Tuesday, July 4, 2017

SNES "Port"pouri

Space Invaders and the Super Game Boy

Super Game Boy Mode
Arcade Mode

Space Invaders was released for the Game Boy in 1994.  It indicated that it supported the Super Game Boy.  It did so in a unique way, when you selected the Arcade Mode, it launched a slightly cut-down version of the SNES Space Invaders port which had been previously only been released in Japan.  The only thing missing from the game as run transferred from the Super Game Boy and the game that was released on cartridge in Japan in 1994 and the U.S. in 1997 is the VS mode.

But there was also a Super Game Boy Mode which ran a colorized version of the Game Boy game.   This did not support the two-player mode of the handheld Game Boy because the first model of the Super Game Boy lacked a Game Link port.  It does display the cabinet artwork which the SNES game does not.  One lesser-known feature of the Game Boy and the Super Game Boy Mode over the SNES game is the support for stereo sound.  The stereo support is also featured in the Japanese Game Boy version of Space Invaders released in 1990, even though the sound effects are different.

The stereo support in this game supports stereo panning in two instances.  The first instance is the shots fired by your cannon.  If you fire when on the left side of the screen, you will hear the sound effect from the left speaker or headphone bud.  If you fire when on the center of the screen, you will hear the sound effect from the both speakers and headphone buds.  If you fire when on the right side of the screen, you will hear the sound effect from the right speaker or headphone bud.  You will also hear the flying saucer's sound effect pan from left to center to right as it crosses the screen.

This type of hard stereo panning is somewhat crude and not very common.  A similar method of primitive positional sound was done in Wolfenstein 3-D for the PC with a Sound Blaster Pro or Sound Blaster 16 or compatible cards.  This positional sound did have an unusual testing ability, however.

As everyone knows, Nintendo, in its infinite design wisdom, omitted a headphone jack from its GBA SP.  This issue is unique among Nintendo's handhelds to the GBA SP.  An official headphone adapter as well as third party headphone adapters were made.  I acquired an official and a third party adapter. When I tried Space Invaders with the official adapter, the stereo panning effect worked as expected. When I tried Space Invaders with the third party adapter, the stereo panning effect was reversed.

Arkanoid: Doh It Again and the SNES Mouse

Arkanoid : Revenge of Doh
Arkanoid : Doh it Again

While not exactly a port, late in the SNES's life (1997) Arkanoid: Doh It Again was released.  The Arkanoid series had revitalized Breakout clone with powerups, enemies, bosses, and different types of bricks.  This game was very similar to its arcade predecessors Arkanoid and Arkanoid : Revenge of Doh.  These games used a paddle knob to control the Vaus.  The SNES Arkanoid looks very much like the arcade version of   Arkanoid Revenge of Doh.

The paddle knobs to control Pong, Breakout and Super Breakout were large potentiometers.  But the spinners that control games like Tempest, Tron, Ikari Warriors and Arkanoid use optical rotary encoders.  Unlike potentiometers, they do not have a stopping point in their turn.  Moreover, they do not rely on measuring resistance to determine movement and speed.  Instead, they determine movement and speed by counting the number of times the spokes on a wheel breaks the connection between a light source on one side of the wheel and a photodiode on the other side of the wheel.  This allows arcade players to move their Vaus slowly or quickly but very precisely depending on how fast they turn the knob.  Rotary controllers are far more precise than potentiometers, not subject to jitter and are much more resistant to dirt.

In addition to spinners, optical encoders were used by ball mice and trackballs from their invention through the end of the 20th century.  The ball would push a roller which turns a wheel in between an optical sensor.  Mice are two-dimensional optical controllers compared to the one-dimensional spinner.  Infrared optical mice did exist but usually required special mouse pads and were not very popular.  The SNES Mouse uses optical encoders like other mice of the time.

Arkanoid supports the SNES Mouse, so you would think that you may achieve an arcade level of control by using it as opposed to the gamepad.  Unfortunately, it just is not a good control option for this game.  The chief issue is that the mouse does not move the Vaus fast enough to bounce back fast moving balls.  The D-pad control moves the Vaus more quickly the longer you hold down the directional on the pad.  While at slower speeds the Vause may move more naturally with the mouse, you often need to move your Vaus quickly, so the mouse just does not make for a satisfying experience.  The paddle speed adjustment in the options menu will not affect the mouse speed.  Paddle games like the ports of Arkanoid to the PC or Cyberball (a PC Arkanoid clone with great OPL3 music and sound effects) can demonstrate how a mouse can be made to more accurately simulate an arcade spinner.

The SNES Mouse came bundled with Mario Paint.  One of the settings of that program allowed you to set the mouse speed from slow to fast.  Fast is pretty speedy, but Arkanoid seems closer to Mario Paint's slow speed.  Some adjustment between Fast and Slow would have been best.  As it exists, Arkanoid's SNES Mouse support is a missed opportunity.  A shame given that the game itself is otherwise a pretty good Arkanoid experience.  The mouse is useful in the Edit mode where you can make and play your own Arkanoid levels.

Dungeon Master vs. Eye of the Beholder

Dungeon Master Computer Versions
Dungeon Master SNES Version

Dungeon Master was originally developed for the Atari ST computer by FTL and released for that computer in December of 1987.  Ports to the Amiga, the Apple IIgs, the FM-Towns, PC-98 ans Sharp X68000 soon followed, but its MS-DOS port was delayed until 1992.  Eye of the Beholder was designed by Westwood Associates and released by SSI in 1991, with ports to follow for the Amiga, PC-98 and the Sega CD.  Both games were eventually ported to the SNES.

Dungeon Master was ported to the SNES by NCS and Victor in Japan on December 20, 1991 and released overseas in June of 1993.  Eye of the Beholder was ported by Capcom to the SNES and released on March 18, 1994 in Japan and April 1994 in the U.S.  Dungeon Master uses a special chip called the DSP-2 to translate bitmapped graphics into tile graphics in real time and a larger 32KB of SRAM.  Eye of the Beholder does not use any special chips but has 32KB of SRAM for game saving.

Dungeon Master was significant because it was the first first-person 3-D RPG.  While not the first game using a first-person perspective (3-D Monster Maze and Escape from the Mindmaster are earlier examples), it is the first to focus on interaction with the environment by such actions as pulling levers, pushing buttons, opening gates, moving through invisible walls, falling into pits and picking up items on the ground.  Being developed for an Atari ST system with an 8MHz 68000 CPU with 512KB of RAM, Dungeon Master allows you to turn only by 90 degrees and allows you to move only in discrete blocks.  Enemies can surround your party and attack party members from the side or rear, but you can see them approach, attack them from a distance and ambush them on their flanks.

In Dungeon Master, you start by selecting four adventurers or "champions" from a selection of 24.  You must resurrect or reincarnate these individuals.  Resurrecting them keeps their stats and skill levels intact, but reincarnating them increases their statistics and allows you to develop their skill levels from the beginning.  Each character has three variable statistics, health, stamina and mana, and eight attributes, luck, strength, dexterity, wisdom, vitality, anti-magic, anti-fire and load (how much weight they can carry).  There are four professions, Fighter, Wizard, Ninja and Priest, and characters can develop skills in more than one profession.  Progress in a profession is ranked not by level numbers but by title : Neophyte, Novice, Apprentice, Journeyman, etc.  Progression is accomplished by fighting or casting spells.

Dungeon Master places your party in a 2x2 square.  The rear characters cannot attack creatures in the front unless they use ranged weapons.  However, you can change the orientation of any character so they can attack to the side and the rear characters can attack to the rear.  Casting spells is done through the selection of power symbols and the ability of the caster.  Inexperienced casters can waste mana with failed spells.  Scrolls found in the game will inform you which spells you can cast, but you can also experiment to find out the combinations.  You can cast stronger versions of spells with the symbols and create potions by casting a spell while holding an empty flask.

Eye of the Beholder MS-DOS
Eye of the Beholder SNES

Eye of the Beholder is often considered a clone of Dungeon Master, and it definitely does not stray too far from what made Dungeon Master successful.  The chief differences are in the interface and the gameplay mechanics.  The AD&D 2nd Edition rules are used, but only a subset is required for this type of game because there is no economy or over land travel.  The AD&D rules have the benefit of familiarity to old school gamers, which includes anyone who has played a Gold Box or Infinity Engine game.  Eye of the Beholder allows for complete character customization, but it also has limits on character class combinations because it uses the AD&D multi-class rules.

Eye of the Beholder lost a little of Dungeon Master's complexity.  There are no options to change the facing of your party members, so all attacks must be directed toward the front.  There are no arcane power symbols needed to be figured out to cast spells, spells are identified with names that tend to suggest their function like "Magic Missile" and "Cure Light Wounds."  You can't create potions or vary the power of a spell.  Unlike the mana system of Dungeon Master and many other games, AD&D relies on a Vancian Magic system whereby spells must be memorized, cast and rememorized before casting again.  The Manual for Eye of the Beholder gives you all the rules and identifies all the monsters you will face.  Eye of the Beholder came with a paper map of the first three levels.  Although the Dungeon Master's Manual does not "spill the beans", but there were many, many hint books available that could.

Eye of the Beholder did eliminate some of Dungeon Master's' annoyances.  You no longer take damage by walking into walls.  There is a compass to check your direction.  There is no separate food and water meter, and once you have access to 3rd level cleric spells, hunger is no longer an issue in Eye of the Beholder.  There is no need for torches or light spells in Eye of the Beholder.  Scrolls can be read by right clicking instead of dragging them to an eye in your character portrait screen.  There is no maximum weight each character can carry in Eye of the Beholder.  You can also add two NPCs, which you can find in the dungeon, to your party.

Graphically, Eye of the Beholder is a much, much more colorful game than Dungeon Master.  The graphics were designed for 256 Color VGA mode, whereas Dungeon Master was designed for 16 Color Atari ST mode.  Every three levels of the dungeon has a different color scheme and wall textures.  Enemies are more detailed in Eye of the Beholder and the non-interactive portion of the screen is textured rather than plain black.  The PC port of Dungeon Master did not receive a noticeable graphical improvement over the ST.  There is no in-game music in the computer versions, but Dungeon Master uses digitized sounds while Eye of the Beholder uses PC/Tandy/Adlib sound effects.  The digitized sound effects of Dungeon Master are more immersive than the Adlib sound effects of Eye of the Beholder overall.

The SNES version of Dungeon Master has music in the introduction, which can also be heard on the MS-DOS version.  There is music for character selection and death which will not be heard on the US/European home computer versions.  Adventuring will be done in the company of ambient sounds similar to those heard on the computer versions.  Eye of the Beholder has new music for every change in wall design, but it isn't very appropriate and gets repetitive fast.  Fortunately you can turn it off.

On the SNES, both games had to be scaled down from their native 320x200 resolution to the SNES's 256x224 resolution and to be redesigned to use the gamepad as a controller.  Portraits had to be redrawn for both games, and because the SNES cannot compete with VGA in terms of color placement, enemies and tiles had to be redrawn as well.  Both games have a control scheme which alternates between using the D-pad to move the party and the D-pad to move the cursor.  Eye of the Beholder has a feature where the pointer will instantly jump from weapon to weapon.

On the home comptuers, both Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder support the use of the keyboard and mouse.  The keyboard, usually via the numberpad, would be used to move the party and the mouse would be used to move the pointer.  Eye of the Beholder also supports the SNES Mouse.  The SNES Mouse is not the most practical of devices to use unless you are sitting at a desk, nor is it the most precise mouse ever made.  The SNES Mouse has to be plugged into controller port one and Eye of the Beholder does not allow you to use a gamepad in controller port two to supplement it. Given that the best control is to use the mouse in combination with a directional device, another opportunity to show off the SNES mouse was lost.

Special thanks to MobyGames and its contributors for supplying all the screen captures used in this blog entry.


  1. "Cyberball (a PC Arkanoid clone)" — I think you mean Cybersphere?