Friday, September 11, 2015

The Nintendo Entertainment System: Birth of an Empire

A retrospective look at one of the greatest Consoles of all time.

Not including Nintendo's 'Color TV Game', the NES was Nintendo's first real stab at the home video game market. And what a stab it was. Comparatively to the previous well known 8-bit systems of the day (the Atari for those too young to remember), The NES featured superior graphics, betters sound and a controller that consisted of more than a joystick and one button, and even launched with the famed 'Light Gun'. And with one of the most robust line-ups of launch titles to date (still impressive by today's standards), the NES grew to be one of the most successful video game consoles of all time.

The Nintendo Entertainment System didn't have the smoothest of launches in the US however. The NES launched in America in 1985, shortly after the time Atari was on it's way out (largely due to the ET scandal). It was so tough for Nintendo to get a leg into the market, largely as many stores refused to even stock game systems any more, they had to get clever. And that's why they decided to market themselves as a 'Home Entertainment System', even through in a few gimmicks like R.O.B. the robot. Even with the rough beginnings, the Nintendo was a quick success, turning themselves into the 'must have' Christmas present for the next 5 years.

Nintendo's first game line-ups could be considered baby steps for them if you think of how the console evolved. Even with the somewhat rough beginnings, Nintendo's early days (including the bundled games at launch) included Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, which are games that are still loved today. The games on the NES quickly evolved as well. Shortly into the system's life, Nintendo released a game so massive, it required something no console system had ever seen, saves. This game would be the famed 'Legend of Zelda'. And they only continued from there. The NES allowed Nintendo to produce games of such quality (and fun), it launched numerous franchises and characters that are still relevant today.

Let's take a brief look at the evolution of Nintendo's games. If you look at the start, it's very blocky. The graphical limitations are easily seen. You can make out what the characters are supposed to be, but blocky. The sounds were also pretty basic. All the sounds in the early days (and this includes any music track in the game) are all single note sounds. Even with these limitations, the designers at Nintendo, and the composer Koji Kondo were able to produce memorable characters and music. Shortly into the NES's life, the developers were learning how to design around the system, finding what it was capable of. This allowed for some fantastic innovation. They were developing games with top down perspective, driving games with a 1st person perspective. If you think about it, games that utilized the Light Gun were the first console based First Person Shooters. Yes they were limited to the technology of the time, and are more accurately known as 'Rail Shooters', but these were the first steps in that direction. On top of that, Nintendo started greatly enhancing the sounds the NES was able to make. This not only allowed for much more robust soundtracks, even some games were capable of voice... Sorta (example: Bayou Billy).

One of Nintendo's great innovations were it's controllers. The controllers were some of the first to have more than 1 action button, and oddly one of the first to allow you to pause the game with the start button (Start to stop, must be where Windows got it from). It was one of the first, purely hand held controllers, without making us use some facsimile of a Joy stick. Most of the early joystick controllers required some sort of table to sit at to really be usable, with some feeble attempt of using suction cups on the bottom, and would come loose at the most inopportune moment. What the NES controller allowed us to do was move, steer, whatever with the left hand and do whatever action is required with the right hand . This was an evolution that can be likened to the evolution of man growing thumbs. This was such a good controller setup, it's still the base of almost all hand-held controller layouts to this day.

I don't want this to just be a parade with out great the NES was. As with everything, it was not without faults, and the NES had some biggun's. First was the setup. To this day, I've yet to see a setup that was more un-reliable and fiddly, and I have a Wii. They didn't come with any standard component cables, but an adapter to work with your Cable port (The RF adapter). I understand this was to allow the NES to work, even if you didn't have a VCR. But this allowed for the worst possible picture quality, and the component cables weren't even a stock option.

And once you did figure out how to hook the thing up, you had to deal with one of the most un-reliable consoles to ever be released (maybe aside from the X-Box :p). All of us had our tricks, having the cartridge in just the right, un-plug and plug it back in, hold power and reset at the same time, jump up and down, sacrifice a chicken, and none of it helped. Sadly, I think we all knew it too. What was truly at fault was 2 things, dust and corrosion. Even though the NES had a closing lid to protect it's delicate interiors, dust would still manage to find it's way in there. Probably as most of us didn't use dust covers on the games them-selves. This would lead to us blowing the systems out with our mouths, which seemed to work great.... at first. When we would blow out both the cartradges and the console, what we were also doing is leaving little saliva deposits, which would cause rust and corrosion, making our NES's more and more un-reliable to the point of almost being un-useable. This is such a well known problem, that 3rd party companies were (and are) making replacement parts for the pin reader system.

On top of the corrosion issues, there was also a design flaw in just using the games, even if you took every opertunity to protect the system. Because of Nintendo's use of light weight metals (I.E. Nickel) on their contact pins, repeated use, pressing the game down in the system would cause the pins to start to bend, and eventually loose connectivity. This is one flaw that could not be circumvented. Again, there are (and were) companies that make replacement parts for this. Thankfully this was an issue Nintendo recognized and corrected in the Super NES with their top loading system. Funnily, you can almost call this an un-planned obsolescence. As all our NES' were dying, Nintendo had launched the SNES. The 'Here's your fix... A new system!'.

But I digress. Even with these faults, the NES laid the foundation for Nintendo, and the home video game consoles as a whole. It was an important step. Many of us today still hold the NES in reverence. It was many gamers first system, and was a leap forward compared to what had been release previously. The NES was the first system to step out of our world and be a hero, go and save the princess, or be a Formula 1 driver. Nintendo hit the nail on the head with this one, and with luck, the NES will forever live on.

Sony Playstation

Sony Playstation

The Sony Playstation (now commonly known as the PSX or PSone) was released in 1994 and was Sony's first major attempt at a home console entertainment system. It was the first launched of what Wikipedia calls the 5th generation game consoles, competing with the later released Sega Saturn and the Nintendo 64. Like the Sega and unlike the N64, the Sony Playstation utilized CD's for the game media, allowing for a much greater sized game than consoles were previously capable of. It was also the most expensive console released to date, costing a whopping $299 sticker price.

The PSone is responsible for a lot of firsts in the gaming world, but had a shaky start. As is typical of Sony's system launches, they had a woefully lackluster selection of launch titles. A smattering of sports games, a port of an arcade game that was old, even by 1994's standards, Rayman, and Street Fighter: The Movie (possibly the worst street fighter game ever released). It took the system almost 2 years before it had any titles that would hold their own. What allowed the PSone to take off is it was the first console that did more than gaming. It didn't do much mind you, but it did play music CD's. It might seem a bit of a gimmick now, but at the time CD's were still kinda new, and this paved the way of Sony game consoles being more, being home entertainment systems. And by the time the PSone's main competition came out, the Nintendo 64 in 1996 (The Sega Saturn was never really a full blown rival), the PSone's games lineup had grown immensely.

When the Playstation was first released, it was sporting hardware the video games world hadn't seen outside of arcade systems and high end computer systems. It was the first home console to sport 32bit graphics, with hardware allowing for full 3d graphics, with the 3d graphics only getting better and better as developers learned how to fully utilize the system. The hardware and the fact it used CD's as it's media, meant it was one of the first devices to allow for fully rendered cut scenes, and fully orchestrated background music.

What was one of the Playstation's greatest strengths, was also probably it's greatest weakness as well. Sony's use of CD's allowed for massive games comparatively to what was coming out at the time. But it also added an annoyance to gaming that still exists to this day, loading times. The Playstation was the first system to be plagued by this menace. With it's primary competitor (The Nintendo 64) having no loading times at all due to it's use of Cartridges, it weighed heavily on the system. But Sony prevailed. With it's massive game selection, even releasing games that were only previously available on a PC, and with multi-disk titles like Final Fantasy and Metal Gear, the Sony went on to be a staple in the gaming world.

One of the Playstation's greatest triumphs was the introduction to the Playstation controller. The Playstation controller was loosely based off of the SNES controller, with the same standard layout of D-Pad on the left, 4 buttons on the right, start, select and shoulder buttons (in this case 4 shoulder buttons instead of 2). What the Playstation did differently than anyone to this date, is the controller was not just a flat bar with some buttons on it, it was ergonomic. With curves and angles so the controller fit comfortably in your hands. This controller design was so successful, the basic layout hasn't changed since the controllers introduction for 21 years, only adding a few items (analog sticks and buttons, and now has a touch pad and headphone jacks). The long life of this controller layout is a testament of it's quality and design.

Overall, the Sony Playstation can only be measured to be a massive success. It started Sony out in the console gaming world, and they've been there ever since. Not only is the Playstation still revered to this day, even Sony allowing for digital downloads of their classic games, but it laid the foundation of what was to come. It was the first gaming system to do more than just play video games, it was the first gaming system to successfully use CD's as it's game media, the first to successfully implement an ergonomic controller, the first system to allow for full 3d rendered graphics, the first to allow pre-rendered graphics, the first to allow for a fully orchestrated soundtrack, the list can go on. Almost all of these firsts were ground breaking and still used today. Even with a few minor problems, the Playstation was an important step in gaming and pointed the direction to the future.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Nintendo 64 - Nintendo's first steps into 3D

The Nintendo 64 was Nintendo's first steps into full 3d gaming. Designed to compete with consoles like the Sony Playstation and the Sega Saturn, the Nintendo was the only console of this generation to use cartradges instead of CD's. This led to an interesting moment in gaming development. Where the Nintendo was capeable of crisper graphics and no loading times, due to the size limitations of cartradges of the day, it was extremely limited in game size, limited data for full recorded music and sounds, and no fully rendered cut scenes. On top of that, the production of cartradges was both complicated and expensive, not allowing much of the Indi market to develop for the system. Even with these limitations, the Nintendo 64 was not only a huge success, but had a vast array of some of the best games the market had seen to date. Many of which are still beloved and played today.

The Nintendo 64, even with it's graphical limitations, had an edge on much of the market for several reasons. First, it was one of the cheapest consoles of it's generation, costing about $100 less than it's closest competition, the Sony Playstation. On top of that, it was one of the first consoles to utilize fully 3d rendered worlds, instead of just utilizing 3d characters and sprites, with pre-rendered backgrounds. This was apperant in one of the Nintendo 64's launch titles, Super Mario 64. Not only did the fully rendered worlds create an explorable landscape, it also allowed the users full control of the camera, something that was nearly unheard of in gaming to that point. Admitted, sometimes a complete pain, this allowed the players a full view of the world they were playing in, making the games more emersive than ever.

The Nintendo 64 was the first console to come pre-built with 4 control ports. No attachments, and built in to support 4 players on almost every multiplayer game. And of all companies, Nintendo, who lets remind everyone loves to sell you peripherals and attachments, came up with. This gave a great many games a strong emphasis on multiplayer. Many of the Nintendo 64's top titles are heralded to this day for this. Games like Mario Kart 64, Golden Eye, Super Smash Brothers and many others were staples of the multiplayer genre, so much in fact, many of the titles developed at this time, are around in some form or another today.

If there's any 'controversy' surrounding the Nintendo 64, I would have to say the greatest is surrounding the controller. Loved by some, and hated by others. This was the one feature on the Nintendo 64 that galvanized gamers more than anything. I'll start out by saying that I really liked the 64's controller. Yes, it wasn't without it's faults, but it worked perfectly for the games designed for the system. And it was one of the only controllers ever designed that allowed for different options on how to hold the controller. This, however was one of the main complaints against the controller. Where Nintendo was allowing 'choice', many saw this as a limitation as they didn't alway have full access to all the buttons and controlls. The Nintendo 64 was the first console to have a fully analog controller, which was out before Sony's Dualshock by almost 2 years, once again giving an edge to Nintendo in 3D gaming.

Now onto the elephant in the room, the cartradges. Nintendo use of Carts were possibly it's greatest strength as well as it's greatest weakness. The use of cartradges allowed for Nintendo to utilize full 3D worlds, without having to have a loading screen everytime you moved more than 20 yards, which also allowed for sharper in game graphics than most of it's competitors. But cardradges are expensive and complicated to make, negating almost any 3rd party development for the system. In almost all cases, 3rd party developers were forced to make the games along side Nintendo themselves, just to help illeviate much of the cost of development. This was a double edge sword, as it weeded out much of the cheap and crappy titles, and allowed Nintendo a certain level of quality control. But this also stopped almost and of the indipendent market from developing titles for the 64. This was also responsible for ending one of the longest and strongest gaming aliances up to this point, between Nintendo and Squaresoft (now known as Square Enix). Squaresoft was and is one of the largest and most successful makers of JRPG's. They saw there were massive size limitations on Nintendo's cartradges, and Sony had the ability to switch disks mid game as data ran out, thus allowing them to create games accross multiple disks increasing their size immensely.

Something that has always haunted Nintendo, is their love for peripherals. Even with all that's included with the N64 as standard, it was no exception to this fact. The first well known peripheral is the controller memory pack. This allowed for players to save times and ghosts in Mario Kart, Costumes in Bomberman, stuff like that. There were many other peripherals including, but not limited to, the Rumble Pak, Transfer Pak, the VRU and notibly the expansion pak (Nintendo seemed to have an evertion to C's in the 90's... who knew). The Expansion Pak was one of the few peripherals that was necessary to play some games (I.E. Majora's Mask, and Donkey Kong 64). While only a few titles required the Expansion Pak, it added options of higher graphics to many others that didn't.

One of Nintendo's great legacy's are it's quality game titles. With franchises like Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda and Star Fox (to name a few). The Nintendo 64's versions of these titles are so beloved, most are being ported to modern systems today, with several receiving full graphical overhauls, and even making the jump to 3D on Nintendo's 3Ds. Because of Nintendo's quality games, it allowed for the Nintendo 64 to be a heavy weight in a field it should have really been an underdog. The Nintendo 64 was the first steps for many of us into the world of 3D gaming. The N64 is a beloved system for many of us that grew up with the system, and will continue to be played for many years to come.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tuvva Power Play - Gaming Tablet Review

The Tuvva Power Play is quite possibly the cheapest gaming tablet on the market. Priced at $120, is it worth the cost? I'm here to share my views.

To start off, yes the Tuvva is very cheap. You'd be hard pressed to find any Android tablet in the same price range, let alone one with built in controls. You even get the option of black or white, which it more than you can say for most of the top of the line tablets.

Initial impressions of the tablet are good. It has nice feeling buttons, and a good size display. The Tuvva has analog pads more similar to the PSP and the 3DS vs. full analog sticks. These are a bit wieghty, but they work fine.

But once you start using the device, you can see where they saved money. The first thing you will notice, it has a TFT screen. TFT technology was considered old 10 years ago. What this means, is if you tilt the tablet while playing, the screen will look bleached out or too dark to see anything. The Tuvva also has the cheapest and saddest little speaker I've ever seen fitted to a device. It's mono, and very wispy in power. Thankfully it has a good working bluetooth and audio jack, so if you want to use headphones or external speakers, it works fine.

The Power Play ironically isn't what you'd call very powerful either. It's only rocking a dual core 1.6gb processor with only 1gb of ram. It also only has a total of 8gb of flash memory, with only 1gb setup for the OS and applications. Thankfully with androids ability to store most of your app data on the on board SD card, this hasn't affected me too much. It's rocking a quad core 400MP4 graphic processor, but the screen resolution is only 1024x600. I do want to mention, that if you are using this tablet to emulate old games (as it was designed for), the low resolution almost helps.

You can tell they used somewhat lower grade plastic as well. When this really shows is when you use the device in the dark, you get a fair amount of light bleeding through the plastic. Now, the tablet doesn't feel fragile, which is a plus. I've actually been using mine fairly regularly for almost a year now without any major issues. And because it used Joypads instead of full on Joysticks, it's much more portable without having to worry about the stick getting screwed up.

Everything else is pretty standard. Multi-Touch screen which works adequately, front and rear facing camera's (which are actually really bad), gyro sensors, WiFi, Bluetooth and pretty much anything else you come to expect from any android device these days. It also has a built in HDMI port along with support for up to a 64gb Micro SD card. The battery life is impressive as well. Under full use, it will last 6-8 hours without a charge.

Tuvva decided to set its tablet to use a non-upgradeable Android Jelly Bean. At first I was irritated by this until after using it a bit, I figured out why. Jelly Bean is possibly Android's most stable operating system, and they wanted to keep many of the bugs from crashing while you're gaming. Over all the OS is pretty bullet proof.

There is one re-occuring glitch in the OS however. The 'Home' bar on the bottom (the bar that give you the 'Home', 'Menu' and 'Back' options) will disapear and can't be brought back without a restart. Thankfully this is relatively minor as most of these buttons are also available in the physical controls.

The Tuvva also has one built in feature that is fantastic. The ability to map the physical controls to on screen functions. This way, if you're playing a game that doesn't have mappable keys (I.E. most Android games), you can set it up so the buttons will interact with the on-screen controls. It's easy to set up and will retain and saved controls for whatever program it was setup for. It's also one of the few gaming tablets that has the option for an R3 and L3. They aren't connected to the Joypad like the Playstation controls, but placed just below.

Even though the power plant in the Tuvva is a bit lack-luster, it actually holds it's own when it comes to emulation. It seems to be able to play much of the same games and devices that my Quad core LG tablet can play with about the same amount of success. The trick is to not force it to multi-task and it'll do just fine. I've emulated as low as Gameboy games to as high as PSP and Sega Dreamcast without much issue. And pretty much any android emulated apps have options for button mapping. With some programs that don't have full mapping functionality (I.E. Reicast), you can map what you can and then assign whatever buttons you want to for the on screen functions.

I wanted to make a special point to the customer service at the Tuvva Department. I had dropped the first tablet I received cracking one of the shoulder buttons, and they exchanged it, no questions asked and for no money. I had a new tablet in a little over a week (hey, shipping from China, that's impressive).

Great with emulation (why you're buying this tablet to begin with)
Full functioning analog Joy Pads
Great portability (Slim and light weight)
Full functioning Android Tablet
Screen mappable functions
Great Customer Service
Expandable to 64gb Micro SD card
Long battery life

TFT screen
Low Resolution
Cheap and crappy speaker
Slightly cheap build quality
Low amount of on board flash memory
Slow processing power
'Home' bar glitch

Overall Impressions:
The Tuvva Power Play isn't what I would call a high end device. As long as you take the 'You get what you pay for' mantra to heart, you won't be disappointed. You won't find it's equal for the price, and it does what it sets out to do, provide a good and portable emulation device, very well. If you're in the market for a gaming tablet, the Tuvva Power Play is well worth a second look.

iPega 9023 Review

For us who like our emulated gaming, we're always on the look out for devices that help with this.

There's something satisfying about having those clicking buttons and the ever elusive Joy Stick.

The iPega is a BlueTooth controller that is adjustable so it can be used with small 4" Smart Phones to anything up to a 10" Tablet. It's able to 'hug' whatever device you want to game with which gives it better versatility than anything I've seen yet. And as one of the cheapest BlueTooth controllers on the market, it's well worth a look.

I do want to note, this review is regarding Android only. I am not an iOS user, and have no plans on doing an iOS review.

First impressions of the controller were mixed. The buttons and D-pad have a nice feel to them, giving a very satisfying click. They're not weighted too heavily, but don't have a cheap feel either. The Joystick also has a quality feel to it.

The mixed feelings come from the over-all feel of the device. The iPega is light, very light. Lightness is a double edge sword. Not adding weight to a possibly already weighty tablet, good. Lightness on the verge of being flimsy and fragile, bad. When you first look at the controller, it feels like the latter option. (I will have a segment later on about how the device has held up after a month of solid use).

The use of the device and it's functionality is where it shines.

I do want to point out there are a lot of reviews about bad instructions and not being able to get the controller to pair. I have not had any of these issues. On the contrary, I have paired my iPega with 5 different devices, ranging from 2 phones (and LG and Samsung), and 3 Tablets (LG, Samsung and Lenovo); All without any fault. I didn't find the directions to be particularly difficult to understand either. It's possible the later models might have improved directions.

Fitting the iPega for your device is simple. There is a spring slider, and a locking slider. You set the locking slider to just a bit more narrow than your device, and then you use the spring to grip it. They have a further flip-out clip on the bottom for more security, but it's not overly necessary in my opinion. The grip does seem to block both the power port and audio jack on most phones and tablets. However, I've found the iPega grips well enough that I just slide my tablet up or down until I have access to the needed port(s) and continue playing. I haven't had any trouble with this at all.

There are 4 modes of pairing: A, B, X & Y. All have the controller function a little differently. My recommendation, just use the controller in 'X' mode, as that's 'Controller' mode and the only mode where the Joysticks have full functionality. To pair the device, you just press whatever mode you want on the action keys and the 'home' button. This places the controller in 'Search' mode. Once in search mode, you turn on the BlueTooth search on whatever device you want to pair with, once they see each other, you can pair them. Once paired, there's no further setup. There is a certain amount of control over the OS, and the buttons can be mapped in any program that allows for it (and I've yet to find an android emulator that doesn't have some sort button mapping). Once you're set up, paired and mapped, you're ready to game.

I've used the iPega on a myriad of emulators, ranging from Game-boy, N64, PSX, and even PSP and Dreamcast. Many will even auto-detect the controller and set up the mapping for you. The only real issue I've ran into is some emulators that can't see some of the controls. This is more of a compatibility issue and can't be blamed on the iPega as much as it is the emulators fault, as all the other emulators have no problems with recognition. Even better, most emulators allow for extra functions to be mapped (for those who like to utilize savestates, fast forwards and all the other lovely emulation features), these can all be mapped to the controller for easy cheating.

The controller functionality is nice too. As stated above, the buttons and D-Pad all have a nice feel to them with a satisfying click. I've yet to have any malfunctions, and this is after a month of pretty solid use. One oddity is the Joysticks and the dead zones. what's odd about it, is it seems to very a bit from one device to another. I pair is with my LG G-Pad, and there's almost no dead zone at all, but when I pair it with my Galaxy S3 Phone, and my Lenovo tablet and there's a noticeable dead zone (still acceptable, but larger than the tablet). As I primarily use my LG tablet for gaming, this isn't an issue for me, but be forewarned, you may deal with larger dead zones depending on what device you're using. I've yet to see anything that's a deal breaker however, and everything is still plenty usable. I also wanted to add, full functioning L3 and R3 buttons built into the Joysticks (for all you Ape Escape fans out there).

One of the most impressive aspects is the battery life. Under heavy use (and this is assuming you're using your phone / tablet for gaming at the time), the iPega will last about twice as long as any of my devices. and from a complete dead battery, it takes about an hour, maybe 2 at most to charge to full. And it is completely playable while plugged in, so you can continue playing while the controller is charging up. It takes a standard micro USB that is now the most common chargers for android phones now.

If I had to make one complaint, it would be it's mobility. Yes, the iPega is both very light and collapsible, but even fully collapsed, it's actually quite large. It's main issue is it doesn't lay flat. While using it, it's very comfortable, as it's mimics the Playstation controls in both layout and design. This makes it a bit of an awkward shape, and you're at risk of breaking it if you pack it tightly. I do want to point out that this is a somewhat minor issue as long as you take care in packing it correctly, and it's somewhat awkward shape makes it very comfortable to use.

Easy to use
Easy to pair and setup
Quality buttons and Joystick
Full functioning analog Joystick
Great selection of buttons, including a few extras built in for mapping purposes
Expands to allow play from a 4.5" phone up to a 10" Tablet
Light Weight
Ergonomic Design
Great battery life

Not very portable
Light weight might mean fragile
Seems to have slight variance between devices
Some compatibility issues with some games (Not really the iPega's fault however)

To Sum up, the iPega controller is surprising, in both quality and functionality. It's held up with some pretty rigorous gaming for well over a month without a single hiccup, broken button or quality issue. It might seem a bit on the light side, but it isn't as fragile as it seems. It's not the most portable of controllers, but it's extremely comfortable to use, even for the extended gaming sessions. And for something so affordable (I was able to find it for $23 on 'Geek'), it's really worth the small output to get a great gaming experience.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Greetings to the world

Hello all. I wanted to invite you to my blog about anything to do with classic and vintage gaming. Here, I will discuss retro games, consoled and even modern ways to play them. As this blog is in it's infancy, posts will be sporadic and somewhat random. Once I get the initial posts and glitches out of the way, I will do what I can to keep this blog regularly updated.