Thursday, 13 August 2015

Press "B" To Blow (The 10NES Lockout Chip)

Every now and then, I like to pull my old NES out from its resting place in a drawer somewhere. I hook the bad boy up, and I get ready to play some Nintendo games. Then... the eternal struggle. You younger kids out there may have your own gripes with the fancy-schmancy technomancy of the future. Constant updates and patches, tutorials everywhere, et cetera. Don't worry. It's nothing new. Back in the NES days, it was a hassle to get the damn things to work. The struggle of physical media was real, and I feel like writing about what made the NES struggle what it was. I'll probably drench it in terms of a magical war based on my own invented mythology, too, because that's just what the Nintendo Project is or was or will be now. So, let's flap open those dusty old books about the material history, and see what we've got.

Oh. It's Atari's fault again. Of course.

Yeah, the Video Game Crash is why your Nintendo tapes are so goddamned hard to get to work. We've worn out this ley line a little, I'm afraid, but once more for old time's sakes. I mean, every so often I drag my NES out of retirement. Seems fitting we do the same for this line of history. The Atari years were a lawless frontier, and anyone and everyone was shilling out carts. Add to that the one-two punch of ET and Pac-Man, and you've got a disaster. I already yapped about ET a year ago when the AVGN movie came out, so I won't tread that ground again at least. Still, when you pair it with Pac-Man it reveals a certain arrogance going on at Atari HQ. ET will obviously be a hit for Christmas, so make that coder do it all in six weeks, quality be damned! That pales in comparison to the thought process of Pac-Man. Here they have the rights to the home conversion of a hot arcade title. It'll probably sell well! It will probably even move more Atari systems! Great! Let's produce more cartridges than Atari systems we've sold. Surprising many, the Atari Pac-Man was kind of a bad port and they were left just a bit overstocked. Thus, video game crash, Famicom is born in a land that doesn't exist, it crosses the boundaries that divide one world from another and here we are, Valya be praised.

It's that crossing over that I don't think we've talked about. To survive in a world where video games were dead, the Famicom had to adapt. Thus, the Trojan Horse gambit of ROB the Robot. See? It's not a video game! It's an interactive television toy, with a robot friend and a clicky gun! And you slip the fun tapes inside just like a VCR! That's where the first trouble came in. The weird insertion method of NES carts didn't really work right for sustained use. Connectors got bent from repeated insertion, and the communications were broken. The alchemy was imperfect, and thus instead of your colorful and fun gateway into an emboited space... you got a blue screen. So that's charming. Especially when paired with the other thing. Nintendo can't be faulted entirely for this. They didn't want a lawless dystopia where just anyone could huck out a Nintendo tape and oversaturate the market... so they embedded a lockout chip in their system. The 10NES chip. They may have gone too far with this, being general dragons to their licensees in the name of Lady Capitalism... but that's a whole other story. In practice, it didn't really work. Tinkerers like Tengen managed to get around the 10NES chip... and for us honest Nintendo fans, the 10NES created another problem for reading games. The connection issues would compound things, and sometimes they would confuse the 10NES chip. Thus, you could have a game that's connected right... but 10NES is active and resetting the console every second. Your game is unplayable. Pull it out and try again. At this point, between all the fiddling with connectors and 10NES, people ended up just blowing in the damn carts. I've no idea how that monomyth got started, but trust me; I know of it. Everyone knows of it.

These issues combined to make playing authentic Nintendo tapes a disaster for me. Entire swaths of games in my collection were avoided because the hassle to get them to work wasn't worth it. In particular, the nice Zelda carts I took pictures of for that gonzo post. They're beautiful artifacts, steeped in history and lore of dozens of kids playing and enjoying them before I stepped in and got them. They also didn't work. It was a shame. Then, a few years ago, a breakthrough. I went and bought myself a brand new 72 pin connector. You can see me testing it out on video here. The sheer catharsis of loading a Nintendo tape into the system and having it work first try is a joy that is rivalled by only a few things in this world. It worked great... for a handful of games. Things like the Zeldas or Startropics were still stubborn, however. I could jiggle around all I wanted, but the basic fact remained that the 10NES chip was in there and making the thing blink and preventing my readjustment techniques from working. The last straw came recently, while I was attempting to get a copy of Solar Jetman to work. Sitting in a far too warm room while this son of a bitch kept resetting on me? I was fed up. The next day, I took my NES apart, and I did some adjustment of my own. With a set of instructions and a tiny screwdriver, I plied back a single connector on Nintendo chip, designation 3193A IC. Otherwise known as the NES10. Oddly enough, given how much I've talked about Zelda here, the instructions felt like finding a secret in that game. Snap the 4th pin from the left off, and 10NES will be disabled, allowing you entry.

Well, I did it. I did it and now I'm pleased to say that just about every cart I have works with some minor fiddling. Some require more than others, but I got almost everything to work right. Maybe cleaning the carts themselves would make them all work, but I'm happy for now. I thought my copy of Zelda would never be played again, but I managed to get it working and it was glorious. The battery's still kind of doomed on it, but that's its own problem. Gaze, then, at the corpse of the great beast. This tiny little bit of circuit ruled the world for Nintendo. It kept the licensees at bay with its power. Tengen defied it and Nintendo struck them down for it. An entire generation huffed air into their Nintendo tapes, in the vain hope that they could best it. Now, I have defeated it, and it lays here on my desk, impossibly small. With its defeat, I have conquered even more strange alien worlds. Power Blade has fallen. Code Name Viper has completed his mission. I am a puzzle master with the dinosaur Yoshi.

Good game, 10NES. Good game.