Category: Sony

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.

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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.

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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?

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.

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

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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.

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

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

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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:

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

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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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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Sony Watchman FD-10A and Watchman FD-30A

Today we return to the extravagant world of 1980s handheld TVs.

This is my Sony Watchman FD-10A and Sony Watchman FD-30A, two of Sony’s attempts to create “Watchman” CRT handheld TVs in the 1980s.

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The FD-10A, dating from 1987 is on the left and the FD-30A, dating from 1984 is on the right.  They both still work, though the FD-30A seems to have a loose connection somewhere and sometimes will not turn on after you pull the antenna out.  As you can see, they are both black and white sets.

My father found the FD-10A at a thrift store some years ago and I believe I found the FD-30A at Village Thrift sometime in the past two years or so.

The most distinctive thing about these TVs is what they’ve done with the CRT.  On a typical CRT the electron gun is located behind the viewing surface you’re looking at.  The gun is firing at a surface of phosphors that are glowing on the other side of the glass tube you’re looking into.  There’s basically a straight line between your eyes, the surface of the picture tube, the glowing phosphors, and the electron gun.

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Take a look at these Panasonic Travelvision handheld TVs and you can see the ergonomic issue this creates.  The shape you get from putting a tiny conventional CRT into a handheld TV  ends up with the screen on the short end of a long case.  Holding that up to your face is very unnatural.  If you’re sitting down you end up putting the TV in your lap and craning your head down to look at it.  If you really wanted to hold it up to your face you would have to hold it like a telescope.

The ingenious CRT that these Watchman units use solves this problem.  Their CRTs have a window built into the top of the wide end of the tube and the electron gun fires at a curved surface of phosphors located under the window.

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See that?  You’re actually looking down into the CRT there.

So, the electron gun ends up firing perpendicular to the viewers eyes onto the curved white area with the phosphors.  While this does not do great things for the geometry of the resulting image it does mean that you can hold the Watchman in a much  ore natural way as you would a portable radio or a Game Boy with your hands down near the Watchman logo and the screen facing your eyes.

This must have been difficult to design.  Clearly this is from the era people remember when Sony was doing amazing things miniaturizing electronics.

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The FD-10A is a fairly basic model that only has VHF/UHF and no other fancy do-dads like AM/FM or a video-in jack.  As a result though it’s more lightweight and somewhat smaller than the FD-30A.

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Other than an earphone jack, just about the only feature that the FD-10A has is a switch that allows you to save the batteries by only listening to TV sound.

I used the FD-10A to watch the end of analog TV on June 12, 2009.  Here is an image of Cleveland’s Channel 19, WOIO-TV taken before the 10AM cutoff and moments after.

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At the moment of the cutoff I took a blurry and unusable movie with my Blackberry.  While some channels made a big deal about the switchover to digital on WOIO there was no fanfare other than a text explanation that scrolled very fast up the screen, followed the by the static you see in the second picture.

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The FD-30A is a more full-featured set but it’s heavier and larger than the FD-10A.  It has a video-in jack (using a normal stereo Y-cable), AM/FM radio (with FM stereo), a DC power input, and a kickstand.

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This FD-30A also came with a cloth case.  All of the controls are accessible through the sides of the case so when the case is closed you can easily use the FD-30A as a rather weighty AM/FM radio.

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The real party piece of the case though is that the cover can become a hood by unfolding flaps that attach to Velcro on either side of the Sony logo.

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I supposed this might help in bright Sun conditions, but I couldn’t see using this thing in the rain at all.

One thing I like to think about when I collect items like this is what would people at the time thought about them?  That is to say, if you walked into an electronics store in the 1980s and wished to purchase a handheld TV with your hard-earned money, which one should you have bought?

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As a collector, I love the styling on the Casios such as the TV-400 and the TV-1000 here.  These Sony Watchman units do not have the same 80s flair that the Casio do.  I’m sure salespeople hawking the Casios would have been buzzing about the stunning newness of LCD technology and the significant advance of on-screen electronic tuning.

In reality, those Casios are awful.  Even if you look past the inherent awfulness of first generation passive-matrix LCDs screens the electronic tuning is disturbingly bad.  Anyone who has ever tuned in analog TV knows that you always have to fiddle with the tuning.  There’s no way to do that with the Casios.  If they don’t find your desired channel, they just tune right on by.

So, what you really want is a TV with analog tuning.  I think you also want a CRT.  I still need to see what a quality 80s active-matrix LCD looks like but even so I don’t think the LCD technology of the time could hold a candle to the contrast and crispness of a CRT.  Even if those CRT handheld TVs ate batteries like vampires, I think the picture quality would still be worth it.

Personally, I would have bought a FD-10A.  It’s simple to operate and it’s more convenient than the larger and heavier FD-30A.

But then again, if this was the 80s and you were blowing a wad of cash on something as decadent as a handheld TV, you probably want the FD-30A with all of it’s bells and whistles.

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