Saturday, September 19, 2009

When emulation is shoddy + PC88 PSP guide


Videogame emulators might be freely coded by generous people in their spare time, but damn, if there isn’t a large quantity of annoying, lacklustre, or half-assed pieces of work out there. And some great ones, too. But few seem to differentiate between them. (oh, and I explain how to get an excellent PC88 emulator working on your PSP).

I woke up this morning intending to give you a guide to getting the PC88 running on your PSP, but instead I’ve decided to take a stand and criticise lazy emulator authorship – because if nobody says anything, nothing will be done. My programming skills are rudimentary, but by using various emulators it’s quite easy to see that a lot of coders putting out shoddy work, and people in turn are lapping it up and praising it.

But first, the PC88 guide:
Anyone who reads HG101 will know about the PC88, that nifty, obscure Japanese home computer. The site covers various games for it, like The Scheme, Popful Mail, and Sorcerian. There’s also some decent emulators for it on PC, and an excellent emulator on PSP. That is QUASI88 0.6.3 (a lot of English sites have 0.6.1, but this isn’t as good since the menu is clunky). Google it and find it.

My trouble with it though was that I couldn’t get it to load, leading me to think the emulator or my PSP wasn’t working correctly. I’d placed the BIOS files in the root directory, and even tried putting them in folders called BIOS and ROMS. But nothing helped. Turned out, the standard BIOS you use for the PC emulators won’t work:
font.rom
KANJI.rom
KANJI2.rom
Pc88.rom

After a lot of Googline through Japanese sites and Wikis, I eventually discovered the cure, I needed to add two “pseudo” BIOS files.
n88.rom
disk.rom

Available HERE.

They don’t use NEC’s code, so they’re legal, I believe. Just chuck ‘em in the directory along with the EBOOT, pop this in your GAME folder on the PSP, and away you go. Perhaps you knew this already, but I didn’t and the documentation, even in Japanese, is patchy at best. If there’s enough interest, I’ll do a mini-review round-up of cool PC88 games, since due to the amount available, it’s quite daunting. Quick tip: get Battle Gorilla, it's an amazing cross between Commando and a traditional roguelike.



Anyway, here is my list of annoying-as-hell botch-ups in the emulator world:

Fceugc – NES emulator for the Wii
This one really annoys me. There’s a visual glitch due to there being too many horizontal pixels, which results in a blurred wave-like effect when anything in the background scrolls. Reported HERE.

And the guy’s reply was: “not going to work on this, I personally think it's 'good enough'”

If you’re not going to aim for precise and exact fidelity, then why bother with anything? Why bother adding sound? Or pad support? Or even coding an emulator. Sadly this seems to be the only NES emulator on the system. Well, no thanks, I think I’ll stick to injecting games into custom WADs. The wave effect renders games unplayable, like someone is squiring lemon juice in my eyes.


NESter DC
This used to be an excellent NES emulator for the Dreamcast, up until... Was it V3 or V4? Well, at some point it changed authors, and from around V5 onwards the emulator’s visual output changed to include a mandatory, and non-switch-offable anti-aliasing filter. Why? It looked fine before. It had the correct aspect ratio for NES games. Things were sharp, and clear, and there was some excellent V-syncing going on which meant no screen tearing. The change in authors destroyed that emulator. Frankly I don’t understand why anyone uses filters. It ruins the beauty of pixel graphics and makes things look blurry. Like I’d rubbed Vaseline all over my TV. If you want to include these damned annoyances, fine, but let me switch them off. I never found a way to switch it off in NESter DC, so I threw away the discs and reburned an older version. I’ve never bothered going back to see if they’d corrected their mistake.


XBOX emulators
I have a slight problem with the Xbox emulator scene. Xport is a great guy, and his work is excellent, I have absolutely no complaints. But it annoys me that the Xbox emulator scene always pussyfoots around distributing the emulators. Because it uses the XDK? Because they’re frightened of the legal implications? Hellooo. You’re using them to run illegally distributed ROMs. ROM sites don’t get shut-down, so why are the emulators so difficult to find? Using the FTPs is annoying. Look, I’m not even going to bother trying to explain this, Reverend Stuart Campbell has them all on his website, no fuss, no fear. They’re out of date, but if he can do it, so can you.


DC emulators
I love Dreamcast emulators because, except when the author puts an unnecessary filter on them, they tend to produce a better picture over RGB SCART than Xbox emulators. What I don’t like is the incredible, infuriating timidness those in control have, which is worse than in the Xbox scene. From what I remember, due to fear of legality or some weird, bent moral code, no one wanted to use Sega’s Katana development tools. As a result, when I was there, everything progressed slowly and most things were crippled. They seriously needed to drop this warped mentality, grow some courage, and just run with what they had. I don’t know if it improved, since I jumped ship to the faster and more powerful Xbox.

I was also banned three times from the DC emu forum for trying to discuss the hacked Sega Smash Pack. But let me put this into context: it was the only working Sega Genesis emulator on the system. Homebrew attempts were dreadful would not function, and Sega's hacked emulator was almost perfect - with the exception of some sound issues. It was the best there was.

Anyway, I’d been given a disc with the emulator, except it had an awful blur filter on it, which I was trying to work out how to switch off. Banned, three times. First rule of DC Emulation, we don’t talk about SegaGen. Second rule of DC Emulation, WE DON’T TALK ABOUT SEGAGEN. Well, I eventually went to the French DC emulation community, and they were like:
Viens dans mes amis et boire du vin français et faire l'amour avec de belles femmes françaises et que vous voulez le Sega Smash Pack, pas de problème mon ami, prends tout ce que vous voulez nous n'avons pas peur de rien. Nous sommes courageux. Nous sommes français et de vivre avec brio, Vive la France!

Anyway, they gave me a different hacked Smash Pack, with different GUI and graphics filter so it was pixel perfect and sharp as a knife (it could have been the Obsidian version? – I don't recall). I don’t know how or why it was different from the other hacked version doing the rounds on English forums, which I'd originally had, but god, was it good. I finished a lot of Genesis RPGs using that emulator! Oh, and it was actually available, unlike in the English-speaking DC community. Follow the French, I say.


Turbo Duo emulation
This, on a PC, generally sucks. Or at least it did before I jumped ship to the Xbox. Maybe it's improved. For a start the emulator hailed as the best for several years, Magic Engine, the author requires purchasing of the emulator for full use, which I object to for numerous reasons. So I cracked it. Charging for a program which allows you to freely and illegally play games is hypocritical, and goes against the spirit of the emulation scene. Plus other authors do it for free. I say boycott Magic Engine. Then there’s the fact that it won’t load ISOs or any kind of CD rip (perhaps newer version do). My CD drive broke, so I bought an external USB one, and then it wouldn’t recognise that, thereby leaving me unable to load any CD games. Other emulators thankfully came out, but these were either in Japanese, required mounting via virtual drive (a messy business), or required exact rips with correct audio track lengths and an annoying text file listing the order of tracks and when they start and stop. Why? Sega CD emulators don’t need TOC files or virtual drives for CD rips, just load and go. Those things will run anything. I just want to click on an ISO or a BIN and have it work without question. Eventually I gave up on emulating the Turbo Duo on my PC, having gone through several emus, and switched to the latest Xbox emulator (I think it was MednafenX-PCE - it has the Bonk's Adventure skin/theme with it). Regardless of the format or the quality of the rip, it loads stuff, and every conceivable TOC was included, saving lazy people like me the hassle. Hell, it loaded everything. I hear Hu-Go on the PC is very good, but I can’t face returning to the world of emulating the Duo on a PC. Turbo Duo emulator authors needs to start focusing on ergonomics and ease of use – virtual drives? TOC files? What the hell. Just make it work.

15 comments:

  1. Okay. I agree with you on some points, definitely. The NesterDC cockup, especially.

    But my main problem is you being frustrated about the XDK problem in the Xbox scene. And dude, I'm frustrated about it too, but too many sites got sued into oblivion before they stumbled onto a more creative solution.

    Here, read this: http://www.xbox-scene.com/articles/xbins.php It's not too tricky, I even figured it out. Also, use ChatZilla and FileZilla instead of mIRC and FlashFXP. Freeware > payware.

    And Magic Engine, despite being awesome in theory, blows all of its chances for win away when you get to the $40 for more than 5 minutes of play thing.

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  2. As far as PC Engine emulation goes, you have: mednafen (multi-platform, commandline) or aamirm's turboengine

    I've played Rondo & Snatcher through perfectly with these.

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  3. Tempest for the GP2X supports "normal" iso/mp3s. Maybe that'll get ported back to something like Mednafen which works great otherwise.

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  4. As someone who has had a hand in programming stuff, I can understand why the authors might want to be paid, because a lot of work goes into them...but at the same time, it does go against the precedent, and usually some other author comes out and does something better, for free. I remember back in the early days of NES emulation, there were only two - Pasofami, which required a special format which only supported about a dozen games, played back music in MIDI (UGH), and an extremely wrong color palette, and iNES, which had far greater compatibility but ran like crap, and also had awful video and sound emulation. They charged $40 for iNES, though, which was immediately made obsolete when NESticle came out, which did everything way better, and was free to boot.

    The inability to turn off filters is annoying - last time I tried a Jaguar emulator, I couldn't, which is aggravating when you're taking screenshots. The DS emulator I used for a long time also didn't take screens, which is the only reason I use a DS emulator in the first place, so I had to use a third party one.

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  5. You are right about talking among DC forums about SegaGen. Everyone knew what it was, and how great it worked; but no one wanted to help people find it or attempt to assemble their own. Eventually I just got lucky and found it through a torrent.

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  6. All valid points. I had no idea early NES emulators were charged for! I wonder if anyone paid, and how they feel today? Charging for such things leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it reminds of wanting to charge for fan-translation patches, without the physical item (Beggar Prince is a physically produced cart for commercial purposes, so warrants the charge you could argue).

    The Xbox thing, I can kinda accept, but with megaupload et al, they should be taking advantage of such things.

    The DC Segagen thing though is crazy I feel - even if you don't host it, at least allow sensible discussion of it if you're the main forum for such things. Wasn't the Smash Pack actually coded by a homebrew guy hired by Sega, who enabled an exploit in the code which allowed people to put their own ROMs on it? That should stuff should be legendary, not a dirty secret hidden away.

    As for Turbo Duo emulation, I didn't realise the GP32X, but that's another good example. Is there anything inherent in Windows computers that forces the authors to make the emulators so restricted? The whole TOC thing I find really frustrating and strange. Is actually essential to getting the code running?

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  7. I'm fairly certain that Ootake can emulate the Turbo Duo. I may be wrong about that.

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  8. I had to Google it, but the same guy is STILL selling iNES ten years later!

    http://fms.komkon.org/iNES/

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  9. i'd be very interested in some pc-88 reviews.

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  10. Yeah the DC stuff was frustrating as hell.

    A mini review round-up of PC-88 games would be great btw.

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  11. If you have an interest in emulating on consoles, the Wii scene has been kicking up. For those with chipped or otherwise modded Wiis, we've gained high quality emulators ranging from the basic NES, SNES, Genesis, Gameboy and Master System to some of the more tricky to implement like MSX and Commodore 64.

    I feel your pain with the rather low quality of some emulators and their authors unwillingness to at least attempt to perfect them. Our old Gameboy Advance emulator was a rather shoddy work of programming originally and the author had the "good enough" syndrome. Luckily another author picked it up and finished it.

    If you want to look for yourself at what Wii emulation has to offer these days, check out http://wiibrew.org/wiki/List_of_homebrew_emulators

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  12. Dcemulation is one of a small handful of sites out there which offer decent technical information on how to program for the Dreamcast *legitimately*.

    KallistiOS - used since then for all significant homebrew releases- only ever got off the ground because it and related communities diligently avoided developing frameworks and tools using code used without permission from Sega.

    That means anyone with the ability can create a game for the Dreamcast using KallistiOS, sell it openly, and Sega can't lay a finger on them.

    Although I guess if you just HAD to play NES games using a Dreamcast pad back in 2001 the idea these nerds were so intent on not investing their time into efforts that would eventually be illegal to distribute would piss you off.

    Also:
    "Because they’re frightened of the legal implications? Hellooo. You’re using them to run illegally distributed ROMs. "

    This attitude is what keeps video game emulation in general relegated to the gutter. Unfortunately people like you, despite your apparent fondness of the medium, are more than happy to see it stay there so long as you get yours.

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  13. I fail to understand your final point - so please elaborate. Why is it in the gutter, exactly?

    What else is the point of emulation, if not to play commercial games? This is a serious question.

    Is it to run homebrew games? I can think of very few NES and SNES homebrew games. Most are awful. My list of freeware NES games contains Elite, Sack of FLour and... Nothing else. They're almost all awful. ROM hacks are cool, but these are as illegal as the ROMs themselves.

    Is it to develop a working understanding of the hardware architecture so that it isn't lost after production stops? Well, this IS a good idea, and if it helps to develop and keep alive the knowledge of how to code for these systems, then great. Because from what I've read, few people know how to develop for the NES anymore.

    From an archival point of view, emulation might be great to preserve such knowledge. But then don't even bother releasing it to the public. Keep locked in a University library where up-and-coming programmers can have access to it.

    My gripe is this: if emulators of old hardware are to be released to the public, it can only ever be for one single reason: to play commercial games. To say otherwise is to lie to yourself.

    I just want the community to be honest with themselves. Every time a forum moderator announces a new emulator and then says: "Now we can enjoy all those PD games!" I want to laugh. Stop kidding yourselves. We all know why we use emulators.

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  14. My qualm is that emulator authors have every right to be frightened of legal implications. They're putting their time into something; just because some are willing to give it away doesn't mean they want it to be as illegal to distribute as waraz pornography.

    Additionally, emulating commercial games isn't necessarily illegal.

    PSX emulators can use ISOs created by anyone with a PC and the original discs.

    Console Classix maintains a subscription service where users "rent" ROMs that are temporarily downloaded to their machines. They have no explicit permission from rights holders but operate publicly under the basis that they've dumped the games legally and are complying with copyright law.

    Emulation authors might also naturally dissociate emulating commercial games with illegality since many are hardware wizards who create their own means of dumping ROMs from games they own.

    My point is, the widespread "damned if you do, damned if you don't" attitude towards emulation encourages unscrupulous behavior and damages the reputation of the technology and those associated with it. Emulation doesn't have to be illegal, and though many of the laws surrounding it are stupid I feel it's advocates should at least try to claim the moral high ground.

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  15. You're complaining about having to pay for a PC-Engine emulator so you can play CD-ROM games on it, CD-ROM games that you could actually own. Then you go on to complain about it not making it easier to play the CD-ROM games you don't own, even though this is obviously done to discourage piracy. And complain about it not being nice about you having a broken CD-ROM drive, something which is ostensibly your problem. And call Magic Engine's author the hypocrite. Right.

    Your argument is basically equivalent to this one:

    "I wanted to use this mp3 playing software but hacked it since they were charging money for it. It's outrageous that they would dare charge money for software that is only useful for playing my pirated mp3s. Then I found out that it'll only convert and play mp3s ripped from original CDs. I don't have a CD-ROM drive and despite it being required for any number of things I am further outraged by this and am going to insult this software repeatedly."

    Okay, so the description of the mp3 player is a little ridiculous, but it's certainly not illegal or immoral.

    That aside, most of your criticism is directed to ports, not the original works. Understand the difference and the implications it has. The people you are calling lazy are those who were not investing a lot of time into this to begin with, just wanted to get something available up and running in their spare time. Your attitude of "do it to my complete liking or don't do it at all" is very rude. You're just being immature.

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