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Smash TV Review

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smashtv_boxPlatform: Arcade, microcomputers, NES, Master System, Game Gear, SNES, Genesis/Mega Drive, Xbox/Gamecube/PS2/PSP (part of Midway Treasures)
Released: 1990
Developer: Williams
Publisher: Williams/Midway
Digital Release? Yes, it had a digital release on XBLA (360) but was delisted in Feb. 2010

Smashtv01These days there is a good chance any gamer is familiar with the “twin stick shooter”, a concept where you move with the left stick and shoot with the right.  Back in 1982 when fantastic game designer Eugene Jarvis premiered the concept in Robotron: 2084, it was unlike anything we had ever seen.  The merits of that game, and what it brought to video games, cannot be denied and if you want an idea of how Robotron played you need look no further than recent neo-retro release Rock Boshers Dx.  It wasn’t until almost a decade later, in 1990’s fantastic Smash TV, that Jarvis along with a talented team at Williams created one of the most addicting arcade games from my youth.  Set in the year 1999 – oh how we thought so much was going to change with the year 2000 back then – Smash TV has you and potentially one other person shooting it out in a room-to-room TV studio playing the most violent game show of all time (Running Man anyone?).  It takes the building blocks of Robotron: 2084 and brings it into the nineties by giving you a second player, having you kill tons of humans instead of rescue them like in Robotron, and of course you’re doing it all for cash prizes to selfishly grow your wealth.  I loved it then and I love it now.

Smashtv02Anyone who has played modern twin stick shooters like Geometry Wars will immediately notice that most of your tactics will hold up in Smash TV and you will get quite far on each life.  Don’t get cocky enough to think that this means the game is beatable; it was, after all, a quarter drinking arcade game from the people that brought you NBA Jam a few years later.  Your odds are so stacked and boss battles like the always shown (and here is no exception) bald tank boss will have you cranking out credits in order to finally reach the final bonus level, The Pleasure Dome.  In fact, the game was so crazy hard, long, and expensive that although there is mention in the game text, the original 1.0 version of the arcade shipped without a pleasure dome implemented because the developers didn’t think anyone would beat the game.  They were wrong, dead wrong.  Fans across the country were spending God knows how much money to reach the Pleasure Dome only to be greeted with an unfinished ending.  The development team wasn’t all bad, though, aside from quickly implementing the Pleasure Dome and getting updated boards out as soon as possible, there’s a bonus room south of Arena 3 that will flood the room with keys and potentially get you to the end of the game without costing you too much money.  There’s also a fantastic announcer over your gameplay voiced by Paul Heitsch (known for other Midway greats like Mortal Kombat) and even the line “I’d buy that for a dollar!” from the movie Robocop, so what’s not to love.

Smashtv03It was understandably ported to just about every home console, microcomputer, and even the Game Gear portable by publisher Acclaim (aside from the arcade ports in the Midway Treasures Collection).  While the overall port didn’t lose much in the conversion process, even on the NES and ZX Spectrum, the control scheme took the biggest hit and to this day I feel the SNES is the only appropriate place to play the home version thanks to the four face buttons easily emulating the second joystick.  Once Smash TV came home, much like other home ports such as Revolution X, the challenge was mostly in trying to complete the game with the limited number of credits the game allowed.  Sure, a quick cheat code or Game Genie could overcome your health or credits issue, but I still can’t believe there was a time where a home port of an arcade game designed to screw you out of credits didn’t automatically give you unlimited credits.  After all, you would assume that’s the draw to getting the home port.  Either way, Smash TV has much better ways to play without resorting to the 8-bit and 16-bit era, but back in the early 90s it was the only option and a fun weekend rental.  If you were lucky enough to pick up the online arcade port on XBLA before it was delisted in early 2010, you can even play the game with online co-op as it should be played these days but it appears Midway licensing has eliminated this title’s definitive version.  If you want to get together with a buddy on the couch and have some fun shooting guys for an hour or two, the spectacle that is Smash TV can be a ton of fun.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 (review policy)

Written by Fred Rojas

March 24, 2015 at 11:34 am

Retro Shop Finds: Mystery Gamecube 10-pack Unboxing

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Fred and Brian unbox a mystery Gamecube 10-pack that could have any game in it.  Check out what they find.  Fred also notes a handful of Game Gear games he picked up for coverage in the upcoming weeks.

Written by Fred Rojas

March 15, 2015 at 6:37 pm

Posted in Game Gear, Gamecube, Videos

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Psychic World Review

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pw_smspw_ggPlatform: Game Gear (there is a European Master System version) – For the hardcore, the Japanese MSX version is worth looking up.
Released: 1991 (worldwide)
Developer: Hertz
Publisher: Sega
Digital Release? No
Price: $3.75 (cart only), $15.00 (complete), and $15.00 (new/sealed) per Price Charting

Psychic World is one of those old Sega games that just seemed to get lost in time. Originally called Psycho World, in Japan on the MSX computer, the game was brought over to Europe in 1991 and renamed the more suitable Psychic World. The game was released on the Master System and Game Gear, for this review well be delving into the Game Gear version (which did come out in the US). This was probably one of the first Game Gear games I ever played next to the original Wonder Boy.

Psychic World is set in the year 19XX. which no matter how you write that on paper now sounds like it’s in the past, even though the setting of this game feels far into the future. I guess the game developers thought we would enjoy the 20th century so much we wouldn’t want to leave it so they started sticking Roman Numerals at the end.

pw_3So, a very small research team consisting of Dr. Knavik, Cecile and Lucia (who you play as) are carrying out work on ESP which stands for Extra Sensory Perception. Well wouldn’t you know disaster strikes and the lab explodes and some of the test subjects which just happen to be monsters take Ceclie and run off. I guess that’s one way to strike at work. Lucia takes a ESP Booster a special tool that enables the user to use psychic powers and heads out to save her sister. I have to say for a old game it was a breathe of fresh air to play as a female protagonist, instead of some muscle bound dude, that’s one point to Japan right there. The story is very simple and you really don’t see much of it apart from the introduction of the game and the final boss conflict but it works and is presented in very nice panels.

The game plays a straight forward platformer with many power ups at your disposal. Your main weapon is a sort of shooter that fires off waves to take down the baddies. To begin with this weapon is really weak. As you progress through the game you can upgrade the weapon by collecting power ups dropped by fallen enemies or just lying around the level. Upgrading increases the damage and draw distance of the shot. It’s also pretty cool to see the progression of your upgrades as you progress from the beginning to the end of the game. You can also find new weapons like the fire shot, sonic shot and freeze shot which can also be upgraded. All the weapons in the game have unlimited usage and each weapon is better suited to specific enemies or environments. For example, the freeze shot can create new platforms in the ice level.

You can also find and use a wide variety of psychic powers. These drain your green ESP bar and the power ups can also be upgraded improving the effect and length of time they act for. Power ups include levitation which allows you to jump higher for a short period and explosion which damages everything on screen. The power up you’ll be using all the time however, is restoration which practically makes you invulnerable for a short period of time. Though this is a very useful power up it makes the game a little too easy because it hardly drains your ESP bar and you can easily refill the bar by item drops from enemies. It’s almost possible to do the entire level with this power up. Basically if you want to have a more challenging game you need to resist the urge to use this power up.

pw_1

You have a health bar in the game which drains as you touch enemies, get shot or fall in a pit. There is no period of invulnerability so you continuously drain health until you escape the hazard. This can potentially lead to some quick deaths. There are plenty of health pick ups throughout each level should you need to replenish your health though. And lets not forget the ever helpful restoration powerup.

There are four levels each has a unique feel to it and contains a mid level and end of level boss. Though the levels are fairly decent sizes the game is still very short, you can easily finish it in under a hour. The game still feels suited to the platform and after all this is a handheld game with no saves or passwords. . The final boss is worth mentioning because even to this day this conflict makes no sense. I won’t spoil what happens but lets just say the game surprises you by removing all your weapons and power ups and changes the game into something else entirely. So much so you probably won’t know what to do and it’s pot luck if you succeed or not. Of course there is always the internet, but back in the nineties this was a pain to have placed right at the end of the game.

pw_2Graphics for the Game Gear are quite colourful and stand out on the small Game Gear screen. You will travel through a variety of environments like a forest, a volcano, an ice cavern, and a metal base. Character sprites stand out too and there is a wide variety of enemy types. The boss characters in particular look surprisingly good on the small Game Gear screen.

Music is also quite the delight in this game. The PSG (Programmable Sound Generators) chip does a good job at presenting some catchy tunes, providing it still works in your old Game Gear. The first level and the boss battles probably have the most memorable music. Though each level has its own charm. The victory music when you complete a level is also very memorable.

Psychic World is a game that really fits into the hidden gem category. Even today I love this game, it’s great fun to pick up and go back to. The game is not very long but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t warrant another playthrough. Many reviewers rate this game as average and generic but while the restoration power up can be over used to make the game a lot easier, its one of those games that you can set your own challenges. Even if you do spam the restoration power up it’s still a blast to play. This game goes for very little online even today so if you love that Game Gear and have not checked out this game I highly recommend giving it a go.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 (review guidelines)

Written by jamalais

January 29, 2015 at 11:58 am

Posted in Game Gear, Reviews

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Primal Rage Retrospective and Comparison Video

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Primal Rage was one of the more notable Mortal Kombat clones in arcades in 1994.  The popularity of this Atari Games fighter secured multiple ports to the home consoles of the time, a true cross-gen title that was on most portable, 16-bit, and 32-bit CD consoles.  GH101 looks into the history, gameplay, and home console versions of this dinosaur brawler.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 23, 2014 at 1:44 pm

Podcast: Test Your Might

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


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Podcast: Project Mercury

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ggpost

 

This week we are talking about the Sega Game Gear (Project Mercury), Sega’s first portable console that took on the Gameboy head on.  While it didn’t come close to winning, the Game Gear still stands as the longest running competition for a Nintendo portable.  We also bring in special guests Jason and Mark (from Retro Game Geeks) to talk about beloved titles from the early 90s.


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Written by Fred Rojas

April 16, 2014 at 9:17 am

Posted in Game Gear, podcast

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Podcast: Excelsior!

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This week Chip Cella (@CaptinChaos) and Andy Urquhart (@damien14273) from the Agents of Shieldcast join Fred to discuss retro titles featuring Marvel Characters.  They learn that the distinction of titles early in gaming were almost nonexistent and perhaps Marvel having Disney behind it may actually be a good thing.  Listen on true believers!


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Written by Fred Rojas

January 15, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Podcast: Rock Man of Doom

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megaman_doom

This week Fred goes solo to celebrate Doom‘s 20th Anniversary and the Mega Man series.  Keji Inafune’s legacy may live on through Mighty Number 9, but when he was a young new college grad Capcom employed him to create one of the most beloved and long running franchises of the company’s history.

Also if you want more Doom coverage, feel free to check out our podcast on Doom clones.


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Written by Fred Rojas

December 11, 2013 at 9:51 am

Version: Mortal Kombat

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In this new video series we dissect the home versions of the arcade classic Mortal Kombat.  Check out the roughly 10 minute video for a quick retrospective on the title and the craze that resulted in September 1993 as many kids brought this violent title home.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Hardware Profile: Game Cartridges

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carts

It’s hard to believe, but the typical cartridge game began to phase out of gaming in 1995 when the new wave of consoles and the subsequent movement to disc-based media began. I’m sure plenty will be quick to point out that the N64 was a cartridge-based console, but I truly believe this decision was the result of Nintendo not wanting to give up the control over manufacturing and sordid history making a machine that read discs. This change happened 18 years ago, which means there is a significant number of gamers that are now in their early to mid 20s that have never played games on a cart. This is truly a shame because the versatility of cartridges is much more abundant than most people realize, but the crutch will always be that carts offer little storage for massive prices. In today’s lesson we will discuss what makes up a cartridge, benefits/setbacks, and how the cartridge was used to literally upgrade consoles for more than two decades.

Anatomy of a Cartridge

NESCartridgeOpenFor the most part a cartridge is a plastic-encased board containing “read-only memory” or ROM data that has exposed pin connectors (male) that fit into a slot on the reading device (female). Since it’s a complete circuit board, multiple ROMs can be used to store data, which we will get to in a second, and allow for an expanse of memory based purely on the connected printed circuit board (PCB) and the device reading it. Of the most popular uses for ROM carts is software for computers that expands almost solely into gaming once game consoles begin to release. It was the dominant format for many microcomputers, mostly used outside of the United States, and almost all game consoles for two decades (mid 1970s to mid 1990s). Many believe that the use of a cartridge was due to no other decent format being available, but this is simply untrue. By the time carts were in use, programs/games could be loaded via floppy disc (5.25″), compact cassette tapes (not unlike audio cassettes), and removable circuit boards (think arcade machines). The decision to use cartridges was due to the fact that the memory was permanently stored in the chip and memory mapped into the system’s address space (ie: it was basically integrated into the machine). As a result data access was almost instant (no load times), the cart could be used for hardware expansion in addition to loading code, and due to the streamlined process it was very difficult to extract the code and thus safest for mass distribution of software. Unfortunately it was also quite expensive and thus storage space was expensive, not to mention that the code could never be altered or accessed, which made for difficulty with saving and loading.

The first console to use cartridges was the Fairchild Channel F, a game console that predates the Atari VCS/2600 by a year and featured many of the same aspects of the pop culture sensation. It is not as widely known due to the similarity of titles that were mostly archaic sports titles or educational material. Naturally in 1977 when Atari introduced the VCS with arcade ports and diverse addicting third party titles like Pitfall resulted in the streamline of the format. Due to the fact that the cartridge is an integrated part of the machine, Nintendo made heavy use of the cartridge to make both the Famicom and the NES capable of keeping up with changing times for quite a while. Not only that but some carts, especially in Japan where custom chips were allowed, were capable of acting as a game, a hardware upgrade, a save state, and an anti-piracy device all at once. This practice was pretty standard for most consoles that utilized carts until the aforementioned 32-bit era where expansions moved to actual hardware expansion ports and even the N64, which could lean on carts, used ports instead to expand the on-board RAM.

ROM types and Special Chips

EPROM

EPROM

The oldest ROM type is Mast ROM, which refers to information stored permanently via integrated circuit when the chip is manufactured.  The term “mask” refers to the masking pattern on the integrated circuit when it is created.  This is the oldest form of ROM and definitely what went into the creation of Nintendo carts, which were manufactured by Nintendo and worked as a supplemental business to the license fees and cut of each unit sold on the NES.  This is the cheapest way to get the most memory, however unless you have a mass production line the masking of the integrated circuits can be a costly endeavor and without the vast quality controls like Nintendo had one poorly made program or coding error can ruin an entire production.  You can understand why Nintendo was so strict back in those days, especially because masked integrated circuits cannot, by their very nature, be re-written or reused.  The up side is that there is little chance once successfully produced that the chip will suffer decay, failure, bit rot, and various other issues that can plague other ROM types, which is why you will see most classic carts last nearly forever (please note that the save battery memory is a different story).  I know that this was the most common type in all Atari consoles, NES, Turbografx-16, and Sega Master System.  Beyond that it is entirely possible that the SNES, Genesis, 32X, and portable consoles may have used other formats like  Erasable Programmable ROMs (EPROM) that allowed you to reprogram chips with ultraviolet light or Electronically EPROMs (EEPROM) that allow you to erase and re-write electronically.  There are generic PROMs that can be created with a ROM burner and remove the need to produce them like a mask ROM, but they are still one time use and were more for arcade and pinball repair, which may mean they can be found in Neo Geo carts.  As for Jaguar and N64, I’m guessing EEPROMs, but there’s still a striking possibility that these companies known for mass production of carts since the 80s still made traditional mask ROM carts, especially with the lowering price of PROM and the relative high emulation/piracy of the late 90s.  It has been said that PROM, EPROM, and EEPROM may have a higher chance of failure, but most carts don’t seem to have a problem no matter what is used and plenty of fixed arcades have had no problem whatsoever (especially because they can be wiped and reprogrammed).  ROM chips typically varied in size from 2 kbit (not to be mistaken for the large 2 kbyte) that held roughly 256 bytes all the way up to the expensive 32 megabit chip that held 4 megabytes.  This is why you saw statements on Street Fighter 2 that said things like “32 MBit Chip!” because it was touting massive storage space.  Some games are rumored to have even larger ROM chips that compressed data and justified hefty price tags like Final Fantasy III launching for $80 in the US or Street Fighter Alpha 2 having load times on the SNES while data uncompressed.  It was all par for the course when trying to get as much data on a cart as possible.  I do believe that as RAM was integrated into consoles, like we saw on the N64, that compression and temporary storage allowed for more data to be stored for the larger 3D games of that console.

In addition there can be extra chips placed into the carts to allow all kinds of extra functionality, which basically means the carts acted as hardware upgrades.  This makes sense when you think about the massive leaps between launch games and later releases.  2600 carts were pretty straightforward, but NES carts had a few extras like the anti-piracy NES10 chip that was required to be on the PCB in order for the NES to play (if it doesn’t detect this due to a loose connection you get the popular blinking console effect, which is the NES10 chip on the console rejecting the cart).  Saving became a large feature as well, which led to almost all cart-based save states to be stored on Static Random Access Memory (SRAM), which was able to keep save data stored after power is cut (uncommon for RAM) provided that a small current still passed through.  This is why a lithium button cell CR2032 battery is used in most cases and once that battery dies (typically around 20 years, but can go much longer) the SRAM no longer functions.  To fix this, simply de-solder the dead battery from the SRAM leads and solder in a fresh battery to the leads.  In Sonic 3 as well as a few others, Sega decided to use much more expensive non-volatile RAM (NVRAM), which was an early form of flash memory we have today and retains information after power is cut, which is why Sonic 3 carts should retain save data indefinitely.

As for expanding the functionality of a console, special chips could literally upgrade a console to allow it to do things it was never intended to do.  In Japan the Famicom was allowed to have special chips put into its carts so companies could go crazy on internal development – due to no video game crash, Nintendo did not force Japanese development studios to manufacture carts through them like in the US.  This explains the VRC6 chip in Akumajo Densetsu (Castlevania III) that allowed for extra channels on the Famicom’s unused sound port.  In America Nintendo began releasing special Memory Management Controller (MMC) chips that allowed for some of the Japanese innovation to happen on the NES, albeit in a stripped form due to the different hardware profile of that console.  Here are some of the popular chips:

  • UNROM: Split the program data from a 32 kbit chip into two 16 kbit chips, one that stored the data and one that transferred data to RAM chip for faster loading and effects.  This was seen early with impressive titles like Ikari Warriors and Mega Man and assisted in side scrolling of dynamic characters and certain effects.
  • MMC1: Allowed for save games.  In addition to having 16 or 32 kbit ROM programs, 4 and 8 kbit SRAM was integrated and powered with a button cell lithium battery.  This was essential to getting Famicom Disk System titles that had save data to run on NES carts such as Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Dragon Warrior.  Although Metroid didn’t support saved checkpoints like the FDS version did, massive passwords allowed pre-stored save data.
  • MMC2: Basically split a 32 kbit chip into a 24 kbit chip with two sets of 4kb banks for pre-loaded graphical data.  It allowed more graphics to display on screen at once due to the additional banks being only referenced without assets in the main code.  Only used for one game, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! to load the massive sprite opponents.
  • MMC3: This massively split the memory allocation and integrated a scanline IRQ counter to allow for certain assets to scroll while others remained stagnant.  Necessary when keeping dynamic items like consistent scores, life bars, and more fixed on the screen and moving while a second “window” was performing more dynamic gameplay.  Nintendo’s most popular chip and key in many large titles such as Mega Man 3 and Super Mario Bros. 3.
  • MMC4: Utilized only in Japan for the Fire Emblem titles to create effects similar to the MMC2.
  • MMC5: The biggest, most versatile, and most expensive chip Nintendo offered.  Developers avoided it like the plague due to the high cost and reduced profit margin.  This had several different memory allocations, IRQ counters both horizontally and vertically, allowed for very dynamic effects, and opened extra sound channels along with a 1KB of active RAM.  Since Koei was almost the sole user and none of its MMC5 titles came out in America, the only title to really use it was Castlevania III to create a similar, but still inferior, version of the Famicom title in America.  The MMC5 chip was so complex that almost all clone consoles do not support it and emulation took a long time to decipher integration of the ROM.  For this reason alone Castlevania III was one of the few games you had to have original hardware to run.  Emulation is currently no problem however clone systems that run actual carts still do not support the title.
  • MMC6: This final mapper chip extended the size of SRAM over the MMC3 chip by 1KB, which allowed for the larger save files of Startropics and its sequel to save games.

There were more custom chips that did eventually show face in America, but these were the most common and basic chips.  Nintendo would loosen their policy and generate several custom chips for the SNES as well allowing for all kinds of impressive hardware tricks.  Some of those are as follows:

  • DSP: The digital signal processor chip allowed for various 2D and 3D calculations in several iterations that allowed for asset conversion for older graphics techniques, rotation effects, raster effects, and mathematics that could all be performed independently on the cart instead of using the SNES.  Popular games that used this rotation technique are Super Mario Kart and Pilotwings.
  • sfx_snesSuper FX: This was a supplemental CPU for performing graphics calculations that the SNES simply could not do.  Think of it as an external graphics card for the 16-bit console, as it was a separate 16-bit CPU integrated into the cart.  Since it had simpler duties than the SNES, the Super FX chip’s iterations were capable of 10.5 mhz and eventually 21 mhz of processing power, which blows past the 3.5 mhz processor of the SNES and allowed for the 3D rendering of titles like Starfox.  Later updates allowed for support of larger ROM sizes (for a long time the game program had to be less than 8 mbit or 1 mbyte of data).
  • Cx4: This chip was Capcom’s way of showing off rotational, polygonal, and wire-frame effects in the Megaman X series.  While the first title used a traditional chip, Megaman X2 and X3 had special test screens and crazy title screens that to this day cannot work on cloned consoles, flash carts, or even later hardware emulation (like the Megaman X Collection on PS2/Gamecube).  Of course the emulation community has successfully gotten this working on software-based ROMs.
  • SA1: The Super Accelerator chip that independently worked with the SNES as a co-processor creating a faster 10 mhz clock speed over the 3.5 of the original hardware, faster RAM functionality, MMC capabilities (see the NES section above), data storage and compression options, and new region and piracy lock out protection.  This chip was essential in certain impressive titles like Super Mario RPG! and Kirby’s Dream Land 3, which cannot currently be replicated on flash carts.  Software emulation on both the openware PC scene and official Nintendo Virtual Console titles do support the chip.

There were several others that were utilized for specific function in addition to the Genesis having the Sega Virtual Processing (SVP) chip in Virtua Racing to make the most technically impressive 16-bit game ever created.  Unfortunately it also cost $100 at initial launch, wasn’t impressive from a gameplay standard, and doesn’t work with any clone or flash carts out there.  Emulation is possible but with varied results.

Well there you have it.  A brief breakdown of the technical marvel that was the cartridge and the hardware benefits it provided.  It’s almost difficult to imagine a world without load times, where data access is instantaneous (something even flash carts can’t currently do).  While it wouldn’t be possible with the massive memory required today and the equally massive cost of manufacturing, there was a time where a few bits in a plastic case meant to world to each and every gamer.

Written by Fred Rojas

July 30, 2013 at 8:35 pm

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