A few day ago I had received a message from someone, a Nintendo collector and gamer, who had recently obtained a Famicom –> Nintendo adapter, and he had been interested in purchasing some games to use on his Famicom. On the Famicom side of things, the guy is more-so a gamer than a collector, hence why I decided to write this article to help those that are branching out into Famicom gaming (which seems to be more people as of late). The following consists strictly of my personal opinions, and while I may be biased in some places, I think most of my thoughts are somewhat valid.
What is the best way to play Famicom games?
When I first started experimenting with Famicom, over 15 years ago, I had played the games on my NES via a Famicom → NES adapter. The nice thing about this option is that it is (often) cheap and convenient. If you have a sizable NES collection already, just run your finger down the games until you reach Gyromite, and then open it up. Many copies of Gyromite (and other first-gen Nintendo games) have an official Famicom → NES adapter inside of them. By utilizing this adapter, you can quickly get to Famicom gaming without purchasing a separate gaming console. The only problem with this is that the adapters can be a bit finicky, at least from my experience. So while the adapter method is a perfect solution for those that aren’t overly serious about exploring the Famicom side of gaming, I personally feel that a lot of serious gamers will quickly outgrow this option.
The second method that is often employed is purchasing a Famicom clone, of which there is a huge array of choices. Until I had wanted to explore the world of Famicom Disk gaming, I was content with running my games on a clone machine. Some of the (mostly modern) clones are garbage, lightweight products of the modern era. These machines run the games by using a “Nintendo on a Chip”, and as a result, the music often gets butchered to one extent or another. Furthermore, the compatibility of games is not at 100%. The usual suspects, like Castlevania 3, which give emulators trouble also throw fits with some of the modern clones. It is worth mentioning though, that some Famicom games will only run in clones. Some unlicensed game companies such as Nanjing and Waixing (and also modern multicart producers) have been designing Famicom carts for use on clones for so long, that some of the modern ones won’t even work on a real Famicom! So if you want to play a bunch of Aliexpress “glob top” carts, then a clone might suit your needs best.
The older Famicom clones are of a superb quality. They often mimic a real Famicom 1:1, and also all have ports allowing you to plug the machines into your TV using a set of AV cables. Affordable, convenient, and compatible.
The final method of playing Famicom games is just to get a real Famicom. Of these machines, I own two original Famicoms (one with square buttons), a Twin Famicom, and also an AV Famicom. Most of the time I use my Twin Famicom for gaming. Although a bit more expensive than just purchasing an original Famicom, the Twin also allows for playing Famicom Disks. With the AV Famicom, I don’t really like the feel of the machine very much, as the controllers are small and basically the same as those used on the Top Loading NES. As for the original Famicom machines, there are NO AV ports, so if you want to use one of those on your TV, you need to fool around with more cables and converters, something that I don’t particularly want to do, since there are other viable options available.
To sum it up, I don’t think there is a “best” method of playing Famicom games, though I do feel that clones and real machines (with AV cables) are much better for the average gamer than using the adapter method or using the original machine, without AV ports. With my busy lifestyle, convenience is king, hence my choices on the matter.
Is it better to get bootleg / pirated games or licensed Japanese cartridges? Does it even really matter?
This is the section where I am sure to raise some eyebrows with my response, and seeing as how I have a whole tote filled to the brim with bootleg Famicom carts, my answer also might be a bit biased. With that said, please hang with me until the end, before drawing your own conclusions.
People always tell me about the poor quality of Chinese-produced items, including stuff manufactured in neighboring areas (Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc). To an extent, this may be true, but it really depends on the item, and when it was made, and those same stipulations apply when it comes to Famicom games.
Below is a picture of some Famicom games cracked open. The first game is a Japanese-made baseball game by Namco, followed by an unknown bootleg game from the Whirlwind Manu company (the label on the cart is generic, and I didn’t bother to plug it in to see what it is), with a bootleg copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III following at the end. But what exactly does this all mean?
As with licensed NES games, the vast majority of licensed Famicom games contained proper ROM chips (though the one I cracked open ironically enough didn’t). From my experience, carts with chips are much more reliable when compared to those using the so-called “glob tops”. In addition, the plastic used for the game shells is of a high quality. Even dropping the games a few times isn’t likely to damage them too much. Finally, these games are licensed, and were approved of by Nintendo! They are legitimate products, enjoyed by kids time and time again in the land of the rising sun. What could be better?
On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum are the modern Famicom games, the type of stuff found off of Aliexpress. The modern bootlegs are of a terrible quality, which would put anyone to shame. The carts use globs instead of real chips, making them cheaper to manufacture but also more likely for failure. Drop the cart once and be prepared to have it shatter! Even pulling some of these carts out of my machine has caused them to break. The quality of bootleg Famicom games has been declining since around 1996 or so, if I were to guesstimate. It wasn’t a sudden, constant change.
At first, the ROM chips were replaced by globs, and the plastic cases became cheaper, though still of an acceptable quality and reasonable durability. After the turn of the century, things went downhill even more, and the cartridge shells became even more fragile, and the PCBs even smaller. So while I can mostly accept clone cartridges from the 20th century (some of the fun unlicensed originals were only released on globs, and the quality isn’t that bad), anything from the 21st century is just not worth dealing with, imo.
That leaves us with only one category of bootleg Famicom cartridges left to discuss, namely the older fakes. With these carts, the cases are often 1:1 in quality with legitimate Nintendo products. Sure, there might be some goofy logos on the labels, but overall, a quality product. Cracking these carts open, one is also greeted with a full PCB containing ROM chips. Once again, a quality comparable to the real product. Several articles back I even showed a situation where I found a pirate game that used a legitimate PCB, suggesting that some of the companies that were manufacturing bootleg games were also producing legitimate carts as well. With that said, I feel that the older bootlegs is a perfectly reasonable (but often overlooked) option for those that are looking to enjoy some serious Famicom gaming sessions.
More often than not, the cartridges are of a solid build quality, equal to that of the real product. But with that said, the price is also much lower than the premium that the legitimate carts are fetching. A licensed version of Spartan X 2 often sells between $40 – $50 on ebay, whereas a bootleg copy might go for $10 – $15. And what about Lickle (Little Samson)? There is an even bigger savings there. So unless you are strictly a collector, the older bootleg carts can easily meet the needs of a gamer without breaking bank. Besides, one can also rest well at night knowing that hundreds of thousands of children also enjoyed playing these carts as kids, just like the Japanese children were doing with their Japanese-made carts so many years ago.