Friday, December 18, 2015

My Retro Consoles


This is closely related to my earlier post regarding retro console hookups, but I wanted to tell the story of the consoles I own, and show my setup.  These are described in chronological order of my ownership, not necessarily release date.  So here goes...
The top loader was far more reliable as far as loading carts that the toaster model

The first console that I owned as a kid was the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  My birthday and Christmas are relatively close together, so I convinced my parents that this would be an one-and-done present for both occasions (a tactic that I learned would be quite useful over time).  My NES was the classic toaster design, and it came with two controllers and Super Mario Bros.  I played the heck out of that thing.  When we were stuck inside the house due to bad weather, this is what all the kids in my neighborhood would do.  We would have sleepovers and stay up late playing the classics, taking turns.  If we didn't beat a game and ran out of continues, we would start over from the beginning.  We were all addicted.  Don't get me wrong, we were active kids who loved playing sports in the street and at the park, but when we weren't doing those things we were playing nintendo.

As a kid, my only means of income were mowing the neighbor's lawns in the summer and shoveling their driveways in the winter.  Twice a year, when report cards were released my dad would give me money based on my grades: $5 for each A, and $3 for each B, or something like that.  This resulted in 2 or 3 games from my own money, and another 2 or 3 between my birthday and Christmas.  After about 3 years, I had nearly 20 games.  Unfortunately, I do not have my original NES anymore.  What I own now is a top-loader model that has been modded for RGB output for optimum picture clarity.  I have it hooked up through a scart-to-component converter box, into my 32" Sony Wega CRT, which is my main gaming television that all my retro consoles are connected to.

There are many configurations of this setup that are possible, due to multiple models of each

The second console that I owned was a Sega Genesis.  This came out when I was in 8th grade, and I remember being blown away by the 16-bit graphics and sound.  The first game I witnessed at a friend's house was The Revenge of Shinobi.  What an introduction!  The opening sequence was so life-like that whatever loyalties I had to my NES were cast aside as I pursued this next-gen console.  Being a kid, I was as fickle as the next.  I took my NES and games to Funcoland (remember them?) and traded them in for a new Genesis, which included Altered Beast AND a coupon for a free copy of Sonic the Hedgehog! My next game was The Revenge of Shinobi, and eventually I built up a modest collection through work and grades.

By this point I was in high school and I had grown to be die-hard Chicago Bears fan.  We played lawn football almost every day after school and John Madden Football or Tecmo Super Bowl when we got tired.  I would play as the Bears and create a fantasy world in which they would go 18-0, and were perennial Superbowl Champions.  Evidently, this was only possible in video games.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I really wasn't playing video games all that much anymore as I has picked up playing guitar instead.  I still brought my Genesis to college with me, where we would occasionally play said sports games.  At some point during my freshman year, my Genesis was stolen from my dorm room, and that was that.  The Genesis that I have now is a flea market find, but it is the same model-1 that I used to have.  The Sega-CD I bought from a game shop in Madison, which we frequent often.  I have them hooked up via scart-to-component as well.

Highest selling console worldwide
I received a Sony Playstation during my senior year in college as a graduation present, but I no longer own that.  Once I bought a Playstation 2 (PS2), I gave my original Playstation to a friend as the backwards-compatibility made it obsolete.  The Playstation library of games was quite expansive, but I only owned a handful of games, like Metal Gear Solid, the Resident Evil series, Einhander, Bust-A-Move, and maybe a couple others.  I was playing Madden '99 more than anything.  This is the first time I had heard the term "shovelware", and its kinda appropriate for this library; there are lots of bad games out there.

The PS2 library of games is also ridiculously large, but I was still very picky.  Some of my favorites were Maximo, SSX Tricky, Metal Gear Series (again), Gradius V, Contra: Shattered Soldier, and others. Again, most of my playtime was dedicated to the Madden series.  My PS2 is hooked up via component.
My favorite

When I bought a used Sega Saturn, my first game was the Japanese import shooter, Donpachi. Imports are easily played if you get an Action Replay cart (shown above). Initially, all of my saturn games were imports, as I was enthralled with shoot 'em ups, and there were virtually no domestic releases.  Ebay did well for me, as the prices for games were very reasonable before the retro gaming bubble hit.  If I started collecting these saturn imports today, there's no way I would have ever started as price are at least 3x as much as I paid for them.  It was with this console that I realized that there was such a thing as a retro gamer.  The Saturn is my favorite console (read my post on why), due to its massive library of 32-bit 2D awesomeness. I have it hooked up via scart to component.

Glad my SNES is not one of the horribly yellowed early models

 I was a huge Contra fan, and I knew that there was one title on the Super Nintendo (SNES).  I found a SNES at a local Goodwill for under ten bucks, so I figured that was a sign.  Contra 3 The Alien Wars is a good enough reason to own the console.  I remembered the Donkey Kong Country games were fun, so I sought them out as well.  This is a fun little console that has a very diverse library; there's something there for everyone.  I remember back in high school how expensive the SNES games were compared to Genesis games, and that turned me away from even thinking about a SNES at the time. A couple of generations later, SNES games were found for a buck or two apiece.  Timing is everything, I guess. I have this hooked via scart to component.

$10 Gamecube?  Why not?

In the same manner (and same Goodwill) that I found my SNES, I found a Gamecube.  I wasn't terribly interested in one, but I wasn't going to turn down a $10 Gamecube.  It's got a lot of fans, and is underrated for sure, but to me its ok.  I do like the Resident Evil Remakes and Metal Gear Solid the Twin Snakes. Unfortunately, I do not have component cables for the Gamecube as they are ridiculously expensive. I have it hooked up via S-video.

Its thinking

When I was collecting for the Saturn, I remember hearing about the Dreamcast, and how it had some titles that were akin to those on the Saturn. Years later, a friend was cleaning out his house readying it to be rented, and he offered me a bulk deal on the Dreamcast system and all his games. Being the thrifty gamer, I accepted the offer and now I have a dreamcast. As with the Saturn, the bulk of titles that I was interested in were imports.  A disc swap converter was purchased, and eventually I bought the 2 games that I cherish in my collection: Under Defeat and Zero Gunner 2. While I have an RGB scart cable for it, not all the games are compatible with that video standard and they just refuse to load. Namely Giga Wing and Street Fighter Alpha 3.  Sigh.  S-video it is.


It was around this time that I heard that Thunder Force 6 existed...in Japan.  It was released for the PS2.  The PS2 is not an import-friendly system.  There are ways to play games of a different region, but they require a special boot disc and finagling the  disc tray with a tool to force it open.  I wasn't interested in messing around too much with the console to rig it to play games.  Then I read about Gradius Gaiden for the PS1, and Raiden DX, and other shooters released in Japan.  Hence I sought out a Japanese Playstation 2 on eBay.

The PC-Engine Duo is obscure but awesome

At this point my focus in retro gaming was squarely on shoot 'em ups.  I know that the NEC PC-Engine is held in very high regard for this genre, and with good reason.  There are a plethora of titles across the Hu card format and super CD.  I researched this system for a long time, and it took me a while to wrap my head around exactly what this was and how it was configured.  The PC-Engine is the Japanese version of the Turbo-Grafx-16, as it was known here in the states.  While the Turbo was struggling in the U.S., it was doing pretty well overseas.  It was second only to Nintendo's Famicom (NES).

It was the first console to have a CD-rom attachment, which was pretty expensive for the time as the technology was relatively new.  Later NEC would release a combined CD-Rom and PC-Engine appropriately named the PC-Engine Duo.  Despite the advances made with the console, the best it could natively output was composite video.  I had mine modded for output component video by Shaun at http://www.tg16pcemods.com

Coin Ops on the Xbox is a must have for arcade fans

The last console that I acquired was an original Xbox. I have no interest in this system for its native releases.  The only reason I was interested in this was for the Coin Ops app mod.  This mod allows one to play nearly every arcade game ever released, albeit with an Xbox controller.  There are arcade sticks out there for the Xbox, but I haven't gotten around to them.

My favorite aspect of this shelf is that it holds 10+ consoles in a tidy fashion
As for the unit holding everything, I don't know what brand the T.V. stand is.  You can't really find tv stands for CRTs anymore, unless you look at the secondary market.  This stand had exactly what I was looking for: it was strong (T.V. weighs 230 pounds!), had lots of space for consoles, and was relatively compact.  Prior to owning this stand, I was swapping consoles in and out.  It helps to have backwards compatible consoles (PS2, Genesis w/Power Base Converter) and region mods (both the Genesis and SNES required a little filing or tab pulling, and the NES has a Famicom-to-NES converter cart, the Dreamcast has the region-free bios, and Saturn has Action Replay) to reduce the number of consoles needed.

Well, those are my retro consoles.  I also own a PS3 and Wii, but they're hooked up to the new tv, and honestly I don't really play them that much.  Thanks for reading and have a good one.

Andy
The one and only, on the Saturn

The SNES port of the PC-Engine CD classic, Dracula X: Rondo of Blood

Awesome helicopter shooter on the Dreamcast

Frenetic shooter on the Sega-CD, with wailing guitars all over the soundtrack

PC-Engine CD classic

The standard for how to bring a 2D series into 2.5D

The swan song for the Thunder Force series



Wednesday, December 16, 2015

M.U.S.H.A. Review

Right from the start, after the awesome intro sequence, the music kicks in, letting you know this is no ordinary shooter.
The shoot 'em up genre has deep roots, tracing all the way back to the dawn of arcade machines in the early 1980's.  A genre that still persists today, there are several sub-genres that diversify the general premise of moving and shooting: horizontal, vertical, isometric, bullet hell, run 'n gun, single screen, and others.  There is some debate as to which home console was the best console to represent the genre, but usually the three that come up time and time again are the PC-Engine (Japanese version of the Turbo Grafx-16), Sega Genesis, and Sega Saturn (Japanese library; the U.S. has barely any games of the genre).  There are so many titles to choose from that even review websites dedicated to the genre struggle to cover most of them.  It may have been one of, if not the most popular genre in video gaming during the 3rd and 4th generation of consoles.  Once the 5th generation appeared, there was sea change as 3D games favored platformers and open world exploration.  Shooters are more suited to the traditional 2D model of gameplay, and game developers thought 2D should be left in the past. The shoot 'em up seemed to become just a niche category, a shadow of what it was.

This is my favorite genre, and this review will cover one of my favorites: M.U.S.H.A., which is an acronym that stands for Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor.  This game is known as Musha Aleste: Fullmetal Fighter Ellinor in Japan.  This game was released in 1990 in North America, so it was an early Genesis title.  For anyone who had a Genesis in the early days, you can tell if the game was an early or late release by the complexity of graphics, music, sound, and gameplay design.  Some early titles didn't age well, understandably.  Musha is impressive in that it was so ahead of its time in all of those respects.  Compile, the developers of the game were known for their shoot 'em up lineage, and they knocked it out of the park with this one.
The graphic design elements are a unique blend of classical Japanese themes and futuristic ideas.

The graphics are stunningly vibrant.  Sprites are brightly colored, and pop off the screen.  The color palate is expertly applied as there is always very clear distinction between the sprites and background.  Character design and variety is very cool, based on blend of classical and futuristic Japanese motifs.  Weapon fire and is easily distinguished and very neat.  As the weapons power up, the size and intensity of the shots increase in a satisfying and impressive manner.

Power ups become seriously awesome.
There is so much action on screen, but the gameplay never feels hopeless or overwhelming.  This is a difficult balance to achieve, as so often shoot 'em ups resort to crushing difficulty to alter the gameplay experience as a player progresses.  Not the case here.  Even though there are enemy flight patterns, they don't feel like typical enemy patterns.  You can play through the game several times, and not really know what's coming next because the enemy movements are interspersed and not obvious.  There is also no slow down.  Slow down was practically expected during this era on games like this, but there is none to be found.  I have no idea how they achieved this, given the level of action, but it goes to show that the developers clearly understood how to get the most out of the system.
Interactive environments enhance the gameplay.

The weapon system is easy to pick up.  You have a main shot, button C, which can be powered up by collecting capsules released by the capsule chip (I'm not sure if its a friend or foe, I guess that would be sad if it were a friend that you have to shoot down to power up).  These capsules increase your main shot up to 4 times the original strength.  Every third capsule will also provide you with a helper drone, which acts as an option.  These drones can be positioned differently by pressing the A button:  forward, 3-way, free (they fly around independently, seeking targets to shoot at), behind, reverse (fire opposite of your movement), and rotating around you.  This is a nice feature as you will learn that some arrangements are better than others for certain circumstances.  These drones can be stockpiled, and they will take a bullet for you, effectively acting as a shield.  When that happens, they spin off, shooting wildly and explode.  Another one subsequently takes its place from your stockpile, which is tallied on the top right of the screen. And that's not all.  There are different secondary weapons that can be picked up and fired with the B button: bombs (orange), lasers (green), and a rotating shield (blue).  These power ups an be leveled up to four times as well, whenever you pick up the same colored icon.  If you take a hit, your secondary weapon is lost, but when you pick up a secondary weapon icon again, your power level will be only one less that it was when you took a hit (as long as you don't die).
The iconic dropping floor scene is pretty memorable. 

What would a shoot 'em up be without good music?  A mediocre game.  Lots of games suffer from meh music and that drags the game down, making what could have been a great accomplishment just another footnote.  This game has really, really good music.  It borrows from early '90's techno and metal, and uses sounds that you've never heard from a Genesis.  If possible, play on a model 1 Genesis, the one with the stereo-out jack on the front and plug it into a stereo.  Its that good.  The sound effects are good as well.

Now if there is a fault with this game, its that it may be too easy for some hardcore shoot 'em fans. Between the amount of power ups, self-sacrificing drones, and continues, this game is a relatively easy going affair.  I myself am not that good, so I'm ok with this not being too hard, but I know that some would factor difficulty into an overall grade.

As far as a grade, I'll just say that this game is AWESOME.  I don't want to get into quantifying the various aspects individually, at the end of the day, my rating should be how I feel about the game.  I do believe it is one of the best of its kind on the Genesis, and even possibly one of the best games of all time.


This game is also highly regarded in most gamer circles, and highly sought after.  In this day an age, it is increasingly unlikely that you will stumble upon one for cheap, unless someone's parents are cleaning out their garage and selling games in a box at a garage sale.  I first purchased it on the Wii virtual console, and that's not a bad option as the Wii pro controller is fantastic.  About a month after buying it there, I walked into a game shop and saw it in the glass case for a criminally low price, relatively speaking.  Obviously I bought it and it remains my one of my best bargain buys of all time.  If you are a fan of the genre, do yourself a favor and check it out.  You won't regret it.




      

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Game Organization and Storage






After collecting retro games for so many years, there comes a point where one needs have a plan for the collection.  What usually starts out as shelf or two can grow into a messy pile-up with unorganized carts of various systems.  Nintendo carts mingle with genesis carts, leaning on super nintendo carts, stacked into tenuous towers, in denial of the inevitable collapse of such a frictionless arrangement.  You know what I mean; when you don't have a full shelf of one type of cartridge, and the ones at the end slip and slide across the laminate of the bookshelf.

Being somewhat of a semi-perfectionist,  I want my collection to be tidy and uniform.  The vast majority of my cartridge games were purchased loose and unprotected.  This doesn't bother some people, but it bothers me.  Also, I would like to preserve the games as they are only getting older.  Especially the metal contacts, which are prone to oxidation (rusting) if left out and exposed.  It took me a while to decide how I wanted to organize the collection.  I knew I wanted some kind of individual case for each game, and something where I could identify the game from the spine of the case, like a book or dvd.
Universal Game Cases are inexpensive if you buy a lot at once.


After much researching, I decided on universal game cases (UGC's).  These clear plastic cases open like video rental cases from decades ago, and have strategically placed tabs to accommodate the varying dimensions of most cartridge retro games. These would tidy the genesis and snes carts, and align them in rectangular unison, ending the console wars in my basement.



The  UGC's have a transparent sleeve for inserting reprinted covers.  This to me was a major selling point. To be able to present the games with the images of the original packaging is part of the appeal for such an undertaking.  As a kid, I remember staring at these images from across the glass counter, trying to imagine what the game was like based purely on some artist's interpretation.  Websites like the www.thecoverproject.net have user-generated scans for nearly every game with a commercial release.  After downloading, printing, trimming and inserting, the effort goes a long way towards presenting a collection as something to showcase.

Legal sized paper and a paper cutter will go a long way towards dressing up your cases.

However, the choice to go with UGC's was a difficult one for one reason:  the UGC's do not accommodate NES carts.  Well, not initially.  Those aforementioned tabs that hold games in place in the case prevent NES carts from fitting.  I have seen demonstrations of people online using tools to remove these tabs, but the results vary and just it seems to be an unideal situation.  That's a lot of work that goes into modifying each case, and when you have one hundred plus, that's a lot of extra labor.  
Eventually, I found some premium NES cases from www.stonagegamer.com called Bit Boxes.  These are a higher build quality than UGCs, and the price reflects that.  These cases are air-tight, so the likelihood of pin corrosion is reduced (you should still clean them if dirty).  These are black instead of transparent, a bit taller, and also have a clear sleeve for cover printing.  Due to the different size, the cover images need to be different sizes as well, so their website offers Coverproject images at Bit Box dimensions.  You can buy the covers from them or download and print your own.  I am a little bothered that I had to go with different cases for one system, but at least they are neatly presented and uniform among its own.  


NES games fit snugly in Bit Boxes.
Both of these types of cases are more closely sized to dvds than books, so a better way to store them (in terms of space efficiency) is to find media shelves, not bookshelves.  I use the Atlantic Oskar Multimedia Storage Rack.  It has adjustable shelves, looks nice, and is a perfect size for cds, UGCs and dvds.  It holds a lot for its size, and had almost no wasted space in front of the games or above (if you position the pegs correctly).  The Bit Boxes hang out about half an inch, so for those I use a different dvd rack.





















Even after the covers are printed and inserted, the decisions on how to organize these games can take many directions.  For example, Genesis covers have several formats and colors for their boxes.  The early version are black with a grid-like pattern.  Later the size of the Genesis logo changed.  Then they became red boxes.  To make matters worse, many third party developers did not follow the format and just had any image wrapped around the case.  I played around with keeping a series of games together, but that change in color of the cases midway through the series irked me (Sonic, Shinobi, Phantasy Star, to name a few).  I tried to keep them by publisher (Ea, Konami, Capcom, Rennovation), but I didn't seem to have enough of each for it to make sense.  Here is where you do whatever makes sense to you, and I opted for uniform colors on the spine.  



What's the deal, Sega?  How many case templates do you have?
Being a gamer before a collector, I always opt for value over complete in box.  Obviously these games are old, and their original packaging and boxes are a rarity, to say the least.  Especially Nintendo products, which used cardboard boxes, buying older games  drives the price up significantly.  Also, it is highly unlikely that you will find boxes for all the games that you want.  This to me is an unsustainable endeavor, so that is why I sought out an alternative way to store my collection.  Some people want complete games with boxes and instructions and that's fine, but to me, that approach has no endgame and will frustrate my need for uniformity.

I suppose dressing up the collection in this way has become a sub-hobby in and of itself.  It is not for the faint of heart, and takes a lot of planning and execution, but the payoff is the presentation of your collection in a neat, attractive, and archival fashion.