Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category
This week Fred and Jam are talking about the other 8-bit console that graced the late 1980s, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). While it was just another console option in Japan (albeit a massively popular one), the NES had a strong presence in Europe and a massive overtaking in the United States. It wasn’t just the games, business practices in the US and overall control over game development assisted in making the NES (and in Japan, Famicom) one of the most influential video game consoles of all time.
This week Fred and Jam are celebrating Sega’s first console attempt, the Master System. While a technical powerhouse against the NES, business practices in the US and insconsistencies in Japan made it a commercial failure. It did thrive in Europe and Brazil, not to mention it’s quite an enticing package in hindsight.
Bioshock was released all the way back in 2007 (which seems like quite a while in terms of game releases), near enough the same time as the launch of the Xbox 360. Before I re-played this game for the Game Club, my last save on the 360 was dated August 2009. So would you kindly take a seat and read on, as we see if Rapture is still a city worth re visiting or if it should stay at the bottom of the ocean.
In Bioshock you play as Jack, a character who doesn’t really say much. After surviving a plane crash and swimming to a lighthouse, you find underwater transportation to the city of Rapture, a so-called underwater utopia created by a man named Andrew Ryan. You quickly learn that Rapture is not the magical gum drop land it was probably intended to be because most of the residents have totally lost their minds and want to murder you. People seem to be hooked on something called ADAM which changes your genetic code, giving the recipient special powers. The game does a great job of explaining the story through use of audio diaries, which give audio-based background to the game while you are still playing. The story is filled with regular twists and turns that will keep you interested right up to the end. Since there is so much depth to the plot, I found I understood more when going through the game multiple times (not to mention these are hidden items that you can drudge for when not on an initial playthrough).
Bioshock plays as a first person shooter with role playing elements. The game gives very clear goals and even a quest marker for where to go. Don’t worry completionists, you have plenty of opportunity to explore the world and discover secrets and additional information of Rapture. You also find plasmids which unlock super powers for your character such as shooting electricity or even bees out your hands if you choose it. Alternatively you can use plasmids for more passive results such as improving your melee damage, healing abilities, and several other traits.
You can also hack devices like vending machines to receive discounts or hack automated cameras and turrets, which will attack enemies instead of you. When you hack you enter a mini game, which is Pipe Mania basically, connecting the pipe parts together so the fluid flows to the right target. Unfortunately if you fail to do this in the limited time you will receive damage and possibly trip an alarm. Hacking is fun to begin with but gets quite tedious quickly, so fortunately like with most things in this game you also have the option to pay for a hack or use a auto hack tool to bypass the mini game entirely. Of course there is always the option to not be so nerdy and just not hack at all.
If you haven’t figured it out already, Bioshock allows you to play the game as you want. You can stealth or go guns blazing (the latter is more tricky on harder difficulties). You have a lot of choice into how to advance in the game, and even better, you can switch out your abilities should you want to change your gameplay style. The only potential issue is Bioshock can come across as quite easy on any difficulty. Even on hard mode, if you die you just get resurrected instantly in a close by vitality chamber. There is practically no penalty for this and you just continue on in the game. A hardcore mode was added in the first update for 360 and PC, so any of those that have online access and update – not to mention the port onto PS3 and iOS – will also have a Hardcore mode that will give you a game over with any death, but this is almost canceled by the game’s ability to let you save and load anywhere.
The graphics in this title are absolutely phenomenal. Rapture is unlike anything else you will probably see in other video games and a lot of thought clearly went into the art direction, which is consistently demonstrated when you pay attention to the consistent writing on the wall as well as items and bodies positioned in specific places. This can show you how far Rapture has probably fallen from grace. Bioshock is set in 1960 and the art style is inspired by Art Deco, but of course since Rapture isn’t like your typical city above the ocean things have been changed for this specific utopia. The water physics are also very impressive, water will flow down stairs and pour from the ceilings very much convincing you that you are in a underwater city. The game also makes excellent use of shadows; you will regularly encounter silhouettes of enemies projected on the wall making you kind of dread what could be round the next bend.
Character models and enemies are also very impressive. The most common enemies are splicers, which are disfigured people, and their reaction to you and the world very much mirrors a society gone wrong. Much like yourself, some of the splicers also have powers, like teleportation. The other most notable foe is the Big Daddy, giant creatures in a diving suit that protects a character called a little sister (but I’ll get to them shortly). These incredibly threatening creatures actually won’t harm you until you either attack the Big Daddy itself or get too close to the little sister. When that happens the brute goes feral and will attack you with full force. Consequently even to this day the Big Daddy is one of my most memorable characters in gaming. Returning then to the little sisters, these are little girls which have a parasitic sea slug in their stomach, allowing them to collect ADAM. Once you have taken down the Big Daddy protector you’re faced with the moral choice of harvesting the girl for maximum ADAM – this kills the girl in the process (you don’t see any child mutilation, but you can clearly tell what’s about to happen) – alternatively you can rescue the girl and receive a small amount of ADAM. Surprisingly choosing either path only leads to a different ending and has little effect on your progress in the game, which will call this further into question due to how the story progresses.
Bioshock still holds up to this day. The game has aged well, the graphics still look great on whatever system you choose to play the game on, and the gameplay doesn’t feel too dated. Bioshock is also very much a game you need to take your time with and just enjoy exploring the world of Rapture. Rushing through it will do little for your enjoyment and potentially hinder the experience. Each time you pick up the game you will probably play it differently and with the amount of player choice and gameplay style, it is unlikely two playthroughs will be the same (although the plot does remain consistent save for which of the two endings you receive). Bioshock was great in 2007, it is great today, and will likely stand the test of time for years to come. If you still have not visited the world of Rapture would you kindly do yourself a favour and play it.
Final Score: 5 out of 5 (review policy)
Bioshock was reviewed by a personal copy of the reviewer, no codes of any kind were provided. This review is based on the Xbox 360 version but it is also available on PC, PS3, and iOS devices with little content difference.
I was gonna write a retrospective on this, but honestly in podcast form we’ve covered Doom not once, but twice! From those episodes came a project that has taken six months and over six hours to put together in one near 15 minute video. I compare the PC, 32x, Jaguar, SNES, PS1, 3DO, Saturn, and GBA versions of Doom so you don’t have to, complete with bad language and snarky remarks (sorry parents). Check out this version of Versions for Doom, but fair warning: there is some adult language.
This week we put the original SNES release of Wolfenstein 3D up against the recent homebrew port of the game on the Sega Genesis. How do you think it will work out?
Now & Then is different from both a retrospective and a review. It tackles games you probably already know and is a place for gamers to discuss these games. Below is an overview of a game’s presence in the market then and now. Authors of these articles share their personal experience, so we encourage all of you to do the same in the comments.
Editor’s Note: Although I love classic games as much as the next guy, few games get to be restored as often as Resident Evil 4. Therefore, the recently released Ultimate HD Edition has the most cleaned up, 1080p native graphics to date and thanks to screenshot technology being what it is we were able to grab those assets directly from the game without any quality loss. We at GH101 have decided to feature screens from this version in the interest of clarity, despite the fact that they do not faithfully represent the graphical fidelity of the many previous versions. Hopefully purists will forgive us. – Fred Rojas
The Story of the Scrapped Versions
Whenever a game sits in development hell for too long, it has an adverse affect on everyone’s feelings for the game. The examples are too many to count but a couple quick mentions are the likes of Diakatana, Too Human, and of course Duke Nukem Forever. With a few exceptions, games that take too long to make can’t help but not live up to the hype and therefore disappoint an all-too-eager audience. One of these exceptions is Resident Evil 4. Originally announced in 1999, the concept was a Playstation 2 game with a brutally strong protagonist that was more action focused per the ongoing desires of Shinji Mikami (series creator that has been trying to go more action oriented since Resident Evil 2). This new iteration was appropriately tasked to Hideki Kamiya, notable for his director work on Resident Evil 2, and in connection with Noboru Sugimura, writer of Resident Evil 2. After a European trip that netted a Gothic art style and given the goals of the game it was decided that the camera would have to be dynamic and movable (much like Capcom had started in Dino Crisis) and thus ditch the traditional pre-rendered background in exchange for a fully rendered world. Much of the development style, tone, and even Kamiya’s direction involved a what was described as a “cool” world and eventually it got so far removed from the roots of both the survival horror genre and Resident Evil series and instead integrated demons and a new protagonist, Dante. A small fraction of the Capcom Production Studio 4, named Little Devils, converted this new concept with the juggling bug this team had seen in Onimusha: Warlords and eventually renamed the project to Devil May Cry in November 2000. While it spun off to a good game and an ongoing franchise that still lives today, Devil May Cry left Resident Evil 4 in a rut without a dev team (and some hardcore RE fans still refer to the game as Resident Evil 3.5 since the core concepts remained intact).
It wasn’t until nearly a year later, late 2001, that the large scale Capcom Production Studio 4 team regrouped to begin development on Resident Evil 4. Sugimura was still involved at this time and his scenario company Flagship and the original concept was Leon Kennedy breaking into Umbrella’s European headquarters to save a girl (who’s identity has never been revealed) while fighting various types of zombies and other creatures a la the original game. At this time the third person view was already the gameplay style although Leon was overcome by the Progenitor Virus, thus giving his left hand special abilities, and included first person action sequences like we saw hints of in previous games.
As time went on the concept developed into the demo that was shown at E3 2003 known as Maboroshi no Biohazard 4 (Hallucination Biohazard 4 in English), but it has been come to be nicknamed Resident Evil 4: Hook Man Version by those that talk about it in the RE circles (FYI: Resident Evil is Biohazard in Japan but not here due to the metal band’s trademark). Development of this version began when Flagship’s original scenario was dropped and Mikami brought in Yasuhisa Kawamura, scenario writer for Resident Evil 3, to make a scarier game. At first the movie Lost Souls was the template and it featured an unnamed female protagonist that found herself in an abandoned building with a killer on the loose. An in-between version re-introduced Leon as the lead, had him working with a mutated dog as a sidekick, and eventually making his way through Umbrella creator Spencer’s Castle to rescue a girl and fight his way out (with Hook Man as the killer and a newer version of the Nemesis character). Eventually this was adapted into a final version that would become the demo. In this version Leon was traversing a haunted castle, infected with a virus, and it was causing a mix of various jarring camera effects and hallucinations. To help with the goal of a scary atmosphere and merge the perspective of the player with Leon, an over-the-shoulder camera, laser sight, and quick time events (QTEs) were integrated, some of the more notable attributes of the final game. Enemies in the demo ranged from suits of armor that came to life and eventually a the Hook Man, a ghostlike zombie with a torn hook for a left hand, as a final enemy for the demo. You can find a 5 minute video of this build on YouTube (pardon if the link isn’t valid over time) that was found in the Biohazard 4 Secret DVD that came as a pre-order bonus for Resident Evil 4 on GameCube in 2005. Cost of development and technical obstacles forced Mikami to step in and assist in scenario writing and development, something Kawamura has gone on record saying he’s ashamed of, and completely scrapped the game. It was 2004 and Resident Evil 4 was back to square one. Fortunately you can find most parts of this version (aside from the demo video) in other Capcom games: many of these assets ended up in the PS2 game Haunting Ground, the Progenitor Virus concept was the base for Resident Evil 5, and of course the Spencer Estate concept was revitalized in the RE5 DLC Lost in Nightmares.
The Deal With Nintendo
In November 2002, Capcom announced a 5 game deal with Nintendo that would see five of the titles coming to the GameCube, known as the Capcom Five, and among those (despite some miscommunication) only Resident Evil 4 was to remain console exclusive. After rumors suggested that users and investors were adding pressure to move the game to the much more successful Playstation 2, Mikami even came out and claimed he would “cut his head off” if RE4 ever made its way to another console. In late 2003 Shinji Mikami took over directional duties and had a large part in scenario and writing duties to completely re-invent the series. He spread a massive campaign in interviews and told the Capcom Production 4 Team that the focus was to be on action and not horror. To assist with this he dropped the Umbrella involvement completely, created the Ganados concept, and clearly borrowed from many earlier versions of the game, including the new Dante-like look and personality for Leon. By E3 2004 Capcom locked down a January 2005 release for Gamecube and then to everyone’s shock an awe a Halloween 2004 announcement for 3 new Resident Evil PS2 titles revealed that a port of Resident Evil 4 with expanded content would be hitting the PS2 later in 2005. This made Gamecube fans livid, some of which admitted to purchasing the nearly dead console purely for the now three year prospect of finding the game only on Nintendo’s console. For the record, Mikami did not cut off his own head and the PS2 version did come out. I have never been able to find out if there was any action from Nintendo for breaking the exclusivity, although in those days it wasn’t always a paid or contractual deal so perhaps Nintendo had no leg to stand on.
After all that hype and pressure, it’s a miracle that Resident Evil 4 is as wonderful as it turned out to be. If you’ve never played it, the genius of Resident Evil 4 is that it sticks to the basics of game design while also offering a look and feel that is fresh. Easily one of the most gorgeous games from that generation, I still contest that the Gamecube version is the best looking from that time period, so if you have a choice that game really was developed for that console. Additionally the game was long, like 15-20 hours long, and didn’t feel as such. Each of the five chapters feel like complete games in and of themselves and while enemy types and bosses do reappear from time to time, the environments and scenarios are unique for the most part. Even more striking is the way that game develops alongside the player as a whole.
In the first act you are traversing the woods of Spain as Leon, completely unaware of what’s to come but you know it’s not going to be good. Eventually you get introduced the Ganados, who at this point are townsfolk that have established farming villages along the countryside, but of course they are violent toward you. After killing off a pair of cops that accompany you, the Ganados turn full attention on you and with the different ways they attack based on where you shoot them and how close you are too them, it’s clear that these are no zombies. Ganados will throw weapons at you (that yes, you can shoot out of the air), duck under your laser sight, run around you, and overall give you that sinking feeling of being entirely alone against the world. Not only that, but the world is quite jarring for the time, with the over-the-shoulder camera and focus with the laser sight on where to shoot everyone, it’s a steep learning curve. That’s why the first main area, a central town, is so pivotal and one hell of a demo. You enter into this town that is fully populated by Ganados that all give chase upon your arrival. You can go in and out of houses, down different paths, jump out of windows, and navigate a small space where you have almost no idea where to go next. Since your perspective only allows for what’s directly in front of you, a somewhat accurate interpretation of what being in that situation in real life is like, it’s dangerous to take a corner without knowing what’s going on and you always take a risk of being jumped when you dare look behind you. Sure it’s seen as somewhat tanklike controls today, but back then it was about as good as you were going to get out of Capcom. Then the chainsaw guy arrives, a larger sized villager with a potato sack on his head and eye holes cut out, and he begins to chase you at a much faster pace than the others. This doesn’t meant that the horde of Ganados back off either, you’re now thrown in the mix with all of them. No matter how many times you shoot Chainsaw Guy he won’t die for good and you have limited ammo at this point and most people will probably get caught by him at least once, which triggers and instant death where Leon’s torso is sawed diagonally across the sternum. It’s freaky and it demonstrates the biggest change in Resident Evil 4: you won’t be scared, you’ll just feel immense tension, which triggers a different kind of fear. When those church bells ring after a certain period of time and clear the town of danger, I had to literally take a break and step away from the game. My thoughts at the time were, “damn, that was close.” It was a great rush.
From there the game digresses into a somewhat interesting storyline that contains a mass of interesting and tactical scenarios. Whether it’s fighting the sea creature in the lake, tackling El Gigante for the first time, eventually meeting and dealing with Salazar, knife-fighting Krauser, and eventually unraveling the mystery of Las Plagas, Resident Evil 4 is a thrill ride. Each new area of the game will challenge the skills you had previously learned and try to force you to use them in new ways to the point that your cumulative skills make the initial Ganados fight seem like a walk in the park. When I completed the game for the first time after getting the game for my birthday in 2005 (I had a Gamecube for the few other Resident Evil games on the platform) and again that Christmas on PS2, it was fantastic and I couldn’t offer it up to enough people to experience. Capcom and Mikami had gambled big – the series was to be discontinued if a failure – and they had succeeded admirably. For better or worse, Resident Evil would never be the same.
It sold well. 1.6 million units on Gamecube and more than 2 million on PS2, not to mention eventual ports to the PC (terrible initial attempt) and Wii before receiving HD remakes on 360/PS3 recently and eventually the Ultimate HD Version on PC this year. I think the reason it keeps being remade is that Resident Evil 4 still looks amazing today, now with updated assets and filters, and the gameplay, while seemingly dated, is still that perfect mix of locked in time and tolerable to a modern audience. If you have yet to experience this game and are even somewhat of a fan of Resident Evil, you should pick this game up and give it a go. It was a steal at $50 back in 2005 and today it’s a reminder that not all re-invented games in development hell end up being underwhelming, dated messes.
Console: Sega Genesis (Mega Drive in Europe/Japan)
Also Known As: Soliel (the title used in this review based on the writer being from Europe), Shin Sōseiki Ragunasenti (Dawn of the Era: Ragnacenty) in Japan
Publisher: Sega/Atlus (NA only)
Digital Release? No
Price: $134.00 (used, cart only), $309.99 (CIB), Sealed price is $109.52, but that’s biased because the only known copy was a random eBay listing in 2012 (according to Price Charting)
In the twilight years of the Mega Drives life a surprising amount of gems came out for the system, and one of the biggest surprises for me was the 1994 release Soleil (Crusader ot Centy for North America). Now I got very lucky finding this game when I was a lot younger. I was at a marketplace with my grandfather and I had saved up all my pocket money for four weeks to buy a game. Heading over to the only game stall in the entire market place I picked up the rather suspicious looking Soleil, a game I brought totally blind for eight British pounds and I was very impressed with what I found. Several years later, and revisiting the game, lets see how it holds up today.
The game starts in the town of Soleil (which is Sun in French) and puts you in the shoes of Corona – no, not the beer, though playing this game with any lime based beverage is definitely recommended, just remember to drink responsibly. Corona is only fourteen years old and the town of Soleil does what they do to every kid that age, equip them up with a sword and shield and go fight monsters because they are evil. Life expectancy must be rather short in the town of Soleil to be kitting out kids that age with weapons. The sword and shield are inherited from Coronas father who died in battle and has a great reputation in the town. On exploring the world and bumping into a suspicious fortune teller Corona looses the ability to talk to humans and can only speak to animals and plants (yep even flowers talk to you in this game). Corona then fetches his faithful dog, Johnny, (or Mac in the US release, they really changed a lot between the versions) and heads on a quest to regain the ability to talk to humans. However, Corona’s quest quickly expands into something much greater that will alter the world he lives in and question who truly are the bad guys in the game.
I have to say for a game that is aimed more at the younger audience, this game has one of the most touching plots I have ever come across on the Mega Drive (Genesis) system. This game touches on issues I rarely see in other games questioning who really is the barbarian in the game the monsters, the humans or something else. There were moments in this game that even replaying today pulled on the heart strings. One scene in the game has you put in the shoes of the monsters you are actually killing and seeing the world from their prospective. Of course the plot will only appeal to those whiling to immerse themselves in the world making this unsuitable for the arcade focused gamer keen to jump right into the action. There is a lot of text to read in this game and of course it can not be skipped.
So lets address the obvious: yes, Soleil looks like Zelda. It’s a overhead prospective action adventure game, you use a sword, and the game contains small puzzle solving elements. Soleil does manage to create its own identity by equipping animals. At one time you can have two animals follow you which can be switched out instantly in the game menu at any time. Each individual animal gives Corona a special perk for example Penguy the peguin adds freeze effect to your sword, Flash the cheetah increases your running speed, Moa the Ostrich strengthens the ability of other animal you have equipped. There are sixteen animals in total, most will be found as you progress naturally through the game though some you’ll have to earn through small side quests and exploration.
The game also has a fast travel map system allowing you to easily revisit levels and areas once you have completed them. It is worth mentioning a very famous hedgehog known as ‘Sonic,’ makes a small cameo in this game, you may have heard of him. The game controls are quite clunky. When you begin the game Corona is slow and can be tough to control at times, the sword swing does not always seem to connect all the time with enemies and the game seems to favour you throwing it rather than swinging it. You learn to throw the sword early in the game, however, it requires a short charge up time to let loose, this can be a bit dull and repetitive as you’ll be using it a lot. Equipping certain animals fixes this however, the constant swapping of animals to make use of certain perks can become quite frustrating especially when fighting certain bosses in the game. The game does not have any other weapons or items apart from your sword and shield, just the animals to vary your abilities. The shield is completely cosmetic and has no use in the game.
For a game that is advertised as something Sega aimed at a younger audience I found this to be very tough the first time I played through it especially early on in the game. Your health bar is indicated by a bar of apples which I actually found a welcome change to generic hearts. Frequent saving is highly recommended and you can save the game almost anywhere.
Graphics are very kid friendly. Sprites are cute and cuddly, even a lot of the monsters look sort of adorable. The boss characters however look quite impressive. Usually something massive and threatening though the game really does not have enough of them. The levels and environments are colourful and vibrant. Its interesting how the game looks this colourful and cute even when the story takes frequent dark turns.
Music is a nice mix of heavy memorable rocky style tones for the boss fights and serene melody’s when you enter the town of Soleil. The soundtrack is amazing and definitely one of the most memorable features I took from the game, it feels like it hits all the right notes in the right places. Of course remember this is also running on a Mega Drive as well so extra points scored for making the most of the hardware. Soleil is long put can be easily finished in a weekend if your able to spare the time for it. The save feature helps if you need to spread the experience out for weeks and if you decide to take a extended break from the game the controls are simple enough that it is easy to go back to. Once you finished the game that’s probably it for you. It’s the sort of game you’ll probably re visit a year or two down the road but there is no varying difficulty or much reason to replay the game unless you want to speedrun it or explore areas you may have missed the first time through.
Overall, Soleil is a real hidden gem for the Mega Drive. The story alone is worth experiencing touching on points you don’t normally see explored in games. If the kiddie graphics put you off I advise to try look past it after all many hated the graphical direction of Zelda: WindWaker and people seem to love that game today still. The game, of course is not without flaw. The controls and be a bit tricky and the games difficulty spikes early in the game and occasionally through the quest. Despite the flaws this is one game adventure fans would be very happy with and worth adding to the Mega Drive collection if you happen to spot it one sunny day.
Final Score: 4 out of 5 (review policy)
This week Fred and Jam tackle the Bioshock game club. Irrational Games (as 2K Boston) follow up the System Shock series with a new underwater utopia gone wrong and plagued by warring factions. With inspirations from popular culture and depression era architecture, Bioshock proves that the devil really is in the details.
Man 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.
That 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-Man, Donkey 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 Kombat, Street 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, Galaga, and 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.
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
Plain 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.
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.
First 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)
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.