A god won’t accept PC Speaker

Attempting to play Populous on my old PC today yielded some interesting results: if you can call interesting the garbled mess coming out of the speakers when attempting to run the Adlib Sound version.

What picked my attention was that I also had a similar issue with Monkey Island 2. Back then, I just gave up as I couldn’t find any solution. When the problem presented itself again with Populous, this time I was able to find out more. So now I managed to solve it.

Completely random screenshots comparison between the three versions of Populous, just because I can somehow print the screen in this game. Here's the default CGA, also known as banana overdose.
Completely random screenshots comparison between the three versions of Populous, just because I can somehow print the screen in this game. Here’s the original CGA, also known as banana overdose.
EGA version, actually pretty good. I'm not a fan of EGA but this one came out pretty well.
EGA version, actually pretty good. I’m not a fan of EGA but this one came out pretty well.
VGA version, which is how the game plays on Origin and GOG too. Those versions also use the Roland MT-32 emulation though.
VGA version, which is how the game plays on Origin and GOG by default. Those versions also use the Roland MT-32 emulation though.

I was able to find the answer in a page of the Adlib Tracker II message board from 8 years ago. Some of the best ideas are buried that deep. Turned out that the SB16 requires changing the I/O 8-16 bit recovery setting on newer machines, such as my Pentium 3. I changed them (from 1-1 to 8-4) and now the game works like a charm. And so does Monkey Island 2.

Never doubt the internet. What you need to know is always available somewhere, if you know how to look.

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So we heard you like options in your setup screens

Following on my previous article on Tonic Trouble (sorry but when I end up playing something so obscure after so many years, I want to talk about it a bit more than just a couple paragraphs), there’s something interesting I wanted to say about its technical realization.

The game uses the same engine as Rayman 2, but there appear to be some improvements in how it manages it, which is a bit weird considering it should actually be older. A look at the options screen will show what I mean.

Now these are the kind of setup screens I like to see.
Now these are the kind of setup screens I like to see.

The first thing to see, is that the game allows you to change the primary display driver. Compare that to Rayman 2, which forced you to choose your display driver, and then only installed that version. You had to reinstall the game to change to Direct3D or Glide. Yuck. Talking about Glide, this one doesn’t seem to support it. While my card is erratic, Rayman 2 works and uses the same engine, so I can only assume this is because Rayman 2 was modified to support Glide.

Tonic Trouble also allows you to select your resolution from a list, the details level, and even offers the choice between Double and Triple Buffering (disabling Vsync doesn’t seem to be possible from this panel). Rayman 2 only let you choose between Low, Medium and High resolution (really 640, 800 and 1024).

But the coolest option is texture memory management.

The game running with 4096KB of texture memory. Anything higher doesn't seem to make a difference.
The game running with 4096KB of texture memory. I could go up to 8420KB, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference.
And now with 2048KB of texture memory. This is the lowest you can go... in theory.
And now with 2048KB of texture memory. This is the lowest you can go… on the Voodoo 3.

Tonic Trouble will let you choose how much memory you want to dedicate to the textures. You can choose whether to use all the available memory, limit it to a certain amount, or even if you want to use all memory excluding AGP. This could make for some really interesting  experiments. The setup will also take into account the framebuffer size, so the amount of available memory will change on the fly depending on the selected resolution and buffering mode.

On the Voodoo 3, of course we are never going to have any problems, but I still noticed something interesting. Now, I know this card doesn’t support AGP texturing. However, there still seemed to be some effect. With “all available memory” selected, on 1024×768 with Triple Buffering, I was left with 6492KB for texture memory (as you can see in the setup screen). Selecting “No AGP” would instead give me 8412KB. I wonder why the amount increased.

A second test was made with my old and buggy S3 Savage 3D (it’s so buggy, Windows won’t even start with the newest drivers. I had to use some old engineering drivers from 1998). I know this card supports AGP texturing. And indeed, despite its onboard 8MB, the setup shows about 17MB of available memory. Good. But if AGP memory is disabled, then with 1024×768 and Triple Buffer, texture memory becomes a mere 1096KB!

When all you have is one mere Megabyte for your textures.
When all you have is one mere Megabyte for your textures.

Therefore, we can be sure that the game is using AGP memory here (if selected). In fact, if all available memory is used, the game runs properly, and even with texture quality higher than the Voodoo 3 (that is something I have in mind for the next blog post, though). Performance doesn’t seem to drop, which is a good sign because I expected texture trashing. For the record, overall performance with the Savage 3D is not bad.

Savage 3D, with all available memory (17480KB). Very sharp, very nice. Runs okay, too.
Savage 3D, with all available memory (17480KB). Very sharp, very nice. Runs okay, too.
Voodoo 3, no AGP texturing (8412KB, looks the same as 4096KB). The lower sharpness is likely due to the way the game renders internally, rather than the amount of texture memory used. Still, it's enough to make me reconsider using the Voodoo 3 as primary card.
Voodoo 3, no AGP texturing (8412KB, looks the same as 4096KB). The lower sharpness is likely due to the way the game renders internally, rather than the amount of texture memory used. Still, it’s enough to make me reconsider using the Voodoo 3 as primary card.

I would like to try an AGP card with 4MB onboard, which would effectively force the game to use AGP for all of the texturing at 1024×768 Triple Buffered. Unfortunately, the only such card I have is the Matrox G100, which doesn’t seem to support AGP texturing – the game doesn’t show any difference between those options.

Despite the game listing 4MB as a minimum requirement, all attempts to play this game on cards with only 4MB of onboard memory and no AGP texturing ended up pretty badly.

The Mystique at 640x480 with Double Buffering. With less than 2MB of memory for the textures, you can see what happens.
The Mystique at 640×480 with Double Buffering. With less than 2MB of memory for the textures, you can see what happens.
Dropping to 512x384 makes the game playable, at least, but there are still some glaring errors.
Dropping to 512×384 makes the game run better, at least, but there are still some glaring errors. Not to mention,not even the Sega 32X had textures that bad.
The Matrox G100 just about qualifies as playable. It's not particularly fast, and the textures would look hideous even by Virtua Racing standards, but it doesn't have any terrible artefacts either.
The Matrox G100 at 640×480 just barely qualifies as playable. It’s not particularly fast, and the textures would look hideous even by Virtua Racing standards, but it doesn’t have any terrible artefacts either. The difference with the Mystique, despite the same amount of memory available, is probably due to better Direct3D support.

Other things are not related to graphics, but still amusing. Music volume is set to zero by default. I didn’t find the music grating or anything, so I don’t know what to make of that. Maybe the developers didn’t like their own music.

Troubled Tonic

Hey, remember that really cool 3D platformer released by Ubisoft in 1999 about a guy with no arms and no legs?

Exactly, it’s Rayman 2. Definitely not Tonic Trouble.

I have had the disc for Tonic Trouble for… I don’t remember. More than 10 years now, I’m fairly sure. It was a budget edition bought at a newspapers stand. Never actually played it. So I thought it was about time I remedied that.

I wouldn't blame you for confusing the two, though.
I wouldn’t blame you for confusing the two, though.

This game didn’t exactly get a good reception. After playing it, I can kind of see why. It plays a lot like Rayman 2, except without half of the control tightness. There’s a flying power that is absolutely hell to use, and the jump and platform grabbing physics are as wonky as it gets. It’s not really that bad, though.

Flat shading in a 1999 game? Wait, what do you mean "not flat"...
Flat shading in a 1999 game? Wait, what do you mean “not flat”…

The stage and enemies design is pretty much the closest I’ve seen a platformer get to Day of the Tentacle, which can never be a bad thing. There’s more of a focus on puzzles than combat or platforming, and these puzzles generally work. I’ve been stumped a few times, but never so much that I needed to read a walkthrough. I don’t even know if there’s one anywhere, actually. The bosses are probably the best part of the game, they tend to be inventive and quite fun. One of them borrows the annoying “run toward the screen” mechanic that was popularized by Crash Bandicoot, and which luckily nobody does anymore.

The game uses a similar formula to Rayman, which was then used in Rayman 2 as well (you can kind of recognize Ubisoft there): you play through a series of levels, then at the end get a power-up which will allow you to open a new area, and so forth. When you get near the end, you’ll need to go through the whole game again with your new powers in order to get all the trinkets you have missed, or no boss battle for you (Tonic Trouble is actually a bit more lenient than Rayman in this regard: you only need 160 out of 180 trinkets, meaning you can avoid replaying the god-awful Canyon stage).

Product placement at its most blatant. Still not as cool as Shadow Man's Diesel endorsement.
Product placement at its most blatant. Still not as cool as Shadow Man’s Diesel endorsement.

It’s a somewhat competent, but mostly unremarkable platformer. I completed it in 6-7 hours. Good to satiate my curiosity, but in the end, it’s easy to see why history has forgotten it.

There are a few interesting things to say about its technical side, however, so I’ll write more on this game next time.

Part-time bilinear

Ah, bilinear filtering. Love it or hate it, it was a big part of the 90’s search for better graphics. By 1998, however, pretty much any game that wasn’t a 32-bit console title (or that wasn’t still made on the Build engine, *cough* WW2 GI) supported bilinear filtering. Or so it seemed. For some reason, a few Dreamcast titles still relied on nearest neighboring… at least on some textures.

Goldman's dastardly plan probably involved mixing together filtered and unfiltered textures.
Goldman’s dastardly plan probably involved mixing together filtered and unfiltered textures.

The result is a little jarring in The House of the Dead 2, especially when in comparison, the Nintendo 64 filtered literally everything it could have filtered and then some. What’s more surprising, though, is that the effect was left intact in the PC release by Empire as well. There are no graphical options to speak of, so it can’t be changed. And not unexpectedly, tinkering with the GPU control panel does nothing. This could probably be put aside as a lazy port (including the seemingly 30fps), which is a bit sad considering The House of the Dead 1 on PC added Direct3D support with options for filtering, Z-sorting and transparencies, and ran like a dream.

Curien was more ambitious: he wanted everyone to play the unfiltered version on their Saturn. But the PC foiled him.
Curien was more ambitious: he wanted everyone to play the unfiltered version on their Saturn. But the PC version foiled him.

This version was made by AM1, so perhaps that’s why it’s better. Too bad they didn’t port the vastly superior-looking arcade version, which already had all those features and also much better models. But anyway, these Dreamcast woes don’t end there.

Graphics are the last of Sega GT's problems, although I assume at least some of the issues here are exclusive to the PC version
Graphics were the last of Sega GT’s problems, but at least don’t play it on PC.

Sega GT is what happens when you take Gran Turismo and give it a driving model lifted straight from Screamers. It’s not exactly fun to play, and it’s not pretty to look at, either. To be fair, I must assume that at least some of the problems here are due to a bad PC port, because the videos and screenshots for the Dreamcast version don’t look nearly as bad. Still, that someone thought this was okay, is already amazing enough.

Of course all these Dreamcast ports also run at 640×480 with no graphical options. Talk about lazy. Maybe at some point we’ll see a console re-release for at least some of them, since Sega seems fond of old remasters. You know what they say, give a man Sega Rally Championship and he’ll be a happy man.

Croc – Legend of the 3D Accelerators

The middle 90’s era is a proper nest for treasure. Just like Tomb Raider, other games had to include support to multiple APIs in order to get their games to run properly on various graphic cards (or they could also use software mode, but… ehhh).

Croc is one such game, although unlike Tomb Raider, there’s support for 3D accelerators right out of the box. To specify, the game supports the omnipresent Glide, a special Voodoo Rush mode (according to the Vogons Wiki, among the Rush’s various shortcomings there was also an incompatibility with certain Glide games), the good old Matrox Mystique API, the S3 API because your game can never be slow enough, and CIF for the two people who had a Rage II+ for games.

Being a Windows game, I actually managed to take screenshots this time. With two exceptions. The software mode will give out screenshots in garbled colors, so it’s out. And the Voodoo, well, I have some drivers issues with my Voodoo 3 which I still haven’t managed to solve, so I couldn’t even get it to run. The game doesn’t support Direct3D or OpenGL, so unless you have one of these cards, the game will run in software mode.

But let’s start now, as usual, with my favorite card (for nostalgic reasons only), the Matrox Mystique. Click on the screenshots for the full image!

No filtering, no alpha blending - it's a Mystique alright.
No filtering, no alpha blending – it’s a Mystique alright.

I said i couldn’t take screenshots of the software mode, but this is pretty close. Well, as expected of the Mystique. The texture pixels are as big as my hand, and shadows are pixelated. It doesn’t look like an improvement over software rendering.

Mystique owners had to get used to the lack of proper transparencies. These are actually a little better-made than usual - you don't want to see Forsaken.
Mystique owners had to get used to the lack of proper transparencies. These waterfalls actually look a little better than usual – you don’t want to see Forsaken and its light effects (although that game still impressed me in terms of speed on the Mystique).

But you know what, it’s not that bad. It looks like software mode, but good luck running that at any decent speed on 640×480. The Matrox, on the other hand, will deliver similar quality (and in fact better, since the image looks cleaner somehow) at much improved framerates. The game is very well playable with the Matrox, running smoothly and with no hiccups.

You only need to deal with the aforementioned filtering and alpha problems. But what if you dont want to? Well, we have reserves. Come into play… the Virge.

We traded giant pixels for terrible dithering. Good job, S3.
We traded giant pixels for terrible dithering. Good job, S3.

I don’t see an improvement here. Quite the opposite. We have filtering now, but the sampling seems to be really spotty, with color stains on the grass that make me think of some kind of disease, and dithering that looks like it crawled straight out of the PSP. I don’t know what’s up with the terrible filtering, but it almost appears as if the green gives it trouble. The cobblestone and well look better, but the dithering still ruins it.

Besides, even if I could accept this image quality, I certainly wouldn’t be able to accept the framerate. The last time I’ve played such a jerky platformer was Evil Twin on PS2 (I just remembered a game I had buried real deep… I’ll need to look for it on PC). 640×480 is nowhere near playable. 512×384 starts getting a little better, but in the end you’ll probably have to go all the way down to 320×240.

That’s if you want to torture yourself and use a Virge. Why not use a Rage 2 instead?

Something is amiss here... the CIF seems to have trouble with Croc.
Something is amiss here… the CIF seems to have trouble with Croc.

Marvel at Ati’s prowess. No more dithering! Yay! Well, actually, not so fast. There is a bunch of other issues here. For starters, the texture filtering is as bad as on the Virge, which seems to imply a bad implementation within the game itself. It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t run the game on the Voodoo, or we could see if at least the Glide version fixed that.

I hope you like polygon seaming issues because you'll see them a lot.
I hope you like polygon seaming issues because you’ll see them a lot.

The other big problem is polygon seaming. You could already see it on the well in the previous screenshot, but this one shows it a lot better: pretty horrible lines where polygons meet. Even in the skybox. The readme mentions this problem with CIF cards, but can only offer one solution, disabling the texture filtering. This is a doubly good idea, since as I have noticed in other games, the Rage II incurs a pretty hefty performance hit with bilinear filtering – the framerate is definitely worse than the Mystique.

I liked those pixels better on the Mystique.
I liked those pixels better on the Mystique.

With texture filtering disabled, the seaming issues all but disappear and the framerate gets much better – wait, what’s up with those ground textures? If you thought the pixels on the Mystique were bad enough, just wait until you see these ones. It’s like the ground has measles. What’s more, the smoothness still isn’t up to par with Matrox. You will need to go down to 512×384, which makes it pretty smooth overall, but it won’t look as good as 640×480.

So what’s the best choice? Well, if you have a Voodoo and it actually works, just go with that, I guess. Otherwise it’s a victory for Matrox – it has the highest speed of the bunch, coupled with the best textures (because they are unfiltered, go figure) and no glaring image artifacts. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take pixelated shadows over dithering everywhere. And I’ll take smaller pixels over green stains.

The speed factor is actually a victory for Ati, however, as the CIF was supported up to the Rage Pro, meaning you could use that card to get better results. Indeed, my Rage LT Pro ran the game very smoothly even with the max resolution of 864×480! But you’ll still get the seams or the giant pixels, so in the end I’d rather go with Matrox.

It’s a matter of compromises, and for once, the Mystique proves itself the most useful. At least until I get my hands on that 3dfx Velocity.

When the world needs a hero, and there’s no hero anymore

It pains me to say this, but I just don’t feel the drive to keep playing SMT4. I’m only 6 hours in, and already I can’t find it in myself to start the game anymore.

How tastes change. From 2004 to about 2007, I played almost only JRPGs, and the occasional shooter (that much never changed). From Final Fantasy to Shin Megami Tensei, from Grandia to Tales, I’ve run the whole gamut of popular series, and even some not-so-popular ones. The last one I played extensively was Persona 4 and its 80 hours, back for its 2009 launch. After that, it’s been an almost complete void. For a couple years now, they have been boring me to death. I never last more than a few hours.

I still say Knights in the Nightmare is underrated. It's also very unconventional, so perhaps it doesn't really count.
I still say Knights in the Nightmare is underrated. It’s also very unconventional, so perhaps it doesn’t really count.

I could perhaps say that I just don’t like the genre anymore, but just a few months ago I tried Chrono Cross again, and managed to clock 40 hours in two weeks to finish the game. I also finished Child of Light upon release. So there’s still hope, however feeble. Apparently I need to find the right game, though, and who knows which one it is.

The design is so 90's it hurts my (eye)balls. Grandia was awesome. Maybe a new Grandia could be what I need.
The design is so 90’s it hurts my (eye)balls. Grandia was awesome. Maybe a new Grandia could be what I need.

Perhaps I have to go back into the classics? I started my career with FF7 back in 2004, so maybe what I need to do is to play FF7 again. Just some food for thought.

This is (not) for the fans

Enjoying that snazzy New 3DS with its totally cool faceplates? I bet you are, at least here in Europe. But if you are in the USA, between an Amiibo shortage and another, you are stuck with the XL variation. And no faceplates.

A talking consoles, suggesting you to change its cover plate? Surely it wasn't developed on drugs.
A talking console, suggesting you to change its cover plate? Surely it wasn’t developed on drugs.

Now, an article by Nintendolife has a NOA manager interview, where they mention something about it:

“Look, the face plates are super cool, but we’re a different market. And now we have clear differentiation between those three systems. […] The core audience… we weren’t going to win with them on that decision. But we had to think about expanding the user base, we had to be able to market it and make it easy to pick up for consumers.”

I should mention why I disagree with this. The american market might be different from Japan and Europe, but that’s kinda the point. Nintendo’s own data very recently mentioned that the USA made up for 63% of the total Amiibo shipments. That means they almost doubled the amount of sales in Japan, Europe and Australia combined.

I can see why europeans don’t care. They got the green color, and we know nobody really likes Luigi outside of annoying memes.

That, to me, sounds like the exact definiton of a fan-driven market. And it’s not too unexpected: the USA have always been one of Nintendo’s biggest territories, and it’s there that most of the ardent fans are. By comparison, Europe was quite comfortable with Sega and Commodore back then, and later on, with Sony. Only the Wii and DS really managed to give Nintendo a big presence in Europe (indeed, bigger than in the USA for the DS), but that was arguably due to the blue ocean strategy. Once the Wii U and 3DS arrived, with their new-found fans focus, european sales once again became smaller than USA sales.

So why wouldn’t they want to sell the New 3DS and its faceplates in the USA? If Amiibo sales are any indication, american fans would lap those faceplates up. But then, this is hardly the only strange decision Nintendo has made lately. Sending low stocks of Amiibo figurines, and eventually substituting them with cards? Do fans even care about that? I’m under the impression that most Amiibo buyers are buying them because they are cheap Nintendo figurines of good quality, not their NFC features.

It all points out to a short term strategy, but it’s too bad because it had potential for a long term plan.

Writing about whatever comes to mind