April 4, 2014

The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Microconsole

Back in 2009, a little start-up company called OnLive introduced their vision of a "MicroConsole".  This new type of device was a dedicated gaming machine that plugged into a TV, very much like traditional gaming consoles like those made my Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sega, Atari, and others in the past.  Like those consoles, the MicroConsole had a controller designed specifically for gaming.

However, unlike traditional gaming consoles, it did not have any means of using disc or cartridge based games, it was all done through the cloud.  In fact, the games didn't actually run on the device itself, instead the device was merely a way to connect your television to the Internet so you could play the games that were stored on OnLive's servers. The games offered by OnLive ran the gamut from casual games to AAA titles.

Also, the device was small - hence the name.  Gaming consoles have been as big as VCRs, desktop computers, and sometimes bigger.  Many times throughout the lifespan of a gaming console, new iterations of the hardware will come out as technology progresses, and the newer versions having nicknames like "Slim" and "Thin" and "Lite".  But the MicroConsole started out small.  Smaller than a pocket novel.  In fact, the controller was bigger than the MicroConsole itself.

Another way it was different, it was cheap.  The OnLive MicroConsole cost only $99, and it came with a wireless controller and an HDMI cable.  Later on, the company would even have special offers where they would give the console away with the purchase of certain games through their service.  (The games costing $59 or less.)  Other consoles cost many times that amount.

The games offered by OnLive ran the gamut from casual games to AAA titles.  They were all PC games (Windows games) running on OnLive's servers and streamed to the MicroConsole over the Internet.

Ultimately, the company went bankrupt, and was purchased by another company who is trying to make it work, but their focus is not on the MicroConsole (although it is still available - just no longer called a MicroConsole, but instead a "game system").  Their games have always been available to play through software on a PC or Mac, and some even through Android.  They also have other non-game related services.

Three years later, in 2012, another start up, called OUYA, threw their hat into the microconsole ring.  Instead of going for a streaming game service, they offered mobile games on the big screen.  OUYA's microconsole runs a specialized version of Android, and the games on it are, for the most part, Android games that have been adapted to play on an HDTV with a gaming controller.  (Although there are OUYA-exclusive titles.)  Again, the OUYA was smaller than most consoles, although a big bigger than the OnLive.  And again it was inexpensive - just $99, with the wireless controller included.

OUYA, however was success, due in large part to the way it was launched.  Instead of relying on venture capital from investors - OnLive went straight to the gamers through the new concept of crowd-funding.  OUYA was one of the early success stories from the website Kickstarter, raising millions of dollars, straight from gamers and developers (the OUYA microconsole doubles as both a gaming console and a developer's kit) through basically offering pre-orders.

After OUYA raising many times what it was looking for in crowd-funding capital, a slew of other microconsole start-ups soon joined the frey, although few yet having as much success as the novel OUYA.  GameStick ($79), GamePop (not yet released - $129/free with subscription), MOJO ($199), just to name a few.

What is really interesting now is, big name companies are now joining in as well.  In Japan (Japanese link), Sony released the PS Vita TV, which is a microconsole that plays PS Vita games (downloaded, not from a cartridge) on a TV with a remote.  And Google recently announced their purchase of a manufacturer of game controllers - Green Throttle Games, spurring rumors that they may be joining in as well.  Nvidia, known for their gaming-level graphics cards for computers, also entered the gaming device world with their Shield.  The Shield is more of a portable gaming console than a microconsole, but it is still an entry into the gaming system world from a new player who was already known in another field.  "Steam Machines" which are upcoming customized PCs running Valve's SteamOS, will also be an interesting addition to the space, although they seem to be far more like traditional gaming PCs than consoles.

Also, around the same time that microconsoles just started, 2009 - 2012, another trend was taking place, SmartTVs and set-top box streamers.  These are two ways to connect your television to the Internet for streaming video and audio services like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and YouTube.  Later on, we would see some of these boxes evolve into something like a microconsole as well, specifically the Roku, whose higher-end versions included a motion-sensing remote, somewhat akin to the Wii Remote, which allowed for owners to play some games on the device, notably, Angry Birds.

Which brings us to the most recent development - Amazon's $99 "Fire TV".  The Fire TV seems to bridge the gap between microconsoles and TV streamers.  While not primarily focused on games, with the addition of Amazon's $39 Fire Game Controller, (or possibly your own BlueTooth controller), the box will play Android games that have gamepad support, as well as Fire TV exclusive games, like (the one and only at this point) "Sev Zero" - which was developed in-house by Amazon's own Game Studios.

Something that really stood out to me about the Fire TV is how similar it is the OnLive MicroConsole. Especially the controller, it just swaps one of the analog sticks with the D-Pad.  From the flattened surface of the controller, to the inclusion and placement of the media buttons (rewind, play/pause, fast forward).  The media buttons were (and still are) largely unused on the OnLive - basically they were only used for "Brag Clips" (which predated Sony's PS4 "Share" button by half a decade).  Even though it required an Internet connect to use, the OnLive never offered any streaming video or audio services - just games. But on the Fire TV is primarily a video streamer, those buttons will be used a lot, I'm sure.

Comparison of the Amazon Fire TV Game Controller to the OnLive MicroConsole Controller

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December 15, 2013

Review: Marvel's Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United

Marvel is really killing it right now when it comes to movies and TV shows.  Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D., you name it - they are bringing the fans what they want.  And it doesn't stop on the Big Screen.

Marvel's Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United is an animated movie featuring a team up between Tony Stark and Hulk (who never assumes non-Hulk Bruce Banner form in the movie).  It's not exactly a buddy movie.  Despite the "Heroes United" tag line - these guys don't really get along.  In fact, one of the best parts of the movie is a fight between the two Avengers.

Their real opponent, though, is a living energy force known as Zzzax.  Zzzax is the product of a Hydra experiment involving a combination of an Arc Reactor and Gamma radiation.  (Which, you may note are the sources of Iron Man's and Hulk's powers respectively.)  In fact, Hulk is attacked and kidnapped by Abomination who brought him to Hydra for the experiment.

It isn't exactly clear (at least to me) what Hydra was trying to do, exactly, because they were shocked by the results and ran off.

Zzzax's only desire and motivation is the consumption of energy.  He says that humans are wasting it, (a tiny bit of policizing there), and he needs to have it all.  (Which, sounds like a waste to me.)  So in order to stop a global black out, the two bickering powerhouses team up to battle this being of pure electricity.

The movie is pretty good.  Some of the jokes are cringe worthy, the art style takes a bit of getting used to, and it seems to me they drug out some of the scenes to get to the "Feature Length Presentation" 72-minute status.  But it's a fun ride overall.

It is available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital download and various combo packs wherever comic-book movies are sold.

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November 19, 2013

Smart Hacked Microwave - DO WANT!!!

That is AMAZING!!!

A man took a Raspberry Pi mini PC, a barcode scanner, a speaker, some LEDs, and suck them all in a Microwave. No, not in the cooking part! The end result is outstanding.

Scan a barcode to set the timer / power level.  Voice Commands! WHY HAS NO ONE DONE THIS?

I just wanted a microwave with a SILENT mode, and maybe a custom "One Touch cooking" button.  This thing... this is incredible.  I really hope he kickstarters this or something.  He even has a danged iOS app.  Crazy.

Raspberry Pi Microwave - Made by Nathan:

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July 15, 2013

Nintendo's 8-bit System turns 30 today - Top 30 Games of the FamiCom/NES

So it turns out today is the 30th anniversary of Nintendo releasing it's first* home video game console.  On July 15, 1983 (I was 5) Nintendo released the Family Computer, or FamiCom in Japan.  This system would later be redesigned and rebranded as the Nintendo Entertainment System in the US (and other markets) - the NES as it came to be known, or simply the "Nintendo".

* They actually released several home video game systems before the FamiCom - but they did not have interchangable games, and so they weren't really what we think of as a video game console - they were more like a plug-n-play video game system with built-in games.  They had also released several hand held LED games before this time, the "Game and Watch" series.

The FamiCom came out at a time that many thought the "Video Game Fad" was over.  Atari - who was then the leader of the home console market didn't think anyone wanted an 8-bit system.  Who would need that kind of power for a video game machine?  But Nintendo saw the future - and knew the 8-bit system was just the beginning.

The FamiCom/NES console revitalized the video game industry, perhaps even saving it altogether.  And in honor of this anniversary, I would like to list my top 30 FamiCom/NES games of all time.

[I stress - this is just my opinion - based on my personal library, and my personal play experience through the last 30 or so years - full disclosure, I did not get an NES to at least 1985, so not even 30 years.]
Without any further ado... I bring you my Top 30 FamiCom/NES Games of the last 30 years:
  1. Duck Hunt
  2. Mario Bros.
  3. Contra
  4. Dr. Mario
  5. Mega Man
  6. Lemmings
  7. Dig Dug
  8. Rampage
  9. RC Pro Am
  10. Mega Man 4
  11. Marble Madness
  12. Skate or Die
  13. Dragon Warrior III
  14. Blaster Master
  15. Spy Hunter
  16. Metroid
  17. Snake Rattle 'n' Roll
  18. Maniac Mansion
  19. Dragon Warrior IV
  20. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game
  21. Super Mario Bros. 2
  22. Final Fantasy
  23. Tetris
  24. Burgertime
  25. Mega Man 6
  26. Dragon Warrior
  27. Mega Man 2
  28. Super Mario Bros.
  29. Mega Man 3
  30. Super Mario Bros. 3
So, those are my favorites - what are you top NES/FamiCom games of the last 30 years?  Let me know in the comments below.  Also, if you want to tell me how dumb it was that Game X is missing from my list (like Zelda, or Kirby, or Castlevania), then feel free.

Just don't think about dissing Burgertime, or I will end you.  8^)

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June 19, 2013

Microsoft backs down! Xbox One to be a lot more SANE!

After getting smacked in the face by millions of very loud voices of reason in the form of pissed off gamers, (including one Chad W. Smith), Microsoft has gained a small amount of sanity and changed the Xbox One draconian policies to something much less evil.

The main points of their press release were "An internet connection will not be required to play offline Xbox One games" and "Trade-in, lend, resell, gift, and rent disc based games just like you do today".  They also threw in the fact that "there will be no regional restrictions" on Xbox One games.

You will have to connect to the internet when you get an Xbox One - but only once. "After a one-time system set-up with a new Xbox One, you can play any disc based game without ever connecting online again."  Still sucks for anyone who doesn't have the internet, but they probably don't know about the Xbox One yet anyway.  In areas where this is a common problem, hopefully some resourceful retailers will offer the use of their internet connection for this initial set up.

Microsoft noted that "these changes will impact some of the scenarios we previously announced for Xbox One," but did not elaborate.  I assume that they are referring to the sharing games via the cloud with up to 10 family members and/or friends that have been on your friends list for 30 days or whatever craziness they were planning.[Edit - more info has been revealed.]
Microsoft's Xbox One chief product officer Marc Whitten has confirmed and clarified "that does mean that features like Family Sharing won’t be there." and moving between Xbox Ones (like logging into Live at a friend's house) will no longer give you access to all of your games - just the ones you bought online.  You'll have to bring your discs to play those games. You will also still have to install every game to the hard drive, and Kinect is still required.  And to play disc-based games, you will have to have that disc in the drive (even though it will be playing from the hard drive).

Ultimately, I didn't see that plan working anyway.  Imagine getting 10 "family members" together and each buying one different game every other month.  With the "Family Sharing" plan Microsoft was planning, you could easily rack up dozens of games for $6 each.*  It would have killed their game sales.  And, trust me, there would have been websites helping you connect with your long-lost "Family Members".

In the end - this move (which is only back to sanity, mind you - it is not some brilliant new thing they are doing - it is the way console games have worked since the stinking Magnavox Odyssey, (which Wikipedia tells me was the first home video game console) will save the company from being last in the next gen console wars.  It may still not beat the PS4, but it at least now stands a chance of not coming in 4th behind the Ouya.  Just a chance, though.  Still has the all-watching, all-hearing Kinect creep-factor camera and the $100 higher price tag.

* (Ten members each buying one game for $60 and sharing it with the rest of the group.  So "Family Member A" buys Halo 5, "Family Member B" buys Forza, "Family Member C" buys Watch Dogs, etc..  Each only spending $60 - but because they are all sharing with each other, everyone would have access - from the comfort of their own homes - to all 10 games.  Then the next time they all go out, they get another 10 games while only having spent $60 for their one shared game.)

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June 15, 2013

Gamers Get It - Next Gen Consoles

Ahhhh, E3, that wonderful time of year when gamers' hopes are crushed by cruel corporate reality.

Gamers Get It - By: Chad W. Smith

Announcing our 4th System
Video Brick -π
It is a much more powerful
than that last gen piece of junk
we will still be selling you for
the next year or so, our 3rd system,
Video Brick 512.
But less powerful than a
 current high-ish end gaming PC.

It doesn’t play any of the
games you already have.

You have to connect it to the
internet so it can upload
the video surveillance footage
it will be recording of you 24/7.

Once you insert your game
disc into the system
it will physically destory it,
so no rental, no trading,
no used games, & no sharing.
But you can share it over the
cloud with people whose
blood type you share.
One player at a time, of course.
Provided you have video evidence
that you know and care for them.

But you can use it to watch TV.
Not record TV, mind you, just watch it live...
(Cable & internet service not included)

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April 9, 2013

Bioshock Infinite: What I'd like to see in the DLC (Spoilers Inside)







I hope that was clear enough.

I love the game BioShock Infinite.  A beautifully crafted story set in an amazingly detailed and rich living environment where the game play itself was fun, challenging, and varied.  All-in-all, one of the top 5% of games I've played - maybe higher.

And there's more to come.  I've already gotten the Season Pass.  I want to continue my stay in Columbia.  But for those of you who have played and beat it (SERIOUSLY - SPOILERS ARE COMING) you know that the story has a definite beginning, middle, and an end.  You know, I mean, he drowns. game over....

But - then there's the scene after the credits, which somehow gives us hope.  Even if it makes no sense whatsoever in the context of the narrative.

Of course, I don't want to play a game where I, as Booker DeWitt, raise my infant daughter without her mother and struggle to pay back my massive gambling debt.  So I seriously hope that the DLC doesn't pick up the story from there.

Also, Irrational Games has said there will be no multiplayer.  So anyone with hopes of a Skyline & Vigors powered battleground with your friends are out of luck.  (Personally, I'm glad they are sticking to the single player experience for this game.   Although a spin-off title that is all-multiplayer, or multiplayer focused would be okay in my book.)

So if it can't add to the end of the story, and can't go multiplayer - what is there to do?

Here are my thoughts, and my hopes, concerning the impending BioShock Infinite DLC.

Focus on other characters.  In previous titles, we've been given the chance to play as other characters, specifically the "heavy hitters" - Big Daddy and Big Sister.  Well, what if we were able to take the role of Songbird and just tore the city to shreds?  Or a Handyman?  Or maybe take the role of a "normal" person - like master hunter Preston E. Downs, or Captain Cornelius Slate, or the infamous Daisy Fitzroy herself?

Then there is the obvious - be another Booker.  Maybe you are the Booker who became the Martyr of the Vox.  Or maybe your a Booker who is closer to Comstock - so you take the side of the Founders.  Or maybe they actually let you explore that option a little at least.  The pre-game game Industrial Revolution left the impression that you would actually get to change choice.  It could be like a Fallout New Vegas where you get to back one faction, or the other, or try to take them both out and set yourself up as the new Prophet, or at least the new leader of Columbia.

I'd also like the chance to further explore a pre-uprising Columbia.  Like before the False Prophet was revealed even.  No shooting, no explosions - just a nice turn-of-the-previous-century city in the sky, with a lot of racism and religious  zealotry.  The fact is, the team at Irrational put a lot of thought and effort into setting all that backstory up, and I'd like to explore it.  I'm not saying I want to be Comstock or anything, I think that would be too easy - who really stands to oppose him?  But some scenario where I can explore different time periods.  Even getting out into the city of the Future Lamb of Columbia, with the Boys of Silence and the Masked Founders....  More of a stealth mission type thing.

What I hope they don't do is let you play as Elizabeth.  I think it would be boring to run around invincible to gun fire, and scrounge for items to throw to an AI Booker, and open tears at his command.

What do you hope to see in the BioShock Infinite DLC?  Share your comments below.

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