Rare (?) Clamshell Variant of John Madden Football for Sega Genesis

 


I was running an errand one day in a town that I don't normally drive to, as it is out of the way. I happened upon a Half Price Books store, and figured, why not check it out. This one was larger than the HPB store closest to me, and had a larger inventory of retro games. Despite the larger selection, nothing remotely stood out to me. To be fair, at this point in my collection I have honed my tastes and curated pretty much all that I am interested in. As I was walking out, something caught my eye. It was a copy of John Madden Football for the Sega Genesis, but it looked different. It had a shiny veneer to it, and as I walked closer I realized that it was in a Genesis clamshell case. To the uninitiated, there doesn't appear to be anything special about this at all, but having been a Genesis fan since launch, I knew that this was released in a cardboard box. The first generation Electronic Arts games were all released in cardboard boxes, it wasn't until the second wave of EA games that they switched to clamshell boxes. Realizing that there could be something special about this copy, I gladly paid the $5.99 asking price.

The spine design is slightly different

As far as authenticity, a natural question to ask is if it is an official copy, or if it was reproduced in anyway. I know that some people cut up the cardboard box and stuff it into a clamshell case to better match the rest of the collection. My copy of The Adventure of Batman and Robin has this.  I examined the game to my own copy, and the physical game is a one to one match, Besides, who would bother to reproduce one of the most common games in existence? The printed artwork is of high quality, and printed on slightly heavier paper that my other EA clamshell games have. The clincher is the clamshell case itself, which has the EA logo imprinted into the plastic above the game slot. I can confidently say that this is an official product. 

The imprinted EA logo is plain to see

When I got home, I googled the game. In this day and age where you can look up practically anything, I thought surely someone would have a copy of it, or at least information on it. Initially, I only found information about the cardboard boxed copy. 

I did find an article on Nintendo Age about a proto-European release clamshell Lakers vs. Celtics, of which the author of the states only 13 copies have ever surfaced. This is relevant because that was an EA game also released in a cardboard box, and perhaps they had a similar backstory. A Nintendo Age forum user by the name of Supergamboy posted a discussion, in the comments and revealed a picture of the same clamshell variant of John Madden Football!  I was unable to contact the author, as I am not a member of Nintendo Age and their registration link appears to be closed. So now I know that my copy is not alone.

I reached out to several prominently-known Sega enthusiasts, people who know Sega through and through, and only one, Sega-16 founder and author Ken Horowitz, knew of its existence. He told me that it was this was either the first iteration of the transition to clamshell cases, or leftover European stock, which used clamshell cases.  The lack of UPC code on the case leads one to presume it must have been a sticker on the shrink wrap. 

The back of the packaging is totally different

So after all there are little nuggets of information out there, but it's definitely not common knowledge. I can find no record of the on eBay, so I cannot directly gauge its value. According to the Nintendo Age article, the aforementioned European Lakers vs. Celtics garnering bids for around 8000 British Pounds. I'm not suggesting that is what this copy of John Madden Football is worth. That was a different situation where the release almost happened and a few copies squeaked out. 

I am very curious to see how many people have a copy. It is definitely the most interesting retro find I've ever stumbled upon. Who knows, it could be an ultra rare collectors piece that would pay for my kids' tuition. If you do have this same copy, please get in contact with me.



My Console Setup in 2020


2020. Year of the pandemic. There's not much great news going around, so I'll write something that makes me happy: retro gaming consoles. Each year brings some adjustments, refinements, and replacements to my setup. Here we go!

The TV was updated last year, it's a 55" 4K LG smart TV. It's nice to be able to stream when not gaming. The speakers aren't great, but that's par for the course with these modern thin TVs, hence the sound bar. Some day I'll get a subwoofer.


I'll start with some equipment that makes the connection between retro consoles and modern TVs possible. Retro consoles generally output a video signal called 240p. That is, 240 lines, progressively drawn (instead of interlaced). On CRT TVs, 240 lines is half of the display number (480 interlaced was the normal TV resolution), hence the black scan lines that alternate between drawn lines. The Open Source Scan Convertor (OSSC) is a device that multiplies the line count to better fit the higher resolution of modern HD TVs. The signal can be multiplied 2, 3, 4, or 5 times. The higher the multiplier, the crisper the image. This process is done instantly, so there is not video processing taking place, and most importantly, no input lag. Input lag is sometimes a problem with modern TVs upscaling the vintage 240p signal, since the TV's built in upscaler takes time to do the job. The OSSC does this instead, producing a clean, crisp, lagless image outputting a modern resolution. I should mention that the older consoles need to output an RGB or component video signal, or be modded to do so to get the best results from the OSSC. It is well known that the OSSC does not do a great job upscaling 480i content, due to the nature of interlaced video signals, This is why my PS2 is not routed through this.


The RGB signal is carried through a cable with a SCART connection head. This is a video connection that was standard in Europe and Japan, but not in North America. I have acquired these SCART cables for all of my older consoles, and so there are a lot of them. In order to keep them all connected at the same time, I use a GSCARTSW switch. It is an 8 port SCART switch, which automatically detects which console is on. It is routed into the SCART port in the back of the OSSC. 


Top Row, left to right

First is the Core Grafx PC Engine with Super SD System 3 (SSDS3) attachment. The Core Grafx, for those who may not know, is a Japanese version of the Turbo Grafx-16.  The SSDS3 serves three main purposes: it is a flash cart that allows games to be played from an SD card, it is an optical drive emulator (ODE) that allows CD rom games to be played from the SD card, and it outputs RGB video. I needed a power supply, as the Genesis model 1 power supply that I was using was making an ominous buzzing sound. I found a custom, high quality supply from Retrogamecave, that specifically supports PC Engines with the SSDS3. It works great. Strangely, all PC Engines have only one controller port.

The Playstation 2 is region modded, allowing for domestic and import gameplay. It has a hard disc drive installed internally, and through the Free McBoot app games can be played from the hard drive. The PS2 is capable of outputting 480p, but most games output 480i instead. This is a major disappointment, but understandable for the time it came out. in 1999 most TVs were still CRTs, and the maximum resolution was 480 interlaced, not progressive. I have this connected through component, into a switch box, into the TV. The TV's deinterlacer does an OK job, and the game on the PS2 are not twitch reflex games like old school shooters, so the little bit of lag is not really noticeable.

The Dreamcast is region modded. It was ahead of its time in that it output VGA video, which was higher than standard 480i resolution. You will need a VGA 31 KHz adapter box to make use of this higher video setting, which can be displayed on HD TVs. It's not quite HD, it's somewhere inbetween, but it still looks real nice. I use a scart cable that has a 15/31 KHz switch, so that I can play games that support hi res graphics and standard res. It has been modded with GDEMU, an optical drive emulator. 

On the right is my RGB modded PC Engine Duo-R. Is it redundant to have two versions of the PC Engine in the same setup? This one has had jail bars (vertical discoloration stripes that appear in solid colors) removed. Despite having the SSDS3, I felt that I still needed a way to play original PC Engine CD games.


Second row, left to right

The CBox MVS is a consolized Neo Geo arcade board, encased in a plastic case and modded to have not only Neo Geo controllers, but Sega Saturn controllers as well. It has a universal bios installed, to allow for changing settings, cheats, etc. The Neo Geo was the pinnacle of 16 bit hardware, it is literally an arcade machine, able to put up ridiculous amounts of sprites on screen at once. Seeing one in a home setting was mind blowing in the 90's, and still holds up today. All it takes to be convinced is to play Metal Slug, and you'll immediately know. The console outputs RGB and component video. There was some controversy about the RGB line carrying too hot of a sync signal, which can damage other devices in the video chain, like an OSSC or Framemeister. This is easily remedifed by using an RGB Scart cable with a proper resister in-line. The arcade versions of the Neo Geo games are cheaper than the standard home versions, simply because there are way more of them out there. I have twelve MVS games, and that's about all I'm going to own, judging by current prices. The ubiquitous, yellow 161-in-1 cart is a budget alternative to going broke trying to collect for this system. It has nearly all the games that were ever released, and won't break the bank. 

The Sony Playstation has been modded with the PSIO optical drive emulator, allowing for game playback from an SD card. What is unique about PSIO is that it retains the CD drive functionality, still allowing the console to play original games. The console is region modded, as my import collect is half of my Playstation collection. The video output is RGB. 

Next is my beloved Sega Saturn, which has the MODE optical drive emulator. The Saturn collection is one of my largest collections, focusing on shmups and fighting games, and so I had to make a decision on whether to keep the original Saturn hooked up in order to play these, or have the MODE hooked up instead. I oscillate between the two, regularly swapping the MODE with my "This is Cool" Japanese model 2 Saturn. In a perfect world, I would make room for both. Hmm, maybe I will do something about that. The video output is RGB.

Farthest to the right is the Analogue Mega SG, a modern HDMI console with a field programmable gate array (FPGA) chip, which recreates the Sega Genesis console at the hardware level. This is not the same as standard software emulation that you would see in so many clone consoles these days, there is no overlying operating system that would introduce latency during game operation. FPGA systems are lagless, and extremely faithful to the original hardware, depending on the skill level of the programmer. Kevtris is widely known in the retro gaming scene for his skill, and this is just another example of it.


Third row, left to right

Starting the third row is a standard Gamecube. There is nothing special about this console, there are no mods. It's not one of my favorites, I only play a few games on it. I do have the official Gamecube component cables, which re-convert the analog video output to 480p. I know there are lots of newer mods and ODEs for this system, but its not high on my priority list.

Next is the PolyMega Beta unit. The PolyMega is an emulation console that can play CD games for the Playstation, Turbo Grafx-16 CD (and of course PC Engine CD), Sega Saturn, Neo Geo CD, in all regions. It also can play cartridge based systems if you have the modules for them, including NES, TG-16, Genesis, and SNES. This has yet to be released, as the company, Playmaji, has struggled during the pandemic to keep its production schedule on track. The reason I have one is that I was an early backer, and was chosen as a Beta tester. I imported all of my compatible CD based games, and played them, and reported any bugs that I found. One of the best features of the PolyMega is the ability to import the game files to the console, potentially having your entire library available from the UI interface, forgoing the need to use the actual discs. As of the time of this writing, there are a few of my games that I cannot import, as the games are not recognized in the system's database yet. Fortunately, the system is easily updated through WIFI, and additions and improvements are made regularly. There are so many games that this supports, it will take some time for every single one to entered into its database, but its well on its way. I know this system is redundant, as I already have the consoles to play the same games that this supports. 

Next is the Retro USB AVS, an FPGA Nintendo console. This can play original NES and Famicom (Japanese version of NES) games. The console outputs at 720p, which not to the same level as Analogue's FPGA consoles, but the difference is not a great as it may seem. The flat loading style of the cartridges makes for a slim profile, and gameplay reliability is fantastic. No more blowing into the carts, or shoving another one on top to increase the tension to get the game to work. Analogue's NT Mini, which is their FPGA NES console, has more features like 1080p, but is encased in an aluminum shell and costs more than double the AVS. It's up to the user to decide if the price markup is worth it. 

Last is the Analogue Super NT, an FPGA Super Nintendo console. My original SNES console was having a hard time reading cartridges, probably due to dirty connector pins. I tried cleaning it with the credit card and t shirt trick, but it still was unreliable and frustrating. So I decided to upgrade. It was released before the Mega SG, so it doesn't have quite as many options and features, but there's till more than enough for satisfy hardcore users. 

In addition to optical drive emulators for disc systems, I have flash cartridges as well for the NES, Genesis, PC Engine, and SNES. These are convenient, as not only can you play any game in the library, you can apply patches to roms and play hacked versions of games, which is my favorite feature. This can breathe new life into games that you have played to death, like the playing as Robocop and ED-209 in Streets if Rage 2, or improving the PAN card functionality in the NES version of Metal Gear. 

Hidden behind the TV are my Nintendo Switch, PS3, and PS4, but I don't feel the need to talk about those. Behind the sound bar is my Raspberry Pi in a Retroflag Mega Drive case, running Retropie. I've talked about this before, it has its uses, but its not my preferred way to play. It is the only way for me to play arcade games on a TV, like Mat Mania, Alien Syndrome, and others. I use an 8Bitdo M30 Bluetooth controller for it.



Below the TV stand are switches for component video and HDMI. The component switch was made by Impact Acoustics, and is a powered 6-input switch. I currently use for the Gamecube and PS2, and it feeds directly into the TV. The HDMI switch has 8 inputs, and automatically detects the signal, except when it doesn't. The PS4 seems to be a signal hog, and I find that I have to manually push the switch to change when the PS4 is on. Other than that, it works great. 

Well, that's all I have connected at the moment. I do have a few more that are not hooked up, and sometimes they make their way into the setup. Let me know your thoughts, and if you have any questions. Thanks for reading!



Review: The Brook PS3/PS4 to Mega Drive (Genesis) to to PC Engine Super Converter

The Mega Drive and PC Engine are known for their shoot 'em ups. While arcade sticks are now in vogue for shooters, there weren't a lot of arcade sticks available back in the heyday of these systems, at least not here in North America. The official Sega Power stick was the made available for the Genesis in three and six button variants, but the stick itself was just ok. The PC Engine had a couple of sticks by Ascii and Hori, and those were ok for the time. As time passes, arcade stick tech has made leaps and bounds, and today there is a huge fighting game scene that drives production of high end arcade sticks. 

This converter is designed for PS4, PS3, and Switch controllers to be used for the Genesis/Mega Drive and PC Engine. That means modern, high quality PS3 and PS4 sticks can be used. I have a Hori Real Arcade Pro (RAP) stick for the PS3, and until recently it has sat collecting dust for the past decade. The RAP has excellent built quality, with high quality parts. Playing MUSHA and Blazing Lasers with it has been a revelation. Never before have I played 4th generation shooters with a microswitched joystick, and I'm becoming a believer. It has totally reignited my interest in 4th generation shooters, and gives them a fresh feel. 

The controller converter has a wired connection for both the Genesis and PC Engine, which is smart. The  Achilles heel for shoot 'em ups has always input latency, and wireless controllers always have some added latency. Many shooters require twitch reflexes, and this wired setup has no perceptible lag as far as I can tell; it plays like I'm using a genuine controller. I've played shooters in every conceivable configuration, and this is truly a revelation. Admittedly, I was a little skeptical when I ordered this. I Brook's PS3/PS4 to Switch adapter, and there is a little lag present with that adapter, so I was surprised to see how well this adapter works. 

When I connected the Dual Shock 4 via usb, extra power was needed, so I plugged in another USB cord with a power brick. The converter recognized the controller, and synced immediately. I wasn't sure what to expect, but since the controller was directly connected through USB, it played without any noticeable lag. I was surprised. I then proceeded to test the Dual Shock 3, Switch Pro Controller, and 8Bitdo SN30 Pro controllers. All had similar results. Now I am not a fan of the Playstation controllers' d-pad, but the SN30 Pro is great. I also tried a USB controller that I am quite fond of, Retrobit's officially licensed Sega Saturn pad. Sadly, it did not work, but I suspect it would be an easy fix over firmware, should Brook be so inclined. 

Now the PC Engine was the Japanese version of the Turbo Grafx-16, and so the hardware is identical, except for some regional changes to the physical build of the console. The TG-16 controller port is much larger than that of the PC Engine, so you would need an adapter if you wanted to use this on a TG-16. I don't have that console, so I was unable to test it, but I can't imagine that it wouldn't work. Maybe someone else can try it out and let us know.

Overall, this is an EXCELLENT adapter that allows PS3/PS4 arcade sticks to be used on the Genesis and PC Engine. There are not many good arcade stick options for those consoles, and this opens up possibilities. With the PS4 nearing end of life, you can be sure to find arcade sticks for both PS3 and PS4 for a fraction of the cost that they retailed at. Keep in mind these sticks were expensive originally ($300+), so the savings is relative. A quick eBay search produced several sub-$100 options for used sticks. It won't be for everyone, but for shmup retro gamers who favor the early '90's consoles, this is one of the best innovations in a long time for controller adapters.  




Review: The PolyMega Multi-Console




The PolyMega is a multi-system emulation console. It natively plays CD games for Playstation, Sega CD, Turbo Grafx CD, Neo Geo CD, and Sega Saturn, for all regions. Also available are cartridge modules, indivudualy sold, each of which can play NES, SNES, Genesis, and Turbo Grafx-16, also in all regions (except Famicom due to its unique shape). The console was originally pitched as an FPGA system, allowing for hardware simulation, but later was reverted in design for software emulation early in development. This caused a bit of controversy as early supporters felt a bait and switch took place. Not helping the situation, the social media manager for the PolyMega was caught throwing shade at its competitors, which stirred a flame war and resulted in a tarnished reputation for PolyMega before it even came into existence.

Rough beginnings notwithstanding, the project continued, with a prototype showing in 2019, and Beta release in 2020, which was given praise for its Saturn emulation quality from several reviewers, including Modern Vintage Gamer. It should be noted that Sega Saturn compatibility was a late addition, after a custom emulation core was designed. This was the spark that caught my attention. I preordered in 2019, after watching said reviews. The original release date was pushed from summer 2019 to fall, to spring, to summer 2020. The delays were due in part to a chip shortage, mixed in with a pandemic, and some last minute tweaking. It is now late July 2020, and the base unit (Beta) has finally arrived at my doorstep.

The base unit feels solid. The plastic molding feels good, reflecting a quality build. The rear presents HDMI video out, a power jack, micro SD slot, and ethernet port. 


It comes with a modern-style wireless controller, with dual analog sticks, four face action buttons, left/right shoulder buttons and triggers, start/select, turbo and home buttons. The controller is has two textures; the top is rubberized plastic, while the back is conventional controller plastic. Its weight is lighter than modern controllers, which makes sense given the lesser tech requirements. The analog sticks feel fine, and the d-pad is made from a shiny plastic which I don't care for, but it feels right pressure-wise. The buttons are are convex shiny plastic with a snappy response. The controller is wireless via a 2.4 GHz dongle, which I much prefer over Bluetooth, for reduced latency. Included is a micro USB cord for charging and playing, but it is too short to realistically play with when charging unless you swap out for a different cord. I tried Retrobit's excellent officially licensed Sega Genesis and Saturn USB controllers, and they were recognized immediately, so this may be what I use. The 2.4 GHz wireless variants from Retrobit worked as well.

When powering on, you are immediately asked to register the controller being used by holding right on the d-pad. After that a clean, intuitive interface appears. The left sidebar presents options to select games according to different sorting methods, such as by console, my collection, and a database. 
Once a game is inserted, a game specific banner appears at the top

When inserting a game disc, a header/title appears as the game is recognized. The game can be added to you collection, as well as downloaded onto the console itself (or selected storage medium like an internal SSD). This is appealing as once you do this you will not need to handle the physical game again, and you can add as many of your games as your storage will allow. You can then select from your library of imported games in the future. Included are a sample of licensed games to get you playing right away, most of which are forgettable, but Iron Commando for SNES is a nice offering.

When launching games, you can opt for classic mode or the default modern mode, that offers more options, like save states, screen shots, fast forward, etc. Being able to play your own games AND utilize save states is an uncommon and welcome feature in modern retro gaming consoles. 

Visually, everything is bright and crisp in 1080p. The aspect ratio can be set to standard 4:3. 4:3 zoom, square pixels, and wide screen. I love my square pixels, they make everything cleaner when the screen moves. Other visual options are present, like RGB mode and composite mode. RBG mode includes scan lines, but ends up looking too dark. Brightness and contrast settings are present, but they still don't improve the quality. The composite option is present for people who really like fuzzy visuals, and I'm not sure why anyone buying this would choose this option. I personally would have liked more options, like integer scaling, different resolutions, and a scanline feature over 720p. Perhaps these may come via updates.

As far as gameplay, I played a sampling of Playstation, PC-Engine CD, Sega CD, and Saturn games. It does play Neo Geo CD as well, but I don't have any to test. 

Visually, the image quality is excellent

I started with Sega Saturn, and I tested several games, including:
Street Fighter Zero 2 
Street Fighter Zero 3
X-Men Vs. Street Fighter
Strikers 1945
Strikers 1945 2
Donpachi
Dodonpachi
Soukyugurentai
Batsugun
Radiant Silvergun
Battle Garegga
Metal Slug 
Daytona USA
Layer Section
Sengoku Blade
HuperDuel
Salamander Deluxe Pack

The Saturn had some accessories, most notably here the 4MB and 1MB expansion carts for specific games. The PolyMega does not have slots for these carts, so the functionality of these must be built in. I have tested several of those games and they appear to be working fine. Since this is an HD system, the light gun games are not supported yet, but there is a light gun in the works specifically for the PolyMega.
I tried a couple of burned reproduction games, and surprisingly, they work. 

You may notice that the bulk of these games tested are shoot 'em ups. That is my go-to genre, and the vast majority of my game collection are shmups. After years of gaming on lag-free setups, I immediately noticed some lag.  It's not much, but its there. I realize that I am more picky about this than most gamers, as my favorite games require twitch reflexes and instantaneous response from a controller. 
So I started troubleshooting. I double checked that the TV was set to game mode, and I switched to a wired controller. Still, it felt a tinge laggy. The it was suggested to me to plug the HDMI direct into the TV, bypassing the HDMI switch. Doing this brought the latency down significantly. I can say that I am impressed by the quality of the Saturn emulation. This was the reason I preordered and I am not disappointed.

My "unofficial" copy of Nekketsu Oyako played just fine

I tested the PC-Engine CD next, with the following games:
Dracula X Rondo of Blood
Sapphire
Sylphia
FX Unit Yuki (indie game)
Spriggan
Winds of Thunder
Gate of Thunder
Star Parodier


The PC-Engine CD is notorious for its system cards that are required to play its games, and the PolyMega has eliminated the need for that as they are all incorporated in the system. Super CD games, CD ROM ROM games, Arcade card games all work. Some games had noticeable lag, like Gate of Thunder, where Winds of Thunder felt like it had a little more. 

I tested Playstation next:
Harmful Park
Einhander
G Darius
Dodonpachi
Crash Bandicoot
Raiden Project

The Playstation testing was varied. Einhander and Harmful Park showed no obvious lag, but G Darius and Dodonpachi did. It seems to be hit or miss with the Playstation. 

Some bootlegs are not recognized by title, but they play nonetheless

I tested Sega CD last:
Lords of Thunder
Keio Flying Squadron
Slypheed
Final Fight CD
The Terminator

The Terminator was the only game that I tried that did not work. It wasn't buggy, it just flat out did not work. Once the game started, your character immediately fell and died. There was nothing else loaded on screen. After doing some digging, I discovered that you can place your backup Sega CD bios onto an SD card and the PolyMega will default to that. I tried it, and the game did run. This is probably going to be fixed in an update, as they are constantly working on game compatibility.

There's a lot to take in here, so I'll break down the main points in a list of Pros and Cons for the PolyMega.

Pros:
  • tremendous compatibility with a multitude of consoles, reducing the need for much of the original hardware
  • its the only CD based clone console available
  • video output is 1080p via HDMI, compatible with modern televisions, so no fussing with connections and adapter cables
  • games can be stored on internal storage, reducing wear and tear on original games
  • modern amenities like screen shots, save states, game patching are present
  • controller is included, playable wirelessly or wired
  • compatible with 3rd party controllers like Retrobit
  • sound emulation is excellent
  • several games are included
  • wireless firmware updates via wifi
  • ips patches can be used from an SD card

Cons:
  • Emulation is software based, not hardware simulation like with an FPGA, leading to some mild input lag
  • swapping out individual cartridge modules may become annoying every time you play a game from a different console
  • the controller d-pad is inadequate for a retro themed system 
This console has a ton to offer. The ability to load my collection into a solid state drive is very appealing. The ability to throw some ips game patches on an sd card and apply them to any game is awesome. The compatibility with Retrobit's excellent Sega controllers is a great feature. The fact that it can play burned games must be a boon to many people who can't afford today's inflated game prices. The savings on the hardware necessary to play Sega CD, PC-Engine CD, Neo Geo CD, Saturn, and Playstation is vast. There is a lot to like about this console.  

Whether the PolyMega is for you depends on your situation and preferences. If you prefer games that are not so dependent on precision inputs and timing, and then this can be a viable option for you. On the flip side, if you are a hardcore gamer who is into original hardware, or if you play games that require precision input like shmups, this is probably not for you. There are those who are so deeply rooted in the hobby, that they have specific expectations and requirements; this is not for them. There are definitely people who scoff at emulation, and this is definitely not for them. I can't see this replacing my current setup of RGB consoles and Open Source Scan Convertor, but that is not a setup that everyone has. However, for someone who is new to the hobby this is definitely an option to consider, the cost savings in hardware alone will assure that. Anyway you look at it, I think it is a good thing that more products are entering the retro gaming space. 






MODE: The Multi Optical Disc Emulator Review for Saturn and Dreamcast


As video game consoles age, they are more prone to failure, especially when moving parts are involved. The more complex the console's design, the more susceptible it is. As such, the lasers in optical disc consoles are less robust than their cartridge predecessors. An optical disc emulator is a device that replaces the laser assembly in a disc-reading game console. The purpose is twofold: to breathe new life into a dying system, and to allow games to be played from modern storage devices, like SD cards and USB drives. For a proper explanation of MODE, I feel it is necessary to discuss previous ODEs for comparision and context.

The first optical drive emulator (ODE) that I encountered was the GDEMU, for the Dreamcast. It was a simple board, easy to install, and initially hard to acquire. It was developed and distributed by Deunan Knute. Since it was/is a hobbyist venture, production occurs in small batches, and demand greatly surpassed supply. This led to the cloning of GDEMU, and the soon the clones were all over eBay. These clones are supposedly very similar, and hard to tell apart from the original. One surefire way to tell is if you brick the unit while trying to upgrade the firmware, as the clones are not compatible official firmware.
The installation of the unit is easy, but the SD card setup is a pain, at least it was for me. My desktop computer is a Mac, and per usual, there are fewer software options for Mac users. I have an old HP laptop that barely runs Windows 10 that I use for programs of this sort, and its not graceful. From needing to format to FAT32, to ripping the games into the CCD or GDI formats, to adding the games to numeric folders, there is some nonintuitive front work needed. I eventually got it running, but there are still weird issues here and there that bother me. Things like extra folders titled "unsupported game", or the super long startup process. I like things to be neat and organized, and fixing weird errors and issues took some sleuthing and a lot of time. I teeter back and forth as to whether it is worth it, as I still have all of my original games, and another Dreamcast that is region modded. 



My second ODE was Rhea, for the model 1 Sega Saturn (20 pin variant - there was also a version made for the model 2 Saturns called Phoebe). Also produced by Deunan, the one-man shop operation was also limited in its production scope. I resorted to picking one up from eBay.
I was far more interested in this than the GDEMU as the Saturn is possibly my favorite console.  I have way more games for the Saturn than the DC, and so using Clone CD to rip the games to CCD format was a long and arduous process. Prepping the SD card was equally as painful as the GDEMU, perhaps more so due to the larger number of games that I processed. 
Operationally, the Rhea works wonderfully once configured properly. It allowed me to play my games without fear of dropping or scratching them, as Saturn games have really shot up in value (I'm not so concerned with value as I am the cost to replace). The button combination to back out to the menu is a nice touch. 


My third ODE is the Super System 3 for thePC Engine/Turbo Grafx-16, made by Terra Onion. This is not as much a disc drive replacement as much as it is an accessory that mimics the CD Rom attachment. The setup for this was significantly easier than the two previous entries. All you need to do is drop your game files (CD Rom games or Hu card games) onto a card and insert; its about as plug and play as it should be. There is something to be said for simplicity of setup when it comes to devices like this.
There were some issues early on with video quality, but those have been mitigated since. Not only does the SSD3 allow you to play your games from an SD card, it taps into the RGB video pinouts, allowing mod-free RGB video with the proper cables. Last but not least, it contains the necessary CD system cards built in. Using all original hardware to play PC Engine CD Roms is confusing and expensive, so this unit is well worth it's asking price. 

That brings us to MODE, an acronym for Multi Optical Disc Emulator, again produced by Terra Onion. This is like a GDEMU and Rhea combined into one; you can install it either in a Saturn or a Dreamcast. I don't think I'm going to swap mine back and forth, but it is an option. It's functional purpose is the same as the first two ODE's, to play games from an SD card. This carries with it some additional features, such as being able to use three different storage formats: micro SD, USB, or hard drive. Use whatever you have lying around, there is no need to buy additional storage if you have it. MODE is compatible with both versions of the Saturn as well as VA0 and VA1 Dreamcast variants. 


The installation of MODE does not require any soldering, just some disassembly with a screwdriver. The board itself is larger than the Rhea, to accommodate the added pin outs for variety of models that it supports. Its a wonky fit, as one of the legs is poised to rest on the ribbon cable for the controller board. The legs that come with it have self adhesive feet, so this helps keep it in place.  Also, once installed, the storage device is not accessible as it is in the other ODEs, so make sure you have what you want on the SD card the first time, or you'll be taking the console apart over and over.





The interface is clean and simple, if a little jittery as it is presented in 480i. Games can be nested in folders, which is a big deal for me, as I like to categorize my games by genre. The menu options are sparse but appreciated, and currently the reset to menu feature is not working, it just resets to the same loaded game. However, I have been told by customer support that this will be remedied in a future firmware update. I hope this comes soon, because power cycling the console to change games gets old.
The menu has support for cover art display, via downloadable support file. This is a nice touch, even if some of the art is oddly cropped.


The gameplay is as it should be, I have not encountered any issues with any of my games. The RAM carts work as they should as well. 

Priced at $200 ($182 euros), it is the most expensive option compared to Rhea/Phoebe (132 euros) and Finrir ($104.5). Even still, I feel like this is the most polished option, and users will have the most positive experience with it. Tinkerers who don't mind doing extra legwork can get along just fine with the others, I did for a while. But I found those to be cumbersome whenever I wanted to change something, I had to relearn the nuances and quirks of the setup and eventually ended up succeeding, but not without struggling.   

Overall, I highly recommend MODE. While there are other devices options that achieve the same function, MODE has refinements that improve the user experience. The higher compatibility with game files, the multiple options for storage media, the clean and simple visual interface, the ease of setup, and availability are all reasons that put this at the top. 




Playstation Shoot' em Ups!


The Sony Playstation was the hands-down winner of the 5th generation console wars between the Sega Saturn and N64. Objectively, based on sales, there was no comparison. It wasn't my favorite console of that generation, but it had a great library nonetheless. There were several cross-platform entries, but that's OK. Several of these are Japanese exclusives, but they can be played with other means today.



Raycrisis and Raystorm

Raycrisis


Raystorm
Raycrisis and Raystorm are very similar in theme and gameplay. I think one is the sequel, or prequel to the other, its hard to tell as they are both set in the future. Everything is rendered in 3D for both games, and they haven't aged all that well. Once you accept this there is fun to be had here. The primary game mechanic here is the lock on targeting for enemies in the background plane. Your main laser is fine, but the real fun is using the targeting reticule and taking out enemies before they arrive on your plane. Of the two, I prefer Raystorm, as I feel the control is better. In both games, there is a slight return to center if you let go, giving is a slight "on-rails" character. The pull to center is a bit too strong on Raycrisis for my liking. Maybe you won't notice it, maybe its in my head. It's not a deal beaker.



G-Darius


Another Darius game in a long line of Darius games, G-Darius makes the leap into 3D (actually 2.5D as it is still side-scrolling) with mixed success. The Bosses are larger than life and look good, but almost everything else doesn't. The gameplay is traditional Darius gameplay, except for the new capture ball that you can through at enemies (usually mid-bosses), and force them to fight on your side. A novel tactic that was explored in Darius Gaiden, but put to greater use here. Overall its a fun Darius game.



R-Types


From what I can tell, this is a near arcade perfect port of R-Type. There are a couple of home ports of this game, but I think this is the best, it looks great through RGB via scart. I am terrible at this game and nothing has changed. Both R-Type and R-Type II are on this port, and some options are selectable at the onset as well. I wish I were better at this game, as I feel my enjoyment of it is limited due to its punishing difficulty. Its a great game, I just have some kind of mental block where I die at the same point over and over again. One day I'm going to practice and try to get through it. One day.


Gekioh: Shooting King


This game is a fairly straight-forward game. Known on the Sega Saturn as Shienryu, the localized name doesn't do it any favors. I can't see it flying off the shelves with a name like that.
Anyway, its a very competent 2D vertically scrolling shooter, with some very nice effects. When enemy ships are hit, they trail downward, venting smoke all the way until they impact. This is impressive for a sprite-based game. The lightning weapon is equally as impressive when powered up; it jumps from enemy to enemy as it dispatches them one by one. Also present are a typical vulcan that widens with power ups and missile salvos. The character of the bombs also change, depending on which weapon you have. Control is smooth, and speed up capsules are available. Its a fun, lesser-known title.


Raiden DX


This is a tweaked and refined version of Raiden II, with more options and more advanced scoring mechanics. Specifically, you can choose from three levels: Alpha (training), Beta (5 stages), and Charlie (8 stages). Stages are remixed in the later Charlie level from the original Raiden II. It's kinda like the special champion edition hyper fighting version of Raiden. If you liked the earlier Raiden games, you'll like this as well. 




In the Hunt


A unique game in that there are very few submarine-based shoot'em ups. Without doing too much digging I can say this is the best one. Developed by the same team members as the Metal Slug series, the detail oozes from every pore. The love that went into the character sprite design is unparalleled. For a traditionally slow moving vehicle like a submarine, you might think that the level of action would be muted, but think again. There is so much going on at one time, it can be difficult to focus. Each torpedo, depth charge, missile, and explosion is laden with follow through animations, giving the game a level of animation that is inspiring. This can lead to some slowdown, as would be expected, but its a worthy tradeoff.




Zanac Neo

The first Zanac game on the NES was a difficult game. Even for its time, it was pretty impossible without a turbo fire setting. Zanac Neo, found on the Zanac X Zanac collection, shows its heritage in that regard. The visuals are fantastic, and the music is modernized with a trance - electronica grove thing going on, its reminds me of the music in Lumines. Like the original Zanac game, power ups are numbered, and you can level each one up if you collect them consecutively. It was developed my Compile, and similarities can be gleaned here and there if you follow the genre. I had more fun after I notched the difficulty down a bit.


Parodius Series



The Parodius series originated as a spin off of Gradius. The power up system and difficulty are the obvious give aways. The stage and enemy design is laden with choices that make you wonder what the programmers were smoking. There are multiple releases for the Playstation, but they were Japanese exclusives, like many games on this list. They are worth tracking down, as they are definitely unique, and a refreshing departure from the usual grim shoot'em ups out there.



Harmful Park

Once you get used to Parodius, the next step in weird shooters is Harmful Park. This game takes place in a theme park setting and builds stages around them. Roller coasters, zoos, candy shops, haunted houses all make for colorful and active scenery. Oddly, there is a wedding chapel scene where a distraught groom's tears spray out and kill you. Makes sense. The weapons are as random as the stage design, employing pie throwing, shooting potatoes, and an sundae explosion. You can acquire a jello shield, becoming encased in a jello mold (like in The Office). If you die, you respawn automatically, which I much prefer. You'll likely die a lot as you get distracted by all of the random background happenings; its worth it as the game design is some of the most inventive ever seen in a shooter. This game is prohibitively expensive, it may be the most expensive shoot 'em up on the system, so find another way to play.




Thunder Force V: Perfect System

The Thunder Force series cut its teeth on the Genesis/Mega Drive, and the jump to 3D was inevitable for this platform. The action is still primarily side scrolling, with polygons in lieu of sprites. I find the visuals to be a step back, as the sprite work in the previous entries was so good in comparison to chunky polygonal shapes. Aside from the newer visuals, the gameplay is largely the same. Some of the typical weapons remain, but a new entry is the game-wrecking Free Range weapon. It's a little hard to use at first, but master it and you can take down bosses in no time. This was originally released for the Saturn.


Salamander 2 (Salamander Deluxe Pack) (import)

This collection features Salamander, Life Force, and Slamander 2. Life Force and Samander are essentially the same game, except that Life Force adopts the collected-power-capsule method of weapon upgrading, like Gradius. Both Salamander games were unreleased stateside. The real treat here is Salamander 2. The graphics and stage design take another step forward in the series, and it is one of the most enjoyable games to play in the Gradius-Salamander lineage.


R-Type Delta

The fourth installment in the series also takes the leap into 3D. While most early 3D visuals don't age well, I find these more palatable than those in Thunder Force V. The gameplay is definitely R-Type, with newer features like adjustable speed, and a charge up system for the force pod. It is not as punishing as the previous entries, but still its not easy. It is a nice refinement of the series.


Gradius Gaiden (import)

By this point in time, the Gradius franchise is well established, and the gameplay is fairly predictable to those who follow the series. What makes this game stand out is the beautiful attention to detail in visuals. The stage design, enemies, and bosses all were lovingly designed, as if to make a statement with the first entry in the the 32-bit generation. Being a gradius game, it is just as difficult as you would expect it to be, but you will enjoy every death as the game is much more appealing to look at.


The Raiden Project

This is a collection of arcade versions of Raiden 1 and Raiden 2. Both ports are nearly perfect, with the addition of customizable button configurations and difficulty. This is a great choice for beginners due to that last feature. Having both games is a treat as well, since the first is a classic and the second improves upon the gameplay by adding a new weapon type, the purple toothpast laser, and a new scatter bomb. Just as you would expect, it is twice as fun with a second player. I had a hard time deciding between this and the Japan-only follow up, Daiden DX. Raiden Project just edged it out due to it having both games.



Darius Gaiden (import)

Darius games up this point were just average. The previous entries were OK, good enough for some casual play, but not really cracking anyone's lists of the best shooters. Darius Gaiden is in my opinion, the first Darius game to garner such attention. The screen bursts with color; this is the most visually appealing game in the series. The music is some really strange space opera on acid, as if alien fish teenagers were congregating at a rave near the edge of the universe, flailing glowsticks all about. The bosses are bigger than ever, and their demise is followed by a blinding screen flash. The outlandish screen sucking bomb is immensely satisfying to drop, and I regret every time I die not dropping them sooner. The difficult curve is appropriate, and you won't mind playing it over and over again as it is that funky.


Donpachi & Dodonpachi (import)

Donpachi, one of the first games produced by developer Cave, made the blueprint for how to make a bullet-hell shoot'em up. The different firing styles add a now-taken-for-granted gameplay strategy of alternating between concentrated fire and weaker, wide shots. Many people play games like these for high scores or one-credit clears (1cc), but I'm content to just play and enjoy the game as it comes. I haven't 1cc'd any shooter, and probably won't anytime soon, but I appreciate these all the same.


Soukyugurentai Obushutsugeki (import)

One of the few Playstation appearances from Raizing, the developer that produced the excellent Battle Garegga for Saturn. This game makes use of a secondary plane attack, as in, being able to target enemies in the background and fire at them with homing lasers before they come to the fore front and pose a threat. The standard weapon is fine, but the real fun is trying to string together as many targeted background enemies as possible.



Strikers 1945 I & II (import)

I champion this series at every opportunity. To me, it is a near perfect shooter for all levels. The adjustable difficulty allows players to learn at their own pace. The variety of planes, each with their own attack patterns, charge shots, and bomb attacks adds a lot to replay value. The control is tight with the perfect amount of speed and maneuverability. Lots of color, realistic sprite design, imaginative bosses, and fine tuned amount of chaos make for one of my favorites. The two-player co-op adds tremendously to the fun factor. Parts 1 and 2 were released in Japan, whereas only part 2 was released in North America, but it was titled as "Strikers 1945" despite being the sequel.


Einhander

The most intriguing entry on this list is also Squaresoft's only foray into shoot 'em ups. The developer that is renowned for RPGs tried its hand in the genre, and hit it out of the park. Clearly inspired by Blade Runner, the dark visuals, futuristic vibe, and rock'n techno music all contribute to a moody, serious, and challenging game. Its visuals are are 2.5D, with polygons instead of sprites, but 2D side-scrolling. This can be good or bad, and I think this is best case scenario for early polygons.
Bosses are all oversized technical monstrosities, many of which transform and are dismantled piece by piece, making for satisfying battles. The primary mechanic in the game is controlling the weapon arm. Certain enemies carry weapons that can be captured after their demise. These weapons act as a secondary weapon, but in most cases are more powerful/useful than your main weapon, this is probably intended. Why Squaresoft did not follow it up is a mystery to me, perhaps they wanted to have a perfect track record for the genre, maybe the team that made the game got fired, who knows? I I think its one of the best in the genre, and even one of the best games on the console.

I do have issues with Sony's attempt at a d-pad, and find it sub-par. When I play any kind of 2-D game on PS1 I use the Sega Logistical Services Saturn pad, made for PS1. I also pull out the arcade stick here and there, but the Saturn pad is my controller of choice.


The best Playstation controller for shmups is originally a Saturn controller.