A Nostalgic Smorgasbord


I’ll be honest I’m tapped out on the recent grind of ROSE Online and RF Online. So I decided to divert from MMORPGs and give Time Warner’s GameTap retro gaming service a try. The service has three promotional trials: 3-day, 2-week and 1-month (I reveal the top-secret 1-month coupon/promo code in this review!).

By now I think it’s safe to say that many have seen the omnipresent GameTap ads. They are constantly played on G4TV as well as online through countless banner ads. Bottom line: is the service as good as it claims? Does it live up to the televised hype? What about the ROM and emu scene? And how much does it cost?

ROM and emu" what exactly are they? Back in the early days games were small enough to fit on read-only memory chips (like your computer’s RAM without the ability to write data). In the case of video games this took the form of cartridges and on the arcade machine main boards. A ROM is basically a copy of the game from a ROM chip. To play these ROMs on PCs programmers began creating software called emulators or emu for short. As the name suggests the software imitates systems such as the NES, Turbografx-16, Sega Master System, NEO-GEO arcade game, Gameboy, Genesis, and so forth. Within the ROM scene certain emulators have achieved paradigm-status for particular gaming systems. For example the emu of choice for arcade ROMs is MAME: a straightforward acronym for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, and Nemu64 seems to be the emu of choice for Nintendo 64 games. Unfortunately there is a dark side to the ROM scene. Emulators by themselves are perfectly legal, however unless a person owns the original source arcade or video game, ROMs are generally considered illegal. Can a service like GameTap make those that unlawfully download and play ROMs turn away and go legal? Read on"

After completing the account registration the GameTap client was a brisk 37 MB download. Installation finished and I am ready to check out this service. The launcher announces some amazing new additions: Street Fighter Alpha, SimCity 2000, Strider, and so forth. Once you connect the service it is pretty and simple. There are three areas to visit. My GameTap lets you set your preferences such as video resolution and full/windowed mode, Game Vault (comprehensive information on this in the next paragraph), and finally GameTap TV is a mix between retrospectives, original shows, existing shows (Space Ghost: Coast to Coast), music videos, animations and more; it’s basically like a G4TV on your computer.

The TV programming is good, but the Game Vault is where all the action happens. To date the service has 503 games. With new games added weekly this number will be higher by the time you read this. Overall though the interface is very sleek and reminds me of the Xbox dashboard. Games are on display in a multi-level, three-dimensional rotating chamber. All of the newest additions are shown under the label GameTap Picks. Beyond that you have My Favorites and Search. You can also select Game Types and Game Systems.

Since I am a big fan of NES (and who isn’t?) I thought I would give Game Systems a shot. I was amazed at the diverse portfolio of platforms: Arcade, Atari 2600, Commodore 64, DOS, Dreamcast (no way!), Game Gear, Genesis, Intellivision, Sega Genesis 32X, Sega Master System (the first game shown is Alex Kidd in Miracle World" ah memories), and Windows. Not surprising vintage NES isn’t part of the lineup since these games will be offered for the Wii at launch. I was blissfully surprised to see Dreamcast was part of the lineup. I had to try the one game I bought during Dreamcast’s launch day: Hydro Thunder.

Launching any games takes you to the game’s description screen. In my case Hydro Thunder revealed the year of release (1999), type, system, publisher, a brief summary, ESRB rating ("E"), How to play button (with full keyboard and gamepad mapping support), Parental Controls, and finally Bonus Materials. Naturally the service is like a jukebox. You select a game and it downloads. While waiting a GameTap video presentation announces new games, retro games, shows, music videos, humorous game-related poetry and whatnot. Game ads like, "They may be small. They may be cute. They may be silly. But they will mess" you" up, brother. Super Gem Fighter. New on GameTap." It was fun to see classics like Joust shown in a new light. Overall the videos are entertaining and definitely helped the waiting process. But enough of this" let’s play!

Hydro Thunder via GameTap was just like I remember. Of course the graphics are dated but it was fast and fun. Controls were a little awkward. Next I tried Altered Beast on the Genesis. Fun, but then I tried the Arcade version" much better! My all time favorite arcade game Karate Champ was just like I remember! The service also introduced me to past games I never played such as the awesome 2D side-scroller Blazing Star from SNK (NEO-GEO). Dreamcast’s Mr. Driller was a fun, brightly-color Tetris game. And Super Gem Fighter Mini mix is one of those fun, cute anime kid versions of the Street Fighter characters duking it out like their adult counterparts.

It seems each week there’s a different theme. The week I joined GameTap announced Street Fighter week, which was a combination of four new Street Fighter games added to the service, a contest you automatically enter just by playing any of the four, retrospective videos on the Street Fighter franchise, and video ads for Street Fighter anime films coming to UMD format.

All of this aside I did find more than a few issues. The main being is no chat areas. I’m not sure if this is in the works but it would be fantastic to be able to converse with fellow gamers. Despite the fact that the Wii will get this library, I’m sad there are no vintage Nintendo titles. Additionally I wish more systems were in the lineup such as the TurboGrafx-16, Atari Lynx, and Colecovision. For the short lifespan these systems had many released some classics in their own right. TurboGrafx-16 for example had the excellent Splatterhouse (which was a precursor to all the survivalist horror games out today), and Bonk’s Adventure (quickly becoming FX16’s equivalent of Mario and Sonic).

Mouse controls on games like Centipede and many of the DOS titles was a bit problematic (course it could be my mouse). There also seemed to be a glaring issue with older QuickTime-driven games like Myst not being able to use the latest version of QuickTime. As such GameTap’s solution is for you to uninstall the latest and reinstall the older 6.5.2. This isn’t so much a problem as an annoyance if you use iTunes; my refused to run until I installed version 7.0.3 or later.

Regardless, with over 503 games, entertaining videos, simple fast fun, and weekly additions" $9.95 per month is a good value for a retro gaming subscription service. Truth is GameTap feels like PC’s answer to Xbox Live Arcade.

If you decide to stay with the service I recommend buying a gamepad controller. They are inexpensive and can be found at any electronics and office supply retailer for around $30. I recommend the Logitech WingMan. It’s elegant, feels like a console controller and has enough buttons for all the games" but more important it’s supported by the service.

Before I conclude enter "ncta" in the coupon and promo code field during registration to bump up your trial to a whopping one-month! The code is good until January 31, 2007 or Time Warner removes it.

Enjoy and let the nostalgia begin!

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