Monday, 17 December 2012

Old Computers Won't Last Forever

   When I first started looking into buying an Amiga, I found that there were plenty of different models to choose from, and so I had to do a fair bit of research at the time about each model and reading up on the history of Commodore and the Amiga range of computers, all of which was fascinating and made me hunger more for one of these old machines.

   Then, as if waking from an amnesia type brain freeze, I remembered that I already had one, an A2000 sitting in the shed, along with a tone of software. Damn my ineptitude and complete lack of foresight! Trust me to store a great computer in a damp, dusty, cobweb filled shed instead of storing it somewhere proper and safe from the environmental effects that could kill an electrical device off faster than the main man Chuck Norris. It wasn’t a machine I had in my youth, nor one that me or my parents bought at the time it was on the market, but it’s a system I acquired and messed about with until I ran out of space to store it. Yet I wasn’t into retro gaming at the time, and I knew little if anything about the Amiga or its significance, so in the shed it went.

   Of course I was kicking myself when I rescued it from the damp shed, as I was becoming strongly entrenched in retro gaming, and enjoying plenty of games and systems from my youth, and having a blast on old games as well as the latest and greatest a modern system could offer. But would it still work though, that was the question, would the A2000 still fire up after all these years in the shed? After taking the cover off and inspecting the insides, everything looked ok, the ribbons connecting all the drives looked a little worse for ware, but everything else seemed ok. Lucky for me it fired up, and after turning it on and off more times than I care to remember the hdd eventually kicked in and Workbench appeared, as you can imagine, I was relieved, more so than a vegetarian being told that what they were eating was in fact quorn balls and not hairy cows bollocks dipped in gravy.

   Though the A2000 still worked and Workbench fired up, the machine had still taken a hit: the floppy drives had bit the dust, they damaged one floppy disk then didn’t want to work, and the ribbons looked in a state of serious decay. So even though the system still lived on, it needed some serious TLC, something of which it wouldn’t need if I had looked after it properly in the first place.

   Well 4 years later and I’m still in the process of doing my Amga 2000 up, I got as far as replacing the two floppy drives and a drive ribbon, but that’s about it, but now, with the system in a permanent place under my TV, I’m ready to start refurbishing the system again. Late last year I did strip the system down, and clean the whole thing from top to bottom, all boards, the case, connections, everything. I was even pleased to find that the clock battery had not leaked onto the main board (something which I thought had happened,) and so on the advise of others, I de-soldered it from the main board as the big box Amiga’s suffer from clock battery leakage, and this has the potential to kill the system.

   One unforeseen side effect though was that when removing the main board from the system, which was a complete pain, and in hindsight was a two man job, some of the legs on the second mouse port snapped away from the board. It was far to awkward to re-solder them back on as there were other components in the way, so I wouldn’t have been able to get to the legs in question, so after careful thought, I decided to remove joystick port 2 completely. The plan was to solder wires from the main board to the corresponding legs, this I managed to do, but it was a sloppy job and the wires eventually came loose. So recently I tackled the problem again, but this time I bought a D-Sub9 connector and some soldering flux and it worked a treat. I re-soldered wires back onto the main boards D-Sub9 joystick port 2 connections, planned the route around the board I wanted the wires to take and used insulator tape to stick them down so they wouldn’t move, then soldered the wires onto the D-Sub9 and popped that into a back port plate. So now I plug a controller into the back of the A2000 where port 2 is newly located.

   I basically did what I had to do to save joystick port 2 and get it working, as many Amiga games take advantage of controllers and joysticks, but through the second port, and so if that’s out of action, it’ll make it very awkward to play many games. Upon looking at it it’s a bit of a ‘what in the Frankenstein’s monster!?’ But my A2000 isn’t getting any younger and over time things break, so I have done what I needed to do to keep the machine going, it’s not the best solution, but it works, that’s the important thing.

   As time marches on and we all continue to use these ageing machines way past their intended usage, its inevitable that things will break or stop working and repairs will have to be carried out. Some will be repairable, others won’t, it’s just the way things go, and over time it’s a fact that old computers and consoles will become rarer and more uncommon as the years tick by. Yes even all the abundant sun faded turd brown Super Nintendo’s you can find for sale online will one day become a wild and not too often seen item, more ripe chance for asshole sellers on eBay to charge through-the-arse prices on the auction site no doubt. I already own two A1200 because one has a dodgy expansion port and the other stopped outputting sound at one point, and add to that a cassette player for the Spectrum that’s now just dead electronic weight. It’s amazing that a lot of these computers and consoles are still going and we can only do our best to preserve them while actively using them, so it’s sad to think that one day, if these machines don’t re-enter production somehow somewhere in the future, that emulation will be the only real way to experience them, food for thought.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Dreamcast Analog Stick Mod Guide

   This is a mod for the Dreamcast analog stick that I think is a must. Have you ever been in the thick of the action on Ready 2 Rumble Boxing, Sega Rally 2, Soul Calibur, or possibly running around Dobuita in Shenmue and found your thumb slipping off the nub constantly? Well I have, and at times it can be quite annoying to be honest. As much as I love the design and layout of the Dreamcast controller, it’s the convex design of the analog nub, coupled with the fact that Sega choose to use plastic instead of rubber that causes ones thumb to always slip from its grip at the worst possible time. They did add small dimples or dots of plastic to help your thumb grip, but it really doesn’t help much, a rubber nub is what’s needed for maximum comfort and grip. So here is a mod that might be small in nature, but adds so much to the overall Dreamcast experience, enjoy Sega fans!

Saturday, 20 October 2012

AverMedia Game Capture HD

   If there was one thing that always bothered me about capturing screenshots and video footage of games from various different consoles and computers, it was just the sheer inconvenience of it all. With the need for screenshots and video footage of a particular game very much a necessity, I was always forced to laboriously disconnect a certain console or computer from its life support and haul it from its favoured spot to the floor beneath the aging behemoth that is my desktop PC. I would then have to connect it to the machine via EzCAP (yes it really is spelt that way!?) and use Windows Movie Maker (WMM) to capture the incoming video signal from whatever games machine I was playing on. This was all very laborious and inconvenient, not to mention time consuming in the extreme, complicated more by the fact that WMM would only let me view the video signal being captured in the smallest of windows (the size of which was unchangeable.) I also only had one double plug socket at my disposal which was already being used by the PC, which meant using an extension cable. Once I was done, I had the happy job of putting everything away afterwards, only to repeat the whole process a day or two later.

   Something clearly had to be done, something had to give way eventually, and I could only hope that there was a much simpler way of capturing video footage and screenshots from all my consoles and computers with minimal amount of hassle. The biggest part of this for me was cutting out the need to use a PC entirely from the equation altogether, and I was sure that a quick search of Amazon would bring up a myriad of different devices for me to choose from. But sadly I couldn’t have been more wrong.

   At the time there was only one standalone box on the market that didn’t require a PC to operate, and furthermore was specifically aimed at those who wanted to capture video from games consoles. I was disappointed at the complete lack of choice, and I found it rather perplexing that all the other manufacturers who had various capturing devices in the same marketplace all deemed it necessary to require a PC to function with their products. But therein lies the problem for me, all the other products are essentially dedicated external video cards, they are powerful which goes without saying, but they are just the hardware component. The software side of things, where you initiate the recording, processing and furthermore the storage of the video/picture files happens on the PC end, so a PC is always needed in the equation. What I wanted was an all-in-one external capturing device that was the capturing card, storage and software all under one hood that was totally independent of a PC and a self contained unit. I found what I was looking for in the AverMedia Game Capture HD; it was exactly the all-in-one box I wanted, though it wasn’t without a few small drawbacks.

   The Game Capture HD is small and compact for what it is; it’s an unobtrusive box that can be easily found a place between your favourite consoles, as it’s almost half the height of a GameCube and only a few centimetres bigger width wise. It essentially acts as a pass through box by which the video output of a console is connected to the unit via a component lead, with the output from the box connected to a TV via component cable as well. The video signal from the console passes through the Game Capture HD where it can be recorded and stored on its way to the TV, but best of all, and most importantly, there are absolutely no lag or latency issues while you play, and no impact to the video quality (depending on which mode the box is set to.)

   The Game Capture HD has a compartment underneath it to fit a 2.5” SATA hard drive, which you can add one anywhere up to 500GB in size (500GB recommended by AverMedia,) or the unit has one USB port on the front if you wish to use an external USB storage device. Be warned though, like any media unit, if you do decide to fit a hdd internally, or use non-flash USB storage externally, then it is recommended that you use one that runs as fast as possible, preferably 7200rpm or above.

   The unit has two buttons on the front, a power button and a record button, which you can be used instead of the remote. The remote, like the unit, is small and compact, but is essential as it is used not only to initiate the unit and record function, but to set the video and picture (screenshot) quality (of which there are three different levels of quality and compression to choose from,) but to also jump between a full and minimal functionality mode. Full functionality mode gives you access to all the menu and preview options while you are playing a game, so you can play back what you have just recorded, or mess with the quality and compression options. The only downside to this is that full functionality does impact slightly on the video quality you see on the TV, but only by a barely noticeable degree, and only on the real-time TV image, this does not impact on the quality of the video being recorded. Minimal functionality has no impact on the TV image and gives you a flawless picture while you’re playing a game, but the menu and video/picture playback options are not available, you are only able to use the record and stop function.

   The quality of the screenshots and Video that the Game Capture HD records really speaks for itself, on the best quality settings this device records and captures some very high quality video and pictures. I have never had any complaints about the quality of any video I have recorded, and I have had nothing but a flawless user experience with this box. There are several drawbacks to the Game Capture HD however that are worth taking into consideration when buying one though, they are not show stoppers by any means, but rather features that would only have complemented the device and make it a more complete Game Capturing all-in-one box.

   First off then, as you might have spotted already, this is a HD video capture box, so it naturally captures video in HD quality. The initial firmware out of the box (firmware version 1.5) will capture video in AVI, but as of the latest firmware update (firmware version 2.0.6) it now captures video in MP4. I have tested the quality of both video types from both firmware versions and they are fantastic of course, and now that the system captures video in MP4 as of the latest update the video is more compatible and friendly with video editing software and other media playing devices.

  The downside is that as a HD capturing device it only accepts component HD video input, so in other words it only captures video from the current generation of consoles (Xbox360/PS3/Wii,) or at least anything through a component lead as low as 480i all the way up to 1080i at 50/60hz. The Game Capture HD can also capture video from an Original Xbox if you have one, as when used with a component lead and its HD video output enabled, games will run at 480p and the odd few at 720p. The Game Capture HD does not have a composite input so you’re really out of luck for older systems, which is a real shame for anyone like me that has a variety of different systems and computers from various decades past. Not being able to capture composite video signals is somewhat of a disappointment and a missed opportunity by AverMedia to make this box the all-in-one video capture box that any gamer could ever need. It also means anyone whishing to capture composite video from older systems will need to look elsewhere, and annoyingly find a place for another device.

   Another drawback that I have come across is that this particular box only accepts component, furthermore it only allows for one component input at a time. This is also another missed opportunity, AverMedia could have at least allowed for a HDMI input at the very least, which would allow for more than one console to be hooked up at any given time, albeit by different input cable types. Or they could have offered two HDMI inputs and a component as is the standard on most HD devices these days. But truth is there was a lot more they could have done really and as it stands, this oversight or lack of foresight makes for a lot of unnecessary cable swapping that could have been avoided.

   Another feature that the Game Capture HD lacks is the ability to adjust the brightness and contrast of the video being recorded, and although it’s nothing major, it should really have been a standard feature in the box’s settings. While the box does record a crisp image that quality wise is great, the video and the screenshots do turn out to be pretty dark compared to the image being viewed on the TV. Whether AverMedia never thought to add brightness and contrast settings, or whether they thought the user could adjust these in game or even on the console end, who the hell knows? But the fact remains that the video does turn out way too dark, and this is another thing that could have easily been addressed, and it could still be addressed in a future firmware update. The only way at the moment to remedy this is to post process the video or screenshots via video editing software for the former (or Youtube if you plan on uploading) and something like Paint.NET for the latter, all of which will fix the brightness issues and make the image as it should be.

Otagi - Xbox - Post render using Paint.NET
Otagi - Xbox - Original Screenshot pre-render
   It’s a shame that the Game Capture HD has the small issues that it has, if AverMedia could only have gone that extra mile, it would make all other capturing devices on the market worthless, it really could have been the all conquering solution. But having said that using this all-in-one video capture box is a far better solution to capturing current gen gaming footage in my opinion, as there is nothing worse than having the major headache of setting up your console next to the PC just to capture some video. What the Game Capture HD is in essence is pure convenience as opposed to other devices that require a PC, which are quite honestly the total opposite. The Game Capture HD is definitely worth purchasing even with its small faults, and I am certainly happier and better off using it over the cumbersome irritation of other devices period.

Otagi - Xbox - Original Screenshot pre-render
Otagi - Xbox - Post render using Paint.NET

Thursday, 2 August 2012

What’s In the Box? Real Sound: Kaze No Regret

    Real Sound: Kaze No Regret is a Japanese game made for blind people, so there are no visuals to speak of as the game is made entirely around sound, kind of like an interactive audiobook. Made by WARP, the creators of D no Shokutaku and EO (Enemy Zero,) this is without a doubt the most unique and interesting game on the Sega Saturn. WARP were known for using sound as an important mechanic in some of their games, so Real Sound seems like a natural fit for the developer, and they also have the honour of being the first developer to create one of the first ever games to be made for blind people which is still highly sort after in Japan to this day.

   Kenji Eno, WARPs founder and director decided to make Real Sound after visiting visually impaired fans who had wrote to him about his games. Curious as to how they were able to experience playing video games, Kenji went to visit them and see for himself first hand how they were able to experience and enjoy games. This inspired Kenji to make the game specifically for blind people, where the game was based around sound and would give them the same experience as those who weren’t blind. The game was a Sega Saturn exclusive and did receive a re-release on the Dreamcast with some visuals, but the game was essentially the same, and still one to be played by listening to the audio.

   I wish I could tell you what the game is about, but I can’t, as to play the game requires an understanding of Japanese, which sadly I do not possess. But what I can say is that if you are studying Japanese, and are at an intermediate to advanced stage of your learning of the language, then this game is the perfect study aid. Most Japanese adventure games are a perfect way of helping you learn and further your studies of Japanese, but none will ‘test your metal’ as to just how much you have learned as Real Sound will, as without any visuals to help you interpret what you don’t understand, you have nothing to go on other than the audio itself.

   Real Sound comes in a double Saturn case as the game is spread across four disks, and comes in a plastic slip case, which has clouds pictured on it, with the all important collectors spine card cased within it. The game has an accompanying braille manual, a post card, and numerous other cards that have Japanese on one side and pictures of cloud skylines on the other. What really makes the game unusual from a collecting standpoint is that it comes with a packet of herb seeds, that’s herbs as in the traditional garden or ‘kitchen’ herb, and not the cannabis variety. I have tried in the past to find out what herb the seeds are, but haven’t been able to find anything out, and although I know I could just plant them and find out, I’d rather not open the packet and plant them as this would make the game incomplete from a collectors standpoint. Some might find this a really unusual thing to pack in with a game as an extra, and it is, but for WARP its rather tame as a previous game, Short Warp, came packaged with a condom amongst other things, so in light of this, its not that outlandish.

Real Sound: Kaze No Regret - Sega Saturn
4 disks
Outer plastic sleeve
Spine card
Braille manual
Post Card
8 Cards
Packet of herb seeds

Herb Seeds Front
Herb Seeds Back
Braille manual

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Pixel Nation Magazine: An Interview

   Traditionally if you have ever wanted to buy a gaming magazine of any type, then it has always been a case of taking a walk down to the local news agents or local branch of WHSmiths. No matter what home computer or console you had, or even which video games company you sided with, they have always been the preserve of retailers, all clumped together in one part of a shelf. Of course there has been the option of a subscription if you felt a magazine was a justifiable purchase every month, and you had a penchant for that particular magazine, but the digital revolution means the whole landscape is changing dramatically. Not only is the traditional form of print media under threat, but also the very foundations of its distribution: no longer are gaming magazines the preserve of the big companies rich enough to ensue such an endeavour and consigned to a small elitist club, and no longer does a magazine have to be printed in physical form or even distributed nationally by traditional means.

   The rise of the internet has sparked a revolution in the sharing of information and the form and type of journalism on offer, and this is no more evident than in the gaming scene. Just scouring the world wide web on such an entertaining pastime and your search engine is flooded with countless websites, blogs, podcasts and much more, all talking about the gaming great and good. This unbarred and unfettered immediate access to any and all information about gaming, has caused a natural slump in the sales of traditional printed games magazines, as the reasons for such a slump is as plain to see as the sky. That’s not to say that things have slid so far down the garden path that magazines in their natural guise have become unviable, or that they are about to disappear off of store shelves and consigned to past memory’s with immediate effect, there is still life in the old dog yet as the saying goes. But whether you like it or not, the landscape has changed and is still evolving, with the digital switch becoming more encompassing with each passing minute, it would seem, at least to some, that the writing is on the wall as it were, but is it?

   This hasn’t deterred some; rather the internet has given rise to an opening in the gaming magazine market that in the past didn’t exist. While magazines like Retro Gamer continue to thrive, catering to what is still seen by some as a niche within gaming (that being retro gaming itself,) and with the loyal support of its customers, it still follows the traditional route of print media distributed to, and sold from newsagents across the land with subscription as a substantial counterpart. It would also seem that finding a niche can work to a magazines advantage, rather than becoming a hindrance as so often thought, as it can be rather appealing and stand out in a cluttered market. Others with a passion for retro gaming have formed their own small teams and taken to creating their own retro games magazines, releasing and sharing them on the net. If you can think of any old system from yesteryear then the chances are there is a fan devoted PDF magazine created and available for it somewhere on the internet. Some who haven’t sampled these would probably argue that they can’t hope to match the quality and design of traditional big publisher driven magazines, or even hope to have the in-depth scope and insider information in their articles. But after reading plenty of them for myself, it is quite honestly clear that such a conclusion is most definitely wrong. The quality in design and layout of some of these magazines is actually substantially high, as is the quality of the articles contained within, and these magazines are a credit to all involved and the hard work put into them by all contributors.

   Still, there was until recently, only one UK based magazine on the market devoted to retro gaming (Retro Gamer Magazine) covering all formats, and only one other magazine, a parent of Retro Gamer no less, that devotes a section to retro gaming (Games TM). While there are other multi-format retro gaming magazines, they remain locked in their digital form and remain solely on the internet duo to the cost it would incur to get them into print. They are also not regularly released like Retro Gamer and Games TM are, which are both buy monthly’s, this is in part due to the very independent nature of these mags and the much smaller teams involved in them.

   But this is all hopefully set to change as a new independent magazine has emerged onto the scene that hopes to fill the retro reading void on a quarterly release bases and with the options of a printed and digital version of the mag available for purchase. Pixel Nation is a new, fully independent Retro Games magazine, with its first issue released to the world on March of this year and is the brainchild of fellow gamers and retro collectors Steve Gauntly & Keith Lutener. But there is more to Pixel Nation than meets the eye as it shakes off some of the shekels of decade’s old tradition, and cleaves its unique path in the games magazine market, forming its own original ideas and quite unique concepts. I caught up with one of Pixel Nations founders Keith Lutener to get some insight into the Magazine and explore its unique concepts and ideas.

What is PN?
Pixel Nation is an independent retro game book publishing company with a range of retro books and regular quarterly bookazine.  We don’t have a board of shareholders or upper management to report to, everything we do is for the love of retro gaming.

Where did the idea for PN come from & why did you decide to start it?
I’ve been a big reader of the likes of Retro Gamer for several years and throughout 2011, I’d been involved with NES-Bit.com. The community grouped together to help create a magazine to help promote the site to NES fans and it was a huge success. Shortly after the idea was born to try other magazines and after a bit of brain storming Pixel Nation was formed.

How long did it take to go from concept to launch?
A few months spent planning out how we could even tackle such a project, shortly after which a website was built then tested.  In the end it must have been close to 7 months from start to the launch of our first issue PN1.

What were the hardest parts of PN to realise & what hurdles did you have to overcome to bring PN together?
The hardest part involved contacting writers, designers and people from the industry for interviews (such as Bob Wakelin). We pretty much came from nothing and convincing people this was a project worth taking part in was always going to be a struggle.

How many people are involved in PN & are you looking for others to get involved?
We are growing bigger every issue! With 1 we had around 8 people involved including writers, it’s just passed 15 for issue 2.  Always happy for others to join the team, we’d like to offer every writer the opportunity to present their work to the retro community.

PN Issue 1 was released in March, what has the reaction & feedback been like for the first issue?
Overwhelmingly positive, there was always the fear that people wouldn’t take to such a book. It’s hard to judge how big the retro crowd actually is as we are all so widespread, but everyone has really showed their support.  We have listened to everyone’s suggestions and the overall look and feel of PN2 will be very different, it should be available by the time you read this!
Is PN available in digital & printed form & how much does it cost?
The PDF download of PN is £3.99 with it being £8.99 for the high gloss print edition.  We can’t say enough how gorgeous the printed edition is, it’s a high quality glossy print in full colour with a book covering.  Looks fantastic on a bookshelf by any retro collection!

Do you offer worldwide shipping & if so how much does it cost?
We offer worldwide shipping at £3.99 for the US and all of Europe.

When do you plan on releasing each subsequent issue?
The initial plan was for a quarterly release, roughly every 4 months but with the current team and way things have gone, it offers the opportunity for a Bi-monthly publication. A case of watch this space!

What can readers look forward to seeing in issue 2?
Just a few tid bits, Steve Wozniak sat down with us and talked about his early days of Apple and the programming language that started it all, in some detail too, this is a huge plus for us. Next up is the guy behind the C64 classic Alter Ego, Peter Favoro, who goes into detail about what was involved making the game.  A look at Touhou shooters, a feature on Final Fantasy VII and even a special glimpse at Atari Japan, a side of the history I can guarantee you won't have read or seen before. We have done our best to try and gather as many industry interviews as possible this issue and the book is packed full with content.

What improvements, based on reader feedback, have you made in issue 2?
One of the main ideas for Pixel Nation is to offer readers the chance to comment and suggest what they would like to see. With this in mind we have listened to a lot of feedback about general issue design, even taking on some professional designer comments. I’m hoping people will see just how well the new issue is streamlined to a professional appearance yet still maintaining that retro feel.

What is your vision, aims & goals for the future of PN?
Beyond the draw of the main quarterly bookazine the main goal is to eventually offer a central retro hub. A place where people can pick up professional publications mixed in with the work of people of the retro community.  U-Publish is a big part of our site where everyone can download books/magazines produced off site.
Pixel Nation Issue 1
   The first PN mag is quite the debut it must be said, as the design, layout and writing contained within it are of a really high standard for such a small independent mag just blossoming into the retro gaming world.  Its fair to say that PN is a bookzine rather than a magazine, and its easy to see why, its size is A5 rather than the typical A4, something which sets it apart from other publications from the start, this makes it easier to take on your travels for reading on the go as well as making it easier to store around the home. PN also uses thicker paper with a higher gloss to it than anything you’ll find in any typical mag, giving it that extra added touch of quality for your moneys worth, this is another nice touch that I like that adds to the overall special feel and unique nature of the bookzine.

   The first issue has quite a varied range of articles that should keep any retro fan enthused, spread over a hundred pages, with a diverse range as interviews with Cynthia Preston and Jonathan Potts about their voice roles in the Zelda cartoon to a look at games such as Nights into Dreams and Outrun. I really cant do the diverse nature of the content within PN issue 1 any justice here as there is far too much interesting stuff contained within, so be sure to check the links below to take you through to each issues contents page at the PN website, this will give you a full run down of the contents as well as some pictures of the mag.

Pixel Nation Issue 1
   If I had to pick out some of my favourite articles in issue 1, it would have to be Revival of the 2D Platformer and Confessions of a Girl Gamer. The first article looks at what made platformers so popular and appealing back in the old 8/16-bit days and how we are starting to see this once loved genre, that seemed to almost disappear, make a much welcomed comeback. This is something particularly close to my heart as I played so many great games in the genre back in the day, and as it’s a genre that I have rediscovered over the past year both in retro games as well as in the current generation of consoles. The second article particularly stood out for me as I found  the writers perspective on the male dominated world of gaming and her view point on some of gaming’s most iconic heroin’s, such as Lara Croft, a very interesting read.
   One of the points the guys at PN have been keen to get across to its readers is that it’s a mag that will be guided and driven forward by the readers, and they are keen to hear any and all feedback on the bookzine that will help them build upon what has been accomplished each issue, and how they can make PN better with each subsequent release. Without the feedback from its readership they can’t gauge what readers like/dislike and would like to see introduced into the publication. With the recent release of issue 2, and after reading much of the feedback for myself first hand, it’s clear to see when flicking through the new copy that reader’s feedback has been instrumental in making the second issue better. The font used and its size is now more uniform throughout the bookzine with a better use of alignment and margins, this has given PN a more unified and integrated feeling throughout as you go from one article to the other. The use of pictures and artwork (essential to any publication of its type) has been altered as some of the feedback was that the use of them was taking president over the writing itself in the first issue. The team has sort to address this imbalance and find some middle ground between the writing, artwork and screenshots. PN’s layout and design certainly looks cleaner and less overbearing than in the first issue, though as many designers know, this is a fine art, so this is an area that will most certainly be closely refined with each issue.

Pixel Nation Issue 2
   Issue 2 sees the conclusion (parts 2) of Confessions of A Girl Gamer and the Amiga 1200 look back articles as well as The Shadow Of The Beast interview, the first part in issue 1 being with Martin Edmondson and this conclusive part in issue 2 being with Tim Wright. I really liked the way both parts of the interviews were done, rather than being with all one person for both, they offered two perspectives behind different parts of the games in each issue. Atari in Japan article offered a different look at what the company was up to in Japan, something not often talked about, as well as an interesting look at the legendary Atari Panther console. There is also a really in depth look at Touhou (bullet hell shmup’s) as well Bubble Bobble and the Dizzy series and much more besides, so there is quite the varied range and enough to wet any retro gamers appetite. One thing I really like and I hope that PN can continue, is with interviews and articles about composers and musicians that produced the music scores of some of our much loved games. Issue 1 has a small article on Koji Kondo while issue 2 has interviews with Philippe Vachey and Tim Wright respectively, this is a much welcomed step in my humble opinion as those who created the music for many classic games are not celebrated enough. So well done to the PN team in bringing these interviews and articles to the fore and lets see them continue to flow into future issues.

   Another part of Pixel Nation that’s unique in itself is the U-Publish area of the website; this area is dedicated to anyone who wants to publish their retro books and or magazines on the site. The idea behind it is to make U-Publish the ‘go-to’ place for retro gaming publications, where you can go to download, buy and discover new work all from one central location, rather than numerous ones that are spread-out and hidden away in undiscovered corners of the internet. It’s a fantastic idea, yet a very simple one with a potentially huge impact and it begs belief that nobody has hit upon this idea earlier. With the PN bookzine being the primary focus and drive of the site, this section makes a lot of sense, and shows that the guys behind PN have a true passion for gaming and the scene that goes hand in hand with it. Keith was keen to point out that those who decide to purchase PN have a keen interest in the subject, so its readers might like to read further works on the subject of retro gaming, and so PN can help people discover works by other writers. It’s this kind of selfless act and drive to help connect the dispersed parts of the scene and try to bring them together under one roof that really sets Pixel Nation apart, so I decided to question Keith some more about U-Publish.

You have another part to the PN website called U-Publish, what is U-Publish?
It’s a means for everyone to have a central location where they can download or purchase other authors retro gaming books/magazines.

Where did the idea of U-Publish come from?
Whilst producing NES-Bit Magazine System (which has 2 issues now available on U-Publish) the biggest hurdle was actually letting people know it existed. Even visiting various forums, news sites and blogs could only offer so many views. People just didn’t know it existed and that’s when the idea for U-Publish was born. The thinking was to offer a single location where readers could download or see the latest retro pieces without having to rely on luck that they came across it.  The best part of having them all in one place is that people can discover entirely new work as well without much effort. Plus it can help give a boost to other sites as Pixel Nation advertises in numerous places with regular updates, effectively giving authors a chance to share our visitors.

How many books/magazines are currently available on U-Publish?
We have 16 at the moment with a few more in the wings, books like Pixellation and the Retrocade magazines are very popular.

Can anyone submit their work to be published on U-Publish & are there any specific criteria that need to be met to do so?
As long as it’s not written on Post It notes we pretty much consider everything submitted. We full push everything on the U-Publish side with our Twitter, Facebook and forum so there’s always a form of advertising in the background.  We can even design a cover for authors if they feel their skill is only in writing, but we do like to specialise in smaller PDF gaming books. We currently have an author working on a 20’000 word book for U-Publish based around the Touhou series (bullet hell style shoot ‘em ups), this will be fully designed by ourselves as part of the U-Pub service.

What publishing options do you offer & how do they work?
With printing our own quarterly bookazine we have access to a large print company at trade prices. This means we can place orders for smaller book runs which don’t cost heaven and earth (like the big publishers insist on).  The first choice we offer for all is a downloadable PDF copy which can be offered for free or at a cost suited to the author.  If an author would like to see their work in print we operate a pre-order system, once a small number has been received then the print job can go ahead.  We feel it gives everyone a fair chance to gain something from their work and our rates are well below the industry standard!

   Pixel Nation issue 1 & 2 are out now and can be purchased from the Pixel Nation website, and both are available for world wide shipping. If you have any questions then don’t hesitate to send them through to the PN team as they are happy to answer any inquires.

   If you have a skill that you think PN might be in need of, whether it is writing articles, design, proof reading, or any other help you might like to offer the PN team then head over to their website and drop them an email. Further to that if you have a retro gaming magazine or book you would like to make available through the U-Publish service then don’t hesitate to contact the team as they are keen to hear from anyone who would like to publish their work.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Tin Toy Adventure

   Tin Toy Adventure was released in 1996 for the Amiga, so it was released quite late in the day, and by that time all but the most hardy and dedicated of the Amiga hardcore were still enjoying the fruits the system was able to offer up. So as you would expect with such a late Amiga game it’s an AGA (Advance Graphics Architecture) title, and honestly it really shows.

   This game has some beautiful looking graphics that are well drawn, well animated, with plenty of parallax scrolling. But what really shows off that this is an AGA game more than anything else is the sheer amount of colours displayed on screen; the game is very colourful with a diverse range on screen all throughout each level. The only other AGA title that I have come across that can match and equal this game in its graphical detail and amount of colours on screen is Simon the Sorcerer.

   Tin Toy Adventure is toy themed with each stage taking part in a different stage of a house, and each being differently themed in terms of design to coincide with each different room. Each stage consists of three levels with a boss fight at the end. The levels are well designed with interesting layouts and a good use of imagination for each one, but what really becomes obvious about the game is the fact that it is a tough platformer, and as a player you really have to know the levels inside and out if you want any hope of reaching the next level.

   The difficulty of the game is perhaps the most addictive thing about it, as the incentive to keep playing is the sheer sense of satisfaction you will be rewarded with when you have managed to get to that next level. The difficulty is quite reminiscent of a lot of the old 8-bit home computer games of the 80s, yet the game isn’t infuriating and impossible to complete like those games of old.

   You have quite a few different abilities at your disposal, you can jump on enemies to kill them, though they will take quite a few hits, which is something that will steadily increases the further you progress through the game as enemies get tougher to eliminate. Pressing down on the d-pad will scroll through a number of different abilities, that when selected will only last several short seconds, but can be more than useful when faced with a tough part of a level. You can select a tornado, and much like Taz from Taz-mania, it lets you wiz around the level really fast, knocking out enemies as you go. There is a power that inflates your characters body which will let you float above the level for a short distance, but the drawback of this is that when the ability wares off it can easily drop you onto spikes and enemies. There is even a magical top hat that will appear and walk in front of your character, knocking out any enemies that get in its way and it also doubles as a platform for you to access those hard to reach areas.

   Overall I honestly think that this game is a little jewel in the crown of the Amiga’s library, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea due to the steep difficulty level, but it is certainly a top quality title high up there with the Turrican series, Fire & Ice, James Pond, Super Frog et al. To me this is a platformer that managed to stand out from the crowd of 90s platformers, yet I reserved judgement until I had played the game proper, and it turned out to be an amazingly addictive and fun game, but don’t take my word for it, go and play Tin Toy Adventure.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Sonic the Hedgehog - Master System Memory’s

   The 16-bit Sonic games are held up as some of the finest platformers the 16-bit era had to offer, and I would totally agree with that, the games are fantastic, graphically a visual treat, with a cool mascot, well designed levels and fast paced and engrossing gameplay. Though I don’t doubt there are those out there that don’t like the Sonic games for one reason or another, which is fair enough, but it can be said that they (Sega) certainly hit the right spot with the games at the time. As I remember back to my youthful days, Sega’s mascot was never far from people’s lips whenever the Mega Drive (MD) was mentioned, and there were few who hadn’t experienced the Sonic games first hand. But I never knew at the time how Sonic came to be, I never knew why he was created, or the pretext for his creation? But nor did I care, or even care to think about such things, though I find it really fascinating now.

   The fact that his existence is tied to that of Nintendo and Mario, and that without them and their success, Sonic would have been a proverbial no show is something that just makes me wonder, would Alex the Kid still be Sega’s unofficial mascot? Well doesn’t bother me so much as I like the Alex the Kidd games ‘he says in a quiet hushed whisper,’ though it would be a loss for gaming without Sega’s cool blue blur. But for a corporate mascot created by designer Naoto Oshima, to become such an icon of cool to so many, when he created Sonic in response to Sega’s management challenge to its designers to create a rival to equal and top that of Mario, is some feat by everyone involved in bringing the games and the hedgehog to life. Sonic was the perfect corporate construct, created as a response to its rival, and to serve the companys specific aims of having its own recognisable mascot to associate with its brand, its own must have platformer, and to drive the MD forward being its killer title. How they pulled this off and made all the elements work and feel natural, instead of forced and artificial has to be one of the biggest marketing achievements in gaming and popular culture history, as Sonic and the games he appeared in become seamlessly woven into the fabric of 90’s brilliance. The corporateness of Sonic and the way in which he came to exist is not in anyway demeaning, nor does it make him a shallow corporate construct, but rather shows how a company and those within it can produce something with passion and meaning, that in turn brought joy and happiness to the lives of many millions across time and continents.

   I consider myself privileged to have been a youthful kid during late 80’s and early to mid 90’s, oblivious to the wider world and its intrusive problems and only concerned with my own immediate small part of it, hell, even the late 90’s was a pretty great time long since gone. The 8-bit and 16-bit era was the special time period in gaming for me, I got to experience a lot of games, few were easy, and many were hard. Sonic managed to captivate me in the early 90’s, he and his games stood out amongst the crowed of titles I had played before he swept me off of my feet, maybe some would say I just hadn’t played the right games before then, but I wouldn’t say so. Nothing said cool like Sonic did to me and my friends and no other platform games bar Earthworm Jim managed to come even remotely close. Nobody on the playground of petty school arguments and whimsical fallings out would dare argue differently, no not in my school, not for fear of ridicule and mockery, bullying or of being outcast, but because everyone thought the same. Sonic and all of his MD games were cool, they were the best platformers, it was an unspoken, unwritten law, Sonic was ‘in,’ and we all damn well knew it! Even those of us that owned Nintendo systems, myself included, and even those that didn’t own anything Sega, and yes, even those that owned home computers, all at the time, at least at my School, knew Sonic wasn’t a cheap trick fad, we all knew the Sonic games were a must play must own experience not to be missed out on.

   I never owned a MD at the time, but that didn’t stop me from experiencing what the console had to offer, thanks in no small part to my friend and his deep cash filled pockets that kept a constant stream of games flowing his way. I was always around his house playing on the latest game he had acquired, and he would do the same when I got a SNES. In those early days, you experienced other platforms and different types of games through your friends, as next to no one had the luxury of owning multiple systems of that particular generation, as is now the norm these days. So it was at my friends house that I first played Sonic 1, and I honestly couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing, the levels were so detailed, filled with vibrant bright colours, tons of enemies, with different routes Sonic could traverse through the levels, and it was all seamlessly fast paced with some excellent sound. My friend was pretty smug in the fact he owned Sonic the Hedgehog, and a MD for that matter, especially now he had a game that finally showed off just what the console could do and what Sega represented. All I could think while watching him play the game was when is he going to shut up talking and give me the bloody controller, it was a joyous mesmerising thing to watch the game run, but I couldn’t have snatched the controller from his hands fast enough when he decided it was finally my turn. So that’s how I got to experience Sonic for the first time and was able to join in with the growing banter at school about each game, and how I managed to become acutely familiar with the 16-bit versions of Sonic 1 & 2 over time. I never got the chance to play Sonic 3, which was one game that managed to escape me, although I do remember my friend having it in his possession. However I was fortunate at some point to play a considerable amount of Sonic & Knuckles, though it was only for a brief period and never long enough to work up an affinity with the title like the first two.

   But I have a confession to make, and its one that’s quite niche and controversial that when uttered, would either make you laugh and point, thinking I’m some kind of crazy, or reach for the nearest pitchfork and quick dial for the inquisition to sentence me for my heresy. Although I became very familiar with the MD versions of Sonic 1 & 2, and the MD version of Sonic the Hedgehog being my revolutionary experience of that title, introduction to the series, Sonic and helped cement Sega as the definition of ultimate cool in my mind. The truth of the matter is all these years I have had to keep this under wraps, for fear of ridicule and rejection and the lack of others willingness to understand from my point of view. I actually prefer the Master System (MS) version of Sonic the Hedgehog over the MD version any day of the year, and as much as I had a rocky love/hate relationship with the 8-bit Sonic 2 because of its steep difficulty level, again, I still prefer that version over the 16-bit one. I’m sure any Sonic and Sega fan will probably be shocked at the mere thought of this, and most within the mainstream would have me down as a nutter for choosing what some would see as the lesser games over the obvious (in their eyes) superior ones.

   Maybe it’s just me, who knows? Because I have never found another kindred soul that has felt the same way about the MS Sonic titles, but then I have never had cause to mention the fact either, or had the strength and willingness to. I came close once, i told the very same friend who had introduced me to Sonic that although I had a SNES (at that point in time,) I still loved playing on the MS and would never get rid of it because I had too many awesome games on it that the SNES didn’t have, and quite frankly couldn’t beat in terms of playability, like Operation Wolf for example. Well that didn’t go down well, as he laughed and joked at my expense all the way to the shops about it, ‘the MS,’ he scoffed, ‘the MD and SNES have far better graphics, and the games are better than anything on the MS,’ he continued, so I knew then that there was no point in trying to continue with that argument.

   In the early 90’s when a scuffle broke out between friends on a certain matter, it would then lead the issue to be taken directly to the ‘higher ups,’ as was the customary law of the playground. The ‘higher ups’ were a handful of your most popular friends within your circle who would form a small group, or council to settle delicate matters like this. Each party in question would argue the finer points of their cause, once they (the council) ruled on a matter, whatever it was about, it was passed into law and everything was considered settled, even if later they were proved wrong. Go against their ruling and you were punished by being outcast for a certain length of time, destined to wonder the school yard alone, I was witness to this form of justice countless times over, and it was never easy to accept, I think everyone had to suffer it at least once or twice as the years rolled by. It all might seem very harsh and Lord of The Flies now, but this was serious stuff to the young generation of the 90’s. So I couldn’t continue to champion the MS before my friend, and had to bite my tongue on my thoughts about which versions of Sonic I preferred, if I had persisted, he would have brought the debate before the council, and I had the overwhelming feeling I wouldn’t win them over to my train of thought on account that they all owned either a MD or SNES.

Sonic The Hedgehog - Master System 
   The MS version of Sonic the Hedgehog is quite different to the MD version, it doesn’t tranquilize a player with detailed fancy graphics in the way that only the MD could, nor could the developer have Sonic move through levels at the same speed or populate them with as many enemies. A different approach was needed, one that suited the 8-bit hardware and built upon its strengths and weaknesses and formed its own unique experience, rather than being a poor cut down one to fit the MS.

   The 8-bit Sonic the Hedgehog wasn’t a compromise or a cut n’ shut, it was crafted into its own compelling game, but borrowing certain key elements from the 16-bit version: such as having three acts in each zone, collecting over fifty rings to reach a special stage, and generally keeping most basic elements that were present in the MD version that would become the signature attributes of the Sonic franchise. But while the gameplay was from the same gene pool, it had its own feel and construct to it, with the level design tailored to suit this different approach to the gameplay. The MS version was about precise platforming at its heart: with Sonic’s movement slower and more carefully planned across levels, simple yet challenging level design, with carefully timed jumps needed, strategically placed enemies, and a good balance of difficulty. Mistime a jump or falter at killing a well placed enemy and Sonic will either loose his rings (which cant be re-collected,) or his life, carful yet meticulous precision in manoeuvring Sonic about each stage is what will see you through to the end of the game. This is a title where the layout of each stage and the position of all dangers within it need to be memorized, as the game has some strategically placed enemy’s, spikes and bottomless pits. Some enemy’s can appear on screen pretty fast, sometimes just where your expected to be jumping, as if the developers designed stages with cause and effect in mind, knowing that if they designed them in a certain way, it would force any new player unfamiliar to the game to jump into harms way, crafty and clever as hell!
   The special stages are much different to, rather than being a place to obtain a crystal, they alternatively served as a place which allowed the player the chance to gain a continue (which are needed to see you through the game) by destroying a TV. These are always positioned in an awkward spot between or by obstacles that repel Sonic away if touched slightly. A time limit coupled with more infuriating level design always made for some pretty tense, if not rage inducing punch the TV screen moments, as Sonic not only had to destroy the TV to get the continue, but then navigate further through the level to the finishing TV panel at the end.

   There are rings in the game to act as a barrier between Sonic and his death, as well as act as an added challenge for the player to either obtain an extra life by reaching a hundred rings or anywhere over fifty to be granted access to the special stage. There are also springs doted throughout the game, but instead of these being used in such a way as to help drive the momentum of Sonic through a stage and keep his speed up, the MS version uses them merely as a tool to reach rings that would otherwise be out of reach, or to gain access to another part of a stage. If you do get hit by another enemy of jump on a spike, then you will loose all the rings you have collected as they don’t spill out of Sonic for the player to re-collect them like in the MD version, this adds more tension to the game and causes the player to be more carful.
   Sonic himself is also well designed and well animated for his 8-bit outing; his proportions are well balanced against the enemies in the game as well as against the levels in general. His features and shape are sharp, clear and easy to pick out, with his blue spikes flapping in the wind as he runs and his impatient tapping of his foot if you leave him idly standing.

   There is a lot more that I could say about this MS Sonic game, about how well designed the levels truly are (Jungle Zone being my particular favourite,) about how each crystal is craftily hidden away in an act within each one of the zones, and more besides. But the proof as to really how good this Sonic game is, and the subsequent MS sequels for that matter, is really in the pudding as it were. The MS Sonic games as a whole are a true testament to the platforming genre and how to make a popular game series transition from a powerful piece of hardware to one less powerful. Yet, in doing so, keep all the key signature elements associated with the games and craft new titles that can stand on their own without being cheap cut-down limiting versions best consigned to the past.

   It’s a real shame that when everyone reminisces about the good old days of Sonic, it’s always without fail about the MD and Dreamcast titles, which is no bad thing, but Sonic appeared in far more great games on other systems than just them two in particular. I for one would like to see a retro compilation from Sega which consists of all the other Sonic titles made since his inception, with the MS games at the forefront of such an endeavour. These games are too hidden away and forgotten for my liking, they need to be brought back from the doldrums and into the open so everyone with a penchant for the mighty blue blur can experience just how damn good all his other platform games are.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Developer – Aspect
Release – 1992
System – Master System/Game Gear

   Sonic 1 on the MS set a pretty high benchmark for the series on the system as the blue blurs debut was a pretty superb one that set the standard pretty high for any and all sequels, let alone any other subsequent platformer on the system. But Sonic 2 managed to take everything that was great and perfect and improve upon it in all areas, that is accept for the games balance in difficulty, which for this outing was made more difficult, especially in certain stages such as Aqua Lake act 2.

   The graphics were slightly improved, not so much that they were a world apart from Sonic 1, but they were just noticeably better with a smidgen more detail and colour. Sonic himself looked pretty much the same, though subtle improvements like adding his trademark red and white shoes which wasn’t present in the first game made for a nice touch.

   Add the fact that the level design was much better with more intricate stages in certain zones, the ability to collect back lost rings, vastly improved tunes that are far more memorable and catchy, as well as the addition of the hang glider and mine cart and what you have is one hell of a sequel.

   The only downsides to the game is the lack of the spin-dash, but then the game was released before the MD version so its absence is understandable, and the increase in difficulty rather than a more even balance, but otherwise what’s not to like about this game.

Sonic the Hedgehog: Chaos
Developer – Aspect
Release – 1993
System – Master System/Game Gear

   Also known as Sonic Chaos in the US and Sonic & Tails in Japan, this is the third Sonic game to be released on the MS, and you would naturally assume that if Sonic 2 managed to continue the high standards of the first 8-bit Sonic game as well as improve upon it, then Chaos should have reached a higher level of tailored perfection. Unfortunately this game lacks the high standards set by the previous two games as it seems to be a poor reworked game from the ground up, instead of taking the game and graphical engine and trying to make subtle tweaks and improvements with better music and level design.

   The graphics seem to have taken a significant hit, the game doesn’t look as good as Sonic 2 with a real lack of subtle detail that was brought into the previous game, though at times the visuals do look pretty interesting in some stages. Sonic seems to have been redesigned, looking far worse with terrible animation as well as his proportions looking out of sync against the levels.

   The crystals now have to be collected in the special stages instead of hidden throughout the levels, which takes away from the replayability aspect of the game and the element of discovery. Its also harder to reach the special stages as you now have to collect a hundred rings as opposed to over fifty, and with the sharpest of difficulty of all the games, a real understanding of each level is a must if you ever hope to reach those special stages and collect all the crystals.

  The game does have a few saving graces, such as introducing Tails as a playable character for the first time on the 8-bit games (though he did make a small appearance for the first time in Sonic 2) as well as introducing Sonics spin-dash. The Special stages are also different and varied with each one different from the other and testing your various platform skills to obtain the crystals.

   On the whole this is the worst of the three, yet it should have been the best, it’s a bit of a let-down after the other games were so damn good, though does have some more unique elements to it, but don’t be surprised if you don’t find yourself going back for more.

Sonic Blast
Developer – Aspect
Release – 1996 Game Gear/1997 Master System

   While Sonic Blast was first and foremost made for the Game Gear, and is essentially a Game Gear release, it did eventually receive a MS release in Brazil only by TecToy in 1997, and it’s quite unique enough to be featured here.

  The game is perhaps one of the most visually accomplished of any 8-bit game released as it sports pre-rendered graphics, quite an accomplishment for an 8-bit system, though its perhaps fair to say that the visuals would have been better suited to any other game or series other than Sonic The Hedgehog. Some stages don’t look all that amazing while others do; it’s quite the mixed bag, with some looking quite bland and uninspiring, and at times lacking the detail of previous 8-bit Sonic games. While you will wonder if some of the stages have benefited from pre-rendering at all, Sonic and the enemy sprites on the other hand are clearly quite detailed and accomplished, with some excellent animation, though they do look somewhat out of proportion set against the backdrop of the levels.

   Gameplay wise it’s the usual Sonic fair, but without the high polish and shine of previous titles, in fact this is perhaps the worst Sonic game pre Sonic Heroes in terms of gameplay as its lacking the magic that keeps a player going back for more. The stages are simple and uninspiring, the controls are ropy and there are simply better platformers out there, the inclusion of Knuckles as a playable character and pre-rendered graphics do little to save the game in the face of poor gameplay.


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