A Nice Day Out

Today I was riding in a car along with some good friends. We were on our way to Bristol to meet another friend for an afternoon out. One of them suggested that I write the day up on my blog.

I said “I guess I could. I’d probably just write ‘Today me and my friends had a nice day out together.”

And then me and my friends had a nice day out together.

When he first suggested it, I didn’t really think it was going to be a good idea for a blog post – but then I gave it some thought. In a way, it’s a shame that something like that doesn’t make an interesting blog post. After all, I always write up my strange and unpleasant encounters with strangers on the streets and other things like that. Why is it easier to make negative experiences interesting to others? Why don’t people like to read about a nice evening out? Or moments of fondness and affection?

I’m not sure what the answer to that question is. But I think it’s always worth keeping in mind, that for every awkward or unpleasant situation that I’ve written up on here, there are a hundred very pleasant experiences which I do not write up. One on one meals with friends, amazing Christmas meals with groups of friends, walks in the woods, writing games with friends, collaborative art projects, visits to museums and trips to friend’s home towns. I just thought it was worth acknowledging the good things in life – such as my visit to Bristol, a delicious deli and a suspension bridge today.

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Has anybody heard the latest conspiracy theory? Well, apparently a random internet user was accidentally sent a voicemail which consisted of a computer voice saying random letters from the phonetic alphabet which then spelled out this mysterious message “Danger SOS it is dire for you to evacuate be cautious they are not human SOS danger SOS.” They posted this on Twitter and claim that it keeps getting taken down and that they keep getting sent coded messages. Other people claim that they’ve received messages too and are sharing stories of creepy messages that they’ve received via various electronic devices. It all becomes very convoluted and people think the Earth is going to be invaded by aliens or taken over by AI next month. It’s all a little unnerving. (Have a look here for more info.)

Not that I believe any of it for a moment. I mean, if you just have to apply a little bit of critical thinking to tear the whole thing apart. If the government are really taking down these posts, why are there so many of them? Especially as they’re all readily accessible by a special hashtag, which would make them even easier to find and remove. But reading about it is just so addictive. I enjoy reading through the tweets in the same way that I enjoy reading a horror novel. It’s frightening and very immersive, because it seems real.

It made me realise that the internet has provided a wonderful new platform for storytelling. I’ve never really gotten into anything like this before, but I’m enjoying these tweets as works of fiction. But if it were a book, or a film, or a game, it wouldn’t have the same effect. Being able to discover it yourself and the fact that there are tweets from so many people make it seem so much more thrilling. It makes me think (with excitement) about the future of storytelling.

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Super Castlevania IV

Imagine a field in the middle of the night – it’s quiet and atmospheric with a light mist hanging over everything. It’s quite a beautiful scene, isn’t it? And you may not think that the Super Nintendo would be the best platform on which to present this scene, but you’d be wrong. Super Castlevania IV is one of the most beautiful and ambient games I’ve ever played, which it’s all the more impressive when you consider the technical limitations of the time. There’s one moment in particular, where you can see living horse skeletons in a field in the distance and it endears me so much every time I see them. The little details make all the difference.

Essentially, this is a reimagining of the first game in the series. On the one hand, it does mean that it doesn’t do anything new in terms of story, but on the other, it also means that it’s very accessible. All you need to know is that Simon Belmont is travelling across the lands in order to kill Count Dracula.

This was the first main instalment in the series to not be released on the NES and you can see a pretty significant improvement over the last three games. The others were all very hard, in part due to the fact that you were very limited in your movements. Now you have much more control over your jumps and your whip (which, for those who don’t know, is your primary form of attack) which makes a huge difference. If you’d been put off of playing the series due to these issues in the previous games, know that they have now been resolved.

Honestly, Super Castlevania IV is a real classic. If you love 2D platforming, then you’re sure to have a very good time with it. It may be a little on the hard side in the later levels, but never unreasonably so (except maybe on the final boss, who is much more mobile than you) and I feel as though they’ve really refined the Castlevania formula by this point. Plus, the soundtrack is absolutely sublime – not only do all the tracks perfectly suit the places they’re played in, but I feel like all of the game’s sound effects play a big role in setting the tone just right too.

So if you wanted to get into classic Castlevania, make this the game you try. It’s one of the best games on the SNES and something which holds up to this day.

Rating: 9.4/10

Buy it here.

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People Are Strange

A friend of mine often tells me that I have the strange power to “attract weirdos.” Another friend of mine once said that they felt like awful and terrible people were drawn to me. I was reflecting on this earlier today and I realised that I have had a lot of strange encounters with strangers and people I don’t know very well. Here are a few which spring to mind:

  • Once at a party, a fellow partygoer started kissing me passionately, against my will, to prove that he was secure with his sexuality.
  • One time a classmate started threatening me with a knife outside of school for no reason..
  • I accidentally went on a date with someone once. I wasn’t happy with their response when they realised it was an accident.
  • Once a homeless woman tried to force me into a make out session.
  • Once a person I had only known a short while punched me for not giving them enough attention.
  • One time a couple stole my table for one at a restaurant and started kissing passionately in front of me while I awkwardly sat there too and ate dinner in silence.
  • At a party, a woman sitting next to me pulled out her freshly vajazzled pubis for everybody to see, right next to my face.
  • One time a woman exposed her genitals to her partner to counter his comment that she looked like a man, while I awkwardly walked passed a meter or two away.
  • Once an old boss of mine was going through my private texts and Skype messages.

I suppose that may be an unusual number of strange encounters. But you know what? I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that I think people are strange. I’ll never stop being happy to talk with strangers and get to know them, because for every complete weirdo, there’ll be a person who becomes a lifelong friend.

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Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis

I had somewhat enjoyed Mario vs. Donkey Kong on the Game Boy Advance and I remember being quite excited when I heard that it was getting a sequel for the Nintendo DS. I was curious to see how they’d improve the formula on superior hardware.

As it turns out, they did not improve the formula. They didn’t worsen it, either. They actually just made something completely different. While the first game had been a sort of successor to Donkey Kong for the original Game Boy, this game had you guiding Mini-Mario toys to the exits of little 2D levels. On paper, it might sound like a change for the worse (and I know some people were unhappy with it) but I actually like it more than those previous two games.

The Mini-Marios actually made their debut in the previous game, but I found them quite annoying in that one, since you just had to lead them to safety with Mario and they often died because of things which felt like they were out of your control. This time, you do feel in control. You can turn the Mini-Marios on and off by tapping them and swipe them left or right to make them go in certain directions. Along the way, they’ll encounter Shy Guys, Piranha Plants and other enemies trying to destroy them. They can’t really defend themselves (unless you lead them to a hammer) so you need to keep an eye on all of them to keep them safe.

Winning a level feels very satisfying and it’s one of those DS games which made good use of the touch screen controls. It wouldn’t really work without them. You go through several worlds along the way and they’re all styled after famous Mushroom Kingdom locations (and one is styled on Donkey Kong Island.) Very nicely, you get remixes of famous Super Mario and Donkey Kong tunes along the way (though I wish they had more Donkey Kong music…)

I also appreciate this game from a story perspective too, which I can’t really say for its prequel.  It starts with Mario opening a theme park based around Mini-Marios and he has Pauline there as a special guest. For the first time, she has a 3D model and it’s pretty cool that they brought this retro character back after all those years. Donkey Kong gets mad when she favours a Mini-Mario over a Mini-Donkey Kong, grabs her by the arm and drags her away. Cue Mini-Mario based chase. There’s a wonderful twist ending to it all and I shan’t spoil it, but let’s just say that I enjoyed Donkey Kong’s characterisation here.

It’s a nice, simple game and it doesn’t have too many problems. I will admit though that one or two of the game’s levels were on the frustrating side and, to be honest, the concept as a whole might not be “meaty” enough for some players. Plus, I do wish that they had incorporated more elements from the Donkey Kong series – other than Pauline and DK himself, it feels more like a Super Mario game which just happens to feature Donkey Kong, rather than a merging of the two series.

Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable puzzle game and something which I would recommend adding to your DS collection.

Rating: 8.6/10

Buy it here.

(Don’t miss today’s Finger Puppet Show!)

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Outrunning the Bus

On Saturday evening, I went out to celebrate the birthday of one of my very best friends. I had a delightful time and got to taste the luxury that is a banana and peanut butter smoothie. However, towards the end of the evening, there was a cause for tension.

My friend Dalfino and I had just gotten off the train and our bus home (the last of the evening) was due to depart in four minutes. Quite a close call. That would have been fine, apart from the fact that Dalfino didn’t have the change for the bus fare. So what were we to do?

Well, I went to the bus station and Dalfino went to the cash machine, I hoped that I might be able to hold it up or something. Sadly, this was not the case. I was standing right next to it as I watched it drive away. Dalfino arrived about ten seconds and I broke the bad news to him.

“Well, what do we do now?” he asked.

“We could sprint to the next stop,” I suggested.

Now, considering the fact that the bus must have had a good thirty second head start on us, our chances seemed slim. Or, at least, they might seem slim to those who are unaware of my super power.

So we set off. I ran along as fast as I could (wearing my office shoes, a blazer and a buttoned collared shirt) dodging all of the late night party people as I did. It was fun and exciting in a way, but the stakes were high as I didn’t want to have to pay for a taxi.

I gave a look behind me every now and then, just to make sure that Dalfino was still keeping up. Concerningly, he seemed to be drifting a little further behind each time I looked back, so I tried to offer him some encouraging hand gestures.

At one point the bus drove past us and for one pessimistic moment, I thought that our chances of catching it were completely lost. But as I sped round the corner, I saw it standing at the next stop. As I got there, the door was still open, but I didn’t want to get on with Dalfino so far behind.

The driver gave me a strange look and it was clear that he’d seen me standing outside at the first stop too. I stepped onto the bus and pretended to take a long time to find my bus pass. Eventually, once I could not stall any further without it seeming unnatural, I took it out, but Dalfino was still not there, so I didn’t want to get on.

“Is it okay if you wait just one second for my friend?” I asked. “I don’t want to make you late, but he won’t be a moment.”

The driver shook his head. Understandable. He probably wanted to get home.

I turned around and looked out of the bus. No sign of Dalfino. I awkwardly faced the driver again. Then I turned to look for Dalfino once more – and there he was!

“Ah!” I said. “Here he is!”

I then sat down in a comfortable seat on the and realised that though I had managed to catch the bus, I was now utterly exhausted. I had not physically exerted myself in such a way in a long time.

Dalfino and I shared a celebratory high five as he sat down and sat in the silent contentedness that comes when you know you’ve acquired an anecdote which will serve you well for many years.

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Rayman is a fondly remembered gaming icon of the 1990s and early 2000s and while he might not be considered as much of a big deal these days, his games are still fun to play. The original Rayman was released in 1995 and it’s an enjoyable 2D platformer which has aged quite well.

The story isn’t really much of a focus (even less so than other games in this genre.) All you really need to know is that he’s travelling through a strange and surreal world in order to rescue something called the Great Protoon from somebody named Mr. Dark. It sets up the game and it’s really all you need.

What I like so much about this game is that the worlds all look very beautiful (the art is very nice, especially for its time) and there’s a great soundtrack to accompany it. The music is often quite ambient and I sometimes get the impression that a lot of the strange and bizarre things I’m seeing are supposed to symbolise something more meaningful, though they’re almost certainly not.

Sometimes you’ll be going through jungles and caves, which are obviously fairly standard video game locales, but they’re portrayed really well here. Other times you’ll be walking through levels made of art supplies or musical notations, which is very unique. I have a personal preference for the ones which are grounded in reality (they have a certain fairy tale charm to them) but I basically like them all.

There is one main area where the game could be improved, however: the difficulty. It’s far too hard. Now, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate finely tuned platforming which is tough, but fair – it can be nice to really perfect your approach to a level so that you can win. Sadly, a lot of the tough sections in Rayman don’t feel fair to me. There’ll be obstacles flying all over the place  and everything that hits Rayman, pushes him back, often into deadly bottomless pits. It’s really infurating sometimes, especially near the end.

Speaking of the end, you need to find all of the hidden collectables hidden in each world to access the final world… considering the difficulty in finishing some of them even once, this was not something I was willing to do. I usually like to complete every game I review but, sadly, finishing all but the final world will have to count as “completing” in this case.

But, overall, I’d hate to leave a negative impression of this game. The difficulty can get frustrating, sure, but I still had a good time with this game and genuinely enjoyed many of its levels. Plus, it was the game that gave us Rayman: iconic and limbless creature that he is. I’d say it’s worth a try.

Rating: 8.1/10

Buy it here.

(Don’t miss today’s Finger Puppet Show!)

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Food: The Universal Ice Breaker

Do you struggle to make conversation with people? Well, here’s one tip to make it easier to make small talk with people. Think about this: What’s the one thing that everybody loves? Food, of course. So if you want to talk to someone, just talk to them about food.

Let’s say you’re in a context where you’re near someone who you think is pretty cool and you want to be friends with them (or even seduce them, should you be so inclined) but you don’t know how to break the ice. Say this: “I had a sandwich yesterday.”

“Oh, yeah?” they ask, intrigued.

“Yeah. It had cheese in it.”

“Wow, cool. What was it? Cheese and onion? Cheese and pickle? Cheese and tomato? Four cheese and onion chutney? Cheese and carrot? Gosh. There’s so many options. I love them all.”

See what I mean? Your conversation would be off to a great start. After a few of these food based dialogues, your relationship will be off to a great start. And the good thing about food, is that there’s so much of it to discuss and everybody can relate.

I was eating an orange the other day, you know? Wow. I went to Nando’s. Oh my goodness, I’m so happy for you. What’s your favourite onion colour? Are we speaking aesthetics or taste? What are your top ten favourite vegetables? Portobello mushrooms gotta be number one, right? And boy it better aint be tomatoes! Speaking of tomatoes, who’s your least favourite international terrorist? Gosh. I was eating a brownie the other day. Oh my. Oh my. It was a good one. I trembled. Know what I mean? Yeah. So good. Is there any greater physical pleasure in life? Of course not. Have you ever thought about how cheesecake is so good? Probably because its a combination of cheese and cake, two 10/10 foods. Wow. I’m so hungry. Let’s go and get dinner together and solidify that bond which will bind us both until death us do part. The only upside that will come if I outlive you, is that I will get to eat delicious food at the wake after your funeral.

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International Women’s Day

Usually the third blog post of the week comes on Friday, but as today is International Women’s Day, I thought I’d write something for the occasion. I’ve actually been meaning to do this for some time, but each year I always miss the day. Until now, that is. So I’ll be taking this opportunity to appreciate the positive influence the women in my life have on me.

There’s an attitude among some people, that men and women cannot really be friends, but this is absolutely not true. Just a few week ago, a friend of mine told me that if I found a good job opportunity somewhere far away, she’d give me the financial support I’d need to relocate. Another friend recently bought me a special little gift in order to help lift my spirits after a downbeat ending to the previous year. But these two things are based on finances, and not everybody has those, so what about emotional support and value? A friend of mine once spoke with me extensively on the subject of body image, in order to help me feel more confident. Another would always stand up for me, back in school. Another gave me a lot of support when dealing with an abusive employer.

But we mustn’t look at friendships as what a person can give to you, but rather the experiences shared. Whether it’s been exploring forests, visiting Christmas markets, visiting Nando’s, working on projects together, visiting amusement arcades or just generally spending time together without much of a “special occasion” my female friends have done a lot to enrich my life and I am often inspired and encouraged by their achievements.

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Tetris DX

I was quite excited when I saw a cheap copy of Tetris DX in a local pre-owned games shop. I’d wanted it for quite a while, although, strangely, I didn’t really know very much about it. To be honest, I had the impression that it was just the same as the earlier Game Boy Tetris, just with added colour. In reality, it’s actually quite a different game (or as different as two version of Tetris can be.)

The first change is something that you’ll notice as soon as you turn the game on. It has save files. The original could not save at all, which is very annoying for a game like this. But this time, you register your name and then it automatically adds you onto the score boards when you do well and it keeps track of the total number of lines you’ve cleared, which is pretty cool. Essentially, you can have several different “accounts” and then whoever is playing will always have their high scores attributed to them.

Aside from the classic Marathon Mode (which continues to be endlessly enjoyable to this day) they’ve also added Ultra Mode, 40 Lines and Vs. Com. Ultra Mode has you getting as many points as possible within a three minute time limit (good for when you know you have limited time.) 40 Lines has you clearing 40 lines as quickly as possible and Vs. Com has you playing against a computer player in the same way that you might play against a human player (which is also an option.)

But this game has one big problem. It’s going to sound so petty when I say it, too. Anyway, I’m sure you know the what the Tetris Theme A music is, don’t you? That classic piece of Russian folk music (otherwise known as Korobeiniki) which is really catchy and which everybody associates with the game? The music that you love listening to while you play Tetris? Well, it’s not really in this version. You have a choice of music tracks for when you play and they’re all quite boring and forgettable. The tune does make a very minor cameo in one of the little animations you get when you get a high score… but that’s not good enough!

Honestly, I feel bad saying this, but even though this game has added nice colours and and new modes, I can’t say that I enjoy it more than the original, because it’s lacking the original’s excellent soundtrack. Music plays a big role in my enjoyment of a game. If it weren’t for the fact that this one can actually save (which is a big plus) I’d probably have to say that it was worse than the original. As it stands, they’re about even.

Rating: 9.4/10

Buy it here.

(Don’t miss today’s Finger Puppet Show!)

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