Friday, November 30, 2018

Gamers' Dreck

You know the Gamerz Tek Minigen HD which got so much critical acclaim on YouTube? Yeah, I'm not seeing the attraction. I purchased the system from a seller on Mercari, and its performance leaves much to be desired. Here, let me show you what I mean. This is the system trying (and failing) to run Streets of Rage 2... a partially visible rolling Sega logo appears on the screen for a few seconds, and you get a warning that the game won't run in your territory. Yes, I tried both the Overseas and Japan settings. Yes, I cleaned the cartridge with a Q-tip and rubbing alcohol. No, it didn't make a damned bit of difference.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 ran, which is an improvement, but maybe not so much when you consider how slow and glitchy it was. I mean, this is Sonic the friggin' Hedgehog! Slow should not be part of this equation! The split screen mode runs especially poorly (frankly it's amazing it even ran on an actual Genesis, which was shouldering the performance burden of two systems), but even the single player mode was unacceptably sluggish. It was bad enough to make me consider breaking out the AtGames Genesis Flashback HD instead. Okay, maybe just the Super Retrocade.

The other games in my currently slim southwestern collection run well enough, but playing underachievers like Jeopardy! or Tommy Lasorda Baseball instead of Streets of Rage 2 misses the point of owning a Genesis. I dread to think of what the Minigen HD would do to one of the more demanding titles I have back in Michigan, like Gunstar Heroes or Dynamite Headdy!

Word on the street is that Sony- yes, the entertainment and tech giant who's been in the video game industry for nearly a quarter of a decade- whiffed its own attempt at a plug and play console, filling the Playstation Classic with slow-running PAL games and including an emulator that can't even do those justice. Why Sony didn't just repackage its own capable Playstation TV hardware instead of starting from scratch with a budget Android chip is a mystery so puzzling even Robert Stack couldn't solve it, but hey, at least that's a hundred dollars I won't have to spend this holiday. If I had an ounce of damn sense, I'd stop buying these crappy plug and plays entirely and just be happy with my Raspberry Pi.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Read All About It!

Another Black Friday has come and gone, and I've survived the ensuing retail carnage... by avoiding it entirely. Hey, I might still play video games, but I'm just too old (and wise) to get trampled in a human stampede for the slim chance of scoring some discounted tech trinket.

However, some of these deals will continue throughout the weekend, and since they're on the internet, you won't risk life and limb to get them. Both Sony and Microsoft have Black Friday sales for their respective game systems, and you can get Sonic Mania on Steam for as little as seven dollars if you know where to look. (Hint: look here.) Perhaps the niftiest deal of all is for the series of books published by Hardcore Gaming 101... you can get titles like The Guide to Shoot-Em-Ups and NES Cult Classics for three dollars a pop, if you don't mind reading them from the Kindle app.

Also! If you're a fan of fighting games, give yourself a post-Thanksgiving treat and watch the Power Punchers episode of Craig of the Creek. It's got tons of references more dedicated players will recognize right away, including a shout out to MAME (called the Great Arcade Machine Emulator here. Well, it was great until they decided it had to emulate every computer known to man...) and characters loosely based on May the pirate from Guilty Gear X and Skate from Streets of Rage 2. It's chicken soup for the geek soul, even if your relationship with your own father was never as idyllic as what's depicted here.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Woeful, Warrior: The Sad Story of Joust 2

You know that scene in the movie Ghost where Patrick Swayze's treacherous friend gets sliced in half by a jagged window? He doesn't realize that he's already dead, but Swayze, who already took that trip to the other side, knows what's coming, and shakes his head mournfully as the man he once respected is surprised and dragged to hell by badly animated demons. That's how Joust 2 makes me feel. Minus the erotic pottery class with Demi Moore, of course.

I've been vocal in the past about my preference of Joust to Nintendo's clone Balloon Fight. Some will argue that Balloon Fight is the more intuitive game, since it's got balloons that just beg to be popped, rather than the impossibility of aerial battles between flightless birds. However, Joust is a faster game, and it's definitely got the edge in style. It's got sinister knights astride vultures, screaming pterodactyls, and rocky platforms magically suspended in mid-air, high above a bubbling pool of lava that a troll is using as his personal jacuzzi. Joust arrests the eyes and captivates the soul, in the same way a heavy metal album cover would while flipping through discs in a record store. By comparison, Balloon Fight is textbook Nintendo... a fluffy marshmallow of a game that sacrificed its teeth for mass appeal. I've made this visual metaphor before, but it bears repeating. 

Hefty, Hefty, Hefty! Wimpy, wimpy, wimpy!
So it pains me to say that if I were given the choice between Balloon Fight or Joust's sequel, I would have to pick Nintendo's child-safe, up with people and hooray for everything substitute. The irony is that I hate Joust 2 for exactly the same reasons that I love the first Joust. It's got the same warped blend of medieval fantasy and surrealism as the original, with slightly improved graphics and a wider variety of situations and freaky creatures to fight. Problem is, you won't find much game under all that creativity.

Why. Just... why?
(image from Internet Archive)
Let's first address Joust 2's biggest failure, the critical error that drags it to hell in spite of its good intentions. Both the original Joust and Nintendo's clone Balloon Fight used a horizontal monitor, giving the player plenty of room to dodge incoming attacks. Whether it was a hungry buzzard from the left or a well-fed balloonist from the right, you had room to anticipate the enemy and react. In a thumb of the nose at common sense, Joust 2 opts for a "tate" monitor that restricts horizontal movement while wasting pixels on the top of the screen.

I'm not against vertically oriented monitors! They have their place... but only in games suited to them. Without tate, Crazy Climber's skyscrapers wouldn't seem as perilously high, Donkey Kong wouldn't be able to keep Pauline just out of Mario's reach, and Pac-Man couldn't keep tabs on the four monsters constantly on his trail. Tate is also extremely important in shoot 'em ups like Dodonpachi, where bullets rain down from the top of the screen and you need that couple of extra seconds to dart around them. 

You didn't need that extra third of a
screen, did you?
(image from the Pac-Man Wikia)
All of these games were ported to home systems, and lost something in translation due to their use of horizontally oriented television sets. The screen would be pillarboxed to compensate, or the playfield would have to be compressed, leaving the game feeling compromised, or scrolling would have to be introduced, leaving the player with an uncomfortable and occasionally dangerous blind spot.

It's the price you pay when you take a game out of its natural aspect ratio... but it's a price Joust 2 didn't have to pay, since it was running on dedicated hardware. The developers could just as easily have went with a horizontal monitor... hell, they could have just designed Joust 2 as a conversion kit, and used the same monitor as the original. That didn't happen, though, and the lost horizontal resolution exacerbates all of the game's other problems.

No kidding it's game over! You
give me that little room to move,
and you waste it on a block font
title and a gaudy statue?
(image from Vizzed)
Put simply, Joust 2 is all style and no substance, all apple and no core, all reckless ambition with no discipline to keep it in check. There's too much stuff in the game, and not nearly enough room to hold it all. Along with the classic buzzards and pterodactyls, you're accosted by a new cast of enemies that seem designed to annoy rather than challenge and excite. The eggs from defeated buzzards that spill into open lava pits re-emerge as more aggressive mutants. The eggs that land on solid ground eventually hatch into knights, which were harmless in the first game but are armed with lances in the sequel. These threats are joined by bolts of lightning, button operated robot knights, and swarms of crystal bats... and you'll have no room to dodge any of them. 

(Since people familiar with this game will be expecting me to mention this, you can transform into a heartier pegasus, but it's too fat to fly without frantic button hammering, and about as useful in an aerial battle as Pinkie Pie. See, she's one of the My Little Pony characters who doesn't have wings or magic powers, and she's crazy and unpredictable on top of that. Look, lots of grown men have seen the new My Little Pony. My point is that the pegasus is worthless. Shut up.)

Evidently the designers thought it would be a grand idea to cut the horizontal resolution in half while doubling the number of onscreen enemies. Maybe they thought the added chaos would make Joust 2 more intense, but it just leaves the player feeling helpless, while jamming handfuls of quarters into both the machine and the nearest swear jar. If the first Joust was emblematic of pre-crash arcade games, where the objectives were simple and you could play for hours on one credit if you had the mad skillz, Joust 2 is a reflection of arcade games released after the NES, demanding a steady flow of coins for your entertainment. 

Joust 2 is no match for the visual splendor and
the magical sound shower of Sega's OutRun.
(image from HITC)
Unfortunately, Joust 2 finds itself in an awkward gap between the two generations... the impossibility of surviving on one token makes it a lousy sequel to Joust, but it just doesn't have the visual luster or the mindless fun to make players want to keep dropping in more. Its graphics just aren't on the same level as Final Fight, or Golden Axe, or the similarly surreal but much flashier Space Harrier. Hell, Joust 2 can't even compete with OutRun, which was released in the same year but is a far more effective peep show for mid 80s pixel porn.

Poor, poor Joust. I had so much respect for you, but you lost your way... only to discover that you didn't have the strength to follow in the footsteps of more advanced arcade games. Now the only way we can keep in touch is through a Ouiji board.

Monday, November 12, 2018

What in the Name of Sega Genesis is Going On?

Bad news, nobody! You thought you were finished with AtGames, but they're not finished with you! There's a new Sega Flashback on shelves, and this one's locked down so hackers can't add their own emulators. On the plus side, this time they might not need to tinker around with it. Here's what you'll find inside, courtesy of GBAtemp's WD_Gaster2. (You may remember him from an earlier post... he's the guy who cracked the Super Retro-Cade along with a handful of other programmers.)

Unlike the previous Flashback, this has a built in SD card slot, presumably for adding your own games. Also unlike the previous Flashback, this will have a competent emulator, Genesis Plus GX by Charles MacDonald and Eke-Eke. MacDonald has been making emulators for, like, ever, so it's likely that this system will be much improved over the last one. As for me, I'll probably hold off until the official Mega Drive Mini is released.

Friday, November 9, 2018


You know, Nintendo, sometimes you really piss me off. "Sometimes" being most of the time lately.

Just one year after the closure of Miiverse (a right brain social media experiment that let people post images of their progress in video games and comment with text or simple drawings), Nintendo has announced that it will bring all video streaming services on the Wii to a grinding halt. Yes, it's a legacy system, but with one hundred ten million units sold, the Wii is everywhere. It was a cheap and convenient gateway to Netflix for less tech-savvy consumers who may have found other devices too cumbersome. I say this from personal experience, because my mother is using a Wii right now to watch episodes of Jane the Virgin*. Apparently, she won't be doing much of that after January 29th.

Because Nintendo subscribes to the
adage "go big or go home" when
screwing its customers, it released
the Wii Mini in late 2012. It has no wi-fi,
no Internet, no SD card slot, no
component video, and no GameCube
support. It's mini in size, but delivers
BIG disappointment!
I marvel at how poorly the Wii has aged, and it's not just because of the budget hardware that kept it one step behind its competitors in overall performance. Due to its reliance on online features, and Nintendo's eagerness to pull the plug on those features at its earliest convenience, it's a console that just keeps getting shittier with each passing year. The Wii experience is already a hollow shell of its former self without apps like the News Channel, Weather Channel, and Everybody Votes. In two months, you won't even be able to use it to stream videos. 

I can't think of too many other consoles in my collection with an eroding feature set. The Sega Genesis has been around for thirty years, and its support for the Power Base Converter and the Sega CD has remained intact. Classic Game Boy games still fit in my Game Boy Advance, and the Kinect still connects to my Xbox 360. Yet everything that the Wii was in 2006 no longer is twelve years later. Call it the curse of the internet age, but I prefer to think of it as Nintendo being a humongous dick.

* About this show. I was talking to a trans guy about it last night, and he made the point that the premise for this series, about a woman who's artificially inseminated by accident, sounds more like a medical nightmare than the basis for a zany comedy. He's not wrong, you know.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Black and Blue Panther

First, since everyone else will be telling you the same thing, vote... preferably for someone without a vacuum for a soul. We could use far fewer sociopaths in our government right now.

Second, I recently received that PSP spin-off of Yakuza in the mail, and I've spent enough time with Kurohyo: Ryu Ga Gotoku Shinsho (we'll just shorten that to Black Panther from this point forward) to discuss it at length here on this blog. 

It's fascinating how much Black Panther strives to be like its big brothers on home consoles, while working just as hard to establish its own, darker tone. Yes, Kiryu from the main series is a made man, a yakuza member who's seen his share of fights and committed his share of dirty deeds. However, deep down he's actually a pretty nice guy. He's as likely to be caught doing favors for the residents of Kamurocho as he is busting heads, and he even retires from the mob in Yakuza 3 to raise a house full of orphans. 

On the other hand, Black Panther's lead Tatsuya is more likely to create orphans than care for them. He's a no-good punk with a gold-lined jacket and a disturbing fondness for violence. When that bloodlust gets the better of him and he kills a high-ranking member of the Chinese mafia, Tatsuya is cornered by the dead man's associates and given two options... either fight to earn his freedom in a series of underground matches, or get ratted out to the cops and spend the rest of his life in prison.

Streets so bustling with people they
might leave you agoraphobic.
For the rest of the game, Tatsuya is the mob's toy... and any attempts to escape their grasp are quickly thwarted. I worried that he was going to be stuck in that dank basement forever, but after his first victory in the blood-stained arena, the mafia loosens its grip on Tatsuya's choke chain and lets him explore the streets of Kamurocho. Pop into the Poppo for a C.C. Lemon and browse a few magazines, grab a bite at the fast food restaurant, even try your hand at the claw catcher in Club Sega... just be back later in the evening to shatter some bones in the octagon. We're watching you.

When strolling through Kamurocho, Black Panther feels a lot like Yakuza, albeit with some annoying caveats. It's pretty awesome that the streets are absolutely packed with people... you'll see a dozen or more tourists, drunk salarymen, and thugs wandering around, and if they get in your way, just keep running and you'll push your way through the crowd. On the down side, the backgrounds are all still images, and it's likely that you'll leave one static screen only to be facing an entirely different direction in the next. Even with the map on the bottom left corner, you will get disoriented, and that's not at all helpful when you're being pursued by rival gang members or cops.

The first of many, many... many fight scenes.
While stuck in the basement, waiting for your turn to flatten some noses in the ring, Black Panther alternates between hand-drawn, minimally animated cut scenes (way too lengthy, way too unskippable) and commendably deep, gorgeously illustrated fights. Tatsuya can charge up his punches and kicks, catch incoming fists for a punishing reversal, dodge attacks with a slick slow motion flourish, and in keeping with Yakuza tradition, "heat" up and end the fight with a devastating super move. Fights aren't just limited to the ring... you can also battle members of the D.I.S. and Diablo gangs in Kamurocho, but the load times are so long and the battles end so quickly that it's probably best to wait for the battles mandated by the storyline. At least in the easy mode, the punks on the street cave after just a few hits. Your opponents in the arena will offer a more satisfying scrap.

That's as much as I can tell you about Black Panther with my limited knowledge of Japanese. The game is thick with kanji, and you're going to have a hell of a time following the story or even reading item names if you're not a native speaker. It's certainly playable with a little practice, and you get the gist of each character's personality from the cut scenes (did I mention these were way too long...?), but it nevertheless leaves a lot of blanks that won't be filled in until a fan-made English translation is released. With all the kanji used in this game, you might be waiting a while for one.

What I've played of Black Panther strongly suggests that Sega shouldn't have slept on a Western localization. It's not just a solid off-shoot of the Yakuza series with the astonishing graphics you'd expect from a late PSP release... it strikes me as more appealing to Americans than the flagship series, thanks to its grittier setting, a younger protagonist, and a heavy metal soundtrack that adds impact to every crushing blow. Not that the game is hurting for impact, mind you... just check out some of the fine finishers you can perform, either on your own or with a computer controller partner. These look like they hurt... not as much as Sega's decision not to publish Black Panther and its sequel in the west, but still pretty painful.

Special thanks to Black Panther's Wikipedia entry and the Yakuza Wikia for clarifying the storyline in Black Panther and for providing a refresher on the Yakuza series respectively.