Monday, February 11, 2019

In a Solid State of Mind

So about that Dreamcast. You may recall that it wasn't playing discs properly, but I took care of that problem. Now, it doesn't play discs at all! Heh, nailed it.

image from Netflix
See, there's this potentiometer you're supposed to adjust to make the laser more intense, but Sega stuck some glue on it to keep it that from happening. I couldn't cut through the glue, and I couldn't make the pot turn with a screwdriver, so I went with the nuclear option and tried to force it to turn with a pair of needle nose pliers. Now you can turn it as much as you like, because it's been pulled off the GD-ROM drive entirely! Ugh.

However! That doesn't mean the Dream is over. In fact, this could be a blessing in disguise, as that broken optical drive can be swapped with a peripheral called the GDEMU. Instead of discs, the GDEMU takes SD cards, which are smaller, can be freely erased and rewritten, and hold a lot more data. You could put a massive chunk of the entire Dreamcast library on a 128GB card, and never need to open the drive lid again.

Admittedly, the GDEMU is expensive... Chinese clones of the device cost eighty dollars or more, with the genuine article costing several hundred. However, it may not just be a wise future investment, but a necessary one. I'm told that optical drives in general aren't built for long-term use, with Sega's proprietary drive being especially damage-prone. Beyond that, the GD-ROM has been out of production for nearly two decades... purchasing a replacement just isn't an option, unless you're willing to pay through the nose for a drive fished out of another Dreamcast. 

My Dreamcast, patiently awaiting a drive transplant.
With GDEMU prices starting at eighty dollars,
it may have to be extremely patient.
Sooner or later, you will have to throw out the drive entirely and switch to solid state storage. That doesn't just apply to the Dreamcast, but all game systems with a disc drive... the Playstation, the Saturn, the GameCube, you name it. Some of these machines are already equipped with alternate forms of storage... the classic Xbox has a small hard drive by default, which can be swapped with a much more spacious one after it's been hacked. The PSP has a slot for a Memory Stick... this was originally intended for game saves, but plummeting storage prices and a handy Micro SD card adapter means you can stick dozens of games into the system without ever opening the UMD drive.

Unfortunately, just as many systems from the age of spinning discs and moving parts have no other official storage options. Hackers have cribbed together their own solutions... the Dreamcast has GDEMU, the Saturn has Phoebe and Rhea, and even the decades-old Turbografx-16 has an alternative to the Turbo CD in the Super SD System 3. All of these devices are expensive, with the Super SD System 3 costing nearly as much as a Turbo Duo when it was launched in 1992. However, with the lenses of optical drives dimming and discs slowly losing their data to bit rot, players unwilling to settle for emulation may have no choice but to empty their wallets.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Livin' the Dream

...well, sort of, anyway. The Dreamcast I bought arrived yesterday, and while it does work, it has some issues. When I first turned it on, it went to the date entry screen, and while I was setting the WABAC machine for twenty years into the future, it shut off. Uh, that ain't good. After several such resets, I managed to get the machine to keep its eyes open, but it wouldn't recognize discs. Cleaning the lens with a Q-tip and a small amount of alcohol fixed that problem, but it's still kind of picky about what it will read. It ran Fighting Vipers 2's introduction too slowly, focusing on characters for so long that the background music finished well before the rest of the intro did. Street Fighter Alpha 3 wouldn't run at all, and while I could play through the game in its entirety, Capcom vs. SNK 2's smug announcer got a slight stutter... not a game-killer by any means, but still distracting.

I guess the best course of action would have been to send the Dreamcast back, but I wasn't sure it would be worth the hassle just to recover twenty five dollars and some couch change. It certainly wasn't worth the hassle for the seller, who told me she really needed the money and that she had a toddler and three pit bulls to feed. Pretty good hustle, kid... you're off the hook for this one. So it looks like it's up to me to work out the kinks in this system.

Fortunately, much of what's happening with this Dreamcast are common issues with common solutions. The laser can be strengthened by adjusting a potentiometer inside the system, and the random shutdowns usually happen because the power pins get corroded over time and need to be cleaned. I'll have to open the machine to do this maintenance, and that brings with it the possibility of brushing up against the internal power supply and getting a painful electric shock. I can't imagine it being any more painful than paying eBay prices for another Dreamcast, though...

I've only spent a small amount of time with this system, but just seeing the orange dot hop along the bottom of the screen, then expand into the Sega swirl, brought back some serious nostalgia. I played Dreamcast games almost exclusively from 2000 to 2002, and it's good for the soul to relive that experience on an actual console, if only briefly. I just need to do a few repairs to keep those good times rolling...

Monday, February 4, 2019

Half 'cast

"Ooh, a Dreamcast for twenty-two dollars! How could I pass that up?"
"Does it come with a controller? Or A/V cables? Or anything else that would make it usable?"
"Uh..."
"Congratulations. You just bought a Sega-branded paperweight."

Well, you can't blame me for trying. As usual, I do have this system in Michigan, but since it doesn't look like I'll be getting it back any time soon, I've had to go with plan B and order another one. I just might not be playing it any time in the near future.

By the way, can anyone vouch for the high definition cables available for the Dreamcast? They come in VGA and HDMI flavors, and while they're said to be a big improvement over composite cables, I also understand that they don't play nice with some games or television sets. Heck, they're not even compatible with every Dreamcast, although that mostly applies to the black Sega Sports model that was introduced late in the system's short life. You know, the more piracy proof model that came out after the Dreamcast was cracked and the Playstation 2 loomed overhead like a console-crushing Death Star. 

Eh, I guess you can't blame Sega for trying, either.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

You Are Watching Fox(es)

image from AtariAge and Penguinet
Now here's a pleasant surprise! A game was released late last year for the Atari 7800, and it's a real doozy. Rikki and Vikki brings the look and feel of NES platformers to Atari's third game system, with the title characters fighting their way through a subterranean amusement park to rescue their offspring from the dastardly Misery Dragon. (This scaly douchebag lives to annoy others, but when you resort to kidnapping, you've left "annoying" a thousand miles behind and have set both feet firmly in "felony" territory.)

The brilliantly designed marquee tells you everything you need to know about the gameplay... you strategically set boxes, then grab keys scattered around the room to advance to the next one. You'll have to put your thinking tuque on to figure out how to reach those keys tucked away in seemingly unreachable spots... some sneaky tricks to increase your reach include sticking the boxes to the sides of walls and jumping on the top of a box held by your partner. While it's possible to play the game on your own with a set of single player stages, you can't really win unless you bring a friend along for the ride. Like I said, the Misery Dragon lives to annoy people.


The stage designs are top-notch, and the graphics are impossibly good on a game system best known for ports of creaky old arcade titles. Both Rikki and Vikki look like they jumped straight out of a Disney Afternoon game by Capcom, gritting their teeth when they pick up boxes and kicking them into rabbits so big and meaty you'd swear they missed a dinner date with a Korean dictator. The only game that comes close to looking this nice on the Atari 7800 is Tower Toppler, and... well, you have to play Tower Toppler, which I don't recommend.

Atari 7800 owners will no longer have to resort to that terrible fate to get their platforming fix, thanks to Rikki and Vikki. Heck, even if you don't have an Atari 7800, you can still play this on Steam, and for a lot less. Definitely look into this if you like action games that test both your footwork and brain work.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Subpar Size Me

I think members of the press let their enthusiasm get the better of them when they gave high marks to Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters for the PSP. Sure, just about everyone loves this mismatched pair of intergalactic heroes, and the thought of taking them wherever you please must have seemed appealing at the time. However, what really makes this series work, aside from the snarky hero and the arsenal of wacky weapons and the expressive animation, is the scope of the adventure. Each planet you'll visit is huge, with lush jungles and stunning city scapes in the distance, and sprawling playfields chock full of hidden goodies nearby. Size really does matter, and the console versions of Ratchet and Clank have it. This PSP extension of the series, for all its superficial resemblance, does not. It's a scale model of the real thing, a diorama, a ship in a bottle, and it doesn't take long before you start to notice the lack of elbow room.

If the camera were any closer behind Ratchet,
it would be giving him a colonoscopy.
Gosh, this review turned out a little front loaded, didn't it? Well, let me talk about the minor details of the game that I probably should have mentioned before I panned it. Ratchet (a fuzzy, talking cat-bat who ranks up there as one of the least threatening alien designs ever) and his back-mounted sidekick Clank (a robot with a decidedly low tech look and the voice of a math professor) head to a sunny vacation planet to cool their heels after saving the galaxy from certain doom. They barely get time to kick back in their beach chairs before a not-at-all suspicious little girl (we all had metal antennae before puberty, right?) begs them to do something heroic for her school newspaper. The kid gets kidnapped, and the tale of a mysterious miniature race, excessive cloning, and way too many mini-games follows.

I mentioned earlier that Size Matters suffers from a lack of scale, right? The levels are linear and hidden items aren't all that well hidden, to the point where pieces of armor are dropped in your lap at the end of some areas. Well, the developers at High Impact Games must have noticed this too, and added diversions to Size Matters in the hope of distracting the player from its shortcomings. Locked doors are opened by first shrinking to fit the keyhole, then riding the circuitry inside them to flip switches. Some critical items must be earned by winning hoverboard races against a dimwitted stoner lion. Ratchet and Clank team up to break the security inside enemy strongholds, with Ratchet hacking the systems and Clank defending him from robot spiders with an ice beam. These mini-games are tedious and frustrating and overused, but they sure are there, and you sure will have to finish them to make progress.

It was already established by the plot that this
is all going on in Ratchet's head! Was this
drug trip really necessary?
Of course, the core gameplay has its own problems. The camera is set way too close to Ratchet, and the throngs of enemies that made each battle feel like crowd control in the console versions have been slimmed down considerably. Some of the game's faults are unavoidable considering the hardware- nothing beats a second thumbstick for camera control, and nothing the game offers as a substitute comes close- but others are just senseless, like the dream sequence where the edges of the already cramped screen are obscured with psychedelic swirls. I'd like to be able to see the axe Captain Quark just threw at me, but sure, go ahead and cover that up with some groovy purple haze. Clearly those hit points were worth sacrificing for your special effect.

Some compromises had to be made to bring Ratchet and Clank to a portable, especially in 2007 when this spin-off was released, but I can't help but wonder if High Impact Games made the wrong ones. Size Matters looks and sounds like the games I loved on the Playstation 2, but the spirit of the franchise was crushed into a cube to cram it into the PSP. It's there, but it's mangled and folded into itself and given no room to breathe. If you've spent any time with the console versions of Ratchet and Clank, it's just as suffocating to play Size Matters for an hour.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Buy Buy Again

I don't know what to make of the flavor,
but at least it's fun to say! Like most Korean
foods, really. Bibimbap. Bi-bimmmm-BAP!
(image from Serious Eats)
Okay, I bought a bottle of gochujang on a whim, and this stuff is a complete mystery to me. It's sweet like catsup, smokey like chipotles, and ends with a slightly unpleasant fermented tang. What do you even DO with this?! It's like the Riddler of condiments! I made a grilled sandwich with it, and while I could keep it down, it wasn't exactly a taste delight in every bite. Yet I'm probably going to be banging my head against this culinary puzzle for the next couple of months, because I do so hate to waste food. Even the crap I probably shouldn't have bought in the first place.

Speaking of mysteries... I've been pondering my gaming purchases, and I've noticed that over the last twenty years, I've been buying a lot of titles which I technically already owned. It doesn't seem like the smartest use of my gaming dollar, so I decided to dig a little deeper and find the logic in these redundancies. Turns out that most of these re-buys fit into one of the following categories...


PRICE 


Tunnel B1. Not a good
game when I owned it on
Saturn, but certainly more
palatable when you get
it and a dozen other games
for a few bucks in
an indie bundle.
(image from eStarland)
Even with downloadable content and subscription services as a counterweight, you get a lot more bang for your gaming buck in the 21st century. It's not just that games are longer than ever, taking anywhere from twenty to eighty hours to complete... it's that digital distribution, intense competition, and a fickle public turn today's big budget hits into tomorrow's clearance priced antiques. 

This is a pretty good deal for collectors, as well as anyone who missed the game the first time and hopes to satisfy their curiosity about it. I already owned the superior Dreamcast version of King of Fighters '99, but when Sony offered the Playstation port in a flash sale for the cost of a fast food soft drink, I had to have that too. The animation isn't as smooth and the load times are a little on the long side, but when the game costs a couple of dollars and plays on three different systems (the PS3, PSP, and Vita), I'm willing to slum a little.

CONVENIENCE

The harsh reality of today's gaming technology is that it's made us lazy. Spacious hard drives have made us reluctant to get off the couch to swap discs, and we sure as hell don't want to dig up that dusty old console from a decade ago to play our older favorites. So we buy them again, in HD, for the console that's already hooked up to our television set. That's less of an issue for Xbox One owners, since that system can play over half of what was released for the Xbox 360, but even they'll have to break out their wallets if they want to jump back a few generations. After all, Microsoft didn't even have much of a presence in the video game industry back in the 20th century...

IMPROVEMENTS


"I can't wait to play Strider on my...
uh, what is this?"
(image from Moby Games)
The harsh reality of yesterday's gaming technology is that home conversions of arcade favorites were often drastically changed, and not up to snuff with the originals. The Nintendo Entertainment System was notorious for games that called themselves Gyruss, Ninja Gaiden, and Bionic Commando, but could be better described as spin-offs, tailor made for the less powerful hardware. They were still good in their own right, but probably not what you expected when you saw the names on the boxes. 

Even when the gap between arcade and home gaming started to close in the 1990s, perfect ports weren't a guarantee. Namco whiffed its Namco Museum collections for a half dozen consoles, until finally getting it right with the 50th Anniversary for the Xbox and Playstation 2. I can't tell you how many times I bought (and re-bought) this for Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man, until I was finally satisfied with it.

BONUSES

It's in a gamer's nature to hunt for bonus prizes. However, when buying video game collections, they're not looking for cherries or chests overflowing with treasure, but omake... goodies like artwork, soundtracks, cheats, and interviews with the designers. Digital Eclipse (both when it was first founded in the 1990s, and the recently resurrected company headed by archivist Frank Cifaldi) earned a reputation as the master of omake, packing titles like Sega Genesis Collection, Capcom Classics Collection Remixed, and The Disney Afternoon Collection with so much extra content that they'd be hard to resist even in the unlikely situation that you already owned all the games on the discs. 

Those bonuses usually don't change the games themselves, but Capcom went the extra mile with Street Fighter Alpha Anthology, which included all three games in the Alpha series, AND the spin-off Pocket Fighter, AND an exclusive versus mode that let players use the super charged attacks from the Marvel vs. Capcom series. That's the kind of stuff that will bring someone who already owns all the Street Fighter Alpha games back to the table for another helping.


PORTABILITY


PSP, kills boredom dead!
(image from Amazon)
Never underestimate the draw of a game you can take anywhere. It's what made the Nintendo Switch a success despite its performance deficit next to competing consoles. Many of the third-party games on the Switch first made their debuts on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, but players are willing to give Skyrim and Dark Souls another spin now that those experiences aren't chained to the living room television set. 

Even the fourteen year old PSP got a lot of mileage out of stuffing a console quality experience in your pocket. I've got Disgaea for both the Playstation 3 and its handheld cousin, and spent a whoooole lot more time with the PSP version. The hours of grinding necessary to power up your characters and their weapons is best done during a boring airplane trip, or a boring car trip, or any other situation where you find yourself bored to tears. (Maybe not that showing of Fantastic Beasts and How I Wish I Chose Another Movie. The usher got pretty testy about that.)

ADORATION

Sometimes you're willing to buy a game over and over simply because you love it that much. Ms. Pac-Man has been a serious money magnet for me... I've owned it on everything from the Atari 2600 to the Playstation 4, with plenty of systems in between. Yeah, I even had the Coleco tabletop that looks like a tiny arcade cabinet. I didn't get to keep it for long, but it was fun while it lasted! I've got King of Fighters '99 for the Playstation, the Dreamcast, in the Japanese NESTS Collection for the Playstation 3, and the Xbox One, evidently because I can't bear to ever be in a situation where I can't play my favorite game in the KOF series. The same thing applies to Darkstalkers and its two sequels... I made sure that I have at least one of the games in that franchise for every console that's ever had it.

The font that haunts your nightmares...
(image from Lunatic Pandora on Twitter)
So there you have it... six pretty good reasons to re-buy the games you already own. Sorry, but I couldn't bring myself to list "HD remasters" as the seventh reason. I find that these lack the spirit of the originals, either because they were clumsily ported to the new hardware, or because they introduce graphics and sound that clash with the original developers' vision for the games. I'm pretty sure signs written in Comic Book Sans are not the kind of scare Silent Hill fans wanted from that series...

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Fighter's History and Current Events

It took a while, but Microsoft finally fulfilled the promise it made with the Badlands promotion, and gave me the three months of Xbox Game Pass I wanted. They did it in a weird, roundabout way, giving me Microsoft Rewards points that I could redeem for the subscription, but whatever, I'm happy.

Speaking of happy, I've been making the most of Pseudo Saturn, playing games I either haven't experienced on the Saturn in over a decade, or never tried at all. I haven't worked up the courage to play the bizarre Mr. Bones, but perhaps I'll get to that one someday. I did give the semi-sequel to Dark Legend, Fu-un Saiki, a spin, along with Fighter's History Dynamite. I had as much fun ridiculing it as playing it back in the 1990s, but I gotta say, I'm enjoying it without irony now that I have a few more years under my belt... and more than a few pounds hanging over it.

Just thought I'd let you know what's going on in Kiblitzing-ville at the moment. Hopefully I'll have a more substantial update for you in the near future.