Thursday, March 29, 2012

Explaining Resolution and Aspect Ratio - The Intro of Castlevania Symphony of the Night

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has seen three significant variations: the original PlayStation release, the Saturn port, and the PSP port, as part of The Dracula X Chronicles package. Today we'll be looking at the technical issues regarding display and resolution in each of these three versions. (We've talked about this before, so this is just a further elaboration on the subject, namely how it can go wrong when it comes to ports.)

First off, here are screenshots of all three, in the intro dialogue between Richter and Dracula, taken straight from emulators in the first two cases, and directly from the PSP in the last one.



PlayStation Portable

The most significant thing to notice right off the bat is how much skinnier the PlayStation version is. (You can also see how the dialogue window is dithered in the Saturn version, rather than truly transparent, one of the many ways you can see how shoddily that port was programmed, but that's neither here nor there in this discussion.) It's skinnier because it runs in the PlayStation's low resolution mode. The PlayStation can output several resolutions - right here it's 256x240 (though it doesn't take up the whole display so it's more like 256x208), but it can run in 320x240, 512x240, and even 640x240. Some 3D games use the higher resolutions, and sometimes games even switch between resolutions, like title screens for example. Even Symphony of the Night runs its "prologue text" screen at a higher resolution. The idea is that since you can fit more pixels on the screen, the overall image has more detail.

Anyway, 256x240 is the lowest the system will allow. This is similar to the NES, SNES and PC Engine, which run at 256x240 or 256x224. However, standard definition televisions run at a 4:3 ratio, which means those dimensions don't quite match. 320x240 is proper 4:3, but SDTVs can scale the image appropriately to the proper proportion by adjusting the shape of the pixels, making them slightly oblong. That's why everything looks slightly skinnier in this screenshot than they would on a television - they're supposed to be about 20% wider.

Things get dicey when we get to the Saturn version:

The problem here is that the Saturn doesn't support 256x240 - the lowest resolution it allows is 320x240. So how do you fit a 256x240 image in a 320x240 resolution? Keep in mind that pixels, when rendered internally, are square - you cannot simply make them oblong like the TV does. Your options are (A) pillarbox the screen so it's black on both side edges, (B) reprogram the game to take advantage of the extra space, or (C) stretch the image to make it fit the whole horizontal screen. The Saturn versions opts to stretch the image, since pillarboxing would seem cheap, and as you can see, it looks terrible. (Though you can see where some extra pixels are displayed at the bottom of the image, so it does seem like there was some small attempt at expanding the viewing area.) You can easily pick out the pixel distortion pretty much everywhere, since some vertical lines are doubled, and others aren't. Granted, it doesn't look QUITE this bad on a television since the fuzzy display blurs things a bit, but it's still visibly worse than the PlayStation release.

Now, the PlayStation Portable version on Dracula X Chronicles:

There are two display sizes in the PSP version. We're going with the smaller one, since that one is closest to the original resolution. Due to the portable screen, the PSP can only run in one resolution: 480x272. By this point, most developers were confident that gamers knew the difference between standard 4:3 and widescreen, and would accept that games originally designed for a standard def TV would look awful fully stretched to the PSP resolution. (Didn't stop them from screwing up Valkyrie Profile or Final Fantasy Tactics, but that's a different issue.) So, pillar/letterboxing is generally seen as acceptable. However, it still doesn't run in 256x240 like the PlayStation version - instead, it's stretched to the same 320x240 resolution as the Saturn version. The difference is that the picture is filtered, something the Saturn couldn't do and counted on the TV to take care. This technique blurs the whole screen slightly but obscures the pixel distortion seen in the Saturn version. This was probably done to keep the proper ratio as you'd see on the TV, at the expense of image quality. (As illustrated in this post from two years ago, the PC Engine Dracula X emulation runs at 296x224, which doesn't keep the 4:3 ratio nor does it use the original 256x224 resolution it originally ran at, so neither is really correct, and looks blurry to boot.)

The only thing I haven't tried is the PlayStation version of Symphony of the Night running on the PSP. How does it display its pixels? Is it in the proper resolution or is it stretched like the Chronicles port? Again, all pixels are square on the PSP screen - they can't be made oblong.

Anyway, why didn't Symphony of the Night run in 320x240 originally? Technical issue, perhaps? It certainly would've avoided this issues down the road, but clearly they didn't plan for that.

On a related note, this article on the Doom Wikia explains a bit more about the ratio that Doom was developed for, and what we see rendered in screenshots now.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

History of computers in Iraq

A full explanation after the jump.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Eternal Champions, Wizardry Interview, Devil World, AeroStar, Devastator, Metal Gear, Arena

The weekend update (or thereabouts). More after the jump.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Don't force me to be a stupid jerk!

Random result from google image search for "stupid jerk"

Player choice is one of the most debated topics in video games, especially when it comes to RPGs. The war between fans of "free" WRPGs, which let you act out your personal decisions and the "linear" JRPGs, which force a fixed story upon you, is not looking to end anytime soon. But I don't really have an issue with a game's positioning along the linearity-freedom-axis, but a more deeply rooted problem with the usual execution of interactive storytelling.

I believe it doesn't really matter if there's only one option at a given time, as long as that option can be presented as a plausible act to the player. A movie where every single character is a miserable piece of shit I can still enjoy, because I'm free to pity, despise or ridicule them all, whereas in a narrative-driven video game, I'm supposed to be one of the characters. It is implied and enforced in the interactive action scenes, that I, the player, am responsible for failure or success of the mission. So every time my character does something really stupid or despicable in a non-interactive moment, it feels a little bit like the game is trying to force stupidity on me.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Random Bit of Castlevania Lore - The Staircase Glitch in Dracula's Chambers

In Akumajou Dracula X: Rondo for Blood for the PC Engine, there's a hidden staircase right before you fight the final boss. Once you walk up the steps to Dracula's chamber, you just have to jump around, hold up, and eventually you'll latch onto the invisible steps, carrying you to a secret room filled with cash. I've known about this for years and years, but what I didn't know was that this is actually a reference to a glitch from the Famicom Disk System version of Akumajou Dracula, the first Castlevania game.

I'm a little unclear on how to trigger it - this site gives some details, and this Youtube video shows it in action. It seems like you have to walk up and down until you "catch" the stairs a few pixels off, then walk upwards, past the actual steps, and continue on into oblivion. Obviously, there's nothing actually up in the sky other than glitched tiles and your eventual death, but with its allusion in Dracula X remarkably self conscious, and another bit of random depth in a game already overflowing with love and detail. Take note that this only works in the Famicom Disk System version, as well as all of the versions based off it, which include the GBA Mini cart and the Japanese VC release. The American and European carts, as well as the Japanese Famicom cart re-release, fixed this bug.

Symphony of the Night features the staircase in the same area, though its implementation is different. Here, you have to hit the upper wall to reveal a switch, which will in turn unfurl a visible staircase. Different items appear depending on if you're playing as Richter (in the prologue) or as Alucard later on.

March 18 - Katawa Shoujo, Bari-Arm, Bean's Quest, Shinta Nojiri, and Top Banana kusoge

A slightly smaller update than usual, but hopefully this will allow us momentum to update a little more often, at least until some things settle.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ys: The Oath in Felghana is on Steam right now.

You should go buy it!

But seriously, folks. This isn't just one of the finest games in the Ys franchise, it's one of the best action RPGs you'll ever play.

Also, if this does well(which it seems to already be doing!), it will smash the gates for future Japanese and doujin games on Steam.

That's relevant to all our interests.

Here's some screens!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Scroll Magazine is Pretty Great

I've been remiss in talking about Ray Barnholt's excellent Scroll magazine, and with the fifth issue released last week, it's a pretty good time to talk about how rad it is.

With the few remaining video game magazines going on as business as usual (and GameFan only coming out intermittently), the door is open for publications to niche interests. The average person gets their news from the internet anyway, so why not gear coverage towards more underground topics, towards the people that value this kind of writing? That's pretty much what Scroll does.

A majority of the issue is devoted to Konami's Love Plus, the recent dating sim that's the topic of much derision and scorn from the Western gaming press. While it's all too easy to mock the concept of a virtual girlfriend, the feature rather explains the history behind it (including the background of Tokimeki Memorial, a game which I have a love/hate relationship with), what it attempts to do, what it accomplishes, and even a bit about it might be healthy, to a certain extent. Anything like this can be taken to ridiculous extremes (and some of it, like the guy who took his Love Plus gal to Guam to get "married", sounds like it was more of a joke, or at worst, a marketing ploy), in moderation the review makes it sound kind of cute, if still not something I'd personally be interested in. There are also several pages devoted to the girls and their families - I've never heard of a dating sim where you'd get introduced to your lady's folks, which is sort of terrifying in principle! Like Tokimeki Memorial, there are also apparently a few old Konami classics buried in there when you spend enough time with the girls.

The rest of the issue has some short write-ups on 7th Dragon 2020 and Cool Boarders, as well as a look at the retro game bar Genesis, which recently opened up in Nagoya. Retro game bar stories are simultaneously awesome and depressing to read, because the liquor laws here in the US (or at least, in my part of New Jersey) pretty much ensures such things will never exist, because the licenses are largely allocated to broader interests like clubs, sports bars, and awful franchises.

Going back a bit, the first issue is a love letter to the Super Famicom. The second one focuses mostly on Dragon Quest, and is worth it for the excellent original artwork pieces, one each for the main games. The third one is the "cute" issue, for the many absurdly adorable games that have come out over the years, with the focusing on 8 and 16-bit arcade and console titles. (Amongst titles like Kirby's Dream Land, Yoshi's Island and Dynamite Headdy, there are a number of games I've never heard of featured in there, including Namco's Marchen Land and Indiezero's/ Nintendo's Sutte Hakkun). The fourth issue is devoted to the floundering existence of the original Xbox in Japan.

The physical issues are printed through Magcloud, which is pricey, but puts on some damned slick productions with heavy stock, far nicer than a typical newsstand rag and even a step up from the British ones. The actual price depends on the length, generally between $10-$20, though PDFs versions for the price conscious/dead tree haters are available too. The PDF version of the second issue is available for free as well.

In defense of the Japanese gaming industry

It's a sad state of affairs when an article warrants a title like this.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by controversial statements by everyone from Fez's Phil Fish to Megaman creator Keiji Inafune to Metal Gear's Hideo Kojima, the Japanese industry is rapidly becoming an easy target for ridicule and extensive criticism; as if it wasn't enough of one already.

Phil Fish

"your games just suck"

Thursday, March 15, 2012

GameFAN #7

GameFAN issue 7, Mk2, is out. In fact it’s been out for a while. It also features a review, by me, of Xenoblade Chronicles. Read on for the gossip.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Book Review - Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo

Someone on my Twitter feed pointed out to me that they had no idea HG101 did book reviews. Well, we do. Or rather, we have, since last October. Introduced by International Man of History Derboo, it's a good way of getting a quick introduction to the growing number of video game books out there. Since the section maybe gets overlooked when mentioned in the updates I thought I'd post on the blog - especially since this write of Video Kids will likely need to be edited before inclusion in the book section.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

11 March - Jeremy Blaustein, iOS Shooters Pt1, Fortune Summoners, Silverload, Heart of Darkness, Game Club w/ Vagrant Story, Mr Pibb

Okay! Sorry, things have been super hectic lately, and I don't forsee them slowing down for at least another month or two, so please bear with us!

Monday, March 5, 2012


Sega are running a competition to design fresh graffiti pieces for the up-and-coming re-release of Jet Set Radio on PSN and XBLA! Read on for the thrills...