I go on a tangent toward the end of this post about my fear regarding preservation when Switch Online inevitably shutters. However, since posting this, I have learned that SMB35 was planned to be shut down at the end of March 2021. This is absurd, and likely warrants its own post, but it’s worth mentioning that my fears are not only warranted but grossly underestimated.
Super Mario World was likely the first smooth-scrolling platformer that I ever played, albeit briefly at a family friend’s house. Later, PC games like Jill of the Jungle and Jazz Jackrabbit were the first of the genre that I owned and played heavily. It wasn’t until a bit later in life that I got an NES and fell in love with… well, a ton of games for the system, but most relevantly the first and third Super Mario Bros. games. The first, in particular, with its simplicity, quick plays, and the convenience of being bundled with Duck Hunt spent a lot of time in my NES. I’m not describing some special, unique experience here, of course, but I am of an age that the first Super Mario Bros. game is firmly implanted in my mind.
Nintendo recently released Super Mario Bros. 35, a 35-player online battle royale interpretation of the original. The premise is rather simple: survive (with only a single life) longer than anyone else, feeding a constantly down-ticking clock and collecting coins that can be spent to activate a random power-up. Killing an enemy will send it to whoever you are currently targeting (Tetris 99-style), and bump up your clock by a number of seconds dependent upon how you killed it. At first blush, it feels like Super Mario Bros., just with a few more Goombas here and there. Then Bloopers start flying through the sky like you’re running a randomized ROM. Because levels are selected from a pool chosen by all 35 players at the beginning, you find that your options in the first warp zone are 1-1, 1-2 (the level you’re already in), and 3-4. Things are decidedly abnormal.
Strategy, therefore, becomes very different than in vanilla Super Mario Bros. Quick platforming is less important, and coins actually mean something. Fire flowers becomes vital when your path is littered with errant Piranha Plants. Skipping things to gain a ton of time by knocking out a major line of enemies with a Koopa shell is often worth it. You can’t play it like Super Mario Bros., even though it’s so familiar.
Tetris 99 is the obvious point of comparison as far as player interaction and targeting UI. As with Tetris 99, the right stick chooses between four targeting styles: random, most coins, least time, and attacking. The left stick allows you to manually select a target. Unlike Tetris 99, this feels… minimally important, at best. Tetris is a game where you have at least some handle on a player’s current standing; you can readily see if they’re stacked up poorly or loaded up with junk blocks. In Super Mario Bros. 35, another player’s screen might, at best, give you an indication that you’re about to be hit with a Bowser. The options don’t make a ton of sense to me either. Sure, more coins means that you’ll acquire more if you KO the player, but it also means they have more up their sleeve to deal with enemies. Likewise, the player with the least time on their clock may be at a disadvantage, but you’re helping with that problem by giving them enemies to kill.
Unlike Tetris, Super Mario Bros. also tends to lull toward the end. Once there are only five players left, the clock speeds up significantly, but otherwise… there’s a lot less of a threat, simply because fewer players means fewer enemies getting tossed around. It becomes far more empty and far more like a normal game of Super Mario Bros., which is weird from a typical difficulty curve standpoint. The endgame kind of drags because of this, and you’re likely to just get hosed by the timer because of the lack of enemies. It’s not a problem, per se, it’s just a rather unusual flow.
All in all, Nintendo has done quite well to make a fresh Super Mario Bros. experience. I’ve become quite addicted to it, and hate that in a few years when they’ve released a new console and have no interest in running their Switch Online servers anymore… well it’ll all be an unpreserved memory. These unique multiplayer experiences are wonderful, especially in this year of isolation. I can’t help but think about them as deliberate ephemera, however, albeit less in a planned obsolescence sense and more in the sense of a simple lack of caring.
It’s been less than a year since I purchased my HP Spectre x360, and while I have mostly been very happy with it, the left fan started honking and making automobile-engine-attempting-to-turn-over sounds. I probably should’ve sent it in for warranty service, but I opted to replace it myself, with only minor damage. The damage was precisely the sort of thing I predicted – I believe I snapped one of the blasted plastic clips that hold everything together these days, and I misjudged the sort of connector that the fan uses and mangled it a bit in the process. That said, given the compact nature of the laptop and the (lack of) serviceability of machines in general these days, it was not an awful process. Six external screws, three internal on the fan, and one little bit of tricky cable management. While I’m clearly not the authority on cracking modern electronics open without damage (I grew up ripping apart retro tech, k?) I could cause far more trouble if I were to use worse tools. So while I’m motivated, I figured I’d briefly go into the tools that I currently prefer after years of curation. Note that none of this is sponsored, nor are any of the links affiliate links, &c. This is just… stuff I like.
Step one of the process was lifting the long rubber feet up to get to the screws hidden underneath. The simplest way to do this is with a plastic pry tool, commonly known as a spudger. These came in handy when dealing with the clipped plastic as well, though… clearly I goosed that part a bit. All of these tools are pretty much created equal, but I’m quite partial to the combination of rigidity and thin edges on the Norton’s Universal Cleaning Stick. The other most useful varieties that I’ve found are the card-style and pick-style spudgers available for peanuts on AliExpress.
Step two was the aforementioned six external screws, and further down the line were… more screws. I have long used Vessel Megadora drivers for standard sizes; I use the thru-tang drivers primarily and have one of the Impacta impact drivers as well. I’ve used other thru-tang drivers that I think are as good, so this largely comes down to comfort. More recently, I have started flushing out my precision drivers with their metal-bodied precision drivers. These are undoubtedly the best precision drivers I’ve used. One issue that I have with many brands is that the spinny bit on the top tends to bind. Vessel’s are the smoothest I’ve used, on both their plastic (ESD-safe) precision drivers, and on their metal drivers. The metal drivers also have incredibly tight knurling that allows for a wild amount of torque if necessary, though they’re shrouded by default with a comfortable rubber grip. They make a few oddballs as well, including the pentalobe for opening up an iPhone and several tri-wings for, among other things, Nintendo products. Their ESD-safe plastic-bodied drivers are nice as well, but the shanks are very long, and a bit unwieldy in my opinion; I have a set that I leave heavily magnetized for pick-up and screw-starting tasks. Finally, while irrelevant to this repair, they make ceramic-tipped precision drivers, one of which I always use for pot adjustment.
Step two-and-a-half (?) was putting those screws somewhere. I have tried various grid boxes, which always have too few compartments, sized far too large. For a while, I used AideTek BOX-ALL SMD cases, which I still use for small screw/parts storage, but I never found something flexible enough to adapt to the various layers and components of a given project. I finally acquired SMD snap boxes from WenTai, which are individual cubes that can be snapped together in any configuration necessary. For me, this is incredibly helpful for being able to spatially lay out where screws came from. If I find that there are more screws than I initially thought, I can add a row or column and keep the spatial relationship accurate. The cubes individually close, so longer-term storage is possible. The modular nature makes them a little bit finicky, but it was worth it for the peace of mind. I initially thought there were only four screws on the exterior, so I started with a 2x2 arrangement; I added two columns when I discovered the additional two screws. I made a different arrangement for the interior screws. This was a great investment.
Dusting and grounding
Step three was blowing some dust out from the inside of the machine, which I did with a recently-acquired DataVac ESD-safe combination vacuum/blower. This vacuum is relatively light, powerful, and quieter than expected; I’ve switched away from my Dirt Devil Scorpion to the DataVac even just for household vacuuming needs. But for electronics, it is ESD-safe, and it can be used as a blower as well as a vacuum. This was also step zero, I guess – I used the grounded lug on the DataVac as a discharge point for an antistatic bracelet. It’s a great vacuum, and it’s nice knowing it won’t fry my electronics.
A couple of other things came up. Despite using somewhat-awkward AAAA batteries, the size of the Streamlight Stylus penlight is great for handling alongside another precision tool, as well as cramming into tight spots. It doesn’t use a great LED, it only has a single brightness level, but its size makes it a great tool for working on things like this.
I used a Wiha ESD-safe chip lifter as a sort of blunt, safe hook for holding a stubborn cable back as I accessed the one truly tricky screw in the project. This is not its intended purpose, but I didn’t want to use one of my sharp Pratt-Read picks and stab anything delicate. I have lifted chips with the chip-lifter, and it does this quite well; it’s just a tiny pry bar basically.
While less directly related to the project, I mentioned above having my long-shanked Vessel precision drivers magnetized; I love the compact size of the PB Swiss de/magnetizer. It usually just chills on my fridge, though it should probably be stuck to my toolbox.
Sigh, so, I feel like every post from the past few months has contained some version of this statement, but… I’ve started writing a number of things lately, and just haven’t had the motivation or whatever to finish them. Some are daunting longer-format pieces that require research and/or illustration, others are smaller filler bits that just don’t ultimately seem worth following through with. I’m handling things pretty well during this pandemic, but… being creative and seeing even the smallest projects through to completion… it’s tough right now.
I have been consuming more media, which is good in its own way; I’ve actually been in the mood for feature length live action films, I’ve been able to do some deep dives into unfamiliar and historical animation, and I’ve had enough time to sink my teeth into extensive video games like Breath of the Wild. I could write about BotW, which I have sunk over 215 hours into so far, but that would exhaust me, bore you, and likely come across as contrarian bullshit. So I’d rather write about a spoopy lil half-hour long Ren’Py game called a pet shop after dark. I’ll drop a warning before any spoilers, but… it’s pay-what-you-want; just go drop npckc a couple of bucks and settle down in a dark room with this game that demands only three things of you: “water the plants, feed the pets, and DON’T turn off the lights.”
Two main things have made this game worthy of breaking my unintentional posting hiatus: creativity within a restricted development environment and the overall feel/experience that was imposed upon me. The latter is simple, but boring to explain pre-spoilers: despite existing in fewer rooms than fingers on one hand, there are a handful of gimmicks that are pulled off skillfully enough to make for a level of interactivity that is engaging in a subtly creepy way. The game describes itself as horror, which to me feels like a bit of a stretch, though I acknowledge everyone understands and defines genre differently. It does, however, present an almost psychological sort of creepiness very effectively through the use of clever mechanics.
This leads into the other aspect that I find not only interesting, but downright inspiring. While the primary mechanic is a thing that I have seen before, I haven’t seen it within the restrictions of the visual novel engine Ren’Py. While I maintain some semblance of a programmer and have set (and failed to make progress on) a goal to become more proficient with Lua and LÖVE in 2020, I’m personally more focused on using simple, restrictive systems to create little snippets of art right now. And while I have had fun taking a straightforward approach to this, I think the most clever moments come from subverting these systems. After yum yum you are a bread, I tried creating a game in Twine that would only allow you to advance once in a given day. I never got around to fleshing it out, as it would have required heavy modification of Twine’s save system, but had it worked, that subversion of the system would have (hopefully, ideally) translated to an unexpected and memorable experience. I have tossed around the idea of doing something unconventional with Ren’Py, and a pet shop after dark has inspired me to revisit these thoughts.
Seriously, though, just go get the game.
I’m a sucker for time loops, which is… kind of what the game seems to be getting at? It’s not really explicitly about time, which helps the overall atmosphere, but it is about… being forced to reemerge and replay the same scenarios repeatedly. In a five-room, point-and-click setting, this sounds like it would get old quick. Yet it pulls it off well by not demanding much of the player in-game on any given ‘day’, subtly playing with shifts in dialog, and the major mechanic that I so dearly avoided spoiling above: file system manipulation. The primary earlier example of this that I can think of is OneShot, which I think has been out long enough that comparisons in this regard are hard to call spoilers. This mechanic was brilliant when OneShot pulled it off, but a pet shop after dark has demonstrated to me that there’s still room to play with the concept.
For starters, a pet shop after dark leans hard into the mechanic. Nearly as much activity is done in your file browser as in the game window. While the developers refer to the game as a visual novel, the visual presentation feels far more point-and-click adventure to me. The in-game interaction is rather static and straightforward as in a visual novel, but the game played in the file browser adds a genre-breaking element; it becomes inventory and puzzle surface. Whereas OneShot largely used this breach of the fourth wall to build atmosphere, a pet shop after dark essentially turns your file browser into a control surface.
That’s clever on its own, but it really elevates when combined with the environment it was developed in. Developing in a traditional environment, well of course you can read and write from the file system. And while this is certainly true of a visual novel as well, it isn’t intuitively so. The imposed restrictions of the medium and the tools used to work within the medium don’t feel like they should be used this way. I doubt a lot of players are consciously recognizing this, but on some level, I can’t imagine it’s as readily expected here as it is in a walkin’-around-talkin’-to-folks-and-pickin’-stuff-up game like OneShot. Which, again, not only makes for a compelling experience, it absolutely inspires the despondent creative bit of my brain.
So, to recap, over the past three months or so I’ve put about nine full days worth of time into what many seem to view as the crowning achievement of the Legend of Zelda series, a franchise that I adore. Yet the things that really blow me away and stick with me these days tend to be… small, carefully crafted, and designed to hit a unique part of my brain. In about a half hour, and for only a few bucks, a pet shop after dark succeeded at this in a way I absolutely was not expecting. If you’ve read all of this without playing it, well, I suppose the gimmick is spoiled for you, but not the puzzles themselves; go play the dang game. And who knows, maybe this will spark something in me to get me out of my creative rut. At the very least, I pulled a long-winded post out of it.
Something I find rather amusing is that despite my owning… a lot of classic HP calculators, this here blog only has posts about one old Sinclair calculator (which is, at least, a postfix machine) and one modern four-function, single-step Casio calculator (that somehow costs $300). And, as of today… yet another modern Casio calculator. I actually do want to write something about the HPs at some point, but… they’re well-known and well-loved. I’m excited about this Casio because it’s a weird throwback (that, like the S100, I had to import), and because it intersects two of my collector focuses: calculators and retro video games.
The mid-1970s brought mass production of several LCD technologies, which meant that pocket LCD calculators (and even early handheld video game consoles were a readily obtainable thing by the early 1980s. Handheld video games were in their infancy, and seeking inspiration from calculators seemed to be a running theme. Mattel’s Auto Race came to fruition out of a desire to reuse readily-available calculator-sized LED technology in the 1970s; Gunpei Yokoi was supposedly inspired to merge games with watches (in, of course, the Game & Watch series) after watching someone fiddle idly with a calculator. Casio took a pretty direct approach with this, releasing a series of calculators with games built in. Later games had screens with both normal calculator readouts and custom-shaped electrodes to present primitive graphics (like the Game & Watch units, or all those old terrible Tiger handhelds), some of which were rather large for renditions of games like Pachinko. The first, however, was essentially a bog-standard calculator as far as hardware was concerned: regular 8-digit 7-segment display, regular keypad. I suspect this was largely to test the reception of the format before committing to anything larger; aside from the keypad graphics, the addition of the speaker, and the ROM mask… it looks like everything could’ve been lifted off of the production line for any number of their calculators: the LC-310 and LC-827 have identical layouts.
This was the MG-880, and it was clearly enough of a hit to demonstrate the viability of pocket calculators with dedicated game modes. The game itself is simple. Numbers come in from the right side of the screen in a line. The player is also represented by a number, which they increment by pressing the decimal separator/aim key. When the player presses the plus/fire key, the closest matching digit is destroyed. These enemy numbers come in ever-faster waves, and once they collide with you, it’s game over. Liquid Crystal has more information on the MG-880 here.
So that’s all very interesting (if you’re the same type of nerd I am), but I mentioned I was going to be talking about a modern Casio calculator in this post. About three years ago, Casio decided to essentially rerelease (remaster?) the MG-880 in a modern case; this is the SL-880. I haven’t owned an MG-880 before, so I can’t say that the game is perfectly recreated down to timing and randomization and what-have-you, but based on what I’ve read/seen of the original, it’s as faithful a recreation as one needs. In fact, while the calculator has been upgraded to ten digits, the game remains confined to the MG-880’s classic eight. Other upgrades to the calculator side of things include dual-power, backspace, negation, memory clear, tax rate functions (common on modern Japanese calculators) and square root. You can also turn off the in-game beeping, which was not possible on the MG-880. The SL-880 is missing one thing from its predecessor, however: the melody mode. In addition to game mode, the speaker allowed for a melody mode where different keys simply mapped to different notes. The only disappointing thing about this omission is how charming it is seeing the solfège printed above the keys.
So was the SL-880 worth importing? Honestly, yes. The calculator itself feels impossibly light and a bit cheap, but it is… a calculator that isn’t the S100 in the year 2020. The game holds up better than I expected. It is, of course, still a game where you furiously mash two keys as numbers appear on a screen, but given the limitations? Casio made a pretty decent calculator game in 1980. More important to me, however, is where it sits in video game history. One might say I should just seek out an original MG-880 for that purpose, and… perhaps I will, some day. But I think there’s something special about Casio deciding to release a throwback edition of such an interesting moment in video game history. And while the MG-880 was a success, it certainly isn’t as much of a pop culture icon as, say, the NES. This relative obscurity is likely why I find this much more charming than rereleases like the NES Classic Edition. It feels like Casio largely made it not to appeal to collectors, but to commemorate their own history.
A few years back, (ISC)2’s charitable trust, the Center for Cyber Safety & Education partnered up with Paws, Inc. to create four comic books putting Garfield and friends in various educational cyber situations. The topics are privacy, safe posting, downloading, and cyberbullying. The fact that the Center for Cyber Safety & Education has, seemingly, three websites all dedicated to pushing this (one, two, three), the fact that they all demand you accept their usage of cookies, the fact that the Center seems proud to partner with Nielsen and Amazon… none of these things scream ‘privacy awareness’ to me. But I was curious just what sort of advice Garf had to offer on the matter, and I have therefore read ‘Privacy: Online Friends Are Not The Same As Real Friends’. On the off chance that you, reader, do not want to acquire this masterpiece and follow along, there is also an animation, hosted on known privacy advocacy platform YouTube (lolol). For whatever reason, the animation only covers like a third of the story, but eh it’s enough to get the gist.
Let’s get plot out of the way. Garf wants to eat a bunch of doughnuts, but he can’t because Nermal is being loud. Nermal is being loud because he’s struggling at a video game, ‘CheeseQuest VII: Attack of the Cheddar Zombies’. Some random player offers to help Nermal win, he just needs Nermal’s password. Arlene catches this and convinces Garf to care. Garf is not a privacy expert, however, so he calls everyone’s favorite recurring character, Dr. Cybrina, for help. Dr. Cybrina tells Nermal a bunch of tips for staying safe online, and then in a random act of kindness, Garf shows Nermal how to beat the game. Then he leaves to chase an ice cream truck.
All of that is just set dressing to talk about privacy, of course. So, what does Dr. Cybrina teach Nermal? Not much, really. On a single page, we learn about Personally Identifiable Information (PII). “Like my favorite kind of pizza?” Nermal asks. Dr. Cybrina clears this up, and lists off a bunch of examples of PII: name, address, phone number, gender, age, and plans/location. Oddly, she lumps password in here as well, which… doesn’t quite feel right, but not sharing your password is obviously good advice, so whatever. Then, Dr. Cybrina talks a bit about how little Nermal knows about this random player as well: the distinction between screen names and real names, that the player might be a big scary adult, and of course… that online friends are not your real friends. She doesn’t say anything about sharing photos of yourself, but Garf apparently knows this and changes Nermal’s profile pic. Finally, we get several pages of quizzes, with things like ‘is a story you wrote okay to share, or best kept private?’ and ‘is it okay to play games online?’ The multiple choice questions are entertaining, with choices like ‘Nermal should only give the friend his password if he gets the friend’s password too.’ And… that’s that.
So is it any good? Well, as a Garfield tale, it adds some wild realities to the canon: we get a new character, Dr. Cybrina, destined to the pit of deep lore like Ivy or Stinky Davis; we now know at least seven CheeseQuest games exist in the Garfiverse; and we learn that Garf absolutely whips at video games. But, more importantly, it… does a fine job at explaining PII, considering it is a comic for children. But it doesn’t really talk about privacy beyond this one aspect, and it only really teaches kids how to protect PII if they’re interacting with another person, or perhaps setting up a profile online. I acquired this with the intent on reviewing it’s merits on teaching privacy; I expected it to either be horribly misguided or, hopefully, have lots of bits to praise. I didn’t really expect it to be… accurate, but utterly lacking in points to discuss. Given that, it’s honestly kind of hard to assess.
I also wonder if… well, if Garfield is the right franchise to use to reach out to children in 2016 (the year of its release), or today (since they’re still clearly pushing this). At its heart, it does what it set out to, though. One of many little quirks in Garf licensing, though in keeping with Jim Davis’s dedication to education, one with an admirable goal.