When you think of Nintendo and the arcade, there’s a good chance the first thing that pops into your head is Donkey Kong. Released in North American arcades in the summer of 1981, Donkey Kong is legendary as not only the first game designed by gaming god Shigaro Miyamoto, but also as the first appearances of the now famous Nintendo characters Donkey Kong and Mario.
Nintendo continued to belt out a string of arcade hits in the early eighties that would cement their name on the forefront of arcade developers. Titles such as Mario Bros., Popeye, PunchOut!!!, and several Donkey Kong sequels made Nintendo a household name amongst arcade enthusiasts and made the company enormous profits.
Nintendo, however had plans to dominate not only the local arcade, but to also take over the living room television set. Nintendo had released simplistic plug and play style consoles in Japan in the 70’s, but wanted a more direct avenue to bring some of their arcade franchises into the home.
With the Nintendo Family Computer, they did just that. 1983 saw the Japanese debut of Nintendo’s first cartridge based home video game console. We would see the same system, albeit drastically redesigned in 1986 as the Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES single handedly saved the video game industry in the mid-eighties and made every single kid salivate with their relentless TV and print ads.
In the mid to late eighties, with the increasing popularity of home consoles and the steady revenue stream they provided, Nintendo was seeking out new ways to snare arcade players into their net. Born of this was the Nintendo PlayChoice 10, an arcade machine on which you could play a selection of games ported directly from their Nintendo home console counterparts.
The PlayChoice games themselves came on small PCB’s, similar to (but not compatible with) the board inside NES cartridges. These PCB were then plugged into the main PCB of the PlayChoice cabinet, thus giving arcade owners the ability to easily change out games. As you may have guessed, the PlayChoice 10 allowed you to choose from 10 different games.
This proved to be a popular machine and an excellent way to advertise games that the player could then purchase for their NES and play without leaving their couch.
Nintendo also created a second, similar arcade hardware configuration they called the Nintendo Vs. System.
What is unique about the Nintendo Vs. PCB is that board could be populated with two individual games at one time. The games came as a set of 5 (4 in some cases) rom chips, a CPU chip common across all the games, and a PPU chip, all of which could be easily plugged into the board and removed when you wanted to change the games featured in the cab. The PPU chip actually contains no essential rom data and instead contains the color palette information. Without using the correct PPU for each games roms, the in-game colors would be randomly assigned making some games unplayable. This was, in-fact an anti-piracy measure designed to keep arcade owners from purchasing burnt roms and installing them into the cabinets. In most cases, the PPU chip is unique to the game with which it was sold, but there are some cases where they are interchangeable. For instance Vs. Super Mario Bros. and Vs. Ice Climber use the same PPU chip and can be used for either rom-set.
Later Vs. games, such as Vs. Dr. Mario and Vs. Atari RBI Baseball used daughter boards to further deter pirates, as these daughter boards were impossible to replicate. The daughter boards were a seperate smaller PCB that plugged into the main Vs. PCB via the CPU and PPU pin-outs. These daughter boards also made it much more difficult to swap PPUs between rom sets . For example; to play Vs. Castlevania without it’s daughter board you need to have one specific Vs. Castlevania chip, a compatible PPU (such as the one from Vs. Ladies Golf) and the daughter board for Vs. Top Gun.
In 1985 Nintendo released the Vs. System in two models; the UniSystem and the DualSystem.
The UniSystem was a single screen arcade cabinet with two 8-way joysticks and four buttons total, 2 per player. As the name implies the main draw of the Vs. titles was the ability to play head to head with a second player, either playing at the same time or alternating turns. The UniSystem was also available as a kit that was used to retro fit older Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong machines.
The VS. Arcade system was also available in a model called the DualSystem. The Dual System was essentially two full sized upright arcade cabinets wedged together at an angle. This version used the same board and chip-sets as the UniSystem, except that the board could be populated with the chips for two separate games. The games could run independently of each other in the same Dual System cabinet, each on their own screen and utilizing their own set of controls.
Games such as Vs. Baseball and Vs. Tennis populated the entire Vs. PCB, allowing for a single 4 player game (such as doubles tennis) to be played on both screens using all four sets of controls at the same time.
The DualSystem was also available in a much smaller cocktail cabinet, referred to most often as the “red tent” because of its recognizable red color and triangular tent-like appearance. Internally, the red tent was exactly the same as the larger DualSystem and like the UniSystem, shared the same PCB.
The cocktail version of the Dual System was had the identical capabilities as it’s much larger relative, including the ability to play the few four player games that utilized both screens.
Nintendo released dozens of games for the Vs. system such as Vs. Super Mario Bros., which was a much harder version of the NES title you know and love. It featured levels directly ported over from the Japan-only Disk System release Super Mario Bros. 2 and factory settings that required 256 coins to get a free man. Another interesting feature was a piece of music that, as far as I know, was never used in any other Mario game. The music can be heard during the screen in which you enter your name after you’ve achieved a high score (see video below of the music I recorded off of my cab).
Other notable games include Vs. Gradius, Vs. Ice Climber, Vs. Dr. Mario, Vs. Castlevania and Vs. Goonies. In fact, it is the Vs. Goonies arcade game that spawned the NES sequel The Goonies 2. This explains why there was no part 1 of The Goonies released for the NES; it was arcade only in North America.
The Versus arcade system remains a relatively unknown footnote in Nintendo’s storied history, but stands as yet another example of how Nintendo’s fierce marketing during the NES era provided the company with a tight strangle hold on the video game industry. The Versus red tent in particular is a collectible piece in itself with its distinct design and large and varied library of available titles.
* photos of the Donkey Kong cabinet and the table top PlayChoice 10 from the Killer List of Video Games (www.klov.com)