‘Tis the Season…

The past few Christmases, I’ve had no income. I was laid off from a job and was barely affording food and such. It always devastated me because I like to give during the holidays. I’m a bit of a giver by nature, and it just always felt good to make someone else’s Christmas a little brighter in whatever way I could.

Lacking that ability is draining for me. There are people that I wanted to give a gift to so badly, but I just couldn’t and it would tear me apart. Those same people would buy me things and I’d be very appreciative. It brightened my spirits just a little bit. Enough to not feel like a total loser. but then I’d remember that I couldn’t return the favor and I’d fall into that mental pit again. It has been the case far too often for the past 6 years.

This year, I have been working, but the job doesn’t feel as secure as I’d like. That aside, I have money and I’m giving. I promised myself that I would if I had the ability to – which I do – so I am. It make me wince a little when I see the bank balance drop into the depths of Hell, but when I hear the appreciative words of my friends, it makes it all money well spent.

Even that has its ups and downs, though. There are some people that I feel a need to buy for out of obligation, and that kinda annoys me. But I try not to let it get me too upset. Things could be a whole lot worse.

This year, I’ve done some great shopping. I decided to buy some special friends a few gifts that I know they’ll love, and I’m quite proud of my ability to find thoughtful items on one day’s efforts. The rest of my buying as of this writing is basically gift cards, so I’m all set. The whole process of giving has made me feel less shitty.

But I also feel a bit empty. Giving to wonderful friends is great, but I feel like it would all be that much better if I had someone special in my life to share the festivities with. A lot of single people get all pissy and crybaby when Valentine’s Day rolls around, but for me, it’s Christmas that makes being alone harder to deal with.

Of my group of friends locally, I’m one of the rare single people, and it can be difficult hanging around a bunch of couples and realizing that they get to go home and have that person alongside them to talk with and just wind down from gatherings or share moments or whatever the case may be. On my end of things, I return to my bootcave and fire up youtube or the Xbox/PS3 or get wrapped up in Twitter. There’s no snuggling on the couch while watching TV or cuddling in bed at the end of the night… just myself and my mind left to ponder how things are.

As trying as that can get, I still have to say that I enjoy the holiday season whenever it rolls around. It’s a mostly good time, and I have nothing against the traditions of Christmas. I also know that there are people out there who just complain about it to no end, and I wonder if they know what it’s like to feel genuinely happy. Is Christmas perfect? No, but that’s not because the holiday is flawed. It’s because people can make it shitty for others. Because people are – on the grand scheme of things – idiots. Whether it’s competing with others or themselves about the gifts they give, or giving grief to other parents about how they handle what Christmas is for their kids, or even just downright being a Grumpy McGrumperton in general, the masses just know how to fuck it up for a lot of people. The trick is to just appreciate the things you can do to bring a little joy to the world. Should that be done on every day BESIDES Christmas or other holidays? Of course it should, but that doesn’t mean that celebrating on a certain date cheapens anything. The gestures should remain heartfelt and be received as such. If you can manage to let yourself be uplifted by the Christmas cheer, you should be fine. And if you absolutely just can’t stand the holidays, then that’s okay… but don’t be that assdrip that has to go around shitting all over it in the hopes of killing other people’s fun. That’s just plain selfish.

Anyway, I’m done ranting/whining. I’m just happy that I was able to celebrate this time and not hate myself. Whatever the near future holds, at least I can look back at Christmas 2013 and know that I put smiles on faces. It’s a good thing.

May your holidays be joyous and heartwarming and full of tasty burritos. Merry Christmas to all of you.

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Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #6: Contra

Contra

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

They say you never forget your first. You sit there and look forward to it for years upon years, building the excitement for that fateful day when you finally get to feel what you’ve heard friends talk about for so long. It might be the best thing you’ve ever done, but it’s often awkward and possibly shameful if you didn’t think it through. Hell, it might be downright painful. Regardless, it will always be your first.

It was late 1988 and I was only 10 when I hit the milestone. After being duped into thinking my dreams were crushed, my parents did the ol’ “We forgot to put this last Christmas gift out” maneuver and handed us that final box. My brother and I tore through the wrapping and were then the proud owners of an NES. Of course, it came with Super Mario Bros. And Duck Hunt, but both of us also received one game of our own, and mine was Contra.

For those who don’t know, Contra is one of many NES Konami titles that is notorious for its challenge and high quality. A port of the arcade game of the same title, this side-scrolling shooter gave players fits thanks in part to that unique Konami design and the inherent challenge of their games. Because of that trait, the developer often instilled the popular “Konami Code” that would give either multiple lives or full power-ups depending on the game in question.

USE THE CODE

Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start

Contra’s code resulted in a thirty life reserve for the player and for many, including myself, it wasn’t until utilizing the code that players were able to finally conquer the game and defeat the evil Red Falcon terrorist/alien organization.

But here’s the thing… I had already had time with SMB thanks to its arcade release and while the NES port was a near-perfect re-creation, I had less desire to dedicate time to it thanks to previous experience, so I devoted every minute to Contra, and it was all worth it.

Of course, when you play a game for that amount of time, you become a part of it. You memorize patterns, you remember where items are located, you know where enemies are going to appear; the game becomes an extension of your being. As I played it more and more, I found my zen in its intricacies.

Hangar Zone

Why are there spiked claws above the mine cart tracks? That seems hazardous.

It wasn’t long before I had a surefire technique all set up. It was quite simple, really, and merely consisted of the following steps:

    1. Get the Spread Gun
    2. Get the Rapid-Fire power-up
    3. DOMINATE!!!

Seriously, if you have that gun throughout the entirety of the game, no one should pose much of a threat. Your biggest concern then becomes environmental hazards like flame pillars, spiked walls, or making sure you jump properly over the boss of Stage 6 when he charges you.

I eventually got to a point where I no longer need the Konami Code to finish the game, and at my apex, I was easily able to beat it in less than two deaths and could consistently pull off flawless runs. As of now, I can still occasionally pull one off.

The other great part about this game for me was its soundtrack. Konami has a history of having great music in their games and Contra was no exception. If you are familiar with their music, you can probably tell that they have one of the NES’ most unique sound palettes. Even Konami’s offshoot company Ultra Games used this palette for many titles. There’s just something about the tones and sounds that give them such a powerful quality, and Contra really shows it off with well-written, fast-paced, tense songs that only improve on the game’s atmosphere.

Yes, Contra was my first, and yes, it was equally awkward, embarrassing, and painful in the beginning. But the more time I invested, the more experience I earned, the more I learned of its finer details, all of it combined to give me confidence in my ability as a gamer to improve and know what I was doing from that point on. No longer would I be intimidated by another now that I had the skillset needed to feel prolific.

…and I’ll never forget it. Ever.

Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #7: The PlayStation 2 Era of Grand Theft Auto

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

Blood fills my character’s eyes as I’m shot from point blank by my partner in this bank job. She runs off with the money and leaves me for dead, calling me “small time” as she turns away. Tried and convicted for the robbery, I’m being transported to the penitentiary to serve my time. This never happens, however, as a group of people attack the convoy that is moving myself and two other prisoners. They take one of the others with them and leave the remaining convict and I to fend for ourselves. A bomb goes off, destroying the bridge and creating an escape diversion. My new friend tells me of a place we can go to get changed and rest. I steal a nearby car and drive to the apartment, ditch my prison orange jumpsuit for a black jacket and green cargo pants, and we head off to get some work with a man named Luigi. Thus began my time in Liberty City…

It’s amazing how such a short and seemingly insignificant moment is the genesis of a franchise’s popularity. I had previously played Grand Theft Auto 2 and, while a great game with some interesting concepts, I was interested to see how it would translate from its top-down 2D look to a full 3D setting. It’s pretty safe to say that almost no one was disappointed with the result. Grand Theft Auto 3 became the benchmark for many games that tried to emulate the open-world genre, and that tradition carried on with its sequels, GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas.

Ambulance

Don’t mess up, don’t mess up, don’t mess up…

There was almost no way for me to get bored in these games. While there were a HUGE number of activities to take part in, the one I truly remember best from each game – possibly due to its annoyance level – is the Ambulance Missions. I’d go around picking up injured patients and bring them to the hospital, but holy crap, one slip-up and all that work for extra health would be lost. This happened on many occasions and I can vividly remember the rage. Of course, there were also the fun things. Story missions were almost always entertaining if not interesting, and I absolutely LOVED looking for all of the unique stunt jumps in each of these titles, especially after finding the superbikes.

Characters in the franchise are colorful and varied, and I had many favorites. The writing in these three games was top-notch and I enjoyed every minute of dialogue. Developer Rockstar Games even managed to land big name Hollywood actors for many of the roles, giving the games some outstanding performances.

Tenpenny Meets His Fate

Samuel L. Jackson plays the corrupt Vinewood cop, Officer Frank Tenpenny. SPOILER: He doesn’t win.

But it’s not even those things that stand out to me the most. It was the chance happenings, the unscripted events that occurred just by way of being in the perfect place at an opportune time, that made these games some of the most fun and memorable that I’d ever played. It could be a well-timed explosion, or a sweet maneuver from the cops, or even something as simple as discovering a dirtbike race on a mountain.

My clearest memory of the entire franchise comes from Vice City. I was doing a mission where I had to break a needed ally out of jail and, upon exiting the station, my wanted level was sitting at a nice four-star level. I ran to the street, eliminated a couple cops, and hopped into the nearest sports car. Being the rock fan that I am, I was happy to see that the preset station was for V-Rock.

Love Fist

The hottest Scottish metal and in all the land. From left to right: Willy, Percy, Jezz, and Dick.

As any GTA fan knows, the radio stations that are in the games make up some of the gaming’s most immersive experiences complete with original programming and full-fledged commercials. This specific occasion had Anthrax’s Madhouse on as I attempted to evade the police. The song was entering its final few beats as I just managed to get clear of the initial blockade, turning it into a legit high-speed chase. That’s when I heard a familiar series of notes…

There are famous guitar lines in heavy metal, and then there are riffs that reached a sort of god-like status. As I sped toward more open roads with the law on my tail, the opening riff of Slayer’s Raining Blood filled my ears and gave me instant goosebumps. I was already familiar with the song, but it had been a while since I’d last heard it. At this moment, blazing through traffic in hopes of finding a Pay-N-Spray quickly, the power of that riff combined with the intensity of the situation melded to form a perfect synergy. My adrenaline surged to a level I didn’t think was possible from a video game. In my head, the only expression I could muster was an excited “OH SHIT, OH FUCK!” I couldn’t form any other words. It was downright magical.

That’s what this newly-dubbed “sandbox” genre is all about. Exploring the world, finding those little gems of gameplay, discovering the in-jokes and easter eggs that the developers threw into the landscape. You can camp on a rooftop and fire at everyone, bet on horse races, fly a fighter jet (YES, A FREAKING FIGHTER JET!), deliver pizzas, or do like I did and just hop on motorcycle and travel around the entirety of San Andreas in one giant loop in about 12 minutes or so on all of its main highways. It seemed as if you could just live a life inside of Rockstar’s worlds, and I’ll be damned if some of us didn’t actually wish it were possible.

Looking back, it is way too difficult to decide which of the trio of PS2 titles is best. Each of them have a unique flavor that works perfectly. The Mafia-inspired tone of GTA3, the cocaine-fueled drug ring tale in Vice City, the early-90s Southern California Gang-like vibe of San Andreas; every game had something for me to connect with. All three had great storytelling, kickass characters, super fun gameplay mechanics, endless nods to pop culture from my childhood, and all of them heavily drew me into their worlds. For these reasons, it is only fitting they are all included as one entity, make the PS2-era of Grand Theft Auto my #7 favorite game(s) of all-time.

Fighter Jets!

I need a wingman. Where’s Goose?

PS – Grand Theft Auto IV? Not even close to living up to these games. Here’s hoping GTA V is as great as it appears to be.

Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #8: NHL 94

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

When I was but a wee lad of 13 years, my brother kicked me off of the SNES one afternoon to play goalie for him and his friends in a game of street hockey. They had bought a small net and I guess it wasn’t enough for them to shoot balls into an unguarded cage. I begrudgingly turned off the console and assumed the role of netminder, unknowing to the effect this would have on my life.

The sport of hockey grabbed me like nothing ever had since video games way back at age 4. There was a certain satisfaction in making mind-boggling saves and leaving my opponents befuddled. Of course, it was only inevitable that I would also get into hockey video games as I tried to combine my two biggest loves.

I had played both Ice Hockey and Blades of Steel on the NES, and while I had known of the greatness of NHL Hockey 91 on the Sega Genesis and NHLPA Hockey 93 on the SNES, it was NHL 94 that became the proverbial “nail in the coffin” for me and video hockey.

Let’s. Play. HOCKEY!!!

My brother and our two best friends – who are also brothers – were obsessed with the sport by late 1993, and this game only served to further our addiction. After playing NHLPA 93 for so long, the next year’s installment was a huge step up in quality. Players seemed to maneuver far better than previous EA NHL games, and even the smallest touch of having both licensed players AND teams added a huge dimension to the game overall.

In terms of new features, NHL 94 hit it out of the park. This was the first of the franchise to feature one-timers; a quick shot taken directly off of a pass from a teammate. This new tactic opened up a whole new set of scoring possibilities and gave the game a more realistic feel to what you’d see in real life. Playoffs and Shootout modes were also added for variety, but perhaps the most important addition was the inclusion of a few team-specific goal songs. You don’t know real hockey history until you’ve heard a digital representation of Brass Bonanza after scoring with the Hartford Whalers.

While the game kept a basic set of stats on its virtual scoreboard, we took it to a whole new level by keeping track of goals for each player, goalie GAA, and a few other numbers. In the summer of 1994, since these games were yet to feature a “season mode,” we even went as far as to find a copy of the upcoming NHL schedule and create our own “league” play in which we each chose a team and played out the schedule they were given. I fail to remember how far into the playoffs I took my Buffalo Sabres, but I know I enjoyed every second of it. Well, that’s not entirely true.

You see, my brother had discovered a gamebreaker. At first, it seemed to be a fluke. After repeated usage, it became a nuisance. We simply called it “The Spot.”

Basically, you could take just about any player with a decent ranking, skate him just over the blue line slightly off-center, and hold Down on the D-pad while ripping a full power slapshot to score almost eighty percent of the time. Some players in the game were more successful at the technique and, since my brother had discovered this, he was the first to employ it liberally with said players. At one point, he was not against using Sergio Momesso of the Vancouver Canucks repeatedly for this very purpose. Every time the puck would slide through the goalie, he would assuredly scream out “MOMESSO POWER” in honor of the event.

Eventually, we had to take action and create limitations to using this tactic, especially while playing head-to-head games. Future years’ titles would have their own bugs to govern, but “The Spot” would always remain the one that none of us would ever forget. Even to this day, whenever we see a real NHL goal of similar fashion, we all either yell out “THE SPOT” or “MOMESSO POWER” in tribute.

Hockey games have become more realistic over the course of time, and have certainly taken on a more authentic feel, but in terms of fun and satisfaction, I don’t think any of them can compare to this one. It had all the makings of a great game that was easy to pick up and play, and the memories I created with my friends will never leave me. I have yet to have as much fun in a sports game – or any other competitive game – since, and it is those factors that put NHL 94 at the number eight slot in my Top 10 of All-Time.

The greatest hockey game ever

PS – To this day, I continue to play hockey. It’s probably right beneath video games amongst my interests. It is also the source of my nickname of “Boots,” but that’s a story for another time.

Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #10: Mega Man 2

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

The year was 198X…

My brother and I hadn’t had our NES for very long but we were burning through games left and right thanks to a local Mexican food store and their kickass game rental policy. Video stores were offering rentals at $5 for three days, but this place was doing five days at $4. Considering that my family shopped there all the time, it only made sense to stick with them out of loyalty.

Somewhere along the lines, we had gotten our grubby little hands on the first Mega Man game and we instantly loved it. The game was a master class in simple-yet-effective design and had a challenge that only the best could get the hang of. Between my group of close friend, my brother was the only person I knew who could finish the game back then.

Of course, when the sequel came out, we were all giddy and ready to (have our parents) buy this game at release. Sadly, because we were such strong renters, our parents never saw the need to really buy games so we were relegated to waiting for it to be available at the food shop. However, our friends – who also were brothers – were able to get a copy. They had arguments about who was going to play it first and how far the other could get before handing the controller over.

They don’t really look like robots on this box art.

Once I was able to play the game, I was in love. It once again followed the same basic principles of design as the first game, but this time it had MORE bosses! I remember vividly that I first chose to face Air Man, which I later learned was a huge mistake. Still, I was able to defeat him and get his Air Shooter… which is a terrible weapon in the practical sense.

Stupid choice aside, I was still happy to see that the difficulty was slightly lowered, but not to a point where the game was a breeze to get through. Each boss had a set pattern that one can easily discern if they pay enough attention, and the joy of finding out which weapon was most effective against them was undeniable. Those discoveries put a smile on my face, and nothing was better than equipping the Metal Blade against Metal Man and discovering that it only took ONE HIT to defeat him.

The other great aspect of this game was its amazing soundtrack. Back in the NES days, a lot of games featured a ton of memorable music but, for whatever reason, Mega Man 2 always stood out as one of the best, in my mind. Even the intro song just ingratiates its way into your heart within 5 seconds, and then escalates into what is easily one of the most memorable themes in all of video games.

I replayed this game as much as I could before returning it to that store. Both my brother and I finished it within those five days, and the younger of our friends was the first of them to defeat Dr. Wily. Needless to say, the older brother wasn’t too happy about that. I think they fought over it.

Mega Man, your blue suit and giant eyes will always have a special place in my heart over the course of all your games but Mega Man 2 is easily the best of them all, making it my Number 10 Favorite Game of All-Time.

Hey, Mega Man... what's up with your eyes?

Hey, Mega Man… what’s up with your eyes?

Game Log – The Walking Dead: Episode 1

WARNING: This is a game log. I will be talking about key plot points that I find in games as I play them, so consider this a SPOILER WARNING of the highest intensity.

I’m in the back of a police car. The cop seems to think that I might not have committed my crime. He asked such, but I told him it didn’t really matter since I was on the way to prison, anyhow. He began regaling stories of past passengers and how a number of them would just kick and scream like infants crying to their mamas, trying anything to convince the man of their innocence.

I listened with half of my attention; the other half was listening to the police radio chirping up like a nest of newborns. Other cop cars sped in the opposite direction past us on the other side of the highway. When I asked about the chatter, the officer explained that sometimes he just would ignore it or he’d go crazy. He continued with more stories of criminals he drove around. As he was deep into the worst of the bunch, he turned his head back toward me to make a point. That’s when I noticed the man on the road.

“LOOK OUT,” I exclaimed, but it was far too late. The car sent him flying and the officer panicked, overcorrecting hard on the wheel and sending us through the guardrail and over a short cliff. I awoke hours later and kicked out the window of the now toppled car to get out. I stood up and noticed the sharp pain in my leg. It was badly hurt. The officer was lying unconscious on the ground a good 15 feet away. I figured getting out of my cuffs would help so I reached for his set and used them. I fumbled the keys and had to pick them up again, but I was free of the restraints.

The cuffs hit the ground. That’s when I hear a groan. The cop is alive. He moves a little but then lunges at me hard, pushing me to the ground. He’s… not alive! I back away all the way to the car in a frenzy and grab the shotgun and try to load the shell I had picked up before, but it slips from my hands. I have to rush to grab it again and slide it into the gun. “Don’t make me do this,” I yell as my attacker approaches. He’s not stopping. I have to do this. I squeeze the trigger. The policeman’s head is gone. His body lies motionless.

Don’t miss!

This is my introduction to The Walking Dead: The Game. It’s more of a point-and-click adventure than anything. I’m one episode in and I’m digging what I’ve played. It’s got some great characters and seems to be very faithful to the comic’s tone, which I am a huge fan of. After that initial scene, there’s some time spent on a farm. Things seem calm but they ramp up very quickly. I was faced with a choice to either save a young boy or the son of the farm’s owner. I chose the boy because he had no other way to defend himself. The other victim died. His father was NOT happy.

Oops…

Choices like that make this game special. That feeling of consequence weighs heavily when you have to choose and it brings you into the world more than most games can, especially having to look after a young girl. Later on, I let a guy punch out another for being a prick and I showed mercy to a woman by allowing her to shoot herself after being bitten by walkers. It felt like the right thing to do. I also died a couple of gruesome deaths because I wasn’t paying attention, so I like that it forces you to focus.

I’m only one episode in, but I can already tell that I’m going to love this game. Some people criticized it for not being a true game, but whatever. I enjoyed my time with it and feel that it will stay immersive and fun. Sure, it has its adventure game-like faults, but that’s ok. I’m also playing with all of the indicators off, so it’s expected a bit.

Anybody know where the lightswitch is?

Next week, I tackle Episode 2. I just hope I don’t look as tasty then.

Podcast: BlankShowCast Episode 74 – Mom?

So what happened this week?

Well, I finally saw The Dark Knight Rises. It took me a long time to get through, and I explain that in detail. I also gave Isabel crap for being a big scaredy cat about horror movies and the like. It’s just a thing I don’t understand.

Also included, Tim borrows material from another podcast and makes sure to bring another constant source of background noise with him in the form of a nearby space heater, which makes it so fun to edit.

I lie. It makes it quite infuriating.

Follow this link to listen!