A True (NES) Advantage

How the NES Advantage, thanks to its long pop-culture reach, came to define the concept of a good controller in the 8-bit console generation.

Hey all, Ernie here with a fresh one from David Buck, who decided to write a piece about one of the most iconic game controllers of all time. Here’s the Nintendo-shaped hole that the NES Advantage fills.

Today in Tedium: What do a Christina Aguilera music video, Captain N: The Game Master’s opening sequence, your favorite Nintendocore band and the Ghostbusters have in common? They’ve all featured a certain Nintendo controller in their design or as part of the work itself. The controller invokes a kind of nostalgia among folks of a certain age and has gone on to inspire some phenomenal DIY creations over the years. Sure, it’s nothing like Kraftwerk re-purposing a power glove as a MIDI controller, but the legacy of the controller is unique in its own right. So dust off your NES and grab a stack of your favorite games because today’s Tedium is all about one of the finest Nintendo controllers of the 8-bit generation: the NES Advantage. — David @ Tedium

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seven

The number of buttons available on the NES Advantage controller. Where the original NES controllers possessed only the A, B, Start and Select buttons (along with the D-pad) for playing games on the console, the NES Advantage offered an arcade-style, turbo-charged deluxe upgrade to the 8-bit gaming experience. Boasting oversized A and B buttons—each with an accompanying turbo select button and a turbo intensity dial—and a two-player alternating feature, the NES Advantage was an impressive peripheral for the time. Rounding out the design are mid-sized buttons for a slow-motion, start, and select on the right side of the controller, allowing further ease of use.

NES Advantage Controller

(image by author)

How the NES Advantage captured the imagination of the 8-bit generation

In 1987, an ambitious 2-player, arcade style joystick controller for the Nintendo Entertainment System made its debut at that year’s Summer Consumer Electronics Show. Released alongside a similar controller—the turbo-capable, oddly-shaped NES Max—the NES Advantage offered an exciting new kind of gaming experience on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

At its core, the NES Advantage is a large, rectangular NES controller sporting a joystick, oversized buttons, and two controller cords. Nintendo Times editor Craig Majeski in a retro-style Nintendo Times Warp Zone puts it a better way in his retrospective about the controller:

The NES Advantage is a heavy duty piece of kit that is sure to satisfy the hardcore gamers out there. It features a metal base and rubber feet to hold it securely in place. The two action buttons are big, much like those found on arcade machines.

Manufactured by the Japanese company Asciiware and licensed by Nintendo as an official peripheral, the controller works like a standard NES controller with deluxe capabilities. There’s a slow motion function, adjustable turbo control, and the unique ability to play a two-player alternating game by hitting a switch and passing the controller around (just remember to plug in the cable with the white end into the player one port). The controller is solidly built and designed to last—my original NES Advantage from circa 1990 works perfectly today. The turbo function was a popular addition at the time, probably due to the proliferation of so many games in which rapidly moving projectiles made the game easier (or simply more fun).

Per NESDev, turbo operated on simple principle:

A turbo controller such as the NES Max or NES Advantage is read just like a standard controller, but the user can switch some of its buttons to be toggled by an oscillator. Such an oscillator turns the button on and off at 15 to 30 Hz, producing rapid fire in games.

The turbo dials on the Advantage allowed for some dialing up and down of the turbo effect. Youtuber Gadget Reboot illustrated the effect in a teardown of the inner workings of the controller earlier this year with an Arduino board and LED lights to demonstrate what happens when the dial is moved as the turbo function is engaged (the LED light connected to the button turns on and off in faster or slower as the dial is turned in both directions).

Per his breakdown—in which he physically takes apart and tests each component on the NES Advantage’s circuit board—the slow motion button oscillator comes in at about 27.5 Hz, while the oscillators for the turbo controls have two different values. One of them ranges between 5.5 and 37 Hz, while the other goes up to 38 Hz. Basically that’s anywhere from 5.5 button presses per second to 37 or 38 rapid-fire button presses per second. That’s an impressive range. Red Falcon won’t know what hit him!

The full video is worth watching for a detailed technical breakdown of inner workings of the controller, but suffice to say there’s a lot more going on beneath the sturdy gray shell of the NES Advantage than one might expect from such a simple device.

“This was something of a cheat, because it acted as turbo for the “start” button, taking the game in and out of its paused state rapidly. It didn’t work in every game, as titles with pause screens or menus would make the game nearly unplayable.”

Ben Kuchera, gaming editor of Ars Technica, discussing his experience with the slow motion function of the NES Advantage for his own tribute to the classic controller. Kuchera recounts that it worked fine enough on some games to make it a worthwhile function—especially for the blasted train level of Capcom’s Little Nemo. Whether it’s particularly useful or not depends on the player’s preferences and the game itself. Either way, it’s still a neat feature unique for the time.

The Advantage

The cover of The Advantage’s self-titled album.

How the NES Advantage helped influence early Nintendocore Music

We talked about Nintendo-influenced guitar music back in 2018, but only made brief mention of one of the pioneers of Nintendocore—a genre that combines metal and other styles of rock music with chiptune to create an entirely new genre—band at the time. The Advantage was a Sacramento, CA group composed of Robby Moncrieff and Ben Milner on guitars, Carson McWhirter on bass and Spencer Seim banging on the drums in its most recent lineup. Most active in the early 2000s, the band had actually been around since 1998, with original members Nick Rogers and Forrest Harding (with Cassie Stewart on bass) starting the group as a band called Generic.

Specializing in NES song covers, they’re a bit more energetic and freeform in their playing with a tendency to favor looser arrangements of classic NES tunes. They also go for a broader NES song base, covering tunes from the likes of Journey to Silius and Gremlins 2 on top of the classics. They were quite successful in their day, playing a few festivals and releasing several albums and their stylistically dissimilar (in a very good way) to anything the Minibosses were doing at the same time. Things were going pretty well in 2005, when Carson excitedly told Pitchfork about his enjoyment of playing in the band:

Currently, we all have our own projects that sorta satisfy that “we’re more than just Nintendo musicians” thing. We don’t put all of our emotions into it, and obviously we’re not writing the music. We just put our fun into it, and we all really enjoy the songs. It’s funny, I never would have thought I was remotely capable of being in a full-time cover band of any sort, and I was really against it until this project came along. Even when I was learning how to play guitar and bass, I don’t think I ever learned an entire cover song other than a Nintendo song.

The Advantage is the perfect band to introduce the genre and if you’re looking for something interesting to spice up your listening, you can’t go wrong with their self-titled album, their second album Elf-Titled, and my personal favorite, B-Sides. The last time we heard anything from the band was a 2016 Coming Soon announcement on their Bandcamp page proclaiming that “a strange entity has appeared on the horizon.” I certainly hope we hear something new from them soon—but until then I guess, I’ll just have to start my own NES cover band.

“The best games with the best play control also had the best music.”

Spencer Seim, drummer for The Advantage in a 2004 New York Times interview with the band. Referencing why he chose to join the band and why they continued to perform covers of Nintendo songs, Seim mentioned that because the budgets were higher, the games had better play control and thus, better music. Did he play those games with the NES Advantage? We’d like to think so, given it’s the namesake of the band, but the world may never know.

NES Arcade Cabinet

Now you’re playing with power. (via Gearfuse)

How the NES Advantage continues to inspire the DIY community decades after its release

The NES Advantage certainly has a legacy of do-it-yourself ideas and projects based around the controller’s design. Dating back to the early days of the peripheral and extending to modern day, exciting and unique uses for the Advantage are a fascinating aspect of the controller’s life cycle. In early issues of Nintendo Power magazine, readers regularly wrote in to show off accomplishments, relay hilarious gaming anecdotes, and occasionally show off their own Nintendo-related innovations or Inventions, like the kid who submitted his idea for an automatic controller cord winding system that he’d used for a school science fair. The magazine suggested he buy an NES Satellite 4-player controller in response.

In one issue of the magazine, a reader recounts the story of learning to play his NES using his left hand (to use the joystick) and feet (to hit the buttons) after an accident damaged his right hand thumb muscle (it eventually healed fine). This is an interesting—but utterly bizarre—use of the controller, but Nintendo Power had something much better in store.

Another early issue of the magazine featured a reader’s homemade, DIY arcade cabinet that held not only the NES and games, but two NES Advantage controllers (each with a companion NES Max controller below them for simple swapping). While it’s probably not the only example of someone taking the initiative to build their own arcade cabinet, it’s interesting to see a full-fledged example of it at a time when you didn’t really see such things outside of arcades. Today, there are plenty of DIY plans and modern equivalents showing how to build your own Nintendo-inspired DIY arcade cabinet—some of which are a testament to the hardware that inspired them. It’s fascinating to consider some enterprising folks were making them with actual hardware when the NES Advantage and NES Max were still new.

But let’s say you can’t find an NES Advantage or you have something like the NES Classic, which isn’t compatible with the original hardware. Building your own controller is an elegant solution to a simple problem. Journalist and tech historian Benj Edwards has spent the last two years building an array of inspired joystick-based controller designs using high-quality arcade parts for at least ten different platforms.

Youtube DIY maker Bbtinkerer did just that when confronted with the controller conundrum. He replicated most functions of the NES Advantage—including the turbo toggle—using an Atmega328P microcontroller to act like a Wii Classic Controller and a 3D printed case for the shell and joystick. The end result was a beautiful DIY controller that works perfectly with the NES Classic Edition and can be made by anyone thanks to his detailed Instructables post on how to make your own.

Demonstrating that the Advantage still inspires DIY designs today, an Instructables user named Osgeld took things a step further by putting a Famiclone into an NES Advantage controller to create a superior version of those cheap “Plug & Play” games that pop up from time-to-time. It all just goes to show the sky’s the limit when DIY and retro gaming collide.

FC2

The effects board used on the NES Advantage prop from the Statue of Liberty scene in 1989’s Ghostbusters 2. DIY enthusiast Jack Doud of Bloody Plastic made his own real-life replica of the prop from the film using an FC2 multi-effects board—a general purpose effects board used primarily in props and visual applications—and a series of breadboards, pins, LEDs, ribbon cables, and other components (here’s the full list) to make a real-life version of the prop. Doud began crafting his prop with the lights and built the circuit small enough to use a 9-volt battery to power it. After a little bit of soldering and some creative connections, Doud created a realistic prop with functioning lighting. In the film, the Ghostbusters use the Statue of Liberty to break through a slime-coated museum, leading to the climactic scene of the film. They control the action with none other than a modified NES Advantage controller. The modified controller would go on to appear in several IDW Ghostbusters comics long after the movie faded into our collective memory.

NES Games Best With NES Advantage

Just a few of the games that excel with an NES Advantage controller.

Tedium’s five favorite NES games to play using the NES Advantage

Since we love using the NES Advantage to experience retro games, we’ve selected a few of our favorite titles that we recommend you try at home. Nintendo Power made a few obvious recommendations—Wizards & Warriors, Metroid, Legendary Wings, Top Gun, and Double Dragon—in their original coverage of the device in the third issue of the magazine. We thought it would be fun to make a list of our own. Although they’re predominantly arcade action titles, they all play incredibly well with this particular controller. This list is highly subjective and your mileage may vary, but here are five games we recommend trying out using the NES Advantage:

5. 1943: the Battle of Midway

Capcom made about 35 games for the NES, most of which are fantastic. Among their Disney adaptations and Mega Man titles, they also released ports of popular arcade games. 1943: the Battle of Midway sees players take on 24 missions of dogfight mayhem and blasting of battleships—all from the cockpit of a lone P-38J Lightning. Be careful with the turbo on this one, as the laser blast (activated by holding the B button) doesn’t work while using turbo. One could argue it doesn’t really matter, but it is a bit of a disadvantage of using the controller on this game.

4. Super C

Frenetic arcade action abounds in this classic from Konami! You probably thought we were going to choose the original Contra for this list, but it’s the NES version of the sequel, Super C, that truly stands out. Per the Bonus Book included with The Contra Anniversary Collection, the game is more of a remake of the arcade original with new level designs, enemies, and the same power-up system as the first NES game (the arcade version of Super C featured a stackable power-up system). The Advantage seamlessly recreates the arcade experience at home with the bonus of optional turbo and the slow motion feature, a function that works surprisingly well in certain stages (like the insanely difficult alien hive and the final stage).

3. Life Force

What could possibly be more fun than piloting your way through biological space, blasting away everything from gigantic brain monsters to the free-floating head of King Tut himself? Playing this Konami classic like an arcade game, that’s what! We like to use the NES Advantage with this game due to the smooth, flowing movement enabled by the joystick—I’ve always found controlling the ship with the D-pad to be a bit clunky—and the ability to dial up the turbo on the B button.

2. Battletoads

In one of Rare’s finest NES moments, you take control of anthropomorphic toads with unfortunate names as they battle their way through twelve wild missions across the galaxy. Everyone says Battletoads is a tough game, but it’s incredibly fun and extremely entertaining. The only times I’ve managed to defeat The Dark Queen, I’ve accomplished the task using the NES Advantage. Coincidence? Probably! But it’s still pretty cool and a blast to experience with the Advantage’s responsive arcade-style controls and occasional turbo boost.

1. Fester’s Quest

Sunsoft is one of those companies who consistently made great games for the NES.

Responsible for classic games like Blaster Master and Batman: the Video Game, it isn’t surprising how much fun Fester’s Quest is once you look past some of the more difficult aspects of the game (like those awful isometric 3D mazes). Playing this game with the NES Advantage effectively manufactures an authentic arcade experience, the likes of which you’ll never find in another Addams Family video game.

5581

The part number of the NES Advantage joystick knob, as listed in the final pages of its instruction manual. The cost of replacement was $3.00—$6.81 in today’s money. The part is easy to unscrew from the controller and was probably lost more times than many owners would care to admit. The only other replacement part available was part 5582, a Turbo Rate Adjustment Knob selling for a whopping $1.00 ($2.27 today). Washington residents had to pay an additional 8.1% sales tax when they ordered replacement parts due to Nintendo of America’s headquarters being located in the state. Bummer.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing quite like playing classic NES games on the original hardware with a classic controller. Sure, there are plenty of knock-offs and other options out there, but an authentic NES Advantage is a fairly inexpensive purchase on eBay and other online markets. It’s a magnificent workhorse of a controller that has the potential to make most NES games better or at least more fun.

For the nostalgic among us, the NES Advantage is a relic of a bygone era that helped define what a good controller could be. Later systems had versions of their own—including the Super Advantage on the Super Nintendo—and eventually analog sticks became the norm on many home gaming consoles.

Three decades and a flourishing DIY scene later, the NES Advantage is thoroughly ingrained into retro gaming history and it definitely deserves to be remembered. Besides, it’s still fun to play NES games with the Advantage and I highly doubt that’s going to change anytime soon.

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David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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