Sunday, January 27, 2013

Wrecking Crew For NES

Super Mario Brothers is the British Invasion of video gaming. By and large, console games released before it played much their arcade counterparts: bite-sized chunks of video entertainment meant to briefly hold the player's attention, but lacking any real goal to meet beyond setting a high score. There's nothing wrong with this style of videogame at all, but once SMB was released, the immersive world its complex, elaborate, and interconnected levels built made older games seem quaint and limited by comparison.

So why am I yammering on about Super Mario Brothers? Like SMB, Wrecking Crew is an NES launch title, and it features Mario (and Luigi in two-player mode) in a prominent role. However, if SMB is the Beatles, Wrecking Crew is Fabian: It's fun to play, but it feels instantly dated by comparison. Your goal in the very arcade-like Wrecking Crew is to demolish nearly all of the standing objects in each level with your trusty hammer. There are brick walls, cement walls, pylons and breakable ladders that all must be smashed to complete the level. There are also ladders that can't be destroyed, barrels that block your path, and bombs that will blow up all other destructible objects adjacent to them. Hot on your heels are bipedal monkey wrenches, mask-wearing eggplants and big huge jerkface, Foreman Spike. The wrenches and eggplants just hunt you down and kill you, but Spike will ruin your life! He shadows you, occasionally smashing walls in your face and knocking you down, destroying objects critical to finishing the level or stealing your bonus coins. Since this is a family game, you can't cave this asshole's skull in with your hammer, no matter how hard you might like to. Instead, you can only avoid Spike and the other enemies, trap them in dropping barrels, or knock them off ladders. That is, unless you find the game's single power-up, the Golden Hammer. It's more powerful than the stock hammer, and Mario can swing it much more quickly. It can even knock enemies off the level if you're lucky enough to land a blow before they catch you. Unfortunately the Golden Hammer doesn't turn up very often, and you lose it if you die.

The enemies in Wrecking Crew certainly keep you on your toes, but the real challenge lies its puzzle elements. Mario can't jump or remove obstacles in his path, so you have to avoid trapping him or isolating him from the remaining objects you need to smash in order to complete the level. This is easy to accomplish in the early levels, but as you progress, it becomes clear that the bombs, ladders, pylons and such must be smashed in a very particular order. The upper levels are devilishly clever, so figuring out that order without the aid of a walk-through is a laudable achievement.

Nintendo generously included 100 official levels, but if that's not enough, a simple level editor is also included. In shades of Lode Runner, you can build up to four Wrecking Crew levels from scratch, and play through them in sequence. Unfortunately, this isn't Load Runner running off a floppy disk; it's Wrecking Crew on an NES cartridge with no battery backup. There's no saving your work here, which may confuse gamers when they try to select 'save' or 'load' from the menu screen. Selecting either option causes the game to freeze--pretty frustrating if you've just put the finishing touches on your own masterpiece of Wrecking Crew devilry. Evidently, the Famicom version included support for the Famicom Data Recorder, a glorified tape recorder similar to the Commodore 64's Datasette. The Data Recorder was never released for the NES, but Wrecking Crew left the Famicom version's save/load functionality in the game, assuming it would be one day.

Again, Wrecking Crew is an NES release title, and it shows in more ways than just the save/load bug. The NES may not have a huge palette of colors to work with, but it seems even fewer than normal are used in Wrecking Crew. This game would fail to impress if it were running on the Colecovision. The background of each level is a drab, black screen. Mario and Spike look ok, but the enemies lack much in the way of detail or variety. I thought the angry wrench monster was a road-killed dinosaur when I first saw it. Weirdly, Luigi has the same jaundiced skin color he sported in SMB, but now he's decked out in a hot-pink hard hat & overalls. The music and sound effects are lifted almost wholesale from Gyromite, another launch title meant to work with ROB, the NES robot. They're not bad per se; they're just derivative and not really memorable.

The germ of a really great classic game is hidden in Wrecking Crew, and had it been given more development time, it might have become one. It mixes action platforming and problem-solving successfully enough to be quite fun in short doses.Without much variety to the gameplay, though, it gets stale quickly. It's available for download on the Wii and 3DS virtual console where, mercifully, Nintendo has corrected the save/load bug. Give it a whirl if you still prefer the pompadour to the mop-top.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Gunstar Heroes For Sega Genesis

About 20 years ago, a group of developers at Konami got sick of cranking out run-and-gun Contra sequels, and left to form their own game company. Their freshman effort, Gunstar Heroes, is, well, another run-and-gun shooter. But this one happens to be a fantastic example of the genre, and an all-around great game.

The Gunstar family has served as guardians of the distant planet Gunstar-9 for generations, free to name their children after primary colors in relative peace. That peace was shattered when Smash Daisaku, an evil dictator with a suspicious resemblance to M. Bison and a fondness for interpretive dance, mind-controls Gunstar brother Green and forces him to steal four Magic McGuffin Gems. The remaining Gunstar brothers, Red and Blue, set out to free Green, defeat Smash, recover the gems and prevent the return of evil robotic uber-baddy, Golden Silver. Also Brown, Orange, Yellow, Pink, Grey, and Black.

From the get-go, Gunstar Heroes sets itself apart from the typical shooter by offering the player loads of choice. You can select the order in which you play through the first few levels, and pick the weapon you're equipped with at the beginning of each level. You can also choose from two different control styles: Free Shot and Fixed Shot. Free Shot is very similar to Contra's controls in that you can move freely but only shoot in the general direction in which you're facing. Fixed Shot plants your feet while shooting, but allows you to quickly aim in any direction. That may sound like a liability, but when enemies are swarming on you from all sides, the ability to Death Blossom yourself can be a life-saver. Your character has a few useful melee moves as well, like a surprisingly effective belly flop and foot slide. You can grab hapless minions who gets too close and launch them over your head, or dangle from ledges with one hand while spraying lead in any direction. You can even lob bombs back at the enemies who threw them. Smooth controls have often been a weak spot of run-and-gun games, but Gunstar Heroes has no such problem. The Gunstars' jump arcs are smooth and controllable in mid-air; they run at a brisk pace, and their more acrobatic melee moves are easy enough to pull off that they're actually useful. Useful melee attacks in a shooter... who'da thunk it?

Weapons are handled in a unique manner, too. There are powerful short-ranged flamethrowers, lasers that punch through multiple baddies, homing guns, and deadly high-speed ping pong ball launchers. At the beginning of each level, you can select any one of them to occupy your first weapons slot. This feature is pretty handy by itself, as anyone who's ever lost the Contra spread gun at a critical moment can attest. However, when you pick up another weapon in the level and add it to the second slot, you can use both weapons' effects at once. For example, combining the laser with the homing gun nets you a powerful penetrating weapon with homing ability, while mixing the flamethrower with the ping pong machinegun grants you a fireball launcher with a very high rate of fire. You can even pick up two weapons of the same type to make them much more powerful; picking up two flamethrowers doubles its range, for example. Experimenting with the different weapon combinations is a brilliant way for Treasure to extend the replay value of Gunstar Heroes. 

Gunstar Heroes breaks with tradition in another way: You only have one life, but you can take multiple hits. Your hit points, or 'vitality', is represented by a numerical value on the top of the screen; the game ends when it hits zero, but you have unlimited continues. Again, this is a brilliant design choice given the amount of carnage that most levels throws at the player. Not having to sweat instant death by a stray bullet or collision with an enemy makes the levels flow much more smoothly, and it encourages risk-taking, like soaking up a few hits to reach a boss' weak spot.

Speaking of bosses, Gunstar Heroes is full of them. Sub-bosses and main bosses abound; each more bizarre than the last. For example, the very first one you encounter is a gigantic asparagus stalk named Papaya Dance. Most bosses are made up of a complex assemblage of sprites that scale and rotate to give them an amazing 3D look. Nowhere is this effect put to better use than near the end of the game when a gigantic robot runs around a circular room, smoothly shifting from the background to the foreground in an effect that would look impressive on the Neo Geo.

Getting to the boss battles is just as much fun. There's not a lot of variation in the type of minions you run across, but they're nicely detailed; drawn in an cartoonish style reminiscent of the Metal Gear games, and, as I've mentioned before, loads of them attack at you at once. The typical left-to-right runs on foot are broken up by battles on magnetic mining carts, ascents on gigantic airships in flight, battles in space and, in one particularly memorable level, a series of mini-games played on a life-size board game. The levels tend to be short and intense, and there aren't many more beyond the initial four. On the easier difficulty settings, Gunstar Heroes can be completed in about an hour, though the harder difficulties make it much more challenging and two player mode certainly extends its play value. Gunstar Heroes' brevity may be its only significant failing, but really that's not such a bad problem for a video game to have. There are games I've never finished at all, and there are games I couldn't wait to be over, but Gunstar Heroes kept me riveted,  and left me begging for more. No padding, no backtracking, and no impossible levels; just a pure, intense gaming experience from start to finish.

Being a somewhat poor seller in its day, Gunstar Heroes has flown under the radar of mainstream gaming for a long time, earning only one direct sequel on the Game Boy Advance. However, the fans have spoken, and faithful recreations of this Genesis classic have finally turned up on the Playstation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, the Wii Virtual Console and on iOS devices. Gunstar Heroes is a perfect mix of amazing graphics, tight controls, intense gameplay and a quirky sense of humor. It's one of the best 16-bit titles ever released, and it absolutely should not be missed.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

HOWTO: Add S-Video Output To A Sega Genesis

Hi everybody, happy new year! I'm back with a whole new stack of crusty old games to review, but first, I'd kick off 2013 with another howto. There are already a number of excellent step-by-step guides on how to mod the Genesis floating around the Internet, including the the one I followed, so mine will contain primarily general information and random musing about my own experience.

Disclaimer time:

Use the info in this guide at your own risk. Like the NES, there are no dangerous voltages inside the Genesis, but it's vulnerable to static electricity once opened. You will be soldering wires directly to components inside the Genesis too, so take care not to cause a short circuit by bridging connections. Also, you need to know how to solder stuff. Probably should have mentioned that right away.

So what's so great about s-video?

I'm no video engineer, so I apologize if I make anyone's head explode with my layman's understanding of television signaling. Basically, an analog composite color TV signal contains two synchronized components: luminance (Y) & chrominance (C). Luminance tells the TV how bright to make the dot on the screen at a given moment, and chrominance tells the TV what color to make it. The two signals are multiplexed and either sent directly to the TV set, as in composite video, or modulated into radio frequency and broadcast, as in a television station. The TV set itself is responsible for demultiplexing chrominance & luminance, and converting the two signals into a video image. Unfortunately, the two signals tend to interfere with each other, resulting in video problems, like dot crawl, color bleeding, and so on. In short, composite video kinda sucks.

S-video is an attempt to deal with this suckage by keeping luminance and chominance electrically separate. S-video passes Y & C from the source device to the TV set on their own wires, avoiding most of the image problems inherent to composite video. Of course, to take advantage of this, you need a TV with an s-video input. They're pretty distinctive, usually consisting of a round plug with four pins; one for Y, one for C and two grounds. They're commonly found in higher-end TVs made in the last couple of decades, though they're becoming increasingly rare as all-digital connections, like HDMI, have come to dominate.

S-video has been supported by video game consoles and old computers since the Commodore 64. The video encoder chip in the Sega Genesis supports it too, though Sega saw fit not to properly wire it up. No matter, we can lift the signals directly from the chip.

What do we need?

Model 1 Genesis
To start, you need a model 1 Sega Genesis. The model 1 genesis is the best unit to own for a number of reasons, but for our purposes, the mode 1 is ideal due to its video encoder chip being larger than the model 2's and through-mounted instead of surface-mounted. Be warned, though: a few later revisions of model 1 Genesis units actually contain the guts of model 2 units. To be safe, look for Genesis consoles with "High definition graphics" printed along the top and/or a 9-pin serial connector just left of the 'ch3-ch4' switch, or a noticeable, 3/4" gap where that connector should be. For folks in Europe & Japan, an early-model Mega Drive should also work with this mod, though I can't guarantee it.

In addition to a model 1 Genesis, you will need most of these components to build the Y & C amplifiers. You don't need the LED, phono plugs or oscillator unless you would like to follow the author's complete instructions to overclock the Genesis' CPU and add A/V jacks to it. The project wires, transistors, capacitors, and project boards were readily available at my local Radio Shack, but I couldn't find 110k ohm resistors in stock, so I had to make due with 100k ohm pieces. A female s-video jack was the hardest part to locate, as Radio Shack no longer stocks them. Mine came from a breakout cable used to connect a PC video card to a television, but you can pick one up here for just a couple of bucks.

Dismantling the Genesis

This part is pretty easy. Basically, remove nearly every damn screw that's in the console. Six screws on the underside hold it shut, while a whole bunch more hold the main board to the bottom of the case. Once the case is open, be sure to ground yourself before touching any internal components to prevent static electricity damage to the Genesis. Remove & discard the thin steel RF shield covering the top of the mainboard; it only gets in the way once the mod is complete. There's a thick steel heat sink attached to two power regulators on the left side of the console. Remove the two screws & set the heat sink aside for now. The video encoder chip that we'll be noodling with is located underneath the heat sink. The power LED is permanently attached to the top of the case as well as the mainboard. If you need to completely liberate the mainboard from the case, cut the LED's wires, and splice them back together when you're ready to reassemble.

Building the amps 

The video encoder chip inside the Genesis, a Sony CXA1145, does indeed generate s-video signals, but not at a power level sufficient to directly drive a television set. We need to build a couple of simple one-transistor amplifier circuits to boost the 1145's s-video signals to a level high enough to drive the TV. David Howland's website provides excellent step-by-step instructions on how to turn a pile of parts into two functional amps, and I can't add much more. If you're having trouble following the circuit diagram, just do what I did: make your circuit board look as close as possible to the one in the image. The amp input lines shown on the circuit diagram aren't actually pictured and can be challenging to locate, so I've highlighted them in the following photos.

Connecting the whole mess up

Up in this photo is toward the rear of the Genesis
Locate the video processor chip. It's on the rear left corner of the mainboard, near the recently-removed heat sink. It's labeled 'CXA1145P' and has 24 pins, of which pin 1, 12, 13 & 24 should be identified by silk-screened labels on the mainboard. We're interested in pins 15 & 16; pin 15 is chrominance, and 16 is luminance. I connected the left amp, the one with a green input & output wire,  to pin 15 and the right to 16. It doesn't matter which amp is connected where as long as you keep track of how you connected them.

Next, you need to connect +5v power to the amps. You can lift that from pin 2 of one of the two voltage regulators. Pin 2 is closest to the front of the Genesis, though Sega has conveniently labeled all three pins on both regulators. You can connect the ground wire just about anywhere, like the RF shielding, but pin 3 on the voltage regulator is a good spot. I've found it's best to solder all connections, including ground, to guarantee a solid, noise-free signal. This would also be a good time, while the voltage regulators are exposed, to replace the blue thermal grease that couples them to the heat sink. After 20+ years, the grease tends to harden & lose its ability to conduct heat.

Now that the amps are wired, it's time to bench-test them. I used a USB TV tuner attached to a laptop as a test bed for convenience sake, but any TV or capture device with s-video inputs should work. If you get no picture at all, recheck pretty much everything. If you get a black & white picture, then luminance is working but chrominance isn't. If you get a picture with lots of vertical & horizontal hold problems, try reversing your Y & C signals. If the picture is visible but noisy or jittery, recheck the solder joints between the Genesis & the amp board you built, particularly power & ground. Once you've verified everything is working and you're ready to mount your amp board, be sure to insulate the bottom with electrical tape to avoid shorting it against any of the Genesis' components. The amp board can be taped or hot-glued to the mainboard in front of the cartridge slot.

At last, connect the chrominance & luminance amps to the s-video jack according to the diagram. The two ground wires can be combined and connected to the amp board's ground or directly to a ground in the Genesis. If your Genesis has the completely-unused 9-pin serial connection, you can safely remove it to make room for your s-video connector if you want. Otherwise, I'd suggest mounting it in the space just left of the 'ch3-ch4' switch on the back of the console. Try to keep it mounted above the seam on the upper half of the case, in case you need to open the console up again.

So how's it look?

The finished product
Overall, I'm pretty impressed with the video quality of my Genesis s-video mod. The only significant video problem I've noticed is the presence of 'jail bars', black vertical stripes that appear between the Genesis' rather chunky pixels. I've read that dorking with the resistor values in the amp circuits can minimize this effect, but it's a problem endemic to the CXA1145 chip, and can't be completely eliminated. Otherwise, it looks a damn site better than RF, and is a noticeable improvement over composite. There's no more dot crawl or rainbowing of white text. Black images, such as the black space surrounding the 'Sega' logo on a game's boot really look black, not brown or a smeared mishmash of dim colors. The colors are far more saturated with s-video than composite, and they really pop off the screen. I've included a few screen shots that I hope illustrate the difference between s-video and composite video, when everything else is equal.

In NBA Jam, the player's names are clearly legible in s-video, but blur together in composite. However, in the s-video shot, the jail bar effect is clearly visible in the blue border and the green stats bars.

The images in Sonic 3 are much less blurry with s-video. Note the greater detail in in Sonic himself, as well as the grass around him.

Finally, have a look at the level select screen in Lightening Force. The red box around "Daser" shows significant dot crawl in composite video, but not in s-video. Composite video's "softer" look makes the planet in the background appear less jagged, but a lot of detail in its clouds and land masses is lost. Ironically, the Daser level in LF includes a sandstorm which partially obscures the player's view of the action. It looks much better in composite video than s-video because the checkerboard grid of pixels representing the sandstorm blur together, creating a translucent effect. This may well be an example of the developers using composite video's inherent limitations to their advantage.

So there you have it. With a little know-how and a raid on Radio Shack's parts bin, you too can enjoy the mighty Sega Genesis in vivid detail.

Thanks for reading my guide. Stay tuned for more classic game reviews!