're talking! USB is the way of the present and the future — I don't want to be saddled with having to hook up parallel port stuff to my circa 2010 PC (which almost definitely will not have a parallel port). All of RetroZone's USB controllers apparently use a specially programmed microcontroller to convert the original pad's signals into a USB signal that a PC can understand. After browsing the options (a converted NES controller for $26 and a $17 do-it-yourself kit among them), I settled on the FourScore USB model, which seemed like a great deal to me at $60. Sure, I've seen some people balk at these prices, but I think they're really cheap for saving me the labor and sheer mental strain of devising and doing such a mod by myself. With the FourScore one, you can use up to four NES controllers on one USB port. And even better, you can use any NES controller you want — you don't have to be stuck with a converted one that might have bad conductive rubber pads in it. So I ordered it via PayPal, and a week or so later, it arrived.

The arrival of this product was one of the most exciting things that happened in a long time, having recently acquired, through BitTorrent, an archive of all known 10K+ NES and Famicom ROM files (the legality and morality of doing such will probably be debated in a future entry). I opened up the box and plugged it in. The FourScore was in pristine condition (no surprise, since I have about five unopened FourScores in boxes that I bought for $5 a piece in 1995), with a mint-condition USB cable. The craftsmanship was flawless, with the USB cable coming out of the FourScore as if it were meant to be there, complete with molded USB connector and all. I plugged it in and Windows 2000 instantly recognized it. I plugged in a NES pad into port one of the FourScore and Windows 2000 also instantly recognized it as a joystick (which is great, because it means you can use it with anything that supports Windows joysticks). I fired up FCE Ultra, my emulator of choice and configured the pad. In no time, I was playing Super Mario Bros. full-screen on my PC just as if it were a real NES. The pad had incredible response time — no noticeable delay — and flawless performance. Since then I have played a hundred games with the pad and adapter with no problems. I've also plugged in a 2nd pad into port two of the FourScore and played some Bubble Bobble with a friend, without a hitch. I'm sure it would work with four pads if I tried it, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

All in all, I am extremely impressed with this product and recommend it highly to anyone who plays emulated NES games on their PC. There's nothing quite like playing a NES game with the original controller — it will never feel authentic otherwise. RetroZone is the real deal, doing their service for the love of the game. My next project will be making a dedicated NES emulator machine to hook up to my TV for the complete experience, which I will detail in a future entry. :)

The Skinny: RetroZone's FourScore NES USB Interface
Good Features: Everything. Flawless craftsmanship of the highest quality. Works exactly as promised. Convenience and ease of use is incredible. Fast response times, easy setup, reasonable price.
Bad Features: Honestly. I tried, and I can't think of one thing.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 10 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles

"Genuine Nintendo Spare Part #35545″ Arrives

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

Genuine Nintendo Spare Part #35545Last week I ordered two new Nintendo 64 controllers from ShopNintendo, Nintendo of America's official online store. They offer various parts and accessories for their more recent systems for sale. I know what you're thinking. "RedWolf, why on earth did you pay $25 for a N64 controller? That's almost original retail cost!" Well, I'll tell you why. Having been burned badly by the Great Lack of First-Party SNES Controllers Experience of 2004, I decided to stock up while I still could on N64 controllers. As you know, these things wear out pretty quickly with even a modest amount of playing over time, so it will be great to have some new good controllers in the future when needed, instead of 3rd party bottom-of-the-barrel schlock which hardly works. See, vintage gaming isn't just about the past — it's about the present, or near-past too; you have to plan ahead! That's why the clearance isle is so vital. I missed N64 controllers on clearance, so now I have to pay for it by buying them from one of the only places you can get them — Nintendo itself. Mark my words: in five years, you will regret not having stocked up on N64 controllers too.

So how was the service from ShopNintendo? Pretty darn good. The communication was good, the shipping was cheap (near actual cost) and fast, and the controllers delivered new as promised (complete with official-looking "Genuine Nintendo Spare Part" baggies, which somehow I find more exciting than retail boxes!). The only problem with the service was the abysmal packing procedure. They used merely a semi-crumpled piece of thin paper to "pad" my two loosely-packed, not-in-box N64 controllers. Luckily, UPS was kind to the box on its journey to my house, so no damage was incurred. But this rosy scenario could have easily changed with the simple flip of a coin. I've received some pretty f'd up packages over the years, and I know that incredibly redundant packing material is necessary for safety. One UPS guy I had used to practically run and punt my packages onto my front porch from fifteen feet away.

The Skinny: ShopNintendo's Service
Good Features: Good communication, tracking info, quick shipping, good shipping options. Items delivered as described.
Bad Features: Abysmal lack of packing material (padding) could have easily resulted in two crushed N64 controllers on any other day.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 7 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles

A False Messiah: The Generation NEX Sucks

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

The Generation SUXI received my Generation NEX two days ago via FedEx, part of the first shipment of a new NES clone console from Messiah Entertainment (the self-proclaimed saviors of "gaming"). My initial impressions were good, because the packaging is pretty nice. But once you open the clear plastic box and plug it in, things get a little ugly.

First off, the included tiny, corded controller is terrible. The buttons are laid out in a slanted pattern (which I hate.. more on that in another entry) and their feel is mushy. No, not "Excellent Official NES Controller Mushy," but a very bad kind of mushy. And another note about the controller: look at the picture. See those two black buttons above the red ones on the right? Those are the Select and Start buttons. The two in the middle are "Slow" and "Turbo." Also, the controller has two shoulder buttons like a SNES, except in this case they function like the regular "B" and "A" buttons. All in all, very awkward. Of course, you can plug in your original NES controller to the unit (a must), but I thought I'd mention the pack-in controller, since, after all, it is part of the package.

The sound on most of the games I've tried so far (SMB3, Pinball, River City Ransom, etc.) is off and not accurate (compared to being played on an original NES). The colors, too, on all games seem a little strange. Huge bummer. Also, certain games like the aforementioned River City Ransom do weird stuff when you play them, including messing up the menus, changing colors, and generally not working properly. Castlevania III doesn't even work at all (just a blank green screen). And yes, I cleaned all my games thoroughly before trying them on the NEX. I need to test more games with this, but it feels like it would just be a waste of time. So what on earth could have led me to believe that my games would actually work on this console? Oh. Here's an excerpt from their July 29th, 2005 Press Release:

8-bit Software Galore: Enjoy all your favorite NES and Japanese Famicom games using one console.

Also, there's this from their Official NEX FAQ:

Q: Does it contain custom ICs, or is it based around the NOAC [NES-on-a-chip] that most "clone" consoles are based around?
A: Our IC is a custom designed IC that is built on the NES algorithm. Every attention to detail has been spent on compatibility.

Did they even test this thing? How hard could it be to make a 100% compatible NES clone in 2005? And how could they possibly say it's truly compatible with any game? Sigh. Marketing "oversight," I guess.

I recently have been alerted to the fact that Messiah has posted a game compatibility list on their site — conveniently long after I committed my money to the NEX (I pre-ordered in August). It makes me think Messiah themselves didn't get their hands on the final NEX hardware until about a week before I did. If I had seen the list beforehand, I definitely wouldn't have ordered one. Also note that a game like River City Ransom (the first game I tested with it, incidentally) shows up on their list as working (as of this writing.. they may change it once they see the criticism), but in fact if you play it, the first intro-stage has really weird colors, THEN it shows the title screen, and then you start playing. God knows how else it's garbled up if you keep going. So I think we can tell that their game compatibility list isn't accurate.

The worst controller I\'ve ever seen.The compatibility problem brings me to another issue. I suspect that the Messiah guys didn't do the hardware development on this machine. I think they probably repackaged the latest Asian gray-market Famicom clone, perhaps adding the built-in wireless controller functionality themselves in the process (supposedly its best selling point, although I have not tested it). If anyone can find some hardware design credits on their site (There are none in the system manual, only to the "President" and some marketing guys), let us all know. This whole thing stinks like fish. And speaking of the President, here's an inspiring word from the man himself, direct from their May 23rd, 2005 press release:

Brad Strahle, Messiah’s President, considers the Generation NEX to be one of the most important retro products available. “With the release of Generation NEX, we want the core gamer to know that we have not forgotten our roots. Classic gaming is where it all began and with Generation NEX the classics will live on.” Strahle continued, “All gamers will love playing their favorite retro games on the Generation NEX and enjoy them with a new passion.”

Safely considering myself to fall under the banner of "all gamers," as mentioned by Mr. Strahle in the release, I am sorry to say that I don't love playing my favorite "retro" games on the Generation NEX. The only new passion it has inspired in me is a distrust and dislike of a company known as Messiah Entertainment. I highly recommend staying far away from this me-too capitalize-on-retro-craze rip-off. It has game compatibility akin to, or even worse than, a $10 Chinese Famicom clone. For $60 you could probably get an original NES with a new 72-pin connector in it, some real NES controllers, and ten or more decent games. Avoid the NEX and get the real thing (Ebay is calling). With all its problems, it would have more appropriately been named the Generation SUX. Yeah, I know; that's hitting below the belt. But I never promised a civil review.

By the way, if anyone is lured by the pseudo-stereo capability of this thing, don't be impressed. Just use an RCA 1 Male to Two Female Y-cable on a normal NES. It splits the mono signal into two channels so you can easily plug it into both your left and right audio input on your TV or receiver.

With this thing being such a bust, check out my article on replacing the 72-pin cartridge connector on your NES and eliminating the blinkies.

Review Update (11/10/2005): A few people have told me that I didn't mention that the NEX plays original Famicom carts as well as regular NES games (through a slot on the top of the unit), and that this is a strong feature of the unit. My review was originally targeted at people who were already familiar with the system's features, hence the oversight. But it is worth mentioning, and it does play them — I tried the only two Famicom games I have (Robocop 2 and Zippy Race) the first day I got it, and they worked, although Robocop 2's music seemed a little messed up. The Famicom cartridge slot is a nice extra, but I reviewed this system from the standpoint of a complete NES replacement system, as it is primarily marketed. Unfortunately, the NEX fails miserably at this task. I suspect that the attractiveness of the NEX for most people (the general gaming public) would be as a replacement for an old, unreliable front-loading NES, for which they might actually have games. It's highly likely that only the most dedicated of NES fans have Famicom carts they want to play. But if Famicom compatibility is your thing, go for it. Nobody's stopping you but your own wallet.

Second Update (11/14/2005): If anyone wants to know more about Famicom to NES converters inside copies of Gyromite, check out my new article on it here.

Third Update (12/21/2005): What's up with IGN's weird Generation NEX review? I don't know. My comments about it are here.

The Skinny: Generation NEX
Good Features: Die-cut manual that looks like a NES cartridge in a case. Nice industrial design on the console’s exterior  (Probably the two things actually designed by Messiah employees). Doesn't explode when you turn it on.
Bad Features: Pathetic game compatibility.  Glitchy sound.  Dumb pack-in controller design with superfluous buttons and odd button placement.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 4 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles