DLC Review: Final Fantasy XV – Royal Edition

Believe it or not, Square Enix is still cranking out DLC for Final Fantasy XV. So far, we’ve been treated to two special events, a multiplayer add-on, and four character-based episodes. The most recent addition to the game comes in the form of the “Royal Pack”. This DLC pack is available to owners of the existing game, but is not included in the price of the season pass. So what is the Royal Pack? Well, it basically unlocks the “Royal Edition” content for the vanilla game.

That’s right, coinciding with the PC release, a new version of Final Fantasy XV was also released for consoles. This “Royal Edition” includes all of the previously released DLC as well as some new content integrated into the main game. To get specific, new quests, trophies, boss fights, and quality of life fixes.

The Royal Edition of Final Fantasy XV sells new for $50.00. The Royal Pack upgrade is available to owners of the original game for $14.99. If you’re just now diving into FFXV for the first time, the Royal Edition is a no-brainer. But existing players may be a bit more apprehensive… In my opinion, the content included in the Royal Pack should be free of charge. First of all, players who bought the game at release spent $60.00. Then, $25.00 for the season pass. (That’s a total of $85.00.) Now, they are asked to drop another $15.00 on content that arguably should have been in the game to begin with… that’s a total of $100.00 over time for what you can get now, all in one package for $50.00. Shameful.

I know, that is just the way things work these days. You always pay premium price for a game on day one. But in this case, it feels a bit like gouging. But, I admit, I dropped the $15.00 so I can’t complain too much.

So, how is the content? Well, it’s nice. But there’s nothing mindblowing. There’s a quest that enables another upgrade to the Regalia. A quest that upgrades the functionality to the Armiger weapon skill. Another quest that allows our heroes to sail around on a boat. In fact, there are lots of quests. The three mentioned above are probably the most interesting. The rest end up feeling like filler. And in a game that’s now closing in on two years old, it’s difficult to find motivation to sit down and just grind away at filler content. This new content would seem more at home if you were playing the game for the first time, it certainly fits better when viewed in that way. But loading up your endgame save file just to go hunt down “datalogs”? That feels a bit pointless.

One other major change the Royal Edition makes to the game is a revamp of Chapter 14. This is actually quite a welcome change. What was originally a breeze-through chapter of the game is now a full fledged dungeon. It takes plot elements from other DLC releases and provide more lore and backstory to the main game. There’s even a couple of new boss fights added. Namely, Cerberus and Omega. (The later being the new optional mega-boss). The final encounter of the game also now includes some extra mini-bosses that are geared towards the companions. Very good stuff.

These new fights are welcome. But the Omega battle seems a bit glitchy. It took me several days to finally defeat this boss due to erratic game behavior. Towards the last half of the battle, this boss can teleport around the arena. On more than one occasion, Omega would vanish and not respawn. As a result, I would be unable to complete the battle. This is especially bad because this battle can often take 1-2 hours to complete through normal methods. Unacceptable.

Overall, the Royal Pack content is certainly a welcome addition to the game. I personally had no qualms with the game’s content at release, but this new content does help flesh-out the game a bit more. It really puts the cherry on top so to speak. My only gripe is that I feel this type of stuff should be free.

Overall Impression:  Welcome addition to the game. Great changes to Chapter 14. But other content feels a bit weak.

Value: Existing players will have to pay $15.00 for what should be a free patch. Affordable if you’re a big fan of the game and want to stay up to date. New players would do better to purchase the Royal Edition for the complete package.

Main Game:  Final Fantasy XV Review

Rift Prime – Update

It has been sixty days since the launch of RIFT Prime. As promised, I’m here with an update and to share my thoughts on the state of this “progression server” experiment.

Since my last post, not a whole lot has changed in the world of RIFT Prime. Trion Worlds really seems to be taking the progression aspect at a fairly casual pace. Since the launch of the Prime server in March, a few expert dungeons, slivers and raids have been added. The “Battle for Port Scion” PVP area is now accessible, and some additional quests are now playable. RIFT’s first free expansion area “Ember Isle” is still inaccessible at the time of this writing.

The rollout of content seems just a tad slower than what I expected. Considering that the Prime experiment is supposed to last for one year, we are now two months in and have yet to see any major new additions. At this point, the majority of the playerbase for Prime has reached level 50. It won’t be long before most players grow tired of the same endgame raids and begin turning their attention elsewhere. I have to admit, I’ve personally lost nearly all interest in the game. Few of the players I met back in March are still logging in regularly and rarely will a glance at the public chat reveal anything other than trolling or mindless guild recruiting.

I think the thing I found most disappointing was the lack of World Events. Particularly some of the one-time events like “River of Souls”. Sure, I participated in these on the live version of RIFT back in the day, but I hoping for a chance to see them again. Trion has now come forward and admitted that it would take too much effort to reactivate these types of events with the modern version of the game. Disappointing.

For me, this version of RIFT is interesting, but it does not live up to the hype. For an example of a progression server done right, I’d suggest Trion Worlds take a peek at the latest Everquest vanilla server. The pacing and the content seem much more in line with what players are craving. I only hope that Blizzard is watching too. Their World of Warcraft progression-server is just around the corner and I’d hate to see it grind to an early death by a delayed roll-out schedule.

So for now, I’m going to officially end my RIFT Prime participation once my initial 90 days subscription ends. I was hoping to recapture the magic that once hooked me on this game. But in the end it seemed to fizzle out.

 

Review: Wario Land 3

It is so easy to get hung up on RPGs and other complex games that it’s possible to forget about some of the more simpler titles out there. I recently wound up my review for Xenogears, a game that took me several months to complete. By the time I was finished, I knew I wanted my next playthrough to be something a little more relaxed. So I took a look at my backlog and as soon as I saw Wario Land 3 on the list, I knew that would be my next game.

I reviewed Wario Land 2 nearly two years ago. So, it has been a while since I stepped into the quirky world of Wario. Wario Land 3 is a game that I never played in my younger days. It debuted on the Game Boy Color back in 2000. And, like so many titles of the era, it was released during a time in my life where gaming was not a priority for me. As a result, it flew under my radar at the time.

Like most titles in the series, the storyline here is fairly simple. Wario is going for a casual cruise in his cropduster when the engine fails and he crash lands on a mysterious island. After exploring the island for a bit, he comes upon a cave that contains a strange music box. As he gazes at the music box, he suddenly finds himself trapped inside of it! As it turns out, there’s a whole little world inside the cursed box and Wario is not alone; the maker of the box is also trapped inside with him. To escape, Wario must search the land inside this little prison for five other magical music boxes. Once they have all been collected, he will be able to return home with any riches he is also able to uncover along the way. – Yep… sounds like a typical Wario game.

If you’ve ever played either of the first two Wario Land titles, then you pretty much know what to expect in terms of gameplay. Just like Wario Land 2, Wario is invincible in this game as well. He cannot be killed by either his environment or by enemies. However, that is not to say that enemy attacks do not affect him. When attacked by some monsters, Wario will be inflicted with various effects. For example, if he comes in contact with a fire-based attack, he will burst into flames like a torch and run around wildly. If stung by a bee, he will swell up and float through the air, etc. These status ailments, while annoying at times, are actually the key to playing the game. Players will learn how to use them to navigate the levels and solve puzzles. For example, getting stung will enable him to float to an otherwise unreachable platform. This is the essentially the same mechanic that was introduced in Wario Land 2, but it is expanded and a little polished in this outing.

This time, each level contains a number of keys. As Wario collects keys of a certain color, he can use them to unlock the corresponding chest that’s also hidden in the level. Chests contain items that either unlock new areas on the overworld map or give Wario new abilities. Once a chest is unlocked, the level is over. This means that Wario will need to move back and forth between worlds, upgrading his abilities and revisiting previously played levels in order to reach previously inaccessible areas. It is actually quite clever. It is not necessary for players to unlock every chest to complete the game, but completionists will certainly find the extra challenge welcome. This design actually makes for quite a bit of a content. I took me just under nine hours to conquer this title. That’s a quite a bit of time for a handheld platformer.

One interesting aspect to this game are the inclusion of the “mini-golf” levels. Occasionally, progress through the game is halted by a roadbloack. These roadblocks are removed by participating in (and winning) a series of golf-based mini-games. To be honest, this mini-game is largely pointless and occasionally annoying. But somehow they seem to fit the weird and quirkiness of the rest of the game. Leave it to Nintendo to be both annoying and entertaining at the same time…

The Wario Land series shows that developers of platform games do not have to be afraid to deviate from the standard formula. This title is a great example of how to both build off an proven method, but still add new ideas and concepts into the mix. For me, I find these games to be a blast. The puzzles make you think outside of the box. And even though Wario cannot die, the game is still challenging in its own way.

Difficulty: Hard –  When you hear that this is a platform title in which the player cannot die, you might think that makes for a pretty easy experience. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In a way, Wario’s invincibility only makes certain parts of the game even more frustrating. You work hard to scale your way to the very top of a level, your goal in sight – only be to zapped by some random enemy and sent tumbling back down to the very start… Infuriating. To be honest, the main scenario of the game is probably on par with most other Nintendo-era platform titles. But players who want to get the most out of the game and collect all 100 treasures will be in for quite a challenge.

Story: Games like these are not very story-centric. Nor do they need to be. The gameplay is the focus here. But, this title includes a cute little set up with an interesting twist at the end. The background story here is on par with what is found in other platform games.

Originality: Somehow Nintendo has again managed to keep this game from feeling stale. Non-linear, replayable levels with unlockable areas help keep this platformer title feeling like something new. Quite a feat.

Soundtrack: Silly/oddly appropriate music. But nothing spectacular. Honestly, probably the least interesting part of the game.

Fun: This game ended up providing me with much more entertainment than I expected. Just when I thought I knew what expect from this genre, Nintendo tosses in something to keep things fun and fresh. The difficulty felt a little extreme at times and I can imagine that some younger players would get a bit turned off by it. But considering Wario cannot die, it is only a matter of willpower.

Graphics: This game will look pretty dated by today’s standards. But at the time, it featured top-tier visuals for a mobile game. This title is a prime example of what the Game Boy Color was capable of.

Playcontrol: The controls are responsive and accurate. No complaints whatsoever.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Original copies of this game typically go on Ebay for $20 or less. But, the game is available digitally through the 3DS eShop for only $4.99. At that price, you shouldn’t pass it up. There’s hours of content in the game. Plus, players willing to collect every treasure are treated with a special unlockable “time attack mode” that only makes the game even more replayable.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Ridiculously good. This game is better than it has any right to be. Despite not being a title you hear about often, Wario Land 3 is packed full of fun. It’s extremely well put together and even almost twenty years later, it still holds up. I highly recommend this to anyone with a 3DS that enjoys retro games.

Available on: 3DS Virtual Console

 

Other Reviews In This Series:

SMB   –   SMB Lost Levels  –  SMB 2  –  SMB 3  –  SM World – SM World 2-  SM Land  –  SM Land 2  – SM Land 3 –  Mario 64 – Mario Sunshine – New SMB – Galaxy – Galaxy 2 – New SMB Wii – Mario 3D Land – New SMB 2 – New SMB U – SMB 3D World

Paper Mario – Thousand Year Door – Super Paper Mario – Sticker Star

Wario Land 2 – Wario Land 3 – Wario Land 4 – Master of Disguise – Wario Land Shake It

Luigi’s Mansion – Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon – Super Princess Peach

Review: Xenogears

This review has been a long time coming. Xenogears is considered by many to be one of the greatest RPGs of all time. Despite this, it is a game that I never had the chance to sit down with until now. I was a big fan of the Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii when it came out a few years back. So I was really excited to see what the earliest game in the “Xeno” franchise was all about. I started this title at the the first of the year and I expected to be done with it sometime around late March. But, boy was I wrong about that. I was anticipating this game to contain somewhere between 40-60 hours of playtime (like most other RPGs of the era). Instead, I ended up spending a little over ninety hours on this monster. Which is really mind-blowing considering the last half of the game was rushed for release and large portions of content were cut from the title. (More on this later).

So what is Xenogears exactly? Xenogears is the brainchild of Japanese game developer Tetsuya Takahashi, an employee of Squaresoft. It was originally pitched as a contender for the Final Fantasy series. When rejected, it ended up becoming something else entirely. Much time was spent on the lore and storyline for this game. The story of Xenogears was originally intended to be the fifth out of six chapters in what would be part of a vast story-arc. The idea was to tell the complete tale through various media; manga, anime, and of course, games. This grand vision never materialized, however. As such, Xenogears has remained the only chapter of this story to be told. Japanese fans were eventually treated to a special artbook called Xenogears Perfect Works. This book contained several pages outlining all six chapters of the intended original saga. While it is certainly a shame that fans may never see an official Xenogears anime, or read the untold tales in the pages of a comic book, the game itself does contain several anime-style cutscenes that provide a taste of what might have been.

The story of Xenogears focuses on the character of Fei Fong Wong. A young amnesiac who was brought to a remote village as a child by a mysterious man. Fei has grown up living a simple life, completely unaware of his origins. One day, Fei’s village becomes caught in the crossfire between two warring nations. During the attack, Fei climbs into a Gear, (one of the giant robots used in the war) in attempt to defend his village. Mysteriously, he finds that he has the innate ability to pilot the machine. But in the end, his actions in the Gear result in further damage to village. Disgraced and banished from his home, Fei and his mentor Citan leave the village together. From there, they encounter one of the soldiers involved in the attack, a woman named Elly. Before long, Fei learns that the attack on his village was no coincidence… He was the real target. This revelation prompts him to seek out the answers to his mysterious origins. Over the span of the game’s storyline, not only will Fei learn about his true nature, but will find himself as a major player in a war for the very fate of mankind. The secrets of human origin, as well as the true nature of divinity all play a part in this fantastic tale.

To say the storyline for Xenogears is epic would be an understatement. While many JRPGs often blur the lines between fantasy and sci-fi, this game took things to the next level. The lore of this game perfectly integrates high technology and religious mythology in a way that had not yet been explored in gaming. To make things even more interesting, it borrows a number of themes and terms found in Judaeo-Christian theology, giving the lore behind the game a familiar tone. In fact, this served as a strong point of controversy at the time the game was released. Personally, I found the plot to be very deep and philosophical. I was delighted by thought put into it.

When it comes to gameplay, Xenogears will be familiar territory for longtime RPG fans. It plays like most classic SNES-era RPGs, with an overhead view and menu-driven system. Unlike many of those classic games, it is also rendered in 2.5-D, meaning that even though it’s presented from the bird’s-eye-view, the camera can be rotated 360-degrees to allow viewing at all angles. This took me a little getting used to at first, and it’s important to remember, as sometimes chests and important environmental objects may not be visible until the camera is rotated. Occasionally, I found this to be quite an annoyance. My only other major gripe with the game comes in the form of UI delay when bringing up the menu and especially with save file management. This title seems to suffer from some annoying lag.

When it comes to combat, Xenogears builds from the classic Active Time Battle structure that most RPG players are already familiar with. But it actually manages to evolve that model in a meaningful way. Like with most games of this type, players can elect to execute a melee attack, select skills/magic, or  use an item. There’s also options to defend or attempt to flee battle. If a player uses a physical attack, they can then chose between a light, medium or strong attack. The more powerful the attack, the less accurate the attack will be. If successfully landed, the player earns an Action Point. Action Points can then be spent on special moves called “Death Blows”, players can also bank up their Action Points to chain various Death Blows together for even more damage.

Aside from hand-to-hand combat, players will often do battle while piloting Gears (mechs). Gear combat is very similar to standard combat, but instead of attack points a Gear’s “Attack Level” increases as they continue to damage an enemy. Higher Attack Levels mean stronger Death Blows, etc.

All in all, I found the battle system to be very well done. It was just different enough from what had been seen thus far to require a little getting used to. Other RPGs of the era tried tinkering with the standard ATB combat formula and failed. Xenogears is one of the few that was able to succeed.

Combat aside, the game plays very much like any other JRPG. There’s open world exploration, dungeons, boss fights, etc. The game is separated into two discs, with the majority of the gameplay being found on Disc 1. By the time I reached the second disc, I was already about sixty hours into the game. The contents of the second disc are vastly different from that of the first. At this point, the game shifts from standard RPG-play, to being more narrative driven. Instead of actually playing through storyline at this point, the game provides you with a summary of events accompanied by still pictures and cutscenes. This ongoing narrative is broken up occasionally with prompts to save and short dungeons. There’s a number of successive boss fights tossed in the mix as well. It certainly has an unusual feel when compared with the first half of the game.

It has since become known that the pacing of the second disc occurred due to time constraints put on the development team.  In order to meet the release date deadline, they were forced to cut hours of playable content from the game itself. This led to them having to stitch what had been developed together with bits of exposition and pre-rendered cutscenes. This is certainly a shame, as I can only imagine just how epic in scale this game might have been if it were released according to plan. But honestly, having all of this extra content would have probably doubled the length of what was already a long game. So, I’m in no way saying players should feel ripped off. There’s still tons of content in this title. But the patchwork that is the second disc does end up making the game feel rushed and disjointed to an extent.

Flaws and all, Xenogears is an amazing game. It certainly earned its status as one of the greatest RPGs of all time. That being said, the game is not perfect. Camera issues and UI lag are present, and don’t get me started on the awkwardness of the second half. All that aside, it still shines. This is without a doubt a must play for fans of the JRPG genre. If any game deserves a modern remake, Xenogears should certainly be a contender.

Difficulty: Medium –  As far as RPGs go, Xenogears is standard fare when it comes to difficulty. Most random encounters and boss fights are balanced pretty well. Any player who hasn’t simply rushed their way through the game should encounter only a moderate challenge. Players who are willing to take their time to grind and/or do sidequests should have no issue.  Many of the bosses often have mechanics that can be exploited either through action or by equipping characters/Gears with certain items.

Story: This is where the game shines. The depth and richness of the storyline is unrivaled even to this day. In fact, when considering how unfinished the game feels at times, it is almost a shame that a tale of this scope was told via game that feels so incomplete at times. It is a story that certainly deserved better. Deep, dark, and powerful.

Originality: By 1998 the formula for JRPGs had been well established. Xenogears manages to keep things fresh by providing a unique setting, re-envisioned combat, and a bold storyline. Every time the game started to feel like something I had seen before I was quickly proven wrong. Amazing work by Squaresoft.

Soundtrack: This is probably the second best part of the game. The soundtrack and score are nothing short of breathtaking. My only complaint is that there wasn’t more. For a game as long as Xenogears, the soundtrack seems to be somewhat lacking in content. Lots of music in the game is reused in places where a new theme seems appropriate. Again, perhaps it was due to budgeting or time constraints, but I feel like the soundtrack should be more diverse. That is a bit of a shame. But when judging the soundtrack we were given, it is hard to find a single thing to dislike.

Fun: This is a game that took me by surprise. At this point in my gaming career, I really thought I had seen everything there was to see when it comes to RPGs. Xenogears proved to me that a good developer can always manage to surprise you. I had a blast with this game. I went in knowing nothing at all about the game itself, and what a ride it was.

Graphics: At time of its release, Xenogears looked as good as a game could. It featured 16-bit style sprite, but in a semi-3D environment.  Today, the game does show its age. But it is still a pleasure to view.

Playcontrol: To claim Xenogears is flawless would be difficult. If any part of the game needs improvement it would be the play control. Laggy UI and quirky camera controls are a major issue at times. On top of that, several parts of the game actually include platforming puzzles – for example, climbing a building or a mountain. This requires players to run and jump from spot to spot. One wrong move and you have to start over. It can be extremely frustrating at times. Especially since the game doesn’t feel like it was designed with this type of play in mind. This, combined with a dicey camera makes for some rage-worthy moments.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: YES. Minor language, blasphemous themes.

Value:  Xenogears is available digitally on the Playstation Network for $9.99. At this price the game is a no-brainer. Used physical copes can range anywhere from $20-$100 on ebay depending on the quality. If you’re a collector, I’d be comfortable paying up to $50.00 for a game like this. It is worth every penny.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Even with some obvious flaws, Xenogears manages to take a top rating. It has been a while since I had such a good experience with an older game. Just when I thought I had seen everything, Xenogears popped up to remind me that there’s always something new to discover. Despite being twenty years old, the bold direction of this game still manages to hold up and feel new. If you’re a fan of JRPGs, this is a must-play.

Available on: PSN

 

Nerd Fuel: Tim Horton’s – Original Blend

It has been a few months since I made a Nerd Fuel post. To be honest, my post frequency on the site has been down considerably since the start of the year. I’ve been spending every last free minute grinding away at Xenogears. (A behemoth of a game.) I finally completed the title today (a review will be coming shortly), and I don’t think it would have been possible without the help of my good friend caffeine. As always, my quest for the perfect cup of joe continues. This time, I found myself back in the “donut shop” with a box of Tim Horton’s Original Blend.

So far on this site I’ve reviewed a number of “Donut-Shop”-style coffee. But Tim Horton’s is one variety that has eluded me until now. Some people swear by it. But for those American readers who, like me, live in the southern part of the country – the name Tim Horton’s may not ring any bells. It is not a brand that has a foothold in this part of country. But up north and especially in Canada, it is a household name. Tim Horton’s is a popular restaurant/bakery and, as you might have guessed, they are also famous for their coffee. I’ve personally never been to a Tim Horton’s so when this box arrived in the mail I was very eager to see if it lived up to the hype.

I went in expecting a pretty mild, run-of-the-mill flavor. That is exactly what I got. In both aroma and in taste, there was absolutely nothing spectacular about this cup. It is very mild and smooth and like most “donut shop” offerings, it is designed to please nearly everyone. It is enjoyable, but not particularly compelling. When compared against other coffees of the same type, I feel like it beats Dunkin Donut on richness. But it doesn’t hold a candle to Krispy Kreme or The Coffee People’s “Donut Shop”. That being said, I can easily imagine it to be the favorite of many coffee-drinkers. With this type of brew, a lot of it boils down to region. If you grew up on the stuff, you’re likely to favor it over a competitor. But in reality, if we are being honest with ourselves, they are all pretty much the same (save for some minor nuances).  For me personally, “Donut Shop” is still the reigning champion in the category.

Score: 3 out of 4

Would Purchase again?: Maybe. It’s not bad. It should be acceptable to nearly anyone, but there are some better options out there.

Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View – Various Authors

It has been a while since I posted a review of a Star Wars novel. In truth, I think I suffered from a bit of Star Wars burnout leading up to the release of The Last Jedi. I indulged on so many different books and other Star Wars media at the time, that once the movie was released I found myself needing a break. Now, a few months later, we are on the heels of Solo: A Star Wars Story, so I’m getting back into my groove. This time, I’m taking a moment to talk about a rather interesting entry in the new Star Wars canon; From a Certain Point of View.

This book is a collection of short stories that actually tell the tale of A New Hope, but from the viewpoint of various characters. (Hence the name of the collection).

As expected with any short story collection, some of the tales included in the volume are better than others.  It starts off strong with a story told from the perspective of Captain Antilles. This story does a wonderful job of bridging the gap between Rogue One and  A New Hope and serves as a perfect launching point for the book. But it is then followed by a slightly dull, but still interesting, tale about the Stormtrooper who stunned Princess Leia.

This ebb and flow continues for the first half of the novel. But then everything comes to a grinding halt when we reach the “cantina scene” from the movie. At this point, we are dished out what (felt to me) like too many random short  stories about the various  aliens found in the Mos Eisley Cantina. This portion of the book actually reminded me a lot of the old Expanded Universe novel Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. In fact, several of the stories here offer retcons to some of the tales told in that old collection.

The last half of the novel is where things really pick up. There are some really insightful stories about Obi  Wan, Yoda, and even an interesting poem about Emperor Palpatine. It all makes for a very eclectic, if not refreshing book.

All in all, I found this collection to be a mixed bag. Some of the stories are very well done and interesting. Others almost read like satire and feel like throwaway content. Without sounding too controversial, I was also slightly irritated to see more of what seemed like “political shoehorning” in this collection. One story in particular reveals a homosexual relationship between a Stormtrooper and an Imperial officer… Ok. But, why is that important? I feel like if given some context or an important plot point this would make more sense. But to me, it just felt like it was tacked-on for the sake of having something LGBT friendly in the book. But, whatever – Inclusion, I guess.

Despite some minor flaws, I found this book to an overall worth addition to the new Star Wars canon. I enjoyed the “point-of-view” aspect to it, and I hope see more novels follow the same format.

Story: Mixed. Some of the short stories collected here are masterfully done. Others, not so much.

Recommended:  For all Star Wars fans.

 

 

 

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Nerd Culture is a stock that is currently rising. Everywhere you turn people are embracing retro nostalgia and pop-culture icons of yesteryear. Video games are mainstream. Dungeons & Dragons is mainstream. Horror, Sci-Fi, Fantasy – all genres that were once coveted only by the nerdiest among us are now celebrated en-masse. For proof of this, one needs to look no further then the smash box-office hit Ready Player One. This film is nothing more than a huge amalgamation of video games and retro pop-culture.

Of course, the film is based on a book of the same name. I first read this book about six months ago at the suggestion of my oldest son. At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had never heard of the novel. But upon taking up his suggestion, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Let me say up front, that having both read the book and having viewed the film, they are very different. The film follows the basic plot of the novel, but strays off on its own path. While similar, the book and the film are two completely different experiences. I like the film just fine, but the book seems the have a charm that feels a bit more personal. It just works a bit better in my opinion. If I had to guess, I imagine that many of the differences had to do with licensing issues. It’s easier to get certain things in print that it is to get them on the big screen.

In a nutshell, the story of Ready Player One takes place about two decades in the future. War, pollution, and political unrest have turned the world into a pretty unpleasant place. To escape reality, a majority of the population retreat to a V.R. world called “The O.A.S.I.S”. This virtual world offers both entertainment and even job opportunities. When the founder of the O.A.S.I.S. dies, it is revealed that he has hidden a secret Easter Egg in his program. Whoever can find it will inherit his fortune and control of the O.A.S.I.S program. Of course, people go nuts looking for clues in hopes of winning the contest. Hunters begin studying every aspect of the creator’s life and interests in hopes of uncovering some clue that will lead them to the prize. This results in a resurgence of popularity in late 70’s and 80’s pop culture. However, five years after his death no one has come close. The biggest competitor still looking for the egg is the corporation that currently manages the O.A.S.I.S. Their hope is gain complete control of the virtual world so that they can monetize it. Eventually, one young man manages to uncover a clue that leads him on the path to claiming the egg. But the closer he gets to winning the more danger he finds himself in.

It is said that Richard Garriot, creator of the Ultima video games series (who’s book I recently reviewed here), partially served as the inspiration for James Halliday (the creator of The O.A.S.I.S). But honestly, I also suspect that D&D founder Gary Gygax was just as big of a muse. In fact, the book makes several mentions of Dungeon & Dragons. Naturally, this resulted in more than a few smiles from me as I thumbed through the novel.

If you’re like me and you tend to get hung up reading only specific authors or books from various fantasy series, it’s important to switch things up from time to time. Ready Player One is a great change of pace. As a child of the 80’s this book is a great nostalgic trip. I recommend reading it before going to see the film. This one is recommended.

Story: Entertaining and over-the-top. The writing style can be a bit iffy at times, but the book itself is largely enjoyable. The more versed you are in pop-culture the more you will get out of this one.

Recommended:  This book is a must-read for nerds and pop-culture fanatics. Retro grognards like me will find a lot to enjoy. That being said, the book has found a solid audience with mainstream readers as well.

R.I.P. Art Bell

It was a late fall night in 1997. I was driving home from my drummer’s house after an all-night rehearsal. The tape deck in my car was on the fritz and none of the FM stations were playing anything of value. I was groggy and the rhythmic passing of the dotted lines on the highway were lulling me closer and closer to the danger zone. Out of desperation for something to keep me awake I switched the radio dial to AM and began to spin through the stations. That was when I discovered him.

A baritone voice boomed through the speakers, “Wildcard line, you are on the air!”

What followed was some of the most interesting  radio I had ever experienced. A caller claiming to be a government employee working at Area 51 had called the talk show. His voice was panicked and only grew more distressed as he continued to speak. He was issuing a warning to the listeners. The host, Art Bell, remained calm and patient and attempted to ease the caller. That’s when the feed was cut. The show went silent. After several long minutes a commercial aired, it was followed by the voice of Art Bell. He explained that a loss of signal caused his broadcast to go off the air temporarily. (As it was later revealed, the entire radio network that hosts the show lost their satellite signal). It was riveting. Was it a hoax? Was the caller a simple joker who just happened to be followed by a consequential network outage? Or was it something more nefarious… a government conspiracy? Over the years, this odd string of events has today become a bit of an urban legend. But needless to say, it kept me awake and alert for the rest of drive home.

From that moment forward, I was an Art Bell fan. His shows Coast to Coast AM and Dreamland were almost required listening at my home. If was up after midnight, Art Bell and his paranormal talk show was on my radio. Art was my companion for many late night gaming sessions, believe me.

As the years went by I stood by Art and his many retirements, jumps to other networks, and eventually the founding of his own online streaming service. Sure, I’ve rolled my eyes at some of the personal dramas surrounding his later years. But, there has never been anyone like him on the air.

From the subject matter, to his iconic voice. Everything about Art Bell made him perfect for overnight radio.

This morning I woke up to news about his passing.  The ride is over, but his fans will never forget it.

Manga: Dragon Ball

It has been a rather busy month so I haven’t had time to make a post until now. What have I been doing? Well, when I haven’t been drilling my way through Xenogears (a really really REALLY long game), I’ve been jumping between RIFT and FFXIV. Also, last week my family went on a Spring Break vacation. During that downtime I managed to get a little reading in. So, as promised I’m here today with my first ever manga discussion: Dragon Ball.

Last month I talked a little bit about my experiences with manga. I was introduced to it during my stay in Japan, but I never really took the time to sit down and enjoy the format until many years later. The first ever manga series that hooked me was Chobits. (I’ll talk about Chobits in greater detail in the near future). When I was done with it, I found myself clamoring for more. Unsure what to read next, I thought back to my days in Japan. Back in those days, the only English-speaking channel was operated by the US military. More often than not, it offered little in the way of kid’s entertainment. So, my friends and I would often flip our televisions over to the local Japanese stations and check out whatever it was they were watching. At that time, Dragon Ball Z was all the rage. Yes, I can claim to have watched Dragon Ball during its initial run – IN JAPAN! (How many weaboo points does that get me?) Now, neither I or my friends really had any idea what was going on, but it was cool to watch nonetheless. With this in mind, I chose Dragon Ball as the next manga series to dive into.

At that time, I read maybe the first five or six volumes of Dragon Ball before monetary constraints put an end to my Manga purchases. But, I enjoyed every second. Recently, I acquired the entire collection. So what is Dragon Ball? Well, it initially starts out as a childish retelling of the ancient Chinese fable “Journey to the West”. But it doesn’t take long for the story to go off the rails and develop into its own thing.  One recurring theme in the story are the “Dragon Balls” themselves. The Dragon Balls are seven magical stones. Whoever can collect all seven of them is able to summon a mystical dragon who can grant any wish. The story begins when a young girl named Bulma encounters a strange orphan boy while she searches for the Dragon Balls. The boy, Goku, is in possession of one of the balls. The earliest stories in the Dragon Ball series focus on the adventures of Goku and Bulma as the search the world for the missing balls. During this time, Goku encounters an old kung fu master, The Turtle Hermit, and abandons his search to become a disciple. At this point, the focus of the story shifts to Goku and his mastery of the martial arts. (Astute readers of this site will undoubtedly recognize that I have adopted The Turtle Hermit referenced above as my avatar on this blog.)

Admittedly, the actually plot line is pretty darn weak, especially in the later volumes. But, that doesn’t detract from the fun. If anything, the shallow story and innocence of the lead character is part of what makes this story so entertaining.

The original series runs for sixteen volumes. After that, the title switches to “Dragon Ball Z”. In Japan, there’s no distinction between Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z in print, that’s strictly a branding that is used here in the west.

Dragon Ball starts out rather childish, but ramps up in maturity level pretty quickly. By the end of the sixteen-volume series, the target audience seems to shift from children to teenagers. That being said, there’s actually a noticeable amount of mature content in the book from the very beginning. This may seem a little strange considering the books are marketed to children, but keep in mind that Japanese culture doesn’t tend to be nearly as conservative about some things.

All in all, Dragon Ball is an addictive enjoyable manga series. I look forward to continuing my way through Dragon Ball Z and finally seeing what all those old cartoons were about.

 

My Tech Picks (Spring 2018)

Wow! It’s been a whole year since I did a Tech Picks post! As always, there’s been a few changes but a lot has also stayed the same. If you’re curious about the technology I use on a daily basis, here’s the breakdown:

Computer Platform:  Windows PC – As expected, Windows is still my platform of choice. As much as I miss my old iMac, Apple desktops are just not viable for gamers at this time. Windows remains a solid and stable option, but they continue to baffle me with off-the-wall decisions and wishy-washy business choices. I’ve been both a PC and a Mac owner, and I can tell you without hesitation, the only thing keeping me on the PC platform is upgrade-ability and the level of customization that a PC provides.

OS: Windows 10 ( 64 bit Version 1803) – Just in time for this post, Microsoft has signed off on the latest version of Windows 10. This version, officially known as “Windows 10 Spring Creator’s Update” is very similar to previous version. One of the biggest changes is the introduction of the new “timeline” task switcher, which is very similar to the “continuity” feature Apple offers in OS X. There’s a few UI and cosmetic improvements that some users will notice, but most of the big changes in this release are under-the-hood. While the official release is not until 4/10/2018, build 1733.1 has been signed-off internally by Microsoft as the “gold” release. It is available through the insider channel now, and should be rolled out to most users in the coming weeks.

Hardware: If you’re a frequent reader to this site, you’ll know that I recently built a whole new rig from the ground up. Despite the huge Meltdown/Spectre ordeal, I’ve remained in the Intel camp. My new box is as follows:

CPU: Intel i7 8700k @ 3.7ghz (4.7 turbo)

Mainboard: ASUS Prime Z370-A

Physical RAM:  16gb

Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 (6GB)

Sound: SoundBlaster Z

Storage:  Main:  Western Digital Blue NAND SSD 500GB     Secondary:  Seagate 2TB Hybrid “Firecuda”

Media:  External DVD RW &  USB Memory Card reader

Power: 750 watt PSU

Monitor: ViewSonic VX2457-MHD 24″ (2ms 1080p FreeSync Gaming Monitor)

Mobile: Android  – Google Pixel XL 2 (Android Oreo 8.1) – Since my last post I have upgraded from the original Google Pixel to the Pixel 2 XL . Overall, I’m very pleased with the phone, but truthfully, if I could do it again I’d probably have chosen the regular Pixel 2. This phone is just a TAD too big for my taste and the I feel like the screen on the Pixel 2 is a bit better. But, I was able to jump on a deal and I managed to get a couple hundred bucks off on a new phone, so I took the plunge.

Tablet: Microsoft Surface – No change here. My personal needs for a tablet are very limited. I mainly only use a tablet for reading comic books and doing some light searching while in the living room. For my purposes, the original Windows RT surface is perfect.

e-Reader: Kindle Paperwhite – No change.  The Kindle Paperwhite is an elegant and universal option that serves my needs perfectly. Yes, there are newer Kindle options available. But the Paperwhite remains my go to device.

Virtual Digital Assistant: Google – I make full use of the Google Assistant that is available on my Pixel.  This is true both in speech and with the Google Assistant chat bot. I use my phone for 100% of these needs. MS has made some headway with Cortana on this newest release of Windows and even the version of Cortana available on Android has seen some considerable improvements. But at this time, I can find no reason to switch from Google Assistant to Cortana or any other AI.

Web Browser: Chrome– While Microsoft continues to improve Edge with each new version of Windows, it still lags behind almost every other browser available. The newest version of Firefox offers some compelling features, but Chrome continues to be my browser of choice.

Search: Google – Google remains my go-to for searches. I’m not a fan of some recent changes made to Google Images, but I still tend to get the best results from Google compared to other engines.

Email and Calendar: Google/Gmail – Widely supported and extremely efficient. Google works for me and I have no qualm with Advertising ID sharing or any other aspects of Google’s business model.

Office Suite: Microsoft Office 2016 – Nothing beats it. As far a desktop application suite, Microsoft office is the best.

Cloud Storage: OneDrive and Google Drive – As a Windows and Office user, I’ve found OneDrive to be a very convenient online storage solution. It integrates well into both Windows and Office 2016. OneDrive works great with Android and other platforms as well. These days, I use OneDrive mainly for PC Back ups, and I use Google Drive for photos and general storage. But, both are within arm’s reach at any time.

PC Gaming Services: Steam – No change. For PC games, I’m pretty much a Steam only guy. I have recently been making more and more purchases on GoG.com due to their vast catalog of retro games. But nine out of ten purchases are still done on Steam.

Music Management:  MusicBee – No change here either. I have a large digital music library, all tagged and sorted. To manage such a huge collection, I need the help of software. MusicBee is my music manager for the desktop. It integrates with my phone and makes it easy to transfer files to Google Play Music on my device.  For streaming, I use Google Play Music, Sirius XM and IHeartRadio. I still keep and maintain a local MP3 collection, but I enjoy the vast stream-able library that Google Play Music offers – I turn to the other services for live media.

Wearables: Fitbit Blaze–  I’ve recently upgraded from my old Fitbit Charge HR to a Fitbit Blaze. I like the functionality of guided exercise routines and the ability to receive text message notifications. I do predict at some point I’ll have to look into something else. I’m feeling the call the Smart Watch… We’ll see how long I can resist.

Home Gaming Consoles:  Currently at our house we own the following: Nintendo SwitchWii U, PlayStation 3 (First Gen), PlayStation 4, Xbox 360  (and there’s a spare Wii in the closet).

Mobile Gaming: Both my children and I have a Nintendo 3DS. I also have an old PSP.