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Category: Gaming (Page 1 of 2)

The Sinden Lightgun

One of the little-mentioned casualties of the move away from CRT technology for our TVs and computer monitors was light gun games. As everyone who lives in the gaming world knows, light guns don’t work on modern TVs. They need to be able to track the CRT beam; no CRT beam, no workee.

Nintendo’s Wii had a sort of solution with its Wiimote, which used an IR sensor bar, but as anyone who has tried to play House of the Dead on the Wii can attest, it’s not what you’d call accurate.

Enter Andy Sinden, inventor of the Sinden Lightgun, a light gun that works with modern TVs and is way more accurate than IR-based solutions like the Wiimote. As I understand it, it’s basically a camera in a gun shell that recognises the on-screen border created by the driver software and uses that to work out where you’re pointing it, with exceptional accuracy. As far as Windows and Linux is concerned it appears to be a mouse, which means that it can be used with a wide variety of games, platforms and environments. So, you can run your old arcade gun games in MAME, and play them on your PC or Raspberry Pi or whatever, on your modern TV, with a proper gun.

I was one of the backers of the original Kickstarter campaign, and so I received my Sinden Lightgun yesterday. I think general release / order fulfilment is January or so.

The hardware itself is reminiscent of the Saturn light gun. It’s not what you would call a premium product – it is injection moulded rather than 3D printed, but the plastics have a slightly scuffed and overly shiny look to them reminiscent of a cheaper child’s toy. For the money, I would have liked a slightly more high-end finish and a bit more weight to it, although that probably wasn’t practicable given the small production run for the Kickstarter. It doesn’t feel fragile though, the trigger is microswitched (a nice touch) and the other buttons are well-placed and feel decent enough. Crucially, the USB lead is very long (~5m I think?), so you can stand well back from larger screens. So … not blown away like I was by the Spectrum Next, but not bad at all.

The software is not, in its current form, going to win any UI design awards. It’s in beta still, so that’s not necessarily unexpected, but it is … basic, shall we say. No doubt that will improve with time. It is after all just a beta.

The software has also proven somewhat unstable for me – it frequently throws exceptions when I launch it. Again, it’s a beta, and Andy is clearly a capable guy, so no doubt that will improve.

The biggest issue I faced was setting up MAME, because I’m really not familiar with it and the learning curve is, shall we say, steep. Honestly though I didn’t make my life easier by not reading the Sinden Lightgun wiki properly.

All of these niggles fell away pretty quickly once I got it working though. Damn, this thing is fun. I’d forgotten just how much I miss light gun games. Time Crisis, Terminator 2, Operation Wolf, Lethal Enforcers … ahhhh. They all work great.

Gun game nirvana

So … yeah. It’s not quite ready for prime time, perhaps. But the core technology is sound and works well. I can certainly see it being supported out of the box by MAME, RetroArch and so on in the future, and if it catches on then, who knows? We could be looking at a whole new generation of light gun games. Imagine a new House of the Dead or Virtua Cop game using the latest Unreal Engine. Now you’re talking.

OSSC

My trusty old Trinitron CRT finally croaked. It was a lovely screen, perfect for the old computers and consoles that I like to mess around with when I’m not working or wrangling children. But its time had come.

Frankly, now that I’m working at home, I can’t really spare the desk real estate that a CRT needs either.

So, a modern screen is needed. Trouble is, they really don’t work well with old machines. Old machines tend to output video at 240p, 480i, or 480p tops. Even if your TV has a SCART connector, it probably won’t handle those sorts of low resolutions well. It will try to upscale them, but TV upscalers are made for movies and so the result is a blurry, laggy mess.

The OSSC. Not pretty, but very functional.

This is where the “Open Source Scan Converter”, or OSSC, comes in. It’s a nifty little device that takes your old console or computer’s SD RGB output and “line doubles” it up to 720p or even 1080p.

The results are spectacular. The “modern” screen in my home office is an El Cheapo Phillips 24″ flat panel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine. But it can’t cope with anything that isn’t HDMI and high def.

With the OSSC hooked up, all my consoles look fabulous. Razor sharp images. No artefacting or noise. No blur. No “smoothing”. No lag whatsoever. It’s fabulous. I don’t have the ability to take screenshots of it, which is a shame because it really needs to be seen.

There are a few issues. My Amiga 1200 does some weird things in Workbench. My Atari ST produces a perfect image, but there’s no audio for some reason.

But those are teething troubles at best. The OSSC is incredibly configurable and I’m sure there’s a setting somewhere that will address these problems. (EDIT: Both of these issues went away with the 0.86 OSSC firmware update.)

Fundamentally, this is an amazing device which bridges the gap between retro consoles and new TVs beautifully. I’m very pleased with it.

A tale of two games

Unusually (for me, anyhow), I recently picked up two AAA games for my PS4 at pretty much the same time: The Last Of Us Part 2, and Ghost of Tsushima.

Let me say straight off that they’re both magnificent pieces of work. Clearly, some very talented people have put a lot of time into both games. They both look and sound incredible, control is tight and presentation has been polished until it shines.

Thing is, only one of them is actually enjoyable.

The trouble with The Last of Us is that – while it is magnificently written, wonderfully plotted, deeply atmospheric and at times heartbreaking – it isn’t fun. Not one bit. It’s relentlessly, relentlessly grim and dark and just plain horrible. Gratuitously so, at times. And while I can totally see what Naughty Dog were going for and why, the combination of the grim setting and the gameplay style they have gone for means that the end result is a game that feels like work. It invites you to care about its protagonist – and it does it very, very well. And then it throws you into these difficult, tense combat situations, and despite scarce ammo and some really unfair checkpointing you manage to get through it, and then your reward is a cut scene in which yet another absolutely horrible thing happens. It’s just … relentless.

Naughty Dog clearly realised this, hence the rather jarring “light relief” moments shoehorned in from time to time as flashbacks. It isn’t however enough to lift it out of being one of those games that you feel like you ought to play, rather than a game that you actually want to play. In many ways it’s sort of the video game equivalent of The Passion Of The Christ: I sat through it, and it certainly is powerful, but do I want to watch it again? Dear God, no.

Compare and contrast the sheer joy of Ghost of Tsushima, a game which absolutely nails escapist power fantasy in a way that nothing has since The Witcher 3. It’s beautiful, and fascinating, and above all the actual core gameplay mechanics are genuinely fun. It has its share of brutality – it is, after all, a game about the Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274, a conflict not exactly known for its observance of modern notions of human rights. The difference, though, is that whereas The Last Of Us subjects you to its brutality, in Ghost Of Tsushima you can do something about it. You have agency, in a way that The Last Of Us just doesn’t let you have.

The Last Of Us Part 2 is an important work and I’m sure it will be cited frequently in the ongoing videogames-as-art debate (I thought that was settled by What Remains Of Edith Finch, but what do I know). But Ghost Of Tsushima is the better game.

TZXDuino

One of the drawbacks of the Spectrum Next is that it can only load TZX files by using the Pi Zero accelerator. That actually works fine in itself, but you can’t directly control the Pi, and so it doesn’t work for multi-load games because you can’t stop and start the “tape”. That’s a bit of a bugger, because many of the old Speccy games that I have enough nostalgia for to want to revisit today are multi-load games.

I needed something that would act like a real tape player, but hopefully without the flakiness.

First things first, I needed the right cable. The Next uses the same pinout as the Spectrum+3 for its tape interface and so – as with so many things retro – the peerless Iain Priddey of Retro Computer Shack comes to the rescue with his +3 tape cable, which also works nicely with the Next.

Armed with that cable, I spent some time trying to get my phone (the extraordinary Fairphone 3, if you’re interested) to output something that the Next could ingest as a tape signal, using the PlayZX app. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get the Next to pick up the audio signal though. That was odd, given that I tried stereo to mono converters and all sorts.

Happily, I came across this marvellous little device:

The TXZDuino, complete with nifty 3D printed case

It’s quite a simple device, at least in terms of what it does. You load up the SD card with TZX files, plug the 3.5mm jack into EAR on the Speccy, apply some power, start the tape loader on the Speccy and then select a TZX file with the back and forward buttons and hit play. You can pause and unpause it at will, and it also seems to be smart enough to pause itself automatically if it detects a long enough period of silence.

And to be honest, it just works. No muss, no fuss. It supports folders, and seems to read the SD card pretty swiftly. The manual stresses that some TZX files using certain custom loaders might not work unless patched, but so far I’ve not come across any problems.

For thirty quid, I’m absolutely delighted. Now, if only Fighter Bomber ran properly on the Next – I’ve been itching to try running that at 28 Mhz!

The Next is here!

My Spectrum Next arrived a couple of Fridays ago and since then I have spent most of my time not devoted to work or child-wrangling fiddling with the thing. These are my initial thoughts on it.

The hardware

It’s a well-made, solid and stylish machine

The machine is surprisingly small, about the same size as the original Spectrum+, and surprisingly heavy. The case is very solid and has a premium feel to it.

The keyboard is, honestly, witchcraft; somehow the Next team have contrived to create a keyboard that feels like a Spectrum keyboard would feel if Spectrum keyboards weren’t dreadful. Which seems like an odd thing to say. What I mean is that it retains that “Speccy” feel, but is actually pleasant to type on.

A few nits – and they really are minor. The SD card slot doesn’t have a push-to-eject mechanism, and the cutaway which allows you to get your fingers onto the card to pull it out is too small, at least for my sausage fingers, to get a decent purchase on it. Half the time I end up pulling the microSD card out of the SD adapter, leaving the adapter in the Next. An SD reader with a push-to-eject mechanism would be a good improvement for a revision 2.

Secondly, I would have liked a power switch, although this is just personal preference and I do acknowledge that not having one is more authentically Sinclair. Again, perhaps for a revision 2 the team could include an in-line power switch in the box with the PSU, which people can use or not as they choose. For now, you can easily get one for a few quid here.

The manual

Yes, it comes with a full ring-bound printed manual running to hundreds of pages and explaining in complete detail pretty much everything about the machine, from how to turn it on through to memory maps, interrupts, system calls … you name it.

The manual is largely the work of one man, Phoebus Dokos, and its creation must have been a Herculean task. Actually using the paper version is rather difficult because there is no index, but there is also a PDF which is of course fully searchable, and so the paper manual is really more of a nice artefact to have rather than a day-to-day reference.

Speaking of paper, I did notice that the manual is printed on very thin paper, which together with the ring binding makes it feel fragile. This isn’t a massive issue for me as I use the PDF for looking things up, and anyway I understand that there will be an option at some point to buy a premium, full-colour manual.

Finally, Sinclair manuals have a fine tradition of gorgeous sci-fi cover art and the Next manual carries on that tradition. For those who haven’t yet seen it I won’t spoil it, but it is beautiful and very much in keeping.

Software

Pulling it all together is the software side of things. NextZXOS feels snappy and lets you get to what you want quickly and without fuss.

The distribution comes with an absolute ton of demos, example programs and even a few full games, both classic Speccy titles and new titles taking advantage of all the extra things the Next can do. There is already a small software library for the Next, including games from the likes of Rusty Pixels (this site is a useful index of what’s out there and what’s coming) and even a full music production suite. Obviously the user base is still fairly small, but it’s growing as the Next team get more machines out the door, will grow more with the planned second Kickstarter, and there is very much a small but vibrant scene growing up around the machine.

I for one can’t wait to see what’s, er, next for the Next.

Shenmue 3

Shenmue 3 – image from official website, belongs to YS Net

Know what this game reminds me of? “Second Coming” by The Stone Roses. You wait ages for it to drop, and then … it’s good, it really is, but it also sort of struggles under its own weight.

For one thing, Yu Suzuki has almost wilfully ignored everything that has happened in the last 20 years of game development. Shenmue 3 is a Shenmue game, which means that it is completely a noughties game. The controls are deeply weird, the pacing is slow, the dialog stilted. It’s … Shenmue, basically. It’s like GTA, The Witcher and Red Dead never happened.

Visually, it is very very lovely. What Yu Suzuki and team have captured, magnificently, is a sort of idealised pastoral of rural China in the 80s, with saturated colours and glow turned up to max. It has a sort of dream-like quality. Combine that with the music, which is as sweeping and beautiful as ever, and you have a game which – while painfully slow at times – is never less than epic.

Does it still stand up as a game in 2019? Hmm. Not really, if I’m honest. I mean, I’m a total Sega fanboy, and I played and loved the first two Shenmue games on the Dreamcast. But you can’t pretend that the last two decades haven’t happened, and Shenmue 3 just doesn’t have the “wow” factor that it had back in 1999, and which made us overlook so much of the clunkiness in the game mechanics.

Still, for all that, it’s undeniably good to hang out with Ryo Hazuki again. Now, does anyone know where I can find sailors?

PMG on Athene

Well. This is quite the thing. Watch and judge for yourself.

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Chris Bratt sure has come a long way from being perplexed by a Spectrum +2:

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Commodore 64!

Thanks to the tremendous skills of Mutant Caterpillar Games, the breadbin 64 given to me by a colleague lives once more!

This is another one of those machines that I didn’t have as a kid, and really really wanted. That sound chip … man, it still sounds good today.

I’ll update this post with some pics and whatnot once I have decent daylight.

Meantime, I’m going to go play Armalyte.

A few nice retro pickups

In order to force myself to calm down a bit on the political ranting, I figured I would do one of these. Here for your delectation are a few choice retro pickups from the last few months. Apologies for the bad photography.

First off, there’s this bad boy:

A slightly blurry picture of a Psion Series 3.

A friend of mine had one of these when I was a kid, and I was always oddly fascinated by it. I mean, honestly it’s little more than a socially ambitious PDA, and is oddly less usable than the Cambridge Z88 which predates it by several years, but it’s small, it’s interesting, the hinge is really cool (those icon buttons rotate down into the case as you close it) and I’m having fun getting it to talk to my Amiga. Because reasons.

Second up, I’ve finally got a Saturn light gun again:

A blue light gun for the Sega Saturn, with a copy of Virtua Cop 2.

I never had Virtua Cop 2 back in the day; my Saturn lightgun escapades were limited to House of the Dead (a darned good port as it happens, but stupid expensive now). So far the gun is a lot less accurate than I remember – or maybe I’m just getting old and slow.

Finally, we have this pleasingly batshit action RPG for the Nintendo 64:

A boxed copy of Hybrid Heaven for the Nintendo 64. Slightly tatty.

This is a deeply weird game. I can’t work out if it’s actually good or not. There’s a video about it here that’s worth watching.

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So, that’s it for now. I’ll probably post some more retro pickups as and when I have something interesting to show.

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