Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hornswaggled by Taito: R-GEAR Edition

I just about crapped myself upon hearing the rumor that with Taito's release of Ray Storm HD, they would be including the previously unreleased title, R-GEAR. As of late I've gotten a little too used to dreams coming true (i.e. CAVE porting everything under the sun to the XBOX 360), and as a result, royally set myself up for disappointment. R-GEAR the game is not being included with the purchase of Ray Storm HD, but merely a playable ship called the "R-GEAR" (as well as the R-GRAY 0 from the original Playstation Ray Storm).

(Famitsu photo courtesy of ariesu)

In lieu of keeping alive the dream that Taito may actually let us play the real R-GEAR one day (or more realistically, when some saint finds the prototype PCB in a dumpster after Taito folds), I'd like to take you on a little trip back in time.

In October of 2005 a clip of a mysterious Ray Force looking game popped up on Hameko, a repository for game related videos. The game was supposedly titled "R-GEAR" and, although it resembled Ray Force (even had the same fonts and HUD), it had all new stage design (forest planet, new space fortress) and a 2nd ship armed with a lightning weapon like Ray Storm's R-GRAY 2.

The existence of this video begs some questions:
  • Was this video intended for the public?
  • Was there ever a physical prototype?

The splash text in the Hameko video featured the initials BGR. BGR (aka BGR-44) is a well known Japanese video game player, so I thought maybe Taito had him playtest whatever portion of the game was completed. After doing a bit of homework, though, it seemed the video was more promotional in nature than top secret.

According to 2 sources (1, 2), at the [1997?] Tokyo Game Show, you could purchase Ray Storm and Ray Tracers (a racing game by Taito) as a set called the "RAY-RAY Collection." Included with this set was a bonus CD-ROM aptly titled "RAY-RAY CD-ROM."

(Scan courtesy of Curious Cat)

Supposedly the CD-ROM contained the following goodies:
  • Videos
  • BMP wallpapers for your PC
  • Sound Tests
  • Polygon Model Tests
  • Other development materials
What I was suspecting at this point was that BGR got ahold of this disc and felt like sharing the love via that clip that was uploaded to Hameko. My suspicion was confirmed last year when BGR uploaded a video to youtube, this time covering much more of the disc's contents:

(Click image)

So, what about the possibility of a prototype floating around somewhere? There was some discussion here about how development began on Taito's F3 system and then moved to their FX-1 platform (Ray Storm/G-Darius hardware) for the sake of Playstation compatibility, come the time for a home port.

This being the case, as long as the R-GEAR footage was from an actual prototype PCB and not just code running on a development PC, it then boils down to Taito's protocol regarding the archiving of prototype games. R-GEAR was probably being developed around 1994, which was still in the thick of the F3 era. This unfortunately increases the chances of the prototype PCB's ROMs being overwritten for some other F3 game in development. Even if that were the case, there's still a chance that the source code was archived.

Where does that leave us now? These are my recommendations for passing the time until the day we get to finally play R-GEAR:
  • Work on that 1 credit clear of Ray Force
  • Listen to plenty of Zuntata CD's
  • Watch this video:

(Click image)

And I guess if you are curious enough to try and track down a RAY-RAY CD-ROM, the Catalog # is SLPM-80078. They do turn up on Yahoo Japan Auctions occasionally, but be prepared to shell out, as the last two sold for around 10,000 JPY (~$100) each.

1. R-GRAY 0 info
2. Hameko dates

Possibly the biggest Ray series fan, ever: Curious Cat + her curious blog

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Taito F3 PCB 101

I'm still not completely certain what about Taito has stolen my heart over the years. Maybe it's fun characters like Bub and Bob. Maybe it's their deceptively cute puzzle games like Landmaker and Puchi Carat or their amazing-to-this-day shooters like Ray Force. Whatever the cause, I'm a huge fan and a bit of a hardware nut, which has resulted in getting acquainted with a few of their more popular hardware platforms.

Today I'd like to discuss/dispell some myths regarding Taito's F3 hardware. Most arcade collecting folks are acquainted with Taito's F3 Cartridge System. Those eye catching cherry red carts just beg a reason for you to own some. What many folks are less acquainted with are the bare PCB F3 games. Some people know they exist, but little more than that. Even your most detailed MAME list won't give details as to which version of F3 hardware was dumped.

There are a total of 5 variations of dedicated F3 PCB. There are two F3 MAIN PCB's, one of which has 2 possible daughter boards, and the F3 Cartridge prototype PCB. The easiest way to distinguish between the two F3 MAIN PCB's is by the color of the electronic components near the JAMMA edge. One PCB has a long row of WHITE components, the other a long row of ORANGE components. There doesn't seem to be any correlation between release dates and PCB versions, so rather than refer to them as "old" and "new" versions, I will simply refer to them as "WHITE" and "ORANGE" versions.

Let's start with the ORANGE F3 MAIN PCB. Games that use the base version of this PCB are Riding Fight, Ring Rage, and Arabian Magic:


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This base PCB was not enough hardware for the likes of Taito's Grid Seeker:

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A small daughter board board mates with the sockets for IC66 and IC67 of the main PCB and is secured via a single stand-off near the edge. The next upgrade handles both Light Bringer (aka Dungeon Magic) and Ray Force (aka Gunlock):

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This larger daughter board actually has a name, "EXPAND PCB." If you've played either of those games, you won't be surprised that they needed more real estate to fit in all that awesomeness.

The WHITE F3 MAIN PCB is home to Top Ranking Stars (aka Prime Time Fighter), Hat Trick Hero '93 (aka Taito Cup Finals), and Ray Force (yes, again):

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Somehow Taito squeezed Ray Force into the WHITE board. I've not cross checked the parts between the WHITE and ORANGE version Ray Force games, but I'm curious how much work was needed to port this (may have been as simple as using higher capacity ROM's and changing a few addressing PAL's) and also if there are any noticeable game play differences.

The only other F3 PCB's I'm aware of are prototype F3 Cart PCB's. These utilize a standard F3 Cartridge System motherboard which merely lacks the plastic frame, a few IC's (my Landmaker proto is missing IC10 and IC32), and all PAL's and sound IC's are socketed.

Here is a photo comparison between a prototype F3 Cartridge (left) and a production F3 Cartridge (right):

Some of you may be thinking to yourselves that you've seen some of the games mentioned here in F3 Cartridge form somewhere. Boot F3 carts have been around for a while. They pop up on Yahoo Japan Auctions from time to time and have probably made their way to eBay on occasion. Boot carts that I'm aware of are:
  • Arabian Magic
  • Hat Trick Hero '93
  • Light Bringer
  • Ray Force
  • Ring Rage
Here's a small collection of pictures that I gathered from a Yahoo Japan Auctions seller a while back. If you are still in disbelief, check out this guy's work (these photos were archived when his site was still hosted at http://www.ngy1.1st.ne.jp/~momochi/):

(ROM's missing from original PCB next to his shiny boot cart)

(ROM mapping for boot cart)

(Boot cart running)

As we near the end of this discussion, some of you may be wondering why I have not mentioned the Space Invaders DX PCB. The reason is simple, really. It's not an F3 PCB. I've owned and inspected it myself. Not only is it a different layout from WHITE or ORANGE F3 MAIN PCB, but it also lacks the silk screen label "F3 MAIN PCB" which the other F3 boards boast. I guess Taito was just feeling nostalgic when they ported the game to the F3 Cartridge System.

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In conclusion (and for those of you that just need a simple list to copy and paste into your site/blog/forum to show the interwebs how much you know about F3) here are the 8 production PCB only Taito F3 titles (9 different PCBs):
  • Arabian Magic - ORANGE F3 MAIN PCB
  • Riding Fight - ORANGE F3 MAIN PCB
  • Ring Rage - ORANGE F3 MAIN PCB
  • Grid Seeker - ORANGE F3 MAIN PCB + IC66/IC67 Daughter Board
  • Light Bringer - ORANGE F3 MAIN PCB + EXPAND PCB
  • Ray Force - WHITE F3 MAIN PCB
  • Hat Trick Hero '93 - WHITE F3 MAIN PCB
  • Top Ranking Stars - WHITE F3 MAIN PCB

Monday, June 22, 2009

Preventing XBOX 360 RROD

The net is flooded with (horrid) information about how to fix your XBOX 360's RROD, yet I've never come across any extensive articles about preventing failure. If you are like me and have a working 360, but are worried about it, this article is definitely for you.

So, why not wait until your system RROD's to deal with it? Procedures like the "x-clamp fix" may get your system going again, but they are terrifying from an electro-mechanical standpoint. Avoiding the problem altogether is the hardware-safe and intelligent solution. Preventing overheating will take care of the majority of would-be RROD's, but there are various sources for the problem of overheating. One problem is simply poor ventilation, but a sorely overlooked issue is the poor heat sink mounting of the XBOX 360.

Poor Heat Sink Mounting

In this section I'd like to compare traditional PC CPU heat sink mounting to that of the XBOX 360. (Before I go on, this heat sink portion of the article is based upon the original 2 heat sink setup, not the 3 heat sink design that Microsoft later implemented. This modification is only recommended for the original 2 heat sink design.) In the case of the PC heat sink, there is dynamic tension from the spring clamp holding it to the CPU. What I mean by dynamic is that the tension holding this assembly together can flex and change as needed.

The XBOX 360 heat sink has a static tension holding it to the CPU/GPU. What I mean by static is the opposite of dynamic: it does not change according to need. At first glance, it appears that the PC design and the 360 design are similar, being as they both have spring mechanisms in place. However, there is a gross dissimilarity. On the 360, both the PCB and the heat sink are bolted to the metal chassis. This means any irregularity in the straightness of the chassis or the PCB will directly effect the quality of the contact between the heat sink and the CPU/GPU. Therefore the only dynamic aspect of this system is the (coincidental) flexibility of the PCB, which is not a proper source of suspension.

The key to fixing the 360 heat sink mounting scheme is to give it truly dynamic tension like that of the PC heat sink. To do this, we must free the 360 heat sink from the metal chassis. This is done simply by drilling out the screw holes in the metal chassis beneath the heat sink to prevent it from making contact with the x-clamp.

With this modification the 360 heat sink can self adjust according to heat and part irregularities rather than being held in a fixed position which will most likely not provide the proper tension necessary for efficient contact with the processor.

(Photo of one of the modified chassis areas. After the chassis modification, each screw must be reinforced with a washer to keep the x-clamp from popping off of the bare screw heads.)

Poor Ventilation

Well, we've covered the mechanical issues. What about the ventilation issues? The 360 has two "exhaust" fans. This means that rather than "blowing" air across an area, you are "pulling" it across. Well, much like the exhaust that comes out of your car, that air had to come from somewhere, right? In your car, air comes from the engine's "air intake."

In the 360, air comes from various vents in the system case. The picture below labels the intake vents.

  1. Small vent that is less than 1/4 of the length of the system (HDD covers the rest)
  2. Entire side is vented
  3. Two vent strips leading to the core of the system
  4. Two vent strips leading to the bottom of the motherboard
Many people forget that this machine is essentially a gaming PC. Any of you in that scene know how much air flow you need to adequately cool a gaming PC. The 360 clearly needs all the help it can get. Considering that side B makes up about 50% of the system's air intake, blocking that side by standing the console vertically is a glaringly bad practice.

You need to ensure ambient air flow around the whole unit. Never run it anywhere it "just fits." This is not a Nintendo product. Check out the section of your User Manual aptly titled, "Prevent the Console from Overheating":

"Do not place the console or powersupply in a confined space, such as a bookcase, rack, or stereo cabinet, unless the space is well ventilated."

A Few Final Thoughts

1.) One person has voiced concern regarding the integrity of the stock x-clamps because after removing them from their system they were able to mutilate them. I will not go on a metallurgical rant, but suffice it to say that there are many different flavors of spring steel with varying elastic limits (which said person clearly exceeded). While installed, the x-clamp arms are limited to about 1 - 1.5mm of vertical travel. To get the heat sinks (and therefore the clamps) to move that much you'd basically have to drop the console from a considerable height (probably 12" +). Not only are the clamps well capable of handling such movement, but they are capable of handling it many times.

The individual did get the part about needing more force for the "x-clamp fix" than the x-clamps can provide themselves. Ever wonder why some systems don't last after such a "fix?" You are mashing 4 layers (GPU/CPU, GPU/CPU PCB, solder balls, and motherboard) together and in the process causing immense stress on all parts involved. It's only a matter of time before traces crack or any number of other failures.

2.) Being as the XBOX 360 does not boast an evaporative cooling system, you are actually going to need a reasonable ambient air temperature for the system fans to do their job. Microsoft specifies an operating temperature of 5°C to 35°C (41°F to 95°F). Based on what we've seen of this system's tendency to overheat, I'm going to say that 35°C (95°F) is truly 35°C (95°F). In other words, if you are running your system with an ambient temperature of 35°C (95°F) or higher, even after following the steps in this article, your XBOX 360 may still be in danger.

Further Reading

You may scoff at this, but read your User Manual. The XBOX 360 has proven to be a delicate flower, so care for it accordingly: Manuals

After all the (quite painful) internet reading I've done on this subject, I found one (1) article worth reading. It is an interview with "an individual who has worked on the Xbox 360 project for many years." The interview is not focused on preventative measures, it merely illustrates, in gross detail, why this system has had such a horrible failure rate: Interview

(Note: the interviewee and I seem to disagree on the whole vertical vs. horizontal issue. He makes the point that vertically, the system has more exposed surface area to cool, to which I respond: A.) the D panel is an indirect heat sink, at best, and B.) at the cost of the coveted ventilation of the B panel? And he was wrong about it opening more vent holes, although it does let the bottom of the motherboard breath a bit better.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

LOL (Lap Out Loud)

While working on the YsBox, I was interested in ways of improving the cooling scheme. The stock Dell heat sink for the main processor has a nice big slab of copper, but the surface is far from perfect. A while back I had done some reading on the process of "lapping." Lapping is merely creating a surface that is as flat as possible. Heat sinks (both discrete and integrated, integrated being those that are permanently fixed to a processor) can be lapped using tools as simple as a piece of glass and varying grits of sandpaper.

I read a hand full of guides on the subject, but I found this "how to" video to be the most comprehensive: Part 1, Part 2. After lapping, both my CPU's integrated heat sink and the main CPU heatsink (using 400-2000 grit), temperatures really didn't seem to drop (disappointing). Mechanically / theoretically it is indeed a better setup as there is much more uniform physical contact between the two parts, but apparently this CPU just doesn't get hot enough to utilize such a setup (afaik, most people who do this are overclocking their CPU's).

In the end, I'm still happy I did this process for the great learning experience.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Capcom Power System Changer: Back from the Grave

Don't ask me why, but there has been a resurgence of chatter about the Capcom Power System Changer. So, being as there is still some interest in this thing, that was motivation enough for me to visit my photo archive of "cool crap I've come across on Yahoo Japan Auctions." Rather than jump right into the Changer stuff, let me give you a little history.

Many folks see Capcom's CPS-2 as the product that marked the dawn of the "plastic case era" for this arcade game company. Not true. Others a bit more seasoned would recall a hand full of Capcom's CPS-1 QSound games which had plastic housings. Still not there yet. Capcom actually used plastic housings pre-QSound. The titles I'm aware of are Varth and Capcom World 2. These cases were purely for protection/aesthetics.

Shortly thereafter Capcom secured the rights to use 1Archer's proprietary QSound enhancement technology. At this point Capcom was looking at some changes to their hardware, just to support QSound, so they went ahead and designed a newfangled version of their CPS-1 product. They redesigned the housing (this time fully enclosed), complete with built in cooling fan, external 2volume control, as well as a faceplate with all the aux. connectors. In addition to that, their new electronics boasted anti-piracy technology and left/right RCA jacks for running stereo sound directly to an audio amplifier.

The titles I'm aware of in this format are Tenchi wo Kurau II, Cadillacs Kyouryuu Shin Seiki, The Punisher, Muscle Bomber, and Muscle Bomber Duo (and their respective non-Japan variants). Note that housing color does not indicate region of release, as in the case of CPS-2.


Capcom released their Power System Changer within a year of the last CPS-1 QSound arcade game, which leads me to believe they were working these projects in parallel.

I was overjoyed when a kind soul pointed me to an official Capcom document (many thanks to Summy House) which lists the games for this system. Here is a snapshot of the list:

And here is the translation:
  • Tenchi wo Kurau II
  • Muscle Bomber
  • Captain Commando
  • Cadillacs [Kyouryuu Shin Seiki]
  • Knights of the Round
  • Muscle Bomber Duo
  • Capcom World 2
  • Final Fight
  • King of Dragons
  • Street Fighter II [Turbo]
  • Punisher
As you've probably read elsewhere, Capcom later released Street Fighter Zero. That makes for an even dozen games. I was disappointed to find that I only had photo's of 7 of the 12 titles, but this will at least wet your appetite a little for what was available:


Aside from the original arcade content, some (all?) of the games also had extensive options. Check out the options for Final Fight (button mapping, stage select, etc.):

As you'll read in most descriptions of the system, it makes use of the Capcom Power Stick Fighter.

For those of you not familiar with the unit, there were connections for it to be used on the Nintendo Super Famicom (above), X68000, FM Towns Marty (below), and supposedly the Sega Mega Drive.

Not as fancy as the RF (radio frequency) wireless controllers of the current generation gaming consoles, but Capcom made an IR (infrared) add-on unit which allowed you to un-tether this beastie.

For those of you on the hunt for a Changer, my best recommendation is to keep a keen eye on the arcade section of Yahoo Japan Actions. My experience has been that at least one of these pops up for auction annually. Here are a few more photos of the Changer and games with tasty packaging:


1. On numerous Capcom flyers advertising QSound, a little disclaimer is included, "QSound Chips have been developed by Archer and incorporate Archer's proprietary QSound sound enhancement technology." The only Archer I could think of was the stereo equipment manufacturer that sold product through Radio Shack stores. Were they a remnant of this Archer? In my curiosity I e-mailed QSound Labs to ask them about this. They promptly replied, "The inventors vended the technology into a company called Archer Communications in 1988. In 1992, we changed the name to QSound Labs, Inc."

2. Aside from the volume dial, there is another dial close to the side. I have no idea what this was meant for, as it is unused on my Slam Masters CPS-1 game.


NFG's CPS Changer expose