Opinion: Hardware vs. Emulation

One of the issues that seems to divide the retro gaming community is around how you actually play old games: on original hardware or via emulation on more modern devices? To me, there are pros and cons of each.

On the one hand, purists argue that original hardware is the only way to go. It ensures a faithful recreation of the original experience and delivers the game as it was meant to be played.

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. Playing with the original hardware really does transport you back. Listening to the beeps of a tape loading; the whirring of a disk; holding that ancient Quickshot joystick or Mega Drive pad: these things recreate formative childhood and adolescent experiences. It is retro gaming at its finest.

At the same time, though, it is fraught with difficulties. Getting old machines to work with modern TVs is not always easy and requires all sorts of adapters and cables to get the machines talking to each other. Even though these things can be bought (or made) pretty cheaply, it’s still a bit of a faff.

Then there’s the fact that much of this technology is now way beyond the lifespan ever envisioned for it. Britain’s two favourite 8 bit computers – the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum – are getting on for 35 years old and, inevitably, bits start to fail. If you’re like me – a complete dunce when it comes to repairs – that can mean Game Over (although the ever-helpful retro community is filled with people who will fix your machines for a pretty low price if they can).

There are some more practical issues, too. I’d love to re-purchase every system I’ve ever owned (and many I’d have liked to have owned but couldn’t afford) but have neither the space nor the finances to do it. Mrs RetroReactiv8 is pretty long-suffering, but she already thinks I have “enough games machines” and my collection currently only consists of a Wii, PS3, Vita, DS, PC, Amiga, Mega Drive and Dingoo A330. Goodness knows what she’d think if I added a C64, Spectrum, SNES, GameCube, Dreamcast (and many others). I suspect she might seriously think about a visit to a good divorce lawyer!

Then there’s the cost. Sadly, as these machines start to break down, get thrown out or sit unused in lofts; as tapes and disks start to degrade, they kit and software becomes harder to get hold of and the cost of ownership is starting to rise dramatically. Whilst there are plenty of sites offering titles at more affordable prices (rather than Ebay’s ULTRA MEGA RARE!!!! listings), you’re still going to need pretty deep pockets if you want to build up the sort of collection I had when I was a kid.

So, original hardware is great, but expensive to acquire and maintain. What about emulation then?

On the face of it, this seems like the perfect solution. Playing old games on modern hardware is not exactly technically demanding and even the most ancient of laptops should be able to run most emulators and software. Thanks to the internet, games are usually easy to access and download (some legally, others of more debatable origin), whilst the idea of emulators is that  they do all the hard work of getting the game up and running for you, leaving you to enjoy it.

The reality, however, is somewhat different. Emulators are not always that straightforward to run. Getting games to work properly can require a lot of tweaking of settings and if (like me) you don’t really know what you’re doing, it can be confusing and frustrating. Equally, it can be time consuming. Many is the time that I’ve sat down to play an emulated game, only to find that it’s taken me so long to get it working that by the time I have, I’ve not actually got any time left to play the damn thing.

Playing modern games on new tech also doesn’t feel quite right. Playing C64 games with a laptop trackpad mouse doesn’t feel as tactile as using the original hardware and somehow diminishes the overall experience. I recently bought an Xbox 360 controller to replicate the experience a little more faithfully, but even this doesn’t feel absolutely right – particularly for games that were originally designed for a two-button joystick. Then, of course, for more complex games, you’ve got all the hassle of trying to map all the controller buttons so that they work. Again, by the time I’ve got this sorted, it’s usually time to pack up and go to bed!

Finally, there are rights issues. I’ve already touched on the dubious legality of some software and, depending on your viewpoint, this might be a barrier. A few companies  have designated some of their old titles Abandonware or Freeware, meaning they can be downloaded and played with the company’s full blessing. Most software, however, is still technically copyrighted, with who owns the rights lost in a maze of IP, ceased companies, new companies, bought out companies, asset sales and so on. Whilst you could argue that downloading a 30 year old computer game is low-risk (compared with, say, illegally downloading modern music or films) it is technically on the same level. As rights holders start to realise the value of some of the older IPs they hold, they may start to more actively protect it.

Essentially, whichever way you cut it, it’s a tricky issue. Boiling it down to a very simple level, you can either break the bank or break the law!

Without wanting it to sound like a cop-out, which route you take is ultimately down to you and your circumstances. In an ideal world, I’d own the original hardware for all the systems I’m interested in. Sadly, cost and space prevent me from doing this, so emulation offers the next best thing. OK, the emulation experience isn’t quite the same, but it’s a practical trade-off that ensures I can keep going with my hobby, whilst keeping both my wife and bank manager happy!

Hidden Gems: System 15000 (Commodore 64) review

system_15000 box

Around the mid-80s, hacking became cool. War Games was released in cinemas in 1983, followed by Activision’s imaginatively titled Hacker on home computers in 1985. Neatly sandwiched in between them is the lesser known System 15000, released by A.V.S in 1984.

Of these entries, System 15000 is one of the more realistic portrayals of hacking. It casts you in the role of a hacker (what else?) charged with retrieving £1.5 million dollars of a friend’s money which has been stolen by an unscrupulous company. To retrieve the money, you will need to hack into various computer systems to find it and restore it to its rightful owner. This is not going to be easy, since your only clue is a phone number and an entry code. Better crank that modem up.

When it comes to presentation, System 15000 is never going to win any awards. Taking its cue from the early online systems, graphics (bar a few logos and teletext style pages) are virtually non-existent, with most screens limited to basic menu-driven screens which give you information that might be helpful in your quest.

system_15000 main screen

Graphically, this is about as exciting as it gets!

 

Sound is similarly basic, limited to simple beeps imitating old telephone dialling tones and modem signals. It is not a game that is going to instantly appeal to most gamers; with its lack of presentation, obscure gameplay, absence of action and relative paucity of information on what you are meant to do, it does its best to put most people off.

Persevere, though, and you find one of the most gripping and atmospheric games I have ever encountered. From a gameplay genre perspective, it’s essentially a text-based adventure based around hacking. Hacking into various systems will give you little scraps of information (a phone number here, a password there, a company name). Your job is to piece all of these bits together and use them to hack into new systems, which will uncover further information and allow you to make progress. Like adventure games, there is a lot of trial and error (trying different passwords with different systems) and quite a bit of frustration. At times, progress can seem incredibly slow and then you will seem to make several breakthroughs all at once, making all that blundering around worthwhile.

Written down, this maybe still sounds pretty dull; in fact it is highly compelling. Each time you dial a new number and try out a password, there is a tense wait to see if you can get access. Even getting connected takes a while, and all this builds the tension. When you do get through, there is a real sense of euphoria, followed instantly by curiosity as you dig around to see what you can find. There is frustration as systems throw you out and occasional scares as the systems scan for intruders and threaten to disable you and report your activities to the police. The further you get into the game, the more determined you are to succeed, and the higher the stakes become. Not bad for something rendered almost entirely in text (and in the BBC and Spectrum versions, entirely in BASIC)

I don’t think I ever actually completed the whole game because I eventually came up against a brick wall and couldn’t get any further. However, whilst it lasted, I found it a compelling, tense and very different game and on returning to it recently, it had lost none of its appeal.

Perhaps because of its lack of graphics and sound, System 15000 still stands up well today. In today’s age of cybersecurity, the hacking theme resonates whilst the core gameplay is as compelling and tension-filled as ever. Like adventure games, it will appeal to those who like a more cerebral challenge to shooting endless waves of aliens.

If you fancy playing it, it’s well worth tracking down. Just one word of advice: write down everything you see. You never know when one of those seemingly random notes might just be the password to a system you are trying to hack…

David Pleasance: Commodore Kickstarter campaign

As you undoubtedly already know, Commodore found massive success in the 8 and 16 bit eras, before crashing spectacularly in the mid 1990s. As a massive Commodore fan (my earliest computers were a C64 and successive Amigas), I still remember the shock as I read the news of their financial problems and ultimate bankruptcy in the magazines of the day.

Anyone who read those magazines will be instantly familiar with the name and face of David Pleasance, then Managing Director of Commodore UK, and the man who fought (ultimately in vain) a campaign to keep the Commodore brand and machines alive (in the UK at least). Pleasance was one of the few people who actually tried to keep Commodore users informed during this tumultuous period and as such (in my eyes at least) has always gone down as one of the good guys of gaming.

As someone with a 12 year career at Commodore, Pleasance is well-placed to know what went on and he has recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to write a book supplying the inside story. Cunningly called Commodore: the Inside Story, it promises to be a fascinating insight into just what went wrong with one of the early industry’s most recognisable brands. If Pleasance delivers on his promise to be open and honest, name and shame and make sure that “THE TRUTH COMES OUT”, then this should make for an interesting read.

The good news is that the campaign is already fully funded with 26 days still left. It’s also backed by FusionRetro Books who have an excellent track record in producing high quality, interesting retro gaming titles. As such, the risk of this project not happening is pretty low.

So, if you want to find out the truth behind Commodore’s spectacular fall, then head on over to Kickstarter and back this title.

Sensible Software 1986-1999 by Gary Penn [Book Review]

sensible-software-logo

Readers of a certain age will get a warm glow on hearing the name “Sensible Software”. From the late 80s-mid 90s, you could pretty much buy any Sensible game, secure in the knowledge that you would be buying a good quality (often slightly quirky) game.

Sensible’s bizarre budget take on Galaxians – Galax-i-Birds – was one of my more leftfield choices in my Top 10 C64 games post. Knocked out in just a couple of weeks by the sickeningly talented duo of “Jovial Jops” (Jon Hare) and “Cuddly Chrix” (Chris Yates), if this been their only release Sensible would be little more than a footnote to gaming history. However, they were also the brains behind some of the most recognisable titles of the 8 and 16 bit era, including Wizball, Parallax, Cannon Fodder and, of course, Sensible Soccer. This book, written by ex-Zzap!64 writer/editor and released by Read Only Memory books charts their rise and fall.

The book looks at each of Sensible’s major games (including those which were never completed or released) which gives the book a logical (Sensible?) chronological approach helping you to understand how the company developed. It’s mainly a two way interview cum conversation between Penn and Sensible co-founder Jon Hare. The two have clearly been good friends since the Zzap!/Sensible days, and this comes across in the text, but is actually both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, there is clearly a level of trust which results in a very open, honest and affable account. On the other hand, there were times when it felt a little bit too cosy – as though you were eavesdropping on a private conversation between two mates down at the pub. As such, the reader can sometimes feel a little excluded.

The Q&A format does make for a very readable book. It is never less than entertaining and frequently revealing and informative. Hare is an engaging interviewee and it’s interesting to read his thoughts on Sensible almost 20 years after it closed its doors (can it really be that long??!!). Whilst seasoned retro gamers will have heard some of the anecdotes before, plenty of new material is brought to light or certain aspects are covered in considerably more depth than in your average magazine article or webpage interview. I particularly enjoyed reading about the games that never were (particularly “Have a Nice Day” and of course, the infamous “Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll”) and seeing some screenshots from those games which I’d never seen before.

Speaking of screenshots, how good is the artwork in this book? With pages and pages of full colour, glossy photos taken from Sensible’s full catalogue of games (released and unreleased) together with various design documents that Hare has dug out of storage, it’s a real feast for the eyes. True, I’d have preferred the pictures to be interspersed throughout the text (they are all presented together at the end of the book); partly to break up the text, partly so that the screenshots sat with the games under discussion, but this is a personal thing. What’s not up for debate is how great those sprites still look, even in today’s world of photorealistic graphics.

Although Gary Penn was a hero of mine growing up (which of us didn’t want to be a reviewer for one of the Newsfield mags?), there were times when I found his style a little irritating. Sometimes his use of language felt a little too self-consciously “hip”, as if he’s still trying to get “down wiv da kids”, even if “da kids” in question are now mostly be in their mid-late 40s. In fairness, this could well be his normal style of speech (he was always an outspoken and enthusiastic individual), but there were times when it felt a little contrived. There’s also a fair amount of bad language, some of which felt unnecessary. I’m certainly no prude and I accept that this is probably a verbatim transcript of what was actually said, but there were times where the language could easily have been edited out, without having any impact on the overall sentiments expressed.

The book scores highly for being a warts and all account of the Sensible years. Hare is open about Sensible’s successes and his (and the company’s mistakes); and about the things that he would do differently with the benefit of hindsight and greater experience. This is no whitewashing of Sensible’s History, but an at times painfully honest appraisal of the company’s highs and lows.

Where it falls down a little is that, for the most part, it offers a single perspective: that of Jon Hare. True, there are probably around 20 other contributors with connections to Sensible (including collaborators, publishers and competitors such as Stoo Cambridge, Chis Chapman, Gary Bracey and the Bitmap Brothers,), but the majority of the content is provided by Hare. And for all his honest about the Sensible years, you have to recognise that other people’s recollections of those same events might be very different – either because they remember them differently, or because they experienced them at a different level. So, whilst this is certainly not a whitewashing of Sensible’s history, it is mostly a single perspective. In particular, the voice of Sensible Co-founder Chris Yates (who apparently isn’t interested in being involved in these things) is missing. As such, the book is perhaps more A history of Sensible Software, rather than THE history.

But don’t let that dissuade you from buying this book. It is a comprehensive, honest, entertaining and informative look at one of the most quintessentially (or “quintessensibly” as the book would have it) British software houses of the 80s and 90s. As a massive fan of Sensi’s output over the years, I found it a fascinating read and anyone with an interest in old games will too.

Sensible Software 1986-1999 is available from Read Only Memory Books, priced £25.

Is it just me? Confessions of an older gamer

I suspect like many retro gamers, I’m getting on a bit now. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the ZX81 and was a teenager through the glory days of the 8 bit computers. In technology terms, this makes me positively ancient (or “retro” as I like to think of myself!)

So what? You might think. Age is just a number, and anyway, what’s this got to do with old games? Just get on with it, you rambling old fool.

So, let me explain a little further. I’ve noticed recently that my *ahem* “retro” status has started to take its toll on my gaming abilities. Not just the obvious stuff (having to sit nearer to the TV/monitor to read on-screen text or having to have the volume turned up louder); it’s also starting to affect my actual prowess as a gamer.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog that I’ve never been the greatest gamer in the world. The number of games (especially older games) that I’ve been able to beat without resorting to cheats is limited and “competent” is perhaps the kindest way to describe my gaming abilities. Recently, though, I’ve noticed my ability to compete even at this mediocre level is decreasing.

This was brought home forcibly to me when I purchased the rather excellent Humble Bundle Star Wars III package. For the miserly sum of something like £11, I got access to about 14 Star Wars titles from the late 90s/early 2000s (yes, I know I could probably have downloaded them for nothing, but as I’ve said before my piracy days are long behind me and I prefer to have legal copies of my games now, than you very much!)

One of the titles was X-Wing Alliance, a game I bought and loved when it came out in 1999. Back then, I was pretty good at it. Like many games, I don’t think I ever fully completed it, but that was more because I got distracted by another game, rather than because I got stuck. One day, I just moved away from it and somehow never got round to completing it. So, when I downloaded the Humble Bundle deal and installed it, I confidently expected to pick up where I left off.

To start with, everything seemed OK. I didn’t initially have access to the keyboard controls (and there are a lot of them), but I found that I could recall most of the main ones and so leapt straight in . The first couple of missions (essentially training missions) went fine and everything seemed to come flooding back.

Then I reached the first proper combat mission and it all started to go horribly wrong. I died. I re-started the mission. I died again. I restarted again. I hit another craft and died once more. I restated once more. After many, many fruitless attempts, I went to the options screen and dialled the difficulty level down to Easy (something I’d never had to do previously) and re-started.

I died. Even on easy level, it seemed, I could no longer cut the mustard as a star fighter pilot. I did eventually get off the level, of course, but if I’m having this much difficulty on such an early level, my prospects for saving the universe from the Empire look pretty bleak.

I suppose it’s possible that I’ve become a little soft. It’s generally acknowledged that games have got easier, with infinite lives/retries now part of most big titles and perhaps that’s had an impact – when the going gets tough, I’m not longer battle hardened enough to deal with it.

It’s also possible that I was more used to playing Star Wars games back then. I’d played pretty much all the Lucas Arts releases and so learned lots of little tricks for getting out of sticky situations. Apart from the Lego titles (don’t mock me – they’re fun), I probably haven’t played a Star Wars game since around 2001. As such, I’ve lost some of that gaming memory muscle that I’d built up around the Star Wars titles.

There’s probably an element of truth in both of those but I don’t think it’s the full story. Sadly, I think my age is starting to catch up with me. My brain still knows what to do, but my reflexes aren’t quite as fast as they were and my hands can’t always react fast enough. As I’ve got a little more used to the game again and played more missions, I have started to die less, but even so, this episode was a sad reminder that whilst I am now a more experienced gamer overall, I also no longer have the reaction s of a 20-something year old.

So, is it just me or do others find that as they get older, gaming (particularly retro games) gets harder?

Hyper Sentinel: Kickstarter now live

hypersentinal

OK. Yesterday, I told you that the launch of the new Kickstarter campaign for Hewson Consultant’s Hyper Sentinel game was imminent.

Well, it went live this morning at 7am and is already around 10% funded. There are some great pledges to cover wallets of all shapes and sizes, as well as a playable demo to download.

The game is available for PC, Mac, iOS, Android, PS4 and XBox One, so whichever system you’ve got, you can get hold of the game.

So what are you waiting for? Get over there and back it! After all, you wouldn’t want the Score Lord coming to pay you a visit, would you?

Hyper Sentinel – new Kickstarter campaign

hypersentinal

A while back, I exhorted you all to get behind the Kickstarter campaign for Hewson Consultants comeback game, Hyper Sentinel: a Uridium inspired retro shoot em up.

Like the fools you were, you failed to heed the advice of the Mighty Beings at RetroReactiv8 (© every issue of Amiga Power, ever) and so the campaign failed to reach its target.

Happily, Hewson Consultants are not giving up that easily. The game’s author has been busy beavering away behind the scenes continuing to work on the game, whilst Hewson have been looking into what they need to do to get the funding needed to finish it.

As a result, a revised Kickstarter campaign is being launched at 7am (GMT) tomorrow, offering a free playable demo, as well as other mouth-watering early bird and backer incentives. I’ll post more details and the link as I get them, but in the meantime, unless you want both the Score Lord and the Four Cyclists of the Apocalypse to visit your house, get ready to back this new campaign because I really want to play this game J