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    SimCity 2013: The Phantom Menace – putting the “limited” in Limited Edition


    2013 - 03.21

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    So I wrote a little blurb shortly after the launch of Simcity, but the news on this game has been evolving so rapidly that what I’d written felt irrelevant before I could even publish it.  It’s been a strange tale.  I haven’t actually bought the game yet, and that turned out to be the right call.  As I’ve observed the commotion, my feelings on the game went from major excitement, to pessimistic disappointment, and eventually to my current ambivalence.  The pre-release hype made it seem like this was going to be a return to the glory days of one of the best franchises in all of gaming, and then the reality set in at launch: servers were crushed under the initial load, then once people finally did get started playing, the gameplay was revealed to be broken on multiple levels.  I was super excited about this one for months on end, and now I wonder if I’ll even get it….

    I won’t even begin to chronicle the plain-out-weird tale of corporate-newspeak from EA/Maxis and their apologetics for why the game absolutely had to be online-only.  That story will probably go down as a textbook example of how not to handle a PR meltdown.  The superbly-written and eminently-thoughtful gaming blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun has had unbeatable coverage of the whole fiasco, which is certainly worth perusing, if you’re interested.  Besides, they’re the best PC gaming blog in the biz today, check em out.

    A couple weeks in, it sounds like most (but not all) of the server-related killjoys have been addressed.  But perhaps more nefariously, the game’s underlying AI seems to have deep problems with pathfinding.  Epic traffic jams that span whole highways between city.  Fire trucks stuck in the station, or simply never arriving.  Pedestrians wandering in circles endlessly around the same intersection, blocking all traffic.  Trade frozen.  Bus pileups as far as the eye can see.  Once your city gets big enough, these unfixable problems begin to break it. 

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    There are other weirdnesses that make no sense: it’s possible to build nothing but roads and residential zones, and end up with a 60k population… in spite of the fact that your city has no commercial zones, industrial zones, power, water, sewer, trash, police, hospitals, etc etc. 

    People have have also lamented that city size is much more restricted than it ever was in SC2k and that disasters cannot be disabled.  Those are overshadowed further by the downright baffling design choice that you can’t even save a copy of your city… which used to allow experimentation with the freedom of restoring to an earlier save-state.  Your city data is not stored on your local computer, apparently?  You have no possession of the content you create now.  That’s just… deeply unfortunate. 

    In spite of all this, odds are I’ll end up buying this game in good time, assuming they can fix the worst of the pathfinding problems.  I’m glad to be reading all this trash-talk before I ever touch the thing.  No game has a soft spot in my personal Venn-diagram of nostalgia/videogames the way Simcity does.

    I remember as a grade-school kid, staying after school for hours to play the original Simcity in the computer lab, since home computers were a rarity in those days.  One time no one knew where I was, and it even prompted a moment of panic until they found me at the PC, just building my city again.  Then when my best friend got Simcity for his SNES we played the dickens out of that, even with lots of other games vying for attention.  We would take turns building and strategizing, laying on the living room floor for hours while his parakeets cheeped and that same music looped over and over.  SimAnt was another addictive one for me when we eventually got our first home PC.  Taking over the whole yard and eventually forcing the humans out of the house was strangely gratifying, and the game somehow made ant-trivia fascinating.  Then fast-forward to junior high when Simcity 2000 (aka SC2k) came out… whoooo, I don’t even want to know how many hours went into that.  One of the all-time top-10 on all platforms, if you ask me.

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    So it’s tough not to approach a new Simcity with giddy overenthusiasm, reminiscent of how I probably felt in the theater watching Star Wars The Phantom Menace for the first time.  Sure, all your favorite tropes are here, but uhhh, you’d better tame those expectations: childlike wonder is by no means guaranteed!

    And how could it be, really?  Part of what made Simcity 2000 such an amazing powerhouse was the fact that I played it at a point in life where I was old enough to grab my bike and ride off to any part of town, yet too young to be expected to work; a moment in life when free time was endless, and the relatively-new world of 3D videogames was a fascination with few rivals.  There was all the time in the world to build that perfect masterpiece, then realize all the oversights you’d made in dreaming it up, tear it all down, start over, and build the real masterpiece this time… ad infium.

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    Looking at the screenshots of people’s creations (those who have been able to play) brings back a wash of fond recollections of the old Simcities.  This series is sort of the original and greatest “sandbox” game.  One with no win or lose condition, no time limit, no missions to complete, just your imagination.  I really look forward to spending some time in Maxis’ latest iteration of that wonderland I used to get so lost within–I’m just tamping down my expectations.  This is Simcity: The Phantom Menace.  And thanks to the wonder of modern technology, you can’t actually BUY it.  You can only RENT it from Electronic Arts.  That is, when they decide to eventually shut down the servers for good in some years time, that’s it, everyone’s done.  There will be no dusty box in the closet with a CD in it that will allow you to reinstall a working copy.  Nor will there be a stack of 3.5″ floppy disks that got lost for years, only to be found under the bed one day, allowing some magical time warp back to your old experiments, quirky half-successes, and weird ideas.  Those save games kept that time portal open, in a way that few toys could–your LEGO creations could never rebuild themselves into a badass spaceship you created that one time, and the particles in the real-life sandbox of your backyard can never reassemble into the sweet castle your pal Jake made with his tower-shaped bucket.  There is a euphoria in rewinding.

    Those days are gone.  The future is here, and what’s new isn’t always better.

    Instead of a sarcastic “Thanks EA” I’m going to do my best to simply enjoy Simcity 2013 at face value.  It’ll never be able to touch SC2k in terms of pure addictive thrill.  And when it’s over it’s gone forever.  I’ll make a point to enjoy it in the moment, going in knowing that’s a very pretty, but ultimately much smaller, more limited world than my nostalgia wants to paint it.

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    These were killing me Friday night


    2012 - 11.05

    … and on a related note, this is the kind of thing I sit laughing about on my Friday nights.  In my defense, it was a low-key weekend.

    So perhaps my masochistic history of obtaining a math minor despite being only minor-ly good at math has primed me for the punchlines herein, but I was laughing so. hard. at these:

    And one more, just for kicks:

    Very much looking forward to the next SimCity


    2012 - 10.11

    I spent a straight-up disgraceful amount of time playing SimCity 2000 back in the day… “reticulating splines…”

    So yeah, I’m excited about what they show in this gameplay trailer:

    Looks like 2013 is shaping up to be a great year of strategy/simulation

    Planetary Annihilation? Yes, that sounds cool


    2012 - 09.13

    This game looks really sweet. You get to blow up planets and have wars on the scale of galaxies, all using killer robots. Awesome:

    The Plastic Fan Appreciation Society Strikes Back! – aka “In Which I Almost Win The 2012 Nobel Prize In Rhyming But Get Disqualified For Taiwanese Mispronunciation”


    2012 - 08.07

    So feast yo eyes on this, fellow fan enthusiasts: The Kuo Horng 12″ oscillating desk fan, in the most arresting color scheme of green & grey:

    Them Hardcore Metal Fan Loverz are gonna hate, but I think this fan is totally radish. Ahh. It’s like a metaphorical cool breeze for my eyes and then like an actual real-life cool breeze for my airhairs. Because actual real-life cool breezes sometimes don’t feel so good on your eyeballs so that’s why I had to clarify by saying it that way.

    I’m going to call her GG for green & grey, since I don’t actually know how to pronounce “Horng”. (woah, holy shit you guys, I think I might have just discovered a word that rhymes with “Orange”!! …Wait, no, that can’t be how you say it, false alarm.) I think this might be my new favorite fan, at least stylistically. Functionally, my Dayton 12″ at the office is the MVP. That guy has some serious responsibilties, keeping me cool throughout the 9-5 workday, particularly when there is a garage door nearby which is frequently left open to the searing Texas summer heat. It’s also astonishingly quiet too, which is great for a fan that you have to sit and listen to all day long. A loud fan can make you feel like you’re getting yelled at, my girlfriend tells me. Something the Dayton made me realize though, is that 12″ is really the ideal size for a desk fan.

    I’ve got a XL-sized 16″ Galaxy which works the night-shift in the bedroom, keeping me and my lady cool as we snooze. And man, that thing’s got some oomph–no joke! I think I can count the times over the last year that I’ve had it on medium speed on one hand. (And no, I will not be providing an explanation for why such excessive fan power was required on those occasions. Use your imagination. Or scratch that, maybe don’t.) A 16″ fan is really only necessary for someplace where you need airflow that would compete with a strong box fan, like in a garage or a workshop. Or maybe the Galaxy is just that much of a badass? In any event, I think I’ve solved the cosmic riddle, that 12″ is just the right balance between noise, size, and power.

    Through my previous post(s) about the dangers and/or the awesomeness of fan collecting, I was made aware of the svelte stylings of the Taiwan-based plastic fan manufacturer Kuo Horng. Their simple retro designs with hip’n’with-it looking speed controls caught my eye. Those monochrome lines in various colors have a retro-fetishizing sheen to them that appeals to me somehow. It’s like something from the 70s that never went out of style.

    And of course it goes without saying that any fan that uses piano keys for speed control is automatically super sweet. Or as the kids like to say, über diggity-dank. Every time I press them, either in the office or at home, I just enjoy the simple act of setting the motor to a different speed. The click of the mechanism as it responds to your finger, the snap of the adjacent key popping back up again, all subtly reminiscent of an old-school tape recorder from your childhood–it’s an intrinsically satisfying thing. Sometimes I reach back and change the speed of the fan just for the sake of pressing the keys. (Really!) Maybe it’s some odd type of nostalgia or the plain enjoyment of something mechanical in these days of capacitive touchscreens and digital everything.

    So GG is sort of taking over main fan duty in the computer/model train room. There’s a ceiling fan in there, which is pretty effective, but it’s also somewhat noisy, so I find myself opting for the oscillating fan instead, especially when I’m playing records. That, and I also find the oscillation refreshing, the way it hits you with a breeze which goes away for a moment and then returns, over and over. GG does make some quiet grinding and whirring when you first fire her up, but after maybe 5-10 minutes she gets into the groove and purrs along pretty much silently. I also have some downward angle going right now, which is probably partially accountable for the rougher startup. In my experience it seems like oscillating fans tend to prefer moving on a level axis, rather than aiming up or down where they start making more odd noises.

    In any event, this fan is a welcome addition to my arsenal (see how I avoided calling it a collection there?) and totally an enabler in my dedication to living the ‘cool’ lifestyle here in hot Texas. It’s not a household appliance people, it’s a way of life. (Troof.) I will admit that I do sort of wish the blade itself was a nice translucent green, the same way my Dayton and Galaxy have transparent blue blades. A nice “kelly” green too, not a lime or a forest green. So maybe my quest for the ruthlessly, absolutely perfect oscillating desk fan isn’t fully complete yet, but I will say the main chassis on GG is, for my twenty-eight buckaroos including shipping (take that you metal fiends) about as cool as it gets. I think if I were able to find a green blader and swap them out, we might have such a dense singularity of plastic fan stylishness that it might have, in the words of the G-Man, ‘unforseen consequnces’….

    Count it!

    And on the fans taaaaag, JB OUT!

    The Carl Sagan Most-Awesome-GIF-EVAR runner up


    2012 - 08.05

    He’s back, with another #1 summer jam! That’s right kids, it’s the Carl Sagan “deal with it” remix. Who could do it cooler, I ask? Obviously, no one.

    For obvs, guys. Obvs.

    A little blacktron sequel


    2012 - 07.22

    In the previous post about LEGO, I mentioned this set.  Here it is im CG, nicely rendered.  It’s like an imperial walker, only like secret-ops style, all black.

    Smoove.

    a New LEGO MMO


    2012 - 07.15

    I’ve got a Level 7 Battle Axe to grind when it comes to Orcs, Paladins, or Wizards, and it don’t have no +5 to lameness tolerance.

    For whatever reason, I just can’t get into fantasy. I mean, I think dragons are sort of cool, but that’s about as far as I can get. Anytime people start talking about trolls or mages I just start to yawn. I thought Lord of the Rings was totally like 50,000% overrated. And while everyone else raved about Skyrim and World of Warcraft, I stuck to GTA and Red Dead. I don’t know what it is. I look at those worlds and say, wow, it’s amazing how rich and detailed they are, how much effort people have put into meticulously crafting them. And then I think, yeah, but this is all somehow still… BORING.

    And for whatever reason, it seems like all the major MMO games are fantasy games. I’m intrigued by the idea of MMOs; persistent worlds filled with other humans to interact with. So I was pretty stoked a few years back when an MMO was announced that was barking way up my particular nerd tree: LEGO Universe.

    As good fortune would have it, I was lucky enough to get a beta invite to test out the game before major release. The developers had a nice forum setup too where people could voice their thoughts on the progress. I definitely rocked the beta whenever I was home and the servers were online; and it was pretty fun. In my eyes though, it sadly fell pret-tay, pret-tay short of the hypothetical game it could have been. There were myriad reasons why, but really it came down to one thing: all content was created by the game developers and not the players.

    There’s something about LEGO that has captured the imaginations of minds for decades. Obviously a big part of that is the simple fact that you can take things apart and rebuild them however you see fit. So then, if you’re making a game that’s built primarily around LEGO, the logical thing to do would be let people build things. LEGO Universe did have that, but it was more of an if-you-want-to, off-to-the-side kinda thing. In my mind, the developers should have been spending their time doing two tasks: making the graphics engine look nice, and then releasing a huge variety of different bricks. If there’s one thing that Minecraft has conclusively proven about humanity, it’s that there are many, many folks out there with 1. copious amounts of free-time, and 2. the willpower to build incredibly intricate and detailed worlds for nothing more than their own amusement. Any LEGO MMO worth its salt should take advantage of that as its central philosophy.

    I think LEGO Universe could have been the most incredible game ever, if all it did was turn people loose with huge numbers of LEGO bricks and then let other players explore those worlds. You could easily sprinkle quests, events, enemies, and unique items over those worlds which were well made. I mean, Valve does a lot of the same type of thing with community-made maps in TF2. Take advantage of your passionate, inspired user base. That should be, like, enshrined into game-making law.

    So I’m raising a skeptical eyebrow at the announcement of a NEW LEGO MMO this month. It’s very thin on details. Like essentially all we know is that it exists. I would really hope that any new attempt at this concept would learn lessons from the failure of the previous one. A big shortcoming of LEGO Universe was simply the lack of content. It didn’t take long to finish it. And what content they did have really didn’t draw at all from LEGO lore. I wanted to see the Pirate sets I played with as a kid. Or city. Or Space sets like Blacktron and Ice Planet. A passionate userbase that is allowed to create their own content would solve all those problems.

    As an aside, I recently saw that there is apparently a LEGO Star Wars TV show now. It’s quite cheezy and laden with slapstick, but hey it’s meant for kids. The computer generated graphics in it are incredible though… its definitely LEGO come to life like you’ve never seen it. Watching that made me wish for the super-cool LEGO MMO that never was.

    So I’ll be watching that one, in hopes that it lets people build things as a main attraction. Because if you can’t build, is it truly LEGO? Not in my book!

    Let’s Overanalyze: The Hubbell & Hudson Lobster Club Sandwich


    2012 - 06.19

    It’s no secret that I’m a fiend for an esoteric sandwich.  I’ve been a regular sandwich-devotee my whole life and eventually you just get to a point where something out of the ordinary seems appealing.  Some of the more atypical combinations I’ve enjoyed would include a turkey-gorgonzola-pear, a chicken-apples-honey-mustard, and a turkey-brie-blackberry-jam.  That’s right.  I gets down on those funky combinations.

    There’s a great grocery store/bistro north of Houston called Hubbell & Hudson where we’ve been frequenting the weekend brunch for quite some time now.  Their menu runs the gamut between ‘items and pricing that might be appealing to any schmoe who walks in the door’ and totally goes out into the netherworld of ‘items and pricing that you’d need to be ultrasnooty and/or ultrarich to do anything but laugh at’.  Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum lies the entree in question here, one “lobster club” sandwich for $18.

    You may be thinking, jeez, eighteen bucks for a sandwich, that’s kind of a lot.  Yes.  Yes it is.  You’d totally be right to think that.  I’ve been eyeing this thing up for the better part of a year now, wondering what it might be like.  The sandwich pedant in me was thoroughly intrigued.  Yet every Saturday that finds us in a booth listening to the horn sections of the Rat Pack, I can never resist breakfast: french toast with bananas & blueberries in a sweet rum sauce, or the traditional eggs/bacon/potatoes done-up food-geek style.  It’s a masterfully crafted breakfast that comes in at around $30 for two people, which is next-to-impossible to pass up.

    However last weekend my girl and I went out to a Saturday morning matinee showing of the Beatles Yellow Submarine movie, which as an aside was super-duper-badass to see in a movie theater.  They had the sound thumping and the quality was great-to-excellent.  Seeing the newly-remastered version in high-def on a theater screen was worth about 5 to 10 times the $5 matinee ticket price.  I think this may be a blu-ray purchase in the future–but I digress back to the sandwiches–we thusly arrived at Hubbell & Hudson having been awake for a few hours already, as opposed to my usual wake-up, roll-over, drive to breakfast routine.  “This is it, it’s today or never,” I said.

     

    The sandwich arrived panini-style pressed, built out of bacon, avocado, arugula, and maine lobster meat.  Spread onto opposing halves of the bakery bread there was both “plugra butter” whatever that is, and also chipotle aioli.  Those two sauces blended together as a pleasing duet.  As accoutrements, there was a stack of what I’d call “seasoned potatoe wedges”, but the menu opaquely listed as “frites”.  From the waiter I requested either mayo or ranch for frite dippin duty and happily received both.  In the presence of both choices I typically go for ranch, but their mayo was mighty tasty.  In typical H&H fashion, I think it was not plain-old-mayo but probably like “dijon-scallion-reduction-mayonaise” or something.  They can never just leave well enough alone, and that’s part of why we like them.

    I’m not sure I can even recall the last time I had lobster, so that in itself was something of a treat.  I ate the sandwich slow, savoring this outlandish, impractical creation.  It only took a few bites to reach an assessment: this is what a full $18 tastes like.  H&H does bacon correct; crisp and smokey, just crunchy but not burnt.  The avocado, a fruit notoriously fickle and often bland, had flavor.  The arugula broke the boring mold of lettuce–that sandwich equivalent of celery (flavorless, pointless stuff that makes noise when you eat it).  And the lobster itself was quite excellent.  Still cold too, in spite of the hot panini imprint on the loaf surrounding it.  Two long toothpicks thankfully held this whole affair together as I methodically devoured.

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    So it was an expensive sandwich, sure, but not an overpriced one–there was genuinely $18 worth of ingredients and flavor present and accounted for here.  That’s unlike what that you get from say, Murphy’s Deli or Schlotzkis or any of those so-called “premium” shops, where you end up paying like $9-12 for lunch and yeah the sandwich is good, but be real; there’s no way it’s $12 of goodness.  That, and it really wouldn’t be tough at all to hit up the grocery store and craft a sandwich at home that could blow the doors off those, probably for much less money if you calculated the cost of ingredients-per-sandwich.

    The lobster club, on the other hand, sits in a different category.  If you tried to reproduce this configuration at home, it’s doubtful you could do it for an equivalent price OR even with equivalent quality, which is the true measure of its worth.  Would I get it again?  Possibly in a few months if I could resist the allure of H&H breakfast.  Would I recommend it?  Unequivocally.  While ostensibly intended for aristocracy, it’s not out of reach for the working man who’s craving something special, and having thusly invested his funds, none shall be disappointed in the craftsmanship and component quality behind this superb meal.

    Verdict: 9/10

    Playing the Mario banner


    2012 - 04.09

    So as some of you may have noticed, there’s a new banner which randomly appears on the desktop version of this site with a mario theme. I built it using the level editor in Super Mario X, and oh man, it’s actually really hard. Have a look at the below video of me dying once, then trying again and beating it. What you don’t see are the 10 takes before this one where I screwed up and died repeatedly. SHEESH!