Game review: Tetris 99

I bought a Nintendo Switch about a month ago.

Since buying it, I’ve only played one game, so far: Tetris 99.

I’m a long-time fan of Tetris. I played it on my NES ever since 1989. I’m decent, but not great at it. My skill tops out around level 13 or so in the NES original. I can cruise comfortably up to about level 9 or so. My best efforts these days are about 1/4 what it would take to qualify for the Tetris World Championships, as I found out when I was at Portland Retro Gaming Expo last October.

Chances are excellent that you need no introduction to Tetris. It’s only the most famous and successful videogame ever. Blocks fall, you rotate and drop them to complete lines and clear them from the well. Everyone is born knowing this now.

Tetris 99 takes the classic mechanics and puts you up against 99 other players in a battle royale. It’s amazing how quickly a new tournament can get ready. It seems that at any given time, there is always at least 100 Tetris 99 players ready to go within a minute’s notice.

That’s incredible. I don’t know how it’s possible, but you never seem to have to wait more than a minute or two for the next game to start. Nintendo has sold 8.7 million Switch consoles since launch. The subset of Switch owners who are playing Tetris 99 at any given moment must be considerable. If we assume every Switch owner is playing Tetris 99 24/7, that works out to 6250 tetris players per minute of the day. Obviously, Switch owners are playing lots of different games, and not playing 24/7, but even so, the fraction who are playing Tetris 99 might well be around 1/62 of the total install base. So, just maybe, it really is plausible that in the real world that you can get 99 players for a pickup game at a minute’s notice. But I’m still amazed that it’s consistently the case every time I want to play another round. Perhaps they’re filling slots with bots? I wonder.

The tetris gameplay is fine. I wouldn’t say there’s any major problems with it. If I want to nitpick, though, I could think of a few things:

First, it’s a bit too easy at times to accidentally hit Up on the control cross, and instantly hard drop your block right where you didn’t want to. Maybe I’m just clumsy, maybe my hands are too big to work with the joycon. But I’ve also played a lot with the Pro Wireless controller, and I still have issues. And from what I’ve read, it’s not uncommon.

Second there’s no tutorial or guide built into the game, and this seems like a real oversight. In the NES era, Nintendo’s first-party games always had outstanding manuals, with higher page count than any other publisher, and high quality content inside. While Tetris may need no introduction or explanation, the competitive aspects that they’ve introduced could use some explanation. Sadly, this is lacking.

Fortunately, you can still get a good experience from Tetris 99 by just playing Tetris, overlook the new features and still have a fun time. That said, it’d be good to appreciate the new features and understand them!

So, to fix the missing manual, here’s what I understand:

  • On either side of the Tetris playfield, you see mini thumbnails of the 99 competitors.
  • You can (in theory, less in practice) tell how well you’re doing relative to the competition by seeing the stack size, see who’s in trouble, and see their Badges. Typically, I’m too busy worrying about the next falling block to look around and check on 98 other opponents.
  • When you complete lines, it sends garbage rows to whomever you’re targeting: 0 if for a 1-line completion, 1 for a 2-line completion, 2 for a 3-line completion, and 4 for a 4-line completion.
    • The garbage rows don’t pop up under your opponent’s stack immediately — rather there’s a timer that counts down, to give a player fair warning.
    • If you have incoming garbage, and you manage to complete rows while the timer is counting down, it will deduct the incoming garbage so you don’t have to deal with it, rather than sending garbage to your targets.
  • Targeting isn’t explained in the non-existent manual, and this is the thing that players should really understand in order to fare well in the battle. Using the right analog stick, you can select between:
    • Random (the default option), randomly attacking one of the 99 opponents out of whoever’s still left,
    • Attackers, counter-attacking those players who are targeting you,
    • Badges, targeting players who have a lot of badges, or
    • Killshots, targeting players who are close to elimination.
  • Eliminating a player awards you with Badges, and the more badges you acquire, the more “damage” you deal out when you complete lines.
  • If you eliminate a player who has badges, you claim their badges and add them to your own. So it’s smart to target players who are close to eliminated, and players who have a lot of badges, to maximize your badges. It can also be effective to counter-attack your attackers, and perhaps dissuade them from targeting you, or if not hopefully eliminate them before they eliminate you.
  • You can also target an individual game using the left analog stick. Who you’re targeting is denoted by the lines connecting the bottom of your playfield to one of the opponents’ playfields in the background. Or maybe that’s who’s targeting you, I’m not quite sure. Sometimes I see multiple lines targeting me, and it’s unclear what’s going on.
  • Hard Drop: This feature isn’t in OG Tetris, but if you’ve played a modern implementation, you’re probably already used to it. Press up to instantly drop the piece in play to the botton and lock it into position. This enables much faster play, which is essential to competitive battle. It can take some time to get used to it, if you’ve never used it before. But if you’ve played a modern Tetris in the last, I don’t know, 15 or so years, maybe, chances are you know about this already. There’s also a convenient “ghost” block that shows where the piece will lock into position if you hard drop it. This is really helpful and will enable you to be more precise and cut down on mistakes.
  • Hold block: Another handy feature that wasn’t there in OG Tetris. This is a holding cell that can be filled with a piece, taking it out of play until you need it. Press the left shoulder button to add the current active piece to the Hold. Press again to swap the held piece for the current piece. Grab those I-blocks when you can, and hold them for when you’re ready to deal out the damage with a 4-line Tetris move. Or put a piece that’s currently a problem on hold, and play it later when you’ve got a clean landing spot for it.

One thing about the Targeting feature, I find that after a certain point I’m pretty much only able to focus on positioning my next block, and can’t devote any mental capacity or time to retargeting. It’d be neat if targeting were also possible through Controller 2, so that a second player could assist me by targeting opponents intelligently while I focus on falling blocks. Wouldn’t that be a cool 2p-coop mode?

My only other nitpick with Tetris 99 is that there’s only one background music for the game. Technically there’s one track for when you’re in game, and one track for between games. But I would have really liked to have seen a variety of tracks, remixing and revamping the old classic Tetris BGM, and giving me some variety. Having the same song for every game gets repetitive and feels skimpy.

I’ve managed to place as high as 4th in round, but more typically I tend to finish in the top 50-20 range. It just depends on how good of a game I’m having, and how many players are targeting me.

After taking this picture with my smartphone, I discovered that the Switch has a built-in screen capture button with social media integration. Slick!

I doubt I’ll ever be able to win a round, though, as the game becomes impossibly fast for me when the second speedup happens, with 10 players remaining. When this happens, I’m hopeless and bound to make mistakes quickly, busting out in short order. Still, it could happen if I get into the Top 10 with an extremely clean stack and my opponents are all close to KO.

While I wouldn’t say that Tetris 99 is worth the cost of the entire console, I will say that it’s definitely worth the price of the subscription to Nintendo’s Switch Online services. Considering that Tetris 99 is a free game, but cannot be played without the subscription, it’s just what Nintendo needed to get people to sign up. At $20/year, it’s not expensive, and well worth it for Tetris 99 alone.

Nancy Pelosi is dead wrong about impeachment

It is necessary. It is Congress’s duty.

Donald J. Trump, the falsely elected President of the United States, is obviously guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors.

This is not a controversial or debatable fact.

Trump was a criminal and a con man all his life, during the campaign, and after being sworn into office after an election that he stole through collusion with foreign agents.

As President, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, and then went on national TV and admitted that the reason for the firing was to obstruct justice, because he wanted the investigation into Michael Flynn’s lies about illegal connections to Russia. Michael Flynn was a Russian agent, Trump knew, and he ordered Comey to drop the investigation, and when he didn’t, he fired him.

Trump fired Comey, because he himself is linked to Russia, and worked with them in order to benefit from a psy-ops campaign directed against American voters in order to sway the election to him. In return Trump has given aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States, namely Russia and North Korea, by coddling them and by poisoning our relationships with our long-standing allies. This amounts to Treason.

That right there should have been the end of Trump’s presidency. The only reason it wasn’t is that Trump is backed by the Republican Party, and they held power in Congress at the time, and because of their association, Republicans in Congress failed to do their duty to act as a check on the Executive branch, and failed in their duty to enforce the Constitution, and failed in their duty to impeach and remove a criminal President.

There’s a litany of other abuses of power and illegal acts that Trump has undertaken, both as President and as a private citizen and while seeking public office. It’s more than enough.

Democrat Nancy Pelosi, now Speaker of the House, doesn’t agree. Pelosi feels that there should be a high bar to impeachment, and that the process should be slow and careful. And there should be a high bar to impeachment. And yet, it appears no bar is high enough for our Speaker.

It’s difficult to imagine what crime would be high enough to warrant impeachment, in Pelosi’s mind, if obstruction of justice and outright treason fail to reach that level.

The authors of the Constitution did not intend for impeachment to be a slow, deliberative process. We elect officials to brief terms in office so that they may be removed by the public if it deems the official to be doing a poor job. For the president, they get a performance review every four years, and if they don’t measure up, the public will remove them. Four years is relatively brief amount of time, when compared to monarchs who rule for life, but it is still a long time. Impeachment is a remedy that is meant to be undertaken in the time between elections, to immediately rectify a situation where the President has committed crimes egregious enough that the situation cannot wait for the next election. Not to take the bulk of the term of office to move slowly toward maybe enforcing the law if it is determined to be politically popular and expedient. We are supposed to be a nation of laws.

With Trump, this started well before Day One in office.

Impeachment articles can be drafted in days or weeks, and a senate trial can be held in days or weeks, or perhaps months at the most. It is not meant for impeachment to happen only at the end of an investigation that takes up half or more of the presidential term in office. It’s ridiculous to suggest that. Robert Mueller’s investigation needs to be thorough, but we do not need to completely track down every last allegation about the crimes of Trump, his Administration, and his private business to know that impeachment is warranted, as soon as humanly possible.

President Obama was already aware of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and had the FBI working on the case before the election.

Obama had enough reason to believe that the election was compromised that he wanted to make a statement to the public about this, but declined to do so when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a rank hypocrite who has never willingly cooperated with anything that President Obama has ever wanted to do, and who has consistently opposed Obama at every opportunity, even when it means contradicting his own previous statements on the record, refused to cooperate with making a joint announcement to ensure the nation’s unity.

Regardless of McConnell’s unwillingness to work with the President on a matter of vital necessity to the security of the nation and its government, this should have been enough to delay certifying the election results, pending the full outcome of the investigation. But, for reasons I cannot fathom, President Obama chose instead to put his faith in the system to do its work to check the power of the President, even after the transition of power to a man who, if guilty of the things it appeared at the time he may have been guilty of, would have had every reason to obstruct that work, and have very little to hold him back from doing so.

Nancy Pelosi has stated that impeachment should not be a political move –that in order to be successful, it must have bipartisan support. This shows a terrible misunderstanding on her part of what impeachment is.

When we talk about partisan or bipartisan support for a measure that Congress is undertaking, normally we are talking about legislative acts — passing bills into law. Impeachment is a different matter, one of investigation into criminal acts by the President.

Laws are laws. Whether an accused individual has broken the law is a matter of facts, not political philosophy. When the Senate votes on impeachment, they are voting yes or no based on the facts presented in support of the charges. A no vote to impeachment is to say one of the following: that the evidence and arguments presented in the trial failed to prove the case, or that the charges are not sufficient to warrant removal.

Again, the charges in the case of President Trump are obviously more than sufficient, if proven, to warrant his impeachment and removal from office. The only question then, is whether the facts can be presented. But Trump has time and again, blatantly and in public obstructed justice, and admitted to obstructing justice. Through his tweets, and through statements given in interviews. Firing Comey over the “Russia Thing” alone was sufficient. And then Trump confessed, quite matter of factly that the reason he did it was because Comey declined to drop the investigation. Game over, case closed. Open and shut. Slam dunk.

Trump should be in prison right now, and by now should be close to a year into a life sentence for conspiring and colluding with this nation’s enemies to defraud the public and steal an election in a bid to further the interests of a foreign government. If Congress were not derelict in its duty.

None of this has anything to do with the fact that Trump ran as a Republican, and that his political positions are abhorrent, or that he’s completely unqualified and incompetent to be in office. None of it. This is about the crimes committed by the President, or by his people, in his name and with his knowledge.

Impeaching Trump is not a political act. It is not a partisan act. It is a matter of law.

Congress’s role as a check to the Executive Branch demands that it act in this matter, in this way. Rather, not impeaching Trump is the political, partisan act. To ignore his crimes, to ignore evidence, to claim that the crimes aren’t crimes, or that his crimes don’t matter, or aren’t important enough, or that laws can’t be enforced against a sitting President because he is the top and somehow the law doesn’t also apply to him, is the political, partisan act. When articles of impeachment are brought to the Senate for a vote, the vote isn’t “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat”. It’s “Guilty” or “Not Guilty.” A Republican who can’t find a way to vote “Guilty” on this case when the facts show that the President is guilty of committing the crimes he is accused of, is voting “I’m a Republican.” And that is the true political act.

Democratic leadership seems to be against impeachment not because it’s not the right thing to do, but because they can’t successfully do it. But yet, right now the Senate is expected to pass a resolution drafted by the House to check the President on his emergency declaration on the fake border emergency. This, despite that it’s certain that the President will veto and the Senate will likely not have a veto-proof supermajority. Why is it fine to carry forward one measure but not the other?

Finally, impeachment will not divide the nation. The President has an approval rating around 40%. In the last election, his party was overwhelmingly defeated by a public that rebuked him, even with voter suppression and gerrymandering tipping the scales. The nation is united against Trump.

Even among the 40% of his supporters, many of them acknowledge that Trump may have committed crimes, but they support his party and its policies, and that is why they continue to support him. But it’s a political act to impeach him, not to defend him? Hogwash. Removing a criminal from office is not discretionary. It is a matter of duty, required by the rule of law.

Trump himself said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose support. It might be the one true thing that he’s ever said.

It’s quite apparent by now that nothing Trump does will damage the support he enjoys from his die hard base. Ergo, no matter what, the nation is divided. We cannot wait for Republicans who are comfortable aligning themselves to a criminal president in order to “own the lips” to come on board. We must move forward. “Only” 60% of the citizens support will have to do.

As Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi has the power to bring articles of impeachment to the Senate and put the President to trial. The situation requires this of her as a matter of duty. Whether the Senate is comprised of people who are willing to vote to remove or not is immaterial. The facts should be presented, and the public should judge the actions of the Senators who vote on the articles. Present the strongest possible case and if any senator can still vote no to impeachment, let him or her be voted out of office.

Right now, as it stands, Congress is aiding and abetting a criminal President. Sadly, this might have be expected of his own party, although it shouldn’t be. But for the Speaker of the House and member of the opposition party to say that it’s pointless to even try to impeach without bipartisan support, guarantees that the opposition party will never provide that support. News flash, Nancy: You will never get bipartisan support without trying to get it. All they have to do is help their President obstruct, and the crimes will stand. By bringing a case and backing it with proof, either the Senate will do the right thing and remove a criminal President, or it will join the President in his crimes by abetting and covering up.

By failing to bring articles of impeachment in a timely manner, Congress already is abetting and covering up those crimes.

Why is prosecuting treason a political act, but defending treason isn’t? Where are the bipartisan democrats defending the high crimes and misdemeanors of Trump?

Oh, that’s right… sitting in the seat of the Speaker of the House. God damn it.

This cannot be allowed. We do not have a nation of laws if this is allowed to stand. We do not have a constitutional republic. What we have is a kleptocracy of privileged elites who have so much power and influence that they can get away with whatever crime.

If you think you’re against this President, and you’re not impeaching him for his litany of obvious crimes, let’s be clear: you’re not against him.

Nancy, to be clear: If you’re not against the President, you’re with him.

Why creative types shouldn’t settle for anything less than ownership

Last week, I read an article by a professional game developer entitled “Making games for a living means being in constant fear of losing your job.”

The author’s solution idea is for game developers to unionize, in much the way the movie industry has unionized. I think unionization would be a great thing for the industry, but I’m not sure it goes far enough.

The videogame industry started about 40-50 years ago. The people who founded the industry worked very hard, started from nothing, and worked insane hours, pouring their life into creating the new industry. The ones who were successful ended up making a fortune.

That fortune was only made possible through ownership. It wasn’t making games that made the founders wealthy — it was making companies. In a lot of cases, the company came later. Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabny started Atari in 1972 with $500 (about $3000 today). A kid like Richard Garriott or Jordan Mechner programmed a game in his bedroom on his home computer, sold it through mail order using a classified ad in the back of a computer magazine, and made a million dollars, and decided they should turn it into a company, using that money to hire more people to make more and bigger games.

Somehow, the expectation for the new employees was to work just as hard, just as many hours, and crank out more games that would make millions of dollars. Only, they were doing this work as a “work for hire”, and wouldn’t own their work — their employer would own it.

This means all the same hard work that the employee did that went into creating that game for his employer enriches the employer, when it could have gone to the employee’s own company that they owned and profited from. Employees enrich someone else’s empire. That’s the way capitalism works.

Because the industry now exists, it’s easier to work for pre-existing companies them than it is to start up a new company. Not only does a new company have all the struggles of just starting up, they also have to compete with already-functioning companies. But the owners who worked hundred hour weeks to found their business often expect no less of their employees.

Yet, the vast majority of employees don’t get compensated with an ownership interest the company for their hundred hour work weeks. They just get burned out and dumped when their project ships. For working for someone else, you got only a salary, not a company.

Ownership comes with things like a share of the profits. There’s also a lot of risk, but it’s balanced by the compensation package that comes with owning a company, whereas work-for-hire employees don’t get this level of compensation, yet have just as much if not more risk associated with their employment in the form of layoffs. Employees creating works-for-hire don’t even get royalties, and job security is non-existent. Once the product shipped, they were no longer needed and if there wasn’t another new project waiting for them that could exploit their talents, they were expendable.

That’s a raw deal.

Game developers who want to make money and have job security should own their work, and that means owning a piece of the company they work for.

It sounds like I’m suggesting that every game developer should be an indie game developer. I’m not. Clearly, being an indie is not easy either. In fact, it’s brutal. There’s a lot of competition. An indie has to do everything well in order to be successful, and almost no one is that talented at everything needed to be a success. Game development requires a lot of diverse skills, and a good team can cover those bases a lot better than a sole proprietor.

But what is good about being an indie developer is that you get to own your creative work. You get to create new IP, rather than toil on the sequels to someone else’s successful IP franchise. But even for workers making the next iteration of a successful known entity (let’s say Mario, for sake of example), being employed means that they should take on a share of the ownership stake in the Mario franchise, or in the company that owns Mario. That means royalties on sales, in perpetuity, of the product they worked on, and it means the right to produce new works in the Mario milieu.

This would go a long way toward padding the job insecurity that is endemic to the game development industry. Making money through royalties on existing works, and owning stocks that would pay dividends, would be a critical income stream to supplement an (ir-)regular salary.

Game developers will never get this, unless they strike out on their own and create their own companies from scratch, or if they strike together, unionize, and demand it from the companies that currently exploit them.

If an employer wants to commission creative work on a “for hire” basis, then the working conditions should be reflective of the compensation being offered: 40 hour work weeks, additional compensation for overtime, 1099 employment status rather than W-2, and salary at a higher rate to reflect the short-term nature of the work arrangement, to allow skilled professionals to earn enough to cover lean times between contracts (generally more than twice what a full-time employee would expect to be paid).

Cell phone shopping in 2019

My current phone is a Samsung Galaxy S5, purchased in 2015. I have gotten a lot of value out of the phone. Four years is a lot of time, but I think this year will be its last, for a number of reasons:

  • Screen life. For about the last year, when the screen goes to dim, it flickers. This makes the screen difficult to use with auto-brightness turned on. Also, I don’t think the max brightness is as high as it once was.
  • RAM and Storage.
    • The phone has 2GB of RAM. I find that the phone becomes very sluggish when RAM utilization exceeds 80%. I’ve taken to running a memory optimization app as needed, which when I’m actively using the phone can be as frequently as every few minutes. This has gotten to become a pain.
    • I have 16GB of internal memory, and a 32GB SD card. Android prefers to install apps and write files to the internal memory, ignoring the nice big empty space on the SD card. But when the internal memory is filled, performance is terrible. Not only can I not install updates, but the internal storage seems to be used for cache files and so on, and when there’s not enough space for the system and apps to cache data, performance becomes terrible.
  • Android updates. My carrier stopped releasing updates about 2 years ago, and I’m still on Android 6.0, which is 3 major releases behind current.

If it wasn’t for the performance issues related to RAM and cache inadequacy, this would still be a very capable phone, and I could maybe live with the screen until it finally died.

The absolute best thing about the Galaxy S5 has been the fact that it has a removable battery, and the aftermarket released some very good extended batteries. Powered by an Anker 7500mah battery, I’ve never had to worry about running out of juice, even when I’ve spent the whole day on the go, without access to a charging break. More than twice the capacity of the stock battery, it made the phone about 3/4″ of an inch thick and weigh almost a pound, but it was without question worth the added bulk.

So what do I want in a new smartphone? It doesn’t seem that the US market understands me. Here’s what’s important to me:

Pocketable

If I can’t fit it in a pants pocket — without it looking like I’m happy to see you — I don’t want it. But phones are still growing bigger and bigger. Now 6 inch screens seem to be the norm. It’s hard to use the phone with one hand when it’s so big. The Galaxy S5 is close to the maximum size that I would want to consider, and nearly everything in the 2019 market is larger.

Direct OS updates from Google

Carriers do not prioritize software updates, and tend to roll them out lagging their actual release by many months, sometimes as much as a year, and that’s if they bother to release the update at all. This is terrible.

Running out of date versions of Android can leave you vulnerable through security holes that have been patched in newer versions, and leave you out unable to install and run apps that require a higher version than is available on your handset.

Google has made a few Android handsets over the years — the Nexus line, the Pixel series, that they release updates for directly. Why can’t the rest of the world get behind that? Well, if they supported the product, then you’d be able to continue using it, and you wouldn’t have to buy the new product every 1-2 years.

Bare Android OS; No bundled apps

Carriers like to customize their phone as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition, and one of the ways they do so is by bundling apps. Unfortunately, much like with Windows 95 computers sold by OEMs, I have no interest in using many of these apps. It’s stupid to waste space on the internal memory by including these apps that I have no use for, and because they are baked into the system, they can’t be removed to free up the space.

Just provide the core operating system and the bare minimum apps needed to function as a phone: a phone app, a SMS app, a Contacts app, and the Play Store app. Let me decide what else I need to install.

If you really must bundle, then maybe offer a “Carrier Bundle” app manifest that you can use to bulk-install all the recommended default apps from the Play Store. Allow users to customize the bundle, giving us a line-item veto to opt out of installing whatever parts of the bundle we don’t want.

Big, big removable battery

My first Samsung Galaxy, the S2, was an OK phone until the battery wore out and wouldn’t hold a charge anymore. I spent a year with battery anxiety. Off charger, the battery charge dropped about 1%/minute, and so I basically spent a year walking from power outlet to power outlet, umbilical to the wall and unable to go out for more than 2-3 hours without freaking out over my dying battery. I didn’t realize at the time that the battery was bad and needed to be replaced, I just thought that the phone had some app that was power hungry and that no matter what I tried to do I couldn’t figure out how to make the phone sleep and save battery.

This taught me just how important battery life is, and when I bought the S5, I immediately went out and found the biggest battery I could for it.

But most phones these days have non-removable batteries in them, meaning that when they wear out, you either have to take the phone somewhere to be repaired with a replacement battery, or you have to buy a whole new phone.

A Li-ion battery will probably be good for 2, maybe 3 years of daily charge cycling, and if the handset is built as ruggedly as I’d like, it should be able to last longer than that. A removable battery makes this simple as buying a new battery and replacing it.

Durable

I want a phone that I can drop onto concrete and immerse in water without fear of damaging it. Usually this is solved by buying a ruggedized case for it, and this is fine, but it does add to the bulk of the phone. So why have two cases — a slim case that the phone is built inside of, and a rugged outer case? Why not just have one rugged case? The space saved by not having an inner casing could be given over to more battery, or cut down on the overall size of the device.

There are a lot of models on the market these days that are water resistant and durable enough not to take damage when dropped, especially when you factor in the afermarket armor. I don’t have a problem finding phones that meet my needs in this area, but this is probably the only area where I don’t see a lot of room for improvment needed.

Performance

I need to explain myself. I do not need blazing fast, cutting edge processor. My Galaxy S5 is a 4 year old design and when it’s not hampered by cache and memory limits, it’s absolutely fine. But the amount of system maintenance that I need to do on a daily basis anymore has gotten ridiculous. Freshly wiped, this is still a fast phone, and that’s enough for me. So Android should build into itself features that keep a healthy amount of free memory and cache storage at all times. I don’t know why this is such a problem, or why it’s gotten worse as time has gone by. During the first year or so that I had the phone, I never had such problems. About every year since then, I’ve eventually had to wipe it and start over, and am shocked at how fast the phone really is. After my last wipe, though, I didn’t want to spend an evening doing this every time the phone started feeling slow, and it felt slow within a week of my last wipe. So I started looking into performance optimization apps, and have been limping along with the help of those. But Android really needs to get its act together and handle its own maintenance and performance optimization, better than it does. Like, at all.

“Features”

Every other neat thing a smartphone does, is, I guess, nice, but I don’t care that much about it for it to sell me on a must-have device. I guess I’m in the minority here. I don’t need to be impressed by magic. I mostly am impressed by stuff that works well, and simply.

A decent camera is of course very handy, but it doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. A GPS radio that works well and doesn’t lose signal when I actually need it would be great.

I dunno, what else is there? Stuff like fingerprint readers, heartrate monitors, and so on, I don’t really use, or care about.

New “Link’s Awakening” triggers debate on remakes

It seems a lot of forum activity has been generated by yesterday’s announcement by Nintendo about the remake of Link’s Awakening on the Nintendo Switch.

In short, it seems that a significant number of fans are not in favor of the remake for one reason or another. Mostly this can be summed up as: “It’s not the exact same game as the original.”

Which, is true. The remake completely changes the graphics style, from the old 2-D look of the Game Boy original to something almost claymation-like, using a fixed 3/4 perspective, but with 3D models done in a cartoonish style. It remains to be seen what other changes are in store, and whether they are good or bad. It’s rather likely that the game will play differently in some respects, whether due to differences in the game engine, or changes in the design of the game.

I happen to love the way the new graphics look, so this doesn’t bother me. I liked the original graphics, too. And if I want to play the original game, I still can, and so can anyone with a the original hardware or a decent emulator.
But it seems that, among Zelda fans, there’s a certain segment who prefer the graphics to look “serious” — like Ocarina of Time, Skyward Sword, Breath of the Wild, etc., and not “cartoony” like Wind Waker or Four Swords Adventures. Somehow, original LoZ pleases both camps, and Link’s Awakening is in the vein of LoZ and Zelda 3: A Link to the Past. And I guess the new look for Link’s Awakening is too cartoony for them. This does not bother me. I like good art direction, and that can be “serious” or “cartoony” or something else.

It’s certainly true that many attempts at re-making some original classic game fail to capture what was special about the original game. It’s tempting to try to re-imagine something that was very, very good, thinking that adding something more will make it even better. Often that’s not the case.

Certainly, there’s a built-in expectation that a remake has to live up to, which a fresh new game doesn’t, and this can offset whatever advantage the remake had in being based off of a familiar, known, successful game. It can be very easy to mess up by deviating from the original in the wrong way. For example, updating the graphics in a style that fans don’t like, or likewise with the music. But worse would be a major change in the story, something that violates canon or continuity, or is just a change that upsets fans by breaking an unwritten contract to keep the game authentic to the characters and world that Fandom has already accepted. And perhaps the gravest mistake would be failing to ensure that the controls feel tight and responsive and give the game a good feel, ideally something virtually identical to the original. There’s nothing like tasting someone else’s attempt at your favorite recipe that your mom made when you were a kid, and no matter what they do it’s always just slightly off in a way that, even if it’s not bad, it prevents you from accepting it. I think that’s ultimately what makes fans of the original all but impossible to please when it comes to embracing a remake.

But that’s not to say that remaking a game is always a bad thing. I don’t view a remake as an attempt to replace or supplant the original. Rather, I look at it like in the way I look at theater: A playwright can write a play, and it can be performed by an original troupe of actors. And other theater companies can put on productions of the same play. Some may try to do it exactly the way the original was done, following a tradition, while others may stray and experiment. Some will be good, some will not. But it’s not like people shouldn’t continue to put on performances of Shakespeare just because purists who were fans of the original will find something not to like about it. And of course people should continue to write new, original scripts. The entertainment industry is large enough, and the audience is large enough, to sustain both.

Ultimately, it will come down to how the game plays. It’s only fair to judge the remake based on what it is, and not what it’s not. And to be clear, it will not be:

  • The same as the original.
  • A brand new, original game.
  • Different from the original in exactly the way everyone would like it to be.

Will it be worthy? That remains to be seen, and will be a matter of opinion and consensus. But I’m excited about it.

I’m buying a Switch, and other reasons I’ll be a happy gamer in 2019

So a bunch of great announcements from Nintendo came earlier today. For me, the highlights are:

Link’s Awakening Remake

Yeah, Breath of the Wild blew everyone away at launch and sold a few million systems, and I’ll admit I was very tempted to rush out and buy a Switch when it was released.

But I’m not an early adopter and I wanted to wait and see if the system would be a success, particularly after seeing how Nintendo struggled with making the Wii U realize its potential. So I held off.

I like 2-D Zelda more than 3-D Zelda, because 2D > 3D, as far as I’m concerned. And this Link’s Awakening remake looks fantastic.

I’m actually maybe more excited about this than I am about finally getting to play BotW soon.

Super Mario Maker 2

I told myself at the time, I would buy a Switch if they had Super Mario Maker for it. For a while I debated getting a Wii U so I could play both Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Maker, but I decided I wanted the real, full BotW experience with the improved controls made possible by the Switch’s joycon technology.

I’m glad I waited, now. I didn’t have to wait, I could have predicted even then that we’d see a SMM at some point on the system; it was just too popular not to be a thing. But now that it’s announced and official, I can’t wait. Really looking forward to designing some Mario levels in June.

Tetris 99

Battle Royale Tetris, awww yeah!!!!

Non-Nintendo news

Well, actually I’m not quite done with Nintendo news, but these next two are NES homebrew releases.

Full Quiet

First, Full Quiet has got me all hot and bothered to put some more hours on my AVS console. I backed the Kickstarter, and got to play it and talk to creator Tim Hartman at Portland Retro Gaming Expo back in October of last year. I’m pleased to say that this game is already looking incredible, and it should be out later this year. Even if it’s not, and release slips another year, it will be worth the wait. This is not one to miss.

Just look at the latest video showing it in action.

Without exaggerating, I will say that this may end up going down as one of the greatest releases on the NES. And considering the greatness of the NES library, that’s a truly staggering accomplishment.

From talking to Tim, I’m aware that his game will also be released on Steam, playable on PC though emulation of the NES hardware, which means that even if you don’t own a working NES for some reason, you can play this game. And you should.

MicroMages

MicroMages should also be shipping sometime in 2019. This game bears a resemblance to Towerfall, the 4-player archery arena battle indie sensation from a few years ago, but runs on NES hardware, and is pretty fantastic in its own right.

FPGA retro consoles

If that’s not enough, I’m also looking forward to the delivery of the Analogue Mega SG, a FPGA-based, HDMI-output implementation of the Sega Genesis, and the Collectorvision Phoenix, a FGPA-based, upgraded ColecoVision plus.

I can’t imagine that I’ll have enough free time to play all of these nearly as much as I’d like to, but I still can’t wait, and I can’t believe all the good stuff that’s happening in the world of gaming, so much of it the product of cottage industry efforts devoted to keeping older systems relevant. 2019 is going to be a fantastic year.

Patriots and nationalists: the real truth

French President Emmanuel Macron tried to make some point over the weekend about Nationalism vs. Patriotism, in a rebuke of Donald Trump’s nationalistic ways.

It’s bullshit.

Not the rebuke of Trump; that was much needed. But the idea that we can distinguish between nationalism and patriotism.

They’re synonyms. They more or less mean the same thing. Yeah, there are maybe some slight differences of connotation, of usage, but they’re pretty close to interchangeable.

English is a highly overloaded language and there’s a lot of redundant words, and we use them to reflect nuance, but sometimes that nuance isn’t really there, or isn’t really as big as we make it. But for one reason or another, we end up deciding we like one word over another, like we have better taste for having a more refined vocabulary.

But I digress.

There’s good things and bad things about countries, and therefore there’s good things and bad things about loving your country. You can’t take all the good things, shove them to one side, and say “we’re going to label that ‘patriotism'” and then take all the bad things, shove them over to the other side, and say “that’s nationalism”.

We have to come to grips with the fact that whatever label you use, there’s good and bad wrapped up in humanity, and therefore, irreducibly, in any human collective.

What we need to do is use our brains, our reason and judgment, our ability to perceive, to fix the problems that the bad causes, and amplify the good. We can do this. We have had a good, long run of doing it. The overwhelming trend over the last 10,000-50,000 years has been that we do it. It seems like as we’ve scaled up our numbers, the challenges have gotten greater, and that lately maybe we’re coming up short more than not. Those glaciers are melting. We need to get back to doing smart things, and fixing problems. Less petty fights, and definitely way less concentrating wealth and power into the hands of a tiny fraction of a percent of all people.

Back to Macron: If your takeaway from his speech was that there’s bad nationalists and good patriots and hey I’m a patriot, and that sounds good and makes me feel good to say it, and now I’m better than these bad nationalists, you’ve completely missed the real truth.

The real truth is this: There’s plenty of fucking bullshit wrapped up in patriotism. Plenty. There’s plenty of bad carried out in the name of patriotism. Patriotic sentiment can and has at times netted a positive good for human civilization. But it nearly as often carries with it that bad stuff that you can’t just scrape off and shed onto the word “nationalism” and then say “our country is so good, it’s the best! I’m a patriot!” and feel like all is right with the world. It doesn’t work that way.

A lot of the good stuff about patriotism could be applied just as well, just as easily to a larger collective of people inside an even larger border.

We could draw the border as the edge of our solar system, and feel all the good things that we currently ascribe to how we feel about our country.

We could say “We are the people of Earth! A good people! The only people, in fact, anywhere! We’re all here trying to make shit work, keep each other alive, and comfortable, and maybe laugh a bit, before we die.”

We could say that. There’s no reason we couldn’t. But most of us won’t, won’t even consider it. Why? Because countries. Because invisible lines agreed to by the ancestors of powerful men, and paid for in blood. Because we’re too afraid of each other to forgive and to forge trust. Because we’re too concerned with our small concerns, and trying to fuck over someone else just to get a leg up on everyone else.

In the mythical past when we were great, which existed even then as an imperfect, incomplete fiction, we dreamed of global unification, of reaching out into the cosmos and taming the void. We dreamed about mega scale engineering projects to transform dead worlds and branch out, extending our civilization. Because we thought that it was worth something, and worth preserving, spreading, and sharing.

No one much talks about those dreams any more. We talk about oil and natural gas reserves. We talk about garbage patches, turning the oceans into a plastic soup. We talk about fresh water, and sometimes about glaciers. We talk about the Kardashians, and not very much about the disappearing animals and the vanishing rainforests. We talk about our skin color and who we like to have sex with, like it’s some big deal that overshadows the great extinction event we’ve triggered. And we talk about wars that were fought a century ago, having learned nothing from them, even as we ignore the wars happening in poor places encircling the planet, the direct heritage of the War to End All Wars, which we so foolishly perceive to have “ended”.

We needed to discard patriotism a long time ago, and embrace humanism. We are a tremendous disappointment in so many ways. And a good third of us, at least, are mindlessly tugging the whole lot of us backwards, while another third of us passively do nothing, and another third express some reservations — politely, as though “how you play the game” matters more than winning or losing.

Well, I don’t have a tidy wrap-up. No happy ending. No hopeful message. No plan. Just some observations and some judgments. You can hammer the Like button if you want to, you can share this far and wide, you can copy and paste it, you can mail it and email it, you can print it on billboards, and you can carve it into mountains, but it won’t make a bit of difference, it won’t change a thing.

What will make a difference is what you do with your life.

Enjoy your time here, while you can. Try to fix some problems. Try to learn from some mistakes.

Stan Lee, Mighty Marvel Magnate: R.I.P. and Thanks

Stan Lee, the Homer of American 20th century culture, maker of myth and monsters, died today at the age of 95. 

You almost certainly don’t need me to tell you who he was. His fame was universal, assured by his two superpowers: story telling and self promotion.

Stan wasn’t the only person who made Marvel Comics and later Marvel Entertainment the force in popular culture that it was, but he was probably the most recognizable name among a pantheon of legends that included Jack “King” Kirby, John Romita, Steve Ditko, and many others.

He created, co-created, or promoted amazing fantasies, a multiverse of heroes and villains, mutants and mundanes, celestials and sub-humans, terrestrials, extra-terrestrials, and extra-dimensionals, and even a sub-mariner. 

His energy and enthusiasm were infinite.  His corporeal form, alas, was not.  Yet his legend is assured immortality.

You held great power, and you wielded it with sublime responsibility.  You touched the lives of billions of people, and set fire to our imaginations.

Today through the news of his passing, he is making a cameo appearance on every social media feed on the planet.  We feel a collective earth quake as our hearts break upon learning that today the inevitable has finally come.

Thank you, Stan Lee.

R.I.P.

Excelsior!

Collectorvision Phoenix demoed at Portland Retro Gaming Expo

I attended the Portland Retro Gaming Expo this past weekend, and enjoyed myself very much.

One of the many highlights of the show was getting to try out the new Phoenix console from Collectorvision.

Having seen it in person and tried it firsthand, I can say that it is the real deal, and is absolutely worth the money they’re asking for it on kickstarter.

The campaign is a bit behind the pace with their funding goal, and they need and deserve support. Just 1000 pre-orders are all that’s needed to successfully fund the project and make the system a reality.

You can back the project here:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1408938247/collectorvision-phoenix-an-fpga-colecovision-conso/description

For just $200, you get an enhanced, 100% compatible, 100% accurate ColecoVision with HDMI output, built in Super Game Module and FA-18 mods, cartridge slot and SD card slot, original and SNES controller ports, and a ps2 keyboard port. Collectorvision announced Atari 2600 compatibility, and plans for supporting other vintage game systems such as the Adam and MSX.

ColecoVision is an underrated and underappreciated console, both in its heyday and today. With graphics capabilities between the Atari 2600 and the NES, it has a small but very loyal following, and a decent library of original games and an active homebrew community releasing new games. It’s a great time to get into the system if you are vintage gamer.

CollectorVision Phoenix: A modern, premium FPGA-based ColecoVision compatible retro console

Help CollectorVision reach their crowdfunding goal and make the Phoenix a reality!

Earlier this week, CollectorVision announced the crowdfunding campaign launch for their Phoenix console on Kickstarter. CollectorVision has in the past developed modern homebrew games for the 1982 ColecoVision videogame console, and in addition to that have partnered with OpCode games, developers of the ColecoVision Super Game Module expansion, which augments the system with more RAM and improved graphics capability.

I’m very excited about this system. ColecoVision was a great system, which died too young due to the videogame industry crash of 1983. It offered graphics nearly on par with the NES, a full year before the Famicom was released in Japan, and delivered home ports of early 80s arcade games that offered greater fidelity to the originals than was possible on the Atari 2600.

The Phoenix’s feature list is amazing: FPGA hardware implementation for 100% compatibility and fidelity with the original system, HDMI-out video, SD card slot, built-in Super Game Module and F18A enhancement hardware, 10 built-in ROMs of modern ColecoVision homebrew games, DB9 controller ports for original ColecoVision controllers, as well as SNES controller ports for compatibility with more common/comfortable SNES gamepads, and even a PS/2 keyboard connector. There’s even been talk of including an FPGA core for support of Atari 2600 games, much like the original ColecoVision’s Expansion Module 1 adapter for Atari 2600 games.

This is a dream system, and considering that, its price tag of $200 is very reasonable. Compared to the RetroUSB AVS system and the Analog Super NT, the Phoenix will fill a nice in retrogame preservation and it deserves to make its crowdfunding goal of $230,000.

To hit this goal, CollectorVision will need about 1000 backers to sign up. The kickstarter campaign is off to a somewhat slow start, however — three days into the campaign, they’ve only managed to secure $28,000 in pledges. Usually, a system like this would be fully funded in the first day, or even the first hour of the crowdfunding campaign going live. If the campaign received steady contributions every day at the level they have for the first 3 days, they would make goal, but it’s most typical for kickstarters to get most of their funding on the first few days, and the last few days. So I’m worried that they will not hit their goal. 

Perhaps retro gamers are wary of crowdfunding for yet another modern retro game console. People enthusiastically backed Ouya to the tune of $8 million dollars several years ago, and the recent AtariBox/Atari VCS crowdfunding was also successful in reaching goal, but only made $3 million dollars amid serious doubts about the current company calling itself Atari’s capabilities to deliver on what it has promised, and alleged mis-representation of their prototype hardware.

I don’t have any insider knowledge of CollectorVision, but everything I have seen from them about the Phoenix looks good, and I have faith that they care capable of delivering on their promises, if they can make their fundraising goal. Their hardware really exists, and all they need is capital for manufacturing. If you have fond memories of the ColecoVision and the early-80’s era of videogames, definitely check out the project, and consider becoming a backer.