Tag Archives: retrogaming

Bringing a knife to a gun fight

So here’s a story. Back in 2001, an interesting game called American McGee’s Alice came out. It was weird for a couple reasons. First, I believe it was one of the earliest examples of a director using his name in the title of his game, though I might be wrong here. But also, it was a re-imagining of a beloved children’s story, this time with dark and grotesque imagery and more than a bit of violence.

Alice does have a weird tendency to sound completely detached at one point, and break down crying one second later. Maybe it comes with the dyed hair.
I think this is the level in Mario 64 where I almost gave up on getting all 120 stars. I still got them in the end, though.

It was a cult hit, I believe, but not much more. Certainly not many people remembered it by the next year. Anyway, 7-8 years later Disney had a similar idea for their movies, and made a sort of dark fable out of Alice in Wonderland, of course starring Johnny Depp because back then he was still the hottest thing ever. It went on to become a worldwide success, so it’s no surprise that some videogame publisher would try and bank on it. Enter EA, who could have just made a movie tie-in… but instead, decided to resurrect an old, unrelated game that just coincidentally had a similar idea years earlier. And so comes Alice Madness Returns, and the circle is closed.

I dig Goth Alice’s look in Madness Returns, but she really needs to lay down the eyeliner.

Even better, they included the original game with the sequel. At least, on consoles. At least, as paid DLC. But now it’s free DLC! Funny how that works. Since Madness Returns was put on sale and also joined the backward compatibility program, I could finally play American McGee’s Alice, which I had missed upon release, and also take a bunch of screenshots.

There’s a whiff of Shadow Man to the enviroments and design, although encased in a fairly old-looking modification of the Quake 3 engine. I swear Quake 3 was much more pleasing to the eye, this is closer to Quake 2 in looks.

Not much to say about the game itself. Some interesting ideas, and the design is definitely disturbing at times, but the platforming and combat are both mediocre. In an action-platforming game you’d guess that could be a problem, and it is. Still, worth playing through, if only to see what happens. The Disney 2010 movie took a different direction for sure. At least I’m ready for Madness Returns now… though I might not start immediately. Quantum break has been waiting for too long.

Remember when there was just one Alien?

Juggling several games at once, like I constantly do, means you have more chances of rediscovering stuff you bought (or maybe even got for free) ages ago and never played. One such game is Alien Versus Predator, one of the most famous among those featuring the Xenomorphs – and the Predators too, of course, but there are many more games about the Alien whereas the hunter creature never really got anything aside maybe from Predator: Concrete Jungle (another game currently in my waitlist). And as it usually happens with very old stuff, 18 years old in this case, what you discover is not quite the same as people saw it upon release.

The Marine campaign would be much more tense, if it weren’t almost arcade in nature.

They said it was scary. Well, people also found The Exorcist horrifying in 1973, so I guess standards do change. But even so, I was never really afraid of peeking behind a corner. Perhaps the biggest problem was, even if an Alien had been hiding there, I could just blast its face full of lead. At worst its acidic blood splurts would take out maybe 15% of my armor, top. Not so scary then, is it? Enemies respawn, which means you can never truly feel safe, but it’s also easy to predict where the developers are going to spawn an Alien, so you are always ready. Except for the face-huggers. Those things were really annoying.

The Predator campaign is a bit like playing Crysis in 1999: you get the coolest weapons, a cloaking ability, your energy recharges with time, and the graphics hurt your eyes.

This was arguably a problem with old games in general. Can’t really see people getting scared by Alone in the Dark or Resident Evil today, aside from a couple of scripted sequences – which brings me to my point: scripting. In the end, is it only possible to do horror in games by carefully constructing everything in advance? The success of Outlast, so hollywoodian in nature, would make you think so. Even earlier games like Penumbra and Amnesia, though less restrictive, still relied for the most part on scripted events. Heck, the most memorable parts of the aforementioned fathers of survival horror are still the scripted scenes, like the dog monster breaking into the house from the window in RE1, or… the dog monster breaking into the house from the window in AITD. Yeah, I can see a pattern here.

The Alien campaign sometimes reminds you of the more colorful Rayman 2.

I can’t think of many ways of doing horror without carefully setting up a specific scene for the player to stumble upon. Certain titles like Silent Hill and Forbidden Siren were a bit creepier all around, but even in those games you are on the edge of your seat precisely because you don’t know when the next scripted scare will come up. I so, however, remember the NY Tenements level in Shadow Man, where somehow I was scared all the way through, even though nothing happened. Now I know this, it’s not scary anymore, but the first time it worked well. Is it possible then, to do horror without scripting? Perhaps so, but just like scripted horror, it would lack replayability.

I don’t actually remember what I wanted to say anymore, so nevermind. As it stands, AVP1 was fun but flawed, and certtainly not that scary. From what I know, when Monolith developed AVP2, they dropped the randomized nature in favor of the Valve-esque route of scripted events. So maybe it will be more horror in nature. I’ll know soon: the game itself is not available on any download service, but I still have the disc, and it seems to work fairly well on Windows 10 too. We’ll see if a scripted scare is more effective than Aliens coming out of the goddamn walls.

Terminal Velocity Review

Apparently, Saturday was “Review A Great Game Day”. Never heard of this before. But I’m not one to let these things slide. So let’s see… it’s still Saturday in Honolulu. I guess it still counts, right? Right. Let’s try and review something a bit less famous than usual.

This is actually quite representative of the game itself. What a rare sight.
This is actually quite representative of the game itself. What a rare sight.

Terminal Velocity was developed by Terminal Reality (can’t be a coincidence…) and published in 1995 by 3DRealms, back when they were still relevant. You probably remember the developers for pearls such as Kinect Star Wars and that Walking Dead shooter, but ages ago, they were also fairly big in the early Windows scene, making games that were at least trying to take advantage of the newly-fangled Direct3D technology, including Hellbender and Monster Truck Madness. I pity them, because by all accounts, early Direct3D was terrible.

Terminal Velocity is, for my money, still their best game (though admittedly I haven’t played all of them: I heard pretty good things about Nocturne). In case you couldn’t notice from the cover, it’s a space shooter, a very common genre in the mid 90’s, thanks no doubt to the amazing success of Descent, which had spawned several clones. But TV breaks the mold somewhat by letting you fly on large planets, making it less claustrophobic and far less nausea-inducing. Interestingly, you can still fly your ship in complete freedom, so it’s actually possible to go far above the clouds and near the atmosphere even. Good luck spotting your targets from there.

There are three camera modes: first-person, third-person, and a weird fixed camera third-person mode that is near unplayable but probably very cool for screenshots.

The structure is fairly similar, if somewhat repetitive: you get objectives to complete (usually flying to a spot and then destroying a target base), weapons to collect (lasers, missiles, your typical arsenal), enemies to kill, bosses to survive. Since everything takes place on open terrain, you are usually free to take the route you want, and exploration is even encouraged by hiding powerful weapons off the beaten path. You’ll also get attacked from all directions, so keep wary. Sometimes things can get overwhelming.

In order to retain a sense of purpose, you are often asked to fly through underground tunnels. These are presented as point A-to-B voyages where you need to dodge doors and destroy ships who just love ramming through your own. There’s a vague sense of Descent in these 3D metal tunnels, but with completely straight paths, it’s a bit more like a rollercoaster. For extra fun, try using the afterburner in there, and see if you can survive.

With the small radar pretty much useless, you’ll quickly learn to play with the super-imposed radar constantly on. Turok didn’t come first, guys.

The controls work fairly well for such an early game, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble with that. Even the graphics are quite pleasant for their time, once you get used to the giant pixels. Since you know I’m a 3D accelerators aficionado, I’ll also tell you the only “accelerated” version was made available for S3 Virge cards. Of course, in exchange for texture filtering, it actually runs slower than the base version. Don’t cry. Also, as was standard procedure for the era, there are not many music tracks in the game and the few available ones are repeated very often. Still, they are quite catchy, so I’m not complaining all that much. There are also vague hints of a story somewhere in there, presented at the start of each mission, if you can be bothered. I don’t think the developers cared that much either though.

A tunnel. It looks better in motion, I swear. The pixels aren’t attacking your eyes like thousands of small knives, for example.

There’s the distinct feeling that terminal Velocity could have been an all-time great, but it’s somewhat held back by its repetitive structure. With nine different planets and three stages on each, it would have taken a lot of variety to keep players interested throughout, but the game just doesn’t have that. The different tilesets are nice to look at, including giant volcanos places (maybe a Venus expy?) and snowy landscapes (before Skyrim made them all the rage), but I don’t know how many people will have the willpower to see it through to the bitter end – and bitter it was, if I recall some of the later bosses were an utter pain, made worse by the lack of saving during missions.

So, the game was repetitive, much like my reviews. That shouldn’t deter you too much though, because while one might not last long enough to see the ending, at least there’s fun to be had for quite a while. Besides, most 90’s games didn’t even have a meaningful ending, so what do you care? Get on that ship and fly to your heart’s content. The game is easily available on GOG and Steam. Did you know there’s even an Android version? Never tried it, but just to be sure, I’d steer clear of it. Besides, I still have the old disc. Fun times.

Leo’s Toy Store

By now everyone knows, I’m certain, that 428 is going to be localized by Spike Chunsoft next year. This event, the magnitude of which has been unseen in decades, has consequences twofold for me. First, it gives me a chance to experience the sequel to my personal game of 2016 (yes, Machi came out in 1998, I know). Most importantly, it means I can drop my plans to use the on-screen translator on the emulated Wii version.

On the left, the ultimate villain of Machi (probably not featuring in 428)

I’m somewhat worried, though. I can’t help but think that the sheer amount of effort required to play Machi while translating on the fly, trying to interpret those words the OCR couldn’t recognize, and overall spending a very long time with the game, has been instrumental in my enjoyment of it. Now that 428 is going to be easily available, that crucial element is going be missing. Perhaps… perhaps I should translate it myself again, instead?

Another thing that required a lot of effort was War and Peace, which I finally finished a few days ago. Started in December, finished in March… not bad. At least now I know that Tolstoy was totally a Napoleon hater, and Kutuzov fanboy. The first half was really good, and one of the best written books I’ve ever read. But the second half, when the war starts, quickly goes downhill. Even the writing falls in quality, with Tolstoy often repeating himself five or six times in the same paragraph. It doesn’t even feel like I was reading the same book. Too bad, because it had started so well. Oh well, the hype can’t always be real.

Of course, there’s a new book in the pipeline already. Did you doubt it?

Memory Goes Here, Performance Goes There

Another failure? At least an interesting one, this time.

A whole 8MB on a single stick. Only in 1998, folks.

Just a few days ago, I found a cheap 8MB SGRAM expansion for the Matrox G200 series. Yes, it’s a memory expansion for real this time. It was supposed to bring my G250 all the way up to 16MB. In itself, it’s already a useless experiment – the G400 32MB has more memory, is faster in everything, and has literally the same compatibility (including the same issues). While I was sure it wouldn’t make any difference in lower resolutions, I was thinking that perhaps you could see an effect once the local memory was entirely filled up by the framebuffer.

What I didn’t know, was that the memory expansion would actually decrease the default memory and core clocks on the card.

You don’t have to worry about higher resolutions if your monitor is crap.

I said in the past, that my G250 seems a bit different from the specs originally mentioned on Wikipedia: the core runs at 105mhz core, and the memory at 140mhz. That’s pretty high for its time, but I tested the veridicity of Powerstrip’s claims by running a few games and noticing that framerates scaled almost linearly against the G200A (which runs at 84/112mhz). It doesn’t even seem like an anomalous overclock, since scores stay up no matter how long I keep the tests running, and there are no artifacts in sight.

But after installing the memory daughterboard, suddenly I found the clocks going down to 90/120mhz. Attempting to overclock the card all the way up to the original values produced slight artifacts, so I didn’t make any further attempts. And sure enough, testing the card showed a sizeable decrease over the original framerates. The Forsaken test is particularly telling: the framerate matches the core clocks almost entirely, and shows that, at least on a P3-450mhz, the game is completely bound by the graphics card.

The complete set. Now with automatic downclocking.

I made two mistakes: I thought there would be no difference at lower resolutions, but there was. And also, I thought there might be a difference at high resolutions, but it didn’t quite turn out. Even with something like 1024x768x32 in Incoming, which is supposed to fill the framebuffer almost entirely, the framerate delta is still effectively the same. 3DMark 99 does show a slight proportional increase when running at 1280×1024, but the difference is pretty small. I suppose the G200 series was really good at AGP texturing. It had DiME support, like the i740, whereas many AGP cards of the era stopped at DMA.

So what happened? Well, I have a theory. The expansion module was made for the old G200, which only ran at 84/112mhz (just like the later G200A die shrink). So they didn’t bother making memory chips that could run much faster than that, since they weren’t expecting people to clock the card any higher – after all, the G200 wasn’t even quite a gamer’s card to begin with. Therefore, since the G200 seems to always run with a 3:4 ratio between the core and memory, if you add slower memories, the core will go down too. Bummer, uh?

Thank god my paycheck came in just a few days ago.

So that was an interesting experiment, but it could have gone better. Lately, all of my experiments haven’t gone so well, perhaps it’s a sign that my benchmarking days are over? Time will tell. At least the rest of my haul from yesterday wasn’t bad, as you can see. I expect to start Barrow Hill pretty soon, perhaps in the weekend (still playing Claw)… while the Zork book will have to wait until War and Peace is finished, which might take a little while.

Oh, and the SiS 6326 is a C3 revision with just 4MB of memory. Even worse than expected. I’ve never seen such horrible texturing perspective issues. Another one for the shelf.

Wink to the Past

Some days ago, my motherboard died. Or so I thought. See, when your PC only turns on without beeping or showing anything on the screen, my first thought is “reset the CMOS”. If that doesn’t work, “try a different power supply”. Only if that doesn’t work either, I change the mobo. Unfortunately, in my haste, I skipped the second step.

So after changing the motherboard and noticing it still didn’t work, I tried the power supply. That made it! Except… the computer was now turning on with the different motherboard. Too late, I didn’t think about it. Windows 98 suddenly got messed up, and after a couple reboots where things seemed fine, it stopped seeing almost every peripheral in the computer. And that was the chance I needed to reset everything.

Microsoft advertising OpenGL? It was more likely than you think.

For a change, I put Windows 95 again. Nothing against Windows 98, but I do remember it was slightly harder to run DOS games properly on it for some reason, even though both 95 OSR2 and 98 run the same version of MS-DOS.

I even put a Virge in the case during the installation process, to make sure everything would go as smoothly as possible. I don’t think there’s a more supported card than the Virge out there. And sure enough, the installation was smooth and flawless. I also found a really good USB driver, called XUSBUPP, which was a lot easier to install than Microsoft’s own driver. I remember that one would completely ruin your Windows installation if you messed up.

After tweaking the Autoexec and Config files. These are the kind of sights I love.

Well, there’s just one problem. Ok, a few problems. First one is, the mouse wheel doesn’t work – perhaps I can look into fixing it. Another problem is just how rough the thing feels at times – you can’t choose which version of the driver to install from an INF file, it seems.

The other problem is 3D Mark 99. I thought it would just work the same, but it turns out it won’t recognize my Pentium 3 as a Pentium 3. Perhaps that required Windows 98… anyway, I’m stuck with basic Intel optimization, which means my CPU score went down from 7000 to 4500.

(that also shows us that there isn’t much difference at all between Pentium 2 and 3, aside from the higher clocks, if you aren’t employing some optimization. The P2-350mhz scored roughly 3500, which perfectly matches the 4500 scored by the P3-450mhz)

This would make further card testing partially useless, depending on the card employed. More powerful chips like the TNT2 and Voodoo 3 obtain a fairly lower score. Of course, it would not affect other game tests, since nothing else in my benchmark suite had those P3 optimizations.

Nor, it seems, does it affect less powerful cards in a meaningful manner. The Trident Blade 3D – which I momentarily elected as card of choice due to needing something that could install quickly and painlessly, much like the Virge but less crappy – had its score going down from 2850 to 2750. That sounds like the GPU is bottlenecking the CPU instead. The G250 also went down a measly 50 points, from 3050 to to 3000. And weaker cards should be even closer. I do have an interesting 1996 thing coming up, and also waiting to see if my bid on a SiS 6326 gets through. So those should be safe for testing.

The last problem? I forgot to back up my old 3DMark database results. Sigh.

Busy Edition

With the unexpected news that I’m starting my job again next week, I’ve been in a bit of a hurry and haven’t had much time to write about my findings on the GPU front. Though in this case, GPU is a bit of an exaggeration.

Look at the 3D glasses port. I wonder how many of those were sold.

See, I received two cards in the last week, and I’ve had time to test them before I even knew about the job situation. Good for me. One is the Diamond FireGL 1000 Pro you can see above, a Permedia 2 chip. I wasn’t expecting much to begin with, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

For a card aimed mostly at the professional market, I guess it was fine, but the lack of blended color lights is a bummer. Quake 2 in monochrome lighting just doesn’t look the same – though I know a few people who would rather play it that way. Granted, they would have to get past the sub-20 FPS even in 640×480.

I’ll spare you the trouble I had to go through to find suitable drivers. They aren’t joking when they say Ati’s drivers used to suck.

The other card is this Radeon VE, or Radeon 7000, same thing really. See, it was marketed as a Radeon, but with its very gimped architecture (half the TMUs  and no vertex shader), it’s really more like Ati grabbed a Rage 128, overclocked it like hell, added one extra TMU and called it a day.

The higher clock alone makes sure it will always be faster than a Rage 128 (perhaps not the MAXX though…) but the extra TMU might not be all that useful. At the very least, 3DMark never goes past double results in multi texturing. Newer drivers give better results in tests, but don’t allow you to disable Vsync, so I used older ones. Fun times.

I still have a TNT2 coming, and my big comparison post received some updates thanks to some interesting findings about various cards. So maybe I’ll post an update eventually. If I can find the time between one customer and the other.