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Atari vs Nintendo

Every time a major anniversary for either system comes along, discussion of how the NES saved the videogame industry after the disastrous Atari 2600 comes with it. Your opinion of Atari vs Nintendo probably depends on your age.

I have to admit I scratch my head as I read this stuff. Did the people who write it live through both of them? By what measure was the 2600 a disaster? I can’t help but speak out in defense of Atari a bit.

Read More »Atari vs Nintendo

How to read electronics schematics

If you want to read electronics schematics, first you have to know what the symbols mean.

I found this link on electronics symbols this morning. It’s new to me.

I don’t know how many people actually try to read schematics and fix or build things anymore, but since it looks like I may be able to pick up a little extra cash by assembling electronic gizmos for train layouts and modding old video game systems, it’s useful to me, so I’m posting it.

Dvorak is at least partly right about the gaming industry

The big-time gamers are all up in arms over John C. Dvorak’s assertion that the game industry is dying. But he’s right an awful lot more than he’s wrong.

The games aren’t nearly as original as they used to be.Let’s track the evolution of the first-person shooter. Games where you run around in a maze and shoot everything that moves aren’t new. Castle Wolfenstein was a huge hit for Muse Software way back in 1981. The premise was simple: You’re trapped in a castle full of Nazis and your job is to shoot everything that moves and escape. Simple enough.

Was it the first game of its type? I don’t know. I don’t even know for certain that it was the first popular game of its type. But it at least proves the idea is is at least 24 years old as of the time of this writing.

Eleven years later, Wolfenstein 3D was published and released. It took the same premise and put it in a 3D setting. Its inspiration was obvious. And like its famous predecessor, it pushed the limits of the time: You needed a pretty advanced CPU to play it, and the better your graphics and sound cards were, the better gaming experience you got. In the early 1990s I remember people bragging about the slowest computer they managed to get to run Wolf3D.

A year or so later, Doom was released. It was considered revolutionary. The graphics and sound were better, and it required a better computer, but as far as a plot went, all one had to do was replace the Nazis with monsters and give the main character a larger assortment of weapons.

And that’s pretty much where we stand today. There is no revolution here. Each generation adds more eye candy and another layer of complexity, but the basic premise isn’t really changed since that 1981 game. Some people like that kind of thing and others don’t. Dvorak clearly doesn’t. I never really got into it much either. Once I got over the initial wow factor of seeing a computer-generated 3D world, I found I just didn’t enjoy it. I had a brief fling with a 3D FPS called Redneck Rampage. It used a recycled game engine, just replacing the original setting with a backwoods theme and replacing the characters with rednecks and aliens and playing off every stereotype in the book. I enjoyed the game mostly because I thought it was funny. Once the jokes wore off, I quit playing.

Whether this genre has been worked over to death depends on whether you like this sort of thing, I guess. And maybe that’s where Dvorak is wrong. Neither he nor I see the originality, but people enjoy the games and keep buying them. I don’t see the originality in country music either–to me, the songs pretty much sound alike, and the words are all about pretty much the same thing–but the country music industry is huge and it ain’t exactly shrinkin’, y’all.


But maybe this is just a sign of a mature industry. One of my high school writing teachers was fond of pointing out that Shakespeare never wrote an original plot in his life. But the stories seemed new when he put new and compelling characters in new settings along with those tired old plots.

Some people will get bored with the FPS games and move on to another interest. Others will keep at it, no matter how bad or unoriginal the games get. The only question is whether the audience will grow or shrink as a whole over time, and if it shrinks, how profitable the genre will become.

I think part of the problem for both Dvorak and me is that we’re both old enough to remember the early 1980s, when new games would come out and the new games really did seem new. All told, a total of about 900 games were released for the Atari 2600, and of those, about 100 were really common. (Of the remainders, a very large percentage of them were knockoffs or sequels and some of them were so bad that they sold terribly, so nobody saw them.)

Most of us who lived through that time and were really into technology saw those 100 or so games and enjoyed them.

There’s another difference too. Those games were a lot simpler. That’s both good and bad. A really avid gameplayer will probably master the game too quickly and get bored with it. But a more casual gamer can pick it up and learn it and enjoy it.

A really good Civilization player will probably enjoy Civ3 more than the original because it’s more challenging. But I’ve come to prefer the first two, because I can still pick up the original and play it well. If I spent ten hours a week playing video games, it might be different.

The gaming industry hasn’t completely lost me. There are still a handful of games I enjoy: the Civilization series, the Railroad Tycoon series, and the Baseball Mogul series. I haven’t bought the new Pirates! yet, but I’m sure I will if and when the price comes down because I loved the original.

But I only pick up one or two of those games per year anymore, and I probably don’t play them for more than a few weeks when I do.

Since my fiancee enjoys racing games where the two of us can race, if I’m ever out somewhere and I see two copies of a cheap racing game that looks decent and offers network play, I’ll get it and a couple of USB steering wheels. I imagine she’ll want to play a lot at first, and then it’ll become something we do occasionally when we might otherwise go to the movies.

The gaming industry changed, and in doing so, it lost John Dvorak and it’s probably written people like me off too, because I only spend $50 every two or three years on games.

Dvorak seems to think the gaming industry needs people like him. And that’s the only point he makes that I’m not wholeheartedly ready to agree with. The gaming industry is very different now than it was when I was 15 and playing games a lot, but it’s also a lot bigger.

Dave Farquhar\’s rules, Part 1

Unlike Colin Powell, I haven’t canonized my rules for living, but there is one of my rules that I think is worth wasting electrons to publish.

Don’t go to movies based on video games.What prompted this? I saw a link referring to a movie based on the game Doom. How you make a movie based on a game where you run around shooting monsters, I don’t know.

Probably the way you make a movie based on a game where a scantily clad woman with impossible proportions runs around in tombs gathering treasures and shooting baddies.

As I recall, Tomb Raider got about as much critical acclaim as Rambo. People went and saw it anyway, but I know it wasn’t for the plot. It was for the chance to see Angelina Jolie in tight clothes. But Doom won’t have that benefit.

But is either of them worse than making a movie based on two Italian plumbers who run around knocking down killer turtles and eating mushrooms? Discuss.

Fascination with old technology

I found this New York Times story on retro technology today. I have my own take on retro gaming.

My girlfriend tells me the 1980s are terribly hip with her students. As she was grading papers last night, I noticed one student had doodled Pac-Man on a paper, the way I remember my classmates and I doing in 1982.

I dig it.I was feeling nostalgic in the summer of 1996 when I started visiting old 8-bit oriented newsgroups on Usenet. Someone wrote in with a question about an Atari power supply, and I happened to have a Jameco catalog in my hands that was advertising some old surplus Atari boxes.

That led to me meeting Drew “Atari” Fuehring, who along with his brother had accumulated one of the largest collection of retro video game consoles in Missouri. Atari 2600, 5200, 7800; Vectrex; Colecovision; Intellivision–you name it, they had it, and if they didn’t have every cartridge and accessory that came with each, they had more than 75 percent of it.

I did a feature story on them for the Sunday magazine of the newspaper I was working at the time. It was easily the most enjoyable story I did during my time at that paper. Maybe the most enjoyable story I ever did.

I didn’t take up video game collecting, but obviously I never forgot that article. (I’d link to it but the database seems to be down forever.)

Those of us in our 20s (I’ve still got 3 1/2 months left of my 20s) grew up around technology. We’ve watched it grow up with us. So why does it seem so odd for us to think of older technology as something other than inferior? Isn’t that like saying that once you’ve heard rock ‘n’ roll, you have to give up jazz and blues?

In some regards the old stuff’s better. Hold up that original fake wood-grained Atari 2600 alongside my GPX-branded DVD player. Hold both of them up and then ask any person which of those two things originally cost more money. Even if they don’t have a clue what the two objects are, they’ll know.

There was a time when things were built to last and they weren’t rendered obsolete in two years or six months just to force us to buy more stuff.

Take the guy in the article who bought a 15-year-old Motorola cell phone. I’m sure some people think he’s nuts. The new phones have all the functions of a Palm Pilot in them, and you can play video games on them (funny, they’re old video games–I hold out hope that the people who make these gadgets have some clue) and you can take pictures with them and you can program them to play annoying songs when people call you, and I think some of them even do septuble duty as an MP3 player. But have you ever tried to talk on the phone with one? Or worse yet, talk with someone who’s talking on one? They’re terrible! They cut out all the time and the conversation sounds robotic, so everyone talks really loud trying to make up for the terrible quality–and succeed only in annoying everyone around them–and if you drive under a bridge, forget it. You’ll lose the connection.

I remember all the promises of digital. I’ll tell you what was so great about digital: It allowed the phone companies to cram a lot more conversations into a much narrower frequency range. It saved them a buttload of money, and we get the benefit of… ever-smaller, costlier phones that are easier to lose, along with an endless upgrade cycle. Trust me, next year the annoying salespeople in the mall will be asking you if you can watch movies on your cellphone, because you can on this year’s model.

Eugene Auh says he bought the phone to impress girls. Maybe he did, but he’ll keep the phone because it works.

I spend my day surrounded by technology and by the time I manage to get home, I really want to get away from it. My sister asked me a few months ago where my sudden fascination with trains came from. I think that’s exactly it. The first time I saw a train with onboard electronics that ran by remote control it really wowed me, but I’m constantly drawn to the old stuff. The older the better. I have a lot of respect for the 1950s units that my dad played with, but for me, the holy grail is an Ives train made between 1924 and 1928. In 1924, Ives came up with a technological marvel: a train that could not only reverse when the power was cycled, but added a neutral position to keep the train from slamming itself into reverse and doing a Casey Jones maneuver, and could keep the headlight lit at all times.

Trust me, it was a big deal in 1924.

Besides that, those oldies were built to be played with hard and built to last. And they were built to look good. Remember that picture I posted this weekend? That’s nothing. The electric units were gorgeous, with bright, enameled paints and brass trim and the works.

Why should I settle for a hunk of plastic made by someone who gets paid a dollar an hour whose electronics are going to fry in a year, rendering the thing motionless?

Nope. I like old stuff.

Next time I’m at a flea market and I see a Betamax VCR, I might just buy it.

Palladium and You

There’s been a lot of talk on the Web lately about Palladium. If you don’t have strong feelings about it, it’s probably because you’re not a bleeding-edge computing enthusiast. That’s OK. You’ll hear about it in time.
Basically, Palladium is Microsoft’s initiative to reinvent the PC and make it more secure. There’s a big uproar about it because it reeks of ulterior motives. Some fear Palladium means you will surrender all rights to your PC and cede them to Redmond.

I’m not totally convinced this is a bad thing.Read More »Palladium and You

Testing a blown AC adapter

All too often, people plug the wrong AC adapter into an electronic device. People just plug in the first adapter that fits, and usually when they do this, if the equipment wasn’t blown before, it is now.
They’re known by many names, most of them not affectionate: power bricks, wall warts… But you miss them when they’re gone.
Read More »Testing a blown AC adapter

Why is party living more socially acceptable than playing video games too much?

Consider the following statements. For clarity, “FPS games” means “first-person shoot-’em-up games,” such as the Quake series, the Doom series, the Duke Nuke’em series, and the bajillion other such games on the market.
1. The time I spent playing FPS games significantly impacts the amount of time I spend with my significant other, especially on the weekends.
2. When I play FPS games, I tend to ignore my significant other.
3. Playing FPS games with me is not an activity I am interested in inviting my significant other to participate in.
4. When I’m with my significant other, a frequent topic of conversation is playing FPS games.
5. Sometimes I have difficulty paying my bills, but I always find a way to work the ongoing costs of playing FPS games into my budget.
6. My significant other and I have talked about the effects playing FPS games has on our relationship, but I’m not willing to change.

Any person who fits those six statements is a first-class loser, right? Am I wrong in thinking this is pathetic? That one could even go so far as to say that this person has no idea how to have fun?

Tell me then, why can one take those six statements, replace the phrase “playing FPS games” with “going to bars and nightclubs,” and turn it into something completely socially acceptable? And furthermore, suddenly it’s the person doing those six things who knows how to have fun, and the one who needs to lighten up and learn how to have fun is the one doing the complaining?

Someone please explain the difference. Please. Any time I start feeling proud of my intelligence, all I have to do to change that is to consider this question.

And, just so you don’t get the wrong idea about me, I can’t stand first-person shooters and the only video game I’ve played regularly over the past year or so is Railroad Tycoon II. I play a game about once every six weeks.

Pretentious Pontifications, Part III

David is engrossed in some video game. It is called Alter Ego, and it is more than 15 years old. I guess when you lack adequate equipment, you have to get your kicks in whatever way you can.
David, get into the 20th century and get a Pentium IV, please. You are embarrassing me. At least get a Pentium 4 1.5 GHz. Then you would be able to play games from 1990 without sitting around and drumming your fingers.

But I digress. It runs in the family. David is worse about it, of course. I have been getting lots of fan mail, and I do have to say I really appreciate it. The kind epistles have been the source of many frissons in recent days. I also appreciate the creative ways people send it. One message was attached to a brick, hurled through a window of my estate in Ladue. I also received a message in a bottle. It was written on a rag, then doused with pellucid–but not potable–alcohol, stuffed into the bottle and lit on fire to get my attention. I would have been almost lachrymose, but unfortunately, I was unable to put the fire out quickly enough, and by the time I did extinguish it, the alcohol had washed out the message.

I appreciate the gesture, but obviously the person who did it had too much nescience to realize the deleterious effect the alcohol would have on the message. But that is certainly curable. Bask in my apposite genius long enough, and it will start to rub off on you. I know, I really should write more often, so you might have more opportunity. Once I have built up an audience (maybe David’s addiction to old computer games is useful for something after all), I will have to branch out on my own and open up a pay site.

So, whoever you are, thank you, I adore you too, but if you want to show your adoration, try delivering the message in another way. Perhaps you should take after the gentleman who tied up my quondam manservant long enough to express his love with desuetuded soap on my dashing Rolls. The message was mostly maledictions, unctuous of course.

I do not recommend, however, that you attempt to give me a 21-gun salute all by yourself outside my front gate. Unfortunately, gunshots are strictly prohibited in Ladue, so my adoring fan was promptly arrested. It is very unfortunate that I was not at home at the time. I would have tried to exculpate him by explaining to the officer what he was doing.

But tomorrow is another day, and I am quite sure that the claques will continue.