The cartridge to rule them all

Cartridges. They’re the icon of the retro gaming world, and despite having long been succeeded by optical or digital media never fail to rally the hearts and minds of the vintage gaming crowd.  James Matson puts his reputation on the line and invites the banter and counter arguments of retro gamers the world over to name his top 5 cartridge designs across all retro formats.

At the very moment the cartridge based gaming of systems like the SNES, Megadrive and Jaguar gave way to the CD based media of the Dreamcast, Playstation and Xbox, gaming died just a little bit.  Actually, that’s a lie – it didn’t die at all, but it did lose a little of its luster.  A bit of shine here, a little sparkle there, the modern age of CD/DVD based gaming media has none of the win-factor of its plastic encased predecessors.

The cart was something mysterious, magical.

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Every console from the pre CD era had a different take on a gaming cartridge.  The Nintendo 64 had its weighty nuggets of plastic, the Atari Jaguar had its quaint carts with little handles on top and the Sega Master system had miniature VHS tapes.  Carts had style, something CDs lack entirely.  As a storage medium, CDs are so run-of-the mill, if they were a food they’d be porridge, if they were a sex position they’d be missionary.  With clothes on.

In separate beds.

A CD is just a sliver of polycarbonate.  Nothing is hidden, nothing is intricate.  They’re in your Xbox, they’re in your CD player, they’re in your PC DVD drive.  Boring. With the cartridge, the plastic outer shell hides an entire civilization of chips and circuit pathways. When you buy a cart based game you feel as though at least a part of the inherent value of the game is actually contained in the storage medium.  The software wasn’t just burnt to a disc, it was crafted – assembled – into a cartridge, a self-contained motherboard of gaming bliss.

The cart is dead, but during its lifetime it came in many guises, many forms. Big carts, little carts, thin and fat carts. So which were the best? The coolest looking? The most impressive? Here’s a top 5 that will cause some nods of agreement and a few murmurs of disapproval.

5) The Atari Lynx

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They’re just so thin, so compact, so perfect. The Lynx cartridge is a sliver of plastic that works perfectly to accompany its portable Atari platform. Easy to fit in the pocket, each cartridge has colorfully designed labeling that’s unique between titles but similar enough that the games look great sitting next to each other in a Lynx pouch.  The only thing to let the Lynx cartridge down is an annoying little curve in the shape towards the top of the cart. It’s designed to make it easy to get the game into and out of the Lynx itself, but means it’s pretty much impossible to stack them in any meaningful way on a shelf. But with how freakishly awesome the Lynx is to play, it’s a fair bet the games don’t spend much time on the shelf anyway.

4) The Nintendo Entertainment System

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The icon. The banner. The flag. The NES cartridge isn’t just a part of retro gaming. It is retro gaming. You’ve blown the dust out of so many of them it’s a wonder you haven’t died of some dust-related illness. You’ve played games off so many of them it’s a wonder you’re not, er, dead from some kind of game-related illness.  They are a grey slab of childhood and these days – as collectors of retro games – they stack great on shelves if you don’t happen to have the boxes, particularly thanks to the titles being on the ‘spine’ of the cartridge for easy reading.

3) The Famicom

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Do you know why people love rainbows? It’s simple really. They’re colorful, they’re joyful, and supposedly there’s a bunch of treasure at either end of them. Now Famicom cartridges don’t have treasure inside them – at least as far as we’ve been able to determine – but they’re a shoe in for being colorful and joyful. A decent stack of random Famciom carts look like a crazy colour wheel of amazement, with different hues, shades and tints adorning different titles. Combining this wash of colour with typically vibrant and stylized Japanese art on the labels and you have a potent cartridge well deserving of 3rd place. The only letdown? Some cheap feeling plastic used for the outer shell, but we’ll let that slide. Why? Because it’s awfully hard to stay mad at a Rainbow.

2) Neo Geo AES

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The AES cart walks casually down the street, full of swag and with a cigarette hanging out of its mouth.  If any other cartridge from any other platform even looks sideways at it, it’ll smash seven shades of digital crap out of it and leave its broken and battered body for its cartridge friends to find. The point? The AES cart is a beast. It’s freakishly big, heavy and dominates the console it plugs into at. If you’re an AES owner, you’ll always act brave around your mates, but when they’ve gone home, you’ll give into the slight fear that as you sleep those AES carts will come into your bedroom and pummel on you until you run screaming from the bedroom.  If size, weight and perceived chunkiness are what it takes to be lord of the carts, then the AES is king.

1) PC Engine

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Absolute perfection. Slim, sleek, elegant and thoughtful, if the AES cart is the beast, then the Hu-card is the beauty. If you’ve ever used or held a PC Engine cartridge in your hands, you’ll know what we mean. Made from a quality plastic at just the right thickness and with it’s own unique title (the Hu-card) there’s something undeniably futuristic about them.  You feel like a Hu-card won’t just load a game when slotted into a PC Engine, but also activates some hidden swipe mechanism in an underground base that grants you access to alien technology. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but they’re just so stonkingly cool. Combine all this sleekness with that endearing Japanese art style and you have a media that deserves no less than the #1 spot in the top 5 cartridges. Even if you don’t own a PC Engine, it’s hard not to be attracted to these tiny cards of 8 bit awesome, so try not to creep yourself out if you find a couple in your collection when you don’t even have the console to use them. You’re probably not alone.