Category Archives: Retro Gaming

SNESoIP: The XBAND of the 21st Century

SNESoIP Prototype

xband modemsAficionados of the online capabilities of early video game consoles will no doubt be aware of the XBAND modem, developed by Catapult in the mid 1990s, which allowed for long distance multiplayer on certain SNES and Genesis games (and in some cases, cross-multiplayer between the two systems). The XBAND worked over analog telephone lines, with the modem itself plugging into the cartridge slot of its respective system, acting like a pass-through device for games. In layman’s terms, it worked by connecting to official XBAND servers and downloading a patch for the relevant game; these games were not designed for use with the XBAND so certain aspects of the game, like random number generators, had to be modified. Essentially, the XBAND modem “tricked” the game into thinking the set-up was local multiplayer. Players could then connect directly to others if their phone number was known, or they could use Catapault’s servers to search for other players. Unfortunately, since Catapult has since shut down its servers, the service is now dead, though there have been attempts at a revival. Apparently, aspects of the XBAND service were aquired by Sega and used in the official Japanese modem for the Saturn. The American modem, the NetLink, also used a similar service, but because it allowed for direct-dialing, it can still be used to the present day for long distance multiplayer over analog telephone lines.

SNESoIP prototype controller boxCue German Hacker Michael Fitzmayer who has recently developed a prototype for a similar system, which he calls SNESoIP (for SNES over IP). Instead of a pass-through system for the cartridge, his device uses a pass-through system for the SNES controller so that it can transmit any controller input over broadband and also receive controller inputs from a long distance “Player 2” and relay it on to the SNES system. The device must interact with a server to do this (similar to the original XBAND service) but this means additional features can be implemented, such as a “controller switching” option which allows each player to act as the “Player 1” in their own game. Note, this IS over broadband rather than peer-to-peer analog telephone lines and as such, lag can become a real issue, especially over longer distances. Also, because the current SNESoIP prototype is only sending controller signals, any game that features any sort of randomness (e.g. placement or movement of enemies, items in Mario Kart, etc.) won’t really work. Nevertheless, it’s still an amazing proof of concept/work in progress which is long overdue, in my own opinion. For more information, check out the readme file on its GitHub project page. And finally, the following is a video posted by Michael showing the SNESoIP in action, playing “Zombies Ate My Neighbors”. The game doesn’t seem to use any randomness so it works almost exactly like a local multiplayer set-up, but one can see definite lag issues. I personally look forward to watching this still burgeoning project evolve over time.
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When Nintendo and Knitting Collide

Over the years, there have been many crazy ideas for video game accessories – especially in the earlier years when game companies were trying to make video games appeal to a wider mass market. Given Nintendo’s push for the “casual market” with the Wii the past few years, its unsurprising that they would have been at the forefront of these kinds of radical ideas in the past. In fact, the little Japanese video game company that decided to “leave luck to heaven” single-handedly revived the ailing North American console market by marketing its quirky Japanese Famicom as the “Nintendo Family Entertainment System”, NOT as a video game console. It touted such unique features as the Power Glove, a controller you played by moving your hand, and R.O.B., your very own robotic Player 2 buddy!

Nintendo Knitting Machine

Back in August, Gamemaster Howard shared an early NES flyer that showcases what is perhaps one of the strangest gaming peripherals ever conceived: The Nintendo Knitting Machine! (Yes, Wii Bowling wasn’t the first Nintendo product to pique the interest of all those Grandmothers out there). Admittedly, this isn’t a new reveal – it was apparently demonstrated at WCES 1987 (Winter Consumer Electronics Show; from 1978 to 1994 CES apparently held both a winter and a summer trade show). Even so, since it was never released it seemed to have been relatively lost to history until now – just one of the many nuggets of early video game history brought back into the light recently by Howard.  Not being content with just sharing the picture, Howard dug up some old articles commenting about it:

Reporter’s Notebook : Atari, Nintendo Strut New Stuff at Electronics Show

Atari’s booth may have been the most bustling in the Convention Center’s West Hall, but Japanese video game maker Nintendo was drawing a crowd at an offbeat knitting demonstration.
Knitting by computer? Yes, knitters can throw away those needles. By draping yarn across a loom-like affair that interacts with the company’s home entertainment system, the user can knit sweaters, mittens, socks–you name it–complete with patterns. And no more counting rows. The computer does it all.
“We’re showing this for business feedback,” said Gail D. Tilden, advertising manager. “We’re using entertainment technology to appeal to a broader base.”

John Dvorak, Jan. 11, 1987, San Francisco Examiner

An interesting application at the CES show was a design tool for computer-aided knitting, of all things. You can for example design a fancy sweater with the computer. A special program turns the data into knitting instructions for a special Nintendo knitting machine that is expected to sell for less than $100. One fellow at the Nintendo Booth says the machine can crank out a custom sweater in about four hours. While that may be an exaggerated, this device is a runaway hit in Japan, and Nintendo hopes it will take off here.

Note: Howard confirmed that this peripheral was NOT released in Japan or any other territory. (See link)

Links:

Gamemaster Howard

Gamemaster HowardUnless you were a subscriber to Nintendo Power in the early 1990s (you can count me out) you’ve probably never heard of the comic strip “Howard & Nester.” It featured Howard Phillips, “President” of the “Nintendo Fun Club” (not to be confused with Howard Lincoln, former chairman of NoA) and Nester, the then teenage mascot of Nintendo Power, created by Howard himself.

Recently, Howard has been sharing early Nintendo memorabilia and the like via his Facebook page, Gamemaster Howard, including such things as early R.O.B. ads, brochures about the Nintendo AVS system, embarrassing photo shoots, and even some strips of Howard & Nester (including both the first strip and the last, unpublished strip).  Best of all though, he provides background and commentary on nearly everything he posts in a way that only someone who was on the inside of Nintendo could, so if you want to learn a bit more about Nintendo’s early days, I’d suggest going over to his Facebook page to check it out!  Especially if you’re interested in a bit of a Nintendo Power nostalgia trip, now that it’s confirmed to be ceasing production at the end of this year.

Neo Geo X

It’s been over thirteen years since SNK released it’s last piece of Neo Geo hardware, the Neo Geo Pocket Color, but on December 6, that clock will be reset with the release of the Neo Geo X. The handheld will come pre-loaded with 20 “classic” Neo Geo games including Metal Slug, Fatal Fury, and Last Resort.  It also features an “expandable game card slot” (which is reportedly a standard SD slot) so other Neo Geo games will be released in future.

Neo Geo X

The Neo Geo X will be sold in two different bundles. The handheld itself will set you back $129.99, but if you want the whole experience, the Neo Geo X Gold will set you back a total $199.99.  The handheld is the same in both bundles, but the Gold comes with a replica AES system which can serve as both a charging dock and as a way to play your Neo Geo X on the big screen (along with the included joystick controller – again a replica of the AES joystick).  Apparently, a second joystick can be bought separately to allow multiplayer gameplay like in the original versions of the games. More information can be found at it’s official website.

All that said, the Neo Geo X doesn’t seem to be so much a new system as a repackaging of the Neo Geo AES.  Similarly, the relatively high price point makes one think that it’s targeted only at those familiar with the Neo Geo brand and who would be willing to buy one purely out of nostalgia or for collectibility.  Similarly, it’s distribution in Europe is connected with Blaze Europe, who are best known to those across the pond as the makers of a series of portable Mega Drive systems of questionable quality.  That’s no reason to dismiss the Neo Geo X out of hand, though, and even if the system never sees any further release of games, it looks like it could be a great collector’s piece and a great way to play several Neo Geo games on-the-go.

Update: I came across this video today and thought I’d share: Neo Geo X GOLD Hands-On!