Friday, September 14, 2007

Fun with MAME

Three or four years ago I was visiting my family in New Orleans. While there, I loaded up MAME on my Mom's PC, and showed it to my stepsister's son. He loved it. His birthday was in a few months, and I told him and his Mom I'd go through the ROMs, weed out those that were age-inappropriate, and send the collection to him for his birthday.

As you've probably guessed, I never got around to this project. Rosh Hashannah inspired me to actually get off my duff and get to work. So yesterday I copied the first batch of ROMs to a hard drive, set up a spreadsheet of the filenames, and began testing each out to see which games included inappropriate sex/violence.

Let me say, this is an extremely tedious task. Just on the first disk (of 5), I think there are about 1500 ROM files. I've only copied the 'A's to the spreadsheet so far, and there are about 130 of those. And, after two days of trying out a ROM, cataloging it, and moving to the next, I've tested out 64 files.

I'm somewhat shocked nobody has yet compiled a list of what games have objectionable content and posted the information. It's rare that I can't find answers to whatever I'm seeking online. So I plan to eventually finish this, and post the spreadsheet online, so other parents may benefit from the information. Certainly there is no way to prevent kids from playing something if they want to play it, but there may be others in my position, that want to provide a MAME collection to a child, but don't know what games to exclude before giving the package. Granted, in my case procrastination is going to cause the 'child' to be well into his teens long before I ever finish this project.

(Note: I believe owning ROM-files of games you don't legitimately own is illegal, as would be selling the files. It's probably unlikely any random person using the files will be prosecuted, and I have a hard time believing anybody or any corporation is actually harmed if somebody happens to have a copy of Space Invaders on his PC, but you should be aware it is illegal. Probably along the lines of taping Monday Night Football, and then giving the tape to your brother-in-law or something...)

While the chore is tedious, there are occasional moments that are truly interesting. In 1986 I attended University of New Orleans. Several of my friends also attended. In the UC there was a small gameroom, and in this gameroom there was a game called 'Super Sprint'. My friends Richard, Eric and I played this game nearly every day. The competition was heated, and I couldn't begin to tally how many quarters we must have pumped into that machine. Tonight I'm going through the various ROMs in MAME, and I land on a game called 'American Speedway'. This game seemed very much like a crude version of Super Sprint, so much so that I had to investigate to see which came out first. I can't see why I'd care, but for whatever irrational reason, I was relieved to learn that Super Sprint came out first, depsite having far better graphics, control, and sound.

Super Sprint (c)1986Super Sprint (c)1986

American Speedway (c)1987

Compiling this list also provoked a question I haven't satisfactorily resolved yet: Just where should I draw the line when deciding whether or not to say a game is 'violent'? Conflict is pretty much necessary in any medium for there to be interest. So naturally nearly every game has violence to some degree, though it may be more or less abstract. Puzzle games like Tetris have no violence, Breakout is not violent, and most sports games aren't violent. Just about every other type of game DOES have some violent component, though.

Should every 'shooter' - Space Invaders, Asteroids, Xevious, 1942, etc... be termed violent? Should the earlier games not be called violent because the graphics weren't lifelike? What about Elevator Action ? What about Karate Champ or Punch Out! ? Should there be any difference between a game with a sci-fi 'shoot the bad aliens' theme and a game with identical play mechanics, but an earth-based, military-theme? (I.e., you fly a spaceship and shoot other spaceships, or you fly a fighter jet and shoot other military aircraft.)

Is this violent?

What about this?

Judgements like these, I think, cannot accurately be made by 'outsiders'. Only the person(s) that is raising a child, and knows him or her better than anybody else, is really qualified to decide whether or not a game will be appropriate for that child. What may be overly violent to one person may be obviously buffoonish and unreal to another. After all, many of us grew up watching Wile E. Coyote plot to violently ambush the Road Runner, yet most of us didn't turn out to be violent TNT-blasting, anvil-dropping hooligans.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Xbox mod saga

This was written Sept 7, 2007. It describes my XBox modification project -

I initially had trouble getting the save-game file on to the memory card. In fact, that was probably the most trouble I had during the entire project. Turns out, the USB memory card reader was not a straight-forward, simple USB memory card reader. Neither Windows XP, nor OpenSUSE 10.2, was able to properly detect and read the card-reader.

I explored a bit online, and determined the reader was a Datel 'Action Replay' device. In order to read from & write to the card, I needed to download and install some piece of software, I think called 'Max XBox'. I could then use that software to interact with the memory card.

After that was figured out, the rest was pretty easy.

My 'Platinum Hits' version of 007: Agent Under Fire worked fine for the mod. Here I ran into some minor roadblocks, though:
* IF the save-game file for the mod is loaded directly from the card, instead of being loaded from the Xbox's hard drive, then as soon as you try to load the file the Xbox crashes, and displays an error, and instructions to call Customer Service. This is avoided by simply copying the file from the card to the Xbox hdd, and then loading it from there.
* OK, having learned that, it took me a while to figure out HOW to copy the file from the memory card to the hard drive. It wasn't intuitive at all.
* From what I've read online, with either Splinter Cell or Mechassault you can boot the game, load the save-file, and proceed with the soft-mod. With 007:AUF, you must first start a game, and then you can quit the game and load the save-file.

OK, so now I've managed to copy the file to the Xbox hdd, and loaded it into the system. At this point things were looking very cool. I backed up the eeprom.bin file, and installed the UnleashX dashboard. I finished up the mod with no more issues, and nothing else that was memorable.

Once everything was working, I started having a lot of fun. I've copied to the hard drive:
* Mrs. DrillerX - homebrew version of Dreamcast's Mr. Driller. It's OK, but not nearly as good as the commercial, DC version.
* Mameox - Haven't got this working yet.
* Descent - looks like a real port of the great old DOS game, but hangs each time I try to load it.
* DVD2XPLAY - DVD player for the Xbox that plays all region DVDs, and doesn't require the DVD Playback Kit/remote.
* Asteroids - a pretty bad homebrew Asteroids for the Xbox.
* JumpNBumpX - No idea what this. I thought it was going to be a clone of the old arcade game Bump 'N Jump. Turns out it was some platformer, I think, but I'm using an old, cheap, low-quality 13" TV and I couldn't really make out squat.

So I left the above alone for a night or two, and then Wednesday night I disassembled the system and swapped out the original 8Gb hard drive for an
80Gb drive I salvaged from a broken Maxtor OneTouch. After swapping the drives, my data was all present on the new, larger drive, but for reasons I don't understand the system now booted to the original MS Dashboard again. I uninstalled the softmod, and reinstalled it, and everything returned to normal.

The last thing I did was rip my GTA:Vice City to the hard drive, to improve loading times, and test out a Wiggles DVD that wouldn't play on the unmodded Xbox. The unmodded system complained that the disc was an incompatible region. In reality, I believe the disc has no region encoding at all on it. The newly modified Xbox plays the Wiggles DVD just fine.

So, I'm having a blast with the system and the mod.

My immediate plans are to try and get MAME working on it and copy a lot of my ROMs over to the drive. I may also investigate why Descent hangs at start, as I always liked Descent. And, I want to install Xbox Media Center to the system, and some DVDs and CDs. Of course, I'll probably need to replace the 80G drive with something closer to 300Gb sooner or later, if I do all that.

I was disappointed that I had to ruin a couple of labels on the bottom of the console to open it up, but other than that things went great.

Enormous Thanks to LucidDefender over at Digital Press for his advice/guidance/help, and the Scenyx website and community for the various information and software that was absolutely necessary for this project.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Follow-up to a previous post.

(Subtitled, grammar?, we don't need no stinkin' grammer...)

Comment seen on another blog:
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More about my geeky interests.

(Currently eating Chicken with Broccoli and listening to Steely Dan - 'My Old School'.)

On August 7th I bought an Xbox. To head off the usual incorrect assumptions, let me clarify: I bought an original Xbox, not an Xbox 360, and I bought it used. (It's true, I do have a mortgage, a car note, and the wisdom to not spend the equivalent of 2 car notes on a videogame console + accessories. And now having read that, my Mom and Dad are proud, even if they still don't understand my hobbies.)

The Xbox is undeniably *NEAT*. While playing around with it shortly after hooking the system up, I inserted my Cowboy Mouth CD, Voodoo Shoppe. I was offered the option to copy the CD to the hard drive, for listening later without the actual disc. I did so, not really expecting to take advantage of the functionality, but hey, it was neat, so why not, right? Fast-forward 3 weeks. At NAVA a couple of weeks ago, I purchased a second-hand copy of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for the Xbox. Now, you've very likely heard about the Grand Theft Auto games, and formed an opinion about them, whether or not you've played them. Everything you've probably read or heard about the game is probably true. The game is obscenely over-the-top in terms of gratuitous violence, sleaze, display of drug and thug culture, etc... It's truly prurient. HOWEVER, it is also an excellent game. I wouldn't ever condone the playing or watching of this game by anyone not already a mature adult, but it is fun, clever, and well-made. If you aren't aware of the game, it's a spoof of Miami Vice, set in the '80s, with an 'M' rating (mature audiences only).

Well, one of the things I like enormously about the game is the in-game music. Throughout the game you frequently get into cars and drive from one location to another. There are maybe 6 or 8 active radio stations broadcasting in Vice City, and as you travel you can select which station you want to hear. A couple of nights ago, while playing, I was cycling through the channels, and as I hit 'next' after the last channel on the dial, I landed on the tape deck, and it was playing the Cowboy Mouth album I'd copied to the Xbox weeks ago! So, if I'd wanted to, I could listen to that album in-car as I tooled around Vice City! It's just a really neat little feature of the system.

Another neat thing is the additional functionality that can be implemented with a little bit of effort and disdain for Microsoft's preferences. I'm talking about 'modding'. The Xbox can do an amazing array of things when configured to. Over the last week I've successfully modified my Xbox, and have had a lot of fun doing so. Years ago, I spent a Saturday building a couple of adapters that allowed me to use Sega Genesis controllers on my Atari 7800. I had more fun, and spent more time, building the adapters than I did actually playing the system with the controllers once the hack was finished.

Similarly, I'm having more fun 'hacking' my Xbox than playing the games, and in fairness, they are good games.

On the modified Xbox, I've copied a half-dozen homebrew games to the system. I've installed MAME, and am working on copying the MAME ROMs to the system as well. The system is now capable of playing DVDs from any region, not just US Region DVDs. And I intend to swap the hard drive for one with greater capacity, and install Xbox Media Center as well, turning the machine into a full-blown media jukebox.

One unrelated tidbit I thought of while thinking about this post. I'm sure everybody has some topic that fascinates them, and isnot thought of as an interesting topic to discuss with others 'around the watercooler'. It might be the new drapes at JC Pennys, or the Treadmill machine at the sports shop, or some new self-help class at a local community college. Maybe 'Geeks', usually interested in traditional 'geeky' things, are simply more likely to discuss their hobbies with people that aren't necessarily interested in said hobbies, as opposed to being geeky simply because they are interested in something considered silly? I'm not sure if I'm explaining what I mean, but hopefully I'm getting the point across.

Back to work now.
(The Chicken & Broccoli is nearly finished now, and Wilco just faded out, into U2 now....)

PS: Yet again, the Blogger text editor is hosed on some of the paragraphs above. If anybody reading this knows how I can fix or workaround that, I'd love to hear from you.

PPS: Re-opened the post for editing, using Firefox, and this appears to have fixed the weird formatting. Aren't computers grand?