Raise the Bar on Repros

If you’re a fan of the NES and SNES eras of gaming, we’re living in a New Golden Age.  Not only do we have the ability to get any games we may have wanted back in the day, but there are new games being made on a regular basis.  As if that weren’t enough, prototypes of previously unreleased games are now circulating, so you can play games that might have been best-sellers, but were almost lost to the pages of history.  And the best part of all of this is, you can take these games and play them on your original system, just like you always have.

The problem is, when fans put games into actual cartridges, it has usually meant destroying an existing game that had a compatible board.  Sometimes the donor game is an incredibly common title, on occasion it has to be a rarer game.  It’s unfortunate, but it’s been seen as a necessary evil if you want to play something like Earthbound or Legend of Zelda: Outlands on your NES.

I own a few of these games, and I’m glad that I do, as I’ve had hours of fun with them.  However, I think it’s time to say this:  we need to stop destroying old games to make new ones.  What we gain is no longer outweighed by what we lose.

The following video, from the #CUPodcast, sums up my feelings nicely:

In short, cutting up old games to make new ones was reasonable when that was the only way to do the job.  However, in 2016, we now have flashcarts  and reproduction NES boards and cartridge shells.   It’s now entirely possible to get that ROM onto your NES without ever harming an old game, so let’s stop doing it.

Why, you ask?  What’s the harm?  Aren’t there a bajillion NES carts out there, and lots of them made in the hundreds of thousands?  Well, yes, there were.  However, the number may be large, but it’s still finite, and lots of these have already found their way into landfills.  Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt might be an insanely common game, but taking care of the existing supply will keep it that way, to say nothing of genuinely rare games like Batman: Return of the Joker, another commonly used donor cartridge.

It just boils down to an issue of waste, in my mind.  If you have the ability to play a new game, without destroying an old one, why wouldn’t you?  Isn’t it better to buy an Everdrive than to slice up a rare game?  And if you’re a homebrew developer, wouldn’t it be better to use factory-fresh virginal boards than to re-solder EPROMs onto old carts?  We need to protect the hobby from ourselves.  Gutting donor carts might seem harmless now, but 60 years ago, so did sticking a baseball card into your bike spokes.  Nowadays, lots of enthusiasts mourn the loss of their extra 1955 Sandy Koufax.  Don’t be that guy.

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Networks– Wire It!

If you want the best performance out of your home network, and the best possible streaming for your TV shows, movies, and games, then you really should bypass your wireless access and connect everything with ethernet cables.  But why, WHY would you use those yucky wires, when WiFi is just so easy and cool?

Because, even in the best of circumstances, there’s just more that can go wrong with wireless connections.  Interference, signal drops and even the walls themselves will try to get in the way of your wireless connections, whereas a wired connection works consistently every time.  This is particularly important if your internet connection isn’t that great, or you’re trying to make the most of an inexpensive bandwidth plan.  If you can’t get a better internet connection, get everything you can out of the one you have!

In a previous blog entry, I gave some tips on how to set up your router to keep it out of the way.  Now I’ll give you some tips on how to connect to it via ethernet.  Actually, compared to Wireless, setting up a wired connection is very easy… you just snap a Cat-6 cable into your device, and then into your router, and you’re done.  The only real problem is in making sure you don’t get ripped off buying the cables.

Don’t buy ethernet cables at places like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, or Target.  These things are sold at huge markups there.

Instead, do your shopping online.  What you need depends on how far your device is from your router, and remember to err on the side of length, so you can snake the cable around things if need be.  5-Foot cables are good for connecting devices nearby, 6-inch cables are good for connecting devices sitting on top of each other (great for connecting a modem to a router, for example), and 25-foot cables will do the job if the device is on the other end of the room.

Suppose you’re sold on the need to hard-wire everything, but still don’t want to deal with the cable mess, or your router is in a completely different part of the house?  Well, then what you’d want to do is actually install an ethernet wall jack.  Run the cable from Point A to Point B, fish it through the wall (or ceiling or floor) and slap a plate on it.  It looks really pretty when it’s all done, and then you just plug your device into the wall the way you used to connect a landline phone.

 

Things You’ll Need:

…notice that you can get everything on that list for well under $200.  If it’s a small project, you can probably score all this for under $150.  This does NOT have to be an expensive project!

Really, all you’re doing here is cutting open the cable, pushing the strands into the appropriately-colored pins, and then trimming them with the razor blade.  If you need some extra guidance, try this tutorial, or for the visual people, try the following video:

 

 

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BitBox Game Case Review

There was a time when I didn’t think casing video games was a big deal.  Why?  Because I was under the impression that shelf space wasn’t a finite commodity, and that flipping through stacks of awkwardly-shaped plastic cartridges wasn’t a pain in the ass.  Now, however, I’ve hit a point where I realize my collection is only as useful as my system of organization allows it to be, so I’ve started to get serious about casing those games.  Plus, I’d rather keep the games protected from spills, accidents, and toddlers– all three of which seem to follow me.

When it comes to cartridge game cases, there are two major players: the Universal Game Case and the BitBox.  The primary appeal of the UGC is that it’s cheaper and contains brackets for a wide variety of cartridge sizes, with other cartridge styles being options after modification.  If you have an extremely large collection, or your collection consists of small numbers of cartridges from lots of different systems, you’re probably going to lean toward the UGC.

If, however, you’re like me and are very passionate about one system, and have a modest collection that means a lot to you, chances are you’re going to be a BitBox fan.  I say this as someone who was very skeptical about the design at first, but who was won over after holding and using them.

BitBoxes are available only from an independent vintage game store called StoneAgeGamer.com, and are currently available for the NES, SNES/SFC, and N64.  In contrast to the UGC, these are designed to be a perfect fit for one system’s games, rather than be a moderate fit for a dozen different cartridge designs.  What the design lacks in flexibility, it more than makes up for in elegance.

The BitBox itself consists of a black plastic clamshell case.  It’s entirely one piece, and if you’re old enough to remember Disney VHS tapes, is a lot like one of the cases those used to come in.  That’s a bit of a disservice to the BitBox, however, because the grade of plastic on a BitBox is far superior to that of an old VHS case.  Whereas those old cases consisted of a very thin, brittle plastic that would eventually crack around the corners, and would often indent with enough pressure, the plastic for the BitBox is thicker and springs back after being pushed.  They’re rugged enough to not weaken with repeated opening and closing.  I will even note that I tried to store a SNES game with a broken, jagged case in a BitBox, and while the jagged edge did poke into the plastic of the case, the material was strong enough to hold firmly and not tear.  The cases themselves are perfectly molded to the shape of the games, with gripping areas added to allow for easy placement and removal of the games.  They come out easy, but never flop out.  Even NES games, which have oddly-shaped cartridge variants, all fit into BitBoxes (I’ve stored Active Enterprises, Tengen, Color Dreams, and AVE games in mine with no issue).

Each BitBox has two optional (but highly recommended) components: the manual strap and the cover art.  The manual strap is an adhesive pouch which can be attached to the Bitbox to hold the game’s manual (each BitBox is intentionally designed to be large enough to hold the manual and the game simultaneously).  The strap is useful for keeping everything from spilling out each time you open the game, though it can make for a tight fit for games with very thick manuals.  The other component is the cover art.  Cover art slips into the front pouch and turns the BitBox from a plain black case into a shiner, better version of the game’s original packaging.  The art is sourced from The Cover Project and is available free to download, though Stone Age Gamer will print them as well for a modest charge.  (I always paid extra to get the higher DPI and color quality, and the results have been well worth it– pocket change today, looks great on my shelf forever.)  You’re also free to take the art to your local print shop or print it yourself, if that’s easier for you.

The end result is that my shelf looks like I have my SNES collection mint in box.  The only other way to achieve this would be to literally have the original boxes and use plastic cases to protect those and I’m sorry, but those original boxes are just too fragile to survive opening and closing every time you want to play a game.  UGCs are good for a quick and dirty solution, and yes, they’re several dollars cheaper than BitBoxes, but at the end of the day, BitBoxes just look and work the best.

If your collection is more than just a whim, and your games are a permanent part of your house, it’s time to get serious about taking care of them.  Use whatever tool best fits your purposes, but I lean heavily toward BitBox.

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SideClick Remotes – Review

Like a lot of people, I’m in remote control overload.  One remote for the TV, one for the audio, one for the BluRay player, one for the streaming box, and yet another for an HDMI switch to tie it all together.  And not only is this setup convoluted, but it’s not even that unusual. Everything comes with a remote these days, and too often you only need one or two buttons on each for your daily life.

Lots of solutions have been posed for this problem, but so far, I’ve not been satisfied with any of them.  Cheap Universal Remotes tend to not support peripherals like switches, and they can’t be truly programmed– they only choose from existing sets of codes.  Smartphone remote apps are cumbersome, have no physical buttons, and expect you to dedicate your phone to TV use while you watch.  And programmable Harmony remotes might be the ideal solution, but there’s no way I’m paying $300 for a remote control.

All I need is a set of buttons to which I can map the InfraRed pulses of my choice.  Why can’t someone make this, and make it cheaply?

Well, someone has.  A Kickstarter project has resulted in a new remote control concept called Sideclick.  Rather than be an over-engineered monstrosity, Sideclick is genius in its simplicity.  Sideclick takes the remote for your streaming device of choice and wraps it in a new shell with buttons that can be programmed for your TV controls, or whatever else you’d like.


Now, that last part is worth saying again.  You can program the remote with whatever signals you want.  So, if you want it to emit the “Power On” signal for your TV, but use the “Volume Up/Down” signals from your amp, and still use the “Channel Up/Down” signals from your tuner box, you can do that.  You’re not picking from a list of pre-programmed settings, you point your old remote at the Sideclick, give it the learn command (three buttons) and Sideclick learns and mimics whatever commands you want, from as many remotes as you want.

And on top of all that, there are three additional buttons for you to program in whatever you’d like.  Setup is a breeze– I opened the box, assembled my Sideclick, and had all eight buttons programmed within ten minutes.  And although it looks kind of bulky, the end result is no bigger or heavier than a cased iPhone.

When you’re done, you have the buttons you’ll need most often all in one remote, and without even needing to switch between “modes”, and it’ll all be next to your streaming media player remote, which is probably the device you use most often anyway.  Sideclick offers different shells for AppleTV, Roku, Nexus, and FireTV.

Are there missed opportunities?  Perhaps one.  It’s a shame that a remote that offers this level of customization doesn’t offer the ability to program in Macros, as in, setting a button to emit a series of different signals.  Perhaps that was a bit much to ask, but that’s literally the only thing missing.

Verdict:  I’d strongly recommend Sideclick remotes.

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Hack Review: SMB2 – 2nd Run

Super Mario Bros. 2 is one of my favorite video games, second only to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  It’s one of the first games I ever played, it’s one of the games that made me fascinated with video games, and I still play it on a regular basis.  I even love the GBA version.  The problem is, by now I know every shortcut, secret, and surprise there is.  SMB2 and I are old friends who know each other’s stories all too well.

So while I enjoy spending time with my old friend, I really, really wish I could play something new in the same vein.  Unfortunately, there are no sequels to this game.

“WAIT A MINUTE, AARON!  ARE YOU STUPID OR SOMETHING??”, I hear you saying.  “OF COURSE THERE WAS A SEQUEL.  It was called Super Mario Bros. 3.  You might have heard of it.  It was only one of the best-selling games of all time.”  Yes, that’s true, but that’s not the point I’m making.  Super Mario Bros. 3 was essentially a direct sequel to the original Super Mario Bros., whereas the American version of SMB2 was based on a Japanese game called Doki Doki Panic.  As much as I love SMB and SMB3, it’s the DDP style of gameplay I really love, and it’s DDP that never received a proper sequel.  So if you want a new game made in this style, you’re really out of luck.  It hasn’t been touched since 1988.

Well, not by Nintendo, anyway.

The ROM-hacking community, however, has had a field day.  I spent years avoiding ROMhacks, because when emulators first became popular, ROMhacking consisted of endless copies of Super Mario Bros. with the sprites changed into Transformers and penises.  However, that was ROMhacking in the early 2000s.  Today’s ROMhacking could be compared to a low-tech version of Super Mario Maker, a game that we LOVE in our house!  So when I discovered this, I immediately looked up hacks of SMB2.

The first one I tried was Super Mario Bros. 2: 2nd Run.  The author is named Recovery1.  So far, I’m absolutely loving this game.  I love how the levels are fresh and fun, but still pay homage to the original level design (including starting off 1-1 by dropping out of the door in the night sky, climbing a vine to a mountain area, having World 2 be a desert, etc.)  Difficulty-wise, I’d say the game starts off at the equivalent of World 3 in the original game, and goes up from there.  But honestly, what I love most about it is the fact that I DON’T know every twist and turn in the game.  I don’t know what’s coming.  Every new door and hill is an all-new adventure for me, and I haven’t experienced that since the 80s.

Are there flaws?  I might nitpick on some level design issues, where the original game might have an edge, but I’ll chalk that up to individual taste.  The only real issue that I’ve found so far is that the game tends to put a lot of enemies on the screen at once, which triggers slowdown at inopportune times.  It’s not a deal breaker, it barely qualifies as an annoyance, but it’s there.

On the other hand, I like the fact that the combat has a completely new dynamic to it.  2nd Run utilizes a lot more of the weapons that were rare in the original game.  When you pull up grass, you have a big chance of finding yourself holding a Bob-Omb or shell, and the veggies are comparatively scarce.  This leads to trying to attack enemies all at once, rather than one at a time.  And that’s FUN!

So how do you play this thing?  Well, first you have to modify an existing ROM of SMB2 with the IPS file of the new game.  This will generate a new ROM file.  You can either play that on your computer with an emulator and a USB gamepad, or you can slap it on a flashcart and play it on a real NES.

 

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