Monday, December 31, 2012

Video Game 30th Anniversary of the Month - Mr. Do!

As the year 2012 comes to a close, I find myself tying up loose ends. The bulk of my attention this past couple of months has been in some combination of the usual Christmas preparations with a move out of the apartment my wife and I have lived in for the past eight and a half years. I finally got the last of our personal belongings moved out of there this morning. Of course, the task of properly moving into our new home has barely begun! But, for now, that can wait. With the original Star Wars trilogy playing in the background as we await 2013, I have one more blog entry to finish up before the ball drops: the final video game 30th anniversary of 2012: Mr. Do!

At first glance, Mr. Do! is similar to Dig Dug. In both games, the main character digs through an underground playfield while trying to avoid various enemies which can be defeated by dropping objects on them. The games diverge from that point, however. Far from being a suited-up subterranean miner, the main character in Mr. Do! is a clown which seemingly has no business running around in underground caverns, and the addition of cherries set in groups of eight around the board adds to the whimsical randomness of this game. Unlike Dig Dug, where one can only advance to the next level by defeating all of the enemy characters on the board, the player may advance in Mr. Do! simply by grabbing all of the cherries (other ways to advance include the completion of the word "EXTRA" at the top of the screen — more on this in a bit — or by grabbing a diamond that could appear on the board at random. Grabbing a diamond not only completes the board instantly, but also awards the player a free game — a rarity among coin-operated video games).

While Dig Dug could inflate and destroy enemies through the air pump he carries with him, Mr. Do carries around with him a "power ball" that he can not only shoot at monsters in a straight line, but actually around corners! The power ball will zig-zag along its path until it either destroys an enemy or returns to Mr. Do's hands. Of course, once a power ball is released, Mr. Do cannot shoot another until it returns to him (which it will do automatically several seconds after destroying a foe). The other main way to destroy enemies is by dropping apples on them from above. Unlike the rocks in Dig Dug, you do not have to approach apples from underneath, and then walk away (although this works much the same as with the rocks in Dig Dug). You can also push on apples from the side until they reach an existing pit, at which point they will drop down.

Like many games of this era, Mr. Do! also has a bonus target that appears in the middle of the screen. It usually takes the form of an obvious food item that may be eaten safely once all of the monsters for the round have departed the "base" at the center of the board. Eating this food item not only awards points, but also freezes the monsters while a new group of monsters enter the game from the top of the board. The last of these monsters will be an "Alphamonster" containing one of the letters in the word "EXTRA." Destroying this Alphamonster wards the player that letter. If all of the letters in "EXTRA" are earned, the round ends immediately, and the player is awarded an extra life. Although the game rotates through each letter periodically, including already-earned letters, if the player times the approach to the food item just right, one can arrange for the exact letter one needs to be made available. The Alphamonster will also appear (without freezing the rest of the board and without his blue buddies) whenever the player's score hits a multiple of 5000 points, affording additional chances to earn "EXTRA" letters. Don't expect to defeat the Alphamonster or his blue friends easily, however, as they will simply eat any apples in their path, including most (but not quite all) apples dropped from above. To beat these guys, you generally have to use your power balls, and remember that you only get one at a time!

I've enjoyed revisiting some of these classic video games from my childhood. I still have business to take care of before resuming my regular blogging schedule, but hope to do so within the next couple of weeks. See you in 2013!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Video Game 30th Anniversary of the Month - Q*bert

Although I haven't actually seen the movie yet, the release of Disney's Wreck-It Ralph in theaters this month is one that has relevance for these video game posts. In case you haven't heard about it, the movie features a 1980's style video game villain (the eponymous Ralph) who tries to transcend his role and do something good for a change. Although Ralph and the game in which he is featured are newly-created for the movie, Wreck-It Ralph features a number of actual video game icons in a series of cameo appearances. Among these is the hero of this month's game, Q*bert.

It's not hard to understand why Q*bert is such a memorable character. The character has a unique appearance, his name is an obvious pun relevant to the field of cubes he hops on, the game play is very simple (all the rules you need are helpfully featured on one screen during the "attract" phase that most games play while waiting for someone to come by and feed them quarters), the character was one of those featured in a Saturday morning cartoon during the era, and (perhaps most important of all for the intended audience of young adolescent boys) the character features perhaps the earliest known use of cartoony "swearing" in a video game, seen whenever Q*bert loses a turn.

The basic idea of the game is that Q*bert must change all of the cubes on a pyramid to a designated color by hopping on them while avoiding various obstacles. When the game starts, this is pretty easy, as once you've hopped on a cube once, it becomes the target color and stays that way no matter how many times you hop on it again. Later rounds increase the difficulty by making Q*bert hop on a cube twice to reach the target color, or by causing the cube to revert back to a previous color should Q*bert hop on it again after achieving the target, forcing him to have to go back and hop on it again to put things right.

Q*bert isn't the only character to feature in this game, of course. The little orange nose-monster must also contend with a snake named Coily, a couple of purple ogres named Ugg and Wrong-Way (who apparently defy gravity by hopping only on the sides of cubes, rather than on the top), and some green fuzzballs named Slick and Sam (who will reverse Q*bert's progress on the cubes he's hopped on by changing them to another color). There are also a series of red balls that fall down the pyramid that Q*bert must avoid if he wishes to survive.

In a tight pinch, Q*bert can hop on one of a number of spinning disks to the side of the pyramid. If he can successfully lure Coily to follow him off of the pyramid, Coily will plunge to his doom and the pyramid will be cleared off of all other obstacles while Q*bert is transported safely to the top. Naturally, this is where the most points can be obtained (not counting end-of-round bonuses, which increase for every round completed).

Not all items are bad, however. As the instructions indicate, Q*bert may safely hop on any green object. This not only includes Slick and Sam, which helps Q*bert by stopping them from changing the cubes back to colors Q*bert isn't trying to achieve, but also a series of green balls that fall from time to time. Despite looking like little round trip-hazards, if Q*bert lands on one of these, he will not only not lose a turn, but the entire board will freeze for a few seconds, allowing Q*bert to safely hop around — and even through otherwise deadly obstacles — changing cubes to the desired color.

Q*bert is perhaps one of my favorite games of this era, and I still pull it out to play from time to time whenever I feel like a bit of mindless puzzle-solving (if such a phrase makes any sense at all). It's well worth looking for if you don't already have a version available.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

So, Superman's a Blogger Now?

'Clark Kent glasses' photo (c) 2008, Andrew - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/To be perfectly honest, I stopped reading Superman comics when they rebooted the continuity last year. In fact, the only DC Comics title I've followed at all since then (and that in fits and starts) has been Firestorm, and that has far more to do with long-standing loyalty to that character than with the "New 52" take on the concept (which, frankly, has been awful, and I can't tell you how happy I am about the "back to basics" take starting with Firestorm #13). So I can perhaps be forgiven for having missed the news that came out last week about Clark Kent quitting his job at the Daily Planet, purportedly to begin his own blog.

Indeed, after having found out about the change while listening to this past weekend's episode of Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me (and even that, I only caught yesterday morning), my reaction was essentially as one of the "millions of people issuing a simultaneous 'meh'" that was described over at Geekosystem. Frankly, I'll believe that the move is permanent when I see it still in place a decade from now.

While the Daily Planet has been a fixture of Superman's history almost since the character's conception (the paper Kent worked for in his actual first appearance was called the Daily Star, with the Planet name apparently being created to avoid conflict with real-life newspapers when Superman became a daily newspaper comic strip), the folks at DC Comics have shown signs of trying to figure out how to move out of the outdated newspaper business for over 40 years, when Kent became the news anchor for a television news broadcast in the early 70s. Actually, that particular change itself lasted more than a decade, but by the John Byrne reboot of the Superman concept after Crisis on Infinite Earths, Clark Kent was working for the "great metropolitan newspaper" once again. Since then, the Daily Planet has seen its iconic building destroyed (several times) and the paper itself has been sold and shut down, only to have the "status quo" eventually restored a fairly short time later.

That said, whether its this time, or some time in the future, the end of the Daily Planet will someday be final. The folks at DC Comics aren't wrong to try to update Superman's day job to something that makes more sense in the modern era. Back when Superman was introduced the to public in 1938, newspapers were incredibly powerful, and were indeed a logical place for Clark Kent to want to set up so that he might have early warning of when a disaster might be taking place for Superman to rush off and provide help. And it even makes sense why the attempted "fix" of the 1970's (Clark Kent on television) didn't survive the Byrne revamp, the fact of television largely having supplanted newspapers notwithstanding. While a newspaper reporter can spend unusual hours away from the office depending on what story has just broken, a television news anchor pretty much has to be there at his desk in front of the camera when it comes time for the broadcast to begin. This would obviously have been a severe liability to Superman. What if Lex Luthor was trying to destroy Metropolis right at 6:00 pm? Clark Kent can't very well do his job telling the citizens of Metropolis to evacuate their homes if Superman is on the scene trying to make it so that they don't have to....

In this vein, perhaps blogging makes sense. Although it's still very much the case that few bloggers can make meaningful money at it, blogging is definitely the kind of the job that would allow Kent to rush off and perform his super-heroic duty whenever and wherever Superman is needed, and as long as he can find access to a computer connected to the Internet, he can still write about it for his audience afterward. Although I can't say this move will do much to get me back into reading the comics as they come out, I will nonetheless be curious to see if Clark Kent can make a go of blogging as a career.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Transformers Universe Extended Bios: The Omnibots

A few years ago, Jim Sorenson, who blogs over at "Disciples of Boltax," released a few previously unseen extended bios for various Transformers. These were apparently written by Bob Budiansky in the style that came to be associated with the Transformers Universe mini-series, but failed to be included in any of those four issues. Several years previously, Sorenson had also released bios of this type for the Omnibots on the Allspark message boards. However, these Omnibot bios were not included among the bios Sorenson posted on his blog.

When these were posted on the Allspark, Sorenson noted that they came from a "comics bible" he had purchased in his quest for model sheets (which he ultimately used to create such works as The Ark), written by Bob Budiansky (who besides being the author of around 50 of the 80 issues of the original US Marvel Transformers comic book, also wrote the vast majority, if indeed not all, of the Tech Specs bios for the Generation One toys, in addition to the Transformers Universe bios). I'm going ahead and posting them now to fill in the gap left by "Disciples of Boltax," but do encourage folks to read that blog to see the entries previously posted.

Omnibot CamshaftCamshaft

Profile: Unlike all others who travel the highways of Earth, Camshaft has no fear of car accidents, and with good reason: his lightning-fast automated reflexes allow him to pulverize any vehicle that approaches within 4 inches of his metal frame. The arrogant confidence he has about his own safety often leads to reckless driving, a fact that Optimus Prime is not too happy about. Camshaft doesn't share his leader's concern about the lives of his adopted planet's native inhabitants. But there's no doubt in Optimus's mind that Camshaft's aggressive nature is a boon in battle against the Decepticons, and Optimus is reluctant to say anything to Camshaft that might change that.

Abilities: In car mode, Camshaft's rear fenders can convert to powerful fists, each capable of 30 punches per minute, each punch having a force of 80,000 psi. His trunk rotates into a high-energy plasma beam projector with a range of 2 miles. The same weaponry is available to him in his robot mode.

Weaknesses: Converting to an offensive mode while in the act of driving sometimes causes Camshaft to lose control of his driving. As it is unlikely that he will back off from any confrontation, he often finds himself overmatched by an opponent.

Downshift

Profile: Nothing pleases Downshift...or so he thought. Back on Cybertron this battle-weary soldier had fought for so many millennia that he began to wonder whether it was worth it for him to continue. But once he came to Earth he found everything around him fresh and new and he delighted in all his optical sensors saw. He particularly enjoys the company of human children, or, as he likes to call them, mini-men and mini-women (although he has as much trouble telling them apart as his fellow Autobots). His sullenness about the Autobots' mission is often of concern to Optimus Prime, but he generally follows orders, however grudgingly, because deep down he knows this truth: the unending Autobot resistance is preferable to a rapid Decepticon victory.

Abilities: In robot mode, Downshift carries twin ground-to-air rocket launchers on his shoulders. The rockets use magnetism to guide their path, limiting them to mostly iron and steel targets, such as Decepticons. The launchers can also be used while he's in his car mode, making Downshift a very effective covert warrier. In either mode, the rockets can travel up to 30 miles and pack the explosive equivalent of a half ton of TNT. He also wields a "rust rifle" which shoots a stream of powerful liquid oxidizing agents. A blast of this can seriously harm and debilitate a metallic foe.

Weaknesses: Downshift' s weapons are mostly ineffective against non-ferrous materials, a fact that can be used to his disadvantage by an opponent. His soldierly instincts are often hampered by his sullen moods.

Overdrive

Profile: Road-racing is Overdrive's passion: he considers it Earth's primary cultural advantage over his native Cybertron. But the thrill of merely racing is not enough for Overdrive — if necessary he’ll lift off from the ground and fly in order to win! Good sportsmanship isn't his strong suit. And that carries over to his battle tactics too. He has no interest in a fair fight with a Decepticon; he only wants to win. And he’ll do whatever he must to make sure he does.

Abilities: Besides being able to travel up to 190 mph while in car mode. Overdrive can also sprout wings from his doors and fly. His flying range is 700 miles and he can reach speeds of up to 300 mph. He can convert a section of the front of his hood into twin high-powered machine guns that shoot 60 rounds per minute. In robot mode he also has use of his wings and machine guns, although he's considerably less adept at flying.

Weaknesses: Although his ability to fly while in car mode can often be used to surprising advantage, Overdrive's overall maneuverability in the air is often inferior to other airborne opponents.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

It's Not Easy Being Brawl

In a recent thread about the upcoming "Fall of Cybertron" versions of the Combaticons, it was observed that Brawl somehow manages to remain green through various recolors that leave the rest of the team with strikingly different appearances. Someone suggested a parody of a certain song sung by a famous Muppet frog. I took that as a challenge! ;)

(inspired by 'Bein Green as sung by Kermit the Frog, written by Joe Raposo)

It's not that easy being green
Having to spend each day the color of the earth
When I think it could be nicer being red, and yellow, and bright
Or something much more violent like that

It's not easy being green
It seems you blend in with so many boring nature-loving things
And robots tend to pass you over
'Cause you're not standing out
Like laser battles on a comet
Or bombs from the sky

But green's the color of envy
And green can be dark and scary-like
And green can be big like a dragon
Or exploding from a cannon
While it kills Bumblebee

When green is all there is to be
It could make you wonder why
But why wonder, why wonder
I am green, and it'll do fine
It's militant, and I think it's what I want to be

Monday, October 22, 2012

Video Game 30th Anniversary of the Month - Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator

I have to confess to a bit of uncertainty about whether this month's entry really fits as a 30th anniversary. The Wikipedia article suggests that Sega didn't release this game until 1983, and for all I know, their sources may well be right. However, I'm going by the copyright date Sega included on the game itself, which places this game in 1982, and therefore as worthy of inclusion. For those who are sticklers for accuracy, and who believe that the 1983 date is indeed more accurate, I can only hope that my placing this entry toward the end of the year helps (although I have my own reasons for not featuring this game in November or December).

Although I will simply refer to this game as Star Trek for the sake of simplicity, the full name on the marquee is Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator. In case that subtitle is insufficiently clear, this game is a combat simulator, placing you in command of the Enterprise as you seek to defend a series of Starbases from the evil Klingons (yes, we know from Star Trek: The Next Generation that the Klingons aren't so much evil as they are a proud warrior race that the Federation simply found themselves on the opposite side of once upon a time. This game not only comes before these revelations, but the game makes the Klingons about as faceless an enemy as one could possibly devise. The better to shoot them to smithereens without feeling any guilt about doing so!). The three-part screen provides the player with an overhead view in the upper-right, a first-person perspective (unusual in video games of the time) at the bottom, and the upper-left showed the viewer how much of certain limited supplies or powers remained available.

Controls and graphics for this game were both somewhat different than other games featured so far. The graphics were all vector-based, rather than using pixels to create the objects seen on the screen. Although this admittedly resulted in hollow, largely single-color images (although each distinct image could be a different color, as could separately-generated elements designed to coordinate together to form an image), this technique held the advantage of being able to create more detailed images than the more conventional bitmap displays of the time. Also, vector-based objects could be scaled much more easily, as is demonstrated in Star Trek in the opening sequence that introduces each game element. As to controls, there was no joystick in Star Trek, but rather a dial was used to spin the ship to face the appropriate direction, and a series of buttons controlled impulse power for movement, warp speed (for much faster movement, but only a limited supply), phasers with which to attack, and photon torpedoes (again a limited supply, but which could destroy all ships within the radius of a torpedo's explosion).

Although Star Trek could be found in the standard upright arcade cabinet form, truly lucky gamers had access to an arcade that had the cockpit version, designed to emulate the captain's chair on the bridge, from which you could control all of the game's functions via the dial and buttons placed in the armrests. If that wasn't enough, Star Trek features an early attempt at synthesized speech in a video game (I'm told that actual voice sampling was too memory-intensive to be viable at the time, but that sure sounds like Leonard Nimoy's voice saying "Welcome aboard, Captain!"), further helping the player to feel like he's stepped into the 23rd century, if only for a moment (and assuming that computer viewscreens of that far-flung future only had vector graphics...).

Friday, October 19, 2012

BotCon 2012 Exclusive Shattered Glass Treadshot

Love it or hate it, the "Shattered Glass" continuity has been a mainstay of BotCon and the official Transformers club for several years now. For those who don't already know, Shattered Glass is essentially a mirror-universe take on the Transformers concept. The Autobots are evil and the Decepticons are good, instead of the other way around, as it is in every other Transformers toyline yet seen.

Most of the characters in the Shattered Glass universe are counterparts to specific Generation One characters. That is to say, Shattered Glass Cyclonus is a counterpart to Generation One Cyclonus, and not, say, to the Armada character with the same name. There are, however, a couple of exceptions. One of these is Shattered Glass Treadshot, who is not, apparently, a counterpart to the Generation One Action Master of that name, but rather draws its inspiration from a rather obscure "Battle in a Box" toy that was packaged alongside a white repaint of Armada Optimus Prime designated as "Ultra Magnus" (to make matters more confusing, the "Battle in a Box" set was packaged as part of the original Universe line, which was explicitly a multi-continuity-spanning line, and so we still have no official designation for which universe the characters represented by these original toys are supposed to come from!).

Shattered Glass Treadshot is a redeco of the Reveal the Shield Jazz toy with a new head, but I hesitate to call it a "remold" in the usual sense. At about the time Jazz was released, the folks who design Transformers toys had started to create molds with redecos already in mind, and would include a second head as a part of that process. This information became known to the public through the fact that many of the instructions for the toys would feature the other head, rather than the one actually on the toy that was released. Although Treadshot does use the head that was thus prematurely revealed, it is highly doubtful that it was actually created with Treadshot in mind (Fun Publications' design process is largely distinct from Hasbro's influence, except to the degree that Hasbro must give final approval). However, neither Hasbro nor TakaraTomy have yet to release this head on any toy other than Treadshot (despite the fact that the mold has now been used for no fewer than five distinct characters, two of which have had new heads created for them). The TFWiki has taken to calling this phenomenon a "pretool," which seems as good a term as any, although since I don't tend to use the term "retool" (however much more accurate it might be than "remold"), I might consider coining the term "premold." What do you think?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Transformers in 3-D comic issue #1

Most of the time, when I'm talking about Transformers comics of the 1980's, I'm talking about the Marvel series. However, there was another Transformers comic series that came out during that era, which is now all-but forgotten. A company called Blackthorne Publishing, most known for publishing 3-D comic books, was able to get a license from Hasbro to do such 3-D comics at the same time as Marvel had the Transformers comic book license. Apparently, the 3-D gimmick was enough of a difference to convince Hasbro (and Marvel? I have no idea if there were ever any lawsuits) that Blackthorne's work would not infringe on the existing agreement.

Blackthrone eventually produced three of these 3-D issues, but I'm just going to focus on the first one here. This issue's story, called "The Test," focuses on a combination of characters introduced to the toyline in 1986 and 1987 (which is when the comic was published). It's mostly a light-hearted chase story, as the Transformers investigate a pair of strange alien creatures that may provide a possible new source of Energon (their favored fuel source). Unknown to the Transformers, these creatures are actually intelligent, and have in fact been tasked with investigating the Transformers themselves!

Although the Headmaster leaders, Fortress Maximus and Scorponok, feature fairly prominently, a reference to "making some progress on the 'Headmaster' technology" seems to place this issue some time before the characters have actually become Headmasters. This oddity, all by itself, knocks this story out of contention for the cartoon continuity, and the existence of Galvatron alongside the not-yet-Headmaster characters eliminates the Marvel comic continuity from contention. This story stands on its own. In fact, both the "technology" reference and a surprise appearance by the Quintessons at the end would seem to suggest that the story was dropping hints for future adventures in this series, but these threads were never revisited in either of the two other issues that Blackthorne eventually released (indeed, no two Blackthorne issues seem to fit into any coherent continuity with each other, let alone with anything done by anyone else).

Like many 3-D comic books, these stories use a red/blue printing process that one reads through color-filtered glasses. This process essentially requires that the images themselves remain monochromatic, but even granting that limitation, the art here is quite crude. Many characters bear only the most passing resemblance to more well-known renderings, and if it weren't for the fact that they're usually named on-panel, the reader would often have no idea which character was being depicted. Between this and the fairly goofy story, I can't really recommend this issue as anything beyond the unique oddity that it represents in Transformers history. But in that respect, the 3-D comic represents a take on Transformers storytelling that hasn't been seen again in nearly 25 years, and it is therefore worthy of attention.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Transformers Groove's Spanish Packaging

I've written before about the fact that Transformers have been sold in countries other than the United States and Japan. In fact, the brand is a world-wide phenomenon. This fact allows for a few interesting blips in the otherwise straightforward history of how certain toys come to be made. Take this Spanish version of Groove, for example. It did not come out at the time of Groove's original release in 1986, but rather several years later, as part of a European "Classics" sub-line that showed up around 1990 (not to be confused with the American "Classics" line of 2006, nor the similarly-themed lines which have come since that technically use different names, but which are often referred to in this way. Also note that "Classics" toys from Spain do not feature the "Classics" title, although most other European countries did feature such language).

The fact that this version of Groove came later than the original means that the packaging offers some unique features besides just the fact that the text is written in another language. For example, the original Groove came on a card with the traditional red and black design and the original Transformers logo. This version features the golden pattern of the later era alongside the now all-but-forgotten version of the logo from the tail end of the original toyline. This also means that the Tech Specs on the back of the card features the bar graph format, rather than the criss-crossing "heart monitor" pattern of the original format, which required a red plastic filter to read easily. The toy itself, so far as I can remember (I no longer have the toy, sadly. Only the packaging), was identical to the American release of the toy, with one exception. American versions still featured rubsigns when the original Groove came out, but the "Classics" toy did not have one (which is perhaps somewhat odd, as the original waves of "Classics" toys did have rubsigns, despite the American line having abandoned them a couple of years previously. However, by the time Groove came out, even this line had stopped using rubsigns).

I didn't pay especially much for this version when I found it several years ago, and imagine that one could be found again without having to break the bank too badly for it, provided you're fortunate enough to stumble across the distinctive packaging in the first place, but expect to spend a bit of time searching if you really want to get a "Classics" version rather than the original, and to pay at least a bit more for doing so.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Transformers Prime Cyberverse Decepticon Flamewar

Because of the engineering expertise and multiple parts necessary to create a Transformers toy, Transformers actually tend to cost a bit more to produce than many people expect on the basis of their size compared to other toys in stores. In order to at least try to keep the actual costs buyers have to pay down, Hasbro relies fairly heavily these days on redecos (also often called repaints). While I've argued in the past that there have always been such redecos in the line (and, in fact, the entire Transformers franchise owes its existence to the concept, as the original line was actually nothing more than reuse and redecos of toys created for entirely different lines in Japan), they have not always been as common in the past as they are now. These days, it is rare to see a mold that does not get reused at least once, if not more, by changing the color scheme around and possibly remolding a part or two.

Many redecos are original concepts in and of themselves, while others draw inspiration from a variety of sources. Once in a blue moon, a toy comes along that clearly draws its inspiration from something originally done for one of the Transformers conventions, such as the Universe Skywarp toy from nearly a decade ago. The recent Decepticon Flamewar figure, part of the "Cyberverse" sub-line of smaller Transformers figures, is another such example. The original Flamewar toy was a part of BotCon 2005, the very first convention run by Fun Publications, and was the free incentive figure given only to those who attended the convention and also purchased the box set of exclusive toys that year. It is very hard to find these days (an eBay search yielded no relevant results), and can go for a pretty high price if and when one is found (easily upwards of $150, which is pretty high for a mold that would have gone for around $7 if the toy had been produced for retail). Like that convention exclusive, this version of Flamewar is a redeco of an Arcee figure. But unlike that one, which was never intended for a mass audience, this Flamewar is readily available at most toy stores today!

Admittedly, there has been some obvious inflation in prices since 2005. Although, being a "Legion" class Cyberverse toy, this Flamewar is considerably smaller than the Scout-class toy from the Energon line that inspired it, $7 is perhaps a low price to pay for it (some toy stores are starting to charge as much as $10 for it, but this is thankfully not yet the norm). However, I would still recommend it. Not only does this provide a cheap alternative when compared to the $150+ BotCon exclusive, but this Cyberverse toy has a remarkably detailed transformation given its size. In fact, I'm starting to shift my new Transformer buying somewhat, buying fewer and fewer of the once-standard "Deluxe" size, and more and more of the smaller toys from the Cyberverse sub-line. Larger toys, these days, tend to be exclusives or otherwise special, especially in an era where the shelves are so clogged with Bumblebees that it can be hard to find something distinctive. But I'll have more to say about that kind of thing at another time....

Friday, September 28, 2012

Star Trek: The Next Generation Celebrates Its 25th Anniversary

If you follow the Star Trek franchise, you may already be aware that today marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Encounter at Farpoint." The odds are, Paramount will be making an even bigger fuss about the 50th anniversary of the entire Star Trek franchise in just four more years, but in the meantime, there are plenty of interviews and retrospectives to be found. Just head on over to StarTrek.com for a sampling.

When The Next Generation first came on the air, it was accompanied by a fairly major push of publicity from Paramount studios, no doubt taking advantage of the success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (arguably the most popular original cast film of the franchise with the general public, with apologies to fans of Star Trek II, which has an undeniably strong base within the Trek fandom) the previous year. The Next Generation actually represents at least the third attempt to bring Star Trek back to television screens after the original series ended, and the second to successfully do so (the first attempt was the Animated series of the 1970s, and the unsuccessful attempt was directly responsible for the existence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, at the end of that same decade). Paramount Studios, the owner of the franchise after buying out Desilu Productions mid-way through the original series' run, clearly had high hopes for the show.

After what would probably be fair to say was a rocky first season, The Next Generation grew to be insanely popular. It was not only more successful during it's original run than the original series ever was during its own original airing, but the other Trek spin-offs to air in the years since (even the prequel, Star Trek: Enterprise) are really much more Next Generation spin-offs than spin-offs of the original series. While the original series may be the spark that ignited the flame, the Next Generation was the torchbearer, setting the standard that Trek fans since the 1980s have come to expect.

It's actually hard for me to comprehend, even today, that when The Next Generation first aired, even the original series was only about 21 years old, younger than The Next Generation is now. This naturally means that kids of today cannot help but look back at The Next Generation as the kind of hazy "historical relic" that I considered the original series to be. With the series now coming out on Blu-ray, I hope that fans can look back and say that The Next Generation holds up as well as fans of the original series in the 1980s would have said the original series did.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Transformers Custom - Astrostar

Quite a few years ago, I tried my hand at a number of Transformers-related customs. I've shared a few of these before, but I somehow never seem to have gotten around to sharing "Astrostar," my silvery custom made from an extra Cosmos.

Since Cosmos was a spaceship, I thought about what color a spaceship should be. If I may be so bold, I think that the silver color-scheme I decided upon is far more realistic than the green of the original toy, if "realistic" is even an appropriate word to use for a science-fiction creation such as a flying saucer!

In an attempt to keep the toy fully transformable without scraping the paint applications away, I left Cosmos' yellow parts unchanged, although close examination of the pictures does reveal that the green where the arms meet the torso still shows through. The gold (mostly) replacing the red of Astrostar's head seemed an appropriate counter-point to the silver on the rest of her body.

Yes, "her." Although I am on record as saying that, as robots, Transformers shouldn't have "male" nor "female" sexes, the fact that they do in most of the fiction is an accomplished fact of life. Having established that female Transformers exist, however, the powers-that-be have managed to incorporate a disappointingly small number of them into the actual roster of established characters. When I wrote up Tech Specs for this fan creation, I decided to do my small part toward equality (you'll have to click the thumbnail to actually read the bio, of course).

I didn't stop at the Tech Specs, either. This was one of the customs for which I created an actual box, designed to resemble the Generation One boxes (not precisely, but most average folks wouldn't know the difference).

Sadly, I no longer have this toy in my collection, having sold it on eBay to a fan some years ago. However, I remain quite proud of this particular effort. You can see some more pictures (including the box from other angles) at this link.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Video Game 30th Anniversary of the Month - Pitfall!

While the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man was the highest selling game in that system's history, Pitfall!, the holder of the #2 position, has a perhaps more interesting and unique story. To tell it properly, however, it isn't enough to go back 30 years to the game's introduction in 1982. I need to go back a few years more....

The standard for all home video game systems of the early video gaming era was that each company would make all of the games for its own system. Thus, the first batch of Atari 2600 games were all made by Atari. But by 1979, a group of Atari's best programmers, perhaps most notably David Crane, get fed up with Atari's policies which failed to reward programmers for successful games. They left Atari to form their own company: Activision, the first third-party manufacturer of games for any home video game console. Unlike Atari, Activision would advertise the programmers who created the games as well as the games themselves, and programmers would be entitled to royalties on game sales. Thus, if a game did well, the people who created them would benefit.

Another of Crane's disagreements with Atari's game-making policy was their trend — easily demonstrated via the Pac-Man game already mentioned — of creating games that were home versions of games created for other forums (specifically, the self-contained video arcade unit). Crane argued that this resulted in games for the 2600 that were sub-standard copies, and that it would be better to create games that specifically took advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of the technology available for the system the game was being created for. Pitfall!, almost certainly Crane's best-known creation,* is an excellent example of the result.

The concept of the game is simple enough. The player controls "Pitfall Harry" as he runs through an ever-changing jungle, avoiding obstacles that will either slow him down (and steal from Harry's score) or take one of his three lives, in an effort to reach as many of up to 32 treasures before a 20-minute time limit (or Harry's supply of lives) runs out.

While Pac-Man was limited to a single game screen and flicker-strobed sprites to attempt to give the game the required number of characters, Pitfall! achieved a wide variety of game situations and characters, all in solid, non-flickering sprites, simply by using an interchangeable series of elements. On one screen, you might have a lake and a vine you could use to swing over it. On another, you might have a lake and a group of crocodiles that you can jump on only when their mouths are closed. On yet another, the lake might open and close so you can run across if you time it just right (There are plenty of boards without lakes, of course!). This enabled the programmers to create a game with 256 screens, all basically similar to each other, but each with a unique arrangement of the available sprites.

By modern standards, the game's pretty monotonous (as the series of such similar screenshots can't help but demonstrate), but Pitfall! was undeniably a significant technological achievement for its time, and the game was popular enough not only to earn that #2 all-time spot, but to spawn several sequels over the past three decades (including one for the iPhone and similar devices, which came out just last month). Pitfall! even inspired a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon as part of the Saturday Supercade series that gave Mario his first animated appearance anywhere. And it all happened because a group of programmers decided to take the risk of leaving the company that gave them their start so they could strike it out on their own.

*I am not counting, of course, games that Crane worked on that involved concepts created by others. However, even most of those aren't especially well-known today. Especially worth mentioning on this blog, however, is an obscure game created for the Commodore 64 computer: Transformers: The Battle to Save the Earth.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

New Super Mario Bros. Wii Boxed Sticker Capsule Toys

My current living situation is such that I need to go out of my way to get quarters from time to time. As I've discussed in the past, this is not something one can do as quickly and easily these days as perhaps one once could, but there are still a couple of reliable outlets near where I live. One such outlet is a pizza place that still has a change machine near a selection of video games they have on hand. Because getting quarters is a service that I am glad they provide, I generally use at least one of the quarters I get on one of the video games, but this past weekend, I was informed that the video games were out of order. I therefore spent some quarters on something I think I've only done twice in the past decade: a capsule toy machine. In this case, I spent a dollar on one of the sticker boxes from the new "New Super Mario Bros. Wii" game.

As I've mentioned in my current "30th Anniversary" video game series, Mario is the most famous video game character of all time. One of the benefits of this fact for me is that, although the stickers are being sold to promote a new game on a system that I don't own (the most recent video game system I've had in my home is the Super Nintendo, so one can safely assume that I'm a bit behind the times in this area), I had a good chance of ending up with a set that contained characters and/or icons with which I was familiar. There was still a bit of a risk. Besides the $1.00 price (which I did think was a bit high, but I obviously wasn't so put off by it that I didn't pay it), I'm not terribly familiar with the "Glow Block" I might have received, and even the "Super Guide Block" is a bit later than the Mario games I grew up with. Still, that left me a 3-out-of-5 chance of getting a block I would feel some nostalgia for, and we haven't even gotten to talking about the stickers themselves!

As luck with have it, the capsule opened to reveal a "Question Block," arguably the most iconic of all the block types in the Super Mario Bros. franchise. Of course, the block is nothing more than a folded up piece of printed card stock, but it's actually reasonably close to being in scale with the not-really-LEGO versions of Mario and Yoshi I own, so it should fit in with them just fine. It also came with the advertisement that I scanned for the top of this entry, just in case I was interested in trying for the other sticker sets, no doubt.

But, of course, the stickers are the main attraction here. Kids love stickers! I'm a little beyond this kind of thing, myself (however much I obviously have retained many of my childhood interests. I can't very well write a blog like this one and not admit that), but I'm sure I'll find some ways to use these or some kids to give them to. This particular set focuses on useful items from the game, rather than characters (which are found in other sets). While the mushrooms with propellers on top are admittedly new to me, the regular mushrooms and turtle shell stickers could just as easily have been made for a Super Mario game of my own era. Heck, for all I know, perhaps they were. It's not as if these designs aren't used and reused ad nauseum in promotional campaigns.

But, at the end of the day, I got the quarters I needed to do my laundry, supported the business that enabled me to get them, and got a nice little piece of nostalgia in the bargain. Not bad at all....
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