NES Power Pak Review

 

Ever wish you could have every NES game? Now you can

 

Stretching all the way back to the mid to late 1980s, Famicom gamers have had the opportunity to buy unlicensed multi-carts rather than official games. The draw to these carts is obvious – they cost a fraction of the price and often contain unique, rare or modified games, or it might simply be that they contain many good games in one place without forcing the player to constantly swap out cartridges.

However, multi-carts also have their share of flaws. More often than not, the games they contain are among the Famicom’s most simplistic. Multi-carts are infamous for the likelihood of containing crappy games as well. Worse, carts that claim to have dozens, often hundreds of games really only ever house a small fraction of that with the small number of real games just repeating over and over. But the biggest problem with any multi-cart is that no matter what games it contains, it will never replace your entire collection because they never contain battery back ups or large games and because the individual gamer has no say in which games are on any one multi-cart.

Now all of that has changed thanks to an ingenious device known as the Power Pak. Simply put, the Power Pak is a NES cartridge dev tool that can convert FAT flash memory from a standard compact flash card into 6502 assembly code, allowing it to read .nes files. The Power Pak is fitted with virtual mappers, allowing it to read and play theoretically every NES or Famicom game ever programmed.

Available exclusively via RetroZone at retrousb.com, the Power Pak is the answer to all the problems with current multi-carts for both the NES and Famicom. Designed to eliminate the wear and tear that occurs to the aging 72 pin connector of the NES through constant use, the Power Pak is the ultimate companion to any NES or Famicom.

This is my first review of this nature, so bare with me as I hammer out a hardware review format.

Design

The Powerpak is housed in an attractive transparent red NES shell with a port for a Compact Flash card in the top right corner. Once inserted, the Compact Flash card lays flush with the top of the cartridge.

The Powerpak imploys a brilliant yet simple latch mechanism that manually slides up and then allows the user to push in to eject the CF card effortlessly.

Although dark red transparent and housing a CF card port, the shell of the Powerpak mirrors a standard Nintendo cartridge perfectly. It will fit in perfectly on a shelf of other NES cartridges.

The only negative point of the Powerpak is that it comes in an NES 72-pin cartridge only; there is no 60-pin Famicom design. Therefore, to play it on a Famicom you need to use an adapter and have the large cartridge face backwards as per usual for NES games on a Famicom.

Durability

While I  wouldn’t recommend treating the Powerpak with excessive abuse, the cartridge is about on par with the standard durability of original gray NES game cartridges. The Powerpak should be able to put up with years of use and wear without issue. As we all know, NES games are tough.

Functionality

The Powerpak works like a dream; all you need to do is install the system software onto a CF card and then load up your favorite .nes ROMs. Currently, the Powerpak supports nearly every NES mapper there is with the notable exception of MMC5. This means there are well over one thousand fully playable, bug free games with more arriving with future firmware updates.

As the Powerpak reads .nes files, the entire library of NES, Famicom, and Famicom Disk System games are theoretically playable on any NES or Famicom. The Powerpak will even read PAL games on an NTSC NES or Famicom, although the added speed of the processor will make the PAL NES games about 12% faster than they should be.

Another welcome feature is the ability to load and save RAM data via flash memory for games that originally saved with a battery, such as the Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. All you need to do is create a dummy save file for each game, rename it to the name of the game, and then save to it when prompted.

This little bit of extra work ensures that you will never lose your save data to a dead battery of the NES’s notorious saving error that occurs when you turn off the system improperly.

When you load up the Powerpak, you’re greeted to a simple to use menu interface to select the game you wish to play, just like any Multicart. Once a game is selected, you can also choose to load RAM save data and input up to five Gamegenie codes. That’s two more codes than even the real NES Gamegenie!

Since the Powerpak has the ability to reduce the entire NES library to a mere menu to select hundreds of games from, it brings up the morally gray issue of emulation.

Is the Powerpak a  tool of evil piracy or is it the ultimate collectors tool and the holy grail NES games have been looking for? Depending on who uses it, it’s both.

While you can load up all the Mario and other Nintendo titles up on it and play them for free, most of the games you can play on the Powerpak were developed by companies that no longer exist, or at the very least, are no longer making any profit from their 20+ year old games.

I myself have a large collection of NES, Famicom and FDS games, and have actually used the Powerpak to demo games before buying the cartridges. I’ve even used this process before buying a few NES games on the Wii’s Virtual Console.

Ultimately, the choice of how one uses the Powerpak should be left to each individual gamer.

In addition to running games, the Powerpak can also read .nsf (Nintendo Sound Format) files naively. NSF files  are the raw data the 6502 processor of the NES uses to produce noise. With the ability to run nearly any nsf, composers can test out their work in Famitracker (an NSF composer for modern computers) and everyday chiptune fans can enjoy their favorite NES tunes without pressing a button sequence to load up the hidden sound test in their favorite NES game.

Value

At a base price of $135 USD plus shipping, the Powerpak isn’t exactly pocket change for most gamers. However, from an economical standpoint, the Powerpak is quite a good deal considering all it offers. If you’re an NES gamer, chances are you have dozens if not hundreds of NES games you’ve bought over the years. What if you’re an NES owner also interested in Famicom games? FDS? Homebrew and game reproductions? You see what I’m getting at?

Just how much money has your collection cost you to build? Is it even complete? For the price of only just a few rare games you can own everything. The Powerpak also gives the ability for owners of sealed games to play the games they’ve been thinking of opening. Since it also can run nearly every 8-bit Nintendo game ever made, it has the benefit of severely reducing cartridge pin connector wear and tear, saving you money and the hassle of replacing 72 pin connectors.

Overall

The Powerpak is a great value, offers endless variety and is a good long term investment as the stream of NES homebrew games, worthwhile hacks and even fan translations continues to flow.

While the Powerpak doesn’t do anything a decent PC emulator won’t, the reason why one would buy it is the same as any flash device – to be able to experience everything the original hardware had to offer, on the original hardware.

The Powerpak is the best thing to happen to the NES in years. Step aside Mario. The NES has a new killer app.

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22 Responses to “NES Power Pak Review”

  1. Jodo KastMaster Says:

    You failed to mention that there’s a plugin for it to play NSF files!

    You can weird out your neighbors listening to an 8-bit TMNT theme song. :p

  2. I have to disagree on the durability, if you look at every other game Nintendo made, there are 2 plastic supports built into the case, in the center (one has a screw in it). The few boards big enough to hit it just go around it, but PowerPak ignores it and the plastic is cut off inside. It’s a minor point, but I’m thinking the plastic could get cracked much easier than most carts. But I definitely don’t blame the designer for ignoring it, it’s a real pain to route around a huge hole in the center of your design.

  3. Hey Satoshi Matrix, what’s the game pictured third (Airman Stage)?

    • satoshimatrix Says:

      In the powerpak review? That’s a ROM hack of Rockman 2 that updates the sprites to look Megaman X style. The hack has no proper name as far as I know.

  4. Very nice review. I’ve also used emulation to test out quite a few games before I buy them and agree that it is definitely a helpful method. The Nintendo is not really one of my focused systems so I wouldn’t pick up one of these, but I have considered flash carts for other systems such as the Genesis, Master System, and more. I do marvel at the feat of engineering that has brought us such an advanced device that fits into a standard NES cartridge form factor. The guys over at the Retrozone have my respect for bringing the community such a wonderful and useful device.

    Keep the reviews coming Satoshi.

  5. […] over $100. If you just want to give it a try, I suggest Retrozone’s Powerpak. Check out my review for more info. Fun Fact Bonk was originally created as a comic character named PC Caveman(Genjin), […]

  6. justin wu Says:

    where you got that mega man 2 (rock man 2) hack?

  7. Ive had a power pak for a while and I cant get any FDS games to run the screen says loading and it does nothing any help would be welcom

    • satoshimatrix Says:

      Either you’re using an out-of-date mapper set (check retrozone’s powerpak page for the newest mappers) or you’re using bad ROM dumps. Check to make sure the headers are clean and intact by using a hex editor. unlike many emulators that don’t care, the Powerpak requires clean ROMs.

  8. satoshimatrix Says:

    If your mappers are up-to-date, then your ROMs are bad. Replace them with the GoodNES set.

  9. Franco Chan Says:

    How does one do that (especially with FDS roms) on a mac? Any help would be MOST appreciated/ 🙂

    • satoshimatrix Says:

      I don’t understand what you’re asking. How does one do…..what?

      • Sorry for not being clear. I meant, how does one get around to getting good NES & FDS roms? I’ve been scouring the internet for both FDS roms, and ways to get my Powerpak to run them, but I’ve been getting Bad File Header messages for over 2 weeks now. 😦 Any suggestions? I appreciate the reply. 😉

      • satoshimatrix Says:

        Try the No-Intro 2011-02-12 FDS ROM set. You can get it on the piratebay.

      • I have that same bunch with me and on file and I’ve been attempting with these ROMS. But this bit of info helps, since we have a common ground to work with.

        – I downloaded the latest v1.34 mappers from the RetroZone site.
        – I unzipped and copied it my CF card.
        – I made a folder for FDS roms, entitled “FDS”
        – I downloaded the No-Intro 2011-02-12 FDS ROM set.
        – I unzipped Ice Hockey.
        – I uploaded the .FDS file into my CF card, into the folder named “FDS”
        – I downloaded loopy’s F.MAP and FDSBIOS.BIN files and copied them to my CF card, overwriting the old files.
        – I stick the POWERPAK into my NES unit.
        – It boots and I press A to take me to the root folders.
        – I enter my “FDS” folder.
        – I highlight “Ice Hockey” and press A.
        – The screen says “BAD FILE HEADER”

        What did I do wrong? 😦

        *thank you so much for your help, Satoshimatrix! You’ve been the only person on the internet that has helped me since I began searching.. 😉

      • satoshimatrix Says:

        I don’t know what you’re doing wrong, but I’ll tell you what. Email me directly what games you want and I’ll send you my personal roms that I can confirm work on my Powerpak. email satoshimatrix at hotmail dot com.

      • satoshimatrix Says:

        I’ve tried to reply to your email but it keeps saying it’s invalid. Try emailing me again if you have an alternative email, or check it. I can’t reply back to you. I’ve tried several times.

  10. Sent you a reply. Will wait for you. Hey thanks for not giving up!

  11. If I was to buy the NES PowerPak,
    how hard is it to use?
    I do not know much about computers,
    you could all but call me computer illerterate.
    Would it be possible for me to send the NES PowerPak to you through the mail and have you fix it up for me?
    I would be more than willing to pay you for your time and effort.

    Thanks

    • satoshimatrix Says:

      Sure, if you’re really concerned then I can set it up for you. Keep in mind you’ll need to buy a compact flash card as well. shoot me an email and we’ll talk specifics. satoshimatrix at hotmail dot com.

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