A New Endeavor: Tech Down South

Recently, I’ve decided on embarking on a new adventure with a friend, Matt Wilson (a student of the school out east): a weekly podcast. It’s something that we’ve talked about for quite a while, and after a false start back in November, we’ve finally put  something together that we’ve put some energy behind. The name of the podcast is “Tech Down South”, where Matt and I talk about any tech-related news that comes out for around 45 minutes. Given that we’re big Nintendo and Apple fans, expect those to be popular and common topics, but we’re working to include other, more general information as well. You can check us out on Twitter via @tds_show, or on the web at techdownsouth.wordpress.com. I hope you give us a listen!

Manual

Stick shift. Manual transmission. “The only way to drive a car”. It is called it many things, but in the end, it’s still the best way to operate a vehicle.

I grew up watching my dad drive a manual, a red Nissan Maxima ’92. He loved it to death. He purchased it a couple of months before I was born, in November of ‘93. It was the car that picked myself and my brothers up from the hospital right after we were born. It was the car that he took to work every day for the next 12 years, until it got just a bit too quirky to trust for that daily commute. He held onto it for a little while longer, eventually getting rid of it just a few months shy of my 15th birthday. Feeling the car vibrate under the seat and rumble as he shifted gears, I knew that when I bought my first car, it was going to make sure it would be a manual.

Because he got rid of that trusty Maxima before I could get my learner’s permit, I never had the opportunity to drive it. I never got to feel its steering wheel in my hand nor its clutch under my foot. And while I pleaded for a manual when he shopped for a third vehicle entering my junior year of high school, he instead opted for a pedestrian, but beloved Honda CR-V (which many of you know as Ramona).

Earlier today, I had the opportunity to drive a manual. The friend that takes me to church (no, not that one) has a nice Mazda 3 hatchback that he finally let me take for a spin. I had driven a stick before—my ex-girlfriend’s father showed me the ropes on an old Toyota in the rural Tennessee hills of Joelton my freshman year—but since then I’d been itching to get my hands on one. Given that very few Americans drive sticks anymore (apparently around only 4% of cars sold in the last few years are manual), even finding someone who drove one was a pretty rare in and of itself. After a bit of guilt-tripping and peer pressure, I was able to convince him to let me try it out in an empty parking lot.

Driving a stick, you have to pay attention. You can’t text and drive a stick, to be quite honest. With one hand on the wheel, one on the shaft, and both feet occupied (the left on the clutch and the right working the accelerator & brake), you have to be fully engaged with the vehicle and your surroundings. Unless you were Doctor Octopus, you wouldn’t have any remaining limbs to hold an iPhone. Terrain makes a difference: getting the car from “0 to 1″, as I call it, can be much trickier depending on the slope of the incline one is stopped on. (You don’t want to end up like Wal-Mart—rollback.) Even things like braking require more thought: Are you pressing in the clutch in as you brake? Do you even need to, at the speed you’re going? Do you need to downshift? I think that in an automatic and cellphone-heavy world, these extra factors can help to keep drivers engaged with the road. If driving a manual means I can’t use my phone while driving, that can only be a good thing.

Beyond the need for higher engagement while driving, operating a stick is simply more fun and more rewarding. There’s no sense of accomplishment in getting the car from stopped to 20 mph in an automatic. But in a manual, each start of the car is a reward in and of itself. You’re telling the world, the car, and every frightened passenger in tow that you’ve conquered the car and overcome the stoplight. Only the most experienced manual driver can pop into a new stick shift and make it purr. For everyone else, you’ve got to get to know your car. Over time, you learn where the sweet spot of the clutch is. Once that happens, you’ll be able to masterfully make it to that 20 mph mark. Indeed, few things are exhilarating as successfully downshifting, (putting on your blinker), and zooming by the old lady in front of you going 9 under the speed limit.

After two straight stalls and about 10 loops, I eventually got the hang of the no-incline start. After 4 stalls and 25 loops, I got the hang of the inclined start. It was a flashback to my father teaching me the ropes in his huge truck, in an empty school parking lot 6 years and many miles ago. Impressed by my aptitude, I was even granted the opportunity to drive back to my dorm. If you happened to see a car stall out in front of the book store today in traffic, I apologize. Despite the embarrassment, it felt good to fail and have a new challenge presented to me. It’s an interesting feeling, knowing how to accomplish a task and yet failing at it upon learning how to do it a new way.

I’ve still got a ways to go—be it mastering the stick or even getting a car with a stick. But I have only a little while longer to wait until the opportunity arises. When it does, it’ll be clutch.

(Disclaimer: I simply couldn’t write an article without at least trying to incorporate the slang ‘clutch’. I’ll see myself out.)

21

Happy New Year!

Another semester, another schedule, and, of course, another birthday. January, as you can see, is generally a time full of adjustment.

Back on the 10th, I turned 21. A couple of weeks ago, it hit me while talking to my dad that 21 is really the last birthday one looks forward to as a kid. Five is the last time you can tell people your age on one hand; 10 is the last time you can use both and the first time you hit double digits. At 13, you’re finally a teenager and at 15 you can actually drive a car. After one grueling year, you can finally drive without your mother screaming in your ear at 16. At 17, you are simultaneously excited for the fact that you’ll soon be an adult, but also scared that you’ll soon be an adult. Then, finally, at 18, you can sign your own parental slips, call those 1-800 numbers you saw on toy commercials as a kid, and laugh at your younger child siblings. After that, it kind of simmers down until you hit 21.

The United States is odd in that it joins the likes of Egypt, Cameroon, Indonesia, Tonga, Oman, Sri Lanka, Qatar, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, the Solomon Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Tajikistan, and Kazakstan as having a high drinking age of 21. I’m going to venture and guess that you didn’t know half of those countries. In contrast, most other places in the West/Americas mark the age at 18, and some even have it at 16. But it doesn’t matter, because the overwhelming majority of people who do end up drinking most likely started doing so before they reached 21. Having not grown up in a house where my parents drank alcohol, it’s been a little odd to me to suddenly be able to legally do something that so many of my peers do underage and strive to be able to do legally. I think that, like other topics, it seems like something that everyone does unless you stop to observe. Only then when you look around do you observe that it’s a much smaller percentage than what Budweiser would have you think.

Either way, I’ve reached the last ‘fun’ birthday. Save for finally being able to rent a car at 25 and formally kicked off of my parent’s insurance at 26, all of the good good birthdays (while young) are about over. It’s odd to step back and reflect on all of those pivotal moments; where I was in my personal journey, favorite songs of the time, and which iPhone/iPods were out at the time. But now, it’s time to enjoy today, the moment, 64% through my time at Vanderbilt.

Here’s to 21, and here’s to 2015.

Go Buy a Wii U

Having read some reviews of Bayonetta 2, I was moved to make a Public Service Announcement: Go buy a Wii U. Right now, it has the widest variety of games, and the highest reviewed games. There’s something for everyone. The Wii U won’t get the most. The Wii U will get the best. The game that prompted this article, Bayonetta 2, just received a 10 on GameSpot (they’ve only given out eight 10/10 scores in 18 years of business, including Bayonetta 2). IGN also awarded it a 9.5, and they don’t hand those out like T-shirts.

Let me just say that I don’t like GameSpot; I think they’re overly-harsh graders. Among their biggest slights, they gave Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze a 6/10 and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption an 8.5/10. After the latter review back in ’07, I simply had to stop taking them seriously, as Prime deserves a 9.5/10 and no less. Them giving DK a 6 merely validated this claim, as that game earned no less than an 8 in my opinion (and most others agree).

With that said, Bayonetta 2 only serves as another game in a long list of original content that the Wii U offers. Shooters? Grab Call of Duty: Ghosts or Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. 2D Platforming? We’ve got plenty: Rayman Legends, the aforementioned Donkey Kong, Shovel Knight, and more. Oh, you meant 3D? Check out Super Mario 3D World. Racing? Need for Speed U and Mario Kart 8 will keep you occupied for weeks. Adventure? Pikmin 3 and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD (one of my personal favorites). Action? Hyrule Warriors and the upcoming Bayonetta 2. Fighting? Injustice: Gods Among Us and of course the upcoming Smash Bros. We have it all.

The Wii U truly offers something for everyone, and if you’re a true video game fan, you’re really missing out by not owning one. I highly recommend it. If you don’t want a new one, you can usually find one for cheap on Craigslist (your win, trust me). Make it happen.

Thoughts on the Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS Nintendo Direct

Yesterday, Nintendo fans around the world were treated to a Nintendo Direct that detailed the hotly-anticipated fourth installment of the Smash Bros. series. Originally coming out on the Nintendo 64 as “Super Smash Bros.”, it pitted Nintendo All-Stars in a fight to see who could come out on top. Its sequel was the all-time classic “Super Smash Bros. Melee” on the GameCube, a fixture in my top-3 favorite games of all time. It is still played in tournaments all over the world and has recently undergone a renaissance. The third installment is “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” for the Wii, in which the director (Masahiro Sakurai) aimed to move away from the highly competitive and technical Melee to the slower Brawl (which included fun things like spontaneous tripping). For Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS (henceforth referred to as Smash4 together, and SmashU and Smash(3)DS separately), Sakurai has taken a middle ground between the technical, fast-paced Melee and the slow, floaty, ‘fun’ Brawl. I’ll tackle my thoughts on the direct in the order they appeared.

Release Date

As of right now, SmashDS releases this summer and SmashU releases this winter.

I don’t think that anyone was expecting a split release, but it makes sense for a number of reasons. First, and most importantly, it avoids cannibalism. Paying for both simultaneously is a larger financial strain than having 6 months post-SmashDS to save up (and anticipate) the Wii U version. With  SmashU coming out around Christmas, Nintendo will be able to increase their console count due to holiday sales and release a Christmas bundle. SmashU gives the Wii U a hit when it will face stiff competition from more-mature PS4 and Xbox One titles. Similarly, a summer release for SmashDS gives Nintendo a summer windfall, which will make investors happy.

3DS Technicality

60 frames per second, including when in full 3D. Excellent. Making Pokémon and Assist Trophies run at 30 fps was a good compromise to ensure that the framerate remains smooth—that’s the number one goal. I find it odd that Sakurai didn’t mention any frame data on the Wii U version, but given that there are still many months to go, he may not have found the right balance on that. The U should have no problems running at 60fps for all on-screen elements and backgrounds (unless literally every item in the game is going off at the same time). If there was a problems with this, I hope they make the same compromise they did with the 3DS.

Differences Between Versions

Same fighters, new stages—I definitely think that’s the best way to handle this, especially since the stages are platform specific. In terms of sharing options, hopefully you’ll be able to share control schemes/customizations between the two. It’s odd that there hasn’t been much 3DS–Wii U exchange yet.

Online Play

Let’s be clear—online play in Super Smash Bros. Brawl was absolute garbage. The new system that they’ve implemented is far better. No more Friend Code bullsh*t (still don’t understand how that arcane system works), as your Nintendo Network ID and associated Mii are now used (no more taunt parties!). Additionally, there are two play modes: “For Fun” and “For Glory”.  “For Glory” This, to me, is an indication that Sakurai has been listening to fans in addressing Brawl’s shortcomings and better appealing to hardcore players (like myself). “For Fun” involves every stage but Final Destination, and all items are turned on for maximum mayhem. In “For Glory”, Final Destination is chosen and no items are used. This is excellent for players like myself who never play with items (I haven’t in years). To eliminate fatigue, Sakurai & Co. have created Final Destination forms of most of the other stages in the game, so that we can enjoy their art and music as well. (I hope that these forms are available for local multiplayer as well; it’s probably the only way I’d play). It is a brilliant idea that really shows that the team thought about the needs of hardcore players while still making things fun for the younger ones who play with all items and on all manner of crazy stages.

There are a couple of drawbacks to “For Glory”, namely the limitation of Final Destination and Timed vs. Stock nature of the matches. What about the other neutral stage, Battlefield? There should be versions of this stage as well, as Battlefield is better than Final Destination for characters like Marth, Zero Suit Samus, King DeDeDe, and more while Final Destination serves as an advantage for characters like Sonic and Samus. If there were varying stage forms with a battlefield-like setup, I would be very pleased.

In tournaments, rounds are set to 4 stocks with an 8 minute time limit on the match. But it seems as though there will be some sort of time limit on “For Glory” matches without it being a stock round, and this poses a problem. When a character gets a kill, the killer gets +1 and the killed receives –1 for their scores. But to win, the killer only needs to have a number greater than the killed, not necessarily kill the other player a set amount of times. Take the following example: Player 1 and 2 have high damage, there are 30 seconds remaining in the match, the score is tied at 0. Player 1 kills 2 with 10 seconds left, making the score +1/–1 respectively. Player 2 still has time to return to the stage and get a kill for the tie. But what happens when Player 1 Self-destructs (worth –1)? The score becomes 0/–1, and now Player 2 has virtually no chance of getting a kill and taking the lead with the limited time remaining. This is why tournaments don’t use time matches, as stock matches encourage survival. Should “For Glory” use time matches instead of stock matches, the phenomenon I gave in the example will lead to “self destruct finishes”. It’s not fair, and hopefully they realize this over in Japan.

A note of miscellany: online voice chat was not mentioned, and with it being Nintendo, I don’t expect it.

Bonus: The Wii LAN adapter apparently works with the Wii U and can help with a great connection. I sense that a lot of these will be purchased soon; I know I’ll be grabbing one. Unfortunately, since it’s over USB, the max theoretical is 10/100 gbps. Ouch, but that may still be better than the Wii U’s Wi-Fi a/g/n.

Global Smash Power

Rather than a simple ranking system #1–#of players, the Smash team has implemented ‘Global Smash Power’. This is a ranking that simply states “you are better than x number of people”, making a larger number more covetable. It’s certainly more easy to rank people this way, as you can create a formula based on events completed/wins to determine definitively what players are better than others without having to crown a #1. It’s a very Nintendo way of doing things.

Items, Pokéballs, and Master Pokéballs. 

I don’t play with them, so they don’t mean too much to me. Glad to know the good ones are there though. I must say, I fist pumped when I saw Dark Samus as an assist trophy though.

Returning Fighters

Zero Suit Samus! Sweet, glad she’s back—even though Sakurai was playing games in the Direct, making it look like she wouldn’t be back for a second. Her jet boots seem to be inspired by the classic “Haloid” short by Monty Oum that came out way back in about 2007(!). The fact that Samus and Zero Suit exist as separate characters is fine with me, as one really couldn’t actively switch between the two characters in-game. (Yes, I know that it is possible to transform from Samus to Zero Suit in Brawl without a Smash Ball, but it was a one-off event.) I may actually want to play with Smash Balls with Samus now that I know I won’t be playing a completely different character after I use it.

Shiek and Zelda, split? It will certainly be a big change for Zelda/Shiek mains, but many Shiek players didn’t play the traditionally terrible Zelda anyway. They will benefit from having a new side and down special, however.

Charizard, I don’t really care about. Interesting that they took out Pokemon Trainer, but that works well for people that only liked ⅓ or ⅔ of the Pokémon Trainer. Alas, that also means that Squirtle and Ivysoar are most likely gone, but I’m sure most would have picked Charizard out of the three to carry the torch.

Yoshi: I really don’t care about him. At least he stands up correctly, as he’s been awkwardly hunched over in the past, just like Bowser. Hopefully they’ll smooth over Samus’ run animation too, but I wouldn’t hold my breath—I’d die before the game even made it to the eShop.

New Movesets: I’m glad that Sakurai went ahead and spelled out the move sets for the new characters (Mega Man, Villager, Wii Fit Trainer). That really takes a load off of the Internet trying to piece it together from videos. Not sure who I’ll like out of them yet.

New character Graninja: No idea who he is, but he looks interesting. I’ll give him a shot. He rounds out the quota for Pokemon, as the last Pokéslot should go to Jigglypuff.

Smash Run

Honestly, I really don’t have much to say about this, other than that it should be an awesome, fun diversion from the main game as well as a way to have more fun with other modes of the game.

Custom Movesets

Custom Movesets came out of nowhere, and I have no idea what to make of it. I’ll have to get some more information. It looks cool, especially since you can play with custom fighters online with your friends (only) in addition to local. I look forward to returning Samus’ missiles to their former glory if Sakurai hasn’t fixed them yet. I suspect that this mode limited to the Wii U, just as Smash Run is limited to the 3DS.

Overall Thoughts and Observations

The biggest thing that I’ve noticed is a reduction in the ‘randomness’ of certain attributes of the game (e.g. no more tripping, and King Dedede now throws Gordos exclusively rather than 8% of the time), and an acknowledgement that hardcore fans enjoy the game differently—but no less so. The “For Glory” mode is very much appreciated, and I look forward to playing online much more often (I’m sick of playing level 9 CPUs, and they don’t lend themselves to player development like playing against humans do). I really appreciate how the game now better appeals to hardcore and casual players, rather than just casual players. At the end of the day, it’ll be the hardcore players who will still be playing the game 10 years from now, just as we’re the ones with GameCubes and N64s still playing Melee and Smash64. By my estimate, Melee is the most popular form of Smash on campus, and I don’t expect that to change for another 3 or 4 years.

There are no GamePad-specific features for the game, so it’ll be all Pro Controller for me. It would reduce a big headache for me if they said “Alright, Pro Controller only” for the control scheme. Naturally and deservedly so, that would raise an uproar, but dealing with Classic Controller Pros, Wiimotes, Wiimote + Nunchuks, Pro Controllers, and GamePads is a massive headache. It’s also easier to explain to newbies when everyone has the same controller.

All in all, I’m very excited for the game (if you couldn’t tell by the massive blog post). I think it will be what Brawl should have been, and that it won’t cause the great divide in the Smash community that Brawl did and instead serve as a unifying game. I know I’ll be picking up both copies on release day, and that most free moments will be filled by playing the new Smash. Here’s to the future.