Friday, November 27, 2015

Why I love the Sega Saturn


As I mentioned in previous posts, I was less and less enchanted with the state of modern gaming.  I found modern games uninteresting, I was thinking that the best gaming was in the past.  I read an internet article about the best video games by decade, and I read about games from the 1990's.  There were the usual suspects represented, but there were also a fair amount that I had never heard of.  This was the period of time when I was in college, and was primarily interested in playing in my band than video games.  I knew the Playstation was popular; some of my friends had one.  There were a bunch of games on this list for a system called the Sega Saturn.  I had a Sega Genesis in high school, but I never heard of this Saturn.  I thought it was odd that I never heard of this system, but I chalked it up to not paying attention.

Intrigued, I sought information on the net. Apparently, gaming in America in the mid-1990's was all about 3 dimensions.  2D was not good enough, everything had to be 3D.  Enter the period of blocky 3D.  There were almost no games released in the United States that weren't 3D.  This was not the case in Japan, where a plethora of excellent 2D games were continuously churned out for the Saturn and Playstation.  I stumbled across a YouTube channel called Classic Game Room, where retro video games are critiqued.  After watching several reviews on Saturn games, I was convinced that I would have more fun with this system than I would with any modern system.  You see, I always enjoyed video games that were short, action-packed, and easy to pick up.  I favored genres such as shoot'em ups, platformers, arcade ports, fighting games, puzzle games, run'n guns, and the like.  Genres like these were best represented in 2D, in my opinion.  Growing up, I had many of these types of games on my 8-bit NES and 16 -bit Genesis.  I remember back then wishing that they were more arcade-like, and not so graphically limited...Enter the Sega Saturn.  An unjustly scrutinized console, it was a 2D powerhouse.  It was truly capable of matching arcade-like graphics and action, more so than the Genesis ever could.  The problem with it was that it was anachronistic.  It was the 2D pinnacle in a time when 2D was no longer in style.
The misunderstood Sega Saturn
I hit up eBay, and purchased a Sega Saturn for about $20, plus another $10 for shipping.  From watching the reviews I knew that the games that I was interested in were Japanese imports, and I would need to have region bypass card called Action Replay Plus in order to play them.  It slips right into that slot that you wish was a backwards compatible Genesis slot.  Many of the games I was interested in have no language barrier as the menus and text are all in English.  I ordered one, and a couple of insanely cheap Japanese games as well.  These games cost more to ship than the actual purchase price.  This may be due to the popularity of the Saturn in Japan (the Saturn was second to the Playstation in Japan) and the large print run of games over there.
The Action Replay Cart, a valuable resource for any Sega Saturn owner
After what seemed like an eternity, the Japanese import games purchased off of eBay slowly started to trickle in.  I played the heck out of each one, and I was in heaven.  Another favorite genre, fighting games (specifically Capcom titles), were heavily represented on the Saturn, and easy to import and play.
Capcom's awesome lineup of Saturn fighters
At this point I should mention how well suited the Saturn controller is to these two genres.  The six-button layout is perfect to Capcom arcade fighters, and the directional pad is smooth and responsive.  Many feel that it was the finest example of a console controller, and I agree.  What's more, with the release of Nights into Dreams, a 3D analog controller was bundled with the game.  This 3D controller had a toggle to switch between the analog pad and digital D-pad.  Even though it was intended to be used for the Saturn's 3D endeavors, the overall comfort and button responsiveness is rivaled only by the aforementioned Saturn controller.  The first attempt at a saturn controller, one that was originally shipped with the American Saturn, was blocky and less ergonomic, and not shown here since I do not own one.
The Saturn controllers have the finest D-pads 
Word has recently caught on that the Saturn had a great library of shooters, and with a global online marketplace at your fingertips, demand for these games has skyrocketed to unbelievable levels.  I was lucky to discover them when I did, for there is no way I could acquire these games today.  Part of what makes these games so coveted, besides their amazing quality, is that Saturn emulation is not reliable.  While emulators can play games of nearly every departed system, the complex Saturn architecture befuddles emulation, making original copies the only way to play these games.  

Some of the more sought-after shooter titles on the Saturn:
Hyperduel, Radiant Silvergun, Battle Garegga, Cotton 2, Blast Wind, Batsugun
That same complex architecture that frustrates emulation was also one of the reasons why third-party publisher support was lacking.  In most cases where there were multi-platform ports of games, the Saturn version was usually rougher around the edges as programmers had to wrap their heads around the bizarre internals of the Saturn.  Some exceptions to this were the ports of Capcom arcade fighting games.  The programmers at Capcom had no issues working with the Saturn.  These games took advantage of the expanded memory capability (one of the Action Replay card's features) of the Saturn to reproduce arcade perfection.

There is a whole dramatic storyline behind the Saturn's launch and demise, but that is a story for another time.  I just wanted to let people in on the 2D magnificence that is the Sega Saturn.  The most misunderstood console that practically nobody played.
more great shooters:
Metal Black, Sengoku Blade, Sonic Wings Special, Strikers 1945, Gekirindan, Shienryu, Thunderforce V, Darius Gaiden*, Donpachi, Dodonpachi, Soukyugurentai, Strikers 1945 II 
compilation packs of shooters: Gradius Deluxe Pack, Sexy Parodius, Gokujou Parodius, Thunderforce Gold Pack I, Salamander Deluxe Pack II, Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius, Twin Bee Deluxe Pack, Thunderforce Gold Pack II

even more shooters: Darius 2, Kaitei Daisensou, Kyukyoko Tiger 2 Plus, Arcade Gears Gun Frontier, Guardian Force, The Game Paradise, Kingdom Grandprix, Layer Section II, Steam Hearts, Skull Fang, Gunbird, Layer Section*

not so by-the-book shooters: Assault Suit Leynos, Wolf Fang, Panzer Dragoon*, Fantasy Zone, After Burner II, Macross, Sol Divide

compilations were common: Capcom Generation 1 (194X series), Capcom Generation 2 (Ghosts 'n Goblins series), Capcom Generation 4 (commando series), Sonic Jam*, Outrun*, Space Harrier*, Sega Rally*, Gale Racer 

beat'em ups and action platformers: Dynamite Deka (Die Hard Arcade)*, Dungeons and Dragons Collection, Metal Slug, Elevator Action Returns, Shin Shinobiden*, Hissatsu, Clockwork Knight 2*

Bomberman*, Bubble Bobble, and Bust a Move

Anyone up for light gun games (not on HD tvs): Area 51*, House of the Dead, Virtua Cop*, Virtua Cop 2*

some non-capcom fighters: Fighting Vipers*, Virtua Fighter 2*, Fighters Megamix, Real Bout Special, Fatal Fury 3, Fatal Fury Real Bout
The Saturn itself is not an expensive system to buy, but nowadays the best games are.  There are great games to be had at value prices, but you'll have to search for them.  If you're like me, you'll find they're worth it.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Getting the Perfect Outdated Video Output For Retro Gaming

For the longest time, television technology seemed to stagnate, especially in the 80's and 90's.  Game consoles output video resolution that was commensurate with the standard technology.  Since high definition wasn't a thing yet, standard definition (480i) was what we knew.  As such, the methods of delivering the video information to the TV was not anything worth fussing about.  Now that it is 2016, and high-definition has been the standard for many years, we can see the staggering difference between HD and SD.
When hooking up a retro system to an HD TV, the video image is resoundingly atrocious.  Why is this you ask?  Well, it has to do with how the television interprets the information from the console.  I am not an expert on this, but I'll try to explain it and simply as I can.  If I am in error on any of this information, kindly let me know.

HD TVs generally assume that a 240p signal, which is common video game signal of the era, is 480i.
240p means 240 progressively drawn lines, at 60 frames per second, with every other line blank (appear as scanlines).  480i means 480 interlaced lines, drawn at 30 frames per second, drawn in alternating fashion but filling the screen.  The native resolution of modern TVs don't match that of older consoles, which primarily output 240p.  So, there is a lot of guesswork that the internal TV transcoder has to do to figure out how to put an image on a 1080 screen that is only sending 240 lines worth of information.  The result is a smeary, ill-defined image.

Due to this, some companies have made upscaling units that will scale a lower resolution signal into an HD signal.  Of course these vary wildly in quality, with the nearly unanimous top choice being a Micomsoft Frameister.  This unit was designed to take 240p signals and correctly adjust them to 720p or 1080p, and from what I hear, it does so spectacularly.  It is a pricey unit, averaging about $350 or so on eBay.
People want these upscaling units because they have one gaming TV, and they want all of their systems connected to it.  Or they don't have room for more than one TV. Other people have an old CRT TV lying around, and prefer to use it.  I guess I fall into that camp.  The CRT does not require any upscaling, since the 240p signal is native to CRTs.  I have the room in my house for a 32" CRT, and I love it.  I have recently found out that there is a much cleaner picture to be displayed from my retro consoles, and they look better than they ever have.  Let's review the types of connections possible for a typical retro console.  It may be prudent to explain the information that is sent from a game console to the TV  The visual information consists of:
  1. chroma - the color information (can be split into color components)
  2. luma - the brightness of the image
  3. sync - the organization of the picture information into a coherent picture
Audio information can be either in mono or stereo.

One of the first video connections that video game systems came packaged with was "RF", which stands for radio frequency.  It was carried through a coaxial connection like this one:
Worst. Video Quality. Ever.
This type of signal carries the chroma, luma, sync, and audio data all in one data stream.  It is by far the worst type of signal to input into your TV.  It would be as if you were were trying to read four different novels at the same time.  You could make sense of it possibly, but your comprehension of each would be hazy to say the least.  I should mention that RF cables look like cable TV connections, but what is being sent from the cable company is not the same as what comes through an RF connection.

The next connection type is composite video, which is the familiar yellow cable, often bundled with the red and white stereo audio connection:
The most familiar video cable in the states for over 2 decades
Composite removes the stereo audio information from the mix, and only carries the information relevant to the visual: chroma, luma, and sync.  A slight improvement for sure, but still pretty muddled.  This type of cable was ubiquitous from the late 80's all the way through the early 2000's.  It came standard with every game system during that era.

Next up is S-video, which is an awkward black cable, with four pins and a plastic rectangular prong:
S-video cables are a pain to connect
The image quality takes a huge leap forward, as the chroma and luma are separated from each other (with sync riding along with the luma).  If your console supports S-video, this is an excellent option as cords are cheap and S-video is still a supported input on modern televisions. It may be hard to tell from this picture, but due to the specific placement of the 4 pins and plastic prong, connecting this plug to a t.v. was a pain.  It was made even worst if you were reaching around the back of the t.v. and couldn't directly see what you were doing or how the plug was oriented.

The next option is going to seem very foreign, and that is because it was never an option for console  gamers in the United States.  It is called RGB, which predictably stands for red, blue, and green. As you can imagine, separating these colors from one another improves picture quality further.  As it turns out, RGB was a video format utilized by computer monitors of the time, as computer displays required crisp video information for output through monitors.  This type of video signal was never an integrated technology for television sets over here.

This RGB signal was available in Europe and Japan, using a specific type of cable that carried RGB, as well as other video formats.  It was referred to as SCART, which is an acronym for a very long French name.  This RGB signal, carried through a SCART cable, provides the best picture possible from the consoles that support it.

SCART connections are huge!
It's not the prettiest plug, but its 21 pins allow for the cable to carry all sorts of different video formats.  The red, blue, green (all of which make up the chroma), luma, sync, and left/right audio have their own dedicated pins, making for one fantastic information delivery system.  
The systems the support RGB natively, without modification are:

3rd Generation:
Sega Master System

4th Generation:
Sega Genesis (Mega Drive in Europe and Japan)
Super Nintendo (Super Famicom in Japan)

5th Generation:
Sony Playstation
Sega Saturn

For these systems mentioned above, you will need to buy an RGB SCART cable online, and some kind of adapter to hook it to your TV.

Notice a glaring omission from the above list?  The Nintendo Entertainment System (Famicom in Japan) did not support RGB SCART.  That's not to say that it can't be done, it will require a modification to do so.  The NES picture processing unit (PPU) cannot output RGB, but the PPU from an old Nintendo Playchoice-10 arcade cabinet does.  So people have been gutting these cabinets for the PPU chips, installing them into NES systems, and modifying the output connection to match the multi-out connection that Nintendo utilized from the SNES through the Gamecube.  I don't have the skills to do this, so I bought one already modded off of eBay. There are also newer RGB boards available online, that bypass the need for the increasingly rare Playchoice-10 PPU. These newer boards also provide a color palate more faithful to the original NES color palate.
The multi-out port on the NES, for RGB video output











So my current retro gaming setup consists of a Sony Wega 32" Trinitron with the following:
via SCART with a Bandridge SCART selector switch:
A Bandridge SCART switch box
Model 101 NES modified for RGB
Sega Genesis Model 1 with Sega CD
SNES (1-chip)
Sega Saturn

It should be mentioned that since I prefer a CRT for retro gaming, I am inputting the SCART 240p signals with a SCART to component transcoder, so they will be accepted as component since TVs here in the US do not have SCART inputs.

Via component
Playstation 2 Slim (American)
Playstation 2 Slim (Japanese)
PC-Engine Duo modified for Component
Gamecube
SCART switch input
PC-Engine Duo component mod

I also have a Dreamcast, which has left me at a crossroads.  The Dreamcast was ahead of its time, allowing for VGA output, if someone wanted to view it at a computer-resolution standard.  It can be connected to a SD tube TV, and also an HD TV.  Tube TVs cannot accept VGA.  The Dreamcast does output RGB, but this 6th generation of consoles (including the PS2, Gamecube, Xbox) output both 480i and 240p, and in some cases 480p.  This means the optimal output signal varies depending on that particular game.  For example, I had my Dreamcast connected via RGB scart, but I realized that not all games (Giga Wing, Street Fighter Alpha 3) were capable of 240p resolution and so the game would not run with a SCART cable connected!  Sadly I reverted to S-video for the Dreamcast. Maybe someday I'll buy a VGA converter box and hook it into the VGA input on my HD TV.

Just as an example of what this all means, take a look at this picture, taken from RetroRGB.com, which shows the difference in visuals: (Note: I do not own these pictures, they are the property of RetroRGB.com)


So, as you can tell, video clarity is pretty important to me, especially for older systems where the sprites are can be ruined by messy rendering.  Most people may notice the difference, but it may not bother them enough to seek other options.  Some might.  I hope this was informative, and maybe someone will seek to improve their picture quality on retro systems.  There are a few excellent resources online to help you if you do decide to delve deeper.  I am by no means an expert, all of the imformation provided was slowly acquired from a couple of places online, including these:

RetroRGB.com

My Life in Gaming YouTube Playlist, specifically for RGB video output:
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLTNBVisVMbSR1ZDDQRgjg6S9D2YQ4rwnZ

http://www.hdretrovision.com/


Thanks for reading and until next time,

Andy



Tuesday, November 3, 2015

My Return to Gaming.

I grew up in the 80's playing NES, then Genesis in the 90's, to Playstation in the 2000's.  My gaming took a break in the mid-90's during college, as I pursued other interests.  I finished college, came back home, moved out of my parents' house and got a job.  After a year or so of having an income, I floated into a commercial retail game store, and saw a bin of NES games, all marked for less than a latte.  I quickly snatched up a bulk of the games that I had as a kid (my parents had undergone some serious house cleaning while I was away, and practically nothing of my childhood survived the purge).

I had hooked up the new, old, NES to my 27" Zenith CRT via the composite input, and I was instantly warped back in time to 1988.  The Konami code still works after all this time; why wouldn't it?  After a few weeks of reliving my pre-pubescent youth I packed it all up into a closet and went to buy a Playstation.
Gaming on a Playstation was fun.  I guess.  It was definitely more advanced, you could see that 3d graphics were the new frontier, and everything was blocky.  There some fantastic games to be played during this time: Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, Einhander Thunderforce V, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, to name a few.  Even with these, I found myself a little disenchanted with the 3d standard and kept looking for 2d games in stores.  Very few came.  Eventually the PS2 came out.  Some time passed before PS2's were actually available, and I bought one.  The game play was very similar to that on the PS1, but everything looked nicer.  Again, some great games were churned out here as well: SSX Tricky, Maximo, Gradius V, and others.

I didn't consider myself a hardcore gamer, I probably bought maybe three games a year. I did gravitate to old-school compilations that featured retro style games.  I remember being psyched about Gradius III and IV, Metal Slug Anthology, SNK Arcade Classics, Taito Legends 1 and 2, and so on.
 Eventually I came to the realization the gamer in me craved the simpler days of 2d sprites with linear focus.  Part of this was due to the fact that I only had about an hour per gaming session, so role-playing games and other length adventures were out.  The other part was that I just enjoyed action games the relied on reflexes, trial and error, and simple controls.  I had decided that I was primarily a retro gamer.  I hooked the NES up again, and sought out other games from my youth.

This realization came at a great time.  Older video games were plentiful online and shipping costs were generally more than the actual cost of the games (this is no longer the case as of 2015).   Soon after I was bumbling about online and found James the Nintendo Nerd's video on the NES version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  I was riveted!  This guy was talking about experiences I completely related with, and worked it up with some over the top humor.  Brilliant!  I subscribed to his YouTube channel and then saw this Classic Game Room channel.  This guy Mark had started the first online video game review channel in 1999, well before broadband was the norm.  The show had a short initial run and was cancelled as the modest budget of $50 per episode was not being recouped.  Basically, the internet had not figured out how to make money yet.  So the show had returned, and was housed on YouTube.  The first couple of reviews were in-depth critical analyses on some benchmark games, such as Thunderforce 3, M.U.S.H.A, Super R-Type, to name a few.

The show blossomed as the retro gaming scene grew legs, and is now the largest subscribed YouTube channel on the subject.  Game Sack, My Life in Gaming, Pat the NES Punk, Metal Jesus Rocks, Gamester 81, and Retro Liberty are other prominent shows that have large subscriber bases.
I find these videos entertaining, nostalgic, informative, and just plain good entertainment.  So do many others, as the subscriber base for all of these retro-gaming YouTubers constantly grows.
 
The hobby of retro gaming has never been more popular, as evidenced by the skyrocketing costs of retro games (relative to ten years ago).  This phenomenon makes sense, as people my age are now adults with nostalgia and a disposable income.  I hope you found something relatable here, and I hope you will come back to explore different topics of retro gaming with me.

Take care,
Andy






 Old school fighting games were plentiful, and made awesome with a dedicated arcade fighting stick.  I have the PS1 Hori Fighting Stick, and I think it is the best fighting stick for the PS1/PS2.


Links to YouTube channels mentioned:
Classic Game Room

Angry Video Game Nerd

Game Sack

My Life in Gaming

Pat the NES Punk

Metal Jesus Rocks

Gamester 81

Retro Liberty