Thursday, September 14, 2017

Review: Advanced Busterhawk Gleylancer for Sega Genesis/Mega Drive

Advanced Busterhawk Gley Lancer (awesome name-no idea what it means) is one of the premier shoot'em ups for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. Unfortunately, the game was not released outside of Japan. You can play the game through emulators or reproduction carts (~$30).

Or you can buy the original import game on eBay for about $600. I went with a reproduction.
Whaaaatttt??? How would this even have 12 watchers on eBay?!
That's the result of the Mega Drive not performing well in its home country, and thus not as many units produced. Scarcity will drive up any value, and shooters are a hot genre in retro gaming, so...
Being a Japanese exclusive, the story text is in Japanese. Basically a teenage girls hijacks an experimental spacecraft to go to find her father, who is MIA. If you really want to read the text, you can download a translated rom online and play it on your Everdrive or emulator.

Crazy prices aside, this is an excellent game. A horizontal scroller in the vein of the Thunder Force series, Gleylancer exhibits tight control and refined mechanics.  You can collect up to two options (called gunners), and there are seven varieties:
  • Twin shot - a basic vulcan dual stream of bullets, pretty reliable 
  • flamethrower - a short range flame, sounds better than it is
  • laser - a piercing laser shot, as expected
  • spread - a spread of 5 bullets (think Contra), but not as much range
  • saber - a concentrated saber of light - very powerful, but you need to be close to use it
  • bounce - bullets that bounce off of walls and obstacles; useful in tight quarters, weak otherwise
  • bombs - slow firing bombs that have explosions on contact, hard to use
The coolest feature is the ability to customize the control of your options (called gunners). This is selected at the start of the game.
Gunner movement types:

  • normal - The gunners follow you, as if on a string (similar to the options in Gradius). You can lock the gunners' position by holding the C button. This is very helpful, as you can keep the gunners in front of you to clear out pesky enemies in narrow passages before your ship is subject to fire.
  • reverse - The gunners move in the opposite direction that you do. This is good for firing and retreating simultaneously, but not great for offensive tactics.
  • search - The gunners will fire at the enemies on their own. The game actually tells you that this is not too reliable, probably because there is no prioritization of targets.
  • multi - each gunner restricts its fire to its side of the ship, either topside or bottom.
  • multi-r - The gunners are still restricted to 180˚, but the direction of fire is opposite to your movement.
  • shadow - The gunners follow your ship closely, mimicking your movements, while firing forward.
  • roll - The gunners constantly circle your ship, shooting in all directions.
Controlling the gunner's direction of shot and maneuvering your ship is the challenge, and the fun. While logic would dictate that avoiding enemy fire is job number 1, you may get caught up in focusing your fire on a specific point, and lose track of the errant lone bullet. Lesson learned. This mechanic is what keeps me coming back.

The gameplay is very smooth, with selectable speed settings, which are selectable while paused. This is a much appreciated detail, which is not common. If you die, you get sent back to a checkpoint. This is typical of the genre, especially in one-player games, but here it is not that bad. Checkpoints in some games can make the rest of the game nigh impossible (Gradius) as you cannot get powered-up sufficiently to match the difficulty of the remaining stage. Here, you will most likely get a weapon and a gunner before the end boss. The difficulty is a nudge above average, and progresses nicely.

The visuals are clean and well designed. Even though the Genesis had a limited color palette in comparison to the other 16-bit consoles, this limitation often lends itself to crisp, clean sprites as shown here. Everything on screen pops with high contrast, but not in an obnoxious fashion.  This game has parallax scrolling galore, which is always a good thing for space shooters (where the black background can bore). The stages are in very appealing, in general.

the asteroid field exhibits some of the finest parallax the Genesis has to offer
This game has vocalizations at times, and while its a nice touch, the lines can be cheesy: "stick to it and believe yourself". The power ups that you collect are also vocalized. The voice sounds like its coming from a kid robot through a blown speaker. Still, its a nice touch. The music is better than average; not rocking the house like in Thunderforce III, but more melodic and enjoyable than most Genesis shooters.

Overall, this is an excellent shooter that represents both the system and genre well. Any fan of either should play this game.

Friday, September 8, 2017

My Adventure with RetroPie

The recent NES classic craze/debacle has many people enticed and upset. The NES classic, being an hdmi plug 'n play console with 30 of the most fondly remembered games was an epiphany for Nintendo. Anyone who fondly remembers the NES would love to get one as a holiday or birthday gift, and at $60, the price was right. The problem was that no one could get their hands on one. They were sold out everywhere. Scalpers have the market cornered, and at minimum you can buy one online at three times the msrp. Nintendo really dropped the ball on this one......or did they? Some think that Nintendo cut short production as to not cannibalize their direct download sales. Others think that the company prides itself on the shortage of their product, as if it represents high demand for their desirable products. Whatever the reason, people were awakened to idea of emulating retro games in HD quality.

Typical eBay listings for the NES classic as of this writing

I had heard about RetroPie two years ago. I had just gotten my fourth and last Everdrive, the SD2SNES, and stumbled upon some discussion about emulation on the interwebs. Even though emulation has been around since the 90's, gaming on a computer never appealed to me. I prefer consoles for their ease of use and comfort. Gaming at a computer desk is not my cup of tea, so it was never really an option for me. Then I heard about the people loading roms on a Raspberry Pi, running a program called Emulation Station, through Retropie. I browsed some YouTube videos, and thought, for a $40 computer the size of a deck of cards, why not? So I bought a starter kit on Amazon, which included the motherboard, case, power supply, micro SD card, HDMI cord, and two iBuffalo snes-style controllers. The cost for all of it was $80, which is understandable considering the necessary hookups.

These starter kits are widely available

Almost immediately after ordering I realized that I would need a way to get my roms onto the Pi. After watching several videos on how to do this, I got a sense of it, but I wasn't that confident, since most tutorials were for PC users. I hopped on Etsy, and saw several preloaded micro SD cards for just a few bucks more than the retail cost of the cards themselves. They advertised that the cost was for the labor, not for the roms, which were free. I realize that the ethics of rom sharing are grey, but there was no way to get just the roms for games that I own on the card from these vendors. I took a chance, and ordered one. When received it, it was just as advertised. However, there were things I did not care for. The menu style was very straight forward and bland (Carbon - for those of you who are familiar). There were redundant versions of arcade games (Mame), many of which would not work. I found it annoying to have to remember which did and did not work. The entire romsets for each of the systems were present, which sounds awesome. After a while, you realize that it is laborious to sort through and find the games I wanted to play. Each time I turned it on, I would constantly scroll, through game listings, since almost half of each system's library was garbage. So, it sat for a while.

A while had passed, and I was discovered how to add new themes in RetroPie. This renewed my interest. Kind of like fine dining, where the food presentation is half of the appeal, clean and detailed themes help sell the overall appeal of RetroPie. There are a couple of themes that I really like, and switch back and forth between. Tronkyfran offers clean, high resolution pics of the consoles in the menu. Comic Book takes game images and presents them through a comic-paper style, and is colorful and fun. Retrorama offers beautiful artistic interpretations of consoles, with a pulp comic flair. Showcase is a versatile theme that allows you to add favorites into one collection, as well as custom themes (I made some for Mega Man, Street Fighter, Konami, Capcom, etc.), recently played, and other playlist options.

Being that the RetroPie founders are mainly based in the U.K., the console titles were presented they way they remember them. Specifically, the Genesis was presented as the Mega Drive. This is not that big of a deal, but I always wanted the Genesis logo instead. After much more searching, I learned how to change the logo to Genesis, and also the corresponding boxart. This little detail was big for me.

Now that I have improved the visual appeal of the RetroPie interface, I wanted to customize the game libraries for each system. I have the roms for the physical games that I own in a folder already, from when I was setting up my Everdrives. I learned how to transfer files over a network. Now I have a much shorter list of games, which is curated to only those that I enjoy. No more scrolling through pages of games that I don't care for. There are instances where I have roms of games that I'll probably never have, like Little Samson or Eliminate Down. I'm ok with that.

Next was connecting wirelessly to a bluetooth controller. Since I found myself moving the Raspberry Pi around the house to different tvs on occasion, I found sitting on the floor a not so comfortable option, given that I have now entered my forties. After doing some research, there are three Bluetooth options that I can choose from.

The first is a SNES-styled controller from a company called 8Bitdo. The controller and Pi require an update in order to work together. I had to update the setup script on the Pi, not a bad thing to, as it is good general maintenance. Updating the firmware on the controller was frustrating at best. Maybe it was because I was using a Mac computer, but the instructions on how to do so have a lot to be desired. Eventually I got it to work, but the order of steps on the support website for 8Bitdo do not work for Mac users. Once updated, the controller can be synced by following the prompts in the Bluetooth menu under RetroPi setup. Again, there are some non-intuitive steps needed here - YouTube the procedure. Now that it is setup, I think it is a great controller for RetroPie. There is a tiny bit of lag associated with the wireless connection, but it is only noticeable in games that necessitate twitch-like movements. In general, input lag can be reduced by setting the HDMI input to "game" mode on your tv.

My second option is to connect a PS4 controller. This was far easier to sync than the 8Bitdo. You can setup the analog stick to act as the d-pad input, if you like. I have always felt the Playstation d-pads are uncomfortable, and I generally try to avoid using it. Using the analog stick for a 2D game like Contra feels kinda wonky, as the movements and my muscle memory don't seem to work right.

My third option is using a WiiU Pro Controller. Like the PS4 controller, it was easy to sync as well. It has a better d-pad than the PS4 controller, but the d-pad is too centrally located, and I found it awkward to use. Also, the buttons on are a bit too close together, and I found myself hitting the wrong buttons several times.

I also have a wired usb Hori fight stick that I use for the arcade fighting games. It has a long cord (10 feet, I think). It's great for most arcade games in general. Overall, my preferred controllers are the iBuffalo wired SNES controller for conventional games, the 8Bitddo Bluetooth controller if I'm far from the tv, or the arcade stick.

The most recent project for me was integrating video snaps into the themes. A snap is a video preview that plays while a title is highlighted on the game select screen. Not all themes are compatible with video previews, but a lot of the newer themes are. This was the largest hurdle for me, and was very time intensive. I nearly gave up, but eventually I pieced together a method from several sources that I found. I needed to upgrade the size of my SD card to accommodate the video files for each game, but it is so worth it. To be able to see each game in action before selecting is just about my favorite feature of RetroPie.

This was a feature that was previously only seen in a specialized RetroPie interface called Attract Mode. Attract mode is too busy for me, and requires a lot more space on SD cards, and is a bit more cumbersome as far as setting up controls. In attract mode, not all of the systems work with the same controller setup, and you'll have to enter the Retroarch menu to customize controls for that emulator. I tried doing this, and messed something up frequently- not recommended. I prefer Emulation Station as the default Libretto cores (emulator programs) all follow the same controller setup, so it all works after bootup.

Learning how to set this up is no trivial matter, it was nearly a year for me at this point. I shared my images with friends, as the end result is that we get together and play through a few hours of classic games together, in the same room in front of the same tv. These are friends that would never have started to collect retro games (especially during these times of peak prices), but want to relive their childhood. I don't feel bad about this as I don't charge them.

So, if you missed the boat on the NES Classic Edition and want to try some retrogaming, HD-style, look into RetroPie on a Raspberry Pi. You won't need to delve as deep as I did, and it will function pretty flawlessly at the intro level. With each new update, improvements are made to make the user experience more manageable. Just be prepared to get lost in the possibilities.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Book Review: Hardcore Gaming 101 Presents

This is some gorgeous cover art

As of this writing, retrogaming popularity is at an all-time high. Products focusing on retrogaming are popping up left and right, from clone consoles to toys to remakes/reboots of classic franchises. With the advent of social media and YouTube, finding information about any retrogaming topic is just a few clicks away. It seems that anyone who is into retrogaming has a YouTube channel or website. Before the surge in popular interest, there were a few websites and channels that seeded the scene with quality content.

Kurt Kalata's Hardcore Gaming 101 website has been a go-to of mine for years. It offers a wealth of reviews, spanning every imaginable system, genre, and game. Articles are continuously being added, whether they are by Kurt himself of affiliates, and chances are, if you are interested in a game or series, they'll have it covered. The depth of the research reaches the esoteric an uncommon, as well as well documented fodder.

A few years ago, HCG-101 started compiling themed volumes of their writings, and publishing them in soft cover, available on Amazon. These books are about the same dimensions of a trade paperback graphic novel, and just as visually appealing. Each book typically contain 75-150 pages, depending. The cover art is routinely  excellent, and the layout is efficiently packed with as much information as possible. Some pictures could be larger, but that is editorial discretion. Each volume generally costs around $15-$25, and often sell out. They can be bought on the secondary market for slight markups if out of print.

Here's a typical page layout
The content offers origins of the game, description of play mechanics, release information, box art, screen shots, fairly objective reviews, and more. Most likely you may find new games that you did not know were related to your favorites. Particularly interesting are the port comparison screen shots for the ports across several systems.

Volumes include compendiums on particular franchises (Contra, Castlevania), developers (Konami, Sega, Data East, Taito), genres (shoot'em ups), and others.

The back of the book has summary capsules of how/where to play the games

While one may ask: "why pay for it when it is free online?", you need to remember who the intended audience is. Retro gamers and collectors like tangible artifacts, and this extends to ephemera such as books and trinkets. Some people like to hold and read a book, and turn pages instead of holding a device and swiping at a screen.

These are really a joy to read. The research is thorough, and the screen shots are extensive. My only gripe is that the paper quality could be better, albeit at a premium price (which not everybody would be willing to pay for).

I highly recommend these to anyone who likes having a solid book in their hands to read. Even if you already read some of the articles on HG101, these are nice compilations to have. I plan on collecting all of the the volumes that cover my favorite games/genres.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Game Collecting: When is Enough Enough?

After collecting and playing retro games for over a decade, I believe I have now reached the (reasonable) end of my want list. When I started, it was primarily to play games that I played as a kid. I never intended to have entire sets for any console. As I would browse online reviews and lists, I would stumble upon other great games that I missed. I always vetted a game thoroughly before I decided to buy, unless I was presented with a great deal.

While I don't consider myself a collector in the strictest sense of the word, I do have sub-collection goals, which are easier and more reasonable to achieve. Mostly shoot' em up, beat' em up, and run'n gun games for my favorite systems. Having an entire collection never made sense for me, considering how many sub-par games there are on each system. I can easily skip past them. I suppose my collection takes more of a personalized character, instead of a "collection".
The NES Mega Man games were aways a big part of my youth, and I still play them to this day.

This became apparent to me at the Midwest Gaming Classic. As I cruised through the vendors tent, I either did not find any games that I was dying to have, or did not want to pay the stratospheric prices for the few left that I do want (like Image Fight/X-Multiply on Saturn). In a tent of hundreds of game vendors, I came away with only filler games, most of which I could do without. Perhaps I felt obligated to pick up something, as I made the trip up there. I bought them because I got deals on filler titles, not because I was seeking them out. This was telling; my collecting was nearing an end.

I can finally say that my collection is nearly where I want it; a curated collection of the games and genres that I enjoy. From what I can tell my "collection" is fairly modest compared to many of the collection pics I see on social media. Between Facebook groups, Pinterest, Twitter and the like, game room and collection pics are the selfies of the retro gamer community. I see collections that are filled with boxed sets, sealed games, and all the accoutrements that follow.  After all, collections are prized possessions and achievements, so why shouldn't they be displayed for all to see? It's fun to see the enthusiasm for the hobby and the creative ways that games are stored and displayed. Even still, sometimes these can be off-putting as a grotesque "look at me and what I have" sentiment persists. There seems to be some "keeping up with the Joneses".

Capcom 2D fighters on the Sega Saturn are a favorite subcollection

I know that I enjoy playing most every game that I have, and that is good enough for me (granted, I have a backlog of several dozen games to actually get to). After watching "hidden gems" videos on YouTube, I get the sense that those videos are scraping the bottom of the barrel.  There are fewer "hidden gems" and any further lists on the topic are strained. For the most part, we have seen the best of what retro gaming has to offer. Sure, there may be reasons why a game stands out: an interesting gimmick, a reason for rarity, or historical significance, but as far as it being fun? We would have seen it by now. I could actually not buy another game and be perfectly happy with what I have.

This sentiment may be coming at the right time, as game prices seem to be at an all-time high. If I started collecting today, I would probably just use an Everdrive, or Retropie, depending on their situation. When people ask, that's what I tell them anyway. I'm not sure if this means my passion for the hobby will fade. I hope not. I like to think of it as focusing my energy on actually enjoying the games I have, instead of seeking things out. That's really the point, is it not?

My Saturn heavies; worth the price of admission (when I bought them)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Midwest Gaming Classic

The Midwest Gaming Classic is an annual gaming convention held at the Sheraton Hotel in Brookfield, Wisconsin (just outside of Milwaukee). The recent focus is on retrogaming, although I believe it had tabletop gaming in its origins. The event usually takes place the second weekend of April. Advance ticket orderers can attend pre-conference events on Friday night.
This event draws attendees from all over, and hotel rooms fill up, to the point where neighboring hotels open up blocks of rooms as well. This event has grown significantly in size over the last five years. As far as I know, it is the only retro gaming convention in the area. I constant hear of conventions on the west coast in San Diego, Portland, Seattle, and so on, so this is a big draw as it is a rarity in these parts.

The convention offers panel discussions, live podcasts, a history of consoles room, an arcade hall, consoles set up in the hallways, tournaments, club rooms and of course, the giant vendor tent. The first time I attended, it was all quite overwhelming. To truly get to see everything, you need to go both days, otherwise you have to ration your time.

I wasn't quite sure how to write about all of this, as I did not get to see every corner of it, so I'll jsut post all the pics that I took so you can get a feel for what it was like.

This vendor was selling cool 3D Perler bead figures 
A vintage Atari game testing unit, originally displayed in department stores.

lots of barcades and minicabs for sale

I thought this history of American Video game cartridges display was really cool 
Consoles are setup in most of the hallways, and secured to the tables in one way or another

The conference is free for kids 10 and under; a very family friendly event

Certain hallways have themes for the displayed games, like the fight club shown here
Fighting games on display often boasted arcade sticks for an authentic experience

Younger kids were getting into all of these older games

Two friends playing some Goldeneye next to each other, as it should be

Hey, you're way too close to the tv, thats cheating!

Various tournaments are in progress throughout the day, with judges recording scores and times

Most people probably don't know the the original Metal Gear game was first on the obscure MSX computer system

A Neo Geo (arcade version) and an RGB monitor was one of my favorite things to see 
A Pinball merchants room offers parts and repairs.

Always one of my favorite spots

Gradius V was on display - its a lot of fun in 2 player coop

8 player Super Smash Brothers always draws a crowd
The TurboFest room is one example of the club rooms, where a room is rented out and dedicated to a particular system. 

Nearly every version of the Turbo Grafx/PC Engine is available to try out here 
It's hard to see, but here are the PC Engine shuttle, PC-FX, and PC-Engine Duo RX consoles, from left to right. You won't find these in you local pawn shop.

A newly produced PC Engine game is available to play: Henshin Engine on a wall projector. It was fun, it reminded me of Valis.

The vendor tent is ENORMOUS

Valuable games are kept behind glass 

More common games are in bins up front
As a Mega Man junkie, I was heavily tempted

Famicom games have become more popular at the MGC recently
Lots of Japanese Super Famicom games are cheaper than American equivalents. Remember, you can use translation patches on the Retron 5 to save lots of money on RPGs.
So, if you have any interest at all in retro gaming (you wouldn't be reading this if you weren't), check out the Midwest Gaming Classic in Brookfield, WI. I can't compare it to other conventions, as this is the only one that I have attended, but its an awesome experience, and you'll be able to see, play, and buy games that you probably won't find anywhere else!