Vacuum Fluorescent Emulation

Posted March 26, 2018

Joining Internet Archive’s Arcade collection in your browser–over 600 games and growing–they now have a handheld game section:

This collection of emulated handheld games, tabletop machines, and even board games stretch from the 1970s well into the 1990s. They are attempts to make portable, digital versions of the LCD, VFD and LED-based machines that sold, often cheaply, at toy stores and booths over the decades.

The effort involved in recreating these vacuum displays as vector art is a notable achievement indeed, even if it meant losing one of each along the way. A few that I remember:

  • Donkey Kong, Coleco, 1982
    I wanted one of these so bad! There was something about a miniature “replica” of a fancy, coin-operated box of mystery that mesmerized me. Even the joystick seemed cool. Looking at it now though I’m kinda glad we were poor.
  • Speak & Spell, Texas Instruments, 1979
    When I saw these in grade-school classrooms I could care less about spelling. I just wanted to hear its synthesized voice.
  • Simon, Milton Bradley, 1978
    Another iconic learning device that I’d only played with at friend’s houses. Notable for having been co-designed by Ralph Baer.
  • Merlin, Parker Brothers, 1978
    Finally, a game we had, though I rarely played, probably because I didn’t have the focus to read the manual.
  • Championship Football, Tandy, 1980
    I inherited this from my step-dad, but had zero interest in how football is played.

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.

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.