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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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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Getting Back to Basics

Every few months, someone will ask me what I reccomend to play original NES games.  It’s not exactly a simple question, there are a lot of variables that change from person to person.  However, there are some solutions that seem to come up time and time again, so I figured I’d outline the major contenders.

Bear in mind, this list is designed for the “average” NES fan in 2016, meaning someone who wants to play vintage NES cartridges on an HDTV.

Original Hardware:
All things considered, playing NES games on the original hardware is still a really good bet. You’re guaranteed full compatibility with all games and accessories. The problem with this approach is that it’s the most labor-intensive. In order to get the most out of 30-year-oldnes-nogame-1controller hardware, you’re going to need to give it some TLC.

Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Take care of the cartridge connector.  This is the Achilles heel of the system, and is the reason you spent so much time jiggling and blowing into your games as a kid.  After this much time, the connector has gotten dirty and bent.  If you still have the original Nintendo-made pins on there, try boiling them in distilled water.  If that doesn’t work, replace the entire pin connector.  Please note that the new pin connectors vary greatly in quality.
  2. Disable the 10NES chip.  This is a good thing to do while you’re servicing the connector.  The 10NES is the copy protection chip inside the NES, and is the actual reason many games have trouble booting (the system mistakes a slightly dirty game for a bootleg).  Disable the chip, and your success rate for starting games jumps up another 10%.  It’s worth noting, however, that some funky unlicensed games actually depend on the chip being there, so if you plan to have a huge collection, try installing a bypass switch rather than totally disabling the 10NES.
  3. Make sure your accessories are in order.  Track down an original Nintendo AC adaptor.  As for the video connector, get a standard composite A/V cable with a splitter for the audio.

This option is by far the most work, but it yields the most authentic gameplay.  However, looking at the list of chores above, I know what 99% of people reading this article are thinking.

 

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Super Retro Trio:

If getting an original NES seems like too much work, this is probably the next best bet.  This is a reproduction system from Retro-Bit that plays NES, SNES, and Genesis games, and while the compatibility rate isn’t perfect, it’s extremely good.  Better than any other clone hardware I’ve seen, actually.  It also takes the original controllers from all three 419310-super-retrio-triosystems, and supports SD flashcarts (a rarity among clone systems).  There are a few games and accessories that won’t work on the SRT, but what you trade for low cost and convenience is probably worth it.

Bottom line: Probably the best compromise between effort and result.

Buy this system at StoneAgeGamer

Retron 5:

Possibly the most high-tech solution, and the one that most closely resembles a modern console, the R5 plays NES, SNES, Genesis, Famicom, and Gameboy games right out of the box, and includes it’s own wireless controller in addition to supporting the original controllers.  Everything gets pumped to your TV via glorious 21st-century HDMI.system01

Despite the popularity of this system, I’m honestly not a really big fan of it.  If your main concern is playing NES games with perfectly crisp pixels over HDMI, then this isn’t a bad way to do it… But there are a lot of other areas where the R5 just not ideal.  First, it’s neither original hardware, nor clone hardware, but is actually an Android computer under the hood running an emulator.  Granted, it’s a very good emulator, but it’s still an emulator with all the quirks that come with it.  This also means that games with save functions need to take care to back the save back up to the cart.  Finally, there are lots of graphical filters to make the games look “better”, but from what I’ve seen they’re all awful and better left turned off and forgotten.

Bottom line: The main selling point to this is the HDMI connection and its convenient setup with newer TVs, but a lot of the flashier features sound a lot cooler than they really are.

Buy this system at StoneAgeGamer

RetroFreak:

I really struggled on including this system or not, since it’s technically Japanese-only.  However, it’s readily available at import shops and there is an English version of the system software available for download.  If you can fumble your way through a  Japanese website and do a software update, this suddenly becomes a great system for an American audience.

The RetroFreak is very similar to the Retron 5, with two very big improvements: it adds a slot for TurboGrafx 16 and plays ROM files off an SD card.  The TG-16 is an already pricey 683590c598cd5af420a26bd8ffcb644e1435001355_full-ds1-670x670-constrainsystem and is increasing in both cost and popularity.  It does need an adaptor to play US NES games.    Personally, I think of the RF as a more refined version of what the R5 wanted to be.

Bottom line: if you insist on an HDMI connection, and are willing to do a little extra work to translate the RetroFreak, it’s a much better buy than the R5.

 

Buy this system on Amazon

Not even considered

NES2: Top-loading re-release had horrible vertical banding over the image, thanks to a faulty PPU design.  And unless you’re lottery-winner lucky, you can’t find one that supports composite video.

Retron 3:  For the same amount of money, you can get a Super Retro Trio, which has better compatibility.

FC3+: Crummy compatibility AND weird proprietary controllers.

FC Twin, Retro Duo, Retron 1: These were fine in their day, but at this point don’t stand out in any way except being cheap.

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Viva La 3DS!

So three months ago, for my birthday, my lovely wife surprised me with a 3DS.  Now, bear in mind that I hadn’t bought new gaming hardware since my Xbox 360, and that was 2008.  I admit, I’d nearly forgotten how much fun it was to pick up a brand-new console.  This is something that doesn’t translate well to PC gamers, who upgrade their systems a component at a time.  When you buy a new console, you have a box full of exciting new possibilities dropped right in your lap.  The 3DS was no exception.  Even though I’d wanted one, I hadn’t realized how much until I opened it up.

Some of my favorite features:

3D Camera:  Although I don’t use the 3D for gaming much, having the 3D camera is AWESOME.  It’s like the closest thing to a holodeck we have.

eShop:  I’m still a sucker for the classics.  Whenever I play on the road, there’s a good chance I’m going to be taking along Tetris, Donkey Kong, or Kid Icarus.  The eShop lets me download classic games (admittedly, from a limited selection) without hacking my phone or buying some grey-market Android portable.  With this, I get to play with real, Nintendo-made controls… and after being a customer for 25 years, I’m convinced no one makes video game controls as well as Nintendo.

DS Compatibility:  Thankfully, Nintendo’s continued their tradition of keeping portables backwards-compatible.  There are a lot of really good DS games I’ve missed, but thanks to the 3DS, I can still play games going all the way back to 2004.  To give some perspective, this means that my 3DS, partnered with my GBA, will play nearly every game from six different platforms spanning the past 26 years.  Now, I realize some people might say “Big Deal”, but in an industry where people are encouraged to throw out games that are a year old, I think that’s a sign of a company that invests in its customers, and strives to create games that will have value for years to come.

I’m not wanting to sound like a walking billboard for Nintendo, but I’m really impressed with this thing.  After spending the better part of the past year disgusted by the overhyped Xbox One and seeing the mobile market saturated with Pay-To-Win games, it was awesome to open up a box full of stuff that reminded me why I got into gaming in the first place.

Less is More

As a tech, it’s not in my nature to choose form over function.  Sometimes, however, they can be the same thing, if you just think about it.  Home networking can be an example.  It’s possible, with very little effort, to set up a high-speed network in your house.  That doesn’t mean your home should look like a Borg ship.  It’s one of my biggest pet peeves that people forget the “Home” part of home networking.

So, you want to set up a basic home network?  You’re going to get a modem (probably) and then some form of wireless router.  Those are the most basic network components there are.  And you’ll probably string them together, along with anything else that connects to them.  Congratulations!  You’ve done it!  And your desk probably looks like this:

IMG_3063

Ugh, you weren’t planning on that, huh?  When you sat down to try and connect your PC, Roku, and digital blender to the internetz, it didn’t sink in just how many wires were going to be involved, did it?  Well, maybe you get a bit OCD, and clean it up, so it looks like this:

rogers-bridging-mode

Oh, now that IS better!  Nice job!  But I’m going to suggest it could be better.  Would you like to see my router?  here it is:

IMG_3055

No, I’m not being a smartass.  That’s actually my modem and router.  Or rather, if you walked into my house and asked where they were, that’s where I’d point.  What you’re looking at is the ceiling of my home, right above which (in the attic) I have my networking equipment set up.  The point is, there’s no real reason for those devices to be visible.  Nobody wants to see them, and believe me, they won’t get lonely.  If I have an actual problem with the modem or router that requires me to actually touch them, it’s just a quick trip up the stairs to see them.  In the past year, that’s happened exactly once.  It’s time to stop treating routers like they’re an art object, and start treating them like you treat your hot water heater or breaker box.

Setting Up a Hidden Home Network

  1. Start early, preferably before you sign up with an ISP.  Think about where you could put a modem/router that would keep it out of the way.  Stop thinking in terms of desks, floors, and bookshelves.  Start thinking about attics, basements, and closets.  Remember, the only time you need to look at your equipment is when there’s a problem, so an out-of the way spot is ideal.  When the tech arrives at the house to install your service, YOU tell THEM where you want the equipment.  It’s their job to make it happen.  But of course, please be polite… their job can be a crappy one.
  2. If you’ve already had your modem installed, and made the mistake of having the modem on your desk or some other unsightly place, it’s not too late.  Lots of times, it’s really easy to pull the cable to another part of the house.  Or, if you don’t want to do that, call your ISP back and ask to have a “Cable Relocation” done.  They’ll probably charge you about $100, but the desk space you get back will be more than worth it.
  3. Don’t assume that having the router in an out-of-the-way spot will mean an over-reliance on WiFi.  You can (and should) install network jacks throughout the home and tie them back to the attic or closet that hides your router.  We’ll explore just how to do this in another blog entry.
  4. Although you do want the equipment out of sight, NEVER set it somewhere where it can’t be reached again without breaking something.  Putting the modem in a cabinet is okay, sealing it inside a wall is not.  Yes, people have done that.  No, the results were not pretty.

Why I Am Not a Gamer

This upcoming weekend is going to be my first commitment-free weekend in a while, the perfect chance to just enjoy some quality time with the family.  With a super-hot weather forecast on the horizon, it looked like indoor activities were going to be the ticket.  My wife, Kendra, and I do like to play video games, so I wondered if there was a way to mix it up a bit.  I had this great idea, Why not hit up the local Redbox and grab some different games for the weekend?

Let it be known that every time I have a “great idea,” someone should just punch me in the face.  The net result would be the same and it’d save a lot of time.

First thing I notice is that even though the Redbox site has a very prominent “Wii” section, there are no Wii games listed.  No Wii-U games, either.  Now, Nintendo may not be the industry darling lately, but writing it off completely is kind of harsh.  There are still people like me out there who would rather play some Mario Kart than Need for Speed.  Regardless, it seems us Wii fans are out of luck.  Okay, says I, how about we check out the Xbox 360 games?  Surely there would be games for that I could rent.  And there were– Call of Duty, Fallout, and Battlefield.

You know, those really odd games you’ve never heard of, can’t find anywhere, and would certainly want to try out before buying.  Let it be known that, while I used to love shooter games when they were a new concept, today I can’t get into them unless the main character is James Bond or Samus Aran.  If I wanted realistic combat, I’d join the Armed Forces.

It’s not like this is a personal effort on Redbox’s part to insult me, they’re just following market demands.  And, it’s pretty clear, I’m just not the market.  This is just one more sign in a long, long series of events that I am not a “Gamer” in the context that popular culture wants to use the term.  Oh, I still play on a regular basis, but not in ways that matter to the industry.

Examples:

  • I actively resist buying the “hot” gaming consoles like PS4 and Xbox One.  I don’t do PC gaming, and don’t even own an PC worth gaming on.
  • If a game offers DLC, I just scratch it off my list of games to try.  This is especially true if it’s clear the DLC is material that could have been included in the game at launch.
  • I still spend a lot of time playing my Retro games.  In fact, in the past year, I’ve spent more money on SNES stuff than on my Xbox 360.
  • I’d rather play a game at home with my wife than against strangers on the internet.
  • I expect games purchased as downloads to be exceptionally cheap, to make up for the fact that you don’t get a physical copy as backup.
  • I’d rather have a game I truly enjoy and can return to again and again, than a disposable experience I can play for three months and then discard when the needless sequel gets released.  (Call of Duty, I’m looking in your direction…)

Add all that up, and I don’t at all resemble the people who call themselves “Gamers” today.  I’m a relic, like people who pine for Drive-In movies or buying a fast-food combo and “getting change back from the nickel.”  And this has been happening for a while.  The only thing new is, I’m now okay with it.