Author Archives: Devin Coldewey

SNK may be making a mini-console stuffed with arcade classics

If you’ve worked through the amazing selection of games provided by the NES and SNES Classic Editions, you may be in luck: SNK, the legendary arcade game creator behind the likes of Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown, is teasing what looks like its own tiny arcade cabinet.

Teased as part of the company’s 40th anniversary, the shrouded gadget definitely doesn’t look like a NEO-GEO, or even a NEO-GEO Pocket. Gizmodo notes that the description mentions a “new game machine,” but no details beyond that. The tall, boxy outline suggests a small arcade cabinet, and the slab in front of it looks a lot like an arcade controller.

It wouldn’t be a particularly original creation — there are dozens of tiny arcade cabinets with built-in games, but the truth is, none of them is particularly good. They’re novelties, perfectly fun for a laugh, but the hardware — compared with the impressive solidity of real arcade controllers and the NEO-GEO’s itself — just isn’t there.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is an arcade cabinet-style console with improved internals, a decent screen to accommodate games newer than 1996 and a separate, perhaps even wireless arcade controller. Price… I’d put it at $200 or $250. Extra controller (and you’ll want it), my guess is $60. I could easily be way off, though. Maybe they’d even let us plug in our old Tanksticks?

An original NEO-GEO controller. You can feel the sturdiness from where you sit.

Inside, you’ll probably find a generous helping of SNK classics, likely limited to arcade and NEO-GEO titles. Even without SNK’s classic games for home consoles like the NES, my eyes were watering as I scrolled down the list of games the company has put out and which may end up on this device.

King of the Monsters 2? Last Resort? Twinkle Star Sprites? King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown and all the other fighters? Not to mention Metal Slug and its sequels. The amount of quarters I’ve sunk into these fantastic, beautiful games is uncountable.

If SNK is smart, they’ll make it possible to add new games to the system, too. There are plenty to choose from, as the company catered to a number of niches. Having them available for a few bucks each would be a dream — and anyway, if this isn’t a possibility, people will just hack new ROMs onto the system.

Whatever the case is, you can be sure I’m already jockeying for position to review the thing. I’ll let you know the second I hear anything.

Someone made a game where you ride the rapidly changing prices of cryptocurrencies

The cryptocurrency world is a strange one, but at least it has a sense of humor. A new game has you riding a little crypto-car along the wildly fluctuating prices of major and minor currencies. It’s quite ridiculous, and it isn’t even a bad game!

It’s called Crypto Rider, predictably, and is very much a spawn of the popular Line Rider type of game, though (hopefully) different enough that there won’t be any cease and desists forthcoming.

You select your car, then pick a chart to ride — most are a ride from a coin’s humble start to its highest value. But there’s a mountain-like “total market cap” track, a “drag race” where you need to clear a valuation gap and one that must be depressing for BTC holders: a bumpy downhill ride from $20K to $7,850. New tracks should appear in time, as new cryptocurrencies rise and fall.

The game is cute — there are fun messages along the track, and the exhaust is tiny coins — and you collect coins toward unlocking new cars. I’m pretty sure they’re just aesthetic changes, but I’m gunning for a Dogecar anyway.

“The game was a side project for me to do in my own time,” wrote back Daniel Fahey, founder of the developer, SuperFly Games. “So the first original 10 tracks were what I felt were needed to give the game some replayability. But after the reception the game has received during its launch day, I will certainly be adding more tracks.”

It’s free, it’s dumb and it’s a fun way to waste a few minutes while you inadvertently lampoon the hubris of this rushed attempt to overthrow existing financial systems.

“I hope people find the game funny because it certainly wasn’t meant to be serious,” Fahey wrote. “It’s a bit of light-hearted fun in a somewhat serious space.”

Blockchain stuff is promising and we’ll get there eventually. But as the game seems to emphasize, it’ll probably be quite a ride.

You can download Crypto Rider for iOS or Android.

Google’s ‘Semantic Experiences’ let you play word games with its AI

Google does a great deal of research into natural language processing and synthesis, but not every project has to be a new Assistant feature or voice improvement. The company has a little fun now and then, when the master AI permits it, and today it has posted a few web experiments that let you engage with its word-association systems in a playful way.

First is an interesting way of searching through Google Books, that fabulous database so rarely mentioned these days. Instead of just searching for text or title verbatim, you can ask questions, like “Why was Napoleon exiled?” or “What is the nature of consciousness?”

It returns passages from books that, based on their language only, are closely associated with your question. And while the results are hit and miss, they are nice and flexible. Sentences answering my questions appeared even though they were not directly adjacent to key words or particularly specific about doing so.

I found, however, it’s not a very intuitive way to interact with a body of knowledge, at least for me. When I ask a question, I generally want to receive an answer, not a competing variety of quotes that may or may not bear on your inquiry. So while I can’t really picture using this regularly, it’s an interesting way to demonstrate the flexibility of the semantic engine at work here. And it may very well expose you to some new authors, though the 100,000 books included in the database are something of a mixed bag.

The second project Google highlights is a game it calls Semantris, though I must say it’s rather too simple to deserve the “-tris” moniker. You’re given a list of words and one in particular is highlighted. You type the word you most associate with that one, and the words will reorder with, as Google’s AI understands it, the closest matches to your word on the bottom. If you moved the target word to the bottom, it blows up a few words and adds some more.

It’s a nice little time waster, but I couldn’t help but feel I was basically just a guinea pig providing testing and training for Google’s word association agent. It was also pretty easy — I didn’t feel much of an achievement for associating “water” with “boat” — but maybe it gets harder as it goes on. I’ve asked Google if our responses are feeding into the AI’s training data.

For the coders and machine learning enthusiasts among you, Google has also provided some pre-trained TensorFlow modules, and of course documented their work in a couple of papers linked in the blog post.

Arcade fame turns to infamy as Billy Mitchell’s record-setting Donkey Kong score is invalidated

The record-setting score that settled the Donkey Kong arcade rivalry made famous by the documentary The King of Kong has been invalidated by Twin Galaxies, the de facto arbiter of arcade world records. What’s more, Billy Mitchell, the occasionally controversial player who set it and other record breaking scores, has been permanently banned from consideration for future records.

It’s a huge upset that calls into question decades of history. Will other similarly disputed scores get the ax? Are any old-school arcade legends safe?

Before anything, it should be noted that although this sounds like kind of a random niche issue, the classic gaming scene is huge: millions follow it closely and take it very seriously. Breaking a high score on a 30-year-old game or shaving a quarter of a second off a hotly contested time can and will be celebrated as if the player has won an Olympic medal. One can never underestimate the size or sincerity of online communities. Cheating is, of course, not tolerated.

With that said, it’s worth considering that Billy Mitchell’s case is unique. He is undoubtedly a highly skilled player and has been setting records since the ’80s. But, as anyone who watched The King of Kong will have learned, he’s also a bit shady and his Donkey Kong acumen is far from established.

The issue is simply that despite his having provided tapes of games setting certain records — including, most famously, being the first to break a million in Donkey Kong — no one has seen him play like that in person.

That may sound like a red flag, but in the speedrunning and record-setting community, a great deal of practice happens alone, in an empty arcade, or otherwise with no credible witnesses (though Twitch has changed that). You could set a world record while in the zone after getting home from work, but it doesn’t count unless it’s seen live, or a recording reviewed and verified by a neutral party. Twin Galaxies is the largest organization performing that duty, and they take it very seriously indeed.

The final score on Mitchell’s disputed tape showing in The King of Kong (the leading 1 is omitted because the digits roll over when you reach a million).

You may remember that at the end of The King of Kong, Mitchell reestablishes his supremacy over plucky local kid Steve Wiebe with a “direct capture” tape of a run scoring 1,047,200 points. There are no witnesses to this game. Shortly after this, he recorded a 1,050,200 score, also not witnessed. And just a week before being inducted into the International Video Game Hall of Fame in Iowa, he set records in both Donkey Kong (1,062,800) and Donkey Kong 2.

Now here’s where things get dicey (and nerdy).

If anyone thinks something is fishy, they can officially dispute a score and the Twin Galaxies team may choose to look into it. Jeremy Young, aka Xelnia, put together a two-part complaint on the forum back in February. In one part of it, he mentioned the suspicions some already had regarding the evidence set forth of the last and highest score Mitchell set, in a place called Boomers.

As others had already pointed out, not only are the run itself and resulting score not shown in the video, but the referee is one considered notoriously unreliable, and the timeline is unclear, among other things. Most damning, however, it is clear that when Mitchell’s confederate ostentatiously “swaps out” the Donkey Kong board (so it can be verified elsewhere) for a Donkey Kong Jr. one (which Mitchell supposedly then set a record on), both PCBs were in fact the latter.

Twin Galaxies user Robert.F explained the differences in charming internet forum argot:

to a UN-trained train eye Dk and DKjr look the same and in fact they are vary similar, except for a few noticeable differences…the DK pcb has white text on the pcb and the Dk jr has banana yellow text printed on the board ,, the DK pcb is 1/2 digital and 1/2 Analog sound and there is a adjustment pot on the dk pcb for the Analog sound`s, The Dk Jr board is fully digital and has no Analog sound adjustment pot in the exact same position on the dkjr board, and the 3rd noticeable differences and you will see; it if you review the video carefully Dk has the same ROM socket lay out and the same number of sockets as a Dkjr pcb ,, But DKjr has one of them ROM socket empty ,,,,,,

Why perform this clumsy sleight of hand? Was it just a mistake? Why are people who point out the issue having their comments deleted from YouTube? Although suspicious, these circumstantial issues could be explained as a bit of confusion in the moment, a misspoken word in the excitement of setting a record, and so on. Fortunately, that wasn’t the extent of the evidence.

As you may know, emulators are a type of application made to run old software (like arcade games) as closely as possible to how it ran on the original hardware. MAME is by far the most complex and perhaps the best-known emulator; this amazing app can emulate everything from Donkey Kong to much more recent games with complex 3D graphics. Of course, MAME runs aren’t accepted for world records — you could easily manipulate the software or even the game data itself. Real arcade hardware is required.

But MAME isn’t perfect; there are tiny differences in how it displays graphics — things you wouldn’t notice unless you were watching a game frame by frame looking for them in particular.

Which is exactly what people started doing with Mitchell’s no-witnesses, only-on-video scores.

It turns out that the original Donkey Kong PCBs had a specific method of rendering a scene during graphics transitions called a “sliding door effect,” distinctive in the pattern of how pixels are updated. Careful inspection of Mitchell’s tapes showed not a sliding door, but instead a distinctive artifact of MAME emulation whereby the frame is rendered in chunks according to how the data is loaded from memory.

You can see the similarity in the GIFs below, provided as evidence by Young.

First is footage of an actual machine taken at 60FPS. Note the diagonal “sliding door” that reveals the scene from the top left downwards:

Next, Mitchell’s 1,050,200 run:

Last, how MAME renders a similar scene:

See how the ladders come in all at once in that pattern, and there’s no sliding door? As you can tell, it’s something of a smoking gun. Certainly Twin Galaxies investigators thought so. In their conclusions, issued today on the forums, they wrote (emphasis theirs):

The taped Donkey Kong score performances of 1,047,200 (the King of Kong “tape”), 1,050,200 (the Mortgage Brokers score) that were historically used by Twin Galaxies to substantiate those scores and place them in the database were not produced by the direct feed output of an original unmodified Donkey Kong Arcade PCB.

They decline to go so far as saying they know it was MAME, but that’s a mere scruple — everyone understands it’s the most likely situation. Regardless, the very fact that Mitchell passed off non-authentic footage as real is more than enough to strike his scores and, as they also announce, ban him from further placement anywhere in the system.

Perhaps more importantly, Steve Wiebe, the underdog challenger in The King of Kong, has been elevated to become the first player to actually hit a million points in the game. Better late than never! Belated congratulations to Wiebe. (Wikipedia has already been updated.)

Update: Wiebe tells Variety: “I’m not the champ any more, but getting recognition for being the first to a million is a great consolation. That’s what I was really bummed out about 11 years ago.”

Mitchell, on the other hand, has remained out of sight during the investigation that has gone on these last few months, and has essentially been ruined for good in the arcade world. Even if he were to set a world record today (and existing record holders doubt he has the skill to do so based on reviewing his play), it would be tainted by years of proven deception. The community won’t forgive him.

And that’s the worry others are voicing: Will the investigators come for other scores that for years have been venerated but have not been verified as strictly as modern records are? Will, for example, any score without an accredited witness or reliable recording be removed from the lists?

In their decision, Twin Galaxies’ authorities write:

Twin Galaxies is dedicated to absolutely rooting out invalid scores from our historic database wherever we find them.

Our methodic approach has allowed many things to surface, not only related to this specific score, but other scores as well as some previously never-before-discussed video game related history.

We must repeat, the truth is the priority. That is the concern. Whatever it takes.

This dispute is closed, and a controversial but nevertheless legendary gaming figure covered in shame (or he should be if he has any). Who will be next? Regardless of who falls, the community will no doubt continue to thrive; the passion for these old games is undying and, as new generations have shown, is not limited to an aging cohort of Gen-Xers striving to extend a bygone era of glory (though admittedly they are a big part of it).

If this strange saga interested you anywhere near as much as it interested me, go ahead and dive in. You might find you have a new hobby. Just don’t try to fake it. And by the way, the current top score in Donkey Kong is 1,247,700, set just two months ago by Robbie Lakeman. Good luck.

FTC warns companies that void warranties over using third-party services

The days of reading the small print to see whether a repair or new part for your ailing laptop will void its warranty may be coming to an end. The FTC has officially warned several companies that their policies of ceasing support when a user attempts “non-approved” repairs or servicing are likely illegal.

It’s the sort of thing where if you buy a device or car from a company, they inform you that unless you use approved, often internally branded parts, you’re voiding the warranty and your item will no longer be supported by the company.

The idea is that a company doesn’t want to be on the hook when a user replaces an old, perfectly good stick of RAM with a new, crappy one and then comes crying to them when the computer won’t boot. Or, in a more dire situation, replaces the brakes with some off-brand ones, which then fail and cause an accident. So there’s a reason these restrictions exist.

Unfortunately, they’ve come to encompass far more than these dangerous cases; perhaps you replace the RAM and then the power supply burns out — that’s not your fault, but because you didn’t use approved RAM the company takes no responsibility for the failure. The result is consumers end up having to buy components or servicing at inflated prices from “licensed” or “approved” dealers.

“Provisions that tie warranty coverage to the use of particular products or services harm both consumers who pay more for them as well as the small businesses who offer competing products and services,” explained Thomas Pahl, from the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in the announcement.

The agency gave several examples of offending language in customer agreements, blanking out the names of the companies. Ars Technica was quick to connect these with the major companies they correspond to: Hyundai, Nintendo and Sony. Here are the statements the FTC didn’t like, with the company names in bold where they were blank before.

  • The use of Hyundai parts is required to keep your . . . manufacturer’s warranties and any extended warranties intact.
  • This warranty shall not apply if this product . . . is used with products not sold or licensed by Nintendo.
  • This warranty does not apply if this product . . . has had the warranty seal on the PS4 altered, defaced, or removed.

It’s one thing to say, don’t overclock your PS4 or we won’t cover it. It’s quite another to say if the warranty seal has been “defaced” then we won’t cover it.

“Such statements generally are prohibited by the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act,” the FTC announcement reads, and in addition “may be deceptive under the FTC Act.” The companies have 30 days to modify their policies.

This could be a major win for consumers: more repairs and service locations would be allowed under warranty, and modders of game consoles may be able to indulge their hobby without trying to hide it from the manufacturer. That will depend on the new phrasing of the companies’ policies, but this attention from the FTC will at the very least nudge things in the right direction.