Friday, August 31, 2018

Under the Wire

I keep telling myself that I'm going to make one more blog post to wrap up August, and I keep not doing it. Sorry folks... I'm just incredibly unmotivated right now. It's like my get up and go got up and took a plane to Siberia.

When not in the middle of a creative coma, I've been chipping away at the games on my Xbox One. I gave Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon another chance, and it turns out that it's not too bad when you actually know what you're doing. The game utterly creamed me when I first played it four years ago, but now that I've spent some time with Far Cry 4 and the similar Horizon Zero Dawn it doesn't feel quite so overwhelming. On the down side, now that I've played those two games, this one feels more limited, with a smaller selection of enemies and less stuff to do. I'd call it "Baby's First Far Cry," except there are so many reasons a baby shouldn't be playing this...

I also finished Double Dragon Neon after a few hours of dedicated play. This game got a royal reaming from some members of the gaming press, and I can understand why... for all its references to the characters and situations in the first two games, it doesn't feel much like Double Dragon. The combat is more technical, leaning on a "gleam" play mechanic that temporarily boosts your strength after successfully dodging an attack, and it borrows from a lot of other beat 'em ups. For instance, I'm pretty sure I saw those jet pack guys in Streets of Rage 2, except they're not actually guys here...

An authentic Double Dragon experience it's not, but Neon has a lot of heart. I love the retro aesthetic, Billy and Jimmy's re-imagining as bone-headed surfer dudes, and the new villain, who has absolutely nothing to do with Double Dragon but nevertheless fits as a tribute to the impossibly inept antagonists from countless 1980s cartoons. It's not game of the year or even game of the month material, but it was worth the hard drive space and the three hours it took to beat it.

One nostalgic throwback that didn't sit so well with me was Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two. It's not just because of the lead character, but that's a big part of it. Frankly, I loathe Mickey Mouse... he's a dated relic, and a poster boy for the broken copyright laws in this country. If it weren't for this big-eared, squeaky-voiced rat, books and films would fall into the public domain where they belong, rather than being held under lock and key by conniving corporations for over a century. It's a given that Mickey is the game's lead character, and that would almost be tolerable, but Disney went that extra mile and branded everything in the game with his face. Currency, collectible items, the icons that stream out of enemies after you've slathered them with brain-washing paint... EVERYTHING. I can't say I look forward to eight hours of that miserable rodent tattooed on my eyeballs.

Beyond that, Epic Mickey just isn't that great a game. Its objectives are surprisingly obtuse... I couldn't get past the first stage until I looked up a solution on the internet. The gameplay switches from 2D to 3D and back, so sometimes you'll be playing Disney-branded Little Big Planet and sometimes you'll be playing an even more disappointing Super Mario Sunshine, with paint thinner replacing Mario's water tank. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is the most aggressively annoying video game sidekick ever, constantly getting underfoot and talking in the same grating voice Frank Welker used for the hatchling chickens on Garfield and Friends. Reviewers have complained about Epic Mickey 2's poor camera controls, but personally, I thought it was a relatively minor flaw next to all of the game's other big, big issues.

So yeah, that's two pretty good games, and one regrettable one. Considering that I didn't pay for any of them beyond what I already spent on my Game Pass and Xbox Live Gold subscriptions, I can't complain. Too much, anyway.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

That's Like a Baby's Toy!

Ladies. Gentlemen. Smizmars. I apologize for my protracted absence. I was distracted by Torchlight, the Diablo-like that was on sale for a couple of dollars during Microsoft's Ultimate Xbox sale a few weeks ago. I wouldn't call it a "game" so much as an unhealthy compulsion, where you spend a lot of time getting nothing done. It's like picking at a scab, or binge-watching a Netflix series you had no particular interest in because you couldn't think of anything better to do with your time. You kill a bunch of monsters that present no real threat to you, loot their corpses for better weapons and armor, find the entrance to the next level, and repeat until you wake up with drool all over your controller. It's a good way to get in touch with your inner zombie.

When I wasn't staring at the television set with my eyes rolled into the back of my head, I was working on my Super NES, trying to cure its Mode 7 dysfunction. Unfortunately, there's no easy fix for this... the motherboard looks just fine, so I have to assume the graphics chips have sustained internal damage. They'll have to be replaced completely, which isn't so easy when you consider that they're both surface mounted and custom designed. Realistically, my only options will be to either get another Super Nintendo or just settle for screens like this...

By the way, that's from 2020 Super Baseball, a sports title set in the far-flung future of... two years from now. Now I see why Capcom used the date 20XX for many of their games... it ages better.

There's one other thing I should mention. A couple of months ago, I dug through the tubs of the Goodwill outlet store in Nogales and came up with this joystick, separated from a V-Smile game console.

image from Amazon
I've been toying around with the thought of making this toy a full-fledged game controller. It's kind of a clever design, with a paw-shaped button layout and a joystick that accepts three strengths of input from all directions. It wouldn't work well for most modern video games, but it could be useful for shoot 'em ups, beat 'em ups... pretty much all the verb 'em ups from the 1980s and 1990s.

I wouldn't be the first person to attempt a hack of the V-Smile controller, either. Here's a guy who nicked one of these joysticks from his kids after their V-Smile broke, stuffed a cheap USB pad into the case, and turned it into an input device for his Raspberry Pi. I wouldn't trust it to win any tournaments, but it could be a fun new way to play games that have lost their flavor. That button layout would be perfect for Radiant Silvergun!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Greener Grass

Hey, did I ever mention that I bought a Super NES last month? It's probably something that would be worth mentioning on a retro gaming blog. Anyway, I snagged it from ShopGoodwill for about ten bucks. Sure, they tacked on an extra eleven dollars for shipping and handling, and I had to pick up a few accessories from other sites to complete the package, but I'd say it was money well spent. 

I had a complicated relationship with the system back in my teens, but now that the rubble from the 16-bit wars has long been cleared away, I can appreciate the Super NES for everything it brought to the gaming experience. Unlike today's consoles, which are essentially the same hardware in different shells, the Super NES and Genesis are distinct both inside and out, with games that reflect each system's respective strengths. 

The Genesis had a faster processor, which brought a tangy zip to Sonic the Hedgehog and gave developers more creative freedom. It's hard to imagine a game like Gunstar Heroes on any other console from the early 1990s. However, there's an undeniable appeal to the richer color palette, the symphonic sound chip, and the arcade-quality special effects of the Super NES. 

All three are given a workout in the system pack-in Super Mario World. At first blush, it doesn't look like anything special... a modest improvement over Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES. But then you're hit with the vibrant hues of Yoshi's Island and that jaunty ragtime theme you'd swear was being played on a real player piano, and you quickly realize this is not the kind of game you could get out of a Genesis. Trust me, Sega tried... and they failed miserably.

Here's Super Mario World now, running on the actual hardware. Normally, a Super NES wouldn't look this good on a modern television set, but I picked up a SCART to component converter on eBay a week ago, and it cleans up the picture rather nicely. I'm told an open source scan converter looks even better and isn't so picky about which television you use, but that costs $200 and this was $40, so shut up.

There's just one teensy little problem with playing games on a real Super NES. The hardware is over a quarter of a century old, and its age is starting to catch up to it. The graphics of the Super Nintendo are powered by two picture processing units (consolidated into one chip in later models). When the pins on the PPUs get rusty and the motherboard starts to corrode, you get glitches like this...

In the case of my Super Nintendo, everything else looks just fine, but when you get to the fight with Iggy, the tilting platform is littered with small, out of place lines. Maybe it's a problem with the cartridge itself, but I've done some research on this issue and it's just as likely that the console is to blame. While the motherboard can be cleaned and broken traces can be rejoined, reaching the innards of the Super NES can be a challenge. You need special "game bits" to open the case, and once you're inside, the processors are covered with metal plates. The metal plates, in turn, are hidden under a mechanical eject button held in place with a spring. Springs, why did it have to be springs?!

Since I don't have any Mode 7-heavy games to give my Super NES a thorough diagnosis, and because I didn't have much luck modding my Sega Genesis a couple of months earlier, I decided not to take any unnecessary risks and left the system the way I found it. Actually, I did make one minor alteration before I put the case back together...

Let's just say that I opened its eyes to exciting new cultures. Heh.

EDIT: I guess there were problems with the images. I've reloaded them... let me know if they come up.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Slow Your Roll

Guys? Guys. Look, we're all upset over Emuparadise dropping its ROMs, but can we refrain from completely losing our minds over it?

Oh no sir, nothing wrong here at all.
(image from Notes from a Boy)
I mean, I get it. I used Emuparadise too, and Nintendo's recent crackdown on emulation sites will have a chilling effect on the remaining ones. Nevertheless, there's no reason to go Mr. Crocker and advocate a holocaust over what amounts to losing your playthings. They're video games. Calm down.

Come to think of it, a lot of the posters in that thread seem like the sort I would inch away from if they sat next to me on the bus. Hell, I might leap out the window and catch a ride on the roof of a nearby sedan just to get away from them. I'd like to think they're just dumb kids who will grow out of it, but I'm not optimistic.

Monday, August 6, 2018


So! That Samsung 910MP monitor came in the mail a few days ago. Let's set it up and see how it performs.

Here it is now, sitting atop my increasingly cluttered project table. As the model number suggests, the 910MP is a multi-purpose display, doing double duty as a computer monitor and a television set. Sure, most modern television sets offer the same functionality, but can they do this?

Feast your eyes on the back of the set. Yes, that's a SCART cable... you won't need a converter because the 910MP has a port built right into it. This is one of the few televisions released here in America that's compatible with SCART, a European display standard that offers composite, RGB, and audio signals all in one cable. The numerous pins packed into SCART gives it the convenience and versatility most American display standards can't match, and it's a little bewildering that it never caught on here. Sure, that connector is pretty big, but it's no larger than the five plugs you'd need for a component connection with stereo sound.

Ah, but there's a catch. The SCART connector won't work until you jump into the menu and program the 910MP to work as a European television. After you've done this, it won't pick up any analog television signals, but since America is no longer receiving any, that's only going to be a problem if you've got a time machine set for the year 2003.

Now that you've got your SCART cable and a television that can recognize it, it's time to experience video games the way Europeans have for decades. Drum roll, please!

Well, that was a little anti-climactic. The picture is better than composite, but it's not the quantum leap forward I was expecting. The colors are more vibrant and the pixels are sharper, but brightness and contrast are an issue. Notice the wings on either side of the logo... they should be dazzlingly bright, but here, it looks like someone at Samsung was doing laundry and forgot to throw in a cap full of bleach. It's dingy, lifeless, unremarkable. The same goes for Tails' chest fluff and Sonic's cartoon gloves. While you can adjust the colors in the options menu, no setting I've tried will get the whites in Genesis games their whitest.

However, in the 910MP's defense, it offers good pixel separation. Observe the checkerboard pattern of blue against light blue in the background. On a composite television, the two colors would merge, creating a gradient effect. Here, they're clearly defined as separate colors, making the game look a bit more like it would in an emulator. Also, props to the 910MP for including a "still" button which freezes the picture, making it easier to take snapshots like this.

Let's move on to Streets of Rage 2; specifically the character select screen. The 910MP faithfully reproduces much of the extreme detail in each hero's portrait, but loses some of the more minute features. We'll bring the camera in for a closer look.

You notice the chin stubble and the Ferrigno-like features of the game's massive wrestler Max, but Axel's blue eyes, already barely noticeable in an emulator, are gone completely, merging with nearby pixels to become nearly black. This blending becomes an issue with smaller objects like sprites. Here's how Axel looks in the first stage of the game...

The shine on Axel's cheek nearly swallows his whole face! Once again, whites are toned down significantly, an especially bitter pill when you open the 910MP's menu and notice the clean white header bars on the top of the dialog box. This television is capable of strong luma output... just not in any devices connected to the SCART port.

Okay, one last image before I wrap this up. This comes from Accolade and PF Magic's Ballz, an early 3D fighting game that doubles as a time capsule of mid 1990s gaming trends. Check out the random video clips and the rude messages on the televisions in the background! It's so exxxtreme™ it hurts!

Anyway. There's a bit of ghosting on the rhinoceros, but I'm not sure if that's from the television or just my smartphone's camera. The 910MP handles scrolling fairly well... there's occasional screen tearing but at least the sprites don't get that blurry filtered look like they do on the CiBest SCART to HDMI converter.

Am I satisfied with the Samsung 910MP? Erm... not really. It doesn't deliver the quality picture you'd expect from a flat screen display with an RGB port, even one edging fifteen years of age. I'm told the culprit is de-interlacing... anything fed through the SCART port is processed before it's displayed, resulting in a slightly soft and dull picture. It's better than composite, as you'll notice from the pictures below, but it still isn't where it ought to be.
And the quest for the ultimate picture from my Sega Genesis continues...