Nihon Yasumi: Day 1

So, I decided to take the RFID passport out for a spin, and now Neibi and I are in Sapporo, Japan, sequestered in a business hotel opposite Hokkaido University. Outside it’s a bracing -6 degrees celsius.

I will now relate to you the tale of day one.

On the first day, December 14th, we flew from Sydney to Narita (Tokyo international airport). We flew JAL and it was pretty good: the flight left late yet arrived early, we got vegetarian food, and the headrest entertainment screens were absorbing. The chick who checked us in was like an angrier Lee Lin Chin, but she got the job done.

I spent my eight and a half hours playing go (on the headrest: victory by resignation), watching movies (Stardust, enjoyable; and Ratatouille, a competent entry), playing Travel Blokus (with Neibi… we tried to play Ingenious Travel Edition but she dropped the pegs), reading Nabokov (short stories), eating (rice crackers), and playing shogi (on the headrest: defeat by checkmate).

When we landed we got into a tiny train (my head touched the roof) which took us to honour systems customs (“I’d like to declare…” “No, just go through.”). From there we took the famous airport limo bus to Haneda (Tokyo domestic).

So, the first day was most spent sitting down, but after checking into our hotel (which was nice) we strolled through the industrial ghetto seeking dinner. We found an extremely Japanese street, which was laid out as follows: curry house, medical clinic, hana-ya, yakitori stand, level crossing, McDonalds, Lawson konbini, karaoke bar, soba restaurant. The soba place had a kana / primary school kanji menu so I thought I had a decent shot at ordering our dinner.

We got ooki yasai soba o futatsu, which for some reason had spam in it (“spam, spam, eggs and spam, tenpura and spam”, etc). The patrons mocked us in a friendly fashion. “Dozo”, they said, gesturing to the counter as I fell over trying to remove my shoes. The proprietor was a fan of Australia and kept mentioning Kingusu Kurossu, which he was keen on.

The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel (an East-West buffet with fruit salad and cold miso), then flew to Sapporo, Hokkaido.

RFID Passport

I am now the proud owner of an RFID passport, complete with a very thick page that says “do not stamp… gadgetry inside”. Apparently this will get me through customs faster, but I’ll still have to shave my beard off if I don’t want my shoes to be randomly selected for chemical swabbing yet again.

Next up, biometrics and DNA samples.

Kamineko Screenprinting

We did a bit of screenprinting on the weekend to make some clothes for people’s birthdays and the like. The design is based on Kamineko, the biting cat from the manga Azumanga Daioh.

Here’s the screen in action:

And here are the results:

Starcraft Origami

Pretty self explanatory, really… some twisted Korean genius has come up with origami versions of pretty much every unit from Starcraft. Some of the Zerg models are quite beautiful.

The paper battle scenes are impressively nerdy.

Olaf Captures A Frog

We were rudely awakened the other night by Olaf (the cat) depositing a slimy frog on our faces at 3am. Happily N had been watching a TV show about the care and feeding of frogs earlier that day, so she leapt out of bed, crafted a frog habitat out of an old pot and a cake net, then went back to sleep.

The next morning we went out to the local permaculture garden and released the frog. I’d just bought a new camera, so I snapped a photo of it before we sent it on its way. When I loaded it into The GIMP and zoomed in on the picture, I thought the camera’s JPEG compression was busted, because the frog’s skin looked weird and fractal. But when I looked at the rest of the photo (skin, fabric, etc) the compression was gorgeous, so guess frog skin is weirdly fractal for camouflage purposes.

See for yourself (the image below has been compressed again as the original is many a megabyte):

Turn-based Board Game Servers

Playing games on teh intarwebs is quite fashionable of late, and it sometimes seems like all the cool kids are grinding levels on World of Warcraft, collecting a +3 loincloth of smiting, an epic beagle, and perhaps some sort of lemony potion. After playing three Final Fantasies in a row, the appeal of this sort of thing has diminished for me, and now I favour something more sedate: turn-based board gaming.

For those of us with slower reflexes, those who are content to sip a cup of earl grey and make one or two mouse clicks per hour on a 16-colour virtual gameboard, board gaming by web is quite rewarding.

As a mathematics student, otaku, and young intellectual, my game of choice is go, which I like to play at the Dragon Go Server. There are plenty of places to play go online, but I like this one best of the turn-based servers. The WoW players among you will like the fact that DGS awards you a ranking, which shifts up and down with your gaming fortunes. It’s a bit like experience points, except that they go away when you lose a match. Which would make the other player some sort of wight or revenant, if we stick with the RPG motif.

Another good’un, which I’ve just recently discovered, is Spiel By Web. SBW features hip Eurogames like Reef Encounter (in which you take the role of a deranged parrotfish gobbling up the Great Barrier Reef) and Tikal (in which you take the role of an old fashioned archaeologist looting the Americas).

And finally, for those who prefer the traditional games, there’s ItsYourTurn.com, which serves up turn-based chess, backgammon, and ‘Jamble’ — a game as similar to Scrabble as the rule of law will allow.

I heartily encourage you to abandon your expensive MMOs and join me on all of the above.

Cityrail Anagram Map

Saw this Cityrail anagram map in one of boingboing’s recent spate of anagram map postings, and thought it would be amusing to fellow Sydneysiders. It appears that making English anagrams from aboriginal place names is quite difficult.

The station pictured is Bexley North, a.k.a. Xylene Throb.

Anime Review: Kiddy Grade

Anime seems to having a renaissance in the west at the moment, with hundreds of titles being translated and cranked out in form of bulky boxed sets. And since these boxed sets are on the pricey side, I’m a bit wary of taking a punt on new anime, as opposed to titles that I can be sure I’ll watch repeatedly, like Haibane Renmei, Irresponsible Captain Tylor etc. A shame, really, as it means that the guilty pleasures of the anime world (consisting mostly of mecha and copious fan service) are neglected.

One such guilty pleasure — worth watching or renting, but not paying retail for — is Kiddy Grade, a somewhat confusing sci-fi series in which cute girls and giant robots beat the crap out of various bad guys, good guys, and departmental colleagues.

Though relatively mild on the fan service, it does have a zany cosplay element, as the protagonist dons three skimpy uniforms, then branches out into receptionist, pizza girl, waitress, pro wrestler and even motorcycle sentai outfits.

Éclair (the variously costumed heroine of the piece) is an agent of the GU (basically the space UN), and is sort of a blend of superhero, commando, secret agent, and office worker. If you’ve seen any of the Burn Up OVAs you’ve got the general idea. Éclair’s partner / sidekick is Lumière, a wealthy heiress with a taste for fine wines and etiquette, who appears to be no older than age 14. Using a nanotech lipstick and bottle of aged burgundy respectively, they battle evil and make friends in a lighthearted manner reminiscent of series like Rurouni Kenshin and Dragonball.

There’s a bit more to it than that, however, and as the series progresses Éclair starts to have doubts about the ethics of her work, subtly encouraged by the enigmatic / bishi Mr Armbrust. Armbrust (variously titled an ambassador, inspector, and auditor, though the latter seems most likely) bears a strong resemblance to the protagonist of Michael Swanwick‘s Stations of the Tide. Like Swanwick’s bureaucrat, he has a nanotech briefcase and a sort of understated cynicism. The kind of guy who has a preferred brand of Dijon mustard, if you take my meaning.

Armbrust would make a good romantic interest for Éclair, but oddly the series doesn’t exploit this. And actually the plot in general is a bit wonky, with many a loose end and deus ex machina (though admittedly these are fairly standard plot problems with anime). There’s plenty of style, and lots of merchandising opportunities, but the substance is a bit patchy in places.

One good thing that really stood out about the series was the quality of both the design and the animation (by Studio Gonzo). The characters are detailed, the buildings are suitably gigantic, and the mecha are done in a streamlined Full Metal Panic style. The spaceships are a real standout: they’re colourful and birdlike, and scooting about on plumes of flickering blue flame in the manner of an side-scrolling arcade shooter.

The only faults I can find with the production lie with the US licencees (Funimation), who give us not only the usual crap English voice acting, but also a script that diverges from the Japanese a fair bit. And it’s
dubtitled, arrgh!

On the whole, then, Kiddy Grade is like its scantily clad protagonist: easy on the eye, but basically airheaded. That’s not a bad thing sometimes, so I give it 7/10, and suggest you rent it if you get the opportunity.

Dalek Porn Movie

The BBC and the estate of Terry Nation are a wee bit angry at makers of a recent Dalek porn movie, entitled Abducted by The Daleks. Said movie apparently features, uh, hot plunger action, and unlicenced action at that. The Beeb has prevented the movie being distributed, but naturally a torrent is out there for those of you interested in such a thing.

Rev Controller Hands On

When I first saw the photos of the new Nintendo controller (for the upcoming Revolution console), I was both impressed and bewildered. Impressed, because clearly it was going to be something a bit out of the ordinary (Nintendo’s strong suit), and bewildered as to how the thing was supposed to work in the real world. CNN had a play with the Rev controller prototype and all is revealed: as well as having the usual rumble feature (and wirelessness), the controller is also modular and gyroscopic.

The basic unit looks like a TV remote, and has a d-pad, a trigger, and a large main button. Two smaller buttons are lower on the face, as well as the usual start button. The select button is also back, and an indicator has been added to show you which control port the device is wireless mapped to. The basic idea is that you tilt the controller, and the analogue gyroscope works like a control stick. You can also move the whole controller through the air, swinging it like a sword, yanking it like a fishing rod, or moving it like a free-floating joystick. For games that require two axes of movement, like first-person shooters, a traditional control stick can be added (see picture).

There are more Rev controller photos at Nintendo.com.

Board Game of the Year

I was going to write an article on my pick for game of the year in various formats, but realised that it would largely be a repeat of my enthusiastic blurb about Resident Evil 4. That being the case, I’ll assume you’ve all dutifully obtained a copy of RE4 and are now dying to know which board game to rest the console of your choice on. Read on…

In a strong year for board games, my choice for board game of the year is Bonaparte at Marengo by Bowen Simmons. For those unfamiliar with the game (which I imagine is most of you, given that it’s self-published), BaM is a block wargame of the Battle of Marengo.

As a block game, one of Bonaparte at Marengo’s distinguishing features is that information about a player’s pieces is hidden from his or her opponent. The pieces are blocks with information on one face only, and the information side is kept facing the piece’s owner (as in the classic 1950s game game Stratego). When a battle occurs, the pieces are revealed and the winner determined.

Close-up of wooden blocks showing hidden unit markings

Why do I like BaM better than any other board game released this year? There are many reasons, but the main ones are:

  • It’s lavishly produced: the blocks are made of wood, the board is attractive and properly mounted (a rarity in wargames, which commonly use paper or cardboard maps), and two copies of the rules are provided.
  • There’s plenty of strategic interest: both sides have different pieces, objectives, and playing styles, with an emphasis on manouvering that feels like chess with a wide open board
  • A game takes 90 minutes, which means that you can play a game, switch sides, then have a rematch, and still get to the pub before closing time.
  • The rules are brief (10 pages) and comprehenisble, though admittedly it’s not the sort of thing you could play with a random family member.

Bonaparte at Marengo will be hard to find in a retail store, but if you’re interested in it you can buy it direct from Simmons Games, or from an online retailer such as Boards and Bits. The BaM page on boardgamegeek.com has reviews and other information if you’d just like to check it out.

BaM photo by Kurt Tolley used under CC licence.

Happy Hour Tightarse Search Engine

Wow, this is a website that’s long overdue. Enter an Australian capital city, a region, and a day, and it’ll spit back a happy hour drink price comparision for every bar in the area. It even tells you which ones are trying to fob off dodgy champers and house wine on you instead of beer. For example, if you’re in Sydney’s inner west of a Tuesday arvo, the Excelsior has $2 schooners. Nice. And of course there are the mandatory reviews to dispute and forums to troll and whatnot.

Free PDF Go Books

The Wings Go Club has a bunch of PDF Go books including a beginners guide, commented games, and some interesting guides to making the most out of handicap stones (the latter are also available in .doc format).

If you prefer physical books and are in Australia, J.W. & S. Hardy have a nice selection.

German Board and Card Games

If you look in the board / card game aisle of your local department store, you’ll quickly notice that most of the games there are over thirty years old. Lets see now, we’ve got Sorry (1934), Monopoly (1903), Cluedo (1946). Some of the card games are bit fresher: Mille Bornes is from 1954, and Uno first appeared in 1971.

With that in mind, one might wonder what’s been happening in the world of board games in the last fifteen years or so (i.e. since computer and videogames became popular). The surprising answer is that Germany has been going through a board gaming boom due, a drunken traveller told me the other night, to winter being ‘cold and dark’. As it is now getting a bit colder and darker around our way, the time seems ripe to discuss some German games of interest.

Throughout this blurb I refer mainly to two sites: boardgamegeek.com (a repository of board game knowledge) and games.unhalfbricking.com, an Australian online board game store.

First up is Carcassonne, winner of the 2001 Spiel des Jahres (German game of the year). This was the first German game I got my hands on, and it blew me away with how different it was from the Parker Brothers style games mentioned above. The first thing that struck me about it was the quality of the playing pieces: the pawns (known to fans as meeples) are wooden rather than plastic, and the tiles are made of thick line-backed card printed in full colour. And the rules not only cover how to play, but also contain colour photographs demonstrating how ambiguous moves should be resolved.

The basic idea of the game is that each player places tiles (containing sections of roads, cities, and farms) in order to form a SimCity type map of the Carcassonne region. As tiles are played, meeples may be placed on them in order to claim the roads, cities, and farms (and the associated points) for a particular player. If you’re looking for a light and friendly first game to ease yourself into more sophisticated modern board games, this would be a good start. Unhalfbricking sells it for A$35. It plays well with 2 to 4 players, so it’s pretty flexible.

If you want something a bit more challenging, China is one of my favourite German games. It’s another good example of the kind of production quality you can expect from the genre: full colour board and cards, one hundred cut and painted wooden pieces, clear and concise full colour rulebook. It’s basically a game of area majority, where you play cards to place your pieces into an area of the board so that you outnumber the other players there. If that sounds interesting, you can read my full review on boardgamegeek.com. This is a game to consider if you like games of skill and confrontation (chess, Risk etc) but are looking for something with no dice for three to five players. It’s a cruel game, but it plays quickly, so the tears of your loved ones will be brief. Unhalfbricking has it for A$50.

Reiner Knizia is the most prolific board game designer, and is considered by many to be the best. The most recent addition to my stack of Knizia games is Samurai, a tile-laying game set in feudal Japan. Samurai is beautiful to behold, with black plexiglass buddhas and a deco-style map that adds more islands to the archipelago as you increase the number of players. Unlike Carcassonne, it’s an influence game, where the tiles you place represent your political and military force being brought to bear on the peasantry, nobility, and religious leaders that are on the map. It’s a very simple game to learn, but it has some of the classic character of Go, as the struggle for territory moves back and forth across the board. Highly recommended.

On to card games now, and one game in particular that everyone seems to enjoy is Bohnanza, the game of trading, planting, and harvesting beans. People are usually lukewarm to the theme, but once you put some cards in their hand they start trading soy beans for green beans as if their very lives depended on it!

Bohnanza has some really clever mechanics that make it a cut above most other card games I have come across. Everyone can trade beans with the active player and also harvest beans at any time, so there’s no looking at your watch and waiting for your turn — you’re playing all the time. Additionally you must play your cards in the order in which they were dealt to you, which encourages everyone to get involved so that they can trade away their unwanted cards. Another great mechanism is the way the game handles income from bean sales: you flip over the sold cards and there’s money printed on the reverse.

You can get it for A$35 from Unhalfbricking. The game supports up to seven players, but the two player game is a variant. A 3 to 7 player game should take somewhere between 45 minutes and 1 hour 15 minutes.

A popular card game for couples is Lost Cities (also by Knizia). It’s basically a game of card counting and compromise, with a rather thin India Jones theme tacked onto it. The components are of excellent quality: big tarot sized cards, and a folding board with areas for the game’s five discard piles. There’s not much more to it than playing cards in numerical order or discarding them, but there are so many choices to be made that the game is strangely addictive. This is a good game to try with relatives that might be confused by a more complex German game with a zillion wooden cubes in it. A$40 from Unhalfbricking.

If the above games sound a bit too light and fluffy for you, a more complex German card game to consider is San Juan. In this game the cards pull triple duty as buildings, money, and trade goods. For example, I might discard two cards to pay for (play) a sugar mill card, which will later produce sugar (a face down card atop the sugar mill) which can then be sold (in a fluctuating market represented by cardboard price tokens) to bring in fresh cards as income. On each turn, the active player chooses a role for all of the players to play out: the prospector draws a random card, the councillor seeks a specific card, the builder builds a structure (e.g. sugar mill), the producer generates trade goods (e.g. sugar), and the trader sells goods. The role selection mechanism is fiendish, and players will try to choose the builder when their opponents are broke, or the trader when their opponents have no goods to sell. If that’s not enough for you, San Juan is actually a simplified version of Puerto Rico, an even more complex board game. Unhalfbricking has San Juan for A$40.

Idaho Government Honours Napoleon Dynamite

The government of Idaho has commended Jared Hess and his film Napoleon Dynamite for their contributions to the state.

The text of bill HCR029 lists the aforementioned contributions with bureaucratic zeal. Highlights include the following:

16    WHEREAS, the friendship between Napoleon and Pedro has furthered

17  multiethnic relationships; and

18    WHEREAS, Uncle Rico's football skills are a testament to Idaho athletics;

19  and

20    WHEREAS, Napoleon's bicycle and Kip's skateboard promote better air qual-

21  ity and carpooling as alternatives to fuel-dependent methods of transporta-

22  tion;

The bill was unanimously passed, possibly due to the clause stating:

2    WHEREAS, any members of the House of Representatives or the Senate of the

3  Legislature of the State of Idaho who choose to vote "Nay" on this concurrent

4  resolution are "FREAKIN' IDIOTS!"

Four-Player Console Games

My videogaming pals and I are looking for solid four-player console games for our next marathon gaming session. We have enough hardware to support four players on GCN, PS2, PSX, and XBOX, so the system isn’t an issue. Likewise, the subject matter is unimportant as long as the game is fun with four. So it can be a shooter or a minigame collection or a kart racer or whatever. So far we have picked up:

GameCube

  • Super Monkey Ball
  • Mario Party 5
  • Super Smash Bros

XBox

  • Halo 2

PS2

  • Midway Arcade Treasures 1 & 2 (Gauntlet, Rampart etc)
  • Red Faction 2

PSX

  • Crash Team Racing
  • Micro Maniacs
  • Overboard
  • Worms World Party

The things I’m considering at the moment are Twisted Metal Black, Mario Kart DD and Timesplitters 2. Any other suggestions?

Resident Evil 4

As you may know, I play an awful lot of video games. In fact, it would be fair to describe me as a bearded recluse fueled by gin and classic Japanese console RPGs.

It is with this cultural authority behind me that I say to you: you need to get hold of a GameCube and play Resident Evil 4. I’m totally serious. A GameCube now costs less than a new PS2 or XBox game, so for under AUD$300 you could get yourself a console, a memory card, RE4 and a Pikmin game.

Instead of reading this you could be trading in some old games and playing Resident Evil 4 tonight (prior to my gig of course). Look at those gorgeous screenshots! You won’t regret it.

Update: Now that I’ve calmed down a bit, let me explain to you why I like RE4 so much. I quite liked Resident Evil 1 because of its mixture of puzzle-solving and zombie blasting, but tuned out after RE2 because of the following problems with the series:

  • Movement — it was difficult to turn around quickly to shoot zombies behind you
  • Inventory — a herb took up as much space as a shotgun, and items had to be stored in annoyingly situated bins
  • Reloading — required at least 5 keypresses (open inventory, select ammo, move to gun, choose combine, close inventory)
  • Saving — required a special item in short supply, so that you could never play a quick game after work for fear of using the save items up

Resident Evil 4 fixes all of these problems, thusly:

  • Movement — you can instantly do a 180° turn by pressing down + B
  • Inventory — now uses the packing puzzle system from X-Com… much better
  • Reloading — happens automatically if you pull the trigger when your gun is empty, or you can press B to reload while the gun is drawn
  • Saving — doesn’t require any items, and the savepoints are marked on the map

On top of that, RE4 retains the excellent puzzle and shooting elements from the earlier games, and adds in a much more interactive environment, spectacular graphics (in 60Hz widescreen) and surround sound.

You need it!

Update: The game is really so fabulous that the more I play it, the more I feel the need to praise its genius. Some interesting features that I haven’t mentioned yet include the following:

  • You can run by holding down the B button. The speed at which you run is determined by how much health you have left. If you are injured, the walking and running animations are different, and may include limping, clutching a chest wound etc.
  • The bad guys are spooky Lovecraftian villagers in Eastern Europe rather than zombies. They are equally at home stabbing you in the guts, strangling you, or clawing at your eyes in the vein of 28 Days Later.
  • All of the guns in the game can be upgraded in four stats: firepower, firing time, reloading time, ammo capacity. Some guns can be further upgraded with stocks and sights. Completing a sub-mission gives you a variant handgun that shoots through multiple bad guys at once.
  • The environment is highly interactive: if you climb up a ladder you can knock it down so that enemies cannot follow, and if you push furniture you can bar a door. Glass can be smashed, and you can leap out of windows. If you hear an enemy on the far side of a wooden door you can shoot through it (leaving big holes you can see through), or double tap the A button to kick it open and stun your foe.
  • When shot, enemies respond realistically. If holding a live grenade, they drop it. If on a cliff edge, they fall off. If hit with a shotgun, they are knocked back and fall over.
  • There’s a malamute in it! You find said dog caught in a bear trap, and if you free it it keeps cropping up throughout the game (e.g. in the farmyard, it happily chases chickens). It even helps out in a boss battle later on.
  • When you rescue Ashley (a prisoner of the evil bad guys), she tags along and the game then inherits most of the interesting mechanics from Ico (e.g. co-op puzzle solving with the two characters). There are also some great visual touches revealed as well — for example, if you swing the shotgun around and Ashley is betwixt you and the bad guys, her eyes widen and she hits the dirt.
  • The cutscenes are interesting and non-cheesy. And you can get killed in them if you’re not paying attention and ready to mash buttons : )
  • Your character’s head follows sudden movement, so fluttering crows and bats (in graveyards and caves, of course) can spook you into firing reflexively (and revealing your position to the bad guys).
  • There are some truly breathtaking set pieces: defending a wooden cabin from fifty attackers as the windows and doors are torn open, harpooning a giant lake monster, sniping from behind a crumbing fortification.
  • As you need to conserve your ammo, the game helpfully includes quick keys for both slashing your enemies with a bowie knife and for kicking the crap out of them.
  • Time passes during the game, so you have a day-night cycle that is exploited very effectively for scare value. At midnight the main illumination is the strobing flashes from your submachinegun, revealing stacatto glimpses of hands reaching for your face.
  • You get a lot of game for your money: it’s one of the few GCN games with two discs.

So is there anything wrong with this fine game? A few quibbles, but nothing major. Graphics-wise, I have spotted one instance of bad clipping (a little bit too much of an angry villager’s pitchfork poked through a shotgun hole in a wooden door). Control-wise, the game could use a dodge / strafe action (this would be more useful than the ‘look’ action bound to the C-stick). Mind you, the controls are comprehensive but undocumented, so there may be something that does this.

Have I convinced you yet? Get a second hand Game Cube, a small memory card, and a copy of RE4. It’ll be in the cheap Player’s Choice range around Xmas, I imagine.

Update: You can suplex the bad guys… it’s like Final Fight all over again : )

Playing Tonight

I’m DJing tonight at POA at Bar Cleveland. There will exceptionally good half price martinis available also… I suggest a 6:1 gin martini on Plymouth, with a twist. Anyway I’ll be playing obscure Dutch broken electro rather than my traditional drum n bass, so it should be fun.

Epic Gaming Marathon

On this Good Friday just passed, my Yankee mate Luke and I headed to our Aussie mate Nerida’s house to play videogames. Our packs were laden with gaming systems, controllers, and many, many discs and cartridges. We took a train to the crap side of the Harbour Bridge and a ute to our final destination.

Nerida’s house turned out to be a large rock with a TV antenna on top, a bit like Patrick’s house in the television programme SpongeBob Squarepants. We lifted up an edge and crawled inside. “It’s just like my place” said Luke, as he looked around the granite lounge room. Domestic animals peered at us warily from behind stacks of anime DVDs; storm clouds gathered. A purple plastic cube appeared in front of the TV. A rice cracker cracked ominously; a James Squire hissed as its cap was cruelly wrenched off.

We decided to ease into things with a shortish (15 turn) game of Mario Party 5 on the GameCube. As the name suggests, it’s a lightweight beer and pretzels affair; a collection of Mario-themed minigames. For the purposes of the Mario Party, I took the role of Toad the friendly mushroom, Nerida took Boo the spooky ghost, and Luke took Daisy, the… uh… perky princess. We decided that the CPU would take the role of the treasure-hungry Wario and began the game.

I took an early lead in the coin dept (leading to some muttering about the handicap screen from the peanut gallery), but soon fell behind as everyone else picked up stars. In a desperate attempt to get back into the running, I dueled Wario, wagering 50 of my coins for one of his stars. He quickly defeated me, took my money, and gained an impossible lead. And there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Of the human players, Luke fared best, trailing Wario by a handful of coins at the buzzer. Enjoyable minigames included
Mario Mechs (in which Luke and Nerida’s tiny mecha ganged up on and
lasered the crap out of my rampaging giant robot), Will Flower (in which my sunflower psychically bloomed first due to my 1337 A button pounding skillz), and Hotel Goomba (in which we brutally kicked small creatures around the lobby of the Mushroom Hilton for no apparent reason).

At this juncture my colleagues took a cigarette break while I hooked up the PS2 and tweaked its PSX driver settings.

Next up was a quick round of perennial favourite Worms World Party (PSX version). Due to the copious shelter afforded by their rocky domiciles, neither Nerida nor Luke had played Worms before. “Come on people!” I said, “It’s part of your rich cultural heritage! Get on board!” And get on board they did, with much shotgun blasting and cluster bombing and dynamiting and strategic prodding. Highlights included a CPU worm getting stuck in an infinite loop, Luke’s crazed blowtorching, Nerida dynamiting everyone simultaneously, and my inability to drive the jetpack.

After this spate of cartoon gaming, we were keen for a bit of fragging and fired up
Halo 2 on the XBox. Having recently moved into a rock house of my own, I had not yet played it and was keen to see whether it lived up to the hype. My first impressions were that it was not terribly different from any other FPS game, except that it had large maps with an excellent draw distance. Further play revealed some interesting nuances: really slick map design, a clever grenade implementation, a useful radar (could use some height info for the blips), strategic weapon management. Quite good fun, and I’d be keen to play an 8 or 16 player match at some point.

Cigarette break time again, and I played a few levels of Metal Slug Advance on the GBA while the others wheezed and hacked.

While the XBox was still hooked up, Luke snuck in a few levels of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II. The BG:DA games have always interested me from a technical perspective, as they look identical on all three of the current generation consoles
without sacrificing looks. They’re fun too, if you’re into top-down dungeon crawling. Anyway if you have a PS2 and you’re sick of XBox and GameCube owners poking fun at your system’s graphics, pick up one of these games and you’ll feel a bit better.

Enthused by the monster bashing theme, we plugged the PS2 back in and watched Luke play Final Fantasy X for a bit, back seat driving him in a boss fight and generally being annoying. I hadn’t played it in a while and had forgotten how gorgeous the graphics were and how annoying the voice acting was. Maybe I’ll give it a whirl again when I’m done with Phantasy Star I.

When the FFX cutscenes became too much to bear, we dined on gado gado and broke out the single malt whisky.

Since drink encourages foolishness, we took turns playing levels of PaRappa the Rappa 2. For those not familiar with it, it’s a rhythm game in which one takes the role of a paper-thin dog who is skilled at old school posi rapping (in the vein of the Sugarhill Gang). We chuckled at length at the game’s Nipponese surrealism, but after four or five levels the rhythms became too complex for boozy mortals and we threw in the mic.

At this juncture Luke produced a copy of Midway Arcade Treasures Volume 2. The treasures within — with the possible exception of Mortal Kombat — have not stood the test of time, really. Possibly this was because the games weren’t quite retro enough; 24-bit rather than 8- or 16-. It was interesting as a bit of history, but I think Volume 1 (with Paperboy etc) would be the better purchase.

Ranting interlude: Sony, where are the other two controller ports? Get out from under your rock house and get on board! Boo! End interlude.

Tiredness was setting in at this point, and there was time for but one more title. I had recently picked up Super Monkey Ball second hand, so we hooked up the GameCube for the last time and selected our simians. Nerida chose the cute baby chimp, I chose some sort of tweenaged girl money with a pink bow(?), and Luke picked a giant gorilla. Looking at the minigames screen we decided to go with the Monkey Racing Grand Prix first. This proved to be an enjoyable kart racer in which the ball-dwelling primates rolled around a gutter-like track, throwing fiendish bombs at each other (the most amusing of these being a device that turned an enemy monkey’s ball into an uncontrollable cube — hilarious at high speeds). My teenage years of compulsively playing Wipeout 2 led me to overall victory, despite my inability to keep my ape on the track on the final two courses. My colleagues were angered at my victory, and in the next game, Monkey Fight, they relentlessly pounded my monkey with their oversized boxing gloves. As Nerida gloated and capered, I rolled my battered and misshapen monkey ball in the direction of the animal hospital.

For our final monkey minigame, we played Monkey Target, in which the monkeys must glide from a great height towards an island target covered in bombs and mines. My monkey kept exploding, Nerida’s monkey kept drowning, and Luke’s giant gorilla finally tasted the sweet sweet banana of victory. We packed everything up, and wandered home, clutching our aching eyeballs and carpal tunnels.

And I didn’t have to use my AK. It was a good day.

Tinkering With Mycroft

Of late I have been tinkering with Mycroft, which is the search bar widget used by Firefox and the Mozilla / Netscape suites. I have discovered a couple of cool things that I’d like to share with you.

First up, you can delete unwanted search plugins. There’s no GUI for this, but it’s very easy.

And next, you can make your own plugins using a simple SGML markup derived from Apple Sherlock. The documentation for this is here. It looks a bit intimidating but it’s actually no more difficult than writing HTML (and there’s a great validator tool at Mindzilla). If you want to support people using a Moz or Netscape suite, or Firefox with the Search Sidebar extension, you’ll need to read up on the Mycroft sidebar documentation.

The great thing about rolling your own plugin is you can set the search defaults. For example, I like to shop for DJ records at the Juno Records website. Since I mainly buy drum n bass, I have written a plugin that restricts its search to the drum n bass section (as well as a genre agnostic search that I hope Mozilla will one day get around to uploading).

In the meantime you can download the Juno d n b plugin or the full Juno search plugin by clicking on some of the words you have just read.

To install them, find you browser search plugin directory (on Firefox for Win32, it’s Program Files/Mozilla Firefox/searchplugins) and unzip the supplied archive into it. Feel free to play around with the code while you’re at it; it’s all plain text, and the <input> name attributes correspond to the target search engine’s <input> elements.

Update: Here’s one for the Chemical Records d n b section.

Update: If you want users to be able to install your plugin by clicking a link, there’s a JavaScript addSearchEngine() method.

Update: Here’s one for Board Game Geek (my favourite site of late), provided by Andrew Avella of Avella Studios, NY.

Update: Some enterprising soul has written a delete GUI for Mycroft plugins.

Running Linux At Work, On The Sly

I’ve been meaning to have another look at Linux for a while, but I’ve been too scared to install anything after a run in with Debian and an Ultra Sparc 5 that scarred me for life. Now that LiveCDs are in vogue, it seemed like good time to try out Linux again… but this time at work.

After a long look through the The LiveCD List and DistroWatch, I decided to go with a lightweight Slackware variant called SLAX.

My first hurdle was burning a LiveCD. Having never used a CD burner before I was expecting some difficulty, but it was actually pretty simple. I just downloaded the SLAX 4.2 iso, opened Roxio Easy CD creator (on Windows), found the file, and clicked OK a few times.

Next I tried to boot my work computer from the LiveCD, but the sysadmins had locked the box down tightly, and it just booted Windows again. The SLAX website suggested making a bootloader floppy using RawWrite to copy an image of Smart Boot Manager onto a blank diskette. I did so, and rebooted using both the LiveCD and the bootloader floppy. Success! Take that, sysadmins!

SLAX booted relatively quickly, and after logging in I typed gui at the command line to launch KDE. The window manager came up looking beautiful, so I guess it must have autodetected my video card. I checked the resolution and refresh rate and they were the same as I usually use under Windows. Nice.

I wanted to see whether I could access my hard drive or not, so I ran Midnight Commander next. Everything was in order, and SLAX had properly automounted my Windows hard drives (as read only, which I understand is an ntfs thing). I tinkered with KDE for a bit then saved my config onto a fresh floppy using the configsave command at the terminal.

Internet access was next on my list, so fired up Konqueror only to discover that I didn’t have any. Bummer. I felt certain the SLAX website would have some good suggestions on this topic, but without internet I would have to log out and boot back into windows to get them. Oh well.

Back in Windows and Firefox, I found the info I needed and took note of my network settings. I also printed out half of the SLAX website as I didn’t feel like spending half the evening rebooting. Once I got back into SLAX I read my printouts carefully, then typed three lines at the terminal and had internet. Sweet.

As some tunes would go nicely with my surfing, I opened the media player to listen to mp3s from the hard drive, but sadly I couldn’t get any sound. A quick look around the SLAX website revealed how to fix this; typing alsaconf in the terminal detected my sound card and got the music playing.

All in all I’m very impressed with SLAX. It’s pretty easy to set up for a *nix, and its so small you can actually run it from RAM for lighting speed! (You can do this by typing slax copy2ram at the boot prompt.)

My next tasks are to get Perl, php, and an Oracle client going (TOra if licencing permits, something hacked up with ADODB otherwise). The SLAX site tells you how to roll your own custom iso, so if it all works out I should soon have everything I need to use Linux at work on a single CD.

Fully Skinned Firefox Themes

Mozilla FirefoxNow that Firefox has become more popular, we’re starting to see some fully themed skins, with non-native buttons, scrollbars etc. Since it’s hard to pick them from the crowd at Moz upate, here are my favourites (the links point to the Win32 versions, but you’re smart enough to find them for your OS du jour, ja?).

Read more

Playtest My Text Adventure

I’m writing a text adventure using Inform (the language the Zork series was written in), and I have a couple of rooms ready for playstesting. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Using Firefox, install Gnusto, which is a runtime that lets you play these games in your browser.
  2. Download my little game and open it in Gnusto.
  3. Refresh your memory on how to play text adventures.
  4. Play through the game and post comments and suggestions here, e.g. if you find a bug or you the game wouldn’t let you do something reasonable.

Lego Concentration Camp

A Polish conceptual artist has come up with some clever but rather unsettling Lego concentration camp boxed sets. Our concerned American readers should note that these are handmade art objects and not official retail items (although plenty of people have expressed interest in buying a set, according to the site).

The Joy of Spyware

I have a friend who is a hairdresser, and a very good hairdresser indeed. In fact, out of all the people who have taken scissors to my head, she is the only one who can produce a result that makes me happy (a caesar cut in the Derek Jacobi / Paul Darrow vein). Earlier this year I found myself overdue for such a haircut, so we arranged a barter: she would trim my locks for free if I could get her sluggish computer back to a decent speed.

After the choppage was done, I fired up her ancient no-brand WinMe box and took a look around. The desktop was cluttered with various novelty .exe files (xmas lights and such), and windows explorer had mysteriously grown a few extra toolbars that scrolled weather info and provided input boxes for various dodgy search engines. Clearly the box was drowning in a cesspool of spyware and viruses.

An infestation of this sort was pretty much what I had expected when she offered the barter, so before I came over I had burnt a CD of free virus / spyware killing software, as well as the latest Firefox (at the time, 0.8). I sat my hairdressing friend down next to me and ran AdAware. After fifiteen minutes of disk grinding it reported six hundred pieces of spyware. A few more clicks and it had removed them all bar one solitary beastie. The remaining bit of spyware refused to budge, but offered an ‘uninstaller’ as it was masquerading as something semi-useful. It wasn’t my box, and I was curious as to what it would do, so I gave it a stab. Good to its word, the spyware uninstalled itself! This was a bit too easy for my liking, so I ran AdAware again and found that the departing spware had installed three new bits of evil on the way out. Happily AdAware knew how to squash these and we were soon spyware-free.

I told my friend about IE, and email attachments, and the easy things you could do to avoid spyware. She said that novelty .exes and toolbars were the best thing about her computer.

Next up I scanned for viruses. Again, all were removed but one, but this time, the remaining nasty could not be dislodged by hook or by crook. I googled it and it seemed relatively harmless, so I left it in place and sandboxed the file it was lurking in. After that I installed Firefox, removed the visible links to IE, uninstalled all the OEM printer wizards and other unwanted apps, defragged it, gave it a final scan for spyware, and rebooted it. Now that six hundred processes weren’t phoning home simultaneously, it went nice and fast. I showed my hairdressing pal how to use Firefox and set her wallpaper, then strolled home, satisfied with a job well done.

That was in June. I visited her for dinner a few days ago.

Her boyfriend took me into the study to show me a CD-ROM of novelty Flash games he’d been given. Alarm bells began ringing in my head. They were still using Firefox (tabs and all), which was great, but the spyware toolbars had returned and the computer was once again plodding along at a snail’s pace.

And that, my friends, is why you shouldn’t ever bother.

Pikmin 2 Joins The Gold Club

Pikmin 2 was released here on Friday, and being an enormous fan of anything vaguely resembling Lemmings, I bought a copy. Actually, the word ‘bought’ oversimplifies the transaction somewhat… it went more like this:

SPOTTY TEENAGE SALES ASSISTANT1: “Would you like to buy that? It’s $100.”
(STSA1 takes the video game, and swipes it to disarm the security tag thingy.)
ME: (offering STSA1 a pair of fifties) “Here you go.”
STSA1: “Oh, I can’t serve you right now… the register is occupied.”
(At this juncture I wait half an hour while a second teenager — STSA2 — tries to stuff a giant Warcraft Battle Chest into a teeny bag clearly intended for PSX games. Eventually he goes for a larger bag and all is well.)
STSA2: “Can I help you?”
ME: (offering STSA2 the pair of fifties) “I’d like to buy Pikmin 2. The other guy has already swiped it. Here’s money.”
STSA2: “You’re a gold club member, right?”
ME: “Nope.”
STSA2: “Let me tell you about our great gold club!”
ME: “No thanks. I just want to buy the game.”
STSA2: “Okay, sure. What’s your name and phone number?”
ME: “I AM WILLING TO PAY YOU ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS FOR A 3 INCH PLASTIC DISC WITH A GAME ABOUT CARROTS ON IT! TAKE THE FUCKING MONEY!”

Anyway, I eventually got the game home and took a look at it. The manual is comphrensive (as one would expect from a first party Nintendo game), and the artwork is all photographs of modelling clay scenes (including one of the various pikmin walking across a rusty piece of barbed wire, and a great one of a wonky clay controller on the which-button-does-what page).

When you first fire up the game, you’re greeted by a little prompt that asks you whether your TV can can handle 60Hz or whether you’d like to use the default 50Hz (oddly, the game doesn’t remember your choice, and asks you every time at startup). After that, you’re through to the main menu, where you can play through the story mode, the challenge mode (when unlocked), or the 2P split screen ‘capture the marble‘ mode. There’s also an options screen where, in addition to the usual guff, you can choose between sharp high-contrast graphics or washed-out Ico style graphics (which look very cool indeed).

The main game plays as per the original Pikmin, i.e. like the three-dimensional bastard child of Lemmings and Command & Conquer. There are a few notable differences, however, and these are chiefly to do with the game’s multitasking aspect. Firstly, you are given a extra little guy to control (name of Louie, perhaps in a nod to Luigi), and secondly, the 30-day time limit has been eliminated from the game. While these seem like good things initially, I am concerned that, taken together, they unbalance the game. In the original Pikmin, the time limit encouraged multitasking; if you didn’t collect multiple pieces in a single day, you had no hope of getting all the pieces before your time ran out. This meant that it wasn’t enough to merely complete a level — you had to complete the level using an optimal solution. Anyway, I haven’t played a huge amount of Pikmin 2 yet, so I’m hopeful that later levels will use the daylight timer to encourage more frantic multitasking.

Other new additions include a hand-holding tutorial (annoying, but exhaustive), and lots of nifty underground cave levels. The cave levels (thus far) are quite unlike the spacious watery caves of the original, and are cramped multi-level dungeons evocative of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance as much as anything. The cool thing about the caves is that they contain lots of weird new species of flora and fauna. Purple and white pikmin can be obtained via colour-changing candypop flowers (which now wilt after you’ve changed five pikmin), berries can be harvested to make the pikmin equivalents of cocaine and tear gas, and exciting new monsters can beat the tar out of you. It’s all good downstairs, except that the time pressure is slackened ever further by the daylight timer pausing while you go spelunking.

So, first impressions versus the orginal: there’s more of it, it looks better, and it’s not as hard. If you’re a westerner with a Game Cube it’s not like you have a huge variety of games to choose from anyway, so purchasing Pikmin 2 is pretty much mandatory. While doing so, you may wish to join our great gold club.

Aryans?

Let me set the scene for you here, before I get into the sordid details. I live in an apartment block, on the east face of the building. There are a handful of two-storey ground floor apartments on this side of the building, each with a fence, and a (two-storey) floor to ceiling window giving a view of the park opposite.

Inside each apartment is a mezzanine overhanging the lounge room — I think it’s intended as a bedroom, but I’ve got my DJ gear up there so I can play music when we’re having a party without being too antisocial. Anyway, you get the idea: two storeys, glass wall, internal balcony halfway up.

So, moving right along. On the weekend I opened a frosty beer and took the cat for a walk in the park opposite my place. While the cat was climbing trees and having a frolic, I glanced back at the apartment block to see how my new fence cladding was looking. ‘Looks sharp’, thought I, ‘not like the crappy fences on the other apartments’. And indeed the other fences did look crap: most were covered in tatty shadecloth, and one particularly nasty looking example featured shadecloth festooned with random loops of barbed wire.

Eventually the beer was empty and the cat was done bouncing, so we took a leisurely stroll back home past the various crap fences. When we drew level with the barbed wire apartment, my curiousity got the better of me and I peeked in through the shadecloth. Could there be something incredibly valuable inside, that the barbed wire was there to protect? Was it the home of a paranoid old lady, scared of the world without but not yet ready for a nursing home? Sadly, it was none of the above; it was something far more fucked up than my beery imaginings.

Inside the aprtment were two black guys standing aimlessly in the lounge room, framed by the huge swastika flag hanging from the mezzanine above them.

Barnacles and Brimstone

The British navy broke new ground in the realm of equal opportunity today, signing on its first satanic seaman. The 24 year old naval technician is looking forward to serving Her Majesty on the high seas, and performing satanic rituals aboard the HMS Cumberland. Predictably, the Tories are not amused…

Kalashnikov Vodka

Assault rifle designer Lieutenant General Mikhail Kalashnikov now brings us joy instead of pain, in the form of Kalashnikov Vodka. The beverage has been distilled with Mikhail’s precepts of simplicity and reliability firmly in mind. Nostrovya!

Tucker… It’s Australian For Food

In our own raffish colonial way, we have inspired an article at Kitchen Geek. With the patience and economy of an O’Reilly book, Jim explains the mystical link betwixt coriander and cilantro, and gives Red Wolf the caffeine she so desperately requires.

In related frozen beverage news, I am seriously considering getting myself one of these evil 37000 rpm commercial bar blenders for xmas. Apparently if you fill it to the brim with ice and booze, it can produce 32 oz of frozen margaritas in 4 seconds.

Bruce Schneier On Terror And Security

From Newsweek, a great Bruce Schneier interview.

You can imagine living in a community where the landlord keeps hornets’ nests, and he keeps whacking the nests. And then he keeps telling you, you need to buy protective clothing. He’s right, but I wish he’d stop whacking the nest. In a sense that’s what we are doing.

Drumroll Please…

Regular readers will recall that I have been in job limbo lately (and in the sense of doing meaningful work, ever since the dot com years). Over the past month or so I have even been reduced to the mind numbing horrors of helpdesk.

Today the clouds have parted to reveal glorious IT sunshine. As of the beginning of August I will be following in the footsteps of the great Ryan Heise and starting my new job as… drumroll… Oracle Hax0r.

w00t!

Olaf

Have a geezer at my kitten, Olaf. He’s named after Olaf Stapledon. He’s an odd beast, and he demands breakfast by punching my eyeball vigorously at 6am. I think the patch on his nose makes him resemble a koala.

He’s nine months old and already the size of a wombat (or something furry that’s bigger than a breadbox, at any rate). Neibi and I got him from the Cat Protection Society, and he came with free microchip, vaccinations, and acute ringworm.

Xbox 2 Controller Loses 2 Buttons, PS3 Gains 1

Submitted to Slashdot, but you’ll probably only read it here 🙂 Gaming rumours site CVG is reporting that the the black and white buttons will be removed from the Xbox 2 controller. This would seem to support the reports of no backwards compatibility in Xbox 2. The site also has some interesting PS3 controller rumours: wireless control as standard, and a dedicated ‘trigger’ button for FPS games (in addition to the existing shoulder buttons).

Job Limbo

My job contract has come to an end, but due to the way our enterprise agreement is structured, it can’t be rolled over to another year as before. Instead, I’m on six weeks holidays as of Friday while they write a position description and advertise a permanent version of my contracting job. It should be sorted out by the beginning of May (my birthday!), and as the incumbent I’ll have a very good shot at getting it, but in the meantime I am bewildered and at a loose end. So it’ll proabably turn out to be a good thing, but the timing sucks. My student fees are due soon and the landlord is trying to put my rent up. Bleh.

On the upside I’ll finally be able to read Homer’s Odyssey like I’ve been meaning to, and my RSI will have some time to heal.