Swing and a miss

I was worried that the advent of digital distribution this console generation would mean the death of packaged collections. I’m all for digital distro, but at the same time I’m also a fan of economical shopping. Eight bucks for a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog isn’t nearly as appealing as $30 for Sonic the Hedgehog and two dozen other games. And, I admit it, physicality is a part of the gaming experience I just can’t give up. There’s something satisfying about having a game in your hands, selecting your choice of game to play from a shelf rather than from a menu — even if the selection you make is a compilation which in turn offers a bunch of menus. The important part is that physical link, the sense of contact and presence. Because I’m a stupid old man who can’t escape nostalgia, you see.

So I was happy this morning to see a press release for the Mega Drive Ultimate Collection for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Containing no less than 40 (!) games, including “Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2 and 3, Columns, Alien Storm, Ecco the Dolphin, Space Harrier, and cult classic, Streets of Rage 1, 2 and 3,” it looks like a pretty solid deal, and is a reassuring sign (along with Namco Museum Virtual Arcade) that compilations aren’t dead and buried. Why, it could even be a better deal than the Genesis compilation that showed up on PS2 a few years back. And given that the Sega Ages collections for PS2 are spot-on perfect, I have every confidence that–oh, wait, what’s this? “Developed by Backbone Entertainment”?

Well, crap. So much for that confidence. Backbone’s work on Xbox Live ports has been…uh, well, pretty awful, to be honest. Fuzzy, muted sound; fuzzy, filtered, off-color graphics; mushy controls; slightly off timing. I like the company’s original content, like 1942: Joint Strike, but their Genesis emulation does no one any favors.

I mean, my god: this is a 1:1 scale crop of a screenshot they actually sent out with their press release. They’re actually using this image to sell their game! If I saw someone playing an emulator with this filter running, I’d take away their computer privileges for life. (Well, actually, first I’d probably blink to check that I hadn’t suddenly developed cataracts.) But we’re expected to pay for…this. What a tragic, terrible, heartbreaking missed opportunity. You see, Sega has the world’s single best professional emulation crew under its wing: M2, a mysterious little Japanese developer whose catalog includes both the good Sega Ages (beginning with the Treasure Box) and the Genesis emulator on Virtual Console. Their work is impeccable — beyond impeccable. They treat each game as if it were a precious gem, even when (in the case of, say, Dynamite Headdy) the game may not necessarily deserve such reverence. Their compilations to date haven’t simply been great; they’ve been beyond perfect, offering comprehensive selections, amazing archival materials and spot-on standard and progressive output. For a brief, shining moment, I hoped that this upcoming collection would bring their work into a single, truly comprehensive collection. But, no.

Of course, I understand what’s going on here. M2 only works on PS2 and Wii, because Japanese developers are allergic to/terrified of/reluctant to deal with HD-capable systems, and Sega’s no exception. I mean, the company just released Thunder Force VI as a PS2 game in Japan, even though the de facto shoot-em-up console these days is the 360. If you put the staff of M2 in the same room as a 360 dev kit, they’d probably just break down a weep uncontrollably. And that is a true shame, because no one seems to have the perfect solution to bringing classic games to HD; if anyone could solve this problem, that genius would likely be someone at M2. Meanwhile, rather than work with each game individually I’m sure Backbone just dumps everything into a single Genesis emulator and saves Sega a ton of cash. So don’t be fooled by the lie: this will be no “ultimate” collection. It will be a big, messy collection — a sloppy makeout session that you’re embarrassed about the next morning when what you really want is to settle down and find the one. Of course, this is precisely why some of us will continue to pay $8 for Virtual Console releases when compilations are cheaper: one form offers exceptional quality, one form…doesn’t. You really do get what you pay for, it seems.

So…I’m going to take this as another sign to encourage you to buy Valkyria Chronicles. Prove to Sega’s Japanese side that next-gen consoles are not, in fact, terrifying forced marches to failure with your wallet. Bonus: it’s a phenomenal game — I even broke my vow of new release chastity to order a copy.

26 thoughts on “Swing and a miss

  1. That is a crime to eyes everywhere. Dear Backbone: we have you surrounded. Put your hands on your head and step away from the super eagle filter.

  2. For a second, I thought I was starting to go blind when I saw that screenshot. Lord, does that ever look like a blurry mess.

  3. Hey, don’t give M2 too much credit. Their collections for the DS (Konami Arcade Classics and Namco Museum) were both pretty lackluster thanks to distorted graphics. They weren’t all blurry like this, but they were scrunched into the screen, with no option to keep the graphics crisp while cropping off the score and other unnecessary information.

    I remember a time when Digital Eclipse used to be the king of emulation on consoles. Then they were bought out by Foundation IX and it all went downhill from there.

  4. That PS2 Genesis collection is amazing. Got it for $10 new at GameStop, and it literally saved me hundreds of Virtual Console dollars.

  5. Jess, M2’s work on the DS collections was incredible. The problem was the target system, which was unsuited to arcade games. But it’s not M2’s fault that the publishers made a stupid decision. Everyone has to pay the bills, so I can’t blame M2 for taking on a fundamentally flawed project. They did a far better job with those collections than the publishers deserved.

  6. M2 also emulates the music in its compilations, while the Digital Eclipse Genesis collection used streamed audio. Phantasy Star IV actually sounds better – at least, the music – on the compilation we got versus the Japanese Sega Ages version. Of course, the remaining SFX emulation on the Digital Eclipse one was piss poor, so it was a bit of a give-and-take. All of the Sega Ages are also CD, probably due to them being budget releases, so I’m sure that didn’t help M2 either.

    Although, I don’t see why more companies don’t put in display options, like M2 does. Do they really think that offer different kinds of filters will be too confusing for consumers?

    Also, why does Revenge of Shinobi keep getting shafted from these collections? I prefer Shinobi 3 anyway, but it’s just weird.

  7. IIRC, Revenge of Shinobi had Spider-man, so licensing issues are abound there.

    The supposed story here is that many of the games here were intended for XBLA, but MS decided they didn’t want any more straight ports on their service. And so Sega gathered those games onto this collection.

  8. I was impressed with the way Marvel Vs Capcom 2 on the Dreamcast made the sprites look clean and vibrant at 640×480, even against the goofy 3D backgrounds, while the same sprites in the Dreamcast port of SF Alpha 3 made the same sprites look like a dull Playstation 1 game.

  9. In addition to the Sega Genesis Collection, I thought the two Capcom Classics Collections were emulated and presented well.

    Anyone know if the ADK compilation is making its way to the U.S.?

  10. Eh, sometimes I like to see what the various filters do to game graphics. But only if I can turn them back off.

    Still looking forward to the Namco collection, though.

  11. M2’s monster world SEGA ages rulz my world, and not to quibble, but that preceded the treasure box.

  12. Yeah, it didn’t. Monster World was last year, I think? Or late 2006? Treasure Box was well before that.

  13. Yeah, of course I run to wikipedia immediately after posting, and then curse my own itchy “post comment” finger. buh.

  14. I’ve always wondered why ancient ports to new systems are so hit-and-miss. I’m at best an amateur programmer, but I’ve always understood the fundamental challenge with game programming is working with limited system resources. In the case of Master System games, what exactly is challenging about the emulation? Every 16-bit game I’ve played on my relatively powerful PC using an amateur emulator looks very good to indistinguishable. The only hiccups occur when special hardware was originally embedded in the cart.

    Can Parish or anyone else shed some light on why ports are so often terrible?

  15. Well, I guess for now we can just hope they give us a filter-less viewing option. I also have that Monster World collection, and love it, I still have to get around to getting that new Phantasy Star Collection they came out with not too long ago…

  16. I’m gonna have to disagree with your comments about Backbone (aka Digital Eclipse). Their work on the two Capcom Classics Collections were faithfully to the originals. Also thier XBLA ports that I have played (TMNT, Time Pilot, Smash TV, Yie Ar Kung-Fu, SPF2THD, & SSF2THD) all seemed to be fine ports to me. Although I will admit the Sonic 2 XBLA port did crash more than a few times on me.

  17. Playing a Backbone-developed game on an HD system is like having someone pee in your eyes while you’re trying to look at a photo of your high school crush. I guess some people are into that sort of thing! I’m not, though.

  18. Newfish —

    There are a lot of reasons why ports can go wrong. Sometimes it’s just the usual – not enough time/budget to optimize properly – but there can be technical restraints too. Sound emulation, for example, takes up lots of CPU cycles to do accurately, so you can either reduce the load by streaming prerecorded music, or simply reduce the quality. There are also tons of issues that come into play with issues of resolution, because they need to be resized/filtered, which is usually why old games on HD consoles look so smudgy. There’s also issues of RAM, which tend to effect even ports of Neo Geo games to the PS2. Sometimes there’s just not enough space, which results in load times or, in the case of really bad programming (like some of the SNK ports done by Terminal Reality), momentary freezes during gameplay while it loads data from the disc.

    This is just total speculation on my part, but I’ve also heard that Sony doesn’t much care for assembly language programming on its consoles. Homemade emulators don’t have those restrictions, so they can be much more optimized. This would be something that would definitely cripple a PS2 emulator, if true, especially since the PS2 CPU really isn’t THAT powerful all things considered.

  19. I’m actually the exact opposite. I’d rather pay too much for one game I want over a download service than pay for a retail collection where I don’t care about every game on it. People always act like more = better deal, but there aren’t a lot of collections out there where I want every game enough to justify a full purchase when I could just download the one or two that I want. Also, you’re relying on the publisher of the cheapo collection to do proper ports, while a service like the VC offers near perfect emulation.
    Also, companies like Cave can only afford to port niche games to the 360 because the cost of development was already justified in the arcade. Sega developed TF VI for consoles only, so it was forced to develop for the PS2. HD gaming is killing niche genres. Wii supremacy.

  20. Thanks discoalucard. It still strikes me as odd the games played through a system emulator consume so little processor power (even for ps1 titles) and run so smoothly, and yet proper game ports are so difficult. Of course emulated titles have their share of glitches, but consider that NO custom programming is involved for any given title. I mean, I’ve played snes games on a modded xbox and it felt very close to the real thing.

    That being said, I definitely see the challenge in up-scaling a title for HD.

  21. Newfish, do you mean ports from, say, the PS3 to the 360? If so, then think of it like this: you wrote an eloquent essay on how awesome oranges are. Then someone comes along and says “Great essay! But can I have it for apples?” Some of what you wrote will apply to fruits in general, some will have to be thrown out entirely, and some will only require small changes. But the longer the essay, and the more specific it is to oranges, the harder it will be to hide the fact that the essay was not originally about apples.

    As for emulation, custom programming will sometimes be needed for a given title if it exercises the emulator in ways other games have not. The up-front cost, though, has already been paid in implementing the emulator. It’s literally a program that runs other programs.

  22. “Prove to Sega’s Japanese side that next-gen consoles are not, in fact, terrifying forced marches to failure with your wallet.”

    They’re *not*?

  23. It’s been reported that you can turn off that blurry filter. Also, you can make the resolution fit your whole screen without the silly bars on the side. Oh and sweet, sweet HD graphics as well.

  24. Just an aside, but Gunstar Heroes Treasure Box was M2’s 3rd Sega Ages release. The Space Harrier II and S.D.I./Quartet Collections came first.

    M2 also handles the Master System and MSX emulation for the Virtual Console. Amazing little company, I’d like to see Fantasy Zone II DX (and similar retro remakes) get a dedicated WiiWare release.

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