Review: 8bitdo SFC30 and Retro Receiver SNES

I don’t usually like to review new products like this, but I thought I’d make an exception for this thing. I’ve been eyeballing it for some time, but the price is a bit much for both pieces of the puzzle (and you’ll probably want both.) The controller is $35 and the receiver is $25, making a total investment of $60, possibly more, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

With the new Nintendo Switch replacement JoyCons being priced at $80, and PS4 controllers costing about $60, I guess the price isn’t too terrible, but those controllers are packed full of modern technology. This, on the other hand is just a simple SNES controller.

I recently acquired some extra spending money so I finally decided to take the $60 plunge and get it. 8bitdo is a Hong Kong-based company, so you’ll see these things being sold through 3rd party re-sellers on Amazon and eBay. Apparently I’ve heard that Micro Center has also been stocking them. Don’t expect to buy directly from 8bitdo unless you’re a wholesaler.

And now to the controller itself. It works exactly as advertised. It’s Bluetooth, it has an internal battery that charges via micro-USB, and most importantly I don’t notice any input lag.

What’s really cool is all of the extra features I’ll probably never use. The SFC30 can connect to Bluetooth devices such as your smartphone, and even a Wii console. I haven’t tried it out with a Wii yet, but it supposedly behaves as the WiiMote. I don’t know if this means you can’t use it on SNES Virtual Console games or not. It would be better if it behaved as a classic controller attached to a WiiMote. I’ll have to look into this.

The Retro Receiver is a Bluetooth receiver that plugs into your SNES controller port, or a PC via its micro-USB port. In addition to being able to use it with your SFC30 controller, you can also connect WiiMotes, Wii U Pro Controllers, PS3 and PS4 controllers, and maybe even generic Bluetooth controllers. I haven’t tried controllers other than the SFC30 yet, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. So if you have another controller lying around that you would be okay using with your SNES, you don’t necessarily need to buy an SFC30 controller. Heck, you can use the thing to connect PS3 and PS4 controllers to your computer if you want to do that.

If you connect the SFC30 via its micro-USB port to your computer, it will come up as a standard Windows gamepad that is not X-input compatible. However, if you connect your SFC30 wirelessly to the Retro Receiver, it will be X-input compatible. I don’t know if PS3, PS4 and Wii controllers behave as X-input or not with this method.

And finally, the part where you may be spending more than $35 on your SFC30. The buttons feel good, but not 100% authentic to the real deal. They are a bit stiff. Fortunately the buttons and rubbers were designed with the exact same shape as the original SNES controller, meaning you can swap over original buttons and rubbers into the SFC30. Of course you’ll need a donor controller to do this. You can also place the SFC30 buttons and rubbers back into the original SNES controller so that it is not completely sacrificed. But of course now that controller will have inferior buttons.

So is it worth it? Depends on your needs. If you play a lot of Virtual Console on the Wii, this could be great. I’ll need to test out SNES VC with the controller to see if it works or not. If you have your original SNES hooked up to a big screen TV and you sit further than 6 feet away, this is a great solution to short controller cords.

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Let’s talk about TVL count

So, fellow retro gamer perfectionist, you’ve decided to jump on the pro monitor bandwagon that all of your fellow mates have been talking about for years. Whether it’s Fudoh’s thread on Shmups, the neo-geo.com CRT Fetish Thread, those “My Life in Gaming” guys on YouTube, or Matt from videogameperfection, the demand for Pro CRTs for retro gamers is now higher than ever.

Most commonly, people are going after Sony PVM and BVM monitors, since they are the most common. (They were, after all, the gold standard production monitor back in the day.) For simplicity’s sake, I’ll only talk about Sony monitors in this post, but you can apply the same logic to other brands as well. But even when you restrict your search to Sony, there are still many different models to pick from, with different attributes.

Sony CRTs are marketed under the “Trinitron” name. Trinitron is their brand name for their special aperture-grill CRTs. All Sony direct-view color CRTs are Trinitrons, whether consumer TV, professional monitor, PC monitor, or broadcast-grade. The only time you would encounter a Sony CRT that wasn’t a Trinitron, would be a monochrome CRT, or a rear or front projection CRT system.

Sony purchased aperture grill technology from Paramount Pictures and made the “Chromatron” in 1964, and finally the Trinitron in 1968. Sony would continue to be the only manufacturer of aperture grill CRTs until the patent expired in 1996. (Mitsubishi marketed “Diamondtron” CRTs as a direct competitor in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.)

But back to Sony’s professional monitor lineup. For their PVM (Professional) line, they offered models branded Trinitron, as well as “HR Trinitron” (High-Resolution). The difference between the two is that the HR tube has a higher TVL (Television Line) count.

The earlier 90’s models offered a TVL count of 600 for HR tubes and 450 for standard tubes. These include 13 and 19 inch models such as the PVM-1354Q (HR), the PVM-1954Q (HR) and the PVM-1350 (non-HR). The later generation, the PVM-20M2U, PVM-14M2U, PVM-20M4U and PVM-14M4U had a TVL count of 800 for HR and 600 for standard.

For Sony’s BVM lineup, only HR Trinitron tubes are offered, since BVMs are designed for extremely accurate critical evaluation of video signals and color correction. These are master grade, and is reflected in the price point. TVL count is a lot easier for BVMs. It is represented by a letter code in the model name. E=1000 lines, F=900 lines and G=800 lines. This letter code system starts with the BVM-20F1U series offered in the mid-90s up until the last BVM-A series. Older BVMs, such as the BVM-1911 use an 800 line CRT.

So what are TV lines anyway? A shameless copy and paste from Wikipedia says this:

TVL is defined as the maximum number of alternating light and dark vertical lines that can be resolved per picture height. A resolution of 400 TVL means that 200 distinct dark vertical lines and 200 distinct white vertical lines can be counted over a horizontal span equal to the height of the picture. For example, on 4 by 3 inches (10.2 cm × 7.6 cm) monitor with 400 TVL, 200 vertical dark lines can be counted over 3 inches (7.6 cm) width on monitor (Note that the 3 inches (7.6 cm) of monitor height is used rather than the 4 inches (10 cm) of whole monitor width).

TVL is an inherent quality of a camera or monitor and should not be confused with the horizontal scanning lines of broadcast television systems, which e.g. for a PAL system are 625 lines, and for the NTSC system 525 lines.

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Note that part that I bolded up above. When measuring TVL count, you count the vertical lines in a horizontal distance equal to the height of the tube. This is why the PVM-20S1WU, the only widescreen PVM has a TVL count of 300, despite its fullscreen counterpart, the PVM-20M2U having a TVL count of 600.

So what’s the point of having a higher TVL count, and consequently a higher CRT resolution? In consumer TV land, back when everyone was still watching their TV programming on CRTs, TVL count is low. A typical 19″ color TV tube from the 80’s and 90’s will have a TVL count of about 300 to 350, and even that is being generous. But that’s by design. You see, consumer’s hate flicker. And the standard NTSC 480i flickers by nature due to the interlaced picture. With such a low TVL count, the alternating scanlines overlap each other and blur together, so you don’t notice any flickering.

On the other hand, broadcast engineers need to be able to accurately monitor and evaluate those individual interlaced scanlines. They need to be able to view them without them overlapping each other. To do that with zero overlap, you need a TVL count of about 800 or higher. Of course this makes the flickering nature of interlaced video extremely apparent. That’s why HR tubes are not market towards consumers.

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The HR Trinitron logo. The HR logo itself expresses the high TVL count that HR tubes offer.

TL;DR: the higher the TVL count, the sharper your scanlines are going to be.

So the important question here, is how sharp do you want your scanlines to be when you play your retro games? Do you like the scanline effect at all? Some people hate it. If you’re one of those people, you might be better off buying a consumer TV that has component inputs, or modding a consumer TV for RGB input.

If you hate scanlines but still have to have a pro monitor, I would go after an N-series PVM, such as the PVM-20N6U. The N series is the “budget” PVM. It has a lower TVL count of 500 and is internally closer to a consumer TV. Beware though: the N6U has RGB, but no component. Watch out for the N5U, which only has composite or S-video.

You could also go after an old CGA computer monitor, such as a Commodore 1084, Amiga monitor, or an Apple IIGS monitor. These use consumer tubes and have low enough TVL counts so that you won’t notice any scanlines. Of course they all have different connectors on their RGB inputs, so you’ll have to make some custom cables.

In my experience, I prefer a TVL count of about 600 for 240p games. I enjoy having visible scanlines, but not when the black space between the scanlines is greater than the scanlines themselves. 800 TVL HR tubes have about a 50/50 scanline to black space ratio. The 900 and 1000 TVL tubes on the BVMs have even more black space.

So end the end, it comes down to what you prefer to look at. If you are still shopping around for a pro monitor and are not sure if you like the scanline effect or not, try playing some emulators with simulated scanline effects turned on. If you love it, then go for that HR tube. If you don’t like it, don’t go for an HR tube.

Review: ShibaSoku CM205N Color Video Monitor

s-l1600I’ve never even heard of this company before. But then again, I guess your average consumer doesn’t know of a lot of companies that market exclusively to the professional industry. ShibaSoku, also known as ASACA in America (which probably stands for American ShibaSoku whatever), is a company that specializes in broadcast TV equipment. They make mostly noise meters, distortion analyzers, and test pattern generators; similar to Leader, another Japanese company that caters exclusively to the professional market.

ShibaSoku also offered a small line of broadcast monitors back in their heyday as well. On a glimpse, they resemble Ikegami monitors, and for good reason. Like Ikegami, they also use Panasonic CRTs in their monitors. (Did anyone else other than Sony and Panasonic make broadcast-grade CRTs? Maybe JVC? NEC and Mitsu presentation monitors don’t count.)

I managed to find this monitor one day on eBay when searching around for CRTs. I’m always searching for monitors from unusual companies. I come across this particular one, and I notice that the seller is a local. I call him and offer to come pick it up in person.

First impression: wow this thing is heavy! Heaver than a 20″ BVM I think. It has every input you need: composite, RGB/YPbPr, Y/C, and SDI. Interestingly it has a swapable “decoder” card that I guess is used to change between PAL and NTSC. It has both an S-video plug and separate Y/C BNC inputs which is nice. RGB and YPbPr are a shared input with a switch on the back to switch between the two. I get it home, clean it up and turn it on. Welp, as expected, looks like the same picture issues as my Ikegamis. They cheaped out on the capacitors and only used 85 degree ones. Time for a cap kit.

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It says “Modified Version” on the sticker and they aren’t kidding. Cut traces and soldered jumper wires all over the deflection PCB.

I only recapped the deflection PCB at first, as that is what primarily needs a cap kit. After the caps, I turned it back on, and wow what a difference! The monitor is too bright and has some vertical foldover at the very top of the image, but it all corrects itself after 5 minutes. I guess I’ll just have to accept the fact that this monitor has a warmup time. I may attempt to recap the CRT driver/video amp later, but there’s at least 50 capacitors on it.

Googling around, you won’t find anything on this monitor except for an old advertisement in a PDF scan of Broadcast Engineering magazine. Even asaca.com is gone. (You can still pull it up on archive.org) The magazine ad was how I was able to find specs for this monitor at all. After reading it, it all makes sense. At first, I was expecting the picture to match my Ikegamis. But the scanlines were much sharper. You see, unlike the Ikegami monitors I have, this beast has a 900 line CRT. A 900 line shadow-mask CRT. In fact, the resolution is so good, you can’t even see the mask without a magnifying glass.

Like Sony’s F-grade 900 line BVMs, the scanlines are so sharp when viewing a 240p image that the black space between the scanlines is greater than the scanlines themselves. When viewing 480i video, the individual scanlines are always separated; they never overlap, allowing extremely accurate monitoring of your video signal.

And there’s your conundrum if you’re using this thing to play video games. (Which let’s admit it, you are.) You’re not using this monitor for it’s intended purpose. You’re using it for entertainment, like that filthy casual consumer next door watching his $300 TV set. But you know what? That’s okay. It’s 2016. Nobody in the professional world is still using these old CRT evaluation monitors in a professional environment. They all moved on to HDTV and OLED monitors years ago. They laugh at us for using these things for video games, but then they would get laughed at by their coworkers if they were still using these things professionally.

It’s okay Mr. Broadcast Engineer. Let your old monitors enjoy their retirement by playing retro games. It’s better than them going to the dumpster. And let’s face it, that’s exactly where they are headed.

So what do I think of this monitor? It’s damn beautiful, that’s for sure. The colors are amazing. The picture is bright and sharp. But like the BVM-20F1U, the extremely sharp scanlines can hurt your eyes or give you a headache after viewing 240p video for an extended period of time. This monitor is best suited for 480i video. I am currently using my PS2 with it, which is probably what I’ll stick with. The 600 line Ikegamis are still better suited for casual (re: enjoyable) viewing of 240p retro games.

One final thing worth mentioning is that the external sync input will happily take composite video as an external sync signal. I was able to display my PS2 flawlessly over RGB using my sync-on-luma SCART cable without the need for a sync stripper.

Review: Splatoon (Wii U)

Splatoon

I’ll be honest. When I buy a brand new game (which in itself is a rare thing nowadays) I am never excited to play it.  I just bought 7 games on Steam and 6 Super Famicom Cartridges and I couldn’t care less about playing them. I’m not sure what it is… perhaps I’m just turning into a grumpy old man who longs to relive the glory days of 8 and 16 bit video games.

I can’t remember who said it, but someone on a game forum said something along the lines of “Older generation gamers are no longer able to experience the thrill and excitement of playing a new game for the first time; they can only attempt to recreate their gaming experiences from their childhood.” I’m not sure I entirely agree with that statement, but I can understand where the person is coming from. I tend to spend most of my game time these days (which is extremely limited in itself) playing the old games I grew up with. I suppose I cling to these games in order to retain that part of my childhood which was most sacred to me. And sadly, I cannot recreate that experience anymore, no matter how hard I try. Any time I pop in a classic, like Zelda or Mario on the SNES or Sonic on the Genesis, I am bored within the first 20 minutes. I’ve beaten these games like a dead horse. I cannot recreate the childhood experience I had with these games when I first played them, no matter how hard I try. Instead, I’m falling asleep like an old man.

Surely I can’t be the only person out there who is like this. Maybe that is why speedruns have become such a cult following. Speedrunners are people who have played and loved these old games so much, they are inventing new ways to play old games, at an extremely high skill level. I tip my imaginary hat to these people; they are extremely dedicated.

This brings us to Splatoon. Last year, when I saw the first footage of Splatoon on a Nintendo Direct video, I was intrigued.

Nintendo Treehouse from June of last year. It’s hard to believe it’s been a whole year since this was shown off.

When I saw this, I immediately thought to myself, if there is a reason to pick up a Wii U, this is it. One year later, and here I am with my Japanese Wii U ready to play Splatoon.

I’ve been playing it since my copy arrived from Hong Kong on Monday, and this is what I can say:

Splatoon has brought back my childhood video game experience.

I don’t know what it is about this game, but I can say for sure that I have never been as excited to play a game as I have for this one. I honestly can’t remember the last time when all I could think about all day long was hurrying up and getting home to play some more.

So what is it exactly about Splatoon that is so great? I really can’t say for sure. If I were to guess, I’d say it’s just a great all around package that works well. A non-violent online shooter, no toxic voice chat, and most importantly a focus on having fun. Die hard online FPS players probably won’t get it. And that’s fine. This isn’t for them.

And did I mention the adorable squid kids? Seriously. I freaking love the character design.

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Look at these adorable squid kids. How freaking cute are they?

There are a few key elements in this game that tug on specific personal memories that are dear to me. When I was a child, (like 6 or 7) my dad organized and held Super Soaker capture the flag games for a large group of kids from our school. We did these at the local park. This was a huge park designed for frisbee golf. We used the frisbee golf baskets to hold team flags. It was always a blast, and I remember having a lot of fun doing it. Thinking about it makes me want to go out and buy some super soaker water guns again.

Another thing about Splatoon is it seems to have a similar style as Jet Set Radio. While I never fully played the original, I was big into JSRF, for the Xbox in 2002. It seems that even Hideki Naganuma, composer for Jet Set Radio, loves Splatoon.

The third memory it invokes for me is the Halo LAN parties I used to hold around the 2002-2003 time. I had a group of friends that would gather at someone’s house and we would play 8 to 16-player matches. These were carefree and fun. There was no voice chat. It wasn’t a big deal if we won or lost a match. We would just keep playing. And I think that’s how I feel about Splatoon. It’s about having fun, not about strategy or hardcore military tactics.

I’m not going to talk about how the game works or how to play it here. You can search for another review elsewhere. But I will say this: this game is another home run for Nintendo.

Acquisition: Namco Pole Position PCB

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Wow! What a find! Pole Position has always had sentimental value to me. One of my fondest arcade memories was sitting on my dad’s lap while playing Pole Position at the local bowling alley in Baton Rouge. I was maybe six at the time and couldn’t reach the pedals. Dad would press the pedal and I would steer. I was terrible–I never managed to qualify even once for the actual race. It also scared me greatly. It was a very noisy game, and the fanfare that blared on the high score table was very intimidating to my six year old self. Still, I loved it, and I spent a lot of my childhood trying to play it, or bad home ports of it, after I no longer had access to a machine.

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Story Time!

When I was about 12 or 13, I managed to find a machine to play! Finding any arcade machines was somewhat difficult in New Jersey, since we lived in a small town. Even the mall arcade, Time Out, shut its doors only a year after I moved to NJ. One day, when driving through a neighboring town’s business district, my dad and I came across a small store called J & R Amusements. This was a small business reseller of used pinball and arcade games, aimed at consumers wanting a game in a home game room. They were normally only open by appointment, but luckily they were open when we passed by. We stepped in, and there it was! An upright Pole Position II! I thought I’d never see one again. It even had a price tag on it: $600. There was no way that I was getting that, no matter how much I begged. $600 was an unobtainable amount of money for a 12-year old.

That December, we did have my birthday party there, as that was one of the services J & R offered. $100 to rent the place out to 20 kids was not bad. We had to provide the cake, though. Those were some of the awkward years, when I didn’t have a lot of friends. Still, it was fun.

And to my surprise, sitting in the garage that Christmas was the machine! I remember that Christmas well: I was disappointed that I didn’t get much under the tree. I always got some clothes and things that kids didn’t really care about, but there was always a big item–usually a game console or something I really wanted. Nothing of the sort under the tree this time. After everyone finished opening their presents, my parents pointed to the tree. There was a note there from “Santa”. It just said “Go look in the garage!” I did, and I was the happiest kid in the world.

Sadly, we got rid of the machine only a year after we had it. It kept breaking down and my parents were tired of the $65 service calls to get it fixed. The ironic thing is that I could have totally repaired it today with my knowledge in arcade repair. I just didn’t know anything about that when I was a kid. The PCB never had a problem, believe it or not. (PP boards are known for their high failure rate.) All it needed was a refresh of the AC power station, new “big blue” capacitor, and new capacitors on the AR-II boards and it would be perfect. Of course, ordering electronic parts off the internet was not common 15+ years ago, and you couldn’t google your problems.

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But now, back to today’s acquisition. This is a Namco PCB. Pole Position had two different types of PCBs: One manufactured by Namco for use in their Japanese (and presumably SEA) cabinets, and another manufactured by Atari in the USA for their American cabinets. Atari also had a cabinet manufacturing facility in Ireland, mainly for European distribution. Their Irish-made Pole Position cabinets used Namco PCBs, instead of the USA-made Atari PCBs.

Both the Namco and Atari PCBs have the same circuitry, ICs and function exactly the same. When Atari started to license Namco games for the US, they preferred to make their own PCBs instead of importing Namco’s. All Atari boards had the same shape, so that they could all slide into their metal FCC-mandated cages. (This was back when the FCC was super paranoid that harmful interference caused by electronics would bring down airplanes.)

Unfortunately the Atari boards were super unreliable. The biggest flaw had to do with poor power distribution on the board. Pole Position drew a lot of power. Probably 10 or more amps at 5 volts. And all of this power only went through 2 pins on each board’s edge connector. The result was burnt connector traces on the board from overloading. Combine that with the fact that the boards were practically cooking themselves in those metal cages, and you can see why there are so many dead PP boards. Oh and I forgot to mention the “sense” problem too. You see–Atari, in their infinite, pot-smoking wisdom, decided to come up with a genius way to automatically regulate low voltage problems. The AR-II boards (The boards that regulated the AC into DC power for the game board) had a voltage sense circuit. If it sensed that the board’s voltage was less than 5 volts, it would bump up the voltage to compensate. Combine this with a burnt edge connector that has a poor connection, and the sense circuit will just keep cranking up the voltage until the board fries.

There are methods nowadays to “bulletproof” your boards, which you can find by searching around. But even still, I agree with what a fellow KLOV’r has stated. “A Pole Position is never fully working, it is only temporarily not broken.”

But back to the Namco boards. These were much better. They weren’t infallible, but they had a lot of advantages. Where they were used in Japan and Europe, they did not require a cage, which made heat less of an issue. The Namco boards also had a dedicated DC power plug instead of being pins on an edge connector. Also, the board didn’t flex as badly as the Atari board when handled.

Today’s particular board comes from a fellow in Canada. For some strange reason, Atari distributed the Ireland-made cabinets instead of the US cabinets in Canada. This PCB was removed from a cabinet that was parted out due to vandalism. There is some damage to the CPU board where it looks like somebody plugged in the wrong voltage to the board. One cap and one IC blew up but miraculously the board was repaired and works.

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Here it is running on my test bench. The first thing I want to do is convert this to run Japanese Pole Position II. Later, when I eventually reacquire my PP cabinet from my parents’ house, I will convert the wiring to run this board. (I’ve already sold both of my Atari boardsets because I’m done dealing with them.)

Converting to PP2 is relatively simple. You just have to swap a bunch of EPROMs, a few PROMs, and add a security chip. Fortunately I am sitting on a lot of these chips already, sourced from old boards that I bought and since sold.

While converting to PP2, I made an interesting discovery! The original ROMs on the board were from an undumped version of the game! Meaning, MAME does not have the ROMs archived. I went ahead and dumped them, and from my guess, they appear to be a version developed by Namco on behalf of Atari (An Irish cabinet-specific version, if you will.) The chips all have Namco labels, but the game title screen has the Atari logo, as well as some Atari billboards that are slightly different from the US version’s billboards!

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The Irish version’s sprite graphics. Note the “Namco Pole Position” billboard and Centipede billboard.

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A mockup of the laughably bad Centipede billboard.

The colors are slightly wrong in MAME. Unfortunately I do not have the equipment on hand to dump the color PROM for the billboards, so I am substituting the Atari US ROM for now. It is slightly wrong. I will probably be sending the PROM off to someone who can dump it in the near future.

Acquisition: Tiny Toon Adventures: Buster Busts Loose!

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Another hidden gem here folks. (Paging Metal Jesus!)  This game is relatively short and simple once you get the hang of it, but it’s also surprisingly good. (Think Goof Troop, or any other Capcom developed Disney license.) It’s made by Konami, and you can tell that the developers took pride and didn’t half-ass what is basically a licensed cash-grab.

The actual cartridge (I didn’t get a picture taken) is a late model, Mexican-manufactured cartridge. The plastic quality pales in comparison to Japanese-manufactured cartridges. Oh well. It’s a small, simple game.

The box is in typical crushed SNES box shape. It was $10 and had the instruction book as well. The cart only was $6.00 so I opted for the boxed set. It is missing the inside cardboard that holds the cartridge.

This is actually my first SNES box! All of my childhood SNES game boxes were thrown out. Most people threw them out. NES, SNES and N64 boxes were designed as packaging material only. It was intended to be thrown out. We didn’t know any better. One thing that Sega actually did better than Nintendo was the plastic cases. I kept all of my Sega cases.

Acquisition: Super Game Boy (SFC)

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I didn’t need to get this. I have a US SGB and a SGB2 already. But it was $5.00! And while most of these only cost $5 on eBay, they will be coming from Japan which means Japan shipping.

As I have pointed out to approximately 1,000,000 people approximately 1,000,000 times, the original Super Game Boy has a flaw where the game runs slightly too fast, resulting in sound that is slightly higher in pitch. The SGB2 corrected this problem, but according to purists, it is still not 100% accurate.

There is a fix for the original SGB, which is what I will be doing with this guy. I bought this for another future rainy day project.

The contacts were extremely dirty and worn down. Somebody used this thing a lot in its past life. It took several attempts to get the Game Boy games to start up. I probably need to clean the Game Boy cartridge contacts as well. Not really a big deal though since this guy will probably not see much (if any) use.