Thursday, April 25, 2024

The Ambernic RG556

A while back I concluded I was settled on the handled PC/console gaming cycle, with a Steam Deck on the one hand, a Switch OLED in the middle and a Asus ROG Ally on the other. Well, I lied. Since then I have acquired an Ambernic RG556 and a Legion Go. Oh yeah, I have also had access to a Logitech G Cloud, about which I have some thoughts as well. Why? Well I have at last concluded that, as a kid, I had a deep fascination for the concept that one day you could have handheld devices that did all the cool stuff. It explains my obsession over tablets and e-readers, and now of course handheld console and console-like PCs. It is not a healthy obsession, and the only good news I have is I regularly see guys on Youtube posting videos about their own obsessions, from their recording rooms laden with dozens of such devices. Admittedly, they probably get some revenue from Youtube or freebies from the manufacturers and can subsidize their bad habits accordingly, but many of these guys have maybe a few thousand subscribers at most, so I doubt they are benefitting from the views....only a handful have very popular shows. 

Anyway, to add to the pile of what has been discussed before, here's my quick takes so far on the Ambernic RG556 and its unique gateway into Emulation-based handhelds. I'll talk more about the Legion Go and G-Cloud soon.

This is the first emulator handheld console I have purchased.* I snagged this one based on the plethora of reviews suggesting it had a high level of functionality, a nice OLED screen, was easy to get in to without having any real prior emulation familiarity, and would potentially stave off my son's recent obsession for collecting relics and antiques from The Before Times, what he sees as ancient gaming history and I see as "stuff people played when I was in my 20's and 30's." Like Gamecube, PS1/PS2, Nintendo 64, Game Boy Advance, PSP....that sort of stuff.

When you get a device like this, its power determine how much you can emulate. The 556 can mostly emulate on up through Dreamcast and PS2 without issue, but Gamecube and Xbox seem beyond its scope of ability (although I've learned the Xbox emulator crowd is much smaller than for other consoles). It works out of the box. Emulator enthusiasts will give you lots of seemingly useful advice, on the surface, but it is bad advice for a novice; the onboard emulators are just fine to start, and you can gradually learn to mess around with other, better emulators at a later date. I may write more about how to do this.....but trust me when I say that if you don't know a lot about emulation to start, be very careful of the advice from the pros, they are not writing for people with no real knowledge of how to go about doing emulation, and it will lead to a fairly useless or limited device quickly if you are not careful.

Part of this is probably due to the tricky issue of emulation and piracy, although the vast majority of the games on these old emulators are essentially unattainable by any other means, short of trawling through garage sales or occasional retro game stores for used copies. Not even products such as the Evercade offer most of these games, and many are consigned to oblivion due to licensing issues (as an example, I was completely unaware of how many 2D arcade side scrollers from the 80's and 90's existed for the Aliens franchise until the Ambernic showed up). I am not entirely sure how Ambernic can do this, but assume its because they are A: under Chinese law and don't sweat lawsuits from Nintendo and B: are selling a piece of hardware, and presumably the "loaded stuff" that comes with it is just a courtesy? No idea, but if someone knows I'd be interested in details, as the emulator community dances around this subject constantly.

That said, the device out of the box, with me adding more ROMs from specific sites for my favorite specific games from back in the day (mostly PS1, PS2 and Dreamcast) have almost all worked great,  and the Ambernic RG556 screen is a very nice device, super comfortable and easy to figure out. I got one for my son and wife as well, and they play these things constantly now. It hasn't quite solved my son's desire to keep collecting old games, and may if anything have backfired a bit as he is now even more interested in finding the original cartridges just for bragging rights to his Zoomer buddies, but overall this product was well worth it. It's not bad an an android device, either, though it is disappointing just how few android games are really worth any time or effort these days; the modern landscape of mobile gaming is just a repulsive sea of grifters, con artists and pure garbage, with only a handful of gems floating in the murk. As such, the Ambernic shines best as an emulator, reminding us of how, not too long ago, games were made to be actually fun and complete experiences, and not as pure cash grabs using predatory tactics to part consumers from their money. 

*I do also have a couple Evercades (the original, the Vs. and the remake from a year or so back) but those are licensed products with new releases of classic games, most of which no one has ever heard of or remembers, with the gimmick being that you can buy collections of games on cartriges for the system. It's a cool system, but I stopped collecting after a while when it became clear that any genuinely interesting games were unlikely to get licensed out to Evercade. A few exceptions have happened, but the Evercade does not have analog thumbsticks which means its a limited experience outside of a specific era of gaming; their Duke Nukem collection, for example, borders on unplayable without an analog stick. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

The Slow Roll Gaming Show of 2024 - Swords & Chaos, Comae Engine, and More

 This is a remarkably quiet year for a D&D 50th Anniversary. Some stuff is coming out, which is cool, but the key new edition books are all delayed to the end of the year and in the case of the Monster Manual, next year. But luckily I expect to have Tales of the Valiant in my hands in maybe just a few weeks? We shall see!

Part of me acknowledges I am just getting old, but even DriveThruRPG's picking have been....weird....lately. A disproportionate amount of content over on DTRPG seems to have either an intentional or unintentional lack of polish, as if the idea is to throwback the product to a bygone era when your only art resource was you high school buddy who doodled a lot, but meanwhile the rest of the products all have a pristine AI generated polish to them that has that "uncanny valley reality, tinged with anime thematics" look to it that is a grotesque turn-off and an immediate warning that there may have been less actual effort put in to the product. But hey, interesting stuff does slip in the cracks. I am debating ordering the brand new Smoke and Aces BRP book which looks interesting, and I just received my print edition of The Comae Engine, a rather unique reductionist redesign of the BRP/D100 system, and I also ordered a copy of Swords & Chaos RPG, a non-Troll Lord published SIEGE engine RPG heavily flavored for traditional Swords & Sorcery; barbarians only need apply, no pesky hobbits here!

So far, of the two Comae Engine looks a little heavy on the "storytelling mechanics" approach to play which for me is the equivalent of telling me that you can substitute any meat in any meal with an impossible burger patty and it will be just fine. I am not yet decided, and plan to try running it before I make any determination. Some elements such as the skill system approach are pretty cool.....and in terms of trying to make a condensed, modest system that can quickly be skinned for any genre or feel it seems like it might work pretty well in many cases. I think the book could have benefited from about 20 pages or so of examples of how to use it, and example genres/scenarios. 

To contrast, Swords & Chaos RPG from Blackspire Fantasy is a SIEGE engine powered RPG, a sort of updated version of Castles & Crusades which refines the experience to a distinctly classical swords, sorcery and sandals approach to RPGs, with humans as the only species to play, classes that fit Hyboria, Atlantis or Mu, and an excellent roster of monsters that only poaches a handful of classic OGL familiars that best fit the darker S&S vibe (e.g. cloakers, darkmantles), then fleshes the list out with a lot of more traditionally pulp fantasy beasts. No orcs, elves, halflings or dwarves here! 

Put another way, Swords & Chaos is for better or worse more my cup of tea these days, a known quantity my old brain, suffused like a marinade for decades with the swords & sorcery genre, can wrap itself a tasty spinach wrap, maybe. Hmmmm now I'm hungry.

What I like most about S&C is that it is a "all in one" book laden with exactly 100% of what you need to run the game. I am sure you can swap stuff in from Castles & Crusades if you want....but you totally don't need to. This book has it all. I am really big on "one tome to rule it all" lately. I will grant systems where the rules are dispersed over 2 or 3 tomes a pass, so long as those 2 or 3 books combined are 100% complete together.

Despite this, I am still extremely keen to explore the other slightly more traditional yet nonetheless totally cool Dragonbane. I really have too many flavors of classic and pulp fantasy floating around (see also ACKS). I need to wrap up the current D&D campaign so we can get to the other fantasy games all waiting in the wings. Conundrums!