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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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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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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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.

 

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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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