Year One

Posted August 30, 2014

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.

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.

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.