The Apple iPod Nano

I’m no Apple fanboy. I appreciate the industrial design that goes into their products and the whole “look and feel” aspect of their physical products. In terms of their software, I’ve not used their operating system enough to have a complete opinion of it, though I don’t lust after it as some people who don’t own Apple computers do as Windows works fine for me. I don’t appreciate how Apple makes it difficult to download Quicktime without iTunes, and I also don’t like how iTunes (like pretty much every other commercial media player) steals my file associations when I install it. I wouldn’t agree that Apple is a superior “multimedia platform,” having done boatloads of work on my PC for print, photo, audio, and especially DVD and video without having any problems that could be traced back to the fact that I was running Windows (or Windows-specific software). BUT, to be honest, like so many things, it’s not really the “product” that bothers me, but the people in love with that “product.” Apple is particularly egregious because their TV commercials cater to that market of fanboys (and fangirls) instead of telling them to get a damn haircut. I’d include all of this if only because most people would probably give me a weird look if I were on the record recommending an Apple product.

Nano
Whitey’s always putting himself first.

In terms of the MP3 player market, Apple’s obviously a huge success. For some idea of where I’m “coming from” with all of this, I’ve had a Rio Karma mp3 player for the last 2+ years and have no intention of getting an Apple player, but only because I wouldn’t find a player in the ~1-4GB range a good fit for me being that my Karma’s 20GB is all but entirely used. I’d universally recommend the Karma, but unfortunately, Rio went out of business/was bought out and no longer manufactures them. They can still be found online, but it’s tough to get warranty support from a company that no longer exists and an “extended warranty” from a Best Buy-type store won’t be of much help for a product that’s no longer made unless you want to replace it with another company’s similarly priced model. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of the Rio Karma, but that’s sort of a moot point in this discussion.

Anyway, for people whose music collections consist of tracks (as opposed to whole albums), the 1-5GB range is a nice size for an MP3 player as it’s rare for someone to have more than 5GB of single, random tracks. Most players in this range have a miniature hard drive, but with the introduction of the iPod Nano, Apple replaced the hard drive with flash memory. Normally flash memory was considered too expensive to make an economical MP3 player with that much storage, but Apple has arranged discounts with flash memory makers to all-but price other manufacturers out of the 2+GB market. Flash memory uses less power (meaning longer battery life or equivalent battery life with a smaller, lighter, cheaper battery) and just as importantly has no moving parts. Many people use their MP3 players while running (whether inside or out) and though all reasonable players are engineered to withstand the jarring motion of exercise, it’s easy to see how storing data on chips instead of spinning on sensitive metal platters with a magenetic read mechanism resting impossibly close to the platter might be a better idea.

MP3 players usually have two “problem” areas: the hard drive and the rechargeable battery. For example, my Rio Karma’s hard drive occasionally “sticks” and needs a good quality whack to “unstick” it, AND the battery life is only about 70% of the 13 hours it had when it was new. Apple’s swap of hard drive for “chip memory” erases the hard drive problems (flash memory has a finite number of erase/write cycles…usually somewhere in the thousands, so much less of a concern than premature hard drive failure). The battery life issue will seemingly always be a problem with rechargeable batteries (at leas the kind that Apple uses in the iPods), but unlike companies that no longer exist, Apple offers battery replacement as part of their standard repair/service procedures. Supposedly it’s $59 and for any iPod model, so considering Apple’s financial solvency, you’ll be all set for when the battery goes the way of the buffalo.

Having mentioned Apple’s “industrial design” earlier, I’ll touch on the player itself. Simply, it’s impossibly small in every dimension, with its “thinness” being the most noticeable. It can fit in the pocket of even tight-ish “girl pants” without much of a trace even being seen, while the regular iPods leave the increasingly common “iBulge.” There used to be easy to find pictures that compared the thickness of the Karma to the original iPod, but needless to say, the Karma is thick enough to bulge even in “man pants.” Worth noting is the easy on the eyes and fingers surface finish of the iPod Nano, though I tracked down a picture that shows what the surface looks like after it’s received the inevitable scratches from regular use. Most anything will look like you’ve used it after you’ve, well, used it, so that’s not too major of a concern unless you fall in love with how it looks when you first get it.

Truth be told, I’ve never liked the iPod interface and found the Rio interface much more user friendly, but the iPod, like any other electronic device, is quite learnable. The iPod Nano comes with a color screen and the capability to store/view photos, so for those of you who enjoy showing pictures to friends or even looking through them on your own to kill time, that capability is quite useful. The screen is quite small but perfectly functional for close viewing.

Due to the success of the iPod, many companies offer any variety of (usually over-priced) accessories that are simply not available for other brands due to Apple’s marketshare.

****

The Apple iPod Nano receives four stars due to its more-or-less solving of the issues found in the 1-5GB range of MP3 players. There’s no hard drive to fail, there’s a documented battery replacement method (though that’s not an ideal solution), and it’s a more convenient size than even some players offering one-tenth the storage capacity. It’s not necessarily the cheapest player in its class at $140 for 1GB, $190 for 2GB, and $240 for 4GB, but it offers something most other players in that range don’t. Simply, if I were to be looking for a new MP3 player in that class whether due to battery issues, storage life, a solid company behind it, or many other reasons, the iPod Nano would be my first stop even if it might be made by a company who panders to yuppies (or “stuppies“).
11x5iHT

The Superbowl 2006 “Preview Show”

In order to predict the outcome of this year’s Superbowl, we used the best tool in our repertoire to predict the outcome: John Madden NFL 98 for Sega Genesis. It was a tense game, filled with back and forth scoring. Nate’s Steelers came up short after a risky “going for it” on 4th down situation late in the 4th quarter.

prediction.jpg
Too bad there isn’t a Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes predictor…

In typical Madden 98 form, the final score (in spite of the 5 minute quarter length) was (my) Seattle Seahawks 39 to Nate’s Steelers 32. We each had about 300 yards of total offense, though I won the battle of time of possession.

You heard it here first: Seahawks 39, Steelers 32.

****½

The “preview show” (meaning our game of Madden 98) receives four-and-a-half stars due to its close finish that we can only hope the actual game will also have. Go Seahawks!

NES Games – Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego


Doesn’t this look like as much fun as being forced to listen to Roseanne sing the national anthem?

Like the Waldo craze and the whole Disney Afternoon semi-craze, “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” was a huuuugee fad for a few years. Broderbund came up with this idea in the mid eighties (for a computer game), and of course it spun off into two TV shows in the nineties. Eventually, as the PBS show waned in interest, they decided to do a reformat of it and it became this really crappy third show (now history themed instead of geography themed) with probably the dumbest kids they could find. Luckily it only lasted one year.

I think the video game series could probably boast about being the only video game to come with a desk encyclopedia. That’s right; the game comes in a 4 inch thick case with some crappy “encyclopedia” for use in solving the “crimes”. Basically the way you play this game is you’re racing a clock that arbitrarily counts down the “hours” you have left to solve a theft of a historical artifact. You go to a location in time (time jumping is the biggest use of “hours”) and ask people (a text box) about the crime and they give you clues to what the criminal looked like and where he/she was going. Then you look up the clue in your “encyclopedia” and head off there, where you do the whole thing again. Eventually you either run out of time, and do another case, or you solve the crime and do another case; there’s no difference between winning or losing, save the fact that in your fictional world, someone with an incredibly clever name like “Ella Vator”, “Jim Shorts”, or “Stu Pidname” will have managed to get away with a Stradivarius violin from 1730, and that even though you were hot on the trail, the case will never be solved. Each game only takes about 15 minutes, and the only thing that happens when you capture the criminal is you get “promoted”. There really isn’t any point to playing after the first 15 minutes because it gets really boring looking for 8th century Chinese vases.

I understand that it was made in the early nineties and that the graphics aren’t better because of it. I understand that it’s supposed to be an educational game about history, but it seems to me that the only thing that this game actually teaches people is how to look up answers in an encyclopedia. It would be more educational if perhaps there was a recap test at the end of the game, where you had a certain amount of time to answer questions based on stuff that you “learned” earlier in the game. I would equate this scenario to the difference between an open notebook test vs. a regular test. An open notebook test only serves to determine how well you take notes, except in the case where there are way more questions than you could ever answer by looking up, or it’s an essay test in which you need to take points out of your notes and combine them to form a coherent essay. A regular test should make sure that you have an actual practical understanding of the knowledge, much like the final challenge on the TV game show. For those of you who weren’t even allowed to watch PBS when you were a kid, the final stage of the game involved locating 10 or so countries or states (depending on the continent that the map was of) on a large map on the floor, within a certain amount of time. The host would call out the place name and the person would have to put a marker on it, showing that the kid actually understood the geography of the continent and was not just reading it off of a map with labels and then going to place the marker.

Granted, a game that had a quiz at the end of it wouldn’t be any fun at all. I can’t imagine a kid wanting to play something like that. I mean I played “number munchers” on the computer like all present twenty-somethings once did, before games had more than 3 colors to show, but those computer lab exercises that we’d have to do back in elementary school were just outright boring. I’d much rather have a teacher teaching me…. or be jumping on Goombas, or shooting bad guys, or even, putting puzzle piece-shaped blocks that fall from the sky into lines so they disappear. Video games need to be fun, and repeating the same process five times per game is not fun, especially when each game is so short. If you’ve played one “case”, you’ve played them all, but maybe the object that’s stolen and the thief are different. I’m not a game designer, but it seems to me that the people behind this game wanted to push a game as being “educational” without trying hard enough to actually be educational or interesting to kids. I wouldn’t put it out of the reach of the NES’s capabilities to be able to have a map with different countries and have the player have to identify them, but I guess no matter where it goes, it’s hard to mask the whole “teaching kids things outside of school” thing that the creators were going for.

*½

This game gets one and a half stars for putting forth an effort to create an educational game, and succeed at actually making it really popular. On the other hand, the game actually sucks, is incredibly repetitive, doesn’t teach anything that would stick longer than 5 minutes, is without a real goal to acheive, is incredibly repetitive, and is just plain boring. Also, the time usually runs out before you catch the crook (because of the amount of “time jumps” necessary to catch him/her) leaving you frustrated over something that you probably had no interest in playing in the first place, but thought would be cool because the box was so big.

NES Games – Where’s Waldo


Where’s Waldo? If you said, “In the upper right corner”, who knows? Maybe you’re right.

I was really into the whole “Where’s Waldo” fad when I was a kid. I think it had to do with the fact that I was reading a book without having to do any reading… I always liked to take the easy way out. I had all of the books: “Where’s Waldo?“, “Find Waldo Now“, and “The Great Waldo Search“. I even had the giant Waldo book, the small paperback with all the activities to do, and the fourth book, “Where’s Waldo in Hollywood?“, among various other puzzles and even a popcorn tin… yes a popcorn tin. So of course, it would go without saying that I had/have the Nintendo game. Strangely, though, the reason that I read the books was not necessarily to find Waldo. I know, I know, the title says “Find Waldo Now”, as if it were some sort of angry, authoritarian military leader, barking orders at me. Well, here’s the thing. Those pictures were filled with more than a guy in a tacky striped suit and hat. There were hundreds of sight gags per page, and always different ones throughout the book. The more you looked for Waldo, the more you found clever little drawings and scenarios. This was the real reason that I “read” these books; it kept me entertained for hours.

Anyway. This game, “Where’s Waldo”. The story is basically the same. You have to find Waldo in a bunch of different pictures. You have a certain amount of time at the start, and it counts down during each level. The time spent finding him is cumulative, so it’s best to find him as quickly as possible in the beginning levels, because the end levels will screw you over. In addition to that challenge, every time you guess that you found Waldo, and it’s actually not him, you get ten seconds taken off of your clock. And there are about 8 levels. Again, I say this as if these “levels” are some sort of obstacle course of bad guys or something. No. The levels consist of a still picture and a cursor. You move the cursor over to where you think Waldo is, and then push A. That’s it. That’s how you play the stupid game. I mean I guess I couldn’t ask for it to be closer to the source material; after all, that was my major gripe with Ducktales (that and the complicated attack method). Unfortunately, as the Waldo books weren’t all that exciting to begin with, this is a case where an upgrade was needed. There had just been a Where’s Waldo Cartoon show on CBS starring Brad Garrett from that Raymond show. Why couldn’t they have done something involving that?

Okay, so not only do they manage to take a boring idea for a video game, and actually create a boring video game, but they take all the fun out of the book. That may sound a little confusing and redundant, so let me explain. The idea of a video game where you search for an object on a still image is an incredibly boring idea for a video game, yet they made it, hoping it would sell on the brand name and the incredibly weird fans (of which it’s not innacurate to say that I was a member… but I was 8, sue me), instead of developing something interesting to do with it. Next, in making this book into a video game, they took all of the interesting things out of it by giving us a time limit to find him, making us rush through the picture. I guess, however, that it’s not that big of a loss, as the pictures are about as terrible as you can get. Waldo pretty much consists of about 5 pixels, colored in red white and blue, mixed in somewhere among other similar blobs, many of them also colored red, white, and blue, just to throw you off. In fact, Waldo doesn’t even look like the same blob in each level. Sometimes it looks like he’s wearing brown pants; sometimes he’s small; sometimes he blocked by a car, and only half of him is showing. The easy level is anything but easy because of this, and as you go down to medium and difficult, there is a big jump in difficulty.

As the levels get harder, your cursor gets smaller, the counter starts with less time on it, , and the kicker: the screen grows in size. So now, in addition to searching for “Waldo” on one screen, you have to use your cursor to scroll over to an entirely different screen of blocky, pixelated stick figures that may or may not be him. So basically the motto of this is, don’t play on medium or hard. In fact, don’t play it at all.

I do think that the people who made the game realized how boring it probably was, because they actually threw in three levels that don’t fit the regualr format. The first one is “THE CAVE”, in which you have to move your cursor around a black screen to find Waldo, whom you can’t see, but is walking around really fast. Your cursor acts like a flashlight, and if you see a bit of him and hit “A” in time, you turn the lights on and can move Waldo. You can then leave the room and go to the next pointless level, or take the biggest risk in the game and select the hourglass icon in the cave, which will either give you 100 seconds or take 100 seconds away. I think it’s about a 2/1 ratio in favor of subtracting the seconds. The second strange level is some weird 2-D maze thing called the subway, but it’s the last one that’s the killer. On the side panel of the rocket ship, you have to play a slot machine game, kinda like in mario 3, to get all of the windows to have a picture of Waldo on them, before time runs out. Then, and only then, can you ride in the spaceship and take a walk on the moon. That’s right. The only qualifications for Waldo to go to the moon are for him to walk through a myriad of places including, but not limited to, the circus, the city, a castle, and the woods, and have his face appear on the side of a rocket. No wonder the Russians have such a good space program.


When the most exciting part of the game is watching this idiot take 25 seconds to walk from one level to the next, you know the game isn’t going to get more than one star.

½

This game sucks. There’s nothing else to say. This is THE reason why Roger Ebert hates video games. The people involved took such an incredibly easy concept and made it very difficult for themselves and the players, and what’s more, no fun to play. And if it’s not fun to play, it’s not worth buying. I mean seriously, if they can make plumbers go down pipes, and ducks “Pogo Jump” on snakes, you’d think that they’d be capable of making a decent still image, but you’d be thinking wrong. Also, just to mention it, this game did make seanbaby.com’s list of the twenty worst NES games ever, which kinda makes me proud to own such an abomination.

Roger Ebert’s Take on Video Games

Quick site note: This is the first review of either many or zero more that will use “tips.” When hovering over some links, text will pop-up near your cursor. We’re not yet sure whether it’s annoying or if it enhances the writing. I especially find myself drowning in a sea of parenthesis, and these “tips” solve that problem in a way that writing on paper never could. Feedback please.

Lately the non-review sections Roger Ebert’s website have been filled with discussion on the merits of video games versus movies, and “the internet” has been abuzz with him being an out-of-touch old man. His weekly answer-man column has addressed the issue multiple times, namely his lack of interest in video games, in general. I can’t find the absolute starting point for the whole debate, but I think it has to do with a reader objecting to Ebert’s awarding of one star to the movie adaptation of DOOM (he uses a four star system for those of you wondering how to reconcile his reviews with ours.). The reader basically took offense at his generous one star review because one section of the other-wise unremarkable adaptation paid super-close homage to the game. Ebert sufficiently served the reader by explaining that video game websites review movies on their own terms, and he will continue to review movies on his. What started the “controversy” was his final comment in his reponse:

“As long as there is a great movie unseen or a great book unread, I will continue to be unable to find the time to play video games.”

This lead to (what I can only assume to be) countless angry letters of video game fans defending their XBoxen and poorly translated, endlessly sequeled, Japanese-sourced games (i.e. the Metal Gear and “Final” Fantasy series, etc.). True, that’s my bias showing through, but in the response to the letter that Ebert decided to run, he explained:

“I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.”

That’s the one that really got the internet in a tizzy.

ebert
You’d think that after writing all of this, I’d be able to think of a funny caption. Well, that’s not the case.

The problem with video game fans (in general) is that they are relentlessly but selectively enthusiastic about their “art” of choice. There’s no point for me to write an e-mail to the movie “Answer Man” being that it will be lost in the mountains of “You’ve never played Halo, Resident Evil, Final Fantasies 1 through 12, etc. so you suck” type letters (not that I’d assume it’d automatically be printed of course. I’m sure that every e-mail is read, but I think Jim Emerson (The site’s editor/blogger) probably handles most of the filtering). So, being that I have my own internet soapbox that ends in .com, here I go.

Without backing any of it up with fact or definitive history, I can guarantee that every medium of art has had to deal with detractors. Movies weren’t widely accepted as having any worthwhile value at their inception, especially considering that mankind had gotten used to the previous status quo from the past two-thousand+ years of seeing live actors performing on stage. On top of that, even movements within each art form have faced critics (again, with the lack of facts or evidence). People still argue about the merits of Jackson Pollack imagine hundreds of years ago, when Baroque music was developing and becoming (again) the status quo, and *gasp* didn’t base all of its harmony on the 4th. Sure, the now “normal” root-3rd-5th harmony sounds right, but back then a lot of people didn’t like it one bit due to the “profane” nature of the major-3rd harmony (in terms backing that up, I’ll hold a music professor I had responsible for defending that bit of trivia). In philosophical terms, the video game “medium” is about 25 years old and in only its second major movement. Consider the first to be the 2D era, started with the first Atari system and ended with Super Nintendo and Genesis. The second is the 3D era, started with the Sony Playstation, Nintendo 64, and Sega Saturn. The third (sub)wave of the 3D era began in late November of 2005 when Microsoft began shipping the XBox 360. As mentioned earlier, gamers are notoriously selective in their passions, and some choose to be passionate about the hardware aspect of video gaming, so in response to those people:

  1. I know I’m glossing over lots of other systems.
  2. I know that Genesis came out before Super Nintendo.
  3. Atari probably wasn’t the first system, but realistically it started the whole console “thing.”
  4. I know that 2D games have come out for the “3D” systems — especially Sega Dreamcast, but 2D vs. 3D is too significant of a divide to ignore.

Structured music went through quite a bit of development before anything gained an historical foothold; specifically, J.S. Bach and Handel are still being widely performed today while almost the whole of still-existing Renaissance and Medieval music is relegated to prominence in academic environments only. Sure, movies “came of age” much more quickly than music (or even painting), with films from about thirty years after the proliferation of the medium still widely considered classics. Interestingly enough, film also experienced several technical and artistic waves. (The “maturation of computer-generated effects” probably being the academic-sounding, retrospective categorization of today’s “wave.”)

Video games have not yet experienced a true second artistic wave (the 2D/3D divide is of a technical nature). The gameplay advances of Grand Theft Auto 3 (namely, go wherever you want, do whatever you want, follow a story or play randomly) have inspired countless similar titles the same way that DOOM began a wave of 1st person shooters in 1993. They offered different experiences, but neither was the quantum leap experienced by movie-goers attending the first “talkies” in the 1920’s. Newer hardware generations have enabled new features (namely graphical, some incredible advances in AI) in first-person shooters (and eventually bigger, prettier worlds in GTA-style games).

Anyone who says that once Roger Ebert would play Halo or any other mass-market game, Ebert would develop a huge appreciation and change his mind is simply wrong. Halo’s story serves merely to give the player a reason to shoot things. Similarly, Grand Theft Autos’ stories (any game in the series, even way back into its 2D, overhead days) simply provide a reason to take part in the shenanigans for which the games have become (in)famous. Limiting the lens to newer games, even the story of Metroid Prime is just a tool the developers used to make the shooting more compelling, not the other way around. It’s not that there aren’t story-driven titles among newer games, it’s just that in popular games it’s supplemental. I know there are ambitiously enthusiastic fans of the story in the Halo games, but ask yourself if you’d play the game any differently if there were no story, just the mission goals list, then shooting things until the next numbered list appears, rinse, repeat. So, no, I’m not claiming that “new” (more accurately, “popular”) games are bad, just that they serve as poor evidence in one’s claim that video games are narratively engaging.

So, as a bit of a disclaimer, I’d consider my interest in current video games to be passive. I’m interested enough to read game reviews or watch someone play for about 10 minutes or so, but I don’t participate. I own no consoles and the video card in my computer is from 2001. I’ve watched people play FarCry, Half-Life 2, DOOM III, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, both Halos and on and on. (Those games are almost all shooters, but a complete list would be excessive, and these are some of the most popular and loudly defended of the last couple of years). I hold no grudge towards new games, but my personal “golden age” of video gaming passed sometime in the late 90’s. Most recently, the games I’ve spent any considerable amount of time playing have been the Genesis version of John Madden NFL ’98 and the arcade version of Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo, both running on a friend’s modded Xbox. As the understatement of the year, neither of these games is exactly what we’d consider story-heavy, but in terms of bringing things full circle, provide a very social experience with a group of people, exactly what is marketed as the number one feature of Microsoft’s Xbox 360, not its currently man-beast-esque hardware capabilities.

Directly addressing Roger Ebert, we’ll now present the definitive example of the “video game as art” discussion:

“I did indeed consider videogames inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Videogames by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”

At risk of this becoming a “my favorite game is more obscure than your favorite game” reverse sales-measuring contest, let’s first throw out every RPG. Ebert’s comment about “authorial control” initially sounds too heavy-handed to be anything other than hyperbole, but it should be painfully accurate to RPG players. A decently modeled RPG lets the player assume the “role” of a character (or group of characters); the user can choose for his game play experience to be as dull as desired. His or her experience will be different than another player’s. Sure, that sounds ideal, even enough to potentially consider that to be the ideal example of the one thing that would skew video games toward “art” status. But think of Choose Your Own Adventure books; they offer a choice in the reader making his or her own story. The first reaction to that is, “But they’re kids books, they’re not supposed to be good.” It goes without saying that there are plenty of widely appealing kids’ books, and if there were adult-oriented Choose Your Own Adventure books, would anyone read them? Would they be considered “literature?” Nope; and for good reason. It’s just a gimmick.

There are two story-heavy genres in video gaming. Role-Playing Games and Adventure games. (This is where I’m looking to avoid the obscurity-related reverse penis size contest.) RPG’s having already been justifiably thrown out, that leaves Adventure games. Most anyone with a passing interest in video games has played an adventure game, but their popular peak was both dramatically short and intensely focused on one title (which really wasn’t that great of a game, all things retrospectively considered ). MYST (aside from being considered the “killer app” for PC CD-ROM drives) was hugely successful, and was undeniably an adventure game. There was a set story, and very little room for non-linearity; provided you could figure out the “oh yeah, I guess that makes sense” puzzles, you were undoubtedly under the control of some “authorial” figure as you played. Though the graphics contributed to the overall mood, it was really the story and “art direction” that truly established the player’s sense of loneliness on the island throughout its history. The story created the puzzles (the single element of “gameplay”), not the other way around. Though this isn’t a review of MYST, it needs to be noted that it actually offered a rather passive gameplay experience; the puzzles were simplistic, the story, dull, but the mind-bendingly amazing (for 1995) graphics sold everyone. Unfortunately, it became the benchmark for the Adventure game genre, causing most everyone to think them dull and pretty-yet-vapid after most people were left thinking “Gee, I don’t get it” after either finishing the game (or more likely) giving up after getting one’s fill of pretty pre-rendered pictures.

With the genre’s prime and popular example painting such an ugly picture for average users as time went on, the “mass market” PC gamers moved back towards more interactive games (such as Quake, more-or-less the beginning of the PC’s true 3D boom). During this time, adventure games were still being made, and George Lucas of all people was responsible for some of the best. Okay, George Lucas’ company actually made them, but trivia’s trivia. Sam & Max Hit the Road, Day of the Tentacle, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Full Throttle were some of the best received adventure games of their time and are widely considered the classics of the era. Just like every every other genre eventually shifted to 3D, adventure games followed suit.

LucasArts’ first of two 3D adventure game offered one of the most interactively cinematical experiences in games, ever, no matter the genre. Limiting the focus of the “video games as art” discussion to whether or not video games present the “authorial control” apparently required by Grim Fandango offered the “authorial control” of a movie, while engrossing the player in ways that movies and books simply can’t. Loosely inspired by some sort of Central American mythology of multiple underworlds, and souls wanting to end up in the final, 9th underworld, you play as Manny Calavera, a sort of travel agent in limbo between life and death. Manny “sells” travel packages for different routes to the underworld; the better the prospective travellers lived their lives, the quicker their trip to the 9th underworld. The “cleanest” souls get to ride on the “Number 9” train which speeds them right to heaven,while those that face the travel agent (Manny) with more regrets are stuck with the less desirable methods, notably the long, dark walk through the underworld. All that is the setting, the actual story involves a conspiracy that Manny begins to uncover as he realizes that he keeps getting the “lesser” souls, and due to his unmentioned sins of his human life, he’ll be stuck in limbo forever. Along the way, he meets a special lady, gathers a sidekick, meets a mortician performing an autopsy (one of the harmlessly creepy characters in any movie, game, book, etc.) and ends up having to shoot someone to save his life. (In case you’re wondering, to kill a dead person, you apparently shoot them with a bullet that sprouts flowers, similarly to the earth “taking over” a body buried in the ground.) Without spending forever talking about this game, I’ll simply say it’s a more cinematic experience than many movies: the story is the game, the voice actors are top quality, the art direction (which somehow combines Latin American influences with Art-Deco) compares with any Hollywood production, and it offers an ending more emotional than most movies.

Which brings up the final thought: How many people have played Grim Fandango? How many have even heard of Grim Fandango? Not many. In fact, it’s usually considered the ultimate symbol of the adventure genre’s waning popularity. It came out in 1998, one year after Sierra had abandoned the King’s Quest franchise. Critical reviews were immensely favorable, but sales were not. Escape from Monkey Island, which was ultimately the final LucasArts adventure entered and exited with a whimper as sequels to two of their most popular adventure franchises were cancelled for ‘current marketplace realities’ and ‘creative issues,’ reverse respectively. In any medium there’s a distinct divide between the commercial/popular and the artistic. There is sometimes cross-over between the two, and it seems that most fans of the “artistic” baselessly resent fans of the popular merely because it is the “popular.” Music has thrived with that divide, and the “indie” boom of the mid-90’s brought that awareness to the world of movies. Even today, Rolling Stone and Spin’s editors campaign for the “latest, greatest, obscurest” new music while movie critics practically bet their credibility in defense of those same three superlative adjectives on some not yet known about “indie movie.” Thankfully, we don’t live in France where critics have been known to defend bad movies just to prove a point. Importantly, there is no true “indie” vs. otherwise divide in video gaming. There are no critics willing to champion some unheard of game for the sake of getting more people to experience it. People’s expectations for video games are drastically different than for other media, and even with the internet, there is no true “indie” movement that produces and distributes unheard of games the way that the major movie studios have arms dedicated to picking up obscure movies. There’s simply no My Big Fat Greek Wedding in the world of video games. The infrastructure isn’t set up to “get the word” out, and I’ll go out on a limb and say that in a society greatly affected by advertising and shiny things, video gamers are especially vulnerable to this advertising.

Looks like we covered a lot more than just “Roger Ebert and Video Games” in this one, so here we go, emptybookshelf’s first three-headed review! Let’s hear it for innovation.

**½

Roger Ebert’s take on Video Games receives two-and-half stars due to the fact that as well as he defends himself, he can’t help but come off as just another old person afraid of what the kids are up to. “Oh my God! How could a bunch of moving pictures ever be better than having the actual, live actors in front of the audience?! That’ll never work!!” Unfortunately for the video gaming industry, he has a decidedly correct take on the “games as art” issue. Judging just the popular games, he’s hit the nail on the head; they are diversions where interactivity is thought to remove the need for story. Aside from the fact that he’s said he has not played games, if he were to ever pick up a controller/mouse/keyboard/bongo, he wouldn’t be playing anything remotely cinematical. At the risk of going on yet another tangent, just the fact that you can use bongos to play a video game says something about them compared to movies.

*****

Though I claimed this wasn’t a review of Grim Fandango, I can’t help but consider this an ideal time to “star” it. It receives five stars for being the most engrossing of all adventure games, and dare I say, any game. That isn’t to say that it’s the best game ever, just the most cinematical, and in a non-girly way, potentially the most beautiful.

*

Internet Fanboys receive one star due to the fact that their existence and pedanticism make it so a review of such a contentious topic needs to go on so many sidetracks. There’s something to be said for being enthusiastic about something, but there’s also something to be said for having some perspective. Not-so-oddly enough, Roger Ebert himself, probably one of the wittiest people on the planet, summed up the whole “fanboy” thing quite well in his review of Hackers:

You should never send an expert to a movie about his specialty. Boxers hate boxing movies. Space buffs said ‘Apollo 13’ showed the wrong side of the moon. The British believe Mel Gibson’s scholarship was faulty in ‘Braveheart’ merely because some of the key characters hadn’t been born at the time of the story. ‘Hackers’ is, I have no doubt, deeply dubious in the computer science department. While it is no doubt true that in real life no hacker could do what the characters in this movie do, it is no doubt equally true that what hackers can do would not make a very entertaining movie.”

NES Games – Ducktales


Scrooge McDuck uses his patented “Pogo Jump” to defeat the Amazonian Snake. If only the girl at Pius X knew that.

So for some reason, I recently pulled out my old Nintendo and realized how dumb nearly all of the games I had are. Granted most of these games were made in 1989 or thereabouts, so I really shouldn’t judge them by today’s standards. I can however judge them by the standards of the other games that were out at the time. This is the first of a multipart series, reviewing the various NES games that I have in my collection, which is only about 10 or so.

First up: Ducktales. Ducktales was made in 1989 apparently, even though I always assumed that the cartoon wasn’t made until at least 1991 (I was way wrong). The game, like the TV show, focuses on the adventures of Scrooge McDuck, however that’s pretty much the only thing that the two have in common. Much like the widely-hated Super Mario Bros. 2, Ducktales takes a famous character and puts him in a totally ridiculous situation, more ridiculous than the original, and totally unrelated to it.

In the case of this story, you play as Scrooge, traveling all over the world (Transylvania, The African Mines, The Himalayas [Prototypes called it “Snow Mountain”], and The Amazon) as well as to the Moon (don’t question it!) in search of “lost” treasures stolen by various giant slugs wearing crowns, snowmonsters, tiki gods, or rats on the Moon. Of course the reason there’s a rat on the moon is because Scrooge is searching for a piece of green cheese (“Of Longevity”) which supposedly is worth millions of dollars. Never mind the fact that all the bad guys are wearing space suits; Scrooge is perfectly fine in spats and a top hat. Anyway, there aren’t any references to any of the locales from the show, and the only appearances by characters (Other than the Transylvania boss [Magica Dispell], and the main boss at the end of the game [after you beat the preliminary end boss, Dracula Duck]. Of course, it would make more sense to have Dracula Duck be the Transylvania level boss, and the tv-show villain be the preliminary boss, especially since the other level bosses have nothing to do with the show… but whatever) are a few brief cameos from Launchpad, who exists to take Scrooge back to the main menu halfway through each level, if you choose; the kids every once in a while; and Gizzmoduck, who shows up to blow a hole in the Moon so Scrooge can get into an underground lair that has no opening and is filled with Beagle Boys. How he got to the moon, we’ll never know.

The most ludicrous thing about game is the incredibly complicated and inane way that Scrooge fights off bad guys. They took the basic “jumping on them” idea from Mario, and found a way to complicate it. Scrooge uses his cane to “Pogo Jump” on top of them and then they fall off the screen. Unfortunately, this isn’t as simple as pushing the A button. You do need to push the A button, but while in midair, you must also push the B button as well as the down arrow on the directional keypad. Pretty much any combination of pushing those buttons at once will start you pogo jumping, but you need to continue to hold the A button for it to work, or you have to push them all over again. You can just hold the A button and continuously pogo jump, except in the Himalaya level, which is basically all snow and ice. When Scrooge tries to pogo in the snow, he gets stuck.

The levels are all very well mapped out, maze-like, with all kinds of secrets and challenging bad guys (of course, the only ones from the TV show are a few Beagle Boys, here and there). It’s hard enough to figure out where you’re supposed to go in these levels (in fact the Transylvania level actually has a wall that you have to walk through to get to the end of it), that making it past the bad guys seems easy. Once you have your bearings though, it’s fairly easy to beat, at least on the easy setting.

The animation is very good for when it was made, much better than the Darkwing Duck that the same company made a few years later, and the music is fairly catchy, but nowhere on the scale of Mario.

****

Despite the fact that the game has little to do with the show, and could very easily just have used original characters, the game is fun to play, and once beaten there’s much to explore. Making it not incredibly difficult, unless played on the difficult setting, and allowing the player to pick which level they want to play allows the player to learn the levels quicker than if they constantly had to start from the beginning every time they wanted to play level 8 or whatever. Ducktales gets four stars because of this, and the fact that it’s the only Nintendo game I could ever beat without using Game Genie.

Colgate 2-in-1 Liquid Gel

Click here for general site update.


The best part is the packaging

A year ago for Christmas (not as a main gift, mind you) I was presented with a new “breakthrough” in toothpaste technology. While not as exciting as say, a whale watching trip that I didn’t get to go on, or a book about tractors, or a jacket that was too small, it was useful and interesting, and like I said, a small gift relative to others. Colgate 2-in1, Toothpaste and Mouthwash, presented in a small, steamlined plastic bottle, claims to combine the two steps into one easy motion, for all of you who want to both brush and fight GINGAVITIS!, but are too lazy to deal with the pesky two-step process. So with my toothbrush and new tooth”paste” (as it would turn out, the “paste” was actually a liquidy gel, more akin to GoGurt than toothpaste) in hand, I went off to try them out. I’m not too picky about toothpastes, but my teeth are quite sensitive, especially the molars in the back, and so certain intensities will cause me some pain. Of course, with mouthwash mixed in with the toothpaste, the toothpaste is going to be strong, no matter what the flavor, and I was handed my first defeat (for those of you interested, i’m presently using Crest Sensitivity Toothpaste, to help with an exposed nerve on one of my molars, something I was also dealing with then.) I handled the EXTREME BLAST OF ICY FLAVOR, though, thinking, “Meh, it’ll build character“.

With more brushing, however, I realized that this tooth”paste” didn’t do the one thing that most toothpastes do to let you know they’re working. It was impossible to work this very watery gel into a lather in my mouth. There was no foaming action like the diagram, (which actually, kinda looks a little disgusting) shows. I rinsed and spit, my mouth feeling minty but not clean. I’m thinking that maybe they relied on the mouthwash a little too much and didn’t add enough toothpaste, and so hopefully it at least killed the bacteria that cause GINGAVITIS!, but I really wasn’t feeling confident about it.

The next morning when I went to give it a second try, I found something quite curious. Even after rinsing out the brush multiple times over the night before, the bristles on my “Soft Bristle Sensodine” Toothbrush were hard, caked in place and scratchy to the touch. Brushing, it hurt my gums, and obviously was not to nice to the sensitive area. I rinsed it again, this time making sure to do it numerous times, and when done, I tried to spray off the excess water with my finger. Sure enough, the next time I went to brush, the toothbrush was the same as before. I figured that it must be the brush and so I opened an entirely new toothbrush, and after brushing with it once, found that the same thing had happened. The only other proof I needed was that after using my original toothpaste, of which I went out and bought a small tube, on this new brush, the bristles were still caked together, as if I hadn’t done any rinsing at all. So the reaction was permanent, and was caused by the 2-in-1 toothpaste, on multiple occasions. Actually, I doubt the reaction was permanent, I just didn’t have the patience to use a harsh toothbrush over and over with new toothpaste, until I worked it back into shape.

*

Colgate 2-in-1 Toothpaste receives 1 star for having a harsh chill to it, not leaving my mouth feeling clean, and most greivous of all, ruining two toothbrushes for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, some people who like to use mouthwash more than toothpaste may find it a useful time-saving tool.