Monday, December 17, 2012

Powerpak and an American NES

I recently shelled out £116 for an American NES plus Powerpak. It was actually £100, but I paid extra for postage to France from the UK. I've had several Famicoms and Famicom clones, plus a UK and French NES, but I've always wanted an American toaster NES, for 60Hz goodness. The Powerpak acts as a flash cartridge and allows (almost) any NES, Famicom or Famicom Disk System game to be played, with full Famicom audio if you do a small mod. Read on for my thoughts.

The Powerpak has been out for a few years now, with regular updates to its mappers to increase compatibility. Unfortunately the MAIN website is rather cryptic as to how well it works (do you actually know what mappers your favourite game uses?), and most old reviews of it claim that a lot of games don't work. For up-to-date information check out THIS page.

The bottom line though is that it's excellent. Various independent people have worked on improving the Mappers, notably Loopy, so now the majority of games work. Also, another gentleman updated those patches so you can now quick save on most NES games, at any time, and permanently save this to a RAM file. You heard me correctly: you can quick save on actual NES hardware! If you want that kind of thing.

There's about 6 American NES games which don't work, of which only Castlevania III is worth worrying about (actually - I've read reports that a beta mapper set does run it). Not that it matters because the Japanese version of CVIII does work, and there's an English patch to translate it. There's absolutely ZERO reason to play CVIII anyway, since it's missing the extra audio of the Japanese release.

Which is another good thing. You can run Famicom and FDS games with extra audio channels on the Powerpak, if using an American NES. Running the Powerpak on a Famicom using a converter requires that you do a complex mod on the converter itself to position the NES cartridge points to something.. something... I wasn't paying attention. But if you it via a NES, all you need do is a single resistor mod: two solder points, very simple. Details HERE. All you need is a 47k resistor. Almost any will do. Don't worry if it's 1/4 or 1/2, as long as it's 47k it should work.

You'll recall a while ago that DiscoAlucard bought a repro cart of Miracle of Almana, which lacked the extra audio due to how it was reprogrammed. Even with an audio mod it wouldn't produce the extra sound. Using the Powerpak however you do get that extra channel. In fact, given how flaky some FDS units can be, and the nature of magnetic disks, the Powerpak is a fantastic substitute for the hardware. Games which require more than one disk won't work (there's few which take up more), but the rest that I've tested all work 100%. Double-sided disks book just fine, and the Powerpak automatically detects when it needs to flips disks. You can also write save data directly to it.

One complaint is that you need disk images with a full header. PlanetEmu - my go to website for ROMs - unfortunately only has FDS images with the header removed, and these will not work.

You need to remember, the Powerpak isn't emulating the ROMs, it's attempting to reprogram itself to function as the original cartridge or disk did, so you do have to put some effort into getting clean, working ROMs, with full headers. The GoodNES set works fine.

The other benefit is that you can language patch Japanese ROMs, and also patch hacks in. For example I patched Simon's Quest with the Redacted patch, to turn the townsfolk gibberish into decent clues, then I used another patch to make the game easier, doubling the hearts you receive, and removing the text box for the night/day transition, in addition to adding a RAM save option. It took a while to manually patch one after another, but I now have (for me) the definitive version of Simon's Quest. Fan translation patches are also great - unless you need to expand the ROM before patching, which requires a bit of work and some command line usage with third party expansion tools (gah! I hate command lines!).

I'm sure many would ask: why use a Powerpak instead of emulation, given that a lot of consoles such as the Dreamcast and original Xbox emulate the NES so well?

Well, for me it's about the authenticity of playing the NES using A/V cables, rather than RGB scart. Sacrilege for some, I know, but the NES never did output pure RGB. Only the Famicom titler did that, and it was mostly an oddity. Playing with A/V cables produces an odd scratchy effect in the vertical lines, which a good developer like Sunsoft would take advantage of to subtly blend adjacent colours. Basically I just like A/V comp for NES rather than RGB SCART. If this were the SNES, Mega Drive or anything else, I'd demand RGB all the way.

For NES fans who want authenticity and seriously into their NES gaming, but aren't into the collector mentality of spending tons of money, this is the perfect way to authentically play these games. I've no interest in keeping boxes pristine when they're made out of soft cardboard, or worrying about battery saves dying. With this I can put the included CF Card in my PC and back all the saves up. I have every game at the press of a button, with quick saving, with translation patches, with hacks, with full Japanese Famicom audio. For me it's near perfect.

Having said that, there are several complaints worth mentioning.

* For some reason, the quick-save mapper conflicts with the Kirby ROM on some units of NES - quite a few online have the same problem. It's so rare though that the author of the quick-save mappers can't replicate. As luck would have it my NES is one of those rare units. I don't need quick saving for Kirby, because it's so easy, but it meant that I had to swap in the older mapper version to boot Kirby. After clocking it I reverted back to the latest. Keep this in mind: some games, rarely, will require an older version of a mapper file.

* To save a game that supports RAM saves, you need to manually create a RAM file, and place it on the card. I just chucked in a bunch numerically named, and now I need a piece of paper to remember that Startropics is using "RAM_01" in the saves folder. Alternatively you can go through your list of 1000 ROMs and create correctly named RAM files for those that need it.

* Actually saving requires holding reset for 5 seconds to boot it into the RAM save menu. You only do this after you've finished playing that specific game, but it still freaks me out that maybe I'm holding the button for too long. As yet, I have had no problem with retaining my saves - touch wood!

* Not all Japanese games work. It depends on what mapper is supported. Huang Di works perfectly, removing the annoying jumping glitch you get via emulation, but Lagrange Point will never work since its uses a bespoke FM synth music chip. The majority of popular Famicom games do work, however. It's a case of trying them and seeing. Spartan X 2 doesn't, for the moment, but it might in future. My personal favourite, Don Doko Don 2, also doesn't work. All ROMs that I've found incorrectly state that it requires Mapper 33, whereas all emulators it boots in state that Mapper 48 is needed, and they auto-correct during emulation. Neither Mapper 33 nor 48 are supported yet. It could be a while before Don Doko Don 2 works, and even if someone does trying to work on a new Mapper, we'd need to correct this bizarre anomaly regarding the ROM's incorrect header infoirmation.

I'm not into collecting, I'm just interested in an authentic play experience. In that regard, the Powerpak works beautifully. There's some work involved getting the best ROMs, and you also need to mix a cocktail of Mapper files, but I've got no complaints with how it functions. For those curious, you need to start with the Official Mappers, then overwrite Loopy's latest Mapper set, then overwrite the Quick Save Mappers if you want them. All available via the Nintendo Age link posted earlier.

Dogbone Controller Replica

Do you have any idea how much a Dogbone controller costs? Far too much on eBay. So I bought a replica off Amazon, by Tomee. The face buttons work perfectly, with a nice hard click. The d-pad is... Well, I've never used an original Dogbone d-pad. The d-pad has a nice click to it, but I opened it up and it's basically just a 4-way cross on some switches, whereas the old NES controller is a circular disc on 4 switches. The circular nature of it, on a central pin, allows it to pivot around in a circular motion. The kind of thing you need when playing a game with quarter motions, like Street Fighter. It's not so easy to do this on the replica - is it any different on an authentic pad?

Otherwise it's a pretty good pad. You get what you pay for, and for platformers, or anything with direct left/right or up/down motions, it's great. Maybe even slightly better than the old pad, since there's a really solid click feeling to the buttons.


  1. Great article Sketcz, I'm seriously considering getting one of these Powerpak's now

  2. Yes, it's great. If you have a collection of rare carts, I'd advocate selling some to fund the purchase of this. Unless you're hardcore into owning originals.

    Check out the NintendoAge forum topic. A few Japanese games also boot, but run oddly. Super Arabian for example has graphics glitches. But given the progress over the last few years, it can only continue to get better.

  3. Did you get the powerpak in the UK ?
    Whereabaout ?
    Cant wait to have mine.

  4. I bought it off a guy selling his, along with the NES

  5. LMFAO!!!!! powerpak is SO OLD.....krikzz will be releasing his everdrive for FC/NES anytime soon and for around $100!!!! and that my friend will put the powerpak to sleep...

  6. The PowerPak is indeed old, but can be regularly updated.

    Anyway, besides a couple of JPN games not working, I'm happy with my purchase.

    Here's a random link to the Everdrive:

    Once it's released, I look forward to seeing reviews of its performance and how it compares to the PowerPak.

  7. It wouldn't be the internet if random people weren't telling you "ur doin it wrong". At any rate, interesting article. I'm not much of a purist, so straight emulation works fine for my own needs, but this is definitely a solid alternative for people who want authenticity but don't want to have to pay through the nose for it.