Egret II

When I started getting back into video games, I wasn’t sure how long it would hold my interest, and I didn’t really anticipate how far it would go, despite laying it out in my first post on the topic. I had images in my head of picking off all my childhood consoles, like an obsessive lover resetting the clock, but the time, space and idiocy required seemed beyond what I had energy for. And since I was delightfully late to the gaming nostalgia party, prices weren’t going to be in my favor. As it turns out, they made a lot of these things, and there’s still plenty stacked in people’s closets looking for new owners, and my energy for time wasting apparently knows no bounds.

After moving to the country, the extra space rekindled the notion of having some arcade hardware. While a dedicated Gyruss was in the basement for a long-term restore project, I’d hoped to find an Egret or Astro City for playing various PCBs on. A supergun would’ve solved that without the bulky cabinet, but I’d come this far, and I didn’t want to blow up our tv infrastructure which was already overflowing with 12 consoles. In Japan finding a candy cab probably wouldn’t be so difficult, I imagine it much like stumbling across avocados in California. In the US, tracking down the wooden cabinets that once saturated our malls, pizzerias, and truck stops isn’t much further than a Craigslist search, though to find them cheaply takes patience.

Arcade forum group buys seemed like the best bet, splitting shipping costs with other hobbyists that live nearby. Even better is knowing someone who’s more nutty for this stuff than you are, and has the background and contacts to guide you straight to the madness. That someone was my friend Eric, who I should add, had nothing to gain from helping me out. Thanks man! The text came that there were a couple Egret II cabs coming over, and now was the time to decide if I wanted in. A week later we loaded one onto a truck I rented, while he took the second one for himself, squeezing it into his Gulf. Getting it up a few steps into our home was another matter entirely. While the thing’s on wheels, it’s 230lbs. I wouldn’t do it again without a third person or appliance dolly.

I’d like to say the first thing I did was play DonDonPachi DaiOuJou, which I’d borrowed from Eric. And I did for a while. But I spent the next thirty minutes trying to figure out why the coin mech wasn’t passing coins, even though you could still credit by hand. I wanted the full Japanese arcade experience, the one I was robbed of by my American midwestern parents. After grasping how it worked, I made a few adjustments, polished off the rust, oiled it and was dropping yen like a salaryman in Kabukicho. Then like any good candy cab owner I gave it a thorough cleaning, stopping short of a full break-down.

The power supply and monitor chassis seem in excellent shape, and the jamma harness is intact and tidy. The 29″ Nanao MS9 is 15kHz bliss, though reasonable bliss — it does have some burn-in and perhaps a little faded. I followed Emphatic’s handy guide on tweaking the colors and black/white levels which helped punch it up. Adding a 20″ fluorescent bulb brings the marquee to life, giving your face that pink shmup glow. And replacing the worn Sanwa sticks and buttons with Seimitsu LS32s made DOJ somewhat more manageable. The first week I felt like game center staff, repeatedly getting in and out of its locked doors. A faint, sweet tempura smell wafts out whenever the main door is opened to swap games, which is certainly a bonus over nicotine.

Rotating the Egret II can take two minutes or ten, if you try to rush and scratch your head, dropping bolts into its belly. So far all but one PCB I’ve picked up is vertical — well, two if you count the Neo Geo MV1FZ, you need at least one weeknight with Puzzle Bobble bouncing around in the background while you make dinner. This is of course the conundrum that two cabs solve, one oriented yoko and the other tate. Like replacing favorite DVDs with Blu-rays, I’m trying not to buy games I already have good ports of, but considering what a difference the experience is, the temptation is strong.

The hunt for PCBs without ball-busting prices is quickly becoming addicting and can rival the pleasure, and effort, of getting good at a game, which is all wrong. Playing one game for an hour and then going to the shelf for another, the tactile satisfaction of handling the actual hardware, is tempting as well. Along with occasional board fixes and cab maintenance. And carefully unwrapping new arrivals.

Virtua 4-Way

There are a number of classic arcade games that had 4-way joysticks, like Pacman, Donkey Kong, Burger Time, Frogger — what more could you want outside of up, down, left and right? This becomes an issue with 8-way sticks as those diagonals are now dead zones. If you’re emulating those old games, you’ll likely look for a MAME preference or .ini command to ignore those corners, but strangely I never found a solution.

I’ve been wanting to convert one of my lesser used console sticks to 4-way but kept thinking there must be an easier way, and a method that wouldn’t permanently change or disfigure it. I picked the Sega Virtua Stick since it gets the least amount of use, and seemed like a good 4-way candidate with its clunky stick and buttons and sexy arcade looks. I took off the bottom panel and pondered the level of difficulty required to swap the stick and add a 4-way restrictor gate. I noticed the stock gate was held on by four screws so I took them out and turned it 45 degrees, creating the diamond shape that should block diagonals, but there was no way to screw it back down once turned.

After searching around online — there’s surprisingly very little in the way of Virtua Stick mods — I found someone in a forum post who mentioned not just rotating it 45 degrees but also flipping it, as this realigns the screws. Could it be so easy? It certainly sounded like the switches were releasing before the next one was picked up. I screwed it down and then quickly realized out of all the adapters I have, that I didn’t have one for the Virtua Stick. So tonight an adapter arrived and I gave Ghouls ‘n Ghosts some 4-way action with much success. No dead zones, and it feels much closer to how it was intended.

I’m curious if Sega cleverly designed it this way, anticipating someone cracking open their Virtua Stick and flipping over the restrictor gate, or it was simply a manufacturing and geometrical coincidence. And if other stock sticks have the same ability.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night arrived in March, 1997, just as I was landing in San Francisco. Even if I had moved with all my game consoles (which I didn’t, most were sold off before then), I had never owned the first Playstation. And Castlevania was a long passed memory, having last played Super Castlevania IV in 1991. The series is much beloved for all the right reasons, even with the klunkers and inevitable leap to 3D. Castlevania I and II for the NES were defining moments in the early console gaming days, and set the tone for what I expected from side scrolling adventure games.

Returning to the series over the last couple years, first with the Game Boy (Castlevania: The Adventure was far too slow, but that music!), and then on to Bloodlines for the Genesis and Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine, I finally end up on the PS1. Viewed on a 55″ plasma screen, even at 4:3 one would think a mid-generation PS1 game would look blown-up, but it’s aged beautifully, with rich colors, deep blacks and crisp edges. Using Sony’s component cables siphoned through an XRGB-mini likely helped maintain SOTN‘s original glory. The sound effects are equally satisfying and of the period, with a haunting score that’s perhaps not quite as memorable as previous installments. The bad voice acting for the English dubs are often brought up, and they are bad, but not enough to really take it off course. I would’ve been happy to hear the original Japanese voices though.

Directed by Toru Hagihara and Koji Igarashi, SOTN was a conscious departure for the series, with noted non-linear gameplay and RPG elements, while retaining an appreciation for 2D sprites and effects. When asked if 2D translates well to 3D, Igarashi gives the direct response, “No, it’s basically impossible to communicate the same experience. 2D gameplay is precise – it can come down to one pixel of accuracy for attacking, defending, jumping, any sort of platforming element. In the 3D gaming environment, appreciation of distance is much more subtle, and control has to be looser.SOTN plays with those two dimensions very comfortably, a combination of reliable platforming mechanics with almost arcade style visual flourishes, from leveling up and character transitions to enemy and boss deaths, to water, fog and fire transparency. It’s classic Castlevania informed by a decade of development experience.

While SOTN employs role-playing essentials — experience points, weapon and item collecting and stats, tallies and maps — even for someone like me who doesn’t play RPGs, it adds a compelling and pleasurable layer of detail. Backtracking may be an unavoidable part of non-linear play, but the game offers enough warps and hidden surprises to reward your efforts. As the first half of the game closes with Richter’s fall, SOTN effectively double the terrain by famously inverting the castle, which I initially found gimmicky. Fortunately my much more patient (and actual gamer) husband pushed me to keep at it, putting my final completion to just under 200% (but not 200.6%). And while I found the second half of the game much more challenging, it’s rarely frustrating thanks to the ample save points (many directly outside of boss rooms) and character form shifting. Transitioning into mist and a bat was necessary at later points in the game, in one case being the only sane method in defeating a boss.

I fear this could be the last really good Castlevania I’ll play, save for rounding out the Game Boy editions, and there are many. Reading Hardcord Gaming’s book on the series has excited me to check out a few more odds and ends like Chronicles, The Adventure Rebirth, and Harmony of Despair (which I’ve tried to like a couple times now). And finding Kid Dracula for about half of what it goes for would be a bonus.

If SOTN is any indication of what the PS1 can do, I’m looking forward to playing more of it. Currently I only own about nine games, with a lengthy wishlist which perhaps includes too many shmups and not enough sprawling adventures.

Gyruss Restore

About a month ago I picked up my first arcade cabinet, yes, it’s Gyruss! No not that Gyrus. The 1983 game by Konami with two s’s. Most people I’ve mentioned this to don’t remember it, though if they heard the Bach score they may. Gyruss was perhaps advanced for its time, packing in five sound chips, a DAC, two Z80 and one 6809 microprocessors. Its creator, Yoshiki Okamoto, who also made Time Pilot for Konami, went on to oversee 1942 and Final Fight for Capcom.

I like Gyruss, but it wasn’t on the top of my list. I wanted to start a restore project this year and this cab was relatively cheap and close by. The very first thing that I realized too late that I needed was an appliance dolly — the thing’s crazy heavy. I also need a lot of basic gear that I’ve never owned, like a multimeter, soldering gun, and hand sander. But even before that I need to clean out our basement space to create a little workshop. You know, with things like electricity and more lighting than one 75 watt bulb.

Then there’s the machine itself — while it’s really all there, much of it needs restored or replaced. For starters the previous owner said the PCB produces scrambled video and audio, so getting the game working will be my first goal. The marquee is in ok shape but has a crack down the center so I found a replacement. I also ordered a reprint of the control panel overlay and new t-molding. The cardboard bezel I can recreate, and the original art bezel is fortunately still in great shape. I still haven’t found the original Monroe joystick but they come up for sale often enough. It came with an extra Wells-Gardner K4900 monitor and chasis which I’ll swap with the current Gyruss-burned CRT. Nice to have would be the original Centuri-labelled coin door and Matt Ozborn’s high score save kit.

Sure wish I had a nice, shiny Egret II to keep me warm through this project. Seriously, look at this guy — a Taito stool refurbish!

Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984

I took my time finishing Supercade, slowly flipping a few pages a night. With full-page screenshots from games that mostly produced 224×256 images, accompanied by ruminations that rarely run longer than one page, this is a book that suggests casual reading.

Published in 2001 and written by Van Burnham and an assortment of game writers, Supercade is a coffee table book true to its form that’ll put you in the mood to fire up the early classics and get lost in the innocence of the era. It’s heavy, square frame successfully pairs original game art and advertisements (with happy, white families) with in-game photos (likely snagged via MAME as suggested on Amazon, which is fine, but I’d like to see a few warped CRT shots). How can one not be fond of a book that starts with a quote by Eurgene Jarvis (“The only legitimate use of a computer is to play games.”), has a forward by the late Ralph Baer, and peppers it with BASIC code, start-up rom tests and a kill screen or two.

While the majority of the book covers arcade releases (and doesn’t much stray from the staples), home consoles and computers get a few pages: Baer’s Odyssey, Coleco’s Telstar, Mattel’s Intellivision, Commodore 64 (“Are you keeping up with the Commodore?“, and of course Atari’s 2600 and Home Computer.

This isn’t a book for learning something new as much as it is for celebrating what you like. “Visual history” is accurate, and one should look elsewhere for the more exhaustive and dramatic tales of video gaming. Considering it was printed just before the release of the Xbox, a new edition covering the late-80s through the mid-90s would be a welcome follow-up.

Berkeley

In late October we moved from the piss soaked streets of San Francisco to Berkeley, where the breeze is more veggie pizzeria than urine, unless you’re downtown of course. After 18 years I was ready to cross the bay, and always fond of Berkeley, a cozy town frozen in perpetual cycles of autumn and summer. The cottages and Maybeck Craftsmans tucked back into the oak and eucalyptus trees make walks in our neighborhood feel like being inside a pop-up book. Just with more earth-tone slacks, walking sticks and Merrell hiking boots.

We were also desperate for more space, which has been fantastic and worth the 30-minute BART ride. Still, there’s no spare bedroom or finished sprawling basement to hold all our gaming crap. There is a basement of sorts though, and a little room down there which I’m turning into a workspace for projects like a Gyruss restoration.

My old game consoles were originally on an IKEA Kallax (not to be confused with KALX, endorsed) which took up a load of space. I replaced this with an acrylic media cabinet which is rather packed but doesn’t have a hovering presence or block the cabinets behind it. Cable mangement wasn’t easy for nine consoles and took a few tries to get tidy. I ended up drilling a hole in the wall nearby in order to pass an HDMI cable from an iMac to the television for MAME, which works nicely. I think Battle Garegga emulated is arguably better than the Saturn port (unless your Saturn is hooked up to a BVM).

In early October the Duo-R came back RGB modded, so I finally played through Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, which was, duh, totally awesome. Initially after moving I didn’t play too much, but that’s picked up a bit. I also slowed down on buying games, but last week grabbed three Saturn and one GBA games: Rayman, Silhouette Mirage (ehh), The Game Paradise!, and Klonoa: Empire of Dreams.

At night over the past couple weeks I’ve been playing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, watching the wind blow through the trees outside our windows (trees!), and appreciating every day.

Gram, 1917-2015

I drew this in 2010 from a conversation with my grandmother, who lived to nearly see 98.

Happy New Year

It’s been 10 years since I stopped posting text here, streamlined to become a photoblog. Photography had always been my motivation in maintaining a personal site, even when the Flickrs, Tumblrs, and now Instagrams released us from the necessity of such hassles — no need for templates and hosting in this world, grandpa! I’d also grown tired of reading my own writing, and less interested in openly sharing day-to-day life. We got married, grew old and hairier, shared less, and in some cases simply died.

Over that time though I started two other sites, one for comics and the other to write about arcade and console games of the past. Each site sort of ignored the other, other than a small link chaining them together in a way. This division made sense to me when I was posting more of one over the other, or lost interest in one for a time. But now I think they may need and even compliment each other. And it’s tidier and easier to remember, rather than sending people to three different sites, let alone maintaining them.

Likely I’ll stick to those subjects and don’t expect to return to the early 2000s mode of daily rants, though who knows. Weekly or monthly, to bi-quarterly, maybe. The itch to document stuff still lingers, whatever the medium. And sometimes the need for context will stuff more into a post than I intended.

Berkeley Art Center

USA