console retirement plan

With new consoles on the market, and plans to move to San Francisco later this year, I figured it was time to cut down on some of the console clutter I’ve collected over the years. For now, I still have our 360 and PS3, but I’ve traded in a bunch of 360 games, given the Wii to my parents, and sold our long-disused PS2 and all our old PS2 and GameCube games. I’ve also sold off a bunch of DS and GBA games, and my DS Lite and GBA SP consoles themselves won’t be far behind.

Thankfully, if I ever get nostalgic, those systems I’ve retired — the PS2, GameCube, Wii, DS, and GBA — can all be emulated. In my last post I talked about using Dolphin to emulate the GameCube and Wii; for the PS2, there’s PCSX2, which like Dolphin can render games at high resolutions to improve quality; for the DS, there’s DeSmuME (and an excellent Android port of it, called DraStic); and for the GBA, there’s VBA-M.

Animal Crossing Wild World running (in Japanese, coincidentally) under DraStic, an excellent DS emulator for Android

Animal Crossing Wild World running (in Japanese, coincidentally) under DraStic, an excellent DS emulator for Android

For the Wii, GameCube, and PS2, I was even able to back up my save games, using GCMM and Savegame Manager GX on the Wii for the GameCube and Wii saves, respectively, and uLaunchElf on the PS2, to dump the saves to a USB stick. In both cases, I had to pull some tricks to run third-party code — on the Wii, installing the Homebrew Channel is fairly straightforward, but on the PS2 I had to use my Swap Magic discs.

To next-gen, or to PC?

New console launches are usually a cause for excitement, but their release just reminds me of what we’re losing with the end of the previous generation. Consoles have come and gone in the past, of course, but the move to digital distribution has made separating the consoles from their content much more difficult this time around. If I sold my 360 or PS3 today, I couldn’t resell all their digital content; I still own that content, and if I bought a new 360 in a few years I could reinstall it, but what about 5 years from now, or 10?

Even if it’s not perfect, the PC does offer a better alternative. Some old games are unplayable today, but if a game has a dedicated community, chances are that someone’s worked out how to run it on modern PCs. Steam’s DRM has so far proven mostly benign, and services like GOG and the Humble Store offer DRM-free downloads, too.

With dozens of great games on Steam, using Linux for PC gaming has never been more viable

With dozens of great games on Steam, using Linux for PC gaming has never been more viable

In fact, I seem to have made the jump to PC already, almost by accident. I’ve played a couple of big-name games this year, like Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider, but I’ve spent much more time playing smaller, more interesting games, like Kerbal Space Program, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Kentucky Route Zero, Papers, Please, and most recently, the Double Fine Adventure game, Broken Age, almost all of which are PC exclusives.

PC power

PC gaming has a lot of baggage — the image of the hardcore gamer that spends as much time upgrading and tweaking their Windows PC as they spend actually playing games on it — but these smaller games often defy that image. Most run on Linux and Mac OS X, and most also run on fairly modest PCs; in fact, I’ve spent more time gaming on my now 2011 Macbook Air in the last year than I have on any other system.

I’m sure I’ll want to play another big-budget graphical powerhouse eventually, and I’m not yet sure what I’ll do about that. By that time, a gaming PC with the power of the next-gen consoles might only cost as much as those consoles cost now. I like the idea of gaming laptops, but they’re expensive and clunky; only the Razer Blade delivers suitable power in a sleek, elegant form-factor, but at US$2000 it’s even more expensive than other laptops.

i’ve been playing: alan wake, super mario sunshine (and dolphin)

The draw of the familiar can be a funny thing; I don’t often replay games, but sometimes, after enough time has passed, all it can take is a brief mention somewhere to bring back a wave of fond memories, and the desire to relive them. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing exactly that, replaying two games that, beyond my nostalgia for them, couldn’t be more dissimilar: Alan Wake and Super Mario Sunshine.

With Alan Wake, all it took to get me playing again was a series of bargain sales of the PC version. My first time through was on the 360, with a borrowed copy, but it was always a game I wanted to revisit, both to play through the two DLC episodes, and to play it after having read Rob Zacny’s fascinating analysis of the game’s events.

I totally get people that don’t like it; the gameplay, while neat in parts, gets a bit repetitive, and the story walks a fine line between cleverness and being entirely up its own ass (a games writer writing a game about a writer who writes about writing a book?). That story really works for me, though — it starts with a bang, and the episodic pacing keeps the story moving brilliantly, with little goals and revelations that gradually reveal the key details about the game’s setting and events.

Super Mario Sunshine was always a strange Mario  game, but that made it no less fun

Super Mario Sunshine was always a strange Mario game, but that made it no less fun

In comparison, the story in Super Mario Sunshiney couldn’t be more tedious, but once you get past the dreadful unskippable cut-scenes in its first few hours, it’s a joy to play. The tropical-themed Sunshine wasn’t what people expected after the groundbreaking Super Mario 64, and after being followed on the Wii by the incredibly inventive Super Mario Galaxy, I’d just about forgotten the great fun I had with it until reading Eurogamer’s recent Sunshine retrospective.

That article made me realise what it was that made Sunshine so different — that it takes place in a world that’s not designed precisely around Mario’s capabilities. Instead, it challenges the player to use their skills and Mario’s water-powered hover-pack to explore a more organic world. That’s never more apparent than in Delfino Plaza, the game’s hub world, which you can easily spend hours exploring in search of those elusive Shines.

Swimming with Dolphins

Oddly enough, I’ve been playing through Sunshine on PC, too, using Dolphin, an open-source, cross-platform GameCube and Wii emulator that improves upon the real hardware by rendering games at high resolutions. While rendering GameCube and Wii games at 1080p with anti-aliasing isn’t enough to make them comparable to more modern consoles, it really does help, especially with the clean, stylised graphics featured in most of Nintendo’s first-party titles.

At 1080p, and with the widescreen hack in effect, The Wind Waker could almost pass for a current-generation game

At 1080p, and with the widescreen hack in effect, The Wind Waker could almost pass for a current-generation game

Sunshine at 1080p really does look quite nice, but it’s nothing compared to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker — I don’t think Nintendo will have to change much with its HD remake of the game for Wii U, since with a couple of million extra pixels it already looks remarkably close to a current-generation game. The thing that ages it most is the lack of a widescreen mode, but Dolphin actually has a hack that adds widescreen support to many games, Wind Waker included.

The catch with Dolphin is that it requires a reasonably powerful PC. It doesn’t need the latest video card — my 8800GT is perfectly fine — but it does need a decent CPU, and it’s there that my Athlon II X2, overclocked to 3.58Ghz, is barely enough for many games. Wii games seem to suffer the most, perhaps unsurprisingly; Zelda: Skyward Sword is just a bit too slow to be playable on my PC, and from all reports, Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel don’t run smoothly on anything less than the fastest PCs available.

With a real Wii Remote connected via Bluetooth, even MotionPlus-heavy games like Zelda: Skyward Sword are playable in Dolphin

With a real Wii Remote connected via Bluetooth, even MotionPlus-heavy games like Zelda: Skyward Sword are playable in Dolphin

For Sunshine, I’ve been using a 360 controller along with a $10 Xbox wireless receiver from DealExtreme, and the xboxdrv user-space Xbox controller driver; with its analog triggers and the very GameCube-esque controller layout in general, it’s a great fit. For Wii games, Dolphin can emulate a Wiimote of sorts, but it’s much easier to use a real Wiimote via Bluetooth.

switching back: the 2011 macbook air

UPDATE: I’ve just posted some updates on the state of Ubuntu on the 2011 Macbook Air.

With my old Dell laptop starting to suffer some physical wear and tear, I figured it was time for an upgrade. I couldn’t find a solid PC laptop that fit my needs, particularly in terms of portability and battery life, so I made a potentially controversial decision — I chose the brand-new 13″ Macbook Air. I won’t be using it for music-making, but after using it for work over the last week, I’m definitely happy with my choice.

I had sworn off Mac laptops for a few reasons: Apple’s power supplies and slot-loading DVD drives have always given me trouble, and my Macbook Pro ran very hot at times. Thankfully, the new power supply design seem less fragile, the Air has no DVD slot to worry about, and while it does howl a bit when working hard, that’s preferable to getting super-hot.

It’s also surprisingly quick — its 1.7Ghz i5 CPU outpaces even my 3Ghz Core 2 Duo desktop, and the SSD makes everything feel snappy. The Intel video isn’t brilliant, but it’s fast enough for most indie games, and even for a bit of Civilization IV or Left 4 Dead 2 on low-quality settings.

The Air’s fixed hardware is definitely a departure from my easily-serviceable old Dell, but it does help it to fit both a powerful system and a lot of battery in to a very light and slender frame. I wouldn’t want it to be my only computer, but it’s great as a portable extension of my desktop and home network. I’m sure I’ll have to give up the whole machine if it ever needs repairs, but with Time Machine backups configured (using my Ubuntu file server), I don’t really have to worry about losing data.

Mac OS X is, well… it’s Mac OS X. It has its advantages: it’s very well tuned to the hardware, making the most of the multi-touch trackpad, resuming from suspend in a second or so, and lasting a good seven hours on battery with a light load. It’s also great to have access to things like Steam. On the other hand, it’s still a bit annoying as a UNIX compared to Ubuntu, the Mac App Store is a shambles, and having to hack the OS just to stop it opening iTunes when I press my keyboard’s “play” key is completely asinine.

However, the reality is that I spend 99% of my working day using Firefox, Chrome, Thunderbird, a text editor, and a bunch of terminals, and Mac OS X meets those needs just fine. (For the record, I’ve been using TextWrangler and iTerm2.)

Ubuntu on the 2011 MBA

Ubuntu running, in a fashion, on the 13" 2011 Macbook Air

The Air can run Linux, too, though it’s not terribly usable yet. The trackpad works in mutli-touch mode after some hacking, but there’s no power management, and the Intel driver doesn’t work with the built-in display, so you’re stuck with unaccelerated 1024×768 video. The wireless works, too, which makes it unique among current Mac laptops, though only in 2.4Ghz mode.

I generally think it’s a bad idea to buy a Mac to run Linux, since the hardware is odd enough to cause these kinds of problems, but it’s always nice to know that I can run it if I need to. There’s a thread on the Ubuntu forums with all the details, and one post in particular that has a script to install patched keyboard and trackpad drivers.