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Old 03-14-2012, 01:10 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Game Gear Raises the Bar for Virtual Console Quality

I didn't have particularly high expectations for Game Gear's arrival on 3DS Virtual Console. Sega's handheld platform was impressive enough for its day -- in essence, a portable Master System that traded beefed-up color for a lower resolution -- but as with so many other Sega platforms, its first-party offerings were largely what sustained it. And, unlike so many other Sega platforms, its first-party content wasn't particular remarkable.

Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised to boot up Nintendo's debut 3DS Game Gear offering and discover that the effort and care invested in this emulation service blow away every other Virtual Console offering to date. Sure enough, a little research revealed that 3DS Game Gear programming was handled by M2, a company that has demonstrated its love of classic games and archive-quality fidelity in emulation time and again. To date, most of their best work has remained stranded in Japan (in particular, the later Sega Ages compilations for PlayStation 2), but 3DS Virtual Console finally allows gamers the world over to appreciate their affection for bygone hardware.

Now, Nintendo's own internally developed Game Boy and Game Boy Color wrappers are perfectly serviceable. Those old 8-bit games play reliably on 3DS; they look correct and sound right. They even offer "restore points," better known as save states -- effectively a bookmark that players can return to (and the only reasonable means for clumsy old hands like mine to finish crazy-hard games, like Mega Man in Dr. Wily's Revenge, that used to be cake in our younger days). But by default, Nintendo's emulator blows up the tiny resolution of the Game Boy's graphics to fill the entire 3DS top screen, incorporating a cheap interpolation technique that renders the graphics a smudgy, blurry mess. It's possible to swap the visuals to actual 1:1 pixel precision, surrounding the smaller Game Boy window with a frame designed to look like the original Game Boy hardware, but this feature can only be activated at start-up by holding down the Select or Start button. Meanwhile, none of the 3DS Ambassador selections for Game Boy Advance and NES offer these niceties (outside the few NES titles that have updated for standard purchase releases).

M2's Game Gear emulation humbles its virtual competitors. Game Boy may have won the 8-bit portable race, but Sega is having the last laugh for once. The Game Gear service offers a remarkable array of options right up-front and in a user-friendly fashion. By default, games boot into their "ideal" presentation: Visuals are stretched to fill the top screen along its vertical axis while remaining proportionate to the original pixel resolution. Despite being multiplied by an uneven factor, the pixels still look crisp and colorful, free of the muddled muddiness of Nintendo's offerings.

Want the original pixel resolution? Rather than having to hold down a button at start-up, Game Gear emulation allows you to swap between three different looks on the fly with the press of a button on the lower screen: Standard, a full-screen style that stretches graphics to fit the 3DS upper screen on both axes, and "dot by dot," the 1:1 pixel mode. Like the Game Boy emulation option, this gives you a tiny true resolution look surrounded by a simulated system -- but even here M2 takes it up a notch, offering three additional colors for the system frame beyond basic black.

The game graphics themselves can be forced to look as faithful to the original Game Gear screen as you like as well. M2 has added even greater fidelity with the ability to emulate both the blur of the Game Gear's screen and the slightly hollow look caused by the screen's backlighting. It's entirely possible to play an incredibly faithful rendition of Game Gear games on 3DS... though most people will likely elect to keep the blur and backlight effects off, because they're murder on the eyes. In fact, there's no reason not to play in the default view, since the quality of the graphical upscaling means that the default view doesn't feel like the compromise that it does with Game Boy and Game Boy Advance titles. But even if the bumper crop of options M2 has incorporated into the wrapper for these games is ultimately superfluous, it's a nice touch for fans of the classic -- a brief jolt of nostalgia to remind you how far handhelds have come in 20 years.

Of course, that doesn't change the fact that all of this love is invested into Game Gear software, most of which isn't a lot of fun to revisit. Sega's 3DS debut is Sonic Triple Trouble, an ambitious attempt to reproduce a Sonic 2-like experience on the go that falls a little short of the mark. Sonic and Tails prove frustratingly difficult to control, lacking the precise maneuverability players came to expect from the 16-bit games. They also suffer the Metroid II problem of being able to jump higher than the screen dimensions, leading players to fly into unseen hazards. To its credit, the game does mitigate this somewhat by changing the rules by which Sonic takes damage from collisions: Rather than losing all his rings after bumping into an enemy, he loses only 30.

It's not a bad game, but it definitely feels like a portable game trying and failing to live up to its console brothers (as so often happened in the old days). Yet while it may represent a compromised Sonic experience, its imperfections just makes the 3DS Game Gear experience that much more uncompromised. That's how portable games were back in the day, and by god, we liked it that way... or at the very least, we didn't know any better.
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