The Killing of a Chinese Cookie (2008)

July 7th, 2011

In The Killing of a Chinese Cookie, director Derek Shimoda delivers viewers everything they could ever possibly want to know about fortune cookies, those delicious little fortune-delivering snacks we (Americans) love to crunch on after gorging ourselves on Chinese food.

Right up front, the documentary tackles the question of, “Who invented the fortune cookie?” The answer to this question is surprisingly clouded in mystery. No less than four different (unrelated) interviewees claim to be direct descendants of the inventor of the fortune cookie. While some have more factual evidence than others, none have any verifiable proof. The two things everybody seems to agree on are (a) fortune cookies were invented in California (probably in the 1920s), and (b) they were invented by Japanese-Americans.

Japanese? Yes! In the 1920s and 30s, fortune cookies were largely associated with Japanese-Americans. After the attack on Pearl Harbor many Japanese-Americans were placed into “War Relocation Camps,” at which point Chinese-Americans adopted the manufacturing and distribution of fortune cookies … and the rest is history. As one interviewee states, “Fortune Cookies were invented by the Japanese, distributed by the Chinese, and served to the Americans.” To drive the point home, one elderly Chinese man is handed a fortune cookie. His on-camera response: “What is this?”

The history of the cookie is by and large the most interesting part of the documentary, but that story alone couldn’t fill a 90 minute documentary so the rest of the film consists of a dozen or so mini-stories about fortune cookies. We get to see how fortune cookies were once hand made. We also get to see a modern cookie production factory that churns out 5 million cookies a day. We meet a father/daughter team that make cookies and pen the fortunes found inside. We learn about an art project in which eccentric artists created works of art based on fortune cookies they received. We meet a man (his identity is blocked) who collects “rejected and innappropriate” fortunes that didn’t make the cut, and published them (under the pseudonym Joe Wang — cute). We hear about a guy that played a prank by sneaking fake fortune cookies into restaurants (I would have liked to hear more about the logistics of how this was done). We see clips of fortune cookies appearing in popular culture, one of which disappointingly uses harsh R-Rated language, tainting an otherwise family-friendly film. What a poor choice on the director’s part.

According to IMDB, The Killing of a Chinese Cookie has a 75-minute run time, but I could have sworn it ran for two hours. The last half of the movie drags, seeming less like a documentary and more like a series of 5-10 minute unrelated bits that should have been condensed to 2 minutes. A 10-15 minute section in the middle of the film is subtitled, which slows the film’s pace. (I get it, they’re from China, but still.) By the time you get to the section where every interviewee gets to make up their own perfect fortune for themselves, you’ll be ready for the film to end. At least, I was.

If you’re into random trivia and quirky documentaries, give The Killing of a Chinese Cookie a shot. I picked up a few factoids and found at least some of it interesting. It’s not a bad film, but it does run out of steam (and material) before you reach the end.

Sometimes, that’s how the cookie crumbles.

Available via Netflix/Netflix Streaming.

The Secret (2006)

July 6th, 2011

The Secret, available as a book, audio book, and DVD, claims that you (yes, you!) can have anything you have ever dreamed of having if you learn … the secret. Health, wealth, and happiness could all be yours if only you knew … the secret. And, for the price of a hardcover book and/or DVD (about $20), you too can learn … the secret.

Fortunately, The Secret is available on Netflix (both as a physical disc and via streaming), so I was able to learn the secret for free.

“The secret” boils down to the “Law of Attraction,” which, I learned, permeates the entire universe. The Law of Attraction states that we attract things into our lives — good and bad — through our thoughts. Bob Proctor, listed as a “Philosopher” in the credits, sidesteps explaining how the Law of Attraction actually works by stating, “Look, I don’t know how electricity works either, but I use it every day.” Magnets, man — miracles are all around us.

To use the Law of Attraction to our advantage, we need to focus on what we want in life. If you think about money you will get money, if you think about health you will be healthy, and so on. There are a few stipulations, however. First, the Law of Attraction is not instantaneous. That would just be silly, and dangerous. Second, you should focus on positive things because the Law of Attraction isn’t very bright. For example, focusing on “get me out of debt” will just attract more debt. Instead, you should focus on attracting money. And third, you should be reasonable in what you wish for … because apparently, the Law of Attraction can sometimes be stingy bitch.

Throughout the documentary’s 90 minute run time, a string of authors, therapists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, metaphysicians, visionaries, and even a Feng Shui consultant are paraded in front of the camera, explaining how The Secret worked for them. One fellow tells about how, five years ago, he cut out a picture of a mansion and stuck it on his wish board. Five years later, wildly successful in business and life, he pulled his old wish board out of storage only to find that he was living in the mansion he had dreamed of owning five years earlier. (Cue “Twilight Zone” theme.)

The problem I had with The Secret was that this is all presented as some sort of mystical, arcane knowledge. “The Secret has been passed down from generation to generation,” it says. “The Secret was known by Plato, Newton, Carnegie, Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Einstein,” we are told.

For what it’s worth, I do believe in the “power” of positive thinking. I don’t think it’s as much magic as it is a frame of mind. I think people who see the glass of water as “half full” surely go through life happier than those who see it as “half empty.” What The Secret neglects to mention is that success is a combination of ambition and hard work. When positive thinking leads to positive action, you can expect positive results! Sitting around and dreaming about losing weight won’t help you lose a single pound until you actually get up and start exercising. It’s the action that leads to success.

Or perhaps that’ll the subject of The Secret: Part II

I Think We’re Alone Now (2008)

July 5th, 2011

Back in the late 1980s, pop singers/teen sensations Tiffany and Debbie Gibson battled it out on the pop charts. (Younger readers can consider them the 80s version of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.) Just as grunge rock killed hair metal, an onslaught of rap and hip-hop drove Tiffany and Debbie off the charts. That’s not to say either of them quit performing: both have launched comeback attempts, performed on reality television programs (Gibson on Skating with Celebrities, Tiffany on Celebrity Fit Club), and both singers have appeared in Playboy. See you in ten years, Spears and Aguilera!

Most of us quit following celebrities once they leave the spotlight, but others have a harder time doing so. The documentary I Think We’re Alone Now follows two of these individuals, both of which are obsessed with the singer Tiffany. (Sorry Debbie, maybe next time.)

First up is Jeff Turner, a 50-year-old man who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and claims to be a close personal friend of Tiffany’s — a fact he shares with anyone within earshot who is too polite to walk away. Although he initially appears somewhat normal, the more we see of Turner the more we sense something is not quite right. Eventually we learn that Tiffany once filed a restraining order against Turner for trying to give her a Samurai sword in an airport (“It’s considered an honor in Japan,” he notes), and that he has spent more than $20,000 on “radionics equipment.” The radionics equipment, which consists of a bicycle helmet with crystals duct taped to it that is connected to a pyramid made out of wood, allows Turner to tune in to Tiffany’s brain waves and connect with her telepathically — because she is a “inter-dimensional time traveler.”

Next up is Kelly McCormick, a 31-year-old transgendered hermaphrodite who is neither 31-years-old (s/he lied) nor a hermaphrodite (although she lives life as a female, McCormick admits in the commentary track that the pluming’s apparently male). The first thing McCormick heard when coming out of a coma in 1980s was a Tiffany song, and ever since then she’s known in her heart that the two of them were destined to have a relationship together.

Most of the documentary consists of footage of these two bumbling souls meandering through life. Turner, dissuaded by the restraining order, shows up at Tiffany beach concern apparently a day early and stands around talking to security guards until they finally walk away. McCormick almost gets to see Tiffany live in a club, but is turned away when the folded up photocopy over her driver’s license isn’t considered to be a legal photo ID. In probably the least surprising revelation of the film, both McCormick and Turner are unemployed and receive disability pay from the government for their mental disabilities.

Eventually, these two super fans are apparently connected by the director (it’s a little muddy) and they each hit the road to convene at a Tiffany show at the Krave Gay Night Club in Las Vegas. As muscular men in their tighty-whities dance around behind her, Tiffany sings as the two fans clap and dance the night away. Later that night, both of them stand in line to meet Tiffany and steal cheek kisses from her. She looks thrilled. Later that evening, the two of them compare Tiffany notes and stories until Turner’s one-upmanship gets the better of McCormick. So lonely are these two that they are content to sit in a hotel room and talk about how which one of them will end up with Tiffany first. (I had the same conversation with friends about Debby Harry back in the day; then again, I was 8-years-old.)

I Think We’re Alone Now is uncomfortable at times to watch and somewhat difficult to enjoy, especially when you realize that essentially what you are watching are two obsessed and mentally ill stalkers. It’s hard not to feel sad for these two delusional fans; likewise, it’s tough not to feel a little concerned for Tiffany’s well-being.

Shot on a hand-held camcorder, video quality isn’t great and the audio is just passable (save for a 5-10 second clip in which the audio was simply missing). You won’t have to worry about how those classic Tiffany hits sound in 5.1 surround sound because none of her music appears in the film. Tiffany also refused to be interviewed for the film. Talk about a no-win situation. Once you’ve alienated the mentally ill, what fan base does she have left? (I kid, I kid …)

if you’re a fan of documentaries, by all means check out I Think We’re Alone Now. I suspect “a rental will do ya,” as I can’t see myself watching this strange but curious look into the world of stalking more than once. I left this movie feeling sad, and in hopes that both Turner and McCormick are ultimately able to find peace and happiness without Tiffany in their lives.

Racing the Beam

May 26th, 2011

My parents brought home our first home Pong console in the fall of 1977, shortly after I turned four-years-old. The following year we upgraded to a Magnavox Odyssey 2, and in 1979 we purchased an Atari 2600. I have literally been playing video games my entire life; I’m a grown up gamer that grew up gaming. I’ve watched the video game technology grow and expand infinitely, back from its humble monochrome roots in the late 1970s to the hi-definition graphics, digital surround sound audio, and online multi-player gaming experiences we take for granted today.

When you’ve been around as long as I have, it’s impossible not to compare and contrast the new with the old. As a technical kind of guy this often plays itself out in numbers. Comparing the processing power and storage capacity of today’s modern marvels to the systems of yesteryear results in some mind-blowing revelations. I once downloaded a zip file that contained the ROMs of every Atari 2600 game known at that time. The file was 3 megabytes in size. A complete archive of every official US Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is slightly larger at just over 100 megabytes. Realizing that I have enough memory to store complete copies of the Atari 2600, NES, SNES and Sega Genesis game libraries on my phone reminds us of how far we’ve come in the couple of decades. In the year 2000, I had a Nokia cell phone that was capable of playing a port of Snake (an arcade game from 1976). Ten years later, I bought an iPhone that plays Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (THPS2).

Cramming a skateboarding game originally designed to play on the Sony PlayStation into an iPhone requires a level of technical wizardry that is impressive, but not surprising. If you really want to understand what technical wizardry is — if you really want to learn about a world where every byte (nay, bit!) counted, you’ll need to go back almost 30 years to the Atari 2600 platform. While it is indeed impressive that in 2010 Activision was able to render a three-dimensional world in which you can maneuver a virtual Tony Hawk around in, it is more impressive to me that in 1982 Activision released Pitfall!, a game that contained 32 treasures spread across 255 unique rooms containing varying combinations tar pits, water holes, quicksand, rolling logs, campfires, snapping crocodiles, scorpions and swinging vines … all in 4k worth of code.

If that last fact made your jaw drop, or caused you to smile, or sent chills down your spine, or got any sort of physical reaction out of you at all … then Racing the Beam is for you.

Written by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, Racing the Beam chronicles (in technical depth) the development of six seminal Atari 2600 games: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars’ Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. With the development of each game, readers are exposed to the capabilities (read: limitations) of the Atari 2600 platform. From a hardware perspective the 2600 was developed to play variations of Combat and Pong, and only contained the ability to render five moving objects (two players, two bullets, one ball) at a time, and had 128 bytes of RAM in which to do it. The random, colorful explosions in Yars’ Revenge and the smooth, parallax scrolling in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back become all the more impressive in that context.

Each game discussed within the book marks a milestone in the life of the Atari 2600, whether it’s the evolution of text adventures into a graphical environment (Adventure), the birth of movie licensed-games (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back), or the genre of arcade-to-console conversions (Pac-Man). None of these games were developed within a vacuum, and the book does a good job of encapsulating not only the technical achievements of each game, but also the historical context in which they were developed. The chapter about Yars’ Revenge, for example, talks about the game’s roots as a port of Star Castle, and compares and contrasts the game with Atari’s Asteroids. The game’s Easter Egg, the code used for the seemingly random level-ending explosions, and its unique sonic landscape are all discussed in detail.

At multiple times throughout the book, Racing the Beam reminds us that these classic games weren’t compiled by teams of skilled programmers, but rather were labors of love, quite often imagined, developed, and programmed by a single individual. While general concepts and technical knowledge was passed along between programmers, because of the way these games were designed it was difficult to recycle and/or share specific code among projects. The concept of having different people work on graphics, sound, and gameplay mechanics would not come to pass for a few more years. The book does a good job of introducing us to these men behind the keyboards.

Racing the Beam is not always an easy read. While the anecdotes and memories documented within are both interesting and informative, the book occasionally delves deep into the technical hows-and-whys involved in producing these games. I encountered some conversational hurdles as I waded through information regarding Atari’s TIA chip (the 2600’s sound and graphics chip), clock cycles and horizontal and vertical blanks — interesting Jeopardy material to be sure, but definitely deeper reading than your average light-hearted romp down retrospective lane.

Upon finishing this book you will never again look at the background trees in Pitfall or Pac-Man’s flashing ghosts in the same way. While not an encapsulating history of the Atari 2600 itself, Racing the Beam does an excellent job of explaining the demonstrating the hurdles and limitations early programmers had to overcome in order to create great video games.

(One final thought: this review contains 5,899 characters, more than any of the Atari 2600 games mentioned in Racing the Beam. Food for thought.)

Yar’s Revenge (iOS)

May 24th, 2011

I was eight-years-old in 1981 when Yars’ Revenge was released for the Atari 2600 console. At that time, Yars’ seemed a radical departure from most other available titles. Unlike the other games I owned at that time (Combat, Space Invaders, Basketball), the goal of Yars’ Revenge isn’t immediately discernible by simply looking at the playfield. The left hand side of the screen contains a big white bug (that’s you); on the right sits something or someone else (presumably a foe) behind a big red shield. A strip of rainbow-colored static runs vertically between the two of you. You can shoot (or peck) away at the shield, but not while hiding in the rainbow zone. Sometimes a missile appears behind you. Sometimes your enemy turns into a deadly spiral and shoots you in the face. There’s another wandering wafer that players quickly learn is not friendly.

It isn’t until we read the game’s manual that we learn we are not controlling a fly, but rather a Yar scout. The Qotile (aka “the guy hiding behind the red shield”) can only destroyed by a blast from the Zorlon Cannon, which the Yar must arm by using TRONS (units of energy). TRONS can be obtained by nibbling on cells from the Qotile’s shield, or touching the Qotile when he is not swirling. Yar can hide from the Qotile’s Destroyer Missile in the Neutral Zone (the “colorful and glittering path down the center of the playfield”), but cannot fire from inside it.

In addition to the manual, Atari also included a mini-Yars’ Revenge comic book that further detailed the Yars’ plight. According to the comic book, the titular “revenge” was in response to the destruction of the Yars home planet of Razak IV. We also learn that Yars are alien descendants of common house flies who wear chrome armor into battle. And if you didn’t get enough back story from the comic book, Atari also released two separate vinyl records containing dramatic reenactments of the Yars story. Atari used to put a lot of effort into their releases back then, yo. In this case the efforts paid off, as Yars Revenge became Atari’s best selling original title for the 2600.

Yars’ Revenge has seen multiple ports, mostly to portable consoles. The game was released for the Game Boy Color in 1999, as part of a compilation package for the Game Boy Advance in 2005, and Atari’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 for the Nintendo DS in 2011. Yars’ Revenge was also included on both the Atari Flashback 2 and Jakks Pacific’s Atari Joystick Plug-n-Play/TV Games controllers. Most recently, the original version appeared most recently on the Atari Classics compilation for the PSP and iOS. (Just to clarify, all previous versions of Yars’ Revenge have been ports of the original, 1981 version.)

That brings us to Yar’s Revenge, a brand new Atari game developed by Killspace Entertainment. You can tell it’s an all new game because the old one was Yars’ (with a trailing apostrophe) and the new one is Yar’s (with the apostrophe before the “s”). SEE WHAT THEY DID THERE? This sly bit of coy marketing probably would have worked better if people hadn’t been misspelling the original version as “Yar’s” for the past three decades. Exactly thirty years after the release of the original, Yar’s Revenge hit PCs and XBLA in late April and PSN whenever hackers finally got gone done pissing all over it.

Despite the name of the original, apparently the Yars never got their revenge. In fact, in the sequel we learn that the Yars were all but wiped out by the Qotile, and what few Yars weren’t killed were captured. That’s where you come in, of course. After escaping, you’ll be exacting revenge against your former captors with guns a’blazing, which (technically speaking) means the game’s title should probably have been “Yar’s Yars’ Revenge Revenge”. Fortunately for us all it’s not; apparently, revenge is a dish best served one Yar at a time.

Speaking of names, this all new Yar’s Revenge doesn’t much resemble its namesake. The new Yar’s Revenge is at heart an on-rails shooter. Players are automatically guided through a beautifully pre-rendered world, and are allowed to move (but not steer) using the left analog stick while aiming with the right. In the past thirty years, Yar weaponry has come a long way; along with your traditional pulse laser, you also have a railgun and missiles at your disposal. Like all shooters, there are trade-offs (missiles are limited and the rail gun needs to recharge). Along the way you will also encounter power ups that can do things like recharge your health or make you temporarily invulnerable.

As with nearly all vidoe games, the overall goal here is to rack up a high score. Your score can be boosted by acquiring and maintaining multipliers, which themselves can be increased by shooting accuracy and speed. Yar’s Revenge contains six levels, each of which ends with a boss fight (where those powered-up weapons will come in handy).

One thing the sequel shares with the original is in-game poor story telling. In the original, the Yars’ back story had to be conveyed through the help of a comic book (the Atari 2600 wasn’t particularly known for its ability to render cut scenes). In the sequel, the ongoing Yar saga is related to players through voiceless, subtitled cut scenes. I hope you can read fast, because the words tend to zoom by faster than a Qotile Destroyer Missile. Even worse is the written dialogue that appears in-game, usually while a wave of enemies is firing lasers at your insect-shaped head. If you have a tough time texting and driving, you can forget about following the plot.

As far as shooters go, Yar’s Revenge isn’t great and it isn’t terrible; it’s just kind of there. While some of the bosses and waves of opponents can be tough to dispose of (depending on the difficulty settings you’ve chosen), more than anything, the repeated zapping of continual onslaughts of baddies grows monotonous long before players can blast their way through the game’s two-to-three hour playtime. More important to me than the fate of Yar was finding out when this punishment was going to end.

Thirty years ago, Atari programmer Howard Scott Warshaw created the Yars’ Revenge, a 192×160 resolution game that consists of 4k of code and is still being played today on modern systems. Thirty years later we have Yar’s Revenge, an absolutely gorgeous on-rails shooter that is bigger in size than a conventional CD (the PC version is well over 700 meg) and will be forgotten by most gamers in 30 days, much less 30 years. If that doesn’t sum up the current state of the gaming industry, I don’t know what does.

(originally submitted to Caltrops.com)

Into the Eagle’s Nest (C64)

May 18th, 2011

One man. Three hostages. Ninety-nine bullets. Untold riches. An infinite number of expendable Nazis. Welcome to Into the Eagle’s Nest.

Gauntlet, the classic arcade game released by Atari back in 1985, quickly inspired multiple clones both in arcades and at home on both consoles and home computers. Knock-offs such as Alien Syndrome (Sega, 1986), Druid (Firebird, 1986) and Demon Stalkers (Electronic Arts, 1987) copied the top-down maze format of Gauntlet and competed directly against licensed Gauntlet ports in the home market. While most of these Gauntlet clones took place in fantastic, magical settings, Into the Eagle’s Nest dropped players into World War II.

Presumably inspired by (at least in name) the classic World War II film “Where Eagles Dare” starring Clint Eastwood, Into the Eagle’s Nest places you in the heart of of the Eagle’s Nest, a Nazi fortress full of treasure, danger, and, well, Nazis. Your orders, according to the game’s manual, are to penetrate the Eagle’s Nest, rescue three allied captives before they are killed, destroy the Eagle’s Nest using hidden caches of explosives, and save as many stolen art treasures from destruction as possible.

To those who have played Gauntlet, the game’s layout should seem familiar. An overhead view of the Eagle’s Nest appears on the left, while a running inventory and status of your keys, ammo, health, and score are displayed vertically along the right hand side. A few differences between Gauntlet and Into the Eagle’s Nest are immediately noticeable. One, Into the Eagle’s Nest is a single-player game, so there will be no help for you. And two, the game’s graphics are much larger than Gauntlet’s. This design choice allows for more detailed graphics, but also means players are not able to see much of the game’s map at any given time (your view is limited to approximately 8×8 game tiles).

The game mechanics of Into the Eagle’s Nest should also seem familiar to Gauntlet veterans. Players will need to collect keys to open doors, collect first aid and food for health, and treasure (jewels, paintings, and vases) for score. Each level also contains elevator, wooden doors (which can be shot open), dynamite (boom!), and boxes of ammo. You’ll need the ammo to shoot and kill the hoards of Nazis, who are more than happy to return the favor. They’re not particularly bright, but there are lots and lots of them to deal with. The game is made more difficult by the fact that all bullets are invisible.

The ultimate goal of the game is to find all three allied prisoners and lead them to safety. Once your cohorts have been moved from harm’s way, you can complete the game’s final mission by using explosives and blowing the Eagle’s Nest sky high. If so are somehow able to do this, you’ll just start over in another, more difficult Eagle’s Nest. That doesn’t even make any sense. It would be like Darth Vader telling the Rebellion, “Oh yeah? Too bad for you I had ANOTHER Death Star!” And just how many stolen pieces of artwork were the Germans hiding in World War II? I mean, seriously; the Eagle’s Nest has more art than the Louvre!

As far as Nazi-killing games go, Into the Eagle’s Nest closes the gap between the original Castle Wolfenstein (Muse, 1981) and Wolfenstein 3D (id Software, 1992). Although it’s a difficult game, it’s a fun one to play. Into the Eagle’s Nest was released for most major 8-Bit computers including the Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Atari, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, as well as a few 16-Bit platforms including the Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS.

Atari’s Greatest Hits (iOS)

April 25th, 2011

Before any of us had heard of Nintendo, we had Atari. If you were a kid in the late 1970s or early 1980s, you either owned an Atari 2600, were friends with someone who did, or were a weird booger-eater that nobody liked anyway.

Those of us with fond memories of the Atari 2600 have multiple ways to relive those blocky classics. A few die hard dorks (myself included) still own real Atari consoles; those less dedicated (or dorky) can still enjoy the games through emulation on virtually any modern computer. Compilations of Atari 2600 games have also been released for essentially every video game console released in the past 15 years. The latest of these retro compilations is “Atari’s Greatest Hits” for the iPad.

Technically “Atari’s Greatest Hits” is available for free via an iTunes download, but the free version only comes with Pong — which, unless you rode/ride the short bus each morning, you’ll tire of in just a few minutes. After downloading the core program, an additional hundred games are available for purchase, divided into groups of four for 99 cents each. For hardcore old school gamers, the entire lot can be purchased for a one time $15 fee. While each game grouping technically has a “theme”, some of the pack groupings make little sense; if you buy the Missile Command Pack (which comes with both the arcade and the Atari 2600 versions of the game), you’ll also be the proud owner of a prime example of false advertising, “Fun With Numbers”.

Of the 100 available games, 18 are arcade games and 82 are ports of Atari 2600 games. Most of the four-title game packs contains a sampling from each group. The Asteroids pack, for example, contains the arcade versions of Asteroids and Asteroids Deluxe along with the Atari 2600 versions of Asteroids and Canyon Bomber. The Centipede pack contains both the arcade and Atari 2600 ports of Centipede and Millipede. The only games available to purchase are official Atari titles, so you’ll find no Activision or Imagic games here, boy. A small subset of the games support multiplayer gaming over Bluetooth. While this feature makes sense in head-to-head games like Warlords and Combat, going through the hassle of talking one of your friends into also buying this compilation and configuring Bluetooth just to take turns watching each other play Yars’ Revenge and Tempest seems somewhat pointless.

Each digital game purchased contains scans of the owner’s manual, box cover, and in the case of the arcade games, original artwork. None of them are a replacement for holding or touching the real thing, but when you’re paying for digital content (especially when we’re talking about 30-35 year old games), more content is better. As for the quality of the games themselves, the conversions are passable. The games look and sound relatively authentic, although nitpickers will spot slight differences here and there.

The obvious elephant in the room is, “How well do the controls translate to a touch screen interface?”, with the answer being a resounding “meh”. Listen, moving my finger around on top of a picture of a joystick has never felt realistic and never will. The controls on the iPad are spaced so far apart that it’s almost impossible to hold the iPad up and play the games at the same time. Playing on a smaller screen makes the device easier to hold, but shrinks the virtual controls at the same time. From Crystal Castle’s trackball to Tempest’s spinner (replaced with a “sliding dial”), the lack of tactile feedback is both noticed and missed (don’t get me started on Battlezone or Major Havok). Atari’s Greatest Hits is compatible with the about-to-be-released iCade, a device that turns your iPad into a mini arcade cabinet (complete with a Bluetooth joystick). With an MSRP of $99 there are far cheaper ways to enjoy old Atari games, but if you already planned on picking up the iCade, your Atari’s Greatest Hits experience no doubt would be improved.

For mobile gamers, compilations of Atari games already exist for Sony’s PSP and the Nintendo DS. And, as previously mentioned, both Atari 2600 emulators and MAME have been ported to nearly every platform under the sun by now (there’s even a port of MAME for the iPhone). If you’re an iPad owner and you either enjoy touch-screen controls or enjoy being frustrated by them, you could do worse than picking up “Atari’s Greatest Hits” for the iPad.

(Originally posted on Caltrops.com)

Dragon Dictation (iPhone/iPod)

December 22nd, 2010

The last time I spent any time with voice-to-text software, it was the 1990s, and the technology was awful. Back then, most programs needed to first learn your voice, a process that involved speaking into your computer’s wired microphone for extended periods of time and hoping that things went well. Between the slow rate of speech required and the high frequency of errors, it never seemed worth the effort to me — especially to a guy who can type nearly 100wpm.

Voice-to-text software has made a comeback, thanks to smartphones. Five years ago voice dialing was all the rage, but today’s users want to be able to tweet, update Facebook, and send e-mail and text messages via voice. Enter Dragon Dictation for the iPhone (and Android).

Upon launching, Dragon Dictation’s interface contains a single button. Press it, and the app will begin recording your voice. When you finish speaking, the app will transfer your captured speech to their servers, convert it to text, and send the text back to you. Assuming the text does not need to be corrected, it can then be copied to your clipboard. For correcting text, users can either re-record words, or choose from a pre-defined list of similar sounding words.

Post-recording, Dragon Dictation provides users with five handy icons: SMS, E-Mail, Facebook, Twitter, and Copy. The Facebook and Twitter icons (once configured) will allow you to send your voice message as a status update. The SMS and E-Mail icons will launch the appropriate app with your message copied to the clipboard — it’s up to you to paste the message into the message body.

When Dragon Dictation works, it works well. When speaking in a normal tone in a normal environment (cars included), Dragon Dictation does a good job of recognizing most common phrases. The program also inherently recognizes certain key phrases (“period”, “comma”, and “Caps”) that allow your text to read naturally.

Using the app while speaking in a lower-than-normal tone of voice and/or in a noisy environment quickly reveals the application’s limitations. So does using non-standard phrases, apparently. My attempt to translate “Ding, fries are done” resulted in “Do you guys are doing”. Attempts to convert speech with the car windows down or while whispering gave similar results. According to the manual, repeated use combined with user corrections will train the app to your voice over time.

Security pundits should take note that all converted text is sent to and from Dragon’s servers via your phone’s Internet connection … meaning members of Al-Qaeda and supporters of WikiLeaks should probably look for a different solution. Dragon Dictation also requests to send the names of all your phone’s contacts to its servers, to ease in voice-to-text translations. The app promises that you cannot be identified and the names of your contacts will never be revealed to anyone else, but the idea still made me a little queasy. Opting out is always an option.

The app contains few other bells and whistles. Users can reset the app’s learned behavior and attempt to detect when you are done speaking, but that’s about it.

Users who have yet to upgrade to a multitasking version of iOS (such as myself) may experience some frustration in using Dragon Dictation for sending text messages. It works, but after each message you’ll have to press SMS, select the person you wish to text, press the text area, press it again, press paste, and then press send. For longer messages it will still save you time, and it’s certainly safer while driving, but it’s far from hands-free. For me, the app seemed more useful for updating Twitter and Facebook, and/or drafting e-mails.

Save for the few stares I got from my family as I clearly spoke Twitter updates into my phone, I like this app. I was able to compose multiple Twitter updates and lengthy e-mails with few or no errors (the more common the words and phrases, the better the success rate). It’s not quite hands-free and it’s not perfect, but it’s not bad, especially while driving.

Burger Queen (iPhone/iPod)

December 4th, 2010

Although I spent several years as a teenager making pizzas, cooking fish, and frying chicken, I never spent any time in a hamburger joint (working, that is — I spent plenty of time in them eating!). Burger Queen puts you in the action behind the counter of a busy burger joint, and it’s your job to keep the hoards of customers happy by delivering burgers, fries, drinks and desserts to them in a timely manner.

In early levels of the game, things move slowly enough that each item — burgers, french fries, and sodas — can be assembled as customers approach the counter. Burgers are assembled by picking the correct ingredients (bottom bun, meat, top bun), Sodas take a few seconds to fill, and fries take the longest to prepare as they must be dropped in grease to fry and then pulled out before they burn. Players have a serving tray that holds up to 10 individual items, which gives you the ability to stockpile a few items to help make it through the afternoon rush.

Later levels add more burger options like lettuce, cheese, tomatoes and chicken patties. Before long, additional drink choices (and ultimately desserts) show up. Your score depends on all sorts of variables, from what order you assemble the burgers to whom is served first and how long each customer has to wait. By the time you reach the higher levels, things get so fast and stressful that it’s like … well, it’s like working in a real fast food restaurant.

Burger Queen has a short ramping up period before it quickly turns into a virtual button mashing frenzy. Both I and my son had a good time playing this game. At $0.99 you can’t go wrong — very fun, and very addictive.

Refill, please!

Mad Dog McCree: Gunslinger Pack (Wii)

November 28th, 2010

In 1983, Cinemetronics released Dragon’s Lair, the first (and arguably best) laserdisc-based arcade game. The general consensus from gamers worldwide was that (A) it looked beautiful and (B) the controls stunk. There wasn’t a gamer alive that wasn’t impressed by Dragon’s Lair’s graphics (you got to play a cartoon, man!), but unlike essentially every other arcade game on the market at that time, Dragon’s Lair was more about memorization and timing than it was about lightning reflexes and skill. Whatever frustration gamers had with this new style of gaming didn’t stop Cinemetronics from releasing Dragon’s Lair II, Space Ace, and several other games using the same laserdisc technology. These games were expensive to create, in part due to the hand drawn animation (the animation alone for Dragon’s Lair cost $1 million and took 7 months to create).

In 1990, American Laser Games came up with a twist; by replacing hand-drawn animation with live action footage and using a light gun instead of a joystick, the world’s first live action laserdisc western was born: Mad Dog McCree.

Mad Dog McCree: Gunslinger Pack for the Nintendo Wii contains three live action western shooters by American Laser Games: Mad Dog McCree, Mad Dog II: The Lost Gold, and The Last Bounty Hunter. All three games work essentially the same: using the Wiimote as a pistol, players must shoot their way through B-movie western footage.

As Mad Dog McCree opens, you (referred to as “the stranger”) are informed by a local about the town’s dire condition. Mad Dog McCree is running wild, the Sheriff has been locked up in his own jail, and … about this time, one of Mad Dog’s cohorts walks into view and shoots you dead. After a brief lecture from the town’s undertaker the level will start over, and now you know how these games work. At any given time, bad guys can pop out and shoot you dead, instantly. You start the game with three lives, and believe me, they will pass quickly.

And that was my experience with Mad Dog McCree. After beating one location I would arrive at a new one, only to be killed almost immediately. “Note to self: there’s a guy behind that big rock.” Then I would start over and successfully shoot the guy behind the rock, only to get killed by the guy behind the cactus — and so on and so on. I slowly worked my way through the first game, asking myself all the while why I was doing so.

In the arcade version of Mad Dog McCree, three lives would run you fifty-cents, with continues costing you an additional quarter. Here, you can continue by challenging a quick-draw gunfighter. Let me just say this: it took us forty-five minutes to successfully win a gunfight. With each gunfight sequence lasting around 30 seconds (including the “continue page” and talking to the understaker), that’s about 90 freakin’ attempts. It may be the most ridiculous and needless difficult videogame challenge of all time. I would rather buy a new Wii and another copy of this game and start over each time rather than try to beat those stupid gunslingers.

Save for minor differences, Mad Dog McCree II and The Last Bounty Hunter (the other two games included) play essentially the same as the original. While continues and scoring and handled a little differently, you’ll still find yourself pointing and shooting your Wii Remote at cheesy actors in western garb and getting repeatedly (and cheaply) killed by random varmints.

After playing Mad Dog McCree: Gunslinger Pack for a couple of days, I came up with six target audiences for this game:

01. You are a wicked stepmother. You know, like the one from Cinderella? What better torture for that stepdaughter of yours than to buy her a fancy new Nintendo Wii for Christmas and then only let her play this game on it? TORTURE.

02. You want to ween your kids off of videogames. Are your kids spending too much time on the Wii? Buy this game, and then start hiding their old games one by one until only this one remains. They’ll ween themselves off it within a week.

03. You want to teach your kids about gun safety. If nothing else, Mad Dog McCree teaches kids that if you pick up a gun, you can be shot and killed at any given time by a scoundrel with a handlebar mustache. The earlier in life kids learn this lesson, the better.

04. You are poor. Perhaps you won a Nintendo Wii in a drawing, or someone gave one to you. It sounded good, until you found out new Wii games cost $50. WHAT THE? Fortunately for you, Mad Dog McCree: Gunslinger Pack only costs $20 and contains three games. Sure, it’s like buying your daughter a Barbie that’s missing a leg or your son a three-wheeled fire truck, but hey, sometimes money is tight.

05. You enjoy bad movies, you drink heavily, or you are a sadist. I’ll admit, any of these three groups may enjoy this game.

And finally …

06. People who enjoyed this game in arcades. This is, most likely, the only group that will get any real long-lasting enjoyment out of this package. If you have memories of quick-drawing in arcade and have a soft spot for the cheesy dialog contained within, you will get more entertainment from the Gunslinger Pack than anyone else. And by “more enjoyment” I mean you’ll play it more than once.

Anyone else, even at the budget $20 price, should probably steer clear. Everyone I’ve shown the game to that wasn’t in one of the above six groups lost interest in about fifteen minutes. The game play is repetitive and cheap, and the acting is bad (not in a charming way, but in the bad way). Unless Mad Dog McCree himself is holding you at gunpoint, it won’t take most players long to go find something else to do.