May 13, 2011

Bats, Balls, and Gates

When I was a kid, there was nothing better than the sights and sounds inside a busy video game arcade. They were these wonderful, dimly lit dens, filled with cacophony of overlapping electronic noise, lit only by the rows of flickering CRT screens. If you listened closely you could pick out individual games, recognize titles and hear new ones you hadn't discovered yet.

Nothing was more exciting than walking into an arcade and finding a game you'd never seen before...I still remember the first time I saw a Street Fighter Alpha machine. This was Street fighter...but the game looked...different, more stylized, with much smoother animation. Plus, who were all these new selectable characters? Wait, that's Chun-Li, but she's got a totally different costume! It pretty much made my tiny brain explode, and I had just about the same reaction every time I discovered something new. I vividly remember watching some teens play Virtua Fighter when it was originally released, and you should have seen me the first time I played Metal Slug.

Much of this nostalgia is due to the fact that I was just a kid, maybe 12 or so, when I first discovered these places. I just remember those machines being so much larger than life. Every game had its own massive cabinet, standing tall and proud. They weren't just games, they were monuments...tributes to the digital adventures they held within.

Anyway, the reason I bring up my love for arcades is that it helps explains my obsession with joysticks. I've been trying to recreate the "arcade" experience at home for years, so for every console I own I've got to have at least one joystick to pair with it. Many people prefer joysticks because of the additional precision and control they can offer, especially with fighting games. For me, it's mostly about the nostalgia. I'm actually much more competent with a standard controller, but there's just something fun and nostalgic about using a stick.

So, here's where the trouble starts. Why is it that in arcades, the stick has a "bat" shaped top on the stick, while most of the quality home versions have a "ball" top? I vastly prefer the bat style, both because it matches the arcades and it's what I'm "used to", but also because the ball tops are just uncomfortable in my hands, they're too small and I can't quite get a grip on them. (I'll take a moment here to acknowledge all the possible phallic puns and double entendre here. Get ready, because it's probably only going to get worse.)

The short answer is that "American" arcade sticks have traditionally used the bat-top style, while "Japanese" arcades have always favored the ball-top. The sticks currently available for purchase all use Japanese parts, so they have that same style. (That's about as over simplified as an answer on this subject could possibly be.)

What's nice about this, however, is that since these home sticks are made with genuine arcade parts, you can simply swap out the pieces you might want to change. An arcade owner might need to replace a button or worn out stick, and now so can the home gamer, easily and quickly.

I decided to take a closer look at 6 of my favorites. Much closer actually. I'm not going to get in depth at all here, I'm just going to zoom in and focus on the actual "stick" component to see how each one compares to my ideal vision of the perfect joystick.

The Advantage

The Advantage isn't the first home joystick, but it's the one that many kids from the 80's will remember the best. If you didn't grow up with Atari, this was probably the first stick you would have become familiar with. This thing truly lived up to its name, those Turbo buttons were essential back in the day. It's amazing that there was a time when your proficiency at playing a game was directly related to how fast you could push the buttons. That's how it was though, and oh how sweet it was to mow down bad guys using Mega Man's default proto canon, or conquering Gradius effortlessly with the aid of the slow motion option. Yes, for those not aware, when you used to pause a game it would just...pause. Sometimes a little "PAUSE" would show up on the screen, other times it would simply freeze the action. So, if you happened to have a controller that could rapidly pause/unpause, you created a slow motion effect that would allow you to carefully traverse the trickier sections of a difficult game.

Anyway, as cool as this stick is, it's less of a genuine "arcade" stick and is more closely related to a D-pad. Instead of an 8 way digital switch system for the input, it's basically a D-pad under the stick, and leaning it in a direction with press down on the corresponding input. With a "real" stick, there is a durable switch system that recognizes when the stick is pointed in one of 8 directions (or neutral). I have some sticks for the Saturn that use the D-pad construction, and they tend to wear out and break with even casual usage. The accuracy also suffers, and when you're engaged in a heated match of Marvel Vs Street fighter, every input counts.

Tekken 5 Tenth Anniversary Arcade Stick

Not a bad stick, and something I bought because my big Pelican stick is incompatible with the slim PS2. I'm not really a Tekken fan, but I am obsessed with all fighting games to some degree, so I usually end up buying them anyway. I found this stick on clearance, and it actually came packaged with Tekken 5, which was a nice bonus and almost made up for the fact that it has shirtless Tekken dudes all over it. It's using the Japanese style of construction, with the ball top and a square restrictor gate, which limits the movement of the stick. You can still input the 8 directions, but you're doing so within the confines of a square. This is something that many people won't even notice, but it's always bugged me. I vastly, vastly prefer a circle gate, which was the default in many American arcade machines. This is a solid piece, manufactured by one of the giants in the joystick industry, Hori. It's gotten a decent amount of use, mostly for the various King of Fighters collections I've accumulated for the PS2. It's good but it feels "loose" to me, not quite as solid as I'd prefer.

Pelican Universal Real Arcade Stick

This was my favorite for a long time. It was my Xbox stick, and it served me well in many Dead or Alive matches and endless rounds of Capcom vs SNK 2. It has a circle gate, a large bat top, and big, loud, concave buttons that "snap" when you tap them. It's built with solid wood that is heavy enough to feel substantial, but light enough to keep on your lap for hours. I fucking LOVE this thing. It's like I was able to tear the controls right out of a mid 90's cabinet and bring them home. The only fault, and this is a big one, is that it doesn't work with the PS2. It's supposed to, but due to a manufacturer's defect, it simply shorts out the rumble function on the console and then isn't responsive at all.

I wasn't aware of this when I got the stick, so of course the very first thing I did was when I got my Slim PS2 was plug this sucker in. Instead of spending the next few hours playing through my King of Fighters compilations, I sat there with a non-functioning stick and a brand new PS2 that no longer supported the rumble feature. Luckily, the stick still worked fine on the Xbox, and I've gotten around the "no rumble" issue by using a wireless Logitech controller. It's a superb controller, and for some reason the rumble works fine (I believe the issue is that the system can't send the rumble signal through the cord of the controller, but it can still send it wirelessly. It's an actual, physical problem resulting from a tiny fried chip in there somewhere.)

ASCII Saturn Stick

This is an excellent stick, vastly superior to the other shitty Saturn "Virtua Sticks" I had been using previously (the only sticks I've had that actually broke on me, even with just casual use). My Saturn collection consists almost entirely of fighting games and 2D shoot-em ups, so the stick got a ton of use. It has a bat top and an octagonal gate, which is better than the square gate on the Tekken stick, but again the whole thing just feels a bit "loose" to me. I know there are a lot of "pro" players that love this looseness, but I like just a bit of resistance. I like it when the stick unmistakably returns to the neutral position, and sometimes this one almost feels like it's flopping over a bit. Still, I love the looks of this stick, aesthetically it's quite sleek and dare I (OH NO, INNUENDO.)

Agetec Dreamcast Arcade Stick

I found this beauty at a local game shop and bought it without hesitation. I ALWAYS wanted one back when the DC was still in stores, but no one carried it and importing was too expensive. It has a ball top and a square gate, neither of which I prefer, but it's just such a well put together stick that it doesn't even matter. This thing is just gorgeous, and it's in flawless condition. I mean, look at it! It's art.

Not ugly artwork, a simple, classic design, sold construction and a beautiful, classy color scheme. I sat down for a few rounds of Project Justice when I bought this and it was just good. I should also mention that this stick is the modder's choice, it's the most altered stick out there and its guts are the basis for countless custom tournament sticks. It's made by Agetec, aka ""Ascii Game Entertainment Technology", aka the same guys that made the Saturn stick I'm so fond of. It's a Japanese style construction, and even though it has both a ball top and a square gate, I still love it just the way it is.

Marvel vs Capcom Tournament Stick

This was given to me as a wedding present by my Best Man, who you all know as Equidist, the other contributor to this blog. It's a BEAST. It's somehow even heavier than my Pelican stick and just a bit larger (although not as thick). The art is pretty awesome, normally I prefer a stick without any gratuitous images plastered on the face, but this is pretty damn cool. I also like that it's a generic Marvel vs Capcom, it's a bit more timeless that way. Back in college, Equidist and I used to play Marvel vs Capcom 2 on the Dreamcast for hours, and while I'd like to think we were pretty evenly matched, he always managed to kick the shit out of me with Shuma Gorath. Every damn time... Anyway, this Madcatz stick was made with Sanwa parts and once again uses the Japanese construction style, with a square gate and a ball top. It's too bad, because besides that this stick is awesome...if only there was some way to just...modify those few little details...

What's this? Why, it's a superior bat top and a circle gate, manufactured by Sanwa!

Let me just bust this case open for a second...

Here we go, the square gate has been removed and the blue circle gate is firmly in place. Now I just need to put this back in there...

While I'm at it, let's get that annoying ball off. I'll just toss that aside...

...and it looks like Shiro has found a new toy! He was totally into that ball for a solid ten minutes.

And now...perfection! This is it, my ideal joystick. It looks and feels just like those cabinets that I first played Street Fighter Alpha on. The only real difference is that the buttons are still convex, not concave...but that's a tiny detail and I kind of like them. If anything, this stick is now a great hybrid of the American and Japanese styles, the best of both worlds (as far as I'm concerned).

If you're interested in learning more about modding and the vast, vast scene out there for this stuff, check out the forums over at Shoryuken. I've barely scratched the surface here, there are fans that get way more involved with the modifications they make, changing the artwork and even the button layouts. There are a select few that actually take the time to build entire sticks from scratch. Hardcore, man. Hardcore.

Apr 5, 2011

Stan...what have you done...

You may have heard about Arnold Schwarzenegger & Stan Lee teaming up to produce an animated series called "The Governator." Perhaps your imagination then went wild trying to imagine what this show might be like. "Surely," you mused to yourself as you pondered the concept, "it would be utterly insane, inconceivably ridiculous and embarrassingly self indulgent." Then, for a moment you consider giving the show a chance. After all, it's from the mind of the legendary Marvel Comics genius, how bad could it be?

This tattooed, smirking teen gazing at a spinning, nude hologram of Arnold is just one of three kids that The Governator has stored in his secret underground lair. It's not quite clear what they're doing there, but at least this guy seems to be content with his responsibilities.

This isn't even the most ridiculous thing in the trailer, which features robots blowing up a tanker truck filled with milk before Arnold defeats them by performing a slapshot with the letter "L".

I think it's safe to say that this is probably not the Schwarzenegger comeback that fans were expecting. Also, there's now a very real danger that if Stan Lee passes away any time soon, this will be a permanent part of his epitaph. Much like how Raúl Juliá's career can't be discussed without mentioning his final role, a similar fate could easily befall Mr. Lee...

"Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) was the co-creator of over 300 characters, including Spider Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, and most recently The Governator, in collaboration with Arnold Schwarzenegger."

Honestly though, I'm betting on the guy living at least another decade, so if he keeps up his current pace that should be just enough time to double his current character count. They can't all be classics, but the man has an impressive knack for coming up with ideas that appeal to a ridiculously wide variety of audiences. Case in point, I know I'll always be fond of some of his more unconventional creations.

Feb 23, 2011

The Sad State of Blu-ray Packaging

I have a lot to say about the Blu-Ray format. Way too much, actually, and every time I try to write about the subject I end up going on several disjointed, rambling tangents. So, I'm going to attempt to just focus on one aspect of the format at a time. Right now, I'd like to discuss the packaging.

The awful, awful packaging.

Before I get into this, let me provide a little disclaimer and tell you that I love high definition. I love it so much. I have become infatuated with movies all over again, re-watching films I've seen countless times before in an entirely new way. I love Blu-ray because they won the format wars, but if HD-DVD had won, well, I'd be collecting those discs and loving them just the same.

HD is simply amazing, and it's such a shame that all of this glorious, incredible content is wrapped in an unnecessarily awful, lackluster package.

First, here's what I like about Blu-Ray packaging:

A) The translucent blue cases are nice, but that's mostly because I'm a sucker for things that are clear blue.

B) I like that they are slightly thinner than DVD's, so you can fit a few more on a shelf.

That's it for the positives, and really, the blue cases might look nice but those rounded edges seem to pop off during shipping, resulting in a shelf with big, glaring gaps like the missing teeth in a Hockey pro's smile. The rounded edges are certainly stylish and a little different, but this has to be a design flaw. I've gotten several shipments that weren't noticeably damaged in any way, yet when I removed the shrinkwrap that little blue baby tooth of plastic would fall out. I'm the kind of insane person that will eventually buy a pack of blank cases to replace these, so it's kind of annoying. I feel like if you buy something "new" it should look, you know..."new." Not, "Boy this guy must constantly drop his shit on the floor/fling it across the room in fits of nerd rage."

The actual cases themselves are made as flimsy as possible while still having the minimal structural integrity required to hold a disc in place. I get that they're trying to save money, but these cases just feel cheap. Even worse, many will have huge die cuts in the shape of the "recycle" logo right on the inside front of the case. I know that they're trying to claim this is for the environment, that using less plastic is better, but that's just complete bullshit.

These companies are not concerned about creating waste, they're worried about saving money, and I'm sure removing that much plastic from each case translates into a small but worthwhile cost reduction. It has zero effect on the environment, because they're still pumping out millions of these things and covering them with disposable shrinkwrap. Plus, by making them so fragile you end up with collectors like me buying new cases and disposing of their old ones...which wouldn't have broken in the first place if they used an additional 2 cents worth of plastic.

I've heard the same excuse for not printing booklets and inserts, that it's "because of the environment." Again, complete bullshit, and a little insulting as well. If you guys are so worried about saving the earth, why are you printing thousands of cardboard slipcovers for every new release? They certainly aren't necessary and use quite a bit more paper than a single insert would. They don't even serve any real purpose, often featuring the exact same artwork on the regular cover. Occasionally there will be a bit of metallic foil embossing or maybe some lenticular action, but it's largely pointless.

There are people who obsessively collect these slipcovers, which is how I found out that nearly every major release has one. I suppose the idea is that they help sell more copies early on, because the collectors want the slipcase that won't be available when the title is no longer a "new release" but really, there's no reason for these things.

So, they have no moral qualms about printing up a shit-ton of these cardboard covers, but when it comes to including a simple insert, which often have useful information like episode guides for TV series and occasionally extra artwork, well that would just be too devastating for the ecosystem.

Oh look, I spoke too soon. Inserts promoting the Blu-ray format. Now that I've bought a Blu-ray movie and opened it so I can watch it on my Blu-ray player, I certainly would like to be informed of the benefits of this amazing thing called "Blu-ray". Guess they're not "concerned about the environment" when it comes to printing advertising aimed at people who have already bought the product.

Hey wait, look at this! It's an insert! Well, that's nice, I wonder if it's got some cool pictures or information about the extras, or maybe....

Maybe it's just an add for BD-Live. Great. I actually see inserts like this one in quite a few of my movies, touting how awesome BD-Live is. BD-Live is not awesome. It's something dreamed up by executives to convince naive casual consumers that they need to upgrade from DVDs. "Hey, can your DVDs do...THIS? It's like watching a movie with your friends, on the internet, but they can't hear you so you need to text them! It's like the Twitters on your TV!"

Listen, film nerds love Blu-Ray because it looks and sounds amazing. We don't give half a fuck that you can log online to "chat with your buddies" or "Make a scene to share the clip with your friends". I honestly don't know who does, and I can't see anyone spending any real time using these "features."

The universally cheap and flimsy packaging has led to more than a few "special editions" that just don't seem all that special. There was a time when a limited collectors edition really was something unique and substantial. As an example of how things have changed, let's compare the Fight Club DVD and Blu-ray releases, which have identical content but drastically different packaging.

The DVD comes in a simple, stylish cardboard sleeve. Slide that off and you have a nice, sturdy gatefold case completely covered with images from the movie, references and quotes, all in an over-saturated, gritty, textural style that matches the aesthetic of the film itself.

There's even a booklet filled with even more photos, art, interviews, and a guide to the special features on the discs. Everything looks and feels like Fight Club, right down to the fonts. It's obvious that a lot of thought and work went into this, and it paid off.

Now let's look at the Blu-ray release. This one also has a slipcover, but, uh, it's pink and gray. Not really colors that were present in the movie, but okay. Looks like they went with a minimalist graffiti approach here, I guess that's kind of neat. Not really related to the movie at all, but I suppose at some point they used spray paint during Project Mayhem. Also, graffiti is edgy, right? Right?

Open the gatefold and you get two more graffiti portraits, another quote, and more colors that really aren't evocative of the film at all. Okay. What else is there?

Nothing. That's it. Reused graffiti images and a space monkey on the disc. No inserts.

I think it's safe to say that one of these packages looks and feels like a genuine, loving tribute to the film, while the other is just a box that holds the movie. According to wikipedia, "Fox Creative chose Neuron Syndicate to design the art for the format's packaging, and Neuron commissioned five graffiti artists to create 30 pieces of art. The art encompasses urban aesthetics found on the East Coast and West Coast of the United States as well as influences from European street art" So, uh, where's all that art they commissioned? All I saw were the portraits, and honestly I figured those were made in Photoshop. How about including a booklet with all that art you guys paid for? Also...what the fuck does this have to do with Fight Club? East Coast/West Coast urban aesthetics? WHAT? Whoever was in charge of this seems to have missed the point completely, and it's a shame. I wonder why the DVD packaging was so great?

Fincher supervised the composition of the DVD packaging and was one of the first directors to participate in a film's transition to home media.

Ah ha...

The DVD packaging complemented the director's vision: "The film is meant to make you question. The package, by extension, tries to reflect an experience that you must experience for yourself. The more you look at it, the more you'll get out of it." The studio developed the packaging for two months.

I see....

Deborah Mitchell, 20th Century Fox's vice president of marketing, described the design: "From a retail standpoint, [the DVD case] has incredible shelf-presence."

Your damn right it does, Deborah. That's why I'll always keep this version of the film, even though I'll be watching the Blu-ray. It would have been nice if they'd bothered to put half as much thought into the new package. It's not awful, it's just...nothing special. Which is my point.

High definition is the greatest thing that has ever happened for home entertainment, and I just wish that the packaging had some weight to reflect that. These are the definitive versions of these films, and yet they are sold in what feels almost like a bootleg product. I'm not saying every release needs to be a special collectors edition, but a little bit of class would go a long way.

For a perfect example of what I mean, pick up any Criterion release. The artwork and design is gorgeous, the case is sturdier and feels solid. There's a nice, thick booklet with information about the film and extra content that is always interesting to read. It's significant, it has a sense of importance, it says, "This film is a work of art, and we know it." You feel a sense of pride having these on a shelf, sort of like having big hardcover editions of your favorite books.

Should every Blu-ray have this kind of release? Of course not. How about something like 2001: A Space Odyssey? My copy looks and feels like something you'd buy at a dollar store, but it contains a version of the film that far surpasses any I've ever seen. It's arguably the definitive home version. Would have been nice if they'd at least used a sturdy case, or maybe included a small booklet featuring the original movie poster artwork, maybe something commemorative. Anything that suggested this was more than just a quick catalog release, something to show that the people who produced this piece of home entertainment truly understand how important it is to the fans who adore the film.

In this age of streaming content and mass media consumption, I guess no one really cares about this kind of stuff anymore. (Either that or they're going to re-release all of these movies with fancier, collectible's already happening with Kubrick.)

Feb 12, 2011

Feb 10, 2011

Everything Old is the Future Again

When I saw this image of the new Fantastic Four costumes over at Comics Alliance, I knew it reminded me of something...I just couldn't figure out what. It just seemed so damn familiar...the white and black costumes, the hexagons...

Then, suddenly, it hit me:

"The point of these costumes is to really hammer home that everything is fresh and new in the series again."

P.N. 03 was released in 2003, so I guess that's fresher than if the artist had used a game from the late 90's as his inspiration.

Feb 8, 2011

Meanwhile, in reality...

The Intrigue was a loyal travelling companion for many years. We went on more than a few epic journeys together. It was defeated by a speeding driver running a red light, and as its final act it kept me safe from harm. I was able to walk away from the accident with just a couple of bruises, but my car was not so lucky...this was a battle that it could not drive away from.

However...the quest must go on! I will always remember the Intrigue, but the Civic has already proven itself quite worthy during several perilous treks through winter storms.

Jan 4, 2011

"Hey, c'mon, c'mon."

I love this hat.

If you don't recognize it, it's the cap worn by Fatal Fury protagonist Terry Bogard. That's right, his hat displays the name of the game he stars in.

To be fair, the original title of the game was "Legend of the Hungry Wolf: The Battle of Destiny" and his hat didn't start sporting the "Fatal Fury" text until a bit later in the series. Terry's hat has actually changed quite a bit over the years, altered slightly in just about every game he appears in. While it's always some version of a red truckers cap, the shape varies and subtle details like the white trim on the bill come and go. Often, the cap appears with a blank white front with no text at all. The actual game sprites, for the most part, feature this blank front (if only because of graphical limitations).

At one point it said "King of the Fighters" and in one of the earlier games it actually said "Neo Geo" on it, which is even more fourth wall obliterating. Despite the variety it's always an iconic symbol that arcade veterans and fighting game fans will instantly recognize. Because it's awesome.

I've been a fan of Terry ever since the first time I played Fatal Fury in the local arcade, way back in the early 90's. I was roughly 11 years old, and my impressionable young mind was rapidly absorbing as much arcade culture as it could possibly handle. I was already obsessed with Street Fighter II, like everyone who stepped foot in an arcade in those days...but I wanted more. I was constantly on a search for something new and different. I found it on a big red, black and white arcade cabinet with four bright buttons and two joysticks.

Playing Fatal Fury for the first time is something I'll never forget, and I'm sure it was the precise moment I became an lifelong fan of SNK. The character sprites were big, beautifully animated, and when they landed a punch or a kick the sound effects were devastating, like nothing I'd ever heard before. The animation was fantastic and you could even jump between the foreground and background, adding a pseudo-dimension to the fights and some interesting strategy.

While just about every other fighting game was based pretty heavily in fantasy (and portions of Fatal Fury were pretty out there as well) Terry was a guy with a truckers cap and a ponytail, dressed in jeans, fingerless gloves, a bright red jacket and matching red Chuck Taylors. For the 90's, this was a pretty bad ass look, at least, it was if you were 11. He wasn't dressed like traditional martial artist or covered in futuristic armor, he was wearing an outfit that he probably wore on an average day, perhaps when he was headed out for some groceries. But at this particular moment, he was cornered and it was time to beat the shit out of his punching the ground so hard it would send a shock wave to knock that asshole right off his feet.

I vividly remember heading over to my friends house after that trip to the mall arcade and spending the next couple of hours drawing my own fighting game characters. I was so inspired by the look and style of SNK's brawler that I wanted to make my own contributions. (What I wouldn't give to find these drawings now...) Most of what I drew was based on the design concept that Terry followed, an average looking person becoming extraordinary when put in a unique situation (with a healthy dose what an 11 year old boy in the 90's thought was cool).

This is all why I'm so enamored with this hat, it just brings back so many happy arcade memories from the past. I'll always be a fan of Terry, but honestly I wouldn't think he was half as interesting if I hadn't discovered him when I did. He represents an era that shaped me into the obsessive game fan I am today. You know, my infatuation with arcades is probably why I can't stop buying joysticks, but that's a topic for another post.

The website has a list of bullet points that describe the "features" of the hat, and the last one is especially great:

- Fatal Fury familiar that reproduces the cap Terry Bogard! !
- Fatal Fury titles in English [FATAL FURY] represented by embroidered, full-fledged design crash-treated parts of the cap brim.
- [OK!!] Then threw his hat in the words of the decision, ‥ ‥ forget to go to pick up

It's a bit awkward because it's an auto translation, but seriously, that's a hilariously perfect description of what he does when he wins a match:

I need this hat. I will then wear it everywhere I go, getting strange looks from everyone until a videogame nerd sees me. We will then proceed to dramatically high five while shouting "Are you okay? BUSTAAAH WOLF!" Once everyone around us has been significantly startled, we'll simply give a knowing nod and then be off on our way.

(I can only hope that when I get my hat I look half as cool as this guy.)