Thursday, July 24, 2008

Atari 7800 Controllers, or You Bastards Have Broken My Hands

One of these days, I'll have to find someone respectable who can explain to me why Atari's game controllers were so terrible. I can't even think about one without my hands suddenly cramping up, almost like some phantom pain from a lost trauma.

Case in point: the joystick for the Atari 7800. This was just a mess. I really don't know what to think about this one. It was clearly a part of the original system design from 1984, during which the crumbling Atari still looked to its own heritage for inspiration. It had to be obvious by then that the nigh-indestructible Atari 2600 joysticks were stiff as a board and hard on the hands. Not that I mean to complain, because they mostly served me well way back then. They were just really, really stiff, like they needed a can or two of oil or hard liquor.

In any case, Atari was looking for a new style, something more eronomic in mind. Their first real gamble was the controller for the Atari 5200, their successor to the throne. It was certainly easier to hold in the palm of your hand, yes, but it was a disaster. Hmm, now that I think about it, this was the design mojo of the early 1980's. For some reason, everyone wanted game controllers that vaguely resembled television remotes or large bulky phones. Intellivision really was a telephone; it was just one of those telephones that couldn't send or receive phonecalls. It could only play videogames like a drunken baffoon. It was the George W. Bush of game controllers. The Colecovision style was slightly more sober, but stiff as a board. Slightly better, but not much, and still that odd obsession with the mini-keyboard.

The Atari 5200 version baffled the hell out of everyone, by making the joystick out of a pair of analog controllers. It was strange, bizarre. It was also designed to break within the first ten minutes. Perhaps this was the design goal all along. The suits knew they had a stinker on their hands; the jig was up, and the video game fad had peaked. Sooner or later, the kids would be old enough to start smoking and chasing skirts. So maybe all the guilty parties just grabbed the bong for one more monster hit, coughed out a long sigh, and said fuck it.

Which brings us back to the 7800. It's a much better design, if only because the stick actually works and nothing falls apart. It's still a pain to the fingers, like some sort of CIA torture device. Hmm, I tell myself I really should stop reading the heavy apocalyptic political exposes about the Bush Crime Family before I'm about to write something here. Either that or I need to borrow that bong for a spell. It would certainly help with those Atari-induced hand cramps, certain to evolve into full-blown arthritis one day.

So I don't like the 7800 controller. It's no shocker, and no loss, since the console was buried alive, dug out, reburied again, and then dug out again by the same group of owners who bought the remains of the old Atari in the mid-eighties. They were an interesting bunch, that Tramiel family. They were the bane of the videogame-loving geek squad, no question of that. But they had class. They had drama. Say what you will about their management, which never existed. They had the survival instinct of sewer rats, which means in the post-psychedelic hippie era of video games, they were the most fun. This stiff business couldn't make you laugh today if they tried. It's all too corporate. A corporate mindset for videogames. How bizarre is that, I ask myself? This whole thing has always been a teen stoner's world, anyway. The game console sits right next to the bong, the tape deck, and the stack of lp's. Be honest. Take away the wood paneling, and the classic Atari 2600 whithers into dust. I'd kill for some wood paneling on a game console today.

Hmm, I think again, perhaps the pain is part of the trip after all. Perhaps you were never supposed to become too comfortable. What else do you expect after a simple computer whups your sorry ass in another panic-strewn session of Robotron or Xevious? The whole point of joining together four friends over Warlords was never to relax. This wasn't pull-out-the-New-Yorker-time. Fuck that. It's time for Led Zeppelin and loud carpets and the stench of burning weed. At least that's what it should be.

Alright then. I'll take it all back. But only because the Atari 7800 occupies a soft spot near my heart. I really have no idea why. I never owned one back in the day. Never even bothered to try. What was the point? There were barely a handful of games ever worth trying, and they were just more retro pop hits from yesterday. Galaga. Ms. Pac-Man. Robotron. Xevious. Asteroids. This really is a retro thing. Future Retro. The Atari 7800 was the first videogame machine to transcend time. Future, Past, Yesterday, Tomorrow, The Yawning Here and Now, Sailing to Byzantium, sitting in silent darkness in wait for the self-transforming elf machines from hyperspace. This whole realm is a smoky fantasy. It's the Pink Floyd Laser Show, with you and your buddies donning the lightsabers.

I think I'll get myself one of these things one of these days. Maybe I'll even scour the intertubes - is that a crazy coincidence for words or what? - for one of those uber-rare European Atari joypads, which incorporated the newer, post-modern joypad. Once Nintendo took over, the sticks were gone, and pads were in, and Mario was tripping Magic Mushrooms and the Light Fantastic. What the bloody hell is it with computer games and psychedelics, anyway? What brings them together? What brought that marriage together and then apart? And why should any thirty-something in the Year of Preznit Caligula 2008 give a rat's ass? Who knows. Skip it. I want to play the game where George W. Bush is impeached and thrown into the slammer. Was that ever made for the Atari? I think some enterprising old hippie needs to get to work on that.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Metallica's Death Magnetic - Artwork and Titles

Very interesting. I've often thought of Metallica's St. Anger album as the band's midlife crisis. I may be mistaken; perhaps Death Magnetic fits that bill.

This is an interesting moment for the venerable rockers. They're long past the point of needing to prove anything to anyone, and they could just as easily cash in on their past fame, churning out by-the-numbers albums to keep the fans happy and the coffers full. This is typical for any band of musicians in their mid-fourties. And yet Metallica seems determined to have something new to say. True, they'll say it within the context of their classic '80s sound, but like U2's quote-unquote "revival" of this decade, Metallica should revisit their classic thrash metal sound through the '70s blues rock experiments of their '90s work. You know, the albums that have now been denounced for daring to swerve off the beaten path; something that speaks loudly to the creative bankruptcy and infantile mindset of American Culture. Thank goodness Led Zeppelin was never around during these days. They'd be tarred and feathered for Houses of the Holy. Hell, they were belted with rocks for Led Zeppelin III, for the unforgivable crime of playing acoustic folk and blues.

The whiny kids who are too afraid to accept anything new or different will miss out, of course, and the remnants of the Old Republic will continue to be swept away. The dead-end culture of the American Empire is all that matters now; social cliques and target demographics, red states, blue states, my religion, and everyone else's. It's the closed in, paranoid mentality of a nation in decline.

All of which points to Metallica, the most important rock band of our generation, loved and hated by the tides of the junior-high-school mindset. What they have to say will have a great bearing on us as a people. How we react, and how the anti-musical, snobbish elements of pseudofans, will say far more about our times than anything James Hetfield has to say. His insights and struggles have been drowned out for the past 15 years now, and I don't expect that to change. The old-school fans who have been crying sellout will still cry sellout; they'll only find new excuses to pat themselves on the back for their triumphant ignorance. In the American Empire, ignorance is the only virtue. Apart from status, of course. And in this scene, being an aloof snob carries a lot of status. It's enough to make any middle-aged rocker cranky.

Here are the song titles for Death Magnetic.....very interesting....more of the personal struggles from Hetfield? Why am I reminded of the way John Lennon's "She's So Heavy" is followed by George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun?" Filtered through Metallica angst, naturally, wink wink.

1 - That Was Just Your Life
2 - The End of the Line
3 - Broken, Beat & Scarred
4 - The Day That Never Comes
5 - All Nightmare Long
6 - Cyanide
7 - The Unforgiven III
8 - The Judas Kiss
9 - Suicide & Redemption
10 - My Apocalypse

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Soul Calibur DC on XBox Live

This has been hitting the rounds, and it's a great addition to everyone's Xbox 360 library - the Dreamcast version of Soul Calibur on Xbox Live Arcade.

The XBLA version will boast "hi-rez" graphics, which is a common attempt to make the games look more contemporary. I don't know if that will work with the Dreamcast faithful. After all, Soul Calibur looks pretty great as is. I've also noticed that upping the resolution doesn't work for older games. True, the polygon models are sharper and cleaner, but texture maps - details like floors and clothing, for example - tend to look more blurred.

My mind races to the Saturn emulators that were surfing around the internet a while back, and playing NiGHTS in hi-rez. To be perfectly honest, I preferred the original Sega Saturn look. I like that heavy brushstroke style, that boxy cubist look to Saturn graphics. It's what gives its games their character. On my PC, NiGHTS didn't really look all that hot.

My experience with the Project 64 emulator, which plays Nintendo 64, has been very similar. Then again, the graphics were nearly always terrible on N64, as if they were spray painted or slapped together by watercolors.

So, in any event, you can play Soul Calibur on your XBox. Good for you. I'll still prefer the Dreamcast version. In fact, I've been itching to get another DC for some time, if only so I can play the emulators, and Chu Chu Rocket, and NFL2K1....and Soul Calibur, for sure. You can probably score a console and some games from local used stores or Ebay for $40.

Oh, and one last obvious point for me to make. Dreamcast Soul Calibur really was the best in the series. The Superunknown of its day.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Photos of the Day - My Pro-Ject Debut III Turntable

Today, for no reason whatsoever, I'm posting photos of my current turntable. This is a Pro-Ject Debut III, a popular entry-level table. I bought it for $300, which is a steal when you're talking about hi-fi audio. Most turntables don't start to become interesting until you pass $1,000. That's just the table itself; a good phono cartridge is essential, as is a good phono pre-amp, and various tweaks and upgrades. Yep, analog music is a pricey hobby. It's truly a labor of love.

I've made a few upgrades to the Debut III. The standard-issue steel platter has been replaced with a clear acrylic platter, which deadens much of the outside sound and significantly improves sound quality. It also happens to look terrific - I really need to attach some blue lights to the back, so it can glow in the dark. You'll also notice all the gold - that's one of my personal tweaks, just to make the table look cooler. I used a can of gold spray paint, which has been the secret weapon in my artist's arsenal for a decade. Much of my artwork from 1998-2001 revolved around cans of gold spray paint.

The phono cartridge is another major upgrade. Pro-Ject Debut III comes with an Ortofon OM-5E cart attached, but it's barely adequate. In fact, it's a pretty terrible cartridge, enough to make you question why you didn't save up for a pricier table like the Pro-Ject Xpression III or RM-5. If you buy this turntable, upgrade the cart as quickly as possible. Have your dealer attach the new one in the store if you have no experience switching carts.

My cart is a Denon DL-160, a moving-coil cartridge that sells for $180. Sounds expensive? For a quality phono cart, this is still squarely in the "budget" range. It may seem like a lot of money, especially if your idea of playing music is switching on your iPod. In the world of analog music, you get what you pay for. And the Denon DL-160 is a fantastic cart. It will bring out details and depth of sound you never knew existed, and the sound is warm and silky smooth.

As music formats go, the vinyl LP is superior the CD and digital music. If you join the vinyl revival, you'll want to be able to prove that point to your doubting friends. So if you purchase a Debut III table, the acrylic platter and DL-160 cart will win your friends over. Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue have never sounded better to my ears.

And, yes, it is true that you will find an even better sound - more depth, larger soundstage, greater range - with more expensive turntables. But thanks to the fiscal management of Bush/Cheney and the Republican Party, the once Almighty Dollar is hobbled and broken. And all these wonderful turntables are becoming more and more expensive, thanks to currency exchanges. Which means your price point for the next level of tables is hovering around $1,000.

You will get what you pay for, but you also have to be a real dedicated audio junkie before you shell out that kind of money. At some point, you have to be practical about playing that Led Zeppelin IV that you paid three bucks for. So if you're curious about vinyl records ("vi-curious?"), then the Debut III is a good place to start the journey. You'll discover in time whether you get the "tinkering bug," whether the high-definition audio of analog speaks to you, whether you truly enjoy searching through used record shops like a pirate.

If you really get hooked, there's a whole crazy universe for you to discover. Tinkering, tweaking, and did I mention vaccuum tubes? Ah, yes, the glorious vaccuum tubes. My two next upgrades for my table include a Speed Box, which regulates the speed of the motor, tightens the sound, and allows me to play 33's and 45's at the press of a switch; and the Tube Box II, a phono pre-amplifier which includes two vaccuum tubes to enrich the sound. After that, time to purchase a pair of speaker stands (the kind you can fill with sand), and a new cabinet, one that's lower and can fit all the components of my ever-growing entertainment system.

It never ends, does it? But it's worth it, kids. Analog music really is worth it.

P.S. If you're curious about those brown squares supporting the table and the Marantz stereo (a 1977 classic I picked up for $65!), that's another one of my crucial tweaks. Because the phono cartridge's needle picks up everything - and I mean EVERYTHING - in your local environment, you need to isolate your components from vibrations and unneeded sounds. Everything that shakes and rumbles through your area, be it walking feet, the slamming doors, even cars driving down the road a quarter-mile away, muddies your sound. You need to decouple and isolate your system to get the most out of your sound.

There are many ideas you can try for little or no money, and this is a great way to discover if you have the tweaking bug (turntables are just like hot rods this way). What I used are vinyl floor panels (for kitchen tiles), cork board, and foam drawer liner. These can all be had very cheaply, and were also a good source for making your own platter mats (you won't need a mat with an acrylic platter).

The turntable and stereo receiver are set on a sandwich of vinyl floor panel, with alternating layers of cork and foam inside. This dramatically reduces outside noise, and greatly sharpens the sound of the music. There is greater seperation between instruments, each sound is more disctinct, there is greater depth in the background, and drumming is especially punchier, sharper, and more detailed. I wouldn't be boasting of this if it hadn't worked so well. It really improved the sound of my records enough to qualify as a major upgrade. By also moving the speakers two feet away from the wall and raising them off the ground, I've managed to add a couple thousand dollars to the sound.

So that's my final bit of advice for you. Before you decide to run off to the store and spend enormous sums of money to "upgrade" your sound system, give these tweaks a try. You'll achieve fantastic results and save your wallet in the process. You'll need that money when the Bush Depression hits.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Scott Ritter Speaks Out Against Iran War

Gee, haven't we been down this road before? Will somebody get the blobby Americans out of their hover-chairs and switch off the billboards for a moment? We need to get riled up very, very quickly before something terrible goes down. Can't think of a better time than the Fourth of July.

Here's Scott Ritter's latest interview on Bush/Cheney's upcoming air war against Iran. It's not big deal. It's only the end of the world, that's all.

Iraq Oil Pact Debases Our Nation

Robert Sheer's does a great impression of Howard Beale. Go read, kids. Enjoy.