Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Time Makes Fools of Us All

Time is a funny thing, isn't it? One day it seems to be your best friend, and the next it leaves you behind with jaw agape, wondering what happened. Nowhere is this more true than in the video game industry. Huge leaps in technological progress make the gaming experience change drastically from one generation to the next. We've gone from the the simple but intense twitch action of the Atari age to the deep scrolling adventures of the NES era, and from the vibrant visuals and rich sound of the 16-bit revolution to the fully explorable 3D worlds that defined the late 1990s, when the Playstation reigned supreme. 

All of these paradigm shifts brought with them profound resentment from the old guard. Having played video games since the late 1970s, I've seen it all. I've watched disgruntled Atari fans call Nintendo's historical impact into question, damning the NES and using ugly racial slurs to describe the company that made it. I found myself shaking an impotent fist at Sony when it steamrolled the Dreamcast with the Playstation 2 and cluttered the market with an unending deluge of sandbox games and first-person shooters. Now, we're seeing it all over again with the rise of the mobile gaming market and the embrace of a wider audience. The players who grew up with Grand Theft Auto and Halo are splitting hairs, declaring their favorite software to be "real games" while arrogantly dismissing everything else. The Wii, despite selling 100 million units, wasn't a "real" game console. The thousands of apps on iPhone and Android aren't "real" games. Women, who recently overtook teenage boys as the most active game players in America, aren't "real" gamers. And so on.

These players are entitled. They're obnoxious. They're even threatening, if the recent antagonism of feminist gaming blogger Anita Sarkeesian is any indication. But beyond all that, they're on the losing side of history, just as those Atari fans were in the late 1980s, and just as I was ten years ago. They're desperate to keep the undivided attention of the game industry, but things have changed in the last decade. The console manufacturers which cater to them are losing money at a breakneck pace, and the handheld designed to offer the experience that "hardcore" gamers crave has been a dismal failure, selling fewer units than the Dreamcast in the same span of time. With AAA titles increasingly becoming a losing proposition and the industry hanging its hopes on smaller independent developers, the gamers that identify as "hardcore" are quickly losing their relevance. No amount of chest-thumping and anonymous death threats will change this.

To those selfish gamers who've struggled mightily to keep the industry under their thumbs: Your time is up. Adapt or be left behind.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

It Came From the Potato Festival! August Yard Sale Finds

It's been a while since I updated, hasn't it? Let's fix that.

Last weekend was the potato festival, when our humble midwestern town celebrates the tuber that keeps America plump and its own economy healthy. When I was growing up, the festival was a wonderland of carnival rides, flea markets, and even a makeshift arcade set up under a tent. However, as the years went by, the festival limited its ambitious. A couple of years ago, it was limited to a rodeo, a few T-shirt vendors, and trucks selling the usual assortment of artery-clogging junk food. 

Apart from an admittedly impressive fireworks display, this year wasn't much more exciting. However, there's one thing you can always count on from the potato festival... dozens of yard sales. There's something about this time of year that gets people eager to clean their homes of unwanted junk. And when that happens, you'd better believe I'm there, ready to take those unloved items off their hands. You know what they say about one man's trash!

Run awaaaay!
(picture courtesy of
Unfortunately, my first find was trashed for a reason. Remember ten years ago, when palm-sized television games by Radica and Jakks Pacific were all the rage? That fad lasted all of ten minutes, and the gadgets now regularly surface at garage sales for a dollar or less. Some of these TV games are surprisingly entertaining, but this early model, featuring five of Namco's greatest arcade hits, isn't one of them. 

Its conversions of Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Rally X, Bosconian, and Galaxian are dreadfully flawed, with imperfect graphics and simplistic sound effects. I get the sinking feeling that the games are running on the Famicom-on-a-chip that was all too frequent in the cheaper TV games units. The ports aren't any worse than the ones on an actual Nintendo Entertainment System (in the case of Pac-Man, it's hard to imagine how that would be possible...), but the five games nevertheless fall far short of the arcade perfection players must have been expecting. Bosconian in particular was eviscerated by the decision to set the radar over the playfield and a diamond gate inside the joystick that makes it impossible to move diagonally. You won't be hearing your co-pilot shout "Blast awwlf!" either, but after all I've told you, you probably guessed that already. If you haven't already graduated to one of the Namco Museum collections, the much more faithful TV Games unit starring Ms. Pac-Man is a better bet.

Pardon the dust!
Things got better the next day... a whole lot better. I stumbled across a sale with a handful of high-tech equipment, including this desktop computer for a tantalizing price. A quad-core processor, four gigs of RAM, a one terabyte hard drive, and the much beloved Windows 7 operating system, all for thirty bucks? How could a guy possibly pass up a deal like that?

It's actually not that hard when you don't have the cash. So I haggled with the seller and weaseled them down to twenty dollars. After a quick trip to the grocery store to wrangle the money out of my dwindling bank account, I had my prize... a computer with definite potential as a Steam machine. It may not be bleeding-edge technology, but believe me, for the price I ain't complaining.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Catching the Rhythm

This is gonna be a quick update, just to let you know what's been rolling around in my head as of late.

I hate your guts, mandrill.
(Image from Wait, really?
They're still a thing?)
Some time ago, I picked up a clearance-priced copy of Rhythm Heaven Fever from a local K-Mart. I heard great things about the game, often described as Wario Ware's musically-inclined cousin, but to be honest, I wasn't that thrilled with Rhythm Heaven Fever the first time I played it. In addition to the gameplay being astonishingly simple (you press A and B on the Wii remote. Sometimes you push them together. That's it), the timing in the musical mini-games seemed off. Try as I might, I could never hit the golf balls tossed by the mandrill in the first stage, and the robots I manufactured in the second weren't fit to build Yugos. (It was a car from a third-world country on the verge of collapse. Look it up.)

It turns out that it wasn't just my questionable skills that were to blame for my lousy performance. Rhythm Heaven Fever doesn't always sync up well with high-definition televisions, throwing off the timing and making it more difficult to play. So I popped the game into my Wii U, connected to another high-def television through an HDMI cable, and lo and behold, the experience improved dramatically. I was building robots like a champ, and my shins were (mostly) unbruised by the mandrill's sneaky underhanded throws.

Still, something was not quite right. Squeezing small buttons on the Wiimote didn't seem like the best way to play a game like this... not that Nintendo offered any other options. Rhythm Heaven Fever is designed solely for the Wiimote, without support for any other controllers or peripherals. If you wanted to play the game with, say, the Donkey Konga drums or even the classic controller that plugs into the bottom of the stock Wii controller, you were out of luck. It was a wasted opportunity on Nintendo's part, especially when you consider that the arcade version of Rhythm Heaven had great big lit buttons, perfect for smashing along to the beat.

It couldn't aim for crap, but at least
it was good for something!
So I said to myself, "Self, wouldn't it be great if you built your own controller for this game out of spare parts?" And myself said, "I don't have any spare parts!" And I said back, "Sure you do! Don't you remember that crappy light gun you bought for the Wii during your brief obsession with Dead Space: Extraction? Why don't you try that?" And myself shrugged and said, "Sure, it wasn't like I was doing anything with it." So after pulling myself together, I dug the gun out of the closet, took it apart, and broke out the trusty soldering iron for a little... elective surgery. (cue maniacal laughter)

It was an easy job... I just needed to solder a wire on the solder points for each of the buttons, four in total. After that, I soldered on some small buttons for testing purposes. The results weren't ideal- I didn't have anything to mount the buttons on, so I had to hold each one awkwardly between my thumb and forefinger- but it did indeed work, opening the door for a sweet (if superfluous) mod. Now all I need are two big buttons and a wooden enclosure to mount them on and I'll be in business!

"I'm a big button, and I need a big cereal!"
(Image from Karlsson Robotics)
However, I'll need to work out the logistics first. Those big buttons mentioned earlier are expensive, generally selling for ten dollars on internet retailers like Adafruit and Karlsson Robotics. The latter site offers cheaper buttons for six clams, but they come with defects like weak springs, and nobody wants their buttons to give out in the middle of an intense jamming session. Next, the wooden enclosure would have to be weighted down to keep it steady while I'm pounding away on the buttons. Finally, I'd have to find some place for the gun itself. I could mount that on top of the wooden box, but it would likely get in the way. It would make a lot more sense to set it on the side and use a connector to plug it into the box, so I could take them apart for later storage.

It's a lot of work for a game I can't imagine playing for more than a week tops. Still, I've put more effort into stranger things. We'll see where this goes.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Viva PlatforMonth! Battleblock Theater

First order of business: there's a crazy good game sale currently going on over at the Xbox Live Marketplace, with over a dozen different Capcom games and expansion packs at clearance prices. You don't need to be a Gold member to take advantage of these deals, so if you're in the market for a cheap copy of Street Fighter III or just need all the extra characters in Street Fighter X Tekken, here's your chance to clean up. (Speaking of cleaning up, Dustforce is also part of the sale, in case you needed to get in touch with your inner janitor.)

Things get a little, uh, hectic later in the game.
(Image courtesy of Microsoft)
All right, now to the second order of business. I missed Anne Lee's last two Game-Along months, so I figured now would be the time to make up for it by reviewing one of my latest acquisitions. Battleblock Theater was offered as a Games with Gold freebie last month, and I can confidently say that this is one of the best side-scrolling action titles I've played all year. Sure, the rough-edged, anarchic graphics (supplied by Dan Paladin of Castle Crashers fame) might be a turn-off for some, but the level designs are absolutely sublime, as clever and intricate as anything you'll find in the Super Mario Bros. series. 

You'll walk across clouds, push blocks over lethal laser beams, launch yourself into the air by stepping on heated coals, and trigger chain reactions of exploding cubes, all in pursuit of the green gems scattered throughout each stage. You'll need only three to escape the current level, but finding more will improve your grade for the stage and let you buy new characters. There are tons of customization options in Battleblock Theater, and while they don't change the core gameplay much, it's still a lot of fun to swap the hero for a pirate... or a wizard... or a koala... or a blue mushroom armed with a plunger.

The game's only serious flaw is that the fighting should either have been redesigned or removed entirely. Your character, who moves as nimbly as a gazelle when racing across platforms and leaping over spikes, has all the reflexes of a NyQuil addict while in combat. Admittedly, chasing after cats to steal their gems can be a lot of frantic fun, but most of your encounters with felines will end with you luring them into spikes or water, because melee combat is so utterly hopeless.

Fortunately, it's usually not a problem. Eighty percent of the time, you'll be leaping for distant platforms, shimmying up ladders, and stumbling across hidden paths, all while an eccentric announcer comments on your performance. It's simple, satisfying fun in the grand tradition of the NES, illustrating that when the designers at The Behemoth were playing late '80s classics like Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man, they weren't just enjoying themselves... they were taking notes.