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.

 

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.

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.

Streaming Boxes – Because 500 Channels is Kid’s Stuff

The most intimidating part of cutting cable TV is figuring out how you’ll get all your favorite shows.  Oh, intellectually, you probably understand they’re all available “online”, but how do you reconcile that with your brain, which is used to picking up your remote and just cruising through 500 channels?  Online programming is offered through a variety of services with silly-sounding names, like iTunes, Hulu and Netflix.   What does it take to access these services just as easily as you used to access the cable box?

You need some sort of internet-enabled setup for your TV.  One of the most heavily-marketed solutions is the “Smart TV”, which I’ll rule out right away.  These are consistently the worst possible ways to access streaming services, with clunky designs and poor long-term support.  In addition, it’s just a flawed concept: I don’t want my TV to be smart, I want it to be as dumb as possible.  It only has one job, to display whatever content I give it.  Let the boxes underneath do all the thinking… and for this task, I nominate four different choices: the Home Theater PC, the Modern Game Console, the connected Blu Ray player, and the set-top box.

T925-2290-mainHome Theater PC – The option that literally can’t fail, if you’re willing to put the work into it.  Small form-factor PCs and HDMI compatibility have finally made it easy to slap a full-fledged desktop computer under your TV, giving your TV access to any programming that could be streamed through a PC (read: everything), the wide world of PC gaming, and even a large chunk of console gaming via the legally ambiguous path of emulation.

The weakness of HTPCs is, unfortunately, that for all their strengths, you’re still ultimately using a Desktop PC in the living room.  Some people can’t get used to forgoing the remote control to use a keyboard and mouse (I’ll admit, after trying it for 5 years, I just found it to be more trouble than it was worth).  Then you have all the hassles of PC use, such as software updates and virus checks, thrown into your TV time.  Believe it or not, a lot of the general public still struggles with basic PC skills, so asking them to adopt the HTPC is a giant step backward in terms of their enjoyment.

Bottom line:  This option can give you anything, but it asks a lot of you as well.

ps4Playstation/Xbox/WiiU – Video game consoles are, on paper, the absolute best design for streaming.  Heck, nearly every console since the original Xbox was designed to be an online media center.  It sounds great in theory, because the interface is already designed for a living-room setting, and the hardware is the most powerful you can get without going the route of building a HTPC.   There really should be nothing you could ask of a console that it wouldn’t be able to deliver on.

Where these things fail is on execution and focus.  Game consoles are sold as “media centers” early in their life cycle (which is usually about 5 years), but soon after the games become the main focus.  There’s no real incentive for the publishers to continue to grow and develop the multimedia features when the console itself starts to reach the end of its shelf life.  That’s one reason the Wii-U’s TVii feature has been largely forgotten, and the Xbox One’s OTA tuner isn’t supported on the 360, even though it would be trivial to do so.  If you’re using a console as a TV device, you need to get used to the idea that you will never be a priority.

Bottom line:  Game consoles are relatively short-lived formats compared to TV standards.  The two simply don’t have compatible schedules.

pSNYNA-BDPS3100_main_v500Connected Blu-Ray Player – I’m probably going to get a few scoffs and perhaps even a guffaw at this, but I steadfastly refuse to ever give up on physical media.  For all the advantages streaming gives us, I contend that there are equal and complimentary advantages to owning your content outright.  So I always suggest having a BluRay (and by extension DVD) player under your TV.  As an added bonus, most of them do offer streaming services like the game consoles, but often in a much more streamlined fashion.

Unfortunately, the features tend to follow the same dynamic as the game consoles: offered enthusiastically at first, but gradually forgotten as time goes on.  They also tend to be limited to what features are installed out of the box—unlike HTPCs or game consoles, software updates on BluRay players are comparatively rare, and usually are done to fix bugs instead of add features.

Bottom line: A lot of the same flaws as the game consoles, but still a solid contender.  Much cheaper than a game console as well.

roku-3Set-top box– Enter the new hotness: the Roku, FireTV, AppleTV, and ChromeStick.  Granted, they’re unimpressive technically, obviously designed just for streaming and only streaming, but what they lack in specs they make up for in ease of use.  The worst of the worst of these boxes is way more intuitive than any cable box I’ve ever had to use!  Not only that, they’re CHEAP!  At under $100, in some cases, under $50, you can try any and all of them out to see which ones fit your needs the best.

If there’s any disadvantage to these, it’s that each manufacturer seems to have a vested interest in using their box to push their own services: the AppleTV is first and foremost an iTunes portal, FireTV is a vessel for Amazon, ChromeStick for Google, and so on.  This doesn’t negate their usefulness, it’s just worth considering when you wonder why no single box seems to offer every service.  It sounds nice in theory, but economic reality makes it unlikely.

Bottom Line: Even if they’re imperfect, the low price and ease of use make having at least one of these gizmos highly recommended.

Conclusion: Pick two, any two.

Obviously no one solution is going to cover all the bases, and that’s unlikely to change soon.  However, most TVs offer at least two HDMI ports, so find the two choices that appeal to you most and run with them.  At first, it’s likely to be a bit confusing trying to remember which device provides what feature, but after a while you’re likely to start to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of each.  For instance, in our house, each TV has an AppleTV and a BluRay player (granted, one of the BluRay players is a PS3).  Between the two, we have access to iTunes, Amazon, PBS Online, and YouTube, which seems to be all we really want.   No one ever said you had to settle on just one.  Instead of surfing 500 channels, 490 of which mean nothing to you, grab two solid options and start actually enjoying TV again.

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