NES/Famicom Starting Guide

Thinking of getting into Nintendo 8-bit Retro Gaming? This Guide is for you!

Nintendo NES or Famicom games – regardless of where you live, you see them almost everywhere. Even after more than twenty years they’re still commonly found in game stores, garage sales, flea markets, swap meets, Craigslist and of course, e-bay. You start to think how great it would be to enjoy the games for the classic hardware, but then you start to worry about all the reliability issues that come with really old hardware, the front loading NES in particular.

If this common scenario sounds familiar to you, then I’m here to help. Despite what you might think, there are many different options for playing classic Nintendo games. Each option has its own unique individual strengths and weaknesses and there’s really no “best” answer for everyone. All I will do is give the facts. Rest assured you are getting honest information as I own every variant of the hardware listed below except for the specialty versions.

If you are thinking of exploring into the NES scene, keep this guide in your bookmarks for future reference.

Without further ado, here is detailed rundown of all of the options for today’s gamer to explore.

The Original Nintendo Entertainment System

Common Nicknames: NES, NES Toaster, Frontloader, ol’ gray box
Model Number: NES-001
Platform: 72 pin (NES cartridges)
Manufacturer: Nintendo
Price Range: $20-60

When you hear the name NES, this is probably the system you think of first. This is the original North American design form 1985 that set the western world on fire. It’s an iconic symbol of 1980’s console design and as such, highly desirable by retro gamers. The design of the system was radically different from other consoles of its day including it’s Japanese counterpart. The Nintendo Entertainment System NES-001 had a small lid which when flipped up, revealed a spring loaded cartridge bay that would apply pressure on the contact pins to create a solid connection. Due to the engulfing nature of the system, it is commonly referred to as the NES ‘toaster’.

Why you should choose the NES-001

The NES just screams and shouts retro. It’s boxy, VCR-like appearance makes it stand out on any shelf and attracts attention, or fit right in. It features somewhat forward-thinking composite video output as well as RF, making it still look fairly decent on tvs today. It’s power supply is a 9v AC plug, and the beast can be powered by just about anything you throw at it – AC, DC, 8v, 9v, 10v, 12v – the NES-001 cares not.

Why you should avoid the NES-001

The design of the cartridge bay is somewhat flawed for two main reasons: dust build up and the constant bending of the pins. Due to the distance the cartridge connector is from the user, household dust has a tendency to build up inside the cartridge bay interfering with normal usage. This is why generally speaking, blowing on cartridges helps to get your games to work. More effective treatments involve cleaning the contacts with Isopropanol alcohol and with a good pink eraser.In fact, I wrote a guide to do this this last fall. http://satoshimatrix.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/how-to-clean-cartridge-contacts/

Replacing the connector addresses this problem as well, but new production 72-pin connectors tend to grab rather tightly on cartridge connectors, preventing easy removal of cartridges.

Nintendo Entertainment System Toploader

Common Nicknames: NES 2, NES Toploader
Model Number: NES-101
Platform: 72 pin (NES cartridges)
Manufacturer: Nintendo
Price Range: $60-80

Released at the tail end of the NES’ lifespan, the NES-101, commonly called either the NES 2 or NES Toploader was a redesigned, sleek and compact budget-priced Nintendo Entertainment System for the 90s. It featured a 72 pin cartridge connector, two standard 7-pin NES controller ports, RF video, and came with one newly designed “dogbone” controller, so named for its overall shape and color. The redesigned controller was universally loved and resembled the great design of the SNES controller. The redesign NES-101 removed the 10-NES lockout chip and the unused expansion port featured on the NES-001.

Why you should choose the NES-101

The NES 101 uses a top-loading cartridge design which is mechanically simpler than the Zero Insertion Force design of the NES-001. The change results in less stress on the cartridge pins than the original tray design of the NES-001 and far better reliability. As long as your cartridges are clean, they should power on the first time you turn on the system. Like it’s older cousin, the NES-001 is powered by a 9v AC power supply which can be substituted for just about any other plug you may happen to have.

Why you should avoid the NES-101

In their efforts to reduce the cost of the NES, Nintendo decided to remove the composite video outputs found in their earlier model and include only an RF output, which is even worse quality than the RF signal found in the original model. The system was universally bashed for creating faint vertical lines that were visible in bright colors. Due to the limited number of the units sold, they now are considered fairly rare and can be sold used for often double what they were sold for when new.

I should note that modifications are possible to correct the video signal issues and restore composite video . I own an NES-101 that’s been extensively modified and it is my preferred method of playing North American NES game cartridges.

Nintendo Family Computer

Common Nicknames: Famicom, Japanese NES
Model Number: HVC-001
Platform: 60 pin (Famicom cartridges)
Manufacturer: Nintendo
Price Range: $20-60

The Nintendo Family Computer was released in Japan in July 1983 to an uncertain future. It was in this time period the videogame market was starting to crash in North America, and the consequences were felt even in Japan where the market was still strong. Despite the problems with the medium in the west, sales quickly grew and the Famicom was soon a major success. Two years later the system was redesigned for North America and the rest is history.

The Japanese fondness of creating short nicknames spread to the Family Computer quickly being nearly universally called “Famicom” instead. Although never called that by Nintendo themselves, the Famicom is still the universal name for the Japanese NES.

Why you should choose the Famicom HVC-001

What can be cooler than playing your favorite NES games on the very first model of the system? The Famicom’s white/red/gold coloring, small, compact design and permanently attached controllers make it one of the most instantly recognizable gaming consoles ever made.

Why you should avoid the Famicom HVC-001

The original Famicom HVC-001 uses permanently attached controllers with only 3 feet of cable. There was an expansion port in the front of the system that allowed gamers to use other third party controllers, but most such controllers could only be used for player one, and nearly all third party controllers had the same short three foot cables.  Due to the inclusion of the microphone, there are no Start or Select buttons on the second controller. The system is also RF only. Of course, there are plenty of composite video hacks available for the HVC-001 Famicom. Finally, while it doesn’t affect system performance, most HVC-001’s have badly discolored over the years, turning the once off-white plastic into a urine-like yellow shade.

New Nintendo Family Computer

Common Nicknames: AV Famicom, Composite Famicom
Model Number: HVC-101
Platform: 60 pin (Famicom cartridges)
Manufacturer: Nintendo
Price Range: $60-80

The”new Family Computer’ is the Japanese counterpart to the North American NES-101 ‘toploader’. the HVC-101 is the only version of the Nintendo without an RF modulator built in, making it composite video only. As such, it is commonly nicknamed the “AV Famicom”.  The system was released late in the Famicom’s lifespan, and was very successful in Japan. It isn’t entirely uncommon for some Japanese retailers to still even have them new in the box.

Why you should choose the AV Famicom HVC-101

The AV Famicom is downright stylish. It outputs composite video, can use North American NES controllers, still has the DB-15 expansion controller port, and works with all Famicom accessories including the Famicom Disk System. Best of all, the video signal it produces is among the cleanest you’ll get from any 8-bit Nintendo console. AV Famicoms were produced as late as 1998 in Japan, making them by far the newest and most reliable variant of the hardware.

Why you should avoid the AV Famicom HVC-101

The biggest detractor is the price. used, console only AV Famicoms hover between $60 to $80 plus the cost of shipping. Also keep in mind that as both controllers use the American style controller plug, early Famicom games specifically designed to take advantage of the HVC-001’s built in microphone in the second controller cannot be played. The biggest casualty is the Famicom Disk System version of The Legend of Zelda which requires you to shout loud noises into the mic to defeat Poles Vice (the jumping rabbits).

SHARP TWIN Famicom

Common Nicknames: SHARP Famicom, Twin NES
Model Number: AN-505 (model 1) AN-500R, AN-505-BK AN-505-RD (model 2)
Platform: 60 pin (Famicom cartridges)
Manufacturer: SHARP
Price Range: $80-140 (model 1) $350-600 (model 2)

Released in July of 1986 by electronics giant SHARP, the TWIN Famicom was an officially licensed Nintendo console that combined the functionality of the Nintendo Family Computer with the still fairly new Disk System attachment. It is the only model of the Family Computer to be officially called a Famicom. TWIN Famicoms came in multiple colors, with later models even featuring built in turbo fire buttons into the controllers.

Why you should choose the TWIN Famicom

The TWIN Famicom has the Disk System RAM Adapter built in, making it a perfect all-in-one Famicom player that can accept both disk and cartridge formats. If you are planning on building a large Famicom collection with a healthy number of Famicom Disk System games, this is the system of choice. Like the North American NES-001, the TWIN Famicom features composite and RF video output. Later models also included longer six foot cables and built-in turbo fire switches for the B and A buttons on both controllers.

Why you should avoid the TWIN Famicom

The addition of the disk drive assembly means the TWIN Famicom is rather large, especially compared to the compact design of the other Famicom models. It’s about the size of the the first DVD players or most a bit smaller than most VCRs, if you can remember that far back. It’s rarity coupled with its size and weight make it an expensive Famicom choice to import from Japan, and it still uses permanently attached controllers with only 3 feet of cable. The more desirable later versions with longer controller cords and turbo fire switches often sell for $400-600 USD without shipping charges. Like standalone Famicom Disk Systems, the intenral motor belt can break or melt, and although TWIN Famicoms take the same kind of belt as the standalone units, replacements are becoming increasingly uncommon.

SHARP Famicom Titler

Common Nicknames: RGB Famicom,
Model Number: AN-510
Platform: 60 pin (Famicom cartridges)
Manufacturer: SHARP Electronics
Price Range: $350-600

The Famicom Titler is a very rare Famicom variant that allowed users to play Famicom games as well as create custom title cards for businesses doing video-overlay either for commercial tapes, magazine photographs, and store displays. It features controls on the system as well as a small touch pad to write messages for custom titles. It is the only Famicom to offer native S-video output.

Why you should choose the Famicom Titler

S-video of course! S-video is cleaner, more vivid video format than composite, making the Titler capable of producing the best picture of any consumer level Famicom. Better yet, the Titler can even be modded for full true RGB support! RBG is a signal used in arcade machines and in Europe called SCART. RBG is better quality than S-video and is about on par with component. Pretty crazy when you consider you can get component quality video from a videogame console from the 1980s!

Why you should avoid the Famicom Titler

They’re very very expensive. You’ll probably never ever see one unless your LukeMorse1 or some other lucky bastard. Getting RGB to American TVs is pretty much impossible as very very few have the correct inputs.

 

Famiclones

Common Nicknames: NESclones, fake systems, new production systems
Model Number: Varies
Platform: 72 pin (mostly, but also 60 pin too)
Manufacturer: Varies
Price Range: $20-60

As soon as it was evident that the Japanese Nintendo Family Computer was a huge success in Japan, it spread to neighboring Asian countries and then around the world. By the late 1980s, the market was so large many slightly shady companies began to develop their own Famicoms through reverse engineering. Unlike the North American NES, neither the Japanese Famicom hardware nor game software had any copy protection, so the only avenue Nintendo had against these clones was legal action, which proved only moderately successful.

By about 1989, there were dozens of companies producing their own, bootleg Famicoms. These early clones often were direct hardware clones of the Famicom, chip for chip and component for component. Most even looked the same with only minor alterations.

As the years went by and the chipset required to construct clones became cheaper, Famiclones became even more prevalent, with more elaborate designs cropping up worldwide, often accompanied by bootleg “9999 in 1″ cartridges. In the pursuit of further cost reductions, by about the mid 1990s, Chinese Famiclone manufactures had developed a single epoxy-based IC that would contain the equivalent processing ability of the entire Famicom chipset. These single chipped Famiclones became known as NOAC Famiclones – NOAC standing for Nintendo On A Chip.

Below are a few examples of common Famiclones you might want to consider if you or someone you know is just getting into the NES for the first time.

 

Yobo FC Game Console

Common Nicknames: Yobo NES, US Neo-Fami
Model Number: OT-8008
Platform: 72 pin (NES cartridges)
Manufacturer: Yobo Gameware
Price Range: $20-30

The Yobo FC Game Console was released in 2005 when Famiclones first became legal due to the twenty year hardware patient of the NES expiring. This unit features a 72 pin cartridge connector for North American NES games, two standard 7-pin NES controller ports, composite video output, and comes with two controllers, power adapter and audio/video composite cables.

Why you should choose the Yobo FC Game Console

The Yobo FC Game Console is an extremely small console at only a tiny bit bigger than the very game cartridges its designed to run. The controllers it comes with are actually quite good; they are rounded like NES dogbone controllers but feature turbo fire B and A buttons as well as the mostly superfluous turbo Start. Still, if you prefer to use original Nintendo-made controllers, the system uses the same 7-pin standard allowing you to use any controller designed for the original NES-001 hardware.

Why you should avoid the Yobo FC game console

The Yobo FC Game Console is a NOAC-based Famiclone. As such, it produces audible pitch errors in many games, produce graphical glitches in others, and flat of refuse to play a handful of games. Still, you can usually find these for around $20, so you shouldn’t expect the world from the Yobo.

Generation NEX

Common Nicknames: NES NEX, New NES
Model Number: None
Platform: 72 & 60 pin (NES & Famicom cartridges)
Manufacturer: Messiah (bankrupt)
Price Range: $50-70

The Messiah Generation NEX is a Famiclone that was produced by a small California based company called Messiah Gameware in 2005. It offers both an NES 72pin connector as well as Famicom  60pin connector, wireless controller support, amplified mono sound, and a compact sleek design.

Why you should choose the Generation NEX

The Generation NEX is extremely attractive, mimicking the design of the NES-001 but with an over 50% reduction in size. The NEX outputs video via composite, and creates amplified mono audio by transferring the signals along both mono and stereo RCA jacks. The NEX features both an NES 72 pin connector and a Famicom 60 pin connector, eliminating the need for any adapters. It’s wired controller is seemingly designed after the Super NES pad, complete with shoulder buttons, turbo fire and rapid fire start slow-mo. The NEX also supports its own brand of wireless controllers and wireless arcade stick, both which work remarkably well.

Why you should avoid the Generation NEX

Despite all that it has going for it, the Generation NEX is at its very care, a  simple glob top NOAC that works no better than the other $20 clones out there. Typical NOAC sound issues, game glitches, and refusal to play some games are abound with the NEX. Given the high cost, the added features such as the duel cartridge port design and wireless controller support make this one hard to recommend over the real hardware. If you’re only looking for one Famiclone though, this is the one to get.

RetroDuo

Common Nicknames: NES Two-in-One
Model Number: None
Platform: 72 pin NES and 46 pin SNES/SFC
Manufacturer: Retro-Bit
Price Range: $50-70

The Retro Duo is a twin Famiclone/Super Famiclone that will play both NES and Super NES game cartridges. The system supports real SNES controllers that can be used for either SNES or NES. There’s compoite video as well as S-video cables included. The System is sleek and compact, powered by just a 5v power supply.

Why you should choose the RetroDuo

Honestly, I was quite shocked by the quality of the Retro Duo. It will play nearly all NES games including Castlevania 3, and the SNES side will play anything but later revision SA-1 games such as Super Mario RPG. The system has composite video output, amplified mono for NES and stereo for SNES, S-video for both (although the NES is pseudo S-video) and it’s controller ports are that of the SNES 7pin, meaning real SNES controllers can be used to play both SNES and NES games!

Why you should avoid the RetroDuo

Although using a SNES controller to play NES games is comfortable and novel, it somehow just doesn’t feel right. Unmodified, the NES daughterboard will produce rather horrid audio, but luckily this can be corrected by soldering in a single capacitor and resistor. $60 is kind of expensive for a Famiclone, even if it is for the best one on the market.

RetroN3

Common Nicknames: Hyperkin Tri System, Retron Three
Model Number: None
Platform: 72 pin NES and 46 pin SNES/SFC, Sega Genesis
Manufacturer: Hyperkin
Price Range: $50-70

The RetroN3 is a triple Famiclone/Super Famiclone/Genesis clone released in 2009 by Hyperkin. Like the Retro Duo, it will play both NES and Super NES game cartridges, as well as Sega Genesis carts. The system includes two IR based wireless controllers but also features six controller ports – two NES, two SNES, and two Genesis controller ports. There’s compoite video as well as S-video cables included. The System is sleek and compact, powered by 9v DC center pin positive PSU.

Why you should choose the RetroN3

I only own the first model RetroN3. Apparently the new version will play even more games than the one I have. The RetroN3 does what it says on the box – it plays games designed for the NES, SNES, or Genesis. It even supports the originally controllers designed for each system! There’s S-video output for both SNES and Genesis games, and games look rather excellent through the RetorN3.

Why you should avoid the RetroDuo

At least on the version that I own, the NOAC based Famiclone that powers the NES portion is rather poor, about on par with the Yobo FC Game Console. It won’t play Castlevania 3, the Powerpak, or other higher end NES games. SNES is near perfect, but the lack of the SNES CIC lockout chip prevents later revisions of Super Mario RPG from running. Genesis games seem to run without too much problems, but there are noticeable differences in sound levels of the various channels used in Genesis game music. You’ll probably hear things you barely noticed on the real hardware. In standard composite, Genesis games look like absolute shit.

GameAxe Color

Common Nicknames: Pocket Famicom
Model Number: N/A
Platform: 60 pin (Famicom cartridges)
Manufacturer: Radiant (bankrupt)
Price Range: $130-160

The GameAxe Color is a reverse engineered hardware based Famiclone that reduces the system’s chipset into a handheld with a screen. It has built in turbo fire buttons and video output to a TV and requires six AA batteries to operate.

Why you should choose the GameAxe Color

Ever wanted to take your Famicom collection with you on a roadtrip? This device allows you to do just that. This system came from a time before NOAC Famiclones. As such, it works with every NES and Famicom game I own, from Castlevania 3 to Lagrange Point.

Why you should avoid the GameAxe Color

The performance of full color backlit LCDs from the early 1990s leaves a lot to be desired. The LCD on the GameAxe is somewhat blurry and the two miniature fluorescent tubes behind the LCD draw quite a bit of current, forcing the system to drain six AA batteries in around 2 hours. Also, compared to even the Lynx, Gamegear or TurboExpress, the GameAxe is absolutely massive

Wii Virtual Console

Common Nicknames: Nintendo emulator or sometimes lolz y would i PAY for romz?!
Model Number: None
Platform: Wii
Manufacturer: Nintendo
Price Range: $5-6 per game

The Wii Virtual Console is a channel on the Wii Shop that offers retro Nintendo games via download for a fee. Simply take your Wii online, enter the store, find a title you want to purchase with a creditcard, pay and download the software to the system.

Why you should choose the Wii Virtual Console

Many of today’s gamers don’t have working NES systems or even NES game cartridges. The Virtual Console provides today’s gamer with a way of playing NES classics in a new setting. This is a great way to play NES games in 480p. There are a number of controller solutions available, including The Wiimote, Classic Controller, Gamecube controller, even adapters that allow games to plug in original NES controllers to their Wii!

Why you should avoid the Wii Virtual Console

While $5 or $6 for some NES games is an absolute steal, it’s a total rip off for others. For instance,  according to the virtual console, Donkey Kong Jr. Math is equal value to Super Mario Bros. 3 or the Legend of Zelda.  Ultimately though, the biggest disadvantage is the total lack of something tangible. You send your money on a digital download that you can’t sell or trade at your leisure in the future. I’m not too big a fan of the VC.

NES Emulation

Emulation simply means one processor coping the performance of another. In this case, it means the ability to play NES games on much more powerful modern computers. There are NES emulators for PC, Mac, Dreamcast, Gamecube, PS2, Xbox, GBA, PSP, DS and many other machines.

Why you should choose emulation

Emulators are free, and legality issues aside, they allow gamers to play any and all NES games regardless of rarity. NES emulators on portables such as the PSP allow games to try out a game before purchase at a used game store. NES games look beautiful on a computer monitor or tv. They allow for savestates, you can take scrreenshots, add turbo fire, even remap games with backwards or otherwise broken controls.

Why you should avoid emulation

Even now, many emulators are not 100% perfect, owning ROMsets of games you don’t own is technically illegal, and as with the Wii Virtual Console, the lack of the tangible game cartridge diminishes the impact the games have on the player.

There you have it folks. While I covered most of the choices, there are still many many Famiclones I haven’t mentioned, but keep one thing in mind: if they’re from the mid 90s or newer, they are all NOAC based. Save your money and choose one of the system I listed above. I hope people will make good use of this guide. If you have a question or comment, feel free to leave them below.

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11 Responses to “NES/Famicom Starting Guide”

  1. Good read!

    Damnit! It’s 2 am! Why do you have to intrigue me in the middle of the night with your awesome articles?!

  2. So just out of curiosity, how much would it raise the value of a working nes-001 if you have a wireless controller?

  3. This is a mindblowingly incredible article.

    Perhaps you could also talk of modifications that can be done to consoles and how that makes certain things more desirable? For instance the somewhat radical PlayChoice-10 PPU mod which allows full RGB out and higher quality audio… also curious whether anyone has ever modified an AV Famicom to use perhaps a modified controller with the microphone from the original Famicom, is the wiring to do so still intact? Has anyone ever investigated this option?

    • satoshimatrix Says:

      Thanks for the kind words! If you like, check out my youtube channel as well. Lots of stuff gets posted there too. Find it at SatoshiMatrix1.

      The PC10 RGB PPU mod does allow a standard NES or Famicom to display RGB, but at the cost of composite, and the NES’s native color pallet. The resulting shift in colors to the RGB PPU can lead to some really undesireable pallets for NES games that ever never intended to be displayed in RGB colors. What did you mean “higher quality audio?” The mod has nothing to do with audio at all.

      As for your second question about the Player 2 Mic controller, it wouldn’t work on the AV Famicom because the the controller ports are that of the NES 7 pin North American standard which lack the correct pins. By default, an AV Famicom can’t even use NES Zappers. The mic was used in only a handful of titles, and all the good ones have NES counterparts that removed it, or later Famicom versions that also removed any Mic-required segments, such as the Famicom release of The Hyrule Fantasy: Zelda no Densetsu. I suppose some extreme hack could be wired to the DB-15 controller port, but again, it’s a moot point because the Mic was so undersupported.

  4. Awesome article, I knew of the Famicom but I didn’t know how many versions of the hardware existed!! This was a fascinating read!! ^_^

    • satoshimatrix Says:

      and this is only the tip of the iceburg. There are many more clones I didn’t even mention. The Famicom is the most cloned videogame hardware in the world. From penguins to PS3s, there are Famiclones in just about any shape you can possibly think of.

  5. I have an original Super Famicom from Japan that looks like it might have been used but resealed and is in great condition! I have been trying to find an accurate price for it in case I decide to sell it. WOuld you happen to know if it is worth anything? It has the console, two controllers, and I can’t tell if it has the power source underneath since i don’t won’t to open it, but I there is also the orignal paperwork that came with it.

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