Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Xbox Mod Adventure: Part 1

I used to do some more technical writing here (not necessarily technical, but at least an overview of things I worked on) and I'm going to try to get back to that a bit. I finally did a backlit GBA mod a while ago so I'll go over that soon, but we're going to take a look at the original Xbox first.

I've mentioned briefly before that the original Xbox was a pretty big turning point in my fandom of games. It's probably my favorite gaming console of all time. Like most, my first experience with the console was with Halo. When Halo 2 came out though? It was love. Then next year? It abruptly ended when the 360 came out. My torrid affair with the original Xbox lasted about a year and a half. I bought my first Xbox off of a good friend. He sold it to me for $5 in early 2005 because the DVD drive was shitty and he decided to shoot the power button off with an airsoft gun.

I went ahead and bought a new drive, and I was off to the races. The first two games I bought were the DOOM 3 collector's edition and Genma Onimusha. Up until I got a 360 for Christmas in 2006 I did little other than play Xbox. I got to be pretty fierce at Halo 2 and I bought and plowed through around 40 Xbox games in that time period. Xbox prices tanked fast since Microsoft dropped the console as quickly as they could when the 360 came out. Eventually, my Xbox ended up with an ex girlfriend some time in 2008 and wasn't seen again until 2011.

I made that awkward text requesting it back when I found a copy of Beyond Good & Evil. I didn't end up caring for the game, but it did reignite my love for the Xbox. All of my official controllers were gone and my HDD was filled with saves for Medal of Honor (I'm guessing her uncle had the system..). I purged the saves that weren't mine and comforted her. The DVD drive however, was bad again.

There are three common Xbox DVD drives and a fourth which possibly only shows up in refurb units. The one that this Xbox had was a Thompson. When my friend sold it to me, it had a Thompson as well. These drives are absolute shit. I replaced it with a Thompson because at the time, I believed you needed to replace it with the same drive. Not true. Thompsons are basically guaranteed to fail after a few years and investing in one is a bad choice. So, the Xbox went into what was (mostly) a state of rest.

About a year later, I came upon an Xbox in Goodwill for about $12, so I snagged it. The case was in good condition (no power button shot off with an airsoft gun) and I figured I could pull the DVD drive. Turns out I came upon a sort of uncommon drive.

Awh yeah baby, quote me more..

Before proceeding, let me discuss why we've come to this point of modding an Xbox. A friend of mine was looking for an N64, so I told him I'd keep an eye out. I didn't come across anything, then I had the thought of softmodding an extra Xbox I had and putting emulators on it for him. He found out his PS3's HDD was going out, so he offered to trade it for the Xbox. I sweetened the deal by saying I'd get a better DVD drive and pop a 500gb HDD in it. Great deal for me since I enjoy doing this kind of thing and there's honestly not a whole lot in the PS3 library that I'm dying to play. Today, that 500GB HDD got here so I wanted to get started.

That Xbox I got at Goodwill? I didn't use the motherboard because of how the hard drives are tied to the motherboard and all of my saves were on my old HDD. I simply swapped my old board into the new case and switched out the DVD drives. No problem, right?


That link up there with information about the Xbox goes into detail about the different motherboard revisions. The one my friend sold me is a 1.0 and the one I bought at Goodwill is a 1.6. So what, right?

Well that 1.6 motherboard that went into my 1.0 case, I just forgot about it. I never had another reason to plug it in or use it, so I didn't. I had no idea I colossally shot myself in the foot. I fired up my Xbox, made sure the Agent Under Fire Ndure exploit was on my memory card and pulled out the Xbox to be modded.

Speaking of which, praises be to Agent Under Fire.

Isis gon' be mad

Seriously, who the fuck coded this game so incompetently and how are they not blacklisted from the industry? Agent Under Fire is not only a game that's exploitable to softmod an Xbox, the PS2 version is exploitable as well to set up Free McBoot. Sort of a crappy game, but goddamn. Thank you likely unpaid EA intern for your hard work.

So, I plugged in the Xbox and hit the power button... nothing. Nothing at all. I thought maybe I just stuffed the components into the case and didn't hook everything up since I wouldn't need to use it.


Then I started thinking maybe there was something wrong with the power button. I tear apart my Xbox, hook the power button up to the other one.


Time to Google.

Well, it turns out that Xbox motherboard revisions 1.0-1.5 use the exact same case. Switch those fuckers out freely. 1.6 though? This is the only case that's different.

I fucked up a transistor because while the two cases are mostly the same, there's one critical difference that you would never even know about. That tiny piece of tin has fucked my shit up.

So, now I need to replace that transistor. It's all good though, I bought one for $1. Now I just have to wait and get ready to solder something really small.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (Game Boy Advance) Review

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is the entry in the GBA Castlevania trilogy that's out in third place. Even people who don't like Circle of the Moon for the reason that "it's not in Iga's timeline" still like CotM better than HoD. I came into this game expecting another somewhat hollow and uninspired Igarashi helmed Castlevania. I was surprisingly wrong.

If you've been around the Castlevania series for a while, you're pretty familiar with the recycled sprites and the fact that there are maybe one or two new enemies each game. Harmony of Dissonance actually goes out of its way to bring in new enemies. I was surprised at the constant stream of them, and it gave me a drive to continue that I hadn't felt with an Igarashi game for a long time. The game is much darker in tone as well, with the enemy designs intentionally being more... horror-esque. Another step up in this game is the backgrounds. They're intricate and very detailed which leads the castle to feel like it really does have unique areas.

The background designs are very well done.

While the graphics are inspired, the music is kind of weird. Where CotM had a surprisingly lush soundtrack with some pretty high quality samples, HoD could be mistaken for an NES game with some added sound channels. Take a listen:

The music that is here is good, but it seems like a hugely missed opportunity. It's really hard to overlook the fact that this is just a gross misuse of the hardware. If this were a different series then I think it would be possible to overlook, but Castlevania has always been noted for its music. To have such a great and intense soundtrack rendered in such a way detracts from it when so much more was possible. Hell, maybe it could've been overlooked if CotM hadn't bettered it a year before..

Harmony of Dissonance's plot is actually somewhat interesting. Our Belmont this time is Juste, Simon's (from the original Castlevania) grandson. Juste is... weird. This was actually Igarashi's first crack at creating a Belmont. Excluding remakes, Igarashi's eight full-fledged Castlevania games only featured a Belmont as the main playable character three times. That's sort of weird. I mean... do you like Castlevania? Ayami Kojima's art works well for some characters, but as far as Juste is concerned it's a weird look. 

Juste's friend Maxim decided to gather up the remains of Dracula (much like Simon's Quest) to destroy them, but ended up being possessed by Dracula. The castle has two layers, one reflecting Maxim's "good" personality, and the other his "evil" personality, influenced by Dracula. You have to move between the different layers in order to navigate the entire castle. This is sort of a drag on the game.

A cool new enemy, this one jumps out of a mirror

You don't actually learn that you're going between the two layers until about 3/4ths of the way through the game. Then you're given a map for each layer and one map that shows your overall progress by different colors. The castle layout is identical for each layer, though the backgrounds and obstacles will differ. If this game were on the DS, then the layers would be a different story. Some kind of map annotation like in The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass would've been transformative for this game. Unfortunately, you'll be left to wander through the castles seemingly endlessly trying to find exactly what to trigger to progress. 

If the way forward were more obvious, this would be a very short game. It almost seems as though the game is laid out this way just to pad the length. The castle is not large and it doesn't take a huge amount of time to traverse. Similarly, the difficulty is not very high. Save rooms are relatively sparse until you get the whole castle mapped out, which can make early explorations challenging. This is not real difficulty though, this is difficulty by circumstance.

Harmony of Dissonance is a really mixed bag. It's a step above other Igarashi produced Castlevanias and it's a mile behind others. It's not a bad game, but it's not a good game. It's not quite a great game... it just is. Everything adds together to become average.

The Score: 7.5/10

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Resident Evil 6: Leon's Campaign (Xbox 360) Review

It's October, the month of Halloween and scary things. I was planning on reviewing a few horror games this month, but the games that I chose turned out to be a bit longer than I expected. As a result, I decided to break up my review of Resident Evil 6 into each individual campaign.

First, I want to talk about the Resident Evil 6 Archives set pictured up there. The 360 version isn't as impressive as the PS3 one (which contains almost all of the RE games), but it's still a nice value. I picked it up on eBay for $15. If you decide to try to grab this, make sure you're getting a new copy. Everything aside from the movie and RE6 comes in the form of a download code.

CODE: Veronica is probably my favorite RE game (next to Nemesis), and I wanted to play the HD version. Unfortunately, this HD version is definitely not the best way to experience the game, but that's another review. I actually already had Resident Evil: Degeneration on Blu-Ray, and while I'm not much of a fan of 4, I did always want to check out the DLC for 5 (even though I had a violently negative reaction to the game). So, overall, I got what I wanted for a less than I would've paid for the two story DLCs for RE5 alone.

Right off the bat, I'll say that I really don't like where the RE series has gone. I've never liked 4 and I think 5 is an atrocious game. It's unplayable without someone playing the game co-op with you. I heard nearly nothing positive about Resident Evil 6. I didn't want to like the game. I wanted to hate it. I want those tank controls and pre-rendered backgrounds again. I want Chris Redfield's bicep to be smaller than his head. I want zombies in my Resident Evil. 

Then Conan didn't raise my expectations for this game any.


As I put the game in, I remembered Jim Sterling's scathing review. The start of the game seemed to confirm my desire to hate everything about it as correct. It's a half speed slog through a dark alleyway littered with QTEs as you drag your injured partner to safety. I turned the game off in boredom about midway through the intro.

A few days later, I tried again. I made it through the intro. I was wholly unimpressed by the first chapter. Another half speed slog through a college campus with some irrelevant tertiary characters who would clearly be dead within 20 minutes. A trip through a subway and some city streets which demonstrated a lack of ammo. The end of the chapter presented a boss that took me about 20 minutes to kill because I kept having to kill zombies to get ammo. Through all of this though, I found myself enjoying the game. The return to a more urban area seemed to bring something back to the series that it has been missing. No longer are we in some bizarre vaguely eastern European area (Resident Evil 4), or brightly lit Africa (Resident Evil 5) with some (not so) subtle racism sprinkled throughout. We're back to the city, where an outbreak would wreak the most havoc.

Let's discuss the mechanics a bit before continuing. The greatest improvement to the game from RE5 comes to the partner system. You don't need to pay a damn bit of attention to the AI partner in this game. They take care of themselves. They don't leech your ammo. They have their own inventory and their inventory has gloriously unlimited ammo. They don't seem to die, either. Of course there are segments where you'll need to protect your partner, or you'll need their help opening a door but these sections don't seem like a chore. The AI's competency lessens the stress of these, and they go by painlessly. 

The biggest failing of the game is probably the physics system. Character movement can be outright awkward. Your biggest obstacle in this game is a dead body on the floor. Have you ever been playing a game and walked over a body on the floor and thought "I shouldn't just clip through the body, there should be some physical reaction?" Well, that is a horrible idea and this game proves it. If there's a body on the floor, you'll trip over it. The first time it happens you will be wildly confused and it took me a while to figure out exactly what was happening. This was just a poor design choice. It doesn't really hamper you, but it is annoying.

Another thing... zombie wrestling.


I'm not really sure where the fuck this came from, but you can seriously just go around kicking zombies in the face and doing wrestling moves and shit on them. I'm not really sure how I feel about this. It's ridiculous...but it's fun? It feels so out of place but goddammit I can't help but like it. I mean, how many times do you some slow ass lumbering zombie in a game or movie and thought "why don't you just kick it and beat the shit out of it?" RE6 lets you do just that.


As far as the story goes, I'm not entirely sure what's going on. The campaign is definitely designed to have you piece events together after playing through all of them. Leon's campaign crossed paths with all of the other campaigns, so I'm assuming everything will be filled in. Then again, it's an RE game. It may make no sense at the end anyways.

Let's be clear, this game is far from the survival horror-type RE games that I love, but I can accept it this time because it's designed to be this way. Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 5 control exactly the same as the earlier Resident Evil games. Seriously, play one of the "tank control" games and play 4 or 5. The controls work exactly the same, just with a third person camera. I found that it killed the momentum of the games since those games were meant to be action games but had the controls of a slow, deliberate survival-horror game. This game was designed as an action game and the controls work for it. The pace is fast and even though the physics are off, everything is responsive.

Honestly, I found that the more bombastic sections work well. If there was some kind of viral zombie outbreak, it would be chaotic and RE6 captures this well. This has been a point of criticism from other reviews, but at least for Leon's campaign I thought it worked.

I will concede that the final boss battle of the campaign is a bit too ridiculous. You'll find yourself scaling a massive building with everything burning and an ominous Umbrella logo on the ground that totally isn't supposed to be obvious until the end. It totally is obvious though.

I'm breaking these reviews up because I've read that the campaigns in this game vary wildly in quality. Taken on its own, I found Leon's campaign to be the best Resident Evil content since the Resident Evil remake on Gamecube. The urban areas recall Raccoon City in the best way possible and the chaotic scenes portray the sense of panic that would surely follow an outbreak event. There are highs and there are lows, but I had a whole lot of fun playing through this.

Leon's Campaign: 8.5/10