Archives for September 2013

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.

RetroN 5

Posted September 15, 2013

I’ve never been particularly interested in Nintendo and Sega console clones other than as conceptual curiosities. Their hardware emulated renditions of games seem less faithful than software emulation alone (though I’m sure that’s true in reverse as well). And there’s just something tacky and depressing about them, impulse purchases near the registers of Urban Outfitters. Handheld clones like the SupaBoy and GB Boy Colour are somehow more appealing – maybe it’s the novelty of playing SNES cartridges on a portable device, or the backlit improvement over the original Game Boy Color (the fact that Nintendo didn’t truly backlight the screen until the 2005 release of the Game Boy Advance SP “AGS-101” echos their hardware decisions today – thanks to Aaron Schnuth for the late model tip). Handheld mods can also be worthwhile, if only as Ben Heck proof of concept projects.

When images of Hyperkin’s RetroN 5 first appeared, it looked like the fantasy rendered mockups of a retro gaming fan, a machine that could accept cartridges from nine (!) game consoles: NES, SNES, Genesis, Famicom, Super Famicom, Mega Drive, Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance, along with original gamepad ports. Reviews of their previous model generally seemed mediocre, and some comparison video I’d seen (which I can no longer find) of the RetroN 3 vs original hardware gave the impression it may still be best to just deal with the spiderweb of cables and AC adapters from old systems, assuming you still have them. Then they set a release date and showed at E3. HDMI output, a 720p upscaler, multiple rendering filters and optional scanlines, tweaked sound emulation, overclocking controls, and save states for $100. The RetroN 5 is rumored to be running on a modified version of Android on an ARM-based System-on-Chip, along with various chips plucked out of devices from the 90s. “This method of manufacturing will eventually be impossible.”

If you have shelves of old games and a modern tv, and don’t want the hassles of setting up rows of old hardware consoles and the expense of upscalers, this seems like a potentially ideal setup for many people. Now just imagine packing every game slot with flash carts.

TV Scoreboard

Posted September 14, 2013

While digging around in the closet looking for random cables this week, I found my first video game “console”, Tandy’s Pong clone, the TV Scoreboard. I assume my stepfather purchased the thing, as all I really remember was it being around the house by time I was five years old. We would plug it in a few times a year, and within half an hour someone would get tired of it and it would disappear. I don’t recall the family-friendly revolver with ours, so I wonder if that got thrown out before I ever saw it.

Considering everything else I sold or gave away I’m not sure how I’ve ended up with the TV Scoreboard. It survived their divorce when I was 13, then somehow made its way with me to California when I was 23, and now 17 years after that, there it was in a box of old TiVo parts and 200 ethernet cables.

After loading it up with AA batteries and plugging it into the tv through an RF adapter someone suggested, I unfortunately couldn’t get it to work. All I could get out of it was a second of wavy footage and those wonderfully specific Pong beeps and boops coming from the speaker on the back. So back in the cables box it goes until I just have to try it again in my 40s.

Upscaled

Posted September 6, 2013

After finding a decent TurboGrafx-16 on eBay a few weeks ago, I anxiously slid Legendary Axe and a few other HuCards in to see how they looked, and especially to hear the Legendary Axe soundtrack. I was a little nervous as to what a large plasma television may do to a 240p image. Initially the familiar glow of the game was enough to warm my heart, but it did look troublesome in places, especially smaller graphics and text. The fact that the TG-16 is RF out (in my case, through a NES RF modulator) certainly wasn’t helping things, but then I realized what a common problem this is for older gen game consoles on modern LCD and plasma displays. To be sure this wasn’t specific to the TG-16, I checked out Super Mario World on a SNES I’d inherited from a friend a few years ago. Same resampling issues, Mario looked like shit.

Fortunately there are some ways around this. I considered waiting until a future home I imagined owning had enough space for a fat CRT. Even better, an arcade CRT. But that seemed too far off. Then I started reading about upscalers, stand-alone devices meant in part to improve upon the generally mediocre upscalers in LCDs and plasmas. Specifically this detailed article on the XRGB-mini Framemeister by the Japanese company Micomsoft (with a name like Framemeister I’d mistakenly thought it German). At $400 it’s a pricey solution to an issue many people wouldn’t notice, or may mistakenly chalk up to being the result of a 20-year-old game console. But old tech certainly doesn’t need to imply inferior quality. I learned that just like most of its peers, the TG-16 is a RGB-capable machine. It’s keeping that raw source intact that’s the tricky part.

I ordered the Framemeister from Solaris and it arrived this week in record-breaking time from Japan. While the remote and instruction manual are entirely in Japanese, the on-screen menu can be changed to English (after powering it off and on). After half an hour of fiddling and translation assistance from my partner, we fine-tuned it to a sweet spot. There was Mario looking charmingly 16-bit with a dash of scanlines. No crumpled upscaled sadness in sight. Overall I found Picture mode, with a light scanline, at 1080p to work the best. Later I was able to ditch the SNES composite cable for S-Video which obviously made an even bigger difference. And when the TG-16 gets back from being RGB-modded, I’ll be looking forward to seeing Gogan cleaned up as well.

Could it be this easy? If you want to spend the dough, maybe it is. There are cheaper alternatives, but the Framemeister’s reviews, screenshots and videos (largely by pasty British men) won me over. If you have more than a passing interest in 8-and-16-bt gaming and you’ve left your CRT on the curb, this is worth checking out.