Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

[ VC&G Review ] PowerPak NES Flash Cartridge

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

NES PowerPak Flash CartridgeIt's 1987. Your ravenous love for Nintendo's new console leads you to rent every new game released for the system, craving the joy of each new experience. One day, a stranger walks up to you on the street and offers you a device that lets you play nearly all the NES games ever released (or ever will be released) around the world on a single magic cartridge. What do you say?

Twenty years ago, such a contraption would have seemed laughably impossible. But that same mind-blowing scenario (minus the mysterious stranger) has become a reality in 2007 with RetroZone's PowerPak NES flash cartridge. Brian Parker, the man behind RetroZone and the PowerPak, put forth a monumental effort to bring this technically challenging dream product to market.

Nintendo Entertainment SystemThe PowerPak retains the familiar form factor of classic licensed NES cartridges, albeit rendered in a translucent orange plastic. Cut from top edge of each PowerPak is a notch through which a standard compact flash (CF) card may be conveniently inserted or removed. Turn on a NES with the PowerPak cart inside, and you'll see an on-screen menu that lists all the games on the CF card. Pick one from the list, you'll be playing the game as if you had the game's original cartridge in the console.

With a flash "multicart" like the PowerPak, NES users no longer need to switch cartridges between games, except for the few games that the PowerPak doesn't support (see below). Legal vagaries be damned: as an owner of over 250 NES cartridges, I find the convenience of this feature worth the price of the PowerPak alone.

[ Continue reading [ VC&G Review ] PowerPak NES Flash Cartridge » ]

VC&G Review: Classic Game Room DVD

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

Classic Game Room DVD CoverEver heard of an Internet TV show called The Game Room? If not, then don't fret. The show, hosted by Mark Bussler and David Crosson, streamed from an obscure website called FromUSAlive.com for just under a year, between November 1999 and October 2000. Even as an active member of the classic gaming community on the Internet since 1995, I had never heard of the show until Inecom's facetiously-subtitled Classic Game Room: The Rise and Fall of the Internet's Greatest Video Game Review Show popped up recently. This flawed comedy compilation definitely entertains, but it's clearly destined for the back shelf of a niche audience.

[ Continue reading VC&G Review: Classic Game Room DVD » ]

VC&G Review: Nintendo Power Mints

Sunday, August 19th, 2007

Nintendo Power MintsWhile strolling through my local World Market store last year, a familiar-looking candy tin caught my eye. Upon further inspection, I realized that it was shaped like a NES control pad. Trying to avoid another impulse purchase, I passed up the opportunity.

Fast forward to yesterday, when my wife comes home from shopping and announces that she has a present for me.

"Close your eyes, and put out your hand."

I reluctantly comply.

"Now spin around three times."

As I slow down, she places a cold, rattling metal box on my palm. I open my eyes. To my astonishment, I find a brand new tin of Nintendo Power mints floating in thin air — just above the floor, as I collapse.

It was particularly good gift, since I had co-incidentally been thinking about them recently because of my last "Game Boy Bubble Gum" Retro Scan. Some gifts are worth a bruise or two.

The Tin's the Thing

Nintendo Power MintsFor $1.49 (US), you get about 84 white, pill-shaped mints in a stylish metal package. Unfortunately, I found the mints' flavor to be somewhat lacking: unlike Altoids, these are "curiously weak" mints with a slightly unpleasant chalky consistency. But the tin alone is probably worth the price. Therein lies all the novelty, of course, and the real reason anyone would buy this product.

The tin's two-part design of smooth, rounded aluminum closes firmly and is well-constructed. It's about the same size as a real NES controller, which is particularly cool. The printed control-pad effect is significantly enhanced by the slightly embossed buttons and D-pad on the lid of the tin. And after you finish all your mints, you can store your Nintendo DS games and extra styluses in it. Or dead bugs — it's your choice.

Why the manufacturer branded these mints with "Nintendo Power" (the official magazine of all things Nintendo) is unknown to me. It would have been much cooler if they referenced the Nintendo Entertainment System (in words) somewhere on the package. Barring that, they could have at least called it the "Mintendo Entertainment System."

Now you're eating with power. Minty power.

The Skinny: Nintendo Power Mints
Good Features: Awesome NES control pad-shaped tin. Inexpensive. Very few calories. Useful for Nintendo DS game storage.
Bad Features: Mints have an authentic left-over-from-the-1980s chalky taste. They're called "Nintendo Power" mints for some reason.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 7 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles - Very Good

VC&G Review: Console Classix, The GameTap Alternative

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

Console ClassixImagine if I told you that there was a legal alternative to GameTap that nearly nobody knows about, costs half as much as GameTap (yet is partly free), and beat GameTap to market by at least three years. Well, I guess that was a dumb way to start this, because you don't have to imagine — I'm actually telling you: such a service exists, and it's called Console Classix.

Console Classix Client SoftwareConsole Classix could best be described as "the world's first online video game rental service." Its creators have found an ingenious way to circumvent all the usual legal hassles associated with providing classic games for legal play over the Internet and on your home computer. How did they manage this incredible feat, you ask? Well, they take advantage of a loophole in copyright law that all movie and video game rental stores use: it's legal to lend a legally obtained (i.e. bought) copy of a movie or game to someone else, as long as you don't transmit or distribute new copies of said movie/game to others. By extension, Console Classix dumps the ROM data from unique copies of games it physically owns on a one-to-one basis and lends out the cartridges in digital form to users of the service. When a user plays a game through the Console Classix service, that copy of the game is "checked out" and no one else can play it while the first customer is using it. However, if Console Classix owns more copies of the game, other customers may play the same game until all the copies are occupied. It's just like a video game rental store, but in digital form.

[ Continue reading VC&G Review: Console Classix, The GameTap Alternative » ]

VC&G Review: Super Pac-Man TV Games Unit

Friday, December 1st, 2006

Super Pac-Man TV GamesThe popularity of "TV Games" units seems to have waned a bit recently as overexposure and, to some measure, public apathy, have set in. After at least three years on the market, the newly reborn dedicated home video game concept (pioneered by Jakks Pacific) is a product line whose novelty has finally begun to wear off. TV Games and their countless imitators are everywhere you go; you'll see them as impulse gifts in stores like Best Buy, Toys "R" Us, or even in less likely retail outlets like Kohls or Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Literally dozens of different units of varying levels of quality line the shelves of my local Target, for instance. But their absolute retail ubiquity doesn't mean that a few good new ones aren't leaking through. Jakks Pacific's line of classic game units, developed by HotGen of London, have typically retained a high standard of quality over the years. And it's their latest Super Pac-Man TV Games unit that I'll be discussing in this review.

[ Continue reading VC&G Review: Super Pac-Man TV Games Unit » ]

HOW TO BEAT THE VIDEO GAMES

Wednesday, October 4th, 2006

HOW TO BEAT THE VIDEO GAMES[Editor's Note: Please welcome Ulaf Silchov, an expert in video games and computers, for his first contribution to VC&G. –RW]

SOMETIMES I LIKE TO PLAY THE VIDEO GAMES. I LIKE TO PLAY THE VIDEO GAMES BUT THE VIDEO GAMES ARE HARD FOR ULAF TO UNDERSTAND. SO ULAF READS BOOK ON THE VIDEO GAMES TO WIN THEM GOOD. AND ME, BEING ULAF, WOULD LIKE TO SHARE SECRET BOOKS DISCOVERED ON THE VIDEO GAMES WITH MY PERSONS.

THE FAVORITE VIDEO GAME

BEFORE THE BOOKS ON THE VIDEO GAMES, I SHARE WITH MY PERSONS NOW THE FAVORITE VIDEO GAME OF MY MIND:

THE FAVORITE VIDEO GAME OF ULAF

IT ABOVE IS THE VIDEO GAME THAT MANY SMALLER THE VIDEO GAMES PLAY INSIDE IT IF YOUR MIND HAVE THE RIGHT DEVICES. BUT ULAF ONLY HAVE ONE DEVICE AND SO SMALL IT IS FOR THE HANDS OF ULAF, THAT ULAF CRUSHED IT. AND THEN MY MIND STOPS.

[ Continue reading HOW TO BEAT THE VIDEO GAMES » ]

VC&G Review: GameTap

Tuesday, April 4th, 2006

Do you want hundreds of different games of diverse genres that span video and computer gaming history available for unlimited play on your PC, 24 hours a day, without the hassle of having to set up eleven different game and computer systems? So do I. But in this case, you're going to have to pay $10 a month to Ted Turner for the privilege. And there's another catch — the "unlimited" games have the darnedest habit of magically disappearing at the blink of an eye once you stop paying your monthly gaming tariff. Hmm. Sounds pretty limited to me.

Thus is the state of the GameTap Broadband Entertainment Network, the world's first large-scale legal attempt to make a rerun channel for video games. It's an admirable goal that is pulled off relatively effectively with their candy-coated software wrapper that wrangles together 400 disparate games from the late 1970s to the present into one virtual gameplay arena. The interface is clear-cut and simple to understand, allowing you to easily browse through and select different games you want to play (one at a time, of course). Upon selecting a game, you're presented with a game overview, some history, the choice of some game-specific bonus information, and instructions on how to play. Then, if you choose to continue, the game is downloaded to your PC and…you play. Download times range from a few minutes or less for the simple games to over 30 minutes for the modern PC Windows titles. Don't expect to make copies of the games you've downloaded, of course, because every downloaded game is chopped into pieces on your hard drive and likely encrypted, rendered useless unless played through the GameTap client itself. But if you just wanted to do that, you would have already (likely illegally) downloaded the game already, right? You're here for the experience and the convenience of having everything accessible and playable in one place.

[ Continue reading VC&G Review: GameTap » ]

Late Review: Hori Digital Pad for Gamecube

Tuesday, February 21st, 2006

Hori Digital PadI'm a huge fan of 2D games, and the only major system that still has mostly 2D games actively developed for it is the Game Boy Advance (although that won't be the case for much longer, as the GBA fades into its sunset years). When Nintendo announced their Game Boy Player for the Gamecube a few years ago, I was incredibly excited. Here was a chance to play completely new 2D games on a TV instead of a tiny screen — it would be like the 2nd coming of the Super Nintendo (SNES). But playing those games on the Gamecube's very modern controller is not nearly as appealing: the analog stick is imprecise and hardly ideal for non-analog-controlled games, and the Gamecube controller's built-in D-pad is small and placed inconveniently and uncomfortably out of the way. (Just as a note, before I go any further: it's possible to play GBA games on the Game Boy Player using the GBA itself as a controller, connected through the GBA-GC link cable — the original model GBA feels best for this task).

Luckily, there is a nice alternative to controlling your your GBA games on the GC. Enter the Hori Digital Pad, a sleek, simplified version of the GC controller with a form-factor that obviously borrows a lot from the beloved official SNES pack-in controller. It's about the same size and shape as a SNES pad, but the Hori Pad has raised "finger-grips" (for lack of a better term) on its bottom (toward the left and right sides of the controller) that actually make the pad more comfortable to hold for long periods of time. The most major and noticeable difference between the Hori Pad and the regular Gamecube controller is the complete and total lack of the GC's two analog sticks. Also, the left and right shoulder buttons are not analog, but digital equivalents of the original (equivalent to pushing original GC shoulder buttons all the way down). Four of the face buttons share a nearly identical layout to the official GC controller: X, Y, B, and A. However, the Z button, normally placed on the right shoulder of the official GC controller (quite awkwardly, I might add), has been tacked on — almost as equally awkwardly — to the left of the main face button area. In the middle of the controller there are SNES-style "Start" and "Select" buttons. The "Select" button, not being present on the GC controller, is apparently mapped to the regular "Y" button (this controller mapping is default for the Game Boy Player, so it works out well).

I'm not quite sure I like the button placement on the Hori Pad. I find myself regularly wishing that its buttons were reconfigured to be equally sized, spaced, and round like on a SNES pad. The huge size difference between the B and A buttons on the pad makes for some weird playing on some games that obviously weren't designed with this layout in mind (i.e. all GBA games). However, I understand that some people actually prefer this pad to play GC fighting games, so perhaps the similar button layout to the GC pad is less confusing. Then again, I think the weird GC button layout might be what makes fighting fans not like the GC very much in the first place. So all in all, I'd say it's a negative feature of this pad to have duplicated the size, shape, and layout of the GC's X, Y, B, and A buttons.

But with that out of the way, I really can't think of anything else negative about this product. Upon holding it in your hands and actually using it, it becomes immediately obvious that this is a high-quality pad with high production values and excellent craftsmanship (as far as 3rd party controllers go, anyway). The buttons feel good to press and are responsive and accurate (it's nice not having worn-out conductive rubber buttons for once). The shoulder buttons are a tad bit mushy, but I feel it's not bad enough to really hold it against the product. The pad feels really good in my hands, has a sturdy construction, and its cord length is adequate (about six feet). All in all, I'd say this is a great product and I highly recommend it for anyone who spends more than a few hours playing Game Boy Advance games (or any retro games — many of which are now available in collections) on their Gamecube. The pad itself can be a little hard to obtain, as I don't think it's officially distributed in the US. You might have to get it through a game import place like National Console Support (Hori Digital Pad, $22 US) or Lik Sang. But for $22 (at NCS), I think it's really worth it. Stock up now before they disappear forever and you kick yourself (I have a spare one in the wings for the future, if my first one ever wears out). And no, I'm not getting paid any money to say that. I really like the pad that much.

The Skinny: Hori Digital Pad (Gamecube)
Good Features: Accurate, responsive buttons with good tactile feel, great classic form factor, sturdy construction, nice cord length, relatively inexpensive. Great choice for playing retro games on your Gamecube.
Bad Features: Duplicates awkward face button layout of the official Gamecube controller (X,Y,A,B buttons). Shoulder buttons a tad mushy.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 9 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles

Late Review: Namco TV Games - Ms. Pac-Man Collection 5-in-1 Unit

Monday, December 12th, 2005

Ms. Pac-Man Collection TV GamesSo far I am an owner of four "TV Games" units. I have the venerable Atari TV Games unit that looks like a vintage Atari 2600 joystick, the highly underrated and very hackable Commodore 64 30-in-1 unit, the Namco 5-in-1 unit (with Pac-Man, Galaxian, etc), and of course, the subject of this mini-review, Jakks Pacific's Namco TV Games - Ms. Pac-Man Collection unit. Sure, this thing has probably been reviewed to death by now, but I really wanted to share with you how cool I think this thing is. And being the picky vintage game enthusiast I am (as some might have noticed by my harsh NEX review), this is a miraculous thing.

Jakks Pacific got just about everything right with this unit. For starters, the console's presentation is appropriate for the casual player that is likely to buy it: nostalgic and fun. The price is pretty good too. The retail price of the Ms. Pac-Man Collection is probably about $25, but I paid $15, so I am happy. But the true beauty of this puppy comes when you install four AA batteries, hook it up to the RCA phono jacks on your TV and switch it on. The built-in game selection menu is professional and nicely done. It's easy to select from any of the five included games (Ms. Pac-Man, Pole Position, Galaga, Xevious, and Mappy Land) with the built-in joystick and buttons. The unit also has a really neat feature that is a drastic improvement from Jakks' earlier TV games: a pause button. And not only that, but when you press the pause button (labeled "Menu"), you are given a choice to either continue the current game or return to the main menu. Very professional, and very slick. Try taking a bathroom break from a game of Galaga in the arcade and you'll see why this is a good feature (of course, pause buttons have been standard on home consoles for years… oh well). Also, this unit has two regular play buttons instead of only one button found on earlier units, which allows for improved functionality on some games (like using it to shift gears in Pole Position). Interestingly enough, the feature of this console that I find the downright niftiest also seemed the most gimmicky to me before I tried it. I'm speaking of the "twist control" built into the joystick. That's right: for steering in Pole Position, you twist the joystick post itself left and right as if it were a tiny steering wheel. When you release it, it springs back to a center position. I was shocked when I tried it and learned how incredibly well it actually worked. It feels smooth and responsive, and allows for really nuanced and accurate control of your car in the game. It makes the experience of playing Pole Position at home actually fun for a change. Not to be forgotten is the regular 8-way joystick, which is also very responsive — although any time you throw diagonal controls into the mix, it makes Pac-Man games a little tricky. All the controls use microswitches for a more durable, clicky, and arcade-like feel than you'd expect in a $25 novelty game toy.

Ms. Pac-Man Collection TV Games"That's great RedWolf, I'm glad you like the buttons. But what about the games?" I'm glad you asked, Reader Steve. The collection of games in this unit is excellent, save for perhaps the inclusion of Mappy Land, which I personally could live without. Obviously Jakks Pacific and Namco wanted to milk the market for all it's worth, separating the high-profile games into two different units (Pac-Man and Galaxian in one, Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga in another). If they replaced Mappy Land with Dig Dug, they would have made a much better collection (Xevious can stay — it adds refreshing gameplay variety, and Pac-Man and Ms. Pac Man are pretty similar anyway). The translations of the arcade games presented in this unit are near spot-on, with accurate sounds, graphics, and gameplay (as far as I can tell, anyway — I haven't exactly lived and breathed Mappy Land like I have Super Mario Bros., for example). The unit gets a huge thumbs-up in this category — the games are extremely playable and actually fun.

By far, the biggest opportunity for improvement of the Ms. Pac-Man Collection TV Games unit is the case design. A more ergonomic controller scheme that's more comfortable in your hands would put this unit one step closer to perfection. As it is, my hands start to get really sore after even a few minutes of gripping the bulky, sharp-angled case. But such sweet pain it is.

As a final note, it occurred to me at some point while playing Galaga that this tiny $25 console would make an excellent basis for a dedicated, home-made arcade machine. Who needs a $2000 MAME rig or a $3000 Ms. Pac Man / Galaga machine when you could hack some real arcade controls to this box, stick it in a cabinet with a 20″ TV and have a damn good recreation of the arcade for a lot less? After a little bit of poking on the net, I found that someone else had the same idea and acted on it. I might just have to do that myself some day. If I do, I'll be sure to let VC&G readers know about it. :)

The Skinny: Namco TV Games - Ms. Pac-Man Collection (Jakks Pacific)
Good Features: Good game selection that's fun, varied, and faithful to the arcade. Great interface. Pause feature. Microswitch controls. Twist-controller kicks ass. Easy to set up.
Bad Features: Harshly-angled, anti-ergonomic case design cramps your hands after a while. Game selection could be better, with more and/or better games included.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 8 out of 10 ] Extreme Super Rating Units

No More Blinkies: Replacing the NES's 72-Pin Cartridge Connector

Monday, November 7th, 2005

Frustrating NESIt's an endless struggle; an epic, no-holds-barred wrestling match: Man vs. NES in a fight to the death. Or at least, in a fight to get your NES games working on that old front-loading NES. You push, it blinks. You pull, it blinks. You blow, you sneeze, you use q-tips, cleaning kits, and wow…it works? You see the title screen, but it's still a little flaky. Things might be a little garbled, so you hit reset and it looks OK. Then an hour into playing, you accidentally tap the console and the game freezes, forcing you to start your Metroid game all over again. Blast! It's hard to remember that your NES ever worked on the first try. There's a fine art to actually getting a game running on an old NES. It takes a lot of patience and a certain flick of the wrist. I used to impress people at parties with my NES-charming abilities, and boy did the ladies love it.

NES 72-Pin Replacement ConnectorThe crux of this classical problem is a special connector inside the unit that wears out from repeated usage over the years. It was designed in such a way that a game cartridge can be inserted at a slight angle with little resistance, then pushed down in the spring-and-latch loading tray inside the NES, bringing the cartridge's contacts in full contact with the connector's pins. It's sort of like a cartridge port version of a ZIF (zero insertion force) socket (Hmm.. Zero Insertion Force sounds like it would have been a good title for a Japanese NES game). This mechanism seems like a great idea on paper — there's no brute-forcing the game in, and it's easy to pull the game out of the slot when you're done. But this delicate dance between cartridge and machine repeats it self over and over again throughout the years until the the pins in the internal connector start to lose their flexibility and springiness. And when they get slowly bent down from repeated usage, the physical contact made between the connector and the cartridge itself suffers, making it hard for the NES to read the data on the cartridge. On top of that, you have years of dust, dirt, and corrosive build-up on both the internal connector and the game itself. As a result, you get…Dum Dum Dum…The Blinkies.

Back in the day, we just threw up our hands and suffered with the problem, never really thinking there could be a solution — other than buying a later model top-loading NES (released in 1993), which eschewed the high-class ZIF mechanism for a more plebeian (and low cost) approach. And as we all now know, recent attempts at NES replacements just don't cut it. But a few years ago, enterprising young lads on Ebay started selling replacement 72-pin connectors (the cartridge port on the NES has 72 pins) for afflicted front-loading NES systems. The concept is this: you buy a new connector, you disassemble your NES and replace the old one, and supposedly the blinkies will be gone. So about three months ago, I finally decided to buy one and try it out. Sellers want anywhere from $7 to $12 (!) a piece for these things, which is a lot of markup considering they're probably being churned out by Chinese factories at a cost of a cent a piece. However, they are quite unique in the world of connectors and I (in my limited experience) know of no other device that has ever used such a component. So until we find out who these sellers are smuggling these things from, the gaming public will have to put up with the high prices.

NES Apart, RF Shield RemovedI took a dive and went with a $7 connector from HitGaming.com. I bought it through Ebay, although HitGaming has its own online store too. The choice of a vendor for these things probably matters very little. I highly suspect that all of them come from the same manufacturer somewhere in the Far East. Just go for the cheapest price. HitGaming.com's 72-pin connector arrived in a little plastic baggy with a cheaply done single-sheet print out of NES disassembly and connector installation instructions. Having disassembled a number of NESes before, I didn't have any trouble with the installation — it's very easy as far as console fixes go. But for those who are not experienced in taking anything apart, the operation might be a tad tricky. HitGaming.com also has extended installation instructions online with more pictures, which is definitely handy for the inexperienced. I'm not going to go into detail about the assembly and installation instructions myself, since the method to do so has been repeated many times over on the web.

I took everything apart — first the main chassis, then the RF shield, then they tray mechanism, then unplugged the old connector from the mainboard, hollowed out some incompletely drilled screw holes in the new connector, and plugged it in to the mainboard. Then I screwed only the tray mechanism back so I could test it before completely putting it back together. If I had to give one tip for the process, it would be this: there is a black plastic lip/slot on the bottom of the black spring-loaded tray that is designed to go under the front, bottom edge of the main board. Make sure you slide the tray mechanism in parallel to the mainboard and that the lip goes under the board, or else the tray will stick up too much and the spring-locking mechanism won't work properly. After successful testing, reassemble everything else in reverse order, taking care not to mix up which screws go where.

The new 72-pin connector in my NES succeeded in eliminating the confounded blinkies. It should be heavily noted that your game cartridges need to be cleaned before inserting them into your newly refurbished NES, or else you'll still have trouble getting them to work (and you'll get your new connector dirty).

There was only one problem with my connector, though. The whole ingeniously-designed ZIF feature of the tray-loader was somehow negated by the new connector. It requires a strong force to push the cartridge in, and a Herculean effort to remove the cart from the system. The sheer gripping power of the new connector will surely lessen over time and use, but it's definitely inconvenient to have to struggle to pull a game out. It's a disappointment, but at least a cleaned cartridge works on the first try. Also, you can practically throw the NES across the room and not have the game lock up on you; the contact is that strong. Still, I wouldn't try it on purpose (although it might happen spontaneously while trying to get past the first stage of Ghosts 'N Goblins).

Note: Below, I am reviewing my particular connector, not the whole concept of replacing your old one.

HitGaming.com Replacement NES 72-Pin Connector
Good Features: Seemingly good quality construction, same dimensions as old connector. Eradicates the blinkies if installed correctly and used with clean carts. Installation instructions provided on paper and online.
Bad Features: Overpriced. Skimpy installation instructions. Grabs on to your carts for dear life and won't let go. Requires disassembly and possible breakage risk in the process — not a good option for the technically unexperienced.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 6 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles