Policenauts, Import Games, and a Weekend of Learning

Policenauts

I set about this past weekend with one objective in mind: play an English-patched copy of Policenauts. In the course of attempting this, my task grew into a more general objective of playing import PlayStation and PlayStation 2 games; or rather, attempting to play them. Often, I’ll set about accomplishing something with a strong desire to see the process through only to have that yearning feeling dissipate and highlight a limited attention span and a quick-to-cave attitude. “Not this weekend!” I thought to myself. Although I remained unsuccessful on one front and only partially successful on the other, I ended the weekend with my head held high, brimming with new knowledge.

This desire to play Policenauts is not new to me, but the realization that it could be an actuality was. As my friend and I have been playing through the Metal Gear Solid series, I’ve done additional reading on the other works of Hideo Kojima. Policenauts is one such title and even though it never released in English-speaking territories, it’s still moderately known and highly regarded. Through this research, I stumbled upon the news that an enterprising group of fans had produced an English translation (circa 2007) and that it had been successfully patched into the PlayStation version (circa 2009). The process of implanting the patch didn’t seem too complex so without any additional thought, I acquired a copy off eBay… and Metal Gear Solid: Integral for good measure.

These games came in the mail this past Wednesday and before getting down to the tough stuff, I set about locating my Swap Magic discs. These are boot discs for the PlayStation 2, specifically the slim version, that allow the play of import and backup discs, with a slight modification to the console’s disc cover. I purchased these a few years ago when I first attempted to play import PS2 games. I went through the entire process of getting a slim PS2, modifying the disc cover, and finding a few games to play, only to fizzle out when I had done all the “hard” work (it was actually pretty easy). After thoroughly disassembling my gaming closet Thursday, I located the Swap Magic discs and was ready to begin processing the Policenauts patch.

My modified PS2, featuring a "toilet seat" disc cover.
My modified PS2, featuring a “toilet seat” disc cover.

Cue Friday night. My weekend had officially begun and I’d sat down at my computer to examine the readme file associated with the patch. Step one was simple: acquire a copy of Policenauts. Check. Step two upped the ante. “Rip your hard copy of Policenauts to the ISO format.” Furthermore, the author recommended CloneCD to rip the discs (it’s a two-disc game) to a .ccd format and then another program: Alcohol 120% to convert the .ccd files to .iso files. I did as he said and was successful in creating the .ccd files, after perusing that program’s help documents. I then attempted using Alcohol 120%. Before installing, it warned of compatibility issues between it and my HP laptop. I disregarded this prompt hopefully naively, and was greeted with a blue screen of death on the post-install restart. Another attempt resulted in the same issue. Through system restore, I brought my laptop back safely and was forced to look elsewhere for converting these .ccd files, read: Google.

The Google searches yielded many options for programs generating .iso files from .ccd files, but I had a hell of a time finding one (a) compatible with my HP laptop, (b) that was free or had a free trial, and (c) looked trustworthy enough to download. The incompatibility between Alcohol 120% and my HP laptop is a known issue with two solid fixes, but I didn’t feel like uninstalling the conflicting program or upgrading to Windows 10 to remedy the issue. Unfortunately, many other similar programs had similar incompatibility with HP products and my urgency to play Policenauts was beginning to waver. Fortunately, my friend demonstrated enough persistence to persuade me and I eventually discovered UltraISO, a program which granted me access to what I needed with its free trial. I now had the .iso files I needed.

The third step was another doozy: “install xdelta 3.” An innocuous enough task with even a link being provided, simple enough one might say. Wrong! Maybe it would be simple for someone who knew what they were doing. I was just following steps and as soon as the path deviated from those steps, I was lost. Whether it was the second step or this one, I had to devise my own workarounds to get to the same end result as the readme documentation. What I needed here was some kind of .exe file, of which there were many variations of, and looking back on it, I just mishandled this and started banging my head against the wall when the solution wasn’t as clear-cut as the instructions lead me to believe. To cut a long story short, I found what I needed.

With that .exe file safely tucked away in the same folder as the .iso files and the English patch, I simply had to execute the patch file and, voila! It didn’t work! But, before getting up in arms, I realized that was a possibility. There was a second patch file for computers running an Athlon CPU, which apparently I’m running, and when that was executed I was greeted with sweet, sweet success! Finally! The patch files had been applied to the .iso files and I could then burn them to blank CD-Rs and test them out in my PS2 using the Swap Magic discs. There was one single issue remaining… the Swap Magic discs don’t work with PlayStation games and backups, only PlayStation 2 games and backups. D’oh!

In a continuing display of naiveté, I realized this only after attempting to boot a CD-R and then an original disc, both unsuccessfully. A little bit of reading clarified this point to me and served as a reminder to always read the instructions fully before beginning a task (there were no instructions regarding this but I should’ve thought ahead). So, how else could I play these patched CD-Rs on actual PlayStation hardware? The readme file for the patch didn’t delve too much into that topic, but I’ve since researched a variety of options but have yet to settle on one. There’s also the simple route of just playing with an emulator, but the few times I tried doing so with ePSXe haven’t been fruitful. I’m in the process of getting that to function currently and will report back with results.

So, my weekend had barely begun when I realized that playing Policenauts likely wouldn’t be a reality. With the Swap Magic discs available and the PS2 already set up though, my friend and I turned towards the stack of import PS2 games we had hauled into the living room. Without too much effort, it was soon clear why I had fizzled out on the import scene when my interest first piqued years ago.

The stack, laid out.
The stack, laid out.

The Swap Magic method of playing import/backup games is pretty simple. It can only be done with a slim PS2 that has had its disc cover replaced with one resembling a toilet seat. Once the Swap Magic disc boots, it’s replaced with the desired disc which then runs as if region locking wasn’t an issue. The disc cover can’t be opened though, or else the PS2 reverts back to the browser, hence, the toilet seat design which allows for easy access. The Swap Magic discs are sold in a pair – one to boot CD based games and another to boot DVD based games.

We had no issues using the CD based Swap Magic disc. We were able to dabble with a few of the CD based games and had an enjoyable time in particular with The Zombie vs. Ambulance, or Zombie Virus as it’s known in Europe. The PS2 did not cooperate with the DVD based Swap Magic disc however. In fact, the system didn’t read any DVDs regardless of region. It was becoming clear to me why I burned out originally: because I ran into issues with DVD based games. We flat lined at this point and moved on to more productive ventures for the night.

After a night of sleep and a morning of garage sailing with my sister, I kickstarted the search for solutions to my DVD woes on Saturday afternoon. Most reading led me to believe that the laser failing to read DVDs (but still retain its CD reading functionality) was somewhat common. Cleaning the laser ruled out the potential of dust or dirt being the issue and the next cheapest option was simply replacing the laser. Luckily, I obtained a second slim PS2 at an estate last year for a pittance; alternatively, a replacement laser was about $12 on Amazon. I made sure to test a variety of CDs and DVDs in this second PS2 before going any further and fortunately, all worked. After watching a few YouTube tutorials on replacing the laser I had confidence that I was up to the task.

Later that night, while watching Dr. Zhivago on the OETA Movie Club, I successfully switched the lasers. It took much longer than it should’ve thanks to the distraction of the movie but there were also a couple of screws that were royal pains in the butt to remove. Once the movie had finished I had the opportunity to test out the modified PS2 and… it still didn’t play the Swap Magic DVD! What’s more, the system successfully played other DVDs. Looking on the bright side, my issues were narrowed down more specifically to the DVD based Swap Magic disc itself. It didn’t look too scratched, although there were minute cosmetic issues with the disc. Getting it resurfaced would either solve the problem or eliminate one more possibility.

Sunday afternoon, once they’d opened, I made the drive to the nearest Vintage Stock with a working resurfacing machine. While waiting I stumbled across an older GameShark for the PlayStation. In the reading I’d done on playing import/backup copies of PlayStation games I saw mention of an exploit that might possibly allow me to play Policenauts. I bought it to be on the safe side but realized when I arrived home that it wasn’t compatible with my PlayStation. Policenauts was again put on the backburner, but I was one step closer! Next up on the docket was testing the newly resurfaced DVD based Swap Magic disc.

To my surprise, it worked! The PS2 successfully read the disc and launched the Swap Magic menu. I exchanged the disc for Michigan, a Grasshopper Manufacture survival horror game that I remembered seeing on X-Play years ago. The involvement of Suda51 may have also had an impact on my purchase too… Side note: this game was released in Europe, but good luck finding a copy for under $40 and let me know if you do! I was appeased after a little while and was ready to try another game when the PS2 stopped booting the Swap Magic disc. It recognized it as a PS2 disc in the browser and would act like it was booting it, only to return me to the browser menu. ARGH! Other DVDs played just fine so I’m led to believe there’s an issue with the disc itself – not the surface of it, but the information that’s written to it, so… yeah.

I can’t explain why it worked once and not again other than just getting lucky, but I’m not going to sweat it. Maybe I’ll get a plan of action assembled for this upcoming weekend, maybe I’ll have these issues resolved before then, or maybe I won’t even bother and just fizzle out entirely here. No, after all I’ve been through I know I won’t take the easy route out, I’m going to see my objectives through. I’ve been constantly disheartened through these two procedures, but I’ve consistently found ways to make something work or narrow my issues down. Whether it’s playing an English-patched copy of Policenauts or playing DVD based, import PS2 games, I can look back at this weekend disappointed that I wasn’t entirely successful, but I can also look back at it and be proud of the work I put in and the knowledge I’m left with. This weekend was a learning experience that things won’t always be as easy as they seem, but that’s no reason to give up. The path to success is lined with trial and error and through that process, much can be gained.

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Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin [Nintendo DS] – Review

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin

When I talked about Fallout Shelter last week, I began by considering it in a vacuum. Without partners playing too, it grew to resemble a chore more than an enjoyable escape. I feel like taking the same approach with Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin but for a different reason. In a vacuum, this game is practically the pinnacle of the 2D action-adventure genre. The addictive blend of action, exploration, and role-playing elements that the series is known for, still make up the core experience of this game and pair well with new additions. Level design remains fresh throughout, in part due to the top-notch audio/visual qualities and varied surroundings. The reasons to continue playing after completion are immense as well, but, this is like the fifth Castlevania of this style I’ve played, and while they’re individually superb, they elicit less exhilaration after each completion.

Per usual, the animation was top-notch.
Per usual, the animation was top-notch.

When it was released for the Nintendo DS in late 2006, Portrait of Ruin was joining an already extensive collection of similar Castlevania titles that had released relatively recently. Koji Igarashi and his crew at Konami differentiated this game in a few ways, most notably, by focusing on two characters instead of one. The plot centers on Jonathan Morris’ quest to quell Dracula’s uprising amidst a war-torn Europe circa 1944 with his partner Charlotte Audin. He resembles the typical Castlevania protagonist in many ways while she is a spell caster with a growing repertoire of spells, another series staple.

I could freely switch between the two at all times and this allowed me to dabble with both combat styles – weapons with him and magic with her. These two styles were vastly different in execution and perhaps because of my familiarity with previous entries, I stuck with Jonathan. When not actively controlled, the partner was still useful. They would automatically attack on-screen enemies, albeit with little intelligence. This was beneficial in dealing with enemies but it proved most worthwhile in drawing enemy aggression towards the partner, allowing me to attack from behind. Outside of combat, the duo was put to use in progressing past a few (generally half-assed) puzzles. The most memorable of these had both characters riding motorcycles and tasked me with switching between them in order to make sure neither was knocked off by various obstacles. It was a fast-paced puzzle that made me stop and think of a viable solution, unlike most others.

The game had a limited number of NPCs, but each was integral to the plot.
The game had a limited number of NPCs, but each was integral to the plot.

Additionally, the game was distinguished by the variety of locales Jonathan and Charlotte traversed. Now, the primary setting was Dracula’s Castle (naturally) but much of the duo’s time was spent exploring the paintings strewn about, a la Super Mario 64. In keeping with the series, these maintained a gothic design. They transported the pair to the streets of a bombed-out European city, a nightmarish circus, and many more unique backdrops that would’ve seemed out of place as disparate areas of the abominable abode. The series has always attempted to segregate Dracula’s Castle with diverse milieus but this is the best example I’ve seen.

Although Jonathan’s quest was to banish Dracula’s Castle, that vile vampire wasn’t an issue until late in the game. While the castle had arisen because of the agony and hatred within humanity during this period, another vampire took advantage of the castle’s powers for his own agenda and prevented Dracula from reviving. That vampire, Brauner, ultimately worked towards the same end goal of humanity’s destruction, but did so out of the hatred he felt for losing his daughters during the First World War. Brauner was able to harness the power of Dracula’s Castle through his paintings. With assistance from newfound friends and through the evolution of a subplot or two, Jonathan and Charlotte were successful in cleansing the castle of Brauner’s influence and ultimately dealing with Dracula and his ilk.

Some sections of Dracula's Castle may look familiar to veterans of the series.
Some sections of Dracula’s Castle may look familiar to veterans of the series.

There were plenty of reasons to keep going once the story was finished too. Exploration and the mapping of Dracula’s Castle has been a core component of the series since Symphony of the Night, and this game doesn’t disappoint with its 1,000% MAP COMPLETION RATE! That number is perhaps artificially high because of the multitude of paintings, but there is a lot to explore nonetheless. Moreover, there were many collections to complete such as obtaining all items or filling out the bestiary and mastering each sub-weapon, powering them up in the process. These are customary features for the series but also available were sidequests from one of the duo’s associates. I believe this was a first for the series and I had completed maybe 15% at game’s end after passively trying, so there’s much to do on that front.

Two more sets of playable characters could also be unlocked and both changed gameplay dramatically. The environment remained the same with both but the equipment and magic customization was backpedaled completely and a story was basically nonexistent. One pair of characters was a throwback to the classic days of the series with a focus on sub-weapons and the legendary whip, Vampire Killer. This duo was overpowered and playing with them felt like I was in “God mode.” The other duo utilized the touch-screen exclusively. The touch-screen was integrated into the game elsewhere but I literally never used it. The execution with these two was actually very intriguing and their individual means of attacking required different touch-based actions. A Boss Rush mode was also available after completion as well as a co-operative mode (multi-card only).

The duo had access to super-powerful co-op attacks that drained their MP.
The duo had access to super-powerful co-op attacks that drained their MP.

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin has all the staples I’ve come to expect from the series as well as a few differentiating features. The core of these, a focus on two characters, helped to freshen the formula but it was probably the variety of settings that kept me most entertained. Not to mention the accoutrement found in the various collections to complete, sidequests to beat, and unlockables to try out after the plot had wrapped up. The more modern backdrop and the twist on the classic premise were appreciated as well. I think this is probably the most complete Castlevania I’ve played of this style, but I don’t think it tops Aria of Sorrow for me. That was my first foray into the series and each one I’ve played since has been chasing that experience. They’ve all been outstanding, but like the saying goes, I’ll never forget my first, and I’ll forever be comparing successive entries to it.

Metal Gear Solid [PlayStation] – Review

Metal Gear Solid - Title Card

The hype and critical acclaim surrounding Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain got to me (it started last year with this). With my tendencies though, I’ve opted to ignore that title for now and jump in at the beginning: Metal Gear Solid. Technically Metal Gear would be the beginning, but whatever. My usual cohort is following suit and he’s postponing his time with MGSV until we make it through the core series. If there were any gaming series that would benefit from this way of playing, this would be the one. These games are dense with dialogue and exposition and understanding or linking them together coherently may come easier after freshly experiencing them. To assist, I’m going to be doing intense note-taking in the hopes that I’ll understand the narrative and characters even better.

He doesn't know what's coming.
He doesn’t know what’s coming.

Before ever controlling Solid Snake we went through about twenty or thirty minutes of backstory. Most of which was done through (optional) barely animated briefings and through these, the inspiration of Escape from New York was apparent. The characterizing aspects of Solid Snake and his initial mission mimicked Snake Plissken’s so closely I’m surprised there wasn’t legal action! We were also treated to a few Codec conversations and cinematic cutscenes illustrating Snake’s infiltration of Shadow Moses Island. The latter highlighted why it was, and still remains, so highly regarded. Hideo Kojima and Konami revived a classic series in the guise of a big-budget action movie and defined the modern era of storytelling in video games.

The story that unfolded over the next dozen hours centered on Snake’s stealth mission to recover two kidnapped figureheads associated with the U.S. Dept. of Defense and prevent the terrorist group responsible from using a bipedal nuclear equipped robot: Metal Gear Rex. The group responsible is actually the black ops Army unit that Snake once belonged to: FOX-HOUND. The current members have gone rogue, calling themselves the Sons of Big Boss, and are requesting the remains of Big Boss (the unit’s founder). They want access to his genes, which in the wake of the Human Genome Project the U.S. has been secretly isolating “soldier genes” and injecting them into soldiers, creating a “genome army” with skills more proficient than the average warrior. Big Boss was “The Greatest Warrior of the 20th Century” after all.

Just another classic scene.
Just another classic scene.

The story gets way more convoluted from there and at times, it felt like a break was needed to understand the events or conversations that just happened. I did strive to take comprehensive notes and playing with another person also helped to soak in the data and translate it into information. Once we’re done with the series, I’m going to try and understand everything as best I can and that’ll probably involve writing a synopsis of each game. The series, and this game in particular, doesn’t require in-depth note-taking to find enjoyment or some understanding but the lore is so rich that I feel like it’ll be rewarding and enlightening in the end.

For the most part, the events that take place seem plausible and with a little imagination, realistic. Maybe the thought that a bipedal nuclear equipped tank of sorts would be the ultimate weapon is a little farfetched, but this is a game whose inspirations also include mecha anime. The characters that make up the cast on the other hand, specifically FOX-HOUND, well, they’re less believable. They are, however, a rogues’ gallery of fascinating villains. The standout is of course Psycho Mantis, whose psychic abilities included reading the files on the memory card, predicting the player’s actions (forcing the player to plug the controller into the second controller port), and a few other “breaks” in the fourth wall.

One of the most memorable boss fights of all time.
One of the most memorable boss fights of all time.

The battle with him will remain one of the most memorable video game boss fights for a long time to come, but they all weren’t as great. The majority of them are very memorable, if only for the fact that the fights themselves were generally bookended with much conversation and featured the distinctly unique members of FOX-HOUND. Others will remain memorable to us specifically because of their difficulty. Whether it was the uphill battle we were in for because of Solid Snake’s limited health or the challenging situations we’d just gone through beforehand, I’d say a quarter of the fights took a half-dozen attempts each. One thing’s for sure, like the members of FOX-HOUND, each boss fight was unique and required different weaponry or tactics.

While the battles could be frustrating depending on the circumstances, the typical sneaking gameplay wasn’t so hard. Honestly, it didn’t make up a lot of the game in retrospect. The memories of my original playthrough ten years ago are filled with the feeling of helplessness after getting caught and just giving in to the enemy’s weapon fire in order to quickly restart. That didn’t occur to us often on this playthrough. We did get caught every now and then, but we were able to successfully evade capture or quickly eliminate a soldier or two before it escalated to total despair. I imagine we’re just playing smarter than high school me.

The showdown with Metal Gear Rex, like a few other boss fights, was no walk in the park.
The showdown with Metal Gear Rex, like a few other boss fights, was no walk in the park.

It’s been seventeen years since this game was originally released and I think playing it is still as vital to one’s gaming résumé as it was then. This is a cinematic game that was unlike any other at the time of its release and one that still stands out today. With a complex narrative, feature film presentation, and audio/visual qualities that were remarkable for their time (and still respectable today), Metal Gear Solid is a must-play game. I didn’t find playing it as enjoyable as watching it and trying to follow along with the intricacies of the plot could be difficult, but there were some brilliant sections and set pieces nonetheless. The stealth aspects remain a challenging and enduring appeal for me, but the negative experiences we had with a few of the boss fights outweighed the positives. It’s a landmark video game, all in all. On to Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty!

Fallout Shelter [Android] – Review

Fallout Shelter

In a vacuum, Fallout Shelter can become tedious and boring. In the weeks since its Android debut, I’ve played it a few times a day. Early on it served as the highlight of my work break and bedtime gaming session whereas nowadays it triggers the forgetful “oh yeah, that game!” response. With others playing concurrently though, the experience promotes healthy “watercooler conversations” about each individual’s vault. Ultimately, this is a marketing vehicle disguised as a free-to-play game; one that provides ample enjoyment upfront but has little incentive for long-term attachment.

Room production could be rushed, at a risk.
Room production could be rushed, at a risk.

I’ll preface any further exposition with the acknowledgment that I’ve not played a Fallout game in any material way. I did play a smidgen of Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel – arguably the worst title to play in the series – but that doesn’t color the otherwise rosy impression I’ve developed of the series from word-of-mouth.

Fallout Shelter is a resource management game portrayed like an ant farm. On startup, I was introduced to a barren vault which a few wasteland wanderers wished to call home. With them safely inside I was then taught about the three core resources that promote everyday vault life: power, food, and water. I quickly expanded my vault size with the addition of rooms that generated these resources and with a little more education, I was on my way.

New room types were unlocked after meeting certain dweller requirements (20 inhabitants, 30 inhabitants, etc.) and the existing rooms could be added on to and upgraded to yield more resources or skill experience. Each dweller had seven skills that could be increased via their outfit, skill training, or just leveling up. Assigning them to rooms and having them produce resources, babies, or focus on skill training helped them increase levels, as did sending them out to the wasteland. Accordingly, I could also equip them with weapons which came in handy during exploration, enemy raids, or radroach infestations.

Zooming in reveals the dwellers having conversations or spouting one-liners.
Zooming in reveals the dwellers having conversations or spouting one-liners.

There’s no traditional story to the game and there’s not one end-game objective to shoot for. There are always three minor objectives to work towards at any time (collect x amount of resource y, assign x amount of dwellers to the right room, etc.) and these yield rewards for completion. The most coveted are lunchboxes which contain four gifts, one of them guaranteed to be rare. Ideally the rare gift is a special dweller, outfit, or weapon. Personally, I received a rare weapon early on and I was set for wasteland exploration afterwards and thanks to the bottle caps I began generating, my vault expansion took off.

Expanding the vault entails burrowing deeper underground and in total, there are about two hundred spaces to make use of. My current vault occupies about forty spaces and I’ve got a population nearing seventy dwellers. Having gone through a tumultuous period where I was under producing vital resources and not generating enough bottle caps, I’ve slowed progression considerably. I’ve got a couple steadily having children, a far cry from the two or three I had previously. I’ve also focused on equipping everyone with outfits conducive to the rooms they occupy, maximizing resource production, or skill advancement. I’m not overburdening any one resource and by expanding slowly but surely as I now am, I’m more confident in my growing layout.

There were always three random objectives to work towards.
There were always three random objectives to work towards.

Still, I’m struggling to find incentive to play as much as I once was, which is natural. After all, the newness has worn off and I’m no longer being introduced to new concepts. I find the lack of an end-game objective to be a double-edged sword. The upside is the ability play relatively endlessly with little hindrance. The downside being the lack of an incentive for someone like me who isn’t chomping at the bit to play anything Fallout related and only finds this game marginally enjoyable. Wanting to feel like I accomplished a definitive objective, I’ve set a personal goal of unlocking the final room – it requires 100 dwellers in the vault. I’ll probably play for a brief span of time afterwards, but I’ll eventually delete it, and life will go on.

As I mentioned earlier, the game is more engrossing when playing alongside others. I learned through this game that one of my coworkers is a major fan of the series and he was able to provide many solid pointers as his vault remained way more developed than mine. Having conversations with others drove me to continue expanding my vault and compete in a sense. The actual game lacks any sort of involvement or connection with others however, outside of the Google Play Games functionality. I could imagine trying to steal resources, gear, or dwellers from other vaults could be fun, in a Clash of Clans sort of way. Even being able to view other players’ vaults to get ideas or compare/contrast layout would’ve been cool. As it stands, I’ve got little incentive to continue on other than my self-imposed endgame.

My vault, zoomed out to the ant farm perspective.
My vault, zoomed out to the ant farm perspective.

I’d still recommend downloading Fallout Shelter though. It’s free after all, and it is the opening act for what will undoubtedly be one of the year’s defining games. Be warned though–you may begin booting the game up and finding yourself with little to do often. You may even forget about the game for a day or two and then boot it up to find a few dead dwellers. Asking the question “why am I still playing this?” could become common. Friends playing as well will invariably enhance the experience. Then, like me, you may keep the vault in the forefront of your thoughts and want to continue checking in on your dwellers. Heck, you may even want to purchase Fallout 4 this year.

Roxio Game Capture HD Pro [Review]

Roxio Game Capture HD Pro

Inspired to begin recording videos of older video games, I purchased the Roxio Game Capture HD Pro in August 2014. I was previously using a Dazzle DVD Recorder but it could only capture from an A/V input. With component and HDMI inputs, the Game Capture HD Pro allows me to capture just about any game console. After about a year using it, capturing footage from the NES to the Xbox 360, I’m ready to move on. Capturing footage is easy to do but every now and then a session will result in garbled, almost unusable footage. Editing software is also bundled with the device but after using it a few times, it’s easy to realize why.

At about a hundred dollars, this device is one of the more affordable HD capture devices. It’s easy to setup and install too. It’s a physical device that has component and HDMI inputs and outputs, as well as a USB port to plug into the computer. The device you’re capturing from feeds through the Game Capture HD Pro and outputs on a TV while the computer is recording the footage. The capture software doesn’t have the ability to record commentary while you’re playing opting instead to allow that feature in the bundled VideoWave editing software. I avoided this by recording my commentary simultaneously with Audacity and then layering the separate audio track over the footage while editing.

Capturing footage is fine nine times out of ten but every now and then a recorded session will result in garbled footage that’s nearly unusable. I’ve recorded a few dozen hours of gameplay over the past year and when this happened, it made me want to snap the device in two. Losing a video can put me in a bind; I’ve just been recording let’s plays and it can be difficult for me to regress in a game in order to have a video showing my efforts. Alternatively, I can just forget it and mention the reason for the skipped progress in a successive video. I’ve had this occur enough times that I’m ready to be done with Roxio.

Honestly, the cause of my problems probably has more to do with the VideoWave editing software.
Honestly, the cause of my problems probably has more to do with the VideoWave editing software.

That’s not the only reason why though. As I mentioned the Game Capture HD Pro comes bundled with Roxio’s VideoWave editing software and it’s just as spotty. Just like setup in general, the editing software is easy to use and learn, and this is coming from someone with little experience with any other video editing software. In the editing space are additional windows for inserting video or audio from the computer’s folders quickly. But, if there’s any video or audio files in the selected folders, VideoWave crashes nine times out of ten, no joke (besides all the general crashes that occurred). After finding little help on the official forums, I found guidance from another user’s YouTube explanation (here), and it worked! Think about that. A feature that’s activated by default and part of the software causes it to crash; wonderful! I’ve been able to get by since stumbling upon that video, but I still have to deal with frequent crashing.

At this point, I’m done with it just getting me by. I want a capture device and video editing software that’s more than passable. I want something that’s reliable. Roxio’s Game Capture HD Pro has gotten me through my first year of recording video games and I’ve learned a lot, especially on the post-production side. I’ve got more to learn and I’ve not lost my inspiration because of this either. I can’t say I won’t ever try another Roxio product (I certainly wouldn’t recommend this under most circumstances) but I am looking forward to getting my feet wet with another company’s capture device.

Star Ocean: Second Evolution [PlayStation Portable] – Review

Star Ocean Second Evolution

When I played Star Ocean: First Departure earlier this year, I came away disappointed. I was looking forward to an epic sci-fi JRPG and instead encountered a brief fantasy tale wrapped in a sci-fi veneer. My eagerness to bask in the series wasn’t washed away however and I promptly began the follow-up Star Ocean: Second Evolution. Another remake for the PSP, this one was of Star Ocean: The Second Story which originally released on the PlayStation in North America in 1999. This version was released ten years later and left me with many of the same grievances, but I wound up enjoying it more.

Much everything remained the same from the previous remake.
Much everything remained the same from the previous remake.

Of the Star Ocean games released to date, this is the only one to serve as a direct sequel to another. Set twenty years after the events of First Departure, this game is primarily the tale of Claude Kenny, the son of one of the original protagonists. I say primarily because players can also choose Rena Lanford as the centerpiece of the game. Both characters embark on a journey of self-discovery and their paths cross very early on at which point they remain together through the end. Having done a single playthrough I can’t comment on the differences caused by picking the other, but since they join up so early on, I can’t imagine there’s much uniqueness.

Pretty quickly after starting, Claude gets separated from his father’s Federation crew and he’s left to fend for himself on a technologically inferior planet. Here he comes across Rena and the two eventually embark on a quest to rid planet Expel of the monsters that have freshly infested it. As their quest unfolds they meet likeminded individuals who join up as comrades. Like the previous game, this is a game meant to be replayed as all party members aren’t obtainable in a single playthrough. Unfortunately, tri-Ace pulled the same stunt of developing a fantasy JRPG in the veneer of a sci-fi setting – translated, the sci-fi aspects bookend fantasy elements comprising the bulk of the experience. I’m fine with either setting, but I would caution any readers planning to dive in – these first two games aren’t entirely sci-fi tales!

Private Actions returned again but I made little use of them.
Private Actions returned again but I made little use of them.

The sci-fi elements on display were more pronounced however, with the final third taking place on another, further advanced planet. Energy Nede as it was called had an interesting backstory and was home to the Ten Wise Men. This group served as the eventual antagonistic force and they are one of the most memorable I’ve seen in a JRPG. They weren’t particularly fleshed out, but each one was unique and the progression in battling them made the conclusion an event. A few in particular were downright dastardly and evoked major tantrums in me. When they were felled, it was a satisfying event and ultimately everything ended on a cheerful note.

Battles and exploration were identical to First Departure, down to the UI. These remakes were developed at the same time and accordingly, it was all very familiar to me. I still relied upon spamming the basic attack and this continued to be a decent strategy. I will say there were more enemies that required me to flank and others that I had to earnestly avoid attacks, so the battles were a little less monotonous than I’d previously experienced. The skill system returned too and I, again, really enjoyed spending the accrued skill points increasing individual character’s stats and skills. It was an addictive facet that that had a noticeable impact on my party’s performance in battle, making it all the more incentivizing.

There were attractions and other diversions that I also didn't invest myself in.
There were attractions and other diversions that I also didn’t invest myself in.

Visually, I found this game very appealing. It was originally made during the era of prerendered backgrounds and they were left intact for this remake. Games aren’t often made with this style of prerendered backgrounds anymore as the horsepower in our consoles and computers no longer calls for it. The buildings and towns were constructed using this graphical style and they look dated, which sounds offensive; I really liked them so I would say they looked… nostalgic. Because this style is still new to me, I was able to give some things a pass, like the poor scaling.

Some backgrounds were portrayed with such depth, that as I navigated Claude he would continue to shrink until I could barely make him out. Frequently, this made locating objects to interact with a bit of a chore. Part of the blame lies with the viewing area of the PSP’s screen. This was a console game originally so naturally it was meant to be played on a larger viewing receptacle. It wasn’t until I plugged my PSP into the TV and blew the image up that the visuals really looked right. The game was entirely playable on the PSP, and I usually prefer my RPGs in this form (apt for bedtime sessions), but the game’s roots begged for it to be played on the TV.

Those prerendered backgrounds were begging to be seen on a TV!
Those prerendered backgrounds were begging to be seen on a TV!

Star Ocean: Second Evolution was a more enjoyable game than its predecessor. The story was largely forgettable (what even happened in the middle, I couldn’t tell you) but it did have a larger concentration of sci-fi elements. As was the case with First Departure, it was when the narrative placed the characters in a futuristic setting that my attention was grabbed (especially when the Ten Wise Men were in play). But, it still felt like a fantasy JRPG wrapped in a sci-fi shell. The core gameplay mechanics– battling and adventuring – were identical to the previous game; they still remained fun after another twenty hours due to the additional challenge breaking up the monotony. And graphically the game was presented in a way that felt fresh to me, despite the dated stylings. It’s the best Star Ocean I’ve played to date, but much of it was largely forgettable and perhaps not worth seeking out. A better future was found, but here’s hoping for an even brighter one.

Knuckles’ Chaotix [Sega 32X] – Review

Knuckles' Chaotix

Released for the Sega 32X in 1995, Knuckles’ Chaotix is the sole title in the Sonic the Hedgehog series to grace the ill-fated add-on. It’s apt that there was only a single title on the Sega 32X since, much like the series, it went fast. Still, this game contains some stellar audio/visual qualities that seem to utilize the benefits provided by the add-on. Despite not revolving around or even featuring Sonic (outside of a cameo in the credits), the gameplay is that of a Sonic game, with one major difference. A second character remains attached to the player’s character at all times via a magical elastic ring. This was quirky and introduced unique platforming mechanics, but I bypassed it entirely by playing as another character.

The game featured a comprehensive tutorial explaining the unique mechanics.
The game featured a comprehensive tutorial explaining the unique mechanics.

Set against the backdrop of an amusement park the day before its opening, Knuckles’ Chaotix documents the trials that the famous (infamous?) echidna and his roadies were put through in order to see its opening day go off without a hitch. Chaotix, as I’ll refer to the group, cleanse Carnival Island’s five areas of Dr. Robotnik and Metal Sonic’s evil influence and prevent the duo from obtaining some sort of all-important crystal. Like its contemporaries, this is a Sonic game that is light on narrative. Which, considering the low, weird places the series has gone since the late 1990s, that’s a good thing.

As I mentioned, the gameplay veers from the series’ familiar formula in one major way: the addition of Ring Power. That’s the system that chains two characters together. It adds an additional element to the fast-paced platforming and boss fighting that traditionally occurs. Ring Power paved the way for rubber banding the characters to gain momentum and using that same concept to slingshot upwards and scale platforms. Because of this newly implemented mechanic, or perhaps in order to make it seem more necessary, stage design seemed to rely upon verticality to a much greater extent than previous games. The stage structure seemed more mazelike as well. There were times when I got confused on which way I needed to be going after doubling back many times while ascending the stages.

Per usual, special stages were present and felt familiar to past games.
Per usual, special stages were present and felt familiar to past games.

I recently read that the stage design for the Sonic games of this era was built upon the concept that the pathways on higher ground would lead to faster stage completion. These pathways contained more divided platforms and as such, allowed a smaller window of time to react, especially when zooming about at “Blast Processor” speeds. In other words, they required more skill. I’ve never been particularly skillful when it comes to these games, which is great since Knuckles’ Chaotix abandoned this approach. Instead, the stages felt more like those maze puzzles that have an entrance and an exit and task you with drawing a line connecting the two. When completed slowly and methodically, mistakes can be avoided but when you try to speed up, errors are made and backtracking is required. Unfortunately, this is a Sonic game and the concepts of “gotta go fast” and maze navigation don’t mix too well.

There was another option however.

The game had a variety of characters to play as but most played identically to Sonic, except for one...
The game had a variety of characters to play as but most played identically to Sonic, except for one…

The characters that make up Chaotix are a diverse bunch: Knuckles the Echidna, Mighty the Armadillo, Espio the Chameleon, Charmy Bee, and Vector the Crocodile. I take that back. They’re all Sonic clones with a unique move or two and they go just as fast as the “Blue Blur.” Well, except for Charmy Bee. Charmy is a bee and accordingly can fly. There isn’t an energy bar or stamina that needs to be considered either, he can just, fly. This impacted my playthrough in the following way: once this fact dawned on me I always chose Charmy and I would just fly to the exit or fly to the objective and then to the exit. Now this wasn’t a linear path I was on, I still had to navigate the confounding stages and believe me, when you ignore the actual platforms, they’re even more confounding. But, this was also the path of least resistance and I’d have been a fool not to take it.

As a result of Charmy Bee becoming my default character, I barely experienced Ring Power. I wasn’t dismayed by this. I spent about a quarter of my playthrough abiding by the platforming limitations requiring its use, but honestly, nothing comes to mind, outside of switches. All I can remember are stages that went vertical and doubled back way more than they should have and the tutorial which demonstrated a few of the ways Ring Power would be necessary. I can’t think of any times it was mandatory though, besides switches. It’s a novel idea, but one whose applications inside a game such as this seem limited and the implementation here didn’t call for it, making it practically nonexistent in my experience.

One of my favorite power-ups seemed to have inspired New Super Mario Bros.
One of my favorite power-ups seemed to have inspired New Super Mario Bros.

I’m not an expert on the first handful of Sonic the Hedgehog games, or any really (maybe Sonic Adventure 2: Battle (Chao man, Chao!)), but the stage design on display here was confounding. The prospect of taking the series – known for its speed – and putting characters with similar abilities in positions where the focus on speed is removed in exchange for labyrinth navigation is frustrating. Not only that, but they introduced a new mechanic and in the same game introduced a character who completely nullified it, let alone require its use (disregarding switches). There are enjoyable moments in this game, and it’s a worthwhile addition to a Sega 32X collection because of the add-on’s small library, but Knuckles’ Chaotix isn’t worth seeking out otherwise.

And… all the way down here is the link to my collected let’s play where you can witness firsthand my opinion of this game form.