Sunday, August 12, 2018

Greener Grass

Hey, did I ever mention that I bought a Super NES last month? It's probably something that would be worth mentioning on a retro gaming blog. Anyway, I snagged it from ShopGoodwill for about ten bucks. Sure, they tacked on an extra eleven dollars for shipping and handling, and I had to pick up a few accessories from other sites to complete the package, but I'd say it was money well spent. 

I had a complicated relationship with the system back in my teens, but now that the rubble from the 16-bit wars has long been cleared away, I can appreciate the Super NES for everything it brought to the gaming experience. Unlike today's consoles, which are essentially the same hardware in different shells, the Super NES and Genesis are distinct both inside and out, with games that reflect each system's respective strengths. 

The Genesis had a faster processor, which brought a tangy zip to Sonic the Hedgehog and gave developers more creative freedom. It's hard to imagine a game like Gunstar Heroes on any other console from the early 1990s. However, there's an undeniable appeal to the richer color palette, the symphonic sound chip, and the arcade-quality special effects of the Super NES. 

All three are given a workout in the system pack-in Super Mario World. At first blush, it doesn't look like anything special... a modest improvement over Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES. But then you're hit with the vibrant hues of Yoshi's Island and that jaunty ragtime theme you'd swear was being played on a real player piano, and you quickly realize this is not the kind of game you could get out of a Genesis. Trust me, Sega tried... and they failed miserably.


Here's Super Mario World now, running on the actual hardware. Normally, a Super NES wouldn't look this good on a modern television set, but I picked up a SCART to component converter on eBay a week ago, and it cleans up the picture rather nicely. I'm told an open source scan converter looks even better and isn't so picky about which television you use, but that costs $200 and this was $40, so shut up.

There's just one teensy little problem with playing games on a real Super NES. The hardware is over a quarter of a century old, and its age is starting to catch up to it. The graphics of the Super Nintendo are powered by two picture processing units (consolidated into one chip in later models). When the pins on the PPUs get rusty and the motherboard starts to corrode, you get glitches like this...

In the case of my Super Nintendo, everything else looks just fine, but when you get to the fight with Iggy, the tilting platform is littered with small, out of place lines. Maybe it's a problem with the cartridge itself, but I've done some research on this issue and it's just as likely that the console is to blame. While the motherboard can be cleaned and broken traces can be rejoined, reaching the innards of the Super NES can be a challenge. You need special "game bits" to open the case, and once you're inside, the processors are covered with metal plates. The metal plates, in turn, are hidden under a mechanical eject button held in place with a spring. Springs, why did it have to be springs?!

Since I don't have any Mode 7-heavy games to give my Super NES a thorough diagnosis, and because I didn't have much luck modding my Sega Genesis a couple of months earlier, I decided not to take any unnecessary risks and left the system the way I found it. Actually, I did make one minor alteration before I put the case back together...



Let's just say that I opened its eyes to exciting new cultures. Heh.

EDIT: I guess there were problems with the images. I've reloaded them... let me know if they come up.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Slow Your Roll

Guys? Guys. Look, we're all upset over Emuparadise dropping its ROMs, but can we refrain from completely losing our minds over it?

Oh no sir, nothing wrong here at all.
(image from Notes from a Boy)
I mean, I get it. I used Emuparadise too, and Nintendo's recent crackdown on emulation sites will have a chilling effect on the remaining ones. Nevertheless, there's no reason to go Mr. Crocker and advocate a holocaust over what amounts to losing your playthings. They're video games. Calm down.

Come to think of it, a lot of the posters in that thread seem like the sort I would inch away from if they sat next to me on the bus. Hell, I might leap out the window and catch a ride on the roof of a nearby sedan just to get away from them. I'd like to think they're just dumb kids who will grow out of it, but I'm not optimistic.

Monday, August 6, 2018

A'la SCART

So! That Samsung 910MP monitor came in the mail a few days ago. Let's set it up and see how it performs.



Here it is now, sitting atop my increasingly cluttered project table. As the model number suggests, the 910MP is a multi-purpose display, doing double duty as a computer monitor and a television set. Sure, most modern television sets offer the same functionality, but can they do this?



Feast your eyes on the back of the set. Yes, that's a SCART cable... you won't need a converter because the 910MP has a port built right into it. This is one of the few televisions released here in America that's compatible with SCART, a European display standard that offers composite, RGB, and audio signals all in one cable. The numerous pins packed into SCART gives it the convenience and versatility most American display standards can't match, and it's a little bewildering that it never caught on here. Sure, that connector is pretty big, but it's no larger than the five plugs you'd need for a component connection with stereo sound.



Ah, but there's a catch. The SCART connector won't work until you jump into the menu and program the 910MP to work as a European television. After you've done this, it won't pick up any analog television signals, but since America is no longer receiving any, that's only going to be a problem if you've got a time machine set for the year 2003.

Now that you've got your SCART cable and a television that can recognize it, it's time to experience video games the way Europeans have for decades. Drum roll, please!



Well, that was a little anti-climactic. The picture is better than composite, but it's not the quantum leap forward I was expecting. The colors are more vibrant and the pixels are sharper, but brightness and contrast are an issue. Notice the wings on either side of the logo... they should be dazzlingly bright, but here, it looks like someone at Samsung was doing laundry and forgot to throw in a cap full of bleach. It's dingy, lifeless, unremarkable. The same goes for Tails' chest fluff and Sonic's cartoon gloves. While you can adjust the colors in the options menu, no setting I've tried will get the whites in Genesis games their whitest.



However, in the 910MP's defense, it offers good pixel separation. Observe the checkerboard pattern of blue against light blue in the background. On a composite television, the two colors would merge, creating a gradient effect. Here, they're clearly defined as separate colors, making the game look a bit more like it would in an emulator. Also, props to the 910MP for including a "still" button which freezes the picture, making it easier to take snapshots like this.



Let's move on to Streets of Rage 2; specifically the character select screen. The 910MP faithfully reproduces much of the extreme detail in each hero's portrait, but loses some of the more minute features. We'll bring the camera in for a closer look.



You notice the chin stubble and the Ferrigno-like features of the game's massive wrestler Max, but Axel's blue eyes, already barely noticeable in an emulator, are gone completely, merging with nearby pixels to become nearly black. This blending becomes an issue with smaller objects like sprites. Here's how Axel looks in the first stage of the game...



The shine on Axel's cheek nearly swallows his whole face! Once again, whites are toned down significantly, an especially bitter pill when you open the 910MP's menu and notice the clean white header bars on the top of the dialog box. This television is capable of strong luma output... just not in any devices connected to the SCART port.



Okay, one last image before I wrap this up. This comes from Accolade and PF Magic's Ballz, an early 3D fighting game that doubles as a time capsule of mid 1990s gaming trends. Check out the random video clips and the rude messages on the televisions in the background! It's so exxxtreme™ it hurts!

Anyway. There's a bit of ghosting on the rhinoceros, but I'm not sure if that's from the television or just my smartphone's camera. The 910MP handles scrolling fairly well... there's occasional screen tearing but at least the sprites don't get that blurry filtered look like they do on the CiBest SCART to HDMI converter.

Am I satisfied with the Samsung 910MP? Erm... not really. It doesn't deliver the quality picture you'd expect from a flat screen display with an RGB port, even one edging fifteen years of age. I'm told the culprit is de-interlacing... anything fed through the SCART port is processed before it's displayed, resulting in a slightly soft and dull picture. It's better than composite, as you'll notice from the pictures below, but it still isn't where it ought to be.
Composite
RGB SCART
And the quest for the ultimate picture from my Sega Genesis continues...

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Genesis Won't (also, last call on the Xbox Ultimate Sale)


"Okay, so the S-video mod was a fizzle. If I solder some wires to the A/V port of this Genesis and connect it to an old VGA monitor, it's got to give me a great picture then, right?"


Narrator: "It didn't."

Well, I'm out of ideas... and patience. With all the cheap solutions exhausted and the expensive ones too costly to seriously consider, it's probably time to throw in the towel on this misadventure. I mean, I guess I could get a monitor with a built in SCART connection, but such a beast is exceedingly rare in the United States, and it would cost way too much to have one shipped from Britain. So the Minigen HD it is, then!

Annnnyway. Since I'm done beating my head against this cement wall, I can turn my attention and my bloodied brow to the Xbox Ultimate Sale, which ends in a couple of days. I picked up Torchlight, Mini Ninjas, and the Xbox One version of Rayman Legends so far, but I feel like I should squeeze a few more deals out of this sale before it ends. What about the critical darling Ori and the Blind Forest? Or perhaps the less warmly received but steadily improving Recore? Perhaps I should grab a copy of Sleeping Dogs, which offers a ridiculous amount of gameplay for the price of a McDonald's Happy Meal? So many options, so little time...

Oh yeah! Since I brought it up, I'd like to take the time to recommend Mini Ninjas at its current "how the hell is this so cheap?" price. While it's true that Square-Enix was giving it away for the PC a few months ago, that version requires a lot of prep work, forcing you to install obscure patches before it will play music and recognize your favorite joystick. Mini Ninjas for the Xbox 360 works right out of the box, making it a more user-friendly experience.

Look out, it's a bear! I mean, sure, it's adorable,
but it's still a bear.
I'd say "friendly" was a good way to describe Mini Ninjas in general. It was designed by IO Interactive, but it's a kinder, gentler stealth game than the studio's Hitman series. Sure, you'll sneak up on big-headed samurai (who poof into cuddly woodland creatures after they've tasted your blade), but there's so much more to do, like racing along walls to reach distant platforms, harvesting plants for later use in potions, and riding down rivers in a giant soup bowl that doubles as an arrow-proof helmet. Mini Ninjas is fun for less skilled players and respectful of Asian culture... in other words, it's the kind of game I wish the endlessly re-released Legend of Kay would have been.

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Low-Down High-Def Blues

The frustrating thing about emulation is that it warps your perception of retro gaming, and gives you unreasonable expectations of the actual hardware. Take for instance the Sega Genesis classic Sonic 2. Here's how it looks on your computer, courtesy of KEGA Fusion...


Annnnd here's how it looks on a real Sega Genesis, connected to a real television set.


Oy gevalt. The Genesis wants to give you a sharp, pixel-perfect image, but the display technology of the late 1980s prevents that from happening. What you get instead is composite, which was only barely passable when the Genesis was first released and is downright grotesque on today's HD televisions. Clearly something has to be done to fix this.

Right now, I'm trying to upgrade my Genesis to S-video, from the standard ass-video you get out of the box. That hasn't been going so well! So far I've only succeeded in ripping a voltage regulator off the motherboard and the wires from the red LED that glows when the system is turned on... which means it no longer does that. (D'oh.)

The folks at Console5 who sold me the S-video chip have been extremely helpful, offering tons of tech support, but I'm nevertheless coming to the conclusion that I'll have to go the clone console route to get an acceptable picture from my Genesis games. On the down side, Gamerz Tek's Minigen HD doesn't offer stereo sound and it can't interface with the Sega CD. On the plus side, I get to keep my sanity rather than sacrificing it on frustrating mods. I'm pretty sure that counts as a net gain.

I've been griping about this a lot so let's switch gears. Microsoft is currently running its Ultimate Xbox Sale until the end of the month. Calling this sale "ultimate" is a check even Bill Gates can't cash, but there are nevertheless some pretty good deals on older Xbox One and 360 titles. I'm thinking about triple-dipping on Rayman Legends, since I don't want to drag my Playstation 3 out of retirement to play it and the touchscreen features in the Vita version make it more frustrating than fun.

That reminds me... there are still a lot of Vita games (and other games) in my collection I haven't reviewed yet. I should get right on that... it would probably be more fun to read than yet another post about trying to wring a quality picture out of my Sega Genesis.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Errata 2600

I thought it might be a good time to mention that I made a mistake in a previous post. Sure, I published it five years ago, but anyone with a Coleco Gemini who's given serious thought to modding this Atari 2600 clone for modern television sets will nevertheless want to know this. Back in 2013, I tried to find the pinouts for one of the system's chips using a tedious process of testing each pin with a multimeter. Some of my findings were correct, but others were so far off base that it was a wonder I managed to get a recognizable picture out of my composite video mod.

The correct pinout for the 73192 (aka the E4002) is right here on Console5, and they would know... the web site has been selling mod kits and replacement parts for game systems for years. (I've been thinking about picking up their S-video kit for the Sega Genesis, because it's starting to look like it's the only way I'll ever get a halfway decent picture out of the system.) If you'd like to add composite jacks to your Gemini, use Console5's pinout as a guide, not mine. Also, you might want to reinforce the controller ports with hot glue or something... I've heard they don't hold up to repeated use. It was a budget system, after all.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Get the Picture?

No, but I'm working on that. I'm trying to find ways to get a crisp picture out of my Sega Genesis, which at the moment is stuck using composite cables. Composite may have been acceptable back in the bygone days of the early 1990s, but on today's high-definition television sets, it leaves something to be desired. Hell, all that blur and color bleed is like looking at Medusa before she's put on her morning make-up.

I've been trying to find a solution, but so far nothing's been satisfactory. I bought an SCART cable and an HDMI converter some months ago, thinking that it would solve the problem, but the picture still has big issues... characters in the foreground are soft around the edges, and scrolling results in a "swimmy" distortion that turns every scuffle in Streets of Rage 2 into the fist fight from Top Secret.


Then there's VGA. It's possible to connect the Genesis to a computer monitor (as demonstrated in this video by Thomas3120) but it comes with a laundry list of caveats. First, you have to build the wire yourself. Second, most VGA monitors won't work with the Genesis because it's so old. They run at a 31 kilohertz frequency, but the Genesis can only output to 15 kilohertz, and the whole thing hertz my head because I have no idea what the hell any of it means. You can use a "scan doubler" to connect a Genesis to the VGA port of a modern display, but that requires a separate power supply, and my power strip is already at low vacancy.

I could even connect the Genesis straight to HDMI using cables from Pound Technology. Those are the guys who released a high-def cable for the original Xbox last year, and they're planning to offer similar products for both the Genesis and the Super NES in the future. Problem is, there's no specific release date for these products... and when they are released, they'll display games in a 16:9 aspect ratio rather than the 4:3 aspect ratio the Genesis normally uses, resulting in a stretched display. Annoyingly, these cables will also require a separate power supply, and as stated earlier there's not much room at the inn for extras.

At least I've got options. None of them are perfect and some of them are aggravatingly complicated, but I have options.