What’s Up? (6/18/17)

South Side Run
Panther Hallow. Junction Hollow. Eliza Furnace. Three Rivers Heritage. Hot Metal Bridge.

Two weekends in a row this is the new path I’ve been running, and it’s hard, tiring, and incredibly rewarding. Last Sunday, (6/11/17) I ran to South Side, probably 4ish miles, and snacked up at Crazy Mocha, grabbing a banana and monkey mocha before going on another run which added a little over 1 mile. Ran all the way out to the 10th street bridge! I also made stops to an H&M that was sadly going out of business, and the Hofbrauhaus which opens its doors at 12PM on Sundays. After a significant amount of running and sweating, let me tell you, some beer and pretzels really hits the spot.

This Saturday (6/17/17) I repeated the first leg of the run, but this time I called it a day after getting breakfast at Crazy Mocha. I’m not going to do myself any favors if I get beer and pretzels after every 4-5 mile run.

Still, this is such a rewarding trail to take. Running the Panther Hallow Trail brings you to a small “Panther Hallow Lake” which is quaint, and you can also catch the Cathedral of Learning over in Oakland. Running all the way out to the Hot Metal Bridge is such a bigger reward though… it’s like you break out of these thin woods and BAM, there’s the Pittsburgh skyline, and you’re running over the Monongahela River. In time, I’ll make it all the way downtown on a run. That probably requires an early morning start though. You probably want to get out at sunrise before peak heat and all that.

A part of me still can’t believe this is part of who I am now. Running.

What’s Up? (5/29/17)

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2
Let’s keep it Tweet-sized.

“Did for me what Fast Five did for F&F. The family element finally works, I got emotional & I had fun. A personal adventure for the gang. 5/5”

I’m glad I saw the first one, even if I didn’t like it very much, because it set up something special in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. Instead of setting up how the team met each other (wasted time, really) you just get to jump in an enjoy their chemistry this time around. The soundtrack is again used to great effect in this movie, with some songs putting butterflies in your stomach – like Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” I’d say one more thing about this movie… if the “fun” in the first one just didn’t connect in the first one, I very much actually felt the fun here.

Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks is back and I’m incredibly obsessed. It helps that “Twin Peaks: The Return” aka Season 3, is good. It’s new, shot well, and in high definition, telling an equally eerie story that continues exploring with very little in the way of retreading. I need to rewatch the original series, but a part of what I think I loved about show is its utterly realistic blend of horror, sorrow, humor and charm. “Utterly realistic?” Yeah, life does that. Life is scary and tragedy strikes, but it’s full of heartwarming characters and comforting routines like coffee and pie.

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The twenty-fourth birthday was marked by a long weekend of events. Baseball on Friday, a house party on Saturday, racing on Sunday, and here, on a Monday off from work – new Steven Universe and the start of the Stanley Cup Finals. It was a good, if crowded birthday weekend wherein you’d be forgiven for forgetting some details (absinthe was consumed, after all). Yet, one of the best moments in the last four days was simply running to the park today, listening to my funky disco playlist, and laughing as two dogs chased each other into the pond. I’m fortunate to have people to bring to PNC Park for a Mets vs. Pirates game… to invite me to a house-warming party for a night of Jackbox… to sit next to me during the Monaco Grand Prix, and drink with me while we order Domino’s… but being alone has its upsides too. It was really nice to just get some necessary things done with this day off. Maybe most important of all is just, this, talking with myself. Figuring things out.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

I’ll start with a tweet-sized summary.
 
“Saw Guardians of the Galaxy 1000 days after US release. There was a lot of hype, but in the end it felt, just okay. Points for being unique.”
 
Now let’s break that down thought by thought. Why did I wait almost three years to watch this movie? Because I didn’t see anything super appealing to me in the trailers. Chris Pratt wasn’t yet sold to me as a leading man. I did not recognize Zoe Saldana as Gamora. I had no idea who any of these people were. In the end, not great reasons to skip out on an acclaimed movie.
 
Waiting all this time had an affect on the hype factor. In three years I didn’t run into a single friend who didn’t love this thing. Over and over I had friends who couldn’t believe I didn’t see Guardians of the Galaxy. “You have to see it.” “You HAVE to.”
 
So I finally saw it, in anticipation for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 — and it’s an okay movie. A solid 3 or 4 out of 5 depending on what day you ask me. It’s unique in some of the ways Dr. Strange was unique. It plays with comic book movie expectations and tropes, while still conforming to a lot of them. The music, great! Chris Pratt, great! Another Marvel movie that ends with too many enemies on screen? Yup!
 
Now, the version of me that wants to give this movie a 3 out of 5 is the one who “hates fun.” I like my characters dialed back a little bit. Fun is good, but constant quipping is irritating. It’s a sliding bar between Batman v. Superman (no fun) and Avengers 2 (Black Widow saying “beep beep” out loud). I don’t want superhero movies to go all the way in the no fun zone, nor all the way in the everything-is-a-joke direction. There are stakes in Guardians of the Galaxy, and dark backstories, but they take a back seat to the humor. The movie was on one level, and I wanted to be on another.
 
But the part of me that want to give this a 4 out of 5 enjoyed the comradery of the Guardians. They’re a family the same way that the Fast and Furious crew became a family. I forgive the movie’s overly jokey tone for the genuine bonds presented. I am, in fact, kind of excited to see what the sequel can improve on. Lower stakes, more one-on-one fights, fewer mass armies. Please, for the MCU’s sake, please don’t make another mvoie that ends with a huge CGI army.

Thoughts on Pokemon Sun

It’s best not to try and review a game a full four months since beating it, that much is common sense. That being said, there are a lot of movies, games, and albums I said I review on this website, which I went on to never actually write. Instead of letting another small failure pile up, I thought I could spare 30 minutes of my time to send this game off into the sunset.

Released somewhere in the vicinity of Pokemon’s 20th Anniversary, Pokemon Sun and Moon represent a fairly significant shift in terms of gameplay and plot that the core games typically tackle. For nearly 20 years, almost all of my life, Pokemon games have been about leaving your Mom at home to fight 8 Gym Leaders, while occasionally battling a Rival with some character arc, a “Team” of bad guys, and the Elite Four and the Pokemon League Champion.

Now, in Sun and Moon you still do most of that stuff. You leave you Mom at home, but she has little bit more of a personality than usual, and a Meowth. You battle a Rival, but in an anti-hero way, he’s just a misunderstood well-meaning brother of one of your best friends. You fight the Elite Four in the end, but for once the games actually make becoming League Champion feel a little bit more significant.

But walking away from a formula 20 years old didn’t always pay off in ways that I had hoped. Set in the Hawaii-inspired Alola region, there are four islands to explore — none of which have any Gym Leaders on them. Instead, there are an assortment of Trials (Boss Fights) against gigantic versions of Pokemon called Totems, which unlock battles with the Island Kahuna. While the Trials were harder than your average battle against a trainer, they lacked the oomph of a Gym Leader battle. When you defeat an island’s Totem Pokemon, something’s just missing. You’re told that defeating the Totem Pokemon is this great challenge by every Trial Captain, but it’s just a Pokemon after all, so you kill it and move on and that same Captain says “Great job kid!” When you walk into a Gym, there are mentors who test you before you can reach the Gym Leader; environmental puzzles, and then some philosophical musings from the Leader before the fight. When you walk out of a Gym with a badge you feel like you’ve taken down a person of significance, earned respect, and moved closer towards the end game.

While Pokemon Sun’s pacing and sense of accomplishment felt off, thanks to the removal of the Gym system, it still earns a place in my heart for its attempt at story telling, and of course the story that naturally develops with your team. The story in Sun feels the closest that the stories in game have resemble those normally reserved for the Pokemon animated films, which is to say, characters emote and go through development arcs, which is more than most Pokemon games have tried. Some characters introduced as good guys become bad, and vice versa, which in a game made for kids is still something. Problem is, Pokemon Sun and Moon tries to do more with the story than their technology allows for, with repeated animations and dead-eyed reactions being a constant problem.

The Team

So, as per usual the best thing about Pokemon is the story that you develop with your team. Part of the reason I go out of my way to document these teams is because, while it’s fulfilling to grow your team and grow close to them, it’s a repeatable, dispensable joy. Every time you see a game through to conclusion, you’ve easily spent 50-60 hours together, and the same sense of family arises from within. As a child in the early 2000’s I enjoyed Pokemon Silver so much, but without a long-term means of documenting that play-through, it’s a very faded memory. Since then, I happen to have save files for every game I’ve played since — from taking up Emulation in High School with a copy of Pokemon Ruby, to randomized runs in College, and today — my Pokemon Sun team. Each named after a character from Tenchi-Muyo, I remember a little something about each of them. Ryoko is the first Misdreavus I caught, evolved, and brought to the end-game. Ayeka is my token poison type, and her Pokedex entry has the words “reverse harem” in them, seriously. I went back an island to catch Mihoshi, after I missed the one patch of grass where you can catch a Vulpix. Washu is the first bug type I’ve ever brought to the end game. I distinctly remember the Alolan-form evolution music that played when Ryo-Ohki evolved, and I remember when Sasami was a bright-eyed Poplio.

And when the game ended, my gothic-lolita dressed Carmine returned home, where Mom was still hanging out with Meowth, and it felt like a definitive ending.

What’s Up? (4/3/17)

Everything Old is Still Old, It Turns Out: Emulation and the Nostalgia Chase

No coincidence that the longest thing I’ve written in months, is a review and love letter about the arcade I never had, something that itched a nostalgia for something that wasn’t even a memory for me – old arcades. The nostalgia chase is something you can be constantly frustrated by, or learn to live with. I think I’ve managed it well. It comes in waves. In high school I lived and breathed chiptune music, and discovered Gameboy Emulation. I rediscovered Pokemon cards early in my college years, and I got deep into 1980’s vinyl and Nintendo 64 games in my later college years. At the start of “real life” years, I think the Nintendo 64 stuff was wearing off, though I was happy to build a solid collection there.

Here of course, it helps to have a web blog like this, with which a record (however embarrassing) of my nostalgia chases come and go. Thousands of words written about Pokemon games litter the distant past, while a few dozen about the decidedly nostalgic Vaporwave and Future Funk musical genres color the recent past. The part that becomes frustrating is wondering how in-control I really am sometimes. When I find myself playing an emulation of an 18-year-old Gameboy game, the dopamine-joy-chasing part of me is happy, while the critically thinking part is asking “this again?” But I guess, where some people have that album they listen to once a month or that movie they watch over, and over again — I have this.

Mass Effect

Something else I also can’t seem to escape, no matter how much I want, is thinking about Mass Effect. The original game instantly gripped my attention 10 years ago when I saw a best friend of mine playing it. Without really having an understanding of the worlds of Mass Effect or Star Trek, I instantly made a comparison between the two. In a way, I felt like I was being introduced to my version of Star Trek. I felt like I was there on the ground floor of a new sci-fi universe that might survive my entire life-span, much like how Star Trek was there before my birth, and will survive long after my death.

Unfortunately, its a sci-fi universe who’s best story is told between three very different games. The first of which, while it might have the best story, has the worst gameplay. The sequel, Mass Effect 2, is by far my favorite, with a darker feel, cyberpunk vibes, and the best characters. The downside of this being the best game? I’ve played for 160 hours, more or less milking it of everything it had, making replays hard to fathom. And finally, Mass Effect 3, the game with the best gameplay of the series, but an utterly disappointing story. If Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi ended with Luke Skywalker in a room with Darth Vader and three buttons, one which killed Vader, one which made Vader a good guy, and one which made Luke turn into Vader, you might start to approach what made the ending a complete fustercluck.

Upon the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda, which is for all intents and purposes, a reboot of the entire franchise, I can’t help but look back and feel stuck as a Mass Effect fan. Behind me are three games; one that kind of sucks to play, one which I’ve played to death, and one that I know ends in an incredible unsatisfactory manner. Ahead of me is a new game, that is broken, poorly received, with none of the charm that pulled me into the original. I want to traverse and experience Mass Effect again, but not with Andromeda… not until that experience doesn’t come at the cost of $60.

New Retro Arcade: Neon

New Retro Arcade: Neon (NRAN) is the type of thing you’ll either install and play for a few hours, or something you’ll go DEEP on.

What is NRAN? It’s an arcade machine emulator, with 35 empty arcade machines ready to accept ROMs, set in a neon-80’s/90’s arcade that’s probably way cooler than (but just as filthy as) any arcade that actually really existed. It’s basically MAME but modeled in 3D space, which I think ads to the arcade experience, but more on that later.

As you might imagine, since it’s a product for sale on Steam, NRAN doesn’t come with any actual arcade ROMs. Luckily, dozens of people have made their NRAN configurations available, and it’s really easy to end up with a fully-functioning arcade without putting any work into it. I suspect that if you’re 100% satisfied with someone else’s arcade configuration, your time with NRAN might be short lived, or at least shorter lived than my time will be. I had fun trying out games for the first time, like Final Fight, Street Fighter 2, or OutRun, but I wanted my arcade to be a collection of my favorites — not just the classics.

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The great thing about this game, and it’s dark side, is that you are the arcade manager — everything is customizable to your whim, and the moment you change one thing; one arcade machine, one poster, one VHS or cassette tape, I think you’ll be drawn down the rabbit hole.

After trying lots of arcade games for the first time I made a list of the machines I felt no love for, and was eager to replace them. I’ve mostly removed side-scrolling beat’em’ups from my arcade in favor of puzzle games like Puyo Puyo Sun and Puzzle Bobble, or Neo Geo classics like Windjammers and Neo Turf Masters. This is the easy part; with an internet full of ROM dumps you’ll have no problems finding the games you’re looking for. Problem is, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself also spending hours obtaining assets like cabinet art, and fine-tuning it in Photoshop just to make sure the texture maps onto the arcade cabinet the way you want it to. Games like Puyo Puyo never had stand-up arcade cabinet art, so I had to invent cabinet art using box art from various Puyo Puyo releases, and scans of arcade flyers advertising Puyo Puyo.

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Even if your desires are less esoteric, and you’re just hunting down the art assets for Donkey Kong, you’ll have a few steps to complete before the cabinet is perfect. You’ll want to set up the attract mode — the video that plays on the arcade cabinet before you actually interact with it and “insert coins.” Only it’s not as easy as uploading an MP4 ripped from YouTube, because you have to use video editing tools to render a 35 video  grid, which corresponds to each of your 35 arcade cabinets. Luckily, tools exist out there made just for NRAN that makes this process easier, but you’ll have to re-render the attract screens any time you introduce a new arcade machine, or rearrange the order of your arcade.

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And yeah, after spending 25+ hours customizing it, it will take on the personality of being YOUR arcade. How long you spend inside of it is completely up to your patience I suppose. I personally can spend an hour playing straight through the Puyo Puyo Sun campaign (using 40 continues, so anywhere from $10-20 in credits) or a dozen minutes playing OutRun before giving up out of frustration and taking that frustration out on a much more relaxing round of golf with Neo Turf Masters. This ability to storm off from one arcade game to the next is exactly what makes NRAN a superior arcade emulation experience than MAME. While great for video game preservation, having a list of practically all arcade games ever, MAME always felt like a clinical way to play arcade ROMs — which never bothered me with emulators for SNES or Gameboy ROMs. NRAN takes the MAME technology and brings it into this 3D space, where you can look at the cabinet art, your buttons and joystick,  and be slightly overwhelmed by the sounds of all the other machines going on in the background. When you’re tired or frustrated with one game, you can walk onto the next, or you can obsessively pump in quarters until you’ve beaten the game, all the while having a debate with yourself like “I really should turn the attract volume down on Street Fighter 2, those damn elephants are so annoying… but if that’s the way Street Fighter 2 was, I have to keep it that way.”

In New Retro Arcade: Neon nothing is easy, but everything is worth it. I might never be done fine-tuning my arcade. I’ll want all of the cassette tapes lying around to have music I want to listen to, I’ll want all of the VHS tapes in the cinema to have videos I want to watch, and I’ll want all of the posters to correspond with my personal nostalgic feelings. NRAN is so worth the effort that I put this together just in the hopes that it might reach other people who have a secret, untapped arcade curator inside them, that’s just waiting to put together their own personal arcade.

What’s Up? (2/6/17)

January 2017
I’ve been away for a month, but I’ve had things in order so I guess there wasn’t much to talk about. Coming into 2017 there were just a few things on my to-do list, and all of January was spent focusing on those things. 1) Any weight gained during the holidays has been lost, 2) I went and saw the movies I was meaning to see, La La Land, and Rogue One, and 3) I started putting myself out there again, trying to be and outward social presence.

Gaming
I’m more physically active than ever before, I’m trying to be more social as well — so explain why “Gaming” is the headline here. Well, I suppose, given that I have lost weight, and that I’m making friends outside of the “Pitt Alumni” group, it helps to have something fun and concurrent to do at home alone. Though I haven’t owned a home gaming console in years, and have stuck to a modest laptop for the better part of 5 years, I have recommitted myself to enjoying the hobby of video games more regularly. I’ve been listening to, and watching, nearly 10 hours of Giant Bomb content a week, since 2008, so I never really left the world of video games, even if I stopped playing them as much. Though that being said, I feel like I could probably go for writing a review of Pokemon Sun (2016).

KonMari
I did something very drastic this weekend. I tidied my apartment with the help of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” Now, typical home tidying would have me finding new ways to hide clutter (shove this there, hide this in the closet, kick this under the couch). I exaggerate a little, but typically that’s how I’d “clean.” With the help of a little audiobook, I discarded most of my clutter, rather than hiding it. What’s more, she helped me redefine many of my possessions as clutter.

Shirts that were going unused, or that had no longer brought me joy, were in my closet for no reason. They were clutter. I’d say my apartment has about 30% fewer clothes in it now, than it did on Friday. I have not completed my work, though you’re supposed to do it all in one fell swoop. The hardest thing to do, would be to let go of some of these books. If a book does not make me happy, then why keep it? I know this will be the hardest step, because I think having a full book shelf is what makes me happy to have a bookshelf at all.

Dry Month
There’s a theme here; less is more. Less clutter, more happiness. Less weight, more movement. Less boredom, more fun. So something I’ve been meaning to try for a while is a dry, alcohol-free, sober month. Why do that? I love cocktails, I like inebriation, I like the social aspects of it!

Well, because less is more? And to an extent, I think drinking a little less, or none at all for a whole month, will give me greater appreciation for it, and greater clarity for how I handle things like stress, and what to do when I’m bored on a weekend. It’s too late to make February my dry month, but I’m eyeballing March. 31 Days of sobriety should also lead to a massive drop in calories consumed. I’m not committing to it yet, but when I do I have to make it public; making it public makes it harder to back down from it.

That could be part of why I keep a public blog like this. A private diary has no stakes. You can confess and make promises, but it’s private, so your confessions and promises only matter as much as you care about yourself? If I tell you, anonymous internet, that I’m going to stop drinking for a month, then I’d be lying if I didn’t follow through. Here’s another public promise: This February I will be reviewing Neon Indian’s “VEGA Intl. Night School” (2015) and La Roux’s “Trouble in Paradise” (2014).