Category: product reviews

I never liked Donkey Kong

There. I said it.

Donkey Kong is the foundation of a modern business empire, a cultural cornerstone, the genesis story of the Marioverse. Not liking Donkey Kong is something akin to blasphemy. I gave it a shot. I wanted to like it. But I just never liked it.

I feel like I am about to regret one quarter just looking at this screen capture.

I first played Donkey Kong when it was new, in the Arcade, on Atari, and ColecoVision, and I never considered it one of my favorites. It was a smash hit when it came out, sold tens of thousands of arcade cabinets, swallowed hundreds of millions of quarters, sold millions of cartridges on home consoles, and been ported to just about every console of its generation and the next few after. It was groundbreaking, both technically and in terms of game mechanics and narrative.

I recognize all of that, and I still don’t care for the game.

This isn’t merely a statement of opinion or taste; I don’t enjoy playing Donkey Kong, and I don’t find it to be a particularly well-designed game.

Let’s talk about that.

For sake of brevity, I’ll focus on the first screen.

How high can you climb?

Donkey Kong is very difficult and unforgiving. Part of its difficulty stems from the tight window for clearing dangerous obstacles, and the narrow clearance for successful jumps. But much of it comes from design choices that tend to make the game feel unfair.

Jumping

Jumping is the key mechanic around which the whole game is based. Yet, the jumping mechanic is rough. When you jump, you can’t change direction or height, so you’re committed to the path of the jump until you land. This makes jumping risky and hard. When you make a mistake, there’s no second chances. You know you’re going to die, and there’s nothing you can do but watch and wait for it.

You can’t jump very high — just the exact height to clear a barrel or fireball, and the exact distance to clear two barrels if they’re right next to each other… barely. Miss a jump by a little bit and you’re dead.

On the first screen, some of the ramps look like they might be close enough together to allow Jumpman to jump up to the next platform from the one below, but that is not permitted. You can only ascend to the next platform by climbing a ladder.

Not that you’d normally ever want to, but you can’t jump down from the edge of a ramp to the one below, either — the height is not great, but it will still kill you.

If you jump off a platform, you die if you fall just a short distance. Jumpman can’t survive falling any farther than the peak height of his jump.

Ladders

You can’t get off a ladder until you get allll the way up to the top of it, or allll the way to the bottom. Very often, you’ll think you’re there, and try to move left or right, only to find that you’re still locked onto the ladder and unable to move. A better design would have been to treat horizontal joystick input as continuing Jumpman’s previous climbing direction, moving him the rest of the way up/down the ladder until he is clear.

There’s no jumping from a ladder, either. Allowing this would make the game play feel less stiff, and give the player greater control and flexibility.

Some of the ladders are broken, turning the ladder into a deadly dead-end. You can climb up them, but only get part-way. At the top, barrels rolling by below you will still hit you and kill you, even though you’re off the ground. It’d be nice if the game gave you a break and decided there was enough clearance that you could be safe here. And a barrel that decides to roll down from the platform above and take the ladder path will also kill you. You’re stuck on the broken ladder until you backtrack down and get off. If you could jump off the ladder, or jump to clear the gap where the ladder broke, you’d have one more option, open up possibilities, and it would make the game feel a little more fair.

Hammer

The Hammer power-up allows Jumpman to fight back against the barrels and fireballs that are his bane, and earn extra points. But this comes at a cost.

Jumpman can’t climb ladders with the hammer, and cannot jump. This means he is stuck on the platform where he grabbed the hammer, for as long as the hammer persists.

The hammer is a temporary item, which runs on a timer that ends after a few seconds, but without warning. You can be right about to smash a barrel when suddenly the hammer disappears, leaving you defenseless and no time to jump out of the way. And you have no choice but to die. This feels unfair. To fix this problem, the game should give the player a cue to let them know that their hammer time is about to expire — blinking or an audio signal would be helpful. And maybe if the game detects that Jumpman is facing a barrel, and it is within a “close enough” distance just as time is about to expire, give the hammer enough extra frames before despawning it to allow the barrel to be busted.

Since the levels are timed, and running out of time will kill you, getting the hammer can screw you if you grab it while the timer is running low. Your remaining time gives you bonus points, so being forced by the hammer to wait before you can finish the level can actually cost you points, unless you can smash enough barrels/fireballs to make it worthwhile. It would be better if you could cancel the hammer early. Perhaps hitting the jump button while holding the hammer could make Jumpman throw the hammer, giving you a useful way to cancel it early, and a ranged attack that could come in handy and give you one more option.

The hammer may make you seem invincible, but you can still be killed if a barrel gets past the hammer to touch Jumpman. Most players don’t realize this until they learn it the hard way. A barrel coming down a ladder can be hit by the hammer, but if it swings out of the way and the timing is just wrong, the barrel may hit Jumpman in the head before the hammer swings back up. Likewise, the rolling barrels may approach Jumpman from behind, or roll under the hammer while it is above Jumpman’s head. The swinging of the hammer is automatic, not controlled by the player, so whether the hammer hits the barrel or the barrel gets through is somewhat random. Usually Jumpman will hit, but once in a while the barrel will get through. I would fix this design issue by making Jumpman invincible from the front, but still let him take hits from above and the rear.

Barrels/fireballs

Barrel pathing is pernicious; whether a barrel will go down a ladder or continue down the ramp can’t be known for absolutely certain, but it seems that barrels are more likely to go down the ladder if you’re on the ladder, making using ladders especially deadly. It makes you paranoid to avoid starting up a ladder until any approaching barrels have cleared the ladder you need to climb. To some extent, you can manipulate the barrel AI by your position and direction, as the enemies will tend to take the path that is least advantageous to you. So by standing to one side or the other of a ladder, and facing the right direction, you can often influence the barrel to take the short path or the long path.

Barrel spacing is too random and can often kill you unfairly. Donkey Kong will sometimes roll two barrels at you too far apart to jump both together, and too close together to jump the first one and then immediately jump the next one.

Sometimes DK will toss a barrel that will go straight diagonally down the screen, ignoring collisions with the ramps. These move extremely fast and are unpredictable, making them all but impossible to dodge. If you happen to be in their path, at the top of the screen, you have almost no warning and no time to get out of the way.

Collisions with barrels will kill you with any overlap — even if you’re standing on the platform below, with your head poking above the next level, a barrel rolling along that level will collide with you and kill you. An if it passes below and clips your feet even a little, while you’re on a ladder, it’ll kill you as well. Collision boxes could have been made smaller, to make slight collisions forgiving, and allow for exciting “close calls”.

Why did Donkey Kong succeed?

In 1981, videogames were still quite new and very popular, with great interest in any new title that came out. It was a time we now look at as a golden age for the video arcade, after several years of ascendancy through the black and white era that gave way to the mega-popular blockbusters of the start of the 80’s, like Berzerk, Defender, Pac Man, and Moon Patrol. But only Pac Man made more money than Donkey Kong. What made it such an attraction?

Donkey Kong had the benefit of being unlike anything that had come before it, in terms of play style and technology, yet it had instant familiarity all at once, in the way it echoed the familiar King Kong story from classic cinema. It had colorful cartoon-like graphics. Its sound effects and music were charming. The game play was novel, yet intuitive, despite the brutal difficulty level. And for an arcade game, being extremely difficult was actually a good thing, since it resulted in shorter games, more credits per hour, and thus higher revenue. The challenged appealed to many gamers of the time. And there were not yet other games similar enough to compare against it, so the rough edges in the mechanics weren’t very obvious.

As one of the earliest platformer games, it broke ground and innovated, and for the time that was enough. Despite the shortcomings, rough edges, and unforgiving difficulty, it captured the minds of the public and gave them entertainment.

For all that, though, it just wasn’t for me, and I’ve come to accept that. For my quarter, though, Ms. Pac Man or Zookeeper is a far better play.

Pac Man Championship Edition NES Demake

In 2007, Pac Man creator Toru Iwatani gave me all the reason I needed to buy an XBox 360 when Namco released his farewell game, Pac Man Championship Edition.

The original Pac Man Championship Edition for XBox 360

Easily the best Pac Man game ever made, it was a fantastic modernization of the classic game which updated the design to maximize Flow, the zen-like state of consciousness sometimes called being “in the Zone”. Featuring a split maze, where completing one side spawns a prize on the opposite side, which, when eaten, refreshes the completed side, the game is perfectly set up for non-stop maze running and high score runs, where your goal is to maximize points in a timed run through a combination of eating dots, prizes, and ghosts.

I learned yesterday that a NES demake of Pac-Man CE has been released on the latest Namco Museum anthology, available on Nintendo Switch.

Graphical glitches aside, this is absolutely amazing!

The demake has actually been around for several years, and is available for download if you can find it.  You can play it in a NES emulator, or on real hardware, if you have an Everdrive. It’s implemented on MMC3 and weighs in at 257kb.

The original Pac Man CE was designed for 16:9 TV screens, while the NES is obviously engineered to display its graphics on an NTSC 4:3 display at 240i resolution. So to work around the limitations, the demake uses an ingenious programming technique to scroll the maze, using the NES’s video buffer to create an infinite horizontal wrap when you use the warp tunnels.

This is a must-play, must-own if you’re a fan of Pac Man or the NES. It’s also worth owning on the Switch. Apart from online leaderboards, it is fully featured, quite faithful to the XBox 360 original, and extremely well done.

Champ Games ports Robotron 2084 to Atari 2600. OMG.

Champ Games revealed their latest project last night: an Atari 2600 port of Robotron 2084. One of the best videogames of all time.

The announcement, released through ZeroPageHomebrew’s twitch.tv stream, comes a year after Champ announced their homage to Galaga, later renamed Galagon.  Champ is also working on an Atari 2600 port of early 80s arcade classics Zookeeper and Lunar Lander, both of which look fantastic even in pre-release work-in-progress states.

The video stream doesn’t start to show the actual Robotron gameplay until about an hour in.

Champ have been consistently delivering amazing port of classic games on the Atari 2600 platform that far exceed the system’s original capabilities, and play very close to arcade-perfect. This version looks a tad bit slower and not as smooth, but is incredible considering it is running on an Atari 2600.  There’s an ARM processor inside the cartridge helping out, too.

This is a must-own port of a classic game if you own an Atari 2600, and it’s on my very short list of eagerly awaited Atari 2600 games that I want but don’t have. 

Even if 2020 is a complete dystopian hellscape, at least we’ll have Robotron and Zookeeper to play during our indefinite social distancing and sheltering at home. That makes it almost OK, right?

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Diaries (1)

I bought a Nintendo Switch last spring, two years after launch, when Super Mario Maker 2 was announced, and I bought my obligatory copy of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the same day.  And then didn’t play it until a global pandemic swept through the country and forced everyone into becoming homebodies.

I guess that’s weird, right? You should see my backlog of Steam games I have purchased but never played.

So, I’ve read reviews and know a bit about the game ahead of playing it, but I’m trying to experience this game as much as I can by figuring it out on my own, and not going to walkthrough sites and reading how to win the game. I think this is the best way to enjoy the game, because it seems like the designers meant for it to be a journey of discovery, and I want to experience it that way, and not as a list of tasks that I need to complete in order to say I’ve experienced the game.

So far, I’m liking the game. I think my response to the experience of playing BOTW is more interesting and nuanced than gushing fanboy praise. Zelda games are Top Shelf, and typically get high 90% reviews. And while they’re clearly lavish, and intended to be special, I think I’m enjoying being critical of it as well, perhaps more than I would enjoy the game if I felt nothing but awestruck by the whole thing.

I’m playing it handheld, and I wonder if maybe the small screen contributes to my feeling this way. There’s no denying the graphics are beautiful, but maybe they’d be much more impressive on a 40+” screen rather than on a 7″ or however big the Switch’s screen is.

At any rate, I started posting my progress and impressions on Facebook, and as I’ve gotten into it more, I think it’s more fun to post this sort of thing on the website too.

I haven’t done something like this before, but I think what I’ll do is continue posting to Facebook, journaling my progress in the game, and then re-publish them, cleaned up, here, later. The Facebook posts aren’t public, but these articles are. They’ll be published on a delay, so commenters won’t be able to spoil the experience for me. Hopefully this will be interesting and worthwhile for people to read along.

I get that these days the hip thing to do is stream and talk, and that’s where the monetization is (or was, for a while), but I’m a bit more old school than that, so it’ll be text, and occasionally images. Assuming I can remember to take screen caps, and then post them. While pictures are great, I’m not really here to sell the game, but to talk to my experience of it and my reflections on those experiences. And I’m not sure that images are all that necessary for this. If you’ve played the game, you know what I’m talking about.

And it’s been out almost 3 year snow, so if you haven’t, well, you should have already. What’s wrong with you?

Oh, and it goes without saying, I’m not worried about posting spoilers. The game’s been out.

Game Review: Cathedral by Decemberborn Interactive

Cathedral is a nostalgia-driven homage to the action-adventure platform games of the NES. If you enjoyed Capcom platformers like DuckTales, or Ghosts N Goblins, or Wizards and Warriors (by Acclaim), this is one to check out.

It looks and sounds like a NES game, but with a little extra — bigger sprites, fewer palette limitations. And the game play is pretty polished, and works with either keyboard or modern gamepad, although I definitely recommend the gamepad option. The map system, menus, and character dialogs and story scenes are all a few notches above a typical NES game, while still retaining a distinctly NES inspired flavor.

Cathedral’s opening few minutes

I would rate the difficulty as medium-hard, most of the challenges do not require extreme skill to overcome, but you start out with very low health, and stuff that hurts you tends to do a lot of damage, so there’s not much room for error. But it’s certainly not Ghosts N Goblins hard. The one boss fight I’ve encountered so far wasn’t too bad, and I enjoyed beating it.

I’ve been struggling through it, unable to figure out how to get past various roadblocks, to get anywhere to do anything. This is a bit frustrating, and I wish that there was an issue of Nintendo Power magazine laying on my desk that could tell me what to do.

It feels like I’m missing an item or ability that will enable me to clear these obstacles, and I have no idea where I need to go to get them. There’s a lot to explore, and a lot of missions. I’ve barely scratched the surface of it so far.

If I could fault the game for anything, it’s for not being clear enough in what to do. Visually, there are subtle indicators of what is a solid wall and what isn’t, what’s a destructible object and what isn’t, or what is a platform you can stand on and what isn’t. The visual language isn’t always as clear as I would like it to be, which leads me to feel uncertain at times. The game does have some nice in-game hinting/tutorial moments, which helps, but I feel aspects are still a bit too ambiguous.

So far, I’ve managed to exit the Cathedral, where you start out, and explore the town that you encounter next, and then everywhere else I go is an apparent dead end. There’s a graveyard, which I managed to explore a bit, a scary woods, which I can’t make any headway with, a sewer, same deal, and a library with a key that I can’t figure out how to reach. I can’t figure out how to go back to the cathedral, or if I’m supposed to.

There’s some other annoying things about the menu system, like, half the time I can not figure out how to get to the menu area that lets me exit the game. I’ve discovered it on accident 2 or 3 times, and I still can’t figure out how to get there. I finally figured it out. It’s accessed through the inventory screen, as one of the icons that you can select from your inventory. This is a pretty strange way to hide the exit menu.

So far, I like this game pretty well, and am enjoying its puzzles and missions, although I’m not sure how to proceed, and I wish some of the options available to me were a bit more obvious.

Untitled Goose Game is pretty good

Every year, there’s always one or two indie hits that get a huge amount of attention, and this year it seems to be Untitled Goose Game.

I’ve been hearing a lot about it since its release, but prior to a few weeks ago I hadn’t heard about it at all. My first clue was when I posted that I was excited about picking up my pre-order of Link’s Awakening remake on Nintendo Switch, and one of my friends mentioned that UGG was also being released the same day.

I looked into it, and it did look darn charming.

Yesterday, I finally caved and bought the PC version and played through the first couple of scenes for a few hours.

If you needed someone to explain UGG to you, I would probably start out by saying “You know how a couple of years ago there was that Goat Simulator game that everyone was talking about and it was hilarous, because goats? Well, what’s another animal that starts with G-O?”

There you go.

But Goat Simulator and Untitled Goose are pretty different. Goat Simulator revelled in being sloppily implemented and having terrible, broken, hilarious physics. Untitled Goose, by contrast, is refined and polished. The art style of Goat Simulator recalls older 3D FPS games like Grand Theft Auto 3 or Counter-Strike. Untitled Goose has a more distinctive and original art design that looks illustrated, a bit like a children’s book, if it were drawn with scalable vector graphics and used 3D models. UGG’s physics are anything but broken, and feel like the developers were going for a more realistic simulation. The animations and the sound effects are especially well done, and I love that when you honk, you can get different audio effects by honking into, say, the well, or while holding a bottle in your beak, or into a walkie-talkie. It’s delightful when you figure out how to make use of it to accomplish some objective in the game.

The humor is likewise restrained, and feels a bit British, as do some of the cues in the design of the village. The reactions of the humans that you mess about with and the musical score are what sells the mischief. I haven’t hit an absolutely over-the-top moment in the game, yet, and I’m not sure that there is one waiting for me. I would like to be able to escalate my torment of the people in the village until they have a complete breakdown and go on a violent psychopathic rage. But this never happens. It seems like you can trigger a response by doing certain things, and that’s that. Once you’ve done it, you can do it again, but it never seems to go beyond that. Which is not to say that I’m disappointed, but something about playing this game makes me wish that I could push these poor people to their breaking point.

Gardner locked out of garden, looking at Goose who's nabbed his keys.
Getting to this point with the gardener was rather satisfying. Yes, I took a picture of my computer screen with my cell phone instead of taking a screenshot.

About two hours in to my session, I started feeling sorry for being such a naughty, horrible goose, and I started trying to make up for it. I went back to the gardner’s area and helped him pick all of his carrots. He didn’t like it at first, but once I put them neatly into the bin, he didn’t seem to mind, and just let me do it. But there wasn’t any reward for doing this, other than just the act of doing it. I kindof feel like the designers missed an opportunity there. Like, maybe if you torment the boy in the shopping area until he starts sobbing, you could do something nice for him, like bring him a lollipop that you steal from the shop, or bring his glasses or his toy plane back to him, and he’ll cheer up again, and not be afraid of you, and then you can be friends. House House, if you’re going to do an expansion pack, I kinda demand that you do a Good Goose mission set, where you get to make up for your past mischief by returning and do some good deeds to make amends.

I also wish that I could hop onto things, and fly. I can well understand why this was not permitted. Waddling is way more humorous and flight would be difficult to control. But I still would like to be able to hop up on certain things, like the park bench, or tables. I imagine it’d be quite a lot of fun to waddle along the shelves and countertops in the shop, knocking things over, breaking them, and causing a mess and a ruckus.

I’m not sure how large the game is; so far, I’ve managed to solve the puzzles on the To Do list in the first two areas, and I can see that there’s at least one more area beyond, but I haven’t quite figured out what I need to do to gain access to it. And there’s a page on my To Do list that is all question marks, which leaves me wondering what I need to do next.

To be honest, I’m a bit torn by the existence of the To Do list. On the one hand, it’s helpful to have some kind of guidance as to what I’m supposed to be doing. On the other hand, I think a huge amount of the enjoyment from a game like this is figuring out what is possible, and discovering the things that the developers put into the game for you to do all on your own, without any guidance. To me, it would be far more special to figure these things out on my own, even risking missing something very clever, or not discovering after many hours spent with the game, than to have a list telling me to do all the things, and then the only challenge left is for me to actually do it.

Shoplifting haul.
It took quite a while to figure out how to get all the items from the shop into the cart to complete the Shopping Trip mission. The shopkeeper kept finding them and putting them back, so I just stole the basket and dragged it around the corner. Out of sight, out of mind! And then of course I had to loot the entire store! It’s fun that the lady is more frustrated when she can’t find the broom to shoo you away with because you’ve stolen it. Lol!

There’s probably a lot of things that I have yet to figure out in the game. Which is to say that although I’m trying to resist the temptation to look for walkthroughs, I could maybe use a bit of a clue with some things.

For instance, I found a coin somewhere in the village, and picked it up. I later walked past a well, and of course I tried throwing the coin down the well. It took a few tries, but eventually I managed to drop it. I didn’t hear any splash, which made me wonder why that didn’t happen, but then I walked a bit further own the path, and came to the river that you have to cross to get out of the introductory area of the game, and saw the coin floating down the river! I deduced that the well actually connects to a sewer drain that I had discovered earlier when I was swimming up and down the river. And yes, if you honk into the well, or into the sewer, they both echo in the same way, which was a subtle clue to this connection. I love details like that. But it makes me wonder all the more why there was no splash for the dropped coin, and why “Dropping a coin and making a wish” wasn’t one of the To Do items.

For another, at the very start of the game, there’s a whole bunch of bells strewn about on the ground in an area that you can’t quite get into. I have no idea what their significance is, or why they’re there. The game’s camera seems to direct its focus to them, so they must be important for something or other, but I can’t figure it out.

What is up with the bells?
What’s up with the bells?

Overall, it’s a delightful, relaxing, humorous, fun puzzle/stealth game that’s not very like anything else I’ve played, and it’s worth the $20 they are asking for it.

Recommended.

Book Review: Arcade Perfect by David L. Craddock

An interesting thing happened to me few months ago.

I was reading Shovel Knight, by David L. Craddock, published by Boss Fight Books, and thoroughly enjoying the ride, when I received an email from none other than… David L. Craddock. Craddock had found my contact info through this website, and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in reading a pre-release copy of his latest book, Arcade Perfect, and publishing a review on it.

I thought that the name sounded familiar, so I looked him up, and found that he’d written the book that was in my left hand, as I read the email on the smartphone in my right hand. I wrote back, asking him if he was indeed one and the same. He was. I felt oddly watched.

Shovel Knight was a fantastic read, a detailed history of Yacht Club Games’s origins and how they came to create one of the best videogames of 2014. It was well paced, thorough,, interesting, and covered the human side of the story as well as the technical.

Of course I said yes.

I also offered to provide feedback on the manuscript, as I have helped several other authors in the past with technical review of their manuscripts. Craddock appreciated my offer and offered me an acknowledgement in his Foreward. I say this not as a brag, but for transparency’s sake, to say that this may not be a review completely free of bias, although I’ll strive for that anyway.

Arcade Perfect is a collection of histories on over a dozen popular arcade games, and the story of how they were ported to home consoles. If you’ve read Racing The Beam, or The Ultimate History of Video Games, this book will be of interest to you.

The book is long. At nearly 600 pages, it will take you a while to get through. It spans almost the entire the breadth of video gaming history, starting with Pong and going through about 2015-17. Golden age titles Pong, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac Man, Missile Command, and Donkey Kong are all given treatment, as is Tetris, and the 90’s are represented by the games NBA Jam, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Each of these games has an interesting back story of how it came to exist, and how it was brought from the arcade to home consoles. The challenges the developers faced are many. Most if not all of these games were ported to other platforms not by the original developers, but by another talented programmer or team. Oftentimes, no original project documentation was provided to the porting effort, and developers had to “interpret” the game by playing it until they knew it backwards and forwards, reverse engineering to the best of their ability, and working within the constraints of the target platform’s hardware, dealing with hard deadlines and high expectations to deliver an acceptable translation of a very popular title eagerly anticipated by a rabid consumer fanbase.

The last 150 or so pages of the book are devoted to full transcripts of the interviews that Craddock conducted with various creators who worked on the games. This is primary resource material and very nice to have in its entirety.

The book is illustrated, although in the advance copy I saw, the image layouts were still rough. I would hope that these issues will be addressed before the first edition of the book goes to print.

Arcade Perfect is available today. Follow the author on Twitter @davidlcraddok.

Diatris by Rob van Saaze

Diatris is a Tetris-like falling stack game by Rob van Saaze. Released earlier this year and developed in GameMaker Studio.

I had the good fortune of catching a work-in-progress screenshot tweet, and messaged Rob, and ended up being a playtester for his game.

I like the interesting twist he put on the classic Tetris. This game is really different from its inspiration. The shapes are different, the falling pieces slide down the slopes of the stack, and the angle factor really changes the way the game feels. It’s quite challenging, and fun.

The graphical style is clean and polished, but juicy, and it looks as great as it plays. Rob has a great eye for graphical design, and it shows in his work. The attention to detail in animation and motion is

Best of all, it’s completely free.

Commodore 64 re-issue?

There have been a few retro/homage products released in recent years for the Commodore 64, famous to many for being the best selling personal computer of all time.  Jeri Ellsworth’s C-64 Direct to TV project from 2004 being one of the first, if not the first, and last year’s C=64 Mini.  It was a cool little system-in-a-stick that could plug directly into a TV set and play a selection of built-in games that could be played with the joystick, but lacked the keyboard and floppy drive, making it a limited re-creation of the original at best. 

A “C=64 Mini” that came a couple years ago was kindof a disappointment; it had a collection of built-in games, but not a working keyboard, or interface for installing/running other titles. I guess if you really wanted to, you could hack them, but that was well beyond what someone with a casual interest of re-living the C64 with their favorite games and programs would be likely willing to pursue.

A new TheC64 Mini project has been announced which will be full-size and include a working keyboard, and HDMI output, which should ship in December 2019.  I don’t have details on the internals, so whether it will be some kind of C64 SOAC or a FPGA-based system, or what, is anybody’s guess for now. 

It will come with an improved joystick as well, and apparently will have USB ports, which means it may be possible to run software beyond the 64 built-in games that it will come bundled with, but that’s not clear at this time whether it will actually have any such capability.  It would be ideal if you could mount a microSD card with disk images of games that came on floppy, or ROM files for cartridge-based games, and play them on this new system. Due to copyright, it’s unreasonable to expect every software title ever released for the system to be included out-of-the-box, but wouldn’t it be nice if copyright were reformed to allow obsolete software that is no longer marketed to be distributed freely so that this could be possible?

The C64 had a fantastic library of software, and has been a demoscene favorite for decades, and it would be amazing to see a modern, fully featured re-issue. I don’t think that this will quite be that, but it may be the closest thing we get for the forseeable future.

Ulefone Armor 3 impressions

I bought a new phone last month, for the first time in about 4 years. After doing some research, I found the Ulefone Armor 3 had the closest to the features I wanted: ruggedness and a big battery.

I ordered mine from Deal Extreme on March 14, but it wasn’t delivered until April 16. I understand shipping from Asia can take time, but the product page said “7-10 days”. I wrote to the seller after 12 days, and they didn’t respond until I had sent several emails, finally explaining in broken English that they were waiting on restock. When I ordered their inventory said close to 40,000 units, which clearly wasn’t the case. It wasn’t until after the first week of April that I finally received notification that my order shipped.

Fortunately, it arrived undamaged. If you’re in a hurry and don’t mind paying a lot more, you can get them from Amazon sellers for $400 in less than a week, but I paid just $272 for mine, which is a great value for the price. The Armor 3 can be had for as little as $230, but I opted for 3T,which has a push-to-talk walkie talkie feature that the Armor 3 lacks.

Ulefone is not well known in the United States. From what I have read, they are a Chinese maker. The Armor series are rugged designs rated for IP67, IP68, and can withstand drops, water immersion, and don’t need a protective case to achieve it. Ulefone also has a line called Power, which has bigger batteries than most phones. The Armor 3 has both ruggedness and a big battery, which is what I was looking for.

I’ve had mine just 3 days, and I like it overall, but there are a few shortcomings. The biggest problem is that the screen is not very bright, and in direct sunlight is impossible to read.

No pedometer. Most phones these days have them, but not this model. Which, is a shame considering the “rugged outdoors” theme of this model.
No qi charging. USB charging only. Wireless charging would be a nice feature, as it would reduce wear and tear to the USB C port.
Access to SD/SIM slots requires a tool, which they provide, but carrying a tiny screwdriver around just in case isn’t the most convenient, and the tiny screws are tiny.
This thing has the loudest external speakers of any phone I’ve ever used, and speakers isn’t a mistake. It has stereo. But on speaker phone, the minimum volume is still too loud for quiet indoor use. But should be fine on an oil derrick or construction site.

The good outweighs the bad. The phone runs Android 8.1 out of the box, and it has an 8 core CPU backed by 4GB RAM and 64GB internal storage, plus the optional SD card, which should be plenty of space. The performance specs are mid-tier, but I find them to be more than adequate. Battery life is excellent, and what you would expect from a 10300 mah battery. On low power mode, it is especially good, and I don’t notice any performance reasons to recommend not using low power mode.

I haven’t had too many calls with it yet, but call quality might be an issue. Whether this is a carrier/network problem or a VOWIFI problem, I’m not sure yet. But in the two calls I’ve had, there were stutters and drops, as well as some squawks and beeps. I haven’t yet found the setting to disable VOWIFI, but I suspect this could help.

I did do my research and confirmed that the global version of the phone supported the bands that T-mobile use in the USA. Most of the handsets that Ulefone offers sadly do not.

I was worried that the phone would be too big for easy one hand use, and too big to pocket. It is pretty close to the limit for what I can handle one-handed, and my hands are fairly large. But it fits my pocket ok, though it is a bit long. Over all, I can live with it.

Hopefully Ulefone will be able to establish itself in the North American market. It’s models are very attractive, and offer something different from most other makers. These big battery phones are great, and just what I want in a phone, and there’s not much out there currently that can match it.