Why HiFi Sound for Gaming

Posted: September 5, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology

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Yer doin’ it wrong.

 

When I started working as an A/V installer over a year ago, my home theater setup was probably much like most of yours.  I had one of those TVs you wait in line for on black friday, that’s really cheap for how big it is.  When I realized the sound was completely unacceptable, I bought one of those inexpensive under-tv sound boxes with 2 speakers and a sub-woofer built in.  I could now hear the noises and see the things, I felt that anything more was completely superfluous and not worth the effort.

Now my living room is a little different.  I still have the TV, but it’s next on the list.  The sound however is completely upgraded.  I’m not going to brag about my system, it’s mostly stuff I got free from work that isn’t the newest or had to be repaired first.  The point is that it’s a fully tuned 7.1 system with the best connections and running in the newest processing modes.  The difference it makes when gaming is huge.  It’s more than just surround sound being more immersive, a decent receiver has numerous benefits to a gamer which you may not even be aware existed.

 

True Surround Sound

One thing a lot of people don’t fully grasp, is what is actually surround sound and what is fake surround sound.  If it comes out of less than 4 speakers or is sent through 2 or less conductors, it is not surround sound.  So if your TV or sound bar has a “surround mode”, that is nothing like true surround.  By the same token, if your connection is through a headphone plug or the two red and white RCA cables, it is not true surround.  So most PC headsets that say surround are not surround.  The only way to get real surround sound (where the individual noises are sent to different speakers) is with a digital connection like an optical TOSlink, HDMI cable or the big orange RCA digital coaxial.

Even many people who have 5 or more speakers and have all their devices connected through HDMI, often are not using surround sound because they are not in the right mode.  To fully utilize the surround sound capability of your game system or PC, you need to be in a digital sound mode like DTS.  There are so many different digital sound modes at this point that it is almost impossible for me to tell you which is the best for your setup and game device.  On the front of your receiver or amplifier, it should say digital somewhere and the sound mode should be DTS, Dolby Digital or something similar.  Modes like Atmos and DTS:X are for more than 7 speakers and if supported, will only work with the right speakers.  If your receiver has an “auto” setting, this will usually select the best setting for your current speakers and input signal.

Once you are playing in true surround, the benefits to gaming will be easy to hear.  I’m a big fan of the Dark Souls series and this leads to a perfect example.  When playing in stereo and being invaded, you generally spend a moment spinning your camera around looking for the invader.  When playing in digital surround, the noise made when a player spawns is clearly audible from a distance in the direction it came from.  This shaves a couple of seconds off your battle preparation and gives an immediate gameplay advantage.  Insert situation from your favorite game here.  This is only the first and most obvious benefit of HiFi gaming.

 

Make Bad Look and Sound Good

Another huge benefit to running your games through a receiver is the many sound and picture processing features built into a modern stereo.  Besides just surround sound modes, a home theater receiver will have features to clean up and expand different stereo signals.  Some stereo devices, like the Wii or other older game systems, are capable of Dolby Pro Logic.  Pro Logic is a kind of stereo signal that is designed to be friendly to simulated surround sound.  Your receiver can process this into something that is somewhere in the middle between stereo and surround sound.  You can also use multi-channel stereo, which just takes any old 2 channel sound and wraps it around all the speakers.  While it won’t do anything to send sounds in different direction to simulate depth, it does immerse you more in an old game than just playing out the front left and right speakers would.

This also applies to processing picture.  If you are an old-school gamer, I would highly recommend a receiver with analog to digital upconversion over HDMI.  In layman’s terms, this means you plug in your Super NES to the receiver with its old crappy RCA cables and the receiver outputs it through HDMI to your TV.  This is pretty much essential if you want to play those systems on a newer TV.  Many newer TVs don’t even include analog inputs or are not even capable of resolutions below 480p like you would get out of a 16 or 32-bit console.  Many higher end receivers can even upconvert lower resolution signals to 1080p or 4k, which will not make the original image look better, but will eliminate a lot of the fuzziness caused by using the TV’s built in upconversion.  Even newer games that run at higher resolutions will benefit if you are using a TV or monitor that is still higher res.  A receiver will almost always have better and faster upconversion than a TV, so a PS4 or XB1 running through a receiver will look cleaner on a 4k TV.

 

Better Speakers Aren’t Just Louder

When I recommend upgrading sound, a lot of people comment about how they don’t really want something really loud.  This is a misconception brought on by using crappy sound.  In the days of old TV, when you couldn’t hear something, you just had to turn it up.  Most of us still think of sound in these terms.  When our new TV has crappy sound, we buy a sound bar that is the same thing, just louder.  Now the sound can go louder than the pathetic tiny speakers in the thin TV, so we can hear the dialogue again.  The problem with bad speakers isn’t their volume though.  You can’t hear everything clearly because all of the sounds are being forced out of two tiny speakers with limited sound range.  A speaker can only be designed to make a certain range of high and low frequency sounds, further limited by the size of the speaker.  To keep this simple, a big tower speaker can be heard much clearer at low volume than a small TV speaker, because it has several speakers inside playing the high and low sounds separately.  So although both are just playing the left and right sound channels, the larger speaker is separating it out more so you can pick out the voices from the car engines.

Furthermore, adding more speakers is not just adding more noise.  If you have trouble hearing dialogue clearly, you will be amazed at the difference a center channel speaker will make.  The center speaker plays mostly dialogue and sounds made by the things the screen is focused on.  The same is true for each level of extra speakers you add to your system.  Surround speakers go without much further description.  A subwoofer has much more utility than just making big booms.  Almost all receivers will allow you to select the individual crossover frequencies for each speaker.  In laymen’s terms, this means you can tell the smaller speakers to send most of their bass to the subwoofer so that noises in the background have convincing depth.  Although the subwoofer doesn’t move, the low frequency sound travels better and tricks your ear into hearing it with the sound from the source speaker.  You can go all out and add front height speakers, far rear speakers or ceiling mounted ambient noise speakers for the aforementioned Dolby Atmos.  The more you separate the sounds, the more realistic and immersive it becomes.

 

More Input, More Control

Personally, I have more than one gaming device.  I actually have more than 10 gaming devices.  If having a retro collection was not currently chic in gaming culture, I would probably be on Hoarders.  If you are even 1/10th as bad as I am, you have probably long ago run out of inputs on your TV.  You may be using splitters, one of those remote controlled switch boxes or even getting up and switching cables.  Although newer receivers are starting to have fewer and fewer old analog inputs (my 2014 Denon has 2 RCA, 2 component and the rest are HDMI), with a few adapters you should be able to connect at least 3 classic systems in addition to several new systems, a cable box and a BluRay player.  If your entertainment center can hold more than that, you may need splitters, but that should do it for most people.

Since the receiver has only one output to the TV, you don’t need to change any inputs or volume on the TV.  If you can configure your remote to turn the TV on, you should be able to reduce your setup to a couple button presses on the stereo remote and turning on your classic system, before you see your classic game on the screen in the best possible picture and sound quality.  This applies to new systems too, as the receiver will usually keep the settings for each input separately.  So you just push the Xbox input button and turn on the Xbox and the sound and picture will automatically be right, even if you were last watching an old VHS tape in analog stereo.  Even if you somehow mess up the inputs or settings, most receivers are smart about detecting what is plugged in and turned on.  As long as you leave most of the settings on auto, it should right itself unless that cable just isn’t supposed to go there.

Finally you can control most receivers that are wifi capable with an app on your phone or tablet.  You are also generally able to stream music from your phone or tablet to your stereo.  This allows you to control the volume, settings or just turn on your tunes at any time without hunting for the remote.  Since this is over WiFi, not using bluetooth or infared, you can do this anywhere in the range of your home WiFi.  Much better than pointing the remote or having to stay within 25-30 feet.  This is especially useful if you have a multi-zone stereo with speakers outside or throughout the house.  You can change what is playing in different areas, or adjust the volume for other rooms, without going back to where the stereo is.

 

That pretty much wraps this one up.  Hopefully this explanation helps you when deciding how much to put into sound for your gaming setup.

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Companion Video on YouTube

We’re going to try something new.  I am slowly moving towards my dream of turning the blog into a gaming variety show on YouTube.  The first baby step is this article which will be like the director’s commentary to the video above.  I grudgingly accept that the internet masses like reading huge blocks of text a lot less than I like writing them.  So now you can watch it and pursue further content if intrigued.

 

Way back when the original Kindle Fire released, I did an article on the feasibility of using a (at the time) dirt cheap $200 tablet for gaming and media.  This was in the ancient days, when the only cheap tablet options went without things like bluetooth and cameras to hit that “gift-able” $200 price point.  It turned out that the Fire’s (at the time) decent screen and competent chipset made it a clear winner in the bargain category.

Here we are in 2016 and the market has definitely changed.  There are now many tablets under $100, from such questionable manufacturers as DigiLand and Trio (they even have cameras!).  While the quality of these tablets is often laughable, they are tablets and they are less than 100 US dollars.  So Amazon doesn’t have to even do something that wasn’t possible before, they just have to make it slightly less horrible than the competition.  I can gladly say that the Fire 7 is more than slightly less horrible.  It’s actually pretty decent.

There are plenty of reviews for this tablet, as it came out last fall and isn’t remotely new at this point.  The only reason I’m writing about it is that it now goes on sale regularly for $35-40 and the XDA community have worked out all the bugs involved in fixing the things that suck most about this tablet.

 

Why the Fire 7 is worthy, when the others are not:

The Fire 7 has a lot in common with other cheap tablets; it has a low-res screen, it has a MediaTek chipset and it feels like a huge slab of plastic compared to more expensive tablets.  What sets it apart is that it somehow wears these features like a feather boa.  The screen is low resolution enough to save Amazon a lot of money, but tuned and optimized to easily outclass generic offerings.

I’ve tested quite a few generic tablets with MediaTek and Rockchip chipsets and they aren’t usually very pleasant.  Even ones that have decent raw performance are held back by terrible power and heat management, as well as a poorly optimized kernel.  Amazon has clearly thrown at least an afternoon of engineering into this thing, as it bears little resemblance in performance to generics running the same or similar SoCs.  In layman’s terms, that means it doesn’t crash, hang or freeze nearly as often as other cheapo tablets.  The performance is also generally smoother (while still being fairly weak), because it isn’t constantly throttled for power and heat.

Finally the rough plastic exterior is literally rough in every sense.  It feels like holding one of those plastic bobbers at the end of a lifeguard’s rope, but this thing is also one tough SOB.  What I really want out of a beater tablet is something I’m not afraid to take places I wouldn’t take my iPad.  The Fire 7 delivers.  It’s the perfect kick around tablet, even if you drop it in the bathtub, who cares?  It’s a $50 tablet.

 

The warty side and what you need to do to fix it:

The reason this tablet is better than others in the price range is pretty obvious if you’re at all familiar with Amazon.  The Fire 7 is of course loaded with adds and is primarily a way to sell Amazon content to even poorer people.  So Amazon doesn’t mind losing a few bucks on every unit sold.  These ads are annoying and even go so far as putting animated ones on your lock screen.  I’m the sort that likes to have my cake and eat it too, so I ain’t standing for that.  Fortunately everyone else at XDA feels the same way, so development for this tablet has been going strong since day 1.  I’ll provide a link to the index of topics for modifying the Fire 7 at the bottom of this section.  Be aware that you do this at your own risk and you do not have to do all of these things.  I went all out and replaced literally every part of my tablet’s software, besides the kernel.  The only Amazon logo remaining is on the back and at the first splash screen when booting.

  1. Remove ads and install Google Play store
  2. Root your tablet, so that you have full access and can do the rest of these things.
  3. Stop future updates, so you don’t lose your root access and workarounds.
  4. Install custom recovery
  5. Replace the Fire OS entirely with a custom ROM like Cyanogen Mod or similar.
  6. Install Xposed Framework or similar, to give you full control of your hardware and especially storage.

There is a small risk of rendering your tablet inoperable, but even that is fixable with instructions at the following link.

Fire 7 (2015) index of topics at XDA forums

 

How good is it when fully optimized?

As I mentioned earlier, I went all out and rooted, installed custom recovery, Xposed framework, CM12.1 ROM and finally Nova Launcher when I couldn’t get perfect performance out of the stock launcher.  So YMMV goes without saying.  In the end, I got a very reasonable 7″ tablet that was able to play every single game I threw at it, albeit not nearly as well as an expensive tablet.  What makes this product truly worthy as the ultimate budget tablet, was that it did all of this consistently and reliably.  My interface is smooth, without lagging or freezing.  My apps work correctly when I tombstone and reopen them.  It just plain works better than any other cheap tablet and once the Amazon induced drawbacks are removed, it does so without any glaring flaws.

This one is a winner, just like the first one.  I highly recommend this for children or the very poor.  If this is all you can afford, this is what you should buy.  On the other hand, if you are a developer and are looking for the lowest cost of entry on something that can be easily modified and used for testing, this is also your tablet.  Once running custom software, the Fire 7 is more capable in every way than a generic, or a used older tablet you could get at similar price.

 

Why HD remakes are hard to do well.

Posted: June 25, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology

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HD de-master?

 

I find the closer I get to middle age, the more nostalgic I become for things from my childhood.  Fortunately for me, this comes during a time that will probably be known in art history as the “remake” period.  Every movie, show and video game from my childhood is being remade with the newest technologies.  Sometimes though, new is not improved.  These remakes range from the fantastic Mario and Zelda HD/3D versions to the obvious cash-milking efforts put out by Square-Enix.  The quality of a remake isn’t always the direct fault of the people doing the port though.  They may have been sabotaged 20 years ago by poor foresight.

 

Games are hard to hold onto.

Until only very recently, it was cost prohibitive to keep the original assets for games.  All of the content that goes into making a game is many hundreds of times the size of the final game ROM or disc image.  You have all the uncompressed sound files and images used to make the textures, not to mention all the stuff left over from testing and earlier versions.  The assets used to make a game like Final Fantasy VII were probably in the tens to even hundred gigs of data.  In 1997, this would have been most of the storage space available for the entire company.  So deleting the assets would be necessary, unless they wanted to buy dozens of new hard drives to develop a new game.  Storage was expensive as well, meaning that this was not realistic when only the final game image would be needed to later port to other systems or re-release the game.

The problem with this though, is that with only the final game data, you cannot ever put things removed or downgraded back into the game.  The original art used to make the textures is gone, so you can’t make them look any better without creating them from scratch all over again.  The same goes for the sound files, character animation data etc.  Simply put, you have to remake any part of the game you would ever want to improve.  So what do you do?  The following are the approaches developers take to reviving old games for new profits.

 

Emulate your own game.

The simplest method is just to do what many of us do with our computers, phones and tablets.  You use software to emulate the original system and play the original ROM as it was released.  You can use effects and shaders to improve the image and sound slightly, but you can only get so much from the original source.  This is the method that Squeenix uses for Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior games.  With the exception of a few like FFIII and IV, which are remakes and X-X2 which have redone textures and music, the other games are just emulated versions of the originals.  This method is very simple and I have suspected on multiple occasions that the developers just stole work already done by fans and put it on the market.  For example the Steam re-release of FFVII has a number of bits in its files that bear a striking resemblance to several fan mods, made to make the game run on modern PCs.  This is basically the money-grabbing bottom-of-the-barrel for remakes.

 

Mod your own game.

Fortunately for developers, a lot of us players have been at this a long time.  We never had any more than the final game, so we’re used to extracting the assets and replacing them with custom content.  So most developers just take advantage of what other people have already solved and use existing tools to pull apart the game and upgrade the assets.  This is ironic and absurd on occasion, as many of these games developers were vocally against modding at the time of the game’s original release.  Yet when the promise of more money for work already done arises, they will gladly steal the fruits of the labor they once decried.  Ah humans.  Fortunately this leads to much better looking products like Resident Evil 4 HD and the aforementioned FFX-X2.

 

Remake the game, with or without reverence.

This can lead to the best and worst of game remakes.  Some, like Super Mario 3D world, completely reinvent a game in a way that is true to the original and adds new fun.  Others, like Goldeneye on Wii, completely lose track of the original in the changes, becoming a separate and often inferior product.  The major downside of this is that it almost always takes more money and resources than making the original game.  It only took a handful of people to make SNES games, while making a 3DS game takes many, many more.  A gamble like this is easy for a large company like Nintendo, but poses a much bigger risk for license-holders who are not a worldwide institution already.

 

Fortunately, this is nearly an issue of the past.  Hard drive space is now huge and cheap, allowing most studios to keep multiple backups of the original game assets.  This is why Infinity Ward can casually toss in an HD remastered Call of Duty 4 with the upcoming game.  It probably took them very little effort to pull out the original data and update it to run nicely on new hardware, adding some modern effects in the process.  So if you are younger than 25, your childhood is probably safe.  Halo and God of War will be able to be infinitely remastered for the next 1000 years.

 

 

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This is a subject I’ve written about a great deal in the past, but long before this blog was created.  You see, from the late 90s to the present, Zelda Ocarina of Time has had a huge modding community who sought to discover lost elements hidden within various versions of the game’s rom.  According to legend, there were several unreleased versions of the game that differ quite a bit from the final version.  These are referred to as Zelda 64, beta Zelda, Zelda Gaiden and Ura Zelda respectively.  The most relevant is Ura Zelda, which was to be an expansion for OOT, built from the remains of the original 64DD version.  Now, many years down the line, we still have a huge community dedicated to trying to unearth remnants of this lost version.

Since Nintendo has never released any code, screenshots or solid information about this version after OOT’s release, there is much confusion about it.  The biggest being that Ura Zelda was nothing more than the Master Quest released with the Wind Waker bonus disk.  While that may be true of what Nintedo dubbed “Ura Zelda” and the missing elements we want were from another build or version of the project, the fact is that there are other missing features fans still want to see.

A new issue facing us is that many of the original generation of OOT modders have moved on (myself included), being replaced by a new generation who are fresh and ready to dig through some code.  The danger is that many of these people weren’t around when all of this was new and have started to confuse internet rumor and rampant speculation with documented facts, just because they have been floating around so long.  It’s kind of like the whole “Sherlock never said ‘elementary’ in the books” thing.  When something becomes so popular that fans everywhere adopt it, it becomes hard to separate it from the original body of work.  Fortunately, I was there at day one, imported Action Replay in hand (Datel is a UK company and the AR was not released in the US for years, leaving us the inferior Gameshark).  So if you are reading this obscure blog, hopefully you can evangelize this info and help clear this up.

 

 

Elements fans incorrectly assume to mean something else:

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Gold, Silver and Black tunics:  This one is going to hurt some of you, as many fans have used these tunics as the key piece of evidence for the ‘lost’ ice and light temples.  There actually are no extra tunics hidden in OOT’s code.  There are no text references to the items, no events or text relating to Link getting them, nada.  The only reason you see them now is because one of the first codes we figured out back in 1999 was changing the color value of objects.  Black, silver and gold were just the ones first arbitrarily chosen BECAUSE of fan theories about missing temples.  You can actually change the digits for color to anything on the RGB scale and you can easily find screenshots of many colored tunics.  If you are having a hard time accepting this, do some searching.  You will find no beta screenshot, interview or early footage showing these tunics and there is no unmodified code referencing them in any version of the game.

Unicorn fountain and fairy statue:  For some reason that I still do not understand, everyone on the internet seems to believe the unicorn fountain would have given Link the blade beam ability.  Maybe it’s because there are 3 unicorn heads and the early footage of this attack showed 3 beams coming out of Link’s sword.  As far as I can tell, that is the only reason, as this was never mentioned by any developer.  If you judge the unicorn fountain, fairy statue and unused fairy fountain wall textures just based on what the code says, there is no suggestion of any of the fan theories related to them.  It appears that these were just designs for the fairy fountains that were never used.  My guess (and this is definitely speculation, do not emit this if you quote) is that the fairy fountains were originally going to be different and each would have featured a statue or fountain.  Then at some point the model for the great fairy was created instead and they made the fountains empty to make room for her character model, also making them all the same textures and design inside.

The Ice Temple in Zora’s Domain:  I think this theory is accurate, but incorrect in the details.  Most people assume that the Ice Cavern is just a small part of what would have been an Ice Temple that is no longer in the game.  When we look at some leftover flags and events still in the main game, it seems as if the world was significantly modified later in development.  One of my theories based on this (once again this is speculation), is that Zora’s Domain was not originally connected to Lake Hylia by underwater passage, but instead by a longer Zora’s river that didn’t dead end in Hyrule Field.  So by this logic, I think the “Ice Temple” was just a longer sequence where the cavern was intertwined with Zora’s Domain (possibly including the mysterious hole under the ice) where you unfroze the Zoras.  In the final version, the cavern was shrunk and disconnected from the other links to Zora’s Domain, which were re-purposed as links to other areas.  The reason I believe this, is that unlike the Sky and “Deep Woods” temples, there is no reference to it being an actual temple.  There are versions of the Water Medallion that were called the “Ice Medallion” in early screenshots, but this was also looooong before the Water Temple was ever shown.  So my guess is that there was never an Ice Temple that was designed and the Water Temple was intended to be totally separate from all of the ice objects found in the final game rom.  The connection between the two only exists in the minds of fans because the devs named the medallions before actually designing the dungeons.

The Temple of Time is the Light Temple:  First of all, I can totally see why this is a popular theory.  I mean, it’s called a temple and you meet Rauru there, who gives you a medallion without requiring you to beat a dungeon.  It seems like a slam dunk theory that simply must be true.  Except for one major flaw; there are references throughout the game to the entrance to the sacred realm being hidden near Hyrule Castle.  Look at it this way, if Ganon had already accessed the sacred realm at this point, he would have found Rauru and taken his medallion 7 years before Link ever woke up.  So having one of the dungeons be in the sacred realm doesn’t make a lot of sense.  It’s definitely possible that there was some other hidden entrance elsewhere and the Temple of Time just got re-purposed as that without removing its sage, Rauru.  To be clear though, there is nothing hidden in the game’s code or early screens that suggests this.  Even the earliest shots of the Temple of Time show it as basically the same size and layout we see in the final game.  If there ever was a “Light Temple” that was actually developed and tested, it has been so thoroughly removed from the game that we now have no idea where it was located.

The Sky Temple theories:  There are a few references in the final game and several more in unused dialogue, that mention a race of winged beings and a temple in the sky.  Theories about this have been combined into the “Sky Temple” theory; that there was an additional temple in the sky that was removed from the final game.  This makes a lot of sense, because the light medallion was once called the “Air Medallion” in early screen shots.  This is yet another bit of evidence that leads me to believe that the “Light Temple” and “Sky Temple” were one and the same and never actually developed.  Once again we have to speculate, but I think this is another example of the temple medallions being created after initial dungeon brainstorming, but before actual dungeon development.  It’s important to note that there are generally 7-8 dungeons in Zelda games.  So my guess is that people had all kinds of ideas for dungeons, but when the idea of Child Link was added to the game (this was pretty early), they realized they were going to have to cut some to keep the game length reasonable.  So this would lead to these “extra” dungeons being cut from the game long before they were actually developed in any meaningful way.  To be clear, there is no lost room or dialogue in the game that specifically references an explorable temple.  This leads me to believe that the Sky Temple was never more than concept art and finally became the version we later saw in Twilight Princess.

The Running Man:  What is it with you people and winning?  You can’t beat him, you just can’t.  That’s the whole point.  People like to cite an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto where he once joked about the possibility of beating him, but he was clearly not serious.  It seems pretty obvious to anyone not obsessed with beating an imaginary character that not winning is the whole point.  There are numerous examples of things Miyamoto puts in his games just to mess with you.  While there may have been some version of the minigame that was winnable (there is a text line that many attribute to the runner that says “How did you do that?” unused in the game rom), but there is no reference anywhere for that being an actual goal in Ura’s development.  Whenever they made the call that you should not be able to win, it appears that remained the plan until release.  Sorry, you just can’t win ’em all.  Deal with it.

The Arwing:  I know this one is near and dear to many of you and you may have many a mad theory about it.  I’ve even heard one that claimed the Arwing hidden in OOT would have linked the universes of both games.  If we look at the model and its data in the game, there is absolutely nothing to suggest this.  What I do know is that the rumble pack was released with Star Fox 64 and OOT followed that game.  There have been rumblings ( that the Arwing was just an early rumble pack tutorial that also thanked you for buying Star Fox 64.  Although there is no text or anything in the game rom that supports this, I believe it.  That’s a very Miyamoto thing to put in a game and I can easily see it being cut as too silly before the game’s release.  So while we can’t say that the Arwing wasn’t a feature that would have appeared in Ura, there is no reason for us to think that it would.

 

 

The “Ura Zelda” fan-made Romhacks

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There is a lot of confusion about these, partially due to a complete postmortem internet blackout of information on one of them.  There are two major projects to be aware of; the Triforce Resoration Project, which is still ongoing (slowly) and Zeth’s Ura Zelda Restoration Project.  It’s the latter that leads to most of the confusion.  When Zeth decided to discontinue development, s/he did so with a vengeance and attempted to remove all traces of it from the internet.  This was caused by some drama at the time and people being dicks about something that shouldn’t have mattered to them.  I’m not going to summarize that part, as I feel bringing up old net drama is a waste of time.  The result is many people not knowing the history of this project and that is is in fact completely separate from the unreleased Ura Zelda developed by Nintendo.  You see, what originally started as a project to restore lost content to the game, later turned into a complete fan-conversion with original content.  This was all clearly explained at the time, but is now lost to easily searchable documentation.  This leads many to find old screenshots and videos of the project and believing them to be original Ura content.  This is completely not the case and be careful to avoid these two projects if you are researching the original Ura Zelda, Zelda 64 or Zelda Gaiden history.  Don’t get me wrong, there is some terrific work in both of them and you should hunt down the released/leaked demos if you have the ability to emulate them.  Just remember that everything in them is original content created by fans, based at best on speculation about what Ura Zelda could have been.

 

 

So what do we KNOW would have been in Ura Zelda?

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The redesigned dungeons:  At this point, although we may disagree about how much of Ura Zelda these made up, we can all agree that the redesigned dungeons were part of it.  Miyamoto had expressed interest very early on at having a set of harder dungeons for a second playthrough, just like the original LoZ.  There appears to have been some disagreement between Miyamoto and Aonuma about whether the development team would be better spent on designing these or making a sequel.  Nobody knows what happened exactly (the two contradict each other somewhat when interviewed later), but it appears that some sort of compromise was made that involved most of the developers moving on to Majora’s Mask with most of the unused ideas for OOT and a few remaining to finish the alternate dungeons that became Master Quest.  So at this point Ura itself appears to have ceased to exist as we imagined it and became those two projects.

Young Epona:  This one is easy to prove.  Not only was ride-able young Epona shown in early screen shots, but with GS/AR codes we can now add this function back into the game.  Animations and collision exist for a rideable young Epona, so it makes one wonder why it was removed.  Just a thought, but my guess is that it has to do with animal cruelty, which created many other late changes (like the rings being removed from the cow’s mouths).  I’m no equestrian, but I do know you should not ride a young horse at that age (the horse’s age not Link).  It seems odd that a game where you can attack chickens would remove such things, but we know they did, so it’s pretty easy to see young Epona getting the cut as well.  If that was not the case though and the issue was memory, we can assume that this is a feature that would have appeared in Ura.  Be aware that if you use the code to add young Epona, the game starts to chug.  It’s highly recommended to also use the code allowing OOT to use the added Expansion Pack ram like Majora’s Mask.

More detailed NPC interactions and behavior:  Now this is a really weird one, as we can actually see that something would have been different with the pieces we already have.  If you connect a 64DD to an N64 running OOT and trick it into bypassing the warning screen, several NPCs will become glitched and sort of lie horizontally on the ground.  Development wise, this likely means that the animations for these characters would be completely different with the 64DD expansion.  The code would have been on the disk, which has never surfaced to this day, so we can only speculate.  Just based on my knowledge of the game’s rom though, I can move from speculation into educated guessing.  Several designers had referenced a desire to make NPCs more lifelike and complex as well as following set patterns based on an improved time system (basically what we see in Majora’s Mask).  My educated guess is that NPCs in Castle Town would have followed a schedule, rather than a repeated pattern of movement and this is the missing code the game is trying to access.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this was just taken wholesale and dumped into Majora’s Mask.  It would be interesting if someone could find extra movement data for the similar NPCs in Majora’s Mask and attempt to apply it to those models in OOT, but that is a bit beyond my own abilities.

A Persistent World:  There’s one speculation I can make without much doubt.  That is that some time in 1996-7, Shigeru Miyamoto got his first gaming PC and saw games like TES: Daggerfall that were experimenting with a persistent world that kept player-made changes.  Immediately after this, he must have stormed into a Nintendo meeting and declared that console gaming needed to try this.  I would not be surprised if that was the whole genesis of the 64DD expansion that bombed so dramatically a few years later.  Having a re-writable storage drive is what makes the sandbox titles of today possible.  In 1996, console gaming was in no way ready to make this leap.  Miyamoto clearly dreamed of a Hyrule where each footstep would remain for an entire playthrough and slashed signs would  remain unreadable.  While it’s a cool idea, it breaks down in practice for a number of reasons.  First is that bushes and trees are a necessary source of items in the game.  I suppose you could just acquire them from other sources, but making Hyrule progressively more barren as the game continued might just be frustrating and pointless.  Furthermore, there is the issue of loading times.  One of the things that killed many dreams for the 64DD was the fact that it loads MUCH slower than the N64 cartridges.  In practice, this would have meant either adding loading screens between each scene transition for the DD to catch up, or a much worse affect where you enter an area and 2 seconds later a sign falls apart and a bunch of footsteps appear.  For these reasons and more that I won’t bore you with, I think this is just another Miyamoto pipe dream that wasn’t feasible and ended up being another nail in Ura’s coffin.  I mean, imagine you’re a designer and you could really use more memory for your dungeon.  Then the producer shows up and announces that the DD will provide more memory, but he wants to use it up with 10 billion footstep decals.  I personally would fight that tooth and nail.  So as cool as it sounds in practice, do you really want your file at the end of the game to look like a barren wasteland with nothing but your own footsteps on the ground?

Other dungeons?:  This one is tough, because almost every area we see that was not included in the final game was so early that it could easily have been redesigned into the areas we now know.  The “Deep Woods Shrine/Temple” is one of these.  Many people say it could not possibly be the Deku Tree because of its design and could not be the Forest Temple because young Link is shown there in screen shots.  While that makes sense on the surface if you are only comparing a screen shot to the final game, it breaks down when we apply what we already know of game development.  It’s quite possible that when these sections were designed in early versions, the idea to put a dungeon inside the Deku Tree hadn’t come up yet.  Although the Deku Tree is shown in some very early screenshots, his mouth appears to be closed.  Furthermore, the textures on the Deku Tree’s mouth when open do look like the model was modified after its initial design.  So justifying an entire missing temple based on those qualifications is pretty weak when you examine it objectively.  It’s very likely that whole areas were changed drastically over the 3 year development process.  Parts of the Water Temple could have started in the Forest Temple and parts of Kakariko Village could have started in Castle Town.  There is no law of game development that says a gameplay element must remain where originally placed until the game ships.  So with all of that said, my official verdict (which I believe all the evidence supports) is that there were different dungeons, but at most there was only one additional one that represented the 6th Medallion (which became the light medallion).  This makes sense because all “light” related things have been redistributed in other sections of the game.  Rauru gives you the medallion and Zelda gives you the light arrows at the end of the game.  Besides that though, all evidence supports the total number of Dungeons being the same.  Early screenshots and videos show 6 medallions and 3 spiritual stones, just like we see in the final version.  Unless the additional dungeons would have been “side dungeons” like the Bottom of the Well, that gave you no stone or medallion, it seems unlikely that there would have been more.  I think it is very credible that things were just re-arranged and some dungeons were split or combined, but that the “extra dungeons” idea was just a mis-translation of Miyamoto’s desire to put harder versions of the original dungeons in the game.

Larger game world:  This is one of my favorites because there are a few clear bits of evidence for it.  Several of the developers have used the words “bigger” and “more complex” when describing how Ura’s world would have differed from the released OOT.  Those are just low-hanging fruit though.  Every developer wishes they could have made their game bigger and more complex.  We cannot even begin to speculate, based on those statements, what they actually intended or had already developed.  Fortunately, we have a few pieces of physical evidence that remain and a few others that we have seen of heard of.  The first is the center point (in X/Y) for Hyrule Field.  It is located just inside the gates of Castle Town, which is odd, as almost all other areas place it near the center of a map or directly outside the main entrance.  It’s possible this is just a random unrelated data point, but it combines with a few others that give it credibility.  In almost all other Zelda games, Hyrul Castle is in the middle of the game’s map.  Twilight Princess is an excellent example as it features a similar layout overall to OOT and is actually supposed to be the same Hyrule as there was no great flood in this timeline branch.  There is also a rumored version of the world map that people claim to have seen in the menu of an early playble demo, but I have never seen it or a credible screenshot.  That should be taken with a grain of salt though, as it was shown behind closed doors and photographs were not allowed.  This version of the map supposedly had the field wrapping more around the castle and Hyrule Field was larger.  Zora’s River also connected to Lake Hylia, which supports my Ice Temple vs. Water Temple theory.  Unfortunately this demo did not actually include Hyrule Field as explorable, so the only info we get is from people viewing it in the menu, before they had actually visited the areas of the game.  I wouldn’t put too much weight on that tidbit though, besides that it matches up with other mysteries.  The crown jewel of this theory is actually the pre-rendered parts of the game.  It seems fairly obvious that the CG interiors of buildings were used to save space and avoid difficult camera collision problems.  What doesn’t make sense is things like the Temple of Time and Death Mountain (no matter where you see it from) being 2D pictures.  With all the large 3D objects in this game, I have a hard time believing that they pre-rendered only the exterior of one of the most important locations in the game just to save space.  If you consider that every other area external to Hyrule Field has at least some 3D modelled terrain visible from Hyrule Field, it seems odd also that Death Mountain is just a big flat painting.  If Hyrule Field was orignally larger and shaped differently, it would be the only object tall enough to be viewed from Castle Town.  This means that when the world was re-configured, it would have to be moved or made larger/smaller in appearance to appear correct in relation to Hyrule Castle.  We’re back in the realm of speculation, but it does seem oddly coincidental that all the areas from which you would be able to see Death Mountain (and Death Mountain itself) are pre-generated backgrounds that could have been easily modified late in development.  Take that as you will, but I think the “Bigger Hyrule” theory is strongly supported by the evidence we have now.

 

 

That’s all for now folks.  Although few may read it, my hope is that this post will serve as a resource for those looking at what Ura really was and could have been.  Although this article is definitely peppered with my own guesswork, I’ve tried to stay within reason based on what the developers have said and shown in the past.  More than that I am both a game modder and halfway decent writer, so hopefully I have been able to explain more clearly what has actually been found in OOT’s rom and what is pure speculation based on wishful thinking.  Feel free to comment, correct or contribute!

 

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As any good journalist should, I like to use a title that is provocative, but misleading in order to lure a reader into fully exploring the article.  We call it a goad.  For many, the mere suggestion that Fallout 4 will be anything but the greatest masterpiece since the last masterpiece by Bethesda is blasphemous.  For completionists and the obsessive compulsive, Bethesda games are literally the greatest thing that has ever existed.  Myself, I definitely enjoy a good Bethesda game.  I’ve been playing them consistently since Daggerfall and have even played games like Sea Dogs 2 (google it) which you have never heard of because they were never released.  So if that is what you are thinking, get off your high horse of sanctimony and read this not at all Elder Scolls/Fallout bashing article.

Why I am preparing myself for disappointment is because I know this new game will be more of the (admittedly excellent) same.  Which is what I want, don’t get me wrong.  What bums me out with each new game since Oblivion now, is that the underlying game engine has not changed and many of its flaws will remain.  Every single Elder Scrolls/Fallout launch, we get basically the same bugs.  Memory leaks, NPC pathfinding issues, crash on certain item spawns etc. etc.  These are the sort of issues that plague any sandbox game once millions of people get their hands on it.  What’s so annoying is that they are the same bugs every time, since the game engine has not changed for a decade now.  Each successive game has technologically been an expansion on Oblivion, just adding new graphical effects and gameplay mechanics on top of the original foundation.

While this has been a fantastic engine that has created some of the best open-world games of the past decade, its performance has been surpassed in many ways by other contemporaries.  Games like Metal Gear Solid 5 and Far Cry 4 effortlessly pull off long draw distances and enemy spawning ranges, while featuring none of the bugs Bethesda games are prone to.  Furthermore, if Bethesda started from scratch with a new engine, the familiarization process would lead the developers to come up with new innovations as they solve problems in different ways.

I’m sure I will enjoy Fallout 4 just as much as I have enjoyed the many, many similar games by this studio that have come out in the past.  It may even significantly reduce the bugs we’re used to seeing.  If the game runs flawlessly on most systems when it releases, I’ll come back and edit this post.  It’s been 4 games now on this engine though, with pretty similar results at launch.  Each time, there have been a few recurring bugs at launch that have made the game unplayable for more than a few people.  Then there have been the annoying little glitches with the way the games work that are either slowly patched out or remain.  This has improved slightly over time, with more testing being done per game I assume.  Hopefully Fallout 4 has the barest minimum of launch day bugs, making my fears unnecessary.

The Cardinal Rules of “How not to piss the player off” part 1

Posted: October 3, 2015 by ryanlecocq in Uncategorized

Since developers seem to have a really hard time understanding player feedback, I’m working on a solution.  It seems human intelligence has plummeted to the point where only listicles can be understood by most people.  So here you go cavepeople, here’s you list.

Do not take control from my hands for at least the first 10 minutes.  Period.

No tutorial, no long narrative, no anything that arbitrarily forces me to to make my first impression a certain way.  Do like the original Silent Hill; dump me in the game immediately after a brief cinema (which should happen while the game loads) with no idea what to do, then throw examples of what the game will be like in my face.  Once you have my attention, THEN throw out some hints and gameplay advice, maybe an annoying character or two who will drone on and on about my objectives.  This one is aimed squarely at you Rockstar.  I seriously almost uninstalled GTA5 from my PC and refused to play it, because it makes me so angry when developers hold my hand and force me to complete lengthy tutorials before I can even enter multiplayer.  Honestly I wish there were laws that involved you being tarred and feathered for this.

Do not take away an essential character or class for a large section of the game.

Anyone who played pretty much any of the Final Fantasies up to XII will remember that taking away your white mage for a large chunk of each game used to be a thing.  Or your summoner, or whatever.  That essential person in your party that made everything awesome would get taken away for some stupid plot reason for way too much of the game.  I get that Aeris had to die, that is part of what made FFVII famous.  That is just one of the excuses to gank your white mage over the years though.  It’s not just Final Fantasy.  Many games will use the tactic of taking away some essential character or mechanic, that you have invested hours into developing, right when you need them the most.  Like in *spoilers* MGSV, it often involves a moving and tragic death that serves the plot.  Please don’t do this if it affects gameplay.  If you have to kill the hero’s lover in the name of the plot, go for it, but immediately follow by introducing a substitute character or something.

If the genre or plot allows it, let the player continue playing after the credits roll.

I remember fondly when Zelda: Ocarina of Time came out on N64.  I loved that game so much, I didn’t just play it for the next several months like everybody else.  I played it for the next several years, modified it with a gameshark and a serial cable, even later made an N64 Master Quest cartridge for N64 by extracting it from the Gamecube disc and loading it on a flash cartridge.  Long story short, I loved that game.  The one gripe I always had was that you couldn’t play after the credits.  You can continuously play from right before the final battle, but Ganon’s offensive smog will always deny you the satisfaction of knowing you defeated him.  Not only that, but you can never see all of the townspeople happily back in their homes and shops.  That would be way more satisfying than a cutscene of the whole country having a barbecue (sorry for that OOT ending spoiler if somehow you haven’t played it).

Do not EVER make a game that pretends to be about player decisions and then ends with a “3 Choice” ending.

It’s ridiculous that this specific gripe could even exist, yet in video games, it does.  The original offender was Fallout 3.  The game made it seem like all of the plot choices you made would change the ending, but at the end you just chose what would happen.  Then Deus Ex: Human Revolution did it.  Then, in a move I still can’t even believe happened, Mass Effect did it.  After 3 games, plus DLC, expecting players to have invested between $180-300 in the series on the promise that every choice would change your final fate, Mass Effect 3 ended with a 3 Choice ending.  The backlash was insane, but justifiably so.  Bioware had made millions, likely billions of dollars on this franchise and this promise of player created gameplay, then copped out at the climax.  Other similar offenses include the way Fable 3 handles the conclusion of its plot.  The game makes it seem like you have the freedom to rule, but unless you specifically focus on making money from early in the game, a large portion of your citizens will die at the end.  The game basically punishes you for being idealistic and trying to keep money out of politics.  The only way to create a perfect file is to take over the economy early on by buying every house and business, then raising the rent, so you can later save the world with your wealth.  Then you can give the people back their land, lower prices on everything and create perfect happiness and prosperity.  Because that makes sense and is totally how politics work.

Don’t over use a gimmick that isn’t functioning by launch.

This is an offense that is as old as video games.  I think we can all name some game that had a central game mechanic that was totally glitchy or broken when the game was released.  One of my favorites is the enemy targeting in the original release of Phantasy Star Online.  You used the same button to pick up items, read descriptions or unless changed, use your basic attack.  The game would often decide that you wanted to do the least useful of these things for the situation.  It was also almost impossible to line enemies up with some weapons.  Considering killing monsters is what you do in this game, it was an issue.  An issue that fortunately got better in later versions.  Not all games can say this and there are many games I fondly remember where the basic thing you did worked worse than the swimming in Super Mario Galaxy.  Developers, if the game is close to launch and a core mechanic is still broken, you just have to scrap it or simplify it.  It can make a great game have a huge wart or a decent game completely unplayable.

Whenever possible, release cut content at a later date, even if it must cost more.

Games have gotten much better about this, but it still needs to be said.  If a relevant part of the game needs to be cut to get the game ready by launch, try to release it later so the players get to experience it.  Some games, like the aforementioned Zelda OOT, had so much cut content it could have made a trilogy of games.  It’s like the opposite of the Hobbit movies, where you have enough for 3, but only make one.  Now that DLC is so prevalent anyway, try to include all those features you wowed the public with at past trade shows, but didn’t deliver at launch.  We would much rather have that in the game than a badly implemented PVP mode, or side missions with a character nobody likes.

 

That’s it for part 1.  I’m sure more will come up over brews with the boys.

 

 

I finally managed to see Mad Max: Fury Road yesterday.  I always try to avoid anything that creates controversy until it has all blown over, so it won’t influence my experience at all.  I waited forever to start reading Harry Potter, I will probably never read 50 Shades of Gray.  When a bunch of people go all homo sapiens on something, it just kind of makes me feel ick and I avoid it.  I want my fiction untainted by a bunch of other people getting there first and making it about something stupid.  So you have probably heard something about this Mad Max and the emasculation of action movies stuff recently.  Naturally I was nervous going in and waited as long as I could.  I’m a huge Mad Max fan though and that wasn’t very long.

So I sat there for two hours and was like “Huh?”  Let me rephrase that; I sat there for two hours and was like “I LOVE THIS MOVIE!!!!!” but as to the challenging of my role as a man I was like “Huh?”  I did not for one moment feel threatened by this movie or understand how it could be threatening.  I mean, I was expecting Imperator Furiosa to grow a penis and declare men obsolete or something from the nonsense I tried to scroll past online.  Yes, there are some women who do some badass things in this movie.  Have you seen the other Mad Max films?  Pretty much all the women kick ass.  Arguably the least badass female character was Jessie (Max’ wife), who was pretty badass and only didn’t kick the shit out of the Toecutter because she was completely unarmed and holding her child, so she wisely attempted to run.  Maybe people just forgot, because the 80s were so long ago and the 6′ warrior women of films like Conan, James Bond and Mad Max were replaced with the tiny weaklings of today.

Sometimes I have to take a position that is hard to defend, in this case I feel like the white guy who “doesn’t see color”.  Let me tell you a little story that is both humbling for me and explains the merit of my views.  When I was 7 or 8 years old, I slapped a girl at school.  Now, before you assume I watched abuse at home or something, hear me out.  I slapped her while we were in the midst of a pushing, slapping, scratching and hair-pulling fight.  It was hardcore kid fighting and I was not fighting in a manly manner by any means myself.  It was over some unsolvable issue like who got the kickball and escalated quickly.  So I ended up in the principal’s office, because hitting girls is not okay.  Now you must understand, I was raised in a crop of wild children from a line of wild children.  My cousin Catherine, my brother Dustin and I would fight frequently and with great savagery.  So naturally my question was “Why?”  The principal responded that it was because girls were weaker and could not defend themselves.

Being raised as a critical thinker, I examined the evidence.  Most girls were at least as big as I was at this age and showed no lack of ability to defend themselves.  Also I was almost certain that my mom could beat this guy up in no time flat, but I didn’t think that would be wise to list as evidence.  So I decided to play it safe and take the “Are you sure?  Because what you’re saying doesn’t really make sense to me.”  This was not going well.  He assumed that I must live in some terrible environment of abuse where this sort of thing seemed normal to me.  So the parents had to come in.  Meet my parents: both educated, personable and well adjusted people who do not come off as physically violent at all.  My father is a park ranger and my mother is a senior activity center manager and teaches powerlifting and Tai Chi to senior citizens.  Hmm, guess not, so just scare them into giving me a good talking to.  So this was where I first got the explanation that this was not acceptable behavior.  I don’t think my parents even seconded the ‘women are weak’ part, it must have rankled them too much, but they said I just couldn’t do it.  If some of you suffered under sexist parents and are crying right now because my parents are amazing, I know.

Now let me tell you what they did teach me before this point.  My mother read to me constantly before I started reading myself.  The Lord of the Rings and Narnia were a must, so I got Eowyn slaying the Witch King before I was reading See Spot Run?  One of the first series I read myself was Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles.  You may have seen the Disney version of the second book, The Black Cauldron.  Let me sum up the Prydain chronicles in a few sentences:  Taran, the boy, wants to be a hero and impress Elonwy, the girl.  He spends a lot of time and effort trying to do this and Elonwy is constantly like “yeah no time for that, gotta save the kingdom”.  At the very end, Taran finally feels like he’s done enough badass things to humbly ask Elonwy to marry him, even though she is a princess and he is a peasant.  Her response is pretty much this: “I’m a princess with magical fucking powers.  I can marry whoever I want to.  You are the only dude I have hung out with since I was 10 years old, of course you have to marry me.  Is this really what you’ve been doing this entire series?”  The End.

That is what I was raised to believe.  Individual worth has nothing to do with your gender, what you look like or what aptitudes and disadvantages you are born with.  It’s about what you do and how much you dare.  Women have less average body mass and natural testosterone than men.  That may be a fact.  That means absolutely jack-all when it comes to fighting ability, firearms proficiency, driving skill, tactical understanding or heroic behavior.  Sure, maybe we can think of some situation where an action hero is trapped under something and the thing she needs is right out of reach, if she were only a man with longer arms she could reach it.  I would also assume she had been that size her entire life and would have learned to improvise tools better than an average person to make up for this disadvantage.  That’s how life works.  The driven and ambitious people become more capable than the rest through acquisition of skills and training that make them capable.  Look at a photo of some special forces troops.  There are a lot of small guys there aren’t there?  Some even as short as an average woman.  One could almost argue that size disadvantages motivate one even more to overcome physical obstacles.  If it were me, it would be because I never wanted to fear anyone for being larger, but I’m average in size and can’t truly empathize.

You may have noticed that throughout this article, most others you will read and the Mad Max movie itself, you will see no mention of the fact that Furiosa is also missing an arm.  I like to think of her missing arm as a metaphor for the gender representation in the movie.  It’s not an issue to the plot and it shouldn’t be an issue to us.  If a person with one arm can thrive in an apocalyptic wasteland, doesn’t asking if a woman can seem utterly ridiculous?