Thursday, December 31, 2015

Eve of Destruction

FOR SALE: One CX-919 II Android stick, crushed into a fine powder. Can be used as grit for icy sidewalks, or rooted by mixing it into the potting soil of your favorite plant. Inquire within.

Let that be a lesson to everyone who wants a cheap, flexible way to play all their favorite video games from the past century... the CX-crement 919 II is not the way to do it. It's got no support from the official manufacturer and it accepts no firmware but the underperforming default. Believe me, I've thrown everything but the kitchen sink at it, before pounding it into dust WITH a kitchen sink. Maybe there's a suitable Android device for retro gaming, but you'd be wise to pick up something backed by a leading tech company, rather than the Chinese fly-by-night that made this.

Anyway. I'm leaving this miserable (torture) device in the past, and looking hopefully toward the future. After all, a new year is on the horizon, and I might as well make the most of it! Right now, I've got my eyes on one of these fun little toys...

It's the Cambio by RCA, a tablet that runs an honest to goodness version of Windows rather than RT, Microsoft's weaksauce mobile operating system. This means that, at least in theory, I could play all my favorite emulators on the go and even sketch in Paint Tool SAI using my Wacom tablet. The specs... aren't terrific (2GB of RAM? For Windows 10?), but I'm nevertheless tempted by that price. After all, it couldn't possibly be any worse than the CX-919!

(Shut up, you idiot! That's what you said about the Playstation TV when you bought the damned CX-919 in the first place!)

Er, knock on wood.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Kurisumasu!

Ah, I love that clip. You'll probably have to fast-forward to 1:30 in the video, by the way.

Well, I hope you and yours had a happy holiday. Me and mine have, uh, overindulged and need to get back on an exercise regimen. I'm thinking the treadmill is the right way to go, because I don't need that stupid balance board telling me what I already know about my weight.

So what'd I get? A few weeks ago, my aunt slipped me a twenty to spend at Bookman's, a used entertainment store in Arizona. (I picked up three PSP games, including the brutally hard and unforgiving Tenchu: Shadow Assassin. Perhaps not the best of ideas...) Beyond that, I received gift cards to Wal-Mart and a copy of Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga, giving me an incentive to sweep the dust off my Playstation 3 after months of hibernation. It'll be a good way to re-familiarize myself with the series in time for The Force Awakens.

What's the other thing? Oh yeah... sorry I haven't been updating much this month. My creative juices haven't been flowing like they were earlier in the year. But hey, at least I've posted over eighty times in the past year, even better than the sixty nine posts I made in 2014. Here's hoping for even more output in the coming year.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Ho Ho Horrible: The Android Stick That Stole Christmas

A reader was curious about how well that Android stick worked for me. Put simply, it DIDN'T, but let's go into exhaustive, cathartic detail, shall we?

It came from eBay fairly quickly, and it wasn't tough to install. You just connect a writhing octopus of cables to the CX-919 II, pop in a fresh SD card, and connect it to the back of your television set. Blammo! Instant Smart TV.

The CX-919 II exists solely to
extinguish all joy from the
universe. Like Dave Coulier.
(image from eBay)
So far, so good, right? Wait, wait, here comes the fun part. Games designed especially for Android aren't a great idea, because even older titles like Shadowgun are too much for the candy bar-sized console to handle. It runs pretty well for about fifteen minutes, then overheats and crashes. Other games refuse to recognize your controllers, and others still don't work well with a horizontal aspect ratio. You didn't need to see the entire playfield, right?

But hey, you can always switch to emulators! After all, that's why I bought the stick in the first place. So I downloaded a few of those from the Google Play store, and noticed that their performance seemed a teensy bit... off. You know, you get occasional split-second hiccups that the average person probably wouldn't notice, but drives an obsessed nerd like myself bananas.

A remarkably accurate
depiction of what it's like
to use the CX-919 II.
(picture from
So, an obsessed nerd like myself started looking online for solutions; better firmware or maybe even a way to root the system, which would open the door to Dual Shock controllers and lessen the tangle of wires hanging from the back of the system. "It's so easy!," web sites like Freaktab claimed. "Just run the Rockchip Assistant and your computer will recognize the stick when you plug it in!" These web sites are filthy liars. The program, actually titled Rockchip Assitant because who the hell cares about proper spelling, takes two minutes to install and gives you NOTHING in return. Plug in the stick and your computer just goes about its business, completely ignoring the dongle dangling from its side.

Oh, there are solutions for this failure to communicate, according to the same filthy lying Android sites. But of course, none of THOSE work either. You'll edit configuration files, download program after program, and connect the stick from every possible USB port with every micro SD cable you've got, only to get the same fat load of nothin' you had before. So you're left to wonder what the CX-919 II could have done with that "really freaking fast KitKat ROM" capable of 1080p output which serves you breakfast every morning and cleans up afterward.

What I'M wondering right now is how many whacks of a hammer it would take to reduce this idiotic thing to a black and orange powder and put it out of MY misery. Yes, Virginia, it really does get worse than the Playstation TV. If you want to use an Android to get your classic gaming fix, pony up the extra dough and get something better than this.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

PSP, Done Dirt Cheap

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to stumble across a cache of PSP games for a couple of bucks each. I also found a copy of Tomba! for the same price, but I'd already complained about- er, reviewed that in a past blog entry, so let's just talk about the PSP games. As an added bonus, I'll throw in a review of Tron: Evolution, which was recently offered on the Playstation Store for five dollars. (And really, really isn't as good as it should have been. Why is it so hard for developers to make a video game that takes place inside a video game, anyway? That should be money in the bank. But I digress...)



Simple but attractive scenery is commonplace
in the PSP port of Ape Escape.
Ape Escape was designed as an introduction to the Dual Shock, giving the player all kinds of novel ways to familiarize themselves with the controller's twin thumbsticks. So naturally, the game was a perfect fit for the PSP, which has... um, just one analog stick. Sony found a way to make the game work, but you'll frequently feel the pinch of the less precise control when you swing your time net and catch air instead of the monkeys hiding in each stage. Generally speaking, Ape Escape is more kludgy here than it was on the Playstation, and the (slightly) enhanced graphics and improved voice overs don't really make up for it. Even with the hobbled control, it's an entertaining throwback to the late 1990s, with larger, more creatively designed levels than you'd expect from a PSOne platformer.

Bandai-Namco (Dimps)

"Here's something for YOU!"
A better game, hopefully.
Dragonball Evolution was pilloried by gaming critics around the world, but like Street Fighter: The Movie, it really isn't so bad if you can ignore its ties to the wrongheaded film that spawned it. It seems to borrow the same engine as Dimps' previous Dragonball Z games, replacing its cartoony cast with a whiter, fatter Goku and a Piccolo apparently plucked from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Luckily the gameplay is, in a refreshing departure from most film-licensed games, fast and tightly responsive, with the fighters darting around the playfield, trading blows and charging up special attacks. There's not much to the action beyond getting in your opponent's face and mashing the attack button, but Dragonball Evolution is not quite as awful as you've been lead to believe. Just try not to dwell on whoever or whatever the hell Fu-Lum is.

Crave (Farsight)

Pin-Bot: The lurid science-fiction book cover
turned into a pinball game.
Farsight Technologies, creators of the incredibly awful Action 52 collection for the Sega Genesis, abandoned their filthy kusoge-making ways and have worked hard to establish themselves as a developer of faithful pinball simulations. The tables in Pinball Hall of Fame are based on a dozen games manufactured by Williams in the 20th century, and closely mimic their real-life counterparts with convincing physics and a camera that trails your ball as it bounces around the playfield. The attention to detail is commendable, but the question must nevertheless be asked... is hyper-realism really the way to go when video games can transcend the limitations of real life and evolve the pinball experience? Personally, I'd much rather play Devil's Crush or Metroid Prime Pinball, but if you want your pinball strictly by the book, this is as good as you're gonna get on the PSP.

Sony (Eidectic)

Not the easiest game to play on the PSP,
but certainly one of the prettiest.
I didn't even want to play this game at first, but it was popular with the critics, and hey, why waste the two dollars it cost? So I sat down and forced myself through most of the tutorial and one of the stages. Luckily, Dark Mirror has an easy difficulty setting, and isn't above a little friendly hand-holding to help newcomers get started. That came as a huge relief, because the game requires both stealth and expert marksmanship, and neither come naturally with the perplexing control. The analog thumbstick guides Gabe Logan through each mission, while the action buttons adjust the camera. The shoulder buttons aim and fire your weapon, while the D-pad along with the action buttons let you select from a wide assortment of visors and firearms. It's daunting, especially when your partner tells you to press left to select your infrared goggles and you tap the left shoulder button repeatedly, waiting in vain for something to happen. Playing Dark Mirror sometimes feels like juggling with oven mitts, but it's worth the frustration if you're a fan of tactical espionage. It looks spectacular on the PSP- the snapshot I've provided says it all- and the arsenal of weapons you're given grants you the freedom to take down soldiers as quietly- or as loudly and messily- as you please.

Disney (SuperVillain)

Oh how I wish this game
were as good as it looks.
(Image from
This game makes a strong first impression, with a camera sweeping into Flynn's gorgeously rendered arcade and voice overs from Jeff Bridges and Tron himself, Bruce Boxleitner. However, the excitement is short-lived, as the focus quickly shifts to a random program fighting his way through what's best described as a digital Olympics. You get the impression the developers were attempting a sequel to the Tron arcade game from the early 1980s, except this time, most of the events just aren't much fun to play. The light cycle battles are now seen from a behind the back perspective, leaving the player blasting pixelated puke with every disorienting 90 degree turn, and there are dull action sequences with simple puzzles to solve and legions of cheap enemies to fight. The game picks up a little during the death matches, with players scurrying around an arena, grabbing life-saving power ups and nailing each other with glowing frisbees, but it's just not enough to save Tron Evolution from the gaping maw of the Recycle Bin. Shame too, as the game looks gorgeous, with the same stark scenery and eerie phosphorescent lines as the film.

The guy in the Hawaiian shirt looks
kinda like my cousin...

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Take This Console and Stick It

Merry almost Christmas and happy currently Hanukkah, kids! I just thought I'd stop by and inform you that I've had a complete change of heart about the Playstation TV, Sony's ill-conceived micro console. After you're done puttering around with your library of (some) Vita and (most) PSP games, you discover that it can't really do anything else, and it just sits there gathering more dust than Yahoo Serious's career. (No, that's not Carrot Top, but I understand the confusion.)

Yes, there's technically a way to hack the Playstation TV, but it's a long, arduous process with unsatisfactory results. You have to create two "custom bubbles" for the system, one for official PSP games and the other for homebrew, and that requires a complicated series of steps that would leave even Rube Goldberg gasping for breath. If you've logged out of your PSN account for any reason, you'll be constantly hounded by the system to update the firmware if you try to do half the things the hack requires. And if you update the firmware, you won't be able to finish the hack anyway!

Look, I get why the firmware updates exist. Sony's got to keep people from pirating decade old PSP games on its twenty dollar console. (As far as I know, there's no way to run pirated Vita games on the PSTV, but why the hell would anyone bother when Sony practically gives them away during monthly flash sales?) But it doesn't make the misbegotten Playstation TV any more fun to use, and it doesn't make the system's wasted potential any less frustrating. The console is pretty powerful, especially for the price. It's just a pity that Sony will never take advantage of that power, and has gone to such lengths to prevent anyone else from harnessing it.

So I'm switching to an Android stick; specifically, a CX-919 II I recently purchased on eBay. I can't vouch for its performance, but I do know from my past experience with Android products that it will be a lot easier to customize. It may even run PSP software better than the PSTV can, since the PSP emulator on Android enhances the resolution of games and cleans up their chunky textures. Admittedly, the CX-919 might be disappointing too, but it's hard to imagine how it could be any worse than what I've already got.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Bubsy 3D: A Second Opinion

There's an old joke I like about a guy who goes to his doctor for a check-up. The doctor tells him, "You're overweight," and the guy responds, "I want a second opinion!" Without losing a beat, the doctor quips, "Okay, you're ugly too."

The platforming... could be worse.
Really, it's theoretically possible.
This is going to be one of those second opinions. I recently played Bubsy 3D: Furbitten Planet out of morbid curiosity, and while I can't really disagree with the reviews complaining about its horrendous gameplay, I don't think it's what hurts it the most. Keep in mind that Bubsy 3D came out in 1996, when analog thumbsticks weren't standard equipment for game systems. Aside from rare gems like Jumping Flash!, turn-walk-turn was just expected from 3D platformers. Bubsy 3D is certainly not one of the better games in this genre, but it doesn't seem to play much worse than its competitors. I remember Croc on the Sega Saturn being just as cumbersome, with a turning radius that would be more appropriate for a semi hauling lead bricks than a video game mascot. At least Bubsy 3D lets you make minute adjustments to your position and grab the edges of hanging platforms that other characters would miss.

A face even a mother would love
to punch into mush.
No, the big problem with Bubsy 3D is that it's just so damned annoying. I mean, the Bubsy character has never been particularly lovable before, but in Furbitten Planet his personality has shifted into weapons-grade obnoxious. He's now voiced by Lani Minella, doing her best-worst imitation of Flim-Flam from the 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo. (You don't remember this short-lived sidekick, huh? It's probably better that way.) Lani's Bubsy spits out tired catchphrases after hopping on his enemies, or more likely, missing them by a couple of inches and getting injured in the process. If it tells you anything, he actually squeals "Aye caramba!" from time to time, an exclamation even Bart Simpson wouldn't have touched in 1996. Salting the wound is a soundtrack that desperately tries to give the action wacky cartoon ambiance, and only succeeds in giving the player a splitting headache. This is probably the worst music I've ever heard in a video game, and I've been playing them since the 1970s. Wherever Osama bin Ladin is right now, he's probably hearing this soundtrack on endless loop.

So everything you've heard about Bubsy 3D is true. It really is awful; just not for the reasons you were expecting. I could forgive the limitations of mid 1990s technology and the flaws in a genre of games that weren't properly addressed until Super Mario 64 and Spyro the Dragon were released a year later. It's Bubsy himself who ruins this release, with a forced, creaky sense of humor that's too little to entertain and fifty years too late to be relevant. There's a rumor that Bubsy is planning a comeback for 2016... one can only hope he brings new material with him.

Special thanks to Stranno, whose Bubsy 3D playthrough on YouTube provided the images for this blog entry.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

You Never Forget Your First... matter how hard you try. And my first game system was the Odyssey2, released by Magnavox in 1978. Even for the time, the Odyssey2 wasn't all that great. In fact, with its peculiar hardware and stifling limitations, it was one of the least greatest game consoles of its generation. While the industry-leading Atari 2600 had 128 bytes of RAM, the Odyssey2 had 64... not even enough memory to hold this sentence. While the Atari 2600 could be coaxed into displaying surprisingly sophisticated graphics with a rich color palette, the Odyssey2 was stuck in first gear with a pre-defined character set. Once programmers used up the system's four sprites, they were stuck with blocks, trees, and the square-headed robots that became synonymous with the Odyssey2 experience. Just try to find a game in the system's library without these blocky androids. Unless it's got "K.C." in the title, you'll be looking for a while.

K.C. Munchkin was promoted on television with
this animation, which stupid little kids (me)
mistook for the game's actual graphics.
Not even on your best day, Odyssey2.
The Odyssey2 was rightly savaged by members of the gaming press, particularly Craig Kubey, who rebranded its sad-sack golf simulation Computer Golf? and snarked that calling its Space Invaders clone Alien Invaders- Plus! made about as much sense as referring to Phyllis Diller as Catherine Deneuve- Plus! (Actually, judging from the recent picture on Wikipedia, that description might not be so far off-base...) Yet despite this, there is a certain strange charm to Odyssey2 games. Sure, they were often familiar retreads of hit arcade games, but they were changed just enough (likely due to the aforementioned hardware limitations) to make them seem refreshing in an age when knock-offs were aggravatingly common.

K.C.'s Krazy Chase, the closest thing the
Odyssey2 had to a killer app.
Take K.C. Munchkin, for instance. The game was forced off the market by Atari, which cited similarities to its console version of Pac-Man. However, K.C. is one link higher on the food chain than Pac-Man, and that makes all the difference. The dots in K.C. Munchkin don't just wait around to be eaten, roaming the maze and keeping their distance from the title character when only one or two remain. K.C.'s Krazy Chase further widened the gap between the series and its inspiration, with a serpentine "Draterpillar" whose head is instantly fatal but whose body segments can be munched for bonus points and a brief power boost. It was a more clever evolution of the Pac-Man gameplay than what some of the official sequels (cough Pac-Man Plus cough) had to offer...

Then there's Alien Invaders- Plus!. Sure, it's no Space Invaders, but that's the beauty of it. Rather than a fleet of mindlessly marching aliens, your primary opponent is the incredibly wily mothership at the top of the screen. It squeezes shots between its already well-armed troops and flies down for a face to face confrontation once all its soldiers are destroyed. If you're hit with a bullet, you'll be left defenseless, and will have to sacrifice a bunker to get your tank back. Run out of bunkers, and you're easy pickins for the Merciless Monstroth and its minions. Kubey was wrong about this one... the battle of wits against the mothership makes this as tense now as it was when I was eight.

This is Popeye. I... guess?
Not all of the twists in the Odyssey2's library of faux arcade games were successful, however. UFO was an Asteroids-alike which took out that game's thrusters, giving the player more precise control of their ship. Instead, the challenge came from aiming the laser, which spun around the craft as it puttered slowly through space. Kind of a monkey's paw trade there. Freedom Fighters tried its best to scratch that Defender itch, but without a planet to skim over and a wide variety of enemies to battle it gets tiresome (to say nothing of frustrating) in a hurry. Then you have the handful of actual arcade translations by Parker Brothers, which demonstrate just how hopelessly ill-equipped the Odyssey2 was to entertain players in the early 1980s. Watching the system try to pull off Super Cobra, Q*Bert, or Popeye is like watching your drunk uncle dance at the family Christmas party. This just isn't the time or place...

Despite its failings, the Odyssey2 still has a persistent attraction which makes me return to it every couple of years. It's what convinced me to revive the machine I had buried in my parents' old barn, and it's why I recently installed an Odyssey2 emulator on both of my PSPs. That emulator, EmuODD, is only slightly less dusty than the system I rescued in 2013... author Consolius released it a decade ago, and the program hasn't seen any updates since its debut. As a result, EmuODD is picky about which firmware you use, and looks pretty crappy on the PSP's Cross Media Bar. Hell, it's not even properly labeled!

I can't do much about the firmware issues (if it doesn't run for you, try switching to 6.60 LME), but the presentation is another matter entirely. I added a couple of images to the EBOOT file, and it makes a big difference. Now you actually know what the program is before you start it! Give it a spin and let me know what you think.

Monday, November 23, 2015

(Unsanctioned) Fun with Nintendo Badge Arcade

The crappy thing about Nintendo Badge Arcade (aside from paying for virtual items, and having to talk to that stupid rabbit) is that although you can use the badges to customize your home screen, that customization is pretty limited. "Use your badges to make your own scenes, and I'll show the best ones in my gallery!," the rabbit promises. Then you wander into the gallery and spot a half-dozen portraits littered with random sprites from the original Super Mario Bros. I wasn't expecting the Guggenheim here, but I've seen more clever things stuck on the front of a suburban mother's refrigerator.

Fortunately, there is a solution. It's kind of complicated and it's not authorized by Nintendo, but it will bring some much-needed variety to your home screen. Allow me to demonstrate...

Note the image of my character Byron pasted on the front of the folder on the top of the screen. That used to be a power-up mushroom, but I used a program called 3DS Badge Tool to change the graphic, because I needed a bear on my home screen more than fungus. It's actually a little more involved than I'm making it sound, but I won't bore you with the details... just know that a badge requires two images, a graphic and a shape. The graphic is what you see on the front of the badge, and the shape is the metal on the back.

Once a badge has been successfully redesigned and loaded into your 3DS system memory, you can either pin it to the front of your home menu, or better, set it on one of your folders. The initials used by default don't tell you what's inside those folders, but a custom-designed badge like this sure does!

There you go! Much better than a cryptic "G." 

(In case you were wondering, that theme isn't official either, featuring a Mr. Driller image by my friend MomoDriller. Thanks for that, Momo!)

Speaking of Mr. Driller, here's something else you can do with custom badges...

Don't expect to find much in that
rabbit's skull, Susumu.
Not useful in the least, but fun! One wonders why Mr. Driller and other third-party titles aren't officially available in the Nintendo Badge Arcade. The app has been available in Japan for over a year... heaven knows Nintendo has had plenty of opportunities to make it happen. Shake some hands, sign some contracts. Just get the licenses already!

But it's probably not too tough to figure out why badge design has been made strictly hands-off for users. For every 3DS owner who would adorn their screens with family-friendly sprites, there would be two more who would do something like this...

What can I say? I was weak. And that episode of Larry Wilmore was funny.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Get It While It's, Uh, There.

Just a quickie for the night... Best Buy is selling the Playstation TV for twenty dollars right now, including free shipping. You'll have to supply your own game controller and (stupidly priced) memory card, but if you've already got those things and a handful of digital games purchased on the PSN store, it's a pretty good deal. Don't expect it to last very long at that price, though.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Thin Line Between Love and Hate: Nintendo Badge Arcade

When forced to make a choice between keeping homebrew emulators on my New 3DS XL or losing them all so I could play some cheesy crane game, well... it wasn't much of a choice at all. I was prepared to keep an older version of the 3DS firmware on my system, until I discovered that I couldn't access any of Nintendo's online services until I installed the update. That meant that I'd not only miss out on the Nintendo Badge Arcade, but the eShop, updates to previously purchased games, and Miiverse as well. I could scarcely imagine the 3DS experience without Nintendo's art-centric social network, so I swallowed hard and downloaded the latest firmware. So long, RetroArch. It was fun while it lasted...

Fortunately, since I had the foresight to update IronHax beforehand, I didn't lose anything important. I could still get online with my 3DS and play games from nearly a dozen other systems. I could also give Nintendo Badge Arcade a thorough evaluation, and decide once and for all if it deserved the hatred I piled on it in a previous blog entry.

Where's the option for "Hell no?"
And the answer is... well, I'm still not sure. As mentioned earlier, the Badge Arcade takes real money for virtual prizes, and you can see the potential for abuse a mile away. Free training sessions fill the player with misplaced confidence, and badges are tantalizingly placed, giving the impression that they can be earned with the one or two free plays offered each day. Badge Arcade uses carnival psychology to play you like a fiddle... you'll walk in thinking you're too smart to fall for its manipulation, then walk out with a puzzled look on your face and two less dollars in your bank account. I've already lost four bucks to the Badge Arcade over the last couple of days... one can only imagine the financial havoc a child could wreck after borrowing, or "borrowing," his parents' credit cards to play this.

Easier than it looks.
On the other hand, the Badge Arcade's crane games are legitimately fun and challenging, pairing realistic physics with a 2D perspective that opens to door to strategies that wouldn't be possible in real life. For instance, some stages include large boxes that block access to the rest of the prizes. The solution is to tip the box over by nicking its edge with the left pincer of the claw. The box tumbles into a nearby chute, and may even take a few badges along for the ride. Other stages replace the crane with a hammer or bombs, adding variety and rudimentary puzzle-solving to the gameplay. The Badge Arcade has been dismissed by some critics (particularly real-life-Cartman Jim Sterling) as a cash grab devoid of any meaningful substance, but it's clear that careful thought was put into the design of its levels.

Back to the less generous hand. The badges don't have much practical purpose... they're just digital bling, and they're awkward to use. Launcher icons for applications can't replace the standard, boring ones, and other badges exist to either mark folders or clutter the interface. The host of the Badge Arcade, a smartly-dressed pink rabbit, loves to talk, and lives to promote Nintendo products with all the transparent enthusiasm of a used car salesman. Hey, you're already trying to sell me credits for your crane games, but sure, I'll sit through a Pokemon advertisement too. Maybe you can push a Delfino Island time-share presentation on me while you're at it! Putz. I've found that half the entertainment of the Nintendo Badge Arcade is mocking its mascot on Miiverse.

Oh yeah, then there's that other thing. The badge selection changes every couple of days, so the prizes you want may quickly be replaced by ones you don't. Nintendo's younger fans seemed pretty excited about the debut of Pokemon badges, but as a member of Generation X, I just didn't give a damn about them. I'd love to get my hands on some of the game console pixel art offered when the arcade opened, but those badges were taken out of the rotation days before I arrived, and it's anyone's guess as to when they'll be back. If there was a more appealing selection of merchandise, including badges based on third-party games like Mega Man, I'd be more inclined to spend money on the crane games, but that may never happen.

All things considered, the best advice I can give regarding the Nintendo Badge Arcade is "approach with caution." There's fun to be had if you can play it in moderation, but plenty of misery for those who can't control themselves. And since Nintendo designed this game to break the willpower of those who play it, you'd be wise not to overestimate your self-control. Keep a tight budget and only stop by when your favorite badges are available, because the money you'll spend here adds up quickly.

(Images taken from Miiverse.)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Badges!

A quick update on Read Only Memories. I picked up copies for a couple of friends, and one of them, a guy I've known for years and whose opinion I trust, did grumble that there was too much social commentary and not enough of a focus on Turing, your robotic operating buddy. I'm not sure I agree, but since he's finished the game and I'm only an hour into it, it's entirely possible that my opinion will change. 

Then again, I have a couple of other friends who expressed similar frustrations with Undertale, complaining that the storyline is too rigid and that you're buried in guilt if you don't play the game exactly as the developer intended. The vast majority of people who own the game don't see things that way, claiming that Undertale is an emotional powerhouse and one of the most refreshing RPGs they've played in years. I haven't played that game at all, and I've got no idea which side I'll take in this debate when I finally do. However, one thing I can say for sure is that it's going to take a hell of a lot for Undertale to live up to the past six months of hype. (And it'll take a gallon of brain bleach to flush out the memories of all that fan art of Toriel with the really huge boobs. But I digress.)

Anyway, let's get down to brass tacks. Nintendo recently released a lot of tantalizing information about upcoming games and downloadable content, but I'm more concerned about what they WON'T be giving us. Indie programmers have demonstrated over the last couple of months that the New 3DS has the muscle to handle Super NES and Game Boy Advance emulation, and that's with security measures which prevent them from accessing the full power of the system. These games might even work on older 3DS models with official development tools. But what does Nintendo give us instead?

This dink, and his carnival of sadness known as the Nintendo Badge Arcade. You pay this carrot-munching vermin real money to get fake pins that you can stick all over the screen of your 3DS. Whee, much more fun than playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters! Or Marvel vs. Capcom. Or Mega Turrican. Or Bonk's Revenge. Or the thousands of other games you can run using the RetroArch suite of emulators.

Look, I know. I could play most of these games on my PSP, without the hassle of circumventing Nintendo's constant firmware updates. But they look so much better on the New 3DS XL display, and play so much better with Nintendo's circle pad. Beyond that, I've purchased dozens of games on the Nintendo eShop. I'm legally entitled to them, and I should have the right to play them when and where I please. Sony understands this, letting me download PSP games on its successor the Vita, and play PSOne games on nearly every damn thing they make. Now that it's been proven the New 3DS has the juice to emulate games for Nintendo's legacy systems, why can't we legally play them there?

Or maybe we should let all that potential go to waste and just be happy with a pink rabbit.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Making the Case for Read Only Memories

Sometimes I just don't understand people. Recently, a game called Read Only Memories was sold on Indie Gala alongside five other titles for an insultingly low price. The extra games were a nice bonus, but I just wanted the point-and-click adventure that was getting rave reviews from all my friends. It's a science-fiction tale with a strong Blade Runner influence, 16-bit graphics reminiscent of the EGA era of personal computers, a suitably synthy '80s soundtrack, and a globe-headed robot sidekick! What's not to like?

Heh, exposure. What writer HASN'T
heard that one before?
I guess the lesson here is never underestimate the nit-picky power of the internet, because someone somewhere found something to complain about in Read Only Memories. Amidst all the praise for the game were some hostile reviews from Steam curators, calling it a nested doll of political correctness, extraneous pronouns, and furries. (Wait, what's wrong with furries...?) I dismissed the hostility as another baseless hatchet job against writer Jenn Frank, who was peripherally involved with the game's design and who has endured constant harassment from dorks since that whole GamerGate mess started last year.

As it turns out, there was some small grain of truth buried under the ton of crap squeezed out by the game's detractors. Read Only Memories was spearheaded by the organizers of GaymerX, an electronic entertainment convention designed especially for the LGBT community. The game was created to bring the same gender and sexual diversity to this testosterone-drenched hobby as the convention, so you could honestly say that Read Only Memories has an agenda. Hell if I could notice one for the hour I played it, though.

Could you not? We're rather attached.
Look, I get pretty angry when people try to push their views on me. It's ended friendships, and it convinced me to make a hasty retreat from Tumblr, a social networking site known for its political activism (and extremism). However, I never got the impression that Read Only Memories remotely resembled propaganda. All I noticed was the overall quality of the design, and the sharp writing that pokes holes in some overly familiar science-fiction tropes. Mention Asimov's three laws of robotics and your android partner Turing explains that he's too advanced to be bound by them, instead explaining that society's boundaries are what keeps him from, say, tearing the arms off any smug humans who happen to be standing nearby. (Really, Turing is harmless! I'm just convinced he's got Robo-Asperger's.)

Yes, you can choose your preferred pronoun near the start of the game, and yes, some characters reject he and she as descriptors, but Read Only Memories is set in the future. There are cybernetic enhancements, genetic engineering, borderline sapient robots, and fifty years of social progress. Humanity has expanded far beyond its original definition... why wouldn't the pronouns of the time reflect this? Beyond that, why would it even matter to you when "he" and "she" are the first pronouns you're given when you're asked to describe yourself?

This is a face you can trust. Even if
it's just projected on a glass ball.
Look, you can get hung up on these minor and unintrusive details, or sit back and enjoy one of the better games in an underrepresented genre. This very straight, very gender-binary sci-fi geek found plenty to like about Read Only Memories, and you likely will as well if you give it a chance. But if you'd rather reject it on the advice of some YouTube pseudo-celebrity fighting a misguided war against "political correctness," hey, it's your loss.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Yet Strangely Compelling: Mega Zone

You ever run into a video game that you were pretty sure wasn't great, yet had an inexplicable hold on you all the same? For me, Konami's Mega Zone is one of those unhealthy addictions. It's largely derivative of better games and frustrating enough to turn me into a raging volcano of expletives, yet when I see the arcade cabinet in a bowling alley or laundromat, you'd better believe one of my quarters is going to end up in its stomach.

"Feed me, Seymour!"
(image from KLOV)
Anyway. Mega Zone is one of the titles from Konami's curly K period, before it went on to greater fame as a console game publisher and decades before it threw its reputation away on fitness clubs and pachinko. Back in 1983, Namco's Xevious was hugely popular in Japanese arcades, so it's not surprising that Mega Zone tightly clutches its coattails, offering the same vertically scrolling shoot 'em up action. However, there are few wrinkles to the gameplay worth exploring...

◦ The sleek Solvalou in Namco's game has been replaced with an amphibious tank. It skims over terrain and across vast bodies of water at the same speed, which is always just slightly slower than you'd like it to move. This makes it extremely important to react to enemies as they appear, rather than trying to dodge them at the last second. Trust me, you'll lose more tanks that way.

◦ Tiny brown diamonds litter the playfield. They're not worth much on their own, but collect thirteen and you'll find a capsule marked with the word "MEG." Grabbing this merges your tank with one of your remaining lives, creating the mighty MegaTank. The MegaTank has triple the firepower of the standard model, making it critical for surviving the later areas, but it's just as slow and a bit chunkier. Worst of all, getting clipped by an enemy or one of its shots returns the tank to its original form while robbing you of the life you used to upgrade it. You're telling me I had to grab a small fortune in gems AND sacrifice a tank just to power up, AND it's nowhere near as cool as the quintet of ships in Terra Cresta? Dirty pool, Konami.

Mucha Lucha.
◦ There's a weird ocular theme throughout Mega Zone. Every couple of screens, you'll run across a metal-reinforced eyeball that scans the playfield for intruders. Nail the eye in its exposed pupil and it dies, leaving behind a small pink tear. Grab that and everything else on the screen dies, too. Later in the game, you'll find larger eyes that fire laser rings, and at the end of your journey, there's a luchador mask which chokes the screen with bouncing eyeballs. The ping-ponging peepers remain on the screen even after you've destroyed the mask, a parting insult from the game's only boss. 

◦ Mega Zone's got some of the most unbelievably aggravating enemies you've seen in a top-down shooter from the early 1980s. Sure, it seems easy enough at first, but the stationary cannons and easily dispatched ships are joined by madly spiraling clusters of orbs, zigzagging fighters that love to unload missiles in your face, and flowers that reach the bottom of the screen, only to make a hasty U-turn and lodge themselves in your colon. Brick walls spring up out of nowhere to block your shots, and rolling meteors hone in on you with lethal accuracy... and that's just the first half of the game!

The game isn't as polished as Xevious, and it makes its contempt for the player obvious almost from the start. Maybe that's what makes it so addictive, though. Like the rigged carnival game or the dunk tank clown who points out you've had one corn dog too many, Mega Zone lights a vengeful fire within you that makes you desperate to conquer it, no matter how unlikely that may be. Best of all, it's been playable in MAME for at least a decade now, so it won't cost you anything... except maybe your pride.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Viva Oktober-Fist! The Vampire Strikes Back

Look, I'm feeling lazy most days today, so I'm just gonna let the editor of VGJunk do the honors with his comprehensive review of Vampire Savior. He's right, by the way... I personally prefer the predecessor NightWarriors, but Vampire Savior has lots of memorable characters and a more haunting atmosphere that's a perfect fit for the holiday.

Ready when you are!
(image from
Still here? Okay, I'll leave you with a short Halloween story. Way back in the late 1980s, when I was, I dunno, thirteen, I went out and trick or treated for the last time. Honestly, I was getting a little old for those hijinx, and I didn't put much effort into my costume, slapping on a white lab coat and a beard made of cotton puffs. Imagine a low budget Albert Einstein (no no, even lower!) and you'd have a pretty good idea of how I looked that night. Being as old as I was, and my costume being as crappy as it was, I wasn't getting too much candy from the houses I visited. However, that actually worked to my advantage, as one of the houses slipped me an Intellivision game, complete in box, just to get rid of it. I think it was Las Vegas Poker and Blackjack, the one with the shifty-eyed dealer. The game isn't a prized collector's item even in 2015, but I still had a lot of fun with it. It was more memorable than my lame costume, anyway.

Friday, October 30, 2015

This Old Wii, or The Revolution Renovation

There's one thing you should know about me, if you haven't already figured it out from the last three years of blog posts. I like collecting video game stuff, but I also like to do it cheaply, even if the stuff in question isn't in great condition. This year alone I picked up a PSP Go with a heavily scratched screen, and a Game Boy Advance that looked like it had been fed to a disgruntled badger and fell out the other end. It took a lot of work to get these systems back in decent shape, but hey, anything to save a few bucks!

And so it goes with the Nintendo Wii I picked up at a yard sale a couple of days ago. Sure, I already have one of these things, but for ten dollars, who could resist a spare?

Well, when it looks like this, it's pretty easy for the average yard sailer to resist. But wait, it gets better! And by "better," I mean "dirtier."

The previous owner had broken off the cover and left the legacy ports inside to languish under mounds of dirt. One of my followers on Twitter asked if I recovered it from King Tut's tomb. Another lamented its condition, wondering aloud how any self-respecting gamer could let something like this happen. I couldn't say for sure, but as a sucker for hard luck cases (and low, low prices), I was determined to reverse the damage done by years of neglect.

So I broke out my trusty toothbrush, some auto buffing cloths, and a generous amount of rubbing alcohol, and got right to work. It took me about an hour, but I'm happy to report that the system is in presentable condition. I wouldn't call it brand spankin' new, but it no longer looks like it was raided from the Cryptkeeper's closet. Observe!

Yes, that's a copy of Last Story right next to the Wii. It seems like a pretty decent role-playing game, at least from what little I was able to play of it. See, although the Wii is in working condition, I can't say the same for the remotes, which were badly corroded and don't function worth a func. You can't have it all, but for a sawbuck, I got quite a bit!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Worlds of Blunder: Keith Courage in Alpha Zones

Bryan Ochalla of The Gay Gamer asked for more coverage of the Turbografx-16, so here's a review of Keith Courage in Alpha Zones!

(Oh wait, he wanted more positive coverage of the system. That might be a problem...)

Geez, even in monochrome it's kinda loud...
(image from
Keith Courage is a fascinating game. Not because it's good, because it really, really isn't, but because it's such a mystifying way to introduce Americans to the Turbografx-16, and because it was so representative of the system's library as a whole. Granted, most of the games on the TurboGrafx were better than Keith Courage, but nearly all of them had the same quirks. You know, the gameplay that was kept simple due to the limitations of the HuCard format, the oversaturated colors that made a Lisa Frank poster look like a tintype photograph from the Civil War era, and the characters that didn't click with a Western audience despite embarrassing '80s-flavored attempts at localization. It all leads to the conclusion that the TurboGrafx was a thoroughly Japanese game console which not only couldn't make itself comfortable in the United States, but actively resisted NEC's attempts to bring it to these shores.

Take for instance... well, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones. The game was originally created as merchandising for Mashin Eiyuden Wataru, a popular Japanese cartoon intended for young children. You can watch a little of the 1997 remake on YouTube, in case you're curious.

You're not fooling anyone,
(image from
As a throwaway game with a cartoon license, Mashin Eiyuden Wataru was benign, if slightly forgettable. But this became the pack-in for a costly next generation game console, and that was... harder to forgive. NEC tried to tack on a new, darker storyline, with some nonsense about a force of "Beastly Alien Dudes" killing Keith's father, but apart from new names, none of the characters in the game had really changed. Nintendo and its third parties turned localizations into something of an art form, with titles like Blaster Master being cleverly rewritten for an American audience, but not much effort was put into disguising Keith Courage's Eastern origins. He may look like a futuristic He-Man on the front of the box, but the moment you see squids bouncing along grassy fields and past pagodas, you know something's up.

Blue, blue skies, I see...
(image from
It's not just that the game was poorly suited to Americans... it was also tremendously dated, lacking the 16-bit punch players had come to expect after years of gorgeous arcade titles like Final Fight and Golden Axe. For all its failings as a game, the early Sega Genesis pack-in Altered Beast at least had the power to impress with its grotesque monsters, haunting gothic music, and digitized speech. Keith Courage in Alpha Zones has none of that, looking like a more brightly colored cast-off from an earlier era of gaming. Enemies burst into a puff of faintly-animated smoke when you strike them, and level designs are one-dimensional, with a light smattering of platforming and the occasional gimmick to differentiate one area from the next. Things pick up in the Alpha Zones, with an armored Keith hacking his way through more threatening aliens, but these stages have their own issues, like beds of spikes you can't see until you've jumped down a floor (possibly into them) and tireless spawning points for enemies, particularly the more aggravating ones.

Bonk, Bonk! Uh,
nobody's bonking.
(image from
The biggest problem with Keith Courage in Alpha Zones is that NEC learned nothing from it. The company kept repeating its mistake by releasing TurboGrafx-16 games that felt out of step with an evolving industry and weren't relevant to Americans. Later titles for the system included such curiosities as Somer Assault, Chew Man Fu, and Bravoman (who's still trying to find an audience in the United States, without much success). The Sega Genesis was home to arcade hits like Strider, Forgotten Worlds, and Ghouls 'n Ghosts that took years to find their way to NEC consoles... years after players stopped caring about them. The official TurboGrafx-16 mascot was Bonk, a rubber-faced, meat-craving caveman who lacked the international appeal of Sonic and Mario.

NEC tried one more time to find a Western audience with the TurboDuo, but that system floundered as well... perhaps because there was no room in the video game market after the launch of the Super NES, or perhaps because an aggressive ad campaign meant to spark fanboy passions ignited the wrong ones. However, it's just as likely that the games themselves were to blame, hitting the same cultural barriers that stonewalled NEC's success from the very beginning. The TurboGrafx line was never popular in the United States, and despite NEC's best efforts, it was probably never meant to be.

(thanks to Wikipedia and YouTube for assistance with research on this article.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Great Scott, Marty! This Sucks!

I guess it's required by internet law to talk about Back to the Future today, so here I am. Actually, I really do like the first and third films in the trilogy, but everybody's talking about the thinly veiled Pepsi commercial that was sandwiched between them, so I'll offer my thoughts on the fittingly mediocre video game it inspired.

Still more subtle than the Pepsi
schilling in the film.
Nope, not Back to the Future II & III, the NES disaster that was so cynically designed, the publisher tacked on another dozen (boring, boooooring) stages based on the third film at the last minute. I'm talking specifically about Super Back to the Future II, released for the Japanese Super NES by Toshiba Emi. You might be tempted to think that this game, with its bright colors and immediately recognizable caricature of Michael J. Fox, would finally break the streak of terrible games based on the movies. Resist that temptation.

What we've got here is a side-scrolling platformer whose merits begin and end with the faithfully reproduced film soundtrack. Everything else seems to be an afterthought. It's kind of like Sonic the Hedgehog, except instead of a spiny rodent, you've got Marty on a hoverboard in desperate need of a tune-up. Rather than gradually building velocity like Sonic, Marty moves in exactly two speeds, agonizingly slow and too damn fast. This means you'll be spending a lot of time overshooting platforms and desperately trying to nudge Marty over to robots to knock them out with an unreliable spin attack.

Oh, the variety!
Even if the control were tweaked, it probably wouldn't make up for the piss-poor level design and boss fights. An early area has Marty climbing to the top of a seemingly never-ending skyscraper, with a copy-and-paste cop waiting on every other floor. You can finish off Biff by nesting inside him and hammering the jump button for twenty seconds. 

Granted, I didn't spend too much time with Super Back to the Future II, but I'm not exactly eager to return for a second helping of its crap control and lackluster stages. Back to the drawing board is more like it.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Cirque Du So Lame: The Ballad of Neo Mr. Do!

Once again, my apologies for my extended absence. I came down with the flu last week, but several antibiotics and a whole lot of cough syrup later, I'm feeling just good enough to start blogging again. So let's do it, shall we?

Since I finally got Neo-Geo games working on my hacked 3DS, I think I'll spend a little, heh, quality time with one of the lesser known titles for SNK's arcade jukebox. Neo Mr. Do!, developed by Visco Games, is the next generation sequel to Mr. Do!, one of the B-list celebrities from gaming's golden age. Here's an illustration taken from Joystik magazine...

Okay, creepy? I'm sorry, but I keep thinking those cherries are bloody skulls. The actual game is less disturbing, best described as a hybrid of Pac-Man and Dig Dug. As the harlequin hero Mr. Do!, you can either clear the screen of monsters or take a more pacifistic route and just eat all the cherries strewn throughout the playfield. Your primary weapons are the power ball, which bounces around madly in search of targets, and apples, which can be used to crush monsters by digging under them or shoving them into neighboring tunnels. 

Mr. Do!, as it appeared
on the Super NES.
(image from Console Classix)
The monsters are wilier than the ones in Dig Dug, burrowing their way through the dirt in their pursuit and even pushing apples onto you if you've been sloppy with your work. Complicating matters are the letter men, which appear when you grab a dessert that appears in the monsters' spawn point. These guys happily devour any apples you drop onto them, but killing them helps you build the word E-X-T-R-A, which earns you an extra life. It's very much a product of its time, simple and derivative but naggingly addictive all the same.

Like Nintendo's jack of all trades Mario, Mr. Do! adopted new play styles in his later games. Mr. Do!'s Castle, my personal favorite, has the clown crushing unicorns with a hammer in a pastiche of Donkey Kong and Lode Runner. Mr. Do!'s Wild Ride is the dud of the bunch, a perilous climb to the top of an active roller coaster track. (No explanation is given for this suicidal behavior, but you'll be happy to send Mr. Do! to his demise so you can stop playing the game.) The entertaining mid-1980s finale, Do! Run Run, is the most like the original, but replaces the mounds of dirt with layered overhead platforms studded with dots. Drawing squares around the dots changes them into more valuable fruits, and brightly colored logs can be pushed to crush the monsters nipping at your heels.

Mr. Re-Do.
Neo Mr. Do! returns the clown to his roots, with the same faux-Dig Dug gameplay that made him (almost) famous. He hunts for cherries, he turns apples into weapons of mass destruction, he throws bouncy balls into monsters. However, this time, it's louder, more garish, and above all, stranger than ever. Visco Games leaned hard on the circus theme, resulting in colors so bright they burn to the touch, enthusiastic calliope music, and full screen performances by Mr. Do! himself between levels. Even the font is desperate to convince you that you'll have a grand old time, with googly eyes and demented grins. (Call me a party pooper, but I'd be having more fun if the text in this game were readable. It's forty points in size and I still have no idea what it's trying to tell me!)

You're no Circus Charlie, pal!
But alas, fun is more elusive under this big top than it first appears. The attempts at humor are often forced (if it tells you anything, there's even a laugh track in the intermissions...) and the enhancements to the gameplay don't really improve it. Spelling "EXTRA" gives you a brief, often annoying puzzle stage with no real reward beyond bonus points. You'll have to earn an extra life by mining coins from stationary objects... it's kind of like banging your head against a coin block in Super Mario Bros., except the objects often won't tell you when they've been wrung dry of cash. Power ups include gender swappers that turn our hero into Ms. Do!, and the mini-bosses that appear at the ends of levels won't take "die" for an answer, respawning almost immediately after they've been hit with the power ball. Come to think of it, a lot of the enemies in this game shrug off death, leaving the player feeling helpless and overwhelmed.

Gee, I didn't realize Mr. Do! was so ripped.
The biggest problem with Neo Mr. Do!, as is so often the case with retro game revivals, is that it feels out of sync with the original vision for the series. It gets the basics right, but goes way overboard with artistic license, to the point where Mr. Do! dances spastically after beating stages and rides a Harley down the highway, clown girlfriend in tow, after winning an extra life. I don't know how the designers of the original Mr. Do! would have made an updated sequel, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have done this.

(Screenshots taken from World of Longplays on YouTube)