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Provided that the Y2K yahoos are wrong and the earth doesn't shatter into a gazillion pieces at 12:01 a.m. on January 1, 2000, that fateful year will bring us not only a merciful end to the incessant play of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince's song "1999" but a new census as well. Considering that this will be the first demography of the twenty-first century, I'd like to suggest that we ditch the hoary "What's your ethnic origin, and how often do you bathe in a week?" queries and instead pigeonhole the population by modern means. For example, I'd offer this far more telling categorization: "Your electronic-gaming input device of choice is (A) a game pad or (B) a keyboard?"
The answer to this single question reveals both age range and disposition. Those who choose answer A fall within the arcade/console game generation (ages roughly 7 to 26)a population of twitchy individuals who are easily startled. The B group includes more-mature gamers (read: geezers) who think that computer gaming reached its zenith in the mid-1980s with Leather Goddesses of Phobos.
Although, ahem, barely into my prime, I must admit that the mix of games in my library tends to gravitate toward adventure and strategy games rather than the scoot-and-shoot stuff that sends kids skittering into their doctors' offices with repetitive strain injuries. Still, when Connectix announced Virtual Game Station (VGS), an emulator that allows Macs to play Sony PlayStation games, I used every fast-twitch muscle in my body to get that thing installed so I could take it for a test drive. (And a good thing, too: Sony recently won a court decision charging Connectix with violating intellectual property rights, forcing it to stop selling VGS until further notice. Connectix is appealing the decision, however, so hopefully VGS will be available again before too long.)
I wanted to know if I, a veteran gamer, could find true happiness playing these arcade-style games. As it turns out, yes, I could. But that happiness didn't come simply from firing up the software and shoving any old PlayStation game into my PowerBook G3. What follows are a few lessons I learned along the way.
If you're used to controlling the action on a real PlayStation, you'll likely feel that the way VGS maps the PlayStation buttons to your Mac's keyboard is completely goofy. By default, the four points of the direction pad are assigned to the up, right, down, and left arrow keys; the triangle, circle, X, and square buttons are assigned to I, L, K, and J, respectively; select is mapped to the B key; start to the N key; and the L1, L2, R1, and R2 buttons use the 1, 2, 9, and 0 keys, respectively. In English, that means that the default setup forces you to control the direction pad with your right hand and the command buttons with your leftcompletely counter to the way things are configured on a PlayStation. To put things right, run, don't walk, to VGS's Preferences (found in the Edit menu) and change the Controller 1 assignments so that the direction pad uses W, D, S, and A for north, east, south, and west, respectively (see "Take Control").
Now that you've memorized VGS's keyboard assignments, forget them. If you want the real PlayStation experience, get a game pad. Part of the pleasure of playing these games is digging your thumbs into the game pad as you twist and turn it in vain attempts to beat the tar out of Mortal Kombat's overmuscled galoots. A keyboard just doesn't have this kind of mobilityand frankly, even if you rigged some kind of duct-tape-and-harness affair, you'd look darned silly waving a keyboard around.
When purchasing a game pad, try to find one that mimics a PlayStation controller rather than one that employs the Nintendo design. Nintendo-style controllers lack the L2 and R2 buttons and have six buttons bunched together on the right side of the controller. Gravis's $29.99 GamePad Pro USB (800/235-6708, http://www.gravis.com ) is modeled on PlayStation controllers and includes a little screw-in joystick for the direction pad.
The GamePad Pro USB is fine, but I prefer using the controller that came with the genuine PlayStation that sits atop my television. To use such a controller, you need Kernel Productions' $49.95 JoyPort adapter (302/456-3026, http://www.kernel.com ). This little black box allows you to connect PlayStation, Atari, Genesis, and Nintendo controllers to your Mac. As we go to press, only the ADB version of the JoyPort is available, but a USB model is due soon. Those who just can't wait for the USB model and have extra money to spend on this stuff can use the ADB version in conjunction with Griffin Technology's $49 iMate USB-to-ADB adapter (615/255-0990, http://www.griffintechnology.com ).
If you're accustomed to playing games such as Myth and Unreal on your Mac and think all games should be so graphically glorious, you're in for a rude awakening when you launch your first PlayStation game. PlayStation graphics are blocky and pixelated compared to those of modern computer games. If you want to get in on the action, however, you'll just have to learn to live with it.
Unlike computer games, you can rent PlayStation discs, and I heartily rec-ommend doing so. Connectix main-tains a Web site that lists PlayStation games compatible with VGS ( http://www.virtualgamestation.com/games.html ), but it's still a good idea to try a game first. To begin with, you'll see just what kind of glitches pop upeven compatible games occasionally skip a frame or lose bits of sound. More important, you'll discover whether you actually like the game. For example, Sierra Online's PC game NASCAR Racing1999 Edition is just outstanding, and I'd hoped Electronic Arts' NASCAR 99 would be as good. A five-dollar rental from Blockbuster proved it wasn't. Granted, NASCAR 99 wasn't recommended as compatible, and for good reasonit suffered lots of frame skips and audio glitches. But I also thought the graphics were unimpressive, and I found it next to impossible to control my stock car with a game pad.
Even after these hard-won lessons, it's unlikely that I'll count myself among the game-pad generation. I still favor games that don't require the kind of finely tuned reflexes found only among those who aren't yet old enough to drive a real car on a real road. But the fact that my Mac can now run so many different games (more, dare I say, than my PC-wielding contemporaries?) leaves me with a deep sense of satisfaction. So what if my fingers don't fly like those of the generation issued game pads at birth? Thanks to Virtual Game Station, my PowerBook G3, and a few select games, I can still party like it's 1999.
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There are more than 1,000 PlayStation games, and I'd be lying if I said that I've tried even a tenth of them. But I've spent enough time standing in line at Blockbuster and twitching my trigger finger to make a few recommendations.
Steve Jobs chose this Sony (800/345-7669, http://www.playstation.com ) game to demo VGS at last January's Macworld Expo, and for good reasonit's one of the best-looking PlayStation titles around. The $40 game is a richly realized twitchfest that will easily eat up your next cross-country flight (and a couple of PowerBook batteries).
I maintain that driving a race car with a game pad is like painting a portrait with a push broom, but if you must do so, Sony's $30 Gran Turismo is a good way to go. The game includes both arcade and "realistic" modes and performs well under VGS emulation.
Konami's (650/654-5687, http://www.konami.com ) sneak-around-to-avoid-the-bad-guys game has received rave reviews from the console crowd. The story line is compelling, and the graphics are good for a PlayStation title. This $49 game requires reasonable reflexes as well as the ability to solve problems.
For reasons best known to Electronic Arts (800/245-4525, http://www.ea.com ), sports games are all but unknown on the Macintosh. At least, they were until Virtual Game Station came along. This $49.95 football sim is one of the best out there, and it plays well under emulation.
I've got a soft spot for GT Interactive's (800/610-4847, http://www.oddworld.com ) Oddworld duoAbe's Oddysee ($19.99) and Abe's Exoddus ($44.99). These humorous Prince of Persia-style run, jump, and puzzle games are nicely rendered and feature a bizarre cast of characters.