Happy Father's Day!

Posted in News by on Jun 15th, 2014 11:28 AM

When I think back to my childhood, there are two things I don't remember ever not having: an Apple II, and video games. From computer games like Castle Wolfenstein and Choplifter to Atari 2600 classics such as Space Invaders and Adventure, I've always been gaming.

Having such entertainment opportunities is typical in the modern household — but thirty years ago? It was almost unheard of. Who decided I should grow up to be a gamer?

The answer is my dad — and to commemorate Father's Day, I found out what makes him the family's original gamer.

I'm so grateful my father gave me this opportunity to interview him. The subject matter may not be so serious, but it answered some questions I'd always had, like: how did we end up with a pinball table in the basement? (It was Gottlieb's Spirit of 76, if you were wondering.) Why don't you game much anymore? These questions were always in the back of my mind but never important enough to ask.

When I asked Dad if he had any specific memories of me growing up playing games, I thought he might remember how I excitedly relayed to him every plot point of the original Final Fantasy, one of my first RPGs, as I encountered them. Or how he accompanied me to the Nintendo World Championships in 1990, where I placed second for my state and age group. Instead he abstracted out the concepts of what made me unique in a family of gamers. I could never dominate an arcade machine like my brother Dave could with Q*bert and Pac-Man, but it's true that I really appreciated the context and minutia of these imaginative worlds, which I don't think I ever consciously was aware of until my dad said it on camera.

I suspect Dave is more like my father than I am in that regard. My father has always played games obsessively, fixating on a single game for years or decades before moving on. I can remember him playing only Snake Byte, Pac-Man, Centipede, Tetris, Dr. Mario, and Tetris Attack. I used Creative Commons videos or Virtual Apple II to capture demos of these games to include in the video.

So thank you, Dad, for this opportunity to remember that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Happy Father's Day!

Tech specs: this video was shot with a Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR and RØDE VideoMic mounted on a Manfrotto MA7301YB 7301YB tripod. The scene was lit with two Bescor LED-500K lights, and the footage was edited in Final Cut Pro X.

Let's Play NES Remix & NES Remix 2

Posted in Let's Play by on May 28th, 2014 10:42 AM

NES Remix arrived without fanfare in the Wii U's eShop on December 18, 2013, with a sequel quickly arriving on April 25. Each compilation features more than a dozen first-party 8-bit Nintendo games, sliced up into smaller challenges that last anywhere from two seconds to two minutes. Finish these excerpts from the original games, and you're treated to remixes that add new gameplay mechanics or which cross characters from one game with the engine of another. Play Donkey Kong as Link from The Legend of Zelda, or traipse around the Mushroom Kingdom as Metroid's Samus Aran! The mashups aren't quite as extensive as Super Mario Bros. Crossover and is more likely designed as a sales pitch for the individual games, all of which are for sale in the eShop. But for $15, each NES Remix collection provide about six hours of great gameplay and nostalgia.

NES Remix 2

How meta.


Each level grades your performance (essentially speed runs) on one to three stars, with rainbow stars for an especially swift completions. I earned three stars on every level in my Let's Play of NES Remix:

And then again in my Let's Play of NES Remix 2

There are three levels not featured in my NES Remix 2 series. A 22nd bonus stage, earned by getting 504 rainbow stars, is non-interactive, showing the ending of Super Mario Bros. 2, Dr. Mario, and Super Mario Bros. 3. There are also two additional modes I didn't demonstrate. Super Luigi Bros. is the original Super Mario Bros., except mirrored and played as Luigi instead of Mario. And Championship Mode is modeled after the 1990 Nintendo World Championships, tasking players with collecting 50 coins in Super Mario Bros. and 25 coins in Super Mario Bros. 3 before playing Dr. Mario.

Could Super NES Remix or Game Boy Remix be on the horizon?

Mountain Goats and Kaki King

Posted in News by on May 25th, 2014 12:41 PM

Fourteen years ago, I was at a resort in Australia when the most amazing instrumental piece came over the lobby speakers. I thought it too odd to ask the concierge what the song was, and I've always regretted that decision, as now I'll never know.

Since then, I've not been shy about asking store clerks unexpected questions. That includes a recent visit to Bourbon Coffee in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in which I encountered an unusual tune. The underlying jazz piano sounded like Vince Guaraldi, who's best known for the soundtrack to the Peanuts animated specials — but the lyrics, being more spoken than sung, were reminiscent of Willie Nelson. I asked the barista what we were listening to. She grabbed her co-worker's iPod Shuffle and slowly read the scrolling title: "Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle", by the the Mountain Goats and Kaki King, from their Black Pear Tree EP. It tells the perspective of Toad the Mushroom Retainer waiting for rescue in the original Super Mario Bros.

I immediately took to the song and had no trouble finding an MP3 to download from Stereogum. But, as a believer in supporting artists and respecting copyright, I prefer to purchase my music legitimately whenever possible. Unfortunately, no music vendor I investigated — iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby — listed this particular song. I left a comment on the above video asking for help and guidance.

Good samaritan Zoot Sax went out of his way to send me an email, which I quote here with his permission: "Unfortunately, the EP was only released on limited vinyl, so it is not easily obtained. I found one for sale on this website, secondhand."

My experience is that musicians who purposely make their songs difficult to purchase are doing so for collectors' benefits, giving them a rare, physical product to obtain and cherish, while expecting fans themselves to make the songs available in more accessible formats. I don't pretend to know the intention of either the Mountain Goats or Kaki King, but I do dig listening to this song, even if my turntable is on the fritz.

Thanks for the insight, Zoot Sax!

Sex, Sexy & Sexism: Fixing Gender Inequality in Gaming

Posted in News by on Apr 29th, 2014 12:25 PM

At this month's PAX East, I had the honor of being joined on stage by four industry veterans to discuss the issue of gender quality in the gaming industry: how women are represented in games, how the community behaves toward gamer girls, and how the industry treats its female colleagues. "Sex, Sexy & Sexism: Fixing Gender Inequality in Gaming" was held Sunday morning, which I expected would mean low attendance, with many PAX goers sleeping in from the Saturday night concerts and parties, or else leaving Boston early. None of us expected that we would instead fill the Dragonfly Theatre to capacity with over five hundred attendees.

Samus Aran dimensions

The change in Metroid's Samus Aran is an example of how the industry sometimes portrays women.


The topic was so large that an hour of discourse left little time for questions from the audience. But we monitored the running commentary throughout the hour using the Twitter hashtag #paxfeminism. Highlights from that stream, as well as two videos of the panel, are included in a Storify (embedded after the jump).

The panelists represented several different areas of the industry and came to me through a variety of connections. Susan Arendt is the managing editor of Joystiq.com and was on a panel I moderated at PAX East 2013. As a public figure in the gaming industry, she is exposed to far too much harassment but has never shied from speaking her mind. Arendt was on a related panel the day before, "Why it's awesome being a female in the gaming industry".

Brianna Wu is head of development at Giant Spacekat, a Boston-based indie studio; we met at a Can't Stop the Serenity movie outing I organized last summer. I realized she was more than just a Browncoat when I read her article, "Badass Girls Need Not Apply", and its
follow-up
.

Duane deFour is an activist in violence prevention and response; not only does he blog about gender in video games, but we have day jobs together at MIT Medical.

Finally, Tifa Robles is the founder of the Lady Planeswalker Society, an organization for women to learn and play Magic: The Gathering. She came recommended to me through the GaymerX2 convention, whose Kickstarter I backed, and I got to attend her related panel, Creating Diversity Playgroups.

paxfeminism Twitter handles

Reach out to us, during or after the panel!


And then there was me. As the only white male on the panel, I've experienced none of the harassment the other panelists have; to that end, I felt at best unqualified, at worst hypocritical in addressing this matter. But the diverse makeup of the speakers was well-received by the audience, underscoring that harassment and exclusion is an issue men and women need to work together to solve.

Given that positive reception, I asked a colleague if I have the experience or education to consider myself a feminist. She put it simply: "If you believe that women are men's equals, then congrats, you are a feminist." But she cautioned: "Feminism is something that's done daily, not just once."

The dialogue on feminism in gaming didn't start at PAX East, and it won't end there, either. But I hope to continue doing my part to further the discussion, with help from brave and outspoken individuals such as those on the panel and in the audience.

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PAX East 2014 photos & cosplay

Posted in News by on Apr 14th, 2014 9:37 PM

It's the first day after PAX East 2014, and I'm still in recovery mode. Joining 80,000 gamers in a celebration of games, cosplay, tournaments, panels, exhibits, and contests across cutting-edge and retro desktops, tablets, consoles, handhelds, and coin-ops is more fun than anyone has a right to enjoy.

As always, I spent less time playing games than I did listening to people talk about them, enjoying several of the panels on the schedule. Despite the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center's size, panels still filled to capacity, requiring queuing in line anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours in advance. My own panel on feminism in gaming had an amazing turnout; more on that in a later blog post.

Whether you were conferencing or competing, cosplayers exhibited their amazing costumes throughout the weekend. Lucca Ashtear from Chrono Trigger won the S2 Games cosplay contest promoting their Strife MOBA. Meanwhile, BioWare had their own Mass Effect cosplay catwalk, at which Emma Bell as Aria T'Loak the Asari absolutely blew me away with an outfit that took five hours to put on. Other awesome cosplay spotted on the show floor included Fix-It Felix Jr. and Wreck-It Ralph; TMNT's April O'Neil; King Hippo from Mike Tyson's Punch Out; Mega Man; Earthworm Jim; Street Fighter's Cammy; Kid Icarus; GLaDOS; Zelda's Twilight Princess, Midna; and Ruby from Rooster Teeth's RWBY.

Here are some photos capturing the weekend. If you missed PAX East, you can look forward to PAX Prime in Seattle, Aug 30–Sep 2; PAX Australia in Melbourne, Oct 31–Nov 2; or — new this year — PAX South in San Antonio, Jan 23–25.

PAX East 2014

Photos from the fifth annual Penny Arcade Expo East, held at the BCEC in Boston, Apr 11-13, 2014.

45 Photos

PAX East 2014 Cosplay

Cosplayers, or gamers dressed in costume, at the fourth annual Penny Arcade Expo East, held at the BCEC in Boston, Apr 11-13, 2014.

32 Photos

Let's Play Cloud Breaker

Posted in Let's Play by on Mar 4th, 2014 1:43 PM

I'm primarily a console gamer, but I tried something different this week when I played Cloud Breaker, a color-matching puzzle game for mobile devices. I first encountered this game at BostonFIG 2013; it was released today for iOS and comes out in May for Android.

Developer Axis Sivitz provided me with an advance copy of the iOS game, from which I put together this first-look video:

Cloud Breaker is one of the few mobile games I've found myself playing when I have a minute to spare during my daily public transit commute. The game is free but with a self-replenishing number of plays per sitting. I haven't yet needed to plunk down $2.99 to remove this restriction, though I'd pay that and more for a stage select — I can rarely start from the beginning and get to where I last left off in the short time before my train arrives!

To record this video, I used a 5th-generation iPod Touch, an Elgato Game Capture HD, and an Apple Lightning Digital AV adapter. Thanks to Touch Arcade for their tutorial!

Announcing "Sex, Sexy & Sexism" panel at PAX East 2014

Posted in News by on Feb 21st, 2014 3:11 PM

Transcript follows:

The fifth annual PAX East is occurring in Boston, April 11th–13th, 2014. Since I live just outside of Boston, this will be my fifth time attending. I really look forward to the games, to the cosplay, and especially the panels—and I'm thrilled to announce that this year, I'm going to be moderating a panel.

I'm a big fan of the work of Anita Sarkeesian and her YouTube channel Feminist Frequency. I think there are a lot of areas of society where gender equality still hasn't been realized. Anita's doing a lot to bring awareness to that topic in the video game industry—and I want to help!

That's why at PAX East, I'm going to be moderating a panel called "Sex, Sexy & Sexism: Fixing Gender Inequality in Gaming". I've assembled an all-star cast for this panel. I'm going to be speaking with Susan Arendt, managing editor of Joystiq.com; Brianna Wu, head of development at Giant Spacekat, an indie development studio right here in Boston; Tifa Robles of the Lady Planeswalker Society; and Duane de Four, activist and advocate with HowManly.com.

We're going to be talking about how women are represented — or potentially misrepresented — in gaming and what the consequences of that are. What impact does it have on us as gamers, and what benefits are we not reaping from more gender equality in gaming—not only within the games, but also in the industry, where most of the game developers are still guys.

The creators of PAX have caused some controversy in the past with statements that they've made that make PAX a potentially unsafe or unwelcoming environment for certain groups. I think that makes PAX the perfect stage on which to have a dialogue on those very issues.

So I hope you'll come by. If you are not already registered for PAX, then this video is sort of a tease, because the event sold out within an hour of tickets going on sale—I'm sorry! But if you are registered for PAX East, please stop by the Dragonfly Theatre on the morning of Sunday, April 13th at 11:30 AM and engage with us in this very important discussion. After the panel is over, hang around and say hello—I'd love to meet fellow YouTube users! So if you're coming to PAX East, I look forward to meeting you there, and I will see you in Boston.

[Special thanks to Anita Sarkeesian, Maddy Myers, Andy Molloy, T.J. Awrey, Monica Castillo, and Rosie Huntress for their help assembling this panel!]

Let's Play Contra III: The Alien Wars

Posted in Let's Play by on Feb 5th, 2014 10:24 AM

Contra III: The Alien Wars, originally released by Konami for the Super Nintendo in 1992, came out for the Wii U Virtual Console back in November. Having downloaded this title to my Wii, I immediately paid the nominal fee to upgrade to the Wii U version. Since this is a game that can be finished in just half an hour, I thought it'd be a welcome diversion from my multi-video Let's Play series. Here is my complete playthrough of Contra III:

It seems the audio levels I use for Mario games could use some tweaking here, as it's a bit hard to hear me at times. Should I also have cropped it to a 4:3 ratio? It's formatted correctly in the embedded video, but in the YouTube player, it sports vertical letterboxing.

Here are screenshots of the end-of-levels artwork, as well as a promised wallpaper piece:

MAGFest 12: A festival by and for gamers

Posted in News by on Jan 12th, 2014 9:57 PM

MAGFest — originally the Maryland-Area Gamers Festival, now the Music and Gaming Festival — celebrated its 12th annual gaming convention this month. As a veteran of E3 and PAX East, I decided to attend my first MAGFest in 2014. The show started on Thursday, but as I was flying solo and unlikely to have as much fun as I do when I have my crew with me, I scheduled my arrival for late Friday, giving me that evening, all of Saturday, and the half of Sunday that is the closing hours of MAGFest. Unfortunately, a New England nor'easter delayed my flight by 12 hours, not getting me to my hotel until 2:30 AM Saturday.

Even at that hour, I could tell I'd arrived in the right place: both within and without the hotel lobby, dozens of colorfully clad conventioneers and cosplayers were keeping the place alive. I grinned to know I was among my people, then headed to my hotel room to crash before an early morning.

The first panel was "Movie Production 101", co-hosted by James Rolfe, aka the Angry Video Game Nerd (AVGN). His co-host didn't introduce himself until several minutes into the panel and proceeded to do most of the talking, which was disappointing — but more surprising was that only a few dozen people were in the audience. I'd read that MAGFest had grown from only 300 attendees in its first year to 12,000 in 2014 — so where was everyone?

The answer could be found in my arrival the night before. This is a late-night crowd, and 10 AM was far too early for anyone to have crawled out of bed yet. When Rolfe hosted his second panel at 5 PM later that day, it was standing room only, with hundreds of people in attendance. I tried to get into Jon St. John's panel at midnight that night, and the line wrapped around the block. Prepare to shift your circadian rhythm if you want to get the full measure of MAGFest.

Next I enjoyed a presentation by Hank Chien, the current Donkey Kong world record holder. Chien emerged on the scene after the infamous rivalry between Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe was portrayed in the film King of Kong. Deciding being a successful New York City plastic surgeon wasn't challenging enough, he took up Donkey Kong and blew everyone away. Chien described his experience coming into this hobby, where and how he practiced, the strategies he used, how the press responded to his victory, and his appearances at Denver's three annual Kong-Off, most recently in November 2013.

During the Q&A, I asked Chien if he were to pursue a record in another game, what game would it be? He didn't envision himself playing anything else, but he admitted to enjoying Centipede, though he said he'd never be as good as current record holder Donald Hayes, whom I met at PAX East 2011. I chatted with Chien after the panel, getting his autograph for myself and for my friends who host the No Quarter podcast.


The next panel was shockingly fun. Voice actors Ellen McLain (Portal's GLaDOS), Jon St. John (Duke Nukem), John Patrick Lowrie (Team Fotress 2's Sniper), Matt Mercer (Resident Evil 6's Leon Kennedy), and Wes Johnson (various characters in Skyrim) told stories, took questions from the audience, read lines in various voices, and prank-called attendees' friends. I don't know what I was expecting, but I was laughing my head off. The panel went for two hours, but I had scheduled lunch with a local friend and had to leave the panel after the first hour. I thought I would've had my fill by then; I was wrong! I tried to catch these voice actors later at their autograph table — where, unlike Hollywood actors, they were't charging for their signatures — but the line was ridiculously long, and I didn't see that they were handing out glossies to autograph, and I hadn't brought anything else for them to sign.

I stopped into the AVGN's next session, but it consisted almost solely of Q&A, and the audience had no microphones. Rolfe heard the questions but didn't repeat them into his microphone, so I only ever heard half of each conversation. But just from that I could tell that Rolfe works best off a script, as he does in his game reviews; he's almost adorably awkward otherwise. I saw some footage of his upcoming feature-length film then cut out.

The next panel was "Promoting Good Gaming Community", which was once my responsibility as a CompuServe sysop in the Video Gaming Central forum. Communities still exist today in message boards but also in clans, guilds, and even Xbox Live Parties, and I enjoyed hearing the various methods moderators and community members can use to bring the quality of discourse up. I was pleasantly surprised to find Bob "Moviebob" Chipman on the panel — our paths hadn't crossed since dinner with Anita Sarkeesian two months ago to the day. He espoused Wheaton's Law and the value of shaming other people in the community but later clarified that shame is a tool best used by peers, never by those in power.

That was the end of my Saturday panels. I finished by entering a Retro Gaming Gauntlet video game competition of 8-bit NES games (via emulation), which held several surprises. Eighteen of us went up against Mike Tyson in the original Punch-Out!, and he downed many of us, including myself, in 18 seconds. Only one person lasted the entire first round. The next two games, I'd never played: Zombie Nation and North and South, both of which I quickly mastered. But after three rounds, the organizers culled anyone not in the top four, and my disappointing performance against Tyson eliminated me. I didn't stick around to see what games the finalists played. The Nintendo World Championships, this was not.

There was time for only two panels on Sunday before MAGFest was over, and maybe it was because I'd finally gotten a decent night's sleep, but I enjoyed these panels perhaps the most of any. Derek Alexander, aka the Happy Video Game Nerd, showed us how not to shoot a video game review. Now 29, Alexander showed us one of his first YouTube videos, a review of Splatterhouse, published in 2007, and paused it every few moments to criticize every aspect of it: his script, his set, his editing. I myself find anything I wrote more than five years ago to be crap, so I can appreciate how cringe-inducing this experience must've been for Alexander. I'd never seen any of his videos before, but his self-effacing humor and enthusiasm for the subject — as well as his encouragement for anyone who has ADD or ADHD as he does to get on medication — made me a fan.

Finally, I attended "Paging Dr. Mario: An Intensive Care Plan for the Wii U". The intended moderator was Chris Melissinos, curator of The Art of Video Games, but he called in sick, leaving panelist Joshua Lynsen to step up to the plate. He took the unusual approach of stepping into the aisle to address the panelists head-on. I was a bit distracted, as I occasionally left to attend Al Lowe's panel on the history of the Leisure Suit Larry franchise, but I enjoyed hearing from Lynsen's panel the enthusiasm for Nintendo's consoles and the confidence in Nintendo's ability to dominate the handheld space, even in the face of competition from smartphone devices. An actual checklist for what Nintendo can fix, though, I did not walk away with.

In between all these panels, I had plenty of time to explore the vendor space and arcade. Dozens of indie shops were selling used games, original art, posters, figurines, books, dice, and more. I desperately wanted to expunge all my cash on the awesome artwork and knick-knacks, but every time I stopped myself and asked, "What would I do with it?" That question guided me to buy Moviebob's book, Super Mario Bros. 3: Brick by Brick, from the Fangamer table, though absent from the table was Fangamer founder Reid Young, whom I'd interviewed a year earlier. The last day of MAGFest, I picked up some chiptune CDs at 50% off. That's all the swag I went home with.

The arcade consisted of far more coin-ops than I expected to find. A few were donated by the American Classic Arcade Museum of Laconia, New Hampshire, but others were on loan from local collectors. From classic uprights to rare cocktail tables to Japanese-style sit-downs, everything was available — even three Apple II computers, a Commodore 64, and an Atari 800. All the games were set to freeplay, an the arcade was open all day and night, accommodating gamers of any schedule and temperament.

Something noticeably absent from the "show floor" was any sort of developer or publisher space. There were no booths for Nintendo, Capcom, or Electronic Arts; and unlike at BostonFIG, where indies had a massive hall all to themselves, here they were crammed into a corner of the arcade. That's no oversight, as it's written right into MAGFest's charter:

There are no corporate sponsors, no over-crowded showfloors, and no top-secret-behind-closed-doors showings. MAGFest is built from the ground up to be a party-like atmosphere with focus on community and fan creations, which creates an environment that no other expo or convention can ever recreate.

MAGFest truly is a festival by gamers, for gamers, and no one else.

Despite music being right in the festival's name, I did not attend any concerts other than impromptu ones in the hotel's hallways. Most concerts tend to be at a decibel level that leaves me uncomfortable, and I've never found myself engaged in the mob mentality that makes such crowds enjoyable.

MAGFest is a smaller event than PAX East and one with a much different vibe. Most goers stay right at the hotel where the festival is held, allowing them to stay up all night without worrying about catching a subway or taxi home. Unlike a convention center, hotels are open 24/7, dramatically shifting the hours at which popular events can be held. At "just" 12,000 people, it's less claustrophobic and easy to bump into the same people over the course of the weekend. Tickets do not sell out and are in fact sold right at the door. There's no emotional baggage or conflict of morals over attendance. I wonder if this isn't how PAX began in 2004.

For these reasons and more, I enjoyed my time at MAGFest 2014, but I don't know that I would go again. As a Boston resident, there is no convention easier or more affordable for me to attend than PAX East. Although that event is much larger and potentially more difficult to navigate, it also offers almost everything MAGFest does and more. Only at one point in MAGFest were there two simultaneous sessions that interested me; that conflict is an hourly occurrence at PAX East, which offers an embarrassment of riches. With more professional networking opportunities, PAX East's demographic skews a bit older compared to MAGFest, where I often felt the oldest person in the room (despite being just shy of the average gamer's age of 35). PAX East and MAGFest also occur only 2–3 months apart, which is more often than I need my gaming community fix.

But depending on your preferred convention size and camaraderie, MAGFest could be exactly what you're looking for. I have nothing but good to say about MAGFest and recommend to any and all gamers.

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PS4 FAQ: Top 10 most frequently asked questions

Posted in News by on Dec 16th, 2013 5:56 PM

With my PlayStation 4 unboxing video accruing five times as many views as the Xbox One unboxing in a similar timeframe, one interpretation is that gamers are far more interested in the Sony's console than in Microsoft's. But discriminating shoppers want to know more than just what's in the box. To help you make a better purchasing decision, here are my answers to the top ten most frequently asked questions about the PS4.

Xbox One first impressions with Lon Seidman

Posted in News by on Nov 27th, 2013 5:33 PM

Last week, I unboxed the Xbox One Day One edition. This week, I shared my first impressions of the console with Lon Seidman on his YouTube show, Lon Reviews Tech. Lon, fellow gamer James Brainerd, and I reviewed the hardware, controller, and user interface while Lon played some Dead Rising 3 and Killer Instinct. The show was streamed live this past Monday, November 25, and is now available on YouTube:

I unfortunately lack the sophisticated A/V setup the show's host has, but the show's amazing production values more than made up for my amateur equipment.

I originally met Lon through our other mutual hobby, the Apple II computer. Back in June, Lon was a guest on my monthly podcast, Open Apple. It was great to be able to collaborate with him again!