Friday, July 29, 2016

8-Bit Friday's: Out Into the Late Night Rift - Part 2: The Insomniac Abyss & 1993

When it’s not Friday a.k.a. Delving into the Insomniacs Abyss

For NBC the territory of 12:35 to 1:05 AM is somewhat unchallenged territory. Of course as previously mentioned this was once the home to Friday Night Videos on Fridays, but on Monday through Thursday nights NBC has always tried to have something holding the spot. Since 2002 this spot has been held by Last Call with Carson Daly, a low key show featuring short interviews, and music segments. Years before Last Call though between 1988 and 1994 the spot was held by longtime NBC sports announcer Bob Costas and simply called Later.

For me Later holds some special memories as well. Back beyond the whole Jay Leno, David Letterman thing in 1991 I remember staying up late on summer nights to watch Carson, Letterman, and Costas in succession on NBC. For me one of the best memories I have of this show was when Costas interviewed Mel Brooks over four nights before the release of Life Stinks. Obviously I knew the whole thing was probably taped over the course of two hours in the middle of a weekday somewhere, but it was interesting to watch and keep myself awake late over the course four nights for and I learned a lot about Brooks and his comedy.

Later, unlike the two shows that preceded it, was extremely laid back. No loud bands, skits, or ongoing gags, but rather Costas one on one with his interviewee of the evening. It was the right kind of show for that late hour or half-hour I should say. Of course being Bob Costas there was a huge variety of professional athletes and other sports figures that would be on his program, but besides that it was worth the watch especially if you needed an air of calm before falling asleep.

Costas would only host Later until 1994, before turning the show over to former Talk Soup host and now major actor Greg Kinnear. Kinnear had the show for only two years before his acting career kicked into overdrive, and by 1996 Later was on to a new format. Between 1996 and 2000 Later had a “host of the week” format in which a celebrity host took the show for a week at a time. In 2001 a former VH1 VJ Cynthia Garret, took on the roll of full time host for about a year before moving on herself. Ultimately “Later” died after that, joining it's Friday night counterpart Friday Night Videos in an unceremonious end within months of each other. But from its ashes Last Call would be born taking on all 5 nights of the week.

Whether you choose to call it Later or Last Call the show is like a bookend to what The Tonight Show starts 2 ½ hours earlier. Beyond that lies the middle of the night, a time at which most of us who live and work in the day usually prefer to be asleep. Venturing beyond NBC at that time of night one may find repeats of the 10 O’clock news, or may be inundated with infomercials selling every type of useless thing imaginable.

1993’s Hybrid Nights

Truth be told I believe Letterman always had a better show than Leno, and by 93’ Leno was beginning to lose his edge younger viewers. For me it was a pretty easy choice to watch Letterman over Leno once the two went head to head. But nights like Friday's or on school vacations I would go from CBS back to NBC after Letterman ended to watch Conan O’Brien.

O’Brien was a somewhat unknown when he took over the Late Night spot after Letterman's departure to CBS. But despite not being a household name, O’Brien was by that time an experienced comedy writer for both SNL, and The Simpsons and brought that experience with him to his late night spot. Among other things O’Brien was also somewhat awkward in appearance as well being tall, ginger haired, and with a square facial structure. As an ongoing gag he was often one of the first to comment on his own appearance, and like Leno with his chin, O’Brien’s appearance quickly became and still is one of his signature trademarks. Despite his appearance and relatively unknown status at the time, O’Brien delivered a show that was equal to, and up until it's end, exceeded what Letterman had given us in that spot before.

Together with his long time sidekick Andy Richter, O’Brien would bring us such on running comedic skits as Pimpbot 5000, Bad Fruit Theater, Triumph the insult comic dog, and In the Year 2000 just to name a few. The show was fun and fast paced, and despite it's late hour was always able to deliver a few good laughs. On Friday nights moving from Letterman's hi-jinks, to O’Briens was always a good and light hearted start to any weekend.

In 1999 CBS made the decision to move away from the somewhat slow paced Tom Snyder who  followed Letterman with a low key talk show and replace him with former Daily Show host Craig Kilborn. The new show called The Late Late Show was meant to challenge O’Briens reign over the late night slot. However, Kilborn just seemed to lack the charisma to carry the task off, and often appeared more jerky than funny. In 2004 Kilborn would elect to not renew his contract for the show, to move on to other projects.

CBS wasn't about to give up though and instead bought in Scottish stand up comedian Craig Ferguson. Ferguson was able to finally deliver the type of show CBS was looking for to challenge NBC and O’Brien. Ferguson was quick witted, zany, and above all charismatic and likable. Under Ferguson The Late Late Show was often more comedy & skit based than pure talk show. As if these factors weren't enough to help CBS, O'Brien's show was slowing down and falling into a bit of a rut making Ferguson's Late Late Show an attractive alternative, especially if it meant not changing channels after Letterman ended.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Trekking Through Games: Starfleet Command

I'm aware its been sometime since I wrote something for my Trekking series. It's not that I had fallen out of love for the idea or that my Trek phase had ended, but more or less I just haven't had the time to write much of anything lately. With that said though I am back for this interim and plan on trying to cover at least a few more games.

This time I am going to cover one of the most popular franchises within the franchise, if that makes sense. That is of course the Starfleet Command franchise by 14° East, and Interplay Entertainment. Of course I'm mainly going to cover the first game in the series today simply Starfleet Command, although the series did have an add-on for the original game Starfleet Command: Orion Pirates, plus two sequels Starfleet Command II: Empires at War, and Starfleet Command III.

Starfleet Command was released in 1999 at a time when Deep Space 9, and Voyager where still on TV and the TNG movies where still arriving in regular intervals. Essentially the game was a video game adaptation of the popular Star Fleet Battles table top game, and was meant to capitalize on both Star Treks current successes, and FASA's success with bringing the Mechwarrior series from board game to video game in a similar manner a few years previous. 

Although the game would carry over many faithful fans from Star Fleet Battles, introducing it on to PC would also attract many new fans as well. Some of these fans, like myself, never knew a tabletop form had existed previously but where interested in captaining a ship in the Star Trek universe, without all the whole manning the bridge thing as in some previous games. What Starfleet Command gave us is the ability to captain our own vessels and build our own fleets within the movie universe of the original Star Trek.  

The game sub-genre is actually known as real-time tactics, or basically an RTS type of game without the ability to add units or build anything within actual game play. Essentially its you and your ship or ships slugging it out with everything from Klingons, to Orion Pirates and more while trying to accomplish a variety of missions. You also have the ability to chose what race you want to be with at the start of the game and of course the options are; Federation, Klingon, Romulan, Gorn, Lyran, and Hydran. I personally always chose Federation, but that's just me. 

As the game starts you are usually assigned one of the most basic ships your side has, in most cases this is a Frigate. As the game plays on you are rewarded for your success in missions with "prestige points", which are basically the in game currency and can be spent in the missions screen. Here you have the ability to visit the shipyards to see other options for bigger ships, ranging from your lowly Frigate to Battleships. With enough "prestige points", you can buy an entirely new ship while trading in your old or begin to create a fleet of your own. After that are the Spacedocks, here you can upgrade your current ship(s) with everything from upgraded missiles, to spare parts, and even special shuttles and marines. You can also help your ship function better by visiting the recruiting office as well, here you can find better and more veteran officers to man crucial positions on your vessel. 

As far as game play my attached YouTube video gives you a pretty good idea as to how things operate within the game itself. Being as PC game most of the game play is controlled with the mouse, but in true PC form there are numerous hotkeys to help save a few steps here and there, like pressing "R" to quickly go to read alert, although I did it via mouse in the video. The game is for the most part pretty intuitive for the first time player, and for someone with a little Star Trek fandom under their belts. With that said though, the mission screens "The Academy" button does provide some pretty quick and comprehensive lessons on ships operations that even the intuitive player may find beneficial to consult with. 

The game as you can tell by the YouTube video above is actually really fun to play, and a great way to suddenly immerse yourself in the Star Trek universe. However, like any game this one does have its caveats. One of this biggest headaches for me with this game is mission repetition, where you find yourself doing the same type of missions over and over again like a Star Trek version of Groundhogs Day.  One particular mission that I have done over and over is the freight escort mission, in which you fight Orion pirates while getting freight ships to a nearby star base (not the same mission as in the video above). As boring and frustrating as this mission may be these types of missions are best compared to grinding missions as you would see in an RPG, in which prestige points can be gained with very little danger to your ship. Another caveat is the way in which the mission difficulties change but fail to recognize things that happen with the players. For instance mission difficulty does changes appropriately as you add more and bigger ships, but as you lose those ships the mission difficulty doesn't reflect that and a sudden 2 on 2 equal class battle suddenly becomes 2 on 1 and very unfair. 

As for some major likes with this game I absolutely love the way you can just get right into it for instant action, This is partially because the game held back on on some major trends of the era like FMV's and/or big CGI cut scenes between missions. Although that is a small detractor, I think it treats the player with respect and lets the player use their own imagination in how the missions play out, and what is really going on story wise in the game. Another huge like is the ability to  buy additional ships or upgrade your own, something that reminds me of some of the RPG elements I have seen in such SHMUP's as UN Squadron, it really adds a tremendous amount of fun to the game as well as replay value. 

This first installment in the Starfleet Command series did prove to be a major success, but there are many who argue that Starfleet Command III, is the best in the series since it encompasses the universe of TNG/Voyager/ and DS9 as well as involves encountering the Borg, who can also be a playable race. Although a fan favorite finding a finding a boxed or even loose copy of Starfleet Command III can be an expensive proposition, some times commanding $40 or more on eBay. As for Starfleet Command it can be picked up lose for a lot cheaper, or you can find it on fully compatible for Windows 10 for $5.99 or occasionally on sale for less. I personally own a copy of it I bought when it was new, as well as a GOG copy I bought for $.99 on sale and tend to play more to avoid compatibility issues since it is a Windows 95/98 game originally

Overall, I have always been a big fan of this game and I think it really defines what a Star Trek game should be. In many ways I think Star Trek fans where attempting to create something like this when the first games came out, like the well passed around Strategic Bridge Simulator from the early 80's. So get yourself a copy if your a Trek fan I don't think you will be disappointed.  

Friday, July 22, 2016

8-Bit Friday's: Out Into the Late Night Rift - Part1: Friday Night Videos

About two weeks ago my wife and I started out a Friday evening watching a repeat of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and ended up staying up long enough to finish Late Night with Seth Meyer, and briefly into Last Call with Carson Daly after that. I know it doesn't sound like much to lounge around on the couch and watch 2 ½ hours of TV, but on a Friday evening after a long week it's a major triumph for the parents of two, one of which is a toddler, to get that far. For me personally it's not always a huge deal to stay up that late on Fridays, after all my 8-bit Fridays articles are based on the fact that I do, sometimes. What is unusual though is for me not to turn on a video game, Netflix, or YouTube after Seth Meyers goes through his SNL type news intro at the beginning of his show. Don't get me wrong it's not that I don't like Seth Meyers or his show, but around Midnight I get the television to myself as my wife and eldest son usually go to bed.

Of course I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that I'm not just here to talk about some random night my wife and I stayed up late together watching mainstream talk/comedy shows. Rather I wanted to talk about memories I have from late night TV when being up till 1 or 1:30 AM watching talk shows was a normal occurrence for me. I also wanted to talk about the unique history of the late evening talk show scene especially since it got has pretty muddled in the past few years starting with The Tonight Show fiasco between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien.

To me the golden era for late evening talk shows was when I was in high school during the mid-90’s. Of course this same era was also at the time of a lot of changes, many of which still affect the environment of late evening talk shows till this day. You see the week I started my Freshmen year of high school was the same week Jay Leno would take over The Tonight Show, and by that I mean the first time from Johnny Carson. If you remember anything about that era you’ll probably remember that Carson had his funny moments, but he had gotten a little outdated by the late 80’s. Its at this point that The Tonight Show had numerous “guest hosts” some of which, like Leno where successful stand-up comedians. Many of us had our suspicions that these “guest hosts”, where NBC’s way of auditioning a replacement for Carson. That suspicion was later found to be correct when Leno, who was the most prominent of these  “guest hosts”, was announced as the replacement for the retiring Carson.

Of course this caused some hard feelings at NBC since then Late Night host David Letterman was promised the role of The Tonight Shows host upon Johnny Carsons retirement. So Letterman left NBC for CBS about a year later to host The Late Show, since at that point and time CBS had no programs, talk, news or otherwise to really compete with NBC, or ABC. So with all that said by late 1993 on a weekday night at 10:35 PM (CT) you could watch Leno on NBC, Letterman on CBS, or Nightline on ABC. By 11:35 though the world looked a lot different as former SNL, and The Simpsons writer Conan O’Brien now hosted Late Night, while CBS, and ABC fell off into an oblivion of repeated 10PM local newscasts, sports shows, boring talk shows, or whatever else filled the late night void. Things got even more interesting after 12:30, at that time Monday through Thursday you could watch Later with Bob Costas, and on Fridays catch Friday Night Videos.

Remembering Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos was pretty interesting to see in 1993. Anyone who lived in the 80’s and who didn't perhaps have access to MTV, could tell you the importance and nostalgia of FNV. Started in 1983 and ending in 2000 (yes, 2000) Friday Night Videos was, for a lot of us, a huge kick off to the weekend as teens, and an important connection to the music videos associated with the popular acts and music of any given time. As a child of the 80’s I can remember my teenage older sister staying up late on Fridays to watch FNV, and I can remember managing to stay up late a few times myself and watch it with her, and seeing some of those truly iconic videos of the 80’s like, Take On Me by A-Ha. As a teen myself I can remember catching it a few times in the 90’s but all I can take away from it is Boom Shake the Room by Will Smith & Jazzy Jeff, and Amish Paradise by Weird Al Yankovich, although I'm sure I saw some better stuff.

Essentially, FNV was created as NBC’s answer to MTV, and as a way of getting into the music video craze of the early to mid-80’s. It also gave NBC a chance at the teen demographic, as well as the bragging rights of having the premier music video show on standard airwaves. Despite its teen demographics, and for coming on so late the show had excellent production quality which actually garnered a few Emmy’s. In its heyday the standard show featured a guest host of the week, usually these where music stars with videos of their own to show, actors in current NBC shows, or even movie stars plugging upcoming films. When not featuring a celebrity guest host the show had a normal host, one notably of which was Tom Kenny (voice of Sponge Bob).  As for the videos themselves they were usually broken down by popularity from lowest to highest along the same format as a radio DJ doing a weeks top 40 show would, although at most the show covered the top 20.

At the height of its popularity FNV was so successful that its ratings actually boosted Lettermans Late Night which aired immediately before it and grew his fan base, since his show was a little more youthful and edgier than that of Johnny Carson. Friday Night Videos also received a spin off with the short lived Saturday Morning Videos (although FNV’s 12:30 AM air time was technically Saturday morning), that aired after Saturday morning cartoons for two seasons. Think of new episodes of the Saved By the Bell on Saturday mornings being followed by new music videos of the same era.

Of course by 2000 even MTV was showing fewer music videos, and the internet began to give music fans access to music videos through performer, and record label websites as well as other areas online before the advent of YouTube. So as of the first Friday in 2001 Friday Night Videos would be no more. Ironically if you stay up till 12:30 AM central time on a Friday now you can watch former MTV Total Request Live host Carson Daly on his show Last Call. Considering TRL was once one of MTV’s most popular music video shows and Daly its most well known host, it seems fitting that Friday Night Videos old spot is now occupied by him.

Of course watching Daly host the low key Last Call, I have to ask myself if the era of music videos is dead. There use to be a time when you would hear a song on the radio, and turn to friends and ask them “did you see the video for this?”. Today I swear it's mostly us Gen Xer’s and and early Millennials that still watch music videos. But even though I can go right to a specific video now without sitting through a litany of others I don't want to watch, shows like TRL, and more importantly Friday Night Videos will always define what it was to experience music videos.