Now that ’80s kids have real jobs and disposable incomes, it’s once again cool to get your 8-bit fix, and you don’t really need to look beyond eBay to figure it out. You know, if you don’t mind getting poorly-addressed packages in the mail that look like they contain dangerous contraband or weird pills designed to give you a tiger-like libido.
If you’re looking to bulk up your authentic retro game collection, don’t. Now is not the time. The price of even semi-rare Nintendo games has exploded over the past five years as retro gaming has become hip again. In 2011, Cowboy Kid could be bought for $35. I hunted down a copy on eBay because I just wanted to play it, and ROMs just don’t feel the same. If you don’t have the square edges of a controller digging into your hands as you stare at a flickering TV, it’s not the real thing. Today, six years later and knee-deep into the vintage game boom, Cowboy Kid sells for about $350. Cool World, a movie that no one liked and a game that no one played, sold in 2001 for $13. Today, it sells for $55. To say that vintage gaming was a wise investment in 2011 is an understatement. I just wanted to play stuff I never got to try as a kid with an unhealthy and underfunded Nintendo obsession. Back in the day, I lucked out on titles like Mega Man 2 and Metroid, but also had to settle for discount bin titles like Spy vs. Spy and Spot. You know what sucks? Othello, and 7-Up’s lazy mascot. And those were the major holiday presents.
So there’s really no better time for handheld systems to embrace nostalgia and start cranking out old games in new formats. Even Nintendo finally admitted that its best years were in the 80s, and released the immediately-sold-out NES Classic, with 30 built-in games. With so much of Nintendo’s past still inaccessible, it’s way too tempting to give in to one of the weird, scary, creepy, surely unsafe bootleg gaming systems that one finds on eBay. There are dozens to choose from, and a few might not even spark a fire in your sleep.
We’ll start with what one eBay seller called the RS-83.
You shouldn’t be afraid of buying weird junk from eBay sellers in China. While the quality of goods can be questionable, eBay always has your back as a buyer. At worst, you’ll waste time before scoring a refund for sub-par or missing merchandise, but if you keep your expectations low, you’ll always be pleased. Actually, that’s pretty much solid life advice in general.
At best, when you buy weird trash from China, you’ll get something indistinguishable from the real thing or better. Communication is generally an issue, so it’s best to keep it simple, and if they forget to send something or your stuff arrives broken, just ask for a partial refund. Don’t fall into the trap where the seller promises to “send it again,” because it just won’t happen. With a total lack of tracking in place for replacement items, you’ll be waiting forever, and generally, past eBay’s refund period. It’s no big deal if you get a LEGO missing an arm, but larger things are known to mysteriously disappear from packages, so just get a partial refund from that whole mess. And don’t forget to be patient; shipping is generally free, so you get what you pay for. And now you know.
This little video game machine takes 3 AAA batteries, but it also seems to have a spot for a cellphone-sized battery, and also, the battery door was kinda half-designed to screw in, but it uses tabs instead. This is just the beginning of this awkward Frankensteinian gaming system.
Flip the system on and you’re smashed in the ears with a blazing action soundtrack, which you can turn up or down, in large increments, by pressing a button on the game’s face. There are only four volume levels: silent, too quiet, too loud, and Jesus Christ. The console also features a ‘select’ button which is totally vestigial, a ‘reset’ button, an ‘S/P’ button that seems to act as a start/pause button, and the usual directional and button controls, laid out in Playstation fashion. The whole thing is obviously meant to look like a Game Boy Advance that’s midway through some difficult transitional phase, with some parts it doesn’t use, and other parts it just doesn’t want.
Once the system is on, you’re given two choices: play a weird ant colony simulator game, or play some actual video games. The SimAnt ripoff, played entirely in Chinese, seems to be the primary function of the entire console. It’s the default choice, and you have to actively navigate away playing it to get to the other games. Skip it (unless you can read Chinese, of course), select ‘English’, and you’re on your way.
But really, you can’t ignore that little morsel of strangeness. It’s a whole freaking system designed to play a game where you manage a bunch of ants. Everything else, all of the 250+ other games, are secondary, and they’re buried deeper than your Windows 95 porn folder. A folder named ‘spreadsheet.exe’? You’re not fooling anyone.
You now have two screens of eight icons to choose from, and none of them are great. Your selection includes:
- Super Control, which seems like a fairly faithful reproduction of Super C
- Meccand, a shape matching game for small children
- Backkom, a side-scroller starring a popular polar bear character from 2006 that’s barely known outside of South Korea, in which you must collect fish and avoid the Cheerios bee.
- Double Dragon, which is actually Double Dragon II: The Revenge
- Chip & Dale
- Super Mario Bros., but with a weirdly fast soundtrack
- Russia. Here’s where it gets great, because Russia has a traditional Tetris icon. Choose it, and you’ll enter a game called Harry Potter, which is basically a Potterized version of Tetris with awful controls. And the circle of life is complete.
- Cross Fire, a forgotten NES war game
- Bolt Action, a generic top-down airplane shooter
- 1942, but with odd background issues
- Battle City, never released on Nintendo in the US in this form, and limited to one player mode only
- Bubble Bobble, which is actually Bubble Bobble 2
- F-1 Race
- Adventure Island
- And finally, a list of hundreds more games, hidden far down within these menus. And yes, every time you restart the system, which will be often, you’ll have to excavate this menu once again.
There’s no proper way to totally describe the hundreds of strange games hidden in the system. It’s peppered with relatively faithful versions of NES classics like Ice Climbers, Excitebike, Bomberman, Wrecking Crew, Mighty Bomb Jack… except instead of actually being Jack, and collecting bombs, you’re an angel collecting crystals. There are plenty of bizarro versions of good games that more or less play the same, but without the satisfaction.
In addition to NES games, there are also lots of Famicom games that never made it to the US — some of them for very obvious reasons. Notable among these is Bird Week, an endless, bleak loop game where you’re a bird trying to catch butterflies for your starving children until you or your entire family dies.
And then there are the motherless games that barely exist in this reality. One of these is Amusement Park Jumping Kid, where you play a kid traversing the outskirts of an amusement park like some kind of ragamuffin who can’t afford a ticket, jumping over man-sized frogs, elephants, dogs, and whatever other animals were easy to animate. There’s never been a more literal title for a terrible video game. It’s like if Super Mario Bros. was called Fat Guy Mushroom Turtle Stomp and Also Pipes.
There’s Grot Kid, which is a clone of Devil Palace and Cub Adventure, coded by Nice Code Software for terrible multicarts like this one, which is basically a sad version of Pac-Man, but with ice pops instead of power pellets.
There’s also Knocking, which is a colorful version of a four-directional Whack-A-Mole, but with bat demons. Flappy is a bootleg Flappy Bird, and there’s even a terrible version of Plants and Zombies, since we’re making demonstrably worse versions of trendy mobile games. Great names like Table Wars, Shooting, Road Worker, Fruit Gift, 100M Dush (not a typo), Fishwar, Jewelry, Music Moment and Man in Red populate menu screes, and in some cases, the titles appear more than once. It’s anyone’s guess whether both of the identically-named are the same, or completely different. No one cared. It’s about quantity, not quality.
On a purely technical level, it’s impressive that such an obviously flimsy device hosts such a robust collection of garbage, and on such a crystal-clear screen. Controls are responsive, and despite plenty of play, the battery life doesn’t seem to be draining. Back in the ’90s, you’d plug six AA batteries into a Game Gear and wouldn’t be able to make it to the end of Sonic.
Trying to untie the Gordian knot of mistranslations, obscure Famicom games, mislabeled games, and other weirdness requires a notebook and a Rosetta stone, but it’s half the fun of owning such a mess of a system. If you find a game you actually like, write down what number it is in the disordered list, or you may never find it again in the depths. While there are much better systems for nostalgia, here’s a pretty cheap hit while you wait for classic games to become affordable again.
C. David is a writer and artist living in the Hudson Valley, NY. He loves pinball, Wazmo Nariz, Rem Lezar, MODOK, pogs, Ultra Monsters, 80s horror, and is secretly very enthusiastic about everything else not listed here.