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What’s Old Is New

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xbox_sd_scanlineI’m just a curious soul when it comes to software or electronics, and I’ve always been that way.  Now ask me to turn off the water in my house, change a window screen, or heaven forbid lay tile and I’m out.  For some reason those decisions and actions, while much more predictable than electronics and software, have permanent consequences and thus I leave them to professionals.  On the tech front it’s mostly just money, and I’ve wasted plenty of that to go into most projects all “gung-ho!”  On the flip side I try to capture my memories/nostalgia when it comes to gaming so I’ve done such insane things as bring a Pit Fighter cabinet into my house to play MAME (arcade) titles on, lugged a 300 lb 38″ RCA HD picture tube display for classic consoles and light gun games (a personal favorite), and I have a machine that literally boots into DOSbox and then Windows ’95 (it’s an old XP machine) just to enjoy a handful of games like Jurassic Park: Tresspasser and hopefully soon Ripper.  I think that’s why capturing gameplay and making more entertaining videos is so fascinating but also a challenge to me.  Last week I discussed how to upgrade your visuals for YouTube export but the clear omission was how to do it without losing that classic feel.  I don’t want to play my NES on my LED display, I want it on the old tube with composite video because it looks and acts like I remember, but I also don’t want it to look like the color bleeding blurry mess I see when I export it to YouTube either.  So now I’m trying to do the opposite of what I used to: get all of my consoles to export video – both for capture and gameplay – in the best resolution possible without buying the $500 framemeister (that was in last week’s post linked above).  This does mean that certain consoles, namely the PS2, Xbox, and Wii (yes, it was pretty much that same gen in terms of visual and output), are un-tethered from my big old tube TV and migrated into the main room for the LED television on account of their 480p/720p capabilities.  Along with that came the hunting of component cables, HD AV packs (shame on you Microsoft, the Xbox could output 720p and play DVDs natively but you chose to charge accessories piece meal…just like today), and even a HDMI conversion dongle for the Wii!  It wasn’t all that cheap, probably $60 in total for all the pieces, but the results are quite impressive.  I had no idea that X-Men Legends or Hulk: Ultimate Destruction could look so good in 720p on the Xbox or that Gradius V really does look much sharper in component even if it’s still a 480i signal on PS2, and I cannot get over how Super Mario Galaxy 2 dazzles on Wii via 720p HDMI upscaler dongle (despite me having still not played that game even though I’ve booted it up dozens of times for visual comparisons).  I’m also upgrading my SNES, N64, Saturn, and PS1 for S-Video output to get slightly better captures in 480p on my SD captures, which was like $20 on Amazon for random third-party cables (not as necessary to get high-end when not passing HD through an analog source like component cables on the PS3, for example).  This is probably nothing new to many of you out there, but HDTVs were not cheap and these consoles were just dipping their toes into the water when I was a new graduate and didn’t have time or money to figure out how to make an Xbox look fancy.  I always knew the option existed, but I was more interested in surround sound back in the early 2000s and never much into graphics.  Oh and before you mention it, I’ve had a VGA box for my Dreamcast almost a decade, but stupidly didn’t capture in anything but composite as of late so I’ve truly been cheating myself.

sf2compareWhy am I bringing all this up and trying to make old games look good now?  Well for starters because I intend to begin capturing the more recent stuff in quality you valuable readers/listeners/viewers deserve and to create parity between what I see on screen and what gets uploaded into YouTube (I understand that the compression will always be a bottleneck, but I can work hard and omit a large amount of those issues if I get videos into as YouTube friendly a format as I can).  I’ve grabbed some new software, Sony Movie Studio Platinum 12 (formerly Vegas), and already used to create a new old school intro logo for GH101 before each vid (you can see an example here, which needs better transitions but bear with me, it’ll look good I swear).  I also intend to have all videos in either 480p for old school, 720p for anything with a component/vga/higher output, and 1080p when the source allows (360, some PS3, PC, and all new gen) – sure, many of you will view on a phone or device that supports only 480p or lower for decent streaming, but hey, a higher quality source downscaled will still look better.  I also picked up a capture box, which I initially went with the Blurex Capture Device both for cheaper price and also because it seemed to nicely meet my needs.  All you need to do is plug it in with the included AC cord, attach a USB storage device to it (I recommend flash memory like the $4 Micro Center 16GB stick I used, normal USB hard drives have too many corruption issues), and then you can hook a HDMI source or a Component source via included short dongle-like cords.  It has a headphone jack if your audio out doesn’t come from the component/HDMI cord, it has a mic jack if you want to embed commentary into the video, and it does have a headphone out if you don’t want to export sound to your TV/sound setup.  All output is HDMI, but it’s seamless and lag free from what I can tell (had no problems competing in Mario Kart 8 with it or conquering the first half of Gradius V).  It even detects if the source is 480p, 720p, or 1080p and makes the video to those spec automatically, so basically for everything newer than a PS2 you’re set.  I had a few problems, namely that the device only captures in 15 minute bursts (1.95 GB exactly in 1080p/30 fps MP4) although you won’t know it because it just creates another video with no visible lag between them so if you play them side by side or combine them it’s one continuous video.  Well therein lies the problem as already a few times in my weekend trials I noticed issues and lost entire 15 minute chunks in-between gameplay where the video was either corrupt or didn’t work for, as Windows 7 put it, “unknown reasons”.  I also found that Sony Movie Studio didn’t like any of these videos and neither did my MP4 merging program (Yamb) or my MP4box tools.  Somehow the MP4 container or format that this box puts things into doesn’t like traditional editing files (or at least not on my machine and I tested over 15 captures) and the cheap editor that comes free with the box isn’t even up to par with the cheap video studio I got with that standard def dongle I’ve been using.  Without Vegas or other software solutions these videos are no good to me – I have no interest, and potentially neither do you, with dropping items into YouTube without intros, professional editing, or even commentary and in 15 minute multi-video bursts.  Not what I spent $80 on.  So I’m sending it back to Amazon today and I’m gonna go grab the always faithfully recommended Elgato Game Capture (doing the traditional HD 30 fps model and not the 60 fps model because I’m more YouTube than Twitch stream) and hope that works out, I’ll let you know soon.

elgato2

With any luck these items, and the recently purchased upscalers I bought, will work like my TV does and make everything look positively beautiful on both my LED and online for you all.  I understand about lag and whatnot with upscalers, but I have amplifiers that provide multiple outputs on everything from composite to HDMI, so I’ll be fine and no lag created by upscalers or capturing will affect what I see on my screen.  Aside from all the tech talk – which is seemingly my Monday blog these days – damn do some of these games look great.  Oh and all this “capturing” also means that I’ll hopefully be able to do video reviews to accompany the written ones.  Next step, getting Jam some sort of setup.  I’ll work on that.  Anyway keep watching and hopefully you’ll see some content upgrades on the GH101 video front soon.  Also feel free to join in the discussion in the comments if you have anything to add or alert me to as I continue this journey.

Cheers.

Written by Fred Rojas

November 17, 2014 at 11:28 am

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Neo Retro: Chief’s Big Day

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CAM00848This morning I got up and instead of immediately heading to work I dropped by the old big box retailer to pick up a title I had been highly anticipating: Halo: The Master Chief Collection.  Here on the left you can see a photo of me with the item, big dumb smile in tow.  It’s kinda surreal picking up a collection of games that you have already played.  None of that wonder of what the mechanics, game design, or story remain because you’ve experienced it all before, and yet I find myself just as excited as I was the day I first picked up a copy of Halo or the three sequels that share space on the disc.  If you’re not a Halo fan then you probably won’t pick this up, and I expect that there will be either a slew of negative talk or more likely no talk at all regarding this package, but mark my words this is going to be a popular release.  Whether you first started playing Halo at college LAN parties, shared one of the earliest experiences on Xbox Live, or just took Master Chief for a spin or two during the Halo 3 Beta zeitgeist that existed early in the 360’s life cycle (and you can hear about many more on tonight’s podcast), there’s no denying that those who have owned Microsoft consoles can’t help but notice Halo.  That’s when it got me thinking about the state of re-releases these days – especially on this generation of consoles – and how as hard as I try to avoid them, I just can’t help buying into them (literally).

The Master Chief Collection isn’t the only game to make an updated appearance this year.  Tomb Raider received its re-release early into the year, followed by Fable Anniversary giving that game an update no one asked for, Resident Evil 4 got a third revision on the PC bringing it to 1080p, Final Fantasy X/X-2 received face lifts, Metro 2033 and Last Light received semi-controversial reduxes, The Last of Us came to PS4 after only having been on retail for just over a year, Sleeping Dogs got the Square “definitive” treatment in October, and we can expect GTA V next week.  This doesn’t even touch the slew of portable and downloadable games that were “HD-ified” and who knows how many ports I’m not considering to be actual re-releases to the PC, Xbox One, and PS4.  Hell, I even dropped a dozen hours re-playing Bayonetta on Wii U (review Thursday) because the sequel came with it.  It’s kinda hard to argue that this whole retro thing may have been the correct route to go because it seems clear that whether audiences want it or not, what’s on store shelves is at least partially games you already know.  The big question is whether or not this is a good thing.

2033_reduxSome would argue that it depends on whether or not these games sell, but I assure you they do.  I’m guilty of picking up most of these re-releases; some of which I knew I wanted right out of the gate like Final Fantasy X-2Resident Evil 4, and Master Chief, but also others I swore never to get like Metro Redux and The Last of Us.  Granted, the latter of those releases I took advantage of only because having the old version netted me the new one at half price and my urge to grab the DLC evened out the numbers for me, but it’s still an old dog trying to show me new tricks.  In a perfect world there will be new and exciting IP coming out every day, but we all know that’s a subjective and fragile wager.  2014, for me, has been filled with games I highly anticipated that disappointed, games I planned to ignore that I adored, and a whole metric ton of games I simply haven’t had the time to touch.  Given those factors you can see why it may be more tempting for me to proudly grab 4 great games I loved over the last nearly 15 years all re-hashed with better graphics and the kind of online support I was hoping I would eventually get, rather than taking a chance at Assassin’s Creed Unity.  I’m also sure the developers like it because there’s a high probability that what they put in will also net them at least what they get out, so the gamble of this over these aforementioned sequels or new titles is probably lower.  When I think about how geared up I am about playing The Master Chief Collection, however, it reminds of what never came about that I feel would be far better for the industry than a super-hyped boxed product that is advertised during NFL games.

gunstarI remember back in 2006 when Nintendo was talking about the virtual console, Sony was discussing PS1 and potentially PS2 titles coming out on the PSN, and Microsoft was releasing $15 digital versions of original Xbox games on a regular basis.  While I was psyched about not having to hunt down working original versions of Psychonauts, Final Fantasy VII, and Mega Man II, those of us in online boards and on podcasts couldn’t help but dream about what these new digital landscapes could bring.  Believe it or not, when Halo: Combat Evolved hit Games On Demand in the holiday of 2007, we were back then hoping that this game would finally receive some basic net code and allow the entire Xbox Live community to play against each other online for the first time with gravity-defying warthogs and a pistol that acted like a sniper rifle.  It never happened.  That release was nothing more than an ISO dump directly onto the marketplace, complete with all compatibility errors you could expect from playing the tangible copy of the original.  Not only that but we were getting bombarded by Xbox Live Arcade games (ContraDouble DragonSmash TV) that proved it could be done, although I am quite aware that those games were much easier to integrate net code into versus the full Xbox games.  Later the release of Halo 2 on Xbox Originals had all the ghosting effects and broken visuals, not to mention the turned off online play, that I realized this was going to be a wasted opportunity.  The same was true over on Virtual Console, where you couldn’t even play Gunstar Heroes or River City Rampage with friends online, and again we saw nothing more than a ROM dump of the original carts.  Surely, I thought, with Sony giving both a push to be more of a comprehensive online experience over Xbox (which it still isn’t if you ask me) and far more ahead of the curve than Nintendo that we might get an opportunity to team up in Twisted Metal or Contra: Shattered Soldier, but alas that was not to be either.  I imagine a world where all mutliplayer games are enhanced with online functionality and I can promise you I would own Halo and Halo 2 on the 360, given Microsoft $15 apiece for those games, and the development budget would have been staggeringly less than Master Chief Collection.  I also would have spent infinitely more on Virtual Console than the hundreds I already pumped into it, all at nearly no cost to the publishers.  Don’t tell me it’s all that difficult or expensive because emulators have been able to do it peer-to-peer for over a decade and those guys program this stuff for free.

So as I pop my Halo collection into my Xbox One (and while that massive 20+ GB patch downloads) and begin to play gorgeous upgrades of the beloved originals (I’m kind of a fanboy), it’s good to reflect on what could have been.  Oh well, looks like I’ll have to “suffer” through this package instead.

Written by Fred Rojas

November 11, 2014 at 3:28 pm

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Figuring Out How Retro Game Videos Can Look So Good

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So recently I’ve been looking at the current YouTube videos we create for the site as well as some of the photos I capture from those videos.  You see due to authenticity of how it feels to play the game – not to mention my personal affinity towards doing too much within a computer for console gaming – it’s not very viable for me to emulate.  In truth there’s little concern for the legal aspect or even the technological aspect, it’s just that playing an emulated game on an HDTV comes with it compatibility issues, screen tearing, and lets not forget the overwhelming feeling that no matter what controller you use it doesn’t feel the same as plugging that actual controller into that actual console.  As a result, most of the gameplay videos I see out there focus on either how good it looks or how good it plays, but rarely does it look at both.  There’s quite a few reasons for that, I discovered, and for my weekend project I set out to figure out how one gets these razor sharp awesome videos when compared to my relatively blurry ones.

composite_cableThe reason for this is a few things, but they all have to deal with the fact that Standard Definition TVs (SDTV) are very different than High Definition TVs (HDTV) and none of that matters until you try to adapt retro consoles (SDTV) to YouTube (HDTV).  It may look fine on my screen but it looks like crap when you pull that video up on your TV.  How do you fix that?  Well it depends on the console and your ultimate goal.  Video game systems had an output in either 240p (320×240 progressive), 480i (640×480 interlaced), 480p (640×480 progressive), 720p (1320×1080 progressive), 1080i (1920×1080 interlaced), and 1080p (1920×1080 progressive).  For the most part, anything before the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube was in 240p/480i (more on that in a sec), PS2/Xbox/Gamecube was mostly 480p (with some potential 720p for the Xbox and lack of 480p for Gamecube), and then the Wii was 480p with the 360/PS3 being either 720p/1080i/1080p.  In terms of a YouTube video or contemporary HDTVs, you want to immediately omit the interlaced resolutions because those only illuminate half of the image at once and blink back and forth, so they create scanlines (which HDTV signals and Youtube do not like or display) and make a choppy effect when things move.  While that’s no problem for the modern consoles because you can just omit 1080i and only use 720p or 1080p, you may notice that’s a big problem for retro consoles.  240p is available, but often not right out of the gate (you ever see a 240p/RGB output on a retro console?) and most of us (in the US) hooked our old school consoles up to our televisions with the lovely composite cable (yellow/red/white).  This made a 480i image out of a 240p image, which means it not only made the image look poor and blurry because it increased the resolution without increasing the pixel count, but it also removed the progressive scan and thus made scanlines and choppiness.  This is the key problem to 99 percent of the game capturing I do.

So how do you fix that?  There are a few options.  The first is emulation, which is cheapest and best because by nature emulation is free and the upscale can be done in the software and generate ideal pixel re-creation, however for me it’s out because I don’t like how it plays or feels.  The second is to try to capture in S-video or component over composite, but it does not solve the obvious issue of the fact that everything is still relatively blurry because the source is not 240p but rather 480i.  If you ever watch my videos, this is what I usually do and my current setup.  I capture the video in 480i and use the capture software to de-interlace it (ie: make it into progressive scan) and render it in 480p for YouTube (which is 720×480 due to 16:9 widescreen versus the common 4:3 full screen of these old consoles).  This is why you get some blur, some chop, and the black bars – it’s simply the best we can do for the money.  Well it turns out that’s not completely the case, which I discovered after watching this helpful video.  It told me that there is a fabulous world of improvement that comes from upscaling the image, however this always comes at a price, whether that be money or problem solving.

As always any game system that outputs to 240p will either be able to give you composite/s-vide0/component to view your systems (oh yeah and Dreamcast does VGA, but that’s not relevant right now) in 480i (and occasionally p) and you can purchase a cheaper upscaler that will do an okay job.  While it may not be the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, your games will be greatly improved in visual quality – especially if you can extract s-video or component instead of composite.  There are setbacks, though, because these “other” scalers will always introduce lag and change the orientation or look of a game.  If you are like me and have a composite/s-vide0/component signal amplifier that can output one signal to two sources, this can be somewhat of a solution because the capture lag will be independent of the gameplay you are using for the source.  Basically it will only capture at a delay but since you’re not using that lagging delay it will look normal after your capture (just don’t use a mic on your capture solution because your comments will suffer being off sync due to the lag so you’ll want to record separate and sync in post-processing).  This is your under $100 solution for those that want better looking videos but aren’t going to make a business out of it (ie: me).

rgbFor the rest of you intense purists, budding venture capitalists, Patreon savvy marketers, and of course the tech junkies, the only game in town is the one and only XRGB Mini (aka Framemeister) by Micomsoft.  This is the topic of that aforementioned video I linked and just to open with the big financial investment, currently retails for about 39,000 yen or $500 for Americans, not to mention it’s completely in Japanese.  Once you obtain this bad boy, you can use composite/s-video/component to create widely improved lag-free versions of your favorite games, add scanlines back in, and impress your less wallet heavy friends.  That’s not all, though, because you can also extract true 240p via RGB!  See there are cheaper scalers that can do this feat, however because they introduce lag and I don’t know of an RGB amplifier (although it may very well exist and probably isn’t cheap if so), cheap solutions with lag are yet again a problem.  On the other hand, if you have a Framemeister you can have a lag-free way to play games via RGB!  This option, like the Framemeister, is not cheap.  Your initial consoles like the SNES, Genesis, and even Saturn can be purchased on eBay for a relatively low price with this user: retro_console_accessories.  The crazier ones, like NES/Famicom, N64, and even Jaguar or Turbografx-16 is going to require console mods and even more work.  I saw this as a $1000+ rabbit hole that required more technical knowledge than I cared to commit (I wanna game!) and not paying attention to those things could also damage a Framemeister (out $500!) so I decided that this little magical box that looks amazing just won’t be in my future.

As it stands I hope to improve my game capturing of newer consoles (my Twitch is only outputting to 480p for some reason from my PS4!) and even some of the older ones like Xbox and PS2 where the blur just doesn’t have to be that bad.  In addition I also hope to use one of these upscalers to improve the capture of my composite video stuff, but don’t expect something miraculous, just sharper and slightly improved.  I also upgraded to the full Sony Movie (formerly Vegas) 13 suite so I should have a lot more options for comparison videos, editing, and overall improvement of production values.  So while I won’t be able to create something as stellar as this, hopefully I will someday get up to this.  It’s a rabbit hole, but luckily I came out unscathed and with (most of) my money unspent.

Written by Fred Rojas

November 10, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Vos5’s Corner: Toad!

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Greetings Everyone!  We wanted to share a great forum post made by reader and occasional podcast guest Vos5.  He dedicated a very thorough visual history of Mario’s rarely beloved sidekick Toad.

GH101 is proud to present: Toad!

They first appeared in Super Mario Bros. with their infamous line, “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” They played the same role in the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2, known as The Lost Levels in the U.S.

In the American Super Mario Bros. 2, Toad was playable for the first time, where he was the fastest of all the characters! However, he didn’t jump as well as the others.

Super Mario Bros. 3, is where Toad houses are introduced and Toad gives you items and extra lives.

Actually, much to my surprise, Toad already starred in his first game in Wario’s Woods on the NES and SNES! Toad steps up with the help of Birdo and Sprite/Wanda to kick Wario’s ass! It’s a puzzle game and is available on the 3DS and Wii U virtual consoles.

He’s in Super Mario 64 explaining the backstory and giving hints for the rest of the game. In the remake Super Mario 64 DS he serves the same purpose but also makes comments about whoever you’re playing as. “What?! You’re Luigi? The world’s most inept least charismatic brother? Wow! Can you introduce me to Mario?” or “Huh…? Who are you? Oh, yes… Luigi, right? You’re always in Mario’s shadow, so I didn’t recognize you at first.”
You know, Toad’s kind of a dick.

In Luigi’s Mansion, Toad serves as save points.

Toads appear in Super Mario Sunshine as Peach’s attendants. Toadsworth’s first appearance.

Super Mario Galaxy has a wonderful place called Toad Town, full of happy little Toads, and it introduced the Toad Brigade and Captain Toad. Toadettte also shows up in the intro. Captain Toad and the Toad Brigade are also in the sequel.



In New Super Mario Bros. Wii and New Super Mario Bros. U, blue and yellow Toads are playable. The red Toad isn’t playable, be he does run the Toad houses, and he gets himself into trouble so Mario can save him in various levels.

He is also in Super Mario 3D Land where, after you save him at the end of World One, he runs Toad houses and uncovers secrets in the levels.

Again in New Super Mario Bros. 2, Toad runs the Toad houses.

In Super Mario 3D World, Captain Toad and a blue Toad are playable in various parts of the game. Blue Toad, much like in Super Mario Bros. 2, is the fastest main character, but the worst jumper.


In Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, five Toads (yellow, red, blue, green, and purple) assist Professor E. Gadd by investigating the mansions. Luigi runs into them throughout the game, and the Toads help him uncover secrets in each mansion.

In Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Toad teaches Mario about his battle skills in the beginning, and has to be saved during multiple times later in the game.

Toad is playable briefly in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga while exploring Mario and Luigi’s house.

In Super Princess Peach, Toad is kidnapped earlier in the game along with Mario and Luigi by the Hammer Bros. However, Toad appears as a playable character in two of the minigames in the game.



Ugh! Never look up “Super Princess Peach Toad” in any image search. SO MUCH HORRIFYING PORN!

Toad is in Super Paper Mario telling Mario and Luigi that Princess Peach has been kidnapped, in the mini-game Mansion Patrol, and Toad is one of the 256 Catch Cards.

In Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, a mysterious infection called “The Blorbs” causes the Toads to inflate to many times their normal size and roll around uncontrollably.

He’s in every installment of Mario Kart (Toadette being introduced in Double Dash!!), every Mario Party as the host for the first four, and playable in the rest, Mario Superstar Baseball and Mario Super Sluggers, Mario Strikers and Mario Strikers Charged, Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix, as playable Mini Toads in Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis and Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem!






In Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Toad referees.
In its sequel, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games, Toad is in the adventure mode and hosts.
In Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games, Toad hosts again and is also a main character in the 3DS version’s story mode.

He is in Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. Brawl (as a sticker, trophy, and an attack for Peach).

Written by Fred Rojas

October 7, 2014 at 11:00 am

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I Love My MAME Cab

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mame_cabMan do I love my MAME cab.  In the culture of emulation, I’m not too keen on the concept.  I understand that emulation is necessary and that it has been an essential tool in not only archiving these great works of the past but also in allowing me to play import and fan translated games I otherwise never would have experienced.  Still, I think that more often than not emulation gives way to piracy.  If I want to go get Super Mario Bros 3 on NES, I’ve got a slew of choices: I can buy the original hardware and game, I can emulate illegally, or I can purchase legal emulated versions (Virtual Console).  In most of those scenarios I opt to purchase the tangible hardware/game – but this is not always the case as I have never purchased a Turbografx-16 CD console to play the handful of favorites like Rondo of Blood and instead “settled” for emulated, legal, Virtual Console and PSN versions.  On the arcade front the story is a bit different.  Not only do I have to pony up large sums of money for the hardware/software – in this case being a working cabinet and PCB board – but I also have to make space, transportation arrangements, power consumption, safety, and in many cases repairs.  It’s one thing to buy a PS1 game from Kentucky, have it shipped to you, resurface it if necessary, and then enjoy it.  For a good working Salamander cab I may have to pay $500-$1,000 upfront on eBay, drive to Kentucky with a large truck, move the whole thing over 1,000 miles without damaging it and paying for gas/transport, move it into my house, and then most likely degauss a monitor, replace some wires, re-solder some button connections, and if I’m lucky I can play that single game for about 30 minutes before it’s time for my A.D.D. brain to move onto the next new thing.

Enter MAME, Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, for the PC.  MAME is nothing new, the initial C++ build premiered in early 1997 when I was only in high school.  It has come a long way since then, but the core of the emulator remains intact and it allows you to play just about every arcade game that has ever come into existence and customize nearly every aspect of each game.  This comes with a price: at its core the emulator is command prompt (ie: what you used to call “DOS” if you aren’t familiar with command prompt inputs) that stops many players dead in their tracks.  It seems easy at first, just pull open a command prompt, type “mame.exe” along with the name of the game (rom) you want and go.  It gets complicated when you try to do things like adjust resolution, fit parameters, add enhancements built into MAME, use arcades with special languages or hard drives (SNK Neo-Geo or Capcome CP2 cabs), utilize controllers, or just plain flip a vertical game like Donkey Kong to working in the horizontal resolution of your monitor.  As a result, the MAME frontend has existed nearly as long as the program itself.  A frontend is a program that basically controls all of the aspects of MAME, puts in all the command prompt lines and options you want, and makes an easy launcher that usually contains an entire list of available games along with things like bezel art, marquees, screenshots, and even gameplay video.  With a copy of MAME (it is free at mame.net), a set of roms (be them a few or a complete 4,000+ set – don’t ask where to get those), and a frontend (here’s where to get those) you can create an all-in-one solution for an arcade on a relatively outdated PC that should only run you $100 today.

That’s just the beginning for many arcade addicts such as myself.  In college it was great, I just turned on this old Windows 98 machine that I set up to autorun the frontend Mamewah, and used the keyboard to play.  Eventually you beat DoDonPachi or Final Fight (neither arcade version available by digital means in 2001 when I was in college) enough times that you want the arcade “feel” and upgrade to a gamepad.  Using a program like Joy2Key (turns joypad buttons into keyboard presses and it’s free here) you play with the gamepad and pretend your PC has become and arcade console, but eventually that’s not good enough.  You do some stupid stuff like buy $200 X-Arcade USB sticks (link) or adapt PS2 Street Fighter 15th Anniversary sticks to your PC, but all have a limited life span and expensive replacement cost that you think twice on whether or not this is a correct solution.  Lets face it, arcades from the 80s and 90s were built to be abused and these fragile re-creations of the last decade or two just cannot compete.  Eventually you decide to yourself that you are going to get an arcade cabinet.

sf-anniversaryThat story is different for everyone.  Some super classic fans get the Multicade, which is a 60-in-1 collection of the most popular vertical raster games from the past, slam that PCB into any Jamma cabinet (we will get to that later), and now you have simple but addictive games like Ms. Pac-ManDonkey Kong, and Dig Dug at your fingertips.  Others grab those Neo Geo MVS cartridge-based cabs and scour eBay for the perfect combination of two or four classics from that library.  Some will buy their favorite game growing up, which is usually safe and inexpensive because by definition our arcade favorites were the ones that saw mass release like Mortal KombatStreet Fighter II, a Konami licensed brawler, or a shmup.  You’ll buy that, play it to death, and then I assure you it will eventually collect dust.  Then there are those like me who pick up the cheapest arcade cabinet that meets their needs (in my case it was a Pit Fighter cab with a working 25″ monitor that some guy gave me for free provided I came by and picked it up) and convert it to a MAME cab.  In many cases these conversions do not damage the original hardware, require no soldering or electronic knowledge, and only need a scant bit of software knowledge.  The following article (with the longest intro in history) discusses the steps to turning a simple arcade cabinet into a MAME cab, the cost involved, and the high level process to making it a reality.  As always, you can hit us up at the Contact link if you have additional questions for your setup, but please note that there are lots of online arcade resources that are probably much better than I am.  Also if you want to rehab or fix a single game arcade cab or are just curious about that side of it, a great technical resource is John’s Arcade on YouTube.

Selecting Your Cab

For me this was easy: I wanted something that fully worked with the biggest monitor and cheapest price.  As I began shopping I learned that most arcade monitors are between 19″-25″ and a vast majority will have horizontal resolution (like your TV, think Mortal Kombat) vs. vertical (think narrow sideways widescreen monitors like early games Space Invaders, Galagaand Frogger).  There are also two monitor types: raster and vector.  Raster monitors look much like the monitors and TVs of today, except that they tend to operate at a 640×480 resolution in 15 khz (which is a much lower frequency than computer monitors, more on that later).  Vector monitors are actually beams of light that create razor sharp graphics in either single color or multicolored setups that have more archaic graphics because they are literally drawing the image.  Vector monitors are rare because they weren’t in many games and a large quantity have died out and no one is making new ones – games include Red Baron, Tempest, and Asteroids.  Vector monitors usually are vertical resolution and should not be used for MAME cabs (not even sure it’s possible).  You also will benefit from getting a setup with the proper wiring structure, in this case I recommend the Japan Amusement Machinery Manufactures Association (or JAMMA) setup.  JAMMA is the most common wiring for arcade cabinets and it was widely used across the world because you could program your game to use this wiring setup and then swap the PCB (game) in and out of the cabinet at will.  It allowed arcade owners to buy like 30 cabinets and then just swap the bezel art, marquee, and PCB around to turn any cab into any game.  As a result most of your second generation games and later (1987-2000) will usually have JAMMA wiring, harnesses, and setups.  You can easily identify the JAMMA setup by the PCB wiring, or just doing a quick search on Google before buying a specific machine.  Please note that JAMMA is either wired for 3-button or 6-button, the later usually only being used by fighting games that already have six buttons, but either can be used by a MAME setup.  It can be time consuming, techincal, and an overall headache to convert a 3-button JAMMA to a 6-button because you have to re-wire the whole cab.  You have been warned.

jamma_swap-5

In the end I would say that a good two-player, 3-button, decent monitor JAMMA cab can be had for under $200 – sometimes even free like mine – and once you’ve done the wonderful process of moving it (bring a friend and a dolly) and quite possibly disassembling parts of it or your house to get it into a room, you’re good to go.  If you are a fighting fan, need a complete working list, or various other factors, a Capcom fighter a la Street Fighter II and its various iterations can be the better option, but cabs like that can vary, get expensive, and have limited quality so use caution when purchasing what is quite possibly the most modded arcade game of all time.  Always wanted to find a good well kept Killer Instinct myself but to no avail.

Selecting Your PC

p4Plain and simple Windows XP is the best PC to run MAME on because it’s compatible with every version, every frontend, and every software solution to making a PC run in a JAMMA harness.  You can get by pretty well with Windows 7, but most people I know downgrade to XP (full disclosure: my first MAME PC was an XP but my current is a Win 7).  You don’t need too much hardware and an external graphics card, while necessary for this conversion, has absolutely no bearing on the graphics.  It’s all in the processor.  I usually try to find a 3.0 ghz Pentium 4 or around there because right after that when they went multi-core MAME isn’t optimized for it.  RAM can be a biggie because it determines the games you able to play, although 2 GB of RAM are required by Windows 7 and that should be sufficient (and frankly the 512 MB required by Windows XP will still run a vast majority of games).  Since price and spec of computers change on a daily basis, this may not be a great reference later, but currently a perfect PC for MAME use would be this one at Micro Center (the Dell Optiplex GX620 Big Case) for $100 (it comes with Windows 7 but XP will be free these days).  Even better, this PC supports external PCI-e graphics cards, which most MAME cab creators will need.  When purchasing these cheap PCs for your setup, be sure to verify it can do that because there are many former office PCs that have an open PCI-e slot that cannot use them for graphics cards.  Again, a quick Google search will help you determine what’s best.  Once you get this computer, you’ll want to set it up with all your software and basically make it work the exact same way you want your MAME cab to work before starting the process of converting to your actual cab and adding in the graphics card.  You may even want drop a shortcut to your frontend in the “startup” folder for windows so that your PC will boot right into the menu and thus remove the need for keyboard/mouse when finally integrated into your cab.

 

Selecting Your MAME Version and Frontend

This is completely dependent upon the user.  Some people like different versions of MAME than others and at times it may come down to the rom set you have (many MAME rom sets are based on the specific version of MAME they are compatible with due to the name of the roms at the time that version was published).  If you mix and match rom sets for one version with a different version of MAME, some roms may be unrecognizable but I do not know how drastic these changes are.  You’ll do a lot of reading through message boards in your journey and you may find the version you think is best based on the feedback of others in your search.  As for the frontend (links in earlier paragraph), that again comes down to how much customization you want, what operating system you are using, what kind of cab you are using, and then personal preference.  The plus side to frontends is they are their own program so feel free to load up the specific MAME and rom set you want and then bounce around between frontends until you find one you like.  Again, MAME rom sets are not legal so how you obtain them, how many you obtain, and various other questions involving the games themselves cannot be answered here and will not be answered if you contact the site.  Your answer lies in a search.

logo-mame

Putting it Together

Now that you have a working cab and a working MAME PC, you have to put these guys together.  This will require the following: an interface solution (some form of hardware/software that links the PC to the cab for button inputs and video/sound output), a way to send the correct video signal to your cab (this will be a graphics card of some kind), and a few bits of software to connect the pieces.

ultimarc_insideFirst off, the interface solution.  This will almost universally be handled by a J-PAC (I always use UltiMarc), which is a $60 item that plugs into your JAMMA PCB plug and will hook up to your PC’s video card, keyboard/USB port, and also accepts a separate keyboard (if necessary) for you to interface with.  In return it will give your PC keyboard inputs for all of your directional pads and buttons.  This will be how you can interface with MAME via your cab.  Now, while it does
have frequency jumpers for 15/25/31 khz so as not to burn out your arcade monitor with too much power, it does not convert the signal down to those frequencies so you will need a proper graphics card that can do this.  J-PAC is ready to go with 3-button setups but will require some re-wiring for any 6-button setups (although you can try plug & play but I doubt it will work).  There is a disc that comes with it that contains instructions on various setups, but for the most part I find the J-PAC to be ready to go out of the box (other than the monitor frequency jumpers).

Next is the graphics card.  In order to display your PC on an arcade cab you need to get the resolution proper for display (most horizontal monitors are 640×480) and the frequency correct (most monitors I’ve worked with are 15 khz).  The easiest way (but not the cheapest way) to do this is to purchase the ArcadeVGA graphics card (also from UltiMarc) for a whopping $90.  The plus side you get out of this card is that it’s tailor made for what you want and does pixel perfect recreations on your arcade monitor without software or settings.  This is an especially tempting option if you need a J-PAC and purchase at the same time.  I have seen them in action and they are nice, but I already had a graphics card that works and a J-PAC so I opted out of this for my current setup.  It’s by far the easiest and best option.

Alternatively, you can use a software called Soft15k to force any compatible graphics card to get your PC resolutions and frequencies used by arcade monitors.  You’ll be spending some time in the FAQ on this one.  If you scour the FAQ you can find compatible graphics cards (I’m in there too), but what I used was a Radeon HD 4350 by Gigabyte I can vouch for and the Arcade VGA is based on the Radeon HD 5450 so those are good starting points.  Try to pick cards from that era because they were low profile and required no additional power like today’s cards.  Also before you ask (and get no answer), Soft15K does work with Vista (don’t use this OS) and Windows 7.  The catch with Soft15K is that once you install it and shut down, the next boot will be in 15 khz and thus won’t display on a monitor, you’ll have to plug it into your J-PAC, turn on your arcade and pray that after it boots you get a viewable screen.  Remember to find and adjust the vertical and horizontal placement, size, and v sync to make sure the picture is not rolling, centered, and fully viewable (it’s usually 6-8 nobs with labels found somewhere on or around your monitor).  Assuming you’ve gotten it all set up, you should have a working MAME cab like this!

Cost and Final Rundown

So, how much should you expect to spend?  Of course it will vary based on arcade cabinet, hardware, software, options, etc.  Here’s a quick breakdown of my setup and you should be able to freely adjust the slight changes to your preferences.

Arcade cabinet:  $0.00 (but $150.00 in transport costs for renting a UHaul – be sure to rent the dolly too – and paying for gas and pizza/beer for those that helped me)

Computer:          $100.00 (try  not to spend more or use a modern rig)

J-PAC:                 $59.00

Graphics Card:  $30.00  (Gigabyte Radeon HD 4350)

Random purchases:  $150.00 (hardware, parts, degaussing coil, external speakers, etc)

Total Cost:  Approx $500

Total Time Spent on First Build:  Approx 10+ hours (spread over a week)

Again, your mileage may vary, but this is a good and (relatively) inexpensive way to play any arcades you would ever want.  Granted, based on cost and space this is not the option for everyone but without the cabinet the PC portion and price definitely can be.

 

Written by Fred Rojas

August 28, 2014 at 2:21 pm

Posted in Arcade, Blog, Features

Tagged with , ,

Perspective: Video Games: The Movie

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vgtm_box I went into this film intending on writing a review, however after seeing what it has to offer I think the better article more discusses what you can expect and if, at this time, it’s worth the higher prices asked of a direct-to-digital (DTD) release.

I didn’t know about this movie until the day before it was released thanks to an interview between Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek and director Jeremy Snead.  In their brief conversation, it becomes clear that Snead has chosen to tackle this documentary as a pop culture phenomenon and dissects it for the public.  Knowing that I went into VGtM expecting it to be adjusted for a general audience and quite possibly learning nothing new that anyone who’s studied video game history didn’t already know (or could learn on this and other sites).  That’s okay, as a retro gaming blogger and podcaster I know I’m working with a minority group (retro gamers) within a minority group (“core” gamers, for lack of a better term).  To put it bluntly: if he made a movie specifically for us or people like us it would be a commercial failure.  Not only that, but I got the feeling from some of Klepek’s line of questioning that Snead may not be quite up to snuff on his deep historical facts on gaming’s past.  I’ll give him this though, his favorite video game of all time is Ikari Warriors on the NES, and that has to count for something.  For appropriateness I invited over a couple of friends who are familiar with gaming but most likely knew little about the subject and also piggy-backed my wife into the audience, which is somewhat unfair because she has to listen to my historical gaming diatribes on a regular basis, and we watched this mainstream-safe documentary on more than four decades of my favorite hobby.

It wasn’t more than 10 minutes in (the film runs just around 90 mins) that I was already annoying people as I questioned, nitpicked, and vocalized by general dissatisfaction with the way Snead’s film tackled history itself.  After a justified attack on my disposition, I shut the hell up and just watched the film for face value.  To my surprise, I was entertained.

You may not know the story of Ralph Baer, Nolan Bushnell, or even Shigeru Miyamoto, or the long-standing debates in nerd culture as to which of these three men are responsible for what we know call a video game.  Thanks to the content of this movie, you will not only meet those men but you’ll get some insight on what they contributed and why it’s understandable to consider any of them to be the “father of modern games”.  Additionally being a visual medium, this film affords people to finally see old school consoles like the Odyssey in action – and why I consider it more of a Pong clone than a game system – or even what a really old computer, the PDP-1, looked like in an MIT lab.  Things like that are cool and do add to your knowledge, even if you already knew the facts, because now you can attribute it to a moving working game.  Unfortunately for all the good it brings, this documentary gets bogged down in a limited amount of interviews, focus, and timeline of events that it feels a bit rushed and suffers with the audience for it.

dreamcastSega fans like myself will notice an apparent lack of those particular consoles in the spotlight, the most atrocious being the complete omission of the Dreamcast.  Yeah, seriously, it’s not in the entire film.  Just in case you’re wondering if it was a timeline issue, this movie features everything from Spacewar! to Destiny (running on a Playstation 4), so I have no idea why it was omitted.  Focus keeps jumping back to Nintendo’s consoles, which at first makes sense due to its larger popularity, but since the house of Mario is so good at keeping its stories and secrets locked away there are few facts to help support the events VGtM tackles.  Sega, on the other hand, has documented some of its longest, strongest, and most troubled game and hardware development stories in gaming history.  None of the big interesting tales come into play – like the origins of the Sony Playstation as a SNES CD add-on or the day that home console games took on arcade games.  For the large scale issues that are covered, like the mid 90s senate hearings over video game violence, the documentary offers no perspective or opinion, even from its interviewees.  This leaves the viewer uninformed with limited information and forced to decide whether or not they agree with it and frankly is horrible coverage.

vgtm_nb

It all wraps together in a by-the-book documentary that is one thing: safe.  No controversy here, no new stories, no opinion, and ultimately no soul.  I can’t speak to why certain decisions were made, but it seems clear that budget and time constraints were probably the largest factors as to why we are consistently leaping back and forth over the 20 year gap from 1990-2010 as a focal point and why nothing is covered in depth.  When compared to a much better executed documentary like The King of Kong, you start to notice how the opinions, tales, and drama reinforced by that film keeps you invested because, for better or worse, it is trying to say something.  VGtM is not really trying to say anything other than, perhaps, that video games are a big market and here’s some cool factoids about them.  The reality is that few have tackled the subject and Snead’s film is worth seeing, even if it didn’t quite tackle the subject the way I would have liked.  I still feel that learning about the behind-the-scenes scandals and business wars of Nintendo, Sony, and Phillips or the $100 slam of the Playstation over the Saturn plays to the masses much better than showing me a ton of blood in Mortal Kombat and mentioning that the senate once discussed gaming violence.  Either way, if you’re looking for a documentary that lays a limited portion of the video game pantheon at your feet and selectively reveals facts that anyone who grew up with games could tell you, it may be worthwhile.  I’ll be the first to admit that nostalgia is a strong factor and VGtM being in an audio/visual medium capable of showing off the games themselves makes it worth the time and price of admission.  Hopefully you can get a mixed group and find the entertainment in a flawed, but fun trip down gaming memory lane.

Video Games: The Movie is available in limited theatrical run and digitally for both rent and purchase via Amazon, VuDu, Google Play, iTunes, and at videogamesthemovie.com.  Cost for rental varies starting at $6.99 for SD with HD and purchase options up to $12.99.  The editorial writer, Fred Rojas, rented this film in HD from Amazon Instant Video for a cost of $6.99 and viewed it twice during the 1 week rental period.  No technical hang-ups occurred during either viewing.

Written by Fred Rojas

August 5, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Posted in Blog

Tagged with ,

Mario Kart 64 vs. Diddy Kong Racing – The Ultimate Retro Racing Game Debate

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pro

The two notoriously addictive and challenging 3D racing games produced for the Nintendo 64 were Mario Kart 64, developed by Nintendo and released on February 10th 1997, and Diddy Kong Racing, developed by Rareware and released on the 21st of November 1997. Both games skyrocketed in sales and popularity, with Diddy Kong selling over 4.5 million copies and Mario Kart selling over 9 million copies. The outrageous sales of Mario Kart 64 was arguably due to the fact that the characters were previously known and established by Nintendo in previous games, whilst the characters featured on Diddy Kong Racing were generally new installments.

In fact, Nintendo used Diddy Kong Racing as a platform to set up new characters to be released in other Nintendo games; these were characters such as Banjo the bear (the Banjo Kazooie series following) and Conker the Squirrel (the infamous Conkers Bad Fur Day followed). But the age old debate between old school and retro gamers remains: which was better? There are hardcore advocates and arguments on both sides, some of which we will take a look at.

Storylines

dkrac_1Typically racing games do not have or need a strong storyline. It is arguable that if people have bought a racing game, they want to race vehicles around a track, not play an action adventure. There are certain disadvantages including a storyline, such as once you have taken all of the available cars for a spin around every track, where is there to go from there?

Mario Kart 64 has no discernible storyline – effectively, Mario and his friends have all gathered together and decided to race – that is simply it.  On the other hand, Diddy Kong Racing has a developed, all be it mental, storyline. It involves Wizpig, an alien pig from space, trying to take over an island that a tiger has been put in charge of… and there’s a flying elephant at some stage… it’s crazy. However, this injects a huge element of fun into the gameplay. When you have a known adversary to eventually race against, it spurs you on and gives you the drive to race again and again.

This is what Mario Kart 64 is missing.  The argument is that a single player mode that involves racing against the other characters again and again with minimal dimensions to the story don’t give you a drive to continue playing for hours and hours on end.

 

Tracks

toad_turnpikeWithin Mario Kart 64, every track has been extremely well thought out and detailed, complete with the music reflecting the mood and feel of each track. You always know which track is your favourite and which one is your worst because they are all extremely distinct from each other.

When looking at the racing courses on Diddy Kong Racing, so many tracks evoke a feeling of unremarkability. Having played both, I couldn’t tell you which is my favourite Diddy Kong course, but I can instantly recall my favourite Mario Kart track (it’s Toad’s Turnpike).

Gameplay

Controls

The controls in Mario Kart 64 are, unfortunately for Diddy Kong Racing, unparalleled. Both the responsiveness and the terrain interaction match perfectly to give an accurate representation of each player’s ability at the game itself.  Diddy Kong Racing, on the other hand, struggles to match up to the same level of responsiveness, and the terrain can make the game almost unplayable on some of the (ice) levels.

Vehicle Diversity

dkrac_fly

The vehicle selection in Diddy Kong gives you access to a selection of cars, planes, and hovercrafts.  This, whilst giving more of a variety of gameplay to a gamer, has upsides and downsides. The hovercraft is extremely hard to control, cornering like a golf buggy on ice. The planes, although fun, have issues with certain tracks as it is seemingly impossible to turn a corner without crashing into a wall. Even with these detrimental aspects, the vehicle diversity keeps the tracks interesting and challenging.

In Mario Kart, you can develop your technique with each character, but after playing the game for a long time you get so used to the tracks and vehicles behaviour that the game becomes less challenging.  This can lead to getting bored with playing the game, which is obviously the opposite effect that the developers wanted.

 

MultiPlayer

There is no discernible winner in this category; both games have a great multiplayer component to them. Mario Kart has been supported as being the better of the two for group racing and battle rounds, but I think this is more a matter of personal preference.

 

The Verdict

mk64_win

Although both games have great attributes to them, I believe that Mario Kart 64 is the winner. This is purely down to reflective talent in the controls and weapon base that the game possess. Although Diddy Kong Racing has a great free roaming edge to the gamer platform, Mario Kart‘s developed tracks and notable characters are unforgettable. In the debate about what’s a better video game, sometimes the effort into developing and making them is forgotten. Product design consultants and software design companies work hard to achieve the best gaming experience for their audience base, and I think that they should be commended with both titles in creating two fantastic and distinct racing games.

 

Written by Drew Rapley

May 12, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Posted in Blog, Head to Head, N64

Wax Nostalgic Responsibly

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classic_gameAs time ticks by the threshold of what is considered nostalgic and retro grows exponentially.  I dare not even define the term or the guidelines one may foolishly attempt to place on what would even be appropriate for a site like this.  At the going rate of Internet coverage I could probably justify reviewing a game a month old or that has recently earned a price drop as retro, it’s all relative.  Still, there is a place for looking fondly back at gaming days passed but it is important to realize that with the ongoing clutter of fan created gaming sites that we all do our part to stand out.  I don’t want to read articles about things I already know, I want to read articles about things no one knows.  This is why you don’t see much coverage of Super Mario World or reviews of the latest virtual console releases – too many have already done it before.  When you set out to talk about the past, try to impress with what unique items you can bring to the table, not recycling.

It’s a hard road to figure out what to cover and frankly we tend to migrate to what we know best, but remember that as a consumer product there were so many copies of Super Mario Bros. 3 that perhaps one does not need to review it for the thousandth time.  I may be off base, but I propose that anyone talking about old games either try to cover what has rarely been touched before or bring a new angle.  Also it’s important to understand that with different eras ushers different players and neither is the correct opinion.  I scoff at the people who played pinball in the 70s and 80s and tell me that I should play a real man’s game and put aside kiddie video games.  In that same regard I know there are plenty of you out there who want to dismiss me immediately for feeling that N64 bred few winners, especially when you find out I like Shadows of the Empire and don’t much care for Goldeneye.  It’s all perspective.  So here is a fun list of rules I have created when delving into the games of the past that hopefully you will find helpful.

Embrace the Faults of your Favorites

This month we are playing Super Metroid for the game club.  Having now completed the game, I get why it can be considered by some to be the greatest title of all time and yet others can’t figure out why the hell I knew to look for all the wacky hidden paths and items in that game.  It’s simple, I just pretend I’m back to that time and start to think like the designers of that time.  I knew the landscape, I knew the game concepts, and I knew the style, but unless I acknowledge what was going on at the time Super Metroid is not a competitor to today’s titles, especially when you consider the wall jump.  This is true of any game in the past and it will be true of any game today when more than a decade has passed.  Another great example is my favorite title: Resident Evil.  I get a little excited every time I boot that game up, in any iteration it was available for, and I happen to own it more than 10 times over on as many different consoles.  It is undeniably my favorite title, but I dare not say it is the best game of all time, this simply isn’t true.  To play and appreciate Resident Evil means that you have to appreciate long load times, slow pacing and reaction time, one-hit kills late in the game that can set you back 30+ minutes, and endless backtracking.  It’s not for everyone, but it impressed a great many at the time of its release.

Appreciation Without Masochism

There are a great deal of influential games that paved the way to many staples in contemporary game design.  Some of these titles, like Chrono Trigger, withstand the test of time and are great to replay today.  Others, like Half Life 2, don’t quite hold up when compared to the sea of first-person shooters that grace the walls of most game collections.  I know it’s mean to pick on Valve’s baby, one of the highest rated games of all times, and probably the title that created all of our favorite shooter franchises but that game just doesn’t hold up.  Graphically, thanks to the Source engine, it can still look nice, but it doesn’t play nice.  First person platforming, pathetic pseud0 jet ski controls, blocky mindless monologues, and the annoying thin-wire-under-the-bridge sequence aren’t exactly what today’s gamer views as fun.  Sure if you desperately want to know the building blocks of the franchise/genre or go into it with an open mind there’s no denying the innovation it reveals, but you don’t have to play it to appreciate that.  Just do a quick search for “Half Life 2″ and you will be blasted with endless articles explaining, justifying, dissecting, and begging for a return to this title – no gameplay required.  This and countless other titles are games you should know and be aware of when brought up in conversation but the twelve-hour romp of the main campaign and the so-so follow-up episodes are really only there as a reminder, not an all-powerful example through the ages of how to make an FPS.  Oh, and just in case you don’t think I can slam my own favorites, just know that I consider Deus Ex to very much be in this same category.

Try It Before You Buy It

illegalJust like illegally downloading music tracks, gamers tackle emulation much in the same fashion – it’s illegal, it’s wrong, and everyone does it.  Putting aside the dark and brooding side effect of playing games illegally on the take, emulation also allows you to experience a game before pulling the trigger of buying it on a digital service or *gasp* for the skyrocketed prices of classic collections.  How many of you have played N20: Nitrous Oxide?  It’s quite an intriguing title that seemingly combines tempest, Starfox, the effect of tripping, and songs by The Crystal Method.  I find it to be a fascinating game that’s fun to pull up and blast away at from time to time.  It’s also a niche title so perhaps before you drop even a measly $6 for it on PSN you might want to test drive it.  This is where emulation can be a friend and asset.  Think of emulators as demo consoles, allowing you to get involved in the first 30-60 minutes of a game and, if you are convinced, a way to justify purchasing it.  You can try tons of games, most of which you hopefully have never heard of or not touched, and decide which is going to be the next retro gem for your collection.  Technology works for us, not against us, and no one can afford to buy every old school game they don’t know or heard something good about.  When you find that magical title, write your thoughts.  I’m always interested in finding out why someone today was compelled to play something from the past, especially if it isn’t well-known or liked.

Retro gaming is an endless web of unique gameplay, technological breakthroughs, fascinating adventures, and utter trash.  When you choose to explore, dissect, or cover these titles it’s optimal to do and play something original.  Keep that in mind when it comes down to replaying Grand Theft Auto Vice City for the tenth time or giving Shinobi a go.  You may find that the game talked about the least becomes the title you cherish the most.

Written by Fred Rojas

May 9, 2014 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Blog

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Rated M For Mature

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mature_gamers

Today I’m going to touch on a topic that is near and dear to my heart: maturity.  It’s quite a complex word and rarely is it defined correctly because the USA, and most of the world, like to gauge a work’s “maturity” by the quantitative amount of content that is unsuitable for public consumption.  This does not make a mature game in my eyes.  While it may be chock full of breasts, f-words, and toilet humor that literally dnfhas you flinging feces, Duke Nukem Forever is not a mature game despite what its rating says.  It is a reality of a world that is forced to categorize appropriateness of a medium, in this case software, for a quick guide to consumers on what’s appropriate.  At the same time I do feel that games can and sometimes do represent true, mature scenarios that mix graphic content with justified plot.  Sadly this is not the case for the majority of titles and the main focus of this article deals with the controversy surrounding Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and specifically plot points that come about at the end of the 120 minute campaign.  In writing this I first read articles by Lucy O’Brien of IGN¹, Cameron Kunzelman of Paste Magazine², and on a more informal note the talented Ria Jenkins of Introskeptive³ (article links at the bottom), who have dissected the ending in a much better way than I ever can.  As you proceed forward, be warned that some of the topics of MGSV: GZ will be touched upon and the referenced articles definitely spoil these events in greater detail.  It should also be noted that the following content, while not explicit, does discuss some gritty subject matter.

So let’s get down to brass tacks: MGSV: GZ has rape in it.  This is a tough subject to tackle and still remains mostly taboo in the world today, even though the actual statistics are so high it’s staggering.  I’d like to say it’s not appropriate.  I’d like to say it shouldn’t be in media.  I’d also like to say that whenever rape is used as a plot device it’s unnecessary.  Just because it hasn’t been done yet doesn’t meant that it shouldn’t.  There are plenty of examples in books, film, and even television that state the contrary, and I’ve had it with the double standard that gamers make stating games are nothing more than entertainment but getting offended when the media calls games immature.  Rape is absolutely a subject that can, and maybe even should, be tackled in video games, if handled appropriately.  Unfortunately there’s a great barrier to entry given the fact that games, unlike other media, are always expensive, always a business decision, and will never reach mainstream acceptance like these other examples in the current state of the world.  Basically books, film, and television can be made faster, cheaper, with less of a risk, and more widely accepted than games that it’s hard to find subject matter such as this handled well.  This is why the way Hideo Kojima and his team handled the rape sequence in MGSV: GZ not only unfortunate, but disappointing.

mgs5Few creative directors have the clout and freedom that Hideo Kojima does.  Programming Metal Gear on the MSX microcomputer in 1987 along with a small team that detailed the story of Solid Snake, an assassin for hire sent to infiltrate a compound and deactivate a mobile nuclear weapon left from Cold War atrocities, was a true work of art.  Limitations of the time allowed you to feel like an actual soldier hiding behind enemy lines and sneaking through the core of a terrorist organization.  It wasn’t about killing, it was about being invisible.  From that point forward he launched a career going on 30 years that told one of the most complex and emotional series of all time.  Metal Gear Solid and its sequels always played the realities of war close to the chest while escaping the darker side with supervillian-like bosses and childlike humor such as a guy with diarrhea and hitting on the main communicator of a covert op.  It was hard to follow, it didn’t make sense, and it was some of the most fun I’ve had while gaming.  I love this series (as proven by our podcast on it).  At this point the sky is the limit for Hideo Kojima and Konami will definitely give him the freedom to write whatever he wants into his games, which is why everyone was walking on eggshells with this newest iteration that seemed to take a very realistic turn.  Took a turn for realism it did, but not before concepts like prisoners of war being raped, children being sexually abused, and the overall terror of war was thrown at you in a mere 15 minutes of bombarded plot points at the end of Ground Zeroes‘ story.  It was jarring and it felt insincere.

By the time you complete the story of Chico and Paz in Ground Zeroes, they are shells of people.  In fact, I felt that Paz was the only person who truly found peace in the end, but what she had to go through to get there was unimaginable.  I wasn’t having fun, it wasn’t a release from the real world, and most importantly I felt for those that had gone through such a trauma.  Parts of it don’t make sense – like Paz’s reaction to her violation later on with Chico – and others just seem to be a person devising the worst ways to violate someone.  I will admit that the esrb_mevents aren’t far-fetched, Paz seemed to be the only female in an all male prisoner camp and the sexually violent behavior of both psychopaths and warmongers, of which Skull Face is both, but you can get that across without being so explicit.  I guess what I’m saying is that it was hammering home a topic that may have been best handled with subtlety.  It just goes to prove that Kojima isn’t ready to tackle these kinds of subjects and unless he had some peers in writing the plot, no one at Kojima Productions (KojiPro) had the balls to tell him so.  In the end I don’t care if Chico or Paz live or die because the amount of trauma they have suffered doesn’t suggest a very normal life moving forward, they are broken.  It’s the same reason the intro of the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre that showed an aged Jessica Biel in a psycho ward was cut from the movie: even if this is realistically what would happen, you don’t want to see it firsthand and be reminded of it.  What should have been a celebration for Snake succeeding in another extraction became somewhat of a torture porn scenario where everyone loses.  It’s a zero sum game and that’s not a video game I want to play, which is ironic considering I really liked the new Fox Engine and gameplay scenarios.  This is even further disheartening because few others will be able to tackle this subject with any developer or publisher and especially now that there was this editorial backlash.  I want video games to be ready for mature content.  With the more recent realism and storytelling of today’s games, notably The Last of Us, I thought that there was enough care and self control that whenever topics – such as rape – were introduced that the games industry would show the world it was ready.  This just proves that, perhaps, video games haven’t grown up to handle truly being rated “M for Mature”.

What do you think?  Feel free to give your opinion and lets get a dialogue going.

References

1: What’s Wrong With Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes’ Ending? by Lucy O’Brien at IGN

2: The Violent Sexism of Metal Gear Solid V by Cameron Kunzelman at Paste Magazine

3: Chico’s Tape 4 by Ria Jenkins at Introskeptive

Written by Fred Rojas

April 19, 2014 at 5:00 pm

Progressive Challenge: A History of Game Difficulties

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Zelda2

Zelda II: The Adventures of Link, Shin Megami Tensei Persona, IkarugaDark Souls.  All of these games have one thing in common: they are hard as hell.  Since the genesis of the video game difficulty has existed to be the barrier to entry and the extension of game experiences.  What is a video game if not a challenge?  Originally technology had not caught up with the goals of the medium so games had to use difficulty to bridge the gap of a good experience where visuals and storytelling failed.  Nowadays games are just as capable, if not more, than other media in being an interactive experience and therefore difficulty steps aside most times.  I consistently hear that the concept of difficulty is dead, that a hard game dictates a good game, and that today’s gamers are weak and catered to.  Frankly, I disagree with all of that.  Gaming is typically tech dependent and with that dependence comes the evolution of experience, which results in the evolution of difficulty.  Games haven’t gotten harder or easier, they have simply evolved.

Difficulty Trends

I think the question of how difficult a game is comes to the amount of time you spend with it, which is why games seem easier today.  Traditionally the challenge was intended to get you to play the game more often, justifying the high price tag for a relatively short experience.  Take Contra for example, I cleared that game on this very site in roughly half an hour without using any codes.  This is not an easy feat for many gamers and definitely much harder for those that didn’t grow up playing the game.  While it may have only taken me 30 minutes, there are tens of hours of practice spanning more than 25 years that led up to that run.  In contrast, I could not conquer Ghosts’n’Goblins and finally gave up after two hours.  There is someone out there who is the exact opposite as me and it’s most likely based on what they have played.  This is transparently due to memorization – once you know exactly what is going to happen to the point that the game becomes manageable.  The best way to memorize something is to repeat it over and over.  Enter the first generation of the difficulty.

Parallel to this initial outing in repetition and memorization comes reflex.  Some of you reading that last paragraph may be thinking more of games like Punch-Out!! or even a PowerPad game like Stadium Events that require you to have the skill to conquer them.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve memorized Bald Bull’s charge, if you can’t nail the timing of hitting him in the stomach you’re either repeating the dodge till the end of the round or eating canvas.  Either way, you’ll never win.  Being able to conquer a skill set, nail timing, and basically having the reflexes to perform complex tasks in games like Super Mario Bros. 2 (Lost Levels in the US) either enabled or prevented your ability to win.

battletoadsFinally there were the dick programmers.  Like it or not they didn’t have an appropriate way to blanket difficulty so they were forced to fudge it.  This explains such terrible games as Beat Takeshi’s Challenge, Battletoads, and Silver Surfer where being good at the game or memorizing how to beat it meant nothing because the game invariably stacks the odds against you.  Repeating an area is one thing but forcing someone into game over screen after game over screen to the point of insanity with nothing but unsavable hours to retread the past is not fun.  These games are not fun.  They are only used for the purpose of masochism.

 

Contemporary Difficulty

From that point they just continued to evolve in a regular pattern until you get the games of today.  Nowadays the point of many games is to tell a tale rather than post a challenge, resulting in games like Heavy Rain that have no end game state.  On the other hand some of the biggest and oldest gaming tropes hold true.  Dark Souls is nothing more than a memorization game, as are any of the bullet hell shmups you may enjoy today.  The game never changes its course, it always spawns the same enemies in the same way – many argue to alter this mechanic would navigate it to the “not fun” hard status.  Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero/Rock Band are also nothing more than reflex gameplay, requiring that you not only understand what to do, but perform actual physical tasks to achieve your goal.  I think the only difference to games today and from the past is the unknown.

dark-souls-dragon-bridge

Imagine playing The Legend of Zelda for the first time today.  I will fully admit that I can breeze through this title in no time, having little fear of taking on Gannon at the end, but then I grew up playing it and knowing its intricacies.  I think you would be hard pressed to find someone today that hasn’t played it dedicate the time it would take to figure out the mechanics, find the secrets like where to get hearts and the location of dungeons, and finally complete the game.  If that person were to go online, you may accuse them of making the game unfairly easy or cheating to get ahead.  This is why people criticize Dark Souls and those that generate guides to get it.  It also explains why it’s so popular; gamers get to return to those better days where you have to figure the world out.    Also keep in mind that like Dark Souls, it may not be just about memorization or reflexes, but both, which creates a whole new barrier for entry.  Still, there will always be those games that are not fun and unnaturally hard for no reason, and for games like Knight’s Contract I say good riddance and the world is a better place without you.

Written by Fred Rojas

March 31, 2014 at 4:01 pm

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