Thursday, October 22, 2009
Contrary to the opening title, I’m not advocating wanton cruelty on animals – rather, I intend to talk you through the hassles of trying to experience Sonic Gems on the PS2 as it should be. The quick answer is: you can’t, making it possibly the most redundant compilation ever released.
With high street stores no longer stocking new PS2 games in the UK, and the second-hand selection dwindling to almost nothing, I’ve been discussing what needs to be smash-and-grabbed before the last PS2 leaves Saigon. eBay (hate it as much as I do) is rife with excellent games costing from $1 up to $20, all with free postage. This being the valley of the graph, many will inevitably rise in price. Meaning now is the time to BUY!
One game on my list was Sonic Gems, a Sonic compilation containing mainly obscure and weird crap most people haven’t played (Sonic Fighters the arcade game and a slew of Game Gear games), plus Sonic CD which has never appeared on compilation before (EDIT: I'm informed it's actually a port of the PC Sonic CD, not the Sega CD version - but I'm going to leave the cover art pics as is). A games journalist friend criticised it for containing only obscure titles - but I disagreed. This to me, made it potentially the greatest compilation ever released. Forget compilations with games which sold well - the original cartridges for those cost $1 a piece. No, reprinting a collection of retro games should - I feel - focus on those which are good yet didn't get as widespread a release. This would lower the prices that collectors demand for the originals, and it would mean the unwashed masses get to experience great games easily and at a fraction of the price. So in this respect, I regarded Sonic Gems as some form of holy gaming light - a shining beacon by which other developers could follow... And oh lordy, how wrong I was.
First up eBay UK, which has it for around $6 delivered. But then I realised this won’t have Bare Knuckle 1, 2 or 3. Only the Japanese version has them.
So I buy the Japanese version. Except it turns out that Sega, much like they did with Panzer Dragoon Orta on the Xbox, coded the Japanese version to be multi-language and select things based on the language settings of your system. PAL PS2 systems don’t have Japanese, so everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – defaulted to English, including the soundtrack to Sonic CD. This pisses me off, because the UK actually received the Japanese soundtrack for Sonic CD, and yet the UK versions of Gems boots the US soundtrack, as does the Japanese version in a UK system. So right off the bat, one of my main reasons for playing is curtailed.
If I'm going to play Sonic CD I want it to have its original soundtrack as intended by the creators. Dave Halverson gave the Japanese version a perfect score of 100, and the US versions something like 70, purely they changed the music. I can agree with this. Compare the two soundtracks and it should be obvious the original is better. It's insulting that Sega felt the need to do this.
Some people say the change in soundtracks is licensing issues. Well, I call shenanigans on that excuse. That’s like paying $40 for a game at the store and getting home to find there’s no disc in it and the developer says: “Sorry, when we finished making the game we had issues with the fact that we couldn’t magically invent CDs out of thin air.” That’s the wrong answer. What you do is, you DEAL with it. Sorting out the licensing issues for the soundtrack, over a decade after its release, should be treated in exactly the same way as staff wages or hiring the factory to produce the discs is treated. IE: it’s part of the development process. Not bung both soundtracks on one disc and then deprive all non-Japanese of the chance to listen to it. If it can still be sold in Japan, by god it can be sold in the west – it was in fact sold in the UK! Bloody numpties.
Anyway, back to google.
Googling reveals that it’s possible to rip the game and hex edit it to only boot the Japanese soundtrack. So, off we go.
I couldn’t be bothered to work out how to rip it, so instead downloaded the ISO. Several hours and over 1 gigabyte later, I was faced with how to actually hex edit it. Back to Google to search for free Hex editors. As per usual, there’s a million different utilities. The one near the top, XVI32 looks reasonable, so I download it.
It loads fine, but trying to open the ISO results in a memory failure. Maybe it’s too big I think. Or maybe I need a binary files instead. Or maybe XVI32 is actually a bit pants.
So, it’s back to Google to search for how to convert an ISO to a BIN. Isobuster can apparently do it, but after fumbling through the menus for close to 20 minutes I’m no wiser as to how to do this. Perhaps another hex editor will fix it?
Back to Google, and I get Free Hex Editor Neo. And hoho, it works! Except that instead of roman text on the far right, opposite the numbers, I’ve got Japanese moonspeak. Perhaps it’s because I set my system’s character coding to Japanese for doujin games? I’m not going to change it just to hack an ISO, so I try to change the character setting in FHEN. Well, can’t do that because it’s a trial version. Bastards.
Anyway, I search for BGM_US.ASF and luckily it turns up just fine in the ISO. Except it’s not at the numerical location hinted at on the forum which gave instructions. Is this due to my downloaded ISO not being the correct length, or perhaps it’s due to character encoding? No matter, I hex edit it and move on. All need to read BGM_JP.ASF. The ISO saves quickly.
Finally burned, the game actually loads via Swap Magic 3 and I think I’m in the clear. Except no! The game still insists on loading the godawful US soundtrack. I double check the ISO, and it quite clearly shows only BGM_JP.ASF for each entry. Damn... What went wrong?
Anyway, deciding I’ll fiddle with that later, I consider loading Bare Knuckle, except it’s not there. There’s only 2 blank slots for unlockable games, presumably Vectorman 1 and 2. But isn’t this Japanese version meant to have 5 unlockables? I check the ISO again, and it defiantly contains an MDROM folder, with BK1.cpt and upwards. So Bare Knuckle is on the disc.
Back to Google and GameFaqs. Turns out I need to play the compilation for over 7 hours before these games are unlocked. At which point sanity prevailed and I said: bollocks to this.
In total I must have spent around 4-5 hours surfing, buying, ripping, downloading, unzipping, hacking, saving, reburning, and generally buggering around on the internet. And for what? To play Sonic CD with its original soundtrack as the creators intended, and a scrolling fighter series which hasn’t been butchered? I own the original PAL Sonic CD with Japanese soundtrack, which boots perfectly on a modded Xbox with Genesis emulator, and I can force it to run in 60Hz mode so no borders. With the same modded Xbox I can load Streets of Rage 1 and 2, and the fan-translated version of Bare Knuckle 3, which would be in English, but not censored or with unbalanced difficulty. To top it off, the Game Gear emulation is appalling on the compilation, with washed out and anti-aliased visuals which don’t even fill the screen. Amateur coders are able to do better on big consoles without official SDKs, so why Sega did such a terrible job I don’t know. Drunk on shoe polish, perhaps?
Sonic Gems is a butchered mess. If you buy the PAL version you’re cheating yourself. If you buy the imported Japanese version, it will only work correctly on a Japanese PS2. The amount of effort needed to get it anywhere near acceptable is so high as to make it pointless owning. Like I said, possibly the most redundant compilation in existence. Unless you’re desperate to play Sonic Fighters.
I had considered hex editing the game to unlock the extra titles, but as pointed out on RHDN, an easier method is to download the finished save file off GameFAQs, and according to Kitsune Sniper on their forums:
You download the save files to a USB stick, you put the codebreaker/ AR / whatever disc on the PS2 (it's self-booting), you stick the USB into the PS2, you load the file, voila. That said, some PS2s are incredibly picky with their USB sticks.
Many thanks for the tip.
In case anyone cares: images stolen from all over the internet, be it Mobygames, or somewhere else.