Wednesday, February 29, 2012

La Vita Portatile

Sometimes it’s difficult to articulate first impressions when it comes to technology products.  Because true innovation is rare, the gadget/gizmo in question is often an ‘upgraded’ version of an existing product that promises new features, better performance and/or different aesthetics.   A tablet computing device is certainly an innovative concept, but the exercise of comparing the first generation iPad to the second ultimately comes down to look and feel.  The iPad 2 is thinner and marginally lighter, but they both share the same length, height and screen size.  A faster processor and double the RAM make it faster, but they have identical UIs (same iOS) and app performance is only slightly better.  With so many similarities, reviewing new products is usually a subjective, personal analysis of how the device feels in your hand, how easy is it to use, what you plan to use it for, and whether you own its predecessor (or a competing product).

It was with this mentality that I approached the PlayStation Vita, Sony’s latest foray into portable gaming.  A previous owner of several handheld video game systems, I was skeptical as to whether the device could be a game-changer.  Mobile gaming has exploded in popularity over the last few years, due in large part to the proliferation of mobile devices like the Apple iPhone into the consumer space.   The battle for portable gaming supremacy has grown beyond industry stalwarts Nintendo and Sony, and both companies have taken notice.   Nintendo followed up their Nintendo DS* handheld with an upgraded 3D version, fittingly titled 3DS.  Instead of cementing their place at the top, however, a weak launch lineup and a public weary of 3D has translated to tepid sales and an aggressive price drop.  

Sony decided to forgo 3D and focus instead on better graphics and a multi-touch interface.  The result, the PlayStation Vita, has been marketed as a portable gaming powerhouse for ‘serious’ gamers intent on bringing the PS3 experience on the road with them.  Whether this strategy will encourage other people to buy remains to be seen, but it was enough for me to preorder it.  In my opinion, the PlayStation 3’s HD graphics, superb Blu-ray playback, 3D compatibility and home media capabilities make it the current pinnacle of home gaming consoles.  In fact, I like the platform so much, I bought two of them.  This was motivation enough to take a chance on the Vita.  That said, I appreciated the form and feature set of the PSP as well, but not enough for me to keep either of the two models I bought.  Long before tablets made me re-think usability, the device didn’t feel portable enough (perhaps if I had worn more cargo pants).  I liked the screen and controls, but the UMD format felt proprietary and clunky (it didn’t help the drive leeched battery life).   And once the iPhone came onto the scene, any device not sporting touch suddenly felt antiquated.

When the Vita finally arrived on my doorstep Friday, I admit tore into the box with wanton gadget lust.   Would it be a re-hash of the PSP (a.k.a. PSP Go) or something wholly original?  Would I be impressed or disappointed?  The answer, it turns out, comes down to look and feel. 

What I Like
I won’t belabor the specs of the device (see here if you’re curious); suffice to say the screen is large and gorgeous.  Blacks are sharp and color pop, without the ghosting and pixilation prevalent in earlier gaming devices.  The processor is fast enough to make navigating the WebOS-like UI a breeze, and the frame rate on the games I’ve played has been smooth.  Although I appreciate the functional XrossMediaBar menu system found on the PS3, PSP and other Sony products, it’s refreshing to see a Sony-designed interface that is intuitive and easy to use.  From a control standpoint, the buttons are smaller than a traditional PS3 controller, but the dual analog sticks are solid and the capacitive touchscreen responds well.  Overall, the device feels comfortable to hold, is easy on the eyes and performs well both launching and playing games.  I’m even impressed with the launch lineup, which includes Sony mainstays Uncharted, Wipeout and Hotshots Golf.  But does all this make it a game-changer?  Although it’s still early, I’m willing to say no. 
Is Vita the Future? Sackboy thinks so.

What I Don't Like
For one, I’m not impressed with the video, music or photo applications (rudimentary and restrictive are good adjectives).  While I don’t plan to use any with regular frequency, a revolutionary device should provide at least an attractive alternative to the features currently available on Apple and Android smartphones.    I’m also not sold on the content manager, which makes it hard to get content onto the system from other sources (e.g. PS3, PC).  The more time I spend with the device, it’s obvious it was designed as a game console first, with other media functions a distant second. 

That it succeeds at this is encouraging for the future of the device, although it will be interesting to see if the additional cost burdens of proprietary memory cards and 3G data service affect adoption rates.  The Nintendo 3DS is just now starting to pick up steam, only after cutting the MSRP by a 1/3 and releasing must-have first party titles (Mario 3DS, Mario Kart).  Playing with the Vita, it feels like what the original PlayStation portable should have been.  Is it leaps and bounds ahead of the 3DS or even the iPhone, however?  No.  Are the physical controls enough to warrant purchasing a dedicated piece of hardware (instead of simply using the iPhone)?  I would say yes, but it’s probably safe to assume not everyone would agree.

While it may not turn out to be a game-changer, the Vita sure is a cool piece of tech (or kit for you British folks).  The fact that I haven’t put it down is probably the most encouraging sign of all.  Sony has built one heck of a portable gaming device, and I have a feeling the public will take notice.

(*The various iterations of the Nintendo DS have combined for a whopping 151 million units sold, making it the most successful console in history.)

One of our two cats, Cougar, helps with the unboxing.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Phantom Actors

It's not often that I find myself on the prequel side of the Star Wars debate.  My previous post suggested I enjoy the first three films enough to see them again in theaters without hesitation.  While this is true, the music of John Williams and special effects of Industrial, Light and Magic can only get you so far in my book. The bad acting, childish overtones and convoluted plot grates on me the same way it does fans of the original trilogy.  I just have more patience for a storyteller trying to expand on a much-beloved property.  George (Lucas) often laments that people are overly critical and take these movies too seriously, and perhaps he has a point.  That said, it's not children's money that fills his billion dollar merchandising coffers; adults have a strong connection to these movies, and the Internet provides a convenient pulpit from which to express their displeasure. recently wrote a list of the (10) things that still bother fans about Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  Instead of reiterating their points (which are mostly valid in my opinion), I thought it better to distill them down into a single root cause.  Too much venom has been spewed over this film in particular to haggle over the details (a natural consequence of fan anticipation, aggressive marketing and the media making it the most- hyped movie in motion picture history). While it's easy to citizen the thinly-veiled ethnic stereotypes, questionable science (Midi-chlorians??) or even Jar Jar Binks, the most prevailing problem with Episode I is the script itself (and its interpretation by the actors). Opening a movie with a trade dispute and following up with Senate proceedings is a sure-fire way to lose half your audience (people only have two reactions to politics, divisive or dismissive).  That said, the acting chops of the people involved should have been more than enough to keep us engaged until the pod races and lightsabre duels. 

Here are four respected actors, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson, (whose resumes include Golden Globe nominations and an Oscar win), that could not get us to accept the material  and just enjoy the movie for what it is. Although Harrison Ford once quipped that Lucas has no patience for the process of acting, it's hard to blame his direction for their dry, listless performances.  If Richie Cunningham and Shirley Feeny could make it work in American Graffiti (TV veterans Ron Howard and Cindy Williams), it's reasonable to assume they could (we're talking about Oskar Schindler and Jules Winnfield here!). George Lucas relies on his actors to bring gravity and sincerity to what are basically comic/pulp stories. This is probably why he spends so much time casting his movies; a lively ensemble can strengthen even the weakest script.  Whatever chemistry Lucas saw in the casting room is obviously missing in the final product, however, and I point a firm finger at the cast.  They took the easy road and chose not to challenge George with new ideas.  Peter Jackson and the folks at Weta took an 'all-hands' approach to the Lord of the Rings material; Tolkien's stories are even more hallowed and sacred.  The script for those movies was rewritten daily to take advantage of good ideas, and the enthusiasm of the cast shows on-screen.

It looks to me like the actors were uncomfortable with a large part of the movie being shot green-screen on a sound stage, and that anxiety is prevalent in their performances, (particular Neeson's).  Although a common practice today, the films of the late 90s still benefited from elaborate set design and props.  Even Episode I has a fair amount of physical sets, and the actors seem more genuine in the scenes where they interact in them.  It's the digital effects that put the actors off, giving their performances that 'wooden' quality.  I think it's high time we place the blame where it's deserved.  While George Lucas is certainly not without fault (he wrote the script after all), the film could have been that much better if the cast took a vested interest in the creative process.   These films are not awful, they just don’t have the emotional weight to carry a questionable script.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Episode I: Dizziness & Slumber

3D Movie Swag
Opening weekend for Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace 3D has brought with it some mixed feelings about the future of the franchise. It's no secret I was brought up on the original trilogy; my closet is full of Star Wars memorabilia, including vintage toys, photographs, games, puzzles and even a 35mm film trailer. I'm not a purist, however, who has forsaken the expanded mythos and labels any of George Lucas's latest efforts stilted, forced and commercial. Although I do not share the minority opinion that the prequels are superior films, I do believe they all have the hallmarks of a good movie trilogy (e.g. compelling story arc, impressive cast, dazzling special effects, rousing musical score, etc.).  The scripts are admittedly weaker, and George's insistence to both write and direct the three films himself often translated to wooden character portrayals from actors too afraid to stray far from the complicated and uninspired dialogue*.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little confused and disappointed after I saw The Phantom Menace opening day during its initial theatrical run. That's to be expected given sixteen years of anticipation and hype.  A recent viewing of the Blu-Ray confirmed the film itself has aged well, and I relish any opportunity to see my favorite movie franchise on the big screen again.   While I'm not a big fan of post-production 3D, I knew ILM would take care with the material to make sure fans wouldn't get sick in the aisles.  I was also glad to hear the 3D re-releases would start with Episode I because the young central character and light-hearted tone arguably makes it the most accessible to children (who are really the intended audience).

It was easy to tell how excited I was when my wife and I stood in line at our local Cineplex Friday night; so excited, in fact, that I took the promotional toys and glasses from the cashier and tried to walk in without the tickets.  As we made our way to our seats, however, it became obvious that the other theater guests did not share my enthusiasm.  The people standing in line were there to see other movies, and our auditorium was small and barely half full.  Plenty of children were there, but the lack of anticipation and excitement was palatable.  The parents looked tired and restless, as if they were obligated to see the movie but certainly not happy about it.  There was no applause when the Twentieth-Century Fox horns blared, or the green Lucasfilm Ltd logo flashed across the screen. The opening story crawl was met with silence, and that silence hung like a dark cloud over the proceedings.  It was as if the children didn't know they were supposed to laugh and cheer, or perhaps they didn't feel compelled to.  Either way, the only change came when an eight year old fell asleep in our row and stared snoring (loudly) for the final 30 minutes of the movie. When the credits rolled, everyone got to their feet and shuffled out quickly, similar to the reaction that happened thirteen years ago.  Hadn't anyone seen this movie before?

Perhaps it was the 3D effects that threw everything off.  While the pod race, Lightsaber duels and final space battle looked as good as ever and benefitted from the added depth, a lot of the close-ups looked strange.  Whenever two or more characters were talking, for example, the person center stage would be more prominent than the others. George likes to crowd his frames with lots of people, so this became visually distracting over time.  Sometimes the 3D effect would be muted, almost non-existent, where-as other times there was distinguishable separation between the foreground and background.  A lot of the digital matte work looked good, but I often found myself shifting my head to change the perspective and bring the frame back in focus.  I guess this is to be expected of post-production 3D, but it made the whole affair seem forced.  While I think the team at ILM did a commendable job, the added dimension did little to add to the already impressive visuals.      

Given the weak turnout, tepid audience reaction and tacked-on feel of the visuals, the question remains how the other films will look when they are released in the next few years (particularly the final three).  The prequels' visuals were driven largely by computer animation, so my assumption is they already had the information there to understand distance, positioning and depth of field.  Because the originals were made in the time before computers took over special effects (mostly matte paintings and stop motion photography), it will be another task entirely to understand where objects are in relation to each other.  While there's no question I’ll be there to all, I'm curious if they will ultimately be able to pull it off.  Even if they do, will anyone care?  Initial numbers suggest The Phantom Menace 3D came in 3rd at the box office this weekend, similar to how Star Wars: The Clone Wars fared in August 2008.  Given the recent release of the saga on Blu-Ray, and the almost weekly showings of the movies on cable (Spike TV), perhaps the franchise has lost some of its luster.  Regardless, my only real hope is that the crowds for the other films will be more compelled to stay awake. 

*Carrie Fisher is fond of quoting Harrison's Ford line to George Lucas upon reading the script for The Empire Strikes Back: "You can write this s%&!, but you can't say it."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Stay on Target!

A few of my favorite things...
For the uninitiated, your local Target store* can be a mecca for clearance electronics, toys and video games.  Just walk in and check the end-caps of various aisles for items with a red, rectangular clearance tag.  The savings can be significant (sometimes 50% or better) and the prices trend uniformly, meaning an item priced @$3.48 at one store could be available for the same price at another.  Unfortunately, availability and location factor into it, so a high volume store with a middle/high income demographic will move more merchandise, and as a result, discount their surplus inventory less frequently.

In the deal world, this is known as YMMV - Your Mileage May Vary, and the results can be often hit or miss.  At minimum, it adds a level of excitement to the normal, mundane shopping experience (when was the last time you were excited to pick up kitty litter?).
I mention this because I had moment of weakness on Sunday night when my wife and I stopped into Target just minutes before the Super Bowl to pick up said kitty litter and a few last minute snack food items.  Target tends to discount merchandise at predictable times, often seasonally or after major holidays; it's easy to pick up old Valentine's Day candy or a snow shovel come spring. For the items I care about, however, it's harder to predict when the prices will ultimately fall.

I should have known the impending release of Star Wars Episode I: the Phantom Menace 3D would be accompanied by a boatload of new toys (the real money for the franchise has always been in merchandising). To make shelf space, Target did something they rarely do: discount Star Wars toys (heavily). I'm not exactly sure what happened after I spotted the end cap, but I do know our cart was soon full of 3 3/4" action figures.

Target is a 'big-box' retailer in the US, so it's not uncommon for toy manufacturers like Hasbro to create retail-only 'exclusives' for the chain**.  One such exclusive was the Special Action Figure Set, a box of 3 Star Wars figures with retro-styled packaging reminiscent of a similar offering by Kenner Toys in the early 80's. I've seen them on the shelf for a while now, and although I loved the classic look, I felt the asking price was a little high.  At 50% off, however, I quickly snatched them up without thinking twice, along with a handful of carded Clone Wars figures.

Now I'm faced with the dilemma over where to store them.  Since the renovation, the back wall of my closet has slots for 12" hooks to hang toys from.  It certainly looks cool, but the problem is one of real estate; I have 3 dozen figures hanging up already without an inch to spare.  Do I remove the handful of Avatar toys I bought when the movie finally left theaters?   What about the two rows of Indiana Jones figures hanging idly (check out  this fascinating article on The Robot's Pajamas for reasons why the toys didn't take off)? 

Roughly nine months ago, I scored my biggest yard sale haul to date, which in effect prompted the creation of this blog.  In the lot were 50+ carded action figures, primarily Toy Biz and MacFarlane, dating from the early to mid ‘90s.  Although I have for soft spot for Toy Biz (particularly X-Men series 1 & 2), it soon became clear I had no place to store so many toys (except maybe the attic).  Considering that a fate worth than death, I listed and sold the lot on EBay for about what I paid for it.  With only a handful of vintage and re-issued Star Wars toys left over, I felt confident there was room in the new closet to grow.

That brings us to today.  While I can't foresee selling any more Star Wars toys (I've already made that mistake three times in my life), it looks like one of the other franchises will have to give up their shelf space.  I guess I’ll caulk this up as one of the perils of collecting Star Wars merchandise; George (Lucas) will always find new ways for us to spend our hard-earned money. Once I get everything re-organized, I'll have to show you pictures of the closet.  Until then...

*I say local, but I realize this blog is available worldwide (where Targets aren't). I also want to apologize to Vermonters.

**Target may be the 'exclusive' retailer for these toys in the US, but Hasbro released them to vendors in other countries.  Here's an example of a shop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia .

Monday, February 6, 2012

More Neo Geo Nirvana

Neo-Geo MVS
Because I mentioned it on Friday, I thought it would be appropriate to post pictures of the Neo-Geo MVS arcade cabinet currently standing next to my closet.  To say it dwarves the 8x10 room that houses it would be an understatement; clearly the game's designers did not anticipate future owners would look to store it in a spare bedroom. 

For those that are curious, the model is MVS-1-25, a pretty standard two-player US jamma cabinet with a 25" monitor and a single slot MV-1F PCB board.  I won't belabor the specifics further: check out the hardMVS site for a wealth of good information on SNK cabinets, including photos, manuals, project ideas, flyers, etc.  If you're new to MVS hardware (as I was), it's best to start with the FAQ.  In the meanwhile, here's a quick rundown on the terms to know:

SNK Playmore - Japanese hardware/software Company responsible for the Neo Geo family of video game systems, including the coin-op MVS, home console AES and short-lived portables Neo Geo Pocket and Pocket Color. The initials stand for Shin Nihon Kikaku, which is Japanese for 'New Japan Project'.

PCB - Printed Circuit Board; in this case, the arcade logic board (or brain) of the cabinet.

MVS - Multi-Video System- unique to Neo Geo, this technology let arcade owners install up to six different games into one cabinet through the use of rom-based cartridge slots on the PCB.

AES - A home version of the MVS, the Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System provided users a way to play their favorite arcade games at home, albeit at a hefty price tag ($599 for the original console and $200+ per game.)  Although the system was a 24-bit graphical powerhouse with a respectable library of hits, it failed to gain traction with US consumers (likely due to cost). 

It’s interesting to note that although the ROM chips were identical, MVS and AES cartridges are not interchangeable.  This was done to prevent people from purchasing the cheaper arcade carts for use in their home systems.

JAMMA - Japan Arcade Machine Manufacturers' Association - a trade association made up of the big names in Japanese arcade entertainment (e.g. Sega, Capcom, Konami, Namco, etc.).  They developed an industry standard for wiring arcade cabinets to facillitate easy swapping of new games into old machines.

Previously, arcade components were custom-built, making it difficult to re-use cabinets if a game was unpopular. The Jamma 56-pin connector essentially made arcade machines 'plug-and-play'; simply swap the circuit board and artwork, and you would have a whole new game to entice customers.  To provide a home console analogy, this would be the equivalent of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all agreeing to use the same peripherals for their systems.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Neo-Geo Weekend

Although the traditional brick-and-mortar book store is going the way of the dodo, I still visit them once a month to grab copies of the latest British video game magazines. With overseas subscriptions costing $100 or more, it's still the only reasonable way* to snag copies of Edge or the charmingly retro Retro Gamer . My particular bookstore (which shall remain nameless, but starts with a 'B' and ends with 'arnes and Noble') is usually a month behind the current issues, so I just picked up issue 98 of Retro Gamer; to my surprise, the cover story is on the genesis of Metal Slug, SNK Playmore's 1996 run-and-gun masterpiece. 

For those that aren't familiar, 'run and gun' is shorthand for a side-scrolling, sprite-based, 2D action game (think Konami's Contra).  An offshoot of the shoot 'em up (or shmup) video game genre, run and gun games share a lot of the same characteristics with their ‘bullet hell’ brethren: an overload of on-screen enemies; linear game stages with progressively harder obstacles and bosses; power-ups that increase weapon range and resistance; a screen that scrolls (left-to-right in this case). Unlike traditional shooters, however, run and gun games feature human characters (in lieu of ships or vehicles) and include some basic platforming. 

Metal Slug is a late entry to the run and gun arena, when US arcade popularity was waning.  The focus had turned to home consoles like the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 and their rich, three-dimensional environments (e.g. Tomb Raider, Super Mario 64).  Although Metal Slug's arcade-based SNK roots ensured its initial home release would be limited to the ill-fated (and prohibitively expensive) Neo-Geo console, Metal Slug would never-the-less become a hit and eventually spawn a dozen sequels for nearly as many consoles. Itself a hybrid of the genre (sections of the game involve piloting a tank-like vehicle called a slug), Metal Slug is best known for its rich, colorful backgrounds (divided into thirds for added depth) along with excellent sound and character animations (which are over-the-top funny).

Late last year, I scored a Neo-Geo arcade machine on Craigslist (pre-loaded with Metal Slug). Along with Aero Fighters 3 (another classic shmup) and the King of Fighters series, Metal Slug is one of my all-time favorite Neo-Geo games.  In honor of the article, my plan this weekend is to dust off the old cabinet and give the game another go.  For those of you that don't have space for a full-size arcade cabinet in your house, see if you can snag a copy of SNK Arcade Classics Vol. 1 (Wii, PS2 or PSP).  You can also download the game from the Wii Virtual Console.  Either way, you won't be disappointed.
(*I know there's an iPad app available to download the digital versions of Retro Gamer and Edge at half the price, but I've yet to try it).

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Starting Over...

I feel like it’s been ages since I last ventured out to rummage for lost treasure on people’s lawns. Last year was my first devoted to yard-saling, and I’ll be the first to admit I may have spent too much time and money searching for lost items from my childhood. Such is the excitement of trying something new (and really enjoying it) that motivates you to extremes. In the end, many of the things I bought held little personal significance to me, and they quickly became fodder for Ebay. I did come across some real gems, which I now display with pride in my since renovated closet.  My only regret through it all is that I did not keep up with my posts.   It's disappointing when you find your material desire far outweighs your ambition, but I think that's a lesson everyone learns at some point.  As the tedium of research and editing proved too much, I started to stray from my blog's original purpose.  With each successive haul,the junk pile got bigger and bigger; the prospect of writing posts for all of it was overwhelming, and blogging became a casualty. 

That said, I find myself thinking about it all again.  Although it will be months before I can go yard-saling again, there has been no lull in my quest for pop culture memorabilia and Americana.  I regularly scour Ebay and Craigslist looking for deals, and although my closet is organized, the surrounding floor space is neatly piled with bric-a-brac that begs to be investigated and talked about.

With that in mind, I'd like to give this blogging thing another try.  While I can't guarantee my posts will be as researched or thorough, I'd like to ensure their frequency so you have something new to read each week. Therefore, my posts will come from my five main areas of interest: technology, video games, movies & television, sports memorabilia and 80's pop culture.  My hope is you'll find it all as interesting as I do.