Sunday, April 22, 2018

Fab Four

It's April 22nd, and the GameStruck4 hashtag on Twitter has players and developers alike reminiscing about the software that most strongly influenced them. I've got a blog I haven't updated in a week, a gut full of Bugles, and an urge to offer my own thoughts on the topic. Let's rock.


GALAGA



Namco was hands down my favorite designer of arcade games in the early 1980s, achieving a balance of quantity and quality no other company could match. They released so many big hits before the crash that it was impossible to step into an Aladdin's Castle or a Chuck E. Cheese and not find at least two of their games waiting for you there. What's more surprising is that while some of Namco's games were better than others, nearly every title they made was worth the time you spent with it. Even The Tower of Druaga, a game despised in the West, introduced concepts that would find their way into the countless role-playing and adventure games released for consoles years later.

With so many great Namco arcade games, you'd think it would be hard for me to choose a favorite, but not really! The one title that immediately jumps to mind is Galaga. As a follow-up to Galaxian, it's the ideal sequel, greatly expanding on the gameplay of the original while remaining faithful to it. Namco didn't stray from its established formula the way Nintendo had with its two Donkey Kong sequels, and it didn't settle for tossing in a couple new enemies and cranking up the difficulty, as Atari had with the charitably titled Asteroids Deluxe.

Beyond that, Galaga illustrates that there's art even in the simplest game designs. The patterns of the bugs as they fly into formation and dart around your bullets in the challenging stages remain mesmerizing after all these years. Now that's galactic dancing!

SUPER MARIO BROS.


I don't find myself agreeing with Shigeru Miyamoto too often now, but I've got to give him credit for his early achievements, and this is the most important of the lot. Like Galaga, Super Mario Bros. is a logical extension of a popular arcade title... in this case, the original Mario Bros. You're still punching the bottoms of platforms to knock over turtles and other nasties, and you'll still see plenty of coins and pipes as you progress through each stage. However, the biggest difference is that unlike Mario Bros. where you're stuck in a single, largely unchanging playfield, you're actually making progress, running from one end of a lengthy level to the other. Hidden power-ups offer protection against the monsters in your path, and Mario's learned new ways to deal with them. You can even stomp on a turtle, then launch his shell at a crowd of his comrades, clearing the path of threats while earning a huge point bonus. Just don't be careless about it, because the shell could bounce off a pipe and come hurtling back at you!

There's so much added nuance and strategy to the gameplay that it almost seems unfair to call this a sequel to Mario Bros. There's even a purpose beyond racking up high scores, with the player ultimately rescuing a princess from a spike-studded, fire-spewing turtle that's three times the size of the Shellcreepers in the previous game. Super Mario Bros. brought so much to the gaming experience that it became a template for the many games to follow, both on the NES and subsequent generations of consoles.

GUNSTAR HEROES


Gunstar Heroes was an important game to me for a couple of reasons. First, it came at the end of a creative drought for the Sega Genesis. Japanese developers who initially showed interest in the system had shifted their loyalty to the recently released Super NES, and Sega's own Genesis games, typically outsourced to Western design teams, felt like second-rate substitutes for what was available on Nintendo's new console. Seriously, who in their right minds would choose Kid Chameleon over Super Mario World, or Chakan The Forever Man over ActRaiser? 

After losing ground to Nintendo in 1992, it felt like Sega had found its second wind with Gunstar Heroes. It was colorful, creative, fast-paced, and polished... the kind of experience Genesis owners expected from the system when it was launched in 1989, but weren't getting in the years since. After Gunstar Heroes was released in late 1993, Sega put forth more effort in competing with Nintendo on all fronts, rather than just getting by with Sonic sequels and licensed sports sims. (A little less Joe Montana; a little more Ranger-X, Subterrania, and Comix Zone, k thx.)

Gunstar Heroes not only revitalized the Genesis, it opened the door to a genre of games that didn't interest me all that much in the past. Contra was maybe a little too macho and definitely a little too hard for my tastes. Treasure's decision to give the Gunstars close range attacks and a generous supply of hit points grants the player more room for error, and gives the designers the freedom to fill the screen with chaos without the game ending as quickly as it began. You can adjust the difficulty to your liking, but unlike many run 'n gun shooters, the extra challenge is an option, not a requirement.

DARKSTALKERS


I didn't like versus fighting games all that much at first, but then along came Darkstalkers. Talk about a game changer! This early CPS2 arcade title takes the basic play mechanics of Street Fighter II, adds newbie-friendly chain combos, and introduces a charming new cast of characters based on creatures of myth and legend. It's said the game was originally designed to promote Universal Studios' black and white monster films, but Capcom took Darkstalkers in a different direction, crafting its own cast of creatures, and the game is better off for it. Vampire Demitri reveals his true demonic form whenever he attacks, and Jon Talbain, with his shaggy mane and a muzzle lined with razor-sharp teeth, looks more like a wolf than the hairy-handed gents you'll see in one of those corny late-night monster flicks.

Darkstalkers is a dazzling game, especially for 1994. Details abound in the lush backgrounds, and the animation is brilliant, with flowing capes that turn into bat wings, tails that seem to dance in time with the catchy music, and bandages that unfurl whenever the towering mummy Anakaris leaps into the air. If the game had to get by on graphics and sound alone, that would get it pretty far, but Darkstalkers also plays as well as any fighter Capcom had released up to that point. The control is responsive, the characters have plenty of moves at their disposal, and the quirks in the gameplay (particularly that frustrating self-emptying special meter) would get ironed out in the sequels. 

Capcom left the Darkstalkers series in the 20th century and hasn't shown much interest in a modern revival... the closest we've gotten to one are re-releases of Vampire Savior and guest appearances in the Marvel vs. Capcom series. Still, if you're new to fighting games, it's hard to imagine a better introduction than the Darkstalkers trilogy.

(screenshots culled from various online sources)

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Crap, Crap, Mega Drive Crap

So they're making another plug and play Sega Genesis? Well, after ten straight years of miserable failures, maybe Sega will sprout a brain and get this one right. Let's see if I can find more news about this upcoming system on Twitter...

"The rumors are true! Sega is going to release the Mega Drive Mini in Japan, powered by the latest AtGames technology. This same new and improved technology will find its way into the US and other territories later this year!"

Wait, AtGames? Again?!


Sega really doesn't give a damn about its legacy, does it? The company has been letting AtGames release cheap knock-offs of the Sega Genesis year after year, unconcerned with their quality or anything but cashing the latest royalty checks. AtGames has been making these systems for ten years, they haven't gotten it right once, and judging from the dubious quality of the Genesis Flashback HD, that's never going to change.

I'm telling you, man, this is going to hurt Sega and public perception of the Genesis in the long run. Players who haven't tried the real system are eventually going to accept AtGames' dreck as an accurate representation of the experience, mutated soundtracks and all, and they're going to come to the conclusion that Sega was a two-bit console manufacturer that got lucky in the early 1990s. At this point I'm not even sure they're wrong.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Hidden Cost of Competence

So hey, that Super Retrocade that I mentioned in my last post? It's not too shabby. It follows the same modus operendi as the previously reviewed Genesis Flashback HD, taking a low-budget Android device, cramming it with ROMs, and bringing it all together with a custom interface. Here's the thing, though... unlike the Flashback HD, the interface in this system actually works, and the emulation is pretty solid, marred only by occasional popping sounds in Data East games. You can boost the Super Retrocade's already generous library by inserting an SD card full of ROMs, and in a tragicomic twist, it runs Genesis games better than the system that was designed specifically for that purpose!

However, there's a catch. Retro-Bit may not have had the right to use the emulators in the Super Retrocade... the developers of Libretro explain why in this lengthy article. Why Retro-Bit wouldn't write its own in-house emulation package is up for debate (if I were the cynical sort- and I am- I'd suggest that it was cheaper for them to nick software from hobbyists who don't have the resources to defend their IP in court), but you can't argue with the results. The Super Retrocade runs games for a wider range of formats than the Genesis Flashback HD, and performance is vastly superior. It's just galling to know you've paid sixty dollars for legal access to the libraries of Irem, Data East, and Technos, only to discover that the software running those games was used without the permission of its developers.

There are two big problems with the Super Retrocade, aside from your conscience getting that not-so-fresh feeling after you're done using it. The first is that its visuals are kind of blurry, with the haze around sprites being especially noticeable in Sega Genesis games. This should never have been an issue on a system with HDMI output. The second is that the system is apparently locked to Retro-Bit controllers. None of the USB sticks, pads, and adapters in my collection work with the Super Retrocade... only the controllers packaged with it, and according to YouTube reviewer MadLittlePixel, a handful of USB controllers sold under Retro-Bit's Retrolink brand.

That's not cool. It's not cool because it limits the player's choice to proprietary Retro-Bit controllers rather than the sticks and pads they already own, and it's not cool because the manufacturer found another way to commercialize emulators explicitly designed for non-commercial use. The emulators included in the Super Retrocade (MAME, SNES9X, and Genesis Plus GX according to Libretro's Daniel De Matteis) are available for other formats, including Android and the Raspberry Pi microcomputer, and will function with the lion's share of USB controllers on those systems. Those options are drastically reduced with the Super Retrocade, and if I were the cynical sort (see above), I'd guess that it was to give Retro-Bit an opportunity to sell more crap without Libretro's consent.

The Super Retrocade leaves me conflicted. It's more versatile and performs better than competing plug 'n play game consoles, and there's a generous helping of obscure games baked into the unit that you're not likely to find elsewhere. You're paying less than a dollar each for Fighter's History: Mizoguchi Kikkipatsu!, Code Name Viper, Final Fight 3, Ninja Spirit, and Three Wonders, and that's a hard deal to resist. However, if what Libretro is saying is true, the Super Retrocade doesn't come across all its successes honestly, and that sours the overall experience. It's another not-quite-perfect emulation solution that's pushed me one step closer to getting a Raspberry Pi.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Try, Try Again

Tomorrow is April Fool's Day... and it's also Easter. Any chance we can skip the former and go straight to the latter, internet? It'd save me from a lot of unnecessary heartache and dumb jokes. I know, I know, it's a tradition, but just give it some thought, would you?

Anyway. Since the Genesis Flashback HD was a bust and a hack to make it live up to its full potential has yet to be released, I've jumped straight to the Super Retrocade. It's a plug and play console that runs not only Genesis games, but titles for the Super NES, NES, and Game Boy as well. As the name suggests, it also plays arcade games, with big names like Bad Dudes, MERCS, and Strider baked right into the unit. It's been getting high marks from reviewers and the SD card slot expands its scope well beyond the ninety included games, so I should be happy enough with it when it arrives. (Even if it looks like a high-tech tissue dispenser.)

Speaking of the Genesis! There's a guy named Andy Grind who's hard at work on a Genesis conversion of Cave Story. It's not finished yet, but it's surprisingly close... unless you're gunning for the Sacred Ground and Ballos, you can beat the game without realizing anything is missing. Between this and Paul Koller's Commodore 64 port of Spelunky, it looks like 2018 is shaping up to be a great year for indie de-makes.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Catch a Tiger by the Tail

The Genesis Flashback HD that I reviewed in my last post is chock full of issues, but it's not totally without merit. Turns out that it (along with some of the other devices in the AtGames product line, including the more warmly received Atari Flashback Gold) was built with Android hardware. It's not exactly top of the line, with a dual-core processor, 256MB of RAM, and 2GB of flash storage, but there's still more than enough technology here to run Genesis games properly. Right now, I've got my Flashback HD running MD.emu, a faster, better emulator than what's offered by default. There are still a few kinks I need to work out, but I'm confident that with some assistance and the right software, I can turn this thing into the Sega Genesis I hoped it would be. Special thanks to the guys at GBATemp and AtariAge user rmr_md for their help.

Speaking of emulation, there are seventy different handheld games from the 1980s and early 1990s ready for you to play online, courtesy of the always handy Internet Archive. Just click on this link and you'll be taken straight to them! Some highlights include the Texas Instruments Speak and Spell, Epoch's Astro Command (I used to love this so much when I was a kid...), and the Coleco tabletop arcade line. There are more than a few gaps in the library right now, but it's a strong start. Now someone needs to find a way to make smartwatches play Nelsonic Pac-Man, complete with those tiny plastic joysticks...

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Disappoint of No Return

Remember that Genesis Flashback HD I mentioned in the last post? It arrived on my front door a few days ago, and oh boy does this thing live down to its unflattering reputation. To better illustrate the Flashback's failings, let's say this is a real Sega Genesis.
You know him, you love him, and while he sometimes comes up short next to his contemporaries, he can seriously impress you when he puts forth the effort. Now here's the Genesis Flashback HD.
It's a sad, hastily thrown together mockery of the real thing, but the worst part is that it doesn't even know it's a fraud. It tries to reach the same heights as its predecessor, only to fall flat on its face every time.

So what specifically is wrong with the Genesis Flashback HD? The untrained eye may not notice much. After all, it looks just like a Sega Genesis; a scale model of the original system with a real cartridge slot and two controller ports. If you've got any Genesis carts or joypads left over from the early 1990s, they'll work on this machine. It's also got an HDMI port for your modern television set, and two wireless controllers for added convenience.

That is all I can offer in the system's defense.

The big issue with the Genesis Flashback HD isn't so much the controllers (they're competent clones of the six button Sega Arcade Pad, with an extra button that gives you quick access to the system menu) or the menu (it's functional if a little clumsy, and the blurbs for each game are fun to read). It's the emulation that sinks this leaky ship. At best, games run almost as quickly as they do on a real Genesis, with barely noticeable but nevertheless annoying frame skips that serve as a constant, gnawing reminder that something is amiss. 

Sonic and Knuckles runs better, but the game
crashed on me during this battle with Robotnik.
All three of us were wearing this expression
after it happened.
At worst, the shabby emulation ruins the experience... there's slowdown in Sonic 2 that wasn't there on a real Genesis, while fights in Mortal Kombat 3 move too quickly, making it difficult to time combos that used to come naturally. These are the headliners for the system... the Mortal Kombat logo and Sonic are even prominently displayed on the front of the box! AtGames couldn't afford to screw up the emulation for these two titles, yet somehow, they did it anyway.

It gets worse. While it's possible to hack the Genesis Flashback HD to play more games, it takes an obscene amount of work, and is rarely worth the trouble. You'll first have to remove seven deeply recessed screws, most hidden under rubber feet or stickers, take the cover off the system, remove four more screws from the main board, then connect a mini USB cable to it. Wait, you're not done. Next you'll need to run an Android diagnostic tool on your computer, connect the Flashback to it, then type in a series of commands to redirect access from the machine's system files to an SD card soldered into the system. 

The innards of the Genesis Flashback HD.
Who knew something that small could be
that big of a pain in the ass?
Once you've done all that, you can add all the Genesis games you please to the Flashback, BUT you'll also have to edit an INI file to let the system know they exist, AND you'll have to include an image of each game's box art in a specific resolution. Oh yeah, and if you want to add more games later or remove ones that don't run so well, you'll have to tear the system apart again to reach the USB port. You could probably add an extension cable, drill a hole in the back of the system, and hot glue it there with the rest of the connectors, but uh... shouldn't that have been AtGames' job?

Even after you've jumped through all the necessary hoops to install games on your Flashback, you might not actually be playing them. I tested nine personal favorites, some with hacks like color enhancements and improved scripts. Five of these games worked, albeit in a frame-dropping, barely passable Flashback kind of way. The other four had serious problems which made them difficult or impossible to play. It lost track of where the background should be in Contra: Hard Corps, refused to respond to controller input in Samurai Shodown, and wouldn't play Snow Bros. at all, jumping back to the menu the moment it was started. Shadow of the Beast was probably the worst of the bunch... sure, it would start, but it quickly became a tragicomic spectacle of glitchy backgrounds and absent collision detection. After the lead character fell through the floor and several stories below it, the emulator just gave up and retreated to the menu.

There's a door somewhere in that mess.
There comes a point where you stop being disappointed in someone's failure and just expect it as an inevitability. AtGames has gone well past that point, demonstrating that they're incapable of making a Sega Genesis that meets the standards of the original console released nearly thirty years ago. Their previous failures were the result of negligence, but the Genesis Flashback HD was supposed to be a fresh start for AtGames, with more capable hardware and an HDMI port better suited to 21st century television sets.

Yet it's still disappointing. It's disappointing in a different way than the old Firecore systems with their morbidly depressed sound chips, but it's disappointing all the same, leading me to the unfortunate conclusion that AtGames won't make a proper Genesis because it simply can't. If the company hasn't gotten it right after ten years and a total hardware redesign, it just ain't gonna happen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

High-Def Hijinx

Well, that's it. The deed is done, the die is cast, the fat lady has arrived with spear in hand to sing the final note. After making sure the system actually worked, I bought an SCART cable and converter for my Sega Genesis. Here's the little black box that's supposed to sharpen up the system's notoriously blurry visuals...
Ci-Best, huh? I'll be the judge of that!
(image from Amazon)
It's not an OSCC or a Framemeister, but the reviews on Amazon suggest that it's more than adequate for the price. The only problem is that it needs its own power source, and with several systems and a television already connected to it, my power strip is getting pretty crowded as it is!

Oh yeah, the other only problem is that the SCART cable hasn't arrived yet... last I checked, it was stranded in Boise or something. Hopefully that'll arrive sooner than later, as I'm eager to play all my Genesis games on a crisp high definition display. Wait, all of my Genesis games are in Michigan, aren't they? In that case, I'm eager to play the only Genesis game I've got on hand, which is... Ballz 3D. Er, maybe I'm not in that big of a rush.

Speaking of the Genesis, I've also got a Flashback HD coming in the mail from ShopGoodwill. Did I need it? Not really. Do the unflattering reviews of the system have me a little worried? Sure. Did I buy it because it was half the price it would have been in a store? Oh yes, absolutely! I'll let you know what I think of the Flashback HD once it arrives and I've spent some quality (...?) time with it.