Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas means new games, and new players for old games.

I don't think I've quite managed to completely straighten out my living room from all of the Christmas chaos yet. My kids haven't noticed, though. They're too busy being Batman and Bumblebee. The two biggest hits of Christmas so far have been Batman: Arkham Knight, which has been out since the summer, and Transformers:Devastation, which was released in October.

Batman:Arkham Knight is another pitch-perfect Batman game from the team at Rocksteady games, and they even brought Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamil (The Joker) back in to do some voice acting after having given them the last game (Arkham Origins) off. It's all of the things that you liked from the previous Arkham games plus a substantial amout of driving the Batmobile. Nightwing, Robin, the Riddler, Catwoman, the Penguin, Two-Face, and a few surprise bad guys show up for the fun.

Transformers:Devastation is strangely like Bayonetta. Not strange because it's Platinum Games at the helm, but strange that the Transformers fit so easily into the formula of a stylish beat-em-up game. There's more playable characters than Bayonetta, there's a lot more weapon modification than Bayonetta, but it's no mistake that my nine-year-old refers to the Focus attack as Witch Time. The focus attack, triggered by dodging out of the way at the last second (exactly how Witch Time is triggered in Bayonetta), allows for a few seconds of moving faster than everything else on the board and dishing out a rather serious beatdown. Some barriers to parts of a level have to be opened like this as well. Of what we've seen, the formula for the game is Giant Robots + Stylish Action = Awesomesauce! The only thing that my younger son hasn't liked about the game so far is that Grimlock is a bit sluggish and you need to repeatedly press the circle button to make him go faster. Bumblebee is his favorite character so far, as he easily outperforms his smaller size.

The other thing that is probably happening now is that a lot of people are playing Splatoon on WiiU for the first time.  While we have made some suggestions before, here's a few reminders.

1. Regular mode is just making sure you have inked more territory than the other team. Use your map (it's on the GamePad!) to find out if there are places that really need ink.

2. In the Ranked mode Splat Zone mode on maps that have two splat zones, have two people cover each one.

3. In the Ranked mode Tower Control, it doesn’t do much good to just run around and paint stuff without a plan.Get the tower, hold the tower, make a path for the tower. Use the dotted line to figure out where the tower is headed. You can’t just run around the tower shooting at it – at some point someone on your team has to get on the tower.

4. If you’re using any of the Nozzlenose weapons in Tower Control, you may find it rather difficult unless you’re extremely accurate. If you’re used to that weapon in regular mode, you may find it easier to use one of the Sloshers for Tower Control.

5. In Rainmaker mode – have the Rainmaker before you push forward through the map, and make sure the person with the Rainmaker is safe. If you have the Rainmaker and no teammates nearby, use the “C’mon” call by pressing up on the D-Pad to call them.

6. In Rainmaker mode – No lounging around! You can only use the weapon for a limited time.

7. It's a team game, play it like one. Nobody cares how many frags you get if your team loses.

Let's be careful out there and play nice, and I hope everybody had a great Christmas.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The stuff is dead! Long live the new old stuff!

I made my semiannual trip to Best Buy the other day as part of Christmas shopping. PS4 controllers were on sale, my older son and I saw the trailer for the new Ratchet & Clank.

We were excited to see it, but we know that that also means that there's another game coming out. It's a game, based on the movie, based on the game.

We do find that kind of funny - the last time we got a game based on a movie based on a game, we got JCVD, Kylie Minogue, and my favorite S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Ming-Na Wen in the video game "Street Fighter:The Movie".

 Maybe if this becomes a more popular trend, we'll finally get a Resident Evil game starring Milla Jovovich.

In other news, it looks like Best Buy is only selling music as impulse purchases now.  When stores like Target and Walmart still have an aisle full of CD's, Best Buy's shelf space for CD's is shrinking. Even worse, the majority of what was there at Best Buy was either 1) specifically Christmas music or 2) albums so popular that they couldn't be ignored.  So, Adele, The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Metallica, One Direction, and a dwindling quantity of stuff towards the end of the alphabet. (I was looking for Bjork while I was there, and it was even difficult to find Beyonce or Bon Jovi.)

Barnes & Noble has a big music selection these days, but thanks to all of those hipsters out there that brought vinyl back, that's all they have. Not one CD.  Shelves and shelves of DVD's and Blu-Ray movies, and a big island in the middle full of vinyl.

I know, a bunch of you are probably saying "What about iTunes?", but I'm not entrenched in Apple culture, and I'm not looking to be dependent on it. I like how well iTunes works for me for podcasts, and that's as far as I'm willing to go.

It's a little late this year for me to change plans, but I think that in the future I'm going to have to make my default music buying plan to get something directly from the artist, since it seems you get better choices on what format you want it in that way.

In that vein, check out - it's changed a lot since I've been there last and it's been redecorated in the style of her new album. If you haven't heard her new work, perhaps you should - how does the expression go - get it straight from the horse's mouth?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Street Fighter V - The starting grid is complete (and then some).

The last of the starting 16 Street Fighter V characters have been announced. The new second in command of Shadaloo, F.A.N.G (pronounced like "flan" without the l), appears to be very sneaky and able to keep opponents at a distance.

He's sneaky for being able to move quickly in a snake-like fashion under opponent's attacks. (0:30) He's also very sneaky for using poison projectiles, (0:33,0:36,0:39,0:45), turning into a big flappy bird (0:53), and for not having a fourth period in his name.

His poison attacks come in a few different flavors - both straight and arched projectiles like some of Dhalsim's fireballs, one that stays on the ground, and a cloud that surrounds him that does repeated damage to any opponent who gets too close.

In the last little part of the video (1:15), they also tease the first wave of unlockable/purchasable characters. They are:

  • Alex, who you've only seen in Street Fighter 3 and Tatsunoko vs Capcom. He splits the difference between being a grappler and a rushdown character by combining command throws with shoulder tackles, chops, and a flying grab.
  • Guile, a series regular, who appears in Street Fighter 2 and 4 and some of the versions of Alpha 3 series. He uses projectiles and a powerful somersault kick to keep opponents from coming at him.
  • Balrog, a powerful boxer who started as an unplayable boss in the first version of Street Fighter 2, who became a playable character in the second version of Street Fighter 2. Like Guile, he was also in 4 and some of the Alpha games. He is one of Shadaloo's top ranks - look for a giant statue of him in the background of the video above.
  • Ibuki, everybody's favorite schoolgirl kunoichi, who previously appeared in Street Fighter 3 and 4.
  • Juri, a relatively new fighter in Street Fighter 4 who has elements of taekwondo and strange projectiles that don't always do what you think they're going to do.
  • Urien, Street Fighter 3's most agressive rushdown character who also has large projectiles and a unique anti-projectile barrier. It will be interesting to see how they implement his special moves.

The way that I understand it at the moment is that these characters can be locked by completing challenges in the game, or by direct purchase. They are trying to encourage people that are playing the game on a regular basis to improve their skills, and they will unlock the characters as a bonus of being engaged with the game. It's not supposed to matter whether or not people are playing online against other people - the in-game currency that allows these unlocks can be accumulate offline as well. It will be some time before the new characters become available, since I think that the intent is to get the first sixteen characters correctly balanced before they start adding other characters.

Capcom is still continuing their beta program, so people that preorder the game for PS4 or on Steam will be granted access to early versions of the game, and Capcom will use the match data to try to determine what changes need to be made to balance the game. Due to the nature of how Street Fighter works, it may take some time for all of the possible techniques to be discovered. They are also using the beta to test the netcode, making sure that people are going to be able to play well online.


In other news, Ash vs. Evil Dead has really been fantastic, and the thing that Lucy Lawless did in the last episode (yesterday) was so unexpected and amazing that I can't really hint at what it was and I have to tell you to just go watch it already.

Now if you can't stand horror in your comedy, or comedy in your horror, or women kicking butt and still getting objectified by the protagonist once in a while, or dismembered hands crawling around on their own, or anything to do with the occult, then please don't watch it because I wouldn't want to be responsible for television destroying your moral fiber.

However, if you like Deep Purple or the Amboy Dukes, you like comedy and horror together to the point that you want to make a movie about The Three Stooges coming back as zombies, you know that a balanced weapon loadout includes a chainsaw and a shotgun, and you're well-versed enough in literature to know what's funny about "A Farewell to Arms" and who originally created the Necronomicon, then by all means get right on watching this show.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Problem solving takes practice, and practice takes problem solving.

It's probably been a while since I've talked about practice.

I'm sure part of the problem is that I feel like I haven't been doing enough of it, and the other part of the problem that every time I even say the word to myself I start replaying the classic Steve Porter jam "Press Hop" in my head.

But, let's put that aside for a moment. (Or, I'll wait the four minutes for you to watch the video. Whatevs.)

So, the other day, one of my friends called me up with a sample question from a study on cognitive bias, because they were reading an article in a magazine about the difference between intelligence and common sense and wanted to see if I could correctly answer a question that more than 50% of people asked from really expensive schools got wrong. I was able to come up with the right answer, and the study would suggest that if I were smarter I wouldn't have gotten it right because...

No, that doesn't make sense at all. People that practice certain kinds of problem solving are going to be inherently good at those kinds of problems. The article doesn't even say what the breakdown by discipline was for the people that got it wrong, or if there was any commonality to the students that got it right.

Yes, cognitive bias exists. Anchoring, where the mind tethers to the first piece of information given even if it's faulty, is a bad one - especially when a subject is rushed to make a decision. It's also not difficult to find lots of other different types of cognitive bias, and I would agree that overall being more intelligent doesn't necessarily solve that problem. For certain skills that we don't utilize all the time, but that we think we have a handle on, people fall back on strategies that are easy to retain and are often overly simplistic, often leading to odd biases that don't hold up to rational analysis. However, for a specific type of problem, you are going to find people that practice that skill and won't fall prey to a particular bias. (I would be genuinely surprised if any Algebra teachers missed the problem in the Gizmodo article that I linked to.)

I would even say that problem solving itself takes practice. You're not going to know where the oil goes in a car the first time you open the hood, and you might get slapped the first time you talk to some people, but if you're paying attention and the results are important to you, those are solvable problems. Analyzing word problems in math and becoming better at them is conducive to forming good habits when turning words into equations. Learning what things to look for, and having a plan when you can't initially find something to work from, takes multiple tries at observation, analysis, revision, and trial.

These are all the things that we do when we practice well. We work on a thing, and we try to observe it in some way. Perhaps it's a video camera, or a tape player, or sometimes it's the watchful eye of an instructor. Then, we analyze our observation. After analysis, it's time to make revisions and try again. What did we do well? What needs work? Do I know how to address the things that need work, or do I need to consult outside information?

What I find even more interesting about this is that in general, doing things tends to only make you better at that thing. Want to be better at Pac-Man? Play more Pac-Man. Certainly, you can memorize the pattern from a book, but it won't be much help if you're not really playing the game enough to learn how the joystick responds in certain situations. Want to memorize more of your grocery list? You have to work on it. Make a system, create mnemonic devices if you have to, visualize the list in your head, but do it, and learn, and do it again.

Can you play a bunch of brain games and make yourself smarter? Probably not, and for the reason I just stated. Doing a thing is only going to help you get better at that thing. Now, if the brain game is memorizing a list of 20 things, that might help you with your grocery list problem - or you could just write out your grocery list and play Pac-Man instead.

For some more insight into what you can do with practice, and how looking at something new is different from looking at it the hundredth time, try reading this interview with my favorite French Horn player.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Random gaming tidbits, Black Friday Edition.

If you go to McDonalds in the next few weeks, and connect to the Wifi using a Nintendo 3DS and Pokémon X, Y, Omega Ruby, or Alpha Sapphire, you can get the Mystical Pokémon Hoopa. It shows up as a Mystery Gift on the main menu of the game, and then you have to collect him at a Pokémon Center. Once you have Hoopa, you can go to a Pokémon Mart, and get a Prison Bottle that allows you to transform Hoopa

into the more powerful Hoopa Unbound for three days.

However, don't forget that connecting a 3DS to store WiFi can often be non-intuitive. Make a new WiFi connection like usual, let it autodetect the settings, but then open the Internet Browser and let the McDonald's splash screen come up - click on the icon that says "Connect to WiFi" and then everything will work correctly and you can go back to the Pokémon game and collect your mystery gift. If you don't use your browser to complete the connection, it won't work.

The newest Pokémon game is not a main game in the series, but the new Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon.
Unlike the main Pokémon games where you play as a trainer, in the Mystery Dungeon games you play as a Pokémon, sometimes with one or two teammates. You and your friends are trying to unravel the presence of Dark Matter at the Tree of Life. You learn moves, explore big areas, and try to piece the puzzle together before the Dark Matter uproots the Tree of Life and sends the planet into the Sun!

While the Pokémon are the same from the other games, the gameplay is somewhat different. Without the guidance of a trainer, some Pokémon's moves tend to put their teammates at risk - for example Earthquake affects the entire room including doing damage to your teammates.

And, last of all, tonight's new weapon for Nintendo WiiU paint shooter Splatoon? The sloshing machine!

Happy sloshing, everybody!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

New video, bad solves, and a new WR in Maryland.

Since it would appear that I'm one of the few people that has bothered to shoot video of the now uncommon Zonitk cube, I noticed that reddit had discovered it. The video quality didn't seem that good, so I shot another one today.

Along for the ride is a giant acrylic light-up cube made by Paladone. I made some pretty gigantic mistakes with the big cube, and my Zontik time was much better than in the last video. I did a pretty solid (well, for me anyway) solve of the last cube, a Yongjun Yulong. However, it doesn't quite compare to the new world record set at the River Hill Fall 2015 in Clarksville, Maryland.

Lucas Etter (USA!), prior to this competition, was ranked 9th for single fastest solve at 5.85 seconds, but second place at 7.13 for average solve time. (Average is computed from removing the best and worst time from five attempts and calculating the mean of the remaining three attempts.)

Felix Zemdegs(Australia) held the only average under seven seconds prior to this competition, so we'll have to see if that changes after all the results are posted to the World Cube Association.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Splatoon Amiibos!

I don't know if it had anything to do with Splatoon for Nintendo's WiiU winning a Golden Joystick award, but finally after months of being impossible to get and never visible on store shelves, Splatoon amiibos are available!

This three-pack is the only way to get the Squid amiibo. The squid amiibo gets you a set of armor that you gradually unlock parts for as you complete specific challenges. It also gets you the Hero Shot replica weapon for your character, and the Squid Beatz mini-game. In case the title isn't self-explanatory, it's a rhythm-based game. You have to hit either the D-pad or buttons in time with the symbols that appear to one of the music tracks from the game.

Here's the girl amiibo.

The girl amiibo gets you the school uniform, again unlocked in parts by completing exclusive challenges, the Hero Charger Replica weapon, and the minigame Squidball.

Last but not least, the boy amiibo unlocks a set of challenges that allow you to earn a super-cool Samurai outfit, the Hero Roller Replica weapon, and the minigame Squid Racer.

The purpose of the mini-games is to give the player something to do while they're waiting for a match to fill up with players. The new challenges that are unlocked are segments of new single player content done with different weapons and battle conditions than the default single player mode. While I'm still not totally cool with the idea of having to collect plastic toys to unlock in-game content, I at least appreciate that Nintendo made an effort to make these amiibo more available after they had a good idea of how many people are actually playing the game. My guess is that the original wave of these figures went directly to collectors and eBay scalpers and not to people playing the game. Based on my older son's opponents, I would say that more people are actually able to get the extra outfits now.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Another new fighter for Street Fighter V, plus maybe SPOILERS

After a fair amount of speculation, the ever-patient and super-stretchy Dhalsim was officially announced for Street Fighter at Paris Games Week.

His play style is built around keeping the opponent away and being able to strike from long distances. In a new twist, the most obvious change to his projectile moves is that they now can travel in an arc, so it might still hit an opponent that you thought was going to jump in even when they're on the ground.

Here's some examples in gameplay from some Canada Cup players.

If you don't want spoilers for the upcoming characters of Street Fighter V, don't click the link for the words "this image" just below here.

Some data for other characters has been found in the data files contained in the latest beta versions of the game. If you have a look at this image, this is some raw code from the beta that had been picked through with a hex editor, looking for file names similar to the structure of the files in Street Fighter 4. Only time will tell if this really true or not, because they're still working on the game and parts could still be changed at this point.

Bonus tip: Angry Birds 2 - complete a section of a level with a single bird, and you get a "Strike" - they're 25,000 points. Complete it with two birds and you get 10,000 points. You don't get any direct bonuses for having birds left over at the end, but if you gets lots of strikes and birdies, you probably will have birds left over.

If you got here from Twitter or Facebook, the answer to the question posed is "parabolas".

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The horror of the pile of shame...

A lot of gamers my age have a "pile of shame", especially if you live near a Gamestop or somewhere else where it's easy to get games on the cheap after the novelty has worn off for someone else. Sometimes the problem is that you get started on a game and get stuck for some reason, sometimes the problem is that you pick up a game when you're in the middle of some different game and it takes a while to get to it and then some really new cool game comes out and the bargain game has to wait a little longer before you even start it. Another thing that happens with the pile of shame for adults, is that there are games that you may not want to play when your kids are watching, so the combination of having both motive and opportunity may not come up often enough for you to make significant progress in the game. Since it's Halloween, I was thinking that I would try to take a stab (heh) at some of the scary games in my pile of shame.

I finally started the PS3 version of Splatterhouse (2010) months ago, and had gotten stuck when I couldn't figure out how to get health back and exit a room on an early level. It's the typical love story game, boy meets girl, boy loses girl in haunted house, boy is nearly killed by said haunted house, evil mask meets boy and tells him he's going to help him get his girlfriend back while fighting his way down to the bottom of the underworld. I picked it back up again the other day, and I think that I figured out why it was in the cheap bin. While I was able to figure out how to regain health, there are a few places where the game doesn't feel quite tuned - particularly when you're trying to impale enemies on spikes (which seems to be the most complicated way to open doors in the game so far). I was pleasantly surprised by the sidescrolling section of the game early on, creating the feel of the original arcade game, and I was just regular surprised by the collectibles in the game as they are pieces of pictures of the protagonist's girlfriend in various states of undress. The making of Splatterhouse has its own sordid tale, since Namco had to throw off the original developer and seize all of the available game assets and hand it off to another company to finish.

Once I got tired of  opening doors by impaling enemies on spikes, I gave Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z (2014) a try. While it's supposed to be in the Ninja Gaiden series, and it's made by Koei Tecmo, it seems a lot different from the other Ninja Gaiden games. The first big difference, and why it's even here in the Halloween lineup at all, is that you play as an undead ninja, and you're fighting even more undead. (I'm sure the National Association for the Advancement of Undead People didn't sanction a game where the living-challenged are committing acts of zombie-on-zombie violence.) It feels more like God of War than Ninja Gaiden. The combat is very fluid, but sometimes it's hard to grab opponents during combos, and it's hard to throw a zombie at a helicopter while the helicopter is trying to shoot missiles at you.

I still have yet to finish Resident Evil 6, partly because they changed the controls again (I just got used to 5!) and partly because with so many different character scenarios it's hard to get involved in the characters. Certainly there are many scares there to be had, but after a while the idea of a giant evil biotechnology corporation starts to become more scary than the zombies bioweapons sent to attack your characters.

What I really keep hoping is that we'll see another Evil Dead game on modern hardware, since we haven't seen once since Evil Dead:Regeneration (no, phone games don't count). Since Starz has a new Ash vs Evil Dead series going now, maybe we're going to see a game to go with it.

But, knowing how things go, I'm sure I'll pick up a few cheap games in the meantime that I won't finish all of.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

It's dangerous to go alone...

Despite the warning at the very beginning of the first Legend of Zelda game, you spend a lot of time in the Zelda games alone. A couple of the Zelda games (Phantom Hourglass & Spirit Tracks) have a battle mode where you can play in a battle arena against each other, but it's not really the main game. Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures were real multiplayer games, although the original Four Swords was odd in that it couldn't be played single player at all. Four Swords Adventures is odd hardware-wise in that you had to connect four Game Boy Advance units to a GameCube using a cable that had few other uses, but it did also have single player. Hyrule Warriors for the WiiU can easily be played multiplayer, and you play cooperatively in the main game, but it's different from most of the other Zelda games since there's no dungeon element.

The brand new Zelda game, officially called "The Legend of Zelda : Triforce Heroes", has implemented better multiplayer options, so while it's played on the Nintendo 3DS handheld, you can either play locally via Download Play, or play with two friends or strangers on the internet, or just play single player with yourself and two "Doppels". Simpler than a regular Zelda game, it is comprised of eight dungeons only, with no overworld. Each of the dungeons has a variety of challenges and sections for groups of three players. The controls are very similar to "A Link Between Worlds", another recent 3DS Zelda title. The silliest part of the operation is creating a 3-link totem pole to gain altitude or special moves.

We've just scratched the surface of this game since it just came out Thursday, so we may have more to say about this later, but it's still a Zelda game and Nintendo really cares about their franchises and delivering a satisfying experience.

In other gaming, I have been playing Angry Birds 2 on my phone. It's not particularly different from the original Angry Birds - you fling birds of varying properties at destructible structures with pigs in them. I suppose if I had had a smartphone when the original Angry Birds was out, I would be less likely to want to play Angry Birds 2, but the graphics are nice, and the Arena Battle is fun. Sadly, I have only one other person on my Facebook Friends list (Thanks, Taryn) that is playing this game so I have no idea how well I'm doing. Rovio changed parts of the formula, because the boards are now semi-randomly generated. A given board has a fixed number of pigs and a fixed set of background platforms, but the destructible parts change every time. My biggest compliant with the original game was that I had wished that you could use the birds that you were given in a different order, which has been fixed in this game by a card system that allows you to pick one of three birds at any given time, which is actually more important now due to the variable nature of the boards.  Nearly all of the professional reviewers have complained that the game has been ruined by microtransations, but since I play for only a few minutes at a time in between other things in my day and I'm not spending any money on the game, I don't really find that complaint relevant. It's not Gauntlet or Quake or some RPG game that you might play for hours at a stretch - it's a fun little bird-flinging game you play while you're waiting for your lunch to arrive. The down side of that is that they're not making much money from me but I have watched an ad or two.

If this game ever comes out as a paid release, perhaps on 3DS, they're going to have to change how you accumulate powerups if you're not going to pay for them. If the free-to-play model isn't making them money, though, they're going to have to add enough new content to the game to convince people that already played it for free that they need to pay for it.

Maybe Rovio needs a partner software company to help with making their games work with a bigger audience. After all, it is dangerous to go alone...

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Games without fixed price points.

The band I play in on weekends has just started playing a version of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, deeply influenced by the version that the Brand New Heavies does. After one of our shows, the guitarist and I started talking about versions of Peter Gabriel songs that we like – like Pink and John Legend’s version of “Don’t Give Up” versus the album version that has Kate Bush singing with Peter Gabriel.  I explained about how I had started listening to Kate Bush just before I really got into Peter Gabriel, so the Kate Bush vocals really got to me at that time – even on things like “Games without Frontiers” where she’s just relegated to a small amount of backup vocals.

“Games without Frontiers” got me thinking again about the current state of the mainstream gaming market, where the biggest games are starting to throw their weight around and see who can create the biggest collection of things. The biggest amount of floor space in the big box stores that isn’t the locked game case. It is the shelves for Nintendo's amiibo, Avalanche's Disney Infinity (now on version 3 that includes Star Wars!), Activision's Skylanders (now including vehicles), and now Traveler's Tales' LEGO Dimensions. It’s no longer enough that a game is an expensive standalone proposition that sells for $60 apiece, because with all of the man-hours of programming that goes into that it can seem a very risky proposition for company shareholders. Thanks to the very fractured nature of the market, having simply the appeal of a game is not nearly enough. After the rise and fall of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series that showed us that a complicated bit of licensing and some not-so-complicated plastic toys could be used to sell more product to customers, we now have games engineered to sell a crap-ton of high margin plastic toys both to collectors and gamers.

Guitar Hero did well from its inception in 2005 until around 2010. As a result of some really lousy looking fourth-quarter projections, Activision decided to put any future development on hold indefinitely which left Warriors of Rock and DJ Hero 2 as the last releases in 2010.  (Except that they couldn't leave well enough alone and "Guitar Hero Live" will be coming out the 20th of this month and longtime competitor Rock Band just released version 4 on the 6th. )

The first Skylanders was in 2011, followed by new games every year, because that's how Activision rolls. Fans had started complaining about how Trap Team wasn't as good as Swap Force, and before that they complained that Swap Force wasn't quite as good as Giants. Before that, the original Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure had been winning awards for being so innovative. The most recent one, SuperChargers, adds vehicles but somehow loses some of the fun out of the game. Of course, some of that is probably fan fatigue - if you put out a new game in the series every year, you will get a lot of scrutiny between versions and people will wonder if it's worth it to get the new one if they were still playing the old one.

The same sort of year-to-year scrutiny seems to be happening with the Disney Infinity games, but it really seems like Infinity is getting better and just expanding their universe. At first it was just Disney, and then they added Marvel characters in, and then they added the Star Wars universe to it. As long as the new characters are getting compelling in-game content, they don't have to change up how the game plays that much. It's an advantage over Skylanders in that they don't have to introduce characters to you from scratch - kids (and a lot of their parents) already know who Spiderman and Obi-Wan Kenobi are without playing the game. You can't say that about Eyebrawl, or Ninjini, or Hootloop.

With Nintendo's amiibos, there are a few things you need specific amiibos for. Toad wasn't super-difficult to get, but his amiibo unlocks extra content in Toad's Treasure Tracker. The Splatoon 3-pack, which I have never seen in any store, goes for $60 to $80 when it's supposed to retail for $35, and gets you some new single player training missions, minigames, and costumes. There may be other ways to get the costumes, but there's not a way that I can see to get the other content. There's also a weapon in Hyrule Warriors that you can only get with the Link amiibo - that extra $13 may seem a little excessive if you already paid $60 for the game and $20 for the season pass to get all of the DLC. Sure, the Chibi-Robo amiibo unlocks some things in the game, but it's easy enough to get the game bundled with the Chibi amiibo. (Achiibo?)

I avoided Skylanders intentionally because it seemed like a rather expensive proposition. Infinity seems a little bit better, especially with the addition of the expanded Star Wars universe, but the prospect of toy collecting to get levels still seemed  problematic for me.

But, given LEGO Dimensions' amazing combination of LEGO, Batman, Portal, Scooby-Doo, and Doctor Who, I hardly see how I will be able to avoid this.

I mean my kids won't be able to avoid this. Yeah, that's what I meant.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Leaked SFV character is now official, plus bonus robot content.

So let's start with a riddle. Who's a Street Fighter that's green, from Brazil, and is absolutely electric?
No, it's not Blanka, but nobody would blame you for thinking that. The new Street Fighter V character that was previously leaked, Laura, is now official. Here's her trailer.

Based around Brazilian Jujitsu but with the added Street Fighter touches of a very slow fireball and devastating electrified attacks, she seems to have so many options available to her in terms of what her attacks are that she will quickly dispatch any opponent caught admiring her style. What I didn't really see yet is what her defenses are, and it may be hard to figure that out this early. I don't think that she was supposed to be the next character revealed, but I presume that the fact that a few images had been leaked prompted Capcom to officially announce her and end the speculation.

In other news, we picked up the newly released Chibi Robo game ZipLash for Nintendo 3DS last night. We opted for the copy with the amiibo (which we had to reserve), since it seemed like it could be difficult to get it otherwise.

Who is Chibi Robo, you might ask? Well, the first Chibi Robo game was on Gamecube in 2005. (Holy pasta! That was ten years ago!) You got to explore a house from the perspective of a small robot, walking under furniture and climbing up cabinets. You picked up pieces of trash and cleaned spots in an effort to make the humans in the house happy, but there were also other things going on in the house. Evil spider robots called Spydorz were thwarting Chibi's efforts to revive his predecessor, the much larger Giga-robo left in the basement without one of his legs or any battery power. The man and wife of the house were at odds with each other, leaving their daughter to feel withdrawn and non-communicative. If you get all the way through the game, you restore balance and happiness to the house. Part of the mechanic of getting around involved having a limited amount of power, and finding power outlets along the way as a way to recharge. Chibi has a cord and plug attached to him, and he just plugs himself in for a few seconds to recharge his battery.

The new game, instead of being a 3-d platformer is a 2-d side scrolling platformer, with the promise of using his cord and plug as a way to traverse environments. Although there are still outlets in the levels in some places, defeated enemies drop small batteries that allow him to recharge his energy. Chibi-Robo also finds snacks along the way, which is an interesting bit of advertising in itself - all of the snacks he finds are real branded snacks. The game makes it seem that collecting all the snacks is the main objective so it will be interesting to see how many different brands end up being incorporated into the game.

So far the whip mechanic is good, and there is more than one type of level so far, but we're not that far in the game yet. The music is cute, and isn't just the same stuff we've heard in other Chibi games. A lot of the familiar menu and selection music returns along with Chibi's basic sounds so that you have some things that remind you what you're doing, but the level background music is all new.  It's nice to see that Nintendo is still dedicated to a pleasant family-friendly gaming experience.

Don't get me wrong - I still like shooting zombies as much as the next guy, but there's more to games than terror and panic. There's puzzle solving, cute robots, slow fireballs, and hot Brazilian chicks!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Street Fighter V, still in progress, Part 3 - plus bonus cubing.

Continuing on with the developments of Street Fighter V, here are the remainder characters that were announced so far.

Vega has been a series regular, inasmuch as any character can - he was in the II series of games, first as one of the unplayable bosses, and then as a playable character from Champion Edition onward. He was also in Street Fighter Alpha 3 and all of the versions of Street Fighter IV.

While much of his gameplay is familiar to people who have used him before, a major change is a new ability to change from using his claw to not using his claw, allowing him a few different moves.

R. Mika has only previously appeared in Street Fighter Alpha 3, but apparently she has really made an impact with players because she was on the top ten list of most requested characters.

While she may seem like bubbly fan service, she is an even more complex character in her Street Fighter V appearance than she was in Alpha 3. All the characters that use command throws (a special move with a more complicated controller motion as opposed to a regular throw that only takes a particular button combination) a referred to as grapplers. This includes Zangief, T.Hawk, Hugo, Abel, and Hakan. R. Mika's look is more in the vein of wrestling-as-entertainment than serious fighter, but that's part of her charm. In addition to a grappler's arsenal of grabs and smashes, she can also rock the microphone to hype herself (increasing the damage that her command throw does in the process). Even more amazing is that she has a few moves that utilize her tag team partner Nadeshiko. Watch out for attacks coming from any direction, and really watch out for the spectacular tag team finish.

Rashid is brand new. We don't know a lot about him, but we think he's one of the good guys.

We do know that he harnesses the power of the wind, but he's also wearing a scouter like he's from Dragon Ball Z. Is he trying to find out if Ryu is over 9000?

Karin is another fan favorite from Street Fighter Alpha 3 returning to the game. In Alpha 3, her primary function is to serve as Sakura's rival, and uses counterattacks and rushdown moves to get the upper hand in a match.

Her Street Fighter V incarnation doesn't seem tremendously different in overall style, but it would appear that she has a wider variety of moves available to her.

Zangief was just announced October 1st at the Russian gaming convention IgroMir. He's been in one more game than Vega has, since he was included in the Alpha series a game earlier. This is the grappler that all other grapplers originated from.

This time around, Zangief  has many more moves at his disposal and it's just crazy what they've done with him to soup up his abilities. I was most impressed with him repelling an attack by just flexing, and him headbutting a fireball to disperse it. (Too bad it was Bison's two-hit fireball that still had one hit left.)

While I was busy putting this together, another character was leaked, but there's no video yet. I did find a few still pictures of the brand new character Laura fighting Ryu on the Brazil stage, which I think we can assume is hers. She seems to have some jujitsu moves, and a strange fireball, but I think that her fighting style will make more sense once we actually have some video.

There are only a few characters left to be revealed prior to the game's initial release, but knowing Capcom there will be lots of added characters over the life of the series.

In a side note, I was so excited at the grocery store this week to hear the following words spoken by the cashier (emphasis is mine) - "You're the second person today to come through (the line) with a Rubik's cube." However, when I had my cube solved 40 seconds later she still seemed surprised.

Yesterday at the other grocery store on a trip for pizza and cannolis, I did a demonstration for the dessert counter attendant, and popped an edge piece out of my DaYan brand cube while I was doing it. I recovered well, so it wasn't a big deal. I went a little more in depth than I might usually because she asked better questions than I usually get. She even remarked that she felt like she had learned something. I hardly ever take my DaYan cubes apart, and I had my other DaYan pop at lunch that day for the first time. I guess I've put enough mileage on them in a year and I probably need to take them apart and clean them and re-lubricate them.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Street Fighter V, still in progress, Part 2.

The next characters to be announced in Capcom's Street Fighter V were everybody's favorite English commando, Cammy, and a big ugly bouncer named Birdie that we haven't seen since the Street Fighter Alpha games.

Cammy shows off most of the moves we've come to expect from her, and Birdie looks like he's gotten a substantial tune-up that may or may not include some ingestion of hot sauce. (Did you see the fire coming out of his mouth?)

After that, Capcom announced longtime series regular and Ryu's friendly rival Ken Masters.

Some people complained about the new hairstyle, (it looks bananas?) and some people weren't sure why a game that's supposed to show greater differentiation between characters had Ken in it at all. But, I think it would be hard to take him out at this point since their rivalry is one of the main story points of the game, and they have done a great job of gradually differentiating the characters in the past. Their mission to not have a lot of characters just be clones of each other has just allowed them to be more daring in their changes with Ken.

The next character that Capcom revealed is the first fully new character, Necalli.

Necalli has big crazy hair, attacks that can penetrate through the ground, a command throw, and not much of a command of English. We don't really know anything about his backstory yet, but he doesn't exactly seem like one of the good guys.

Now about the game itself - Capcom has done a great job in having a Beta for people that have pre-ordered the game. The best part about it, in my opinion, is that one of the first times that the servers were running an early version of the Beta, it wasn't running up to par. The servers couldn't handle the load at the time, and they had to try again in a couple of days. Polygon talks about it here. Why is that such a big deal? It's a big deal because you want it to fail early, under somewhat real-world conditions, instead of failing the week the game officially releases with all of the characters running and a lot of people being disappointed. Capcom has dissappointed a lot of fans by having questionable netcode (the parts of the program responsible for the networking aspects of the game) in some of the game modes of the PC version of Street Fighter IV and it's never fully been resolved, only worked around. If it's a game that's primarily being played online, the game will live or die by its netcode and Capcom is really going to have to make it great, especially with this new endeavor of increasing the size of the player base by funneling PS4 and PC users into one pool of players.

For those of you thinking about the PC version on Steam, check out the system requirements on the Steam page - just keep scrolling down to the end there.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Street Fighter V, still in progress.

It's been a while since Street Fighter V was first announced, and it's been nearly as long since I talked about it. There's still a long way to go before the game is officially released, but I'm really pleased about how transparent Capcom is being about the game and the steps they're taking to make sure that they have a successful release.

The first thing that people would need to know is that Street Fighter V is only coming out for Playstation 4 and PC. Sony deliberately partnered with Capcom to do this, which both helps sales of the PS4 over the XBoxOne, but it is also helping with unifying the online player base. For the first time, all of the people playing this game will be able to play each other. Street Fighter IV had three separate player bases - XBox360, PS3, and PC(Steam). By removing the XBoxOne from the equation, because there would be no practical way to get Sony and Microsoft to allow any sort of cross-system play, it becomes possible for Steam users and Playstation Network players to play against each other for Street Fighter V. As the competitive fighting game scene grows, it becomes helpful and important to unify the player base in this way.

When the game was first announced, all we had was Ryu and Chun-Li. Ryu is Street Fighter. He was the original character that you played as in the original Street Fighter, when there wasn't even a number after the title yet. Chun Li is a fan favorite from Street Fighter II, and has been in the majority of the games that followed. A scary version of Charlie Nash and a rather familiar looking M. Bison followed next.

M. Bison seems familiar enough to people who played him in the other games he appears in.

Charlie has changed a lot from the Guile clone that he used to be in the Alpha series. Sporting some aftermarket repairs, which I guess he needed because we thought that he had died in a previous game, he now has some tricky teleport moves and more ways to confuse his opponents.

While this is a good start, obviously there need to be more characters, (and there are) but I thought that it was great that Capcom was gradually adding them in during the development process as a way to tune the game mechanics.  They've probably been doing this all along, but this is the first time that Capcom has done a Beta program this big and has shown the game this much prior to release.

Next time, we'll discuss the Beta in more detail and show off the next four characters.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Of Kombat woes.

So, say you're a really established video game developer, but you know you don't have time to do everything, so you try to find other studios to help you get product out the door faster. You have to pick partners that understand what you want, and can deliver the product in a way that your fans expect. Sometimes the partners work alongside the developer, like Dimps with Capcom during the Street Fighter IV series. Sometimes you have to hand off most of the responsibility to the partner, like Capcom letting Ninja Theory make a version of Devil May Cry in an effort to reboot the series. In other cases, like the Call of Duty series, there are a stable of developers all working on different games in the series concurrently so that the release schedule can go smoothly. Activision had started out with just Infinity Ward working on projects, then added Treyarch, and then added Sledgehammer Games, along with a whole bunch of other secondary partners. And sometimes, you just get a second developer just to help out with certain facets of the game that they're particularly good at like letting them work on character models or artwork while you're busy working on the story and the game engine. Kazuma Kaneko of Atlus has a long history of doing work for Capcom and Konami just because he's good at character design.

Alternately, some developers are happy to never give release dates because they would prefer to ship a game, as Id software's John Carmack famously proclaims, "When it's done".

Knowing the variety of scenarios that have worked out for the gaming industry, and knowing some of more spectacular failures of the industry, unforeseen stuff will still happen. It's not like people are planning to fail (unless, you're like, Uwe Boll) but at a certain point you would think that you would know what was going on. The current round of mishaps are in the fighting game arena.

Mortal Kombat X is Netherrealm Studio's second chance at a second good game. Back when Ed Boon and the gang worked for Midway, Mortal Kombat was a standout fighting game for a really big reason - it wasn't Street Fighter II. Many of the other fighting games out at the time were too much like Street Fighter II, although not good enough to be any sort of a threat. Midway took a different approach with different controls, different stylistic influences, a different graphical style, and a more menacing tone.When Midway came out with Mortal Kombat II, it was better in so many ways that made it the definitive version. Even after many lukewarm and overdone versions of Mortal Kombat and lackluster spinoff games, this was still the team that stayed together after Midway became part of Warner Brothers since they were doing a lot of the arcade games for Midway and a fair number of console ports.

The progression of the games amounted to this - after the success of II, they made Mortal Kombat III and two revisions referred to as Ultimate and Trilogy, where all three games continuing their basic strategy of filming/photographic actors in costume and using that to build a series of 2D sprites which were then animated. Typical of fighting games of the time, the rosters increased to include more and more characters.

When fighting games like Namco's Tekken (1994) and Soul Edge (1995) came out with 3D character models and backgrounds, Midway followed suit with Mortal Kombat 4(1997), and its Dreamcast version with an updated roster, Mortal Kombat Gold(1998). Mortal Kombat 4 was the last arcade iteration, but not the last Mortal Kombat with 3D gameplay.

The home console games that followed, Deadly Alliance(2002), Deception(2004), and Armageddon(2006), all had increasingly complex levels of 3D interaction and movement, and multiple fighting styles for each character. While I found the storyline interesting, and they added extensive story mode content in the games, I never found them as fun to play as the earlier games. By the time I got to Armageddon, I was really missing my Nintendo 64 version of MK4.

When they jumped to the next generation of consoles (PS3/Xbox360), instead of releasing the same game over again, they took a detour into the superhero genre and made MK vs DC Universe(2008). It did allow for some interesting mechanics that made it more fun than some of the other 3D games, but the 3D nature of the game did still make some things oddly difficult. This was a stepping stone for two things - one, it got them working with the Unreal Engine which helped them streamline some of their development, and two, it got them to rethink what they could do with the characters in a new game environment. Influenced by Street Fighter's return on the scene, using 3d character models in a fighting arena constrained to 2D, the new reboot simply named Mortal Kombat (2011) was able to make the game both more playable and visually appealing. It had finally made a game on par with the early games.

When Mortal Kombat X was announced, scheduled for an April 2015 release, it was a great opportunity to take all of the things that they got right in the 2011 release and refine them. In essence, it was a second chance to make a game as great as Mortal Kombat II. Having announced the game for both the PS3/XBox 360 machines as well as PC and PS4/Xbox One, it could have been a very large release reaching the widest possible audience.

Except it wasn't.

The PS4 and XBoxOne versions released on time, with Netherrealm at the helm. High Voltage Software was in charge of the PC version, along with the XBox 360 and PS3 ports. The PC version released on time, with a few hiccups in the first day or two having to do with how the game loaded in Steam, and the XBox 360 and PS3 versions were pushed back to "Summer 2015".

And then they were pushed back again to fall or possibly the end of the year.

And then, when everybody in the southeast was busy worrying about the track of Tropical Storm Erika, Warner Brothers Interactive quietly pulled the plug on the PS3 and XBox360 versions. Not a big press release, just a quiet little message on their community page.

So, I wandered down to Gamestop, and took the path of least resistance and got some store credit for what I put down on the preorder. Part of me wanted to get the PS4 version but somehow get Warner Brothers to cough up a way to redeem Goro that I lost out on by the failure of my PS3 preorder, but they've already released a lot of other DLC characters and I'm now inclined to just wait and see if they release another disk later with everything on it. I've already realized that if I want to play Tekken 7 or Street Fighter V I will have to move on to the next system, and I think I even knew that back in April when I thought that I was going to be able to get MKX for PS3.  At this point, I'm in no hurry to catch back up with Mortal Kombat, and I know that my kids actually enjoy Tekken and Street Fighter and I could actually play those with them.

Next time (hopefully soon) I will talk about Street Fighter V, and the exciting things that Capcom is doing right with the game.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Things you should know about Splatoon if you're playing it.

While I am terrified at the prospect of sending my oldest to high school this fall, he doesn't seem too freaked out about it. He spent a fair amount of time playing Splatoon this summer, including participating in all three Splatfests so far. I haven't played the game as much as he has, so the gameplay tips are all his.

I asked him what people should know about playing in Ranked Mode, which is where I usually find him complaining about the gameplay of his opponents. So, here's his list!

  1. Have at least two people guard a Splat Zone.
  2. If nobody is on the tower, GET ON IT!
  3. Overtime means CAPTURE THE THING!!!!
  4. In all of the modes, don't place squid beacons near your base. You can already jump to it by tapping the spawn location on the GamePad.
  5. Put down an ink mine or suction bomb on the tower if you're rushing it or defending it.
  6. Sloshers are very good for covering the walls and ground. Use this to get your players with longer range weapons to higher ground.
  7. Any weapon that you have to charge is SUPER slow when charging midair so don't try to start charging midair if there is an enemy below you. Fire off a shot or two so you can get to the ground safely and then worry about charging or attacking.
  8. In all of the modes, if your weapon has seekers and there are no enemies around it, swim right behind it. It is good stealth without losing speed from the ninja squid ability.
  9. Make sure before you super jump that you make sure that you are not going to get killed right as you land.
  10. Do not go off and paint stuff! Your super meter will fill plenty if you keep in the battle and watch for hazards.
Hopefully this helps a few people. I would add another item to this list for people used to other shooters - for each of the various game modes, make sure that you're paying attention to the primary goal for each mode. Regular versus mode means painting a lot of ground your color, Tower Control means maintaining control of the tower, Splat Zones means controlling specific zones of the board. While taking out your opponents is often helpful, racking up a big kill count doesn't win the match.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The more you know...

Is it normal that gamer parents have to have "the talk" with their kids as early as 8? No, I don't mean the birds and the bees. I mean spawncamping, client side cheats, how lag affects multiplayer games, and how to pronounce a word that only has the letters "p", "w", and "n" in it? (And if you're wondering, it sounds like "pone", rhymes with "cone".)

I played first person shooters on PC a long time ago. (Hey - I'm not kidding - 1993 was more than 20 years ago!) My father showed me the demo of id software's "Doom" on his Gateway, and I had played through parts of it at his house. It was so long ago that it was before people customarily used the mouse to aim with. I played through most Doom and Doom II and still hadn't played any multiplayer. I even had the scary blood red Doom cartridge for SNES. When Quake came out, we played the heck out of that demo as well before getting the actual game, and then someone in my office where I worked at the time bought the full version. Not only was the original Trent Reznor soundtrack amazingly spooky, but we realized that you could look around at will (what we now call "freelook") but it was still hard to do. At some point the realization was made that the mouse was essential, because nobody could turn around fast enough with just the keyboard. If you take enough rockets to the back, you'll switch to using a mouse. This was also the same time that we learned how to set up multiplayer. At first, we connected using IPX/SPX because our office wasn't using TCP/IP yet, and once we did start using TCP/IP I would often use Quake's robust command line to help with network troubleshooting after hours. I got a better computer at home, and a better 3D video card. (I want to say that it was a Voodoo card, but that might not have been until Quake 2.) I was still playing over dialup. It was a big deal to go somewhere on the weekend that had ISDN to play against people online. My biggest annoyance in the game was people using a character skin that was painted completely black, as many of the maps in the original quake were rather shadowy. Once I figured out that those files lived on my computer, I could fix them so that they were at least regular, but some players made me mad enough that I changed the player skin to something like this:

I had to convert this from .pcx to even be able to post it.
Spawncamping - the practice of waiting at a spot near where players spawn so you can shoot them before they can get any armor or weapons - was prevalent on certain maps, just because of the geometry of the board. The other odd tactic that arose was luring a group of other players into the water, only to discharge the lightning gun and kill everyone. Sure, you died, but if you did it right you would get more kills than it cost you.

Quake 2 came out in 1997. I was not a fan of the railgun which allowed for instant long-distance sniping, and I was disappointed that they had really nerfed the grenade launcher. I liked the single player game better since the enemies were smarter and there was a tiny bit more story to it, but I didn't really like the multiplayer maps or the weapon selection for the most part. I ended up spending more time playing 4-player local Goldeneye 64 multiplayer instead. I found it more fun to play against people who were actually in the room.

I waited for Quake 3 to come out, and I liked that a lot better even though the railgun was still there, but by then it was rather apparent that my skills had waned - or everyone else had just gotten better. While I still come back to Quake 3 once in a while since I can play it against my kids and still have fun, for the most part I have that "been there, done that" attitude about FPS games.

It took a long time for a game to even get my attention at all - I briefly toyed with Bulletstorm once the price plummeted to nothing only because I hear that it had an interesting whip mechanic. As it turns out it was a weapon that allows you to grab things from a distance, and while it did make for interesting "grab the bad guy from behind cover and shoot him" mechanics, I found myself getting headaches while playing the game.

Considering all of this history, I was really surprised that my older son wanted to pick up the new team shooter "Splatoon" - until I realized that this was a lot different from the standard issue shooter games. One, it's a third person shooter - the camera is behind you like in the Ratchet and Clank games or Resident Evil 4/5/6. Even though it's really only a multiplayer game where two teams of four battle it out, the game is about capturing territory instead of just racking up kills. Since you only spawn at your own team's base, there isn't a lot of spawncamping - and even if there was it wouldn't be very productive.

The game came out Friday May 29. There was an update that weekend that added a map (Port Mackerel), a Ranked mode, and a Zapper weapon. After that they added the Ink Brush, and then more weapons and maps have followed after that.  These were free updates, and it seemed like a good use of the internet on a game like this - it gave them a chance to get game data back from players on the weapons already being used, and they could slowly add in weapons as players got better at the game. This game also makes use of the amiibo characters, but at this point it's just the three specifically for this game - a girl player, a boy player, and a squid. They unlock specific single player challenges, which seems like a little bit mean for amiibos that aren't ever going to make it to the store and are already fetching quite a premium just on rareness.  Nintendo, can't we just play the game without buying more plastic toys?

That reminds me of two more things - today is the first Splatfest day, and I'm going to have to have the other "talk" with my kids.  No, not that - I need to explain to them about scalping on eBay.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Beach Cubing, Bro edition.

I bring a 3x3x3 Rubik's cube with me to the beach - I have to presume that nobody that would be reading this is surprised by that. Most of the time, I just have it in my hands to fidget with. Lately when we go to the beach, we've been taking the world's cutest dog with us, so nobody notices the cube much anyway. I used to take a standard cube from eight or so years ago to the beach, knowing that it was always the same cube that went to the beach, but I was a little disappointed in the ratty-looking stickers as they wore down. This year, I started taking  a new Hasbro cube since I already knew that I couldn't hurt the plastic tiles much, and I recently gave it a good silicone spray bath and have improved its turn-ability a lot. I don't know if the silicone spray takes the logo off since I already accidentally removed it with sunscreen.

When they do notice that I have a cube, I never know what to expect, and I really try to tailor the experience to the audience. If it's a audience of one or two, I try to let them lead with their specific questions, and then explain the best I can from there. What's funny to me about the audience of one is that it's rarely an actual one-on-one experience, it's just that the one person is one person out of whoever is present.

If it's an audience of several people, I try to figure out the dynamic of the group and try to figure out if I have to lead with comedy or showmanship. With a group of serious young men, I seem to have to lead with showmanship, and usually that entails a good first solve. I have such low expectations for the Hasbro cube and I tell people it's going to take me 40-45 seconds and I often surprise myself and knock it out in much less, but never less than 30 seconds. After that, the funniest part of the dynamic is the serious young men saying to each other "Can't you do that? I thought you could do that."

If the group of people is a little bit older or has had a few adult beverages, usually I can lead with comedy. At very least I can lead with the explanation at a leisurely pace, unless there's a clamoring for the showoff part. In the explanation, I usually show a routine or two, to demonstrate the idea of a number of moves that represent moving a certain number of pieces in a certain way (like R2 U R U R' U' R' U' R' U R' moving three edges around in the U layer, or R' D' R D' R' D2 R D2 to twist three corners in the D layer while moving some edges aroud). Once they have the idea, then I can show them something a little sillier. I do the move F2 R2 F2 R2 F2 R2 on a solved cube and then turn the cube towards them, showing them the df and the dr edges that have been moved to the U layer, and then turn the cube the other way to show them the uf and ur edges that have been moved to the D layer. Once I show them that, I hold the cube with my middle finger and thumb on one pair of edges, and my other middle finger and other thumb on the other pair. You can get it back to the solved state without having to remove your fingers.

I guess it's only funny if you've been drinking.

The other night the group I was performing for were UK tourists, having a bit of fun paddleboarding and throwing a rugby ball around. When it was time to do the "prove it" solve, the person I handed it to seemed fairly careful with the scrambling, and it was only once I started turning the cube at speed that it occurred to me why.

"Feels like you got quite a bit of sunscreen on the cube here."

"Actually it's sausage fat."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Do you even cube, bro?

So after I had a chance to acclimate myself to a 7x7x7 V-Cube, I quickly realized that my large Rubik's cube skills needed some work, and so I decided to work on picking out a new 4x4x4. I immediately ruled out a V-cube, since the one thing that drives me a little bit nuts about it is how the blue and the green stickers are too close to the same value (see picture below), so I can't always tell them apart in some lighting conditions.

My first choice based on my familiarity with the mechanism would be a DaYan, but for whatever reason I couldn't find one on Amazon at the time. Since I like stickerless cubes, I got a Cyclone Boys 4x4 FeiYue.

On the off chance I didn't like the mechanism, I got the well-recommended and inexpensive Shengshou.

Both of them turn nice, although considering the only thing I have to compare it to is my original Ideal 4x4x4 from 1982 it's possible that anything might seem better.

I also picked up a Shengshou Megaminx.

As it turns out, I didn't enjoy the physical sensation of turning the Megaminx as much as I thought that I would. Since the part that you turn is just one of the pentagonal sides that represents only a small portion of the puzzle, you don't have the same feeling of manipulating the object that you do with a cube. I was able to solve the Megaminx on my own, just by re-purposing a few standard cube operators like LU'R'UL'U'RU that moves three corners around without moving edges, and variations on RUR'URU2R'.

I was already able to solve the 4x4x4, but I was using a corners-first solution similar to my usual 3x3x3 solution. You solve all of the U and D center pieces, solve the eight corners, solve all of the U and D edges, solve the eight edges in the middle layer, and then solve the remaining center pieces in the middle layer. Now that I have better turning cubes, I have learned most of the edge matching method, where you solve all of the centers, match up all of the edge pairs, and then solve the cube as if it was a 3x3x3. However, there is one problem with the edge matching method - it is prone to parity errors. You can get to the end of solving the cube and have an edge pair flipped around the wrong way, or you can have two sets of edge pairs swapped with each other, or even both of those things at once. Since these are things that can't happen on a 3x3x3 Rubik's Cube, they seem a little disconcerting at first. These can happen because with all of the additional center pieces , there are less constraints on how pieces can appear to be swapped.

Fixing the two sets of edge pairs is easier - swapping the uf pair of edges with the ub pair can be done with the move r2 U2 r2 (Uu)2 r2 u2. If you are unfamiliar with cube notation, check here since it's what I'm using. There are some variations on the notation for larger cubes.

The other case where an edge pair is in the wrong way, that looks like a single edge flip on a 3x3x3 cube, is a little more difficult and harder to memorize. It is r2 B2 U2 l U2 r' U2 r U2 F2 r F2 l' B2 r2.

So another more oddball bit of cubing news comes from yesterday's outing to the beach. I had a couple of the new Hasbro Rubik's cubes in the car, the ones with plastic tiles and the hard-to-disassemble mechanism that I documented here. The logos on these cubes are painted on to the plastic, and up to now I had not worn any of it off in any way. After I applied sunscreen, however, the logo came off the cube I was handling in a minute or two.

Normally people wouldn't have cubes with them at the beach (yes, I'm the only one), but here in Florida there are lots of reasons to apply sunscreen that have nothing to do with the beach.

In other news, in my replay of the God of War games, I am only on God of War 2 so far. I seem to only remember specific puzzles and boss battles in this game, while I was able to remember most of God of War 1 in its entirety. There is less emphasis on narrative, which may be what the difference is, or it may be that there just seems like there's less consistent narrative because I only play for a little bit at a time. The next game I will play is a conversion of one of the handheld games, so that will be quite a new experience for me.

I found out from my older son about a new LEGO game in the works, and I want to be excited about the new Mortal Kombat release, but I think I will talk more about those next time.

Monday, March 16, 2015

They just don't make them like they used to. Or do they?

Over the last few months,  I have been steadily picking up cheap games for the PS3 knowing that my window for getting them is steadily closing.

Now that I have a couple of Move controllers, I picked up the Time Crisis Razing Storm disc (2010, Namco) that also includes the other Namco light gun shooters Time Crisis 4 and Deadstorm Pirates. It was only nine bucks, and that's only three bucks a game! I had passed on Time Crisis 4 when it originally came out in 2007 because I didn't have a PS3 yet and it wasn't the sort of game that I was inclined to pick up a system for. Time Crisis 4 and Deadstorm Pirates are rock-solid arcade ports, but there's not much in the way of extras. Razing Storm has a variety of extra modes and a campaign mode that requires a more difficult control scheme and the Move Navigation controller. The two Time Crisis games are very consistent with the rest of the series, and the Deadstorm Pirates game is still a lot of fun despite simpler mechanics and no cover system.

Also in the light gun genre, I picked up House of the Dead:Overkill (2009, SEGA/Headstrong). It does a good job of making you think you're watching some sort of grindhouse film, including visual artifacts and poorly edited dialogue. It also has the second highest profanity count of any video game currently in existence, only because Mafia 2 (2010, 2K Czech) dethroned it. The game is still fun, and since the overall writing is well crafted, the profanity bothers me less than the nature of the swearing in something like Mad World where it just seemed like it was shoehorned in. In terms of the campy nature of the game, the only things that's even in its class is Lollipop Chainsaw.

Overall, the Move controllers work really well for light gun games - I even find them more reliable than the Wii's Wiimotes. I was hoping to complete my light gun trifecta with Capcom's Chronicles HD Collection, but I haven't run across a copy yet. I was also hoping that there would be Move support added to the HD version of the survival horror classic Resident Evil 4 on PS3, but there isn't. RE5 is the only one, since the control scheme in RE6 is too complicated for the Move.

It is nice to know that the PS4 supports the use of the Move controllers, although it does not support the use of the PS3 camera with them. So, you have to get a  new camera but the controllers are fine. (I'm not there yet, so it's not really a concern.)

So what have I been playing besides old light gun games? I went back to revisit the Sony in-house franchise God of War. I didn't realize at the time how revolutionary this game would be, how much it would raise the bar for voice actors and production costs for many of the games that followed. It is big, dramatic, and violent, but the writing is interesting, the framing of the imagery very cinematic, and the acting is on par with anything that Hollywood throws out there. Most of the saga can be had on the PS3 for $19.99 - if you get it, make sure you buy a new copy. The God of War:Saga discs have GOW1&2 on the first disk, 3 on the second, and the conversions of the two handheld games (Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta as a download code. The older games have been re-rendered, which makes them look nice and shiny again because the game is running at the right resolution for newer TV's.  You can tell the difference with the cutscenes that have not been re-rendered, looking rather fuzzy and not as nice as you remember it looking. There's one more God of War game for PS3 - the multiplayer game Ascension, which I picked up for $7.50 when GameStop put a bunch of copies on a weekend flash sale. While I have played neither of the handheld games before, nor had I played Ascension, I am going to play everything in release order, even if that means re-playing 1, 2, and 3 because frankly they're some of the best games I've ever played.

Another important tip: If you had a save game for the standalone version of God of War 3, and you put in the God of War 3 disk from God of War:Saga, there is a substantial chance that the game will never make it to the menu screen and just stall out on a black screen before making it to the menu. There are some people that have old PS3's that can't play Saga or Ascension because of disk mastering issues and have battled with their retailer trying to get another disk, but that was not my issue. In my case, all I had to do was erase my old incompatible save files and GOW3 then came up just fine.

With all of this nostalgic ultra-violence on my screen, you have to wonder what my kids are playing - turns out that my older son has been playing a lot of WiiU Smash Bros, and more often than not my younger son has been playing Sengoku Basara Utage. (Not bad for a kid that can't read very much Japanese.)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Two good examples of the Second Habit.

I typed this weeks and weeks ago thinking I would use it nearer to when "Splatoon" comes out for WiiU, but it's taken longer than I originally thought for the game to be finished and I'm uncomfortable with a post lingering in the backlog for too long.

I was sent to a few productivity seminars at my last job, and while a few day-to-day things stuck, one really apparent thing stuck with me and resonated with the way that I want to be able to do things: The Second Habit from the Seven Habits that they teach at the Franklin-Covey classes.

Basically stated, the Second Habit is : Begin with the End in Mind.

If you know what it is that you're trying to accomplish, it's easier to attain that goal. More importantly, the more specific a goal you're trying to attain, the more specific you can be about how to go about achieving that goal. You'll have to pardon me for with starting with an electrical construction example, but it may turn out to be useful information for a lot of you regardless.

The recessed light can may not seem important, because it just looks like a metal cylinder to hold a light bulb in the ceiling, but it typically dictates what trim and what light source you use. The trim is the part of the light fixture that you can see once it's installed in the ceiling, usually just a decorative ring around the light source. Sometimes the trim is a shiny reflector, sometimes it's just a baffle to disperse the light around, or perhaps it's a fancy piece of art glass, or an adjustable bracket and housing that allows the light to be aimed a certain way. There are a lot of brands of recessed light out there, and quite a number of available sizes, and at least as many different trims as can fill ten catalogs the size of a phone book. The majority of the trims out there are designed for a specific light source type and go in a specific brand and type of recessed can. The cans are by no means universal, and most manufacturers can't be bothered with getting all of their different trims tested and UL listed for use in other manufacturer's fixtures. Only a few of the most generic trims may get approved for use in other fixtures. These days the light source could be incandescent, fluorescent, LED, metal halide, some sort of low voltage reflector lamp, and a lot of variation exists even among those categories. In addition, the sorts of light sources that would go in a smaller 3" or 4" fixture would seem lost in a larger recessed can, so the trims you might easily find in a smaller can are nowhere to be found in the catalog for the larger fixtures or vice versa.

With the great variety of lamps and trims available, and not to mention the hundreds of other light fixture types that may go into a commercial project, often a lighting designer or an engineer or an architect is involved in the process of selecting the exact fixtures to be used for the job. Knowing what the customer is looking for as an end result is key to making a good selection of light fixture. That end result could be anything from keeping the price of the lighting as low as possible, to achieving a specific light color, to creating a specific mood in a space. There are always tradeoffs, of course. The cheapest fixture may not have a trim available that meets the aesthetic requirements, the most adjustable fixture may the most expensive, certain colors of light sources may only be readily available in certain sizes, and so on.

Back to the recessed can, now we look at the fixture in the context of a project to be completed. When a general contractor comes on to the job, his primary concern is usually time, since there is a lot to do and coordinate and his costs for a job typically go up in proportion with the amount of time taken. While many light fixtures are merely mounted to a junction box, and the box is a simple, inexpensive, industry standard item that can be put in quickly before drywall goes in, the recessed light has to go in before the drywall does. If a wall light shows up late to the job, it can be mounted after everything else happens. Wiring can go in and be ready at the box and it's a simple matter to install the fixture once it arrives. Recessed lights really should go in before the drywall in the ceiling is done. It's the sort of thing that can hold up a project - but it's also the sort of thing that can't afford to be done twice. I've seen contractors panic and tell the electrician that they need to put in a more readily available light fixture, and have them go pick something up that's on a shelf somewhere. So, if it turns out you can't get the trim or the light source for that recessed can that the designer had originally picked out, what have you saved? Alternately, if you cancel an order with a vendor because they can't produce fixtures fast enough for your schedule and have to start a redesign with an alternate vendor, how much time have you really saved?

I will admit that there are instances where a job is ridiculously overdesigned and the contractor and the electrician do manage to save the day (not to mention the job schedule) with a smart redesign. Usually that tends to happen when the designers aren't really listening to the owner.

If it's your project, and maybe you're just talking about fixing up one room, you still have to ask yourself a few questions about what you want and how you're going to accomplish it. The first question should always be "What do I want this project to look like when I'm done"? All the other questions and answers lead from the answer to the first question.

So, now to the other side of this. Console video game systems are about what kind of game you want to play. Certainly, there are many games these days made for multiple platforms these days.  When the basic game experiences - visuals, sound, controls, content - are the same between multiple platforms that doesn't mean you will enjoy the same experience. Sometimes the network or the community differences between versions of a game can make a big difference.  (Do I have to pay extra to play online? Does one of the versions of the game allow you to spend real money to get in-game advantages in multiplayer? Which of my friends are playing this game and on what system? Was the networking code for one of the versions of the game written by monkeys randomly operating computer terminals?)

Where the systems are more different, it takes more consideration to figure out how one wants to play the same game on different systems. Do I want to use an updated version of a comfortable controller? Do I want to take a chance on a new controller because I think that having a touchscreen will help with the kinds of games  I want to play?

At the extreme ends of the disparity, it comes down to things like which system exclusive series you want to play. If you really like the Zelda or Mario series, then you're probably already sticking with the Nintendo machines because there really isn't anything comparable to those experiences on other platforms. But, if you're amenable to some alternate suggestions, many have found the Darksiders games a bit like the Zelda series in terms of the combination of overworld action and item-specific dungeon areas. Honestly, I don't think there is anything on any other platform that is like the Mario games, so I don't think we can find an alternate choice for that game

If you're a racing fan, you may like Gran Turismo, a Sony exclusive series which leans very heavy toward simulation, but there are other similarly featured racing games like Forza for the Microsoft systems. That's not to say that there's no racing on Nintendo systems, but lets just say that if you don't like the word cart with a "K" in it, maybe that won't work for you.

If you've been a big fan of shooters or sandbox games, then it's more likely you're playing on a Microsoft or Sony machine. While it would be interesting to see what Nintendo could do with Mario and company in an open-world game, it's not usually the sort of narrative that they craft. Traveler's Tales has done a fantastic job with Lego City Undercover in that regard, and the WiiU version of Batman:Arkham City (called Batman:Arkham City Armored Edition) is another great choice. If you are playing WiiU now and you're mad that there aren't a lot of shooters, remember Nintendo's intended demographic and have an open-minded look at Splatoon.

At a certain point, it no longer matters which hardware is 'better' than which. If the end result is playing games that are enjoyable to you, then the decisions made on hardware need to support that. While I have thrown out a handful of cases where you can find suitable alternate games for certain genres even with the least favorable hardware choice, note that these are largely the exceptions that I'm pointing out.

Of course, if you can't manage the perfect combination of hardware and software, or the right combination of fixture and light source and you feel like you're just doing the best you can manage - just wait a few years, technology will improve, and you can carry your gathered wisdom with you to the next challenge.