Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Fire Emblem Heroes

Have you ever tried a Fire Emblem video game?
I will admit general ignorance when it comes to games coming from Japan. However, I did brush myself against Fire Emblem a couple of times, falling in love with its character driven tactical, D&D like, battles.
The story is linear; you flow through it, basically narrowing down your role into pure battle management. The battles, too, seem simple: you can only move your character on the square grid and choose your attacks. The battle system is a simple RGB coded affair: red beats green, green beats blue, and blue beats red.
But that is not the point; the point is the attachment you have to your characters, who are full of character, as you develop them through battle. The point is to care for them in battle, because most Fire Emblem games pivot around a permanent death system; do wrong and that character you nourished since it was a baby is gone for good.
On the Nintendo 3DS, battles range across large scrolling maps and numerous characters on both sides. Often a good fight lasts close to an hour, especially if permanent death is a threat. Which, as usual, means that I simply do not have time for Fire Emblem no matter how much I like the game.

That has changed since this past weekend, when Nintendo released Fire Emblem Heroes on mobile (both iOS and Android).
Things are much simpler now: the maps are much smaller, battles are limited with up to four characters per side. Both of which mean that I can pick my iPad up in the five minutes I get in between breathes and pick up a good fight.
Alas, Fire Emblem Heores suffers from that bane of mobile gaming: it’s a freemium game. Yes, you can play for free, but if you really want to go places [fast], you will need to open your wallet. In Heores’ particular case, you can spend money to get the more exotic/powerful heroes so that they can fight on your side.
Thus far into the game I see no reason to deviate from my policy of no in app purchases, period. Heroes does let you win game currency through battle, for a start; on the other hand, I did reach a wall where I can no longer win such currency without a lot of grind. Thing is, I don’t mind the grind at all; if anything, it gives me an opportunity to practice my lesser heroes and see if the tactician that is yours truly can manage to beat superior odds with two hands behind my back. As far as I am concerned, this is where the bulk of the fun is to be had.
That's probably because one cannot attach much to the characters, the Heroes. The characters the core story revolves around are those you start the game with, which - due to battle inferiority - will not be the heroes you will fight with. And, unlike the console default, there is no permanent death in Heroes. I guess even Nintendo will only go that far under the dreaded in app purchase regime…
You will also be unable to go to far with this game because, like most other Nintendo mobile games (Super Mario Run and various Pokemon stuff), Heroes requires permanent internet connection. Nintendo has all sorts of excuses to justify this; I suspect it has more to do with Nintendo seeking to make money on the side through user tracking (to its credit, the iOS app description openly says so - unlike the bulk of other apps, that do so behind the scenes). Still, fact is I cannot play Fire Emblem Heroes on the train. Also, proceedings are slower than they could be. Boo!
Technical complaints aside (no matter how important they are; your mileage will vary), Fire Emblem Heroes is one of the better mobile games I got to know. A serious and deep game that manages to transition into the mobile platform without losing character almost perfectly. But yeah, if only Nintendo could stop being Nintendo and do things properly! I would have loved to open my wallet once and get to play a proper game of Fire Emblem on my iPad.

You may have noticed I did not post this under my reviews blog. There is a reason for that, and that reason is I cannot offer a qualified review for a product that Nintendo is clearly able to steer this way and that on a whim. Through simple changes in game currency pricing and heroes availability, the game can quickly vary from quick and easy fun to a frustrating money grub affair.
Currently, things are good. But who knows when and if Nintendo will pull a Trump on us?

Fire Emblem Heroes image used under fair use.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Back to Stupidity

The final death throes of my Pebble watch proved too much, even for me. I'm back to my good old Casio for now.
The real question is, where to from here, smartwatch wise?

And the answer to that question is a truly sad one. There is no answer.
On one hand, one can choose between the Apple Watch and Android watches. Me, I won't touch an Android watch due to my views on Google's snooping; regardless, all members of both Apple and Google camps are compromised. They are, generally speaking, vastly expensive for what they offer, while their functionality is rather limited when compared to their cost. Yes, I know I'm saying the same thing twice, but it's important to recognise both deficiencies. And, very importantly, both require one to carry a power station along for the ride because they need charging at least once a day.
On the other hand we have the activity trackers (read: smartwatches of inferior operating systems). You know, your Fitbits, the gadgets that track people activities and enable their makers to sell their customers most private data to third parties. Well, as long as those customers actually use the gadget, because the average Joe gets the point and dumps the Fitbit after a month or so.
Yeah, nah.

I am very much baffled by the lack of a company out there that will deliver me with a smartwatch that does one thing, pretty much, but does it well: alert me of incoming notifications on my smartphone. Sure, if that smartwatch can also last a week or so on a single charge, and if that smartwatch is waterproof as well, that would be great.
All I'm asking for is a company that gives me a Pebble.

Added on 06/02/2017:
Another vector of privacy loss involving smartwatches is wifi tracking. To sum the problem up quickly, every time your wifi enabled gadget gets in touch with any wifi network, it tells that network about all the other wifi networks it knows. Thus, you walking around a shopping mall with wifi enabled on your phone allows the shopping mall to know where you live and work as it tracks your movements around the mall (and I'm invoking the shopping mall example because in Australia this is exactly what they do).
Apple showed some weak signs of dealing with this vulnerability since iOS 8. However, it does not seem to have said a word about using similar strategies on its Apple Watch (where, it has to be said, one cannot simply switch wifi off and keep the phone "alive" through Bluetooth; it's both or nothing). I asked that very question at an Apple shop, but even after several escalations they were unable to provide me with an answer.
So there you go.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Immigrant Song

There is something to people’s personal immigration stories I find myself easily able to identify with. Not that this should surprise anyone, being I am an immigrant myself. Nevertheless, the feeling that one belongs neither where one came from nor where one currently is is not a comfortable feeling to live with. Hence reading the personal story of a woman who migrated from China to the UK and went through a lot of the experiences I did while feeling a lot of the things I had felt certainly brings such recollections back to one’s consciousness.
Xiaolu Guo is not alone in feeling the need to tell of her experience. My close friend Ike Aramba has been toying with the idea of trying out podcasting with his insights on the Australian migration story. Apparently, he is seeking to use podcasting as a promotion tool for his business, and wonders aloud whether a hobby/fun first go at it would be a good way to test the water with.
I don’t know how serious Ike is with this initiative of his. It sounds to me as if podcasting can be quite an effort to produce properly, and I know Ike well enough to appreciate how little spare time he has. He can be big on ambitious plans but small on actual execution. But I also know I would like to hear his tale and, almost certainly, identify with it too.

P.S. This blogger always seeks out opportunities to plug a Led Zeppelin song.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Looking Back

Looking back at the history of humanity since the invention of agriculture, we tend to feel sorry for the suffering of all those peasants and vassals that laboured day and night just so they could bring food to the table (if they had any) or have something they can put on to protect them from the elements. Yet this was the way of life for the bulk of humans during the past 10,000 years.
We look back a century or two ago, at the days of the industrial revolution, and wonder how people managed to work under horrid conditions at those steam powered factories. With little in the way of rights or breaks, they suffered through coal and smog to make a living.

In a century or two, the people of the future will look back at us and wonder how - during such an era of affluence as ours - we all agreed to waste the better parts of our lives at our 9 to 5 (and then overtime) work. All this meaningless suffering.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017


It is school holidays in Australia. This kid can remember school holidays when he was a kid, too. For this post, I shall reminisce on one particular childhood summer holiday.
During that year, the hottest rock band in Israel was Tislam. Vinyl was at its peak popularity, but for me the only affordable way of listening to what used to be my favourite band was to listen to the Israeli army radio. There, in his weekday program airing between 11:00 and 13:00, an anchor guy called Eli Israeli* would almost always play a Tislam song.
On the days he did it felt like winning the lottery. On days he didn’t it felt like I’ve just wasted two hours of my life. Two hours of precious, distilled, school holidays life. But that was my best bet at a slice of Tislam.

As I am typing this, I am listening to Tislam on my headphones, streaming through Spotify. Some of their songs still stand the test of time, others have aged very poorly, and with others I am made well aware of the fact I would have never paid them the slightest attention if it wasn’t for the nostalgia factor.
I will say this, though. All of those people that complain about online streaming while longing for their precious vinyl can go and stuff themselves up their you-know-what. You can keep your needles and scratches, if that’s what makes you feel good. Me, I am ecstatic about the fact that all the music I could ever want to listen to is but a simple search away.

* To Mr Israeli's credit I will add that, several years later, he acquainted me with a band called Guns N' Roses

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Good Games

What makes a good game good?
That’s a loaded question, but I will focus it further in order to be able to hold a discussion. I am talking about video games, mostly, given that this is the area where we see can visibly see most gaming innovation. Further, given that this year saw little originality in the big name blockbuster video game releases, I will focus on mobile video games - an area where, in my humble opinion, we have seen much innovation.
If we look at the top iOS games from the past two years, Reigns, Mini Metro, Lara Croft Go and Severed, I think the answer to the above question is glaringly obvious. They are all simple games, really, that are based around a simple core idea - a quality referred to in the industry as “game mechanic”. In Reigns you make yes/no decisions in order to optimally balance four contradicting factors; in Mini Metro you are constantly solving a more and more complex transport optimisation problem; in Lara Croft you play the classic game of Go with a twist, just as in Really Bad Chess (another great game) you play the classic game of chess with a twist. And in Severed you play “just another” RPG but with original graphic presentation and combat mechanics that work really well on a touchscreen.
My answer to the above question, what makes a good game good, is therefore: it implements a good idea well. And that is it, really; everything else is extra padding on top.

Which takes me back to the game that I probably liked the most this year, the aforementioned Human Resources Machine. I liked it because its well implemented idea was the gamification of machine code programming, which, in turn, brought back memories of the days when I used to do that very thing.
I like to think that the really great games earn their greatness through being more than good games; they are also good pieces of art. And it is that element of Human Resources Machine that captured me by making me think thoughts. It made me think “why not”; as in, I have done this [machine code programming] before, why can’t I do it again?
And it occurred to me that, while I have been away from the coding world for a long time, I can still do it. Languages might be different, environments might be different, but the concepts are still the same; technically speaking, I am able to produce a Reigns like game by myself with relatively little upskilling effort. The actual work would consume a lot of my time and require significant funding to achieve without my family starving as a result, though.
I even have some nice ideas to play with, too. I don’t think they’re Mini Metro good, no, but they sure pack enough heat for me to truly enjoy myself while at it.
And why not, really?

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Products of Our Time

My son has been asking me questions lately. He wonders how come people migrating to Australia massacred the indigineous population. He wonders why people have driven animals such as the dodo into extinction. I try to be a good father and relieve him from the burden of worrying about historical events, and I explain that the people who did those atrocities acted as per the values and culture of the time. I tell him that back then, dark skinned people were not considered people; non Christians were not considered people; animals were considered soul less beings; etc. But I add that today we are different because we know better.
That is what I tell him. Me, I like to think that I would have been above standard. I’d like to think that if I were a German, I would save Jews. If I was a white plantation owner, I would set my black slaves free. Because I’m that kind of a guy, you know. I’m a good guy. I like to be able to look myself in the mirror.
Clearly, I’m deluding myself.
Fast forward the tape a century or two forward, and consider what future generations will think of ours. Forget about global warming; they would file us in the same folder we file the executors of human genocide for a crime that takes place everywhere, all the time, without much of a whisper from any but a select few. I am talking about our handling of domesticated animals.
Consider what we are doing to them. We constrict them in tight ghettos, make them live their entire lives with hardly an option to move, force them to live in their faeces, separate mother from child, and then kill them in well engineered mass production facilities so that we can enjoy their meat. Every year, billions of animals are butchered this way after living short and incredibly miserable lives so that we can have a good meal. What is this if not genocide?
I am a product of my time. Try as I may to reduce my consumption of meat, milk and eggs, I find it all but impossible not to be seduced by the aroma of bacon or the lure of cheesy pizza.
So tell me again, in what way am I better than those slave owners of yonder?

Thursday, 15 December 2016

True Blue

What is patriotism? That is, if I am allowed to sharpen the question, who is the real patriot? Is it the person who stands to their nation’s call at every opportunity?
Looking at Australia’s own history, acting this way is clearly a fool’s errand. We celebrate the heroism of Australia’s soldiers at Gallipoli, but at the same time we acknowledge the foolish nature of the escapades there - as big a hero as the Aussie digger was at Gallipoli, that guy should not have been there in the first place. The same applies for Vietnam, and if we fast forward Iraq, too. Even key Republican figures, including president elect Trump, admit the war in Iraq has been a mistake; by proxy, the same applies to Australia’s involvement there, too.
So who is it, exactly, who is the true patriot? Is it the guy who answered the call and went to fight that foolhardy war because that’s what his country said, or is it the person who protested against the war in the street and got arrested for it?
I’m firmly on person B’s side of the equation, given that I am a member of that minority that considers nationalism to be one of humanity’s greatest illnesses. But even if you disagree with me on nationalism, as you probably are, you’d have to concede that true blue patriotism can come in many shades.
Which is why I truly do not get the fuss Americans are making over Colin Kaepernick and his refusal to stand up to the national anthem. Seriously, if this is the one problem in this world of ours that troubles you, you’re in an awkwardly privileged position. A national anthem is just a collection of musical notes, the same way a flag is just dyed fabric; any meaning it holds is meaning given to it by us, and if Kaepernick refuses to give it the same meaning as the majority of other Americans then good on him. Last I’ve heard, we take pride in being able to make autonomous decisions.
But it gets worse. I was under the impression the whole Kaepernick affair is old news, forgotten by now through the mighty eclipse called Trump. Turned out I was wrong: the Pentagon and non other tweeted the other day against him. They then deleted their tweet, probably upon realising they broke the law by getting themselves involved in purely civic affairs, but the point has been made. The strongest army in the world, by far, and one in control of a nuclear arsenal that can wipe our planet clean, considers true patriotism the act of doing what one is told without daring to ask any questions.
America is so fucked up and, by proxy, so is the rest of this world.