Work!

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Really, the last itme I made a post was May of 2008? When I lived in San Francisco? And now it's 2011 and I'm back on the east coast in DC?

Live from San Francisco

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Greetings from the West Coast! We came out here with 10 days to find a place (in advance of our move in late June). Who'd have thought we'd end up with a lovely apartment on Day 1. Happily, this means nine days of exploring the city and the region. We've been every where from Point Reyes and Napa to San Jose. An there are still three days remaining! Tomorrow we venture to the Rock. I've had my feet in the Pacific, we've driven down Lombard Street -- and have only scratched the surface. It'll be a good place to live for a year. It's only too bad I can't change my user name to something like Frisco or SanFranCA.

RRoD... the long wait is finally over

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So, it happened. What MS likes to call the Red Ring of Light; what the rest of the gaming world knows better as the Red Ring of Dealth. I had it. Two months, two consoles crap out. Oddly, I'm far more forgiving of the PSP than I am the 360, simply because I knew that one day my Microsoft console would die. Add to that the terrible customer service experience I had with a woman, bless her, who couldn't understand me and forced me to repeat everything to the point I could barely contain my exasperation.

I bought my 360 not quite 2 years ago, in September of 2006. According to the console itself, it was manufactured in 2005. This demise was, sadly, inevitable.

And when did your 360 first red-ring?

PSP Returns to fanfare and rejoicing

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Not even a month ago I posted about the hardware difficulties I was having with my PSP. It's a long story, but I can make it short: Display key janked, Select and Home keys useless, Browser out-of-comission, device returned to Sony for in-warranty repair.

And now here it is, less than a month later, and I have a new PSP in hand. And when I say new, I do mean scratch-free, new-car-smelling, solidly, brilliantly, brand-spanking, out-of-the-box new. But here's the best part: it was only last Monday that Sony received the device. By Wednesday I'd had an email come with a UPS tracking number, and here today, just four days later, a PSP rests quietly on the desk beside me. Frankly, if I hadn't been so lazy about getting the thing to UPS in the first place, the turn-around for this whole thing would've been less than two weeks. (Note to self: less fainéant, more diligent, greater happiness in life.)

Now, I hate to sound like a corporate shill, but it has to be said: Sony did do right by me. Really, from start to finish, from the initial, hopeful trip to Gamestop to try to get my hands on a copy of the receipt to the UPS driver and the Sony service center, it's been a pretty positive consumer experience. And those, my friends, are words you don't very often find in blogs and forum posts around the web. Yeah, sure, it's not so positive that the thing broke in the first place, but I have to be candid here: I dropped that poor thing at least three times and dropped it hard. I almost -- just almost -- feel a pang of guilt about having a replacement at all.

When's the last time you dropped your PSP?

Saved game lost. Intense frustration, some weeping ensue.

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I'll keep this one short. Last night I put in Crackdown. Please understand that I love this game. It's some of the most fun I've ever had in a sandbox world, jumping around, driving around and hunting down the baddies. Not to mention two particular gameplay mechanics that really scratch some itches for me -- you know, the collecting, the levelling-up. Sure it's not a brilliant game, the narrative is utterly cliched, and just about everything on the disc is derivative, but it's still tops in my book for just plain being fun.

So yes, I love Crackdown.

Now the sad part. I hadn't played for a month or so and, not surprisingly, a title update was being pushed. Of course I accepted it, I always do. And then, wait for it -- my save game, it's gone. All my skills reset to zero, all the cars I'd collected missing from the garage. And then those agility orbs, and those hidden orbs, some of which took just ages to get, they're all back in place. Humming quitely, pulsating gently. I'm not so disheartened that I'll just trade-in the game -- it's fun and has enough replay value for me that I'll eventually start that long journey again. Eventually. After much time and lamentation.

DLC and patches are great things, and to be honest, this is the first time I've been burnt because of either, but having been through the experience, I can attest: when it does happen, it's bloody frustrating. I don't think I'd wish this on my worst enemy.

I mean really, just ugh! Maxing out the driving skill again, dear god!

GBA Bliss

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Not unexpectedly for someone who frequents the RPG Universe, I really do like the Final Fantasy games, especially the older NES and SNES incarnations. The problem has been, though, how do I play them?

You need a bit of back-story to understand. See, typically, I try to live as simply as I can as a gamer: this means one home-on-the-couch console and one handheld at a time. It can be a hard thing to do, given the nostalgia that older games inspire. But whatever.

The 360 is a happy-enough place for RPGs, but I'll never see any of the old Final Fantasies on Arcade. I know that. Unfortunately, the PSP, which is the handheld I'm currently keeping around, isn't really a much better place for Final Fantasy. Yeah FF1 and FF2 have been ported, and they're amazing, but I'm feeling a little tired of waiting around for 4, 5 and 6 finally to make their way to that console. Probably they never will. So yesterday, mostly on a whim, I popped over to Gamestop and picked-up a used GBA. Yes, a GBA; not a DS. What was thinking, right? Well, the GBA can play GameBoy and GameBoy Colour games. DS can't. (Plus, the GBA cost me around 30 dollars -- even the used DS was four-times that.) It may not be backlit, it may not have Brain Age, but there are a lot of old school games I can relive on that little sapphire-blue clamshell.

Let it be known, then, that on Arpil Fools day 2008 I finally broke the unwritten rule of the household and bought a third console. Remarkably, the world continues to turn. Even more remarkably, though, I started playing Final Fantasy 5 for the first time. Ever. It is truly a beautiful thing. Salty tears run down my cheeks as I write. (Though maybe I just exagerate for effect -- needless to say, I'm pretty darn happy.) And to add to the nostalgic RPG bliss, I ordered a used copy of the GB Colour Dragon Warrior 1&2 cart. I'll probably get DW 3, too, but there's lots to be played for the moment. And then there's FF6, which I've also never played, and FF4, which I still remember practically photographically, given how many times I played though it when I was a kid. The moral of the story? If you're in your late 20s and you had a Nintendo or a SNES as a kid, the GBA can be a really great toy.

What games did you love?

Dealing with Sony and Gamestop

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Hold on, before you read ahead, a word of warning: this is isn't a story of consumer frustration and woe -- at least not to this point. People often run up against walls when things go wrong with their electronics. We've all heard the stories about Sony and Microsoft. This one, though, is a happy tale -- at least as happy as it could be, given what's happened to my PSP.

Somewhere around two weeks ago, my PSP experienced some kind of shortage. I guess. It still works, more or less, but there are some problems. Push the screen brightness key to get the screen to go dark, for instance, and the screen won't come on again without a reboot. The select button simply doesn't work. And when you hit the home key to bring yourself out of a game, everything locks up. Ohh, and the browser won't load. Apart from that, though, the thing works fine. I've been playing thorugh Final Fantasy: Crisis Core; I've been using the RSS aggregator to download podcasts; I've even watched a UMD movie on the thing and hooked it up to the TV to do so. The only real frustration I've had is that after playing about an hour of Patapon, when I tried to save my progress, I couldn't. You have to hit the select key to bring up the save screen in that game. (In case you're curious, select isn't used in FF:CC.)

Clearly, this PSP needs some help. I searched around online, but found no threads describing a similar problem. I checked the knowledge-base at playstation.com. Again, no dice. Then I started looking for my receipt. I bought the PSP in Septemeber or October, so the one-year warranty was still in effect. Here's the rub: you have to have your receipt as proof of purchase, that or a credit card statement that itemizes the PSP, if you're going to get any service. I had neither. I wasn't even sure what month I bought the thing in.

I buy and trade just about every game I do at the same Gamestop; I have for years. Given the purchase wasn't too far in the distant past, I decided it was worth a try to see if this local GS, the one I spend all my gaming shekels at, could track down a copy of the receipt. Remember, though: I wasn't sure when I purchased the thing. I was fairly certain it was early Septemeber, but it could have been October. I imagined this was the point I'd meet with deep frustration, against a disgruntled, unhappy and under-paid GS employee who was about as ready to help me as he was sell an eight-year-old a copy of God of War. How's this for remarkable: the guy I spoke with, he searched sat down and searched through ever single receipt for October and September (manually, because there isn't a searchable database) and managed to find the right one. It took him an hour. And he did this with a smile on his face. I now have just a tiny bit more faith in humanity.

Shortly thereafter, I email Sony and submit a claim; they email back accepting the claim, and even send me a special box to mail the thing off in. Now I'm just playing a waiting game and they'll either fix the old PSP or simply replace it. (My bet is it get's replaced, but who knows. I put a small black dot inside the UMD case before I sent it off, just out of curiosity.)

So all-in-all, it's a good story, or at least a happy one. So far. Who knows, I may wind up with an email from Sony that they won't fix it, not without me giving them a credit card number first. But I doubt it. In the meantime, I just sit in wonder that the whole experience has been so pain-free. Maybe Gamestop isn't so evil afterall. Or maybe I just lucked out and ran into a particularly nice guy.

How about you? Any tales of consumerist woe? Or boon?

I'm Keeping the HD DVD Player I have for my 360 + It's been a very long time

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Last I wrote in this blog I was asking about games in November!? My truancy has nothing to do with Gerstman*, though, and nothing to do with concerns I have about editorial bias or compromising advertiser-inlfuence on the site; just a lack of inspiration and enthusiasm. GS is still the only enthusiast site I'm interested in participating in.

So what is it that finally inspires me enough to return? This, of course. It's a joke, obviously, and I don't take the content itself seriously. It does strike me, though, that the 360's HD DVD player could use a little bolstering, in the face of greatly exagerated rumours of its demise.

For the sake of disclosure, I did adopt early, and I did have an interest in HD DVD either winning this format war or continuing as an alternative to BD with the rise of hybrid players. Now that a single format has established itself on the market, though, the question I'm forced to confront is whether keeping the 360 peripheral is necessary. The short answer: of course it's not necessary. Even if I hadn't adopted early, though, with prices rapidly dropping as they are, I'd happily pick up the add-on even now. First, it continues to work. Yes, even though Toshiba has abandoned the format, their players still turn on, still play discs, and still provide entertainment. Second, and this is the crucial point for me, it plays SD DVDs. I own 10 HD DVDs and a box set or two; replacing them isn't much of a headache. SD DVDs, though -- I own hundreds. Between movies and box sets, the one thing I never planned to do is replace that collection. So this, then, is how I see it: there's no tragedy in having a second DVD option in the entertainment center, especially one that takes up little space and coordinates well with the other devices. I think of it as a tiny indulgence. I can leave a game disc in the 360 and play a movie in the peripheral; I can have discs one and two from a box set up and ready to go for a marathon viewing session, or the two discs from the LotR extended edition, all with no need to disturb the cat that's usually sleeping on my lap to get up and switch a disc. I know, lazy, but like I say, it's an indulgence. The real point is that the HD DVD player isn't a useless paper wieght, despite the end of a format war and the obsolescence of HD DVD. If, like me, you paid a premium price for this 360 peripheral, try not to despair -- it's a great SD DVD player; if you haven't picked it up yet, as the cost of adoption plummets, maybe the time has come? You'll get a copy of King Kong and a great universal remote, too.

*A new podcast is available here. I felt a uncomfortable listening to it; the quality's poor and it's pretty long. Is it relevant? Is it necessary? I don't mean to speak ill of two former and still beloved GS personalities, not at all, but with all the content and analysis already out there, it's worth asking what distinguishes this one.

What are you playing in November?

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Out of curiosity I just skimmed through the New Releases for the month of November. Frankly, it's a little bit crazy, at least if your principal or only console is the 360. Guitar Hero III this week, Scene It? next week, Assassin's Creed the week following, and then... wait for it...Mass Effect. That final week, when Mass Effect arrives, brings the expansion for Phantasy Star Universe to the XBLM, as well.

And yes, you read rightly, I'm excited about Scene It. In the midst of triple A, top shelf titles like Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect, here I am looking forward to a boardgame port. But it's social and fun, and focused on movie trivia, so really, how could I not be excited?

I'll have a couple of weeks of living alone in December -- the girlfriend has to travel. So, for now at least, I plan to hold off on playing Mass Effect. Something fun to do and something to look forward to. Of course I'll still pick it up on release day -- I pre-ordered the thing, after all. With everything else there is to play, though, and with new content for the online mode in PSU, holding off playing Mass Effect won't be tough. I don't think.

So what are you playing in November?

Why Yaris is a harbinger of diminishing standards.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I own two game consoles: a PSP and a 360. There's a computer in the house, too, but it's not really used as a gaming platform. Neverwinter Nights 2 sometimes, but I've been playing that for months and I'm all of 5 hours into it. Needless to say, though, I'm pretty devoted to the two consoles I frequent. I put a good deal of thought into both purchases and I stand willing to defend either of them, sometimes with irrational fervor.

Today, however, that irrational fervor faded a little, at least for the 360. Happily this morning, before I left for work, I downloaded the XBLA version of Puzzle Quest, a charming and innovative blend of genres that can somehow pique the interests of just about anyone who plays it. Have the game already for the PSP and it's great fun. Not surprisingly,the idea of that same immersive puzzle experience from the comfort of my living-room couch was more than I could resist. Ohh, but this wasn't the only thing up for offer today on Live. There was also Yaris to be had. Yaris, a fetid, virulent, and offensive bit of arcade anti-fun disguised to look like a game and even offered gratis, with no strings attached, for Live members.

Now, to the best of my knowledge, something like this has happened twice before. First with Totem Ball, a pretty unsuccessful, quasi tech-demo that explored the game-play possibilities of the Vision Cam; and second with Aegis Wing. As you probably know, Aegis Wing was the result of a summer internship program at Microsoft, one focused on game development. It's a fun and competent little side-scrolling shooter, no gem, but certainly more fun than retro hack-jobs like Missile Command.

Then enter Yaris. The industry term is advergame. To my mind, though, it's nothing short of malicious: far more advertisment than it is game.On the one hand,sure it's free and no one's obligated to keep it on their drive or, for that matter, download it in the first place. On the other hand, it's a terribly executed, uninteresting, uninspired bit of rubbish. Rubbish is fine when you're a retro title; there might actually be some nostalgia in it. Rubbish is even fine when you're a developer looking to make a quick buck in the casual market. In either case, there are economic and market forces that can control the proliferation and dissemination of these games -- if they really are terrible, people won't buy them and developers ultimately will lose money. The result: better effort, more innovation. But what forces are there to stop games like Yaris making their way onto the Marketplace and cheapening the service? None that I can see.The reality is, what Yaris represents isn't so much a free game users can choose to download and delete as it is a general diminution of standards. Frankly, it's an insipid precedent to set. For most, Live is a paid service. Presuming the cost of the service is greater than subscriber revenue - and that's big presumption - surely advertising revenue from Doritos, the US Air Force, and any number of other presences that find their way onto the Dashboard blades make up the difference. Content on the Live Arcade itself is paid for by users and, as Microsoft has indicated to developers in the past, that part of the service makes money. So, to me, as a user of this excellent and still evolving online gaming service, I can only say how disappointing it is to find a game like Yaris unnecessarily cheapening the experience. Pity that.