Nintendo Entertainment System hardware clone
Following the popularity and longevity of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES; known in Japan as the Family Computer, or Famicom), the system has seen many clone video game consoles. Such clones are colloquially called Famiclones (a portmanteau of "Famicom" and "clone"), and are electronic hardware devices designed to replicate the workings of, and play games designed for, the NES and Famicom. Hundreds of unauthorized clones and unlicensed copies have been made available since the height of the NES popularity in the late 1980s. The technology employed in such clones has evolved over the years: while the earliest clones feature a printed circuit board containing custom or third party integrated circuits (ICs), more recent (post-1996) clones utilize single chip designs, with a custom ASIC which simulates the functionality of the original hardware, and often includes one or more on-board games. Most devices originate in Asian nations, especially China and Taiwan, and to a lesser extent South Korea.
In some locales, especially South America, South Africa, and the former Soviet Union, where the NES was never officially released by Nintendo, such clones were the only readily available console gaming systems. Such was the case with the Dendy Junior, a particularly successful NES clone which achieved widespread popularity in Russia and former Soviet republics in the early 1990s. Elsewhere, such systems could occasionally even be found side by side with official Nintendo hardware, often prompting swift legal action. Many of these early systems were similar to the NES or Famicom not only in functionality, but also in appearance, often featuring little more than a new name and logo in place of Nintendo's branding. As opposed to that, in former Yugoslavia NES clones often visually resembled Sega Mega Drive, together with the Sega logo.
Few of these systems are openly marketed as "NES compatible". Some of the packaging features screenshots from more recent and more powerful systems, which are adorned with misleading, or even potentially false, quotes such as "ultimate videogame technlology" [sic] or "crystal clear digital sound, multiple colors and advanced 3D graphics". Some manufacturers opt for a less misleading approach, describing the system generically as a "TV game", "8-bit console", "multi-game system", or "Plug & Play", but even these examples generally say nothing to suggest any compatibility with NES hardware.
Types of Famiclones
Because NES clones are not officially licensed, they vary in areas such as hardware quality, available games and overall performance. Most clones are produced extremely cheaply, while a few are comparable to first-party hardware in their manufacture quality. In terms of appearance and basic build, there are four general types of clones:
Many clones are designed to resemble the original Famicom, but others have been produced to look like almost all other consoles from the NES, SNES, and Mega Drive/Genesis to the Xbox and PlayStation 3, and others simply in a generic console shape. Usually it is easy to tell a Famiclone from the real hardware it imitates by the presence of either alternate coloring, brand names which do not match the real console's, or weak construction. Console type clones almost always utilize cartridges, and they are usually compatible with real Famicom (60 pin) or NES (72 pin) games, as well as custom-made pirate carts (especially multi-carts, pirate game cartridges which hold a multitude of games as opposed to just one, which are often included with console-type clones). Console Famiclones are most popular in Asia, parts of Europe and Latin America, with few actively sold in North America due to stronger enforcement of the copyrights in the games typically packaged with a Famiclone and of the design patents in the imitated consoles.
Consoles such as the Retron 3 include multiple consoles in one clone.
One of the first handheld clones is the Top Guy, although only a small number are known to exist. More widely distributed was Redant's Game Axe, which was manufactured in several revisions through the 1990s. Game Theory Admiral featured an improved TFT screen and closely resembled the Game Boy Advance or Wintech GOOD BOY design look like Game Boy Color. However, this smaller design included a smaller cartridge port; it was supplied with an adapter to allow the use of standard Famicom cartridges with the system. One of the more recent handheld clones is Gametech's PocketFami, the first to be actively marketed as a portable Famicom by its manufacturers, and one of the most widely distributed thanks to the new legitimate status of Famicom clone products.
There are also a number of famiclones in the shape of a Game Boy or similar, but which can only display NES/Famicom games on a TV, and have a simple LCD game in the screen area. such example is the NES Clone "Game kids advance", which resembles an older Game Boy Advance, and has a built-in LCD game, powered by 2 AA batteries, or the included AC adapter. However, the NES games can only be played on TV using the AC adapter. It uses a game cartridge, similar to those from a Game Boy/Game Boy Color, and also includes an adapter to play NES games.
This type of hardware clone, popular in North America and western Europe, is designed to hold all the console's hardware in the shape of a regular game console controller, usually the Nintendo 64's. Also known as "NES-on-a-chip" due to their extremely miniaturized hardware (relative to the original NES), these controllers usually shun or at least downplay a game cartridge interface in favor of storing games directly in internal memory chips. These Famiclones can often run on battery as well as AC power, making them popular for portable usage. These clones have become especially popular in the USA thanks to the new "TV-Games" fad of selling legitimately emulated classic arcade games in a traditional-looking controller. (Atari games are especially common.) Controller clones can usually be found in places like flea markets, mall kiosks, or independent toy stores, and most people who sell and buy them are unaware or don't care that they are in fact illegally made. In Brazil this type of console is commercialized with the name GunBoy.
The Power Player Super Joy III consoles (also known as Power Games and XA-76-1E) are a line of unauthorized handheld Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom clones manufactured by NRTRADE that are sold in North America, Brazil, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The system resembles a Nintendo 64 controller and attaches to a TV set. The second controller resembles a Sega Genesis controller, and a light gun is also included. NTSC, PAL and SECAM versions are available. They all use a custom "NES-on-a-chip" (NOAC) that is an implementation of the NES's hardware (Custom 6502, PPU, PAPU, etc.). The consoles came with 76 built-in games, although marketing frequently claims to have 1,000+ ways of playing them. Most of the included games were originally released for the NES or Famicom, but some have been created by the manufacturer to expand their list of included games. Most of the games have had their title screen graphics removed to save space on the ROM chip, not to mention a company logo removal trick for reduced liability. After this product gained some popularity, the Power Player 3.5, an improved model with more games, was released. A wireless version of Power Games was also released.
Playervision or Game Stick is another unauthorized Nintendo Entertainment System hardware clone built into a gamepad and sold in South America, and is just one version of Power Player Super Joy III, nevertheless, the name of the product varies on and in the box, user manual and the gamepad video game console itself. For example, the instruction sheet calls it "Playervision", but the system itself says "Players". This video game console has no cartridge slot, or an input for a second player controller or Zapper. This means that some of the games included can't be used because of the need of a gun (Duck Hunt, for example). The system includes the same 76 games as Power Player Super Joy III, but some of them are repeated or are graphical hacks (Teletubbies, for example, is just Mario Bros. with graphic changes).
These Famiclones are designed to resemble either 1980s home computers, modern keyboards, or the real Famicom's BASIC kit. Usually, these clones consist of the same hardware as the console type, but put inside a keyboard instead of a console lookalike. They are usually supplied with a cartridge containing some computer-style software, such as a simple word processor and a version of BASIC (most common are G-BASIC, a pirated version of Family BASIC, and F-BASIC, an original but more limited version), and some "educational" typing and mathematics games. Some even include a computer mouse and a GUI-style interface. Note that, while the interface is similar to Nintendo's Family BASIC keyboard, clone keyboards are generally not fully compatible with official software (and vice versa) due to differing key layouts.
Software game titles
Since none of these unlicensed clones contain the 10NES authentication chip, most are capable of running games which an official NES model would not run. In addition, many modern NES clones come with a built-in selection of games, typically stored on an internal ROM which can range from 128 KB up to several megabytes in size.
These built-in games are usually designed to complement, rather than replace, the traditional cartridge slot, although some devices omit such a slot entirely, allowing only the built-in games to be played. Typical numbers for the built-in "distinct" games range from as low as three to as high as fifty or one hundred games for more expensive products. The number of "distinct games" is important, because while many NES clones claim to have thousands of built-in games, most of these games are usually nothing more than hacks that allow the player to start the same game at different levels or with different numbers of lives.
The games are usually direct pirated copies of licensed NES and Famicom game titles, usually with copyright information removed and sometimes featuring other minor changes. The most commonly found games in NES clones are generally games below 64 K of ROM size and which can be easily split into distinct subgames or levels. As such, "Track & Field" and "Circus Charlie" are present in a large percentage of NES clones, usually blown up to count as 6 or 7 "distinct" games each. Duck Hunt (often with its clay shooting mode shown as a separate game) is also a common NES clone feature as they justify the existence of the light gun accessory. Other popular, although less common choices, are Super Mario Bros. hacks, Excitebike, Tetris, Magic Jewelry (an unlicensed clone of Columns), older sports titles and miscellaneous platform games. Additionally, some clones incorporate games which, although they may initially appear to be original, are in fact pirated copies featuring extensive graphical (and sometimes audio) modifications. Examples of this include UFO Race, based on Nintendo's F-1 Race, Pandamar (also known as simply Panda), based on Super Mario Bros., Ladangel, based on Hudson Soft's Challenger and UFO Shoot, based on Duck Hunt.
However, some systems include legally licensed games; for example, the Rumble Station's 15 built-in games are licensed from Color Dreams, and Sachen's Q-Boy includes only its own original titles. A growing number of recent clones, such as those marketed by DreamGear in the United States, contain large numbers of original games made by developers in China.
Hardware and software compatibility
While most Famiclones will run most original licensed Nintendo software and work with most original carts (being even more versatile than an original NES because of the lack of regional lockout chips and sometimes having a dual 60-pin and 72-pin cartridge compatibility), the degree of hardware compatibility with original NES accessories and miscellaneous hardware equipment may vary, and even software level compatibility isn't always perfect.
The most common software-level incompatibility in the built-in games that some sport, is the lack of save RAM, causing the few games that use it to fail when trying to save or load data.
Since most modern Famiclones are based on the NES-on-a-chip ASIC, they automatically inherit all of its limitations, which includes graphical glitches and compatibility issues.
At a hardware level, the most common incompatibility is the lack, in some Famiclones, of the original Famicom's expansion port (although it is always present, at least at a logical level, and in some clones it is internally hardwired; e.g. in computer-type Famiclones it is hardwired to the built-in keyboard, even if not externally accessible).
Most Famiclones also use standard Atari 9-pin shaped or even 15-pin joypad connectors instead of the proprietary NES connectors, and their controllers usually offer all of the functionality of a standard NES controller and sometimes features such as "slow motion" or several autofire keys with different speeds, which are not present on the standard out-of-the-box NES joypads. Despite being physically identical to Atari 9-pin, the protocol is different: Atari uses a parallel protocol where each wire carries the status of a single button, and Famiclones uses the same 4021-based serial protocol the original NES used. Connecting standard controllers to them may result in malfunction or damage of the controller or the Famiclone itself.
Lastly, like many modern consoles and other devices meant to be connected to a TV, many modern famiclones lack an RF modulator and instead only have separate audio and composite video outputs (sometimes S-Video), also to cut on the (already low) production costs.
Some manufacturers have added new backward-compatible features to their NOAC ASICs, which allow developers to add new features like an improved processor (a 65C816 compatible), better graphics, stereo sound (by adding another audio unit), PCM audio, and a unificated bus (OneBus) which lets manufacturers use a single ROM to store games instead of the two (one for program and other for graphics) the original NES and Famicom used.
Some of Nintendo's patents on the Famicom expired in 2003, followed in 2005 by NES-specific patents such as those covering the 10NES lockout chip. While Nintendo still holds various related trademarks, NES hardware clones are no longer necessarily illegal on the basis of patent infringement. This matter is complicated by the effect of different patents awarded in different countries, with different expiration dates. Nintendo sued Gametech in 2005 for selling the PocketFami, despite the patent expiration. Nintendo lost this suit. However, Famiclone manufacturers who incorporate copyrighted games into the unit may still be subject to legal liability on that basis, due to copyrights having much longer terms than patents (in most countries creative works such as games are automatically in copyright for many decades, sometimes up to 95 years after their creation).
While the old-style Famiclones continue to be found, the newly legitimized market has seen several clones that openly advertise support for original Famicom or NES games (or sometimes both), a feature not usually publicized by previous clones, which were often marketed as cheap gifts rather than Famicom-compatible systems. Examples of these newer efforts include the Generation NEX, which resembles a flattened version of the original NES and supports both NES and Famicom games, Gametech's Neo-Fami (also released in both Famicom and NES compatible versions as the "FC Game Console" by Yobo Gameware), and the handheld PocketFami, a more ambitious, albeit still slightly flawed, successor to the older TopGuy, GameAxe, and Game Theory Admiral. However, these more legitimate clones are still based on the same NES-on-a-chip architecture as the older systems, and as such still suffer from many of the same compatibility problems.
These are Nintendo Entertainment System related patents:
- Utility patents
- U.S. Patent 4,687,200
- U.S. Patent 4,799,635
- U.S. Patent 5,070,479
- U.S. Patent 5,207,426
- U.S. Patent 5,426,762
Clones by region or country
The "Family Game" is manufactured by the Argentine company Electrolab. The first versions have an oval design and without interchangeable gamepad, and later versions are more like the original NES version, with DB9 gamepad connectors. All versions use the 60-pin Famicom cartridge format.
Since 1989, NES- and Famicom-compatible consoles were manufactured and released in Brazil by local companies, who also provided tech-support and sold Nintendo games. The first system, in 1989, was Dynacom's Dynavision, which used the 60-pin Famicom Japanese cartridge format.
In 1990, the Top Game, manufactured by CCE, was released; it sported a dual cartridge slot, allowing games in the 72-pin American cartridge format and the 60-pin Japanese cartridge format to be played. The BitSystem, also using the American cartridge format, was manufactured by the now-defunct company Dismac. The Phantom System was released in 1991 by Gradiente, and was the most popular Brazilian Famiclone; its controllers are clones of those of the Sega Mega Drive.
In 1993, Nintendo themselves arrived in Brazil and released the NES with the American cartridge slot. This official version was manufactured by Playtronic, a joint venture between the toy company Estrela and Gradiente.
In Colombia, console named "nichi-man" was popular. This console was manufactured by Micro Genius.
A number of such "consoles" were sold during the early nineties in the former Yugoslav republics and in the most of them they could be found even today in the shops owned by Chinese trademen. The most popular were versions which resembled Sega Mega Drive system, particularly the one which was called "Terminator".
In India various NES clones made their appearance in stores, like the Little Master and Wiz Kid, manufactured by Media Entertainment System. Samurai India, now sole distributor of Nintendo Wii in India were licensed to sell NES under the brand "Samurai" due to the closed economy of India during the 1980s.
In Poland, the most popular Famiclone is the Pegasus. Pegasus is an NTSC console with forced PAL mode. It uses Famicom cartridges. Pegasus was sold in "Action Sets" and was available both on street markets and larger electronic stores, and was even advertised on TV. The light gun bundled with the "Pegasus Action Set" resembles the Zapper. The Pegasus joypads, in addition to the buttons found on the original Famicom controller, also had two Turbo buttons. There are three models of Pegasus, the MT777DX, Iq-502 and SP-60. Another popular and the most common Famiclone in Poland is the BS-500AS, also known as Terminator. Like Pegasus, it uses Famicom cartridges, and is designed to resemble the Sega Mega Drive. The BS-500 AS can still be bought today in small toy stores and on street markets (which were the main source of cartridges in the first place), along with some other clones, such as Gold Leopard King or Polystation.
In Romania, several NES clones could be found in toy stores under marketing names such as Polystation, Terminator, or variations of Famicom BASIC keyboard compatible consoles and these consoles were shipped with games such as '999999 in 1' which consisted of around 6 games in one cartridge and the rest were different levels of these games. The games and series consisted mainly of Super Mario, Bomberman, Lunar Pool, Double Dragon 3, Star Soldier, and Ninja Ryukenden 3.
The Dendy (Russian: Де́нди) was a hardware clone of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) popular in Russia. Dendy is an NTSC console with forced PAL mode, like Pegasus. It was released in early 1990s by the Steepler company. Since no officially licensed version of the NES was ever released in USSR, the Dendy was easily the most popular video game console of its time in that setting, and enjoyed a degree of fame roughly equivalent to that experienced by the NES/Famicom in North America and Japan. Business was so successful that the company spawned its own TV show about Dendy on Russian TV, and created stores all across Moscow and St. Petersburg, promoting and selling the console and its cartridges. Also, a cartoon about the "Dendy Elephant", the character on the console's logo, was filmed but not finished.
- South Africa
In South Africa, clones, known as "TV Games", are still widely available. One popular clone available in the early '90s was the Golden China; while another was Reggie's Entertainment System, named after the toy store chain that sold it; the most recent clone was the TeleGamestation. Older models looked like the Famicom but newer models resembled the PlayStation, as well as the controllers—but with the cartridges being entered from the top. A "mini tower" version was also launched with keyboard, and black/white monitor, to include educational software. These TeleGamestations have cartridges around half the size of the original Nintendo Entertainment System games, and although most games were pirated from there, some were also taken from the Master System. The box advertises "dazzling graphics" and the monitor on the box set features a modern-day soccer game. Games could be bought in all chain stores "legally", or pirated games (mainly from China) could be bought on the market or certain stores. Most cartridges were multi-packs, or many games within one cartridge. In some cases, games have had their official Nintendo or Sega names removed, and in some cases the original name of the game (for example, Dr. Mario was re-named "Medical Hospital"). Later, in 2002, the 16-bit TeleGamestation 2 was launched, and the games were taken from the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. Legal action was taken against Golden China by Nintendo for importing copied games in 1995; however, as these clones have been in South Africa for many years, and readily available at reputable stores, such action seems to have had little impact, and Nintendo and Sega seem to have otherwise shown little consideration for piracy in South Africa.
- Southeast Asia
In Southeast Asia, the Micro Genius was sold as an alternative to the Famicom. It originated from Taiwan in the 1990s and uses 60-pin cartridges, most of which are multicarts. The Micro Genius had some original games, including Chinese Chess and Thunder Warrior.
In Spain, the NASA (model NS-90AP) or Creation (which are nearly the same, being the console name printed on the front the only difference) has been one of the most common NES clones. It is compatible with official NES games (as it carried a 72-pin connector, though it did not had the zero insertion force socket the original NES has), and also with copied and bootleg games, as it does not have a 10NES lockout chip.
It originally used the same chipset as the Dendy, manufactured by United Microelectronics Corporation, but manufacturers later used the NOAC ASICs.
- Generation NEX
- Power Player Super Joy III
- Video game console emulator
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- Nintendo Co Ltd v Golden China TV Game Centre & Others (1995). Text
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Famicom/NES hardware clones.|
- NES World Pirate section
- Ultimate Console Database, currently 377 Famiclones
- "Researchers Propose $12 Computer for Developing Countries", ABC News
- Playpower, learning games for radically affordable computers
- Attack of the Clones! Super Joy Review