Archives for March 2014

Emulation on a Plasma Redux

Posted March 31, 2014

I’ve been researching SuperGuns a bit recently, certainly intrigued by the thought of having a stack of JAMMA PCBs in the corner to pull from. Especially shmups. While adding to my Saturn and Dreamcast wishlists, I’ll often check out the arcade originals in MAME. And shmups tend to play great. But after moving a lot of my retrogaming to the tv, where the actual consoles and a comfy couch replace the need to hunch over a desk, I thought I’d give the iMac-to-plasma another go for MAME, which is really the only thing I’m still using emulation for.

In a previous post I mentioned MAME shaders not rendering once it reached the plasma. And honestly, they give the image a quality that’s very much missing without them. Trying it again this weekend, it worked fine, and actually looked pretty good. Really good. What changed? Since then, there was an update to SDLmame, and we’ve replaced our previous plasma with a Panasonic TC-P55VT60 (grab one before Panasonic shuts off the tap!). The cable is just a simple Mini-DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter ($10-15). The sound is fine, not super impressive. The iMac is only passing 2-speaker stereo for me, even after trying optical, but it’s not like those games are in Dolby (though this was still the case even when trying DVDs that did have Dolby 5.1).

Playing Gunbird 2 was a ton of fun, with vertical scanlines and a wireless gamepad rounding it out. As a vertical shmup, and no ability to go Tate with this shockingly non-rotatable 55″ plasma, the game still occupies a large portion of the screen, certainly bigger than any Tate-ready LCD I’d have. Is it the buttery consistency of a PVM? No way, what are you, crazy?


Posted March 30, 2014

The followup to Bits, Sticks, and Buttons, Grails drills past the arcade essentials to lay out collector’s most pursued games of the period. More or less an 80-page extension of the first book, with plenty of glossy photos and the author’s take on each game, with a quote or two from the cab’s owners. If there’s to be a third in the series, I’d enjoy hearing more from the owners themselves, and a deeper dive into the technical makeup of each game. And back stories; how did they end up with this 250lb box in their basement?

TurboGrafx-16 RGB Mod

Posted March 28, 2014

I’m thrilled to have the TurboGrafx-16 back and playable. After all, this was the console that inspired the creation of this website. I only had it for a week, then sent it to Jason Rauch for an RGB mod due to its atrocious stock RF output. He wired up a Genesis 2 adapter, which connects to a custom SCART cable by retro_console_accessories. The image is now stable, sharp and colorful without bleeding, everything it wasn’t with RF.

After some quality time with Legendary Axe and Bonk’s Adventure, I impatiently threw in a Turbo Everdrive to sample the dozens of other games I’ve wanted to try, particularly Japanese releases which won’t play on the region-restricted TG16 without, of course, another mod. The US and Japanese libraries certainly offer a healthy amount of goodness. But finding a good condition PC Engine Duo-R would increase that by 417 games, region-free.  Finding one for less then $300 though could be a challenge.

I spent most of an evening playing through Blazing Lazers (Gunhed in Japan), a vertical shmup from 1989 by Compile, which was probably my first shooter. It was exactly as fun as I remembered,  beginning at a comfortable pace, becoming more frantic as you close in on its 9 levels. The TG16 seems to easily handle the fast moving sprites, optimistic soundtrack and sampled voices with almost zero slowdown, other than some muffled audio when rapid bonuses overlap too quickly. I’m pretty sure I was able to make it to the same level I did as a kid, which I guess given one night isn’t too bad, depending on how you look at it.

Super Vehicle Arachnids

Posted March 19, 2014

The gaming momentum continued all week, with some chance opportunities and others a long time coming. After returning the dead and overpriced Sega Genesis, I found another model 1 in decent condition for $35. Right away you could smell that it had belonged to a smoker, and things didn’t improve after cracking open the console. Dust and hair, sure, but what looked like bits of tobacco, cobwebs, rust spots, even a couple dead spiders — I fully expected it to be another clunker. But after a thorough cleaning it works great. Running off a SCART cable to the XRGB-mini, the picture quality is amazing for a 25-year-old stock console.

I really have to recommend retro_console_accessories for their custom cables. The SNES also looks crisp and colorful with one of their SCARTs. Well built, shipped fast, and they offer detailed advice if you need it.

The TurboGrafx-16 came back from an RGB mod, but sadly has to return again, as there’s a snag with the Genesis 2 adapter he built in and the SCART/XRGB-mini adapter I’m using. So the wait continues on this one.

But I did have a bit of luck with a random Sega Saturn and Dreamcast from a local guy who wanted to unload them, along with a few extras. While initially I didn’t anticipate tracking these down, I’ve come across lots of shmups for both, particularly the Saturn, that easily make them worth having. They’re in solid shape and look like they may have had their caps replaced a few years ago. I grabbed the games he had, including Radiant Silvergun, Soukyugurentai, and Nights into Dreams (with the 3D controller) for the Saturn, and Bangai-O, Typing of the Dead (with two keyboards), Chu Chu Rocket, and Space Channel 5 for the Dreamcast. I’m already eyeing several imports, and have ordered some NG:DEV.TEAM shooters.

Lastly, but what I’m most excited about at the moment, was the arrival this weekend of the Omega Neo Geo. I remember playing Metal Slug as a kid in the arcades, this behemoth red cabinet looming over me, looking up at the little backlit cutouts displaying the other games it offered. Take the guts out of that Neo Geo MVS and squeeze it into an AES-style custom molded plastic enclosure and you have a consolized Neo Geo. And of course the irony is that the arcade versions of the games are now vastly cheaper than their AES home console games.

Paired with the Neo Geo CD gamepad and plugged into the XRGB-mini, the Omega is an insanely fun, 2D powerhouse of an afternoon. The build quality is top notch and minimal: two controller ports on the front, power and SCART output on back (or optional component, etc). The image it generates with the mini’s scanlines is beautiful (make sure to set the mini’s v_width from 32 to 33), and the stereo sounds are a far cry from what I’ve been hearing through emulation over the years. Unibios 3.2 was included with my unit, allowing modifications like region change (blood!), DIP switch access, memory card viewer, cheats (zzz), and a surprisingly entertaining jukebox mode for cycling through a game’s music and sound effects. Turning on the gore and bouncing bosoms is one thing, but some games have enough regional differences to play them all. I opted for the Omega model with internal memory, or VMC, for progress and high score saves, a $25 option some may overlook on an arcade console but I’ve found it’s well worth it.

Since I’m new to Neo Geo as an owner, I only have one MVS cart, the 120-in-1. It’s actually a great sampler, but if you’re dumb like me, you’ll probably want to find the originals. Still, the games play great on the multicart. I keep putting random games on attract mode while I write this, their screens flashing in the background keeping me company. And when the day comes that I may have space for a couple arcade cabs, the MVS carts will be twice as useful.

Spring Loaded

Posted March 8, 2014

A compulsive flurry of retro gaming stuff has been eating up my time. Before bed I read Grails: The Cool, the Rare, and the Obscure of Arcade Games and RETRO magazine, walking around I listen to the Back In My Play podcast (start with the Quan Nguyen interview, creator of the Omega Consolized Neo Geo MVS), and many hours have gone into hunting down a Sega Genesis.

Which arrived a few days ago via eBay, a very complete and incredibly clean model 1, only it didn’t really work, so back it went. Hopefully the next one will fare better. Waiting for it is a custom SCART cable, Mega Everdrive and so far just a couple games.

Also this week I should be getting back my TurboGrafx-16, which was RGB modded, and also has a custom SCART cable, Turbo Everdrive and various games waiting. This one’s been gone a long time and I’m very eager to see the improvement over its sad factory RF. And I miss Kato-chan & Ken-chan.

Realizing these consoles need some space near the tv, I’m going to repurpose a bookshelf soon, complete with a SCART switch, fresh 12-outlet power strips and some serious cable tidying.

GCW Zero

Posted March 3, 2014

About a year ago I rediscovered my nearly forgotten Dingoo A320, the notorious Chinese handheld trojan horse whose principle payload is console and arcade game emulation. Ignoring the frustrating memories I had setting it up, I dusted it off and started again, by way of Windows, by way of Parallels. The Dingoo’s small, about the size of two iPhone 5’s sandwiched together, with a 2.8″ LCD at 320×240, 360MHz CPU, 32MB RAM, 4GB of internal storage and a MiniSD slot, a battery that lasts forever, and an FM tuner. Even for 2009 this was low tech, but it’s affordability, and perhaps lack of competition at the time, gave traction to the unfortunately named Dingoo. Pre-Neo Geo X Metal Slug in your pocket. Even Amazon sold it.

There have been endless variations by other manufacturers, with larger screens and juicier specs, many of which look like the PSP Slim, which incidentally, also runs emulators with a modest amount of work. Metal Slug looked even better, but the emulation community seemed less matured.

Then in 2013 came the Kickstarter for the GCW Zero. Created by Justin Barwick, the GCW was the first American born effort at a handheld device created specifically for game emulation. Using a 1GHz MIPS processor and 512MB RAM, it runs Linux (OpenDingux), has a 3.5″ LCD at 320×240 in glorious 4:3 (“ideal for retro gaming”), 16GB of internal storage and a MicroSD slot. The specs felt sufficient, but what really got me excited were videos of the GCW in action by qbertaddict1, who I’d wager single handedly sold more units than by any other means. Nick Nillo gives a closer perspective from GCW’s camp, right up to his final thoughts on the project, post-launch. While they were initially tough to find, you can now order them through sites like Think Geek.

As the GCW is Linux-based, there’s a healthy developer community around an extensive library of emulators: Atari, NES, SNES, Genesis, Sega CD, TurboGrafx-16, MAME, Neo Geo, MSX1/MSX2, DOS, Game Boy/GBC/GBA, Neo Geo Pocket Color, Lynx, and likely even more niche platforms. Most work quite well with minimal fuss, including excellent sound emulation, which is a vast improvement over the Dingoo. It feels comfortable in your hands, with responsive buttons including a standard gamepad, analog stick, shoulder buttons, accelerometer, and, fortunately, no fussy touch screen. Loading games is quick over WiFi, which is a nice touch, though USB is obviously faster for larger uploads. While there hasn’t been a firmware update since October, 2013, the Dingoonity forums remain an active and vital resource for emulators and support.

When turned on, the GCW displays about four seconds of Linux boot process, then a clean and customizable icon-based interface. Most emulators offer their own configuration options, including save states. I spent many hours playing the prerequisite games, from 8-bit Super Mario Bros., Castlevania and Zelda, to Out Run, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, and of course, Metal Slug. While console and handheld are generally solid, as with most arcade emulation your mileage will vary. Even Sega CD games like Popful Mail play great once the appropriate bios files are present (in the case of the emulator PicoDrive, in the hidden .picodrive folder of course!).

At the top of my wish list would be a larger screen, and two analog sticks rather than the one, along with wider analog support. The build quality is pretty decent but could be improved, though I realize this would drive up the cost. I had the sticky gamepad issue that seemed to plague many early units, which graphite lubricant fixed (just don’t get it on the screen’s plastic cover). A real sleep mode rather than the screen simply turning off would be nice, hopefully coming later through a firmware update.

And I see a value in more homebrew games, especially if Justin Barwick hopes to give the GCW an air of legitimacy. A rather good demo of the yet-to-be-released platformer Unnamed Monkey Game is included, which plays a bit like a sea green Super Mario Bros. There are several others but most seem comparable to mediocre iOS creations rather than the allure of a Game Boy adventure.

The GCW is a fun and promising device. Sometimes I just stare at it in my hands, amazed at its versatility, the power to put entire catalogs from dozens of gaming systems in your pocket. Maybe this much range and potential clouds one’s vision in a way, almost too good to be true. For some folks, the effort required, not to mention the ethical ambiguities, may dampen some of the GCW’s shine. But that’s ok, there are numerous next-gen Mario Bros. games for sale, and I love them too.