Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Ruff 'n Tumble

Well, I regret to say that the Playstation 3 was a total bust. After a couple weeks it started acting up, to the point where it would overheat and freeze after just twenty minutes of use. The seller's taking it back, thank goodness, but it's still a crushing blow to someone who wanted the system for years. I was so close... so close!

At least my Wii U's been treating me right. I'm convinced running that SmashStack exploit was the smartest thing I've done with it in a long, long time. That's given me access to not only the GameCube's sizable library of games, but countless other titles through the use of emulators.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to break out an old release for the Commodore Amiga that I really liked. Or really want to like, at least. With its gorgeous animation and color-saturated graphics, Wunderkind's 1994 release Ruff 'n Tumble looks like it would be a better fit for the Neo-Geo than a personal computer from the mid 1980s, but there was something about this side-scrolling shooter that just missed the mark. I was determined to find out what that was.

Armed to the baby teeth.
But before I get to the agony, let's touch on the ecstasy for a minute. Ruff 'n Tumble was a late release for the Amiga computer, which was on its last legs thanks to Commodore's mismanagement and the impending release of the all-consuming Windows 95. You couldn't have asked for a flashier exit, though. Ruff 'n Tumble illustrates why the Amiga's modest fanbase were so fiercely loyal to the system, looking better than the lion's share of games for the Sega Genesis and Super NES. Vibrant colors leap off the screen, and the uzi-packing hero Ruff Rogers looks like he could have been a stunt double in Dennis the Menace 2 Society, with the tyke's chubby cheeks rippling as he unloads clip after clip of ammo into the robots that doggedly pursue him.

The gameplay's not too shabby either; an appealing pastiche of genres popular in the early 1990s. There's a little Sonic the Hedgehog in the way Ruff darts across each lengthy stage, a little Super Mario Bros. in the tons and tons of items tucked away in hidden rooms, and a generous helping of Contra and Metal Slug in the weaponry, which can be boosted with power-ups and aimed in any direction. 

Run. Then gun.
Unfortunately, that's where the problems start. Like too many other games for the Amiga, Ruff 'n Tumble was designed for single button joysticks, and this unfortunate decision takes a wrecking ball to the gameplay. Up does double duty as a jump button and a means of aiming your firearm, limiting your ability to run and gun at the same time. Just try fighting an airborne enemy like the bullet-spitting chopper droids or swarms of mechanical bees and you'll realize how badly you need to be able to do both simultaneously.

This lends an unwelcome stop-start feel to the otherwise breezy action, with the player frequently screeching to a halt to take out the enemies pouring out of flashing generators. With Ruff's limited supply of hit points and game overs that send you back to the beginning of the current world, you can't afford to do anything else. Even while creeping through each level at the speed of slug, it's tough to stay alive because Ruff's machine gun has such a low rate of fire. You'll need to constantly feed it power ups to get a decent stream of bullets out of it, and optional weapons like the laser and flamethrower sputter out too quickly to be of much use.

Cheats (like infinite lives, infinite ammo... infinite everything really) would go a long way toward making this game more Ruff than Tumble. However, the vexing control is an issue that can't be fixed by shifting around a few values in the code. While assigning up to its own button in the UAE Wii emulator helps, it still gets in the way of jumping and firing simultaneously. From the hard rockin' soundtrack to the arcade-quality visuals, there's plenty to like about Ruff 'n Tumble, but it's nevertheless one button (and a few design quirks) shy of greatness.

Images provided by Lemon Amiga, your citrus-scented source for news about Commodore's multi-tasking, multimedia computer from the 1980s.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Gleaming the Cube

I feel like anything I've got to say today is going to be eclipsed by the two recent Supreme Court decisions. Marriage is now defined by the love between two consenting adults rather than crippling religious dogma! People can go to a hospital without going straight to the poorhouse afterward! Not everyone is happy about this- I'm sure somewhere a Koch brother is grinding his dentures in frustration- but it's good news for most Americans.

I'm still posting a blog entry, though, no matter how trivial it may be in the grand scheme of things! Remember that crusty GameCube I bought at a Goodwill store in southern Arizona?

Like, totally grody to the max! But it was not beyond help. After giving it a thorough cleaning and buying a handful of cables from Bookman's, I discovered that the Cube works just fine, as you can see from the image below:

Between this miraculous revival and a demonstration by "Morgan Von Webb" on the late, lamented X-Play, I'm convinced that the GameCube could survive a nuclear strike. The apocalypse may spell the end of us all, but at least the mutant roaches will have something to keep them entertained after we're gone!

But why settle for a GameCube when you can have four GameCubes duct-taped together? It turns out that the Wii U, the third generation of the hardware that powered Nintendo's purple lunchbox, can play its games as well. It just needs a little persuasion, provided by Crediar and the makers of Nintendont.

Unlike the bulk of homebrew software for the Wii and Wii U, Nintendont isn't an emulator. It lets the Wii U run GameCube games natively, with only a little extra code to handle memory cards and USB controllers. However, several of the Wii U's next generation features are retained... you won't need discs because the games are stored on an SD card or thumbdrive, and you won't even need a television set because the Wii U can display the picture on its game pad. Observe!

The best part is that GameCube games run just as well on the Wii U as they do the original hardware. More demanding titles like Bloody Roar: Primal Fury are intolerably slow on Dolphin, the GameCube emulator for home computers, but they're buttery smooth here. Why wouldn't they be? The Wii U uses the GameCube architecture as its foundation... it just needed a little code to remind it of its ancestry.

Here's one more image before I jet. This is the Wii U running Mario Kart: Double Dash. It takes some time to get used to the tag-team gameplay, but awkwardness aside I can understand why this is a fan favorite. It still looks sharp a decade later- arguably better than Mario Kart Wii- and it's tons of fun to race on each cleverly designed course.

I'm gonna dig through the GameCube library over the weekend and see what I can turn up. I'm already having a blast with Bloody Roar and Mario Kart: Double Dash, but I'm sure I can find other worthwhile titles with just a little effort.

Monday, June 22, 2015

On the Case

You know that Game Boy Advance SP I bought a month ago, which looked like it had spent the last ten years tossing and turning on a bed of nails?

Well, it got better.

I just received the replacement case in the mail yesterday (I know, it was Sunday, but I didn't check my mail the day before) and spent a sizable chunk of the night taking the system apart and reassembling it, using this handy guide. Overall, the process wasn't too difficult; I just needed to remove a lot of screws and gently unplug a ribbon cable connecting the screen to the mainboard. It was the hinges on the top of the system that were a real sonuvabitch, held in place with tiny plastic clips that made them almost impossible to remove. 

Over the course of the case swap, one of the shoulder buttons also popped off, and it took a great deal of time and a biker bar's worth of swearing to put it back together. "Frustrating" doesn't even begin to describe it, folks. However, in the end, I persevered, and the Game Boy Advance looks worlds better for it. Here now is the fruit of my labor:

Mmm, my labor fruit tastes like tangerines! Anyway, here's the system in action, running Mr. Driller A from my flash cartridge:

The screen no longer locks in two different positions like it had with the old case, and the plastic is cheap, with an off-putting waxy appearance. Still, the system looks a lot better than when I first laid eyes on it. Now I just need to find a way to get this stencil of my old site mascot on the front and my work will be complete...

Off that (admittedly self-indulgent) subject, another E3 has come and gone, but it hasn't gone so well for Nintendo in particular. While Microsoft announced limited backward compatibility for its Xbox One (sorry, Don Mattrick! Not sorry) and Sony plans to release the third chapter of the Shenmue series for its Playstation 4, Nintendo gave us... more Amiibo-dependent crap. And oh yes, a spin-off of the Metroid series which I'm convinced absolutely nobody wants.

"Hey, Puppet Pal Shiggy, 'ya know what we're
releasing for the Wii U next year?"
"I dunno, Puppet Pal Reggie, what?"
Nintendo's press conference was presented by charming puppet caricatures created by Jim Henson Studios, but this didn't make the bitter pill of an anemic software library any easier for fans to swallow. Many have convinced themselves that the Wii U is finished, and will be replaced by the nebulous NX at next year's show. Honestly, I wasn't impressed with Animal Crossing: Buy More Toys and Metroid Prime: Master Chibi either, but I'm not pessimistic enough to believe that Nintendo will drive a stake in the Wii U's heart this close to its 2012 launch. They'll give it the full five years of support they've given all their consoles... but I wouldn't count on it going much farther than that. 

(Kind of a shame, really, as I was just getting attached to Miiverse. Some days, it's the only reason I turn on my Wii U!)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Agony and the Ecstacy: Phantasy Star Portable

You ever find a game you almost feel guilty for enjoying, because practically nobody else did? That's the vibe I'm getting from Phantasy Star Portable, released for the PSP in 2009. I recently picked this up at a GameStop in southern Arizona during a Buy Two Get Two Free sale. I honestly wasn't expecting much from it, but five hours in, I can safely say this is my favorite of the games I purchased.

(I also bought this, which
was its own punishment.)

Uh... can I just have a sword, please?
You know, that pointy stabby thing.
Phantasy Star Portable got a frosty reception from game critics, and I'll concede that the game has a lot of rough spots. It's not as user-friendly as it ought to be... weapons and items are given Phantasy Star's typically perplexing titles, and using Photon Arts is a needlessly drawn out process. You'll first have to buy the power-up, then learn to use it, then attach it to a specific weapon and put that in a slot of your inventory palette, a sort of speed dial that lets you access items quickly in combat. To its credit, Phantasy Star Portable offers basic instructions along with a couple of easy missions to get you familiar with the play mechanics. Nevertheless, if your copy didn't come with an instruction booklet, prepare to be confused for the first couple of hours. I still don't know how to use TECHNICs, or why I should bother.

Ooh, ooh! Bet I know who that was!
Beyond that, the game's storyline has... issues. In the tradition of Ys and too many other RPGs, your hero is mute, communicating exclusively in punctuation. That's a shame, because he or she will have plenty to complain about. Sexual harassment is played up for laughs (lively music plays in the background as your creepy old commanding officer Nav tries to get his hands on a new recruit) and the voice acting never aspires to anything greater than tolerable, with one partner speaking in a drab tone that could just as easily be a product of boredom as world-weary experience.

I don't know what you things are, but
you're going down!
However, once you get past the questionable humor and the confusing user interface and the shops that reduce you to a glowing cursor and "partner machines" that look like French maids (phew!), you'll find a genuinely engaging action game with more variety than you can shake an... er, Soda Brekka at. There are plenty of melee weapons, ranging from swords to twin daggers to laser claws, and you can switch to rifles, handguns, and crossbows if you'd prefer to put some space between you and the monsters roaming each stage. You can even switch to a first-person view to improve your accuracy and target the weak points of the gargantuan bosses.

Last time, on Deep Space Nine...
I complained about the storyline earlier, but you'll find some good ideas sprinkled here and there. Unlike the Phantasy Star series on the Sega Genesis where science-fiction mingled awkwardly with medieval fantasy, Phantasy Star Portable is futuristic throughout, with humans, genetically engineered beasts and newmans, and androids known as CASTS (heh, I see what they did there) living together in an uneasy galactic alliance. One of your partners, Vivienne, is an especially advanced CAST who struggles to understand both the world around her and her own identity. It's not an Asimov-quality examination of human/robot relations, but it's well-intentioned and adds meat to the plot.

Sega: The Challenge Will Always Be There.
Oh yeah, then there was that other thing. While you're out there exterminating dozens of creepy creatures, you can arm yourself with weaponized game consoles. I've found two so far, and I'm pretty sure there are more hidden in the game. As flawed as Phantasy Star Portable may be, it's hard to hate it when it lets you have a missile-launching Master System as a pet.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Here Comes An Old Challenger: Ryu in Smash Bros.

Anne Lee of Chic-Pixel chose her own month to celebrate fighting games (June), which happens to be several months earlier than the one I'd chosen (October). But what the hell, I never pass up an excuse to gab about one of my favorite video game genres!

It turns out that June was a smart choice, since it's also the month the Electronic Entertainment Expo is held in Los Angeles, and also the time Nintendo introduced Street Fighter II lead Ryu Hoshino to the cast of Super Smash Bros. He's in both the 3DS and Wii U versions, by the way, if you're willing to shell out seven bucks for some cross-platform combat. As a fan of Street Fighter for over twenty years, I went for the deluxe package, and I do not regret my decision. Seven bucks is costly for a downloadable character, but when it's this one, who could resist?

A little information about the character before I hit you with some pictures. This Ryu is based on the Street Fighter IV model, bearing a close resemblance to his appearance in the 3DS game that was launched with the system in 2011. He plays much like the other members of the Smash cast, with one button assigned to punches and kicks and another used to trigger special moves. However, entering the classic half-circle, quarter-circle, and dragon punch motions will unleash more potent versions of Ryu's fireball, leaping uppercut, and hurricane kick. (Watch that last one... it has a nasty habit of sending you off cliffs, because Ryu no longer faces his enemies automatically.) Ryu also has two final smashes according to Destructoid, although I've performed just one, the vacuum fireball.

What else? Ryu comes with a free trophy, his friend Ken Masters, and a more panoramic version of the Suzaku Castle stage from the original Street Fighter II. By the way, those signs on the edges of the playfield? Breakable, just like they used to be back in 1990. Thanks for remembering that, Nintendo... I could have sworn everyone else had forgotten, including Capcom.

All right, here now are those pictures I promised. These came from the 3DS version; obviously the Wii U game looks a lot better.

You've gotta love how you can adjust the
camera view when you pause the game,
resulting in dynamic snapshots like this.

Betcha never expected to see this before!

Or, uh, this. Mario is filing a copyright
infringement suit even as we speak.

Here's the wind-up...

And here's the pitch!

He should probably let Dhalsim keep this move.

Special thanks to Destructoid for explaining how Ryu's moves work in Smash Bros., and to Nintendo for giving me a reason to take the 3DS version of this game out of mothballs.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Perceived Value

Those of you watching my Twitter account will know that I recently bought a PSP Go from eBay for about $25, give or take a five dollar power cable I had to purchase separately. This micronized version of Sony's first handheld game system wasn't well received when it was first released in late 2009, thanks to an eye-watering retail price.

It's pretty good! Just not $250 good.
At $250, it would be hard to recommend the PSP Go to anyone with a budget and an ounce of common sense. At one-tenth the price, however, the system becomes a lot more compelling. I've paid more than that for Game & Watch systems back in the 1980s, and this is capable of so much more. After hacking the Go with custom firmware, I've got it running not only PSP games, but software for a handful of other systems as well. While it hasn't topped the PSP-3000 as my favorite model of the console, the PSP Go is more convenient thanks to its compact size and sliding display. Waking it up from standby is as simple as flipping up the screen. When you're done, slide the screen back down and the cross bar icons are swept away, replaced with a handy clock.

Another memory card format?
Seriously, Sony?
Speaking of handy, the PSP Go has its own built in storage. While the machine has support for memory cards, you'll never need to buy one because the 16 gigs of internal storage offers plenty of room for games. It's a good thing too, because in that grand Sony tradition, the PSP Go uses a proprietary memory card that's incompatible with previous PSP models and frustratingly expensive besides.

Look, I completely understand why people didn't like the PSP Go. At its original price, I wouldn't have touched it either. However, it's a cleverly designed little machine that improves drastically once it's been hacked. It's just hard to see this when you've been blinded by sticker shock.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Thrill of the Hunt: Tokyo Jungle

Just a quickie tonight, folks. Out of all the games I have for my brand spankin' new Doug Playstation 3, I'm convinced that Tokyo Jungle is the most intriguing. Maybe not the best or the most professionally designed, but certainly the most compelling and unique.

This won't end well...
Picture this... it's the apocalypse, but your enemies aren't hideous mushroom men or shambling corpses. It's nature itself, slowing turning mankind's order into chaos and leaving the animals to fend for themselves. You are one of these beasts, and your mission is straightforward: eat, claim territory, mate, and let the next generation continue your fight for survival. However, other animals will be doing the same, forcing you into constant conflict. As a carnivore, you must track down other animals and kill them with a swift bite to the throat. As an herbivore, you eat the plant life bursting through the cracked concrete roads, and run like hell when more dangerous creatures approach.

Basically, Tokyo Jungle takes the concept of the ecosystem and gives it the arcade treatment. There are items to discover and a long, maze-like city to explore, but at its heart, this is a tense, twitchy action game with an emphasis on risk and reward. In addition to a life meter, there's a hunger meter which constantly drains, forcing you to kill and devour other animals to keep it from emptying. You'll sometimes be forced into lopsided battles when food gets scarce and the only source of fresh meat is a few links higher on the food chain. A toy dog versus a hyena? A stray cat versus a pack of hungry wolves? Probably not likely in real life, but it happens in Tokyo Jungle.

Moo prism power, activate!
You've got to admire the game's twisted genius, but it's just as hard to ignore Tokyo Jungle's flaws. There's a lot of needless waiting at the end of each run, and a terms of service agreement you've got to scroll through and accept every time you load the game from the PS3's home menu. Every time. The graphics are pretty iffy, with a whole lot of grey in the backgrounds and animals that can be tough to distinguish at first glance. One time, I tackled a sleeping beast, thinking it was a relatively easy to dispatch hyena. My happiness quickly turned to horror when I realized that my "prey" was actually a cheetah! My own character was a house cat. You can probably guess the outcome.

Still, with a price as low as a dollar in flash sales (!!!), it's hard to imagine why anyone would pass up Tokyo Jungle. It's original, it's addictive, and it's always a huge rush to put the bite on an unsuspecting rabbit or chicken. I still lean into every kill with the controller, and any game with that kind of power deserves the space on your hard drive.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Playstation 3: The Unboxening

So hey, my Playstation 3 just came in the mail! I'm so excited about its arrival that I wanted to share the experience with my readers. This actually isn't the first time I've blogged a system unboxing... I did it way back in August 2013, when a kind soul at Talking Time sent me his Sega Genesis and a dozen games for the cost of shipping. The next day, I fell ill and nearly died from pancreatitis. So the day after I post this, I fully expect to walk out the door of my trailer and have an anvil fall on my head. It was nice knowing you folks!

Here's the box, just waiting for me to crack it open and sink my teeth into its tender nutmeats. By the way, I bought the system from a guy on AtariAge named Belmonte.

No no, BELmonte. But I know what I'll be having for dinner later tonight! Anyway, let's see what's waiting for us inside the box...

Ooh, festive! The seller ingeniously used pantyhose stuffed with inflated balloons as packing material. Evidently these were originally meant for a children's birthday party, so they actually make MORE sense in this context.

Now this I just don't get at all. My guess is that it came from the same children's party, but why is it in here?!

Many balloons, doll boxes, and plastic grocery bags later, I finally struck paydirt. A Playstation 3 of my very own! Don't let the 80GB label fool you... Belmonte jettisoned the old hard drive and replaced it with a more comfortable 250 gigs of storage. If my experience with the Xbox 360 is anything to go by, it'll take a while for me to burn through it all. Anyway, let's get this sucker out of the shipping box...

Hey, the box has a convenient carry handle! Just like that Turbografx-16 I passed up for a copy of Ecco the Dolphin. Oh lord, I bought Ecco the Insomnia Cure instead of a Turbografx-16! What the hell was I thinking?!

(Jess... that was over twenty years ago. You told me you weren't going to dwell on this...)

Okay, okay, fine. Where was I?

Here's the other side of the box, chock full of information in a variety of languages, along with a handful of images from Playstation 3 games released in 2008. On the downside, this system isn't backward compatible with the Playstation 2, but on the upside, these later models are a bit hardier than their launch window cousins, and less susceptible to the yellow light of death.

And here's a controller! This is the Dual Shock 3, similar to the joystick packed with the Playstation 2, but wireless and with a guide button for easy access to the home menu. It's not terribly innovative, but it's generally well liked by players. I'm not sure I can say the same about...

...the Sixaxis. It's not that much different from the Dual Shock 3, but it lacks the rumble motors that have been a standard feature in game controllers since 2001. Apparently Sony was in a legal battle with the creators of the rumble technology, and didn't get things squared away until a couple of years after the system was launched.

The console also included all the necessary cables, an instruction manual, and hot diggity daffodils, even the receipt from where it was originally purchased! This Belmonte guy doesn't miss a thing!

And oh yes, here's a video guide to the Playstation 3, along with a game. Of sorts. (Don't worry Playstation 3, I bought a copy of Borderlands 2 a few days ago. The only place Gran Turismo is going is under a wobbly table leg.)

And here's the man of the hour, the Playstation 3. It's the old George Foreman Grill model, but I've been running it for hours and there have been no problems so far. Plus, as big and bulky as it is, I'd take this over the crappy Super Slim any day of the week. Yeah, the one that looks like it would break if you brushed up against it.

One interesting note: the Playstation logo under the drive door can be flipped to match the system's orientation. I didn't know this when I first tried the system at a GameStop, and thought I accidentally broke off a piece. Just walk away quietly, Jess, and no one will be the wiser...

All right, so let's get this thing fired up! A cable here and a wire there, and I was presented with this screen...

Oh, plug in a controller and press the guide button? Sure, no biggie. Now I can start gaming, right?

Ahem. NOW I can start gaming, right?

Ugh. I think I'm gonna have to sit through a few hours of downloads before my Playstation 3 is ready to rumble. I'll post another blog in a few days, after I've played some games. If the anvil doesn't kill me first.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Better Luck Next Time? A Second Crack at the PS3

So hey, it looks like I'll be getting a Playstation 3 in the mail tomorrow. Honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about that. Don't get me wrong... I quite deliberately purchased it, and I do want it. It'll be great to play all my PSOne games on a big screen again, along with all those exclusive titles I purchased during flash sales just because they were so cheap. I'll finally get to see what all the fuss was about with Tokyo Jungle!

Yeah, it's an old picture,
but it sums up my
feelings about the
console pretty well.
And yet, there was something about the system that stuck in my craw when I first owned one back in 2010... something that didn't make me terribly remorseful when I had to sell it to my brother to make ends meet. Maybe it was the way you had to tell the system to install games after you downloaded them, rather than handling it for you like the Xbox 360. Maybe it was the user interface, which works fine on a handheld like the PSP but isn't as well suited to a console. Perhaps it was because it didn't feel like a significantly different experience from the Xbox 360, which was my last generation console of choice.

Whatever the reason, the Playstation 3 left me with mixed feelings, but that was five years ago. The Xbox 360 experience dramatically changed in that span of time, evolving from the brightly colored blades to the current icon-based Metro interface. I'm hoping the Playstation 3 has gone through a similar evolution, making it easier and more fun to use. I'm also hoping that this PS3 will be around for a while... it's one of the old chunky models, and a lot of those have succumbed to the yellow light of death. Then again, my brother's Playstation 3 was still running the last time I asked him about it, so I probably have nothing to worry about. Uh... right?

Anyway, I'll let you guys know when it arrives, and what I think of it.

Monday, June 1, 2015

An Open Letter to Andor Genesis

"Dear" Andor Genesis:

You suck. You suuuuuuuuuuuck! You're one of the most frustrating bosses I can remember from my childhood, ranking right up there with that chrome demon head from Sinistar. However, Sinistar can be beaten if you know the trick... just lure him behind you and drop a payload of Sinibombs in his face as you dart away. How anyone can beat you reliably is a mystery for the ages. Even before you appear, you clog the screen with enough firepower to turn Xevious into a bullet hell shooter. Sure, you only take one shot to kill, but your weak point is right in the center of your miserable body, and heaven only knows how anyone can get that close to you without getting blown to bits by your zillions of tiny flashing bullets. Every time I drop a bomb, it always stops just three pixels shy of your core. Even if I CAN hit the target, I end up dying while you sneak away as a tiny ball of plasma. Then I "get" to do it all over again, including that oh so fun struggle through an impenetrable front line of bullet spitting metal sphincters and those flippy plates you can't destroy no matter how many times you shoot them. How do you make those things airborne, anyway?

Even your name is obnoxiously difficult! I've been calling you "Andro Angenesis" (or alternately, "that stupid bastard") for years before I finally got it right. What the hell is an Andor Genesis, anyway? You haven't been the genesis of anything, except frustration and dangerously high blood pressure. I don't even think you were ON the Genesis at any point, were you? Your name is one great big lie!

In short, stop shooting at me so much so I can shoot at you.