Tag Archives: Famicom Disk System

Research in Game Music: Complete NES Audio Mapper List

I recently stumbled upon a mostly complete list of all the mappers used to create NES/Fami video/audio playback.  If you recall, I spoke about the Lost Sound Expansion Chips of the the NES a while back.  Essentially, the US NES lacked a connection pin that allowed 3rd party software companies to provide sound modules that allowed for extra sound channels and voices.  A real shame.

At any rate, I found a list from tuxnes.sourceforge.com that essentially labels and spells out what each of your favorite games used for an audio mapper.  While the author, lugnut@hotmail.com, states that this list is far from complete, it is an invaluable resource in getting a general idea in the exact formats of the audio playbacks and the added size/features of each game.  Definitely worth checking out.

Bigass NES Mapper List ver. 0.1

Some thoughts:

  • Many US NES games use the MMC1 or MMC3.  As in, most of them.  The MMC1 to allow Nintendo cartridges to save via battery backup.  The MMC3 added the ability for a screen to scroll while leaving a status bar motionless at the top of the bottom.  Hence, you can see why this was used for Super Mario 3 and the Mega Man series.  As you can see, there are some games with MMC1 that clearly had the capability to save and did not offer it- most notably Mega Man 2.  That would have been awesome.
  • This list, as the author admits, lacks many of the JP Famicom mappers.  That a shame, to be honest.  However, his reasoning is sound.  It’s tough enough for me to just get my hands on the most basic Famicom games.
  • That even being said, searching “VRC” or any of the other 3rd party chips shows some of the games for which we were not provided the complete fidelity of the music.

At any rate, enjoy the list!

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Fidelity Concerns: Dracula II: Noroi no Fuuin vs. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

After focusing on the VRC6 vs. the MMC5, I decided maybe we should highlight the Nintendo FDS vs. the Nintendo MMC1.  The beloved game Castlevania II:  Simon’s Quest was originally released for Famicom Disk System before it was released as a cartridge.  The Famicom Disk System version featured a “save” system that allowed the player to actually save their progress on the disk, while the Nintendo version we know and love featured a password system.

What is interesting to note:  Dracula II:  Noroi no Fuuin only utilized the Nintendo FDS.  Castlevania II:  Simon’s Quest was one of the first US games to use the Nintendo MMC1.  The MMC1 is the famous chip used for Megaman 2.  The main feature of the MMC1 was that it allowed for game saving and vertical/horizontal scrolling…. (which makes me think – why couldn’t you save in Megaman 2… or the US version of Dracula II for that matter?)

Anyhow, strangely, the US version of the music is actually more advanced than the Japanese version, containing first party (H. Maezawa) remixes of the original tracks.  Let’s look at the classic Castlevania series theme “Bloody Tears”, which was introduced in this game:

(credit: Divisiblebywaffle)

So this is the Famicom Disk System version.  It features the 2A03 and the Nintendo FDS.  Here’s the US Nintendo version:

(credit:  KamilDowonna)

I’m not sure which version I like better.  Both have a certain charm.  I think the MMC1 version has more… weight.   The Nintendo FDS version is lighter and more lively.  I don’t know if I think that’s the best “mood” for the game.  At any rate, I hope this was informative.  Comments are welcome.


Fidelity Concerns: The Lost Sound Expansion Chips of the NES

So, as I mentioned in my post yesterday  the Nintendo Entertainment System was shipped to the United States without the two pin connector that controlled the sound expansion chips.  Why?

The two pin connector was originally designed to be used with the Famicom Disk System, a peripheral that attached to the Famicom and allowed the use of “disk cards” to play games.  Here’s an example of a Famicom (white console) with a Famicom Disk System (red box):

It basically looks like an old 3.5″ floppy drive from back in the day.  This old fossil actually ran on 6 C-cell batteries.  Yes, batteries.

The point is, since all of the games made for this Disk System were NOT cartridges, there was no way to add any extra sound or graphic booster expansion chips.  A disk, being a disk, doesn’t allow for that.  So, Nintendo provided a RAM adapter.  It was literally just a big cartridge you plug into the top of the Famicom (black box on top of Famicom in picture) that contained a new microprocessor that facilities the use of the Famicom Disk System (a disk controller, 32 kilobytes of RAM, etc).  It also contained a customizable audio expansion known as Nintendo FDS.  You could literally adjust and manipulate the Nintendo FDS to make anything from a sawtooth wave to a square wave.  Very powerful.

So, long story short, when the NES was released in the US, Nintendo decided to put the sound expansion port on the BOTTOM of the console so that, when they released the Disk System in the US, a RAM cartridge would NOT have to be added.  So remember, as a kid, you wondered what this strange box was on the bottom of your NES?

(credit : Techworld )

Well, now you know.  Sorta.  There’s a lot of speculation as to what Nintendo REALLY wanted for this port-  a modem?  Extra controllers?  I was unable to find any reliable information but was able to confirm that indeed, the sound controller pins were moved to this port.

Nintendo eventually found other ways to integrate sound expansion modules without the use of the pins.  That is why in the Castlevania III example from my previous post, the composers were capable of using MMC5, a first party Nintendo sound expansion chip since it was integrated differently (In the case of Castlevania III, the entire chip was used for the game and no extra audio channels were activated).  However, we lost a LOT of the third party sound expansion chips, many of which were very powerful.  Here’s some examples of third party chips we didn’t hear.

Konami VRC6

(credit : ScooterFox1)

Konami VRC7 (arguably the most powerful sound expansion chip ever made for this console)

(credit : Inuyashathe3rd)

Namco NAMCO 106 163 (not many games used this but it was intended to make games match up to arcade game sound chips)

(credit:  RubilacEx)

UPDATE:  The “NAMCO 106” actually does not exist.  It is actually called the NAMCO 163.  The 163 adds an astonishing 8 extra channels of sound.

Sunsoft 5B (an aside – only the game below (Gimmick!) used this sound chip)

(credit : explod2A03)

As you can see, the Nintendo, when using the sound expansion chips, has a vast range of sounds and instrument voices.  A lot of Japanese composers wrote for specific chips (especially the composers from Konami) and therefore, in the US versions, entire voices in songs were lost or changed.  Many VRC6 tracks had to be rewritten to Nintendo 2a03, losing at least a three voices each time.  I hope this was informative.  Any comments are welcome.


Meet the System: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

One of the goals of this website is to introduce people to the various video game consoles and their sound capabilities.  Today, I choose the Nintendo Entertainment System.

A Brief Description

Known as the Family Computer (Famicom) in Japan, the Nintendo Entertainment System is the 10th best selling game console of all time at 61.91 million units sold.  It featured 8-bit graphics, a library of 799 games, and numerous peripherals including the NES Zapper (a light gun for simulated shooting games), the Power Glove (the first controller that allowed human movement to control a video game), and the Power Pad (a floor mat controller controlled by a player’s feet).  The console was released in the US in 1984 and was discontinued 1994.  For more info, check out the NES wiki : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nintendo_Entertainment_System

Sound Capability

Technical Stuff:

The NES uses a Ricoh 2A03 8-bit microprocessor.  It was based on the MOS Technology 6502, the same processor as the famous Apple II series.  (The MOS Technology 6502 was developed by the same engineering team that built the very popular and successful Motorola 6800.  (A nerdy aside:  the Motorola 6800 is the processor that eventually led to the development of the MC68000 series, the Apple Macintosh chip that competed with the Intel x86 chip for many years and was coincidentally the chip used in the Sega Genesis). )

The 2A03 allowed for two pulse wave channels with 16 volume settings and duty settings of 12.5%, 25%, 50%, and 75%, one fixed-volume triangle wave channel, a white noise channel with 16 volume settings, and delta pulse-code modulation (DPCM).  The console also allowed for sound expansion chips.  These were controlled by two pins on the cartridge connection.  This allowed for more simultaneous sounds, extra channels, and other sound types such as sawtooth waves.  Unfortunately, the two pins were removed from the US Nintendo console so we actually never heard the most powerful and clean sound expansion chips.  I’ll save that conversation for another post.

Explanation:

Essentially, most first generation NES games had only 4 different simultaneous sounds – two pulse waves that could change in timbre from pulse to square with adjustments, a triangle wave, and a white noise channel.  The DPCM is essentially just a really, really primitive audio sampler.  A lot of the sound effects you hear when you play NES (such as punching, kicking, jumping, power ups etc) are just sampled sounds that are fed through the DPCM.  Through creative use of these channels, early NES composers managed to create music.  Here’s a montage of all the songs from Super Mario Bros. for NES:

(credit:  Garudoh)

So, what you’re hearing right now from composer Koji Kondo is the two pulse waves controlling the melody and the triangle serving as the bass.  The noise channel is manipulated to attempt to create something that sounds like or acts like drums.  What is interesting to know is that the triangle wave is fixed volume so while the other channels can technically be louder or softer, the total volume has to be based completely on the output sound of the triangle wave.  A puzzling limitation.

However, as I mentioned before, there were MANY sound expansion modules that were attached to the game cartridges themselves that allowed for extra channels to be added.  Many companies, when producing games, took advantage of this to add many more “instrument” options for their composers.  Here’s of an example Yoshinori Sasaki et al using Konami’s VRC6, a chip that added two pulse waves and a sawtooth wave:

(credit:  Explod2A03 – awesome name)

Conclusion

The NES was and still is an incredibly iconic system that paved the way for modern video game consoles.  Its sound capabilities are impressive and vast due the system’s ability to process sound expansion modules from the game cartridges themselves.  I hope this brief “meet and greet” has been informative and has allowed for a greater understanding of what composers worked with in order to create the music for the NES.