DonPachi

Posted February 7, 2016

I’m going to start cataloging PCB pickups here because, well, I enjoy the look of the hardware, and it suits this site’s journaling characteristics. While this wasn’t my first Cave board, it’s my first of the series, and Cave’s first arcade release. DonPachi isn’t terribly hard to find — certainly not as rare as its sequel, the pricier DoDonPachi — and I do like origin stories.

Published by Atlus in 1995 and based on Cave’s first generation 68000 hardware, DonPachi hits that mid-90s sweet spot for me in terms of hand drawn sprites, semi-complex animations, cinematic music and well balanced gameplay and ramp-up in difficulty. In the more frantic moments it seems to struggle to overlap audio, and the slowdown of the action, which is not too common here, is a welcome second or two of relief.

Initially I opted to use ship Type-A, which is the fastest, and seemed well suited in setting the pace. Chaining, the key element of killing enemies and scenery in quick succession for huge bonus points, felt well controlled by this ship type. But I also found myself constantly dying in area two and three and realized this ship may be better left for now to the experienced players. I became curious about Type-C after watching other runs but had a hard time adapting to the much slower speed. It played like a different game. Soon I was progressing further and scoring higher and haven’t turned back.

The weapons are limited, essentially focused on upgrading its power, and alternate between fire and laser by holding down the shot button at the expense of a slower ship, which became a classic shmup tradeoff. Bombing, the last resort oh fuck savior, modifies rank, along with losing a life. Keeping rank from making things too difficult is tempting, but bomb your way through a complex scene and you’ll never learn it. The controls are simple and effective and yet offer plenty of opportunities for your own play style.

Besides the addiction of returning to a game that constantly threatens to kill you, the draw of chaining, collecting each area’s hidden bee items, and pure score, ramps up DonPachi‘s replay value significantly. After a couple months I’m finally reaching near the end of area four (out of five) — even with all the progress it’s hard to imagine clearing the first loop on a credit, let alone the second. I give it a few attempts most days, and it offers an awful lot of fun in return.

Galaga Restore Part 3

Posted January 24, 2016

A few items had remained to finish this project, largely the K7000 chassis. I was losing steam after spending weeks sorting out endless monitor problems. Before I could dive back in with another round of prodding, I suddenly found a box in front of our door containing a Sharp Image monitor chassis. Mike! This guy’s too nice — I’m not even sure where he found this thing. Except for a fairly menacing looking very alive spider, the chassis looked to be in excellent shape. I swapped it in and it immediately worked. Using the test pattern generator I calibrated it with a mirror then mounted it back in the cab. While I value the gained experience of working on an old monitor, in the end simply replacing it turned out to be the sanest option.

There were a couple more issues to work out. One was quick, replacing the 35-year-old 6×9 speaker. It actually sounded fine, but if I could eke out a small improvement, why not. Surprisingly I could find very few 6×9 speakers between $10 and $75, so I chose a Lanzar OPTI2698 — 8 Ohm and capable of 1190 more watts than necessary.

Now for the joystick. Even after previously spending several numerous hours rebuilding the original, it continued to feel sloppy. Worse, the two leaf switches would occasionally need bent again to help the stick auto center, inevitably causing the ship to move on its own in one direction (more on that in a minute) when the strength of both leafs weren’t exactly the same. Rather than try finding another Galaga stick, I started to consider Mike’s suggestion of using a Pac-Pro joystick. While I usually loathe the idea of swapping in modern replacements, the originals just didn’t wear well, and this was still a leaf stick. It mounted on the control panel with a Twisted Quarter Galaga adapter plate, with the oval hole in both acting as a 2-way guide. Unfortunately once the control panel was back on the cabinet, I found that it wouldn’t shut completely — the Pac-Pro base and the top leaf tabs were protruding about 1/8th of an inch too far. The tabs were able to bend 90 degrees, but I had to take the Dremel to one side of the new base. Nothing that’s ever seen, and it fit. I wish the red balltop was the same size and material as the original, but its matte finish matches the overlay well. It’s considerably stiffer but hopefully that will become less noticeable as it breaks in.

Overlapping with the previous issue of the old leaf switches sometimes nudging the ship by themselves, at some point this started to happen even when the joystick wasn’t plugged in. After crediting up, the ship would slowly gravitate to the left in random blips. It turned out to be one of the Namco custom chips, 51xx. I swapped it out with another 51xx on a spare Galaga PCB I happened to have. Previously I’d hoped to fix this second board and sell it, but having a donor board on hand seems a much better idea.

It’s great having the game finished, slid in next to Gyruss, and actually playable. I owe a big thanks to Mike for not only locating and delivering Galaga, but also tirelessly answering my tiresome questions, and problem solving from beginning to end. He elevates “a friend in the hobby” into something we should all hope to emulate.

So New It Hurts

Posted December 24, 2015

Over the past couple years I’ve made a few arcade friends, but none who seem as fresh to the hobby as myself. Most people I talk to have been playing shmups for 10-15 years. And a lot of the classic collectors were hauling cabinets across the country in the 90s. I’m only recently consumed with games like DonPachi, Espgaluda and Truxton. Others may have cleared these long ago and are working on their second loop. And these games are only getting more expensive — digging around in forum archives it’s obvious at this point what a seller’s market it’s become.

In a short period I’ve managed to build a little collection of decent boards with good replay value, and enough challenge to keep me occupied for years (cause I suck). After almost three months of Espgaluda I was able to reach Jakou’s first phase near the end, though not often enough to progress much further. I considered using MAME save states to focus on problem areas, as some players suggest, and occasionally used the PS2 port, but really neither were as much fun as playing all the way through in front of a cab. At some point I start to itch for another game, ignore the guilt and swap boards.

My current daily credits have been going into Gokujou Parodius (stuck on stage 3) and DonPachi (stage 4). I’d likely have to play far more every day to get to a place I’d be happy with. But who’s got that kinda time?

Egret II

Posted April 19, 2015

When I started getting back into video games, I wasn’t sure how long it would hold my interest, and I didn’t really anticipate how far it would go, despite laying it out in my first post on the topic. I had images in my head of picking off all my childhood consoles, like an obsessive lover resetting the clock, but the time, space and idiocy required seemed beyond what I had energy for. And since I was delightfully late to the gaming nostalgia party, prices weren’t going to be in my favor. As it turns out, they made a lot of these things, and there’s still plenty stacked in people’s closets looking for new owners, and my energy for time wasting apparently knows no bounds.

After moving to the country, the extra space rekindled the notion of having some arcade hardware. While a dedicated Gyruss was in the basement for a long-term restore project, I’d hoped to find an Egret or Astro City for playing various PCBs on. A supergun would’ve solved that without the bulky cabinet, but I’d come this far, and I didn’t want to blow up our tv infrastructure which was already overflowing with 12 consoles. In Japan finding a candy cab probably wouldn’t be so difficult, I imagine it much like stumbling across avocados in California. In the US, tracking down the wooden cabinets that once saturated our malls, pizzerias, and truck stops isn’t much further than a Craigslist search, though to find them cheaply takes patience.

Arcade forum group buys seemed like the best bet, splitting shipping costs with other hobbyists that live nearby. Even better is knowing someone who’s more nutty for this stuff than you are, and has the background and contacts to guide you straight to the madness. That someone was my friend Eric, who I should add, had nothing to gain from helping me out. Thanks man! The text came that there were a couple Egret II cabs coming over, and now was the time to decide if I wanted in. A week later we loaded one onto a truck I rented, while he took the second one for himself, squeezing it into his Gulf. Getting it up a few steps into our home was another matter entirely. While the thing’s on wheels, it’s 230lbs. I wouldn’t do it again without a third person or appliance dolly.

I’d like to say the first thing I did was play DonDonPachi DaiOuJou, which I’d borrowed from Eric. And I did for a while. But I spent the next thirty minutes trying to figure out why the coin mech wasn’t passing coins, even though you could still credit by hand. I wanted the full Japanese arcade experience, the one I was robbed of by my American midwestern parents. After grasping how it worked, I made a few adjustments, polished off the rust, oiled it and was dropping yen like a salaryman in Kabukicho. Then like any good candy cab owner I gave it a thorough cleaning, stopping short of a full break-down.

The power supply and monitor chassis seem in excellent shape, and the jamma harness is intact and tidy. The 29″ Nanao MS9 is 15kHz bliss, though reasonable bliss — it does have some burn-in and perhaps a little faded. I followed Emphatic’s handy guide on tweaking the colors and black/white levels which helped punch it up. Adding a 20″ fluorescent bulb brings the marquee to life, giving your face that pink shmup glow. And replacing the worn Sanwa sticks and buttons with Seimitsu LS32s made DOJ somewhat more manageable. The first week I felt like game center staff, repeatedly getting in and out of its locked doors. A faint, sweet tempura smell wafts out whenever the main door is opened to swap games, which is certainly a bonus over nicotine.

Rotating the Egret II can take two minutes or ten, if you try to rush and scratch your head, dropping bolts into its belly. So far all but one PCB I’ve picked up is vertical — well, two if you count the Neo Geo MV1FZ, you need at least one weeknight with Puzzle Bobble bouncing around in the background while you make dinner. This is of course the conundrum that two cabs solve, one oriented yoko and the other tate. Like replacing favorite DVDs with Blu-rays, I’m trying not to buy games I already have good ports of, but considering what a difference the experience is, the temptation is strong.

The hunt for PCBs without ball-busting prices is quickly becoming addicting and can rival the pleasure, and effort, of getting good at a game, which is all wrong. Playing one game for an hour and then going to the shelf for another, the tactile satisfaction of handling the actual hardware, is tempting as well. Along with occasional board fixes and cab maintenance. And carefully unwrapping new arrivals.

Steady Stream

Posted May 24, 2014

The past few weeks has been a steady stream of packages at the door. And a new cat, Elliot, who’s an avid game watcher. First up, a few more Neo Geo carts which quickly (maybe too quickly) cracked my wishlist in half, including Ghostlop and Ironclad. Still searching for a few more shmups, which is probably fine for now considering their cost, and the fact that most are on the 120-in-1.  A shipment of shockboxes and covers arrived as well.

For the SNES I picked up Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, Donkey Kong Country, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Somehow I’d never owned the first two, and had never even played SNES Yoshi (somewhat due to its Super FX 2 chip). For Saturn: Cotton 2, TwinBee, DonPachi and DoDonPachi, Guardian Heroes, the trio of Parodius discs, Outrun, Saturn Bomberman, and the lengthily titled The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love?. All good stuff, but that Bomberman keeps sticking in my head as the most fun, though maybe only because I haven’t played through Parodius since the arcade releases a few months ago.

And then there’s the Dreamcast. Initially this was the console I was the least excited about. The handful of games it came with weren’t that interesting to me, and it was the only console connected by s-video while the others were SCARTing up great image quality. Ironic since it’s the newest old console I have, with the highest resolution. I had ordered a Hanzo/Kenzei combo to get VGA into the XRGB-mini, but after finally arriving from Istanbul I found that it wouldn’t power up due to the sync stripper in my mini’s adapter cable. The creator of the devices, Yossi, was incredibly helpful and ended up sending me a modified Kenzei which I finally got to test a few nights ago. And indeed Dreamcast games now look VGA good.

Even NG:DEV.TEAM games are much sharper and colorful, though still not exactly entertaining. Right now I’m playing a lot of Gunbird 2 and Ikaruga, with Sturmwind patiently waiting. Having played the Ikaruga pcb on a friend’s Astro City a few weeks ago, I realized just how similar the Naomi and Dreamcast really are–same CPU, GPU and Yamaha sound board, but gobs more system/video/sound memory. Still, the experiences can’t really be compared. That vertically rotated Astro City monitor! I still have a dozen Dreamcast shmups on my wish list, though I suspect that number will get much higher with a little more research.

One note about 480p Dreamcast games with the XRGB-mini. While most consoles go through the mini and into the plasma without any tweaks to its settings (except that the Neo Geo requires v-width of 33), the mini/Dreamcast wiki points out Fudoh’s recommendation: HDMI Output: 1080p, Image Mode: Smart x2, H Scaler: 7, V Scaler: 6. I switched back and forth between that and my typical 720p, standard mode, h/v scaler of 5 for both Ikaruga and Sturmwind and could definitely see a difference, though it was hard to decide which looked preferable. It’s frustrating that Micomsoft has yet to adopt custom profiles for the mini. Helpful though is this English overlay for the remote, especially nice if you don’t want to keep bothering your partner to translate for you.

Finding a Dreamcast Arcade Stick on eBay has also turned the Dreamcast into a better shmup console. I’m still waiting on a Japanese Sega Virtua Stick for the Saturn which seems to have been shipped by carrier pigeon. And after realizing an HRAP 2 could cover all the other consoles with adapters, that dude with the Astro City very kindly won one on Yahoo Japan Auctions for me (thanks Eric!).

All this consumerism kinda turns the stomach, but the research and hunting is as much fun as playing the games for me, as I’m sure it is for a lot of people. And I’m not a huge game collector. Everything I have still easily fits onto three shelves. Probably more to do with my somewhat narrow genre interests than anything else (and, to be fair, flash carts). With one or two games per console getting attention at one time, it’s a bit chaotic, and tough to find focus. But that’s a fine problem to have.

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?