Test your retro knowledge

A few days ago I was delighted to get the winning eBay bid on something that I’ve been interested in since I was about ten years old (no, it’s not a DeLorean, but I’ll probably get around to that one, too, someday). I have distinct memories of longing after this product when it was released in 1982. I recall numerous occasions standing in the local toyshop, gazing at it in wonder as it sat proudly inside a glass-fronted display cabinet, for ever out of reach.

Well, not quite for ever. It will be arriving in a few days. This might be another disappointing whimsical purchase, but I’m so excited about it that I ended up dreaming about it the other night. It’s not often that happens with an eBay purchase. Although, to be fair, in my dream, the thing arrived in the post covered in ugly dents, no doubt a subconscious expression of my irrational paranoia.

But what is it, pray tell? Well, let’s see if you know. Have a look at the photo. This isn’t specifically what I bought, but it’s one aspect of the product (I siphoned the picture with a Google image search). Ring any retro bells?

Gaming vs. writing

When you hear about the negative effects of gaming, it’s usually an attempt to make a marriage out of violent games and violent behaviour. You don’t as often hear about the problem of gaming as an addiction. And it’s oh so easy to become an addict, as I am discovering. I’ve been spending long hours most evenings glued to the Xbox. And (no prizes for guessing this) I am getting absolutely no writing work done. Part of me knew this would happen.

These days, games are usually multi-level affairs with story arcs that take about forty hours to complete. And the graphics are so rich that gaming becomes partly a cinematic experience. Pleasure is derived from progress through the levels. This is in stark constrast to the games of yesteryear (and we’re talking the early 1980s here) where pleasure was derived from staying alive for as long as possible and getting a new high score. In those games (e.g. Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Asteroids), the entire game experience was given to you in one playing session. The pleasure was not in progressing to new levels of eye-candy, it was in developing a skill at the game. Every time you played, it was one complete gaming experience that you could walk away from without feeling that you had left unfinished business behind. The pleasure was a complete thing, if you see what I’m getting at. Now, it sounds like I’m knocking modern gaming. No, I’m, just trying to clarify the difference in my own mind and to illustrate why modern gaming is so addictive. Old gaming was like playing a game of poker or chess with a mate, and something in me just misses that same kind of experience with arcade gaming. I’ve even toyed with the idea of building one of those MAME arcade machine cabinets for the hallway.

Currently, I’m playing a first-person shooter game called Condemned, and this one is a good illustration of what I’m saying. Although there is a certain amount of skill in engaging enemies, the layout of every level is almost completely linear. There is very little scope for wandering in the wrong direction or getting lost or having to use clues in order to find your way. The game has a nice feature where you use an assortment of gadgets to collect forensic evidence. But rather than having to use your eyes to look for this evidence, the game actually tells you when it’s nearby. Aside from combat, the game holds the player’s hand the whole way through the story. I confess that even though I can see this is a bad thing, I still love playing the game. I guess it’s the experience of creeping through dark corridors with nothing but a flashlight, wondering when the next baddie is going to jump out.

But something’s got to change. I have got to get back into writing. I’ve already reneged on my promise to get Chion out during September. I need to finish editing the book and publish it. Does this mean I didn’t win the James White Award? Yes, it does. No big deal. I was in with a shot, but only one person wins. Actually, I found out that I didn’t make the top five, either (sob).

There is another, much smaller, contest that I’m going to enter this month. I’m a big fan of John Christopher’s Tripods novels (and the TV series). The League of Freemen, which is the official fan club for the series, is running a short story contest entitled “Captain Curtis, The Untold Story.” Curtis was a relatively minor character in the first season (although a memorable one), and the contestants’ task is the expand on him. I’ve had my thinking Cap on (groan) for a few weeks, and I’ve now figured out the story I want to tell. The prize is an extremely rare poster that I’ve wanted to get hold of for years. So, I’m going to knuckle down and try to get the whole story written this evening. Might as well put Chion off again, eh? Well, at least I’m going to be writing.

Top 5 things the Xbox 360 can do but won’t

Here’s a list of the top five things I want my Xbox 360 to do, but it refuses to do them. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but these day’s it’s a pretty sad time for technology; we live in an age where products are capable of doing much more than they are allowed to do. Manufacturers are so concerned with piracy that they handicap their products.

For instance, the XBox 360 is capable of, but won’t …

1. Rip DVD movies onto the hard drive. (Sounds like I’m asking for a pirate’s paradise, but where’s the harm when the ripped file can’t be moved off the HD and distributed elsewhere? And isn’t it a little hypocritical to allow the ripping of music CDs but not DVDs?)

2. Play video files from an inserted CD-ROM or pen-drive (the console is capable of playing video, sure, but only from two sources: Xbox Live downloads and streaming from a PC. So why not from an inserted disc/pen? And why include a USB port in the console’s design, then strip it of its usefulness?)

3. Copy video files from PC to Xbox hard drive over ethernet. (We’ve already established that the console will play videos, even if it’s restricted to Microsoft’s own WMV format. Another nice feature is that the console is ethernet-enabled, and will connect to your PC for streaming video. Is it such a big step to allow those video files to be copied to the console’s HD rather than streamed? Apparently so.)

4. Stream video files from a standard Windows XP PC to the Xbox. (Did I say the Xbox would stream video? Oops. I forgot to mention that you must have Windows XP Media Centre Edition installed on your computer. There is no support for streaming video from Windows XP Home or Professional editions.)

5. Copy MP3s to the hard drive from a CD-ROM or pen-drive. (Wonder of wonders, the Xbox actually does allow you to rip something to the hard drive: ordinary audio CDs, which it converts to WMA format. But be careful, it won’t copy a CD-ROM full of MP3/WMA files, legally purchased or otherwise.)

Here’s the thing. I’m guessing these restrictive design desicions are made mostly to prevent piracy. But in the case of a fairly legal user like myself, all they do is frustrate me. I’m not looking to hoard a massive collection of video files. Heck, there’s not a lot of scope for storing much on the Xbox’s 20Gb hard drive anyway. What I am looking for is convenience.

Thus far, I have spent time ripping my existing CD collection to the Xbox. It would have been a lot quicker if I could have migrated everything from the MP3s I made out of those CDs long ago.

I rent a lot of DVDs online. In order to speed up the snail-mail postal process, I often rip those DVDs and convert them to Xvid so that I can watch them while another disc is on the way. Sometimes I get behind, and have a little collection to watch, which is nice. I hasten to add, this is not piracy. When I rented the disc, I paid for the right to watch it once, and without fail, I delete everything after watching. Currently I have to burn those files onto CD-RWs and watch them on my Xvid-compatible DVD player. I’d love the convenience of putting them on the XBox and doing away with disc-burning. The last thing I want is to run a lengthy ethernet cable into the study and have the PC in there pointlessly switched on all evening streaming vids, while I’m in the living room. Oh, and another thing I don’t want is to fork out £100 for Window XP Media Centre Edition, just because Microsoft wants to make more money out of me.

It sounds like I hate the Xbox, doesn’t it? I don’t. It’s a great games machine, and I don’t regret buying it. But it sucks as a media centre. When the original Xbox came out, hackers took it to pieces and developed the Xbox Media Centre (XBMC: you’ll find it for sale on eBay). I’ve never seen it going, but the capabilities were great. Microsoft should have hired the guys who developed it, then released it as an officially endorsed product, but instead they just tried to quash the whole thing. And when the 360 came out, it only had a fraction of the capabilities of the XBMC.

Companies these days don’t like homebrew products. There’s a corporate mentality that says, “You must not tamper with the product you bought.” Excuse me, but I bought it. I own it. If I install new firmware, replace a microchip, or take a sledge hammer to it, that’s my business.

DRM (Digital Rights Management) is the other other big curse of modern technology. Did you know that when you buy music online (from most stores, not all), you don’t actually own it, you just just own certain rights? Try to move that file to another computer and the new computer will have real trouble playing it. This is why I will always buy CDs and I will never buy anything from iTunes. This is why I will continue to rent actual DVDs rather than downloading videos. Because discs are DRM-free. Did you know that Amazon recently launched a video download service that nobody wanted, because of all the restrictions put on the files? If I remember correctly, you couldn’t even copy the videos onto portable media players. And none of it was Amazon’s fault; it was the corporate greed of poorly educated studio executives who didn’t understand the online business model and made unreasonable demands.

It took a long time for the entertainment industry to back the idea of selling music online, and it’s like we’re back to square one with videos. Corporate greed holds back progress. The funny thing is that all this money poured into anti-piracy achieves absolutely nothing. The pirates are busy hanging out on Usenet and BitTorrent. And because of the way those services work, all it takes is one person somewhere in the world to have one copy of a brand new movie, and before you know it, the file is being shared by hundreds, then thousands.

DRM is totally irrelevant to pirates and succeeds only in treating customers like criminals. Being anti-DRM is not about being anti-copyright or pro-piracy. It’s about trying to get back end-user convenience. (By the way, yesterday was the offical “Day Against DRM,” so that’s why you’re reading this from me.)

Yes, it’s a sad day for technology, but thankfully not everything’s so bleak. Nintendo have unexpectedly embraced (or at least turned a blind eye to) homebrew development on their DS handheld console. And a healthy homemade software scene has developed. Archos make some great media players that are capable of playing Xvid files. In my living room, I have a great little budget DVD player by H&B that will play Xvid files from a CD-ROM. It even has a VGA output port for attaching a computer monitor, which is fairly unique. And the player can be region-hacked by pressing a few buttons. It only cost me £40.

Okay, I’ve ranted long enough and gone way off-topic. To the dedicated people who spend long hours hacking technology to give us a much better experience, thank you! Now, hurry up and hack the 360 to bits.

Getting back into gaming

I’ve been thinking about getting back into gaming for a while, and over the weekend I decided to bite the bullet and purchase an xBox 360. I went for the full pack, which has a wireless controller, built-in hard drive, and xBox Live goodies. I’m not intending to do internet gaming, and I only realised later how useless the HD is going to be without the net. You can rip your CDs to the hard drive and store your photos. That’s about it. It won’t let you copy your existing MP3 collection, whether obtained legally or not. The HD is capable of storing and playing WMV videos, too, but the only way to get them on there is to download (or buy) them from xBox Live. The xBox even has a USB port, which can support pen drives. It’s just such a shame that a piece of kit, capable of so much more, is held back because of piracy (I presume).

I’m really into online DVD rentals, and when I receive a disc that has four episodes, I usually image it onto my computer and convert it to xVid for watching later (I have a nifty living-room player capable of playing that format). I’m not building up a collection of pirated media; as soon as I watch the files, I delete them. If you want to nit-pick about it, technically it’s breaking the law, but all I’m doing is time-shifting – allowing myself to get the disc returned and another on its way to me while I watch the current stuff. It would have been nice to be able to use the xBox as a buffer for these videos. But it’s not allowed. Had I researched just how restrictive the HD was before purchase, I would have bought the basic Core System and a memory card for game saves.

But no matter. I bought the machine to play games on, and how does it fare? Excellent. I’ve bought Perfect Dark Zero and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. PDZ is a first-person shooter, where you play a sort of female James Bond. Beautiful game, tough learning curve, and difficult controls to master. I really miss the mouse-control of a PC, but I’ll persevere. I think it’s going to be a great game when I get some practice. Oblivion is a massive role-playing game. I was initially a little put-off by all the statistics (you know, health, fatigue, magic, etc., etc.), but once I’d gotten a feel for the game, I fell in love with it. There was one particular breathtaking moment, when I first emerged from the castle and looked around at the stunning landscape, and I realised, “It’s like a whole world, and I can go anywhere.”