Nintendo Red Tent Vs System: Weekend Pickup!

An unusual cabinet to share with you this week. Unusual in terms of what it is, and even more unusual to find one over here on European shores.

The Nintendo Red Tent is a two-player cocktail style cabinet where players play facing each other on two separate monitors. Released in 1984 in both upright and sit-down formats, the machine utilises Nintendo’s proprietary Vs System and Vs DualSystem, the latter allowing for connected multi-screen gaming. The Vs System itself mirrors Nintendo’s NES home console hardware very closely – in fact, many of the games available for the hardware are based on NES releases from around the same time.

Released in kit form initially, to convert Donkey Kong-style upright Nintendo cabinets, what made the Vs System attractive to arcade operators was the ability to change games by simply swapping out ROM chips on the main PCB – providing a much more cost-effective solution to the constant demands from arcade players for new games. Normally, this would require an arcade owner to purchase a new full-sized arcade machine. But acquiring a Vs System meant that operators could rotate games easily, and at a fraction of the usual cost because the same cabinet is used every time. This business model was becoming something of a trend around this time; check out my article from a few weeks back about Bally Sente.

Nintendo released several game ports for the Vs System from its considerable library of NES games, and later, other developers like Namco, Konami, Jaleco and even Atari released their own 3rd party titles designed to be played on the Vs and Dual Systems.

So here we are some 35 years later. I was fortunate enough to pick one up from an arcade raid in Ireland a couple months back. You can read my write up about that raid here. A group of us acquired a total of over 40 machines from a recently closed arcade, and the Red Tent was really the only machine I saw that appealed to me – it was something different to the usual arcade stuff, and appeared to be pretty much complete and in nice shape. I put my hand up for it, agreed on a price with the operator and it was mine!

Incredibly, the machine was still being operated on the arcade floor since 1985, and was still taking money up to the summer of 2019. We were told some history of the machine by the arcade owner. We think it was exhibited on Nintendo’s stand at the 1985 Amusement Trade Exhibition International show in London. The arcade owner would take a truck over from Ireland, attend the show, then make cash purchases on the spot at the end of the show for machines they wanted to buy. The machines would be loaded up after the exhibition had closed and driven back to Ireland. One of those cabinets was this Red Tent, running one of the very first Vs DuelSystem games, Vs Tennis. And there it sat in this coastal location in Ireland, taking money for the next 35 years – incredible!

So once back here in the UK, the machine was kindly stored at my friend Steve’s place over Christmas (thanks again Steve!), until I could find some time to pick it up and bring it home, which I was able to do last week.

Worth noting here that a switching power supply is not usual in these Nintendo cabinets. As I understand it, Nintendo used their own proprietary Power Supply Unit which does essentially the same job. Clearly at some point, that has been removed and replaced with this thing – either to convert it to work over here in Europe (unlikely), or because it died at some point (more likely!). Regardless, I’m happy to just replace the switcher with a new one, rather than go through through the pain and cost of finding an original Nintendo PSU.

So fingers crossed this may well be an easy fix. If the switcher simply died, which it appears to have done, there shouldn’t have been any damage to the main PCB (which would be an expensive problem to fix). They are fixable, but I’ve never attempted one before, and I’m of the view that given the low cost of a replacement, I may just as well just buy a new one. So a quick hunt around online led me to a good quality switching power supply, manufactured by Suzo Happ. I got my order in.

And while I was at it, I hoped to do something about the keys. The cabinet came with just a single key, but to open up each side, you have to use two of the same key type. So opening and closing the cabinet was a bit of a drag – with just one key, you have to unlock one side, lift it, lock it again, then move to the other side to unlock that. Unusually, this Red Tent didn’t use the usual lock types; they had been replaced with a barrel type lock/key manufactured by Lowe & Fletcher. Luckily for me, they are still around, and I was able to source two new keys of the same type directly from their website, by giving them the serial number on my key.

There are a couple of issues that I need to address. Firstly those damaged buttons – as I mentioned, I do have replacements, and stripping a control panel is an easy job, so that won’t cause too many problems. The monitor on the front side has some things that need attention – the picture wobbles slightly (I suspect a cap kit will help here) and there appears to be no Red bias on screen. The lack of Red makes me slightly nervous – it could be something simple like a cold solder joint on the neck board, but could mean the tube is toast – that won’t be good news, as these rare 18″ monitors are almost impossible to come by. But hey – as always, there’ll be a solution, and I’m hoping for an easy one. But I won’t know until I pull that monitor and check things out.

But overall, I’m delighted with my new cabinet. It’s rare, cute looking and in fantastic shape considering its history. Despite registering almost a million plays, the Red Tent has no screen burn on either monitor. There’s the odd knock and scrape here and there – I need to decide what to do about that – but I’m tempted to leave the scars as they are, and just strip down and clean up the cabinet.

So there you have it, my first arcade acquisition of 2020! I have more planned, as my new year’s resolution is to thin out the herd and replace them with some new machines. More updates on that and of course the Red Tent once I get stuck into it!

Credit: Nintendo Red Tent Vs System: Weekend Pickup!