Archive for the ‘Nintendo’ Category

Know Your Onions

Sunday, October 12th, 2014

One of my English teachers in high school liked to say that at that level, we’re not actually learning history, we’re actually just learning History’s Greatest Hits. At the time I just laughed it off as a silly joke (he made lots of those), but, over time, I realized he was right. You go through school and get an overview of history (and just about every subject) by hitting the high points so you’re not completely ignorant of how the world and the US got where they are today. But the thing is, there’s so much history (and more of it all the time!) that it’s impossible to know it all. If you’re interested, though, you will go beyond the bare minimum required to pass your high school (and even college) classes. Most of us, though, probably don’t care about that kind of history enough to do more than watch the occasional documentary on PBS, or whatever Drunk History counts as. So, we know some history, but historians, people who love history, know lots more. That sounds obvious, but they do more than watch documentaries in order to feel smart. They do research: they read books (the horror!), they talk to other historians, they visit historic places, and so on. They know that there is more to history than everyone was required to learn in school, and they know that knowledge is out there, they just have to go get it. A lot of times they’ll specialize in one particular area and learn everything they can about it.

You probably think that being a hardcore historian is probably not for you, though. You may not care if Shakespeare actually wrote all his plays or not. You may think that Socrates is just some dead Greek dude who was the subject of a few jokes in the first Bill & Ted movie. Besides, you like video games (well, if you’re reading this site, there’s a pretty good chance that you like video games). Video games are way better than boring old history any day of the week.

But what about video game history?

Felipe Pepe wrote an intresting article on Gamasutra the other day lamenting that a lot of so-called ‘hardcore gamers’ don’t know much about the history of video games past five or ten years or so ago.

That is a disappointing realization.

Video games are becoming (or maybe have already become) a mainstream form of entertainment for everyone, but they’ve been around in one form another since at least the late 1940s. No, that’s not a typo.

Warning: From this point on, I’m going to probably sound like either a hipster or an old man yelling at a butt. You have been warned.

When I say “retro gaming” or “old video games” what do you think of? I’m going to guess that it’s Super Mario Bros or The Legend of Zelda. Maybe just the NES, Super NES, and maybe even the Genesis. Possibly Pong. You may even know that Pong was a big deal in the 80’s. It was, but it was an even bigger deal when it came out in 1972.

You may have heard about the Commodore 64, but do you know anything about it? Can you name five games for it without looking them up? Have you ever heard of the VIC-20? The PET? The Commodore 16? The Commodore 128? The Amiga? Do you know who Jack Tramiel was? Do you know why Bill Cosby is an important figure in Commodore’s history?

You might have heard about the Atari 2600, but what about the reissued Atari 2600 Jr.? The Atari 7800? The Atari 8-bit line? Do you know who Nolan Bushnell is?

Did you know that Texas Instruments had a line of computers that played games? Did you know that the TI-99/4A is actually a revised model of the TI-99/4? Did you know it supported a voice module to enable real actual speech? Do you know who its spokesperson was and why that’s important?

Do you know why games like Diablo are called ‘rogue-like’?

More importantly, have you ever actually played these games that are more than 5 years old? How about 10? 20? Further back? I don’t mean ‘load them up in an emulator and fart around with one for five minutes’, I mean actually play them for a decent amount of time. Try to finish one or set a high score (without abusing savestates, natch). Did you play something outside of the games you’ve heard of (the ‘video games greatest hits’)?

The Problem

While doing some independent research on Ironsword, the game infamous for having Fabio on the label, Wikipedia cites a GameSpy article that says:

You wouldn’t know it from the cover, but IronSword is actually a sequel to Wizards & Warriors. But thanks to the presence of Fabio on the cover, gamers got confused and thought they had accidentally picked up one of their mom’s romance novels.

It also posts a cropped picture of the label (with Fabio’s Fabulous Hair) with the caption that “Anything Fabio is involved in becomes automatically bad.”

I suppose the author was trying to be funny, I get that. But it’s pretty clear that the image was cropped to make that joke, since the full image clearly has, “Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II” at the top of the label. And, I guess I could mistake a video game for a book if I had never seen a book or a video game before. And the game itself is actually pretty good.

The problem is threefold:

  1. Old consoles are hard to find, take up room to store, and emulating games is questionably legal.
  2. A lot of writers for big sites are in their 20s. That’s not necessarily a problem, but a lot of these games came out before they were born, and since old consoles are tough to find, they probably won’t bother. They just rely on Wikipedia, cruddy Youtube videos, and other sources of second-hand (or even third-hand and fourth-hand) information.
  3. Since old consoles are hard to find, and a lot of people won’t bother trying to find or buy them anyway, the echo-chamber effect starts to take over. For instance, Phalanx for SNES usually gets lambasted as having a dumb box featuring a hillbilly playing a banjo. The game must be terrible, whatever it is, right? Wrong. It’s a passable shoot-em-up. Or, ET for the Atari 2600 is the worst game ever made, right? Nope. ET isn’t even the worst game on the Atari 2600 (Sneak ‘n’ Peek, for example). Custer’s Revenge gets a bad rap as one of the worst games ever made (and it is bad, don’t get me wrong), but it was one of those porno games, like Bubble Bath Babes on the NES (don’t Search for these games at work). It was never sitting on the shelf at your local Hills next to Kaboom and Chopper Command.

What all this means is that we have a lot of people writing authoritatively on things that they know very little about. It’s like if you were writing for a music website, but the only thing you knew about music older than 10 years is the songs from your local radio station’s 80’s dance mix, and you just assume that everything pre-1970 is either The Twist or the Foxtrot.

So, what’s the solution?

Unfortunately, I can’t demand that everyone writing about video games broaden their horizons in any meaningful way (if only). But what I can do is demand excellence, both from myself, and from the publications that I read. At the risk of being labeled a pedant and a hipster and a fogey, I can point out why your top whatever list is dumb and wrong, like this list of the 100 best games of all time that only has one game made before 1990 on it (which is Mega Man II. That’s not even the best Mega Man game on the NES).

I don’t want the industry, the consumers, or the media to forget what got us here. I don’t want the past 50+ years of games distilled down to Pong, Pac-Man, some NES stuff, and then everything else. I want to be able to discuss Pix the Cat as being a cross between Pac-Man Championship Edition and Flicky without someone not knowing what I’m talking about. We need to have one eye on the past and another on the future. And a video camera on the present, I guess? I’m not good with metaphors. Video games have a vibrant history, and a lot of that history directly shapes what we have today. Several of those experiences have not been duplicated. They may have been refined or cast off as the medium evolves, but when we study them, it helps us to know why things are now the way they are.

Zap Pax Video Game Cards

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

One of the relics of the 80’s and 90’s that I kind of miss seeing is the video game trading card. They were kind of like baseball cards, but for video games. Or, to put it another way, they were like Pok√©mon TCG cards, except you couldn’t play a game with them, and they covered more than one game.

So, totally rad, in other words.

Zap Pax Unopened Box

Enter the Zap Pax, pictured here in Unopened Box Form(tm).

These are trading cards that feature Battletoads, Adventure Island, and… probably others?

To be honest, I just couldn’t bring myself to rip open the plastic and kill the collector’s value of these things, so I don’t really know what they look like. The Internet is surprisingly unhelpful here. Outside of the odd eBay auction, there don’t seem to be too many pictures of these things floating around out there, either. That’s too bad, because after all this time, I kind of wanted to see what was in my box, without actually opening my box.

I suppose I won’t be able to do one without doing the other, but I can dream, can’t I?

DREAMJK

Doc’s Fix-A-System Plus

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Let’s suppose for a moment that you’re around in the late 80’s / early 90’s. Let’s further assume that you have more than one video game console (I know, that only happens to movie stars and oil barons, but bear with me). Let’s even further assume that you would want to keep your systems clean for some reason, and the thought of buying one kit for each system seems like a gigantic waste of your money. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were some kind of thing you could buy that would allow you to do all of that tedious maintenance on all of your systems?

Well, behold!

docs_kit1

Once again, the third parties come to the rescue.

The solution here is actually pretty ingenious. You have a hunk of plastic that attaches to the end of a cartridge for each of the supported systems. You just attach it to the cartridge of your choice, insert and remove it from your systems a few times, and you’re good to go. It also has something called a ‘detergent-based cleaning solution’ that you add to the ‘cleaning wand’ to scrub the contacts of your games clean. This is a little more involved than the official NES cleaning kit method, and is probably not designed to have you buy refills of the cleaner over and over again.

Probably not.

But this thing definitely doesn’t hurt to use. Unless you leave a ton of the cleaning gunk on your games and it dries up in there, I guess. That could be bad.

So, don’t do that, okay?

TEDBEAR

NES Cleaning Kit

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

We’ve all been there. Practically since the old style NES was a thing, games almost immediately didn’t work right. The screen blinks, stutters, has scrambled graphics, whatever. There are lots of homebrew methods to get the problem fixed (most of which are not recommended) from blowing on the contacts (quick fix, not recommended), to cracking open the cartridges and using oven cleaner (quick fix, absolutely not recommended), to using high-grit sandpaper (substantial chance of ruining the cartridge immediately, not recommended except as a last resort in the most extreme cases), to a cotton swab and alcohol (generally recommended, but it’s kind of labor intensive, so most people hate to do it).

But let’s say you’re a kid in the 80’s and 90’s. You don’t really want to fiddle with any of the above methods. I mean, trying to find and use a security bit, then spend what could amount to hours taking apart and swabbing cartridges? No thanks! But, what if you had… This?!

NES Cleaning Kit Box

An actual cleaning kit? Manufactured and endorsed by Nintendo? Well, that could be just fun enough to be worth it.

Opening the box reveals a few interesting goodies.

NES Cleaning Kit contents

It’s got a usage manual, a little scrubber, and a vaguely NES-shaped cartridge thingy. The scrubber is made to clean the gunk out of your NES cartridges. You wet the dark end with either distilled water, or a 50/50 mix of water and isopropyl alcohol, then scrub your cartridge. Shockingly, this is the same method that I recommended above, only with a giant scrubby pad instead of a flimsy cotton swab.

The other piece is for cleaning on of the neglected bits when people clean their NES games, cleaning the connector inside the system itself. All that funky junk on the contacts of the games you’re wedging into your NES is also getting on those contacts inside the NES, keeping them from making good contact. And, if you’re like me, you don’t really want to take the whole NES apart if you don’t have to, so this lets you at least attempt to clean the innards of your system with a minimum of fuss.

And, given that the NES is coming up on 30 years old, I think that’s something that I can get behind.

Super Mario Bros. Electronic Pinball Game

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

The pinball machine I talked about the other day was pretty awesome, and practically anyone with a passing interest in the Mario universe would love to have one. But arcade quality pinball machines are big, expensive, and kind of a pain to maintain. That’s why things like this exist. Or, rather, used to exist.

mario_electronic_pinball_1

It’s the home version!

mario_electronic_pinball_2

Okay, it takes a few liberties with the design and simplifies it a bit. All you really have are bumpers. But you have 3(!) flippers and a working scoreboard. That’s pretty rad, right?

mario_electronic_pinball_3

That reminds me, I need to get some batteries for this thing so I can play it and try to set a high score. Shouldn’t be too tough… right? I mean, getting 4 D-Cells shouldn’t be too big of a problem.

Super Mario Bros. Mushroom World Pinball

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

I’d like to set a scene for you. It’s summer, I have a week off work, and no plans. I decide to go to a little pizza joint in a small Indiana town for a little pizza and just to see what I can find. Like most pizza joints, this place has one video game: a Super Mario Bros. pinball machine?

Mushroom World Pinball

Mushroom World Pinball

Mushroom World Pinball

It’s kind of hard to tell from these pictures, but the machine is a little on the small side. It’s apparently something called a “Kid’s Size”. Which means that the playfield is smaller, and a bit simpler than your standard pinball machine. It also has a spot on the side where it could dispense tickets, if it was so equipped. This one had it covered up, so I doubt it did much.

And I really wanted to play it, but I stuck in a quarter and… nothing. Called the manager over who reset the machine, put in another quarter and… nothing.

So, I didn’t get to play this machine, which was kind of a shame. I really wanted to (and still do want to). I should probably go back up there some day and see if the machine is still in place and if they ever got it fixed.

But until then, here’s a video of someone else playing one.

Allright! Road trip time!

NES 42 in 1

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Oh, knock-off carts. Where would we be without you? Probably off somewhere doing whatever with a few more dollars in our pockets, but without your unique experiences.

Like this cartridge that has 42(!) games on it. Wow! That’s a lot. Check out this totally bodacious cartridge, too.

42in1_1

Well, I’m in, obviously. So, let’s check out some of the games on tap here (click to enlarge)

42in1_2

Oh yeah, Dig Dug, Lode Runner, and… Millipecle? Ramio Brother? Super Mari Bros? Penguin Adventure? Hrm, these aren’t quite the games I was expecting.

And, it turns out that this is the story with these weird multi-carts. A lot of pirated games with the copyright information removed, and a lot of small, simple games to pad out the numbers. I mean, check out some of this stuff

It turns out that some of the smaller, weirder games aren’t too bad. And the games like Super Mario Bros with all references to Mario subtly removed play like they should, so it’s just kind of a fun curiosity. Especially since these things have no official collectible value. And that means that when you do run across one, it’s either really cheap or way too expensive. But they’re a pretty fun way to spend a couple of bucks on, since playing one is kind of like a treasure hunt to find a good game.

Unless you find an Action 52. That just had bad games on it, so I wouldn’t bother with that.

Asciiware Game Boy Portable Carry-All

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

So, let’s just suppose that it’s 1990, you’re 11 years old, and you have this snazzy handheld gaming device that you want to take everywhere because you’re 11 years old and video games are rad to the max. Sure, you could just carry the thing around with you, but that gets old fast for a lot of reasons:

  • You can only carry one game with you unless you have giganto-pockets
  • You have to keep it in your hands at all times, lest you lay it down and forget about it somewhere. Or if you have the aforementioned giganto-pockets
  • Link cable? Giganto-Pockets
  • Spare batteries? Giganto-pockets

Yeah, this is going to get out of hand really fast. Wouldn’t it be so much better if some company made a thing that you could use to hold your Game Boy, a few games, and some accessories?

Well, you’re in luck, because someone did. Well, technically, lots of someones did, but this is what we’re going to take a look at today. The Game Boy Case Thing

gb_carry1

This thing has everything to take care of all of the problems listed above. It swings open and protects your Game Boy from the dangers of being carried around by an 11-year-old, it holds a few games and accessories, and has a convenient shoulder sling so you can do whatever with both hands free.

gb_carry2

It’s amazing!

The only downside is that I didn’t get one of these until much later than when I was 11 years old. In fact, I didn’t get my mitts on one of these until the Nintendo DS was already a thing, so it kind of had limited use to me.

I did, however, use a fanny pack instead for all my Game Boy transportation needs until that thing fell apart. I’m not really going to go into too much more detail than that, because the less we talk about fanny packs the better.

WHEATBAG

Super Mario Collector Pin Set

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Chances are, if you’re reading anything on the Internet, you don’t need me to tell you who Mario, Luigi, and Princess Toadstool are (if you somehow just arrived on this planet, now’s a great time to read up).

And for a time (roughly from about 1985 to now) you could get practically anything you wanted with Mario and company on it, including these things.

Super Mario Pins

This is a set of four pins (kind of like lapel pins, I suppose) that featured Mario, Luigi (Fiery Luigi, no less), or the Princess that you could wear. They don’t really do much except look mildly interesting, but, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Super Mario Pins - Closeup

Back when I was in grade school, I actually was friends with a kid who had had a set of these. At least I presume he had a set of these, I only ever saw him wearing the Princess Toadstool pin. And, the Princess Toadstool pin appeared to be oddly weighted, since every time I saw him with that pin on, she was upside down. In fact, it took me a few weeks to realize that he was wearing a Princess Toadstool pin at all, and not a hot-air balloon.

And, I guess that’s not really much of a story, but it’s all I’ve got, man.

Super Advantage

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

The other day, I kind of gushed about the best controller ever made, the NES Advantage. So, it kind of stood to reason that when there was an Advantage controller that was for the Super NES, that I would have to have it. I mean, an updated version of my favorite controller ever for what was then my current favorite video game system? It’s got Super NES styling? Insta-sale!

Super Advantage

But, somehow, this controller ranks near the bottom for any controller I’ve ever used. How? Well, let’s see here.

The button layout is terrible. The two grey buttons on the stick are for the L and R buttons, a.k.a. the ‘shoulder buttons’, that are on the top of the controller. So, naturally, these were moved to the bottom of the control panel.

Even more aggravating is that fighting games were pretty popular around that time, and I would have loved to use this thing to replicate the arcade experience, but the buttons weren’t laid out in the classic ‘two rows of three’ layout that made fighting games work. I tried to make the ‘two rows of three’ happen by assigning the ‘L’ button to the top row and the ‘R’ button to the bottom row, but it was a fairly poor substitute.

The buttons themselves also seemed to stick in the ‘depressed’ position if you didn’t hit them dead-center, and since the controller is so huge, there’s a lot of travel between the buttons, and a lot of mis-hits.

The slowmo button is relocated to a giant button in the center of the controller where it’s super-easy to accidentally hit.

The LED’s that show how fast the autofire is firing have been removed, so it’s kind of a guess now. Sure, there are sliders, but they’re not particularly easy to gauge.

And, at least on mine, the stick doesn’t always recenter itself properly. Mine liked to hang out in the down-left position. That’s probably a defect in my controller, but I was so disappointed in every other aspect of this thing that I never bothered to replace it, and I wouldn’t buy another joystick until 2011, which we’ll get into another day.

About the only good thing I have to say about this controller is that it helped be to finish Battletoads in Battlemaniacs. Mostly because whoever made that game reversed the most common assignments for buttons, and I could only make anything resembling progress by using the stick’s bizarro layout.

Still, it’s a bad controller, one that I wouldn’t even wish on someone I didn’t like.