Sprite avatars in Gravatar

After the release of Google Buzz, my Google profile which I had for years finally became somewhat useful. Seeing that I really liked the avatar I’ve added to that profile, I decided, that Frog should henceforth be my official avatar.

This also meant that I wanted to add Frog to my Gravatar profile which, unfortunately proved to be… let’s say interesting.

The image resizer Gravatar provides on their site to fit the uploaded image to the sites need apparently was not designed for sprites as it tries to blow up sprites way out of proportion only to resize them back down. At first I though I could get away with cheating by uploading above picture with a huge margin added to it, but that only lead to a JavaScript error in their uploader.

In the end, this is what I have done:

  1. Convert the picture into the TGA format
  2. Scale it using hq3x (explanation of hq3x)
  3. Convert it back to png and re-add transparency (hq3x had trouble with transparency in the TGA file)
  4. Scale it to 128 pixels in height
  5. paste it into a pre-prepared 128×128 canvas
  6. upload that.

This is how my gravatar looks now, which feels quite acceptable to me:

My Gravatar

The one in google’s profile was way easier to create: Paste the original image into a 64 by 64 canvas and let google do the resizing. It’s not as perfect as the hq3x algorithm, but that suffers by the downsizing to make frog fit 128 pixels in height anyways.

The other option would be to scale using hq2x and the paste that into a 128 by 128 canvas yielding this sharper, but smaller image:

But what ever I do, frog will still be resized by Gravatar (and thus destroyed), so I went with the image that contains more colored pixels at the expense of a bit of sharpness.

Sense of direction vs. field of view

Last saturday, I bought the Metroid Prime Triloogy for the Wii. I didn’t yet have the Wii Metroid and it’s impossible for me to use the GameCube to play the old games as the distance between my couch and the reciever is too large for the GameCube’s wired joypads. It has been a long while since I last played any of the 3D Metroids, and seeing the box in a store made me want to play them again.

So all in all, this felt like a good deal to me: Getting the third Prime plus the possibility to easily play the older two for the same price that they once asked for the third one alone.

Now I’m in the middle of the first game and I made a really interesting observation: My usually very good sense of direction seems to require a minimum sized field of view to get going: While playing on the GameCube, I was constantly busy looking at the map and felt unable to recognize even the simplest landmarks.

I spent the game in a constant state of feeling lost, not knowing where to go and forgetting how to go back to places where I have seen then unreachable powerups.

Now it might just be that I remember the world from my first playthrough, but this time, playing feels completely differently to me: I constantly know where to go and where I am. Even with rooms that are very similar to each other, I constantly know where I am and how to get from point a to point b.

When I want to re-visit a place, I just go there. No looking at the map. No backtracking.

This is how I usually navigate the real world, so after so many years of feeling lost in 3D games, I’m finally able to find my way in them as well.

Of course I’m asking myself what has changed and in the end it’s either the generally larger screen size of the wide-screen format of the Wii port or maybe the controls via the Wiimote that feel much more natural: The next step for me will be to try and find out which it is by connecting the Wii to a smaller (but still wide) screen.

But aside of all that, Metroid just got even better – not that I believed that to be possible.

Playing Worms Armageddon on a Mac

Last weekend, I had a real blast with the Xbox 360 Arcade version of worms. Even after so many years, this game still rules them all, especially (if not only) in multiplayer mode.

The only drawback of the 360 version is the lack of weapons.

While the provided set is all well, the game is just not the same without the Super Banana Bomb or the Super Sheep.

Worms Screenshot

So this is why I looked for my old Worms Armageddon CD and tried to get it to work on todays hardware.

Making it work under plain Vista was easy enough (get the latest beta patch for armageddon, by the way):

Right-Click the Icon, select the compatibility tab, chose Windows XP, Disable Themes and Desktop composition and run the game with administrative privileges.

You may get away with not using one option or the other, but this one worked consistently.

To be really useful though, I wanted to make the game run under OS X as this is my main environment and I really dislike going through the lengthy booting process that is bootcamp.

I tried the various virtualization solutions around – something that should work seeing that the game doesn’t really need much in terms of hardware support.

But unfortunately, this was way harder than anticipated:

  • The initial try was done using VMWare Fusion which looked very good at first, but failed miserably later on: While I was able to launch (and actually use) the games frontend, the actual game was a flickery mess with no known workaround.
  • Parallels failed by displaying a black menu. It was still clickable, but there was nothing on the screen but blackness and a white square border. Googling around a bit led to the idea to set SlowFrontendWorkaround in the registry to 0 which actually made the launcher work, but the game itself crashed consistenly without error message.

In the end, I’ve achieved success using VirtualBox. The SlowFrontendWorkaround is still needed to make the launcher work and the mouse helper of the VirtualBox guest tools needs to be disabled (on the Machine menu, the game still runs with the helper enabled, but you won’t be able to actually control the mouse pointer consistently), but after that, the game runs flawlessly.

Flickerless and with a decent frame rate. And with sound, of course.

To enable the workaround I talked about, use this .reg file.

Now the slaughter of worms can begin :-)

They just don’t want my money

Mass Effect is a wonderful game. Its story is one of the most interesting I’ve ever witnessed in a game. The atmosphere it brings over is very deep and impressive. It’s science fiction. It contains aliens and explosions, so it’s perfect for my taste.

Also, I like the role playing elements which contain just enough stats to make the leveling process interesting while not being overly complicated.

I bought Mass Effect for the XBox 360 back in December and played through it once, while being annoyed that I had to buy it in the (albeit very good) German version (it’s practically impossible to get English originals here in Switzerland) and annoyed about the awful, awful equipment and inventory handling that made it impossible to really know how you should equip your characters (in fact, I went through half of the game in the starting equipment because I didn’t understand how to actually put the items on).

So despite the immense replayability value of the game, I left it at that one runthrough. But I bought the Mass Effect book telling the story leading up to the events of the game.

And now, the game was re-released for the PC. Considering the fact that I actually bought the Mac Pro I’m currently using with PC-gaming in mind, I pondered with the idea of buying the game again for the PC. In English and with the fixed inventory screen (they actually fixed that in the PC version. yes. so it wasn’t just my stupidity).

This may sound crazy, but as I said, the game provides incredible value to replay it: Different decisions, different choice of squad members, even choosing different classes to begin with (though I would never even have tried to play a caster in the 360 version – the interface was just too painful for that) – everything has influence on elements of the story. Playing through Mass Effect only once is clearly a waste of a very good game.

With a 25 MBit connection to the internet, I though that buying the game online would be a reasonable request too. So here’s what I’ve tried:

  1. Buy the game via Direct2Drive. All seemed to go well and it even asked me for my credit card info. But then, on the final step, it told me that my cart was empty. And a little footnote informed me that Mass Effect has been removed from the cart due to country restrictions. Thanks for telling me in advance!
  2. On the web page of the publisher, there’s a link to the EA store to buy the game online. Whatever I tried, I could only get the shop to actually provide me with the US version of the game which it refused to “ship” (hello? This is a digital download) to Switzerland – despite me trying on June 8th, two days after the official launch in Europe.
  3. I tried to trick the EA store to sell me the game none-the-less by using paypal to pay for it, giving a fake US-“shipping” address. No dice though as paypal refused to bill my account due to the “shipping” address being different from the address I’ve entered in paypal.
  4. Sure that electronic download will not work, I went to the local game store I usually get my games from. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the English version of the game and won’t be getting it.

On a world where digital goods can hop from one corner to the next in milliseconds, on a world where everyone is complaining about rampant piracy, it is impressive how hard it actually is to timely and legally get the digital goods.

Here’s what I did in the end: First I began downloading the pirated version of the game and while that download was running, I went and bought the German version of the game. When I got back from the store, the download of the English version was finished. I’ve installed it, provided it with the serial number of my German original and then played it, using the German DVD as proof of purchase.

Why does it have to be so hard to actually buy a game these days?

My PSP just got a whole lot more useful

<p>Or useful at all – considering the games that are available to that console. To be honest: Of all the consoles I have owned in my life, the PSP must be the most underused one. I basically own two games for it: Breath of Fire and Tales of Eternia – not only by this choice of titles, but also by reading this blog, you may notice a certain affinity to Japanese Style RPG’s.</p> <p>These are the closest thing to a successor of the classical graphic adventures I started my computer career with, minus hard to solve puzzles plus a much more interesting story (generally). So for my taste, these things are a perfect match.</p> <p>But back to the PSP. It’s an old model – one of the first here in Switzerland. One of the first on the world to be honest: I bought the thing WAAAY back with hopes of seeing many interesting RPG’s – or even just good ports of old classics. Sadly neither really happened.</p> <p>Then, a couple of days ago, I found a usable copy of the game Lumines. Usable in a sense of when the guy in the store told me that there is a sequel out and I told him that I did not intend to actually play the game, he just blinked with one eye and wished me good luck with my endeavor. </p> <p>Or in layman’s terms: That particular version of Lumines had a security flaw allowing one to do a lot of interesting stuff with the PSP. Like installing an older, flawed version of the firmware which in turn allows to completely bypass whatever security the PSP would provide.</p> <p>And now I’m running the latest M33 firmware: 3.71-M4. </p> <p>What does that mean? It means that the former quite useless device has just become the device of my dreams: It runs SNES games. It runs Playstation 1 games. It’s portable. I can use it in bed without a large assembly of cables, gamepads and laptops. It’s instant-on. It’s optimized for console games. It has a really nice digital directional pad (gone are the days of struggling with diagonally-emphasized joypads – try playing Super Metroid with one of these).</p> <p>It plays games like Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Chrono Trigger – it finally allows me to enjoy the RPG’s of old in bed before falling asleep. Or in the bathtub. Or whatever.</p> <p>It’s a real shame that once more I had to resort to legally questionable means to get a particular device to a state I imagine it to be. Why can’t I buy any PS1 game directly from Sony? Why are the games I want to play not even available in Switzerland? Why is it illegal to play the games I want to play? Why are most of the gadgets sold today crippled in a way or another? Why is it illegal to un-cripple our gadgets we bought?</p> <p>Questions I, frankly, don’t want to answer. For years now I wanted a possibility to play Xenogears in bed and while taking a bath. Now I can, so I’m happy. And playing Xenogears. And loving it like when I was playing through that jewel of game history for the first time.</p> <p>If I find time, expect some more in-depth articles about the greatness of Xenogears (just kidding – just read the early articles in this blog) or how to finally get your PSP where you want it to be – there are lots of small things to keep in mind to make it work completely satisfactory.  </p>

Quality of video game consoles

First, there was The Red Ring Of Death, then we got the beep of death and now we got the Error 110213 of death.

What is it with modern game consoles?

Remember the NES? Plug in, turn on, play.

I know so many people who owned or still own a NES. Not one of them ever had a defective device.

Same goes for the SNES. Or any other console.

Is this obvious degrade in quality the price of ever increasing complexity? Is this the price of abstraction?

I wonder: What will ultimately be the end of ever increasing evolution in technical devices as we know them today: Is it physical limitations like the theory of relativity or is it the plain inability of our brains to comprehend the complexity of the devices we create?

The atmosphere in good games

I’m a big fan of the Metroid series.

It took me a long while to get used to it though. Back in the day, where there was just Metroid, I never got very far in it – and I’ve only seen the game running at a friends home.

Then came the emulators and I gave Super Metroid a shot, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t know what to do, where to go and how to progress – the whole thing didn’t make any sense to me.

Then came Metroid Fusion on the GBA which I actually bought.

And this was when I got it.

The concept is the same as it’s in Zelda: You walk as far as you can go with your current equipment, you get better equipment, opening new paths and then finally, you meet the last boss.

Of course there’s another element to a real Metroid game: Brilliant level design. The designers have thought of so many places where you can “cheat” and break the obvious sequence of events. Doing so varies in difficulty from quite difficult to pull off at first but easy later on till insanely hard to do.

Metroid Fusion is a bit off in this regard though – its sequence is quite linear and there’s only one relevant part in the game where you can skip some content and are rewarded with some extra movie sequence. Additionally, it’s hard as hell to pull of. Much, much harder than the linked video may make you think as it’s dependent on your reaction in tenths of seconds.

But now to the topic: Metroid Prime. And Prime Echoes.

When I started with Prime, I had the same problem as I had when I started with the 2D Metroids: I had no idea where to go, what to do or even finding out how to navigate the world.

This was partly caused by a bad projector with very, very bad contrast in dark areas of the picture – everything was more or less dark gray or black on that projector. Not much fun to play like that.

On the other hand, I played the game like I would play a 3D shooter, expecting the usual smaller levels, lots of shooting and shallow gameplay. Of course this is totally the wrong approach to a game like Metroid: Prime. For 10 minutes, force yourself to think you are playing Super Metroid. Immerse yourself into the world – you have to force yourself for these 10 minutes. And of course, get a better projector.

Then it clicked.

This was a real Metroid. It felt like one and it played like one.

But then something more happened. Something that’s the reason why I don’t play either Prime or Echoes any more. And the reason is the most impressive thing a game could ever accomplish: I stopped playing out of plain fear. Plain and simple fear.

Fear of the bosses. Fear of the lights turning off and these awful chozo ghosts spawning. Fear of small, cramped rooms. Fear of darkness. And in Echoes it was even worse: Fear of being alone in the dark. Fear of dying alone on the dark side of the planet. Fear of being eaten alive by the darkness surrounding Samus (and actually hurting her).

Notice though: This is not the usual fear of losing an extra life by missing a jump and landing in a hole. It’s not the fear of running out of life energy. That’s plain old style video game fears.

No. Metroid is real. The fear is real. You see, both games have an incredibly well balanced learning curve. You practically can’t die. It can take you longer to accomplish something when you aren’t that good/precise, but you don’t die. At least I never did.

The atmosphere created by the games is what make it seem real. There’s that encyclopedia with an entry for every creature – even plant life – you encounter. Then there are no visible borders between levels. Sure, you zone between different places, but all is connected. Progress isn’t something allowing you to leave zones behind you. Progress is fluent. You go there, come back, go there again… The world feels real.

Samus is all alone in that big world, while there are still artifacts reminding of that old civilization. And there are real dangers in that world.

And the music works very, very well too. Light tunes, sometimes menacing, always fitting.

The graphics art too helps completing the illusion of reality. It’s not very detailed (it’s a GC game after all), but it fits. It creates a believable world.

All those little parts come together to create something I’ve never before seen in any game I have played. It brings emotions to a new level. The fear I had when playing Prime and Echoes was real. Real fear of the darkness. Of loneliness. And of drowning in that crashed space pirate ship in Prime – I know there is no limit on how long you can be submerged, but still, it felt so incredibly real.

In the end, it was too much for me.

I couldn’t get myself around to boot up the game any more – out of fear of dark areas or enemies jumping at me.

So what to say? Both GC Metroids are what I’d like to call the perfect game as they awaken real emotions. Something I never felt then using any other entertainment medium. Watching a movie feels like watching a movie. Reading a book is always reading a book. Playing Half Life (with much better graphics but much less credible atmosphere) is like playing a game. Even playing WoW is obviously playing a game.

But playing Metroid is living the game. It’s living the world created by these talented designers.

Unfortunately, even though they have created the perfect game, I’m unable to play it. The perfection put into the design made me too afraid to actually play the game.

Now, after around two years, I finally realized that. And I’m just plain impressed.

Do you know the games I was writing about? Did you feel the same? Do you know other games making you feel like that?

Usable Playstation emulation

Up until now, the Playstation emulation scene was – in my opinion – in a desolate state: Emulators do exist, but they are dependant on awfully complicated to configure plugins each with its own bugs and features and none of the emulators were updated in the last two years.

Up until now, the best thing you could do was to use ePSXe with the right plugins. What you got then was a working emulation with glitches all over the place. Nothing even remotely comparable to the real thing.

And it failed my personal acceptance check: Final Fantasy 7 had severe performance problems (“slideshow” after battle and before opening the menu interface) and the blurred color animation on the start of a battle didn’t work either.

Well. I was used to the latter problem: They never worked and it was – for me – a given fact that these animations just don’t work in emulators

The other thing that didn’t work in epsxe was FFIX. You could play up to that village where they are creating these black mage robots. The emulator crashed on the airship movie after that part of the game. The workaround was to downgrade to epsxe 1.5.1 which actually worked, but IMHO that just underlines the fact that epsxe is not what I’d call working software.

I was not willing to cope with that – mainly because I own a PSOne, so I could use that. Unfortunately, it’s an european machine though and both games I own and I’m currently interested in replaying, FFIX and FFVI, are german and especially FFVI is the worst translation I’ve ever seen in a game (even the manual was bad, btw).

So, there is some incentive in getting an emulator to work: You know, getting the US versions of the games isn’t exactly hard, but playing them on a european console is quite the challenge even if the games were optained through retail channels.

Keep in mind that a) both games are no longer sold and b) I own them already albeit in the wrong language.

And today I found for the Playstation what ZSNES was compared to Snes9x back in 1995: I’m talking about the emulator pSX emulator.

Granted. The name is awfully uninventive, but the software behind that name, well… works very, very nicely:

  • No cryptic plugins needed. Unpack, run, play.
  • It’s fast. No performance problems at all on my MacBook Pro (using BootCamp)
  • It’s stable. It just does not crash on me.
  • And you know what: Even the color animations work – precisely these color animations which we were told would never work properly on PC hardware.

But I’m not finished yet: The software even is under active development! And the author is actually taking and even fixing(!) bug reports. He/She is never blaming the player for bad configurations on the emulators forum. He’s always looking into reports and often fixing the stuff reported.

It’s not Free (freedom) software. It’s Windows only. But it has one hell of an advantage over all other Playstation emulators out there: It works.

As I hinted above: This is just like SNES emulation back in 1995: You had many abandoned projects, one emulator you were told was good (Snes9x) and one that worked (ZSNES). It looks like history is once again repeating itself.

My big, heartfelt thanks to whoever is behind pSX emulator! You rock!

After 13 years something new in Monkey Island

It has been 14 years ago that I played Monkey Island for the first time. Well… maybe 13. I just don’t remember exactly if it was 1992 or 1993 when my parents finally bought a computer and I illegally copied the game from a classmate (including a photocopied version of that “copy protection” wheel).

Of course it didn’t take me 13 years to complete it. But the game was so incredibly cool that I played through it over and over again. And with the downfall of DOS came the advent of ScummVM, allowing me to still play the game.

And just now I started another run – probably because I’ve seen Pirates of the Carribean 2 last monday and I noticed quite some similarities to Monkey Island – especially the second part (Voodoo Lady in a swamp comes to mind)

Anyways. Today was the first time ever I’ve seen the scene I screenshotted there.

In all my previous runs, I always “salvaged” the idol as my last task which mean that as soon as I got out of the water, I’ve seen the ghost ship fade away with Elaine on it.

Now, I did it first as it actually makes sense as that task requires the least amount of walking around, which led me to see this cute scene between Guybrush and Elaine (and not to mention her stupid excuse for not kissing shortly afterwards.

How nice to find something new after 13 long years.

World of Warcraft: Language Packs

Well. Back here, I have begged Blizzard to release a language-pack for WoW, as I had real difficulties playing on an english server with my german version (which I helped later with a semi-legal solution)

Today, they have released language-packs called ELP which do exactly what I asked for in my blog entry

Now if the installation would not take that long, I’d happily remove my semi-legal setup and replace it with the original again.

Thank you so much for seeing and solving this problem, Blizzard!