Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 11

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To juxtapose a half-nerd day on Thursday, on Friday we caught the regional train to Nara, which was only about an hour away from where we were staying. The town promised plenty of awesome, and it certainly delivered.

Day 11 - Japanese countryside

After getting off the train we headed down to the sightseeing bus terminals and jumped on board to see Toudai-ji, or as we remembered it – the temple with the giant Buddha. Nara is a really pretty city – not too fast-paced with a blend of old and new that was reminiscent of Kyoto, but more welcoming in some intangible way that’s difficult to describe.

Day 11 - On the way to Toudai-ji

After arriving at our stop we wandered through the park that lead to the temple, going through the closed-off pedestrian street with souvenir and food shops to one side, with the native deer walking or lazing around the place. It’s amazing to see all the deer at relative ease with everything without the need to have the areas closed off with fences and what-not.

Day 11 - Toudai-ji map

Following the growing surge of tourists, including hordes of amusing middle school students attending as class groups, we made our way to the enormous outer gates, then followed the crowd to the main entrance. After paying the fee to attend, we walked through the inner entrance that opened up to a stunning view of the carefully cultured lawns and gardens that led the way into the main temple. In all seriousness, I figured the place was going to be big, but the scale and immaculate state of everything really was incredible.

Day 11 - Toudai-ji temple entrance

After making an offering at the gates of the main temple and lighting some incense, we crossed the threshold to behold the amazing statues therein. It is inconceivable that human hands so long ago put such amazing works of art together. Like a lot of the aspects of this trip, it’s hard to succinctly put into words the awe and reverence of this place, suffice to say that it was an intense and awe-inspiring experience.

Day 11 - Toudai-ji statue

After picking up a couple of goodies from the temple we exited back onto the main leading street after I made a stop at the men’s room (and was greeted by another amusing drop toilet) to adjust my prosthesis for the wander back to the train station. On the way we picked up a few more skewered dango from a street vendor and Wifey fed some of the native deer. Because I’m daft I decided to grab another matcha soft-serve ice cream cone on the way out and we walked back probably about half way to the main Nara train Station before jumping aboard another sightseeing bus for the final bit.

Day 11 - Nara streets

As we were pulling up to the final stop opposite the train station I spotted a shop out the corner of my eye that might have been packing nerd stuff, so after jumping off the train we walked around the corner and came upon a local Geo store. Having never been inside one I wasn’t sure what to expect, but drilling to the back of the store was the game section. Like most of the mainstream second hand places the majority of the stock was NDS, PS3 and PSP games, with a small selection of PS2 and PSone for reasonable prices. I decided to snap up a handful of PSone titles, then we were off again on the train back to Osaka.

The original plan was to grab some ramen at the Osaka station, so we assumed this wouldn’t be an issue given the prevalence of amazing (and cheap) ramen places in all of the other major stations we travelled through. After hunting through the convoluted complex several times, it appears as though Osaka Station, unlike pretty much every station we had travelled to at this point, had no cheap and awesome ramen places, at least that we could find. Instead we eventually settled on tea and waffles in a posh-looking restaurant modelled after the Japanese interpretation of an English tea house. It wasn’t what we were craving, but it was still yum!

Day 11 - Osaka posh waffles

While we were at Osaka Station we also had another stop, this time especially for Wifey – we visited the official Pokemon Center! The massive store is located within the labything selection of buildings and is packed with all sorts of goodies that celebrate the franchise’s past and ongoing evolution. We picked up some plushies, candy, bento boxes and all sorts of stuff here. We were tempted to pick up some of the Pokemon-themed kitchen appliances and bakeware but decided to err on the side of caution since we only had limited space and weight for our luggage.

With our fun over, from Osaka Station we travelled back to the Dotonburi shopping precinct, with Wifey getting some overdue shopping for herself (instead of being dragged by me to nerd places). We ended up dropping into the Sakaisuji shopping mall (near/off Dotonburi, I can’t remember exactly as we approached it via the Crystalis underground mall), and lo and behold if I didn’t see the warming glowing warmness of a Book Off towards the tail end of the mall.

Day 11 - Book Off Dotonburi

Like most Book Offs, the selection was mainly geared towards current gen consoles – PS3, XB360, NDS, PSP and PS2, with a reasonable selection of cheap PSone titles and a smaller selections of Famicom, Super Famicom, Saturn and Dreamcast titles. I picked up a couple of games across most of the systems (including some very reasonably priced Famicom titles), and from there we made the trek back to the hotel.

We decided to eat lightly that night since we were catching a 3-hour Shinkansen ride back to Tokyo the next day, so we ate some delicious sushi at a place near our hotel that served up fresh morsels of yum on a conveyer belt (just like our beloved Sushi Train at home), and grabbed another crepe to eat back in the hotel.

We did the usual pack-up when we got back to the hotel, this time taking advantage of the extra piece of luggage we picked up at Tokyu Hands the day before, and got ready for an entertaining day of travel to follow!

To view all posts on the Japan 2012 Travel Diary, just use the 2012 Japan Trip tag, as the whole series will be added to it over time.

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I want to be an Awesomenaut

Watch that video. Bask in the delightful theme song that heralds back to my youth, where a chubby ranga with a gimpy leg (me!) would stare in delight as television taught me about (token) multiculturalism, technology, family values, science, environmentalism (thanks CG!) and capitalism.

I have no idea what Awesomenauts is, aside from it featuring an amazing title song and that it plays in two dimensions.

But that’s enough for me. I showed that clip to Wifey, who made the comment “Wow, it looks like a game made by people like you”.

You know what? She’s right.

If you want to be an Awesomenaut too, it’s coming out this week on PSN and XBLA. Props to Silicon Era for posting the trailer last week.

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Jet Set Radio HD on the way, Skies of Arcadia and Shenmue next?

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Huge thanks to CG over at the Madboards for the heads-up – according to Gematsu (here and here), a Sega source has unofficially confirmed that HD ports of Shenmue 1 and 2 have been finished up for well over a year, pending a decision on where the franchise will be going.

Unbelievable news.

No technical details have been leaked, but given past Dreamcast HD ports, I’ll make the assumption we’ll see a widescreen-enhanced 720p port of Shenmue 1 and 2 coming via PSN and XBLA. In a perfect world, Sega would also make the games entirely bilingual so we can swap to Japanese audio. As amusing as the terrible dubbing in the first game was, it’ll be nice to play it in Japanese with English text – to date I’ll admit to having played through the Japanese version of Shenmue on the DC a few times, and there were a couple of spots where I struggled owing to my rubbish command of Japanese… though some perseverence won out :) To my credit, I don’t recall hitting any FAQs for those playthroughs either, which I thought was cool.

Shenmue 2 is another story – there wasn’t a localised version available in the US owing to some exclusivity rights courtesy of Microsoft, but in PAL territories we (unexpectedly) won out with a Japanese language/English text localisation which was fantastic to play through. While the Xbox port apparently looked a bit nicer, the language was locked to the English dub, which is a downer in my view.

Where the stories get interesting is that it suggests Sega are sitting on the games while they decide what they want to do with the franchise, perhaps indicating Shenmue 3 may actually see the light of day? As long as they can port the Yakuza game engine to the XB360, that would probably give enough tools to allow Shenmue a release on current platforms without too much legwork.

Beyond this, the news on Skies of Arcadia is an extra splash of awesome – Rieko Kodama’s amazing RPG deserves a HD port at the least, and a full remake with all the trimmings preferably (or perhaps a sequel?). The game was arguably one of the best RPGs of the previous generation, with the superb Valkyria Chronicles taking in plenty of motifs that subtley (and not-so-subtley) hint at its inheritance of Skies’ DNA (the other big contributor is of course the Sakura Taisen series; given the development team behind Valkryia Chronicles though, the above historical linkages make perfect sense).

If the news of these HD ports prove true, it would would mark a remarkable return to form for Sega, demonstrating the company’s ability to start treating its strong back-catalogue with the kind of respect they deserve (perhaps the first time post-corporate takeover/bail out), especially by returning to the fanbase that did its best to keep the company afloat during its difficult years. Sonic CD on PSN/XBLA, Sonic Generations, Sonic 4: Episode 2, Jet Set Radio HD, Shenmue 1 and 2 HD, Skies of Arcadia HD, Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown… and now the possibility of Shenmue 3?

Bring on the blue skies.

Although following the progressive manner in which they approached Sonic CD, it would be amazing if they followed suit with Bombergames’ superb Streets of Rage Remake v5. Now that’s a title that would be amazing to have in sprite-blocky glory on my PS3.

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Modding March update!

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Okay, here’s the latest update on my modding to-do list:

  1. Sega SC-3000H – Completed
  2. Nintendo Famicom – Completed
  3. Microsoft Xbox – Completed
  4. Sega Master System 2 – Completed
  5. Nintendo Gamecube – Completed
  6. Arcade – Not started
  7. Sega Saturn – In progress
  8. Sega Mega Drive – In progress
  9. Microsoft Xbox 360 – Not started

Not bad, huh? Since a few things changed up with the modding, I thought I’d give a quick rundown of what happened:

Sega SC-3000H

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This one was time-consuming rather than difficult. The only drama I had was where one of the pads came away from the PCB when desoldering the old connector, but that was easy to fix by wiring the new cart connector directly back to the trace.

Nintendo Famicom

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Composite AV mod came off nicely, the controller hum was also an easy fix and the controllers have come up nicely after being disassembled and cleaning the contacts and replacing the membranes (NES membranes fit the Famicom without any dramas). Since the controllers had some charming (but disheveled – see the image above) Dragon Quest sticks on them, I soaked the plastic shells in warm soapy water for a few hours and gave them a gentle scrubbing in some fresh hot soapy water and the stickers, along with their residue, came off nicely.

Sega Master System 2

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I was working on my original Master System 2 I picked up well over ten years ago when I started getting into retro gaming again. As a result, it was also one of my early mods… actually, I think it was my third one – the Saturn was my first (50/60hz switch, 1999), followed by an unsuccessful SMD1 (language/refresh rate switches, 2000). My SMS2 mod was originally just a 50/60hz switch, then I got a bit more daring and added composite video/mono audio. After that, I decided to add another RCA socket and rewired it for dual-mono out (saved having to add a RCA splitter on the audio socket), and attempted to add a language switch but couldn’t get a clean cut on the IC leg that needs to be modded; these were all done in 2000, with the language switch mod being done ~2001. I also attempted to add s-video to the SMS2, but between butchering the back of the machine to fit the socket (that wouldn’t fit because the hole was hodge-podge and too big – see the image for the unfortunate result even after adding a new s-video socket!) and not having s-video on my TV, I left it at that. Looking at my past work was a little embarrassing, but at the same time it was also heartening as it’s demonstrated how much better I am with a soldering iron now compared to back then. Mind, it also helps that I have better equipment now!

So, as far as the new new mods went, it came off nicely – the simplified s-video mod by Viletim! looked great, with no jailbars visible on my TV (for reference, I used 27ohm resistors, as recommended by fellow modder Mamejay).

I also added the language switch, which proved a bit tricky as my anal-retentivity suggested I didn’t want to leave the leg on the IC floating, so I wired it up to go between +5v and GND off the voltage regulator. When this didn’t make a difference to the games I tested, I went back and thought the error was being caused by the leg on the IC itself, as my butchering of the leg in 2001 actually broke it off at the IC so the solder didn’t have much to hold onto. So out came the rotary tool and I gently ground back the IC around the leg to get started, then manually scraped a bit more away around the leg with one of my precision flat-bladed screwdrivers to get more of the IC leg visible and thus available for soldering. After getting a very solid connection, I went and tested again, and still no luck.

At this stage I was getting a bit angry, so I went and read up a bit on SMSPower, and realised everyone was saying to let the leg float – the tute I was working off just said to temporarily ground the leg, and I just assumed this meant the leg was otherwise getting +5v from the PCB; turns out if I flipped the PCB over and traced the path with my multimeter, I would have found that the leg is normally left floating when in English mode. So, I went and disconnected the +5v line, went back and tested it and voila, it’s working!

Sega Mega Drive

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I said in last week’s post that I removed the old oscillator, added in a 12mhz one and had system stability errors. Since I know it’s important to keep clock lines short, I figured I’d jump in and reposition the oscillator by having it close to the switch/CPU and thus create a shorter line of the clock to travel along; I also added thicker-gauge wires to take the +5v/GND from the voltage regulators to ensure the oscillator was fed a good power supply. You can see the “before” picture of where I positioned the oscillator, which is next to the headphone socket. Unfortunately it didn’t make much difference, but I don’t consider it as a wasted exercise, as it’s best-practice to keep the lines as short as possible. Since the oscillator is on a bit of perfboard, it will be easy to desolder the existing component and add a 10mhz oscillator I have on the way. Should only be a 30-minute job, if that – I’m not the fastest at soldering/modding, but at least these days I’m more thorough ;)

Sega Saturn

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The replacement cart slots are in the post, but I did succeed in adding a 3-way region switch and 50/60hz mod, which is a bit of an achievement for me as I haven’t had much success with the three-way switches in the past. Admittedly the last time I tried doing one of them was back in 2002 or 2003 and in a time where I had less experience and poor tools in comparison to what I have now. I’m very happy with the result, despite the unusual board design (it’s a very early model PAL PCB, with the JPs spread across both sides of the board). I was also able to use the veroboard to provide the +5v/GND for the 50/60hz switch, which helped make things clean. I’ve noticed the power supply on it might be on the way out owing to the rolling bars and CD-ROM issues that hit after an hour or so of testing, so I’ll either look at swapping it with another supply that gives the correct voltages (GND/GND/+3.3v/+5v/+9v) or replacing the caps to see if that helps.

Nintendo Gamecube

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I ended up wiring the XenoGC chip to the drive assembly rather than soldering it directly to the PCB. Took a little extra time, but it made it much easier to double-check the solder points with the multimeter and avoid accidental solder-spillage onto adjoining pads.

While I had the GCNs disassembled, I gave the outer cases a wash and I also modded my purple Cube to have a shiny blue LED instead of the standard orange one – blue LEDs are fun :)

The machines successfully loaded PAL and US games directly, so I’m really happy with the result :D

Microsoft Xbox

This one was an easy job, but was time consuming to get it setup in the way I wanted. It was also the first time using the Slayers disc to take care of everything (the machine was already chipped), so I didn’t have to worry about popping off the doors to my PC to run the usual HDD tools to prep a machine and found it ran nicely. With everything now configured (including adding the video.bin 0-byte file to the HDD to force UnleashX to run in 480i over component), I’m very happy with the machine. Now I need to sort out a save file for Dead or Alive Ultimate with everything unlocked because I’m lazy ;)

For those curious, I took photos of most of the mods I have done thus far and intend to write up tutes on them at some stage down the track, along with plenty of others I have in the wings.

Anywho, all that’s left now is the SMD1 overclock (oscillator to arrive soon I hope), XB360 DVD fix (need to get a laser assembly sorted) and arcade button wiring. If the oscillator comes in time, I’d say the SMD1 should be sorted this month; the arcade fix is pretty easy as well and should also make it. If the laser assembly for the XB360 comes in this month, I’ll get that sorted as well; can’t see this one happening though, so it might be a job for April.

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March is the time for console modding

In Adelaide, March is referred to as “Mad March”. Because we take a year’s worth of events, festivals and what-not, and cram it all into one month. With some exceptions. Still, it’s insanity. But that’s Adelaide.

So, to alliterate, I have decreed this month as Modding March.

Yes, that is awful. Get over it :P

My aim this month is to try and mod as many consoles as possible to catch up on my backlog. Here’s where it’s standing at the moment:

  • Sega SC-3000H: Replace the existing cartridge connector with one in better condition.
  • Nintendo Famicom: Composite AV mod, controller 2 background hum correction, clean the cart slot and replace the membranes in both controllers.
  • Sega Master System 2: Add in a language switch and add s-video off the CXA1145 encoder using Viletim!’s simplified video amp.
  • Sega Mega Drive: Remove the existing colour mod now that I’m running a 32X and RGB in the setup, add a selectable CPU overlock switch along with the requisite halt switch.
  • Sega Saturn: Replace a dead cart slot, wire in a 50/60hz switch, then add a 3-way region switch.
  • Nintendo Gamecube: Install a modchip so I can retire my Freeloader disc and enjoy direct-boot imports. If I’m lucky it might even fix the font issues with some Japanese titles, but that might be wishful thinking! I’ve had the chips for ages, so it’s about time I sorted it out.
  • Microsoft Xbox: Remove the existing 8bg HDD and upgrade to an 80gb HDD for laziness to save me swapping discs out.
  • Microsoft Xbox 360: Repair the drive laser assembly that’s having a cry.
  • Arcade: Rewire the P4 button off the JAMMA harness so it can be patch-connected to the JAMMA+ cabling panel already in my Astro City.

I think that’s the lot. I’ve already gotten started on some of these jobs (and finished one of them last week – the SC3000H), but that’s a pretty ambitious list.

Realistically, I’m confident I’ll get the Famicom, Xbox, Gamecube and arcade mods finished as I have all the parts around. The Mega Drive shouldn’t be too tricky if the oscillator comes in the post before the end of the month (my machine’s CPU didn’t like being fed 12mhz, so I’m going to try 10mhz), same with the XB360 and getting a new drive assembly.

That then leaves a few question marks – for the Saturn, I have some replacement slots from some dead Saturns in the post, but cart slot replacements are never quick jobs (not difficult mind, just time consuming); since I’ll need to desolder and remove the dead slot on my machine, remove and desolder the working cart slot from the dead PCB, then resolder it to the working board and then add the refresh rate and language switches, that’ll take a while.

The SMS2 mods shouldn’t be hard and I’m pretty sure I have the parts lying around, so I should be able to squeeze that one in too.

So if I’m being ambitious, then the following’s my ordered list to tackle everything:

  1. Sega SC-3000H
  2. Nintendo Famicom
  3. Microsoft Xbox
  4. Sega Master System 2
  5. Nintendo Gamecube
  6. Arcade
  7. Sega Saturn
  8. Sega Mega Drive
  9. Microsoft Xbox 360

So, with all that in mind, here’s the progress breakdown:

  1. Sega SC-3000H – Completed
  2. Nintendo Famicom – In progress
  3. Microsoft Xbox – Not started
  4. Sega Master System 2 – Not started
  5. Nintendo Gamecube – Not started
  6. Arcade – Not started
  7. Sega Saturn – Not started
  8. Sega Mega Drive – In progress
  9. Microsoft Xbox 360 – Not started

I’ll update during the rest of the month as I make any progress, and since the work is likely to continue into April, I daresay there will be more updates next month too.

But the important bit was to at least get started in March :)

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