Monday, 19 May 2014

CoinOps & Vision - Bringing the Arcade to your home in spectacular style!


Bringing the arcade to your home

Microsoft's first foray into the console market, the Xbox, appeared in 2001 (or 2002 for us European gamers) and was a huge success. But, while I have fond memories of playing Halo 2, Mercenaries, Brute Force and Tao Feng : Fist of the Lotus with my buddies in our earlier twenties, it is not a console I hold with much regard these days. Aside from the games mentioned above, there isn't much else in the Xbox's library of games that holds any appeal. Even games such as Toejam & Earl 3 and Sega's arcade beat-em-up Strike Out left me extremely disappointed. Add in the fact that it's a fairly ugly brute of a console, with one of the worst official controllers ever made - right up there with the Atari Jaguar and Sega's horrible Dreamcast controller - and you have a machine that I am happy to leave in the past. Until now!





Changing the way I enjoy emulation

However, all this changed recently when I stumbled across a video showcasing a wonderful piece of software called CoinOps. I had been aware of the fact that the Xbox could be softmodded (or chipped) and used to run emulators, but as I have a PC and other consoles capable of the same task, I never gave it much thought. CoinOps changed all that. After watching said video, I had a look on Gumtree and, low and behold, there was a modded Xbox with CoinOps 5 Lite installed - Lite containing far fewer games in order to fit on the Xbox's stock 8Gb Hard Drive. After getting a component cable, for the best possible picture quality, I was all set. I booted up the Xbox, selected CoinOps 5 Lite from the menu and, Wham! I was treated to the greatest piece of emulation software I have ever used. 



CoinOps 6

CoinOps 6 (the latest version and the one I am now using) is simply a masterpiece in emulation design. For too long I have been frustrated with using MAME on my PC - an experience consisting of constant ROM fails, a bland user interface, and a lack of video or screenshots of the game you want to take for a spin. Sure, I know there are mods and GUIs that can change MAME for the better, but I am a lazy, lazy man, and my attempts to enhance it have always ended up causing me no end of frustrating and wasted time. CoinOps 6 is a different beast altogether. Booting up the Xbox and getting to the modded dashboard (named Evolution in my case, though there are alternatives such as UnleashX) takes mere seconds, and another tiny wait is required in order to select and load CoinOps 6. Once loaded you are treated to an easy to read list of games, with an attractive, visually appealing, yet not overwhelming, cabinet playing a short video loop of the game highlighted. 


The default look of CoinOps - classy and easy to navigate



Choices, Choices

With over 4000 games, it can seem incredibly daunting at first - when will you ever get time to play all these titles? Which one should you play first? - but thankfully CoinOps has an system to sort out the list. Simply press the back button to go through the different methods of sorting - for example, putting them in alphabetical order or grouped into genre, host platform or developer. Best of all, you can tap the white button to mark it as a favourite title, turning the text into bold yellow. A tap of the black button then causes the list to show only your favourite games. With a bit of time and patience, you can soon have that 4000 game list narrowed down to a palatable amount. 


The amount of games in the full version of CoinOps is staggering



The personal touch

A settings menu can be brought up using the start button, containing a plethora of options to enhance the experience. You may need to adjust the screen size to better fit your TV, or you may want to switch off the music that plays while viewing the list - I recommend doing so as it clashes with the sound of the game videos. Scanlines and other visual options are available to you, so you can customise it to look just how you want (light scanlines are my personal favourite). Emulation is mostly excellent, with only a tiny percentage of titles (notably Bonanza Bros, Power Drift and The Outfoxies) suffering from glitches or dodgy framerates. Controls are all set-up for you, so twin-stick shooters such as Robotron 2048 are mapped perfectly to the two analogue sticks on the Xbox pad, while the triggers act as accelerate and break in most of the driving games.


Many popular games such as Mortal Kombat get their own wallpaper



More than just Arcade games

Even more fantastic is the fact that CoinOps, despite its name, doesn't just stick to arcade games. No siree! There are an abundance (on the full version, at least) of Neo Geo, SNES, Megadrive, PC Engine, PlayStation, Master System, Nintendo 64 and Gameboy Advance games to choose from too! PC games also make an appearance, with the emphasis being on classic first person shooters. Doom 1 and 2, along with the two Final Doom episodes appear, as do Quake 1 and 2, Heretic and Hexen. A dream come true for a 90's FPS fanatic such as myself. 


No console should be taken seriously until it has DOOM running on it.



Emulation for the older machines is spot-on, with the NES, Master System, PC Engine, Super NES and Mega Drive games running extremely well (as you would expect), including SNES games that use Mode 7 or the FX Chip. Nintendo 64 emulation is great in some titles - Mario 64, F-Zero X and Wave Race 64 run perfectly - but I experienced graphical glitches and horrendous slowdown in both Conker's Bad Fur Day and Sin & PunishmentMost disappointingly, however, is the emulation of Sony's original 32-bit PlayStation which is decidedly ropey, with the games I tested running rather poorly. Hopefully these performance issues will be (or maybe have already been) sorted in one of the regular software updates*

The home micros are covered too, with Commodore's Amiga and C64 computers featured, along with UK wonder machine, the ZX Spectrum! Emulation is excellent, and you can perform potentially tricky keyboard commands by bringing up a virtual keyboard on-screen and using the joypad to choose the necessary key. The Amiga's disk swapping loading is handled with easy, with a simple tap of a button changing the disk inserted, making life a lot easier.

European gamers can breath a sigh of relief as all the games run in glorious 60Hz, not the appalling 50Hz shitfest that we were lumbered with in the pre-2000 consoles. You will also be delighted to hear that save states are present in all the emulators, using a very simple method that involves holding the 'back' button then pressing the 'white' button to automatically save, while 'back' and the 'black' button will instantly load that save.

*Forum members state that PS1 emulation can be improved by editing certain files in the PlayStation emulator folder on the Xbox hard drive (see, Get Yourself Connected).

In order to see the wonderful interface in action, check out this video. I am certain that it will get you just as excited as it did me.






Get yourself connected

Not enough games for you? Well you're in luck, because you can also connect your modded Xbox to your PC and use an FTP client to copy new games over to the Hard Drive. This process can be a little confusing at first - well, maybe for an idiot like me - but after getting it to work, it really is simplicity itself. All you need is a router, a couple of ethernet cables and a piece of software such as FlashFXP or FileZilla, and you are good to go! The Xbox's IP details are on the settings page of the dashboard, so can be entered in via your PC's software, and boom! Connection city! Don't worry if this all sounds like gobbledegook, there are plenty of readmes online, and the official CoinOps forum (which can be located here) is full of friendly, super helpful people who will explain everything for you (thanks again guys!).


Software such as FlashFXP allows you to connect your PC to your Xbox 
in order to add or remove games and emulators



Once connected, you can add new ROMS and remove any games you have a particular dislike for. You can also download new, standalone emulators for systems not featured in CoinOps. So, if you fancy adding Atari 2600, ColecoVision, Virtual Boy, Atari Lynx or good old fashioned DOS games, then go right ahead! There are many easy to install packs available to download, alongside homebrew games and apps, at Isozone.com.

Even DOS games can be played via standalone emulators - 
installed using an FTP program.



Sold on the idea yet? Well, you will be pleased to know that getting hold of a modded Xbox is easy. I found mine on Gumtree and paid only £35 for it - an 8Gb Xbox Crystal with the infinitely superior Controller-S, a far more comfortable, redesigned version of the standard 'duke' controller. These machines also appear on Ebay regularly, just do a search for CoinOps 6 and choose 'include description'. Of course, you could just buy your own Xbox and softmod it yourself, but as a simpleton with no idea (nor the patience) to do this, I was happy to buy mine pre-modded.
Make sure you get the revised Controller S, as it is infinitely better than
 the first model, known as the 'Duke'



Choose wisely

There was a downside to my experience. The crystal Xbox I purchased from Gumtree started making horrible noises after only 4 days, then died completely before the week was over. The scallywag who sold it to me never responded to my emails. But as I was so enamoured with CoinOps I went straight onto Ebay and negotiated the purchase of another one. This would be the console only - original black version - with no leads or controllers, but it had a 160Gb hard drive with the full version of CoinOps 6, as well as another piece of emulation magic, Vision 3 (more on this later). How much did I pay for this? the paltry sum of £30, including the postage! Bargain! I used the leads and controller from the first purchase, and it runs like a charm, quicker, quieter and full to the brim with gaming goodies. Just take this experience as a warning that some Xbox consoles will be in better condition than others. Much like all other recent technology, they can be prone to issues with the fan and hard drive, so it is best to buy one from someone who sounds decent and honest in their emails, or from Ebay, where you can always return it should it die within days of receiving it.


Consoles such as the Super Nintendo have a long list of games to enjoy




Let the games begin

Thanks to this wonderful box of tricks, I have been enjoying a staggering amount of classic arcade titles from the 1980's and 1990's; Shmups such as the Raiden, DonPachi, 1942 and Strikers series; highly enjoyable platformers such as Sunset Riders, Mystic Riders, Shinobi, Rastan, Toki, Surprise Attack and Rolling Thunder 2, and classic brawlers like Final Fight, Violent Storm and Cadillacs & Dinosaurs. There are rotary games such as Ikari Warriors and Midnight Resistance - though some of these can be tricky to play, even with two analogue sticks - light gun shooters such as the classic Operation Wolf and Alien 3 : The Gun, and even games that utilised a trackball or paddle controller in their original guise, most notably Crystal Castles and Arkanoid.
You may not have a plastic Uzi 9mm, but lightgun games are 
still great fun to play using the Xbox controller



CoinOps 6 contains every single arcade game I would ever want to play and it has changed the way I look at emulators forever. I've discovered no end of weird and wonderful games that I might otherwise have missed - many of which I will be bringing to your attention via a series of articles on forgotten arcade gems. It's so good, in fact, that MAME only remains on my PC as a means to take screenshots of the games I wish to review.


You can choose to make the gameplay videos full screen, as shown here,
 though they don't look as pretty when zoomed in.






So, what's this Vision 3 you mentioned earlier?

CoinOps simple, list-like, menu system not doing it for you? (really?). Well, there is another option. Vision. By the same developer as CoinOps, and now in its 4th iteration, Vision is similar to CoinOps in that it presents an attractive menu system filled with gameplay footage and graphics. In some respects it could be considered superior, in that the games are separated into genres from the offset, with categories such as Fight Club containing all the one-on-one beat-em-up and Race Driver containing, you guessed it, the driving games. It also has a separate menu for each of the home consoles emulated, making it easier to navigate to your platform of choice.

The artwork for Vision is striking and very impressive - each genre has 
its own background and motion graphics.



Constantly being developed and improved, Vision has a huge range of visual options to tweak it to your own tastes. The default display shows each game individually, with the original logo art displayed above a large video of the game in action, while some nifty images move onto the screen in an impressive manner. If this doesn't do it for you, then you can choose a more CoinOps-esque list format, allowing easy navigation though the games, again with video and art to the side.


Every single game - of which there are thousands - has its own original logo
 displayed over a short gameplay video.



Vision is an exceptionally impressive piece of work. All of the images are well done and animate subtly onto the screen. The fact that every single game - of which there are thousands - has its own artwork displayed, along with a relevant character or item appearing to the side of the video, is amazing and testament to the amount of dedication and hard work that has gone into this project. Having said that, while far more toned down in its presentation, I do find myself gravitating more towards CoinOps, purely down to the fact that everything is so neatly laid out, easy and quick to navigate, and has you playing a game faster than Vision. I strongly recommend trying out both and making your own mind up.


Vision's appearance can be tweaked to suit your own personal tastes. The CoinOps style list view - here shown with added Hypervision addon - is particularly impressive.



To see Vision for yourself, take a look at the following videos, the first is a quick demo showcasing the front end of the menu system, before loading CoinOps 6 (handy for seeing both), while the second video shows inside the Arcade Classics sub-menu. Lastly, the third shows the most recent artwork for the home console selection screen. Work on Vision is ongoing and regular changes occur, often significantly altering its appearance. Keep your eye on the CoinOps forum for all new developments.




First menu



'Arcade Classics' genre menu




Home console menu




So, there you have it. The original Xbox console getting a new lease of life in 2014. CoinOps and Vision are spectacular pieces of software that have changed emulation for me forever. No longer will I bother with dull looking drop down menus and fiddly settings of PC emulators. Now I will use this big black box under my TV to enjoy all those classic games, both arcade and home console, in style. I cannot recommend it enough, and it's so cheap and easy to get one set up yourself that there really is no excuse for not joining the CoinOps party. The constantly evolving software, and fantastic forum support are the icing on the cake. The fact that many people who build their own arcade cabinets for home (or possibly even commercial) use, use an Xbox with CoinOps installed, just goes to show how good it is really is.


Have you experienced CoinOps and Vision too? Then please let me know your thoughts! Or maybe you are completely new to it and have some questions involving its use? Again, just contact me and I will try to help you out as best I can. 

Happy gaming!