Hedders' Ramblings

Gaming, home tech, politics, music, whatever really

Floored.

No pun intended. Well, maybe a bit. But there is a very reasonable argument that Floor Jansen is straight up the best singer in the world right now.

Nightwish are rapidly becoming one of my very favourite bands.

A tale of two games

Unusually (for me, anyhow), I recently picked up two AAA games for my PS4 at pretty much the same time: The Last Of Us Part 2, and Ghost of Tsushima.

Let me say straight off that they’re both magnificent pieces of work. Clearly, some very talented people have put a lot of time into both games. They both look and sound incredible, control is tight and presentation has been polished until it shines.

Thing is, only one of them is actually enjoyable.

The trouble with The Last of Us is that – while it is magnificently written, wonderfully plotted, deeply atmospheric and at times heartbreaking – it isn’t fun. Not one bit. It’s relentlessly, relentlessly grim and dark and just plain horrible. Gratuitously so, at times. And while I can totally see what Naughty Dog were going for and why, the combination of the grim setting and the gameplay style they have gone for means that the end result is a game that feels like work. It invites you to care about its protagonist – and it does it very, very well. And then it throws you into these difficult, tense combat situations, and despite scarce ammo and some really unfair checkpointing you manage to get through it, and then your reward is a cut scene in which yet another absolutely horrible thing happens. It’s just … relentless.

Naughty Dog clearly realised this, hence the rather jarring “light relief” moments shoehorned in from time to time as flashbacks. It isn’t however enough to lift it out of being one of those games that you feel like you ought to play, rather than a game that you actually want to play. In many ways it’s sort of the video game equivalent of The Passion Of The Christ: I sat through it, and it certainly is powerful, but do I want to watch it again? Dear God, no.

Compare and contrast the sheer joy of Ghost of Tsushima, a game which absolutely nails escapist power fantasy in a way that nothing has since The Witcher 3. It’s beautiful, and fascinating, and above all the actual core gameplay mechanics are genuinely fun. It has its share of brutality – it is, after all, a game about the Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274, a conflict not exactly known for its observance of modern notions of human rights. The difference, though, is that whereas The Last Of Us subjects you to its brutality, in Ghost Of Tsushima you can do something about it. You have agency, in a way that The Last Of Us just doesn’t let you have.

The Last Of Us Part 2 is an important work and I’m sure it will be cited frequently in the ongoing videogames-as-art debate (I thought that was settled by What Remains Of Edith Finch, but what do I know). But Ghost Of Tsushima is the better game.

Flabbergasted

I get that symphonic metal isn’t to everyone’s taste. But you need to stop what you’re doing and watch this:

I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever heard or seen a better singer, in any genre. The extraordinary vocal prowess. The sheer stage presence. I don’t mind saying that I’ve become mildly obsessed with this band as a result of watching this.

TZXDuino

One of the drawbacks of the Spectrum Next is that it can only load TZX files by using the Pi Zero accelerator. That actually works fine in itself, but you can’t directly control the Pi, and so it doesn’t work for multi-load games because you can’t stop and start the “tape”. That’s a bit of a bugger, because many of the old Speccy games that I have enough nostalgia for to want to revisit today are multi-load games.

I needed something that would act like a real tape player, but hopefully without the flakiness.

First things first, I needed the right cable. The Next uses the same pinout as the Spectrum+3 for its tape interface and so – as with so many things retro – the peerless Iain Priddey of Retro Computer Shack comes to the rescue with his +3 tape cable, which also works nicely with the Next.

Armed with that cable, I spent some time trying to get my phone (the extraordinary Fairphone 3, if you’re interested) to output something that the Next could ingest as a tape signal, using the PlayZX app. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get the Next to pick up the audio signal though. That was odd, given that I tried stereo to mono converters and all sorts.

Happily, I came across this marvellous little device:

The TXZDuino, complete with nifty 3D printed case

It’s quite a simple device, at least in terms of what it does. You load up the SD card with TZX files, plug the 3.5mm jack into EAR on the Speccy, apply some power, start the tape loader on the Speccy and then select a TZX file with the back and forward buttons and hit play. You can pause and unpause it at will, and it also seems to be smart enough to pause itself automatically if it detects a long enough period of silence.

And to be honest, it just works. No muss, no fuss. It supports folders, and seems to read the SD card pretty swiftly. The manual stresses that some TZX files using certain custom loaders might not work unless patched, but so far I’ve not come across any problems.

For thirty quid, I’m absolutely delighted. Now, if only Fighter Bomber ran properly on the Next – I’ve been itching to try running that at 28 Mhz!

The Next is here!

My Spectrum Next arrived a couple of Fridays ago and since then I have spent most of my time not devoted to work or child-wrangling fiddling with the thing. These are my initial thoughts on it.

The hardware

It’s a well-made, solid and stylish machine

The machine is surprisingly small, about the same size as the original Spectrum+, and surprisingly heavy. The case is very solid and has a premium feel to it.

The keyboard is, honestly, witchcraft; somehow the Next team have contrived to create a keyboard that feels like a Spectrum keyboard would feel if Spectrum keyboards weren’t dreadful. Which seems like an odd thing to say. What I mean is that it retains that “Speccy” feel, but is actually pleasant to type on.

A few nits – and they really are minor. The SD card slot doesn’t have a push-to-eject mechanism, and the cutaway which allows you to get your fingers onto the card to pull it out is too small, at least for my sausage fingers, to get a decent purchase on it. Half the time I end up pulling the microSD card out of the SD adapter, leaving the adapter in the Next. An SD reader with a push-to-eject mechanism would be a good improvement for a revision 2.

Secondly, I would have liked a power switch, although this is just personal preference and I do acknowledge that not having one is more authentically Sinclair. Again, perhaps for a revision 2 the team could include an in-line power switch in the box with the PSU, which people can use or not as they choose. For now, you can easily get one for a few quid here.

The manual

Yes, it comes with a full ring-bound printed manual running to hundreds of pages and explaining in complete detail pretty much everything about the machine, from how to turn it on through to memory maps, interrupts, system calls … you name it.

The manual is largely the work of one man, Phoebus Dokos, and its creation must have been a Herculean task. Actually using the paper version is rather difficult because there is no index, but there is also a PDF which is of course fully searchable, and so the paper manual is really more of a nice artefact to have rather than a day-to-day reference.

Speaking of paper, I did notice that the manual is printed on very thin paper, which together with the ring binding makes it feel fragile. This isn’t a massive issue for me as I use the PDF for looking things up, and anyway I understand that there will be an option at some point to buy a premium, full-colour manual.

Finally, Sinclair manuals have a fine tradition of gorgeous sci-fi cover art and the Next manual carries on that tradition. For those who haven’t yet seen it I won’t spoil it, but it is beautiful and very much in keeping.

Software

Pulling it all together is the software side of things. NextZXOS feels snappy and lets you get to what you want quickly and without fuss.

The distribution comes with an absolute ton of demos, example programs and even a few full games, both classic Speccy titles and new titles taking advantage of all the extra things the Next can do. There is already a small software library for the Next, including games from the likes of Rusty Pixels (this site is a useful index of what’s out there and what’s coming) and even a full music production suite. Obviously the user base is still fairly small, but it’s growing as the Next team get more machines out the door, will grow more with the planned second Kickstarter, and there is very much a small but vibrant scene growing up around the machine.

I for one can’t wait to see what’s, er, next for the Next.

Pratdog

I love my little dog very, very much. He’s friendly and fluffy and he likes nothing better than cuddling up on the sofa.

But then there’s stuff like this:

Basically he’s a rescue, we got him as an adult, and he’s not at all food-motivated, so training recall into him is almost a complete non-starter. Spot the moment when we ran into the herd of deer.

Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

My daft old country is leaving the EU in just over an hour’s time. Nobody really seems to be able to explain why, or what doing so is supposed to achieve.

I’m furious, obviously. Being European is my birthright, and that of my children, and it has been taken away by a bunch of grotty little spivs with a few slogans, a lot of Jingoism and not much else.

History will judge the cretins who voted for this. They have done enormous, and possibly irreparable, harm.

We’re supposed to “get over it”, apparently. I will not. Every single person who campaigned for Brexit, and every single person who voted for Brexit, is culpable. They have harmed me and mine, and they take pride in it. I see no reason why they should be forgiven.

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