Thursday, April 25, 2013

New DIRECTions for Nintendo?

Lots of interesting news from Nintendo this week.  Lacklusters numbers for 3DS and Wii U, encouraging numbers for digital downloads, Satoru Iwata expanding his responsibilities  and no giant press conference at this year's E3.  All of these things point to the challenges Nintendo (and other companies) now face in our rapidly changing game economy.

On the surface it may appear that these developments reveal a Nintendo that's flailing around trying to find a way to get back on track.  Certainly the introduction and subsequent launch of the Wii U indicate that Nintendo did not do enough to explain just why anyone would want one.  I own a Wii U and while it's getting a lot of use as a video streaming device and Lego City Undercover machine, it's a little difficult to recommend one to family and friends.

But over the last few months it has become clear that Nintendo is once again employing a set of tactics that are wildly different than what you will likely see from Sony or Microsoft.  And I don't think this is out of desperation.  I believe what they are doing it more in line with their core philosophy than anything we've seen from them in the past few years.  I'm talking about Nintendo Direct.  Go ahead, check it out.

What you are seeing here is not the slickly crafted, PR-slathered message we've gown accustomed to seeing (and ignoring) from large game publishers.  It's direct communication from Nintendo to players.  And it's not some community manager, it's FROM THE GLOBAL CEO OF NINTENDO.  Do you get how incredibly out of step this is?  It nearly goes against everything we've been taught to expect from large companies.  And you imagine EA being honest about the Sim City debacle?  How about Microsoft with regards to their always online Xbox?

Iwata comes off as passionate, genuine, and most importantly honest.  In January's Nintendo Direct address, Iwata revealed games that we would see soon, but also made a point to explain that we wouldn't see anything new for Wii U until March.  He made it clear that Nintendo was working hard to make sure the games were good but would not be rushed.  AND THEN HE PERSONALLY APOLOGIZED FOR THE DELAY.  This wasn't a press release.  This wasn't damage control.  It was a way of sidestepping the ongoing bullshit from game websites and journalists and appealing directly to the consumer.  It was a show of respect.  And there's no better way of generating goodwill for your product or service than to show that you have respect and empathy for your customers.

This is one of the things I've always felt was at the core of the Nintendo philosophy.  Respect your community.   In my past life in the game journalism circles I had many dealings with Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft.  Whereas Sony usually appeared supremely unhelpful and dismissive and Microsoft had the unique ability to never assemble a coherent message about what they were about, Nintendo always came off as warm, professional, and genuine.  And that's the feeling I get from Nintendo Direct.

So no big press conference at E3?  No big deal.  Those things are always a circus.  Executives take to the stage and unleash a staggering amount of scripted bullshit.  They toss out some red meat so the throngs of press have something to cheer or boo about.  Much will be made about "Who Won" or "Who Lost."  But really, what Nintendo wants you to ask is "Who Cares?!?"   Either you like the games that are coming out or you don't.  Either you like the direction the company is going in or you don't.  Nintendo has a concept for what the Wii U (and 3DS) is supposed to be for consumers.  Going through the regular PR channels they have failed to make contact with their consumers. So they are removing the middle man and appealing directly to their customers.   And I say, "Bravo!"

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Arcade Machine Madness - Part 4

The Long Road to Completion

It's all functional so that's pretty cool.  But I still have quite a bit of cosmetic work to do on the cabinet and in the Mala frontend.  There was a gaping hole between the control panel and the front part of the cab and I really didn't just want to slap another piece of wood on there to cover it up, so I found some ornate vent covers for cheap down at my local hardware store.  I cut it to fit, screwed it in and I'm really pleased with the results.

I intend to put a blue LED strip behind it to add a funky glow.  But for now, I've mainly been working on going through all of the games again, weeding out the ones that just don't work well, and building screenshots and control graphics for each game.  I don't think I fully understood how much work this would be, but I'm already up to the L's with the screenshots, so I guess there's no turning back now.

I also want to put some fake coin slots in the front of the cab.  When we disassembled it, I think we might have accidentally thrown away the originals.  Stupid, I know.  But I figured it would be easy to locate replacements online.  Turns out it's harder than I thought.  I've contacted a couple of different online vendors, but they've been less than helpful.  I'll keep searching, but for now, it looks like this.

I also had to replace the PC I was using with an old laptop I had laying around.  The original PC was starting to make a high-pitched whine that was really annoying.  Swapping it out for the laptop wasn't too bad.  I had to re-size my graphics to play nice with the odd aspect ratio of the laptop.  On the plus side, the games actually run a lot better so overall it was a win.  I hope to start reviewing these old games on my blog soon.

Done Machine is Done

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Arcade Machine Madness - Part 3

Windows Dressing

It's entirely possible to run MAME without any kind of additional user interface.  It won't be pretty, and you'll need to use your mouse and keyboard to select your games, but it will work.  When envisioning how I wanted my arcade machine to function, I wanted conceal the fact that it's running on a PC (though obviously it is).  That meant making things like game selection and any commonly used MAME functions accessible through the control panel.

Fortunately there are many user customizable user interfaces that work perfectly well in conjunction with MAME.  After some research, I went with MaLa because it is extremely flexible and I would be able to expand should I want to run additional emulators on my machine.  In additional to simple game selection, MaLa can display associated material for each game however you like.  And there are tons of pre-made layouts should you want to get up and running quickly.  I elected to design my own using my somewhat limited Photoshop skills.   I knew I wanted to do some kind of spacey grid thing and that I wanted to display a screenshot of each game as well as a graphic of the controls.   After a couple of weeks of on and off work, I ended up with this:

It's functional and I'm pretty happy with it.   I decided to carry the grid theme to the control panel as well, so I whipped up a simple design which looked like this:

I figured I could print this out at Kinko's, glue it down on my panel, and then apply several coats of polycrylic. That didn't work as the printed out material bubbled and wrinkled almost immediately.  So an intense sanding job later, I was back to square one.   The answer came from Eric's work colleague who was kind enough to rework my design and print it out on a vinyl cutter.  I lost the color I was looking for, but gained a really awesome looking control panel.

For the sides of the machine, I decided to stencil some spacey designs in three colors.  So I grabbed three cans of spray paint and got to work.  I had never done this before and I think it turned out ok.

Quite pleased with the little rocket ship.
There's that grid again.

All that was left was the marquee, which is a pretty important piece.   I knew I wanted to pay homage to the arcades of yesteryear, so I named my machine after the best arcade in the greater Burlington, Vermont area.

Upton's was a fixture on lower Church Street for years. Starting out as a sandwich shop and ice cream parlor in the 40s, Upton's switched to video games in the 70s.   During the arcade heyday of the late 70s and and early 80's, Upton's was hands down the best place to play video games.  Friendly staff, well serviced machines, and new titles shipped in regularly.  As home consoles and arcades fell out of favor by the mid 80s, Upton's fell on hard times.  They move a block down the road to a cheaper location, but the writing was on the wall.   Things got grungy.  Drug dealers and riff raff settled in.  It just wasn't the place that it used to be.   But at least now I've got a little virtual piece of Upton's in my living room.

NEXT POST:  Finishing touches.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Arcade Machine Madness - Part 2

In Control

While all that cabinet prepping was going on I had to give to serious thought to how I wanted to control panel to work.  There are so many games that require special controls, I knew I wouldn't be able to building something that would cater to all the games I would like to have.  So I went with a fairly standard setup that covers most major game styles.

The Joystick and button configuration would allow for most two-player games (included standard 6-button fighting games) as well as twin stick games like Robotron and Crazy Climber.  The trackball would cover Centipede, Missile Command, and Marble Madness.   The dial would play games like Tempest and any Breakout clones.   I could have added additional dials and trackballs but the cost would go way up and I'd have to enlarge the panel past the width of the cabinet.

Driving games were pretty much a no-go as I didn't want to add a wheel.  It's technically feasible to play with the joystick or dial, but it just doesn't feel right, so I ditched it.  Other games like Tron wouldn't work that well either.  A bit of a heart-breaker as Tron is a classic, but what can you do.  And no light gun games.  Again, it's too bad but I supposed I could build another cabinet to cater to those kinds of games if I really wanted to.

I ordered all of my controller parts from Ultimarc over in the UK.  They carry lots of quality parts and the customer service has been excellent.  Joystick choices are numerous and quite frankly a bit confusing.  After some research, I settled on the Mag-Stik Plus.  It's an ingenious little controller that uses a magnet to self-center instead of springs (which are prone to wear and tear).  It also let's you switch from 4-way to 8-way directionals without having to access the underside of the panel.  This was really important to me as certain very popular games (Donkey Kong and Pac-Man) don't function well with 8-way joysticks.

As I went along ordering buttons, ball, dials, and sticks I realized that I needed to start thinking about the aesthetic look of my machine.  I knew I wanted a slightly retro arcade feel, and I was getting it into my head that I really wanted glowy blue grid lines to be a dominant feature of the artwork.   With that in mind, went with red, blue and white for the colors of the controls.  Once they arrived, I built a mock-up panel with some cheap wood to see how the controls would feel and to get some practice wiring the whole thing together.
Although it's mostly idiot-proof, I was still worried that I might screw things up.  Both the trackball and the dial plug into the computer via USB, but the sticks and buttons need to be wired to a control interface which then plugs into a free USB port.  Again, the customer service at Ultimarc is impeccable.  Instructions on how to wire this thing up and program the controls are clear and easy to follow.So I took an evening and got half the board wired.

Nasty little piece of scrap wood
I think the green light means it's working

I was pretty happy with the feel of it, and much to my surprise, it worked perfectly.  After some quick modification to the button and joystick placement, I cut another board and got to work wiring up everything.

All switches and buttons need to be connected via a ground wire.

The whole thing wired up

The top of the panel.  Not too shabby.  Needs art obviously.

NEXT POST: With the panel well underway, I now needed to dedicate some serious time to the software interface and the graphic design.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Arcade Machine Madness - Part 1

In the Beginning...

I've always wanted to have my very own arcade machine, but I don't think I could ever pick out just one game to have.  So I'd likely end up owning several machine.  The logistics of keeping them maintained seemed too much to handle.  And where the hell would I put them all?  I mean, don't want to end up like this guy.  Well, actually I DO.   But let's face it.  Unless I experience a windfall of cash, that just ain't in the cards.

But what I could do is build my very own MAME cabinet.  MAME of course stands for Multi Arcade Machine Emulator and it's just that.  It's software that runs on a standard computer that will run nearly any arcade game you can think of.   Stick the PC in a video game cabinet, toss on some fancy pants controls and boom, you've got an arcade in your living room.   After years of talking about it, I finally did it.  Hooray for me!

This isn't a "How To" post.  There are plenty of other people who have done an excellent job explaining what it takes to build one of these things.  I will say that it wasn't as hard as I thought and even though I made a ton of mistakes, I'm really happy with the results.

This is Eric

Credit must go to my friend Eric who stumbled upon some guy looking to unload a bunch of old arcade machines in his garage. Most of the stuff was junk, but there were three cabs in pretty good condition.  We got them for $15 each.

Mine was an old Rally Bike machine.  Hardly a classic.  We hauled them back to my cousin's barn.  In exchange for storing these monstrosities, we'd build a MAME machine for him as well.  We spent a good deal of time gutting the machines, cleaning them up, sanding them down, and basically getting them ready for all new parts and a fresh coat of paint.

Before the gutting
We sold most of this on eBay

Sanding revealed an interesting design.
Anyone know the story behind this?
The technical manual for the game was still
inside the cabinet

All cleaned up

Eric painted his green. *sigh*
And painted!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year's Resolutions

I'm not good at keeping these, but what the heck.  I keep telling myself I need to blog more but I genuinely don't feel I have much to say to the public at large.  But I few things have happened / developed that got me thinking that I do indeed have some topics that I can discuss here with some regularity.

So be on the look out for new stuff coming as soon as this week.   I need to collect my thought (and download some pictures from my phone) and I'll get crackin'