Retro Rewind: PC Classics

I’ve discussed retro PC games a number of times on this site. In fact, some of my earliest posts were focused on games from the classic Wizardry series. But when I started discussing PC games, I quickly jumped ahead from the 80’s to the 90’s to take a look at titles like Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom. The truth is, PC games from the 80’s deserve quite a bit more attention than I’ve given them previously.

The very first PC game I ever played was called Castle Adventure. I encountered it when I was maybe seven or eight years old.  Now, at this point in my life I was no stranger to video games. I owned an Atari 2600, but I guess I just didn’t realize that you could actually play games on a personal computer. I remember walking down the hall at my friend’s house and seeing his older brother sitting at his desk. At this point, I always imagined computers were exclusively for data crunching and other obscure uses. When I noticed his brother was playing a game, I was a bit puzzled. I stood next to him and watched, completely enthralled.

Now, Castle Adventure was very basic sort of game. It had ASCII graphics so it wasn’t anything particularly exciting to look at. But it captivated me nonetheless. The point of the game is to explore a castle, find treasure, and escape. That simple. But despite it’s simplicity, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring every nook and cranny of the game. I was a fan.

Today, a faithful ground-up remake of Castle Adventure is available here for Windows:  CASTLE ADVENTURE .  It isn’t pretty, but if you’re curious, it’s the purest experience one can get.

Castle Adventure

When my family finally purchased a PC of our own, I naturally asked my father for some games. A few days later, he came home from work with a stack of floppy disks that a co-worker had copied for him. Now, back in those days, piracy was not that big of a deal. Making a copy of a game for a friend was as simple as having two floppy disks and knowing how to type “diskcopy” into the DOS prompt. The stack contained titles like Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Battle Chess, etc. All fun, I’m sure, but nothing I saw really caught my eye. That is, until I got to the very last game in the stack. A disk that was obscurely titled “ZORK”.

Of all the games my father brought home that day, ZORK ended up being my favorite. ZORK is an interactive text-based adventure game. It is actually quite a bit older than Castle Adventure. In fact, ZORK is just about as old as I am.  When I say it’s a text-based game, that means exactly what it sounds like. There’s no graphics, just words. For example, the game will present a scenario much like this:

“You are standing in a field in front of a large wooden house, facing south. There is a road leading to the east and west. A forest lies to the north.”

The player then has to type commands to drive the game forward. For example “Walk North” or simply “North”. The game then describes the next set of events. Players can enter command like “Open door” or  “take sword”. The entire game is played in this fashion.

ZORK

I couldn’t began to guess the amount of hours I spent with this game. And I wasn’t alone either, ZORK was extremely successful. Over the years it spawned a slew of sequels. I’m proud to say, I’ve played every entry in the series and despite being extremely “old school”, they are still quite enjoyable. These days, all of the ZORK games are available on Steam and GOG. I plan on reviewing them collectively at some point in the future.

Naturally, as technology continued to improve, this type of game would eventually be combined with visuals. One of the earliest examples I remember playing was a game called Transylvania. Oh, how I loved that game…  It took the basic gameplay elements from games like ZORK and gave you some crude graphics to enhance your immersion. There were three games in the Transylvania series, but sadly none of them are officially available on any platform today. For me, these games were just amazing. What I wouldn’t give to see some sort of remake or re-release. But, considering how I’ve never met another person who’s even heard of them… I won’t hold my breath.

Transylvania

It was games like these that prepared me for a game that might very well be my favorite game of all time, Wizardry. I’ve talked about the Wizardry games in detail on this site. So I won’t be rehashing them again with this post. But, any discussion of old-school PC games would be amiss without a mention of the series. In fact, when it comes to classic CRPGs, old grognards like myself usually fall into one of two factions. The Wizardry fans and the Ultima fans.

Like Wizardry, Ultima is a series of games that has also reached legendary status. Together, these two franchises set the bar for nearly all future RPGs. Games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest would not exist if it wasn’t for these titles.

I could spend hours writing about the impact these games had on me, and I will eventually. In fact, I plan to start a complete playthrough of the Ultima series in very near future. But for now, let’s move on. There’s so much more ground to cover.

The PC played host to countless classic RPGs; Bard’s Tale, Might & Magic, and King’s Quest for example. But RPGs were not the only thing that made PC’s great. Educational games were exceptionally popular on the platform. You’d be hard pressed to find someone my age who doesn’t have fond memories of titles like Where In the World is Carmen Sandeigo? or Oregon Trail. But the PC also played host to a vast library of action games like Commander Keen and Prince of Persia.

Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego?

As part of my Retro Rewind project, I plan to occasionally revisit some of these gems from the depth of the vault and hopefully introduce them to a new audience.  As I mentioned above, I’m going to start with Ultima. This is a game series that I’ve wanted to review for quite some time, but never took the time to do so. When I was young, I played through the first eight chapters in the Ultima saga, but I never finished the entire series.  The time to complete Ultima is upon us! Once I publish this article I’m taking a brief respite from both my Retro Rewind articles and my regular backlog list to focus exclusively on the series. I hope you enjoy it.

Retro Rewind: Sega Master System

When it comes to the 1980’s, I think it’s fair to say that Nintendo emerged as the clear winner in the home console market. Once the NES overtook the Atari, nothing was able to stand in their way. But every story has an underdog. In this case, it was the Sega Master System.

I remember seeing the television commercials and I even had a few friends that owned one of these systems. But personally, I never had much hands-on experience with the console. In truth, the Master System just couldn’t compete against the vast library and developer support that Nintendo was able to garner. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of your attention. The Master System did actually have a handful of games that would go down as classics. Games like Alex Kidd, Wonder Boy, and of course, Phantasy Star. These titles still rank up there as some of the best home console titles ever.

Phantasy Star

For me, Phantasy Star is of particular interest. It is an odd mix of first-person CRPGs like Wizardry and Ultima, and overhead RPGs like Dragon Quest. But despite having roots spawned from other classic games, it was groundbreaking in so many other ways. The game launched a whole franchise and it is still hailed as one of the most legendary RPG titles to date. As far as I’m concerned, Phantasy Star was THE only reason I wanted to get my hands on the Sega Master System. But to date, I still have yet to experience this legendary game. Thankfully, the game has been ported a number of times and is pending a digital release on the Nintendo Switch in the very near future. So getting a copy to review isn’t going to be very difficult.

If you’re curious about other games from the Master System, getting a hold on them may prove to be a bit challenging. While Sega has made it fairly easy to enjoy their older games historically, (almost every “essential” Master System title was made on the Wii Virtual Console), there’s really no good way to enjoy the majority of them on today’s hardware. Hopefully, this is going to change very soon. As I mentioned above, Phantasy Star is about to become available on the Switch as part of the Sega Ages collection and a few other Master System games have been announced as well. So, time will tell. I certainly hope to see some of these older games made more widely available, otherwise emulation will continue to rule the roost and Sega will lose countless dollars to piracy.

Retro Rewind: Nintendo Entertainment System

So far in my Retro Rewind series, I’ve talked a bit about classic coin-op arcade games, as well as some of the earliest home console games made popular by the Atari 2600. But no discussion of retro gaming is complete without mentioning the Nintendo Entertainment System. This is the machine that took gaming and changed it from being just a casual pastime, and turned it into a real hobby.

Now, I’ve discussed the NES and many of its classic games in great length on this site in the past, so I’m not going to rehash any of that with this post. Instead, I want to talk a bit about how best to experience these classic games today.

In recent years, a number of NES titles have been available to gamers through both the Wii/Wii U virtual console service and the 3DS eShop. Sadly, the Virtual Console does not exist on Nintendo’s most recent hardware, the Nintendo Switch. Instead, Nintendo has replaced it with a subscription-based online service. This service features a number of classic games already, with new ones rolling out as time goes on. This is great for some. But many gamers, myself included, don’t like to sit and wait on a specific game to become available for play.  So what’s the best option? Well, if you’re asking my opinion on the best way to experience classic NES games today, I’d have to point you to the NES Classic Edition.

Much like the Atari Flashback console I discussed in a prior post, the NES Classic is an all-in-one box. You simply plug it into the TV and go. It’s just that easy. The system comes pre-loaded with thirty games, many of which are fan favorites. Let’s take a look at what’s included:

Balloon Fight, Bubble Bobble, Castlevania, Castlevania II, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Double Dragon II, Dr. Mario, Excitebite, Final Fantasy, Galaga, Ghost n’ Goblins, Gradius, Ice Climber, Kid Icarus, Kirby’s Adventure, Mario Bros., Mega Man 2, Metroid, Ninja Gaiden, Pac-Man, Punch Out!!, Star Tropics, Super Contra, Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, Tecmo Bowl, Legend of Zelda, Zelda II.

That’s certainly an impressive list. But one that includes some interesting gaps. For example, the NES Classic features Double Dragon II, but not the original Double Dragon. Same thing with Mega Man. Now, I understand the reasoning behind this. Double Dragon II offers a much better two-player experience, just as Mega Man 2 is a much more iconic game that the original Mega Man. But what if you still want to play these or even other old school NES games? Well, there’s a solution. But, this is where things get a bit shady…

You can put other games on the NES Classic. It is possible, and actually quite easy to load your own ROMs onto the system. In fact, it’s almost as if Nintendo purposely built the unit with this in mind. First off, while the NES Classic only comes with thirty games installed, it actually has enough free space to hold hundreds. Installing other titles is as simple as plugging the system to your PC via USB and moving files over. Of course, actually getting game ROMS is the sketchy part of the whole equation. It’s not illegal to possess, or even use ROM flashes of NES games. But it is illegal to download them without possessing a copy of the same game. Of course, Nintendo ROMS are readily available all over the internet if you know where to look. So, do with this information what you will…

That being said, if you ever wanted to experience rare Japanese-exclusive games like the original 8-bit version of Final Fantasy II or eve the controversial Megami Tensei games without having to resort to setting up emulator software, this is your best solution. No more tinkering with controller settings or setting up the emulator to work with your device. Just drop the ROMs in the directory and go.

For this reason, the NES Classic is what I recommend for everyday 8-bit NES gaming. Now that I’ve taken a moment to discuss this system and its potential, I’ll be using it to fill in some of the gaps in my backlog foir future posts. Thus making Retro Rewind Reviews a recurring feature on this site.

 

Retro Rewind: Atari 2600

I’ve spent the last two posts talking about some of my favorite golden-age arcade games. This time, I’m going to focus on one of the earliest home video game consoles, the Atari 2600.  Interactive video games had actually been around for a quite some time.But they really hit the mainstream in the late 70’s-early 80’s. Hoping to cash in on what believed to be the “next big thing”, Magnavox developed the Odyssey – the first home video game console. However, it wasn’t until Atari released the Atari 2600 Video Computer System that the public really took notice.

The Atari 2600 was originally released in 1977 and took the market by storm. At last, friends could enjoy two-player video games in their own home. New and unique games were being released for the 2600 at a rapid-fire pace. Famous arcade titles were even being ported to the system (albeit in very poor quality). For several years, it seemed like the sky was the limit for Atari. However, by 1983 interest began to wane for the system. The overall poor quality of many of the games, as well as an over-saturated market ultimately led to the 2600’s downfall.

Many of the best games for the Atari 2600 were actually classic arcade games (Frogger, Pac-Man, Centipede), but these ports are dreadful when compared to the original arcade versions. Regardless, the 2600 still played host to some worthy titles. Four of my favorite 2600 games are as follows:

Adventure

Adventure – This was the first overworld exploration game. The purpose of Adventure is to explore an open environment in search of a magic chalice. Once found, return it the golden castle at the beginning of the game. To say Adventure was ahead of its time is an understatement. Games like The Legend of Zelda likely would not exist if it wasn’t for Adventure. This game invented the concept of free-roaming enemies, “continues”, and even Easter Eggs. Naturally, when compared with modern equivalents, Adventure has not aged well. But it is still worth a look for curious gamers.

Haunted House – If Adventure is considered the first fantasy-action games, then Haunted House might very well be the first survival horror title. In this game, you explore a dark haunted mansion in search of pieces to a broken urn. The gameplay is best described as “bumping around in the dark” while looking for items. To actually find anything, the player must light a match that illuminates a small area around them – but doing so will attract monsters. Haunted House was a favorite of mine as a child. But most everyone I knew refused to read the instruct booklet and therefore did not understand/enjoy the game. This a shame, as the game itself is quite well done.

Pitfall!

Pitfall! – If I had to pick a favorite Atari 2600 title, it would be Pitfall!.  This is a side-scrolling action game in which our hero must jump over rolling logs, swing on vines, and avoid mean little critters as he searches the jungle for rumored treasure. Pitfall! may have been the first side-scrolling game that I ever played. As a result, it kindled my interest in the genre for years to come. If you are going to play any game that the Atari 2600 has to offer, this is the one I recommend.

Swordquest – As an honorable mention, I’m including the Swordquest games in my list. I’m not doing so because they were particularly good games… but rather due to the legacy that follows them. Swordquest was a series that consisted of three released titles (Waterworld,  Earthworld, and Fireworld), and a fourth unreleased title (Airworld). These games were part of a larger real-life contest. Depending on which game you were playing, clues were hidden in the game’s instruction manual as well as in a comic book that was included with each game. Players who uncovered the game’s secrets could then write in and hope to be selected to participate in a special contest. The winner of the contest would be awarded with actual treasures. The rewards included: an 18-karat gold talisman that was littered with various gemstones, a jewel-adorned solid gold crown, a jeweled platinum chalice, and a gem-encrusted jewelry box. Of these rewards, two were distributed. The fate of the remaining two are shrouded in mystery… The gameplay itself is a mixture of various genres. For the most part, the main areas of the game were similar to Adventure. But occasionally, the style would switch to various puzzles and platform challenges.  Since the games themselves were designed around a now defunct contest, and the storyline for the games has been left unfinished, there’s very little reason to play these titles today. But the mythology behind them still fascinates many.

 

So, let’s say you’re curious and want to get your hands on these (and other) classic Atari 2600 games. How to do that? Well, a vast number of Atari 2600 titles are included in a the Atari Vault collection. This collection features one-hundred classic Atari titles (both 2600 and Arcade versions). Classics like Centipede, Crystal Castles, Adventure, Haunted House, etc are all included. Xbox One and PS4 users also have their own collection of classic Atari games. However, if you’re hankering to play some Pitfall! The Atari Vault will disappoint.  Currently, the only modern way to enjoy that game is on the Atari Flashback console (version 8 or newer).

 

For 2600 fans, the Atari Flashback 8 Gold is my currently my official recommendation. But, if you can be patient, the Atari Flashback 9 is just around the corner and will included even more long-forgotten games. These consoles simply plug into your TV using an HDMI port. – Just make sure you’re getting the GOLD version if you decide not to wait for the Atari Flashback 9. The non-gold “8” console does not use HDMI and will likely not be compatible with most modern televisions.

Atari Vault

 

 

Atari Vault is available on Steam,

Atari Flashback Classics (vol 1 and 2) are available on PS4 and Xbox One

 

Project: PC Upgrade – Final Results

The day has arrived! After almost a decade I’ve finally built a new PC. In my last post on the subject, I discussed my options; would I stick with an Intel processor or would I venture off and try one of AMD’s new Ryzen CPUs? Would I stay a loyal Nvidia user or jump ship to ATI? Well, the time to reveal my decision is here….

After doing a lot of research, I decided to ultimately stick with Intel. Despite the whole Spectre/Meltdown debacle, the latest generation of Intel chips still seemed to be the way to go. Despite having a larger core and thread count, the Ryzen 7 still comes up short in terms of most performance benchmarks. The only exception to that seems to be with workstation-style tasks. But for day-to-day use and gaming, Intel is still the king.

Following my personal rule of “build for longevity”, I did decide to go with Intel’s new Coffee Lake chip. In fact, I ultimately decided on the i7  8700k. At the time of this writing, this is currently the fastest Intel CPU on the market. Despite being the “latest and greatest”, this wasn’t an easy choice. The 8700k is famous for running pretty hot. So if I decided to experiment with overclocking (something I don’t usually do), heat issues could potentially be a factor. With this in mind, I decided to spend a little extra and go with a high quality cooling tower from Noctua instead of sticking with a stock Intel fan.

Noctua fans are world renown for their quality and durability. Plus, they are quiet as a mouse. I know many people would have considered going with a liquid cooling solution. But again, I don’t typically overclock. I build my PCs for longevity and I’d rather get my power by purchasing top of line products rather than pushing more performance out of a chip than is expected. Of course, that being said, I built my entire system with cooling and airflow in mind, so I may experiment with some very mild overclocking in the future. By my calculations, I should easily be able to get about 20% better performance with just some minor tweaks that shouldn’t result in that much more heat.  We will see.

For a mainboard, I went with the ASUS Prime Z370-A. Unlike their “ROG” boards, the “Prime” line from ASUS are geared towards middle of the road users. It features all of the customizability options without some of the extra flashiness. Option-wise, it contains all the slots and ports that I needed for my purposes, and still offered enough options for future upgrades.

For storage, I did end up finally going SSD. I purchased a small Western Digital Blue 500GB SSD for a boot drive.  I stuck with a hybrid SSD/HD for a secondary drive instead of going full SSD for storage. I tend to keep a large music library and I also like to have a lot of room for gaming, so going full SSD is just not cost effective for me at this time.

I ended up keeping my existing Sound Blaster Z card in this rig. Since I actually do a lot with audio production from time to time, I prefer to use a real soundcard to on-board sound. But I couldn’t see enough in Creative’s new Sound BlasterX AE-5 card to make me consider an upgrade. The Sound Blaster Z is still plenty for me.

I also ended up retaining my old Corsair CX750 Power supply. This thing is a medusa of cables, however. So I seriously considered going with a new modular PSU. But in the end, I was able to route and tuck away any excess, so cable mess wasn’t an issue. This is an important part of system building that people then to overlook. Proper airflow in a gaming PC cannot be dismissed. When building a PC, I always make sure to route wires and cables behind the back panel and secure them with cable ties.  Any unused wires are also secured and kept out of the way.

To ensure optimum airflow in a PC, you also have to make sure you have the right case. For me, I decided to go with the Corsair Carbide Alpha. This chassis had plenty of room for my needs, it also features two front intake fans and one rear exhaust fan. The intake fans feature a three-way speed switch on the front of the case. – Now, I know some would admonish me for this set-up considering I dropped a big honking CPU cooling tower right in the middle of airflow lane. But surprisingly, this does not interfere with the case’s ability to “breathe”. The Carbide Alpha features venting on the back card panels as well as the ceiling of the case. The air circulation is not impeded by the large heatsink/fan in any way.

The new case design did mean having to finally let go of my internal DVD drive habit. This is something I’ve been reluctant to do. But I managed to pick up an inexpensive USB DVD Burner and so far it’s worked out better than expected.

For a GPU, I did decide to upgrade my old GTX 960 to a GTX 1060. I know that is only a modest step up, but right now with the ongoing crytpo-currency craze, GPU prices are just too unreasonable. There was no way I could afford a 1080 or one of the AMD Vega 64s at this time. For the curious, my card of choice was the MSI GeForce GTX 1060 6G OCV1.

I also took the opportunity to upgrade some of my peripherals. I ditched my aging Logitech Surround speakers and went with a newer 2.1 speaker system. I chose the Soundblaster Kratos S5. These speakers are a popular for their 24bit USB connectivity. But, considering I use a good quality sound card, I actually connect them directly with an audio cable instead. Soundwise, they are amazing. The volume range and clarity is exceptional. My only complaint lies in the volume knob that’s hard-tied to the speakers. It seems a bit finicky… At its lowest setting, sound can still be heard through the tweeters. It doesn’t seem to have a “true-zero” position.  I often listen to music at low volume when I work, so being able to turn the volume down to nearly nothing is important to me. For now, I’ve had to rely on a combination of using the OS volume controls in conjunction with the speaker knob… not an ideal solution. But it allows me to have a sound-neutral setting on the knob.

Finally, I also decided to take the plunge and jump on the hype-train that is Razer. For years I’ve heard people tout the benefits of Razer mice and keyboards. But, I never really believed they were that different. While shopping for components, I found an old holiday bundle on sale and decided to bite the bullet and give at go. It included a Cynosa Pro keyboard and a Deathadder mouse. I have to admit, that I was shocked at just what a difference these products make. Until now, I was using a cheap Logitech Mouse and Keyboard combo. It switch has been night and day. That being said, the Cynosa pro isn’t a mechanical keyboard like many of Razer’s products, but quality difference is still undenyable. I can’t recommend this simply upgrade enough.

The cherry on top to the whole project was the purchase of a quality office chair with lumbar and neck support. I use my home chair for work and play and I’m often in it 10 hours a day or more. Truth be told, this was probably the most important purchase of the lot.

In the coming weeks I’ll be doing a full “My Tech Picks” post that will elaborate a little further on some other changes to my overall gear and rig. Stay tuned!

Project: PC Upgrade

WARNING: This post is going to be very nerdy and technical.

The time has finally arrived… I am building a new PC.

It’s been a year since I last made a “My Tech Picks” post. But if you follow them, you’ll know that my personal PC is getting a little long in the tooth. In fact, I built it back in 2010.  Over time, I’ve made a few upgrades here and there to various components. (Video card, hard drive, monitor, etc). But I’ve been rocking the same core system for the last eight years. A few months ago, I went to purchase the latest Wolfenstein game on Steam and I noticed that my PC didn’t meet the minimum requirements to run the game… It’s time for an upgrade.

My current CPU is an older  Intel Core i7 950.  This was one of the first generation Core i7 processors (AKA: Nehalem). Today, the Core is still Intel’s main product, but we are currently in the 8th generation (AKA: Coffee Lake).

I always build my own PCs. When I do so, I build them for longevity. So my personal rule of thumb is to go with the best components you can get without having to take a second mortgage on your house. This is especially true when it comes to the CPU and mainboard. Most everything else can be swapped out with relative ease. So I always try to get the very best processor available. Well, a lot has changed in the last eight years since I built my last computer. To so get started, I have a big choice to make: Do I stick with Intel or will I go rogue and snatch up an AMD processor?

Over the years I’ve built a number of PCs. I tend to prefer Intel processors since they usually outperform whatever AMD is offering at the time. In fact, of the eight PCs I’ve built for myself, only two of them have ever contained AMD chips. To be honest, Intel usually outperforms AMD in nearly every benchmark. But, AMD typically offers their CPUs at a much cheaper price.

Today, things are very different. Both Intel and AMD’s latest CPUs are priced about the same. Also, this time around, AMD’s Ryzen 7 processor boasts some serious tech-specs that put the current Core i7 to shame (at least on paper).  The latest Ryzen 7 1800x features 8 cores and 16 threads versus Intel’s  6 cores and 12 threads. But, Intel still takes the lead in clock speed. Then, there’s the whole Spectre/Meltdown controversy to consider… Intel is susceptible to both and AMD users only have to worry about one.

When it comes to graphics, I almost always use Nvidia products. I’ve owned a few ATI cards over the years, but I’ve generally been dissatisfied with them. ATI cards almost always tout better specs, but they tend to fall short when it comes to their driver performance. But, things are different this time around. ATI’s latest card the Vega 64 is a BEAST. It delivers top of the line technology at a mid-grade price point. Not to mention, my current monitor supports Freesync technology. This is a big plus if I own an ATI card. Of course, the biggest problem is actually getting my hands on one. The Vega 64 cards are supposed to retail for $500. But due to the crypto-mining craze, they are literally sold out worldwide. The only way to get your hands on one is to dish out over $1,000 to a reseller and even then, they are still nearly impossible to find.

This problem isn’t isolated to just ATI cards either. Almost any GPU is going to come with an inflated price at the moment. And there’s really no end in sight for the shortage. Some experts say prices should normalize in the fall of 2018, while other predict it might go on for two-three years. Literally speaking, this is the worst time in history to try to build a gaming PC… But I won’t let that stop me. Worst case scenario, I could always keep my Geforce GTX 960 and wait for things to settle down. But, I think I can find a few mid-grade cards at an affordable price that would still be an upgrade over my current setup.

I plan to build within the next couple of weeks. So which will I choose? Intel or AMD?  Nvidia or ATI?

I’ll be making an announcement on the site later this month.

 

Remembering the Nintendo 64

Nintendo-64-wController-R

 

Now that things are getting back to normal, I’ve stepped back into my groove and began reviewing games from the late 90s. So far, I’ve played through, and shared my thoughts on a handful of classic Playstation titles. Now, to keep things from getting too stale, I’m going to also go over a number of classic titles for the Nintendo 64 in the comings weeks and months. I plan to mix things up.

I should state that, much like the Playstation, I didn’t own a Nintendo 64 back in it’s heyday. So I missed out on a number of classic titles the first time around. Of course, many of them I’ve since caught up on, but there’s still a few that I’ve never had the pleasure of sitting down with. I look forward to changing that.

The Nintendo 64 is an interesting machine. It was the successor to the ever popular Super Nintendo and as such, sold quite well upon it’s initial release. But unlike Sony’s popular Playstation, Nintendo chose to keep with game cartridges instead of using optical disks. This meant limited amounts of storage in comparison. It wasn’t long before Nintendo sales began to suffer against the Sony giant.

The system also featured an optional memory expansion pack that added additional RAM to the system. However, very few games were built to support this extra memory. The system also featured an optional “Rumble Pack” that could be plugged into the bottom of the controller to allow for vibration. Speaking of the controller, this is often the most praised feature of the system. The controller for the N64 featured a revolutionary design, that always universally lauded by players. Personally, I was never a big fan. So I’m defiantely the odd man out here.

These days, many of the most popular titles from the system are available on both the Wii and Wii U virtual consoles. That is what i’ll be using for my N64 playthroughs.

Going All In: My experiences with the Microsoft/Apple Ecosystems (Part 3)

Windows_logo_-_2012

After a few weeks of considering my options, I decided that switching back to a windows PC would be the best bet for me. The same power at more than half the cost was simply too tempting. So I sold my iMac and built a new PC from the ground up. For the time, my new PC was quite the beast. In fact, the system I use today is still built around that core investment.

I was relieved to see that Windows 7 was indeed a huge improvement over Vista. All of my audio and driver issues were things of the past, not the mention the OS itself seemed to have a bit more polish and spark to it. I did, however, immediately miss quite a bit about my iMac. The seamless experience and ease-of-use was gone. I found myself spending a little more time “under the hood” with my Windows PC than I liked. But more importantly, I found that my user experience as a whole, was turned upside down. You see, I had spent the last few years submerged almost entirely in the Apple ecosystem.  Mobile Me, iTunes, iPhone… At the center of all of that was my iMac. Sure, I could check my Mac.com email address on the web, and yes, there was a Windows version of iTunes. But upon installing it I immediately noticed how subpar the iTunes experience was on Windows. The whole app was much more sluggish than it was under OS X. I just didn’t feel right.

Then, the fateful day arrived when the unthinkable happened. I dropped my iPhone in a parking lot and shattered the screen. I had to decide at that point, do I get another iPhone or look into another option? Android phones were popular, but received nowhere near the support they have today. Plus, I found I had really grown to dislike a number of Google’s services. So Android was out. It was at this time that I began to consider Microsoft’s new fledging mobile offering: Windows Phone 7. Windows Phones were not popular at all. But I was very impressed by what I saw. The mobile OS was simply lovely and intuitive. Yes, it was radically different that iOS or even Android, but that was ok with me. The biggest downside to using a Windows Phone was (and still is) the lack of quality applications available. The basics were all covered (Facebook, Twitter, etc) but some of the more specialized apps simply didn’t and still don’t exist on the platform. Regardless, I decided to go ahead and take the plunge. I switched from iPhone to Windows.

Believe it or not, I fell in love with Microsoft’s mobile platform. I found it to serve my needs very well. Shortly after, Microsoft announced Windows 8 for PCs. This was a new radical version of Windows that looked a lot like my Windows Phone. It seemed MS now had a long term vision to try to bring parity to both their mobile and desktop operating systems. Most of the public shunned Windows 8, but personally, I had no issues with it. By this time, I found that I had fully immersed myself within the Microsoft Ecosystem. In fact, for the most part I still do. I use Outlook mail, Bing, OneDrive, Windows Phone. I’m a loyal customer.

Flash forward a few years to the present. Now Windows 10 is current backbone of Microsoft. Despite what you may read online, I find Windows 10 to be a fine OS. It does NOT spy on you or take control of your PC as some people claim. It’s Windows as it always has been, but just with a bit more polish and modernization. It’s a fantastic operating system. But that praise aside, over the last year or so, it’s become obvious that Microsoft again seems to be grasping at straws when it comes to certain aspects of their business. It’s been a long time since that days of Windows Phone 7, but Microsoft  STILL cannot seem to get developers on board with their mobile division. Windows 10 was supposed to change this. The Universal Application feature of Windows 10 meant that an application could run on any Windows 10 device anywhere. Be it a PC, Tablet or Mobile Phone. That has so far, not panned out as promised. Also, Microsoft recently reneged on their promise of unlimited online Storage via OneDrive for certain users. (They did this AFTER an aggressive campaign where they practically begged customers to upload their entire MP3 libraries to the service for easy streaming). To put the icing on the cake, their new music application “Groove” is a terrible mess. Despite receiving constant updates, I do not find it to be a piece of software I can use in my day to day life. I am a BIG music fan. I have a digital music library of almost two-hundred gigabytes. Groove does not feature basic tag editing features, or other services offered by a number of other music management applications. In fact, Groove feels like incomplete software. It’s great on my mobile phone for playback. But as far as a desktop app, it lacks severely.

So where does that leave me? I tend to be brand loyalist. I drink Coke, not Pepsi. I wear Levis, not Arizona. But… I like both Microsoft and Apple – yet, I have problems with both. At the moment, I’m pretty much “all in” with Microsoft. I use their services, OS and hardware. But I have to admit, as far as mobile goes, the app gap is starting to hit hard. There’s a ton of great applications I would love to use that are simply NOT available on the Windows mobile platform. I’ve resisted it for so long, but it’s starting to become a real issue. Mobile banking on my phone? Nope. The latest mobile game, authenticator, or productivity app? Nope. So you might say to yourself, “Just switch.” But here’s the problem… I’m weird. If I exchanged my Windows Phone for an iPhone, I’d then get the urge to move away from Windows entirely. Because, I’m just the kind of guy that likes everything to match and play well together. I know this because a few months back it happened…

My wife’s cell contract came due and she decided to buy a new iPhone 6. While we were at the store, I decided on a whim: ME TOO! So I bought one for myself. I liked the phone fine, but when I got home I immediately felt resentment at having to install the sluggish Windows-version of iTunes. It gnawed at me to the point where days later, I marched into the Apple store and came home with a $3,000 iMac. I was back in Apple land, baby! But, then it hit me just how insane the whole scenario was. Sure, at the time, I was able to afford these luxuries, but were they REALLY necessary? Plus, while I found myself enjoying all of the things I really liked about Apple again, this time I found that I actually missed a bunch of things I’d grown to like about Windows 10! Before it was too late, I took advantage of Apple’s return policy and took both the iMac and iPhone back. No harm done in the long-run. But I realized just then how effective this whole “ecosystem” strategy can be. Let me break it down for a normal person: Perhaps you’re an iPhone user, and you’re thinking about switching to Android. Easy enough right, but wait… all your contacts and online photo albums are backed up using iCloud. What a pain to switch all that! They’ve got their claws in you…

So as it stands now, I’m still a Windows user. I legitimately like and enjoy most of Microsoft’s products, but I’m worried about their strategy. At this point, I guess you could say I’m putting Microsoft on notice. I’m going to lay low for the remainder of the 2016 to see how their plans for universal apps and enhancements to their existing products go. A year should be sufficient time for them to show me, as a consumer, that they have a solid plan to bring excitement back to their platform. If not, I may have to seriously assess my tendency to stay true to their brand. Time will tell. MS has some really great products out there these days. The Surface line of tablets is FANTASTIC and blows away the iPad in my opinion. The Microsoft Band is probably, functionally the best fitness tracker/smart watch on the market. What’s killing them is mobile. No one cares about Windows Phone and a result, no one is developing for it. Windows 10 could be the key. In theory, any native Windows 10 app will also work on mobile. So both Windows10 desktop and mobile can benefit from this interoperability. But so far… even that is stagnant.  They have to make this Universal Application system desirable to developers. But I’m not sure how they can effectively do that. Their bridging technologies, so far, don’t seem to be garnering much interest. Time will tell. Lots of us are watching,

 

Going All In: My experiences with the Microsoft/Apple Ecosystems (Part 1)

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This is a post I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but I was never quite able to figure out how to dive in the to the topic. So, I finally just decided to write it and put it out there, for what it’s worth. I know this blog focuses largely on gaming, but geek-culture as a whole has always been an underlying topic as well. That point considered, what’s more geeky than computers? More specifically, computer operating systems. I want to take a moment to talk about that very thing, despite the dangers it might bring.

You see, in the world of geeks, your operating system of choice is a sacred thing. I’ve known fellow techies who are more loyal to their OS than they were to their own religion. Which I find to be both understandable and completely absurd at the same time. I know that sounds contradictory, so allow me a moment to explain. Over the years, I’ve been a user of both Microsoft Windows and Apple products. I am intimately familiar with both. So when I listen to these arguments, I truly see both sides. Allow me to elaborate…

My first experience with a personal computer was being sat down in front of the original Macintosh when I was a young child. By today’s standards, the old black and white Mac is a crude, ancient device. But to me, even as a novice child, I found it to be quite intuitive. I learned to like it quite a bit. A few years later, when my parents purchased their first home computer, they elected not to go the Apple route, but instead they purchased a PC. (Or as we called them back then, an IBM-compatible). This was my first experience with MS-DOS and Windows.

At this time, PCs were on the rise and Apple machines were slowly fading into the background. The entire industry was focused on PCs. As a result, I too became centered on the PC side of things. Sure, Apple still had a loyal fanbase, but Microsoft was the obvious winner in the current personal-computer battlefield. I was just starting to cut my teeth on Windows 3.1, when MS launched Windows 95. But it wasn’t long before I too, became a seasoned 95 user. It was during this era that I decided for the first time that I was a “PC Guy”. I mean, why use Apple? A PC was able to do anything that an Apple computer could do, and often at half the cost. Not to mention, all the new games and software were being developed for PC. Apple was often left in the dust.

It was a really interesting time. The internet was just starting to worm its way on to the radar of the general public. You had Windows as your PC backbone, and on top of it you could run whatever software you liked best. Netscape for websites, Eudora Pro for email, etc. Microsoft won because so many software developers were creating applications that were compatible, or better yet, exclusive to Windows. It was perfect. But then, something happened… Microsoft got greedy.

With the release of Windows 98, MS integrated their new browser, Internet Explorer 4, into the Windows operating system itself. The web browser actually became the computer browser. Seriously. You would browse the contents of your hard-drive from IE. Microsoft claimed this was done to better the user experience, but everyone knew it was simply their way of defaulting users into using their web browser instead of the ever-popular Netscape Navigator. And the secret is, it worked. Over time, Netscape’s usage fell and was replaced by IE. Heck, even I switched from Netscape to IE.  It was a tactic that would later find Microsoft at the center of a large anti-trust case.

Despite this underhanded move, I remained a loyal MS user for the most part. I used Windows and Office exclusively. And as the years went by, I remained loyal to Internet Explorer, even when others were venturing off to new browsers like Mozilla Firefox. I stuck by MS all the way from Windows 98 up the release of Windows Vista. But over that time, even thought I didn’t want to admit it, I saw the company that I loved lose sight of what it once was. Even though MS was still the top dog, Apple had began to emerge from the shadows and creep back on to the scene. The release of the new iMac and OS X operating system had given Apple a fresh coat of polish. Their new iPod product was literally changing the way people enjoyed music… It was a reminder that Apple was down, but not out.

After the anti-trust case, MS lost quite a bit of their mojo. Apple was on the rise now, bigger than ever. In light of Apple’s surging popularity,  other players starting making waves on the scene as well. Google had evolved past just being a search engine. They were now offering web-services like Gmail and advertising. Microsoft began scrambling like crazy to “rebrand” a number of their properties. Hotmail became “Passport”, then “Windows Live Mail”. (Then Hotmail again, and eventually was changed yet again to Outlook). It seemed like Microsoft was trying anything, throwing whatever they could at the wall to see what would stick and what wouldn’t.

When Windows Vista was released, I was quick to adopt it as my operating system of choice. But that’s when I ran into a problem. At the time, I was very focused on audio. I used to record and edit music using my PC on a regular basis. Something changed with Windows Vista  in regards to their DirectSound API, and it directly interfered with nearly every audio program I was using. As a result, I was forced to make a choice, go back to Windows XP, or look for an alternative. At this point in my life, I was now an adult with a busy schedule. I no longer had the time to spend on tinkering with settings, tweaking drivers, like I did when I was a young hobbyist. I needed something that worked, and I needed it now.  That’s when I turned my attention to Apple for the first time. I was lured by their whole “It Just Works” ideology. So, despite years of being a Microsoft loyalist, in 2007 I drove down to the Apple Store and purchases a nice shiny iMac.

To be continued….

Announcement: The New 3DS

It’s PAX time. One of the geekiest tech conventions around, and this week Nintendo dropped a bombshell with the announcement of a revamped 3DS. The big news here is not a simple redesign, but what appears to actually be a whole new model.

Let’s start off easy, the new model features better battery life, a faster processor and an enhanced screen. The screen touts better 3D performance and now auto adjusts the brightness according to the lighting in the room. There’s also a new micro CD card slot on the back side of the device.
The biggest change to take note of here is the new “C-Stick” control. This is a new control stick, that seems to be pretty much designed for camera controls. There’s also a new set of “z” shoulder buttons. All of these new controls remind me a great deal of the old GameCube controller. Also, the New 3DS will come with build-in NFC for use with the upcoming Amiibo accessories.  (Think Skylanders – but for Wii U and 3DS).

The New 3DS also allows for changeable custom shells. This is a cute little feature that will make is easy to customize the look of your New 3Ds. Interestingly enough, a future firmware update will also add background themes to the software UI. I expect to see themes and shells that go hand in hand.

So far, the New 3DS has only been confirmed for Japan. But there’s really no doubt that it will makes its way to the US. So the big question here is; is this just a newer model or is it REALLY a whole new system. I tend to feel the latter. While a boost in power, and a redesigned screen can certainly suggest a simple upgrade, the new controls really make this feel like something brand new.

A few of the new games announced already hint that a NEW 3DS will be required. For example, a port of Xenoblade Chronicles, and newly announced Final Fantasy game.

There’s a lot of moaning on the new about yet ANOTHER flavor of the 3DS. But personally, I’m not complaining. I feel that the time is right for an upgrade, and assuming that this system retains the backwards compatibility with DS carts, the price price-point of $150-$200 feels about right.

I plan to pick on up shortly after release.