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