Posted June 6, 2014

My original Super Nintendo, which I must’ve bought around the summer of 1991 when I was 16, was plugged into an 80s wood-enclosed Zenith tv. I don’t really remember the picture quality but I can’t imagine it was stellar. Still, it had that CRT meshy scanlined glass box glow that we’re still trying to recreate. I sold that SNES a few years later, along with several other consoles.

The next SNES I owned was given to me by a friend several years ago, his childhood console. It sat in my closet until a year ago when this stuff became interesting to me again. Plugging it in I had realized it looked like shit on a modern tv until I learned about upscalers and SCART plugs. This worked well until the SNES broke — possibly one of the PPU chips on the pcb stamped 1990 was dying, causing disappearing layers and sprites in certain games. So I bought another one on eBay for $40, easy enough. It ended up being a 1994 SNS-CPU-RGB-01, which sounded fancy, but really all SNES pcbs, with the exception of the Mini, generate an RGB signal. It looked ok, though never great, with a general darkness to the image and some blur. I had read in the past that some editions of the SNES looked better than others, specifically the 1CHIP, a 1995 revision which replaced the CPU and 2 PPUs with 1 chip, resulting in a crisper, more defined image. Around this time I started some lengthy email threads with a nice gent from Instagram who mentioned his own adventures in searching for a 1CHIP Super Famicom. He pointed out that there were, of course, three varieties: 1CHIP-01, 1CHIP-02 and 1CHIP-03. Was one better? The consensus seems to be that the 1CHIP-03 produced the highest quality picture. But really, how much better could it look than a typical SNES?

Of course, being obsessive and idiotic, that question kept haunting me, so I started peaking back at eBay. Any “1CHIP” listings? Nope, and if there were the seller would surely be charging appropriately. Instead, pictures of the console’s serial number held the key, and fortunately there are some handy forums out there connecting the rest of the dots. Only I didn’t connect those dots quick enough and rushed my first purchase, which wasn’t a 1CHIP and looked slightly worse than mine. I sold it back on eBay within a few hours and started the hunt again. Search, sort by lowest price, scroll past the “just for parts” listings, then start opening prospective sales in new tabs and hope the serial is readable. I repeated this over three weeks, sometimes an hour or two at a time. It often felt pointless and silly, what were the odds of finding something so specific in thousands of listings? Why can’t I just be happy with what I have? But then I’d come across a serial tauntingly close and keep going.

Finally one surfaced, in good shape for about $50. A few days later I plugged it in, pressed power and watched as the red light turned on and then back off. Dead! Refunded. I just about gave up and considered all the other good stuff I could be doing instead with my time. Which is really a sure fire way to return to what you were just doing. Then I found a very dirty 1CHIP serial, like brown dirty and listed as “untested” for $25 obo. I offered $20 and he accepted, probably pushing my luck but it was filthy, untested, and non-returnable. This was my backup 1CHIP I thought, and maybe with a few more searches I could luck out with a 1CHIP-03. Finally, one last search for the day and out of nowhere there it was, a “clean 1CHIP-03” for $89, complete with photos of the serial number and pcb. This seemed too good to be true and at this point I felt more secure about the brown version which passed silently in the night rather than parade itself. I sat back and waited for the packages to ship.

The brown 1CHIP arrived first, shipped in a shoebox, dirty but somehow I was able to bring it back to its original grey glory. The pcb wasn’t very clean either though it quickly shined up. It was stamped 1995 SNS-CPU-1CHIP-01. I nervously hooked it up and put my test carts into action: Super Mario World, Legend of Zelda and Yoshi’s Island. I watched as an improved image appeared on the screen, sharper and brighter, more colorful, and in general just much cleaner. That sharp, white text! Those scanlines! The next evening the 1995 SNS-CPU-1CHIP-03 was at the door. It was super clean, like brand new clean, with spotless insides and no tinkering in sight. Again with the test carts and again great results. A smidge better, though certainly not as obvious as between a non-1CHIP and 1CHIP. I threw several more games at it and watched as they all danced on the screen begging to be played (daddy’s here, I whispered). I almost wanted to play DoReMi Fantasy all over again.

Of course there’s one footnote. I noticed in a couple games so far there are sequences in which the 1CHIP versions of the SNES loses sync with the tv: the intro of Yoshi’s Island and fight sequences in Tales of Phantasia. This can be stabilized by pushing the XRGB-mini’s sync level from 9 to 30. A forum member suggested it was likely the sync stripper in my XRGB-mini adapter causing more trouble, and retro gear aficionado Fudoh suggested that Yoshi draws more power than other games and the white peaks during the intro causes the dropouts. Adjusting the sync level for these rare situations is easy, but makes me wonder again where those XRGB-mini custom profiles are.

The Ultimate History of Video Games

Posted February 2, 2014

When I became interested again in arcade and home console gaming, I bought several books on the subject last year. The largest of my growing collection is probably The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent. At just over 600 pages, Kent covers a lot of gaming ground, from the pre-Pong 1960s, up to the release of the Xbox, around the time the book was published, in 2001. Which is fine by me considering my attention on the subject doesn’t really reach beyond the PlayStation 2.

I appreciated that a third of the book spanned the arcade, where I knew the least, much of which was devoted to the rise and fall of Atari and Nolan Bushnell. Nintendo of course receives a lot of attention, as do many other Japanese companies, which is great considering their immense contributions, a fact some Western authors tend to gloss over. This leads to the home showdown between Nintendo and Sega, then eventually Sony.

Exhaustedly assembled quotes and anecdotes carry you through the massive amount of information here at a fairly quick pace, reading more like a conversation than a serious historical assemblage, which is really what this is. Highly recommended.

On a side note, I signed up for Amazon Associates so if you happen to buy the book using the link above, I get some tiny portion. Considering the traffic this site generates, I should make enough in a year for a NES-era cup of coffee.

Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario Advance 3 (GBA)

Posted November 4, 2013

It’s been 11 years since Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario Advance 3 came out for the Game Boy Advance, and I’ve finally finished it. I’d like to say I abandoned it years ago, about halfway through, simply because of the original dark-ass GBA screen, but the more likely answer is it became a bit too tough and I sat it aside and forgot about it. Which is unfortunate because it’s an amazing little game.

Though in this case little means 6 worlds packed with 8 levels each, not to mention the secret, extra and bonus levels. After logging several hours on top of the time played when I initially bought it, the 48 levels it took to complete the game is where I’ll likely stop for now. After the end credits, a secret level was unlocked across each world; I tried the first and last and couldn’t pass either. Not being a bonafide video game completionist (which is kinda surprising), I didn’t get 100% on each level either. This gives the game a tempting replay value.

Likely landing in many people’s top ten lists for the Game Boy Advance, Yoshi’s Island is an inventive and charmingly creative platformer based on the original SNES release in 1995, which used the noted Super FX 2 chip for sprite scaling and stretching, polygon rendering and multiple parallax layering. The GBA somehow simulates these effects, likely using what Nintendo learned over the five years between the SNES and GBA versions.

Challenging without (generally) tipping the scales to frustrating, the game blends sketchy, hand-drawn graphics with well balanced game play. Yoshi’s maneuverability is fairly easy to pick up and master, which is good since you’ll need it to get through Worlds 5 and 6. And the simulated 3D here brings me far more joy than playing Mario 64; the imaginatively depicted Yoshi’s Island in the opening menu sets the scene. A clever ammunition system, cute sounds, a well paired soundtrack, huge enemies and bosses make Yoshi’s Island an obvious must-have for any of your finer handheld collections. When added to my own collection shortly after its release, it proved to be a fun companion, taking it on trips, playing it on a warm night in Astoria, NY, entertaining me through a cold once back in SF. The battery froze this miniature world, happily waiting for my return, looking, to my eyes, more lively than ever in today’s gaming landscape.

Four Shades of Olive

Posted September 25, 2013

Every few years I get out my first Game Boy and just hold it. The memories of Nintendo kiosks at Kmart flood back, the same store I’d return to for Super Mario Land, the slow-motion Castlevania Adventure, and later The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. Walking around the mall playing Tetris (テトリス) while my mom shopped reminded me of the same freedom I felt when I first got a Sony Walkman.

When the Game Boy was released in 1989 by Gunpei Yokoi and Nintendo R&D1, it packed an 8-bit processor and a whopping 2-bit color palette with 4 shades of olive on a 2.6″ reflective STN LCD. It was like carrying around a tiny NES! The next significant advancement wasn’t made for nearly a decade, the 1998 Game Boy Color. Along with bumped specs, the screen was now capable of showing 56 colors simultaneously from a palette of 32k. It even improved on old games with a user-selectable 10-color palette set through button combinations during the Game Boy logo screen. Then in 2001 the Game Boy Advance arrived with a 32-bit ARM processor, shoulder buttons and a wider TFT LCD supporting 512 simultaneous colors in 15-bit RGB. But it still lacked a lighted screen. Two years later with the release of the Game Boy Advance SP we finally got a front-lit LCD, along with a clamshell design and a rechargeable lithium ion battery. But despite the nearly usable Worm Light workaround, the dimly lit screen was always a disappointment to me. After a few months playing the excellent Yoshi’s Island I lost interest and stuck it in a drawer.

Nintendo’s subsequent DS and 3DS fell outside of my 2D single-screen attention. Occasionally I’d get the SP back out, remember how unusable the screen felt, and put it away again. But then someone mentioned a later edition SP with a backlit screen, the 2005 AGS-101, “Now with a BRIGHTER backlit screen!” After watching a few videos I was sold and found one in great shape on eBay in pearl blue. The difference is pretty ridiculous, enough that I don’t see the need in keeping the first SP around. Maybe due to being backlit vs frontlit, the screen image also appears to be much closer to the surface, similar to later edition iPhones.

The 700+ games in the GBA library were so colorful and creative, it’s a shame they weren’t better served with a brighter screen. I’ve added Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap to my tiny collection, which I’ll begin as soon as I finish Yoshi in a dark room nowhere near a sunlit window.