Friday, August 29, 2008

Saturn Interact Memory Card Plus

It finally happened. My Saturn memory card died... again. Years and years ago, after running the Saturn's internal memory completely empty, I picked up a card. Not the expensive, official card from Sega, but another that seemed like a good deal in comparison. This one had twice the memory, and more importantly, was about $20 cheaper. That's right; it's the good old Interact Memory Card Plus.

It would bite me in the ass several times.

So, the card worked fine for a couple of years. Despite recent claims that games will not allow direct saving to this particular card, it worked for me. Every once in a while, the card would take a restart to load, but excluding the annoying boot sequence (where the card loads an official Sega screen and then pops to the CD player) things were okay.

And then the card died. It hadn't been removed from my Saturn in a long time. It just stopped working. No more weird boot sequence. No more pressing a button for a game to load. No more saves. Friends with the same card had very similar experiences, all within two to four years.

Supposedly, the card damaged the Saturn's cartridge slots with its sharp edges and extra thickness. Supposedly, it was just crap.

It stayed that way for about four years. Randomly, one day I turn the Saturn on, and there it is - that annoying boot sequence is back. What? It can't be. The card started working again, apparently for no reason at all. There they were. My six year old saves were back in action. After losing them all, I'd gained them all back.

I took advantage of the working card and one of its undocumented abilities - I brought back some imports from my studies abroad. The card loaded the imports without a hitch.

That is, until now. Even in proper working condition, the card was hit-or-miss. Sometimes it didn't read. Sometimes it would randomly lock things up. Things had been getting worse lately for my Saturn, and I knew the card was the problem.

Then it happened again: no boot screen. Occasionally, I could get my card to read. So, before I lost all of my saves again, I wanted to copy them from the internal memory over to the card. To my luck, everything locked up during the copy. I reset the system and now, even though it still lists the data, everything has some crazy funky characters listed around it.

I'm pretty sure I've finally managed to destroy any functional data on the card. Now, it's only good as an import device, but then only when it decides to half-way function.

Now, I'm doing what I should have all along. Official Sega memory card, here I come.

The House of the Dead

Try as I might, the original House of the Dead was never able to grace the insides of my Saturn, so I ended up starting out the series with its sequel. Over the years, I've logged quite a few hours into the Dreamcast HotD2 and played through it several times. I've also played numbers three and four in the arcade, though not for an extended period of time. With this in mind, as I went through the original, I couldn't help but thinking to myself, "I've been here before."

When The House of the Dead came out, it was a new twist on the gun game formula. Instead of employing the one-shot-one-kill motif, enemies kept coming at you until you blasted them to pieces or scored a head shot. Maybe the more skilled could head-shot their way to victory, but I'd usually go out in a hail of gunfire.

This was also one of the first light gun games to employ multiple paths, so depending on who was saved or what arrows were shot on the elevator, a different direction could be taken. In a short arcade game, anything to help increase the replay value is good.

The House of the Dead is still fun and still plays well. Basically, if you're a fan of light-gun games, this'll scratch your itch, but the game has been done several times since then. HotD2 is more of the same (some bosses are identical) with a different setting and better graphics. To mix up the formula over the years, HotD3 added a shotgun help off zombies and HotD4 did the duty with an SMG.

While I enjoyed the original, I can't help but feeling that it has been eclipsed by its sequels. What made it stand out in the arcades back in '98 has been improved, at least graphically, in the newer versions. While it's fun for a trip down memory lane and to see the series' origins, it's a short romp that has been done before.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Where are they?

Sega's arcade heritage has always been an important part of the company's allure in the home market. While at the time, it seemed like almost a given that these games would have a home conversion, it never happened. Other games were developed and worked on, sometimes to near completion, but never saw the light of day. What happened and where are they?

Daytona 2 - The original Daytona USA was one of the highest-grossing arcade games of all time. It was inevitable that a sequel would be made, but it never seemed to gather the attention that the original did. While a home port seemed like a no-brainer, it never materialized. As with Sega GT, Daytona 2 ran on Sega's Model 3 board and was lost during Sega's Saturn to Dreamcast shuffle.

House of the Dead 4 - Part four in one of Sega's larger franchises, HotD4 introduced automatic machine guns as the weapon of choice. Though never formally announced, the jury is still out on whether this one will find its way to a console near you. The popularity for shooters has been decreasing lately, but with the Wii's zapper and House of the Dead 2&3 Return appearance, there may still yet be hope for this game.

Indy 500 - Another Model 2 racer in the vein of Daytona USA, this one focused on Indy cars and included a polygonal version of the famous Brickyard. It would seem like a shoe-in to put another one of Sega's arcaders on the Saturn. It didn't happen and the only way to play the game to date is at the arcades.

Rent a Hero No. 1 - Out in Japan, the game was being translated and readied up for a Western release. Similar to Shenmue, the DC (and later X-box) game involved every kid's nightmare - running around as a super-hero for the summer. At the last minute the game was cancelled and rumor has it that nearly-finished copies of the English game are in the hands of collectors. Why cancel it? The game would simply not have been profitable. With little name recognition to the title and a lot of Japanese humor that may not have translated, the risk was not worth the cost.

Scud Race/Super GT - One of the first games to appear on the Model 3 arcade board, GT was another example of Sega's fine arcade racing history. Unfortunately, it never appeared on a home console. As with a few other Model 3 games, this one seems to have fallen through the cracks, being too powerful for the Saturn to handle yet unable to tap into the full potential of the Dreamcast. Though it never received a proper home port, Sega GT had been shown running on a Dreamcast before the system's launch.

Sonic the Fighters (Saturn) - In 1998, the Saturn was all but done in the eyes of Sega, making way for the Dreamcast. A few titles, however, were still in the bucket, including Sonic the Fighters, a home conversion of the arcade game. Even with a released date announced, the game was quietly cancelled. As consolation, a few characters and stages were included in Fighters Megamix. Sonic the Fighters eventually saw a home release as part of the Sonic Gems Collection, nearly eight years later.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park - Loosely based on the movie with the same name, this shooter had players wielding pistols to take out dinosaurs on the loose. Maybe the story is a little far-fetched, but the game was still good fun and managed to eat quite a few quarters at the arcade. With the Dreamcast's relatively low number of light-gun games, it would've made a great addition to the system's line-up.

Vectorman - Sega's 2D sidescroller was set to make a triumphant return to 3D on the Playstation 2 as a third-person shooter. Production took off, and Vectorman was given a new makeover; instead of floating orbs, he was an all-metallic robot, apparently rebuilt after being defeated in his past. The game made an appearance at 2003's e3 in a very early stage and reportedly needed some work. After a while, things went hush-hush, and the game was quietly canned.

Virtua Cop 3 - After an eight year hiatus, the Virtua Cop series returned in 2003, sporting a more futuristic look and new feature - a foot pedal to slow down time. Without a console of their own and the waning popularity of light gun games, Sega's VC3 never made it out of the arcades.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Model 2 Collection

I'm digging these Sega Ages re-releases, but you know what I'd rather see? An entire Model 2 Collection.

Imagine being able to play Daytona USA, Virtua Fighter, Sega Rally, Manx TT, Fighting Vipers, Last Bronx, and Virtual On all in one collection. Now, throw in some of the games that never had home conversions, like LA Guns or Indy 500. Sound good? Of course it does, but could it happen?

Looking to the past for an answer, history says it won't happen... yet. Back in 2006, Sega had released the Genesis collection, over fifteen years after some of the games originally became available. While it might be possible technically, it won't happen until the games can't make some cash when sold individually. The Sega Ages line-up is proof that Model 2 games can still be sold one-by-one, albeit at cheaper prices. But the series also provides hope. Several of the Model 2 games on the PS2 are emulated instead of being programmed from scratch. If the PS2 can handle emulation of these games, then the current systems should have no problems. While the time may not be right just yet, I wouldn't be surprised if we see a Model 2 compilation released at the end of this generation (PS3, X360, Wii).

I can at least dream, right?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Panzer Dragoon 2 Zwei Review

The follow-up to Panzer Dragoon, Zwei is actually a prequel, taking place several years before the events of the first game. It follows Lundi, who, despite local law to the contrary, decides to raise a mutant creature that has a blue-white light emanating from its neck. Besides the glowing orb, Lagi also has wings, which Lundi reckons will allow the beast to fly someday and ultimately prove that all of the morphed creatures are worth keeping around. A year later, while training Lagi to fly, a colossal ship passes overhead and Lundi can only watch as it destroys his village. Swearing revenge, he grabs a laser, hops on his mutant dragon, and begins his quest.

PDZ kicks in where the original left off. Instead of easing players into the action, there's a quick warm-up and then they're thrust into the thick of it - not a bad thing by any stretch. The game seems faster, more furious, and much more frenetic than its predecessor. Game mechanics are the same, for the most part, with a few small tweaks along the way. The dragon loses its ability to roll, but instead has gained a "berzerk" attack. A bar slowly builds as the dragon fires shots, and when there's enough energy, a barrage of shots are unleashed, targeting everything on screen and devastating surrounding enemies. Now, instead of flying the entire time, certain portions of the game require the dragon to walk on the ground, adding a bit of variety to some levels. Enemies still litter the landscape, but they seem to attack from the back and the sides more often than in the previous game.

Quite possibly the best addition, though, is analog control. Taking advantage of the Saturn's 3D control pad, the game feels much more precise and the on-screen cursor moves even faster. Unfortunately, a bug forces the game to set off the berzerk attacks every time the view is rotated, unless the X button has been mapped to be inactive. Rotation is still controlled by the L and R buttons, but now the screen will rotate, albeit slowly, if the cursor reaches the side, so no more being locked in at exactly 90 degree intervals.Levels are designed quite well, with each having a distinct environment. The game begins at night, running around through Lundi's destroyed village, avoiding enemies and chasing after the gigantic ship. After traveling through the desert, the duo eventually reach forests of episode three - a highlight of the game - where trees fill the landscape and light pours through openings in the treetops. Cave-like corridors are traversed in episode four to reach the calm waters below - a compelling sight despite the dated graphics. Later levels include a snow covered world and ultimately, the mammoth ship responsible for the destruction of Lundi's village.

Zwei, like the original, is fairly short at only six full episodes, which, although not too hard, provide a few challenges along the way. But just completing it doesn't mean you've seen the entire game. Several levels now have multiple paths that can be taken - some harder, some not as hard. Not only does it require multiple plays to see each level fully, but which path you take affects the outcome of the game as well.

At the end of each episode, points are acquired based on enemies destroyed, levels completed, and the route taken. These points are used to determine the dragon's evolution - how much it grows, if it grows, and what form it will take. As the points add up, the dragon morphs into a new form, becoming more powerful, gaining different attacks and increasing its ability to take damage. There are several endings, all based on what form the dragon has reached when the game is completed. To manage it all, a save feature is added in place of the arcade-oriented credits system imposed to drag out the original.If the game is completed in one sitting, then Pandra's Box opens up. Even though it looks like a misspelling of Pandora's Box, I'm pretty sure it's intentional, taking the first part of Panzer (Pan) and Dragoon (Dra), and then throwing them together. What is it? Cheat mode. Though the game can't be saved with the box options turned on, there's a lot that can be played around with. Different weapons, berzerk attacks, game difficulty, dragon evolution, start level, etc. are available here. The options add replay value, giving yet another reason to go and play through one more time.

Not all changes are just for playability. Graphics have been tweaked this time around, as well. By far the biggest improvement is the increase in frame rate. The first game ran at a locked rate that was under 30 frames per second. The result: Things felt really slow. That's not the case in Zwei. The faster frame rate is worth it, even if there are a few trade-offs, such as a less detailed dragon and more sprite-based objects.Music is different in Zwei, too. PD had a Redbook audio soundtrack that was part orchestral and part synthesized. The orchestral songs, with the horns and strings, really gave the game an otherworldly feeling, while the synthy beats pumped rhythm into the boss battles. This time around, everything is being cranked out by the Saturn's hardware. At first, I was disappointed, since the songs don't capture the atmosphere quite as well as the original tunes did and the sound quality itself is a small step down. As time went on, the tunes started to grow on me. For the most part, they're pretty good, but a couple compositions (like the first track of Episode 6) seem out of place - less like the world of Panzer Dragoon and more like typical videogame music of the era.

All things said, the game is very enjoyable, and improves in almost every aspect of the original. The action is more intense and the levels are larger, rewarding the player for spending more time in them. The additions of dragon evolution and Pandra's Box give even more reasons to revisit the world of Zwei. PDZ is a fine addition to any Saturn owner's collection.


Were-Hog/Lament of the Casual Gamer

Running around, eating rings, and bouncing on badniks isn't enough anymore. Instead, to be successful in this day and age, a mascot has got to be packing heat, have a ton of differently-colored, look-alike adversaries, wield a humongous sword, or turn into a were-wolf... sorry, were-hog. Yes, I'm clearly pointing to Sonic the Hedgehog. I guess it's fairly clear that I fall into the category of people who just want to see the blue guy (and only the blue guy) run through some zones, spin through enemies, and hit Robotnik eight times to finish him off. Unfortunately, Sega/Sonic Team/whoever doesn't seem to see it that way.

Three new games and none of them are classic run & jumpers.

The best of the bunch is an RPG. Can the bare-bones Sonic storyline be fully fleshed out? Could it work? Sure, but I never played a Sonic game because of the story. In a nutshell, it's not the classic Sonic franchise. The next Wii release sees the hog slashing people down with a sword. Great. Maybe it'll be fun, but this isn't what Sonic is known for either. It's like taking Daytona USA and turning it into a fighting game. Lastly, there's Unleashed, which, though being touted as the return the series’ 2D roots, has half of the game devoted to 3D were-hog play, where Sonic looks like a long-armed bandicoot and beats the crap out of everything.

I'm sure the games will sell. After all, even Shadow the Hedgehog managed to end up as a Greatest Hit on the PS2. "But didn't that game suck? Didn't critics pan it hard? Didn't the fans complain about it to no end? Then how did it sell?" I hear you ask. It's pretty simple and, I hate to say this, but the same thing happens to me. Aside from the bizarre Sega attraction, I'm a pretty casual gamer. I don't read reviews all that much. I don't subscribe to any magazines or check gaming news sites regularly. I enjoy Guitar Hero. When asked what is good for a DS, my first thoughts were the Mario and Zelda games. Why? Aren't they usually good, flagship series for Nintendo? Is there even anything else that I could've named? Sonic is the same way. People see the hedgehog and think, "I know Sonic. Sonic's a good game."

Brand recognition has become more important than having a quality product. It's too bad that it's a self-defeating cycle. A poor game sells well, so the developers think that's what the consumer wants. When it comes time for a sequel, they make it similar to the first, and nothing gets better. Brand recognition carries the title again and the cycle repeats. It only seems to work in extremes for large gaming series - the kind that everyone has heard of it. The next Grand Theft Auto could be the worst game ever and it would still be a best seller. Another Jet Set Radio game? Even if it's the second coming, it won't sell.

There may be a point in there somewhere.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Highest Priced Saturn Games

It's a collector's market. Or, unfortunately, it seems to be that way for some of the games on the Saturn. Low print runs, critical acclaim, and foreign markets have all caused the prices of some games to rise astronomically. Ever wonder what the most expensive game is? Or what the old copy of Sonic Jam you've got laying around is worth? Here's my very unscientific look at the ebay pricing of expensive Saturn games.

Ok, so here are the rules:

1. Ebay is the tool
2. Only completed auctions
3. Games with cases and instructions only. Few exceptions are because some games were more commonly packaged with hardware than without it, including those that shipped with 4mb cards and Nights with the 3D control pad.
4. Only used games - to keep the fight fair. Anything new, sealed, or unopened is not included.
5. First 300 results for highest bids.
6. Week of July 16. Prices fluctuate, so at Christmas, I'm sure Christmas Nights will be too high to even think about purchasing. Some rarer games may not have been on the market this week, and will not appear in the list.
7. Prices only. Some people bought items at low prices and ignored the $20 shipping charge. This may low-ball some games.

Highest Valued Games:

1. Radiant Silvergun (j) 189.02
2. Panzer Dragoon Saga 168
3. X-men vs. Marvel (w/ card) 127.5
4. Princess Crown (j) 110.58
5. Dungeons and Dragons (j) 87.31
6. Final Fight Revenge (j) 85.00
7. Daytona USA Netlink Edition 75
8. Battle Garegga (j) 72.5
9. Shining Force 3 65.40
10. Batsugen (j) 60

What does this mean? It's good to be and import and it's good to be an RPG if you want to grab some money on ebay. Of course, the imported games are harder to find over here, so they'll draw more money. Panzer Dragoon and Shining Force stick out as domestic titles, but their limited production numbers and fan-base have driven the cost up. Worth noting is that the Panzer Dragoon Azel (import) is substantially cheaper than its American counterpart.

Let's take out the imports:

1. Panzer Dragoon Saga 168
2. Daytona USA Net Link 75
3. Shining Force 3 65.40
4. Burning Rangers 58.50
5. Guardian Heroes 53.30
6. Magic Knight Rayearth 52.66
7. Sonic Jam 52.44
8. Dragon Force 51.49
9. Albert Odyssey 41.26
10. Contra: Legacy of War 41.00 (only one)

With domestic games only, prices drop considerably, sans PDS. The Netlink version of Daytona USA cracks number two on the list, being the rarest version of the game. As usual, the RPGs seem to take the cake. Burning Rangers makes an appearance and surprisingly enough, the compilation Sonic Jam is on the list.

Let's take out the games not produced by Sega (That's what this site's about after all, right?):

1. Panzer Dragoon Saga 168
2. Daytona USA Net Link 75
3. Burning Rangers 58.5
4. Sonic Jam 52.44
5. Dragon Force 51.49
6. Shining the Holy Ark 38.31
7. Christmas Nights 34.25
8. Shining Wisdom 30.84
9. Nights (w/ controller) 30.39
10. Die Hard Arcade 22.73

I'm very surprised that Christmas Nights made the list, especially in that price range. I know it's a highly collected, but this seems quite high, especially in July.

And for some real fun, let's cut out the RPGs:

1. Daytona USA Net Link 75
2. Burning Rangers 58.5
3. Sonic Jam 52.44
4. Christmas Nights 34.25
5. Nights (w/ controller) 30.39
6. Die Hard Arcade 22.73
7. Panzer Dragoon II Zwei 21.97
8. Mr. Bones 16.83
9. Clockwork Knight 2 15.16
10 Panzer Dragon (only one)

Ok, this is where things are really interesting, as we see some of the common games popping up. Nights appears, no doubt because it is a Saturn exclusive and comes packaged with the 3D control pad - that, and Nights fans are crazy. Die Hard Arcade is a surprise, as I enjoyed the game, but never thought it was that popular. PDZ appears, probably driven by the prices and legend of Saga.

Mr. Bones has me puzzled, as it was not really a standout game. Of course, the titles in this category are affected by stopping at the 300 most expensive. 10 people could've bought Mr. Bones at $5 and 2 people at $16 and it would still appear on the list. Clockwork Knight 2 was a Saturn exclusive and regarded as the better of the two CK games. Lastly Panzer Dragoon appears, but only one auction made the list, not nearly enough to be accurate, not that this is scientific in any way.

One surprising omission: The House of the Dead. It looks like this one didn't sell at all that week, but it is currently floating around the $70-$80 mark.