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

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Selfbooting Dreamcast Games, Part 1: The Basics

I was exchanging emails with someone recently and they asked me if I had a video tutorial for ripping games since I was no longer doing it. This was.. bothersome. I know that the internet has more or less become a glorified on-demand service for videos served on YouTube but, good god. If it was so easy, why wouldn't everyone be doing it? There's only been a few really excellent Dreamcast rippers since the Echelon and Kalisto days because it isn't easy. You need to have a keen eye for detail, you need to have time and you need to think. I make no guarantees that I'll even finish this, but it may provide some interesting perspective for some people.

We'll start off by looking at the basics and busting some myths so that we can get to the actual process.

The Dreamcast came out in 1998 in Japan, DVD existed at this time but was still prohibitively expensive. Sega knew that they would need more storage space (and.. copy protection), and DVD was the only real option at the time. In order to avoid skyrocketing the price of their console, they turned to Yamaha for a different solution. Yamaha developed a new disc format called the GD-ROM (Gigabyte Disc Read Only Memory) which stores a gigabyte (shockingly enough). The Dreamcast verifies that the disc is a GD-ROM, and starts the game. Problem solved, no piracy.


Sega had an idea for a new kind of multimedia disc, called MIL-CD. MIL-CDs would only work on Dreamcast, and they would offer additional content on a music CD (or just any other CD, I guess; MIL-CD never really took off obviously) by including video and other extras. So, we have a way to boot a regular CD with Dreamcast data on disc? There's our way in.

Look at any article on the Dreamcast and you'll always see remarks that "THERE WAS NO COPY PROTECTION!" This is incredibly false. It's there, it was just defeated by the pioneers of Dreamcast ripping. The earliest Dreamcast rips required a boot disc to use and would not boot on their own. Eventually the way the boot disc is set up was mimicked and now Dreamcast games start up all on their own.

There's a few issues with Dreamcast rips, which is why people are still doing and re-doing Dreamcast rips. Our first limitation is obviously the size disparity between media. CDs can only hold 700mb while the GD-ROM was over 1gb. This typically isn't too huge of a problem as a lot of games simply didn't cross over the 700mb threshold. There are a lot of PlayStation ports that just weren't that big and a lot of games just didn't need to be. There's usually workable solutions to the size disparity. The other key difference that can cause problems with game performance is the difference in read speed. The Dreamcast reads GD-ROMs at 12x while reading CDs at 6x. This causes some limitations with how fast we can get data off of CDs versus the GD. The speed difference can manifest in longer loading times, stuttering in FMV or audio not loading in time (particularly an issue for fighting games). Internet was slower back when Echelon was at work and as a consequence, games with CDDA audio suffered. A lot of games used CDDA and in order to keep file size down (WAV data doesn't compress much) the CDDA tracks were encoded to MP3s which were then converted back to WAV files and inserted into the disc image. In case you don't know, MP3s get small by basically throwing away huge amounts of the data in the audio and converting it back to a WAV file doesn't restore that data.

Another reason Dreamcast rips are still being done and redone is that the methods of dumping data from the GD-ROM have become more reliable over time. Back in the good old days, discs were dumped using a serial port connection. This could take almost a full day and sometimes data was missing. This resulted in repacks, patches, workarounds, you name it. These days the easiest way to dump games is with an SD card adapter and jj10dm's SD ripper application. This takes around 30 minutes in a worst case scenario.

Ripping methods have improved over time as well. If you've been around Dreamcast stuff for a long time, you've undoubtedly seen some dipshit say "well, the rippers eventually figured out how to interrupt the burning of the disc to make multiple data sessions so that the game boots on Dreamcast." Holy fuck, that is a stupid statement. Preparing a Dreamcast game to selfboot is precise. There is no mystery about anything happening. Dipshit is right though, we do need multiple data sessions.

Another reason that Dreamcast games are being redone is because of the selfboot method. Echelon and all the scene groups used what's known as an audio/data selfboot. The smallest CDDA track possible was burned as the first data session. This took a few mb and the following multisession data track killed a few more mb before we got to the actual game data. Disc space is precious, and this was inefficient. Modern selfbooting uses two data tracks which the file system treats as one uninterrupted ISO, so we get some precious mbs back. This is called data/data. This selfboot style also lets us imitate the Dreamcast's original boot LBA, 45000.

What's an LBA? An LBA is a logical block address. In essence, it tells a computer where data is located by breaking so many bytes into a block. For data, 2048 bytes are in a block and for audio 2352 are in a block. This is important for later.

The Dreamcast boots files by looking for bootsector data at the start of the second session, this is known as an IP.BIN. An IP.BIN is not an actual file that can be located in the disc, as it is placed at the start of the ISO information. Once the IP.BIN is found, the Dreamcast loads up the data and the IP.BIN points the system towards the 1ST_READ.BIN, essentially our main executable. The 1ST_READ.BIN then wants to know what LBA the IP.BIN is at. If it doesn't match, the boot fails and kicks you back to the Dreamcast BIOS screen. If it doesn't fail, sweet success. This is what I meant when I said Dreamcast ripping is precise. So, when we say the boot LBA is 45000 it means that the end of the 1st data session and the multi session data stops at 44999. The IP.BIN is located at 45000. Echelon's old audio/data style selfboot had a boot LBA of 11700, though most people's burners couldn't burn this file in the correct manner. Typically you'll end up with 11702 if you use the old method.

I think that's about enough for today, next time I'll post some tools and dig into even more technical details.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PlayStation 3) Review

What the hell is wrong with Snake's ear on that cover? Really, look at it. It's so fucked up. Look really closely. You'll never see the cover without immediately noticing the ear again.

Since I've recently been getting my hands on more and more Sony consoles, I was mostly experiencing the parts of Metal Gear that didn't really see other platforms. Peace Walker, Portable Ops, Metal Gear Solid 3 (which.. are all on other consoles now, except Portable Ops). All of those games were intriguing in their own way, mostly because of Big Boss. Big Boss is a fascinating character; flawed, misguided, foolish, conflicted. He was thrust into something far greater than himself and did what he believed was right at that moment. Big Boss' story has developed into a tragedy, and we'll hopefully see it reach its climax sometime soon with The Phantom Pain. This made me somewhat apprehensive to return to a Solid Snake helmed game. 

Snake is badass, but he's a bit of a boy scout. He's got a sturdy moral compass throughout his appearances, which isn't quite as interesting as Big Boss' constant turmoil. For the most part, Big Boss' entries seem to keep Hideo Kojima's (somewhat poor) sense of humor in check as well, not to mention the welcome lack of deux ex nanomachine in the early (in the series' timeline) entries. 


MGS4 finds Snake having aged considerably due to the failings of the cloning process used for himself and Liquid. This is hammered home constantly, with Snake clutching his back if you crouch for too long and hacking up a lung while smoking. Strangely, Old Snake works out well. The Colonel from MGS is back, and he's asking Snake to assassinate Ocelot to halt his uprising. Snake is clearly a bit uncomfortable with the thought of outright murdering Ocelot, but accepts. There's an understandably ridiculous number of plot threads that come together in this game, and summarizing them all would result in a week's worth of reading. In the best interests of everyone, I'll refrain from going much further.

Personally, I didn't have any issues keeping track of what was going on. If you've played the other games then everything you've seen before comes to a fine point here. If you haven't, this game may as well be Japanese. If you're unfamiliar and you do want to play this game, there is a companion app that can be downloaded from PlayStation Network that acts as an encyclopedia for the game's history. It's actually very interesting to go through if you're familiar with the plot, but if you aren't then it would be about as interesting as eating a bowl of Cheerios without sugar and reading a medical journal style summary of Tom Clancy's literary output. 

It's worth noting that while the plot does move along at a good pace, it takes a while to get started. In addition, there is a plot thread that runs throughout the game that amounts to "WHOSE SIDE ARE THEY ON??" which gets old about... well, the moment it's introduced. Kojima's eye for directing has taken a step up here as well, and the (then) new tech afforded by the PS3 is used well.


Since I brought that up, I have to say that I fucking hate it when Kojima gets cute. There's a cutscene in the fucking game, that occurs during normal gameplay where another character prompts you to change the disc... then goes "oh, whoops, this is the PS3, it has Blu-Ray technology and we don't need to do that!" 

Are you fucking kidding me? In the middle of your game about a man who is on his death mission, you stop to talk about the PS3's Blu-Ray technology?

Speaking of which, let's talk about the tone of the game. It's all very final, and we're very much under the impression that this is it. This is the end for Snake. We're on a final tour, even heading back to Shadow Moses. From Snake's age to the title screen, this is the end. Yes, even the title screen carriers a ridiculous seriousness. If you press start immediately, all you see is Snake standing in a cemetery in front of The Boss' grave. If you wait and give time for the camera to move closer to Snake, you'll see that he's holding a gun and clearly contemplating suicide. Aaand we just took a break to talk about Blu-Ray discs.

Let's talk about that Blu-Ray disc more then since we've opened that can of worms. One of the primary talking points about this game was just the sheer amount of data. It uses a full 50gb Blu-Ray disc. I'm not really sure what for. Don't get me wrong, I love the fact that PS3 games can use uncompressed audio (and I'm all about the surround sound) but this game would not have been hurt with a bit of texture and audio compression to be on the 360. The graphics are unfortunately not that impressive. The art style still cuts close to the one seen in the PS2 entries, which means the characters still have a bit of an anime flair to them in their styling. They're not really meant to look real. It's a bit disappointing given the storytelling. It was acceptable in the older games as we really didn't expect photorealism at the time. Obviously true photorealism is still a stretch, but it seems as though the idea to try to look real wasn't quite on the table for the developers yet. Metal Gear Solid V has moved on to a more realistic style, and it paid off for everything about the game.

Oh, and that fantastic Blu-Ray disc? The game installs about 4gb of data per chapter. Between chapters, the game rewrites the old data and installs the new data needed for the next chapter. The most recent update to the game will let you install all of the needed data, coming in at about 10gb. Unless you like watching Snake smoke while the game installs, then you can stick with those per chapter installs.

There are a lot of nice details in the graphics which pay help to reinforce character traits and themes in the game. Meryl returns after a disappointing absence in Metal Gear Solid 2, and is now wielding a desert eagle comfortably; the same gun that Snake had mocked her for previously. I believe the wording was "that's a pretty big gun for a woman." Snake is seen using a 1911, a gun that is regarded as old but reliable (and fun to shoot). I'm not 100% positive, but I don't think Snake used a 1911 in previous entries.

The gunplay in the game is vastly improved. It's no longer a ridiculous 3 button combo to bring up your gun, go into first person and shoot the gun. You just bring up the sights and shoot, and it changes the game completely. Stealth is still a viable option (and the most desirable in most situations), but going all out guns blazing is an option now as well. In fact, there are sections where going all out is necessary. The best gameplay change?

YOU CAN CROUCH! Holy shit. Only 6 years after Sam Fisher first crouched, Snake can now crouch. It completely changes the stealth. It's much easier now to sneak up on a guard and grab them, where before it was crawl as close as possible, stand up, and hope you're not too loud. MGS3's camouflage system is also implemented here, in a more hands-off way. Snake's sneaking suit will automatically match the environment when you stay still for a period of time. For the most part it comes off as novelty, but it will save your ass occasionally.

MGS4 is an excellent game. There will be times when it feels like more of a movie, but it's probably the most fully realized Metal Gear game. The plot is well defined and moves to a satisfying conclusion. All questions are answered and basically every living character returns to play their part. If this had truly ended up being Kojima's last Metal Gear, it would have been an entirely satisfying ending.

The Score: 9/10

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Last of Us (PlayStation 3) Review

Even though I don't write these reviews very formally, you still need some sort of a thesis to start things off. A lot has been said about this game and I'm not entirely sure where to start. I'll start at the very beginning. There's going to be a couple of spoilers, but I'll keep the big stuff out of it.

From the moment you put the game into your PlayStation 3, it's made apparently that this is a game of a serious nature. The background on the XMB is a dramatic black and white rendering of our main characters, Joel and Ellie. Once you load up the game, you're greeted with what is instantly recognizable as Gustavo Santaolalla's unique composition. He's an excellent composer, with his soundtrack to The Motorcycle Diaries being one of my favorite movie scores.

This struck me as a bit odd. I watched The Motorcycle Diaries dozens of times (usually sandwiched between readings on Che Guevara) in my teens. His score is perfectly suited for the movie, but it seemed odd here. A zombie cordyceps fungus monster game is something fundamentally American. Santaolalla's music has a distinctly South American edge to it. My initial thought was that this would end up in a sort of mismatch between environment and music, but it was actually quite the opposite. It fits; in the same way the score emphasized Che's early years and spirit to go out and do something, the music here emphasizes the same sense of scale and adventure.

It's fitting that they sprang for Santaolalla to do the score, as the story has the same weight as his music does. The writing here is a thing to behold; the characterization is the best of any game I've ever played. There's a myriad of games with powerful stories and excellent performances from voice actors (Robert Carlyle as Gabriel Belmont in the end of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow comes to mind), but we've never had such well rounded characters. Joel and Ellie are believable and real. We're not just treated to their personalities in cutscenes, they have banter while just walking around. Ellie spazzes out and acts weird like a kid would. You come to care for both of them and understand their actions.

Strong characterization drives home moments in a story. You could have the most dramatic moment imaginable, but if your characters are as paper thin as those in an SNL sketch, the moment will fall flat. The confidence in the characters is immediate and I think that this game has probably the finest opening moments of any game. Our zombies infected are here due to a mutated strain of a real life parasitic fungus that takes over ants and kills them, then uses their bodies to spread the fungus to other ants. This is a pretty clever idea, but really it's just another way to say zombie without being so cliche (I'll accept it because I'm so fucking tired of zombies everywhere). 

The introductory sequence is set in 2013 with Joel and his daughter just as the fungus is beginning to spread. They make an attempt to escape the town that they live in as all hell is breaking lose. They've almost made it to the road, when a soldier orders them to stop and shoots Joel's daughter dead. Bring up the Santaolalla soundtrack, smash cut to the title card and all of your feels are on fire.

We pick up 20 years later with Joel a (predictably) broken and changed man, working with a woman named Tess (voiced excellently by Annie Wersching, aka the reason Jack Bauer went full Bauer). They're into some shady thug shit, and are expecting a large shipment of guns. It turns out they were stolen and traded to a group called the Fireflies, who work in opposition to the government in trying to bring order back to society. Jeol and Tess are told that they can get the guns back if they take Ellie, a girl infected with the fungus but not changing, to a Firefly lab to be studied for a possible cure. Society has collapsed at this point in time, with survivors mostly packed into tightly controlled quarantine zones in major cities. Tess doesn't make the escape from the quarantine zone (Surprised? There's only two people on the cover, this isn't really a spoiler..), leaving Joel alone in taking Ellie to the Fireflies.

Joel resents this at first and sees it as a job, but eventually comes to care for Ellie. Their journey takes them across the country over the course of about a year, as they are always just slightly too late to meet up with the Fireflies. I won't spoil the ending, but it does bring up an interesting morality question which I may write about separately at another time. This was the talk of the internet when the game came out, and I managed to avoid spoilers. You probably should, too. The idea presented isn't necessarily unique, but the way the game forces you to consider it in the ending is.

I have nothing but praise for the story and soundtrack, but let's actually dig in to the gameplay. That's why we're really here, right? 


I'm going to be straight up. There's very little that's actually enjoyable about playing this game. You're either fucked or you're taking a casual walk to the next place that you'll be fucked. Supplies are limited in this game since we're 20 years into such a catastrophe. You don't have a lot of ammo, and you've got to scrounge supplies to put together makeshift grenades and weapons. There is still a healthy amount of ammo around, but the gun mechanics are just plain bad. Take a look at this screenshot from multiplayer (because I couldn't find any screenshots that actually showed the reticule on screen except this one):

The camera zooms into your character so tight and at such an odd angle that the reticule seems to have no actual relation to the position of your character and the gun. About midway through the game you begin to compensate for this and focus solely on the reticule, but then they pull the rug out from under you and the enemies all get armor and are almost impossible to kill. That midway point when you get comfortable with it? The game is fun to play at that point. 

This is largely set up as a stealth game, but it's infuriating beyond belief. I'm a big fan of stealth games, but The Last of Us doesn't really look at what other games have done in the genre. Take Splinter Cell, a game from 2002. If there is a light that's causing you difficulty in moving through an area you can A) shoot it or B) find the switch and shut it off. The Last of Us does no such thing. 

The shaky gunplay is basically a death sentence for you in almost every situation. There are enemies called clickers which typically take multiple hits to kill and if they get to you, you are IMMEDIATELY dead. You CAN level up a skill so that you have the ability to stab them, but it is one of the costliest skill upgrades in the game. It's not easy to upgrade your skills either; you have to collect pills that are hidden around levels. There are several other essential skills to upgrade, and by the time I got those to an acceptable level and went to get the stabbing skill, I didn't even end up using it because those enemies were hardly around anymore.

When you encounter enemies, you're usually greatly outnumbered. The game wants you to sneak around and stealthily deal with them one by one. This is... a lot to ask, and I'm patient with games. One misstep and you're fucked. The enemies have a pretty uncanny ability to shoot you consecutively until you die. You can sneak by enemies too, but there are times when the game has given you impossible odds and virtually forces you to fight by placing enemies in spots that you can't really draw them away from without exposing yourself. You will die a lot, it will be immediate, and it will be frustrating. To its credit the game does checkpoint frequently, but it still doesn't offset the frustration. 

The Last of Us is a movie of unusual power. But the bits of game inbetween? Those bits are deeply flawed on a fundamental level.

I believe that games have to be scored as a sum of their parts. I don't think one part can override others. Case in point, Mass Effect 3. Most people loved the gameplay. The story was a disaster, which had always been touted as a key point of the Mass Effect series. Yet, we had a game that was highly controversial because of all of the 9.0 reviews with the little "well, the story sucks" caveat.

In that spirit...

The Score: 7.5/10

This is an above average game with a lot of effort put into it, but it's just not fun to play. If I were to disregard the gameplay and reward it on its story merits alone, it would be a solid 9.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (Game Boy Advance) Review

In my opinion, the Legend of Zelda is a series of ups and downs (usually within the same game). The Wind Waker era was a huge down, and I never really had much interest in The Minish Cap. However, who can resist when you find the game at Goodwill right after you install a backlit screen (I'll write about that some day) in your original Game Boy Advance? I'll gladly pay $3 for that.

My main disappointment in the series stems from the over-reliance on gimmicks. This seems to be a recurring theme in recent Nintendo games. For Zelda, we've had transformative masks, a sailboat, the Four Sword, the titular Minish Cap, the wolf transformation in Twilight Princess, a boat again combined with an all out touchscreen assault... and whatever obstructs you in Skyward Sword and Spirit Tracks (I haven't played those two, but I did recently buy Skyward Sword). I'll say that I love Majora's Mask though, as the masks didn't really fundamentally change the game or hamper it. I said in my God of War review that there's something to be said for perfecting the wheel instead of reinventing it and this is something that Nintendo has no grasp on.

I mean, really, how good would it be to just get a straightforward Zelda adventure through Hyrule again? No fucking around, just doing what you need to do to kill Ganon.

Thankfully, Capcom developed The Minish Cap. Capcom knows not to fuck with a good thing too much. Well, not really. They knew for about 7 years before they started up with Street Fighter again.

Fuck you guys.

The gimmick of the hour for Minish Cap is the ability to shrink down in size. Thankfully, this gimmick is limited to puzzle solving and exploration. It is used in some boss battles, but it works out surprisingly well. The artwork for the areas you can only access when you're shrunk down is really quite stunning, too.

It's good enough that it makes the rest of the areas almost disappointing. It's the same 2D Zelda you've always known, with a brighter coat of paint. The art style is similar to The Wind Waker, which is probably the best thing they could've taken from that game.

Minish Cap is the second game in the series chronology, following Skyward Sword. It explores the origin of the Four Sword, which approximately no one gave a fuck about since no one had four friends and four GBAs and four copies of the GBA version of A Link to the Past to actually play Four Swords. There's no Ganon here, instead your enemy is the wizard Vaati, who promptly turns Zelda to stone. Shit goes down and Link gets paired up with Ezlo, a bird-like thing who is actually your hat. He allows Link to shrink down to be the same size as the Minish, a race of microscopic beings that live in Hyrule. They help Link to take his sword and infuse it with four elements, making it the Four Sword. 

Unfortunately, the quest is neither lengthy or difficult. There are more than four dungeons, but they're all short and there's really nothing challenging about them. It takes about 6 or so hours to finish the game. The game lacks the expansiveness to fuel the feeling that you're really on some grand adventure. It has nothing to do with the fact that it's 2D, either. Hell, the original Zelda on NES feels like it plays out on a grander scale.

There are attempts to make the game longer but they don't offer enough to bring you back into it. You'll collect things called Kinstones from chests and cutting down grass, which you combine with an NPC's Kinstone (there are also slots on walls for them in some places) for some kind of a reward somewhere on the map. Initially, hunting down Kinstones and matching them up is a fun distraction but it eventually reveals itself as shallow busywork. The vast majority of the rewards are simply not worth the effort of finding the person who has a Kinstone to match and then traveling to the location of the item. The other piece of busywork is collecting shells and trading them for figurines. This really isn't anything complicated, but getting the figurines is what's tedious.

You go to a store to exchange the shells. You walk to the right and pick how many shells you want to give for your random figure. There's an animation for this. Then the figurine appears across the store. There's an animation for this. Then you walk over and pick up the figure. There's an animation for this. Christ almighty, what a waste of fucking time. Again, it's just fucking busywork and it's not worth collecting them all.

As far as the gameplay goes, it's your traditional 2D Zelda. The usual weapons appear, the usual enemies appear. Like all Zelda games, there'll be a new item that the game will have an over-reliance on. Our culprit here is the Wind Jar. It either sucks things up, or blows gusts of air. Predictably, this plays into a lot of puzzles. Infuriatingly, it becomes necessary for moving around certain environments. You'll be given a leaf on the water, and you've got to use the gust jar to blow yourself (ha) around, like a sail boat without a sail. It's.. tedious (there's a pattern here). The other thing of note here is the Four Sword. As you add elements, you'll be able to make copies of Link (so if you have two of the four elements, you have two Links). You'll need your copies to push blocks or defeat some bosses. There's a few bosses that require you to do this to beat them, and it is infuriating. You have to charge your sword fully in order to spawn your copies, and then stand on specific tiles. If you get hit, your sword stops charging. If one of your copies gets hit, they all disappear. You can figure out how that goes if you put it in the context of a boss.

I've done a good job of pointing out the bad, but there's a considerable amount of good as well. The music is truly excellent, and it's a bit shocking at what the GBA can do with sound. While the dungeons are short, the level design is excellent. It's always clear what you need to do, which is important for a 2D game. 

I really had a whole lot of fun with the game. Most of the things I pointed out as negatives are things that you can (for the most part) ignore. The price is really the barrier to entry here. I couldn't recommend this as a $30 game, which is the typical asking price for a legitimate copy on eBay. There's a lot of fake cartridges out there for this game, but if you've got a keen eye then this may drive down the price of legitimate copies. If you can have it for less than that or if you don't mind a pirated cart, then I'd say it's worth it. It's good, but there's just not a lot of game here.

The Score: 8/10