Sunday, May 26, 2013

Xbox One: What You Leave Behind

One big headache.

“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…


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?


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!


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.


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.


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
(RF Modulator image taken from