Thursday, February 7, 2008

Review: Pinnacle Game Profiler

A previous post of mine mentions having been hooked on The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and getting 'trained' on the XBox 360, but the PC version doesn't have the greatest of support for gamepads of any variety, much less the console's controllers it eventually was ported to (hint for future PC game devs out there. Never overlook the possibility of PC-to-console ports, and if you can plan for them ahead of time, even better. Nothing's more satisfying than being able to system-shift painlessly). I wasn't about to go to strictly keyboard and mouse for my Oblivion fix, and so I checked with my good friend Google.

It let me to a site for a piece of software called Pinnacle Game Profiler, and at the time, the evolving Oblivion profile being developed with the 360's controller in mind. I was hooked on the possibility, and went for the demo.

The profile itself isn't 100% perfect to the control scheme you'd find on the 360. However, it's only the obscurer commands you'll have to adapt to, and only because of the limitations of software of this type. As it is, it stands about 95% accurate, and you'll only need a few minutes of playtime to adjust.

Furthermore, this program is set to detect games you've loaded profiles in for, and since it emulates a keyboard and mouse, you can control literally any program with your pad (or stick) of choice.

The version I used for this review was 3.8.4, and since then, version 4.0 has gone public, boasting even more compatibility, including Windows Vista, and refinements in input processing, plus more efficient processing.

It's the best there is at what it does, but limitations outside of anyone's control (besides Bethesda Softworks) keep it from attaining perfection.

3.8.4: 9.5/10
4.0.0: 9.8/10

(Edited slightly on February 8th. Originally, I goofed and said it now worked on Windows XP, when I'd meant to say it now supported Windows Vista instead.)

Other methods for playing older games on today's hardware

Sometimes, just playing a remake (see my older post for more information about that) just isn't quite satisfactory enough, and ports sometimes fix bugs that players have come to rely on, and so there's one other method that can be used to sate whatever your classic game craving might be.

It's the one word that most companies publically treat as a profanity, but offers the truest experience outside the actual hardware: Emulation.

Like I'd stated before, some companies have used this technique in official releases, but with consoles of the previous and current generations nearing the same specifications as lower-end computer hardware, the experience can be very satisfying.

I had entered the previous generation with rather strong anti-Microsoft bias, and as such, made the standard fanboyish comments about their console. However, as the massive black thing began making its true power known, I became intrigued with it. And finally, shortly after the XBox 360 had been launched, bringing us into the current generation, I broke down and purchased a pre-owned original XBox, and a game I knew I'd enjoy, Street Fighter Anniversary Collection. After awhile, I even picked up an arcade-style stick for the game, making the experience pretty much the arcade come home. However, as my game improved, and my desire to improve further strengthened, I began to learn this port was not arcade-perfect. I knew I had only one alternative left.

So, approximately a year into my owning the console, I began researching software-based modification techniques, known more commonly as soft-mods. I learned that advancements had been made on that front, and that you no longer needed to keep constant power to the system, else the dreaded 'clock-loop' (a situation where you are unable to proceed past the time and date-setting screen) would brick your hardware. The installation had even been made so simple, all you needed to do was read the instructions and follow the prompts. I did more research, and finally decided it was time. As soon as I found a copy of the game I needed, and the appropriate pieces, I was going to go to the dark side. As I'd learned, it was very simple. I made a common newbie error, and thankfully had somone experienced to talk with to explain what had happened.

The last part was deciding which emulators to load onto my newly-unlocked gaming powerhouse. Being a fighting game fan, I knew I needed good arcade fighters, especially some entries in the Street Fighter and The King of Fighters serieses, so I needed CPS1, CPS2 and Neo Geo options. That went on first, and I found a well-coded Super Nintendo emulator. That was next. I also backed up selected copies of my purchased games onto the XBox's hard drive, as a portability solution, and to avoid the normal wear and tear of constant usage.

A word of warning, though. It's no secret that if your console is detected by Microsoft as being modified on their Live! service, your system will be banned permanently by serial number. This never affected my decision at all, as I don't play online anyway, but I set my mod up with a way to make it indistinguishable from a stock system when I choose.

Later, I learned that not only was the holy grail of emulation being worked on, it had already been broken. The one-thought-impenetrable CPS3 hardware was finally playable, and when news of an XBox port of the first emulator to run these newer Capcom offerings was announced, I was almost unable to wait for it.

I am awed, but also slightly disappointed by the result. It appears that the limits of the console were finally found, as games run at full speed and with sound, but only as long as the emulated game doesn't need to pull up new art, or render some of the more complicated effects, such as scaling. Even then, though, the dip in framerate isn't crippling, or even long-lived. This plays well with Street Fighter III and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, as most effects of this type occur during times when there's no input being accepted anyway. Street Fighter III: 2nd Impact, though, due to limitations, is unfortunately nearly unplayably slow. Perhaps in the future, optimizations will be made to either the emulator or the game, and it too will enjoy playablity.