Archives for 2013

Video Game Emulation on the Mac

Posted December 28, 2013

While I’ve been preoccupied with schemes of obtaining a full-sized Robotron or Galaga ’88 for our apartment, and jealously watching others pack their basements with 50 games, I’ve also been having fun at least playing these games on my iMac. Writing that makes me wince of course, as the beautifully warped glow of an arcade monitor is the antithesis of a 27″ LCD. But this is what I’ve got to work with at the moment. Especially since measuring our elevator and realizing its opening is only 25″ wide, making all but the slimmest cabarets impossible. I suppose there’s the option of dollying it up the stairs, but there’s something about 7 floors that starts to make this sort of ridiculous.

Emulation on the Mac is an afterthought to the scene, but it’s still very possible. Returning to this after a few failed attempts years back, I almost gave up again and started considering buying a cheap PC or a Mac mini running Windows 7. But I hated the idea of maintaining a Windows machine, which would essentially hook up to my iMac’s screen anyway, so I kept at it until I found a working solution. This required many painful hours of digging through clumsy forums with hot tempered men. I get why they’re so angry though, this stuff can be a pain in the ass. Still, what’s been accomplished over the past 15 years in arcade and console emulation is pretty impressive.

I think the two largest obstacles are finding a decent front-end so you’re not wading through folders of files — not exactly like walking through an arcade — and MAME. The just released OpenEmu addresses the first, and does it with the ease of using pre-bloat iTunes. OpenEmu also comes with emulators for 12 systems built-in (though not yet MAME), as well as automatically populating your games with screenshots, typically a laborious task, though I would like to see the option of having both box art as well as in-game screenshots. I’d also like preferences to tweak the game window and shaders, and probably less likely, the ability to add your own choice of emulator.

OpenEmu’s going to be a great option for a lot of Mac users, but for now I’m going to stick with the setup I’ve been using for a few months that’s worked well for me. For a front-end I’m using EMUlaunch, which is hard to recommend considering the author discontinued it in 2008. But once you step back and survey the landscape, it’s a fairly powerful and customizable little app. Pros: fully configurable, supports 15 game systems using your choice of emulator, and fills your screen with a kiosk-like menu system listing games coupled to 1-2 screenshots. It puts you in the mood to game, which I don’t think OpenEmu does just yet. Cons: fully configurable means you go find what you think is the best emulator for a particular system, tweak the shit out of it, and hope it works with your games (though this is largely true for game emulation in general). This can take many hours per system if you’re finicky. Also, the UI is very un-Mac-like and sluggish; even idle, as in no emulators are running, it consistently sips 12% of CPU cycles. But it works, and everything else I’ve tried, OpenEmu aside, has been awful. Plus, it runs MAME.

I would gladly pay for an updated version if he considered continuing development and charging for it — EMUlaunch was written by one guy, it’s not open source like OpenEmu. On a sidenote, I’ve reached out to the author on a couple of occasions and he was nice enough to respond. But you’re likely to find everything you need from his setup video and the sort of hidden FAQ.

If you want to use a gamepad to control EMUlaunch and play games, which really is the only way to go, try plugging in an old PS3/4 controller, or a generic USB gamepad, both of which work great. No drivers required for the PS3 controller as it syncs via Bluetooth, and I think this works equally well with Xbox controllers. To control a front-end with your controller though you’ll want to use something like Joystick Mapper, which is $5 in the Mac App Store. I also configured it to quit the running emulator by triggering the right-two shoulder buttons. And optionally, if you want to really speed up the process of adding new games to EMUlaunch, try a Keyboard Maestro macro. This may seem like overkill, but I recommend it. This screenshot shows how I set mine up; you’ll have to redo the coordinates though unless you’re using a 27″ iMac at native resolution.

Choosing an emulator can be a subjective call, though in some instances there’s clearly a winner. These are what have worked for me:

  • NES – Nestopia
  • SNES – SNES9X
  • Sega Genesis – Genesis Plus
  • Sega 32X & CD – Kega Fusion
  • TurboGrafx-16 – MagicEngine
  • Arcade – SDLmame or Mame OS X

By far, the fussiest emulators are for MAME. If you have a front-end that will launch it, or don’t mind Terminal, I’d highly suggest SDLmame. It has the closest parity with the officially developed MAME for the PC and all-in-all is pretty solid. Still, here’s a few tips that have come in handy and were tough to pin down.

If you notice any vertical tearing in games, set waitvsync and syncrefresh to 1 in mame.ini. A good test is Narc, as the scrolling buildings in the background were noticeably affected.

If SDLmame crashes and you happen to lose the key/controller mapping you’ve painstakingly added in MAME, make sure mame.ini has the correct cfg path.

Shaders: a GLSL (OpenGL) shader pack can make a huge difference, adding a bit of scanlines and curvature resembling a CRT. Some may feel these are gimmicky, but honestly unless you’re MAMEing through a CRT in an old cabinet, this is the next best thing. I avoided it for a long time, then tried it and can’t imagine playing games on an LCD without it.

I like sairuk’s variation shader pack with these tweaks to /osd/crt-geom.vsh:

CRTgamma = 2.0;
overscan = vec2(1.00,1.00);
R = 3.5;
const vec2 angle = vec2(0.0,-0.00);
cornersize = 0.01;

I briefly piped my iMac to a 42″ plasma through a Mini-DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter, but you’ll lose the shader benefits, and frankly games looked better with shaders on the iMac than blown up even larger on an HDTV. Still, it works and would be fun at parties. Update: Shaders can work fine.

There you have it. Go play some old games!

Golden Age

Posted November 23, 2013

My fixation on 90s home video game consoles has quickly expanded to include a slight obsession with 80s arcade games. While most of my video game memories take place on the floor at home, Zelda maps spread out next to cans of soda and a bag of Cheddar Cheese Combos, I also spent plenty of quarters at cacophonous arcades. From standing on chairs in pizza parlors to play Pac-Man and Frogger to dumping $5 into Moonwalker at Aladdin’s Castle while my mom got a perm on the other side of the mall. Thin carpeted floors with neon triangles, rubbing tokens together between my fingers, BODY BLOW! BODY BLOW! UPPERCUT!

Initially I wanted to play my favorites from the mid-to-late 80s: Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Double Dragon, Narc, Smash TV, Punch-Out!!, Golden Axe, The Simpsons, and then bathe in the Neo Geo waters. At the time, I thought of those as the new games of my generation. The older stuff was the older stuff, the staples of arcade play, the games I remember playing much less often, the games with long instructions in small print, the huge, looming cabinets that dotted the walls and slowly disappeared to make room for the fighters. Deceptively simple and brilliantly, fortunately confined to the technologies of their day, this compression delivered highly creative ideas and controls and sounds. Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede, Joust, Paperboy, Burger Time, Gauntlet – they were delicious. But Defender, Galaga ’88, Frenzy, Major Havoc, Missile Command, Robotron, Tempest, Zoo Keeper, Donkey Kong – these take you to other worlds. These are hard, elusive and painfully addictive games.

Playing Resogun on a PS4 — which tried its best and succeeded in little moments at making my mouth drop — you’re not just reminded of Defender. You want to see Eugene Jarvis get royalties. Things move on, there’s no other way. Games like Resogun pay tribute and yet clearly pave their own path. Galaga Legions DX, on the other hand, just runs in a circle.

Game Art

Posted November 22, 2013

This tidy little collection of 80s/90s video game art is a mix of nostalgia and newness, almost more poster than game box. I miss the silver wrap around Castlevania, but it’s somehow fresher without. Load Runner takes me straight back to those dusty PC/Commodore 64 game stores that were deadly still compared to today’s garish GameStops.

Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario Advance 3 (GBA)

Posted November 4, 2013

It’s been 11 years since Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario Advance 3 came out for the Game Boy Advance, and I’ve finally finished it. I’d like to say I abandoned it years ago, about halfway through, simply because of the original dark-ass GBA screen, but the more likely answer is it became a bit too tough and I sat it aside and forgot about it. Which is unfortunate because it’s an amazing little game.

Though in this case little means 6 worlds packed with 8 levels each, not to mention the secret, extra and bonus levels. After logging several hours on top of the time played when I initially bought it, the 48 levels it took to complete the game is where I’ll likely stop for now. After the end credits, a secret level was unlocked across each world; I tried the first and last and couldn’t pass either. Not being a bonafide video game completionist (which is kinda surprising), I didn’t get 100% on each level either. This gives the game a tempting replay value.

Likely landing in many people’s top ten lists for the Game Boy Advance, Yoshi’s Island is an inventive and charmingly creative platformer based on the original SNES release in 1995, which used the noted Super FX 2 chip for sprite scaling and stretching, polygon rendering and multiple parallax layering. The GBA somehow simulates these effects, likely using what Nintendo learned over the five years between the SNES and GBA versions.

Challenging without (generally) tipping the scales to frustrating, the game blends sketchy, hand-drawn graphics with well balanced game play. Yoshi’s maneuverability is fairly easy to pick up and master, which is good since you’ll need it to get through Worlds 5 and 6. And the simulated 3D here brings me far more joy than playing Mario 64; the imaginatively depicted Yoshi’s Island in the opening menu sets the scene. A clever ammunition system, cute sounds, a well paired soundtrack, huge enemies and bosses make Yoshi’s Island an obvious must-have for any of your finer handheld collections. When added to my own collection shortly after its release, it proved to be a fun companion, taking it on trips, playing it on a warm night in Astoria, NY, entertaining me through a cold once back in SF. The battery froze this miniature world, happily waiting for my return, looking, to my eyes, more lively than ever in today’s gaming landscape.

Sleeve

Posted October 31, 2013

Admiral Vladimir

Posted October 26, 2013

Perm Matrix

Posted October 19, 2013

On the Inside

Posted October 6, 2013

Like many kids, I took my toys apart, stared at the guts, and then nervously attempted to reassemble them before my parents walked in. I loved the look of the exposed boards and chips, tidy wiring and the dozens of tiny transistors that did who knew what. I guess I also wanted to hack it, to make it say something it wasn’t designed to say, to somehow subvert the vast, invisible industrial mechanisms that brought it to life. Instead I settled on crude Rube Goldberg-esque bedroom contraptions which relied more on imitated Pee Wee’s Big Adventure concepts than any real electronics knowledge.

In high school I built my first PC, and by built I mean I picked out components from computer catalogs using a credit card and pushed all the pieces in place until it worked. I understood the basics of a motherboard, Intel 386 and 486 processors, RAM, and sweet Sound Blaster 16 cards, but had no idea what the various other chips did or what code made it run. While my friend studied BASIC and created fractal screensavers (which we later copied to desktops at Best Buy to, probably inaccurately, speed test the new Pentium chips), I played Sierra games and, actually, I’m not sure what else I did do. I fiddled. I tried to comprehend programming, but I could already tell it was going to be complicated in a way that wasn’t fun or easy for me. My brain just didn’t work that way. We traded pre-email messages on 3.5″ disks, sometimes using batch files to trigger Simpsons audio samples.

At the same time, I was entranced with arcade games, wondering what kind of magic were in those big boxes, how it differed from my home game consoles, and why the games looked so damn good (though recently after coming across Street Fighter II at a movie theater I realized how low-res those CRTs were). All of this was before YouTube of course. Now you can find a video of someone taking apart and explaining almost anything, with narration spanning the gamut of incredibly proficient autodidacts to chatty weekend hobbyists. From Game Boy Advance and SNES enhancement chips to Raspberry Pi clusters and endless arcade PCB videos. Watching the guy who is RGB modding my TurboGrafx-16 tirelessly repair old game consoles is endlessly fascinating.

Recently I picked up a copy of Inside the Machine by Jon Stokes and by page 20 I’m already struggling a bit. To simply grasp the fundamentals of computer architecture would please me. One day I’d like to play with a stack of arcade PCBs and a candy cab, and like owning an old car, it would be swell to know how to make minor repairs myself. But, realistically, I know my limitations; maybe reading and watching is enough for me. Playing with other people’s creations goes a long way.

Four Shades of Olive

Posted September 25, 2013

Every few years I get out my first Game Boy and just hold it. The memories of Nintendo kiosks at Kmart flood back, the same store I’d return to for Super Mario Land, the slow-motion Castlevania Adventure, and later The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. Walking around the mall playing Tetris (テトリス) while my mom shopped reminded me of the same freedom I felt when I first got a Sony Walkman.

When the Game Boy was released in 1989 by Gunpei Yokoi and Nintendo R&D1, it packed an 8-bit processor and a whopping 2-bit color palette with 4 shades of olive on a 2.6″ reflective STN LCD. It was like carrying around a tiny NES! The next significant advancement wasn’t made for nearly a decade, the 1998 Game Boy Color. Along with bumped specs, the screen was now capable of showing 56 colors simultaneously from a palette of 32k. It even improved on old games with a user-selectable 10-color palette set through button combinations during the Game Boy logo screen. Then in 2001 the Game Boy Advance arrived with a 32-bit ARM processor, shoulder buttons and a wider TFT LCD supporting 512 simultaneous colors in 15-bit RGB. But it still lacked a lighted screen. Two years later with the release of the Game Boy Advance SP we finally got a front-lit LCD, along with a clamshell design and a rechargeable lithium ion battery. But despite the nearly usable Worm Light workaround, the dimly lit screen was always a disappointment to me. After a few months playing the excellent Yoshi’s Island I lost interest and stuck it in a drawer.

Nintendo’s subsequent DS and 3DS fell outside of my 2D single-screen attention. Occasionally I’d get the SP back out, remember how unusable the screen felt, and put it away again. But then someone mentioned a later edition SP with a backlit screen, the 2005 AGS-101, “Now with a BRIGHTER backlit screen!” After watching a few videos I was sold and found one in great shape on eBay in pearl blue. The difference is pretty ridiculous, enough that I don’t see the need in keeping the first SP around. Maybe due to being backlit vs frontlit, the screen image also appears to be much closer to the surface, similar to later edition iPhones.

The 700+ games in the GBA library were so colorful and creative, it’s a shame they weren’t better served with a brighter screen. I’ve added Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap to my tiny collection, which I’ll begin as soon as I finish Yoshi in a dark room nowhere near a sunlit window.

Intel NUC

Posted September 20, 2013

A project I’d like to begin in a few months is to move gaming emulation off of my iMac to a dedicated Windows 7 box. There would certainly be many obvious benefits to this, but honestly the most rewarding part would be Hyperspin. I don’t currently have the space for a full arcade cabinet, and can’t picture myself standing up to play games for any real length of time, so all I really need is a headless device to connect to a plasma television.

Something simple, small and affordable. This isn’t a task requiring some bonkers custom water-cooled gaming rig with red and blue LEDs and dry ice. We’re talking pixely Simon Belmont here for the most part (ok, and NARC), not modern gen or even last gen gaming. Initially I considered an old Mac mini running Bootcamp, but then started noticing compact PCs at cheaper prices, such as the Intel NUC. For $300 you get an Intel Core i3, but you’ll need to install your own memory and hard drive, say 8GB of DIMMs for $70 and a 128GB mSATA for $140. And $3 for a missing power cord. And for that $500 you get 3 USB 2.0, 1 Thunderbolt and 1 HDMI.

For $600 the current Mac mini offers an Intel Core i5, same Intel HD Graphics 4000, 500GB hard drive, 4 USB 3.0, 1 Thunderbolt, 1 Firewire 800, 802.11n, SDXC, IR, Bluetooth, and audio in and out. It’s also assembled and likely comes with a power cable. The only benefit I see to the NUC seems to be SSD support for a $300 base, while Apple only offers it on their $800 Mac mini at an additional cost of $300 for 256GB. But considering Windows 7 would eat up a suggested ~50GB, that certainly puts a dent in the NUCs [not optional] SSD.

Where’s the Mac mini Windows equivalent.