Friday, June 3, 2011

Nintendo Automatic Ultra Scope / Ultra Cope (オートマチック ウルトラ スコープ / コープ, 1971)

The challenge for every toy maker is to repeatably come up with new appealing toys. The third of the Nintendo 'ultra' toys created by Gunpei Yokoi (after the Ultra Hand in 1966 and Ultra Machine in 1967) was another item surely coveted by children and (some of) their parents alike.

Nintendo Automatic Ultra Scope (1971)

It was called the Automatic Ultra Scope (オートマチック ウルトラ スコープ), or Ultra Scope for short.

The Ultra Scope is a well executed quality product. Most of the ones that have survived to this day still work like they came out of the factory yesterday.

Introduced in 1971, for a retail price of ¥2,980, the Ultra Scope did not repeat the phenomenal sales success of its two 'ultra' predecessors, but still sold decently.

Based on the periscopes used in warfare (in particular submarines), with two mirrors at a 45-degree angle, this toy allows viewing over high obstacles and around corners.

The top mirror is mounted on a four-piece retractable arm, which, when fully extended, stands a cool one meter high.

The manual includes some examples for it's use. But really, you have to be very unimaginative to not see its potential.

Look on a high shelf
Watch over a tall crowd

The Ultra Scope comes in a sturdy box, and two batteries are included (one unfortunately missing in picture below).

The bottom half of the box has a white dotted pattern. When you look closely you will notice that it actually consists of lots of little "NG" (Nintendo Game) logos. This print was used on many of the boxes for the Nintendo toys released in the early 70s.

The exterior of the box is decorated with lots of little "NG" logos

The Ultra Scope is very solidly built and weighs around 1.2 kilogram. It's heavy! A black plastic carry strap is mounted to the side, which is no luxury given the Ultra Scope's weight and the need to keep it steady when spying observing an object of interest.

The Ultra Scope before use

The Ultra Scope's arm, top mirror and visor all fold neatly together, making a nice compact package.

Manual front

A leaflet with instructions is included, to get you started with the Ultra Scope.

Manual back

The two included C-cell batteries (called type "UM-2" in Japan) power a motor that drives the movement of the arm with the top mirror. The inclusion of this motor is the reason the Ultra Scope is called 'Automatic'.

Batteries go in the back

On the front, two big square red buttons control the up and downward movement of the mirror arm. You can easily operate these with your thumbs when holding the Ultra Scope and looking through the visor.

The "Automatic Ultra Scope" name is embossed on the front of the body

The visor with the the bottom mirror needs to be flipped outward before use. The light gray button on the side of the visor allows the angle of the bottom mirror to be slightly adjusted, to ensure bottom and top mirror are perfectly aligned.

It is noting more than a coincidence, but Nintendo aficionados will recognize in the color scheme of the Ultra Scope (shades of gray mixed with black and red accents) the familiar colors of NES, which it predates by fifteen years.

The top mirror is safely stored inside the body of the Ultra Scope. Only when the arm is moved out, by pressing the 'UP' button, will the mirror automatically (through a spring) take the 45 degree angle position.

The upwards and downwards movement of the mirror arm causes a nice satisfying whirring sound. It is pretty loud though, so this somewhat limits the options for stealth espionage use.

Looking the opposite way from normal use:
from the top mirror down to the bottom mirror

The fact the arm is motorized gives the toy a sophisticated feel, but it is also functional - as it allows precise positioning of the height of the top mirror, while looking through the visor.

Looking through the visor, the two mirrors allow you
to view up to one meter above your normal eye level

To move the top mirror up, the motor unwinds a flexible metal strip which is stored wound-up on a axle inside the body of the Ultra Scope, and pushes this inside the re-tractable arm, pushing it up. The mirror is moved down by winding this strip back on an axle, pulling the arm down. The metal mechanism involved is part of the reason for the hefty weight of the Ultra Scope.

Up we go!

It takes around 20 seconds to fully extend the arm. When its done, you have one impressive looking toy. Be careful when operating it though, as you can easily take out someone's eye with the end of the arm.

How high can you get? Well, about one meter

The first batch of Ultra Scope toys was actually called Ultra Cope; the 'S' somehow becoming lost in translation. The Japanese katakana also reads 'urutora koopu' (ウルトラ コープ).

First version of the Ultra Scope was called Ultra Cope

Why Nintendo ever thought of naming it Ultra Cope remains a mystery. Could it really be just the result of a bad translation job?

This (erroneous?) name was applied consistently on this version, including the embossed name on the body of this Ultra Scope, err sorry, this Ultra Cope.

The box art of the two version is also slightly different. To insert the 'S' and (in case of the Japanese language name) the 'ス', the layout of the title had to be adjusted somewhat.

Nintendo Ultra Cope (left) and Ultra Scope (right)

One can only speculate what happened at the Nintendo headquarters between these two versions. How many Ultra Cope's were already produced and distributed before someone raised his/her finger and exclaimed "for forgot the 'S'"!

Ultra Cope (bottom) and Ultra Scope (top)

Besides the name change, the versions are functionally identical.

Ultra Cope (left) and Ultra Scope (right)

There is one other slight difference in the design of the two versions: a geometrical pattern is stamped in the metal strip on the side of the Ultra Cope, while this is not the case for the Ultra Scope, which has a smooth strip.

Spot the difference - Ultra Cope (left) and Ultra Scope (right)

Yet another version of the Ultra Scope is the international release. Nintendo's export activity was still small in the seventies, but through some deals with third parties abroad, limited numbers were distributed outside of Japan (similar to the Slugger Mate version of the Ultra Machine and the Australian Ultra Hand).

Nintendo Automatic Surveillance Scope (international release Ultra Cope)

It was actually the Ultra Cope version (sans 'S') that made it abroad. For the US market, it was renamed to Automatic Surveillance Scope, as the 'ultra' prefix did not have such international appeal.

We have seen better localization jobs

The localization was limited to plastering the English name on top of the Japanese box. The sides of the box remained in Japanese language. The fact that no real dedicated English box was produced clearly indicates that limited numbers were shipped outside of Japan, possibly even with limited involvement of Nintendo.

Importer information on the box of the US version

So, there you have it. The ins and outs of the Ultra Scope; the third and final of Gunpei Yokoi's 'ultra' toys. Like his other toys, another great marriage of engineering skill, imagination, execution excellence and resulting play fun. Traits of what is currently still recognized as the Nintendo way of designing.

All three versions: Ultra Cope, Ultra Scope, Surveillance Scope

I am sure that all of you who have made it this far into this post by now are bursting with excitement to see the Ultra Scope in action. Well, here goes.

Oh, wait. There is more: a special sweepstake version of the Ultra Cope.


  1. One of the great examples of creativity in '70s Nintendo...
    It's like, Gunpei Yokoi thought like a kid and imagined: what is like to be an adult and to see things from above..?

  2. I have 3rd version of ultra scope. so all versions are 4. Thanks

  3. @anonymous - can you please send information and/or a picture about this other version to thank you.

  4. I said 3rd version, but it seems like 2nd version because the metal parts both sides are same as 1st version. The name is "Ultra Scope" and package is same as first version! not in the middle one above photo. Thanks