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Podcast: Heroes in a Half Shell

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You can’t have grown up in the late 80s and not been struck by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  It apparently transcends geographic location as co-hosts Fred (@spydersvenom) and James (@Jamalais) both had similar experiences growing up in different parts of the world.  In this episode we dissect TMNT’s roots, marketing, and obvious integration into video game culture, covering the games that made the surfer-style pizza-eating New York crime fighters a pop culture sensation.

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Written by spydersvenom

February 12, 2014 at 12:52 pm

Podcast: Guardian Heroes Game Club

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This week we are joined by Horseplay podcast’s Yogi Lopez (@Yogizilla) and freelance retro writer Jam (@Jamalais) to discuss Sega’s gem for the Saturn Guardian Heroes.  A surprisingly deep hack-and-slash with RPG elements and even a fully controlled NPC, this title ushered out 2D sprites and a genre that was much beloved in the early-to-mid 1990s.

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Written by spydersvenom

January 29, 2014 at 11:00 am

Podcast: Final Fantasy VI Game Club

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This week Fred and Eli (@Sodoom) discuss what many believe to be the best 16-bit RPG of all time: Final Fantasy VI (better known as Final Fantasy III on the SNES in the US).  We discuss the combat system, characters, plot, and most memorable moment on this truly timeless RPG.

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Written by spydersvenom

January 1, 2014 at 11:35 am

Podcast: Square’s Swan Song

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If you are going to talk significant JRPGs in America, one of the most influential series is Final Fantasy.  Whether you believe that it was the last game Square may have ever made or that it was simply the last game designer Sakaguchi would be a part of, the massive success of this digital Dungeons & Dragons title started a strong fan base that continues today.  In part one of our coverage, Fred and Eli “Sodoom” team up to discuss Final Fantasy I-VI including development, design, gameplay, and of course Cid.

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Written by spydersvenom

October 9, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Review: Final Fantasy IV

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ff4_us_boxConsole: SNES (as Final Fantasy II in the United States – title changed in later releases)
Released: November 1991
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Difficulty: Hard
Price: $24.67 (used, cart only), $70.57 (used, complete), $300.00 (new)
Additional Releases:Wonderswan Color (Japan only, updated graphics), Playstation (Final Fantasy Chronicles, new translation), Gameboy Advance (Final Fantasy IV Advanced, upgraded visuals, new translation/conversion to more closely resemble Japanese version), DS (full 3D remodeling, new dungeon), PSP (Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection, updated 2D visuals instead of 3D, includes The After Years and a new campaign Interlude to bridge gap between the events of IV and The After Years)
Digital Release? Wii Virtual Console (SNES version, $8), PSOne PSN (Playstation version, $10), PSN (PSP version, $30), iOS/Android (GBA version, $16)
Similar Titles: Dragon Quest (Warrior) franchise, Phantasy Star franchise, Vay, Ys I & II

Please note: This was originally released as Final Fantasy II in the United States and later re-named to the appropriate numbering system.  The actual Final Fantasy II Japan-only Famicom (NES)release review will be live shortly.

ff4_1Despite the numbering of this game (and Final Fantasy VI) to be completely messed up in the US, Final Fantasy IV is a must play for fans of the series and JRPG genre.  As George Lucas would put it, this is the “definitive version” of the game director (and series creator) Hironobu Sakaguchi originally wanted to make.  It learns from its three predecessors and weaves in a powerful story almost unheard of at this point in gaming.  Originally intended to be a final NES title in the series, budgetary and scheduling issues forced the 80 percent complete title to be scrapped and re-made on the new Super Nintendo (SNES) console with some of the original ideas integrated.  The elemental concepts of the original, heavy story elements of the sequel, and job system of the third (it would be better utilized in Final Fantasy V however) were all mashed together with a new active time battle (ATB) system to create the most compelling game yet.  ATB ditched traditional turn-based combat for a timer that allowed characters to attack at their own pace based on the type of warrior they were.  This continues to be a staple of the series today and even snuck into other RPGs like Chrono TriggerFinal Fantasy IV hit early in the SNES and celebrated mass critical and financial success worldwide and is considered a favorite by many series fans.


As you probably have noticed, the game was originally titled Final Fantasy II in North America because it was the second game to be released here – Square released the original in late 1989, about a month before the third game released in Japan.  It was decided that instead of localizing the previous games, which were met with mixed feelings, the next game would simply be released worldwide with different numbering.  It’s not simply blind porting that is responsible for the game’s massive re-releases, Square seems very scared of introducing the original rather brutally difficult title to North America.  The US version on SNES is shortened significantly, probably 12-15 hours, due to storylines and dungeons being removed as well as a significant drop in the game’s difficulty.  An even easier version, Final Fantasy IV Easy Type, was released in Japan after countless complaints of the game’s punishing difficulty in its original form.  Religious spells and symbols were also changed or removed based on Nintendo’s censorship policies in the US as well, which led to confusion when comparing both versions for ff2_3walkthroughs.  Subsequent re-releases of the title in America re-named to the proper numbering, which also gave way for releases of the previously unreleased titles as well, and adjustments for the appropriate spell names, symbols, and entire plot made for a beefier 30-40 hour game.  Square also updated to the original difficulty, which required a much heftier amount of grinding and replaying of long dungeons with brutal boss battles, resulting in an understandable popularity of the original shorter and easier SNES release.  If you give it the time and patience it deserves, Final Fantasy IV is a magical fairytale that stands strong even today, and if you get highly invested the additional side stories/games of Final Fantasy IV: Complete Collection on PSP creates one of the most expanded worlds of the Final Fantasy universe aside from FFVII.  Personally I have a hard time thinking this is of the best because the dated grinding and steep difficulty is just something fewer and fewer gamers, even retro ones playing on portables, have time for.

Final Score: 4 out of 5

Written by spydersvenom

September 17, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Review: Final Fantasy

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ff1_nes_boxartConsole: NES
Released: 1990
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Difficulty: Moderate
Price: $13.49 (used, cart only), $48.50 (used, complete), $288.00 (new)
Additional Releases: MSX2 (Japan only), Wonderswan Color (Japan only), Playstation (Final Fantasy Origins, updated graphics), Gameboy Advance (Dawn of Souls, upgraded with additional dungeons, new translation), PSP (original title, includes Dawn of Souls content with updated visuals and soundtrack)
Digital Release? Wii Virtual Console (NES version, $5), PSOne PSN (Playstation version, $10), PSN (PSP version, $10), iOS/Android/Windows Phone (PSP version, $7)
Similar Titles: Dragon Quest (Warrior) franchise, Phantasy Star franchise, Vay, Ys I & II

ff1_nes_1If you ask most Americans what the first true console RPG was probably one of the most common responses would be Final Fantasy.  Not only is Square’s epic tale of four warriors taking on a timeless being that plans to destroy the world memorable, but it stood well above the competition of the time.  The Legend of Zelda may have taken around 10 hours to complete, a size and scope only possible with the ability to save that was unheard of prior, but it was nothing compared to the massive world and 30-50 hours you may spend conquering Final Fantasy.  Aside from that, the 1986 Famicom title Dragon Quest (changed to Dragon Warrior in the US for its earlier iterations) had just received a slight upgrade and released to North America in 1989, less than a year before Final Fantasy.  It was great but couldn’t compete with a game that was made three years later with the lack of classes, a party system, and various other differences.  It should be noted that in Japan Dragon Quest II had already released and Dragon Quest III came out in February 1988, a mere two months after Final Fantasy, which had slowly built up most of the game’s staples such as a party system, exploration, turn based battle system, and both games had similar class systems.  That doesn’t mean that Final Fantasy doesn’t have its own identity, it’s far superior in terms of graphics, nothing like the airship showed in the first three Dragon Quest games, and instead of sending you back to town when you die like Dragon Quest you would instead get a game over and go back to where you last saved.  Final Fantasy also shipped with a map and huge manual that got players more invested in exploring and completing the campaign, not to mention a cheap and huge Nintendo Power strategy guide that released shortly after.  For me, it was the near perfect conversion of the Dungeons & Dragons universe – some of the characters are literally stripped from the Monstrous Manual  - and converted it into a single player experience.

ff1_nes_3Final Fantasy drops you into a vast world with multiple continents and terrain to explore with four warriors.  Each of these warriors are named and given a class from the start.  This allows a single player to control the party and do their favorite balance of brute force, tactical strategy and magic.  You could have any combination you like, including having all four characters being one class.  It really rings significant to me with heavy hitters like Borderlands and Diablo still being based on a class system.  The game is riddled with random encounters that are invisible, so the key is to be prepared for everything because at any time you can die.  Saving is possible anywhere on the overworld map but once you enter a dungeon, the true challenge of the game, you cannot save and must complete it before getting back to the surface to save.  That’s why two taxing activities are a must: grinding and losing progress.  You will die in the middle of a crazy ramped difficulty boss battle at some point and be forced to reload a save that you made (hopefully) just before entering and re-do an entire 1-2 hour dungeon only to try again to beat it.  If you want to prevent a game of chance, you can opt to grind – beating countless random enemies to get to a high enough level that you no longer have a challenge in said dungeon or against said boss – which may waste hours of mindless gameplay but is often your only hope at progressing.  This staple of Final Fantasy titles, and JRPGs as a whole, is why some players never even attempt to pick up the genre.  If you can stomach it, the reward is significant.  Not only do you progress on an epic journey that is a mixture of a decent story but also your personal achievements on the battlefield, all to feel like you truly saved the world.  It took me 40 hours to complete this title with nothing more than a map and free time, but conquering Chaos at the end is still one of my favorite and proudest moments in gaming.


Final Score: 5 out of 5  (GH101 review policy and definitions can be found here)


In the 8-bit era the game was available to Americans only on the NES, but in Japan it was on the MSX2 microcomputer with some glitches, the Wonderswan Color (Gameboy Color competitor) with mild graphical upgrades, and a re-release on the Famicom with the sequel updated with re-drawn sprites.

A Playstation port of the first two games, entitled Final Fantasy Origins, would update the graphics to high detail and some re-drawn looks, a remixed soundtrack, animated sequences, and an art gallery.  This same collection would move to the Gameboy Advance as Dawn of Souls: Final Fantasy I & II with four new dungeons, an updated bestiary, and new script.  The somewhat recognized definitive version of the game was released first on the PSP that retained the original title, contained all content of Dawn of Souls and updated the visuals again to high resolution 2D graphics as well as updated cutscenes and soundtrack.

An in-between port that was similar to a 16-bit look, but with none of the tweaks beyond the NES version, released on mobile phones in 2004 in Japan and eventually in 2010 in the United States.  Shortly after that the PSP version was ported first to iOS and eventually to Android and Windows phone.

Title Controversy

There are two stories that are traded off as the reason for the game’s title.  The first is that Square was nearing bankruptcy and most of the staff went into the project thinking it would be a swan song for the developer.  This was widely regarded as unsubstantiated rumor given the large amount of successful titles developed by Square on the Famicom/NES in addition to no one substantiating the claim.  In July 2009, Wired’s Chris Kohler – a well known gaming historian and co-host on the widely popular retro gaming podcast Retronautsinterviewed Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu and he claimed that this story is, in fact, true.

On the other hand, director Hironobu Sakaguchi has consistently claimed in interviews that the game title is due to the fact that he was set to return to university in the event it was a commercial failure.  Obviously the game’s initial 400,000 unit sales (huge at the time) and eventual more than 2 million units sold worldwide by 2003 prevented such events and started a long lasting franchise that still remains today.

While Uematsu stated in the interview that these claims are true, he remains firm that the title’s origins are with the potential Square bankruptcy.  Sakaguchi has never claimed the title to mean anything more than his fear of leaving the game industry if Final Fantasy was a failure.  The truth will most likely never be known for no better reason than the memories of the individuals involved have already been clouded by the passage of time.

Written by spydersvenom

September 13, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Podcast: Legends of Rayman

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This week Fred is joined by Chip Cella of the B-Team Podcast to discuss one of the few colorful platformers born completely from the 3D generation, despite the first game playing on a 2D plain.  Ubisoft’s Michel Ansel all but saved the then struggling developer/publisher and gave way to a challenging but fun series starring a character with no limbs.

Opening Song – Rayman Theme from the original Rayman on PS1

Closing Song – Madder by Groove Armada (Fred incorrectly refers to this song as Hoodlum in the show)

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Written by spydersvenom

September 5, 2013 at 11:00 am

Hardware Profile: Game Cartridges

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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



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 spydersvenom

July 30, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Review: Final Fantasy Adventure (Gameboy)

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ffa_coverConsole: Gameboy
Released: 1991 (1993 in Europe)
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square/Sunsoft
Instruction Manual: Link for manual, link for map (both helpful)
Difficulty: Moderate
Played as a child? No
Value: $14.49 (used), $77.49 (new) on
Also Known As: Mystic Quest (Europe), Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden (Japan), Sword of Mana (GBA)
Digital Release? No

To fully understand the mystery and headaches surrounding Final Fantasy Adventure, you must first understand the massive differences between the names, although not the content, around the world. Times have changed and these days for uniformity (and the much more widespread import scene) most games retain their original title or some semblance of it. Square in particular was very forward thinking in terms of translation and localization, which resulted in games being renamed and more properly translated in different regions. Enter the portable debacle with the Final Fantasy name. On Gameboy there was a single title named Final Fantasy Adventure, this title, and another trilogy called Final Fantasy Legend (I, II, and III); Adventure is in fact the first entry into the Mana series (known as Secret of Mana Zero for a while and now officially renamed to Sword of Mana) and Legend is better known as the SaGa series, which has continued like Mana outside of portables. Legend wasn’t very widely regarded, SaGa has always been a bit of a so-so series, because it didn’t do anything new and was a simplified RPG by all accounts. Final Fantasy Adventure was a bit more interesting because it took the RPG-like elements of a Final Fantasy (the term “gaiden” in Japan relates to a “side story” so the title is fitting over there) and combines it with the action/map/exploring elements of Legend of Zelda. In short, it’s a hybrid of the most popular RPG and adventure titles on the NES now moved to the portable. It was popular then, too, spawning a long running series and the sequel, Secret of Mana, is an SNES favorite to most gamers.

ffa_1Final Fantasy Legend involves a story about a boy, you name him, and a girl, also named by you, that are brother and sister. Bound by an interesting connection with the Mana Tree, the adventure begins with an evil presence named, get this, the Dark Lord, and his plans to destroy the world. In order to prevent it, our duo sets out on a quest to eliminate him. You will journey to many towns, meet plenty of people that will either help or inform you, and of course at some point the girl gets kidnapped by a man named Julius, the Dark Lord’s advisor. This is just a simplified version of the first third of an adventure that spans tens of hours, a time hard to pin down because like Legend of Zelda your progress depends on how fast you can navigate the map and know what to do next. Trust me, print up the map in the link above and bring a FAQ with you – there are a few moments where you can get stuck unable to beat the game.

I was immediately hooked to the play style and impressed that so innovative a game came out so early in the lifespan of gaming and on the portable Gameboy no less. Perhaps the low development cycle and simplification of these games allowed something like this to thrive, but it’s a worthwhile blast to the past if you get a chance. Originally the game was to be a Famicom Disk System (FDS) title that would be a whopping 5 disks (you would have to buy the disks blank in Japan for roughly $15 and pay $5 to write a game, so we’re talking a $100 title). There were even pre-orders taken under the name The Emergence of Excalibur (which does play a large role in the game) as early as 1987 and by October of that year they were canceled and recommended to purchase Final Fantasy instead that holiday season (Final Fantasy wouldn’t premiere in the US for more than 2 years in 1990). From what I understand this title is the continuation and completion of that project, which would have been a massive feat back in 1987. What I like most about it, and this is clear to anyone who has played the game, is that unlike Final Fantasy titles that focus around the characters and their story, Final Fantasy adventure is more about one story in a living world. Think of every entry in the Mana series as an extended universe title in Star Wars, the world is established but it’s the characters and interaction with the world that makes up each game. For this reason alone I prefer the Mana series (until it’s downfall after PS1) over the Final Fantasy series of the time, although it’s not quite apples to apples. As with Zelda you will consistently be exploring new dungeons, opening up new enemies and bosses, potentially collecting optional items that assist your journey. Additionally it has different weapons and armor you can purchase, magic spells, stats, leveling, and town exploration just like a traditional RPG.

ffa_2I must admit that the game’s fun is harmed severely by the need for an FAQ. It has flaws such as figuring out where to go or what to do next, like The Legend of Zelda, which can hinder your progress and it doesn’t have the benefit of every kid of the era having played it like Zelda. You can also become stuck in dungeons without the appropriate items, of which you are never told you need, that are found in the various shops throughout. This stopped me from being able to complete the end of the game my first time through, thank god for backed up saves. If you use emulators or save states, these can often be your worst enemy so be sure and combine both the states and the game’s traditional saves for backup. As for the updated Sword of Mana, I’ve heard it’s better than the original, fixing some of the popular gripes in this game, but I always like to see the series at its roots and this holds up as a lackluster GBA title while it’s an amazing one on Gameboy. Since the story isn’t all that complicated, unique, or interesting, trust me when I say the journey is the draw and not the end result. Many played Secret of Mana and if you’re a fan I highly recommend stepping back into the series original to see where those initial ideas from the earliest days at Square stemmed from.

Written by spydersvenom

July 11, 2013 at 11:00 am

Getting It Backwards

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ds_nesVideo game consoles are one of the most interesting electronics items on the market for several reasons. Probably the most prolific is the fact that there are frequent hardware upgrades, which we call generations, that move home consoles forward. Because each new console is basically a piece of hardware frozen in time, the need to innovate and improve on future games demands that they be constantly updated. This works counter to movies or music, which see improvements from new hardware but don’t require the upgrade to enjoy the medium. Imagine if you could play Super Mario Bros. on the Wii but with drastically upgraded visuals or Dead Space on the original Playstation with the juxtaposed setback, this is exactly what we see when we watch Ghostbusters on VHS versus DVD versus Blu Ray. As a result new consoles come out all the time, typically in 5-8 year intervals, and usher in a more interactive experience – it’s important to note that the greatest difference between games and other media is that they are active, not passive experiences – and with it comes a new format for software.

Enter the concern of the consumer. It can be frustrating for both gamers and parents of gamers alike to purchase a new console, especially when it renders an entire collection on an older console useless. As retro gamers I’m sure we see the value in it, but for the majority there’s a want to move forward and never look back. Well, that is until there are enough new games to get me to migrate over. This is another slow start that prevents all but early adopters to purchase new hardware, which can then result in fewer sales. With fewer sales comes more canceled projects on new hardware, which then results in fewer sales of the hardware and the cycle continues until a console is considered dead in the water. Just look at the Virtual Boy, Jaguar, and possibly even the WiiU about this problem; developers have enough to worry about, they can’t also deal with poor penetration rate due to a false start console. One excellent solution to help usher in that awkward period between consoles is the concept of backwards compatibility, or a new console that can play a previous generation’s games.

bc_SonyBackwards compatibility started off as mostly an afterthought, typically triggered by a new console’s use of inexpensive available hardware for another component in a new console. For the most part this was sound boards – the Genesis used a Master System processor for sound as did the Playstation processor for PS2′s I/O port. That made it easy: either use a firmware initialization string or hardware bypass to force the sound chip to be used as the older hardware rather than its intended use. This isn’t always the case, though, and many consoles utilized such drastically new hardware or are so complicated in architecture that making a new console backwards compatible is impossible. All three main console manufacturers ran into this problem with the current generation and had to increase the cost of the machine to prevent lack of backwards compatibility from being an issue. In the case of Nintendo, extra components were installed to make Gamecube accessories and media possible, while the similar architecture of the Wii allowed it to become an overpowered Gamecube. Microsoft had an entire new hardware architecture and opted for software compatibility, which was terrible when it first launched and unnecessary when it was fully integrated. It still shocks me how many people don’t know the poor quality of many original Xbox titles on 360 and how many of the console’s best games are completely unplayable. Sony, fearful of what they saw with Microsoft and holding the largest console library of all time with the PS2, opted to just shove an entire PS2 motherboard into the PS3, making it the biggest console of all time (so far) and costing up to $600 at launch. This was the point at which both the industry and gamers found their limits and suddenly backwards compatibility may not have been all that important. At this point no one cares about backwards compatibility in modern consoles, it has been stripped from Wii and PS3 (which generated significant price drops), and the previous consoles are so cheap that they are worth re-purchasing if absolutely necessary.

It’s important to keep your eyes on the prize and prepare for the next generation of consoles, all of which will be available by this holiday season. Backwards compatibility is good, but rarely is it as good as the original and it will never be worth the expense. Before giving a used retailer your PS3 or 360 for a mere $50-$100 off your new expensive console, consider holding on to it just in case. Like a hard drive in a 360, you’ll surely find it saves you money in the long run. After all, isn’t it about time you joined this retro gaming revolution?

Okay, so here’s why you probably clicked on this article in the first place, the list of backwards compatible consoles. Below is not only the list, but an explanation as to how each console achieves it (mildly technical):

  • ColecoVision: With an add-on, which provided the necessary chipsets to do so, the ColecoVision could become an Atari 2600, however there were almost no similarities in hardware (which explains the need for the add-on). This was legally allowed because Atari didn’t use proprietary hardware and thus it was like two manufacturers making the same specs on a PC. Unfortunately for Atari, this hit came twice as hard because the 5200 was not backwards compatible either. With the courts ruling in the favor of Coleco, they even created a clone system called the “Coleco Gemini” that was, chip for chip, an Atari 2600 and sold it in stores.
Coleco Gemini (Atari 2600 Clone)

Coleco Gemini (Atari 2600 Clone)

  • Atari 7800: This was the first console to actually be backwards compatible and played both 7800 and 2600/VCS games, but not 5200. Atari fans were livid with the 5200′s lack of 2600 backwards compatibility, which made sense considering the 5200 contained updated versions of most of the 2600 library. The 7800 ran a SALLY 6502 processor, which could be slowed to 1.19 Mhz and thus operate like the stripped 6507 of the 2600, and then a television interface chip created graphics/sound while adapted chipsets allowed the 7800 to function with limits to the confines of the 2600. This would have been implemented sooner than the late release window of the 7800 had the console not been shelved for over two years after the video game crash.
    Known Issues: Atari integrated a content lock-out chip that blocked adult 2600 games (Custer’s Revenge, etc).
  • Sega Genesis/Mega Drive: The Sega Genesis may have used a 68000 processor for its “blast processing” but it also used the Master System’s Z80 processor for its sound chip. Thanks to an add-on called the “Power Base Converter”, which plugged into the cartridge slot and gave the Genesis a Master System cart/card slot, the 68000 was deactivated and the Z80 took over. This made the Genesis literally turn into a Master System, which was one of the first to do so thanks to the previous console’s co-processor chip.
  • Gameboy Color: While it may seem to be a no-brainer, the Gameboy Color actually has significantly more processing power, RAM, and palette as its predecessor. This is why you cannot play Gameboy Color games in a Gameboy, it just can’t keep up. On the other hand, the Gameboy Color was backwards compatible with Gameboy thanks to a few of its similarities. For starters the Sharp LR35902 processor was merely an adapted (possibly overclocked) version of the Gameboy’s Z80 processor, screen resolution and cartridges were the same, and RAM was merely three of the Gameboy’s RAM chips. As a result the machine could be locked off into “Gameboy” mode, much like the 7800 could do for 2600 games, and the four hues of green on the Gameboy were adapted into multiple color pre-sets that the user could choose from.
  • Gameboy Advance: Like many other consoles, the Gameboy Advance used a Z80 coprocessor for its sound chip. This allowed the console to play both Gameboy and Gameboy Color games by simply making the co-processor function as the only processor. Pressing L and R buttons allowed you to toggle between the original resolution and a stretched version in the larger GBA resolution.
  • Playstation 2: It’s hard to find good techinical data on the topic, but I’m fairly certain that the I/O port processor, or the device that reads the media and transfers it to the hardware, utilized the PS1′s R3051 33 Mhz processor. This meant that when it was reading a disc and detected it was a PS1 game, it could stop sending information to the PS2 and simply function as a PS1 instead. Having no true knowledge about how these consoles work beyond that, I can’t tell you for sure how it was able to control all other aspects of the system needed to play PS1 games, but that’s how it was able to do so.
    Known Issues: Due to the console not having the true hardware configuration of the PS1, there is a short list of games incompatible with the PS2 depending on your console. Oddly enough, the slimline model was even incompatible with some PS2 games.
  • Nintendo DS: Nintendo definitely wants to keep its legacy alive, and repurposing the chipsets of older consoles is an inexpensive way to innovate, but the DS was the first console not compatible with all previous consoles. While it does technically have all the hardware needed to play all previous portables, the DS only has a cartridge slot for the Gameboy Advance and the later DSi and DSi XL models have removed that slot completely. Still, for those that have a DS or DS Lite (preferred), you can run any GBA game you like on it.
  • Xbox 360: Light years had passed, technologically speaking, between the original Xbox and the 360 even though ironically only four short years had passed in actual time. The 360 and its predecessor were both basically streamlined computers and their hardware configurations were so diverse that it would be impossible to have the 360 function like an Xbox. Microsoft’s solution was software emulation. With a scant 733 Mhz Pentium III in the Xbox and a beefy 3.2 Ghz multi-core PowerPC in the 360 the console was basically running an emulator when it plays Xbox games. As with most emulators, especially early on, the results are scattered with lots of odd effects. It’s not true backwards compatibility.
    Known Issues: Plenty. It was such a headache that after only two major updates Microsoft discontinued support. A large number of games will work, although the setbacks can be as simple as ghosting in Halo 2 and as drastic as the crawling framerate of KOTOR.
  • Playstation 3: Sony’s answer shows the extensive hubris they had in the wake of the Playstation 2: jack the price of the console up $150 and slam an actual PS2 into it. There’s no reason to have the PS2 hardware in the console except to play Playstation 2 games, which accounts for the massive size and equally massive price tag. It has some value, though, because these early models provide significant graphical upgrades over the PS2 and are the best way to play its games. Eventually the PS3 dropped the hardware, resulting in a $200 retail price drop for the console, and attempted software emulation that came with a whole new batch of issues. Nowadays, and since 2009, the PS3 has had no PS2 backwards compatibility whatsoever. If you’re looking today, any launch 60GB and 20GB model is fully backwards compatible with PS2 because it has a literal PS2 built in. Any 2008-June 2009 80GB models are software backwards compatible, which is best tested by popping a PS2 game into the console and seeing if it plays. The gunmetal grey Metal Gear Solid limited edition 80GB console is also software backwards compatible. All models of the PS3, including the slim models, support PS1 games. There are PS2 games available on the PSN, which are re-programmed to support the PS3 hardware.
    Known Issues: Original 60GB and 20GB have no issues, they are essentially PS2s as well. Software emulation has a long list of unsupported games and issues just as the 360 does.
Original Wii Prototype

Original Wii Prototype

  • Wii: The age old joke is that the Wii is two Gamecubes duct taped together in the box. While this is not true, there is some truth behind it. The Gamecube and Wii use an IBM PowerPC processor and ATI graphics architecture in the same configuration, which basically means the Wii is a mildly souped up version. As a result, the Wii can easily re-create the Gamecube library by literally adjusting the processor speeds. In 2012, Nintendo discontinued Gamecube backwards compatibility, which can be determined by searching the outside of the console for Gamecube controller ports.
    Known Issues: For the most part, none. All backward compatible Wiis are also Gamecubes. There are some limited hardware issues when trying to play hardware-specific games or integrate accessories like the Gameboy Advance cable.

Written by spydersvenom

May 2, 2013 at 6:10 pm


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