Sunday, March 25, 2012

FamiComplex Video Reviews - The NES PowerPak

FamiComplex puts the NES PowerPak through its paces! Does your favorite NES mapper work? Find out!

The NES PowerPak is a new flash cartridge for the NES. If you've ever used the R4 for the DS or any similar products, you're familiar with the concept. You place the system software on a Compact Flash card like this one along with any NES ROM images you want to run, stick it in, start it up, and play.

The whole thing is extremely simple, and it works just the way you'd expect it to.

Now, this may be a bit different from my normal reviews and filled with nerdy details. If that isn't your cup of tea, you may want to go back and watch one of my older reviews.

Okay, still with me?


Let's talk about memory management controllers.

The Famicom - and by extension, the NES - was built to be extensible.  The system could only do so much on its own, so Nintendo employed memory management controllers to add additional RAM, allow for more sprites on screen, and eventually allowed for the battery save we all know and love.

I'll spare you the technical details on how these worked and what was different across different cartridges, but there is plenty of technical detail around the internet for the curious.

In the US, Nintendo had a death grip on the market, so only their own in-house chips were used - third parties were not allowed to make their own cartridges.

The only exceptions were the unlicensed carts by Tengen, Active Enterprises and Color Dreams.

In Japan, however, every company had their own set of chips.

While this was great for the consumer at the time, when NES emulation came along this became a real compatibility issue. New code needed to be written to support each and every individual chip.

The pieces of code written to emulate these chips were called mappers.

Why is all of this relevant?  Well, obviously, a card of this nature can't have every one of these chips included.  The solution, then, is to simulate these in software.

So, mapper files are included with the PowerPak software in order to handle this task. A chart is available on their website as well displaying which mappers work, which are buggy, and which are unavailable.

Well, RetroUSB aren't the only ones making mapper files for the device.  Loopy's mappers, available here, extend the capabilities of the PowerPak even further.

Between the two sets of installed mappers, just about everything works, including the extra audio hardware available on Famicom games like Akumajou Densetsu, the Japanese version of Castlevania 3. Save batteries work as well, which is more or less required.

Even Famicom Disk System games and NSF music files are supported!

Nintendo Vs. arcade games, however, are not supported, and I didn't really expect them to be. The colors are way off, and there's no way to insert coins.

I haven't personally tested them, but there are also a set of mappers that actually allow you to use saved states, like the ones you'd get in an emulator! Sure, I can see how that'd be useful - but if you use them, you're officially not a bad enough dude to rescue the president.  Just saying.

One major issue with this device is Compact Flash card compatibility.  I went through 3 different cards before finding one which fully works with the device.

Rather than buying and returning tons of cards, try to find a Dane-Elec card like this one. Trust me, you'll save plenty of time and money buying one you know will work up front.  This is the brand that RetroUSB sells along with their devices, and they always seem to work, but again, your mileage may vary.

So, in conclusion, the PowerPak does a fantastic job supporting nearly everything out there, which is a great feat. In addition, RetroUSB and Loopy continue to work on these mappers, so expect support to improve as development goes on. One day, it may well support every NES and Famicom game ever made!


  1. On the subject of mappers, the Super Nintendo has a way more sane situation. They are Enhancement Chips.

    Byuu, maintainer of bsnes, announced recently the *last* unsupported chip (ST018) was acid bathed, photographed and made to give up it's ROM. Now, flash carts like SD2SNES (which I hope to buy sometime soon) can finally support 100 percent of titles out there since it uses an FPGA to run the binary code of the enhancement chip.

    What game(s) used this chip? A single japanese MahJong game is the only game to use this chip.

  2. Yeah, the NES PowerPak uses an FPGA for the mapper support, as well. I was mostly just happy to see that it supports most of the homebrew/prototype stuff, since that was the intent behind buying it. If a game had a retail release, as a collector, I'd rather own the real deal. But there are always things like the NWC cart which I'll likely never own that I'm able to play with this cart.

    I'll even buy the original Famicom games before reviewing a translation hack. I'm a little crazy like that.

    I'll probably be in the market for a similar cart for the SNES, though, so I'll definitely look into the SD2SNES. The SNES PowerPak is pretty expensive.