Category: video games

Old School Gaming

The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turned 36 years old just barely, and last night I was introducing DC to some of the old NES games you can play on the Switch if you’re signed up with their online service. She’s a huge Zelda fan, so we played the original for a while, and then we shifted over to some fast and furious Dr. Mario action, and then a bit of Super Marios Bros. 3. A few thoughts:

First, it’s amazing how difficult the games are. She’s an accomplished gamer, having beaten Breath of the Wild on her own, but she wouldn’t make it past a few seconds on most of the Mario levels, and Zelda was a real struggle as well. Tomas tried to show her how it was done on Mario 3, but he also promptly died. The control schemes are much more precise than a lot of the newer games, allowing so much less room for error, it feels. Add to that the very limited number of lives, and you have to have a lot of patience for the game to be able to keep making progress. (I’m happy to report that, while I was a bit rusty at first, I was still able to make my way through the first world of Mario 3 with little difficulty (remembering where the warp whistle was, naturally), and I found the first dungeon in Zelda without making one wrong turn. It’s so nice that my brain cells are holding on to vital information like that.)

Second, it made me think back on my first experiences with the NES. My literal first computer games that I played were on an old Heathkit my dad owned. (Looking back at the specs, it appears that puppy cost around $2,000 back then, which is $4,761 in today’s dollars!) I played a ton of Space Invaders, DND, Zork, and ELIZA. Graphics were limited, often text based, and the screen was black and green. So when we got an Atari 2600, that was pretty incredible. Color! Pictures! I played a ton of Pitfall, Pac Man, Asteroids, Missile Command, Yar’s Revenge, Pole Position, and Centipede. Ironically, looking back at it, I don’t think I played any of them particularly well. I don’t remember getting very far in any of them. I’d know the first few levels quite well, but I’d die. A lot. The thing was, I just didn’t care.

All along, however, the system I wanted most was the NES. Those cool 8-bit graphics were so much better than anything the Atari could put out. I don’t think players growing up with current consoles today realize just what sort of leaps new systems made back then. Going from the Heathkit to the Atari to the NES to the SuperNES to the N64 . . . these were massive improvements. Playstation’s going to come out with a PS5. How different will it really be than a PS4? VR adds things to the mix, but other than that . . . it’s not the same.

But then again, gaming was different back then. Like I said, you were okay with dying all the time. That’s why there were point totals: so you could see you were making progress. We’d play against each other to see who had the higher score. These days, I think games are much more fun, but that makes sense. They’ve had so much time to evolve and learn how to do fun right. That said, I still find the old games fun. The aesthetic, the sound, the gameplay. It’s a blast to go back and remember what it all used to be like.

What was your favorite game from back then? What system did you start out on?

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Thoughts on Magic the Gathering: Arena

I’ve been in the alpha and beta test of MTG: Arena since last year. I’ve played about 5 games or so each day, on average. So I’m by no means a power player, but I’ve played enough to get a good feel of the game. For context, I’ve been playing Magic regularly since around 2010. I started just with tabletop, then went to my first prerelease with Avacyn Restored, in 2012. Since then, I’ve gravitated to being primarily a drafter. I have multiple commander decks and play that from time to time, but I try to get in at least one draft a week. I’ve played some standard, but while I enjoy the games, I dislike having to pay so much to get a deck I feel can compete against other decks.

However, I played Duels of the Planeswalkers extensively, followed by a ton of Magic: Duels. I had pretty much every card unlocked in Duels, to give you an idea of where I was with that. I loved being able to play Magic against other people for essentially free. I never spent any money on Duels. I earned all the cards by in-game play, and I could make any deck I wanted to, for free.

I’ve played some MTGO (Magic the Gathering Online), but again, the price tag turned me away. It’s not that I’m unwilling to spend money on Magic. I have two cubes (pauper and semi-powered), but paying money for digital cards isn’t nearly as appealing. So that hasn’t really been an avenue I’ve explored.

So I think I’m a fairly big target for the audience of Arena, Magic’s latest foray into the digital realm. I’ve followed the fan discussion boards, and I’ve been surprised at the amount of whining coming from many fan sectors. The biggest complaint at the moment is the economy. They feel it’s too expensive to get new cards. At the moment, buying a pack of 8 cards costs 1000 coins. You can get around 1000 coins each day by playing matches and completing quests, so you can get a pack every day. Each pack has a mythic or rare, two uncommons, and five commons.

The complaint is that to build tier 1 decks takes too many mythic and rare cards, and it’ll take too long to get there. Some fans are saying the game will be a colossal failure because of this imbalance. To which I say, “Whatever.”

Without spending any money, I’ve build a basic Red Deck Wins deck that I went 7-2 with last night in “Quick Constructed.” That’s a format where you pay 500 coins to enter and then win prizes based on how many wins you can get before you get 3 losses. (It maxes out at 7 wins, at which point you get 1000 coins plus three cards, which will be at least 2 uncommons and 1 rare, maybe better. I won two mythics and a rare for my 7 wins.) Yes, I’m an experienced player, but my deck wasn’t full of just mythics and rares. (Though it had plenty: 4 Hazorets, 4 Earthshaker Kenras, 3 Rampaging Ferocidons, 1 Rekindling Phoenix. So 5 mythics and 7 rares, give or take.)

With that basic deck, I can earn more coins the same way I did yesterday. For 5000 coins, I’ll be able to draft soon. With each draft, I’ll get 3 packs of 14 cards, plus 1-3 8 card packs as prizes, plus more currency to spend. Do I prefer to play RDW each game? No. But I’m certainly willing to play a bit of it to earn cards so I can start fleshing out my collection and working my way to other decks I can play and enjoy. Also, since the game only supports best of 1 matches right now (remember: still in beta!), I feel RDW is the best way to take advantage of the format. You’re incentivized to get matches done quickly each day so you can max your wins. But that’s just a stage for me. I’ll get beyond that to where I have decks good enough to compete with other archetypes.

In other words, I think I’ll be able to play Magic for free, online, whenever I want to, with a great interface, and minimal issues. This is fantastic. The game is miles better than Duels. It’s responsive and intuitive (for the most part). Yes, it still has bugs. It’s in beta test. It’s only available on PC at the moment, but there are plans for Mac and phones to be supported in the future.

The longest I ever wait to play a match, even with this smaller pool, is about 15 seconds. It’s true that sometimes those matches are unbalanced. I’ll be up against someone with a much better deck, or a much worse deck. But that comes with the territory of having a smaller pool of players since it’s still in beta.

I honestly don’t understand some segments of the player community at times. It’s as if they expect a game to be fully fleshed out and comparable to other games that have been refined for years. And then when their suggestions aren’t immediately incorporated, they freak out. Most of the criticism I’ve seen levied at the game has been baseless or overblown. The game is still being refined, but I see a lot of promise to it.

So if you have a PC and can score an invite to the beta, I encourage you to check it out. I’ve loved my time with the game so far, and I can’t wait for the drafting to begin later this week.

If you have any questions about the game, I’d be happy to answer them.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

A Knee-Jerk Review of the Oculus Rift

I posted this on Facebook during my hiatus, but one of the presents received Christmas morning was an Oculus Rift. (Technically, the present was the Rift and a fast enough desktop to run it. Tomas has been wanting to build a computer for the past year or so. He was dreaming of a low end machine capable of running some games. I’ve been wanting to get a new machine to use as my primary computer for writing for some time now, and I thought this year seemed like an excellent time to do it, since I’ve made a bit of money selling books. Yay business expenses. So after all presents had been opened, there was one final present that took the kids on a twenty step treasure hunt, taking them from computer component to computer component, culminating with the Rift.)

So after Tomas and I had built the computer (much easier now than it seemed to be the last time I did it, ten years ago), I got the Rift up and running on it, and gave it a whirl. (Thankfully, the research I’d done that indicated it would fit over my glasses was confirmed. Otherwise I would have been going virtually nowhere. It actually works perfectly fine with glasses.)

I did not expect to be seriously blown away by virtual reality. I’ve been gaming for years, after all, and I knew that the resolution on the Rift wasn’t high enough to make the pixels go away. So I thought I’d constantly be reminded that I was standing in the middle of my office with a headset on, looking like an idiot.

Except I massively underestimated the ability of sight and sound to override the rest of my brain. Slipping on that headset, I really felt like I was transported to another place. There’s a demo that takes you to the top of a skyscraper. It really felt like I was about to fall off, and it made me actually scared. That scene is followed by a T Rex coming to roar in front of you. Again, I was far more intimidated by this virtual thing than I would have ever expected.

Since that demo, we’ve installed some other games. (It comes with about 6 or 7 available to download right away for free.) There’s one that pits you against rogue robots, and it’s up to you to shoot them all down before the city is overwhelmed. There’s a 3D drawing game. We bought a climbing simulator, and a game that puts you in the shoes of James Bond. You can get Google Earth for free, and it interfaces with Google Street View, so you can stand on pretty much any street in the world and see what it looks like to be there. It’s much more impressive than normal Street View. It’s amazing.

When I mentioned the Rift on Facebook, it was with the explanation that I got to the point where I realized 14 year old me would be so incredibly disappointed in current me if he were to find out VR was available, I could afford it, and yet I didn’t have it. And so I bowed to 14 year old me’s wishes (not always a great idea). But really, I’m very pleased I did. Beyond the cool factor and the amazing experiences, I love watching my 13 year old and 9 year old children use the device. Yes, you could dismiss the Rift as just another toy, but I don’t see things that way. When I see them using it, I see them getting in on the ground floor of a new way of interacting with technology, one which might well prepare them for new innovations in the future.

When I was young, I had the opportunity to use desktop computers at home earlier than many other kids did. That familiarity with the technology helped me, as I taught myself graphic design basics (with the old PageMaker) as well as learned the ins and outs of music composition software. I sincerely believe that playing with technology leads you to using technology more intuitively. I have no idea what innovations might lie in wait, but standing there in my office, using virtual weapons to defend a city from rogue robots, it’s easy for me to see that this is something which will only grow in popularity and importance.

The Rift is a steal at $400. The controllers are terrific, the games are immersive, and there are plenty of experiences to choose from. The only thing that should hold you back from buying one is that you need a workhorse of a PC to run the games well. I have no idea how it will run on a lower end machine. The one I bought has an almost top-of-the-line graphics card, new processor, and plenty of RAM to back it up. Then again, we’ve found out it can run a VR game and a second game on the computer screen at the same time, so perhaps an older, less advanced model would still be fine.

Oh yeah. One more thing. I get motion sick playing for too long. Saturday I was in Google Earth for a half hour, then did the climbing simulator for another half hour, and after that, I was feeling pretty lousy for an hour or so. It was the climbing that got to me. My eyes were telling me I was moving all over the place, and my body was just plain confused. But not all games do that. It’s just something  to be aware of, and it hasn’t turned me off VR at all.

If you have any questions about the Rift, I’m happy to answer them. Very pleased with the gift.

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Breath of the Wild Review

When the Nintendo Switch first came out, I heard all about how fantastic Breath of the Wild was, the latest Zelda game. So much so that I bought a copy for the Switch, even though I didn’t have an actual Switch yet. (There was a great sale on the game, and I figured I’d be able to pick up a Switch eventually, so why not?)

It took me months to actually find a Switch on sale for retail price. (Still a difficult feat to accomplish, all these months later. If it’s something you’re looking for, I can just say what I did: go to Amazon every day and search for a Switch. I also tried Best Buy, Walmart, Target, Gamestop, and Toys ‘R Us, but Amazon is where I finally found it. Persistence paid off. MSRP is $300. I had no desire to spend $500 on it.)

In any case, I’ve had it now for a while, and I still only have the one game for it. But I will say that the hype around Breath of the Wild seems to be very well-earned. The game is completely immersive. If you see it in the game, you can go there. Climb there. There are load times, but they’re really just to go in and out of dungeons. In the overworld, you see everything. That’s very impressive. There are plenty of fun puzzles, just as you’d expect from a Zelda game. There’s also some really tricky fights, which keep you on your toes.

But really, the most impressive thing to me is how the game has managed to keep three very different demographics hooked. I have played off and on. Tomas (13 years old) has played a ton, and DC (9 years old) has played a ton too. Each seem to be interested in a different thing. I’m into exploration and story. Tomas wants to make his way through to the end bosses. DC loves to explore and find new things. Even more impressive, she’s been able to get to places Tomas hasn’t yet.

In that way, it reminds me of Minecraft. Very sandboxy.

I haven’t finished the game yet. (Not even close) So I guess I can’t really give it a full review. But I can say that I’m already very pleased with my purchase. Granted, I had to buy a Switch to be able to play it (though a WiiU version exists too). So is it worth the purchase of a Switch? Not sure yet. I’ll have to buy and play some other games on the platform for me to say. But since Nintendo consistently comes out with some of the most innovative games out there, my gut says this is going to be a great platform. Not the best graphics or most cutting edge tech, but for me, I don’t really care about that anymore.

I just want great games.

Minecrafting on YouTube

I’ve fallen off the Minecraft bandwagon lately. Just too many other things going on in my life for me to keep it up. But Tomas is still going strong. He and a friend have even started a YouTube channel, posting some of their exploits online. And after repeated requests, I figured today is a good day to give them a plug. If you’re looking to see how a couple of 12 year olds approach the game these days, look no further than The Awesomepole Gaming.

Tomas is m34ndr. (Funny aside. Since I picked that name as a leet spelling of Meander (from Cavern of Babel), Tomas sort of fell into it by accident. He was using my account, which had the name, and so he got the name. But because of that, he’s a big Meander fan now. And my mom has a bunch of Meander t-shirts still kicking around, so he proudly got to wear a new one for his first day of school. I certainly didn’t picture that scenario back when I was writing the character ten years ago or whatever.) He’s not in all the videos, but he’s working on being in more.

I think this is step one of their plan of eventual global domination. Making boatloads of money off the videos is involved in there somewhere, and to that I wish them the best of luck. What will be really fun is when he’s a few years older. I wonder what his thoughts on the channel will be then?

In any case, give it a gander and leave a comment on it, if you’re so inclined. Like the video. Subscribe to the channel and really make their day.

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