Sunday, July 23, 2017

You Can't Always Get What You Want

The terrible reality of being a video game fan is that you're always looking for new ways to play them, but you never have the money to explore all of those options. I just learned about a frontend for the original Xbox called Coin-Ops, which turns the sixteen year old system into a capable arcade jukebox. Hold on, let me dig up a link...

Look at all those games! Look at that slick, user-friendly interface! Who wouldn't want that? Regrettably, while I do have a classic Xbox, it's stranded in Michigan, and it would cost a pretty penny to ship it to the southwest, where I'm currently stranded. I could get a new old Xbox, but first I'd have to find one, then mod it. That would take a few hours of work, along with a lot of extra equipment. After that, I'd need to download the Coin-Ops file, which weighs in at a gargantuan ninety gigabytes. That's a lot of time, effort, and money, and frankly, I already threw in the towel on this idea two sentences ago.

I suppose I could settle for a Wii... lord knows I've got plenty of those. The problem here is that while the system is easily modded, there's not much hardware under the hood, making arcade emulation a crapshoot. Some games will run, while other games will run slowly, and still more won't run at all because the Wii just doesn't have enough RAM to accommodate them. Plus you have to deal with that stupid Wiimote, making it less than ideal as the heart of an arcade cabinet. Scratch that idea.

I do want to build an arcade cabinet eventually. I mean, I've got tons of flat screen monitors, the tools to build the cabinet itself, and the knowledge to put together a machine which could handle most of the arcade oldies from the 1980s and 1990s. Hell, an ancient Pentium 4 would do the trick... even that would be more powerful than a classic Xbox and a Wii combined, and it would be a helluva lot easier to set up for this purpose. Sadly, the only thing I'm missing is the cash to bring it all together. Some day, Jess... some day.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Fighting Games Are Great!

They sure are, Tokido. (Well, except Street Fighter V.) 

There was some pretty big news announced at EVO, the yearly fighting game tournament. Let's start with Tekken 7. Not content with Akuma, Namco has added another final boss from a competing series to the game's growing roster. Here he is, freshly scraped off the streets of South Town... it's Geese Howard!

Not sure I'm in love with his voice or the medallion around his neck which seems to defy gravity, but at least he's got all his moves from the Fatal Fury series. That includes the Reppuken, which might be a little out of place in a series where projectiles are rarely used, but I'm sure Namco will make it work.

What else? Capcom revealed their own crossover character for Street Fighter V, and fittingly, it's kind of a letdown. You remember Abigail from Final Fight, right? No? Well, Capcom still does. He's back, and he's so big and brawny he could make even Hugo pee his pants.

You could make fun of his name, but considering that he could give you a concussion with a flick of his finger, I wouldn't recommend it.

There was also news of a tag-team fighter featuring the characters from several Arc System Works series. I think I've made it clear in the past that I don't like ASW's games, but for completion's sake, here's the clip.

Before I go, there's something I've been meaning to mention on Kiblitzing, but never seem to get around to it. I was having trouble performing dragon punch motions with joysticks- even that top of the line one from MadCatz- and was getting frustrated by the situation. After all, the shoryuken is an important attack in 2D fighters, defending you from aerial opponents, and some characters are nearly helpless without it.

The solution to my rising uppercut dysfunction was embarrassingly simple... I just needed to lighten up. My grip on the joystick, I mean. See, American arcades use rugged parts that force the player to really lean into the stick to get complex motions like the shoryuken to register. Home joysticks (and indeed, all sticks that use the Japanese design) don't respond well to this, though. Since they're designed for precision rather than durability, they demand a lighter touch from the player. Once I adjusted my play style to compensate, I found myself performing dragon punches with relative ease, even in games like Capcom vs. SNK 2 where the timing for commands is uncomfortably tight. Trust me on this one... quick, gentle inputs make a big difference.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Writes and Wrongs

First, let me get this out of the way. I'm a writer by trade... it's what I love, and I've spent many years refining that talent with practice and college classes. Perhaps the biggest slap to the face you can give to a writer like myself is to take a carefully researched article and shrug it off as "fake news" because it didn't confirm your personal biases. It's intellectually lazy, and proves that you don't know a damned thing about writing when you elevate paranoid conspiracy theories and half-baked lies over the inconvenient truths of credible journalism.

No, modern news sources aren't perfect, and yes, it doesn't hurt to be skeptical when you come across an article that doesn't pass the sniff test. At the same time, maybe you'd better save some of that skepticism for the claims that the politicians you don't like reek of fire and brimstone, or the strangely glowing coverage of the politicians you do like. Use your head, and try to keep it out of your ass if at all possible.

Okay, rant over. I don't have much to report on the gaming side of things, but I can tell you that the GameCube I modded a couple of weeks ago seems to be working properly. By the way, there's a much easier way to diagnose a modded Cube than hunting for tiny LEDs buried inside the system. Just pop in a disc, close the lid, and hold the start button on your controller while powering on the machine. You'll get a copyright message from the Xeno chip... or not, if it isn't properly installed. Don't worry if it's fuzzy; the message is displayed in the European PAL format, and your television has no idea how to deal with that. Your games will display properly, though.

So why did I go to the trouble of installing a mod chip on a system that's over fifteen years old? Well, you remember the Game Boy Player, right? It's an accessory that snaps onto the bottom of the GameCube, giving you access to the entire Game Boy library. Thing is, the startup disc that comes with the GBP is lacking, offering a dim, slightly blurry picture which doesn't do the Game Boy Advance library justice. 
Frustrated by its shortcomings, a hobbyist programmer whipped up his own startup disc called the Game Boy Interface, which brings out the vivid color in Game Boy Advance titles. Just check out this comparison video... you'll notice an obvious difference in quality. Unfortunately, this homemade startup disc won't start up at all on a GameCube... unless you've got a mod chip like the Xeno installed. 

People also have a nasty habit of losing the official disc that comes with the Game Boy Player. Replacement discs cost a mint on eBay, so why not get something that works better for the price of a mod chip and a handful of mini DVD-Rs? It's a smarter, more cost effective way of doing business.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Frustration, Cubed

What to discuss, what to discuss...

Well, there's the Castlevania series which recently debuted on Netflix. Word on the street is that it's very good (and very brief), cementing Netflix as the preferred streaming service for original animated series. It's also very violent, but you can't make an omelet without whipping a few zombies into undead goo. Or something.

Blah! BLAH! (Not blah at all, actually.)
(image from Screen Rant)
On a personal note, I've pulled my GameCube out of retirement to install a mod chip. It's not like I needed to do this... my Wii U plays Cube games just fine using the Nintendont app. However, I just wanted to be prepared in case I ever found a GameBoy Player without the disc. That tends to happen, but you can substitute it with a homebrew app called the GameBoy Interface, which is said to run GameBoy games even better than Nintendo's official disc.

What was that? You said I could just as easily play GameBoy Advance games using my Android TV? Well, uh... the mod chip was cheap, and I was bored. So there.

Just a couple of notes about the install... normally, you need a special tool to open the case on your GameCube, but that's not really necessary. I found that the bit extender on a screwdriver sold for about seven dollars at Wal-Mart works just as well. Set the extender (without a bit on the end) into the screwdriver, stick it down the screw hole, then turn left until you hear a click. Bingo bango, the screw releases, and you can keep unscrewing it until it's loose enough to shake out of the bottom of the console. Here's the tool set you'll need, by the way. It's got a lot of bits that'll probably help you with the rest of the mod job, too.

Second thing. YouTube users have described this mod as "extremely easy," but I beg to differ. Just getting the GameCube open is a bit of a challenge (hint: try this teardown guide by iFixit), but once you reach its creamy middle, you've got to solder six points on a chip the size of a small postage stamp. It's got to be placed precisely on the drive controller board, and you've got to make sure you're binding the chip to the Cube's PCB. Just filling the holes on the chip isn't enough... you'll have to poke the iron through them a few times to ensure there's a love connection.

Wait, wait... I haven't gotten to the best part! There are LED indicators which tell you if the installation is successful. The first one blinks off, then a second one turns on if you've done it right. Seems easy enough, but the LEDs are tiny, packed closely together, and (you're going to love this) the same color. Once you insulate the chip with black tape, you're not going to have the figgiest idea which LED is lit, if you can see them at all. So maybe my GameCube's been properly modded, but maybe it hasn't... the only way to know for sure is to nuke it from orbit pop in a burned mini DVD and hope for the best.

On an even more personal note, I tried Zima for the first time in nine years. Holy hell, I liked this stuff? Maybe my tastes have dulled in the past decade, but to this steadily graying member of Generation X, it tastes like slightly sweetened rubbing alcohol. Flavored malt beverage technology must have advanced by leaps and bounds during the Obama administration, because I'd rather have a Mike's Hard anything than another Zima. Okay, my curiosity's been satisfied... back to the 1990s with you!

Monday, July 3, 2017

I'll Get You This Time, Gadget

I think my search for the perfect joystick may finally be over. I've had my eye on a MadCatz TE2 at a pawn shop in Sierra Vista for a while now... but apparently I was the only one interested, because it had been there for over a year without any takers. The manager cut the price from $130 to $90, and I was able to whittle that down to $75 after a little negotiation. I generally don't pay that kind of dosh for a controller, but after my past (often frustrating) experiences with cheap arcade sticks, it seemed like a wise decision to finally do things right, no matter the price.

Here it is in the box. Aside from some tearing on the box cover, the package is in excellent condition... the stick looks great and there are no missing pieces. There's even a screwdriver included so I can remove the plexiglass plate and replace the artwork... something I might actually do, because the lenticular Chun Li on the front is a little distracting.

And here it is out of the box. Not sure I'm down with the textured blue plastic along the edges, but past that, this is clearly a premium stick, outclassing anything else I've ever owned. (Or built. D'oh.) It's fully compatible with the Playstation 4, so I can finally play Namco's arcade series with a proper controller. The joystick is responsive, with minimal clicking, and the buttons have low actuating force, so even a light tap registers as a press. The control panel rests on a hinge, so you can open it up and swap button positions if you like (and I might; I'm not fond of the factory defaults). Start and select are set on the back of the stick, making it unlikely that you'll press them by accident. The USB cable screws into the back and can be stored inside the stick when you're not using it. 

In short, the TE2 is a class act all the way, and the fact that we no longer have Mad Catz making these should be distressing to fighting game fans. If it's any consolation, though, they're still ripe for the picking on eBay. Let's check out a few listings, shall we?

$369? Oh...kay. Surely there's an auction with a better price!

Five... hundred and fifteen dollars. Excuse me for a minute.

Wait, wait... all right, I'm good. Seriously. So like I was saying before... WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?! You're paying FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS for a damn joystick?! Look, I get it. This has never been a cheap hobby, and the prices have risen exponentially in the last five years, but still! It's a JOYSTICK. You could buy a game system for that! Like, one of those fancy Xbox One Xbox One Xbox One Xs, or a Switch, or maybe even an NES Classic! Unless you're doing this professionally- and even that notion mystifies me- there is absolutely no reason to pay FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS for a joystick.

Five hundred dollars.

Five. Hundred. Dollars. Think about it.

I'll be back later, once I clean the drool off my shirt.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Ms. Lacks, Man

Okay, just one more post before June ends. Yes, it's cranky, but by my estimation, that frustration is well deserved. 

Let's talk about Ms. Pac-Man for a minute, shall we? Originally designed by General Computer Corporation as "Crazy Otto," the game got some tweaks by Midway's marketing department, becoming an official sequel to Pac-Man and one of the most successful arcade games of all time. 

Thirty five years later, people still play Ms. Pac-Man, and for good reason... it's more varied, more colorful, and has loads more personality than the first Pac-Man. Just between you and me, I don't think Namco has ever forgiven this US-born game for topping its own creation. Home ports of the game have varied wildly in quality, with Namco's own conversions for later consoles feeling almost intentionally lackluster. Let's take a look at the scoreboard...

ATARI 2600
To the best of my knowledge, this was the first console port of Ms. Pac-Man. It's clearly saddled with the limitations of the aging 2600 hardware, but it's an earnest effort and a huge step forward from the first game. Ms. Pac-Man faces in all directions, and the fruit targets bounce along the playfield just as they had in the arcade game. I spent many a morning playing this one just before school.

ATARI 5200
image from Atari Age
Outwardly superior to the 2600, with a higher resolution, more faithful mazes, and excellent sound. The big problem here is that Ms. Pac-Man moves rather slowly, and jerks along the playfield slightly while eating dots. The 5200's stock controller doesn't help matters much, but really, if you spend any time with this system at all you should have bought a 2600 joystick adapter or a Wico controller already.

ATARI 7800
Coincidentally, Ms. Pac-Man creators General Computer also designed this system, originally meant as a peace offering to players burned by the Atari 5200. Ultimately, the console was delayed to compete with the NES, making its flaws more obvious. Nevertheless, it's smoother, faster, and more detailed than its Atari 5200 counterpart, and even sounds okay despite the 7800 sharing a sound processor with the 2600.

Image from Emuparadise
Putrid green courtesy of Namco
And here is where the problems begin. This version of Ms. Pac-Man is obviously a reskin of Namco's already shaky NES port of Pac-Man. The lovely pastels of the arcade game have been turned into gruesome greens, rust reds, and Pepto-Bismol pinks, the characters have been awkwardly scrunched into mazes too small for them, and sound effects are far off the mark, excluding the music at the start and during the intermissions. It was released in 1993, probably at the exact moment when people least cared about Ms. Pac-Man, so it won't come as a surprise that the game is super rare today. Hold onto your copy if you've got one, but for the love of Pete, don't play it! 

This is an entirely different animal from Namco's game, and takes a lot of liberties with the source material, adding mazes (some good, some so frustrating you'll want to belt the designers) and new features. Ms. Pac-Man can dash, giving it the flavor of the Ms. Pac-Man speed hacks, and the translation is overall vastly superior to Namco's version. Colors are brighter, the artwork is more faithful, the sound... kind of blows... well, I guess you can't have it all. It's worth noting that this version was developed by Franz Lanzinger, the guy who created the very Pac-Manny arcade game Crystal Castles back in 1983.

Despite running on nearly identical hardware, the Master System and Game Gear versions are completely different. The former is based on Tengen's NES version, with the same variety of mazes and the turbo button. The latter is based on the crap Namco served up on the NES, with the same scrunched up mazes and similar sound effects. One thing worth noting is that extra care went into the graphics in these two games, with exquisitely detailed fruits in the Game Gear version and jowly monsters in the Master System game. Why the designers couldn't just stay true to the arcade game is anyone's guess, but it's a reoccurring issue with these ports.

Image from AtariAge (again)
This is hands down the most Atari-looking of Atari's Ms. Pac-Man conversions. The monsters are single colored, with black dots for eyes, and Ms. Pac-Man herself only looks slightly better, smashed into a six pixel wide sprite. You could blame the Lynx's coarse resolution for the stone-aged visuals, but what about the sluggish gameplay, huh? Or the chirpy sound effects? My point is, this isn't very good, no matter what Lynx fans starved for software will tell you.

Largely the same as Tengen's sorry NES conversion, with a scrolling playfield and an outline around Ms. Pac-Man. The lack of color may actually be a plus when you consider how the NES game looked. It's more detailed than the Lynx version too, but then again, so are most cave paintings.

Pretty similar to the GameBoy version of Ms. Pac-Man, which in turn was similar to the NES version. It was the 1990s... I guess Namco was into recycling, like everyone else. However, this one has several improvements. Color is the most obvious of these, but it's good color, unlike the NES version with its desaturated greens and reds. Also thrown in for your (likely brief) amusement is a port of Super Pac-Man.

Image from Player 1 Start
Remember the NES version of Ms. Pac-Man by Tengen? Well, these two cartridges are the same thing, beaten bloody with the 16-bit stick. Everything is jarringly detailed and shiny, from the mazes to the fruit to Ms. Pac-Man herself. If you insist on an arcade perfect port, maybe don't get either of these. The sound effects rapidly alternate between stunningly faithful to the arcade version and "what the hell were they thinking," with the Super NES version sounding the best. Ms. Pac's high-pitched quacking/oinking in the Genesis game will... probably take some adjustment.

(Image from Moby Games)
What the hell happened here? In the mid 1990s to the turn of the century, Namco had access to the most powerful game consoles ever made; machines far and away superior to the original Ms. Pac-Man hardware. Despite this, the port of Ms. Pac-Man on Namco Museum is clearly compromised, with compressed graphics. Not satisfied with frustrating Playstation owners, Namco also released this collection for the Nintendo 64, and most depressingly, next generation consoles like the Dreamcast and Playstation 2. You know, the Playstation 2, the game system powerful enough to be used as a missile guidance system. Guess a 1981 arcade game was just a leeetle too much to ask from a console that could send you to the Matrix. (Either that, or Namco just got lazy.)

Rightly repulsed by the Ms. Pac-Man ports in earlier Namco Museum releases, someone at the company hired the emulation masters at Digital Eclipse to (finally) do the game justice. The end result was Namco Museum 50th Anniversary, which not only includes a sterling conversion of Ms. Pac-Man, but a lot of other Namco hits. Rolling Thunder? Galaga '88? Yes, please! The interface is a nice touch, a spinning turntable packed with authentic arcade cabinets and 1980s music blasting in the background. Now that's the way you do it!


Okay. I'm going to skip ahead a couple of chapters, because if I had to cover every Ms. Pac-Man port in existence, I'd never get a chance to make my point. Some years back, Namco released Pac-Man Museum, a spin-off of its Namco Museum series featuring only Pac-Man games... and the characters from that stupid computer rendered cartoon. Namco offered Ms. Pac-Man as part of the collection, but it was downloadable content, and you had to download it right away or pay five dollars for it later. I opted to pick up the DLC while it was free, and waited for Pac-Man Museum to go on sale.

I bought Pac-Man Museum the moment it hit the digital bargain bin, and now I can finally play Ms. Pac-Man. All the other games on the collection are golden, so there should be no problem with this one, right? Right?


Uh, no. Very not right. The attract mode looks fine, but then the game starts and you hear a constant high-pitched droning that sounds like the noise a guy must hear before his head explodes in Scanners, except it happens all the time, and you can only wish your head would explode to take the pain away. A casual player may not notice the difference, but I've been playing Ms. Pac-Man for a while, so I picked up on it right away... and wanted to play a better version almost immediately afterward.

I mean, sure, I could have settled for Namco Museum on the Game Boy Advance (which is good), or Namco Museum Battle Collection for the PSP (which is very good), but I wanted to play Ms. Pac-Man on a big screen. My copy of Namco Museum 50th Anniversary Edition for the Xbox is back in Michigan, so to satisfy my raging need for instant gratification, I had to buy the game from an online source.

Currently, the Playstation 4 version of Ms. Pac-Man is available for just two dollars on the PSN store, so I went that route. And that's when my problems continued. I should have known something was up when the game took what seemed like a lifetime to finish downloading. Turns out that Ms. Pac-Man for the Playstation 4 is eight hundred megabytes, which is about... 799.9 megabytes larger than the actual arcade game. I could understand a little padding for a user interface, but damn, 800 megabytes? That's just senseless. You could put half the Neo-Geo library into that much space.

Joystick not included. And actively discouraged.
(image from the Playstation Store)
So it finally downloads, and I hungrily open the file. It's a pretty good conversion, and I love the option to add reverb to the sound effects, giving them added punch and making it seem like you're hanging out in an arcade with noises bouncing off the walls. However... there's no joystick support. You know, a joystick, the thing you used when you first played Ms. Pac-Man. Some Playstation 4 games have the option to play with a joystick designed for the Playstation 3, but that was a bone developers had thrown to fighting game fans. It's not a feature in older arcade games, to my great consternation. Sure, you could play Ms. Pac-Man with a Dual Shock controller, but you could do your own dental surgery, and I don't recommend that either.

So I looked for yet another version of a game I already bought, in the vain hope that Namco would finally get it right. Okay, Ms. Pac-Man is on sale for two dollars over at Microsoft's store. I guess I'll get that. Sure, I already have it for the Xbox 360, but that's the Pac-Man Museum version, and my ears have already taken enough punishment.

(Image from IGN)
Out of all the home ports of Ms. Pac-Man I've got, the standalone version on the Xbox 360 is the most tolerable. Yes, the sound is a little soft, prompting me to crank up my television's volume to compensate. Yes, Ms. Pac-Man looks strangely sultry in the border art. (No, I won't "come up and see you sometime." Aren't you married?) However, it offers most of what the Playstation 4 version does, and you can play it with a damn joystick you already own. 

I'm not sure why I had to buy this game three separate times before I found one that Namco did right. You'd think they would have it down to a science after thirty-five years, but I'm starting to get the impression that Namco would be much happier if people forgot about Ms. Pac-Man entirely and just settled for the original game. (Fat chance of that happening, though.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Coming to a Scalper Near You!

Well, it's official. Nintendo is making a Super NES version of its extremely popular, and just as extremely under-supplied, Classic game console. Here's an image of the box, straight from Nintendo's web site...

And here are all the games that will be included, courtesy of Polygon.

But because you're never, ever going to find one, here's a mask so you can pretend to be the hero of the obscure Sega RPG Panzer Dragoon Saga!

Image from Retro Gaming Australia
I'd like to direct you to the caption on the bottom of this advertisement, which was the last middle finger in the face Sega fans needed to switch their allegiance to other console manufacturers.

Gosh, I hope I'm not being too subtle. Nintendo claims that there will be "significantly more" Super NES Classic Edition systems manufactured, but coming from the company that cut supplies of its products to the point where people were willing to risk their lives for them, I'm not optimistic.

In games you can actually buy news, the Playstation Store is having a helluva mid-year sale, with tons and tons of titles you can purchase at a fraction of their original prices. (An even smaller fraction, if you have Playstation Plus!) I'm actually considering the Namco 3-in-1 pack, despite the fact that I've bought Ms. Pac-Man, Dig Dug, and Galaga for countless other systems over the last thirty five years. In my defense, most of the home ports of Ms. Pac-Man were kind of crappy...