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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

Buying Guide: 3DO

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We all love our retro consoles, but in many cases the consoles we are buying are because they are cheap enough or we have enough money to purchase what we never were able to in our youth.  Unfortunately the business of making used retro items available to the masses can at times be a money grubbing market where consumers are deceived by people they will never meet in real life.  As an individual who has spent the last decade scouring the local area, conventions, eBay, and the internet as a whole I have learned many valuable lessons.  For that reason I present my buying guide series, which is a handy quick guide to knowing what to purchase and what will cost an arm and a leg to replace.

Historically the 3DO, most commonly associated with Panasonic’s license because it had the largest manufacturing numbers and advertising campaign, is the most expensive video game console of all time.  Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts (EA), formed the 3DO company for software development and developed a hardware spec that could be licensed to companies for manufacturing, much like companies have done with VCRs and DVD players.  Unfortunately since the profit for manufacturers had to come from the sale of the hardware itself – all other consoles were sold at a reduced price for a loss and software sales would close the gap for profits – and the 3DO sold for the staggering price of $700.  As a result, few consoles were actually sold and three companies (Panasonic, Sanyo, and Goldstar) had already manufactured units that weren’t selling.  This balance of supply and demand results in the 3DO being the much more reasonable $100-$150 on the used console market these days, but few know what actually came in the box.  Here’s what you need to get it working:

  • AC cord: Since it was manufactured by multiple companies and doesn’t require an AC adaptor, a simple AC cord with a two-pringed circle end (looks like a figure 8) can be used.  Replacement cables can be found at Walgreens or RadioShack for roughtly $3-$5.
  • A/V composite cables: These cables are just your standard yellow/white/red composite cables that plug directly into the ports on the back of the console.  Again, due to the multiple manufacturers there is no console specific A/V cable.  Replacements can be found everywhere for $2-$10 and I grabbed mine from unused composite cables in DVD players and other HD compatible devices.
  • Controller: Even though the plug port looks like an Atari 2600 or Genesis port, you can only plug actual 3DO controllers into it.  Almost all of the controllers look like a 3-button Genesis controller and each controller has a controller port on it for daisy chaining additional controllers (the 3DO only has one controller port).  Controllers are pretty easy to find still and you can pick one up for about $10-$20 online.  There is a 6-button controller out there, which like so many other consoles was only released because of a Street Fighter II port and isn’t worth the high price due to rarity.

Optionally the only accessory you may want is the light gun peripheral, the “gamegun”, for a handful of FMV shooters (Mad Dog McCree, Who Shot Johnny Rock?) and a mouse for certain PC ports like Myst.  Be warned, rarity makes these peripherals an expensive endeavor that may cost close to or more than the console itself.  I could easily find most of the poor light gun games on the 3DO on the Sega CD as well and they only suffer slight quality loss and are much less expensive.  The one thing you may want to pay attention to is the console type you buy.  Like other CD systems, there are both top loading and slide tray versions of the 3DO and you may want to consider dropping the extra scratch for a top loader for reliability.  Here are the different manufactured types:

  • Panasonic made two models in America, the FZ-1 and the FZ-10, and the FZ-10 is definitely the recommended model with a lighter and slimmer design and a top loading CD tray.  There was also a model, the ROBO, which was only sold in Japan and had a slide loading 5-disc CD tray.
  • Goldstar only had one model in America, the GDO-101M, and it looked almost identical to the FZ-1 and featured a slide loading tray just like that model.  Although reliable, the Goldstar is nearly impossible to find parts for so a broken belt on the tray means a required replacement console.
  • Sanyo only made one model, it was only sold in Japan, and it has a similar design to the FZ-1 and the GDO-101M.  It is probably the most rare of the consoles.

Since the 3DO is region free and will play any 3DO disc, you can really pick up any version you want but the price increase can get out of control.  I don’t trust drive trays of the 90s personally so I’ve only ever owned an FZ-10 and I’ve never had one stop functioning.  A complete console should run you $70-$100 online and hopefully even less than that if you can find a used console in a store or at a convention.  video coming soon – ed.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 24, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Buying Guide: Jaguar

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We all love our retro consoles, but in many cases the consoles we are buying are because they are cheap enough or we have enough money to purchase what we never were able to in our youth.  Unfortunately the business of making used retro items available to the masses can at times be a money grubbing market where consumers are deceived by people they will never meet in real life.  As an individual who has spent the last decade scouring the local area, conventions, eBay, and the internet as a whole I have learned many valuable lessons.  For that reason I present my buying guide series, which is a handy quick guide to knowing what to purchase and what will cost an arm and a leg to replace.

The Atari Jaguar just can’t get a break.  Touted as a technological breakthrough of its time, this holiday 1993 console may have been a commercial failure but it was clearly a hardware powerhouse.  Sure, it may not have been a true 64-bit console just because the twin Tom and Jerry chips were 32-bit co-processors (more on that in our podcast), but for $250 you were getting a lot for your money (estimates claim the Jaguar cost up to $400 to manufacture).  As far as exclusives go there’s not really much to tell.  You’ve basically got Aliens vs. PredatorTempest 2000Breakout 2000, and Kasumi Ninja – half of which are considered to be crap by most gamers – so finding the games on the Jaguar elsewhere will be easy to do.  Couple that with the god awful controllers and the need (at least for me) to purchase all of the console games complete in box with the inserts for the controller (and essentially increasing the price anywhere from three to ten fold) and most people are probably going to walk away.  In the event that you aren’t one of those people, just prepare for the fact that you will be spending on the upwards of $100-$200 just on a working console with a couple of controllers and then probably $30-$60 on each game if you want all the inserts and whatnot.  What you will receive in return is an impressive experience for not only the exclusives, but also the definitive version of a lot of games that were ported all over the place.  DoomNBA Jam: Tournament EditionWolfenstein 3DRaidenFlashbackPrimal Rage, and Rayman all look as good or better than their original arcade/PC versions and often have enhancements or extra content to justify the re-release on this console.  Not only that but titles like Cannon FodderSyndicate, and Theme Park are identical to the 3DO versions of those games – which in and of itself was a much more expensive ($700) and disc-based console – so if you want to re-live those halcyon Windows 95 days you either have endless headaches with DOSbox or grabbing these decent controller-ready console ports.  At this price point, you want to make sure you know what to get so here’s what you can expect when trying to grab a Jaguar:

  • AC Adaptor: Atari’s Jaguar used a pretty typical AC-to-DC power supply (those big boxy things that came with every console in the 80s and early 90s) that’s 9V at 1.2 Amps (1200 mA).  This is very standard and the plug type that goes into the Jag looks just like the one on the Genesis 2, Turbografx-16, etc. so feel free to pick up a replacement at RadioShack (they have like 12 plug tips to choose from, this one is very distinct) or many on the forums have suggested both the Genesis and Turbografx-16 adaptors work (if you own those consoles), but I can’t personally vouch for that so use at your own risk.
  • RF Adaptor: While the Jaguar was capable of much better output than RF coaxial, that’s what the console came with so it’s probably what you are going to get from most people selling the console.  This is not an ideal way to hook it up and when I tested this I had tons of RF interference because that’s what you can expect with an old coaxial RF interface.  Fortunately there was an official composite cable sold by Atari that is somewhat easy to find today on eBay for around $30, but modders have also created a much better composite/S-video hybrid cable that is definitely the best way to go and can be found for around $40.  If you want to go super high end for captures or for use with a 1080p TV and the beloved Framemeister box, you can also find some sellers online that offer the RGB output to direct 240p.  I just stuck with the S-Video and things look great on it.
  • Console: There’s not much to tell here, the console itself has an interesting square back and oval front design with a cart loader on top.  This means that most of the insides of the Jaguar are compact and contained (especially since the cart-based console has no moving parts) so scrapes, scuffs, scratches, dents, and even cracks in the plastic casing probably won’t affect it’s ability to work at all.  I would never recommend this but there’s a good chance the Jaguar could live a trip down the stairs or a drop from a reasonable height onto carpet.  The contacts on the back that allow for video ouput and the shiny red power button on the top are probably the places where you want to check for problems, since those are really the only two places (other than cart slot and power port) that can get damaged and cause the console not to function.
  • Controller: Like most others, it’s a 15-pin controller port that looks similar to the Genesis, Atari VCS/2600, 3DO, etc. but unlike those consoles you get a bulky 3-button controller that has a full 12-button numeric keypad on it as well.  This was the curse of the Jaguar because most of these buttons did various things (like switching weapons in Doom) that made it useful and sometimes necessary to have the game-specific insert that came with the game.  Given the paper boxes and relative ease to rip, break, or lose those inserts, you will want as many of them as you can find (there probably are guides online for them as well but paper is no match for the durable vinyl ones that came with the game).  Make sure the d-pad, big red buttons, and keypad buttons all click in and work properly as well as no tears or bent pins on the controller cord or ports on the console.  Atari’s Jaguar only came with one controller out of the box, so expect replacements to be somewhat hard to come by, cost a decent chunk of change ($40-$60), and jump the price of the console if you get more than one.
  • Cybermorph: I don’t believe this game was available commercially because it came included with every Jaguar console, but perhaps it did.  Since it came with the console, most owners will include this game along with a Jaguar or you can pick it up for like $5-$10 if you really want to play this hybrid between Starfox‘s graphics and a poor man’s Defender gameplay.  This is also why most copies you see will have no box, often no instructions, and of course this game requires no inserts.

Optionally there are couple of things you want to look for with both games and accessories:

  • If you are crazy enough to buy it, there was a 4-controller adaptor that was intended for use with NBA Jam: TE to allow you to play the full arcade experience.  Not only is the adaptor quite expensive but 4 controllers on the Jaguar will run you more than the cost of the console alone.  Still, what’s a couple hundred bucks to be able to play NBA Jam with 3 friends?
  • Any game you buy will most likely have one or more controller inserts.  This can be somewhat useful when picking your weapon with Doom or essential when the keypad contains a command that you need to play the game.  You will pay more for games with the inserts, lots more, but in my opinion you signed on for that when you decided to buy a Jaguar.  There are references out there for what games need what inserts, additionally I will include that data when I start to review Jaguar games in the upcoming months.

Additionally here’s a video version of this article to assist you in knowing what to look for when buying the Jaguar.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 24, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Buying Guides, Jaguar, Lessons, Videos

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Buying Guide: Super Nintendo

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We all love our retro consoles, but in many cases the consoles we are buying are because they are cheap enough or we have enough money to purchase what we never were able to in our youth.  Unfortunately the business of making used retro items available to the masses can at times be a money grubbing market where consumers are deceived by people they will never meet in real life.  As an individual who has spent the last decade scouring the local area, conventions, eBay, and the internet as a whole I have learned many valuable lessons.  For that reason I present my buying guide series, which is a handy quick guide to knowing what to purchase and what will cost an arm and a leg to replace.

There’s really no denying the popularity of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES for short).  Despite Sega taking a temporary lead over Nintendo in the early 90s, there’s no denying that the SNES was the champion of the 16-bit console generation.  This simple machine managed to introduce us to hardcore JRPGs, mode 7 graphics, early polygonal 3D (Starfox), and even faked 3D environments (Donkey Kong Country), all without the multiple add-ons and disc-based media of other consoles at the time.  If you’re discouraged in the least by yellowing of the plastic casing for the console, don’t be, it’s a mere chemical reaction with age and actually speaks to the durability of the product.  On that same note it’s pretty doubtful that you would need a buyers guide for the SNES as just like most other Nintendo consoles there are few parts, but all the same here’s what you will definitely need:

  • AC Adaptor: Despite having a common plug port, it differs quite significantly from the NES power adapter so don’t use those specs and with different plug tips there’s no way to actually plug an NES AC adapter up to your SNES.  The official SNES AC adaptor is 10v, 0.85 Amps and should be used only for the SNES. 
  • Video cable: It’s possible to use an RF switch or the provided composite cables with the “av multi-out” port.  It is true that these are compatible with N64 and Gamecube cables as well, although only for the composite video cables, don’t use component cables and I’m unsure if S-Video works or not. 
  • Controller: As with all consoles, it’s best to find official Nintendo SNES controllers and most sellers out there try to have the system come with 2 controllers.  For the most part that’s all you’ll need.  Most 3rd party controllers suck and replacing official SNES controllers can be an expensive endeavor ($15-$20 each).

As far as accessories, I can’t really recommend any because there weren’t really any to concern yourself with.  That’s just another joy with the SNES.  Sure, hardcore light gun fans can pick up the Super Scope 6 (although I am a hardcore fan and I don’t use it), the mouse is only for use with Mario Paint, and Super Gameboy is a welcome addition to certain gamers but it’s certainly not a true SNES accessory.  No, the only accessory the SNES really requires is a great game.  There are 2 models for the SNES, the second and lesser known console being the SNES Jr., and they’re both perfectly fine and have no changes or incompatibility.  Prices are pretty standard as well, around $50-$75 for a good complete console, but I’ve often seen them sold for less in the interest of selling it off.  Note: The video will be posting shortly, hit a temporary snag. – ed.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 21, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Buying Guide: Sega Genesis (plus Sega CD and 32X)

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We all love our retro consoles, but in many cases the consoles we are buying are because they are cheap enough or we have enough money to purchase what we never were able to in our youth.  Unfortunately the business of making used retro items available to the masses can at times be a money grubbing market where consumers are deceived by people they will never meet in real life.  As an individual who has spent the last decade scouring the local area, conventions, eBay, and the internet as a whole I have learned many valuable lessons.  For that reason I present my buying guide series, which is a handy quick guide to knowing what to purchase and what will cost an arm and a leg to replace.

We have finally come to the console I started this entire buying guide series for: the Sega Genesis (and its many add-ons).  With a short period of its life having a 55 percent market share over the SNES (the year it launched, mind you), there were plenty of households who had a Sega Genesis.  So many, in fact, that there were five different versions of the console and 3 iterations!  Depending on the console version, your specs will vary but the list of what you need should stay the same so I’m going to run over the list. 

First of all, figure out which model you want, here’s the gallery of what they look like:

Model 1

Model 1

Model 2

Model 2

Model 3

Model 3

Each model has its own set of pros and cons.  Model 1 has a headphone jack with varying audio but only has mono sound, outputs to RF, and requires extra patch cables to hook up to the Sega CD and 32X (that I’m sure you can imagine are hard to find and expensive).  Model 2 is the most compatible with all add-ons and features an “av-out” port that allows you to put RF, composite, and S-Video output cables in it, but it’s also the least impressive visually and has a power and reset button that break somewhat easily.  Model 3 is the smallest, uses the least amount of power, but is incompatible with the Sega CD and 32X.  Depending on your preference, you may go with one or the other, but for making the 3-in-1 Frankenconsole, I recommend the Genesis 2.  Here’s what you’ll want with each one:

  • Power supply: These are somewhat complicated and get mixed up all the time, burning Genesis and SNES consoles to the ground for their interchangability with AC adaptors.  The Genesis 1 needs a 9v, 1.2 Amp adaptor, Genesis 2 uses a 10v, 0.85 Amp adaptor (yellow tip), and Genesis 3 uses a 10v, 0.3 Amp adaptor (usually says Majesco on the adaptor).  None of these tips or adaptors are all that rare and you should be able to assemble most of them at a RadioShack, just be careful to not overpower the amperage, which can burn out the console.
  • Video out cable: As previously stated, the Genesis 1 uses a standard single RCA RF output to a coaxial RF cable that hooks into the back of any TV.  You will need a special cable to use the RF adaptor on the Genesis 2 & 3, but on the first console any will do (even your NES or other console RF adaptors).  Genesis 2 & 3 use the same output cable that is typically composite video (yellow/white/red) but there are RF and S-Video cables that can be found after market.  None of these video cables are hard to find, so don’t worry if you need to get them separate.  They usually run around $10.
  • Controllers: Geniune 3-button and 6-button controllers that actually work can be a little hard to come by because Sega’s controllers aren’t all that durable.  Many times the buttons crap out on the controllers, rendering them all but useless.  Fortunately most aftermarket $10 controllers these days look and respond just like genuine Sega controllers, but it’s always best to get one or two with your console.

As always, there are a few accessories I’d like to headline:

  • Justifier light gun: It came packaged with Lethal Enforcers and with both a Genesis and Sega CD release along with this console version being the popular one, there are plenty to go around.  This gun is compatible with all Genesis/Sega CD light gun games and is almost necessary with titles like Snatcher and Ground Zero Texas on Sega CD.  Make sure it’s blue, the pink one is only for the second controller and requires the first one to work.  If you prefer odd designs instead, go with the Menacer light gun.
  • Power Base Converter: Since the Genesis uses the Z80 processor that was in the Master System as its sound chip, this attachment makes it possible to play Master System games on your Genesis.  With the gaining price of the Master System, this isn’t a bad investment if you can find it for $20-$30.

Most Genesis consoles on the market remain locked in the $20-$40 range, varying slightly with certain accessories or condition.  If someone tries to sell it to you for more, there are plenty on eBay at the reduced price.  Keep in mind the AC adaptor, controller, and video cables, while easy to find, will run you about $10 apiece, which means its smarter to find a complete set rather than doing it piece meal.  The Genesis can be enhanced by two add-ons: the Sega CD and the 32X, which both require a Genesis to work.

Sega CD

There were two models of this console as well, however unlike the Genesis you will definitely want the Model 2 Sega CD because the first model has a sliding tray that burns out easily and the bands are impossible to find and replace. 

Sega CD Model 1 with Genesis model 1

Sega CD Model 1 with Genesis model 1

Sega CD Model 2 with Genesis Model 2, the most common setup

Sega CD Model 2 with Genesis Model 2, the most common setup

You really only need two accessories if you have a Genesis 2, but here’s the list:

  • AC Adaptor: This one is the same for both models and identical to the Genesis model 1, 9v at 1.2 Amps, and has the same tip as the Genesis 1 AC power supply.  In fact many used consoles come with Genesis 1 AC adaptors because the Sega CD one was lost (it’ll say “for use with Genesis” on the adaptor). 
  • For Genesis 1 models, you will need the mixing cable that hooks into the headphone jack of the Genesis 1 and the back of either Sega CD, both are identical in hook-ups.  Then you will use the stereo AV outputs on a sound receiver while the TV is on mute to generate stereo sound.  Most users don’t much care about adding stereo sound, in which case just using the RF plug will still output the sound in mono to your television.  Given the high price tag (I can’t even put a price on it because I see them so rarely) this cable will most likely not be used and hooking a model 1 to a Sega CD is suggested if you care about stereo sound.  Genesis 1 owners using a Sega CD 2 console may want the extension piece, a plastic widener that evens out the length of the Genesis 1, for aesthetics but its not necessary.
  • Metal shielding plate: This came with the console and is the same no matter which of the two Genesis models or which of the two Sega CD models you have.  It screws into the bottom of the Genesis and hooks into the notches on the Sega CD for a more firm grip.  I am certain the console works fine without it, but I can’t speak to whether or not any damage can occur because I’ve always had one.
  • Backup RAM Cartridge: It may run you $50-$75, but a working RAM cart gives you an additional 2,000 blocks of storage alongside the 200 blocks that are built into the console.  You can freely transfer save games back and forth, but you can only load from the onboard console memory, so be sure to transfer or copy your save game over before starting.  Since the onboard memory only supports 1-3 save games at a time, JRPG fans and those that play titles like Snatcher and Jurassic Park will get frustrated fast deleting a save game right after completing a title.  I consider it a must buy for anyone getting serious about collecting Sega CD games.

    Sega CDX

    Sega CDX

These days a Sega CD is quite a bit cheaper than it was once before, probably about $30-$60, and in many cases you can get a combo console for only a slightly higher $40-$70 tag because a lone Genesis is hard to unload (there really are a ton on the used market).  If you like super rare alternatives, there is a portable CD player combo console known as the CDX that will run you more than $100 but is a nice compact way to have an official Sega product that combines the Genesis and Sega CD with stereo composite output (same AC adaptor as Genesis 2).  JVC also licensed a combo console called the X’Eye, which is even more expensive and rare (usually $150-$200) and uses completely different hook-ups.  I know the AC adaptor is a 9.5v, 1.5 Amp with a common tip but my memory from the short time I owned one is slipping and it either has a proprietary AV cable or just has composite video ports in the back and you just use any old cable, like with a DVD player.  I’m pretty sure it’s the latter, but I haven’t seen one in over a decade.  Note that both the CDX and the X’Eye are incompatible with the final add-on, the 32x.

Sega 32x

Okay, for everyone who’s tired off all the different model numbers and iterations, the 32x is simple: there’s only one model and works with almost any model (incompatible with Genesis 3, CDX, and X’Eye).  On the other hand, the things you need to make it work are important and the net doesn’t have much info on this console so here’s officially what you will need for a working version (and you will see a TON of “console only” auctions on eBay and in used game stores, avoid anything that isn’t complete because it very likely hasn’t been tested):

  • AC Adaptor: This is easy, it’s the same tip and power specs as the Genesis 2, so get a replacement adaptor for like $10 or steal one from any Genesis 2 that isn’t hooked up to your 32x.  The spec is 10v, 0.85 Amp, but I’ve also heard that 9v-10v work fine and around 1 amp is also acceptible.  I wouldn’t really trust that too much for reliability’s sake, but if that console doesn’t burn hot it’s probably safe.  When the 32x gets too little power you’ll see the colors bleed and a weird underwater look to the games, this is due to the lack of power, and it will of course get very hot if overpowered, which is a fire hazard.
  • Patch cable: On the Genesis 2, it’s a simple dual-sided video cable that allows you to take the video out of the Genesis 2 and route it into the 32x for graphical processing.  It is the most common thing not included in a 32x and replacement cables run about $30, the cost of a whole console complete.  I have an example on the video, but just make sure it comes with your 32x.  If you have a Genesis 1, the patch cable needs an additional add-on cable that adapts the video patch cable to the Genesis 1 interface.  This attachment is super rare, almost never inclued in even complete 32x consoles, and will cost you a bunch if you find it.
  • Spacer: For the Genesis 2, this is an optional piece that holds the 32x firmly to the console so it doesn’t wiggle while on.  Almost always on the console because few know it can be removed.
  • Spacer Clamps: This is again for the Genesis 1 and claimed to remove radio frequency and holds the 32x firmly in place like the spacer does with the Genesis 2.  I never got those things to work properly back in 1993, the clamps damaged the plastic casing of my Genesis, and they prevented the console from making a proper connection.  I wouldn’t recommend using them in the rare event they come with your used purchase.

And that’s it, that’s the 32x.  There aren’t many games for it and the few good ones will run you more than $10 apiece, but I use it mostly because there are Sega CD 32x games that require it to work and drastically improve the visual quality of the game (like in Night Trap, Corpse Killer, and Fahrenheit).  Recently the 32x went from being a $50-$80 item and dropped into the $30-$50 range for complete consoles, which isn’t that bad of a deal.  Since any Genesis cart will work attached to the 32x, you can basically just attach it and forget about it.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Buying Guide: Turbografx-16

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We all love our retro consoles, but in many cases the consoles we are buying are because they are cheap enough or we have enough money to purchase what we never were able to in our youth.  Unfortunately the business of making used retro items available to the masses can at times be a money grubbing market where consumers are deceived by people they will never meet in real life.  As an individual who has spent the last decade scouring the local area, conventions, eBay, and the internet as a whole I have learned many valuable lessons.  For that reason I present my buying guide series, which is a handy quick guide to knowing what to purchase and what will cost an arm and a leg to replace.

There was this brief period of time when the store shelves of Toys R Us had Nintendo games, Sega Genesis games, and Turbografx-16 games.  After the Super Nintendo ushered in a whole mess of games in the holiday season of 1992 (the console premiered in 1991 but it had significant presence the following year) and the Turbografx-16 consoles moved to that dreaded area in the middle of the aisle.  Before you knew it they were stacking up boxed consoles at discounted $99.99 price tags (the console originally was either $199.99 or $149.99, although I forget which) and in 1993 it was down to $49.99 with free games and all at once disappeared.  Due to the fact that NEC’s “in between” console only moved at that exremely low price point, most people that owned the console kept it, which makes for a bit of scarcity on today’s market.  Fortunately I have this buying guide here to assist you and aside from games, there really isn’t a lot to the accessories or hook-up of a TG-16.

You will want to make sure your console has:

  • An AC adaptor that has specifically the following specs: 10.5 Volts at 730 mAh (miliamps).  With such a low amperage you will easily burn your little rare console out putting anything much stronger, not to mention it can affect gameplay and act as a fire hazard.  The plug itself has a tip that is very common, but be sure to get a console that has the official NEC AC Adaptor (shown off in the video) or get a replacement that meets those specs exactly.
  • A TurboPad controller.  Sounds odd but this is often harder to find than the system itself.  I’ve seen the controllers go for as much as $30 at used game stores and even higher online.  Sure, a PC Engine controller will work fine as will a few 3rd party knock-offs and alternative controllers, but it just looks nicer to have the matching gamepad.  If you buy a console without a controller, you had better get a good deal on it.
  • There is an official RF switch for the TG-16 and for some reason it’s the accessory that all consoles seem to have (like the kids of this country held on to that piece because the screw attachment looked important), but it’s the only one of these accessories you can safely buy a console without.  It uses the exact same connection as an NES RF switch, the Genesis 1 RF switch, and several others and because it uses no power, can be interchanged within the consoles no problem.  Just make sure it has a single RCA plug into the console and you’re good to go.  Even if you want an official TG-16 one, it’s only going to run you $5-$10 and it isn’t rare.

Now, like many other consoles you may think it smart to pick up a second controller, which to a certain extent isn’t a bad idea so that you have a replacement, but the Turbografx-16 did not have more than one controller port and for the most part does not have 2-player games.  There are a few exceptions – Bomberman supports up to 5 controllers with the multi-tap accessory – but the Turbografx is mostly for loners because it’s almost solely a single player experience.  You may be interested in some of the following:

  • The TurboStick (also in the video) is basically the Advantage of the TG-16, it is a joystick controller.  It’s quite useful because many games on the this console are arcade ports that benefit from this controller and it’s also quite durable.  Not sure quite what they run, but if you can pick one up for under $20, I say go for it.
  • A PC-Engine adaptor.  This will run you some serious scratch, like $100-$300 serious, but it’s well worth it (and grab anything that costs less than triple digits if it works) because there’s a vast library of games in Japan that we never saw here.  Unlike the PC-Engine, which was region locked only for Japan, the Turbografx-16 can play games of any region but you need the adaptor to adjust the pin connections of the two consoles.  Another subsequent option is just picking up a PC Engine for imports, which most do, and runs you much less ($50-$100).
  • If you’re really into spending tons of money, you can try to hunt down the 6 button controller that only came out in Japan and is solely for the PC Engine version of Street Fighter II, which also was only in Japan.  While the game itself will only cost you about $15-$30 used, the controller is more in the $50-$100 range and the game still doesn’t look as good as the SNES version.  Still, it’s fun to show off (and no, I don’t have the game or the controller).
  • A CD add-on, the Turbografx-16 CD system, is an amazing addition to your console that adds a vast library of JRPGs, FMV titles, and even rare exclusives (including Castlevania: Rondo of Blood) to your collection.  Before you get too excited, the add-on with all the parts you need will usually run you more than $200 and the TurboDuo, a combo system that was only in the US for a short while, will run you upwards of $300-$500.  Not only that, many of the great games are Japan only (again, no region lock) or rare so they will cost you $50-$100+ each, but in most cases this is the only way to play them.  Oh, did I also mention you need several different RAM carts that are required to play many of these games (there were 3 different ones and not all of them are interchangable) that are also a few hundred to collect?  Turbografx-16 CD is not a cheap endeavor, but how else are you going to play Ys IV?  Note: Rondo of Blood was recently re-released on Virtual Console and a port was on Dracula X Chronicles for the PSP, but for a long time it was only on TG16 CD and there’s almost no chance other titles will ever get re-released.

I guess the only other question is how much are you looking to spend for the console?  I recommend anyone who can find a tested, working unit that includes my three main items above for $50 or less should take it and be happy.  Depending on location and market this can be as much as double in some areas, but eBay successfully keeps the price under triple digits.  Games will typically be around $10-$30 depending on popularity and rarity, but there are a few heavy hitters (like Magical Chase, which was rare in the US but quite common in Japan).  Before embarking on the TG-16 adventure, you may also want to consider that many of these titles and even a few CD games were re-released on Virtual Console and PSN for the much better price of $6-$8 apiece.  Watch the video below to see what you need to look for in a console.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 18, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Buying Guide: Sega Master System

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We all love our retro consoles, but in many cases the consoles we are buying are because they are cheap enough or we have enough money to purchase what we never were able to in our youth.  Unfortunately the business of making used retro items available to the masses can at times be a money grubbing market where consumers are deceived by people they will never meet in real life.  As an individual who has spent the last decade scouring the local area, conventions, eBay, and the internet as a whole I have learned many valuable lessons.  For that reason I present my buying guide series, which is a handy quick guide to knowing what to purchase and what will cost an arm and a leg to replace.

Oh the Master System, the red-headed step child of the 8-bit era.  Not only were Sega products unknown to American markets – Japan had seen several iterations of the Sega Mark consoles, the Master System known as the Mark III – but it released alongside the NES in America and had nothing to show for it.  The two biggest problems with the Master System today is that it’s relatively expensive for a working consoles itself, there are ways to play many of these games on the Game Gear or Genesis (with the Power Base Converter), and not too many good games (many arcade games also got ported to Genesis with better quality).  For those that aren’t aware, Nintendo also had developers and publishers locked into license agreements that didn’t allow games to be released on another console and basically had the Master System in checkmate in the US.  Still, I have the console and love some of the games/ports that are available on it (like Ghostbusters) and plenty of collector’s are curious what the console looks like.  Aside from the video provided below, make sure the consoles you get have the following:

  • An AC adaptor that is 9V and 1.0 Amp.  You will be tempted to use a Genesis or a NES AC adaptor, especially because they have the same plug input, but the amperage is larger than the Master System requires and could burn out your console.  With this console selling for $50+ used and the fact that they are somewhat rare, best not chance it.
  • This console requires an RF modulator that has a single RCA output, which is identical to the NES, Turbografx-16, and Genesis 1 RF modulator and unlike the AC adaptor you can use this with your Master System interchangably.  In fact, I use the same modulator for all 3 consoles without issues. 
  • At least one controller.  The controller inputs are identical to the Genesis and Atari 2600/VCS controller ports although the d-pad and 2-button setup will have varying degrees with non-Master System controllers.  I just hunted down a console with two controllers and I was ready t0 go (although there are few 2-player games).

You can expect to pay between $50-$100 for a console depending on accessories, condition, and geographic location.  Since the console is scarce there’s no good way to pinpoint an ideal price point so I revert back to the age old “pay what you think it’s worth” rule. 

Written by Fred Rojas

December 17, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Buying Guide: The Nintendo Entertainment System

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We all love our retro consoles, but in many cases the consoles we are buying are because they are cheap enough or we have enough money to purchase what we never were able to in our youth.  Unfortunately the business of making used retro items available to the masses can at times be a money grubbing market where consumers are deceived by people they will never meet in real life.  As an individual who has spent the last decade scouring the local area, conventions, eBay, and the internet as a whole I have learned many valuable lessons.  For that reason I present my buying guide series, which is a handy quick guide to knowing what to purchase and what will cost an arm and a leg to replace.

Most of us that are over 30 and grew up gaming had a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) at one point or another in our collection, so it’s not that common to have a reseller screw you over with a used console.  Still, I think it’s best to know exactly what you need to look for in your NES so here’s the official list of items that should be included in a used console:

  • NES Console: The big grey box is quite resilient to damage, so don’t fret a crack, scratch, or defect if you just want to play games.  On the other hand the internal components are more brittle than you would assume from tech that premiered in the mid 80s, so you’ll want to be a little careful.  If the console rattles or the springs in the cartridge slot seem sticky or off, make sure to thoroughly test the console (or get a return policy) before taking it home.  With the replacement of 72 pin connectors (the connection spot on the console for cartridges that would get bent up and cause the infamous blinking effect), many botched jobs try to get sold off in “as is” condition with the damage being everything from simple re-attachment to complete destruction of key components.
  • AC Adaptor: This is more important than it may seem because the NES ran a voltage and amperage that was common for the time but not among most other game consoles.  My official AC was 9V at 1.3 Amp (Important: this info only pertains to US NES consoles), which is probably your best bet and shouldn’t cost more than $10 to replace.  On the other hand as long as you can find the exact specs (I understand that near specs will probably work just fine, but I’m playing it safe) and a plug that works at places like RadioShack or MicroCenter, you should be good.  Many online retailers offer 3rd party AC adaptors as well, which all will probably be fine as long as they are within spec and a Google search doesn’t respond with endless burnout or damage complaints on message boards.
  • RF Adaptor: Better known as “the grey box that screws into the TV” in my house, this was an RF adaptor for coaxial analog connections on the back of almost every TV in the 1980s.  It’s a common and reliable way to hook your console up to your TV although I personally prefer using RCA cables for a more shielded (but still analog) signal.  My video below demonstrates both ways to hook these up.  If your NES has to come without a specific cable, this is the cheapest.
  • Nintendo Controller: Since 3rd parties weren’t that popular back then and Nintendo kept a close seal on the market, you’ll probably find that official NES controllers are all most people have for sale.  Avoid the 3rd party knockoffs from nowadays, they’re just trying to make a quick buck and $5 is about all I’ll spend on a controller in great shape.  Since they can get expensive when you desperately need them, I recommend securing two controllers with your console purchase.

These are the required components when purchasing an NES, which should run you about $40-$50 in most areas and potentially up to $70 used in cities, but I wouldn’t recommend paying much more.  If you desire the NES Model 2 (vertical game loading and dogbone controllers), those start at about $100 and can run you up to $200 in some areas.  If you require boxes, instructions, good condition, and certain packs (like Power Pad or Zapper pack), you can expect to pay whatever the buyer is asking (expect around $100 if not more depending on condition and accessories).  For those just looking for a working console, here are a few other suggestions when looking for a console:

  •  Look for one that has been refurbished with a new 72-pin connector to assure you don’t have that blinking problem.  It’s an easy fix and many reputable locations and online retailers will do it automatically, but usually with a $20-$30 premium attached.  I still feel this is worth it because the connectors will run you $10-$20 online and installation requires basic electronics skills (no soldering) and the risk of damaging your NES.  Consoles with this refurbishment will most likely retail between $50-$100 depending on other factors.
  • Zapper: I love light gun games and many of the classics (which I will soon cover) got their start on the NES.  Not only that, but they’re dirt cheap for the most part because the Zapper (and other light guns) will not work on non-tube televisions (almost every HDTV on the market) so the demand has dropped to all time lows.  If you still have a tube TV, though, there’s no reason not to pick this up for Duck Hunt and Hogan’s Alley alone.
  • NES Max or Advantage: These are purely for those that need a little help with the button mashing of old games or want that arcade feel when playing titles like Gauntlet or Donkey Kong.  The Max is a controller with turbo buttons so that games like Mega Man require that you only hold down a button and shoot a million bullets at once, although the analog d-pad is quite annoying.  For the Advantage you get a tough joystick and big candy-like red buttons that look and feel similar to an arcade, which is always ideal for the purists.  There are several other add-on peripherals for the console, which I’ve covered here, but none that I feel are “must haves”.

Alright, you’re ready now to go hunt down an NES, take this buying guide and supplemental video below and happy hunting!  Please note that all prices and market values change on an hourly basis, so the numbers of what a console should cost here may not hold up even a year from now.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm

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