Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Modern Primitives

The original GameBoy's modest hardware was designed for portability above all else, but that just made it easy for hackers to bring it to the one place Nintendo had never expected... home computers. GameBoy emulators have existed for nearly twenty years, not just for your trusty desktop but countless other electronic devices. Practically anything with a screen can play GameBoy games, from competing handhelds to smartphones and media players. There's even a GameBoy emulator for the backward compatible GameBoy Advance, because hey, why not?
Yo dawg, we heard you liked Game Boy...

All these systems play GameBoy games perfectly well, but there was always something missing from the experience. However, thanks to the latest technology, you can enjoy GameBoy games the way you really remembered them... in four icky shades of green, with a distracting shadow over the display and pixels that never quite touch.

Yes, people actually missed that part of the experience. Nostalgia does strange things to your mind.

Anyway, this is possible with an emulator called RetroArch. RetroArch is modular, using "cores" to handle a wide variety of game systems. However, its use of shaders to emulate not just the games themselves, but the way they look on real hardware, is what sets it apart from the scores of other emulators on the internet. RetroArch includes an assortment of handheld shaders, which uncannily reproduce the experience of risking blindness while being hunched over your favorite portable. Observe!

This is Super Mario Land, one of the GameBoy's launch titles. Even back in 1989 it wasn't much to look at, but the handheld shader adds a sense of authenticity that's missing from other emulators. Anywhere else (even on Nintendo's own 3DS!), this game's artwork would be off-puttingly simplistic, but RetroArch makes it seem charmingly quaint. The separated pixels, each with their own faint shadow, add texture to an otherwise plain image.

Let's look at another game, running on a different shader.

This is Bonk's Adventure. Like a lot of other early GameBoy titles, this is scaled down from its console counterpart, but not nearly as much as Super Mario Land. The characters are larger and the backgrounds are better defined... where Super Mario Land offers simple lines for mountains, Bonk's Adventure goes all out with a craggy volcano partially obscured by fluffy treetops.

The GameBoy could pack a surprising amount of detail into that tiny green screen, as evidenced by this cut scene from Sunsoft's Batman:

I've found that still images benefit from the GameBoy's monochrome display, looking more realistic than the harsh purples and browns of the NES.

Let's move on to one of the GameBoy's early competitors, the Atari Lynx. Fans of the system often point to the color display as proof of its superiority, but the harsh reality is that its screen really wasn't that great, either. This image from Toki should give you some idea of what to expect.

The Lynx was burdened with a low resolution that made its games look coarse, and the limited color output (typically sixteen colors to a screen, with very few exceptions) didn't help matters much. The GameBoy's four shades of grey gave its visuals subtlety and nuance. "Subtlety" just wasn't in the Lynx's vocabulary.

What's missing from this image is the Lynx backlight, which left the display so badly washed out that it was tough to see in most lighting conditions. After playing mine, Jeremy Parish swore he'd never complain about the unlit screen of the Game Boy Advance again.

About that! RetroArch works with Game Boy Advance games too, and since that's one of my all-time favorite consoles, I've taken a few snapshots of its own software in action. Here now is Final Fight One.

Oh my. I was probably pretty happy with this in 2002, but after Capcom Classics Remixed for the PSP, I'm a lot harder to please. This is clearly based on the lacking Super NES version, with half the breakable objects and Poison replaced with this generic thug. About the only thing Final Fight One didn't take from the Super NES game was its soundtrack, offering a disconcertingly 8-bit remix in its place. Capcom must have had trouble getting a handle on the Game Boy Advance sound processor, but after a couple of years, they got the hang of it. Just compare the music in Disney's Magical Quest to its sequels... you'll hear a world of difference.

Mega Man and Bass, another Super NES port which recently made its debut on the Wii U's Virtual Console, is a lot more impressive. There's a lot of yap online about how the lower resolution of the Game Boy Advance leaves you with a blind spot, but that hardly makes the game "unplayable" as some have suggested. Just, er, trickier.

This is from the Green Jello Devil fight at the beginning of the game. Shortly before this battle, newcomer King takes a big honkin' axe and slices Protoman's legs off. "Just a scratch," indeed.

Okay, one more game before I sign off. Here's an image from Prehistorik Man, a Titus platformer that was one of the Game Boy Advance's most pleasant surprises. Of course, since it was published by the same people who brought us Superman 64, nobody would go near it. Trust me, though, it's good. Not good enough to forgive Titus for Superman 64, because nothing could be, but a wonderfully silly action title that brings to mind all the great prehistoric platformers of the past.

Gee, that's the second biggest hamburger I've ever seen.

Wait, why is that checkpoint monster called a Rees-Tartah? Oh! Like "restarter!" It's been years since I first played this and just now, I finally get the joke. Boy do I feel (don't go there, Jess), uh... stupid.

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