America’s 16-bit Pastime

I went to the White Sox game yesterday. Full disclosure: I don’t follow baseball all that much. As a Chicagoan who currently lives near Wrigley Field but grew up in the near south suburbs, people sometimes find my lack of allegiance to either the Cubs or Sox problematic.

I am, however, a big fan of excessive day drinking. Since the Sox provided me with a socially acceptable context to pound shitty beer in a parking lot, yesterday I was definitely a Sox fan.

Baseball video games were never my favorite growing up but I played them a lot, almost always with my more athletically minded friends, who, y’know, played real baseball.

I stopped the year after T-ball where the T was replaced with an adult who generously lobbed pitches to the kids. The pitches were thrown to be hit so if you struck out you just sucked. It was called “Coach Pitch” even though the coaches weren’t always pitching but “Adult Pitch” is vague and terrifying.

Generally, I just sucked. I developed a general dislike for playing actual baseball when I discovered the game consists of lots of standing around with intermittent bursts of embarrassing physical ineptness.I still played pick-up games. If I was going to suck, I would do it in the comfort of my own neighborhood where my low athletic expectations preceded me.

I remember bouncing around between a handful of Genesis games including RBI Baseball ‘94, Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball, and Tommy Lasorda Baseball. The latter was by far the worst. Tommy Lasorda’s Baseball was released in ’89 and felt outdated by the mid 90s but we’d still play it despite having better options. I don’t know why. Kids are dumb.

As a kid, I thought this was Bill Clinton.

RBI Baseball  ’94 was the last entry in a series that started on the NES, and, not surprisingly, was the best baseball entry on the Genesis/Megadrive. And the music was fantastic. As I write this, I have the music from the game blasting through my speakers to put me in the right mental space.

My favorite part of Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball was that the SNES version had a cheat that let you play as a team of Cal Ripken Juniors. Alas, the Genesis version, to my knowledge, didn’t have the capability for that nonsense.


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Good job, Internet.

Seriously, good job.

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Copyright Alert System and Always-DRM: It sucks

I had every intention of writing about the newest Indie Royale bundle, but then I was linked to this article over at Raw Story that explains the system telecomm companies are rolling out on July 12th to battle piracy. From Raw Story:

The content industries calls this scheme a “graduated response” plan, which will see Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and others spying on users’ Internet activities and watching for potential copyright infringement. Users who are “caught” infringing on a creator’s protected work can then be interrupted with a notice that piracy is forbidden by law and carries penalties of up to $150,000 per infringement, requiring the user to click through saying they understand the consequences before bandwidth is restored, and they could still be subject to copyright infringement lawsuits.

Participating ISPs have a range of options for dealing with customers who continue to pirate media, at that point: They can require that an alleged repeat offender undergo an educational course before their service is restored. They can utilize multiple warnings, restrict access to only certain major websites like Google, Facebook or a list of the top 200 sites going, reduce someone’s bandwidth to practically nothing and even share information on repeat offenders with competing ISPs, effectively creating a sort of Internet blacklist — although publicly, none of the network operators have agreed to “terminate” a customer’s service.

It is because of those reasons that the content industries believe this program achieves much more than what might have been possible in the realm of public policy, and the ISPs appear to agree. The voluntary scheme will be paid for mostly by the content industries, which will share some costs with the ISPs.

Although this paints a pretty apocalyptic picture—and don’t get me wrong, this is extremely significant in like, a totally not good way—the reality is slightly different.  Content holders will not have access to everything you do on the Internet. Instead, if they find your IP in a torrent cloud or by other P2P means, they will inform your ISP who then will issue a warning or take further action.

Although it should be alarming that Time Warner and other corporations share such a cozy relationship with ISP providers, this is not different than how things are now. If you or someone you know has ever received a warning from their ISP because they were torrenting, say, Tremors, the process described above might look pretty similar.

That’s because it is.  Instead, what makes this scary is that this is a push to systemize the way ISPs and content owners go after users who are allegedly downloading content illegally. Although the cost of this system is supposedly shared by content industries and ISPs, there’s nothing really stopping either from passing the cost along to the customer.

If they did make up the cost of this new system by squeezing more out of the customer, suddenly customers who have never used P2P software to download copyrighted material are being punished.

In gaming, we see this when companies use Always-On DRM (Digital Rights Management) in their games. Always-On DRM requires that players be connected to a company’s servers in order to the play the game.

For online games, this seems fine. Unfortunately, this is becoming prevalent even in single player games like the PC version of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed 2. The rationale makes sense on paper: it keeps pirates from playing the game because even if they acquire the game files they need to connect to a server that authenticates their game.

But what happens when a legitimate, paying customer wants to play their single player game when Ubisoft’s servers are down? Well, tough shit.

In February, Ubisoft had to relocate their servers and during that time customers were unable to access the games they paid for. When I first read about this, I thought so what? MMOs have server maintenance all the time and players can’t play during that time.

Except these aren’t MMOs. These are single player games. With an MMO you are paying for a service. You get access to an online game with thousands of other players and, on top of that, the game is (presumably) updated and new content is added. This means that single player games with Always-On DRM exist in this weird space between product and service.

At launch, the game cost $60 but still required constant connection like an MMO. If your connection dropped out as you played or, perhaps, more importantly, you wanted to play it on a computer without access to the web, you were shit out of luck. It was simply the worst of both worlds.  And it goes without saying that Ubisoft was not regularly adding content to a single player game like Assassin’s Creed 2 because it was a port of a console game in the first place.

This is an unsettling trend in the way companies are choosing to battle piracy. The paying customer simply loses. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking Internet subscribers or people who pay for video games, legitimate customers are left holding the bag because of a battle they are probably not even privy to.

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Wreck-It Ralph will likely be a better Mortal Kombat movie than the Mortal Kombat movie

I recently had the experience of watching the Mortal Kombat  on Blu-ray. If you’re looking for something to do and have access to Mortal Kombat on Blu-ray I highly recommend doing nothing instead. If for some reason you’re walking around your home with it and you trip and it flies out of your hand and into your Blu-ray player, don’t you dare press play.

Honestly, I don’t know why studios release Blu-ray versions of 90’s CGI-heavy movies. High definition is not always a flattering and in some cases it’s like watching sausage get made: you are made privy to details and textures you were better off not knowing about.

As a kid, all I ever wanted was a decent video game movie. As an adult, that hasn’t changed. I don’t want it to be decent by existing video game film standards. I’m talking passable in a general cinematic sense.

I saw Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within in theatres. I was in 6th grade at the time. As I’ve written previously, the FF series on the SNES was my jam growing up. I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but what I got was a weird computer animated movie about ghost aliens and Steve Buscemi.

A quick glance at the movie’s IMDB page has revealed to me that Alec Baldwin also did voice acting for the film. Good for him?

Disney’s upcoming film Wreck-It Ralph looks like it might give me the kind of cinematic experience my inner child has been yearning for. The movie follows former arcade game bad guy Ralph (voiced by John C. Riley) as he jumps from game to game because he’s sick of being the villain.  If any of the terrible things I’ve yelled at Donkey Kong are any indication, I’d also get sick of being the bad guy in an early 80’s arcade game.

The trailer, which contains a fantastic use of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” as well some other shitty song that totally isn’t “Once in a Lifetime,” contains cameos of several video game characters. These include:

  • Bowser from Super Mario Bros.
  • Dr. Robitnik from Sonic the Hedgehog
  • That weird Rhino boss from Altered Beast
  • Zangief and Street Fighter
  • Kano from Mortal Kombat
  • Pac-Man
  • Clyde, the dumbest ghost from Pac-Man
  • A zombie which is presumably from House of the Dead

Jack McBrayer also voices one of the main characters. In addition to continuously being the best part of 30 Rock, he also has some really good advice for keeping your bitches in line.

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Retrospective: Final Fantasy 6

Final Fantasy 6 stands tall over most of the RPGs I played as a kid.

I grew up on console role-playing games. Today, there is a pretty big distinction between Japanese RPGS (JRPGs) and Western RPGs (WRPGs). For the Super Nintendo, JRPGs were the only game in town since all RPGs created by Western developers were made almost exclusively for DOS/PC.

JRPGs differ from WRPGs in a lot of ways but, most importantly, male characters have weird-ass and nigh-impossible haircuts.

FF7’s Cloud would have been a much better character if he had an unflattering bowl cut.

A lot of the clichés in JRPGs are protagonist related. Unlikely hero, extremely young, parents dead, raised by aunt/uncle, clearly the chosen one, that sort of thing. Final Fantasy 6 is hardly free from any tropes—and this substantial list proves it—but it doesn’t contain a character that could be considered the protagonist.

Instead, players control a rebel force instead of following the destiny of a single character. The game boasts 14 characters (the most of any entry in the Final Fantasy series) and players are free swap members in and out of their 4-person party. This blew my mind as a kid. You mean I don’t have to use the former general of the Empire who was artificially infused with magic? And I can use a fucking yeti instead?

If you didn’t use this guy, you were doing it wrong.

Chrono Trigger, another 16-bit RPG darling, hits a point towards the end where players are no longer required to include main-protagonist-and-red-haired-samurai-dude Crono in their party. But it’s hardly the same: the game favors Crono so much and he synergizes so well with every other party member that it seems stupid not to use him. It’s Playstation sequel, Chrono Cross, suffers from too many playable characters (45!) and some of them are simply…underwhelming.

I’m not saying its easy to come up with compelling characters, but this guy’s name is literally Funguy.

But even compared to modern games, FF6 hits the playable character sweet spot. The game’s cast offers players a good amount of choices and, most importantly, players aren’t forced to use certain characters except for plot purposes during specific parts of the game.

Oh, and you can suplex a train.

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Let’s Talk About Speed Runs

The problem with video game speed runs is that they aren’t particularly impressive unless you know the game. Watching some dude beast Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts in less than 40 minutes doesn’t translate well to a general audience. If anything, the fact I see some intrinsic value in such a feat will likely distance me from normal people. And then they will push me down and no one will ask me to the Sadie Hawkins dance.

Fortunately, The King of Kong has done a nice job of injecting an understanding of video game world records into the public consciousness. This is mostly because King of Kong isn’t a documentary about video games as it is a story of good vs. evil or, at the very least, a story of adorkable vs. douche-incarnate.

You don’t need to know anything about Super Mario 64 to appreciate the world record holder for fastest 120 Star run.  Clocking in at 1:47:10, Twtich TV’s Siglemic record breaking run is an interesting watch simply because how calculated every single second is. Watching the whole thing is completely unnecessary; skipping to any part of the video below should suffice.

Watch as he pimp slaps my childhood.

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Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker

I know a lot of obscure facets of American pop culture. Unlike some, this is not a point of pride for me and I generally keep that shit locked down.

Unless I’m drunk. In which case, I’m the guy at the bar whose talking too loudly about how Maximum Overdrive is the best movie ever because a soda machine kills a little league coach and knocks out some of the kids on the team.

I firmly believe my effortless access to this kind of stuff comes at the expense of other more marketable skills, like math or not parking like an asshole.

That being said, I had no idea there was a Moonwalker arcade game and have never been more disappointed in myself. Partially because it’s profoundly weird but mainly because it’s a surprisingly solid game that is different than the crappy Genesis and GameGear versions.

Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker is a product of 90’s; for one, it’s celebrity centered not unlike Michael Jordon: Chaos in the Windy City or the infamous Shaq-Fu. Secondly, the plot of the game consists of Michael Jackson saving children from kidnappers. No need to explain why this is unfortunate.

Honestly, the game’s premise is like listening to your grandfather refer to gay people as “poofs.” Uncomfortable but ultimately a product of a different time so you just shut up and deal with cognitive dissonance.

Moonwalker is an isometric shooter, where 1-3 players control Jackson and up to 2 differently dressed Jacksons as they defeat gangsters circa-1930 Chicago and creepily phallic robots. Jackson defeats enemies by shooting lightning from his hands because why the fuck not.

There’s nothing Freudian about this. That robot has dick. Image: 

Players can also charge their attacks up to release a powerful long distance blast. As an added bonus, Jackson moonwalks as the attack charges. Players also have a limited stock of a dance attack that causes all the enemies to dance along with Jackson before they exploding. Players receive more dance attacks when they rescue children

When players collect Jackson’s beloved monkey Bubbles, they turn into a robot that fires lasers from his crotch. The crotch seems a weird place to shoot lasers from but I’ve never built a robot—Robo-Jackson or otherwise—so I’m not really qualified to comment.

Additionally, there’s also only 3 sprites for the captured children. Repeating sprites are understandable because of hardware limitations, but I would like to believe Jackson is constantly rescuing the same 3 kids. I mean, players don’t do anything beyond freeing the kids from their electro-shackles. This leaves the children to fend for themselves even though there are killing machines and dudes with guns everywhere. 

As you would expect, the soundtrack consists of 16-bit versions of Michael Jackson songs. Oddly enough, the graveyard level filled with zombies didn’t use “Thriller” and instead went with “Another Part of Me.”

A missed opportunity if there ever was one.

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