Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Zeni to the Max

By now I'm sure you've heard the news.

image from Throwbacks

Well yeah, the Animaniacs are making a comeback on Hulu, but that's not what I meant. Microsoft just purchased Zenimax, and by proxy, Bethesda Softworks, for the sum of seven and a half billion dollars. That's more money than I'll ever see in twenty lifetimes. 

Microsoft is now in charge of a lot of franchises that were big in the 1990s and 2000s. Doom! Quake! The Elder Scrolls! Fallout! Gamers who were originally going to cast their lot with the Playstation 5 are now understandably worried that their system of choice will not be getting these titles. It certainly explains Microsoft's recent platform inclusive tweets, which suggested that Santa Claus left 34th Street and took up a job as the company's social media spokesman. You see, Microsoft was never really worried that players would abandon the Xbox for another game console... they knew that as long as they held the keys to the next Doom sequel, they couldn't.

Anyway! I wanted to mention that I'm finally making some headway on Squirrel Burger Cookout, the Neo-Geo ports book. Here's a sample chapter, if you'd like to check it out. Previously, I had been beating my head on other word processors and desktop publishers, but Kurt Kalata from Hardcore Gaming 101 recommended that I try Affinity Publisher instead, and it. is. BRILLIANT. It does 90% of what I want with little struggle, and the other ten percent just requires a bit of online research. It's intuitive like Microsoft Publisher, yet powerful like Scribus! It's the total package!

The proposed layout for the book is a little plain at the moment, but it gets the job done. I'd be satisfied with it looking like this, if not deliriously happy. I'm talking to Kurt now to see what he would recommend... hopefully he'll get back to me in a week or so. That ought to give me enough time to scrape together the cash to buy the full version of Affinity Publisher and really go to town on this project...

Friday, September 18, 2020

Hindsight is Always Three Dimensional

Quick, name a product with a 3D focus that's no longer in production!

Image from Columbia.EDU

Well, there's that too. But I was thinking of something with less nacho dust.

Image from eBay

Yeah, that. After a bungled launch and nine moderately successful years on the market, the 3DS has been retired by Nintendo. Yes, that includes the more recent deluxe and budget models. It's not to say that you can't still find good uses for a 3DS... the New model with the upgraded processor has a quartet of homebrew console emulators that are more user friendly and run better than anything you'll find on the Playstation Vita, the system's hapless rival. If you're waiting for officially licensed 3DS software, though, you might be waiting a while. Perhaps billions of years, if there's any truth to the theory of a cyclical timeline.

The 3DS was fun while it lasted, though... and it lasted quite a while! I still have a lot of memories tied to this system, like how badly I wanted it after it launched. The technological shortcomings of the standard DS were starting to chafe, and the promise of a handheld with near-GameCube quality graphics had me licking my lips like a hyena that stumbled upon an elephant graveyard. Sadly, the 3DS proved elusive until two years later, when an acquaintance gifted me one after he upgraded to one of the XL models.

It looks a little rough now, but yanno, 2011.
(image from Amazon)

An equal measure of fun and frustration soon followed. I put a lot of time into the system's star attraction, Super Street Fighter IV... it obviously didn't look as nice as its console counterparts, but it had nearly all the content (plus an odd gachapon mode where you could collect figurines of all the characters) and it played pretty well, with the touchscreen making up for the system's lack of face buttons. 

On the downside, there was Kid Icarus Uprising... its graphics were downright breathtaking by handheld standards, with Pit gliding over vast cityscapes and battling enormous (yet often silly) monsters, but its visual luster couldn't disguise the ugliness of the control. Thanks to the lack of a second analog stick, I felt like I needed all the hands of a legendary Greek monster just to play it. The torturous grind to unlock new weapons didn't help its appeal much either. Sure there are tons of clubs, wands, and swords to collect and combine, but I would have been happier with just one weapon that did a reasonable amount of damage...

You're still a dink, rabbit.

Soon afterward, I moved to Arizona, and found not only a 3DS XL of my own, but a love for Nintendo's daring but distressingly short-lived social media experiment Miiverse. More of my 3DS time was spent scratching out black and white pictures and posting them to the service than actually playing games. I also developed an equally passionate hatred for the Arcade Bunny, the annoyingly chipper, occasionally schizophrenic rabbit who wanted real cash for chances to win simulated enamel pins you could put on your system's home page. I'm embarrassed to admit that I gave more of my money to the bunny than any rational adult should. I'm not at all embarrassed to admit that I heaped abuse on him in Miiverse whenever the opportunity presented itself.

The New 3DS was a worthy follow up to
the original model, but I still question the
wisdom of that stubby second stick.

A few years later, the 3DS XL was retired to a drawer and replaced with the New 3DS XL. They were selling them for half the suggested retail price at K-Mart, but since our local store was in the process of shutting down, I had to request a price match from a nearby Wal-Mart. At the time, the New 3DS XL seemed like a pointless, extravagant purchase, but in hindsight, its added horsepower really did improve the overall experience. Miiverse loaded faster, games ran slightly better, and the 3D that was so spotty on previous models was greatly improved with a head tracking sensor. That faint red LED looks creepy in low light conditions, like your system was possessed by the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but you can't argue with the results!

It's been three years, but I never really
got over this.

After the death of Miiverse in late 2017, my enthusiasm for the 3DS, and Nintendo in general, sputtered out. The Vita became my handheld of choice, although I really wasn't doing much with it beyond playing PSP titles I bought on Sony's online store and old arcade games in Final Burn Alpha. I'd pick up the 3DS occasionally to play a round of Kirby: Planet Robobot, but reading news posts made it clear that the system was running out of fresh releases... and running out of time. I purchased a Switch Lite last April, in anticipation of the 3DS's inevitable demise... and now the dual screen handheld is officially history.

Would I say the 3DS was a better system than the Switch? Not really. People complain about the quality of games on the Switch eShop, but the 3DS eShop was far, far worse, loaded with shovelware that demanded the extra power of the New 3DS, yet would have been underwhelming on the decades-old NES. The hardware suffered from shortsighted design (why make a handheld with a single analog stick six years after everybody complained about the single stick on the PSP?), and promising services like Miiverse, Swapnote, and Nintendo Video were ended prematurely, frustrating the system's owners.

Steve, aka OkayGreyOwl, drew this image
as a farewell gift to everyone he met on
Miiverse. That's my bear alter ego on the left.

Despite all that, I got a lot of emotional mileage out of the 3DS. I still remember running off to McDonald's with system in hand to catch a few stray puzzle pieces from other users, so I could finish that interactive diorama of Kirby, or Mario, or that goofy mutt who wanted to sell me mini-games. I recall all the time I spent on Miiverse, not only posting doodles but admiring the work of others, which frequently pushed the boundaries of a tiny, monochrome digital canvas. I remember scooping up cheap software at game stores and pawn shops and Humble Bundles, and having a lot of fun with everything I found. (Well, maybe not Asphalt 3D.) I fondly look back at the dozens of hours I spent playing Smash Run, and slowly developing an appreciation for the Smash Bros. series after years of shunning it. I remember settling my nerves during hospital visits by watching episodes of Bravest Warriors on Nintendo Video. This thing is just packed with memories, and I'm sure I'm missing some important ones.

Wait, there's this one. Wayne Brady from
Let's Make a Deal totally helped save me
from a monster once. Let's see your
fancy-schmancy Switch do that.

There will never be a gaming experience quite like the 3DS, and it's not likely to be forgotten by the millions who owned it.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Half-Measures

image from The Verge
(and before you ask, no, that's not a speaker)

I'll be honest with you, the current plan for the Xbox Series, er... series of consoles is a little confusing to me. So we've got a five hundred dollar system that plays games in 4K, and a three hundred dollar system that in some ways is actually less powerful than the deluxe model of the previous generation Xbox One. You get less RAM and fewer teraflops in the Xbox Series S than you would in 2017's Xbox One X, which leaves me perplexed... and not just because I'm not entirely clear what a "teraflop" is and how it relates to system performance.

Some folks aren't all that worried, like EGM's Mollie Patterson, who feels that the Xbox Series S will offer more than enough performance for older 1080p television sets. I personally question the wisdom of splintering the user base and potentially leaving cash-strapped customers out in the cold, but maybe this won't be a repeat of the accursed 32X. After all, we're not living in 1995 anymore. Video game hardware has evolved to the point where further advancements provide only modest enhancements to the gaming experience, rather than completely transforming it. We may need a seismic shift on the level of last century's polygonal graphics before the video game industry needs significant hardware upgrades.

Anyway. The Scott Pilgrim game everyone wet themselves over is making a comeback ten years after its Xbox 360 debut. As you may have gathered from the previous sentence, I did not enjoy this game, which heavily leeches from River City Ransom while somehow leaving out the fun. However, if you did like it, here's your chance to play it again without having to dig through the closet for your last generation console first. Bring along some Huggies just in case.

Friday, September 4, 2020

You'll Be Rooked by the Brothers

Oh man, there's some recent news about a Switch game that I've just got to report! That's right, Pix the Cat is being sold for just ninety-nine cents until the 14th of September! If you're a fan of Pac-Man, Snake, puzzle games, or sleek blue-tinted neon graphics, it's definitely something you'll want in your collection.

Wait, no, there was something else. Nintendo is celebrating the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. by offering a collection of 3D games in the franchise. Except the games are only modestly enhanced from the originals on the Nintendo 64, GameCube, and Wii. And you won't get Super Mario Galaxy 2, regarded as a high point in the often disappointing Wii library. And, uh, it's only going to be available until March of the following year? 

That's right, Super Mario All-Stars 3D will be a limited edition release, despite being sold in both digital and physical forms. What the heck is accomplished by doing this, aside from sowing customer resentment? I mean, they might force some gamers into making the purchase early, but I have to believe that selling a product for several years would be preferable to turning off the tap and covering it with cement after six months.

Image from Nintendo Life

The news that piqued my interest was the announcement of a Game and Watch that plays Super Mario Bros. Like, the full-fledged NES game, squeezed into the same credit card form factor as much simpler G&W titles like Ball (which this system also plays). Is it kind of pointless? Yes, but it looks a lot more high class than Sega's miniature Game Gear thanks to that shiny brass front plate, to say nothing of more comfortable to hold.

I'm almost jealous, because this is what passed for a Super Mario Bros. Game and Watch back in 1989, when I was a teenager...

Image from Worthpoint

I mean, it was recognizable as Super Mario Bros., but I'd describe it as a demake... the blocks were reduced to segmented lines, Mario choppily jumped from one point on the screen to the next, and power ups were largely absent... I think there was a 1UP and a star, and that was pretty much it. It got the job done thirty years ago, but I suspect this new model will be a lot more satisfying.

What else did Nintendo announce... an augmented reality Super Mario Kart game with real RC cars? Feh! How the hell am I going to play that in a trailer? I mean, that might work for the average house, but a track in here is going to make Baby Park look like the Paris to Dakar rally. I'll be sitting that one out.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Son of a Switch!

We'll end the month with this oft-repeated rumor that's starting to sound like legitimate news... Nintendo is planning a follow-up to the Switch with more power, ho ho ho. See, there was this sitcom starring the guy who plays the astronaut in the Toy Story films, and... aw, forget it. The Red Green Show was better anyway.

Anyway, this news was reported by The Verge and Taiwan's Economic Daily News, which may or may not be a reputable source depending on whether or not you believe Taiwan exists. (No, I'm not over this.) Considering compromised Switch ports of games like The Outer Worlds, everyone is probably eager for a more powerful version of the system, but I personally don't know if I'm ready for a more expensive one. Hell, I'm scraping by with the Switch Lite, a dedicated handheld without the bells and whistles of the original model.

Also, remember that book I wanted to write about home console ports of Neo-Geo games? It's progressing, albeit with all the speed of an arctic glacier. The meat of the book, featuring Super NES, Genesis, TurboDuo, and Sega CD games, is finished, but I also wanted to add chapters about the Nettou series of Game Boy games, the Neo-Geo Pocket, and a special feature on how the Neo-Geo arcade hardware was secretly the champion of cash-strapped gamers in the 1990s.  Everyone who grew up in that decade tends to think of the Neo-Geo as the Rolls-Royce of game systems, as magnificent as it is impossible to afford, but it was quite a different story for both arcade owners and their customers. Did you ever see a Neo-Geo game that demanded two quarters for a credit? Yeah, my point exactly.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Tai-What?

So... a funny thing happened on the way to Reddit earlier today.


Reddit member LilMaker noticed after a software update that his Playstation 4 copy of Baseball Stars Professional 2 had a curious omission. The Taipei Hawks and Taiwan Dragons were now simply "Hawks" and "Dragons," while the other teams were unchanged. I decided to verify this by booting up the DotEmu version of Baseball Stars 2 in Steam, and found this:


One irksome thing about the DotEmu versions of Neo-Geo games is that you can't play them straight... they're presented in a wrapper that swaps out the original menus for homely modernized ones that detract from the overall experience. Look, I want the original Neo-Geo game, rough edges and all. I'm not nostalgic for... whatever this is.

When you get past the unwelcome new menus and get to the actual game, this is what you'll find...

Oh, so this is what John Lennon meant when he sang "Imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do!" Unlike the Neo-Geo original, none of the teams in the Steam port of Baseball Stars 2 have a national affiliation, so you're just stuck with generic titles like "Hawks" and "Monsters."

This leads to the question, "what the hell is going on here?" A more cynical person would suggest that since SNK currently belongs to China-owned 37Games, the company has been "gently persuaded" into removing all references to Taiwan from its games, as the Chinese government doesn't recognize the country as separate from the mainland. 

Actually, I'm exactly that cynical, so that's what I'm suggesting, yeah. It's not that far-fetched, considering that signs supporting the oppressed Ugyar people have been blurred out in live broadcasts of sporting events, and Activision pulled the prize money out from under Hearthstone champion Blitzchung after he demanded Hong Kong retain its autonomy from the Chinese mainland.

There's been a lot of hate thrown at people of Chinese descent thanks to COVID-19, so let me make clear that's not the intent of this post. Chinese people are fine. The mainland Chinese government led by Xi Jinping is the problem here, and it needs to keep its damn historical revisionism on its own shores. For what it's worth, I support both Taiwan and Hong Kong, and I take umbrage at being held to China's standards, seeing its propaganda, and being affected by its censorship. Frankly, nobody should have to put up with this, but Chinese authoritarianism is one export Americans in particular can do without. We have our own bloated, self-serving liar-in-chief, thank you very much.

ADDENDUM: But wait, there's more! Dave "Foxhack" Silva discovered that some hasty changes were made to a publicly distributed ROM of The Art of Fighting 2 earlier this month. The game, originally available in an SNK 25th Anniversary bundle, changes the Land of the Rising Sun flag in Takuma's stage to something a bit more tasteful. I guess I can't blame 37Games for this, since Japan had previously flown that flag while trying to occupy China during the Nanking Massacre. Yes, the very same massacre the musician from Dragon Quest refuses to admit happened.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Forsaken Fruit

First, in the way of substantial news, there's a new Wonder Boy game on the horizon, courtesy of the original creators and... Artdink? That's great news! I love those little guys!

Wait, I'm being told that "Artdink" is actually the Japanese developer responsible for No One Can Stop Mr. Domino! and Tail of the Sun, not the small desert aliens from Spaceballs. Oh well, I'm sure it'll be good anyway. It's also nice that Ryuichi Nishizawa is still involved with his creation even after the dissolution of his own game company Westone.

Okay, now that that's out of the way, here's why I'm really posting. I've been thinking about the low standing cherries have as a video game item... they're worth a measly 100 points in Pac-Man and its sequel Ms. Pac-Man, and have even less value in Game Freak's long-forgotten Mendel Palace.

Ten points? Seriously? A single dot in Pac-Man is worth ten points. I could get ten points just by standing still in some games. You need to earn trillions of points to get a high score in Mars Matrix, and you're giving me ten? That's not a reward, it's an insult.

It's not just those games, either. Not content with putting victory signs next to your health bar to demonstrate that you've won a round, Street Fighter Alpha 2 goes into specifics, using different icons to illustrate HOW you've won a round. Knocking out a foe with a light punch or kick earns you a cherry; presumably more as an insult to your opponent than you.

My question is this... what do the Japanese have against cherries, anyway? They seem to like cherry blossoms well enough, gathering every spring to watch the light pink petals delicately fall from the trees. You'd think from their unflattering depiction in video games that the Japanese regard cherries as an unfortunate by-product of the tree; something barely worthy of their notice. 

Personally, I don't like cherries either... the sensation of a round, squishy object with a thin skin in my mouth makes me feel like I'm eating an eyeball. I'm just one guy with weird eating habits, though. I don't understand why an entire country would hold a grudge against a fruit.