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

TurboGrafx-16 Turns 25

TurboGrafx-16, the famously not so 16-bit system, turned 25 last month. There’s been a lot written about it recently, assessing its tragic history, and celebrating some of the better games we’re left with. Of course, its mature, older brother the PC Engine had all the looks and about six times as many games. But for most Americans, it’s the TG16’s wide, black shell that we recall so fondly.

Christian Nutt wrote a lengthy piece about the TG16’s anniversary, filled with revealing quotes and some entertaining videos. Like this 1990 episode of Computer Chronicles and this hilarious and strange promotional video for the Lords of Thunder release. A committed strategy around shmups and RPGs may have saved the TG16, but in the end, NEC of Japan never really gave the console a chance.

Year One

The past 12 months have included a lot of game playing, a lot more research, two new pieces of furniture, two game conferences and six arcades. But who’s counting? Well, I am, because I keep track of these things (and then write about it here for about four people). I’ve made new friends, built up my eBay rating, and had nourishing amounts of fun. Of course, I’ve had plenty of game-guilt too; has gaming eaten into time that could’ve gone towards more creative outlets? Eh, probably. But I try not to worry too much about that and let things balance themselves out.

I’m not going to recap this year — that’s what this site’s for! Instead, let’s look at what’s coming up over the next few months. After obsessing over RGB, rich Dreamcast sprites and Xbox shmups, I’m tugged back to the Game Boy with Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Country 2, Super Mario Land 2 and 3, Wario Land 2, 3, and 4, and Kid Dracula (and damn, why is Shantae so expensive?!). Japanese Saturn control pads are waiting to be picked up at the Post Office. I’m anxious for the fall release of SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works. Hopefully I’ll be shipping the Duo-R out to be RGB modded in a month (Rondo of Blood has needs!). I’ll look at my first computer gaming experiences with the Commodore 64. We’ll see if there are any arcades left in Hawaii.

And thanks for reading! Sharing game memories and obsessions is the other half of this resurrected hobbyhorse.

SCPH-10000

I didn’t own the first Playstation. This was 1995, my post-high school years when I was likely busy selling off my consoles like luggage I didn’t want to drag into adulthood. Two or three years later I briefly played my roommate’s after moving to California. My first experiences with the controller were confusing — what’s with all the buttons! I missed the simpler 16-bit precursors. The poligonal games were, I guess impressive, but confirmed that I still wasn’t interested in the next generation systems.

Then in the early 2000s I bought a PS2 slim for a handful of racing games and Mortal Kombat, which used every last ounce of those buttons. I printed out MK character move guides and tried to memorize the basics. It was clear that the fighting genre wasn’t my bag, though the gore and detailed environments helped me forget about the missing sprites in this 128-bit world. A few years later it slipped into the closet and I once again stopped playing console games, relying on a series of Game Boys to get my gaming fix.

My next Playstation was the joint purchase, with my future husband, of the pricey PS3. This quickly became immeasurably useful as a reliable DVD/Blu-ray player and streaming hub — I can’t believe I initially hesitated in buying the $20 Bluetooth remote control which has endured eight years of daily use. For Justin this was gaming mecca (at least until the Wii came out, and then the Wii U, and then the PS4). I played sporadically, and sung the repetitive, mournful tune of gaming-was-better-when. The slim slept in the closet next to a friend’s SNES, sleeper agents waiting for a nostalgic green light, which came in the form of a TurboGrafx-16.

So here we are several years later, and a year after that green light: an Ikea shelf holding nine aged consoles, and the modern remainders on the tv stand. Something was still missing. Some of the best PS1/PS2 shmups were never released in the US. While some consoles have region compatibility workarounds, the PS2 required either hardware modding, or a soft mod that sounded like a bunch of fiddly bullshit. It was time to go directly to the motherland, as with the PC Engine Duo-R, and find a Japanese PS2. Of course, except for the Xbox 360, every console on both shelves are Japanese creations. While Japan gets the beautiful, generally slimmer originals, North American releases are bloated monster trucks, arguably a financially centered decision for size-conscious Americans.

Once again Yahoo Japan Auction came through with a $30 first edition PS2, otherwise known as the PS2 fat, or as Sony elegantly named it, the SCPH-10000. The YJA seller even threw in a stack of games, which no doubt rounded out the painful EMS shipping charges (games which I don’t want, so contact me if there’s interest). The PS2 fat is hefty, a mountain of a thing compared to the slim, and surely has gobs more innards than a wafer-thin SNES or Genesis PCB. Some of this is due to its internal power supply, which is great because that 12-outlet power bar is maxed. Plugged into the XRGB-mini via SCART the results were surprisingly good.

The first test was Popolocrois II, a PS1 game that Justin picked up in Seattle. While the PS2 itself can show English menus, game play text obviously remains largely in Japanese. He’ll be able to do some translation, but as an RPG that’s a fair amount of work. Fortunately I mostly play shmups which have limited amounts of text, and when I do feel like I’m missing out I call him over for quick explanations, and it generally turns out I wasn’t missing anything. Currently I only have Espgaluda and Mushihimesama. Mushi isn’t even a capable port, but it’ll have to do since the Xbox 360 version is not region free. Espgaluda though is amazing and gives me a whole new perspective on the PS2. Considering how large the PS1/PS2 library is, my wishlist barely scratches the surface.

I wonder if this could be my last retro console. What’s left? First and second generation, eh — I already have a pong clone, and I’ve never really wanted an Atari. For third generation there’s the missing link, the NES. Perhaps blasphemous that I haven’t bought one yet, but the cost of an original model plus an RGB mod is damn expensive for those 8 measly bits. There’s always the Super Famicom for good measure, or the Sega CD for laughs. Better yet with more space there’s full-fledged gaming computers like the Commodore 64 (zzz), X68000, and FM Towns Marty. So let’s play it by ear.

CAX

A few weeks ago I checked out California Extreme with some new friends, a mostly retro arcade and pinball jamboree in Santa Clara, CA. Hundreds of games, set to free play, forty bucks — this should be their tagline. I had heard of this mythical event, and can now see why it draws such a huge crowd of West Coast oddballs. Having access to what feels like an infinite variety of arcade games nestled within a casually large hotel with a fully stocked bar down the hall and several hideaway pockets for other pharmaceutical shenanigans makes for two days of eye-blistering entertainment. The serious attendees book rooms and wear gloves, turning what for me was an extended Aladdin’s Castle redux into something more akin to Fear and Loathing in Vegas Vacation.

The first few hours I hopped from one machine to the next, sampling Atari prototypes, early ’60s pins and taking turns dying on Black Knight (which incidentally was always less busy than Black Knight 2000). Then lines started forming five deep; watching guys gather around Punch-Out!!, I returned to my fallbacks: Time Pilot, Tron, Robotron, Defender, Galaga ’88, Tempest. Look, Splatterhouse! The noise level, punched up from a back wall of sweaty DDR dramatics and a Street Fighter tournament, drowned out most games directly in front of you — “That’s Galactic Dancin’!

Next to a kids-friendly Pac-Man Battle Royale stood the one lone candy cab with a shmup no one knew. In classic game center tradition a few of us played one credit each, then watched others take their turns. The levels were long and dull and the game wasn’t so good. We’d die, stand up and get back in line. This became our end of the night beacon as we dutifully snaked through the cabs looking for that last unplayed game. Eight hours in and I was done, gorged on nostalgia. I returned to a row of cabarets, specifically a beautiful Robotron with buttery controls and a leaderboard I was starting to put my lowly scores on. After a few last runs the monitor went black while the audio continued. It smelled like burning and I went home.

The Grind

Looking at my currently playing list, I realized I had 15 games in progress, which is kind of ridiculous. Having a game or so per console is nice in that there’s always something different to play. Tired of a platformer, I turn to a shmup, and vice versa (though that’s about it as far as my genre spectrum spans). Moving between an early-2000s Cave danmaku and a late-80s Toaplan shmup is refreshing. The problem is by time I return to a game I’ve lost focus and momentum. Take Monster World IV (please!) — I’d let weeks go by, then realize I had no idea where I was or what I needed to do.

Which brings up the entangled topic of whether to game for fun or to game for realz. For me this mostly relates to shmups. Do I credit my way through Mushihimesama Futari, enjoying all the levels now? I’d guess most players do, but the ones who don’t, and only allow themselves one credit, consider this the only way to shmup. I support that, at least intellectually. In reality, I’m just not very good. I’ve never 1cc’d a game, maybe because I haven’t really tried, but my suckage can’t be overlooked. Why I’ve chosen to obsess over such a painfully onerous class of game I’ve no idea, other than perhaps the obvious sadomasochistic undertones. It would take me two or three times as many hours as other players to 1cc most of the games I play. What a sweet satisfaction that would be. And what a colossal amount of time it would take, given some players put in hundreds of hours per game.

And yet I can’t deny the icky compulsion to continue, the cheat of cheats, the ’90s arcade invention based on greed which likely had a hand in their self-immolation. This doesn’t mean I play through to the end and then stick it on the shelf. The tug of wanting to understand the game doesn’t pass after a few playthroughs. The history of the game and its developer, the obscured mechanics, hardware limitations, programmer’s predispositions — these details add great value to the game play. Just as playing through the levels repeatedly, and chipping away at the credits it takes to do so, is firmly satisfying.

Where does this leave me? I’m not sure. Do I pull the majority of these out of rotation and focus on two or three games? Honestly that sounds kind of boring. For now I did thin out the list, making note of games to return to later (yes, the current sidebar is the thinned out version). As an experiment, I’ve picked a couple of easy ones to try and 1cc, Deathsmiles and the first Metal Slug. I’ve improved, but it’s not the cakewalk I read and hear about from others. There seems to be a part of me that uncontrollably veers my characters directly into the enemy’s fire, so that may need some work.

Emerald City

This may go down as my most gamingest summer on record. A couple weeks ago a bundle from Yahoo Japan Auctions arrived after surprisingly winning some bids. I’m finally the proud father of a PC Engine Duo-R, which came bundled with an Avenue Pad 6 controller and 10 random, not-so-good games. Fortunately I also won Castlevania: Rondo of Blood and a PC Engine adapter for an HRAP stick a friend picked up from Japan. I was hoping to send the Duo-R right back out to be RGB modded, but my preferred modding dude is booked until fall. As much as I’d like to play Castlevania now, I think I’d rather wait until its full glory is on display.

Last weekend we went to the Seattle Retro Gaming Expo, what could be thought of as the little sister to the Portland Retro Gaming Expo in October. It was small enough that I think I saw every game over a two-hour span but still managed to find a few goodies (that Mushihimesama import seals my fate for needing to find a Japanese PS2). There were also rows of consoles and candy cabs setup with casual and tournament play. Being there almost reminded me of attending “Hamfests” in Illinois, expos for ham radio and computer enthusiasts — it smells funny and people are pushy, but it’s a community nonetheless.

While in Seattle we also checked out GameWorks and Seattle Pinball Museum, which couldn’t be more different from each other. While GameWorks largely offers shooting and driving games for clusters of bloodthirsty teens (and a few drug dealers), the pinball arcade is a place to play beautiful, well maintained pins from the ’60s up to Lord of the Rings. Seattle has plenty of barcades too, like John John’s Gameroom in Capitol Hill, where we played a tiny Neo Geo, a few rounds of 1943, and then a fierce, half-hour round of Jenga.

I brought along a 3DS, a great little travel companion, and played painful stabs at Recca and long stretches of Shovel Knight, which I think deserves the praise it’s getting.

Once back in SF I continued the previous week’s research of Xbox 360 games, trying to decide whether the North American or Japanese version of the console made more sense for me. In the end nearly every game I wanted (mostly Cave shmups) either had a NA release or was a region-free import, so I picked up the NA Slim edition from Amazon (as it’s the same price, I’d avoid the more recent budget E). This would also be a console I could share with Justin who was interested in a handful of RPGs exclusive to the 360.

To kick off the Cave-fest I picked up Deathsmiles, Espgaluda 2 and Mushihimesama Futari, and trying to be patient about the other 14 I want. Overall the 360 experience is better than I expected, and it certainly has enough power for accurate arcade ports. A few hours of Deathsmiles is enough to bum anyone out that Cave has nothing new in the works. With the arcade scene drying out even in Japan, and shmup’s better days likely in the past, it’s an uncertain future for the developers I’ve become fond of.

Like Psikyo and Raizing, whose Saturn ports I can’t stop playing. After weeks of Gunbird/Gunbird 2 love, I picked up Strikers 1945 II and, more recently, Soukyugurentai Otokuyo which fixes the first release’s bugs, like garbled Japanese characters covering the screen when played on a NA Saturn. Maybe I was born in the wrong country.

Mr. Game Show

“Want to win big bucks right at home? Well don’t just sit there, run out and get the most advanced game system in the world! Me! Heh heh heh!”

Mr. Game Show was a trivia board game sold by Galoob in the late ’80s with a talking animatronic host, voiced by Randy West, that had enough of a pushy personality in the commercial to make me want one. I remembering trying to convince my mom and grandma that I needed Mr. Game Show, but at around a hundred bucks (according to Hollywood Squares) I’m not surprised they quickly dismissed the idea. A newscast clip featuring one of its creators offered, “There is enough memory, and the cutting edge of technology in terms of the microprocessors used, to store over 800 words.”

Several years ago I finally got my game show host on eBay, minus his logic and 800 words, which may not be such a bad thing.