Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What the heck is a GP2X?

While I have been on vacation, with my idle time generally spent sleeping or riding in some sort of conveyance, it seems, I haven't been able to do much gaming. But for those few moments when we had time to kill, we brought our Nintendo DS along, as well as our GamePark GP2X portable. I've mentioned it before in this blog, but I'm sure a lot of people are still asking: What the heck is a GP2X? So it's high time I talked about it in a little more detail.

The GP2X is a Korean-made handheld gaming system available on a mail-order import basis. I first learned about it from a UK magazine, Retro Gamer, and ordered one back in 2006. It runs Linux, which is its great hidden strength as it makes development and porting existing software straightforward. The system's design makes it a natural for emulation -- its 320x240 resolution maps pretty cleanly to most vintage systems and VGA-era PC games, and it has enough power to emulate consoles from the 2-D era quite nicely, usually in the 30-60 frames-per-second range. It has four buttons, a joystick, and enough other buttons to allow use in either portrait or landscape orientation, making vintage arcade games a pleasure to play.

There aren't many commercial games for it, but it runs emulators for just about every popular system and game engine, and there are ports of some great homebrew titles, including Cave Story. I have used it for several years to play DOOM, The Secret of Monkey Island, retro arcade titles via MAME, and many of my favorite console games from the pre-Playstation era. (Yes, the emulators are in a legal gray zone, requiring ROM files, but I do own licensed copies of the games I play this way. Engines like the ScummVM player for LucasArts and other adventures work directly with the original data files, copied over from the PC media to the GP2x SD card, with some options for compressing the audio content.) I have used it to acquaint myself with some 8-bit era titles that were popular in the UK but never made a splash here, like Codemasters' Dizzy series, and to play vintage game music files. It can also be used to play MP3 files and various obscure video formats.

But it's not a mainstream system by any means -- it's a hacker's platform, requiring a fair amount of configuration and moving files around to get them where various tools expect to find them, often with the barest of freeware documentation to go on. The wealth of software available is balanced by the difficulties of getting all the pieces together to make things work properly -- to get DOOM going, for example, one has to install a Linux freeware music program to render the background music, rename the target .WAD file to the expected name the engine looks for, and accept that save games "named" without a keyboard must end up as "BBYYYXXX" and so forth, using the available controller buttons. Other impracticalities abound -- for example, I have an Infocom Z-code engine for it that runs from the Linux command shell, but starting and playing Zork without a proper keyboard, entering characters one by one by selecting them with the controller, is so tedious as to be strictly a novelty. But for the games that work properly and naturally, mostly action-based games with minimal keyboard input, I have found the the GP2X a worthwhile investment of money and time.

The GP2X was itself a followup to an earlier system called the GP32, and it appears I completely missed out on an upgrade -- my model is now known as the GP2X F100, and an F200 model with touch-screen came out sometime in the past few years. And there is already a more powerful followup on the market called the GP2X Wiz, which provides a few additional control options with dual cross-pads. It also appears to have substantially more commercial software support, at least from lesser-known Asian publishers; I don't expect to see Konami or Capcom supporting it any time soon. So I don't think I'm in any hurry to pick it up, as the old model meets my needs pretty well, but I'm glad to see it's been successful enough to merit a sequel. It's no competition for Nintendo or Sony, but its existence makes my gaming life a little richer on the go.

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