Saturday, March 31, 2018

Try, Try Again

Tomorrow is April Fool's Day... and it's also Easter. Any chance we can skip the former and go straight to the latter, internet? It'd save me from a lot of unnecessary heartache and dumb jokes. I know, I know, it's a tradition, but just give it some thought, would you?

Anyway. Since the Genesis Flashback HD was a bust and a hack to make it live up to its full potential has yet to be released, I've jumped straight to the Super Retrocade. It's a plug and play console that runs not only Genesis games, but titles for the Super NES, NES, and Game Boy as well. As the name suggests, it also plays arcade games, with big names like Bad Dudes, MERCS, and Strider baked right into the unit. It's been getting high marks from reviewers and the SD card slot expands its scope well beyond the ninety included games, so I should be happy enough with it when it arrives. (Even if it looks like a high-tech tissue dispenser.)

Speaking of the Genesis! There's a guy named Andy Grind who's hard at work on a Genesis conversion of Cave Story. It's not finished yet, but it's surprisingly close... unless you're gunning for the Sacred Ground and Ballos, you can beat the game without realizing anything is missing. Between this and Paul Koller's Commodore 64 port of Spelunky, it looks like 2018 is shaping up to be a great year for indie de-makes.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Catch a Tiger by the Tail

The Genesis Flashback HD that I reviewed in my last post is chock full of issues, but it's not totally without merit. Turns out that it (along with some of the other devices in the AtGames product line, including the more warmly received Atari Flashback Gold) was built with Android hardware. It's not exactly top of the line, with a dual-core processor, 256MB of RAM, and 2GB of flash storage, but there's still more than enough technology here to run Genesis games properly. Right now, I've got my Flashback HD running MD.emu, a faster, better emulator than what's offered by default. There are still a few kinks I need to work out, but I'm confident that with some assistance and the right software, I can turn this thing into the Sega Genesis I hoped it would be. Special thanks to the guys at GBATemp and AtariAge user rmr_md for their help.

Speaking of emulation, there are seventy different handheld games from the 1980s and early 1990s ready for you to play online, courtesy of the always handy Internet Archive. Just click on this link and you'll be taken straight to them! Some highlights include the Texas Instruments Speak and Spell, Epoch's Astro Command (I used to love this so much when I was a kid...), and the Coleco tabletop arcade line. There are more than a few gaps in the library right now, but it's a strong start. Now someone needs to find a way to make smartwatches play Nelsonic Pac-Man, complete with those tiny plastic joysticks...

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Disappoint of No Return

Remember that Genesis Flashback HD I mentioned in the last post? It arrived on my front door a few days ago, and oh boy does this thing live down to its unflattering reputation. To better illustrate the Flashback's failings, let's say this is a real Sega Genesis.
You know him, you love him, and while he sometimes comes up short next to his contemporaries, he can seriously impress you when he puts forth the effort. Now here's the Genesis Flashback HD.
It's a sad, hastily thrown together mockery of the real thing, but the worst part is that it doesn't even know it's a fraud. It tries to reach the same heights as its predecessor, only to fall flat on its face every time.

So what specifically is wrong with the Genesis Flashback HD? The untrained eye may not notice much. After all, it looks just like a Sega Genesis; a scale model of the original system with a real cartridge slot and two controller ports. If you've got any Genesis carts or joypads left over from the early 1990s, they'll work on this machine. It's also got an HDMI port for your modern television set, and two wireless controllers for added convenience.

That is all I can offer in the system's defense.

The big issue with the Genesis Flashback HD isn't so much the controllers (they're competent clones of the six button Sega Arcade Pad, with an extra button that gives you quick access to the system menu) or the menu (it's functional if a little clumsy, and the blurbs for each game are fun to read). It's the emulation that sinks this leaky ship. At best, games run almost as quickly as they do on a real Genesis, with barely noticeable but nevertheless annoying frame skips that serve as a constant, gnawing reminder that something is amiss. 

Sonic and Knuckles runs better, but the game
crashed on me during this battle with Robotnik.
All three of us were wearing this expression
after it happened.
At worst, the shabby emulation ruins the experience... there's slowdown in Sonic 2 that wasn't there on a real Genesis, while fights in Mortal Kombat 3 move too quickly, making it difficult to time combos that used to come naturally. These are the headliners for the system... the Mortal Kombat logo and Sonic are even prominently displayed on the front of the box! AtGames couldn't afford to screw up the emulation for these two titles, yet somehow, they did it anyway.

It gets worse. While it's possible to hack the Genesis Flashback HD to play more games, it takes an obscene amount of work, and is rarely worth the trouble. You'll first have to remove seven deeply recessed screws, most hidden under rubber feet or stickers, take the cover off the system, remove four more screws from the main board, then connect a mini USB cable to it. Wait, you're not done. Next you'll need to run an Android diagnostic tool on your computer, connect the Flashback to it, then type in a series of commands to redirect access from the machine's system files to an SD card soldered into the system. 

The innards of the Genesis Flashback HD.
Who knew something that small could be
that big of a pain in the ass?
Once you've done all that, you can add all the Genesis games you please to the Flashback, BUT you'll also have to edit an INI file to let the system know they exist, AND you'll have to include an image of each game's box art in a specific resolution. Oh yeah, and if you want to add more games later or remove ones that don't run so well, you'll have to tear the system apart again to reach the USB port. You could probably add an extension cable, drill a hole in the back of the system, and hot glue it there with the rest of the connectors, but uh... shouldn't that have been AtGames' job?

Even after you've jumped through all the necessary hoops to install games on your Flashback, you might not actually be playing them. I tested nine personal favorites, some with hacks like color enhancements and improved scripts. Five of these games worked, albeit in a frame-dropping, barely passable Flashback kind of way. The other four had serious problems which made them difficult or impossible to play. It lost track of where the background should be in Contra: Hard Corps, refused to respond to controller input in Samurai Shodown, and wouldn't play Snow Bros. at all, jumping back to the menu the moment it was started. Shadow of the Beast was probably the worst of the bunch... sure, it would start, but it quickly became a tragicomic spectacle of glitchy backgrounds and absent collision detection. After the lead character fell through the floor and several stories below it, the emulator just gave up and retreated to the menu.

There's a door somewhere in that mess.
There comes a point where you stop being disappointed in someone's failure and just expect it as an inevitability. AtGames has gone well past that point, demonstrating that they're incapable of making a Sega Genesis that meets the standards of the original console released nearly thirty years ago. Their previous failures were the result of negligence, but the Genesis Flashback HD was supposed to be a fresh start for AtGames, with more capable hardware and an HDMI port better suited to 21st century television sets.

Yet it's still disappointing. It's disappointing in a different way than the old Firecore systems with their morbidly depressed sound chips, but it's disappointing all the same, leading me to the unfortunate conclusion that AtGames won't make a proper Genesis because it simply can't. If the company hasn't gotten it right after ten years and a total hardware redesign, it just ain't gonna happen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

High-Def Hijinx

Well, that's it. The deed is done, the die is cast, the fat lady has arrived with spear in hand to sing the final note. After making sure the system actually worked, I bought an SCART cable and converter for my Sega Genesis. Here's the little black box that's supposed to sharpen up the system's notoriously blurry visuals...
Ci-Best, huh? I'll be the judge of that!
(image from Amazon)
It's not an OSCC or a Framemeister, but the reviews on Amazon suggest that it's more than adequate for the price. The only problem is that it needs its own power source, and with several systems and a television already connected to it, my power strip is getting pretty crowded as it is!

Oh yeah, the other only problem is that the SCART cable hasn't arrived yet... last I checked, it was stranded in Boise or something. Hopefully that'll arrive sooner than later, as I'm eager to play all my Genesis games on a crisp high definition display. Wait, all of my Genesis games are in Michigan, aren't they? In that case, I'm eager to play the only Genesis game I've got on hand, which is... Ballz 3D. Er, maybe I'm not in that big of a rush.

Speaking of the Genesis, I've also got a Flashback HD coming in the mail from ShopGoodwill. Did I need it? Not really. Do the unflattering reviews of the system have me a little worried? Sure. Did I buy it because it was half the price it would have been in a store? Oh yes, absolutely! I'll let you know what I think of the Flashback HD once it arrives and I've spent some quality (...?) time with it.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

V Aren't

The latest Nintendo Direct revealed that everything will be released for the Switch. Yes, even that. And everything that won't be released for the Switch will be coming to the 3DS instead. That includes remakes of Luigi's Mansion (oh crap, I still haven't beaten the second one!) and Bowser's Inside Story. They're skipping Partners in Time, but can you really blame Nintendo for that?

Anyway, I'll keep this entry brief. Some Wal-Mart locations are selling VR headsets for two dollars, and the Merge Cube for just a buck. In case you missed it (and you obviously did, if it's selling for a dollar), the Merge Cube is an augmented reality device that looks kind of like the MacGuffin from Street Fighter X Tekken. You put it up to your phone, and it projects an image onto the faces of the cube... sometimes. The technology is a little spotty, is what I'm saying. Either that or my phone is too wimpy to keep up with it, which is probably just as likely. I guess the squishy foam cube was worth the dollar just to satisfy my curiosity, but it doesn't take long to understand why there are dozens of them catching dust in Wal-Mart's electronics department.

The VR headset is more functional, but I'll warn you upfront that you're not going to get much use out of it if your phone isn't Google Cardboard compatible. My Moto E4 isn't, probably because it doesn't have a built in gyroscope for head tracking. My years old Nexus 7 does have that feature, but it's a little too large to fit inside the headset, so it won't be taking me to the Matrix either. A pity... I heard they've got the best simulated steak over there.

Even without a gyroscope, you can use a VR headset as a makeshift Virtual Boy, but it takes a lot of work... perhaps more than the system warrants. Just follow this guide by Reddit user Radaa5 to get started. You may also want to go into Settings and adjust the display in Video; that way you can get a more realistic illusion of depth and avoid looking like one of these guys from Spaceballs after you take off the visor.

There's one other thing. I wrote a brief review of the recently released Saturn emulator Yaba Sanshiro for the Saturn Junkyard. Since nobody paid attention to it there (snif...), I thought I'd direct your attention to it here. Seriously though, this program does a better job of emulating the notoriously tricky Saturn hardware than any I've tried on my admittedly dated desktop. If you don't already have a Saturn, I'd give Yaba Sanshiro a look.