Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Epi-Tomy of Cool

Okay, you've been getting a lot of bad news from me lately, so let's lighten the mood a bit. Recently, I was alerted to this brilliant invention by a hacker named Matt Brailsford. You've got to see this thing in action to believe it.

Matt took apart a Tomy "Turnin' Turbo" toy, added a Raspberry Pi running the OutRun arcade game, then hooked it all up to a tiny display. The steering wheel and shifter are used to control your car, and that would probably be cool enough, but wait, it gets better! See the instrument panel just above the wheel? Matt added extra hardware which reads the values from the game, then accurately displays them on the panel's LED gauges and counters. When you speed up, the tachometer fills and the speedometer rapidly counts upward. When you crash into a palm tree, well, the opposite happens.

This portable arcade cabinet is a ballsy bit of engineering and one of the best hacks I've seen this year. YouTube user Han Neko describes it as "superlative in every way," and I'm inclined to agree... it really doesn't get much better than this.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

For Better or Miiverse...

...till death do us part.

The rumors have been flying for a while, but now, it's official... Miiverse will be ending in seventy-two days. Actually, seventy-one days by the time I post this. 

From a business perspective, it makes sense to stick a fork in Miiverse, because the two consoles that support it are pretty old, and Nintendo is especially eager put the Wii U and its shabby sales behind it. Past that, I don't think Nintendo ever wanted to get into the social networking business, especially since it needed to spend more time (and by extension, money) moderating posts than "anything goes" sites like Twitter and Tumblr.

From a customer service perspective, the decision stinks. Nintendo has been putting the screws to its fans for a couple of years now, abandoning the Wii U while making it more difficult than necessary to purchase its successor, the Switch. Speaking of system shortages, it was damned near impossible to buy an NES Classic last year, and there's every indication that Nintendo won't meet the demand for the Super NES Classic this year. 

Now there's this... the imminent demise of a service that gave players a fresh new way to interact with their games and each other. Microsoft and Sony let you take snapshots of games and share them with friends on Twitter, but Miiverse gave players the chance to react to games as they played them, with only a brief pause in the action. The service also let players express themselves artistically, with advice for other gamers, comics poking fun at what they'd just seen, and stunningly detailed illustrations which demonstrate just how much could be accomplished with Miiverse's simple art tools.

After November 8th, there will still be social networks and art galleries, but there will be nothing like Miiverse. It's a bitter pill for anyone who used the service regularly for the last five years.

Friday, August 25, 2017


I'd like to thank reader Chopstick Samurai for supplying me with a fresh Xbox, ending the dilemma described in my last blog entry. It's already softmodded and everything! I'll have to wait until next month to buy a larger hard drive and really put the system through its paces, but in the meantime, I've got a handful of Xbox games I can throw at it, including a few that won't run on its successor, the Xbox 360. It'll be fun getting reacquainted with this machine after a several year hiatus.

(So what's gonna happen to the other Xbox? Well, I do have that mod chip coming in the mail. I'll be less hesitant to attempt to install it now that I have a back up.)

Another classic game system I've been spending some QT with is the GameCube. Well, kinda... it's more like the GameCube half of the Nintendo Wii. I just find it more convenient, as the Nintendont app can run games straight off an SD card, rather than needing tiny, fragile discs. Beyond that, the Wii's component cable costs five dollars, and the same cable for the GameCube is... significantly more. Heh.

"You're... me!"
"I knew you were gonna say that."
(image from YouTube)
Sorry, I'm babbling. Anyway, I've been spending the bulk of my Cube time with TimeSplitters: Future Perfect. First-person shooters aren't my bag, but this one feels like it was designed to let newbs like myself dip a toe into the genre. It's neither too challenging nor too complicated, and there's a charming, slightly corny sense of humor that makes the game less intimidating than it otherwise would be. Sergeant Cortez (that Vin Diesel-looking dude in the picture on the right) leaps from one time period to the next, meeting goofballs like a tacky secret agent and a dimwitted goth girl, and occasionally jumps into rifts to join forces- and trade barbs- with himself. Imagine a head-on collision between Halo and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and you'd be on the right track.

I'm also using my Wii as a substitute Super NES, because it's far from likely that I'll be able to find a Super NES Classic this holiday season. Feh, whatever. The Wii is more than capable of running its games, and I don't have to pay eighty dollars and trade elbows with some old ladies to get one. I'm not AS angry about the limited supply as some folks, but knowing that Nintendo is going down the same route as it did with the NES Classic really chaps my culo.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

To Error 16 is... Frustrating

Yeah, it's that damned Xbox again. I'm not even sure why this is bothering me so much. My usual pattern of behavior for a recent gaming purchase is that I obsess over it until it arrives, mess with it for a couple of days, then lose interest and forget it ever existed. Unfortunately, if the plaything in question isn't working, that pattern quickly becomes a DO...LOOP with me permanently stuck in the obsession stage, because I was never able to advance to the other two lines in the program. 

All I can think about right now is the Xbox I can't play, even though I've got plenty of other game systems, and even though repairing this particular console will cost more than it's worth. I've got a mod chip coming in the mail, but all the stuff I'll need to install it (flux, desoldering braid, a better soldering iron, etc. etc.), will actually cost me MORE than just buying another damn Xbox. I might be able to hack into the hard drive and reinstall the dash using a hot swap, but I'd need an old desktop computer to make this happen. Normally these junkers pop up like weeds, but now that I could actually use one, they're nowhere to be found.

Knowing this Xbox could be repaired without having the resources to do it is a special kind of agonizing. It's like water torture for nerds.

Hopefully I'll be able to tear myself from this unhealthy fixation long enough to write something people might want to read. First things first... Sonic Mania is out, and it's getting rave reviews from critics, fans, and pretty much anyone else who's ever enjoyed a Sonic game. I'm watching footage of it right now, and it's a lot like the original trilogy on the Genesis, except everything's just a bit brighter and more ambitious than it was in the 1990s. Rings shine with a golden luster, the animation has doubled, and there's scaling, rotation, and even occasional polygonal effects that would have been well beyond the reach of Sega's most popular game system.

image from
I've had friends claim this is the Sonic game the Sega Saturn should have gotten, and maybe the system could have handled it. Realistically though, the late 1990s wasn't the right climate for Sonic Mania... it would have been skinned alive by magazines like Next Generation, which panned 2D games like this by reflex. No, 2017 is the perfect time for this one, now that side-scrollers are back in style and players are hungrier than ever for the old-school Sonic experience. (I'm not sure why anyone would want to go back to Blue Spheres, but it's here too, just in case your misplaced nostalgia demands it.)

There was something else... oh yeah! Now that I've got a TurboGrafx-16 emulator on my 3DS, I've been spending a lot of time with Ninja Spirit. This Irem release is a bit like The Legend of Kage, and a bit more like Ninja Gaiden, except it distances itself from those two games with a more versatile weapon system. Your hero is armed with a katana, throwing stars, explosives, and a sickle, and can switch between them to better suit the player's fighting style and the situation at hand. After you've powered up these four weapons and have two shadow ninjas trailing behind you, the screen quickly becomes choked with shurikens, explosions, and the corpses of fallen ninjas. 

Irem sure knew how to make a strong first
impression with bosses like this one, didn't they?
(image from
The constant carnage is almost too much for the TurboGrafx to handle, with noticeable slowdown and flicker. On the other hand, the beefier arcade version might be too much for you to handle, since one hit is all it takes to bring down your warrior. Whether you choose the console or arcade version of Ninja Spirit, you're sure to enjoy yourself. Just try to resist the temptation to smash your controller with a hammer while playing it.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

You Know What Sucks? Everything.

Gee, and I thought the GameCube was a headache. This classic Xbox has quickly become a money pit... every time I fix one problem, another materializes. The joystick didn't come with a breakaway cable, so I ordered one from eBay. Except whoops, the joystick doesn't work even WITH one! I buy a USB adapter and a copy of MechAssault to softmod the system, but uh oh, the mod didn't work the way it was supposed to and now the dashboard is corrupt, forcing me to buy software to repair it. And on and on it goes until I'm ready to break out the baseball bat and pull an Office Space on the damned thing. 

And then there's the Trump thing! Oh lord, I do NOT want to talk about the Trump thing. It's been a shitty week, I'll just say that. If you came here hoping to be entertained, maybe you should take the off-ramp to Ochalla's post about his latest TurboGrafx finds, or the VGJunk guy's reviews of old Super Nintendo controllers, or... damn, I'm already out of ideas. I think I need to read more gaming blogs.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Crisis Averted

So, you know that problem I was having getting the Game Boy Interface to start?

Yeah, it's not a problem anymore. Granted, my GameCube still won't run burned discs, but in the world of console hackery, there's always a back door somewhere. In this case, it was a convoluted exploit for Super Smash Bros. Melee. You've got to put files on a GameCube memory card using a hacked Wii, then run Smash Bros. and access the Name Entry option in the Versus Mode. It's clumsy and counter-intuitive, and it puts wear on my copy of a game that's selling for outrageous prices on eBay (note to hardcore Smash Bros. fans... Melee is fifteen years old. LET IT GO ALREADY!), but it gets the job done. 

The only problem now is that I'm not sure it was the blood, sweat, and tears. Game Boy Advance games will work on my GameCube now, but the homebrew I'm using to start them is low on features, and the visuals are washed out and blurry. That's likely the fault of the composite cable I'm using, but there's also the matter of having to swap cartridges. I guess I'm spoiled by emulation... it's just easier to pick a file from a menu than tear out a cartridge from the bottom of the Cube and replace it with a different one.

I know there's a lot of people out there who swear by the authenticity of real hardware, but there's much to be said for the convenience and cost-effectiveness of emulation. Sure, you could pay out the wazoo for a cable that will make your decades old game system produce a pixel-perfect image, but emulators do this by default, without the expense. They also give you the freedom to choose your own controller, and... well, I did mention not having to swap cartridges, right? I've reached a point in my evolution as a gamer that I want to have these games and consoles in my collection, but I don't want to have to dig them out of the closet if digital options are available. Authentic or not, emulation is just fine with me.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Boxed- and Cubed- In

So yeah, that mod chip I installed in my GameCube? It's not doing me a damn bit of good. I know the Cube recognizes it, because this screen appears when I hold down the start button on boot-up.

Yet when I try to run burned discs, this is what I get.

That's despite using the Ritek discs recommended by other modders, cleaning the laser lens with isopropyl alcohol, and adjusting the laser pot that Nintendo so thoughtfully buried under a dense mass of circuitry and metal shielding. So this is probably what my GameCube will look like in another fifteen minutes.

image from Game Podunk. I have no
idea what that is, but the pic was useful.
Did I mention that I have a Game Boy Player coming in the mail tomorrow? It didn't come with the start-up disc, but I didn't think I'd need it, because I could just burn a copy of the Game Boy Interface and pop it into my modded GameCube! Heh. Heh heh. Screw me sideways with a sequoia.

Speaking of dumb ideas, I just ordered a classic Xbox from ShopGoodwill, in the hope that I could mod it. You know, because the last mod I attempted worked so well for me. On the plus side, it was just thirty dollars with shipping (just ten dollars more than the GameCube stand I'll be getting in the mail soon), and it comes with OutRun 2. If the system works at all, it'll be worth the price. If I can make the mod stick (and I've successfully done this one in the past), it'll be worth a lot more, because you can do a ton of things with the old tank once you've convinced it of its full potential. Pop in a high capacity hard drive and cram it with Xbox games, play hundreds of old arcade and console titles with emulators... the sky's the limit, as long as the sky is only 64 megabytes high.

Wish me luck. Boy could I use it.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Rise of the Robots

No, don't run away screaming! I'm not reviewing that game, honest! I'd much rather discuss a couple of other titles I've been playing, starring heroes both fully and partially robotic.

Let's start with Mighty No. 9. The game was recently offered in a Humble Bundle, alongside a pile of other Deep Silver titles, and morbid curiosity compelled me to give it a try. Conventional wisdom is that the game was a crushing disappointment, and that Keiji Inafune should be flogged with a wet USB cable for inflicting it upon the world, but eh, conventional wisdom is overrated. I'm having roughly the same experience with Mighty No. 9 that I did Inafune's Mega Man games... you know, running through stages, tumbling into pits, and screaming myself hoarse because that stupid bastard blindsided me, I swear if I see him again I'll tear out his...

Plucky boy robot Mega-Bender
talks to his creator, Professor
You get the idea. This is Mega Man at its core, albeit anchored to dubious character designs and wrongheaded ideas. The robots suffer from design overload, while the human cast is lifted straight out of the Osamu Tezuka playbook, to the point where Dr. Sanda looks like a head swap of Astro Boy's creator Dr. O'Shay. It's like Inafune worked himself to exhaustion with the mighty numbers (and not always to their benefit), then threw up his hands and said "screw it" to everything else.

As for the gameplay, Inafune is clearly in love with Beck's "Xcelerate" power... I only wish I shared his enthusiasm for it. Killing enemies is a two step process, with Beck first softening them up with a weapon, then dashing into them as they bleed pixels. It's not as much of a chore as it was in that other overhyped yet ultimately disappointing platformer from twenty five years ago, Taxan's Low G Man, but it still seems unnecessary, and leaves the game feeling less precise.  It's a minor irritant that becomes hugely annoying during the boss fights, where you must ram into your opponents with the Xcel dash or risk them recovering their energy.

Funny, I remember the early
mock-ups used to promote
the game looking better than this...
Ultimately, Mighty No. 9 feels like a victim of unbalanced ambition. Keiji Inafune clearly cared about some parts of the game, especially the focus on earning high scores with perfect performance. However, the parts that mattered the most to him seem to matter the least to Mega Man fans, and vice versa. The graphics are plain, yet leave a bitter taste in the mouth, like unflavored yogurt. The versatile weapons system promised early in the game's development cycle didn't actually happen. Freed mighty numbers can offer their assistance in later stages, but only in those stages where their weapons are most effective... and even there, they don't do very much. No wonder Mighty No. 9 left a lot of players hot under the collar... they gave nearly four million dollars to the Kickstarter drive, and got something only Inafune wanted to play.

Guess who's totally screwed?
That's right, YOU are!
(image from Blue's News)
What was the other game I wanted to discuss? Oh yeah, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I got this from Xbox Live's Games with Gold promotion several years ago, and decided to give it another chance after a humiliating first encounter in 2014. I'm having more fun with it now, but it's offering a bitter reminder that I'm absolutely hopeless at stealth action games. It happens every time... I attempt to sneak around a crowd of heavily armed soldiers, get spotted anyway, then paint the walls with the blood of everyone in the room. (Or the walls get painted with my blood, which happens more often. But I digress.) I have no aptitude for this sort of thing. You might as well send a gassy elephant into the room to retrieve that top secret document... at least it could sponge up more than a couple rounds of gunfire.

The game's got merit, though. I mean, the graphics are nice, painting a world where Detroit is the peak of technological advancement rather than the badly neglected symbol of urban decay we know in this reality. The acting is solid, although the threats of foes and the heartfelt pleas of allies lose something when the characters jerk around on hidden strings, like so many extras from an episode of Thunderbirds are Go. Although there's a focus on stealth, it's not an absolute requirement... you can blow your enemies away with a variety of satisfying weapons, or sweet talk your way into otherwise prohibited areas. Problem is, you have to upgrade your character to do some of this, and that requires Praxis points... points you may have wanted to save for more exciting cybernetic enhancements. I'm just saying, I don't think most of the cash spent on the Six Million Dollar Man went into making him a sparkling conversationalist.

Evidently, murder really works
up an appetite.
(image from Moby Games)
You may have noticed some ambivalence in that run-on paragraph. It's been a running theme in my Deus Ex playthrough... I'd find something in the game that made me want to stomp my controller, only to find something else five minutes later that salvaged the experience and compelled me to continue. Areas are large and varied enough to invite exploration, BUT it's easy to get lost without constantly checking your map, and locked doors regularly impede your progress. Hacking is a confusing nuisance, BUT it's more tolerable than in most games once you understand how it works. Stealth takedowns are a thrill to perform, BUT they deplete your energy, forcing you to munch on Cyber-Snickers to replenish it. It's fun to play with the weapons, taking out security cameras and peeking out from behind walls to cap some unsuspecting fools, UNTIL you hit a roadblock in the form of a seemingly invincible boss. And so on.

There's a lot of give and take here. However, unlike Mighty No. 9, the developers had some idea of what the players wanted from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and delivered on those expectations... without asking for a single cent in crowdfunding. Granted, these are two very different games, but it nevertheless suggests that if you're going to ask end users to foot the bill for your next project rather than getting the funds from a publisher, you'd better not disappoint them. Just ask Inafune... when he comes out of hiding.