Frank Provo's World

Bury my shell at Wounded Knee


Re: Retro Gaming shops in Lansing
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frankprovo
Well... crud.... Disc Traders has overtly been punting its goods to a local-area re-seller lately. I've suspected as much over the past few weeks, but it was confirmed yesterday when I went in and they were holding a large amount of uncommon and shrinkwrapped items for a single customer.

The worst part about it is, some of the stuff had never made it to shelves to begin with. I know this because I pretty much go there three times a week as a side-effect of my mom's errands.

Time will tell if that kills its status as Lansing's overall best secondhand game store, but I admit I'm not optimistic. So now, the question is whether the stock ended up at a different local store or with someone that's an eBay re-seller.

Retro gaming shops in Lansing, MI
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frankprovo
These days, retro gaming is a huge business thanks to nostalgia-generated demand and entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on the wants of Gen-X’ers and Gen-Y’ers that grew up with these games and now bring home decent amounts of disposable income. As a result, every city has at least two or three stores that buy and sell used video games. I can’t remember if I’ve made a post like this before, so at the risk of repeating myself, here’s my summary of used video game stores in the Lansing, MI area.

Game Hits (4324 W Saginaw Highway)

They’ve been in the Lansing area for 15 years and somehow manage to stay afloat despite the fact that I never see more than one other person inside (besides myself) when I go there. They sell both new and used, but the focus is definitely on used games for every game console made since 1980. Selection is generally pretty good and you’re guaranteed to see at least one or two things that make you say “I never see that in the wild” with every visit. They have the best local selection of Saturn and Dreamcast. If you collect boxed games, they’re also probably your best bet. I also like that they keep a decent selection of hardware in stock and aren’t afraid to sell Japanese imports or “reproduction” games.

What I don’t like about Game Hits is can be summed up in two words: atmosphere and pricing. The store is dim and dusty, and you generally get a dreary feeling while browsing. I actually don’t like going there for this reason, as I prefer a happier shopping experience… at least when I’m in a game store. As for the pricing, they clearly look to eBay for their floor and usually seem to peg about 10-15% above that. While that helps to keep “flippers” away, it also means that Game Hits is not my first choice when I’m looking to add a retro game to my collection.

Nevertheless, the staff is nice enough, and like I said, they have a solid selection (including Sega CD, 3DO, and Saturn), so they definitely need to be on the radar of anyone in town.

Disc Traders (5831 W Saginaw Highway)

You may also know of Disc Traders as Disc Replay, a large regional chain that buys and sells used games, movies, CDs, and consumer electronics. The Lansing location is a total crapshoot when it comes to selection, but it’s also my first stop when I’m looking to add something to my collection. Remember how I mentioned that Game Hits was dreary? Disc Traders is bright and welcoming. Their game selection tilts more to PS2 and recent consoles, but they do carry a good assortment of NES, Genesis, Super NES, PS1, and N64 as well. Their “buy” prices are very fair, especially with store credit, so they tend to get cool new things all the time. Unfortunately, their “sell” prices are also very fair, usually 10-30% below eBay, so those same cool things tend to disappear within a day or two.

Since they occasionally underprice Ebay by 30%, flippers and local resellers love going to Disc Traders for items they can later sell at a higher price. I hate that, but the store does manage to create a level playing field by not always setting bargain basement prices and by putting recent buys out at unpredictable times. I also get the impression that the staff isn’t allowed to “tip off” customers to new goodies because I have seen some pretty amazing things on sale there. They’re the only place I’ve ever seen Little Samson (NES) in the wild. They don’t sell much in the way of retro hardware, since they don’t actively seek out items to buy, but I have seen a Genesis, Super NES, and TurboGrafx there within the past year.

Another thing I like about Disc Traders is that they won’t buy back a disc that’s scratched. Scuffs are fine, but one scratch and they’re likely to say “no.” Some people hate that, but it makes me feel safer buying there. Plus, let’s face it, if you can’t take care of your stuff or teach your children to take care of their stuff, you’re a worthless human being.

The Swap Meet (1803 E Michigan Avenue)

Don’t let the name fool you: the Swap Meet is just like any other buy/sell shop that stocks consumer electronics and video games. In terms of pricing and selection, I’ve found them to be middle of the road. Some items are priced below eBay, some are priced above -- but the midpoint is about the same. They always seem to have some of the more popular games in stock though, like Super Mario Kart and Smash Bros. I like to go there because they are the only shop in town that sells original controllers for decent prices.

What I don’t like about the Swap Meet is that the staff and atmosphere come across like a bunch of pot heads got together one day and thought they could take advantage of nostalgic gamers in order to fuel their weed habit. Is this true? I don’t know. But the demeanor and layout of the shop definitely makes you wonder. I’ve also gone into the shop and smelled that familiar “skunky” aroma. Granted, that could be because they’re located RIGHT NEXT TO a marijuana dispensary. Nevertheless, image is important and The Swap Meet comes across as skeevy.

Having said all that, I still recommend them as a spot to check out because of the selection. When I wanted a copy of SF2 Turbo that day, they were the only local shop with a copy in stock at a fair price.

Replay (1385 E Grand River)

Five locations in six years. They started as a used record store and once provided a venue for live bands. Now, they’re a buy/sell shop that strikes me as a hybrid of the other stores I’ve already mentioned. They also do screen printing.

Selection is solid. Last time I went, they had Moonwalker for the Mega Drive (with adapter), Contra III for SNES, Lunar for PS1, and a number of boxed NES games. Their Saturn and Sega CD selection is on par with Game Hits. They have an OK selection of hardware, as well as oddities like a Sharp TV with built-in NES and a Nintendo Worlds of Wonder neon sign that is unfortunately not for sale.

They maintain their record store roots by offering a large selection of old school vinyl records. Because of that, the store’s vibe is more grunge rock than grungy. I’m OK with that. The downside to Replay is pricing. Go to eBay and look up game prices and that’s exactly what you’ll pay at Replay, plus 6% Michigan tax. I can’t say that I blame them, since their rent must be astronomical being located so close to MSU. Nevertheless, if I’m going to pay eBay prices, I’d usually prefer to shop on eBay.

Closing Comments

I think that’s pretty much it for Lansing area used game shops. The only other place I left out was Elite Gamers at 2709 W Michigan Avenue, because they barely have part-time hours and rarely have retro items in stock (usually at insane high prices). I didn’t mention second hand stores like Goodwill and Volunteers of America either because the locations around here almost never get video game items.

Disc Traders is my local #1 and the other three are an “eh, if I’m in the area” kind of deal. I admit, I have a soft spot for Replay, just because of how eclectic it is…. but not enough to shell out market price for stuff I can buy at 2am in my jammies.

All told, I think we’re average at best when it comes to brick and mortar retro options. I’ve been to similar stores in Grand Rapids and the Detroit suburbs, and I always find better selection and pricing when I go there than when I shop locally. Still, I am happy with the options we do have, because four stores taking away local marketshare from GameStop is pretty awesome.

If I had any suggestion for local stores, it would be to set their prices lower than eBay. You don’t need to match eBay pricing to prevent flippers from buying up all of your stock; you just need to base your pricing on the knowledge that eBay and Paypal take a roughly 14% cut of every sale and that Michigan tax is 6%. So, if a game sells for say $40 on eBay, you can sell it for $32 and basically deter any sort of poaching. No one’s going to flip a $32 purchase on eBay if they ultimately take away exactly $32. If all four stores followed that, we’d all win (despite Disc Traders actually raising their average in that scenario). It’s not like customers aren’t checking out eBay before shopping anyway…

My Retron 5 review
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frankprovo
Hello again. I had planned to provide a complete, unbiased review of Hyperkin’s multi-platform retro-gaming console, the Retron 5... but I’ve been too busy playing a bunch of awesome games and enjoying the heck out of it to cultivate any semblance of balanced insight. While I know the Retron 5 won’t please everybody, I think it’s flippin’ sweet and light-years ahead of other clone consoles when it comes to compatibility and accuracy.

Concept: 10/10

“What is the Retron 5?” you ask. In a nutshell, it allows you to play Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Game Boy cartridges on your modern HD television without the need for a jungle’s worth of cabling just to get a decent picture.

On the unit itself, you’ll notice five cartridge slots: four on top and one in front. The slots on top are for (back-to-front) Sega Genesis/Megadrive, Super Nintendo/Super Famicom, Nintendo NES, and Nintendo Famicom cartridges. The slot in the front is for Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance cartridges. In total, with five slots and no region lock, the Retron 5 actually lets you play games for 9 different game systems. If you buy a Sega Genesis Power Base Converter and insert it into the Genesis slot, you can also play Master System games. So, to be accurate, the Retron 5 supports 10 systems.

It’s hard to not be blown away at the outset by the concept of a system that rescues you from the storage and clutter associated with owning three, four… or ten different game consoles. Don’t even get me started on the cash outlay required to buy Japanese consoles or to modify US consoles to play imported games. The Retron 5 just plays them all; no fuss, no muss.

The way the Retron 5 works is that it downloads the game code from the cartridge and runs it on an emulator built into the system. Purists argue that this isn’t the same as playing games on the original hardware. I tend to agree, but the emulators that Hyperkin stole (er, borrowed) to make their console work are generally very accurate. If there’s an NES or Genesis game that you’re familiar with that slows down when there are too many characters on screen, the same thing will happen when playing that game on the Retron 5.

Ease of Use: 9/10

Setup is a breeze. Have you ever connected a BluRay player to your TV? The Retron 5 plugs-in the same way. To play a game, you simply insert the cartridge, press the power button, wait a few seconds for the game to load, and select the “Play” option from the main menu. Granted, that is one extra step than just pressing the power button, but I think most people can handle that.

When you’re done with a game, you don’t need to turn the system off to switch cartridges. The system will go back to the main menu when you remove a cartridge, and it’ll automatically load the new game a few seconds after you insert the new cartridge. Removing cartridges can be a challenge if you’re used to the loose connectors found on 20 year old game systems. I find that I have to hold the system with one hand while gently pulling up on one side of the cartridge with the other hand. This shouldn’t be a problem for most people, but it’s something to be aware of if you have weak hands. Hey, some people do!

On-screen menus let you access display options, saving options, cheat menus, and a host of other optional but appreciated features. The included controller has a menu button that brings you right to the system menu, but you can also reach it by pressing down+start on any plugged-in controllers.

Design/Build Quality: 8/10

I’m generally satisfied with the overall build quality of the unit. Early models apparently shipped with brittle plastic around the cartridge connectors and with metal cartridge contacts that could easily be rendered inoperable if you bent a game cartridge the wrong way. Hyperkin has been shipping improved models for months now and that’s what I ended up with. The plastic surrounding the connectors is solid and it feels like there’s reinforcement beneath. And, while the cartridge connectors do hold onto games for dear life, I haven’t noticed any bending or breaking after hundreds of swaps.

Since the front of the unit is occupied by the power button and the Game Boy slot, Hyperkin chose to put the controller ports on both sides of the unit (player 1 on the left, player 2 on the right). I am not a fan of this from a space-saving perspective, but can’t harp on their placement too badly since being able to use original NES, Genesis, and Super NES controllers is a huge win in my book. Better still, you can mix and match. So, if you prefer the Genesis 6-button pad for fighting games, you can use it with the Super NES version of Street Fighter 2.

You’re definitely going to want to use an original controller too, since the bundled wireless controller isn’t the best when it comes to actually playing games. It’s very responsive, but the micro-switch style directional stick is totally worthless for games designed for a cross-style directional pad. My timing in games like Super Mario Bros, Street Fighter II, and Sonic the Hedgehog is just garbage with the bundled controller. Nevertheless, the included controller is useful for quickly accessing the system’s menus (instead of pressing down+start on other controllers) and for that reason I suggest keeping it handy and storing it in the system shell’s docking area when not in use.

On the back side of the unit, there’s a mini-USB jack for charging the bundled controller, as well as an SD card slot which allows you to upgrade the system, maintain a Game Genie style cheat database, store save games, and apply “hacks” to your games (more on that later).

Features: 8/10

When you insert a game cartridge, the Retron 5 pulls the data off the cart and stores it in memory. In an effort to deter piracy, the system deletes that data when you remove the cartridge from the system. Those of you waiting to make a set-top ROM box out of the Retron 5 will need to wait until somebody hacks the system. In the meantime, after the game loads you have the option to play it or to adjust a variety of options that emulator users are already very familiar with. These include visual and audio adjustments, access to the cheat system, access to the save/load system, and an option to load IPS patches (a.k.a hacks) from the SD card.

You might wonder why you’d need to adjust the graphics and sound when the console already outputs clean video and audio, but the reality here is that the output is “too clean” compared to the way the games look on older CRT monitors. You might appreciate the blocky, crisp look. Or you might want to smooth out those rough pixels to give your games a modern style. Or, you might just want your games to look like they did on your old TV back in the day. Two scaling toggles, six different filter settings and a scanlines option allow you to adjust the visuals to your preference. There are also toggles to clean up the audio, boost the bass, and boost the treble.

I’m happy with these options, for the most part. When set to no filter, no scanlines, and “show overscan area,” the output for Sega Genesis games looks and sounds nearly-identical to the Sega Genesis I have hooked up via SCART RGB and a convertor box. The RGB output from the actual system looks richer to me, but that’s something I can match by tweaking the TV’s picture settings. My mom has a Sony Trinitron CRT TV in her room for her NES games. When I set the Retron 5 to the HQ2X filter with scanlines enabled, the output is frighteningly similar to the composite image displayed on the Trinitron. You might think it’s a bad thing that you can set the Retron 5 to look like a fuzzy composite image, but I think it’s actually a positive aspect since it mimics the true old school experience.

I am familiar with how PC emulators work, so I must admit that I’m disappointed by the absence of the xBRZ filter as an option. If one of the purposes of the filters is to transform the blocky pixels of old into the best possible image without sacrificing detail, then it’s a disservice to not include the xBRZ filter. See, the problem with filters is that they attempt to transform square pixels into rounded edges. That’s not a bad thing except when you have single pixels or single-pixel width diagonal lines. Most filters lose clarity when trying to interpolate these fine details. The xBRZ filter preserves these single pixel features and comes the closest to providing the “best of both worlds”: detailed pixel art with appropriately smoothed edges. Most people won’t mind the pure no-filter default or the HQ2X option, so I can’t malign the Retron 5 too badly for this oversight. It’s just a personal pet peeve of mine and something I hope they remedy in an update.

I don’t make use of the audio enhancements. They seem to work without negatively affecting the sound output, but I prefer to hear my games as they were intended. Since I’m a Genesis nut, I wish that they’d included an option to select which Genesis model the audio output would be patterned after. There are clear differences in the audio output of early model 1, early model 2, and late model 2 Genesis consoles. The Retron 5 sounds like a model 2 with the distortion fixed. That’s great, but I personally prefer the bass heavy output of the early model 1 consoles.

Two features I do use heavily are the save/load system and the cheat function. Playing a game that doesn’t have a built-in save feature? No problem, just pull up the menu and save a snapshot. You can pick up where you left off later. Want to play through Contra III with infinite lives and the best weapons always enabled? No problem there either. Just enable those options in a submenu and start the game. Back in the day, I was a huge fan of the Game Genie accessory since it let you do all sorts of zany things in your games. Sure, you might “beat” the game sooner than you otherwise would, but then you’d spend even more time doing goofy things like playing as a boss character or playing Sonic from the beginning as Super Sonic. Kudos to Hyperkin for integrating this into the Retron 5, even if the cheat database is a separate download.

Another feature I enjoy is the ability to load IPS “patch” files when playing a game. These files, many of which can be downloaded from romhacking.net, offer the opportunity to remove censorship, clean up translations, and even totally revamp the layout and graphics of your games. One of my favorite patches replaces the sound driver in the Genesis version of Street Fighter II with one that doesn’t sound like a garbled mess. It works flawlessly on the Retron 5 when I plug in my copy of SF2.

The Retron 5 also has the ability to grab the save data from cartridge that has a built-in save function and to later write the save data back to a cartridge. This isn’t just handy for shuttling cartridges from one place to another, but can also rescue you if the battery dies in your copy of Legend of Zelda and you don’t want to start from scratch when you replace the battery or buy a newer copy. In my experience, this feature works fine. If you pick up a Retron 5, make sure it’s running the latest firmware before you start ripping save data, as older models had a tendency to blank the cartridge after retrieving data.

Oddly enough, the thing that bugs me the most about the Retron 5’s feature set isn’t something you’ll find in the menus. It’s the inability to have more than one cartridge inserted in the system at the same time. If you attempt to insert two cartridges, the system puts up an annoying message and scolds you for doing so. But why? It’s clearly not any sort of electrical issue since the system can detect multiple cartridges. I just think it would be convenient to be able to leave multiple cartridges inserted, so you can switch between them without getting out of your comfy chair and possibly annoying the cat that jumped onto your lap and fell asleep 20 minutes earlier.

Compatibility/Accuracy: 8/10

My retro game library isn’t huge, so I can’t really say if the Retron 5 has issues with a significant portion of any particular game library. I'd say 98%+ of my two-dozen or so 16-bit games run at the proper speed with the proper graphics, music, and sound effects. I can perform dragon punches at will in Street Fighter II Turbo/SCE. Sonic flies across the screen in Sonic 2. Dracula X still has the beautiful flame effects and the horrible hit recovery. And the lava-themed stage in Lightening Force is just as hypnotic as it is on an actual Sega Genesis. The one 16-bit game I seem to have issues with is Castlevania Bloodlines for the Genesis, which resets the system on stage 2-5. Using a level skip leads to similar resets in at least three other stages. One out of 25 ain't bad.

I own approximately 80 NES games and have tried probably 30 of them. Of those, only one of the legitimate releases has had any issues. Unfortunately, the game in question is Castlevania III, which is one of my favorites. When I encounter the axe armor enemy for the first time, the game freezes. Strangely, if I perform a quick-save prior to encountering the axe armor, shut down the system, and then restart from that save point, I’ll be fine until I encounter the axe armors later in the game. The bizarre thing about this problem is it does not affect the Japanese Famicom release of the game, Akumajou Densetsu. That game works just fine even with the added sound chip.

Game Boy and Game Boy Color games work great. The Game Boy settings menu allows you to select various color palettes, such as green monochrome, black-and-white, and the Super Game Boy palette choices. Game Boy Advance games can take 10-20 seconds to load, due to their large ROM size, but the majority I tried worked fine. One exception I found was Final Fight One, which had an issue with “smudgy” visuals (for lack of a better term), typically in areas with a lot of blue coloring. The music also slows down and speeds up randomly. I haven’t experienced anything like that in other games, thankfully.

One thing I should mention is that the Retron 5 lets you choose to display images in the original console’s internal resolution or to display them as they’d appear formatted on a 4:3 ratio screen. You might think the internal resolution would be best, but that’s not necessarily true. CRT monitors have rectangular “pixels” and game designers drew their characters and backgrounds with that in mind. This is most obvious with the NES and Super NES, in which selecting the original internal resolution causes Mario to flatten out, almost as if he’s had gastric bypass done. My personal preference and recommendation is to set “Force Original Resolution” to off for everything except the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance. That way you get the proper aspect ratio and your timing won’t be thrown for a loop.

I own a number of homebrew games and hacked reproductions for the NES. Only some of these work on the Retron 5. DK Pie Factory and the translated Japanese version of Ninja Gaiden III ran fine, but Mystic Pillars and Recca Pure did not. I’m told that Hyperkin has been improving compatibility for these sorts of cartridges, so perhaps some more of mine will work after the next update. You can use the IPS patch functionality to "create" some of these hacks anyway, so it's not a horrible problem.

I only own one Sega Megadrive and one other Famicom game: Bare Knuckle III and Crisis Force. Both worked. That's pretty awesome since, much like Akumajou Densetsu, Crisis Force contains a special chip that was never used in North American NES games. That's also why you don't ever see reproduction copies of Crisis Force: nobody's cloned the VRC4 chip and the few Famicom donors you could use to make a repro cost about the same to import as an actual copy of the game.

Other clone consoles manufactured in the past could boast maybe 90% compatibility, so I can’t fault the Retron 5 terribly in light of what I’d call 98% compatibility with legitimately published retail games (based on personal experience and reading a list maintained by fans). Nevertheless, as my experience shows, you have to be ready for potential disappointment, especially if Castlevania Bloodlines is one of your favorites.

With regard to controllers, all of the original first-party Nintendo and Sega controllers I plugged into the system worked flawlessly. Third-party controllers also generally work, though I did have problems with one: the GN6 Sega Genesis controller made by Hyperkin. That’s right, I had trouble with a Hyperkin controller on a Hyperkin system. The Z-button is mapped to the up direction on the d-pad. Oops. You can change the layout of the buttons in the configuration menu, but the up direction will still be tied to whatever you bind “Z” to. Good thing I have plenty of controllers laying around. If you don’t, I suggest you stick with the name brand accessories.

Summary: 43/50

It’s not actual hardware, it’s not 100% compatible, and it’s missing some A/V tweaking options that’d greatly improve my enjoyment of the unit. That said, I am satisfied with the Retron 5 because it lets me play most of my favorite games with genuine controllers while solving two very real problems (storage and entry cost). You won’t find another option out there that packs numerous systems into two square feet of shelf real estate. And you’re looking at $100 to get just one system working via HDMI (or $300 in the case of the NES). The Retron 5 itself retails for $120-$140 depending on which retailer you purchase from and what stock quantities are like.

Hyperkin has shown competency at fixing issues with subsequent firmware updates. So it could very well be that my problems with Castlevania III and Final Fight One will be fixed in a few months. Maybe they will add more filters too…

If you absolutely need your games to look just like they do on an old CRT monitor, you’re probably better off sticking with CRT and dealing with the related clutter. Likewise, if money is no object and you want the absolute best picture quality and compatibility, you should invest in RGB modded systems and an XRGB Framemeister box (FYI, the Chinese made SCART-to-HDMI converter that Amazon sells with “HD Video Converter” printed on it is also a viable alternative if you don’t mind the lack of image adjustments or scanlines).

For everyone else, I highly recommend the Retron 5. You’ll be able to play your old games again on your new TV and you’ll probably have a blast if modern gaming hasn’t ruined you yet.

2014 in review
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frankprovo
When I made my year-end post last December, I mentioned that I was "restless" and that I had a plan. In 2014, I put that plan in motion. First, by committing to the path of becoming an accountant. And second, by leaving the job that had been siphoning my joy for two of the three years I worked there.

As 2014 comes to a close, I've just completed the toughest accounting course there is (Intermediate II) and am fourth months into working accounts payable for Neogen Corporation. I don't think that the job itself is something I'll do for years and years, but I do very much love the company culture and the people I work with. I sure wouldn't mind my career there maturing as I mature in my studies.

Going into 2015, I will be studying my tail off for the first half of the year. Hopefully, I'll continue my run of 4.0 grades as I complete Cost Accounting and Advanced Accounting. For the first time in two years, I won't be taking classes during the summer. I'm sure there is something I could take, but I need the time off to regain some of that happy-go-lucky nature that makes Frank so awesome.

I don't like to count my chickens before they hatch, especially since I don't have any eggs, but my goal is to complete the accounting program sometime in 2016 and sit for the Uniform CPA exams shortly after.

Oh, I also turn 40 in 2015. I know, I know... don't hate me for aging so sexily. I should probably come up with something awesome to do that day, weekend, week... isn't that what people do?

Thankfully, I'm not the type to have any sort of midlife crisis. Some days, I hate life. But most days, I'm just happy to be alive.

Enough from me. I have to go cuddle the wife. :)

My first Sega Genesis.
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frankprovo
Following up on yesterday's post, I thought I'd share the story of how I originally came to own a Sega Genesis. As I mentioned before, my loyalties back then were firmly with Nintendo. I'd played the heck out of the original Nintendo Entertainment System for 5+ years before upgrading to a 16-bit console, and even though games like Altered Beast and Revenge of Shinobi had me tempted to ask for a Sega Genesis, I waited patiently for Nintendo to unleash the 16-bit powerhouse they'd been hyping for months in Nintendo Power magazine. That's right, I owned a Super NES before I owned a Sega Genesis.

I have to include the Super NES in this story, because my eventual acquisition of a Sega Genesis actually came about because of my like for a certain Super NES exclusive: Final Fight. Bet you thought I was going to say Street Fighter 2.

When Capcom released Final Fight for the Super NES, it was like a revelation to me. Giant characters, arcade quality graphics, and most of what made the arcade game great had been crammed into a tiny cartridge. I was a little dismayed that they were unable to include the 2-player mode, but that didn't stop me from playing it and playing it and playing it...

I used to bring Nintendo Power, EGM, and Game Players magazines to school to read during home room and at lunch. This was in 9th and 10th grade. Other classmates did the same. At some point, I got into a discussion about Final Fight with one of my classmates who was a Sega Genesis fanatic. He countered my joyful rant with one of his own, for a game called Streets of Rage. At the time, my own Nintendo fanboyism made me unable to hear his key argument, which was that Streets of Rage was a richer, more diverse experience thanks to its expansive move set and 2-player mode.

Sometime in early 1992, my mom received a rather large tax refund and asked me if I wanted anything. This was before magazines were thickly covering the eventual release of the Super NES version of Street Fighter 2, so I started thinking back to those discussions with schoolmates. By then, another classmate had also begun to drill me with praise of Streets of Rage, and positive hype about Sonic the Hedgehog was also in full swing. So I asked for a Sega Genesis and Streets of Rage.

When I got home from school on a Friday, my mom and I trekked out to Fred Meyer in North Seattle on a mission to acquire a Sega Genesis. Ignoring the TurboGrafx display, I made a beeline for the box containing the Genesis and Sonic the Hedgehog pack-in. It was priced at $149.99. Sitting about 10 feet away was a "clearance" shelf with a different console set: the Sega Genesis with Altered Beast pack-in for $109.99. Since I mainly wanted Streets of Rage, I asked my mom if we could get that "cheaper" set instead and buy Streets of Rage seperately. She begrudgingly said yes and we walked out of there with the Altered Beast set, Streets of Rage, an A/V cable, and a second controller for roughly $170 (if memory serves me right).

We lucked out with that purchase. When we got home, we discovered that the clerk had put a glossy coupon in the bag that promised a free copy of Sonic the Hedgehog with the purchase of the Altered Beast set. If they'd advertised that bonus better in the store, I doubt the older sets still would've been on sale. As I recall, we sent in the coupon and the UPC code from the system box and a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog arrived in the mail in less than 2 weeks. During those 2 weeks though, I played Streets of Rage religiously.

For the most part, I realized my classmates' claims were correct. Streets of Rage was wickedly fun and offered more variety than Final Fight. My friend Don and I had so much fun playing the 2-player mode and it wasn't long before he convinced his brother to buy a copy for their (up to that point) rarely used Sega Genesis. Nevertheless, Streets of Rage didn't quite change my opinion of Final Fight or on the superiority of the Super NES, and though I did very much enjoy Streets of Rage and Sonic, I was quickly back to being a Super NES fanboy when Street Fighter 2 came out that summer.

On the whole, I spent most of my video game time in my teen years playing Nintendo's 16-bit console, but that doesn't mean I didn't give the Genesis its due. When Sonic 2 and Streets of Rage 2 came out, they were very popular at my house, especially when I had friends over. I also went completely ape for Gunstar Heroes and Dynamite Headdy thanks to the slick screenshot-filled spreads in Diehard Gamefan magazine.

Video games were a major part of my life for roughly 30 years. While some of that is simply due to the explosion in popularity of video games as an entertainment medium, I have to also give credit to both my mom, for buying me those first systems in the first place, and to the systems themselves, for providing she and I with additional bonding experiences. She was never great at playing them, but she nonetheless would sit with me and play Streets of Rage, Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat, and anything else I needed a partner in when Don or the neighbor kid weren't around. I like to think those experiences gave her additional happiness also, since she quickly turned her room into a Tetris zone when I lost interest in the 8-bit NES.

And now, many years later, mom lives with my wife and I and has a room in which she still plays Tetris on a Sony Trinitron CRT television. With my reacquisition of a Sega Genesis, it's almost like a circle is being completed.

Genesis does.
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frankprovo
Within the last few months, I've rekindled an interest in the 16-bit Sega Genesis video game console. Those that know me aren't too shocked by this, since I used to frequently write about retro game re-releases for GameSpot and also have a rather large NES collection. What may surprise people, though, is that the Sega Genesis wasn't my favorite console back in the 16-bit era, and that my interest in it wasn't strong enough back then to drive me to buy anything more than the AAA mega-hyped releases that everyone else bought. I had the Sonics, the Streets of Rages, and Gunstar Heroes, but passed up games like Castlevania Bloodlines, Thunderforce 2-4, and so forth.

I did later own a Sega CD and a 32X, but that's a whole other topic for a different post.

It amuses me to see teenagers these days vehemently debate the pros and cons of the big Sony and Microsoft game consoles, when they both have pretty similar libraries apart from some key exclusives. For those of us that lived through the 16-bit "console war" between Sega and Nintendo, we can tell you that the fervor back then was on a higher, more crazy level. Few people had an even-handed appreciation for both. You either loved the Super Nintendo, with its Mario games, first-run Capcom arcade ports, and top-notch RPGs. Or you defended the mighty Sega Genesis, with its Sonic games, stellar beat-'em-ups and space shooters, and a constantly updated selection of sports games. I haven't seen an ad campaign yet that tops Sega's "Genesis does what Nintendon't" in terms of overt rabble rousing and political overtones. I also remember witnessing more than one playground fist fight that germinated from an argument over Sega vs Nintendo or Sonic vs Mario. Yeah, it was nuts.

Back then, I was firmly on the Super Nintendo side. The richer color palette of the SNES won me over, as did games like Super Mario World, Final Fight, and Street Fighter 2. Street Fighter 2 was the game that ultimately sealed it for me. Sega didn't even have a port of SF2 until the Hyper Fighting version came out, and even then it came out 2 months after the Super NES version.

That's not to say I disliked the Genesis; I just prioritized my spending in Nintendo's favor. Back in the day I definitely played the hell out of Streets of Rage 2 and Gunstar Heroes, and loved every minute of it.

As time went on, I was later exposed to the games I'd missed the first time around, thanks to the proponderance of retro game compilations on the PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, and so forth, as well as through ROMs and emulators. I came to develop an appreciation for the Sega Genesis and what skilled programmers could do with it.

Getting back to the discussion of Street Fighter 2, I have to admit that I've come to prefer the Genesis version of "Special Champion Edition" as I've now had years to compare the minute differences between it and its Super NES counterpart (SF2 Turbo). What I didn't realize back then is that the responsiveness, CPU A.I., and general flow of the Genesis game is much closer to the arcade game than is evident in the Super NES version. Not that the Super NES is bad. Plus, the visual and audio clarity found in the Super NES game makes it hard to overlook the reduced color depth and scratch audio found on the Genesis.

In 1993, we chalked those differences up to the weaker video and audio processors in the Sega Genesis. In fact, the Super NES version of SF2 sold millions more copies than the Genesis version did because of that. Recently, I've come to learn that we were wrong. The Genesis release of SF2 didn't have to suffer the audio-visual "downgrade" that it received. Capcom was just lazy. A pair of Genesis aficionados that frequent the Sega Age and Sega-16 forums have put out patches for the game that make the colors more faithful to the arcade and all but remove any evidence of scratchiness from the music and voice samples. I've played the patched version of the game on the Kega Fusion emulator and am floored at how a few hours of effort from two devoted coders has improved a game that Capcom supposedly put thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars into. If THAT version of SF2 had been released for the Sega Genesis in 1993, I can't even tell you how many systems it would've sold.

Off and on, I've had the urge to obtain a Sega Genesis console, or perhaps a Retron 5, and to reacquire some of the games I consider my favorites. I'm not going to lie, seeing that improved version of Street Fighter 2 led me to purchase a used Sega Genesis, and now has me on a quest to find someone willing to burn the ROM onto a cartridge so I can play that version on real hardware.

In the meantime, I've also picked up a few of my other favorites, like Sonic 2 and Streets of Rage 2, as well as some shoot-'em-ups that I had only experienced through emulation: Thunderforce III and Lightening Force. Thankfully, my drive to acquire Genesis games isn't as lusty as I had when building my NES collection. I'm also glad that the secondary market for these games isn't as ridiculous as the Super NES is right now. With the exception of a few truly rare titles, you can get most Sega Genesis games loose for $5-$20 and complete in box for roughly $20-40. That's far more affordable than the market for Super NES game right now. Just go look on eBay for complete copies of non-rare Super NES games like Contra III or The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and you'll see what I mean.

Most people would be content with playing these old games on emulators, and while I too am generally satisfied by that method, I find myself preferring the original hardware when I can manage it. For me, emulators "clean up" the experience too much. And I get added enjoyment from putting an actual game cartridge into an actual system and playing it using an actual controller. Here again, I am thankful that it's possible to get back into the Sega Genesis without spending an arm and a leg.

That's not to say the doing so is dirt cheap; after all, retrogaming is a huge business these days; but I've been able to manage it merely by reapportioning money that I might have otherwise spent on DVDs or unnecessary lunchtime food purchases.

I'm pretty happy to have done so. I get more enjoyment from playing these "old" games than I do from my PlayStation 4 or Xbox 360. The PS4 is mostly a BluRay player right now (though I am looking forward to playing my unopened copy of "The Last of Us" before classes restart next month). And my 360 is basically just a Street Fighter 4 machine.

Meanwile, I put four hours into Streets of Rage 2 and 3 the other night, which is more time than I've put into any video game since August.

For anyone else out there that has been thinking about diving back into retro gaming on old school hardware, I recommend doing so after doing a little bit of research. For example, it's suggested that you find an old CRT TV to play 16-bit games on because the upscalers in modern HDTVs make them look like crap. But that doesn't have to be the case if you're willing to have your system modified or don't mind dropping $50 on a special convertor box, which I will talk about in a later post at some point.

Alternatively, if you can find one in the wild, a Retron 5 console isn't a bad choice. Yeah, it's just an emulator box that plays actual cartridges, but the compatability and features are beyond those of any other clone knockoff and you can still use original controllers for that classic feel.


Camera phone image of Streets of Rage 2 on actual hardware on my Samsung HDTV

Achievement Unlocked: Intermediate Accounting II
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frankprovo
I'm feeling pretty relieved right now. I just learned that not only did I get a 4.0 in Intermediate Accounting II, but that I scored 95 (unadjusted) on the final test. When you add all of the extra credit for the semester, my percentage of points is just a smidge above 110%. For the longest time, I've felt the desire to be an accountant growing, but have also had this misgiving in my head causing me to constantly question myself.

"Can I really do this?" is what it came down to. Up until this semester, I was unsure of the answer. Now, I've never been more certain in my life that I can do this.

Intermediate II is known to be the most time-consuming, most challenging course in the accounting sequence. Not just at LCC, but everywhere. And I kicked it's ass! It's a wicked good feeling!

But I have to admit, it didn't come easy or quickly. It came at the expense of free time. Four months of missed opportunities to have fun, be entertained, and socialize. Four months of choosing the basement and my textbook over my wife and my cats. I have a movie and video game backlog that's ridiculous even by my recovering-gamer standards. Each week, I'd easily put 15-20 hours into studying and doing problems--except for the last week, when I totally slacked and only studied a grand total of four hours.

My previous instructors had put some fear into my head about Intermediate II. Searches on the Internet then amped that fear to 11 and had me battling right out of the gate. But that fear also led me to respect the course and tackle its challenges with a sense of wonder. Thankfully, I get a great deal of enjoyment out of solving accounting problems, so I was able to channel my fear into productive results. Perhaps that is the sign of a twisted individual?

Now that I've bested Intermediate II, do I think its reputation as the most challenging class is warranted? Not really. The challenge lies purely in the time commitment. There is an abundance of material to learn and many of the concepts interrelate in such a way that you absolutely need to master one concept in order to fully understand something later. In that regard, it's exactly like learning a foreign language. Fluency requires practice. The more you practice, the better you do.

I think anyone with the right motivation can succeed in the class, particularly if they reduce their course load or workload slightly to allow a bit more time to practice. Alternatively, I guess one could make a career out of frisbee golf...

Next semester, I signed up for Cost accounting and Advanced Accounting. Having survived and bested this semester, I now am not just confident that I will do well in my future classes, but that this is a career path that I am 100% capable of doing and loving. Bring it on.

My current retrogaming situation
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frankprovo
When it comes to video games from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, we're definitely going through a renaissance of sorts. Demand for popular games is high and prices continue to rise, with many complete-in-box games selling for $40, $50, and higher. Much of this demand stems from the fact that people that grew up with these games (my age cohort) are now in their mid-to-late 30s, seeking a psychological escape to a more carefree period in their lives, and are bringing home incomes that allow ready fulfillment of this need to escape.

You'd think that new television technologies would lessen demand for old hardware, since consoles connected by RF and A/V inputs to HDTV's look like garbage, but as they say: "where there is a will, there is a way." People have figured out how to modify old consoles to retrofit S-Video, RGB, component, and HDMI inputs. And some companies, such as Hyperkin, have released emulation-based consoles that play games from multiple systems and output high-definition video in 720p and 1080. Right now, we're in a positive-feedback loop where demand is driving availability, which in turn is driving demand.

I, too, have been getting into retrogaming a bit more lately. Not that I ever really stopped playing my favorite old games, as my longtime love of the 8-bit Nintendo is well-known. But, as the stresses in my life have increased thanks to my busy schedule, I find my desire to play these quick, fun games from a bygone era has surged. In general, I am grateful that many of the games I enjoy I either already own or are still available-for-sale at reasonable prices.

But that isn't totally the case.

I'm still hunting down a copy of Gun-Nac, the Compile shoot-'em-up for the NES, but prices have now hit the $130+ level for a loose cartridge. I have a large cache of store credit built up at the local Disc Traders on the off chance they get a copy. Hey, it could happen: they had Little Samson a few months ago.

Some years ago, I had a chance to buy a copy of M.U.S.H.A., another Compile shmup for the Sega Genesis, for $75 complete with box and manual. At the time, it was too much money. If I could wrap my leg around, I'd kick myself in the ass for not doing so. Complete copies now easily fetch upward of $200 and $300. A bare cartridge tends to fetch about $140. I temper my disappointment by remembering that I do still have a copy of Robo Aleste for the Sega CD, a similar game also made by Compile that is in many ways better than M.U.S.H.A.

Probably my biggest missed opportunity is the PC-Engine Duo (aka TurboDuo), the Japanese version of the TurboGrafx CD system that basically is a gateway to some of the best shoot-'em-up games ever made. Yeah, I have a soft spot for shmups. At various times since 1995, I've had a chance to get consoles for under $100 and games like Blazing Lasers, Soldier Blade, and Gate of Thunder for $30. I'm not sure when it happened, but there's no way those opportunities will appear again.

I don't let these missed chances bug me too much. I already own a decent selection of great games. And, if I really, really want to play these games on actual hardware, I can buy reproductions or Everdrive units to do so (shhh).

That's really where the appeal of retrogaming comes into play for me: the actual hardware. There's just something about popping a cartridge into a genuine system, pressing the power switch, and grabbing a legit controller that makes the experience whole.

And that has led me to my recent conundrum. I've been debating picking up a modded Sega Genesis console to play games like Streets of Rage 2, Lightening Force, and Gunstar Heroes with better video clarity. At the same time, Hyperkin's Retron 5 offers a compelling alternative (HDMI upscaling, and I can use my original controllers). Honestly, I can't decide which way to go because evaluating my options requires time I don't really have. Am I the only one that spends hours coming to terms with an electronics purchase?

Who knows. Perhaps my desire to make such a purchase will simply subside once the term ends and my stress levels reduce for a while. Will the desire return once classes return? It's a valid question since I am about to complete Intermediate Accounting II, which is widely regarded as the most challenging of the core accounting courses (anywhere, not just at LCC).

In the meantime, I highly recommend that anyone that might enjoy 16-bit shoot-'em-up games go to Youtube and check out videos for a Sega Mega Drive (Gensis) game called "Eliminate Down." The line-scrolling effects and color depth is very impressive. You can't find a legit copy of the Mega Drive cartridge for less than $500 these days, but reproductions that are playable on the Sega Genesis can be had for between $30-$45. Tough to really harp on the legality of that option, since the companies that developed and produced it are defunct and the rights were never transferred.

Peering up from the fog
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frankprovo
Remember that job interview I mentioned in my last post? Yeah... about that... I was offered and accepted the position of accounts payable coordinator for the Neogen Corporation. That was a little more than a month ago. The job is new and challenging, both with regard to the change in atmosphere and to the immense learning I've had to do in transition from A/R to A/P. It's one thing to know the theory. It's quite another to put it to practice. Every day gives me 10 new things to do. Sometimes I make mistakes. It's humbling and fulfilling, but also awesome because I am closer to the accounting functions than I was when I worked in A/R. That's kind of important to me, you know, since I'm studying accounting.

The change in atmosphere has actually been the greatest and hardest thing to come to terms with. And I don't mean that in a bad way. The people are nice, management is nice, and the company generally seems to treat its workers with a level of respect and care unlike my previous employer (and the one before that, too). It's a positive place to work and I should just be happy with that. But here's the thing: the last 5 years and 3 jobs left me with a level of cynicism and fear that aren't just going away overnight. Deep inside, when someone criticizes me, points out a mistake, or even just does something nice, my kneejerk reaction is to imagine the worst and recoil. I hate that my instincts are that way and that I can't just take interactions with my new coworkers at face value.

But that's a psychological trait that will change with time as my brain realizes that I won't get browbeaten for voicing concerns or speaking out. I still have many responsibilities (it is a job, after all), but I am no longer confronted on a daily basis with the impression that I am responsible for everything that led up to the invoice that rests on my desktop. To put it another way, it's a collaborative atmosphere.

It's still too soon to say how it will all play out, but I'm pleased to say that I now enjoy going to work each morning and I have a great deal of optimism for my future.

Shifting gears in 3...2...1....

Classes are taking up almost all of my remaining free time. Intermediate Accounting 2 is well-known to be the toughest of the entire accounting curriculum (anywhere, not just at LCC), and while I haven't found it to be killer, I have found that it doesn't leave much room for friendships, relationships, or hobbies. If I want to enjoy any of those pleasurable aspects, it usually means I need to stay up until 2am to finish up the reading or homework I had to delay. And I'm only taking two classes (marketing is the other). I can't imagine how my classmates that are taking 3 or 4 are managing it. Actually, considering I got the highest grade in the class on the first exam, I imagine its downright draining them too.

But it's ok, because, again, it's all about the future. And next semester when I take Cost Accounting and Advanced Accounting, it won't seem as rough. Maybe.

Before I disappear again for a while, I just want to mention that I got to hang out with Adrianne the other day. I'm not sure how many people have kept up with this journal long enough to know who she is or what she means to me, but basically she was my high school crush (unrequited) and we lost touch for a number of years. A few years ago, she reached out to me and I eventually had a chance to visit her and her husband when I took a trip to MLB Spring Training in 2012. We got along great and it really reshaped my world view to have her back in my life again. We don't communicate as often as we probably should, and she is constantly moving around the country, but we do keep in touch.

A work assignment has brought her to Michigan for the next few weeks, and she was gracious enough to spend a day with Cindy, my mom, and I last weekend. We took in the Grand Ledge Color Festival, which was pretty sweet if you're into that whole Fall colors thing. Me, I was just happy to spend time with a good friend. Maybe it's nostalgia. Maybe it's that our personalities go well together. I don't quite know what it is, just that spending time with that redheaded chatterbox really puts me in good spirits. That's probably why I felt so strongly for her all those years ago. I've often said I don't feel a connection with many people, that I don't have many friends. So the ones that do bring out that joy within me stay with me in such a way that even an 18-year gap can't kill my desire to have them be part of my life. Small part, big part, random part--it doesn't matter to me just so long as I know they're out there.

And on that sappy note, I'll check in again at some point *grin*

Oh, hi there...
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frankprovo
It was mentioned to me today (in a job interview no less) that I haven't updated this journal since January. What can I say... I was busy. OK, not really. I've been a disenchanted monkey for a long time and about the only hobby of interest I've kept up with is studying accounting. I know, I know--that sounds ridiculous. But it's actually a very engaging topic for me these days and I'm doing my best to run with it.

I was also reminded that I haven't done much with my novel project in a while. Sadly, I think that's going to sit on the shelf for a year or two. But don't fret--it's not dead. It's just taking a vacation. I actually have two book projects sitting dormant on my laptop. The serious novel is approximately 33% complete, but that portion has been dutifully copy-edited. The for-fun "novel" is 95% complete but is going to need some help. I basically wrote it semi stream-of-consciousness and, uh, I'm no James Joyce. In both cases, I don't plan to pick them back up until I finish the brunt of my accounting studies.

So, what major events happened in the nearly nine months since the last entry?

Honestly, for seven of those months, time just kind of passed for me. And then summer hit and I guess it was time to have some drama in my life.

I shaved my head, though that was more of a "I wonder what if" kinda deal.

I applied for and accepted a job as treasury clerk at my employer, MPS. But I wasn't satisfied with some aspects of the job or retaining so many responsibilities of my old A/R job, so I gave notice. No, I didn't have another job lined up. I know there's not much context here since I didn't put three years worth of ups and downs in this public journal, but the bottom line is I've just evolved past that particular job and company. For me, there is no work/life cohesion there anymore.

What are my job plans now? I can't say that I have a specific focus in mind. I can say that I am open to anything that furthers my experience in accounting, and that I am probably done with accounts receivable unless a unique opportunity comes along.

The other big event, if you can call it an event, is that my orange cat, Tang, became very sick this past month. There are various names for what he had--Feline Urinary Syndrome is one. Basically, he developed a urinary tract infection and crystals that prevented him from releasing urine. It was painful and basically made him a sad, lethargic, nearly dead kitty. There were a couple close calls, but I'm happy to report that two weeks and nearly $1,800 worth of hospitalization and drugs later, he's pretty much back to normal again. He has special food to eat now and there's a risk of recurrence, but I'm not focusing on anything except that he's alive right now. Some people say, "he's just a cat." Yeah, well, he's a very loving, personable, vivacious cat and I'm thrilled to have him in my life.

His brother is kind of a jerk sometimes, but we love him too *grin*

That's a good-sized update for now, don't cha think?

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