Monday, 20 August 2018

Letting the retro consoles live forever

So I bought an Everdrive...

...well three actually. One for each of my following retro consoles; Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, Nintendo 64 and the Nintendo Super Famicom (SNES). The MD and SNES being some of my absolute favourite consoles of all time, home to some of the best games made from the days of 2D and 16-bits. I have purchased these cartridges over the last couple of years, but I'll summarise their features in a single blogpost.

What is an Everdrive?

An Everdrive is brand name for a flash cartridge made by the Ukrainian company Krikkz. It's made to house a SD card with game roms, then flashes a game to it's internal memory and runs it directly through your old retro console. Replicating exactly how the proper game cartridges ran through the original hardware. There's no emulation or fakery about it, the console gets fed the game like it did all those years ago and plays it just how you remember from back in the day. There are alternatives to these products made by other companies, and they're not a new invention by any means; going far back to similar devices that could be used with floppy discs on the very same consoles, but Krikkz's ones are those I have experience with and own personally.

Everdrives are a fantastic way to reduce wear on your old consoles and preserve games that become increasingly difficult to get hold of. It's also a way cheaper way of enjoying classic games if you simply do not have the money or time to collect the actual physical copies for. While I don't support pirating of games, some of the prices on retrogames have risen beyond sense on online bidding. Games that are rare, rise in price regardless of their quality, simply becoming collection objects rather than what they actually should be: games to be played and enjoyed.

Krikkz offers a wide range of Everdrive cartridges for various cartridge based systems; NES, Master System, Game Boy Advance, Mega Drive, SNES etc. to mention a few. There's likely something there for most retro console owners, even with more obscure systems like the TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine. The website releases updates to the firmware running on the Everdrive cartridges too, making the products improve over time and cater for new menu options that users request.

Are they tricky to set up?

Absolutely not. After ordering your preferred Everdrive and buying the SD card it requires, some need a standard size SD while others require a micro SD, you simply set it up on a PC. Firstly, you'll need the firmware operating system your Everdrive cartridge requires. They're available for download under each Everdrive systems page on the Krikkz website. Unzipping the firmware onto the SD card leaves you with the structure your Everdrive requires. Then you can make folders where you place your game roms. Whether you want to make separate folders alphabetically, top ten titles or after genres; is up to you.

When the SD card is set up with your preferred game roms on it, it's time to insert it into your Everdrive cartridge. The cartridge goes into your console just like a standard game cartridge, power the console on and you're brought to an Everdrive menu. Here you can browse to your preferred game and start it! It's that easy, plus you can even try modded versions of games featuring new colour palettes, swapped item locations etc. or how about playing some homebrew titles never released before?!

Everdrives work across all of the consoles region locks. Regardless of you being in the US, Japan or a European country (PAL vs. NTSC). It will run games from that region of your console. It may also be compatible for games not built for your console region. At least for Europeans though, purchasing a NTSC console is preferred to get a proper game speed of 60Hz . Provided your old CRT TV or new LCD TV can take 60Hz signals through SCART or Composite input (most PAL TV's do).

A tour of each version

There are some differences for each version of the Everdrives I own, so let me take you quickly through them. Plus some buying tips along the way to make your purchase smarter and aimed towards the best experience.

Mega Everdrive

The Mega Everdrive is probably the most "bang for your buck" purchase of all the Everdrive's. It's one of the longest going and most popular models from Krikkz too. The Mega Drive was a very clean console when it came to it's software, much like the Master System before it. Free of enhancement chips on individual games, thus making the library highly compatible with an Everdrive. It not only gives you access to 99% of the MD's library, Virtua Racing being the only official incompatible game I can think of, as it featured a graphics enhancement chip, but it also lets you play the 8-bit MS library too! It's an incredible way of enjoying all of Sega's 8-bit and 16-bit console years. The Everdrive will also run 32X games, but this of course requires the actual 32X hardware to run.

You can purchase three different types of the Mega Everdrive; X3, X5 and X7. These models are priced after their number of options they offer, X7 being the most expensive model. You can read about what each model does on the Krikkz website and choose a model which suits you best. In short though, X7 features some neat in-game menus, a save state (although it's buggy) and can be used as a Mega CD ram cartridge. It's the model I have, although mine was bought prior to the X naming convention. Both X5 and X7 save your games without having to hit the MD's reset button to return to the menus. All three models have a dedicated button for the MS pause button, just like the Power Base Converter had.

My tip: Buy the X5 Mega Everdrive, it's the mid-range price with the most options you'll need for a stock MD. If you own a Mega CD, then go for the X7.

The MD's console region dictates the output picture Hz of the games run; NTSC consoles output the proper speed at 60Hz, while the PAL consoles output a slower 50Hz signal, making the games run 16,7% slower than intended. This is just what all PAL consoles did back in the day because they were not built to cater for the PAL standard, after all most games were made in Japan and the US anyhow.

Keeping in mind that some modern European HD flatscreens and old CRT's do not support a 60Hz NTSC picture; you really should buy an american Genesis (MD's US name) or a Japanese MD. Both run all games at 60Hz and will only lock you out of a few PAL hardcoded titles released there, mostly Europe exclusive Codemasters titles. Going 60Hz is so worth it to play the games how they were intended to play.

US and Japanese MDs are easy to get hold of, but I recommend buying a first model version, preferably the model with the "High Definition Graphics" text written on the upper part of the outer ring surrounding the cartridge slot. It's the model with the best sound and a dedicated audio jack plug output for that stereo goodness. Though a Mega Drive/Genesis 2 will do fine for those wanting a smaller console and don't care about audio/picture quality. An RGB cable for super sharp picture is also a must-have!

Everdrive 64

Much like the MD, the Nintendo 64 also avoided enhancement chip in it's games. The game library is therefore highly compatible with the Everdrive 64. There are two models to choose from with a couple of major differences: The v3 version, the expensive top model, features an automatic battery save system so you don't need to reset the console to save your game to the cartridge. Not a major inconvenience on the cheaper v2.5 model in my opinion, plus many of the N64 games require a Memory Pak to save anyhow. The v3 also has a built-in system clock, which helps a title like Animal Crossing to work properly as it requires a clock. Not looking into that particular game? Skip v3.

My tip: Buy the cheaper v2.5 if you don't mind resetting the console after using games that save internally without the Memory Pak. It's an easy routine to get used to for the lower price; finished playing the game? Hit that reset button before turning the console off.

Buy any region N64 as the Everdrive 64 will run the games at either 50Hz (but why?!) or 60Hz with a flip of a switch on the cartridge. PAL N64 consoles will run US and Japanese NTSC game roms at 60Hz no problem if the switch is set for it. However, I recommend buying an RGB modded N64 from Ebay, remember also to buy either a SNES or Gamecube RGB SCART alongside it, otherwise it's pointless to buy a RGB modded console. Be warned though, there's a ton of so called "N64 RGB" cables on Ebay that simply are composite ones. The N64 does NOT output RGB without hardware customisation. An RGB modded console with the proper RGB cable and a TV which supports it, will give the best and most clear picture, something the N64 desperately needs for it's renowned blurred image quality.

I would also recommend buying a non-official Memory Pak as they do run out of battery over time. It's really annoying that so many games relied on the Memory Pak on the N64, the cards on both PlayStation and Saturn required no battery for comparison. Plus, an official N64 Memory Pak requires you to un-solder the battery to get it loose should you wish to replace it down the road. The unofficial ones like the Performance Memory Card don't require soldering to change the battery. Luckily the Everdrive 64 lets you dump all saves on a Memory Pak over to a file on the SD card and restore it back, definitely an convenient option to backup those cherished saves.

Super Everdrive

The Super Nintendo is a more tricky console to make an Everdrive for. Not nearly as bad as the enhancement chip forest that were NES games, the SNES uses quite a few enhancement chips on a handful of games. The most famous chip is the Super FX , heavily advertised by Nintendo, which the Everdrive does not replicate. I strongly recommend getting the DSP chip enhancement as you purchase the Super Everdrive to get all the DSP1 to 4 enhancement chip games working at least. The various DSP chips were the most commonly used, featured in titles like Mario Kart and Pilotwings.

Games like Super Mario RPG, Super Mario Land 2: Yoshi's Island and Megaman X2 & X3 all have special enhancement chips that are specialised and not supported by the Super Everdrive. You can check a list online to see which titles which aren't supported, it's a fairly short list of about 30 games though, not a major chunk of the hundreds of SNES games available.

My tip: Buy the cheaper Super Everdrive, versus the far more expensive SD2SNES, which basically supports two-three extra Japanese titles. Add the DSP module to the Super Everdrive though, to get the most out of the SNES library. It's a small extra cost. The Super Everdrive takes a bit of time rewriting each game to flash memory though, not a major issue, but one that you should be aware of. SD2SNES does not have this issue, neither does the Mega Everdrive or Everdrive 64.

Just like the MD/Genesis the SNES console region dictates which games run at what Hz speed. I recommend buying a US SNES or a Super Famicom from Japan. Then you'll be able run any US or Japanese SNES roms at their proper 60HZ speed. NTSC and PAL roms will only run on their respective console region for the SNES anyhow.

An NTSC console will also open up a larger library of games. I find the US SNES console design aesthetically hideous, so I went with a Super Famicom, which looks just like a PAL SNES what I'm used to. Plus, pick up a SNES RGB cable online, it gives you the best picture, let those blurry composite cables die. Image quality wise when it comes to RGB output; the Mega Drive beats the SNES with a clearer and artefact-free output picture. This is more apparent when using the MD and SNES on modern flatscreens, but you really should be playing on a CRT or through a OSSC/Framemeister anyhow. 

Some Notes

For potential European MD and SNES buyers on the road to that 60Hz goodness: The Model 1 MD/Genesis can use any powerbrick made for it in any region. The power brick alters the power to the consoles 10V input. So buying a Genesis or a Japanese MD console if you already own the European one (be it UK or continental style) the MD power brick will power the console without needing a step-down converter.

Plus, that same MD power brick works for the Super Famicom and PAL SNES! Purchasing these as console only, without cables, controllers and boxing can be fairly cheap, it's reasonable way to play the games at their proper 60Hz speed. If you're a after a proper boxed console, for whatever collective reasons, will cost you much more.
So, to summarise all these three Everdrives:
  • Buy a US or Japanese MD and SNES, plus RGB cables to get that wonderful 60Hz with the sharpest possible picture. All MD Model 1 region power bricks work on every Model 1, simply get the power brick for your region and plug it in any region MD Model 1, they work even on PAL and Japanese SNES consoles too. 
  • Buy any region N64 console, but consider buying a RGB modded one. Any model will play 60Hz with the flip of a switch on the Everdrive. Get a proper SNES/Gamecube RGB and avoid the N64 RGB cable fakes.

That's it for now, hope you find what you are looking for in retrogaming through this article! There's hours of fun to be had with each console and their large library's of games. As and ending note, for the love of all things retro: use RGB cables on your consoles and let the composite fussy picture die!

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Within the evil of Shinji Mikami

A little back story

There's no denying that Resident Evil's director, Shinji Mikami, has been influential for the horror genre in videogaming. Many games have borrowed ideas and been inspired by his works such as the first Resident Evil. Conceived from an idea from Capcom's horror game Sweet Home on the NES and heavily influenced by Alone In The Dark, RE1 would be fundamental in the success of the genre and the first PlayStation console, even for Capcom as a whole too. Mikami would go on to be the producer of RE2 and 3, Code Veronica. As well as directing other horror games like Dino Crisis and the fantastic REmake of RE1 on the Gamecube in 2002.

Apart from the first mansion horror of RE1 and it's remake, RE4 from 2005 is perhaps Mikami's most famous and successful title of his directing career at Capcom. It became a huge hit on Gamecube and even more so on PS2, re-released countless times since it would influence other major gaming franchises such as the famous Gears Of War series on the Xbox brand. Of recent years I have played Vanquish, which he also directed, and although I enjoyed the gameplay, the actual game left me somewhat disappointed.

Which brings me forward for his last directing job from 2014, stating he is leaving such a position over to younger developers in his team in the future; The Evil Within. The sequel from 2017 has Mikami listed as a producer. I have recently played and completed both games as a tribute to a director I much admire with his various work, but especially my love for the very first RE game. Lets take a look at both the Evil Within games.

The Evil Within

Platform tested: Xbox One X & PlayStation 4
Released: 2014

Review: I actually attempted to play the first game back on the PS4, in 2015 I believe, being unimpressed with it's bad optimisation and extremely low framrate in dense enemy sections, I left the game lying and never returned. This year I was tipped by a friend to play the second game, however I still wanted to play the first one, it being a Mikami game and all, so I decided to go with the 900p version on XB1 (PS4 is 1080p) and let my Xbox One X do the work at retaining the framrate stable. Luckily it does, and I finally completed a playthrough. Albeit this time I went for the Mikami recommended difficulty setting of casual. Resulting in a far more enjoyable experience, while still being a fairly difficult survival horror game.

How would I best describe TEW? Think of it as Mikami getting to direct a Silent Hill game, while bringing in the frantic village scenes from RE4 and being influencd by the Inception movie. It sounds weird, but focus on the Silent Hill part mostly. This game feels and moves much closer to what a game in that series would be. The more "grounded in reality" horror from the early RE games i replaced for an ever changing madness and weird enemies from somebody's darkest imaginations. There's even a little RE1 mansion touch within the game too. It rolls up the directors line up of work wonderfully, without ever really daring to push boundaries. Lets take a close look.

TEW lends a lot of western influence to it's controls and plays very much like a more matured third person shooter than many other titles from Japan. Although Vanquish had very much the same influenced western gameplay, Mikami and his team have been inspired for not only the gameplay but also the story narrative this time around. It suits the game well, while still retaining some of that crazy madness that only horror games from Japan can replicate. The dialogue is well made, although with some cheesy lines here and there, with good voice acting and the game dramatically sinks you into it's disturbed world at the beginning. Presentation wise it has aged a little, but nothing major.

As a big SIlent Hill fana I found the crazy enemy designs and the changing enviroments a real flashback to KOnami's twisted horro series back on the PS1 and PS2 consoles.

Structurally the game is fairly linear, it's about traversing from A to B throughout the game. Although it occasionally offers some room to explore, it mainly focuses onprogressing forward. While the game flow is point to point game mainly, the actual locations and visual areas dramatically change and the game throws you from place to place in a spectacular and Inception like fashion.

Gunplay feels intense and like a third person shooter should, but maybe a tad on the sluggish side. Ammo is scarce, even on casual, keeping that intense feeling of survival going throughout. TEW very much is a survival horror game, at times you feel yourself so deep and desperately keeping the main protagonist, Sebastian Castellano, alive. Much of the gameplay is suprinsingly so, stealth based. It may sound a little strange, but consdier that you used to sneak past zombies and creatures in both RE and SH games in the past, it's not a bad idead. Stealth gameplay is made fairly light though; killing enemies undetected earns you a chance to reserve ammo and quietly getting through an area. However, being detected brings up some intsene situations where enemies rush you. I enjoy stealth if it leaves room failing without being forced to restart.

While it's a fairly early current generation game, TEW has a bit going for it visually still.  The image quality and performance though, brings the overall impression down. A muddy picture throughout with graphics that can look very mediocre at times, but it at least does take use of current gen effects like a dramatic depth of field, well done lighting effects, air particles floating about and atmospheric fog. Playing this in much higher resolution with a smooth framerate on PC would surely help, but the visuals do grow on you on console versions. Just expect the performance to drop on base PS4 and XB1. I really enjoyed the environment diversity with it's chilling and haunting locations,  although I would have liked more colour, it really is in the gritty, gray and brown category of game graphics.

With some tighter controls, a little less stupid end boss fight and better performing graphics I feel that TEW could really have been a far stronger game. The story is interesting, but it's main plot twist and idea isn't exactly groundbreaking and the ending is fairly uninspiring. The build up of tension helps aid the story though, and it really brings back some of that Silent Hill magic of falling deeper and deeper into horror madness.

It's strange then to think that a game that feels like a SH game is made by the guy that started the whole modern style of the genre with the first RE. TEW lays a lot of fundamental and cool ideas that makes room for a sequel to shine. On it's own it's neither great nor mediocre in any way. It's just a solid horror game that could have done with more polish and perhaps pushed the gameplay boundries a little furtherm, it feels like a older game structurally. Recommended for horror fans and those wanting to play the sequel!



The Evil Within 2

Platform tested: Xbox One X
Released: 2017

Review: "Everything you can do, I can do better", a famous quote, but a very correct one for TEW2. I spoke earlier here about how the first TEW lays the fundamentals of the series, well the sequel takes these and benefits from being a sequel that perhaps not many realised would even be made. It clearly feels like it's made by a team with a lot of freedom and ideas, but also a far more ambitious team. It retains the iconic things from the first game, but aims for a larger and more modern design to the whole experience. Playing the first game is key in understanding and appreciating the setting of TEW2 though. Even just starting up the first level of TEW2 will spoil the main plot of the first game, so be sure to it first.

Where TEW1 had the building bricks of a new horror series in place, TEW2 finishes the job in a more polished and complete package. Less rough around the edges and aiming at a more matured audience far into this generation of consoles. It seems like a game that knows more what it wants to be than the previous one.  How much influence Mikami has had as producer in this game, I don't know, but there's still his DNA in it. Strangely enough, this time around it's closer to the old Resident Evil series than Silent Hill. While not reaching the incredible tension and horror peaks of Alien Isolation and Resident Evil 7: Biohazard this generation, TEW2 surprisingly is up there with the best horror games I'v played in recent years.

I talked about the first game laying the fundamentals and I love how some of the "classic" features are retained for this sequel. Making it's own form of typical Evil Within quirks, much like how we remember the item chests and ink ribbons in the early RE games. Most noticeable and iconic is the upgrade hub from TEW1, which is accessed though a bright mirror once again. Only this time it brings you to an office and then further on into a dark and more disturbing room with the nurse from TEW1. Caringly, but also hauntingly so she speaks to Sebastian about how things are etc. In the nurse's room you open item boxes and do character upgrades, which she'll comment too. Luckily this time around there is no loading to this hub world and the main game world were you access the mirrors are within dsignated safe rooms.

These safe rooms are much like the RE ones, cozy enough the come equipped with a coffee maker(!) to heal yourself with a cup of joe and a saving device. Weapon leveling is retained only this time it has a deeper progression and requires resources. Character leveling is greatly expanded and can be tailored towards your gameplay style. Resources from enemies gives the player a reason to take them down and with lots of items scatted about and hidden the payer is encouraged to explore. All in all a much better depth to the character upgrade system, while still having the same look and feel of the first game.

Gameplay wise you will realise the huge upgrade TEW2 has received; the areas you explore are more open ended in structure and work as small sandbox worlds. The first area you come across, with it's charming small town USA setting, is perfectly sized for newcomers. With rows of small houses, abandoned streets with cars in and parks to explore. It's free roam, but at a small and manageable scale, which is key to keeping it open but at a linear pace at the same time. It tempts you to go around and explore by yourself and gather resources and ammo without overwhelming the player with freedom.

The whole aesthetic of the small town setting, combined with the close third person over the shoulder view and the orange lamp lit streets of a zombie-like apocalypse gives me vibes of how Resident Evil 2 would look like in 3D. A perfect warm up for the remake next year in other words! I just love walking down the empty streets roamed by zombies with a shotgun and looking into back alleys and storage place for items, then suddenly being over thrown by a hoard of enemies. Shock horror at it's best, while allowing and rewarding a calmer pace of stealth killing as well.

TEW2 retains the survival aspect of low ammo and scarce resources, but allows for more action oriented situations with many enemies. This breaks the comfort zone of a slow pace at times. I think it's a neat upgrade and found the balance between sneaking about, gun combat, exploration and story scenes really well balanced. Whenever you start feeling that you have grip on things and become a little overpowered, the game throws you into new types of scenarios with new enemies thrown in to take you off guard. Where the first game felt more a lot like a Silent Hill game in design, TEW2 feels more like a Resident Evil game. Although I found the first game more disturbing and with more varied enemy design closer to a Silent Hill game, TEW2 rests perhaps a bit to close to the standard apocalypse and zombies fair.

Graphically TEW2 has had major upgrade over the first game on console, especially on the Xbox One X, going from 900p in TEW1 to 1800p for this sequel. Everything looks much sharper and far better textures are used making close up details look great. The levels have become larger and contain far more places and items to discover. The whole game just runs and feels smoother too, which really gives the while experience a more pleasurable feel to the gameplay.

Gun combat seems faster, less clunky and more precise too. TEW2 looks like more matured and modern game graphically, at times it looks really pretty too, nailing the aesthetics of a abandoned small town USA perfectly. TEW2 too also delves into mad locations like TEW1, further making it diverse from a visual and atmospheric point of view. To aid the les linear feeling of the game, TEW2 realies on markers on the map for it's main quests. You need to travrse to certain locations by yourself, you are not simply led along a path. There's even thrown in hidden upgrades of weapons to find and a handful of side missions, great stuff that takes the lifespan of the game from the 10 hour mark of TEW1 to the 12-14 hour mark in TEW2.

There's no denying that an old survival horror fan player me really enjoyed TEW2, although I would have  the game to go down it's first games's more Silent Hill visual design road, as a whole though, the sequel is a fantastic package and a big upgrade. TEW2 feels like a really solid and high budget game with great cutscenes, dialogue and strong gameplay that makes it very entertaining to play though.

Sure, it may take a more safe route when it comes to weirdness and perhaps fare a little far into the more traditional zombie apocalypse setting, but at the end of the day it just all comes together as a varied and intense horror game with a stronger and more ambitious design than it's predecessor. An expanded character leveling and weapon upgrading system helps keep the player engaged in exploring and actually feeling the progression by becoming more powerful. It's a game that sure will be fun to play in new game plus to take my retained upgrades even further and becoming even more powerful.

Highly recommended horror and a great game to play as you warm up to next years's RE2 remake!



Bonus: Here's a playlist of some of my kills in the second game, enjoy!