Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Jerk of all Trades

I've been using MAME since the old DOS days, but I've never been entirely happy with it. First, it was too sluggish on my old-ass computers. Then, someone at MAME headquarters took it upon themselves to emulate every known electronic device since the UNIVAC. That includes gadgets that couldn't possibly be reproduced on a computer, like the Skee-ball unit recovered from a recently shuttered Chuck E. Cheese. Now, MAME (the Multiple ARCADE Machine Emulator) and MESS, the console emulator, have merged, because their respective programmers have evidently been assimilated by the Borg. 

Coming soon to MAME, whether
you want it or not!
(image from Comic Vine)
I should have come out and said this a long time ago, when mechanical devices and pinball were carelessly tossed into MAME's hungry maw, but it's better late than never. Stop putting every electronic device in recorded history into MAME! Stop it, I say! This towering monument to software bloat is complicated enough without having to sift through old game consoles, business machines, Speak & Spells, 1950s science fiction robots, Soviet nuclear reactors, and digital rectal thermometers just to play a few damn games of Galaga. Nobody wants this crap. Really, ask them! Nobody's dying to try the BancTel ESeries payment processor or the DECWriter III electronic typewriter. They're in there, by the way. Heaven only knows why.

In summary: this is MAME, not Skynet. Knock it the hell off!

Saturday, August 27, 2016


So, it's the 25th anniversary of the Super Nintendo, and to celebrate, Bryan Ochalla of The Gay Gamer fame posted his personal experiences with the system. I'll be nicking that idea for a future blog entry, because it's an interesting slice of history and also because my own relationship with the Super NES was a bit more... contentious than others. HOWEVER, I wanted to get this off my chest first.

Remember Phalanx? This hopelessly bland side-scrolling shooter would be easy to forget, if not for its American box art. Here it is in case it's slipped your mind, but it probably hasn't, because it really sticks with you.
image from Wikipedia
Yes, you're seeing exactly what you think you're seeing. People tend to react to this image with confusion, then irrational rage, but I kind of have a soft spot for it. Instead of stamping the box with an illustration of a predictable space battle, the artist went for something a bit sillier and more conceptual. You know all the UFO sightings in the deep south, usually by rednecks who've hit the moonshine a little too hard? Let's have the ship from our game be that UFO. It takes a second to get it, but it's really not that hard to understand.

Sadly, later Phalanx boxes would be a more accurate reflection of the game inside the package, which is to say, unremarkable. Here's how the Game Boy Advance version looked when it hit store shelves in 2001.
image from Emuparadise
There's that predictable space battle I mentioned earlier. There's nothing wrong with the illo, but it's hard to distinguish it from the kazillion other drawings you've seen on the front of video game boxes. In fact, it looks suspiciously similar to another Game Boy Advance launch title, Iridion 3D.
image from Wikipedia. Again.
Gee, exciting. Really.

The artwork used to promote Phalanx in Europe was less predictable, but it's not hard to understand why Kemco declined to use it in the United States.
image from Giant Bomb
An extremely long ship plunging into parting skies. Nothing weird about that, right? Right? Uh, why are you staring like that?
image from Tumblr/SNL

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Aren't You Glad You Used Dial? II: The Rotary Club

Okay, so I've been sleepy and depressed, which is why I haven't been blogging lately. But sleeping through life never helped anybody, and frankly, it's not good for the waistline, either. Even if it's just for my own health and sanity, I need to start writing for Kiblitzing again. Never give up, never surrender! To infinity... and beyond! More power, ho ho ho! Other various Tim Allen catchphrases!

Okay, enough of that. Here now are a selection of games I've been playing with my homemade spinner. I've taken the liberty of steering clear of Arkanoid-alikes, because although I do enjoy them and would like to review them in the future, I also want to demonstrate that a dial can be used for more than just hitting a bouncing ball with a paddle.


This supremely quirky shooter was planned for release in 1983, but was ultimately scrapped... possibly as a result of the video game crash of that year, but just as likely because nobody knew what the hell to make of it. Try to wrap your head around this... you're an orb-shaped cannon that blasts enemies while punting a spiked ball called a "Kailo" around the screen. The Kailo repairs gaps in the floor as it rolls, letting you move around the playfield more freely and building bridges to letters that will ultimately take you to a bonus stage.

It's hard to make sense of this madness, but Ixion is weirdly entertaining and even mildly addictive when you get the hang of it. The game is clearly unfinished, with stiff grid-based movement for your ship, sounds apparently recycled from Sega's earlier Star Trek game, and repetitive graphics. Hope you like beveled tiles, because boy will you be getting a lot of them! However, if it had been given enough time to gestate, Ixion could have been a contender. (And not just for "strangest damn video game you've ever played," either.)


Based on a Matchbox toy line, the Road Blasters arcade game long outlived its inspiration, and remains an underground favorite thanks to its brilliant blend of racing and shooting action. It's a treat for both casual fans, who can spray the street with gunfire and take out incoming traffic with ease, and more advanced players, who can carefully aim their shots and reap a huge accuracy bonus at the end of each track.

The only problem is that unless you've got the right equipment, Road Blasters just doesn't play well in MAME. Players stuck with an ordinary joystick should consider the Genesis version instead, which runs on similar hardware but was designed especially for digital controllers. However, if you're lucky enough to have a steering wheel or a spinner, the arcade version of Road Blasters is a magnificent experience. Clamp a good wheel down to your table and the game is just as visceral as you remembered it from the college rec room. Break out a spinner instead and you'll get uncannily precise steering, a boon for players hunting for high scores.


When I was a kid, I saw this Gottlieb shooter pop up once or twice in arcades, but it didn't look like anything special. "It's just a lame Asteroids knock-off," I told myself as I saved my quarters for more popular games. How wrong I was.

Mad Planets makes a lousy first impression, but when you actually play it, you realize that there's something special hidden under the surface of its ugly graphics. There may be a superficial resemblance to Asteroids, but Asteroids is a placid game, where the meteors move at a crawl and the only reason you died is because you blasted carelessly and filled the screen with debris. You barely have to move to survive in Asteroids. Mad Planets doesn't extend you that courtesy... its foes grow to full size and hone in on you in a matter of seconds, and you'll die just as quickly if you don't run like hell. You'll find yourself frantically swirling around the edges of the screen, spinning the dial to strafe while dodging the titular planets... and the moons they use as projectiles... and the occasional unpredictable comet just to keep you on your toes and your sphincter firmly clenched. Mad Planets is fast and intense, and it sure as hell ain't Asteroids.


Begun, the clone wars have, and you're on the front line as a carbon copy of the celebrated space hero Major Havoc. It's your mission (or the mission of the next clone, if you screw up) to infiltrate enemy bases, overload their reactors, and escape before the place blows to smithereens. Of course, the escape part is optional... as you may have gathered, you're kind of disposable.

Major Havoc was released during the crash of 1983, which reset the gaming industry and put Nintendo in charge for the rest of the decade. This title offers an interesting peek into how video games might have evolved if the crash had never happened. It's hugely ambitious, with multiple styles of play (even a Breakout-style mini-game between stages!) and sprawling levels that scroll in all directions. 

Most of the scenes in Major Havoc play well with a spinner... with the curious exception of the platforming that makes up the bulk of the game. You'll start to think the lead character was cloned from Gerald Ford rather than a dashing space hero as he crashes into walls, misses key jumps, and stumbles into instantly lethal sparks. The infiltration missions feel a bit more natural with a joystick, but with tons of obstacles in each base and little means of protection against them, you (and you, and also you) probably won't live long.


It's hard to overestimate the impact this game had on me as a teenager. After all, Forgotten Worlds shifted my allegiance from Nintendo to Sega in the console wars of the early 1990s. Decades later, I still find myself playing the arcade version of Forgotten Worlds, admiring its lush graphics and chuckling at the silly dialog between stages. The intermissions are voiced in the arcade game, and even dorkier there!

Forgotten Worlds is one of the last major video game releases to use a dial for its control, making it tough to port to home consoles. The Genesis conversion used buttons to spin the unknown soldiers, and Capcom Classics Remixed for the PSP ingeniously turned the game into a twin stick shooter, but a spinner is really the way to go if you have that luxury. With it, you can spin your cannon quickly and at precise angles, laying waste to the lizard men, dust dragons, and mammoth war gods in your path. Unfortunately, it doesn't alleviate the sense that the game drags on for ten minutes longer than it probably should. (The Egypt stage was cut in half on the Genesis, but frankly, that extra content isn't really missed.)


The early 1980s were tumultuous times for Service Games, with the company batted around from one corporate giant to the next. However, near the end of its time as a Paramount property, Sega was getting pretty good at dazzling players with color vector graphics. For all its flaws, Tac/Scan was a feast for the eyes, with the player piloting a fleet of ships through the twists and turns of a wormhole rendered in the best 3D 1982 had to offer.

Similarly, Zektor is nothing special as a video game, cribbing heavily from Asteroids, but for the time, it must have looked incredible. Every stage begins with an alien challenging you to regain control of the territory they've conquered. The alien's head looms in front of a meticulously drawn cityscape, which quickly vanishes into the horizon as the action begins. If you can make it through three largely inconsequential defense grids, you'll find the villain, who plots his (or her!) escape behind a brightly colored force field. Sink a shot between the gaps in the rotating shield and the fiend explodes with all the splendor of a modestly priced 4th of July firework. Hey, it was 1982. You can't expect TOO much here.

Zektor makes for a nice light show, but is only serviceable as a game. The defense grids play like a hybrid of Asteroids and bumper cars, with your ship bouncing off the walls and abstractly drawn Moboids. The boss fights feel a lot like Star Castle, except more frustrating because the shields don't take damage and it's extremely hard to squeeze a shot past them. Your ship controls extremely well in both scenes, with just the right amount of inertia, and that's pretty much all you could hope for in an unexceptional game like this.


There are two things I learned from this shooter, created by obscure Japanese design house Athena and released in America by Seta. The first is that Soul Calibur has forever ruined my ability to spell "caliber" properly. The second is that a dial and the rotary joysticks often used in military shooters are entirely different animals. While a dial spins smoothly, giving the player absolute control over where and when they point their firearm, a rotary joystick... doesn't. You can only twist it in one of eight positions, and you have to wrench the knob on the top of the stick into place, ensuring a sore wrist after fifteen minutes of play. Frankly, I never liked rotary joysticks... given their limited range of movement and stubborn resistance to player input, I firmly believe that what few advantages they offer could be done better with twin sticks.

Luckily, Caliber .50 kicks the rotary stick to the curb and replaces it with an old-fashioned spinner. As a result, your soldier has impeccable aim, spinning his gun to meet every challenge in the war-torn jungles of Vietnam. Not even villagers, cattle, and turtles are spared from his wrath as he marches deep into enemy territory. However, our hero is quickly undone by the game's congested, maze-like levels. We're talking Smash TV-like crowds of enemies here, but unlike Smash TV, you don't feel like you've got an honest chance at survival. It's a pity, as the graphics are more detailed than in the first two Ikari Warriors games, and the discarded bullets that increase your health and firepower are a unique alternative to the power-up panels in most military shooters.


Like Stargate, Victory, and Spy Hunter, Crater Raider is from the "way too many buttons" school of arcade game design. You've got your forward, your reverse, your fire button, a shield, and oh yes, a dial to aim your cannon. Got all that? Probably not, and the relentless red tanks that seem to pop up out of nowhere won't give you much time to get the hang of things.

The hook to this over-encumbered shooter is that you can drive your lunar rover into perfectly round holes apparently swiped from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Driving into a crater takes you somewhere else on the large scrolling playfield, but you don't really know where, leaving you disoriented and adding even more unwanted confusion to the gameplay. It's kind of tough to save the women stranded on the moon's surface when you keep taking a wrong turn at Albuquerque. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

I'm Gonna Git You, スカ

So! I was playing random games in MAME to put my new spinner through its paces, and came upon an obscure Sega title called Gigas. Much like Taito's Arkanoid (did I say "much like?" I meant just like), you use a paddle and ball to break through a series of colorful walls. However, while Arkanoid's selection of power ups is pretty straightforward, Gigas plays with the formula a bit by adding a red egg. Sometimes catching the egg will award you with an extra life, or a skull that strips you of all your other power ups, or... this.

That note above your paddle says スカ, or Suka in English. It's the game's cute little way of telling you this.

It's not the first time I've seen スカ in a video game, either. Here's another example, from the Japanese release Oshiberi (Chatting) Parodius.

You open up a treasure chest at the end of the game, only to find a lit bomb waiting inside. Note the sign he's holding. Now I don't know specifically what スカ means (it's translated to LOSE in the European version of the game), but if I were to take a wild guess, it's a reference to classic cartoons where the lead character gets punked.

You get the idea. I haven't been able to confirm this with the scant amount of research I've done, but I think this is what the Japanese game developers were hoping to bring to mind. If anyone has more information about this, please let me know.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

You Take My Self Control

Nobody was interested in my homemade spinner post, eh? Okay, let's try this instead. I saw this Twitter post from Stealth, which suggested that the detachable controllers of the NX could mean specialized controllers for specific games, similar to the plastic steering wheels and tennis rackets for the original Wii. Here's an artist's rendering of how that could look. (And no, I don't know the artist. It could be Stealth, but it certainly wasn't me.)

I would tend to think that a touchscreen would offer all the customized, context-sensitive control a player would ever need, but we'll see what Nintendo's got planned next month when the NX is finally unveiled. (And no doubt given a less appealing name.)

While on the subject of controllers, I picked up one of the redesigned Xbox 360 pads with the transforming D-pad, and... uh, this was supposed to be an improvement for fighting games? Because this is what I've been getting, and that's with the D-pad raised.

Swirling the D-pad gives you nothing but cardinal directions unless you crush it with your thumb, making fireballs and even jumping backward impossible. Here's what Ken does when you try to throw a Hadouken:

That's right, nothing. Ken does nothing, except punch frantically at thin air and invite an opponent to jump kick him in the face. Lowering the D-pad doesn't help, so unless you planned to sprain your thumb every time you play Street Fighter IV, don't expect the new Xbox 360 controller to improve your game much. Even Sony's Dual Shock 4 is more accommodating for fighting game fans... sure, the split pad makes it uncomfortable to throw fireballs, but at least they come out.

Oh, there's one other thing. I finally coaxed my Xbox 360 E to play classic Xbox games, so maybe I'll finally get around to playing Shenmue II. Just as soon as I get to all those other games I've been neglecting. Stupid backlog.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

You Can Build a Spinner from the Things You Find at Home

You may have noticed I was gone for a while. Here's what I was up to for the past week and some odd days. First, you'll need this musical selection to get you in the right frame of mind...

Okay, now that you've been properly Demento'ed, here's what I created while I was doing my best imitation of that other mad doctor, Victor Von whatever. You remember how paddles and dials used to be standard equipment for the really old game systems, right? Well, the industry has moved on from that style of input, but dozens of games (mostly of the "strike a ball with a paddle" variety) still play best with a spinner. Good luck actually finding one for a reasonable price, though. Your only options are to either pay through the nose for an arcade-quality dial like the Spintrak or TurboTwist, or get... creative. I chose door number two, and here's what I found behind it.

This wouldn't be the first time I've tried building a dial for Arkanoid-a-likes, but this is by far my most successful attempt. That's due in large part to the VCR head, that large silver platter crowning the plastic container. It was difficult to fish out of the dead VCR that reluctantly donated it, but it was well worth all that unscrewing. First, it's stupid cheap now that the technology is obsolete, and there's never a shortage of busted VHS players. Second, there's nothing better suited to spinning. Give it a whirl once it's anchored in place, and it'll spin for a solid seven seconds. It also responds to a delicate touch, making it perfect for catching a ball with the end of a bank tube trapped in space.
Come on, you can't tell me you weren't
thinking about Arkanoid when your
mom went through the drive-through.
(image courtesy of SafeFile.com)
You're going to need a device that can read all those twists and turns, and that's where the computer mouse comes in. Early homemade spinners used ball mouses with PS/2 connectors, but nuts to that! It's the twenty-first century, the age of optical, and you're going to want a USB cable so your modern day computer can recognize your creation.

Luckily, even optical mouses (yes, it's pluralized that way for input devices) can be found for a couple of bucks at a garage sale or thrift store. Break out a screwdriver, take the mouse apart, then put the mouse guts into an Altoids tin with a few notches strategically cut into it, as shown here on Instructables. Take off the scroll wheel and don't bother with the buttons, by the way... you won't be needing them. You want this mouse perfectly flat, or close to it.

With that done, you'll want to make a circle that attaches to the underside of your VCR head. I found that corrugated cardboard works best for this; it's light, easy to cut, and maintains its flatness. Light plastic warps, and a compact disc won't fit inside the Tupp-er, completely generic plastic container. I took the cap from a water jug, cut screw holes into it, and glued it into the center of the cardboard wheel after I cut a small hole into the center of that. 

Precision is important, and a ruler is your friend. If you're off by more than a small amount, you may get unwanted wobble, and your spinner may not work properly. Give the VCR head a few spins after you've screwed on the wheel. When you're satisfied with your work, unscrew the wheel and cut a circle into the top of the plastic container's lid with a precision knife. Make it large enough for the cap to spin freely, but not so large that the VCR head falls through. Thread the bottom of the head through the hole you've made, glue the head firmly in place with a glue gun, and reattach the cardboard wheel.

This is where things get tricky. After you cut a hole in the side of the container to thread a cable through, you're going to need to turn your mint mouse upside down so the light is facing up and shining into the cardboard wheel. The mouse has to be close enough to the wheel to trick it into believing that it's rolling on a flat surface, BUT not so close that the two rub against each other. That will keep the head from spinning freely and makes your spinner feel kind of crappy as a result.

You'll have to fill the bottom of the container just enough so that the mouse and wheel can make a love connection. Experiment with materials (I used a miniature ice cube tray and a single thin sheet of foam) and when you're happy with the way it looks, put the lid on and give your spinner a test drive on your computer. Once you've found the perfect distance between the mouse and wheel, and once the Altoids tin is lying flat, then and only then can you use the glue gun on the edges to hold everything in place.

So close you can almost taste it...
(image from EmuParadise)
Oh yeah, there's one other thing. The plastic container will be very light unless you've used wood to close the gap between the mouse and cardboard wheel. What you may want to do is add plastic feet on the bottom of the container to prevent skidding. I used thin strips of a shower sticker along the bottom of the spinner, to keep it in place. You may also want to consider gluing something heavy (rolls of pennies, used batteries, whatever) inside the container so you don't accidentally launch it off the table with frantic spinning. Distribute the weight evenly so it's balanced.

Top your spinner off with a smaller dial if you please; I used a cola cap. And that's pretty much it! The genius of this spinner's design is that it requires no soldering, no expensive parts, and no oddball drivers. If your computer could recognize your mouse before you took it apart, it'll recognize this spinner too. It's also modular, so if you make a mistake or it gets damaged in any way, you can take off the lid and fix what's broken pretty easily.

There are downsides too, of course. First, it's pretty... uh, well, it's not pretty at all, actually. If the look gets to you, you can always put it in something more presentable, like a wooden cabinet. Second, you won't have access to the three buttons on the mouse, unless you're willing to solder in a solution. The space bar on the bottom of your keyboard works pretty well as a surrogate laser in Arkanoid... just flail away and watch the bricks melt!

Oh, by the way, here are the tools and materials I used to make this spinner, since you'll probably need to know all that. You will need a precision knife for this, and you may cut yourself if you're not careful. Keep a first aid kit handy. (Also, for legal reasons, I assume no responsibility for any damage done to yourself or your property if you make this spinner.)


Scissors (any sturdy pair with long blades will do)
Precision knife; ie X-Acto Size 2 blade
Glue gun
Glue sticks
Ruler (optionally, a compass for clean circles)
A pen and/or Sharpie
Phillips screwdriver (preferably a set with various sizes/bits)
Electrical tape (used to line inside of Altoids tin)
Paper (for taking notes)


VCR Head (remove from an unloved VHS player)
Sterilite 1.2 Quart container (UPC: 73149 09923)
Microsoft Wheel Mouse Optical (model: D66-00029)
Corrugated cardboard (cut from a box)
Cap from Crystal Geyser Water, 1 Gallon
Altoids tin (standard size; just find a place for the mints)
Liner for inside of Sterilite container (roughly 2.3cm deep)
Skid-proof feet (optional, but strongly recommended)
Textured cap or dial (optional)


Measure twice, cut once
Don't cut yourself
Take your time
Use/borrow a small drill to cut the Altoids tin if necessary
A frictionless, flat spin is crucial
Substitutions/alterations are possible but use caution
Keep first aid around just in case
Have a few of the mints; they're pretty good!
Try some of these games with your spinner
Please give credit if you use this guide elsewhere