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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Difficulty in older shooting games

Although I'm a huge fan of the earliest arcade shooting games (Defender/Stargate, Asteroids, etc.) there are a class of mid-1980's shooters from Japan that raised the bar in terms of shooter difficulty, which caught me by surprise.

(UFO Robo Dangar by Nichibutsu 1986)

By the early to mid-1990's shooters evolved into bullet hell style shumps with a seemingly impossible barrage to doge and shoot back against, but somehow managed to allow players to slip by with a feeling of god like abilities.  The truth is, while these later shmups added a ton more bullets/sprites on screen, pushing arcade hardware to its maximum, they also greatly simplified enemy movement and patterns, while reducing hitboxes and even allowing some laziness to collision detection routines.  These bullet hell style games are what I've been primarily playing for the last 10 years or so.  So going back to play earlier shooters, with a seemingly simpler challenge of smaller number of bullets and enemies on screen, and having my butt handed to me, is not only frustrating, but is down right ego busting.

Let me take UFO Robo Dangar as an example. With a low number of on screen bullets and sprites, difficulty is primarily centered around enemy movements.  Enemies are able to accelerate up to 2x your player ship's speed, and literally run rings around you.  Enemies are also able to run off the sides or bottom of the screen and loop right back onto the screen if not killed, most times accelerating to kamikaze into you if they get behind you.  Enemies are free to fire upon you at any range, making point blank shots a common occurrence.  These tactics would be considered cheap or down right bad programming by today's shmup standards, but is the genesis of the genra in terms of difficulty.

Anyway, I have a greater respect for shmup players of the mid-80s, and I can now see why the gen
ra evolved as it did, attracting new players and making them feel a greater accomplishment when it comes to the challenge of difficulty.  I can also now see why Dangar implemented a butt shield powerup. :)

Friday, January 06, 2017

Twitch streaming arcade PCB's

(Double playing Mad Shark)

Exactly 4 years plus second child later, and I'm back to update this neglected blog with a little something I did over the holidays.

Twitch live streaming has become quite popular, and I've started following some friends that stream live PCB plays.  Given I've got a unique collection of not only PCBs, but also of cabinets and arcade controls, this was a great opportunity for me to try and share more of my gaming treasures with the rest of the world.

For PCB/RGB capture I used a StarTech PEXHDCAP card I bought many years ago, as it was a cheap OEM version of the great (and expensive) Micomsoft SC-500N1.  Startech has since discontinued this and released a PEXHDCAP2 version, with reduced input features, but higher capture framerate for HD resolutions.  In addition to RGB/VGA input via the DVI port, the original PEXHDCAP also had HDMI, Component, Composite, and Stereo inputs. The only draw back was 1080p could only capture at 30 frames, but I didn't have a need for that.

The minimum PC specs for the PEXHDCAP was an Intel Core 2 processor with 2GB ram.  And it just so happens this is all I have in terms of a crappy PC with PCI express slot (I'm not much of a PC gamer if you haven't noticed).

Since PCB RGB is typically 1V and PC Analog RGB is .7V, taking the RGB/Gnd/CSync lines from your PCB and running straight into the DVI port (via VGA 15 pin adapter) is going to give you a washed out bright picture.  To adjust the RGB levels, you're going to need a CGA to VGA adapter (like this found on eBay).  No conversion actually happens, it just routes your RGB lines to the 15 pin adapter, but does have adjustable resistor pots on the RGB lines to bring levels down to PC analog spec.  I then run this via VGA cable into the DVI input (with VGA to DVI adapter).

Routing audio from your PCB into the PEXHDCAP's external audio break out cable will also take a bit of hacking to tap line level audio from the PCB's amplified sound.  I'll have to follow up with an actual circuit for this, but basically you need a resistor, a cap, and a mono input jack.  I just happened to have a prebuilt headphone line out with volume pot which did the trick.  I've seen others just use an external microphone setup next to the cabinet speakers, which can also be used to pickup your voice, but you won't get good quality sound from the PCB.

Last is streaming software, which is pretty well known if you've ever tried to stream something from your PC.  I use OBS which is plug and play ready to work with Twitch.  There are plenty of tutorials out there on how to set this up and configure plugins, so I won't go into detail here.

I almost forgot, most players also have a webcam setup to show off their joystick prowess, or to show their face, adding more personal interaction while streaming.  The webcam I use is a Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000.  This is pretty much the cheapest 720p camera out there that is compatible with Windows 10.  One issue I did run into was trying to run two quickcams plugged into the same PC to show both my hands/joystick as well as my face.  The issue is that two of the same cameras can't be plugged into the same USB bus as they will both resolve to the same USB address.   Buying a second PCI USB adapter (~$10) solves this, and also alleviates any framerate/bandwidth issues running on a single USB bus.  Turns out my crappy Intel Core 2 started to choke with two cameras and PCB capture at the same time, so I trimmed down to a single camera, and am back to a mostly 60FPS stream at 1280x720.

I've already tested this setup on several cabs, including a medium res game, and VGA (Sega Naomi) game and it works great!  So expect me to be streaming some Planet Harriers and NARC in the near future.  I'm typically on for a half hour at night after my kids go to sleep, maybe once or twice a week.  You can checkout my twitch page here, and be sure to check my saved streams.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Heavy Unit

Sorry for the lack of blog updates.  "Real Life" has gotten pretty busy with the birth of our first child, but that hasn't kept me from picking up a few random PCBs over the holidays.

First up is Heavy Unit, a relatively unknown Taito published shmup on Kaneko hardware, and apparently was unemulated up until the end of 2010.  You can still find this pretty cheap in the US, so I went ahead and got one.

The detailed artwork is rather nice, a mix of bio-horror and mecha type enemy and scenery.  You have standard powerups for your A and B shots (no bomb button), and a transforming powerup that switches your ship to a mecha.  Unfortunately the game suffers from lack of autofire, which means a very sore wrist without (or much easier game with) autofire.  Rank seems to depend completely on your powerup level, which is nice when you die, as its not too difficult to get powered up again.

I haven't had enough time to play this past the first few levels, and I like the detail and variety of enemies, but feel the game may be too easy with autofire.  Bosses go down quite quickly if you are fully powered up.  I'll come back to this when I get more time to clear the game.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Armed Police Batrider artwork

Received the following awesome Raizing artwork, thanks to Bay!

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

CGA2VGA scaler for arcade PCBs

UPDATE (03/01/15) There have been a lot of breakthroughs in hacking these Gbones upscalers via Raspberry Pi and I2C connection.   Details can be found on the shmups forum thread located here.

I made a very interesting discovery with the CGA2VGA scaler that came in my Red Storm cabinet.  The scaler looks like the generic/OEM version we've all seen on eBay for ~$35, except even cheaper since they removed all the components except for RGB input and VGA output.  But the big difference is the one that came in my cab can successfully scale PCBs of various refresh rates, like the very difficult Seibu 55hz games!

Here is a visual comparison.  The Gonbes GBS-8220 in on the left, and the Red Storm generic is on the right.

(click picture for hires pic)

Comparing both side by side in a similar setup, the menus are exactly the same, except the red storm version allowed for a wider range of values to be set for horizontal and vertical settings.  Looking closely at the both boards, the GBS-8220 has a 2011.08.16 V30 silkscreened on it, while the stickers on the red storm version looks like it's firmware was updated in February of 2012.

So I'm hoping someone can help me figure out how to dump the firmware of the red storm version and see if I can successfully upgrade the GBS-8220 firmware.  I see there are two sets of 4 pin "upgrade" connectors on the right side, although it looks like some were removed.  There is also a 2 pin connector directly under these which I assume may be a selectable "write" jumper?

Monday, April 09, 2012


Assault is an amazingly fun (and difficult) overhead tank arcade game that has a distinctive style all its own.  The original vertical cabinet is pretty unique being noticeably thinner, with twin stick controls, making it a rare find outside of its native environment.

I wouldn't hesitate picking up an Assault cabinet if one were to pop up locally, but given the opportunity to buy the PCB alone (a Namco System 2 board), I considered it a challenge to see how it would play in one of my vertical candy cabinets.
Being a fan of dual playing certain vertical shmups, I'm rather comfortable using both player sticks simultaneously while pressing A and/or B buttons.  This got me thinking that playing Assault on a typical candy control panel shouldn't be that difficult given proper re-wiring of the controls.
Rather than re-wiring actual connectors under one of my control panels, I just created a little adapter to remap the right stick controls over to the Player 2 inputs, and then mapped the A button to both sides.  Since the original cabinet used 4-way sticks, I did have to adjust my Sanwa JLF-8YT restrictors to 4-way, which honestly I didn't even know was possible until I looked into it.
What we have left is the following control setup, which is probably faster/easier for making small adjustments in aiming than using the original grip joysticks.  It didn't take long to get used to this setup, where I primarily used P2's shoot button with my right pinky. Pulling the sticks apart to perform the bomb shot seemed almost too easy, in fact I kept accidentally doing this while trying to perform quick horizontal roll dodges...which is just a matter of me getting more practice with the game.

Overall I'm pretty happy with how this plays, but again, I'd prefer the overall vibe and feel of an original cabinet if one were to be found locally.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Red Storm 32" LCD arcade cabinet

I've been saving up for over a year now to get an LCD cabinet, and sold one of my Astro City's to make room in my garage.  The wait paid off last week when I was able to take home a new Red Storm 32" LCD cabinet.

This is a sister to the Black Storm 32" LCD cab (as seen on arcadeotaku back in September).  They are made in China and based on the New Delta 32 design by Riverservice (although not a direct copy).  Unlike the New Delta 32, there is no slick LCD rotate mechanism, but its fairly easy to unscrew the four bolts holding the LCD onto the frame to remove and rotate manually.  The LCD itself weighs about 50 pounds, so a single person can rotate it without a problem. 
Visually, the Red Storm differs from the Black version by the color of the control panel and monitor although the rest of the cab has the same red accents.  Personally, I think the Red Storm looks better, especially with the red light up panel.

The LCD on the Red Storm also differs from the Black Storm, with a host of inputs including VGA, HDMI, Component, and S-Video (Black version only has VGA and DVI).  Inputs are located on the side of the LCD rather than the bottom like the Black version.  This however presents an interesting problem for the Red Storm, in that rotating the monitor counter-clockwise for vertical games, puts all these inputs facing the top of the cab, which does not fit the fame's design.  
You can rotate the monitor clockwise (the wrong way) and have the inputs facing the bottom of the cab, only in this configuration, you'll not be able to attach the top marquee since the mounting holes are now also on the bottom, but more importantly, you'll only be able to play jamma games that support a screen flip option (most do but some don't).  However, I did find a solution to this strange issue, which involves rotating the square chassis on the back of the LCD 180 degrees.  This takes an additional 2 minutes while the LCD is off, and the wires support flipping the chassis around.  Now when you mount the LCD back on the frame, its oriented properly (counter-clockwise) and inputs are facing the bottom of the cab

[Update!] Since this original posting, I received a set of low profile Power, VGA, and HDMI cables from GameCenter Arcade, which now allows me to rotate the monitor proper without having to flip the chassis on the back.  So in total, rotating takes about 2 minutes (just unscrew 4 hex bolts from the back, rotate, and screw back in.  This is actually faster than rotating an Egret II if you consider the time it takes to also rotate the bezel.
Now lets take a quick look under the hood.  You'll see in the pictures above, a very convenient light when the cabinet door is open, a shelf for your PCB, an adjustable main jamma power supply, and a stereo amp with its own independent power supply. Behind the coin door (not shown) is a modern coin mech with electronic coin comparitor, and illuminated power switch with standard test and service buttons.  Wiring is for straight jamma (no JVS) with a VGA cable for the monitor.

Under the lighted control panel, you'll find a typical Chinese CGA2VGA scaler.  This version is seriously budgeted to only take RGBS input and VGA output, although the firmware supports component input.  I added my own SGL3000 to add realistic scanlines at 640x480 which does make a world of difference when playing low res PCBs.  Button and sticks on the panel are typical Sanwa JLF controls.

On the back of the cabinet (not shown) are 4 fans, two large 4 1/2" and two smaller 2 1/2".  This creates a large amount of cool airflow inside the cabinet, which is good news if you want to put a console or PC inside.  Also on the back are a set of versus connectors (and cable included) for hooking two cabinets together.

Light up marquee and instruction strip are a nice touch, although both use non-standard sizes, which really sucks for the instruction strip as its significantly shorter than the typical Astro City size. 
LCD cabs are not known for displaying great pictures for low resolution 15khz PCB games, and this holds true with the cheap scaler included in the Red Storm.  However, I was pleasantly surprised that the cabinet was able to sync and display a picture for oddball refresh rates like 54hz for Seibu games!

Of course the cabinet really shines when displaying HD games for Taito Type X/2 and modern consoles.  I especially like that most vertical arcade games for XB360 allow me to rotate and position the 4:3 picture with a background image filling in the remaining area.  Of course you'll need to supply your own console-to-jamma solution to hook up he controls, but there are many options available on the market or homebew for doing this.

Overall construction of the Red Storm is surprisingly good, with quality components, and well thought out access panels and hatches for the back and monitor/LCD.  Some corners were cut when constructing the base, where I found screws holes that were not tapped properly (they were just drilled holes with screws), and the paint job around the speakers pods looked amateurish. I'll likely be investing in a better stereo amp (the sound is quite thin), as well as a better scaler for the 15khz mode.  I didn't notice any LCD lag, but I've herd this model may have 1-2 frames of lag for pro's playing SSFIV, although it appears the chassis can be easily upgraded/replaced.