31 May 2001 dto   » (Journeyer)

Some reviews of dreamcast stuff.

Hais VGA Box. This little grey device allows you to connect your Dreamcast to your stereo and a VGA Monitor. I got mine for $15, and it works like a charm.

There is a slight bit of weirdness with the monitor. It seems best to start up the DC first, and then plug the VGA cable in; the other way around seems to confuse the monitor. The manual actually recommends doing this, although the translation made it difficult to figure out. This is only a minor issue and detracts only minimally from the experience (you just have to remember what order will make the box happy.)

So how does it look? Marvelous. The colors are brighter and more saturated, and the lines and edges are much sharper. Dreamcast games look great on VGA. Overall, a great experience for single and perhaps double-player. For multiplayer games nothing will beat a large digital TV set (you can use the Hais box's S-video output on most of them.)

There are minor polygon jaggies issues---but they are much less noticeable on a VGA monitor than on the coarse TV screen, so this is actually an improvement. Textures don't seem to be affected. The only other problem I'm aware of is the lack of a monitor pass-thru, which means you have to either switch the cable manually or buy an A/B box. But for the cheap price I'm not going to complain---last I saw, the pass-thru model was much more expensive.

Note: This is the second VGA box I've bought. The first one was the cooler-looking Naki brand, but the connection was way too tight and I never got it to display any games correctly. It was tested on several monitors, none with any results. I don't know if it's a general problem with the brand or just the particular unit I bought, but I have read about others having the same problem with the Naki. At the local Electronics Boutique both were $15.

"Jet Grind Radio"

An original, addicting, but ultimately frustrating game. In a nutshell, you control a ragtag gang of Neo-Tokyo roller-skate graffiti punks who compete with other gangs for territory. The bulk of the game involves running around areas of the city and painting over rival gangs' markings with your own. Your magnetic skates will attach and slide along almost any railing, cable, air duct, or beam in the game, and there are half-pipes, wall jumps, ramps, rooftops, and various flipping and spinning moves to explore. You get extra points for neat tricks, and especially cool moves will merit an instant replay from a better angle.

The concept is unique and the play mechanics are a blast. Successfully completing a difficult sequence of moves is a real thrill, and the game is so full of things to slide along, jump from, and bounce on that you'll probably play it until 2 AM like I did the night I picked it up.

The main stages are broken up by periodic "showdowns", in which a rival skater will challenge you to reproduce his or her daring moves. Some of these are trivial, and the earlier challenges are designed to teach you how to use the controls. But some of the others are very difficult (and in more than one spot, frustrating.) After completing a showdown, the new character will join your gang, and their strengths will be usable for future missions.

The art direction, character design, music, and choreography are excellent. The diverse GG's (your team) have great character designs, each with his own signature dance style and "catchphrases", whereas the other gangs wear uniforms and participate in goofy group-dance-video cutscenes. The music selections run from scratched-up rap with old-movie vocal samples, to j-punk with bizarre lyrics, to groovy synthesizer-disco. (The game is blessedly free of "Playstation Thrash Metal," and jungle makes only a momentary appearance.) The tunes are great---if you have big speakers hooked up to your VGA-box, turn it up!

Shortly after you begin spraying up a level, the police will arrive, and then eventually a SWAT team or helicopters. You must complete the level while avoiding their bullets, gas grenades, and guided rockets.

This leads to what is essentially the game's glaring flaw: the extreme frustration level caused by the police. All you can do is run away from them. The crazy sheriff moves as fast as you do despite his not having skates, and his aim is very good. The only way to escape him is to jump on a railing or get on top of a building where he can't go---it's almost impossible to simply outrun him on open ground. Furthermore the "homing projectiles" on most levels (rockets, grenades, swat soldiers) come continously while you are outdoors, meaning that if you do not paint the larger murals early on, you won't be able to finish the level because you'll get killed if you try to paint while the helicopters are around. (The construction site is the worst example of this. Do the large murals first.)

In one of the later levels, you come to a circular arena where sliding along a horizontal beam is the only way to escape to the train tracks. If there are any paratroopers or tanks in the area (which happens about ninety seconds from the start) you will be unable to escape, since they will simply knock you off the beam every time you try to slide along it to the exit.

It could be said that this provides a surprising strategy element, since the player is forced to choose very carefully the order in which targets are painted. But you need to attempt each level several times before it's clear how to survive, i.e. it's "strategy by savegame."

Combine this with the already difficult-to-reach spray targets, the strict time limit, sensitive analog controls, and the camera problems common in third-person games, and you are in for at least a few hair-pulling sessions. If you're in a narrow spot the camera will often do a disorienting 180-degree flip, and the hundredth time this made me run straight back into the police chief, I wanted to fling my Dreamcast out the window.

Overall: get it. This is a unique and memorable game whose solid gameplay, beautiful graphics, inventive levels, perky characters, funky music, and groovy dance moves more than compensate for its brevity and difficulty.

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