Monday, November 29, 2010

Famicom Game Genie Unboxing

I got an unopened Famicom Game Genie today in the mail from Argentina. Despite being made for the Famicom, the box has a bunch of pictures for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Perhaps I'm displaying my ignorance, and the NES in Argentina is US shaped but the cartridges are Famicom sized. Anyway, it's interesting to see. As I can't get anything without at least looking at it once, I did have to open it up. But, I took some photos in the process to satisfy everyone's voyeurism.








One curiosity I noticed was the white booklet, which includes codes for some pirate cartridges. This is a definite interesting oddity. Thanks to Maikol on Famicomworld for selling it to me!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Vtech Laser 128 / 128EX Apple Clone Manual

I recently got a Laser 128 Apple Clone free with a Commodore 64. The owner wasn't sure if it worked; in fact, he thought it was a C64 clone. Anyway, the manual has been useful (though I'm not sure helpful, yet, because I'm still waiting on the power suppl I ordered) in working on getting it to work. However, the manual I got a hold of lacked contrast, had no OCRed text, and was therefore very hard to find information is.

I've made a quick version for myself that's much easier to go through. I OCRed the text, but haven't gone through it at all. However, it should make it easier to search through. Overall it's a lot easier to read. The text itself has the original so if you need an important bit of information you should still be able to find it even though the OCR is far from perfect.

If you're interested, get it here.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

SNES PowerPak Review

Retrozone's recently released product, the SNES PowerPak, is a device which allows you to store copies of Super Nintendo and Super Famicom games on a Compact Flash card and play them back on the original system. It also serves as a tool to allow homebrew developers and rom hackers to test their products on original hardware. This class of devices is generally known as a flash cart; this is in contrast to earlier, older products like the Super Magic Drive and Doctor SF7 that were known as floppy backup units. I've reviewed a similar device in the past, the Tototek Super Flash Cart 64M.

When the SNES PowerPak was first announced, I wasn't as excited as I should have been, mostly because I had already purchased the Tototek cartridge. I still wanted to get it, mind you, but it was a desire I put on hold. A couple of weeks ago, I finally caved to my desire and put an order in for one.



Retrozone's description of the cartridge:

  Just copy your games onto one Compact Flash card, insert into the SNES PowerPak, and play!
   When you start your SNES you get a file browser to choose your game. Then you can load and store battery RAM so all your saved games stay saved. Save files can also be transferred to and from your computer for use with emulators. Built in Game Genie code support lets you use 5 cheat codes at once.
SDRAM and DMA are used for fast game loading so you can play in seconds. This means a quick cycle for homebrew development. Now you can see your creation on real hardware instead of relying on emulators. In cart support for the DSP1 chip lets you play games like Super Mario Kart that are missing from some other SNES products. Huge 128Mbit memory means even the largest games can be played without buying hard to find memory expansions. Versatile memory mapping runs games correctly without FastROM hacking or RAM mirroring problems. Unlike all other flash carts the SNES PowerPak includes the Super Ciclone chip so consoles of all regions are supported.
   Standard FAT16 or FAT32 formatted carts are used so there is no special software to load games onto the card. Organize your games in folders any way you want for faster browsing. Compact Flash is used instead of something else like SD for maximum speed. The SNES processor is the bottleneck so the parallel CF card is around 10 times faster than the serial SD card.
   The entire PowerPak system is updateable for future additions and bug fixes. All loading files are stored on the CF card for easy upgrading. Just download the most recent Mappers file below, unzip, then copy the folder to the root of your CF card. The boot ROM is socketed for easy reflashing but this will hopefully never be needed. If it is needed and you do not have a programmer, you just pay the shipping to get your SNES PowerPak here and I will reflash then mail it back free.





One thing I will say; the cartridge isn't revolutionary, but it is definitely the most polished backup product for the SNES in existence. Earlier products have done the same job of playing backups and facilitating homebrew development in different ways, however the SNES PowerPak has found a middle ground by combining many of the advantages of these products and done away with most of the disadvantages.

One of the best ways to decide whether something is right for you is to find out what it is like to use what you're thinking about buying. The next section will familiarize you with the operation of the device.

GETTING STARTED WITH THE SNES POWERPAK

When you first open up your package from RetroZone, you'll discover a bubblewrapped cartridge and a CompactFlash card. No physical instructions come with it, but there is an online manual. If you're one of those people who likes to just get started, tell yourself no. You'll need to read some sort of guide in order to get started, especially for dealing with game saves.

The first thing that needs to be done is you need to plug your CompactFlash into your PC. You may have ordered a CF reader with the cartridge or you may have one already on your computer. It should already be formatted to FAT32. If not, go ahead and do that. If you've formatted the card, you need to download the mapper files and place the POWERPAK folder in the archive in the root directory of your CF card.



The SNES PowerPak in Action

Secondly, you're going to need some games, and you're going to need them to be unzipped. While you can put them anywhere on the card, keep in mind that the POWERPAK folder is the system folder, so it would be a good practice not to keep games in there. If you want to have more than 40 or 50 games on your PowerPak at any given time, you're definitely going to want to sort games into folders and maybe even subfolders. You could sort them in folders by letters, by country, by genre, or whatever is best for you.



Playing Terranigma

The Snes PowerPak (unlike emulators) does not make save ram (.SRM) files for you, nor does it automatically save your game - both require a little work from you. So next, you're going to want to do is get some blank save game files and organize them in the way you best see fit. If you know exactly which games you're going to use that have save RAM, you may wish to name them by game. Personally, I find it best for me to simply make a folder with a couple dozen .SRM files placed in the main folder, and to simply rename them with my computer as I use them. Either way, it is a good practice to keep a few blank, unnamed .SRM files sitting around in order to buffer against forgetfulness. If you have any .SRM files from previous emulation play on hand that you would like to continue using, they will also work on the PowerPak.

An optional step you may want to take is to use a driver sorter application like DriveSort and go through your CF card and alphabetically sort your folders and files. In the interest of speed, the SNES PowerPak does not sort your files for you. Doing it with DriveSort only takes a couple of minutes of your time, so I highly recommend doing this.

So, your card is now ready and pumped full of 16-bit excitement. So, plug the card in, plug the cartridge in, and turn your system on. If you're using an NTSC system (Super Famicom OR North American Super Nintendo), it should start automatically. If you're using a PAL system, you'll need to hit reset in order to change the PowerPak's region. If the region ever for some reason resets back to NTSC (this is indicated by a flashing light on the PowerPak's LED) the fix is always a simple reset. It also is truly region free in that it will fit in both a Super Famicom and a US Super Nintendo.

With the PowerPak started, all you have to do is move the cursor to the folder and file you'd like, and select a game. You'll be presented with a window that allows you to enter Game Genie codes (this works just like a Game Genie would, so do that if you need a boost), and also to select a .SRM file if you've got a game save you would like to use. Load your game, wait about 10 seconds, and your game will play as if it were a normal cartridge.

Now, when you've finished a game, and you would like to save it, do not turn the system off and forget about it! The PowerPak needs your manual intervention in order to save the game to the file. Hold the reset button for 5 seconds. You will be prompted with an option to save. Now, if you've already picked a save from the beginning, it will prompt you to automatically save to the file selected previously. If not, you'll have to go through the file selection screen again and select the file you'd wish to use. The following video shows the process:


FEELINGS

The SNES PowerPak has a strong set of features that make it very attractive to a buyer who wants to play backups, hacks, and translations of Super Nintendo and Super Famicom games. One of the prime reasons I purchased it was because it finally does away with one of the major pitfalls of battery backup save ram. Instead of a game's playability being contingent on a watch battery, the cartridge will be able to save games for as long as the cartridge and flash card are functional. Solid state electronics like cartridges have a long life span, and CompactFlash cards can be easily replaced.

You may find that the save system is a bit clunky to work with at first. I'll be the first to admit it can be a bit frustrating from time to time. One of the times I used it, I counted to 5 in my head, only to find that I hadn't really counted 5 seconds. If you don't wait 5 seconds, you'll find that it simply resets the game, not the whole PowerPak. After I got comfortable with it, though, I found this never happened. If I had things my way, it would simply work like emulators do and create its own save ram files and save automatically. That being said, I do understand why the creators had it work the way it does. It does allow for a lot of versatility, and in the longer term, with all of my games backed up onto the CompactFlash card, my preference may change. No matter what, this system is still eminently preferable to a battery backup system.


Another advantage of the PowerPak is the ability for homebrew developers to test their products on original hardware. While coding is not something I am familiar with, I am familiar with incompatibility errors and glitches that crop up on different emulators and on different versions of the same emulator. The ability to test your game on original hardware allows you to completely bypass this. Its use of flash cards allows changes to be tested rapidly.

And, of course, you're probably going to want the SNES PowerPak simply to be able to play games. The cartridge does this well and with only minimal issues. By far, the most common issue I had was with poorly dumped or patched ROMs. This can be easily remedied by replacing the game with issues with better dumps or patches as the case may be. Another issue that may or may not be important to you is that it does not and never will be able to play any games that require enhancement chips other than the DSP-1. Check the list of games that use enhancement chips and make sure that you're not considering purchasing the unit expressly for one of those games.



The SNES PowerPak Playing a DSP-1 Game

One of my concerns with the PowerPak that I have is also that it does use the DSP-1 chip. I'm not entirely sure what the source of the chip is; I don't know whether it has been cannibalized from an original cartridge or whether RetroZone has somehow found another source for these chips. Reproductions of unreleased and homebrew games often use EEPROMs soldered onto cartridges; a conscientious collector who wants to ensure that there are SNES and Super Famicom cartridges for future generations should consider this. There are no more cartridges being mass produced, and often the only available source for components are games. Still, given the choice between one flash cartridge with one DSP-1 chip or several reproductions all using cannibalized parts, I would definitely prefer that people would buy a flash cartridge. Still, the housing of the cartridge is new, and I don't see any reused components other than the DSP-1. If this is important to you, I definitely recommend either digging further and finding the source of the DSP-1 chip (let me know, too, please) or getting another backup unit.

COMPARISONS

The SNES PowerPak is definitely one of the most versatile Super Nintendo backup units available past and present. It is one of three SNES/SFC flash carts still being produced in significant numbers. The other two are Tototek's Super Flash Cart 64M (reviewed by me here) which retails for $80 and the NEO SNES/SFC Myth Flash Cart + 256M (I have no experience with this, and probably never will unless someone sends me a copy to review) which retails for $169. In addition to these, there are several 3.5" floppy backup units that can still be purchased used. The most reliable source I have seen for these is Tototek's site, which is included in my links in the sidebar.

As far as flash carts go, while the Tototek and the NEO Myth cartridges are good products in its own right with their own advantages, and even though it serves the same main purpose as the SNES PowerPak, it has differences that puts it in a different class. Those cartridges allow you to carry no more than a handful of games each. The SNES PowerPak allows you to conceivably store the entire library of the SNES on one cartridge. This is one thing that is entirely unique to the SNES PowerPak. It's like the difference between being able to carry one album with you on a disc and being able to carry your entire music collection with you on an MP3 player.

You may want to purchase the Tototek cartridge if price is an issue or if you prefer a unit that comes with a ROM dumper. The Tototek unit retails for about half the cost of the other units, so I can see this being an important factor. If you'd really like the ROM dumper, you can also buy it seperately for $40. You may wish to purchase the Neo Myth cartridge if you absolutely must play a game that requires an enhancement chip. The Neo Myth has a slot that allows you to piggy-back a cartridge with an enhancement chip onto a slot on the back of the unit. Some floppy backup units also have the ability to have enhancement chips soldered directly onto the boards, but I'm not sure which models supported this. Obviously someone who wanted this feature would require some technical expertise. If you are interested in a floppy backup unit, take note that most, but not all, require the SNES to stay powered on 24/7 to keep your save games intact.

CONCLUSION

After spending a week and change with the SNES PowerPak, I feel confident in recommending it. While its $155 price tag is a bit steep, its well worth it for what it does. I do recommend you consider the other options available to you fully before you decide which one is right for you, but I do believe that overall most people will be satisfied with what the SNES PowerPak has to offer.

Most of the use of the SNES PowerPak is fairly intuitive. The only thing that really requires some getting used to is the save game system. After a few days of using it though, it simply becomes a part of the routine of powering down the console.

The only persistent issue you need to truly keep in mind is that enhancement chips other than the DSP-1 are not supported. This is true of this unit as it is true of virtually every other stock backup unit. Other than that one issue, the ability to keep your entire SNES collection on one cartridge is extremely attractive. Not only does it make use of the Super Nintendo very convenient, but for collectors this provides a very nice way to keep your cartridges stored in a dust free environment while using the flash cartridge in place of it.

Overall, If you're looking for a SNES backup unit, I highly recommend considering this unit. It is by far the most advanced option available. It combines ease of use, large storage space, and the ability to keep save games independent of a battery backup.

Related Links:
SNES PowerPak
SNES PowerPak Manual
SNES PowerPak Empty Savegame File
Tototek Super Flash Cart 64M Review
Super Flash Cart 64M
NEO SNES/SFC Myth Flash Cart

Note: All photos and videos on this link were taken by me. If you wish to use them, I'm hereby releasing them under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike license. Please use this blog as attribution. Thanks!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Personal Blog Move, SNES PowerPak Review Coming, Parallel Port Info for Tototek Products, Commodore 64

First off, if you are looking for a post that is no longer here, I have moved most my personal blog posts to my new personal blog at www.gangstercomputergodfrankenstein.com. From now on this blog will primarily focus on retro gaming. I know I haven't made many posts related to retro gaming lately - my mind has been elsewhere - but I have found renewed focus in it lately.
 
I'm in the process of reviewing my SNES PowerPak. What this means, basically, is that I'm playing games and seeing how well it works and seeing what failings it has. It is definitely a worthwhile product which has several advantages as well as a few disadvantages versus the Tototek SNES flash cartridge I reviewed earlier.

I have discovered something interesting in the meantime about motherboards that don't come with a parallel port included, however, and this is related to Tototek products that use the parallel port. For those who wish to purchase one of their products and haven't because they don't have a parallel port on their motherboard, read on.



This set of pins is called a parallel port header, and this exists on quite a few motherboards that do not include an actual port. There's also a set of pins for attaching a serial port alongside of it. Now, most people who don't have a parallel (or serial) port have assumed that their only option was a parallel (or serial) port card, which does not work with Tototek's products and with some other legacy devices. However, if you have a header on your motherboard (and you probably do), you can get an adapter like this instead.

This allows you to attach a cable which in turn is attached to a PCI card cover plate with a parallel port on it. This is different than a parallel port card - it's actually a part of your motherboard and acts as such. This means it will be compatible with Tototek products and basically any other legacy devices that requires a motherboard controlled parallel or serial port. I've ordered one of these for a few dollars from Ebay and I will also be posting a guide with photos detailing how to install it.

I've purchased a Commodore 64 with a lot of software included and I'm toying with the idea of making a guide for newcomers to the computer after it has arrived and I've gained some experience with it. Most of the information I've found is mostly dated and strewn around the internet.I think it might be useful to have this information organized and illustrated and written from the modern user's perspective. We'll see how this pans out.

Monday, September 13, 2010

SNES PowerPak on its way

The SNES PowerPak has been ordered. It hasn't shipped yet, but expect a review sometime soon.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Small updates

Sorry I haven't made any posts about retro gaming recently. I've been involved with my PS3 lately and haven't really been focused on classic gaming. I plan to get a hold of the SNES PowerPak in the next month or two when I have the spare money for it, and I will do a full review. If Google is any indication, it seems I'm one of the only people doing any sort of full reviews on this kind of hardware, so hopefully it will still be well received.

Also, if anyone was interested in my overenthusiastic review on Mark Atherton's book Teach Yourself Old English, there is a new version coming out - with a new title, even. The new book, Complete Old English (Anglo-Saxon) is available for preorder at Amazon with 2 Audio CDs or without. It's also available at several other sites, if you prefer others or simply dislike Amazon. No Kindle version announced yet, unfortunately, but this is something I would prefer to own on paper.

I also included a small update on the tutorial about enabling VLC upscaling, another post which has been popular.

Thank you to all who have visited my blog. It surprises me how often I've found links to one of my eclectic groups of posts.

Monday, December 21, 2009

\:D/ Kings Quest V Perfect Score \:D/


My friend and I just finished playing Kings Quest V and got a perfect score... Mostly from (his) memory, of course.

I didn't manage to get a hold of the SNES Powerpak when it was available and it's out of stock right now. Christmas purchases and other things were more important at the time, but fear not, I'll be getting one sooner or later, and when it is, I'll post a review. I've been toying around what to review next in the meantime out of my collection.