Category: Japan

Epson PhotoPC

Previously on Electric Thrift I mentioned that I passed on buying a Sony Mavica at Goodwill because it was missing the power supply and proprietary batteries.  I’m very glad I didn’t buy that camera because shortly after that I found an even older digital camera!

The oldest digital camera I can remember seeing was the Apple QuickTake 100 my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Bennett used in about 1995.  The second oldest digital camera I’ve ever seen is this Epson PhotoPC I recently found at Village Thrift.

Village Thrift has a “showcase” which is a section of supposedly more expensive items positioned on shelves behind a counter so that you have to ask the cashier to take a closer look.  This creates a dilemma because often times it can take awhile to get the attention of the cashier.  You have to really want to see an item in the showcase to justify waiting but the items are kept too far away to get a good enough look to really get interested in them.

I had seen the PhotoPC box back there for several weeks and never grasped the age of the thing.  Luckily there’s this place where the showcase’s counter ends and sometimes items spill over from the showcases’s rear shelves onto the normal, more accessible shelves.  That’s when I finally go a close look at the box and realized this was a digital camera box with screenshots from Windows 3.1! “Copyright 1995 Epson America, Inc.”  This is a survivor from the digital camera Jurassic period.

We tend to think of digital cameras as springing into existence as luxury objects in the late 90s, hitting their prime in the 2000s as people realized the utility of getting photos online and becoming ubiquitous after 2007 as the cheap ones were integrated into smartphones and tablets and the more expensive DSLRs overtook their film counterparts.

According to digicamhistory.com this was among the first digital cameras under $500.  You can see how they needed to make the camera extremely simple to meet that price.  Even though other contemporary digital cameras like the QuickTake 100 had LCD screens, the Epson PhotoPC has none.  There’s just a conventional viewfinder.  As a result, you can’t review photos you’ve taken on the camera itself, you have to connect to a PC.  There is however, a button that deletes the last photo taken.  Additionally, because there’s no screen you have just a tiny LCD display to tell you how the battery is doing, if the flash is on, how many shots you’ve taken, and how many shots you have left.

This is an esoteric analogy but the Epson PhotoPC reminds me of the Ryan Fireball:  That was a bizarre Navy fighter aircraft with both a piston engine and a jet; the PhotoPC is a cheap 90s auto focus point-and-shoot camera that just happens to be digital.  They’re both weird artifacts of a transitional time.

When you do connect the PhotoPC to a PC to look at the photos, you’re connecting with a serial cable because this camera predates USB.  For that matter, it also predates Compact Flash.  There’s 1MB flash memory built into the camera and an slot to add an additional 4MB of flash on a proprietary “PhotoSpan” memory module.  My camera has an empty expansion slot so the built-in 1MB of flash holds a mere sixteen 640×480 photos.

My parents old Dell Pentium III (which you may recall from the Voodoo 2 post) runs Windows 98 so I installed the EasyPhoto software, hooked up the serial cable and pulled some pictures off of the PhotoPC.  I can tell you that pulling photos off of this thing via serial cable is a lot like watching paint dry.  I watched the progress bar snail it’s way across the screen and was pleased when it got to 100%…when I realized that was just for one photo.  One 640×480 photo.  If you’ve got a full camera with 16 photos to transfer you might as well go make yourself a sandwich and catch an inning of the ballgame while that transfers.

However, when you think about the PhotoPC in context even this molasses pace would have seemed Earth-shattering in 1996.  Imagine you were one of the  people venturing out onto the Internet back then.  If you wanted to post a digital photo to a website or attach it to an email you would have to either:

  1. Take a roll of photos on a film camera, have them developed, then scan them, and then presumably crop the photo and resize it for the Internet.
  2. Take photos with a Polaroid camera, scan them, and then presumably crop the photo and resize it for the Internet.

I’ve done enough scanning to know that that would be immensely time consuming.  Once you had a digital camera, even a barebones one such as the PhotoPC you could almost go straight from taking a photo to getting it on the Internet.

Not only that but you could take 16 photos, spend 15-20 minutes transferring them to the PC, wipe the camera and take another 16 photos, over and over.  Sure, this would be no good on your trip to the Grand Canyon but if you were having a family reunion at your house or another scenario where you’re close to a PC this would have seemed miraculous.

So, what do photos taken with the Epson PhotoPC look like?  A lot like the photos I remember seeing on the Internet in the late 90s:  A bit fuzzy.  Strange color artifacts.  Not great focus.

EPC_Photo_Sky EPC_Photo_Pioneer2 EPC_Photo_Pioneer1 EPC_Photo_Mac EPC_Photo_Lego EPC_Photo_Box EPC_Photo_Trees

Keep in mind that in 1996 you’d be lucky to have been running 800×600 at 32bit color on your monitor.  Back then, 640×480 images were serious business.

The wonderful thing about finding this camera is how it is so utterly an artifact of the past but also totally tied to today.  The PhotoPC was one of rat-like mammals that scurried amongst the film dinosaurs.  A film camera and my iPad are of two totally different eras, but the PhotoPC and my iPad are clearly distant but related ancestors.

 

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Stuff I Didn’t Buy #1

As you may have gathered already from reading this blog, I buy a lot of things at thrift stores.  But, conversely, I also don’t buy a lot of things at thrift stores.  My Dad and I usually do a thrift store run three or four times a week and it’s rare that I buy something interesting enough to write about on the blog.  Many times I just come back with a book or two.  Stumbling across something interesting enough to write about on the blog is an uncommon and happy occasion.

Other times though, I’ll see something that was interesting but that I decided for various reasons not to buy,  Recently I decided to start documenting these things with my iPhone.  Keep in mind that taking photos of items in thrift stores is not easy.  I don’t want to draw too much attention to myself and often the lighting is very bad.  These are not pictures that are up to normal Electric Thrift levels of clarity and composition.

This Bang & Olufsen Beogram 2400 turntable was a real surprise to find nestled within the serpentine labyrinth that is the Abbey Ann’s off of Tallmadge Circle.  You can often find stereo equipment at that Abbey Ann’s but this was a cut above their usual offerings.

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What this had going for it was that is a striking European early-1970s design.  It was in the original box, including the cartridge, the Styrofoam packing material and the instructions.  I adore the look of European electronics so this sort of thing is right up my alley.

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There were two problems here.  First, I think the price was a bit steep, though Abbey Ann’s is known to negotiate quite a bit.  The second problem was that all of the glue on this thing had decided to dry up and much of the trim was coming off.  It’s a bit hard to see in this photo but the wood-grain on the front was just hanging off.  The little metal plate on the top of the end of the tone arm was coming off as well.  The dust cover was getting stuck on something and would not close correctly.

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I think if this has been one of B&O’s linear tracking Beograms I would have bought it in this condition.  However, I’m already backed up on conventional turntables and this B&O looked like it was going to be trouble so I took these photos and moved on.

A few weeks later this 1980s JVC boombox showed up at that same Abbey Ann’s

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This tugged at my heartstrings a bit because my Dad had a similar (probably slightly more recent, because it was black) JVC boombox in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  I fondly remember making recordings with my brother using the built in microphone and tape recorder.  My Dad had originally bought that JVC boombox because it got shortwave, like this one.

Despite all of the 80s electronics I buy, I haven’t yet gotten into boomboxes.  I think I’m mainly waiting for one that’s in nice condition and fully functional.

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Any time I’m looking at something with a tape player I’m worried about the condition of the mechanism.  There are so many mechanical parts, including belts, that can deteriorate.  I remembered that eventually the tape mechanism in my Dad’s 80s JVC boombox broke and I wasn’t really in the mood to spend even $10-$15 to find out if this boombox had any of the myriad of problems that tape decks can develop.

Those tape issues were also the first thing I thought of when I saw this Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck that showed up at the State Road Goodwill in Cuyahoga Falls.

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I’ve wanted a reel-to-reel for a while now and this one is gorgeous in a mid-1970s silver and wood-grain way.

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There were three problems here.  The first is that reel-to-reels are notoriously troublesome.  I believe one of the more notable moments of my Dad’s thrift store shopping career was when a reel-to-reel he purchased started smoking when he brought it home and turned it on.

The second problem was that while this is a great looking item it lacks two features I want to see in a reel-to-reel: Four channel output and some sort of exotic noise reduction like Dolby A or DBX.  To me, the appeal of a reel-to-reel should be it’s exoticism compared to the common cassette deck and having fancy noise reduction should be part of the fun.

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The third problem was that Goodwill wanted $50 for this thing.  Sometimes I really question the pricing of some of this stuff I’ve seen at thrift stores lately.  Asking $50 for something that’s for all intents not tested and sold “as-is” is not cool.

Coin collectors have a pricing theory that works like this: The price of a coin starts with the worth of the metal (copper, silver, gold, etc) and then you add a “numismatic premium” for the rarity of the coin and the condition of the coin.

I like to think that electronics at thrift stores should work in the opposite way.  You start with what a sort of idea of what the thing should be worth and then subtract a “broken-ness risk premium” for the possibility that the thing is incomplete or broken.

$50 is a fair price to pay for a fully operational, totally complete (minus instructions and packaging) reel-to-reel.  But it fails to take into account my risk in buying a potentially broken item.

This Memorex S-VHS deck from the same State Road Goodwill was the first S-VHS deck I has ever seen at a thrift store.

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It was in pretty bad shape and my same concern with the tape mechanisms on the boombox and the reel-too-reel applied here as well.

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There was also a front panel door missing.  This looked like a lot more trouble than it was worth, whatever price they had on it.

Completeness is also a common reason I don’t buy some things.

This strange thing was at the Village Thrift on State Road a few months ago.  I didn’t know what it was at first.  Maybe some sort of TV?

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When I turned it around and read the label things became clear.

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This was some sort of pen-based tablet PC input device, like a poor man’s Wacom Cintiq.

I have learned from an experience with a Wacom Intuos (which I someday may write about) that you should never buy a pen-based tablet of any type without the pen because finding a suitable pen can be very expensive.

Completeness was also the reason I didn’t buy this Sony Mavica camera.

Didnt_Buy_Mavica

Comparatively early digital cameras are an area I’ve wanted to start collecting, so I was happy to see this Mavica show up at the Midway Plaza Goodwill.  Unfortunately, the very proprietary looking battery (Sony, natch) was missing.  I looked for a place where I could at least plug in an AC adapter.  Then, I realized that there was this notch cut out of the area around the battery door with a little spring loaded door.  it seems like rather than having an AC adapter this model had a thing that went into the battery compartment with a cord coming out of it (hence the little spring-loaded door) that acted as the AC adapter.  Another piece of proprietary crap I would have to pay shipping for on eBay.  Not worth it.

Pioneer PL-L70

The Cuyahoga County Hamfest was on September 22nd and I went not knowing what to expect.  Last year was somewhat of a disappointment.  Partly that was because it rained and a lot of the outdoor vendors didn’t seem to mind how wet a lot of neat looking electronics were getting and partly it was because I didn’t come back with an impressive doodad (though I did buy an old copy of Lotus 1-2-3 you may have spotted in the Windows/386 entry).

This year the weather was more agreeable and the items for sale were more exciting.  There was a table of what seem to be radios and radio components from the 1920s and 1930s.

There was this Yamaha M-60 power amp.

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There was this pair of exotic looking Acoustic Research M2 speakers, which are the big brothers of the M1s that my Dad bought in the 1990s. Today the M1s grace my living room.

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There was this Pioneer CLD-D504 Laserdisc player from the heyday of LaserDisc player technology in the mid-1990s.

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But, I didn’t buy any of those things.  Hamfests are strange places to go shopping because you have to make split-second decisions.  There really isn’t time to do research.  There’s usually not AC power available for testing (as there would be in even the most spartan thrift store).  There are multitudes of other people with nerdy interests walking by who at only moment could buy the thing you’re thinking about.  If you see something you like you have to very quickly weigh all of the variables and decide if you want to buy it.

Sometimes I’m in the mood to drop $60 on a LaserDisc player.  That day I was not.  If I was going to buy a substantial piece of audio or video equipment, I wanted it to be dirt cheap.

My Dad and I rounded a corner in the indoor portion of the Hamfest and sitting on a crowded table amongst a lot of serious ham gear was a Pioneer PL-L70 linear tracking turntable.  I inquired about the price and they wanted $10.  Bingo.  It took about 30 seconds for me to decide to buy it.

I’ve wanted an linear tracking turntable for awhile because of their association with the 1980s.  While they weren’t invented in the 80s there was a sudden proliferation of them in the the 80s when designers saw them as a way they could make a record player look high tech.

There was a moment in the early 1980s when the minimalist, silver look that European manufacturers like Wega and Bang and Olufsen had pursued in the 70s was combined with the burgeoning Japanese penchant for electronic wizardry and created the “80s look”.  I like to describe the look as “if the Delorean DMC-12 was a stereo”.

Manufacturers decided that the 1970s look of wood paneling and numerous knobs needed to go in favor of a look that emphasized sharp angles, push-buttons, and computer/microcontroller driven gimmicks.  Linear tracking turntables satisfied those urges.

In a linear tracking turntable the tonearm is straight and is mounted on a mechanism that moves it in a straight line across the radius of the record rather than in an arc, as on a traditional turntable.  Hence, linear tracking.

Because the tonearm on a linear tracker is shorter and is located further back than on a traditional record player designers could slope the front of the dust cover which gives many of these turntables a sleek, aerodynamic look.

If I had my pick I would choose a Technics SL-10, the king of Japanese manufactured 80s linear tracking tables, but those are difficult to find and they go for hundreds of dollars on eBay.  This Pioneer was $10 and said LINEAR TRACKING in large, geometric sans-serif type on the lid (is that Eurostile?).  What’s not to love? Sold.

The most surprising thing about this PL-L70 is that despite being almost 30 years old and having a complicated mechanism that’s necessary to drive the tonearm everything about this thing seems to work.  I had totally expected this turntable to have been priced at a mere $10 because it had numerous faults but I can’t find anything wrong with it other than a few scuffs on the dust cover.  Either this record player has had more than $10 worth of maintenance over the years or its lived a very lucky life.  Maybe this was one of those situations where the seller’s wife told him he couldn’t bring it home from the sale?

According to this Audiokarma post about Pioneer’s date codes a serial number starting with FA means that this PL-L70 was made in January 1985.

The PL-L70’s two biggest 80s selling points are two microcontroller-based gimmicks:  The tonearm is controlled by servos and has an optical sensor that reads the gaps between tracks on the record so that you can do things like press a button to skip to track 4.

You should be able to see the sensor there at the end of the tonearm.  There’s a little label on the head shell that says “OMS” for Optical Music Sensor.  I have tried it and shockingly, this actually works.

On the front of the turntable you have the standard Start/Stop button that’s required on automatic turntables as well as a button to lower the or raise the tonearm.  There’s also the buttons that are necessary on a linear tracker to manually move the tonearm left or right.

Inside on the plinth you have the standard speed selector control and a selector for the sensitivity of the optical sensor.

When you press Start/Stop the player uses the sensor to sense the size of the record and then find the beginning of the groove.  It moves back and forth once to make sure it’s found the position and then lowers the tonearm.

To the left of the buttons to manually position the tonearm are the buttons that let you select a track, or program a series of tracks via the optical sensor.

The PL-L70’s optical sensor gimmick instantly reminded me of another Pioneer turntable I once knew, and one of the main reasons why I’m so infatuated with 80s electronics.

Sometime in the mid-1990s (probably 1995) my grandparents in the Cleveland area downsized from their suburban house to a condo in a high rise.  They got rid of a lot of stuff and gave my family the stereo system my grandfather had bought around 1983.  I had fond memories of the day years before when my other grandfather had shipped us his Apple IIe so an occurrence like this where a family member gave us cool hand-me-downs was a Red Letter day in my childhood.

My grandpa’s stereo system consisted of an Akai AA-R22 receiver (which was pictured in the Realistic TV-100 entry), an Akai cassette deck, and a Pioneer PL-88F turntable and two EPI speakers.  The speakers were sadly rotted but everything else worked.  The cassette deck was fairly mundane but the receiver and turntable were silver-era 80s beauties.

TV100_Akai_AA-R22_Front

The AA-R22 has done yeoman’s work in various rooms of my parents’ house and today is attached to my mother’s desktop PC.  But at the end of the day a stereo receiver with enchanting display is still pretty much like every other stereo receiver.

The PL-88F turntable, on the other hand, was something else.  A record player with a drawer?  What sorcery was this?

The PL-88F was born into an era that craved novelty in mass-market hifi equipment.  It was designed to solve one of the classic usability problems of turntables: where do you put the thing?  The vast majority of audio components like receivers, cassette decks, CD players, VCRs, LaserDisc players, and even an equalizer (if you want to see blinking lights and feel important) can be stacked neatly on shelves.  You may want to do some thinking about heat dissipation and weight when you figure out which order to stack them in, but for the most part you just stack them.  They’re all shaped like boxes and they fit nicely in a small amount of space, like under the TV or in one of those oh-so-80s multiple shelved A/V racks.

Your turntable, on the other hand, has a lid that needs to open.  You can’t put anything on top of it and you need a large amount of clearance above the turntable to open the lid.  Most turntables take up the same amount of space as a CRT television of the same width because of the lid.

That is, unless you have a Pioneer PL-88F, or another turntable that puts the platter on a sliding drawer that moves in and out of an enclosure that you are free to stack things on.  Somewhere, an audiophile just got the shivers because they want their platters to be heavy and well sprung from a solid plinth and a sliding drawer probably compromises that.  But darn it, the PL-88F is just incredibly cool looking.

The designers of the PL-88F wanted you to be able to play records while the drawer was enclosed inside of the player so they gave the tonearm an optical sensor that (in theory) was supposed to read the gaps between tracks.  That way you could press a button an skip to say, track 3 or even program a series of tracks you wanted to hear (assuming they were all on the same side of the record), much like a CD player.  The PL-88F was not a linear tracker but tonearm did have a motor that would move it to the correct track.  Unlike the PL-L70 (which had the benefit of being a model year or two after the PL-88F), the optical sensor on the PL-88F never really worked for us.

The AA-R22 and the PL-88F left an indelible mark on me regarding 80s aesthetics.  I love the silver, push-button, “computer-ized” look of these things.

Sadly, the mechanism that moved the drawer in the PL-88F began malfunctioning in the early 2000s and my Dad trashed it.  But, before that the PL-88F taught me an important lesson about vinyl.

One day in about 1999 or 2000 we had bought a CED player at the (now sadly late) Fifth Avenue Flea Market and I watched Rocky off of what was effectively a record.  My interest piqued about the CED’s audio counterpart, the vinyl record because I had always thought of the record as an obsolete anachronism.

Most of my childhood memories about playing music (especially Paul Simon’s Graceland and Laurie Anderson’s Big Science) are about cassettes.  I think this might be because my Dad’s Realistic cassette deck was located on a lower shelf that I could reach as a child and the record player (needing a lot of space for opening the dust cover) was located much higher.  The turntable also seemed delicate and easy to break, so I stayed away from it.

That evening after watching Rocky we setup the Pioneer PL-88F in my bedroom and I listened to Simon and Garfunkel’s 1982 Concert in Central Park on a pair of Sennheiser headphones.  That was my first important vinyl experience.

It was at that point that I understood that vinyl was something I needed to pay attention to.  The PL-88F was soon followed by a succession of thrift store turntable finds (at the tail end of when good turntables were showing up at thrift stores) that included a Micro Seiki DD-20 and a Thorens TD-160.  I also started accumulating vinyl and I listened to great music like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Best of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Since then my interest in vinyl has waxed and waned.  Simultaneously, vinyl is fun and vinyl is a pain in the ass.  There are a myriad of ways that a record can become deranged.  I have a copy of Paul Simon’s Graceland where the second half of The Boy in the Bubble is marred by sizzling highs.  That stuff will drive you insane.  Every time you play a record you are damaging it in some small way and that seems perverse.  And, if you forgot to clean the stylus or you for got to clean the record or the stylus has become excessively worn you could be doing even greater damage to the record.

Honestly, the experience of using the PL-L70 made me appreciate even more it’s mid-1980s contemporary the Realistic CD-1000.  The Compact  Disc put an end to all so much of vinyl’s obtuse nonsense.

On the other hand, vinyl is the only music format you can watch and that gives it a great air of wonder.  If you ever really want to deeply consider the nature of sensory experience, watch as a tiny stylus drags through a microscopic groove at 33 1/3rd RPM while rich sound booms out of your speakers.  That sound is in there, somewhere hidden in those grooves.  Suddenly the nature of scale starts to have meaning.

I once had the experience of watching the video output of a Sony PCM adapter do it’s magic of recording digital sound as an analog video signal on a videotape and while that was similar, it wasn’t physical, right in front of your eyes like a record player is.  There are some recordings, like Genesis’s Invisible Touch, that seem to just make more sense when you can watch the record spinning around.  That seems silly to me, but that’s how I feel.

Because of all the various annoyances of weight, size, and other inconveniences I don’t think that vinyl will ever (or can ever) be my primary method of listening to music, but it’s a great thing to have on the side (much like my interest in LaserDisc).

Beginning in 2004 or so, while I was at college I got very seriously interested in indie music.  After I graduated I suddenly had the time and money to go to a lot of indie rock concerts and record stores.  No concert is complete without a trip to the merch table and I would often buy an LP because I already owned all of the CDs of the bands I was interested enough in seeing.

As a result, I have I accumulated a small collection of treasured favorites from the indie rock era.

That copy of St. Vincent’s Marry Me on the top of the pile is actually one of my most treasured possessions.  I bought it at the merch table after the St. Vincent show at the Wexner Center in Columbus in February, 2008 and Annie Clark was kind enough to sign it for me.

You may have noticed that some of the albums in that pile are still unopened.  At the time I was very interested in buying mementos from shows but less interested in the hassle of playing the actual records.  However, it presently seems a waste for all of this lovely vinyl to go unplayed, and that’s why I was interested in another turntable.  I think it’s fair to say that the PL-L70 has reintroduced me to vinyl.  I just bought that vinyl copy of Zonoscope from Amazon.  I might even invest in a decent preamp.

Sony TR-730

This is my Sony TR-730 transistor radio.

I’ve discussed before how there’s this mish-mash section at Village Thrift where you have the possibility of finding anything and everything.  It’s so packed with items of all types that you have to make several passes before you’re sure you’ve seen everything.  One day recently I had made several passes of these shelves and had decided there was nothing I particularly wanted to buy.  But then, just as I was about to give up, I spotted what I thought at first was an electric razor in a leather pouch.

Upon closer inspection I was surprised to find that it was actually a very small, very old Sony transistor radio, the TR-730.

After we brought it home I was eager to hear it working…And this is when we discovered, via this note we found in the battery compartment, that it needed an odd 4.5v battery.

Fortunately, equivalent batteries are still made (apparently they were used in cameras) and after a trip to Battery Bob’s site I had a PX21 in hand and the TR-730 fired right up.

I’m not sure what this thing sounded like in it’s heyday but it certainly works now.

That’s 1350AM WARF, a sports station that basically saturates this part of Northeast Ohio with it’s signal.  I can tell you that the tuning wheel on this TR-730 is a bit sticky so it’s not great for fine tuning.  I think I would prefer a larger wheel like the TR-1 has.

But all things considered, I’m very amused that this 50 year-old radio still works.

Most of what I know about the TR-730 I found on James Butter’s Transistor Radio Design site.  He quotes an advertisement in a Pittsburgh newspaper for the TR-730 dated November 1961, which places this radio squarely in the Kennedy Administration.  Depending on how old you are you may not think of transistor radios as particularly antique devices but consider that this radio has most likely celebrated it’s 50th birthday.  The $39.95 price for the radio in 1961 translates to about $312 in 2013 dollars.  Buying one of these radios would have been very much like buying a smartphone today.  I suspect that if you bought one of these in 1961 it would have been the most technologically advanced device you owned.

What you got for your $39.95 in 1961 was a tiny AM radio with a tuning wheel, a volume wheel, and a headphone jack.  That’s it.  No FM.  No “bass boost”.  No back-light.  No station memories.

But what you did get was extreme portability at a time when such a thing seemed miraculous.

In the first entry on this blog, about the Casio TV-1000 micro TV, I noted how the micro TVs of the 1980s in some ways foreshadowed today’s smartphones.  If you want to go further though, you have to look back at the first handheld transistor radios of the 1950s and 1960s.

If the smartphone revolution has taught us anything it’s that any technology with mass-market appeal will be shrunk until you can carry it in your pocket.  The smartphone exists because there is tremendous appeal in having The Internet with you and accessible at all times.  The games and camera and phone aspects of the device just come along for the ride.  What you really want is the Internet with you at all times.

The Game Boy existed because of the appeal of having a videogame with you at all times.

The iPod (and the other portable music players like the Archos and the Nomad and others) existed because of the appeal of carrying thousands of songs (if not your entire music library) with you at all times.

Before that, the Walkman existed because of the appeal of carrying one album with you at all times.

In order for something to be with you at all times it has to fit into your pocket.

I may be mistaken but I believe the first time this “fit it in your pocket” phenomenon occurred was the transistor radio revolution from the introduction of the Regency TR-1 in 1954 into the 1960s.  Now, there had been portable radios for decades by this point, like Zenith’s Trans-Oceanic series, but these are large, heavy things that you might put on the ground next to you when you were having a picnic.  There’s a difference between making something battery powered and giving it a handle and putting it in your pocket.

Outside of say, a flashlight, the transistor radio was the first piece of electronics that the average person might keep on their person.  In my mind that’s a tremendously important point in the history of technology.  As someone who grew up surrounded by tape players, radios, TVs, later personal computers, and now smartphones and tablets the idea of a world before ubiquitous consumer electronics seems fascinatingly distant and alien.  In that respect, something like the TR-730 represents the first dim moments of the era I recognize as my own.

Of course the reason why we are surrounded by consumer electronics today is because of the triumph of the semiconductor and the transistor and again the TR-730 represents the opening moments of that era as well.

The TR-730 also represents the early moments of Sony’s entry into the American consumer electronics market.

When I was gathering the materials for this entry I was thinking about how much Sony stuff I own.

For a long time I’ve felt some ambivalence towards Sony.  There was a time when the Dreamcast was being crushed by the Playstation 2 that I really hated Sony, but today I have this general feeling that they’re a company that despite their intense drive to innovate has a tendency to drop the ball halfway to greatness.

If the MiniDisc had had a way to quickly and effortlessly copy music from a CD to a MiniDisc, like the iPod did years later, it might have been a tremendous success rather than the middling semi-failure that it became.

The PSP debuted in 2005 and coupled a fast CPU (for a portable device of the day) with WiFi and (once you bought a mandatory memory card) mass storage.  Sony had all of the ingredients in front of them to have invented the App Store two years before Apple, but they dropped the ball and had to rush to create something similar after Apple did.  Before that point, the process of putting demos, music, pictures, and videos on the PSP involved putting files in bizarrely named folders on the memory card.  It seemed like no one at Sony had considered the consumer’s perspective in this at all.

The PS Vita is basically the best portable game hardware ever created…and Sony can’t quite figure out what to do with it.  Does it exist for miniaturized versions of console games?  Does it exist for $10 indie games?  Does it have a chance competing with tablets and smartphones?

It’s as if this company loves to build stuff but can’t figure out how to make it really usable or delightful for the consumer in the same way that say, Apple can.

The world of consumer electronics is changing.  Whole classes of electronics like digital cameras, video cameras, eReaders, digital audio players, radios, and other devices are being subsumed into the smartphone and the tablet.

The era where you could simply bring out another new model of say, a TV or a DVD player, or a camera and people would buy it simply because it was new and it contained one new feature are quickly coming to an end as people just want one new device that does all of these things.

The world that Sony thrived in where they could have tendrils into every consumer electronics market is dying.  The TR-730 also represents the birth of this era as well.  Does something like the PS Vita represent the terminal end; the end of the Sony era?

Panasonic Senior Partner

This is my Panasonic Senior Partner a “luggable” portable MS-DOS computer from the mid-1980s.

All buttoned up like this, you might wonder if it’s some sort of old video camera case.

When you open it up and plug in the keyboard, it becomes apparent that this is actually a very old PC…A very old PC that works.

I found this Senior Partner in the Fall of 2011 at Village Thrift and it’s probably one of my proudest thrift store finds of the last 5 or so years.  It’s become an incredibly rare experience to find 1980s PC hardware at thrift stores and it blows my mind that this one is still in working order.

As PC hardware goes, this is almost as basic as it gets.  You have an 8088, a monochrome CRT monitor (with a DB-9 connector for color RGB on the back), a serial port, a parallel and two 5.25″ disk drives.  There’s no hard drive.  There’s no built-in clock.  This machine predates mice on the PC by several years (unless you used a serial mouse).  The only “luxury” is that this machine has is 512K RAM and a built in thermal printer hidden under a flap on the top of the computer.  I suspect the computer’s name derives from the fact that with a built-in printer this machine could be considered a portable office for mid-1980s businesspeople.

But, there’s no battery.  This is not a mobile machine.  It’s a machine you lugged from place to place where you had a place to sit it down and AC power available to plug into.

The keyboard doubles a a cover to enclose the monitor and floppy drives.

When you detach the keyboard you have to pull the retractable keyboard cable out it’s hiding place below the “Panasonic Sr. Partner” label to the left of the CRT and attach it to the connector that hides under a cap on the keyboard.

There are also little lifts you can pull out from the keyboard to place it at a comfortable angle.

As the name entails this was a machine its designers intended for business users.  The monochrome CRT is extremely crisp for word processing and spreadsheets.  When (before the paper ran out) I fired up an old copy of Print Shop the thermal printer gladly printed with no additional setup.

One could imagine some business travelers in a hotel room preparing for a meeting the next day huddled around the tiny green screen furiously printing curled up thermal printed documents…Almost.

Consider the fact that this thing is 35 pounds.  Imagine lugging that around an airport.  There’s a good reason why the luggable form factor that began with the Osbourne and the Kaypro luggables and continued with the famous Compaq Portable was a technological dead end.  The Senior Partner is even larger than the Macintosh despite that machine having a larger screen not actually being intended to be luggable.

The reason for this, as I understand it is that luggables were just normal PC components with all of their heft and hungry power consumption, wedged into an unorthodox case that happened to have a handle.   The engineering advances that needed to happen to make portable computers into “laptops” happened later in the PC realm (though certainly the Grid Compass and a few others were showing the way even when the Senior Partner was on store shelves).

As an antique though, this thing is fantastic.  The Senior Partner is a self-contained retro-computing party.

Easy to setup and quick to put away when you’re done.  When it goes back on the shelf you can easily stack stuff on it’s hard shell.

And simply as an object it looks fantastic.  Sure, it does not look (or act) like the glorious 80s vision of the future embodied in the brilliant Macintosh and Macintosh SE designs.  There’s no Snow White timelessness here.  But, what the Senior Partner does look like is the offspring between a Mission Control command console and an armored personnel carrier.  You have no doubt as to which floppy drive is which because there are huge thick drive letters printed beneath the drives.  The huge embossed “Panasonic” name looks like what you see on the back of a pick up truck.  This machine looks serious in a way that I just adore.

Nothing says retro quite like a brilliant glowing green CRT screen.

When you’re sitting with a machine like this you feel a closeness to technology that is unlike using a computer today.  When you use a modern computer you are swathed in warm colors and pictures designed to make you feel comfortable.  You can quickly switch between multiple programs or browser tabs.  There are a million things saying “use me”.

On a machine like the Senior Partner you basically have one thing in front you.  You have one program with a handful of options so it demands concentration, but the high contrast of the screen makes it easier to concentrate because only the program is glowing and all else is empty darkness.  This is the cyberspace equivalent of a sensory deprivation chamber.

The closest thing I can compare that feeling to is using an e-Ink Kindle.

I suspect that this machine spent a lot of it’s life “buttoned up” and that accounts for what great shape it’s in today.  Despite being almost 30 years old it seems like a missing pad on the “bottom” side that faces downward then the machine is laying handle side up and a few scuffs are the only things wrong with it.  There was little opportunity for dust to get into the keyboard and the disk drives.  I also suspect that this machine may not have gotten that much use in general considering the lack of burn-in on the monitor.

As a retro-computing machine, it is not perfect.  For one thing I have no idea how to get inside of the machine, or if that is even a good idea.  On the one hand, generally if a machine has a CRT I don’t want to get inside of it.  On the other hand, I can’t find an obvious way to replace the printer paper and I wonder if they just intended you to open the case for that.  The back of the machine has what looks to be where an indication of an internal expansion slot, which would be more evidence that you are intended to be able to safely get inside of the machine.

Having only a monochrome screen, no hard drive, only 512K RAM, and no joystick port makes this less than ideal to play many old games or some of the more prominent software I’ve collected.  As you can imagine finding software for a PC with 512K RAM, no hard drive, and only 5.25″ floppies might be an issue.

However, I’ve had some good luck in this area.

When I first bought this machine I remembered that in my parent’s attic I had saved the 5.25″ floppies from an Epson 286 we had gotten as a hand-me-down from my aunt in Cleveland in 1995.  When we had discarded the Epson I had made sure to save the 5.25″ MS-DOS boot and installation disks as well as some educational programs, including the immortal classics The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?.

This meant that when we brought the Senior Partner home from Village Thrift I had a working DOS startup disk and a few programs so I had the bare minimum needed to see the machine working.

Several months later I found this insane lot of 5.25″ PC games on ShopGoodwill.  I think I paid $16.25 for this lot including ShopGoodwill’s usually exorbitant shipping cost.  What I received is a treasury of late 80s/early 90s PC games.

Here are just a few of the games in that box.

Many of these games require hard disk installation but several, like Ultima I (which we saw running on the Senior Partner in the Commodore 1084 post) and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are perfectly at home running on an early floppy-only PC.  It turns out that many games from the late 1980s basically assumed a PC with 384K-512K RAM so they run just fine on the Senior Partner.

Finally, last year my uncle gave me his old PC and the Commodore monitor I mentioned previously.  Along with that was his box of 5.25″ disks that went with the PC.

The best thing in the box was a disk labeled IBM DOS 3.2.

The Epson MS-DOS 3.30 disk I had been using was fine for booting the machine but because it was only indented as a minimal OS to be used to install the other disks it was missing several important utilities like CHKDSK.  With my uncle’s DOS 3.2 disk I could finally confirm how much memory the machine had.

There was also a disk labeled Lotus 1-2-3, which I had badly wanted to see running on a vintage machine.

There was a time when this screen was a common as the Google homepage to computer users.

Using this machine also taught me a lot about MS-DOS.  Today DOS is remembered as a difficult monster of an OS; cold to use and brutal to configure.  Some of that is true.  Some of that was Apple advertising crud.  But I think a lot of that image of MS-DOS came from the time after about 1988 until the release of Windows 95 (and even a little after) when so many odd tricks had to be crammed into DOS so that it could use more than 640K memory and use new hardware like sound cards that were not supported without strange autoexec.cfg and config.sys changes.  The nonsense you had to go through to use the hardware in your PC had was truly insulting.

However, in the earlier period the Senior Partner belongs to DOS seems almost tame.  You change directories.  You list the files in a directory.  You run a program.  You change drives.  You format a disk.  It almost seems quaint compared to the ordeals that people had using DOS later.  DOS was clearly meant for a machine like the Senior Partner; this was its heyday.   After that point it slowly turned into a curmudgeonly antique.

I remember reading DOS for Dummies and seeing all of these commands the author basically told you you shouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.  I wondered what had happened for these commands to have been put into the OS and never taken out in the intervening years.  These were things for configuring serial ports and display modes that made made sense on machines like the Senior Partner in the 1980s but were increasingly less relevant as time wore on.  The large group of people who first encountered PCs in the early 90s ran headfirst into this confusing period where DOS was a geological dig of successive eras stacked on top of each other.

To use a machine as old as the Senior Partner seems quaint not just because of it’s age but because it’s so old that DOS actually makes sense.

A Meditation on Racing Videogames

I’ve been on a videogame kick recently, so I ask if you will indulge me once again.  The post on the Saturn, and my memories of Daytona USA and Wipeout specifically, stirred my thoughts about the racing game genre.

I own a few racing videogames.

It hadn’t actually occurred to me quite how many racing games I own until I tried to gather most of them in one place to get this picture.  I also have several groups of games not shown here:

  • A whole era of PC racing games from 1997-2005 or so like Rally Trophy, Motorhead, Rallisport Challenege, Colin McRae 3, and others I don’t have the boxes for at my apartment.
  • A whole group of PC racing games like Midtown Madness that I just have in jewel cases from thrift stores.
  • More recent purchases like Dirt 2, Blur, Fuel, and Grid 2 that I only own digitally.

I’m not really a big car guy or even someone who really enjoys driving in real life.  It’s not really the cars that draw me into racing games.

I think what it comes down to is that I love playing videogames but I hate the “instant death” mechanic in most types of games.

That is to say that if Mario falls down a hole, he’s dead and you have to go back to the start of the level.  If a Cyber Demon’s rocket hits Doom Guy he’s dead and you go back to the start to the level.  In the vast majority of games the punishment for failure is that you the player are ripped away from whatever you’re doing and you lose progress in some way.

Racing games are in many ways the opposite of this.  If you go off the road or hit a wall generally you lose time and you’ll probably not win the race, but the the priority is to politely get you going on your way again.  Even in games like San Francisco Rush, where you can hit a wall and explode, you are quickly thrust back into the race somewhere further down the track.  It’s like if you spilled a glass of water at a nice restaurant and the waiter quickly comes over to mop it up and replace your drink.  You and he both know you just did a silly thing but he wants you back enjoying yourself as soon as possible.

That does not mean that these games are “soft”; it’s just that they don’t believe that constantly slapping you across the face is good value for money.

I mentioned in the Sega Saturn post that I don’t tend to like 2D games.  The vast majority of racing games operate from an inherently 3D perspective that places the camera either behind the car or on the car’s bumper.  In the pre-3D era there were attempts to do racing games with 3D-ish perspectives using 2D graphics, and I own a few such as Pole Position II, and Outrun.

It was difficult for 2D games to draw a convincing curving road so these games tend to make the player avoid traffic rather than attempt to portray realistic driving.

Racing games as we know them today trace their ancestry back to arcade games like Namco’s Winning Run (1988) and Sega’s Virtua Racing (1992) that were among the first to use 3D graphics and be able to draw a road in a more realistic way.

When consoles started using 3D graphics a nice looking racing game was a surefire way for console makers to show off their technology.  A nicely rendered car on some nicely rendered road with some glittering buildings behind it is much less likely to trigger the uncanny valley than a rendering of a human.  I think we can all agree that games like Gran Turismo 5 have come closer to real looking car paint than any game has come to real looking human skin.

Throughout the 1990s racing games exploded into several distinct sub-genres:

Arcade style games are the direct descendants of Virtua Racing and Winning Run, which is where the sub-genre derives it’s name.  These days, these games are seldom released in arcades.  Arcade-style racing games are not expected to have realistic handling but instead have handling designed for fun more than thought.  The brake peddle/button in many of these games is a mere formality.  Early on in the 3D racing era companies like Namco and Sega added drift mechanics to their games where you could toss the car around corners at speed rather than braking realistically.  Arcade racers like Daytona USA and Ridge Racer were very popular in the 32-bit era (Playstation, N64, Saturn) but the arrival of mainstream simulation racers drew attention away from these games in the late 1990s and early 2000s (which sadly meant many people overlooked the fantastic Ridge Racer Type 4).  The arrival of Burnout 3: Takedown in 2004 reinvigorated the sub-genre by allowing you to knock other cars off the road rather than just trying to pass them.

Beginning with games like Driver, free-roaming racing games left the predefined track and let the player roam though cities and other environments.  Crazy Taxi (1999) combined the arcade-style with free-roaming forcing the player to memorize routes through a large city in order to pick up and deliver fares.  Test Drive Unlimited (2006) allowed players to drive around the whole island of Oahu.  Burnout Paradise (2008) put the frantic Burnout style of arcade racing into an open city.

Kart racing games (named after Super Mario Kart) tend to have arcade style handling but in most cases have a recognized character like Mario or Sonic sitting in a tiny car.  In Kart racers it’s expected that you can driver over or through symbols/objects on the track to pick up weapons, which you can use to slow down or otherwise befuddle opponents, or drive over speed pads which give you a nitro boost.  In Kart games the strategy of using the weapons is as important or more important than your ability to guide the car.  The Kart racing genre is 90% Mario Kart and 10% everyone else.  If you’ve never played them, I recommend Sega’s two recent kart racing games: Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing and it’s sequel Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.

Futuristic racing games are a close cousin to Kart racers because they also allow you to pick up weapons on the track to hurt opponents.  Generally futuristic racing games have more realistic graphics than Kart games and a cyberpunk/dystopian visual atmosphere accompanied by a electronica soundtrack.  Wipeout is the patron saint of futuristic racing games.

Simulation racing games seek to exactly simulate the handling characteristics of a real car.  Games like the Gran Turismo series, F355 Challenge and the famous Grand Prix Legends take great pride in the way they have exactly replicated real tracks and the handling of real cars on those tracks.  There are actually people who have become real drivers after learning in these games.  Gran Turismo popularized the idea that mainstream simulation games should have dozens of realistically rendered sports cars that need to be collected by the player.  In Gran Turismo the incentive to race is to collect cars.  Today Microsoft’s Forza series and Sony’s Gran Turismo are the kings of mainstream simulation racing.

There is another sub-genre that doesn’t really have an established name that is somewhere between the simulation and arcade styles of handling.  I like to call it sim-arcade.  The Dreamcast’s Metropolis Street Racer is an early example of this type of game.  Codemasters’ Grid and Grid 2 are more recent examples.  In sim-arcade racing games you still have to think about your line and braking correctly for the turns but it’s not quite as anal about it as the simulation games.  A lot of people confuse this style for the arcade-style because they assume that any game that is not full-on simulation must be arcade style.  A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t have to use the brake except to trigger a drift, you’re playing an arcade style racing game.  If you have to actually brake for a turn and you’re not playing a sim, it’s probably this sim-arcade style.  There can be a arrogance among simulation players that more realistic games are better but I tend to really enjoy the sim-arcade style.

Descending from 1995’s Sega Rally Championship rally racing games are intended to replicate rally driving on off-road surfaces.  The actual sport of rally racing takes place as a series of time trials cars drive individually but some of these games allow players to drive against other cars as well.  The Sega Rally games take a more arcade approach to handling while Codemasters’ Colin McRae Rally and Dirt games take a more balanced approach somewhere between sim and arcade.  Today Dirt 3 and Dirt Showdown basically own this genre.

I wish I could say that the current state of the racing game genre is as rich and vibrant as it was in the past.  There is a crunch going on in the videogame industry where game budgets are increasing faster than sales and the large videogame publishers increasingly feel they can’t take risks about what their customers will buy.  I suspect that racing games have become labeled risky niche products while military-style first person shooters like Call of Duty and third person action games like Assassin’s Creed are commanding big budget development dollars.

In 2010 when Disney and Activision put out  well-advertised arcade-style racing games (Split/Second and Blur, respectively) sales were abysmal and the excellent studios behind those games (Black Rock and Bizarre Creations, respectively) were closed.  The fact that both games looked superficially similar, which confused potential customers and the fact that both games were released in the same week up against  the blockbuster hit Red Dead Redemption does not seem to have entered any executives minds as to why sales were poor.  A chill seemed to descend upon the arcade racing subgenre after that with only Electronic Arts carrying the torch after that with their Need for Speed games.

The videogame playing public, it seems, are sick of just going around in circles and developers can’t seem to figure out what to do next.

Lately developers have been keen to invent shockingly dumb and bizarre plots to justify racing games:

  • In Split/Second the game is supposed to be some massive reality TV show where the producers have conveniently rigged and entire abandoned city to explode while daredevils race through it in order to provide interesting television.
  • In Driver: San Francisco the main character is actually having a coma dream where he believes he can jump into the consciousnesses of drivers in San Francisco and complete tasks in their cars.  I wish I was making this up.

Racing games, like puzzle games, are probably better off without plots.

Still, I think racing games need a kick in the pants in order to stay a relevant mainstream genre.

In other genres, like side-scrolling shooters and platformers the influence of indie developers are helping those genres find the souls they had lost under the weight of big budget design by committee.  I’m hoping something similar happens with racing games.  I am extremely enthusiastic about the 90s Arcade Racer game on Kickstarter that is a love letter to the arcade racing games that Sega made in the late 1990s (Super GT/SCUD Race and Daytona USA 2) that they were too stubborn to release on consoles.

Sega Saturn

This is my Sega Saturn, which I bought used at The Record Exchange (now simply The Exchange) on Howe Rd. in Cuyahoga Falls in October 1999.

SS_Whole_Machine

I know this because I saved the date-stamped price tag by sticking it on the Saturn’s battery door.

SS_Price_Tag

The Saturn was Sega’s 32-bit game console, a contemporary of the better known Nintendo N64 and the Sony PlayStation.  It lived a short, brutish existence where it was pummeled by the PlayStation.  In the US the Saturn came out in May 1995 and was basically dead by the end of 1998.

The Saturn was the first game console that I truly loved.   Keep in mind that I bought mine after the platform was dead and buried and used game stores were eager to unload most of the games for less than $20.  If I had paid $399 for one brand new in 1995 with a $50 copy of Daytona USA I might have different feelings.

The thing that makes the Saturn intensely interesting is how it was simultaneously such a lovable platform and a disaster for Sega.  It’s a story about what happens when executives totally misunderstand their market and what happens when you give great developers a limited canvas to make great games with and they do the best they can.

When you look at the Saturn totally out of it’s historical context and just look at on it’s own, it’s a fine piece of gaming hardware.  Compared to the Sega CD it replaced the quality of the plastic seems to have been improved.  The Saturn is substantial without being outrageously huge.  The whole thing was built around a top-loading 2X CD-ROM drive.

SS_Top

SS_Open

It plays audio CDs from an on-screen menu that also supports CD+G discs (mostly for karaoke).

SS_CDG

It has a CR2032 battery that backs up internally memory for saving games, accessible behind a door at the rear of the console.

SS_Battery_2

It has a cartridge slot for adding additional RAM and other accessories like GameSharks.

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There were several official controllers available for it during it’s lifetime.

The two I own are the this 6 button digital controller:

SS_Controller

And the “3D controller” with the analog stick that was packaged with NiGHTS:

SS_Nights_Controller

You can see the clear family resemblance to the Dreamcast controller.

My Saturn is a bit odd because at some point the screws that hold the top shell to the rest of the console sheared off.

SS_Screw

That’s not supposed to happen.  All that’s holding the two parts of the Saturn together is the clip on the battery door.  Fortunately this gives me an excellent opportunity to show you what the inside of the Saturn looks like:

SS_Inside

Despite all of this, my Saturn still works after at least 15 years of service.

I should explain why I was buying a Saturn for $25 at The Record Exchange in 1999.  You might say that several decisions by my parents and misguided Sega executives led to that moment.

My parents never bought my brother and I videogames as children.  I’m not sure if they thought games were time wasters or wastes of money.   Or, it could have just been they didn’t have any philosophical problem with them but they were uncomfortable buying a toy more expensive than $100.  Whatever the reason we didn’t have videogames.  Considering how many awful games people dropped $50 on in the pre-Internet days when there was so little information about which games were worth buying, I can see their point.  I also know now that there were plenty of perfectly good games that were so difficult that you might stop playing in frustration and never get your money’s worth out of them.

Instead, videogames were something I would only see at a friend’s house…and when those moments happened they were magical.

I can’t speak for women of my generation but at least for a lot of males of the so-called “Millennial generation” videogames are to us what Rock ‘n Roll was to the Baby Boomers.  They are the cultural innovation that we were the first to grow up with and they define us as a generation.  If you’re looking for particular images that define a generation and I say to you “Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock” you think Baby Boomers.  If I say to you “Super Mario Bros.” you think Millennials.

By 1996 or so I was pretty interested in buying some sort of videogame console, but I was somewhat restricted in what I could afford.  The first game system I bought was a used original Game Boy in 1996.  However, shortly after that my family got a current PC and my interests shifted to computer games: Doom, Quake, etc, which is what eventually led to the Voodoo 2.

By 1998 I noticed how dirt cheap the Sega Genesis had become so my brother and I chipped in together to buy a used Genesis (which I believe we bought from The Record Exchange).  I quickly found that I did enjoy playing 2D games but I was really enjoying the 3D games I was playing on PC.

Sega did an oddly consistent job of porting their console games to PC in the 1990s, so I had played PC versions of some of the games that came out on Saturn in the 1995-1998 timeframe including the somewhat middling PC port of Daytona USA

So in 1999 when I came across this used Saturn for a mere $25 at The Record Exchange, I was eager to buy it.

But why was the Saturn $25 when a used PlayStation or N64 was most likely going for $80-$100 at the same time?

As I noted in the Sega Genesis Nomad post, Sega was making some very strange decisions about hardware in the mid-1990s.  At that time Sega was at at the forefront of arcade game technology.  Recall that in the Voodoo 2 post I said that if you sat down at one of Sega’s Daytona USA or Virtua Fighter 2 machines in 1995 you were basically treated to the most gorgeous videogame experience money could by at the time.  That’s because Sega was working with Lockheed Martin to use 3D graphics hardware from flight simulators in arcade machines.

At the same time as they were redefining arcade games Sega was busy designing the home console that would succeed the popular Genesis (aka the console people refer to today as simply “the Sega”).  Home consoles were still firmly rooted in 2D, but there were cracks appearing.  For example, Nintendo’s Star Fox for the Super Nintendo embedded a primitive 3D graphics chip in the cartridge and introduced a lot of home console gamers to 3D, one slowly rendered frame at a time.  Sega pulled a similar trick with the Genesis port of Virtua Racing, which embedded a special DSP chip in the cartridge (you may remember this from the Nomad post):

Nomad_VR_Demo

Sega decided on a design for the Saturn which would produce excellent 2D graphics with 3D graphics as a secondary capability.  The way the Saturn produced 3D was a bit complicated but basically it could take a sprite and position it in 3D space in such a way that it acted like a polygon in 3D graphics.  If you place enough of these sprites on the screen you can create a whole 3D scene.

I can see in retrospect how this made sense to Sega’s executives.  People like 2D games, so let’s make a great 2D machine.  They also must have considered that 3D hardware on the same level as their arcade hardware was not feasible in a $400 home console.

SS_CD_Door

However, Sega’s competitors didn’t see things that way.  Sony and Nintendo both built the best 3D machines they could, 2D be damned.  One would expect their did this largely in response to the popularity of Sega’s 3D arcade games.

The story that’s gone around about Sega’s reaction to this is that in response they decided to put a second CPU in the Saturn.  I have no idea if that’s why the Saturn ended up with two Hitachi SH-2 CPUs, but it would make sense if was an act of desperation.

Having two CPUs is one of those things that sounds great but in reality can turn into a real mess.  A CPU is only as fast as the rest of the machine can feed it things to do.  If say, one CPU is reading from the RAM and the other can’t at the same time, it sits there idle, waiting.  There are also not that many kinds types of work that can easily be spread across two CPUs without some loss in efficiency.  If the work one CPU is doing depends on work the other CPU is still working on the first CPU sits there idle, waiting.  These are problems in computer science that people are still working furiously on today.  These were not problems Sega was going to solve for a rushed videogame console launch 19 years ago.

The design they ended up with for the Saturn was immensely complicated.  All told, it contained:

  • Two Hitachi SH-2 CPUs
  • One graphics processor for sprites and polygons (VDP1)
  • One graphics processor for background scrolling (VDP2)
  • One Hitachi SH-1 CPU for CD-ROM I/O processing
  • One Motorola 68000 derived CPU as the sound controller
  • One Yamaha FH1 sound DSP
  • Apparently there was another custom DSP chip to assist for 3D geometry processing

That’s a lot of silicon.  It was expensive to manufacturer and difficult to program.  The PlayStation, which started life at $299, had a single CPU and a single graphics processor and in general produced better results than the Saturn.

Sega had psyched itself out.  Here the company that was showing everyone what brilliant 3D arcade games looked like failed to understand that they had actually fundamentally changed consumer expectations and built a game console to win the last war, so to speak.

When the PlayStation and N64 arrived they ushered in games that were built around 3D graphics.  Super Mario 64, in particular made consumers expect increasingly rich 3D worlds, exactly the type of thing the Saturn did not excel at.

Sega had gambled on consumers being interested in the types of games they produced for the arcades: Games that were short but required hours of practice to master.  By 1997-1998 consumers’ tastes had changed and they were enjoying games like Gran Turismo that still required hours to master but offered hours of content as well.  1995’s Sega Rally only contained four tracks and three cars. 1998’s Gran Turismo had 178 cars on 11 tracks.

Sega’s development teams eventually adapted to this new reality but it was too late to save the doomed Saturn.  Brilliant end-stage Saturn games like Panzer Dragoon Saga and Burning Rangers would never reach enough players’ hands to make a difference.

SS_Burning_Rangers

For the eagle eyed…This is a US copy of Burning Rangers with a jewel case insert printed from a scan of the Japanese box art.

By Fall-1999 the Saturn was dead and buried as a game platform.  Not only had it failed in the marketplace but it’s hurried successor, the Dreamcast, was now on store shelves.  That’s why a used Saturn was $25 in 1999.

The thing was that despite the fact that the Saturn had failed, the games weren’t bad, and since I was buying them after the fact they were dirt cheap.  I accumulated quite a few of them:

SS_Games_Bin

Oddly enough, my favorite Saturn game was the much criticized Saturn version of Daytona USA that launched with the Saturn in 1995.

SS_Daytona_Box

The original Saturn version of Daytona USA was a mess.  Sega’s AM2 team, who had developed the original arcade game had been tasked with somehow creating a viable Saturn version of Daytona USA.  The whole point of the game was that you were racing against a large number of opponents (up to 40 on one track).  The Saturn could barely do 3D and here it was being asked to do the impossible.

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The game they produced was clearly a rushed, sloppy mess.  But it was still fun!  The way the car controls is still brilliant even if the graphics can barely keep up.  I fell in love with Daytona.  Later Sega attempted several other versions of Daytona on Saturn and Dreamcast but I vastly prefer the original Saturn version, imperfect as it may be.

Another memorable game was Wipeout.  To be honest, when I asked to see what Wipeout was one day at Funcoland I had no idea that the game was a futuristic racing game.  I thought it had something to do with snowboarding!

Wipeout was a revelation.  Sega’s games were bright and colorful with similarly cheerful, jazzy music.  Wipeout is a dark and foreboding combat racing game that takes place in a cyberpunk-ish corporate dominated future.  I still catch myself humming the game’s European electronica soundtrack.  The game used CD audio for the soundtrack so you could put the disc in a CD player and listen to the music separately if you wished.  Wipeout was the best of what videogames had to offer in 1995: astonishing 3D visuals and CD quality sound.

From about 1999 to 2000 I had an immense amount of fun collecting cheap used Saturn classics like NiGHTS, Virtua Cop, Panzer Dragoon, Sonic R, Virtua Fighter 2, Sega Rally, and others…As odd as this is to say, the Saturn was my console videogame alma mater.

Today I understand that something can be a business failure but not a failure to the people who enjoyed it.  To me, the Saturn was a glorious success and I treasure the time I have had with it.

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