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CREATION INFORMATION
CREATED JUN.24.2007
UPDATED NOV.07.2009
THE NES POWERPAK CARTRIDGE
BY RETROZONE
Around 1 week after I ordered my NESPowerPak from RetroZone it arrived, unfortunately with an extra surprise as the cart had been given its real value on the package meaning that I got slapped in the face with a US$43 bill from customs, ouch! damn!.

Anyway it's finally here and I'm happy as I've been dreaming about a cartridge like this for years and years. So let me begin by telling you a little bit about what this cartridge actually is. For years owners of Gameboys, SNES, N64 have had the opportunity to play homebrew and commercial games on their video game systems while NES owners were left with emulators if they wanted to check out unreleased games or homebrew.

But here's the chance to play games on a real NES system instead of faking it with an emulator. With 512kbit of PRG (program) and CHR (Character) RAM onboard and a built-in Compact Flash (CF) card slot, the PowerPak reads a ROM file from the CF card into the onboard RAM and runs the game. The biggest problem with NES games is the large range of mappers used in games and some of them being quite complex , it has always been believed that is was almost impossible to have just a single cartridge able to run most games, but fact is that the PowerPak does just that.

All mapper information is stored on the CF card which means that they are easy upgradable, but the downside is that you have to remember to copy the directory with mapper files on to every CF cart you'll be using and then also remember to update them when new mapper files are released.

The cartridge also includes 32kb battery backup however this is only available for Nintendo games developed to make use of battery backup, such as Zelda, StarTropics and Shadowgate to name a few.

I took my NES PowerPak for a spin last night and here are my views about the system. Oh yeah and if you buy a NES PowerPak then please make sure to read the manual included as it provides some good tricks to get the gadget running. this was my mistake number one, not reading the manual :-)


WHAT YOU GET

The current price of the NES PowerPak is US$135 + shipping and for that chunk of money you get a shiny red, slightly transparrat, NES "PowerPak" cartridge, a used NES cartridge sleeve and a small manual. Personally I would've loved to have a custom PowerPak sleeve and I might've been prepared to pay a little more to get everything packed nicely in a cardboard box like a real Nintendo cartridge.

There has been a lot of talk about the price of the PowerPak and yes the price tag is a bit high, but considering this is the first massproduced of its kind, the complexity of NES mappers and the money and energy that has been put into the project by just one man surely makes up for the price. Keep in mind that the first Nintendo DS flash carts had a price tag of about US$150.


GETTING THE DAMN THING RUNNING

My first step to get the PowerPak running was trying to find my CF cards which haven't been used for years, but I managed to find a total of 6 different cards which would make a good test result to see if any CF card would work with the PowerPak.

The CF cards must be formatted in either FAT 16 or 32 format and it's recommended that Windows is used to format the cards. Below is a test of CF cards available to me and as you can see, older CF cards up to 32MB aren't compatible with the PowerPak for some reason.


I did have some problems getting the Kingston card to work with the PowerPak and while I first thought it was incompatible with the PowerPak it turned out to be some sort of error in the CF card which later was fixed.

If the CF card doesn't work you're immediately prompted with an error code, I had various codes for all cards but they were all claimed to be bad format even though the were formatted in either FAT 16 or 32 using Windows XP to format them. Only 2 of my 6 different CF cards worked sadly. If the CF card works you're taken to the titlescreen of the PowerPak, displaying BootROM and CardROM versions. None of these version numbers are too interesting at the moment though.


LOCKOUT CHIP - BLINKING SCREEN

To divide the NES market into sections and avoid parallel imports, Nintendo invented the Nin10 lockout chip. This version revision of this lockout chip is a real mess and making a cart that would run world wide would be impossible unless every NES deck running a PowerPak was modified, disabling the lockout security. However thanks to a new device called CiClone, a chip which offers region switching, meaning it provides lockout checks for NTSC, PAL A, PAL B and Asian NES systems.

The way it works is that Reset has to be pressed if the screen blinks and the the CiClone will automaticly try the next lockout setting. So keep pressing the reset button until the CiClone finds a setting that matches your NES Deck. The great part is that it remembers the setting from then on, so you won't have to perform the reset action every time.


POWERPAK USER INTERFACE

The user interface of the PowerPak is pretty straight forward. As shown earlier you are presented with a nice title screen, displaying PowerPak bootROM information, and after that, when pressing a button, you're taken directly to a directory listing.

Of course the PowerPak directory with the mapper files has to be present on the CF card but of course also the ROMs you want to check out. The worst part about the directory listing is that it's one long list of file names and there's no fast forward, so it may take some time to reach ROMs beginning with N or M if you have everything placed in one big directory.

I would therefore recommend that ROMs are sorted in directories beginning with the first letter of the ROM name for finding a game quicker.

Well once a game has been found and a button has been pressed to select it, you are taken to another screen where you have the option to insert GameGenie codes for the game before loading it, a nifty feature if you want to explore some of the secrets hidden in NES roms.

During my now quite extensive test of the NES PowerPak I stumbled upon a rather strange glitch, I believe you can call it. I decided to throw a lot of games on to a CF card and to avoid having a long list of games in the root directory of the card, which RetroZone by the way strongly recomends that that you do not do, I decided to put the roms into a number of sub directories. Now the fun starts, get ready, okay somehow the PowerPak isn't able to sort the list of directories correctly, and sometimes even lists of filenames aren't sorted correctly. This nifty little "feature" has happened on more than one CF card over time.

I haven't heard about this happening on any other PowerPak though, so I'm wondering if mine became some sort of confused during the extensive testing :-)


GRAPHIC GLITCHES

A lot of reports have been made regarding graphic garbage being shown on the screen during game play, resulting in RetroZone releasing a recall statement to fix of the problem or supply people with the resistors needed to fix the problem.

The problem doesn't appear on all NES decks though, so I took my 5 NES (PAL) systems to the test to see how big the problem is and it actually turned out that no less than 3 of them would be able to run the PowerPak without the fix applied.

PE024542 NES-PAL-001 SCN NO GLITCHES
PE1437018 NES-PAL-001 SCN GRAPHIC GLITCHES
PE1948453 NESE-001 FRA NO GLITCHES
PE3441492 NES-PAL-001 SCN NO GLITCHES
PE4151787 NESE-001 FRG GRAPHIC GLITCHES
PE5800260 NESE-001 NES-ESP-2 NO GLITCHES

However it's probably still a good idea to contact RetroZone to get the cartridge fixed and the next batch of carts due to arrive in a few months from now will of course have this fix applied.


MAPPERS SUPPORTED

Below is a list of mappers currently supported by the PowerPak and I'll try to explain most of them because the number really makes no sense unless you're a NES dev nerd or know a little bit about the Marat Fayzullin's iNES header which became the NES header standard for some reason.

Below is a list of the most interesting mappers...

# DESCRIPTION GAMES
1 Nintendo MMC1 Chipset 1942, Bomberman II, Mega Man II ...
2 ROM (PRG) Switch Konami games like CastleVania and Stinger
3 VROM (CHR) Switch Twin Bee, Q*Bert, and many japanese games.
4 Nintendo MMC3 Chipset Super Mario Bros 2 & 3 (Most used mapper)
5 Nintendo MMC5 Chipset CastleVania III: Dracula's Curse
7 32kb ROM (PRG) Switch Wizards & Warriors, Marble Madness, etc.
9 Nintendo MMC2 Chipset Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, and Punch-Out!!
10 Nintendo MMC4 Chipset Japanese Punch-Out!!, and japanese games.
11 Color Dreams Chipset Crystal Mines, Tagin' Dragon, Babyboom, etc.

The rest of the mappers are either for Famicom or Pirate games, while these too are interesting I'd say the ones mentioned above by far are the ones that makes the PowerPak interesting as 99% is supported already, the rest is just a bonus i my eyes.


BUGGY GAMES

Eventhough the most common mappers are supported, some games still refuse to run or have various errors, however most of the games I've tested sofar have been running without any problems at all. Even some of the games reported to be buggy ran smoothly on my system.


CueStick (#79)
Missing graphics

Rad Gravity (#1)
Freezes when entering level


MAPPER UPDATES AND VARIOUS FILES

  • [ DOWNLOAD ] Loopy's PowerPak Mapper Set (by Loopy)
  • [ DOWNLOAD ] Alternate Mapper 9 (by Loopy)
  • [ DOWNLOAD ] Alternate Mapper 23 (by Kyuusaku)
  • [ DOWNLOAD ] Alternate Mapper 33 (by Kyuusaku)
  • [ DOWNLOAD ] Famicom Disk System BIOS Patch (IPS)

CLOSING WORDS

Well even though I had a few problems getting the cartridge running on my NES system(s) mostly thanks to me not reading the manual and using a semi-broken CF card, the PowerPak (V1) also features a graphic flaw, which can be fixed though and RetroZone has acknowledged the problem and is offering a solution to the problem, great to see that kind of responsibility.

And with that said I have to mention how much I admire that one person has gone to such lengths to manufacture a NES flash cartridge. The PowerPak is very professionally made and while not only the PCB is custom, for obvious reason, even a new plastic casing was made instead of using donor carts, which probably would have been a lot easier.

My biggest hope for the PowerPak is that it'll hopefully able to kick some life into homebrew NES development which has suffered from having an easy way to test code on real NES system, that is until now.

I'll highly recommend the NESPowerPak to anyone with even the slightest interest in the Nintendo Entertainment System. Even with a price tag of $135 it's well worth the money. Once again thank you to RetroZone, aka Brian Parker, for releasing such a great product, can't wait to check out your next product :-)


WHERE TO BUY

Well I'm actually not supposed to advertise on NES WORLD but I have to make an exception here. The PowerPak isn't widely available, in fact it's only available from one little website, called www.retrousb.com, which is the home of RetroZone.

Even with the price tag of US$135 these babies sell out fast and only Brian Parker (aka. bunnyboy ... why do I always picture a big hairy guy with fluffy pink bunny ears when I see that name, aaaargh!) knows when they'll be back in stock. It actually seems like the next batch has been pushed back a few times? So you may want to reload RetroZone's website frequently if you want a PowerPak.

Good luck! (currently next batch is set to be available on my birthday, August 13th :-)