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Lost “Sega VR” game unearthed, made playable on modern VR headsets

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Enlarge / Sega VR was manufactured, advertised, and pushed as Sega’s next big thing, up until its unceremonious cancellation in 1994. Twenty-six years later, we finally get to see how it worked.

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One of Sega’s most mysterious products ever, the canceled Sega VR headset, finally emerged in a “playable” form on Friday thanks to a team of game history preservationists. It’s a tale of a discovered ROM, a search for its source code, and efforts to not only rebuild the game but also adapt existing Genesis and Mega Drive emulators to translate virtual reality calls from today’s PC headsets.

The story, as posted at the Video Game History Foundation’s site, begins with a ROM discovery by Dylan Mansfield at Gaming Alexandria. The game in question, Nuclear Rush, was one of four games announced for Sega VR, a headset system designed to plug into standard Genesis and Mega Drive consoles.

Not quite 72Hz…

Gamers from that era likely heard about Sega VR, as the game publisher’s PR push included plenty of mentions in gaming magazines, a public reveal at 1993’s Summer CES, and even a segment on ABC’s Nightline. But the ambitious device, slated to launch at a mere $199, was quietly canceled, and former Sega President Tom Kalinske eventually confirmed why: researchers found the device made a huge percentage of testers sick with headaches and dizziness.

Today’s discovery explains in part where those sickness symptoms likely stemmed from. By breaking down and understanding the way Sega VR games communicated with a Genesis, and therefore a Sega VR headset, VGHF digital conservation head Rich Whitehouse discovered the headset’s severe limitations: a mere 15Hz refresh for its stereoscopic images, as opposed to the 72Hz minimum for Oculus Quest (let alone the 90Hz standard established by companies like HTC and Valve). Additionally, Sega VR only translated pitch and yaw movement for users’ heads, not roll—and that’s on top of the system already being limited as a three-degrees-of-freedom (3DOF) system, requiring that users stay seated.

How did Whitehouse find out so much about Sega VR’s functionality this many years after the add-on vanished? As it turns out, Mansfield’s day-to-day search for game history errata includes requests to various ’90s developers for whatever old prototypes or code they might have tucked away in a drawer. In the case of Kenneth Hurley, who worked on Nuclear Rush as part of Futurescape Productions, he went one higher and sent Mansfield a CD-ROM dated August 6, 1994—which miraculously hadn’t succumbed to bit rot.

Whitehouse stepped in at this point to figure out how to compile the leftover nearly complete code (dubbed “final” but not “retail final”), which required a mix of C and assembly. Among Whitehouse’s discoveries: the code as written only worked on certain Genesis and Mega Drive hardware revisions, based on how it handles horizontal and vertical scrolling of sprites and assets, which required a minor fix. Also, metadata in the code hinted to a Winter CES 1994 showing for Sega VR that never came to pass.

Could have used an SVP

Though the discovered CD-ROM was missing key Sega VR files (which Whitehouse says would have been named VR.DOC and VR.TXT), Whitehouse was still able to work out how the system would have worked with 16-bit consoles. Sega VR IO would have revolved around the console’s second controller port—though Whitehouse’s explanation doesn’t clarify whether the console’s video-out port would have been redirected to the Sega VR headset or how that would have worked. Additionally, the Sega VR headset would have been fed two 30Hz images, which Nuclear Rush would have then divided further with its 15fps refresh.

While figuring out how to make Nuclear Rush work as a VR experience in 2020, Whitehouse talked to the game’s original lead programmer, Kevin McGrath, who confirmed that his team did a lot of work on Sega VR without actually having a headset to test on—and they invented a test that had the game’s video output flicker between two computer monitors to see how it might do the same with two headset images. Another Sega VR-era game programmer, Alex Smith, confirmed that the team working on Outlaw Racing never even went hands-on with a headset prototype before its project was canned.

The rest of Whitehouse’s work revolved around building OpenVR support into a working Genesis emulator, which included, among other things, doing serious guesswork about how Sega VR’s panels were positioned and shaped, then fixing 1994-era quirks to run more efficiently on modern computers (in part to reduce potential motion sickness from a Genesis-era game locked at 15fps). The resulting emulator and a pair of compiled Nuclear Rush ROMs are available for download and testing from the VGHF article.

Nuclear Rush running on an emulator, as presented by Richard Whitehouse.

Ars Technica has tested this combination of emulator and ROM on a Windows 10 PC running an HP Reverb G2 headset, and I can confirm that the game plays about as well as you might expect: it’s a rudimentary 3D tank game, as if Atari’s arcade classic Battlezone had been rebuilt with Genesis-era sprites and palettes, but it’s all sprite-field trickery, not the rudimentary polygonal stuff of early ’90s fare like Star Fox or Virtua Fighter. (Sega VR games clearly weren’t being bulked up with extra on-cartridge chips like Sega’s SVP, used in the Genesis version of Virtua Racing.)

The resulting restored game isn’t a revolutionary gameplay experience by any stretch. Still, the combined efforts of everyone listed above brought life back to a game whose original version would likely have made you sick. Thankfully, modern hardware (and its enterprising users) can revive canceled games in ways that won’t make game history aficionados toss their cookies, and that’s a testament to the modern game-preservation movement as a whole.

Check out the whole intriguing story, complete with a ridiculous amount of technical information, at the Video Game History Foundation.

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Exterminate! BBC drops trailer for Revolution of the Daleks special

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Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is a prisoner of the Judoon in Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks, a holiday special that will air on New Year’s Day 2021.

The series 12 finale of Doctor Who back in March ended on a cliffhanger, with Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor imprisoned and her loyal companions (or “fam”) back on Earth without her. Fortunately, we don’t have much longer to wait to find out what happens. The BBC dropped the official trailer for the upcoming holiday special, Revolution of the Daleks, slated to air on New Year’s Day.

(Spoilers for S12 below.)

As I noted in my review earlier this year, series 12 felt like classic Doctor Who, to the delight of longtime fans disappointed by Whittaker’s first outing. (I thought that first outing was solid and showed a lot of promise.) In the episode “Fugitive of the Judoon,” the Doctor encountered the intergalactic police force-for-hire, the Judoon (introduced in the series three episode “Smith and Jones”). The Judoon were supposedly hunting a man who lived in Gloucester with his wife, Ruth (Jo Martin). But their true target turned out to be Ruth, who recovered lost memories and declared herself to be the Doctor, with her own buried blue police box TARDIS. Yet neither Doctor had any recollection of the other.

In the penultimate episode of series 12, “Ascension of the Cybermen,” the Doctor and her “fam” traveled to the far future and humanity’s last outpost. They discovered a portal leading to the now-ruined planet Gallifrey, out of which popped the Master. In the finale, the Master revealed the truth about a story the Doctor and the Master were told as little Time Tots about a “Timeless Child” (briefly mentioned in last season’s “The Ghost Monument”), who was the source of the Time Lords’ ability to regenerate. It should be painfully obvious that this Timeless Child was the Doctor herself. Doctor Ruth was a prior incarnation she just couldn’t remember, thanks to past memory wipes. And that revelation is definitely going to have plenty of repercussions going forward.

Anyway, with the help of a Lone Cyberman, the Master converted all the dead Time Lords on Gallifrey into “CyberMasters,” and while the Doctor and her allies thwarted his original plan, he escaped with the CyberMasters. The companions safely made it back to Earth in another TARDIS (with the outward appearance of a house), but as the Doctor was making her way back to her own TARDIS, she was arrested by the Judoon and taken to a prison somewhere in deep space.

Ending on such a cliffhanger was a bold move, but showrunner Chris Chibnall promised back in March that the Doctor’s current predicament would be addressed in the upcoming holiday special, chock-full of Daleks, exterminations, and “thrills, laughter, and tears.” Chibnall deliberately avoided bringing in classic Doctor Who villains in his first outing as showrunner, although the Doctor and her “fam” defeated a Reconnaissance Dalek that had managed to rebuild itself after a long hibernation in the 2019 holiday special, Resolution.

Chibnall has said this latest holiday special will be both a standalone episode and a sequel to Resolution. “In a sense, that Dalek gives birth to this next iteration,” he told Radio Times.

In the trailer, we see Jo Patterson (Harriet Walters)—who appears to be the British Prime Minister—introducing two Daleks as “defense drones” in front of 10 Downing Street before peering inside one of the shells along with the villainous Jack Robertson (Chris Noth) and his sidekick Leo (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). We’re also getting more Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman)—we last saw him in “Fugitive of the Judoon,” in which he delivered a cryptic message to the Doctor via her companions to “Beware the Lone Cyberman.”

Per the official description:

Viewers last saw the Thirteenth Doctor at the end of season 12, where her fate was left hanging in the balance as she was locked away in a high-security alien prison with no hope of escape. In the upcoming New Year’s Day special, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham are far away on Earth and having to carry on with their lives without her. However, they soon discover a disturbing plan forming. A plan which involves a Dalek. How can you fight a Dalek without the Doctor? Even with Captain Jack’s help, the gang are set to face one of their biggest and most frightening challenges yet.

Alas, it’s been confirmed that Revolution of the Daleks will mark the final appearance of two of the Doctor’s trio of companions over the last two series: Bradley Walsh’s Graham and Tosin Cole’s Ryan. “The fam as a four is no more,” Whittaker said at a recent press conference, pronouncing herself “absolutely devastated” at the cast shakeup. Chibnall was understandably loath to offer many details, particularly on the question of whether the characters might return to the series at some point in the future. But he did say we could expect an emotional exit.

“We’ve all been in tears watching it,” Chibnall said. “It’s a really important part of the mix of the special, lots of thrills, lots of humor, lots of Daleks, and lots of emotions. We don’t shy away from what it means for this family to have its final moments together. I hope it feels like a good send-off for those two characters.”

Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks will air on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2021, at 8pm EST on BBC America.

Listing image by BBC

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Twin Galaxies attacks Billy Mitchell as a fraud in new legal claims

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Enlarge / Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day (left) with Billy Mitchell.

Twin Galaxies is going on the offensive in its long-running legal and public relations battle with Billy Mitchell. In a cross-complaint filed last month, the video game score-tracking organization accuses Mitchell and Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day of a “decades-long pattern of abuse, impropriety, nepotism, and fraud” intended to falsely “manufacture a persona for Billy Mitchell as the greatest video game player of all time.”

They “knew that these score performances were fake”

The counterclaim, filed in response to Mitchell’s own claims of defamation against Twin Galaxies, goes much farther in attacking Mitchell than the organization’s previous statements. In the past, Twin Galaxies’ defense against defamation has narrowly focused on what it says was a good-faith analysis of the tapes Mitchell submitted for three alleged Donkey Kong high scores, which Twin Galaxies no longer recognizes as legitimate.

In the past, the organization was careful not to speak to Mitchell’s potential motives or any actions that may have led to the creation of those tapes. Instead, it focused on technical anomalies in the video itself that led to the determination that “we now believe that they are not from an original unmodified DK arcade PCB.”

In its new counterclaim, though, Twin Galaxies now directly says Mitchell “lacked the requisite natural skill or ability to be the greatest video game player of all time” and accuses Mitchell and Day (collectively referred to as “Old Twin Galaxies” because of their alleged intractable ties to the corporation) of planning to “return Billy Mitchell’s prestige with fraudulent scores.”

“Both Billy Mitchell and Walter Day knew that these score performances were fake,” Twin Galaxies writes in its complaint of the Donkey Kong score tapes. “But [it] still included the scores on the Twin Galaxies Score Database because of their need for self-aggrandization, their avarice, and their desire to create perceived value for the database so that they could one day sell Twin Galaxies and the Twin Galaxies Score Database and take the money for themselves.”

Questioning the first perfect Pac-Man

While much of Twin Galaxies’ complaint focuses on the heavily discussed issues surrounding Mitchell’s Donkey Kong tapes, the complaint goes farther in alleging that Mitchell and Day sought to suppress scores from other competitors and alter rules in order to secure Mitchell’s position atop the scoreboards.

That includes allegedly rejecting claims from other players who had achieved a “perfect” Pac-Man score of 3,333,360 prior to Mitchell’s 1999 record. That allegation, which has made the rounds in high-score circles for years, would undercut Mitchell’s claim to fame as the first to reach that lofty goal.

In other cases, Old Twin Galaxies allegedly suppressed Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. scores to protect Mitchell’s position, including a number of scores that were central to the drama in the 2007 King of Kong documentary.

Legal and financial interests

Mitchell and Day’s alleged manipulation and lying about old scores has become a legal matter, the counterclaim states, in part because the pair “represented and warranted in the Purchase Agreement that the Twin Galaxies Score Database does not contain any untrue, or misleading statements of fact.”

The alleged lies led to “a loss of value of the assets purchased from Old Twin Galaxies, particularly a loss of value in the Twin Galaxies Score Database because of the association with fraudulent scores,” according to the complaint. That alleged fraud also “fomented distrust in many of these important communities toward Twin Galaxies, thereby diminishing its value” without the new owners’ knowledge, the complaint states.

Mitchell (left) and Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day (right) pose with a fan.
Enlarge / Mitchell (left) and Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day (right) pose with a fan.

Beyond the score adjudication allegations, the counterclaim accuses Mitchell and Day of mismanaging the funds of “Old Twin Galaxies” to “[treat] the assets of the corporation as their own by paying personal debts with the corporation’s funds.” According to the complaint, the pair co-mingled their own funds with those of the corporation, made promises of stock offerings that it never intended to keep, and stiffed creditors on multiple debts.

The alleged financial improprieties also extend to a previous 2008 sale of the Twin Galaxies assets to Peter Bouvier. That $200,000 sale was reversed, the counterclaim alleges, when Mitchell and Day “took control of the Twin Galaxies Score Database from Peter Bouvier by exercising undue influence over him while he was incapacitated with Alzheimer’s disease.”

Twin Galaxies says that this counterclaim wouldn’t have been necessary if the organization had won a dismissal in a recent anti-SLAPP motion against Mitchell’s defamation suit. But now that Mitchell’s suit is heading to trial, he has, “in a sense, forced [Twin Galaxies’] hand to pursue these claims” in order to fully defend itself, according to a statement from Twin Galaxies lawyer David Tashroudian.

Mitchell and his lawyers have not responded to a request from Ars for comment on the new allegations. A hearing on the cross-complaint is due to be argued in Los Angeles County Court on December 11.

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Meet the new generation of puzzle-makers bringing mystery to your door

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Enlarge / Luckily in 2020, there may be an at-home puzzle for everyone.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I broke into a museum.

Well, we didn’t break in, exactly. We had keys, so it was more like, you know, a little light trespassing. The keys came from some guy in a hooded cloak standing around outside, but they worked, and the cops never showed up. So, long story short: there’s an artifact sitting in our living room currently, and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it.

The artifact, alas, exists only digitally (for now, at least). And both the keys and the museum were made entirely of paper. My husband and I both wore cozy pajama pants for the break-in slightly unauthorized entry, which took place on our coffee table while I sipped a glass of red wine.

If all this sounds terribly confusing, know that we were playing a game made by the Curious Correspondence Club, a subscription box filled with mysteries instead of with snacks. It was one of a litany of at-home mystery boxes we’ve played through in the past two years, a stack of adventures each positioned somewhere between an escape room, a puzzle, and an alternate reality game. So it’s not unusual that our home remains full of ancient, furled maps and long-lost artifacts pointing the way to solve mysteries of the ages… none of which existed till, roughly speaking, last Thursday.

The birth of a genre

Escape room games have been available at your local board game (or big box) retailer for a few years now, but they’ve got a new cousin in town via a nascent field that sprang almost out of nowhere in the past three years. These experiences are not board games, nor are they tabletop games in the roleplay sense. Some are monthly or quarterly subscriptions; others are bespoke, painstaking designs. Some rely heavily on Internet interaction; others are entirely hand-crafted physical goods.

The entire genre is so new that no two fans or creators seem to agree on what to call it. Enthusiasts have tried “mystery boxes,” “puzzle boxes,” and “at-home escape room,” but no single name seems to have stuck.

“To me, I think the encompassing genre is ‘tabletop puzzle game,'” designer Rita Orlov tells Ars. “Sometimes those are more narrative. Sometimes they’re really just puzzles. Or sometimes it’s a narrative experience and not even really very puzzling. It seems like there are so many subgenres, even in this kind of very niche genre.”

Orlov personally calls her games narrative playable adventures. The Tale of Ord, which she launched in 2018 to near-universal acclaim, is arguably the growing field’s first blockbuster hit. In the two years since, Orlov herself has become as close to a legend as the growing mystery-puzzle-adventure-narrative scene has, earning respect from players and fellow creators alike. (Every single person I talked to for this story suggested, unprompted, that I should speak with Orlov, too.)

PostCurious, Orlov’s company, only ever made 500 copies of Tale of Ord; used editions have become a hot commodity among collectors. The game unfolds over the course of four separate packages and culminates in something of a final exam puzzle that requires you to put together everything you’ve learned over the first three installments in order to solve and unlock a literal, surprisingly sturdy, wooden box. Its popularity has made Tale of Ord a yardstick against which new experiences are often measured, particularly “found object” style games. But only two years later, the competition has indeed heated up.

20 years in the making…

Many of these new experiences weave their fictions tightly into the history and reality in which most of us live. Solutions to puzzles and hints for where to go next will lie in real historical cues or simply within answers you can find on Google. In short, these new concepts are drawing on a decades-old tradition in digital gaming: the ARG, or alternate reality game.

EA tried launching a paid ARG, Majestic, back in 2001. The game was at the time a new concept, blending real-world phone calls, emails, and Internet scavenger hunts with an X-Files-inspired conspiracy theme. As a commercial venture, it was a fairly spectacular flop. As an idea, however, it kicked off something of a trend.

Microsoft commissioned its own ARG, I Love Bees, a few years later as a marketing tool for Halo 2. According to 42 Entertainment, who developed the game, I Love Bees ultimately drew more than three million players into its “fractured narrative.” Video games, too, were also starting to play with the idea, such as French developer Lexis Numérique’s In Memoriam and Evidence: The Last Ritual. Mr. Robot famously partnered with Mozilla for an ARG that clumsily bled into your Web browser in recent years.

That humble thread—”what if…?”—weaving the real and the unreal is now a core part of a countless number of experiences. Some, like Tale of Ord, send you artifacts and ask you to unravel their mystery. Then there are experiences like Club Drosselmeyer, which draw heavily from interactive theater to create an interactive ambience. (More about that in a bit.)

Yacine Merzouk and Michelle Rundbaken between them are the minds behind the Society of Curiosities, which sells a series of loosely linked experiences in a monthly subscription box format, as well as a handful of online-only one-off games. Weaving their created reality into, well, real reality takes some doing, they explained, but the sense of discovery is worth the work.

“When you play, you have to question: is this real? Is this not real?” Rundbaken said. She drew a line to familiar tales that plant breadcrumbs from reality to fabulous findings: “We’re right there watching Indiana Jones and National Treasure and The Goonies, and that’s the feeling we want our players to have—an adventure.”

A sense of immersion is key to making that feeling of discovery really work, Merzouk said, which admittedly “can be a challenge” to create for players who are in their own homes. Society of Curiosities works to allow players to “feel like you’re part of the adventure in a way that doesn’t require you to create a whole new world in your own mind,” he added. “You’re in your own world, discovering things along with your ‘team’ on the ground. Which I think has been fun for our players.”

One of their stories, for example, takes players to an absolutely fictional coffee and tea shop that, frankly, looks delightful. (I expressed repeated frustration to my husband, when we played the game, that I could not in fact visit it.) But making a fake café show up just enough on the real Internet almost didn’t work.

“We had a moment of panic for the Moonbeam Society,” Merzouk admitted. “We were about to launch the game, and it was not ranking on Google yet. There were too many related keywords online, and it’s kind of out of your hands. If you want to build something immersive, and people can search the actual Web, you have to do this [SEO] dance with Google and make sure you get found.”

The trick is to smudge the lines between the game’s reality and the rest of reality just enough, but not too far. “I wanted to make something that was blurring the lines between fantasy and reality,” Orlov said, describing The Tale of Ord, as well as her upcoming game, The Emerald Flame. “I try to keep the game elements kind of obvious, because I had played a couple things before where I didn’t really know where the edge was, and it ended up being really frustrating.”

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