Category Archives: Mega Drive

Virtua Racing

virtuaracingmegadrive5

I’ve always wanted to square off Virtua Racing against Starwing. That’s a much bigger job than just reviewing either one of them individually, and since I lack the time to immediately that, and, having been playing a bit of Virtua Racing recently, I thought I’d forgo my original plans to review it alongside its early home console 3D-graphics competitor. In its home console form, Virtua Racing is obviously important for two reasons, the first being its conceptual import, and the second its innovativeness in terms of its use of hardware.

Previously, racing titles relied on a carefully constructed two dimensional illusion of distance and depth of environment in order to convey a plausible game scenario. While VR wasn’t the first 3D racing game to do away with these techniques, it was the first to do it well. What was definitely not lost in VR, and indeed continues to be an important concept in racing games after their transition to three-dimensional environments, is its persuasive illusion of speed.

See that dot on the horizon? Yeah. That's your Badiouian Truth-Event.

See that dot on the horizon? Yeah. That’s your Badiouian Truth-Event.

I didn’t find VR‘s Acropolis level to be particularly well-executed level in conceptual terms, but its intermediate-difficulty level, Bay Bridge, a shining example of what Sega and Yu Suzuki were trying to achieve. While VR‘s environment can be divided up binarily, interactively speaking, into obstacles and non-obstactles, Bay Bridge demonstrates the kind of raw, intuitive feeling that you can only get from a (what was then) realistic three-dimensional environment. On the level, you pass through the namesake steel bridge, which is enormous. It towers over you, and the feeling of that empty column of space stays with you the rest of the level. You pass through a mountain in a tunnel, underneath huge freeway-like concrete manifolds, and alongside imposing grey retaining walls. The level design and eye-candy work together to drive home this concept of speed and transit in a very convincing manner.

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The only time this breaks down is when you crash, or, through naive level design, become aware that–much like any 2D racing game, Hang On and Out Run being famous Sega examples–basically all of the world is proceeding towards you from a point in the middle of your TV screen. At these two moments you’ll realise just how much VR has inherited from its ancestors, as it will become patently apparent that the car onto which you’re projecting your will, and the environment around it, are not inhabiting the same plane of existence: the player’s car, at times, feels as if it is being drawn on top of everything that’s happening on the screen, like it’s not really ‘there’ on the road. This should all be regarded as forgivable, because, first, most of the time, the player’s car feels flush with the road, and secondly, this criticism is minor gripe. Seeing as the technology powering VR was very, very new, the fact that they managed to pull off a game as atmospheric and realistic as they did is a real achievement.

virtuaracingmegadrive1The second important thing about VR, its use of hardware, is also something worthy of praise. I think it speaks to the great flexibility of the cartridge format that game manufacturers were able to incorporate secondary processors into their games in order to better realise their creative ideas. Today, one is more-or-less stuck with the hardware they have when they come to possess a new game title, but that was not necessarily so with cartridge-based software. Cartridges could–and did–contain extra RAM, or special memory bank switching hardware (think the NES) in order to push the envelope in terms of sprite and background complexity. As with Nintendo and their Super FX line of chips, Sega made use of a secondary microprocessor to handle the calculations necessary to display 3D visuals on their fourth-generation console. What distinguishes VR‘s special chip, the ‘Sega Virtua Processor’ (good old-fashioned marketing spin at work here) from the Super FX is that it was not a full, multi-purpose microprocessor. It was a Digital Signal Processor (DSP).

virtuaracingmegadrive2A DSP is microprocessor that is custom-built for a very particular purpose, which is frequently a very simple and repetitive, but power-hungry task. That’s not to say that all custom-built microprocessors are DSPs, but in this particular case, the “SVP” was designed to perform two operations (multiplication and addition) for the purpose of calculating VR‘s 3D polygonal data, and transforming it into “8×8 tiles” (which one can assume to be 8×8 pixel patterns). These two-dimensional tiles are transferred, ultimately, to the Mega Drive’s video RAM via Direct Memory Access (which is only possible through the use of cartridges!).

You could be forgiven for thinking that the SVP stood in the same league of semiconductor fidelity as the RISC Super FX chip, because, short of performing some sort of hard empirical comparison between VR and Starwing in terms of their polygon-count (VR displaying somewhere between 300-500 polygons @ 15 FPS), early alternative to Z-buffering (see Quake’s Binary Space Partitioning), use of colour, and frame-rate (&c &c), the visuals that both games push are comparable. Honestly, whenever I pick up VR I forget that the SVP is only capable of rendering polygons on-screen in 16 (!!!) colours.

starfox venomThere may be something to be said for Starwing‘s better player game-environment interactivity and command of atmosphere (NB Starwing‘s final level), but, short of performing the all-out compare-and-contrast disclaimed above, Virtua Racing is an absolute stellar title. I’m asserting this despite the fact that I don’t particularly like racing games as a genre–as a game in itself, the world environment that this title manages to convey to the player is reasonably deep and tangible. While I haven’t spoken about the game’s controls at all, its scheme of interactivity is solid. In that manner, it doesn’t fail as a racing game.

The great thing about VR is that it is able to be acquired on eBay and other retro gaming shops on the internet for ten to twenty dollars. That’s a far cry from the game’s original asking price. With Mega Drive systems being correspondingly so durable and cheap, it’s worth getting both and learning a bit about the history surrounding the video game industry’s fits and starts into the 3D graphics era. Retrogarden puts it pretty well when it says that

the SVP chip brought hope to die-hard and downtrodden Sega fans; if Virtua Racing was possible, why not Virtua Fighter too?  Could 3rd party developers  take the SVP chip and use it to port Doom, or even make a Starwing-type game?

The SVP represents the highly contingent nature of the aesthetics of the Western video game industry from the mid-nineties onwards. The progression to more and more complex foundations of hardware didn’t push more complex artistic ideas with it, as disillusioned Sega fans can surely attest. While VR offered a glimmer of hope, the future wasn’t secure as the industry moved into the mid-to-late nineties, as everyone is so obviously aware.

For a brilliant in-depth hardware analysis of Virtua Racing (which Jump’n Shoot will probably exploit later) on the Mega Drive, see this blog post.

For more information about the “Sega Virtua Processor” (a Samsung SSP160x Digital Signal Processor), see this forum thread.

 

Chelnov/Atomic Runner

AR3Let’s face it–Contra/Probotector costs a lot of money. For a game with such simple concepts, its popularity has, ironically, rendered it prohibitively difficult to access in order to play. If you, like many others, are stuck in this predicament, worry no more, because a reasonably inexpensive equivalent exists which harbours just as much artistic quality.

The name of this title is Atomic Runner, outside of Japan. Originally an arcade game, its transition to the Sega Mega Drive saw it undergo a host of changes both in form and in substance. Both Atomic Runner‘s game-play and plot were altered (supposedly for the startling similarity that the original Japanese arcade game bore to the Chernobyl nuclear-reactor meltdown), but this rendered it a far superior game according to the critics (Sega-16 review and forum discussion, GameFAQ review, Krooze’s Haunt).

AR1With impressive mid-life-cycle Mega Drive parallax scrolling, and large (if only slightly repetitive), colourful backgrounds and bosses, Atomic Runner sports very solid game-play. Against many run-and-gun games (and indeed many shoot’em ups) AR really does hold its own. The myriad of power-ups and environments through which to peruse are interesting, and the overall theme of the game, a synthesis of ancient cultures and ultra-modern technology, is well-executed.

It’s both an opportunity and a shame that this game has been overlooked, because its developer, Data East hasn’t really been remembered for any of its fun and imaginative games. I might return to Data East and go through its history.

AR2The only issue that is commonly identified with AR is its length. Because the game is so short, Data East correspondingly made the obvious decision to crank up the game’s difficulty a fair amount. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, though. This was a fairly frequent design formula for many developers, as computer memory and system processing limitations virtually bound them to making short, difficult games.

If the reader needs some persuasion, they should find their attention directed to the following video:

 

S-Video for your N64

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If you’re not one to emulate, and you want to get the most out of your N64, you might want to look into acquiring a cheap S-Video AV cable for your console from eBay.

S-Video is the best method of maximising the video quality from your N64 without having to full-on mod it: it splits up the colour (chroma) and brightness (luma) information into two separate channels, which are usually combined when being delivered to your TV through a (yellow) composite cable. The result is that S-Video retains and preserves video data better than both RF-modulated and composite encoded video.

Crawl

Dot crawl: you’ve definitely seen this before!

S-Video is a particularly practical way of improving picture quality in older consoles because many issues with such consoles’ video can be attributed to the way chroma and luma are encoded. Interference between colour and brightness information is frequently the culprit for bad picture quality, and not an outright lack or loss of picture definition (many older consoles being designed for the purpose of interfacing directly with an analogue TV, its circuitry being timed to its scan lines). A classic example of chroma-luma interference in games due to imperfect (and unavoidable) composite video encoding is dot crawl.

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Mega Drive Composite Video Output http://www.davidhowland.com/mod/

The trouble with many of these N64 S-Video cables is that they produce an image on your TV that is too bright. There is a fix for this, and it is pretty simple. The diagram above illustrates resistors placed between ground and every video channel of an AV cable, but all that is sufficient is that a single resistor be placed between luma and ground. Using a 1K-ohm trimmer pot is a fairly convenient resistor to use because it allows one to adjust the picture brightness very carefully. Although it takes some fairly patient soldering, the results are definitely worthwhile. Being able to play Banjo Tooie, Perfect Dark or Rogue Squadron in S-Video in 640 x 480 is a fairly rewarding experience. What I found pretty damn gratifying was being able to properly resolve a couple of my favourite Jet Force Gemini levels!

after mega drive s-video

After S-Video modding a Mega Drive http://www.davidhowland.com/mod/

On the left you’ll find some before-and-after images from an S-Video hardware mod undertaken on davidhowland.com. While the difference in video quality is partly exaggerated by camera focus, you can see how the brightness and colour information have interfered with one-another.

Sonic 2 Prototypes

If you’re interested in looking at all the different decisions that go into making a game–especially a classic one, such as Sonic 2–you’re probably more than captured by things such as game prototypes. Check out these two Sonic 2 prototypes: the Simon Wai prototype, and the Nick Arcade prototype.

Retro Sanctuary

‘Top game’ lists (‘Top 100 Sega games’ &c) are bad, and people should stop making and reading them, but despite that, the people over at Retro-Sanctuary do a brilliant job of them. Despite the conceptual incoherence of ranking games, the lists that RS compiles do a good job of helping one gain an understanding of how the libraries of third, fourth and fifth generation platforms are related to amongst themselves.

The ported-games comparisons section that the website has developed features a really good run-down of the differences between the Earthworm Jim ports of the early 90s. What is particularly interesting about the article on EWJ is its discussion of the different graphics capabilities of the SNES and the Mega Drive–specifically, the Mega Drive’s use of dithering as a remedy for its limited on-screen colour palette.

Blast Processing?

Some more highbrow discussion?

Stealin’ Shit From RetroCollect

Oh Mummy

New Mega Drive cartridge being released by Spanish homebrewers 1985AlternativoOh Mummy.

Angry Birds

In a somewhat less exciting vein, angry birds has been ported to the Mega Drive.

More Links

Check out these under-rated Mega Drive games.

ToeJam & Earl

alt = Two cartoon-style characters dance; one holds a hot dog and the other, in a speech bubble above his head, says "JAMMIN'!". Text below them reads, "ToeJam & Earl".

This is a game about a couple of aliens who are trying to reassemble their spaceship so that they can return to their home planet, Funkotron. As you’re likely to read elsewhere, the game mechanics owe a large part of their heritage to Rogue, a game for the personal computer from 1980, but, for important reasons, TJ&E escaped following those those roots too closely, and did not become anything like Diablo, or–and this might be stretching the limits of the dungeon-crawling genre–Baldur’s Gate.

It has been complained that TJ&E is ‘just a game about walking around’; this is supremely ignorant. The player, whether playing with another (as ‘intended’) or by themselves, will do a lot of walking around, but this does not limit the game. What drives TJ&E  is the idea that you’re exploring something, getting deeper and deeper into the world with which you’re interacting &c. This is what makes this a really, really good game.

All the levels you play through are randomly generated, and all of the items littered throughout the game have to be used in order to function discovered: everything gets rotated, mixed around, when you start again. The items themselves are genuinely helpful to game-play, and are authentically imaginative. In fact the very freedom the player has to roam around and explore the level, checking the map, figuring things out, is what makes this game. Most commentary on TJ&E reserves all the praise for its music–and the music is brilliant, Herbie Hancock-esque funk that loops perfectly–but the sandbox dimension to the game is what keeps me coming back.

I can go on about the levels’ terrain, the various enemies, the game’s difficulty curve, but you need to go and play this game.

ToeJam & Earl is available on the Sega Mega Drive (both the console and cartridge can be bought fairly cheaply online), and the Wii Virtual Console, for 800 Wii Points.

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