Archive for the ‘gimmicks’ Category

Know Your Onions

Sunday, October 12th, 2014

One of my English teachers in high school liked to say that at that level, we’re not actually learning history, we’re actually just learning History’s Greatest Hits. At the time I just laughed it off as a silly joke (he made lots of those), but, over time, I realized he was right. You go through school and get an overview of history (and just about every subject) by hitting the high points so you’re not completely ignorant of how the world and the US got where they are today. But the thing is, there’s so much history (and more of it all the time!) that it’s impossible to know it all. If you’re interested, though, you will go beyond the bare minimum required to pass your high school (and even college) classes. Most of us, though, probably don’t care about that kind of history enough to do more than watch the occasional documentary on PBS, or whatever Drunk History counts as. So, we know some history, but historians, people who love history, know lots more. That sounds obvious, but they do more than watch documentaries in order to feel smart. They do research: they read books (the horror!), they talk to other historians, they visit historic places, and so on. They know that there is more to history than everyone was required to learn in school, and they know that knowledge is out there, they just have to go get it. A lot of times they’ll specialize in one particular area and learn everything they can about it.

You probably think that being a hardcore historian is probably not for you, though. You may not care if Shakespeare actually wrote all his plays or not. You may think that Socrates is just some dead Greek dude who was the subject of a few jokes in the first Bill & Ted movie. Besides, you like video games (well, if you’re reading this site, there’s a pretty good chance that you like video games). Video games are way better than boring old history any day of the week.

But what about video game history?

Felipe Pepe wrote an intresting article on Gamasutra the other day lamenting that a lot of so-called ‘hardcore gamers’ don’t know much about the history of video games past five or ten years or so ago.

That is a disappointing realization.

Video games are becoming (or maybe have already become) a mainstream form of entertainment for everyone, but they’ve been around in one form another since at least the late 1940s. No, that’s not a typo.

Warning: From this point on, I’m going to probably sound like either a hipster or an old man yelling at a butt. You have been warned.

When I say “retro gaming” or “old video games” what do you think of? I’m going to guess that it’s Super Mario Bros or The Legend of Zelda. Maybe just the NES, Super NES, and maybe even the Genesis. Possibly Pong. You may even know that Pong was a big deal in the 80’s. It was, but it was an even bigger deal when it came out in 1972.

You may have heard about the Commodore 64, but do you know anything about it? Can you name five games for it without looking them up? Have you ever heard of the VIC-20? The PET? The Commodore 16? The Commodore 128? The Amiga? Do you know who Jack Tramiel was? Do you know why Bill Cosby is an important figure in Commodore’s history?

You might have heard about the Atari 2600, but what about the reissued Atari 2600 Jr.? The Atari 7800? The Atari 8-bit line? Do you know who Nolan Bushnell is?

Did you know that Texas Instruments had a line of computers that played games? Did you know that the TI-99/4A is actually a revised model of the TI-99/4? Did you know it supported a voice module to enable real actual speech? Do you know who its spokesperson was and why that’s important?

Do you know why games like Diablo are called ‘rogue-like’?

More importantly, have you ever actually played these games that are more than 5 years old? How about 10? 20? Further back? I don’t mean ‘load them up in an emulator and fart around with one for five minutes’, I mean actually play them for a decent amount of time. Try to finish one or set a high score (without abusing savestates, natch). Did you play something outside of the games you’ve heard of (the ‘video games greatest hits’)?

The Problem

While doing some independent research on Ironsword, the game infamous for having Fabio on the label, Wikipedia cites a GameSpy article that says:

You wouldn’t know it from the cover, but IronSword is actually a sequel to Wizards & Warriors. But thanks to the presence of Fabio on the cover, gamers got confused and thought they had accidentally picked up one of their mom’s romance novels.

It also posts a cropped picture of the label (with Fabio’s Fabulous Hair) with the caption that “Anything Fabio is involved in becomes automatically bad.”

I suppose the author was trying to be funny, I get that. But it’s pretty clear that the image was cropped to make that joke, since the full image clearly has, “Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II” at the top of the label. And, I guess I could mistake a video game for a book if I had never seen a book or a video game before. And the game itself is actually pretty good.

The problem is threefold:

  1. Old consoles are hard to find, take up room to store, and emulating games is questionably legal.
  2. A lot of writers for big sites are in their 20s. That’s not necessarily a problem, but a lot of these games came out before they were born, and since old consoles are tough to find, they probably won’t bother. They just rely on Wikipedia, cruddy Youtube videos, and other sources of second-hand (or even third-hand and fourth-hand) information.
  3. Since old consoles are hard to find, and a lot of people won’t bother trying to find or buy them anyway, the echo-chamber effect starts to take over. For instance, Phalanx for SNES usually gets lambasted as having a dumb box featuring a hillbilly playing a banjo. The game must be terrible, whatever it is, right? Wrong. It’s a passable shoot-em-up. Or, ET for the Atari 2600 is the worst game ever made, right? Nope. ET isn’t even the worst game on the Atari 2600 (Sneak ‘n’ Peek, for example). Custer’s Revenge gets a bad rap as one of the worst games ever made (and it is bad, don’t get me wrong), but it was one of those porno games, like Bubble Bath Babes on the NES (don’t Search for these games at work). It was never sitting on the shelf at your local Hills next to Kaboom and Chopper Command.

What all this means is that we have a lot of people writing authoritatively on things that they know very little about. It’s like if you were writing for a music website, but the only thing you knew about music older than 10 years is the songs from your local radio station’s 80’s dance mix, and you just assume that everything pre-1970 is either The Twist or the Foxtrot.

So, what’s the solution?

Unfortunately, I can’t demand that everyone writing about video games broaden their horizons in any meaningful way (if only). But what I can do is demand excellence, both from myself, and from the publications that I read. At the risk of being labeled a pedant and a hipster and a fogey, I can point out why your top whatever list is dumb and wrong, like this list of the 100 best games of all time that only has one game made before 1990 on it (which is Mega Man II. That’s not even the best Mega Man game on the NES).

I don’t want the industry, the consumers, or the media to forget what got us here. I don’t want the past 50+ years of games distilled down to Pong, Pac-Man, some NES stuff, and then everything else. I want to be able to discuss Pix the Cat as being a cross between Pac-Man Championship Edition and Flicky without someone not knowing what I’m talking about. We need to have one eye on the past and another on the future. And a video camera on the present, I guess? I’m not good with metaphors. Video games have a vibrant history, and a lot of that history directly shapes what we have today. Several of those experiences have not been duplicated. They may have been refined or cast off as the medium evolves, but when we study them, it helps us to know why things are now the way they are.

Operation: Get Stuff Done

Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

I’ve written on more than one occasion about how ponderously large my video game backlog has gotten. I would tell myself, “I’m saving up so I’ll have something to do when I retire.” Jokingly at first, and then semi-seriously. I kind of stopped saying that when I realized that the backlog had gotten so enormous that, at the rate I’m acquiring games today, even if I retired tomorrow, I might not be able to finish them all.

I mentioned before that a big reason that my backlog has almost taken on a life of its own has to do with the social component. Most of my friends and I have diverged in what kinds of video games we play, so there’s not as many things we can discuss about whatever game we’re playing, and there’s no friendly rivalry to see who can get all of the Gold Skulltulas first, or whatever.

But I think that’s only a part of the equation.

The second part is that there are just too many video games. There are so many video games coming out these days, and between the ludicrous number of bundles out there the wallet-destroying digital sales (Steam, Origin, GOG, etc.), it’s very easy, and sometimes very cheap, to quickly get so many games so quickly that the sheer number of the things hits you like a tidal wave. It looks daunting, but you can steel yourself. You know you can do this, you’ve been playing video games for years.

So you start trying to figure out what you want to play and analysis paralysis sets in. Do you want to play something relatively short, or do you want to play something that will take dozens of hours to complete? Which of these looks like it will be long enough, but not too long? Will I have time to play it around the times where I have to do Grown Up Stuff(tm)? Will I be able to put it down for a couple of days or even weeks and then be able to come back and remember where I was? What if it’s no good? The critics were all over the place with some of these games, what if I wasted my money on it? What if my instincts were right and I find that a game is actually good, in spite of the critical score. What if it was critically acclaimed, and I thought it was boring?

All of these whatifs were really slowing me down. I’ve been getting dragged down into analyzing the minutiae of my potential game experience and hemming and hawing about what game to play so much that instead of playing games, I’ve just been thinking about how nice it would be if I could play some of these games in my backlog, but I just don’t have time.

Or is that really true?

I wasn’t sure. I mean, I have more responsibilities now than I did when I was younger. I have a full time job, a house, I have to do my own laundry, buy and prepare my own food, maintain my own vehicle, and so on. But I’m not actively doing one of those things every moment of every day. For example, I do sleep on occasion. But what do I do with all of my time? Where does it go? I decided to find out by my typical method: overanalyzing the situation, to find out. And that means, making a chart.

Pretend there’s a chart here that shows what I’m likely to be doing at any given hour of the day.

The chart was interesting. It showed me that I have about 30 hours per week where I’m doing nothing in particular. It also showed me that even though I don’t have an 8-5 job any more, that I’ve still got my sleep schedule set up like I do. And that means that I’ve got a couple of hours that I’m spending idle every morning that I could be using for something besides sitting around waiting for time to go to work. I also have more time during the weekend than I originally thought, even though it’s pretty well scattershot through the day.

That’s encouraging.

That means that I do have time to get some game playing in, and I can slowly whittle down my backlog if I can manage to shoehorn it into the timeslots I have available. But, there’s another problem.


It’s weird to think that I would ever need to get myself mentally motivated to play video games, an activity that I have enjoyed for most of my life, but sometimes that motivation just isn’t there. I could play a game anyway, and see if that forces me to get motivated to play it more, but I don’t think I want to do that. Forcing myself to do something when I don’t really want to seems like a good way to sour me on the whole thing, which seems like a bad idea. But I can use that time to do other things related to games. I could update my blog (see the last few weeks’ worth of updates), I could read something, watch a video, create a video, and so on.

*A very important aside, I know that loss of interest in activities that you used to enjoy can be a possible sign of depression. I’m pretty sure that I don’t have that, but if you think you might, nothing I say in this article is going to help except this: I encourage you to find someone qualified to help with depression and they will help you. Depression is a serious issue, and not something that this article (or any other article on a crappy blog site) is qualified to help with.*

I also want to set some goals for myself so that I can revisit this post somewhere down the line and see if I’ve actually made any progress in whittling down the backlog. Feel free to follow along or add your own:

  • Play something for a few minutes every day.
    • Even if it’s something that I’ve played to death, playing something for a few minutes is going to keep my momentum going to tackle something bigger
  • Ignore the Backloggery
    • The Backloggery is great, but it’s a pain to remember to go update it when I buy something, when I finish something, when I 100% complete something, when I start playing something else, etc. etc. Plus, there are no penalties for failure, and no real reward for succeeding, either
  • Don’t go for 100% completion.
    • I wasn’t doing this much these days, anyway, but I need to avoid trudging through a game, trying to collect ant heads or whatever for some unlock or a trophy or something.
  • Don’t rush through the game, either
    • I’m weird, I know, but I hate rushing through a game the first time I play it. I like to soak in all the ambiance and immerse myself into it if I can.
  • Play one new game per month
    • This one is going to be tricky, and my not be sustainable. But the idea here is to at least try something in the backlog instead of letting it sit there and rot, especially if it’s one of the shorter games, to see if it’s even something that I’ll like. I’ve bought some duds before, and didn’t find out about it for over a year because it took me that long to get to them.
  • If a game is terrible, shelve it
    • This goes hand-in-hand with the above. If I try out the new game and it stinks, well, then I just won’t play it any more and I’ll move on to the next one. I don’t need to force myself to slog though it to the end, hoping it will get better. It might, but I don’t really want to waste my time not having fun now for promises of something that might be kind of fun later. I need to trust my instincts, if it’s not fun now it probably won’t be fun later, either.
  • Limit MMORPG time
    • MMORPGs are great, but they will sink and steal time like no other activity I know. And, since they never really end, there’s always something for you do to in them. I had to kill my World of Warcraft subscription a while back because that was all I was doing with my free time at the time. Now, since there are so many MMORPGs that are free to play, it’s incredibly easy to get lost running around a virtual world doing things for hours and hours without actually spending a dime. That’s almost worse than a paid subscription. A paid subscription makes you feel like you need to play something to get your money’s worth out of it, a free subscription is always there, waiting on you to have an hour or three to kill, and that can be dangerous.

Of course, these are only guidelines. Who knows if I can actually stick to them or not, but I won’t know if I don’t try. I’ll be refining them as I go on, seeing what works and what doesn’t. I don’t expect to ever have a backlog of zero unless I just sell all of my games and consoles (fat chance of that happening any time soon), but I can do more to get it pared down, it’s just going to take some work.

And, who’s afraid of a little work?

Gimmicky failures

Friday, November 20th, 2009

It’s been pretty well established that I like gimmicky video game accessories. So it would follow that I’d have a pretty large selection of the things. But, not all of them can be awesome, can they?

Uh, well, no. No they can’t.

Like the Super Controller. It was little more than a plastic shell that went over the NES controller, and you could stick a tiny joystick into the hole on the crosspad.

Yeah, it didn’t work very well, made the controller way too thick, and I had a really hard time trying to hold onto the tiny joystick with my left thumb and forefinger while holding the controller aloft with the other hand. Besides, it just looked silly.

Or the Nakitek Game Saver+. It’s a clunky monstrosity that took batteries and / or A/C power. The idea was that you could play whatever game you wanted, press some magic button combination on your controller, and the game would be suspended in the thing’s RAM for as long as the thing had power. You could then take a break and come back to your position later, or you could take it out (game still mounted in it) take it to another SNES and resume from where you left off. Sounds great, right?

Yeah, maybe, if it worked. I fished mine from the bottom of a bargain bin for a couple of bucks, so I didn’t really have high hopes for the thing, which turned out to be a Good Thing(tm). Either my controller was broken or my Game Saver was, but I couldn’t get the magic key combination to work at all, which meant that I spent five of my best dollars on an ugly piece of plastic.