Archive for the ‘Misc’ Category

Another year

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

I’m not one for navel-gazing, but I wanted to take advantage of the change in the calendar to reflect a bit on the past year, and what I’m doing now.

When I last updated, we were on the cusp of participating in the Extra Life for Kids video game marathon. We were successful, and were able to raise $600 for Riley Hospital for Children. That was pretty great.

I also managed to keep this site updated for several weeks in a row, something that I slacked off on when I started preparing for the marathon. However, I also was working on launching This Videogame Rocks, which is a website to chronicle my love of video games and video game culture, and to tie in and hone all of the skills that I’ve acquired while farting around with this site, while having a less embarrassing domain name to say. I’m still working on finding my groove over there, so it’s pretty light on content for the time being. But, please, check it out and let me know what you think.

This is also the time of year (well, last week was, I guess) where people tend to set New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t do that. Not because I think I’m better than anyone or because I don’t think that I can improve in any way, but because New Year’s Resolutions almost never stick. Setting a whole bunch of lofty goals all at once and then getting frustrated because I can’t do them all flawlessly is just a recipe for failure. Besides, why would I vow to improve myself only one time a year? Self improvement is a never-ending process, and one that I maybe don’t do as well as I could. But I don’t worry about that. I look at what I’m doing and where I want to be and make adjustments as needed. I might fail, I might not. But, as they say, the journey is more important than the destination. So, if I’m destined to fail (and I hope I’m not, but who can say), the best thing I can do is to make sure that I have fun while failing.

So, join me, won’t you?

Won’t you?

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.


Sunday, October 5th, 2014

Some time back I slapped together some hardware for the express purpose of capturing and streaming video game footage, which I’ve done a fair amount of (and I even managed to raise a couple of dollars for charity).

Lately, though, I’ve been going through some of my old NES games, getting them cleaned and testing them, and capturing some short clips for one reason or another, and then this happened.

The picture started freaking out. I played it anyway for a few minutes just to check out the scrambled mess that resulted, put it on Youtube, shared it around, and had some fun with it.

Then, the next night, I moved on to Castlevania III, and it happened again, worse, somehow.

So, why is this happening? Well, my NES is about 30 years old now, so the age of the hardware could be an issue, but that’s only a part of the problem.

Problem #1 – A worn out internal connector. The ‘Toaster’-style NES is probably the one most recognized by just about everyone who has even a passing interest in the NES. It had a funky method of inserting the games where you inserted the cartridge, and then locked it in the ‘down’ position via some internal hardware. This bends the receiving pins slightly every time you insert a cartridge, and, thanks to metal fatigue, they eventually don’t spring back into place as well any more. This means that eventually, those pins will fail completely and no games will work. Before that, though, they’ll just get intermittent.

Problem #2 – The 10NES lockout chip is fussy. You may not have heard about the 10NES lockout chip, but if you’ve spent a lot of time with the NES hardware, you’re probably familiar with one of the tell-tale symptoms of it being fussy: the flashing title screen. There’s lots of information about it on the Internet if you want to look it up, but most of the information seems to imply that you should just disable the chip completely, which I may do someday (sorry, Nintendo).

Problem #3 – Blowing in the cartridges. This is something that everyone (really, everyone) who played video games in the NES heyday knew about: game not working? Blow into it to ‘get the dust out’. Which, it happens, did work. For a while. Eventually, it stopped working, or it took more and more tries to blow out the ‘dust’. It turns out that blowing in the cartridges wasn’t such a great idea. It worked in the short term because the breath from your lungs contains some moisture, which got on the contacts, and that made them more electrically conductive, to the 10NES chip was satisfied and you went down the road playing whatever. But, electricity plus moisture can equal corrosion, and that’s what a lot of NES games are suffering from now.

Problem #4 – Improper cleaning. Since a lot of these cartridges are now quite old and many have not been maintained well, it’s not uncommon to find one with lots of corrosion or dirt or worse fouling up the pins. So, you’ll, of course, want to clean them to give them the best chance (and to not foul your system). The cleaner that I’ve always used and recommend is some isopropyl alcohol, a cotton swab, and some elbow grease (maybe also a screwdriver with a security bit, for good measure). That will take care of most forms of gunk that accumulates on cartridges. If you come across something that that won’t handle, you can work your way up to stronger stuff like pencil erasers, and even high-grit sand paper(!) in extreme cases. Some people advocate using things like stove cleaner as a routine step, but that makes me extremely nervous. I’m a huge advocate of using the least-potentially-damaging material first, and then working my way up to the tougher stuff if needed. Some people like shortcuts, though, and I get that. So, it’s possible that I got a cartridge that belonged to an overzealous cleaner who damaged some of the connecting pins on the cartridges.

Now that I look back on it, with the possibilities of everything that could and did go wrong, I’m impressed that I could even get the NES to work at all. Then or now.

Backlog, Schmacklog

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

As recently as a month ago, I was making grand proclamations about how I was going to knuckle down and get my backlog under control. I was going to pare down that list bit by bit and eliminate it once and for all. That was a good idea, in theory, and I am still making progress toward that goal, but I very quickly came to a realization: No matter what I do, my backlog is probably never going to be zero.

And I’m okay with that.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m giving up and am going to let myself drown under an ever-growing pile of unfinished games. That would be crazy. But I did go through my backlog and I identified three kinds of games in there and my likeliness to get them finished as a good first step.

Type 1 – Games I got as a part of a bundle that I didn’t really want in the first place. There are way, way too many game bundles floating around on the Internet. Lots of these game bundles are ‘pay what you want’ with special plums if you pay over a certain dollar amount. The big problem is that you get a game that you want, that is maybe pretty good, and you also get four or five (or more) other games that you’ve never heard of, didn’t really want, and may never play. I have lots of these artificially inflating the number of games in my backlog, so it looks worse than it actually is. It’s tempting to get rid of a lot of these games, but since most of them are digital-only, I’m stuck with them.

Type 2 – Games that looked interesting or were recommended, but it turns out that I didn’t like. Games like 3D-Dot Game Heroes get moderately favorable reviews, and look interesting enough for a try (or were in the bargain bin), but on putting them in, it turns out that they’re just not very good. I’m sure that to someone somewhere these games are good, but I’m not going to waste my time slogging through them if I’m not having any fun doing it.

Type 3 – Games that are just too long. Probably until I either retire or hit the lottery, my time for playing games is limited, and even when I do get a chance to play, I may not be able to play in long stretches. Some weeks I can manage six or eight hours, and other weeks it’s a bit less (like zero). That time may not be in big chunks, either. Some days I might only have a few ten or twenty minute chunks of time that I can devote to a game, other days it might be two or three hours. If I can’t pick up a game and put it down after a few minutes, I may end up putting it down and coming back to it just after never. If a game takes 40 or more hours to complete, and I can work in 10 hours a week playing it, it’s still going to take me a month or so to get to the end.

What are the odds that I’m going to finish these up? Type 1 is very unlikely. I might play it once to see what it’s all about, or I might never look at it. I didn’t really want it in the first place, so these don’t count toward my backlog. I can write them off.

Type 2 games can also be written off. I’m not going to force myself to play something I didn’t like. If I gave it a try and didn’t like it enough to finish it, or at all, then I’m knocking it out of the backlog.

Type 3 games are an interesting category. Games that I liked, probably, but took so long to play that I just got tired of playing them every free evening for a month or more. These games I’d like to get back to, but the odds of me doing that are directly related to how long it’s been since I played it last. A game that I last played a month ago? There’s a decent chance I’ll give it another go in a couple of weeks after I’ve played something short to ‘cleanse my palate’, so to speak. Something I stopped playing in 2007 two consoles ago? Assuming I remember that I have a saved game, and the console is still hooked up to my television, I might play again. But, realistically, we can take these off the list, too, if they haven’t been played in the last year.

And, just like that, my backlog goes from insane and completely unmanageable to slightly off-kilter and kind of manageable.

It’s a start. I’ll take it.

I don’t have any gaming guilty pleasures

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

Every once in a while, probably to foster discussion, I see a website or a twitter account ask what gaming guilty pleasures that I have, and my answer is always the same: I don’t have any.

So, what is a guilty pleasure, anyway? A guilty pleasure is something that you enjoy (game, music, movie, activity, whatever) that you feel guilty about liking, and maybe want other people to not know that you do.

That’s odd, right? It’s not just me, is it? You have a thing that you like, but you have to keep it a secret so that other people don’t find out about it, because if they do find out about you liking the thing, then they’re going to think you’re weird. Especially if they all dislike the thing. Then you’ll be the only one in the group that likes the thing that everyone else doesn’t.

Which is not that big of a deal.

Maybe it’s because I grew up at a time where video games weren’t as mainstream as they are today. It was a time where having an interest in computers and video games was something that weird outcasts did, so it didn’t really matter what I liked. The other outcasts and I would talk about whatever games we liked amongst ourselves, and that was pretty much that. We liked a lot of the same games, sure, but we also liked games that the others didn’t, or even that the others had never heard of. But that meant we had more games to try and like or not like as appropriate.

Or maybe it’s because I’m comfortable in forming my own opinions without worrying what other people are going to think. Especially on matters as trivial as the kind of entertainment I like. I realize that this might sound like I’m being preachy or like a chapter out of a self-help book, but I don’t have a problem telling people what kinds of games I like because my friends don’t mind if like something that they don’t. Sure, they might think it’s a little weird that I don’t like the newest Shootymans 3 game or whatever, but I think it’s just as weird that they do like it. Besides, with friends lists, always online consoles, and game collections and activity being on the public Internet, trying to hide a game you’re enjoying playing from your friends is borderline impossible:

Oh, look, I spent 12 hours playing Faerie Solitaire, or I played a video game based on professional wrestling on the Xbox 360, or I imported a cutesy puzzler from Japan to play on my PS3.

So, I’m going to continue on, liking what I want to, and disliking what I want to without feeling bad about it in the slightest or worrying about what other people might think of something as trivial as my preferred video games.

Their loss is my gain

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

We’ve all been there, right? Just minding our own business when we find out that a store is going out of business right now, everything is some huge percentage off, and we just have to get there before they close today… forever!

Well, that happened to me today.

Found out that one of the used video game traders in town was going out of business at the end of the day today and that it was all 85% off, so I headed on down and made a couple of additions to the ol’ collection

Now I just need to find time to play these. Good thing it’s Summer, right?

Being a successful failure

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Alfred, Lord Tennyson once wrote (among other things)

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

Which some folks have failed in remembering, attributing, and quoting as some variation of:

It’s better to have tried and failed, than to never have tried at all

I’ve even heard that Abraham Lincoln himself was some kind of colossal failure (which isn’t entirely true, by the way) until he became president. Which is, I guess, supposed to make me feel better about any mistakes I might make or hardships I might encounter, because some day I’ll be president! Then I’ll probably somehow stop making mistakes and be the most best president of all time… at least until some other joker gets elected.

But what does that have to do with this website, or video games, or anything else?

More than you might think.

For the last 11 years or so, the network of sites (including this site, this site, and this site, which have all been archived) have taught me a lot. Each of those sister sites that I’ve started over the years scratched a particular itch, and none of them became what one might call successful. But I have learned a lot, and if you don’t mind a little navel-gazing, some of the lessons I’ve learned include:

  • How to set up and run a web/email server in a non Microsoft Windows environment (Hello, all the website software that I tried to use)
  • How to restore your web/email server from a backup once it’s compromised
  • How to secure a web/email server and keep it up to date
  • How to create a blog post every day for 500 days in a row
  • How to set up and administer bulletin board software
  • How to capture and edit screen shots and videos to teach people how to do something they might not otherwise know how to do
  • How to run a collaborative blog
  • How to objectively talk about what I like and don’t like about video games
  • And more things than you probably want to read about here

But what does all of that mean? Not much. I’m not president yet, and nothing I’ve done on the Internet (with a couple of exceptions) made much of a ripple. In fact, it seems like the lesson might be that: You can’t have success without hard work and determination, but just those two things alone won’t make it happen. There’s a bit of luck involved in being in the right place at the right time.

Stated another way. It sometimes seems like it’s possible to have a dream, chase it for years, work as hard as you can, and still fail to achieve it because circumstances favored some other person with the same dream.

So it’s very easy to become bitter and jealous. To look to those who have success doing something you like to do and are good at, and realizing that no matter how many hours you invest in doing the same thing (or something related), you won’t be as successful (or famous, or rich, or paid), if you’re successful at all.

Which is kind of a bummer.

Until you start to reflect on the journey. Until you think back at all the things you’ve learned along the way. The ways you’ve honed your craft, the techniques you’ve discovered, streamlining your workflow, growing as a person, and finding what makes you happy and sticking with it. Most of the time you can’t force success. It either happens or it doesn’t, and most of the time it doesn’t. But it’s pretty obvious that success never comes to those who don’t try, and I’ll keep trying to have a successful website until the day I die. Or the Internet collapses. Whichever comes first.

Finishing business

Monday, February 20th, 2012

I’ve written a couple of times about a problem that impacts a select few (i.e. “most”) of us video game aficionados as we get older: too many games, and not enough time to play them all.

The problem, really, is twofold: I, someone who is technically an adult, finally has landed a ‘real job’, and, thus, have real actual money to spend on games pretty much whenever I want to. And those games, as a consequence of a medium that’s maturing, are getting longer and more complex. But, as a consequence of having that ‘real job’ and ‘responsibilities’, I just don’t have the time that I used to have to dedicate myself to them.

As a result, I’ve been playing games less and less, and writing about them even less than that (hello down there, blog entries from 2010!)

I guess that means that I’m burned out. That I’ve said everything that I need to say, played everything I need to play, and need to move on to the next stage of my life, right?

Uh, well, no.

No, it would be really easy for me to throw my hands up, give up, and slowly lose whatever gaming and blogging mojo I have left. To reminisce about the days when I would get excited about a new release, or find a hidden gem in the clearance bin, or the times when I used to blog about silly things only tangentially related to video games.

But I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’m going to make time. I’m going to make time to do the things I like to do. Starting with that pile of games that I bought because they looked interesting and because I would get to them ‘some day’. To do that, I’ve started up a channel over at where I can share my progress with the world.

And that should give me plenty of fodder to keep this little slice of the Internet going for a while longer.

Geez, given the sheer amount of blogs whose last post is some variation of, “I’m not dead”, you’d think I’d have enough sense to not make one here.

Pressure’s on!


Saturday, June 2nd, 2007