Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Nintendo Switch to Steam Power?

Some years ago I watched the Nintendo E3 event and saw them unveil the Wii U for the first time, and I wrote about it in the blog. Although the writing seems amateurish today, I was not impressed. The Nintendo Switch, which promises to meld the console and handheld experience, is at least a cool idea but to me it still misses the point of why Nintendo became good in the first place before its fall from grace.

The reason why the NES did very well in the marketplace is that it had brilliant games no one else had, and not necessarily because of its exclusivity contract. Better graphics, better game play. In NES games at least compared to the Atari 2600 and its contemporaries, a higher level didn't mean the "the same but more" or "the same but faster", but a whole new experience. New layouts. New bosses. New music. The Sega Master System was more expensive, arrived after the NES had hit the stores, and did not even have a solid line-up of first-party titles. Ask anyone to name some "solid SMS exclusives" and you'll probably get Alex Kidd or Phantasy Star.

And you thought the U.S. box art for the first Mega Man was terrible.

The Super NES fought off stronger competition with once again a superior system with superior games. Their decision to push better games instead of finicky add-ons cemented their place in history. The excellent book Console Wars makes note of the day that, although it isn't explicitly stated in the book, the functional end of Sega as a serious competitor: November 21, 1994. On that day, Sega released the Sega 32X, and Nintendo released Donkey Kong Country. To borrow from a less-successful console from that time period's marketing, "do the math".

It was the Nintendo 64 where Nintendo started to lose track of the industry, by focusing on what they wanted to do and not where the market was going, and that cost them dearly, even if the games would still be good in that period. Fast forward twenty years from 1996 to 2016, and the big problem is that Nintendo's still trying to play by its own rules while the games department is running on fumes. When was the last good Mario, Metroid, or Zelda game made? About a video game generation ago, that's when (at least).

I should point out that Nintendo started doing backwards compatibility for its products only when things started to go wrong. I don't think the Wii would've done nearly as well if did not accept GameCube discs, and the problem with the Nintendo Switch is it won't seem to do Nintendo 3DS games or Wii U games at least out of the box, and given the state of both third parties and first parties these days that's a slim chance that it could do well, and even if it was officially announced, would you drop a high amount of money to play a remastered version of Skyrim? And with the output of Mario's games lately, what will another game look like after Nintendo has hooked up Mario to the milking machine again?

However, Nintendo has stated that it won't replace the Wii U or Nintendo 3DS and will be a new thing, either as insurance policy (like the Nintendo 3DS) or if they really want to be a third column thing (invoking Virtual Boy). And if it carries neither of those products, it will only cut into sales and shelf space of their other products and really harm the company as a whole.

BUT, rather than viewing it as a failure in the making (I'm sure that they'll be a small but vocal segment who will buy it and extol it), what if it totally is different? Watching the video shows it to be a quite large screen compared to the Nintendo 3DS and its contemporaries. I am sure that if this was the case, it would cause more disruption than an Election Day result, but probably also announced by now...if it was compatible with Steam.

While it may sound like wishful fanboy thinking, and to be honest it is, I think some of it does make sense.

1. Why would Bethesda not confirm Skyrim for the Switch but for everyone else? The first explanation would be still waffling if the Nintendo Switch would be a failure or not, which bodes poorly for the system, but the second is if the Switch isn't exactly a stand-alone console, it's a Nintendo-branded PC.

2. Nintendo's willingness to try mobile games may be a prelude to them actually doing a full PC launch. Pokémon Go was a huge hit, making $250 million in a few weeks, while the Wii U loses money on every unit sold and its software sales aren't a whole lot better. It's the 3DS that really carries the company, and even sales for that are slowing down.

3. People have complained for years as to why Nintendo does not make games on the PC, especially as digital distribution makes it easier than ever. Recently, I posted that SMACH Z was doomed for failure because it was hardware based had no software inherent to itself. If it was Nintendo making it, they could pair Steam re-releases with the console, as well as adding exclusives via physical media that may or may not eventually make it to digital distribution later. A well-timed launch will make a massive impact, as it would let people who wanted a handheld Steam device get one, PC gamers pick up "official" copies of games that doesn't involve mucking around with Ice and adding non-Steam games (think about how relatively successful Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VI releases on Steam were), and add incentives for non-Nintendo diehards to purchase one. It would be perfect for everybody.

Buying Super Mario Bros. again may be a tough sell. Maybe if it had extra features somehow...

4. The controller snap-ons. If you had a dedicated home controller for playing at home to just pick up (which it seems to have have and not the derpy snap-together controller that looks like a dog, you don't need to detach the controller pieces every time if you're coming to play back home. The idea would be different snap-on designs for different types of games. Imagine one more designed for FPS use while one designed with a solid NES-style D-pad. The controllers could be the ones that make money.

5. The final reason is that Nintendo has so much to lose if it fails. The system itself is going to incompatible with the 3DS and Wii U without additional hardware (and hardware add-ons have never really worked in market saturation) and there is absolutely no other hardware (announced or rumored) in the pipeline, and neither Pokémon Go nor Super Mario Run will save Nintendo. The only thing that kept Sega running was a $692 million infusion of cash from the late Isao Okawa's personal fortune shortly before the company was acquired in 2004 by Sammy Corporation. If the Nintendo Switch is a success, Nintendo can keep making hardware even if it plays others' software, and still maintain an exclusive group of IPs, keeping the brand alive and in good standing in hearts, minds, and wallets of consumers, as well as continuing to be a promising hardware manufacturer, even after Miyamoto dies someday. If the Nintendo Switch is a failure, that's it. The Game Boy/Nintendo DS line will die with the 3DS, and while they might license out their IPs or make new games, they're finished. I wouldn't bet on them making third party titles unless they have the resources to even do it. Keeping with the Sega example above, the Dreamcast still sold 9.2 million units in its lifetime. That's less than the Wii U's numbers, but they sold 9.2M units in about eighteen months, while it took Wii U two years to reach that number, and that was only because they got a third Christmas, something the Dreamcast never saw.

Even if those reasons made sense on some level to you, the bigger reason still stands. If this was some sort of thing involving Steam, why didn't they say so to begin with? I think the answer is simple--they wanted to focus on the hardware. If they immediately focused on Steam, they would've faced more criticism for the design as well as immediately raising the white flag in terms of the company's console making presence. Here they can trot out the console with no games just to get people intrigued and used to the idea, and they can do a second reveal that will really build excitement for the console. After all, I'm sure that the Nintendo Switch will be able to access Netflix and such, and they didn't show any TV shows of that sort of thing.

If the Nintendo Switch is just an intriguing idea but little to back it up beyond the usual suspects (Zelda, Mario, Pokémon, and the newer version of Splatoon teased), then there's little reason to pick it up, just like the Wii U. But if, if it does have Steam, then it will sell well. After all, Steam functionality would be the "killer feature" the Switch needs, it would provide to a huge audience, and most importantly, it will win back the crowd.

I would buy it.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Buying Retro Games? You're Getting Shafted

I run Windows 7. I'm trying to build up my Steam collection with not the latest and greatest (those are EXPENSIVE and often comes with nasty DLC) but good games or at least the ones that made press for the time (I'm not going to reinstall Façade ever again but I do have five minutes logged on the first Five Nights at Freddy's, which I did buy for cheap). You know what I'll perhaps never be able to put in my Steam library with a clear conscious? SimCity 2000. Yes, I am aware that it's on GOG. But that's not the right version. It's the DOS version, which is the first version of SimCity 2000 made. For what it's worth, it looks pretty sharp and plays okay (hardly the worst port of SC2K out there). It has awful music, but that can be mitigated with some sort of sound card plug-in for your DOSBox/DOSBox fork configuration, because the music is supposed to sound closer to this and not the wheezy, tinny sound that the AdLib makes. The Mac version was ported over from the DOS version (looks almost identical) but it has a higher resolution (the window now can be as big as you like, so that's for you people that have super-high resolution monitors) and a patch was made to fix all of the bugs that the DOS version had plus giving the Launch Arcologies the ability to launch. Having played the DOS version, I can attest how helpful the "bulldozer reversion" fix is.

But the DOS version got this patch, their 1.1 version was to fix a crash on a certain type of processor and allegedly never touched it again because they admitted the DOS code was a "mess", but the Mac OS port was elegant enough to even receive a 1.2 patch that gave it a new 4th speed level, "African Swallow", which was my first exposure to such a bird name (for some reason, I didn't actually see Monty Python & The Holy Grail until I was in college).

"Oh, yeah, an African swallow maybe, but not a European swallow, that's my point."

So rather than attempt to patch the Windows version which also has a 4th zoom level to compensate for higher resolutions but admittedly has a slightly different and duller UI (link, the newspaper seems to have suffered the most) they pass off the crap DOS version for modern Windows, Linux, and macOS users. That is unacceptable. If you want a real playable SimCity 2000 experience, use an emulator like SheepShaver or Basilisk II and find a copy yourself. However, since there's no sort of classic Mac OS "WINE" equivalent (which would be awesome), it would at best sit inside of an emulator and hardly integrate with the rest of your collection. You could, in theory, hack together said emulator with AppleScript to shut down the emulated computer once the application is closed but that would just make a bloated mess and not the elegant solution for mini vMac that could fit on a few floppies.

I recently bought a Sierra pack from Humble Bundle and was disappointed to find that the games that utilize FMV, like Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh have low-resolution videos with scan lines. The original Windows discs originally had quite the video quality, at least equal to a VHS tape of the day, whereas the DOS version resembles something more like the Sega PC. Compare the DOS version here with the Windows version here. Note the dithering artifacts.

The good news is a lot of the classic adventure games (LucasArts, Sierra) have been ported to ScummVM, where you can enjoy the "best" version, regardless of the port it was originally made on, like the NES version of Maniac Mansion, which has music that the early Apple II/DOS versions don't have.

Even the prototype of Maniac Mansion for NES suffers from some censorship, like "THRILL KILL" changed to "TUNA DIVER". I don't think there's any version out there that has the first attempted change, "MUFF DIVER".

But regardless, the prevailing theme of most any retro game is going to be a DOSBox based system. That's not what we should be paying for. It's the future, we all have powerful computers that should in theory emulate whatever the "best" system was, we should not be getting the DOSBox version unless DOS was the only system it came on. The second "retro no-no" is the Flash port, which is what the port of Déjà Vu: MacVenture Series seems to be. If you were going to port such a thing, try actually porting the engine instead of re-doing it in Flash. I don't have proof that they're doing it in Flash but I don't want to give them money to see if my theory is correct. At least they are actually trying to emulate the Mac and IIGS versions instead of pawning the DOS version on people, which is at least something.

So, what can we do to stop this? Well, we need to demand that if you re-releasing retro games, do it right. Make sure that if it is originally DOS, optimize it to run the best instead of requiring that we tweak it to prevent it from being some blurry, out of focus mess. If it can be run in a modern engine re-creation, use that engine, like SCUMM or Doomsday. If it was originally released on DOS but with a better Windows port, patch it to run on XP, 7, and above. (It is a shame that Mac games are not afforded the same freedom DOS games get, and there's no "official" way to run anything, as Apple will try to make all of its products obsolete as soon as possible but won't entertain the idea of a licensed, stripped-down System 6 or 7 for older games.)

Saturday, October 1, 2016

How I Got Classic Mac Games into Steam (And You Can Too!)

So I was reading a fan blog for Steam, where someone had tried to run SteamOS on a computer designed to be a dedicated living room console. I perked up when I read about attempting to run Shufflepuck Cafe on Steam. Shufflepuck Cafe, the classic Brøderbund Software title had somehow gotten a Steam release? Turns out it wasn't even a reboot by Ubisoft, it was the knockoff Shufflepuck Cantina Deluxe, a port of a free-to-play iOS game. Well, that's no fun.

But then I thought about it, and I realized that Shufflepuck Cafe, the original, the classic, could re-join Steam. Well, I suppose I could've settled with a port, as grabbing the Famicom port and using it with Ice or creating a DOSbox package with the DOS version would've been easy enough. But the Mac version, with its crisp black and white graphics would remain otherwise out of reach.

Have to admit, the Amiga port does look better and includes this awesome title music. [source]

Unfortunately, due to the classic Mac's way of storing files, it's pretty hard to install System 6 from scratch on an emulated Mac (namely, Mini vMac) from a modern Windows system (at one time, an application called HFVExplorer helped out, but I've found it to be unreliable). If you want something easier to jump into, check out a pre-installed build like this but take out all the crap that was also installed, like the eyes in the menu bar that follow your mouse around.

Anyway, thanks to the miracle of Startup Application and a handy utility known as AutoQuit, I was able to create a self-contained Shufflepuck Cafe item using this walkthrough (the actual game from here). Now the fun part was adding to it to Steam, where I just had selected the "Add a Non-Steam Game", and it appeared in the list. To add a banner for it, I just took a screenshot of the title and cropped it to the proper Steam banner size, and there I had it, my very own classic Mac game into Steam.

The particular version is the "cheat" version but not the "hack" version (which also has the cheat menu installed). The "hack" version actually seems like it should be the "official" version, as '80s computer games were known for those sort of stunts and the official release looks like it was censored. I'm just saying.

As of now, I can't provide the finished product because of problems regarding my website (access mostly, though I hope to restart it soon) and hosting.