Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Original 2K Basketball - NBA Action 98 (Saturn)

NBA Action 98 arrived during the Sega Saturn's final days in the US, and it has become almost entirely forgotten, even by sports fans.  That's very unfortunate, and it's a cruel twist of fate that in 1997, the Sega Sports brand was firing on all cylinders.  Worldwide Soccer 98, World Series Baseball 98, NHL All-Star Hockey 98, and NBA Action 98 are arguably the finest sports games of the 32-bit era.

Sega struggled to find quality software studios for their Sega Sports brand, especially during the Saturn era.  Their fortunes famously turned when they discovered a key Electronic Arts collaborator - Visual Concepts.  VC established their fame with a stunning John Madden Football 94 on the Super NES, and soon began to be groomed by EA to helm the Madden franchise.  Their debut, Madden 96, became an infamous debacle and was eventually cancelled.  This was the only year since 1990 without a John Madden Football title, and shattered the relationship between EA and VC.

In 1997, Sega turned to the developers for their basketball title, and the result is nothing less than stunning.  For a hardware system notorious for its difficulty, NBA Action 98 offers smooth, sharply detailed graphics, fully polygonal arenas and players, animated fans in the crowd, a dynamic camera system, elaborate play-by-play announcers, and a richly complex gameplay system.  Included features: pre-game player introductions, team-specific playbooks, offensive and defensive formations, player trading and "create-a-player," impressive instant replays, and a rock-solid frame rate that never clogs, stutters or slows.  This is a technical marvel for the Sega Saturn, and plays a superb game of basketball.

It's very easy to think of NBA Action 98 as a test run for NBA2K on the Sega Dreamcast in 1999.  The gameplay is virtually identical, and it's exciting to see where the 2K series began.  We are also reminded just how slowly sports video games evolve these days, if they evolve at all.  I honestly can't remember the last sports game that felt fresh, or innovative, or revolutionary, other than Nintendo's Wii Sports.  Visual Concepts sports games felt fresh.  These guys were hungry, desperate to prove themselves and leave their mark.  And they certainly succeeded.

I don't know how many people are willing to spend time on NBA Action 98, when the rest of the 2K series is readily available.  But I think it's important for fans to see where it all began, and appreciate the sheer challenge of creating such a beast from scratch.

Here's a gameplay video to enjoy.  See if this does anything for you:

Friday, February 15, 2013

V.R. Virtua Racing (Sega Saturn)

Sega's Virtua Racing went from being revolutionary to has-been so quickly, it's enough to give one whiplash.  When it appeared in arcades in the early '90s, it was a sensational hit, a promise of an exciting future of polygon-rendered video games.  By the time the home versions appeared, the technology had already been surpassed, leaving the flat-shaded look in the dust.  That's really too bad, because VR has always been a terrific arcade racing game, and continues to be fun today.

I've always been in the minority on this, but I always enjoyed Saturn's Virtua Racing.  Naturally, I would have preferred that AM2 handled the translation, instead of Time Warner Interactive (aka Atari Games), but even they were struggling with the Saturn hardware in those early months.  And given the shoddy quality of those early software titles, this game can proudly stand tall...Ghen War, Black Fire, Bug, NHL All-Star Hockey...ugh, what a sorry state of affairs.

Saturn Virtua Racing improves upon the arcade original, expanding to ten racetracks, numerous types of cars, and a season mode.  I think the designs work fairly well, and integrates nicely to the arcade's three courses.  The computer-controlled cars are fairly aggressive, and it's always a fight to gain (and hold) the lead.  The music is especially impressive, booming bass, crystal-clear CD audio, mixing with the wheezing of the engines and squeal of the tires.

I think this game's sins are largely of omission.  In 1995, people were drawn to Playstation's lush 3D graphics, especiialy games like Warhawk and Ridge Racer and especially Wipeout.  It's a bit unfair to expect Virtua Racing to compare with such next-generation flash.  But such was the Saturn's fate, a day late and a dollar short.  It's also true that TWI's Saturn conversion was a step below the arcade, visually.  Whatever, it's all quibbling.  I'll give this title a solid 7/10, be thankful for the old-school charm and warm memories.

Here's a gameplay video to enjoy:

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua

All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua, another standout brawler for Sega Saturn, a system legendary for its fighting games.  I'm usually not a fan of wrestling video games, which usually reward button mashing over technical skill (thanks for nothing, Acclaim and THQ), but this is a very welcome surprise.

As you can see, graphics are extremely impressive, featuring 3D polygon environments, impressive shading, and detailed characters.  The animation and gameplay hues closely to the Virtua Fighter series, and it feels like a natural extension of Virtua Fighter 3 and Fighters Megamix.  The appearance of Jeffery and Wolf from VF is a star attraction that doesn't feel like a cheap gimmick.

Wrestlers have an impressive array of moves and holds, can perform reversals, fight outside the ring, perform different moves depending on their health, and gain support from cheering fans (that old Hulk Hogan rally).  Most impressively, you can damage and fracture an opponent's bones - break too many bones, and the referee will end the match.  Oof!  Nice.

Everything moves smoothly, and there's a satisfying Thud and Crash when you slam your opponent to the ground.  Even that static background crowd puts a smile on my face (if only the programmers could have animated that crowd a little).  Yes, I know today's PS360 crowd will probably roll their eyes and yawn, but I'm impressed.  There's a certain charm and satisfaction that comes from a really good-looking Saturn game.

The Sega Saturn has an almost limitless supply of "hidden gems" that continue to dazzle and impress all these years later.  If you're looking for an import game, All Japan Pro Wrestling is an excellent choice.  I can see this game becoming a hit at parties and get-togethers.  You probably don't have to be familiar with pro wrestling or Virtua Fighter, but it probably helps a little.  Pick this one up and you'll be impressed.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Show the Waveform Graphs!

This is one of those ideas that's so brain-dead simple, I'm astonished that it hasn't yet happened: All music reviews shall feature a waveform graph.

We've been complaining for years about the Loudness War, the music industry's mad pursuit to crush and destroy popular music in the quest to make everything "louder."  But it can be difficult to educate and inform the public without visual aids, or direct comparisons.  Since I cannot wheel my stereo equipment with me everywhere I go, the waveform graph is the best illustrative tool at our disposal.

I don't believe most people are consciously aware of the Loudness War, but they do intuit that something is terribly wrong with the music, and they have turned away in great numbers.  For me, this process was gradual, beginning at the end of the 1990s and during the turn of the century.  I had assumed that I was simply growing older, and losing interest with new music was a natural extension of that.  All I knew is that nothing sounded good anymore, and music that I had previously loved - now played on "remastered" CDs and MP3s - was being ignored.  When you stop listening to Jimi Hendrix, something is dangerously wrong.

It was only after I re-discovered vinyl records that I came to realize what had happened to the music, and how the music business came to destroy their own product.  Once the story of the Loudness War was told, it made perfect sense, and everything fell into place.

Music reviewers and publications are doing no favors by ignoring the Loudness War and how it affects modern music.  This single gesture - Show the Waveform Graphs - will change hearts and minds among the public, and shame the music industry, more quickly than any other action.  What else can we do?  Knock on the doors of every recording artist and harass them over their brickwalled CDs?

That waveform at the top comes from the 20th Anniversary remaster of Rage Against the Machine's classic debut album. It is a crushed and brickwalled wreck, a lo-fi mess of clipped static that should embarrass everyone involved.  "This is what the kids today want," they say.  Wrong.  "This is what the market wants," they respond.  Wrong.  "Louder music sells," they insist.  Prove it.

Here's my evidence - the music industry sales through 2011, adjusted for inflation.  The CD market has been in decline since the year 2000, and if you're really careful, you'll discover this decline really began in the mid-90s, right when excessive compression and limiting took off.  There are also other factors during this period that are seldom mentioned, like the end of CD singles (forcing you to buy a $15-$20 CD), corporate consolidation of radio and end of music videos, the rise of manufactured starlets and boy bands, the decline of innovative music, or anyone with any real talent.

Internet file-sharing is an issue, this I will not deny.  But I feel this is a red herring, an easy excuse offered by the music industry.  When I was growing up, we all copied and traded cassette tapes, and popular music didn't disintegrate.  Home Taping did not Kill Music, after all.  It was how we discovered new and interesting music, turning us into homebrew sampling and remix artists.  I strongly suspect today's file-sharing fulfills much of the same need.

People love music.  It's the oldest form of human communication, older than spoken language.  We can't get enough of it.  The music business is failing to provide that need, end of story.  I submit that the crushing and sonic destruction of popular music is the primary reason for this collapse.  We need better talented musicians and better sounding songs.  And we, the writers, need to play our part by educating the public, and shaming the industry hacks and clueless artists.

Show the Waveform Graphs.  It's the easiest thing you can do to bring back high fidelity music.

Monday, January 14, 2013

"Project Phoenix" Video Game Controller

Here are my latest notes and sketches for a "Project Phoenix" video game controller that I've been scribbling out lately.  How do you design a better video game controller?  That's a puzzle that I'm interested in solving.

The Playstation/Xbox controller remains the sole standard today, as it has since the turn of the century.  It hails back to an era when video game controllers were adding features, adding buttons, and becoming ever more complicated.  This arms race has resulted in bulky, complex controllers that may appeal to today's "hardcore" gamers, but confuses and frightens the general public.  One of Nintendo's key goals with DS and Wii was to simplify the control scheme, bring video games back to their roots, when players used paddle controllers, joysticks, and NES gamepads.

The "Project Phoenix" controller really isn't meant for modern PS360 titles, like Halo, Call of Duty, or Madden.  It's intended for older, classic video games from previous generations.  Between PC emulation, PC indie games, PSN, Xbox Live, and Wii Virtual Console, there's a great market for a simpler, more accessible joypad.  This is critically important - bulky game controllers scare people away.  You don't need over a dozen buttons to play most video games.

My controller idea sprang, of course, from the "Project Phoenix" system idea, which is essentially a Sega Genesis, Saturn, and Dreamcast under one roof (and maybe other 8/16-bit systems).  The "Phoenix Controller"

Digital/Analog Control

Here's a short overview of my controller concept.  On the left side, there is one d-pad and one analog thumb stick.  Each of these are interchangeable - you can swap out the d-pad for the analog stick, and vice versa.  You can still reach both pads with your left thumb, so games that require both (e.g. Phantasy Star Online on Dreamcast) are easily playable.  But now you can adapt your controller to your tastes.

Beyond the ABXY Diamond

On the right side, I wanted to shake up the button layout.  We've been using the same ABXY diamond design since the Super Nintendo era, and it's failed to keep pace with ergonomics.  In my experience, it works well for more modern systems, but for Atari, NES and Genesis games, the diamond layout is less than ideal.

Here's my new idea:  Keep the four face buttons, but arrange them in a new way.  On the top, we have a Sega Genesis ABC layout, black buttons, and slightly curved for thumb movement.  On the bottom, we have a single red fire button, just like Atari - perfect for those one-button games.  It may be slightly larger than the other three, like the Genesis six-button controller...we'll see how that goes.

The exact angles of the three-button curve will have to be worked out, but we'll be using the Genesis Arcade Joystick and the Neo-Geo as references.  It shouldn't feel too different from the traditional diamond layout, and when I think of games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater, which was built around ABXY, it should work nicely; when playing, I'm holding down the bottom (A) button most of the time.

Home Select Start

Right now, the biggest puzzle for me is what to do with the "utility" buttons on the controller - Home, Select, and Start.  I'm really not a fan of the Home button, and if it were up to me, I'd just throw it into the wood-chipper, along with that second analog thumb stick and second pair of shoulder buttons.  Ugh.  Start and Select buttons are iconic, so they're easy to put together somewhere in the middle of the controller, someplace that's easy to reach, but not crowding everything else.  In my current sketches, I have Start and Select near the top, as smaller, flat buttons that blend in with the frame.

Back Buttons

Shoulder buttons have been a video game standard since the Super NES, and the Playstation really made a mess by introducing a second pair.  Sega had a novel idea with analog triggers on Saturn and Dreamcast, but aside from racing games and first-person shooters, it's not a good idea.  Nowadays, it's just too confusing and too many damn buttons.

The Playstation design is closer to a remote control unit, where hands are flat and parallel, aiming outward.  I think that approach works for a dozen buttons, especially with dual-analog sticks.  Classic video game controllers emphasized a folded-hands posture, where you hold at the sides and bottom corners.  That's the design approach I'm aiming for, and that's why I'm putting the shoulder buttons on the back.  It feels more comfortable when you're folding your hands.  Imagine a pair of buttons on the back side of a Genesis controller.  I'd also like an ergonomic shape, so the "back" buttons fit within the mold, almost invisible.

Also, I'd like these "back" buttons to be long enough to press with two fingers.  It should be easy to use, and I remember the joy of holding the shoulder buttons on F-Zero, trying to tilt the futuristic vehicles on hairpin curves.


My final idea for my Phoenix Controller is something that should have been standard on Nintendo's Wii Classic Controller - an accelerometer.  It's perfect for those "shake" motions in games like New Super Mario Bros Wii and Donkey Kong Country Returns.  In fact, I think adding shaking to a standard joypad would save Donkey Kong's hide.  The controls in that game are atrocious.

It's obvious that no one in the video game industry wants anything to do with motion controls (can't get their fat asses off the couch).  But we could at least have this.  Why aren't there any third-party Wii/Wii U joypads?  That seems like fertile territory to invade.  Who wants a standard joypad to play Super Mario?

Anyway, that's the Phoenix Controller idea for now.  One of these days, I'll need to find a modeling artist, and an engineer with access to 3D printers.  Then we would figure out the circuitry and crunch the numbers, and then start begging rich people for money.  But let's not start dreaming of winning the lottery just yet.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Realistic LAB-420 - A Few More Photos

Since I'm in a turntable mood this weekend (I'm obsessed with getting a new one), I thought I would share a few more photos of the Realistic LAB-420 I purchased four years ago as a family Christmas present.  At the time, I owned a Pro-Ject Debut III, fully decked out.  This was my first introduction to a quality direct drive turntable, and it just swallowed the Pro-Ject up.

Looking back from the year 2012, I've learned a few things about turntables and 1970s direct drives.  I can easily spot the weaknesses in the 420's design: the plastic rear and base of the tonearm, the lack of quartz lock, the mediocre rumble stats (-65dB, ouch), the mostly empty frame, the overuse of switches.  No matter.  This was a really good sounding table, especially with its Audio Technica 440mla.  Santana's Abraxis sounded awesome, as did The White Stripes' Icky Thump.

And, of course, the wood frame looks terrific.  If I had another one today, I'd definitely give it a coat of varnish.  Add some metal polish for the tonearm and you're ready to rock.

I only had this turntable in my possession for a week (before packaging it and a stack of LPs for dear ol' Dad), but it left a deep impression upon me.  It set me in pursuit of Japanese direct drive turntables, and opened up a world of music that was actually affordable.  I really wish Radio Shack was still selling these things, to be honest.  Pair one with an AT 440mla and a '70s stereo receiver, and you'll be one happy camper.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

JVC QL-A2 Direct Drive Turntable

This is the JVC QL-A2, which sat at the low-end of their successful (and excellent) line of direct drive turntables.  These guys were one of the major players of the day, and their high-end decks rivaled the best.  Heck, even this model is a good turntable.  The cheap plastic frame benefits greatly from 7-10lbs of modeling clay, which adds weight and solidity to that hollow frame.  And look how cool that platter looks with gold spray paint.  I spray painted the sub-platter and feet on my old Pro-Ject Debut III, and enjoyed putting my unique stamp on my toys.

The QL-A2 features a quartz lock motor, easily the table's best quality (-73dB rumble).  The automatic function is also very nice to have, although the buttons are a bit cheap (the MCS 6700 had the best buttons).  The tonearm is standard '70s fare, not too impressive but it gets the job done.  And despite the fact it's a cheap chunk of plastic, the frame does look stylish and cool.  This is a really good looking turntable.

As I've said, the modeling clay mod boosts the QL-A2 up a notch, and there were times where I enjoyed it more than my Sony PS-X5.  I think this table handled internal resonances better, thanks to that box frame and a ton of Gumby clay.  With some quality feet or cones, it would really be impressive.

Sadly, my table suffered problems with the speed control, and started playing at slower speed.  Perhaps some Deoxit over the speed pots might have helped.  In retrospect, I would have taken this table into the shop for a tuneup.  It would have been worth saving.  Then again, perhaps this model was prone to breakdowns and endless hassles, which would mean throwing good money after bad.  Ah, say la vee.

I would recommend any of the QL-A series, and you can find one fairly cheap.  If you can rewire the tonerm, pack the inside frame, and replace the feet, you'll have something really nice.  If you can score one for $50 and everything works, consider yourself very lucky, score a quality budget phono cart, and enjoy your records..

MCS 6603 Direct Drive Turntable

Back in the day, department store chains would re-brand popular electronics goods, offering their own versions of more expensive, name-brand products.  MCS (Modular Component Systems) was JC Penny's house brand for hi-fi audio products, mostly Technics, but occasionally other brands as well.  I've recently shown photos of the MCS 6700, an excellent turntable based on Technics' SL-1900, and it was one of the better models.  Here is one of the lesser models.

The MCS 6603 is a re-badged Technics SL-D2, one of the cheap, low-entry models from the early 1980s.  I picked up this table for $70 or $80, I can't remember exactly how much.  It was nice to play for a while, and it played a mean Led Zeppelin, but it shortly developed a serious problem with the power cutting out.  Unfortunately, my repair skills were sorely lacking at the time, so after numerous attempts to keep the thing running, it was sent to the closets, and then the garbage bin.  Can't win 'em all.

I'm not a fan of Technics' SL-D2, and while the MCS model has a more stylish frame (retaining the motor, electronics, and tonearm), it's still a cheap plastic turntable.  Packing the insides with 8lbs of modeling clay made a great difference, and if you find yourself with a cheap Japanese direct drive with box frame, I highly recommend the mod.  However, nothing could salvage the needlessly thick and heavy sound, or the crummy feet, or the cheap-o tonearm.

One more note: looking at these photos, I remember that I was using a heavy Sumiko headshell, which threw the tonearm resonance way off.  These low-to-medium mass tonearms require light headshells, especially with the Ortofon 2M phono cartridges.  I really don't know what I was thinking when I bought that thing; "heavier" equaled "better" in my mind at the time.  Ah, well, we all learn.

Prices on vintage turntables are rising across the board, and while the MCS 6603 was once a decent $50 buy, now you'll probably be spending a hundred at least.  That puts this table in the same league as much better machines, ones that look and sound much better, and there's really no point in wasting your time on a cheap record player.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Steely Dan "Black Cow" - Analog/Digital Showdown

We haven't had an analog/digital music showdown here on the blog for a while (okay, we've never done it), and I've found a perfect candidate in Steely Dan's "Black Cow," the opening track to their 1977 classic Aja.  This is a terrific album, a rich, warm and jazzy pop sound that perfectly defines the late 1970s for me.  Let's see how it compares on digital (CD/mp3) and analog (vinyl LP).

The analog setup features a Thorens TD-160 belt-drive turntable, one of the true classics of analog audio.  The phono cartridge is the Audio Technica 150MLX, one of the finest moving magnet cartridges ever built.  That object of my desire, the Bellari VP-130 tube phono preamp, in fire engine red, drives the music with a wonderful warm and buttery smooth sound.  Ooh, I really love this stereo system.

The digital version was the best version I could find on YouTube.  I'm not sure if it was ripped from CD or 128bps mp3 file.  It probably wouldn't make too much difference, given YT's heavy video compressions.  But I made sure this version would sound clean and clear.

Which version do you prefer, and why?  Which version pulls you into the music, moves you more deeply?  For me, it's no contest: the analog version wins easily.  The difference is small but noticeable; percussion and bass pumps deeper, there's more groove and swing.  The vocals are more natural, warmer.  The 150MLX and Bellari make an excellent team.  Everything is more musical, and I find myself getting lost in my imagination.

The digital version is certainly very good, as it demonstrates the clarity that CDs are known for.  But doesn't it feel a little reserved, a little cold?  It's not a question of volume or bass levels; I'm just not feeling the music.  While listening, my mind tends to wander and daydream, and the song soon becomes background noise.  I'm sure that if I had the actual CD on my stereo, the experience would be better.  But I can also say the same for the vinyl LP, and that one already has a clear advantage in the YouTube arena.

I think it's too easy to dismiss LPs as old-fashioned, or dismiss CDs as inferior to analog audio.  Most everything is dependent on your stereo equipment, the quality of the LP, the quality of the turntable and phono cartridge, the quality of your CD player.  I still believe that you have to spend $500 before analog defeats digital.  On a cheap USB turntable, the digital version would easily triumph.

So we'll offer this showdown as an example of the analog/digital divide, and where they stand.  As for me, I'm getting desperate to finally rebuild my stereo system.  I want that Bellari and those vacuum tubes!!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Dave Brubeck Has Died

Sigh, a very sad day as we lose our greatest living jazz musician, and a wonderfully kind and generous human being.  School and work is hereby cancelled for the rest of the day.  I'll be grief-stricken for the rest of the week; Dave Brubeck has always been one of my favorites, right next to Miles and Coltrane.  Now he's gone forever and we'll never hear his wonderful music or see his spirited smiles again.

Here's one of my YouTube recordings from a few years back, of The Dave Brubeck's most popular song, "Take Five," from the 1959 jazz masterpiece, Time Out.  The turntable is a Sony PS-X5, and the Ortofon 2M Blue is the phono cartridge (mounted on a headshell that's slightly too heavy, oops).  That's a great combination, and while the 2M lacks the musical groove and swing of, say, the Denon Dl-110/160, it provides excellent dynamics.  I hope you enjoy it.