Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Plastic Cards Era

FIG. 1 is a front elevational view of a memory card for a
computer showing our new design;
FIG. 2 is a rear elevational view thereof;
FIG. 3 is a top plan view thereof;
FIG. 4 is a bottom plan view thereof;
FIG. 5 is a left side elevational view thereof;
FIG. 6 is a right side elevational view thereof; and
FIG. 7 is a top plan view thereof, the shutter shown in
the open position after it has been slid in the direction of A.

The picture and text above are an excerpt of a design patent granted in 1990 for Mitsubishi, the inventors are Toshinobu Banjo and Shigeo Onoda. This one and a lot of other IC Card related patents were filled by Mitsubishi in 1987, maybe some products using this cards were near to be or just been released in the US market. While those patents were filled in 1987, it's known that the Mitsubishi produced such IC Cards for different companies a few years before.

A Mitsubishi Rewritable Bee Card
Source: SACHEN - Japanese Wikipedia, Public Domain, Link

In 1984, Sega releases a new media to distribute its games. This new media is called "My Card", with 32KB of capacity, the size of a credit card and 2 milimeters thick, built by Mitsubishi Plastics.

As the the first SG-1000 models, the SC-3000 home computer and the compatible machines from other licensed manufacturers like Tsukuda or Pioneer, didn't have a dedicated card slot built in, Sega provided special cartridges with a IC card connector. With this adapter the "My Card" could be used by all SG-1000 installed base.

A Sega SG-1000 with the Card Catcher and a "My Card" game inserted.
Source: Nintendo Sega Japan!

Sega's ambitious plan was to convert the existent library and release all the new games in this new format. It did belief that shrinking the cartridges to a credit card size would be a trend, and the users would like to have huge game collections using less storage footprint. Therefore, when the Sega Mark III was released it came with a card slot, ready to play the "My Card" games without any adapter.

Sega propaganda of SG-1000 II and Sega Mark III featuring the "My Card"
Source: Sega Mag

But the users don't wanted shrinked cartridges, instead, they wanted to have most complex games with more graphics and sounds, to do that, the game's media needed to grow in capacity. The "My Card" couldn't cope with that in time, and the newer and better games began to be released in cartridges. And, being the cartridges the dominant media, even the smaller games abandoned the IC card and goes back to cartridges.

In 1987, Sega releases the last new games in "My Card" format, but continues to sell Sega Master System with a card slot until 1990, when released the Master System II, without "My Card" support built-in. The Sega's history with the credit card size form factor ends here.

The obscure Sega AI Computer also used the IC cards
Source: SMS Power!

The black card have the copyright from 1986, Sega AI announce date.
The white card's copyright is from 1989, so Sega continued releasing
Sega AI Cards at least until this date.
Source: SMS Power!

Back to 1985, with Sega still investing in the "My Card", Hudson Soft developed the "Bee Cards" for MSX, also built by Mitsubishi Plastics. The main selling point were its size, you could have a huge games collection, put all in a binder and brought them anywhere.

Who needs a binder? You can put your
Hudson "Bee Cards" in your wallet!
Source: MSX Magazine - September 1985

Differently than Sega which determined the media, created the games and built the game consoles, the Hudson Soft was mostly a software developer. While we can imagine an alternate reality in which Hudson built an MSX, in the real world no official MSX computer have a built in card reader, every MSX user that wants to use a "Bee Card" needs to by a card adapter cartridge, like the owners of first model Sega SG-1000 to use the "My Card".

Bee Card Adapter for MSX

The adapter was provided by Hudson Soft itself: the Hudson Bee Pack BP-0001, it was sold stand alone or bundled with a game card.

These three are all games in "Bee Card" format from
MSX Magazine 1986 Software Catalog

And with these other three from MSX Magazine 1987 Software
Catalog, we have almost all the "Bee Cards" released for
MSX in Japan. Only Bomber Man Special is missing.

But the smaller form factor media didn't catch traction with the software houses other than Hudson Soft itself. With few titles available, the users didn't want to pay for the Bee Pack, with few Bee Packs, the software houses didn't wants to release their games in this format, in a Catch-22 situation. By 1986, when the format died, less than ten software titles were released in "Bee Cards".

In parallel, also in 1985 and for MSX, Astron releases other IC Card, this model is called SoftCard (a very original name for a card to distribute software). Again, no official MSX came with a built in SoftCard reader, so to use an Astron SoftCard it's needed an card adapter cartridge.

Astron SoftCard ad, highlighting the instantaneous loading
of a ROM software over the cassete slowness.
Source: What MSX? Volume 01 Number 04 - 1985 Winter

Even with Astron SoftCard being Japanese, the two known MSX's card readers for this format are from European companies: Electric Software from UK and Cameron from France. With the readers released only on Europe, all the software cards were also distributed only there. Besides UK and France, MSX users in Spain also got games in SoftCard format, through SERMA, who licensed it from Electric Software.

The SoftCards released by SERMA in Spain. In this advertisement,
it says that when buying some specific games (1x2, Loto or QH)
you get the card reader, for free.
Source: MSX Club de Programas - Especial Software

Probably by the same reasons of "Bee Card" failure, by "all" software cards, you can count fourteen or fifteen. Very disappointing, but in amount of titles, better than "Bee Card". The SoftCard's adventure ends in 1986 with the main media option for European games still being the audio cassettes.

Later, Hudson had a better luck when partners with NEC to develop and release a new IC card model: the HuCard, for NEC's PC Engine game console. HuCards are, by far, the most successful game IC Card. While those are the most relevant examples to the "retro" community, it's important to know that many other companies and appliances besides game consoles and home computers used some kind of IC card as storage media.

IC Cards for Korg synthesizers

The Mitsubishi process and patents covers a circuit embedded in a plastic substance, molded in a flat form, with metallic terminals in one of this sides, placed close to one of the card's edge. How will be the circuit inside? Nothing. How many terminals? Nothing. Terminals pinout? Nothing. Only the industrial process is covered here.

And what are the results? Each card model have their own pinout and limitations. Cards of each company, Sega, Hudson, Astron, NEC, were incompatible physically (different amount or arrangement of pins) and logically (different signals placed in the same pins).

Some of the different pin arrangements

Of course that in the MSX scene, with cards from Astron and Hudson, the two cards formats available would be incompatible: the Astron cards can't use the card readers from Hudson Soft and vice-versa. If both were available in the same markets, the users would need to buy two different card readers.

Which card reader the MSX users from UK should buy?
Well, between the two standards, they chose neither.
Source: What MSX? Volume 01 Numbers 03 and 04 - 1985

For our archeology purposes, these many different formats didn't help. When an unknown card from a new brand is discovered, we can't only connect it to an reader and use it. We need to first find the card's pinout, and them find an way to connect it somewhere and read it.

And what about this one?

1 comment:

  1. "And what about this one?"

    Somebody made a spoiler.