Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Black Friday Memiors

There's nothing like scoring that one item on Black Friday, that's at just the right price and that you've waited so long for.  Too bad I don't really know what's that like. The closest I really came was in 2011 when I picked up my XBox 360 with Halo: Reach, Fruit Ninja, Kinect, and a few other items for about $199 at Best Buy, but really no one was in line for that so... With that mentioned I'm not trying to say that I don't have good memories from Black Friday, or that I haven't picked up a few games here and there on that day.

So here are some of my memories:

Black Friday 1992 - I was a Freshman in high school, and my mom, my sister and I set out to go to a local mall. The problem was that we all got a late start, and my mom and sister didn't really feel like messing with lines at the mall, or traffic. So instead we hit various stores one town over, and still made a day of it. To be honest I don't know what we really set out to look for that day, somehow I think it was all household stuff, and a few bulk groceries at Sams Club. Eventually though we ended up at Service Merchandise. Yes, Service Merchandise, did I send a few chills up your spine mentioning them, as late-70's though early 90's gaming memories popped into your head? Service Merchandise by 1992 had bought in huge toy sections, and strangely I can remember their video games being mixed in with the toys. It was on that day Black Friday 1992 that I got my first hands on, close up look at the Sega Genesis, and more importantly Sonic the Hedgehog. I also remember simultaneously running into a very attractive classmate of mine from high school at nearly they same time, although she wasn't there to play sonic, but to say the least that's all burned into my memory too. Even though the Funcoland (am I giving you chills again) was in the same strip mall as the Service Merchandise, somehow I would end up back there hours later and I bought Captain Skyhawk, Silent Service, Afterburner, and Top Gun for the NES all of which I still have today. That pretty much ended my Black Friday but gave me a full weekend of gameplay.

Black Friday 1996 - Being an avid Command & Conquer fan I had been dying to finally get a sequel, and although it wasn't exactly a sequel Command & Conquer: Red Alert was launched on Black Friday of 1996. To me this isn't only a gaming memory but a happy memory of being with my mother as well on that day, since we had a nice breakfast out together before going to the nearest Best Buy, to get a copy of the game. Sadly, that was the last Black Friday I would be able to go out with my mom, and I will always remember that day.  Command & Conquer: Red Alert turned out to be an excellent game, and I put so much time into playing it that I had it finished before Christmas.

Black Friday 1998 - Ok, this is more of an electronics memory then anything. I got up early that day and was determined to get a stereo/home theater receiver I spotted on sale at Montgomery Wards (more chills?) and then rush back to start work for the day. When I got to Montgomery Wards  there was a huge line in front of the store, I began to think my early morning excursion was all for not since the line would have kept me from getting to work on time, but a store employee assured me it was a "Furby only" line since Furby's were that Christmas's big toy. I got inside and had to wait a while to get help in the electronics section, in the meantime I watched one of the most glorious music videos of all time "Hit Me Baby, One More Time" by a very young Britany Spears. Trust me if you graduated from a catholic high school you would have a lot of appreciation for that music video too. I was annoyed I had to wait but the replaying of that video about every 5 minutes got me through. To say the least when I was finally served the receiver I wanted wasn't even there, so instead I bought a slightly better one since I didn't want to go home empty handed, which I did anyway since they had to order that one too. I still have the stereo receiver till this day and its currently connected to my gaming TV, its powerful as hell too. As for Britney, well we'll always have Montgomery Wards! No seriously I had a crush on her for several years after.

To be honest my Black Friday Memories would be pretty vague for the next ten years. In 2008 my family and I would head out one morning for household stuff, it was a good memory but hardly anything gaming.

Black Friday 2009 - I got up early to go to Best Buy to score a copy of NHL 10' with Patrick Kane on the cover for my nephew. In the process I picked up an odd game called Rayman Raving Rabbids for the Wii that was part of a $5 sale. We played it later that evening and it was an interesting party game but eventually got on the nerves a bit.

Black Friday 2011 - As previously mentioned! I spent most of 2011 having the great PS3 vs XBox 360 debate mainly because I wanted to get and play L.A. Noire, trust me if your into that era or James Elroy novels you'll love it. Eventually I settled on the 360 do to a lot of the good things I was hearing, and long behold Black Friday of 2011 they were on sale for $199 with the Kinect, Halo: Reach, Fruit Ninja, Gun Stringer(?), and I believe Kinect Adventures. I wasn't able to get up early that morning but when I finally did find my way into Best Buy around 10 I was shocked to still find a pile of them. The rest of that day was committed to Christmas decorating (our earliest ever start to date), but later that evening, lets just say I became a Halo fan.

Black Friday 2012 - Everywhere I went in downtown Chicago, I saw Assassins Creed 3 being advertised. I liked the whole historical aspect of L.A. Noire, and the Revolutionary War seemed like a good place to head next. But, Black Friday of that year I had a sick son, and a Thanksgiving Day exhausted, slightly sick, and very pregnant wife on my hands so we used the day to recover. I wasn't very heartbroken, after all there was nothing I wanted this year at a Black Friday sale. But, then around 1 in the afternoon an e-mail came in from Amazon, Assassins Creed 3 $30. With a $25 Amazon gift certificate in my hand and order of $25 or more with free shipping back then, I placed my order and picked Assassins Creed 3 for $5. Too bad it took me nearly two years to finish.

Black Friday 2013 - Sometimes you debate about chilling the day after Thanksgiving, and sometimes you want to go out. We made it our decision to do the latter after 10 AM again, and my main place to go was TNT Games, a local retro video game store I was going to visit for the first time. To say the least I left the store that day with a huge pile of Atari 2600 games.

Black Friday 2016 - This year there where a few things I wanted to get going into Black Friday. An Atari Flashback Portable, but these where sold out long before Black Friday, a Atari Flashback 7 which I lost out on picking up for $30, and Titanfall 2. Of them all Titanfall 2 is the only one I got, having sold for $28 through Walmart for Black Friday. The other items I can wait on, and I suppose I don't need but they would be fun to get anyway. Also as a side note I did get the Atari Flashback Volume 1 for the XBox One for $15 the Black Friday price, but the day after.

So that's my quick synopsis of Black Fridays past albeit a few days late. What memories do you have? 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Journey To MAME: Part One - We Gather Together

A few weeks back in my Columbus Day Weekend edition of 8-bit Fridays, ( I spoke of being on the hunt for a new arcade machine, and my unsuccessful attempt at buying one that weekend. I also closed by saying I had a few irons in the fire, and one of those actually paid off as of the Wednesday after I wrote that. Thanks to a little known app known as OfferUp I found a guy selling a X-Arcade cabinet (sans Tank Stick, and computer) in a nearby town. He had listed for $1, yes $1 and there was no way I could walk away. So once I did some research on how much it would be to replace the missing parts, I contacted him to make sure the offer was correct and made a deal with him to pick it up.

Of course this is a big and very heavy machine which meant I had to rent a truck to pick it up, so although it was a dollar to buy there were going to be expenses to get it. When I finally got to his house he told me that he didn't even want a $1 for it but just wanted to get it out of his garage so his wife could finally park her car in it, so it went from being a $1 to free. My son and I loaded it up and did the even harder job of unloading it in my garage on the other end. Now that is where you could assume the story would end, but actually I've found that it's a lot more complicated than that, and in a way that's where my story begins.

The Tankstick:

The X-Arcade cabinet is more or less built to go with the X-Arcade Tankstick which is a large two player arcade set up with a trackball in the middle. Although, X-Arcade offers smaller controllers the gap in the controller tray of the cabinet pretty much requires the Tankstick, otherwise you'd have to deal with the controller floating around in the tray. The Tankstick sells for $150 (sale price for now) from X-Arcade directly, and to be honest it sells for way higher than that through other outlets, even eBay. Having just sold a few items on eBay myself, I took the money from that and bought the Tankstick, which arrived only a few days later via FedEx. The massive box arrived on my doorstep the Friday of the same week I got the cabinet. The massive outer box measures a bit over two feet long, over a foot wide, and a foot deep with the controller inside only slightly smaller than those dimensions.

The Tankstick itself has a bit of weight to it making it easy to see why some gamers buy these sticks ala carte, since they would sit firmly on any surface for hours of arcade like play. On the back, there are two sets of double ended cables, one set for plugging into a computers serial port with a USB conversion attachment for power, and the second end for plugging into an old school PS/2 keyboard. The other set is the USB for the trackball, with the second end a PS/2 adapter for connecting into an older computer. Compared to an actual arcade cabinets control wires, this is actually a simple setup, only a little more complicated than hooking up a modern desktop PC.

When X-Arcade sells its arcade cabinets it sells them with the Tankstick, and computer already installed so had I bought this cabinet new, about a $2500+ proposition, buying, programming and installing this stick would not be my problem, but with that said it is. The first night I got the stick I unpacked it and bought it to my kitchen counter to play with for a bit. It powered up just fine when plugged into my laptops USB, and even the trackball worked as second mouse on the laptop. The only issue was that the Tankstick had to be programmed, and this is a bit of an issue. For whatever reason the folks at X-Arcade determined that rather than allow their devices to be programmed via USB through a modern computer, they instead wanted their sticks programmed with old PS/2 keyboards. By PS/2 I'm not talking about PlayStation 2, but rather the purple mini-S-video looking type of adaptor that computer manufactures stopped using about 10 years ago.  The instructions play it off as if its something simple you will just have laying around, but to be honest in a era when people are choosing less and less to have desktops, and if they do are choosing to go with wireless keyboards it makes little sense to require a PS/2 keyboard to program this thing. If X-Arcade sold PS/2 keyboards to add to your order for programming it would probably piss me off too, but they don't even offer that so instead you find yourself combing thrift stores for one. Oh, and by the way those PS/2 to USB converters they have out won't work either. To say the least I found myself combing a Salvation Army store one evening to find one, luckily I did.

With that said it comes down to programming the stick, which is a nerve wracking experience since the actual inputs aren't exactly clear and are based on your emulation program. I'll come back to this later.

Heart Like a Computer: 

With the original PC taken out, a pre-programmed Dell from what I understand, I have to choose a system of my own to be the heart of this arcade emulator. I have four choices:

Pine64- A Pine64 is a small computer like that of a Raspberry Pi. The Pine64 was actually the first 64-bit entry into the realm of mini-computers beating the Raspberry Pi 3 by some months. I picked mine up through the Pine64 Kickstarter last year and just got it back in May. I didn't exactly know what I wanted to do with it, but I've had it in mind to use it for MAME emulation, or powering a multiple Jamma arcade cabinet, both ideas of which I back seated shortly after receiving the Pine64 board.

The Old Laptop in the Closet - In the back of the office closet lie some electronic items that currently have no home or use in our house. We hang on to them because they do have the potential to one day be useful again. About two years ago my father just dropped off an old Compaq laptop, explaining he had gotten a new one. My oldest son quickly claimed it to play Minecraft on, but within two months we took it away from him since he had downloaded numerous viruses and Trojans on to it in search of questionable Minecraft mods he saw on YouTube. One of these malicious items briefly screwed up the computers WiFi, and my wife spent days fixing it to get it up and working again, but after that it went into storage. Emulators don't exactly need a lot of computing power making the old WiFi capable Vista based computer a viable option.

The Old Laptop in the Closet 2 - Yes, there is a second back there an old one of mine that works but has some functionality issues. It's actually an old "movie laptop", which was a short lived fad in the late 00's, these where laptops with large screens, Dolby sound, and sub-woofers meant to act as on the go home theatre systems. I actually used it on a trip once and it was fairly impressive to watch DVD's on in a hotel room.  

My WiFi-less Laptop - My newest laptop fell victim to Windows 10, when a Windows 10 update in early 2016 screwed up both the WiFi and ethernet drivers, and it's been impossible to fix on my own since. I've considered bringing it in to be fixed, but between my phone, iPad, and Desktop I'm not sure how badly I need a laptop right now. Anyway, it has Windows 10 and is pretty fast, just the lack of WiFi that bothers me.

The overall goal with these systems is to install an emulator "frontend" on one of them and then hook it up the the cab's monitor, and sound, and then hook the Tankstick up to it. The issue is that there are several frontends out there, and many MAME emulation programs, and its key to find the right one to get this system to work fairly seamlessly. In my next entry I will discuss frontends, and how it lead to my computer selection.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

System Saturdays - The NES: Classic or Original?

Everyone is going apeshit crazy about the NES Classic right now, and they pretty much have been since it was first announced a few months back. For me though, it's something that's fallen under my personal radar, and been mentally categorized with the likes of the Atari, Sega, Coleco, and Intellivision Flashback systems. Owning both an original NES, and a Retron 5, plus the actual carts of the 30 games that come preloaded on the Classic it's one of those things I really haven't felt the need to run out and buy.

You’ll have to forgive me if I catalogue the NES Classic in with other Flashback systems but that's essentially what it is. The only major difference is that in the Classic’s case the original manufacturer, Nintendo, is the one making the system instead of a third party in the case of the others.  When it comes to these Flashback systems, the only ones I actually own are the Colecovision, and Intellivision systems mainly because I didn't want to get into collecting them just yet. To be more specific in the case of the Intellivision I should state that I had a choice between the Flashback and actually system, I went with the latter only to have it break down on me and be deemed irreparable a week after buying it, and at that point I just bought the Flashback instead. In the case of the long string of Atari Flashbacks however I decided to pass and just get the real thing since I had a connection to the 2600, 5200, and 7800 as a kid and wanted to have the actual consoles. Of course most of the Atari Flashbacks have been focused on Atari 2600 games anyway, so owning the physical systems has had some major benefits.

As I've stated here though my choice not to buy an NES Classic is just based on the fact that it would be a little redundant in my collection. With that said what I tell you is as both the owner of Flashback systems and an actual NES, is that owning an NES Classic can have advantages if you're not a serious collector. First of all its hardware emulated access to 30 classic NES games, meaning you don't have to track these games down, buy them, and then store them, all of which is a tremendous amount of time, money, and space saved. Secondly, these systems are easy to hook up, meaning they're great to bring out when company is over, or when you're just in the mood an NES game. Lastly, this is hardware emulation at its finest, meaning right down to the controllers, this is going to give you the best possible experience of playing an NES without actually playing an actual one. I also need to mention that it's Nintendo itself that's making this unit, which is the first time we've seen the producer of the original machine also making the nostalgia based emulation unit since the current Atari, Sega, Coleco, and Intellivision units are all produced under license by a third party. So what results should be both interesting and well made.

If getting one of these has peeked your attention than I need to give you a few words of warning. First these things are already sold out from major retailers, although I imagine the demand will cause more to be produced and available soon so patience is a true virtue here. Second, be cautious and try to avoid buying from sellers on eBay or other sites where the seller is trying to ask higher than the retail price, you may feel very foolish buying one for $250 just to see it at GameStop a week later for $59. Lastly, if you want the real experience instead the average price of a functional original NES with at least one controller, TV hookups, and power supply is about $40 and the original Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt cart can be easily found for less than $5 (no matter what you hear this one isn't rare). As a word of caution light guns won’t work with modern flat screen plasma or LED TV’s, so if your firing away and nothing happens now you know.

To end I just want to say that if you're thinking about buying a NES Classic and really want get into retro games perhaps now, while these things are sold out, is a good time to ask yourself if you maybe want to get an actual NES instead, and start into something new. The NES Classic may be great and all, but becoming a true NES collector gives you access to some really wonderful titles a flashback unit like this never will, as well as access to some of the nearly 700 games the NES had.    

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Trekking Through Games: The Away Missions - The Great DS9 vs Babylon 5 Affair

I was in the process of talking to a group of sci-fi model builders about whether they had considered building models of the Raza from Dark Matters, or The Lifeboat from Timeless, when the conversation lead into older sci-fi shows. Of course Firefly came up as well as a few more obscure shows like Defiance and Falling Skies. It was at that point someone brought up how Defiance was a bit of a rip off of Alien Nation, but that’s not something I could comment on having never really watched either show. Then someone brought up an argument I hadn't heard in years, being was DS9 a preemptive rip off Babylon 5 or was it vice versa?

Now, this was something I hadn’t heard or even thought about in years since both shows would emerge as totally different and distinct as they progressed through their various seasons. Back in the day though (and by that I mean 1993-94) DS9 and Babylon 5 fans had a long standing feud over whose space station themed sci-fi show was the real McCoy (no TOS pun intended), much like a sci-fi version of NYC’s Ray’s Pizza controversy. The first time I had heard about this controversy was from my brother, a Babylon 5 fan, who bought that up as well as the fact that he thought Babylon 5 was a better show and one that presented the future of mankind in a less rosy colored and more realistic view than what Star Trek gave us. The latter part of his argument is worth consideration, but the former part of his argument was up for debate.

The History of a Controversy

Star Trek: The Next Generation was, and in many ways still is a one of the most influential TV shows of all time. Its wake has not only left us with two spin offs and another free standing Star Trek franchise, but its legacy has given us everything from Firefly to the more recent Agents of Shield, and Dark Matter. In its time though it’s success and popularity launched many other sci-fi programs, some successful and long running, and others short lived and easily forgotten. TNG also managed to accomplish something else, it managed to prove that a show could be successful even if it was only in syndication and not on normal networks. Its at this point a few things started happen in the world of TV, first the production of syndication only TV shows were on the rise, and second independent stations wanted to form a light network in order to have exclusive rights in their markets to some of these shows.

With both Paramount and Warner Brothers producing a lot of these syndicated TV shows, they were looking to capitalize on giving these smaller stations the light network they were looking for. At this point talks began between Warner Brother and Paramount about partnering on this network (now known as the CW), and hoped to further ride TNG’s success by bringing a premier space show to the table. Paramount with its longstanding relationship with Star Trek and it’s producers had a space station themed Star Trek show they wished to use, while Warner had access to a completely new show sci-fi space station show concept they wanted to use, and in the initial talks to partner on the new network both shows would have been used. At some point though the talks began to go sideways, and the partnership deal fell through leaving both networks with sci-fi space station themed shows they wanted to produce, and with TNG both popular and close to ending it’s run Paramount's Deep Space 9 concept was one commodity they didn’t want to miss out on. On the other end Warner was aware of Paramounts concept, and hoped to beat Paramount to TV with their Babylon 5 concept, and the race was on to see whose space station show would be first, and therefore considered the most original.

Both shows would air in 1993, but ironically neither show would air on a network started by either studio. A bigger irony is that Paramount's Deep Space 9 would premier on Chicago’s local and national station WGN, which would later become a premier Warner Brother WB affiliate. To add to that irony in Chicago Babylon 5 would be shown locally on WPWR which would later become part of Paramount’s UPN network, and both shows would stay on their original stations till they ended.

At the Heart of It

Ryan Britt with TOR.COM has an interesting take on it with his article; Is This the Smoking Gun that Proved Deep Space Nine Ripped Off Babaylon 5 (, here he stated how in the process of creating a new network and partnership, Paramount and Warner openly shared with each other the concepts behind their respective space station shows, and how at one point Babylon 5 was almost just stright up adapted to the Star Trek universe leaving the old DS9 concept behind. Britt is careful to state however that although the basis of his information from an article on io9 is extremely interesting, it is still somewhat speculative.

At its core though we have two science fiction shows, both set on space stations, both mostly crewed by humans, in both cases the humans are part of an interstellar alliance (or federation) with many other aliens species, and both had the concept of a human commander who becomes a religious icon with an alien race. Lastly, both shows premiered in 1993, or in B5’s case its pilot movie did. As I understand it, B5’s pilot was put into production first and finished long before the pilot of DS9, however with the learner curves on a new sci-fi show B5’s post production dragged on later than expected, allowing DS9 to make it’s TV debut first with B5 showing up a few weeks later.

The Argument

The fact that Paramount seemed to push DS9 to be finished and air-able on TV before Babylon 5 would make it appear as if both networks were fully aware of the others shows, and a race was on to beat each other to TV. This part of the argument that Paramount pushed to get DS9 out before B5, is pretty plausible. When resources are being gathered together and auditions made, it’s going to get around pretty quickly as to who's making a space station show, and there just may have been some extra push by Paramount to get it on TV.   

The other argument is that the shows had more than a few similarities, and it’s obvious one took something from the other, more than likely DS9 from B5. I will admit from what I remember about B5 and what I do know about DS9 the similarities stretch beyond the fact that both take place on a space station. The religious icon commander, the pushy sneaky alien who’s up to no good, the alien who's in tune with nature and religion, and the shadowy secret group of humans manipulating things behind the scenes, are all character similarities we run across in each show. I could also point out the Defiance and the Whitestar as show similarities but both came in later seasons of their respective shows, as did the Dominion and The Shadows as antagonist. Outwardly, I suppose one could argue these similarities went beyond coincidence and it's conceivable one show may have lifted from the other. At the same time though, and as I said I’m going from memory here, watching B5 I never got the feeling I was watching something that seemed overly familiar as you would expect in watching a show that has a carbon copy out there. Babylon 5 seemed to be it’s own unique show, with its own unique feel, or course being a sci-fi space show there were those cliche sci-fi meme’s, but not even our beloved Star Trek, or Star Wars didn’t escaped those.

With that said though in writing this I have had the chance to consult with many fans of one and/or both shows on their opinions and have actually had the chance to get some interesting details. As to whether or not they sway the copycat argument or not, I leave that up to you. The general consensus is that both shows are very similar in concept, but after that each show is genuinely unique. DS9 towed the Star Trek line keeping up with the franchises, and Roddenberry’s concept of a better mankind, and how we come to deal with the galaxy. B5 on the other hand is darker, and a bit more adult (and I don’t mean in the bow-chikka-wow-wow sense) in the fact that the stories were a bit deeper, and a little darker, and grittier. But the interesting part is that in the process of writing B5 the storylines and arc, were all carefully crafted before the series was made, and even a general multi-season arc was pretty well established. With that said and with some of what Mr. Britt mentioned in his article it seems plausible that DS9 in its first few seasons could have easily borrowed from B5, altering some of its general plot to the Star Trek universe.

So What Actually Happened?

To be honest there are a lot of consequences, but at the same time though there are many contrasts. One big thing that must be pointed out are the shows namesakes Deep Space Nine, and Babylon 5, two space stations with two separate identities. DS9 can be compared to a frontier fort that the British and French, or British and American Colonialists would have fought to control, since it guarded the mouth of a river, or some other strategic point. As to where Babylon 5 was constructed for the sole purpose of being an interstellar U.N. Building, or something very similar to Mass Effect’s “Citidel”. By their essence both space stations give each show a completely different feel, and plot direction, and change the motivations of their chief characters.

Could there have been “shared ideas” between both shows that made them similar at times? The answer is, Yes! Do I believe there were idea and plot stealing spies lurking within each show, No. When we boil it down we see that DS9 lived for 7 seasons, while B5 only went on for 5 and in that combined 12 seasons both series went completely different directions. DS9’s general direction was guided by its adherence to the Star Trek universe and its principals, as to where B5 was not bound by the rigidities of a pre-established universe and could move in whatever direction it’s writers felt compelled to take it. DS9 would end it’s seventh season helping to add to the Star Trek universe, and with plot points that would appear again in the Star Trek universe. B5 on the other hand would end as freely and retrospectively as it began.

To be honest I think we’ll have to chalk the real truth of the great Babylon 5 vs Deep Space Nine controversy, to being one last great mystery and debate among the fans of both shows for years to come.