In-Depth Look: AV Famicom

Nintendo AV Famicom (HVC-101)

Nintendo’s re-released Family Computer console in Japan, officially called “Nintendo Family Computer” (model HVC-101), is commonly referred to as the “AV Famicom” or “Famicom AV” by gamers to distinguish it from the original Nintendo Family Computer as released in 1983. Family Computer is commonly shortened to “Famicom.” The AV Famicom was released on December 1, 1993, slightly more than three years after the launch of the Super Famicom.

In the Box

The AV Famicom comes in a very small box with no Styrofoam packaging. Unlike most Japanese Nintendo consoles of the time, including the Super Famicom and the Nintendo 64, the AV Famicom came in a box that completely encased the system’s contents. The Super Famicom and Nintendo 64 packaging differed, as those systems’ box contents sit in a Styrofoam mold with a printed cardboard cover that slid on to only cover the top and sides. Packaging on the Sega Mark III and other classic Japanese systems shared this packaging style.

The AV Famicom package comes with the system itself, two “dog bone” style controllers (model HVC-102) that are nearly identical to the updated controllers that were packaged with the North American re-release of the NES (model NES-039), and a user’s manual. Curiously, the AV Famicom does not come with an AC power supply or an AV cable included – meaning that these items would have to be purchased separately to play the AV Famicom out of the box.

Physical Layout and Connectivity

The AV Famicom is very similar in layout to an American “top-loader” NES, which was released in North America around the same time as the AV Famicom. The AV Famicom has two standard NES controller ports on the front of the console for players 1 and 2. These controller ports on the AV Famicom are the same as standard North American NES controller ports, and are compatible with all North American controllers, including the standard blocky NES controller, NES Max, NES Advantage, and other third party controllers.

Some accessories, like the Zapper light gun and Power Pad are not compatible via these controller ports, as those accessories in Japan were designed to be connected through the Famicom’s Controller EXT port, which was not fitted to either the original NES or the top-loading NES in North America. On the original Famicom as released in Japan in 1983, both the 1 and 2 player controllers were hard wired to the controllers. To allow the ability to add accessories, Nintendo added a Controller EXT port to the front of the Famicom. Through this port, users were able to attach accessories like a keyboard (for BASIC programming), 3D glasses, a light gun, the Nintendo Family Trainer Pad (called the Power Pad in North America), and other accessories.

The Controller EXT port has been moved to the right side of the AV Famicom, as opposed to being located on the front, but still functions with all of the original Famicom accessories.

The top of the AV Famicom featured a standard 60-pin Famicom game cartridge slot (slightly smaller than the 72-pin NES cartridge slot), as well as Power and Reset buttons. The Power button is a sliding power button and functions similarly to the Power button on a North American Super NES. The Reset button is a push button and functions the same way as the Rest button on the original North American NES. Like the top-loading North American re-release NES, the AV Famicom does not have a power LED to indicate its power state.

On the back of the AV Famicom is a DC input jack for an AC adapter, and a composite AV output port identical to that of the Super Famicom. There is no RF output on the AV Famicom, and thusly there is no Channel 1/2 selector switch.

Changes from the Original Famicom (HVC-001)

The two biggest changes, ignoring physical form factor obviously, when comparing the original and AV Famicoms is controller and video output connectivity options.

On the original Famicom, controllers were hard-wired to the console with very short cords – around 1 meter in length. This meant that players had to sit extremely close to the console when playing, and because controllers were hard-wired to the system, controller extension cords were not an option. on the AV Famicom, the included controllers use standard North American NES style connectors, allowing use of extension cables. Cords on the newer controllers are also slightly longer than those found on the original Famicom, though still much shorter than North American NES cables.

The microphone, which was present on the player 2 controller of the original Famicom in lieu of the Start and Select buttons, has been ignored on the AV Famicom. 1 and 2 player controllers in the new style are identical, and the microphone has simply been removed. Now, both controllers feature Start and Select buttons, just as they always have in North America.

Video output options are another glaring difference between the two consoles. The original Famicom featured RF output only with no composite output option at all. The AV Famicom features only composite output, with no RF output option. The AV output is identical to the AV output of a Super Famicom, Super NES or a Nintendo 64, and cables can be used interchangeably with all systems.

Composite video output is nice for North American Famicom players, as getting quality video output on an original Famicom was nearly impossible on a North American television. The NTSC standards between North America (NTSC) and Japan (NTSC-J) differ in their channel selection and tuning frequencies, so until the AV Famicom was common and affordable to import, American Famicom players would have to use the NTSC-J RF output on an original Famicom and tune their televisions to channel 95 or 96, even though the channel setting on the Famicom was set to channel 1. This typically worked well enough to display a picture, but analog artifacts (“snow”, lines, etc.) and audio issues were common. Composite output on the AV Famicom is identical to composite output on any North American device, and works well with even modern North American televisions.

It should be noted that the original Nintendo Entertainment System as released in North America had outputs for composite video as well as RF.

AV Famicom Comparison to “Top-Loader” NES (NES-101)

Although at first glance the top-loading North American NES and the AV Famicom look identical, when the two are side-by-side there are some obvious differences. The bottom most plastic mold for both consoles is identical, but the lighter-colored top mold is slightly different.

On the AV Famicom, the top of the console around the cartridge slot is flat, whereas on the top-loading North American NES it rounds upward. I have read that this design change was to accommodate connectivity of the Nintendo Disk System add-on for the Japanese model, an accessory that we never got here in North America. I suspect that the North American version is also rounded upward to better support the taller American NES cartridges, which are more than 2X the height of a Japanese Famicom cartridge when sat up vertically.
The other slight physical difference on the upper molding is the complete lack of Controller EXT port on the side of the North American model, since no accessories which utilized that port were ever sold in North America.
The major connectivity difference, and a common complaint among gamers about the top-loading North American NES, is the lack of AV outputs. Like the original Famicom, the US top-loading NES provides only RF output for video. This means that newer TVs which lack an NTSC tuner are not compatible with the top-loading NES.

It’s also a commonly accepted fact that due to inadequate RF shielding inside the top-loading NES, visible color banding is very apparent on some games which is not a video quality associated with the traditional front-loading NES.

Internet lore indicates that some top-loading North American NES models were sent back to Nintendo of America by unhappy customers due to the quality of RF video output and were replaced by top-loader consoles which featured AV output in place of the RF output. I cannot confirm that this is true, since I’ve never seen one of these. Also, because the AV Famicom motherboard is different than the top-loading NES motherboard (60-pin cartridge slot vs. 72-pin), it wouldn’t be possible for Nintendo to just throw some AV Famicom motherboards in to customers’ top-loading NES systems, which makes me skeptical about the existence of an AV top-loading NES.

Region Compatibility

As stated, all standard control pad options for the original North American NES are compatible with the AV Famicom since controller ports are the same. Compatibility with games is slightly more complicated, as the number of pins in a Japanese cartridge (60) is different from that of a North American NES (72). Some of these pins on the North American carts were used for the lock-out chips that Nintendo installed in each of the cartridges and in the NES console. These lock-out chips were used to prevent cartridge pirates from making unlicensed games (which was a big problem in Asia).

The lockout chip in the original NES can be disabled by snipping the leg of the chip that provides power to it, and on the re-released top-loading NES, Nintendo opted to not include the chip at all, though the cartridge slot is obviously still 72-pins to keep backward compatibility with older North American NES games. Due to this physical difference, North American games cannot be played in Japanese consoles and vice versa, unless a cartridge converter is used. With a converter, gamers can play Famicom games in a North American top-loading NES, or North American NES games in an AV Famicom.

An AV Famicom fitted with an NES cartridge converter is a preferred option amongst NES gamers. This setup provides high quality composite AV output (which the top-loading NES does not provide), without the headache of the NES-10 lockout chip and flawed 72-pin connector of the original front-loading NES. The combination of the 72-pin connector and NES-10 lockout chip in the front-loading NES was largely the cause of “blinking” problems with those original consoles, and has plagued their reliability ever since.

Final Verdict

AV Famicoms were made up until 2003, so they’re fairly easy to find in like-new condition online. Expect to pay around $30-$60 for a lose console depending on condition, and around $200 shipped from Japan for a new-in-box AV Famicom. Those prices aren’t too ridiculous in my opinion, given the fact that the North American top-loader now typically sells from $80-$100, and doesn’t have composite video output.

The AV Famicom is easily my favorite version of the NES. No NES-10 chip, no old 72-pin connector, and composite video output in a package that looks even more sleek and nice than the top-loading NES from North America easily make this the most reliable and best looking 8-bit console ever released by Nintendo. Given the fact that it can play both North American NES games (with a converter) and Famicom games, and is compatible with all North American controller as well as all Famicom add-ons that were never released outside of Japan (3D System, Disk System, etc.), the AV Famicom is an awesome console.

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