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April 29, 2012 / jwaxo

In the 1st Degree (Investigations)

Teaching me what CSI reaffirmed years later: one person solves the murder, on their own.

Back when I was a (little) kid, there were two things that, when I heard someone talking about them, would just cause my eyes to glaze over: politics, and law. Don’t get me wrong: politics can still make my eyes glaze over, but it’s not due to a lack of understanding, more to complete boredom. Law was confusing and strange. I mean, I knew that OJ Simpson was running for some reason, I knew that it was exciting that the cars were chasing him and that he was being prosecuted for something that apparently everyone knew he was guilty for, but I had no idea about the prosecution and what went into it. If he was guilty, why not just charge him, put him in a chair, and run current through his brain until deceased? Instead we sat glued to the TV when I could be watching cartoons.

This was only all cemented when we picked up a copy of In the 1st Degree, fresh in the box. I think my parents only got it because it was madeby Broderbund. Somehow my mom was safe in the knowledge that the founders and owners of Broderbund were good Catholic boys, and so anything they made couldn’t go wrong; this was virtually the same reason we bought Myst and Carmen Sandiego games. So1st Degree came home with us on a whim, one day, straight from the bargain bin at the mall.

It was tossed into my hands to install and promptly forgotten by everyone else.

Score.

After the usual obstacle course of installing a game on our old Packard, I booted it up and got it going. It started with your character, from the first point of view, watching a news announcement about an upcoming murder trial. As it turns out, your character is the DA, ready to review evidence and interview witnesses, all in preparation of your prosecution.

What a slog that seemed like. Being a kid of only 8, I wanted to get to the trial. That was where the excitement was, right? All of the interviews and tapes to review seemed like backstory, unnecessary for the actual trial.

So, once I gave a cursory glance at the surveillance tapes to the murder and briefly met with each witness, I pounded on that button to take me to the courtroom.

Over the next few real-time hours, I put the jury to sleep, embarrassed and confused the witnesses, and failed to even get a manslaughter charge on the defendant. It was hopeless and useless and not at all like on TV. Plus, it took really, really, really long.

Basically: I had no idea what I was doing. The game gave me some pitying hints about talking to the witnesses, but I blew them off as usual. Why would the backstory part matter? This time I would try for second-degree. I had no idea what that meant, but it must mean second place.

Failure again. I really had no idea what I was doing.

“Mr. Wax, please get down.”

I temporarily resigned, going back to my easier games of running and jumping and shooting. But 1st Degree sat there, like a splinter, worrying at me. How could I beat it? How could I lose that easily? I thought I knew who the bad guy was!

This time I went back. I watched all of the surveillance tapes, and the tapes of the initial interviews with the witnesses that the detectives made. I didn’t take notes, but I took mental notes. I realized that maybe it wasn’t as cut-and-dry as it seemed at first: maybe the obvious killer wasn’t the real killer, and that’s why the jury hadn’t convicted. I looked up what the different degrees of murder were, as well as a million other things related to the case that were in the game’s extensive internal manual.

And, when I interviewed the witnesses myself, something magical happened. Their responses started mutating from basic infodump (“this happened, that happened”) procedure to actual conversations. I got certain prompts within the dialogue system to suggest new responses from them, setting up specific things they might say on the stand. I realized that the game was not set up to be a basic “figure out the right things to say on the stand based on prior information.” It was a complex system, involving me making important logical leaps and sparking ideas in its characters.

Then I went to the courtroom and put the jury to sleep, confused and embarrassed the witnesses, and failed to get even a manslaughter charge.

I had uncovered a complex system, finding that things were not always what they seemed in either legal matters or in video game systems.

Playing (and failing) as a 1940’s homicide detective in LA Noire is reminding me of this, is the bottom line.

April 25, 2012 / jwaxo

Neopets (Supply and Demand)

I’ve been putting this post off because I couldn’t find a screenshot of Neopets from 2000… but I realized that so little has changed nobody would notice, in any case.

I know that browser-based social games are one of the biggest venues of video games in this day and age, but, as I am constantly forced to remind you, it wasn’t always so. In fact, back in the age of dial-up, like big downloads, it was nearly an impossibility. Couple that with a base fear of internet predators lurking in chatrooms and something called IRC, and you had an internet that was not receptive to something like that at all.

Now, I don’t think that Neopets was the original idea for such a site. It was created by a duo of an advertiser and a marketer, both attempting to create the highest number of click-throughs, supposedly assuming only college kids would be interested in collecting and raising a bunch of cartoony, colorful animals.

Tell me when that made sense. Because for me, the second I heard about it, I wanted in on this game.

By 2000 the site was receiving over 600,000 visitors daily. All so users could interact in a very basic way, playing silly games and owning a few virtual pets. It was at this time that my middle school exploded in news of the game. I, fresh with creating my first email address, plopped down at a school computer, removed Bonzi Buddy, and made an account.

There may have been more steps in there.

It was really a simple game, and having not played it in over a decade, I’m betting it probably hasn’t changed much: you could own several fictional varieties of animals, purchase clothes and paints to customize them, feed them various foods to keep them happy, and play games to try to win more items. By the time Neopets faded from my life there was a rudimentary battle system, about four dozen species, and even houses you could arrange furniture and buy more rooms in. All of it ultimately pointless, of course.

But boy did we play it.

It was a huge site, riddled with ads and fancy graphics, and almost none of us had cable or DSL, so school was the best place to play such a game. During lazy classes, sometimes after school, and definitely every lunch, you could find a select group of kids in the normally-empty computer lab, collecting omelets and playing a wetter version of Hot Potato and collecting interest and browsing the markets–all in the virtual world.

And the markets. That was where the true lesson lurked, waiting for all of us.

One of the most interesting parts of the game, at least for me, was the user-created storefronts. Every user got a store that they could place unwanted items in, price them manually, and generate extra income for themselves. It was my first experience with such a living, breathing thing, and it was intense and exciting.

All of this can be yours, if you have the patience.

Also I’m horrible at crowd scenes. This should look busier.

The main items that we bartered for are called codestones. Codestones are rare items, mostly occurring as random rewards for games or found while wandering the site, that could be used to train your Neopets up in skills and levels. They were so rare that they were probably the most expensive items for sale in the markets, and if you managed to find one that you didn’t want or need, you would soon be rolling in a few thousand extra Neopoints.

It was here that I found I had at least some basic skills at producing income, merely by playing the market.

Like all organic economic systems, prices in Neopets fluctuated wildly. One week a low-level codestone might be worth 2000 Neopoints, the next week it might be 7000. I watched these prices like a hawk, checking throughout the day to see if they were rising and falling. And, like a good stock broker, I would do my best to have a lot of extra spending money during low points, to snatch up the stones. Then I would hold on to them, or just place them in my storefront at an unreasonably high price that, in a few days or weeks, would be the cheapest prices on the site.

I didn’t become a famous trader. I wasn’t the kid that the others in the Neoclub came to for stones. I wasn’t as ridiculously awesome at it as my friend. But there was rarely a time when one of them wanted a specific stone that I wasn’t able to get it.

Stupid thing was, having higher levels was utterly pointless. Might as well just throw them away.

Geeze, this was supposed to be a well. Where are my drawing skills going? Seriously. It was, like, four years later that it had a purpose.

April 22, 2012 / jwaxo

General Chaos (Skills)

Video games make me forget there’s a name for the flamethrower beyond “pyro.”

Near the end of our Sega Genesis’ lifetime it was increasingly harder for me to get anyone to play games with me. My brother, three years my senior, was almost into his teens and so had a much bigger interest in things like “girls” and “hanging out” instead of the classic, all-encompassing word that I stuck with: “playing.” Yes, it was harder and harder to convince my brother to play with me. He had cooler friends who went to his middle school, was into skateboarding and music, and was even going on dates!

Disgusting.

During what felt like our ultimate schism, I went through a stage of going to the store on my own, renting games like in the days of yore. It was here that I felt a freedom I had never felt before: the ability to pick out what I wanted to play. No longer would I be stomped on for suggesting something inane or silly-looking, so I found the dumbest-looking games I could and wasted all of my allowance on such classics as DynamiteHeady. I went through a good four or five titles on my own this way, testing the waters with things my brother wouldn’t have dreamt letting me rent.

Of course, it’s far cheaper to rent things between two people.

I’m fairly certain the last game that I ever rented was General Chaos. I picked it up just for the name, which sounded both like a neat war game and sparked my fermenting love of idiotic puns. All I could tell about it was on the cover, but it showed a pinkish-red soldier with a crewcut screaming at a general in a blue uniform. They both looked silly and cartoony, and I was immediately sold.

I took it home and plugged it in.

To my dismay, there was no story mode to really speak of, and it was quite the difficult game. The extensive tutorial ran over how to play pretty well, but I still had a lot of trouble getting the hang of it.

The game consisted of small battles waged between teams of five. The five could be picked from a pool of different soldier classes: Gunner, who used assault rifles, Scorcher, who used flamethrowers, Chucker, who used grenades, etc. As the player, you could only directly control one soldier at a time, swapping around the battlefield to add the strength of your human intelligence and reactions, while the rest of the soldiers used the poor AI given them.

This kind of setup works somewhat for a campaign, going between different battlefields in a series of escalating fights, but it was mostly setup for one thing: player-against-player combat. There was just one problem, with my brother taking a leave-of-absence from our usual positions on the couch: I had no one to play it against.

It took me a day to actually figure out how the game worked, with no manual, and to actually get to the point that I was somewhat comfortable with it to be bored of purely-computer battles. Then, with the clock ticking on my return, I had to find someone to play with. My sister was out, my brother continuing to insist he didn’t like games (history would prove this short-lived, by the way), my dad busy with adult things.

Alternate solutions were attempted.

With tear-filled eyes, I turned to the last resort. To the person I had never seen even attempt to play a console game before, who had only, in my experience, pecked away at Solitaire. She had a save file on Captain Comic II, but I had never seen her play it, and it was a great mystery as to how she had progressed so far in the game.

But my puppy dog eyes sold her.

We started off slowly, both of us on the same team so I could walk her through how to play. To my immediate consternation, she couldn’t seem to remember the most basic things: how to fire, what to do when in a close-combat situation, how to switch between characters. As we continued to play I started paring down what I expected her to do: not to change classes at first, then not to survive close fights, then not to complete anything related to the game. As we both got more and more frustrated, I realized that there was no way we would be doing this for long, and the possibility of us having an even-handed versus fight was right out.

“I’m sorry,” my mom finally said, letting the controller drop. “I just don’t know how you can keep track of so many things at once, while remembering what to do with the paddle.”

For whatever reason, this resounded within me. It was such a strange concept to me: forget how I manage to do those things. How do you manage to not? Once I got over my initial disappointment in my mom, I realized that there was nothing to be disappointed in. I considered all of those things that she did that I just could not get a handle on: folding clothes neatly, remembering peoples’ names, writing legibly. There were a ton of things that I had no idea how to do that tons of other people seemed to do inherently well. Video games was just one of those things, and I needed to keep that in mind.

It’s still something that manages to blow my mind, I guess.

I mean, it’s pretty simple, really.

April 18, 2012 / jwaxo

Earthworm Jim (Slow and Steady)

Don’t scream… don’t scream…

As illustrious as my personal history of video games has been, there are a good many that I still managed to miss out on growing up. Great games for Playstation, Dreamcast, and even my own Nintendo 64 have all managed to been cast aside for other options. It is in these cases that I am extremely grateful for services like the X-Box Live Arcade, which has more and more retro games added to its catalog for my purchasing and playing pleasure.

This is how I found myself playing the classic N64 game Banjo-Kazooie this weekend.

Banjo is a pretty popular and famous game about a cartoony bear and his best pal bird who lives in his backpack. Together they travel through an evil witch’s layer and the twelve or so worlds that link to it, collecting all manner of things that somehow add up to saving the titular bear’s little sister. In case you missed this important fact in that plot distillation, it is a collecting game, one of my personal favorite types of things to do. In fact, you might say that Banjo-Kazooie is nothing more than collecting: there are 100 notes per level, 10 jigsaw pieces, five jinja monster things, two honey comb pieces (which can increase your life), and… more. All sitting there, waiting to be picked up and added to your collection.

Hoarders jokes notwithstanding.

This is all mostly beside the point, because, being a collecting game, there are minor puzzles and time trials in order to get some of the rarer items. During one particularly arduous race up a pyramid that I kept failing, I found myself flashing back to an old, old level. One that haunted my dreams with its difficulty.

A level from Earthworm Jim, of course.

Jim was… a very strange game. Similar to Banjo-Kazooie only in its absurdity and cartoony look, it was about an earthworm and his semi-sentient spacesuit that set out on a platforming and shooting quest to rescue princess What’s-Her-Name. In Jim’s own words, it was pretty groovy, ridiculous, and fun. Jim had a wide variety of weapons at his disposal, including the ability to whip himself at enemies for a melee attack, or as a grappling hook to swing around levels. When my brother brought it home from yet another trade with his friends, we gleefully installed it on our PC and were quickly drawn into its cartoony visuals, silly gags, and tricky levels.

Oh-so-tricky levels.

There is one famous level here, of course. The most famous. It was titled “Down the Tubes” and it worked like this:

  • Pilot a bubble-shaped submarine
  • With horrible, momentum-gaining steering
  • Through corridors and tubes the exact width of the submarine
  • Every tap against the walls causes cracks to form
  • Enough taps and the entire thing shatters, killing you
  • Limited lives
  • Limited continues
  • Limited oxygen that can be refilled at tiny, disposable nozzles
  • Horribly difficult steering

There would be only one way to make this more difficult

In case you can’t figure it out, it was insanely hard. The worst part was that the level wasn’t composed of just the submarine segment: it had a bunch of platforming and fighting segments interspersed throughout, making it hard to get into the submarine zone.

I was not always the most patient of fellows, and certain techniques I had picked up through the years had trained me that the best solution was often the fastest one. So I would panic at the sight of the timer and careen through the level, gaining cracks like flypaper gathers wings and dismembered legs, until, inevitably, the submarine would shatter and I would be treated to the sight of Jim floundering, once more.

Days this haunted me. I would play through the game, carefully save up lives, get to Down the Tubes, and promptly use all of those extra worms up, only to be cast back to the start of the game.

You can guess how I eventually figured out what to do.

It was early one Saturday morning. I was in my little bathrobe, sleepy, and ready to conquer Down the Tubes. Through lidded eyes, I navigated the tubes and caverns, just barely tapping when it needed to be tapped, carefully sucking down all of the oxygen I could get. I was tired and sleepy, and so I took my time.

And I finished that level. In record time, even.

It remains one of the best strategies for dealing with any particularly strenuous event, whether it’s on a timer or not, whether it’s important or not.

And sometimes it’s very, very important to get that jigsaw piece.

April 15, 2012 / jwaxo

Myst III: Exile (Age and Wisdom)

Choosing the best screenshot to draw probably took longer than writing this post did.

At some point in our lives we all realize that our parents do not have some secret manual to the world. That they, just like us, are making things up as they go along, applying guesswork to their years of experience to try to raise us the best they can.

My moment came sometime in 1998, and is, like almost all of my stories, embarrassing.

I was 10, and we were going to see a PG-13 movie.

Let’s recall a few facts that you might remember about Li’l Jeff: he was a scaredy-cat, afraid to go into some rooms in video games just because there were frightening things in there; he very rarely disobeyed is parents, half for fear of getting in trouble but also because he absolutely trusted them; he loved movies. Because of (and somewhat in spite of) these facts, he had never seen a PG-13 movie, to his recollection. Ever. There was the threat of getting in trouble for being underage, but there was also the looming threat of finding something absolutely frightening in them that he wouldn’t be able to get out of his head. Heck, I had nightmares just from seeing a Child’s Play 3 trailer, and that was a horror-comedy.

Almost all dolls are creepy. Cabbage Patch Kids, for example.

So on this particular night, there was a huge group of kids, including myself and my siblings, going to see a movie while our parents were all at a boring party. Our dad dropped us off at the theater, gave us money, and reassured me one more time that, yes, seeing this one PG-13 movie wasn’t going to kill me. I, for one, was scared out of my mind, shaking with nerves, ready to pretend to get sick to get out of seeing it.

The movie was, to my eternal shame, the Drew Barrymore movie Ever After.

Soon after the movie ended, I was relieved that absolutely nothing frightening at all had happened the entire movie, but also confused. This brought my entire life into question. Ten whole years of having the fact that I was too young for PG-13 movies was now being called into question.

It was there that I began that path to adolescence that we all must travel down. I began questioning (mostly secretly) everything our parents had ever told us. After all, if they had been wrong that all PG-13 movies weren’t for watching, they could be wrong about so much more. What did they know? They were just older.

And I, incorrectly, decided that age means virtually nothing when it comes to worldly knowledge. All it meant is that you were more likely to know more: decision-making and problem-solving had nothing to do with knowledge.

Being older just meant you would get more Jeopardy! questions right.

So, basically, all of the usual stuff that kids believe. Until, that is, Best Friend gave me Myst III: Exile for our 13 birthdays. Officially the last day of my young childhood, I was somewhat nervous to plug the latest game in the Myst series into my computer. I remembered how ridiculously hard the first game had been, how many years it had taken me before I finally cracked the final puzzle with the help of a walkthrough. But I was also excited: this time I would beat it without any walkthroughs. No matter how long it took, no matter how many wrong tries and incorrect puzzles. I would finish it without outside help, barring casual input from my family.

The game was beaten within a few months, and, once more, my world was shaken.

It wasn’t easy . Not in the usual sense. But any puzzle I set my mind to, I was able to reason out. I was able to apply the years of learning and experience, the years spent increasing my ability to reason and figure, to solve every single puzzle in that magnificent, awesome game. Well, except for the last puzzle, but seriously. It was next-to-impossible.

What this meant, quite simply, was that I was wrong. My parents could still be wrong, yes; anyone can be, once in a while. But their decades of living over my few years meant that they had not only accrued more knowledge and information, but experiences that would give them a much bigger handle on any situation that I could get myself into. Whether I was trapped on a world created to instruct me in the careful balance required when writing linking books, trying to find my way out by solving the dozens of puzzles, or if choosing a movie appropriate for my young son to go to, having an extra thirty years would undoubtedly make me better at it.

Another ten years later I would try to beat Riven, the first sequel to Myst. It remains unbeaten.

April 11, 2012 / jwaxo

The Crystal Key (Poor Innovation)

Non-iconic games tend to not have iconic screenshots.

When my brother (finally) got his license, there was very little to stop the two of us from shooting off on random adventures, mostly so he could flex his driving muscles and feel like a completely awesome person, and I got to hang out with my big bro. We could listen to the radio all we wanted, swear up a storm, and all the while go to the stores that our parents would have found too annoying to get to.

Most of the time we just used this as an excuse to go to church at a later time than our parents, preserving a precious half-hour of time that was normally spent just sitting around during their practice. We would go to friend’s houses, or to the YMCA without having to bike, or to the video store to rent some games or something. I would always, always go along. There was bound to be shenanigans of some sort, and, if I were lucky, my brother would spread some of that sweet, sweet money around that he was earning at whatever stupid job he had.

So you can see that it wasn’t really that strange that when my brother said we needed to go to the Office Max to get something or other after dark, I jumped at the chance.

Not normally the bastion of childhood.

We did all of the usual stuff there; tested out all of the office chairs, made fun of the stock photography in the frames, marveled at the many types of paper. My brother picked up the art supplies he needed, we noticed the dark glares we were getting from the employees, and we headed for the checkout.

It was there that we passed by that single island of hope in an entire store of boredom: the game shelf. Instantly we were all over it, picking up unlikely-sounding game after idiotic title. A game based on Robot Wars, yet another golf game. But then something mysterious, something awe-inspiring: The Crystal Key. Its mysterious cover a dark conundrum on the shelf, with a single keyhole of a tropical paradise peeking through.

My brother picked it up and flipped it open. “Huh. Looks like Myst.” Interest immediately sprouted in both of us, having spent an inordinate amount of time exploring that beautiful classic. He gave me a devil-may-cry grin and plopped it onto the checkout stand. Five whole dollars, on a whim! What power high schoolers with jobs had!

We went home and installed it

And, well, let’s cut to the chase: the game was not good. It was like Myst, and not in a bad way: there were a lot of interesting ideas there that the Myst series wouldn’t have for another game, including panorama views, a manageable inventory, and others. The problem is that the things it got wrong were so wrong; the lessons it should have learned from Myst weren’t there. To name a few: the ability for endless experimentation, the idea of not punishing your players for being wrong, the concept of your beautiful images contributing instead of just being fluff.

You were locked in with the game. A problem, in that it isn’t fun.

The problems are too deep to go into, but they aren’t the main lesson that I learned. I’ve spoken about good ripoffs before and I’ve spoken about bad ones, and maybe I spoke a bit too hastily. A ripoff isn’t a ripoff if the source turns into a genre. Example: when Doom first came out, it was the very first first-person shooter, that is, a game where you wandered around a level, viewing it from a first-person, 3D perspective, shooting guns at people. So, for a while, every game that imitated this style was a Doom-clone. As the genre was defined and redefined and refined, it turned out that these games were not so much ripoffs but attempts to refine the genre.

Later, Halo tweaked that model, with regenerating health, limited weapon selection, and great set-pieces that added to the environment and experience, and, for a while, the games that came out all started refining and improving on those ideas, for better or for worse. And from these trials-by-fire, we end up with massively improved games, with the occasional throwback to remind us why the genre used to be a certain way.

The Crystal Key was an open-faced attempt to cash in on the popularity of Myst and its sequels. There’s no denying that. But the fact that it attempted to change the model a bit, by giving an inventory and a multitude of bad ends like the adventure games of yore, is really something to be applauded. It did not succeed, and its innovations fell flat, but these kind of failures are necessary to help make a genre come into its own.

And even I saw, from my seventh grade position, that a genre was forming there, even if it had some bad attempts. Not that I didn’t use a walkthrough to get through that sucker–it was hard.

It also didn’t dissuade me from riding along with the old bro, even if we occasionally turned up stinkers/came close to dying.

April 8, 2012 / jwaxo

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (Downloads)

Alternate subtitles for this post: “Patience”, “Begging”, “Getting Away With Things”.

The original Tony Hawk game did a lot for the young me, getting me actually interested in an extreme sport, started me watching the X-Games with my brother, and introduced me to some sweet punk-rock music. It was unforgiving at times, and I didn’t get to play it that much due to the fact my brother didn’t have nearly as much fun watching me wipe out over and over and over again as I did. And, as the game was for his Playstation, I was forced to sit back and merely observe as he beat the game over and over with each separate skater.

What I rather desperately wanted was the same game, but on my own home turf: the PC. So I began scouring the internet, one slowly-loading page at a time, for such a thing.

Of course, the idea of a game being released for multiple platforms was, at the time, pretty ridiculous. The closest that had ever happened was the two Aladdin games that came out for the SNES and Genesis, both of which we had tried at friends’ houses and found were actually completely different games. But I had hope on my side, and the power of the internet.

The belief in the internet in our house was frightening, at best. It started with a simple AOL membership, from which my mom introduced me to the downloadable games library and warned us about something frightening called “chatrooms.” These brief glimpses of the amazing internet superhighway caused fantasies fueled on by the few clips of the thematic predecessors to The Matrix I had seen.

“I’m sure the internet will be just like this in a few years.”

By 2000 we had assuredly moved on to a classy 56k modem and a more straight-laced browser than the pathetic AOL could afford us, but it still was as slow as heck and still tied up our phone line whenever we needed to so much as check the weather. We once waited three hours for a minute-long trailer for some forgettable sci-fi movie to load in a memorably horrible moment.

So you have to understand, when I went out looking for a PC version of Tony Hawk, there was no way of knowing what I would find. It was completely uncharted territory.

Of course, as you can guess, I did find word that the sequel to Tony Hawk was going to come out for Windows. I even found a website hosting one of those things that I loved so much: a demo.

It was 27 megabytes.

Now, I have no idea how 56k modems actually work. Supposedly they can download up to 56 kilobits per second. The important thing is to notice the “up to” in that description; ideally this would mean I could get my demo in 9 minutes, maybe 8 if I was lucky.

The estimated download time that good old Internet Explorer 5 told me was 4 hours and 2 minutes. 4 hours and 25 minutes. 4 hours and 56 minutes.

Surely, it will come soon.

With one phone line available, a 5-hour wait was just impossible. My parents would never let it fly. Not for a stupid computer game, and especially with a phone company that billed by the minute.

I begged. I cajoled. I reasoned. I left the browser open to the right page and told my parents all they had to do was connect to the internet and click “Go” before going to bed. The entire thing would download before they even woke up, and I would get up extra-early to shut off the internet. I would be happy, they would be happy, everyone would be happy.

After the rejection, I did it anyway. I woke up at an absolutely ungodly hour (12:30 am), snuck downstairs, and booted the computer and modem up. I had saved the location in my bookmarks so, heart pounding that nobody would be hearing me, I connected, and I downloaded. I considered sneaking back up to my bedroom, waiting out the inevitable scream of fury at my discovery, but instead sat at the desk, reading books and watching the progress bar tick along. Eventually, after truly hours of waiting and a lot of scares and fantasies of being torn to shreds by my parents, I had the game saved to my desktop. I shut down the computer and snuck back upstairs.

No one was the wiser. But I probably had about five heart attacks that night in fear of being caught, and barely even played the demo afterwards for fear that someone would ask how I got it. I had learned my lesson: sometimes getting what you want isn’t worth the stress of potentially being caught.

There’s some sort of subtle irony here, since my brother was kind of sneaking out every night around that time, mostly consequence-free.

April 4, 2012 / jwaxo

Captain Comic (Endings)

It’s pretty crazy that I see pictures I’ve drawn when I look for reference pictures nowadays.

I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just repeating the same old song-and-dance before writing this post up and I stumbled upon an interesting figure: namely, that this blog has been fully operating for just over one full year now. That’s pretty crazy! This is actually my 107th post (although only really the 104th because of a couple placeholders and such). And that’s a pretty high number!

These facts have absolutely nothing to do with today’s topic.

Recently a pretty large video game trilogy came to an end, one that has been ongoing since 2007, and whose ending has a great deal of debate: Mass Effect. I really don’t need to talk about the events that happen at the end of Mass Effect 3 and the numerous things that everyone seems to think is wrong with it, but it did get me reflecting on the endings of games, and how they have evolved through the years, and the different things we’ve learned from them.

This naturally brought me back to the first game that I ever saw the “true” ending to. A game with no save feature, lots of backtracking, an inventory, and one heck of an ending.

That’s right. The original. The first. The initial game I can remember ever playing.

Captain Comic.

“Hey! That’s the blog’s avatar/logo-thing!”

I have no idea how we got the original Captain Comic. As far as I can remember it was always there, sitting on that diskette, ready to be played. It was a hard little game, one with limited lives and doors that could be opened before you were supposed to go in them and enemies that were pretty gosh-darn mean. It wasn’t nearly as forgiving as its sequel, which had a save feature and some pretty extensive exploration. It wasn’t a very easy game, but it was colorful and pretty and challenged my hand-eye coordination.

In other words, the perfect game to learn about games from.

It even had a story, a simple one that my four-year-old brain could comprehend: you, as the eponymous Captain, must track down the lost treasures of the planet Omsoc. So little was known about the captain that, with the years of playing the game over and over, I started to fill in the bits myself.

He was a loner, a mercenary hired by the royalty of Omsoc. He had a small ship, but no real supplies other than his extra lives and a single can of Blastola Cola, and no direction to go other than “the castle on planet Tambi”. From there he set out on his lonesome quest of returning those lost items. A radical, outer-space version of Indiana Jones.

Most similarities end there, I guess. It’s not even canonical, so don’t get too upset.

The thing is, that’s what we had to do with all of these games. Computers were generally too limited to have much of a story without having the entire game be in text, or having huge amounts of text hidden in them. So, with the years and years of playing piling up on each other, the story only grew bigger and more epic in my mind. The space station that you go to was used by the evil people of Tambi to conduct horrible space experiments. The trees in the far background in some screens looked like they were moving because they were–Tambi spies were everywhere. When the Captain finally got everything back, he would be hailed as a hero back on Omsoc, and there would be an awesome animation of celebration.

Then, finally, with some help from my dad, I managed to beat Captain Comic. And I was rewarded with a high score (not recorded anywhere) and a screen telling me that Captain Comic had succeeded, but more trouble awaited him in the sequel.

That. Was. It.

What’s hilarious about this, what’s absolutely, knee-slappingly great about it, is that I didn’t care that it was a crappy, empty ending. I didn’t. I had beaten the game! It was finished! Captain Comic’s adventure was finished, that book closed on my (and his) life. So I didn’t see what happened after the end, assuming I never played the sequel. That was okay. The important parts of this game were finished, and I was satisfied.

I don’t really know when games started becoming so story-oriented. I’m definitely not saying that “things were better back in the day” or even that I prefer my games with no story; I’m pretty sure my recorded history begs to differ in a million different ways. What I’m saying is that sometimes the ending you want, no matter how much more complete it would be, may not be the point of the game. Sometimes the point of the game is the actual game that you play until it ends.

And that’s kind of a lesson about life, I suppose.

Also, Mass Effect ends with Commander Shepard fighting a bear. True story.

April 1, 2012 / jwaxo

Worms Armageddon (Luck)

Everyone’s favorite annelids wreaking havoc on another landscape.

A number of months ago I spoke briefly about my experience with Worms 2, under the guise of telling a story about Zerg rushing. It was a true story, of course, and one that definitely taught me an important lesson, but I feel like I glazed over a few important parts of it. Namely, everything to do with Worms and the entire series.

See, in case you forgot, I first encountered that game at a week-long computer camp. And while there were several important lessons and classes that I took at the camp, anyone who has ever been to any kind of camp should know that the most important experiences are the ones that aren’t scheduled. For me, that was the games that I played.

Sure, there was StarCraft, but there was also Dune 2000, and Age of Empires, and Unreal Tournament. An enormous pile of games that we could pick and choose from to play against each other during downtime. The most important of these games was Worms 2. Through all six days, we held no less than three tournaments, and possibly hundreds of different games. I finely honed my skills and my team (all named after characters from the Pokémon anime).

During lunch breaks over at the college campus, we always talked about Worms and strategies. It was during one of these breaks, after I had loaded up my tray from the food court, that we first talked about continuing to play after camp was over.

Sometimes it was hard to hear others over the sound of all-you-can-eat soft serve, though.

“Sure,” one kid said, “you could buy Worms 2. But a new one just came out, Armageddon.”

“Like the awesome movie?” we all asked. It was PG-13, so I hadn’t seen it, but it sure looked awesome.

“It means the end of the world.” There was a series of gasps and excited laughter. A Worms game named after the end of the world? That sounded even better than the already-nearly-perfect Worms 2. I had to have it.

I began saving up my money, and looking on websites for the best place to buy a computer game. Don’t ask me why I neglected my usual local haunts; somehow the fact that I had never heard of Worms before summer camp instilled the idea that it was rare upon me. Eventually I found my prize, on a site surely some of you might remember: Egghead.com, a site that would be engraved upon my memory as a bastion for nerdy products and games.

I crossed my fingers and wired the money using my parents’ credit card, putting my blind faith into the internet like I had so many times before. And then the old waiting game began.

I hoped it was as good as that movie looked like it was…

A stupid thing to hope for. Ben Affleck is the absolute worst.

Disaster struck in a week. After this entire week of waiting, of checking the front door hopefully after school, I received an email shortly before leaving for school. One with the worst subject imaginable: “We Apologize for the Inconvenience.” Apparently, due to unexpected demand, Worms Armageddon was out of stock from Egghead, and they weren’t expecting to restock any time soon. Our account would be refunded shortly.

Head hanging, heart sunk, I plopped off to school. All day I was sorrowful: sure, my mom’s account had been credited, and I had the cash I had given her back in my pocket, and I’m sure I could find Worms somewhere else, but, well, who was to say this wouldn’t happen again? I helplessly doodled drawings of worms blowing everything up all day, my mind unable to concentrate.

And then I got home to find a box on my porch.

It seems that, somewhere, wires had gotten crossed, and there had been one extra box shipped out before they realized they had overbooked. That game had gone to me. Even the rep at Egghead was surprised, and told us we owed them nothing: their mistake.

And that’s how I learned that sometimes you just luck out.

But only in unimportant things, like getting games that let you blow your brother up hundreds of different ways for free.

March 28, 2012 / jwaxo

Duck Hunt (Hand-Eye Coordination)


Keep that stupid dog from laughing at you.

In our youth, there was an crazy new game out there, one as mysterious as it was awesome. With it, you could take up a gun-like controller, point it at the screen, and interact with the game system in a way never seen before, outside of arcades. It was paving the way for new video game interactions, a harbinger for a new generation of consoles that would be unlike anything we had ever seen before. What would come next? Virtual reality goggles? Gloves with tactile feedback? Entire suits that shocked you to simulate pain and pushed against you to simulate force? Maybe an entire lack of a controller, something that just read body language and movement to control your character.

All of this from this one game and accessory.

No, I’m obviously not talking about the Wii, but something a lot more basic, and of course a heck of a lot cooler: Duck Hunt.

Clearly it wasn’t actually new when we first discovered Duck Hunt. It had launched pretty much with the release of the NES, often paired on a single cartridge with Super Mario Bros. In fact, when we finally discovered an unwanted copy of Duck Hunt at one of those legendary garage sales, complete with a pair of light guns, it was one of those duel-game cartridges, resulting in us owning two copies of the same game. We weren’t ones to complain, having searched all over for the game since we had first seen it at our friend’s house.


Something about an accessory shaped like a gun just called to us.

Duck Hunt was a pretty simple game. Ducks flew across the screen, and you had three shots to take them down. It used pretty basic technology that had been in arcades for years and still is, three decades after the NES first launched. You pointed at the screen, pulled the trigger, and the gun detected if you were actually pointing at a duck or, say, a tree, or the sky. If you missed too much, the stupid, hateful dog laughed at you, and you lost. Pretty revolutionary technology at the time, and the magic remained exactly that for a long time.

(On a side note, if we had known better, we could easily have cheated by just aiming the gun at a lightbulb or a white piece of paper: supposedly it wouldn’t know the difference)

It was the wave of the future, and so we dove in with both guns (so to speak). Shooting ducks, each other, or, as our dad preferred, trap shooting. But what I remember the most is how truly, ridiculously accurate we started to get after a time. After a while, standing in front of the TV wasn’t challenging enough for us, so we started moving away from it, more and more, until eventually standing in the kitchen and tagging down ducks.

Still spot on.

I particularly found that I did my best if I just kind of let my eyes glaze over while staring at the screen, taking everything in, so I could best react when a duck appeared. Then, when it did, my gun hands would move on their own, taking aim and rapidly clicking the trigger. More often than not, I would get my kill, and I would do my best if I was getting really tired.

That’s some hand-eye coordination.

Now, obviously I could make my stupid-obvious point that video games can train you in stupid little kid things that everyone needs to learn. “Reaction times” and “learning patterns” are easy to point out and look at. But the actual lesson here was something that I can safely say that I learned at the age of 5 purely because of Duck Hunt: that video games can actually teach you things like that. Maybe inadvertently, maybe not, but during those formative years I gradually increased my ability to point and shoot at things with hardly a second thought. And the realization that something like this could happen was pretty mind-blowing for my little Chicago Bull’s-hat-wearing self.

Practical application left something to be desired, occasionally.