Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Atari 2600 Links and Thoughts
Just finishing off the Atari 2600 retrospective with a few links and thoughts...
Sunday, May 28, 2006
Atari 2600 Games: Honorable Mention
There are, of course, many great games for the Atari 2600. Some (like Pitfall II) have aged better than others, but there is a certain sentimental value to be had in even the most mind-numbingly repetitive of these games. As I've mentioned before, most games have a completely arbitrary goal set for you, usually having to do with a score or time. This can get tiresome, but back in the day, they were still a whole lot of fun. In reality, it's actually pretty impressive, considering that most of these games were about 2k - 4k in size. Here are some of my other favorite Atari games:
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns
Perhaps I've gone too far. I'm in an underground cavern beneath Peru. It seems to be a complex maze, perhaps eight chambers wide and over three times as deep. Niece Rhonda has disappeared, along with Quickclaw, our cowardly cat. I am beset by all manner of subterranean creatures in this vast, ancient labrynth. And all because of a rock--the Raj diamond. It was stolen a century ago, and hidden here.Pitfall II: Lost Caverns. The original Pitfall! set the standard for Atari adventure games as it sent our intrepid hero, an Indiana Jones clone named Pitfall Harry, to a junge where he must avoid the likes of scorpions, crocodiles quicksand and tar pits (amongst other things). The goal of the first game was simply to collect 32 bars of gold in 20 minutes without dying 3 times, a typical Atari-era video game goal. The sequel improves upon nearly every aspect of the original game and far surpasses the competition.
To start, the game actually has a legitimate goal, not some arbitrary point score. Your goal is to collect the Raj diamond, rescue your niece Rhonda and also your cowardly cat Quickclaw (with an added bonus for collecting a rare rat and the usual gold bars). What's more, you are given an infinite amount of lives and time with which to accomplish these goals (there are scattered checkpoints and when you die, you are transported back to the last one you reached, deducting points as you go). You're given a few new abilities (like the ability to swim) and you face a new series of hazards, including poisonous frogs, bats, condors and electric eels.
From a technological standpoint, Pitfall II pushed the envelope both visually and musically. It was one of the largest games ever created for the 2600 (a whopping 10k), and it included features like smooth scrolling, an expansive map, relatively high-resolution graphics, varying scenery, detailed animations and a first-rate musical score that was detailed and varied (quite an accomplishment considering that most 2600 games did not feature music at all). Obviously, all of these things are trivial by current standards, but at the time, this was an astounding feat. Indeed, it was only made possible because of custom hardware built inside the game cartridge that enhanced the 2600's video and audio capabilities.
You start the game in the jungle. In a perverse maneuver, the game's designers made sure that you could see Quickclaw (one of your primary objectives) immediately beneath your starting point, but to actually reach him you must traverse the entire map!
So close, yet so far away...
Again, the sequel imbues Pitfall Harry with a few extra abilities, including the ability to swim. Naturally, this benefit does not come without danger, as shown by the electric eel swimming along side our hero (you can't see it in the screenshot, but the eel alternates between a white squiggly line and a black squiggly line, thus conveying it's electric nature). Also of note is the rather nice graphical element of the waterfall.
Swimming with an electric eel
As you explore the caverns, you run across various checkpoints marked with a cross. When you touch a cross, it becomes your new starting point whenever you die.
I think that green thing is supposed to be a poison frog.
At various points in the game you are faced with a huge, vertical open space. Sometimes you just have to jump. One of the great things about this game, though, is that there is a surprising amount of freedom of movement. You could, if you wanted, just take the ladder down to the bottom of the cavern instead of jumping (though at one point, if you want to get the Raj ring, you'll need to face the abyss). Plus, there are all sorts of gold bars hidden around the caves in places that you don't have to go. Obviously, there are a limited number of specific paths you can take - it's no GTA III - but given the constraints at the time, this was a neat aspect of the game.
Stepping into the abyss
Another innovation in Pitfall II is Harry's ability to grab onto a rising balloon and ride it to the top of the cavern (a necessary step at one point), dodging bats along the way. A pretty unique and exciting sequence for its time.
That's some powerful helium in that balloon
The valiant Pitfall Harry, about to rescue his neice Rhonda.
The designers' cruel sense of placement strikes again. I can see the Raj diamond, but how do you get there? Luckily, the game's freedom of movement allows you to backtrack if you want (and when you want).
Curse you, game designers!
The final portion of the map is still, to this day, challenging. Up until this point in the game, you've only had to dogde a bat here, a condor there. This section requires you to really get your timing and reflexes in order, as you must complete a long sequence of evasions before you get to the top. Nevertheless, success was imminent.
Victory is mine!
Naturally, the game does not hold water compared to the games of today in terms of technology or gameplay, but what is remarkable about this game is how close it got. And that it did so at a time when many of these concepts were unheard-of. Sure, there are still some elements taken from the "Do it again, stupid" school of game design, but given the constraints of the 6 year old hardware and the fact that nearly every other game ever released for the console was much worse in this respect, I think it's worth cutting the game some slack (plus, as Shamus notes in the referenced post, these sorts of things are still common today!)
Everything about this game, from the packaging and manual (which is actually an excellent document done in the style of Pitfall Harry's aformentioned diary) to the graphics and music to the innovative gameplay and freedom of movement, is exceptional. Without a doubt, my favorite game for the 2600. Stay tuned for the honorable mentions!
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
A Video Game Retrospective: Part 1
Samael's recent Mario Marathon of Madness put me in a nostalgic mood. I started thinking about my history of playing video games. These days I don't do much gaming (with occassional exceptions), but when I was younger, I certainly did. So I figure I'll write a series of posts about my favorite games for all the various platforms I've played on, starting with the glorious Atari 2600.
Technically, the 2600 was not my family's first gaming system. I do remember a strange console that had two paddles and could only play Pong. I'll have to see if I can dig that up. In any case, in looking at the history of the 2600, I don't think I really started playing until after the video game crash of 1983. I suspect this is partly because prices fell dramatically and thus made it that much easier to convince the parents to purchase them (plus, my brother is 4 years older than I, so he had already built up a collection of games).
In any case, you gotta love the 2600, with it's awkward single-button controllers, faux wood panelling console, and huge library of games (yeah, most were clones of popular games like Pac Man, but so what?). The default controllers were awful, but I remember when my brother managed to get his hands on a pair of Epyx 500XJ Joysticks. These unique controllers were more responsive, fit ergonomically and comfortably in the palm of your hand, and as a bonus, could also be used with the Commodore 64/128 (which will be the next system in my series).
The games will be covered in separate posts, but I will say that while they were fun at the time, I can see why people lost interest until the NES. Most games primarily involved manipulating various elements on the screen to get a higher score. Period. There really weren't any goals other than running the score up as high as possible (there were exceptions to this which will be covered in later posts). That said, I recently downloaded an emulator and started playing some of these games again, and it instilled a powerful sense of nostalgia. These games bring back a lot of memories! And there are so many of them. Again, my favorite games will be reviewed in separate posts, so stay tuned!
Update: Follow up posts:
Posted by Mark on May 24, 2006 at 07:03 PM .: link :.
Sunday, May 21, 2006
The Man Who Knew Too Much
My little Hitchcock marathon continues with the 1934 thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much. This was a breakthrough international success and it was also critically acclaimed as a new high in suspense films. However, while this film exhibits much more of a mastery of technique than his previous efforts, it's still not indicative of his later brilliance. There are many great scenes and great shots in this movie, but the plotting and pacing problems that plagued his other early films are still in evidence (although there was a big improvement). The plot has enormous holes in it, but the themes and conventions are pure Hitchcock and it's not without a certain sense of charm.
The story concerns a married couple vacationing in the Alps with their daughter. They're befriended by a French man who, naturally, is shot. It turns out that the man was a spy, and just before he dies, he tells the couple of a plot to assassinate an important diplomat in London. To keep the couple from talking to the police, the assassins kidnap the couple's daughter and hold her hostage. The movie is filled with excellent scenes and shots, but the plot holes hold the film back from total brilliance. Spoilers, screenshots and more below!
The film also displays some Hitchcockian humor, something that was somewhat lacking in his previous films. For instance, there's a clever sequence towards the beginning of the film involving a group of people on a dancefloor that get tangled up in string. Later, a scene at a dentist's office approaches slapstick.
I always bring a gun to the dentist's office.
A hilarious scene at a church approaches downright silliness as the father and his friend attempt to communicate by singing plot points to each other to the tune of the hymns (thereby disguising their conversation from their fellow churchgoers).
We must sing the plot now, so as not to be detected.
Later, the father's friend gets hypnotized by the head of this (rather strange) Church. Naturally, she's in league with the assassins.
She's not as good as hypnotoad, but she'll do.
Cornered by the criminals at the Church, our hero starts a... chair fight. This sequence is literally minutes long, as our hero throws chairs at the criminals, who decide not to use their guns to return fire, but to throw chairs back at the hero instead. By the way, it's not clear in the screenshot below, but if you look closely, you can see that the man has a cigarette in his mouth. That's right, he initiates this chair fight with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
The assassin was expertly played by Peter Lorre, in his first English speaking role. Cheerfully chewing scenery and smoking like a chimney, his presence helps give the film a large portion of its charm. A testament to how a great villain can elevate a movie...
I am Peter Lorre, hear me roar.
One of the most memorable sequences in the film is when the assassins make their move on the diplomat. The shooter times his shot with a key portion of the music at a concert, and Hitchcock employs a brilliant dissolve from the orchestra to the gun (the screenshots below don't do it justice).
Believe it or not, our heroine manages to help foil the assassination attempt, and the police are able to follow the shooter back to his group's hideout (the aforementioned Church). This leads to a siege and eventual shootout, which was apparently based on Siege of Sidney Street, a notorious real-life gunfight in London's East End in 1911.
Didn't you hear me, I am Peter Lorre! Rarr!
The film ends with the daughter escaping to the roof, chased by this pleasant fellow:
I'm nowhere near as cool as Peter Lorre.
Once again, we've got a film which shows flashes of Hitch's future brilliance without being, in itself, brilliant. Still, there's much more substance here than in the previous films in my marathon. It's an archetype of his later work and indeed, Hitchcock remade the film nearly 20 years later (though critics disagree about which version is better).
Update: You can download the movie at the Internet Archive!
Sunday, May 14, 2006
The Victorian Internet and Centralized Solutions
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how the internet affects our ability to think, pulling from Nicholas Carr's post on internet and mindlessness. I disagreed with Carr's skepticism, and in the comments, Samael noted that Carr was actually using a common form of argument.
This seems to be a pretty common form of argument, though.Carr's argument is in the same form - the sea of information made possible by the internet is to blame for a deterioration in our ability to think. I rejected that because of choice - technology does not force us to think poorly; we choose how we interact with technology (especially on-demand technology like the internet). It's possible to go overboard, but there's nothing forcing that to happen. It's our choice. In any case, this isn't the first time a technology that lead to a massive increase in communication caused these problems. In his book The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage explores the parallels between the telegraph networks of the nineteenth century and the internet of today. Jon Udell summarizes the similarities:
A 19th-century citizen transported to today would be amazed by air travel, Standage suggests, but not by the Internet. Been there, done that.All too often, when I listen to someone describe a problem, I feel a sensationalistic vibe. It's usually not that I totally disagree that something is a problem, but the more I read of history and the more I analyze certain issues, I find that much of what people are complaining about today isn't all that new. Yes, the internet has given rise to certain problems, but they're not really new problems. They're the same problems ported to a new medium. As shown in the quote above, many of the internet's problems also affected telegraphy nearly two centuries ago (I'd wager that the advance of the printing press lead to similar issues in its time as well). That doesn't make them less of a problem (indeed, it actually means that the problem is not easily solved!), but it does mean we should perhaps step back and maybe turn down the rhetoric a bit. These are extremely large problems and they're not easily solved.
It almost feels like we expect there to be a simple solution for everything. I've observed before that there is a lot of talk about problems that are incredibly complex as if they really aren't that complex. Everyone is trying to "solve" these problems, but as I've noted many times, we don't so much solve problems as we trade one set of problems for another (with the hope that the new set of problems is more favorable than the old). What's more, we expect these "solutions" to come at a high level. In politics, this translates to a Federal solution rather than relying upon state and local solutions. A Federal law has the conceit of being universal and fair, but I don't think that's really true. When it comes to large problems, perhaps the answer isn't large solutions, but small ones. Indeed, that's one of the great things about the structure of our government - we have state and local governments which (in theory) are more responsive and flexible than the Federal government. I think what you find with a centralized solution is something that attempts to be everything to everyone, and as a result, it doesn't help anyone.
For example, Bruce Schneier recently wrote about identity theft laws.
California was the first state to pass a law requiring companies that keep personal data to disclose when that data is lost or stolen. Since then, many states have followed suit. Now Congress is debating federal legislation that would do the same thing nationwide.It's a net loss because the state laws are stricter. This also brings up another point about centralized systems - they're much more vulnerable to attack than a decentralized or distributed system. It's much easier to lobby against (or water down) a single Federal law than it is to do the same thing to 50 state laws. State and local governments aren't perfect either, but their very structure makes them a little more resilient. Unfortunately, we seem to keep focusing on big problems and proposing big centralized solutions, bypassing rather than taking advantage of the system our founding fathers wisely put into place.
Am I doing what I decry here? Am I being alarmist? Probably. The trend for increasing federalization is certainly not new. However, in an increasingly globalized world, I'm thinking that resilience will come not from large centralized systems, but at the grassroots level. During the recent French riots, John Robb observed:
Resilience isn't limited to security. It is also tied to economic prosperity. There aren't any answers to this on the national level. The answer is at the grassroots level. It is only at that level that you get the flexibility, innovation, and responsiveness to compete effectively. The first western country that creates a platform for economic interop and at the same time decentralizes power over everything else is going to be a big winner.None of this is to say that grassroots efforts are perfect. There are a different set of issues there. But as I've observed many times in the past, the fact that there are issues shouldn't stop us. There are problems with everything. What's important is that the new issues we face be more favorable than the old...
Saturday, May 13, 2006
Technology Link Dump
My last post on technological change seems to have struck a nerve and I've been running across a lot of things along similar lines this week... Here are a few links on the subject:
Sunday, May 07, 2006
Is Technology Advancing or Declining?
In Isaac Asimov's novel Prelude to Foundation, an unknown mathematician named Hari Seldon travels from his podunk home planet to the Galactic Empire's capital world to give a presentation on a theoretical curiosity he dubs psychohistory (which is essentially a way to broadly predict the future). Naturally, the potential for this theory attracts the powerful, and Seldon goes on the run with the help of a journalist friend named Chetter Hummin. Hummin contends that "The Galactic Empire is Dying." Seldon is frankly surprised by this thesis and eventually asks for an explanation:
... "all over the Galaxy trade is stagnating. People think that because there are no rebellions at the moment and because things are quiet that all is well and that the difficulties of the past few centuries are over. However, political infighting, rebellions, and unrest are all signs of a certain vitality too. But now there's a general weariness. It's quiet, not because people are satisfied and prosperous, but because they're tired and have given up."Hummin acknowledges that he could be wrong (partly out of a desire to manipulate Seldon to develop psychohistory so as to confirm whether or not the Empire really is dying), but those who've read the Foundation Novels know he's right.
The reasons for this digression into decaying Galactic Empires include my affinity for quoting fiction to make a point and a post by Ken at ChicagoBoyz regarding technological stagnation (which immediately made me think of Asimov's declining Empire). Are we in a period of relative technological stagnation? I'm hardly an expert, but I have a few thoughts.
First, what constitutes advance or stagnation? Ken points to a post that argues that the century of maximum change is actually the period 1825-1925. It's an interesting post, but it only pays lipservice to the changes he sees occurring now:
From time to time I stumble across articles by technology-oriented writers claiming that we're living in an era of profound, unprecedented technological change. And their claim usually hinges on the emergence of the computer.The post seems to focus on disruptive changes, but if something is not disruptive, does that really mean that technology is not advancing? And why are changes in transportation capabilities (for instance) more important than communication, biology, or medicine? Also, when we're talking about measuring technological change over a long period of time, it's worth noting that advances or declines would probably not move in a straight line. There would be peaks where it seems like everything is changing at once, and lulls when it seems like nothing is changing (even though all the pieces may be falling into place for a huge change).
Most new technological advances are really abstracted efficiencies - it's the great unglamorous march of technology. They're small and they're obfuscated by abstraction, thus many of the advances are barely noticed. Computers and networks represent a massive improvement in information processing and communication capabilities. I'd wager that even if we are in a period of relative technological stagnation (which I don't think we are), we're going to pull out of it in relatively short order because the advent of computers and networks means that information can spread much faster than it could in the past. A while ago, Steven Den Beste argued that the four most important inventions in history are: "spoken language, writing, movable type printing and digital electronic information processing (computers and networks)."
When knowledge could only spread by speech, it might take a thousand years for a good idea to cross the planet and begin to make a difference. With writing it could take a couple of centuries. With printing it could happen in fifty years. With computer networks, it can happen in a week if not less. ... That's a radical change in capability; a sufficient difference in degree to represent a difference in kind. It means that people all over the world can participate in debate about critical subjects with each other in real time.Indeed, part of the reason technologists are so optimistic about the rate of technological change is that we see it all the time on the internet. We see some guy halfway across the world make an observation or write a script, and suddently it shows up everywhere, spawning all sorts of variants and improvements. When someone invents something these days, it only takes a few days for it to be spread throughout the world and improved upon.
Of course, there are many people who would disagree with Ken's assertion that we're in a period of technological stagnation. People like Ray Kurzweil or Vernor Vinge would argue that we're on the edge of a technological singularity - that technology is advancing so quickly that we can't quantify it, and that we're going to eventually use technology to create an entity with greater than human intelligence.
I definitely think there is a problem with determining the actual rate of change. As I mentioned before, what qualifies as a noteworthy change? It's also worth noting that long-term technological effects are sometimes difficult to forecast. Most people picture the internet as being a centrally planned network, but it wasn't. Structurally, the internet is more like an evolving ecosystem than anything that was centrally designed. Those who worked on the internet in the 1960s and 1970s probably had no idea what it would eventually become or how it would affect our lives today. And honestly, I'm not sure we know today what it will be like in another 30 years...
One of the reasons I quoted Asimov's novel at the beginning of this post is that I think he captured what a technologically declining civilization would be like. The general weariness, the apathy, and the lack of desire to even question why. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that things are slowing down these days. Perhaps we're in a lull (it sure doesn't seem like it though), but I can see that edge, and I don't see weariness in those that will take us there...
Posted by Mark on May 07, 2006 at 06:59 PM .: link :.
Saturday, May 06, 2006
The Super Mario Mega Marathon of Madness
Perhaps loyal Kaedrin reader Samael has too much time on his hands:
Because I have too much free time on the weekends, and because I loves me some Mario, I'm going to have a little marathon session this weekend.
He started about 7 hours ago (he's posting updates in my forum as he goes), and appears to still be going strong. Some highlights:
1 pm: The slot machine thing- to get free guys- is really hard to win.Again, he's still going. Read all about it in the forum.
Update: Anyone ever heard Mr. Bungle's version of the Super Mario theme? Supposedly, they also do a good Tetris theme as well. I wish they'd release another album...
Update 6 pm: "I've crushed Bowser's Army, his Navy, and his Air Force. What's next King of the Koopas?
"I'm coming for you Bowser. I'm coming for you like Rambo."
Where am I?
This page contains entries posted to the Kaedrin Weblog in May 2006.
Kaedrin Beer Blog
12 Days of Christmas
2006 Movie Awards
2007 Movie Awards
2008 Movie Awards
2009 Movie Awards
2010 Movie Awards
2011 Fantastic Fest
2011 Movie Awards
2012 Movie Awards
2013 Movie Awards
2014 Movie Awards
2015 Movie Awards
6 Weeks of Halloween
Arts & Letters
Computers & Internet
Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections
Philadelphia Film Festival 2006
Philadelphia Film Festival 2008
Philadelphia Film Festival 2009
Philadelphia Film Festival 2010
Science & Technology
Security & Intelligence
The Dark Tower
Weird Book of the Week
Weird Movie of the Week
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