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15 Things We Miss About Old-School Gaming

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With last year's release of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, the next generation of video game consoles is already underway. It’s a far cry from the 8-bit escapades that gamers of a certain age grew up on, so let's take a nostalgic glance back at what we miss most about the good old days.

1. Blowing on cartridges

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If something with your spanking-new eighth generation console goes wrong then you’ll probably need a team of NASA trained scientists to fix things for you. That wasn’t the case in the late '80s and early '90s, however, when millions of gamers worldwide grew up thinking that blowing enthusiastically onto the connectors of their cartridge was the cure for all console-based ills. And it worked! Well, kind of. (Lots more on that here.)

2. Cartridge art

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While we’re on the subject of cartridges, let's not forget the artwork that adorned their exteriors. Sure, modern Blu-rays are amazing, but once you’ve taken them out of their box, they’re just uninspired metallic discs. There were no such problems with cartridges, however, which came complete with gorgeously illustrated labels you could still see even when they were slotted into your console.

3. Hint hotlines

Amazingly, people actually got paid to man phone lines offering hints and tips on the latest games. It was a pretty aspirational job too, provided you were a teenage boy with little or no concept of what being a grown-up actually entailed.

4. Entering your initials on the scoreboard

Games Database

Few things in life can replicate the thrill of seeing your initials rise to the top of the scoreboard, even if it’s on your home console where the only person you’ve knocked off of the top perch is your older sibling.

5. Ludicrous accessories

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The entertainment arms race saw Sega and Nintendo release a bewildering array of accessories designed to swallow up the hard-earned allowances of their impressionable audiences. They ranged from the sublime (Sega’s Menacer scope), to the ridiculous (the Mario Paint mouse), to the utterly absurd (NES Power Glove).

6. In-built games

America didn’t take to Sega’s Master System, even when it was reissued with a game—the oddly hallucinogenic Alex Kidd in Miracle World—built directly into the console itself.

7. Zero load time

No menus, no loading bars, no annoying graphic advertising the brand you’ve already handed over hundreds of hard-earned dollars to every time you hit the on button. In fact, after flicking the hefty switch marked ‘power,’ there were no load times whatsoever on classic consoles, which was perfect for those of us who were always trying to squeeze in just one more game before bedtime.

8. Manuals the size of novels

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When it came to playing the games of yesteryear, there were no on-screen hints or in-built tutorials to guide you through the gameplay; some games came complete with manuals that had to be studied before you could even consider inserting the cartridge into your console. Crammed full of maps, diagrams and blank pages where you could scribble your in-game notes, these weighty tomes were a major part of the new game experience, an added layer of anticipation that gamers could peruse while feigning interest in everyone else’s gifts on Christmas morning.

9. Tangled controllers

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There was a certain art to untangling controller connectors, a propensity for which might earmark gamers as potential naval recruits from an early age. Sure, the tangled web of wires could be frustrating, but at least their batteries didn’t run out.

10. Not being able to save your progress

DerSchmu, YouTube

There were no save points and no second chances when it came to completing games of old. Instead, reaching the end credits required skill, commitment, and probably a smattering of Chaos Emeralds for good measure.

11. Gameplay over graphics

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Without the ability to create photorealistic worlds that make everyday life look positively mundane by comparison, developers had to prioritize gameplay over graphics. The result was a slew of side-scrolling masterpieces—eminently enjoyable games that are still being played more than 30 years later.

12. Cheats

From the Konami code to the blood cheat from Mortal Kombat, rapidly pressing buttons in a seemingly random combination was a dark art many early console gamers were keen to master.

13. Glitches

Before Internet connections enabled developers to fix things on the fly, games were inevitably shipped with all manner of weird and wonderful glitches. No one liked getting stuck in a wall in Zelda of course, but nevertheless these became an oddly beloved part of the gaming experience. They even began to become legitimate game features, as was the case in the Mortal Kombat franchise where a kaleidoscopic array of new characters became a part of subsequent installments after starting life as graphical glitches.

14. End of level bosses

Sure they were tough, but final bosses were a rite of passage for many gamers, particularly at a time when a propensity for besting the likes of Dr Robotnik and M.Bison could elevate your social status quicker than a hand-me-down biker jacket ever could.

15. The word "joystick"

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Aptly named, the joystick was the carpal tunnel-inducing controller through which many a gamer experienced adolescence. The world is a darker place without them.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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