The Castlevania Anniversary Collection is on sale this weekend so I picked it up as it includes the Japanese editions of some of the classic games. I knew there was an array of differences between the US and Japanese versions, but it’s been neat seeing them directly. One of the most interesting is that in the original Famicom edition of Castlevania, there’s an easy mode that gives you more lives to start with and does away with knockback. I am disappointed they didn’t include the Japanese edition of Simon’s Quest. But they did include what I thought was the best Castlevania of the 8-bit era, Castlevania III. The changes are immediately noticeable as the Famicom music is way better. This was due to Konami’s proprietary VRC6 audio mapper that added extra channels of music and makes it sound like I’m listening to remixes of the original tracks. Toggling between the Japanese and American edition, there’s a significant drop in audio quality. I can’t play it any other way now. You can check out Chris Kohler’s full review here.
The VRC chips are very neat. I love reading about developers managing to push a console past its limits with chips built into the actual cartridges like that. It seems like the SNES examples of that are more well-known, with Star Fox using the Super FX chip prominently in the marketing. But the NES/Famicom examples are pretty darn interesting as well.
Nintendo had their own series of chips, the MMC, that was used to beef up a lot of cartridges, especially for releases outside Japan, since Nintendo didn’t allow companies to use their own coprocessors. Of the ones used in Japan, Konami’s VRC line was arguably the most impressive and powerful, which makes the Famicom soundtrack for Castlevania III sound great. It used the MMC5 chip for the NES release, which wasn’t capable of enhancing sound on North American consoles.
Konami had an even beefier chip than the VRC6 used in Castlevania III, the VRC7. But the audio capabilities were only used on one game, Lagrange Point, an RPG that never made it out of Japan (although unofficial translations and patches have come out). The soundtrack is worth checking out, just to hear what they managed to get out of a Famicom/NES.
If you aren’t bored yet, check out the Wikipedia article on MMCs.