It's been two years since Kent's last studio album Tillbaka Till Samtiden, and yesterday, their new single Töntarna from the upcoming album Röd had its retail premiere, roughly a week after the digital release. I finally got my copy, a day late, because my local music store couldn't be bothered with packing up the boxes the day they have arrived. Running a music store these days can't be easy, and I'm sure that this kind of attitude will lose them customers in favour of on-line retailers who, surprisingly, deliver on time.
For those who don't know, Kent is a Swedish indie and alternative rock band, whose music I am a huge fan of. They've been active since 1990, and during the last couple of years, they've been drifting more and more towards a sound that I could only describe as a modern take on the '80s synthpop. The noticeable change of style however, did not affect the quality of Kent's releases - on the contrary, based on taste, one could argue that the quality is constantly improving, and that's exactly what kept me a faithful fan of the group.
Töntarna, which translates to "dorks" by the way, is a three track single, featuring the title song and two remixes - one by a British DJ duo Punks Jump Up, who have plenty of mix tracks on their list of achievements, and another by Familjen, a one man electronica act from Sweden. This is the second time when Punks Jump Up remix Kent, first one being their version of Vy Från Ett Luftslott from Tillbaka Till Samtiden, and I have to say that their take on the song comes out on top. If you want to listen to the remixes, look up MySpace pages of the respective mixers and knock yourself out. Above is the original song, so before you go on a remix hunt, I suggest you listen to it first.
The full album Röd will be released sometime next month and will be available in two versions. One will be a regular CD and the other an exclusive box containing the cd album with an alternative cover, three ten inch LPs, a USB memory stick loaded with mp3 files and a 120 page book. Sounds like a proper collector's edition and I'll most definitely get it, but it will set me back $94. Oh well, at least I won't be buying a separate vinyl this time around.
Another bunch of console related items arrived this monday, missing the weekend, because I would have enjoyed it too much if the package arrived on friday. Oh well, no point in complaining now, since the stuff is here to stay. Since you always should protect your handheld consoles, especially their sensitive screens, I got myself some new screen protectors for Nintendo DS Lite and PSP 2000, and a crystal case for the DS. Because accessories that keep your console safe from harm aren't too exciting, I also got a EZ Flash V 3 in 1 espansion cartridge, but I'll get to that in a minute.
I'm not a huge fan of external covers for handhelds. I always keep my consoles in cases designed to protect the hardware when I'm not using it. What ultimately convinced me of getting the crystal case for my DS Lite, was the console's smooth surface combined with its black color, which made it into a fingerprinting machine. I am a clean person and I always wash my hands before I play, but it's simply impossible not to leave fingerprints all over the DS Lite. The constant wiping and cleaning may eventually lead to some scratches, and I would much rather wipe the crystal cover than the DS itself.
I wasn't expecting much when I ordered this, as it was a $2 product, but I was pleasantly surprised once I put the cover on my DS. It firs perfectly and the console itself is only slightly bigger. I was afraid it would feel awkward to hold it, but it doesn't. The only thing I did react to was the access to shoulder buttons. The case doesn't cover them in any way, but the fingers can no longer rest in the same way I was used to. It is however only a matter of adjustment. After a few games I didn't really think about it. Changing the volume will feel different as well, but because of the cover you will no longer change the volume accidentally, which did happen to me many, many times.
Now, how about that EZ Flash V 3 in 1? I have never really thought about getting one of these, but since many homebrew applications use or even require additional RAM - which I didn't have up until now, because I thought it was pointless to buy a Nintendo DS browser just to get it, and other alternatives seemed a bit expensive - and there are some games that utilize the rumble feature, I thought why not? The price-tag was just under $19 including shipping, and if I didn't get it now, I probably never would. So I ordered it, excited about the new possibilities and some positive vibrations.
The first thing I noticed when I took it out of its box was the build quality. It leaves much to be desired and getting it in the first time was a problem. For a second I thought it wouldn't fit the slot, but as it turns out, you have to insert it at a slight angle. Once the cartridge was in, I popped Metroid Prime Hunters into slot one and got ready for the vibrations. No such luck. The game didn't see it. Apparently, I didn't research it well enough, and the rumble feature is available, but only through certain flash cart firmwares or special loaders, which in its turn means that the feature caters to those who use ROM images rather than original games. Supposedly there is a way to make it work with originals, but I haven't had the time to look into it.
Since the vibrations didn't work as I thought, I wanted to check what does work. After trying several things I realized that EZ Flash V 3 in 1 is anything but user friendly. In fact, getting it to work seemed like a chore at first, before I read a bunch of documents and downloaded appropriate software. Just to clarify what the three functions of this cartridge are: It is a RAM expansion, a Rumble Pak and a Game Boy Advance flash unit featuring both PSRAM and NOR memory, with the NOR being able to hold only one program at a time. Only after getting Rudolph's GBA ExpLoader I could really test the cartridge. Since the GBA NOR memory can hold only one program, I loaded Gleam, an excellent freeware Lumines clone onto it and that's probably what I'm going to use the GBA feature for the most. It's important to note that EZ Flash V 3 in 1, in conjunction with a slot one flash device, is capable of backing up and restoring original Nintendo DS game save data, as well as backing up whole Nintendo DS games.
After the initial failure to get the rumble feature working, I tested the ram expansion, which doesn't require additional programs to run, but the homebrew software has to be compatible with this particular expansion model. Not too long ago, a ScummVM porter named Agentq released a special ScummVM DS build capable of running SCUMM Ver. 7 games, Full Throttle and The Dig, utilizing RAM expansion. This was the first homebrew application I tested the extended RAM function with, so I had my fingers crossed when booting it, but it worked. So far I have only tested Full Throttle, which I recently completed on PSP. Sadly, the save games weren't compatible, so to see if the game really works, I will have to finish it, which I might, since I have all of the puzzles fresh in my memory. I haven't tested The Dig yet, but since it's the same SCUMM version, I can't see a reason why it wouldn't run.
Another homebrew application using the RAM expansion is the Quake 2 port by Drunken Coders. While the DS port of Quake did not require additional RAM to run, but did use it for improved performance if an expansion was present, Quake 2 won't start without it, as it is more demanding a game, with more detailed models and texturing. First Quake running on a DS is impressive in itself, but seeing Quake 2 run at an acceptable and playable speed is awesome. I only took the demo pak for a quick spin, but I'll probably be loading the whole game onto my R4 soon. I am really curious how this port will do later in the game and whether or not it will work with the Quake 2 expansions.
Well, that's about it, I think. I know there's a lot of bitching and whining in this entry, but if you're considering a purchase of EZ Flash V 3 in 1, don't be discouraged. Just know that it won't work out of the box, since it was designed to work with the slot one EZ Flash V, which supports the expansion from the firmware level. I did get the vibrations to work using ROM images of the games I legally own - The only thing I had to do, was to start the GBA ExpLoader and choose the vibration strength. There are about fifty Nintendo DS games that use the rumble feature, so it's nice to know I can feel those vibrations if I really want to - In other words, I won't completely neglect the rumble functionality. I will however continue using the EZ Flash IV when it comes to Game Boy Advance homebrew in general, but running Full Throttle, The Dig or Quake 2 wouldn't be possible without the RAM expansion. All in all, I think this little gadget was worth the money I paid for it. I will have some fun with it, and the best part is, since it's black and shaped like the original slot 2 cover, you won't even know it's there.
Only in the world of independent productions can we see games such as this one. In fact, after playing The Graveyard, I asked myself how much content does a game have to offer to be considered a game. Belgian developer duo Tale of Tales apparently think, that the feel and art direction are more important than gameplay, which in its turn makes The Graveyard into a nice experiment, but not necessarily a game in the usual sense of the word.
We take control of an old lady, who visits the local graveyard. The objective here is to get to the bench by the chapel. We can't go beyond the main path, and even if we stray from it, the camera won't follow our character, so there is virtually no exploration. After we get to the bench, we sit down and reminisce the years that have passed and the people we knew and lost - All that put into a Dutch song that luckily comes with subtitles.
Simple as it may be, The Graveyard is a breath of fresh air in the world of shoot 'em ups, puzzlers and platformers. Believe it or not, the game is available in both demo and full versions. The full version will set us back $5 and is identical to the demo, except that each time you play the game, the old lady can die. That's pretty much all I can tell you about the full version, since I didn't feel like spending money just to see an old person die.
If you, however, would like to get the full featured version, go to the game's official webpage, choose either the Windows or Mac version and knock yourself out. If you like Tale of Tales' more artsy approach to game design, you could also check out The Path - a horror game like no other.
I bought some cheap games again. Not because I wanted to own these specific titles, but because of the price-tag. I'm not even going to speculate on how long these titles will have to wait their turn, but I know I won't play them anytime soon. Again, I bought four titles, as that's the usual deal at one of my local stores. They tend to have all the oldies on permanent sale of four for about $15, which is fine by me. I stop by from time to time, hoping the put something interesting in the bargain bin.
I got Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon for the PC, Project Zero II for PlayStation 2, Halo 2: Multiplayer Map Pack for the Xbox and Denki Blocks! for Game Boy Advance. I've never played any Broken Sword games other than the first two, so it will be interesting to see how well this title works in more action oriented 3D. I bought Tecmo's Project Zero II, also known as Fatal Frame or simply Zero, because I already own the first game. Having said that, I have to admit I've never bothered to finish it, so maybe I'll go back and do that before I start playing the sequel, whenever that may happen.
I chose to get the map pack for Halo 2 because of the lack of better alternatives. I've never really played that much Halo online, and that probably won't change anytime soon. Still, I had to get four titles and it was the map pack or a Fifa game, or perhaps NHL, which I absolutely despise. The map pack box says that Halo 2 is required to play, and I wonder how exactly does that work. I haven't bothered to check yet, but I'm guessing the game installs additional maps on the hard drive. You can't really swap discs on Xbox, so installation is probably the only way to go. We'll see.
Last but not least is Denki Blocks! And it's not me expressing my enthusiasm here - the game actually has an exclamation mark in its title. I have already played Denki Blocks! on Game Boy Color some years ago, and I really enjoyed it, so I knew what I was getting. It's a really decent, but not well known puzzler, that's all about positioning the blocks right. You start off with a cluster of blocks and a shape to replicate. When you use the directional pad, you move the blocks around, all at the same time. You have to position them in a desired way by pushing them against various obstacles. The concept might not be too entertaining when you read about it, but I assure you it's plenty of fun.
To finish this entry, some sad news - sad for me anyway. It's not something I have bought, but rather something I have lost. I lost my Xbox 360 to the dreaded Red Ring of Death. It came as a huge surprise, since I wasn't using it lately. I switched it on to watch a movie, and it just froze. Gave me some error message, started acting up and refused to start properly. At first I got only the lower right diode error, along with a message on the TV screen, and after that it did boot again, but the next day it wouldn't start at all. Who knows what was going on inside the console, but now it's dead and I have to send it to Microsoft, so that they can get it working again. I bought an Elite, because I wanted to have the best possible alternative. Serves me right for spending a bucket of money on a console that dies, no matter what model you buy.
Custom firmware for Sony's PlayStation Portable has been around for a while now, and while at first the installation was made possible by the use of various exploits, later on, the only full proof method to flash the PSP firmware was via the so called Pandora's Battery. There was one problem, though - While you could easily put a battery in Pandora mode on a console which already had the custom firmware installed, it was trickier for those with newer models and without a second, flashed PSP.
Up until now, the only way a battery could be converted was by the means of hardware modification. The battery had to be taken apart, and this alone was quite risky, as it can be very easily damaged. After that, fourth pin on the EEPROM chip had to be lifted from the PCB - This would put the battery into service mode permanently, so naturally, if we wanted the battery to work again, the pin had to be soldered back into place. The main problem here is the extremely small size of the chip and the fact that it's always live, since it's powered directly by the battery. To give you the idea of scale, I took a picture of the PCB alongside a regular match.
Ever since the hardware modification became popular, so called tool batteries started showing up. Manufactured in China, these were single mode Pandora's Batteries, which could not be used as a regular power source for the console. Despite this, regular batteries were still the preferred choice and those with good soldering skills would simply attach a micro switch, allowing the battery mode to be changed at any time.
Because of the obvious demand, Chinese manufacturers went to work, and created a dual mode battery that, similarly to those with micro switches, could be put in Pandora or in normal power mode by a simple press of a button. I've never bothered to acquire one of the so called tool batteries, since it would be pretty much single use. I'm glad I waited, though, since now the perfect solution is finally available, at a really low price.
The mythological Pandora's Box is synonymous with the ultimate evil being unleashed onto the world. I'm not sure who was the first to call the service mode battery by that name, but even though it does give console owners a possibility of booting pirated games, at the same time it opens the door to homebrew games and applications. It's a shame that companies don't give hobbyists legitimate ways of creating original software, and that homebrew always has to be associated with piracy, but that's the way it is and there are no two ways about it.
Probably the most attractive feature available, once we install custom firmware on the PSP, is the ability of playing old PlayStation games. The console, with a little help from homebrew tools, runs old Sony titles almost as good as PlayStation 2 did, sharing its incompatibilities with a few chosen titles. This feature alone is a reason enough to get a custom firmware installed. I rarely pull out my old PlayStation but even then I have to sit in front of a TV, with a controller in my hand. Playing these games on PSP is a whole new experience and every PSP owner should try it.
So that's that. I gave myself a gift of emulation, homebrew and classic PlayStation games, and when I was buying the battery, I even got myself a tiny pig flashlight with two super bright white LEDs installed in its snout. If you're a PSP owner and you haven't had the chance of installing the custom firmware, get yourself one of those batteries and give it a go. The best thing is, you can always revert your console to its original state.