I’ve expressed once or twice before my disappointment with the current selection of pointing devices. This hasn’t improved much, if any. To make matters worse, Trackpoints are becoming less and less common on laptops. Such is the case with my HP Spectre, a deficiency I knew would be an issue going into things. When I was writing about pointing devices back in 2016, I ended up acquiring a Logitech MX Master. I still use that mouse, and also own an MX Master 2. They are incredibly good mice, the closest thing that I have found to the perfect mouse.
Thinking of pointing devices to use with the Spectre, I immediately figured I’d get an MX Anywhere to toss in the pouch of my laptop sleeve. What a horrible mistake. The truly standout feature of the MX Master is its wheel. It scrolls with individual clicks like wheel mice of yore until a specific speed is reached, at which point it freewheels like a runaway train. It’s the perfect physical manifestation of inertial scrolling. It also, notably, still clicks to perform the duty of middle-click. Both of these things are broken on the MX Anywhere – you have to manually select freewheel or click scrolling, and you do that by depressing the wheel. Middle click is a separate button below the wheel, with no regard for muscle memory. I returned the MX Anywhere and will likely just buy a cheap slim mouse to throw in the sleeve; it seems unlikely there are any travel-sized mice out there with modern inertial scrolling.
I also have considered I might need a pointing device other than the touchscreen for certain higher-precision activities while lounging in bed. And, three paragraphs in, we get to the meat of this post: my experiences so far with a trackball, the Kensington Expert Wireless. Trackballs, even more than mice, feel resistant to progress. Only a handful of notable companies are producing trackballs, and of the available models, relatively few are Bluetooth. Kensington has been making versions of the Expert for over twenty years, and the latest change came four years ago with the introduction of the Bluetooth model. The basic layout that has remain unchanged over the years is a large ball surrounded by four large buttons at the corners. The current iterations, both wired and wireless, also have a ring around the ball for scrolling.
Most modern trackballs seem to have a traditional scroll wheel. This, to me, is absurd. You’re not getting modern inertial scrolling with these (even Logitech’s MX-branded trackball has traditional clicky scrolling), and you have a perfectly good device capable of inertia right in front of you: the ball. I would love to see a designer in hardware/firmware simply dedicate a button to switching the ball into scroll mode. As it stands, however, Kensington’s ring is the least obtrusive of the lot, and the four buttons are all very easily accessed. And, while it is a bit convoluted, ball-scrolling behavior is attainable in Windows via software.
The first bit of the puzzle is the official KensingtonWorks software. This allows configuration of what each of the four buttons does, as well as the upper two buttons pressed together, and the lower two buttons pressed together. These upper and lower chords do have a limitation – it seems they aren’t held, they’re only momentary presses. There’s also no way to achieve the desired ball-scrolling effect here, so this stage is just minor tweaks to buttons. By default, starting at the upper-left and moving clockwise, the buttons are middle-click, back, right-click, left-click. I use middle-click more than right-click, and thought that swapping these would make sense, but the pinky-stretching actually made that a bad choice. I ultimately settled on swapping middle-click and back, and assigning forward to the upper two buttons pressed together. I haven’t decided what to do with the lower two in concert yet.
The next step is a third-party bit of software, X-Mouse Button Control. From here, I’ve intercepted middle-click to be ‘Change Movement to Scroll’. Within this option, I have it set to lock the scrolling axis based on movement, and to simply send a middle-click if there’s no movement. Thus, clicking the upper-right button sends a middle-click whereas holding it and flicking the ball around turns into scrolling. It works so well that I am again shocked that this isn’t scrolling behavior being designed into any trackballs.
I would love to see Kensington integrate this behavior into firmware or KensingtonWorks. I would love to see Kensington replace the scroll ring with the SlimBlade’s rotation-detecting ball sensor. I would love to see Kensington release a Bluetooth version of the SlimBlade. But for now, I have a pretty clean solution: an unobtrusive, solid-feeling trackball with decent customization options in a software layer.
A few more technical notes as I’ve unfortunately put more time into N3TWORK’s Tetris: it does use guideline scoring, which I assumed but… the awkward placement of the score made it hard to confirm (and it gives no notification for any moves other than Tetris); leveling is fixed-goal (which makes sense: you lose faster and get to watch another ad!) and tops out at level 15 (EA’s Tetris used variable-goal leveling and didn’t max out); it never reaches nor approaches 20G (I’m pretty sure EA’s Tetris did; if it didn’t, it got far closer).
It’s probably pretty obvious by now that I love Tetris. Enough so that I was able to write a 1200-word post detailing my favorite Tetrises. It is, then, incredibly disheartening that I feel forced to write two posts in one month (back-to-back, even) about modern Tetris implementations that are just absolutely terrible. Unfortunately, this also renders part of the aforementioned list of favorite Tetrises outdated. Until recently, Electronic Arts (EA) was the developer for Tetris on mobile. As of last year, the ridiculously-named N3TWORK is the exclusive rights-holder to mobile Tetris. Once upon a time, this would simply mean that EA could no longer make or sell a new Tetris game on the respective platform, but it’s 2020 and all technology is hell. So, as of April 21, 2020, EA’s mobile Tetris will simply… stop working. I’m sure EA was forced into some phone-home scheme that would allow such a thing to happen, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that the ability for such a thing to happen should be 100% illegal.
Capitalist technohell aside, there’s a new mobile Tetris in town! In my 2019 video game retrospective, I pointed out that “[a]pparently there’s a battle royale Tetris game coming to mobile as well, which is exciting.” This game (Tetris Royale) will, of course, also be made by N3TWORK, and I have to say… I am no longer excited. While EA’s mobile Tetris was essentially a perfect implementation, N3TWORK’s is an unplayable steaming shit. The controls are utterly broken – one’s finger must be lifted in between swiping sideways for lateral movement and swiping down for a hard drop. Bonuses aren’t acknowledged (I’m unsure if they’re scored properly or not at the moment) for T-spins, back-to-backs, or combos – only Tetrises. And visually, the game is a nightmare.
Compare these screenshots (EA on the left, N3TWORK on the right). EA’s app has a bunch of black space at the top and bottom, as it was never updated for X-sized iPhones. N3TWORK’s has been made for modern phones, but it… does nothing useful with that space. In fact, it is objectively worse because the score is floating so far away from the field. One of the big reasons that EA’s made my list of favorite Tetrises is the boxes for the next piece and hold. The backgrounds of these boxes are the same color as the piece, which means that if you know your Guideline colors, even the slightest hint of these out of the corner of your eye tells you the necessary information. N3TWORK’s does not do this. To be fair, this is also something I miss from all of the other implementations I enjoy. However, N3TWORK goes far beyond the normal level of disappointment by making their next and hold pieces nearly invisible to an eye focused on the grid. There is absolutely no reason for them to be so small, it’s just a foolish design decision that makes the game objectively less playable. On top of that, the colors in these boxes are absurdly pale, making color-based recognition difficult as well. It’s worth noting that there are five different skins. Of these, the one in the screenshot is the only one that bothers to color the hold/next boxes at all. It’s absurd. The bizarre pseudo-3D effect and half-baked ‘90s-hacker-film aesthetic are distracting (though fitting for a company called N3TWORK) and ugly, but that’s a personal opinion. You’d be hard-pressed to make an argument about the other aforementioned visual issues not making the game objectively worse to play at a high level.
EA’s Tetris also had excellent stats tracking, both per-game and over time. It would graph out scores over the course of a week or a month. It had some silly additional modes beyond Marathon, but for someone who primarily plays Endless Marathon at a relatively high level, it was the perfect companion. My stats didn’t carry over from my last phone, but I’m glad I cleared over 35,000 lines with EA’s Tetris on my current phone. I will keep an eye on updates to N3TWORK’s Tetris, but a lot would have to change for me to pay for it or even continue to play it for free. It is utterly, devastatingly disappointing.
This is going to be an attempt to review two ostensibly similar products, one discontinued that paved the way for the other. Both are pocket-sized Tetris games, officially licensed and generally adherent to the Guideline. They follow the same basic physical format, and comparing them should be pretty straightforward (it is, actually; one is good and the other is bad). I think that properly comparing them, however, requires examining the technical decisions that were made, and for this we need to back up and establish a couple of other things. This is because the first product, the discontinued one from 2017, is based on the Arduboy platform.
Arduboy is a tiny open gaming console that vaguely resembles a Game Boy, based on the Arduino ‘open-source electronics platform’. Arduino kits are typically used to ease the embedded microcontroller portion of hardware products. It’s a dinky 20MHz ATmega processor, with enough flash memory to hold (in the case of Arduboy) one game at a time. Tetris Microcard, released in 2017, took this overall platform, rotated the physical format so it was more like a Game Boy Micro (and in the process, orienting the display portrait, perfect for Tetris) and matched it with a custom port in ROM. Both the Arduboy and Tetris Microcard were manufactured by Seeed Studio, a fabrication shop that also sells a number of premanufactured devices based around these sorts of microcontrollers. I doubt these were manufactured in massive quantities. All of this together led the release price of the Microcard to be a whopping $60.
Onward to the 2019 release of Tetris Micro Arcade. It retains the basic physical format of the Microcard, but is no longer based on the Arduboy platform or manufactured by Seeed Studio. Mass-produced by Super Impulse alongside (currently) five other games in the same format, Micro Arcade sells for a more consumer-friendly $15-20. Some have speculated that these run Arduinos as well, but I suspect this is simply because of the obvious evolutionary path from the Microcard. My suspicion all along has been that these run on a Famicom-on-a-chip. Opening the case up, the processor has (of course) been epoxied over, but it certainly doesn’t look like the format of an Arduino’s ATmega. Regardless, even if it is the same platform, it is a wildly different ROM, and one that fits its role as a cheap, mass-produced device, devoid of love.
That is to say, the Micro Arcade ROM is… bad. Really, really bad. It plays through the background music (“Korobeiniki”) once, and then just… stops. At some point after that, the screen just blanked white on mine, even though the game was still technically playing in the background. There are no lines to delineate between minos in a tetrimino, which always feels like a Programming 101 port to me. There’s no ghost piece. It doesn’t save high scores (Microcard has a ten-spot leaderboard). Despite largely adhering to the guideline (pieces are colored correctly, at least, and rotation is SRS) it feels terribly unofficial.
Which isn’t to say that the Microcard was a perfect port either. Its pieces were not the correct colors, because the screen was monochrome. It showed one ‘next’ piece compared to Micro Arcade’s three. But aside from the price difference… that’s all Micro Arcade has going for it. The screen blanking may be a glitch on mine, or something that will be patched in a future revision, but I’m not the only one reporting this issue. Even if that wasn’t an issue, and even if the music didn’t randomly cut out, I would still play Microcard over Micro Arcade in a heartbeat. It feels like Tetris to me, vs. a knockoff.
I may put more effort in to figuring out what’s under the hood. Delidding the epoxied ASIC isn’t entirely in my wheelhouse, but I also don’t care about destroying this thing. I may also try to dump the ROM at some point, which could theoretically provide some insight.
Last year, I did a sort of year in review post which began with an explanation of the difficulty in creating such a post. I don’t tend to consume a lot of media as it comes out, and… 2019 was even worse in that regard. I think my escapism was fairly concentrated this year in two media: video games and comics. Hopefully I’ll do a second post on the latter after sorting out what all actually came out
this last year. But for now: VIDEO GAMES.
Slay the Spire
I feel like I’ve played several years worth of this game, I’m honestly… shocked that this came out in 2019. I don’t want to say that this is my favorite of the games on this list (I don’t want to rank them at all, frankly), but it is almost certainly the game I have put the most time into. I have already bought it twice, on Switch and Steam, and will snag a physical Switch copy as well at some point. It’s a deckbuilding
dungeon spire crawl with a huge set of cards that leads to a lot of depth in build strategy. It’s often referred to as having roguelike elements, which like… the spire is mostly randomized, and there’s permadeath, but… I don’t know, we’re really stretching the definition of roguelike these days.
Aside from the standard mode, the game itself comes with a bunch of modified modes that lead to some really wild builds. On top of that, on the computer, there’s a considerable mod scene coming up with new playable characters and the like (Sailor Moon, for instance. YES!). But even without any of that, the base game has wonderful replayability. Games are short enough to pick up and play casually or as a filler, and every advancement autosaves. All of this makes for a game that I have sunk countless hours into this past year. And with a new official character coming (which I’ve seen played in beta, it’s neat), I’m looking forward to countless hours more in 2020.
The World Next Door
By all accounts, this launched March 2019, though it feels like something I played through in 2018. I guess this year just felt that long. This game is kind of hard to pin down. It’s RPGish with visual novel narrative components. Battles are based on a realtime match puzzle system. It mashes a lot of stuff together in a way that is occasionally inelegant, but largely works very well. Also, it is extremely gay.
Back to that occasional inelegance, my only real gripe with the game is combat. The match puzzle thing is clever, but you play it by actually moving your character around on the puzzle board. In realtime. With the enemy doing same. And it often feels… cramped. This was never so bad that I didn’t want to hop back in and give it another go, nor did it in any way detract from how gay the game was. It just felt like something that could have been slightly better refined.
But, a great narrative with charming characters and an overall interesting system. The light VN elements were a cute touch. I look forward to playing this again, and would die for a sequel. Did I mention how wonderfully gay it was?
I played this one fairly early in the year, and don’t remember a great deal about it beyond its comical noodle leg physics. The narrative, if I recall, has a sort of anti-capitalist, destroy the robbers of the resources vibe to it; right up my alley of course. The characters are all quite charming, and (again, if memory serves) you have to kind of work with them at times to help overthrow The Man. I should… play this again so I remember it better. I know I loved it though.
This game reminded me a lot of Wandersong, which I wrote about in my 2018 media retrospective. It’s not just that they’re both rhythm platformers, but as in Wandersong, the rhythm aspects don’t matter. They add to the musicality of the game, but if you are terrible at rhythm games (points to self), you’ll be fine. Botching the rhythm sections seemingly does not affect the game one tiny bit.
Much like Wandersong as well, the protagonist is just this sort of misunderstood bird (close enough to bard, right?) trying to find answers and make friends. The basic premise is that you’re going around to all these different bird communities, trying to figure out what sort of bird you are. It’s a compelling and emotional narrative backed up with an excellent platforming experience. I found the rhythm bits far more complicated and difficult than in Wandersong, but again… it doesn’t matter! The music is really catchy as well, and furthers the narrative by keeping beat with a bouncing ball sing-along sort of display.
I wrote about Tetris 99 already. Since then, they’ve released two bits of DLC. There’s now a bunch of local stuff, which is welcome, including a standard marathon mode (which is deeply flawed, lacking an endless mode). There’s also an online team battle mode, which is neat but… kind of silly when you don’t know any of the people on your team? I guess if you had a large online community, you could do team mode in a private room, which would be fun. There’s also a mode that’s just regular Tetris 99 mode, except only players who have placed first at some point in a Tetris 99 game can join. This is theoretically very cool, playing against only more practiced and/or elite players. But in practice, only about 30 players ever show up, the other 69 slots filled with CPU players. This is far from ideal, and I’d honestly just prefer a battle royale with fewer players at that point.
But, everything else that I wrote last February holds true. There’s still a large player base, and I’m still having a ton of fun with it. I’m also still routinely placing in the top three, so there hasn’t been a runaway effect of the player base just becoming too good for folks who only play off and on or the like. I’ll likely buy the cartridge when my Switch Online membership is about to dry up. Apparently there’s a battle royale Tetris game coming to mobile as well, which is exciting.
My next post will be about Tetris, if you’re here for that good Tetris content.
Untitled Goose Game
I also have already written about Untitled Goose Game. I’m just going to pull a quote from that post:
[E]ven when I was trapped in a weird rotational loop with the farmer, annoyed that it felt like I was playing a hastily-coded shareware title from the late ‘90s, I didn’t want to stop. All was forgiven, I just wanted more goose. I beat the game, which prompts you with a handful of additional tasks. I thought, I’ll do these here and there amid other games. The next day, I wanted more goose, and promptly powered through these tasks. I watched some streamers do these additional tasks despite just having done them, because, more goose.
I still crave more goose. If there’s goose DLC, I will buy more goose. And I will frantically seek out fanart of that goose. And I will watch people play that goose. I love the goose.
Baba Is You
Crap, this came out in 2019? This list is getting long. A genius puzzle game that I briefly talked about when it was proven that Baba is You is Turing-complete. The core premise of the game is that you push around items on a grid-based field, Sokoban-like. But some of those items are… linguistic? And forming statements with them fundamentally changes the puzzle. If you change the statement ‘Baba is you’ to ‘Grass is you’, suddenly you’re in control of every piece of grass on the field. Manipulating what you are, what the goal is, what is dangerous, etc. is the meat of the puzzle, and it is some very deep meat. Ew. Anyway, highly recommend; I heard a level editor is coming soon?
And, to finish, Pokémon Shield is another game I already wrote about. Which, yeah I’ve been writing about video games a lot lately, and as I mentioned… I consumed a lot of video games in 2019, it just was a rough year and… they’ve been helpful. I think finally breaking into Pokémon proper was sort of the peak of that helpfulness. Shield was an adorable game that gave me something to bond with a friend over, and allowed me to absorb the warmth of players online through their fanart and struggles to catch ‘em all. I feel like I don’t really need to go into the game much, since I am the last human to experience this franchise, but… I’m glad this is a Thing I got into in 2019. It really meant a lot to me.
This is about the third piece I’ve written on (loosely) this subject; perhaps it will be the one I actually publish. I’d been thinking a lot about computers lately, and what my needs would be in my next machine. I’ve long considered myself a Mac user, despite currently owning one Mac and four PCs (two of which I use with regularity). Apple has been incredibly disappointing to me lately, on both hardware and software fronts. On the other hand, I still truly hate using a non-Unix OS, and there are plenty of other points of contention that make Windows my least favorite modern OS. My approach on my Lenovo X220 (a machine which I will be keeping and using for writing, I suspect) is to dual-boot with Ubuntu as my default. This is viable, though I need to pay closer attention to partitioning, and likely add an exFAT part or the like for a shared space. I’m currently uncertain whether I’ll continue with that approach on my new machine, or attempt KVM with GPU passthrough.
At any rate, I was looking for a two-in-one (which Apple refuses to make), yet something at least somewhat powerful. If I wasn’t going to go for a two-in-one, I wanted something very powerful, and something with a trackpoint. I think trackpads are the absolute worst pointing devices in existence, and I hate that they’re the norm. I had been looking for a while, and ended up semi-impulsively pulling the trigger when a very good sale landed on the HP Spectre x360 (13″). I’m still working on getting it set up (debating on a Linux distro, messing with the new version of WSL, making Windows tolerable, &c.), but I’m using it (under Windows gVim, egad) to write this post.
- Is backlit,
- which I don’t really care about at all, but it has two levels and they seem… functional, if that’s a thing that one needs for typing in the dark.
- Has decent travel and overall feel,
- which I was worried about, being a two-in-one and all. It’s about as slim as possible while still having a USB-A port, which meant that the keyboard could be a major compromise, but… it types pretty well. It’s a chiclet thing, of course, so it’s not as typable as, say, my X220. But it’s not bad at all. Keys have a satisfying sound to them as well. Not the clunk of my beloved ALPS mechanicals, certainly, but they sound like they’re doing something.
- Has some awful cluster decisions,
- like the cursor key garbage that Apple recently abandoned. The left and right cursor keys are full-height, while the up and down are half-height in between them. It is unusable. There’s enough space to bump the cluster down, or failing that, a cluster of all half-height with pg up/pg dn or home/end above ←/→. I’ve used all of these configurations extensively. They are usable, this is not.
- But also the right-side has a cluster of full-height home, pg up, pg dn, and end, and this… also kind of sucks. I’d prefer these as a function layer, to be honest. I over-reach and mash pg dn when I’m trying to hit enter, like… a lot.
- Has a couple of other things worth mentioning:
- No application key, which is absolutely vital as a keyboard-user in Windows. This is, unfortunately, not unique to this machine, and I’m used to simply remapping the right ctrl to this key.
- No function-layer numpad, which seems to be a dying trend. I don’t see why one wouldn’t just opt to include it, except for the visual clutter on the keycaps? Oh well; I would have appreciated it, but it isn’t a deal-breaker.
- It does have a visible indicator for mute on the mute key, which… I appreciate far more than I thought I would. Also, it’s amber, so it stands out (the backlight and indicator on caps lock are white)
- Is glossy,
- which I know is pretty common these days, but I think it’s the first glossy-screened laptop I’ve owned? Or, I guess my first MacBook probably had one, and I’ve just wiped it from my memory. But regardless, I don’t know why people put up with these. I mean, I’m going to, I’d be far more likely to return this thing based on the keyboard layout than the glossy screen, but damn it’s annoying.
- Has a very cool privacy feature,
- called SureView. This was an option (and meant I couldn’t get the 4K display, which I had no desire to get anyway), and it’s one of the things that really makes me happy about this machine. There’s some kind of filter, and some kind of directional backlight, and when it’s lit a certain way… it just looks like a normal screen. But when you press F1 suddenly the whole thing washes out a bit, and viewing it becomes very directional. It feels a little blurry almost, and like even directly in front of it you’re not getting a good view of the whole screen, but it also gets the job it sets out to do. It really washes out at angles that aren’t directly in line with it, and will be valuable when I use this on the train, etc.
- Is a touchscreen, of course, and also a digitizer,
- and that all works fine? It’s the sort of digitizer that requires an active pen (so, not Wacom, and not as good as Wacom, but still quite good). I don’t really know what complaints one could have about a modern touch panel, but I have none.
- Is 120Hz
- which I think is still fairly unusual for a two-in-one? Maybe not, but regardless, visually… the screen is quite good.
- As I mentioned, I wanted a relatively beefy machine,
- and this is an i7 with 16GB of RAM, and 1TB of SSD w/ Optane. For the physical size of the machine, it’s proving a bit of a beast. The fans are loud, but the vent they have to expel air from is tiny, and they have some heavy lifting to do. I haven’t really put it through its paces yet, but what I have seen leaves me confident it’ll accomplish what I want it to.
- It’s got ports!
- Not a lot of them, mind you, but what I was looking for: USB-C with power delivery and USB-A. Obviously, it’s a slim machine, so there are compromises: only two USB-C ports, a single USB-A, and no dedicated DisplayPort or Ethernet (ha!). It does have a 3.5mm combo audio in/out, which is nice, and a microSD slot. It charges off of USB-C, and this leads to my one minor gripe: both USB-C ports are on the right side of the machine, the USB-A is on the left. Since both are power delivery ports, it would be nice if the USB-C ports were on either side. I’m sure this would be an internal layout nightmare, difficult or impossible due to the size of the machine. An Asus I was looking at was slimmer and arguably nicer-looking, but I don’t like dongles and am not ready to ditch USB-A yet.
- is branded as being from Bang & Olufsen, a company whose industrial design I’ve lusted over for most of my conscious life. I don’t generally put much faith in these alleged collaborations, and I have no idea how involved B&O actually was. But, for laptop speakers, they do sound good.
- The webcam
- is Windows Hello ready, and is also something I don’t care about at all. I haven’t tested it. It does have a hardware cutoff switch, which is great. In concert with the SureView display, this is a machine that has at least tried to put emphasis on privacy. Encryption was enabled by default, as well, though… that may be standard with Windows 10 Pro, I’m not sure. I do wish there would’ve been a physical switch for WiFi, but… if I only get one switch, having it prevent me from accidentally camgirling is… fine.
- Et cetera
- The physical design of the machine is like… faux luxe. There’s this aggressively-chiseled metal border around attractive-but-cheap-feeling plastic, and it just… doesn’t mesh. The aggressive lines also look absurd when the thing is folded into tablet mode, and… more masculine than I’d like otherwise. Which is fine, I have stickers to girl it up.
- The trackpad sucks, but I can’t judge that fairly. I hate them all. Though I’m not getting the ‘precision trackpad’ options in Windows, which I think means it’s not quite up to modern standards? I just want to figure out how to assign middle-click, the internet is an inefficient mess without it. Also maybe find a mapping such that I can scroll with vim keys.
- Battery life seems… fine, not great, so far. About all I have to say on that.
- It’s very slippery in tent mode, rubberizing the top/bottom edges a bit would have been… bad for their weird aesthetic, I guess, but great for productivity. Might mod.
- It has a fingerprint reader. Not sure I care. PIN is fine for me, honestly.