Friday, May 30, 2014

Stanley Cup Time = Blades of Steel

The Stanley Cup Western Conference Playoffs have been a real nail biter for us Blackhawks fans. By the time some of you read this you may know the fate of the Hawks whether the are out of the standings or alive and well and in the finals. But for now on this morning of Friday May 30, 2014 they are at 2 games to 3 against the LA Kings in the Western Semi-finals. 

But for the last few weeks as the finals have narrowed down the remaining competitors I couldn't  help thinking about hockey in the world of video games. 

For me there are two favorites the above classic Blades of Steel on the NES, and the below Ice Hockey on the Atari 2600. 

Now, I know what your saying "really all the great NHL 20xx, games out there and you choose these two?". The answer is "Yes, I did". You see I think the thing that is missed with modern sports games is that they get too serious. It becomes to much about picking the right players, and stats and drafts and all that and the fun of just playing a silly hockey video game gets sucked out of it. 

Activisions Ice Hockey on the Atari 2600 for example is just straight up hockey based fun. No picking teams, or even colors just four guys on the ice playing hockey. It looks like kids playing hockey on a frozen pond in the middle of winter, just having fun, and that's exactly what the game is fun. In one or two playing mode it's a blast. 

Jump ahead one generation to the NES and Konami's Blades of Steel. Ok this is a little more complicated then Ice Hockey on the 2600, but still a load of fun. You play in something that actually looks like a hockey stadium, you choose a team, period length, and your basically off after that. You want Blackhawks vs Kings you can do it on this game. But here is the best part, "fights!" that's right fights break out on the ice and you even get to participate in that as a player. So not only is it hockey it's a little bit boxing too. Yes, it really is as much fun as it sounds like. 

You see the point of these games is to just have fun, and that's exactly what they are. If my NES wasn't on the fritz again I would be inclined to play through the Stanley Cup in Blades of Steel just for there pure oddball pleasure of it, but hey doesn't mean you can't.

Even if you aren't a hockey fan you have to get one or both of these games just to experience them, you won't regret it.

By the way Go Hawks!!!!! 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Enter the 7800

The Atari 7800 and I have a complicated past, dating back to 1988. It all started when was given an Atari 7800 for Christmas that year, that I quickly found out didn't work. Of course it was no major loss since I got my Atari 2600 Jr. out of the deal. But I always thought that someday I would like to own an operating 7800. Of course I jumped ship to my NES the following year, then PC gaming a few years after that, and so on and so forth.

Then for a Retro Gaming New Years resolution last year I made aquiring an Atari 5200 and 7800 one of my goals for this year. In a previous posting I covered the first part of reclaiming a 5200 into my collection, but there was only about a weeks deference between the arrival of the 5200 at my house in March, and the arrival of my 7800. 

Atari 5200 and 7800, with a 2600 Jr in the background.

The 7800 as you can probably guess was an eBay buy. I picked it up for less then $40 with a small stack of games included. The seller stated he "didn't know if it worked......but the last time he played it ten years ago it did.....and he was unsure how to hook it up to a modern TV". So even though I picked it up for a great price, there was the risk it was broken, but I guessed it was more that the seller didn't know how to operate it and I was right. 

It came in a huge box that was overkill for what was inside. Luckily, everything was wrapped up tightly in bubble wrap. The one major issue I did see opening it up was that the RF adaptor was rusted to hell, I mean it was shot. Of course messing with retro systems this was a non-issue since it could share a cable with my 2600. 

The shared cable worked ok, but my Panasonic Plasma TV disagreed.

A Case of Horizontal Hold

Back in the era of old tube TV's horizontal and vertical hold where always an issue. You had to flip open a hidden control panel and mess with some knobs so you could fix one or another. 

Now around tax time I bought the family a new bigger Panasonic and took the old one for the rec room finally replacing the little 17-inch Polariod TV I have been gaming on for months. 

With the small Polariod on the floor of the rec room I pre-tested the 5200 and 7800 before digging behind the entertainment center to hook them up. Both systems when tested worked well, but once in my "Atari cabinet" the huge Panasonic couldn't keep horizontal hold of the 7800 picture. I rechecked cables and changed out games with always the same result. 

Turns out that modern plasma TV's aren't always to crazy about retro tech, and horizontal hold issues could sometimes be a result. Luckily there is a fix! But, be ready the fix is retro tech itself. A VCR! That's right a VCR! You see later models of VCR had the uncanny ability to adapt old technology inputs from co-axial cables into stable A/V output using RCA cables. So after digging out and hooking up two different VCR's I got one with a remote that allowed me to do this. This means that the VCR inputs a Daisy chain of NES, Genesis, Atari 5200, 2600, and 7800 goodness into one stable RCA r/w/y output coupled with the added bonus of a working VCR. 

My first game played was Sneak N' Peek, no joke. It was the closest game near me. But hey, it looked good in all its weird glory on the 7800. I switch to Karateka, which was an old favorite from my school days, and that is when I encountered my next issue, the joystick. 

The joystick that came with that system for whatever reason didn't want to allow me to go to the right. After switching Karateka out for Choplifter it became apparent that it was the joystick. Unlike my other issue with the horizontal hold, and the RF box this wasn't such an easy fix. 

I opened it up like and gave it a good cleaning, but found that after that I only got intermittent movement to the right. My next step was to buy a new one, even if the one that came with it could work I still wanted a second controller. My local Retro game store TNT Games had Atari 7800 controllers for just shy of $8 a piece. Once I got the new one home it became apparent the old controller was shot, and game play was easy (as it could be for a 7800) with the new controller.

Overall the 7800 was a fairly good bargin with the only real issue being the controller. But I have my doubts whether the 7800 could hold its own in Gen 3 against the NES. But that's a different article. For now my Atari resolutions are complete and my childhood dream of having all three systems donning the black and stainless look is complete as well. Now on to collecting 7800 games, trust me Midnight Mutants, and Ninja Golf are a tall ($) order. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

How Star Fox and Firefly suck worse then ET

Star Fox, and Firefly suck far worse than ET!

Wait you didn't think I was talking about Starfox the SNES classic did you? Or that I was talking about the Joss Whedon, Nathon Fillion classic Sci-Fi show Firefly? Hell no! Becuase those are actually good things. 

I'm talking about Star Fox, and Firefly from a forgotten game publisher called Mythicon. Of course lets not forget their third game Socerer either. If you read my last article, "Alamogordo: ET vs Economics" ( than you probably know that I refered to third party developers who flooded the market with knock-offs and games that where far from awesome, and who ultimately caused the "Crash of 83'". To me Mythicon is one of these companies. 

You see while poor old ET is getting the blame and the shaft, there are far worse games out there. This even prompted Hugues Johnson host of the podcast the The Retro League in a recent episode named The Ninth Circle, to state that he could think of at least 50 games that where far wares then ET, a few of which he went on to mention in the show. Personally, I believe Festers Quest is one of the worst games ever made easily trumping ET. But you don't have to leave Gen 2 to find games far worse than ET

Keep in mind I don't have an issue with third party developers, in Gen 2 Activision and Imagic made some of that generations best games, in most cases easily beating out Atari's own in house games. In generations to follow up till today third party games seem to be far more common then those made by the console maker. Look at today's popular titles as examples of that: Madden 20 from EA, Grand Theft Auto 5 from Rockstar, and Assasins Creed IV from Ubisoft. With that said though game development today is a lot different then it was in Generation 2. Watching the movie Indie Game you can see how it can take a developer years of grueling work to make a game happen on a modern system. In gen 2 though not so much, especially since Basic didn't take to long to learn, and with Atari's legal guard down red tape was almost non- existent, plus with no real concerns or control over quality a program could be knocked out quickly and on store shelves  in a matter of a few months. 




Firefly has a definite WTF factor and completely lacks any intuitiveness. The game and plotline can't make up its mind whether it's about insects or spaceships. On that note don't look for the Serenity here or any indication that this piece of crap inspired the TV show. What I can tell you is that this thing is overly simply with the most basic, Basic had to offer. A black screen and simple graphics and gameplay. 



Screen Shot

Mythicon developers definitely put some imagination into this one, but it still sucked. Once agian overly simple graphics and f*cking awful gameplay

Star Fox


Screen Shot

Way to go on originality guys! This game is an overly simple, yet blatant rip off of Empire Strikes Back. I'll admit the Atari 2600 Star Wars games are not spectacular but they are way better then this, well maybe except Jedi Arena. Overall though this game is another piece of crap, and just as in the Firefly example there is to relation to the SNES Starfox released in 1993. 

Mythicon released this garbage hoping to cash on the Atari 2600 game craze. Mythicon's intentions where somewhat admirable in the fact that they where selling their games for less then $10 a piece to attract customers who wanted games but not at Atari's $40-$60 price tags. But the fact of the matter is to meet this price point quality was sacrificed. 

Low end developers like Mythicon, and games like those I mentioned here where really what was responsible for the "Crash of 83'". With games in the $10-$20 price range consumers could bring home multiple games for what they would have paid for 1 Atari game, but often what consumers got where poor imitations that looked and played extemely bad. Then suddenly a crisis occurred to where these bad games where going down even further in price, ensnaring more gamers and suddenly cuasing the price of good games to drop. But by this time crap like what Mythicon was producing was soaring consumers. 

Sadly our old friend ET would take the blame for this, as the game arrived on the scene as the crash started. This forever put the mark of Kane on this game as urban legend attached a myth that "it was so bad it crashed the market, and had to be buried in the desert". Of course if you ever play Mythicon's crap then play ET, you will soon learn that ET isn't that bad. Unlike the Mythicon games Atari developers actually put a lot of imagination and originality into ET, and compared to something like Sorcerer it actually looks a 1000 times better. 

Mythicon wasn't the only one out there who put out total crap in those dark days there where others. I don't mean that all third party developers did this and beyond my beloved Activision, and Imagic, M-Network, Parker Brothers, and several others did put out some great games too. So a third party doesn't exactly equal crap all this time, but there does seem to be a one to one ratio out there between good and bad. 

In closing before you or anyone else out there has snarky remarks about ET, or Atari you look this way and think about Mythicon. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Alamogordo: E.T. vs Economics

The date is April 27, 2014 and after years of urban myths, rumors, and attempts to prove or disprove them, a mix of video game enthusiasts, archeologist, tech writers, hucksters, filmmakers, and newsmen looking for a story on a slow news day, all descended on a garbage dump outside of Alamogordo, NM for the “dig” of a lifetime. This would be the day that a site within the dump is finally excavated to find out if in 1983 Atari dumped consoles and games here. After a long and arduous day the urban legend would prove to be far more fact then fiction, except for a few things that many choose to overlook. 

You see the urban legend says that the dump was all the result of Atari’s E.T. video game, supposedly the worst video game ever made, and supposedly so bad that “it made the already bad Atari, even worse….and crashed the video game industry” keep in mind I am paraphrasing but this is the legend. Of course if you’ve been looking up the “dig” online you have probably read over and over again about all the copies of E.T. dug up, but you probably aren’t hearing about the fact that many other games including classics like Centipede, and Space Invaders where dug up as well.  I am also sick of ex poste facto video game journalist writing about how awful the Atari 2600 was, these are guys who grew up in the era of the PS1, and N64, and sneer at what came before. 

So with that said I am not going to go into any more details on the “dig”, you can find more fact and fiction on that in other places. I’m here to help make sense of it all in a way no one else has bothered to yet. If you’ve read my blog before you know I’m not afraid to get into the economics, and accounting behind video gaming. The fact of the matter is if you dig deep enough you may find that a system or games success or failure may not necessarily be based on how good or bad a system or game is, but rather on the huge role economics plays.

Like it or not the Atari 2600 was huge success, and carried on a 15 year legacy that would start in 1977 and end in 1992. It may not have been the best system of its era, but it was far more prolific and most Americans living in the years between 1977 and 1992 encountered an Atari 2600 at one time or another, or more than likely owned one. The Atari 2600 and its 2nd generation console counterparts all provided us with a look at the future of video gaming. These where systems that unlike their 1st generation counterparts allowed us to switch out games, and even buy new ones that where ports of arcade games. Now keep in mind that the Atari 2600 wasn’t the first 2nd gen system, but it was the one that had the most advertising dollars which helped to get it in to households quicker especially in Christmas of 1977. 

To say the least it didn’t take long for the 2600 to spread like wild fire, and take hold in American pop culture. After that all Atari had to do is sit back and wait for the money to role in which it did by the millions, and to say the least that caught the eye of many others. Of course we would see some great games from 3rd parties like Activision and Imagic, both companies comprised of old Atari programmers, but there where many other producers that weren’t so awesome. Pretty soon it was perceived that making your own Atari games, or knock off hardware was as good as printing your own money, and this is where the issue’s start.

You see Atari for some reason or another never gave any thought as to whether or not copy cats would reverse engineer their games or systems then do their own things with them. So when Atari executives and programmers left Atari in 1980 to form Activision, Atari itself was blindsided and immediately suedjust to find that their legal position was nowhere near what they assumed it was. This opened the floodgates, and 3rd party games and even hardware entered the market on level that increased almost exponentially until the “Crash of 1983”.  After that the $40-$60 a game price tag on Atari 2600 games suddenly vanished and games began to show up in bargain bins for a $1 or less just about everywhere imaginable. After this some 3rd party developers would disappear for good, while others would expand development into other systems.


Economics 101

The video game industry is an interesting little segment of the economy. It’s almost purely consumer driven, since there aren’t many corporate or government sales going on here. Also even dating back to its early 70’s 1st generation roots it’s still a fairly new industry. With that said these two components give us a great look at an almost text book and simple version of an economic marketplace.

If you didn’t take Economics in high school or college than here is a crash course using our beloved video game industry as an example. You see the root of economics is always comes down to supply and demand, two factors that tend to work diversely of each other. For instance the less that is supplied the higher the demand, or the more that is supplied the lower the demand.

In the case of Atari and the crash of 1983 we are looking at a supply exceeding demand. When that happens it means too much is being produced or that the price point is too high for the products. Between 1977 and 1982 the $40-$60 a game was what is called and equilibrium price point, this was where Atari was able to sell the most games at the biggest profit margin. Atari would only supply x amount of games at a particular price point to keep people buying them. Once third parties got overinvolved in this marketplace it began to change drastically. In the early days of Atari competing with Activision and Imagic we saw an example of Monopolistic Competition where firms selling similar but slightly differentiated products all compete in the same marketplace. If they cooperate and respect each other each competing firm can make some pretty good money, but as third party developers flooded the market consumers had more options than ever and a huge supply of games. Suddenly $40 - $60 for an Atari branded game didn’t seem like such a good deal. Why pay $50 for Pac-Man from Atari, when you can buy Lock N’Chase form M-Network instead for $20. Suddenly the whole pricing model fell apart as the equilibrium price dropped.

This meant that Atari had a huge surplus of gamesand very limited alternatives in those dark days of 1983. This brings us back to the “Alamogordo Dig”, or should I say 31 years forward into the future. Atari choose to dump the games due to very simple economics, and a little accounting too. It had nothing to do with E.T. being a bad game,E.T. was just a victim of circumstance. You see if Atari had sold all those games it would have flooded an already over-saturated marketplace driving down prices even further, and perhaps even destroying the industry. Not only that but Atari had to pay licenses, and other fees on games sold, for Atari the choice came out to deciding between a little red ink or a hell of a lot of it. For Atari they made the best choice even if we disagree in our modern world, as sad as it is or was burying this overstock was a choice that kept Atari alive, and possibly the video game industry as a whole.

There is the question to ask yourself. If Atari and the rest of the video game industry went down in flames because Atari choose to sell rather than bury those games, do you think Nintendo would even have bothered to develop a system or if they did even try selling it in the U.S.? Perhaps before painting Atari with shame as many have tried to after this we should thank Atari for taking one for the team and keeping the ball rolling.

Luckily, Nintendo made the Famicom, and later the beloved NES. But, Nintendo paid attention to the lesson of 1983, and looked at what simple economics had to teach us about it. Nintendo learned from Atari’s mistakes and put lockout chips in their systems. These chips made it necessary for 3rd party developers to get permission and licensing from Nintendo in order to sell games on their system. Although Nintendo claimed this was for “quality” purposes, it also allowed them to control supply and keep the market from over-saturation similar. Competitors to come such as Sega, Sony, and Microsoft would be sure to follow these practices as well.

So before you buy into the stories about the awful Atari 2600, or E.T. being one of the worst games ever made, or before you even think about casting shame on Atari stop to think about the economics of it all. Stop and think about Atari out on the frontier of gaming with no previous industry to guide it and provide do’s and don’ts. And just be thankful for what Atari did for the video gaming industry in those dark hours of 1983.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Getting a Case of the NES Blues....I mean Reds!

To me the NES is the epitome of a retro gaming system. As big of a fan of Atari as I am there is nothing like the feel of opening the door on the NES, putting the cartridge in, pushing it down, closing the door and hitting the power button. You feel like your not just playing a video game but starting an adventure.

Over the past six months I have grown my NES collection to nearly twice the size it was when I walked away from my NES in the mid-90's. Many of the games I added are classics, those NES essentials anyone who lived in the NES era could tell you that you had to have to experience the NES in all its glory.  A funny thing happened though as I began to add new games, the NES began to act up a bit with having to take the games out and put them back in again, or blow in them to get them to work. Then there was the day I put Excitebike in for the first time, and got glitches galore. After that my games began glitch on and off until that one dreaded day.

I remember it clearly I just got Prowrestling, I put it in the NES turned it on and.....nothing. Just that red blinking light. "Ok!", I say to myself "this isn't anything, I will just check everything over again". I open the NES door, is the game down all the way? Yes! Is it in all the way? Yes! So I take the game out, blow in it, and put it back in...nothing. The red light is blinking like there's no game in the machine at all. I take Prowresting out and put my tried and true Super Mario Bros. 3 in, still nothing. 

Do you know what the blinking red light means?

If you don't it means that the system can't read your game, i.e. you need a new 72-pin connector.  


It means that your lockout chip is malfunctioning for whatever reason. 

In NES's this age both are pretty common, it's like the cold or allergys debate when you start sneezing and getting a sore throat. The question becomes what do you try to treat first. 

For most of those in the know about NES repairs the 72-pin connector is the first suspect.

I haven't got a clue why these go bad but  for whatever reason they do. The weird thing is that a 72-pin connector is nothing but contactors and plastic, how can they go bad? You got me. 

Now I'm not going to tell you how to replace your 72-pin connector becuase there are a ton of videos on YouTube as to how to do that. Here is a good one: 

What I can tell you about though is the 72-pin connector. If you decide to replace it yourself you can usually find a new one on eBay for about $15 shipping included. I can also give you a few warnings about installation the videos may skip around, after all these guys are pro's in the videos so changing these things out is old hat, for you on the other hand there may be some surprises. 

This thing is called "the sled", and you have to get it off to get to the 72-pin connector. The videos will make it look like you slide it right forward but if you do that you will notice it's not going anywhere. 

Reason being this is where one of the screw holes that attaches the bottom and top case is plus 

there is a tab on the bottom of "the sled" that keeps this from happening. What you need to do is make sure you took out all the screws for attaching the motherboard to the bottom case so you can pull the motherboard up and "the sled" away. 

Also the 72-pin connector itself is a bitch to get out. You'll find yourself having to exercise a bit of force to get it off, and you my be inclined to even use a screw driver to do so but whatever you do DONT USE THE SCREW DRIVER, just keep working it pushing it back and forth, and it will come loose. It's pretty much the same story putting the new one on.

With that all said though let me tell you that although the 72-pin is usually the prime suspect, I would try to fix the lockout chip first. Why? Well first of all the lockout chip will give you the same blinking light, blocky games, and/or eventually cause your NES to stop working. But unlike the 72-pin connector disabling the lockout chip can be done without having to buy anything. 

Here is a great video on how to do it:

If you watch both videos you will see that the process of installing a new 72-pin connector has you 95% into the process of disabling the lockout chip. Now the video will tell you to disconnect the wires coming into the mother board, however if you are careful enough, you can access the chip and disable it without disconnecting the wires from the board. I was able to do this more then comfortably.

You can see the board flipped over and accessible without disconnecting the wire harnesses

The lockout chip is a tiny little thing about a half an inch long and no more than a tenth of an inch wide. 

Look for that 3193A and Nintendo on the chip, if it doesn't say that your looking at the wrong chip. Also in some of the videos you may see the blue capacitors standing and the brown pushed over but even vice-versa you are in the right spot. 

When it comes time to pull the forth pin the video is 100% right you will need something like a pin or safety pin to pull it. I would suggest a safety pin for more leverage although pulling the forth pin is hardly a tough task. 

If you still have issues after this then replace the 72-pin connector too, disabling the lockout chip won't have any side effects if you've misdiagnosed your blinking red light dilemma.

Overall, it's a pretty easy fix no matter which way you go.