Nerdstalgia: The Legend of Zelda

If I had to guess, I’d say that the biggest thing in gaming right now is the new Nintendo game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Since that game is less than a month old, it’s hardly appropriate for a Nerdstalgia or Patient Gamer review. So, let’s take a look at the game that started it all, The Legend of ZeldaThe Legend of Zelda was released in 1987. I was in third or fourth grade at that point, and I really doubt I actually had a Nintendo Entertainment System yet, so I didn’t really play it. My introduction to the series was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and even that I played only in small bits and pieces at a friend’s house. My first real experience with Link, Zelda, and Ganon was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Still, I think it’s best to start at the beginning of a series for these retrospectives, at least where I can.

I think remakes of the game probably cleaned up the translation some.

If I’m being completely honest, I really didn’t expect to like The Legend of Zelda that much, because I remember disliking The Adventure of Link. I started playing it for this post primarily because it’s a historically significant game, as not only the first entry in a classic video game series, but also possibly the first console RPG ever. I expected to play it and appreciate it for that fact, much as I can appreciate the movie Casablanca. I was actually surprised at how much fun I’ve been having.

The story is pretty simple. Ganon, the Prince of Darkness, has captured the Triforce of Power and was attempting to get his hands on the Triforce of Wisdom. Princess Zelda managed to split the Triforce of Wisdom into eight parts and scattered them around the world, but she was subsequently captured by Ganon. Now, the hero, Link, must reassemble the Triforce of Wisdom, infiltrate Ganon’s castle, defeat him, and save Zelda. This entire back story is shared in a quick prologue screen before you start your journey.

This may be one of the most famous screenshots/quotes in gaming.

That’s pretty much it for explanation. Games of this era had very little in the way of tutorials (since it was assumed you had the manual, which was a pretty stupid assumption for an industry that was marketed toward kids who had a tendency to lose everything they touched, but I digress…). You’re dumped into a field next to a cave, and you’re expected to find your way from there. If you go into the cave, you’ll be given a sword, and then you’re off to figure out how to make your way in the world, find the pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom, and save the Princess 1.

Once the game has started, you really are given no hints about where to go. Since this is an NES-era game, the “map” is pretty woeful, consisting of a grey screen with a green square indicating which square of the map you’re in. That’s something, but it means you’re in for a lot of wandering. It’s very easy to find yourself in an area that you’re not quite ready for, and the game is pretty unforgiving about that. It’s difficult in any sense, and not quite being certain whether the next screen will bring up enemies you can’t handle makes it even more so.

I love Link to the Past, and there are lots of places in this game where the link between these games is practically screaming at you, moreso than between The Adventure of Link and Link to the Past. The dungeon doors look similar, and most of the enemies are familiar, in a way that I have to compare, again, to watching a classic movie and seeing the origin of a lot of the tropes that now seem almost cliched.

The Legend of Zelda doesn’t hold up to modern games graphically, but there’s a lot to love with its simple depiction of Link and his enemies. Especially if you’re familiar with the enemies from later games, it’s easy to fill in the gaps of the crude graphics to see what the designers were going for (and what the enemies will evolve into).

If you enjoy the later Zelda games but haven’t played this one, I absolutely recommend picking it up. You should try it just to respect the series’ roots, but I think you may be pleasantly surprised by how fun this game is, even after thirty years.

The Legend of Zelda is available on Virtual Console for both 3DS and Wii U. Screenshots all come from the 3DS.

PSA: New Games With Gold

Public Service Announcement: As of 3/16, Evolve (Xbox One) and Heavy Weapon (Xbox 360, but available on One with Backward Compatibility) are free with Games with Gold if you have an Xbox Live Gold membership.  Games with Gold are only free for a month, but if you get them during the month, they are yours for good as long as you maintain your membership.

To buy the games if you are away from your Xbox, you can go to Games with Gold on and queue them for your Xbox One.

Nerdstalgia: Master of Orion

I have been playing video games for as long as I can remember. I remember thinking Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 was probably the best game of all time (I was very young. Don’t judge me.). I remember getting our Commodore 64, and spending enough time playing Jeopardy on it that I could pretty much buzz in on every question, confident that I’d remember what the answer was (I don’t think there were many puzzles on that one). Later, Lemmings on the Super Nintendo was the ideal puzzle game, and Final Fantasy II (Final Fantasy IV in Japan and all modern incarnations) was the best RPG ever.

All of these “best games ever”, though, pale in my memory when compared to Master of Orion 1.

I remember stumbling across the Master of Orion box among the other computer games, though I couldn’t tell you what store we were in at the time. Honestly, it wasn’t that flashy compared to other games; it was a basic black box, with a generic sci-fi scene (ships above a planet) and the name printed on the side of the box without even a fancy font or logo. I must have played other strategy games and liked them, because “Strategy” is the only thing that stands out on that box to me now, but, honestly, I don’t really know what drew me to this one.

To be honest, it’s been a few years since I’ve played Master of Orion, but not nearly as many years as you might think. Over the years, I have reverently moved the Master of Orion files from one external drive to another, periodically picking it up and playing a few games of Master of Orion, helping the Silicoids or the Psilons achieve their rightful places as the rulers of the entire galaxy. When I booted it up for this review, I wasn’t really worried that the graphics would look dated, or that I wouldn’t enjoy the gameplay, because it hasn’t been that long since I’ve played it.

The graphics and game layout are obviously a product of the time in which they were created, but they don’t really seem dated to me. It wouldn’t be too long after this game’s release that video games started being rendered in 3D. In a sense, these games had taken their 2D designs to their limit, and while the resolution of the screen and certain elements may show the technical limitations of their age, there isn’t a lot of room to criticize them, in my opinion 2

Even almost a quarter century later, the graphics are fine. They’re not flashy, but they don’t need to be.

The same can’t entirely be said for the game play. Most of it is workable. I wish I could zoom in and out on the map, and it took me a while to remember that simply clicking on the map will refocus it on my cursor. I kept trying to drag, which led to unexpected behaviors when the map would simply recenter on the last point where my mouse button was down. Still, most of the management is done using sliders (see the screenshot to the right for just one set of sliders). Lots and lots and lots of sliders. Each planet’s spending priorities are controlled by slider. Research priorities are controlled by sliders. Espionage and infiltration? Slider.

That’s not entirely a bad thing, since I prefer it to the way Master of Orion 2 did things (expect a review of that classic at a later date), but I suspect it would give the game kind of a clunky feel if one wasn’t compelled by nostalgia to love it as much as I do.

The game itself is one of the models on which most future 4X games would be based. The term itself was coined for this game. You start off controlling a single planet, and you slowly explore and expand your empire, exploiting resources as you find them. Eventually, you’ll find other races among the stars, and, as a would-be galactic emperor is compelled to do, you will have to exterminate them. Where other games in the genre would eventually allow you to win through diplomacy and alliances (and those aspects are at play during any given playthrough of Master of Orion), the only winning condition for this game is to be the last empire standing.

I hated this stupid GNN reporter. I’m pretty sure the inhabitants of Endoria that I haven’t evacuated yet probably hated him more, though.

Because of that, Master of Orion is actually pretty simple, comparatively speaking. You build up the infrastructure on each planet, making sure to balance that with protecting the environment (unless you play as the Silicoids, who don’t really care about things like breathing or radiation). Eventually, those planets can earn research points, save money, or build ships. Researching can improve any aspect of this. Early on, increasing your ability to explore, expand and exploit is going to be your main focus, but there comes a time when any young emperor’s fancy turns to love extermination.

When that time comes, you’re going to start building a fleet of ships intended for something more than defense. Ship design is pretty basic – you pick a size for the ship, pick one of the ship images, and decide what items to put in there. Available ship styles are dictated by the color of your flag and the size of the ship you’ve chosen. Engine, Armor, Weapons, Computers, and “special” items (like the colony ship unit that turns a ship into a colony ship) all fit inside. As your technology increases, you’ll have access to better and better items, and the existing items will get smaller and smaller.

Space combat is strategic and turn-based, but pretty basic.

All space battles will take place in orbit around a star system, usually in orbit of the star’s primary planet (stars in Master of Orion have no more than one planet shown), or in empty space if the star has no planets. The attacking fleet will be stacked on the left, with the defending fleet stacked on the right. Since you can have six ship designs at a time, that means you have at most six icons on your side (unless it’s your planet, in which case you get to control the planet’s ground-based missiles as well.

Battles are generally pretty quick; your ships can move one space for each “level” of engine they have, and the entire stack of ships fires at once. If your design includes a single set of missiles, but you’ve got a stack of 10 ships, then you’ll fire 10 missiles at a time from that stack. Beam weapons and missiles can be fired at separate targets, and, if you’re fighting against a planet, you may also use bombs to attack the planet. In addition to the playing through the strategic battle, you can click “AUTO” to simply watch the battle play out.


Planetary invasions are even more basic than space combat.

Once you’ve gotten rid of a planet’s defenders, you have to deal with any alien colonies that are in place. You could simply bomb them out of existence, but why not take advantage of the infrastructure your enemies have so kindly built up for you? You can simply transfer “colonists” straight to an enemy colony (even a single ship in orbit can send all your “colonists” to their doom, so you’ll want to leave a small fleet in orbit long enough to get your colonists delivered. Your colonists come equipped with the best weapons your technology can handle, and they’ll systematically clean up the planet of any pesky aliens before settling in (or, in the case of my screenshot to the left, they’ll die trying…).

In addition to diplomacy and warmongering, you’ll have to face random events. These events aren’t quite as varied as in the next game in the series, but they do occasionally put some of your people at risk, with the all-too-cheerful GNN robot informing you that your people on a given planet are all going to die if you don’t do something. There are also good events (a random planetary realignment might boost a planet’s ecosystem, or you may find ancient ruins that will boost your research), but those seem to mostly be reserved for AI players. I’m pretty sure GNN is biased toward players of the computer variety.
Also, somewhere, out there in the galaxy is Orion. Orion is the homeworld of an ancient advanced race, patiently waiting for the first player to find it and plunder it for some of the best technology in the game, like the aptly-named Death Ray. The only thing between the player and the riches of Orion is the Guardian. You’ll have to build up a decent fleet with some good weaponry to take out the very well equipped Guardian. There are tricks to maximize your chances (it doesn’t do quite as well against swarms of smaller ships), but that’s not to say it’s easy.

Master of Orion is now available on Steam for just a few dollars (I picked up Master of Orion and Master of Orion 2 for $5.99.). I can’t recommend either of the other two bundles, as they both include Master of Orion 3, which was a huge disappointment (I haven’t tried the remake yet, so I can’t speak to that). If you’ve any interest in 4X games and haven’t tried it, it’s definitely worth trying the game for which the term was coined.

On Politics, Journalism, and Zombies

[SPOILERS for the first three books in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy and first four chapters of the fourth book, Feedback, can be found in this post. I’ll warn you before we get there, but if you want to stop now, I don’t blame you.]

I have a love/hate relationship with politics. On the one hand, I love theoretical politics. Various political and economic theories fascinate me, and I’ll happily discuss any current issue until whomever I’m speaking with agrees with me just to get me to shut up (filibustering is my favorite method of “winning” an argument). On the other hand, applied politics is dirty and frustrating. It involves compromises, backroom deals, scheming and hypocrisy. Even the most well-meaning politicians must be somewhat two-faced to be effective, and it makes politics as a profession somewhat dirty. Still, the idea of pure, unsullied politics appeals to me.

Cover of 'Feedback' by Mira Grant

‘Feedback’ is the fourth book set in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh universe.

The flip side of that coin is journalism. Journalists, as the “fourth estate,” are a vital part of the fabric of any free society. Where the “pure” politician is always going to be a little distasteful, the pure journalist feels like something of a hero. The little guy, looking for the truth, often pitted against the most powerful and influential of people, who have a vested interest in making sure that truth isn’t revealed. Unfortunately, as in all things, reality falls a bit short here, too. Journalists are human beings, who have their own biases and flaws. The reality of our economy and people’s short attention spans mean that click-bait and alarmist thinking are always going to get the dollars; journalists, who generally like to eat, are forced to give into that. Again, though, the concept of the journalist as the plucky hero is golden.

Finally, I love zombies. Even before the glut of zombie fiction we’ve had the last few years, I’ve found them fascinating. I don’t care so much about the stories told in The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later (though, I enjoyed the first few seasons of TWD and love 28 Days Later). While I enjoy the pure action and horror of the stories, I’m more fascinated by the world building aspects of the zombie genre. What, exactly, does the presence of these eating machines do to people’s ability to survive? What impact does it have on society when a sudden heart attack can turn a mild-mannered family man into a carnivorous monster who is contagious to boot?

Put all of this together, and Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy (Feed, Blackout, and Deadline) seem tailor-made for me. A team of blogger/journalists are hired to follow a Presidential candidate on the campaign trail, in a world where the zombie apocalypse happened twenty years ago and is still very much a danger? Yes, please. While neither of the two sequels are quite as good as the first book (and I never quite got over some of the distasteful stuff in those novels, details of which I’m leaving out here for spoiler reasons), the first book is a masterpiece and the other two are excellent. Late last year, when my reading time was cut somewhat short by the presence of a new baby in the house, Mira Grant’s fourth Newsflesh novel, Feedback, was released. According to Amazon, I bought it the day it was released, but I never really got around to reading it until today.

[SPOILERS for the first three books in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy and first four chapters of the fourth book, Feedback, can be found below this line.  You have been warned.]

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The Patient Gamer, Volume 1

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

When we were discussing this group blog project, one of my co-writers suggested that we should review the Xbox Live Games With Gold games each month. Unfortunately, that same co-writer got a case of the “somebodies,” as in, “Somebody should review them, but I don’t really mean me.” For this first review, I nominated myself to be somebody. Games with Gold are, by necessity, older games, and I suggested that we should call the regular feature “Late to the Party,” but, honestly, the more I used it, the less I liked it. Thus, The Patient Gamer was born. If my co-writers don’t like it, well, they should’ve volunteered to review an old game.

The current Games with Gold are Borderlands 2 (360), Project Cars, and Layers of Fear. I would have been happy to review any of those three games (especially Borderlands 2, which I already owned and enjoyed). Unfortunately, something came up. That something was the announcement of Middle Earth: Shadow of War, the sequel to Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. That announcement reminded me that I’d never actually finished Mordor, so I jumped back into it.

Mordor isn’t a new game, and, if you’re reading this, you’ve almost certainly heard of it, even if you haven’t played it. Set between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Rings, it tells the story of Talion, a human who is somehow merged with a wraith and given a form of immortality. The wraith has no real memories of who it was, so the two start out on a mission of revenge against those who killed Talion and his family, while trying to figure out exactly what happened to them.

It’s a large, open-world game set in the Lord of the Rings universe, which is one or two points in its favor right there, depending on one’s feelings about Tolkein’s Legendarium. The combat is very similar to the Arkham series of Batman games, which is a huge point in its favor. When you’re surrounded by orcs and only technically fighting one or two at a time, the combat system still makes you feel like you’re in the midst of a huge brawl. The biggest winning feature of Mordor, supposedly to be expanded on in War, is the Nemesis system.

In the nemesis system, there are orc captains (or Warchiefs, at higher levels) who lead large groups of orcs. Those captains each have their own limited personalities, with traits that modify how they fight.  More importantly, if you encounter one, he remembers you. If he killed you (one of the major points of the game is that your character returns to life after death, and the orcs know that about you), he’ll make a comment about it. If you killed him and he

Otha Ugly Face is a new Nemesis.

I think this was the first time I’d met Otha. Just after taking this picture, a second Captain showed up and distracted me, giving Otha the chance to kill me…

“escaped” (which means you got the kill animation, but the game somehow decided that he didn’t actually die when his head exploded or whatever), he not only remembers, but may bear some scars (physical and mental) from that encounter. Burn an orc to “death”, and he may return with a fear of burning.

The whole thing makes the game’s open world seem more alive than it should, and increases the replay value immensely. Let’s face it, this isn’t Skyrim. The open world in question here is all set within Mordor, the heart of Sauron’s evil empire, and it’s populated almost entirely by Orcs, human slaves, and monsters. There’s no thieves guild or Companions to join, it’s just you and your weapons, with pretty limited quest lines. If it weren’t for the Nemesis system (and, to a lesser extent, the good will earned simply by being set in a pre-existing fantasy universe), Mordor would feel like a fun proof-of-concept in want of a game. The Nemesis system completely redeems that, and makes the quest to kill all the orcs (and regain the wraith’s memories, which, honestly, felt like more of a subplot than a driving force of the game) feel entertaining a lot longer than it would otherwise be.

All in all, the plot of Mordor leaves a lot to be desired, but the Nemesis system alone makes it entirely worth playing. I’d give it a 8/10, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.

On Data Caps and “Fairness”

Since Suddenlink Communications implemented data caps in my area several months ago, I have cycled through different levels of anger about it. On the low end, I feel a mild annoyance.  On the high end, I’m so angry that I’m ready to swear off all technology and communicate with my family only by telegraph and horse-carried post.

Unfortunately, that would probably end poorly for me, not least because having reliable high speed internet is one of the basic requirements of my job. So, I’m left looking for alternatives. In my area, there seem to be two options:

  1. Continue tolerating Suddenlink’s data caps, or
  2. Switch to Frontier‘s DSL, which is advertised at 24mbps, about 1/6 of the advertised Suddenlink speed that I pay for, 150mbps.

Until late last year, I was actually very happy with my Suddenlink service. While my speeds were often 30-40% less than what I was paying for (“Up to 150Mbps” actually seems to mean “around 100mbps” at the best of times), they were pretty consistent, and, honestly, very few applications actually use that much bandwidth at one time, so it doesn’t really matter that they don’t deliver on what they offer. Still, it is worth pointing out that if I paid them 30-40% less (because I agreed to pay up to $X / month), they’d be shutting me down pretty quickly on that.

Late last year, though, they implemented their data caps. At the 150Mbps tier, the data cap is 450GB/mo.

I’ve got a few complaints about that.

First, let’s look at the fact that the caps are pretty dishonest, since they’re not generally mentioned in  the advertising.

The data plan I pay for is the 150Mbps plan. Here is everything Suddenlink tells you about their plan on their website. Note that there’s nothing there about a data limit in their advertising.

150Mbps is 150 megabits per second. That’s 18.75 MB/s (there are 8 megabits (mb) per megabyte (MB)), or 1.62 million MB/day(18.75*60*60*24).  That’s 1,600GB/day, which is 45,360 GB / month (in February, anyway).  So, Suddenlink is advertising 150Mbps, but given that they limit me to 450GB/mo, I’m only allowed to average 1% of their advertised limit.  That’s 18kbps if you do the same kind of math as above in reverse (450GB/month is 16GB/day is 670MB/hr is 11.17MB/min is 18.6kbps).

The best dial-up modems transferred data at 56kbps. So, they’re selling bandwidth that is, effectively, 1/3 that of Dial-up, and advertising it like it’s 2,000 times better (56kbps vs 150,000kbps). A friend of mine described like selling a McLaren with only 5 gallons of gas (and you’ve got to pay 50% of the purchase price to get each additional half gallon).

Additionally, the data caps were slipped in with new contracts that they described as “free upgrades”. Another bit of sleight-of-hand, intended to slip the caps in on their customers without being upfront about it.

Second, let’s look at the given justification for the caps.

Here’s how Suddenlink justifies the data caps:

Consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy and Residential Services Agreement, Suddenlink has applied monthly data plans to residential Internet accounts in most of its service areas. Data plans are one step among several that help us continue delivering a quality Internet experience for our customers. Other steps include the sizable investments we’ve made and continue making to provide greater downstream and upstream system capacity and more bandwidth per home. Even with those investments, a relatively few customers use a disproportionate amount of data, which can negatively affect the Internet experience of those who use far less. That’s why, as a complement to our network investments, we’ve established data plans. In short, we want to help make sure the vast majority of our customers continue to have a great Internet experience — and that the relatively few who consistently use much more data than normal have a choice: either use a little less or pay a little more. We believe that’s a fair and reasonable approach.

Emphasis mine.

Data is not a limited resource. When I stream a movie from Netflix, that movie is not gone. Anyone else who wants it (and pays for it) can stream it. Downloading data doesn’t cause extra wear and tear on the infrastructure, and Suddenlink doesn’t have to pump more data into a reservoir to supply everyone.

Bandwidth, on the other hand, is limited, and it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that those who use more bandwidth should pay more in order to do so… and we do. I pay more for the 18kbps – sorry, 150mbps – service because I want to be able to download new games from Steam or the Xbox store quickly, even while my wife is watching Hulu and I’ve got Netflix streaming on my tablet (yes, I multi-task a lot).

Finally, let’s look at the real reason behind the caps

This last bit is speculation, but, given the known facts, I think it’s a pretty solid conclusion.

  1. Cable companies, traditionally, are more than ISPs. They also provide video services in the form of television subscriptions.
  2. Cable television subscriptions are dropping due to “cord cutting,” where individuals move to online streaming services for their video.
  3. Some internet service providers (notably, Comcast, which is also a huge cable company) tried to fight their competitors by cutting the bandwidth available for services that use the most bandwidth (whether it is a coincidence that these services are the same competitors that are causing cable tv subscriptions to drop, I’ll leave up to the reader).
  4. The FCC, in early 2015, took a proverbial ruler to the knuckles of those ISPs, implementing net neutrality rules that prevented that behavior.
  5. After their attempt to curb bandwidth usage was foiled, data caps were implemented (Comcast had implemented data caps prior to that, but Suddenlink had not).

Given these facts, I think it’s clear that the intent of these data caps is not, in fact, to “fairly” protect those who pay for less bandwidth from those of us who use more. It seems more likely that Suddenlink and other cable companies are trying to protect themselves instead.  They were stopped from extorting money from their competitors directly with the Net Neutrality rules, so they’re attacking the problem from the other direction, forcing those of us who use those competitors services heavily (whether in conjunction with other internet activity or not) to pay more.