Monday, October 31, 2016

A Few Hours in the Darkness

It’s funny how belongings mean so much to people, but in the end, they have so little value.

I had crammed box after box full of my mother’s trinkets from every corner of my childhood home, but as the deadline to move out crept ever closer, I just rented a dumpster. What had started as a careful process to preserve my mother’s legacy had degenerated into a last minute dash to the trash. My mother’s favorite china was nice, but it was old, heavy, and worth about seven bucks. I cringed as I heard it smash against her rocking chair. As I hurried away from the overflowing dumpster, I could still hear slivers raining down though the refuse, a reminder of the sin I had just committed. The lid slammed shut, as if in protest, as I stepped back in.

After a dozen sacrificed weekends, hundreds of sentimental knick-knacks put out to pasture, and thousands of miles on my odometer, the house was finally starting to look empty. The new owners were gracious enough to give me another week to straighten things out. They were set to move in tomorrow, November 1. Things could have gone smoother if my sisters had been around to give me a hand, but for the first time in weeks, I could honestly say the house was in good shape.

I guess the neighborhood kids knew of my mom’s passing or put two and two together when they saw the dumpster in the driveway. Either way, I’d gotten not a single trick-or-treater. When I was a kid, we’d all gather in my living room and trade our candy until we all had “the good stuff.” I was vaguely aware of a steady stream of drugstore Yodas, ragtag ALFs, and haphazard He-Men at our door while we shuffled through our treasures.

Now I didn’t even hear the telltale laughter of children out for candy, just the breeze whipping though the branches and lifeless leaves tumbling to the ground. From the most popular house in Podunk to an abandoned shack – another reason to forget this place and move on.

It was probably for the best anyway. All I had were a few Tic-Tacs and a grimy quarter from my last hurried meal at the burger place in town. Thirty years ago, an offering like that would have made me a prime target for some trickery. Then again, 30 years ago I was the most powerful force in America and it took more an a few rotten eggs to scare me. But now, as a “normal” adult, I was thankful I wasn’t going to have to add picking eggshells out of the shutters to my to-do list.

The front door slamming behind me dragged my consciousness back into the present. Must have blown shut, I thought.

I stood with my hands on my hips, surveying the bottom floor of the house. It was getting tough to see with just a few candles to light my way, but I was pretty sure everything had been taken care of. The electric company cut off the juice last week, as I had asked. What I hadn’t anticipated was needing extra time. So while my plan to get everything finished before dusk had failed, a few of mom’s ancient, ugly candles were as reliable as ever. If it meant I didn’t have to pay yet another bill, a few hours in the darkness was fine by me.

All that was left was the basement. Not too much in there, I wagered, since I had helped my mother clean it out a few years ago. Great, I’d be done soon and I could start the long drive back to my apartment.

I scooped one of the candles off the floor, turned the rickety old handle to the basement, and pushed open the door. Though the squeal of rusty hinges, I thrust the candle forward, parting the darkness like Moses parted the sea.

The funk of decades of mold brought memories flooding into my mind: getting the basement key, finding Great-Grandfather’s Diary…

I didn’t remember making it to the bottom of the stairs. But there I was, shining the light around the cellar, searching for anything to bring upstairs and throw away so I could finally go home. And all I wanted to do was just go home again.

On one of my passes with the candle, something yellow caught my eye. A plastic wiffleball bat was propped up in the corner, complete with duct tape mending the crack I’d put in it ages ago. The handle was freezing, like it had been left out in the snow.

I could have sworn that I tossed that thing, aching to be rid of the artifacts of my childhood. I guess I had just dumped it down here, but I didn’t remember coming across it when Mom and I had cleaned the basement out. I slid the bat under my arm and kept looking. As its chill bit though my shirt and onto my skin, I started to feel a little woozy. All that dust and mold I’d stirred up must have been getting to me.

Turning to head up the stairs, I glanced around one last time. Thought the darkness, I could see the oaken altar on which I had discovered Great-Grandfather’s Diary all those years ago. It had been too heavy to move for my mother and me, so I certainly wasn’t going to be able to drag it upstairs by myself. I toyed with the idea of leaving some cash for the new occupants, so they could pay their moving men to do it. But all I had on me was my credit card and that one quarter. I was either going to have to leave it, or break it down and take it to the dumpster in pieces.

I kicked the bottom of the altar, trying to get an idea of how heavy it was, and accidently sent caked-on dust fluttering though the air. The years-old handprints of my mother and me were still there from the first time we attempted to move it. I held my hand over one of the indentations – a perfect fit, so it must have been mine. A second, smaller set was my mother’s, obviously. Next to that was another one where I must have run my hand across the behemoth looking for a better grip. The fingers were several inches long, and there appeared to be no middle and ring finger, just one big digit. But while the other two handprints had begun to collect new dust, this last one somehow seemed fresh. Must have been a trick of the lighting.

As I reached down to hold my hand over the odd print, I noticed a magazine where Great-Grandfather’s Diary had rested so long ago. I recognized it from when I was a kid. It was one of those parody magazines, like MAD. The pages were open to a story called “My Secret Life, chapter 3.” I read the last paragraph:

“A police officer pulled me over and asked for my driver's license. He said I was going 20 mph over the speed limit. I instantly pointed to my wife and said, ‘I'm in a hurry, my wife is in labor.’ Fortunately, my wife actually had a big stomach. I hoped he'd let me go with this excuse. ‘Oh, since it's an emergency. I'll lead you to the hospital with my police car,’ he said. ‘Let's get going.’ ‘No, no! We can't! This baby is a demon child!’”

I let out a little chuckle for old-time sake. But as I moved the candle closer to get a better look, I noticed that the word “demon” had been underlined in red ink. Maybe one of my sisters…?

My chest grew tight and my throat tensed. All the dust and mold in the air must have been aggravating my asthma. With one hand on my ribs and the other holding the candle, I stumbled up the stairs towards the door. My breath got shallower with each step. I could see the light of the moon pouring through the window upstairs.

The light disappeared as the door slammed shut. I couldn’t help but chuckle though my gasps. What a cliché, I thought. Stuck in the basement on Halloween night in the dark. I couldn’t remember leaving a window open, but it had to have been the wind. Should have just paid the electric for another week.

I reached out for the door knob and turned it expectantly. It jiggled in my hand, but wouldn’t open. I felt the pain in my chest exploding into my arms and shoulders.

“Why are you getting rid of all my things?” asked a female voice. A gentle hand came to rest on my shoulder, familiar, but ice cold. “Don’t you love your mother anymore?”

My chest tensed again. I had to concentrate on every breath. I tried to turn my head, to see who was standing behind me, but the debilitating pain crawled into neck.

“I just want to forget about all of this!” I yelled. “I want to go home!”

“You CAN come home again, Sweetie. It can be just like it was before,” said the voice sweetly. “Don’t you remember the fun times we had – you, your sisters and me? Don’t you want to go on picnics and build a town out of Legos? Don’t you want to play Super Mario Bros. with me? You can be Luigi. I know how much you like his green mustache.”

My mind buzzed with images of my childhood. The pain started to subside. The hand on my shoulder suddenly radiated warmth.

Then the voice added, “Don’t you want to… save the world again?” I could tell the voice’s mouth had bent into a mocking smile.

“That ruined my life!” I screamed. “I’m just a normal guy with a boring life now. I don’t even have enough money for rent! After all of that, saving the whole world, no one cares about me! And I’m terrified that the alien going to come back! I’m terrified that he’s going to… to… Oh... my... God….”

The pain flashed back into my chest, worse than before, and the warm hand on my shoulder grew fiery hot. I forced my neck to turn and saw four long, ashen digits digging into my body.

“I told you we would meet again,” screeched an otherworldly voice. Though the pain, I was vaguely aware of a serpent-like tail wrapping around my neck.


From the front door, I could hear the muffled voice of a child exclaim, “Trick or treat!”

“Get out of here!” I screamed, banging on the basement door with all my might. It was all I could muster before my voice dwindled into heaving and my arm twisted into a painful claw.

The front door opened, and the child exclaimed again, “Trick or treat!”

“Here you go! Have a safe Halloween now!” hissed the voice of my mother. As the front door slammed shut, my candle flickered out and the basement was plunged into darkness.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Video Vignettes - Duckblur: The Fatal Fantasy

Video Vignettes are 500 to 1000 word short stories about one or more video games. "Duckblur: The Fatal Fantasy" features elements from "Ducktales Remastered” and “Final Fantasy IV.”


The billionaire carefully climbed down the otherworldly metallic rope, one hand wrapped around it, the other cradling the fabled Golden Mirror of The Moon. Near the bottom, he leaned back and forth, gaining some momentum before letting go. He sailed gracefully over the bottomless pit below him and hit the lunar surface with a plop, as there is definitely normal gravity on the Moon.

“Bless me bagpipes!” he exclaimed, staring down the chasm and taking a deep breath of fresh Moon air. “I need to be a wee bit more careful!” He gave a quick glance back at the strange space craft he had just ransacked and stuffed the artifact in his jacket.

He charged forward, leaping over massive craters and fending off tiny, octopus-like alien creatures with nothing but his cane and his wits. Before long, he arrived at what seemed to be a dead end.

“Curse me kilts!” he exclaimed, examining the obstruction. The billionaire lifted his black top hat and wiped the sweat off his brow. “How will I ever ge’ th’ legendary Green Moon Cheese?” 

But his frown quickly bent into a smile. Digging around in his pocket, he produced a small remote control. Pressing the button, he bellowed, “Now Gizmo Duck can blast that wall!”

The hulking mechanical man showed up dutifully mere seconds after he was summoned and did the billionaire’s bidding.

The Moon dust hadn’t yet settled before the billionaire lowered himself into the cave below. He didn’t know where Gizmo Duck would go now, trapped millions of miles away from his family, friends, and everything he’s ever known. But frankly, he didn’t care. All that mattered was padding his Money Bin with millions of dollars, preferably in gold coins or in comically large sacks marked with dollar signs.

A chorus of small voices snapped him out of his money-based trance. “Uncle Scrooge! Uncle Scrooge!”

“Jeopardize me Jameson!” he exclaimed. There before him were his young nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie!

“Boys, how did ya get here?” he asked.

“Guess what? This house has an illusion wall!” explained Huey. Or was it Dewey?


“You’ll need a key to get in. It’s in Transylvania,” noted Louie. Or whoever the one in blue is, I don’t know.

“Never mind,” the billionaire said. “It’s nae important. The Green Moon Cheese is just up ahead, but the treasure is protected by a dangerous Moon Rat.”

“Uncle Scrooge! Use your cane to defeat the treasure keepers!” said the idiot in green.

“Aye,” he replied, nodding his head slowly. Concentration washed over the old duck’s face as he pushed open the door to the Moon Rat’s chamber, ready for battle. But instead of a rancorous rodent, standing before the duck gang were two silver-haired men. One was dressed entirely in white, with a glimmering gold crown that made the billionaire’s heart flutter just looking at it. The other’s long beard blew heroically in the underground Moon breeze.

Moon Rat or not, it didn’t matter to the billionaire: Those men were standing between him and his million dollar cheese. He pushed his top hat forward, screwed up his brow, and stomped into the room.

“I made me fortune by being tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties! You’re not getting me Moon Cheese and you’re certainly not getting me Number One Dime!”

The billionaire unsheathed a long, thin sword that had been hidden in his cane. His nephews gasped.

“Stay you blade!” exclaimed the man with the crown. “We mean you no harm. I am Paladin Cecil, and this is Lunarian FuSoYa, wielder of powerful magic, light armor, and terribly underpowered staves. Judging by your accident, you must be of dwarven origins. Lali ho, friend!”

“Hump me haggis!” exclaimed the billionaire. “Go away or there’ll be trouble!”

“Defiantly dwarven,” muttered FoSoYa.

“Should we wait to act until Kain arrives?” Cecil asked. “Wait, is he on our side or is he evil right now? I can never remember, Uncle.”

“I told you not to call me Uncle,” FoSoYa grumbled.

The billionaire had had enough. “Oh, I wouldnae worry about your friend. I’d be more worried about meself,” he said, launching the cane-sword through Cecil’s inexplicably unarmored chest. Cecil fell to his knees, clutching the fatal wound.

He slumped onto the ground. “I am slain!” he exclaimed. 

“Good luck with that,” said FuSoYa, who was already walking back to his sweet lunar pad/space whale to watch “The Price is Right” on his awesome big screen Moon TV.  

The billionaire cuddled the Moon Cheese like a newborn child while the red puddle around Cecil got larger and larger.

“Quackarooney! I… I think you might have killed him, Uncle Scrooge,” said HuDewLouie.

“Right lads! And I couldn’t have done it without you. I really am the richest duck in the world!”


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Thoughts on Nintendo Switch

Nintendo unveiled their newest console, the Nintendo Switch, today, October 20, 2016. Cousins Matt and James react to the teaser trailer, seen below:

James: Oh, I think that looks awesome! I'll be buying it.

Matt: We need more details. I mean, Neo Geo X did the hybrid thing back in 2012. And Turbo Graphix 16 did it with the Turbo Express, granted that required a separate purchase. I don't find the hybrid aspect all that impressive in itself.

James: If your PS4 came standard with a Vita, you’d be pretty happy about that I imagine. And the specs and everything are important, but I’m very impressed by the three forms of play, especially the detachable mini controllers that let you play portable but not have to hold a big unit. That’s very appealing.

Matt: Sure, but it's not what I'd call revolutionary. And how much horsepower are we sacrificing for that? I know, I know, it's Nintendo's plan to just make fun games regardless of tech. Anway, I wish we’d seen more games. Any games. The Zelda one looks nice, I suppose.

James: I think it’s pretty impressive either way, but it could be game changing depending on the horsepower. If you have something as portable and functional as that, with the same or slightly better guts then the Wii U, that would be a first of its kind. It’s only a reveal, so I'm sure the games will be out soon. They wouldn't relaunch without a solid opening day lineup so to speak.

Matt: I don't know about that. N64 launched with two games: Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. And here they go again launching mid-console cycle. Historically that his not worked well. See also: Dreamcast, Wii U. I want this to be good, I really do. But I have to look at it through the lens of someone who has been burned again and again by the Big N.

James: I’m not saying it can't be bad, but after one poor launch, and an early re-ignition, you'd have to think they've learned something. As someone who didn't hate the Wii U, I have confidence in them right now. This will be a big hit for them. Especially if there’s some kind of cross compatibility with 3DS.

Matt: This is checking all the wrong boxes in terms of their launch, including date (mid-cycle) and demographic. Is this meant for kids? Adults on the go? Why should I get this when I have a 3DS and a PS4? How is this better than just a cell phone? I'm afraid this might do so much that it loses its identity, you know? People want machines that do one thing really well, not a device that does a lot of things pretty well. I'm nervous for Nintendo with this.

James: I see what you’re saying, a jack of all trades is master of none. But I think its uniqueness will overcome that possibility. And as far as marketing, this looks like they're shooting for more young adults like the Vita. They'll always have kids because of their first party stuff, but marketing and designing for teens and up seems like the way to go. Looking at this ad, I think that’s the route they’re going. If it fails, it will be due to people not giving it a chance because it’s too different. They’re not the company that makes the heavy duty game machine, and once people learn to accept that, maybe they can enjoy Nintendo for what it is and stop pining for what it isn't and hasn't been since 1995.

Matt: If it fails, it might be because people didn't give it a chance, but it also might be because it sucked. I know you like Wii U for what it is, but can you honestly say it doesn't suck? Mario, Zelda, and not much else. Like you know I love Sega CD, and there are some really strong games, but overall it sucked. It all comes down to software. Dreamcast had another year or more of life, but they cut software support, so it died. Original Wii had some great games, but mounds of shovelware, so it became irrelevant. We're still getting some quality software on PS3, so it coexists with PS4 and Xbone.

James: I don't think it’s fair to say the Wii U sucks at all. In 20 years, it will be looked at the same way the GameCube or Dreamcast is viewed today. Underappreciated in its own time, overshadowed by two behemoths. It had superb first party support and little else, but that hardly constitutes "sucking" and to compare it to Sega CD is a bit unfair. Wii became irrelevant to you and I, but it made big money and kids/families still play the Wii. So again, I can't say its anything resembling a fail. The Wii U’s biggest drawback was being too niche and straddling the fence between old and new hardware. I think the Switch will correct that error. Have faith!

Matt: I see what you're saying, but no one is going to look at the Wii U with the same reverence as the Dreamcast. DC was seen as revolutionary. Maybe people will recognize its missed potential, sure. I agree there. And I think the Sega CD comparison is fair enough: both were supposed to be a big company's next Great Thing, both had great potential and some awesome first party games, and both died young.

James: But the Sega CD was never on par with its competition. The Wii U could hold its own, but the CD was complete gimmickry.

Matt: What do you mean by "on par?" I could argue that Wii U was never on par with the competition. And to call the CD format gimmickry doesn't hold much water when you consider that it went on to become the standard in gaming for nearly a decade. Now, did Sega CD use the CD format to its fullest potential? Hell no.

James: FMV games are not the same as what games on PlayStation were though. Just because it was a disc doesn't mean anything. The Wii U may not have been the preferred choice, but it had ports of games that were comparable or equal to the Xbone or PS4 version. And if they weren't as great, they didn't feel massively behind. Nothing the Sega CD did made it competitive.

Matt: The problem is, what was Sega CD competing against? PCs? Turbo Graphix CD? Sega CD outsold TGCD five to one. But was it going against SNES too? Was it in addition to the Sega Genesis, or a separate system? Nobody knew then, either. But there WERE killer Sega CD apps like Sonic CD and the Lunar games, just not a whole lot, which was the second issue. As for format, one of the big reasons N64 didn't sell as well as PSX was because the 64 used carts. And the GameCube used minidiscs that no one liked. Sega CD games being on CD was important. Format DOES matter.

James: Of course format matters, but did it matter in THAT instance? No. The system still mostly sucked and people didn't like it by and large.

Matt: People didn't like it, same with Wii U. And looking at the Wii U software catalog, it mostly sucks, with some great games here and there. In terms of format, Sega CD couldn't have done FMV games without the CD storage space. You couldn't have gotten the soundtracks, or the near arcade perfect ports like Final Fight without the extra CD space. Sonic CD wouldn't have been the game it was without that CD space.

James: It had a few hits, but categorically it’s a much worse system. Wii U is a lot closer to PS4 then Sega CD was to PlayStation. Wii U and Sega CD will both be cult hits, but I think the Wii U will be remembered the same as the GameCube. In 20 years, people will still be dying to play Mario Maker again. I really think your Nintendo bias/ Sega-love is clouding your judgement a little.

Matt: Wii U will hold up better than SGCD, I agree.  But I also see both as failures. Or at least severely misunderstood.

James: Commercial failures.

Matt: Yeah, I hear both systems have their fans.

James: Never met one.

Final Verdict on Nintendo Switch:

James: Buy one! Nintendo is great!

Matt: Sonic CD was awesome.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Back to Basics with Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour

(Version reviewed: PlayStation 4)

A little more than 20 years ago, the skies over Los Angeles danced with flames as ‘80s action star amalgam Duke Nukem came crashing back to Earth. Duke bailed out of the wreckage of his ship, slapped on his sunglasses, and declared war on the alien maggots who had taken over the world in his absence. Thus was born one of the most influential action games of the ‘90s, arguably toppling the aging DooM franchise from its perch as king of the first person shooter hill.

Duke’s fallen on hard times recently, with longtime industry joke Duke Nukem Forever finally hitting store shelves after a 14-plus year development cycle to nearly universal criticism. But after a little R and R, it seems Duke Nukem is ready for more action: Gearbox software is hoping to rinse the taste of Forever out of our collective gaming mouths with Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour, an enhanced rerelease of the alien ass-kicking original.

But less than three years after the content rich Duke Nukem 3D Megaton collection nuked its way to PCs and the PlayStation 3, why would anyone plunk down $20 this?

Sweating the Small Stuff
For starters, World Tour is a far cry from the buggy mess that was Megaton collection on PS3. Also, the rewind feature is back from older console versions, meaning that players need not constantly save their game in fear of losing progress.

Disappointingly, the new “3D” effects promised in promotional materials are nothing special. This new look is supposed to make the game in “true 3D” according to the trailer, but frankly, I sometimes can’t tell the difference between this and classic mode. However, these enhancements truly shine with lighting effects (pun intended). Enemy laser blasts illuminate dark hallways, explosions glow with heat, and atomic health shines with, uh, radiation I guess. You can swap the new graphics with the original look and vice versa on the fly by pressing down on the D-pad.

The director’s commentary is interesting but out of place. It’s a nice addition to be sure, but impractical when mixed with Duke’s run ‘n’ gun gameplay. I started with commentary on, but after getting murdered several dozen times while standing around listening to programmers talk about minutia, I switched it off. (Guess I’ll use God Mode one of these days and do a commentary run.)

All Out of Gum?
The game’s biggest draw is the new fifth episode, Alien World Order. Created by Duke 3D’s original level designers including “Levelord” Richard Gray, this is probably the main reason why World Tour is $20 while the earlier Megaton release – which includes more content overall – can be had for half the price.

The new levels look great and play well, with large, complex areas you’d be hard-pressed to find in the original game. I don’t want to say a whole lot because I don’t want to spoil your experience, but the end boss is probably the most disappointing thing in this release. Remember the Cycloid Emperor, the final badass in the original Duke 3D? He’s back, he’s red, and he’s a huge pushover. What a joke.

Alien World Order also features an exclusive new “fire fly” enemy and the incinerator weapon. The new gun is ok, acting more like a short-range lava launcher than a flamethrower and damaging enemies over time. A crumby firing arc makes it an impractical choice; it’s more fun than effective. And it’s really lame that this just a red palette swap of the original freezethrower.

Finally, Jon St. John, the legendary voice of Duke Nukem, recorded new lines and freshened up the old ones for this release. If you’ve played the hell out of Duke in the last two decades, this is really jarring at first, and the new recordings lack the gritty quality of the originals. Also, St. John’s crisp 2016 voice overs seem out of place with 1996’s muted explosions and grainy, Sega Genesis-like speech clips.

So while the majority of your time playing this episode will be a pleasure, it leaves you wondering: after going through all the trouble of getting the Duke 3D band together, why couldn’t more time have been spent polishing things up?

Who Wants Some?
What World Tour is really offering is a very, very late expansion pack to the same DN3D you’ve been playing for two decades. Considering that I paid $25 for the one-episode “plutonium” upgrade in 1997 and that didn’t come with the original three episodes, Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour is worth my gaming dollars. Then again, I’m an unapologetic Duke devotee and enjoy any excuse to jump back into the oversized, atomic boots of Mr. Nukem.

If you’re satisfied with your older version of Duke 3D or think that sprite-based shooters are better left in the ‘90s, World Tour isn’t going to be the game to change your mind. Also, PC gamers might have little reason to pick this up when they could just play any of the million user levels that have been available for free since 1996.

For everyone else, World Tour is the definitive console version of the classic Duke Nukem 3D. If you’ve got an itch for some alien smashing action, come get some!