Thursday, November 30, 2017

Give Your Back a Break!

image from @johnandersen21
Definitely not the way to do it, now that they come in more pocket-friendly sizes. A company called Basic Fun has been shrinking arcade games from the 1980s down to a handheld size, and selling them at stores including Wal-Mart and (somewhat puzzlingly) the Cracker Barrel chain of restaurants. They're a fair distance from arcade perfect... some games are clearly running on Famiclone hardware, while others have the eerily accurate sounds but painfully choppy animation of cell phone ports from ten years ago. Regardless, it's a pretty nifty novelty, and at twenty dollars each it's hard to complain about the price. Even if the games don't satisfy you, you can always bring your Christmas tree to life by sticking a couple of them on it. Here's footage of two of the games in action, courtesy of YouTube user MadLittlePixel:

By the way, several of these micro-cabinets have other games hidden inside them... generally, these hidden titles can be revealed by bridging two connectors on the PCB before powering up the system, or if you're feeling especially adventurous, soldering in switches. That Joust cabinet can also play Defender (actually, HAL's pared down port of Stargate) if you know the trick.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Great PS3 Jailbreak

Early this month, Nintendo shut down its Miiverse social network after a brief five year run. However, the company was kind enough to offer post histories to anyone who requested them, and made good on its promise a couple of days ago. Everyone who made that request should have received a ZIP file with their comments and drawings, neatly arranged in a page that mimics the design of the late, lamented service. It's not a complete record of the time you spent at Miiverse- any responses made to your posts are toast- but it nevertheless gives you one last taste of what I feel was the most effective social integration in gaming history.

I'd like to talk a little about my time on Miiverse and share some of my favorite posts, but my thoughts are a little disorganized at the moment and I'll need some time to properly arrange them. Expect a post dedicated to the subject at a later date.

Instead, I'll discuss this recent development. A week ago, I was celebrating that I finally had a reason to turn on my Playstation 4 after months of neglect. Today, I've been given a reason to fire up my dusty Playstation 3, albeit for different reasons. There's a hack for early models of the system (all PS3 Phats and some PS3 Slims, but no PS3 Super Slims) that lets you install custom firmware, opening the door to a respectable homebrew library. There's not as much software as there is on the Wii, and it's not as flashy as it is on Microsoft's first Xbox, but there's enough available for the PS3 to make it worth the thirty or forty minutes it'll take to hack it. Special thanks to for shedding light on this exploit, and to the team of bguerville, esc0rtd0w, W, and habib for creating it.

By the way, this was a fairly easy hack for me, but your results may vary. Be sure to follow instructions closely if you go through with it, and don't blame me if things go awry!

The main reason I tried this hack was because I heard a modified PS3 could play PSP games, either at their native resolution or with upscaled graphics. It's technically true, but the PSP emulator built into the PS3 was only designed to play simple games in Sony's "minis" collection. When tasked with more demanding titles, it stumbles. For instance, Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles works, but only the 3D remake of Rondo of Blood, and even that has difficulty displaying the titles which appear at the start of each stage. Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny won't accept any saves aside from the default, and Street Fighter Alpha 3 freaks out if you try to save at all. According to this compatibility chart, a third of PSP games refuse to run, either locking up the PS3 or sending you back to the cross-menu bar. I guess the takeaway is that you'd better hold onto your Playstation TV if you want to enjoy PSP games on a screen larger than four inches. (You know, the Playstation TV. That flat black thing you've probably got propping up a table leg.)

Homebrew emulation on the PS3 is a little more encouraging. Super NES games look great in 1080p, and the same could probably be said of MAME once I figure out how to turn off the accursed bilinear filtering. (Seriously, if anyone out there who's reading this makes emulators, stop making Cataract-Vision the default graphics setting. I guarantee you that almost nobody who actually remembers these games wants it.) Admittedly, the PS3's emulators are more difficult to set up than I'd like, and their user interfaces look pretty plain next to the visual spectacles of HyperVISION and Coin-Ops on the classic Xbox. However, given the superior specs of the Playstation 3 coupled with how easy it's become to jailbreak the system, things could improve in a hurry. I'll be keeping a close eye on the PS3 scene in the coming months to see if that dormant potential is tapped.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Saved by Zero

Sensing a musical theme with these titles?

Anyway, the "zero" in question is Horizon Zero Dawn, the action-adventure-survival title that was released to critical acclaim early this year. And what was saved was my Playstation 4, which had built up at least three layers of dust before I purchased HZD in a recent Amazon sale. 

Honestly, I wasn't sure I'd ever find a video game that justified the PS4's place in my collection. Sure, Bloodborne held my attention for a while, and King of Fighters XIV and Mortal Kombat XL are both great fighting games, but nothing in my Playstation 4 library compelled me to keep coming back to the system, the way Oblivion or Mass Effect 2 had back in the Xbox 360 days.

However, with Horizon Zero Dawn, I might finally have that "sticky" game that makes the Playstation 4 worthwhile. Hell, I've already spent at least twenty hours with it, polishing off quests, picking health boosting flowers, and sinking arrows into the game's cast of e-fauna. It's way more time than I spent with the initially promising but ultimately disappointing Final Fantasy XV, that's for sure.

The end of life as we know it never looked
so good.
(all images from Dual Shockers)
I'll talk about Horizon Zero Dawn's robot animals in a minute, I promise, but let me explain the premise first. The elder race of man has been wiped out, and a more humble breed of human has taken its place, living in tribes and scrounging off the land. You're the red-haired, sharp-tongued outcast Aloy, and you must prove your value to the neighboring Nora tribe by out-hunting and outracing its best warriors. That probably would be plenty of plot for the average video game, but someone throws a wrench into the Proving, and things get a lot more complicated...

I won't give too much away. What I will say is that from this point forward, Horizon Zero Dawn becomes an open world action game. It's frequently compared to Nintendo's latest Legend of Zelda title, Breath of the Wild, but pick any big-name epic from the past ten years out of a hat and you're going to notice similarities. If you've spent any time with a Bethesda RPG or one of the Far Cry games, you'll get the hang of Horizon Zero Dawn in a couple of hours. You're dropped in the middle of an impossibly large continent, packed with quests to finish (some trivial, others necessary to advance the plot) and monsters to fight. The world is your oyster, so get crackin'.

Some machines' programming can be overriden,
turning a bucking (Ford) Bronco into a handy
You'll pick up on a couple of differences, though. The first is that "fatigue" isn't in Aloy's vocabulary. She can run as long as she likes and dive for cover for as long as you can punch the O button, at least in the Normal difficulty setting. You'll need that boundless energy to survive, because enemies come at you hard and fast, and you'll need to put a lot of distance between Aloy and her pursuers before they'll give up the chase.

The second is that aside from bandits, pretty much everything you'll fight are Zoids. These android-imals do their best imitation of real-life beasts, from the iron horses dubbed Striders to the aquatic, crocodilian Snapmaws. However, when they're threatened, they break out the heavy artillery; high-tech weapons like bursts of electricity and laser fire that seem even more threatening next to your Bronze Age arrows and spear. 

You'll have to make do with what you've got, peeling the armor from each machine and piercing its vulnerable energy cores with carefully placed shots. Succeed and you'll be given experience points and parts from the felled machine, including metal shards that can be bartered for better weapons. Fail and you'll be crushed under five thousand pounds of charging buffalo-bot.

Cow-droids and Indians seems like an idea dreamed up by an eight year old with ADD, but it works. Heck, it's fascinating to tuck yourself away in a tall patch of grass and watch the machines fulfill their roles in this twisted ecosystem. Reindeer-like Grazers chew through grass by using their spinning antlers as blades, while cyclopean raptors survey the surrounding area for predators (typically, you). 

A Shell Walker, thankfully without its
protective force field.
You'll eventually be forced to fight the denizens of this wired animal kingdom, and taking down some of these machines can be a time-consuming and ultimately futile process. A Shell Walker with an active shield seems almost indestructible, and airborne Glinthawks are universally hated by HZD players, because they have a much easier time reaching Aloy than her arrows can reach them. 

Still, the payoff of killing that three-story tall Thunderjaw or successfully infiltrating a Cauldron usually makes it worth a few frustrating trips back to the nearest save point. Even the resonant "tink" of an arrow meeting the glass battery of a machine can be satisfying... especially when the battery catches fire and explodes. The great thing about Horizon Zero Dawn is while you can easily get lost in side quests or burn away hours hunting robots, everything you do has purpose, and none of the time you spend feels wasted. It's a fulfilling experience, and one my Playstation 4 desperately needed.

Horizon Zero Dawn is currently $19.99 during Sony's Black Friday sale. I humbly suggest that you pick up a copy for yourself, if you haven't already.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Livin' on Channel Z

So, an old friend of mine (and when you get to be my age, they're all old friends. Pardon me while I pluck another grey hair out of my eyebrows) has been spending his free time mapping out old NES games. I jokingly asked him to make Capcom's Section Z his next big project. His response? "You're a bad person and you should feel bad." (I think he was joking.)

Fortunately, someone already took care of this a long time ago. My cousin had this game back in the day, and he got frustrated enough with it that he begged Capcom for assistance. They were kind enough to send him a handy map, charting a path through all of its Gordian-knotted stages. And here it is now!

I don't know how I managed to get this, nor do I know how I was able to keep it long enough to scan it for my old web site, The Gameroom Blitz. But here it is now, in all its "is that a game map or a schematic for a super computer?" glory. Note that the cartographer was Paul Biederman, who later promised to release a handheld NES called the Nintendo Express. Here's more information from the ninth issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly:

I'll give you the Cliff Notes on this. Biederman's proposed Nintendo Express had stereo sound (okay, sure), a four inch backlit color display (...), and could squeeze at least forty hours of life out of a set of batteries (BULLSHI- I mean, uh, rather doubtful!). Most of these specs are easily achieved with today's technology, but this magazine was published in December 1989. I think Biederman was either selling EGM's readers a false bill of goods or had entirely too much confidence in his abilities as an engineer. I mean, sure, mapping out a game like Section Z without losing your mind in the process is pretty impressive, but delivering on hardware like the kind described in this article twenty-eight years ago is a little slice of impossible.

EDIT: This site claims the issue in question was published in April of 1990, not December 1989, which would explain the ridiculous claims made about the system. Did I ever mention that I hated EGM's April Fool's jokes?

EDIT to the EDIT: I can't ascertain that the issue in question was from April 1990, because EGM was kind of squirrelly about publication dates back in those days. If the premiere came out in May of 1989 as the cover states, and the magazine really was published on a monthly basis, the ninth issue should have hit shelves in January 1990. However, none of that would mean anything if EGM had skipped months. Let this be a lesson to you... always clearly post publication dates on your magazines for archival purposes. Also, never publish bullshit April Fool's jokes like the ones in EGM.

Another freaking EDIT: I just found this page from the seventeenth issue of EGM, published on the Nintendo World Report forum by a user named Hudson Soft Fan. Evidently the Nintendo Express (or The Express, as shown here) was a real thing, and was considered for release by Camerica, the creators of the Game Genie peripheral and a perpetual thorn in Nintendo's side.

Now I'm not sure what to believe! But I still say an NES portable with forty hours of battery life is crap, unless that battery once belonged to a station wagon.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

I Played It on the X

Now that Miiverse is closing up shop, I'll have to find something else to occupy my time. Wait, how about that blog I never update? Yeah, that'll work!

Here now are reviews of a handful of games I've been playing (or in the case of Amped 2, trying to play) on my classic Xbox.


Shown here: someone who actually knows
what the hell they're doing.
(image from YouTube)
Okay, so you're thinking to yourself, "Jess already humiliated himself trying to play SSX3! Why the heck would he try another snowboarding game?" Well, there are a couple answers to that question. The first is that I figured a different snowboarding game would be more accessible. This one's got a hands-on tutorial, while SSX3 thinks text messages are good enough. (They're not.) However, while the basics of Amped 2 are easy enough to understand, the finer points of the gameplay, like combos, pre-winds, and tilting the left thumbstick just enough to earn style points, are incredibly difficult to master. Just like SSX3, I find myself landing on my face, behind, and everything but the board half the time I attempt tricks. It's a shame too, because Amped 2 looks nearly as attractive as EA's game does, and I like the idea of showing off for the cameramen scattered across each mountain. I usually get a face full of snow trying to show off for the cameras, but it's a good idea in theory.

The second answer is that the game cost a little over a buck at Bookman's. Leave me alone. B-


Microsoft was willing to color outside the lines occasionally with its first game system, as evidenced by titles like Blood Wake. Speedboat combat with a quasi-Asian setting wasn't something you were likely to find on either the Playstation 2 or GameCube. Heck, I have to think back to the obscure Genesis release Bimini Run to come up with something similar... but while that game was dangerously close to torture, Blood Wake succeeds thanks to clearly defined missions, a boat that can withstand heavy fire, and impressive water physics. Hey, when most of the game's graphics are sea, you might as well make it look really good. The cherry on top is the story, told with meticulously detailed sketches and quality voice acting. The sepia-toned drawings add authenticity to the Eastern setting, and give Blood Wake a welcome touch of class. B-


And it doesn't look that great, either.
(image from, which evidently isn't)
Tightly integrated with the film franchise and dismissed by the press, Enter the Matrix isn't quite as hopeless as you've been led to believe. It's never great, but in its best moments, Enter the Matrix is an admirably ambitious action title, offering much of the excitement and the time-shifting, wall-bounding combat of the first movie. The control feels a little loose and you're not always sure where to go, but it's nevertheless clear that a lot of work went into making this look and feel like an authentic Matrix experience.

In its lesser moments, Enter the Matrix folds car chases, sniping distant targets, and battles with heavily armed choppers into the action, and the game starts to sag under all that dead weight. The awkwardness that permeates the gameplay is never more keenly felt than when you're driving a tip-prone police van with half the screen obscured, and interactive plot points tend to be both needlessly confusing and abusively frustrating. Couldn't they save this stuff for the cut scenes? In fact, maybe you'd better save your craving for bullet time for one of the Max Payne games. C-

Majesco/Arc System Works

Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in! For the last fifteen years, I've been in a perpetual cycle of trying to become a Guilty Gear fan, only to be repelled by its quirky design. Special moves are tough to remember with the game's odd button layout, and even tougher to properly utilize. Characters tend to lean toward the weird and flashy, and away from Street Fighter's predictable but comfortably familiar martial artists. There's an emphasis on chaining together lightning-quick combos, with the impact of each blow suffering as a result.

Yet in spite of all my beefs, I want to like Guilty Gear. It's crisply drawn and colorful and imaginative, which is why I keep coming back to it, hoping that someday it will all just click for me. Guilty Gear X2 #Reload comes closer to hitting that switch than any other game in the series. Maybe it's because it's more satisfying to play it on a big screen, rather than the Vita's tiny display. Maybe it's because I've finally found a character who works for me... the swordsman Ky Kiske is as close to normal as you're going to find in Guilty Gear, and the swipes of his blade do meaningful damage even when they're not part of a seven hit combo. I'm still not a Guilty Gear fan, but X2 #Reloaded tilts the scales of my love-hate relationship with the series a little closer toward love and a little further away from hate. B

LINKS 2004

No can dunk, but good fundamentals.
(image from
I don't normally like sports titles, but a good game of golf is like comfort food to me. Sometimes, it just feels right to dispense with the aggressive sensory overload of your average video game and concentrate on dropping ball A into hole B. Links 2004 scratches that itch as well as any game I've played, with strong visuals and brilliant camera work for your best swings, but it suffers from one serious problem. Links 2004 is... pretty generic. Like, generic enough that you'd expect to find it in a white box next to the real brands on a supermarket shelf. Sure, it's endorsed by a celebrity golfer, but the celebrity in question is Sergio Garcia, who I didn't know existed until I played this game. The title cards used to celebrate record breaking shots are in typesets seemingly pulled from shareware font collections. The rock music introducing each hole is functional, but not terribly catchy, and certainly not performed by familiar musicians. Links 2004 is more than competent, outperforming Tiger Woods 2006 on the more advanced Xbox 360, but it's nevertheless simple comfort food; more mashed potatoes and gravy than birthday cake. B


What's unfortunate about Scaler is while it's a perfectly adequate platformer, the included art gallery hints at a more interesting one... something a bit more cartoony and a bit less focus tested. What we get instead is the story of a boy turned lizard who gets sucked into an alternate dimension, then fights non-descript enemies with powers both obvious (claws and a tongue lash) and confusing (a burst of electricity, charged up by surfing rails scattered throughout each lush stage). Scaler is the kind of game that specifically caters to its tween audience, who may be too young to recognize the profound lameness of the hero's snarky quips, and will be happy enough with the diverting gameplay to ignore its many cliches. The adults in the room will get a kick out of Scaler's alternate forms; creatures like a bomb-chucking gremlin and a spherical reptile which use physics to add some much-needed zest to the action. C+

Electronic Arts/Free Radical

As a general rule, first-person shooters are grim, gritty, and hardcore, punishing less skilled players with swift deaths. TimeSplitters: Future Perfect is absolutely none of these things, making it a welcome addition to this unwelcoming genre. The game was designed by the team responsible for the Nintendo 64 version of Goldeneye, and it shows in both its quality and a wacky, British sense of humor influenced by Free Radical's tenure at Rare. While on the trail of a mad scientist, Sergeant Cortez jumps from one time period to the next, teaming up with a dimwitted goth girl, a secret agent who makes Austin Powers look like Pierce Brosnan, and thanks to rips in the space-time continuum, even himself. Cortez is never at a loss for weapons, packing everything from a simple pistol to a rocket launcher, and each mission is both beautifully illustrated and offers just the right amount of challenge. It's a great introduction to first-person shooters, and a transcendent experience even for those who can't stand them. A-


Fire Pro Wrestling never LOOKED
this good, at least.
(image from Video Games Museum)
Wild Rings is one of the few Japanese exclusives for the original Xbox, and while it would be easy to describe it as a wrestling game, that's not entirely accurate. Wild Rings covers the entire pantheon of sports entertainment, from several flavors of professional wrestling to kickboxing to fistboxing to mixed martial arts. Each style of fighting has its own signature move, triggered with the L button... for instance, sumos charge into their opponents like a flabby freight train, while karatekas can deflect incoming strikes, leaving their rivals open for a split second.

It would be accurate to say that Wild Rings cribs mightily from the Fire Pro Wrestling series, with an achingly familiar presentation, copyright friendly clones of real life fighters, and fighting that leans toward the technical rather than the flashy. As it is with Fire Pro, the key to victory is to wear down your opponent with slaps and kicks, then work your way up to the heavy artillery of throws and submissions. 

Wild Rings isn't as good as Fire Pro- some fighting disciplines have an unfair advantage against others, and I'm still not sure how the grapple system works after sixty plus matches- but this is as close as you're gonna get to the real thing on the original Xbox. Also, you've got to give Wild Rings credit for its remarkably lifelike polygonal characters, certainly an improvement over Fire Pro's steroid-packed puppets. B