Archive for the ‘Gameboy Advance’ Category
This week the boys are talking all about the Gameboy Advance. Nintendo’s successor to the extremely popular Gameboy was touted by many as the SNES in your hands. Well it was a lot more than that and we’re talking all about the crazy library of games that reminded us how fond we were of the 16 bit era.
This week we tackle the “MetroidVania” titles in the Castlevania franchise to follow up our initial episode (Devil’s Castle Dracula). Fred and Jam briefly define MetroidVania as a genre, discuss some titles that originated it, and discuss Symphony of the Night – the most prolific of the series – as well as the multiple portable titles that followed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Console: SNES (as Final Fantasy II in the United States – title changed in later releases)
Released: November 1991
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.
Despite 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 Trigger. Final 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 walkthroughs. 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
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
If 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.
Final 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.
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 Retronauts – interviewed 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.
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)
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
For 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.
- Super 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.