12.17.2012

Lost to the Ages

It's crazy to think that there are films out there that never made it to DVD.  They saw a release on Laserdisc or VHS, but never made the jump.

Original Super Mario Bros 3
We're getting to the point where it's hard to believe that something like a movie or a song can fade away and die.  Sure it's popularity might decline, it might be overlooked or derided, but a piece of media's availability is almost never doubted.  I know that The Matrix: Reloaded is generally an unfavorably regarded movie, but if I love it (and I do) I can go to iTunes or Amazon or Blockbuster or Netflix and I can track down a copy.

That's why it's interesting to me that of all the media formats out there, there are some that don't quite have longevity figured out yet.

Super Mario Bros 3 remake for GBA
We've seen our favorite albums released on vinyl and then 8-track, cassette, CD and MP3.  We've seen all of the movie formats and then some, but what about video games?

We're at the point now where video games (and I'm mainly speaking of the home console variety) are about a generation old.  Video games are easily pushing 40.  My first reaction is to start talking about preservation, but preservation isn't the problem.  Anyone can take a factory sealed Nintendo Entertainment System and a factory sealed copy of StarTropics and lock them away in a humidity controlled vault somewhere.

No, I think the idea I want to explore here isn't preservation but prevalence.  I'd like to live in a future where older games can be purchased and played just like classic movies.  Albeit, we've already seen a resurgence in the prevalence of "classic" video games.  The old school stuff like Space Invaders, Galaga, Pac-Man and Dig Dug.  It's all out there on just about any platform you can think of.  But what about those other games that came out around the same time and have since fallen into obscurity.

The PC is probably the shining example of how to do old games right.  It's not a perfect eco-system, but chances are if you've got a game that ran on Windows back in the day, it can probably still run today.  It's exciting to think that barring any kind of crazy hardware compatibility you can still play Wolfenstein 3D largely unchanged from the way it was in 1992.

The problem with home console video games is that those games and the hardware they ran on were so inextricably linked that it leaves us with only three options should we want to replay them now.  The first is the obvious but cumbersome one.  We can lug out our old equipment and hook it up.  With the jump to HD, this could be impossible nowadays (I'd have no clue how to connect an RF switch to my Bravia).  If you can get everything working your picture is still going to look terrible without an upscaler.  HD TVs are rather unkind to old sub-480p content.  Lastly, everytime you drag that stuff out you get closer and closer to the day it won't work anymore.

The future proof way would be to use an emulator.  Emulators are software engines coded to behave like those old video game consoles.  The problem with that is that since there's no way to hook your game cartridge up to your computer and your optical media-based games can't be read by the blu-ray drive in your computer, you have to go to shady websites and downloaded pirated ROMs of the games you want to play.  Now you're a criminal, and unless the emulator and ROM were done well, your game may not play even closely to the way you remember it.

The last way to to enjoy those old games is through re-makes and re-releases.  This phenomenon has been going on for quite a while now.  The first major rush on our nostalgic tendencies I can clearly remember were the re-releases of NES classics on the Game Boy Advance with Nintendo's Classic NES series.  This was the first time I could remember an old game being repackaged and resold (at a ridiculous price) back to the people who had already bought it.  As insulting as it may have seemed, it worked.  Players didn't want to drag out their NES, if it even still worked, and buying these old games again scratched that nostalgic itch.  This idea has been adopted by just about every video game company with an old, well-regarded game worth re-releasing, but the trend has gone from selling a straight re-production of the original to compilations or collections of games to remakes of games and now to HD remakes and collections.

And here's where we get to the real meat of the issue.  When a company sets out to produce an HD remake of a game, even if the remake is simply "up-resing" existing assets and putting out a prettier version of an old game, that company is going to need a team, and money to pay that team.  If you have to pay that team, then you expect to recoup your investment.  If you expect to recoup your investment then you choose your remakes carefully and only choose those that are likely to turn a profit.  The list of video game remakes is surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly) short.

So far, this model isn't actually sounding too different than the movie or music industry.  Media that is good and popular or has some kind of merit will continually be brought to future formats.  Media that is bad will fall by the wayside.  Except with video games there's an extra wrinkle and that is rights management.  For example every once in awhile in the other industry, a record label goes under and the rights to their catalog get trapped in legal limbo, or a book publisher refuses to make ebook versions of their titles available.  However with video games, often times the companies can still be in business, healthy and profitable, but unable to release their old games because they don't have the legal right.

Have fun playing in 4:3 480i...forever!
There are plenty of scenarios, but one example is the James Bond game 007: Everything Or Nothing.  This game came out in 2004 and was developed by EA and MGM Interactive.  Since 2004, the video game rights to the James Bond franchise have changed hands to Activision while MGM has since fallen under the umbrella of Sony.  007: Everything Or Nothing, was an impressive, big budget game featuring the voicework and likenesses of Pierce Brosnan, Judi Dench, John Cleese, Willem Dafoe, Shannon Elizabeth and Heidi Klum.  An HD remake would be something to truly behold, but it will likely never happen because of the legal gymnastics required to bring it back to market.

It's a complication that seems to be rather unique to the video game industry and one that will require more attention as we move forward on to new consoles.  It will be especially interesting to watch the PS2-era games (referred to as the sixth generation) age.  These games have been the most frequent recipients of the hd remake treatment, but plenty of deserving games are getting left behind.

There is no ready-answer or easy solution, and it's likely that unless we keep those old boxes lying around, some of those old games will not be playable any other way.  With the next offering of consoles on the horizon, however, I hope some attention is turned to longevity and giving video games a permanent digital shelf space so that they can be enjoyed perpetually long after we've moved on to the next-next Playstations and Xboxes.

9.15.2012

8 Things You Need To Know About Backup and Restore on PS3

I am religious about backing up my data.  If a device lives under my roof and it has a hard drive it gets backed up once a week, with an offsite backup at least once a month.

I've been a Playstation 3 owner since 2008 and shortly after I bought my shiny new toy a friend of mine suffered a hardware failure on his own PS3.  This served as a cautionary tale and I began to faithfully make backups every week.

The PS3 backup utility is buried in the system menu on the PS3 Xross Media Bar and it is about as bare-bones as a backup utility can get.  It simply copies everything from the PS3's internal hard drive to an external hard drive of your choosing.  Or at least that's what I thought.

A couple weeks ago, after four long years of hard work and arduous service, my PS3 finally gave out.  It is a form of death informally known as the Yellow Light of Death, much akin to the Xbox 360's similar Red Ring of Death.

For most users this would have been a moment of extreme panic and lament.  For myself, however, it was simply an annoyance.  I had a very recent backup so when I contacted Sony and set up my "repair" I knew that aside from the $100 fee the only inconvenience would be waiting for my new unit to arrive and then waiting for my backup data to be restored.

I'd never done a full restore of a backup before and I knew anecdotally that certain items wouldn't restore properly (content purchased from the Playstaiton Store, like games would have to be redownloaded), which made sense.  But here are a few things that I didn't expect:

1. Swapping hard drives will require firmware on a thumb drive
To compound my problems, not only was I restoring a new PS3, but I also needed to swap back in my 500GB hard drive.  The drive was in good shape with no bad sectors but I kept getting an error message when I turned on the PS3.  I had forgotten that if you want to swap hard drives, a USB device loaded with up-to-date firmware is necessary.  There are plenty of guides for this process, but the one thing they all seemed to omit is if you're having problems getting the ball rolling (aka an annoyingly vague error message) you'll need to initiate recovery mode by holding the power button down when you turn on the PS3 until you hear a second beep to see a list of new options.
2. Media purchased from the 'Video' side of the Playstation Store is gone forever.
I'm still not 100% sure about this one, as I have yet to contact Sony customer support, but from what I have read around the Internet any movies and TV shows purchased from the Playstation Store are gone forever.  Apparently buried deep in the Terms of Service it says somewhere that you only get to download these items once.  Once you've downloaded them they are locked to that box and if you switch boxes you're out of luck.  It's pretty bogus.  I didn't own too much stuff, but I had an entire season of Futurama and some other random episodes of shows that apparently I can't get back without re-purchasing.
3. Locked saves are gone too.
It's not too common for developers to use locked saves for their games, but a few of my games used them and those saves did not get backed up.  How can you tell if any of your game saves are locked?  You can't... at least not easily.  The only way I've ever been able to determine it is to highlight a save and hit triangle.  If the 'Copy' option is grayed out you've probably got a locked save.  Like I said, not too many games use locked saves these days, but all the work I put into unlocking songs and extras in DJ Hero 1 & 2 went down the drain.
4. Your game data is gone.
I knew I'd have to redownload all the games I'd purchased, but what I didn't expect was that none of my game data would make the trip over to the new hard drive.  Your game data is separate from your game saves.  Game data is all of the "other" stuff that gets saved to your PS3's hard drive.  Game installs from disc-based games and downloadable games have to be re-installed.  I'd forgotten what a joy it was to load Gran Turismo 5 with it's 40-minute mandatory install.
5. You've redownloaded your games, but don't forget to patch them.
Something else that came as a surprise was that even though I had to download fresh copies of my games, the games weren't patched!  Redownloading patches for my disc-based games makes sense after loosing all of my game data, but when I download a fresh copy of a full game I expect it to come fully patched.  It took a while to download Burnout paradise, but it took even longer to download all the patches that have come out since its' 2008 release.
6. Your metadata is gone.
This was one of the bigger bummers for me.  While I was disappointed to have lost the video content I purchased from the Playstation Store, it wasn't a huge deal to me because I had far more video that I had ripped and copied to the Playstation myself.  This was all backed up and restored intact except for one small annoyance that turned out to be a big hassle to fix.  I had organized all my videos, games and music into folders.  These folders are created and applied on the PS3 and evidently that information is not encoded into the PS3's copy of the file because after the restore my folders were all gone.  This may not sound like a big deal, but when you've got 200GB of content heaped into a pile with no way to make sense of it, the only thing you can do is sift through it file by file and place each item into a new folder one at a time.  The songs I had on the drive had all been shaken loose of their playlists, TV shows jumbled and all the file names reverted to what they were when I originally copied them over to the PS3.
7. Your trophies are OK
On the plus side, even if your game saves were locked and they didn't get transferred over, your trophies should remain intact.  So long as you made a point to go through with that mind-numbing 'sync trophy data with server' every once in a while.
8. Re-registering your device may result in happy bonuses.
It's not all gloom and doom.  If you're restoring to a new PS3 or replacement unit re-registering your unit with some services like VUDU or Amazon Instant video may garner you a complimentary credit with the service.  VUDU gave me a $5.99 credit (enough for a free HDX rental) and Amazon gave me $5.

8.22.2012

A Short 'Psy' Primer

Allow me to bring you up to speed.  

This is Psy:

Psy is a Korean pop star.  On July 15th, Psy released a song called Gangnam Style.  Gangnam is the name of a fashionable/trendsetting district in Seoul.  Psy is hilarious.  The Gangnam Style video is also hilarious.  It currently has almost 50 million views on YouTube.  



Here is the English translation of the song lyrics:
A girl who is warm and humanly(?) during the day


A classy girl who know how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee

A girl whose heart gets hotter when night comes

A girl with that kind of twist 
I’m a guy
A guy who is as warm as you during the day

A guy who one-shots his coffee before it even cools down

A guy whose heart bursts when night comes

That kind of guy 
Beautiful, loveable


Yes you, hey, yes you, hey

Beautiful, loveable

Yes you, hey, yes you, hey

Now let’s go until the end 
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style

Oppa is Gangnam style

Eh- Sexy Lady, Oppa is Gangnam style

Eh- Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh 
A girl who looks quiet but plays when she plays


A girl who puts her hair down when the right time comes

A girl who covers herself but is more sexy than a girl who bares it all

A sensable girl like that 
I’m a guy
A guy who seems calm but plays when he plays

A guy who goes completely crazy when the right time comes

A guy who has bulging ideas rather than muscles

That kind of guy 
Beautiful, loveable


Yes you, hey, yes you, hey

Beautiful, loveable

Yes you, hey, yes you, hey

Now let’s go until the end 
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style

Oppa is Gangnam style

Eh- Sexy Lady, Oppa is Gangnam style

Eh- Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh 
On top of the running man is the flying man, baby baby


I’m a man who knows a thing or two

On top of the running man is the flying man, baby baby

I’m a man who knows a thing or two

You know what I’m saying 
Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh- Sexy Lady, Oppa is Gangnam style

Eh- Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh
Here is a parody video called Hongdae Style.  Hongdae is short for Hongik Daehakgyo which is another part of Seoul.



Here is a short spoof using characters from the popular Valve game Team Fortress 2.



Here is a heavy metal remix.



And of course, the obligatory Dubstep remix.



For some real insight into Psy, check out this opinion piece from The Korea Times.  And to travel further down the rabbit hole of weird, related videos, head over to Know Your Meme.





3.17.2012

Vita-lity

The Playstation Vita has been loosed upon North America and I found myself with a pre-order for a new video game console for the first time since the Nintendo 64.

The decision to go ahead and invest in Sony's new handheld was a tough one.  Especially when you consider the Playstation Portable's lackluster impact on the world of video games and consider the future ramifications of device convergence (i.e. portable games on smart phones).

Historically, I have been all about the idea of convergence.  I remember when I was in college and carting around a feature phone, a digital camera and an iPod and desperately wanting a better solution.  It was good that cargo pants were fashionable back then, because they were an absolutely necessity.  Dockers even had a special pair of trousers they marketed exclusively toward gadget hounds.  With the advent of the modern smart phone, we consider it unthinkable to have to carry multiple devices any more.  In fact, I sometimes wonder why no one has yet thought to use the camera and the touch screen on a smartphone to enable the device as a bluetooth wireless mouse for a desktop computer.

Anyway, being able to take pictures, listen to music, surf the web and occasionally make phone calls on my phone is great, but playing games is not.  I tried.  I made the leap several times and downloaded game after game.  None of them were terrible, but none of them felt natural to me.  Bear in mind, I'm not talking about games like Cut the Rope, or Angry Birds.  I'm talking about 'game' games.  Stuff like Firemint's phenomenal Real Racing series, or platformers like Pizza Boy.  I wanted to play games that reminded me of the types of console games I already enjoy.  And plenty of developers swooped in to fill the void left by the absence of big publishers/developers on mobile devices.  Gameloft alone introduced (or reintroduced) the Asphalt series, the N.O.V.A. series and the Shadow Guardian series as a substitute for Burnout, Halo and Uncharted.  I tried all of them.  All of them were decent and none of them were as good, to me, as the real thing.
Close, but no cigar.
Finally, I realized that the best games you can play on a modern smart phone are the ones that were designed from the ground up for a smart phone.  Stuff like Tap Tap 4, Shibuya, or any of the phenomenal pinball games by GameProm are great because they're designed for a touchscreen.  Those other games are trying to shoe-horn in controls that were built for more traditional video game controllers and while it's manageable, it's just not preferable.  Plenty of "hardcore gamers" have complained about this, but what are the alternatives?  Nintendo has the DS and more recently the 3DS, but Nintendo also has a serious lack of understanding when it comes to the Internet and the online services that we all expect in a modern console or even a smart phone.  Then there was the moribund PSP.  An amazing device when it was released, with a massive and gorgeous screen and real controls (although desperately lacking a second analog stick) but the PSP's downfall was it's lack of games.  Sure there are a handful of great games for the PSP, but never enough to push me over the edge to actually buy one.  The same can be said for the Sony Xperia Play, a genuine smart phone with genuine buttons designed for gameplay, but running the Playstation Suite which has a serious dearth of games.

Enter the PS Vita.  The Vita instantly alleviated a number of concerns I had never gotten over with the PSP.  First, there are two genuine analog sticks to control games.  There's a full compliment of buttons and a d-pad and the Vita also seems to be embracing the digital side of gaming with access to the same friends list, trophies and store I already have on my PS3.  I can purchase games straight from the built-in store over wi-fi or 3G, and the Vita has a featureless but functional web browser, a movie store and the possibility of dedicated apps like Netflix, Twitter, Flickr and whatever else may come down to the pipeline in the future.

To top it all off the Vita has an even bigger even more gorgeous screen and this one is touch enabled.  Throw in accelerometer/gyroscope Sixaxis technology and you have a rival for any touchscreen smart phone on the market.

Graphically, the Vita is a beast of a machine.  It is a portable gaming device that is capable running games that will rival things that you've traditionally only been able to play on consoles.  Take one of the Vita's flagship titles Uncharted: Golden Abyss as an example.  Uncharted has always been a series famous for larger than life moments with gorgeous graphics and tight controls.  The idea of playing an Uncharted game on a handheld seems pretty ridiculous, but the developers at Bend studios and the hardware of the Vita pulled it off rather well.

One of the major criticisms of the Vita, however, goes back to that idea of convergence.  Now that the consumer has gotten used to carrying one device that can do anything, and more importantly, paying for games that are rarely priced above $10 (the majority of which are .99¢), are consumers interested in going back to multiple devices and even if they are willing to carry a separate, much larger device, are they willing to pay $30, $40 and even $50 for games?  Even if those games are massively better in terms of quality and depth?

Many analysts and pundits believe that the Vita was doomed even before it was released, contending that Sony's new handheld is simply on the wrong side of history.

I went ahead and took the plunge figuring even if the critics are right, there are bound to be a few great games for the system, just like the PSP.  I'd even be able to go back and find those old PSP games that I missed and play them on the Vita.  Not to mention the screen is larger and lovelier than my iPhone 3GS and will be well worth lugging along when it comes time to watch a movie on an airplane or something.  I'd also been craving a secondary console that I can play when the TV in our living room is in use.  Sometimes I feel guilty playing something like Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix (a remake of a game that was originally released on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis) on  my household's only television.  When my wife wants to watch Downton Abbey, I'd love to be able to go sit in an easy chair and continue to play my games.

So the deck was already stacked in such a way that the Vita was going to fill a desire that I'd had for a while.

Katamari, meet Super Mario.
But when I actually got my hands on the Vita, I had a whole new thought.  First off, I realized that the hardware of the Playstation Vita is just as phenomenal as we all expected.  It sounded impressive on the specification sheet and it's just as impressive in person.  The software on the other hand is decent, but far from perfect.  But just as the PS3 progressed in functionality to where it is today (remember when there was no background downloading?) the Vita, I'm sure will improve with time.  The second thing I realized is that the appeal of the Vita lies in its' potential for gaming without compromises.  The argument about gamers being unwilling to pay high prices for games was rendered moot.  When I first picked up my Vita, I downloaded a number of demos but didn't really find anything that was wowing me.  There was nothing that was capturing me, at least not for $30-$50 launch prices.  That was until I took a chance and downloaded a little game called Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack.  This $7.99 download-only game instantly delighted me with it's quirky sense of humor, tight controls and original game mechanics.  I can't recommend it highly enough.  As one of the cheapest, if not THE cheapest launch game in the Vita's line-up, it was a revelation.  The future of the Vita was in choice without compromises.  You could have simplistic smartphone touchscreen games like Angry Birds and you could sell them in the Playstation Store for .99¢ along side expansive and impressive $50 games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and gamers could have their cake and eat it too.

I eventually did buy the new Uncharted game and I'm loving that as well.  It's well done and in my opinion, better than the first Uncharted game.  Will the Vita pan out?  Who can say for sure.  At this point I feel like it is guaranteed to be more successful than the PSP was, but will it be a viable platform filled with a variety of games?

I stand by my choice of the Vita because I hope to be able to play games, big and small and all without running down the battery on my phone.