Ace Combat Megaplay Part I: Air Combat (PlayStation, 1995)

August 10, 2015 1 comment

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Before Ace Combat developed as a series, Air Combat was the first sortie.

While other flight combat games had been seen on consoles before 1995, ranging from Top Gun for the NES to Tomcat Alley for the SEGA CD, this was the first one that straddled the line between arcade and simulation just right for me. Polygons were still relatively new for consoles back then, so it was neat to see the planes in three dimensions instead of being depicted as two-dimensional sprites. The CD-ROM medium also meant Redbook audio for some killer music, as well as some speech for pre-flight briefings and chatter while in the air. The controls were forgiving, the adjustable difficulty allowed for either a breeze or a challenge, and the varying mission types kept things lively.

Flashing forward nearly 20 years later, as the maiden voyage in this Ace Combat Megaplay series, I took to the skies once again with Air Combat to see how the game holds up after a couple of decades. It’s definitely lost a few maneuvers, but it was interesting to see some of the origins of the series– and how later games left some of the original’s ideas behind.

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The story in Air Combat has you, as a member of a mercenary air force, completing missions to assist a country that’s having trouble trying to defend itself from a hostile takeover by terrorist forces. The story here is nothing special– but will improve in the series’ future installments– but the lack of exposition means getting from mission to mission a lot faster. While you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment after every mission, it’s difficult to muster up many reasons to fight, other than progression, more money, and more powerful aircraft to buy. If you’ve played later Ace Combat games, you’re bound to feel a bit unfulfilled here. It’s not a major strike against the game, but it’s worth mentioning.

Once the game begins in earnest, the map screen opens. On this screen, players can choose from available missions, buy and/or sell aircraft, or save the game. Initially, only one mission is available, but it doesn’t take long before there are choices that can be made as to which mission should be tackled next. Each mission selection also shows the cash reward amount, which is useful if there’s a specific aircraft that might currently be too expensive. Interestingly, the mission numbers don’t really have any bearing on the game’s story, regardless of the sequence in which they are completed. During my playthrough for this piece, I completed the missions all in order, regardless of reward amounts. This had no bearing on the story or the game’s ending.

A rather blunt warning, taken from a pre-mission briefing.

A rather blunt warning, taken from a pre-mission briefing.

Each mission has its own fully-voiced and displayed briefing. These don’t go into much detail, other than to mention objectives and to give players a basic idea of the enemies that they’ll be facing. Back in 1995, this was a far more impressive element than it is today. Still, these briefings add to the experience and give players enough information to know what you’re dealing with while on a mission. They are also valuable tools for helping players to decide which aircraft to fly for each mission, as well as whether or not hiring a wingman might be a good idea. (PROTIP: It’s usually not necessary to hire a wingman; fly the mission solo and save the money for more planes!)

After the briefing, a trip to the hangar to pick a plane makes for some potential strategy… especially as players progress and add more planes to their stables. Planes are graded in five different areas: offense, defense, stability, power, and mobility. Some planes are more nimble, but pack less of a punch. Other planes (like the A-10 Thunderbolt) are basically airborne tanks with lots of firepower and armor… but aren’t at all fast or maneuverable. It’s up to you, as the pilot, to pick the best plane. Perhaps there’s a favorite that you’ll use for most missions. For me, I usually take the MiG-31 Foxhound or the SU-27 Flanker. There is a limit to how many planes can be stored in a player’s hangar, though, so not all of them can be owned at once… at least, not at first. It’s also worth noting that if a plane crashes or is shot down, it must be repurchased. This means that if you run out of planes, the game ends. This is different than any other game in the series!

Bogeys at eleven o'clock and one o'clock. Splash 'em!

Bogeys at eleven o’clock and one o’clock. Splash ’em!

Once a plane is selected, and after a bit of loading time, the mission begins. On the screen, players will see a fuel gauge (for time remaining), a radar, a targeting reticle, speed and altitude gauges, remaining ammunition counts, and a damage display that changes color based on how much body damage the plane has taken. Pressing the Square button brings up a mini-map of the area, which pinpoints where the main targets are. Red targets on the mini-map and radar are the ones that must be destroyed to complete a mission, while the yellow targets are optional and will add bonus money at the end of the mission.

Dogfighting in Air Combat in 2015 is sluggish at best. There isn’t a real sense of speed, and aircraft maneuvering is either slow or twitchy. Lining up enemy craft and locking on with missiles isn’t that hard, but enemy planes often show surprising turning and evasive ability. This will lead to hearing your RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) yell “Jesus! Missed!” as your missile flies by its target. This will happen a lot. The number of missiles it takes to bring down an enemy ranges from two to three, depending on the aircraft type. Since the terrorist air force has the same planes, you can get a good idea of how much damage they can sustain by referring to the defense ratings for planes in your own hangar. Guns can also be used at close range, but aiming isn’t that reliable and damage that results is minimal. There aren’t any “aces” in the enemy’s ranks, so most dogfights are fairly standard affairs. Changing speeds and trying to circle around in order to get planes in front of you to take missile shots with are the keys to victory.

Two targets remaining.

Two targets remaining.

Some missions also feature ground targets. These targets consist of buildings, bridges, and enemy ground artillery. The latter of these three is also the most dangerous and will down any pilot who doesn’t respect their firepower. Ground-based guns can shred planes like cheese, and surface-to-air (SAM) missiles can take down any plane with just a few hits. Attacking ground targets requires precision and discipline. Since planes in Air Combat don’t have any bombs, missiles and guns are left to do the dirty work… and that means close approaches to targets, often skimming the surface below 1,000 feet. Collisions with the ground or ground targets don’t automatically destroy a plane, but they do cause serious damage.

Air Combat has a slate of 17 missions to complete, each with varying objectives. Many are standard air-to-air or air-to-ground missions, but a couple of missions vary in that they send players into deep, narrow ravines at set speeds. Enemies in these missions aren’t challenging, but flying skills are definitely tested here. Selecting planes with poor mobility ratings is unwise, as many tight turns an close shaves with rocks lie in wait. While these ravine missions don’t vary much from each other, later games in the series built on the idea of tight maneuverability and close quarters for missions of their own… but we’ll get to those as the Ace Combat Megaplay rolls on.

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Visually, Air Combat struggles in 2015. There’s a lot of pop-up and a relatively short draw distance. The plane models aren’t super-detailed, although they’re basic representations of their real-life counterparts. There are several different stage settings, including mountainous regions, cities at night, and deserts. Missiles trail white smoke as they hunt targets, and damaged planes billow black smoke. These effects, being early in the PlayStation’s lifespan, clearly show their age. There isn’t much slowdown, if any, but the frame rate does feel a bit bogged down. This doesn’t make Air Combat unplayable by any means, but it will take some getting used to for some.

In terms of sound, Air Combat fares much better today than the visuals do. Voice samples are clear, with plenty of speech during pre-mission briefings and vocal cues from the on-board computer and from your RIO during flight. Your RIO can be rather repetitive with his alerts, and hearing the computer whine “BODY DAMAGE!” ten times in a row effectively gets the message across. Other in-game sound effects are passable, with missiles, guns, and planes all making noises that you’d expect them to make. The game’s soundtrack is quite good, with guitar-heavy and synthesizer-laden tracks that sound like they could have been in a Top Gun game of their own. This short track is my favorite in the game:

Air Combat can be beaten in less than two hours on the easiest setting, with higher difficulties perhaps stretching that out by an extra hour or so. There is some mild replay value, thanks to a bonus that unlocks after completing the game for the first time, but there really aren’t any branching paths unless you decide to skip certain missions during the first playthrough. The game’s brevity makes it approachable for an afternoon, and a complete copy costs less than $10 to obtain, according to PriceCharting estimates. What’s more, it’s playable on the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation 3… so if you have any one of these consoles, you can kick the tires and light the fires anytime.

Revisiting Air Combat was a fun experience, though I admit to enjoying it much more 20 years ago. I was wowed by the graphics and the sound, and there was a decent amount of content for what was originally an arcade game. What impresses me now is to look back at how Air Combat set the stage for the games that followed it. Story became more and more prominent. Visuals and sound improved as Namco’s experience with the PlayStation (and eventually the PlayStation 2) grew. Sure, the graphics might not impress people anymore, but going back to where it all started for the Ace Combat series was well worth the trip.

Our next hop will take us to 1997, where a name change and an improved overall package led to one of my favorite games on 1997– and my favorite of the PlayStation Ace Combat trilogy.

Until then, thanks for reading. Shore leave begins now.

Consoleation Status Report: August 2015

It’s the beginning of another month, so it’s time to catch up on what’s been going on with the site here and with my work elsewhere. I try to do just one of these per month– usually at the beginning of the month– to review the last month and to set course for what’s to come.

July Summary:

July was a tough month, without question. I staved off a pretty significant health issue and was down for about 10 days with little social media use and no videos. To this day, I don’t know what caused the crisis, but I’m grateful that it’s (mostly) resolved and that I was able to wrap up the month with a nice flourish of content. I uploaded eight videos between July 2nd and July 29th, which is better than the one video per week average that I’ve set as a personal goal– and that’s with missing a week because of illness. You can check out my YouTube channel here.

I posted five pieces here on the website in July, most of which added content or perspectives to videos that I’d done. I didn’t do very many standalone pieces, which disappoints me a bit. It feels as if I’m using this site more as a promotion tool for my videos and my work elsewhere than for what I originally intended Consoleation to be when I started it more than 7 years ago. I’m still debating with myself as to what I want this site to be.

I did post a new article to Retroware in July, talking about the GxTV. I know that I had written a piece about the same topic here, back in 2011, but it was nice to revisit with a more in-depth piece. Including the video was really nice; it got more than 100 hits– which is HUGE for a small-timer like me– and I’m grateful to John at Retroware for allowing me to embed it at the end of the article.

Finally, I wrote a piece for Hit The Pass late in the month. The topic was the EA Sports Bio, a feature that linked all of the EA Sports games for the 2004 sports game season (published in 2003-04). I always loved this feature; it’s kind of similar to the Achievement and Trophy systems that Microsoft and Sony went on to roll out for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, respectively. The EA Sports Bio feature tracked your playing time, noted specific accomplishments and achievements across the line of EA Sports games played, and even unlocked certain content within games based on your “Gamer Level”. It was a blast to play games like Madden NFL 2004, NHL 2004, and NBA Live 2004 again to unlock new things and rebuild that Gamer Level– since the old memory with my original EA Sports Bio data disappeared years ago. I hope that you’ll check out the piece; many thanks to Rich Grisham and Bryan Wiedey for extending me the opportunity to write about these older sports games and my memories of them.

New Games Added for July:

July Pickups

Between being sick and not working, money has been exceptionally tight and most of my valuable trade-ins were gone long ago… so there’s not much to report here. I returned a few months’ worth of cans and bottles– along with some change that I’d been building since January– and wound up with enough money to grab these from Game Play USA in Westfield, MA. After the copy of Tekken 2 that I’d bought from Retro Games Plus in Newington, CT earlier this summer wound up being defective, I was happy to stumble upon another copy– and this one works. The copy of Tekken, sadly, skips a bit in the sound department… but I’m glad to have it as we get closer to celebrating the PlayStation’s 20th birthday here in the US next month. NCAA Football 10 for the PS2 was one of two games in that series for that platform which I was missing; NCAA Football 2002 is the last one I need to have the whole set, complete in boxes. I also now have Need For Speed Underground in my library, after years of irrationally avoiding it. I’m not blown away by it, but I don’t hate it, either.

One other game I picked up was this:

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Thanks to a rather crazy trade-in promotion at GameStop, I traded in Call of Duty: Black Ops, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, and Major League Baseball 2K11 (all on Xbox 360)… and wound up with Deception IV: The Nightmare Princess for the PlayStation 4, with no money out of pocket. I know that three games for one sounds like a lot to give up, but considering that I’ve been wanting the Deception IV release for the PS4 since it was announced… it was nice being able to get it despite being broke. I’ll be talking about Deception IV in more detail soon.

What’s next?

Well, I still plan to film at least one new video every week through the month of August for the YouTube channel. One will be a Summer of PlayStation video, and the others will likely be new Consoleation videos. I don’t have specific topics just yet, as most come to me during the day of filming, but there’s one topic– about a series of games– that I’ll probably cover.

Expect a couple of videos and a full piece to be written here in celebration of the PlayStation’s 20th Anniversary here in the US, which lands on September 9th. I’ll also be writing a piece for Retroware on the same topic, likely with its own video embedded.

A couple of years ago, I began to work on a series called the Ace Combat Megaplay. I only got through one game before I gave up on the project; the site that was hosting the articles never felt like the best fit, and the working relationship ended. In fact, the site– and the Ace Combat piece that I wrote for it– are both gone now, vanished into the Internet ether. I recently decided to trash the original writing and notes on the project and start fresh… and I just recently completed a playthrough of Ace Combat again. While I’m committed to playing through and finishing all of the Ace Combat games for the PlayStation and PS2 this month, I’m not sure yet where I’ll go in terms of posting the pieces. Part of me wants to run the idea past the Retroware team, as at least the first three games in the series would be great lead-ins to the PlayStation 20th anniversary… but I’m not sure that they’d want to run so many pieces from me in a short span (six pieces in a month). If the pieces don’t run at Retroware, then I’ll write them and post them here as original content. Either way… that’s my main goal for August: Play, complete, and write coverage/impressions for each Ace Combat game by September 1st. That gives me four weeks, although I could extend it to September if time runs short. I really want to follow through on this project.

The first “season” of Consoleation on YouTube will conclude on or about September 2nd. The season will wrap with either 14 or 15 episodes before taking a week off during Labor Day week– as that’s also when (at this point) I’m slated to resume college classes and will need to readjust my schedule for productivity to again include academics. There is a possibility that I may not be returning to school (due to an administrative conflict that I may not be able to resolve), in which case I’ll be looking for a job; this could potentially hinder my site/video productivity… but I don’t yet know how things will go. I’ll be able to speak with more certainty in the next Status Report, likely on September 1st or 2nd. Either way, a second season of Consoleation will be coming, with more topics, more personal experiences, and more of… well… me.

Expect another piece for Hit The Pass in August, as well. With old sports games being the equivalent of trash for many people, why do I get so much joy out of tracking them down and playing them? What’s the attraction? That’s the basic idea for the next article, and I’ll be working on it starting next week.

Stuff to check out:

I know that I’ve talked in a few entries about Josh Tsui‘s Insert Coin documentary project, which is in the stretch run of its Kickstarter campaign. I know that it seems like everyone is crowdfunding in some way, shape, or form these days. It’s important to support work and projects that we truly believe in. I firmly believe in this documentary project. It’s a documentary with first-hand accounts and archive footage of important moments and trends in arcade and video game history. We don’t get historic opportunities like this, especially as organized as this one is, very often… and with arcades being all but relics of a forgotten age, hearing testimony and memories from Midway developers and staff is important for historical purposes while educating those who might not have been around during the arcade era to hear about how it was back then. Please consider supporting this project if you can– either via funding or sharing the message with friends and within social media.

Also, we’re less than two months away from the RetroWorld Expo, so if you haven’t started making your plans to attend yet… don’t let time pass you by. This show is going to be HUGE, and early response has been so positive that organizers were recently able to lower ticket prices. It’s going to be a great place to play video games, compete in tournaments, see musical acts, attend panels with notable online talent (The Game Chasers, AlphaOmegaSin, The Gaming Historian, “Pixel Dan” Eardley, Joey “Roo” DeSena, Eric Lappe, Banjo Guy Ollie, John and Lance from Retroware, and more), and you can buy, sell, and trade video games there! It’s going to be a packed day, a memorable day, and a day to celebrate video games– something we all enjoy. Tickets are on sale now, for just $25. I really hope to see many of you there… I might even have some stuff to give away.

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As always, thanks for checking out my work at Consoleation and for your support. Here’s to the last full month of summer!

Because Nobody Asked: Thoughts on Pixels

It’s true.

I went to see Pixels… in 3D, no less. I went back and forth as to whether I would make a video with impressions and opinions on the film, or if I would simply write about it. I decided to go the video route.

Let me warn you here that there are some spoilers in the video above, as indicated in the video title… so if you want to see how the movie is for yourself, don’t watch it (yet). Instead, let me try to sum it up below in written question/answer form, with no spoilers.

What did you enjoy about Pixels?

The arcade games and their respective characters, when the film puts the spotlight on them. There is some creative license taken with how some of the games move from the arcade to the film, but seeing so many familiar games and characters made me smile. A lot. Als0– for me, at least– there were some genuine laugh out loud moments. Some of the humor hits, other humor misses badly… but I did laugh, at least a few times, during the course of the film.

What didn’t you enjoy about Pixels?

The characters ranged from boring (Sandler) to creepy (Gad) to an over-acted Billy Mitchell stereotype (Dinklage), and none of the main characters were interesting or engaging. The story is forgettable, with some random and/or unexplained events. When the story takes the spotlight back from the arcade games, the movie drags… similar to what happened in The Wizard. It’s also worth mentioning here that the 3D effects are nothing special, so you miss very little by seeing it in 2D (if you decide to see it at all).

Do you recommend Pixels?

In the theater? It’s not a must-see. The movie appealed to my younger self, as I was hitting puberty during the Golden Age of arcades. A lot of the imagery, characters, and games referenced withing Pixels hammered on my nostalgia buttons like a skilled Track & Field player. When Pixels comes out on Blu-ray/DVD/Digital? I’d recommend a rental, if only to see some of the ways that the arcade games are adapted for the film. (Fair disclosure: I saw the film on a Discount Night at my local theater, so I didn’t pay full price.)

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What’s your Pixels grade?

Boy, this is a toughie. I guess I’d give it a C-… maybe a C. Unlike most critics and much of the video gaming community, I didn’t consider Pixels to be a complete failure. Unfortunately, the good stuff is too often cancelled out by or even overshadowed by the not-so-good stuff. Had more of the humor hit, or perhaps if the characters were more likable (or less creepy), then the scenes without video game stuff in them would’ve been more tolerable… or even somewhat decent. The reason that I could bump the grade from a C- to a C would be due to the nostalgia trip that the movie took me on, which I personally enjoyed very much. That’s a bit more personal bias and less objectivity, though, as there are more flaws than fun to be experienced here.

So… what is, in your opinion, the worst Adam Sandler movie?

Don’t Mess With The Zohan. Oh, wow. Sandler’s got some bad movies on his filmography, but this one was just brutal. Hell, I’d even choose The Love Guru over seeing Zohan again… and it doesn’t have anything to do with The Love Guru having Jessica Alba in it. (Who am I kidding?) Seriously, though… Zohan‘s the worst, in my book. Jack & Jill is worse than Pixels was, too.

Whew. Okay. That’s everything on Pixels, I guess. I’ll cop to looking forward to owning it when it comes out for sale and keeping it next to my copies of The Wizard, Shenmue: The Movie, and Wreck-It Ralph. Pixels isn’t a movie for everyone, and it’s got serious problems… but I wound up enjoying it, despite the negatives, and can see myself adopting it as a guilty pleasure or comfort food film in the future.

New Consoleation Video: Every Disc Way But Loose

Post-production thoughts:

This topic of loose disc games is one that I’ve been meaning to cover for some time, and, well… that time finally came. I originally meant to shoot this last week, but the hate train for Pixels generated a more immediate reaction and I delayed the topic until today.

As I mention in the video, loose disc games make up a sizable portion of my Retro Library. I’ve had no regrets in paying a bit less for loose discs– especially given my limited finances and the deals that I found– since all of the games are fully playable and I can still enjoy them any time I want to. Are they lower in value than complete in box (CIB) games? Sure. Does that matter to me? No, not really.

My priorities when it comes to game “collecting” don’t have value or worth terribly high on the list, although I have taken advantage of some deals that were too good to pass up. I mention King’s Field: The Ancient City in the video, a game that I got for dirt cheap and which has doubled in value— even as a loose disc– since I bought it. I knew that Def Jam: Fight For New York was pretty valuable when I bought it for $4 loose at a GameStop in Enfield, Connecticut a couple of years ago… and now it’s valued at around $30. I’m awful (or worse) at these games, but I have played them– and have no intention of flipping them for money or other games. They’re part of what makes my library of games what it is.

Killer7 and King's Field: The Ancient City (PS2).

Killer7 and King’s Field: The Ancient City (PS2).

Whether you’re just starting to start building a library of games for yourself, or if you’re financially limited, or you’re looking to beef up your current collection of titles… loose disc games are worthwhile. I do get the “collector mentality” behind wanting to grab games in a complete set, and that PlayStation 2 games are still far too common to not be at least somewhat picky as a buyer. I’m also of the mindset that, as long as the game disc works– and that you can buy it at a decent price– it’s worth at least considering.

One other point that I raise in the video is the availability factor. Finding the Deception games for the PlayStation in the wild, for example, hasn’t been a common occurrence… so it was an easier personal decision for me to buy the games despite being loose discs instead of complete. Stumbling upon a loose copy of Konami Arcade Classics was really a no-brainer purchase at $2, though I would have paid more, depending on what the asking price might have been. I’m willing to make concessions when it comes to games that I really want to own, but can’t find. Perhaps I can find cases and manuals later, but the important part– the game itself– is in my possession, and that’s a personal mission accomplished.

It all comes to down to answering major questions for yourself. Why do you collect games? Is your main priority to play the games you buy, or to collect them for completion or showcasing purposes? Is it worthwhile to you to spend a little less to own just the game disc, or would you rather hold out for a case and manual as well?

I’m sure that everyone who takes the time to ask these questions internally will have different answers, and there are no wrong answers. They clarify our motivation. In the end, we’re united by our interest in buying and collecting these older games and systems, no matter how they’re packaged.

Shameless Self-Promotion:

My latest piece for Retroware is up and it’s all about the GxTV. I talk about how I came to purchase the TV, its features, and my personal experience with it. I shot a video on the topic as well, which is embedded at the end of the piece. I hope that you’ll check it out, as well as the work from the rest of the site’s video and written talent. Game Dave recently came on board, and he’s got a real passion for what he does. All in all, Retroware has done a great job of spotlighting community-created content while its main contributors continue to do fantastic work. It continues to be, as it has been, an honor to be a part of the team there.

I submitted a new piece for Hit The Pass which should be up soon, and another piece will be submitted within the next week or two. Unfortunately, my recent health scare derailed my work, but the piece that’s in the can was fun to research and put together. I’ll let the proverbial cat out of the bag and share that it’s about something called the EA Sports Bio feature, which was implemented for the EA Sports game releases from 2003. I always thought the feature was cool, and replaying those sports games to rebuild my Gamer Level in 2015 was still pretty addictive. I’ll be sure to share on Twitter when the piece goes live.

RetroWorld Expo Update:

We’re now about two months away from the big event, and the pieces keep coming together for what will be a memorable first year. Joey “Roo” DeSena (who can also be seen in The Video Game Years, along with his 16-Bit Gems series) has been added to the lineup of guests, along with appearances/panels including members of RF Generation, RetroRGB, HD Retrovision, and more.

In addition, a slate of video game tournaments has been announced. On the SNES, there will be competitions on titles including Dr. Mario, Mortal Kombat II, and Tetris Attack. For the Genesis, there will be NBA Jam and NHL ’94 events. There will be prizes for the winners of each of these tournaments, and I’m guessing that they’re each going to be pretty tightly contested.

Finally, because of overwhelmingly positive reaction– including lots of early ticket sales and strong response from exhibitors– admission has been lowered to just $25 for the day. That $25 gets you a maximum of more than 12 hours (from start to finish) of panels, guests, tournaments, arcade and console game play, musical acts, and access to buy/sell/trade games on-site. You’re bound to run into to someone at the event whom you’ll recognize… aside from me, that is. Southern New England has many video game fans, and it’s going to be special for me to meet as many of them as possible.

I sincerely hope to see many of you at the Oakdale Theater on October 3rd. It’s going to be a memorable event.

And, finally…:

I’m happy to report that the Insert Coin documentary Kickstarter project is making progress toward being funded. Josh Tsui has put a lot of passion and hard work into helming this project already, and his connection to Midway enables access to developers, talent, and behind-the-scenes stories and events that we might never have found out about otherwise. The Kickstarter site has new trailers and footage that’s been recently posted, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

There’s still some work to be done to make this project a reality. Why do I think it’s so important? This video will hopefully make a compelling case:

As always, thank you all for reading, watching, and supporting Consoleation. Look for another episode next week!

Because Nobody Asked: How I Spent My Two-Day-Cation

I just returned from a two-day-cation to New Hampshire. It was certainly nice to get away– I hadn’t been on a getaway from home since May of 2014, so I think that I was due.

The first half of the trip was the main course, as I went to see one of my favorite bands play at a really nice outdoor venue. I don’t talk music too much here, but as a former vocalist and a professional karaoke show host for 10+ years, Breaking Benjamin has been one of my big musical influences… and I patterned some of my singing and stage presence after front man Ben Burnley. Needless to say, it was a pretty big deal to see the group play live. I belted out many songs right along with the band, despite being pretty far away from the stage. Here was my vantage point:

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The second part of the trip was a return to FunSpot, where I hadn’t been since last year’s Classic Video Game Tournament there. FunSpot was only about 10 minutes away from the hotel that I’d stayed at, and visiting on a Monday meant a bit less foot traffic and more accessibility to the games.

The American Classic Arcade Museum at FunSpot is an important place to me. I have history there, having set two World Records there– one of which still stands– and having been to four Classic Video Game Tournaments since 2000. This place is reminiscent of what arcades used to be like; you’re surrounded by the sounds of dozens of attract modes while you walk up and down the aisles and try to pick out which games you want to challenge. Many of these games evoke strong personal memories. As I played a game of Track & Field, I distinctly remembered spending time in my early teens milking all the time I could off of my last token in my local mall arcade. Track & Field was my “last resort” game… the game I played when my tokens had all but run out, but I just wasn’t ready to go home.

Unfortunately, this recent visit felt… different.

It felt empty.

Unfulfilling.

Sad, in a way.

Unlike my last visit to FunSpot, this visit brought with it the sight of a lot of dark screens and of games that weren’t working. The passage of decades– along with repeated and prolonged use of these coin-operated games– have been slowly taking their toll on the hardware, and the staff there just can’t fix them all. Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator, a game that I played a lot of last year, was not working. Galaga had a memory error. Several games along the opposite side of Pinball Row were dark. Others, which had been out of order during my last visit, continued to be down for the count. Even the venerable Track & Field machine was showing its age; the Run buttons were barely responsive and the screen would jump if I hit the buttons with too much force.

It’s not that I still didn’t enjoy my time there. I played about 15 different games, ranging from Carnival to Hyper Sports and from Vs. Duck Hunt to Space Invaders. I could hear Journey’s Separate Ways playing on the arcade radio as I battled to a personal best on Mad Planets. I had a decent run playing Atari’s Superman and Williams’ Black Knight 2000 pinball tables. I took several pictures of Midway coin-ops, too, since I’ve had Josh Tsui‘s Insert Coin documentary Kickstarter project on my mind and have been crossing my fingers that it gets funded. Here’s a small gallery of photos from my visit:

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I was saddened to learn that there hadn’t been a Classic Video Game Tournament at FunSpot this year. It used to be such a huge event, with decent press coverage and with attendees from all over the globe. To be part of such a tournament in the four years that I had been there was an honor and a privilege. I got to meet many recognized World Record holders at this event every year and being in that select group by having records of my own has been something that I’ve been very proud of since I set my first record in 2001, playing Sea Wolf and rolling over the score for the first time in FunSpot‘s history. Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day honored me with a trading card in my name last year, and that honor came directly from my results and participation in those tournaments.

FullCard

 

While I’m not worried (yet) about the American Classic Arcade Museum going away, this trip got me to thinking about how time has become a bit of an enemy when it comes to arcade cabinets. Replacement parts are getting harder to come by, and they’re getting more expensive to acquire. The number of people skilled enough to make repairs to these machines is dwindling, and the hours and effort that it takes to repair these pieces of video game history are increasing. The staff here can only do so much, and they get by with donations and fundraising. The arcade games undoubtedly make some money back, but at the cost of repeated play and the occasional rough handling of a joystick or hammering of buttons by a youngster who doesn’t know any better or by an adult who gets frustrated.

This is a race against time that, inevitably, FunSpot and the American Classic Arcade Museum will lose. That’s what saddens me most of all; I have been fortunate enough to enjoy these machines not only during their heydays… but also decades after they were relevant. What few arcades that we have left are places that we, as video game fans, need to find ways to experience before they’re all gone. I’m not just talking about trips to Dave & Buster’s, here. I’m talking about trips to FunSpot, or to the Galloping Ghost Arcade in Illinois, or even to barcades like The Quarters here in my own backyard of Western Massachusetts or either of the 1Up locations in Colorado.

If you can’t get to any of these arcades, you can attend conventions. Many of these have coin-ops set up to play. For example, the RetroWorld Expo, taking place here in Southern New England in early October, is going to have an arcade area set up for play. PAX conventions usually have their own arcade areas, as does MAGFest. Not only are these conventions great for panels and meeting celebrities and fellow fans alike… but they’re great ways to have a decent arcade experience, even if the dimly-lit room and ’80s music might be missing.

While we’re lucky enough to live in a time that we can play emulations or ports of many arcade games and coin-ops from the past via modern technology, there’s something that gets lost in translation when you don’t get to play these games as originally intended… in a dim room, surrounded by the ambient sounds of other games and players, with music playing in the background. It’s a battle between you and the game, between you and a friend, or perhaps between you, your friends, and the game… and it’s hard to accurately describe how different it is to play these games on their original hardware, using the original joysticks and buttons, and getting lost in the atmosphere.

I sincerely hope that arcades are something that everyone will be able to experience –at least as we once knew them– before they become but uncommon relics and fuzzy memories of a time that once was.

Shooting Straight: Best. Saturday. Ever.

As you age, there aren’t too many days that you can spend just playing video games.

Adulthood tends to put up roadblocks that get in the way. Work responsibilities, family responsibilities, and time limitations often team up and conspire to keep you from living a summer day like you might have as a child or teenager. Life is what it is, and you make every effort to fit everything in to a day, a week, a month, and a year as possible.

I just spent most of this now-concluded Saturday just playing video games. I don’t regret it. I’m not ashamed to have spent my time that way, rather than doing something else that other adults would probably consider a “constructive use” of my free time. I shuffled games in and out of my PlayStation 2… ranging from a blowout in ESPN Major League Baseball, to smashing and crashing cars in Test Drive: Eve of Destruction, to finally getting around to try out Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi.

There was no real purpose to how I spent that time. I wasn’t out to try and beat a particular game, or to take pictures and prepare reviews in my head. I simply scanned my library and randomly picked out some stuff to play. After all, with almost 750 PlayStation 2 games to choose from in my Retro Library, I have plenty of games to sit and enjoy– probably more games than I will ever get a chance to play through over the course of the remainder of my life. And… after my recent health scares, I want– no, I need– to take advantage of my time, spending it doing things that I want to do and balancing that with the things in life that I have to do.

Today, I felt like one of the luckiest people alive. It was just a week ago that all seemed lost, and that I honestly didn’t know how much longer that I would have to do much of anything… whether it was playing video games, as I did today, or whether it was finding a good job, or finally realizing my potential as a human being. Now, I’m happy to not make excuses or have outside factors that kept me from doing the things that I want to do. I’m still not feeling 100%, of course, but I’m eating somewhat regularly again and even sleeping at night for the first time since before my last semester of college ended.

I’m grateful that I got to spend today as I did, playing video games and just having fun. I’m grateful that I managed to get back to writing and shooting videos this past week. I’m grateful for all of the support that friends on social media and family here locally have given me, in willing me back towards feeling well again. I’m grateful to you, the reader, for letting me get these not-necessarily-all-video-game-related feelings out in the open; as much as I appreciate video games and as big a part of my life as they are… sometimes even my life has to be more than that.

Even for a little while.

For those of you looking for more video game talk, fear not. I have a new Consoleation video planned for next week, and it’s gonna be a good one. I promise.

As always, thanks for reading, and thanks for continuing to support me and be in my corner. It means more to me that you can ever know.

Shooting Straight: Make Every Second Count

July 18, 2015 1 comment

A week ago, I was certain that I’d never be writing again.

My health had taken a severe downturn starting back on July 4th. My appetite abandoned me. My digestive tract refused to accept any food I would give it. I forced down two meals in the next 8 days. I was in lots of discomfort, and was only getting 3 hours of sleep per day. I spent much of the next 9 days laying in bed, watching YouTube videos to keep me from giving up hope of overcoming whatever was ailing me. I finally began coming to grips with the possible reality that I might even die, fearing that my life would end before I accomplished everything that I had set out to accomplish.

On Sunday, July 12th, I called my mother while fighting back tears. I wanted her to know how much I loved her, and how frightened I was that my life could be drawing to a close. I uttered final words on Twitter. I reflected on my 43 years of life, and reflected on what kind of legacy– if any– that I would be leaving behind. I wept when I realized that I never fulfilled my potential; I always made excuses as to why I so rarely followed through on plans for myself. I was afraid of failure while pursuing any kind of career writing about video games. I became too old to continue to work as a karaoke DJ, and gave up looking for jobs. I had plans for this site and for making videos, and yet I always created reasons why I couldn’t do that when I wanted to.

After my conversation with my mother, I made every effort to keep my anxiety in check… and then, I heard the news: Satoru Iwata, President of Nintendo and a relatively young man at age 55, had passed away from cancer.

I was stunned, uttering phrases of disbelief and pure sadness. We had all just seen Mr. Iwata via a Nintendo Digital Presentation a few weeks prior, and he didn’t look to be in poor health. We knew that he had been fighting some health issues in recent months, some of which kept him from travel, but I personally never knew the extent of his ailment. And now… Mr. Iwata was just… gone. He was a bright bulb in an industry where the idea of fun seemed to have worn out its welcome. Iwata was a proponent of fun. He preached it. He believed in it. He created (or at least helped to create) it.

Despite Mr. Iwata’s battles with cancer, he worked until he could not work anymore. His list of accomplishments… his legacy… these things were secure. The sadness came from the fact that fun had lost its champion, its primary representative. Solace was taken in reflecting on all of the good things that he brought into this industry, from his genuinely warm personality to his on-screen persona to his skill with programming that helped to make some games exist and to make other games even better.

As fortune would have it, my health slowly began to recover the next day. The pain had lessened, I was taking in food again (albeit in small portions), and I was controlling my anxiety with medication that I’ve had for years but never needed to use until this crisis. Over this past week, I’ve slept more and have slowly been regaining my strength. I even put three videos together this week, with my sense of productivity returning.

One video was a new Consoleation episode, reflecting on my experience with Metal Gear Solid:

Another was a video that talked about the Insert Coin documentary project, which is all about Midway arcade games from the 1990s. Josh Tsui, who was a Midway employee and has a lot of his own experiences there, has been putting together new interviews and archive footage from the days when Midway Games was practically unstoppable in arcades.

And, finally, this video sums up what will be the rest of this post… about making every second count:

Though my health is slowly returning to as normal as it will probably ever get for me, Mr. Iwata’s passing and my own fears and expectation of life ending too soon have given me a lot to think about. Life is a finite gift, and with each second of each minute of each hour of each day, the sands in our own individual hourglasses continue to drain. We can’t stop this process, and the inevitability of finality shadows each and every one of us.

How we choose to live our lives is important. What we choose to accomplish with the time that we are given is up to us. It’s easy to create reasons why we can’t achieve our wants and goals; there’s work, there’s family obligations, there’s lack of inspiration or motivation, there’s the struggle of finding enough time in a day, week, or month to do what it is that we feel we want to do. For myself, I’ve been a seemingly endless fountain of excuses and circumstances for much of my adult life– and it will be a regret that I take to my final resting place.

I could have worked hard enough and made enough sacrifices to get a job writing about video games. Heck, I took a year off from work and lived off of savings to try and get my foot in the door somewhere… but I never took the big chances when I needed to. I was too afraid to fail. I was too afraid to ask the right questions. I ultimately didn’t believe enough in myself to take that necessary next step. Heck– I even had chances in 2012 and 2013 during E3 events to create networking opportunities and make something happen… but I gave up at my first major rejection, contrary to the pleadings from my then-editor-in-chief to not walk away. My failure was my own fault… and nobody else’s.

I made excuses to avoid going back to college in my 30s, when I had my best chance to do so. I told friends and family that I couldn’t hack it. It would take too long. It would be too expensive. I was too old. I spent my 30s working as a karaoke DJ… and, while it was a blast over that 10-year cycle, it was a finite career that ended before I was ready and before I had a backup plan. Had I not made excuses, I could be teaching today. I could be working for a living instead of trading in cans and bottles. I didn’t make the best use of my time… and while those 10 years were generally good for me at the time, I’m paying for a lack of planning and effort today.

Despite these errors in judgment… these gaps in inspiration and motivation… I know that I must make what time I have left on this Earth count for something. The time for excuses, the time for procrastination, the time for failing to execute on ideas and passions… that time has to be over. When my time is up, I want to leave a legacy. It won’t be the same as Mr. Iwata’s legacy, or the same as anyone else’s, really… but it’s a legacy that I can still create for myself by transforming ideas and plans into realities, striving to treat everyone I meet with respect and care, and demonstrating my passion for the things that I love– my family, video games, writing, and even shooting videos (despite their amateur quality).

I must strive to make each second that I have left count for something, rather than just idle time and excuses. I think that realization is Mr. Iwata’s final gift to me, even though we never met. As grateful as I am for all of the joy that Mr. Iwata gave to me (and countless others) in all of his years working in the video game industry… I’m even more grateful to have my eyes opened wide to see that I still have lots of things to achieve in my life, while there’s still sand in my hourglass.

It’s not too late– it’s never too late to make every second that we have left count for something.

As always, thanks for reading.

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