Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Contra and Super C for the NES

Contra is a game that needs no introduction. It was released for the NES in 1988. Even though the game was originally released to arcades, this legendary run'n gun franchise peaked on the NES.

The game seems to get everything right for an NES game. The graphics and sprites are detailed and very well designed. It boasts some of the finest 8-bit graphics every created, in my opinion. The characters look proportional and animations/movements are natural and impressive.  The jumping sprite is a bit ridiculous if you understand physics, but aside from that, it is everything an 8-bit game should aspire to achieve graphically. The control is tight and reliable, with jumps being controllable mid-air. The 8-way shooting is responsive. And perhaps best of all, it offered 2-player co-op.

The arcade version was similar in theme and design, but was not as engaging, and thus not a huge hit. A possible reason was that the vertical screen on the arcade meant that side-scrolling games had to be condensed, and the action had to be relatively slow, since environmental hazards and enemy spawns can cramp the play field quickly if moving too fast. The NES version had a 4:3 aspect ratio, which gave players a broader play field, allowing for more on-screen action, and a quicker pace.

The arcade game is displayed in a vertical screen.
The weapons pick ups are a big part of this game's appeal. Such options include:
"R" - rapid fire, which increases the rate of fire of any weapon you are currently holding
"M" - machine gun, which is automatic if you hold down the fire button
"L" - laser, a slow, concentrated beam that is powerful but diliberate, you can't just spam this
"F" - fireball, which shoots spiral patterned shots that actually span the vertical range of your player's height, useful for hard-to-reach enemies
"S" - spread gun, which is the most effective and coveted weapon in the game. It shoots five bullets simultaneously in a web pattern, which diverges the farther the shots travel. It can be fired pretty rapidly, allowing for a wave of destruction. One of the most painful moments in the game is when you die while holding the spread gun: the drop-off in firepower is staggering.
"B" - barrier, is temporary invincibility, which is denoted by your character flashing red and blue while in effect.
"Eagle" - a screen-clearing bomb, obviously more useful when a lot of enemies and bullets are on-screen.
Don't touch the electric fence in the hallway stages.
There are eight stages, with lots of variety. While most are are side-scrolling, stages 2 and 4 are pseudo 3D hallways, and stage 3 is a vertically ascending waterfall stage where you can kill your partner if you leave him behind.
The waterfall stage will test your friendships if playing co-op
The stage themes are inventive, especially stages 6, 7, and 8. Stage 6 has you running through a barrage of timed flames, and only the most patient can master the patterns.

Stage 7 is a gauntlet of spiked walls and drills descending from the ceiling. Stage 8 is the Alien's lair, with some fairly uninhibited homages to the aliens from the popular "Aliens" movie franchise.

The game is clearly a product of the '80's as the cover art is essentially re-painted action poses of Arnold Schwarzenegger from Predator, and Sylvester Stallone from Rambo.

The game is renowned for its difficulty, and hence the popularity of the 30-live code: Up, up, down, down, left, right, left right, B, A, start.  Even when you  continue the 30 lives are restocked for whatever stage you are on. This made the game more accessible to a wider audience, and hence boosted its popularity. The code actually appeared in an earlier Konami title, Gradius, and several others. The effect of the code varies from game to game, but in almost all circumstances it is a major benefit.
If only the driver knew to creep up a few more inches...
Of course one of the most memorable aspects of this game is the music. Each stage has a rock'n energetic tune that compliments the action on screen. The music is active, layered, and complex. From the opening title screen to the end credits, the game definitely benefits from the quality of the music score, and I'm sure the game would not be the same without it.

Famicom cart

The Japanese release on the Famicom (the NES equivalent) boasted between stage cut scenes and extra animations. These include leaves blowing in the wind on stage one, falling snow on stage five, and alien guts squirming in stage eight. These extras really enhance the already awesome presentation, and it is worth seeking out for die hard fans of the game. Keep in mind you will need a cartridge adapter, or some means of playing a Famicom cartridge.

inbetween cut scene
inbetween progress map
Snow falling in stage 5 is one of the addition effects the Famicom cart has to offer.

The game was altered for play in PAL regions, as Germany had strict laws regarding depictions of violence towards humans, so the protagonists were changed to robots, and the title was changed to Probotector.

Super C is the sequel to Contra, and also has an original release in the arcade, as well as an NES release. Like the first game, the arcade was fun, but was hampered by the vertical screen format. The NES version, while graphically limited in comparison, offered a more engaging experience, especially with two players. This might also be attributed to the fact that arcades were intended to eat your money, so the difficulty is by design.
Contra sprite
Super C sprite
Super C plays very much like Contra, and some changes were made, most for the better, in my opinion. The pseudo 3D stages were removed, and vertically scrolling overhead stages were added instead. These stages are much more enjoyable that the hallway scenes, and allow for more stage variety.  The game now incorporates sloped platforms, which is also a new concept for the series.
As far as weapons improvements, the spiral fireball from the first game was replaced by a straight shooting fireball that splinters in four directions when it contacts enemies, giving it a shrapnel effect. The default bullets are larger, and even though they cause the same amount of damage as in the first game, they are more satisfying. In the overhead levels, a super shell can be collected and used at your discretion, instead of going off immediately like in the first game.

They music in Super C carries more bass, and that is readily apparent every time you clear a stage. It may not be as melodic or memorable as the first game, but it is still good.

The classic Konami code has been removed, however, and replaced with a different code for ten lives: right, left, down, up, A, B. This helps mediate the challenge, but still holds the player to a standard if they want to finish the game.

All in all, these are are both in my short list of favorite NES games. There was a third game in the series, Contra Force, which is nothing like the first two. It is so different, that it is as if Konami started production on some completely different game, and tweaked it a little by adding similar sound effects, and slapped the Contra name on it in the hopes that it would sell. I choose not to discuss that travesty of game.
You can duck underwater and not be hit (or noticed)
The series continued on through the ensuing generations, unfortunately missing more than they hit. The series got caught with its pants down in between the 2D and 3D generations, and produced some real turds on the Playstation. Early 3D games did not suit previously existing franchises well, and Contra was part of that fallout. The formula was tweaked for the PS2 generation, adopting a 2.5D play mechanic, and gameplay was brought closer to its roots. By this time the franchise was mostly forgotten, a footnote in gaming history that perhaps can be revived again someday.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Thoughts on Emulation and Clone systems

Retro gaming today has evolved a lot in the past ten years. What is considered "retro" is highly subjective to the user's age and experience. I consider anything pre-1999 as retro, because there is a division in time for me personally, as prior to that was education and schooling, and post that was my professional career. My nostalgic memories of gaming stem from when I was a kid, and so that just happens to have that particular timeline, but everyone is different.

The advent of the internet has obviously changed the world, and gaming in particular in a number of ways. Retro game accessibility is nearly unlimited via online shopping/auctions and emulators.
Ebay has made it possible to acquire any game you desire, for a price. You will be paying a premium for a specific game, but consider also the time and difficulty of finding a game in "the wild". Like any commerce, there are fees for convenience.

For those who may not know, emulators make it possible to experience games without having to own them. They are programs that run the software of older games, but on modern computers/devices. The digital files of the games are called roms (read-only memory) and are easily found online for free.  There may be a small amount of technical know-how, but emulator programs can be as easy to install as a typical computer program. Initially, this meant you are playing older games on a computer. This may not sound appealing, as sitting at your computer playing games is not necessarily a common nostalgic experience.

Recently, with products like the Retron 5, Retro Freak, NES Classic, Retropie, and others, you can now play emulated games on your TV instead of a computer, which is a breakthrough for casual players. People who have not gamed since their youth now have modern access to games, and probably have the disposable income to spend on it.

There are varying opinions on what way to play retro games is best, and there are several factors. For one, these games are older and limited in supply. Not many people keep around 25+ year old equipment around, and so much of it has been lost over time to landfills. Whatever remains is now in demand, and since retro gaming is in vogue, the simple law of supply and demand sets in firmly. This is one reason why emulation is popular, the fact that it is free*. Some people don't care if the game is physical, or a rom on a computer, they just want to play it.

Some people with highly attuned gaming aesthetics dislike emulation, as the programs may falter as far as sound or visual accuracy. Younger players would probably not notice, but someone who has spend hundreds of hours playing their favorite games over and over as a kid will most likely find those kind of differences noticeable. So these people may strive for original hardware and games. The problem here, is that older video standards that existed when these systems were produced are no longer observed. High-definition televisions do not play well with a) the older physical video connections, and b) the video signal configuration. I covered this topic in some detail in a prior post a while back. If your television even accepts the signal, it will most likely look like garbage. Since the signal sent by the console is one of a different era, to the television it is almost like a different language. Modern tvs will have upscaling programs to make sense of the outdated picture information, but these are not too great since television manufacturers didn't make this a priority; they don't think too many people will hook up old technology to their tvs. If you don't mind the blurry pictures, then you're all set. However, there are ways to cleanup and improve the picture quality, significantly, if you are willing to invest in some upscaling equipment.
RGB scart is an arduous path to picture clarity, but worth it
For example, the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) outputs a 240p signal, through RF or composite connections. This is a prime example of a system that will look terrible on a modern tv. To clean up the image, the NES can be modded to have a picture processing unit (ppu) that outputs an RGB video signal, which can be sent through a scart cable, which can be upscaled to be properly displayed on a modern tv. Or, as in my case, the signal can be converted into a YPbPr signal, which can be fed into a CRT television that has a component connection. This is more work than most will go through, as the amount of equipment necessary starts to escalate, as does the monetary investment.
The controversial Retron 5 is possible middle of the road solution that balances high definition standards and cost effectiveness. 

Here is where emulation clone systems come in.  The first I'll mention is the Retron 5, made by Hyperkin. It can play NES, Famicom, Genesis/Mega Drive, SNES/Super Famicom, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance carts (and Master System, if you have the power base converter). It is an Android based clone, that you need actual game carts to play. I give credit to the developers for this, as it does not condone piracy. Then I take that credit back when I found out that they used open-source code for their emulators when the emulators should not have been used for commercial use. They should have approached the code writers upfront, instead of apologizing after the fact, and that has spurned a hate campaign towards this device. Aside from that, the upscaling to 720p via hdmi looks great, scan lines are offered, as well as the other modern conveniences of emulators (save states, filters, blue tooth controller compatibility). It has controller ports for the original NES, SNES, and Genesis controllers, which is a huge selling point, since the included controller is horribly uncomfortable. This is an option for people who want to reduce the number of consoles hooked up to their tv, and upscale the image quality. I like it for those reasons, but also because I can now use save states, especially for hair-pulling games like Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, and so on. One commonly cited drawback is that the console has a strong grip on the carts, referred to as the "death grip". I didn't find this to be a problem; I just pull my carts out from one side and it slides out easily, but maybe the units are different.
The Retro Freak is ready for all of your carts...except for the NES.  

Another option is the Retro Freak, made by Cyber Gadget. I don't actually have this system, hence the stock photo. It is very similar to the Retron 5 in that it plays original carts upscaled to 720p over hdmi, emulator features are included, and original controllers are supported if you have the additional accessory. If not, you can use the stock controller or any other usb controller. Also, this controller adapter allows for one of each type of controller to be connected, not two, so player two will have to use the included controller, or some other USB controller. It differs from the Retron 5 in that the roms can be loaded from the carts, and stored on an SD card. This also means that roms can be loaded onto the SD card instead of being dumped from the cart, so....no actual cart needed. The law around copyright of roms is hazy at best, and there are people on both sides convinced their interpretation is right. So depending on your view of rom acquisition, let's just say this system gives you options. Another major difference is that the Retro Freak can play Turbo Grafx/PC-Engine and Super Grafx Hu-cards. For many, this fact trumps the Retron 5 outright, as options for Turbo Grafx/PC-Engine are limited. Since this was only released in Japan, there is no cartridge slot for NES games. This is an issue for me, personally. There is a slot for Famicom games, and you can purchase an adapter to convert 72 pin NES games to 60 pin Famicom games. At this point, there seems to be a lot of nickel and diming going on with this system, which is already more expensive than the competitors. So, this system can play more systems than the Retron 5, can play downloaded roms, but you have to by add-ons which raises the cost a lot more. This is not as accessible as the Retron 5, as this has to be imported from Japan, so its definitely not for the casual gamer.

The whole system is the size of a deck of cards.

A third option, and one that has been increasingly popular, is to run Retropie on a Raspberry Pi mini-computer. A Raspberry Pi is a budget computer on a PCB the size of a credit card. There have been several revisions, but as of the time of this writing the current version features hdmi out, 4 usb ports, blue tooth connectivity, and a micro-sd slot. This can be easily bought online, for about $35. After adding controllers, power cord, sd card, protective case, and hdmi cord, your looking at around $85. Retropie is a program that runs emulators for all of the older systems, and roms can be loaded by the user. Its small size introduces a huge convenience factor, as it is very portable. Obviously if you go this route you do not need any original hardware or cartridges. This brings about an interesting conundrum in that it can present all the convenience and value that a casual gamer is looking for, but its setup requires some investigation and know-how. There are social media groups that can help with this, and other resources online as well. It can be intimidating, especially to someone who is not so savvy with coding or programming, but once you get the basics in hand, the possibilities quickly unfold.

NES games in high definition on a big screen are great!
Since the Retropie is pure emluation and not dependant on physical media of cartridges or discs, the number of systems emulated is only limited by the software available. Systems like NeoGeo, which is cost prohibitive, can now be played with relative ease. MAME, or Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, is a big draw for me, but its setup is perhaps one of the most complicated due to all the  different arcade system Bios'. You can use any usb controller, but you can also step up your game and use a bluetooth controller. It will have to be configured in the system settings, but again, there are online tutorials to do this. I use an 8Bitdo SNES30 controller, which looks and feels identical to an original SNES controller; highly recommended!

For all of its benefits and positives, the Retropie to me has one flaw, and it is lag. I have looked up how to mediate this, and used the correct tv settings, but for some reason, the lag on the Retropie stands out to me. I hardly notice the lag on the Retron 5; I know that many people complain about it, but to me its worse on the Retropie. This is not an issue for most games, but for game that require twitch movements, like shoot'em ups, Punch-Out, or even Pac-Man, this is a fatal flaw. Shooters are my favorite genre, so this is an issue for me. Hence, my Retropie is relegated to parties and casual gaming.

So all in all, emulators and clone systems are attempts at making retro gaming more convenient with some improvements, with HDMI upscaling chief among them. Not everyone can have multiple game setups in their home with boxy crts taking up space, so clone systems are attractive in this sense. Emulators are the cheapest way for people to play games. The truth is, that everyone has their own preferences and opinions, and it is this very reason that conversations can happen and are interesting. Whichever method of gaming you prefer, remember that you are all drawn to something in common, and that is playing classic games.