Saturday, December 10, 2016

I'm recording video games again.

Everyone and their mother is doing it, so I might as well rejoin the YouTube gaming community.

I'm preparing to do a for-fun race through Super Mario Bros. 3 against a friend, and I figured it might be neat to record the practice runs, as a test for recording the real thing (which we absolutely want to do). It's been a great learning experience so far, broadening my video production horizons and improving my skillset. Yesterday I bought a big strip of green fabric, so I can even utilize chroma key filters to add a face overlay, giving my recordings some extra polish.

Another game I've started recording is Donkey Kong Country 2, inspired after playing a Two-Player Contest run with a friend for a couple of hours. He'd never played 2 before that, so this doubles as a chance for him to look ahead at the levels from someone he knows.

The runs are here,and I'll be uploading one video daily (when I have a bunch ready) or ASAP after they're recorded (during a dry spell). I'll list the games I have in progress here and update this list as I go.

  • Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES) (Run completed!)
  • Donkey Kong Country 2 (SNES) (Run completed!)

Games I'm considering running:

  • Doom (PS1)
  • Frogger (PS1)
  • Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 (GB)
  • Bastion (Steam)
  • Dust: An Elysian Tail (Steam)
  • Space Grunts (Android)
  • PinOut (Android, hardware permitting)

Also, if you're new to recording video games, it's not particularly hard as long as you have some recent hardware, and it's possible to pay exactly nothing for the software.
For recording, I use OBS, which is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux but is currently buggy on Windows. I'm using Debian testing as my OS. Since I'm using emulators for the games, the only extra hardware I need is a webcam (which has a passable microphone) for video of me, and the green cloth to "green screen" that video feed.

Anyway, hope you enjoy the videos!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Nintendo Switch thoughts!

Man, the reveal of the NX - hereafter, the Nintendo Switch - was incredible. My mind is already racing with all the fun possibilities and I really hope that we get some more details soon!

But I have several thoughts I'd like to go ahead and write out. First, though: if you haven't watched the First Look video, do so now!

Done? Good.

Sooooo I'm hoping that the base will have a number of features that the tablets cannot, such as an optical drive (for backwards compatibility with Wii U software) and an included HDD (not just flash storage this time, please, Nintendo!), while keeping a respectable amount of flash storage on the tablet to hold a few downloaded titles (in addition to the cartridge, of course). Hopefully save files are always kept on the tablet, and/or automatically synced over the Internet.

I'm also hoping that there will be some sort of "starter box set" that includes the Switch as shown in the First Look, and standalone tablets (with a controller set) to accommodate additional family members. It'd also be great if the dock would allow any docked Switch tablet to use the software in the dock; maybe we could even "rent" downloadable titles from the dock?

I also really hope, if the Switch is designed to replace the Wii U and the 3DS family, that Nintendo makes a "mini" version of the tablet with the button controls built in (e.g., non-removable), so that we still have a pocketable portable system. If not, I guess we'll have to start hauling around our Switches in a tablet sleeve or book-sized carrying case once the 3DS family is phased out.

Speaking of which, I hope the battery life on the tablet is better than the 3DS family's - the OG 3DS in particular is painfully short in practice, even if you don't game that much. With my DS Lite, I can play in small bites and potentially not have to recharge the thing for over a week. (I wonder if the plane ride in the First Look is subtly addressing that question.)

I hope they keep - or even expand - the StreetPass and SpotPass features, too.

With all that said - I'm excited for this thing. I feel like my favorite feature (besides the natural benefits that come from the home and portable console being the same machine) is the fact that each "half" of the controller can be handed to a player for some simple, yet fun two-player (or even four, it seems) action! I'll be looking forward to having impromptu Mario Kart and Smash matches.

Have any of you thought of other wants/hopes for the Switch? By all means drop a comment below!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Short Thoughts on Fire Emblem: Awakening vs. Fates and emotional manipulation

I listened to some music from the soundtracks of Fire Emblem: Awakening and Fire Emblem: Fates a little while ago, and it occurred to me that while I look back (not that far, admittedly) on Awakening very fondly, I tend to feel a bit ... bitter when I think about Fates. The sentiment that usually comes to mind is based around a comment I saw on a gaming website: "'Fire Emblem: Pay For the Canon Ending'".

This got me thinking. For all the improvements we saw in Fates' gameplay features over Awakening, like the revised (read: less broken) Pair Up system and the multiplayer-friendly features like My Castle and actual PvP combat, the story (and some gimmicks related to it) feels like a step backwards.

Awakening, in my opinion, for the most part has a very generic-feeling story, but makes up for it with great characters (which the Support conversation scenes flesh out well) and decent pacing overall, save for the lull in the middle of the game. Meanwhile, Fates, in my opinion, tries too hard to make you feel for the characters, to get you invested in them and their struggle regardless of how naturally inclined you might be to do so.

I would go so far as to say that Fire Emblem: Fates is deliberately emotionally manipulative.

I mean, yeah, a lot of stories are to some degree, depending on your point of view. I don't think it's uncommon for a writer to stick in some sad lines or disastrous events to kick in the reader's empathy. But Fates hits the player hard and fast - most people will get to Chapter 5 within an hour or two, and we're treated to a fully-animated cutscene where a character very close to the protagonist - the player's Avatar - is killed by a sudden and brutal attack, courtesy of the Avatar's surrogate father, and the Avatar is filled with so much grief and rage that they transform into a dragon, right before kicking off Chapter 5's battle.

Awakening waits until Chapter 9 to pull its big death stunt (barring the opening cutscene, which carries different connotations because of the circumstances), which (as I remember) takes around 6-9 hours to arrive at, depending on difficulty. It gives you a lot more time to get emotionally invested in the characters and their plights. Plus, not every emotional moment is directly related to you, as the Avatar; the Avatar's role is more of a deuteragonist in this game (though it does shift a lot in the third act).

In contrast, every big scene in Fates is supposed to be tied to you (the Avatar) somehow. Your family from the house you sided against brand you a traitor. Your father of Nohr turned evil. Your mother dies. Your eldest siblings face you off near the climax.

On top of this, while Awakening gives what many consider to be a very satisfying ending, Fates leaves the player hanging if they play Birthright or Conquest.

All of this leads me to believe that Fates was written specifically to manipulate the player into feeling invested in the characters, so as to want a better resolution and pay for the other story paths. Indeed, the aforementioned "canon ending", Revelationcannot be played through without also buying Birthright and/or Conquest. You must spend $60 to $80 instead of the baseline $40, to get either a downloadable copy of Revelation's data or a physical cartridge with all three paths.

I don't know why Intelligent Systems went with this pricing path. Maybe they thought it was honestly clever. Maybe they knew they needed a way to give newcomers and old hands appropriate ways to enjoy the same world and wrote Revelation because they couldn't fit the necessary plot threads into the separate versions. I don't know. But what it feels like is that they tried out a different scheme to make some extra money that turned out to be just a little too transparent, and I'm less inclined to buy the next Fire Emblem as a result.

Friday, September 2, 2016

A tough question, or a brief story on how I started writing BNAA

All right, folks. Tough question time.

If you weren't aware, I have a bit of an interest in writing fiction. I don't write much (fiction or non-fiction) these days, but from time to time I come up with some ideas for a story that I /really/ want to put into words and share. My goal - at least, once I settled on one - was to come up with a story that appeals to me and carries emotional weight; ideally I'd like to come up with a situation that builds up to something where the reader bawls like they were at a Pixar movie, and then delivers something tense while it builds a climax and moves on to a heartwarming finale. Yeah, I know, cheesy, right? But my experience tells me that the stories that stay with you the most do something along those lines, as long as the execution's great and the story and/or characters are solid.

More on that later.

Around 2010, I came across a series of stories known as the Super Smash Bros. Brawl (SSBB) Case Files [link if I can find it], written by someone known as ShadowKnux. It was a crossover series of Smash and Ace Attorney, and it was written like a game script - in fact, originally, it was posted in a playable "audience follows along" form on a forum. Basically, Phoenix and Maya go around assorted Nintendo locales and solve murder mysteries, meeting characters from all sorts of Nintendo games (most of which were in Brawl), gathering evidence and testimony, and of course duking it out with Edgeworth in court to find the culprit and save an innocent client from being found guilty.

The story that stuck out in my mind the most was themed around Pokemon. Mewtwo took part in it, and he played a sort of mentor role to yet another accused - Ness - and was willing to sabotage his own defense to prevent Ness from being tried for murder. (Phoenix ends up saving them both, natch.) I really don't remember what the true inspiration was, but I liked the idea of Ace Attorney-style courtroom tales set in Pokemon locales with Pokemon characters - and decided to try my hand with writing a case, even doing it in the same script style that SSBB Case Files was using. I called it "Brendan Namron: Ace Attorney" after the title character, chosen because he was also the male player character from Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire, which were my favorite Pokemon games at the time.

The first case was ... pretty lame, to be honest, but it got my feet wet and I felt pretty good about it. I even shared it on a message board, and posted it there using the same "play along" style SSBBCF used. I also shared it with a good friend over ... was it IRC or Google Talk? and did more-or-less the same play-along thing. We had actually been doing that with SSBBCF - I would paste the text into the chat and he'd supply the answers when the "game" asked for one. I even made up press text when he pressed a statement that had no text from the original author, so it was good practice and probably contributed to my desire to write my own case. In both places, the story seemed to be met with positive responses - what few there were - and I felt encouraged to write a second case. I wanted to make it bigger, and I certainly wanted to make it better; the first case was completely amateurish and ridiculous in the way the trial played out, and mostly served as a warm-up. But I wrote an ending to it that was supposed to set up the theme - because I wanted to try and make a complete four-case story out of it, and now I was confident that I could do so.

Things kinda went downhill.

I had a good chunk of text written by the time I started posting the first case to the message board, but I was hungry for feedback and spent a lot of time posting it, and it didn't take long to catch up. After that, my momentum took a nosedive, and on top of that I wrote such a horrendously sloppy section that the board's admin called me out on it. (I scrapped it and rewrote most of that part, and the admin seemed to enjoy the new version.) I came to a near-complete halt when I hit the final trial, because I was struggling with a lot of things about it - not the least of which included how to lead-in to the final trial day, as well as how to *end the case*. (Endings really are hard.) I think I scrapped about a dozen versions of the lead-in before I allowed myself to continue.

I still mostly write sequentially. B cannot happen until A has, and consequently I have a lot of trouble planning. Which also means I mostly write by the seat of my pants, and other than some vague idea of what I want to convey or make happen, I don't know in advance what *will* happen. This usually makes for fun writing until I remember that I'm writing a /murder mystery/ - one that's supposed to be in the style of a solvable visual novel, at that - and *everything* has to make consistent sense or suspension of disbelief goes out the window.

So yeah, I think case 2 ended up taking me over a year to finish, and by then interest had died down greatly. Still, I wasn't giving up, so I set to work on case 3.

Except I had no idea what case 3 was going to be about for several months. I had no idea what the /overarching story/ was going to be about.

On top of that, I got this idea into my head that people just *really* hate reading script formats, and that that was probably why BNAA wasn't getting much feedback. So I eventually took it upon myself to write case 3 in prose, telling myself it would be good writing practice anyway.

I was still writing without much direction in mind, but as I tossed idea after idea, I started drifting to case 4 and what I wanted to do with that. I eventually settled on incorporating some tension between Brendan and his father, Norman, since many fan theories involving the Norman from the video games do the same thing. I went through a ton of tweaks on the idea, and currently I have a pretty good concept formed of how the relationship between Brendan and Norman is supposed to go throughout case 4 - kickstarted by a plot twist that I want to reveal right at the end of case 3.

... actually, wait, no. I did pick a murder mystery to go with for case 3, but I only had the "day of the crime" stuff nailed down and I just wanted to get something going. A scene not two far into the case's story involves a conversation between Phoenix and Brendan (Phoenix being one of Brendan's assistants) about his dad. Brendan sums up for Phoenix why he dislikes his father, and in this canon it's due to a misunderstanding over a competition victory.

Over the years, I took that and fleshed it out in my notes.

But I didn't flesh out case 3's mystery nearly as well. I wanted a Pokemon to be the murder - since it was a human in the first two cases - and I didn't want to scrap and start the case over because I'd already gotten a lot done and I didn't know how else to approach this - and starting over would almost certainly kill my momentum, I thought. I wanted to get something /out there/ before interest died completely, because to be honest, I crave feedback. Positive validation. Wooooo. (This is the part where I try to persuade you to leave a comment, but I guess I shouldn't bother.)

And I just. Kept. Getting. Stuck.

So as I write this, I've had this /one story/ in development for /six years/ and counting, and it's not looking like I can finish it any time soon. I don't know if I'll /ever/ finish it, despite currently sitting on the *last trial* of case 3, desperately trying to tie everything in the case together so I can move on to the damned plot twist and start *really* working on case 4, because *that's* the part of the story I really want to show everyone and the part where I've had so many ideas come and go it's ridiculous and I need to breathe. Inhale. Exhale.

So this is the question, folks. Hopefully some of the above made sense. Is it time to move on?

Case 3 has been fermenting for five years. Chances are case 4 will take about as long, no matter what I convince myself of otherwise. Somewhere along the line, I lost interest in actually *writing* the thing, even if I continued to have ideas for it and felt eager to show them to people. Indeed, I did try to show my notes to two people, and I got basially nothing in response. I don't know if they ever cared about BNAA, but they certainly don't seem to now. And why should they? It's clearly going nowhere, for starters, and if they want to get their Ace Attorney or Pokemon fix, they can just *play the games* and find stories of infinitely better quality than what I'm producing.

I tell myself I really want to finish this. I tell myself that I have too good an idea for a father-son relationship story to let it die. I tell myself that *someone* else wants to see how this thing ends, even if it's just one person.

I just don't know if I can write any more.

Monday, July 25, 2016

On the merging of phone and gaming device

I'm a gadget addict. I like having multiple pieces of technology on me, at nearly all times. For the past eight years, I've carried around three staple devices on most days: a phone, a music player, and a gaming handheld. (Naturally, I wear a lot of cargo pants/shorts.)

That may sound ridiculous, but one of the things I love about relying on multiple gadgets is the "division of labor" - by not trying to force one device to do everything, I can conserve battery life on all of them and juggle multiple activities (to the extent that my brain can keep up).

Most of you have guessed where I'm going with this: the modern "smartphone" - pocket computers that happen to be telecommunications devices - has taken over nearly every "gadget" functionality for a huge chunk of the population. MP3 players and standalone PDAs have basically died out, while compact digital cameras are almost never seen outside of a retail store shelf. Even portable gaming devices are on the decline; many have asserted that the 3DS and the Vita (especially the Vita) have all but lost to the age of the smartphone, as the latter packs more convenience and computational power than the former, and most games for phones are much cheaper or outright "free".

I'm not here to go into an argument about the quality or merit of the games on one platform or the other. I love my gaming handhelds, but I've found plenty of games for Android devices that I'll sing praises about. What I do want to talk about is a problem I keep running into that indirectly affects every portable game out there - the consolidation effect (yes, I just made that name up. Don't snicker).

The thing about folding "handheld gaming" into a smartphone is that it's an enormous drain on a device that's already being asked to do so much. Think about it: with our phones, we: make phone calls; communicate with text messages and similar OTI services; browse the web and research things; take photos and videos; edit photos; listen to music; navigate and find places to navigate to; pay for things; check our email; check on documents; check our schedule; check the news; take and utilize notes; watch videos; control TV accessories; and so. Much. More. It's almost no wonder that, despite nearly two decades and counting of smartphone development and growth, we're all still struggling to make most phones get through a full day of use without needing a recharge.

And we seriously want to add video games, one of the most resource-intensive tasks a personal computer can do in this day and age, to that list of daily tasks with nothing to siphon it off to?

I'm excited for Nintendo's plans for mobile games (I'm really hoping their Fire Emblem title will be worthwhile). I've joined the Pokémon GO craze. I've found games that I really enjoy playing on my phone, from Super Hexagon (a port) to Space Grunts (an original title; and a pretty fun rougelike) to Monument Valley (an original puzzle game). But no matter how good, or how deep, or how fun those games are, I always find myself keeping play sessions short - much shorter than I do when I'm playing a game on my DS, my Wii, or my desktop PC.

Primarily, that's because my phone gets hot (which forces the phone to reduce performance and which hurts the battery's lifespan), and the battery drains fast. I have a Droid Turbo, mind - a phone that was touted by Motorola and Verizon as being capable of getting through 48 hours without needing a charger. Not once has it quite lived up to that claim in practice - and since I started playing Pokémon GO, it's become hard to even get through sixteen hours without reaching for extra juice (granted, that game is an extreme example). Unlike my DS, I have to make sure my phone still has power to actually be used as a phone - I certainly don't want someone to call me at 3 PM only for me to realize I have 10% left on the battery gauge. (Which is exactly what can happen to someone playing a lot of Pokémon GO in the middle of the day, with no outlet nearby.)

Secondarily, there's the issue of activity focus, yet another thing we as a society have been doubtlessly struggling with thanks to "smart" devices. While you're playing a game on a phone, a notification may appear; a phone call may come in; a text message may arrive; or something else may come up that forces you to switch apps. Besides breaking your focus, responding to these interruptions put extra work on the phone and may even push the game out of working memory - forcing the software to reload when you switch back to it. This, of course, contributes to the primary issue of battery life and phone heat. If this happens while you're gaming on a DS? Pause and/or close the lid, optionally pocketing/setting down the console. It's little things like that that make the experience much less annoying, in my opinion.

My point is, Sony's probably not making another handheld, and after whatever rumored portable segment of Nintendo's "NX" comes to light, who knows if there will be a handheld successor? If the answer is "none", then the future of portable gaming will left entirely in the hands of our cell phones.

I just don't think our batteries are ready for that.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Breath of the Wild, Fresh Air

Open-world games and I kind of have a rocky relationship. I ignore them, and they ignore me. I have avoided, among other franchises, Fable and The Elder Scrolls (I tried Skyrim once, on an Xbox 360, and I simply failed to stay interested), largely because the open-world nature of those games leaves me in a sort of choice-paralysis.

Even with The Legend of Zelda, one of my favorite franchises, there are games I have not completed because of how little they hold your hand. I have a copy of the original game for the NES, as a real cartridge, and on my 3DS as a Virtual Console title. The former, I've never actually played, and the latter, I've owned for over a year and a half, and I still have three dungeons left to do. Every time I pick up that game, I get frustrated with something and leave it alone again before I can accomplish anything. Everything I have accomplished was done with the aid of a detailed map and a textual walkthrough; the latter was used to find some items to reduce frustration (White Ring, more Hearts, etc.), and the former was used to give me a sense of direction. Without both at hand, I don't feel free - I feel lost. The freedom to aimlessly wander without being told about a specific, immediate goal almost always leaves me feeling like I'm wandering around without purpose, wasting time, when I could be getting something done in the game. Even in Zelda games I otherwise love, there are occasionally parts where, if I don't have them memorized, I become frustrated so easily from a lack of direction that I turn to a walkthrough (big example: the Triforce Shard quest in Wind Waker; also, the mandatory trading subquest in Link's Awakening). It's weird, because if I know what my goal is, and how to do it, then I don't mind taking a little detour from time to time (example: hunting for Maiamais in A Link Between Worlds between dungeons), because I know what I have to do and I'm free to break off my distraction to go do it and move on.

And yet, somehow, I am incredibly excited for Breath of the Wild.

I don't know what it is.

I know that I got excited watching much of the footage during E3. It looked like great fun to wander upon a bunch of Bokoblins with naught but a stick, and come out victorious with a club and a bow. The whole way the weapon breakage worked, combined with the system for switching weapons, got me a bit giddy at the challenge it should offer. Just the prospect of exploring the world, and the footage showing off some of that, yet still having at least a few people point me in the direction the player should go for answers, special items, and the like - giving purpose to the wandering beyond resource gathering, one the player is free to follow at their leisure.

So many open-world games have done these things already, and yet I've not wanted to give them a chance. Why is this Zelda game different to me? Why is it different for anyone?

I don't know. Maybe it's just that Nintendo touch.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

"Meh" About Miitomo

If you haven't heard, Nintendo is preventing rooted Android users from using Miitomo by running a check at launch, and killing the app if root access is detected. There's a workaround, but it requires Xposed, which itself is too "hackish" for my liking on a daily driver.

I'm more than a little miffed that I can't use the app on any of my devices, which all are either rooted or running custom ROMs - mainly to get rid of carrier bloatware, run newer Android versions, and give me the ability to actually tether. Definitely nothing that I think Nintendo is worried about happening to Miitomo.

But more to the point, it's increasingly obvious that Nintendo will block root users in all future titles as well. They're the only company I know that has been consistent about this. (See: Pokémon Shuffle and Pokémon Jukebox. Ninty may not have developed those, but they are the parent company ...)

I mostly love Nintendo and their software, but I'm not giving up greater ownership of my devices just to walk with them on their journey into the smartphone age.

EDIT: Version 1.1.2 presumably reduced the strictness of the root check, as Miitomo now runs on my main phone without issues. I've heard reports that it still won't work for many Cyanogenmod users, so that's a bummer. I'm using Miitomo now, and it's neat, but it's probably not worth the trouble of removing root/reflashing stock/flashing Xposed just for this one (battery-eating, while in the foreground) app.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Brendan Namron: Ace Attorney

If you're a fan of both the Ace Attorney and Pokemon franchises, and have ever wondered what it might be like if the two have ever merged, do I have a post for you. If not, then you can ignore this one.

For the past six years, I've been doing off-and-on writing on a series that I call Brendan Namron: Ace Attorney. It takes the Ace Attorney approach to writing (with most cases even being done in a script format, meant to resemble playing the real games) with cases set in the Pokemon universe. I have a few original characters, but those familiar with the Pokemon games will find old favorites as well.

You can read the first case here, and the second one here. The third case is in progress, but lately I've been pushing myself to get the darn thing done already (which is why I'm bothering to post about this now). You can read the completed chapters of case three here.

EDIT on 2016-08-27: Here's a short side-story featuring Skye and Phoenix.

I hope you enjoy them. Please feel free to leave feedback in this post's comments.