Systems inside cartridges: how engineers expanded the capabilities of game consoles

Original author: Mark Christian
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In a previous article, we talked about three cartridges with an interesting feature: they had a connector into which other cartridges were inserted. Some other cartridges have developed this idea by allowing individual video game consoles to be plugged into their console connectors. These were not ordinary hardware additions: they required their own cartridges that were incompatible with the main system.

Today we look at three very different “consoles inside the cartridges” from three very different manufacturers. There were all technological and strategic reasons for the appearance of all three systems, and they can tell us an interesting story. Let's start with the most mysterious system - the only one of the three that was unlicensed and not produced by the creator of the console.

Aladdin Deck Enhancer

In the early 1990s, the Codemasters office must have had an impressive research and development lab. The company was originally created with the goal of developing games for Commodore home computers, but a few years later it opened a department for creating unlicensed games and hardware add-ons for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Probably the most famous product of the company, at least among console players, was the Game Genie 1 cheat device , but it turned out to be not the only example of unlicensed equipment for NES.

One of the most amazing features of video game cartridges is their superior versatility. In the process of technology development, cartridges became more powerful and complemented the capabilities of the consoles themselves. NES equipment was developed back in mid-1983, and by the beginning of the 90s he already needed all possible help. Later, various components appeared in NES cartridges, including RAM, controllers for switching memory banks, and special hardware mappers 2 .

Inside some cartridges for different games there was the same equipment, the only difference was in the game data stored on ROM chips. Codemasters co-founder Richard Darling noticed this and came up with a brilliant idea to create an add-on for NES to make games easier and cheaper. The result of this idea was the Aladdin Deck Enhancer, released in November 1992. Enhancer was an NES cartridge that contained everything except game data. It had a connector for connecting the so-called "compact cartridges" (Compact Cartridge). These compact cartridges were supposed to become much smaller than regular NES cartridges and consist solely of game data recorded in ROM chips.

Dizzy the Adventurer on Compact Cartridge.

Codemasters hoped Enhancer could become their own viable target platform for publishers interested in circumventing Nintendo's official licensing program and releasing their games on compact cartridges. Due to the smaller size and the fact that most of the electrical circuits needed for conventional cartridges were already built directly into Enhancer, compact cartridges could be sold much cheaper than regular licensed NES games. Considering that it was released after the successor of the NES (SuperNES) appeared on the market, it is obvious that the target audience of Enhancer was limited in funds buyers, who were more interested in not just new technologies, but just games.

Unfortunately for Codemasters, the idea was never successful. Despite the promise of releasing twenty-four games by the end of 1993, only seven games had been released, and many unsold devices remained in stock for decades. Incredibly, a brand new, unopened Enhancer can be found on the Internet even twenty-five years after release 3 .

Super game boy

Super Game Boy was a complement to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES), providing an amazing opportunity to play games for Game Boy. No larger than a regular cartridge for Super NES, Super Game Boy had a connector on the top edge into which standard Game Boy games could be inserted. By inserting the Game Boy cartridge and attaching the Super Game Boy to the console, for the first time, players were given the chance to play their favorite games on TV. Given that Game Boy was notorious for its grainy, blurry, and dull screen, this seemed like a terrific improvement.

Modern players are used to compatibility of old games with new systems, but for the 90s this idea was pretty fresh 4. The consoles of the 90s were not powerful enough for the software emulation of other systems, so the Super Game Boy cartridge actually contained all the internal equipment of a regular Game Boy. Despite the fact that he was mostly just a Game Boy console in a cartridge, Super Game Boy had a few more tricks up his sleeve.

Donkey Kong on the Super Game Boy with a special frame.

Users had to play Super NES games on large television screens, and not on displays of handheld devices, so their resolution was higher than that of Game Boy games. This meant that when displaying the Game Boy game on the TV screen, its image should have been inserted into the frame. Players could choose one of the many built-in decorative frames or create their own using virtual drawing tools. In addition, players could include colors in the game, replacing the monochrome shades of Game Boy colors with a custom palette. Some later games for Game Boy were even released with their own built-in frameworks, and could use the Super Game Boy's hardware features to display more colors of the game 5. Unfortunately for gamers, such improvements did not take root, but those that were still released look amazing 6 .

Super Game Boy was released in 1994, five years after the start of the Game Boy life cycle and three years after the release of Super NES. In many ways, the release of Super Game Boy was a very smart move. First, he significantly expanded the library of games available for Super NES, instantly introducing access to three hundred additional games 7 . Secondly, he again drew attention to the losing Game Boy, which at that time was starting to seem outdated. Nintendo did not wait long to give Game Boy a second wind: the first Pocket Monsters Pokémon gamewas released in Japan in 1996, spawning a whole pop culture phenomenon, and by the late 1990s, Nintendo released three additional versions of the Game Boy 8 console . Ultimately, the Game Boy line has become one of the best-selling video game systems in history 9 .

Super Game Boy 2 was released in Japan in 1998. He updated his style and corresponded to the “transparent plastic” fashion of the late 90s, as well as made many improvements. The first version of Super Game Boy did not exactly match the CPU speed of the original portable console, so the games ran 2.4% faster. In Super Game Boy 2, this bug was fixed; in addition, a Game Boy link cable connector was added to it, which allowed two to play together with a second console 10 .

Overall, the Super Game Boy was probably the most successful "cartridge system." Nintendo used the same idea in 2003 to release the Game Boy Player, which allowed it to play GameCube games for Game Boy Advance, Game Boy Color, and the first Game Boy.

Sega 32X

Of the three systems we are considering, the Sega 32X is least like a traditional gaming cartridge. The 32X plugged into the Sega Genesis cartridge connector added significant graphics power to this gradually aging system. It is not hard to imagine that Sega designers tried to arouse a powerful oil car in buyers associations with a turbocharger, especially considering the main target audience of the system - teenage boys 11 .

Unlike the first two systems, the 32X was not a simple plug and play device. Before connecting the 32X, players had to install metal staples inside the Genesis. Then you had to connect 32X to the TV (not to Genesis), and then connect 32X to Genesis with a second video cable. Finally, the 32X had its own power supply with a large transformer sticking out of the outlet. After connecting the entire system, the rear of the Genesis / 32X design was a mess of wires 12 .

Released in 1994, the 32X appeared more than five years after the release of Genesis, which at that time was under increasing pressure from both Nintendo and other competitors with powerful next-generation consoles. Although the next-generation Sega console was nearly ready for release, it would sell at the next-generation price, more than four times the current cost of the Sega Genesis 13 .

Sega hoped that there was a huge potential market for consumers wishing to shell out a relatively small amount to get a little closer to next-generation games 14 , and it seemed like this strategy could work. However, the day after the release of the Sega 32X in North America in Japan, the realnext generation console called Saturn. An attempt to attract developers to simultaneously support two new systems was a difficult task, and consumer demand for a “half-step” to the next generation of consoles fell with each passing, because the next generation was already very close. This put pressure on Sega and made Saturn launch in North America before it was planned, just six months after 32X. That was a disaster.

However, it’s easy for us to imagine a world in which the 32X would be successful. If 32X were released a little earlier, or if Saturn were released a little later, then 32X would probably have time to reach popularity 15. Even considering the price of Genesis, the 32X still cost half the price of Saturn, and could offer a lot to players in terms of hardware improvements. Unfortunately, instead of becoming the foundation of Sega's upcoming success, the 32X boded Sega's gradual withdrawal from the console development market.

Add-ons Supplement

Cartridge connectors were intended for games, and not for systems, but brave engineers still expanded the boundaries of the possible and created impressive devices on their basis. The transition from cartridges to optical discs, and then to digital download of content meant that the time for cartridge slots came and went.

Hardware additions are also found in the modern history of video games - remember, for example, Sony, but the complexity of their use has not changed. Add-ons are always roulette: their common possible market is limited by the existing base of users of the main system, and by the time the add-on is released to the market, players are often already waiting for the next generation of technologies. Most add-ons fail to have a major impact. But they can "Shoot" subject to the availability of great advantages for players - the success of Super Game Boy was proof of this.


  1. For more information on Game Genie, see the previous article .
  2. Mapper chips gave cartridges additional benefits, such as greater control over the generated video signals, improved audio output, or improved memory management. Memory management was an important aspect: early processors could directly address a fairly small amount of memory, and memory bank switching chips made things a little easier. Bank switching is a technology that breaks large areas of memory into more convenient “banks” that are small enough for processing by the processor. With the help of small tricks, the software can, if necessary, switch between banks and gain access to a larger amount of memory.
  3. At the time of writing (April 2019), the all-new Aladdin Deck Enhancer (unpacked!) Is being sold on eBay for less than $ 100.
  4. Sega Genesis owners can play Master System games with a device called Power Base Converter, and Atari 5200 owners can play 2600 games with a CX-55 device.
  5. Christine Love has published an excellent study of the functionality of Super Game Boy.
  6. Space Invaders for Game Boy had a completely separate version for Super NES, which started when the cartridge was connected using the Super Game Boy.
  7. This number is based on the Complete List of the Game Boy Game Library , and it includes all games released before 1994.
  8. Released in 1996, Game Boy Pocket was a thinner version of the original console. At the beginning of 1998, it was followed by Game Boy Light (only for the Japanese market), in which the screen backlight was added. Just six months later, Game Boy Color appeared on the scene with a significantly improved hardware and color LCD display (but, alas, without backlight).
  9. According to Wikipedia , the connected Game Boy / Game Boy Color line has become the second-largest portable console in history and the third among all consoles.
  10. The Super Game Boy 2 link cable worked with both the standard Game Boy and the other Super Game Boy 2, if the player somehow got a second TV and Super NES at hand.
  11. According to an interview with Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske in Electronic Gaming Monthly (Issue 65 for December 1994, p. 191), Sega of America was actively involved in the development of 32X equipment (and this was rare), so we can assume that in the process of work took into account the American target audience /
  12. For a detailed build process, see GameTrog How to hook up your SEGA Genesis 1 with the SEGA CD 1 and the SEGA 32X . (Note that the Sega CD add-on is also used here, which increases the overall chaos of the connections.)
  13. According to an August / September 1992 Sega Visions ad , the Genesis console sold for $ 99.99. At the time of the Saturn release in 1995, this console sold for $ 399.
  14. “I think many people like Saturn games, but they cannot afford them. 32X can bring them as close as possible to the capabilities of this console. ” - Quote from Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske of Electronic Gaming Monthly (December 65 issue of December 1994, p. 191).
  15. One could argue that the Sega CD had years to gain popularity, and yet it never took off. But still, it cost more than two times more than the 32X, so it’s hard for us to judge.

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