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.

Steady Stream

Posted May 24, 2014

The past few weeks has been a steady stream of packages at the door. And a new cat, Elliot, who’s an avid game watcher. First up, a few more Neo Geo carts which quickly (maybe too quickly) cracked my wishlist in half, including Ghostlop and Ironclad. Still searching for a few more shmups, which is probably fine for now considering their cost, and the fact that most are on the 120-in-1.  A shipment of shockboxes and covers arrived as well.

For the SNES I picked up Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, Donkey Kong Country, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Somehow I’d never owned the first two, and had never even played SNES Yoshi (somewhat due to its Super FX 2 chip). For Saturn: Cotton 2, TwinBee, DonPachi and DoDonPachi, Guardian Heroes, the trio of Parodius discs, Outrun, Saturn Bomberman, and the lengthily titled The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love?. All good stuff, but that Bomberman keeps sticking in my head as the most fun, though maybe only because I haven’t played through Parodius since the arcade releases a few months ago.

And then there’s the Dreamcast. Initially this was the console I was the least excited about. The handful of games it came with weren’t that interesting to me, and it was the only console connected by s-video while the others were SCARTing up great image quality. Ironic since it’s the newest old console I have, with the highest resolution. I had ordered a Hanzo/Kenzei combo to get VGA into the XRGB-mini, but after finally arriving from Istanbul I found that it wouldn’t power up due to the sync stripper in my mini’s adapter cable. The creator of the devices, Yossi, was incredibly helpful and ended up sending me a modified Kenzei which I finally got to test a few nights ago. And indeed Dreamcast games now look VGA good.

Even NG:DEV.TEAM games are much sharper and colorful, though still not exactly entertaining. Right now I’m playing a lot of Gunbird 2 and Ikaruga, with Sturmwind patiently waiting. Having played the Ikaruga pcb on a friend’s Astro City a few weeks ago, I realized just how similar the Naomi and Dreamcast really are–same CPU, GPU and Yamaha sound board, but gobs more system/video/sound memory. Still, the experiences can’t really be compared. That vertically rotated Astro City monitor! I still have a dozen Dreamcast shmups on my wish list, though I suspect that number will get much higher with a little more research.

One note about 480p Dreamcast games with the XRGB-mini. While most consoles go through the mini and into the plasma without any tweaks to its settings (except that the Neo Geo requires v-width of 33), the mini/Dreamcast wiki points out Fudoh’s recommendation: HDMI Output: 1080p, Image Mode: Smart x2, H Scaler: 7, V Scaler: 6. I switched back and forth between that and my typical 720p, standard mode, h/v scaler of 5 for both Ikaruga and Sturmwind and could definitely see a difference, though it was hard to decide which looked preferable. It’s frustrating that Micomsoft has yet to adopt custom profiles for the mini. Helpful though is this English overlay for the remote, especially nice if you don’t want to keep bothering your partner to translate for you.

Finding a Dreamcast Arcade Stick on eBay has also turned the Dreamcast into a better shmup console. I’m still waiting on a Japanese Sega Virtua Stick for the Saturn which seems to have been shipped by carrier pigeon. And after realizing an HRAP 2 could cover all the other consoles with adapters, that dude with the Astro City very kindly won one on Yahoo Japan Auctions for me (thanks Eric!).

All this consumerism kinda turns the stomach, but the research and hunting is as much fun as playing the games for me, as I’m sure it is for a lot of people. And I’m not a huge game collector. Everything I have still easily fits onto three shelves. Probably more to do with my somewhat narrow genre interests than anything else (and, to be fair, flash carts). With one or two games per console getting attention at one time, it’s a bit chaotic, and tough to find focus. But that’s a fine problem to have.

Super Castlevania IV (SNES)

Posted January 25, 2014

From the ubiquitous Konami intro to the polished Super Castlevania IV title sliding down, I absolutely felt transported back to high school. Released on Halloween, 1991, Super Castlevania IV for the SNES was the first Castlevania for the 16-bit system. Once I had old consoles looking good again, I knew this was one of the first games I had to find: box, manual, and that little cardboard insert not excluded.

It’s a leap from the original NES release in every way, with better control of Simon and his whips — even allowing you to dangle it about like a sausage — as well as refining the jump mechanics, which really loosens up the game from its roots. The levels and bosses are, for the most part, unique and well balanced, and the Mode 7 effects are memorable. But for me, standing atop all its merits is the incredible score composed by Masanori Adachi and Taro Kudo. When Simon’s Theme starts in Stage 1 the tingly goosebumps strike every time, and while the entire game has stunning music, it’s that first track that’s proven timeless.

I inched my way to finishing it a few days ago, let the credits roll, and started it again. But there’s too many other games waiting their turn, so I’ll let Simon live in his little plastic-encased PCB until next time.


Posted September 6, 2013

After finding a decent TurboGrafx-16 on eBay a few weeks ago, I anxiously slid Legendary Axe and a few other HuCards in to see how they looked, and especially to hear the Legendary Axe soundtrack. I was a little nervous as to what a large plasma television may do to a 240p image. Initially the familiar glow of the game was enough to warm my heart, but it did look troublesome in places, especially smaller graphics and text. The fact that the TG-16 is RF out (in my case, through a NES RF modulator) certainly wasn’t helping things, but then I realized what a common problem this is for older gen game consoles on modern LCD and plasma displays. To be sure this wasn’t specific to the TG-16, I checked out Super Mario World on a SNES I’d inherited from a friend a few years ago. Same resampling issues, Mario looked like shit.

Fortunately there are some ways around this. I considered waiting until a future home I imagined owning had enough space for a fat CRT. Even better, an arcade CRT. But that seemed too far off. Then I started reading about upscalers, stand-alone devices meant in part to improve upon the generally mediocre upscalers in LCDs and plasmas. Specifically this detailed article on the XRGB-mini Framemeister by the Japanese company Micomsoft (with a name like Framemeister I’d mistakenly thought it German). At $400 it’s a pricey solution to an issue many people wouldn’t notice, or may mistakenly chalk up to being the result of a 20-year-old game console. But old tech certainly doesn’t need to imply inferior quality. I learned that just like most of its peers, the TG-16 is a RGB-capable machine. It’s keeping that raw source intact that’s the tricky part.

I ordered the Framemeister from Solaris and it arrived this week in record-breaking time from Japan. While the remote and instruction manual are entirely in Japanese, the on-screen menu can be changed to English (after powering it off and on). After half an hour of fiddling and translation assistance from my partner, we fine-tuned it to a sweet spot. There was Mario looking charmingly 16-bit with a dash of scanlines. No crumpled upscaled sadness in sight. Overall I found Picture mode, with a light scanline, at 1080p to work the best. Later I was able to ditch the SNES composite cable for S-Video which obviously made an even bigger difference. And when the TG-16 gets back from being RGB-modded, I’ll be looking forward to seeing Gogan cleaned up as well.

Could it be this easy? If you want to spend the dough, maybe it is. There are cheaper alternatives, but the Framemeister’s reviews, screenshots and videos (largely by pasty British men) won me over. If you have more than a passing interest in 8-and-16-bt gaming and you’ve left your CRT on the curb, this is worth checking out.

Starting Again

Posted August 30, 2013

The ad, likely created on my electric Brother typewriter, said something like: NES, SNES, Genesis, and TurboGrafx-16 video game consoles for sale. I suggested they be bought as package deals with the dozens of games I didn’t want to try selling one-by-one. Many dozens! I had my mom post the ad at work and soon all but the TurboGrafx-16 were gone. I don’t think her coworkers knew what a TG-16 was. I probably wouldn’t have either at the time if it weren’t for Electronic Gaming Monthly, GamePro and other magazines filling in the juicy details. Released in North American in 1989, the TG-16 barely held shelf space in the central Illinois stores I shopped in. And now, 24 years later, it’s the system I most regret selling. Of course, I regret selling them all, especially the games; I can still see the boxes taped to my bedroom door and walls.

The TG-16 was pretty flawed: the pack-in game Keith Courage in Alpha Zones stunk (at least until you transported to the underworld), one controller port, RF output (both remedied only by pricey add-ons), small work RAM, an 8-bit CPU in an emerging fully-16-bit market, hardware-limited single-layer background scrolling, mismanaged marketing and the lost potential of great games that never made it out of Japan (or arrived censored). Still, the games looked and sounded beautiful and stood apart from the competing Sega Genesis (with its classy frosted plastic box sleeves) and was two years ahead of the SNES. The Legendary Axe, Blazing Lazers, R-Type, Bonk’s Adventure, Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, and later, CD-ROM releases like Ys, Gates of Thunder and the SuperGrafx Ghouls ‘n Ghosts.

It’s nostalgia for this system, and its fourth generation peers, that’s led me down this path again. While emulation is fun and addictive (even on a Mac), soon you’re thinking about everything from homemade MAME cabinets to professionally built ones, running frontends from this, to modest open source projects, to the insane HyperSpin (when Forbes gets a heads up you know frontends have arrived). But at some point you simply turn to eBay and start buying the stuff all over again. And tracking down those games (boxes extra). And finally considering that Neo Geo you’ve always wanted. Then begins the PCB quest.