Monday, March 28, 2016

Advance Warning #1: Racing Gears Advance

Way back in the early days of my YouTube channel, I made a short lived series called Nintendo Night, where I would talk about some of my favourite games for the various Nintendo platforms.  Back then I was making my videos by shooting the screen with an iPhone 3GS, and basically making it up as I went along.  These videos are rather embarrassing to watch nowadays, so I have decided to remake some of them, starting with the one I did about a rather overlooked GBA title called Racing Gears Advance. I don't have a huge collection of GBA cartridges - around two dozen or so - but I am going to cover more games for the system later on so I have started this new series called Advance Warning.  With the help of my Retron 5, I will be able to bring you some nice clear footage of the games I'm covering.  So let's get on with taking another look at Racing Gears Advance!

I remember reading about this game in one of the magazines that I used to buy around the time of its release, and thinking it looked really cool from the screen shots.  I love top down racers like Championship Sprint, Micro Machines and Circuit Breakers, so one look at the little cars racing around nicely detailed tracks planted the game firmly on my radar and taking a bit of a gamble, I pre ordered a copy.  I remember it was fairly late in the life of the GBA, The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap had been released not too long before it, and my imported Japanese DS fat had recently turned up from Lik-Sang, so I ended up playing most of those two games on the superior screen of the DS compared to the dingy old screen on my GBA SP AGS-001 model that I owned at the time.  From the moment I put the game in and fired it up for the first time I was not disappointed - the game felt immediately responsive and intuitive to control with a nice little powerslide that could perform lifting off the acceleration button and then hammering back on to it as you turned into a corner.

The graphics are nice and bright, and compared to most games on the GBA, they are very nicely detailed indeed. Little things like the way the trees move in the breeze and the way your cars suspension reacts when going over cobblestones or a wooden bridge are great little touches that help to set Racing Gears Advance apart from the average crapware that was sadly so common on the system.  The tracks are pretty diverse in their nature, and consist of scenic rural areas like vineyards, treacherous snowy mountain tracks, shipyards, and even an active volcano!  Backing up the graphics is some very strong audio as well - particularly the music.  Again, music of this quality is fairly rare on the GBA, and the actual tunes remind me of SID music from the C64.  It is most definitely of a retro chiptune style, and even features some voice samples in tunes such as the catchy People Mover.  Sound effects are decent enough as well, but are a bit overshadowed by the music.  There's a variety of skidding effects, explosions and the like, which all add to the overall quality of the game.

So that's the presentation addressed, but let's now focus on the game play.  Initially, the game is a lot of fun indeed as you bomb around the circuits, building up money reserves from both pickups on the track itself and from winnings after placing in the races.  Each cup, of which there are five, consists of five races, so there's a very decent 25 tracks in total in the game.  At the end of a championship, the points are tallied and the final placing revealed.  If you come first, then you get to move on to the next championship, anything less and you will have to try again.  You are never actually faced with a game over screen, which is quite nice.  Before each race, you can take a look at the map, see roughly how difficult the track is, check surface type and the weather.  These last two things are important, because if you were go race on snow with your slicks equipped, or if you had dry tires on when it was raining, you would really struggle to control your car and also maintain a decent speed in the race.  So as you earn cash in the events, you should be buying new types of tire.  That's not all though, your car itself is also upgradeable - you can level up the engine, the turbo, the armour, the brakes and finally, the weapon cells.  As you progress through the different cups you will discover that it is absolutely necessary to upgrade your car in order to be competitive.

You can also take damage as well, which can get pretty expensive to fix.  Finally, there are many different weapons to buy in the game.  At first you just get access to nitrous and basic missiles, but with each new cup that's unlocked you will be allowed to buy more and more types of weapon.  Later types include mines that do a significant amount of damage to anyone unlucky to drive over them, and heat seeking missiles.  In addition to weaponry, each character has their own innate special ability as well.  One of them can steal cash by bumping into other cars, another one can mess up your steering temporarily, which can be infuriating.  That brings to my one major problem with the game.  By the time you get to around the third championship, the majority of the weapons will have been unlocked, and the computer AI starts acting like a complete bastard.  Within the first few seconds of a race it's quite likely that you will have been shot, spun out, run into level mines, and bashed into for good measure.  A decent race can easily be ruined by the overaggressive opponents, and it can become infuriating.  You can go back to previous championships, grind for money and gradually level your cars so that you can then easily win the current championship, so at least you won't get stuck, but this does make the game feel like a bit of a grind at times.

Despite these few problems though, Racing Gears Advance still stands out as one of the best third party games released for the GBA, yet it's one that I never ever hear anyone talking about.  When I checked the price for this review, I was surprised to find that there were copies available on for around £28.  That's not an insignificant amount by any means, but I was thinking it would be worth £50 at the absolute minimum.  If you get the opportunity, you really should check this game out, either through emulation or by spending a bit of a genuine copy.  Despite the frustrating game play in the latter stages on the championship mode it remains a lot of fun to play and is a title that I still return to frequently today.  I'll be back with another edition of Advance Warning in the not too distant future, as well as bringing all the other videos that I've been promising for a while.  In the meantime, take care!

Friday, March 04, 2016

Game Diary: Rapturous Retro

It's been a couple of weeks since my last video, so this weekend I will definitely try and put something together for all of you.  The next episode of the C64 review show is partially completed already, so that's the most likely candidate.  I am thinking that I may change the way I do my C64 reviews though, and just do one game per episode.  When I do four games with music interspersed throughout, that takes a lot of time to produce, and I have to say often at the end of a long week the enthusiasm just isn't there to spend most of my weekend making them.  By focusing on just one game I would be able to release episodes much more frequently and it would be more fun too.

I recently picked up a nifty little gadget that should also assist in my video making endeavours.  A few weekends ago, I received an email from the UK gadget supplier Funstock, where they were announcing that they had a whole bunch of stuff available at half price because they were refurbished.  Amongst the stuff on sale was a JXD S7800B, which is a powerful Android based tablet with physical controls.  After watching half a dozen or so reviews of it on YouTube, I was very impressed with what I saw.  This thing is powerful enough to emulate consoles all the way up to consoles like the N64, PS1 and Dreamcast!  The Dreamcast emulation isn't perfect but it is possible to get the majority of games running in at least a playable state, with a few graphical glitches here and there.  My eyes lit up at the prospect of playing Skies of Arcadia on the go and so I ordered one!

When it arrived, there was a bit of a problem - Funstock had neglected to check the product properly before sending it out and a few vital cables were missing, namely the charger and the USB data cable. Having heard bad things about the regular charger, I managed to find a USB version online and ordered that.  I do have everything I need now though and my JXD is now loaded up with emulators and games for the C64, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, NES, SNES, N64, PS1, Game Gear, Master System, Megadrive, Neo Geo Pocket, Neo Geo MVS, MAME and of course the Dreamcast.  I've been getting used to it over the past week and enjoying a variety of games including Earthbound, Streets of Rage and of course Skies of Arcadia. My dream of playing my favourite RPG on a handheld system is a reality!  Of course if Sega ever do decide to release a legitimate port of the game on the 3DS, Vita or any future handheld I will buy it, but I think the chances of that happening are pretty slim unfortunately.

Anyway, because the JXD has HDMI out built in, I am thinking that I will use it to capture footage of all sorts of retro games.  The picture quality of the C64 games should be noticeably better this way, in theory.  I have heard that I may need to replace the version of Android that comes installed on the JXD with a more recent version though, because the one on the machine runs at 66hz and all the emulators and games run at 60hz.  This isn't a problem in normal usage, but it creates all sorts of issues when you plug the system into a TV - namely horrible input lag and a chugging frame rate.  It's a pain that I have to go through this process in the first place, but the effort of upgrading should be worth it in the long run.  If all goes well, I will then start to use the JXD to make capture the C64 games. During the week on my commutes I will continue to play various games until I get a good feel for one and can put together a review.

During my first attempt at creating content on YouTube, about 5 or 6 years ago, I made 5 or so videos under the title Nintendo Night. These are pretty poor quality efforts because they were made by pointing an iPhone 3GS at my TV - I didn't have a proper capture card at the time.  I'm thinking of resurrecting this series under the title of Nintendo Night Neo, and using the JXD to discover / capture the games.  I could also do something similar with the Sega machines of course!  Picking up the JXD S7800B has really reignited my passion for retro gaming, and for making YouTube videos about them.  I would be interested to hear any suggestions of games that you think I should check out for any of the systems that I listed above.  Keep an eye open for the C64 Review Show Episode 3 at some point over the next week, and in the meantime, take care!