Wednesday, 29 April 2015

To RGB or not to RGB (on your Genesis / Mega Drive)... That is the 'dithering' question?

As modern retro gamers we strive to get the most out of our beloved Genesis / Mega Drive consoles and games to enjoy the experience to its maximum potential.  For most of us that means one thing in particular...  The quality of the visuals.  So many of us set out to find that perfect combination of console,  video cable and TV.  For some that might mean using upscale hardware like the XRGB so you can play on your modern 60" LED display and for others it's sticking to the old fashion CRT display, a good quality RGB compatible SCART (and possibly a SCART to component adapter) cable and just the raw output power of your Genesis / Mega Drive to display  those 2D sprites in all their glory.

But there is a problem when it comes to producing those bright and crisp graphics you get on your Genesis/Mega Drive when you choose to go for this option.  Well, I shouldn't call it a problem because it's not but it's definitely something that inhibits you from experiencing certain graphical effects.

That's right, I am talking about dithering.  Now I know there are more than enough sites out there explaining the concept of RGB and dithering so I won't be going in to much detail but I will still give you just a little bit of background info on the two main uses of dithering in the world of the Genesis / Mega Drive...

Dithering is the use of  colors arranged in a certain way (usually thatched or striped patterns) and when noise or distance is added to the signal it merges the colors to create either a transparency or a new color that is either not available on the consoles color palette or cannot be displayed due to the hardware's 64 color on screen restriction.

"So what you're saying is that dithering is a good thing and we should be altering our signals from RGB down to composite so we can enjoy this effect that the Genesis / Mega Drives relies on for visual gains?"  Well, There are positives and negatives to RGB signals and positives and negatives to the weaker composite (CVBS) signals when dithering is used in games.

RGB Positives                   
- Stronger 'Hue' palette
- Heavier color 'Saturation'
- Wider 'Brightness' range
- Sharper Images

Composite Positives
- Able to create 'Tint'
- Different 'Shades' can be created
- 'Tones' can be added to sprites and backgrounds to create smoother color transition
- More colors on screen

Let's take a look at one of the most controversial games available on Sega's 16-bit platform, Eternal Champions - Challenge from the Dark Side for the Sega CD.  This game has a bit of a cult following as being the only game in Genesis / Sega CD library able to produce up to 256 colors through the use of quoted 'graphical trick'.  Anyone who has seen this game knows it is indeed a very colorful game but is also extremely heavy on the dithering.  Take a look at the images below and the on screen colors and i'll let you decide if it was indeed a 'graphical trick' or maybe just a game specifically designed for a composite / RF image...?

A raw RGB image captured with a total of 46 on screen colors
A raw CVBS Composite image captured with a total of 254 on screen colors

So really it all comes down to your personal preference and what hardware you are using.  I don't believe there is a right or wrong in this situation so the following images are here for illustration purposes only but also to explain the different techniques used and to show you how the images differ from raw RGB to what you will see on your (CRT) TV using a standard composite signal.

Just to go on record here...  I have gone to certain lengths to acquire the best possible CRT display (Loewe with E3000 chassis) for my games room and highest quality SCART cables so I can display my Mega Drive in a pure RGB format but at the same time don't always use it as I enjoy the gritty composite signal too, especially when it comes to games that are heavy on the dithering.

**WARNING**  When searching online for SCART cables it is very important you do your homework as 90% out there on EvilBay may be a SCART connection but will only be a CVBS signal.  So confirm with the seller that the cable is indeed RGB compatible.

Please note:  
* A combination of original Mega Drive hardware and emulation software have been used to capture the images.
* Discoloration and rainbow banding will be apparent in some images.

Demonstrating the use of dithering to create a static layer of solid transparent lighting that sprites can pass behind.

RGB - Raw
Composite - Raw
Composite - CRT

Demonstrates the use of dithering to create a dynamic scattered transparent layer of fog/mist that sprites can pass behind.
Raw Composite
CRT Composite

Demonstrating the use of dithering to create a dynamic transparent layer of running water that sprites cannot pass behind.
Raw Composite
CRT Composite

Demonstrating the use of dithering to create a dynamic transparent layer of running water that sprites can pass behind.
Raw Composite
CRT Composite

Demonstrates the use of dithering to create a static transparent layer within a solid object to give the perception of depth and dimension.  Dithering is also used in the parallax layered background to create a palette of colors with varying tones.
Raw Composite
CRT Composite

Demonstrates the use of dithering to create a dynamic layer of solid transparency for a smoke effect that sprites cannot pass behind and the use of dithering with different gray scales to create a static transparent layer of dynamic lighting the sprites can pass behind
Raw Composite
CRT Composite

As I said earlier, this article is not about the right and wrong way on how retro enthusiasts should have their setups.  As someone who can appreciate how the game developers used the tools at their disposal to recreate a certain visual effect I for one enjoy both sides of the scale.  God Bless Scanlines!

until next time...  Stay Retro!

Clint 'ThoRn' Thornton

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Alfred Chicken - CD32RP Episode 2

It's time for another episode in our new video series: The Amiga CD32 Review Project. The project started off by taking a look at the travesty of a game that is Akira, but I assure you that the game we have been looking at this time is worth your time. Feast your eyes on the wonderful puzzle/platformer game called Alfred Chicken.

I hope you enjoy watching the video - please leave a comment either here or on YouTube if you have any questions or comments.

Until next time... stay retro!

Saturday, 25 April 2015

What a Year - 1992

We all played this baby
Article written by Clint "ThoRn" Thornton

Ahhhhh.... 1992, a year in video gaming that changed the industry forever.  So put on your Hypercolor T-shirt, join me and i'll tell you about it.

In 1992 the video gaming industry was still heavily targeted towards the youth and games were seen as a fairly innocent form of entertainment.  Sure, parents had already coined the phrase "Those video games will rot your brain" but that was really as far as it went.  But that all changed when a small team of developers released a innocent little game called 'Mortal Kombat' to arcades all over the globe.  Street Fighter II was released the year before so the 'one on one' fighting craze was well under way but nothing could compare to the realistic violence of Mortal Kombat.  

The Pioneer - MK
Gamers couldn't get enough of it and parents wanted nothing more than to see it banned.  Good thing the game was only in the arcades and not in peoples homes *wink wink*.  Well, with the attention Mortal Kombat was receiving in the arcades there was another game being introduced to the video game world but this time it was in homes and only seven days after the release of MK.  Night Trap by Digital Pictures made its way on to the Sega CD and although didn't share the same bloody violence of Mortal Kombat, it used female abduction and murder as its key element to gain access in to the category of violent gaming.  

The scene that started it all
These two games caused such an uproar in the coming years there was a congressional hearing demanding the withdrawal of such games from the market.  The outcome of the hearing was the birth of the Video Games rating system which was initially adopted in the US, UK and Australia and soon followed by the rest of the world.....  Fun times had by all!  1992 wasn't all gloom and doom though, Street Fighter II won two 'Game of the Year' awards and the court case between Nintendo of America, Inc and Galoob Toys, Inc was finally over and the Game Genie became a part of our collections.

Flat shaded polygons at their finest
Apart from Mortal Kombat entering in to the arcades, Sega introduced their new Model 1 system board that really gave a boost to 3D polygon games with AM2's initial release Virtua Racing turning lots of heads.  Unfortunately the Model 1 wasn't the easiest to program for so only 6 games in total were released but among those 6 were Virtua Fighter (1993) and Star Wars Arcade (1994).  Sega weren't the only company introducing 3D polygons in to the arcades.  Although the first game release wasn't until 1993, Namco had officially released their 'System 22' board which was the first board to introduce texture mapping and would be the horse power behind future games such as Ridge Racer and Time Crisis.

It was a privilege to play
Another arcade game that was released in 1992 definitely stood out from the crowd as it was a cabinet people had never seen before.  It was a duel monitor setup creating a wide screen effect, had up to 6 player simultaneous co-op action and took up as much real estate as two standard arcade cabinets side by side.  Yep...  It was X-Men by Konami.  Cabinets housing more than two players was nothing new to the arcade scene but 6 players was just unheard of.  It might have been an extremely difficult game but if you had five buddies with you, you could certainly do some damage.  1992 was certainly a good year for Konami in the arcades.  Alongside X-Men we were also treated to Lethal Enforcers and G.I. Joe.  Capcom continued their successful Street Fighter II franchise with Champion Edition and Turbo Hyper Fighting which gave us the ability to play as the four Grand Master characters.

Model 1 Sega Genesis & CD
Even though Night Trap didn't fill the home video game market with sunshine and lollipops there were plenty of great games and new pieces of hardware being introduced to family rooms and children's bedrooms world wide.  To start with the Sega CD's North American release was a complete success with some great launch titles like Night Tra...errrrr?... I mean Marky Mark: Make my Video....No?  What about Sewer Shark?  Ok...  So the Sega CD didn't have the greatest launch line up but it's still a great piece of kit with some solid games and any retro enthusiast will tell you the same.

The birth of Kart Racing
The Super Nintendo was finally released in Europe and Australia and sported the same sleek design as the Japanese Super Famicom.  The Super Scope was also released at the the same time world wide. Turbo Technologies Inc. released the Turbo Duo to help simplify the Turbo Grafx CD setup.  And Philips entered in to the video game war with their ever successful CD-i with an array of Mario and Zelda games whose names shall never be spoken.

Sonic 2 - 3D Special Stage
TMNT IV - Arguably the best home
Beat 'em Up of all time
The two biggest console games released in the year had to be Super Mario Kart for the SNES which popularized the Kart Racing genre and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Sega Genesis and Mega Drive.  Sonic 2 introduced us to Miles "Tails" the fox and some really neat pseudo 3D special stages and is arguably the best Sonic game on Sega's 16-bit platform.  They were not the only stellar games to be released on to the home consoles, no sir!  Konami might have had a good year in the arcades, but they had a great year with their console releases.  TMNT IV: Turtles in Time, Contra III, Axelay and Cybernator were all available on the SNES.  The Genesis / Mega Drive finally got its Konami licence and launched TMNT: Hyperstone Heist and Sunset Riders on to the platform.  

Little Samson - If only we knew

Let's not forgot about the mighty NES yet, it might have been in its final years but still produced some high quality gaming for those still dedicated to the system.  Darkwing Dark, Mega Man 4 & 5, TMNT III: The Manhatten Project (another great Konami title) and the undisputed king of rare games - Little Samson.

Wolfenstein 3D

Those who were fortunate enough to have a PC back in the early 90's got a taste of 'id' software and their latest game Wolfenstein 3D which  although not the first, basically paved the way for first person shooters as we know them today.  LucasArts unveiled Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis which is one of LucasArts best adventure games and a must play for anyone who enjoys this genre.  
Fate of Atlantis - It's a must play

Star Control II also graced us with its presence on to the PC and is seen by many as not only one of the best PC games ever released but one of the greatest games of all time on any platform, period.

Commodore released their third generation Amiga computer, the Amiga 1200.  It was bundled with Zool which was Commodore's runner to enter in to the race with Mario and Sonic (although relates closer to Sonic).  It might not have been the winner but it was certainly the killer app and went on to to be the best selling game in the Amiga computer range.

Zool - Such a good game!
Well....  I hope you enjoyed the look back at 1992 as much as I did.  It certainly was a big year in gaming and greatly shaped the industry in to what it is today.

Until next time...  Stay Retro.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

VR: Life of Pixel

Review by @madsdk

Developer: Super Icon
Year: 2014
Genre: Platformer

With this post I'd like to introduce you to a new section here on the Retro Gaming Club site - Virtually Retro. In the Virtually Retro section we will write about modern games, that have their roots in retro gaming. The retro bug has been spreading like wildfire amongst the indie developers the last couple of years, and in this section we will cover some of the titles that we have personally enjoyed playing.

Life of pixel is a digital love letter to the golden age of gaming. In it you follow the titular Pixel, a small green (or grey in the monochrome levels) pixel who journeys through video game history, starting on the humble ZX81 and travelling through the different 8 and 16-bit systems to find out where pixels began life. The game is a platformer that uses not only the aestetics and colour schemes of the systems it emulates, it also faithfully reproduces the sound systems, and emulates the faults and weaknesses of those systems - so expect color clash on the ZX Spectrum, single screen platforming on the early systems, going to whole screen scrolling on later systems, only to become real smooth scrolling on other system. This love of details, this faithful reproduction of the systems of yore, is at the heart of Life of Pixel. If you grew up with some of these systems or are interested in the history of gaming, you'll love Life of Pixel.

You begin your journey on the ZX81
At the outset the goal of the game seems simple: collect the bit-gems (blinking squares) in order to open the exit and continue to the next level. These levels are tests of you platforming skill, as they require precise jumping and timing. But in true modern platforming form, the game plays around with its own premise from time to time, adding new features and goals as you move through the different systems. Take for example the gravity inversion that is used in a few levels, when you in true VVVVVV fashion turn the world upside down at the flick of a switch. Adding such a gameplay feature turns platforming fun into puzzle solving, adding yet another layer of complexity and enjoyment to the game. Later levels sees you jumping on floating bubbles, flying using jetpacks, using a skateboard and more. Did I mention the secrets? In true retro gaming form, the game is riddled with secrets for you to find. Remember talking to Professor Pixel, as he will often hint at where or how you should be looking for secrets in a given level.

ZX Spectrum - notice the slight colour clash around the diamond.
Apart from being entertained by the pure platforming bliss, you'll actually learn something playing this game. Whenever you enter a new system, you are introduced to the system by Professor Pixel, who tells you something about the system you are about to play around in. Professor Pixel can also be found in different levels, where he will tell you further details of the games being developed for the system and other little tidbits of relevant information.

Professor Pixel is teaching us about the Speccy.
But that's enough talking for now, these screenshots should be enough to convince you that Life of Pixel is a wonderful homage to 8- and 16-bit retro games.

Nintendo GameBoy
Atari 2600
Sega Master System
Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Luckily the game is not all history lesson, it's also just a damn good game. If you're playing this game, you're probably of the old school, so a punishingly hard platforming experience should be right up your alley. Life of Pixel is a modern take on the hard-as-nails platforming of the good old days, where you will die, die, and die again, until you finally beat the level. It's not as punishing and disrespectful of your time as the real retro games though, as you have infinite lives and therefore only need to restart the current level each time you die, and the restarting of the level is almost instantaneous. The platforming is tightly controlled, well balanced, and fun, and of course it becomes more and more taxing as you move along, but it never becomes impossible - just damned hard. So when you nail one of the later levels, you'll fell the well known satisfaction of completing a difficult task, which was what we gamers lived for back in the day.

Sega Mega Drive
Life of Pixel satisfies two of my gaming urges: retro gaming and platformers. I love retro platformers, but modern platformers like for example Super Meat Boy and 'Splosion Man are also favourites of mine, so a game like Life of Pixel that is part retro homage and part modern platforming goodness is just the ticket for me. Go check out Life of Pixel right now, if you're just a little bit me you won't regret it!

Life of Pixel is available for Mac and PC online right here: or on Steam. If you'd rather have it on a console there's a Wii U version coming out in Q2 of 2015, and there used to be a version on the PS Mobile store for Vita, but I can't seem to find it at the moment. But go give the PC or Mac version a try now - it's only a few bucks ;-)

Friday, 10 April 2015

GROW: Mega lo Mania

Review by @madsdk 

Mega lo Mania
DeveloperSensible Software
GenreReal-Time Strategy
Platform Commodore Amiga
Release date
  • 1991
DesignJon Hare & Chris Yates
ProgrammingChris Chapman
GraphicsJon Hare
MusicRichard Joseph

The game of the month of April 2015 started life as an Amiga classic developed in the UK by the magnificent Sensible Software, who are behind great titles such as Cannon Fodder (Amiga), Sensible Soccer (Amiga), Wizball (C64), Wizkid (Amiga), and Microprose Soccer (C64).

Mega lo Mania - or Tyrants: Fight Through Time as it is called in the US - is one of the earliest examples of a real-time strategy games. The premise is as such: you are one of four gods, competing for the complete control of a newly created world. As is often the case when gods compete, the chess pieces of their game are the humans inhabiting said world. Apart from being one of the first examples of an RTS, Mega lo Mania was presumably the first strategy game to use tech trees - a thing that was later on popularised by Civilization and has become common place in most modern strategy games.

The game is split into ten epochs, and each of these are split into three islands that you must take control of in order to progress to the next epoch. Islands are divided into squares and on each square you can build a base. You have to be careful when picking a place to build your base though, as each square has a different set of resources available, and therefore lead to different research directions and stuff you can build.

In each base you own you mine for resources and invent and build defensive measures, weapons for attacking your enemy, and shields for repairing your buildings. In the early game, once you have invented a recipe for something, you can use it as soon as you get the appropriate resources. In the later game though - when you get more advanced recipes - you have to build a factry where you can manufacture the things you need. The same goes for resources: in the early game you can simply mine them directly, but in the later game many of the resources require that you build a mine before you can start collecting them. Apart from managing your research, mining, and manufacturing of items, you also have to manage the procreation of your people... That is to say, if you give some of your people some free time, they start producing more people, and you need your population to grow if you want to win the game. Funny thing: In the European manuals it said that there are women in the tower as well, whereas the US manual said that the men clone themselves...

One thing that becomes apparent immediately when playing Mega lo Mania is this: position is paramount. Each map square has different resources available, and selecting a position with say a natural resource that doesn't need to be mined for, can easily mean the difference between victory and defeat - or the difference between needing 20 or 40 men to complete the mission, and you'll want to learn to complete the missions using as few men as possible, as the men you don't use carry over to later missions, and you are going to need them in the end game.

The game covers many time periods, and you advance through time by researching as much as possible in you science facility. Early on you are researching rocks, spears, and bows, and later on you will be researching cannons, airplanes, and nuclear rockets, but unlike Civilization, where you'd spend hours bringing your civilization from one time period into the next, this transition is done in minutes in Mega lo Mania - and it is repeated for every island you play through. This leads to a much quicker and more enjoyable flow in the game, where you feel free to experiment with something, because failing only means replaying a few minutes or at most half an hour.

The art style in Mega lo Mania started what would later be known as the sensi style of little men with big heads viewed from the top down. In fact, the sprites created for Mega lo Mania were the exact sprites that would later be dressed in soccer outfits and used in Sensible Soccer. Later on the same sprites (or at least the same style) would be used in Cannon Fodder.

I hope you guys enjoy playing Mega lo Mania on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. If you would like to participate in the discussion about the game, head on over to the Retro Game Squad forums, sign up, and join the fun!

On a side note: If you are a Sensible Software fan, such as myself, I can highly recommend the interview book by Gary Penn called 'Sensible Software 1986 - 1999'. The book goes through the entire Sensible back catalogue, released and unreleased, and tells the story of those games through interviews with the people who developed, designed, and scored them.