Category Archives: Miscelleaneous

Colorizing the Odyssey 300

When I turned 30, a good friend of mine provided me with an old Magnavox Odyssey 300 – one of the finest pong machines of its day. It’s one of the more thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received.

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Remarkably, despite the condition of the box, the system inside still worked perfectly.

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The stickers had bubbled up a little, and the plastic had picked up a little bit of grime over the years, but it worked like a charm. It STILL works like a charm, 40 years after its original manufacture. They REALLY don’t build them like they used to.

Like most systems of its vintage, the Odyssey 300 is designed to be hooked up to an antenna-based CRT television.  Crazy to think, but cable TV was far from commonplace at the time of the Odyssey 300’s release.

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What you see above is most commonly referred to as a “TV/game switch” –  At least that’s what we called it in my home back in the ’80s. The screws you see at the top of the picture are where you would affix the leads that come in from the antenna. You would then take the leads that come out on the right and hook them in to the back of your ol’ boob tube. When you wanted to do some gaming, you’d flip the switch to “game,” and the console would then “broadcast” over one of your TV channels (usually channel 2, 3 or 4). In the image above, you’ll note that the switch is hooked up to a simple adapter, which allows it to be plugged into the coax/CATV port on the back of a modern TV.

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Despite its age, the Odyssey 300 works just fine on a modern flat panel display – at least it worked fine on my  6-year-old 20″ Vizio LCD. Through the use of a cheap RF booster from radioshack, I was able to amplify the signal and get rid of much of the static. The result is more than playable – probably on par with what you would have experienced back in 1976.

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I was amazed that (1) they still made these, and (2) I was able to find a Radioshack in Philly that carried one.

So playing and enjoying the Odyssey 300 is fairly straightforward – much easier than I expected out of a console 6-years my senior. But, like any good retrogaming enthusiast, I was not satisfied. I had to know: could I pointlessly upscale this thing to 1080p?

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That right there is Micomsoft’s XRGB Mini – the Framemeister. It’s what I use to upscale all of the retro console footage you see on this site. Long story short, it takes video signals from  old consoles, upscales them to your desired resolution, and outputs a nice clean signal over HDMI. Basically, it makes old game systems look crisp and clear on modern televisions. The Odyssey 300 looks fine without any upscaling, but I thought it would be neat to see if I could bring Magnavox’s old dinosaur into the HD era.

One slight problem, though: the Framemeister doesn’t have an input for coaxial cable. I had to get the Odyssey’s signal to output over standard composite/RCA cables.

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Enter my parents’ old VCR. The Panasonic Omnivision. Behold its “VCR Plus” functionality. Truly a titan of its era.

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Being a high quality VCR from 1995, the Omnivision is more than equipped to take video input over a coax cable and output it over composite cables. All I had to do was just hook the TV/game switch into the VCR, run a single yellow cable to the Framemeister, set the tuner to channel 3, and I was ready to rock. There are probably more elegant ways to accomplish this, but I wasn’t about to spend any money on this experiment. Besides, getting a VCR involved in the mix only made this experiment far more ludicrous/fun.

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Boom. So there you have it. That there is the Framemeister’s menu over top of an Odyssey 300 screen, upscaled to 1080p. But I wasn’t done yet. Nope, not by a long shot.

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With recent firmware updates, the Framemeister has gained the ability to place colored overlays atop its video output. Presumptively, this is to be utilized with old arcade games, like, say, Space Invaders, which output a black and white image, but utilized colored gels to create the illusion of color.

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Image source: nowgamer.com. Click the image to read their excellent Space Invaders retrospective.

Using the Framemeister, I could replicate this effect on the Odyssey, and give it a fresh injection of all of the colors of the test pattern rainbow.

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The Framemeister allows for up to 7 “strips,” which can be oriented horizontally or vertically, and set to variable widths. Utilizing just three overlays, I was able to divide the “tennis” court into two colors, divided by a nice red center line. No longer would anybody be confused about which white paddle was theirs!

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By playing around with the zoom setting a little bit, I was able to get the image to more or less fit the 16:9 aspect ratio of my display.

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Experimenting with a few more overlays, I was able to get each paddle to appear as as a distinct color while giving the playfield a little bit more of a “tennis court” look. Unparalleled realism!

But wait, there’s more! The Odyssey 300 could do more than just pong, it also had…

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Hockey! Hockey is more or less the same as pong, but each player controls a “forward” and a “goalie.” Using the overlays, I was able to make it clear which paddle belonged to each player. But the fun doesn’t stop with hockey, oh no.

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Racquetball! Racquetball, again, is basically the same as pong, but both players occupy the same side of the court. With the aid of the overlays, it’s like you don’t even have to get up and go to the country club!

If you watched the video at the beginning of this post, you may have noted the lack of in-game audio. That’s because the Odyssey itself outputs nothing but horrid white noise. The game audio (little more than a few bleeps and bloops) emanates from a speaker in the Odyssey itself, rendering it uncapturable – at least for purposes of this exercise. The excellent music you hear in the video is the product of Rob E. Cohen, the very same friend who gave me Odyssey.

So there you have it: with a little bit of ingenuity, a fancy-ass upscaler and an old VCR, you can turn even the oldest of consoles into a colorized, high-definition destroyer. I don’t know if I’ll ever buy another sports game again. Color your world, people.

Radical Dreamers and Rancid Repros

Good morning, class. Let’s start today’s lecture off with a little history lesson.

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In 1996, Squaresoft released Radical Dreamers, a text-heavy visual novel that served as a pseudo-sequel to the massively popular Chrono Trigger. It never saw an official western release.

250px-Satellaview_with_Super_FamicomAmong other reasons, this is because Radical Dreamers was released exclusively for the Super Famicom’s Satellaview add-on. A somewhat peculiar contraption, the Satellaview connected to a Super Famicom console and allowed it to receive downloadable content via satellite radio. It’s a pretty interesting piece of hardware, and if you’ve got the time, I would recommend that you read this article about it. However, for purposes of this discussion, you can think of it as Nintendo’s Japan-only version of the Sega Channel.

The Satellaview never made it out of Japan; a release would have been fruitless, as satellite radio wasn’t widely available in the rest of the world at that time. Accordingly, Radical Dreamers never saw an official translation from Squaresoft, and it went largely unplayed by western audiences. As untranslated ROMs gradually made their way onto the Internet, though, Chrono fans knew it was out there, flickering like a frozen flame in the darkness, just waiting to be played.

In 2000, after the US release of Chrono Cross – the official, canonical sequel to Chrono Trigger – fan demand for a translated Radical Dreamers was at an all-time high. While Squaresoft never officially answered the call, in 2003, ROM hacking group Demiforce released an unofficial translation patch, which is what you see in action here:

For whatever reason, despite being an avowed Chrono fan, I never got around to playing the Demiforce translation at the time of its release. As such, Radical Dreamers had been on my to-do list for a little over a decade when I saw this at Too Many Games last June:

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What you are looking at right there is what folks these days call a “repro” – a reproduction cartridge. In so many words, reproduction cartridges are ROM data flashed to an existing cartridge for play on a legacy system. To quote John Learned’s excellent piece on the subject over at USGamer:

“In laymen’s terms, it works like this: several years ago, talented programmers concocted emulators, which essentially found a way to trick a computer, phone, or other device into thinking it was an NES, Genesis, or even an Apple IIe computer. Actual software that runs on these emulators are roms, which are the image of a game or other computer program run through the emulator to work. By themselves, they’re a wonder of computer engineering in that they can help preserve the winding (and largely unkempt) history of the video game medium. Repro cartridges basically reverse engineer what was already reverse engineered so these altered roms can play on an original piece of hardware.”

To grossly oversimplify, repros are basically gray (if not outright black) market reproductions of old console games, and an affordable way to play rare releases the way God intended – on original hardware. Personally, I’d never really understood the appeal of repros, but I had always been curious to try one out. And, hey, who doesn’t like the idea of getting a BRAND NEW cartridge? In 2015!

I bit the bullet and plunked down the cash for Radical Dreamers –about $30 if memory serves me correctly. If nothing else, I thought it would look neat sitting next to Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross in my collection.

The final verdict? It wasn’t worth it. Far from it.

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The imagery of Radical Dreamers is sparse and dim, but it suits the game’s mood.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Radical Dreamers as a game; quite the opposite, in fact. While mileage may vary, I imagine that any fan of the Chrono series would find some way to enjoy their time with Radical Dreamers. It’s got an evocative score by Yasunori Mitsuda, decent (if not sparse) visuals, and in its story lays the thematic and conceptual groundwork for what would become Chrono Cross. Additionally, the Demiforce translation is positively top notch – borderline professional. In short, I loved it.

So what was the problem?

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AND EMPTY THEY SHALL REMAIN.

Well, for starters, I couldn’t save. Delving into a 2004 FAQ reveals that this has always been a problem for certain versions of the Radical Dreamers translation: the original game is designed to save to the Satellaview’s memory, which, when utilizing a repro, simply doesn’t exist. While Radical Dreamers is short enough to be completed in about 2 to 3 hours, it’s a game that’s designed to be played through multiple times. Like the other entrants in the Chrono series, it has branching paths and multiple endings – 7 in total. However, in order to access 6 of those scenarios, the player must first complete the game’s primary scenario. Like in Chrono Trigger, the extra content can only be accessed through a “New Game+.”

So, in essence, in order to expeditiously access all of the content contained within Radical Dreamers when playing on this repro cart, one would have to reserve quite a few hours of free time. The only other alternative would be to restart the game and replay the primary scenario each time, which would be more than a little inconvenient.

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The extra scenarios run the gamut from acid trip to schlocky romance.

Now had I played Radical Dreamers on an emulator, I would have been able to record my progress through the use of save states, exploring the game over a series of days, as its designers had intended, rather than a few hours. In seeking a more “authentic” experience by playing a repro, I’d sacrificed some of the game’s core functionality and playability. This is particularly ironic when one considers that Radical Dreamers was never even released on a cartridge, let-alone in English, to begin with.

But it gets worse. You may have noticed that I noted that the inability to save is only an issue for some versions of the Radical Dreamers translation. That’s because in 2005, approximately 10 years before I purchased my repro, Demiforce released an updated translation patch which actually rewrote portions of the game’s code to enable save functionality.

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You will note this is different from the first screen of the video at the top of the page.

In short, the individuals who made this cart didn’t even have the courtesy to download the latest version of the translation. The least they could have done was slap a “no saving” disclaimer on the cartridge. Would the in-game saves have worked on any old reproduction cart? I don’t know. But after my time with the repro, I loaded the 2005 translation onto my Everdrive, and the save functionality worked just fine.

Undoubtedly, some of this is on me. I should have done my homework. Nevertheless, the whole process left me feeling swindled, and more than a bit angry. My money had gone to the wrong person: a lot of time and effort went into making Radical Dreamers playable in English, but none of it was expended by the individuals who made this quick, cash-in repro. They simply took the work of Demiforce (outdated and incomplete work, at that) and slapped it on an old cartridge for pecuniary gain. If any members of the translation team are out there reading this, I owe you $30.00. If the people who sold me this repro are out there reading this, go pound sand.

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Leagues beyond your typical fan translation.

So let this be a lesson to you, retro gamers. When it comes to repro carts, caveat emptor is the golden rule. You never know what’s inside these things until you actually play them. Could you imagine buying an RPG, only to find the cart has no battery inside? Above all, make sure you’re buying from someone you trust, as it’s pretty hard to return what basically amounts to pirated merchandise – it’d be like trying to get a refund for a defective crack vial. Further, if you happen to be purchasing an unofficial translation, give some thought to the fact that you’re essentially allowing an opportunistic retailer to profit from someone else’s hard work.

I’m sure there are good repros out there, but this experience has likely soured me on the concept for good.

Subspace Birthday

Time sure does fly when you’re having fun. Today, I am celebrating one full year of Subspace Briefcase. Can you think of a better way to commemorate the occasion than a completely self-indulgent walk down memory lane? I hope not, because that’s exactly what you’re getting.

A little over a year ago, when the gaming universe was just settling into the throes of what we would all come to know and love as “Gamergate,” I started getting the itch to write about video games again[1]. This was not because I had anything particularly insightful to contribute to the global conversation about sexism, journalistic ethics, online harassment, or whatever had crawled up the Internet’s butt at the time, but because the whole sordid affair flat out SADDENED me. Video games are supposed to be fun, and the discussion surrounding them had turned decidedly sour. I longed for simpler days, when the online conversation about games was more cheerful, enthusiastic, and devoid of Baldwins and Breitbarts. Simply put, I wanted to make a gaming site focused on nothing but fun; a throwback to the fansites of the late ’90s and the early aughts.

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Not pictured: Hundreds of other games.

Plus, I had a depressingly large collection of games which was rapidly approaching the 1,000 title mark, and I needed to justify its continued existence somehow.

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A year later, I’d like to think that I’ve achieved a modicum of success in that regard. Hopefully, my modest readership has been entertained. If nothing else, from my drab first post on Dragon Force, to my recent two-parter on Code Name: Viper, I’m confident that I’ve been consistently informative.

But enough of this prattle – let’s talk about some of the highlights.

MOST POPULAR POSTS

Without a doubt, the most popular piece of content I have produced is this video of Far Cry 4‘s AI going completely wonky:

Coincidentally, this also took the least amount of effort on my part to produce. The real money is in cheap laughs, kids. Take note.

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A close second, however, is my interview with Kurt Kalata, the founder of the Castlevania Dungeon, which was the very site I had in the back of my mind when I started Subspace Briefcase. I’ll always be grateful to Kurt for taking the time to talk to me. I strongly recommend you check out his work over at Hardcore Gaming 101.

PRO WRESTLING

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If you’ve been reading consistently, you’ve no doubt noticed that I am a lifelong fan of the great sport of professional wrestling. As I own no less than 20 pro wrestling video games, I figured combining my mutual love of gaming and fake fighting would be a great way to experiment with serialized content.

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This originally took the form of RISE: DOLPHIN, a series of posts where I ushered a retired Canadian baseball player through the career mode of All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua. Unfortunately, my reach exceeded my grasp with this one, as I found myself unable to capture and summarize game footage in any consistently entertaining fashion. I cut the project short after I reached a logical stopping point – but hey, at least I had some fun producing this sweet montage (featuring the music of Lazerhawk):

I was a little annoyed with myself for letting Dolphin’s story die on the vine, so I took a second crack at serialized wrestling posts. On January 18, 2015, I recorded a three-hour CPU controlled tournament in Fire Pro Wrestling Returns for the PS2. This, of course, became The Briefcase Cup, a 30-post monstrosity that ultimately wound up being more about pro wrestling than video games.

Nevertheless, it was an absolute joy to write, and I got to introduce a whole new audience to Mango Fukuda, in what may be the craziest thing I’ve ever committed to print.

LEAST APPRECIATED POST

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Just about nobody read my post on the Sega CD version of Time Gal, which made me sad, because I think it’s one of the most under-appreciated ports of all time. I even went as far as to record the ENTIRE GAME and post it on Youtube:

I chalk it up to the fact that anybody who cares about Time Gal has probably learned everything that they ever wished to know about it by now. Oh well. You live, you learn.

STRANGEST POST

While covering Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance, I produced an eight-minute montage of game footage set to the sounds of Canadian music legends, Loverboy:

I think it’s safe to say that nobody found this as funny as I did, but hey, it still picks up a view or two every now and then. Maybe it has legs.

GREATEST GAMEPLAY MOMENT CAPTURED

It’s a tie between my epic lunar dodge ball battle in the PC Engine version of Super Dodge Ball

… and my legendary battle with Sevens in World Court Tennis.

The PC Engine/Turbo Grafx-16. Home of the hottest sports games on the planet.

IN CONCLUSION…

I’d like to thank everybody who has read my work over the last year. While I’m far from setting the web on fire, I’ve gotten more eyes on Subspace Briefcase than I ever imagined I could. I’ve got no plans to stop any time soon, and I thank you for your continued support!

In particular, I’d like to thank…

  • My wife, Jenn Voss, for being a consistent source of love and support. She’s listened to every crazy idea I’ve had for this site, and only laughed in my face a select few times.
  • My brothers, Dave White and Chris White, who have apparently taken the time to read, repost, and share just about everything I’ve written. Additionally, Dave designed the Subspace Briefcase logo, for which I am eternally in his debt.
  • And last, but certainly not least, Doug Bodden, who provided me with more feedback on my World Court Tennis series than I ever cared to receive. He’s the closest thing to a superfan I’ll ever have.

Thanks again, folks! I hope you stay tuned in the months to come!


 

[1] I say “again” because I used to be a reviewer for a rinky-dink little site called PS2Insider, but that’s a whole ‘nother post in and of itself.

 

The Dungeonkeeper: An Interview with Kurt Kalata of the Castlevania Dungeon

So you want to learn about Castlevania, huh? Nowadays, that’s not too tough. Just plug it into Wikipedia – you’ll have more information on the series than you could conceivably know what to do with. With just a few minutes of “research,” you’ll be able to fake your way through any cocktail party conversation about the Belmont family tree. It’s highly unlikely that anybody has actually ever had a cocktail party conversation about the Belmont family tree, but, hey, hypothetically, you could do that.

But it wasn’t always that easy. In the “early” days of the Internet, video game coverage was still primarily relegated to magazines, and retro gaming coverage wasn’t necessarily high on their priority list. If you wanted to immerse yourself in the apocrypha of any given game series, Wikipedia wasn’t an option – you had to rely on websites maintained by the most hardcore of gaming fans.

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The original logo of the Castlevania Dungeon.

For the Castlevania series, that website was the Castlevania Dungeon. From its earliest days, the Dungeon was enthusiastically overflowing with information about every title in the series, including some that were completely unknown to Western audiences. Created and maintained by Kurt Kalata, the site was the go-to destination for all your Castlevania needs. Wanted to play that rare version of Akumajou Dracula for the X68000 that had yet to make it out of Japan? The Dungeon had your back. Curious about the secret ending buried deep within your Symphony of the Night disc? The Dungeon had the audio rips at the ready.

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These days, Kurt’s the Head Editor over at Hardcore Gaming 101, where he recently compiled his tremendous wealth of Castlevania knowledge into written form – yes, he literally wrote the book on Castlevania (which you can, and should, purchase here). While that book, Hardcore Gaming 101 Presents: Castlevania, now serves as the definitive compendium of vampire slaying knowledge, the Dungeon still persists to this day. Recently, I had the privilege to chat with Kurt about the creation Dungeon and the early days of gaming fan sites. Whether you’re an old school gamer, a fan of Castlevania, or just nostalgic for the good ol’ days of Geocities, I think you’ll find his responses both enlightening and entertaining. Enjoy!

In an effort to capture the spirit of the early days of the Dungeon, we’ve populated the interview below with images and audio from the early incarnations of the site. All credit goes to their original owners and creators, and many of them are still available on the Dungeon to this day.

LET US GO OUT THIS EVENING FOR PLEASURE. THE NIGHT IS STILL YOUNG!

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SSBC: I believe I first encountered the Castlevania Dungeon back in early 1998. North American Saturn releases had slowed to a crawl at that point, and my local Electronics Boutique had started importing Japanese titles. Eager to play a “new” release, I picked up a copy of Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight off the shelf, only to run into a wall of indecipherable Japanese text. Desperate for help, I dialed into AOL and turned to the Internet for answers. That search led me to the Castlevania Dungeon. The vast wealth of Castlevania knowledge collected on your site helped me complete one of my favorite games of all time – so first and foremost, thank you for that.

simonvKK: You’re welcome! I remember picking up Metal Slug, Radiant Silvergun and the Konami MSX Antiques Collection at Electronics Boutique back then too. I remember them stocking Nocturne in the Moonlight, but I already had it by that point.

Lots of folks were Castlevania fans back in ‘90s. What inspired you to go the extra mile and create a website? Now, it’s easy to get a functional website up and running. Back then, though, it was considerably more difficult, and the prospect of any kind of ad revenue, compensation, or recognition was remote at best. Undoubtedly, you invested a lot of time, effort, money, and care into the Dungeon – was it just for the love of the game(s)?

Well, it wasn’t too difficult really. HTML is super simple to learn, and both Geocities and a lot of ISPs were giving out space as an incentive to create home pages (though space was always an issue: Geocities offered 2 MB back in the day). But, this was free, so I never really spent any actual money on it. Conversely, I never really received any money either. Any of the folks that redesigned the site after that worked on it for free too, even though I kept it updated. No one really expected any compensation for it, because it was before the days of Adsense, crowdfunding or any type of monetization. Eventually, we were allowed by Gamespy to host ads, but for a site like the Castlevania Dungeon, it only brings in pennies a day.

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The Castlevania Dungeon as it appeared in early 1997. Trust me when I say it looked far more amazing when captured at a lower resolution.

In a lot of ways I tended to operate in a bubble. I created something I thought was cool, and if other people thought it was cool too, then I was pretty happy. I still kinda go by that philosophy nowadays, though I also take in feedback to improve my own work. And for anything commercial, I need to take into account whether it’d be worth the time investment to create it. But otherwise, it’s just something I find personally fulfilling – criticizing games, cataloging recurring elements, digging into development trivia, and so forth.

x-whip2How quickly did the Dungeon take off? For lack of a better term, when did you feel that you’d “made it” as a fan site? Now, you’re recognized as one of the definitive authorities on Castlevania, appearing on podcasts and even writing a book. Did you ever imagine that you’d be perceived as such?

x-dracI can’t remember when I started it – 1999, maybe – but when I created a forum and a community became established around it, it began to feel like people were paying attention to it. Years later, I’d meet people that were part of the retro game scene, become friends with them, and then they’d realize, “hey, you created The Castlevania Dungeon didn’t you?” It’s still weird when the Internet meets real life.

You founded the Castlevania Dungeon back in 1996. By the time I encountered it in 1998, it was practically bursting at the seams with information about Castlevania. The site appears to have grown quite rapidly. The emulation scene (as well as the Internet in general) was exploding at the time, but the Dungeon contained information about games and systems that were practically invisible to American audiences at that point. I had no concept of what an MSX or Sharp X68000 were until reading about them on your site. What was your primary source of information back in the early days?

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During the “early” days of the Internet, the Castlevania Dungeon was one of the few sites to contain detailed information on the differences between North American and Japanese Castlevania releases. The images above, which remain on the Dungeon to this day, might just be some of the earliest documented evidence of video game “censorship” on the web.

One of the main reasons I created the site was because I discovered emulation, and with it, the MSX. I was a big fan of Konami games, and they were a huge supporter of that computer, so discovering all of these alternate versions of my favorite NES titles (Vampire Killer, Contra, the “real” Metal Gears) was like uncovering a treasure trove! I wanted to share that discovery with people.

New information usually came from people that e-mailed me with things – usually folks that were a little older and were either big into the import scene or lived in Japan. For example, for a long time, no one really knew about Haunted Castle, the arcade game. Someone might have vague recollections of playing it a decade ago, but it wasn’t covered in any gaming magazines and it was never very popular. The only proof that it even existed was that someone had scanned the front of a soundtrack CD that had a small, cropped image from the game (it was this album). I remember the night it was added to MAME. I was super enthusiastic, but of course, the game isn’t very good, so it was a huge letdown. It was similar to the X68000 game – I think there was a scanned box shot somewhere, but no one really knew what the X68000 was until someone discovered a Japanese-developed emulator and some disk images, so I uploaded it on the site and everyone was able to play it.

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The Castlevania Dungeon in 1998. Note that the menu bar in the left frame is designed to look like a life bar from Dracula X: Rondo of Blood. Little flourishes like this made the Dungeon stand out from the pack.

How exciting was it to discover the “hidden” ending files for SOTN? Were there any other “discoveries” that you remember fondly?

It was pretty cool! Someone had released a utility to read PlayStation sound files and discovered those there. It fueled rumors that it was possible to obtain this ending, but since no one knew anything about it, eventually we gave up hope and realized it was probably something that was planned but never implemented. As for other discoveries, the existence of the “lost” Castlevania games mentioned above, the arcade and X68000 games, were exciting finds.

Though the Dungeon stands on its own now, for a while, it was affiliated with (or at least hosted by) classicgaming.com. How did that relationship come to pass, and how did it end?

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The logo employed by the Castlevania Dungeon during its tenure with classicgaming.com

At the time, the Dungeon was spread across a few Geocities and Tripod accounts, which were obtained with the help of a friend. Including music files, it was probably about 8 MB or so. It was a pain to manage. Around that time, Gamespy had just started a spinoff site, Classicgaming, that was also offering free hosting to fan sites. It was actually started by a guy named Kevin Bowen, who also starred in the legendary Something Awful film Doom House. Through the site, I had been chatting with Jeff “Deuce” Nussbaum, who had created a similarly themed site for Ninja Gaiden. He had applied for hosting on Classicgaming and suggested I do the same, and we were both accepted, along with a bunch of other great sites.

The relationship ended because IGN bought up Gamespy at some point (I think it was around 2009 or so), and they decided that it wasn’t worth keeping Classicgaming around. So, basically, we were around from about the beginning until the very end. Thankfully, the cool folks at Kontek offered to continue hosting all of the Classicgaming sites, so most of us made the jump and have been there since.

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This edited screenshot from Dracula XX was permanently affixed to the bottom of the Castlevania Dungeon during the majority of its run with the now defunct Classicgaming. The Dungeon was – and still is – the place to go if you wanted to view high quality screens of lost, rare, or forgotten Castlevania games.

Has your work on the Dungeon led to any interesting interactions with Konami, or any of the individuals involved with the development of Castlevania?

simon-whipFor a long time, it was incredibly difficult to interact with game companies, outside of customer service reps. Around the time that Koji Igarashi took over the series in 2002, I tracked down their PR contact info and requested an interview. They acknowledged the request, but they said that he wouldn’t talk to “fan sites.” A few years later, I was doing freelance work for a larger site and attended E3, where Konami was showing off Castlevania: Curse of Darkness. I tried again to arrange something through their PR agency, but they still didn’t take me seriously and never responded to any emails. Eventually, I did get to interview Igarashi through e-mail, when writing a 20th anniversary article for 1up.com.

Outside of that, the only contact I had was a few months after I’d published the Castlevania book, which was a terse message from their licensing manager, who said “this book is not licensed, remove it from sale immediately.” So I took it off sale, sent him copies and made it clear that everything it in fell under Fair Use, since it’s a book of reviews and criticism, rather than anything that might be considered infringement. I never heard back from them, but I reissued the book with an “UNOFFICIAL!” sticker and rewrote the Amazon description to make it clear that it wasn’t affiliated with Konami. I haven’t had an issue since, though I’m a little bummed that one of the only major interactions with a company that I’d unofficially supported as a fan for over 15 years amounted to a takedown notice.

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The “Games” page of the Castlevania Dungeon as it appears today.

Over the years, the look of the Dungeon has changed, and you’ve had various folks assisting you with the development side of things. Is there any particular incarnation of the site that you’re particularly fond of? At the time, I remember thinking that the old “frames/no-frames” selection page with a choice between 8-bit Trevor and 16-bit Richter was the coolest thing since sliced bread.

I like the current design actually! That was done around 2006, I think. It was right before the E3 I mentioned above, and I wanted it to look more professional, so that Konami would take it seriously. But of course, it still didn’t work!

The old design had red colored fonts. At the time, I thought it was cool, since it had a horror theme. In retrospect, it was barely legible. We did change the background, originally it was the bricks from the title screen of Super Castlevania IV, but then we used something else from a totally different source that was darker to make the text more readable.

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The current logo of the Castlevania Dungeon

In the introduction to Hardcore Gaming 101 Presents: Castlevania, you perceptively note that due to the series’ longevity, Castlevania fans come from many different age groups and enjoy the series for many different reasons. Have you perceived any notable differences in how both younger and older fans engage with the series – and you, for that matter?

It’s hard to tell because it’s not clear how old anyone on the Internet is. I feel like it’s easier to start with classic Castlevania games, then move on to Metroidvanias, rather than the other way around. The Metroidvanias have much more fluid controls, so I hear people complain that they aren’t used to the “bad” controls of the older games. And they aren’t really “bad,” so much as deliberate, but it does take some adjusting.

The only thing that Classicvania and Metroidvania fans have in common is that most of them have an extreme dislike towards the modern Mercury Steam developed titles. I hated Lords of Shadow at first, too. Honestly, if I didn’t have to review them for the book, I probably never would’ve bothered to play them. Over time I came to accept them, though I still wouldn’t say I actually “like” them.

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Just looking at archived versions of the Dungeon makes me wistful about the simpler, early days of the Internet, when animated gifs were “amazing” instead of “corny,” and things like a menu styled after a life bar were true innovations. Is there anything you miss about those early times? Is there anything you don’t miss?

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The Dungeon’s navigation frame during the late ’90s.

There was certainly more variety in the design. Nowadays, most sites are developed using a CMS, which are rigidly defined, so you lose some of that uniqueness. Everything begins to feel the same. The Web 1.0 “standards” were indeed pretty ugly! But no one knew any better.

Actually, the same could be said about video game magazines then versus now. They used to be more colorful and enthusiastic. Nowadays, the writing quality is more mature, professional, and definitely better, but there was a charm in that old amateurishness.

You started the Dungeon as a teenager, and recently, in preparing your book, you had the occasion to revisit nearly 20 years of your own work. I imagine that was both a rewarding and challenging process. In delving back through time, did you rediscover anything that made you that made you particularly proud? Conversely, was there anything that made you cringe?

It was mostly “I can’t believe these typos have been around for like a decade.” Most of the reviews had been rewritten when I was in college, so it wasn’t SUPER painful; but a lot of it was still quite bad. I hadn’t really developed a style or cohesive tone, so it was GameFAQs review quality level of writing – Dumb jokes that were probably funny at the time, but were actually cringeworthy.

Also, a lot of it wasn’t necessarily terrible, but outdated. We were all super excited for Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance when they came out, but with time and a greater sense of perspective, their problems became a lot more apparent. There are other things, flaws and strengths, that became apparent when viewed through the greater context of the series, too.

Giving the reviews an overhaul took a lot more time than I anticipated, though. The book ended up coming out over a year past when I’d originally planned.

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The Dungeon was the place to go for all types of Castlevania media. Above, you’ll see a scan from the Japanese instruction manual for Castlevania. Below, you’ll find midi arrangements of popular themes from the series – which are still hosted on the site to this day!

What’s your favorite memory associated with the Castlevania Dungeon?

Beyond making discoveries about “lost” Castlevania games, I remember leaving on my computer all night to download a ROM for Castlevania Bloodlines, which I’d been searching for forever. It was on a server in Asia, and it was transferring extremely slowly, even for a 14.4k modem. I had to make sure my parents didn’t find out the next morning because they’d get mad at me! On top of that, the emulator I was using still wasn’t great at the time: it ran extremely slowly, the status bar didn’t show up, there was no sound, tons of glitches, etc… Lots of memories about early emulation, I guess. I was ecstatic when NESticle was released, because the only other NES emulators out before then were fairly poor. I also remember that when Magic Engine was released, the guy who had done the site redesign burned me a copy of Dracula X and mailed it to me, so I could finally play it, since there was no way in hell a 16-year-old could’ve afforded a Turbo Duo and a copy of the game. Even though I was stuck playing it with a keyboard and a high frame skip, being able to play that fabled game was magical.

Do you have any plans for the Dungeon’s future? The book does a great job of capturing the spirit of the site, but the Dungeon itself hasn’t been updated since 2012. Unfortunately, there really hasn’t been much to say about Castlevania since then – is HG101 the place to go for any Castlevania updates in the future?

The guy who still runs the Castlevania Dungeon forums said that he was going to get together with the web developer of the current incarnation to do a complete overhaul, and I was going to provide the updated reviews I did for the Castlevania book to post on the redone site. I’m not sure what the status of this project is though. Unfortunately, I don’t really have the time to upkeep it myself anymore, even juggling real world tasks and HG101 often proves overwhelming.

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The Castlevania Dungeon was one of the first places American audiences were able to view the manga included with the Japanese version of Symphony of the Night. I fondly remember saving the whole thing to 3.5″ floppies.

What exactly did you do to this poor, plagiarizing bastard? That’s one hell of an apology.

I can’t remember honestly! From the sounds of it I probably posted something in an update with a link to that site, telling people to demand that he take it down. From the sounds of it, everyone else was probably pretty mean! Nowadays, that would be called dogpiling, and it’s not really the best thing to do, but back then, how did you deal with plagiarizers?

There were a few times where that happened – where I found some other websites copy/pasting stuff from the Dungeon. One time I saw that it had been translated into Spanish, though, which I was okay with, even though it had been done without my permission.

What other fansites from the ’90s do you remember fondly?

The Ninja Gaiden Home Page and Metroid Database were great. The latter is still around on Kontek. The Gradius Home World is still around and hasn’t changed much. Soundtrack Central still exists, and a lot of my old reviews are still there, I think. Zophar’s Domain isn’t really a “fansite” since it’s all about emulation, but it’s still heartwarming that it still exists.

dungeonbloodbarAgain, I’d like to thank Kurt for taking the time to speak with me, and for the countless hours he’s dedicated to covering Castlevania on our behalf. Though the Castlevania Dungeon is approaching the ripe old age of 20, it’s still an amazing resource for Castlevania fans of all ages, and I would recommend it to anybody interested in learning more about the series. Kurt’s latest work can be found over at Hardcore Gaming 101, which is a fantastic site in its own right. You can find him on Twitter at @HG_101.

As for me? I’m still here, and you can reach me on Twitter @subspacebc.

Now You’re Drinking With Power

If you’ve watched any of the live streams, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that I occasionally enjoy beverages. When I am not holding my beverages, I am placing them on these – the official coasters of Subspace Briefcase:

Coasters

I purchased this fine set of three coasters at the Punk Rock Flea Market here in Philadelphia last month. I wish I could credit the fine craftsman or craftswoman that created them, but alas, I cannot locate their name. If you’re out their reading, rest assured, that I am thinking of you every time I lose a life because I have had too much to drink.