Thursday, December 29, 2011


Merry Christmas to all and to all - well, to all a 4-day belated Merry Christmas that's what!  I've got so many gaming irons in the fire at the moment and so precious little time to play with them lately. But I will be hitting them pretty hard in the next couple of weeks so expect me to babble on about this and that with a little more regularity pretty soon.  For today, just a little rant about a ridiculous little game that everyone knows, but nobody plays - Tic-Tac-Toe. Or possibly noughts and crosses to my friends across the pond. There is a reason this game is on my mind which I will touch on in a moment, but for now a brief history.

Tic-Tac-Toe has been around forever. Invented by the ancient Egyptians - probably.  Possibly even cavemen. I really don't know and refuse to google it. But suffice to say it has been torturing human children for a long time. In the old days the ancient Egyptians had to use the sand, or possibly papyrus if you were well off, to play, but 20th century technology ushered in the fantastic new world of electronic tic-tac-toe!

1952:  "Noughts and crosses" (or OXO) was developed at Cambridge University, England for the EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) computer and is widely accepted as the very first graphical computer game.  If you'd care to play a game of OXO just like it would have played on the EDSAC you can even download a program that simulates the EDSAC and try it out:

1976:  Seeing the consumer demand for a home electronic version of Tic-Tac-Toe, Fairchild Semiconductor releases the cleverly-titled "Tic-Tac-Toe" for the Fairchild Channel F video game console. But a public clamor arose - "I can't carry my Channel F around with me! Where's my portable version?!"  (I've played the Channel F version. It's Tic-Tac-Toe i.e. utterly without value).

1978:  Parker Brothers releases Merlin the Electronic Wizard - a handheld toy with six different games built into the unit.  Game #1 of course is Tic-Tac-Toe. I still have my old Merlin. Maybe it is because I was already 9 years old when I played with it, but I clearly remember thinking that Tic-Tac-Toe was completely worthless even back then. The other games were pretty cool though. As with the EDSAC and the Channel F, some clever gent has developed an online simulator that will allow you to try out a Merlin. It's actually kinda cool if you ever had one as a kid:

1980:  Finally, someone puts a new spin on the age-old game when Atari releases "3D TIC TAC TOE" for the Atari 2600. The game is almost marginally playable which puts it head and shoulders above the classic Tic-Tac-Toe. Kudos Atari!

Then companies finally realized that electronic tic-tac-toe was a supremely stupid idea so they stopped making them. Years went by which brings me to the reason for this post if anyone is still reading. For Christmas I bought my wife an iPad2 and I was on the app store downloading some apps for her when I stumbled across "Tic Tac Toe" by Optime Software LLC.  Currently version 2.17 - really?  They couldn't nail it with version 2.16??). The app weighs in at a hefty 16.1 MB. 16.1MB for tic-tac-toe!!!  Chessmaster 2000 is rolling over in his grave.

"Put away your pencil and paper - now you can play Tic Tac Toe on your iPhone or iPod Touch for free. Tic Tac Toe Free is the first full-featured, free Tic-Tac-Toe game for the iPhone and iPod Touch!"

Apparently it offers 1-player, 2-player, and network play. Network play? Wow. How incredibly bored must some sad individual be to want to jump online and fire up some good old tic tac toe?

and for only $0.99 you can upgrade to Tic Tac Toe Plus HD!!!  I'm holding out for the 3D version.

So I typed in tic-tac-toe on the search box and sure enough, the app store is LOADED with them! Many of them are free but a lot of them are actually charging $0.99 and some even more than that. Very few of them offer any new twist on the game because all of them agree that it is a "timeless classic". No. Chess is a timeless classic. Hangman is a timeless classic. Scrabble is a timeless classic. I might even be convinced that solitaire is a timeless classic. But no sir. I don't care how long it has been around. Tic Tac Toe is not a timeless classic.

So in the immortal words of W.O.P.R.

"A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?"

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

My Latest Retro(ish) Purchase - the GB USB 64M Smart Card

Most of my gaming time the last 2-3 months has been spent on 3 newer AAA titles - Gears of War 3, Uncharted 3 and Batman Arkham City. I enjoyed them all, but as per my usual routine I am now chasing that current-gen gaming binge with a palate-cleansing drink from an older vintage. And for the last few days that involves a formerly forgotten and neglected Game Boy and a new hardware addition to the retro arsenal - the EMS GB USB 64M Smart Card (catchy name eh?).  Mine was an impulse purchase from Kitsch-Bent for $38.

The package came with the Smart Card and a mini CD with installation drivers and a file transfer program. The card is not plug-and-play nor does it come with a setup/installation program, so you have to manually install the new hardware and browse to the drivers on the CD, but then you are good to go.

The card is in the shape of an original Game Boy cartridge and has a small mini-B USB port at the top where you can connect it to your computer via a USB cable and transfer Game Boy and Game Boy Color ROMs from your PC onto the cart, thus allowing you to play them on your actual Game Boy and Game Boy Color. Unfortunately, you can't drag and drop files onto the card like an external USB drive, but their included file transfer application is very easy to use, if a little slow on the transfer speed.

You can of course play the same GB/GBC games via emulator on your PC, but I have very little interest in doing that. I mess with emulators fairly often, but almost never for any of the portable systems. No, the only way I'm ever going to see most of these games is on a real Game Boy to get a more authentic experience.

"If you're so into authenticity then why don't you just buy the real Game Boy carts then dude?  They're cheap these days!"  Well, generally speaking I do prefer to play real carts on real hardware and I do have a stack of GB/GBC carts I bought at dirt cheap prices on Craigslist, but the fact of the matter is that I'm not much of a portable gamer even on my newer devices like my PSP and iPhone and even less so on my Game Boy. So there is virtually no chance I'm going to go out an buy many more Game Boy games even if they were at giveaway prices. Plus, given my relatively low interest level I really don't want to have to deal with their storage demands on my ever-shrinking space either. But that being said, my interest in gaming history does provide me with enough curiosity to want to spend a little time shuffling through these old Game Boy ROMs that are taking up space on my hard drive. And if I DO happen to stumble upon an old game that I really like a lot well there's a good chance that I might just track down a boxed copy of that one off of eBay for my "Game Boy Collection".

"Well you know you can play those ROMs on a GBA don't you? Or by emulator on a DS. Then it's backlit so it's better."  Yeah and that is good enough for a taste, but I decided if I was going to spend a decent amount of time checking out this long list of games I wanted to try them on the original hardware. Somehow having to play these primitive games in a well-lit room on a gray brick that forces me to dial in the contrast on a little green monochrome screen lets me appreciate the game more even though the visual product is arguably inferior to what I could get on other platforms.

I've been playing with it for a few days now and it works great. This little card prompted me to pick up my GB that would have otherwise just continued to sit on a shelf gathering dust and occasionally making me wonder why I bought it in the first place - even as I still occasionally look for a cheap Game Gear, Lynx and Neo-Geo Pocket Color knowing full well they will be begging the same questions later.  I'm currently in the A's and I can tell you from just a few minutes of gameplay on each that Amazing Penguin and Amazing Tater are pretty nifty little games, while Amazing Spiderman utterly sucks.

One potential problem is that all games utilize the same sram to store the .sav file, which basically means that if you store any game-save information to the card it will be overwritten with new save information when you start playing a different game. I'm not sure yet if you can copy your .sav files back to your PC so you can reload them to continue later, but my curiosity on the great majority of these games is satisfied with just a few minutes of play so personally I don't really need any major multiple .sav file support or workaround. It would have been a nice feature though.

The card is advertised as a "64M" card which has confused some folks into thinking it has 64 megabytes (MB) of storage capacity. In actuality it contains 64 megabits (Mb) which translates to only 8 MB. This doesn't sound like much space at first, but only a few Game Boy games were as large as 1MB (e.g. Pokemon), many were only 32K (e.g. Tetris) and most fell into the 128K to 256K range.  So you can easily store about 50 Game Boy games on there and if you go for the smaller ones you could even fit over 100.  Game Boy Color game files are larger, so the card can only hold about 5-10 average-sized GBC games give or take.  The card is split up into 2 separate banks or pages and you can save 4MB of files on each page. When you turn on your Game Boy the list of games on the first page is displayed. To see the second page of games you power cycle the Game Boy by turning it off and then quickly back on, then the second page of games will appear. Then you just scroll down and select which game you'd like to play and have at it.

Apparently a lot of people who buy this card use it to load LSDJ (Little Sound DJ) a program that turns a Game Boy into a programmable 4-channel, 4-bit music workstation that LSDJ-aficionados use to explore Game Boy chiptunes or create their own. It even came with a LSDJ sticker to apply to your card.  You can see a random LSDJ music video here.  Looks kinda cool and has a fairly large online community so I might check out the LSDJ scene later, but for now I'm content to just speed-date a bunch of old games that I would have otherwise completely ignored. I'm off to Alien Olympics.

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