Monday, January 18, 2016

The Quest for Better Video Quality, Part 1

Gaming with any system before a Dreamcast (with its fantastic VGA output) on a modern TV really sucks. Everyone has seen nice crisp colorful screenshots from emulators. Why bother with old systems? Why not emulate? That's no fun, emulation is inaccurate and some games actually play incorrectly with segments you can't pass because of timing differences. What about a Retron? Well, that's an emulator too.

So, how do we get a great picture out of an older console on an HDTV? Sure, you can just get an old CRT... but composite video is still shitty. Well, then you can step your game up, buy a PVM, get some SCART cables and break out the RGB and sync signals and have the absolute best presentation for an old console that's possible. Barring that, you can drop about $300 on an XRGB and upscale everything and add scanlines and output it all through HDMI. 

So, you've got some options there. They're options, but they'll cost you. I've looked for a good CRT for a long time with no luck. I haven't even come near finding a PVM locally, and I don't really want to have someone across the country ship me a PVM from eBay. The CRT TV is the cheaper option than an XRGB. I never even considered that, spending $300 on a video scaler is fucking bonkers. So, hope has been lost. Until I found out about this:

A $25 video scaler (the Gonbes GBS-8220) made by our enterprising Chinese friends that can be modified to accept an RGB signal. Undoubtedly the quality won't be AS good as an XRGB, but for a fraction of the price I think we can accept some quality loss. I've priced everything out at $70 (including parts needed to make a sync stripper and a scanline generator, not including any needed SCART cables for consoles), which is less than I'd likely end up spending on a decent CRT as well. The only knock on this solution for some may be that it outputs VGA - the HDTV I have does have a VGA input, so it honestly makes no difference to me.

Why is it so hard to get a decent picture out of older systems? What the fuck is SCART?

Well, those composite video cables combine all of the picture data on a single cable. Colors don't come through as well, you get bleeding, you get all kinds of nasty shit. Composite carries all of the color information, all of the sync information, all of the information to make up the actual picture.. That's a mess. 

SCART is a standard mostly used in European countries, and it was basically a one cable does all solution similar to HDMI. SCART RGB breaks out the video signal into red, green and blue channels (but it is NOT the same as component) with the signal needed to synchronize the separate channels separated out as well. This results in much truer colors and better overall image quality.

Stolen from RetroRGB because it's a fantastic example

You can scale composite video, but it's still going to have the same lacking colors, etc. This is why the gold standard is RGB. Since US TVs don't have any way to accept RGB natively (for the most part, some CRT TVs you can modify the chip providing the on screen display for channel info and feed it RGB directly), that's why we need some hardware acting as the go-between. 

This is how we'll connect an RGB source to the scaler. The sync stripper is necessary as the board expects h-sync and v-sync to upscale the source signal. It's a very simple process for what you're getting in the end.

The other thing you'll want (this is really more of a preference type of item) is a scanline generator. This may seem unnecessary or even that it would degrade the image to some, and I don't think that's an incorrect stance to take. Why are scanlines desirable, though?

Well, CRT TVs displayed 480i images. If you're not up on your video standards, an i after the vertical resolution means the image is interlaced, and p means progressive. An interlaced image is essentially two signals which is stitched together to make one image. There's a signal of even lines and a signal of odd lines, which is combined to make one image. Older consoles actually didn't output interlaced signals. They output at 240p, which you can think of as half of a 480i image (so, either the odd or even signal). Since the TV was, in a sense, getting half of an image the lines which weren't present were simply blanked.

Since the scanlines are really being added as an aide to simulate the feel of how we would have seen the game, well, that's why I call it a personal preference item. 

Basically every major system can output RGB over SCART - the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis (and its add on tumors, the 32x and the Sega CD), PlayStation, Saturn, even up to the PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast (though the PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast are better served with component and VGA respectively). The NES has an add-on board which you can purchase to output RGB and the Nintendo 64 can as well (some models with a simple signal amplifier, others with a rather expensive add on board which must be soldered very carefully). So, if you're tired of composite on an HDTV and you want some better video, a modified GBS-8220 seems to be your solution. I haven't yet received mine, but I will make a follow up post when I do.

I'll also note that I've left out some other "easier" options. In particular, there is a straight SCART to HDMI converter that's available on eBay for about $30. This is a very easy and cheap solution, though it's prone to a somewhat smeared look and shimmering around objects.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Ultimate Xbox 360

I had written before about how I wasn't too much of a fan of the newer model 360s. I had made peace with the E model. Everything was going well. Until I found a Jasper Xbox 360 at Goodwill for $15. The belt had slipped out of the DVD drive so it wasn't opening. Easily fixed with an orthodontic rubber band. But the phat 360 is... missing some things that later models had. Namely, wireless internet and a Kinect port. We can fix that. I decided to install a wireless adapter and Kinect port internally. This is sort of useless to install internally since you're knocking out 2 of the 3 available USB ports. We can fix that, too.

Remember the memory cards for the Xbox 360 that no one bought?

Those memory cards are actually just simple USB flash drives with a stupid end connector to throw everyone off the trail. Meaning we can convert those ports to connect USB devices. The only difference with the ports is that they supply 3.3v instead of the typical 5v that USB devices expect, but there's other places to source 5v. So, the goal became to add the Kinect port and the wifi adapter without rendering any of the original USB ports unusable. I mean, there's other shit we've gotta plug in. Like the Xbox Live Vision camera and the HDDVD drive!


So, I grabbed a wireless N adapter, a Kinect extension cable (for a female Kinect port), two USB extension cables (for the female USB end) and a 500gb HDD to make it even sweeter.

This is the front of the 360 with the memory card slots already removed. I'm using the ground and data+ and data- lines from the memory card port and the red wire is going to my 5V source. I ended up wiring everything in this manner (just using the female USB end and plugging things into it) because I couldn't get anything to work when soldered directly to the ports. I'm assuming this is because the data lines in USB are susceptible to interference. The shielding in the cables seems to keep everything on the up and up.

Adding the Kinect port poses some interesting problems. The Kinect port is just a modified USB port with a 12v line added to it. It needs to use the rear USB port, the other ports are limited in speed since there are multiple USB devices running on the bus they're connected to. The Kinect needs the full bandwidth available. The Kinect port also needs a 12v power source, which is why using the Kinect with an original 360 needs you to use an AC adapter.

The thing with adding the Kinect port is that you need to have a later model 360 (Falcon or Jasper, Xenons are out) that draw less amperage than the original Xenon. You would also need to pair it with a power supply for one of the models that has a higher draw (I'm using the PSU from my Xenon with my Jasper). The Kinect draws about 1.5 amps, so the disparity between the amperage the Jasper draws and the Xenon PSU supplies covers the difference and then some. The other thing I'm not sure about is... whether or not it actually works. I don't have a Kinect. I know I'll end up with one eventually, so I thought it would just be sort of a fun thing to do. Anyways, here's a bit about how I wired up the Kinect port.

This is the internals of the USB port and ethernet port towards the rear of the console. Since the USB port is on top, those silver traces run all the way down to the board. What I've done is cut the traces in half. This lets me solder the traces connected to the USB port to one of the memory card ports, meaning it can still be used as a USB port. The USB aspect of the Kinect port will be soldered to the traces still connected to the mother board. You'll notice that the farthest left trace is intact; it has no bearing on the USB connection. The relevant pins from right to left are 5V, data-, data+ and ground.

This shows how the wiring ended up. The gray wire coming off of the Kinect port is for the 12v, it's connected to one of the pins where the PSU plugs into the console. There's several 12v points on the 360 but it made sense to me that the best place to pull 1.5a at 12v would probably be the connector for the PSU. Drawing that much power somewhere else is likely to cause problems. Those traces are very malleable, and I'm pulling up on the cable to show the picture which is why they look all bent and wild.

I cut the case with some tin snips to let the port show through. This photo makes it look like the port is partially blocked, but it's mostly the angle and lighting. I'll have some more pics of that in a moment.

To fit the wireless adapter in the case, it needs to be removed from its housing. It's fairly easy to break open with a flat head screwdriver. The wireless N adapter has nice long cables for the antennae. The plastic bits can be broken with a pair of pliers and the internals removed as well. I'll be completely hiding the antennae.

I covered the adapter with electrical tape to prevent anything from shorting out against the housing. This is the area of the case where the DVD drive sits, that's the connector for the HDD right below the black mass that is the wifi adapter.

This shows where the antennae come through the case. They'll be hidden in the small compartment in front of where the HDD sits. This will prevent any interference that the aluminum housing would have caused.

I ended up cutting the bottom part of the fan shroud with a dremel to hide away some of the wires so that the DVD drive sits flat. Speaking of the DVD drive...

I added some rubber bumpers to the DVD drive to prevent the infamous circular scratches from occurring. I've only had it happen once, and it was fixable (not very severe).. but I'd rather it didn't happen again.

This is the wifi adapter tucked away next to the DVD drive. The board is really small, it's not a tight fit at all.

This shows where the case was cut for the Kinect port to show through. I did this with a dremel as well. I'll probably end up sanding it a bit to clean up the edges.

This shows where the wifi antennae sit.

And finally...

Here's the Xbox, showing the rear USB port working and connected to Xbox Live with no ethernet cable. This is actually a better wifi setup than the 360s with the integrated wifi, as the wireless N adapter is capable of full 5ghz N band connectivity while the S and E models' integrated wifi is not.

My only concern with the Kinect port at this point is that I may have to reopen the Xbox and add shielding to the wires since the other ones were so sensitive to interference. I also learned that I need to clean my flux up better as I was having some conductivity between the data lines for the wifi adapter once the system was on and warmed up a bit.

Time to game like it's 2005.

Since writing this, I managed to grab a Kinect from Goodwill for $5. The Kinect port works fantastic, and I haven't had any issues with it when playing a Kinect game or just leaving it active while playing other games.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Process of Ripping a Dreamcast Game

A while ago, I blogged a little intro to ripping Dreamcast games (I will continue that). I wanted to go over what my personal process looks like, and what work is involved. Lately I've been working on ripping Sonic Adventure 2, a beast of a game. There's a lot of data, and fitting it to a 700mb CD-R is a challenge. So I'm going to go over what it all looks like, from start to finish.

1. Picking a Game
This may seem easy, just a matter of "what would I like to play?" but that's not always the case. The Dreamcast was never around long enough for there to be an official scene ruleset developed for the system. Yes, piracy has rules and they are very strict. If you're in the scene, violating the rules can get your releases nuked and you can lose access to sources. Groups in the scene have to ratify rules. Sometimes groups will disagree with them to the point that they'll abstain from signing and participate as outsiders.

Well, the Dreamcast never got that. While most consoles have a near complete set of scene rips, the Dreamcast didn't get that. Echelon was the most active group back in the day, ending up with about 250 releases or so. There were other groups, but even with all of them they didn't cover all of the Dreamcast games.

I have the means to dump GD-ROMs myself, but it's largely irrelevant honestly. TOSEC's GDI set is verified, and if I did dump my own GD-ROM, I'd check it against TOSEC's hashes to verify that my dump was good anyways. So I've got a 500gb TOSEC set to pull GD-ROM dumps from.

So, why is picking a game difficult? Personally, I've got a lot of criteria that I go by. Can I improve on existing rips? Is there anything wrong with existing rips? Do I like this game? Does anyone want this game? How difficult is this game to work with? Sometimes I take all of those into account. Sometimes I take none of them into account and it's just a matter of getting a game done. Sonic Adventure 2 is a game that I really love, but I just never looked into it myself. I had gotten requests for it before, but I decided I'd actually take a look into it this time. I was unsure if I was going to, but then...

I was looking through the game's files and heard that. Suddenly it was 2002 (when I played the game) again and this song was awesome. So, that settled it. Sonic Adventure 2 it is.

2. Research
Most Dreamcast games don't require much work. Games didn't have any kind of copy protection aside from the Dreamcast verifying it was loading a GD-ROM until about July of 2000. A lot of games still didn't after that point, but you can bet that Sonic Adventure 2 (from June of 2001) has protections that must be cracked to boot from a CD-R.

So, how do I research that?

First, I go all the way back to the Echelon days and pull their NFO files. Echelon's NFOs don't usually provide any specifics on cracking, but they do give an idea of what you could potentially be dealing with. Next, check for patches. Since Echelon functioned as a scene group, they were basically racing other ripping groups to get theirs out first. This lead to mistakes, and they put out patches to fix them. Then I'll take a look at NFO files from contemporary rips. Once I feel that I've gathered enough info, I'll start looking through the game's files and getting an idea of what needs to go. NFO files assist with this as well because they give you a frame of reference. What did earlier groups have to remove to get everything down to size and how can modern ripping techniques negate the need to remove some of these files?

Now we have our starting point. From looking over everything we can learn that..
1. Sonic Adventure 2 is heavily protected
2. Due to the size of the game, the audio was always made mono instead of stereo
3. Videos had to be heavily downsampled
4. The Chao Garden is broken in basically all rips since they're based on Echelon's hack

From that, I'll make my goals...
1. Maintain stereo audio
2. Fix the Chao Garden
3. Add the DLC to the on-disc web browser so that it can still be accessed

Now, there are ways around the sizes of games. One common way to do it is a split release. A split release will break a game up into multiple discs with the NFO telling you when to switch to a different disc to continue with the game. My personal philosophy with ripping is to maintain the best possible quality for an 80 minute CD-R while maintaining the original number of discs. There are 99 minute discs, but frankly they're not easy for most people to get and burners that can handle them well are uncommon. The Dreamcast is common in less fortunate countries than MURRKA, and it's not fair for them to be left out of the fun. Aside from that, it's fun to set the bar high to really push yourself.

3. Ripping the Game
Now we're into the meat of the process. The actual work. For this process, I work in a few steps. First I'll take a look at file sizes and see where my largest problems are. At this point I'll usually hash all of the files and check for any duplicates. Once I know what I'm looking at in terms of data, I'll start moving files around between the two data sessions (assuming there's no CDDA) so I can start getting an idea of what I need to do to fit all of the files into the second data session, which is where the majority of the data is. Once I've got a rough idea, I'll start downsampling and squeezing everything in place. Finally, the game will be cracked and tested.

For Sonic Adventure 2, I started with the video. In the research phase, I learned that Sonic Adventure 2's video is unique. The Dreamcast's most common video format is MPEG-1 video multiplexed with ADX audio in a container called SFD. It's very similar to a basic MPEG container. Sonic Adventure 2's SFD container is actually very similar to a modern MKV or M4V container in that it contains multiple audio streams, a Japanese language stream and an English language stream. I had all of the correct tools to deal with this situation, but I immediately ran into a road bump. My typical process for demultiplexing the video was only giving me the first audio stream, the Japanese audio. This is where being flexible is handy.

After some research, I found a program called VGM Tool Box which has demultiplexers for a lot of different video formats common to games. This let me dump out both audio streams. I mentioned previously that this game has a huge amount of data, so first I had to deal with deleting the Japanese audio stream as much as I could. If it isn't present in some way, the Dreamcast won't play the English track because it would be multiplexed as the first track, which the Japanese track is. This was simple, just a matter of opening the audio track in a hex editor and deleting all of the data beyond the header. Now for the video itself. There are two different ways to handle MPEG-1 video with modern ripping. Back in the day, variable bit rate encoding wasn't really much of a thing. Everything was done with a constant bit rate, which meant that if you needed a max bitrate of 3000kbps to keep your video quality good, a black screen would still have that same bitrate. Variable lets the bitrate drop to near 0 if you have a black screen. This saves a lot of space.

Whenever I re-encode Dreamcast video, I always use a variable bitrate. The real question is a matter of encoder. If there's space to work with, I'll use a typical MPEG-1 encoder. If space is a pressing issue, then the big guns come out and I'll use a KVCD encoder for MPEG-1. KVCD is a very optimized encoding matrix that allows you to REALLY abuse the bitrate before there's much visible degradation of picture quality.

Obviously, we'll go with KVCD here. Initially, I encoded all of the video with 1200kbps KVCD and remuxed the files into SFDs with the ADX header file in place for the Japanese tracks so the English track would be positioned correctly.

With video out of the way (for now), it's time to turn to the audio. The research phase can be treacherous at times, and for Sonic Adventure 2 this was a good example. One NFO lead me to believe that Sonic Adventure 2 used modified ADX headers which stored loop data at different bytes, rendering the typical encoders which respect loop points useless. Loop points allow ADX files to loop endlessly, so this is important for a game. I wasted a day inspecting the header data and trying to determine how it differed.

The truth was that it wasn't different at all. I figured this out by just saying "fuck it" and going for it. Typically, Dreamcast games ADX files have a sampler ate of 44khz. Even Sonic Team found that their game was pushing it on space and the ADX files for Sonic Adventure 2 are 32khz. Usually you'll knock 44khz audio to 32khz for some quick and dirty downsampling, but that's out the window here. The only game I've seen with a lower audio quality is Ecco The Dolphin: Defender of the Future. It was 24khz for that game, which was fine since the soundtrack was synthesizer heavy. Since I would have to be reducing an already lower sample rate, quality became a concern. I found that 24khz was too low and the bass became very distorted. I settled in at 26khz as this worked best for the game's rock soundtrack.

With a game with so much data, some sacrifices have to be made. Japanese audio already had to go for the videos, so the Japanese voice files are going to have to go as well. A cool 75mb saved. Most games have a ton of duplicate files, we can save space there as well. Using hardlinking, we can make it so that only one copy of a file goes on the disc, but pointers are present which will redirect the system to the single copy of the file. 5mb down.

At this point, I'll usually make ISOs for both of the data sessions and merge them to a CDI to see how close everything is to fitting a CD-R and make a plan for proceeding. And Sonic Adventure 2 is.... 70mb over. Jesus Christ.

4. Back to the Drawing Board
I've cut the video and audio to a size I thought would fit, and I'm still over. Now we've got to start getting clever. One of the things I do for a rip is create a folder called EXTRAS and place data in that folder which would be found on part of the GD-ROM that could be read by a computer. A lot of the time this is empty but a few developers included desktop wallpapers and artwork from the game. Sonic Adventure 2 included some rather large wallpapers. Those will go first, an extras folder is just fine packed in an archive alongside the game.

Next I'll retrace my steps. First, back to the video. I use bat files for most of my work as most Dreamcast utilities are exes which must be run from the command line. Automating that saves a lot of time. Since I need as much space as possible, I went over each video individually and took the bitrate as low as it could possibly be while maintaining a fair level of detail and minimizing macrobloacking. It's important with KVCD that you watch every video after it's encoded. There are some problems with the encoder and if the bitrate drops too low you'll get some nasty glitchy macroblocks that pop up. This saved about 15mb.

Back to the audio now...  I know that 24khz is too low. I'm already at 26khz. This leaves me...25khz. So, that'll be it then. 25khs sounds close enough to 26khz in terms of quality and the bass isn't distorted like at 24khz. Redoing all of the audio saves me 10mb.

Creating another CDI tells me that I still need to lose about 30mb. Unfortunately, we have to remove one of my goals from the list. That goal is adding DLC to the web browser. The web browser in Dreamcast games functions as sort of a standalone thing. It's not coded into the game's executable. Rather, the game boots into the browser separately. We're desperate for space, so it'll have to go. It doesn't change how the game itself plays, so it's expendable in this world. Losing the browser and the wallpapers saves about 15mb.

This is the point of true desperation since 15mb needs to go. In this situation, I usually finalize the ISO for the first data session. I'll hardlink the files, build the ISO and see how much space I have before I'm at my size limit for the 45000 boot LBA. I'll cram as many files as I can and then purely focus on the second data session.

There's nothing else I can adjust at this point and I need 15mb of data gone. This leads into another stage of research. For games like Sonic Adventure 2 fans on the internet have really picked the game apart. If there's unused files, they've found them and documented them on a website for curiosity's sake. I'll comb over these sites and locate the unused files and remove them. For Sonic Adventure 2 this barely saved me a mb. It ended up being two songs related to the Chao garden and some textures as well. I also ended up removing two audio files related to online connectivity for Chao functions since the servers are now offline.

And we still need 14mb. Time to expand our horizons with hardlinking. Going over the audio, I found that two versions of one song were on the disc. One had a two second intro which featured a bass riff and one did not. I linked these two files so that the only one on disc was the one with the bass riff. A negligible change. 3.5mb saved. Each character has a theme song in Sonic Adventure 2, a long version and a short version. The difference between these tracks was about 20 seconds. I removed the longer versions in favor of the shorter versions for a few of the characters. We're now in business and the game fits to a disc.

The tightest I had ever packed a game was Ecco the Dolphin. There was about 5mb of space on the disc which I ended up dummying out. Sonic Adventure 2 had 700kb.

5. Cracking the Game
Our game now fits to a disc... but does the Dreamcast play it?

For Sega's games, there wasn't a lot of variety in protections. I've got a list of common protection schemes and what bytes they show up as in hex. I'll search the game's binary and fix them with the known fix. Sonic Adventure 2 fell into this category, thankfully. Echelon had some problems with it, and their binary has been reused for contemporary rips. Their binary is coded for an 11700 boot LBA though, and I use 45000 which replicates the GD-ROM's boot LBA. Since we're mimicking that you typically have to fuss with games less.

Now that our game fits to a disc and it's cracked, I'll do an emulator test with nullDC before burning for a hardware test. The emulator test lets me know if anything is horribly wrong. The emulator test is not always right though, and due to the inaccuracies emulators can have the game won't always fail in the emulator where it would in real hardware.

The game boots, the music loops and it looks like everything is good. Thankfully, it behaves identically on the actual hardware.

6. Testing
Most games don't require much testing due to their simplicity. I don't really trust Sonic Adventure 2 for that, though. In this situation, I'll modify the game's boot information to display a test release notice and distribute it to a few interested parties online. The test release notice is there purely so no one redistributes it as their own work. It hasn't happened and the people who offer to help are honest, but just in case...

This game needs to be tested to the end. I understand that parts of the ending end up streaming audio and video at the same time, which is problematic for CD-Rs since they read at a slower speed than GD-ROMs. I'm working through the game myself, and I'll use tester feedback as well. At this point the game is finished, but my concern is tweaking the order that the files are in on the disc. If issues crop up with streaming speed, I'll have to modify the way the files are sorted in order to improve the performance.

7. Release
Sonic Adventure 2 isn't yet at this point, but it's close. This is a simple matter of archiving the game and getting it out to my preferred sites.

The process is complete. We've met two of our goals:

1. The game has stereo audio
2. The Chao Garden works

Sometimes, all of the goals can't be met. Two out of three is pretty damn good though.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Why You Shouldn't Back Shenmue III's Kickstarter

Put the pitchforks and torches down, you unruly assholes.

I love Shenmue. I've played the first one several times. I think it's one of the finest games ever made. It's elegant in its simplicity and beautiful in the way it gives you an illusion of a living world. I didn't enjoy Shenmue II to the same extent, but I still want to know where things go from here.

Why? Why would I say "don't back Shenmue III" then?

Well, why should you? Sony apparently wants this game on their platform. They know that Shenmue fans are ravenous. They know that people will want to get in on this game just from all of the hype and desire over the years. They know people want it so much that they put aside time for it in their press conference and brought Yu Suzuki on stage.

There's a big fucking problem here. Sony stands to make money off of Shenmue III's existence, especially if it's only on PS4 and PC. They'll get a cut of every copy sold on the PSN store, and they know that a lot of people who were undecided will likely be swayed to a PS4. Sony will probably make more than $2 million in this exchange of money. So... why couldn't they just toss Yu Suzuki $2 million?

Well, why would they?

This is an experiment, and it's a dirty one. It's also already working, Shenmue III is almost at 1 million dollars as of 8:30 PM PST. Sony just pimped a game that it won't have any financial investment in on their grandest stage and they're going to get money off of it. Of course there were other games that they didn't have any financial involvement in... but every game there had some kind of funding for it. This? This is just free money and good PR for Sony.

Since you're blinded by the hype, let's look at some business basics. In the business world when you invest in something, you expect a return on investment. So if I give someone $1 million to sell a new product, I'd like to get money back on that. That's why I'm investing. I'm not just giving $1 million away for fun. As a Kickstarter backer, you get nothing back other than whatever tier you went into.

Sony just created a tidal wave of hype. Shenmue III will be forever associated with PS4, and they did it with nothing other than 2 minutes of time. Watching that dollar amount tick up on Kickstarter is proof that game companies can continue to do whatever they please.

Their deadliest weapon is hype and their easiest target is you, eager eyed gamer. Your wallets couldn't come out fast enough. No thought was put into the implications of this Kickstarter. Gamers have no impulse control, we're conditioned on the instant gratification that so many games provide us.

"I can 'donate' some money here and get Shenmue III? COUNT ME IN!"

Don't fund Shenmue III. Hold on to some bit of dignity and self respect as a gamer. Sony has clearly been in the loop on Shenmue III, but apparently $2 million was too much. This is a transparent ploy to see if Kickstarter can generate enough funds to build a large and impressive game. This is a test to see if Sony can successfully associate a game with the PS4 as an exclusive and not pay a dime. Instead, you pay for it.

Don't let this future exist.

E3 2015 Day 1 Wrap Up

It's that magical time of year where studio executives get to waltz onstage and try to act cool. Sony just closed out their press conference, which means we're basically done for the day. And... what a non-event it was. We'll just skip past Bethesda's "Fallout 4 is better than you guys initially thought, honest!" conference last night.

It seems like the theme of the day was who exactly could be more boring.

Microsoft trotted out the same E3 staples they've had for the past 8 years. Halo, Forza, Fable, Gears of War. Who cares? It's so fucking predictable at this point in time. It's like clockwork. All of those games are usually great when they come out, but can we get a bit of variety? They've found a winning formula, but we need more here.

After a lot of discussion about Rare finally doing something great, that something great appears to be a collection of 30 Rare games for $30. Sea of Thieves got a trailer, and nothing more. Sony manages to appear to have disappeared up their own asshole any time they bring a developer on stage to discuss a game (the hyperbole would make you think they've cured AIDs), but at least they talk about the game. About all we know about Sea of Thieves is that it is a game. That goes right along with the Keiji Inafune game, ReCore. We got a trailer with no context and no discussion.

Some indie stuff, some shoot shoot shoot military HU AH bullshit and some Minecraft.

Oh, and HoloLens. Why is anyone getting excited about that? It's another high concept Microsoft product that will never materialize. There's been a lot of those throughout time. And... Xbox 360 backwards compatibility. Okay, guess you're realizing you don't have much of an Xbox One library to go off of here.

Microsoft also thinks you're stupid enough to pay $150 for a fucking controller.

Ubisoft and EA apparently had press conferences as well, but I'm not sure when I ever gave a fuck about Assassin's Creed and I'm guessing that EA is making Madden 16. I'm not sure though. Is there going to be another football season after that tragic Seahawks interception or was that the end of football?

On to Sony.

While you could accuse Microsoft of lacking passion, Sony seems to have taken cues from every prior Microsoft press conference and managed to be utterly boring. There wasn't any sense of triumph like when the PS4 was announced. There wasn't any sense of things to come like last E3. It was just sort of Sony existing at a press conference.

The Last Guardian! It's back again to prove that it exists. All of the people who work up a half boner when discussing ICO or Shadow of the Colossus are pleased.

Some kind of weird Monster Hunter looking game from Guerrilla Games, Horizon: Zero Dawn. This has kind of a cool art style. It looks like it controls like The Last of Us though, which could suck. E3 2015 is apparently the year of the post apocalyptic game.

Street Fighter V... I've got a lot of thoughts on that. We'll just say that it exists here. No Man's Sky had an incredibly boring showing. The game looked slow and uninteresting. An amazing concept, but we'll see if it works. It'll probably turn out like StarFlight. An amazing concept, but not quite an amazing game. Very good, though.

Media Molecule were so far up their own assholes that they almost sucked me in as well.

World of Final Fantasy actually looked interesting. And it's getting a Vita version. I'll take one, please. Final Fantasy VII remake... why? Why does everything have to be remade? Play the original, enjoy it. If it has problems that you think are so bad they need to be rectified by a remake, then maybe that original game isn't so good. Or if you're so much of a graphics whore that you need it to be remade in HD, maybe you're playing games for the wrong reasons.

The absolute worst part of the night? Sony announcing Shenmue III's Kickstarter. What the fuck? So, Shenmue III is a property that you'd like to have on PS4 to the point that you will help promote a fundraiser for the game? Jesus, you can sneeze and a stray bit of spit will hit a stack of bills amounting to $2 million at Sony HQ. Fuck this Kickstarter. I love Shenmue, but I will be damned if I put my money towards something that was just promoted on a stage like that, but Sony can't spare the $2 mil.

Some VR bullshit, some Disney Infinity bullshit, some other bullshit. What a bunch of bullshit.

Oh, and Uncharted 4. Yay? We.. want more of that? Okay.

What a dismal opening day. I may not even write about any other things because everything was so boring that this was boring.

The race to see if the Xbox One or PS4 will become an interesting console first continues.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Essentials (PlayStation Portable) Review

Splinter Cell used to be Ubisoft's "it" franchise, much like Assassin's Creed is now. We got an entry pretty much every year, up until the meandering (and frequently delayed) Double Agent. Splinter Cell's plot wasn't complex but people were generally invested in Sam Fisher as a character. Double Agent looked to push Sam to the brink, and it was exciting. We knew that Double Agent would have branching paths, choices to make, so on and so forth. The final choice would involve the death of a character crucial to the franchise. He either dies by Sam's hand, or Sam saves him.

Everyone knew that there had to be a canonical ending, and Splinter Cell: Essentials was set to confirm which ending it was. There's a couple of problems with that. Essentials came out months before Double Agent and it only came out on the PSP. So, anyone with an eye on the franchise already knew what happened. That's... problematic. I was aware of what happened in Essentials because I knew I didn't have a PSP to play it, so I looked up what happened. I'm sure a lot of people did for this same reason. How was I supposed to know that Essentials would give Double Agent a canonical ending months before I (or anyone else) had the chance to play it? This sort of nullified some of the thrill of Double Agent, and I went with the canonical ending. It didn't feel like there was a purpose in any other choice.

So, Essentials spoiled everything for most of the diehard fans. For some reason everyone was waiting for Splinter Cell: Conviction to confirm the ending, when Essentials actually gave it to us before Double Agent came out. You would think that this meant Essentials was a sad excuse of a game that was best forgotten. Reviews from the time were pretty harsh, but I'm not sure it was entirely warranted.

Splinter Cell: Essentials plays out, for the most part, as a flashback. Sam Fisher is interrogated and recounts certain missions, leading up to that crucial point in Double Agent. This is not unlike the plot framing device of Conviction, with Douglas Shetland recounting events. Most of the levels are taken from the three preceding games, with a few original levels thrown in for good measure. The levels actually translate to the PSP's hardware very well. Graphics are grainy, but the remade levels are brought over with few compromises. There are more loading points and, seeing as this is the PSP, the loads are long.

The PSP translation actually seems to have been very well thought out by the developers. The controls are hampered by a lack of a second analog stick. An attempt was made to rectify this by having the circle button activate a free camera mode or recenter the camera with two taps. It's not completely successful, but it works. The best thing that the developers did to smooth the changeover was to dumb down the AI. The AI is now painfully dumb, but it gives you that extra second to orient yourself and react. If nothing had been done in this regard, the game would be impossibly frustrating. Interactivity with the environment has been toned down a bit, there are fewer lights that you can successfully shoot out but levels seem to be darker than the console counterparts, giving you more areas to hide. Otherwise, all of the features are present.

The levels are about a 50-50 mix of old and new. No levels from Pandora Tomorrow feature in the campaign (which is a shame, I personally think Pandora Tomorrow is a great game), but there are three levels from Pandora Tomorrow included as a bonus feature. It seems like these were possibly cut as a result of rushed development. The plot is... jumpy, to say the least. I was never fully on board with exactly why it was crucial to revisit these points. In particular, the GFO Oil Rig from the original game has never been a level that I particularly enjoyed. The way the game is patched together with new and old makes me wonder if it wasn't planned to be a wholly original title that was abandoned at some point. Including bonus levels from Pandora Tomorrow makes it seem like the developers were just kind of toying around with the PSP at some point to see what they could throw at it.

The real knock against Essentials is exactly that; I'm not sure what the point is. It's really an oddity in the franchise. It spoiled a main game, ported older levels and just sort of seemed superfluous. Is it as bad as the reviews suggested? No, I don't think so. The new levels actually work well and fit with the design of the original levels. They completely hold their own. If I didn't know that the new levels weren't from a main game, I wouldn't know. That said, it's a problem that I even have to compare the new content to old content in the same game. 

This is a short review because there's not much to say for Essentials. It's a rehash of earlier content with a dash of new thrown in and it plays the same way. If you've played Splinter Cell or Chaos Theory, you've already played half of the game. Is Essentials worth it? Not particularly, no. With Conviction reconfirming this game's confirmation of Double Agent's true ending (and replicating and improving upon its storytelling style), Essentials is anything but. It's not a bad game but it's skippable, even for the most die hard fan.

The Score: 7.5/10

Friday, March 27, 2015

Knuckles' Chaotix (Sega 32X) Review

The Sonic franchise, like Sega itself, has seen better days. The Sega Genesis outings were truly sublime, and I believe that Sonic 3 & Knuckles (the combined Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles) is truly the best platforming game of all time. I don't think it gets the love it deserves due to the way it was released. Sonic 3 & Knuckles was always intended to be one game, but due to the size of the game it was too expansive to put on one cartridge in a cost effective way. It was split into Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles to keep costs down for everyone.

Those games were the last real Sonic games for most people. Sonic 3D Blast came out later, but it was clear that it was never really intended to be a true successor. Sonic Xtreme, the planned Sega Saturn outing, never came to be and we were left without a true Sonic game until Sonic Adventure. There was another game, though... on the immediately deserted Sega 32X. I remember this game coming out, and the Archie Sonic comic series had a special tie-in issue for the game (most of the games had some sort of tie-in issue).

Sonic is NOT in the game, though.

This was a treasured issue of mine, just because that red "Super" Metal Sonic is so fucking badass. The Archie Sonic series was actually pretty well done from what I remember, and the important bit is that Sonic's friends didn't suck in this series. That's another story for another time though.

My parents were (shockingly) aware that I couldn't get Knuckles' Chaotix though, as I didn't have the needed 32X mushroom. Now that I do, this was the game I was looking forward to the most by far. Knuckles' Chaotix has been something of a lost game in the Sonic canon. In all of the many emulated collections (Sonic Mega Collection, Sonic's Classic Genesis Collection, XBLA ports, so on and so forth), Knuckles' Chaotix has never been re-released in any form. There's a few rumors about the game, one of them being that Sega asked that Sonic be removed from the game because they had concerns about the format of the game. It surely seems possible as there is an early prototype of the game that can be found online that runs on Sega Genesis known as Sonic Crackers.

Instead of Sonic and Tails, we get Knuckles and his group of friends, the Chaotix. Mighty the Armadillo (who had actually appeared earlier in SegaSonic the Hedgehog, an arcade game), Charmy Bee, Vector the Crocodile and Espio the Chameleon. Utterly forgettable, and they wouldn't appear again until Sonic Heroes (which was also utterly forgettable). It manages to add to the Sonic-Knuckles rivalry that used to be a thing though, making it seem like Knuckles' has his group just as Sonic has his own.

Knuckles' Chaotix differs from traditional Sonic games in the fact that you use two characters. The characters are bound together by a chain of rings which essentially functions as a rubber band. One of the key gameplay elements is to use the hold button, which makes the non-player character stand in place while the other character runs until the chain is stretched, and then shoots forward.

This is admittedly awkward at first, but it adds a great sense of speed to the game and it becomes second nature once you understand the limitations of the mechanic and when the best times to use it are. The game makes a pretty admirable attempt at the physics of this idea, but sometimes it's just outright glitchy. It's not unusual or uncommon for the characters to just kind of spaz out and sling around all over the place when you're bouncing off a spring or moving between two different heights. This isn't surprising considering the age of the game, but it is disappointing that it happens since this is the key idea of the game. You can also pick the second character up and throw them to higher platforms or to hit switches, though this isn't used much. The rest of the game is essentially identical to other Sonic games in terms of mechanics.

Unfortunately, the level design is a bit scattershot. Most of the team that worked on Sonic CD worked on Knuckles' Chaotix and the level design shows. Where the numbered Sonic entries have multiple clear paths through the levels, Sonic CD and Chaotix just kind of have paths all over the place with no real single route. It is more bearable here than it was in Sonic CD since you won't be traveling back and forth in time, but the confusion takes away from the game. This group of developers did seem to be capable of relatively straightforward level design; the Speed Slider levels are fantastic and wouldn't feel out of place in a main series game. Would you like to replay those levels...?

Good luck. Knuckles' Chaotix decided everything needed to be random. The only real choice you have is which character you're controlling when the game starts. From there? Random. The character following you is picked from a claw machine which scrolls back and forth of its own accord.

There are two useless characters in this situation (the robots), and if you end up with one, you're stuck with them. You re-pick every time you reload the game. In addition to the claw moving back and forth, characters drop off the bottom of the screen and pop back up. Your best strategy here is to just immediately hit A to get the character directly under the claw. If you're playing as Knuckles, it's always Vector. As long as you end up with a character that isn't one of the useless ones, you're good. Levels are also selected in a random order. A cursor moves over all of the levels until you stop it, then it moves a few more times and lands on a level. Chaotix's levels are broken into acts just like other Sonic games, but there are 5 acts for each level. Once you complete an act, you go back out into the hub area and pick another random level. Once you've completed all five acts, that level is taken out of the selections and it can't be picked again.

The really strange part is that you can never freely pick levels. One of Sonic 3's best features was the ability to go back and pick levels freely once you finished the game. You could also collect any missing Chaos Emeralds and replay the last level to get to the better ending. Once you've beaten Knuckles' Chaotix it just replays the final boss fight. You have to start a new game and play levels randomly to revisit anything. It's really weird to play the acts in a random order and you never really get into a groove with any of the levels. Where the acts in previous games introduced a mechanic and then ramped up the difficulty, the acts here are just... randomly strewn about.

Anyways, this game is a 32X exclusive. Does it benefit from it? Not really. The graphics aren't anything that couldn't be done on the Genesis. The color count is obviously much better and there's no dithering in sight. It actually kind of makes me wish that Ristar would've been a 32X game. Both games have very similar styles, and it would be nice to see Ristar without all of the dithering. There are some 3D effects in the game, some levels have platforms that are 3D and can be seen from slightly different perspectives. The bonus stages are also fully 3D and play out like a more advanced version of the bonus stages in Sonic 2. The game also relies heavily on sprite scaling effects, which wasn't possible on the standard Genesis hardware (scaling was also possible on the Sega CD). There are some very nice parallax effects as well but it's nothing that would've been missed had this just been a Genesis game.

As it stands, Knuckles' Chaotix will likely forever remain a curiosity in Sonic, and even Sega, canon. This is not a bad game by any means. It's much more deserving of a spot in compilation releases than Sonic 3D Blast, but it looks like it will never get any kind of rerelease treatment. If you're looking for some classic Sonic, this will scratch the itch. You'll need a 32X or an emulator, though.

The Score: 8/10