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?


Sunday, February 11, 2018

Best Controller for Shoot'em Ups: Stick or D-pad?


If you have poked around on this blog at all, you may notice that many of my posts are based on shoot'em ups. Systems like the Saturn, Genesis, PC-Engine, and Dreamcast most notably come to mind when tallying the vast riches of shoot'em ups. This post is not about is not what system reigns, or which games are the best; I wanted to discuss the type of controller that I use for shoot'em ups.

It should be noted that the genre of shoot'em ups has sub-generes, including but not limited to: traditional side-scrolling, traditional vertical scrolling, bullet hell, Euro shmup, On-rails, run'n gun, cute'em ups, isometric, and others. Depending on the type of gameplay, the preferred control scheme may change.
Older shooters had more environmental hazards

Older (traditional) shoot'em ups are generally slower-paced. Emphasis is placed on navigating environmental hazards as well as enemy fire and flying enemies themselves. Respawning after death occurs at checkpoints, often woefully underpowered. Memorization and reflexes are requisite skills here. Examples include Gradius, R-Type, Aleste, Darius, Star Soldier, Thunder Force, and others.

Modern shoot'em ups tend to be of the bullet-hell variety, where hundreds of bullets are spewed across the screen, and you have to navigate the slim pockets of empty space between them to survive. The hitboxes of your avatar are generously small, as you will need all the help you can get. With so many bullets on screen at once, the key to survival is small movements, taps at a time. It is hard to enjoy the backrgound scenery (which is usually gorgeous) as you cannot take your eyes off of your craft.
Small movements are key to surviving bullet hell

I have played all types of shooters with both a standard d-pad and an arcade stick. The arcade stick presents better aesthetically. Larger buttons, a firm grip on the joystick, and solid base all recall (or simulate) the nostalgic arcade experience. However, I find that my performance lacks when using one; I never seem to get as far in the game with the arcade stick. The total gross movement necessary to initiate movement is exaggerated on a joystick, and less subtle, almost to the point where there is wasted motion. This of course is subject to the quality of the joystick, and more specifically, the dead zone. The dead zone is the physical range in which the stick moves but does not register a movement. This is easy to notice on a stick that has microswitches, as you would hear the click as you move the stick. A good stick will have as small of a dead zone as possible. There is a lot of truth in the old adage: "you get what you pay for". Oddly enough, While the microswitches are associated with higher quality control, the actual sound of the clicking mildly annoys me. I feel that a controller should not be noisy, it detracts from the experience. I do have a few high quality sticks, and even still, I am able to more accurately navigate with a good directional pad, and can respond more quickly.
I modded my DC stick with Sanwa parts. I even scuffed it between the buttons with the dremmel for "character".

Just like anything else, not all d-pads are created equally. This is very much a "feel", and everyone will have their own preferences. My favorite d-pads are: Saturn (model 2), Genesis (6-buton), and SNES. The Saturn pad has the perfect amount of range and cushiony resistance, and due to its circular base, all directions are equally and easily pressed. The Genesis 6-button has a very similar d-pad, so similar that it might be the same. The SNES pad has a cross base, much like the NES, yet is easier on the thumb than the NES d-pad. I don't like it quite as much as the diagonals are not as easy to press on a cross pad when compared to a circular based pad. I wish the PC-Engine controller had a better d-pad. It's ok, but its a tad smaller than the average d-pad and not as comfortable as the others mentioned.

The gold standard, in my opinion
Since we're on the topic of shoot'em up controls, I feel I must mention my disappointment in the Dreamcast controller, both the d-pad and the analog stick. The d-pad is raised fairly high above the controller base, and has sharper angles in its mold, making for painful use. The analog stick is plastic as well, and a bit slippery. There are texture bumps on the top, but they generally wear down quickly, so any controller used for an average amount of play has been worn down to a shine. For a system with a wealth of shoot'em ups, this is a major letdown. Luckily, the Total Control 3 adapter lets you use Saturn controllers for the Dreamcast. The Ascii Arcade Stick is quite good as well.


Top entries in the d-pad hall of shame

Another letdown is the Playstation (1,2,3) d-pad. Instead of a circular or cross base, there are 4 directional "bumps" that attempt to simulate a d-pad. This design is perhaps worse than that of Dreamcast. The amount of pressure needed to navigate diagonals is uncomfortably high, and blisters set in rather quickly. The Playstation 1 and 2 have a decent amount of quality shoot'em ups, so this is potentially a problem. There are a few arcade sticks available, and some third-party controllers to choose from. I was lucky enough to stumble upon what I consider the holy grail of PS1/2 shooter controllers: the official Sega Logistical Services Saturn pad for Playstation. It is a genuine Sega Saturn controller, made specifically for Playstation. These are kinda rare, yet so worth it.
Its not a myth

In conclusion, I feel that using a stick is better experience on shoot'em ups, but d-pads allow for better performance. If I was to truly attempt to beat a game, I'd have to go with a d-pad. Everyone is different, this is just where I am at. I'm curious to see what others think on the matter.

I should mention that I use a lot of these sticks for 2D fighting games. I find I need the sticks for those types of games far more than I need them for shooters...but that's another story for another time.

Saturn controls for the Dreamcast, anyone?

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Review: Retro Gamer Magazine


Before the internet, gamers had to get their news and reviews from magazines. There were a good amount of them during the 80's and 90's. As print media slowly becomes extinct, news racks are increasingly sparse; only the big name publications remain. Gaming magazines are virtually nonexistent, let alone niche topics like retro gaming. Not so in England, however. Retro Gamer Magazine has been going strong there since 2005. For whatever reason, the retro gaming community over there has numbers to support such a publication.

My first issue of Retro Gamer
I first saw a copy of Retro Gamer at a local Barnes and Noble book store. It was in the computers and technology rack, and I barely saw it peeking out over the Mac magazine. I was astonished that such a thing existed, and wondered how I could have not heard of it before. I examined it closely, it was issue #98, with Metal Slug feature on the cover. The gorgeous sprites of that seminal Neo Geo franchise jumped off the cover. I looked at the price in the corner, and was taken aback at its $9.99 asking price. Then I realized that it was imported, as I saw the 4.99 British Pound price. I flipped through it and made a quick decision to bring it home.

Visuals are bright and page-filling

The quality of paper is excellent. Each page has full color, and the cover is a full gloss and thick, it definitely can take a beating. I am starting to see why it costs as much as it does, considering that it is imported and the print quality is top notch.

The magazine boasts reviews, countdowns and lists, interviews, console specials, import reviews, buyers guides, and many other features. The quality of the writing is generally very good. There is an abundance of pictures and screen shots, all very well photographed with great detail. Ads are minimal and relegated to the back pages of the mag.

Some features are as great as they sound
The breadth of coverage is wider that I was expecting. It almost literally covers everything from Atari to the 6th generation. While this is awesome, a lot of coverage is on British gaming computers as well. This makes sense, as it is a British magazine. I find myself skipping over these pages, and unfortunately that means I'm skipping a good portion of the magazine, almost half. I don't have any interest in the Armstrad, Amiga, Zed Spectrum, BBC Micro, or any other such gaming computer, and I can't imagine any other American would.

It is for this reason that I have reservations for a whole hearted endorsement. The coverage on systems and games common to the U.S. and Britain is excellent, but the bias is present and noticeable. Its too bad that there is no American equivalent, as even in this day and age of digital press, there is a market for physical print, albeit a small one.

I have collected these and will continue to collect, but I'm crazier than most. So, if you don't mind approximately half a magazine on Retro Game coverage at a premium, this is a great read.

These look great on a shelf
Some covers...




Friday, January 19, 2018

My Console Setup January 2018


Any retro gamer knows that a gaming setup changes over time with the addition/subtraction of hardware, consoles, TVs and technology. When I started this blog, I documented my setup here. A few years have passed, and There have been some changes. Back then I had two separate gaming TVs: a 37 inch LCD and a 32 inch Sony Wega CRT. The consoles connected to each were determined by videou output. Since then I have streamlined my two setups into one. The reason was two-fold: I acquired an Open Source Scan Converter, which allowed the older consoles to be properly displayed on an HDTV, and I wanted a single space for gaming.

The vast majority of the connected consoles are of the 4th-6th generation of consoles, with only a few HD systems. Combining these requires a variety of video switches, along with a cheat sheet listing what is connected to what.

Here are my connected consoles as of January 2018:

NES Top Loader (RGB modded with Playchoice 10 PPU)
This was my first modded console. I have an original "toaster" model, but once I entered the world of RGB video signals there was no turning back for me. The original NES could not process RGB video. The picture processing unit (PPU) chip harvested from an old Playchoice-10 arcade machine, was one of the first ways to get RGB from an NES. A Nintendo multi-out connection is fitted in the back to connect to a scart cable. This console requires the most work to get an RGB signal from, but it is still worth it to do so if you covet original hardware.
NES --> scart switch --> OSSC --> TV (hdmi)


Sega Saturn (Japanese Model 2)
The Saturn is a console that I missed entirely during its lifespan. I happened upon it after it the Dreamcast died. When I started gaming again in the early 2000's I focused on 2D platformers and shoot' em ups. While the platformer selection is lacking, its shooter and 2D fighter library is unparalleled. The Saturn is region locked, and nearly all of the best shoot'em up and fighter games are Japanese exclusives. This is easily overcome by using an Action Replay cart...or by playing on an actual Japanese Saturn! The Saturn outputs RGB natively, and so a scart cable is necessary.
Saturn --> scart switch --> OSSC --> TV (hdmi)


Sega Genesis (non-TMSS Model 1) and Sega CD (model 2)
The first version of the model one Genesis was non-TMSS, meaning the trademark message does not load onscreen prior to the Sega logo. Stereo output is accessible from the front via a headphone jack.  The audio output from the rear is mono, so in order to connect the stereo sound to the TV, a separate audio line is wired into the scart cable. A Sega CD model 2 unit is attached underneath. An extender plate fills in the gap underneath to make up for the longer Model one Genesis, as the model 2 Sega CD was designed with the Model 2 Genesis in mind. The RGB output of the Genesis is very striking and the easiest to notice the jump in video quality. I debate about removing the SEga-CD; I just don't play those CD games that often. I'm not in dire need of space at the moment, so I'll leave it for now.
Genesis --> scart switch --> OSSC --> TV (hdmi)

Super Nintendo (1-chip)
I didn't grow up with a SNES, but my friends did. Those were days when kids had one console at a time, and mine was a Genesis. Happy to have it now. The SNES outputs RGB natively as well, and the 1-chip version has sharper image quality than others. I have not made comparisons myself, but it seems verified online through several sources. It looks great anyway. I pulled out the physical tabs that obstruct Super Famicom carts from being played - this is easy to do and necessary as some carts are prohibitively expensive for U.S. versions, but cheaper for Japanese versions.
SNES --> scart switch --> OSSC --> TV (hdmi)


Sega Dreamcast (modded with region free bios)
Like the Saturn, the Dreamcast has quite the shoot'em up and 2D fighting library. And like the Saturn, some of the best offerings were Japanese exclusives. Initially I used a CD swap disc to play imports, but that go old fast. I found this one with the region-free bios for not much more than a regular Dreamcast and jumped on it. The video output of the Dreamcast is unique in that it is the only console of its time to output 480 progressive scan through VGA, which is the signal that I use into the OSSC. I have heard of advanced VGA boxes for the Dreamcast, but I think it looks fantastic this way.
Dreamcast (VGA) --> OSSC --> TV (hdmi)


PC Engine Duo (component modded)
The PC Engine was known in the west as Turbo Grafx-16. It was barely noticed here, overlooked as Nintendo and Sega were battling for market supremacy. In its home country, the PC Engine did quite well, and its Japanese library dwarfs its American offerings. A system heralded for shoot'em ups, it became a priority for me to explore. Games were released on both Hu cards (credit card-sized chips) and CDs. The CD system was the first of its kind, and was an add-on to the original systems. The PC-Engine Duo combined both into one unit, and so offered convenience as well as savings. The original video output was composite, but I had mine modded for component. This was a system that was somewhere inbetween 8 and 16 bits. The cpu was 8 bit, but the graphics processor was 16 bit. So while gameplay mechanics and processing was on par with the NES, the visuals and audio were 16 bit. The CD games obviously had superior audio output, with recorded tracks in lieu of chip tunes. Some games made better use of this than others, like Gate of Thunder and Lords of Thunder.
PC-Engine Duo --> Component switcher --> OSSC --> TV



Nintendo Gamecube
There's not too much to say about the Gamecube, other than the specificity of its component cables. The Gamecube generated high quality digital video, which was throttled down to analog signals for TVs that were not ready for such progress. The component cables have a specialized chip in them that enables the digital video signal to be sent, the highest quality possible. I have a gameboy player attached as well.
Gamecube --> Component switcher --> OSSC --> TV





Playstation 2 (Region free)
The backwards compatibility of the PS2 and on board DVD player were the two major reasons that the PS2 became the juggernaut that it was. A motif throughout this post is that shoot' em ups were a deciding factor in what consoles became my favorites. The PS1 and PS2 both had plentiful offerings...in Japan. This PS2 has a region-free bios installed for that reason. Component video output is standard. I have a 120 GB hard disk drive installed, and I have installed some of my own game on it for convenience.
PS2 --> Component switcher --> OSSC --> TV


Playstation 3 (slim)
This is my second PS3. My first was a 60 GB, fully backwards compatible unit that had heat stroke and basically melted itself. The slim model was more efficient and had better heat dissipation, making overheating no longer an issue. I have a couple dozen games, but my interests do not lie in modern gaming.
PS3 -- HDMI switcher --> TV

Playstation 4
Its a Playstation 4.










PS4 -- HDMI switcher --> TV


Raspberry Pi 3B
The Raspberry Pi 3 is either embraced or scorned by hardcore retrogamers. I wrote a little about it here. I have this connected on this TV, but often I move to a larger room when we have lots of people over. I currently have it in a NESPi case, which obviously resembles an NES.
Raspberry Pi 3B --> HDMI switcher --> TV




I also have a SNES Classic Edition hooked up at the moment. I hacked mine to add my favorite games.
SNES Classic --> HDMI switcher --> TV

You may ask why the redundancy between the original consoles, RetroPie, and SNES Classic? My answer to that is why do people like to drive classic cars, even though they already have a car? Why do people listen to vinyl even though modern forms of media are available? Something about the authenticity of original hardware makes it a different experience. I had a hard time letting go of my CRT, but in the end I'm happy with my decision (I still kept it, as good ones are getting harder to find).

Here it is altogether. I found the TV stand on Craigslist a few years back. What sold me on it was that it had enough space for my favorite consoles, it was sturdy, and it was only $20! My HDTV doesn't quite fill the space, so there's room to upgrade in the future. The speaker bar was a present and really improves upon the sound. My PS3 and PS4 are standing vertically behind the TV. I decided to keep the WiiU in a different room, as my kids play mainly that with their friends. There is an unholy mess of cables and cords hidden in the rear of the stand, well out of sight. The clean look is pretty important to me (and my wife!). Controllers are in a basket nearby. I also setup dedicated power strips so that its not drawing phantom power all the time when not on.
I'm really happy that I was able to condense my retro with current systems, and the key to all of that was the OSSC and some switch boxes.


So, I just wanted to share my take on integrating older generation consoles with modern display, and how it looks altogether. It's not for everyone, but maybe someone will read this and have some of their questions answered and be willing to do the same. If you have any questions feel free to email me or leave a comment.