When my Mac Pro recently slipped into a coma, I began thinking about what my next primary computer will be. Until this past week, Apple hadn’t updated any Macs in quite a while, and the direction they’ve taken the Mac line continues to puzzle me. It all started (in my mind) with ubiquitous glossy screens, and has worked its way down to touchbars and near-zero travel keyboards. Last week’s update to (some) Macbook Pros is welcome, but underwhelming. Six cores and DDR4 is great, but that’s only in the large model. Meanwhile, if I wanted to suffer through a 15″ machine, HP’s ZBook 15 has either hexacore Xeons or Cores, inbuilt color calibration, a trackpoint, a keyboard that I feel safe assuming is superior to the MBP’s, and a user-upgradable design.
I remain consistently confused by what professionals Apple is targeting. As a creative user, I’d whole-heartedly prefer the aforementioned HP. Most illustrators I know rely on Surfaces or other Windows machines with inbuilt digitizers. I know plenty of professional coders on MBPs (and Apple seems to push this stance hard), but I don’t know why – that funky keyboard and lack of trackpoint don’t make for a good typist’s machine. The audio world makes sense, Logic is still a big deal and plenty of audio hardware targets the platform. But honestly, when I see people like John Gruber saying the updated MBP’s “are indisputably aimed at genuine ‘pro’ users”, I’m a bit baffled, as I simply can’t think of many professional use-cases for their hardware decisions as of late. They’re still extremely impressive machines, but they increasingly feel like high-end consumer devices rather than professional ones.
Is there a word for nostalgia, but bad? Kind of like how you can have a nightmare that is on one hand an objectively terrible experience, but on the other… fascinating, compelling even. When I was quite young, the household computer situation was a bit of a decentralized mess. I guess the Commodore 64 was the family computer, but it was essentially mine to learn 6510 ML and play Jumpman on. My sister had a Macintosh Quadra which I guess was largely for schoolwork, but it had a number of games on it that were positively unbelievable to my 8-bit trained eyes. Among these was the bane of my wee existence, Another World.
I guess I’m about to give away a few spoilers, but they’re all from the first minute or so of
punishment play. Another World begins with a cutscene where we learn that our protagonist is a physics professor named Lester who drives a Ferrari. At this point, we realize we are dealing with a science fiction title. Lester starts doing some very professorly things on his computer, and then some lightning strikes his ARPANET wires or whatever and suddenly our protagonist is deep underwater! Some kind of sea monster grabs him, and… game over?! The cutscenes are rendered with the same beautifully polygonal rotoscoping as the rest of the game, so it’s entirely possible that you die several times watching this scene before grasping that you’re actually supposed to press buttons now.
This stressful memory came back hard upon recently purchasing a Switch and inexplicably making this year’s port of Another World my first purchase. Well, I guess it is explicable: ‘nostalgia, but bad.’ The frustrations of a game that will let you die if you simply do nothing within the first five seconds had not changed much from my childhood. This is a fundamental part of the experience; Another World is a game that wants you to die. It demands that you die. A lot. It’s a lovely game, and one that I’m sure a lot of folks remember (fondly or otherwise) from their Amigas and Macs, but I couldn’t help but think that this sort of trial-and-error experience really wouldn’t fly today if not for nostalgia. Though I have to ask myself, how does this differ from, say, Limbo, another game that tricks you into death at every turn?
The next death in Another World is when little polygonal slug-looking things slip a claw into Lester’s leg, collapsing him. You have to kind of squish them just right, and it’s the first of many deadly puzzles that rely more on a very finicky sort of perfection rather than just a clever solution. Slightly further into the game, Lester faces a challenge that neatly sums up the whole problem: perfect positioning and perfect timing are required to dodge two screens worth of oddly-timed falling boulders. These moments are very reminiscent of the frustratingly exacting challenges in Dragon’s Lair, a point of inspiration for designer Éric Chahi. I think this is where a modern take like Limbo feels less annoying in its murderous tendencies – you rarely die because you didn’t time something out to the nanosecond or position yourself on just the right pixel; you die because something crafty in the evil, evil environment outsmarted you.
This sort of thing seems to be a point of maturity for gaming in general. The aforementioned Jumpman was one of my favorite games back in the day, but it was painstakingly picky down to the pixel. Collision detection has eased up in modern times, and additional system resources give designers a lot more room to make challenges diverse and clever instead of simply difficult-by-any-means-necessary. Another World’s spiritual successor, Flashback definitely still had these moments, but by the time its 3D sequel, Fade to Black came out, things were much less picky.
I’m certain I beat both Flashback and Fade to Black, but I don’t think I ever had it in me to get through Another World. I guess this was part of why I jumped right on the Switch port. The game has won many battles, but I do intend to win the war. And the fact of the matter is, that for all my griping, it is still an incredibly enjoyable game. ‘Nostalgia, but bad’ certainly doesn’t mean that the game is bad, it means that the game forced all of my respective memories to be bad. The graphics have a unique quality about them, and the sparse atmosphere feels very modern. The challenges are often interesting, even when they’re more technical than cerebral. It’s a game that I think is best experienced in short spurts, so as not to be consumed by the seemingly infinite tedium of frustrating deaths. It’s a product of its time, and must be treated as such. And while its demands certainly reveal its age, little else about it feels out of place on a portable console in 2018.
Somehow, I missed that HAL Laboratory (creators of the Kirby franchise) had broken into the mobile market earlier this year with the game Part Time UFO. I tend to be oblivious to even these big mobile releases because I’m just generally not that into the mobile game scene. Touch controls are limiting at best, and the market is saturated with free-to-play snares. If anybody is going to release a mobile gem, though, HAL is bound to, so I snatched this thing up as soon as I heard about it.
In Part Time UFO, you control a flying saucer (oddly reminiscent of UFO Kirby) with a claw-game-esque grabber attached to it. Every level has a bunch of objects, and a place to put them. Some of the objects are mandatory, others might net you extra points or help you meet a bonus goal. The primary goal is usually straightforward – put all of the important objects on the target, get five objects on the target, get the objects to fit a particular shape on the target, etc. Each stage additionally has three bonus goals. One is usually a timer, and the other two either involve stacking things perfectly, not dropping things, stacking more things than required, etc. The real trick comes from the fact that the target area is small, so you pretty much have to stack things. The physics of swinging something four times your size from a flaccid claw make this stacking less than simple.
The levels are adorably-themed, and the themes tend to influence the overall challenge. For instance, my least favorite are the ‘Lab’ levels, which require you to fit Tetris-like blocks into a precise shape – which feels like a bit much going on all at once. But this adds a nice bit of variety, I think there will be some themes that a given person really looks forward to unlocking more of, and some that are less captivating (though still enjoyable).
Points equate to money, and money can be used to buy new outfits for the UFO. Aside from being cute (and occasionally referential to other HAL properties – Kirby’s parasol comes to mind), these affect the control of the UFO in various ways. Certain challenges benefit more from some outfits than others, but generally it seems like you can pop one on that gives you a boost in control that makes you more comfortable, and just leave it. I made the mistake of buying a speedy outfit first, and became very quickly frustrated with the game.
Make no mistake, the game can be frustrating. But never to the point where it feels insurmountable or stops being fun. Part of it is probably just how charming and sweet the whole thing is. The challenges are goofy (stacking cheerleaders, balancing hamsters on a circus elephant, and of course placing cows onto a truck), and even when successfully completed, the end result is often uproarious. This is one thing I wish they had included – some kind of gallery feature of all your wacky stacks.
I haven’t completed the game yet, so I’m not sure how many levels there are. I definitely think it’s worth $4 – it’s just so joyful, well-polished, and fun – everything I expect from HAL. I do think the default controls – a fake analog stick and button type deal – are awful. That control scheme is bad enough for games in landscape orientation, but even with my tiny hands and Plus-sized phone, I could not figure out how to hold my phone so it would work. Fortunately there’s a one-handed control that’s a little bit awkward, but still streets ahead of the faux stick.
I’m not writing this post in vim, which is really a rather odd concept for me. I’ve written quite a bit about vim in the past; it has been my most faithful writing companion for many years now. Part of the reason is its portability and POSIX inclusion – it (or its predecessor, vi) is likely already on a given system I’m using, and if it isn’t, I can get it there easily enough. But just as important is the fact that it’s a modal editor, where text manipulation is handled via its own grammar and not a collection of finger-twisting chords. There aren’t really many other modal editors out there, likely because of that first point – if you’re going to put the effort into learning such a thing, you may as well learn the one that’s on every system (and the one with thousands of user-created scripts, and the one where essentially any question imaginable is just a Google away…). So, I was a bit surprised when I learned about Kakoune, a modal editor that simply isn’t vim.
Now, I’ve actually written a couple of recent posts in Kakoune so that I could get a decent feel for it, but I have no intention of leaving vim. I don’t know that I would recommend people learn it over vim, for the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph. Though if those things were inconsequential to a potential user, Kakoune has some very interesting design ideas that I think would be more approachable to a new user. Heck, it even has a Clippy:
~ ╭──╮ ╭───┤nop├────╮
~ │ │ │ do nothing │
~ @ @ ╭╰────────────╯
~ ││ ││ │
~ ││ ││ ╯
nop unset-option █
:nop content/post/2018-06/kakoune.md 17:1 [+] prompt - client0@
Here are a few of my takeaways:
- There’s no inbuilt window management/splitting, by design, which is something that I understand but do not like. The idea is that different sessions running in different X windows or tmux splits can communicate with each other, so the windowing burden is better left to these systems. This is fine, I guess, on my Linux box with i3. Less great on my Cygwin or Darwin terminals where I don’t particularly want to run a multiplexer just for a text editor. While I often have multiple splits open in vim to bounce content around, I do the rest of my multitasking via simple job control. Lack of windowing also makes it unsuitable for diffing.
- There’s no inbuilt file browser, which is also by design. This is technically true of vim also,
netrw is a plugin, but it’s there by default.
netrw is much-maligned, but when necessary I do like to be able to
:e . and find my way around.
- Kakoune takes a very long time to start up (well, for a text editor), which is odd since the previous two design decisions are listed alongside the editor’s goal of being snappy.
- There’s no inbuilt spellcheck, which makes sense if you’re only targeting coders. But only targeting coders is kind of a dumb choice when minimalist editors are great for distraction-free prose writing, and formats like Markdown, Textile, and Fountain make WYSIWYG a regrettable memory.
- Normal mode is always a selection mode, essentially akin to Visual mode in vim. This is a real standout feature that both cleans up the number of modes (compared to vim), and simplifies the language and consequences of an action. In vim, I can make a guess at how many words I need to delete, aiming to under- instead of over-shoot, and end up doing something like
10dw 2dw, or I can step into Visual mode. In Kakoune,
10w automatically selects those ten words, and then
2W adds two more to the selection. I guess this seems trivial, but in practice I feel a lot more grounded as far as knowing what text I’m operating on. And this is after years of using vim. Moving around as normal (with hjkl) is still a selection, it’s just a selection of one character.
- The cursor doesn’t change when you switch between normal and insert modes, which may or may not be related to the previous point. Some people seem to think it is, but I don’t think anyone on the dev team has said as much, and it honestly makes no sense – the cursor being a block in normal mode suggests that operations happen on characters in normal mode; being a bar in insert mode suggests that you can’t be on a character, only before or after one. Anyway, I had no idea how much I relied on that until I kept getting mode-lost. Apparently it isn’t being fixed any time soon.
- Fortunately, changing the status bar’s color based on mode was not terribly tricky, handled via something Kakoune calls hooks, very similar to autocmds in vim. More awkward, in my opinion – every hook needs a filename regex, so in the case of changing part of the colorscheme based on mode, you have to drop in a pointless
.*. At least the format of these commands is always the same, there’s no contextual change. It should also be just as easy to change the cursor color, partially mitigating the previous issue.
- In general, configurations are awkward just like the previous point. Much of this is justifiable – for instance, word-wrapping and line numbers aren’t normal options, they’re baked into ‘highlighters,’ which feels super weird coming from vim, but might make sense for some users who, say, want line numbers for code but not prose. I prefer consistency, and even wig out a bit when vim’s help behaves differently than my other files.
- Despite the awkwardness, making a colorscheme was fairly straightforward, which is good because defaults are kind of bonkers, and the default colors were not terribly serviceable. On the topic of defaults, I have yet to get Markdown highlighting to work. Everything is just a little bit fidgety. I’m going to play with it a bit more, but will probably post decolletage.kak at some point.
- Keybindings rely heavily on Alt instead of Ctrl, which… might be justifiable, because in a standard keyboard configuration, Alt is less awkward to chord than Ctrl. But it goes against all terminal standards, and people have ways of making Ctrl work (*cough* reassign Caps Lock *cough*). If the dev team wants any vim converts, replacing things like Ctrlo with Alt; is just a weird move.
- Documentation is severely lacking in comparison with vim, but there is one area that’s considerably better. Remember Clippy up there? There is a ton of inline help and guidance, which works great when you sort of know what you’re doing, but isn’t as helpful as far as discoverability.
- Multiple cursors are built in, and alongside the normal-is-always-selection-mode paradigm, it works really well. For a while I used vim-multiple-cursors, which is pretty impressive, but kind of felt like a crutch or a bad habit more than anything else. There was nearly always a native vim way to do what I was trying to accomplish. Kakoune’s multiple cursor system is a native solution, and much like the selection model, actually feels like its helping and guiding you.
I guess there are far more negative points in that list than positives, but the truth is that the positives are really positive. Kakoune has done an incredible job of changing vim paradigms in ways that actually make a lot of sense. It’s a more modern, accessible, streamlined approach to modal editing. Streamlining even justifies several of my complaints – certainly the lack of a file browser, and probably the lack of splitting fall squarely under the Unix philosophy of Do One Thing and Do It Well. I’m going to continue to try to grok Kakoune a bit better, because even in my vim-centric world, I can envision situations where the more direct (yet still modal) interaction model of Kakoune would be incredibly beneficial to my efficiency.
When I first wrote the ‘Solo play’ series, they were basically the top five solo board/card games that I was playing at the time, in order of preference. Adding to this series at this point is just adding more solo games that I love, the order isn’t particularly meaningful anymore.
Solo board games don’t seem to get a lot of distribution. Deep Space D-6 is still rather tricky to come by, SOS Titanic sells in the triple-digits on eBay, and it’s only recently that I managed to acquire a copy of Saashi and Saashi’s highly-regarded single-player bag-builder, Coffee Roaster. The game is accurately described by its title: you are roasting a batch of coffee beans over the course of however many turns you think you need, and then tasting the result to see how closely your roast matched the target.
Coffee Roaster is essentially played by pulling a handful of tokens out of a bag, potentially using some of them for some immediate and/or future benefits, increasing the roast level of any of the bean tokens that were pulled out, and then returning them to the bag. This is wonderfully thematic – the longer you take, the darker the overall roast becomes. Adding to this thematic element, useless moisture tokens evaporate (are pulled from the game) over time, before first and second crack phases occur yielding a more significant increase in roast level as well as adding harmful smoke tokens to the bag. The game is definitely on a timer, and while the effect-yielding flavor tokens allow you to play with time a bit by adjusting the roast, ultimately you need to be mindful of how dark your beans have gotten before you stop the roast and move on to the tasting (scoring) phase.
Scoring involves pulling tokens from the bag and placing them in a cup (which holds ten tokens) or on a tray (which holds either three or five, depending on whether or not you picked up the extra tray). You can stop at any time, but a major penalty is incurred for failing to fill the cup up to ten tokens. Whatever roast you’ve chosen has a target roast level, as well as flavor profile requirements. Again, all thematic to the point where my coffee-loving self was giddy over the little details.
The game has quite a few rules to get through; you absolutely want to read the rules start-to-finish before diving in. It can be a little bit easy to forget to do this or that, but for the most part the theme and artwork help guide you once you’re comfortable with the rules. There is one serious omission to this, however, and that relates to the aforementioned flavor profile tokens. Aside from leaving them in the bag to be used for scoring, these can be pulled out and played in order to achieve certain effects. As an example, I mentioned the extra tray, which you gain by sacrificing two flavor effect tokens while roasting. However, any time you give up a token in this way, there is an additional effect that controls the roast and must immediately be performed. One of the tokens turns (say) a single level two bean into two level one beans, one of them preserves the level of two beans, and the third turns (say) two level two beans into a single level four bean. The problem is that there’s no indication of this on the board, or the player aid. No indication that the effect must be performed, nor which effect goes with which token. It is really easy to forget to do this, and even if you remember, you probably need that page of the rulebook open to remind you which does what. This is my biggest complaint about the game, and I’ll be making myself an improved player aid to remedy it.
I really do love Coffee Roaster; though I haven’t gotten particularly good at it yet. Fortunately, once I do, there are a ton of ways to control the difficulty. Several levels of difficulty in beans, a three-round vs. single-round variant, there’s an on-board mechanism for tracking the roast that can be eschewed. There’s a lot of room to grow into this game, and I fully intend to do that.