Tag: Emulation

Actually, It's About How Games Journalism is a Pain in the Ass

Or, Why I Won't Be Doing That Again Any Time Soon: A Postmortem

So the last three posts comparing and contrasting five different Mega Man games required rather a lot of screenshots. It took a long time to get them all, for a number of reasons I'll get into in a moment. It wound up taking a lot longer to get those posts done and posted than planned, and it really wasn't a whole lot of fun.

The other day on Brontoforumus, I described it as taking two things I enjoy doing -- playing video games and talking about video games -- and turning them into work. More specifically, work I don't get paid for.

I like how the whole thing turned out, but it took hours and hours to put together, and playing a game to farm for screenshots is a pretty different and altogether less fun experience than playing it just to play it.

Some of it may be down to the tools I'm using, or just my lack of proficiency with them.

I opted to grab all the screenshots myself, rather than try and find a resource that already had them (or close enough). I think this was probably the right call; VG Museum has a perfectly good shot of the floating platforms in Ice Man's stage that I could have used, but it doesn't really have any other grabs of the Mega Man screens I needed, and it's got next to nothing from Mega Man X and nothing at all from the other three games I was capping.

So I could have poked around the Internet trying to find the screens I was looking for, either as static images on websites or as caps from Let's Play videos on YouTube. But I think that would have taken just as long as getting the damn things myself.

The next decision I made that made my life more difficult was to try and grab all the images at each device's native resolution, with graphical filters turned off.

Here are some of the screenshots I used in the last three posts:

  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

And here are what those games look like when I play the game scaled up for a 1080p screen and with a graphics filter turned on:

  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Highway Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Highway Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Highway Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Now, first of all, those images are pretty big. In fact, unless you've zoomed this page in, you're not even looking at them at full size right now, because they've been scaled to fit the content area of this post. That's 892px wide (unless you're viewing it on a mobile device, in which case it's less), whereas the images are between 1157 and 1920px wide.

And they're PNG's, which means they're also pretty big in terms of filesize (except the Mega Man Xtreme one). Unnecessarily big; you just loaded a 1920px-wide image just to display a scaled-down 892px version. Or less. If you're reading this on a 3G connection, then I probably owe you an apology.

Now, there are things I could do differently. I could set my emulators to output as JPEG instead of PNG, but that would result in a visible decrease in quality. I could resize the images manually, but that would be more work for me. I could set up a script to scale them automatically, but we'd still end up with a bunch of images all scaled to the same width. Which isn't really ideal; it doesn't make a lot of sense for the Game Boy screenshots to be the same size as the PSP ones, and 892px is just too damn big to get multiple images onscreen and get a good comparison anyway.

So, instead of that, what I did was turn off the filters and, when I was ready to take a screenshot, toggle fullscreen off to take it.

This is a pain in the ass, not just because it interrupts the flow of the game but because it's fucking difficult to set up a good screenshot in a tiny 160x144 window on a 1080p TV when you're sitting on the couch across the room.

And that's before you get into weird shit like this:

  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man

I don't know why the fuck RetroArch did this. I told it to size the window to native NES resolution, and it gave me these monstrosities instead. That is not native NES resolution. And it's not a problem with the core I was using, because I tried it with two different cores. (I thought it might be some weird leftover setting from when I'd done the Game Boy screen grabs, but that doesn't make sense; the Game Boy screen grabs were 160x144, while these are 205x191.)

And I took a bunch of screenshots before realizing what it had done. I had to go back and replay fucking Ice Man's stage and do it all over again.

So I think the best solution would be to use emulators that output screenshots at native resolution and without filters, regardless of what scaling and filters are applied as I'm playing them. I know I've used emulators like that before, but I can't remember which ones they were offhand.

And there's another requirement: I want to be able to take a screenshot without having to use the damn keyboard. I want to be able to use one of the buttons on my controller to take the screenshot. Because having to stage a shot and then quickly take my hands off the controller to hit F12 on a keyboard doesn't just interrupt the flow of the game, it's a good way to get yourself killed if you're trying to grab a screenshot of a particularly difficult section of game.

Snes9x let me map the screenshot button to my controller, and I think FCEUX did too, but I couldn't find any feature like that in PPSSPP or RetroArch.

So I guess what I'm looking for is an emulator that lets you output screenshots with no scaling or filters applied, and lets you map that function to a button on your controller.

That would make the whole exercise a lot quicker and easier, but it wouldn't fix a number of other problems -- I'd still have to wade through a bunch of files with names like ULUS10068_00017.png and RetroArch-1011-165734.png and find the ones I wanted, and then realize "Fuck, I forgot to take a screenshot of Spark Mandrill's stage" and have to go back and replay that section, and seriously, you have no idea how many times I did that.

And that's without even getting into the editing portion.

Remember this guy from the first post, with the measurements?

Mega Man is 33x54px

I added those rulers and numbers myself, manually, in Gimp (and it probably shows). And it wound up being way more fiddly and time-consuming than it should have. I guess I probably should have gone looking for plugins to see if somebody had already coded up a tool to draw a shape like that automatically so I wouldn't have to do it myself; that is what I ended up doing for this graphic, with the arrow in it:

Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X, with Giant Red Arrow

So, I dunno. Like I said, I'm pretty pleased with how the feature turned out (and it's gotten a positive response from the Brontos, which is nice), but it just took so long to put together, and it was not very fun. I might try it again sometime -- especially if somebody can steer me in the right direction and help make it easier next time -- but for now I'll probably go on back to my usual Wall of Text posts.

Course, in the old days I used to enjoy doing shit like this:

City of Heroes time-lapse

But there's a pretty important difference: we were already just fuckin' around and essentially posing for photos anyway; it's not like I was taking screenshots in the middle of a difficult mission. (And even if I were, it was pretty easy just to reach over and hit PrtScn without breaking stride in the game.) I wasn't trying to get a grab of any specific gameplay element -- let alone compare and contrast across five different games.

Maybe if I do this again I'll just pick an easier topic.

In the meantime, I think I'll go back to just playing games. Maybe I'll replay some more Mega Man X games. I never did get around to finishing X8. Fucking vehicle levels.

Mega Man ® 1989 and © 1987 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Powered Up and Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd
City of Heroes © 2004 NCsoft

I took all the screenshots myself.
I used the following emulators:
NES: FCEUX and Libretro with the FCEUmm and Nestopia cores
SNES: Snes9x and Libretro with the Snes9x Next core
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core

Dueling Mega Men, Part 3: Rebalancing Act

As I've indicated in the last two posts, Mega Man: Powered Up has a lot more changes from the original game than Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X. And the changes to Powered Up are usually for the better, while the ones to MHX are usually for the worse.

There's a pretty simple reason for that: Mega Man has a lot more to improve than Mega Man X.

Back in the first post, I described Maverick Hunter X as "a pretty solid remake of an excellent game." Powered Up is the reverse: an excellent remake of a pretty solid game.

The original Mega Man is a classic, but it's got rough edges; it's an amazing first effort but it's got its share of flaws. There's a reason Mega Man 2 is universally considered to be a much better game.

The original Mega Man X, on the other hand, is pretty much perfect. It's exquisitely designed and balanced.

So, rebalancing Mega Man resulted in a better-balanced game, while rebalancing Mega Man X resulted in a worse-balanced one.

Let's start with Mega Man.

Powered Up changes the original game so fundamentally that it actually changes the boss weaknesses.

In the original Mega Man, the order is:
Bomb Man Guts Man Cut Man Elec Man Ice Man Fire Man

In Powered Up, it's:
Cut Man Bomb Man Ice Man Fire Man Oil Man Elec Man Time Man Guts Man.

The change in order does more than just accommodate the two new bosses; it makes for a more natural stage order.

The original game has two logical starting points: Bomb Man's level and Cut Man's. The trouble is, if you follow the order of weapon weaknesses, starting with Bomb Man means you go to Guts Man's famously difficult level second. Starting with Cut Man means you take Elec Man's stage before Guts Man and have to go back later to get the Magnet Beam (though, granted, this wouldn't be an issue in Powered Up, which removes the Magnet Beam entirely).

The weakness order in Powered Up puts the two easiest stages right at the start, first Cut Man and then Bomb Man, and puts trickier levels like Elec Man, Guts Man, and the new Time Man near the end.

Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X doesn't change the Mavericks' weaknesses, but it does play musical chairs with the capsules. And that's enough to wreak havoc on the original game's finely-crafted balance.

The most important of the four capsules, the one you need in order to get the other three, is the Leg Upgrade. Here's where it is in the original game:

Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man X

It's about halfway through Chill Penguin's stage (the easiest in the game), smack dab in the middle of the path. You literally can't miss it.

Whereas in Maverick Hunter X, not only is it possible to miss it, it's likely. Here's where it is in that version:

Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Don't see it? Let's try that again.

Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X, with Giant Red Arrow

That's right: the ledge you grab onto to reach the Leg Parts is covered up by the fucking HUD. It's so hard to see that you can walk right past it even if you know it's there.

Contrast with the same location in the original Mega Man X (which, in that game, had the Arm Parts capsule):

  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

The original game gives a very clear visual cue that there is something up there. Maverick Hunter X, on the other hand, once again fails to handle the conversion from 4:3 to 16:9, and makes the hanging section almost impossible to see. And if you don't find that tiny ledge, you can't get any of the other upgrade parts -- your mobility, offense, and defense are all severely limited, and the game is much harder. Not fun hard, unfair hard.

And if you do know the Leg Parts are on Flame Mammoth's stage, there's another problem: nobody in their right mind would pick Flame Mammoth's stage first.

It disrupts the entire stage order. Do you start with Chill Penguin and then end with Flame Mammoth? That makes the game a whole lot more difficult, going through seven stages with no capsule upgrades.

No, the best option here is to base the stage order around the capsules, not the bosses' weaknesses. Take out Chill Penguin first, then Flame Mammoth, with maybe a stop-over at Storm Eagle along the way (he's a relatively easy boss and Flame Mammoth is weak against his weapon, and it also makes Spark Mandrill's stage easier; on the other hand, it's got all the shitty vertical parts I mentioned in my previous post, and they're harder without the Leg Parts).

The other three capsules are rearranged too. Chill Penguin has the Head Parts instead of the Leg Parts, Sting Chameleon has the Arm Parts instead of the Body Parts, and Storm Eagle has the Body Parts instead of the Head Parts.

The Head Parts are damn near useless in the original game, and they're not any more useful in the remake. In the original game, they protect you from falling rocks in one section of Sting Chameleon's stage, and are also necessary to reach the Arm Parts capsule in Flame Mammoth's stage. Maverick Hunter X is much the same, except that in this case you need them to reach the Body Parts capsule in Storm Eagle's stage. Chill Penguin's stage -- which, again, is the easiest level and, in the original game, the best one to start with -- has gone from having the most useful of the four upgrades to the least useful. Storm Eagle's stage, on the other hand, ends up with a much more useful upgrade than it had in the original, and one more reason to hit that level earlier in this version of the game than in the SNES version.

The change to Sting Chaemeleon's stage probably makes the most sense of the four, though it removes the nice sense of symmetry the original game gives you of defeating a suit of robot armor to gain an armor upgrade.

If you follow the stage order implied by the capsule locations (ie fight Storm Eagle and Flame Mammoth early), then that means Sting Chameleon will be the last of the eight stages. Getting the Arm Parts right before the Sigma stages, or right at the beginning of the Sigma stages, matches the original game, where if you started with Chill Penguin you'd end with Flame Mammoth, and get a chance to get the Buster Upgrade -- and if you missed it, you'd get it on the very next level.

Which brings us to another change.

In Mega Man X, midway through the first Sigma stage, Zero confronts Vile, and sacrifices himself. If you didn't get the Buster Upgrade from the capsule, Zero will give it to you.

Maverick Hunter X changes this in two ways. First, it moves the battle to the third Sigma stage instead of the first. Second, instead of Zero giving you a Buster Upgrade that's identical to the one you would have gotten from the capsule, he gives you a different Buster Upgrade.

It's an interesting idea, but I don't think it's a very good one, for two reasons.

The first is that it messes up the narrative structure. There's a reason Zero dies, and passes the torch to X, in the first Sigma stage in the original game: it changes the atmosphere of the rest of the game. It establishes a sense of loneliness and isolation that lingers through the end. Nobody else is going to help you; you're humanity's last hope. And you've done what Zero said you'd do all the way back at the end of the first stage: you've become stronger. The student has become the master.

In Maverick Hunter X, on the other hand, you spend most of the Sigma stages playing catchup. Zero's gone on ahead. Even at full power, X is playing second fiddle, right up until the end.

Which brings us to the gameplay reason why it doesn't make sense to kill off Zero right before the end: it's right before the end. I understand the reasoning behind rewarding the player for getting almost to the end of the game without the Buster Upgrade with a cool, unique weapon -- but what the fuck good is it? You've got exactly half a level left in the game at that point, and then four bosses. (And I guess the caterpillar things in the last level, but they're pretty much just there to fill up your Sub Tanks.) The game rewards you by giving you a weapon you'll hardly get to use.

Aside from that, there are other weird little changes. The X-Buster takes longer to charge to its maximum level, and bosses are invulnerable for a longer period of time after you hit them.

And then there's stuff like this:

  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

In the original game, when Spark Mandrill's stage goes "dark", it's just a transparency effect; you can still see where you need to go.

In Maverick Hunter X, the lights cycle off and on; the platforms go from being completely illuminated to being completely invisible. This, combined with the reduction in height, makes the section a lot harder, the timing a lot trickier, and makes it damned difficult to get through this section without getting clipped by the fireflies that whiz through it.

In fact, this section seems to be taking a cue from the Mega Man Xtreme version of the stage.

Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme

(It may look like the platforms are visible in that screenshot, but I assure you that if you play the game on authentic Game Boy Color hardware, you can't see shit.)

Basically, the game's full of changes, great and small. And most of them are for the worse.

All of this stuff, all of these changes, the reordering of the Capsules and the Sigma stages and Zero's death scene -- I think they actually could have made for an interesting game, if they were only on Hard Mode. The way I see it, Normal Mode should have kept everything where it was in the original game (with some changes, of course, to accommodate the screen height), while Hard Mode could have jumbled things around and created a legitimate challenge for experienced players. Think of it like the original Legend of Zelda: the Second Quest is neat, but it would have made a pretty crummy first quest.

Instead, Hard Mode gives the bosses some additional attacks (that's good!) and ups the amount of damage all the enemies do (that's cheap and lazy).

And then there's Vile Mode, which makes for a pretty great addition but can be overwhelming in the sheer number of options provided. Vile gets a total of 45 weapons, and while it's great to have that kind of versatility, it also means it takes a lot of time testing out all those choices and deciding which ones fit your play style -- and it also makes it a lot harder to figure out which weapons are effective against which bosses. If you're X, you can swap weapons on the fly and keep trying until you find one that works; if you're Vile, you can only equip three weapons at a time, and if none of them do the job, you have to start the level over if you want to try other options.

Plus, when you're Vile they move the Heart Tanks and Sub Tanks around, and while the save screen has a counter for how many you've got, it doesn't tell you which ones you've gotten. Okay, I've got seven out of the eight Heart Tanks; guess I get to figure out which one I'm missing.

(Also, I sincerely hope the decision to make every fucking stage use the same music when you play as Vile was an accident. Giving him is own theme music on the first stage is fine; reusing it on the next eight is not.)

To summarize three long posts, it's really easy to recommend Mega Man: Powered Up. It's thoughtfully and exquisitely redesigned, and good enough to be considered the definitive version of the game, even before you get into all the extras like the many playable characters and the level design toolkit.

Maverick Hunter X isn't bad but it's a much harder sell. Play the SNES game first; it's better; it's that simple.

But if you've played the SNES game already, forward and backward and side-to-side, and you're interested in trying out a new take? Then I'd recommend you take a crack at Maverick Hunter X. But remember going in that things are going to be different, and sometimes maddeningly so.

Mega Man ® 1989 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd

I took all the screenshots myself, and tried to get them all at native resolution with no filters.
I used the following emulators:
SNES: Snes9x
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core

Dueling Mega Men, Part 2: Verticality

The original Mega Man has some tricky platforming sequences. Mega Man Powered Up actually does a pretty solid job of redesigning them to make them more fair. Here's one of the most infamous examples, the gauntlet at the beginning of Guts Man's stage:

  • Guts Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Guts Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

Mega Man drops you right into what may be the toughest sequence in the game, and it's right at the beginning of the level. Powered Up, by contrast, starts you off with some training wheels.

Lest you think it's going easy on you, though, what it actually does is move that bastard platform to the end of the level:

Guts Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

On the one hand, that's a much better balance, putting the easy stuff at the beginning of the level and the tough stuff at the end. On the other, it's even more infuriating to repeatedly die right before the end of a level than right at the beginning. And it's actually even harder in Powered Up: note the spacing of the "safe" spots in the lower belt; there's much less time to land and jump than the original game.

There's another sequence, in Ice Man's stage, which is, for my money, the worst part of the original Mega Man.

  • Ice Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Ice Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

In the original game, you have to jump from moving platform to moving platform over a vast empty pit. The platforms' movements are not predictable, they shoot at you while you're trying to time your jumps (and, not shown, penguin guys fly at you too), and sometimes just for the sheer fuck of it instead of landing on a platform you will fall right through it and die.

Powered Up reduces the number of platforms to two, makes them move in consistent zigzag patterns, and eliminates the additional obstacles that you have to avoid (not to mention fixes the collision detection). And greatly reduces the amount of space you have to pass over.

It's a pretty perfect example of Powered Up finding something that was wrong with the original game and fixing it.

Maverick Hunter X does not do that.

Here's an example from Storm Eagle's stage:

  • Storm Eagle Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Storm Eagle Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

It's hard to tell from a static screenshot, but those three platforms all move up and down. And while it's easy to keep an eye on the next platform in the original Mega Man X, in Maverick Hunter X they move right off the screen.

It gets worse in Sigma's fortress.

  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Once again, Mega Man Xtreme actually does a better job than Maverick Hunter X; it reduces the number of platforms and their amount of vertical movement. It even turns the Sigma's Fortress sequence from a vertical section to a horizontal one.

  • Storm Eagle Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man Xtreme

(Of course, don't let any of this faint praise give you the mistaken impression that Mega Man Xtreme is a good game. Its version of the Sigma Fortress platform sequence ends with a blind leap off into nowhere.)

The pattern here is that, while the Mega Man: Powered Up devs were more than happy to retool tricky platform sequences, the Maverick Hunter X team seems oddly reluctant to change them, even just to accommodate the different aspect ratio. ("Oddly" because they made plenty of other, and much worse, changes; we'll get to some of them in a little bit.)

The other big problem is the underwater sequences, because of the increased height of your jump. In Maverick Hunter X, you jump so high that you can no longer see where you're going to land. Here's a miniboss from Launch Octopus's stage:

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

The enemy uses a weapon that pulls you towards the spikes; if you jump to get out of its range in the original Mega Man X, you'll still be able to see the platforms where it's safe to land, but in Maverick Hunter X, you'll scroll them right off the bottom of the screen.

And here's another miniboss from Launch Octopus's stage, a serpent which you can ride:

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

While you can ride the serpent past the point where the spikes and platforms scroll off the bottom of the screen in the original Mega Man X, you go higher before that happens -- and it's still not too hard to land safely.

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X

Riding the serpent and shooting it in the back of the head until it drops you is a viable strategy in the original game, but it's likely to get you killed in the remake.

Of course, for all the examples so far, there's at least an explanation for why these sequences are like that in Maverick Hunter X: because they were like that in the original. What's entirely baffling is when they add new vertical hazards, on purpose, and they have the same problems or worse.

Maverick Hunter X significantly redesigns the Sigma's Fortress stages (which, again, makes it even stranger that it leaves the sequence with the floating platforms as-is, albeit in a later level than in the original game). Early on in the first fortress level, there's another fight with one of the giant fish minibosses from Launch Octopus's stage, which wasn't in the original game.

  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Let's compare that to the one on Launch Octopus's level again.

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

The one on the Sigma stage is definitely worse: the spike traps are twice as wide, there's only one place where you can stand and it's half as wide as the Launch Octopus version, and the platform is at the same height as the spikes, so if you miss it you're dead, instead of having a chance to grab onto the side and jump back out.

The underwater section is followed by a reworked version of the vertical section from the original game, and I'll actually give some props here: this is one of the few instances where I like the Maverick Hunter X version better.

  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

There are several reasons the Maverick Hunter X version is better: it's shorter, there are fewer enemies, and there are more places to stand. But most of all, this is an instance where the devs understand that they're working with a different aspect ratio, and make it work for them. They don't try to preserve the narrow shaft, or keep the Joes on tiny platforms backed right up against the wall where it's nearly impossible to get them to attack, then hit them while their shields are down, and then get onto the platform they were standing on. It's not perfect, but it's a thoughtfully-designed sequence that's a legitimate improvement on the original. And it's a frustrating example of how good this remake could have been if this same kind of care had been applied to other vertical sequences.

And then it passes, and you're in another vexing vertical sequence that wasn't in the original game. It isn't as likely to cause cheap instant deaths as the aquatic sequence at the beginning of the level, but it is incredibly awkward and annoying because of the screen's limited height and your inability to see where you're going:

Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

But the worst new sequence of all is the end of Armored Armadillo's stage when you play as Vile:

Armored Armadillo Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

It's similar to the sequence in Sigma's Fortress, with platforms at multiple heights and those same helicopter dudes coming at you. But there are more of them, they're harder to hit when you're playing as Vile (and you can't just use a powered-up Rolling Shield to protect yourself like when you play as X), and you have to jump to platforms below you, not just ones above you. And of course when you jump, you may very well scroll your destination platform right off the bottom of the screen and have to guess where it's going to be by the time you land. It's a friggin' nightmare, and a great justification for savestate-scumming.

All in all, Maverick Hunter X does a terrible job with pretty much any sequence that deals with vertical scrolling.

Powered Up doesn't have that problem -- but the comparison's not entirely fair, because Powered Up has an advantage: it's a remake of a game that has no vertical scrolling.

There are lots of vertical sequences in Mega Man, but the screen never scrolls. When you have to traverse a section that's taller than a single screen, that means climbing from the bottom of the screen to the top and then climbing a ladder up to the next screen, where you end up back at the bottom. The screen doesn't move up and down as Mega Man does, only left and right.

  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up
  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

So it was easy for Powered Up to follow that pattern. As substantially as it changes some segments of the game (and adds two entirely new levels), it keeps that rule. No room is ever taller than one screen high; the screen doesn't scroll vertically -- and so the game never has to deal with the challenge of how to handle vertically-scrolling sequences.

Maverick Hunter X does. And it proves, time and again, that it's not up to the challenge. And then, bafflingly, it doubles down on this flaw and adds entirely new vertically-scrolling sequences. And they're even worse.

That's a major reason why, despite all its polish, despite all the effort that clearly went into it, and despite the many things it does right, Maverick Hunter X is an inferior game, both to the original Mega Man X and to Mega Man: Powered Up.

Another major reason is that it completely fucks up the balance of the original Mega Man X. And that's the topic of my next post.

Mega Man ® 1989 and © 1987 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Powered Up and Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd

I took all the screenshots myself, and tried to get them all at native resolution with no filters.
I used the following emulators:
SNES: Snes9x
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core

What Mega Man Powered Up Does Right and Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X Does Wrong, Part 1: Aspect Ratio

So the other day, I got to listening to OCRemix's Mega Man X: Maverick Hunter Rising album, and it got me jonesing to replay some Mega Man X.

I decided to take another crack at the 2006 PSP remake, Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X; it had disappointed me on my first playthrough, but I thought maybe I'd give it another chance.

And on a second playthrough, now that I'm familiar with its changes and idiosyncrasies, it went a lot smoother. Those changes and idiosyncrasies are glaring -- and they're what this series of posts is about -- but underneath them, it's a pretty solid remake of an excellent game.

But it's no substitute for the original.

And it's interesting to look at its immediate contemporary, Mega Man Powered Up, and see how much better Powered Up is than Maverick Hunter X.

There are a couple of reasons. One seems obvious -- in fact, it's the very first thing you notice:

  • Mega Man model
  • X model

Mega Man is short and squat, while X is tall and thin.

Now, these graphics tell you one thing right off the bat, and it's tone. Mega Man is fun and lighthearted; X takes himself seriously.

But the thing is, those designs affect every aspect of the game's design. And what you're looking at, in both cases, is a game that was originally designed for a 4:3 screen ratio, remade for a 16:9 one.

And which one of these guys do you suppose makes the transition better from 4:3 to 16:9 -- the one who's short and squat, or the one who's tall and thin?

At least, that's how it looks. But it's an illusion. Let's take a look at their actual dimensions, in-game:

  • Mega Man is 33x54px
  • X is 51x57px

Those are back-of-the-napkin measurements; I haven't taken the models through their full range of motion, and I'm not sure what the exact dimensions of their hitboxes are. But it's enough to see that Mega Man only looks shorter and squatter -- in terms of the dimensions rendered in-game, X isn't significantly taller than Mega Man, and he is significantly wider.

But it's not really just about the ratio of the character models -- it's about the design of the worlds they inhabit.

Both games face the same challenge: they have to substantially rework stage designs to fit a different screen ratio, while still making them feel like they play the same. Take a look at this screen from Cut Man's stage:

  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

It's pretty close.

In fact, it just hacks out the brick below the ladder, and the (inconsequential) top section of the ladder, above the range of the enemies.

It's got the same number of little eye-lantern guys, and nearly the same width to move around in. (The movable width of the screen in the original Mega Man is 12 "blocks", where in Powered Up it's a very close 11. And the height from the floor to the topmost enemy is 9 blocks in the original and 6 in Powered Up.)

There are places where Maverick Hunter X does a similarly good job, like here in Flame Mammoth's stage (after defeating Chill Penguin and freezing the lava):

  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

There's a lot less vertical space to move under that platform, but it's not important; it's still enough to fit, and still keep the entire room onscreen.

But other sections don't always fare as well. Look at the beginning of Spark Mandrill's stage:

  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

In the original SNES version of Spark Mandrill's stage, the sparks that run along the floor and ceiling are half X's height and half his width, and the gap between them gives you plenty of room to dodge them. In the Maverick Hunter X version, they're as big as X, and there's very little room in between them. Even the Game Boy Color Mega Man Xtreme, with its severely compromised screen size, didn't have that problem.

(On the plus side, this does mean that defeating Storm Eagle before Spark Mandrill (and thereby disabling the sparks in the floors) makes a much more significant difference in how the level plays than it does in the original game.)

Chill Penguin's stage has problems too:

  • Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

In the original, you can see the wheel coming and have time to get out of the way; in Maverick Hunter X, you can't and you don't. Though in this case, at least it's not being shown up by Xtreme, which has the same issue.

In a nutshell, Powered Up does a really good job of redesigning its vertical segments to fit a 16:9 screen, while Maverick Hunter X doesn't. And this really sticks out, because like Powered Up, MHX is a really polished remake. It shouldn't have these kinds of glaring issues with cropping; they're the hallmark of much lazier ports, like Mega Man for Game Gear, Mega Man and Bass for GBA, and, yes, Mega Man Xtreme.

But it's not just a few sucker punches by enemies that are too big, or that come out of nowhere. No, worst of all are the tricky platform segments where your limited field of vision can result in cheap, instant deaths. And I'll get to those in my next post.

Mega Man ® 1989 and © 1987 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Powered Up and Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd

Character models supplied by Models Resource

I took all the screenshots myself, and tried to get them all at native resolution with no filters.
I used the following emulators:
SNES: Snes9x
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core

The Auction House is the Worst Thing in Final Fantasy 6

It really, really is.

I mean, the Fanatics' Tower is downright sadistic -- it's a huge, nasty, difficult slog, with no save points, ending in a boss who will almost certainly kill your entire party when you defeat him, and then, if you survive (which requires either Reraise or an extremely high-level party), makes you walk all the way down again, and not only that, but it offers no experience, so if you die you lose everything you've gained.

But, it's pretty easily gamed. You're not going to fall for that wipe-out-your-entire-party thing a second time, and players who know what they're doing can actually get in and out painlessly with a Moogle Charm and the Berserk and Reraise spells.

The Auction House, on the other hand, is bullshit.

The first thing wrong with it is that it is not a fucking auction house. It is a store with a randomized inventory where it takes an inordinate amount of time to buy things. Items go for the same price, every fucking time; you just have to sit through a goddamn cutscene before you can agree to buy them.

And the second thing wrong with it, of course, is the goddamn Talking Chocobo and 1/1200 Scale Airship.

Not only is it a store with a randomized inventory that makes you sit through a cutscene to buy things, but a very large percentage of the time (I'm going to say "majority", though people who've paid more attention to FF6's RNG can correct me) it hits you with a gag item that you can't actually buy.

This is, possibly, mildly amusing the very first time it happens.

For some reason, it is possible for it to happen a second time after that.

And a third, fourth, fifth, and seven hundredth fucking time.

And if you want to get two particular espers, or certain rare relics early in the game, you either have to study the game's random number generator to figure out how to get the things you actually want, save-spam until you get lucky, cheat, or actually sit through every one of the auctions.

Nice thing about emulation is that it makes it a lot less obnoxious, what with the ability to use a save state right outside the door and fast-forward to nudge the RNG. (On my last playthrough I was convinced that the item up for auction was seeded by your number of steps; this time I'm more inclined to believe it's time-based. I'm sure somebody out there has written an exhaustive guide, though I must admit I'd be more interested in just finding a hack that turns the damn thing into a store and lets you buy the things you want from it.)

Auctions -- actual auctions -- make a lot more sense in MMORPG's, where you're interacting with other players. So do extremely rare drops, for that matter. FF6 is less guilty of the latter than FF4, with its rare summons, Pink Tails, and such (though I've only ever seen one Economizer drop in all the times I've played 6 top-to-bottom and side-to-side), but there's slim damn reason for there to be an auction house in the game in the first place, and no reason at all for an irritating goddamn barely-functional store that pretends it's an auction house.

Zelda 2: The One That Fucks Up Alphabetized Lists

Yep, got the bug from Jeremy Parish's excellent Anatomy of Zelda 2 series. I've started replaying Zelda 2.

Jeremy commented on the general unfairness of the game and said that he's using savestates. I'm using authentic NES hardware, but I do have a Game Genie.

When I played through the game as a kid, I only used one Game Genie cheat code: infinite lives. It's amazing how much it does for the game's balance to eliminate the outmoded concept of a limited number of lives (a holdover from the arcade age, of course). Frankly it's odd, in hindsight, that Zelda 2 played the old "3 lives and then Game Over" meme, given that the original game didn't. I mean, sure, 2's a side-scrolling platformer, but Metroid was too, and it didn't bother with giving you a limited number of lives either.

So I resolved to take a crack at Zelda 2 on my NES, once again cheating a bit against its unfair difficulty with the use of the infinite lives code.

And when I went to look it up, I found, via Game Winners, two more codes that weren't in the official Game Genie book and which serve to mitigate the game's lopsided leveling system. So here are the three codes I'm using:

Link has unlimited lives SZKGKXVK
Do not lose all experience when leveling SZVOUNSE
Do not lose experience when hit by enemies SXESIKSE

I think that, on the whole, those three codes go a long way to balancing out the difficulty of Zelda 2 and allowing its strengths to shine. It is a solid game.


My post on Unison remains one of the most popular things on this site. (The FF7 Trilogy remain my most popular posts, the ROM Collection Browser post is far and away the most popular hit on the site this month, and a number of people seem confused, as I was, by Netflix's reorganization of Doctor Who -- but Unison's still way up there.)

Well, I rebuilt my computer a few months ago, and I've opted not to go back to Unison. The main reason is that I don't just have Windows/Linux/OSX machines in the house now -- I've got a phone and a tablet both running Android now, and I'd very much like to be able to sync to them, too.

(Yes, okay, so Android is also Linux; good observation, gold star. It is technically possible to run Unison on Android. It is also, as far as I can discern, as big a pain in the ass as you would expect.)

I've decided to take a crack at ownCloud, and set my overworked G4 Mac Mini up as a server. It was a quick, easy setup, and a lot less fiddly than Unison (though it took a little bit of fucking around on the command line to enable SSL), but it's got its tradeoffs -- oddly, near as I can tell the desktop client can only set directories to sync, not individual files, while the Android client can only set individual files to sync, not entire directories.

And speaking of syncing with the Android app, it took me a day to figure out how to get it to sync in the first damn place. The sync toggle is under the system Settings menu, not, for some reason, anywhere in the app's interface, and it turns out that in order to set a file to sync, you have to upload or download it first, and then tap it in the ownCloud browser, and then there's a "Keep file up to date" checkbox. It's not exactly what you'd call discoverable, and the closest thing I can find to documentation is a damn YouTube video. (Can we talk for a minute about tutorials that are only available as videos? For my money, that trend fucking sucks. I mean, videos are great for some things, like showing you how to take apart a piece of equipment, or shave, or otherwise do something that's easier to watch than read about -- but much of the time, step-by-step instructions with the occasional illustration is a far superior method of walking someone through how to do a thing.)

So, not quite perfect. And there are some other pitfalls -- the filebrowser in the Android app can't seem to access the directory with my World of Goo save to sync it, SNESoid save files use a different extension than desktop SNES9X...plenty of rough edges that aren't actually ownCloud's fault but the fault of developers who didn't consider that users would want to sync save files across multiple systems. (It looks like you might be able to sync a file under a different name on the Android client than on the server; I'll look into that but I'm also thinking of switching from SNESoid to SNES9X EX on my phone and EX+ on my tablet. So far it looks like it's a lot more flexible than SNESoid, and while EX+ is too burly for my phone, EX runs all right once I turn off graphics filters, set scaling to integer-only, and turn on the GPU Sync Hack. Save states aren't compatible between versions, but of course save RAM is. As for World of Goo...maybe I can whip something up with symlinks or something; I'll look into it.)

And it's a pity there's no way to set up an automated wireless sync with my PSP.

Motavia is Bullshit

Okay. So, big empty planet, with like four landmarks on it; the rest is empty desert with nothing but the same fucking three enemy groups, one of which you will run into every five seconds.

To get to where you need to go, you must:

  1. Talk to a guy.
  2. Talk to the same guy, a second time.
  3. Wander through the aforementioned big empty desert of constant annoying monster encounters until you find a cave.
  4. Go through the cave until you come up in a town.
  5. Talk to another guy.
  6. Talk to him a second time, too.
  7. Go back to the first town.
  8. Talk to a lady.
  9. Go back and talk to the first fucking guy again.
  10. Go back into the cave.
  11. If, and only if, you have talked to all those people all those times in that order, you will find a dragon hanging out at one of the dozen or so dead-ends in the cave.

So why does the fucking dragon not show up until you've done all that shit? Does he have, like, some kind of agreement with the village chief? Does he hide until the village chief calls him up and tells him "Hey, dragon, I sent some adventurers to go fight you"?

I haven't gotten that far into the original Sega Master System Phantasy Star. This is the PS2 remake I'm playing. But I assume -- hope -- this is merely a faithful translation of a profoundly stupid set of goals from the original 8-bit version.

But hey, memo to people making remakes? Automaps and item descriptions are awesome, but it's also okay to simplify down stupid, nonsensical bullshit so I don't wind up wandering the goddamn desert until I finally get pissed off and just look up a walkthrough.

ROM Collection Browser in XBMC Frodo

BTW, anyone using ROM Collection Browser who's just upgraded to the latest XBMC beta and found that the list of ROMs is completely blank:

Open up C:\Users\[username]\AppData\Roaming\XBMC\addons\script.games.rom.collection.browser\resources\lib\gui.py and find the following line, which appears twice:

self.addItem(item, False)

In both occurrences, change it to simply


You don't need to restart XBMC, but if you've got ROM Collection Browser open, right-click out of it and then reopen it. That will get the list to reappear.

If you find that it throws an "Unimplemented method" error for executehttpapi when you try to launch a game, open up launcher.py in the same directory and replace all instances of "executehttpapi" with "executeJSONRPC". (Same as above: you don't need to restart XBMC, but you do need to restart ROM Collection Browser for the changes to take.)

Thanks to versus for posting the gui.py fix and fmonaca for posting the launcher.py fix on the XBMC forums.

(And yes, I am posting this at 12:30 in the damn morning. You know how sometimes you have a thought on how to fix a vexing computer problem and know it'll be gone by morning?)