Image: NFGphoto

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Although today's gaming landscape is dominated by Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, there have been plenty of other companies which have tried - or at least considered - producing their own gaming hardware in the past few decades. Nintendo's former rival Sega and industry trailblazer Atari are perhaps the most famous names, but we've also had companies like SNK (the Neo Geo AES and CD), Panasonic (the 3DO Multiplayer), Hudson Soft (the PC Engine family), Taito (the unreleased WOWOW) and Bandai (the Apple Pippin), all of whom have, at some point, tried to enter the domestic gaming hardware arena and experienced wildly differing degrees of success.

Another established name in the industry which had ambitious plans for the living room is Capcom, creator of million-selling franchises like Resident Evil, Mega Man and Street Fighter. Having enjoyed a particularly profitable relationship with Nintendo during the days of the NES and SNES, Capcom could have been forgiven for looking at Nintendo's gargantuan profits and wanting some for itself. In Japan, Nintendo enjoyed a period of almost total dominance, and while publishers like Capcom naturally benefited from this success, they were also very reliant on Nintendo and were limited from supporting other consoles.

A CPS Changer game. This contained all of the elements required to run the title, with the CPS Changer acting as an interface for power, AV and control
A CPS Changer game. This contained all of the elements required to run the title, with the CPS Changer acting as an interface for power, AV and control — Image: NFGphoto

Whatever triggered Capcom's decision to enter the home hardware market during the early '90s, the resultant console was a rather strange proposition. Based on Capcom's CPS1 arcade board and released in such small numbers that it remains incredibly hard to track down today, the CPS Changer's muted Japan-only release means that few people have even heard of it. The system was a move by Capcom to leverage its enviable stable of coin-guzzling arcade hits, and while it didn't achieve the commercial success it perhaps deserved - especially when you consider how popular Capcom's coin-op titles were at the time - it serves as an interesting and often overlooked footnote in the firm's illustrious history.

Released in 1994, the CPS Changer offered a means of playing Capcom's CPS1 titles in the comfort of your own home. The CPS1 board powered such arcade hits as Final Fight, Strider, Mercs and Street Fighter II, and is considered to be one of the most successful coin-op hardware standards of the era. You don't have to look far for potential inspiration for the CPS Changer - arcade rival SNK had already released its Neo Geo system by this time, which used the same software across its arcade (MVS) and domestic (AES) formats. For CPS Changer collector Lawrence "NFG" Wright - arguably one of the world's leading English-speaking experts on the console - the comparison between the Neo Geo and CPS Changer is a reasonable one to make, but is not entirely reflective of what the machine was all about.

Capcom released the Power Stick Fighter alongside the CPS Changer, perfect for titles like Street Fighter II
Capcom released the Power Stick Fighter alongside the CPS Changer, perfect for titles like Street Fighter II — Image: NFGphoto

"On some levels, the concepts are very similar: a software module is connected to an interface module, allowing the game to be played using controllers and a display," he explains. "It's like any game system in that respect. The differences arise, as they always do, from the details. Most other consoles put the main processor - the CPU - in the base console, and the software module was only software - with rare exceptions, like the Super FX chip which powered the likes of Star Fox on the SNES. The CPS Changer used self-contained systems, so each software module had its own CPU, audio amplifier, ROMs and everything needed to operate without any extra electronics. The CPS Changer system itself was more of an adaptor than a console - it didn't add anything but different connectors. If you imagined a console that had one built-in game and a single connector for all your inputs, that's exactly what these modules are, and what most arcade boards are. The connector on the end of the module has power and controller inputs and audio/video outputs, and they'll work in any standard arcade cabinet as a direct replacement game board."

Simply put, the CPS Changer was a means for Capcom to sell its arcade titles to a consumer audience which might not have the expertise or knowledge to pursue other avenues - such as expensive, custom-made SuperGun systems which allowed JAMMA arcade boards to be hooked up to a standard television set. "What the CPS Changer did was take this commercial-grade system and make it home-friendly," Wright continues. "Instead of unusual technical connections, it presented the player with a familiar interface. A small power supply that connected mains power to the system, SNES controller ports, and standard AV and S-Video outputs." Compared to most SuperGun systems of the period, it was a much more elegant option - and one which had the allure of being produced by Capcom itself.

In terms of internal components, the CPS Changer is incredibly simple. "There's a custom Capcom microprocessor which converts the JAMMA controller inputs to SNES compatible signals," explains Wright. "A Sony CXA1645 chroma encoder turns the game's RGB video to S-Video or composite video - both of which were commonplace on Japanese TV sets at the time. And that's it, really - power is provided by an external power brick, and with the exception of supporting parts like resistors and capacitors, the CPS Changer is pretty empty."

The CPS Changer didn't possess its own unique controller but instead used the SNES pad – or any other SNES-compatible controller. For Wright, this choice was most likely down to cost and convenience and is not without precedent. "Japanese manufacturers did this fairly regularly," he says. "Nintendo sold the Super Famicom without a power supply, for example, because it was assumed the players still had their old Famicom at home - the same thing happened recently with the New Nintendo 3DS. Whether they did this because Japanese consumers were relatively capable, or because they wanted to cut costs or - in Nintendo's case - reduce the number of complete Famicom systems entering the used market, is left to the reader to decide."

Inside the guts of the CPS Changer - the lack of components is clear to see
Inside the guts of the CPS Changer - the lack of components is clear to see — Image: NFGphoto

In the case of the CPS Changer, it made sense to use the pad which belonged to what was - at the time - Japan's most popular system. It also didn't hurt that the SNES / Super Famicom pad was, and still is, one of the best in the business. "Super Famicom controllers were cheap and easy to find, and they were very good quality," Wright explains. "Capcom did release the Capcom Power Stick Fighter, primarily for the Super Famicom audience, but of course, it also worked on the CPS Changer and was a very capable arcade-style joystick which I recommend on its own merits."

Capcom's distribution method for the CPS Changer was also unique. Sold exclusively via magazine adverts in Japanese gaming publications, the system could only be purchased directly from the company itself. The initial bundle included the console, a Capcom Power Stick Fighter joystick and a copy of Street Fighter II': Hyper Fighting. This pack cost 39,800 Yen (£215 / $332 / €293), while additional games would set you back 20,000 Yen (£108 / $167 / €147) apiece. A cheaper hardware bundle - without the Power Stick Fighter - was also made available. Although Capcom had plenty of CPS1 titles to choose from, the CPS Changer's selection of games was incredibly limited. "The library topped out at 11 games," says Wright. "They're rare as far as absolute numbers are concerned, but if you're in Japan, a handful will show up in auctions every year."

Under the hood of a CPS Changer title, packed with chips and other essential parts, including the CPU
Under the hood of a CPS Changer title, packed with chips and other essential parts, including the CPU — Image: NFGphoto

Thankfully, those who did take the plunge found that the CPS Changer was capable of accepting non-Capcom titles, and this granted access to a much wider range of arcade software. "You could use any JAMMA-standard game board with the system," Wright explains. "They didn't all work perfectly because of small differences in the connector pinout - the biggest issue was with the controller inputs being moved around - but I've used my CPS Changer with a dozen different non-Capcom games. It's a little wobbly sometimes - the CPS Changer was designed to fit a very specific module shape, and so it sort of balances precariously on boards it wasn't designed for. For this reason, I made a JAMMA extension cable that allows me to space the game and the CPS Changer some distance from each other."

While solid sales figures are not forthcoming, it's fair to assume that the CPS Changer was not a commercial triumph for Capcom and support for the system died off within a year - although the company was generous enough to send it out with a bang rather than a whimper. A cut-down version of Street Fighter Zero (Alpha in the west) - a CPS2 title released in 1995 - would serve as the CPS Changer's swansong and a gift to those loyal fans who had been dedicated enough to purchase the hardware.

"The game was first released on the new, superior CPS2 hardware, but Capcom back-ported it to the CPS1 hardware with a few sacrifices and sold it to the CPS Changer owners," Wright says. Costing 35,000 Yen (£189 / $292 / €258) - almost twice the price of other CPS Changer software - the port lacked animation frames and other elements but would prove to be a significant release in later years. "Interestingly, this move helped emulator authors open up and emulate the new CPS2 system, because the CPS Changer release was largely identical but lacked the difficult encryption found in the CPS2 system," Wright says. "They were able to compare the two systems and work out the tricky bits."

The CPS Changer bolted onto a connector on the side of CPS Changer games
The CPS Changer bolts onto a connector on the side of CPS Changer games — Image: NFGphoto

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it's hard to imagine that anyone at Capcom back in '94 genuinely expected the CPS Changer to gain mainstream appeal and bumper sales. Wright feels that the release of the system is indicative of the wildly experimental period the Japanese tech industry found itself in at the time. "It was a time of weird stuff in Japan," he says. "The Japanese bubble had only just popped, and Japanese companies were still flush with cash and no crazy ideas were too crazy. Look at the Sharp X68000 computer system, the Nissan Skyline R32, the Sony Minidisc and so on. Japan was a country dedicated to insane toys, and so we got the CPS Changer. It was hardly the weirdest thing released at the time."

Whatever the reason for the birth of this unique and ill-fated console, the legendary nature of its creator and the tiny numbers it was produced in mean that it has gained considerable fame with hardcore retro collectors seeking the ultimate prize. As someone who has lived the dream and owns a CPS Changer himself, Wright is perfectly positioned to comment on collecting for this Holy Grail of obscure game consoles. His advice is simple, but won't come as much comfort for those seeking out this elusive piece of hardware. "Be patient and get a second job," he says with a smile. "There aren't many for sale at any given time, they're not cheap anymore, and there are a lot of other people who want one, too."

Thanks to Lawrence Wright for not only giving up his valuable time to speak to us but also for providing the gorgeous photos you see on this page.

This article was originally published by nintendolife.com on Wed 25th February, 2015.