Sunday, December 16, 2012

Realistic LAB-420 - A Few More Photos

Since I'm in a turntable mood this weekend (I'm obsessed with getting a new one), I thought I would share a few more photos of the Realistic LAB-420 I purchased four years ago as a family Christmas present.  At the time, I owned a Pro-Ject Debut III, fully decked out.  This was my first introduction to a quality direct drive turntable, and it just swallowed the Pro-Ject up.

Looking back from the year 2012, I've learned a few things about turntables and 1970s direct drives.  I can easily spot the weaknesses in the 420's design: the plastic rear and base of the tonearm, the lack of quartz lock, the mediocre rumble stats (-65dB, ouch), the mostly empty frame, the overuse of switches.  No matter.  This was a really good sounding table, especially with its Audio Technica 440mla.  Santana's Abraxis sounded awesome, as did The White Stripes' Icky Thump.

And, of course, the wood frame looks terrific.  If I had another one today, I'd definitely give it a coat of varnish.  Add some metal polish for the tonearm and you're ready to rock.

I only had this turntable in my possession for a week (before packaging it and a stack of LPs for dear ol' Dad), but it left a deep impression upon me.  It set me in pursuit of Japanese direct drive turntables, and opened up a world of music that was actually affordable.  I really wish Radio Shack was still selling these things, to be honest.  Pair one with an AT 440mla and a '70s stereo receiver, and you'll be one happy camper.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

JVC QL-A2 Direct Drive Turntable

This is the JVC QL-A2, which sat at the low-end of their successful (and excellent) line of direct drive turntables.  These guys were one of the major players of the day, and their high-end decks rivaled the best.  Heck, even this model is a good turntable.  The cheap plastic frame benefits greatly from 7-10lbs of modeling clay, which adds weight and solidity to that hollow frame.  And look how cool that platter looks with gold spray paint.  I spray painted the sub-platter and feet on my old Pro-Ject Debut III, and enjoyed putting my unique stamp on my toys.

The QL-A2 features a quartz lock motor, easily the table's best quality (-73dB rumble).  The automatic function is also very nice to have, although the buttons are a bit cheap (the MCS 6700 had the best buttons).  The tonearm is standard '70s fare, not too impressive but it gets the job done.  And despite the fact it's a cheap chunk of plastic, the frame does look stylish and cool.  This is a really good looking turntable.

As I've said, the modeling clay mod boosts the QL-A2 up a notch, and there were times where I enjoyed it more than my Sony PS-X5.  I think this table handled internal resonances better, thanks to that box frame and a ton of Gumby clay.  With some quality feet or cones, it would really be impressive.

Sadly, my table suffered problems with the speed control, and started playing at slower speed.  Perhaps some Deoxit over the speed pots might have helped.  In retrospect, I would have taken this table into the shop for a tuneup.  It would have been worth saving.  Then again, perhaps this model was prone to breakdowns and endless hassles, which would mean throwing good money after bad.  Ah, say la vee.

I would recommend any of the QL-A series, and you can find one fairly cheap.  If you can rewire the tonerm, pack the inside frame, and replace the feet, you'll have something really nice.  If you can score one for $50 and everything works, consider yourself very lucky, score a quality budget phono cart, and enjoy your records..

MCS 6603 Direct Drive Turntable

Back in the day, department store chains would re-brand popular electronics goods, offering their own versions of more expensive, name-brand products.  MCS (Modular Component Systems) was JC Penny's house brand for hi-fi audio products, mostly Technics, but occasionally other brands as well.  I've recently shown photos of the MCS 6700, an excellent turntable based on Technics' SL-1900, and it was one of the better models.  Here is one of the lesser models.

The MCS 6603 is a re-badged Technics SL-D2, one of the cheap, low-entry models from the early 1980s.  I picked up this table for $70 or $80, I can't remember exactly how much.  It was nice to play for a while, and it played a mean Led Zeppelin, but it shortly developed a serious problem with the power cutting out.  Unfortunately, my repair skills were sorely lacking at the time, so after numerous attempts to keep the thing running, it was sent to the closets, and then the garbage bin.  Can't win 'em all.

I'm not a fan of Technics' SL-D2, and while the MCS model has a more stylish frame (retaining the motor, electronics, and tonearm), it's still a cheap plastic turntable.  Packing the insides with 8lbs of modeling clay made a great difference, and if you find yourself with a cheap Japanese direct drive with box frame, I highly recommend the mod.  However, nothing could salvage the needlessly thick and heavy sound, or the crummy feet, or the cheap-o tonearm.

One more note: looking at these photos, I remember that I was using a heavy Sumiko headshell, which threw the tonearm resonance way off.  These low-to-medium mass tonearms require light headshells, especially with the Ortofon 2M phono cartridges.  I really don't know what I was thinking when I bought that thing; "heavier" equaled "better" in my mind at the time.  Ah, well, we all learn.

Prices on vintage turntables are rising across the board, and while the MCS 6603 was once a decent $50 buy, now you'll probably be spending a hundred at least.  That puts this table in the same league as much better machines, ones that look and sound much better, and there's really no point in wasting your time on a cheap record player.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Steely Dan "Black Cow" - Analog/Digital Showdown

We haven't had an analog/digital music showdown here on the blog for a while (okay, we've never done it), and I've found a perfect candidate in Steely Dan's "Black Cow," the opening track to their 1977 classic Aja.  This is a terrific album, a rich, warm and jazzy pop sound that perfectly defines the late 1970s for me.  Let's see how it compares on digital (CD/mp3) and analog (vinyl LP).

The analog setup features a Thorens TD-160 belt-drive turntable, one of the true classics of analog audio.  The phono cartridge is the Audio Technica 150MLX, one of the finest moving magnet cartridges ever built.  That object of my desire, the Bellari VP-130 tube phono preamp, in fire engine red, drives the music with a wonderful warm and buttery smooth sound.  Ooh, I really love this stereo system.

The digital version was the best version I could find on YouTube.  I'm not sure if it was ripped from CD or 128bps mp3 file.  It probably wouldn't make too much difference, given YT's heavy video compressions.  But I made sure this version would sound clean and clear.

Which version do you prefer, and why?  Which version pulls you into the music, moves you more deeply?  For me, it's no contest: the analog version wins easily.  The difference is small but noticeable; percussion and bass pumps deeper, there's more groove and swing.  The vocals are more natural, warmer.  The 150MLX and Bellari make an excellent team.  Everything is more musical, and I find myself getting lost in my imagination.

The digital version is certainly very good, as it demonstrates the clarity that CDs are known for.  But doesn't it feel a little reserved, a little cold?  It's not a question of volume or bass levels; I'm just not feeling the music.  While listening, my mind tends to wander and daydream, and the song soon becomes background noise.  I'm sure that if I had the actual CD on my stereo, the experience would be better.  But I can also say the same for the vinyl LP, and that one already has a clear advantage in the YouTube arena.

I think it's too easy to dismiss LPs as old-fashioned, or dismiss CDs as inferior to analog audio.  Most everything is dependent on your stereo equipment, the quality of the LP, the quality of the turntable and phono cartridge, the quality of your CD player.  I still believe that you have to spend $500 before analog defeats digital.  On a cheap USB turntable, the digital version would easily triumph.

So we'll offer this showdown as an example of the analog/digital divide, and where they stand.  As for me, I'm getting desperate to finally rebuild my stereo system.  I want that Bellari and those vacuum tubes!!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Dave Brubeck Has Died

Sigh, a very sad day as we lose our greatest living jazz musician, and a wonderfully kind and generous human being.  School and work is hereby cancelled for the rest of the day.  I'll be grief-stricken for the rest of the week; Dave Brubeck has always been one of my favorites, right next to Miles and Coltrane.  Now he's gone forever and we'll never hear his wonderful music or see his spirited smiles again.

Here's one of my YouTube recordings from a few years back, of The Dave Brubeck's most popular song, "Take Five," from the 1959 jazz masterpiece, Time Out.  The turntable is a Sony PS-X5, and the Ortofon 2M Blue is the phono cartridge (mounted on a headshell that's slightly too heavy, oops).  That's a great combination, and while the 2M lacks the musical groove and swing of, say, the Denon Dl-110/160, it provides excellent dynamics.  I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Angry Birds Did Not Kill Nintendo

This recent New York Times article on Nintendo's Wii U raises a number of questions, not only for Nintendo, but the video game industry as a whole.  But it also reminds me that the traditional media has always been sort of clueless when it comes to video games.

We all the game industry has a host of problems - rising hardware and software prices, staggering production costs, shrinking "hardcore" gamer demographic, recycled "franchise" sequels from 20 years ago, bankruptcies right and left.  Does that mean smartphones and tablets are really going to conquer the world?  I'm not so sure about that.  If anything, I'm wondering just when the iOS backlash begins.

I don't see tablets and smartphones killing the traditional video games console.  I can see the portable systems - Sony PS Vita and Nintendo 3DS - being disrupted and possibly worse.  And goodness knows that Nintendo could make a wreck of the Wii U if they're not careful.  But I think we're getting way ahead of ourselves, and listening to the wrong analysts for advice.

Let's not panic, people.  Angry Birds is not the center of the universe, Nintendo is not going to die.  The video game business will adapt and evolve, one way or another.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Living in a Post-Angry Birds World

I saw this little gem at the downtown Minneapolis Target after work today.  It's Angry Birds Trilogy, a compilation of three titles from the immensely popular iOS/Android Angry Birds series.  Can you see the crisis for Nintendo?  Any company executive who does not see it deserves to be fired immediately.

A paradigm shift in the video game world is rare, but the arrival of Apple's Apps store is one of them.  Five years ago, Angry Birds would have easily found a home as a $20 Nintendo DS cartridge.  Today, it's a 99-cent download for smartphones.  For Angry Birds Trilogy, that means $20-$30 on Nintendo 3DS, $40 on PS360...or $3 on the iPhone.  That's a paradigm shift, kids.

Nintendo gambled hard on stereoscopic 3D, hoping the Avatar phenom would usher in a new era of entertainment.  They're gambling and, outside of Japan, they're losing the bet.  Every week that goes by, store shelves of $40 3DS games look increasingly bloated and out-of-touch, while Apple and Google capture the "casual" market that was once in the palm of Nintendo's hands.

How can you sell a $40 video game in an age of $1-$5 apps?  You can't.  Sorry, Charlie, them's the brakes.

To Nintendo's credit, their situation isn't hopeless, at least, not yet.  Nobody can touch their quality when it comes to classic arcade games like Super Mario Bros and Mario Kart.  And iOS developers are struggling even to make a dime, as the smartphone market is over-saturated with free and Free-to-Play apps.  If the Big N was smart, they could navigate their way out of this minefield.  But they're going to have to make some radical decisions about their pricing, their online strategy, and their hardware/software.

Monday, November 26, 2012

MCS 6700 Direct Drive Turntable

MCS was JC Penny's house brand for consumer electronics, including stereo components and turntables.  Their products were re-branded from Japanese manufacturers, including Hitachi, JVC and Technics.  Here's one of their very best turntables - the MCS 6700 Direct Drive Turntable.

The MCS 6700 is actually a Technics SL-1900...specifically, the 1950 model which allowed you to stack up to six LPs.  The motor, electronics and tonearm all hail from the Technics model...but the frame and buttons hail from Hitachi's tables.  It's a terrific combination, and to my eyes, it looks much better than the original.  I especially like how the platter is partially submerged within the large black frame.  The rubber-coated buttons and knobs are also quite stylish.

I bought one of these bad boys on Craigslist for $85, which was an absolute steal.  It was a Christmas present for my mother, and she loves playing her Miles Davis and Dean Martin LPs on the stereo.  Expect to pay $80-$150 for this turntable if it's in excellent condition.  I paired it with a Denon DL-110, the younger brother of the late, great DL-160.  It may be the better of the two carts, which really surprised me.  The standard 47K loading sounds fine with the DL-110, whereas its elder brother required more specialized loading (MC setting on my Pro-Ject Tube Box II, or 1K-8K loading) to sound its best.

My most popular YouTube videos feature this stereo system (MCS 6700, Denon DL-110, Rega Fono Mini), and it's a wonderful sound, warm and dynamic and very musical.  Oil the motor bearings and pack the inside frame with 7lbs of modeling clay, and you'll be amazed at the performance of this turntable.

I only have one complaint, and it's probably a minor one - no Quartz lock.  I just don't like having to adjust the speed on the dials.  I know, I know, I'm just being a big baby.  Don't let that hold you back.  The MCS 6700 will compete against any turntable in its class.  I'd also recommend stuffing some Vibrapods underneath the feet, which also worked nicely for me.

Here's the MCS 6700 and Denon DL-110 in action.  Give this a spin and see what it does for ya.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Free Fighter - Nyko Reads My Mind

One of life's more amusing (and humbling) truths is that no matter what ideas you conjure, no matter how original your ideas, somebody will beat you to the punch.  I've been sketching out ideas for a modular-based video game controller system for the past two months, a clever idea that I'm quite proud of.  And now I've discovered that Nyko has the exact same idea.  D'oh!

Nyko unveiled their Free Fighter arcade joystick at this year's E3 show, and it offers a modular design, where you can detach the joystick and connect it to either side of the button-box-thing (ahem).  This allows for left- and right-handed play, a very clever idea.  This joystick system also features rapid-fire, and programmable "macro" functions, which will prove highly controversial to the fighting game scene.  The buttons are high-end parts from Asia, everything is given a professional polish, and Nyko

So what does this mean for my own modular controller system?  I'm impressed to see that someone else had the same idea as me (I swear I completely missed Nyko's E3 showing).  My approach is from the retro game side, the Atari era where single-button joysticks were popular.  I completely agree with Nintendo that today's over-built and over-complicated joypads are scaring people away.  The Wii Remote was an attempt to return to a simpler, more iconic design, and believe that's the correct approach.  The rise of touch-display smartphones only reinforce this belief.

Appealing solely to hardcore gamers creates a negative feedback loop.  You build an expensive joystick with a bazillion buttons, and it will only sell to a select few.  Because it sells few copies, hardly any games will be created to take advantage of the controller.  Because of low software support, the controller sells fewer copies.  And on and on.

From my vantage point, the Free Fighter makes three critical errors: 1) a horrifying $189 retail price; 2) far too many (and never-to-be-used) buttons; and 3) (censored).  Sorry about that last one.  I can't give my secrets away.  I can tell you that my design has a couple amazingly cool ideas that set it apart from Nyko's design.  But, hey, it's nothing that you couldn't figure out and design on your own.  There's a great opportunity here, if only the game industry would break away from its "hardcore" obsession.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Building a Better Controller - XBox 360 and Sega Saturn

Designing a quality video game controller is a difficult art.  That much is certain if you spend a little time looking at the many controllers over the years, and even more so when you want to design one of your own.  What makes a particular design work?  What are the strengths and weaknesses?  And how can you create something that isn't merely a cheap ripoff?

Right now, Microsoft's Xbox 360 controller is probably the king of game controllers.  Its ergonomic design is very stylish, it's very comfortable to hold, my hands never get tired, and the symmetry allows for a clean look, which is very important for a gamepad with 16 buttons.  This is an excellent controller and I like using it very much.

When you look at recent attempts to create a gamepad, like Ouya, or Apple's recently-leaked patent design, or any number of PC controllers, the goal is to copy Microsoft.  Just make it look like Xbox.  The only current alternative is - surprise - to steal from Sony's Playstation design.  Sigh.  We can do better than this.

Let's say, for example, that I'm designing the main controller for Project Phoenix.  The first pass is to simply use the Xbox 360, maybe with a better d-pad, but nothing more.  Most publishers would take this route, just to save costs and get the thing out the door.  However, there's one major problem, and it's one I highlighted in my previous post - your controller is your identity.  It's a symbol for your hardware system.  And when you offer a copycat controller, no matter how solidly built, it says to the world, "This is a copycat system.  Don't take us seriously."  This is unacceptable.

The second pass would be to simplify the number of buttons to Dreamcast's design, but keep the 360's look; that would mean removing the second analog thumb stick, the two digital triggers, and the Back button.  This is a good improvement, as I feel simpler, more iconic game controllers are critical.  Most people are intimidated by gamepads with 15 (or more) buttons.  It alienates and scares potential customers away, and that's the last thing we need now.  We need to expand the video game market and attract new customers.

So this second pass is better.  But it's still essentially a copy of an established brand (Xbox 360), which sends the wrong message.  So we need to address that problem.

Let's next take a look at the Sega Saturn controller.  Many people consider this to be the definitive 2D gamepad, thanks to its compact size, it's perfectly curved design, and Sega's legendary d-pad (which has never been bettered).  It's especially popular among fighting game fans, thanks to the six-button layout.  This controller is the result of many years of design improvements, and it is now refined to perfection.  If you enjoy 2D video games, the Saturn joypad is the best ever built.

However, it has one critical weakness, one that Sega was never able to successfully overcome - Analog Control.  When the Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64 dropped, it was obvious that 3D graphics and analog control was the wave of the future.  2D and digital were out-of-fashion, and Sega responded, not by revising or refining the existing Saturn design, but scrapping it completely.  Sega's 3D controller was a monster, round and fat and bloated and not very much fun to hold.  The thing is just a damn tank.

I will give Sega credit for making a good analog thumb stick, which was unique in that it employed magnets.  They also introduced analog triggers, which is that controller's legacy achievement (I can't imagine a racing game without these).  But the controller lacks the intuitive comfort of Saturn's 2D pad, and it never really feels right.  If we ever feel generous towards this design, it's only because the Dreamcast gamepad is even worse.

So now we come back full circle, to our proposed Project Phoenix and the quest for a better controller.

I don't think the Xbox 360 controller is perfect.  First, the d-pad is universally derided, and deservedly so.  I never use it for emulation and indie games on my PC; I prefer to use the analog stick instead, which isn't ideal, either, but at least it's better.  Second, the four face buttons could also use improvement.  When you press these buttons, they fall completely within the controller shell.  These buttons should still rest slightly above the frame when pressed.  There should be a firmness when pressed, a sense of durability.  Third, and I hate to keep harping on this point - there are too many damn buttons!  The upper (digital) triggers are fairly uncomfortable to press, and my fingers naturally rest on the analog triggers, anyway.  Like the d-pad, you have to tilt your hands slightly, and takes your grip out of balance.

If I could find a way to add an analog thumb stick to a Saturn controller, maybe add some curves for comfort, maybe swap out the digital triggers for analog ones, we could have something good.  We'll have to decide on the number of face buttons - four or six? - and decide whether or not to use a "Home" button (which is fairly standard today).  The analog stick is the biggest challenge.  The controller has to be comfortable and attractive, and symmetry is always important.  Are the Saturn's buttons too large?  Should the d-pad be smaller, shrunk down to 360's size?  Should the casing be larger, at the size of the Genesis 3-button pad?

This is where access to a 3D printer becomes essential.  We need to build some prototypes and test them out.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Building a Better Game Controller

Remember when Reggie Fils-Aime traveled the country in 2005, giving lectures on the state of the video game industry and why it was in decline?  One of the key lessons was that game controllers had become too bloated, too complicated, and too intimidating for the general public.  Nintendo's answer to this problem was the Wii Remote, which became a spectacular success.  The game industry, however, has done everything in its power to ignore these lessons, burying themselves ever deeper into their "hardcore" cocoon.

In this business, 15 buttons isn't enough for a video game joypad.  We must add even more.  And so the Ouya controller is unveiled, which is essentially an Xbox 360 controller with a touch screen in the middle.  I really don't understand what the point is, and I suspect Ouya's designers don't, either.

The Ouya is an Android-based console, one that promises to bring smartphone games to the television.  That means simple, easily accessible titles like Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja.  There's no need for more buttons than you have fingers.  What, exactly, would all 15+ buttons and knobs be used for?  This will only serve to scare away the Expanded Audience, who will prefer to stay with their phones.  It's aimed instead at the "hardcore" PS360 crowd, the ones who are lining up for Call of Duty 9 and Halo 8 and Grand Theft Auto 11 and Madden 22.  In other words, it's a completely different scene.

The Ouya controller tries to thread the needle, to attract both audiences equally, but it's a confusing strategy.  It lacks focus.  Your controller defines your video game system.  If its design is confused, unfocused and lost, chances are the system itself will follow suit.  Think of all the failed consoles over the years, and how they compare to the successful ones, the Nintendo's and Sega's.  A solid, focused, and inventive controller is a key reason for that success.

I don't think Ouya quite knows what it wants to be, other than another platform for indie game developers to sell their wares.  It seems to follow the same PC paradigm as the bulk of the industry (Playstation and Xbox are really PCs for the living room), and yet it also wants to be a home for mobile and indie developers and gamers.  It doesn't seem to acknowledge Nintendo at all, or the lessons of the Wii, which is just dumb.  I do like the $99 price point - that, and the push towards indie developers is where I strongly agree.  Beyond, not much.

I'm spending a lot of time thinking about game controllers lately.  Today's joypads are far too complicated and have too many buttons.  With Project Phoenix, my goal is to simplify the controls as much as possible.  The gamepad would be based on the Sega Dreamcast (sans VMU) - one analog and digital thumbpad, four face buttons, one pair of analog triggers in the back.  Even here, I'd like to simplify more if that were possible.  For example, we could have a single space for the analog/digital thumb pad, and you could pop one out and replace with the other when needed.  However, some DC games use both analog and digital (like the 2K sports titles), so we're stuck.  Too bad.  I think a Saturn joypad with swap-able thumb pads would be really cool.

In fact, I'd like to simplify even further, and introduce "one-button" controllers, like a joystick and trackball.  We can promote select games with a special "1 Button" badge, so people who are afraid of the alien pod controllers can use a simpler device.  Remember that Sonic the Hedgehog is such a game.  So are many iOS games.  Maybe this could work as an iOS controller?  We'll see.

Offering multiple control options is a valuable thing.  Atari had the joystick, the paddle controller, and the keypad.  The NES had the joypads and the NES Advantage stick.  The Wii offered with Wiimote, Nunchuck and Classic Controller.  The lesson is simple: Don't build an all-purpose game controller.  Offer choices.  Ouya should split the buton/touchscreen design.  Why couldn't you use your Android phone as a controller?  Apple is planning just that for their Apple TV (of course, they're also designing another horribly bloated PS360 clone, ugh).

Seriously, Ouya, fix that controller.  Simplify, simplify!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ouya's First Challenge

I'd like to write a bunch of posts regarding the newly-announced Ouya video game system, which is a $99 open-source Android machine that is scheduled for a March, 2013 release.  My interest is piqued, but so is my skepticism, and I'm curious to see how it plays out.

That said, I have many questions, first and foremost illustrated by the above photo.  A console that plays Android games is interesting, but it's something that any tablet and smartphone can achieve right now.  I can play Fruit Ninja on my TV today.  So why invest in the Ouya?  That's going to be the new company's biggest question, and one they must successfully answer if they are to have any chance at success.

I am sympathetic to Ouya's aims, as it runs parallel to my own Project Phoenix idea.  There must be a low-cost alternative to the PC/PS360 monopoly, for consumers and developers alike.  What is that alternative, what does it look like, and how do we get there?  More questions, more challenges.

White Japanese Sega Saturn

Look what finally arrived in the mail yesterday...nice!

The white Sega Saturn is a later model from Japan, and never seen in the West.  It's something for the diehard gamers who love their classic video games and wish to score a few bonus style points.  The inner hardware is identical to the US Saturn, aside from the region coding (which thankfully can be defeated with the 4M Pro Action Replay cart).  All I now need is a special chip sold by Racketboy, which allows me to play backup discs without the "swap trick."

A word to the wise: the Sega Saturn "swap trick" will burn out your disc drive fairly quickly.  The effect is like learning to drive a stick-shift...CLUNK...CA-CLUNK.  If you're playing backup Saturn discs (and until you see a Project Phoenix at your local store, that's exactly what you should be doing), you're going to need Racketboy's override chip.  Now for some Metal Slug action...

Friday, June 08, 2012

Super Mario Bros on Sega Genesis?

Here is a YouTube video of Super Mario Bros running on a Sega Genesis.  It may not look like much, but it is, in fact, an extremely clever bit of homebrew programming.  In 2010, an Argentinian programmer created a method to convert the original (8-bit) 6502 code to (16-bit) 68000.  This enables the Genesis to run the original NES software as though it were a native program.  Notice how the music sounds different as it plays through the Yamaha sound chip.

The catch: this feat is not being done on actual Genesis hardware, but in emulation.  Interesting!

Most people will shrug their shoulders and say, "So what?"  It's a clever programming feat and nothing else.  But suppose that you were creating a new video game system, based on the hardware of the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast, and you've added enough muscle to the DC to ensure perfect emulation of older game systems and arcade titles.  Emulating Nintendo hardware is, obviously, out of the question.  But we're not touching Nintendo's hardware in any way.  We're translating the software code itself.

This opens the door to third-party software titles from the NES era, without encroaching on Nintendo's copyrights in any way.  I should offer the caveat that this technique has only been used on Super Mario Bros, and it remains to be seen how successful translating later-era titles would be.  But the theory is sound, and it remains in the hands and minds of the programmers and engineers.

Would consumers in the 21st Century be interested in third-party NES-era video games like Ducktales, Blaster Master, RC Pro-AM, Contra, Castlevania and Mega Man?  It's tough to say, but the idea of reissuing 1990s Sega games is just as tough a call.  There may be an untapped audience willing to pay for the classics, or there may not.  I remain hopeful in the former, especially as the modern game industry crumbles and decays.

The important lesson is that it's possible.  It may be necessary to expand the Phoenix library to as many classic systems as possible.  That's my reasoning behind perfecting Dreamcast's emulation powers.  If nothing else, it's good food for thought.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Tail of Beta Lyrae (Atari 800)

Here's one of my favorite Atari 800 games from the early 1980s, an arcade shoot-em-up called The Tail of Beta Lyrae.  It was designed and programmed by Philip Price, with music by Gary Gilbertson, and was published by Datasoft, which was one of the big publishers on the Atari 8-bit computer.

I'm sharing this video for two reasons: Project Phoenix and iOS.  For Phoenix, the ultimate goal is a "Criterion Collection" for video games, and this means expanding beyond the Sega systems.  The Dreamcast became a home to many emulators, and with some added muscle to the hardware, it should be capable of running classic emulators at perfect speed.  This would open the doors to a number of classic video and computer games, such as Tail of Beta Lyrae.

Reason #2, as I've said, is iOS, and it's the more practical option.  I'd like to hire a programmer who could adapt an Atari 8-bit emulator for the iPhone and iPad, and reissue a few of these classic games.  Tail of Beta Lyrae and Mr. Robot are the first two titles that came to mind.  They're both easy to play and offer classic arcade thrills.  I'm very curious to learn if there's an audience for these "lost" classics, which haven't been commercially available for a generation.

Tail of Beta Lyrae was inspired by Scramble, the arcade hit, but also features pseudo-random level designs, which introduce different landscapes, obstacles and enemies to each new game.  Procedural level generation is in vogue today, thanks to blockbuster iOS hits like Tiny Wings and Temple Run.  It's impressive to see this design mechanic from the early 80s.

So whaddya think?  Does this sound like a good idea?

The Wii U - Darkness on the Edge of Town

I'm still sitting in a chair and scratching my head.  "Is that all there is?"  I have been a critic of Nintendo's Wii U since it was first unveiled, but I was still hoping that Nintendo could prove me wrong, persuade me to the merits of their case, share their grand vision for this bulky tablet controller.  Always expecting a massive software library, I am surprised and disappointed to discover so few titles.  Nintendo is a very lazy company.  They've been that way for years.

In 2006, Nintendo unveiled the Wii with a large and highly impressive library of new and exciting games that took advantage of the revolutionary controller - Wii Sports, Wii Play, Red Steel, Elebits, Cooking Mama, Excite Truck.  Add in gameplay teasers for Super Smash Bros, Metroid Prime 3, and Super Mario Galaxy, and innovative features like Virtual Console, and the Wii was a guaranteed smash hit.

In 2012, the Wii U has been unveiled with damn near nothing.  Another Wii Fit.  Another collection of mini-game tech demos.  Another vanity project for Shigeru Miyamoto (Pikmin 3) that will never sell.  And a new 2D Super Mario Bros, which is easily the system's strongest title.  Even then, doesn't it just look like Nintendo has recycled the art assets from New Super Mario DS and Wii?  Lazy bastards.

Meanwhile, the hyped shift to "hardcore games" was met with a whimper.  Here's last year's Batman, and last year's Assassin's Creed, and a couple more gun games that are identical to the other 50,000 gun games on the market.  That's all?  The game industry threw a collective tantrum for six years, bawling for Nintendo to provide them another PS360 clone to publish their horribly bloated cinematic games.  Eventually, Nintendo folded, and bent over backwards to support third-party publishers.  The industry will now respond with nothing.

And the hardcore whiners on internet forums and video game media, the babies who screamed and cried as Nintendo made billions selling to grandparents and soccer moms and lapsed gamers, will they now show up?  No.  Hardcore Gamers Never Deliver.  Have that message bronzed and hung on the company wall.  Any company that plans their business strategy around this community is doomed to failure.  "Give us another Zelda!  Give us another Metroid!  Give us another Goldeneye!  Give us another NBA Jam!  Give us another Donkey Kong!"  Nintendo provided the sequels, exactly as demanded, and none of those games sold worth a damn.

The hardcore set will find an excuse, any excuse, to back away from the Wii U.  You can release every AAA PS360 title on Nintendo's platform, and none of them will sell.  Comic Book Guy will find a single hair out of place somewhere, and then everything will be ruined this sucks I want my money back!!

This leaves the Wii's traditional audience, the ones who did pony up the cash for Wii Sports and Wii Play and Super Mario Bros.  They're probably still waiting for Nintendo to do something about that Wii Remote.  Remember that gadget?  Was supposed to revolutionize video games, but instead was only used twice before being tossed out?

How much do you want to bet the exact thing happens to the Wii U tablet?  One or two demo titles, a Miyamoto vanity project, a sequel of classic hit adapted to the controller, and then....nothing.  Miyamoto will be bored, take it away, bring in the next trinket to amuse me!  Bring me...Hassenpfeffer!  Nintendo appears lost, confused, laying out several bets at once and hoping one of them hits big.  This is not a winning strategy.  It's a strategy for an industry in terminal decline.

I've written and talked about the idea that video games could someday go extinct, just go the way of pinball machines and drive-in movies.  This idea has never felt more real to me than now.  Microsoft is adapting to a post-video game future, as Xbox evolves into the set-top box Bill Gates has dreamed of for decades.  Sony is trying to follow suit, but they're in such a colossal mess that it's unsure they'll ever dig themselves out.  Have they quietly abandoned the PS Vita already?  It's about to be shoveled into a grave next to the Move controller.  And software publishers have shrunk down to a handful of major players, who churn out the exact same content over and over, with no variation or innovation.  There is only the need to extract more money from the suckers by any means necessary.

Oh, look, another gun game with zombies.  Another video game sequel that's only half as interesting as the one that was made in the 90s.  Those new customers who loved to play Wii Sports Bowling?  Screw 'em.  And so here we lie, at the darkness on the edge of town.  No one here gets out alive.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Project Phoenix Launch Titles - Sega Dreamcast

We come at last to the third and final segment in our "Project Phoenix" launch title series, with the star of the show, the Sega Dreamcast.  This theoretical project is really all about the white box, giving it a shot of steroids and new powers, with the added ability to play Genesis and Saturn games (although the Saturn is the actual hardware).

I've thought and reflected on the devotion Dreamcast still holds among fans.  There have been cries for "Dreamcast 2" ever since Sega quit the hardware business.  The $64,000 Question becomes, "What sort of DC2 do you really want?"  Do you miss original, surprising, quirky games that Sega seemed to conjure at will?  I'm on the same page.  Or are you really interested in more sequels, another Jet Set Radio, another Shenmue, another Crazy Taxi, another this and that.  If that's the case, well, your wish has already been fulfilled in the Xbox and Playstation.  Many Dreamcast 1 games have found new homes, come to think of it.

And so the question remains, what sort of Dreamcast 2 do you really want?  Project Phoenix is my answer.  Let's have a look at my picks for "launch titles" for our proposed super-system:

Phantasy Star Online

One of the biggest challenges with Project Phoenix is what to do about online.  Online gaming has evolved by leaps and bounds since 2001, so it just didn't seem plausible to pursue in the age of Xbox Live and PSN.  Then I started reading about (censored) and considered the idea of (censored), and that really grabbed my attention.  Then last night I started a new character in Phantasy Star Online.

Screw it, we're bringing back the Dreamcast servers.  We'll find a solution somehow, but PSO absolutely has to come back.  It has to be a launch title, and it has to be online.  This may be Sonic Team's final masterpiece.  The atmosphere of that futuristic world, the endless monsters and surprises, that absolutely haunting music.  Even when playing offline, PSO is fantastic.  We absolutely need this game.

Soul Calibur

My favorite Dreamcast title, Namco fighting classic hasn't aged a day.  I think this is a perfect illustration of what Phoenix offers - Soul Calibur 5 may look sensational on PS360, there's no doubt about that, but when it comes to gameplay, wouldn't you rather play the original?  It was a better video game in 1999.


Here we come to my other "favorite" Dreamcast game, and here's where our challenges really kick in.  Thanks to EA and the NFL's exclusive licensing arrangement, we can't bring back 2K football.  Is that fair?  Hell, no.  This is a textbook example of why Sega was stronger with a hardware system to support.  What are the odds that we can convince the league to relax their licensing to more publishers?  Heck, I'm not even thinking of creating a new NFL2K game (let's tilt at one windmill at a time, please).  I just want this one specific title.

I'm also including the NBA 2K series because, obviously, it's a terrific series.  Even the Saturn original (NBA Action 98) was a great sports game.  And as I've said repeatedly, Phoenix needs sports games. Everybody does.  There needs to be a hell of a lot more sports video games on the market.

San Francisco Rush 2049

Next up on my must-have list is Atari Games' futuristic racing classic, and my personal favorite Dreamcast racing game.  In addition to the terrific racing mode, there's also an incredibly addicting stunt mode, and a battle mode that plays like Atari's classic Roadblasters on steroids.  This is a great multiplayer game with an endless amount of replay value.  Remember that phrase, "replay value?" Yeah, it's back, baby.

Crazy Taxi

Crazy Taxi is one of those obvious picks for the fans.  It was extremely popular back in the day, and promises to be a big Phoenix hit.  One gameplay alteration I would make, though, and that's to randomize the customers and their destinations.  That way, every game plays different.  Also, we'll need new music because the major record labels are greedy bastards.  Kurosawa's advice: "Find hungry samurai."

Jet Grind Radio

Once again, "Find hungry samurai."  One of Sega's most iconic and inventive games, currently headed to PS Vita, XBLA and PSN, this still belongs on the Dreamcast's true successor.  I'm wondering if we can make the jumps a little less floaty, but we don't want to mess with the gameplay too much.  Should we make new tags, too? That's an interesting idea to consider.

Virtua Tennis

It's almost embarrassing how the Virtua Tennis series has fallen in stature over the years; the original is still the best, and remains one of the best four-player games anywhere.  Terrific for sports gamers and the more casual party set.  We're keeping the four controller ports, btw - did I mention that yet?


Shenmue, one of Dreamcast's defining video games.  As you can see, I'm really top-loading the launch lineup, but this is currently based on the idea that we'll only have that first holiday season to win over the public, and make Phoenix a hit.  I would prefer to move Shenmue's release back a bit, just because it's a flagship title (this is like network progamming, isn't it).  This title deserves the "special edition" treatment as well.  I also want to get Yu Suzuki on the phone.  We want Shenmue 3 as an exclusive.

Typing of the Dead

I do want the light gun games, but there aren't very many titles to choose from, so the release of Virtua Cop and House of the Dead 2 should be pushed back a little.  In its place, one of those great, quirky titles that Dreamcast was known for.  We'll also include a simple USB adapter so people can use their computer keyboard.  See, I'm saving you money!  Think of it as "reverse-DLC."

Space Channel 5

Here's a hit with rhythm-music fans and female gamers alike.  Space Channel 5 probably arrived a bit early to receive the attention it deserved, but in the wake of Guitar Hero and Just Dance, that may finally change.  We need more social- and dance-oriented games like this one.

Power Stone

I think we need one more fighting game to round out the launch lineup, and Power Stone is unique enough not to crowd out any of the other titles.  It was one of the standouts of Dreamcast's 1999 US launch, and I'm happy to see it on television screens once again.  Graphics are clear, colorful and sharp.  Gameplay is simple, direct, immediate, and always fair.  Let's rebuild the Power Stone fan community.


There are many, many games that I would want to release on Project Phoenix, and with a successful launch, we would have the ability to do so.  The goal is to arrive boldly, with confidence, and hit running out of the gate.  We must establish our place in the market as a video game system for families, for lapsed gamers and new gamers.  We want to become The Criterion Collection for games, a cheerfully defiant last stand for traditional, arcade video games.

So what do you think of the software lineup?  What would you change?  Which favorites would you recommend?  What would get you off the couch and support Project Phoenix?  Feel free to share your ideas and insights.  Or you can laugh at me for tilting at windmills, either way is fine.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Video - Steep Slope Sliders (Saturn)

Yes, children, people still play Sega Saturn in the year 2012, and games like Steep Slope Sliders deserve to be played.  Cave's snowboarding classic is magical, beautiful. The fluid, immediate controls, the ease of performing stunts, the fantastic level design, the sheer purity of it all - zen perfection.

You do not race for trophies or seasons or celebrity endorsements.  There is not plotline or backstory.  There is only the act of snowboarding.  You race for time and points, and nothing else.  Take your run.  Pass the controller.  Unlock a few more boarders and make another run.  Maybe I'll play the green space alien on this one.  Yeah.

There should be a Criterion Collection for video games, a system that cannot be made instantly obsolete every four years, but a permanent home for the true classics.  Either this medium is a form of artistic expression, a means of bringing people together and expanding our imaginations, or it has no future.  Our lives must stand for something, aspire towards something.  And our creations should not be so easily disposable.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Despite All Your Rage, You're Still Just a Rat in a Cage

Here's a funny and emerging meme - the modern video game as Skinner Box.  It's silly and more than a little creepy at the same time.  First, this whip-smart piece on Cracked, and now the latest Game|Life podcast.

Mash the button, get your sugar pellet.  Don't get electrocuted.  Rinse, repeat.  This is what government, corporations, and the entertainment industry thinks of you - a brainless lab rat with a credit card.  You're being bred and conditioned into an existence as a machine, straight out of Huxley and Orwell.  You should be concerned about this.  You are not a lab rat.  Stop behaving like one.

Project Phoenix Launch Titles - Sega Saturn

Continuing our discussion on "Project Phoenix" software titles, let's now take a look at Sega Saturn games that would launch with the hardware system.  The Saturn is a key element of this Sega super-system, offering a vast library of games that were seen in limited numbers in the West, or never left Japan at all.  To be fair, this includes a mountain of arcade shooters, fighting games, and tactical RPGs, but there are many quirky and inventive titles as well.

There are a lot of great Saturn games that we can release, and thanks to our low retail price points ($10-$20), I think audiences may want to take a chance on something different.  So let's take a look at our Phoenix Saturn launch games:

Panzer Dragoon Saga

A legendary game in its own time, Panzer Dragoon Saga is best known as a late-era RPG classic that now commands a small fortune on Ebay.  This is one of the two or three games most likely to get the hardcore gamers off the couch.  This is just about the best game ever made for the Saturn, thanks to some stellar programming skills from Andromeda.  I'd like to present PDS in a "deluxe special" package, with postcards, posters, and added extras.

Dragon Force

Since we're starting with RPGs, let's also highlight this strategy-RPG classic, another one of Saturn's best.  Command large armies in battle, adjust tactics in real time, travel to distant lands, meet interesting characters.  When was the last time you saw a video game like Dragon Force?  Never, that's when.  And were you aware that a sequel was released for Saturn in Japan?  Victor Ireland, where are you??

Nights Into Dreams (w/Christmas Nights)

Yuji Naka and Sonic Team's finest achievement?  One can definitely argue the case.  I couldn't stand the 2008 Wii sequel, which tried so hard to be a cheesy cartoon.  The original Nights is a thousand times better.  A surreal fusion of platform action, racing, and exploration, with an Artificial Life program to boot.  We'll also include the famous Christmas Nights demo, which has never been seen outside the Saturn.

Virtua Fighter 2

My favorite Sega Saturn game?  Of course!  VF2 was a technical marvel and a masterpiece of programming when it was released in late 1995, and pretty much single-handedly saved the Saturn in Japan.  Thanks to the high-resolution graphics and 60fps, it still looks terrific.  The gameplay remains fast, extremely deep, always addicting.

Sega Rally Championship

Saturn's finest racing game, and one of the most entertaining driving games ever made.  I'm amazed at how well these cars handle, at all the minor subtleties of racing on dirt, mud, sand, concrete.  Two player games are intense and blazing fast.  We need lots of great arcade racers, and Sega Rally is one of the best.  And let's not forget the great music...Game Over, Yeeaah!!

Daytona USA Circuit Edition

The US Champion Circuit Edition was rushed to market; this is the Japanese version which was refined and perfected.  The steering is much improved, graphics are sharper and more solid, and the original Daytona USA music is available.  Do we really have to pay Eric Martin for his crummy song?  Can we put the original title song back, please?  We need Daytona USA, and this is the best home version.

Steep Slope Sliders

Another one of those late-era Saturn games that fell through the cracks, Cave's snowboarding game is a masterpiece of the genre.  The environments are varied and full of surprises, there are many unlockable characters, and the Saturn's internal clock is put to good use.  This is a really great game that deserves to be seen and played.

Worldwide Soccer 97
World Series Baseball 98

I'm grouping the sports games together.  I'm undecided on whether to launch with Worldwide Soccer, or the '97 edition.  Both are great games, although the first title is a simpler, arcade-style sports game, while WS '97 is a stone-cold classic.  Same for the World Series Baseball series.  ESB '98 is the baseball video game ever made, full stop.  But we can begin with WSB2, instead.  And NBA Jam TE...hey, it's NBA Jam.  Who doesn't love this classic?  It's arcade perfect and allows four-players.  We need sports games!

Street Fighter Alpha 2

We're going to release as many Capcom fighting games as the market allows.  I'm eager to get all the 4Meg brawlers, like Street Fighter Zero 3, but some translation work will need to be done.  Let's launch with Alpha 2, a terrific fighter with wonderfully fluid 2D graphics.  The Saturn version includes an extensive gallery mode, which was absent from the PSX release.

Radiant Silvergun
Guardian Heroes

Treasure must be represented on Phoenix.  Radiant Silvergun is the obvious choice, thanks to its legendary status as a Saturn shooter and a pricey collectible.  Guardian Heroes is another classic that should be included - 2D pixel art, multiplayer, beat-em-up action.  Between this and Final Fight CD, the genre is well represented out the gate.  Vic Ireland, we need you to work on Silhouette Mirage next!

Saturn Bomberman

The king of multiplayer party games, and the best Bomberman game ever.  Single-player mode is fun, but the real action lies, as always, in Battle Mode.  Up to 8 players compete on 32 different boards, and 10 players in the famous high-resolution, "Hi-Ten" mode.

Bust-a-Move 2
Baku Baku Animal

As I wrote on the Genesis launch post, we need lots of puzzle games for families and social gamers.  Bust-a-Move 2 and Baku Baku Animal are two great offerings.  Who doesn't love Puzzle Bobble?  And Baku Baku has those great big animal heads.


We need one or two more arcade shoot-em-ups.  Dodonpachi gets my vote just for its wild, out-of-control chaos.  It's the definitive manic bullet-hell shooter.  Please support this title, so that we can continue to release more.  I want to unleash as many Saturn shooters as possible.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Project Phoenix Launch Titles - Genesis, Sega CD

Alright, until common sense returns to me (aka, the Memorial Day weekend ends), and you kind readers finally lose patience with me, I'm going to share my picks for Project Phoenix launch titles.  These are by no means a complete list, as there are literally hundreds of quality software titles to choose from.  Even if we're choosing to release the best of the best, the true classics, we could reach a library of 500 games without breaking a sweat.

For this post, we'll take a look at the Project Phoenix pack-in game, which is always crucially important, as well as the launch titles from Genesis and Sega CD.  Let's have a look at our presents:

I. Pack-In Game - Sonic Jam (Saturn)

Sonic Jam is clearly the best choice.  It offers the four Sonic the Hedgehog games from the Sega Genesis, plus a wealth of extra gameplay modes, a 3-D polygon area to explore, movies, commercials, and instruction manuals in English and Japanese.  This game was not emulated, but instead reprogrammed entirely by Sonic Team in 1997.  It was only released on the Saturn, which makes it unique.  This is very useful as a sales point, since Sega has released the original Sonic games on multiple digital download formats, as well as numerous "fami-clone" hardware systems.

With Sonic Jam, people will have a wealth of entertainment value right out of the box, at a very affordable price.  This will be aimed as the perfect holiday present, and hit all the crucial buttons - families, kids, older gamers, lapsed gamers.  To the hardcore gamers, Sonic Jam demonstrates our dedication to Sega's legacy.  We're going to be mining the archives for the true classics.

II. Sega Genesis + Sega CD Titles

Herzog Zwei

Yes, we're bringing Technosoft back, and we're starting with the 1989 arcade-strategy game that inspired the Real-Time Strategy game.  I think Herzog Zwei will be much more successful the second time around, and do very well.  So if you want the Thunder Force games, kids, pick this one up so we can afford the license fees.


One of the Genesis' best shoot-em-ups, and since it's currently available on the Virtual Console, that makes it an easy pick.  Gamers will be thrilled to own a physical copy that no longer sells for $200 on Ebay.  That alone makes it a deal.  It's a fantastic, frenzied arcade game full of action and surprises.  Compile worked their hearts out on this one.  I think kids will love it.


Capcom and Sega had a wonderful working relationship, and Strider is one of the very best Genesis titles.  This game oozes style and atmosphere, filled with memorable moments.  The music is also spectacular, one of the best showcases for the Genesis' Yamaha sound chip.

Ghouls N Ghosts
Revenge of Shinobi

I couldn't decide between Ghouls N Ghosts and Revenge of Shinobi, so I'm taking both.  We need some fast and challenging arcade games on the Phoenix, and these are two early Genesis masterpieces that belong in every gamer's library.  I envision Phoenix as a "Criterion Collection" of classic video games, and these two titles are always near the top of my list.  Oh, and who do I have to pay to put Godzilla back into Shinobi?  I'll fold on Batman and Spider-Man, but we need Godzilla.

Castlevania Bloodlines

I want Konami on board for Project Phoenix, and I want Castlevania as a launch title.  End of story.  This is a terrific game, full of moody atmosphere, always challenging, a number of impressive visual effects, and some of best music in the series.  This is a critical title that we really need.

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse

Number One on my developer "must" list is EA.  Right below that is Disney.  One of my key demographics for Phoenix are families, and especially kids (this is why price is so critical).  You can see how important Disney games are to the system's success.  Castle of Illusion is the first of many games that I want to release on our system, with the other Disney Genesis titles to follow.  Now how about porting the 3DS Epic Mickey 2 to the Dreamcast?

Mutant League Football
Mutant League Hockey
John Madden Football 92
NHL Hockey

And here's our Number One, Electronic Arts.  This is so obvious that no comment is necessary.  People crave sports video games.  The modern game industry is not supplying that need.  Let's release the classics and see what happens.  I'm also quite interested in releasing the entire EA Sports Genesis library on our system.  A new classic Madden and NHL Hockey every 6-8 months?  And as an exclusive?  Fantastic.

Super Monaco GP

We also need some racing games, another popular genre that has been starved by the industry.  Here is the Genesis' best racing title, Super Monaco GP.  Chock full of depth and gameplay, precision controls, and some great vintage digitized graphics.  I suspect licensing is an issue here, which is why this game has yet to see a digital release.  We need to solve that little problem.

Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine

We need more family and puzzle games.  Mean Bean Machine (Puyo Puyo 2) is easily the best choice.  I'm sticking with the US version because of name recognition, nothing more.  In any case, it's a great puzzler that's challenging and easy to play, offers multiplayer, looks terrific.  Somebody get to work on more puzzle games!  Get me Tetris on the phone!

Ms. Pac-Man

Ah, how could I forget Ms. Pac-Man?  We need family games, we have one of the most beloved and enduring video games ever made.  This is the Tengen version, which was a big seller on Genesis.  Securing copyrights will be a challenge, but it's just a matter of money.  Pay somebody off.  We need this game on store shelves.  Hmm, I wonder if we can add in the option to play as Pac-Man?  That would be perfect.

Sonic CD

Obviously, Sonic CD is another essential must-have, and it's a guaranteed hit.  One reason why I chose Sonic Jam as the pack-in was to free up space on the sales charts for everybody else, lest customers only choose to buy Sonic the Hedgehog games.  For that reason, I'm willing to push back Sonic CD's release date a little, to give more space to everyone else.  You know it, you love it.

Final Fight CD

You'll notice that I've omitted Streets of Rage from the launch window.  It's only because I want to give more attention to this fantastic brawler, the definitive home version of Final Fight.  All the arcade action, including multiplayer, and that fantastic CD audio soundtrack.  This title was little seen in its day, but I think it will have a new life on the Phoenix (ack, pun alert).  Everybody needs a beat-em-up in their library, so let's begin with Capcom's arcade classic.

Eternal Champions: Challenge From the Dark Side

Here's one for the hardcore gamers and old-school Sega fans - the definitive version of Eternal Champions.  This Sega CD version is really a semi-sequel to the Genesis cartridge, with more fighters, new moves, and a wealth of gory finishing moves that would make Mortal Kombat blush.  Really, this game was made by psychos, and I'm astounded that Sega has yet to re-release it anywhere.  Good for us, because we need exclusives.

Will Digital Downloading Replace Physical Media?

No, says Nintendo.  Here are a few remarks from Nintendo of Europe's MD of Marketing & PR, Laurent Fischer in 2011:

"We have never seen any link between growth in the mobile gaming market and decrease in the normal software market. It's two different markets, two different topics. We couldn't find any evidence of those two markets being linked.  There's always going to be requirement for a business of our size and scope to have a physical medium.  To think everything will be downloaded in two years, three years or even 10 years from now is taking it a little bit to the extreme." 

This is the critical question for Project Phoenix.  We can create the hardware, design the controllers, open dialog with software developers and publishers, and take the idea to venture capitalists and Sega.  The first thing they will say is, "Why would anyone buy a packaged title when they can download the digital version?"

Indeed, Sega is currently rolling out a series of "vintage collection" compilations for $800 on XBLA.  All three Streets of Rage titles for eight bucks?  That's a very good bargain.  I remember paying that much just for Streets of Rage 2 on Nintendo's Virtual Console two years ago.  How, then, can I persuade you to buy the physical Phoenix version?  How can I persuade you to buy a packaged version of, say, The Revenge of Shinobi on Genesis, or Guardian Heroes on Saturn, or Crazy Taxi on Dreamcast?

What is the appeal of the physical video game?  Is it the packaging, the artwork, instruction manuals, posters and maps?  Is it the tangible quality of holding something in your hands?  Is it the freedom to share, trade and even sell your game to others?  Is it the security of knowing that you own this game, not the publisher?

We could have this same discussion over music.  In an age when you can download MP3s to your smart phone for 99 cents per song, why are so many young people turning to, of all things, vinyl records?  Why is the Cheapo Uptown stocking cassette tapes?  People are choosing physical media over digital, and they're doing so in large enough numbers to make businesses profitable.  Why is this?  How can we observe this?  And how can we persuade people to make the jump from XBLA to Phoenix?

I don't have the answers, mostly instinct, a gut feeling.  I believe people have an emotional attachment to these old video game machines.  There are many people out there who love Sega, with the same devotion as Apple's legendary cult.  "Bring back the Dreamcast!" they say.  Independent developers work tirelessly to create new Dreamcast games!  Imagine that.  They should be making those video games for the iPhone, not a machine that's been dead since 2001.

All of this brings us back to the central questions: why should anyone want to buy "classic" video games, and why would they choose a retail package over a digital download?  As a business enterprise, this is going to be our biggest challenge.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Talking Street Fighter x Tekken Blues

So Capcom released Street Fighter x Tekken, a mediocre, buggy fighting game, into a market they themselves over-saturated, then attempted to nickel-and-dime the fans to death by locking away content behind a paid firewall. Game fails to reach sales goals. Company bosses are baffled and confused when said game fails to sell millions of copies.

No thanks, count me out. I will not become a mindless, willing lab rat, pulling levers and running mazes just to get my sugar pellet. I would much rather treat my fans with dignity and respect. I'd rather build communities instead of mindlessly exploiting them. True gamers know better than to be used.

My thinking is this: if you're going to flood the market with fighting games - and I'm a big Sega Saturn fan, so I love fighting games - at least make them affordable. Heck, I'll sell you Capcom's 4-Meg Saturn fighters for $10. That's a fair price, I think, not $40-$60. But it's easy to talk that way with vintage catalog titles; newly-developed ones are a different story.

How many copies of Street Fighter x Tekken does Capcom have to sell, at $60 a copy, in order to break even?  How many copies of a "Project Phoenix" fighting game, at $10 a copy, do I have to sell in order to break even?  Now ask yourself this: what is going to happen when the kids figure out the $10 game is functionally identical (or better) to that $60 version? 

Here's the key to understanding our situation:  Street Fighter x Tekken required a budget of millions, a staff of dozens (if not hundreds), and the latest technology, including 1080HD, online play, and DLC.  Meanwhile, Project Phoenix games were produced and released eons ago.  The finished games are now collecting dust in warehouses.  Capcom has no interest in a classic game like Street Fighter Zero 3 on Saturn (shown above), certainly not in the PS360 era, and so it becomes lost and forgotten.

All I am doing is dusting off an old fighting game, pressing it to an SD card, and selling for the price of a movie ticket.  Clayton Christensen calls this "crappy products for crappy customers."

Generation 8 - The Hard Sell

This comment from a recent essay on Gamasutra about the looming eighth generation of video game consoles leaped out at me for its brilliance, and how it captures the sense of apathy from many gamers:

What made me excited about a new cycle of consoles was that I was going to see a new wave of killer games, some new, and some based on my old favorite IPs and brands, as if the software that I loved and cared about was going to grow up along with me.

This generation, I'm not so sure. Something I noticed is that up until this point, I always felt like the diversity of software available for my console hardware was steadily growing until the past half-decade or so. I remember stumbling into game stores and finding PS2 games I had never seen or heard of, plopping down twenty bucks cash for it, and having a blast when I got home. There were still newer entries in older IPs and brands that I really, seriously enjoyed, whether it was Final Fantasy, Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, et cetera...

I guess the vibe I'm getting is that the way things are going, at least in the console space, we're going to see less software with lower quality, and certainly fewer risks being taken. It seems like the days of going out to my local retail store with twenty bucks in my pocket and returning with Katamari Damacy are not only long gone, but are never going to return.
This is the best comment from that thread, and I agree completely. There's little incentive to be excited about video games when everything is narrowed down to a handful of franchise titles that, frankly, haven't changed at all over 10, 15, or 20 years. What's strange is this continued push for more power, more graphics, when the consequences are narrowing genres, a loss of variety, and budgets spinning out of control.

I honestly don't see the point in throwing away a video game system, with its library of software titles, just to buy the "super system" that offers the exact same titles all over again. What's the point? Zelda 12, Call of Duty 9, Grand Theft Auto 11, Halo 8, Madden 22, Final Fantasy 18...why should anyone be surprised by declining sales numbers?

I was playing Soul Calibur and NFL2K1 on my Dreamcast last night, and I was amazed at the glorious graphics and fluid gameplay. In a sense, they haven't really aged at all, even though the technology, naturally, has leapfrogged the Dreamcast a hundred times over. That's not an issue for me. I have an idea of what a "video game" looks like, and I suspect most people feel the same way.

Games like Wii Sports and Wii Play and New Super Mario Bros Wii were really aiming back to the video games of the 1980s, and they were hugely successful because of it. iPhone games like Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, and Tiny Wings follow this approach, too, and they're also very popular games. People Love Video Games, not "cinematic" experiences by frustrated wannabe movie directors.

If you enjoy First-Person Shooters and sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto, I'm sure you'll be thrilled and dazzled by the next generation. The rest of us? Shrug. Not so much. 

Notice the final sentence, which I emboldened for emphasis.  "It seems the days of going out to my local retail store with twenty bucks in my pocket and returning with Katamari Damacy are long gone."  The writer is lamenting not only today's runaway video game prices, but the collapse of diversity.  These are poisonous to the medium.  A video game should be like a good pop song: short, infectious, social, and as affordable as possible.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

PS Vita Cases and "Project Phoenix"

Am I just a freelance consultant now?  Is that what I'm do for a living, perform as the all-purpose "ideas" guy?  Ah, well, t

It's a pity that Sony's PS Vita has essentially crashed and burned since its release.  It's a sophisticated portable game system with lots of promise (but they need to lose that back-side touch pad), but nothing that could be solved with some quality software titles.  Unfortunately, Sony seems lost and clueless, and the poor Vita is being overwhelmed by Nintendo's resurgent 3DS.  Funny how that's turning out.

That said, my favorite feature of the PS Vita is something one wouldn't expect - the software cases.  It's a terrific design, compact and snug, just the right proportions.  I am mindful that the days of physical media for video games are numbered, as the game industry pushes towards a "service model" of digital downloads you will never really own, so I enjoy the idea of cartridges and game cards and plastic cases.  The collector in me enjoys these things.

The PS Vita cases, in fact, would be perfect for our Sega "Project Phoenix" console that I've been raving about this week.  That's the proposed super-system that would combine the Genesis, Saturn, and Dreamcast under one roof, sold for $99.  The games would sell for $10-$20 and come on small cards, like Nintendo DS and...Sony's PS Vita.  And those compact game cases would be absolutely perfect.  The design is attractive, yet affordable, and in this business venture, cost is everything.

Imagine these Vita cases with our favorite Sega classics on the cover - The Revenge of Shinobi, Herzog Zwei, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Final Fight CD, Soul Calibur, NFL 2K1, Phantasy Star Online.  With the right cover illustrations, and the proper layouts on the back, Phoenix games would look amazing.  Packaging and presentation is 9/10ths of this business venture, and it's the key to making the "classic video game console" a success.

I really like the blue color of the Vita cases.  It's keeping in line with Blu-Ray, which is smart branding.  The interior is very simple, and even if the back of the Vita covers are too cluttered with text and legalese, the front covers are clean and elegant. They're inviting, even when I know the games aren't any good.  I'm looking at you, Ridge Racer, ya cheapskate.

Now somebody tell the Sony bosses that video game systems need games to actually work.  The Atari Jaguar had better support than this.

Anyway, let's get back to the topic of game packaging and our Project Phoenix.  One of the great appeals to me in this project is the opportunity to correct one of Sega's most notorious blunders - those awful US covers.  Here's Genesis Strider (1990) as an example, the Japanese cover on left, the US cover on right.  The Japanese design effectively captures the spirit of the arcade game, is visually complex, detailed, and stylish in that anime/manga sense.  In 1990, however, "Japanimation" (as it was called) was still perceived as a strange niche in the States, so the original inspired design had to go.

In its place, a more traditionally Western, "Flash Gordon" illustration was used, which probably baffles today's kids.  Western video games in the 1980s took their cues from fantasy and science-fiction, so this kind of hero, who resembles a college athlete from the 1940s more than anything.  There was also the need to embellish with the cover, to charge the players' imaginations, since, weren't that good.  Look at the wonderful cover illustrations to Atari 2600 VCS games.  It was necessary for the suspension of disbelief.

With the arrival of 16-bit technology, graphics were becoming less abstract and more natural, so this sort of cover embellishments were no longer necessary.  So we really didn't need to pretend that Strider was really the captain of the varsity football team.

From a design point-of-view, the US Strider cover is also overly cluttered with stickers and logos, oddly composed, and never quite captures the spirit of Capcom's arcade classic.  The logo is mad cool, which is nice, but all this does is remind me of the NES Strider cover, which was crazy cool.  Hmm...Sega really screwed up on this one.  What were they thinking?

So if we're going to bring Strider to Project Phoenix - and it's a must-have title for me - we're going to need a new cover illustration.  I'd rather commission new artwork, instead of using the old Japanese Megadrive design, if only because it helps to sell the "new-yet-retro" game system.  But I would definitely use Japan for inspiration.  And I would also pursue a classic illustration design for all the software titles - no CG Photoshop covers this time!  We need to capture the spirit of the Golden Age of Video Games, and pull that spirit into our new century.

Photos - Asuka 120% Burning Fest. Limited (Saturn)

Once in a while, I get an itching for championing lesser-known video games that deserve to be "classics."  Here, once again, is one of Sega Saturn's best and most intense fighting games, Asuka 120% Burning Fest. Limited.

It's fun to imagine and speculate about a "Sega Phoenix" super-system, that would combine the Genesis, Sega CD, Saturn, and Dreamcast into one console.  And one of its appeals is the idea of sharing the vast software libraries to the world at an affordable price ($10-$20).  Is there much of a demand for Japanese anime girl fighters in the year 2012?  No, probably not, that's just hubris and nostalgia talking.  But a game like Asuka 120% just screams "cult classic," and I can imagine it drawing a fan base.

Aren't you just tired of seeing the exact same video game franchises over and over and over?  Exactly how many Street Fighter games do we need?  Do you really need a Call of Duty 9, a Halo 8, a Zelda 13, or a Madden 22?  How hard would it be to come up with something different?  This is where $50 million game budgets leads you, to a wasteland of dull, derivative boredom.  I miss the joy of being surprised by a new video game, a quirky and out-of-left-field video game.  We really don't get those moments anymore.

Ah, well, Fill-in-Cafe was a little guilty of this bad behavior with their Asuka 120% series.  It's less of a franchise than an endless series of revisions and improvements.  But there's little chance that you'll ever play any of the earlier versions, so it's the Saturn "Limited" or Playstation "Final."  Naturally, Asuka's perfectly at home on the Saturn, looks terrific, plays fast and loose, and just quirky and different enough to feel unique.  It's an addicting contest of never-ending, spectacular beat-downs, with a very simple control scheme and combo system.  I don't feel as though I need to take night classes to figure it all out.  I like that.

Again, bringing this back to the "Sega Phoenix" theme, I'd definitely release Asuka 120% on the super-system.  It deserves its cult status, and would offer a welcome alternative from Franchise Sequel Spinoff #3,452.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Questions on the "Sega Phoenix"

After posting my essay on my proposed "Sega Phoenix" video game system, which combines Genesis, Saturn, and Dreamcast into one unit (plus some improvements), I posted it on my Gamasutra blog.  William Johnson offered his insights on the idea:

Why would Sega need to release a system to rerelease their old games. They've been more recently flooding Steam and the iOS App Store with their old school titles, and they've already released quite a few on WiiWare, and there were the Sonic Mega Collection on the XB360, and PS3. I don't understand how having their own system would make this any better or easier.

Also, judging by how much money Sony and Microsoft have lost this generation, I can't possibly understand how it would be a good idea to enter a market where you are pretty much guarantied to loose money. Sega really hasn't even been doing very well financially. So I'm pretty sure they don't have the capital to do something like this.

What I think might make more sense is if Sega could bring back the arcade scene. That is where they use to do really well. But I really don't know if the arcade scene can ever make a come back in the states. 

Well, in addition to playing the classic games, there would also be new games. For example, did you know there is a thriving indie scene for the Dreamcast? There have also been a couple of excellent RPGs for the Genesis.

You bring up a very good point - why bother when these games are available as digital downloads? This is the first question investors would ask before writing any checks. I think a Sega "Phoenix" would have several advantages. First, there is something tangible to having physical media, when everything is becoming a digital "service" that you, the consumer will never own. I have a number of downloaded games on my iPhone, and Virtual Console games on my Wii. I also have all the major retro system emulators on my PC. Access is not an issue. And yet, I still prefer to play my Sega games on the actual system, connected to a television. It just feels better. It's an emotional appeal, I know.

Second, as I suggested, there would be NEW games created, and I would fully embrace the indie scene. That's a source of new inspiration, and this industry badly needs new blood. This also provides an outlet for developers who cannot afford the money to create AAA titles, or wish to create something outside of the "cinematic gun game" paradigm.

Third, cost. It shouldn't cost you anywhere near $50 million to create a Dreamcast or Genesis game. Development costs will be far more sensible and far more sane. The system will also force designers to create video GAMES, and not "cinematic experiences." In other words, it's a different scene and a different market.

Fourth, and I know that this is another silly emotional appeal, but "greatest hits" packages suck. All of them. Whenever I see a "greatest hits" CD or video game release, my brain just goes, "Cheap, cheap!" This is not to say that I don't appreciate the many retro game compilations on the modern systems, I enjoy them very much. But, once again, I find myself going back to the original DC or Saturn or Genesis version. I'd rather listen to one of Miles Davis' albums than just his Greatest Hits CD.

Fifth, Sega's "greatest hits" discs have only scratched the surface, and hundreds of titles have been overlooked. There's little incentive to pick anything beyond the biggest hits, because, well, it's a greatest hits package. This leaves out countless titles that are excellent and deserve a fair chance.

The Japanese Saturn is the best example of this. There are so many fantastic game titles from Japan that were never released in the West, it's astounding ("Don't give in to wonder," sayeth the bard McKenna).

The biggest challenge for retro video games is licensing, and that is a serious hurdle. There's no doubt about it. And it's very unfortunate, because it means either losing many classic games (NES Batman, for example), or cutting out music from the disc (Crazy Taxi, or Tony Hawk). As the video game medium matures, this will become more important as an issue, so it needs to be addressed. One cannot have an art form without a history, and you cannot build a medium on instantly-disposable throwaways. Such is the path to extinction.

With digital downloads or greatest hits releases, there isn't much incentive to deal with these issues. Perhaps with the investment of a hardware platform, there will be more pressure to resolve these issues and make them work. And let us not forget that the Sega Phoenix would NOT be competing directly with Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo. EA could release John Madden Football '92 (the one with the killer ambulance) without fear of cannibalizing sales of this year's Madden.

I believe that you can make money on a business venture like the Sega Phoenix. I think there's money to be made, and a sizable market to be tapped. There are "lapsed gamers" who quit playing video games years ago. There are "non gamers" who have rarely, if ever, picked up a controller. And there are families who want to play together, child and parent alike. If you offer a product of sufficient quality, and if you offer it at a low enough price, and if you can appeal to these markets, you can have a success.

Video games are now old enough where these generational issues are emerging. To expand the game market, you need to expand your audience. Here is an audience that is being neglected, and will continue to be neglected (Sony and Microsoft's next machines will be multi-media set-top boxes, not games systems exclusively). And remember the mantra - People Love Video Games.

This idea can work. The Sega Phoenix can make money. It can appeal to this market.

Thanks a lot for reading, William. You make a lot of excellent points and you were very inspiring. I appreciate your insights.

P.S. I should also point out Sega's current financial situation.  They're struggling, and they're probably headed for extinction, along with most of Japan's video game industry.  But that's another reason for releasing the Sega Phoenix.  You've got terminal cancer and you're going to die, anyway.  Might as well go out fighting with one last, heroic gamble.  The Sega of old were big-time gamblers, which is what made them Great.  And they haven't been Great since the Dreamcast died.