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My PSP Friend: A handheld Fan’s Piece

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psp

The PSP, the portable console that really failed to catch a audience in the west. In this article I come out and defend the poor console which seems to receive a surprising amount of hate in the gaming community. Ok, so the little analogue nub is a bit irritating and the battery life is a bit naff and there are some questionable models of the console that are just flat out awful.

pspModelsA little background on my experience with the console. I avoided this system like some handheld plague mostly due to the horrific world of mouth the console received from my brother who owed the system as well as the gaming media itself. Its not hard to find some entertaining YouTube video that pokes fun at the attempts Sony made to market the system and how it was destroyed by the Nintendo DS in sales. Anyway, one fateful day I was visiting my parents and on clearing some junk from my old bedroom I came across my brothers PSP model 1000 which was so unloved it was shoved behind the radiator and just left there. Since by this stage in my life I was doing incredibly long commutes on the train on a daily basis which would take up to five hours of my day I was desperate to fill the void of boredom. IOS games at this stage were starting to be a big thing but they just didn’t do it for it. Try playing Bejewelled for 5 hours, you will have the most creepy nightmares you never thought possible, or maybe that’s just me. So I refurbished the poor PSP, gave it a new battery, brought a large memory card off ebay at a incredibly cheap price and then proceeded to load the system with PSone nostalgia. I owned a lot of games already as I owned a PS3 by this point. From there the rest is history, my train commutes suddenly flew by as I listened to podcasts and played PSP. Some time later I managed to acquire a red PSP model 3000 which is lighter and just runs better. I also started to enjoy games for the console itself as opposed to just sticking to the oldies. Despite owning a Psvita I still find myself reaching for the console everytime I go away, have work trips or just want to play on the sofa while my partner waches something on telly. So yeah I dig the PSP

Even with more modern handhelds now on the market like IOS and android mobiles, the 3DS and even PSVita, let’s see if I can convince you that the PSP is a console still worth adding to your retro collection.

Number One: It’s very cheap right now

dollar-bills1As most collectors know the consoles go through their traditional pricing cycle. They start expense and with time slowly get cheaper, then once the console and games start to become uncommon the price begins to rise. Well collectors the prime time is now to nab the PSP deals at most retailers are selling the consoles and even the games for a very cheap price to make room for the new consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One. Car boots, charity shops, Craigs list are more stocked with the system and games because for similar reasons people are getting rid of stuff to make room for the new. This is especially the prime time to pick up those rarer games like RPGs before they spike in price.

Number Two: Games for every gamer type

Something that really stands out on the PSP over other platforms is just how unique a lot of the games are and how wide spread the genres are. There really is something for every gamer here, you won’t see tons of FPS here flooding the catalogue. Yes, a lot of the games are dumbed down ports available on better systems at the time but believe it or not some PS2 games were ports of PSP games.

psp_stackHere’s a quick rundown of some of the systems great games just to name a few:

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7 – action RPG
Disgaea series -JRPG
Silent Hill Origins –survival horror
Lumines – Music Puzzler
Motorstorm: Artic Edge – Racing
Daxter – Platformer
Resistance: Retribution – Third person shooter
Patapon – Rhythm Strategy
Half Minute Hero – Awesome speedy RPG (probably my favourite game on the console)

There are a surprising amount of hidden gems on the consoles too. There are many experimental games on the consoles that developers took a chance on before deciding whether they were worth releasing on other consoles. Since the console obviously didn’t do that well most these games never saw a console release leaving a huge catalogue of hidden gems you can only find on this device.

Number Three: Its like a portable PSone

psone_port_main

Though I understand graphics are not everything especially when it comes to retro gaming. My nostalgia for this system reminds me very much of the launch of the PSone. Yes I am aware the PSone slim had a LCD attachment turning the system into a kinda portable device. Here in the UK I have never seem anyone lug around a Psone. The PSP was one of the first handhelds to do 3D gaming well and it looked amazing on a portable device. Of course compared to consoles they did not look amazing. But it was different and stood out as something a bit different especially when compared to the handhelds main competition the Nintendo DS. It really felt like you were playing a more refined PSone in your hand. Some will debate the graphics at times are on par with even the PS2 but that is very much up for debate.

Number Four: Load up on those games for on the go.  Good times!

memoryThis probably speaks more to those who travel a lot like myself. One of my favourite things about the PSP is you can shove a massive memory card in it for a small price (I go for the 32Gb) and then you can just download literally tons of games onto it. Yes the Playstation store is now dead on the PSP and you no longer go to the store to buy games but if you own a PS3 or PSVita and buy any PSP compatible game through the store you can still download it to the PSP. For reasons unknown there is still some PSone titles that are compatible with the PSP and not the PSVita. I have over thirty PSone games that are ready to play all loaded on the PSP so if I have a long journey, or I am going away on holiday I know I will unlikely be bored as I have plenty of choice from the download catalogue. Also if you are good with emulation this system is widely considered one of the best handhelds to play emulated games on having hundreds of games at your disposal. Emulation also allows you to play games from other systems like the Mega Drive/Genesis and the SNES.

Number Five: That cool standby feature

pspsleepThis point is so awesome it deserves its own spot. By far one of my favourite things about this system is how you can literally pause whatever you’re doing in any game at any time by flipping the standby switch on. Say you have to change trains, take a phone call, go to work whatever. You can leave the PSP in your bag for several hours and continue exactly where you left off later. This feature alone has allowed me to replay games like Final Fantasy 7 and other long games which have awkward save features all the way through without having to turn the system off early because something has come up. Imagine you’re on the last boss or watching some stupidly long cutscene but you have to go because something came up this feature saves your bacon. Of course this feature has become more popular in more handheld devices like the 3DS and continues to be a feature on the PSvita but it’s certainly a lesson the modern consoles can learn from.

Conclusion

So there are a few points I missed about the system such as it can play movies and music. To be honest most of that stuff is not what retro gamers look for in a system and a lot of the features such as the Playstation store and viewing comic books have now been shut down on the system.

At the end of the day the system stands out as very unique by itself. If you’re a fan of the PSone era of gaming this system is an absolute must. To most gamers I recommend the system the same why I got into it, find a cheap model, test the water with the games and let the good gaming times roll. Maybe I convinced you, but more likely I probably displayed what a fan boy I am for the forgotten portable.

screw_you_guys

Written by jamalais

December 19, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Posted in Blog, PSP

Strife: Veteran Edition Review

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strife_logoThere are a handful of games out there that are almost universally loved by gamers.  Off the top of my head, two of these titles are Deus Ex and Skyrim, and the one thing they have in common is that they successfully blend the first-person perspective and elements from RPGs into a cohesive experience.  Oddly enough, when we look back at the history of gaming you rarely have anyone mention Strife: Quest for Sigil, developed by Rogue Entertainment.  It was one of the earliest games to combine these genres and it differentiated itself from many of its hybrid peers in that the game focused almost exclusively on gameplay and hid items like the map and the character’s inventory from the main HUD.  The end result was a large field of view for the player and it all looked a lot less busy than the games that came before it.  This probably had to do with the use of the Doom engine, but regardless of why this title utilizes the full screen for your adventuring or decided to rely much more heavily on combat than any other aspect is irrelevant.  Strife did it and it did it well.

strife2The basic premise of the game is that you play a mercenary in a time where a religious cult, The Order, has oppressed a society and is converting humans into cyborgs.  Macil, a leader of the rebels combating this takeover, has hired you to seek out pieces of The Sigil, an artifact that can apparently rid the world of The Order.  In the game you move about a central town hub, taking missions as you go, to continue this larger quest by going to branching levels.  It has a surprising commonality to the way open world titles work today, although it of course modern games aren’t as transparent as they were back then.  Each of these levels are diverse in terms of the look and scope of the area, but given that this title is from 1996 and confined to the limitations of the Doom engine, you will find little more than empty areas or a handful of enemies everywhere you quest.  This also creates a more binary system as to how to handle each mission – to get the items that make up each quest requires you to either kill someone or attempt to talk them into giving it over, and then usually kill them when they react by attacking you.   Your ability to speak with everyone in the game, many of them having different dialogue options, is alone a unique factor of any Doom clone of the time and I remember that it was mind blowing back then.  Sure, often times not much comes of it, but I still take solace in a title that is focusing more on the plot and characters in it rather than simply making you a floating gun with killing as your sole purpose.  Strife may not be doing a whole lot more than other shooters of the time, but it’s sure trying to hide that fact behind a lot of intriguing concepts.

strife3That said it is still confined to the limitations and tropes of the time period it released.  You will be exploring areas that have far too much real estate for the task at hand, the game will allow you to go anywhere (which includes backtracking an entire level) and waste hours searching a non-specific objective, and you can get into missions where your resources are too low and unless you have an earlier bailout save you might be stuck indefinitely.  There’s even a red herring in the beginning of the game that if you collect it your progress is halted for the rest of the campaign (see our quick look video on how to avoid that).  Some of these flaws can be a deal breaker if you’re not ready to put up with aspects that were commonplace almost two decades ago, and it’s a far stretch to say the average Skyrim fan will find a connection here.  If you want to see the building blocks of modern titles and you can set your expectations appropriately, you may very well find a gem in Strife, especially if you found the more complex Deus Ex tolerable nowadays.

Publisher Night Dive Studios has updated this title and given it digital distribution on Steam in the new Veteran Edition, but this is an updated version of the original title and not a remaster or remake in any way.  On Steam the game even lists 1996 as its release date, which is a touch that I was thankful to see.  Most of the changes made are to allow you to play Strife on modern systems with little or no issues, and my Windows 7 64-bit modern rig booted it right up without so much as a hiccup.  Now you can play the game in higher resolutions (like 1080p) and with that comes a widescreen format that does a great job of adapting the view without everything looking stretched.  Night Dive didn’t stop there, Strife: Veteran Edition now adds lighting effects, texture options, anti aliasing, a choice between DirectX and OpenGL (and V-Sync), controller support (worked with 360 controller seamlessly), and the completion of a multiplayer mode.  Don’t worry if you want to go all old school and have it look and act like the classic title, there is a classic mode that even re-introduces game bugs, so you too are covered.  For those that have ever tried to screw around with DOSbox and other solutions to play Strife, it’s great to have a version that just works like all your other Steam games, and this is a particular perk for those of us who force gamepads upon all of our PC titles.  It looks great, it runs great, and it feels great.  If you want to play this game today, this is the version to have.

Original Strife with Hi-Res Mod

Original Strife with Hi-Res Mod

Strife: Veteran Edition

Strife: Veteran Edition

Strife did not get its day in the sun and while it was a somewhat innovative product of its time, there’s no incredible reason to pick it up now unless you want to peer into the golden days of modern game design.  That’s not to say it isn’t significant, but that it skates the line of nostalgia and the ability to be appreciated by contemporary audiences.  If you give it a chance, Strife has some fun times and impressive moments both in gameplay and plot that make saving the oppressed from The Order compelling, but if you need it to forget the time it came from and rise above the hassle, this won’t be for you.  Strife: Veteran Edition makes replaying this game about as easy as it’s going to get, provided you remember that this still has the Doom engine as its platform.  I don’t think it will get more appreciation now than it did back then, but hopefully it will find an endearing experience to budding gamers and those that let it pass the first time.

Final Score: 3 out of 5  (review policy)

Strife Veteran Edition was provided to our site via a Steam code from publisher Night Dive Studios.  It was played for approximately twelve hours and the campaign can take as much as 20+ hours to complete depending on the player and whether or not you use a guide.  Strife: Veteran Edition can be purchased on Steam for a current retail price of $9.99.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 18, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Posted in PC/Mac, Reviews

Tagged with , ,

Strife: Veteran Edition Quick Look

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Today we look at the recently released Strife: Veteran Edition from Rogue Software.  This game pre-dates many of the most popular games today that utilize both FPS and RPG elements as well as mild stealth themes.  If you’re a fan of ThiefDeus Ex, or even Skyrim, you might want to check out this archaic but fun title.  This is merely the first 90 minutes or so of gameplay with running commentary from Fred, expect a full review later today.

Viewer Warning: There may be occasional adult language from commentary/gamplay and consistent graphic violence depicted in gameplay.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 18, 2014 at 11:00 am

Podcast: Ready, Aim, Fire!

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lightgun_post

This week Fred and Jam tackle the wonderful world of light gun shooters.  What started as a mere carnival game evolved into one of the more interactive – and for some of us fun – genres that has not withstood the test of time.  With the advent of newer screens, the technology that made light guns possible is now ruined by delays of no more than a fraction of a second.  In this episode we discuss the history, technology behind, and our fondest memories of the games that utilized the light gun peripheral.


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Written by Fred Rojas

December 17, 2014 at 11:00 am

Completing the Cycle on Third Party Exclusives

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bayonetta2Recently I’ve seen a disturbing trend with contemporary console gamers, which is the hatred of console exclusives.  I don’t get this.  I get that there’s almost no reason to do so because from a business standpoint the publisher wants a game as available as possible, the developer definitely wants as many gamers to get their hands on the game and enjoy the fruits of its labors, and gamers definitely want everything available to them.  I also know that most gamers hate to hear about all the development studios that close on an annual basis and if the console exclusivity amounts mitigate or remove the risk of releasing a new game, I can admit I would probably “sell out” too.  There are also benefits to exclusivity that can include getting the highest quality game for that console because all resources will be dedicated to that single piece of hardware and lets not forget the fact that in cases like Bayonetta 2, it was the only way certain games would see the light of day.  Without third party exclusives there’s little that differentiates these consoles from one another – don’t get into that stupid “who has more ‘p’s debate” either, I can’t stand it and almost no one can visually see the difference.  If we get more third party console exclusives we may also get more games coming out because development studios don’t have to worry about supporting each and every version that releases and can move onto the next big project without worrying about those first month sales.

sfvThere was a time when third party exclusives were an ongoing way of life.  My cousin wanted to play Mortal Kombat with blood just as much as I wanted to play Super Mario World, but the reality was we just had to deal with the hardware we had.  Aladdin was different on the Genesis and the SNES and to this day can spark an unwinnable debate that will go for hours.  In the end the purpose for the argument, and most likely what side you are on, has to do with which one you played growing up.  It all makes business sense when you think about it.  Microsoft wants Rise of the Tomb Raider so that in fall 2015 they can compete with Uncharted 4 just as Sony hedges its bets on the fighter community with Street Fighter V while Microsoft tries to close its grip on first person shooters with Titanfall.  It keeps things interesting coming off of the nearly identical worlds that were the late Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 days.  Lets face it, those two consoles were nearly identical in the end, with your preference coming down to trivial facts like which one still worked or which one was hooked up to your main television.  I don’t like that, I want differentiation.  Give me exclusive content, give me exclusive games, give me sides to pick when deciding which is best.  This is exclusivity.

rottrI know many will complain that they cannot afford to purchase multiple consoles and that plenty others will argue that gamers should be able to play whatever they want provided the hardware can sustain it, but if that was true you may risk to see the end of competition.  The Playstation 4 had a clear lead over the Xbox One right out of the gate and that lead has continued for nearly the last year, so if it weren’t for console exclusives and the need to push into the marketplace, the Xbox One would be forced out and you would have to play every game on a Playstation 4.  I don’t like that, especially because as of late I’m growing more fond of my Xbox One (I own both).  Also, what’s to get you to buy an Xbox One if all of the games are on PS4?  Before the majority group, PS4 owners, gets all snarky and asks what’s wrong with that, realize that if that logic held true you would have no Playstation 4 because the Playstation 3 would have been forced out of the market by the Xbox 360 long ago.  Competition is good, exclusivity is good, and gaming is better for it.  Keep that in mind every time you jump into an online board and complain that it’s the worst thing in the world that your console isn’t getting a game you want.  Without that fact, we wouldn’t have competition.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 16, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Podcast: Test Your Might

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90_fight_post

This week Fred and Jam are throwing around fighters of the 90s (that aren’t Street Fighter II or Tekken, we did a show for those already).  In the 1990s, the fighter genre was the most popular type of game available (like First Person Shooters today), and among those that have withstood the test of time there were plenty of others that played the field.  From Mortal Kombat to Soulcalibur you had plenty of arcades (and home ports) to drink your quarters in arcades.


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Retro Game Challenge: Conker’s Bad Fur Day

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Over the Thanksgiving holiday Fred and his brother-in-law Brian sat down and played/streamed 14 glorious hours of the N64 classic Conker’s Bad Fur Day.  It was a grueling battle and the boys vowed to use no faqs/walkthroughs/guides, which accounts for the long play time.  Well now that all is said and done, this is the outcome: a 3 hour video filled with snarky remarks, alcohol use (in game and by the duo players), and some of the most outrageous moments in gaming.  Enjoy!

And for those masochists that just want to watch all 14 hours, we’ve added those too.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

Podcast: U R Not [RED] e

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SONY DSC

This week Fred and Jam are joined by Andy from 42 Level One to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Sony Playstation.  This CD based console is responsible for so much ushering into the next iteration of game development, hardware, media, and game libraries.  It touched each host in his own way and deserves to be celebrated on its second decade of existence.


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Written by Fred Rojas

December 3, 2014 at 11:00 am

Sound’s Good: Your Video Game Audio Buying Guide

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This week I decided to take on another technical escapade and look into the sound options for video games.  This requires you to know quite a bit about the concept of analog sound vs digital sound, then compressed audio vs. uncompressed, stereo vs. surround, and all the wonderful tidbits mixed in-between.  Just to make things more complicated, the Internet forums are chock full of people who have no idea what they are talking about and will pollute decent message boards with misinformation only to be ignored by the elite knowledgeable on that board, thus making anyone who does a search end up on a page where the misinformation is the only answer in town.  Additionally companies like Dolby, DTS, and a whole group of fun little logos that can appear as stickers on your receiver’s box, case, or display fill you with the joy and satisfaction that what you see is what you are hearing and that it’s better.  Well guess what, it’s not.  In fact, probably the best surround sound you can possibly get is LPCM (or Linear PCM), which is uncompressed audio that has been around since before CDs and still stands as the best surround sound format – albeit at the cost of TONS of storage space that most consumer products refuse to utilize (remember that TitanFall’s uncompressed audio weighed in around 40 GBs).  With all the mess and bull that exists, I figured why not enlighten my fine readers with a lesson and best practices so that you can easily determine the sound options for your consoles and get them up and running and sounding great.

Please Note: As previously mentioned, there’s tons of misinformation on the web about sound profiles.  For that reason I may be more restrictive about comments that I know are incorrect and whether you choose to disregard this post for that reason is up to you.  Additionally sound, like visuals, is a subjective medium and therefore it won’t be the same for everyone.  Some swear 1080i looks better than 720p and visa versa, the same can be said for compressed DTS 5.1 and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio.  Despite the research and blatant facts suggesting otherwise, pick what helps you sleep at night, this is merely a guide of options.

The Set Up

The first thing you need to decide is how you want to set all your game systems up and what kind of sound setup you want.  If you are going to do TV speakers (which I don’t recommend on non-tube TVs), a soundbar, or any stereo (2.0 or 2.1) receiver, then most of the work is done for you because almost every digital sound format supports uncompressed stereo.  In the rare event that it doesn’t, you’ll just have to roll with it.  Also keep in mind that many video game consoles are analog audio so you’re stuck with stereo at best.  If you have a 5.1/7.1 receiver then you can adjust surround options, but I’ll get to that in a sec.  Here’s a quick breakdown on sound setups and definitions.

2.0/2.1/5.1/7.1: These refer to the specific number of speakers you have.  Anytime you see these numbers in relation to stereo/surround, that’s what they mean.  Anytime you see a “.1″ at the end, it means that you have a subwoofer added for base.  For example, a 2.0 setup is a two speaker stereo setup, whereas a 2.1 is two speakers plus a subwoofer.  Subwoofers can be powered (ie: separate plug for power) or unpowered (the receiver sends out the power) and I personally prefer powered so that I know it gets enough power for the sound output I want.

If you are going to use a receiver, always send the sound to the receiver separately or first before going to the television.  Almost all televisions will downgrade or strip sound with modern connections, it’s best to get used to hooking up your components to audio first.  In many retro consoles the cords have video and audio together, forcing you to hook up to them and then out to the receiver.  People grew up thinking that the television was the sole and initial source for everything, it isn’t, it’s the location of the finished product.

Retro Consoles

comp_svidEvery console from Pong clones to the Sega Dreamcast (and including the Gamecube) use analog audio for sound.  This is most typically with RCA plug-type composite cables (the yellow/red/white) connection, but you will definitely have some with S-Video also integrated or alternatively from the yellow video connection and of course most consoles before the NES and even today have coaxial (screw connection) Radio Frequency (RF) adaptors that output the sound and video as one.  This makes the audio part easy: it’s the white (left stereo) and red (right stereo) connections.  This is either mono or stereo analog audio that will automatically push through the connection whenever the console is powered on.  If you have a coaxial RF connection I recommend upgrading the output cable or in the rare even of the Atari VCS/2600 era and the Turbografx-16, finding a way to adapt to RCA (either by console modification or by simply hooking it up to a VCR with RCA composite a/v out).  Then all you do is hook the video up to your source and often in the menu of the game you’re playing you can set either mono or stereo (some more modern games will also have “surround” but more on that later).  That’s it, that’s all you need to do.  Most modern receivers will take in your composite, extract the sound, and then send the video out to the TV in either the same plug or high end models will upscale/upgrade the signal and output to better resolution (like most recently HDMI).  If you have a lot of consoles you will be swapping out and do not want to keep accessing the back of the receiver, simply get a composite A/B switch and hook the receiver in the “output” part and leave that out so that you can plug any of your many a/v cables into it.  Like it or not, almost no consoles share the same a/v out plug (save for SNES/N64/Gamecube and only for composite video).

Now we will move on to surround sound, the next step in audio and the first speed bump.

Early Surround Sound and the 5.1 Compressed Audio Format

Starting with the Playstation 2 and with almost every game on the original Xbox, there was support for 5.1 digital audio.  Earlier consoles like the N64 and especially the Gamecube liked to tout surround sound, especially with the “Dolby Pro Logic” logo, but that was merely a decoder for analog stereo sound that would emulate 5.1 on those types of setups.  Today every receiver will have modes similar to that and there are even competitors.  My receiver features Dolby Pro-Logic IIz, DTS Neo:6, and it’s own proprietary format – these formats turn a stereo setup into surround, and they are quite good at faking it.  For the most part, an analog stereo source will merely feed the stereo to the left and right side of speakers according to the setup and then use both speakers in the center channel.  For example, Eternal Darkness when sent to my receiver from the Gamecube analog a/v cable will send all the left stereo to the two or three speakers of my left side, the same on the right, and the center channel that has two speakers will act like a typical stereo speaker.  That’s all.

compressed_audio

Now if you have a digital fiber optic cable (also known as a TOSlink, Optical, or S/PDIF) or a digital coaxial cable, you could get 5.1/7.1 compressed audio or 2.1 uncompressed audio.  This was first used by high end CD players, then later by laser disc, moved on to DVD, and of course was integrated into the PS2 and Xbox.  Digital coaxial was mostly used in CD players to send a digital uncompressed stereo sound (known as Pulse Code Modulation or PCM) that was said to sound richer.  On laser discs and DVD players, there would often be either digital coaxial and/or optical so that you could hook your component up to whatever port your receiver had and get compressed surround sound (known as Bitstream).  The benefit was that you could get 5.1 (and later 7.1) surround sound that was dynamic and came out of all the speakers, but at a price.  The bitsream sound format had to be compressed and lost quality, however it was the only way to fit these massive sound files onto a single laser disc or DVD.  Two major encoders emerged that were already doing similar formats in theaters to help get the best and most dynamic versions of compressed audio: those were Dolby (Dolby Digital) and Digital Theater Systems (DTS).

Digital Coaxial Cable

Digital Coaxial Cable

Back then the only way to get access to these compressed sound files were to have devices that could extract and send out the audio signal and a receiver that could receive it.  Think of it as a conversation – you can only speak English if you know the language and you can only use it with someone else who knows it.  This created the big compatibility wars of the 90s and 2000s that people have been so affected by they can’t seem to let go of it today (and frankly that’s why so few people even understand what’s going on).  You had all kinds of outlandish issues, each one that failed would result in the same effect: the digital cable would output stereo PCM uncompressed signal and you would basically lose surround sound.  This would happen if all your devices and media didn’t match – so to watch Day of the Dead in DTS you would need a version of the movie with DTS on it (look for the logo), a player that could read and output DTS (look for the logo), and a receiver that could accept and decode DTS (again, look for the logo).  This became such a headache that logo hunting is probably the biggest marketing ploy of home audio today.

Dolby Digital (DD) was the first widespread home compressed 5.1 format so most laser disc players, DVD players, and receivers could receive and decode it, dropping into uncompressed stereo (PCM) if for any reason the receiver couldn’t detect or read a DD 5.1 signal.  DTS came on the scene later and was basically the Pepsi to Dolby’s Coke, but many swore it was a more rich and better sounding format.  In truth I think it was just that DD was the go-to so you had more people using it and thus a larger range of quality differences, whereas DTS was a very specific format often only utilized when extra cost and quality were at stake.  In truth if you prefer one over the other it probably has to do with the goals of each format, because they did have different ones.  DD was set on creating a more discrete experience where the audio seemed all around you but not from the perspective of a single audio channel or direction, it wanted full immersion of the whole room, which is why hints of each sound were typically in all speakers.  DTS wanted directional based sound output so that when the Predator ran around the room the “whoosh!” of his run would jump from speaker to speaker in a circle, which any audiophile looking to show off his new equipment was probably in love with (myself included).  Back then, however, it was seen as a feature jump to include DTS because you typically had to buy more expensive equipment to support it and a more expensive version of the movie (DTS cuts were all the rage once DVD learned you could re-sell the same movie with a new feature and customers would buy it up).  In all the fun and trickery of creating a 5-7 speaker experience to replace the 2 speaker stereo, something it seems was lost because the overall sound quality was poorer.  Think of compressed as an MP3 with a low bitrate, just doesn’t sound as good as the original, whereas uncompressed is the full rich sound but only in two speakers.  It was the trade off that you had to make and everyone from Dolby, to DTS, to receiver manufacturers had an opinion.  Bose touted for years that their stereo systems using uncompressed PCM audio and then re-encoded for a 5.1 or 7.1 speaker setup was far superior to the compressed audio of DD and DTS, which given the current state of things may have been true.

Uh, Video Games?

Right, of course, so how does this relate to video games?  Well the Playstation 2 featured a fiber optic connection on the back of each iteration of that console and with the “HD AV Pack” the Xbox also could output fiber optic audio.  In many cases that only meant the game delivered uncompressed stereo, or even worse, compressed stereo.  On Playstation 2, provided you had a receiver that supported it, limited games like The Bouncer and Metal Gear Solid 2 supported Dolby Digital 5.1 in the cutscenes (you could watch the logo appear and disappear on your receiver if you had it set up properly) and the infamous Grand Theft Auto Vice City did have true 5.1 DTS (I remember hearing the world of random sounds all around me when I set this up).  There were other games, though, like SSX Tricky that would output DTS but only in 2.1, it was weird.  This was because the Playstation 2 didn’t do any encoding or decoding in the system; just like a DVD player it would simply strip the audio and send it out to the receiver in the form it was on the disc.  This meant that if your receiver could read DTS and DTS was in the game, you would get DTS.

Xbox HD AV Pack

Xbox HD AV Pack

Xbox was different thanks to the specific Nvidia chipset that made up the hardware configuration.  In this case it would take the the audio and actually construct (or reconstruct) it into Dolby Digital format.  This meant that no matter how the audio came (stereo, dolby digital, DTS, uncompressed stereo) the Xbox would take it and re-create a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio signal for it and send that to the receiver.  Honestly that’s how most of the consoles work from this point on, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  The benefit was that no matter what type of sound the developer gave, the Xbox would convert it to a compressed 5.1 Dolby Digital that would work 100 percent of the time provided your receiver could decode Dolby Digital.  It got rid of the guess work and also assured that every game you put into the system would have sound coming out of every speaker every time.  While it may have been a great deal of smoke and mirrors, the Xbox did it very well and those that had a 5.1 system and wanted to play a video game with surround sound usually opted for the always 5.1 Xbox version.

This all changed with the High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) that eliminated compressed audio, bitstream, and optical cables but didn’t really bother to tell the main consumer.  And thus, the war that wages on even today of trying to understand what the hell your device is doing was begun.

Uncompressed Linear PCM

Remember way back at the beginning of this article when I mentioned the earliest form of digital audio was uncompressed stereo (aka PCM)?  Well secretly the home audio world converted from that lovely compressed “faking it” 5.1/7.1 of Dolby Digital and DTS and migrated back to uncompressed now that things like Blu Ray discs, digital video formats, and the HDMI plug were around.  See fiber optic and digital coax cables only compressed the 5.1 because they had to, they couldn’t carry the proper signal of uncompressed with more than 2 channels (stereo).  HDMI was different, it could carry a full uncompressed 5.1/7.1 sound.  Couple that with Blu Ray, which had a 50 GB capacity and you could finally fit the full high definition video and uncompressed audio experience.  Unfortunately it basically meant that all of us “suckers” who had signed on for the old school format were left in the dust with nothing to show for it.  Instead of openly copping to it, hardware manufacturers of all kinds opted to sweep it under the rug instead of force it forward.  In truth we should be thankful, it’s quite a decent accommodation to make for the audio side, whereas no one takes pity for video.  Heck, the Playstation 4 forces you to use HDMI and almost expects you to have a 720p/1080p television, but it will still send a compressed bitstream audio via optical cable out to your receiver without even warning you of the compromise.  Couple that with the stubbornness of technophiles – of which I will openly cop to – and you get a bunch of old guys looking for a DTS logo and regardless of what’s actually coming out of the speakers we stare at that state of mind logo and say, “damn straight!”

dd

The Xbox 360 was too early into the format, HDMI wasn’t even widespread in 2005, so it flat out didn’t support the HDMI standard for video or audio (it was later added in hardware revisions).  In addition, the 360 used the DVD format for games, so naturally Microsoft re-enlisted the lovely Dolby Digital encoder they already have and boom, 360 games are all in Dolby Digital 5.1 (ever notice that you only get DTS when it’s passed from a DVD?).  The unknowing consumer puts the game in, hears 5 speakers, sees the logo, damn straight.  On the other hand, the one year delay and hefty price tag of the PS3 justified it pushing the standards much higher.  The Playstation 3 almost completely ditched the compressed audio format in terms of how it wanted to operate, future proofing the system with an HDMI port from the get that supported up to 7.1 channels of uncompressed PCM, but also humble enough to know that many early adopters would not have the tech yet.  Furthermore video games, even if they were on the blu ray disc format, were mostly multi-platform, which resulted most times in a smaller 5-10 gb game and compressed 5.1 audio, regardless of the 50 gb capacity of the blu ray.  In addition the console would pass compressed audio formats out via the optical cable like the PS2 did, so games encoded in Dolby would get that signal and games that were encoded in DTS would get that signal, and the audiophile saw the logo on the receiver and thought, “damn straight”.  This whole confusion basically came from the concept that Microsoft wanted to hide the truth by upscaling all games to 1080p on the 360 (there were like 5 total games that were in native 1080p) and encode all games in compressed 5.1 Dolby Digital.  On the PS3, the truth was forced on all games out of the box so whatever surround sound format was in the game (mostly DD compressed thanks to the 360) would output via optical and the native resolution for the game, rounded to the closest main resolution (usually 720p) would output on the screen.  Gamers and tech guys didn’t like that, which led to the concept that the PS3 wasn’t as good as the 360 from a video standpoint because all games were 1080p/5.1 on 360 and dropped down to 720p/5.1 on PS3.  The truth was that the games looked the same but techno people want more Ps, damn straight.

dts

There was also the little case of logo fever that erupted far beyond DD and DTS.  New compression formats for 7.1 like Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-High Resolution Audio hit the market, which was just an upgrade from 5.1 to 7.1, still compressed, but it gave you that breathe easy logo on your receiver.  Not only that, but if you had a compressed audio cable and the lossless compressed Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio (both new codecs that compressed audio without quality loss to emulate uncompressed) was playing it would still display the logo for you, damn straight.  Therefore when these logo junkies (again, myself included) and PCM haters from the old guard started getting new HDMI receivers and saw no logo and “PCM” they lost it.  They didn’t want it.  Even though it was better and it was in 5.1/7.1, the brain could not understand that PCM > Bitstream and with all this hardware still supporting optical with Bitstream and you got the logo they went with that option.  I myself did this for the last five years until tons of research and a little patience finally saw me upgrading earlier this year.  Let’s go back to the PS3 for a second and also discuss the biggest reason that gamers thought they weren’t getting true 5.1 surround.  The PS3 is kind enough to decode all major forms of compressed audio and export it via HDMI in the linear PCM uncompressed audio format, the truest of formats.  Whether it’s old school DD/DTS 5.1, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio and everything around them, the PS3 just decodes it to LPCM 5.1/7.1 and sends it to your receiver in perfect harmony.  This means that you don’t need any special type of HDMI cable and it’s basically supported by all receivers that take HDMI, no codecs on the receiver side required. It’s very similar to the way the original Xbox made everything DD 5.1 in 2001.  Unfortunately, no logo makes many people discouraged.  If you want proof, just hook your PS3 up to a receiver with HDMI, have it auto detect the sound via HDMI in your PS3 settings, and start any movie with a compressed format.  You’re receiver will simply claim PCM but you will notice that the surround is dynamic and if you choose the “display” button (either on controller or remote) you’ll see the audio formats like DTS-HD MA or Dolby TrueHD in the upper left.  See, you’re actually getting your big lossless 5.1 wonderful sound you wanted, the logo has just moved to a new place.

Fiber Optic (optical) cable

Fiber Optic (optical) cable

This is a good thing, but many can not let go of the old logo wars and dreaded “PCM means you’re getting non-surround stereo” from the earlier days that they have newer receivers and actually FORCE them back into Bitstream via optical cable.  Ugh.

Moment of Clarity

For me the moment I began to notice the difference was when I built a gaming PC.  My new Nvidia GTX 760 had an HDMI out and the setup software even said it supported 5.1/7.1 via linear PCM or Dolby Digital Uncompressed (Live Action I think it’s called), and yet I was getting no 5.1.  I had purchased a year earlier a device that would take the HDMI A/V source and strip the audio out of it so that I could send the audio via optical out to my receiver – this worked fine with my 360, PS3, and HDMI DVD player – what gives?  Well it was because the GTX series can only output PCM audio and as we’ve already discussed, optical can only handle 2-channel PCM.  I did a little research and all signs pointed to me needing an HDMI receiver, which I shrugged off and just accepted that my PC would always be in stereo, heck most PC games aren’t in 5.1 anyway because they don’t have the built-in decoders of the 360/PS3.

lpcmThe next hint was the Wii U.  The Wii just had stereo analog sound so I figured if the Wii U had any form of audio it would simply be DD or DTS 5.1.  Wrong, the Wii U actually only supports LPCM in 5.1 format, otherwise you are getting stereo PCM.  Back to the audio stripper that didn’t work with my GTX for 5.1 and I again didn’t get 5.1 out of the Wii U once the audio was stripped to the optical cable.  Even worse, the Wii U is so user unfriendly that I stupidly put “Surround” in the settings so only channels 1 and 2 out of the 5.1 were outputting to my speakers, which negates the center channel that typically carries voice on most 5.1 setups.  That basically meant that I heard little or no sound out of the voices because all it would pick up were the subtle left and right front speaker sounds of the voice that were much lower than the center channel.  I quickly went back to “stereo” and again blamed my Wii U for not being forward thinking.  Then I turned on my PS3 and watched a Netflix movie in Dolby Digital…with a logo…damn straight.

It all came to a head with the PS4 and Xbox One.  Both consoles allowed you to export the sound via optical, choose “bitstream” in your audio settings, and you even got to pick Dolby Digital or DTS!  Wow!  How did they do that?  You mean I get to pick which logo I see!  This was amazing for the first two weeks until I started to notice that it didn’t make sense that no matter what was on the screen I got the same logo, regardless of the logos on the media.  Then I started looking into this Linear PCM thing and realized that both consoles had encoders/decoders that could take any audio and export them to either compressed DD/DTS or uncompressed linear PCM 5.1/7.1 via HDMI (you know, the truest form of audio).  That did it, this logo hunting was B.S., I needed to move on.

bitstream_vs_pcm

After the setup, I was hesitant at first because again, no logos.  No matter what Blu Ray movie or game I put in, logoless.  However I did get 5.1, it sounded awesome, and things like my PC and WiiU worked (even with “surround” on!).  I had finally gotten over it and now I am able to enjoy Linear PCM 5.1 dynamic audio, without compression, despite having no logos to show for it.  But after this long 4300 convoluted history, you can see why I was so discouraged to ditch the logo.  If you are looking to upgrade your audio system and are tired of jacking around with optical cables, heed this notice to upgrade because you’re going to have to soon anyway.

As always if you have questions or discussion, please post in the comments below.  I did warn that if it spreads misinformation I may not post it, but that is limited to this post only.  Hopefully this will be nothing more than helpful.

Cheers.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 2, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Resident Evil HD Remaster First Look

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Sorry this is going up on Sunday night.  Normally Retro Game Night is recorded on Friday and goes up Saturday morning, but we had to delay recording a day and these HD videos take a lot longer to render and post to YouTube.  Either way, the video speaks for itself, but Fred got a retail copy of Resident Evil HD Remaster on PS3 that will be coming to the US in “early” 2015 (according to Capcom).  Well since there was another option, we grabbed it early.  Enjoy!

Written by Fred Rojas

November 30, 2014 at 6:52 pm

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