Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Conquering Firmware Protected PSP Games

I figured it was only a matter of time, but now there's a relatively easy way you can hack ISOs to circumvent the firmware check on the more recent PSP releases, including Ys 7, Persona, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, and (I think) Gran Turismo. (There are other ways to make the Peace Walker demo work as explained somewhat awkwardly here.

First, make sure you're using 5.50 Gen-B2. I needed to upgrade from my really old 3.80 M33, which required a few steps, but went pretty smoothly. Next, grab this pack, which includes UMDGen and Game Decryptor.

Rip a copy of the ISO and open it in UMDGen. Export the filelist into "filelist.txt". Now, go into the PSP_GAME\SYSDIR directory, and extract the EBOOT.BIN file. Save it on the root of your memory stick.

Now, copy Game Decryptor to your PSP, and run it. It'll create a decrypted version of EBOOT.BIN and stick in the \Decryptor folder on your memory stick. Copy it back to your hard drive. Now, with UMDGen and the ISO file still open, import the old "filelist.txt" file, delete the old EBOOT.BIN and add the new EBOOT.BIN that was just created. Save it this as a new ISO and you should be set! If you run into any problems, make sure to disable any plugins and see if it works. Make sure you dig into the "Advanced" option in your Recovery Menu (hold R when booting) and disable those too.

I also ran into problems with IRShell, which didn't want to work properly with 5.50 GEN B2. It's not an essential program but I use it to create screenshots. Instead I grabbed Custom Firmware Extender 1.9.2, a plugin which also does screen caps (amongst other things) and works just fine with this firmware. Brilliant!

You can find a lot of useful information in this NeoGAF thread, mostly courtesy of one Mejilan. Our eternal thanks, we give, along with the intrepid hackers that make this possible!

Pop'n Music Portable - PSP

Just confirmed in Famitsu. Seems to be based off of Pop'n 15, Adventure.

80 songs, and multiple options for 3/5/7/9 button play. With the PSP being region free, this should be a must-buy for importers, especially since it has around 0% chance of coming out here.

As for the controls, hey, it worked for DJ MAX Portable.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ice Climber's influence on Wowser cartoon

Was there a connection between Nintendo's Ice Climber on the Famicom and an episode of the children's anime series Wowser?

Originally aired in 1988, Wowser was a Japanese developed cartoon series based on a Belgium comic called Cubitus. The 52 episode series followed the adventures of an obese white dog, Wowser, his owner Professor Dinghy, blonde woman Linda, older woman Beatrice, plus a black cat named Ratso. In Japan the series was known as Don-don Domeru to Ron (どんどんドメルとロン), in France as Cubitus, and in Holland as Dommel. It was your typical, wacky cartoon aimed at primary school kids.

What makes it interesting for gamers though, is that one episode, or possibly two, seemed to be heavily influenced by Ice Climber (アイスクライマ). There's nothing unusual about videogames influencing other mediums: the 2000AD comics featured regular stories about fictional characters getting sucked into real-world games (which was a rather clever marketing gimmick), and TV series The Power Team featured several Acclaim characters pulled into the real world. But this is such hopelessly obscure trivia, I felt it needed documenting somewhere...

Unfortunately, trawling Youtube and torrents for the American, French, Dutch and Japanese versions yielded nothing, and the only episode list I could find was in French, so I don't even know the episode's English name. Reading the French episode list, it could have been "Un monde de glace", but this could just as well apply to the Ice Man Cometh episode, which I did find online. The above screenshots were taken from said episode, which featured Professor Dinghy in exactly the same snow jacket he wore in the Ice Climber episode – it's the closest thing I could find. Unfortunately for most of the episode his hood is down, whereas in the Ice Climber episode it is buttoned up.


The IC episode I first watched in South Africa about 18 years ago, so my memory is hazy. Chronologically it came on after I'd watched the Ice Man Cometh episode, and I was at first disappointed at the initial similarities, thinking it was a cheap way to churn out another show. Except I seem to recall it being twice as long as a typical episode, and it was played as a two-parter perhaps.

For whatever arbitrary reason, Wowser, Dinghy, Beatrice, Linda and Ratso all decide to go to a large snow covered mountain. To keep them warm, Beatrice concocts some kind of warming, purple elixir. This seems to exist purely so that Wowser can drink too much of it, get really hot, and then saunter around in purple shorts like on the beach, looking much like the Ice Climber polar bear (at least, I think he wore shorts). Anyway, he ends up going kind of insane and holes himself up like overlord in a giant castle of ice, while Professor Dinghy dresses up like the blue Ice Climber man, and Beatrice dresses up as the pink Ice Climber woman, and together they go on to...

Well, I forget the exact details. Possibly Linda gets kidnapped by Wowser, and there's a vague memory of Dinghy being attacked by a bird – it was all so long ago, my main memory of the episode was that afterwards my brother and I loaded up the Japanese version of Ice Climber on our Famicom and played for hours, babbling away about how we were actually inside an episode of Wowser. Mostly we wasted time until the polar bear came out to knock the stage up.

The similarities are impossible to ignore: Wowser resembling the polar bear, a man in a blue snow jacket with hood, a woman with a pink snow jacket and hood. All of them on a snowy ice covered mountain. Possibly them getting attacked by a bird, but that might be an invention of my mind. With Ice Climber's release in the early 1980s predating the Japanese airing of Wowser, there's every possibility that one of the script writers was a fan of the game and chose to weave a few similarities into it. Now if only I could find the episode on Youtube to grab some screens. If you've seen this episode, or perhaps know where it's lurking, please post in the comments section. I will give you a million dollars. And by a million dollars, I mean my undying, internet-based respect.

Iceman Cometh pt1

Iceman Cometh pt2

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Doujn CD Review - Megalomania

01 Opening / Rockman2
02 Title / Rockman2
03 CutMan / Rockman
04 IceMan / Rockman
05 FireMan / Rockman
06 MetalMan / Rockman2
07 BubbleMan / Rockman2
08 WoodMan / Rockman2
09 ClashMan / Rockman2
10 FlashMan / Rockman2
11 QuickMan / Rockman2
12 Dr.Wily #1 / Rockman2
13 Title / Rockman3
14 SparkMan / Rockman3
15 GetWeapon / Rockman3
16 SnakeMan / Rockman3
17 PharaohMan / Rockman4

Circle: Dangerous Mezashi Cat


I’m really split on this one. On one hand, Mega Man music is tremendously overdone in both Western and Japanese remix circles. Furthermore, they tend to focus entirely on the first three entries. Yeah, everyone likes those more than the later entries, but regardless of their quality/popularity, they still had some excellent music. Megalomania, by Dangerous Mezashi Cat, continues the trend of neglecting these, by focusing on rock remixes on the first games.

Even those are a bit mixed. The music in the first Mega Man was never particularly good, but that doesn’t stop the chintzy, boring renditions here. Mega Man 2 fares quite a bit better, with a decent if typical arrangement of the opening theme. The stage themes are mixed, with Metal Man, Bubble Man, Wood Man, Flash Man and Dr. Wily’s Fortress use live guitars, while Quick Man and Crash Man use synth. I was never really a huge fan of these outside of Bubble Man and Dr. Wily’s theme, although the arrangements are fairly decent. I still can’t believe they omitted Air Man, though.

By far the best track is the rendition of the Mega Man 3 opening theme. It was only a short ditty originally, but it’s been expanded into a full ballad over four minutes in length, and sounds pretty amazing. The “Get Weapon” theme isn’t nearly as rearranged, but is still decent. The Spark Man theme is okay, while the Snake Man one is a bit more interesting. The only representation from the later games is Pharaoh Man from Mega Man 4, and it’s a bit of a lousy arrangement anyway.

So if you haven’t grown tired of the same old Mega Man songs, this is a pretty good album. Although their website lists this album in their discography, Dangerous Mezashi Cat no longer distributes Megalomania. It apparently disappeared around the time that Capcom released their own Rockman 1-6 Rock Arrange Album set. It might be coincidental, or it might be one of the few cases where a company actually blocked a doujin album. I'd honestly say that Capcom's official set is a bit better - the quality is more consistent, the song selection is better (the boss and title medleys are great), and the arrangements are slightly superior.



Friday, September 25, 2009

The Dark Spire Is $5 At Gamestop

The word on the street (and their website) is that Gamestop has dropped the price for The Dark Spire to $5. $5! I'm not sure there are any cheaper new DS games at that price, especially for a game that's only six months old. It's a pity it must've flopped so bad, but even the hardcore first person dungeon crawler community agreed that it wasn't so great.

Objectively speaking, the Etrian Odyssey games are both more modernized, less obtuse and way less buggy. But damned if I didn't really have an affection for The Dark Spire. I gave up somewhere after wandering around the second floor (and stumbling through the dark area in the basement), but the aesthetics are absolutely entrancing. There's something about the deeply saturated colors, the slightly off-skew angle, the bits of light peering in from the ceiling, and the enemy artwork that just clicks way, way more than Etrian Odyssey.

It also helps that the soundtrack is fantastic.

Maybe it's an effect of the Japanese industry dwindling, but the game music scene lately has felt a bit underwhelming, with most of the major players (Uematsu, Mitsuda, Sakimoto, Sakuraba) either mostly absent thsi year or past their prime. With Western development pushing the consoles forward, it's actually been the portable systems that have been picking up the slack with its outstanding music. The Dark Spire (along with Sting's Knights in the Knightmare) both sound like the composers sat down and had a healthy chat with Michiru Yamane - they both sound a bit like Castlevania - then each took off in their own direction. I've never heard of the composer, Kenichi Arakawa, but his VGMDB entry shows lots of obscurities. If he ever does anything else in the future, it'd be worth looking out for.

Like the heavy metal barking in the Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne soundtrack, it takes awhile to get used to the weird choir vocals in The Dark Spire, but everything - the main theme, the dungeon themes, all of the excellent battle themes - are outstanding, and definitely one of the best soundtracks released this year. For $5, the game comes in an outer cardboard box and includes a soundtrack CD that has most of the best songs, including a few of the "retro" variations, which are meant to sound like 8-bit chiptunes. Even if you have no interest in the game, it's worth it for the CD, and the cover looks cool anyway, assuming Gamestop hasn't banged it up or covered it with stickers per their usual MO.

Music Samples:

Thursday, September 24, 2009

HG101's Digital Pick of the Week: Shatter (PSN)

Okay, I realize that this is a new thing and I got some 'splainin' to do. What I am attempting to do is create some recognition for downloadable titles that have been released for various platforms. The game horder in me loves retail releases (so much so that I will at times buy an import copy of a title that is download only in the US), but I'm not going to fight the entire trend because at my core I just want to play good games. It doesn't have to have been recently released, it just needs to be good. Furthermore, you will notice that my pics will tend to be console (that is: XBLA, PSN, WiiWare) centric because of my personal gaming habits but are not necessarily limited to consoles or original releases (0pening this weekly article up to the likes of GOG and VC titles). The title simply needs to have a legal digital release. I'm pretty sure this preface is enough so without further ado, my first pick of the week is Sidhe Interactive's PSN exclusive Shatter for the PS3.

Shatter is a Super Breakout-style bat and ball game. This genre is literally decades old and most entries do little to impress the hardcore crowd. Even recent iterations of fan favorites in the genre, namely Devilish DS and Arkanoid DS, presented very few surprises and barely deserved a glance. Shatter however adds enough style, new ideas, and enough presentation to satiate even the more skeptical hardcore palette.

The game starts off rather simply, providing little challenge and little variety from its peers. However, the game's mechanics tipped me off that this game would become more complicated quickly. The title's main gimmick is the bat's ability to suck and blow (I'm sure the devs were Spaceballs fans) wherein the player can add curves to the balls', powerups', and bonus shards' trajectory. Judicious use of this mechanic make the beginning of the game a cakewalk, however upon further play mastering the mechanic is necessary to score high, to complete difficult levels, and to survive. Your suck and blow abilities also affect some of the blocks on the map leaving for the possibility of them crashing into your bat and disabling your bat temporarily.

One of the most surprisingly deep features is the ability to add another ball at anytime: a player-controlled multi-ball if you will. Not only does this feature radically affect the pace of the game, but it adds to your score multiplier and totally affects the tide of the game. You have no certainty that you will not have a game over in any given level. Let's say you have 4 balls in your stock and you deploy 3 (you can deploy as many as 5). Your bat is knocked off the board by a stray block and all of a sudden all three of your balls in play are lost. You have now gone from a comfortable 4 balls to a sweat inducing 1 that you will have to play much more methodically in an effort to procure more 1ups.

Above all else, though, Shatter is a game that proves once again that amazing music can and will enhance a solid game and make it epic. I would go as far to say that Shatter's electronic trance steals the show and almost eclipses the game itself. The beats keep the pace of the game high and every boss battle feels like an epic struggle (and many times is). Like any soundtrack provided by a house DJ, the music cross-fades from that world's them to its respective boss theme and then onto the bonus round seamlessly. In fact, my only complaint on this end is that the music stops between levels for a load screen which certainly kills the player's momentum. In any case, the music is great even without the game and is available on the dev's website for only $10.

High score competition is also a fun aspect of the game. My main issue with high scores in arcade-y downloads has always been the impossibility of having the high score no matter how hard you try. You can even have a really awesome high score in Geometry Wars and only be 2000th in the world. It's discouraging because of the amount of competition and only a very small portion of the gaming population can reap any benefit from this setup. However, Shatter includes semi-local high scores, meaning you are put up against your friends on PSN. Climbing to the top of this hill is a fun (even if you have say 100 friends that play the game) and realistic goal that can create a constant friendly rivalry and add replay value to the game's several modes.

The game isn't without its problems, of course. The level design can become very samey and annoying (rather than simply challenging) with the multitude of swarming blocks that can decommission your bat. Sometimes the game is more fun in the middle levels where the challenge and fun are balanced just enough to provide an amazing experience.

Fans of Arkanoid, electronica, and classic arcade competition would do well to purchase this game in any case. Shatter currently retails $7.99 and with great reinvented classic gameplay, unlockable boss and bonus modes, and a bitchin' soundtrack you couldn't go wrong.

Images lovingly borrowed from the game's official website for purposes of review.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Trials and Tribulations of Custom PSP Firmware

The aggravation with the new DSi reminded me of another issue that's been coming up lately - Sony's actively been trying to fight custom firmware by assuring that recent game releases won't work it. I've been out of the loop for awhile, because outside of the custom firmware functionality - mostly the homebrew stuff like emulators and SCUMMVM - I've only barely found a use for the thing lately. (I know they're touting a resurgence, but yet more "remakes" and portable versions of franchises which weren't interesting in the first place don't count.) I first found out about it when the domestic version of Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman!, shuttered to the PSN release ghetto, reportedly wouldn't work on hacked PSPs, but apparently Ys 7, which just came out last week, won't function either, even if you have the UMD. It absolutely requires OFW 5.55. This isn't a case of it requiring the new official firmware for functionality - it just does a simple check to make sure it's in the clear, and proceeds as normal. The recent US releases of Persona and Soul Calibur are said to be the same way, and word on the street is that the new Gran Turismo will require the new OFW 6.00 too.

It's actually pretty easy to play Ys 7 on a custom firmware PSP - you can either (a) make a Pandora battery, switch to official firmware to play it, then switch back, or (b) download a hacked version, when (or if) it becomes available. This is actually pretty funny, because it shows some level of ignorance on Sony's part. It might be long forgotten, but about ten years ago, Sony was encrypting Playstation discs so if it detected a mod chip, it wouldn't boot. (The first major release was the Japanese version of Final Fantasy VIII. I think the domestic version of Dino Crisis even had it too.) Never mind that some (almost definitely not the majority, to be honest, but some) people had chipped Playstations to play imports. The easiest solution was simply to download a hacked pirated version and be on its way. (Pro Action Replay codes worked, too.) It did nothing to stop anything, it actually encouraged piracy in a roundabout way, and they cut it out pretty quickly. But history repeats itself, and Sony is none the wiser. Ys 7 currently isn't hacked to my knowledge, but considering you could shell out $40 for a copy of Soul Calibur and have it not work, or just download a hacked version for free, which one makes more sense?

It's not like this corporate bureaucracy is anything new. I got my PSP modded in the first place so I could take screenshots of games, which is useful, given that I run a video game website based heavily on media. It'd be nice if they included such a feature already, but they won't, for stupid copyright reasons, mostly likely. There are a very few number of games which let you export images, but they all stick an ugly copyright notice on it - not the worst thing they could do, but considering you can do the same thing on Windows with any number of third party programs (and even built in Windows itself to an extent) it's weirdly restrictive. What's the worst you can do with a screenshot? Something really bad, I'm sure the lawyers think!

All of this points for Sony's - and, indeed, any console maker's - obsession with having a closed system. I understand the corporate reasonings behind this, and I understand the need to eliminate piracy as much as possible, but from a consumer standpoint, all they're doing is creating a stunted product - which isn't anything anybody should be happy about.

Modding a SNES

I mod my UK SNES to run Japanese and American games in 60Hz. (Previously this post also spoke about the DSi, but I've edited it out since it's dated quite a bit)

Region modding a SNES

(click the images for higher resolution versions)

Modding a console is a quintessentially British thing to do; Americans have little need to do so, since by default they have things better than Europeans.

Since the beginning your systems have run at 60Hz, which meant full speed and fullscreen gaming, instead of nearly a 20% reduction in game speed and thick borders at the top and bottom of a squashed screen. You also tended to receive a hell of a lot more games than us, with maybe a few small exceptions. Recent years have seen a few more Euro exclusives, but really, unless you speak fluent Japanese, America is still the country to live for great gaming. Oh sweet glorious America, with your better weather, lower taxes and full speed gaming, how I wish I were there.

Because I hate region locking, today I modded a UK SNES. I could just use my American SNES, but this seemed like a fun thing to do. I used Mmmonkey's website, which features a collection of system mods taken from a variety of other websites,. What's great about it is, Mmmonkey redid all the photos, made the guides very easy to follow with a clean layout, and brought all of them together under one site.

I recommend everyone visit it and mod their systems.

Modding a SNES is quite tricky. It required the lifting of 3 pins, use of a 2.2K resistor, and a lot of patience. But now my system can be flicked between 60 and 50Hz, plus country regions. Of course some games like Mario RPG still won't work, but it's a nifty system to have, especially since I can now run cheaper domestic games in 60Hz!

I also had to widen the cartridge slot to accept US cartridges, which included taking my dad's power drill and removing the internal side tabs as shown in the photos.

In all, about 2 hours worth of work for the whole system, but damn, if it isn't one sexy bit of region free kit. The same aesthetic design as the Japanese Super Famicom, but able to play US cartridges, and running off a domestic power supply. Plus it runs nearly everything!

Very nice!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mega Man 3 Boss Battle - Unnatural Selection riff

Someone on NeoGAF thought the riff at the end of Muse's Unnatural Selection (from their new album, The Resistance) sounded like Mega Man boss music. I agreed! So I figured I'd try to edit it into a video.

This took more effort than it seems. Mega Man 3 uses at least two of the five channels for sound effects (Square 1 and Noise) which in turn override the music whenever they're played. I needed to make an emulator movie file, record one AVI video with one sound channel on, record another AVI video with the other sound channel on, go through both sound files to edit out the music, and then mix it with the Muse track, which was actually only about 28 seconds, but I think I looped it pretty well. The THUNK sound when Hard Man hits the floor is mostly missing because I think it's played on one of the other channels, but it's no big loss.

It's not exactly revelatory, but there are worse ways to waste an hour.

On the topic of video game books

A little while ago, I was in the mood for something to read, so I decided to hunt down Chris Kohler's Power: How Japanese Video Games Gave The World An Extra Life. It was only anout four years old, but it came out during the time when I was pinching pennies, and $20 seemed a bit steep for a trade paperback. So in my used book search, I was a bit shocked to find that that the average selling price had doubled, usually hovering in the $40 range. (Luckily the local library had a copy of it, although eventually I was lucky/patient enough to find a kind seller that parted with it for $12.)

About five years ago, Diamond Publishing published Street Fighter: Eternal Challenge, a comprehensive look at Capcom's series, including a full history and interviews. Around the time of Resident Evil 4's release, BradyGames published The Resident Evil Archives, another fairly thick book detailing the entire plotline and going into extreme minutiae of the history of all games prior. Looking at (cheaper than Amazon, usually), the current lowest price for Eternal Challenge is $90; the lowest for Resident Evil Archives is $50, and that's the lowest I've seen it go for in the past few months. These types of books are fairly common amongst Japanese book stores. We're seeing Udon publishing some more of Capcom's artbooks - there are Phoenix Wright and Mega Man ones coming up by the end of this year - but those aren't quite the same thing, and I'm not sure if they have quite the same draw.

Traditionally, when a book store stocks something, it has a shelf life, based off a number of mostly invisible numbers, although it's obviously dependent on sales. After a certain amount of time, if it doesn't sell, it's shipped back to the distributor (and in the case of strategy guides and magazines, or perhaps even Kohler's excellent book, since it was also published by BradyGames, they're destroyed) and the store receives a credit.

The aftermarket price of these books speaks volumes about video game culture, and how the current distribution method just doesn't make sense. None of these books had particularly long shelf lives, and I think that does a disservice to their audience. Even though publishers focus almost entirely on front end sales, the reality is that many fans of a franchise are adopted long after its initial release. How many people bought Resident Evil 5 without any prior knowledge of Resident Evil 1-4, only to find themselves curious about the rest? This happens with RPGs all the time, when the genre adopts newcomers, and these freshmen look into the canon of the genre, trying to find all of those "classic" games everyone on the forums talk about, only to find them obnoxiously priced. Even current gen games like Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne got pretty pricey...until it was reprinted, anyway.

The fact is, the shelf life for these books are probably longer than anyone really gives credit for. Yes, Eternal Challenge is a bit outdated with the release of Street Fighter IV, but it certainly doesn't invalidate all of the history that came before it. Power Up might be five years old, but there's very little of the data that has become outdated, either, since it's a history book at heart. Short of reprinting and updating these when a new release comes out - which is questionable, considering some of these are translated from Japanese originals, so it's dependent on whether those exists are not - I'm not sure of any current way that would let these live on. It seems like there's a market for these books, but the distribution method is too short sighted to take it into account.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Phantom of Akihabara Chapter 7

I’m sorry to tell you, but the days when you were just a bunch of nerds screwing around with each other are over.

The latest instalment of Kevin Gifford's translation of The Phantom of Akihabara is with us! I covered his ongoing translation effort, and the previous six instalments, HERE. The series is kind of an Orwellian dystopian tale of the potential future videogames have, but all based on current trends. If you've not read previous installments, I recommend you do so now, then come to part 7 - it is seriously worth your time.

Part 7 is a little dry compared to previous parts, mostly dialogue, but it's interesting. It tackles the shrinkage of the Japanese games market, further burdened by increasing production costs. It also deals with corruption in the games press and strategy guide makers, plus other worrying trends which we're currently seeing.

But it's more exciting than it sounds, honest. Our protagonist and game-hunter Ryohei Takamizawa meets with a woman from the ministry who explains that regulations are going to get stricter, and that the glory days of the past are really long gone.

On a side and barely-related note, I stumbled across the Colony Drop blog, and this particular post. Which covers a rather interesting conspiracy theory regarding Japan's declining population and the seeming obsession increasing men have with moe girls found in games. Of course it's related to the above Akihabara story, since both deal with obsession in videogames and otaku culture in general, and both add an interesting level of extra scope to the fantastic Welcome to the NHK novella and slightly inferior manga (one day, one day I swear I will cover it - it should be mandatory reading for anyone even vaguely interested in Japanese youth culture).

Where is the world heading? Where is our hobby - and for some an obsession - heading?

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:

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

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.

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.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

My Favorite Adventue Game Moments - Monkey Island 2

Every once in awhile there's some bit of humor that cracks you up and you still can't quite explain why. Well, I'm going to try to anyway.

Longtime Monkey Island fans may remember this puzzle from the second game, where you need to decipher hand signals:

It's a halfway brilliant puzzle just because of the misdirection - after you figure it out, you either want to choke the designer for being so irritating or slap yourself for being so stupid. (Giving it away here, if you don't know it, would totally ruin the fun.)

So, anyway, much later in the game, when you're captured by LeChuck and suspended over a vat of acid, the evil zombie pirate gives a Bond-esque explanation of how his maniacal contraption will bring about your death, at which point you can ask a few questions. You can ask:

Why did I crack up with this? I guess it's because it's a totally random allusion to a puzzle so annoying that it had probably ingrained itself in your skull, and to be on the opposite side (the questioner instead of the questionee) while in such a dire situation is strangely appealing. The fact that LeChuck will give a straight answer - without the hand signals, even! - is just as funny.

Now that I've over explained the joke it probably won't be funny anymore, but maybe it'll ring some bells in those of you who've been through it before.

Playing Simon the Sorcerer

As I think I've mentioned before, I've been playing through the Simon the Sorcerer games recently, alternating between those and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which creates a fairly amusing contrast. I couldn't get into Simon years ago, because the demo I had played the same irritating song all through the credits and even up until the actual game started - shallow, perhaps, but it's a really annoying song! Even years later, the slow walking speed, the lack of direction, and unnecessarily padded out game world (huge maze-like forests only work when your character can zip through them a la Quest for Glory) made the game feel like a slog at first. But once you get to meeting the characters that it comes into its own, and you begin to understand why it's a bit of a cult favorite. (I'm not sure "cult" is entirely appropriate - all of the British mags I've flipped through recently have had articles about them, perhaps to highlight the upcoming fifth game, but they've generally been ignored in the US.)

The overall opinion seems to be that, like the Broken Sword series, that the first two games are the best, with the first one being a bit better than the second. I'm only about halfway (I think) through the second Simon game, but so far I'm actually liking it a bit better than the first. Mechanically, the only real improvement is the removal of the redundant screens in favor of a full map, but I think I just like the setting and dialogue a little bit more. Most people seem to prefer Chris Barrie's voicework in the first game, but Brian Bowles still does a fine job in the second. But I think my favorite part deals with the Swampling.

The Swampling was a sad little creature in the first game, a slightly pathetic green Muppet-like creature, with a lovingly overbearing demeanor who claims Simon as his bestest friend from the minute he walks in the door, and insists of feeding you his horrible, horrible swamp stew. No matter how many times you ditch his stew and run out the door when he's not looking, he's still just as happy to see you every time you revisit.

Well, in the second game, he somehow ends up as the corporate chairman at a restraunt chain called MucSwamplings, who have revised his swamp stew formula into something vaguely edible (I do like the "Disturbingly Brown" milkshake you can get) but completely removing its homebrew essence, causing the Swampling much consternation. It's such a bizarrely charming character arc, and I'm happy that they seem to have brought him back in the later games.

For other bits...I used to think Simon was a bit of a Monkey Island ripoff, but you'd never see Guybrush say something like that. He's a bit too congenial. Simon's general jerkass-ness is really what sets it apart, and I think part of what makes it so uniquely British.

Also, is Um Bongo considered racist nowdays? Considering that the word seems to have transmogrified from "derisive or hateful stereotyping" to "any type of stereotyping" over the past decade or so, I'm not sure he's appropriate for today's modern, forward thinking, politically correct audience!


Monday, September 14, 2009

The Scam of Konami Arcade "Upgrades"

I've been playing a lot of Konami arcade games recently, and I've been noticing a really weird trend. Most shoot-em-up fans are at least vaguely familiar with the story behind Salamander and Life Force. Salamander was originally released in Japanese arcade with a pretty standard item pickup system. When it was released in America, the game was renamed Life Force, and the graphics were slightly changed to give the game a biological setting. Life Force was then given a further overhaul and re-released in Japan, complete with the Gradius powerbar system (which totally didn't work given how the game flowed, but oh well.) This was the version that eventually got ported to the FC/NES.

I'm noticing that this kind of working - especially in between regions - is not unique, and I'm completely baffled for the reasoning behind some of them. A few are pretty minor - the levels in Ajax (the Japanese version) are in a different order than Typhoon (the world version.) That one's a bit weird. There are different versions of Akumajou Dracula (Haunted Castle) which only changes the difficulty. (All of them are still stupid hard, just to varying degrees.)

Some of them go much further than changing how much damage an enemy inflicts. The overhead shooter Trigon (the Japanese version) features a checkpoint system, while the world version, Lightning Fighters (the World version) doesn't. I can sort of understand this - I've never felt that checkpoint system really worked all that way in the context of arcade shooters. It's too punishing for a game that's supposed to let the player see as much of the game as possible for their money. In the process, they also removed a minor weapon, for some reason.

XEXEX got a similar, but even worse treatment. The Japanese version uses a checkpoint, with multiple lives and single hit kills. The World version gives you a single ship with a life bar, and instant respawn upon continuing. Okay. Except it strips out ALL of the extra weapons.

The Japanese version of Thunder Cross has an extensive array of weapons and options to grab. In addition to switching around the level order, the World version gives you full options at all times, and adds a bomb weapon, but completely removes all of the other weapons, PLUS removes the rapid fire ability. This certainly doesn't make the game easier - it makes it far worse.

Taking out features for no discernible reason seems to be pretty common. Certain versions of the Aliens arcade cabinet just don't have the first-person APC shooter segments, arguably the game's biggest draw. There are tons of other differences in enemy strengths and placement too. This makes me think that maybe this version was the initial release, and all other versions are simply revisions, so at least that MIGHT make sense.

The one that's most baffling is an extremely obscure game that was originally released as Devil World. It's Konami's take on Gauntlet, more or less, where two players take on hordes of near infinitely respawning enemies while navigating mazes, searching for keys, and finding the exit. Your characters, by default, are armed with crossbows, and obtain more weapons via another Gradius-style power bar.

A second, updated version, called Dark Adventure, seems like the same game, with the addition of third player to join in on the action. Instead of the crossbow, though, each of your characters starts with a sword. The powerbar is gone, and instead you pick up weapons and power-ups individually. Most of the projectile weapons are gone (the laser and flamethrower made the cut, at least) but instead there's a greater focus on melee weapons, like whips and spears. The game is not remotely balanced for close combat, with enemies closing in on any direction - it takes a deritive but playable game into a totally frustrating mess. Furthermore, it removes the linear levels in favor of a non-linear branching structure, which some levels having multiple exits. A neat idea, but it's also possible to go into circles, searching and researching the same areas to find the same keys to maybe try to make some kind of progress. The game is now a total mess.

So, really, what's the point of all this? How did it occur, and more importantly, why were these done from both a creative and a business perspective? These aren't just alternate modes, toggled with a dip switch - they're completely different ROM sets. They certainly aren't just "easy" mode releases either - in most cases, they're either dumbed down, or in the case of Dark Adventure, mangled to unplayability. Since a lot of these games are so obscure, I'm not really sure if these were re-released in the Japanese marketplace, as a way to pull a fast one on arcade owners (Hey! Buy this new game, even though it really isn't!) or they were for overseas release. If taken from that perspective, it's almost offensive, that a game would purposely be made worse for the gaijin. Or maybe it was just a misguided designer who decided to fiddle with the game balance and ended up with an inferior product. These questions are all rhetorical, of course, but it's something to ponder.

Retro Reunited Screams For Buffalo Meat

We were a few miles from Huddersfield, when the burgers began to take effect.

The weekend of 12-13 September 2009 marked the first Retro Reunited event in the UK – two days of meeting up with forum friends, hedonistic drinking, carvery meals and a lot of really awesome classic videogames. Click on the pics for higher res. My camera is awful, so here's a link to a random flickr account I found, with some nice bright photos! And here.

On this odyssey was your faithful reporter, plus five other gaming fans, including the editor of Retro Gamer and a fellow freelancer. Travelling from England’s south coast we piled into an 8-seater people-carrier and began the 6-hour drive north, to Yorkshire. The bearded to non-bearded ratio of those in the car was 50/50. We arrived at the hotel holding the event around midnight, when the RR organisers were still setting up the halls. By also staying at the same hotel, it ensured not far to walk each morning.

The following morning we headed out for breakfast. A local postman gave directions to a place which turned out to be a Buddhist café. This intrigued me, and I was interested to see whatever exotic foods they served. One of my compatriots though asked if they served bacon butties, and when told no, the vote was to instead find a Macdonalds or greasy spoon. (in case you're wondering, the title of this post is based on a Hunter Thompson novel - though it sorta ties in with our breakfast escapade)

The main event opened at 11 with Retro Gamer editor Darran Jones giving a brief intro. The rest of the 2 days was taken up with guest speakers, including Jon Ritman (Monster Max, GB), Archer Mclean (Dropzone), and Charles Cecil (Broken Sword). Other people mingling during the day were an artist from Ocean, the UK Pacman hi-score champ, the programmer behind Rise of the Robots on the Sega Genesis, a Ubisoft rep, and other cool people.

Retro Reunited was divided into 2 main halls, one featuring primarily 8-bit micro-computers, doubling also as the bar area and speaking hall, with the other featuring arcade machines plus a wide selection of games machines and stacks upon stacks of games. At a rough guess, omitting the emulated PC-in-a-SNES, I’d say there must have easily been around 250 games running on native hardware. Probably more! There was perhaps too much, and I found it sad that when faced with rows of rare and obscure Super Famicom games, most people went for the easy option of Final Fight 2. Personally, I avoided anything which was familiar or which I would otherwise have easy access to.

My personal highlights included playing on an Action Max, a strange VHS tape-based games system from the 1980s, where you attached a red light to the screen of your TV and aimed a lightgun at various white flashing circles as a movie played. Hit the white circles, which were overlaid on to ghosts, or other bad guys depending on which tape you played, and you scored a point while the red light flashed. It lacked any form of interactivity, and due to the horrendous detection of the lightgun was an unplayable mess. But an awesome, weird kind of mess.

Next was a PC-FX, which were it not at the event I would otherwise never be able to play. Chip Chan Kick was a fun, Bubble Bobble-styled 2-player co-op action game. It had some great arcade action. Then there was Kishin Doji Zenki: Vajura Fight, an outstanding scrolling brawler which reminded me of Guardian Heroes. The sprite-based visuals were fantastic and fluid. Myself and another guy got really far, and it was probably my favourite of the PC-FX games available. Super God Trooper Zeroigar, the only shmup on the system, was also available, but it was kinda awful. Nice animated cinemas, but it was excruciatingly difficult, and not much fun. Finally I played a lot of 2-player Battle Heat, a purely anime FMV-based beat-em-up. Despite being tricky to work out what to do (it’s basically paper/scissors/rock played out with FMV clips and Street Fighter pad combinations), it was unique and a lot of fun. I wish some western games had been so experimental (Supreme Warrior isn't quite the same...). There was also a dating game, but I never tried that. Right next to this was a Famicom Sharp Twin system, with SMB2, Otocky and Almana no Kiseki.

The halls housing the TVs were massive, roughly divided into themed sections (Nintendo, Sega, Atari, Weird, etc). There was also a Sega CD, which after a lot of work I eventually managed to find enough plugs to switch on (lying under the tables facing a wall of live plugs made me fear an untimely electrocution - the amount of juice getting sucked out must have been crazy). There was no games so I donated for the weekend my PAL-patched copy of Popful Mail, though few people seemed interested.
On the other side of the room was a Super Famicom with 16 cartridges. Ranma 1/2 was excellent, as always. Sword Maniac I discovered was the Japanese named for the X-Kalibur game. Super Back to the Future II, despite having average reviews in Super Play magazine, was a lot of silly fun.

There was also UFO Kamen Yakisoba, plus an SFC game I’d not heard of before: Ghost Sweeper Mikami, which, though little more than a simple walk-and-slash game featuring a sexy anime heroinne, was really good fun to play. The highlight of the collection was Magical Pop’n, which to me had some serious Metroidvania overtones.

It was also the first time I’d ever had a chance to play on a Virtual Boy – at least until the batteries ran out. Tennis was good, as was Vertical Force. I didn’t get much time on anything else.

Other systems included Saturns, Dreamcasts, Amstrads, Spectrums, 2600s, 7800s, Amigas, Nomads, Gameboys, some heavily modded systems, a PC-in-SNES, a CDi (though sadly missing my beloved Zelda games), plus a 3DO, brought in by a cool guy who’d randomly emailed me once. One of the event’s best elements was accidentally bumping into numerous people spoken to previously on forums! I also had a chance to play Shinobi X on the Saturn, and contrary to what a lot of people say, I think it's excellent.

There were also several stalls selling games, old and new, at crazy bargain bin prices.

Besides the games there were some cool tournaments. I missed the FPS one, but managed to reach the finals of the shmup tourny. First was a hi-score challenge on River Raid (Atari 2600), with me placing 3rd out of around a dozen entrants. The top four then played head-to-head matches on Twinkle Star Sprites (Saturn). With this done, the final was on Space War (Vectrex). I was winning 9 to 6, and needed only more round to claim victory. It was at this point I got a serious case of the yips and flaked out, losing 4 rounds in a row. The fighting tournament turned out to be just Street Fighter II, winner stays on, which started with one guy winning, and then continuing to win for the rest of the afternoon. I didn't stand a chance.

CAPTION: Darran scores over 130,000 on this C64 shmup

There was also a score competition on a newly developed C64 shmup (which I forget the name of, sadly). It was kinda like a side-scrolling version of 1942. Retro Gamer’s editor took the seat when the highest score was around 37,000, and promptly finished the game, scoring over 130,000. I played afterwards and ranked 2nd, with over 40,000, but by the end of the day was relegated down a couple of places.

Various other events also took place. A lucky-dip nabbed me a mint condition copy of Jet Set Radio and a C64 plug-n-play joystick. And on the first evening there was a raffle, with prizes ranging from T-shirts and games, up to a Paperboy arcade machine worth around £400.

The second night had a games auction (with money going to charity), with a mix of retro and new stuff. I picked up a PS2 game bundle with Silent Hill 3 and ZOE: Second Runner in it, for just £5. Bargain! Even better was that one attendee was giving away an enormous 36in, top of the range, SD CRT TV – perfect for playing retro games on. I promised to give it a good and it was mine.

The guest speakers were interesting, especially Charles Cecil, who jovially chatted for several hours with everyone gathered round him. He revealed a lot of fascinating things about Broken Sword, plus connections to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code. My only disappointment was that while he revealed innumerable facts, little of it was recorded, perhaps leaving them to be lost to time. But I did snatch some notes down:
For Beneath a Steel Sky, the voice-acting was done in the front room of a sound engineer’s London house, with a bus driving past on the road outside every half-hour. The interesting thing was, though, that allegedly the guys involved in the recording went upstairs to smoke some weed at one point, and the actors joined them, with the result that none of them read their lines in quite the same way upon returning.

Also, when trying to come up with a name for Lure of the Temptress, Charles wrote a long list, and at the bottom, for a joke, he put “Lure of the Temptress”. Thing is, the publisher chose that from the list. Which was fine, except the game contained no temptress, and no luring. The exec’s reply was simply to put some in. This resulted in Charles and co going back to the game and tacking on a whole new section to justify the title.

Another thing which really stood out for me was that the event was populated by so many really good folks. Piles of CDs, cartridges and Hu-Cards, with some games worth close to a hundred pounds, were stacked up on all the tables without anyone keeping an eye on them. There was a wonderful sense of trust that they would remain there until the show’s end, and that they’d be looked after and kept in mint condition. I also met a lot of really awesome, quirky people. One was a professional UK wrestler, with the muscles to match, who carried my 36-in TV back to the car. Another was a movie special effects maestro, who’d been involved with the rendering for several big name films.

One of the funniest characters I met was a cherub-like kid, no older than 5- or 6-years old, who was an absolute demon at shmups – with the exception of Super God Trooper Zeroigar (which I actually think might be impossible). At first I asked if he wanted a second player to join him on Zero Gunner (DC), naively thinking I’d help him out with the tough bits. With a high pitched chirp he said “Sure!”, before promptly giving orders to “Focus on the little guys while I take out the train!” He was actually very good, and it was genuinely scary, because he was getting REALLY pissed off when I screwed up. Believing that angry children are quick to turn to tantrums and tears, I didn’t want to become “the guy that made some kid cry”, so after hurriedly getting a game over I thanked him for the game and moved on, leaving him to finish it alone. Whoever you are, weird Shmup Kid, I salute you and your taste in games!

Like so much in life it was over before we’d had a chance to appreciate things. It was a sad end when we left, with 6 hours of driving and work the next day beckoning, but it was a fantastic 2 days, with far too much to see and enjoy given the short time, and organised and attended by some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

There was tons more going on, but I’m too tired to type anymore, so will instead leave you with this selection of videos from the event.

Video 1
Video 2
Video 3
Video 4