Archive for the 'Gaming History' Category

New Limited Edition Street Fighter II Cartridge Could Literally Burst Into Flames — or Just Ruin your SNES

Friday, September 1st, 2017

iam8bit Street Fighter II limited edition reproduction cartridge is a fire hazard on fire

This is really bizarre.

News hit a couple days ago that “iam8bit,” a boutique retailer of video game nostalgia products, is releasing a limited edition Street Fighter II cartridge for the Super NES.

It is part of a Street Fighter 30th Anniversary package for US $100 (plus $24 shipping, inexplicably) that includes trinket bonuses designed to lure cash out of a video game collector’s wallet.

The cartridge looks and supposedly plays like a real Super NES cartridge on a real Super NES console. There’s only one catch: iam8bit says it might catch on fire while you play it.

I am not making this up. Here’s a quote of the actual product page:

WARNING: Use of this reproduction game cartridge (the “Product”) on the SNES gaming hardware may cause the SNES console to overheat or catch fire. The SNES hardware is deemed a vintage collectible, so please exercise extreme caution when using the Product and make sure there is fire extinguishment equipment nearby. Use of the Product is at the sole risk of the user. The Product is sold “as is”. Neither iam8bit, Inc. nor Capcom Co, Ltd. make any representation or warranty, express or implied, of any kind, including any warranty of merchantability of fitness for a particular use, or that the Product is safe to use, and iam8bit, Inc. or Capcom Co, Ltd. shall have no liability for damage to property or persons arising from use of the Product. Nintendo of America is in no way associated with the release of this Product.

And here’s a screenshot of the warning:

iam8bit Street Fighter II Super NES SNES Fire Hazard Warning Screenshot

That sounds pretty bad! Who knew that retrogaming could be so dangerous?

Since we do not know the exact internals of the new Street Fighter II cartridge yet, we can only speculate about the reasons for this warning.

Or, heck, we could ask.

Just yesterday, I sent iam8bit an email about this issue. I have not yet received a response (I will update this post when I hear something from them).

Melting Super NESWhile waiting to see if I ever hear back, I decided to consult some knowledgeable friends via the oracle known as Twitter.

I received a quick response from Chris Covell, a respected video game tech enthusiast.

Covell said, “As long as modern ‘professional’ retro publishers use 3.3V flash chips without good 5V level translation everywhere, yeah, there may be fire.” Although by email later, Covell said to replace the word “fire” in his tweet with “heat and/or magic smoke.” Not very reassuring, Chris.

The 3.3V Problem

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know what’s inside the iam8bit SFII cartridge, so we’re only speculating here. But when there’s a potential flaming Super Nintendo console involved, it’s for a good cause.

In his Tweet, Covell pointed to a common problem with improper or missing level translation in flash or pirate video game cartridges. Level translation is a term that describes changing the voltage coming from a power supply to fit your needs using a small circuit (such as this product on SparkFun).

Sparkfun Level TranslatorIn this particular case, a Super NES supplies +5V to the cartridge slot. Iam8bit could be using flash chips that need 3.3V and somehow improperly powering them with 5V. Without translation between them, you could be left with excess heat in the circuit that could melt the cartridge. Covell told me more about this in an email:

It has been pretty well known for a while now that homebrew/pirate cartridges for retro systems made in recent years don’t contain the usual CMOS (5V) EPROMs, or even PROMs, but bog-standard modern flash chips that run on 3.3v.

Some pirate carts built this way that don’t have proper level translation have actually failed on NES/Famicom systems, as reported in threads on NESDev. Kira Kira Star Night on FC, and other music carts have famously failed on actual NES/FC hardware. The Shubibinman Zero re-release did bad things to Jeremy Parish’s SNES, didn’t it?

I don’t know about Jeremy Parish’s particular problem with Shubibinman Zero, but as Covell mentioned, there have been a few recent music game releases for the Famicom, and they have been problematic for certain Famicom/NES consoles out there.

In the email, Covell also mentioned a neat electronics blog that explains the dangers of driving 3.3V chips with 5V in detail. There, the author Rene writes: “When the console outputs 5V into a 3.3V input the extra voltage must go somewhere; 1st law of thermodynamics. It is converted to heat through the unintended conduction of clamping diodes, which can be harmful to integrated circuits.”

The level of heat involved might just melt the plastic or ruin the hardware, not burst into flames — and if that’s the case, then iam8bit is just covering all legal liability angles with their disclaimer. But man, why risk it?

Why are modern cartridge manufacturers using these 3.3V chips if they don’t work properly in retro consoles? Covell says it comes down to scarcity of original compatible parts on the market:

It’s sad that 5V chips are getting scarcer. It is merely “ROM” for now but it’ll mean that other chips (4-bit SRAMs & DRAMs, TTL logic ICs) may eventually be hard to come by for repairing old consoles & computers.

Even with scarce parts, it is possible — almost trivial, if you know what you’re doing — to design a game cartridge that uses both 3.3V chips and incorporates level translation, thus completely avoiding any possibility of meltdown or fire.

As to why iam8bit is using an inferior hardware design in an expensive boutique product — insert sigh here. I think video game historian Frank Cifaldi had the perfect response to that in a tweet:

A Profound Ethical Problem

So in the end, what do we know? We know that even if your console doesn’t literally catch on fire from using this SFII release, you could either a) ruin the cartridge you paid $100 for, or b) ruin your console. Sounds like a pretty bad deal.

I’m no philosophy major or consumer rights advocate, but it is not ethical to sell a product that might spontaneously catch on fire while you use it — especially if the manufacturer knows it might happen.

Heck, it might even be illegal in some way.

So stay far away from this one, folks. In fact, I recommend staying away from any of iam8bit’s products in general, because if a firm is willing to sell an openly defective product such as this SFII release, then it is liable to have much deeper ethical and business problems. They do have a few standing complaints against them that don’t inspire much confidence about their ability to deliver a good product, period.

And what about Capcom? I hope they’re listening, because if I were them, I would pull their license to iam8bit quickly before they ruined their reputation with melting cartridges.

Carol Shaw Donates Collection to The Strong

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

Carol Shaw with River Raid Box

Good News!

You may recall that I interviewed Carol Shaw for VC&G back in 2011. Shaw is best known for developing River Raid and for being Atari’s first female video game designer.

(At that time, I called Shaw “the world’s first female video game developer.” Since then, I have made a new discovery, so stay tuned.)

Through connections made between myself, Shaw, and my good friends at The National Museum of Play at The Strong in Rochester, NY, Shaw recently donated a cache of amazing historical materials, including printed source code for River Raid and an EPROM of her first game, Polo.

Carol Shaw's River Raid Atari 2600 Source Code Photo

When I first learned that Shaw still had large format printouts of the River Raid source code (back in 2011), I panicked, trying to figure out the best way to preserve it. I was thinking I might even have to fly over and photograph it myself — just to make sure it would not be lost.

But luckily, ICHEG at The Strong is a wonderful institution, and I have been doing my best to direct prototypes and other artifacts their way over the past few years. I am happy to do my own small part in preserving the history of video games, and it is wonderful that an important pioneer such as Shaw is getting the recognition she deserves.

‘The History of Civilization’ Updates, 10 Years Later

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Sid Meier's Civilization I for MS-DOS Screenshot

Ten years ago today — on July 18, 2007 — Gamasutra published my in-depth history of the creation of Sid Meier’s Civilization called The History of Civilization. (Here’s my original VC&G post on the topic.)

My article was originally intended to be part of a series of articles — conceived by Simon Carless, if I recall correctly — that would cover the histories of the then-recently announced “Game Cannon.” (I wanted to do a piece on Tetris next, but I could not figure out how to get an interview with Alexey Pajitnov.)

Treating video games as legitimate cultural artifacts worthy of preservation and study was a very novel idea at the time. My work, and that of others, over this past decade has made this idea far more mainstream, although there’s still a lot of work to do.

My Civilization article still gets a lot of attention. Gamasutra re-promotes it every once and a while, and it has been cited in books, other articles, and more. So imagine my embarrassment as I tell you, right now, that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing back when I wrote it. I was never formally trained as a journalist; I learned my craft and absorbed lessons as I went along.

The lesson I learned from the Civilization piece was to never make assumptions. The History of Civilization was only the second big history narrative piece I’d written in my career, and I remember being nervous about making a few assumptions about things that I did not firmly know to fill in gaps in the narrative.

I did not have the time or budget to interview more one person fully the article (Sid Meier, though I asked Bruce Shelley questions via email), so I wondered: How on earth do I fill in those knowledge gaps? I just went with what made the most sense, and I was lucky that it did not lead to any problems. Today, many journalists still do this, and it’s a terrible practice.

Since that time, I typically go way way way over budget with interviews and research so that I never, ever have to make any assumptions in the storytelling process. As we speak, I’m about three months late on a big feature because of this obsession of mine. It’s not an economical way to do business as a freelancer, but at least my editors know I can deliver an accurate product.

Does that make The History of Civilization a bad article? No. It’s still a good piece overall, although I would do things differently if I wrote it today.

…But there is this nagging issue, always in the back of my conscience, of a very long email that Bruce Shelley sent me about it just after it was published.

And that, my friends, will be the first of several updates related to this article that I collected have for you today, in three acts:

I. Bruce Shelley’s Notes on the Article
II. Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley in the Flesh
III. History of Civilization Translated into Chinese

[ Continue reading ‘The History of Civilization’ Updates, 10 Years Later » ]

Nintendo is Playing Risky Games With Its Cultural Legacy

Friday, July 7th, 2017

Super NES Classic fits in your hand

By now, all of you have probably heard about Nintendo’s upcoming Super NES Classic Edition, which the firm announced on June 26. It’s a tiny HDMI-capable Super NES that plays 21 built-in games and will retail for $79.99 US. And it’s due for release on September 29, 2017.

It is also, quite possibly, intended to be a huge publicity stunt.

You guys may remember the absolute fiasco that was the NES Classic Edition — Nintendo’s miniature HDMI NES with built-in games. The NES Classic edition was announced on July 16, 2016 and launched on November 11th of that year for $59.99.

Of course, when November 11th, came around, shoppers snapped up the limited supply Nintendo produced within seconds on Amazon.com and at other retailers, leaving many thousands of NES fans frustrated and unable to ever buy the tiny wonder console for a reasonable price.

Yes, that included me. Scalpers on eBay turned around and immediately sold the NES Classic Edition for 200% the retail price, and today they go for around $200-$300 unopened on eBay. (I did eventually buy one on eBay for around $250.)

I’m tempted to ask: Will the Super NES Classic Edition suffer the same fate? But this isn’t the right question. The question should be: Is the launch and availability of this new product going to make a mockery of Nintendo’s cultural legacy?

[ Continue reading Nintendo is Playing Risky Games With Its Cultural Legacy » ]

[ Retro Scan ] Milton-Bradley MBX for TI-99/4A

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

Milton Bradley MBX Flyer TI-99 Voice activated games 1983 side 2Milton-Bradley MBX Flyer: Side 2

The Milton-Bradley MBX, launched around 1983 for the TI-99/4A home computer, is a strange product: it combines a pistol-grip joystick with a rotating knob and analog control, a 64-position touch pad with overlays, and voice-recognition headset into one package that is supposed to enhance gameplay on specially-designed TI-99/4A games.

This neat TI-99/4A site has a history page about it, so I think I’ll just snatch a portion that explains the MBX’s origins:

Now that you have an idea as to what the MBX System is, below is a little history provided by Mike Langieri (the creator of the device). According to Mike, the MBX actually started out as a stand-alone game console in 1982 and was to be Milton Bradley’s answer to the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. MB’s plan was to provide the game player with voice recognition, speech synthesis, and an action-input keypad which in turn would give them an advantage over the systems already on the market.

Now how come MB did not go ahead with their own system in 1982? Once the Colecovision came out, Jim Shea (then president of Milton Bradley) thought that the market was not big enough to support 4 game systems from Atari, Mattel, Coleco, and Milton Bradley and therefore killed the project. However, so much development went into creating MB’s own video game unit that Mike was then assigned to finding a use for all the technology they developed.

Eventually it was decided to transform Milton Bradley’s gaming system to an add-on for the TI-99/4A, most likely due to the fact that MB had earlier developed the Gamevision line of video games for the 99/4A and also created the graphics chip used inside of the TI system. Thus, “the MBX was the phoenix that rose from the ashes” as Mike wonderfully put it.

It’s amazing to think “What if” and wonder what a Milton-Bradley game console might have been like. I believe that Milton Bradley also originally tried to sell this idea to Atari, but they declined, and it ended up as a TI-99/4A peripheral. A non-rotating, non-analog variation on this joystick did end up as Atari’s Space Age joystick, though.

Milton Bradley MBX Flyer TI-99 Voice activated games 1983 side 1Milton-Bradley MBX Flyer: Side 1

I have a complete MBX system in the box (which may be where I got this flyer), but for some reason I have never used it. I think that’s because I don’t have any of the games that support it — or I didn’t 17 years ago when I first bought my MBX on eBay. Right now I don’t even know what box my MBX is stored in, so it would be hard to rectify that.

[ From Milton Bradley MBX Promotional Flyer, ca. 1983 ]

Discussion Topic: When was the first time you ever used voice commands with a computer?

An Epic-Looking Commodore VIC-20 RPG, Realms of Quest V, is Under Development

Friday, June 9th, 2017

VIC-20 Realms of Quest V Screenshot

Last month, veteran Commodore VIC-20 developer Ghislain de Blois emailed me about his latest project, a turn-based RPG called Realms of Quest V.

He asked me to spread the word, and since I recently upgraded the WordPress installation for this site, it’s actually easy for me to do so.

I have not tried it yet, but man — considering the limitations of the fairly anemic VIC-20, it looks pretty amazing. Here’s what Ghislain had to say about it:

It’s an RPG game that will span 4 disk sides.

Features:
-over 250 portrait graphics
-16 races and 16 classes
-music
-big world map four times greater than that featured in Realms III
-20 cities to explore with townspeople to talk to
-10 player characters allowed in party with an additional 10 spaces for non-player characters thus allowing a party size of 20 characters. This is an 8 bit RPG record.
-customizations: choose from 4 fonts and 2 graphical viewing modes.

I will hopefully be done in a few months. I’ve been working on this game every day since the beginning of February.

[ Continue reading An Epic-Looking Commodore VIC-20 RPG, Realms of Quest V, is Under Development » ]

Atari’s Forgotten Arcade Classics (1972-1975)

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

Atari's Forgotten Arcade Games

Rolling Stone recently launched a dedicated gaming site called Glixel, and just recently, EGM alum and Glixel’s General Manager, John Davison (of whom I am a big fan), asked me to write something for the site.

So I did. Atari turns 45 this month, and I thought it would be fun to look back at some of Atari’s early coin-op titles that very few people have heard of. The result is called “Atari’s Forgotten Arcade Classics,” and you can read it now over at Glixel.

If I weren’t so busy with other projects, I’d dive more in-depth into the origins of Atari — I certainly have a lot to say about it. But that will have to wait until another time. Until then, I hope you enjoy this piece.

The Origins of Chuck E. Cheese

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

Nolan Bushnell and Chuck E. Cheese

I mentioned this in my most recent Retro Scan, but I figured this was worth repeating in its own post.

Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre launched 40 years ago last month — on May 16, 1977. To celebrate the anniversary, I wrote a long feature about the origins of the pizza chain for FastCompany that they published last week.

In the piece, you can learn about how Chuck E. Cheese was originally supposed to be a coyote, read about rat-related intrigue, and glean some of the visionary genius of Nolan Bushnell, who saw the chain as a way to bring arcade video games to the mainstream — as well as scratching a fundamental itch of human nature. It worked.

Hope you enjoy it.

[ Retro Scan ] Chuck E. Cheese Tokens and Tickets

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

Front of Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre Tokens Scan 1980 1982 1983Five early 1980s Pizza Time Tokens from Benj’s Collection

Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre launched 40 years ago last month — on May 16, 1977. To celebrate the anniversary, I wrote a long feature about the origins of the pizza chain for FastCompany that they published last week.

While researching the article, I recalled my childhood token collection (pseudo numismatic, as they say) that likely had a few vintage Chuck E. Cheese specimens. After checking, sure enough, I found five authentic Pizza Time game tokens dated from the years 1980, 1982, and 1983.

[ Continue reading [ Retro Scan ] Chuck E. Cheese Tokens and Tickets » ]

Hear Benj on the Retronauts Podcast

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

Retronauts Episode 98 Mac Games

Since February, I’ve been appearing on episodes of Retronauts, a long-running retro gaming podcast traditionally hosted by Jeremy Parish and Bob Mackey. Retronauts traces its origins to the now defunct 1UP.com, but it has moved along with Jeremy wherever he goes.

And that includes a move across the country: About five years ago, Jeremy relocated to sunny Raleigh, NC from San Francisco. After resigning from his editor-in-chief position at USGamer.net late last year, Jeremy decided to rely on Patreon to fund Retronauts as a full-time project.

Retronauts East Apple II Games ArtworkThere’s only one problem: Bob Mackey is still located on the west coast, and Jeremy can’t afford to fly out there every time he wants to record a show. So while Bob still creates episodes on the west coast, Jeremy started up a “Retronauts East” wing of the show featuring a local crew of regulars.

Fortunately, I am a Raleigh native, and I still live here. So the Retronauts East roster includes both myself and Ben Elgin, a Hillsborough, NC software engineer and a veteran of Jeremy’s Gamespite forums.

Since then I’ve been on five episodes (with another micro episode on the way), and it’s been a blast. Jeremy is a gin aficionado, and we typically drink a gin and tonic before or during the show, which is why you may hear high-resolution ice clinking in the background.

Here’s a run-down of the episodes I’ve appeared on so far:

Episode 87: Apple II Games
Episode 91: Early Sega Arcade Games
Episode 95: Early Batman Games
Micro 59: Atari Swordquest
Episode 98: Mac Gaming in the 1980s

There’s more to come. So stay tuned and enjoy.