Reviving Light Gun Games with FPGA Technology (and Namco’s Help!)
Not more than two weeks ago, a major milestone was achieved for the MiSTer FPGA project: support for the GunCon 2 controller.
What is the GunCon 2 controller? Why is this meaningful for the MiSTer project as a whole, and for game preservation? Keep reading to find out! 😄
What is the GunCon 2?
The GunCon 2 is a light gun released by Namco in 2001 for the Sony PlayStation 2. It came packaged with Time Crisis II, the second entry in the popular light gun franchise.
What makes this light gun special is the fact that it connects to the console via USB. This is great, since USB is a standard still supported today. Another particularity of this light gun is that it taps into the composite signal to give a more accurate pointing experience. It is able to know where it points on the screen without requiring flashes (unlike the Nintendo Zapper, for example) or other external accessories sitting on top of the television to provide an infrared signal (e.g. the Super Scope for the Super Nintendo and even Namco’s own GunCon 3).
In short, it is perfectly suited for the MiSTer project: it connects with a modern interface to an older (analog) technology. It hits the sweet spot! And, great news, the build quality is actually very solid.
Why is GunCon 2 support meaningful for game preservation?
Light gun games have been around for a long time, but you might be surprised to learn that the road to preservation for this specific genre of gaming has been stuck for quite some time. Although Nintendo was the undisputed king when it came to light guns at home, many other consoles (and arcades!) featured their own version of the light gun. In fact, the latest commercially available light gun worthy of mention that I know is the GunCon 3, also by Namco. Released for the PlayStation 3, it relied on infrared technology similar to the Wii’s. See the Light gun Wikipedia page for a list of all models made over the years. Some have striking designs that would not be out of place in an old Star Trek movie. 😄
When it comes to “game preservation”, it is no surprise that anyone with original hardware is still able to play these games in their intended fashion today. That material is very resilient and even relatively easy to find if you look online. However, having such setups can quickly become cumbersome and impractical. That’s because each video game console from the 80’s up to the early 2000’s has had proprietary connections, which meant that light guns were not compatible between different consoles. Those who know, know; you have to love switching connections to get into that hobby.
You might be thinking that with emulation, it has been possible for a long time to play light gun games without original hardware. And you’d be right! While light gun games can indeed be run through emulation, using a mouse as a pointing device is not the same as using a gun-shaped object in your hands. What is the main difference between a mouse and a light gun? The requirement to aim. With a mouse, you always see where your crosshair is. With a gun, there is no way to know if you’re really on target before committing to your aim by shooting. It’s a different type of challenge for sure. Personally, I use a mouse every day as part of my job. Shooting a gun is a nice change of pace for me, as it allows to develop different motor skills.
(Of course, I’m pretty sure that the feeling of shooting a light gun is nothing compared to the real thing, but I like to think I will never have to practice shooting with an actual gun.)
Interestingly, there was early progress in the mister scene with Serial Native Accessory Converters (SNAC) that allowed users to connect their original light guns to each console core. It was already a step in the right direction for game preservation, but in my opinion, the GunCon 2 takes the cake by being an all-in-one solution.
How to setup a GunCon 2 for your MiSTer
- Any male-to-male RCA cable
- The T-shaped RCA cable originally supplied with the GunCon 2 controller (some people sell their GunCon 2 without this cable, watch out!)
- The GunCon 2 USB controller
- The MiSTer
- (optional, if your CRT monitor does not support component) A VGA -> composite/S-video adapter (currently only sold by Antonio Villena)
- A CRT monitor. Ask your relatives, you might be able to find one for cheap, maybe even free!
Here is the instructional video I followed to setup the connections and the specific files that, as of 2022-02-25, need to be modified on the MiSTer. Remember, this is still a beta feature. 😄
And here is the result 🎉 :
Note: You can connect your GunCon 2 to the composite signal exiting the MiSTer while still using the S-Video signal. This is what I do to get the best picture quality on my Commodore 1702 monitor, since the composite signal from Antonio Villena’s adaptor creates annoying “dot crawl” patterns on the screen due to mismatched timings.
A thought for our Ukrainian friends
Allow me to go on a little tangent as we reach the end of this post. Unfortunately, in the midst of all this recent excitement, yesterday the President of Russia Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine and launched attacks on civilians. Two of the best FPGA developers in the scene right now, Krikzz and srg320, live in Ukraine near the attacks. Although they have not directly worked on GunCon 2 support, their respective contributions in the world of FPGA gaming for video game preservation are immense:
- Krikzz was one of the pioneers of FPGA gaming with his line of everdrives. He has been at it before the MiSTer project had even begun. He is constantly pushing firmware updates to support his multiple products. I have nothing but good things to say about Krikzz’s focus on his customers.
- Srg320 is currently working on a Sega Saturn core for the MiSTer, which many developers
thought would not be feasible. He is a wizard in this regard. He has also been
contributing to an impressive line of cores for the MiSTer project:
- Super Nintendo
- Sega Genesis
- Sega CD
- Turbografx16 / PC-Engine
I do not want these geniuses to suffer or live in fear, let alone die. In fact, I do not want any civilian to live the consequences of yet another war. MiSTer is an international project that gathers people from everywhere; the maintainer of the MiSTer project (Sorgelig) is Russian himself. It is a shame that people have to give up on a passion that brings joy to the world because they have to literally flee death.
Another way to phrase this is to realize that war has an impact on everything, even quintessentially niche projects like MiSTer. What’s more, the people of Ukraine are stuck in a war they have not chosen.
The MiSTer project shows that collaboration allows seemingly impossible challenges to be overcome. We are all human and we all need each other in order to make incredible things happen. It is a shame to have war in this day and age. I hope everyone in Ukraine will be alright and that this conflict will be solved soon. I can only observe from my distant vantage point. My heart and thoughts are with you, my friends!
Here’s to a future with more light guns than real guns!