Thursday, December 18, 2014

The future of Street Fighter is here, and it is noodly.

Fans everywhere of Capcom's "Street Fighter" fighting game series rejoiced this week. Not only did a new patch for Ultra Street Fighter IV get released which included character re-balancing and the debut of the supremely wacky Omega Mode, but we also got our first glimpse at a live match of Street Fighter V which was announced for PC and Playstation 4.

While the Nerdist runs the headline as "Destructible Stages Revealed in First Ever Live Street Fighter V Match", I think they buried the lead here. The real headline should be "Chun-Li Kicks Butt, Even With A Bowl Of Noodles On Her Head."

If you fast forward to around 6:54, you will see series mainstay Ryu finish a round against Chun-Li with a devastating Denjin Hadoken, pushing her through the stage wall and into the kitchen where a bowl of noodles lands on her head. It's not just a cutscene tagged onto the end of the round - the noodles stay on her head for all of her victorious last round and the closing tag, despite her rather acrobatic Spinning Bird Kicks.

Certainly, there are more implications to be discussed, like why Street Fighter V isn't going to make it to XBox One or WiiU, or how on earth Charlie has made it back into the series despite being MIA since the Alpha series games, but those will have to wait for another time.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Infinitely lost in the toy aisle...

On the way back from doing a little bit of computer tech work this morning, I thought I would peek my head in the local ToysRUs. I thought that it might not be a total madhouse, since even though it was getting closer to Christmas I still had the advantage of it being both Sunday and lunchtime.

While they had a good special on games (buy one game $19.99 or under get the second 40% off), the majority of the games available on special were games that I had already purchased. The one game that stood out as something I might play (Midnight Club Los Angeles - Complete Edition) is tainted by the fact that I only got to the end one of the three versions of Midnight Club that were on the PS2, and I don't really think that I unlocked everything even in that one. As I might have mentioned before, I already have plenty of things to play.

ToysRUs has made most of their stores work in a loop fashion, similar to the layouts of Harmon Face Value Stores and Bed Bath & Beyond. At the beginning of the loop are usually seasonal and promotional items, so while you might have found Halloween costumes there two months ago, the front area is now filled with Christmas candy and new offerings from their featured vendors including LEGO, Skylanders, and a large (15' high by about 18' wide)  Disney Infinity 2.0 display.

I had previously mentioned to my children that the reason we didn't play Skylanders is that at the time (2011) was that it was the most expensive game at retail. ("Steel Battalion" by CAPCOM used to have that distinction because of the ridiculously expensive custom controller.) The basic game was similar to the Gauntlet series, where you got a bunch of characters together and tried to fight your way through a series of levels, using the power of the skills of the different characters. The reason I discouraged my kids from this game was that to be able to play every thing that was already on the game disk, it would cost over $300 (and this was just for the first Skylanders game), and you could buy five or six other new release games that didn't do that to you for that amount of money, and maybe ten or fifteen games if you picked them up used or waited for the price drop. Why so expensive? It's expensive because they sell you in-game characters a la carte as plastic toys with computer chips that stored your data in them that range in price from $8 to $15 each, and only certain characters types can unlock and play certain missions.

Now, Disney/Marvel has jumped on this bandwagon and created Disney Infinity, now on version 2.0. Taking elements from both their own and other "sandbox" style games, they have combined it with the same RFID/toy technology used in the Skylanders games and their own gigantic stable of Disney and Marvel characters. (The first Infinity game was only Disney/Pixar characters.) While it may be cool for an eight year old boy to play as a giant spore-shooting mushroom, or a big muscular brawler that looks like an eyeball, it's going to be really hard to compete with a game where you can play as Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Elsa,  Anna, Merida, Sully, Mike Wazowski, Buzz Lightyear, or Malificent (and dozens more). The same rule as Skylanders applies - if you want to play as a character, you need to buy the corresponding plastic toy for $14.

Maybe this would be easier if you could see it in action. This is from Disney Infinity's own Youtube channel.

Perhaps this is a hard concept to convey, because since you can do all sorts of things in the Toybox mode of Disney Infinity, it's almost easier to say what the game isn't than what it is.

So, back to the loop thing. The way the ToysRUs is set up puts the expensive "R" Zone items (electronics, most of the video games, tablets, headphones) at the end of your loop so you can't second-guess yourself as you go around the store, and also so the employee that has to take things out of a locked case for you can then just ring up your purchases at that point. The video displays that they have in the store include a setup for Infinity 2.0 and a setup for Skylanders so that parents and kids can get an idea of what the game is about. But, if you ran into Disney Infinity at the beginning of the loop and didn't know what it was, do you supposed that you could find out what that game is about? Probably not. Even though it should sell enough copies this year to make an amount of money for Disney/Marvel that would make Scrooge McDuck a little envious, most of the ToysRUs employees aren't in the right demographic to get any firsthand exposure to these games. I saw a couple over by the big display out front that were struggling with understanding even the most basic thing about the game. They were a little exasperated that the employees didn't know that much. I was happy to help them pick out the PS4 version today along with Anna and Elsa figures, and answer a few easy questions for them. Since the questions are relevant, perhaps they are worth including.

What is Disney Infinity 2.0? It's an open-world/sandbox game where you can explore, race, shoot stuff, build buildings, and all kinds of things. Some specific missions go with some spefic characters, and that unlocks more things that you can use in the Toybox mode.

What's the difference between the Marvel Super Heroes version of Disney Infinity 2.0 and the Toy Box Version? The biggest difference is the starting characters. The Marvel Super Heroes version comes with three of the Avengers (Iron Man, Black Widow, and Thor), and the Toybox version comes with Merida from "Brave" and Stitch from "Lilo and Stitch". The game disk is the same, the Infinity base is the same, and what happens from there depends entirely on what characters you have. The reason for the two versions is just that it makes more sense to start you with a few Disney characters or a few Marvel characters, and the things available to do in the game vary based on what you start with.

What platform should I get it for? Get it for the newest platform that you still intend to be playing a year from now or are comfortable with your kids hogging all the time. The PS4 is going to run a lot smoother than the PS3 version and be able to do a lot more visual effects at once even though the basic style of the graphics will be the same.

I learned later that the PS4 version will be capable of building much larger Toybox areas, since the machine has more RAM available to do that. The same is true of the XBox One version over the 360 version. Sadly, the WiiU version is more on par with the PS3/XBox360 versions in that regard.

If you want to learn even more about the game, you should probably check out more of the videos on the Disney Infinity Youtube channel. I don't think we'll be picking up the game here since I don't want to fall in the Skylanders trap, and I will have my own problems with amiibos on the WiiU by the time Christmas rolls around.

As part of my usual schtick, since I do identify myself as SuperMonkeyCube to people when I meet them in person in a situation like this, I did do a quick(ish) Rubik's cube demo for the couple that I helped. (Three unseen mistakes, still finished in 37 seconds.)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Things to be thankful for...

So, it's Black Friday weekend, and all of us have been trying as hard as we can to get screen time. Everybody was on their DS on Thursday since we spent a lot of it in the car. My older son is working on Pokemon Alpha Sapphire on his Nintendo 3DS, and my younger son was playing more Scribblenauts and some Desktop Tower Defense on his 2DS. About the only thing that I bring to play on DS is my Korg DS cartridge, and I had fun figuring out how to make some drum noises that don't really sound like drums.

My older son and I are still trying to unlock all of the characters on Hyrule Warriors, and it seems like we've had to do a lot of repeated boards to get our characters leveled up enough to face the later challenges. I still have a long way to go on the WiiU version of Bayonetta and the new Bayonetta 2. I was in Gamestop the other day and my regular cashier asked me if I had started the new Smash Bros. game for WiiU, and my exasperated answer was that I still had a long way to go on the last two games that I got! We haven't even talked about the new LEGO Batman 3 game, since my older son and I are casually pretending that the game's not out yet so we're not inundated for requests from my younger son to pick up the game some weekend with Christmas on the way.

The first add-on pack for Mario Kart 8 came out a couple of weeks ago, and the playable Link character and the Hyrule Castle board are both nice additions to the game. I haven't played with the Tanooki Mario or Cat Peach characters yet, but I did see that some of the other courses make for some multiplayer insanity.  The Excitebike course has super-long straightaways leading to lots of shell-flinging shenanigans. Ice Ice Outpost is full of multiple paths most of which require rather precision driving or you will easily find yourself taking an ice bath.

So, even though I haven't picked up either of the newest systems, the PS4 or the XBox One, it still seems like there are plenty of games to play. There are still games coming out for the PS3, and the WiiU seems to have a steady stream of new releases coming out soon to be bolstered by the presence of the newest addition to the WiiU system, the amiibo.  Similar to their Skylanders and Disney Infinity counterparts, an amiibo is a plastic representation of one of the Nintendo characters with some electronics inside that will identify it to the WiiU. Unlike the Skylanders and Disney Infinity characters which each require their own portal, the Amiibo can talk directly to the WiiU gamepad. There is a newer model of the 3DS that has not been released yet that will also be able to read the amiibo information. For the 3DS and 2DS units that are already out, there will be an external  peripheral that will be released next year. Even more curiously, the amiibos do different things in different games. In Smash Bros., they become a specific character that you work on leveling up, in a very similar fashion to how they work in Skylanders and Disney Infinity. In Hyrule Warriors, different amiibos interact with the game in different ways. Some amiibos of the Zelda series characters give you weapons, and from the in-game description it sounds like some of the other ones give you random gifts (which I can only presume are materials to craft upgrades from). In Mario Kart 8, you can customize your Mii racer with an outfit based on the character that your amiibo is based on. I hope that they find other interesting ways to utilize these.

I am also looking forward to Street Fighter IV's upcoming Omega Mode patch, which will add a different version of each of the World Warriors to the line up, with different special moves and inputs. While the existing version of Ultra allows you to play as any previous Street Fighter IV version of any of the characters, the differences between those four versions are rather subtle and are just adjustments to the nuances of the game's balance. The Omega Mode versions are rather different, as you can see here.

So, what am I thankful for (as a gamer) this holiday season? I am thankful for the fact that there are more games out than I have time to play. That reminds me. I need to get ready for band practice.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Bayonetta 2 Demo for WiiU, part 2 - Touch(y) Controls

In my previous post I briefly mentioned that the Bayonetta 2 demo for WiiU offers an option for touch controls that I had not tried. I have tried them, and I'm not convinced that they're useful, but I think I might understand why they were available.

The most important buttons for Bayonetta are dodge, jump, punch, and kick. In the default control configuration, all of these are mapped to right hand buttons that are easy to get to - ZR, B, X, and A. If you're unfamiliar with the layout, have a look. Movement is handled with the left analog stick, which is fairly standard.

With the touch controls, Bayonetta turns to face the location of where you tap on the screen. I think that if you tap and hold, Bayonetta is supposed to run to that location but there are very few opportunities to test this in the demo as the battle is constantly in motion. If you tap on an enemy, you move towards them and attack them. However, I have no idea (and the demo of the game does not say) how it decides whether any given attack is a kick or a punch. Jumping is done by double tapping, which I did not find difficult to do with either hand. Dodging is done with a swipe, which was easy enough. No individual motion was too difficult to perform, but fluidly doing exactly what I intended seemed difficult. Stylish action games usually demand precision, although Bayonetta is forgiving in this way by offering a wider range of difficulties than most of the other games in this style.

Since the release of this game had been in question until Nintendo became involved, I wonder if Platinum had been considering a way to put Bayonetta on a tablet or a phone platform as a way to recoup having developed a significant chunk of the game already. Certainly another possibility is that the touch controls were added after Nintendo's involvement at Nintendo's request. Bayonetta 2 was initially being developed for SEGA by Platinum, but when SEGA felt they had other priorities and back-burnered Bayonetta 2 Platinum had to talk to other producers and the console companies because they wanted to see if they could still manage to release a game after all the work they had already put into it. Thankfully, Nintendo stepped in to help, but that posed a different problem. Since the original Bayonetta was not on a Nintendo platform, there were many people resistant to the idea of buying a second game without having played the first one. Platinum has fixed this by including a beautiful port of the original Bayonetta along with the purchase of Bayonetta 2, making it a fantastic value. On top of this, Platinum and Nintendo have created extra costumes for Bayonetta to wear in the style of Samus from the Metroid series, Princess Peach from the Mario series, and Link from the Legend of Zelda series. (I thought I also saw something about Star Fox as well but I can't be sure  Not only are there Nintendo-themed costumes available in both the original Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2, but each costume includes a unique weapon to add to the already varied gameplay.

Having spent enough time playing the first Bayonetta on a PlayStation 3 controller, I don't think I'll be taking the step backwards to touch controls. Perhaps some people new to the game will be able to start purely with the touch controls and do something amazing with them. It can't be any crazier than trying to play Soul Calibur with a SEGA fishing controller...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Things for WiiU : Hyrule Warriors and Bayonetta 2

Maybe it's because I've been listening to too many Nerdist podcasts with Chris Hardwick, or maybe it's the drummer in my band who works on advertising who did this to me, but I have this concept lodged in my head that I can't get out.

If you're going to pitch a new game idea/movie idea/story idea to someone else, it has to be conveyed in terms of two things that the person you're pitching to is already familiar with.

For example, if  Sam Raimi were pitching Army of Darkness to someone trying to get funding after he just did Evil Dead 2, he could say that it's Evil Dead 2 meets A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Sometimes you can use more basic references, like you could say that Blade Runner is a murder mystery but with robots. (Yes I know they're called replicants, but you shouldn't use a word you're just going to have to turn around and explain in a pitch.) So if I were to explain the new WiiU game Hyrule Warriors to you, it could be framed in the same way - it's The Legend of Zelda meets Dynasty Warriors.

Of course, one of the problems with that is that not everybody has played Dynasty Warriors, and compared to the long-running success of the Legend of Zelda games, it's practically a niche title. The other problem with that is that the Dynasty Warriors games have all been on Playstation 2 and 3 (and now 4). The only games that have come out for a Nintendo system that are even close to the gameplay of Dynasty Warriors are Mystic Heroes which came out for Gamecube in 2002 and Sengoku Basara which came out for Wii in 2010 (which was played in our house almost continuously for a stretch of  a year or more).

The word used to denote this style of game is Musou, because Koei/Tecmo made most of these games and so those games are referred to as Musou games or Warriors games. Unless you work for CAPCOM, it's probably acceptable to say that "Sengoku Basara is a Musou-style game series made by CAPCOM".  These games have a variety of characters to choose from, and a number of medium-size playfields broken into smaller areas. The characters typically have swords or pikes or other melee weapons, but some characters also have more fantastic attacks that may seem like guns or magic or something else that isn't totally realistic. Most of these games heavily rely on fantasy elements to keep the gameplay moving along. The characters all seem to have attacks that are widely varied from character to character so each character may require a different approach. They are designed to simulate a battle scenario that includes a number of base camps for your character to conquer. As you play through a level, the game will put messages on-screen to tell you what the victory conditions are, and sometimes they change during the course of a battle. Your character usually has to fight thousands of enemies throughout the course of a battle, most of which are rather minor, some base commanders that are a little more substantial, and some of which are powerful "boss" characters that have strength more on par with yours.

With Hyrule Warriors, there are both existing characters to choose from and some new characters created specifically for the game. Our hero Link, the princess Zelda and her alter ego Sheik, the fierce warrior Impa, the evil Ganondorf, Princess Ruta of the Zora Kingdom, and the Goron leader Darunia, are all available as playable characters from the Zelda series. Even the newer sidekicks like Midna and Fi are playable. Most strangely, Agitha is a playable character, but here insect-based attacks are quite the force to be reckoned with. Rounding out the first wave of playable Zelda universe characters are the bad guys Girahim from Skyward Sword and Zant from Twilight Princess. Lana is a cutesy magic-user made specifically for the game who can use a big spell book or a staff from the Deku tree.  Her rival the evil sorceress Cia will be a playable character if you get some of the DLC for this game.

Here's a rather long clip from the Treehouse that shows a lot of footage from the game.

My older son has completed the main story already and has most of the characters unlocked that are currently available. He's still having a difficult time working his way through the Adventure Mode, since some of the specific missions require beating the boss enemies more quickly than we are used to. So, that means Zant and Girahim are still waiting to be unlocked. (I'm still working on the story mode but I wonder why I don't get to play it as often...) The game has done a fantastic job of recreating several areas directly from Skyward Sword, Twilight Princess, and the Ocarina of Time. Some of the other areas are a little less recognizable to me, but maybe I should have played more Majora's Mask. It plays exactly as I would expect, and the game seems very responsive even when there are scores of enemies on the screen. The only complaint I could possibly have on the visuals is that when the game is played 2-player, one person plays on the GamePad screen and the second player plays on the TV, and the person that plays on the GamePad screen gets a little less visual fidelity than normal. Some of the effect passes are skipped over when rendering the small screen. It does seem like genius to not have the splitscreen, since my biggest problem with two-player Sengoku Basara was that the split screen made it difficult to see what you were supposed to be doing a lot of the time.

Some hardcore Zelda fans are bound to be disappointed by this game because it's not a real Zelda game to them, but if you're a fan of beat-em ups or the Warriors games and also like the Zelda characters, there is so much fan service and depth to the game that you could play the game for weeks and still have characters to level up, Golden Skulltulas to find, and challenges to master. If that's not quite enough, for another $20 you can get all of the DLC that is going to be put out over the next several months.

In other news, Platinum Games' stylish action title Bayonetta 2 is finally coming out for WiiU this month. Before the WiiU was even released, Platinum had announced that Bayonetta 2 was going to be a WiiU exclusive because of Nintento's help in making the game happen. The first Bayonetta game told the story of a woman that wakes up from a lake not knowing exactly who she is but having to figure out why she is a witch, why there are creepy monsters with halos trying to kill her, why there is a doofus reporter and a small girl chasing after her, and how to dance around firing guns on her feet and using her hair as a weapon. The pitch for Bayonetta 2 should be "Everything that you already did in Bayonetta 1, but bigger!" For WiiU owners that didn't play the original Bayonetta, a port of the first game is included on a separate disc, with the addition of Samus, Princess Peach, and Link costumes with unique weapons for Bayonetta to unlock and use.

There is a demo out for Bayonetta 2, which we have played already. You get a brief tutorial on the controls, which are identical to the first game with the exception of one button. In the demo, you start out fighting three large centaur-like enemies at a time while on the back of a fighter jet flying through skyscrapers while another larger enemy flies around. At some point, you start attacking the larger enemy from the plane, and then jump down on the back of a moving train to continue the battle. The third part involves battling a large monster at the spire of a tall building, King-Kong style. Here's a look from GamersPrey HD:

I did pretty horrible at the game, I think a got a third or fourth-tier ranking (either Silver or Stone) but I was so busy looking at everything that I didn't care about my bad score. This looks pretty great, has more going on visually than the original did, runs much more smoothly, and I'm really looking forward to playing this in a week or two assuming everybody else isn't still hogging the machine. For those of you that played this on PS3 and you're not sure how you feel about the GamePad controller for an action game, the solution would be dropping another $50 on the WiiU Pro Controller. Now there is another control option that involved the touchscreen, but I didn't check to see what that was yet. If it turns out to be significant, I will post about it separately.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Well, it's about gosh darn time.

No, I'm not talking about pumpkin doughnuts, although we did have some.

No, I'm not talking about the new Super Smash Bros. (That's mostly because I don't really care about the 3DS version of it and I'm perfectly happy to wait until the WiiU version is out.)

I'm talking about the fact that I actually got a professional demolisher to take apart one of the new Hasbro Rubik's Cubes so I can see what it looks like inside. My wife and I were waiting at one of my kid's appointments, and she figured out that she would be able to remove one of the egde pieces using her housekey. I waited a couple more days to post this, partly because I didn't have the camera batteries charged, and partly because I wanted to be sure that I could reassemble the cube again after I took the photos but before I posted this. If it was impossible to reassemble, I wanted to be able to warn people not to do this.

It's safe to say that removing a piece is non-trivial. Even with a broken-in version of this cube, it seems to be designed in such a way that removal is rather difficult. However, for sake of comparison, let's look at the original cube pieces. This is a corner piece and an edge piece from one of my older Rubik's cubes:

And here's the interior:

Here's a corner and an edge piece from the very smooth-turning DaYan:

Here's the DaYan interior:

And now, possibly for the first time outside the Rubik's forums, here's the new Hasbro/Funskool corner and edge piece:

And the Hasbro/Funskool interior:

Of particular note is the fact that there is a notch in only one side of the center flange on each of the six center pieces. Note that the flange you can see on the white center above has the notch, the flange on the red center does not have the notch. (Well, it has a notch, but it's not positioned so that you can see it at the moment.) When I finally popped the edge piece back in, I was so relieved that I can't remember if I was able to take advantage of the position of the notches or not. The edge pieces have two different sets of tabs to hold them in to the other pieces and it makes it very hard to remove and equally difficult to put in. Even with an edge piece out, the adjacent corner pieces don't really want to come out without substantial assistance.

Once I got it all back together, it still sounds like that I have a loose piece of something inside, but I never discovered anything when I had it all apart. There is some irregular wear on a couple of pieces, but it was inside a groove that I'm unlikely to be able to sand precisely without risking breaking it.

So, overall, here's my review of the new Hasbro/Funskool Rubik's cube.


  • Widely available in Wal-Marts everywhere for $10, no need to wait for mail order
  • Plastic tiles feel nice and are completely flush with the rest of the cube
  • If you get a good one it turns much better than the previous model did right out of the box
  • Nearly impossible to tamper with
  • Much louder than nearly every other cube available
  • Even the best ones don't turn as well as a DaYan or a Ghost Hand
  • Hard to pop a piece out even with aggressive turning
  • If you get a bad one it's difficult to fix because it's...
  • Nearly impossible to tamper with
If you want a cube just to mess around with, and you're not worried about speedsolving, and you're not concerned about potentially having to buy it twice just to have one that doesn't give you tendonitis, then this is just fine. Otherwise I would have to suggest a Ghost Hand ($6 plus shipping), a DaYan ($8-$15 plus shipping) or a V-Cube ($20 but maybe not shipping. Barnes & Noble seems to be selling V-Cubes at some of their locations.)

Next Post: Hyrule Warriors and the Bayonetta 2 Demo for WiiU!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Cubing in Public, Hasbro Edition

One of the things that I did this week was take my younger child to a play group. The least I could do as a parent would be to make sure that he's better socialized than I am. Since I don't know any of the other parents that well I wasn't quite ready to socialize during the waiting around part. (See - this is why I need to do this.) I'm not worried about waiting around while the kids play, that's what I have my Rubik's cube with me for. However, it was rather quiet there, and like any lobby or waiting room it can be rather echoey.

The cube I brought the first time was one of my two new model Hasbro Official Rubik's cubes with the plastic tiles and the new mechanism that I talked about here. After doing a couple of solves, I realized that it seemed rather loud. It would seem that I am the only person that would excuse himself from a semi-social situation to go get a quieter cube. I had a couple of DaYans in the car and opted for my fancy (well, to me it's fancy) stickerless cube. While I am always happy to demonstrate my meager cube prowess, it didn't seem like I should be making a big racket to attract attention on purpose. It did seem odd to me on later reflection that I had so many cubes in the car.

In other news, I haven't seen an email back to find out why Gamora isn't on the official Guardians of the Galaxy coffee mug. I've been thinking about calling them, but I don't know how my employer might feel about a random call to Apopka on my lunch break. I suspect that the answer is going to be something like "That's the artwork that got approved by the Marvel people" without any regard for the exclusion of one of the members.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Why Comic Books and Coffee Mugs Prove I Don't Understand Feminism or Marketing.

I want to be able to say that I'm not sexist. I'd like to think so. Every once in a while, something will set me off and I tailspin into some remarkable rabbit hole of self-loathing that makes me think that either I'm some sort of naive idiot or some evil monster.

This time it was a coffee cup.

I saw Guardians of the Galaxy a few weekends ago, and I really liked it. That's not really noteworthy, since it would seem that lots of people went out to see a movie that most people would have laughed at the premise of ten years ago. In fact, it's so many people that it's the number grossing summer film in the United States. In an effort to be additionally supportive, and to give me a frequent reminder of the film, I purchased a coffee mug that has four of the characters from the film on it.

So now I hear Peter Falk's voice in the back of my head going "Sorry to bother you, but there's one thing that I don't understand there. Aren't there five members of the team in Guardians of the Galaxy?" (For those of you too young to get the Columbo reference, just have a look on youtube.)

Who's on the coffee mug? Well, Star Lord has to be on the mug. It's practically his movie from start to finish. The bounty is on him, it's his spaceship, and it's his mixtape. Rocket and Groot are on the mug because they carry a lot of the jokes in the film. Drax is on the mug because he's awesome and nothing goes over his head. (Side note: Drax is so awesome that they also have a mug that's just him. I presume that the marketing department thinks that coffee drinkers identify with Drax.) I ask my wife while we're in the store - "Why isn't Gamora on the coffee mug?" - to which she wittily replies, "Gamora doesn't need coffee." She's not a fluff character in the film, by any means. She gets lots of screen time and several awesome action sequences.

So, then I start considering possibilities and the rabbit hole starts opening up on me. First, I think that they really did leave Gamora off of the mug because she's a girl, but then that would imply that the marketers think that comic books fans, especially ones that drink their own coffee but go the movies won't be accepting of her. Then I think - but I noticed that she was missing, and aren't I part of the intended demographic of both the movie and the coffee mug? So then that means I must feel guilty that a woman wasn't included, when women wouldn't actually want her to be on there to be objectified, so I'm bad for trying to introduce gender into a discussion that it shouldn't even have been in in the first place? It's not like the marketers can be wrong - after all, any time I don't get a commercial it's not because it's a bad commercial, it's because I'm not the intended demographic.

Don't comic books play into male adolescent fantasy a little too often for women to not be included, even if they're present for obstensibly the wrong purpose?

Then I think about it some more - Gamora is being played by the same actress that plays Lt. Uhura in the new Star Trek Films, and the lead Na'vi character Neytiri in James Cameron's Avatar. Is there a coffee-drinking man or woman that watches science fiction films that would decline to buy a coffee mug if she was on it? I think not. At a certain point, I have to abandon trying second-guess a feminist viewpoint and go back to trying to see the fan viewpoint. They're a team, she's on it, she should be on the coffee mug.

There's contact information on the bottom of the mug for the company that made them. Since it's here in America, I guess I will try to talk to them.

Let's try this in the contact form and see what happens:

I recently picked up one of the Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy coffee mugs from my local Wal-Mart retailer and opted for the "Character" mug over the "Drax" mug just to have more of the characters but I was still a little disappointed that Gamora was not included. I have been often reminded that I don't really understand marketing.  In those cases where I don't understand the marketing it's often the case that I'm not the intended demographic anyway. I don't actually drink coffee, but I got it for my wife who does. We're both over 40 and have a couple of kids and we all enjoyed the movie.  So - is it because I'm not the standard demographic for this product, or is it because of some marketing reason that I'm unlikely to understand that Gamora's not on the "Character" mug? (Or is there some simple explanation that I've entirely overlooked?)

I'll follow up on this post when I get some sort of a response from the mug manufacturer.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Cubing in public, and breaking cube news

Having had a number of long days and odd situations at work, I was faced Friday with the prospect of having to take a long lunch so I didn't put myself into unauthorized overtime. I brought my good stickerless DaYan with me, and went to go run some errands to make the most of my lunch hours.

I had intended as my first stop to go to Home Depot and find out if they could sell me a prefabbed kitchen drawer to replace my blown-out silverware drawer. Particle board is not amenable to being re-drilled that much, and it had several stress failures in it. I discovered at Home Depot that they don't do kitchen cabinets the same way that they used to. I remember it being more like IKEA, where if you want a particular setup, they say, "Go get 4 drawer kits, one Base A, Two Base G's, and a Door M and N." Now, an entire section is a pre-assembled piece and you just have to fit them together, and the drawers are done completely differently now. Smartly, the rollers are underneath the drawer instead of hanging off the sides, so gravity doesn't act to misalign the mechanism.  I made a couple of laps around the furniture section, hoping to catch someone's eye so I could ask the stupid question to which they were going to answer "No" to, but the only employees that I was able to engage either were in other sections or the sniper guy in the front of the store that I wasn't going to talk to because I wasn't particularly interested in whatever special offers he had today.

Feeling down for having flunked out of the first errand, I walked over to the TigerDirect in the same plaza. Instead of avoiding the salespeople, I brandished my cube and walked right towards them. When the first person said "Hey - Rubiks' Cube!" I knew I was going to be good to do my three minute schtick. I managed to finish off a 27 second solve, talked to them about Will Smith learning to do the cube for ha movie, the fastest current time, the basics about the Fridrich method, how the corners first method is different, how algorithms work, and how learning how to do two moves with a single had motion improved my time. After the demonstration, I got someone to direct me to a good keyboard because I had gotten tired of the overly flat Dell keyboard that comes with the new computers that my company has been rolling out. They showed me a Microsoft Ergonomic 4000 and they had it for $35, and I was pretty darn happy about that. I even did a little bit of my cube demo a second time for the cashier who rang me up since nobody was in line behind me and they seemed interested.

After I got done with that, I went down to the Gamestop up the street. I found a used copy of Killer is Dead marked at $8, but it rang up $16. The cashier was nice about it and split the difference, so I got it for $12. While he was figuring it out, I did a little bit of my cube routine for the line that had formed behind me. During part of my schtick, I had mentioned to the cashier that I usually had my cube with me for when I had to wait in line at places instead of playing Angry Birds, and I got a sort of a hipstery I-didn't-think-anybody-still-played-Angry-Birds response from him. That's a sentiment that's not unexpected from the general public, but I found it slightly unexpected from a game store employee. This is Gamestop after all - if people weren't playing old games they wouldn't be making enough money to be in a strip mall every 15 miles all over America.

So, having forgotten several items on the list, I found myself at Walmart later that evening to get a couple of the things I couldn't manage to get elsewhere. Our local store is being remodeled, so everything is out of place. Towering shrink-wrapped pallets fill the rear aisles, the newly redesigned parking lot doesn't have cart corrals in the right places, the back-to-school section is two narrow corridors of doom and destruction, support posts block the traffic flow of the most used cash lane of the store, turkey pans are assisting with the air conditioning system, and if anything new came in the store you would only find it by accident.

Last night's accidental discoveries were some of the Star Trek series of Hot Wheels cars and a newly redesigned Rubik's cube!

The packaging is clear plastic on top to show the cube inside, with an insert on the bottom that mentions that there's a new smoother mechanism and on the other side that there's a new Rubik's cube app on Google Play and the Apple Store. The cube is shiny - at first I thought that it was just redesigned stickers but it turned out to be embedded plastic tiles. This is not the first time that a Rubik's cube was done with tiles, but the plastic tiles on the 80's cubes were thicker. These new tiles are recessed. I have not been able to disassemble the new cube as I find the mechanism is rather stiff. It may have a spherical mechanism similar to the Void cubes and the 80's Rubiks' Revenge, or it may just be that there are spherical feet. It is not suited for speedcubing that I can tell, but perhaps some breaking in will do it some good. The only information that I had found about the new cube was on the Hasbro page.  I had one face that I couldn't turn that well for ten minutes or so, and then with a firm grip on two layers I was eventually able to turn it. I couldn't tell if it was hung up or there was a piece of plastic flash, but now I can hear a rattling piece of plastic inside the cube when I shake it. Since I can't wear down or delaminate the stickers and they're widely available, I suppose I could silicone this one without fear. If the silicone lubricant works, it would be the first time in a long time that I can carry around a real Rubik's cube without having to apologize for it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

USFIV, slideshow version

I tried to add a Street Fighter video to my Youtube channel, but it was more like a slideshow. I was thinking that it could have been because I was connected via wireless, but apparently I'm not the only one with the problem.

Here you go anyway, if only for humor's sake and for subsequent comparison.

Ken's Ultra reaches a little farther than expected, both in the first and third rounds. Done out of total desperation on my part, that Evil Ryu player should have eviscerated me.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The harsh reality of being old.

When you're really young, it's not that important to get it 100% right - just the idea that you're trying to do things and putting yourself out there is enough

When you're still young but not brand new, it's easy to be brash and outspoken, and perhaps people don't criticize what you do all the time because they can say, "Oh, they're still young. It's OK, they'll grow out of it." You can establish yourself as you develop your identity, and people will flock to you initially out of novelty, and then stay with you out of a sense of familiarity.

Everybody understands that things change, and perhaps the four year old and the ten year old look at the same things and have a completely different approach - to the point where the four year old couldn't even imagine what the choices of the ten year old would be, and the ten year old can't imagine the choices of the twenty-one year old. Once you've matured that much, perhaps the path forward becomes more intuitive, and sometimes when you can step back and look at all the changes, it's easier to see how you got from point A to point B. That doesn't stop the temptation of doing something brash just to get attention, or maybe just sticking by your guns and hoping that you find the right people to appreciate you.

Of course, I'm talking about Street Fighter. While it's Capcom's second biggest franchise (Resident Evil is their biggest) it's not experiencing the sort of mainstream popularity that it used to. While arcades were starting to dwindle at the end of the 80's, the strength of the Street Fighter II series games made arcades relevant again and paved the way for the character versus character fighting game to become the dominant paradigm of the arcade, instead of all of the shooting games that followed in the footsteps of Space Invaders and Defender.

In its middle age, the Street Fighter III series tried to abandon all of the old characters except Ryu and Ken, and had many problems retaining an audience due to its extreme difficulty and unfamiliarity. Later versions of the game brought back some favorite characters, but it was too late and still too difficult a game for mainstream audiences.

As a mature game, the Street Fighter IV series which is currently on its fourth home release over the course of  six years has tried to straddle the line between innovating and keeping the fan base satisfied. While it's selling more copies than it did during the Street Fighter III era, Street Fighter's overall cultural relevance has waned a little. More people are familiar with the cheesy "Street Fighter" movie with Raul Julia and Jean-Claude Van Damme than are familiar with the newer "Street Fighter:The Legend of Chun Li" starring Kristin Kreuk. It really hit home for me on Tuesday this week when I picked up my copy of Ultra Street Fighter IV. I had been to Target at lunch earlier in the day and had walked through the game section. If they had the new game, I didn't notice. Even when I got to my local Gamestop after work to pick my copy up one the way home, it's not like they had a big cardboard standup in the store or a bunch of copies on the shelf. I handed them my preorder receipt, and they had to look for it. It took them just long enough to find it that I had a moment where I started to worry that CAPCOM had delayed the release date and didn't tell anyone. Maybe now that the game is this old, they don't worry about the marketing so much because they figure they're not going to get any better audience that what they already have?

I like the new characters, although they're not entirely new. Hugo, Elena, Rolento, and Poison were all available characters in other games, and Decapre is visually similar to Cammy. Despite my concerns, Decapre plays like a completely new character. For that matter, the other four new characters have all had some adjustments to them that make them play a little differently than their previous incarnations.

The challenge mode in the game that gives you a set of specific objectives for each character in an attempt to teach you the moveset of each character had gone unfinished in the previous edition of the game, and at the moment is still unfinished. A future patch has been promised, and I will be looking forward to it. I found that I had never really learned Yun and Yang properly from the previous version without the challenge mode. Sure, you can go in training and mess around, and it's not like you can't look up the moves. but I found the challenges a good foundation for learning the other characters. Another feature of the game that I hadn't quite expected is that it pulls in your data from other games, so it knows that I played SFxTekken, and it knows what my scores and character usage from Street Fighter IV:Arcade Edition are.

I'm pretty happy with the game, even if I'm not the most awesome player of Fei Long or Vega or Dan on the internet. I'm looking forward to a lot of games against my older son and my friends. (My older son plays as T. Hawk, and I heard that they made some improvements to his moves. I guess I better watch out.)

The only thing that seems to bug me about the game is one of the the reasons that I waited to get the full retail version of the game on disk was so I could have all the costumes in one shot and get that over and done with. As soon as the game came out a new set of costumes was announced. I know, it's the new thing to monetize add-on content to every game, and it just doesn't sit well with me.

Maybe it's because I'm old.

Friday, August 1, 2014

What Wii still have left to play...

I was reminded at the store today that some people still have their original Wii, and haven't upgraded to the WiiU. It made me think that there are some really good games out there that if you didn't play on the Wii, you still should. I would also add that you will have a better time playing these games on your Wii hooked to a good TV using the component video cables than you will playing those games on a WiiU because of what the WiiU's upscaling looks like.

Here's a quick list of my personal favorites for the Wii that you might want to go back and play if you accidentally skipped them. The more mature-rated games are further down the list.

The Legend of Zelda:Twilight Princess (single player)
The Legend of Zelda:Skyward Sword (single player)
Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 (mostly single player, but a second player can assist a little)
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (up to 4 players)
New Super Mario Bros. Wii (up to 4 players)
Mario Kart Wii (1-4 players)
Excitebots Trick Racing
Wii Sports Resort (1-4 players)
Most of the LEGO games (Star Wars 1-3, Indiana Jones 1&2, Batman 1&2, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter 1-4 and 5-7, Lord of the Rings)
de Blob and de Blob 2 (single player - the first game is groundbreaking, but the second game is easier to control because jumping was mapped to a button instead of waving the Wii Remote)
Kirby's Epic Yarn (1-2 players, unbearably cute for some people)

Okami (single player, especially good if you liked the Zelda games )
Sengoku Basara (1-2 players. #1 game at my house by total hours played, but not for everyone)

Resident Evil 4 Wii Edition (single player, Mercenaries mode is still a lot of fun for a long time after you've finished the main story.)
Tatsunoko vs. Capcom (1-2 players, the only conventional fighting game on the Wii.)
No More Heroes 1 & 2 (While its status as 'Mature' content is often questionable as some of the humor is rather juvenile and crude, the games have a unique presentation and narrative without being so artistic as to be a drag on actually playing the game.)
Metroid: Other M (Single player. The game is ridiculous in many aspects, and there's no reason Samus needs to talk, but it was full of interesting combat and exploration and a streamlined control scheme that uses only the Wiimote. Metroid Prime Trilogy is also a great game that used to be three great smaller games, but the controls are more complicated.)
Sin and Punishment (single player, an interesting take on the rail shooter genre. I was glad that I picked it up for $20 when I could as copies have crept back up to $50 in some places.)
Pikmin 1 & 2 New Play Control ( story is 1 player in both games, Pikmin 2 has some multiplayer vs. games available after finishing the main game. They are conversions of a couple of the best Gamecube games that Nintendo made.)

I might also suggest the Rayman games and the Rabbid spinoff games, although they are not in my personal collection. I don't put games like Call of Duty or Tiger Woods or Rock band on this list because if you really wanted to play those games when they came out you're unlikely to be a Wii owner.

Feel free to pick on this list or suggest more.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Cubing in Public, Neurology Edition.

I haven't talked about cubing that much since I've been excited about PS3 and WiiU things the last few months, so I probably have a few too many things saved up to talk about.

I discovered that there is someone at my local drugstore that can at least solve two layers of the cube, and he says that he had learned in middle school but had fallen out of practice. It's nice to see him at the register now, since I have something to talk to him about other than just random chit-chat stuff.  The first few times I encountered him he was on the late shift, so with fewer people in the store we had a chance for him to demonstrate what he could do. I just saw him a couple of days ago but I couldn't find out if he had been practicing because he was getting a fairly thorough talking-to by the store manager about several things but thankfully none of those things were about why you shouldn't operate a Rubik's cube on company time.

About a month or so ago, I was at an event where there were various vendors present, some of which were giving away various trinkets and things for kids to do which included one of those slightly oversize cubes made of rather soft plastic. You can see the kind I'm talking about here from one of my old YouTube videos, it's the same as the largest one. Instead of regular stickers, it has very eye-catching shiny laser-cut stickers with circular patterns on them, so one of my kids grabbed one for me. Since we got it for free and those are usually pretty cheap to start with, I didn't feel bad about taking it with me to work and leaving it out at the sales counter for people to mess with. What I didn't realize was that it wouldn't take much abuse, so someone managed to shear the foot off of one of the edge pieces within a few days of it being out at the counter. To me, it's just hard to turn and I know to ease up on the softer pieces.  You can still place the piece in such a way that it looks like it's together, so now it's just fun to leave it at the counter and see who thinks that they broke it. The guy that actually did break it has become interested in cubing, and got himself a GhostHand cube and learned how to solve it. The only other person that I usually see at my counter that can solve a Rubik's Cube (that I know of) has started working on larger cubes, and he's been practicing on the 4x4x4 and the 5x5x5.

The cube has been a good icebreaker for me at work, even to the point where my boss will put me up to it in an attempt to showcase me to certain customers that hadn't dealt with me yet. I'd like to think that it allows me to make a good impression as someone that may have talents that are not immediately apparent, and that I can demonstrate fluid competency on something that most people would struggle with. What was surprising to me was that he used it to re-introduce me to our division vice president when he stopped by this last week. During the introduction phase of the meeting, my boss asked me to get a cube so I should show the group my particular talent.  I grabbed my GhostHand and my DaYan that I have out at the counter and gave the group my usual demonstration, and tried to field questions as best I could. The division vice president started to ask me something about my "God-given talent" and I felt compelled to interrupt him as fast as I could and emphasize that what he was seeing was purely the result of practice, and the only natural advantage I might have had to start with is having a good spatial sense. It's a little sad, I suppose, that for all of the time that I spend with a cube I'm not anywhere near the fastest in the world. Last time I checked, if I averaged 35 seconds under competition conditions, my ranking would be somewhere are 16,000th in the world. What I realized, though, is pure speed is not really the thing that I practice any more. What I do and what I seem to practice is demonstrating the cube while solving it, and being able to maintain my end of a conversation and answering questions while solving it. It may not be conducive to me having better times, but I'm still enjoying it, and I'd like to think it's more entertaining this way. Our division vice president used my little demonstration as a way to segue into talking about how each branch and in a larger sense the entire company needs to work as a team, and about how it's helpful to have a mix of different talents available on those teams.

Several of the regular customers at our counter are accustomed to me, despite some of my personality quirks, but only one so far had been daring enough to drop this question on me.

"So, are you autistic? Like your brain never shuts off?"

I didn't really know how to answer the question at that moment, but it's certainly something I've thought about. All I could tell him was that both of my children have been diagnosed with Asperger's, and that the current version of the DSM includes Asperger's as part of a larger generalized disorder diagnosis criteria. I think I may have made some sort of "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" comment as well (or I thought it but I'm unable to distinguish the difference when replaying the event in my head later). The customer then went on about how autism was probably caused by "those big needles they stick in women when they're pregnant". At the time I presume he was talking about epidural anesthesia, but now that I think of it he could have just as easily have been talking about amniocentesis. I had to remind him that there are strong genetic factors involved in autism and Asperger's and I tried to describe the surge in cases in Silicon Valley, but I think I came off like a rambling lunatic. It's not uncommon to come off like a rambling lunatic if you present a completely different viewpoint that someone else is unprepared for.

As far as I can tell, no my brain does not shut off.

Certainly there are facets of my behavior that are similar to those of my children, and there are things that I still have to deal with now that most people that aren't on the spectrum don't give even a moment's notice to. When I'm comparing my immediate family to other people I tend to consider myself closer neurologically to my children and my wife than the public at large, but I realize that I'm probably a little bit closer to neurotypical than they are. This isn't an on/off sort of thing - this is precisely why it's referred to as a 'spectrum'. There are a wide range of presentations and behaviors, and you're going to see the same kind of diversity that you would hope to find in the public at large.

So, maybe I am autistic, or maybe I'm just part of the larger autistic phenotype but for me doesn't matter. It matters a little bit for my kids, if only in making sure they don't get run over by the modern standards and metrics-based approach to the education system. Asperger's isn't something that's going to be 'cured'.   Often, smart kids with Asperger's weren't even being diagnosed in years past because the profile of 'gifted' seemed to allow for a lot of eccentricity. Most of what's required in a setting that's trying to foster real growth - for any person - is knowing what an individual's strengths and weaknesses are, and working with it. If that means a visual schedule, or a to-do list, or a flowchart helps get things done, then that's how it should be done. To my friends, I'm not a diagnosis, I'm just me. And if that's the person that can explain imaginary numbers to their kids, or figure out why a particular cable routing has less signal gain than is required, or knows what flavors of Mountain Dew are available where, or can find an obscure part out in the warehouse, or remembers what happens when you just barely move the on-off switch of an Atari 2600 to the off position and back on again, or the guy that can explain a Rubik's cube while solving it, then that's the me that they expect - and I'm happy to be that person.

As a side note, the event where we picked up the cheap cube was one of the Surfers for Autism events. Ever since my older son had been diagnosed, we have been going to these events in our area when we can. It's a great organization, and they get a lot of community support everywhere they go. It's been a great opportunity for us to talk to other parents going through what we're going through, and to talk to people about Asperger's and how understanding the underlying neurology of Asperger's may lead to more insight to the other autism spectrum disorders. It's been one of the best things for our family in terms of dealing with our own idiosyncrasies and learning about ourselves in a new context.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Another report from the land of WiiU.

These are things I am glad about, some of which I realized beforehand and some I didn't.

1) The WiiU Game Pad is a pretty good controller even without the screen on it, when it's a game where a traditional controller is a good fit. The analog sticks are very responsive, the button layout and the physical contours of the controller are comfortable in the hand, and the screen is just a nice bonus.

2) NintendoLand is a good, solid, way to get used to using the Game Pad. It's a little cutesy, but the various activities are all modeled after beloved Nintendo first party franchises. The Pikmin game in NintendoLand is a household favorite.

3) Nintendo's attempt to increase their attach rate by offering a free download game with the purchase of Mario Kart 8 may be working a little bit. (It's still going to go on through the end of July, so if you were thinking about getting a WiiU this summer, it's not a bad way to start.) We opted for New Super Mario Bros. WiiU, since we already picked up Pikmin 3 and our console was bundled with Wind Waker HD.

4) My older son seems to be a little better at Mario Kart 8 than I am, and I'm actually really excited about that. (For those of you that are wondering, the answer is Rosalina, the Circuit Special, the Slicks, and the Cloud Glider. We don't have the Cyber Slicks unlocked yet.) We've even managed to win some races playing on the internet.

5) My younger son spends most of his time on the WiiU playing regular Wii games. At the moment, everyone is taking another swing at The Legend of Zelda:Skyward Sword when we're not playing Mario Kart 8 or New Super Mario Bros. WiiU or Pikmin 3.

6) If you're bad at a particular level of New Super Mario Bros. and you're playing the Wii or WiiU versions, eventually an exclamation block will appear at the beginning of the level. Ordinarily this would not be a big deal, since it's there to ask you if you need help. If you hit the block, Luigi shows you a way to get through the level. It's just that the noise that the game makes when that block is present sounds an awful lot like a doorbell, which means that our dogs have to bark at it.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Change happens -OR- When lefty is not right.

Getting a new game console has seemed like an upheaval every time it's happened. For a long time, I was only concerned with Nintendo consoles, so it was simple enough to tell when it was time to get the newer console.  At a certain point, they stop making the games you want for the console you have, and the effort goes into making the games you want for the console you don't have yet. However, near the end of a console cycle, it's very easy to amass some of the titles you hadn't played for a quarter of the price you might have paid otherwise. In the Nintendo and Super Nintendo era, that usually meant pawn shops and yard sales, but in subsequent generations that also meant clearance bins and record stores and game stores. So, the end of each console cycle meant weighing your amassed collection against how much you wanted to play the new games.

Now if there's only one specific game series that you play, then it's usually child's play to make the determination, since you just play your old system until the game you want comes out for the new system. This is especially true for system exclusives like Nintendo's Mario, Zelda and Metroid series games, Sony's Gran Turismo games, or the Halo series on XBox. At the other far end of the spectrum, if you have more money and time than everyone else, it's also very easy since you can just get each console when it comes out and pick up whatever you find interesting at the time. If you fall somewhere in the middle (which most of us do) and play a variety of games but aren't in a position to get or even have time to play everything, then usually the decision to get a new console and which console to get is tied to the point at which you can afford a new console but you can no longer afford to be left behind on a particular game series. For example, I played a lot of Street Fighter on the Super Nintendo, but when the next generation of consoles came out Capcom made no effort to make them for the Nintendo 64 since it was a style of game not well-suited to the N64's controllers or hardware. So, the other systems got Street Fighter versions but not the N64, and I eventually got my hands on a Playstation so that I could continue on in that series. When Street Fighter continued on to the Dreamcast, however, I was not compelled to get a Dreamcast since there weren't enough of the other games that I was playing available for that system. The Playstation 2 had a lot to offer at that point, it played all my existing Playstation games, and it also doubled as a DVD player so I couldn't find a way for the Dreamcast to outweigh the PS2's benefits.

My Wii tanked completely at Christmas of last year, months after having done a laser module replacement myself. There were a lot of things my kids were still playing on it, even though I had started getting all of the new LEGO games for my Sony Playstation 3 instead of for Wii. I couldn't have regrouped fast enough to pick up a WiiU at that point, and we still had plenty of things to play on PS3. So, I started figuring out when I could get one.

My tipping point for the WiiU was Pikmin 3. The Pikmin series is fundamentally about managing a group of entities, the bipedal but flower-like Pikmin, to complete tasks on your behalf. Different Pikmin types are able to perform different types of tasks and some tasks can be performed by all of the Pikmin. These tasks include finding parts to repair your ship, collecting treasure, and collecting sustenance.

I really enjoyed Pikmin 1 and 2, and I still like to go back and play the challenge mode boards on Pikmin 1. As both Pikmin 1 and 2 were on the GameCube and largely overlooked by mainstream gaming since the words "Theft", "Duty" and "War" were not in the title, I was a little surprised that Pikmin 3 made it to the WiiU. As it turned out, Pikmin was relatively well-received among people who were already buying other Nintendo first-party titles. I suppose that Captain Olimar's inclusion in Super Smash Brothers Brawl allowed him to be introduced to a few more people, and Nintendo followed up with revised Wii versions of Pikmin 1 and 2 to take advantage of the Wii's control scheme.

On the WiiU, there's even an interesting control scheme that takes good advantage of the Game Pad controller and its touchscreen controls.

If you're right handed.

They worked out a control scheme that involves the two left triggers, the left analog stick, and the d-pad, used in conjunction with the stylus in the right hand. It has a lot of functionality, but no option to mirror the controls to the other side. If you still have your Wii controllers, which I did, you can use a Wiimote and a Nunchuck controller and control the game identically to the Wii Play Control versions of Pikmin 1 and Pikmin 2.

The map on the Game Pad works better if you don't need glasses at all, or if you need glasses for everything. I don't really need glasses to read with, but I need glasses for distance. It's not like I could just push my glasses down my nose and look down at the Game Pad. However, once I started using the Wiimote + Nunchuck controls, I put the Game Pad back in its cradle so I could look down at the map and have it be approximately the same distance away from me as the TV is.

I'm going to have a hard time explaining this to my ophthalmologist.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Squirrel! -or- How long does it take to set up a new console?

So I feel like I've been sidetracked a little. (Squirrel!) My intention of late was to try to play some of the hidden hits of the PS3 before they all disappeared, but now that school is out my attention has been turned to the WiiU.

I actually purchased a WiiU (Nintendo's next console after the Wii) weeks ago, knowing that I wouldn't be allowed to set it up until after school was out. The details from yesterday were a little tedious, I tried to summarize a little while still giving a sense of the timeframe.

  • 7AM - Download the WiiU transfer tool onto the Wii. Play it cool for a while because my younger child doesn't know we have a WiiU yet.
  • 10AM - Charge the gamepad in the older son's room without the younger son noticing. The biggest difference between the Wii and the WiiU is the gamepad. Sure, the WiiU finally has HD graphics now, but you don't notice that as much as holding a controller with a 852x480 6.2" touchscreen in the middle of it.
  • 2:30PM - finally start hooking things up in the living room, and tell younger child what's up.
  • 3PM - still setting things up. User accounts, the player characters called Mii's, etc.
  • 3:30 PM - Still downloading a system update.
  • 4PM  - configuring an SD card for the data transfer from the Wii.
  • 4:30 PM - The second SD card has failed to communicate with the Wii.
  • 4:45 PM - The third SD card has failed, and I'm giving up on retrieving the Wii data for now.
  • 5PM - start the download for Hyrule Historia
  • 5:15PM - Start playing NintendoLand while Wind Waker downloads in the background.
  • 9PM - after older son is done playing Wind Waker, I tell him to put in Pikmin 3, just to see if it has to do an update, even though he's not interested in playing Pikmin 3.
  • 12:30AM - tell older son to stop playing Pikmin 3 and go to bed.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Google Bends Time, or Extra Special Cube Edition!

I was pretty sure that I got a 25th Anniversary Rubik's Cube, with one reflective silver side instead of the white side sometime after my older child was born. He's only 13 now, and 25+13=38. So, how did we get to Google's posting of the 40th Anniversary of the Rubik's Cube as a Google Doodle?

Well, you have to change the goalposts a little. The 25th Anniversary cube came out in 2005, which is 25 years after the 1980 Ideal Toy Company product release, and the 30th Anniversary wooden cube came out in 2010. Those two things are still on the same timeline. However, if you look at when Ernő Rubik actually built a working prototype of the cube, that was in 1974, which is 40 years ago.

Like most Google Doodles, it's well-constructed, but I tried not to take too much magic out of it to see if there were keyboard shortcuts.  You do get a nifty screen for solving, which honestly I wasn't sure was going to happen or not.

I can't say that I was trying that hard, and I certainly didn't know I was being timed, but it's not too bad for what it is. I'm sure I had to turn the cube around more than usual, and I had a couple of moves I had to do twice, or differently, or whatever else was required, so 20 extra moves didn't seem like a lot.

I had thought about shooting some cube video for this evening, but I think the surprise of the finish screen is fun enough.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I guess this can't count as an overlooked PS3 game...

...unless you count the idea that Americans overlooked the Sengoku Basara series and made it so they wouldn't make an American version.

We finally picked up our first import game, Sengoku Basara Utage. It's a companion game to the Capcom hack and slash set in the Sengoku period,  Sengoku Basara 3. While it's not the only game of this style using historical characters with fantastic abilities (Sengoku Basara is basically a clone of Konami's Dynasty Warriors series), it's not really a common or popular game style in the west. You can read some of my rambling about it here.

It's been out for a while but it had been $80 or so on amazon every time we thought to look for it. We were looking for some other things and saw that there was a copy that went down under $40, so we picked it up. The game controls the same as the American version of Sengoku Basara 3, but the menus are a little bit different because Utage3 has some additional game modes, and we don't read any Japanese yet so we're winging it a little bit. This isn't like trying to play a game in Spanish or Italian where we understand the alphabet and some of the Latin root words. This is only working because the language of the gameplay itself is familiar to us. I think my older son has unlocked all of the new characters, but he has a long way to go to get all the weapons and allies unlocked.

The most amusing thing about the game so far is which words do end up in English. The combo counter is in Arabic numerals, and the combo descriptors that show above the combo count are in English. I'm sure that there are other funny parts of the game, but we're losing all of the story and character comments.

The biggest difference in this game is that most of the new playable characters in the game were all the non-playable major opponents from the last game, and all of the other playable characters return. It uses your game data from Sengoku Basara 3 and uses it to establish what level and what skills your old playable characters have available to them. It was nice that even though the primary bad guy (Nobunaga Oda) is rather time-consuming to unlock and difficult to defeat in Sengoku Basara 3, he unlocks fairly soon in Utage even if you hadn't unlocked him in the other version. There are some new areas, but I haven't seen anything spectacular yet. There is one additional character that didn't show up in the original version of 3, and it's the character most prominently featured on the cover of the game, but I'm not 100% sure about his name. I think it's Hisahide Matsunaga. (Yay! I got it right - thank goodness for the Wiki.)

Sengoku Basara 4 came out in Japan in January, so I presume that's why the price dropped on Utage. I also presume that Sengoku Basara 4 will not be localized for any other countries, so I can only guess that we'll be trying to muddle our way through in Japanese again if everybody decides that we want to play it.

Part of me hopes that my younger son gets into the game enough to start learning some Japanese.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Is this thing still on?

I used to do blog posts at 1up before I ever started here on blogspot, but it would appear that 1up is brokenish lately.  My blog posts that I link elsewhere go to this so-far reliable blogspot page, but there are probably some amusing anecdotes from 2007 that didn't make it. Crap, have I been blogging that long? It seems like I was super-late to the party. Anyway, if you want to find the old stuff, it's here. New stuff will only be posted here until further notice.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

PS3 games people overlooked, part 2

Another one of the PS3 games that I wanted to get to before it was no longer readily available was Shadows of the Damned. It has a few fun things going for it.
  1. Shinji Mikami is one of the Creative Producers. He's been involved with Devil May Cry, Killer 7, Resident Evil 1, Resident Evil 4, some of the Phoenix Wright games, an obscure but critically acclaimed brawler called God Hand, and that game Vanquish that I just finished not that long ago.
  2. Goichi Suda, more often known to Americans as Suda 51 is the Executive Producer. He previously worked with Shinji Mikami on Killer 7, but has also worked on one of my favorite Wii titles No More Heroes and its sequel No More Heroes 2, the zombie brawler Lollipop Chainsaw, and the arty-looking assassin hack-and slash title Killer is Dead.
  3. Steven Blum voices the main character, Garcia Hotspur. While Mr. Blum is a seasoned professional, and few doubt the quality of his voice, I was a little surprised that it was him. I was partly surprised because I didn't identify it right away, and partly because I thought they would have tried to get a Mexican-American voice actor. Since Steven Blum lives in southern California, it's not like he's unfamiliar with the accent.
  4. Garcia's sideckick/comic relief/tour guide/club/gun/motorcycle Johnson is voiced by English actor Greg Ellis. 
The premise of the story is that you're some sort of fancy pants demon hunter, and the demons decide to take your girlfriend from you as revenge. (A tale as old as King Kong.) This is complicated by the fact that you decide to travel directly to Hell to get her back, and she might not even be who you think she is.

It's a third person shooter with a extra non-standard game mechanic. (You could say the same thing about Vanquish and its speed boost mechanic.) The non-standard mechanic is a light/dark mechanism. Light is good, darkness is bad. Dark enemies need to be shot with a light bullet before you can destroy them. Dark areas need to be lit up before they can be traversed or you lose health. Some objects have different properties in the dark and in the light. Also, demon baby door guards like strawberries, but sometimes they'd rather have brains or eyeballs to eat. I am worried this is going to turn the entire game into a series of lame fetchquests, but it hasn't happened yet. (Maybe someone should make a parody of an action/RPG called "A Series of Lame Fetchquests".)

The graphics are really interesting looking, and there are lots of eye-catching posters and handbills on the walls that add amusing subtext to the story. The voice work is great, and the music is eerie and atmospheric punctuated with little Spanish guitar accents. The story is just twisted enough that I'm hooked in, but the game has been slow-going for me so far.

Other than some explicit puzzle solving hints, the game doesn't always teach you what it wants you to do, and it's hard to tell when the things you're doing in combat are effective or not. Certainly I don't want a game to feel like it has to hold my hand and tell me everything, but if an enemy doesn't have a health bar or any visual indicator that you're doing damage to it it's hard to decide what the best course of action is.

The other problem I'm having with it probably is due to the fact that I'm not playing regular shooters - my aim is terrible, and I can't seem to stay focused on enemies. It may be a sign that I need a different control scheme, since I didn't remember having this much of problem with Resident Evil 5 and 6 or Vanquish.

I think I'm going to have to revisit this game later, but my first impression is that there are a few things wrong with the game and a few things wrong with me.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why stuff has to work seamlessly.

For a while, I was starting to get the impression that the idea that things have to work correctly nearly 100% of the time with respect to computing was a ridiculous standard. I thought it was some sort of outcropping of the behavior of spoiled kids.  The first times I really heard it mentioned specifically were Jobs talking about the new macs, about how they needed to 'just work', and in Zuckerberg's comments about how facebook needed to be up all the time or that people wouldn't come back to it.

I later realized that this is not a progression of vanity or of unreasonable expectations, but merely an expression of trying to keep up with an existing standard.

Clay tablets and stone chiseling might have been unforgiving media, perhaps. They did give us a media where data could be archived for far longer than a human lifetime. We have learned substantial things about languages no longer spoken and mathematical systems no longer used merely from clay tablets and chiseled stone.  They are a bummer to carry around, but that's why you invent the library, and then thousands of years later you invent the steel-toed shoe.

We've had paper and pencil for a decent amount of time, and it's still a functional system. If the power goes out, you can still read it. If they make a new kind of paper, you can still read the old paper. You have a visual indication if a pencil is about to fail. You can feel if a piece of paper is about to rip when you're writing on it. Large amounts of paper can be bound together to make books, holding more information than tons of stone and clay tablets can.  If somebody found something interesting, you can make notes in the margins, or perhaps scrawl an idea or reference between the lines of text. If you mess something up, you can erase it and then recheck your work.

In the early days of computing, input was done via mechanical means. At that time, that mechanical input usually ended up being punch cards, since those were used for automated machines from the previous era.

The next step in local computing was the keyboard, an outgrowth of the existing typewriter. With the keyboard, we also got what we commonly refer to as the command line. It's just a prompt for us to type something into the computer, and the computer can act on that single command, or the command can ask it to start a larger program with hundreds and thousands of commands in it. If a single command failed, our feedback was immediate, and usually the failure was located somewhere between the chair and the keyboard. The syntax - the organized system of how a computer expects input in this case - can be tricky to memorize, but if needed we can also ask the computer what the syntax it expects is.  

My personal all-time most common ones were "fdisk /? and chkdsk /?" since you didn't want a catastrophic failure or a gigantic waste of time after messing up the syntax. Never hurts to check. 

As computing got larger, the need for standard libraries became apparent, since nobody wanted to reinvent the wheel every time they built a program, and there are lots of functions that people wanted that you weren't just going to build into the hardware or rewrite into the program every time - but this is where a lot of computing starts getting difficult for the users - and this was about the time we had a big influx of people using computers that weren't programmers of any sort. Having a library interfere with the program running or the operating system because of an unforeseen interaction is what caused the infamous "Blue Screen of Death" in Windows versions 3.1/95/98 most of the time, leaving a using wondering when the Feds were going to come get them for performing an 'illegal operation'.  While the information provided on those error screens were of great use to people familiar with troubleshooting Windows problems, it left the average user feeling frustrated a lot of the time because you don't know if it's because there's something wrong with the program, the data, or the hardware (or any combination thereof).   Apple has done a good job historically in mitigating a lot of these problems by allowing fewer hardware configurations, but it can't protect them from the problems that happen subsequently.

Once you get to large scale distributed computing, you've almost separated the user interface from the program. The user interface is a little tiny part of the program that the user's machine deals with, and it gets data from and sends data to the actual program, wherever that may be. For most of us, a lot of the web is this experience. Facebook, Amazon, Google, Mapquest, eBay, and the list goes on and on. For some of us, the programs we use at work are like this. In larger companies, all of the ordering and inventory management are done on offsite computers that local offices just call in to. Your printer in your office can let someone halfway across the country that's in charge of your company's office supplies know that it's out of toner, and place an order that's automatically routed onto a delivery truck and email you a tracking number so you know when it's going to show up. Your checkout terminals at a store can tell a corporate warehouse when you've sold the last copy of the new Beyonce album or the last piece of furniture from the collection that you're no longer going to carry.

When these things fail, however, it usually goes back on the people. Nobody waiting at the customer service desk wants to hear "Well, the computer said we had one..." when it would be easy enough to go out to the shelf and check, and no manager wants the employees having to rush around and personally check every inquiry when they're spending big bucks on a presumably good inventory management system. Nobody wants to show up to an establishment with cash in their hand and the product there available and get told "Well, we can't sell it to you, all the computers are down. Not only can we not record the sale, but we can't be 100% sure how much to charge you for the item."  It's not because they don't understand anything about computing, since computing has infiltrated the lives of a large portion of the world, but it's because the old way used to work just fine and didn't have a failure mode like this. If the customer has cash, you can ring him up. If you weren't sure how much to charge, you could open up your ledger and either check the previous sales, or figure out a fair price from the cost of the item when it was purchased.

Now, though, we have 'middleware'. It's not the input, and it's not the output - it's all the stuff happening under the hood on the way from A to Z. That makes it the stage where you really don't want to have problems, and can't afford to have problems, because it's the sort of thing that can turn a customer away from a product or service fairly quickly. Customers are far more likely to be forgiving with an inexperienced employee standing in front of them than they are to be forgiving when a computer error makes a simple transaction for a couple of items take half an hour.

On a related note, I had a chance to try out a wireless mouse/keyboard combo from digital innovations just recently. The keyboard works well enough, even if I didn't entirely like the feel of the keys. The mouse had an odd habit where left clicks were not registering all the time. How many times can you left click with a mouse on a computer (oh, I'm sorry Apple users - just ignore the word 'left'...) to no effect and put up with it? Since it's a wireless device, you wonder if there's an issue with where the receiver is placed, but then you remember that you were typing just fine a second ago, and rolling the scroll wheel and moving the pointer just worked. You think, could it be the batteries?  But there again, the other things were working. Maybe you hadn't pressed firmly enough? If you felt the 'click', you would think that you had. I wasn't even going to address the issue of drivers, since I'm not sure that it had asked me to install them in the first place and Windows rarely asks for them for basic functionality any more. (A left click counts as basic functionality, right?) Each of the kids had tried it on their machines (one XP, one Win7) with similar issues with the left click and no other issues. I thought it would do better or fail entirely on my Ubuntu machine if it really were a driver issue, but it exhibited pretty much the same behavior. Everything worked find except the left click. So, it's probably a mechanical failure and we'll have to tear it down and see if we can fix it. It's not going to get much use in the meantime, though. I don't actually remember having this sort of a failure with a mouse before.

After switching keyboard/mouse setups around a bunch of times in the house to get everyone to try it out, I ended up short on the Linux machine again so I found something that I really like that was only $30 (and I'm using it right now.) It's the Logitech K400r, which is a wireless keyboard that has a trackpad where the number pad would usually be. Ubuntu didn't have any issue with it at all. The track pad is smart enough to know if you're using two fingers, so you move the pointer with a single finger, but scroll with two fingers, similar to other multi-touch devices. It also had no problem doing the 'zoom' in the browser gesturally. My only actual complaint seems rather petty in that the right Shift key is located in a strange spot and I've hit the up arrow by mistake quite a number of times. 

One of the other unusual features is that in addition to tapping on the track pad and using the dedicated left button on the bottom of the track pad, there is a button at the top left hand corner of the keyboard above the escape key that also functions as the left mouse button.

I guess somebody realized how important it was for that to work.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

PS3 games people overlooked, Part 1

I don't normally play shooters...

(no, this is not a Dos Equis commercial)

...but when I do, they should be interesting. As I might have stated previously someplace, my primary experience with FPS games really ended sometime around id Software's Quake III Arena and Rare's Perfect Dark in 2000. I tried playing Timesplitters 2 on the Nintendo GameCube some time later, only to find out I should have called it "Headsplitters", for similar reasons to the games I already explained here.

Now, I didn't seem to have this problem with Resident Evil 4, first for GameCube and then for the Wii - but this isn't a 'first person' shooter. They put the camera above and behind you and generally this solves my nausea issue, unless the camera is jittery. The character's reaction to the environment helps me visually process what I'm seeing in a consistent way.  In addition, having the character fully on screen makes the motion more like action games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta and God of War, or any of the brawlers like Mad World or Urban Reign or God Hand and such.

So after a while of owning a PS3 and being near the end of the console's lifespan, I start asking myself and the internet the question "What have I missed that I probably didn't want to?" and one of the answers that came up a few times was the Platinum Games shooter "Vanquish" from 2010. It's a third person shooter, so I didn't have too many nausea issues, but I was surprised by a lot of things.

One, it's got a much better story than I was used to for a shooter (but I realize part of that is because I haven't been playing shooters for a while). Most of the the story takes place in a big space colony, allowing for interesting changes of atmosphere (pun partially intended). The main character Sam Gideon works for DARPA, but has the challenge of working with the Armed Forces. On old enemy becomes a big problem after years of a manageable truce, and some important technology changes hands because a scientist has been captured. Maybe it seems familiar in the broad strokes, but it seemed well executed in the details.

Two, there seemed to be a lot of interesting scenarios that I'm not sure were really possible before on older game systems. There was a sniping level, a 'protect the armored vehicle while you're on foot' level, a level where two moving vehicles on tracks try to gun each other down, a 'clear the area so a transport can land here' level, and quite a few other things. It was a lot more varied and interesting than the usual 'go down this corridor and hide behind boxes or you're going to get shot' or the 'take that building from those dudes' scenarios that I feel like you seem to get a lot of in shooters.

Three, the game has a cover system that works pretty well, or a inexperienced shooter player like myself couldn't have gotten along with it. One button is dedicated almost entirely to going in and out of cover, and you get helpful onscreen prompts where appropriate.  The levels are timed, and you get a better rating if you take less time, and you get a better rating if you don't overuse cover, so there's a good reason to use it efficiently.

Four, it did a great job of making you feel like you were part of a team (another item probably improved on by other shooters first). The other AI soldiers actually got things accomplished, spread out in a sensible way, and picked the right weapon most of the time. One of the responsibilities they gave Sam, your character, is to act as medic to the soldiers, and you get weapon bonuses for helping them when they need it.

Five, it did a magnificent job at impressing you with a huge sense of scale when enemies and ships as large as a building (or bigger) came at you.  A varied array of giant robots and walking battle tanks stand between you and finishing the game.

Six, and they really didn't have to do this one, they took a mechanic that could have been really gimmicky - a ridiculous speed boost in short bursts for your character - and made it work fantastically with the level design and the character story.

There are a few quick time events here and there during boss battles, but I didn't find them too onerous or distracting from the game play. Veteran voice actors Gideon Emery, Kari Wahlgren, and the always amazing Steve Blum play the lead characters Sam, Elena, and Lt. Col Robert Burns, respectively. I really liked the music when I was playing the game but I can't remember any of it now that I haven't played the game for a week. My favorite enemy in the entire game was an enemy that built itself out of spare parts called Unknown - don't worry, you'll know it when you see it.

The down side was that as an inexperienced shooter, I was only able to finish the game on 'Casual', but I didn't have to rely on the autoaim of the slightly easier 'Casual Auto' setting.  This means (or at least I think that it means) that experienced shooters will have at least two more levels of difficulty to test themselves against. Even after finishing on Easy and having a pretty good sense of the control mechanics, I was killed on Normal difficulty prior to even reaching the first boss. Used copies for XBox 360 are going for $10, $13 if you have a PS3.