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Civic duty

November 8, 2016 | 19:27 | Written by: snake911

Welp, did my part for this election.  Casted my vote for President, city positions, and all of the state propositions.  It's about 7:30PM now and we're in the thick of vote counts, so as of right now, anything can happen!  Tomorrow will be an interesting day fo sho.

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MS Home - Microsoft Encarta 96

October 20, 2016 | 20:24 | Written by: snake911

Research.  We've all needed to do research for school related projects and it required us going out and getting as much information on the subject as possible to then write a report for.  Back in the day this mainly involved going to either the school or city library (or both) and then checking out books related to the subject.  If needed, you can use an encyclopedia as a jumping off point to gather basic information on the subject and then using that intelligence gathering as a reference for the library to then select which books you need to check out.  As an example, imagine you are in elementary school and you need to do a report on one of the planets in the solar system.  First you would reference an encyclopedia to learn basic information about the solar system to find out what planets are in it with a summary of each one.  Once you've selected a planet, you can then go to the library and checkout books related to the planet.

If you were really lucky (like me) you had an encyclopedia collection at home.  In the 90s, the biggest name in home reference materials was Encyclopaedia Britannica, who had commercials running on mostly every children's television network or programming block, convincing parents that buying their set is the most important things to a child's education.  My parents bought the whole set, and dedicated a huge chunk of the living room for the bookcase that would hold all of the books.  With it we got the primary set, the "junior" set, the desk reference set (which was comprised of a dictionary, thesaurus, and book of quotes), and the yearbooks where the previous year was summarized into its own encyclopedia book.  For us, we had years 1993 to 1997.

Microsoft, seeing an opportunity to add educational material to their library of software to be used on their operating system, decided to create a digital version of an encyclopedia collection, removing the need to have a large part of your real estate reserved for bookshelves.  For small homes or apartments, this would be a huge selling point.  So with this enters Microsoft Encarta, the digital answer to home reference materials.

The first version was released in 1993, with annual updates for the product soon to follow.  Sure, size was a positive as everything fit on to one disc, but the second advantage was having the materials come to life by means of interactive entertainment, thanks in part to the new media type: the CD-ROM.  With it, you have the ability to include not only text and images, but sound and video clips, too.  Other parts include the ability to click objects to start, stop, or loop and animated image, something along the lines of an interactive flash app.  And encapsulating it all was an interface that mimicked how navigating worked to the World Wide Web with concepts like pages and hyperlinks.  Progress kept building for a few years until we had Microsoft Encarta '96, which is what we'll be looking at today.  Why this specific one, you ask?  It's the one I used back in the day.  That's why!

The first major facelift for Encarta happened a year earlier with Encarta '95 when most of the buttons now have their own unique look, to where everything now fits the theme of an executive looking application which comprises of a creamy, tannish colored background for the content which sits on top of a black backdrop.  Gone now are the default looking grey buttons found in Windows related products, giving the software a more professional look.  Minor changes were made to the interface between '95 and '96, mainly focused on the menu strip located at the top of the window, which was fine as the previous theme fits well for a research program.

Navigation begins at the main menu where the user can search for articles in a number of ways.  The default option would be to use the Find menu where a list of every article is displayed in alphabetical order.  Typing in your subject in the above text box will change the focus of the list to your search criteria.  If you want to work backwards and just search media like images, video, and sound clips, then the Look and Listen menu item is what you want.  Encarta also includes a world map where you can click on a region to zoom in on it so it'll list things such as cities, seas, mountains, and other major points of interest.  Some would even allow you to click on a name of a city or mountain to take you to the article.

Exploring articles through different ways of categorizations help to discover new subjects.  For example, Guided Tours ropes entries together into categories and then submenus called "tours" where related articles are queued up in order and are called "stops" that are along the tour.  One category is called Role Models and its submenu has a number of tours like Young Achievers, Olympic Medalists, and Visionary Thinkers.  If you were to select the tour called Young Achievers, articles from Alexander the Great, John Kennedy, and Shaquille O'Neal would come up as stops.

The main menu includes an item called Experiment that includes interactive animations that tie closely to articles scattered throughout Encarta.  One includes learning how orbits work while another is a game on natural wonders where you're shown an image of a natural wonder and you have to click on the world map where it's located.  Even though these are games of sorts, they don't compare to the juggernaut of a game that is included in Encarta called MindMaze, where you run through a medieval castle, room by room, and answering trivia questions along the way to progress forward.

While it would have looked cool if they made MindMaze a 3D game with something like the Doom engine (or the engine used for Hover!, for that matter) they instead opted for a 2D slideshow styled look where each room is a single image that they recycle over and over again.  The characters who ask you trivia questions are static profile images with no animation to them, making the experience of crawling through the game rather dull.  The gameplay aspect comes from answering multiple choice questions with a timer – the longer it takes to answer a question, the less points you'll receive.  You advance to the next level by earning enough points or getting to a certain room in the castle.  For a personal note, I can't believe I played this game so much when we just got our family computer.  I guess I just wanted to see what the ending was going to be.  A final boss?  A door leading to the outside?  A time warp where you're cursed to playing this game forever?!  Unfortunately, I never finished the quest to find out.

The tie in for MindMaze to the encyclopedia part of Encarta was the ability to read the articles from the multiple choice answers.  Each article's page included links to other articles related to the current one.  In addition, most pages included images where if you clicked it would bring up a larger image and a caption provided at the bottom of it.  Sound files and video files used the same media player that looks similar to an early version of Microsoft Media Player.  It's simplistic, but gets the job done.

Microsoft would continue this trend by releasing annual editions of Encarta until the year 2000 when they began to split between physical distribution and online access to an Encarta website which needed a subscription to get full access to.  At this point, the Encarta product began to lose it stability as online content began to take over as a primary source of information, mainly due to the fact that it was free and easy to access from any platform (not just Windows).

Encarta would eventually be handed over to another company who would continue managing the product by adding articles and updating older ones, but by 2009, Encarta became as obsolete as their former physical competitor, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and fell to the wayside, ending both the CD/DVD version and the Encarta website.  Today, Wikipedia is the go-to de facto standard when it comes to encyclopedia standard content; and possibly even more so since some articles can be pages worth of content as opposed to just a short summary located at the corner of a page with the physical version.

Alas poor Encarta, I knew him well.

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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
Galaxian
Pac-Man
Pole Position

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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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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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