Updated: Dec 13, 2019
Before we start this blog post, and introduce the newest game to the collection let us talk about why you never throw anything away in this hobby. The photo and situation below is the exact reason you hang onto the spare parts you might not need right away.
We had a somewhat functional Sanyo 20EZ monitor with terrible burn in, and a bad green gun. It was originally from our Donkey Kong Jr. upright, and despite numerous attempts I could never get the monitor fully working to my satisfaction. I also had a chassis only with a bad horizontal collapse I couldn't seem to track down. And then there was the monitor that came with the VS. game that smelled like it was actually once on fire, and for good reason. The mostly melted flyback wasn't the only massive issue to fix, but a totally obliterated B+ voltage section on the board complete with black scorch marks all over the PCB to tell the tale.
Despite the damage, we gave it a shot with new cap kits and some parts from the DOA chassis we had left over from a previous project. The photo on the left here is missing the large ceramic capacitor that usually sits on top of the B+ section, because at some point it cracked in half due to some catastrophic event. This could have been just a massive composite failure, or someone attempting to "fix" the game without the knowledge to do a proper job.
Our old monitor worked, despite the wacky colors you see on the photo there was more contrast in real life. Newer iPhones seem to have some issues photographing CRT monitors. The green was however barely in existence, which again was a problem with this tube. Added to it's woes was the terrible burn in from a life as the top monitor in a Punch Out arcade game in its past. So we did what we should have done in the first place, took the chassis from the bad tube and connect it to the maybe good tube (which has only the very slightest burn in from Donkey Kong) and hope we could made a properly functioning monitor out of two...eh.. three monitors.
Hey it worked like a charm! And after a bit of tweaking around to figure out which sound amp was the best one to use, our VS. game was working pretty well. Unfortunately the VS. CPU was outfitted with the Golf program, which features a fat older retired Mario who probably shops at Costco and watches Fox News everyday. Golf games (and in my opinion. most sports games) don't age very well and this one is no exception. Luckily with the Unisystem it is a snap to change the game on the main board into something else.
The PCB of the Nintendo Unisystem simply requires that changing of the correct game ROM chips, and correct processor to play the game you want. If you are lucky enough to have a two screen version, you can actually play some games as four player versions on both game monitors. The good news is we had the correct ROM chips for Super Mario, but we are missing the correct chip that controls the color pallet. The Golf pallet controller chip will allow the game to operate with no problems.... well one minor problem, the colors are all totally wrong since I am assuming the addresses for those colors are different for the Golf program than for Super Mario Bros.
At this point in the story, we focused our attention to the game cabinet. First we removed the terrible black vinyl off of the sides of the cabinet. Thankfully the overall condition of the cabinet was pretty decent despite a number of dings. There was no water damage, and despite some questionable repair work to the front of the game (common with these Nintendo cabinets I have found) the game was structurally in decent condition as well. Even the pedestal base was in nice shape, needing only a slight bit of repair to ensure proper reinforcement. All of the interior materials were removed and the cabinet was sanded down to start the repainting process.
Most Unisystem game cabinets where conversions from Donkey Kong or similar Nintendo style cabinets. This cabinet still sported its original Donkey Kong blue paint, but it was in despair and needed a refresh. These cabinets come in two versions: Made in USA versions made from particle board, and made in Japan versions made from plywood. This one was made in Japan.
Using an oil based paint with a foam roller makes a big difference here. This will help recreate the original luster of the laminate with as much accuracy as possible. Some of these cabinets have colored laminate, and some have painted laminate. You could go nuts and carefully remove the original laminate from the sides and install new laminate if you really wanted to. We actually considered this for a bit, but in the end we felt the laminate was easily fixable with paint and a bit of patience. We bought the paint from Sherman Williams, and you can find color matches all over the web for Donkey Kong paint from different retailers. But oil based paint is the key for success.
The painting of the cabinet took several coats mixed in with some light sanding using a fine grain sandpaper with our new fancy random orbit sander. We ordered new side art and a control panel overlay decal from the fine people at This Old Game (www.thisoldgame.com). There are a lot of people who make custom artwork for VS. Super Mario Bros. in an attempt to make the design a bit more interesting. I understand the Unisystem sidearm isn't the most exciting stuff in the world, but I find most of the custom art to be rather garish. I just prefer my games to be as original as possible, but do what you want to your game... and I have seen some pretty cool custom cabinets out there.
I sanded down the original control panel (which had a little bit of rust, and what we like to call "hand salsa"), and then applied this fantastic looking reproduction overlay. The joysticks were in pretty great shape for being 30+ years old and required only a bit of cleaning and lubrication. The button tops were replaced with new ones since the originals were very tired feeling and heavily faded in color. Make sure you properly label and take lots of photos during this process so you can remember what goes where when you reassemble. You may think you will remember where that screw goes but I promise you will forget.
The coin door isn't the sexiest part of an arcade game but it does get a fair amount of abuse over the years. It's important to take a good bit of care restoring this part as you would any other part of the game. Too often I see people who slap some paint on the coin door and call it a day, this is a miss opportunity for sure. I like all our games to run on quarters and not on free play which requires the coin door to look great and to properly ruction as well. There is nothing like the sound of a coin going into the bucket to start the game, it's an important sensorial part of the nostalgia in my opinion.
With the cabinet looking great, and with all the parts now acquired (including the correct chip for Mario's color) it was time to reassemble the game. After doing a bit of Ebay shopping over the two months of restoring that game has also acquired two additional Unisystem boards for Castlevania and Excitebike, which are probably my two favorite games for the system. The cage can hold three PCB's but since the Castlevania game has a huge daughter card (to prevent piracy) it doesn't fit in the cage very well with other boards. Eventually we will install the switcher kit from Vector Labs for easy changing of the game titles. This will allow us to populate both "sides" of all three PCB's with a ability to select from up to six different Unisystem titles. I hope to acquire the game ROMS for Ballon Fight, Wrecking Crew, and Ice Climber in the future. We also acquired a new tinted plexiglass front since the original one was heavily scratched.
Reassembly was quick and painless, thanks to the hours of careful prep work and labeling of parts. New white T-molding was applied, as well as that great reproduction side art. We also sanded down the original wheels on the back of the cabinet hoping this would help them roll a little more true. With everything rewired and ready to go it was time to make the journey around the house and upstairs to the game room. This process usually seems to perplex our neighbors.
It was fitting that my wife wheeled the game around the house this time since she did so much of the amazing painting and refinishing of the game. Super Mario Bros. is one of her all time favorites, and she has a lot of fond memories of playing the arcade game in college. The game looked amazing when we rolled it out of the workshop, and that oil based metallic paint really pops in the Seattle sunlight. (Yes, it was actually sunny on this day)
When I first started collecting arcade games in the mid 90's the Unisystem games were fairly unloved and not considered desirable. I once bought a beautiful two sided cocktail version for 50 dollars at a vending auction, and remember a different action where Unisystem uprights were selling for about 25 dollars working. Now with the wave of Nintendo nostalgia with 40 year olds like me, these games have had a renaissance and renewed intent to collectors. And rightfully so in my opinion.
Many of the Unisystem versions of these NES games are slightly different, and more difficult. Super Mario Bros. contains levels from the original Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2, Castlevania is more difficult than the NES version, and Excitebike has both qualifying rounds and a bonus stage where you jump buses. One of the more famous differences is with the Unisystem version of the NES staple Duck Hunt. In the Unisystem version you can actually shoot the dog.
I love when these classic Nintendo cabinets are lined up, they just look so great. Maybe at some point I will get a cabinet for the under appreciated Donkey Kong 3 but space is getting tight in the arcade. For now the Unisystem can be best friends with our DK Jr. cabinet in its orange duds. It's a great addition to the game room and represents an important moment in video game history. And with that, the first project of the summer is finished, and I look forward to the next! Thanks for reading and happy hunting!