Sunday, August 25, 2013

Genesis: The Unboxening

Welcome back, readers! (Both of you.) I have tidings of great gaming cheer to report. A few days ago, a member of the Talking Time forum was looking to trim down his collection, and offered his Genesis and a handful of games for the price of shipping. Being a fan of the system since... well, forever, I jumped on the chance to claim it for myself. Sure, I already own a Genny, but I could always use more games and accessories, and that stuff has gotten seriously hard to find at pawn shops and yard sales. Yesterday, I scoured a local town during an annual summer festival- peak garage sale conditions- and turned up a single Sega Genesis item, a lonely copy of Pac-Man 2. That's what I call slim pickens.

So you can understand why I'd be grateful to have a shot at a big Genesis score, regardless of how that opportunity presented itself. I sent the seller the eight dollars he requested, and just two days later, it arrived on my doorstep, as if it had been delivered by Sonic himself. Let's take a peek inside, shall we?


That's a promising start! Many of the games in the package included the box and instructions. The great thing about Genesis collecting is that the games are complete as often as not, thanks to the sturdy plastic cases they were shipped in for most of the system's life. Unfortunately, later titles like the ill-considered port of The Art of Fighting came in the same flimsy cardboard boxes that Super NES games always had, a move Sega defended as "environmentally friendly" but I'd personally describe as "a huge load of bullshit." The plastic cases might find their way to a landfill, but if my twenty-five years of collecting have taught me anything, the cardboard boxes are destined for one.


Also included in the package were two three button controllers, standard equipment for the Genesis in its early years. These joypads seem perfectly ordinary at first glance, but one of them holds a pleasant surprise. While the one on the left has the usual thumb-wrecking hard plastic D-pad with barely any throw, the one on the right is rubberized and rocks on a central pivot. It's the same design Sega used in its brilliant six button Arcade Pad as well as the Saturn's stock controller, and I had no idea that it ever found its way to the old three button controllers. I originally planned to hack both of these joypads for other projects, but now I'm having second thoughts...


Here's the system itself, a standard model two Genesis. I prefer the design of the original, with its wide frame, circle-rimmed cartridge port, and the promise of "high-definition graphics" on the front, but at least this one doesn't take up much space and plays nice with the later model of the Sega CD. Both models are a quantum leap ahead of the third model, which could nearly fit in a man's pocket but sacrifices all but the most basic functionality to squeeze into that tiny package. (You know, kind of like that Canadian Wii released a few months ago.)


Let's look at the games. Oh god, not this one! I mentioned Heavy Nova in a previous update, but never gave it the thrashing it so richly deserves, so let's open that overdue can of whoopass. What first appears to be a thrilling action game with a strong anime influence quickly devolves into a boring slog spread across two play styles... a sluggish, frustrating platformer and a versus fighter that adds the -anical to mech and puts the "ass" in molasses. After your fifth slow-motion smackdown at the hands of a "Heavy Doll" (really, Micronet? Really?), you'll want to set the cartridge under your opponent's ten ton heel. Problem is, it might take a few years for the mech to step on it.


And here now is an elusive species, the Sega Genesis RPG. Once thought to exist only in myths and rumors, this beast made a rare appearance at the bottom of this box. Enjoy this sight, for it could be a once in a lifetime experience.

Er, seriously. This is Sword of Vermillion, one of the few role-playing games released for the Genesis in its early years. I've spent a grand total of five minutes playing this, and the unflattering reviews on GameFAQs aren't convincing me to give it more of my time.


Championship Pool, endorsed by the Billiard Congress of America! Unlike our current congress, they try to sink the black one last. Anyway, this seems to be an okay adaptation of the sport, although having to switch screens to adjust your power (instead of the timing-dependent power meter in Side Pocket) takes some adjustment.


When the guy who sent me the Genesis listed "Genesis 6-Pak" as one of the games in the package, I assumed he meant the assortment of light gun games packaged with the Menacer, Sega's quickly forgotten bazooka peripheral. To my great surprise and relief, the 6-Pak actually contains six Genesis launch titles, ranging from the ho-hum Columns to classics like Revenge of Shinobi and the first Sonic the Hedgehog. The original Streets of Rage is also squeezed in there, but it shows its age next to its sequel, with limited move sets, shrimpy characters, and a smart bomb that's nowhere near as cool or useful as the special attacks in Streets of Rage 2. Nevertheless, I spent a lot of time with SOR in my teen years, and it's nice to have it back in my collection.


The package included two RF adapters. Problem is, the Amiga 1080 I use with my older game systems isn't compatible with RF. Frankly, neither am I... I was eager to leave that stone-aged standard behind the moment I bought a television set with more than one port on the back. With this in mind, I snipped the RF box from one of the cables and soldered on a couple of composite wires I'd salvaged from a Commodore DTV unit. Twenty minutes of snipping and soldering later, the Genesis was producing an image of acceptable, if not sterling, quality. The Genesis can output in dazzling, razor-sharp RGB, but the parts I'll need to make that cable are a little pricey, so that mod will have to wait.

This was a damn fine haul, especially when you consider the price. The original owner charged me a lot less for shipping than it actually cost, so the Genesis, several accessories, and a buttload of games effectively cost me negative eight dollars. Best of all, I've got a spare system, in case the old one goes belly up or I decide to mod this one. So yeah, I'm pretty happy with the way this panned out. You might even say giddy!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Here Comes Franklin!

First things first... check out the new design for the blog! It's no longer got that Tommy Vercetti Hawaiian shirt look that the old one did. It's probably a little bluer than necessary, but that's nothing a new background image won't cure! I'll plug one in later this week.

So, I was out yard sailing with me madre, and happened across this beast...


I found this mysterious computer at a garage sale a couple of months earlier, but left it behind, thinking it was just another IBM PC clone. Some online research later that evening revealed that it was an entirely different animal, worthy of closer inspection. Luckily, I would get a second crack at the machine when it turned up at a later sale. I wanted the computer and the previous owners wanted it gone, so after two dollars exchanged hands, we both got what we wanted.

So, what exactly did I get? It's the Franklin Ace 2200, the last in the company's line of Apple II clones. Back in the 1980s, when IBM PCs were obscenely expensive and largely relegated to the business sector, it was Apple's hardware that was relentlessly copied by hardware manufacturers. Franklin Computer Corporation led the charge with the Ace series of desktop computers, which one-upped Apple's official systems with higher performance, smaller footprints, and lower prices. The system shown above is roughly half the size of a common PC tower, with built in disc drives and a detachable keyboard you can rest on your lap. These were all luxuries conspicuously absent from the Apple IIe, a tan behemoth that gobbled up half your desktop and looked only marginally more modern than the wood-carved original Steve Wozniak pieced together in his garage.

Okay, that's a slight exaggeration.
(image courtesy of Engadget)
Naturally, Apple wasn't happy about this, and was determined to force Franklin off its turf. Franklin scored an early victory against the company when a district judge ruled that Apple could only copyright code written on paper, not discs or microchips. However, anyone familiar with our civil justice system knows that a company is allowed as many re-rolls as it can afford to emerge victorious in a legal battle. Apple took its grievances to an appeals court, which reversed the decision and doomed Franklin to a long, miserable life of making pocket translators.

However, Franklin must had enough time between the two court cases to thoroughly saturate the market with Ace computers. I've seen three of these in the wild so far, including two 2000 series machines and a 1000 my mother had brought home from a yard sale some years earlier. I don't doubt for a second that there are many more out there... after all, if you were shopping for a computer and had the chance to buy the same hardware as a major brand, but for less money, why wouldn't you?

While we're on the subject of pinching pennies, I guess I could have saved myself two dollars and downloaded an emulator instead. However, I can also use this Ace to retrieve some of the games I wrote in Apple BASIC over twenty years ago. Sure, they were hilariously crude, but the nostalgia would make it oh-so worth it.

(Special thanks to Wikipedia, Oldcomputers.net, and Old-Computers.com for their assistance in writing this article.)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Coleco Gemini: The Second Encounter

You remember this guy, right? Short, black, and ill-tempered, like Gary Coleman after Diff'rent Strokes was cancelled?


Well, after some encouragement from the fine folks at AtariAge,I decided to dig it out from the shed and take it apart, along with the mysterious project box attached to it. It turns out that the box, which I hoped would let me connect the Gemini to a television, offered nothing but an alternate power source, along with plenty of regret for those foolish enough to plug it into their big screen LCD television sets. Iesposta from the AtariAge forums offered this warning:
"Don't use that project box. If that 110V power soldered to the yellow transformer lead touches the Coax Connector and that is connected to a TV, well, it would be very bad, unless by 50/50 chance it was plugged into the house ground. 
If 110V did get into the TV or the RF of the Gemini, it would probably be powdered toast, man."
When I get a word of caution with a Ren and Stimpy reference in it, you'd better believe I listen! So I chucked the awful thing in the shed and turned my attention to the Gemini itself. Thankfully, the wires inside the machine leading to the project box weren't permanently attached... they slipped out of the system almost immediately after I opened it. That was a welcome surprise!

That was the easy part. However, hacking a system with little available documentation is considerably trickier. Sure, A/V mods for the standard Atari 2600 are all over the internet, but there's something you've got to understand about the Coleco Gemini. For all Coleco's efforts, the machine is not the same as a genuine Atari 2600, and if anyone tells you otherwise...


I quickly learned this lesson when I connected Ben Heckendorn's classic 2600 composite mod to the system in the usual way. Instead of a picture, I got a rolling green screen full of gibberish... a clear indication that the Gemini was not the twin of the Atari 2600 that Coleco had made it out to be.

That meant that I had to do a little detective work to discover the functions of the pins on Coleco's TIA knock-off, shown here:


Before I proceed, here's the 411 on the TIA. The Television Interface Adapter is the muscle of the Atari 2600, handling its video, audio, and input/output functions. Anything you see on the screen or hear from the speakers of your television set can be traced back to this little beauty. A real Atari 2600 uses a 10444 for its TIA chip; the Gemini has an off-the-shelf counterpart called the 73192. And that's where the headaches start...

The 73192 is wired differently than the 10444, with several key pins swapped. I was able to find half of them by tracing them back to the 6507, a budget-priced version of the 8-bit processor that all the cool game systems were wearing back in the 1980s.*

And some robots a thousand years later, apparently.
(courtesy DigitalRetroPark.de)
* The guys with Z-80s were all in the chess club, raising a pair of taped-up glasses with one hand while pulling down their wedgied underwear with the other.

The other pins had to be sniffed out with sneakier methods. For instance, the paddle inputs were tracked down by connecting a multimeter to the pins and looking for changes in voltage as I cranked on the dial of the Coleco Gemini controller. 

That wasn't the brass ring, though... I was after the video pins. I only managed to find those through a process of trial and error. Solder a wire here, get a dim monochrome image, solder another wire here with a resistor on the end, get a few more details, etc. Here's how it looked when I finally found the sweet spots on the underside of the board. You'll pardon the annotations!


After wiring up the prototype, I replaced it with something tidier and more permanent, as shown here:


The mod works as shown, but there's still room for improvement. Colorful titles like Pitfall! look great, but games set against a black background, like childhood favorite Crystal Castles and my own Solar Plexus, aren't as sharp as they ought to be. Crystal Castles in particular becomes an annoying challenge of hunting for barely visible gems, an issue I didn't have with the Light Sixer mod I'd done the week before.

You'll pardon the scanline. I chased
the beam, but it got away from me...
There are gems here somewhere! I, uh, think.
So hey, mission accomplished! Sort of. By the way, here's the pinout for the Coleco Gemini's TIA, since it seems to be such a closely guarded secret. The pins listed in red are guesstimates, but since I've got my system running composite video, I'd say they were pretty close to the mark.


All right, all right. I've been hitting the mod talk pretty hard lately, so I'll give it a rest and review some of the games I've been playing on my Atari systems in the next installment. Until then, folks!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What is This I Don't Even: the Coleco Gemini, Plus...?



So, I was digging around through the barn at the back of the property, and hidden beneath the layers of dust, cobwebs, and other disgusting detritus (for the love of god, where is my hand sanitizer?!) was a game system I thought I'd lost forever. The Coleco Gemini was a slimline Atari 2600 clone released at the worst possible time, after the launch of three superior consoles and just before the video game crash of 1983. 

Nevertheless, the machine has its charm, along with several key advantages over the original Atari 2600. It abandoned the tacky woodgrain aesthetic of the official system, replacing it with a sleek black design that's a better fit for the 1980s. The Gemini also merged a joystick and dial into one handy controller, clearing up a lot of living room clutter and offering a clue to the system's puzzling name. (Really, what else could it mean?)

I was pretty excited about my discovery, but after I found some excess baggage hanging from this Gemini, I was just confused. Take a look at these wires dangling from the back end of the machine. There's a composite cable wedged into the hole where the channel select switch rests, and a mysterious connector pushed into the AC adapter jack (unplugged here for your convenience). An extra RCA wire leads out from the same hole into... uh, this.

I'm still at a loss about this accessory. The only thing I know for sure is that it's not official. Hell, it's three planets away from official. It looks like some guy took a handful of Radio Shack parts, threw them into a project box, and called it a day. On the left hand side of the box, the letters W and Y are scrawled into the metal casing, informing the user which cable goes where. On the right is a coax connector (which seems rather redundant with two video ports nearby) and a standard two prong power cable. 

Other holes are scattered around the edges of the box, and their functions are a mystery. Did the creator of this strange device plan to put the video jacks there before changing his mind? Were the holes designed as cooling vents? Were other ports planned for this peripheral? The only way I'll know for sure is to open it up, and in all honesty, the thought scares me. Who knows what's living inside this thing after twenty plus years of cold storage?

Whatever this contraption is, you can't seem to use the modified Gemini without it. I tried connecting the system to my Amiga monitor with a standard Atari power supply plugged into the AC adapter jack, but no dice... it just wouldn't power on. Shame too, because I've been jonesing for some Atari action, and a 2600 clone with composite video and a smaller footprint was really appealing to me. Maybe I could get this thing working after I unravel the mysteries of this box...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Just Dance (then just call an ambulance)

First, let me apologize for not being more regular with these blog posts. Kiblitzing was supposed to be for more casual observations about video games, but somehow each post turns into a massively long review, on the rare chance that something gets posted at all. I've gotta keep reminding myself, this isn't 1UP! I can post whatever I want, even if it's stupid!

Anyway, I went out yard sailing today with me madre today, and came back with a small handful of discs. Among them was a copy of Ubisoft's Just Dance 3 for the Nintendo Wii, which I purchased for a quite reasonable dollar. That's a steal compared to my other Wii music game, the ill-considered port of Samba de Amigo, which cost nearly three times that at a previous garage sale. (And that, in turn, is a bargain compared to whatever ungodly price I paid for the Dreamcast version of Samba and its maracas ten years ago. Maybe I can learn to live with the Wii version of the game after all...)

Not shown: fat gamer on a stretcher.
(image courtesy of Gamingbolt.com)
After a brief test play, I've got just two observations about Just Dance 3. The first is that I forgot how dangerous these music games can be if you're out of shape! I was delighted when I found Take on Me in the playlist, but a song that demanding will just about kill you if you're lugging around fifty extra pounds. No matter how many times I play a game like this, I'm always surprised at how much the experience takes out of me. (It's likely because I'm not playing them frequently enough.)

My second thought is this. What Keebler magic is Ubisoft using to get the game to track your movements so accurately with just one point of reference? I'm sure the motion control isn't perfect, and if I wasn't spending all my time panting and clutching my heart, I would notice the sleight of hand. However, when you're actually playing the game, the illusion is pretty damned seamless. I would like to have a silhouette of myself on the screen to know for sure if I'm nailing each gesture, but for a dollar, I'm willing to live without it.

On a related subject, I found (but ultimately passed on) a copy of Wii Music for about three dollars. The game was savaged by reviewers as a toy of little substance or purpose, but for that price, I was sorely tempted to take the plunge anyway. If it's really as laid back as the reviews suggest, at least I wouldn't end each session sprawled on the floor.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Aren't You Glad You Used Dial?

Home gaming has been around about as long as I have, and the industry has made astonishing progress in the forty years since the first Pong machines were parked in front of the family television set. Unfortunately, in our race to advance the hobby, we tend to leave its earlier innovations in the dust. 

It's alive! ALIVE!
Take the dial controller, for instance. What used to be standard equipment for game consoles has become a little-seen novelty, compatible with just a few games and often carrying a hefty price tag. (Seriously, look up a JogCon or a Vaus controller on eBay sometime. You'll plotz.)

There are no mass-produced dials at all for home computers, which is especially frustrating when you consider the many emulators that support them. Sure, you could use a mouse or an analog joystick instead, but the only way to get the precision and the feel of a dial is to build one yourself. Fortunately, it’s possible to build one from spare parts… a laser mouse here, a few buttons there, the knob from an Atari paddle on the top, and a box to hold it all, and you’re off to the races.

I won’t bore you with the specifics of how my dial came to be… I’ll save that for an Instructables entry. However, I will bore you with reviews of the games I’ve recently played with it!

ARKANOID

If you were reading Telebunny, you’d get a painstakingly detailed analysis of Arkanoid, exploring its evolution of the Breakout gameplay and its impact on video game history, while unearthing a treasure trove of intriguing facts about its development. However, since Parish doesn’t have a dial, you’ll have to settle for sloppy seconds. Bwa ha ha!

The solid NES conversion of Arkanoid.
Instead, I’ll tackle the game from a more personal perspective. Arkanoid was released in 1986, when Japanese companies were working to not only revive the struggling arcade scene, but reinvent it. Most of these developers distanced themselves from an Atari-dominated past, but Taito built on that foundation with games like Bubble Bobble and Arkanoid, infusing familiar play styles with the innovations of the late 1980s.

I loved both the Atari and NES eras of gaming, so you can imagine how thrilled I was with a game that brought them together. I played Arkanoid every chance I got, and snapped up a copy of the NES version shortly after I bought the system in 1988. Twenty five years later, the game’s inspired countless spin-offs and knock-offs, all with something new to add to the formula. However, Arkanoid brings just enough to Breakout to give the game depth and purpose, without feeling overburdened by the new features. The power-ups are logical, the stages thoughtfully designed, the gameplay kept streamlined and straightforward. All the pieces just fit, which can't always be said for the games that followed in its footsteps.

ARKANOID: DOH IT AGAIN

If only the game were this appealing!
I always wanted to get my hands on this game, released as a budget title late in the life of the Super NES. Now that I’ve actually played it, I’m not sure it deserved all that excitement. To its credit, the game’s got the lush graphics you’ve come to expect from the Super Nintendo, including some striking science-fiction scenes, and there’s plenty of Mode 7 razzle-dazzle in the boss stages. One fight with DOH has your stone-faced nemesis grabbing the edges of the screen and turning it upsidedown. It doesn’t serve much purpose beyond disorienting you, but hey, it is a Super NES game!

That’s just the window dressing, though. Look beyond it and you’ll find a banal experience, easily in the low tier of Arkanoid games. In contrast with the other games in the series, DOH It Again is almost insultingly easy, taking at least ten stages before it starts to pick up steam. The sound is also a miss, with the classic ringing of broken bricks taking on a staccato, unpleasantly digital edge that would probably be more at home on the creaky Odyssey2. (The music is strictly reserved for the boss fights, and it has that overwhelming pipe organ motif that's aggravatingly common in Super NES titles.) The gameplay is classic Arkanoid, give or take a few aggravating new enemies, and the game plays like a dream with a dial, but this is still not one of the series’ finer moments.

BALLARENA

As seen on "I Love the '90s."
I’d written about this mysterious game before, after digging up a preview from an old issue of Video Games and Computer Entertainment. I thought it had been lost forever, but a French reader was kind enough to inform me that the game really did exist for the Acorn Archimedes computer, and helped me through the tricky process of installing it on my system. He’s got my thanks for satisfying my curiosity about this long-lost release after twenty long years of wondering.

With all that said, Ballarena is pretty lousy. As the pictures in VG&CE suggested, it’s a hybrid of Arkanoid and Gyruss, but these two great games make one hell of an ugly baby. You circle around the edge of the playfield like in Gyruss, but unlike Gyruss, there’s no vanishing point in the center… the ball just flies past it to the opposite end of the screen, often slipping past you in the process. Miss a ball and you’re dragged to the side of the screen for another, as the computer cries “MAMA MIA!” in a voice so grating, it would give even Charles Martinet a splitting headache. The graphics demonstrate the power of Acorn’s state-of-the-art ARM processor, with some striking patterns in the later stages, but you’ll have a hell of a time reaching them thanks to the ill-conceived gameplay. By the way, who was the dope who thought it would be a good idea to stop the action with a text message every time a power-up appears? I hope he trips down some stairs. Like those really long cement ones Sly Stallone jogs up in the Rocky movies.

BLOCK BLOCK

I'm going to need a Tylenol
after this one.
The name’s not doing it any favors, but Block Block is nevertheless a fantastic title, challenging even the mighty Arkanoid as the king of the block buster genre. Designed by Capcom and Mitchell, Block Block’s got the same vibrant color and whimsical touches that defined their last tag-team effort, Buster Bros. However, what really makes this game stand out are the ways it distances itself from- and improves upon- Arkanoid.

For instance, take the way Block Block handles the length of your paddle. It starts out fairly long, but there’s a counter at the bottom of the screen that drops each time the paddle strikes the ball. When the counter hits zero, the paddle drops a few pounds, making it tougher to keep the ball in play. Fruit can fatten up the paddle, but it’s only a temporary fix, giving the player an incentive to carefully aim their shots and finish each stage in short order. However, if you find yourself stuck, sometimes the game will take pity on you and drop an exit sign somewhere on the playfield, giving you a chance to skip the stage entirely. Any Breakout fan who's spent minutes trying to clear away the last elusive block in a stage can tell you what a relief it is to have this backdoor available to them.

Some of Block Block’s innovations are less welcome than others. A few stages put blocks below your paddle, forcing you to take an uncomfortable leap of faith and let the ball slip past to clear them. Other stages have bumpers and other pinball targets, suggesting that the designers forgot how well they didn’t work in Namco’s Cutie Q and Gee Bee. There are occasional stumbles here and there, but what works in Block Block overshadows what doesn’t.

CAMELTRY

Going for a spin in Cameltry.
Camel-Try? Camel-Tree? However you pronounce it, Taito’s spinning labyrinth game is a keeper. Best described as a smoother, more exciting version of the bonus stages in the original Sonic the Hedgehog, Cameltry challenges you to guide a marble through a maze by turning the world around it. Holding down the fire button gives your marble added weight, letting it smash through barriers, but it also increases the risk that you’ll touch the penalty squares that leech away what little time you have to reach the goal. Finish a stage and you’ll be rewarded with another, more difficult one. Run out of time and you’ll be picking up what’s left of your marble with a dustbuster.

Cameltry made its debut in arcades, but there’s also an excellent Super NES conversion called On the Ball which makes the most of that system’s hardware scaling and rotation. They both play beautifully with a homemade spinner, and both come highly recommended even if you don't have a dial handy.

OMEGA RACE

It's just you and me now, triangular paddleboat!
This was always a childhood favorite on the VIC-20, and I’m still amazed at how well the (shoestring) budget computer was able to reproduce the game’s vector graphics. Nevertheless, the visuals are a lot sharper in the arcade version of Omega Race… to say nothing of its teeth! While the fearsome death ship mindlessly bounced around the playfield in the VIC-20 version of the game, it purposefully zeroes in on you here, spraying laser beams when you fall into its line of sight.

Beyond that, the experience is largely the same, with the player darting around a rectangular track, picking off innocuous drones before they can morph into more threatening forms. Omega Race demands a more proactive approach to hunting your targets than Asteroids, along with mastery of your ship’s sensitive thrusting. If you’re not moving, you won’t be living for long.

STAR TREK: STRATEGIC OPERATIONS SIMULATOR

It's smooth sailin' until every Klingon in the
quadrant closes in on you.
Back in the 1990s, a friend observed that Star Trek just doesn’t translate well to video games, because the series was more about exploration and interaction with diverse alien cultures than indiscriminate blasting. That’s clearly no longer the case, if the vast worlds and deep characterization of Mass Effect are any indication, but it must have been one hell of a challenge to squeeze the Enterprise into the cramped confines of an arcade cabinet back in 1982.

Sega’s solution was to present its game as a battle simulation. They stripped away the technobabble, the moral dilemmas, and the absurd plot twists, and presented the player with three simple goals: blast Klingons, defend space stations, and stay alive. Normally, they could achieve this with impulse power and phaser fire, but in times of distress, players could fire a photon torpedo, wiping out any Klingon caught in the explosion, or hit the warp button for a fast escape.

As dumbed down as it was from the television show, Star Trek was pretty sophisticated for a 1982 arcade game, with shields acting as a health bar years before they were commonplace and windows that showed the action from multiple perspectives. It doesn’t offer the visceral, seat of the pants action of its rival Star Wars, but Star Trek is a fun game in its own right, with a slower, more measured pace better suited to fans of the franchise.

TYPHOON 2001

Sensory overload makes a comeback in Typhoon 2001.
(Image courtesy of Arcade-Junkies.com)
Oh baby, now that’s the stuff! There’s no question… this little gem by German programmer Thorsten Kuphaldt is the king of Tempest clones. It’s closely patterned after Jeff Minter’s official remake for the Atari Jaguar, but surpasses it with the sharp high-resolution graphics only possible on a modern home computer. Best of all, it’s compatible with just about anything you can throw at it… I must have spent hours playing this on my netbook when I was going to college. But only between classes, of course! (Heh heh.)

Typhoon 2001 readily accepts mouse input, making it compatible with any spinners you happen to have on hand. It’s better if your spinner has a flywheel, but you can get by with an ordinary dial if you crank up the mouse sensitivity to adjust for the lack of inertia. You might also want to crank down the distracting Minter-brand special effects if you want to make it past the fifth stage.

VICTORY

Victory. Where figuring out what the hell
to do is half the challenge!
“Baffling” doesn’t even begin to describe this one. You’re the pilot of the Battlestar, a well-armed disco ball, and it’s your mission to keep a gang of cosmic criminals in prison. Unfortunately, you’ll be quickly swarmed by their buddies the moment the game begins. Hovercrafts streak across the sky, dropping paratroopers which free the Quarks, and clusters of ground-to-air missiles launch as you approach. If it gets too hot on the planet’s surface, you can escape to deep space for temporary relief, but the longer you’re up there, the more time the aliens have to spring the Quarks from their cells!

Like its inspiration Defender, Victory is frantic and chaotic… but it’s also incredibly confusing, something no shooter from the early 1980s should ever be. There are so many buttons and status bars and details that it’s hard to keep track of it all, and the aliens rarely give you the opportunity to sort it all out before blowing you to bits. On the plus side, your Battlesphere- er, star- controls pretty well with a dial, and there’s plenty of synthesized voice, which must have been mindblowing at the time and remains impressive thirty years later.

VS BLOCK BREAKER

Getting the boot in Vs Block Breaker.
The game emphatically states that it’s intended only for Asian audiences, and it’s easy to see why after you’ve spent a few minutes with it. With its surreal situations and a cast of bizarre, brightly colored characters spouting random phrases in Engrish, Vs Block Breaker is about as American-proof as a game can get. Some players eat up this style of game design and others couldn’t find the charm in it with an electron microscope, but they’ll both have to agree that Vs Block Breaker brings something new to the often redundant block busting genre of games.

The twist here is that each stage is a tug of war against a character on the right hand side of the screen. As time passes, your opponent squeezes your side of the playfield, giving you less room to move and shrinking your blocks. You can give yourself some temporary breathing room by hitting a power-up that sometimes drifts across the playfield, but your only hope for long-term survival is to clear away all the blocks, giving your hero the strength to squash his rival flat. It’s a clever idea that really shines in the versus mode, where two players gain and lose ground as bricks are shattered.

WOODY POP

Come on Sega, I thought we were friends!
You gotta love ‘em, but you’ve nevertheless gotta admit that Sega made a career out of lifting ideas from other companies, particularly in the 1980s, before the creation of Sonic the Hedgehog. When Nintendo gave the world Donkey Kong, Sega quickly responded with Congo Bongo. When Nintendo introduced Mario as the spokesman for its first game system, Sega gave us its own mascot, the perennially hapless Alex Kidd. And so it goes with the rather unfortunately named Woody Pop, a knock-off of Taito’s Arkanoid series.

There are differences between the two games, but they’re mostly cosmetic. While Arkanoid is set in the far reaches of ‘80s art deco space, Woody Pop takes place in a rustic 19th century mansion. While Arkanoid littered its stages with a never ending supply of spheres, cubes, and spinning cones, Woody Pop instead offers wind-up toys, belched out from question blocks strategically placed in most stages. Finally, while Arkanoid had the sleek Vaus as its lead character, Woody Pop gives you a shifty-eyed, rose-cheeked block of oak. Sega was probably aiming for adorable here, but there’s something about Woody that makes me want to run out of the room screaming.

There’s one other thing worth mentioning. Woody Pop was originally released for the Sega Master System, but it never left Japan because of its reliance on a special dial controller released only in that country. However, the game eventually did make it to the United States as an early release for the Game Gear… a handheld with no analog controls whatsoever. Uh, perhaps you should have thought that one through a bit more carefully, Sega.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Xbox One Post-Mortem

The Xbox One as it was originally envisioned by Microsoft is no more; the victim of public outcry and the most hopelessly uphill PR battle since the debut of New Coke. Now there will be no required internet access, no daily checks to verify your rights to games, and no hassles when lending, trading, or selling software to your friends. 

All of these restrictions may be gone, but the discontent with Microsoft remains. Some gamers have been pacified by the company's decision to scuttle the Xbox One's unsavory DRM, but others are reluctant to get onboard, wary of what Microsoft once had planned for them and uncomfortable with the Kinect camera. That's still a mandatory part of the Xbox One hardware, it's still always listening for user input, and it still presents ugly possibilities for user surveillance and targeted advertising.

Microsoft is also taking heat from the minority of gamers who were happy with the machine's original design (yes, there really are some out there!), along with developers who hoped to stem the tide of used game sales. A recent article published on Gizmodo argues that Microsoft's retreat from DRM hobbles innovation and anchors the game industry to the past. However, author Kyle Wagner hangs his hat on hypotheticals... games could have been cheaper without a used market. The family sharing plan could have given up to ten people access to your games. The Xbox Live store could have emulated Steam's frequent sales and heavy discounts.

Jim Sterling, a writer for Destructoid and one of the Xbox One's most vocal critics, was not swayed by Wagner's optimistic what-if scenarios. In his response, Sterling muses: 

"It takes a lot of naivety to trust so willingly in Microsoft, a company that's done absolutely nothing to earn our trust. It takes even more to believe that an industry so dependent on heavy-handed consumer control deserves to survive. Frankly, any industry that suffers due to the reversal of ONE console's DRM policies is an industry that deserves to suffer."

Sterling has taken this hardline stance about the game industry's financial recklessness in previous Destructoid articles, and while they may sound callous, those harsh words are not without wisdom. Game development has gotten so expensive that absurd sales margins are necessary to break even on top-shelf titles. Street Fighter X Tekken is an excellent example... this crossover between two of gaming's biggest fighting franchises sold 1.4 million units, yet was still regarded as a disappointment by Capcom's sales department.

The Xbox One's internet requirement and restrictions on used games were designed to give publishers a path to meet their unrealistic sales goals. With those restrictions gone, it may be time for them to consider the reality that the game industry just can't shoulder the burden of scores of AAA titles every year. Gears of War producer Cliff Bleszinski was wrong to target used game sales for the woes of game publishers, but he's got at least one thing right... with the average game budget eclipsing any hope of a return on that massive investment, the numbers just don't work.

Returning to the topic at hand, what does Microsoft's recent policy reversal mean for the future of the Xbox One? The decision to drop DRM ensures that the Xbox One will have a future, even if it enters the console race with a few bruises and a limp. I was certain the system's internet restrictions and narrow user base would doom it to a long, dusty life on store shelves. Without those limitations, the Xbox One has an honest shot at success... but with a one hundred dollar price difference and the unnerving presence of the Kinect camera, it may have to settle for nipping at Sony's heels throughout this console cycle.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Hola, all!

Just to let you know, I'm not dead... although a recent attempt to build a spinner for my PC did take a bite out of my thumb. I've been wanting to write a follow-up on that Ballarena article I wrote a year ago, but need the proper equipment for it. Trust me, playing an Arkanoid clone without a dial is not something you want to do.

(Neither is slicing your thumb open with an Xacto knife, but I digress.)

Anyway, I'll be back again, and hopefully soon. Thanks for your patience.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Xbox One: What You Leave Behind


One big headache.
Source: thetechblock.com

“So,” the three people who are reading this are saying, “do you have an opinion about the Xbox One?”

Oh lord, do I have an opinion about the Xbox One. Where do I start?

For those of you who may have missed it, the Xbox One was finally revealed at a press event last Tuesday. While the machine outperforms its predecessor from a purely technical standpoint, with double the cores and sixteen times the RAM, in many ways it feels like a huge step back from previous console generations.  Since I’m a glass half empty kind of guy, let’s look at everything you’ll lose when you upgrade to the Xbox One…

BACKWARD COMPATIBILITY

Because the new Xbox is using a completely different architecture, Microsoft has chosen to make a clean break from the previous system rather than attempt hardware emulation as it did in the past. The Xbox One won’t be able to play any of the games from the Xbox 360 library, whether you purchased them on disc or downloaded them from Microsoft’s online store. Logically, this also means that the handful of original Xbox games that could run on the second generation machine won’t on the third.

It's hard to tell where the GameCube ends
and the Wii begins!
credit: Wikipedia
Microsoft spokesman Don Mattrick claims that backward compatibility is more trouble than it’s worth, stating “If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards.” What a charmer, that guy! Arrogant dismissal aside, he’s not far off base. Nintendo designed the Wii U with a supercharged version of the same Power PC hardware they used in their past two systems. That makes it a cinch for the system to run Wii games (you know, timeless classics like Ninjabread Man and Red Steel), but has the unfortunate side effect of hobbling its performance as a next generation machine. When the Xbox One and Playstation 4 ultimately hit store shelves, the Wii U will lag as far behind them as the Wii had its own contemporaries.

Backward compatibility is certainly a useful feature, but it’s not worth hobbling a console’s performance for it. With this in mind, I think abandoning it (instead of taking it away halfway through a console’s lifespan, as Nintendo and Sony have done) is probably the right decision. Of course, that will probably mean publishers will offer the games we’ve already purchased in a shiny new package, but should we expect anything less from today’s content providers?

YOUR PRIVACY

Early in the life of the Xbox 360, there was a gadget called the Xbox Live Vision camera, which was designed to bring a level of immersion to the gaming experience. A few dozen games offered limited support for the device, like video chatting in UNO and taunting your opponent with a snapshot in Burnout Paradise, but the webcam didn’t make much of an impression on gamers and was quickly swept under the rug.

The fun never starts.
source: GeltonZ
Years later, Microsoft acknowledged the success Nintendo had with its motion controlled Wii remotes, and tried to one-up them with a device that turns the player’s entire body into a controller. That device, of course, was the Kinect. This combined camera, infrared sensor, and microphone monitor the player’s movements and turns them into input, letting them drive a car by turning an invisible steering wheel or punch out a thug by sending a fist at the television screen. That’s how it works in theory, anyway… in practice, the results have been less than satisfactory.

Microsoft’s been pretty happy with its performance, though. Encouraged by the twenty-four million units it sold for the Xbox 360, the company has decided to pack a next generation version of the Kinect with every Xbox One. That’s pretty cool, right? Now whenever I feel like shakin’ my groove thing in Dance Central, I’ll have the Kinect right there to plug in my Xbox One, whenever I want it!

Oh, but there’s just one problem. You actually can’t use the Xbox One unless the Kinect is plugged into it, and you can’t turn it off, either.  As long as the Xbox One is drawing power, the Kinect is always active, staring at you with its creepy cyclopean eye. The Kinect is designed to let you switch on the system with a simple voice command (which reminds me of a joke I heard about a voodoo dick, but perhaps now’s not the time…), but what’s this thing doing when the Xbox One is lying dormant?

Perhaps what’s more scary is what Microsoft could do with the Kinect when the system is turned on. Microsoft has applied for a patent to make the Kinect scan for warm bodies and stop the playback of films if it finds too many of them in a room. Congratulations Microsoft, you just justified my paranoia!

A WHOLE LOT OF DISPLAY CONNECTIONS

You won't be needing these!
source: Wikipedia
HDMI is great, isn’t it? Just one cable gives you a crisper picture than anything else on the market, and you don’t even need to mess with separate audio cables like you did with component or VGA. It is pretty terrific, but not so great that it should be the only display connection your game system offers. It’s your only option with the Xbox One, so if you’ve got a television set without an HDMI port, you’ll either need to run out and buy one, or just stare longingly at your new system as it rests on the shelf under your entertainment center.

For all its benefits, the HDMI standard also gives you something you won’t want… digital rights management. If you’re hoping to record your first experience with the Xbox One, you’d better have a camcorder handy, because that HDMI connection will probably guarantee that you’re not going to get any footage straight from the system. Fiercely territorial copyright protection is a running theme with the Xbox One, and the more you learn about the system, the worse it gets.

YOUR RIGHTS TO THE GAMES YOU’VE JUST BOUGHT

Okay, here’s a real doozy, and the deal-breaker for a lot of gamers. Spurred on by complaints from developers, Microsoft has introduced a new system to deal with (and monetize) used game sales. The company’s not putting forth too many details for fear of the tar and feathers that will quickly follow.  Here’s what we know about how game purchases and resales will work, from what little Microsoft spokesmen and retailers will tell us:

1. You purchase a new Xbox One game from a store.
2. You insert the game into your system. (okay, so far so good!)
3. The game is written to the Xbox One’s hard drive, and your rights to it are registered online.
4. When you start the game, an online registration check is performed before it will begin. (uh, not so good…)
5. Once you’re finished with the game, you take it to a reseller like GameStop to sell it.
6. The store buys your game and enters a record of that sale in an Xbox One online database.
7. The store splits the profits between Microsoft, the publisher, and itself.
8. You lose your rights to the game and can no longer play it.

There’s exactly one thing I like about this new arrangement, and that’s the ability to play games straight from the hard drive without a disc in the machine. Everything else stinks. With this new system in place, you can’t loan your games to a friend, you can’t sell them on eBay or Craigslist, and you can’t take them to a mom and pop game store where you might get a few more dollars. You may not even be able to rent games, unless Microsoft has made a yet-unannounced deal with GameFly and RedBox.

Given his track record, maybe that
sign should read "wrong way."
source: Joystiq
Market analyst Michael Pachter proclaimed with his usual misplaced sense of confidence that Microsoft “doesn’t have the balls to block used games” a couple of months before the Xbox One unveiling. However, the system the company has planned for second-hand game sales is so tightly restricted and so openly hostile to the end user that it’s only a marginal improvement. Microsoft press flack Larry Hyrb claims that early reports of the Xbox One‘s method of handling used games is “inaccurate and incomplete,” but that’s not a denial, and it’s not a clarification. Most likely, it’s a stall for time until Sony makes a similar admission at this year’s E3.

Yes, I think Sony’s got the same bad news for gamers next month. This is all speculation, but it’s my belief that regulating used game sales wasn’t Microsoft’s idea, or Sony’s, but rather publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision. They’ve complained about the used game market for years, and have at last found a way to take their cut of the profit from software they’ve already sold. It would be easy to lionize Nintendo for not taking part in regulating used game sales, but the reality is that publishers probably didn’t decide how to handle it until after the Wii U was released. Beyond that, third-party game sales are so weak on Nintendo’s systems that there probably wasn’t a point. One can only assume that publishers will just let the Wii U run its brief course and pressure Nintendo to control used game sales with its next system, or drive the company out of the console business completely.

PARTING THOUGHTS

While I have my suspicions, Sony’s plans for the Playstation 4 are still not clear. They could surprise me and turn a blind eye to used game sales, or at least not be quite as ghoulish about them. However, everything I know about the Xbox One has convinced me that there’s no place for it in my collection. For all Microsoft’s crowing about the system’s high performance and useful features, it seems like it was tailor made for the content providers lurking behind the console, rather than the players sitting in front of it.

Monday, May 13, 2013

It's an Odd, Odd, Odd, Odd Mod: Rebuilding the Magnavox Odyssey2


You already know that I'm a fan of video games. What you may not know is that the Odyssey2 was my first home game console. Back in the far-flung year of 1982, most kids were scratching their gaming itch with the Atari 2600, and a lucky few had stepped up to the big leagues of the Intellivision and Atari 5200. However, my brother and I had to get by with the hapless Odyssey2, offered by television manufacturer Magnavox. 


Oh yeah, that thing can go
right back where it came from.
With a paltry 64 bytes of RAM and a sound processor pulled straight from a Kraftwerk song, the Odyssey2 wasn't playing with power even in the tech-challenged early 1980s. Nevertheless, the machine was strangely popular in Michigan (all of my mother's friends seemed to have one), and the software library did have a knack for giving arcade favorites unexpected twists. K.C. Munchkin! changed Pac-Man's dots from stationary treats to more active prey, and Alien Invaders- Plus! turned the innocuous UFO from Space Invaders into a threatening foe bent on your destruction. It wasn't all bad growing up with an Odyssey2... but all the same, I was relieved when the NES arrived a few years later.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, I recently rummaged for some of the old stuff I left in my parents' abandoned barn, and an Odyssey2 turned up. Not the original one; that died in a tree fort a quarter of a century ago. My mom found this one at a garage sale in the 1990s, but it had been buried under a small mountain of clutter. After untangling it from the cords of other abandoned game systems, random gadgets, and even some Christmas lights for fun, I brought it into the house for some... elective surgery.

The first step was to get rid of the RF shielding. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, game systems had metal plating around the internal circuitry to keep their signals isolated. That way, when you're playing Pac-Man, your roommate isn't seeing the ghosts of gaming present on the television in the other room. However, TVs have gotten a lot more sophisticated in the last thirty years, and the RF shield has become little more than a nuisance, keeping prospective hackers like myself from getting at the nutmeats of the console.


We used to connect our video games to a television
with one of these things! Truly, those were dark times.
After diligent de-soldering and a little forceful bending, I was able to throw out that rusty old shell, leading me to my next task... replacing the RF modulator with something more modern. RF is a single wire that sends both audio and video signals to your television, with predictably mediocre results. Later display connections- composite, S-video, component, and the current industry darling HDMI- offer more wires for a crisper, more distinct signal. Luckily, it's not hard to add composite video to the Odyssey2. You just solder audio and video cables, like a pair you might have salvaged from a crappy TV Games unit, to points on the motherboard, stick the grounding wire on ground, and you're done!

Okay, I wasn't quite done. There was one other modification I wanted to make before I could wrap up this operation. Later models of the Odyssey2- like this one- had hardwired controllers, a design flaw in early game consoles I still have trouble wrapping my head around. Not only does this deny you the chance to switch to a controller you prefer, but it means that if one controller is destroyed, the whole console has to be sent in for repairs. Nuts to that! If I was going to play a crappy system like the Odyssey2, I was going to do it with a joystick I liked.


The twin D-shell ports, mounted on the side of the unit.
So I added two 9-pin D-shell connectors. USB they're not, but 9-pin was the most ubiquitous control port in the 1980s, for both game consoles and home computers. The Atari 2600 used it. The ColecoVision used it. Even the 16-bit Sega Genesis, for all its advances, used it. Happily, the joysticks for all these systems and more will work on this modded Odyssey2. I just needed to solder six wires from the motherboard to each of the ports, and find a place on the system's frame to mount them. I wanted to use the back, but the circuit board left no room for that, so I had to settle for carving two rectangular holes into the side of the console. It ain't pretty- I didn't have the right screws for the job and had to make do with what I had lying around- but it gets the job done.

By the end of the weekend, I had myself an Odyssey2 that was even better than the real thing... although that's probably not much of a compliment. Testing the machine with the title Quest for the Rings! (Odyssey2 games had exclamation points at the ends of their titles, in the mistaken belief that the extra enthusiasm would make up for their shortcomings) left me wishing I'd left the blasted thing buried in the barn where I found it. Quest for the Rings! is a pretty cool idea in theory, a hybrid of video games and board games with a medieval setting and some proto-RPG play mechanics. As one of four races, it's your duty to collect the magical rings scattering the countryside, while dodging eldritch creatures and a lawsuit from the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien.


Sure, that looks more like Godzilla than a dragon,
 but it's still a step up from a duck.
How could you go wrong with a concept like that? Oh, the Odyssey2 found a way. The graphics are simplistic, littered with the system's trademark square-headed robots, and the gameplay is infuriatingly cheap. If you're in a stage with a dragon, death is nearly guaranteed. If you're in a stage with a giant spider or Cthulu-ish monster, you're more likely to survive, but not much more. You only have one ability depending on the class you've selected, and only one can attack and kill enemies (but only the wimpy ones). The odds are so overwhelmingly stacked against you that you'll only collect three rings before you run to the relative mercy of the Dark Souls series.

Still, I feel like this has been a victory for me. Not all of my game system mods have been successful, but I'm pretty happy with how this one turned out. After a weekend of tinkering, I've got an Odyssey2 that I can use with a modern television set, and with my favorite controllers. Now I just need a reason to actually play the thing.

(Alien Invaders- Plus! image nicked from TheStrong.com)
(RF Modulator image taken from Sydlexia.com)