Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sofia the Second

So, this is Sofia the First:

And cultured video game players know that this is Sofia III:

So one might reasonably ask, who is Sofia the Second? There's no obvious transition between those. But fortunately my son had an answer: she must be a cyborg. My daughter has illustrated it for us.

You're welcome, world.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Trump's "immigration" ban

I don't normally post a lot on current events (like on Facebook) because I feel like I'm preaching to the choir, given my limited number of contacts. But Trump's ban on people coming into the country from a set of supposedly-dangerous countries keeps coming up. And I made the mistake of reading comments on an article my sister posted. So now I have to yell some stuff to the universe.

First of all, the ban is not protecting anyone. Visa applicants were already being vetted. And there's no evidence that terrorists are leaking through from these countries. Most of the violence in America is caused by Americans. At best, we are inconveniencing innocent people and embarrassing our country. And it's not just inconvenience. Families are being kept apart. Our country has made a commitment to people and then just backed out on it without warning.

Of course, there's also the incompetence of how things have been handled. (Not communicating implementation details, no warning, etc.) But since the whole thing is ill-conceived to begin with, I'll move on. There's also the political agenda. Why not Saudi Arabia? Why not France? But again, the main problem isn't really how you came up with the list.

One thing that really set me off is the repeated comment I've heard that it's "only temporary". Come on. The internment camps in Wold War 2 were only temporary. They were also a blatant violation of people's basic rights. That event happened because people were afraid of what so-called "outsiders" might do, just like the sentiment now. I don't think those internment camps actually protected anyone - those people were American citizens and no less likely to be violent than any other citizen. But even if there was a spy locked up somewhere, it still wouldn't justify the camps, because a threat from a bad person is not an excuse to violate the rights of an innocent person.

And that's the key issue here, I think. Sure, the people involved aren't American citizens, and the magnitude of what's happening is less than in the internment camp example. But I really think the principle is the same: People are scared, and they want someone to hate. They think that if they can just push some people away, they'll feel safer. But by doing that based on where you were born - not what you've done or even what you think - the country is pretty much abandoning the whole created-equal thing. And I can't believe how many people are going along with it.

We are not safer as a result of this. But even if we were, it's an embarrassment to the country.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Mario Maker

I got Mario Maker for my birthday. (The 3DS version.) I was a little put off by the fact that you can't search for levels by ID or publish levels online like the Wii U version, but the fact that it comes preloaded with 100 levels from Nintendo means that it's essentially an entire game's worth even without the make-your-own-level stuff, so I figured it was worth it.

The Course Challenge (comprising those 100 levels) is definitely awesome. The levels are creative, and most of them aren't that hard to beat, but each one has two challenges, like defeating all of certain kind of enemy, or collecting all the coins, or sometimes some pretty obscure stuff like never pressing the jump button. Some of them are super hard, but I finished with like 85 lives left, so I can't really complain about those.

The course designing stuff is great too. I don't have tons of ideas bursting to come out, but I have designed a couple of levels that I'm very proud of (and therefore a bit sad that I can't share them outside my family). My first was a simple thing that just throws goombas at you in just about every form imaginable.

My second level is a Gradius-themed level, which features a super cool recreation of a common Gradius boss that makes me very happy. A screenshot is below. The large goombas serve as the "cores", which you have to blast through the barriers to reach. Each goomba has a key, which makes defeating the "boss" a requirement. The cannons and flame jets hopefully help make the thing look like a space ship.

My most recent level is a conglomeration of simple castle towers. It's inspired from level 4-3 in Mario 2, which I love. Mine has multiple levels on the outside of each tower, and each tower has something to set it apart from its neighbors so you don't get lost (what it's made of, how you get to different floors, etc.). There are eight keys you have to collect, so exploration is mandatory. I'm especially fond of the bits at the end where you use the keys - designing little buildings and niches is fun.

My favorite Mario game is Mario 3, but I didn't use that theme for either level. That kind of surprised me, but I think I figured out why: The things that make Mario 3 superior to the other Mario games don't really apply in Mario Maker. The control in this game is good regardless of which theme you choose, and all the themes have the same amount of variety in level elements and enemies. And I've always liked the original Mario music better than anything in the successors. Plus, the Mario 3 theme gives everything a shadow on the background, which looks a little weird (and wasn't in the original). Mario 3 does have a better look for goombas than the original, but then the Wii U version makes them look perfect (if less nostalgic).

Speaking of differences, they added some mechanics in this game that aren't exactly in the "real" Mario games, like Bob-obms blowing up hard blocks, and being able to put buzzy beetle shells on your head as protection. But that sort of stuff enables lots of different types of puzzles, which adds to the epicness of the game, especially since there is no state (other than sometimes lives) carried from one level to the next. So I'm down with it.

I haven't actually filled out the whole Gradius level yet, and after that I don't have specific plans (other than maybe a jerk level filled with question blocks, some of which have keys, and maybe a little map or some other kind of hint system of where to look). But my kids have a blast with it, even though none of them is very interested in actually playing Mario levels. If they would just add the ability to search for specific stages, it would be pretty much perfect. In the meantime, stacking giant goombas is pretty fun.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Super Contra

[Boring alert]

Contra was a thing back in the day - probably one of the top five or so NES games you'd have to call "classic". It was said to be super easy to beat, but this was clearly bunk. You had to use the Konami Code to even have a shot, and even then it would take more practice than I had time for the few times I played it. It was a two-player game, so technically I was playing when the game was beaten, but the two-player-ness plus the cheat code to start with made me think it didn't count. So back in my college days when I was collecting classic games, I skipped this one.

There was one thing that gave Contra a special place in my heart, though: the music during the ending credits is this super triumphant, super catchy tune. (So much so that every Konami game I've beaten has disappointed me with its ending.) Some time later, I realized that Contra actually has several catchy tunes. So when I racked up some Bing Rewards points, I figured Contra would be a good thing to get on the Virtual Console.

Except for one thing: it's not on the Virtual Console. Its sequel, Super Contra is, as is Contra 3 for the Super Nintendo. After much debate I got Super Contra, It's pretty cool, with pretty much the same feel as the original. Except that it doesn't have any catchy tunes. I like the overhead levels better than the fake-3D levels in the original, though. (Most levels in both games are side-view.)

Since I was going to be cheating anyway, I made shameless use of the Virtual Console's save-state feature. (After an initial run with the regular cheat code, with which I got to the midboss of Area 3 before getting running out of continues.) I didn't cheat as much as I could have, though - I only saved at safe spots, and I never saved during a boss fight. It took me a lot of tries, but I beat it. And I was proud to figure out how to beat the Level 3 boss without getting hit. (Also the Area 4 one, but that's more obvious.) Yay! Anyway, once that was done, I played it again with just the regular cheat code and got to Area 6 before running out of continues. And finally, I played it saving only at the start of each level. I still lost a few lives without reverting, but maybe not more than I would have gained in the process. So eventually I suppose it would be possible to beat it without saving state. I guess. I still don't know how anybody puts in enough time to beat it without cheating though.

Yay for saving the world from aliens!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

List of Lies

In The Screwtape Letters, there's a discussion about how the ideal lie is that you should worship the devil, but now the strategy is to ignore spirituality altogether. In Sunday school today that sort of thing came up, and I figure there are several lies that the devil would like us believe, some blatantly wrong but some very dangerous even to active disciples of Christ.

On some level, it almost doesn't even matter which of these lies you choose to believe. They're certainly different in magnitude, and the earlier ones are certainly more likely to lead you to do really bad stuff. But all of them have the effect of keeping people from accepting the Atonement of Christ. So I think it's useful to ask myself which of these I tend toward.

Here's a list of the lies, in order of preference for the bad guys:

Lie #1: There is a god, and it's the devil.
 • Not very convincing for most - not really even logically valid. But the Cane types embrace it for some reason.
Lie #2: There is a god, and it's [some other person or idol that embodies evil principles].
 • This is almost as damaging as the first option and is a little easier to swallow.
Lie #3: There's a god, and it's you.
 • This one is much easier to convince people of. Once they've accepted it, all that bad parts of their carnal nature start to talk louder. Really, this is still almost as damaging as the first option.
Lie #4: There is no God.
 • This is actually almost the same as #3, although basically good people won't do as much damage with this.
Lie #5: God is real, but he's this distant being that doesn't really affect your life.
 • It's so easy to believe in a god who doesn't expect anything from you. Not very beneficial, though. This is a very common belief.
Lie #6: God is real, but he hasn't said anything lately
 • Arguably, this comes close to implying irrelevance in a world where new issues keep coming up.
Lie #7: God is real and speaks, but he doesn't know (or care) about you.
Lie #8: God is real and speaks and cares about you individually, but you can't make it - you're not good enough to qualify for his plan.
 • Insidiously, this bypasses what the plan actually is. A key tenet is that everybody is reachable, at any given place.
Lie #9: God is real. He has an important plan, and you can qualify for it. In fact, you already have. There's nothing more to do.
 • A lot of people jump to this. I guess it's actually compatible with lie #5.

The truth, of course, is that God has a plan for us that applies to us and will benefit us if we follow it. It is accessible, and God is eager to help us along the path every moment of every day. Following it and benefitting from it requires that we care about God's will and have the faith to keep trying to follow it. If we give up (due to a feeling of hopelessness or a misguided set of priorities), we're actively pushing God away. But he's always eager to invite us back.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Shovel Knight

I had some Bing Rewards points burning a hole in my pocket, so went out on a limb and got Shovel Knight. It's a tribute to old NES-style games, incorporating elements of a bunch of them, most notably Duck Tales, Mega Man, and Zelda 2. I was a little hesitant about the 8-bits(ish) graphics - I mean, I was happy about that in Mega Man 9 and 10, but that's because they were building off the nostalgia of the original Mega Man games. Shovel Knight is a new thing. But as I played the first level, I had to admit it was pretty delightful. The feel is familiar, but the game is quite original. And when I was done, I found myself humming the first level tune. I knew I had chosen correctly.

The virtues of Shovel Knight are extolled all over the place on the Internet, but here's what I liked about it:
  • It's challenging, but not unreasonable. There is no concept of extra lives - you can restart from the last checkpoint as many times as you want. (You do lose money when you lose a life, but you can get it back if you make it back to the spot where you perished.) The only catch is that if you do back out of a level, the game forgets everything that happened while you were there (good or bad).
  • In the few situations where I felt like a particular challenge was totally hopeless, the answer wasn't "keep trying" or even "look it up". It was to obtain and use a particular item. That is the correct answer.
  • There are three or four really good, catchy tunes. Too many games these days have "mood music" that contributes to the feel but doesn't really help make the game or the situation memorable.
  • There's some pretty amusing humor stuff going on
  • The hero is pretty likeable. He's blue like Mega Man, noble like Link, etc.
And not only that, but the game has a free downloadable "second quest" kind of thing called Plague of Shadows, where you play the game again as Plague Knight, one of the villains of the main game. The plot is kind of adorable - Plage Knight is trying to concoct the Ultimate Potion so his assistant Mona will like him. (At one point you can learn to dance. This doesn't affect the game at all, but if you try to do it near Mona, you just end up twiddling your fingers nervously. Poor Plague Knight.)

The gameplay is completely different - Plague Knight fights with bombs instead of a shovel, and the power-ups can be used to configure those bombs at any time. It turns out being easier I think, but it's still challenging - really it feels like a completely different game.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Super Mario 3D Land

I got Super Mario 3D Land for Father's Day. For context, the last Mario game I bought or owned was Super Mario 64. (I have played a couple in-between though.) It was a bit of an internal struggle between that and New Super Mario Bros. 2 (Not to be confused with Super Mario Bros. 2). NSMB2 seemed more classic-Mario-y, but 3D Land seemed to do a better job of justifying my purchase of a 3DS, plus a friend had told me that he liked 3D World better than New Super Mario Bros U (sequels to both games in consideration). In the end, I went with 3D Land since reviews said it was longer, and it seemed to be a direct sequel to Mario 3 and 64, whereas NSMB2 seems to be a sequel to the other "New" games.

I'm very happy with my choice. It's not go-explore-stuff-y like Mario 64, but it definitely has a Mario-y feel - the enemies, platforms, and obstacles all translate well to 3D. And while you can play the game in 2D mode, I found it to be very difficult; the 3D capability of the console is a huge benefit in this case. The game started out pretty easy, but by the castle in World 5 it had gotten quite challenging. I did beat all of the levels without using the P-wing or white leaf cheats. Replayability was nice too - I had heard that there were "Special World" levels, but I didn't realize that half the game takes place after you beat it. (That was also a chance to revisit some of the gimmicks that had only shown up in one or two levels so far, like the colored platforms that appear and disappear in time with the music.) And while those levels were very challenging, I didn't have to go farming for power-ups or extra lives until the last three levels. (At that point, I beat 1-3 several times in order to get a Super Leaf, which makes most challenges much more manageable.)