Friday, June 30, 2017

Ms. Lacks, Man

Okay, just one more post before June ends. Yes, it's cranky, but by my estimation, that frustration is well deserved. 

Let's talk about Ms. Pac-Man for a minute, shall we? Originally designed by General Computer Corporation as "Crazy Otto," the game got some tweaks by Midway's marketing department, becoming an official sequel to Pac-Man and one of the most successful arcade games of all time. 

Thirty five years later, people still play Ms. Pac-Man, and for good reason... it's more varied, more colorful, and has loads more personality than the first Pac-Man. Just between you and me, I don't think Namco has ever forgiven this US-born game for topping its own creation. Home ports of the game have varied wildly in quality, with Namco's own conversions for later consoles feeling almost intentionally lackluster. Let's take a look at the scoreboard...

ATARI 2600
To the best of my knowledge, this was the first console port of Ms. Pac-Man. It's clearly saddled with the limitations of the aging 2600 hardware, but it's an earnest effort and a huge step forward from the first game. Ms. Pac-Man faces in all directions, and the fruit targets bounce along the playfield just as they had in the arcade game. I spent many a morning playing this one just before school.

ATARI 5200
image from Atari Age
Outwardly superior to the 2600, with a higher resolution, more faithful mazes, and excellent sound. The big problem here is that Ms. Pac-Man moves rather slowly, and jerks along the playfield slightly while eating dots. The 5200's stock controller doesn't help matters much, but really, if you spend any time with this system at all you should have bought a 2600 joystick adapter or a Wico controller already.

ATARI 7800
Coincidentally, Ms. Pac-Man creators General Computer also designed this system, originally meant as a peace offering to players burned by the Atari 5200. Ultimately, the console was delayed to compete with the NES, making its flaws more obvious. Nevertheless, it's smoother, faster, and more detailed than its Atari 5200 counterpart, and even sounds okay despite the 7800 sharing a sound processor with the 2600.

Image from Emuparadise
Putrid green courtesy of Namco
And here is where the problems begin. This version of Ms. Pac-Man is obviously a reskin of Namco's already shaky NES port of Pac-Man. The lovely pastels of the arcade game have been turned into gruesome greens, rust reds, and Pepto-Bismol pinks, the characters have been awkwardly scrunched into mazes too small for them, and sound effects are far off the mark, excluding the music at the start and during the intermissions. It was released in 1993, probably at the exact moment when people least cared about Ms. Pac-Man, so it won't come as a surprise that the game is super rare today. Hold onto your copy if you've got one, but for the love of Pete, don't play it! 

This is an entirely different animal from Namco's game, and takes a lot of liberties with the source material, adding mazes (some good, some so frustrating you'll want to belt the designers) and new features. Ms. Pac-Man can dash, giving it the flavor of the Ms. Pac-Man speed hacks, and the translation is overall vastly superior to Namco's version. Colors are brighter, the artwork is more faithful, the sound... kind of blows... well, I guess you can't have it all. It's worth noting that this version was developed by Franz Lanzinger, the guy who created the very Pac-Manny arcade game Crystal Castles back in 1983.

Despite running on nearly identical hardware, the Master System and Game Gear versions are completely different. The former is based on Tengen's NES version, with the same variety of mazes and the turbo button. The latter is based on the crap Namco served up on the NES, with the same scrunched up mazes and similar sound effects. One thing worth noting is that extra care went into the graphics in these two games, with exquisitely detailed fruits in the Game Gear version and jowly monsters in the Master System game. Why the designers couldn't just stay true to the arcade game is anyone's guess, but it's a reoccurring issue with these ports.

Image from AtariAge (again)
This is hands down the most Atari-looking of Atari's Ms. Pac-Man conversions. The monsters are single colored, with black dots for eyes, and Ms. Pac-Man herself only looks slightly better, smashed into a six pixel wide sprite. You could blame the Lynx's coarse resolution for the stone-aged visuals, but what about the sluggish gameplay, huh? Or the chirpy sound effects? My point is, this isn't very good, no matter what Lynx fans starved for software will tell you.

Largely the same as Tengen's sorry NES conversion, with a scrolling playfield and an outline around Ms. Pac-Man. The lack of color may actually be a plus when you consider how the NES game looked. It's more detailed than the Lynx version too, but then again, so are most cave paintings.

Pretty similar to the GameBoy version of Ms. Pac-Man, which in turn was similar to the NES version. It was the 1990s... I guess Namco was into recycling, like everyone else. However, this one has several improvements. Color is the most obvious of these, but it's good color, unlike the NES version with its desaturated greens and reds. Also thrown in for your (likely brief) amusement is a port of Super Pac-Man.

Image from Player 1 Start
Remember the NES version of Ms. Pac-Man by Tengen? Well, these two cartridges are the same thing, beaten bloody with the 16-bit stick. Everything is jarringly detailed and shiny, from the mazes to the fruit to Ms. Pac-Man herself. If you insist on an arcade perfect port, maybe don't get either of these. The sound effects rapidly alternate between stunningly faithful to the arcade version and "what the hell were they thinking," with the Super NES version sounding the best. Ms. Pac's high-pitched quacking/oinking in the Genesis game will... probably take some adjustment.

(Image from Moby Games)
What the hell happened here? In the mid 1990s to the turn of the century, Namco had access to the most powerful game consoles ever made; machines far and away superior to the original Ms. Pac-Man hardware. Despite this, the port of Ms. Pac-Man on Namco Museum is clearly compromised, with compressed graphics. Not satisfied with frustrating Playstation owners, Namco also released this collection for the Nintendo 64, and most depressingly, next generation consoles like the Dreamcast and Playstation 2. You know, the Playstation 2, the game system powerful enough to be used as a missile guidance system. Guess a 1981 arcade game was just a leeetle too much to ask from a console that could send you to the Matrix. (Either that, or Namco just got lazy.)

Rightly repulsed by the Ms. Pac-Man ports in earlier Namco Museum releases, someone at the company hired the emulation masters at Digital Eclipse to (finally) do the game justice. The end result was Namco Museum 50th Anniversary, which not only includes a sterling conversion of Ms. Pac-Man, but a lot of other Namco hits. Rolling Thunder? Galaga '88? Yes, please! The interface is a nice touch, a spinning turntable packed with authentic arcade cabinets and 1980s music blasting in the background. Now that's the way you do it!


Okay. I'm going to skip ahead a couple of chapters, because if I had to cover every Ms. Pac-Man port in existence, I'd never get a chance to make my point. Some years back, Namco released Pac-Man Museum, a spin-off of its Namco Museum series featuring only Pac-Man games... and the characters from that stupid computer rendered cartoon. Namco offered Ms. Pac-Man as part of the collection, but it was downloadable content, and you had to download it right away or pay five dollars for it later. I opted to pick up the DLC while it was free, and waited for Pac-Man Museum to go on sale.

I bought Pac-Man Museum the moment it hit the digital bargain bin, and now I can finally play Ms. Pac-Man. All the other games on the collection are golden, so there should be no problem with this one, right? Right?


Uh, no. Very not right. The attract mode looks fine, but then the game starts and you hear a constant high-pitched droning that sounds like the noise a guy must hear before his head explodes in Scanners, except it happens all the time, and you can only wish your head would explode to take the pain away. A casual player may not notice the difference, but I've been playing Ms. Pac-Man for a while, so I picked up on it right away... and wanted to play a better version almost immediately afterward.

I mean, sure, I could have settled for Namco Museum on the Game Boy Advance (which is good), or Namco Museum Battle Collection for the PSP (which is very good), but I wanted to play Ms. Pac-Man on a big screen. My copy of Namco Museum 50th Anniversary Edition for the Xbox is back in Michigan, so to satisfy my raging need for instant gratification, I had to buy the game from an online source.

Currently, the Playstation 4 version of Ms. Pac-Man is available for just two dollars on the PSN store, so I went that route. And that's when my problems continued. I should have known something was up when the game took what seemed like a lifetime to finish downloading. Turns out that Ms. Pac-Man for the Playstation 4 is eight hundred megabytes, which is about... 799.9 megabytes larger than the actual arcade game. I could understand a little padding for a user interface, but damn, 800 megabytes? That's just senseless. You could put half the Neo-Geo library into that much space.

Joystick not included. And actively discouraged.
(image from the Playstation Store)
So it finally downloads, and I hungrily open the file. It's a pretty good conversion, and I love the option to add reverb to the sound effects, giving them added punch and making it seem like you're hanging out in an arcade with noises bouncing off the walls. However... there's no joystick support. You know, a joystick, the thing you used when you first played Ms. Pac-Man. Some Playstation 4 games have the option to play with a joystick designed for the Playstation 3, but that was a bone developers had thrown to fighting game fans. It's not a feature in older arcade games, to my great consternation. Sure, you could play Ms. Pac-Man with a Dual Shock controller, but you could do your own dental surgery, and I don't recommend that either.

So I looked for yet another version of a game I already bought, in the vain hope that Namco would finally get it right. Okay, Ms. Pac-Man is on sale for two dollars over at Microsoft's store. I guess I'll get that. Sure, I already have it for the Xbox 360, but that's the Pac-Man Museum version, and my ears have already taken enough punishment.

(Image from IGN)
Out of all the home ports of Ms. Pac-Man I've got, the standalone version on the Xbox 360 is the most tolerable. Yes, the sound is a little soft, prompting me to crank up my television's volume to compensate. Yes, Ms. Pac-Man looks strangely sultry in the border art. (No, I won't "come up and see you sometime." Aren't you married?) However, it offers most of what the Playstation 4 version does, and you can play it with a damn joystick you already own. 

I'm not sure why I had to buy this game three separate times before I found one that Namco did right. You'd think they would have it down to a science after thirty-five years, but I'm starting to get the impression that Namco would be much happier if people forgot about Ms. Pac-Man entirely and just settled for the original game. (Fat chance of that happening, though.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Coming to a Scalper Near You!

Well, it's official. Nintendo is making a Super NES version of its extremely popular, and just as extremely under-supplied, Classic game console. Here's an image of the box, straight from Nintendo's web site...

And here are all the games that will be included, courtesy of Polygon.

But because you're never, ever going to find one, here's a mask so you can pretend to be the hero of the obscure Sega RPG Panzer Dragoon Saga!

Image from Retro Gaming Australia
I'd like to direct you to the caption on the bottom of this advertisement, which was the last middle finger in the face Sega fans needed to switch their allegiance to other console manufacturers.

Gosh, I hope I'm not being too subtle. Nintendo claims that there will be "significantly more" Super NES Classic Edition systems manufactured, but coming from the company that cut supplies of its products to the point where people were willing to risk their lives for them, I'm not optimistic.

In games you can actually buy news, the Playstation Store is having a helluva mid-year sale, with tons and tons of titles you can purchase at a fraction of their original prices. (An even smaller fraction, if you have Playstation Plus!) I'm actually considering the Namco 3-in-1 pack, despite the fact that I've bought Ms. Pac-Man, Dig Dug, and Galaga for countless other systems over the last thirty five years. In my defense, most of the home ports of Ms. Pac-Man were kind of crappy...

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Sizzle Reel

In the interim between blog posts, I've been working on a mod for another joystick in my collection. A word to the wise, from the not-so-wise... soldering irons are heavy duty equipment, and can give you serious burns if you're careless. I've still got a red mark on my middle finger from where the iron touched it. Also, if you're going to work with joysticks, my best advice to you would be to get a wire crimper and easy connect terminals. Not only is there significantly less chance of you burning yourself, you can easily swap wires if you've connected them to the wrong buttons, saving yourself lots of time and frustration.

Without further delay, here's the fruit of my labor.

There are two benefits to this mod. The first is that the buttons are no longer in those weird Playstation-branded colors. Red, green, yellow, and blue (used on the Dreamcast, Super Famicom, and Xbox 360) tell you a lot about what each button does. All vermilion, seafoam, lavender, and fuchsia tell me is that there's a designer at Sony with really bad taste.

That's just window dressing, though. What's most important about this mod is that the new buttons are crisper and more responsive than the ones installed by default. The standard issue buttons have a rubber pad on the underside which strikes a circuit board when they're pushed down. The replacements have an integrated switch, so you don't get that awful, mushy feel that buttons on mid-range joysticks (read: nearly all of Hori's) typically have.

I'm not totally finished with this joystick, by the way. I need to grease the stick to make it move more smoothly (with the right lubricant; not petroleum jelly that can break down the plastics or "personal" lubricant that would rust the metal) and probably swap out the microswitches. So far, though, this Hori is off to a good start, and far lighter and more compact than the one I built myself a couple of weeks ago.

Okay, enough self-indulgence. I wanted to mention two things before I go. Firstly, the Nintendo Badge Arcade that I complained so bitterly about two years ago has been retired. It won't vanish completely, but if you're hoping for new badges or commentary from the badge bunny (and really, who wants that?), you're out of luck. However, if you haven't collected all 8,800 badges, you can log in every day for two free plays, plus whatever freebies you can shake out of the practice badge catcher.

Next thing. Sega Forever, the collection of classic Sega games available on Android for a couple of dollars a pop, kind of sucks ass. You'll find more details on Retronauts, but the Cliff Notes is that the emulation is rotten in 80% of the launch titles. Evidently Sega tried to weasel the exclusive rights to the RetroArch emulator out of the people who designed it, because open source software is still a foreign concept to corporations. Failing that, Sega went with sloppy seconds, and the players were stuck with... well, slop. Only Christian Whitehead's ambitious port/enhancement of Sonic the Hedgehog is worth your time... don't bother with the rest. Can I suggest M2's Genesis and arcade ports on the 3DS instead?

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Post-E3 News Grab Bag

Between E3 and a few unrelated surprises, there's way, waaaay too much stuff to report this week. I'll do my best, though.

Keith, shown with his famous progeny.
(image from NeoGAF)
* Keith Robinson, the founder of Intellivision Productions, recently died after a protracted battle with heart disease. I'm not going to pretend that I knew the guy personally, but what I can tell you is that he was deeply appreciated by everyone who met him, typically at classic game conventions where he was treated like a superstar. After all, he was the guy who kept the Intellivision brand alive long after the system left store shelves. Robinson was also a cartoonist, with the characters from his long-running Making It series appearing in Normy's Beach Babe-O-Rama for the Sega Genesis. You'll find more about Keith in this heartfelt obituary on The Retroist.

* Konami's back to its cartoonish supervillain ways, making life miserable for former employees trying to land jobs with other game developers. It's gone so far as to use its connections in the health care industry to deny insurance to members of Kojima Productions, founded by Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima. You'd think that the future job prospects of Konami's former game designers wouldn't matter all that much to a company which has distanced itself from the video game industry. Of course, you'd be giving too much credit to Konami CEO and fetid pile of human garbage Kagemasu Kozuki, whose obsessive need to settle old scores is more important than his company's already damaged reputation, or a sense of fair play, or basic decency...

* Lots of nifty stuff was announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo this year, including an Atari 2600 clone with HDMI output, two sequels to the long-neglected Metroid series, and a remake of Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga with bonus content. The new Metroid game for the 3DS has got my attention, because it gives bounty hunter Samus Aran the ability to swat nearby enemies with her gun arm, complete with a dramatic slow motion shot of the impact. I never thought melee attacks would make much sense in a Metroid game, but early footage of Samus Returns suggests that it will add both depth and excitement to the combat.

Inexplicably, Iron Man now sounds like
comedian Greg Proops.
(image from PvP Live)
* I played the demo of Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, and I'm cautiously optimistic. The series has returned to the two punches/two kicks control scheme of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, which in my opinion is a big improvement over the three ambiguous attacks used in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. The graphics are also sharp and vivid, demonstrating a marked improvement over UMvC3. It's still got a ways to go before its visuals can measure up to NetherRealm's Injustice 2, but at least the contrast is higher, helping the characters stand out better against the backgrounds. On the down side, the character dialog is, to put it kindly, horrendous, and I'm not really grooving with the return of the Infinity Stones, first introduced in Marvel Super Heroes over twenty years ago. Does anyone use these? Did anyone ask for these? My best guess is that they're here to promote Marvel's upcoming superhero films, so I guess you're stuck with them whether you want them or not. Same goes for Sigma, who's merged with Marvel nemesis Ultron to become twice the overpowered douchebag he was in the past.

* On a personal note, that joystick I was making works now! I'll discuss that in detail in a future post, but I've been pretty happy with it now that I've got bolts which tightly hold the stick in place. I still need to find a way to make this controller more presentable, though, because in its current condition this thing is just shy of fugly. More news as it happens, folks.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Drill's the Thrill

GEEZ, Microsoft. The character Robot 1-X from Futurama was supposed to be a satire of incremental product updates announced with absurd hyperbole, not a how-to guide! Anyway, the Xbox One X is the new name for Microsoft's Project Scorpio, and it will be released sometime this year at the price of who gives a damn. Really, console manufacturers, you can't give us five years between systems anymore? Just five years. It's not an unreasonable request.

Enough of that crap. I finally made some headway on that homemade joystick I wanted to make, picking up a handful of power tools at Harbor Freight and drilling all the holes I needed to mount the stick and buttons. Here's a quick look at what I've got so far... it's not even slightly presentable in its current condition, but it's a good start.

Some notes on the stick-making experience. One, this is the first time I've ever stepped foot into a Harbor Freight, and I have to say, I kind of dig it. It's basically a hardware store, except the tools are at shockingly low prices. Some would say they were of shockingly low quality as well, but I haven't had any major complaints about my twenty dollar drill so far. Expert craftsmen who know better probably shop elsewhere, but for a noob like me, Harbor Freight is just dandy.

Two, drilling is a long, tedious process, if you haven't already realized this from playing Mr. Driller. However, don't let your impatience lead to reckless behavior! There was more than one instance where I had to remind myself to unplug the drill before cleaning the debris out of the hole saw on the end. For those of you who don't know, a hole saw is a metal cylinder lined with teeth, and it doesn't much care if it's cutting through wood or your fingers. Ignore your inner dumbass... take your time, and take every precaution.

(Also, here are a few tips I got from H454, a member of the AtariAge forum. Wrap the top of whatever you're drilling with painter's tape to keep it from splintering, and work up from small bits to larger ones to increase the odds of a clean cut. There's a futuristic-looking tool called a step bit that's perfect for this, and it should relieve some of the tedium of swapping out bits.)

Three, the wooden box I used for this project looked like a quality product on the outside, but sinking a drill into it revealed the ugly truth. And oh yeah, a lot of cheap, splintery plywood. If you have the resources and the knowledge, you're much better off building your own box... it'll be a lot sturdier, and the contents won't be a mystery.

Okay, now onto the mostly finished product! The stick works all right so far... I'm quite happy with the Happ Competitions I used as action buttons, but the joystick needs work. I tested it out with a few arcade favorites, and while it's just fine for Pac-Man, its performance in fighting games like Street Fighter Alpha 2 is dubious. I'm having the same problems pulling off dragon punches that I did with the Hori Fighting Stick 3... to get them to come out at all, I have to punch in 636, rather than 623 as would be natural. (If you're wondering what the hell that means, look at your computer's numeric keypad.)

I'll probably have to replace the stick with something more expensive, like a Sanwa, to get the sharp response I crave. Actually, there are several things I'd like to do with this joystick, like add longer wires to the encoder and a clasp on the front of the box to keep it shut, but this is a good start. Hell, the fact that I was able to get through this with all ten digits is pretty encouraging.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Back Words

Expecting backward compatibility on the Playstation 4? Don't hold your breath for it. Here's a quote from Sony head of global sales and also up his own ass Jim Ryan, taken from the Destructoid game blog.

"When we've dabbled with backwards compatibility, I can say it is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much. That, and I was at a Gran Turismo event recently where they had PS1, PS2, PS3 and PS4 games, and the PS1 and the PS2 games, they looked ancient, like why would anybody play this?"

Oh, so I guess we're back to the shortsighted and insufferably arrogant Sony of 2006. Just like old times!

First, releasing a small handful of PS2 games for the PS4 is "dabbling in backward compatibility" in the same way reading a Twitter post from Neil Degrasse Tyson is "dabbling in astrophysics." Second, the PS4 is already home to dozens of (typically overpriced) arcade titles from the early 1980s... games like Crazy Climber and Elevator Action that make even the original Playstation seem as cutting edge as Data from Star Trek. 

Third, Microsoft didn't seem to have any hangups about backward compatibility after it jettisoned the woefully inept president of its interactive division and worked hard to repair the damage he did to the company. Its own Xbox One has had backward compatibility with the Xbox 360 for two years, and there's been talk that it may extend to the original Xbox in the future.

Fourth, all this is ignoring the fact that games for the first Playstation are already being sold for other Sony platforms. PSOne titles can be played on the Playstation 2, Playstation 3, PSP, Vita, and Playstation TV. Sony doesn't seem to have a problem with profiting from these "ancient" games on its other systems, so why is the Playstation 4 the odd man out? Furthermore, why is a Sony representative talking smack about important milestones in the history of this hobby, and the games that built the foundation for the Playstation's current industry dominance? 

Hell, if this is the kind of stupid shit he's going to say, maybe Jim Ryan shouldn't be talking at all.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Hot 'n Sticky

Welcome back my friends, to the blog that never updates.

While not panting at the steadily rising temperature (99 degrees on Tuesday?! Oy vey!), I've been planning the design for my homemade arcade joystick. All the parts have been ordered, and the button layout has been printed out on card stock. Here's how that looks.

Let me guide you through this design. The joystick is fed through the hole on the left hand side... this is just wide enough to afford smooth movement while being small enough to be hidden by the plastic dust cover on the joystick's base. Moving on, we've got eight buttons arranged in the Taito Vewlix format. I considered some of the other layouts on the Slagcoin web site, but I found them too close to Hori's double rainbow of sadness for my comfort.

See? Even he's not happy about it.
I spread the buttons out a little bit, in the hopes of making them fit comfortably next to each other. Hopefully they won't be spread so far apart that my fingers have to travel to another zip code to reach them.

The four action buttons are set in the center and line up with their Dual Shock and Xbox 360 counterparts. However, I've elected to set the left shoulder buttons over the right ones. It's the layout used by the replica Saturn joypad by SLS, and it should be a better fit for the Playstation TV, which has only one L and one R button.

Up top, we have the menu keys. I ordered Happ Competition Convex buttons with light touch micro switches for the punches and kicks, but I'll be using smaller, less sensitive keys for start, select, and the like. Home gets its own small, slightly recessed metal button, ensuring that it's only pressed when I damn well want it to be. (Players have been disqualified from fighting game tournaments after touching the home key by mistake. I don't think I'm in any danger of attending one of these, but just in case...!) It also has a glowing ring in the center, which should look pretty cool if I get the wiring right.

If all goes well, this arcade stick should be compatible with all the systems I'm currently using, although an adapter will be necessary for a few of them. And if this stick is indeed a success, it probably won't be the last one I make. A joystick that works perfectly for fighters may not be a good fit for, say, Pac-Man. Beyond that, it'll keep me entertained during the long, boring summer months. (Yes, that's what the video games are supposed to be for, but I've got to play them with something.)