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MrCHUP0N Blog

Guess That Common Thread - Get a Banner

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I'm bored at the moment, so...

What's the common thread between these games? I've got a specific one in mind, though you might find another. First one to guess what I'm thinking gets a special banner made by me that says you're a champion.

Yeah.

Champion of what, I don't know yet. Guessing things, I guess?

Soukyuugurentai (Arcade, Saturn)
Tactics Ogre (SNES, PSone)
Final Fantasy Tactics (PSone)
Radiant Silvergun (Arcade, Saturn)
Ogre Battle 64 (N64)
Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis (GBA)
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA)
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (PS2)
Gradius V (PS2)
Final Fantasy XII (PS2)
Vagrant Story (PSone)
Ogre Battle (SNES, PSone, Saturn)

Shadow of the Colossus - 4 down, 12 to go

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I finally cracked open that copy of Shadow of the Colossus that AnTiPoDe dropped on me as a Christmas '05 gift. "Riveting" doesn't begin to describe my experience after downing four of the giant beasts. It's truly a unique gameplay experience that I've rarely found elsewhere. Sure, the concept of defeating "boss monsters" almost exclusively has been done before in titles such as Alien Soldier on the Genesis/Megadrive (hoping for a Virtual Console version!), and also the recent Gamecube release Chaos Field. But none offer as harrowing an experience as clinging on for dear life while a mighty, 50-foot tall monstrosity tries to shake me loose.

It's pretty for sure - in still images, that is. The stylized art design used for the main protagonist - seemingly a mix between cartoon-like and realistic shading - gives him a unique, almost glowing aura as he bounds about the many green fields and rocky mountainsides that the game has to offer. The spoofed HDR effects are pure beauty and have got to be a first for any Playstation 2 title.

It all comes at a price, however. Yeah, you've no doubt heard about the slideshow jokes. The framerate really does get turd-ular - and not just during the actual colossus battles. Every time you defeat one of the colossi, you are transported back to the sanctuary. Run around a bit and you'll notice the framerate dip from within the sanctuary - with no enemies or other characters around. The sheer level of detail in the sanctuary causes the framerate to drop when the camera pans to certain areas! This is a testament both to the attention the dev team paid to the structure AND the ineptitude of the hardware at handling this much heat. If it weren't for the intriguing climb-the-hairy-beast gameplay, I'd say this is a classic example of high-concept design at the sacrifice of playability. It's fortunate that actually bringing down the colossi manages to be fun even with the framerate dips.

If you ask me, I could live without the HDR and I'd brush off blurry textures and somewhat blocky structures as necessary sacrifices for a smooth, consistent framerate. And the next time someone decides to make a huge, boss-only, climb-a-monster title, please - please fix the camera. I like to see where I'm going, thanks.

From my experience so far, while I'd have to disagree with the plethora of awards thrown at this game during GDC 2006, it's something that every PS2 owner should give a try at least for its unique concept. But be forewarned: lots of patience is required.

A First Impressions write-up on Trigames right here.

Nifty link (if you didn't notice it above): Below is an article by the developers (I think?) detailing the making of this game, including how they got the HDR effect to work on the PS2. Find it here:

http://www.dyingduck.com/sotc/making_of_sotc.html

I can't drive.

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I sure as hell do love me some GT Legends, though.

Seriously, congratulations to SimBin and 10tacle Studios for a remarkable production. I'm the furthest thing from a car nut you'll ever find - I tinker inside the cases of PCs, not under the hoods of cars. But after getting Forza Motorsport (for a cool $12 I might add) and totally loving the proverbial crap out of it, even though so far - as a truly horrid driver in real life - I must have attempted all the courses four times each just to get a good ranking on Easy, I decided that racing sims should be the next genre I try to fully explore alongside strategy.

I read reviews on GT Legends from Gamespot and PC Gamer, and even though I never trust reviews for opinions, the factual information presented was laid out well enough for me to run out and hunt this sucker down. Of course, my first race on the Easy difficulty level had my car spinning around in 360s and I was subsequently put out of contention. I guessed there were some places you just don't go, but I was determined to make the Sim Racing club one that I could get into without much haranguing from its bouncer.

GT Legends has stunning graphics with an in-car view very, very similar to that of Project Gotham Racing 3. The only difference here is that it's not as nearly photorealistic. In fact, I don't think my side rear-view reflects at all. Perhaps it's a setting I have to turn on. And the windshield doesn't project glass flaws such as dust. No matter, it's still a very immersive experience, and considering I'm using an Xbox 360 Wired USB Controller to play it, it's the closest thing a PC gamer will get to PGR3. For those who like sims over style, it may be even better.

So, here's to yet another game that has helped dragged me into a genre that normally I would have no business playing. Guitar Hero and Forza, meet the newest member of your little club.

Do You Want More?

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There's something alluring about Guitar Hero. It must seriously be the Playstation 2 game that I've played the most, even more than Gradius V and Onimusha 2 - which were the only PS2 games I'd played with any regularity up until that point. I could do a rough estimate of the time I spent - 30 songs, average four minutes each multiplied by three difficulty levels (I didn't bother with Easy) comes out to six hours just to play through it. This doesn't factor in the indie tracks. This doesn't factor in the multiplayer. This doesn't factor in the numerous retries and the countless amount of times I've been trying to get Bark at the Moon complete on Expert - I still haven't beaten it yet. I would probably estimate that my total time spent on that game is between 12 and 15 hours.

That's not really a lot, but consider two things:

(a) I play my Gamecube and Project Gotham Racing 2 (no, I'm not in J Allard's Eych-Dee era yet) with far more consistency than any PS2 game.

(b) With all the writing for Trigames, Community Contributions Union participation, and real-life job effort I'm involved in, I have the littlest amount of time in the world to actually play games.

Recently, I've been on a Strategy Game hunting spree. I went downloading video reviews of Civilization IV, Age of Empires III, Age of Wonders 2, and WarCraft III - more to come, surely - in an attempt to finally plant my foot firmly in the genre. The Advance Wars series and Age of Empires on the Nintendo DS really got me interested in turn-based strategy. It's just that my interest is culminating at this boiling point now where I have to seek out any and every (somewhat newbie-friendly) strategy title to see what the rest of the fuss is all about.

When I bought Project Gotham Racing 2 many months back when Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition was released, I found myself using my Xbox more than I'd ever imagined I would. It had me hooked more than Visual Concepts' NBA 2K series. The only racers I really played before that were simply arcade-style power sliders. But after that, I relished the semi-real feel that PGR2 provided while still letting me get loose once in a while. I got Forza Motorsport and - again - I was overwhelmed with joy at trying out this realistic style that I had been too chicken to try before. Sure, I stunk - but I wanted to learn it. I wanted to get better.

These three ideas have a connection - I swear. The binding force between my yammering is that I've realized how - well - bored I was with videogames. Let's clarify. "Bored" is probably too harsh of a word for what I'm trying to describe, but I suppose it best conveys just why I've been reaching out to try new genres that I never touched before. It best helps me realize why I relish Guitar Hero so much.

These things are new to me. I want more.

I've been playing Black and 24: The Game recently, and that feeling of sameness washed over me. Red Faction on steroids and Winback starring Jack Bauer, I cynically (and possibly irrationally) thought. For the life of me, I can't go back and finish Super Mario Sunshine. Sameness. Eventually, I'll get equally as tired of the strategy and driving games that I'll inevitably be inundated with.

Even Final Fantasy XII - something that I'd anticipated so highly that I refused to spoil myself by playing the demo in the Dragon Quest VIII package - is starting to slip out of my mind very quickly. Sameness.

I want more. Different. I want more different.

Aside from my butchering of grammatical correctness, you can see what I'm getting at with that statement. I'm growing restless and impatient. I want to gobble up different gaming experiences. New, fresh, innovative. I suppose that's why I've been playing my Nintendo DS the most out of every piece of video game equipment I own, but even then - what did we just get? Another iteration of Super Monkey Ball, a sequel to Feel the Magic, and yet another port of the original Resident Evil.

Bring on the Nintendo Revolution, already. Get Sony to give me some crazy EyeToy game - and not the throwaway minigame packs, but something more involved and focused. Hurry up and bring over Brain Age for the DS (along with that tasty, tasty new DS Lite). Where's my Loco Roco already?

The games that I've known and played for the past 19 years will never die. I'll never stop having fun with them. But as the same types of games keep coming and coming in torrents, thanks EA by the way, I'll always be having fun while wistfully wishing for something different. Spoiled? Certainly. Different = better? Not necessarily. But throw a little spice in there. Give me a little Killer 7 with my Resident Evil more often. Give the God of War a Heroic Guitar more often. Encourage Orta and Master Chief to snort a little bit of Phantom Dust (which I still have to open) with more regularity.

I suppose as long as cash rules everything around me, "more different" is a dream that's far away. Still, one can pray for a Revolution.

GBA Movie Player Version 2 (aka M2) - Tested, Reviewed

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[This article was originally written for and published in Trigames.NET by MrCHUP0N]

"A good and cool device for your GBA" is what the GBA Movie Player claims to be. But by reading that, right off the bat you can tell that you might be in for something that's less than... legitimate. Delving into the device's instruction manual, complete with broken Engrish, further solidifies this fear of getting an equally broken device. However, the GBA Movie Player may  appeal to some who are willing to forego high quality results for the benefit of launching movies, music, text files, photos, (illegal) NES ROMs and homebrew applications all from your Gameboy Advance (or Nintendo DS) ... for a mere $25.

The GBA Movie Player we're looking at today is actually the CompactFlash version of the second of three current releases. The first version was bulky and uncomfortable to use. The third version is said to take full advantage of the Nintendo DS hardware to mend some of the problems we'll be looking at with this version, but is in very low distribution and sells for a whopping $100. Both the second and third revisions are said to come in a CompactFlash version and a SecureDigital version. This second version, which is also known as the M2, combines a small form factor with a very appealing price. There are imposters on the market, of course, so be wary when making your purchase decision.

The GBA Movie Player is about the size of a Gameboy Color cartridge, and similarly juts out about 3/4s of an inch from your GBA, GBA SP, GBmicro and DS when plugged in. The CompactFlash card fits snugly into the player, and fortunately users can tell when they're inserting it incorrectly since the correct method nets you almost no resistance. After all is said and done, if you use the GBMicro you've got what is possibly the world's second smallest portable multimedia player. Only Nintendo's own Play-Yan produces a smaller footprint, and it currently costs three times as much to import. (Notice how I conveniently leave cell phones out of the picture, even though the GBmicro itself is as small as many cellphones today.)

You're probably asking yourself, "Well, how does it all look and sound?" Unfortunately, with devices as homebrew-ish as these, the first question you need to ask yourself is, "Well, what do I have to go through to get things to see, hear and read on this device?"

Lots.

The conversion software for this device (which you should upgrade to the NEWEST version before you even buy the thing) seems simple enough, but to get quality results you're going to have to put on your Windows hat and tool around on your computer.
First, the latest version of the software isn't even available on the official website for the GBA Movie Player M2 - it's actually on the M3 (the third version) website at M3Adapter.com. Lord knows why the company chose to host the sites for two versions of its own product at two totally distinct, almost unrelated sites. (It took me a while before I was convinced that the M2 and M3 were made by the same people.)

Second, the conversion software works on DirectX 9 which means that it can encode any video you can currently play via your system's codecs. However, possibly because of this, installing the conversion software might do unsightly things to your existing codec drivers. Using the G-Spot Codec Application to see which codecs one of my video files used, I noticed that the GBA Movie Player software actually replaced my existing Xvid codec. This might wreak havoc on any other encoding applications you use on your PC.

Third, optimizing the quality really takes lots more than the conversion software - and there's still heinous degradation when compared to the source material. Browsing the forums at Lik-Sang reveals very knowledgable folk who have figured their way around the device, but it required the use of no less than 7 pieces of downloaded freeware to get optimal quality from a ripped DVD movie. If you've already got an episode of 24 or Family Guy on your PC, it will still require at least two other freeware applications and up to an hour of your life just to get things right. If you care to be frightened, details on this process follows near the end of this review.

Finally, as with all computer software - especially software from seedy Engrish-manual writers - the converter is prone to crashing, and you'll be absolutely hard-pressed to find out why the damned thing crashed. I've experienced many, many instances where everything freezes. No error messages, no reboots - the screen just freezes in place and you don't realize anything's wrong until you try to move your mouse pointer. Reinstalling the software rarely fixes the problem. Sometimes you have to find out if a rogue codec is causing the issue, and if you're not a savvy computer user, consider yourself hosed.

That said, here's a quick and dirty breakdown of each of the Movie Player's functions and how satisfactory they are.

* * *

= Movies =

The most notable feature of this device is that it plays movies on your GBA for $25 (and however much your CompactFlash card costs). Unfortunately you pretty much get only a little better than what you pay for. The biggest kick in the nuts from this device is that all movies play back at a measly 10 frames per second. To put it into perspective:

That's more than twice as choppy as your typical movie theatre experience.
That's three times choppier than the normal framerate you get while playing Halo or Halo 2.
That's six times choppier than the normal framerate you get while playing Metroid Prime or Dead or Alive 4.

It's not that terrible. For us video game fans, a shaky framerate is at its worst when we notice the change from smooth to choppy. If it's a consistently slow framerate, it's not as distracting. This sort of applies here, too. Watching something that constantly goes at a slow 10 frames per second is something you tend to get used to over the course of your viewing, and while it's jarring at first, it's something you can live with when keeping in perspective how much you paid. Sometimes, though, there is no solace - watching Ikaruga (a 60 frame per second game) superplay videos at a dinky 10 frames per second almost brought tears of sadness to my eyes.

What's more distracting is the splotchy dithering that's common to live action and modern videogame footage. Assuming your computer monitor is set to 24- or 32-bit color depth, try watching a downloaded high-definition gameplay video or a DVD. Now, turn that down to 16-bit. Chances are you'll notice how much less smooth coloring you get. That's like what your videos look like after they go through the conversion software, except even worse. Again, for $25, it's something you can live with. But if you're a real videophile, you'd better be REALLY desperate to save money to live with this quality. If I'm in one of my snooty high-maintenance moods, there's no way I'm watching that episode of 24 on this thing even if my subway ride is 45 minutes long and I left my PSP at home.

Animation, however, looks much better. You'll only notice low quality coloring on Family Guy, for instance, when there's a scene with the sky or a large amount of gradient color. Seeing as most of the coloring on Family Guy consists of solids, the result is much smoother and more pleasing image quality. Even when considering the animation is 10 frames per second, it looks alright.

Sound is a big problem no matter what type of video you're watching. If you don't take the proper effort to optimize your encoding and instead just find it more comforting to slap in your file directly into the conversion software, there's a very high - perhaps 80% - chance that your video and audio will gradually lose synchronization over time. When watching the Family Guy episode where Peter and Lois take a second honeymoon, leaving Brian to watch over the kids with Stewie's help, the opening was more or less on point. Midway through, when the show pulls a Honeymooners gag, the sound of Ralph's punch comes about a quarter of a second before you see it happen on screen. By minute 22, you hear Ollie's punishment forecast almost a full second before he actually comes on screen to say it.

Aside from that, the 240x160 resolution of the GBA screen is surprisingly sufficient for viewing video. The M2 unfortunately can't display video at the DS's higher resolution, something the M3 supposedly does when you plug it into a DS and not a GBA. When watching 24, you can easily make out the opening credits. On Gamespot gameplay videos, you can just as easily make out the name of the game and type of video when it flashes at the bottom of the screen during the opening. However, the text for dual-screened DS gameplay vids are nearly illegible, since Gamespot squishes the label on the bottom of the top-screen. I tested this with gameplay footage of Tao's Adventure from the Konami summit, and the dialogue was so illegible that it was almost invisible.

It all comes down to whether or not you're someone who just wants to casually watch video and not have to tote around something the size of a PSP or the cost of a Creative Zen Vision or Video iPod. Serious videophiles who will sacrifice portability and affordability for high quality video will laugh at the quality presented here, and since I have moodswings that put me at either end of the spectrum, oftentimes I find myself wondering why I haven't thrown this thing out.

= Music =

Music fares much, much better than movies. There's some disappointing loss in quality, even when encoded at the highest available quality. At this level, the quality loss is very, very minimal. If your source material is encoded at a high bitrate like 320 kbps, or - even better - is an uncompressed WAV file, the worst you'll get is a rare, tiny bit of hiss at some high notes and bass. I converted the Ridge Racer 4 soundtrack from 320 kbps MP3s to the highest quality .GBS sound files that the player accepts, and I was able to notice only very small bits of quality loss while saving about 5 - 10% on file size.

(Bear in mind that this decent quality is obtained by using the highest quality setting in Stereo. I say this because the next highest setting slaps it into Mono with an annoying hiss in the background, and the last two settings are absolutely horrendous. Try listening to an FM radio broadcast with nasty, loud hissing - that's what it is.)

The problem with the music is that the user interface is nowhere near as practical as that of your normal MP3 player. You can't sort by artist, album or genre dynamically. If you separate - for example - each album into a different folder, and you set the player to Randomize, it'll only be random for all the songs in one folder. To hear another album, you'll either have to switch to another folder through the interface, or dump ALL of your individual songs into a single Music folder.

Thankfully, the player does include a lock function with a press of the Start button so that accidental presses of L (skip) and R (pause) won't do anything. Even better, you can listen to music while watching photos or reading text files. Not half bad.

= Text =

Text seems easy to do. However, given the large font and the relatively small screen of the GBA, it would take about 300 "pages" of scrolling to get through this review. (In fact, I'll update this review after I upload it to my CompactFlash card.) Also, when uploading GameFAQs text - which usually tends to be formatted to only span a fraction of the page horizontally - you'll see funny things such as every other line being half the length it should be. This is due to how much the GBA screen has to squeeze all the text in, but if only the software could have used a smaller but still legible font. It doesn't help that scrolling down an entire page takes a brief second, and holding down the d-pad to scroll down many pages results in many seconds of waiting before you see a result. It's still a nice feature to have and saves printing up guides. Imagine having a FAQ with you in the dark, illuminated by the GBA screen. Useful, indeed. (You cheater.)

= Photos =

This is, to me, a throwaway function, one that's there because everyone's doing it. The problem is that photos come out grainy, because taking a high resolution picture and squishing it into a 240x160 space - already a bad idea - is a worse idea when the device that converts and displays said picture does it cheaply and ineptly. I can forgive the sacrifices made for  something as complicated as video for a $25 device, but photos should be really simple. At least the software could have provided some interpolation to make things smoother. As it is, you're going to likely have to shrink a picture in Photoshop first, then convert it, and even then you may see some color dithering.

= Homebrew NES / Famicom Files =

Let's call it what it is - they're illegal ROMs. To be fair, there are legal, homebrew ROMs that you can use. However, the resulting visuals are a tiny bit squishy. I'd imagine they're no worse than the "squishiness" of the Classic NES Super Mario Bros. cart for the GBA, so if you're used to that, you'll be ok here. The problem is that there's NO saving whatsoever. These guys apparently couldn't figure out, or didn't want to figure out, how to save states in the Flash memory. What's more is that files of over 200kb are NOT supported. If you dabble in the illegal arts of ROMmage and you've got a popular game that's over that file size, you're screwed. (Note: The M3 version can actually handle bigger ROMs, I've heard, because it uses the Nintendo DS's larger RAM capacity. Go figure. You can go ahead and drop $100 on the device, but it still plays movies at 10  frames a second. Boo.)

One bright spot is that the homebrew community will definitely come up with decent stuff for this. Though it's nothing like what they've got for the PSP, I've got a homemade version of Lumines called Luminesweeper that works very well. There's no music and I don't believe I've seen a skin change in the beta version I've tried, but it does serve as testament to how fun the core gameplay of Lumines is. (It also goes to show how much the presentation ties into the game; as fun as the core gameplay is, you'll find that it's not so groundbreaking without the glitz.) With more quality offerings like this, the GBA Movie Player might prove to be better suited to homebrew experiments in the future.

* * *

Do NOT buy a GBmicro, CompactFlash card and this device thinking that you are going to "PSPwn." To  effectively do that, you will have to pay a premium. The quality you get from here can no way rival the quality you'll find in the Play-Yan, a PSP, an iPod Video, a Creative Zen Vision: M, an Archos Gmini, or what have you. It's the lowest common denominator out there when considering devices that aren't so bootleg that it'll destroy your flash card.

On the other hand, if you already have a high capacity CompactFlash card and a version of the GBA or a DS, and you've got $25 to burn, it's possibly a no-brainer. At worst, you'll be paying $25 for a novelty or an experiment to see how low-quality movies look on your GBA. And to be positive for a second, the music functionality may be sufficient enough to warrant sacrificing two to three movie tickets.

My final recommendation? If you're somewhat serious about your portable audiovisual quality, have got the money and are willing to spend for something better, I'd suggest you get that. If you're really not all that serious about portable media and just want something to dabble in for cheap, it's a passable purchase. Just make sure that you're not a spoiled videophile, or that you're not one 100% of the time. If you are, what you'll see will scar your eyes for life.

GBA Movie Player Version 2 - Post-Review Quik'n'Dirty "What to Expect"

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Following is a breakdown of what you'll have to go through to optimize your videos. It's not a walkthrough or a full-fledged guide. It's more of a tool to help you understand what you have to go through so that you can weigh the cost of a more expensive device versus the immense effort required to get the best quality you can. Many thanks to Ruegore2 from the Lik-Sang Movie Player forums for much of this advice. This guy is a trooper.

- using the latest software to improve your encode times and quality
- minimize the perceived choppiness of your footage
- sync the audio to the video as best you can

Software

The company that produced this device is all over the place. It's got one website for the CompactFlash version of the M2. It's got another website for the SD version of the M2. It's got yet another website for both versions of the M3. It's so convoluted that I really don't even know what the name of the company itself is.

Know that the software used for the M3 can still be used to encode movies for the M2. The problem is that you can't take advantage of the DS-specific functions, such as encoding movie resolutions at the full DS screen resolution, unless you're going to use the CompactFlash card in the M3.

Smoothing out your Video

As the player only plays at 10 frames per second, it'll seem that all is lost. However, you will be able to maximize *which* ten frames are chosen for each second to provide for optimal smoothness. A free piece of software called TMPGEnc allows you to load windows media files (AVI, MPG, as long as it's not Quicktime) and re-encode them into an MPG of any resolution you desire.

I tested this out with both an episode of 24 (approx. 43 minutes) and the E3 2004 Zelda trailer (approx. 1 minute and change). For each movie, I followed Ruegore's advice and forced it to encode at 240x160 resolution. Then I told it to encode at 10 frames per second. Being a much more sophisticated piece of software than the converter, chances are your resulting 10 frame per second video will appear to run smoother.

The episode of 24 took more than an hour to encode. The Zelda trailer took longer considering how short the source material is, clocking in at around seven minutes. Your mileage may vary depending on what kind of computer you've got - you dual-core owners will scoff at my pitiful times.

You can take your finished MPG and encode it using the GBA Movie Player's conversion software, and hopefully, the result should be smoother-playing action.

Syncing the Audio

As my evidence, I used my 24 episode and my Family Guy Episode. The 24 episode DID go through this procedure. The Family Guy Episode did not.

Using an application called VirtualDubMod, I loaded 24 and clicked a button to extract the audio stream as an uncompressed .WAV file. Since 24 was 43 minutes long and the file was over 360 megabytes in size, this process took 17 minutes. Thank goodness for Ossu! Tatakae! Ouendan! to pass the time. (Note that I happened to do this with the E3 Zelda 2004 trailer, which you'll remember is only slightly longer than a minute, and the file extraction took a matter of seconds. Go figure.)

One cool thing about the GBA Movie Player is that its conversion software splits up movies into distinct video and audio files. (For instance, E3Zelda2k4.AVI will become E3Zelda2k4.GBM and E3Zelda2k4.GBS - movie and sound.) Once you've converted your video file through the GBA Movie Player software, you can delete the .GBS file after taking note of what the filename was. Then, you open up the Music Conversion tool, and slap in that .WAV file that you extracted. (I've inconsistenly had trouble encoding large .WAV files in the Music Conversion tool; you may want to convert it into an high bitrate MP3 first before you put it into the Conversion too.) Once it's converted, you just rename it to the same name as the file you deleted.

I'm honestly not sure why or how this works. All I know is that I see what Jack Bauer says the instance he says it, but I see what Peter Griffin says a second after I hear it. You may want to consult the forums for better detail.

Since Tech doesn't let you write hardware reviews, here's one for the 360 pad.

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The Xbox 360 controller has been touted as a dream to hold by those who have experienced it, providing a combination of elegant aesthetics, ergonomic design and a familiar button layout with usability ultimately in mind. One of the more subtle features of the controller's wired USB version is its cross-compatibility with Windows XP, allowing PC gamers a console-grade gamepad option for platforming, racing and third-person action titles. With established options such as the stellar Logitech Rumblepad 2, and the older but quality Thrustmaster Firestorm Dual, is the Xbox 360 controller for PCs worth your attention?

Setting up the controller is easy and unintrusive. If you bought the red packaging specifically for PCs, you'll find a driver CD included insise. If you're simply taking an existing wired controller from the console bundle, you'll find these drivers a quick download away. The driver comes without the unwanted visiting in-laws; there is no resource-hogging software that sits resident in memory. For some, such as myself, this is fantastic. For others, they may miss the ability to load up game configurations on the fly. With in-game mapping becoming more and more sophisticated, such tagalong software is becoming less and less necessary.

The most obvious positive of the controller once you start playing is how comfortable it is to hold and use. Lighter and sleeker than the Xbox Controller S, the controller fits in your grasp incredibly naturally with the smart use of contours around the handles. Your mileage may vary of course, but if you found the Controller Type S comfortable, you'll be in heaven here. If you favor the contours of the Gamecube controller, this controller will also fit your hands quite well. As I'm no fan of the molding of the Dual Shock (I'm more a fan of the Wireless Logitech grips), I can't honestly say how Dual Shock fans will receive it but I'm betting it'll do just fine.

After the buzz from holding the controller passes, the gamepad is instantly familiar to anyone who's enjoyed a PS2 or Xbox game in the past generation. The relocation of the Black and White buttons to the shoulder button positions (as "Left Bumper" and "Right Bumper") is smart. The Start and Back buttons have moved as well, sitting above the right analog stick and d-pad respectively. This effectively puts all of the face buttons and inputs in the familiar "plain view" configuration, eliminating the curious hunting for "those small buttons in the corner." Of course, the big Xbox logo button sits in the middle and for PC gamers is completely useless. You don't even get a nice shining Ring of Light for your PC games; it lights up when your computer boots, and then remains dormant thereafter. Aw.

There is one caveat regarding the placement of the Left Bumper and Right Bumper - you may find it difficult to simultaneously use the triggers with the bumpers. A Gamecube veteran might not have an issue, having been trained on the Z-button R-trigger configuration. Your mileage will truly vary here, depending your comfort with using your formidable middle fingers to pull back on triggers. This is something important to consider, as the triggers are very significant in the PC world. It's the first time a prominent controller has featured the truly analog triggers that reared their heads in the Dreamcast controller. The triggers have finally allowed PC users to hold a gamepad and execute truly analog acceleration and braking in racing games, something that was really only available in previous pads by pushing the right analog stick up or down. Though this was better than accelerating via on/off button presses, it certainly was clumsy, and the triggers are very much appreciated here. If you think you'll need simultaneous presses of Right Bumper and Right Trigger a lot, get ready to become used to potentially awkward finger curling.

The rest of the controller inputs are mostly sound. The ABXY buttons don't feel hard and uncomfortable to press on this time around, are analog, and have a good range of depression. The analog sticks have a decent level of resistance to them and of course provide the click functionality, giving you two extra "buttons". The small issues I had with the controller is that the d-pad, while decent, isn't as responsive as others I've used on the PC, or even when compared to the Controller S. There, and on the Logitech Rumblepad 2, you'll find a better range of depression than you will with the 360 controller. It's certainly an upgrade from the Dual Shock and Gamecube d-pads, but if you're looking for something as pleasing as the Gameboy Micro or Sega Saturn d-pads, you'll find it on the Logitech Rumblepad 2.

To test how well the controller plays with different games, I booted up a first person shooter, a racing game, a basketball game and a 2D fighter. I played them first with the 360 controller, then the logitech Rumblepad 2. The candidates? Halo, MotoGP 3, NBA Live 2004 and the incredibly rare Guilty Gear X for the PC.

= Halo =

I explicitly avoid all console first-person shooters because I find gamepad control inferior to the mouse-and-keyboard combination, but to test this pad's credibility I boot up a first-person shooter for use with a mouse-and-keyboard combo and play it with a gamepad. Imagine the irony.

Anyway, after mapping all the buttons to what they would have been on the Xbox version, I set about blasting some Covenant scum. Aiming Master Chief's weapon at 60 frames a second with an analog stick takes a few seconds of getting used to, since the Xbox version runs at 30 frames, but that's an aspect of the platforms as opposed to the actual controller. In addition, the lack of auto-aim in the PC version makes the game harder to play with a gamepad. Otherwise though, the experience was identical to what you'd find on an Xbox when using the 360 controller.

Using the Rumblepad 2 was a bit different. The analog sticks lack the same weight and resistant on Logitech's otherwise great device, so looking with the second analog stick felt a bit wonky. The level of precision found with the Xbox sticks is simply not there. Also, using a regular ol' shoulder button to fire a weapon felt a bit archaic. Functional? Yes, but for the best experience, the 360 pad definitely wins that battle.

= MotoGP 3 =

MotoGP 3 is a battle I expected to tilt in the direction of the 360 controller, and indeed this was true. Using the 360 controller was a dream with this game. True analog braking and accelerating definitely beat out using the right analog stick on the Rumblepad. Add to that the better resistance/weight of the 360 pad, and you've got yourself a hands down winner.

= NBA Live 2004 =

Basketball games have long been the one genre that demanded use of every single button on the gamepad for effective use, and then some. NBA Live 2004 is no exception. Even with the right analog stick relegated to crossover moves, you still needed buttons for jump stops, forced dunks, posting up, direct-passing, et cetera. With the NBA Live series, icon passing - or direct-passing as they call it - is used by holding down a dedicated button akin to a "shift key" functionality, as opposed to the one-press "toggle" method used by 2K sports. This gave the advantage to Dual Shock users and their four shoulder-button controllers. This advantage is now gone with the 360's bumper buttons, and allows for a more fluid basketball passing experience.

Everything about this comparison was a wash. The Rumblepad and the 360 controllers functioned equally well. The less-resistant analog sticks of the Rumblepad wasn't a problem here, since the digital players move at a slower pace than do digital vehicles in racing games and don't require the same amount of precision as does aiming.

= Guilty Gear X =

Alas, there are no readily available Street Fighter games for the PC. Either that, or they're even more rare than this Guilty Gear X port. (Let's not talk about the horrendous version of Street Fighter II that came out for PC in 1994.) Guilty Gear X works fine for this comparison, however; any of you who, by whatever means you used, like to enjoy 2D fighters on your PCs better listen up.

The Xbox 360 controller's d-pad isn't the easiest beast to conquer when playing Guilty Gear X. It's decent enough, but it fails to replicate the precise responsiveness that you'd expect from a truly high quality fighting stick. In comparison, the Rumblepad 2's d-pad feels so much like the good ol' Sega Saturn pad that it almost put the 360 pad to shame. There's not much of a contest here - for 2D fighters, or perhaps any 2D game, the Rumblepad 2 is preferred.

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Looking at the controller from an overall use view, it functions incredibly well and adds the bonus of analog triggers to the experience. It's certainly one that's worthy of your consideration if you play a lot of console-to-PC ports and don't like cluttering your desk with racing wheels. It's also great for creating the console experience with your first person shooters, but I'd have to ask why exactly you'd rather do that than use a mouse. The only downfall is for precision 2D commands via the d-pad, and even then, it's not poor; it's simply inferior to what you'd find on the other premiere PC game controller.

If you don't own a decent gamepad and prefer the diamond four-button layout over Saitek's six-button Sega homage, this is a great controller even at the steep MSRP of $39.99. If you've already got a Logitech Rumblepad 2, you may want to consider how much you really want those analog triggers or how much value the 360 controller's added ergonomics mean to you. The Rumblepad 2 is still very comfortable, though not to the extent as Microsoft's new toy. Regardless, you probably won't regret picking one of these up.