The Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Famicom, had numerous peripherals and add-ons that never made it beyond the Japanese market. Some offered incredible convenience, such as The Family Computer Disk System, which provided access to writable media to store saved games, a function that had to be replaced with battery backups or ludicrously long, complicated passwords in the rest of the world. Others offered tremendous utility, like the Family BASIC, which provided a keyboard and software to use the Famicom for programming. The list goes on.
And then there’s this crap, which the rest of the world has little reason to regret missing out on. Some of them were failed attempts at incorporating new technologies during a time when they were still too primitive to be worth it (or were too “ahead of their time,” if you’re being polite.) Some were too specific to Japanese culture to be suitable exports. And some were just bad ideas in any time or place.
Famicom 3D System
Before the success of the 3DS, before the eye-searing crimson hellscapes of the Virtual Boy, there was the Famicom 3D system. Nintendo made its first ill-fated venture into the third dimension in 1987, with this rather bulky pair of 3D goggles that plugged into the Famicom’s expansion port. When used in combination with a small number of compatible games that featured a 3D mode, its LCD active shutter system would turn the 2D images on the screen into stereoscopic 3D.
It didn’t take off, needless to say. The glasses were bulky and uncomfortable. They weren’t cheap, especially for something that was just a mild visual gimmick – all of the compatible games had a 2-D mode and were perfectly playable without the glasses. Video games are often enjoyed with friends, and anyone foolish enough to look at any of these games running in 3D mode without the 3D System goggles protecting their eyeballs would see only a blurry, eye-straining, nausea-inducing mess.(The Virtual Boy was thus a significant step forward from a humanitarian perspective, restricting its ocular depredations to to the user while avoiding collateral damage to innocent bystanders.)
It was also hampered by a library of all of seven compatible games, none of them must-haves. Three were from Square, designed and programmed by future Final Fantasy creators Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nasir Gebelli with music by Nobuo Uematsu – but, this being the pre-Final Fantasy teetering-on-the-brink-of-bankrutpcy Square, they weren’t exactly killer apps. Two of these actually got worldwide releases as Rad Racer and The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner, complete with a pair of cheap anaglyphic 3D glasses standing in for the absent 3D system. Sadly, the results of replacing a piece of sophisticated electronics with a few cents worth of cardboard and colored plastic failed to usher in a new era of three-dimensional gaming graphics in the West.
Top-Rider Inflatable Motorcycle Controller
Increasing immersion with controllers meant to evoke the activity being depicted in a videogame is a venerable tradition. Flight sticks and control yokes to simulate piloting a plane, steering wheels to mimic the experience of driving a race car, the $200 Steel Battalion controller that so brilliantly conveyed how ludicrously expensive and impractical waging war with mecha would actually be – the list goes on and on.
Whatever their differences, most successful examples of the genre have one thing in common: They are not giant balloons.
In 1988, Japanese publisher Varie released a motorcycle racing game called Top-Rider for the Famicom. It came packaged not only with a special handlebar-shaped controller, but an entire inflatable motorbike it connected to that the player was meant to sit on during the game. The developers were apparently very dedicated to their vision of creating the ultimate immersive experience, since the game won’t even work with a normal controller unless you enter a special cheat code on it first.
It’s an interesting illustration of how video games were viewed in that era, as basically just another type of children’s toy. The Top-Rider motorcycle is built for the proportions and weight of a small child and will come to a quick and catastrophic end if subjected to the full weight of an adult. It’s not merely designed to appeal to kids rather than adults – the core selling point of the entire game is simply unusable by most postpubescent gamers.
Take a pinball machine, turn it vertical, remove the element of player skill, throw in lots more balls and some loopholes in Japanese gambling laws, and you’ve got pachinko. Balls fire into the playfield of the machine, where they fall unpredictably through a maze of pins. If balls fall into special areas you get more balls, or other benefits like a spin on a built-in slot machine that disgorges still more balls on a jackpot. Simple enough in concept, though modern pachinko machines are often extremely elaborate in presentation.
It’s very popular in Japan, and spawned several videogame adaptations for the Famicom. There was a problem, though: The control mechanism for pachinko, a knob which the player turns to control the amount of force with which balls are launched, doesn’t translate to a Famicom gamepad very well.
Enter the Pachinko Controller from Coconuts Japan. It’s an oddly-shaped Famicom gamepad with a large gap between the D-pad and the A and B buttons to provide room for the controller’s central feature, an analog knob mimicking the controls of a real pachinko machine. Several Famicom pachinko games were compatible with it, providing a finer degree of control and a more authentic pachinko experience. You still had to provide the miasma of cigarette smoke and looming presence of organized crime yourself, though.
Despite the popularity of pachinko in Japan, it’s an odd choice of games to build a Famicom controller around. First, pachinko is a game of chance that involves little to no skill or strategy on the part of the player; a wad of gum to hold the knob in place can play it at least as well as most humans. The Famicom couldn’t come even remotely close to replicating the audio and visual elements that make real pachinko machines entertaining despite their dearth of actual gameplay, so there’s very little in pachinko to build a videogame around.
Second, it’s odd because of what real-life pachinko actually derives its tremendous popularity from: Gambling. Casino gambling is illegal in Japan, technically. Officially. Sort of. Instead, when you go to your local pachinko parlor, you pay for a quantity of balls to play in the machines, which reward winners with more balls. You can use those balls to continue playing even more, or exchange them for “prizes.” These prizes tend to be really lame – except that, in a truly remarkable coincidence, there is always a store in close proximity whose proprietor is inexplicably eager to pay substantial sums of money for these worthless geegaws.
And so, in the eyes of the law, what goes on inside a pachinko parlor is Not Gambling. Except it blatantly is, and not even the sort of gambling that you can be better or worse at like poker or mahjong or cockfighting. Even if it hadn’t been regarded as a children’s toy at the time – which, of course, it was – the Famicom obviously couldn’t replicate the gambling aspect, which meant most of the point was gone.
So the Pachinko Controller is basically the Japanese equivalent of an American NES controller built around a slot machine arm. You know, for kids.
Karaoke Studio is the most sensible item on this list, released by Bandai in 1987. It was a combination of game and peripheral, a cartridge that plugged into the Famicom like any other with a cable attached to it connecting it to a microphone. The Karaoke Studio cartridge also had its own mini-cartridge slot that accepted smaller expansion cartridges with more songs.
Once activated, players could enjoy the traditional Japanese art of singing badly with friends in the comfort of their own homes. It included 25 songs, which played in primitive 8-bit format while the lyrics appeared on the screen, accompanied by imagery related to the song. Players sang into the microphone, which allowed Kaoraoke Studio to pick up your voice and evaluate your performance. Or try to, at least. The quality of the music is obviously primitive, but – as anyone who’s ever attended a karaoke night can attest – musical quality isn’t exactly what karaoke is about.
The video sequences accompanying the songs are actually pretty neat. They’re surprisingly detailed and genuinely charming, depicting things like a little sprite-based Santa riding his sleigh and going down a chimney for “Jingle Bells” or… well, other stuff that is presumably appropriate to the Japanese pop songs they accompany. There’s also a rather dramatic-sounding tune accompanied by a depiction of five guys transforming into Super Sentai-style superheroes and then merging into a giant robot, which is awesome.
Karaoke Studio illustrates a subtle way the Famicom was more accessory-friendly than the Nintendo Entertainment system released in the rest of the world: Its cartridges went into a slot on on the top of the system, like the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis, rather than an internal closed compartment like the NES. Since this design left the area around the cartridge slot open, it could easily accommodate cartridges of nonstandard shapes or other, larger devices. The NES could not, as anyone who has ever experienced the epic struggle required to cram the original Game Genie into its unwilling maw can attest.
Online functionality is so ubiquitous in modern console gaming that it’s easy to forget there was a time when games weren’t hell-bent on cramming the entire Internet down your gullet. Yet it wasn’t all that long ago that the Internet was all but unknown to the average person, its use largely limited to academics, hardcore computer aficionados, and rogue artificial intelligences. Which, in hindsight, is probably something Nintendo should have considered before releasing the Famicom Modem all the way back in 1988.
It wasn’t used for online gaming, which would have been prohibitively costly in an era when services offering online games cost several dollars per hour. In fact, it didn’t have much to do with games at all. It was the product of a partnership between Nintendo and Japanese investment banking and brokerage services giant Nomura Securities, who were looking for a way for their customers to easily check stock prices and carry out trades.
The modem sat perched atop the Famicom, plugged into the cartridge slot. Users were connected to a server provided by Nomura where, using a special keypad controller, they could carry out stock trades and access stock prices and financial news, as well as other things like weather reports and cheat codes.
One can only hope that those were really good cheat codes, since they were the only connection to video games the retail version of the modem would ever have. Nintendo did develop prototypes of five online games, but none were released before the project came to an unsuccessful end 3 years after release. The network was plagued by stability problems, the economic bubble that had fueled a surge in demand for financial services burst, and public perception of video game consoles as children’s toys deterred Japanese businessmen who didn’t want to entrust their financial wheelings and dealings to a glorified He-Man Castle Greyskull Playset.
Its last gasp as far as video games were concerned was the Super Mario Club in 1991, a searchable network of game reviews accessed via Modem-equipped Famicoms placed in toy shops. Yet, this was not the end, only a prelude to the Famicom Modem discovering its true calling: gambling!
In 1991, Nintendo entered a new partnership with the Japan Racing Association, the organization that oversees horse racing and betting in Japan, to create a service that allowed people to place bets on horse races via their Famicom modem. Gamblers desperate for another surge of dopamine through their already-oversaturated limbic systems but reluctant to face the baleful light of the sun flocked to the service, driving far more Famicom Modem sales than games ever did. For a period in the 90s, more than a third of online horse betting in Japan was done via Nintendo consoles. It’s nice to actually have a happy ending, for once.