The Ill Communication

MS Home - Microsoft Return of Arcade

September 8, 2016 | 21:17 | Written by: snake911

You don’t really see retro compilations anymore due to the current era of online gaming markets.  Why bother putting out a package of old games when you can release just one retro game and charge a higher price for it?  Nostalgia for older games is now bigger than ever and game companies know this, so they stick it to us consumers by making us buy each game from the, say, Resident Evil series one at a time rather than one bundle brimming with content.  Sure, this is the norm now, but it was a completely different story ten plus years ago when we were buried in classic compilations.

It seems like the idea of bundling older games together mainly got its start during the early days of the CD-ROM being used for gaming.  This may have stemmed from the fact that storage space was no longer a concern when compared to cartridges where you needed to add more memory chips if more space was required.  Either that or the idea of retro gaming began in the early '90s.  In either case, using cartages wasn’t completely out of the question, or say a floppy disk in Microsoft’s case.

Yep, Microsoft also got into the business of repackaging old games together for modern platforms, and for them it was for their latest operating system, Windows 3.1.  Released in 1993, Microsoft Arcade gets you a 5 in 1 set from Atari’s archive of arcade classics.  With it comes: Asteroids, Battlezone, Centipede, Missile Command, and Tempest.  They would do this again in 1996 with a follow-up called Microsoft Return of Arcade, but this time with games coming from Namco.

For reasons unknown, they were still using floppies for Return of Arcade for Windows 95 in 1996.  By this time you’d think they would have completely moved over to CDs.  So instead, spread across three 1.44MB floppies you get four of Namco’s arcade games: Dig Dug, Galaxian, Pac-Man, and Pole Position.  The odd thing about these games from Microsoft, though, is that they are not within a game itself.  Rather than launching a game and then selecting one of the retro games from a menu, they are accessed from the Start menu itself.  My guess would be they wanted these to be "desktop" type games to keep you in Windows without the need to leave the taskbar and filesystem interface behind.  Probably so you can easily play while working at your cubicle ;-)

These ports look and sound very similar to their arcade counterparts, but they are not emulated versions of the arcade originals.  Microsoft built these games with their own development team to have them run on their OS.  It may be hard to notice at first, but eventually you’ll see subtle differences like instructions telling the player to "Press F2 to play" found in Pac-Man or where the attract screen for Galaxian does not have the number of credits displayed at the bottom-left corner of the screen.

Minor differences like those aside, these are practically arcade perfect ports; much better when compared to compilations found on the Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo.  For starters, they keep the screen orientations the same as the arcade so nothing is squished or stretched.  Take Pac-Man and Galaxian for example with their vertical screens.  Since these games are running in a window inside of a computer rather than on a traditional 4:3 television screen, this can easily be accomplished.  Sure you can change it so the game is full screen, but vertical bars will fill both sides of the monitor with a patterned "Return of Arcade" logo plastered across them.  But when it comes to Pole Position you get a boxed 4:3 window that is similar to its arcade version.

With these games having simple controls, the keyboard is a great substitute for the joystick and button.  All five of them use the arrow keys for moving your character while using the spacebar for attacks.  For Pole Position the mouse can be used as a secondary control scheme by moving the mouse left and right for steering, shift gears by clicking the right mouse button, and accelerate with the left mouse button.  This is the preferred way as turning can be applied gradually instead of it being a binary command of either turning or not turning with the arrow keys.

Alternatively there’s the option of changing what keys on the keyboard to play with, allowing for some customization.  But if the keyboard is not your fancy, then plug in your favorite joystick into the computer and you’re good to go.  However, since ROA came out in 1996 you may need to use a joystick with a serial connection along with the drivers for it.  No plug-and-play USB voodoo magic here!

What’s really cool is them mimicking the DIP switch settings found in the arcade versions.  In case you don’t know, DIP switches are chips with tiny physical switches on them that are soldered onto circuit boards, allowing the operator to make minor changes in how the software works.  For arcade games, you can have a switch determine how many lives a player can have per play, say 3 or 5 for example, or how many points are needed for a 1up.  It’s little things like these that make Return of Arcade so awesome.

Acting as the sprinkles to this compilation sundae are the inclusion of short write-ups for each of the games.  In the Help menu there is a selection labeled "History of the Game" which is broken down into a few sections where they interviewed the Director from the National Video Game and Coin-Op Museum in St. Louis about the title in question.  In addition, Namco throws a little fun fact about their products, describing what occurred around the time the game was in development.  If you want to read these write-ups, I’ll include links to them at the bottom of this post.

The better version of ROA came out a few years later in 2000 when they included Ms. Pac-Man to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Pac-Man, bringing the number of games in the package to five.  Thankfully this version was on CD instead of floppies and contains a menu to select games from.  Ms. Pac-Man looks to be the only one in the batch to be running on an emulator, but the rest play the same as in the 1996 version.

Return of Arcade brought a little more fun to the Windows desktop, adding alternatives to other quick play games like Minesweeper, Solitaire, or SkiFree.  And as a tip: pressing the [Esc] key on the keyboard will pause the game and minimize the window to the taskbar.  You know, just in case your boss happens to be passing by your desk!

Dig Dug
Pole Position

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An assessment of 'Hell or High Water'

September 6, 2016 | 22:54 | Written by: snake911

Taking a left turn in my normal movie watching habits, I steered away from seeing any big blockbuster movies with superheroes in them this Labor Day weekend.  Instead I went and saw a more down to earth film dealing with harsh realities of modern living and coming up with ways to resolve them.  Good times, am I right?

With Hell or High Water, we have a present day western that takes place in the rural, open plains of West Texas.  With it, we get your cliché of gun fights, standoffs, running from the law, dusty trails, and cowboys; however, it’s not your typical run of the mill western as this story has a more personal connection.  Maybe it’s due to the fact that many can relate to the hardships everyone is facing in the region where the movie takes place, where finding ways to make ends meet is becoming increasing difficult to achieve.

We follow two brothers on a path of robbing numerous banks throughout Western Texas.  Toby, the younger brother, along with his older brother, Tanner, who recently got released from prison, create enough of a stink to get the Texas Rangers involved to investigate the string of robberies they’ve committed.  This is when Marcus Hamilton (played by Jeff Bridges), a surely and racist elder of the force near retirement, and his slightly younger partner, Alberto Parker, enter the scene.

The movie primarily focuses on the brothers, showing even though there attitudes and ways of thinking are different and get them to disagree on a lot of matters, they stick together through thick, through thin, and through extremely thick situations.  Same goes for the Rangers, but there’s is more about partners that are forced to work with one another when bigotry is causing a rift in the relationship.  They like each other, but with Marcus’s outdated ways of thinking -- which acts as the sourness that exists between them -- it sometimes can be an emotional toll for Alberto.

But when it comes to the brothers struggling financial situation, they are not alone.  They just acted out on the frustration.  Everywhere the movie takes us, everyone is living a poverty-like life.  Mid-to-small farms and ranches just don’t bring enough money to live a comfortable lifestyle.  All are struggling with their careers to make just enough to put food on the table, or to keep a roof over their children’s head.  All along the highways are billboards showing sanctuary in getting quick loans, obviously with high interest rates, and thus keeping the cycle of poverty in motion, preventing anyone from escaping the rising cost of personal debt.  In the film, they relate this type of living as a disease that is inherited from generation to generation.  From grandparents, to parents, to children.

I think director David Mackenzie said it best: "good people do bad things for good reasons."  It’s hard to tell what the motivation is for the brother’s actions until later in the story, but it’s hard to justify their actions when they continue with stealing money from bank after bank.  But at the same time, it’s not shown that the banks are squeaky clean too.  Moral and ethical claims can be raised for both sides, which can be setup for the audience to root for whichever one is the lesser of two evils.

The soundtrack is very powerful and combines both a mixture of both original music which is very drama focused and string heavy, and tracks from artists that invoke the kind of music folks from southern states such as Texas and New Mexico, pulling you into the regions lifestyle and attitude.  Now I’m not one who cares for country music, but the songs they chose fit the scenes well and deserves a perfect score for the soundtrack.  Equal props go towards the cinematography for giving large sweeping shots of the beautiful open landscape of West Texas (which ironically was actually filmed in New Mexico) with tighter shots of what small towns look like that are stretched miles apart from one another and raise a feeling that time left them behind to slowly decay.  Having family in Barstow, California, which is a small town in the middle of the Mojave Desert, it rings of similarities in both aesthetics and way of life.

So to conclude, it’s a movie worth watching.  I don’t buy movies like I used to, but I’m definitely reserving a spot on the shelf for this one once it comes out on Blu-ray.  If you want to see it in theaters, you need to get there soon because the movie debuted on August 13th, nearly a month ago, so it probably has a week left before it’s pulled.

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A failed attempt to takeoff

September 2, 2016 | 20:22 | Written by: snake911

Steam sales be damned!  Normally I wait for a Steam sale to roll by to buy games, but I made an exception for one I could not wait to get my hand on.  I’m talking about Obduction!

From developer Cyan, the people who brought you the Myst series, comes back with a completely new game not seen since Myst V: End of Ages back in 2005.  On top of that, this is the first game the Miller brothers (the original creators of Myst) made a game together since Riven, which was released back in 1997.  Making this a reunion nearly 20 year in the making!

They started Obduction as a Kickstarter back in 2013.  I wanted to help with the original pledge, but at that time I was really tight on cash, so I wasn’t able to assist, so instead I decided I would just buy the game when it would be released.  Well, the time has come and I plunked down the 30 smackeroos for it and got the game.  Unfortunately for me, my computer is old and crappy.  Even on the lowest settings the game was running terribly.  Low framerate, choppy animation, high levels of graphic artifacts, and a constant crashing of my PC made it all for a terrible experience.

By the way, I’m not blaming the game.  It’s just that my PC doesn’t have the oomph to run a game like that.  So with a broken heart I requested Steam for a refund.  Which I got and was surprised what a hassle free experience it was.  Valve really knows how to give great customer service!

But what I saw, I loved.  I got about 30 minutes into the game when it started crashing on me, but within that small time, they did an awesome job at setting up the story and the world you’ll be running around in. I’m hooked and now want to play it, but I don’t have the means to play it.  My hope is they port it to the PS4 as that is the easiest solution for me.  The alternative is to buy a new computer which I can’t do for a while because I have some other big purchases I am saving up for.  Plus when you add in the holidays are right around the corner and you have a situation where you have no solution to go with for a long while.

Well, I guess this gives me time to finish up some other games I’ve been meaning to get to, so I’ll just have to play the waiting game a bit longer before I can travel back to Cyan’s latest adventure.

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Lofty comparison

August 31, 2016 | 19:33 | Written by: snake911

In relation to the Suicide Squad ramble from the previous post, I noticed the promotional material for the movie with the skulls that represent the characters from the film looks strikingly similar to a cup I have.

Let it be known that I’m the most observant human that ever lived.

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Not to be confused with the goon squad

August 29, 2016 | 20:54 | Written by: snake911

So I saw Suicide Squad and I have to say it was pretty darn good considering even after hearing mild criticism from others who saw it before I did.  I’m sure it helped in lowering my expectations a bit so to curb what I may have expected out of this movie that bundles a bunch of characters together.  Maybe those who saw it before me didn’t like it were comparing it to The Avengers movies or any of the other Marvel films that lassoes heroes together for a cause.

Actually, even I had doubts about it when I saw the first trailer earlier this year.  I heard of the comic, but only by name, and it is a cool idea of forcing a bunch of villains together to actually help out for once rather than wreaking havoc in whatever city they may be in, but there was just something that wasn’t clicking with me, so I had mild expectations when I saw the first trailer.

In the end, I was glad I saw it.  Sure, it wasn’t a perfect flick as I have some criticisms towards it, but this is also coming from someone who hasn’t read the comic, so I don’t know what changes were made when making the film adaptation.  What I can say is I’m glad the cast was a big as it was so it could soften the annoying one liners Harley Quinn was making throughout the movie.  "I'm known to be quite vexing."  "We’re bad guys.  It’s what we do."  Barf.

Overall, the production was high quality and I really liked the soundtrack that included a lot of classic rock and some club music.  But what I didn’t know going in is that there is some bleed over to what is planning to be the forming of the Justice League, so that was cool to see.

Oh, and so you know, I’m planning to go all in with DC's gathering of super heroes so I’m planning to see the upcoming Wonder Woman, Flash, and…uh…Aqua Man films.  But that last one is a tall order to make good, so I hope they are going all in with that one rather than already writing it off as the least profit earning one from this series.  Who knows, maybe everyone’s expectations will be so low for that one that it will become a mega smash hit after word spreads from friends and family about how it was better than they expected it to be and then later seeing kids everywhere no longer wearing Iron Man tee shirts but instead Aqua Man clothing.  Ha! Like that will happen.

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Take this job and shove it

August 25, 2016 | 21:54 | Written by: snake911

Work Time Fun

Ending this season of entries for the game journal, we finish things off by checking out one of the higher regarded games in my PSP library which I take no apologies in saying.  I love this game so much, but it sure doesn’t love me -- or anyone for that matter -- who plays it.

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Somewhere, Tom Kalinske is smiling

August 23, 2016 | 22:12 | Written by: snake911

Apologies for the lack of original content, but for some odd reason I caught a cold in the middle of August.  It was one of those colds that was less about symptoms and more about draining you physically and mentally to the point where you don’t want to do anything but sleep, nap, and then sleep some more.

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MS Home - Microsoft Bob

August 17, 2016 | 21:44 | Written by: snake911

For the average Joe, needing a reason to own a computer in the early 1990s was still a hard sell to come by.  Why spend thousands of dollars on an overpriced calculator that envelopes itself on your desk with all its cables and peripherals?  Why spend all of that money for typing out documents when a typewriter costs much less and its output practically the same?  Why use a spreadsheet program to calculate my personal finances when a checkbook will suffice?  It wouldn’t be until the latter half of the ‘90s for the World Wide Web to explode in popularity to be the reason to finally entice consumers to purchase a computer so they can use it as a sort of car to travel on the information superhighway.

But once average Joe did purchase and bring home a computer, Internet aside, would they actually use it?  Would it be too intimidating from the viewpoint of a user interface?  Computers in the early ‘90s may have been intuitive to use for people in their mid-twenties and younger, but for everyone else who got through life just fine without a PC, it may have been some sort of alien technology.  So to tap into that twenties and above demographic that may be indifferent to menu systems, Microsoft came up with a program that would, hopefully, ease users into working with a modern file-system interface.  The result: Microsoft Bob.

Released in 1995, Bob would do away with things like the taskbar, windows, and menu systems and instead replace them all with something every sane human should be able to comprehend: reality.  For starters, when logging into Bob (which can be setup to be used as the interface to log into the Windows OS), instead of seeing the traditional Windows 95 login window that includes a textbox for a username and a password, Bob’s interface shows a front door with a door knocker.  When you click on the knocker, it will have you choose between a number of names (which is a list of Windows user accounts on that computer) and then will ask for the password.  If successful, it's like the equivalent to unlocking the front door with a key so you can enter your home.  Hey, just like in real life!

Once inside, instead of seeing the traditional Windows desktop and taskbar, you are greeted with a room.  Yep, the primary interface of Microsoft Bob resembles that of the inside of a house.  These rooms are flat 2D images instead of polygonal 3D.  Each room is stocked with objects which you can add, delete, move, and resize to fit the needs of the room.  Some objects are functional while others are just for decorating your rad pad.

The first room you enter should be the Public Family Room.  Like folders, you can assign rooms to be public (where other Bob users can visit) or private (for your eyes only).  Rooms can be added and deleted from your home and can be different types like the kitchen, study, and garage.  There’s nothing unique about the types of rooms because any object can be placed in any room type, so having different rooms are just for visual appeal.

Customization is probably the biggest advantage that MS Bob has because you can go nuts with decorating your rooms.  By default, when you use Bob for the first time it gives you a house with a contemporary style.  But if it looks too homely for your taste, you have the option to change the style to look like a medieval castle, or a hip and trendy postmodern condo, or a good ‘ol retro style house (which reminds me of what home décor of the 1950s/60s looked like).  Best thing of all is that the options you make aren’t permeant.  If you picked the castle but changed your mind and want to go with a retro look, then with a few clicks *poof*, your home is a blast from the past suburban home.

Objects act the same way as room styles, too.  When you add a new room, default objects are also thrown in to make it look like the room has already been lived in.  A clock could be on the wall (which displays the computer’s current time), a calendar showing today’s date, a paper and pencil on the desk for the word processor, or a box of letters on an end table for the e-mail client can been seen peppered throughout the living space.  For decorative objects, you can pick from a wide variety and place them anywhere you want in a room.  The art design for objects look pretty much like clip art you’d see in Microsoft Works word processor during that time.  Objects ranged from books, boxes, cars, lamps, chairs, tables, toys, kitchenware, and plants.  Fire types could be selected too and were animated to show the flames licking within the fireplace (or anywhere since the flame objects are not constrained to just the fireplace).

Same thing goes for functional objects.  Bob comes preloaded with a few programs to assist with daily tasks.  For one, it comes with a word processor called Bob Letter Writer.  The interface for it has been simplified to where it doesn’t have the standards like a menu or tool bar.  Instead it’s a pencil with buttons placed on it that do basic things like bold, italicize, and underline; cut, copy, and paste; and align text.  The button on the eraser is the equivalent of pressing the delete key on the keyboard.  Next to the pencil are buttons for actions like printing or zooming in/out of the document.  Other Bob programs include a program to balance a checkbook, an address book, a house manager, and a financial guide.

Probably one of the more useful features is to add non-Bob programs to a room.  You can have it scan for programs in the Program Files folder and have them listed just below the ones that come with Bob.  Unfortunately the objects are just boxes with a default icon on them.  It would have been cool if they had the icon of the program blazoned on the box, but I guess even a high customization program like MS Bob has its limitations.

When in your home, take note that you’re never alone.  Someone is always stalking you, watching your every move as you go from room to room.  But don’t be scared as they are there to help you out with anything you may need.  A personal guide is always in the bottom-right corner of the screen and asks questions in word bubbles that appear above it.  By default Rover, the playful dog with yellow fur, is your companion, but you can pick from a number of guides where every one of them has a status page that include detailed information like their hobbies, birthdates, and hometowns.  What a crazy thing to have!  All of them have a number of animations and speech dialog to match their personalities.

Their heart was in the right place but Microsoft Bob was not a product consumers wanted.  Given the time of its release, either you were comfortable with navigating the interface of Windows or you just dealt with it.  Unless it was the default interface for the operating system, no one was going to use it as intended.  When I had Bob back in 1996, I just used it as a sort of doll house to design my vision of what my own place would look like.  I never actually used it as an alternative way of working with Windows.  For me it was just a toy to mess around with for about 20 minutes.

But from the ashes of Bob came a number of elements taken from it that spread across programs coming from Microsoft and stuck around for the next decade.  The biggest are the personal guides that assisted you through MS Bob.  Mainly seen in Microsoft Office products such as Word and Excel -- which includes the famously known guide as the paper clip who everyone loved to hate -- Clippy would be the most memorable thing to come of the office assistance feature.  The office guides would be streamlined by placing them into Microsoft Agent, a piece of software that would be compatible with Microsoft applications as far as being included with Windows Vista and supported up to Windows 7.  Related to the guides, Rover would be seen in Windows XP’s search window.

So seen as a failure and ending with a wet thud, MS Bob was quickly put to pasture and was never given a second chance for revival.  Most tech sites today label MS Bob as a dismal failure when it comes to software, but at the same time it seems to have high a curiosity factor as people find copies of it and post videos of it online and write about it from time to time.  In fact, you’re reading one right now!

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