A fighting game meme….

Damn, when was the last time I even posted in this category? Anyway, you all can blame Jenn Dolari for this one.

Fighting game I love: Mortal Kombat X (both console and mobile).
Fighting game I hate: Primal Rage. I find the controls to be so unresponsive that the game isn’t fun to play at all.
Fighting game that’s overrated: While I love the look/feel, gameplay-wise I’d say Killer Instinct. The combo system annoys the hell out of me.
Fighting game that’s underrated: Darkstalkers 3. I feel the series doesn’t get enough love because it’s seen as “Street Fighter with monsters”.
Fighting game I wish I could be good at: Any of the Tekken series. It’s a great series, but I just can’t wrap my head around the actual gameplay.
Fighting game I secretly like: Time Killers.
All-time favorite fighting game: Mortal Kombat II.

Maybe I will trek online after all.

A couple of posts ago, when discussing Star Trek games, one of the games I mentioned was Star Trek Online. As I stated at the time, I didn’t really think I had the time to get into an MMO, and the fact that it was PC-only was another turn-off. While my battlestation is still capable of running the game, I would much rather play games on my Playstation 4.

Apparently one of my reservations about the game has been taken care of, as there’s a console port in the works.

I have to admit that the game looks good, and the fact that they’re taking great pains to make sure the game works well on a gamepad is appealing as well. In addition, my argument that I don’t have much time for an MMO tends to ring hollow, considering I try to keep up with Destiny.

On the other hand, I have two big issues. The first is that I barely have time to game as it is, MMO or no; these days my non-mobile gaming is restricted to weekends, and even then I may get a few matches on Overwatch or missions in Destiny before I get tired and need to go to bed. The second is that Star Trek Online is free-to-play, and my general experience with free-to-play is that it really means “pay-to-win”. Unless you do an insane amount of grinding or plonk down some cash, advancement in the game is slow-to-nonexistent.

(Honestly, my thoughts on free-to-play could probably fill a post on its own. :-) )

As it’ll be a free download, I’ll very likely give the game a try once it becomes available for Playstation 4. I’ll try and temper my enthusiasm (as I tend to get obsessed when I get interested in a game), but hopefully it won’t be an annoying timesink and will actually be enjoyable to play while providing a good Trek experience.

Okay, so, why does this site exist again? :-)

Yesterday, on a whim, I changed the site’s theme to Coral Dark. I mainly wanted to change the functionality of the comments field to use the WordPress standard provided by the Jetpack plugin, as opposed to the Disqus plugin I had been using. So far, I’ve been pretty happy with it; I haven’t needed to make any changes to the theme coding itself to fit it with the site, and the theme has built-in mobile support that looks better than the theme provided by the mobile site plugin I had been using. I also changed the “lightbox” plugin I had been using to display images to something that looked better and was still being updated.

It seems like a lot of work for a site I rarely post to and not many people read. :-)

Really, I never kept the site alive because I thought I had an actual audience. I simply like the challenge of keeping such a site operational and maintained. I consider it a good exercise to keep the site up to date and using the latest technologies, especially from a sysadmin perspective.

I admit that I had considered returning back to doing something a bit more along the lines of Mortal Kombat Online. I had retired from there because I had burned out on doing Mortal Kombat related news, but I didn’t mind the actual writing. I simply couldn’t think of a niche that already wasn’t well-covered that I thought I could bring a unique perspective to. Of course, I could have returned back to doing Mortal Kombat, but the community these days seems more focused on tournaments and technical aspects that, as a casual player, I feel too ill-equipped to speak on.

I also admit that I was also intrigued by the concept of doing video blogs or streaming gameplay. That also brings a set of challenges. Again, I don’t know if anyone really wants to hear what I have to say. More importantly, though, is that I am completely unsuited for radio or video, as it were. I tend to stutter and my mouth tends to run before my brain has considered what needs to be said. The best evidence of that are my video interviews for Mortal Kombat Online; of the three interviews I gave, the only one that doesn’t make me cringe with absolute embarrassment is the interview I did with Ed Boon at the media event where Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe was first announced. They’re just painful to watch. Streaming gameplay would have the same challenges, with the additional problem that I’m simply not that great of a player. :-)

As an aside, there were plans for a Mortal Kombat Online podcast, and a couple of episodes were actually recorded before the entire project was scrapped. The guy who did the editing was pretty up-front that he had to do a lot of work to make my contribution usable, thanks to my stutter et al.

Needless to say, I think I’m much more valuable in front of a keyboard than I am in front of a microphone or a camera. :-)

All of that being said, I’m pretty fine with how things are. Like I said before, this site was never anything more than something to occupy my time and hone my sysadmin skills, while posting about things that I wanted to get off of my chest. In addition, it looks better than a standard Apache default page or an “under construction” page, the latter of which actually WAS my site for several years. I honestly don’t think I have the time to create something that would take as much effort and resources as Mortal Kombat Online, anyway.

Still, I’m definitely open to suggestions regarding content. If there IS an audience, I’d be willing to branch out if anyone has any good ideas. I like working on the site, and it’s nice to be able to stretch my writing chops every once in a while.

We’ll see how things go, but for now, I’m okay with my site and where it sits in the grand scheme. :-)

Trekking beyond movies to games…

Jennifer and I saw Star Trek Beyond this past Sunday. In my opinion, it’s easily the best of the “Kelvin-verse” movies, and felt like a true Star Trek film. I kind of want to see it again, but am perfectly willing to wait until it comes out on Blu-Ray.

In the run-up to the movie and after seeing it, I’ve become somewhat nostalgic about Star Trek video games, and have been kind of jonesing to play some of them.

Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator
Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator
Funny enough, the one I’ve been missing the most has been the original arcade game from 1982, Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator. It’s a somewhat fast-paced arcade game where you pilot the Enterprise in battle through various sectors of space, defending starbases against attacks from Klingon warships, and occasionally battling the malevolent probe Nomad (from the original series episode “The Changeling”) as it creates minefields around you. Admittedly, when I was a kid, my friends and I used to play the hell out of the ColecoVision port of the game, pretending we were commanding the actual Enterprise. These days, it seems that the only way to play it is via the emulator on archive.org, as there have been no modern re-releases.

The closest game I’ve found to replicating the feel of the arcade game is Star Trek: Starfleet Command, which is a strategic ship combat simulator based on a tabletop game called Star Fleet Battles. It’s far more detailed and complex than the arcade game is, but on the other hand it replicates the feel of actual ship combat in Star Trek more closely. As much as I wanted to get into it, though, I simply couldn’t get the hang of it and got my butt kicked on a regular basis. It’s actually available for sale now, via GOG.com.

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary
Star Trek: 25th Anniversary
Of course, if one wanted to replicate the feel of the actual TV series, the game to get would be Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. Originally developed for MS-DOS, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary is an adventure game set up as several “episodes”, where Kirk et al have to deal with puzzles and obstacles using diplomacy, problem-solving, and the occasional use of brute force. While the game allows you the option to be a jerk and selfish in gameplay dialogue choices, you get the most points for taking actions as the original crew would… and for keeping your redshirts alive. ;-) This game and its sequel, Star Trek: Judgment Rites, are written as if they’re the unofficial fourth and fifth years of the Enterprise’s five year mission, and even have the voice talent of the original cast. Like Starfleet Command, both games are available on GOG.com.

As for modern games, though, I’ve mostly been disappointed. There was an action-adventure game based on the Kelvin-verse for consoles, but I didn’t enjoy playing the demo so I didn’t bother getting the full game. As it turned out, the full game got savaged by critics, so I ended up dodging a bullet (or phaser) there. I’ve heard decent things about Star Trek Online, but I simply don’t have the time to play an MMORPG, especially one for PC. I tried Star Trek Timelines when it was released for iOS, but ended up deleting it when I found the ship-to-ship combat was mostly hands-off and the rest of the gameplay was free-to-play/pay-to-win nonsense. It doesn’t help, either, that several reviews of the game accuse the developers of poor customer service and making underhanded changes to gameplay rewards to try and force players to spend money. There’s also a RPG puzzle game called Star Trek: Wrath of Gems, but to be honest I got bored with free-to-play RPG puzzlers after Doctor Who Legacy.

I suppose, then, I shouldn’t hold my breath for a decent quality Star Trek video game to come out anytime soon. As long as games like Strategic Operations Simulator and 25th Anniversary are still available to play, I should be okay. I just wish it wasn’t so seemingly hard to make a Trek game that’s fun to play.

Random musings, part V…

They’ll be friends, eventually.

One of our three cats, Bennett, is definitely the bully of the group. He really loves to play, but his idea of roughhousing angers and terrifies both Sasha and Sophie, so it’s not uncommon for us to hear the two girls running around with him in pursuit, or simply hear them complain when he’s in their presence.

As Bennett is so rambunctious, when Lucas was born I commented to Jennifer on more than one occasion, “He’s just met his best friend. He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Over a year later, they’re well on the way. Whenever Lucas is playing in the living room, Bennett goes out of his way to try and get Lucas’s attention, rubbing against him and the like. When Lucas sees Bennett, he automatically goes over to him to interact with him.

The only problem right now (and the reason I use the word “interact”) is that as Lucas is so young and Bennett has no experience with kids, they’re not entirely sure how to properly interact with each other. Lucas doesn’t know how to be gentle with Bennett, so sometimes tails are pulled. Bennett, for his part, loses patience quickly. It’s a shame, really, because I can tell they WANT to be friends but they simply don’t know how yet.

It’s one of those things we’ll have to give them time and guidance on. I still believe they’ll be close friends one day. :-)

Release the creamy kraken!

Recently Blue Bell released a new flavor called Cookie Two-Step. We’ve agreed that it’s become our new favorite. Last night, Jennifer shared her theory regarding its existence.

“They created it years ago. However, they left it on the shelf because they could make more money selling the two flavors: Oreos and cookie dough. However, since they had those health and safety problems and have an image problem now, they had no choice but to release the awesome.”

It definitely makes sense to me. :-)

Toy gamepads should be a thing.

On the rare occasion that Lucas actually manages to make it into my office, usually the first thing he makes a beeline for are the DualShock 4 controllers for my Playstation 4. He absolutely loves carrying them around and playing with them. Normally I wouldn’t mind, but most of the time “playing with them” involves putting them in his mouth, so that’s a no-go.

My first instinct was to go onto Amazon and purchase a toy gamepad for toddlers. After all, one would think that would be something the toy companies would sell, right? My son can’t be the only one who likes them.

As it turns out, they don’t actually exist.

In the end, I decided on a compromise. Rather than give him an old controller with the cable cut (and thus expose him to the wires) or an actual controller I might be using (like a 360 gamepad or DualShock 4 controller), I pulled my old Wavebird out of a drawer and gave it to him. After all, I rarely use my GameCube these days, and when I do the wired gamepads work just fine for me. For his part, Lucas loves playing with it and it’s become a mainstay in the living room toy collection and almost always comes with us in his diaper bag when we go out.

I just think the toddler toy manufacturers are missing a potential lucrative toy line. :-)

Transitioning from player to (dungeon) master…

Recently I got to experience Dungeons and Dragons from the other side, so to speak.

A few friends and I have a group that meets every month or two to play D&D. We started in earnest once 5th edition came out, and our friend George acted as dungeon master,  putting us through the introductory adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver. It was pretty fun, especially since I’ve learned that my best character class is a cleric (namely, the party healer).

As we played, though, I started thinking about maybe running an adventure myself. I was pretty hesitant at first, considering the last time I ran an adventure myself was for the old World of Darkness system, and it was twenty years ago. (Christ, has it been that long?) That adventure turned out to be an out-and-out disaster, as I hadn’t planned it very well and wasn’t willing to let the players make their own decisions. After that negative experience, I wasn’t sure I could do it again. There was also the small issue of not having enough time to create a campaign of my own.

What made me firmly decide to go ahead and give it a try was that Wizards of the Coast announced that they were releasing a new updated version of the classic Ravenloft module called Curse of Strahd. Before I had gotten into D&D in earnest, the Ravenloft campaign setting had interested me the most, and it was also the setting I was most familiar with. So, I went ahead and purchased the three core rule books (Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide) and the Curse of Strahd campaign rulebook. After studying all four as best I could, I felt I was about as ready as I could be.

We started the campaign two weeks ago. I don’t think I was as ready as I could have been.

My biggest issue was that I hadn’t studied the campaign rulebook as well as I thought I had, so there were a few times where I had to request do-overs because I had missed something. Thankfully, everyone was patient with me while I went through those learning curves.

To my credit, I was better about giving my players free rein where needed. I also tried to act out the characters as best I could. As my group is less about “role playing” and more about “hack, slash, get loot”, I had to remind them that Curse of Strahd is a fairly story-intensive campaign and that I would be taking character role playing somewhat seriously (which they all agreed to).

One of my main challenges was that our group’s schedule is rather hectic. While we started at around 2 or so, two of our group didn’t arrive until after 5. In addition, another member had to leave unexpectedly at 4. As a result, I had players who were playing multiple characters and had to adapt to the changing player group. As I don’t handle those kind of changes that well, I felt I kept things under control.

I also realized too late that I didn’t have anything to map out encounters, locations, and combat. To my relief, George lent me his dry-erase grid mat and cardboard tokens. I’ll probably hit Montag’s (the local Pearland game store) for something of my own before the next session.

More than anything else, though, I think Jennifer put it best when she observed that I was probably happier as a player figuring out the challenges than as the person actually running the game. It was pretty difficult for me to keep the player side of me quiet sometimes, and let the players figure out where they needed to go as opposed to me simply telling them. On the other hand, it was nice seeing the players figure out where to go and what to do without me explicitly needing to tell them.

All in all, though, I think it worked out well. Like I said, I need to beef up on the particulars before the game days and I need a mapping system of my own as opposed to borrowing George’s. Still, while I would rather be a player, I think I’ve learned and matured enough to be a capable DM. I’ve even considered running online campaigns for those friends of mine who don’t live in the Houston area.

We’ll see if they survive the Curse of Strahd campaign, but for now, I’m happy that I was up to the challenge of running it.

Fixing a Samsung home theater…

In the previous post, I mentioned that I had repaired my Samsung home theater unit. Seeing as the issue is a common problem for this model, I figured a post detailing what I did would be useful.

(I apologize in advance for a lack of pictures; the unit is assembled and back in the home theater and it would be a pain to disassemble again.)

First, a little bit of background: we purchased a Samsung HT-E6730w back in 2012 to replace my ailing Onkyo home theater unit. It’s an integrated home theater unit, including Dolby 7.1 surround sound, wireless rear speakers, a Blu-Ray 3D player, and vacuum tubes. The purpose of the vacuum tubes was to improve the receiver’s sound quality, and are not uncommon in much higher end units.

It was working great, until several months ago. The unit started developing a fault where it would start lowering the volume on its own. It was as if the volume button was being pressed, as we could hear the beeps that indicated the front panel was being operated. It happened randomly, and we would need to fight with it via the remote. Eventually, it got to the point where it was happening frequently and we would lose the fight, ending up with no sound. I took it to Best Buy’s Geek Squad to get it fixed, but they wanted a few hundred dollars to fix it. It turned out to be a moot point anyway, as they found they couldn’t get replacement parts. So, it was sent back unrepaired.

Frustrated, I decided to do some research, and found the cause of the problem: there was a design flaw involving the aforementioned vacuum tubes. They were located right next to the front panel controls, and the heat from the tubes ended up damaging the volume controls.

Fortunately, if you don’t mind going remote-only (like we do), there IS a fix. Note that these actions WILL void your warranty (if you still have one), and done wrongly can damage your receiver. Proceed at your own risk.

You need to take the top cover off the unit first. In the middle of the mainboard is the cable connecting the front panel to the mainboard; go ahead and remove it. Then, remove the front panel via the tabs at the top, bottom, and sides.

At this point, you can see two interface ribbons that plug into the front panel circuit board. One comes from the main front panel controls, and the other from the volume controls. All you need to do is slide out the interface cable from the volume controls. In my own case, it was easy to see the damage caused to the volume touch controls; the volume down button was almost completely transparent compared to the other button.

The volume controls are fixed at this point, and you can replace the front panel and reconnect its interface cable to the mainboard. However, I seriously recommend that the vacuum tubes be disconnected at this point as well. The daughter board they’re part of is connected to the mainboard via an interface cable with a white plug right by the tubes. Just disconnect them, and the vacuum tubes will stop working as well (as well as the USB microphone port). The reason I recommend disconnecting the vacuum tubes are that they do not affect system sound as much as implied, and more importantly their heat could damage other front panel controls. I kept my vacuum tubes connected, only for the eject button to be damaged by the heat and start malfunctioning as well. To fix that, I disconnected the main front page controls’ interface cable, and then disconnected the vacuum tubes.

Since then, my receiver has worked more or less perfectly. We don’t hear any sound difference, and while the front panel controls don’t work anymore, we never used them anyway. We’re just glad we didn’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on a new unit.

Hopefully if you’re having the same problem, this post is of use to you. :-)

The current state of our media entertainment…

As I noted six months ago, we decided to save some money by getting rid of our cable TV service.

It was a bit of a difficult decision at the time, considering how much we used the TV for background noise and how often we used our Comcast-provided DVR. However, at this point, we don’t regret getting rid of it.

One of the biggest changes we’ve made since to our setup since we got rid of the cable service was to get a Roku Streaming Stick for the living room home theater. We were very impressed with how well the Roku 1 worked on our bedroom TV; on the other hand, the installed apps on our Samsung home theater receiver were terrible. Getting the Streaming Stick solved that problem, and now the streaming services work just as well in the living room as they do in the bedroom.

Of course, apps like Hulu replaced the Comcast DVR. On the other hand, we tended to use channels like Food Network, HGTV, and Travel Channel as background noise, especially on weekends. While the broadcast networks had some similar channels, we really missed having those networks. That was solved the other day, when we learned about Sling TV, which provided all the channels we were missing for $20/month. As we rarely (if ever) DVRed those channels, it was a good deal considering how much we had been paying for cable TV service before. We’re on day three of our seven day trial, and we’ve already decided to continue the service.

If there’s been one problem, it’s been the fact that our home theater receiver has a major design flaw that caused both the volume down and eject buttons on the front panel to malfunction badly. After Geek Squad basically declared it unrepairable, I managed to take it apart and figure out a) what the problem was, and b) how to fix the issue. The receiver is working fine now with no issues. I may do a blog post later detailing what I did.

All in all, we’re pretty happy right now with our TV service. When it comes to movies, though, it’s not been as good.

To be honest, there hasn’t been all that much we’ve wanted to go out and see. It doesn’t help, either, that we have to make arrangements for Lucas if we want to go to see a movie in a theater. The last two movies we’ve seen in theaters have been Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War, and unfortunately, we didn’t like either one. While I wanted to see Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I knew Jennifer didn’t want to see it, so I’m waiting for it to become available to rent via Amazon Instant Video. Star Trek Beyond should be out soon, but I’m not sure yet whether we’ll see that at a theater or whether we’ll wait for it to hit home video.

Of course, considering we have a decent TV and sound system, about the only kind of theater it’s worth going out to see a movie at is a dinner-and-a-movie place, and for us that’s Studio Movie Grill, considering they have locations near our house and near Jennifer’s parents’ house. The food is decent, the ticket prices are reasonable (compared to places like AMC and Cinemark), and they have low tolerance for people acting up during movies.

In the end, we’re pretty happy with how things have ended up, six months down the road. With the addition of Sling TV, the one thing that caused us to miss cable TV has been taken care of. We don’t get to see as many movies as we used to, but we’re adapting there as best we can. I think we’re doing well, and we definitely made the right decision as far as cable TV goes.

An end to using multi-IM clients…

I admit to a little bit of geeky sadness.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I’m on several different IM services. For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve been accessing them via third-party clients that could support multiple services simultaneously. I started with Pidgin, but then transferred to Trillian some years back, especially when Trillian released an iOS app. However, this past weekend, I uninstalled Trillian from all of my devices.

To be perfectly blunt, there wasn’t a need for it anymore, as it only hosted a single IM service I still used.

The first IM service I removed from it was Skype, as changes Microsoft made to the compatibility layer resulted in Trillian simply being unable to connect to the service. Shortly afterwards, MSN Messenger stopped working in the iOS client; by that point Skype worked for both contacting both Skype and MSN accounts, so I installed the Skype iOS client and deleted MSN Messenger from my Trillian account. (I already had the Skype desktop app for video calls, which Trillian didn’t support.) The next service I removed was Facebook Messenger, as it stopped working properly in Trillian and I would get notifications about messages from the Facebook app anyway.

The final straw came when Yahoo announced that they were retiring their desktop Messenger app, and they noted in their FAQ that third-party clients would no longer be able to connect to the service. At that point everyone I had been talking to via Yahoo had already switched over to Google Hangouts, and I found that the only contact I had online on my AIM account was someone I hadn’t spoken to in several years. The decision was made, Google Hangouts was installed onto my phone and tablet, and Trillian was uninstalled.

On one hand, it’s a shame because it tended to be convenient to talk to people on different services using one program. On the other hand, as Yahoo Messenger was the only IM service I used where you could only be signed on via one device at a time, it was a tad annoying and removing it made using cross-device IM a little easier. Streamlining my IM profile was a good thing, as well, as I didn’t need to be signing into AIM or Yahoo if I no longer used them.

In the end, I may be a bit wistful about the lack of cross-compatibility and using multiple programs instead of one, but there’s not really much I can do about it all things considered. It did give me an excuse to eliminate services I was no longer using; I’m thinking that, in the long run, that consolidation will make this more a positive. :-)