Saturday, April 14, 2007

Retro-gaming value for money

Take one old PC (considered obsolete by its previous owner and consigned to the scrapheap), add a lashing of a spare operating system (Linux is fine but, in all honesty, Windows is easier for this project). Mix in some random game controllers chosen by lucky dip into your "parts" box (anything from an expensive Playstation joypad with a USB adaptor through to an old two-button gameport joystick is fine). Add a dash of emulators for older games systems that you knew and loved. Sprinkle with a hefty swig of configuration, plugging in and cursing. Decorate with a lashing of ROM downloads of games that you still currently own but can't be bothered to play because the setting up of the games console that runs them takes longer than completing the game.

Finally, download lots of popular freeware games, give them a try-out, then have a retro/freeware-games party with anyone that has a favourite old game they haven't played in years. A TV-out capable card will help matters immensely, allowing you to play them on the telly in the front room, just like the old days. If not, a nice monitor will do just fine. Or for those lucky enough to have a projector, this would be the best way to keep a room full of big-kids happy.

Seriously. I've just done the above with my own ingredients... a 1GHz PC with 512 MB RAM (although you could probably get away with even less). I slapped a spare copy of Windows XP Home on it (I always end up with a little collection of Windows XP licenses from the various computers that I repair or, if they are beyond repair, recycle). I "upgraded" the onboard graphics to an ancient and obsolete AGP 4x card because I wanted TV-Out (the less said about that the better - old TV's that can't display the refresh rates you want without flickering can ruin hours of careful planning and playing with settings).

I threw in a spare 4-port USB card and as many reliable games controllers as I could find. A cheap cable to connect the sound through the television, a few extender cables for the various controllers (because in the heat of a gaming party someone WILL tug on them) and a cordless keyboard/mouse set to control the system from the living room sofa. A little utility called Joy2Key also came to the rescue, especially if you do what I did - I made a tiny Visual Basic util to turn the machine into a primitive "who pressed first" quiz buzzer - more on that later.

The emulators available to such an "obsolete" machine cross all sorts of systems (but only those ones that I ever played on or still have... I have somewhere a CD with Commodore 64 emulators and ROM's but I don't think I've ever even loaded it because I never used to have that particular piece of gaming history, so I have no interest in seeing the games it used to play.) Currently, my particular setup has (in order of age), ZX Spectrum, Sega Master System, Nintendo Gameboy, Sega GameGear, Philips CD-I, Sega Megadrive, Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 emulators, all of which have several popular games (everything from the previously mentioned JetPac through to Super Mario 64) loaded and ready to play, full screen, full speed, on this old relic of a PC. Anything of the Nintendo 64-era or less is fully playable on such a machine, given the right emulators, and more powerful machines will laugh at them.

It even has DOSBox running several old DOS games that I've only just consigned to the "cupboard of slow, ageing death" where games live that are no longer easy enough to play on modern systems but which I still have a fond memory for (Syndicate, Cannon Fodder, Command & Conquer, Settlers etc.)

And it plays them all fantastically. The foresight of using my best two games controllers (a USB PC joypad made to duplicate a Playstation Analog Dual Shock and an actual Dual Shock with a Playstation -> USB convertor) even allows precise analog control of Mario in Mario 64, or while driving in Mario Kart. And with a press of a button and a change of emulator, it's suddenly a Kempston joystick in a ZX Spectrum.

It's been great to play all the classics. JetPac just isn't JetPac unless it's played on a TV and is emulated so accurately that all it's little palette flickers happen just right. And Target Renegade is still a fantastic game for picking up for only a few minutes for a quick bash. Super Mario 3's Battle Game (the version from the SNES remake) is a great party game.

So every game I've ever owned on a games console is now sitting on one easy-to-manage, quick-to-boot, no-fiddling-with-TV-tuning PC with gamepads enough for a four player battle in any emulated system that supported it. When I originally had this system set up, it was on an equivalent laptop and that was even more fun... there's nothing better than being able to whip out your laptop at someone's house and launch into four-player frenzied gaming of some of the classics.

And I also loaded this PC up with some other games that I had lying around or had downloaded previously...

- Slicks 'n' Slides
An old DOS racing game that I was a registered user of, way back when. With a utility like Joy2Key, you can play four-player with ease (beats having to cram four of us around a single keyboard like we did when we used to play this in Maths lessons in school!).

- XQuest 2
A marvellous freeware game that requires precision control of the mouse

An emulator for various point-and-click adventure games, which comes with Beneath A Steel Sky as a freeware game

- OpenTTD
A remake of the classic Transport Tycoon Deluxe

- Abuse-SDL
The dark and fantastic Abuse from Crack dot Com.

- Rocks 'n' Diamonds
Another remake, this time of Rockman.

- PySolitaire
A card-game to wipe the floor with all the rest (but you can still add Solitaire and Hearts to your PC "console" if you want) - hundreds of customisable card games in one program.

- Liquid Wars
A brilliantly original game, part strategy, part fast reactions.

- Battle Painters
A wonderful game to leave the kiddies with - each player has to paint as much of the screen as possible before the timer runs out. I use Joy2Key on this as well, for the same reason as Slicks 'n' Slides, though this is a Windows game.

- Super Mario War
The best Christmas present I ever gave my mum - she is a massive Mario Battle Game fan and this gave us a night full of entertainment. Mario-themed but the number of games alone is enough to keep the most ardent Mario-hater busy. And such four-player mayhem is incomparable.

Not to mention TuxRacer, Pingus, Gate 88 and all those other great freeware or open-source games.

It's the best games console I've ever had. I even ended up naming the PC "CONSOLE" in it's configuration. It doesn't have network or anything else set up - it was worth sacrificing an old PC for and, as far as I'm concerned, the best use of a Windows XP license ever.

I turn it on. Within about 30 seconds it's in Windows (no net = no need for lots of utilities / services that slow it down) and ready to play. That 30 seconds would be taken up by switching to the right SCART socket, untangling the joypads etc. anyway, so you don't even notice it. Then, when you're in, you can play some old ZX Spectrum game while you wait for your loved one to settle down with a controller that they don't mind using, then you can both have a blast on Mario Kart 64 or play some silly freeware game without having to switch machines. When she goes to bed, you can load up a bit of Syndicate or finish off that Red Alert campaign.

You can have "Mario nights"... Start with the original NES versions, then do the Gameboy ones, working your way up to Mario 64 and filling in the time with some Battle Games, a quick blast of Mario Kart or a four-way battle in Super Mario War. And when anyone comes over and says "Do you remember ?", you can just load it up and play it.

It's great and it's the best investment of time I've ever put into a Windows system. I was going to download one of these menu systems that they have for multi-emulator setups but they were all pants and I found that a desktop folder called Games with a shortcut for each machine type is more than good enough. When you have a lot of games on the system, you would spend longer setting up a menu system and then selecting them than you would just loading up an emulator and typing in the name anyway. You can assign shortcut keys to each shortcut and, if you want, use something like Joy2Key to load up particular ones from the joypad!

Joy2Key is a bit of a fiddle but it's only really necessary for comfort on old games or emulators that can't reassign keys to joypads easily. Do it right and you have the "best" joypad be the controller - the one that can pause, open games, exit emulators etc. by pressing the right buttons on it. Or you can just delegate the keyboard to someone who knows the shortcut keys for each emulator.

I found that the Playstation-style joypad controllers were the best to use. Enough buttons for almost any game system (with a few spare for vital functions like Pause etc.), digital and analog controls, cheap, comfortable, easy to get hold of and easy to find adaptors for (in the UK, Game sell them in all their shops). They're also especially close to the original SNES controllers that I end up playing more than other types of games.

The most time-consuming bits were:

- Making it boot fast
Don't install anything that you don't need to (networks etc. included). Clear out all your startup entries. Set all BIOS options etc. to be as quick as possible. Make your desktop as plain as possible and completely empty your system tray. Make sure everything is plugged in each time you use it. You don't care that the system looks ugly, but if it jerks in the middle of a four-player game you'll be regretting putting that large theme on your desktop.

- TV-Out
My own fault really, because I was trying to use what I had to hand. Only when I was several days into getting it to work did I realise that all my problems stemmed from a television that just wouldn't support non-standard refresh rates at all, not even by the slightest degree, but didn't moan about them. I have an external D-Sub -> SCART convertor that just wasn't up to the job of changing refresh rates without having MASSIVE jerkiness (single screen games worked fine but anything that scrolled horizontally or, worse, vertically looked absolutely crap).

So I tried a video card with TV-Out which was perfectly smooth at doing that job, but which had BIG problems with colour display on my TV. Turns out that the old TV just doesn't support colour over a S-Video connector, even if it's connected via SCART. That wasted HOURS of fiddling, soldering, setting-tweaking etc. and on any other TV it just worked fine... so I used a different TV. My next step will be to get a nice flatscreen for it. The most important thing is that everyone can see it, so a small flatscreen with a limited viewing angle is a no-no unless you have some kind of dual-head setup and run one screen for each "team". (P.S. A very brief experiment showed conclusively that playing Jetpac on a 10-foot-wide projector image connected over S-Video is the coolest thing ever, but a very expensive way to run a games machine, so it's just not practical).

- Emulator configuration
Every one had it's own idea of what was Joypad 1. Every one had a different set of buttons on it's emulated controllers. Quite a lot have some weird options or programming that make them totally unsuited to the task. Some quit out if you pressed the same button on the joypad as selected the menu too many times (highly annoying when in the middle of a game). I had Gameboy emulators that couldn't emulate 4-colour Tetris as fast as a Nintendo 64 emulator could emulate Mario 64 on the same setup. I had Megadrive emulators that ALWAYS tore the screen no matter what VSync/Resolution/Buffering/Refresh options you chose. I had a CD-I emulator that will only accept mouse input. I had DOS emulators that needed settings tweaked for each and every game to get the best out of them (and even then at least one of them needed Joy2Key to make it easily playable). ZX Spectrum emulators offer emulations of so many different types of joystick (some of which conflict) that it's a pain to configure them all. Some I fixed, some I persevered and did it the hard way, some I ditched and replaced with other emulators, some I set up with certain limits (i.e. no more than four players, etc.)

- Distractions
Every time you set up an emulator, you just HAVE to test the games several times to make sure that they are all right, don't you?

- Programming
Yep... I did a bit of programming. It's a party machine, it's obvious from the outset. This thing is great at parties. And the best bit is, it's multipurpose. The hardest thing in the world to get is a decent Quiz Buzzer - one of those "who buzzed first" things. So I wrote one. I misused Joy2Key so that any button on the first joypad "typed" a 1 on the keyboard, second joypad 2 etc. and then I wrote a small VB program that just waited for input after the quizmaster had "opened the question" and then whatever character was typed first was declared the winner. It probably wasn't perfectly accurate but it did the job and took about twenty lines of BASIC code and a freeware Joy2Key to do it.

It's a good project to do. It requires limited resources compared to other PC projects (office and schools are throwing out PC's that can do this, TV's are perfect for playing old games on because you don't need the high-resolution of a monitor, any gamepad or joystick will work etc.). It is immensely fun and can be as simple or as complex as you like. It brings people together.

And I guarantee you that, if you are of the age that you can remember playing these sorts of consoles and not just Playstations, you will get ten times more play out of it than spending the equivalent amount of money on the newest games console. For the price of a new games console and a single game you can have every game you've ever played on in full better-than-the-original glory.

No comments: