Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Sega Saturn Variants


Console variations are nothing new. Most consoles have redesigns over time as a console matures. Initially, the primary reasons for this were improvements in technology, improved efficiency, and in general, cost savings. The NES, SNES, Master System, Genesis, Sega CD, PSone, Wii, PS2, PS3, PS4, XBox 360, etc.,  all had revisions for these reasons.

Then you have variations not due to efficiency, but cosmetics. The N64 and Gamecube had several color variants in the late '90's and early 2000's. At first I thought this was a strange notion. Game consoles were expensive, how could people "collect" them. Then I realized: a company had to make several production runs of a console during its lifespan, why not vary the colors? It is only now, in today's retro gaming collection scene, where collecting consoles is feasible, after prices on old systems have fallen. People would not be collecting several variants of PS4's today, but they might ten years from now.

Sometimes there are functional reasons to buy a variation of a console that you already own.

  • The first wave of "fat" PS3's were backwards compatible with PS2 games, so the demand for a functioning unit is decently high. Add to that the failure rate of the older hardware, and you have an increasingly rare variant of PS3s. 
  • The 1-chip Super Nintendo revisions are known to output sharper image quality that the previous versions, convincing some retro gamers to seek them out. 
  • Early versions of the Gamecube had a digital video out port as well a multi-video out. This is a moot point however, unless you have the rare component cables that actually make use of the port.
  • The "Core Grafx" PC-Engine has composite video out, which was an improvement over the original PC-Engine which only had RF output.
  • The first wave of Sega original model-1Genesis had no TMSS message at startup, instead booting straight to the Sega logo.
  • and many others...

This post is about the Sega Saturn Variants. There aren't as many as the N64, nor are they as colorful, but I wanted to share anyway. There is almost no functional difference between any of these variants, but they are region locked. This is easily overcome by using a region bypass card such as an Action Replay cart.

The North American Model 1
My first Saturn was the North American model-1. It sports smaller, oval buttons for power and reset, and has a cd-access LED light. There is a glossy faceplate that surrounds the buttons, which is absent in later models. I bought it in 2008 off of eBay. Unfortunately, I sold it a few years back for no real reason, other than I was shedding some duplicate consoles. I regret that, as this one was special to me. It was the console that I cut my teeth on playing all of the import Japanese shoot'em ups on. The North American model 1 controllers were an ergonomic nightmare, with odd depressions in the d-pad, and unnecessarily large form factor.

The North American Model 2
The model 2 is recognizable by its larger, round power and reset buttons. The cd-access light is gone, but there is a new Sega logo on the front face, which looks nice when the console is tucked in an entertainment center. The model 2 came with a redesigned controller. Actually, it was the original controller design that came with the earlier Japanese model 1. This was a smart move, as this is one of the best controllers ever made for 2D gaming. The 3D analog controller was released around the same time, and feels really good, despite it looking huge and unwieldy. The analog stick was primitive, with a strong return to center and somewhat forced dead zone. This doesn't matter to me as I play primarily 2D games with the d-pad anyway.

The Japanese model 1

The Saturn launched in Japan first, and sported a grey/blue color scheme. I'm not crazy about the shade of grey, but I like how the blue pops on both the console itself and the controller. This controller is the same design that would later come packaged with North American model 2 consoles, except in black.

Japanese model 2

The Japanese model 2 was white, which looks really awesome if clean. Most of these suffer the same fate as early Super Nintendos, having yellow discoloration due to the Bromination in the plastic. Mine isn't too badly colored. A matching 3D controller was also released in this color.

Japanese "Skeleton" model 2
The last official model to be released was the Japanese "Skeleton" model, which is transparent. It has "This is cool" emblazoned across the cd lid, and they're right. Sadly, no 3D controller was released in this color scheme.

The Derby Stallion model 2 (photo courtesy of ww.consolevariations.com)
The rare Derby Stallion model 2 was released as a promotion for the game of the same name. It is a lighter transparent color than the skeleton Saturn. I don't own one, and I don't anticipate shelling out the kind of cash that this would go for nowadays. Still, its cool to know that it exists.


The Japanese Sonic Saturn model 2 (photo courtesy of ww.consolevariations.com)
The Sonic Saturn was released only in Japanese Toys R' Us stores. It is also exceedingly rare. If I saw one I'd be tempted, but the price is most likely prohibitive.

Since Sega had licensed other manufacturers to make their own versions of the Saturn in Japan, there are even more versions available. Being Japanese exclusives, these are rare and would have to be imported. Companies such as Hitachi, Victor, and Samsung all had their own versions. Again, functionality is essentially the same across all variants.

Well, I just wanted to share my Saturn console collection. There's no real deep message or point to this post. Thanks for making it all the way through! I don't think that I will collect variations of other systems. I'm not the biggest N64 fan, so that's not happening, and I hear there are a lot of XBox 360 variations, but I'm not a fan of that console either (I don't even have one). The Saturn is special to me, so I guess that's why I favor it over the others.









Friday, March 9, 2018

Uncommon Controller Adapters for the Dreamcast, PC-Engine, and Gamecube


Sometimes you love a controller so much, you wish you could use it on other systems. Sometimes you dislike a controller so much, you wish you could use anything but. Once an impossible notion, now a definite possibility. These are some uncommon controller adapters that allow one to fine-tune their gaming and choose their controller of choice.

To say that the Dreamcast controller is not my favorite controller is an understatement. The analog stick is uncomfortable with a larger than usual dead zone, there are only four face buttons, and the d-pad is raised too high and blister-inducing. How did this happen? It's predecessor, the Saturn 3D controller d-pad was awesome! I get that they needed to allow space for the VMU, and that explains why they went with the larger form factor, but still, this is a letdown. Given that Capcom was a strong supporter of Sega during the Saturn and Dreamcast days, it is surprising that six face buttons became four, since Capcom's strength was 2D fighters. I refuse to play DC fighters with that d-pad, and using analog for special attacks is just silly.


VMU compatibility is intact

All is not lost, however. The Total Control 3 adapter lets you use any Saturn controller for Dreamcast games. The Saturn d-pad on the stock or 3D controller is worlds better than that Dreamcast's, and so this makes it worth it. The button configuration is literal, so X is X, A is A, and so on. There is even an option to connect a twin stick controller, like that used for Virtual On. A highly esoteric option for sure, but interesting nonetheless. It has VMU compatibility, so game saves are still possible. As a side note, I got tired of replacing batteries in the VMUs every time I turn on the Dreamcast, so I use a non-VMU save pack. There are plenty of great 2D shoot'em ups and fighting games, and this allows the excellence that is the Saturn pad to be realized on another console.


The PC-Engine controller connection was odd to begin with, reminiscent of a computer keyboard jack 
The PC-Engine controllers are fine. Whichever version you have, the d-pad is virtually identical. They are reminiscent of NES controllers, with the added bonus of having turbo switches (this was odd, as almost all shooter games have rapid fire as default, making the turbo function unnecessary).  The cords are too short, almost as short as the NES Classic Edition controller cords. I was fine using the stock controllers or an arcade stick. Then I heard about this company Tototek, which makes Playstation related peripherals and adapters. I purchased a Playstation to PC-Engine controller adapter.

Initially, this doesn't seem to help much, as the Playstation controllers have terrible d-pads. Why on earth would anyone choose to use it over a stock PC-Engine controller? The answer is you wouldn't...not unless you had an awesome Playstation controller. A Playstation arcade stick would be a fine option if you have one, since there aren't that may PC-Engine arcade sticks available.


I own an official Saturn to Playstation controller. These were a limited release, and pretty hard to find. Not only can I use the Saturn d-pad on a Playstation, with this adapter I can now use the Saturn pad on the PC-Engine! While this is admittedly as niche as it gets when it comes to controller pickiness, I couldn't be happier about playing Gate of Thunder or Spriggan with the lovely Saturn pad. As an added bonus, you get some much needed length, alleviating the issue caused by the short stock controller cord.


The third adapter I'll mention is the Raphnet Technologies SNES to Gamecube adapter. This seems like a strange combination, as there are virtually no 2D games on the Gamecube, but if you recall the Gamecube has the Gameboy Adapter, and Gameboy  games are all 2D in nature. The Gamecube d-pad is small and awkwardly placed, almost an afterthought. With this adapter, you can play any Gameboy, Gameboy Color, or Gameboy Advance game using the marvelous SNES pad. Games like Mega Man Zero, Metroid Fusion, and others can now be played on the big screen, with a SNES controller.




Raphnet Technologies has a plentitude of controller adapters available, albeit Nintendo-centric. A best seller of theirs is the Gamecube to N64 controller adapter, if that's something you'd want.









So, I just wanted to share some of my uncommon controller adapters, perhaps you may find a solution to one of your needs. What kind of controller adapter would you like to see made?




Friday, March 2, 2018

Arcade Sticks for Retro Consoles


A Classic
Arcade sticks have been widely available for home consoles since the third generation. My first stick was the NES Advantage, as probably was for most. While a very aesthetically pleasing method of control, a stick's features can elevate its utility. Shoot'em ups on the NES were nearly impossible without turbo. Before I got the Advantage, I would give up playing 1943 in the middle stages as my fingers would be too tired. Playing Zanac without turbo? Good luck. The NES Advantage was a revelation. While the joystick was a bit wonky for tight platformers like Super Mario, it shines with shoot'em ups. The turbo dials were adjustable, which is you didn't know that you needed until you tried the highest turbo setting, only to shoot off four shot bursts, with a too long of a wait before more shots would be allowed. Example: in Contra you could only shoot four bullets on screen at one time). The build quality is top notch, you could drop it and nothing would happen. The solid metal base provides a nice heft.

Ascii Stick - PC-Engine: A Clone of the NES Advantage?
The PC-Engine, known in the west as the Turbo Grafx-16, also had a similar arcade stick. Actually, it was so similar that They feel nearly identical, and sport the same features. The ball top, the button resistance, the general design; I would be willing to bet that Ascii produced the NES Advantage, as a second-party. Interestingly, most shoot'em ups for the PCE had rapid fire shot by defaut, negating the need for a turbo function on a controller, so I actually don't used the turbo dial. One minor  complaint/gripe I have is that the base is not that large, so you have to balance on/between your lap, which gets uncomfortable after a while. I suppose it was meant to be placed on a coffee table, but the cord is not long enough, so that's impractical. Maybe set it on a large book on your lap? Since the NES Advantage has the same dimensions, same goes for that. Anyway, it's a great stick if you are into the PC-Engine.


Genesis Arcade Power Stick

During the 4th generation of consoles, most shooters for had rapid fire by default, lessening the need for a turbo function. The Genesis Arcade Power Stick was designed with the same ideology that carried the Genesis to success. It was large, built for adult hands, emphasizing that Sega was the next step after kids have grown out of Nintendo. The balltop is at least twice as large as on the NES Advantage, more akin to an actual arcade joystick. There is a comfortable grove for the left hand, although its not really necessary - probably more for aesthetics than purpose.  It has a decent weight as well, and

Genesis Arcade Power Stick, now with 6 buttons
Eventually arcade sticks increased the number of buttons, as fighting games (specifically, Street Fighter II) became popular, and many required six buttons. Sega released a six button version of their Arcade Power stick, which is identical to the previous model in all other aspects.

The SNES Super Advantage 

The SNES Super Advantage was manufactured by Asciiware, as this time it says so right on the front. This suggests that Asciiware was also responsible for the NES Advantage, since the legacy is there and the build characteristics of the Super Advantage and NES Advantage are similar. This is another solid stick, and has many of the same attributes that the prior sticks mentioned have. I don't use it as much for some reason. Maybe because there aren't a lot of shoot'em ups on the SNES, and if I want to play Street Fighter I play it on the Saturn. Nonetheless, it has good build quality.


Hori Fighting Stick Multi - PC-Engine, Genesis, SNES
The Hori Fighting Sick Multi is a unique entry here. It comes with three swappable cords, which make it compatible with the PC-Engine, Genesis, and SNES. What a value! It has a micro-switched joystick, which bring the it closer to the arcade experience. The buttons are a bit less solid than the ascii sticks; more spongey. The wider base is more comfortable to set in the lap. It is a bit less dense, but still does not feel cheap. My only concern is the tightness of the cord connection, I feel as over time it gets looser, and does not hold the cord in as tightly, possible resulting in it falling out during gameplay. With that in mind, I keep the PC-Engine cord attached, and use it primarily for that console. If you were looking to downsize your collection, this is the one to keep due to its versatility, just be gentle with the cord.


Add captionVirtua Stick (Japanese)
When the Sega Saturn was originally released in Japan in 1994, Virtua Fighter was all the rage in arcades. The home port, despite being a bit buggy and apparently rushed, sold at nearly a 1:1 ratio with the console. People could not get enough Virtua Fighter, and this was the controller touted as the only way to play it at home (truth be told, the Japanese Saturn controller was excellent in its own right). An arcade phenomenon needed an arcade stick to complement the experience. The American and PAL version is all black, and does not have a microswitched joystick, settling for rubber contact pads instead. The base is wider than the Sega Genesis Power Sticks, and it feels a bit lighter. This is a decent stick, but I were to own one stick for the Saturn, this would not be it.


Hori Fighting Stick SS - Saturn
The Hori Fighting Stick was one of the first sticks I bought for the Saturn. I was in a Capcom Fighting game craze, and even though the Saturn pad does a marvelous job, I still prefer to pull off dragon punches with a joystick. It has microswitches on the joystick, and eight buttons, including the L and R. It is very solid, and has a great feel to it. The buttons require a tad more pressure to press, but its only noticeable from changing from one stick to another. This is a quality mid-range stick, that usually costs more to import it than its asking price.


Virtua Stick (HSS-0136) - Saturn
For the Saturn, this is the best stick out there, and unfortunately it is named the same as the lower tier model. This model is import only. The design is similar to that of the Japanese arcade Candy cabinet design, with bright colors. The joystick is microswitched with minimal dead zone. Aside from it not being attached to an arcade cabinet, it is arcade perfect.  The buttons are light, press evenly, and are clicky. I have heard about people modding these with upgraded parts, but I don't feel like it needs it. This is the one.

Hori Fighting Stick PS - Playstation and PS2

The Playstation had its fair share of fighting games, and so arcade sticks are necessary here as well. Playing fighting games with the Playstation controllers is an exercise in frustration, in my opinion. The analog sticks are excellent for what they are designed for; which is not 2D gaming. The D-pad is an abomination, a shoddy design to get around the existing patents that other consoles have on superior designs. To play any fighting game on the original Playstation or PS2, a stick is necessary. There were a lot of sticks made, but the Hori Fighting Stick PS is the one I prefer for Playstation 1-2. It is a replica of the Fighting Stick SS shown above, and identical in every sense sans color scheme. While not at good as the Virtua Stick (HS-0136), it is the best mid-tier option. I have seen pictures of a Playstation 2 Virtua Stick, but they are are exceedingly rare, and thus priced to match. These appear to be the same build as the Virtua Stick (HS-0136), with a different color scheme. I can only imagine that it feels just as good. There were a few Mad Catz sticks produced as well, but I can't speak to those.


Ascii Arcade Stick (modded with Sanwa parts) - Dreamcast
The Dreamcast was not long for this world, as it was devoured by the PS2 juggernaut in just over a year. Despite this, it managed to release some some truly awesome arcade ports. Many of these were fighting games and shoot'em ups. As such, an arcade stick is necessary, given that the standard controller is garbage when it comes to the d-pad, in my opinion. While the stick had decent microswitched components, much better than typical rubber-padded membranes, I tried my hand at modding it. I purcased a Sanwa JLF stick and button set, and followed some wiring diagrams I found online. Instead of soldering anything, I used a quick disconnects and wire crimpers to secure the leads inside. Its not anything worth bragging about, but it works, and you can't tell how ugly the innards are from the outside.

So there are are the arcade sticks I have for retro consoles. Some are integral to the experience of the particular consoles, some aren't.  Either way they are collectable and fun to play around with.


Friday, February 23, 2018

Review: Soukyugurentai for the Sega Saturn


One of the hardest to pronounce shoot'em ups for the Sega Saturn is one of my favorites, as I mentioned in my Top 10 Saturn Shooters post.

This game has so much going for it, and yet I think that it may be slightly under the radar, as It may be a tad intimidating due to all the Japanese menu text, and that fact that the title on the game is in Japanese as well. I had to consult a FAQ online to see what menu options there were, but once past that, the game can begin; there's no need for translation past that point.

???

The title screen suggests a language barrier, but solid gameplay is solid gameplay

One weird thing that I'll get out of the way first is that it was published only in Japan, and by Electronic Arts (EA)! At that time, they were known mostly for sports games like the Madden series, FIFA soccer, NBA Live, and so on, so when I saw this pop up on screen I was befuddled. Despite EA being the publisher,  the game developer was 8-ing or Raizing, or whichever one they were at the time. Popular titles they developed include Battle Garegga, Kingdom Grandprix, and others. I think that the company was formed after the demise of Compile, so there's some strong shoot'em up legacy there.
That's a lot of street lights below

The game opens with a cool launch sequence

The game is a vertically scrolling shooter, with co-op. The main feature is the web-targeting secondary weapon, similar to the one in Galactic Attack/Layer Section, but more satisfying in my opinion. If you hold down the targeting button, a large web projects out and any enemies within will be locked onto. Release the button and missiles/lasers will seek them out. There are three selectable ships, with different attributes and web patterns. I prefer the dome-shaped web, the one Dave and Joe from Game Sack affectionately refer to as a condom in one of their Let's Play episodes. Almost all enemies below you can be targeted, and this method seems to deal more damage than shooting them in the traditional manner. Using the web is so much fun, sometimes I forget to fire my primary weapon until I get to a boss.

Power ups can be picked up from shooting little supply ships, which release "P" icons. Collecting a certain amount of the small ones register a power up, and a large "P" icon will power you up automatically.


The web targeting mechanic is addictive

The visuals are gorgeous throughout the game. Much of the game seems to take place at night, and there are lighting effects on the streets and buildings that seem beyond a 32 bit console. The ships are brightly colored, almost cell-shaded before cell-shading was common. There is a lot of scaling as enemies change depth and swoop down from above or rise up from below.

The difficulty is adjustable, you just have to select the third menu from the start, and slide from 1 (easy) - 8 (hard). I usually start around level 3, as I like a balance of enjoyment and difficulty. Playing co-op is a blast, and it can get chaotic with all the web-targeting and firing from two ships at the same time.

I don't understand what this says, but it looks badass!

A neat feature is the boss warning HUD that appears right before a battle. I think it displays technical specs about the boss, such as weapon load out, name, favorite snacks, I don't know. An interesting fact: if you are using an Action Replay cart to play the Japanese imports, this screen gets all garbled and non-sensical. The rest of the game plays fine, though. I am using a Japanese Saturn, so there is no problem here. The game was reprinted with a slight change in title: Soukyugurentai Okuyo, which fixes the glitch.

There's a story in here somewhere, something about corporate battles and resources and bank accounts. I can't read it so maybe I made that up. It doesn't matter though, as the gameplay rocks. The music is another strong point for the game. Composed by Hitoshi Sakamoto, of Radiant Silvergun fame, it is a blend of classic orchestral and techno motifs. Definitely worth a listen on its own.

This game is not as ridiculously pricey as some of the other Saturn shooters, and can be found for around $40-50 at the time of this post. I completely recommend it, its a must have for fans of the genre.




Friday, February 16, 2018

Adult Gamer Stigma


I've debated about writing this topic for a while now. Its a personal subject, and one that some of you may be able to relate to. I don't know if I have the answer, I'm just looking for a little progress.

As an adult male, it seems the socially acceptable norms for recreation would be activities that are masculine, expensive, or both. Golf, gambling, cross-fit, hunting, drinking, and sports all expected forms of recreation for an American adult male. American culture has this set of machismo expectations for men, and gaming does not fit the profile. Video games are perceived to be something that kids and teenagers play in their parents' basement. Perhaps it has to do with mass media's portrayal of gamers, helping set an image of how a typical gamer looks and behaves. It would not be the first time that popular culture's concept of a stereotype bows to the lowest common denominator. Just look at The Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, or South Park's portrayal of a gamer. There's instant ridicule there, the easy targets, the low-hanging fruit.

Because we did it as children, as adults we should no longer continue to do so, like playing with matchbox cars or dolls. However, we have been watching television, movies, and videos out whole lives, and yet these activities are not frowned upon as adults. When it comes up that it is a hobby of mine, I get looks of surprise and disappointment, as if I were terminally ill. The implication is that it is something that I should have "grown out of". In this modern age when casual gaming on mobile phones and tablets is widespread, why does console gaming carry a stigma? If someone's hobby is watching movies or television, no one bats an eye, but if one plays video games as a hobby, it is perceived as juvenile.

Video gaming is just as commercially influential as the movie industry. In 2014, the gaming industry accounted for nearly $84 billion dollars in revenue, compared to $36 billion dollars from the movie industry. For something so prevalent, gaming is still shunned. Aside from the commercial aspect, I would argue that gaming involves more thought and problem solving that simply watching a video. A good game will have the player observe, attempt tasks, figure out patterns, and apply previous knowledge. A person is engaged throughout, responding to stimuli, making decisions, and adapting to new scenarios or rules. This cognitive aspect of gaming is swiftly dismissed, as non-gamers make assumptions of what it means to play a video game.

Being a retro gamer, I have an ample collection of games displayed in my basement. It is always a source of wonder whenever someone new comes over and gasps at these relics. Sometimes I feel judged, as if I were a hoarder who can't let go of anything. I generally express my pride in my hobby, and try to assure the guest that I do not have psychological issues, but I still feel the awkwardness. I shouldn't feel this way, but societal pressure to be and act a certain way causes this. While I generally think of myself as indifferent to people's opinions of me, especially those of people I don't know, I would be lying if I said I was impervious to it. Everyone's experiences may differ, and the people you surround yourself with may be more or less supportive. Just like anything else, people who don't know anything about a subject seek generalizations to understand. Couple that with the notion its something for kids, and you have an uphill battle when trying to explain your hobby to someone, as if you have to justify it.  If I'm honest, its not unlike being a closet gamer. Its my hobby, It makes me happy, its not hurting anyone, why should I care what other people think?

As a kid, I remember seeing "Trekkies" on TV and wondering what would make people behave that way; to travel to conventions, dress up, and obsess over a TV show. As an adult with a hobby that is unconventional, I can now better understand their zeal and passion. As I get older I realize I like what what I like, and I start to care less about what people think. That's when I started writing this blog. My purpose was to write down my knowledge and experiences with retro gaming, and perhaps help inform others who would be interested in learning more about this topic. If one person reads a blogpost and finds the content helpful or interesting, I take it as a success.

For years I have felt like I was alone in this hobby, and with the advent of Facebook groups I can finally have discussions with people who share this same interest. These are discussions that would rarely happen organically in my daily life, as there are so few people around me that share the interest. I have joined a number of groups, and find solace in the company of so many others that are like-minded.

I suppose the point of me writing this is to encourage gamers to embrace what they love, and not let social pressures inhibit them. We tell our children not to blindly do what peer pressure suggests, so we need to live by that philosophy. What about you? Do you feel judged because others around you think that gaming is just for kids?