Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Grim Reaper?

Um, Beck?  You are aware that there is no actual character named "The Grim Reaper," right?  Also, since I have your attention, remember "Old Man Winter?"  Not a real person.

Did the Republican Party just suddenly start taking bad mushrooms?  Is it just me, or have they completely lost their minds?

Fox News Still Pushing "Death Panels"

You know, at some point, even the dimmest among us must realize that Rupert Murdoch is just laughing at him.  If you're willing to buy "death panels," what would you balk at?  Things like this are a baseline test for human intelligence.

Conformity is Cowardice (The Stryper Sucks Mix)

(Originally written July 7, 2004)

First off, a few quick thoughts about the painting. This piece was created, like most of my computer-generated artwork, on Paint Shop Pro, using a various mix of nips, tucks, tweaks, and alterations. Much of it involves combining various graphical effects, while trying to keep a 'painterly' style. I don't want anything that looks pixelated; partially out of a sense of style, and party because I'd want these to look nice when blown up on paper of canvas.

This second "Conformity is Cowardice" simply the first one with the colors inverted. It just so happened to be yellow and black, so that's where the title comes from.

Ah, Stryper, the poster child for everything that was wrong about 1980s corporate pop. You see, it was a difficult time, when all common sense was thrown out the window, and America embraced one rediculously phony pose after another. Reality gave way to fantasy, the fat cats called all the shots, and the little people got the shaft. The Reagan Era, kids.

Seriously, everyone, pop music in the '80s was pretty bad. The worst of the worst was the fearsome plague known as...(dramatic pause)...Hair Metal.

Hair Metal was its own parody, a bizarre concoction of '70s glam rock, comic books, spandex, loads of hairspray, and every stupid cliche you could possibly think. High-screeching "singers," overly-flashy guitarists, drummers who spent more time twirling their drumsticks and winking at the cameras than actually drumming.

Every song fell into the same stupid categories: hey, look, everyone, we're rocking out! We're all dating models and actresses! I drive my flashy sports car down Hollywood Blvd. every night! Hey, kids, we're dangerous and rebellious, even though we wear more more mascara than Tammy Faye! And, yes, everything has an exclamation mark at the end; every photo was some phony, macho pose. Every video seemed to involve models being tied to cars or tent poles or cages; every song drowned in echo and reverb and way too many backup vocals.

Hair Metal brought out the Holden Caufield in anyone with half a brain, and it was torture to live through. Much like the Bush II Presidency, but with overpriced sound-and-light shows.

Somewhere in this tragic mix of Motley Crew and Poison and Whitesnake and Warrant and the Scorpions and Twisted Sister and Cinderella and Tesla, and too many other wannabees to mention, was Stryper. Now, this was an especially bad band, for all the above reasons, but they had a gimmick: religion.

Stryper posed as the "Christian" holy rockers in rediculous bumblebee suits. Ha ha ha! The yellow-and-black-attack is back! We're here to rock you! Yeah!! Ouch, somebody get me outta here.

Stryper gave us such great ideas as throwing small Bibles into the audience during their show. You know, that obscure work of Middle-Eastern literature; you may have heard of it. Stryper gave us such immortal anthems as, "To Hell With the Devil;" "Soldiers Under Command," "The Rock That Makes Me Wanna Roll."  And these are the songs that made the cut!

Didn't you love it when Stryper brought out their album, "In God We Trust"? Were they trying to be political with the dollar bill on the cover? You just feel sorry for them, because they couldn't possibly be trying to follow after the Dead Kennedy's and Metallica. That's like watching Tiny Tim play like Johnny Cash.

Losers. Stryper sucks. Bunch of phony corporate pretty-boy wanna-bees. Trying to turn religion into a corporate commodity just sealed the deal. You'd think someone would've pointed them towards Elvis, or Johnny Cash, or Aretha Franklin, or Bob Marley, or albums like Pet Sounds, A Love Supreme or John Wesley Harding. Heck, U2 was big in the '80s, and they've dealt with religion genuinely.

So, let's take a moment to remember Stryper, and remember that's what the punks and speed metal kids were rebelling against back then. Without Hair Metal and the Reagan Era, would we have had Husker Du, The Replacements, Dead Kennedy's? Socially concious protest music ala Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax? Don't forget rappers like Public Enemy, Run DMC, Sugar Hill Gang. All the real music was underground, plotting the overthrow, waiting for Saint Cobain to topple the whole fraudulant farce once and for all.

The moral lesson: Conformity is Cowardice. Stryper Sucks.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Future of Vinyl in a Digital Age

I discovered this excellent survey, "The Future of Vinyl in a Digital Age."  This survey is being conducted as research for a dissertation on the music industry.  I gave my typically over-lengthy answers to the questions, so I decided to share them here on the blog.

Feel free to fill out the survey and share your thoughts as well.  Enjoy!

4. Do you buy it at an online recordshop or a real recordshop or both? and explain your choice.

Minneapolis is blessed with a number of excellent vintage record stores, such as Uptown Cheapo, Hymie's Records, Roadrunner Records, and Treehouse Records. The circulation of rare and pristine albums is quite excellent, so with enough patience and dedication, you can find almost anything. There's a certain joy in searching for records, like digging through buried treasure. The discovery is as much a joy as the music itself. Also, there are many wonderful discoveries in the cheap, "dollar aisle."

5. Why do you buy vinyl instead of mp3 or cd ?

Analog music on LP remains the gold standard for recorded music. Think of analog as "high definition" music; and note that I specify "analog" because digital music is often pressed onto vinyl today, and this really makes little difference over CD. The analog sound waves are the key to the format's dominance. Dynamic range, depth of sound, the 3D space - these are what analog LP offers. A natural, lifelike reproduction of sound is possible, and this really becomes evident with more powerful turntables, phono cartridges, and stereo equipment. Finally, analog music feels more integrated; digital (cd/mp3/lossless) has a clarity that emphasizes separate instruments. It's like a car engine whose parts have been individually cleaned and polished. It's clear and precise, but lacking that sense of the whole. Does that make sense? Bottom line: analog is superior to digital. The world does not consist of zeros and ones. Life exists in the subtle spaces between the digits.

8. Do you think there's a future for vinyl in this digital age ? If yes what is your vision on this ? If no explain why not ?

You'll have to read my long answer to #9, which addresses this issue. Everything depends on the mindset of the music industry, which is to ask of them, is this a genuine LP revival, or a temporary and cheap cash-in? The analog LP is not just another market to dump the same digital files as CD and MP3. This truly is "high definition audio," and that must be respected.

Ironically, the futile arms race of "the loudness wars" is a golden opportunity for LPs. Compared to the horribly crushed, compressed low-fi haze of digital, high-definition analog has never sounded better. Simply sit someone down on the couch and play a Robert Ludwig press of Led Zeppelin II, or Jimi Hendrix's The Cry of Love. Play some classical or jazz, something with the depth and vast spaciousness that LPs are known for. Then compare this against the crushed, painful mush playing on the iPod.

Simply put, the format must be respected. Keen musicians are aware of this, and are creating albums in a purely all-analog format ("AAA"), even mastering exclusively for vinyl. The days of simply dumping a 44.1k CD master onto vinyl are coming to an end. Such cheap cash-ins sound terrible on any decent stereo system, and the market is discriminating enough to demand quality.

I don't expect the analog LP to ever be more than a niche market, a realm of the lucky few who know better. But this is how our Long Tail internet culture is evolving. TV sitcoms will always be more popular than Lenny Bruce or George Carlin or Bill Hicks. American Idol will always be more popular than Tom Waits or The White Stripes. This is a part of life. Hopefully, this Long Tail will remain profitable to sustain its niche scene for the forseeable future.
9. Do you think the real recordshop will keep existing ? If yes why ? if no why not ?
As long as there is a market for vinyl records, there will be a market for record shops. The major question is how long this current fad will continue. Sales of LPs are rising, and it's now expected for musicians to release their albums on LP (the smarter ones will continue to record in analog for LP). However, pressing plants have not built new equipment since the dawn of CD. The machinery is 25-30 years old, and that's going to become a greater concern, as repairs and maintainence become more and more expensive. Will demand for records increase to the point where new pressing equipment is built? Will a long-term committment be made by the music industry? Or will the "vinyl revival" fade? Will the analog LP finally fade when the baby boom generation dies?

Another concern is the hi-fi audio market. Manufacturers of audio gear continue to skew the wealthy upscale market, aging boomers who think nothing of spending $2,000 on turntables and carts. What does that leave the young college student, who's curious to discover LPs? The used market remains a fertile ground, and smart buyers can score excellent vintage tables for $100. On the down side, you're buying a 30-year-old turntable - the fact that these machines still perform is a miracle of engineering. But you're going to deal with aches and pains.

Today's modern turntables are horribly overpriced, and there's no excuse. Unlike digital music, analog LPs depend greatly on the proper equipment to unveil their brilliant sound. A cheap, plastic USB turntable will sound like junk. A vintage turntable, like my Sony PS-X5 (1977-79), will smash it to pieces. If you want a comparable sound from new hi-fi, you'll have to spend $700 for the Technics SL-1200 mkII, or $900 for the Rega P3-24.

Since most audio equipment is imported from abroad, the US market is vulnerable to price and currency fluctuations. Prices across the board have shot up in the past two years. This will be the major challenge to vinyl LP's long-term survival. The industry must nurture the younger generation, and respect the hi-fi audio realm. This is the challenge before the music business.

Theatre Chains Jacking Up the Prices on 3-D Movies

Brownie, yer doin' a heckuva job:

Beginning today, the Wall Street Journal reports that many major movie chains, including Regal Entertainment Group, Cinemark Holdings Inc. and AMC Entertainment Inc., are raising prices for 3-D movie tickets. It reflects the steepest price increase in a decade. 3-D ticket prices are rising by as much as 26% in some areas, though the average increase will be closer to 8%. The average increase for IMAX screens is 10%. Some theaters in metropolitan areas will be charging nearly $20 for IMAX admissions.

It's almost like Hollywood is daring us to download their movies for free. Remember when the music industry charged $20 for a Compact Disc?

At this moment in history, you couldn't pay me to be a Hollywood executive. Once enough kids figure out they can download Transformers 2 in a matter of minutes, instead of paying $15 at the multiplex....

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Virtual Console Review - Fatal Fury 2, Fatal Fury Special

Fatal Fury 2 - SNK for Neo-Geo - 5/10

There were many copycats to chase the Capcom's coattails after Street Fighter 2, and none were more dogged than SNK.  They really were determined to become the kings of fighting games, and this began with the Fatal Fury series.  Now, I have to be honest here: I'm not a great fan of SNK's fighters.

Fatal Fury 1 was a clunker of a game; its only appeal was being the only Street Fighter competitor at the time.  It was a flashy showoff for SNK's Neo-Geo system, but simply awful in every other respect.  I think Fatal Fury 2 was a much better improvement.  Graphics, animation, and color are simply superb, a striking improvement over the original.  Characters are large and detailed, and the roster is expanded.  They figured out the appeal of The Hot Chick, and

Sadly, I still don't think Fatal Fury is very good.  It's average at best.  SNK was at their best with run-and-gun shooters like Ikari Warriors and Iron Tank and Guerrilla War.  When Neo-Geo launched, the focus quickly turned to Double Dragon and Final Fight clones.  With Fatal Fury, they began to learn fighting games from ground zero.

Street Fighter 2 is immaculately balanced, precisely timed, and built on a strong foundation of cause-and-effect.  Each attack has a proper counterattack.  It's this elegance that makes the game a classic, even today.  I have as much fun playing Champion Edition on the PC Engine as anything.

Fatal Fury still doesn't have this elegant balance.  It's still clunky and slightly choppy and a bit slow.  There still aren't enough moves, and the animation still comes up short.  And, really, that two-plane idea just doesn't work.  It never worked.  I'm really not having fun with this game, but I can see the improvements, which leaves me hopeful for later installments.

Fatal Fury Special - SNK for Neo-Geo - 6/10

Hmm, perhaps SNK would be wiser to jump ahead to Garao: Mark of the Wolves.  Now there is a truly great fighting game.  Most of the later Neo-Geo fighters are excellent, in fact.  There's Art of Fighting 3, Last Blade 1 and 2, there's Sunsoft's quirky Waku Waku 7.  Why not release those games, instead of the clunkier, chunkier early titles?

Fatal Fury Special is the third title in the series, more of a slight reworking of Fatal Fury 2.  I'd say it's the better game of the two, slightly more refined and polished.  I understand the fighting system has been completely revamped, introducing combos into the series.  It's a subtle improvement and it helps.  The number of characters has been increased as well, and you can already see the SNK roster exploding at the seams.

I'm still struggling to enjoy myself.  Perhaps I'm just not very good at this series.  But I'm perfectly fine with Street Fighter 2, and I'm perfectly fine with the latter Neo-Geo titles.  FF Special is still a learning experience for SNK, as if they were searching for Capcom's magic formula.  In all fairness, I don't think this is a bad game, and it is better than most of the hideous SF2 clones from the early '90s.  But everything you can level against Fatal Fury 2 can be leveled at Special.

Getting better, yet still not there.

2000-2009 Warmest Decade on Record

The World Meterological Organization has now weighted in, reaching the same conclusions as NASA.  The last decade was the warmest on record.

So, kids, let's check the scoreboard.  On one side, the Republican Party, the guys who gave you Weapons of Mass Destruction, Death Panels, and Obama's Birth Certificate.  On the other side, NASA, the guys responsible for landing twelve men on the moon.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Wife Beater Defense

Republicans are employing the "wife beater defense" as incidents of violence increase in recent days:

Beck: You see, what they've done is they've radicalized The Man. These people are in the center, but who's down here? They know that these people always lose -- because they experienced it. The crazy teabaggers in the streets.

Why would a government continue to poke you, and poke you, and poke you, and poke you? Why would they say these things? Why have these people said these things about good Americans? Because they need to separate these people from these people. 

I'll keep that in mind after the next Timothy McVeigh detonates a bomb and kills innocent people.  The GOP has been whipping its base into a state of apocalyptic fear and loathing.  This is going to erupt in very real violence if it isn't stopped.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Photos - Cave Story on Nintendo WiiWare

This Monday saw the long-awaited release of what is easily the most anticipated title on Nintendo's WiiWare service - Daiske Amaya's Cave Story. This game is hailed as a modern masterpiece, ever since its original 2004 PC shareware release. Fans of sprawling adventures like Metroid and Blaster Master will be thrilled.

These screenshots come courtesy of Nicalis, the studio responsible for the WiiWare version. They have completely redesigned the graphics and music, new character designs by Amaya, and numerous all-new gameplay modes. I can't wait to get my hands on this game and see if it lives up to the hype.

A key reason for Cave Story's legendary status among gamers: Amaya-san designed and created the game entirely by himself, over a period of five years. This is a feat unheard of since the humble 8-bit days of the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64. That it was released as freeware is also remarkable. We will be hearing a lot more about Studio Pixel in the coming years. No question about that.

Virtual Console Review - Drop Off

Drop Off - Data East for PC Engine/Turbografx-16 - 2/10

What the heck is this?! It feels like a car crash involving Breakout or Arkanoid with Bubble Bobble. It doesn't even remotely work. This is a concept of a game that should never have left the test stage. Perhaps the problem is that you control a creepy eyeball instead of a paddle. That was a terrible idea. Most likely, the basic premise simply doesn't work, and it never will.

Drop Off is a terrible, awful, no-good video game. You have so many better titles available on Virtual Console. The PC Engine/Turbografx has many great games. This is not one of them. Please don't waste your precious money on this junk. Such a move is the textbook definition of waste, and the greatest sin in this life is to waste your precious time. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, dear readers.

I'm really only interested in writing these sort of reviews for completion's sake. I tell myself it would be nice to have a complete database of Virtual Console reviews. Any prospective book publishers should be impressed. Can I have an advance now?

Virtual Console Review - Digital Champs

Digital Champ - Naxat for PC Engine/Turbografx-16 - 2/10

This is the song that doesn't end...Yes it goes on and on, my friend...Some start singing it not knowing was it was...And then they'll start singing forever just because...This is the song that doesn't end...

I'm really beginning to think Devil's Crush was the only great game Naxat ever made. How else can I explain a clunker like Digital Champ? This boxing game is terrible. In fact, it's worse than terrible: it's mindlessly boring. I won't give out extremely low scores in my reviews unless the video game is somehow broken or unplayable, and such things are often subjective. But I say this game qualifies.

Digital Champ is a boxing game that appeared on the PC Engine in 1989. It should have stayed in Japan. This is a game so mindless, so dull, so lacking in tension or passion that it barely qualifies as anything more than a glorious 16-bit graphics demo. Yes, the large fighters were impressive at the time, especially when compared to NES/Famicom games. But shallow beauty fades; there's no depth beneath the surface.

Obviously, when any gamer thinks of boxing, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out immediately comes to mind. It's a classic game - fast, intense, challenging, fun. Digital Champ is like a mirror image; it gets nearly everything disastrously wrong. Punching is all button mashing and zero strategy. The opposing boxer shifts into the center of the screen, where they can be hit, sliding like a cardboard cutout. You can only throw high or low punches, and only angled to the center.

Moving or dodging is strangely sluggish. You have to press the joypad and then release it before moving. This renders strategy useless, since you cannot dodge incoming punches. You can try to bob and weave, but you're just shaking the camera around. And you can't throw punches when moving or devise combos. It's just tap-tap-tap. The computer opponent slides around, even moves into the background. So I'm reduced to tapping button and hoping he walks into the punch, like a cheap carnival attraction.

The worst offense? This game is agonizingly, dreadfully slow. One useless round grinds into another. My first opponent, a Rocky Balboa ripoff, took my endless barrage of punches, but he would never go down. After two or three rounds, I finally knocked him to the canvas. Count to eight, he rises again, and his strength is nearly full again. Augh! I must have punched this guy a hundred times, and he just gets back up and take a hundred more. Finally, after an eternity of button mashing, Rocky finally goes down in the 7th for good. Turn it off, off, OFF. Sigh.

Hudson did an excellent job bringing the US Turbografx titles to Virtual Console. Now they need to be careful about bringing the strongest PC Engine games, not the clunkers. There are still many great games - Gradius 1, Salamander, Twin Cobra, Tatsujin, Daisenpu, Raiden, Xevious, Image Fight...shooters, yes, but those were the PC Engine's bread and butter. I don't see what the hangup is. These are free rom dumps; it's free money. Please, Hudson, don't drop the ball now.

Health Care Reform: What's in it for Me?

Good question.  Here's a handy list of the immediate benefits of the new health care law.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee

The moral lesson of the day: Don't pick a fight with Barack Obama.  You may get in a lot of early punches, but he'll slowly wear you down, all the while waiting for the knockout blow.  It can be maddening at times to watch in real time, but there can be no doubt any longer this President is a resilient fighter.

Sullivan says it best:

It's called contrast and compare. If the bill becomes more popular, what people will remember is that the GOP did all they could to kill it, and every tea-party meltdown will be in the minds of voters.

Obama's genius is not attacking his opposition head-first. It is patiently assisting its self-destruction. First Clinton; then McCain; then Palin; now the GOP as a whole.

Photos - Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest

Yesterday, while adding the Virtual Console and Videogame Classics archives, I had to repost my essay on Simon's Quest.  I also snapped a number of photos for the old review, so now I'm giving them a proper "screenshots" post.

Castlevania fans thrilled that Dracula X: Rondo of Blood (PC Engine CD) is finally available on the Virtual Console.  I haven't touched the television set in a week (spinning records on my stereo is far better), but I have played the game and I love it.  Very stylish and artistic and deeply challenging; I especially love the early level where you walk through a devestated town, in homage to Simon's Quest.  Yeeeh!.

I highly recommend adding Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest to your Virtual Console, especially if you're a fan of NES action-adventure games like Zelda 2, Metroid and Blaster Master.

The Pump Don't Work 'Cause the Vandals Took the Handles

Vandals hurled rocks and bricks against a number of Democratic offices across the country, in wake of the passing of the historic health care bill.

I remember back during the 2008 Republican Convention in St. Paul, and some punk kids threw rocks at windows.  This completely justified an army of armored police and SWAT teams and proved that all protestors were violent anarchists.  Funny how times change.

Joe Biden Stimulates Economy With Flowing, Eloquent Rhetoric

Hah hah hah!  This is just too funny.  The nation's stand-up comedians are always thankful for you, Mr. Vice President.  Don't ever effin' change.

Stop Giving Us Heart Attacks

Fer cryin' out loud, Senator Baucus is going to give us all panic attacks.  Stop doing that!  Just pass the damn thing already and sent it to the President's desk.

Sometimes I think these politicians say these things just for kicks.

The Upside to Winning

The upside to winning is that it's contagious.  People like a winner.  And as Obama aggressively sells his new health care law, public support will grow.  Come back in six months, and we'll see some dramatic changes in the poll numbers.

It's evident to all that political fortunes rise and fall with the winds in America, so it's far too early for predictions about the November elections.  But I the Democrats are in a much stronger position than many realize.  If the economy shows improvement, if Obama can sell the benefits of his signature legislation, and if the Republicans continue to pursue its nihilist absolutism, then...well stay tuned, kids.  This football game is gettin' fun.

The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, But it Bends Toward Justice

Here's what the new health care law provides American citizens in its first year:

*Insurance companies will be barred from dropping people from coverage when they get sick. Lifetime coverage limits will be eliminated and annual limits are to be restricted.

*Insurers will be barred from excluding children for coverage because of pre-existing conditions.

*Young adults will be able to stay on their parents' health plans until the age of 26. Many health plans currently drop dependents from coverage when they turn 19 or finish college.

*Uninsured adults with a pre-existing conditions will be able to obtain health coverage through a new program that will expire once new insurance exchanges begin operating in 2014.

*A temporary reinsurance program is created to help companies maintain health coverage for early retirees between the ages of 55 and 64. This also expires in 2014.

*Medicare drug beneficiaries who fall into the "doughnut hole" coverage gap will get a $250 rebate. The bill eventually closes that gap which currently begins after $2,700 is spent on drugs. Coverage starts again after $6,154 is spent.

*A tax credit becomes available for some small businesses to help provide coverage for workers.

*A 10 percent tax on indoor tanning services that use ultraviolet lamps goes into effect on July 1.

Communism!  The Soviet Union has taken over America!!  Who's that over there..?  Is that...it is!  It's Zombie Kruchev, rising from the grave!  Zombie Kruchev is attacking the countryside...oh noes!!1!

Now, to all our conservative friends...don't you feel silly?  Wasn't health care reform a big mess over nothing?  There is a very simple reason why Republicans are so vehemently opposed to President Obama's health care reform - the American people are going to love this.  It's going to take a while, and the Democrats have their work cut out for them, but once the details of health care reform become known, they will become very popular with the voters.

The Republican Party had a choice to work with Obama, to influence the direction of the health care bill, to contribute concrete and useful ideas for the better of the nation.  Instead, they threw it all away and bet everything on nihilism.  They followed the drugged rantings of Rush Limbaugh, and the comical paranoid theatre of Glenn Beck.  Death panels!  Communism!  Gov'mint takeover!  Freedom!  Wolverines!

Where did that get you?  Who does such a scorched-earth policy benefit?  How does this benefit the nation and its citizens?  Does such paranoia and fear make us a better people, a kinder people?  No.  It is a failure.  As Dr. King promised, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.  Hope will always triumph over fear in the end.  Obama's great victory is a triumph for justice and equality for all Americans.

And as Andrew Sullivan loves to say...meep meep.

NASA Predicts Global Temperature Record in 2010

The latest draft paper from NASA's Goddard Institute, "Current GISS Global Surface Temperature Analysis," which asserts that 2010 almost certainly will be the hottest year on record.  As always, Climate Progress has the details from the preliminary report, so be sure to give them your thanks and support.

Despite the aggressive efforts to discredit modern science and confuse the public, the globe continues to burn, and the pollution continues to increase.  Sticking your fingers in your ears and fantasizing about vast liberal conspiracies, communist takeovers, and "death panels" are not helping.  A three-year-old child throwing a tantrum because he wants his cookie...this is not how a civilized society behaves.  Our grandchildren's future, their very survival, is at stake, and there's precious little time to act.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I Redesigned the Site Yet Again

Yeah, couldn't ya tell?  This is what I've been doing with my evening, redesigning and tweaking Daniel Thomas Vol 4.  I think it looks really damn cool, and better than ever.  It's a simpler design, and that's because of Blogger's new template feature, which enables more customization than ever.  I really like it and hope they can add more templates to the mix.

I prefer a darker screen that's easier on my eyes.  The standard black text on white background just gives me headaches.  It's like staring into a lamp all day long, and just hurts my head after a long period of time.  No, thanks.  This is standard in web design because it's easiest, and also because working with colors (and "web-safe" colors, at that) is so much more challenging.  You can so easily create a webpage that's overrun in garish and clashing colors - the bane of '90s web design.

I hope I'm more successful in 2010.  A blog really shouldn't focus on visual design, anyway.  Usability is the prime directive in this field - ease of navigation, finding what you need, yadda yadda.  But I'm an artist, and I need a site that looks attractive and colorful.  I think I've done a good job, although much of this is still subject to revision.  We'll see how it goes.

Enjoy Vol 4, kids!

Vol 4 Update - Reviews Archives Now Available

I've made a couple revisions to this blog.  All of the Videogame Classics and Virtual Console reviews are now accessable from a single post.  I've added in a couple link bubbles on the third column.  Hopefully this should make this site easier to navigate and easier on the eyes.  This should also help keep the content in balance between the three major topics - politics, music, and games.

Ideally, I'd like to add some photos like I do on The Ghibli Blog, so maybe I'll tinker around with that later.  My main concern is that this site is easy to read and easy to navigate.  Goodness knows I make things complicated enough by rambling on so many different themes.  Between Vol 4 and The Ghibli Blog, there's a lot to read, and I always seem to have a lot to say.  Hopefully, I've done a good job as a writer to keep you engaged and entertained.

As always, my deepest thanks to every one of you for visiting.  You are very kind and generous to share your time with me, and this community would not be possible without your support.

Videogame Classics - Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest

Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest - Konami for NES - 10/10

Hooray! Everybody has a number of classic games that they wait eagerly for. They buy themselves a couple Wii Classic Controllers just for the occasion. Well, folks, here's mine.

A little backstory for everyone first. As a teenager, Castlevania was my favorite videogame series. This was sometimes contested by Super Mario and Contra and Ninja Gaiden, but it always came back to this. It was also a favorite with many of my oldest friends from Duluth, Minnesota. If you were sick of the winter weather that day - and, kids, this was back in the day when we actually had winters...back when we had polar ice caps - just turn on the Nintendo, then turn it off, then turn it on and off again, then pull out the cartridge and blow on the ends, then pop it back in, turn it on....and start playing.

Um, yeah, by the way? If you ever find the person who actually designed the NES, please punch him in the stomach for me. Anyway, let's get back...

Castlevania! It's part gothic, part monster movie, part serious, part jokey, and all hardcore gamer fun. These were the tough games, the ones you blistered your fingers trying to beat. Just how are you supposed to get through all those armored knights? Slash, slash, jump, that's how. You have to be fast, too. This becomes something of a bonding experience for everyone involved. Many grownups assumed that one person is playing, and all the friends are merely watching, but that's not the case. We're all in this together. Castlevania's the prime example in my case.

Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest was my favorite NES game. It still is. Played it to death through high school, at least until we all got to that point where were were all hopelessly stuck. This is a fiendishly tough game. Like many Nintendo games of its day, it's more of an adventure quest than an arcade game. Blaster Master, Rygar, Zelda, Guardian Legend - just a few titles off the top of my head. The NES couldn't compete on the graphics front, so developers resorted to deep, lengthy adventures instead. It was the smarter choice, I think. This is why I often lament the poor choice in Virtual Console titles for the NES. Some of its best games have never been bettered, because technology enabled software makers to take a simpler route.

I've discovered over the years that Simon's Quest has a mixed reputation because of this. Many gamers prefer the straighforward action of the original Castlevania, and they felt Konami strayed from their roots. As it turns out, everyone has it completely backward. The long-running series began, not with Castlevania (or Demon Castle Dracula, as it's known in Japan), but as Vampire Killer on the MSX computer. The game was an adventure game, using single screens instead of a scrolling environment. The settings were identical to the first Castlevania, only with different arrangements and a more adventure-minded style.

There's actually a bit of dispute about this, since Vampire Killer and the Castlevania we all know both appeared within weeks of each other. You could say that this was the stripped-down version, created due to the MSX's scrolling limitations. However, Symphony of the Night challenges all that. Now, the Castlevania series follows in the mold of MSX Vampire Killer and NES Simon's Quest.

In any case, it's far easier to appreciate Simon's Quest today, after all the post-Symphony titles in the series. I can't imagine what any fan would find wanting. There's just as much to fight and just as many enemies to kill. Only now you're fighting through the forests and villages of Transylvania, and stuggling to figure out where all those other castles are hiding.

For me, this was the greatest thing about Simon's Quest - it's atmosphere. There's such a wonderful Bavarian style to these lands, to the designs of the towns, the way everything is build with those damn stone blocks. It was the most compelling and believable game world I had seen up to that point. People walking by are always eager to offer advice or hints; I was floored when I discovered that most of what these people have to say is, frankly, bullshit. Ahem.

This is a great sendup of all those adventure and role-playing games in which every civilian has some key piece of information that's useful only to you, and only at that moment. It's all so contrived. Konami clearly felt so, and they decided to mess with our heads. This is a great game for messing with heads. You can explore most of the countryside, find such things as flames for your morning star, or secret books, or crystal balls. But you'll be damned if you can ever get beyond that first castle. Dracula's first castle is a gimmie, it's right out on the main road. The others are deftly hidden away. It took me and my peer group years to finally figure it out.

Sure, you boast that you won't get stumped. Then again, you can just go online and look at the solutions at gamefaqs. Heck, most major games have cheat books that walk you by the hand all the way through. You have an easy out. Kind of defeats the whole point of playing an adventure game, I would argue. We didn't have those options in the late '80s. The solution to discovering Dracula's second castle relied upon a gameplay maneuver that wasn't even revealed in the instruction book. You were just expected to solve it yourself. You kids today are coddled.

If you can somehow withhold the temptation to reach for those easy cheats, you'll really see how challenging and mysterious Simon's Quest truly is. Like most adventure games, and most riddles, it loses a degree of mystique once the secret is revealed, so it's far more rewarding to struggle and sweat it out by yourselves. I don't even want you reading the Simon's Quest strategy guide I wrote for the first issue of V, my old zine. No! Bad toad! Bad toad!

Like all the classic Castlevanias (meaning, frankly, all the ones before Symphony), this game is deeply challenging without ever feeling unfair. You're never placed into an impossible situation, nor left underpowered against foes. It's a brilliant example of game design from the NES era, just as it's a perfect example of Konami's skill. This series may have long since lost its lustre, but back then, the NES days? Konami were the kings back then, baby. They were the kings.

Virtual Console - Review Archive

The Virtual Console Review Archive is an ongoing list of reviews for games available on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console service. As more essays are written, they will be added to the master list.

Nintendo Entertainment System

Adventure Island
Adventures of Lolo
Balloon Fight
Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest
Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong Jr
Donkey Kong Jr Math
Ice Hockey
Lunar Pool
M.A.C.H. Rider
Mario Bros
NES Play Action Football
Ninja Gaiden
Ninja JaJa Maru Kun
Solomon's Key
Super C
Super Mario Bros
Super Mario Bros 2
The Legend of Kage
The Legend of Zelda
Urban Champion
Wario Woods

Sega Master System

Everything on Sega Master System Sucks

PC Engine / Turbografx-16

Air Zonk
Alien Crush
Bomberman '93
Bonk 3: Bonk's Big Adventure
Bonk's Adventure
China Warrior
Devil's Crush
Digital Champ
Double Dungeons
Dragon Spirit
Drop Off
Dungeon Explorer
Final Soldier
Galaga '90
Legend of Hero Tonma
Lords of Thunder (CD)
Military Madness
Moto Roader
Neutopia 2
Power Golf
Samurai Ghost
Soldier Blade
Street Figher 2: Champion Edition
Super Star Soldier
Victory Road
World Class Baseball

Sega Genesis

Alien Soldier
Altered Beast
Bonanza Bros
Comix Zone
Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine
Ecco 2: The Tides of Time
Ecco the Dolphin
Gain Ground
Ghouls "N Ghosts
Golden Axe
Golden Axe 3
Gunstar Heroes
Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi
Shining in the Darkness
Shinobi 3: Return of the Ninja Master
Sonic 3 and Knuckles
Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Space Harrier 2
Street Fighter 2: Special Champion Edition
Streets of Rage 3
Super Thunder Blade
Toejam and Earl

Super Nintendo Entertainment System

Breath of Fire 2
Castlevania 4
Contra 3: The Alien Wars
Ghoul Patrol
Harvest Moon
Kirby's Avalanche
Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
R-Type 3
Sim City
Street Fighter 2 Turbo
Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior
Super Mario World
Super Metroid


Art of Fighting
Art of Fighting 2
Baseball Stars 2
Blue's Journey
Burning Fight
Fatal Fury
Fatal Fury 2
Fatal Fury Special
King of the Monsters
Magician Lord
Neo Turf Masters
Ninja Combat
Ninja Commando
Samurai Shodown
Samurai Shodown 2
The King of Fighters '94
Top Hunter
World Heroes

Nintendo 64

F-Zero X
Mario Kart 64
Super Mario 64
Wave Race 64
Yoshi's Story

Videogame Classics - Review Index

This is the official database for the Videogame Classics Reviews. All of the video game essays can be accessed here, and this list will be updated as new reviews are written.

Advance Wars 2 - Gameboy Advance
Anarchy in the Nippon - Sega Saturn
Ballblazer - Atari 800
Batsugun - Sega Saturn
Blue Lightning - Atari Lynx
California Games - Atari Lynx
Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest - NES
Chip's Challenge - Atari Lynx
Clubhouse Games - Nintendo DS
Devil's Crush - PC Engine / Turbografx-16
Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime - Nintendo DS
Electrocop - Atari Lynx
F-Zero X - Nintendo 64
Fire Shark - Sega Genesis
Ghouls 'N Ghosts - Sega Genesis
Grow - Online
Gunstar Heroes - Sega Genesis
Herzog Zwei - Sega Genesis
Hikaru no Go 2 - Gameboy Advance
Just Dance - Nintendo Wii
Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer - Gameboy Advance
Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past - Super NES
Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap - Gameboy Advance
Motoracer Advance - Gameboy Advance
M.U.L.E. - Atari 800
Montezuma's Revenge - Atari 800
Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory - Atari 800
Ms. Pac-Man - Arcades
Neo Turf Masters - Neo-Geo
Neutopia 2 - PC Engine / Turbografx-16
NFL 2K1 - Sega Dreamcast
NiGHTS Into Dreams - Sega Saturn
Ninja Gaiden - NES
Panic! (Switch) - Sega CD
Robotron: 2084 - Arcades
Samurai Showdown 2 - Neo-Geo
Sega Rally Championship Sega Saturn
Seven Cities of Gold - Atari 800
Shanghai - Atari Lynx
Shinobi 3: Return of the Ninja Master - Sega Genesis
Sonic 3 & Knuckles Sega Genesis
Sonic CD - Sega CD
Sonic the Hedgehog - Sega Genesis
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 - Sega Genesis
Steep Slope Sliders - Sega Dreamcast
Street Fighter 3: Third Strike - Sega Dreamcast
Strider - Sega Genesis
Super Bomberman 2 - Super NES
Super Mario Galaxy - Nintendo Wii
Super Mario World - Super NES
Super Metroid - Super NES
Thunder Force 3 - Sega Genesis
Todd's Adventures in Slime World - Atari Lynx
Virtual Kasparov - Gameboy Advance
Wario Ware Twisted - Gameboy Advance
Warlords - Atari 2600
Wii Music - Nintendo Wii
World Series Baseball 98 - Sega Saturn
Worldwide Soccer 97 - Sega Saturn
Xevious - Atari 7800
Xevious - PC Engine

Virtual Console Review - Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi (Genesis)

Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi - Sega for Genesis - 7/10

What exactly is the "secret of Shinobi," anyway?  Does it involve his long lost childhood?  A pirate treasure chest in his attic?  He's really OJ Simpson under that mask  Hmm...actually, that would make for a really interesting surprise ending.

Shadow Dancer was a very solid and very well made action game for the Sega Genesis.  Its only mistake was arriving after a genuine masterpiece called The Revenge of Shinobi.  That's like your band taking to the stage after Jimi Hendrix.  It just ain't gonna happen, and everybody knows it.

It's the same situation today on Virtual Console.  You have the option of downloading not only Revenge of Shinobi, but its direct sequel, Shinobi 3: Revenge of the Ninja Master.  Hmm, maybe that was Shadow Dancer's mistake - they used "Secret" in the title instead of "Revenge."  The moral lesson, kids: "Revenge" and "Ninjas" always go together.

Anyway, I'm getting distracted.  And that's really the larger issue here.  Shadow Dancer is the short kid in the family, the one who's always picked last, the one who's always overlooked.  This isn't entirely unearned.  After all, the game is a fairly conventional and fairly short (only 5 levels) action game.  It's the one title in the series that plays like the original arcade Shinobi, but it feels safe, unambitious.  The designers took no risks or pushed no boundaries.  They just created a very playable, very solid Genesis game.

I think that's a very fair assessment.  Shadow Dancer is a very good game.  It has some really impressive moments, like that climb up the Statue of Liberty, and those rolling flames in the background at the start.  The dog is a fine companion, and he helps dispatch the bad guys.  I especially enjoyed the option to turn off the throwing stars, which makes the game more tactical, more stealthy.  Having unlimited throwing stars is like handing Shinobi a gun.  Take them away, and, well, he gets all ninja on your hide.  It's more fun to play that way.

I really wish this game was longer.   I really wish the ninja magic was more impressive.  I really wish it was more than 4 megabits.  Shadow Dancer was released in 1991, after the 8 meg barrier had been broken.  Moreover, I just wish there was more game.  Is that a praise or a critique?  Both, actually.  This is a solid example of the kind of action games Sega could churn out easily on the Genesis.  These were the system's bread and butter, like shooters on the Turbografx and RPGs on the Super NES.

Shadow Dancer is a very good game, so it wins my endorsement.  But be sure to get the other Shinobi titles first, okay?  Good.

Virtual Console Review - Final Soldier (Turbografx-16)

Final Soldier - Hudson for Turbografx - 8/10

Final Soldier is the second of three games of the Star Soldier series to appear on the PC Engine/Turbografx, fitting nicely between Super Star Soldier and Soldier Blade.  This is probably the signature series of scrolling shoot-em-ups on the system, much like the Thunder Force games on the Genesis.  It's a standard of quality.

All three games are excellent, and you'll be more than happy to waste an hour or two blasting spaceships and dodging bullets.  Very little of substance separates one from the others, and this will be a weakness for anyone who isn't already a dedicated fan.  You may have bought Super Star Soldier when it was released on Virtual Console, and you're not feeling the urge to play through another set of levels.  Fair enough.

For the fans, I think Final Soldier is an excellent game.  Perhaps it's easy to overlook, since it is the middle child, but the superb graphics, impressive weaponry, and challenging gameplay will keep you coming back.  I know, I know, that reads like the back of the game box.  It's an arcade shooter.  You shoot aliens with cool weapons and try not to get killed.  This is not rocket science.

Japanese arcade shooters were immensely popular in the late '80s to early '90s, and these were the defining "hardcore" games before Street Fighter 2 came along.  These were the games that tested your skills the hardest, and offered the loudest bragging rights.  And don't kid yourself, this is a tough game.  The Soldier series may not have R-Type's reputation for difficulty; it's more subtle, it slowly builds over the levels.  Just wait until the fifth mission, and you've just been shot down.  Then you'll enjoy some short bursts of terror.

I have no idea why the PC Engine had so many shooters.  It seems like those were the only games being made for the system, in between the CD RPGs and the lame platformers.  You can see that Hudson had their formula down cold.  Final Soldier gets my thumbs-up, and I heartily recommend adding all three Soldiers to your Virtual Console.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Virtual Console Review - Shockman (Turbografx-16)

Shockman - NCS for Turbografx-16 - 3/10

For reasons I've never understood, the PC Engine/Turbografx was home to a thousand excellent space shoot-em-ups, but hardly any good action-platformers.  When it comes to competing with Super Mario or Contra or Mega Man, the system's games just cannot compete.  Why is this so?  I really don't know.  Sometimes in life, these things just happen.

If you're feeling generous, then NCS' Shockman might pass as mediocre, but I say it's just terrible.  I don't see any reason to waste your time on a shallow Mega Man ripoff when you could just as easily play Mega Man.  And if you're paying to play on Nintendo's Virtual Console, there's really no excuse.  The controls on this game are so floaty, so slow, that Shockman feels unplayable.  It's broken.  Simple as that.  And any degree of play testing would have born this out.

This doesn't feel like a console game.  It feels like a C-list arcade game from the mid-'80s, the kind of sloppy game that would be tried once and then immediately forgotten.  Save yourself the quarter and move straight to the forgetting.  How did NCS drop the ball on this one?  Maybe they were only skilled at making space shooters (they designed Gley Lancer on the Mega Drive/Genesis).  Whatever.  This game stinks.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Photos - Soldier Blade (PC Engine/Turbografx)

Some screenshots of Soldier Blade, the third and final game of the Star Soldier series to appear on the PC Engine/Turbografx-16.  Of the three games on the system - Super Star Soldier, Final Soldier, and Soldier Blade - this easily has the sharpest and most colorful graphics.  Large robots and spaceships bound out of the screen, assaulting you from every angle, across space, land and air.  The large color palette is put to maximum use, and this is one of the best-looking games of the 16-bit era.

The gameplay is so similar across all three Soldiers, so if you've played one, you've played them all.  But they're such excellent games that you'll be happy to download all three to your Nintendo Virtual Console.  They're only six bucks a pop, so I say collect 'em all.  This is perfect for short bursts and longer soda-fueled nights of blasting aliens and cranking out the stereo.  At least, that's what we teenagers did in the early '90s.

One nice touch is the choice between standard and "arcade" view.  The arcade view makes the screen more vertical, like the arcade shoot-em-ups.  For whatever reason, overhead shooters used vertical monitors and that's always been a challenge to translate to the home.  Smart thinking on Hudson's part.  Excellent game.

President Obama Speaks on Eve of Historic Health Care Vote

President Obama spoke to the House Democratic caucus this afternoon, and delivered a terrific speech. He was speaking off the cuff, but you get the sense this is the same speech he has delivered to members of Congress behind the scenes. By now, he's got this down cold. I've not seen him this relaxed while delivering a major speech. He is displaying great confidence, and that optimism will catch on.

I still can't believe we're less than a day away from the final votes on health care reform. It feels like this has gone on forever, and, frankly, I still won't believe it until Obama signs it into law. This will be a tremendous victory for the young President. A tremendous victory.

Friday, March 19, 2010

I Me Mine

What is the greatest barrier to enacting health care reform in this country?  Americans are selfish:

And this has really been the uphill climb from the beginning. Progressives—ranging from single-payer advocates to centrist technocrats—all have a variety of visions of systematic change we’d like to impose on the system. But most people with private insurance are happy with the insurance they have until they get sick. And most people have insurance. And most non-elderly people are pretty healthy. And the elderly have a nice single-payer system all set up for them already. Under the circumstances, persuading people to be broad-minded and expand these benefits to everyone is a bit of a tough sell. But the polling on health reform, while not great, isn’t so bad anymore.

Photos - Twin Cobra (Kyuukyoku Tiger) (PC Engine)

A pair of photos from the excellent PC Engine translation of Toaplan's Twin Cobra, or Kyuukyoku Tiger as it's known in Japan.  Somebody out there needs to secure the rights to the Toaplan catalog - home to some of the greatest arcade shoot-em-ups ever made.  And Hudson, or whoever is in charge, needs to release this game on the Virtual Console.

Twin Cobra was my favorite arcade shooter back in the late '80s, and turned me into a diehard Toaplan fan.  They pretty much wrote the book on vertically-scrolling arcade shoot-em-ups.  These games were tough as nails but never cheap, and always addicting.  The PC Engine had the best home version of Twin Cobra (the NES and Genesis versions were disappointments), very detailed and fast and intense.  Fire up Magic Engine on your computer and see for yourself.

C'mon, Hudson.  Make some phone calls.  Bring this game to the Virtual Console.

Photos - R-Type (PC Engine/Turbografx)

Some terrific screenshots from the stunning PC Engine/Turbografx version of R-Type.  Released five months after the launch of the PC Engine in March, 1988, this spectacular arcade translation became the console's killer-app and cemented its place as the king of arcade shoot-em-ups.

R-Type's fame has lessened somewhat 20+ years later, as scrolling shooters have all but disappeared in the 3D polygon age.  But its impact can never be overstated.  For all intents and purposes, R-Type defined side-scrolling shooters as much as Konami's Gradius.

This is what "hardcore game" used to mean years ago, before the phrase was hijacked by insecure, overgrown nerds who are determined to turn video games into movies.  This game is brutally hard and will kick you around like a tin can.  Here is a true test of the gamer's skills.  If you want "casual games," then get a Playstation 3 and passively sit through endless Final Fantasy and Hard Rain cut scenes.  Real hardcore gamers prefer to bruise their fingers shooting aliens in R-Type.

Photos - Street Fighter 2: Special Champion Edition (Genesis)

Aha!  I knew I was doing something wrong.  It turns out that my Gens emulator was playing SF2 in the wrong country mode.  That explains why it was playing so slow.  After switching to "USA," everything snapped back into place as it should, and the game is fast and speedy as ever.  Yay!

Now we're back to a three-way tie with the PC Engine and Super Nintendo again.  Heh heh.

Since I've posted photos from the other versions of Street Fighter 2, I have to show off the Genesis Special Champion Edition.  The graphics on this version are darker, and there's a stronger contrast, compared to the others.  But that's a consequence of Genesis' ability to display only 64 colors out of  a palette of 512.  Why Sega didn't opt for more colors in the design remains a mystery.  Look at what 256/512 does for the PC Engine.

On the upside, Genesis SF2 has the most animation of all the home versions.  The arcade intro is included, the countdown animations are present, and more moves are preserved.  These are all good bragging points, and demonstrate that Capcom genuinely worked hard to push the Genesis to its limits.  They worked their tails off and it shows.