Friday 6 April 2018

Killing Pixels Parte Três: Aspect Raidou

Aspect ratio is a contentious subject among retro gamers. With widescreen televisions being the norm nowadays, many gamers simply plug and play their old consoles and don’t pay any attention to whether the picture is in the original format or stretched to fill the screen. Some even go as far as stretching it on purpose because to them, having a black bar on either side of the picture is more annoying than round objects becoming oval. Our own Father K would be an example of someone who just wants to play and doesn’t care about such pesky things.

On the other side of the barricade you have people who don’t tolerate a stretched picture, it’s 4:3 with black bars or nothing. To them, preserving the proper aspect ratio is absolutely integral to the experience and changing that is nothing short of heresy. I would be an example of this type. Heck, one of the best moments of my gaming life was when I found a way to force my monitor to show old PC games in proper 4:3.

The Saturn was actually way ahead of the curve in this regard, with a few standout titles like Nights into Dreams and Panzer Dragoon II which featured widescreen modes, almost a decade before widescreen TV's became a staple of most households. Unfortunately those titles are few and far between, but when the developers fail, you can always count on the community to cook something up.

 Credit: ActSean from Assembler Games


Now you can play Saturn games on your fancy flat-screen TV or monitor at the proper aspect ratio AND fill up the whole screen, increasing the viewable area to boot.

What sorcery is this, you may ask? Only the power of cheat codes. It's just that this time, instead of editing a game’s memory to fool it into thinking you have more lives or infinite ammo, you’re tricking it into displaying more horizontal space, changing the values of the “frame” that limits the action and the horizontal field of view.

There are actually three ways to do this:

CEP codes: CEP is a cheating program, originally developed to work with PlayStation emulators, but works just as well with SSF, one of the oldest and longest standing Saturn emulators. As such, these are made with this emulator in mind and, although in theory you could convert these to generic Action Replay codes, I couldn't find a reliable way to do so, so you're really stuck with SSF.

Action Replay codes: It's what it says on the tin. These codes are made for the famous cheating device and thus should work just fine with original hardware, i.e. your actual Saturn console. If you want to emulate you can use Yabause/YabaSanshiro which has native AR code support.

Game patches: The previous codes all work the same way, messing with the game's memory while it is running, but another way to achieve the same results is to alter a backup of the game and change the actual game files, permanently embedding these changes onto the disc. These come in the form of small files that you inject into a backup of the game, which you then can emulate/burn/put on your Rhea/whatever.

There are pros and cons to each, ranging from ease of use to being limited to specific emulators. Furthermore, because these codes/patches are fan efforts, made by volunteers in their free time, many games only have codes in the format preferred by its author and not in the others. In fact, a big bummer in all this is the relatively small pool of widescreen hacks available. I could only find 20-30 hacks across all formats listed above, among which are some very popular games but far from all the Saturn essentials, so chances are your favourite game either isn't supported or only has a code in a
format that you won't like.

Sorry, it's not all roses.

Speaking of which...

Sega Rally Championship - Stretched elements include the HUD and other 2D sprites, like the clouds in the background and the bystanders, but the differences are barely noticeable


This is mostly restricted to 3D games, since it's easier to manipulate the camera in a full 3D environment, although, for the sake of completeness, I should add that there are hacks for 2D games that try to increase the resolution and thus the viewable area - that's a subject for another time.

Bugs are always bound to happen when you mess with games this way. One of the most common problems is object culling, where elements of the scenery immediately disappear when out of the original 4:3 window. This was done to save resources and thus improve the performance, and happens with widescreen hacks for many consoles, like the PSX or PS2. In the games I tried it wasn't too bad, actually, but it's particularly noticeable in Virtua Cop 2, for example.

Most 2D elements are displaced in a way that is tied to the screen proportions, so these will still be stretched. This is very common with HUD elements like energy bars or timers, but can also happen with stage backgrounds, like in Dead or Alive, Pandemonium and Fighters Megamix.

Overall, though, from my experiences with widescreen hacks for other consoles I was actually expecting to find many more bugs. Take Sega Rally, for example. Other than the stretched HUD, it plays perfectly in 16:9, almost as if it had been made that way.

Is it worth it?

That's a tricky question. There are definitely a lot of cons to this whole deal. Widescreen codes are in short demand, with only a few games benefiting from this, and among those the most popular format is CEP codes which only work with a specific emulator. Regardless of your preference of code format, you'll have to go through the trouble of putting them in every time you boot the game, or if you want to go the game patching route you'll have to go through the ordeal of making a backup of your game, injecting the patched files and burning your game again.

Despite object culling not being anywhere near as problematic as I expected, many games heavily depend on 2D elements to a greater degree than I anticipated. Titles like Dead or Alive or Virtua Fighter 2 have the characters retain their right proportions but everything else, from the HUD, to the backgrounds and the even the actual arenas remains stretched in 16:9, so you could ask what the point is of going through all this trouble.

Even if it's not practical, though, I was pleased and amazed in equal proportions that this even exists, and is a pretty recent development as well, with the first proof-of-concept widescreen hacks dating from 2016, and the latest from earlier this year.

I can only hope that in the future more games will be supported, and through easier to use methods. Maybe a built-in hack for an emulator, with no need for third-party software (mednafen, I'm looking at you). Who knows what the future will bring, just 2 years ago all of this would have been just a dream.

In the meantime, we already have something to play with.


None of this would have been possible without the good folks who came up with the codes in the first place. They mostly seem to hang out in this Assembler Games thread:

Special mention to user "paul_met", the guy solely responsible for most game patches. You can find his stash through this link:


fatherkrishna said...

A superb article! But would you believe I actually bowed to peer pressure (after standing my ground and resisting for so long... and even getting shirty about it!) Now I play on the 14:9 that everyone used to harangue me for... 😂😂😂

The 1 Ross said...

4:3 for life! ;p