Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Every gamer with a disability faces a unique challenge for many reasons, one of which is the relative dearth of accessibility-focused peripherals for consoles. Microsoft is taking a big step towards fixing this with its Xbox Adaptive Controller, a device created to address the needs of gamers for whom ordinary gamepads aren’t an option.

The XAC, revealed officially at a recent event but also leaked a few days ago, is essentially a pair of gigantic programmable buttons and an oversized directional pad. 3.5mm ports on the back let a huge variety of assistive devices like blow tubes, pedals, and Microsoft-made accessories plug in.

It’s not meant to be an all-in-one solution by any means, more like a hub that allows gamers with disabilities to easily make and adjust their own setups with a minimum of hassle. Whatever you’re capable of, whatever’s comfortable, whatever gear you already have, the XAC is meant to enable it.

I’d go into detail, but it would be impossible to do better than Microsoft’s extremely interesting and in-depth post introducing the XAC, which goes into the origins of the hardware, the personal stories of the testers and creators, and much more. Absolutely worth taking the time to read.

I look forward to hearing more about the system and how its users put it to use, and I’m glad to see inclusivity and accessibility being pursued in such a practical and carefully researched manner.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Japanese gamers and manga aficionados and every combination thereof will get a treat this summer with the release of a NES Classic Edition loaded with games from the pages of Weekly Jump. The beloved manga mag is celebrating its 50th anniversary and this solid gold Famicom is part of the festivities.

There’s basically no chance this Jump-themed NES will get a release in the US — first because hardly any Americans will have read any of these manga (with a couple exceptions) and second because even fewer will have played the Famicom games associated with them.

Familiar… and yet…

That said, this nurtures the hope inside me that we will at some point see other themed NES Classics; the original has, of course, a fantastic collection — but there are dozens more games I would have loved to see on there.

You can hack the thing pretty easily and put half the entire NES library on it, but Nintendo’s official versions will have been tested and perhaps even tweaked to make sure they run perfectly (though admittedly emulation problems aren’t common for NES games).

More importantly it’s possible these hypothetical themed consoles may come with new accessories that I desperately need, like a NES Advantage, Zapper (not sure how it would work), or NES Max. Perhaps even a Power Glove?

In the meantime, at least if you missed the chance to buy one the first time around, you can grab one come the end of June.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Nintendo has finally revealed the details of its paid online service after months of speculation by fans. The pricing is pretty much as expected ($20 per year), but the additions of online save game backups and NES games with added online multiplayer sweeten the deal.

We first heard the pricing last June, including the $3.99 monthly and $7.99 3-month options, but the announcement then left much to the imagination. This one makes things much clearer, but there are still a few mysteries it will perhaps clear up at E3 or closer to the September launch.

Save data being backed up online is perhaps the most asked-for feature on the Switch, and one other platforms have provided for years. So its official announcement will surely be greeted with cries of joy. The exact details are coming soon.

But it’s the online play for NES games that really caught my eye. Officially called “NES – Nintendo Switch Online,” it will be a collection of 10 games to start and 10 more to come, all of which can be played in both single- and multi-player modes online. How that looks exactly isn’t quite clear; the Nintendo release says “Depending on the game, players can engage in online competitive or co-op multiplayer, or take turns controlling the action.”

Does that mean we’ll have leaderboards? Ghost runs in Super Mario Bros 3? Low-latency battles in Balloon Fight? No clue.

At least the first 10 games are confirmed: Balloon Fight, Dr. Mario and Super Mario Bros. 3, Donkey Kong, Ice Climber, The Legend of Zelda, Mario Bros., Soccer, Super Mario Bros. and Tennis. The other 10 will supposedly be announced soon, with more added “on a regular basis.”

Those are of course all Nintendo-made games, suggesting licensing negotiations are still underway for classics like Final Fantasy and Double Dragon. For now it’s a package deal, you can’t just buy Soccer and play it unless you go for the full online experience.

The $20 per year subscription will also be necessary starting in September for online play. It might be a bit much to ask if you don’t play a lot of Splatoon or Mario Kart 8 or aren’t so into retro NES games, but it’s sure cheaper than the competition.

If you want to talk with your friends while trading off Zelda dungeons, you’ll still need the smartphone app, though. Perhaps a chat service will be announced another time.

A couple technical notes: the subscription is tied to an account, not the hardware, so if you and I shared a Switch and only I paid for the online aspect, you don’t get it when you log in. On the other hand, when I go to a friend’s house, I can log in to their device and use online services there. There is a $35 yearly option that lets you authorize up to 8 accounts though, for families with multiple users.

The Switch Online service isn’t needed for system updates or buying games online or anything — just online play, the NES games, and save game backups.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel are building a tic-tac-toe game to help patients with their rehabilitation exercises. The game is played on a grid of boxes and includes “embodied” and non-embodied play. Embodied play means a robotic arm will grab and place a marker – in this case a small cup – and non-embodied play includes bright lights that light up to mark the computer’s spot.

The system uses a Kinova arm and cups. The cups are part of the rehabilitation process and help users learn to grasp and manipulate objects after an illness or accident.

“Playing Tic Tac Toe with a set of cups (instead of X’s and O’s) is one example of a game that can help rehabilitate an upper limb,” said Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek. “A person can pick up and place many cups while enjoying a game and improving their performance of a daily task.”

Interestingly the speed of the robot had an effect on the users. A slower robot would make users perform more slowly while a faster robot sped up the game. This could be used to modify the game for individual patients and individual needs. Because the robot never gets tired the rehabilitation staff can pay attention to the minute movements of a patient, catering the speed and type of play as appropriate for their specific rehabilitation regimens.

The research paper appeared in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

The Nintendo Switch may soon be a haven for hackers, but not the kind that want your data — the kind that want to run SNES emulators and Linux on their handheld gaming consoles. A flaw in an Nvidia chip used by the Switch, detailed today, lets power users inject code into the system and modify it however they choose.

The exploit, known as Fusée Gelée, was first hinted at by developer Kate Temkin a few months ago. She and others at ReSwitched worked to prove and document the exploit, sending it to Nvidia and Nintendo, among others.

Although responsible disclosure is to be applauded, it won’t make much difference here: this flaw isn’t the kind that can be fixed with a patch. Millions of Switches are vulnerable, permanently, to what amounts to a total jailbreak; only new ones with code tweaked at the factory will be immune.

That’s because the flaw is baked into the read-only memory of the Nvidia Tegra X1 used in the Switch and a few other devices. It’s in the “Boot and Power Management Processor” to be specific, where a misformed packet sent during a routine USB device status check allows the connected device to send up to 64 kibibytes (65,535 bytes) of extra data that will be executed without question. You need to get into recovery mode first, but that’s easy.

As you can imagine, getting arbitrary code to run on a device that deep in its processes is a huge, huge vulnerability. Fortunately it’s only available to someone with direct, physical access to the Switch. But that in itself makes it an extremely powerful tool for anyone who wants to modify their own console.

Modding consoles is done for many reasons, and indeed piracy is among them. But people also want to do things Nintendo won’t let them, like back up their saved games, run custom software like emulators, or extend the capabilities of the OS beyond the meager features the company has provided.

Temkin and her colleagues had planned to release the vulnerability publicly on June 15 or when someone releases the vulnerability independent of them — whichever came first. It turned out to be the latter, which apparently came as a surprise to no one in the community. The X1 exploit seems to have been something of an open secret.

The exploit was released anonymously by some hacker and Temkin accordingly published the team’s documentation of it on GitHub. If that’s too technical, there’s also some more plain-language chatter about the flaw in a FAQ posted earlier this month. I’ve asked Temkin for a few more details.

In addition to Temkin, failOverflow announced a small device that will short a pin in the USB connector and put the device into recovery mode, prepping it for exploitation. And Team-Xecuter was advertising a similar hardware attack months ago.

The answer to the most obvious question is no, you can’t just fire this up and start playing Wave Race 64 (or a pirated Zelda) on your Switch 15 minutes from now. The exploit still requires technical ability to implement, though as with many other hacks of this type, someone will likely graft it to a nice GUI that guides ordinary users through the process. (It certainly happened with the NES and SNES Classic Editions.)

Although the exploit can’t be patched away with a software update, Nintendo isn’t powerless. It’s likely that a modified Switch would be barred from the company’s online services (such as they are) and possibly the user’s account as well. So although the hacking process is, compared with the soldering required for modchips of decades past, low on risk, it isn’t a golden ticket.

That said, Fusée Gelée will almost certainly open the floodgates for developers and hackers who care little for Nintendo’s official ecosystem and would rather see what they can get this great piece of hardware to do on their own.

I’ve asked Nintendo and Nvidia for comment and will update when I hear back.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

If you’ve worked through the amazing selection of games provided by the NES and SNES Classic Editions, you may be in luck: SNK, the legendary arcade game creator behind the likes of Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown, is teasing what looks like its own tiny arcade cabinet.

Teased as part of the company’s 40th anniversary, the shrouded gadget definitely doesn’t look like a NEO-GEO, or even a NEO-GEO Pocket. Gizmodo notes that the description mentions a “new game machine,” but no details beyond that. The tall, boxy outline suggests a small arcade cabinet, and the slab in front of it looks a lot like an arcade controller.

It wouldn’t be a particularly original creation — there are dozens of tiny arcade cabinets with built-in games, but the truth is, none of them is particularly good. They’re novelties, perfectly fun for a laugh, but the hardware — compared with the impressive solidity of real arcade controllers and the NEO-GEO’s itself — just isn’t there.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is an arcade cabinet-style console with improved internals, a decent screen to accommodate games newer than 1996 and a separate, perhaps even wireless arcade controller. Price… I’d put it at $200 or $250. Extra controller (and you’ll want it), my guess is $60. I could easily be way off, though. Maybe they’d even let us plug in our old Tanksticks?

An original NEO-GEO controller. You can feel the sturdiness from where you sit.

Inside, you’ll probably find a generous helping of SNK classics, likely limited to arcade and NEO-GEO titles. Even without SNK’s classic games for home consoles like the NES, my eyes were watering as I scrolled down the list of games the company has put out and which may end up on this device.

King of the Monsters 2? Last Resort? Twinkle Star Sprites? King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown and all the other fighters? Not to mention Metal Slug and its sequels. The amount of quarters I’ve sunk into these fantastic, beautiful games is uncountable.

If SNK is smart, they’ll make it possible to add new games to the system, too. There are plenty to choose from, as the company catered to a number of niches. Having them available for a few bucks each would be a dream — and anyway, if this isn’t a possibility, people will just hack new ROMs onto the system.

Whatever the case is, you can be sure I’m already jockeying for position to review the thing. I’ll let you know the second I hear anything.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Matt Burns

Just like Nintendo before it, Sega is releasing a mini version of its iconic Mega Drive game system. The system is supposed to be available sometime in 2018 and the company also announced at least 15 classic Sega games will hit the Switch this summer to celebrate the system’s 30th anniversary.

Sega turned to AtGames to build the hardware according to this Facebook post. AtGames had previously built the shoddy Sega Genesis Flashback so hopefully this system will be better than that version. Nintendo paid attention to the details in its retro systems and it showed. The mini NES and SNES are lovely throwbacks that bring the best of past to the present — I just wish the controllers had longer cords.

Growing up I had an SNES because my parents thought Sega games were too violent. Basically, Killer Instinct instead of Mortal Kombat. I hope I can handle Scorpion’s finishing moves now.

If that’s not enough nostalgia, Sega Ages series producer Kagasei Shimomura hints Sega Dreamcast games could also hit the Switch, which if happens, could bring Phantasy Star Online or Jet Set Radio to Nintendo’s system.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

The record-setting score that settled the Donkey Kong arcade rivalry, made famous by the documentary The King of Kong, has been invalidated by Twin Galaxies, the de facto arbiter of arcade world records. What’s more, Billy Mitchell, the occasionally controversial player who set the scores, has been permanently banned from consideration for future records.

It’s a huge upset that calls into question decades of history. Will other similarly disputed scores get the ax? Are any old-school arcade legends safe?

Before anything, it should be noted that although this sounds like kind of a random niche issue, the classic gaming scene is huge and millions follow it closely and take it very seriously. Breaking a high score on a 30-year-old game or shaving a quarter second off a record time can and will be celebrated as if the player has won an Olympic medal. One can never underestimate the size or sincerity of online communities. Cheating is, of course, not tolerated.

With that said, it’s worth considering that Billy Mitchell’s case is unique. He is undoubtedly a highly skilled player and has been setting records since the ’80s. But, as anyone who watched The King of Kong will have learned, he’s also a bit shady and his Donkey Kong acumen is far from established.

The issue is simply that despite having provided tapes of games setting records — including being the first to break a million in Donkey Kong — no one has seen him play like that in person.

That may sound like a red flag, but in the speedrunning and record setting community a great deal of practice happens alone, in an empty arcade, or otherwise with no credible witnesses (though Twitch has changed that). You could set a world record while in the zone after getting home from work, but it doesn’t count unless it’s reviewed and accredited by a neutral party. Twin Galaxies is the largest organization performing that duty and they take it very seriously indeed.

The final score on Mitchell’s disputed tape showing in The King of Kong (the leading 1 is omitted because the digits roll over when you reach a million).

You may remember that at the end of The King of Kong, Mitchell reestablishes his supremacy over plucky local kid Steve Wiebe with a “direct capture” tape of a run scoring 1,047,200 points. There are no witnesses to this game. Shortly after this, he also recorded a 1,050,200 score, also not witnessed. And just a week before being inducted into the International Video Game Hall of Fame in Iowa, he set records in both Donkey Kong (1,062,800) and Donkey Kong 2.

Now here’s where things get dicey (and nerdy).

Jeremy Young, aka Xelnia, put together the official two-part complaint on Twin Galaxies. For one part of it, he mentioned the suspicions some already had regarding the evidence set forth of the last and highest score Mitchell set, in an arcade called Boomers.

As others had already pointed out, not only are the run itself and resulting score not shown in the video, but the referee is among the least reliable, the timeline is unclear, among other things. Most damning, however, it is clear that when Mitchell’s confederate ostentatiously “swaps out” the Donkey Kong board (so it can be verified elsewhere) for a Donkey Kong Jr one (which Mitchell supposedly later set a record on), both PCBs were in fact the latter.

Twin Galaxies user Robert.F explained the differences in charming internet forum argot:

to a UN-trained train eye Dk and DKjr look the same and in fact they are vary similar, except for a few noticeable differences…the DK pcb has white text on the pcb and the Dk jr has banana yellow text printed on the board ,, the DK pcb is 1/2 digital and 1/2 Analog sound and there is a adjustment pot on the dk pcb for the Analog sound`s, The Dk Jr board is fully digital and has no Analog sound adjustment pot in the exact same position on the dkjr board, and the 3rd noticeable differences and you will see; it if you review the video carefully Dk has the same ROM socket lay out and the same number of sockets as a Dkjr pcb ,, But DKjr has one of them ROM socket empty ,,,,,,

But these circumstantial issues could be explained as a bit of confusion in the moment, a misspoken word in their excitement, and so on. Fortunately, that wasn’t the extent of the evidence.

As you may know, emulators are a type of application made to run old software (like arcade games) as closely as possible to how it ran on the original hardware. MAME is by far the most complex and perhaps the best known emulator; this amazing app can emulate everything from Donkey Kong to much more recent games with complex 3D graphics. Of course MAME runs aren’t accepted for world records — you could easily manipulate the software or even the game data itself. Real arcade hardware is required.

But MAME isn’t perfect; there are tiny differences in how it displays graphics — things you wouldn’t notice unless you were watching a game frame by frame looking for them in particular.

Which is exactly what people started doing with Mitchell’s no-witnesses, only-on-video scores.

It turns out that the original Donkey Kong PCBs had a specific method of rendering a scene during graphics transitions called a “sliding door effect,” distinctive in the pattern of how pixels are updated. But careful inspection of Mitchell’s tapes showed not a sliding door, but instead a distinctive artifact of MAME emulation whereby the frame is rendered in chunks according to how the data is loaded from memory.

You can see the similarity in the GIFs below, provided as evidence by Young.

First is footage of an actual machine taken at 60FPS. Note the diagonal “sliding door” that reveals the scene from the top left downwards:

Next, Mitchell’s 1,050,200 run:

Last, how MAME renders a similar scene:

See how the ladders come in all at once in that pattern, and there’s no sliding door? As you can tell, it’s something of a smoking gun. Certainly Twin Galaxies investigators thought so. In their conclusions, issued today on the forums, they wrote (emphasis theirs):

The taped Donkey Kong score performances of 1,047,200 (the King of Kong “tape”), 1,050,200 (the Mortgage Brokers score) that were historically used by Twin Galaxies to substantiate those scores and place them in the database were not produced by the direct feed output of an original unmodified Donkey Kong Arcade PCB.

They decline to go so far as saying they know it was MAME, but that’s a mere scruple — everyone understands it’s the most likely situation. Regardless, the very fact that Mitchell passed off non-authentic footage as real is more than enough to strike his scores and, as they also announce, ban him from further placement anywhere in the system.

Perhaps more importantly, Steve Wiebe, the underdog challenger in The King of Kong, has been elevated to become the first player to actually hit a million points in the game. Better late than never! Belated congratulations to Wiebe. (Wikipedia has already been updated.)

Mitchell, on the other hand, has remained out of sight during the investigation that has gone on these last few months, and has essentially been ruined for good in the arcade world. Even if he were to set a world record today (and existing record holders doubt he has the skill to do so based on reviewing his play), it would be tainted by years of proven deception. The community won’t forgive him.

And that’s the worry others are voicing: will the investigators come for other scores that for years have been venerated but have not been verified as strictly as modern records are? Will, for example, any score without an accredited witness or reliable recording be removed from the lists?

In their decision, Twin Galaxies’ authorities write:

Twin Galaxies is dedicated to absolutely rooting out invalid scores from our historic database wherever we find them.

Our methodic approach has allowed many things to surface, not only related to this specific score, but other scores as well as some previously never-before-discussed video game related history.

We must repeat, the truth is the priority. That is the concern. Whatever it takes.

This dispute is closed, and a controversial but nevertheless legendary gaming figure covered in shame (or he should be if he has any). Who will be next? Regardless of who falls, the community will no doubt continue to thrive; the passion for these old games is undying and as new generations have shown, not limited to an aging cohort of Gen-Xers striving to extend a bygone era of glory (though admittedly they are a big part of it).

If this strange saga interested you anywhere near as much as it interested me, go ahead and dive in. You might find you have a new hobby. Just don’t try to fake it. And by the way, the current top score in Donkey Kong is 1,247,700, set just two months ago by Robbie Lakeman. Good luck.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

The days of reading the small print to see whether a repair or new part for your ailing laptop will void its warranty may be coming to an end. The FTC has officially warned several companies that their policies of ceasing support when a user attempts “non-approved” repairs or servicing are likely illegal.

It’s the sort of thing where if you buy a device or car from a company, they inform you that unless you use approved, often internally branded parts, you’re voiding the warranty and your item will no longer be supported by the company.

The idea is that a company doesn’t want to be on the hook when a user replaces an old, perfectly good stick of RAM with a new, crappy one and then comes crying to them when the computer won’t boot. Or, in a more dire situation, replaces the brakes with some off-brand ones, which then fail and cause an accident. So there’s a reason these restrictions exist.

Unfortunately, they’ve come to encompass far more than these dangerous cases; perhaps you replace the RAM and then the power supply burns out — that’s not your fault, but because you didn’t use approved RAM the company takes no responsibility for the failure. The result is consumers end up having to buy components or servicing at inflated prices from “licensed” or “approved” dealers.

“Provisions that tie warranty coverage to the use of particular products or services harm both consumers who pay more for them as well as the small businesses who offer competing products and services,” explained Thomas Pahl, from the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in the announcement.

The agency gave several examples of offending language in customer agreements, blanking out the names of the companies. Ars Technica was quick to connect these with the major companies they correspond to: Hyundai, Nintendo and Sony. Here are the statements the FTC didn’t like, with the company names in bold where they were blank before.

  • The use of Hyundai parts is required to keep your . . . manufacturer’s warranties and any extended warranties intact.
  • This warranty shall not apply if this product . . . is used with products not sold or licensed by Nintendo.
  • This warranty does not apply if this product . . . has had the warranty seal on the PS4 altered, defaced, or removed.

It’s one thing to say, don’t overclock your PS4 or we won’t cover it. It’s quite another to say if the warranty seal has been “defaced” then we won’t cover it.

“Such statements generally are prohibited by the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act,” the FTC announcement reads, and in addition “may be deceptive under the FTC Act.” The companies have 30 days to modify their policies.

This could be a major win for consumers: more repairs and service locations would be allowed under warranty, and modders of game consoles may be able to indulge their hobby without trying to hide it from the manufacturer. That will depend on the new phrasing of the companies’ policies, but this attention from the FTC will at the very least nudge things in the right direction.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Darrell Etherington

SteelSeries has two new Arctis Pro gaming headsets out, and they pack a lot of tech and versatility into a comfortable, visually attractive package. The SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless and Arctis Pro + GameDAC are both incredibly capable headsets that deliver terrific sound, and depending on your system needs, should probably be your first choice when looking for new gaming audio gear.

The Arctis Pro Wireless is, true to its name, wire-free, but also promises lossless 2.4GHz transmission to ensure lag-free audio, too – a must for competitive gaming. The combination of the wireless functionality, the long-wearing comfort of the suspension system headband and the included transmitter base that can hold and charge a swappable battery as well as display all key information on an OLED readout makes this a standout choice.

There are some limitations, however – compatibility is limited to either PS4 or PC for this one, for instance. The wired Arctis Pro (without GameDAC) is compatible with the Xbox One, but both the wireless version and the version that connected to the wired DAC will only work with either Sony’s latest consoles or with a Windows or Mac-based gaming PC.

I’m a bit saddened by that since I’m a big fan of PUBG on Xbox, and also lately of Sea of Thieves, but I also do regularly play PS4 and PC games, and the Arctis Pro Wireless is my weapon of choice now when using either, either for multiplayer or single player games. The wearability and sound quality (which includes DTS X 7.1 surround on PC) is so good that I’ll often opt to use them in place of my actual 5.1 physical surround system, even when I don’t need to chat with anyone.

Other options, like the Turtle Beach Elite Pro Tournament Headset, offer different advantages including more easily accessible fine-tune control over soundscape, balance of chat and game audio and other features, but the SteelSeries offers a less complicated out-of-box experience, and better all-day wearability thanks to taking cues from athletic wear for its materials and design.

The GameDAC option additionally has Hi-Res Audio certificate, which is good if you’re looking to stream FLAC files or high-res audio from services like Tidal. The DAC itself also makes all audio sound better overall, and gives you more equalization options from the physical controller .

The main thing to consider with the Arctis Pro + DAC ($249.99) and the Arctis Pro Wireless ($329.99) is the cost. They’re both quite expensive relative to the overall SteelSeries lineup and those of competitors, too. But in this case, cost really is reflective of quality – channel separation and surround virtualization is excellent on these headsets, and the mic sounds great to other players I talked to as well. Plus, the Pro Wireless can connect to both Bluetooth and the 2.4GHz transmitter simultaneously, so you can use it with your phone as well as your console, and the retractable mic keeps things looking fairly stylish, too.