Review: Gun Nac for the NES

Shooters on the NES are a mixed bag. They were plentiful, but due to hardware limitations, they were very basic and similar in most regards. There are dozens of shooters, but only a few are held in high regard. Gun Nac is one of them.

The game was developed by Compile, and its heritage shows. Your ship has that "basic" Compile look to it, as seem in Power Strike, Zanac, Space Megaforce, and others. Ship handling is tight,  responsive, if maybe a tad too fast.
The laser is powerful but hard to aim

Power ups are decently varied for the era.
1 - wide ranging vulcan shot - good for beginners
2- large round shot that fragments latterally - fancier but difficult to survive with on later levels
3 - homing but weak scythe-like shots - good for beginners as it makes the stages easier, but ineffective for harder bosses
4 - pulsing flame thrower - it shoots out at length with the initial button press, then its range gradually shortens until pressed again. Effective but tricky to use.
5 - piercing laser - strong, but difficult to use as your shot needs to be lined up to be effective; a good choice against bosses.
The compile "P" chip in one its earliest appearances

Each one can be powered up by collecting the same numbered icon, or "p" chips; another developer staple. Getting hit will lower your shot power; getting hit while on the lowest level results in death.

Awww, how cute. It's firing carrot missiles!

As an interesting addition, there is a shop that you visit between each stage, where you can purchase weapons and upgrades with the cash that you picked up during the stages. Depending on which difficulty setting you play on, this may or may not be helpful. I found myself not needing to buy power ups until the later stages.
Sometimes weapons and pickups clutter the screen
There are several different bombs that you can collect, each denoted by a letter. The more of a specific letter you have collected, the more powerful the effect. You can hold up to 20 of them, but you don't know how many of each you have. These are plentiful.

The programmers at Compile knew how to squeeze everything out of the NES cpu, as there is always a screen full of activity. The enemy variety is superb, and enemies are unique to each stage.
In stage one, the primary enemies are variations of robotic bunnies, as follows with the storyline. There are big bunnies, medium bunnies, carrot projectiles, and a big boss bunny. While these enemy sprites are cute, well designed, creative, and weird. Some examples of enemies include:
flying matches, cigarettes, giant candles, matchboxes, fortune cookies, battle ships with octopi sailors, tentacled creatures, mermaids, and so on.
Attacked by cigarettes and there some underlying message here?

The action is very lively and fun to take in. There is an abundance of different enemy sprites, all unique to particular stages. If there is one downside to the graphical presentation its the backgrounds. These are pretty standard fare, and sometimes the color use is questionable. I suppose when using the majority of the NES's color palette for the sprites, the leftover colors are used for the backgrounds. Despite this, there's more than enough interest and intrigue in the visuals to make this game a looker.

Bosses are varied
When powered up, the game is on the easy side for shoot' em up veterans. Newcomers to the genre and casual gamers will have no problem stepping as the difficulty curve is a gradual one. Power ups seem to litter the screen at times, so getting powered up again after dying is not as harsh as other games of the era, like Gradius.

Scenery is a mixed bag. Some good, some meh.
I enthusiastically recommend playing this game. Its accessible, interesting, fair, and lot of fun. I find myself coming back to this one over and over again. The cart is, as with many vetted classics, pretty expensive, but if you have the means to play Famicom games that may be a cheaper alternative, or just use an Everdrive or emulation. Any way you get to try it, I think you'll like it.

Review: Retro-Bit Dual Link Controllers

During this revival of retro gaming, more and more people are dusting off their old retro consoles and reliving their past. Often there comes a need to acquire extra controllers, as the originals may be missing or no longer functional.  A quick search online will show that there are a plethora of third party controllers for retro game consoles, many on the cheap. When compared to the standard of original controllers, most of these fail to compare favorably. Sure, they get the job done, but as the old adage says, you get what you pay for. I wasn't in need of extra controllers, but I couldn't pass up the Mega Man designs. I figured I could use these on my original consoles as well as on Retropie.

Every now and then I put together a console setup for friends, and doing so requires me to assemble all the necessary controllers and cords. I have found that I am disappointed in 9/10 generic controllers that I encounter. Everyone has different priorities/taste when looking for a third party replacement controller. From aesthetics, to design, d-pad stiffness, button clickiness (or lack of), cord length, heft, and overall physical form factor, there are a lot of variables to consider. For me, the most important aspects of a generic controller are:
a - how close the d-pad feels to the original
b - how close the button "springiness" matches the original
c - how well the controller feels compared to the original

NES controller comparison
Clearly the button positions on the Retro-Bit NES controller are different, and the buttons are convex instead of concave. I presume this was done to match the B and A button positions on a SNES controller. Its different, but is easy to get used to. The start and select buttons have been raised for some reason. It's not a huge bother, but I found myself pressing the center of the controller out of habit, only to have to stop and look for the start button. The d-pad does not have the arrow indentations that the original has, and has perhaps a lower profile. I found this to be very comfortable, maybe even more comfortable than the original. Movement is smooth, and the resistance is just right. The buttons feel good, except that I prefer the concavity of the original. The build quality is great, and has the same weight as you expect is should. This particular Mega Man design is one of two characters that Retro-Bit licensed from Capcom, the other being Arthur from Ghost's n' Goblins. There is also a non-character design, but I think it looks too plain.

SNES controller comparison
The Retro-Bit SNES controller does not deviate from the original controller design. All of the buttons are where you expect them, and the X and Y buttons are even concave to physically distinguish them from B and A. The button press resistance is bit lighter than the originals, which I like a lot. The L and R shoulder buttons even have a "clickier" feel to them, but not in a bad way. The d-pad is perfect, they nailed this one.

Genesis controller comparison
The Genesis 6-button controller is the second controller released, the first having only three buttons and a start button. It was released around the time when Street Fighter 2 Champion Edition was released, and with good reason. Playing SF2 with only three buttons is a nightmare. You would have to press start to switch between punch and kick. In a game where speed matters, that is a game breaker. It also featured a new d-pad, which is smoother and a bit raised compared to the original. It feels better overall, and is a very comfortable controller. Retrobit did a nice job recreating the feel and tactility on their officially branded SF2 6-button controller.

The whole dual-link concept is an original idea for reproduction controllers, and a welcome one. With more and more options for playing retro games, having a multiple controllers for each system is cumbersome. These controllers all have an original plug and a usb connection, so you can use the same controllers for emulation as well as original hardware.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised at the build quality and performance of Retrobit's dual link controllers. They are definitely worth the price, and the awesome licensed artwork is icing on the cake. I highly recommend them. I would go at get them now before the license runs out, as I don't imagine there will be a huge production run.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.