Friday, April 18, 2014

On Gyromite, Castlevania III and Horrible Game Store Employees

I had some birthday money to spend so, I decided to go hunting today. I picked up Zoda's Revenge: StarTropics II (NES), OutRun 2 (Xbox), Onimusha 2: Samurai's Destiny (PS2), Ninja Gaiden (NES), Castlevania: The Adventure (Game Boy) and the real winner...Gyromite.

Looks like something I need an expensive, useless robot to play.

Who the fuck would get excited about Gyromite? Well, I'm not playing that shit. Story time, ignoramuses. The Japanese counterpart of the NES is the Famicom, and the Famicom was out in Japan in 1983, a full two years before the release of the NES in the US. The Famicom uses smaller cartridges with 60 pins on the bottom. The NES uses those giant plastic monstrosities with 72 pins on the bottom.

Well, Nintendo of America didn't entirely have their shit together when they started making the NES. There were problems making the cartridges, so instead they decided to use the processes already existing for the Famicom. The only issue was that they went for a different cart connector. The solution? An adapter that a Famicom board plugs into to work with the NES, which is tucked inside of an NES cartridge. If you're putting two and two together, then you know where I'm going with this. You can pull the adapter from cartridges that used the 60/72 pin adapter to play Famicom games on an NES.

I lucked out and found a copy for $3 at a game store which I have a lot of problems with.

Even the cover art looks boring.

So...what the fuck is that next to the title of the game on the sticker? A little (C)? Okay...

OutRun 2 doesn't have that...

Castlevania: The Adventure doesn't have that...

No other game I've bought there ever had anything like that.

Well, this store fucking checks its Gyromite cartridges and charges more if it's a version with the adapter. So, I guess that (C) indicates that it didn't have an adapter. The (C) even shows on the receipt. Someone fucked up, and I couldn't be more pleased. Sure enough, in the case where they kept the rare NES games, there was a copy of Gyromite tucked away. It looked like it was in worse condition, and there were about five copies sitting with the junk games for $3. Now, I understand that they're running a business and need to sell things of value for the appropriate price. On the other hand, I went to college for marketing and my instincts say fuck that. 

If you're running a used game store, then you need to have some kind of hook to get people there. Competitive prices, something. If you're going to generally match eBay prices and nickel and dime people every step of the way, then there's literally no point to your store. Like I said, I get that Gyromite carts with the adapter have extra value. On the other hand, it's such a limited appeal that the copy tucked away in the case for god knows how much money is probably not going to sell for a long time. Isn't it just better business to toss it out there with the rest of them and let someone find it who knows what it is and will appreciate it? Isn't it better word of mouth?

Someone saying "hey, I found a copy of Gyromite for $3 at this store and it had the adapter!" is better than "man, this store has a copy of Gyromite with the adapter but it's behind a glass case for $50." One of those sentences gives someone an incentive to go to the store and look. The other tells them that if there's something they want, they're probably paying a premium for it. Most people who are serious "retro" collectors are bargain hunters. They have specific wants, and if you're competing with them, then you're only going to snare the occasional guy who played Zelda on NES 25 years ago and is willing to pay $60 for an NES and $35 for a copy of Zelda to relive those glory days for about a week and then get bored.

Besides that, I'm pretty sure someone who is actively looking for Gyromite with an adapter is doing so to avoid paying a high price bceause it has one.

My other problem with this store is simply the people working there.


I'm not sure if this is a sexist feeling or not, but I really feel awful for girls who are into video games. The borderline harassment behavior from everyone with a penis in their presence is embarrassing. Seriously, you all seem to work at this store (maybe? maybe you all just don't have anything better to do? I honestly can't tell at stores like this) and you're tickling this girl behind the counter and focusing all of your attention on her? I don't know, maybe that's all the business professional shit burned into my brain with two years of high school business clubs and about 4 and a half years of business classes in high school, but you just don't fucking do that shit. Not just at work either, you just shouldn't do that shit in general. It's fucking creepy, and besides that, you should sort of be attentive to your job. Not to mention you probably wouldn't need to be creepy around girls and tickle them if you'd stop doing that so one would actually give you genuine attention. That and there wouldn't be an awkward waistband bonertuck at work.

Back to Gyromite, though. It's actually really easy to identify what cartridges have the adapter. How some rocket scientist at that store fucked up, I don't know. Maybe that girl was wearing a low cut top that day and they were frequently adjusting their boner. Before I get to talking about my plans for this adapter, let's take a look at the cartridge itself.

Original NES cartridges are held together by five simple flathead screws. Apparently this was changed because people would rent games, open up the cartridge and switch the PCBs. I'm not entirely sure just how true this is, but it's the most common story. Newer NES cartridges are held together by three screws, which are the dreaded gamebit.

To open these fuckers, you need a special tool. They're pretty easy to get a hold of, really. Back when the NES was popular though, I'd imagine people were truly stumped. One other change to the cartridge is that the three screw cartridges have tabs on top to help keep the cart closed.

Gyromite: Old. Ninja Gaiden: New.

So, the original NES carts are probably the only cartridge that you'll ever come across that's easy to disassemble.

This cartridge actually has more shit in it than your typical NES cartridge due to the adapter adding size to the PCB. The majority of the NES cart is typically empty. Environmentalist types would go absolutely apeshit about this if Nintendo tried to pull this off today. The PCB above the black part in the middle is the actual Gyromite game. Everything below that is just the adapter.

And here's everything all taken apart. The Famicom board near the NES cart demonstrates just how great the size difference is between NES carts and Famicom carts. Granted, the plastic for the actual Famicom cart would add some size to it, but clearly not that much.

Shit is basically Sonic & Knuckles for NES.

So, what's the plan for this? Why did I want it, and why is it my favorite find of the day? Well, about 2 years ago I first played the Famicom version of Castlevania III on an emulator. It came out in the US, right? Big fucking deal. Well, the Famicom version of the game has an additional audio chip called the VRC6. Not only could Nintendo of America not manufacture cartridges right at first, but they didn't allow companies to use their own add-on chips in NES carts. Since the VRC6 was designed by Konami, that shit didn't fly in the US, and Castlevania III was gimped for it. So, I got an idea about how to take care of that.

The Famicom version of Castlevania III has incredible music. While it's well represented in the NES version, it's a massive step down.

That's not the video I wanted to use, but it does a good job since it alternates between the two tracks. The intro to the game is the most striking part. Anyhow, I just absolutely fell in love with that music. I've entertained the idea of just settling with the NES version several times, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. My plan is to buy the Japanese version of Castelvania III and then have a friend burn some EEPROMs for me with the translated version of the game. Basically, I would use the burned EEPROM chips in combination with the Japanese board to be able to have the original sound experience, while having the game in English.

It'll be time consuming, and it will likely be expensive, but it'll be worth it to me. To do this, I'll also need to modify the 60-72 pin adapter and the NES itself. Nintendo changed the hardware of the NES for the US, and the expansion audio pins are actually on the bottom of the console, on the additional connector. Besides that, I'm not too pleased with the translation of Akumajou Densetsu that's out there right now. So, that means I'll have to fire up a hex editor and do some ROM hacking to get it to my liking. It's a big project, but my favorite projects while I was doing ReviveDC were the games that were heavily modded. While changing aspects of a disc based game is easy, working with a cartridge is a bit different. There's less room for error, and it's more of a commitment.

Besides the enhanced audio, other aspects of the game were changed for the US. The game was actually made harder for the US, which is the opposite of what happens for most games. This game definitely did not need to be harder. Besides the typical censorship that happened in most NES games, some enemy sprites were just outright replaced or changed for seemingly no reason. In other words, there's a few more reasons besides sound to do this mod.

This isn't an entirely original idea. There are a few different ways people have done this before (one involves making an audio output for the actual Castlevania III cartridge, not convenient enough for me), but since I'll likely be making changes to the ROM on my own, it'll be a bit more involved.

I'm not entirely sure when I'll get the ball rolling on this, but when I do there will be plenty of updates.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (Xbox 360) Review

Holy fucking shit. If the wait for Ground Zeroes was bad, then the wait for The Phantom Pain will be unbearable. Ground Zeroes is like Peace Walker and Splinter Cell: Conviction fucked and their baby was early 2000s Lindsay Lohan. That $30 (disc) or $20 (digital) price tag? Pay it. The main mission is short (I finished it in about an hour), but this game is an experience, and I can already tell I'll be going back to it repeatedly. There are additional missions and collectibles, and I'm looking forward to those, but the main mission alone is worth it. My completion percentage after the main mission is 10%, so if it holds steady then there's about 9 more hours of game here. 10 hours of game is about twice as long as most games anymore anyways.

Japanese box art because Kaz is awesome.

Where past MGS games were about war, MGSV is the war. The awkward animations for Snake are gone, the controls are no longer an obtuse clusterfuck, and the stealth aspect finally feels like stealth. The early MGS games were pretty light on being stealth; if you were behind a box (or under one), you were hidden. MGSV takes a more Splinter Cell approach to stealth where you have to actually make sure you're hidden. Light and dark play more of a part with searchlights trying to pick you out, and enemies who take out flashlights if they spot something.

And lens flare. Who the fuck directed this, JJ Abrams?

There are two additions to the game that really change up the pace of the gameplay and make it more interesting. The first addition is a full-on sprint, which is something that most stealth games had overlooked. You'll quickly learn to love the sprint and wonder why it wasn't an integral aspect of stealth games before. It only makes sense to have a sprint since your window of opportunity for making a stealthy move may be small. The other move is a dive to the ground, which can be used in tandem with the sprint to quickly hide in the event that you're about to be spotted. These two additional moves give you a way better feeling of control over Snake.

The control over your movement and the improved stealth aspects actually makes stealth incredibly rewarding. As much as I enjoy stealth games, it's not unusual for me to get impatient and take risks. MGSV's design compels you to do better. There's clearly a couple solutions to everything, and it can take a few tries to figure out the best one. This is another reason that I'll be going back to the game, just to see how different play-throughs pan out. One part I'm particularly interested in comes after accomplishing one of your objectives in the main mission. I saw a truck and climbed into the back of it. I was able to ride the truck to my next objective, and avoid a ton of enemies in the process. What if I hadn't gotten to the truck in time to ride in it? What if I had gone after the other objective first? If I did something different, would the alarms still have gone off, or was it scripted? It's things like this that makes me want to go back to the game.

The graphics are beautiful

The game's graphics are also a thing of beauty. The water effects don't look overdone, the graphics are realistic while managing to be stylized, and the lighting is incredible. The voice work goes right along with the graphics, with Kiefer Sutherland providing a much more believable Snake. David Hayter putting on his best gruff voice for the past 14 or so years was getting a little bit silly. Ground Zeroes doesn't have a huge amount of story for Sutherland to really bring a lot to the role, but when Snake does speak, it just feels right. He sounds more like a real human than a caricature of a video game tough guy. The story that is in Ground Zeroes is brutal, which adds to my feeling that Ground Zeroes is the war, where the other MGS games were only about it. The worst parts aren't immediately obvious; you have to come across them, but the traumas are clearly there once you've put the pieces together.

Besides the newfound overt brutality to the story (past games would only really heavily imply at horrible things), the characters are actually seen interacting with each other. This is a really, really odd departure for MGS and it works well. Hopefully this isn't a one off thing for the ending cutscene, but judging by the trailers for The Phantom Pain, there'll be more face to face interaction with other characters, instead of boring codec calls. Also, if you haven't seen the trailer for The Phantom Pain, check it out. I kept waiting for that Garbage song to kick in while I was playing Ground Zeroes. It doesn't. That trailer also genuinely is being rendered in game. Several of those scenes are from Ground Zeroes, and while it doesn't look as good on 360, it's still incredibly impressive.

Ground Zeroes is probably the most fun I've had playing a modern video game in a long time. A lot of recent video games have gotten one aspect right, but not another. A great story, but poor gameplay. Great graphics, shitty everything else. Something along those lines. Ground Zeroes ties it all together into a satisfying whole. If you're not a fan of MGS, then Ground Zeroes may not be worth it due to its length. Get the digital version and save yourself $10. If you are a fan, spend whatever amount you want; it's worth it. Just don't expect a manual with the disc version. I guess manuals are a thing of the past now.

Kept you waiting, huh?

Ground Zeroes is everything Metal Gear Solid ever hinted it could be. The themes of the story are things that I thought video games probably would never seriously touch on without being met with a shitstorm of controversy. If The Phantom Pain keeps this level of quality, it could very well be one of the greatest gaming experiences of all time.

I haven't even played anything except the main mission yet, but...