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Pixel Art Chess Set: Communicating function through design

My five year old nephew started learning to play Chess recently, as I discovered on a visit a few weeks ago.  We played two games, and I didn’t have too much trouble beating him, but for a five year old he’s not bad. He knows all the pieces and their basic moves and their relative value.

I thought it would be fun to build a video Chess game that he could use to help learn strategy and how to see the board. So this is my latest project. I’ll be posting more about that as I work on it.

My first step was to design graphic resources. I didn’t want to spend too much time on it, just a basic “programmer art” chess set, that I could use to build the program with. Of course, it didn’t end up that way, and I’ve gone down the rabbit hole designing variations on sets of minimalist pixel art chess men. It’s too fun and fascinating not to.

My first attempt was actually rather good, I thought. I went for 16x16px representations of the classic chess pieces. I drew them very quickly, but was very pleased with my results, particularly the Knight.

I could have stopped right there, but it was so fun to make this set that I wanted to continue exploring and see if I could refine my pixeling technique further.

I decided to search the net for images of chess pieces to see what variety there was, and found a lot of examples of beautiful sets. I started to take notes and to infer design rules for chess men:

  1. Chess pieces are called “chess men” which seems antiquated and sexist, especially given that the most powerful piece in the game is the Queen.
  2. The modern standard chessmen are a design named for English chess master Howard Staunton, and have been in use only since the mid-19th century. A strength of its design is that each piece is easily distinguished from the others, making errors from mistakes in identifying a piece — a problem with other sets — unlikely. Previously, chess men of different types had a less distinct appearance from one another, and were not as standardized.
  3. In a Staunton set, the Knights are the most detailed, ornate, varied, and realistically represented pieces. 
  4. In Staunton sets, there is a standard height order: pawn, rook, knight, bishop, queen, king. (This surprised me, since Rooks are more valued in Chess I would have expected them to be taller than Bishops.)
  5. The pieces are differentiated by their tops. Each type of piece has a distinct, unambiguous shape.
  6. The body/base of the pieces have a common design, to create unity among the pieces in the set.

I tried to apply design choices to my chess set following these insights.

A follower on Twitter offered feedback that the pieces should be different heights, so I tried that. With a 16×16 pixel tile size, I could only shorten the back row pieces by 1-3 pixels.  I also tweaked the King piece by adding a few more pixels to its top, to make it a bit more distinct from the Queen, and moved the Pawn so that it wold be more centered in its square.

I do like the result:

Staunton pixel chessmen

I think my initial 16×16 Staunton set look like they’re in ALL CAPS, while this set is more “readable” by using “mixed case” heights for the pieces.

I wanted my chess game to be focused on usability and instruction. I needed each piece to be immediately recognizable, and not to convey a bunch of extraneous information to the player that has nothing to do with play mechanics. 

My next attempt was a different take altogether. I wanted the look of each piece to suggest its rules for movement. I also thought that it would be clever if the pieces communicated the rules for using them through their visual design.

I ended up being very pleased with this set as well, although I went through many more variations, particularly with the Pawn. This one also came together easily and rapidly.  When your tile size is 16×16 and you’re working in just a few colors, it’s easy to work fast.

Things I like about this set:

  1. The shape of the piece is a built-in tutorial for how the piece moves.
  2. The Pawns still have a pawn-like shape (at least the black pawns; white pawns are “upside down”).
  3. The Knight’s shape may be read as an abstraction of the horse’s head shape of the Staunton piece.

I think out of these variations, my favorites are: P9, Kn2, B3, R1, K?  I’m least certain which King I like.  I think K4 and K5 are my top two, but I also liked the idea of incorporating a crown motif into the design, to signify the King’s special property of being the King.  K1, K2 and K6 were attempts at this, but I think K1 looks too much like a Staunton Rook, unfortunately.

I wasn’t sure which of my designs to use for my final set, so  I posted my sets on Twitter and a pixel art community on Facebook. @Managore responded to my request for feedback by coming up with a set of his own design, which I quite like.

His design was retweeted and liked over 500 times, and received many positive compliments from his followers, many of whom are game developers. One of my favorite indie developers, @TerryCavanaugh, who made VVVVVV and Don’t Look Back, pointed out an physical chess set that had been designed a few years ago which incorporated the same ideas.

It’s exciting to see my idea get picked up and reworked by fellow game developers who are inspired by the concepts I am exploring. So fun! Getting that validation that what I’m working on is interesting to others is very motivating. But it’s particularly good to get some attention from developers whose work I’ve admired for years, however modest.

I’m excited about this project and look forward to working on the program. I have more design ideas that I’m looking forward to getting into soon.

Life is funny

Life is really funny.

For most of my time, I haven’t thought much about refrigerators, or had any choice in which refrigerator I had.

Growing up, there was The Fridge. It was yellow. It had food in it. It made stuff cold.

I went to college, I had a tiny dorm refrigerator that, I guess, worked OK. I never had any problems with it that I’m aware of.

I rented apartments, they came with appliances, they worked, I neer had any problems.

They were never anything fancy. Just an insulated box with a compressor and a light inside that goes off when you close the door. No ice maker, no water dispenser. No fancy finish, just some boring neutral color.

I bought a house, and it came with appliances, and the worked. I didn’t have extra money to drop on something better if what I had was fine. The refrigerator that came with the house was made in the 1980s, and was about 30 years old this year. It worked very well. I never did anything to maintain it, it never broke. It just worked non-stop for 30 years, the way an American made major appliance should be expected to. I’ve enjoyed about half of that time, if enjoyed is a word you can use with owning a boring kitchen appliance that does nothing except for work for three decades without complaint.

The only problem with it was that the light socket didn’t make good contact with the bulb, so when the door opened, it would flicker, and for the last however many years, most of the time the light wouldn’t come on at all. I fiddled with it, but it didn’t help.

Then one day my mom sells her house and is giving away stuff, and I claimed the baesment refrigerator. It was nice, slightly bigger, and only twelve years old. A Maytag. They’re dependable. I rented a truck, and my cousins helped me move it to my place, and then I gave my old, still working refrigerator to one of them.

Only, the Maytag had its door hinge on the wrong side. But that wasn’t a problem, that’s reversible. Easy to do with a screwdriver and the manual, which my mom kept in a ziplock bag in a manila folder, along with the warranty info, long since expired, and the original receipt.

So we switched the door, so it opens to the side that is convenient for accessing food when I’m cooking, which happens sometimes. And the light works. And it’s slightly bigger. And a decade newer. I figured I was set for another 20 years at least.  Who knows?

I noticed in the first couple of days that the “new” refrigerator was taking a long time to get down to temperature.  I think it took about 2 days, maybe it was 3.  But it did eventually get cold. 

Then it got really cold. The refrigerator was down around 33F, and then the next day I opened it and found that a bottle of water had frozen, shattering fragments of glass all over the place.  I cleaned it up and adjusted the temperature setting, and it warmed up a degree or two, still staying around freezing.  The thermometer I kept in there said 31F, but that’s below freezing, and nothing else in there was frozen, so I think it’s not quite accurate.  I love drinking ice cold water, so I was happy.

One thing the new refrigerator didn’t have was a tray for storing ice cube trays. This was annoying, since having a place to put the trays so they could work without spilling was a big convenience, and meant that you could use the rest of the space in the freezer more efficiently. I searched online for parts, and found out that pretty much everything for the Maytag wasn’t available any more — discontinued, out of stock. What’s more, I couldn’t even find a rack or shelf or tray for storing the ice cube tray. I tried eBay, there wasn’t much, and it was confusing to confirm that a part was for my model. It was annoying. I found a bin for finished ice cubes, but nothing to hold the trays while they were working. 

I don’t use the freezer nearly as much, so it wasn’t until maybe a week or more that I noticed the frost problem. I went to get an ice cube and noticed that frost had accumulate along the top edge of the door. I surmised that the door seal wasn’t sealing completely, allowing some air in, bringing with it moisture that would condense and freeze, turning into frost.  The ice built up and made the seal worse.  I’d open the door, knock off all the ice, wipe down with a towel, and close the door again, pressing firmly. 

It didn’t work.  I kept the ice at bay, but it kept returning. From 12 years of being on the left hinge, the door seal had compressed, and now that the hinge was on the right side, that left a gap that closing it firmly just couldn’t close.

I also noticed that the refrigerator made a high pitched whine, loud enough to be annoying. In reading the manual, I found out that this was normal. I didn’t like it. I thought about buying a new refrigerator at that point. But I didn’t want to spend the money right now, so I figured maybe next year. I’d take my time and do research and wait for a good sale.

This week, the temperature in the refrigerator compartment went north of 40F.  I worked at a grocery store once, so I knew that this was the threshold for safe food storage. I was concerned.  I tried turning the temperature setting back down, but a day or two later, it was still 40°, maybe 41°.  Then 42°.  Then 43°.

I took a look inside the freezer, it was still holding steady at 0°F, a good strong temperature. I cleaned the frost off the door, and looking more closely, noticed more frost along the ceiling. I cleaned that off too.  There was more frost along the back wall. I noticed that there was an air vent on the back wall, and that it was covered with ice.  Oh.

I looked inside the refrigerator. There were a couple of holes in the ceiling, which I felt no air flowing through.  I tried putting my finger into the holes to see if I could feel ice, but I couldn’t.  I only felt the foam insulation.  It felt warm.

I took my hair dryer and tried to defrost the freezer compartment.  I succeeded in melting the ice I could see, but if there was ice in the duct connecting the freezer compartment to the refrigerator compartment, I don’t think I got it.

The temperature in the refrigerator went up to 47°. Nothing in there was safe to eat any more. It had turned into a botulism farm. The freezer compartment temperature went up to 11°F, but it went back down to 0° by the next morning.  The temperature in the refrigerator went up to 49°.

I started shopping. After a lifetime of not caring or thinking about refrigerators, suddenly I had to make a choice, and suddenly now everything mattered.

I measured the nook in the kitchen and noted the dimensions the new unit would need to fit. I researched styles, features, manufacturers, models. I went to six stores and looked at them in person.  I considered shelving. Ice makers. Water filtration. Top Freezer. Bottom Freezer. Side By Side.  French Door. I compared warranties.  I read reviews.  I checked prices.  I made a spreadsheet.  I opened tabs by the dozen in my browser. I read reviews. 

I questioned the reviews.  What did some random refrigerator owner know?  Did they have the same concerns as me?  Do they understand engineering and manufacturing? Have they tried all the other models out there and therefore know that theirs is really the best? Was their specific experience representative of all examples of that model, or did they get a lemon? Were they even humans writing real reviews, or were they fake reviews written by shills trying to sway public opinion to buy the wrong refrigerator? The more I read, the less I knew. The more uncertain I became.

Within 72 hours, I’d saturated my mind with research and reached the limits of my patience for indecision.  I needed to dispose of my botulism farm and put this episode behind me so that life could resume. I told myself that I didn’t need to make the perfect or even the best decision, I just needed to make an adequate decision. I reminded myself that for 43 years, any old refrigerator was just fine. Why should this purchase be such a conundrum?

Based on the in-person impression I’d gotten from store visits, my internet research, and my meticulous note keeping, I had decided that I liked one model in particular more than the others I’d looked at.  I wasn’t sure that it was the best for me, it wasn’t vastly superior in every way. But I liked the size, the shelves, the price. The reviews were very positive, but one or two of them mentioned that the freezer compartment didn’t get down to 0°F like it should at the recommended setting. Some reviewers recommended turning it up to max cooling, others said it wasn’t a good model because of this deficiency, and to look for something else. 

Concerned, I thought about it overnight. I shopped some more, and found a merchant that was running a sale, and it was the cheapest price I had found yet for this model, and several hundred less than most of the other models I’d considered. I added to cart and got the complete price for it, and printed it out.

I reasoned that I could go to the store in person and ask questions about returns, and if I could do a return after delivery, and if I liked the answer I got, I’d go ahead and buy it, try it out for a time, and if it didn’t get cold enough for me, I’d return it and pick some other model.

This saga is far from over.  Delivery will take place on Wednesday.  I’ll have to observe the temperatures over several days to see how it performs. I’ll have to decide what to do.  I hope I won’t have to return it and start over. I hope I won’t have to think about it again for a decade at least, and three would be better.

It’s just weird that something that never mattered for my entire life so far should become such a dilemma when a situation arises where I have to make the decision. Even though it’s only a couple hundred bucks, it’s a decision with potentially decades of repercussions.  So much responsibility!

Sometimes life is better when you don’t have so much control, and don’t have to make choices.

The Debt We All Owe to Emulation

Emulation is a broad topic within computer science. This article is specifically about emulation of video games.  There are many other purposes to which emulation may be applied as well, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.  Emulation is a general purpose tool, not merely a tool for piracy.

Old video games have become valuable to collectors in recent years. My generation grew up with video games, and much as the previous generation valued comic books and baseball cards from their youth to the point where they became worth serious money in the 1980s and 1990s, antique videogames have similarly grown in value.

It wasn’t always thus. For a good couple of decades, old videogames were considered obsolete junk. No one wanted them (except maybe a few very geeky people such as myself.) Mostly when a new system hit the market, people forgot about the old generation and within a year or two they weren’t available in the retail channel anymore, or were perhaps on clearance in dollar bins.

Importantly, the manufacturers didn’t continue to manufacture old generation hardware.  Although it became cheaper and cheaper to do so, there still wasn’t enough demand in old systems to keep them viable in the face of new competition. More to the point, manufacturers would have been competing against themselves.  And when trying to recoup the cost of major R&D budgets that produced that next generation, they wanted (and needed) the market to be focused exclusively on that new system. Keeping the old generation system alive would have cannibalized sales, and hurt profitability, and this would have stalled the progress of innovation.

We saw this with Atari. The 2600 was the system that broke through into nearly half of American households in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At the time, it wasn’t obvious to the general public that there was going to be a new generation every several years as Moore’s Law continued to work its magic to enable cheaper, more powerful computing technology.  Internally, Atari struggled with releasing their next generation system, the 5200. With tens of millions of 2600 consoles already in homes, the revenue stream represented by cartridge sales for the established console was too important for Atari to walk away from it. The 5200 wasn’t backward compatible (although an adapter for 2600 games existed) and Atari felt that the average consumer might feel alienated and abandoned if they had to go out and buy a new, expensive console.  As a result, Atari kept the 2600 alive an incredible 15 years, finally stopping production in 1992.  The 5200, launched in 1982, was hampered by a variety of factors, and never had the same level of success — it was expensive, lacked backwards-compatibility, the library was mostly the same titles as were available on the 2600, only with better graphics, the controllers were delicate analog joysticks that annoyingly didn’t automatically re-center, it contended in the market with rivals Coleco and Mattel, and then the 1983 crash of the North American market cut short its heyday.

The business data was always very clear on this. With video games, what was hot today was gone a few weeks or months later, or in the case of smash hits, maybe a year. New product constantly distracted and replaced old product, with a few notable exceptions such as Pac Man and Donkey Kong, most video games didn’t have staying power in the market.

Obviously, that’s not to say that old games started sucking and were no longer fun to play. They didn’t. But their enduring appeal didn’t translate into sustainable marketability.  And that’s why successful games spawn franchises of endless sequels and a multiverse of linked-IP titles. And the old constantly gave way to the new. And the business always wanted the market to be focused on the new, because that’s where sales were.  (But yet, in other market segments, they keep making chess sets, decks of cards, balls, copies of popular board games that have been enjoyed for generations, such as Monopoly, etc.) For some reason, the prevailing wisdom was you couldn’t sell a videogame that everyone had already bought.

Well, until recently. A little over a decade ago, Nintendo introduced the Virtual Console on Wii, and started selling us games that they had made in the 1980s and 1990s.  And we bought them. In many cases, we bought them again. For some, it may have been the first time.

Even that wasn’t a completely new thing.  Every console has had classic games ported to it.  Atari has continually re-packaged its greatest hits into collections that have been sold on just about every console and platform that has been released since the original system exited the market. Virtually every big game developer has done it as well: Activision, Sega, SNK, Midway, Namco, and on and on.

And what made that possible?

Emulation.

Without emulation, putting an old game on a new system would have meant porting it, essentially re-writing the game from scratch. And ports were never capable of being entirely faithful to the original. There’s always differences, often substantial, to the point that the nostalgic value of a port is never quite there.  It’s not like playing the original.  You can never go home again.

But with emulation,  you could. Emulators were magic. With an emulator, a new machine could be made to work nearly exactly like some older machine with a completely different architecture, and run software for that older machine without further modification, and the results would be virtually indistinguishable from that software running on original hardware.  

The old systems may burn  out and break down.  The factory could stop making them and shift production to other, more profitable, more in demand product lines. But as long as someone could write an emulator to work on modern machines, old games could live, in theory forever.

Game companies, mostly, did not want that. Especially if there wasn’t some way to make money from it. And once full retail priced sales for a game, or generation of games, stopped being feasible, game companies dropped the product line entirely. Their expectation as the buying public would follow on to the next new thing, and that’s where the industry wanted all focus.  

So game emulation, in its earliest incarnation, was an unauthorized, underground enterprise, a labor of love by gamers desperate to keep the games they loved from disappearing entirely, as they surely would have without their efforts.

And what good is an emulator without something to run on it? This is where ROM dumps come into play. Anyone can tell you that emulation isn’t illegal, doesn’t violate any copyright or patent or trademark law. But ROMs, those are a different story. Copyright law is clear enough about making unauthorized copies of copyrighted works for distribution and especially for profit. There are limited provisions for making copies of works for personal use, of a copyrighted work which you own a copy of, for archival/backup purposes, for academic purposes, for criticism and review purposes, for time shifting and platform shifting, and so on.

Archival/backup purposes fit the context of ROM dumping best, but even so, technically this is a personal use right, meaning that in theory (to my knowledge this has not been tested in the courts) a person could legally dump the ROM of a game that they personally own, for use as a backup, and use an emulator for platform shifting that work onto a new platform.  But that’s a personal copy — they still don’t have any right to distribute that.  And even if my copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 is exactly the same as the copy that someone else already dumped for their own personal use, I can’t (legally) take a shortcut and make a copy of their dump; I have to produce my own.  Which takes time, effort, equipment, expertise, and the vast majority of people do not have that, nor do they have the inclination. So people did the only reasonable thing there was to do: they shared copies of existing ROM dumps. And yes, this meant that many people obtained copies of ROMs that they didn’t own an original copy of. And this was copyright violation.

And yet, for a long time, there still wasn’t enough value in emulation for the rightful intellectual property rights holder to have incentive to do anything about this situation.  And so, as a result, the Abadonware movement began, and the underground emulation scene grew and grew and grew.

You can go to a bookstore today and buy a new copy of a book written hundreds of years ago.  At least, certain ones.  You can’t go to a retail store and buy a new copy of a video game produced 40 years ago.  Not most of them. Sure, today there’s now a few exceptions, if you want to count systems like the Atari Flashback or NES Classic.

But — these systems only cover a small fraction of the catalog of titles that were released for those systems.

And — those systems are only possible because of emulation.  They’re dedicated emulation boxes. That’s right.

For $60, you can buy a tiny selection of really great games, and through the magic of emulation, play them on a modern HDTV. Much of the work that made that possible was pioneered, for free, by enthusiasts and hobbyists who made it their mission to preserve the past and ensure that some game that they loved would be available forever.  For free.

And more than just preserving the popular hits of yesterday, the emulation scene also provided equal attention to games that virtually no one had played, and even fewer people care about, or even knew about.  Rare games that hadn’t performed well on retail release, but were nonetheless good games, have gotten a second wind and rebirth, in large part because someone in the emulation scene ripped a copy of it, and distributed it for free so that thousands of people could experience it.  Games like Little Samson, a NES rarity that sells for thousands of dollars for an authentic copy, could not be experienced by the vast majority of people, without a ROM dump and an emulator.  And probably the black market distribution of this ROM is what helped make people aware of it, to create the demand that gave rise to the premium price that the original now commands.

Companies like Nintendo didn’t want you to play their old games, at one time, for a long time.  But now that the emulation scene proved that those games did have lasting appeal and historic value, now Nintendo would like to sell you those games again. And because they can, they seek to destroy the underground movement that showed it was viable and created the technology that made it possible.

I find this incredibly sad, aggravating, and tragic. I may have a personal collection of physical cartridges in my gaming library, but I certainly couldn’t replace them at today’s prices if they were lost.  And that hardware’s not going to last forever.

Copyright used to have a limited term, and this would have made things a lot easier for the emulation movement to happen in a completely legal way. But over the years, large companies have continually altered intellectual property laws — always to their benefit, never for the public good — to secure a perpetual right to works, robbing the public domain of a rich future. 

Robbing the public.

Robbing all of  us.

GameMaker Studio 2.1.5 – new features

YoYoGames announced GameMaker Studio 2.1.5 was released today.

This release focuses on bugfixes and stability, but also adds some very useful new functions:

New Collisions

New collision_*_list() functions that return a list storing the id’s of all instances in collision, not just a single id of the first instance detected.  There have been implementations of this in GML scripts since forever, but finally having it in the engine is a great thing, since it will be much faster and available to everyone.  The new functions even allow you to sort the list by position order, which is useful in many situations, such as when you need to know which collision would have occurred first in a collision_line situation.

Non-axis-aligned bounding boxes for sprites

This is a new collision type that you can configure in the Sprite properties, “rotated rectangle”.  This enables tighter bounding boxes for more accurate collision detection for objects with sprites that rotate, and better performance than using precise collisions, but slower than the regular rectangular collision mask.

Mobile device virtual keyboards

Support for the virtual keyboard in iOS and Android. I’ve never built a mobile app version of any of my GameMaker projects, so I’m surprised to learn that this wasn’t always supported.

Conway’s Mustard Steak

This is a very simple preparation and primitive cooking method, but the results are extraordinary. This is an old family recipe I learned a long time ago from a good friend.

Ingredients:

  • Steak (should be a large, thick cut of beef, such as London Broil, or Round Steak, at least 1.5-2″ thick.)
  • Ordinary yellow mustard (French’s, etc.)
  • Common table salt

Supplies:

  • Charcoal briquettes
  • lighter fluid
  • charcoal starter chimney
  • Fire starter

 

  • Casserole dish
  • Paper towels
  • Serving platter
  • basting brush
  • BBQ tongs or fork
  • Serving knife

Instructions:

Preparation:

1-2 days ahead of cooking:

  1. Dry the meat with paper towels, then apply a thick coating of yellow mustard with the basting brush until steak is completely covered on all sides.
  2. Sprinkle very liberally with salt until mustard achieves a paste-like, crusty consistency.
  3. Lay in casserole dish for 24-48 hrs in refrigerator, marinating.

Fire preparation:

  1. Fill charcoal starting chimney with briquettes. Wad up paper towels or newspaper, douse with lighter fluid, and place under the chimney. Don’t put fluid on the charcoal.
  2. Light the paper with the fire starter. The coals should ignite easily, and be ready in 5-10 minutes. Let them burn in the chimney until they are glowing orange, then spread them out on a scraped area of bare earth the ground, or in a fire pit, or in a charcoal grill.
  3. Make sure you have sufficient lit charcoal to cover the ground with a good, thick layer of coals, with no gaps between them, covering an area at least twice the size of the meat.  This may be more than 1 chimney full of coal, so be sure to get enough going before you start cooking.

Cooking:

  1. Lay the steak directly on the coals, ensuring that the coat of mustard is still intact on the side touching the coals. (Usually, this will be the top side of the steak, as the juices in the bottom of the marinade pan will tend to wash the mustard off the bottom of the steak. Re-apply more mustard and salt on the now-exposed bottom side of the steak to restore a complete coating. The mustard will sear into the meat, protecting the meat itself.
  2. Once the meat is on the fire, let it sit. Don’t touch it or poke it.
  3. Let the steak cook for a long time. Exact cooking time will vary depending on thickness of the meat, but 10-20 minutes or even longer is typical.
    1. Don’t use a clock, however; rather, watch the steak for signs that it is ready. When you start seeing blood droplets appear on the top side of the steak, it will be ready to flip within a few minutes.
    2. Wait until you see droplets coming up all over, not just in one place. Then, using the BBQ tongs or fork, lift the steak off the coals, and knock any coals that have adhered to the meat off, then lay the steak back down on a fresh section of coals.
  4. Continue to cook on second side, once again waiting to see blood juices coming up through the top surface of the steak. It should take significantly less time for the second side to cook through.
  5. Once blood is again visible on the top side remove from the fire, knock off any stuck coals, and rest on the serving platter for about 4-5 minutes.

Serving:

  1. Slice thin and serve.
    1. Steak should be perfectly seared on the outside, and a full-spectrum gradient of done-ness should be evident through the cut, from well and crispy to rare or even blue in the middle, depending on the thickness of the cut and the cooking time.
    2. The mustard and salt flavor will have permeated the meat throughout, and especially the outside crust will be intensely flavorful.
  2. It will not need any additional seasoning or sauces.
  3. Serve with corn, potatoes, or other favorite BBQ side dishes, and your favorite beverage. Goes excellent with beer or a fruity alcoholic punch, margaritas, etc.

Guppy’s Great Steak

Ingredients:

Supplies:

Instructions:

Preparation

  1. Fill the charcoal starter chimney with charcoal.
  2. Put a couple of wadded up paper towels that have been doused with lighter fluid underneath the chimney, and be ready to go in 5-10 minutes. Don’t put fluid on the coals.
  3. Light the paper towel wad. The coals should ignite easily. Let them burn inside the chimney until they are glowing orange, then distribute in the bottom of the grill.
  4. While the coals are getting ready, prepare the meat.
    1. Meat should be close to room temperature, or slightly cooler.
    2. Pat meat dry with more paper towels.
    3. Once meat is dry, rub with steak salt and Montreal seasoning until both sides are coated.

Cooking

  1. Lay steaks over the hottest part of the grill, and cover the grill.
  2. Don’t touch the grill again until it’s time to flip. Let them set there for about 3 minutes for medium rare.
  3. Flip once, then replace the lid and leave it alone for another 3-4 minutes.
  4. When you flip the corners and edges of the filets should just be starting to char, and you should see grill marks seared into the surface of the meat.
  5. After flipping and waiting for the second side (about the same amount of time as the first side, or slightly less), pull from the grill, and then let them rest for a few minutes.
  6. While resting, apply 2-4 drops of liquid smoke on the top of the filets, and let it absorb.

Serving

  1. Slice thin and dip into the A-1 and stadium mustard. Put mustard on one half of a slice, and A-1 on the other half, and let the flavors blend together in your mouth. For best results use mustard that has aged in refrigerator for 3-4 years. It will have a mellow flavor and a creamy texture.
  2. Serve with grilled mushrooms and vegetables and your favorite beverage.

Tempest 4000 released

Bad news for AtariBox fans:  Tempest 4000 was released today.  Why is this bad for AtariBox?  Well, Tempest 4000 is the one new modern launch title that Atari has announced for the doomed console, and the game is available today on XBox One, PS4, and Windows. Anyone who’s excited to play T4K can play it now, and will not have to wait a year plus and buy a $300 console for the privilege.  Well, at least T4K is still published by Atari SA, so whatever platform you might buy it for, they’ll get some money.

Hey, Atari, congratulations on launching a product! I’m glad to see you were able to play nice with Jeff Minter and work together to put this out.

So what else does AtariBox have up its sleeve?  Any exclusive content?  A second launch title?  An Q&A article published on Medium on July 13 is the only new PR that I’ve seen from Atari SA since the close of the campaign on June 30. Atari SA remain very quiet about it, and have not put much information out since the close of their IndieGoGo campaign, which raised just short of $3M in pre-sales for the system — well short of the amount raised in 2012 on Kickstarter by Ouya, which raised over $8.5M and had 6 times as many backers, yet struggled in the market and failed to gain marketshare due to a lack of compelling exclusive content.)

Hyperkin RetroN 77 Reviewed

The 1-line review:

It could have been so much better.

In a nutshell:

Hyperkin RetroN 77

RetroN 77 is a conveniently packaged, aesthetically attractive $70 box that allows you to play (many, but not all) Atari 2600 cartridges on a HDTV set, or play ROMs for Atari 2600 games off a microSD card, powered by Stella, the most popular emulator for the Atari 2600.

HDMI output is cool, for ease of connecting to modern TVs, and for image quality. But that’s really the only truly good thing about this.  And it’s no better than running Stella on a PC.

The other things I liked about this when I first heard of it:  the cartridge slot, and the DB9 joystick ports, (which are the same as on the original system, allowing for play with original controllers).  But both of these features are compromised — many games will not play on cartridge in the RetroN 77, and the included joystick is, while a nice design that feels comfortable in the hand and includes ambidextrous buttons, is fragile and too clicky in use.  Fortunately those original controllers can be plugged into the RetroN 77 and work, but they still should have did better with the included joystick. And frustratingly, Hyperkin knew it, and yet they still shipped this product.

Also worth mentioning, the system offers saving and restoring your game state at the press of a button.  But the button is located on the console, where it’s less than easy to reach, not on the controller, where it would have made more sense (although, to be fair, I don’t see how they could have done this while preserving compatibility with the original DB9 controller port, and I definitely would not want to give that feature up just to have easier access to a save/restore button.) But the worst thing about the Save and Restore buttons is that they’re identical to each other, and to the adjacent “game select” and “game reset” buttons.  If you want to save your game, you must quickly hit the correct button, and if you screw up and hit any of the other buttons, you’ll either restore a previously saved gamestate, or reset the game, both of which will be ruinous to your current progress.  So this feature is just not very well thought out, and not very useful.  Also, the RetroN 77 can only save ONE gamestate per game cartridge or ROM file, making this feature extremely limited.  This is sad, because the included SD card has a 128MB capacity, and the entire Atari 2600 library will fit easily into less than 2MB, meaning that the memory card potentially has room for virtually infinite save files.  So none of that extra space will ever be put to good use.  All they had to do was add a menu to the Load button so that you would have to choose which save file to reload, or delete, and it could have been so much more.

RetroN 77 may be worthwhile to own — if you just want to take something simple out of the box, plug it in and go, with no software setup and configuration and have it simple and just work, except of course for the many games it doesn’t support on the cartridge slot. But ultimately it will not satisfy a serious gamer who wants to play his entire library of Atari 2600 games.

Even so, I’m glad that a company is at least trying to make something like this. The original hardware won’t last forever. I just wish that the execution were better.

Let’s get into the details.

Complaints:

  • System isn’t instantly on when you flip the power switch to ON. There’s a several second delay, long enough to make you wonder if the thing isn’t broken. Every time.
  • Way old version of Stella running on this thing.
  • Stella is a great emulator, and even this old version is very good. But emulation just isn’t as cool as ‘real hardware’ or an FPGA implementation of real hardware. In this case, it’s because the RetroN doesn’t REALLY play the game that you plugged into the cartridge slot; it copies the ROM off the cartridge and temporarily loads it and runs it in Stella, but for some reason (maybe because the Stella version is old?) it’s not capable of running cartridges that have extra processor chips in them.
  • Doesn’t support many games on the cartridge slot (basically, any of the later cartridges that packed extra chips to extend the capabilities of the obsolescent Atari 2600: Pitfall II, Mountain King, etc.) Update: A Retron 77 user has created a public list of tested games. It would have been nice if Hyperkin could have created this list, themselves, at least for the majority of games, rather than leaving it to users to figure it out for ourselves.
  • The joystick feel could be better, and durability is unacceptable. Everyone is reporting that the joystick breaks mere hours into playing with the system. Hyperkin acknowledged this is a known issue and promised to replace broken controllers, and to release a re-engineered controller that will be more robust. But why didn’t they just wait and release when it was ready? This shitty joystick will do nothing for Hyperkin’s reputation or to sell the system.
  • They really should have made a modern paddle controller, since original paddles are so fragile and need reconditioning in order to avoid jitter and work properly.
  • System should remember the aspect ratio mode it was last in rather than default to 16:9.
  • Button layout for the console switches could have been better (ie, more like the original Atari 2600 6-switch model’s layout, same type of switches would have been so cool).
  • Limited number of “slots” for ROMs on the SD card (this is supposed to be fixed in a future firmware update.)

But this is a Hyperkin product, so what did you expect?  Right?

If you have any PC or Mac built in the last 20 years or so, or a Raspberry Pi, and hook it up to a decent monitor, buy a Stelladaptor and plug in an original CX40 joystick, you do not need the RetroN77 — unless you are a completist or enjoy being disappointed.

If you have original working hardware, you may not need the RetroN77, either, depending on if your HDTV can handle the video output, or you can mod your console, or if you still have an old NTSC CRT TV that works.

There’s hope Hyperkin can salvage this with a firmware update that updates Stella to the latest release available, ship replacement controllers that aren’t fragile, but even so it’d be better to hope this sells well enough for them to maybe bother with a “deluxe” 2.0 system that is FPGA-based and addresses the issues I listed above (and supports 5200, 8-bit, and 7800 games!)

But really, it would have been much better if Hyperkin had waited and worked out these issues and released the product when it was ready, rather than push something out to hit the 7/7 release date.

(Did anyone ACTUALLY care that the RetroN 77 was officially released on 7/7?)

No.  No one did. Except the marketing department at Hyperkin.

It was pretty nice of them to include a 128 MB SD card with the unit, fwiw.

Not recommended.

I will revisit the recommendation once Hyperkin are shipping the improved joysticks they’ve promised, and once they’ve released a firmware update, or some firmware hacks are available to give a better user experience. When a firmware update is available, it will be found here. But as is, out of the box this is a device that feels like it needed more development and refinement before it should have been considered for release.

And if you just gotta have a quantifiable rating…

5-star rating: 2/5 stars
Grade: C-

I’d give the RetroN 77 a full star or letter grade better rating if/when they replace the fragile joystick, and another letter grade if/when they release a modern paddle controller.  The actual console is not bad, for what it is, but when you understand it as a simple dedicated Stella box, running a rather outdated version of Stella, it becomes much less compelling, particularly with the current limitation of the number of ROMs on SD card that it will display in its UI, and the compatibility issues with various games on cartridge.  It’s just not good enough to make me recommend it over downloading Stella, plus as many ROMs as you care to find, and playing them on a PC hooked up to a HDTV, using a Stelladaptor with authentic controllers.

Hyperkin now taking Retron77 pre-orders, shipping in July

As if to show Atari how it’s done when a real company develops a real product, Hyperkin announced today that they’re now taking pre-orders for their Retron77 console.  The $69.99 retro-console is expected to start shipping to customers on July 7, 2018.

Hyperkin Retron77

While the Retron77 doesn’t promise to usher in an era of newAtari games, it looks like it will be pretty awesome for a few important reasons:

  • It actually exists,
  • it’s shipping in less than a month,
  • it’s reasonably inexpensive,
  • 720p over HDMI,
  • real cartridge slot for playing actual Atari 2600 cartridges,
  • real controller ports for using your favorite vintage controller,
  • and a nice-looking joystick that features an often-requested feature: an ambidextrous fire button!

I had heard rumors about a year ago that Retron77 would be an FPGA-based implementation of the Atari 2600, but it’s not stated in the product description on their website whether this is so, or if it will rely on emulation.  If it does use emulation, it’s my hope that the system will prove to be hackable to emulate other systems, such as the Atari 5200 or 7800.  But I would be more excited by a FPGA-based system due to the fidelity to the original hardware made possible by FPGA technology.

Other Retron consoles by Hyperkin have been spotty, with problems ranging from terrible controllers to poor emulation quality to violating open source software licenses, so it remains to be seen if the Retron77 will be worth buying. But their more recent offerings have been better, and they seem to have hit all the right notes with this one. I’m looking forward to having one that I can test with soon.

Either way, it is a real product, and will ship in less than a month, and for under $100. By contrast, the AtariBox may come out in about a year, for $300, with unknown developers lined up to release unknown new titles at launch.

Update

Youtube videogamer Metal Jesus has posted a review of the Retron77, providing more details.  The most important revelations:

  1. System plays the games via emulation, using Stella, which Hyperkin properly licensed for the product.
  2. Lag is minimal, nearly imperceptible.
  3. Retron 77 does have a SD card slot, as rumored.
  4. Not all games can be played via the cartridge slot (notably, Pitfall II) for some reason, but if you have a ROM you can put it on an SD card. However…
  5. Retron’s GUI for the SD card menu limits you to seeing only 20 ROMs, max.  According to Hyperkin it’s a measure intended to curb piracy, and the feature is intended to allow users to play the occasional homebrew game. This explanation makes no sense, because homebrew games are also copyrighted (although many homebrew developers put their ROMs out for free download for the benefit of the community), and also available on cartridge in many cases (though per point 4, above, they may not play through the cartridge slot…)  This is really limiting and annoying, and will be one of the first things hackers will want to fix.  With a game catalog of over 700 games, it would be the preferred way to play games — particularly given the apparent failings of playing every game through the cartridge slot, not to mention the difficulty of getting 40 year old EEPROM carts to read.  Update: I’ve read that Hyperkin have reversed course on the limit, and have decided to remove the restriction.  Hooray!
  6. The joystick in the review unit broke, apparently it is fragile. But, Hyperkin say they are aware of this issue and already have a more robust version of this controller that will be included with the production model, and they will replace any that break.
  7. Metal Jesus echoes a sentiment expressed by many: that a multi-system Retron that covers Atari/Intellivision/Colecovision or early 8-bit computers would be a must-buy.

John Hancock’s review shows more extensive testing, reveals additional shortcomings: Grand Prix driving controller not supported, Harmony Cart and homebrew carts not supported (but this isn’t such a big deal, considering you can load ROMs onto the SD card).

Is the AtariBox fake?

Editor’s note: [I’m calling Atari’s new VCS “AtariBox” to differentiate it from the original 1977 Atari VCS (2600)]

Last night, Youtube Gaming channel RGT85 broke news that a developer of Tempest 4000 made public statements which cast doubt on whether the AtariBox is real. There is a discussion thread on Reddit with additional information and speculation.

A year ago, news circulated that Tempest creator Jeff Minter had reconciled with Atari on a dispute over the rights to Tempest, and that he was going to work with them to bring Tempest 4000 to the AtariBox. But according to Llamasoft developer Ivan Zorzin, Tempest 4000 has been in development for PC, XBox, and Playstation 4 platforms, and he knows nothing of any development of a version for AtariBox. According to Zorzin, Atari’s use of footage of Tempest 4000 is not footage of it running on an AtariBox.

At this point, I can only regard these as rumors, but it is definitely a concern that the Tempest 4000 developer and Atari aren’t on the same page. Since the AtariBox hardware is commodity PC hardware, it’s feasible that Atari could have run a Windows build of Tempest 4000 on Windows on AtariBox hardware, or in WINE on Linux on AtariBox hardware. Or it could well be that the footage is not from a running AtariBox at all.

This calls into question whether Atari even have an actual, working prototype yet. Earlier this year at GDC, they did not. Their case was only a mock-up. The case designs that they’ve shown look good, but for the longest time Atari only showed renderings of 3D models of the case. More recently, they seem to have produced a physical example of the case, and supposedly it has working hardware inside it, but these new revelations cast even that into doubt.

When Atari launched their crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo, they published specifications for the system, but I’m not aware of anyone reporting that they’ve seen an actual working AtariBox. It would not surprise me if they haven’t started manufacturing them as yet, but are running the internal hardware inside of generic cases, and if that were the case it wouldn’t worry me too greatly, provided that they had confidence that the final product case would work from an engineering standpoint (for thermal dissipation, RF shielding, etc).

Atari have been promoting the IndieGoGo campaign heavily, bragging about having raised $2.7 million from over 10000 backers in 8 days, but the rate of buy-in has slowed dramatically — the first 24 hours saw $2 million of that come in. This sounds like a lot of money, but it’s paltry. A real console launch from Microsoft or Sony takes about a billion dollars to do. Manufacturing needs millions of units in order to have a hope of being profitable. 10,000 backers is tiny. Obviously, more customers may line up to buy an AtariBox once it’s actually available, but if their initial manufacturing batch is only in the tens of thousands, there’s no way Atari will make enough money on it to create a viable brand ecosystem for developers to create new games for it.

The worst thing about this (if AtariBox is indeed real and actually ships on time) is that if Tempest 4000 isn’t really an AtariBox exclusive, then once again we have zero first party exclusive launch titles for the console.

It’s shameful if today’s “Atari” are perpetrating a fraud on consumers, exploiting the good will and nostalgia for the real Atari brand that the current company owns the rights to. If this does turn out to be a massive hoax, I can only hope that it doesn’t destroy the Atari name forever, and that the guilty parties are prosecuted and punished. It might be fitting for Atari’s brand to be dissolved in such a situation, and given to reputable and responsible people to curate. People such as Albert Yarusso of AtariAge.com, who have created a niche cottage industry around homebrew development of new Atari carts would be more deserving of ownership of the brand.

Update: According to Hardcore Gamer, Ivan Zorzin has now confirmed that Tempest 4000 will have an AtariBox port. If this is indeed true, it’s amazing if Zorzin continues to be an employee of Llamasoft after the damage to Atari’s reputation as a result of the confusion his original post sparked.  Regardless of whether T4K is going to be a launch title or not, there’s still plenty of good reason to remain skeptical of Atari’s claims for the system, and even if Atari delivers fully on all of their promises, the system will have its work cut out for it to carve a niche out of the current videogame market.  Atari will need everything to go completely flawlessly and better than expected if is to have any hope of lasting success.

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