Thursday, February 28, 2019

Happy Anniversary?

Wait a second... a new opponent has interrupted the tournament!

Hardcore Gaming 101 editor Kurt Kalata recently discovered that Konami is working on a classic game collection to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. Knowing what Konami has become in recent years has kept my enthusiasm in check, but this at least has the potential to be something special. Even with licensed games off the table, it's easy to think of fifty games that could be offered in such a collection... especially if Hudson Soft games are included. Let's look at what this package could include in a best case scenario. It's not a likely scenario, but hey, a man can dream!


 Scramble, Circus Charlie, Yie Ar Kung Fu, Tutankham, Gyruss, Time Pilot, Frogger, Shaolin's Road, Track 'n Field, Juno First, Locomotion, Mega Zone

Juno First is kind of like what
Defender would have been if
the Japanese made it.
(image from International
Arcade Museum)
After a rough start with Astro Invader (imagine Space Invaders, but with the aliens stuffed into a vending machine), Konami became a fixture in arcades, publishing hits like Gyruss and Time Pilot. They were never as big a name in the business as Namco or Nintendo, and abuse of their creative staff led to the founding of competitors like Capcom. However, the high quality of Konami's early arcade games nevertheless made it clear that the company was going places.

Most of Konami's best work from the early 1980s was already included in Konami Arcade Classics, a top-notch collection released for the Playstation at the turn of the century. However, only ten games were on the disc, including dubious selections like Pooyan and Road Fighter. If Konami makes a new collection as the rumors suggest, they ought to consider including Juno First (Konami's very best imitation of an intense, noisy Williams shooter), Locomotion (a deceptively charming tile-sliding puzzle game set in a trainyard), and Mega Zone (a devilishly hard top-down shooter) to the list of early arcade titles.


 Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2, Antarctic Adventure, Penguin Adventure

"Wait a minute! Penguins can't fly!
(image from Generation MSX)
The MSX (and by extension, its cousin the ColecoVision) was an early playground for Konami, playing host to dozens of its games in the mid 1980s. Granted, a lot of these games were arcade ports hampered by the limited technology of this Japanese computer, but there were a few gems on the MSX that were worthy of inclusion in a Konami collection. Topping the list is Antarctic Adventure, a novel racing game with a South Pole setting, and its sequel Penguin Adventure, which fleshes out the concept with power-ups, bosses, and a wide variety of stages for your waddling hero to discover. Imagine a head on collision between Super Mario Bros. and Slalom and you'd have a pretty good idea of what this game has in store for you.

The two Metal Gear games are also likely candidates for inclusion, since their NES counterparts were watered down or completely changed, and because I find it hard to believe Konami would include any of the games in the more advanced (and more difficult to emulate) Metal Gear Solid series.


 Castlevania, Contra, Super C, Double Dribble, Blades of Steel, Gyruss, Rush 'n Attack

Just look at this cover! What self-
respecting teenager is NOT going
to buy this for his NES?
(image from Wikipedia)
Konami released a lot of games for the NES, even doubling its output with a shell corporation to get around Nintendo's pesky "five games per publisher per year" policy. Most of the games by Konami's short-lived subsidiary Ultra were actually designed by other companies (Electronic Arts, Cinemaware) or attached to popular television licenses, so we'll ignore most of those and jump right into the games released under the Konami label.

Castlevania has to be in this collection, naturally. There's a better Castlevania game on the NES, Dracula's Curse, but it makes more sense to include the original for the sake of historical preservation. (Not to mention the fact that Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon covers most of the same ground as Castlevania III on modern game consoles.) Contra and its sequel Super C were defining moments for Konami and hugely influential to the shooters that would come later, so those need to be here too.

The other games I've listed are subject to debate, but it just feels right to include Double Dribble and Blades of Steel in this collection, since they both illustrate how important Konami was to the evolution of sports games before Electronic Arts swallowed the genre whole. Rush 'n Attack laid the groundwork for Konami's later military games, especially the previously mentioned Contra series, and Gyruss (the lone Ultra Games release in this list) expands on the classic arcade game in all the usual ways, adding bosses and a powerful blast that clears away space debris that had been indestructible in the original.


 Legend of the Mystical Ninja, Super Castlevania IV, Axelay, Contra III: The Alien Wars, Twinbee: Rainbow Bell Adventures, Sparkster

Konami published games for all three major systems during the console wars of the early 1990s. I'll get to the TurboGrafx-16 (aka the PC Engine) later in this article, but most of what the company made for the Sega Genesis was better left forgotten; generally pale imitations of what was already released for the Super NES. Sure, there's Castlevania: Bloodlines, which feels like a throwback to the NES trilogy despite digging deep into the Genesis' bag of magic tricks, and the brutally tough, gleefully obnoxious Contra: Hard Corps, but what's left? Games based on Warner Bros cartoons, which have no hope of winding up in a collection like this, a watered down port of Turtles in Time, and roughly half of Sunset Riders. Bleech, no thanks. 

In the Twinbee games, the pilots are
somehow larger than their ships.
I never understood that.
(image from Emuparadise)
Konami brought its A game to the Super Nintendo, and those are the titles that should be included in this collection. Games like Legend of the Mystical Ninja, which set televisions alight with its dazzlingly colorful visuals. Super Castlevania IV, which looked and felt like the next step forward for the Castlevania series rather than reheated leftovers. Axelay, which... wasn't really a favorite of mine, but at least made the most of the Super NES hardware by curving the background toward a distant horizon. There are even a few games that were never released in America, like Twinbee: Rainbow Bell Adventures, with puts the bulbous trio of robots in an action game not far removed from Sonic the Hedgehog. The game was released in Europe, but much of the content was cut to speed up the localization. Hopefully we'd get the option to choose the more complete Japanese version instead.


 Gradius, Gradius II, Life Force, Salamander 2, Bells and Whistles, Fantastic Parodius, Xexes

Look, nobody likes it, but it's
kinda necessary.
(image from HG101/Pinterest)
"We Love Shooting Games!," proclaimed Konami at the end of Fantastic Parodius. Indeed they did, and they made so many of them that it's hard to choose just a few for a collection. Gradius, the game that started it all, is a no-brainer... or at the very least, a brain that dies almost immediately after you reach it. The sequel, Gradius II, didn't get much play in the United States but is worth including for its popularity in Japan, as well as the larger, more varied stages and tweaks to the power up system that has remained with the series ever since. Life Force, an off-shoot of the Gradius series, is more of the same, with more memorable boss fights and a setting that recalls films like Inner Space and Fantastic Voyage. Its own sequel, Salamander 2, drastically improves the graphics while letting you use your "options" as a smart bomb in times of distress.

There were tons of Parodius and Twinbee games, making it tough to choose one from each series. Personally, I would go with Fantastic Parodius and Detana Twinbee (aka Bells and Whistles), since they improve on the graphics and sound of previous games while not getting bogged down with silly gimmicks. Chatting Parodius is... fine, I guess, but do you really want to listen to some guy screaming in your ear for the thirty minutes it takes to beat it?


 Devastators, Vendetta, Metamorphic Force, Sunset Riders, Mystic Warriors, Violent Storm, Martial Champions, Dragoon Might

Most of Konami's arcade output from the 1990s was tied up in cartoon and toy licenses. Getting the rights to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons so late after the fact would be at best hugely expensive and at worst damn near impossible.

Metamorphic Force turns the X-Men
into ex-men.
(image from Arcade History)
Luckily, several of these games have generic equivalents, ensuring that Konami's later arcade releases can be represented in a collection like this. Devastators has the same intense military action and 3D viewpoint as G.I. Joe without the Hasbro license, and Metamorphic Force plays just like X-Men, starring a new cast of characters with beastly alter egos.

Then there are the original games. Sunset Riders and Mystic Warriors are two sides of the same coin, with the former set in the wild west and the latter offering a modern spin on the far east. One's got cowboys and the other's got ninjas, but they feature the same run 'n gun action; basically a downshifted Contra. Vendetta is a more comical take on the beat 'em up genre popularized by Final Fight, while Violent Storm cranks up the wackiness to eleven and breaks off the dial with a setting that's post-apocalyptic, yet unexpectedly zany.

Finally, we have Martial Champions and Dragoon Might, Konami's attempts to capitalize on the Street Fighter II craze. Martial Champions, originally intended as a sequel to Yie-Ar Kung Fu, isn't particularly good, but it's probably worth including anyway for historical context. Dragoon Might is better, a midway point between Samurai Shodown and SNK's later release Savage Reign with big sprites and confidently drawn backgrounds, including a rope bridge suspended over lava.


 Bonk's Adventure, Bomberman '94, Air Zonk, New Adventure Island, Neutopia

Fun fact! Hudson Soft was not only a game publisher, but designed the PC Engine as a successor to the Famicom. Nintendo didn't want it, but NEC took a chance on the machine, manufacturing the PC Engine as an alternative to the aging Famicom. The system's candy colors and detailed sprites were a big draw to Japanese gamers weary of the Famicom's last generation performance, and the PC Engine sold respectably well... until ill-conceived successors like the Supergrafx and PC-FX convinced NEC to make a hasty retreat from the video game industry. Hudson Soft went back to publishing games, until Konami purchased a majority stake in the company in 2005 and shuttered it completely years later.

You could argue that Bonk's Revenge,
shown here, is better than the first one.
Mostly because it is, but you probably
shouldn't forget its roots.
(image from Time Warp Gamer)
Getting right to the point, Konami holds the rights to both the PC Engine and a lot of its games; games that probably should be represented in this collection. Hudson made tons of Bomberman titles, but Bomberman '94 is one of the highlights in the series, with an entertaining story mode offered alongside the crowd pleasin' versus mode that made Bomberman famous. Neutopia is a fun Zelda-like that would add depth and substance to this collection, and New Adventure Island (although intertwined with Westone's Wonder Boy series) is one of the prettier games in Hudson's most iconic franchise. Then you've got the Bonk series. It's up for debate which of the three games in the flagship series should be included, but Air Zonk, the shootery spin-off, is an absolute must, if just as a demonstration of the deep vein of weirdness running through the PC Engine library.



Bringing us up to an even fifty is Snatcher, the Sega CD adventure title that draws heavy inspiration from the film Blade Runner, and which in turn inspired the recent indie title 2064: Read Only Memories. I don't have much personal experience with this one, but it's refreshingly different from the other titles on this list, and would give gamers a chance to play this incredibly rare game without having to rob a bank for the opportunity.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Toys for Twats

"Fielding questions from the creeps on that chan web site? I can't believe T*HQ would do something so terrible!"

Really? I guess you don't remember the 1990s, because back then, "terrible" was pretty on brand for Toy Headquarters. Who could forget (or stomach) this?

But seriously, the company's embrace of one of the most unsavory spots on the web isn't going over too well, and T*HQ's attempt to distance themselves from Trolls R Us so soon after the fact feels about as genuine and sincere as, uh, one of their Atari arcade ports from the early 1990s.

Atta way to put your head up your own asterisk, T*HQ. (Look, they used to have an asterisk in their name. It will forever be a stain on their legacy, just like Race Drivin' up there.)

Anyway, onto 'mo better news. I just learned about the existence of the Digi Retroboy, which plays Game Boy Advance titles while offering several improvements over the original hardware. The screen is larger, the L and R buttons are on the face of the unit, making fighting games more comfortable, and there's even an AV jack, letting you connect the system to the composite port on your television set. (It's not HDMI, but it's something.) On the down side, reports on YouTube suggest that the buttons are a little mushy, and the price is uncomfortably close to three figures. You can get a Neo-Geo Mini for less if you know where to shop. Nevertheless, the folks at Digiretro get an A for effort, if not affordability.

Speaking of questionable uses of discretionary income, I bought that GDEMU earlier this month, and it's set to arrive sometime in March, giving me plenty of time to decide what Dreamcast games I'll put in it. The big names in the system's library (Crazy Taxi, Sonic Adventure) are a given, as well as fighting game favorites like King of Fighters '99 Evolution and Capcom vs. SNK 2. Beyond that, though? I'm coming up blank. You'd think this wouldn't be a tough decision at all given all the time I spent with the Dreamcast back in the early 2000s, yet I'm struggling to pick games to stick on an SD card, outside of the most obvious ones. Should I give Skies of Arcadia another chance? I've heard good things about Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm and Silver. Then there's the Star Wars racing game, and Carrier, and Zombie Revenge... decisions, decisions.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Presidential Plunder

This Presidents Day, I had the good fortune to leave town and do some impulse shopping in Sierra Vista, a small city that sprang forth from the edges of a military base. It's a nice place, where the people are friendly, the culture is refreshingly diverse, and most importantly, the thrift stores are plentiful. Here are some of the treasures I dug up on my trip.


Okay, this has nothing to do with video games, but I hope you'll pardon the indulgence. I like cats, but I don't like cleaning out litter boxes and mounting vet bills, so this is the next best thing. This guide covers the house cat in exhaustive detail, from its early prehistoric roots to the many breeds of domestic cat available today, all with full-color photographs and illustrations. These kinds of books were a childhood staple, and I still love them today. I love 'em even more when they're half the marked price. Five dollars wasn't  unreasonable for a book of this quality, but at two dollars and fifty cents, it's an absolute slam dunk.


This is a little more relevant... a collector's edition of Interplay games from the company's first ten years of life. Does Interplay still exist? I don't know, and I stopped caring after the idiotic ClayFighter series. However, this compilation of early games from the developer has promise, including everything from The Bard's Tale (the first one, not the self-aware reimagining that debuted some years later on the original Xbox) and Tass Times in Tone Town, a graphic adventure thoroughly drenched in 1980s culture. 

The package includes not only a compact disc with the games and their soundtracks, but an instruction manual that's nearly as thick as the cat encyclopedia referenced earlier. Installing PC games wasn't nearly as user friendly in 1993 as it is now in the age of Steam, and I dread the thought of coaxing these crusty old DOS titles to work with my Windows 7 computers. Still, it looks nice on a shelf, and with one of the games starring the original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, it'll make a fitting bookend for my copy of Star Trek Klingon.


Pickins were slim at my favorite pawn shop, but I did manage to find two games and two movies that I really wanted. (Yes, one of them is How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It's a classic, shut up.) Alas, that copy of WWE All-Stars wouldn't work with my Playstation 3, and with the heavy scratching on the underside of the disc, it's not hard to figure out why. I'll have to come up with a plan B for this one, because I detested the PSP version of WWE All-Stars but have been assured the console releases were much better. 

Soul Calibur IV worked, but it also worked my last nerve with its insistence on locking characters behind a pay wall. Most of them can be purchased with in-game currency, but those Soul Cali-bucks are difficult to earn in the arcade mode. Generally speaking, you'll reach the kid from Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, get humiliated by him several times, quit out of disgust, and get a whole lot of nothing for your trouble. At least Darth Vader makes peculiar sense as a guest character, and I'm pretty sure that's James Earl Jones' real voice.


Here was the real prize of the trip. It's just a monitor... no big deal, right? Ah, you would think that, but look a little more closely...

This monitor comes with two S-video and two BNC ports along with the usual VGA connector, suggesting that it was designed for professional use. It could have been a security monitor in a store, or used in the production of a news broadcast for a local television station. What this means is that the quality of the picture is especially high for an analog display, and you'll notice this in the following snapshots...

This is Space Harrier from the Sega Ages collection, released for the Sega Saturn in the late 1990s. You might want to click on the image for a closer look, but even the thumbnail suggests a picture much cleaner than you'd get out of an ordinary television. My Vizio shows distracting white noise in some areas of the screen, especially on the edges where two colors meet, but the M170CP2 doesn't have this issue. Let's zoom in on the logo...

The Saturn's pixel game is really strong on this monitor, to the point where each little dot stands out from its neighbors. I'm not going to delude myself into thinking that this is HDMI quality, but considering the age of the system and its fairly coarse resolution, it's more than good enough.

Digital Pinball: Necronomicon is one of the rare games on the Saturn that uses a special high resolution mode... or as high as the Saturn can muster, anyway. It looks fine on this monitor too. Check out the gleam on the chrome bumper slides! Unfortunately, you won't be able to enjoy the frantic metal soundtrack by Dream Theater's John Petrucci, since the M170CP2 has no internal speakers or audio jacks. I've found that a Bluetooth speaker (connected to the Saturn with an adapter) is a pretty good substitute.

Wait wait, I've got one more! This is Kart Bradfield from Elevator Action Returns. Notice the sharp contrast on his eyepiece, the highlights in his hair... just about everything, really. It's a really good picture coming from a 20th century game system, is what I'm saying. I haven't tried other consoles with this monitor, but I'm expecting the same sterling performance.

The only problem with the M170CP2 is that it's hard to find more information about it. Who manufactured this, and why? Why would someone build an LCD monitor in 2011 with nothing but analog display ports? Even the power port is weird, using a tiny single pin jack instead of the square, three pin connector used in most monitors and televisions. I could only make this display work in short spurts until I switched to a power supply with a higher amp rating, borrowed from one of my other electronic devices. This monitor hasn't exactly been user friendly, but it's hard to argue with the results.

Monday, February 11, 2019

In a Solid State of Mind

So about that Dreamcast. You may recall that it wasn't playing discs properly, but I took care of that problem. Now, it doesn't play discs at all! Heh, nailed it.

image from Netflix
See, there's this potentiometer you're supposed to adjust to make the laser more intense, but Sega stuck some glue on it to keep it that from happening. I couldn't cut through the glue, and I couldn't make the pot turn with a screwdriver, so I went with the nuclear option and tried to force it to turn with a pair of needle nose pliers. Now you can turn it as much as you like, because it's been pulled off the GD-ROM drive entirely! Ugh.

However! That doesn't mean the Dream is over. In fact, this could be a blessing in disguise, as that broken optical drive can be swapped with a peripheral called the GDEMU. Instead of discs, the GDEMU takes SD cards, which are smaller, can be freely erased and rewritten, and hold a lot more data. You could put a massive chunk of the entire Dreamcast library on a 128GB card, and never need to open the drive lid again.

Admittedly, the GDEMU is expensive... Chinese clones of the device cost eighty dollars or more, with the genuine article costing several hundred. However, it may not just be a wise future investment, but a necessary one. I'm told that optical drives in general aren't built for long-term use, with Sega's proprietary drive being especially damage-prone. Beyond that, the GD-ROM has been out of production for nearly two decades... purchasing a replacement just isn't an option, unless you're willing to pay through the nose for a drive fished out of another Dreamcast. 

My Dreamcast, patiently awaiting a drive transplant.
With GDEMU prices starting at eighty dollars,
it may have to be extremely patient.
Sooner or later, you will have to throw out the drive entirely and switch to solid state storage. That doesn't just apply to the Dreamcast, but all game systems with a disc drive... the Playstation, the Saturn, the GameCube, you name it. Some of these machines are already equipped with alternate forms of storage... the classic Xbox has a small hard drive by default, which can be swapped with a much more spacious one after it's been hacked. The PSP has a slot for a Memory Stick... this was originally intended for game saves, but plummeting storage prices and a handy Micro SD card adapter means you can stick dozens of games into the system without ever opening the UMD drive.

Unfortunately, just as many systems from the age of spinning discs and moving parts have no other official storage options. Hackers have cribbed together their own solutions... the Dreamcast has GDEMU, the Saturn has Phoebe and Rhea, and even the decades-old Turbografx-16 has an alternative to the Turbo CD in the Super SD System 3. All of these devices are expensive, with the Super SD System 3 costing nearly as much as a Turbo Duo when it was launched in 1992. However, with the lenses of optical drives dimming and discs slowly losing their data to bit rot, players unwilling to settle for emulation may have no choice but to empty their wallets.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Livin' the Dream

...well, sort of, anyway. The Dreamcast I bought arrived yesterday, and while it does work, it has some issues. When I first turned it on, it went to the date entry screen, and while I was setting the WABAC machine for twenty years into the future, it shut off. Uh, that ain't good. After several such resets, I managed to get the machine to keep its eyes open, but it wouldn't recognize discs. Cleaning the lens with a Q-tip and a small amount of alcohol fixed that problem, but it's still kind of picky about what it will read. It ran Fighting Vipers 2's introduction too slowly, focusing on characters for so long that the background music finished well before the rest of the intro did. Street Fighter Alpha 3 wouldn't run at all, and while I could play through the game in its entirety, Capcom vs. SNK 2's smug announcer got a slight stutter... not a game-killer by any means, but still distracting.

I guess the best course of action would have been to send the Dreamcast back, but I wasn't sure it would be worth the hassle just to recover twenty five dollars and some couch change. It certainly wasn't worth the hassle for the seller, who told me she really needed the money and that she had a toddler and three pit bulls to feed. Pretty good hustle, kid... you're off the hook for this one. So it looks like it's up to me to work out the kinks in this system.

Fortunately, much of what's happening with this Dreamcast are common issues with common solutions. The laser can be strengthened by adjusting a potentiometer inside the system, and the random shutdowns usually happen because the power pins get corroded over time and need to be cleaned. I'll have to open the machine to do this maintenance, and that brings with it the possibility of brushing up against the internal power supply and getting a painful electric shock. I can't imagine it being any more painful than paying eBay prices for another Dreamcast, though...

I've only spent a small amount of time with this system, but just seeing the orange dot hop along the bottom of the screen, then expand into the Sega swirl, brought back some serious nostalgia. I played Dreamcast games almost exclusively from 2000 to 2002, and it's good for the soul to relive that experience on an actual console, if only briefly. I just need to do a few repairs to keep those good times rolling...

Monday, February 4, 2019

Half 'cast

"Ooh, a Dreamcast for twenty-two dollars! How could I pass that up?"
"Does it come with a controller? Or A/V cables? Or anything else that would make it usable?"
"Congratulations. You just bought a Sega-branded paperweight."

Well, you can't blame me for trying. As usual, I do have this system in Michigan, but since it doesn't look like I'll be getting it back any time soon, I've had to go with plan B and order another one. I just might not be playing it any time in the near future.

By the way, can anyone vouch for the high definition cables available for the Dreamcast? They come in VGA and HDMI flavors, and while they're said to be a big improvement over composite cables, I also understand that they don't play nice with some games or television sets. Heck, they're not even compatible with every Dreamcast, although that mostly applies to the black Sega Sports model that was introduced late in the system's short life. You know, the more piracy proof model that came out after the Dreamcast was cracked and the Playstation 2 loomed overhead like a console-crushing Death Star. 

Eh, I guess you can't blame Sega for trying, either.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

You Are Watching Fox(es)

image from AtariAge and Penguinet
Now here's a pleasant surprise! A game was released late last year for the Atari 7800, and it's a real doozy. Rikki and Vikki brings the look and feel of NES platformers to Atari's third game system, with the title characters fighting their way through a subterranean amusement park to rescue their offspring from the dastardly Misery Dragon. (This scaly douchebag lives to annoy others, but when you resort to kidnapping, you've left "annoying" a thousand miles behind and have set both feet firmly in "felony" territory.)

The brilliantly designed marquee tells you everything you need to know about the gameplay... you strategically set boxes, then grab keys scattered around the room to advance to the next one. You'll have to put your thinking tuque on to figure out how to reach those keys tucked away in seemingly unreachable spots... some sneaky tricks to increase your reach include sticking the boxes to the sides of walls and jumping on the top of a box held by your partner. While it's possible to play the game on your own with a set of single player stages, you can't really win unless you bring a friend along for the ride. Like I said, the Misery Dragon lives to annoy people.

The stage designs are top-notch, and the graphics are impossibly good on a game system best known for ports of creaky old arcade titles. Both Rikki and Vikki look like they jumped straight out of a Disney Afternoon game by Capcom, gritting their teeth when they pick up boxes and kicking them into rabbits so big and meaty you'd swear they missed a dinner date with a Korean dictator. The only game that comes close to looking this nice on the Atari 7800 is Tower Toppler, and... well, you have to play Tower Toppler, which I don't recommend.

Atari 7800 owners will no longer have to resort to that terrible fate to get their platforming fix, thanks to Rikki and Vikki. Heck, even if you don't have an Atari 7800, you can still play this on Steam, and for a lot less. Definitely look into this if you like action games that test both your footwork and brain work.