Solid State Romcast: The 7-27-14 Show

This week on the Romcast… the Destiny beta is out and available for public consumption and the gaming community is already trying to compare graphics for their flaming fanboy forum arguments. Jon and Matt break it down and try to discern if the game is worth all the hype so far. Also, the two salivate over the concept of the Valve Steam Box and its new controller revision. Will the Steam Box mark the end of standalone video game consoles?? Lastly, Jon and Mr. Off White shed a tear as they discuss the history of the Sega Dreamcast and how or where it all went wrong for what people consider to be one of the best platforms in history.

In memory of Isao Okawa.

 

Be sure to drop us a line at our E-mail address: solidstateromcast@gmail.com. As always, thanks for listening and stayed tuned for the next installment!

 

http://shoutengine.com/SolidStateRomcast/solid-state-romcast-7-27-14-show-3113

 

Solid State Romcast Crew:

Jon “San Juan” Rivera – Host

Matt “Off” White – Cohost

Richard “Durrty” Hunt – Eastern Connection

 

Music Credit:

Introduction Theme – Car Jack [2011 version] by Electric Children

Interlude No. 1 – Unknown Track A by ???

Interlude No. 2 – Unknown Track B by ???

Roundtable Theme – Fuckaboing by RoccoW

Resolution Theme – Skip Sandwich DX By Electric Children

Controller Review: Sega Saturn Twin Stick

This is the front cover art for the Sega Saturn Twin Stick controller.

This is the front cover art for the Sega Saturn Twin Stick controller.

 

Name: Sega Saturn Twin Stick
Manufacturer: Sega
Release Date: November 29, 1996 (Japan Only)
Launch Title: Virtual On: Cyber Troopers (SAT)

 

For those who were gaming in the mid to late 90’s, the Sega Saturn is a system that is remembered by some to limited capacity. Though a fascinating system with some great titles, it never garnered the success that the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 found during the same console generation. Issues pertaining to poor business decisions on the part of Sega, the sheer difficulty of software development, a lack of substantial third party support and other related problems hampered the Saturn from being a great video game system.

This is truly unfortunate because there were titles for the Saturn that, in terms of their overall design, were very unique and helped to forge a great identity for the system from a software perspective. This is something that is of the utmost importance for any game platform and is something that even modern game consoles wrestle with. There are plenty of exclusives for the system that differentiate it from most of the games that characterized both the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. One such game is Virtual On: Cyber Troopers.

Virtual On is an important game in the progression of fighting games as a genre because it essentially goes against all the tenants that cemented it in the 3D era of gaming. As a result, this title has aged well because of it. It is essentially a nontraditional fighting game that centers around fast paced action in a 360* battlefield that features bipedal mechas as its combatants. For the time this was what most fans of mecha anime or manga wanted out of a game featuring them.

However, the only aspect of this game that is lacking in the North America version of Virtual On is the controls. It does not take advantage of the Sega 3D controller analogue pad, which is compatible with select Saturn titles. During the time of its initial release the only way to experience Virtual On was with the standard control pad which functioned, but felt a tad clunky at the same time.

Curiously enough the section in the game’s US instruction manual that shows the control pad layout also has a section showing a layout for something called the Sega Saturn Twin Stick controller. The Twin Stick is a peripheral that was designed specifically for the Sega Saturn incarnation of this game. There is even a prompt at the game’s beginning that asks the player which controller he or she wishes to use. This only mystified gamers outside of Japan back then.

Fortunately, through the powers of the modern day internet, we North American gamers can finally learn about this great peripheral. The Twin Stick literally consists of two identical joysticks which are both outfitted with a trigger button as well as a shoulder button. For the sake of fighting game enthusiasts it is important to note that this is a square gate as opposed to an octagonal gate controller. The last thing to add about the controller is that there is a start/pause button on the upper left corner of the controller’s chassis. The build quality of this peripheral is incredibly solid with the sticks and top facing of the frame being constructed from a thick and durable plastic. The bottom facing is a metal slab with rubber nubs attached to prevent the controller from sliding around on surfaces.

 

This is the Sega Saturn Twin Stick in all of its glory.

This is the Sega Saturn Twin Stick in all of its glory.

 

The overall layout mimics that of the arcade fore barer where your Virtual On robots, often referred to as Virtuaroids, partially control like vehicles with dual drive transmission systems (i.e. tanks). The manipulation of both joysticks dictates how your Virtuaroid maneuvers and traverses throughout the battle arena. Pulling the sticks away from one another will make your character jump into the air and pushing them toward each other engages the guard feature for melee combat. Pressing the shoulder buttons with the sticks pointed in the same direction will make your mecha dash in that respective direction. Finally, pressing the trigger buttons will execute attacks. With this controller Virtual On plays exactly like the arcade version with no exceptions. After playing this game with the Twin Stick you will never want to go back to using that standard control pad again. The controls feel visceral, fluent and natural. You actually feel like your are in the cockpit of a giant robot and, simply put, there is nothing quite like it.

If you are interested in acquiring a Virtual On Twin Stick there are a few things you need to know. As mentioned previously, the Twin Stick was never produced or distributed in the United States, so you will have to import this controller straight out of the land of the rising sun. With that, Twin Sticks are pretty expensive and command prices ranging from $80 to $140 when factoring in the initial controller cost coupled with the shipping cost. Also, you do not need to purchase a Japanese Saturn and copy of Virtual On in order to use it. There is no regional lockout protection on peripherals for the Sega Saturn, so you can simply plug your Japanese Twin Stick into a US Saturn without worrying about this potential issue.

The make or break as to whether or not you take the plunge and buy a Twin Stick is the software support for it. As it stands, the only US Saturn title that supports the use of the Twin Stick is Virtual On: Cyber Troopers (of course). However, there are some Japanese only Saturn games that make use of the Twin Stick. You will need to either modify your system’s hardware or use an Action Replay cartridge to play import games. Here is a list of all titles that are compatible with this peripheral:

Virtual On: Cyber Troopers (US/EU/JP)*

Virtual On: Netlink Edition (US/EU/JP)*

Gun Griffon 2 (JP)*

Mobile Suit Gundam Side Story 2 (JP)*

Mobile Suit Gundam Side Story 3 (JP)*

*: To play Saturn games from different regions a hardware or software based modification is required to negate the regional lockout protection feature of the Sega Saturn.

This is a fantastic controller that makes Virtual On play like a dream and the support for a few other games is a plus. Keep in mind that there is a pricey barrier to entry and to play every supported game you will have to do some importing. This alone makes it hard to recommend to just anyone, but if you are an avid fan of Virtual On or mecha anime/manga then you owe to yourself to pick up this controller and fill out your VO experience.

 

 

 

Rating IV-V

Sega Dreamcast Hardware Analysis

Editor’s Note: For the second installment of our Hardware Analysis series we will be looking at the cult favorite Sega Dreamcast

Introduction

Dreamcast Logo

The Sega Dreamcast holds a special place in the heart of many gamers. A truly revolutionary console with features ahead of it’s time and a short but colorful life have left an permanent mark on gaming history. It has the odd distinction of having at the time, the best console launch in history and a very short life of less then three years from it’s Japanese launch in November ’98 to it’s global cancellation in March ’01. The Dreamcast is also notable for being the first major console to have built in online support as well as MMO gaming and being the starting point for many influential titles such as Shenmue and Soul Caliber.

Ultimately what killed the Dreamcast wasn’t any serious hardware flaw or lack of titles, but that it was made obsolete almost overnight by the launch of Sony’s PlayStation 2 which had built in DVD support, something the Dreamcast lacked. Just like with the first PlayStation, Sony had guaranteed their dominance from the start by giving the PS2 true versatility that ensured it would appeal not just to gamers but anyone who wanted an affordable and quality DVD player.

In today’s hardware analysis we dig under the plastic to the bare metal to find out what makes the Dreamcast tick. What made it great and what made it fail. It’s hardware tells an interesting story of hard driving executives, loose lipped suppliers and how to pull of and fail a product launch at the same time.

History

The Dreamcast draws its roots to the failure of its predecessor the Sega Saturn. While the Saturn was a powerful console it suffered from an over complicated architecture with two cpus and video chips that many developers had a hard time working with. On top of that the Saturn also experienced a less than stellar launch which combined with the Genesis add-on debacle (ie: 32x and Mega-CD) greatly damaged Sega’s reputation.

In 1997 former SCEA executive VP Bernie Stolar joined Sega of America as it’s head of product development. By this time the Saturn’s poor performance in the market was solidified. Not only had the PlayStation handily beat it but Nintendo’s N64 had just been released and even though it was far behind Sony, it quickly passed up the failing Saturn. Stolar began working with his bosses in Japan on a replacement for the Saturn that would take back the lead Sega enjoyed in the 16bit era.

As part of this effort, Sega’s president Shoichiro Irimajiri created a secret hardware development team to begin work on the console. The project was so secret that Irimajiri hired Tatsuo Yamamoto from IBM to lead the project. After learning of the project Sega’s own director of hardware development Hideki Sato formed his own team to begin work on a prototype as well. After considering several different processors including IBM’s own PowerPC line, Yamamoto’s team settled on sticking with Hitachi’s Super-H architecture as used in the Saturn. The new console would use an improved Super-H chip called the SH4 and would get its graphics power from a 3dfx Voodoo 2 based GPU. Sato’s proposal was similar to Yamamoto’s in that it also used the new SH4 processor but instead would receive its gpu from a little known company called VideoLogic. 3dfx was a well known graphics card manufacturer in the mid to late 1990’s and alongside ATI and Nvidia was one of most popular suppliers of high end graphics cards for PC gamers at the time. The Voodoo2 was a powerful gpu in 1998, capable of playing the latest PC games such as Quake II at 800×600 which is much higher than what contemporary consoles were capable of. Unfortunately 3dfx leaked their involvement which blew the cover on Sega’s secret project.

The Voodoo2 video card. originally the Dreamcast was set to use a similar GPU.

The Voodoo2 video card. Originally the Dreamcast was set to use a similar GPU.

Sega then backtracked and went with Sato’s design which has been controversial. The Voodoo2 was more powerful than VideoLogic’s PowerVR and was a popular choice with major publisher EA who had invested in 3dfx. Many fans and journalists criticized Sega’s decision which from the outside looked like simple spite towards 3dfx. Whatever the reason, 3dfx did sue Sega who settled for $10.5 million.

Sega moved ahead with Sato’s design and released the Dreamcast in Japan in November of 1998. Initially the Dreamcast was met with lukewarm sales in Japan, but the launch in North America and Europe went much better. In the USA over 300k units were preordered and sold another 500k units in two weeks. This smashed console sales records and looked to be a very promising start for the new console. The launch was also backed with many high quality titles such as Soul Caliber, Marvel v. Capcom and NFL 2k. Bernie Stolar has been credited not just with key features of the console but also with its record breaking launch in North America. Despite success globally the story was not all pleasant. The Dreamcast’s poor performance in Japan meant Sega still had a net loss in sales over $400 million and the announcement and subsequent launch of the PlayStation 2 quickly killed sales and support for the Dreamcast. Even though sales had been increasing since launch, when Sony announced the PlayStation 2 and it’s integrated DVD drive Dreamcast sales plummeted.  Sony was able to repeat the strategy of the PlayStation and pull from their vast resources to produce a console that doubled as the cheapest high quality DVD player on the market, undercutting Sony’s own products. Even with a library of many award winning titles and built in internet capability (something the PS2 lacked) the Dreamcast could not compete and Sega unable to break even on the Dreamcast pulled the plug in March of 2001. Sega would never again produce a home console and would restructure themselves as a game developer while also retaining their profitable arcade business.

System Specifications

The Dreamcast's motherboard.

The Dreamcast’s motherboard.

Specification Shortlist:

  • Hitachi SH-4 CPU 200MHz 360MIPS 1.4GFlops
  • PowerVR2 CLX2 GPU 100MHz 7 million polygons/s
  • 16MB 100MHz SDRAM
  • 8MB 100MHz Video RAM
  • Yamaha AICA sound processor 45MHz

CPU

The Dreamcast uses Hitachi’s SH-4 architecture. After looking at several possible cpu choices Sega ultimately chose the SH-4 due to it’s compatibility with the Saturn’s Sh-2 which helped developers transition as well as their good working relationship with Hitachi.

Superscalar

The Sh-4 incorporates many improvements over the previous SH-2. For starters it is a superscalar design. Superscalar processors are capable of executing two or more instructions at the same time providing a big performance boost. To put this into perspective, Sega’s previous console the Saturn utilized 2 SH-2 processors clocked at 28.6MHz. Each was capable of 28 MIPS or slightly less than one instruction per clock (IPC). The 200MHz SH-4 in the Dreamcast cranks out 360 MIPS or 1.8 IPC. In a best case scenario (which was rarely acheived) the Saturn could peak at 56 MIPS with it’s dual CPU’s. The Dreamcast in raw instruction terms is over 6 times more powerful than the Saturn and 2.8 times more powerful than the N64’s CPU.

FPU

The SH-4 also features a new powerful floating point unit (FPU) which excels at 3D graphics processing. The FPU is capable of 32bit single precision or 64bit double precision operation and has a high bandwidth 128bit bus. In common operation this means the FPU can output 4 concurrent 32bit operations at once. It is capable of 5 million polygons/s on it’s own which further augments the GPU and raises the Dreamcast’s graphics potential.

16bit instructions

While the SH-4 is nominally a 32bit processor it is capable of utilizing 16bit length instructions which take up effectively half the space of 32bit instructions common in competing designs such as the MIPS in the PlayStation 2 or Pentium 3 in the Xbox. This allows for very dense code that not only takes up less space in RAM and storage media but also allows the cache to store more instructions and data for the same size and more instructions and data can be moved faster for a bus of the same size and speed. Unfortunately even with the more efficient cache usage the SH-4 is still cache performance limited. The FPU cannot sustain it’s peak 1.4GFlops for very long because the data cache cannot keep up for more than a few cycles. The sustained maximum FPU performance was thus limited to 900GFlops, roughly 33% lower than its peak.

GPU

The Dreamcast benefits greatly from technological advancements made in Personal Computers between the 5th generation consoles and it’s own release. In the previous generation console makers had to either resort to re-purposing FPU’s for 3D work (with varying degrees of success) or in Nintendo’s case spend millions on custom hardware from SGI the world leader in 3D hardware at the time. When these consoles were developed consumer grade 3D hardware did not exist in any form. PC’s rendered their 3D games in software leveraging their powerful CPU’s to pick up the slack. This was never an option for consoles, a pentium-class CPU in 1994 simply cost too much, put out too much heat and drew too much power for a home console. As a result consoles began to lag behind PC’s in graphical fidelity in the new power thirsty 3D generation. At a time when PC’s were playing games like Quake II at 640×480 and 800×600 the Nintendo 64 was rendering games at 256×224.

By 1997 when Sega was working on the Dreamcast that all had changed. Video card manufacturers such as ATI, Nvidia, 3dfx and more had succeeded in developing their own GPUs capable of putting SGI class power on PC’s.  Sega was able to leverage this new hardware and incorporate it into the Dreamcast for maximum effect.

Specification Shortlist:

  • 100MHz Clock
  • 7 million textured and lit polygons/s
  • 100 Mpixels/s
  • 8MB memory
  • full screen anti-aliasing
  • volumetric effects
  • Alpha Blending
  • Bump Mapping

The VideoLogic PowerVR CLX2 was alone 7 times more powerful than the N64’s custom SGI chip at its theoretical best and even more so in the real world. While not as powerful as the originally intended Voodoo2, the CLX2 was by far the most powerful console GPU at it’s launch in 1998. The added power and, for the time even for PC’s, substantial video memory allowed the Dreamcast to catch up with mainstream PC’s and display games at 640×480 (VGA) natively a first for consoles. The GPU could also depending on how the game was developed be aided by the SH-4’s own substantial FPU to add another 5 million polygon/s performance on top of that. The Launch title SoulCaliber was a rare example of a console port having better graphics than it’s arcade version.

The PowerVR wasn’t just a powerhouse in it’s day, it was also versatile. It supported Microsoft’s DirectX as well as OpenGL 3D APIs which allowed for easier porting of titles such as Unreal Tournament. It also supported switching between triangles, quadrilaterals and polygon strips for its polygonal primitive.

Games like Shenmue showed off the Dreamcast's superior graphics power over previous consoles

Games like Shenmue showed off the Dreamcast’s superior graphics power over previous consoles

Features

The Dreamcast was host to many console firsts that in spite of it’s short life, proved very influential for later consoles. The Dreamcast’s usage of Microsoft’s Windows CE kernel allowed full use of Direct3D and also working support for it’s built in dialup modem and optional LAN adapter for broadband connections. This allowed it to be the first console with built in online play and it even supported a web browser! Many games took advantage of the online play features including Phantasy Star Online, the first console MMORPG and NFL 2K1 was the first console sports game to feature online multiplayer.

Another innovative feature of the Dreamcast was it’s VMU or Visual Memory Unit. It was a hybrid memory card and handheld console that allowed Dreamcast games to host little minigames as well as store save file information. VMUs could also be connected to trade save files and other data. While most games didn’t take full advantage of it VMU-like concepts have reappeared in later consoles such GBA link cable for the Nintendo GameCube which allows a GBA to be used as a controller and second screen for GameCube games in a similar fashion to how a VMU-equipped Dreamcast controller would work.

The Dreamcast also started the trend of consoles evolving from custom chipsets to using off the shelf consumer PC hardware to simplify development and manufacturing. While the Dreamcast’s usage of the PC based PowerVR was modest the GameCube would follow not long after with an ATI derived GPU and the Microsoft Xbox would take it several steps further by consisting entirely of off the shelf PC hardware. In today’s 8th console generation bith the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 utilize consumer PC hardware fully.

Conclusion

For all of its innovative features and great titles the Dreamcast was ultimately a failure. When Sony announced the PlayStation 2 and it’s built in DVD drive Dreamcast sales dried up almost immediately. Paired with the Japanese market losses since day 1 and Sega had to pull the plug. The Dreamcast does live on however, not just in the minds of gamers where it is generally regarded as a major step in console evolution but also in the real world. Many great titles that started on the Dreamcast were later ported or had sequels made on other consoles keeping the franchises alive. When the Phantasy Star Online servers were taken down, fans quickly rallied and put up their own private servers to support the community.  There is also still a thriving development scene and new indie games are produced to this day. The Dreamcast’s story is a heroic end for Sega’s console endeavors. Where they had gone wrong so many times and had lost the market’s confidence, they had won it back with a console done right. Sega had learned their lessons from the 32x and Saturn and men like Bernie Stolar and Shoichiro Irimajiri ensured those mistakes wouldn’t be repeated. For all it did right it was simply a case of your best is not good enough and for that, it will always be remembered.

Game Review: Parasite Eve (PS)

 

Title: Parasite Eve
Developer: Square USA
Publisher: Squaresoft
System: Playstation
Genre: Role playing survival horror
Release Date: September 9, 1998

 

(Editor’s Note: This game was covered using an official copy of Parasite Eve and was played to completion on a stock North American Sony Playstation console both owned by the reviewer.)

 

Parasite Eve is certainly a fascinating experiment in role playing gaming that tries to combine real time and turn based RPG game play into one playable horror themed experience. This title is one that treads in territory that its developer, Squaresoft, has seldom ventured. Based on and also being a sequel to a preexisting intellectual property, Parasite Eve is both a truly engrossing experience and an excellent licensed game that is sometimes debated to be better that the original work in which it is based on. With an amazing hybrid combat system, a chilling soundtrack, solid visuals and a well paced story it is easy to see why this title works more than it does not. While being immersive, problems like inconsistency, trouble with discerning interactive objects and lack of difficulty may make some gamers shy away from this game. However, these blemishes fail to keep this game from being a refreshing take on RPG conventions as well as a game that has aged very well because of it.

Unlike most Japanese style role playing games that take place in completely fabricated fantasy worlds, Parasite Eve takes place in the Manhattan area of New York in the respective year in which this game was developed. Even though this game happens in the present time there is a heavy sci fi influence that permeates the game’s plot. The only playable character during the course of the game is Aya Brea, a NYPD officer. After an incident at an opera house in Soho, she has obtained uncanny powers through the mitochondria in her cells. Some mutation or strand of evolution in the mitochondria has contributed to the mutation of any organisms. It is up to Aya to investigate and solve this case to protect New York and the world from a devastating outbreak of destruction.

The graphical presentation of Parasite Eve is much like that of Final Fantasy VII with its use of polygonal characters in pre rendered 3D backgrounds and foregrounds. However, the big innovation in this formula is that, for the first time, the characters are proportionate to their surroundings. This applies both with exploration and combat, as both occur within the same environmental parameters.

The transitions from exploration to combat sequences happen in a seamless fashion. When traversing an open area of terrain, Aya may randomly encounter one or more enemies. This is where the boundaries between conventional turn based combat and real time action are married together in an interesting yet satisfyingly playable fashion. Like Final Fantasy titles that feature the ATB (Active Time Battle) system, Aya’s time meter fills at a certain pace and she can engage in actions like attacking, using Parasite Energy abilities (This game’s form of magic), using items and switching weapons. Also, the Parasite Energy meter will slowly fill. When attacking, a polygonal bubble appears around Aya indicating the range of attack of her currently equipped weapon and showing red reticles on enemies within range. For the most part it is a solid system that works more than it does not.

Another deviation from the JRPG formula involves the notion of character movement within battle sequences. For once in a role playing game that centers itself around turn based game play Aya can freely move around the battlefield to dodge enemy attacks. This freedom can even be used to doddle long enough to refill the PE meter which is a legitimate tactic to utilize. Aya is not the only one to have freedom of movement; all enemies also move and shuffle throughout the battle scenes. This all comes out to deliver a pretty balanced experience. The only issues concerning combat is that Aya always flinches when hit; this also applies to attacks that inflict little damage. This flinch animation takes enough time for multiple enemies to gang up on Aya. Also, if Aya runs out of ammo while engaging in an attack, she will automatically reload her magazine. While doing this, she cannot move and this reload action cannot be overridden or cancelled. The only way to avoid this is to reload through the inventory menu which can become tedious over time. On the other side of the coin, most ranged enemy attacks can be circumvented almost too easily by moving in right next to the enemy. This applies with all enemies that use ranged attacks. This almost makes the combat a little too easy.

The leveling system is intuitive and combines with the weapon upgrading and the bonus point system to make for a unique character growth experience that allows for a great deal of customization. The leveling system works in a standard fashion with accruing experience points which eventually leads to a level increase. With weapons, the player can use tools to rip the advantageous stat bonuses and/or ability enhancements from select weapons and apply them to new weapons, thus upgrading them for use against more advanced enemies. The list of weapons range from pistols to grenade launchers and these weapon choices offer for many different styles of play. Every time Aya levels up she will be awarded bonus points which can be used to increase attributes pertaining to inventory capacity, ATB meter speed and select attributes of any weapon.

There are elements in this title that are a clear nod to the survival horror genre. Item management is a term that may not be in the vocabulary of most RPG gamers, but it is absolutely imperative in Parasite Eve. Also, the overall tone of the game is uneasy and creepy to say the least. The events that play out and the journey toward discovering the truth behind those events contributes to this theme. There is a sense of sheer isolation in most of the locations in the game. The soundtrack adds a feeling of foreboding and impending dread that permeates the atmosphere in a powerful way that one would not expect from a RPG.

One thing to note about the game’s story is that is spans across six days. With this in mind, Parasite Eve is a short game compared its peers in the genre during this era of gaming; almost too short for the time. However, it is fair to say that it is a perfect RPG for anyone who does not wish to get embroiled in a 60+ hour experience or maybe does not have the time to devote to such a lengthy game. For those who are looking for extra content, this title has an extended mode that allows you to visit a couple new locations, which also segues into a scenario that holds the true ending for the game.

Though Parasite Eve is a shorter role playing experience, this allows for dialogue that is well written and meticulously crafted. It does not hinge on overly drawn out dialogue sections or convoluted flashback sequences to flesh out the characters. It instead uses conversational dialogue to get these key pieces of information across. With this, the pace of the game is very smooth. The only exceptions to this are the beginning of the second day and the museum section of the fourth day. However, these are fairly minor issues in an otherwise cohesive game.

Parasite Eve is truly something special. The marrying of real time and turn based combat emerges as an entertaining and surprisingly functional combination. The survival horror inspirations are present and the atmosphere presented complements this creative impetus in spades. The visuals are nice, the proportional characters are a plus and the overall experience has a high level of polish. If you are a seasoned game player who is fascinated with both role playing and horror themed games, then chances are that you will definitely enjoy this amalgamation that is Parasite Eve.

 

 

Rating IV-V

Solid State Romcast: The 7-20-14 Show

Jon, Matt and Durrty come out of the woodwork for an encore performance on the Romcast. The Solid State Gamer entourage busts right into the allegations of Crytek’s financial woes as well as the loss of two veterans from the Germany based development studio. Could this be the end for a proven company with a solid pedigree? Will the Homefront sequel be joystick compatible like the latest Podcast Creator Simulator? We consult our Eastern connection for more details into the business side of things and hypothesize what could be in store for both Crytek and ID Software (the benefactor of this defection). After that, the three caballeros discuss the mega publishers and smaller players of the world and the notion of the slippery slope of success. Sheisty practices like hollow lawsuits, day one DLC, microtransactions, monopolistic tactics and other such offenses are exposed in this segment. Which publishers are the worst offenders? Tune in to find out. Lastly, at the roundtable the crew looks back on the history of the home computer revolution and discuss how they came about and why they do not exist anymore. Closing it out strong there is fool talk about how Megarace is superior to Halo, the Megarace reboot that is totally happening and Jon’s flashy blue corduroy Marty McFly vest.


Solid State Romcast – Solid State Romcast 7-20-14 Show

Be sure to drop us a line at our E-mail address: solidstateromcast@gmail.com. As always, thanks for listening and stayed tuned for the next installment!

 

Solid State Romcast Crew:

Jon “San Juan” Rivera – Host

Matt “Off” White – Cohost

Richard “Durrty” Hunt – Eastern Connection

 

Music Credit:

Introduction Theme – Car Jack [2011 version] by Electric Children

Interlude No. 1 – Unknown Track A by ???

Interlude No. 2 – Unknown Track B by ???

Roundtable Theme – Pumped by RoccoW

Resolution Theme – Skip Sandwich DX By Electric Children

PlayStation Versus N64: A Hardware Analysis

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of in-depth hardware based articles that will hopefully serve to educate gamer’s on the inner workings of consoles

Introduction

The Nintendo 64 and the Sony PlayStation one of the best revenge sagas in video game history. For those who are old enough to remember the rivalry was fought on the battleground of 3D graphics. For the first time since the 1980’s video game consoles once again became truly revolutionary in their capabilities and feature sets. The multimedia capabilities of the PlayStation introduced a new aspect of gaming that many now take for granted.

The story begins in the late 1980’s with Nintendo attempting to create an effective disc based solution for their home consoles. Nintendo followed Sega’s lead and contacted Sony to help develop such a solution. Now at this point the story gets a little foggy, there are two popular versions to this. The first states that Sony was merely making the CD addon for the SNES/Super Famicom and Nintendo was put off by how much control Sony wanted. The second version states that Sony intended to make the PlayStation from the get go and wanted it to also be compatible with SNES cartridges. Whatever actually happened we do know that at CES 1991 Sony was showing off their partnership with Nintendo for the SNES CD attachment when Nintendo Chairman Howard Lincoln came on stage for the keynote speech and announced a new partnership with Phillips, completely disregarding prior agreements with Sony and publicly embarrassing them.

SNES CD

A magazine scan of the proposed SNES CD

 

From there Sony and Nintendo developed their own consoles and we arrive at the PlayStation and N64 that we know today. Both consoles had strengths and weaknesses and the ability to harness the hardware paired with developer support and market realities would ultimately determine their fate.

 

PlayStation prototype

The original SNES-compatible PlayStation prototype

PlayStation Hardware Overview

 

The PlayStation use nominally lower performance hardware than the N64 but was thoroughly designed and had access to dedicated sound and video chips enabling CD quality audio and hardware level H.261 decoding which allowed  for their full use in games with low overhead while at the same time increasing the PlayStation’s inherent multimedia capabilities.

A US model PlayStation

A US model PlayStation

 

Hardware Shortlist:

  • 33.8Mhz MIPS R3000a CPU
  • 2Mb SDRAM system memory
  • “Geometry Transform Engine” GPU 180,000 textured polygons per second
  • MDEC image and video hardware decoder, native H.261 decoding
  • Sound Processor 44.1Khz sampling, CD-quality audio
  • 2x CD-ROM drive
  • 128Kb Memory card support
PS CPU

The PlayStation’s CPU which integrated the processor, GPU and MDEC

While theoretically less powerful than both the Sega Saturn and N64, the PlayStation’s architecture was far simpler than either. It featured a single cpu as opposed to the Saturn’s dual cpu’s and a unified memory architecture, something the N64 lacked. Because of this and the dedicated video decoder and sound chip the PlayStation was relatively easy to program for and could harness full motion video and high quality audio with little system overhead. This allowed for the PlayStation to run games that matched or even exceed in graphics quality and feature set of the N64 despite it’s lower performance.

Gran Turismo featured impressive graphics, a real soundtrack and FMV sequences.

Gran Turismo 2 featured impressive graphics, a real soundtrack and FMV sequences.

 

The PlayStation did however have limitations. Due to the primitive nature of its GPU the PlayStation suffered from z-ordering issues as well as annoying texture “jiggle”. Some of these issues were resolved with the PlayStation Performance Analyzer. However graphical problems would remain to plague the PlayStation throughout it’s life in spite of developer’s best efforts.

 

Nintendo 64 Hardware Overview

 

Given Nintendo’s abrupt break from their partnership with Sony they had to completely redo their future console strategy. With such a monumental task ahead of them, it’s no surprise that the N64 was released a full two years after the Saturn and PlayStation. Nintendo’s strategy was to strike back with superior hardware which at least on paper, they did. The end result was a strange combination of good and bad hardware. The processor, for example, was also a MIPS based unit but more advanced using the MIPS III architecture (as opposed to the MIPS I in the PlayStation’s cpu) and was fully 64bit. The GPU was also considerably more advanced. The Reality Co-Processor as it was known, was developed by SGI for Nintendo. This was a very big deal at the time. In the 90’s SGI was synonymous with the cutting edge of 3D technology, and having real SGI tech on the console gave it a considerable lead over competitors. (The PlayStation did incorporate some SGI designed logic however it was not to the same level as that of the N64)

A US market N64 in "Jungle green". The N64 had many colors and special editions.

A US market N64 in “Jungle green”. The N64 had many colors and special editions.

Hardware Shortlist:

  • NEC VR4300 cpu (MIPS R4300i based) clocked at 93.75Mhz
  • RCP (Reality Co-Processor) SGI developed GPU 1 million polygons per second theoretical. 62.5Mhz
  • 4 MB (expandable to 8Mb) RDRAM system memory
  • Cartridge based games 64Mb maximum

 

The N64's powerful MIPS CPU (left) and ambitious but flawed RCP (right)

The N64’s powerful MIPS CPU (left) and ambitious but flawed RCP (right)

 

While the N64 had some impressive specifications compared to the PlayStation and Saturn on paper, the reality was much different. The RCP, while a very advanced design for 1996, had a serious crutch in that it only had 4Kb of texture memory (compared to the PlayStation which had 1Mb of dedicated video memory, a variable amount could be dedicated to textures). This meant that developers had to make serious concessions in texture design. Two common solutions were to either tile small textures across a surface or resort to Gouraud shading of polygons instead of proper textures. Many games (Mario 64 being an example) used Gouraud shading heavily to make up for a lack of texturing. This contributed to the cartoony look of many N64 titles as opposed to a more realistic look of competing PlayStation games. Gouraud shading is a shading technique used in 3D games that allows light to be properly rendered on models. It is not the same as texturing, it is a shader, however in the case of the N64 solid color textures with heavy Gouraud shading are used to create the illusion of detail when textures cannot be used.

Mario 64 made heavy use of Gouraud shading to make up for the lack of texture cache

Mario 64 made heavy use of Gouraud shading to make up for the lack of texture cache

The issues were not limited to the texture cache. The RCP also lacked DMA which means that in order to access system memory it had to go through the cpu in order to do so. RDRAM was at the time some of the fastest memory available but it also suffered from heavy latency, by forcing the RCP to go through the CPU for memory access the CPU had to quickly switch back and forth from RCP requests to it’s own memory needs which exacerbated the heavy latency and defeating the benefit of such high bandwidth. The RCP was also featured reprogrammable microcode, a nice feature on paper but the stock Nintendo-supplied microcode, known as Fast3D, was intended more for high precision 3D modeling and not raw performance. Estimations show that using the supplied microcode and conventional programming models, the RCP was only capable of 100,000 polygons per second. That is 1/10th the theoretical power that Nintendo promised. Nintendo did not supply developer tools for modifying the RCP’s microcode until later in the N64’s life which meant many titles were poorly optimized for the hardware and didn’t take full advantage of it. Studios like Factor 5 and Rare persevered and created their own custom microcode that allowed the RCP’s true potential to be unlocked. Games such as Factor 5’s Star Wars: Rogue Squadron feature a draw distance unseen in other titles.

The other major disadvantage was obviously the use of cartridges when the rest of the industry had moved on to CD-ROM technology. CD-ROMs first arrived in 1988 with the creation of the yellowbook standard which extended the previous redbook CD Digital Audio standard to create CD-ROMs for computer data. By the early 1990’s they were beginning to appear in Consumer Pc’s, often bundled with sound cards capable of CD quality audio. This is how I came to own my first CD drive actually. In the early 90’s I installed a Sound Blaster pro on my 486 which included a Panasonic 2x drive.  CD’s have many advantages over traditional cartridge storage, not only are they considerably cheaper than rom based cartridges, they also hold much more data. Both the PlayStation and Saturn use CD’s which at the time maxed out at 650Mb’s per disc. The N64’s carts on the other hand peaked at 64Mb’s. The limited capacity and high cost of N64 carts made a very noticeable difference to consumers. First, the higher quality audio and full motion video which were both used by the Saturn and PlayStation had to be cut from many N64 titles due to storage constraints. This is very noticeable on cross-platform titles such as Resident Evil 2 where the sound track was of lower quality, the pre-rendered backgrounds were lower in detail and the FMVs showed higher compression. N64 titles also cost on average $10 more than competing titles on PC or console.

System Faceoff

When comparing the real world market performance between the two the PlayStation easily destroys the N64 with over 100 million consoles sold compared to around 30 million for the N64. In the content department the PlayStation wins again with over 1100 titles released during its heyday and a staggering 7918 titles after it was discontinued. The N64 had 387 games, not only much less than the PlayStation but also less than half  the size of the SNES and NES libraries. The N64’s best selling game, Mario 64 did out sell the PlayStation’s best title Gran Turismo by roughly 1 million units but it was often bundled with the N64 in many markets whereas Gran Turismo was not bundled with the PlayStation.

 

So why did Nintendo lose out so badly in this generation? Well, for a lot of reasons. The PlayStation came out 2 years before the N64 which meant it had an early start but by the time the N64 did come out Sony was an established name to gamers and had released several highly acclaimed titles. Sony also developed a successful strategy that they have stuck with since; The PlayStation is not a one trick pony, it is a true multimedia device and doubles as a high quality CD player. Sony was already well respected in the home theater industry with TV’s, VCR’s and sound systems as well as their popular Walkman and Discman portable cassette and cd players. The PlayStation’s low cost and good audio quality made it one of the better deals on the market if you were looking for a CD player. The PlayStation also had games, lots of them. Nintendo had alienated many third party developers during the 8 and 16bit eras and when Sony announced the PlayStation, many such as Square, Enix, Capcom, Konami fled en masse to the PlayStation. Nintendo was left with fewer third party partners and no matter how good a system may be, if it does not have content it will fail. Nintendo was not fully without support and developers such as Rare and Factor 5 did make great games such as GoldenEye 007 and Star Wars Episode 1: Battle for Naboo. The majority of quality N64 titles were developed in house by Nintendo using existing franchises though and by the time Nintendo had grown their library to an acceptable level they found Sony and Sega had both moved on and were releasing 6th generation consoles.

Conclusion

So where do we stand with these two iconic machines? On one side we have the PlayStation, a well designed system with balanced hardware and great support from Sony and it’s developers and on the other the Nintendo 64, a machine with a world beating core architecture and promises to match that came out too late and had too many inherent flaws to overcome. The Sony/Nintendo saga is not simply a good story in the halls of gaming history but it is also a lesson in never creating enemies from friends and to never arrogantly rest on your laurels while the world passes you on. Nintendo went from clearly dominating the industry with the NES and a fierce console war with Sega in the 16bit era to holding less than a quarter of the market with the N64.

Nintendo had dropped the ball and were playing a game of catch up once again with the GameCube releasing a full year after the PlayStation 2 in Japan and the US and two years late in Europe and Australia. Many of the same problems, poor media choice and no third party developers, hurt the GameCube as well and Nintendo slid from being a firm second in the console wars to third, a position they have never recovered from.

Game Review: Enemy Zero (SAT)

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Title: Enemy Zero
Platform: Sega Saturn
Developer: Warp Inc. (Kenji Eno)
Publisher: Sega Japan
Release Date: October 31, 1997

 

(Editor’s Note: This game was covered using an official copy of Enemy Zero and was played to completion on a stock North American Sega Saturn console both owned by the reviewer.)

 

Survival horror is a very fascinating genre in the game industry and is one that takes on many forms. There are many franchises that have reached critical acclaim in this genre with the Resident Evil (Biohazard in Japan) series being a perfect example of this. Alone in the Dark and Silent Hill are also great examples of survival horror gaming. These series have seemed to overshadow some titles that take on the same mechanical and thematic formula and have perhaps done so to a higher degree. One such title is Enemy Zero and the D series from which it belongs to. This game is by far one of the most woefully underrated games in the genre. Solid storytelling, innovative mechanics and immensely challenging combat put Enemy Zero head and shoulders above its peers of the genre in the 32-Bit era of gaming.

Enemy Zero takes place in the future where space travel is commonplace. The universe of this game is easily comparable to that of the Alien films first envisioned by Ridley Scott. You play the role of Laura Louis, the co-pilot of the space exploratory vessel named ‘The Aki’. You are jolted prematurely from your cryogenic slumber when the ship goes into its emergency mode because of an unauthorized breach by an unknown organism. With this security threat it is up to Laura to locate all crew members and deal with the invisible alien threat and survive.

The game play of Enemy Zero is broken up into two core disciplines. the first is FMV (full motion video) based. Whenever Laura is in a specific room, as opposed to being in hallways and corridors, the game uses FMVs to display these rooms from various perspectives. When in this mode, Laura can move forward and can rotate left and right. Pressing the left or right shoulder buttons access Laura’s inventory which will fill with an assortment of items as the game progresses. The ‘A’ button is used to investigate certain things that the character can possibly interact with or acquire. Another feature that can be accessed only when exploring certain rooms is the save game function. Other uses of FMV include the cut scenes that are littered throughout the experience. All the full motion video graphics are done especially well for the time and all the environments are reminiscent of what anyone would expect the interior of a science fiction space vessel to look like.

The other core competency of Enemy Zero is traversing through the large mazes of hallways and corridors while trying to fend off the invisible enemy and find the remaining crew. As mentioned before, these areas are played in real time and not with pre-rendered full motion video. Most of these labyrinths are very dark and have many twists and turns. Enemy aliens wander all about these areas trying to find any humans to kill. Since these creatures are completely invisible you cannot rely on vision to combat enemies. Instead, the player is forced to rely on a tracking system that only uses sound to indicate an organism’s whereabouts. depending on the pitch of and pauses between the tones signify what direction an enemy is coming from as well as how close it is to the player. During most of the game Laura has a gun she can use to kill enemies before they catch her.

It is very important to note that Enemy Zero is by no means an easy game. Even though you are able to combat these aliens it is a rather difficult undertaking. The first thing that makes this game unforgiving is the inability to see your enemy. What is worse is that getting caught by an enemy means instant death. Gun play is also a dicey proposition. Most of these weapons have three or four shots at the most and all guns take three seconds to charge in order to fire. If you charge them for too long they will fizzle out. The most unforgiving aspect of combat is that the guns fire at an extremely short range and require you to be just a few feet from the enemy in order to land a successful shot. A redeeming quality to this combat is that the enemies die with a single shot. If in any case you fall victim to an alien you can reload a saved game, but it comes at price.

The device used to record game progress has limited battery power. Saving and loading game data uses up some power. This means that a game can only be loaded so many times before the device dies. When it does you have to start the game from the beginning. This is a game that is challenging by design and is not difficult to a fault for the most part. However, there are a couple of things in Enemy Zero that are irritating for all the wrong reasons. The first puzzle ever encountered in the game has no explanation as to how to solve it. The game simply expects you to guess the solution. While it is able to be solved, it will stump many because it has no explanation. This is not the best way to start any game and may be a turn off to some game players. Another detracting area of the game is the sheer linearity of the story coupled with forced story progression. Just to clarify, there is nothing terrible about the game’s story. This being said, the story only moves forward in certain areas or requires one particular action. Most of the time only one action can trigger the story’s progression and finding it may be confusingly difficult. Eventually, most will find these triggers to move the story progression, but will have to eliminate every possibility just to do so which can be a waste of time and can take the player out of the game.

To push the game forward Enemy Zero uses cut scenes which occur at pivotal moments in the game or when the player makes important discoveries. While the CG and voice acting are both par for the course for the time, the characters are well animated. Laura is especially believable as a human being just because of how she reacts to important happenings during the course of the game’s story. This game has its fair share of shocking moments that will change what you initially understood about the situation and the circumstances surrounding it. While the story is not anything particularly original it is expertly told. Another aesthetic element in this game that heightens the overall experience is the music. Composed by Micheal Nymen ( ‘The Piano’ and ‘Gattaca’), the soundtrack of Enemy zero has many memorable melodies that will stick in your mind well after playing. The sound design is superb and tends to complement the game design and helps to give the corridor traversing sections the sense of uneasiness and tension.

Even though the graphics are quite good, the game unfortunately does not take full use of the entire television screen. Instead, it crops roughly twenty percent of the video buffer in order to display both the FMV and real time 3D sequences at a consistent frame rate. However, that is the only thing that detracts from the game and is really a minor blemish on an otherwise beautiful experience.

It is hard to deny that Enemy Zero is a very unique piece of survival horror gaming. It is an interesting blend of real time action and FMV exploration that works surprisingly well. However, the sheer difficulty of the game makes it hard to recommend to everyone and it is probably for that reason that this game has fallen into obscurity. Even so, if you are a survival horror game veteran then you owe it to yourself to play Enemy Zero and take on this truly terrifying and tension riddled experience.

 

 

Rating IV-V

Solid State Romcast: The 7-13-14 Show

The Solid State Romcast is finally back from the dead as Jon Rivera joins up with Matt Off White and Durrty Hunt to bring it all back! The crew delves into Nintendo’s Wii U predicament with its anaemic sales as well as poor launch and speculate what the future holds for the floundering system. Some more light is shed on the not so volumetric fallout surrounding Watch Dogs in the wake of its release and address problems concerning the dwarfed graphics, framerate bombs and the presence of “E3” graphics in the PC Version coupled with Ubisoft’s attempted cover up of the situation. Lastly, at the round table the crew discusses fundamental differences in design and formulaic tropes between Eastern and Western developed role playing games and how they fall into the “anals” of gaming history… Welcome to the new and improved Solid State Romcast, where everybody gets one.


Solid State Romcast – Solid State Romcast 7-13-14 Show

Be sure to drop us a line at our E-mail address: solidstateromcast@gmail.com. As always, thanks for listening and stayed tuned for the next installment!

 

Solid State Romcast Crew:

Jon “San Juan” Rivera – Host

Matt “Off” White – Cohost

Richard “Durrty” Hunt – Eastern Connection

 

Music Credit:

Introduction Theme – Car Jack [2011 version] by Electric Children

Interlude No. 1 – Unknown Track A by ???

Interlude No. 2 – Unknown Track B by ???

Roundtable Theme – Fuckaboing by RoccoW

Resolution Theme – Skip Sandwich DX By Electric Children