One SNES, with a dash of mint.

January 6, 2013

Untitled-1By and large I believe retro game collections should be amassed to be played.  Sure, all this stuff looks good on a shelf, but if you’re not playing those games, if you’re not losing yourself in alien worlds, hunting desperately for one more enchanted crystal or working up a frantic sweat trying to stay in the final round against Sub Zero, then you have to ask yourself if collecting retro video game stuff is really for you.

Perhaps you’d like to start a stamp collection, instead?

Unlike many other forms of collectible, video games offer not only the thrill of the hoard, but the thrill of the interaction too, something I’ve covered in more length here.  There are some rare exceptions though. There are a few items even in my own personal collection which I don’t play, or use. I own them purely for the sake of owning them, for the sake of knowing I rescued them from the world like Indiana Jones nabbing an ancient idol from a long lost temple, but I figure it’s okay to pepper a well played collection of gear with the occasional shelf-only piece. One item I don’t think I’ll ever open and play, is my minty never-been-used SNES console. It’s in absolutely fantastic condition, among the best I’ve ever seen, and I think it’d be a crime to take it all out, set it up, and actually use it.

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There’s a certain gleeful appeal in knowing no cartridge has ever been inserted into the machine, no-one has ever mashed the shit out of the controller in order to trigger E. Honda’s one-hundred-hand-slap.  The device is by and large in the same condition it would have been on on the store shelf. It’s the ultimate in time travel here folks, the whole insect trapped in amber ride.

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IMG_0720I figure it’s okay to have one SNES that I keep in this condition considering I own two others, one of which I’d consider my regular ‘workhorse’ SNES.  I did have two units in this condition, but sold the other one for a princely sum on eBay to fund something or other. Likely another gaming purchase. Jesus, I’ve got issues.

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Mint SNES aside though, I really do feel it appropriate to get on my soapbox and become preachy about playing your collection of games. Don’t let them all sit on a shelf gathering dust! What a waste of talent, imagination and style if you do. Those cartridges, CD’s and disks are the key to hours of entertainment done in a style that’s so rarely matched in these days of photo-realism and big budget titles.  So don’t get into the bad habit of grabbing stuff just to line a shelf.

Make sure you load up that tape, insert that cart, or load that CD. Give as many titles as you can the chance, if only for a moment, to trigger a happy memory of gaming past or – even better – create an entirely new one….

PS – I don’t have anything against stamp collectors, really. I think it’s totally trendy. I’ll try and remember to send you some of the stamps from my next delivery of gob-smackingly amazing gaming merchandise, I promise.

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Feeling up your box always pays off

November 27, 2012

Tonight I learned a valuable, treasured retro collecting lesson.

Never assume without careful scrutiny that you know every single thing you have in your collection.

When you buy things second hand (and particularly when you buy large lots of things second hand) you’re also buying the idiosyncrasies, oddities and habits of the person you’re buying from. They may have stored a games console, computer or other bits and pieces somewhere for years and have no idea what’s really in every box. Case in point, tonight I decided on a whim to double check that a few Commodore 64 cartridge boxes on my shelf actually had the cartridge games in them (I couldn’t remember if I’d taken them out to display loose)

It turns out, that a couple of boxes contained not only the game described on the outside of the box, but a bonus cartridge! Lemans had Clowns inside and Sea Wolf had Lazarian. So I’m pretty chuffed with 2 additional C64 cartridges seemingly out of thin air (or decaying cardboard).  Needless to say I’m now eyeing off the rest of my collection and thinking about devoting some considerable time to snooping around as-yet-unopened boxes to see what else I can find.

I’ll bet you’re starting to get the same itch, right?….

 


HxC Floppy Emulator Review

November 2, 2012

W. B. Yeats included the line “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” in his famous poem “The Second Coming”. Many ascribe the inspiration for this work to the atmosphere of post-war Europe, but I’m positive Yeats was talking about floppy disks.

The staple media during the 80’s and 90’s, the magnetic storage of the floppy disks of the day has just about run its course. Sad news for retro computer gaming buffs, who regularly come across games stored on 5.25″ or 3.5″ disks which no longer work due to the deterioration of the media itself.

I know this pain all too well.

Having purchased a bulk lot of Amiga disks – including boxed games – along with a couple of Amiga 500’s, I was torn up to discover upon inspection that most of them had been stored in a damp place and suffered all kinds of nasty mould damage. I still managed to harvest a chunk of working games out of the lot – but for how long? They’ll likely fail too, it’s the inevitable journey of the floppy disk.

So what’s a retro gamer to do? Well, there’s emulation of course, but we all know that never feels quite the same. Game speeds don’t match up, you’re not using original input devices (e.g. legitimate Commodore joysticks) and the whole experience really isn’t recreated. Another option, is to do as I did and invest in the HxC Floppy Emulator. This brilliant little device is made by a chap in Poland, and has the ability to mimic the workings of a floppy drive from a huge array of retro computers including the Commodore 64, Atari range, Amiga’s and Amstrad.  The kicker is, instead of using floppy disk media, it allows you to run floppy disk images straight from SD card. Bam! In one hit you have done away with the entropy of the floppy disk and stepped into the almost infallible world of flash card storage.

The way it works is simple. Into one end of the PCB, you re-route the floppy data cable and power connector from your chosen computer, and in the other end goes your SD card – loaded up with all the games you want to play. The set up is more involved than that – which I’ll get to in a moment – but that’s the basic principle. It’s an SD to Floppy cable data converter. Neat! This turned out to be the perfect solution to my desperate need to play Amiga games as often as possible, and in true blog fashion I detailed the steps of setting it up so you can get an idea of what’s involved, and whether it’s something you’re interested in.

First up, I picked a victim computer to test on. My Amiga 600 seemed like the best choice. Small, portable, in great condition and compatible with a fair chunk of Amiga titles. While the HxC floppy emulator is undoubtedly designed to be fitted inside the case at some point, short term I was happy to have mine attached in a rough fashion. First step, was to up end the Amiga 600, as I needed to pop the case to get to the floppy cables inside.

Would you believe the warranty seal was still intact? I felt like I was disturbing some ancient crypt as I popped the screwdriver through the seal. Hey, it’s for a worthy cause!

I had my HxC floppy emulator and specifically purchased SD card sitting close by and ready to be installed. Note the funny shaped SD card. It’s actually called a ‘UD’ and has a USB connection sticking out one side. Extremely handy for people like me who don’t have card reader in their PC, this allows me to just plug it directly into USB to download floppy images, then use the SD end into the emulator.

 

With a bit of ‘levering’ on some plastic tabs around the A600 case, the case popped open, and as you can see it was pretty easy to gain access to the internal floppy drive cables.

 

It’s a pretty simple affair to get the HxC connected, but make sure you read the instructions online carefully! You’ll need to ensure you set jumpers correctly for the drive(s) you want to emulate, and it’s also important to know which way your floppy ribbon cable goes onto the board (as it’s different for different machines) and what the led indicator lights on the PCB refer to (it will make diagnosing teething issues a hell of a lot easier)

 

As you can see, I went for the rough and ready ‘hang it outside the case, but only on the left side, yeah that’s the crip side’ look. If you’re more handy with case modding, you’ll want to fix it inside the case, with a window for the LCD.  Once installed, it was back to my main PC to prepare the SD card. A few things to note, firstly – read the documentation carefully. I can’t stress this enough. Because the HxC is designed to run on multiple different machines, you’ll have to be aware of the particular settings for your vintage computer as well as how to set the SD card up so that it boots the way you want (via a customisable config file placed on the SD card). There is a program you can download that allows you to customise the config file entirely, but you’re far better off initially using one of the ‘pre baked’ config files ideal for what you want to achieve. We picked one that auto loaded a ‘floppy manager’ (basically a game chooser GUI) when you run the HxC connected to an Amiga.

After you’ve configured the SD card, you just need to convert your floppy images into the HxC native .hfe format. Thankfully, this is super easy – in the case of my Amiga 600 I was using a ton of .adf files, and the same program that allows you to customise the config file also allows you to batch convert any number of disk files to .hfe format. Once I’d converted a few hundred games, they were loaded on the SD card, and it was back to the Amiga to fire it all up and test!.

The HxC is a thing of beauty when it’s fired up and ticking away. Interestingly, just because it’s running an SD card, doesn’t actually make any of the load times particularly fast, as the data still has to travel along the floppy cable.

 

 

Pictured below is the floppy chooser menu. Even if you’re only emulating a single drive (DF0 in the case of the Amiga) the floppy chooser allows you to assign a floppy image to a number of ‘slots’ in the HxC, and if you need to swap disks during use, you just press a button on the PCB to swap from one slot to the next. Very handy!

 

So, the moment of truth, did it work? Yes, yes it did 🙂

 

It’s a fantastic device, and I’m having immense fun trawling through a library of Amiga games to play the way they were intended to be played – on an Amiga, and a 1084S monitor. It’s a worthwhile investment for me (costing $100 approximately) and I know I’m going to get hours and hours of use out of it. If you’re happy running emulators, that’s fine to – but for anyone who is really digging that original experience on an Amiga, Atari, Amstrad, Commodore or any number of other retro computers, check out the HxC Floppy Emulator, it may just save you from all the pain and frustration of floppy media.

 


And I go bomb, bomb, bomb!

September 30, 2012

When you’re a PAL collector like most Australian retro game hoarders are, you tend to have a dim view of NTSC console models and their games.  Machines like the Japanese Super Famicom or USA NES don’t seem to hold their value well in PAL territories, and the games themselves seem like cast-outs to our eyes.  You need only do a quick check on Ebay to compare the same game on a PAL Nintendo Entertainment System versus an NTSC copy to see the difference in perceived value.  So is there an appeal? Of course! I’ve decided to use my NTSC Super Famicom copy of Super Bomberman 3 to make the case that NTSC collecting can be as fun and rewarding as PAL collecting any day of the week.

Behold, my Super Famicom and assorted games…

So, why bother with Super Famicom collecting? Especially when you need a step-down transformer to play the games in Australia without blowing your SFC up? For one thing, check out the box art on the SFC version of Super Bomberman 3 (top). Vastly superior to the PAL release (bottom), the SFC box art is lively, vibrant and covered in the cartoon style that only the Japanese can do well.

You’ll find a lot of the Super Famicom games have similar box art, so already there’s a compelling reason to throw a few SFC games into your collecting mix. Don’t forget that – on average – boxed SFC games fetch a far lower price than their PAL equivalents, so you can rapidly build up a collection of NTSC titles for relative cheap, cheap (it’s also worth noting that SFC games seem to be well taken care of compared to often bashed about PAL SNES titles).  So you get games with great art, in great condition, with exactly the same gameplay but cheaper.

Are you starting to see the appeal?

The insides of Super Bomberman 3 also don’t disappoint, with bright, cheery instructions and instructions that contain a fantastic comic strip the meaning of which I will never, ever know. But that’s a minor quibble when the art is so pretty.

So, what about the gameplay? Well, Super Bomberman 3 is exactly the same in NTSC form as it is in PAL, so there are no surprises. It’s a fantastic puzzle game where you get to clear screen after colorful screen of bad guys using well placed and well timed bomb explosions. Super Bomberman 3 introduces new bad guys, new themed rooms and even a strange Kangaroo type critter that your Bomberman can ride. Nifty and a great time waster, Super Bomberman 3 is just one of many games that – thanks to its relative cheapness and great artwork makes an easy case for why collecting NTSC games can be a great experience and an easy way to beef up your game collecting.

 

 

 


Collecting collections related to the collections you collect.

September 30, 2012

It’s inevitable that the world of gaming – with all its highly marketable characters, worlds and stories – should breed an accompanying world of merchandise. For every popular video game, there are figurines, collector cards and yes, even Monopoly variations thrust out into a world of eager consumers. It’s only natural then, for a collector of retro games such as myself to get bitten by the bug of sourcing and hoarding these ancillary goodies, which is how I’ve come to start building a small collection of gaming related figurines.

In particular, I’ve got a soft spot for anything with Street Fighter branding.

Imagine my glee then, when I discovered that one of the most well known figurine brands in the Universe – G.I Joe – had done a crossover set of Street Fighter characters when Street Fighter 2 was at a popularity peak in the 90s. I’ve now managed to amass a reasonable set of G.I Joe Street Fighter characters, some of which can be seen below.

Now, the first thing to note is that a few of these models look, well, a bit retarded.  This is due to there being only a handful of templates for G.I Joe figurines in terms of body shape etc, with most of the detail being added by way of accessories or paints. This leaves some of the characters looking instantly recognizable (Blanka, E. Honda, M. Bison) while some look disturbingly like a drag queen with a military fetish (Ken).

Each character comes with a set of weapons and accessories that have little to no correlation to any story lines from the video game franchise (unless you know something about a thread of narrative where M. Bison wields a Bazooka or Ken takes down some bad guys with an AK-47?) but this just adds to the overall quirkiness, charm and in my opinion collect-ability of the G.I Joe Street Fighter sets.  I’ve even managed to track down a still boxed Chun Li!

The back of the packet has some great Bio information about the character, as well as in-game screenshots (not sure on the platform though, SNES maybe?) and tips on special moves.

Of course, anything G.I Joe wouldn’t be complete without weapon adorned vehicles to transport your death wielding plastic dudes all over the lounge-room floor, so why not take your shiny Crimson Cruiser out for a spin?

If M. Bison driving and Vega hanging off the side is anything to go by, this is the transport of choice for Street Fighter bosses.  The box contains the Cruiser itself, a special edition M. Bison figure, Puzzle book and some G.I Joe ‘Combat Pay’ dollars which if memory serves me were redeemable for items from a special G.I Joe catalogue of toys and accessories.  Sadly, the dollars have an expiry of March 1993, so I’m not going on a spending spree any time soon.

 

It would seem that I’ve started something with this figurine collecting, something that has no chance of ending after a few G.I Joe figurines and a couple of Bobble Heads.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Handheld roar…

September 22, 2012

Wikipedia defines the Lynx as having “short tails and the characteristic tufts of black hair on the tips of their ears. They have a ruff under the neck, which has black bars, is not very visible, and resembles a bow tie. They have large, padded paws for walking on snow, and long whiskers on the face.”

Of course, if you’re reading this blog then you know as well as I do that the Lynx is in fact a fat brick-like handheld thrust into the world by Atari just shy of 1990.  While it never made a dent against Nintendo’s handheld offerings, the Lynx is amazing little piece of kit and managed to render the games of the era in splendid visual and audio majesty. So – to celebrate the Atari Lynx – I’ve put together a bit of a pictorial walk through. Enjoy!

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Things fall apart.

September 21, 2012

Last weekend, my recently acquired Commodore 1084S monitor popped out of existence. Well, it didn’t exactly pop out of existence, rather the flyback transformer died, and took the usefulness of the screen with it.  I got less than 24 hours of use out of the damn thing before this happened, so I was pissed.  Crazy man pissed.

Repair is possible, but it still put a thunderous cloud over my plans to spend the weekend glued to Amiga games.

But some good can be scraped even from the fried components of a Commodore monitor, so the whole experience gave me an interesting topic to write about.  If – like me – you’re a collector of old (pre 2000) gaming gear, you’ve probably had things die on you more than once. It’s part and parcel of mucking around on equipment that for the most part pre-dates the DVDs, the Internet and Jesus Christ.  But doesn’t it make our hobby a dangerous one? Are we funnelling money into an activity that has an extremely limited life span? Floppy disk media is well past end of life, older arcade machines are prime candidates for chip failure and your average Nintendo Virtual Boy is a potential festering field of dry solder.

Henry Miller said “I have always looked upon decay as being just as wonderful and rich an expression of life, as growth”, which only proves that Henry Miller had never dropped $200 on a Vectrex only to have the vector screen wink out of existence a week later.

The decay of hardware and media is a cold, hard reality of collecting retro gear, but how often do we factor this in to our collecting? I’ve spent some serious money on certain items in my collection. In my mind, the price was justified because the item was exceedingly rare or prized, but the moment I look at the item in the context of its longevity I have to acknowledge that in almost every instance, I’m overpaying. A lot.

How much can you really value something that even with proper care may only last a matter of months before turning into a worthless lump of PCB and solder?  Some retro gaming stuff – the 1084S for instance – can be repaired depending on the fault, but if something more exotic like a vector screen fails, you’re pretty much stuffed.  Viewed in this light, the humble Nintendo Game & Watch probably makes the most sense as a purchase because it’s highly collectable, valuable and theoretically will last until most other things are nothing but dust and memory.

I think it’s worth considering the longevity of older game systems when you’re looking over items in your collection and wondering if they’re long term acquisitions or something you may be selling onto the next person. If someone asks me whether they should hold onto or sell a NES, Game Gear, Virtual Boy or Vectrex I always ask them to consider what they’re holding onto.  This stuff isn’t the smartest long term investment (if that’s why you’re collecting) and that while it might be a valued possession now, it may be worth selling it onto someone else so that when it finally gives out, it gives out on someone else’s watch.

Me? I don’t collect as an exercise in re-selling when the value has raised by a certain margin, I collect because I love playing these games. If that means I get a day with my Virtual Boy, or a year then so be it, the investment – in my eyes – was completely and utterly worthwhile in either case.

 

 


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