Monday 11 March 2013

Article: Camerica - A Brief History

While shopping at a flea market not too long ago with a friend we came across a vendor selling a strange looking NES cartridge (the one in the picture above). Neither of us had ever seen something that looked like it. The vendor thought it was worth a lot of money so we decided to look into it. As it turns out the cartridge was nothing more than a sample Camerica game: The Ultimate Stuntman. One of only a handful of unlicensed games published by Camerica.

Back in the late '80s, during the time of the NES, Nintendo had a pretty onerous publishing license. They restricted publishers to only 5 titles per year and they had to be NES exclusive for two years. On top of that it could sometimes be quite difficult for companies to actually get a hold of the cartridges for their games because Nintendo had to produce them all. Some publishers took this as a sign to start releasing unlicensed games whereby they could produce they're own cartridges and release them without permission from Nintendo. Camerica, of course, was one of these publishers.

Built into every NES was a so-called 'lockout chip' preventing games from being played unless a corresponding chip was present in the cartridge. To get around this Camerica would send small voltage spikes to the lockout chip, freezing the chip and allowing their games to be played on an unmodified NES. Nintendo, not happy about this, sued Camerica several times but lost in each case and was eventually ordered to pay Camerica for damages.

Camerica released 15 NES games in total mostly developed by Codemasters. All of them used Camerica's unique catridge shape and were painted a shiny gold or silver colour not unlike the the original Zelda and Zelda II carts. On the backside of each game was a small switch that allowed the user to play the game on an NTSC or PAL NES, essentially making them region-free.

During Camerica's brief run they also produced an arcade style joystick for the NES with a very strange triangular shape as well as a wireless controller. Their most popular device though, was the Codemasters-developed Game Genie which they were able to release in Canada due to their close relationship with Codemasters. In America though, the Game Genie was sold by the Galoob toy company.

Near the end of 1992 Camerica released their final product: the Aladdin Deck Enhancer. It was basically a cartridge cradle that housed game RAM and the lockout bypass circuitry. Smaller cartridges would be placed into the cradle and the whole thing would be placed into the NES. Camerica hoped that by not having RAM and the bypass circuitry in every cartridge they would be able to produce cheaper games. However by the time of its release the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis were already out so it never sold very well. Eventually leading to the closure of Camerica.

Unfortunately for Camerica they were one of the many companies that never made it out of the NES era. But it's always interesting to learn something new about early gaming.

Thanks for reading.

Monday 4 March 2013

Review: Street Fighter X Tekken Fightstick Pro

In this review I'll be looking at the Street Fight X Tekken Fightstick Pro (Xbox 360 version) arcade controller from Matcatz. I should say upfront that I'm not much of a fighting game fan nor am I particularly good at them. However, I am told that Madcatz arcade controllers are the gold standard for fighting games. Most of my playtesting was done playing SHMUPs.

This controller has several nice features that really add value. If you look at the top right of the controller, next to the Xbox button, you'll see 2 toggle switches. One of them locks or unlocks the turbo feature while the other lets you choose whether you want the joystick to act as the left or right analog or the dpad of the standard 360 controller. Which is handy if you're playing a game that only supports the analog stick for movement. Looking again at the top of the controller you will see the turbo button and 8 LEDs which correspond to the 8 face buttons, letting you know which buttons currently have turbo enabled. There is a fast and a slow turbo mode that you can individually apply to any of the face buttons.

Madcatz has used arcade quality Sanwa buttons on this controller so there's no need to worry about wearing things out within a year. These parts were originally designed for arcade cabinets after all. I'm not a fan of these buttons though. They feel spongy, like you're pushing them down until they stop. There's no breakaway like there is on say a standard 360 controller face button. That's personal preference I'm sure but even after using it for many, many hours it still feels strange.

The joystick on this controller is also a Sanwa so again, there is no need to worry about wearing it out too quickly. It is amazing and an absolute joy to use. The tension on it is perfect for my liking and I simply love the way it clicks from the switches inside. That is not to say it is perfect for shooting games right out of the box. Since this controller is marketed as a fightstick, Madcatz has put a square gate on the joystick. A square gate restricts the joystick movement as if it was inside of a square (instead of a circle like a standard analog stick) with the 4 corners at the diagonal positions. This is great for fighting games because it makes diagonal movement a lot easier but is quite annoying in shooting games. If you are so inclined it is possible to replace the square gate with an octagonal gate which I will probably end up doing sooner or later.

If you're wondering where the start and back buttons are they are placed on the backside of the controller. A nice way to make sure you never accidentally press them. Also hiding in the back is a small compartment that holds the cable. Being able to completely put away the cable is great because it's pretty long and would be a pain to deal with otherwise. The art on the top of the controller looks pretty cool as well, displaying several Street Fighter and Tekken characters.

So if you're a fighting game fan the Fightstick Pro is a great choice and has everything you would want in an arcade controller. But if you're a shooting game fan like me, or want something to play arcade games with you might want to find a controller without a square gate to save you the hassle of replacing it yourself.

Thanks for reading.