Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: The Open Source Scan Converter (OSSC)

Anyone who has tried to connect a retro game system to a modern TV has no doubt experienced an unappealing, blurry image. This is due to the system sending a 240p video signal, which is interpreted as 480i by the modern TV. For those who don't know, 240p is an older resolution, with 240 lines of resolution, progressively drawn one at a time. 480i is 480 lines of resolution, interlaced, so the lines alternate to increase resolution, yet flicker in doing so. This was the standard television resolution for decades. This signal sent from the older consoles to the TV is like an ancient dialect, and pending the TV brand, correct interpretation varies from meager to none.
I love seeing this at startup, especially with scanline

For this reason many hardcore fans have kept a CRT lying around in their home somewhere. However, this is becoming more and more difficult to do as CRTs take up a lot of space, which gets hard to justify to others that you live with.

Some people want the ultimate in genuine old-school aesthetics, and go so far as to seek out a professional video monitor (pvm) or a broadcast video monitor (bvm) for their retro gaming. These monitors were super high-end, used by television studios and cost thousands of dollars back in the day. The quality of video output is undisputed for older analog sources. Timing was everything if you were trying to get one, as now they are nearly all depleted and have been long gone as we approach a decade of high-definition. I'm sure there were some people giving these away at some point, but in today's market, the remaining units are highly coveted and expensive. Also, they tend to be on the small side.
The Genesis 240p output is amazing, if viewed properly

The XRGB-Mini, known as the Framemeister is a device that converts and upscales old video output standards (240p, 480i) to a signal that your modern HD TV can relate to (720p. 1080p, etc). It does so cleanly and easily. I don't have a Framemeister, so I can't vouch for this myself, but from researching online it seems that there is between 1-2 frames of lag, and the 480p video handling could be better. The Framemeister is expensive. Not only is the unit itself expensive ($350-400), but it will no longer be manufactured after 2017, which will only drive prices higher on the secondary market. Add to that the necessary RGB scart cables and cable adapters (component and RGB) for the ports on the Framemeister, and you're easily adding another couple hundred dollars. Whether this is worth it or not will vary from person to person, like taste in cars.

So long old friend, you've had a good life

My previous setup utilized RGB scart cables, transcoded into a component signal into a Sony Wega Trinitron (2002). As much as people online raved about the Framemeister, I just couldn't get myself to take the plunge. I had decided that RGB through component into the WEGA was good enough for me.

Then I heard about the Open Source Scan Convertor (OSSC). It is a line doubler, instead of an upscaler. That means it converts 240p signals into 480p signals on the fly, without the need to process the image (and hence no lag!), and outputs via HDMI. I'm pretty sensitive to lag, so this, along with at lower price point (less than half of the Framemeister) was what sealed the deal for me. If your TV allows, you can even integer scale the picture at 3x, 4x, and even 5x. My TV is an older LCD and would not, but the default 2x looks pretty awesome to me.

There are three inputs connections:
Scart - accepts RGBs, RGsB (sync on green) and YPbPr

Component - accepts YPbPr and RGsB (sync on green)
VGA - accepts RGBhv, RGBs, RGsB (sync on green) and YPbPr

Scart cables are necessary for the RGB output, and these can be easily found online these days. They are system specific.

Note that there is no composite nor S-video input. This is really not an issue, as anyone who gets this far research-wise is not looking to use those sub-par connections anyway, so why clutter things up?

My OSSC is version 1.6, which includes audio out via HDMI, which the previous versions did not have natively onboard. There is a micro-SD card slot for firmware updates, and audio in jacks for the VGA and component sources (the RGB scart .

The 6th generation consoles that output 480i are processed to reduced the jittering that takes pace when interlaced video is displayed, giving the overall picture a steadier appearance. 480p video output can be passed through or line doubled to 960p. There were a few games per system that did this, and you will need the infamous Gamecube component cables for that console.
Dreamcast games never looked better

I have been waiting for a proper solution for my Dreamcast to come along for a while. I could have hooked it up to my HDTV via VGA (which looked great), but I wanted it to reside alongside its 6th generation counterparts, instead of the oddball next to the PS3 and PS4. So I had it hooked via S-video. Now that there is a dedicated port for VGA to hdmi, my problem is solved.

After a week of playing around, I couldn't be happier with the results. Nearly all of the default settings worked to perfection out of the box. There are advanced options to fiddle with, but I am not as technically inclined to know exactly how to do everything with it, so I am totally ok with the default setting for each signal. Scanlines can be toggled on and off, as well as adjusted for thickness.
It's a little ironic to add scanlines to a system that is digitally processed to double the number of lines, after all, scanlines are the absent lines on CRTs due to resolution limitations. I still like them, and I think that game developers kept them in mind when designing graphics back in the day. I prefer them with older systems, and may or may not turn them on with 6th generation consoles.
Scanlines are a must for NES games

Here's what I have connected:

via scart using a Bandridge manual 5-port switcher
NES (RGB modded)
Genesis (model 1 w/stereo scart cable)
SNES (1-chip)
Bandridge scart switches are hard to come by

via component using an Impact 6-port component powered switcher :
PC-Engine Duo (component mod)
Gamecube (via official Nintendo component cables)

via VGA:
Dreamcast (3rd party VGA cable)
with scanlines at 18%
no scanlines

The only system that I am unable to connect with this is my N64. Coincidentally, this is my least favorite system, and I'm not terribly bothered. Perhaps some day I'll get it RGB modded so it can join its brethren in my setup.

Final Thoughts
I am very happy with the picture quality that the OSSC puts out. It does everything I need it to, and does it well. Far and away the best feature is having no input lag, which even the Framemeister cannot claim. It is compact, and has direct connections for all of my video inputs (except the aforementioned S-video, for which it gets a pass) without needing more adapters (D-terminal and scart adapters, for example). I like the fact that my setups have been consolidated, as I can obviously connect modern consoles to the same TV as the OSSC. For all that you get, the price is right. Given that this is open source, more improvements and tweaks can reasonably be expected. I thought I would stick it out with my Wega CRT but after switching I don't see going back. I highly recommend the OSSC for anyone who wants to play old school on modern TVs with no lag.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Review: NES Classic Edition

Nintendo lit the retro gaming world on fire when it announced the NES Classic Edition in the summer of 2016. Anticipation was fervent, and it was destined to be the hottest item of the year. If only people were able to get one. The quantities produced did not match demand, and so most people had to resort to the online grey market in order to get one. Selling for between 2-3 times msrp, it was the scalper's dream come true. I have never seen such a disconnect between public demand and production, Nintendo severely underestimated demand.

Fortunately (and unfortunately), I procured one at the relatively low price point when Nintendo announced that more would be produced. Ebay prices temporarily dropped, and that's when I got mine. Its a good thing I did, because the prices increased again since then.
Capitalism reigns on eBay

The build quality is top-notch, as the detail in mimicking the original NES is as expected. Of course there are no cartridges, as the roms are stored internally, so the door does not open. The power and reset buttons are functional, as is the power light. Two controller ports are placed exactly where you would expect them, although they are the Wii-type connection. This means you can use the Wii classic controllers if you have them, as the Classic only ships with one.

Newborn babies are longer than this cord
The included controller is a nearly perfect replica. I say nearly because I found the d-pad to be ever so slightly mushier than an original, and this caused some issues when trying to block Great Tiger's hypnotic attack in Punch-Out!! Also the cord is ridiculously short. This is befuddling to me why they made it so short. Is it because in Japan, space is at a premium, and so tv sizes are smaller and people sit on the floor to play games? Even, then, this is still too short, so who knows? Maybe this was done so that licensed third parties could produce extension cords. The reset button exits you out of a game and back to the main menu, so maybe this was done to keep that action in mind, as the controller does not have a rest button. The Wii classic controller has a home button, which functions as the reset button, so if you like that controller, that's the way to go. Just get yourself a controller extension cord.

Using the home button on a Wii classic controller will reset the game to the main menu.

The video output is 720p, though hdmi. You can choose between three picture modes:
  • 4:3 mode - The 4:3 mode keeps the ratios as you remember them. This conforms to the shape of an old tube tv, but there will be some visual inconsistencies as digital pixels are actually square. Of particular mention is the "shimmering" of backgrounds when side-srcolling. It doesn't bother me that much, but some hate it.
  • pixel perfect - Pixel perfect makes every pixel exactly square shaped, which may appear skinnier to those of us who remember old crt tvs. This is closer to how emulators play old games by default, but this bothers me more than the shimmer.
  • crt mode - Crt mode adds scanlines and intentional blurriness, reminiscent of rf and composite connections. I prefer scanlines, but not the fuzziness of old connections, its too bad that these options were not separate from one another.

There are no issues with sound quality as far as I can tell, but there are people who hear things that maybe I cannot.

To the average person, and the intended audience of this product, these picture modes will be more than sufficient. While purists may scoff at the lack of video customization that other more expensive options may present, this is not directed at them. They will already have their ideal setup, tweaks and all. This is a $60 product meant to draw in people with nostalgia. With that in mind I don't feel like it should be judged harshly.

One thing that really makes this a convenient way to play NES games is the ability to save progress.  Nintendo games can be known to be unforgiving, and for a 9 year old kid with lots of free time this is a test of will; all you need is time and you can crack it. For an adult, with maybe thirty minutes to an hour to play, saving states is a godsend. You can save up to four separate states for each game, which is plenty. No more 5 hour blocks of time set aside for Rygar, or ridiculously long Metroid passwords!

The game selection is modest but deliberate, with the majority of the 30 games being first party franchises, including the mario games, zeldas, kirby, some black box games, and so on. There are a few third party games, including entries from NES-era third parties like Capcom, Konami, Tecmo, and others. Of course with only 30 games, you can't please everyone. While Nintendo tried to gather the best representation of what was available, licensing and ip ownership likely thwarted some titles from appearing (TMNT2: The Arcade Game, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out, Duck Tales, etc). Having said that, one glaring omission was the original Contra. Konami is still represented on the Classic, so why did they include the less popular Super C instead of the renowned original?

An interesting development is that there are now Chinese knock-offs proliferating the market. These have extremely similar packaging, and to the untrained eye would appear as genuine. There are several iterations of this bootleg. some have hdmi video output, some do not. Some offer the original lineup of games, some have many more. The physical case and appearance are very close. I don't have one, but I have watched several YouTube videos on the fakes and they are remarkably indistinguishable. I haven't seen a fake this convincing since the Ginga Fukei Densetsu repros a few years back. Be careful if you buy online.
Can you tell what is off about this package?

Using Hackchi, I was able to add custom folder images
So, for anyone who feels that there should be more games, there is a solution. It is super easy to hack the Classic and add whatever games you want to it using a program called Hackchi. Keep in mind that this involves roms, so whatever stance you have on downloading roms, whether you have original nes games and are using "backup" roms, that is a personal choice and not the point of this article. For me personally, I am only interested in the games I already own, plus a few that are prohibitively expensive to own (Little Samson, Metal Storm, etc.).  You can even add retroarch (an emulation program for many systems) and add any emulator that linux can support. Just for kicks, I added my PC-Engine roms to it and it plays them well. I didn't bother with SNES or Genesis as the controller would not be compatible, having just two buttons. Retroarch is also very useful to play roms that the stock emulator does not have mappers for. Some games won't play unless there is an alternate emulator installed that can (Gradius 2, for example).

The gameplay is solid, with nominal lag. With my HD tv set to "game" mode, there seems to be less lag than with other emulation methods. There are certain games that I use as a nonscientific test for lag, the bonus game in Super Mario Bros. 2 being one of them. I have a pattern that I use to get a cherry for the first box every time. If there's too much lag, I can't do it. I was able to do this on the Classic, so it passes my lag test.

Add whatever games you like! 
So, assuming you can find one (Nintendo stated that more will be released summer of 2018), I recommend this to anyone interested in playing these games again, in HD, with a simple setup. It is very portable, great for parties, and the price point (msrp) is right. Even as someone who already owned these games, it is a fun, hassle-free device that provides convenience.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Book Review: Sega Power Tips (Official) volumes 1-3

Anyone who grew up in the NES era probably remembers the Nintendo Player's Guide. It was one of the first of its kind, a treasure trove of tips, maps, reviews, screen shots, and secret codes. It was a major source of gaming help, before the internet. All of the maps and picture were in full color, and the paper quality was top notch. Some NES games were so hard, having the guide leveled the playing field. It was prominently displayed next to the Nintendo games in any store, and was immediately recognizable in any kid's room. Nintendo would continue this tradition of releasing high-quality strategy guides, although eventually only releasing them through subscriptions with Nintendo Power Magazine. These guides were so great, it made subscribing completely worth it. Some guides were stand alone books for a specific game, like Super Mario Bros. 3, Ninja Gaiden 2, and so on. Others were more like compendiums, in the spirit of the original Nintendo Player's guide. Either way, they were treasures to behold.

I guess I didn't realize that Sega had their own strategy guides as well, called Sega Power Tips. I was totally surprised when I learned of their existence. Granted, I was in high school by then and paid less attention to video games than I did in middle school, but still I find it odd that I had never come across one.

So I hopped online and bought all three volumes for a few bucks. There are three volumes, each covering games from a certain year. Trying to keep the release date in mind, I examined these and found that avoiding comparisons to Nintendo's line of strategy books was impossible. So let's compare.

Let's start with the good:

  • The pages are in full color
  • There is a decent variety of games covered
  • Important series are represented: Sonic, Golden Axe, Shinobi, et al.
  • Strategies for bosses are provided
  • Cheat codes are provided, if available

Ok, now the bad:
  • Most games only have 2 pages of coverage.
  • There is a lot of empty space on the pages.
  • Games have repeat coverage...why?
  • The screen shot quality is just ok.
  • There are few maps. For some games, random stages are shown.
  • The stiffness of the pages leads to the pages separating from the binding easily. Maybe this is due to the age of the book, but the Nintendo books are the same age and don't have this problem.

The bonding quality is poor: many of the pages are a quick turn from falling out

I now understand why I had never heard of these books before. It is because they are subpar in comparison. If they were hot sellers, they would definitely have been more prominent in stores, friends' houses, etc. It almost seems like the authors/producers were told make a Genesis games guide, but their hearts weren't in it.

I bought them because I love the Sega Genesis and that period of gaming, but I would not really recommend these books to anyone except archivists. Just as Sega Visions was relatively weak compared to Nintendo Power, the level of quality is not up to the standard that Nintendo set with their strategy guides. It's a shame, really, because Sega was peaking in the industry, gaining ground on market share, and they just shat out a turd of strategy guide instead of seizing the opportunity. I suppose this foreshadowing of what is to come for Sega, as bad decision after bad decision led to their eventual downfall.

I still love Sega, but I won't win any arguments using these as examples. Oh well.

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)