Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The greatest video games ever

Although I don't talk about it much, I am a gamer. I really like video games. I became smitten with video games the first time I saw Space Invaders in England somewhere around 1979-1980 or so. One of my best friends had an Atari (there was no number 2600 back in those days, it was just "Atari") with games like Combat, Air/Sea Battle, and the aforementioned Space Invaders.

For Christmas one year (1981 or 1982) I was given an Intellivision. Technically superior to the Atari, it had some of the worst controllers ever designed, and didn't have as many licensed properties as the Atari did. Still, there were great games for it. Star Strike had that "star wars fight in a tunnel" feel to it, and Utopia was a very early version of what later became popular as sim city. Demon Attack had nothing to do with demons, and everything to do with being a much better version of the space invaders game play (well, close to phoenix, too close in fact, resulting in a lawsuit) than the "real thing" the atari had. It also had boss battles, the first time I ever remember seeing those in games.

I played a lot of those games (and many others for the intellivision), and had a lot of fun, but none of them stand out to me 27 years later as a singularly fantastic game experience. I did not stop playing games with the death of the Intellivision (known as the video game crash, all of the consoles died pretty much simultaneously. a little playing card company called nintendo stepped into the subsequent void in the market...). I have played games on the computer pretty much forever, and have also owned a few more consoles over the years.

So I've been a gamer for at least 27 years. Of all the games I've ever played, a few stand out. This is a tribute to those few.

My first computer was an Apple //e. I played a lot of games on that computer. I remember Captain Goodnight, Karateka, F15 Strike Eagle, and a few others, but the one game that really stands out is Ultima IV. Prior to Ultima all of my game playing friends had their favorite games, but we generally were playing lots of different things. After Ultima IV was released, for a time, we were ALL playing it. At school, we were talking about Ultima IV, we were calling each other at home to ask questions, we were talking about it any chance we got. I remember one of the kids bringing the map and some of the goodies from some sort of special edition to school and how we were all jealous. One of the things about Ultima IV was that everyone could play it. It worked on the Atari ST, Apple II, and Commodore 64. It also ran on other systems, but everyone I knew had one of those three.

I have no idea how many hours I put into Ultima IV, but I know that I played it for a long, long time. It offered a very large world with eight different quests for virtues. It's gameplay focused on achieving virtues rather than killing demons and other underworld creatures, which was very unusual and unique for an RPG at the time.

I had played Ultima I, II and III a bit but never really got into them. I never played Ultima V or any of the later games. There were nine games in the series, and the only one I ever spent more than about an hour with was Ultima IV, but I finished that game. As I recall, I did everything there was to do. Ultima IV was the highpoint of the series, an epic adventure that goes down as the best role playing game of the 1980's, in my opinion. If you are curious, it is available for Mac OS X and Linux! You can download it by clicking here.

My next computer was a Mac SE. The original tetris was a simple arcade style game, but was such a good game that my computer stayed on 24/7 when I was in college. If someone wasn't doing homework on it, someone else was playing tetris on it. Seriously, everyone on my floor would come to my room to play tetris. It was that addictive. Not much to say about it other than the single best puzzle game ever.

My second mac was a huge step up from my first one, a full color Quadra 700. Graphics, sound and gameplay expanded dramatically. I didn't play a lot of games on my computer by then, it was mostly to get work done on, but I did find a little game called Marathon. At the time Doom was all the rage, and Marathon was looked on by some as the Mac alternative to Doom. But it was much more than an alternative, it was vastly superior. Marathon had great graphics for its time, it had the ability to look up and down (revolutionary at the time), and may have been the first game to ever combine keyboard and mouse for gameplay. These things are so obvious now it's funny, but for its day, Marathon was amazing.

But more than just innovations in gameplay, marathon had a story. A good story. Rather than cutscenes, which are used now to tell the story, Marathon had you interact with terminals that directed you as to what you were to do next, and moved the story along. It was engaging, well written, and made the game much more fun than just "kill everything" would have been.

Marathon was the first game I had finished (that had an ending) since Ultima IV. After I finished it, I played it again. I bought the sequel Marathon 2 the moment it was released and completed that. Ditto for Marathon Infinity. I liked this game so much I bought t-shirts (which I still have). But what marathon really brought to the table for the first time was multiplayer. I played a few games of Marathon multiplayer, but it was Marathon 2 where it really came into its own. We would take up to eight people to my office, and put Marathon 2 on eight of the office machines (each copy allowed two machines for multiplayer, and enough people owned it to pull it off). Then we would create an eight way conference call with the phone system and have a multiplayer frag fest. We would generally play until security asked us to leave at midnight. This is still the most fun playing multiplayer I've ever had. Eight friends, eight machines, eight phones, a fast network, and one really great game. The Marathon games are also available for free (Mac, Windows and Linux) under the name AlephOne.

Myth followed Marathon. Same game company, completely different style of game. Myth was a game in which you controlled an army of creatures in battle. There was no resource management, only battle. I never finished the campaign for Myth or Myth II, but multiplayer was what caused this to make the list. Multiplayer was awesome. Myth was the first game I had that allowed multiplayer over the internet. Now I could play with my friends without having to get everyone to the office, and this was convenient because my daughter was born shortly after the release of this game, making late night gaming sessions out of the house all but impossible.

Somewhere between Marathon and Myth I found a game called Burn:Cycle. This game had a great story, fun puzzles, and a sense of urgency created by the story. I loved the feel as well. It had a Blade Runner motif to the whole thing, and is for me a highlight of adventure type games. Burn:Cycle is mostly forgotten, other than people who refer to it as "the one good cd-i game" although I played it on the mac. The graphics leave a lot to be desired in this day and age, but I'd love to play it again.

As much as I loved computer gaming, my computer was really to be worked on, not to play games on, and I found myself wanting to upgrade my computer unnecessarily simply to play better games. This is a losing proposition, as it's very expensive. So I bought a console to play games on, and pretty much stopped worrying about what my computer could play.

My first console was a 3DO. A little known and mostly unsuccessful console, it had some really fun games. I played a lot of Need for Speed, Road Rage, and a fun little game called PO'ed. But years later after my 3DO broke, the one game that I still longed to play (enough to buy another 3DO off ebay) was Space Hulk. Space Hulk was the first squad combat game I ever played, and still my favorite. It's a cross between a first person shooter and an intense strategy game.

To win at Space Hulk you have to be good at a first person shooter, and great at devising battlefield strategy under duress. You don't have unlimited time to plan things out, there is a timer on the pause screen. Once that timer is up, the game resumes even if you are staring at the map...

I sold most of my 3DO games. I kept the very best, and the one game that kept me from selling everything was Space Hulk. Unfortunately this game was totally off the radar screen for most people. Those who expected Doom were disappointed, because it is impossible to succeed if you treat this like a straightforward FPS. Those who expected a pure strategy game didn't like having to shoot their way through the game. The game came out for all of the competing consoles of the day, Saturn, Playstation, and 3DO, but I don't believe it was that successful on any of them.

The problem with owning a 3DO is that it died an early death due to the success of the playstation. As a result, in a few years it was time for a new console. I wanted the "next generation" and the first console to offer that was the Dreamcast. The Dreamcast had some outstanding games, and I got my money's worth out of that console, to be sure.

The one game that stands out though, was Test Drive LeMans. I was not a big LeMans fan before this game, but this game was the perfect storm of racing games for me. Great driving feel, great selection of cars, great selection of tracks, good opponent AI. I beat this game at every level. I won every race on expert, including the 24 hours of LeMans that took a full 24 hours to complete. I won every car and every track. I don't know how many hours of gameplay I got out of this game, but it was certainly worth every penny.

I have other racing games for the dreamcast: F1 World Grand Prix, Sega Rally 2, 18 Wheeler American Pro Trucker, Vanishing Point, Test Drive V-Rally, F355 Challenge Passion Rossa, Sega GT, Hydro Thunder, Tokyo Extreme Racer 1 & 2, Wacky Racers, Crazy Taxi, Speed Devils, Trick Style, Rippin' Riders, Metropolis Street Racer, Demolition Racer: No Exit, Daytona USA, Star Wars Episode 1 Racer, Super Runabout: San Francisco Edition, and Looney Tunes Space Race. They were all fun, but it was Test Drive LeMans that was the best of the bunch.

The Dreamcast died a premature death due to the dominance of the PS2. Sadly, it could not compete with the hype machine Sony put out regarding it's console. The Dreamcast had one of the best collections of games of any console ever, and died way too early. After they stopped making games for the dreamcast, I stopped buying games because I didn't want to buy either an xbox or a PS2 as they were essentially not any more powerful than what I already had. So I continued to play the dreamcast, and then I decided to go to seminary. While in seminary I did not have time to play games, so I waited until after seminary to look at games again.

As I drew to the end of my seminary career, I decided to buy a PS3. I figured that playstation had killed off the last two platforms I played, so why not go with the leader? And then it came out for $600. I just couldn't bring myself to buy one, and neither could anyone else apparently. As I stared at the system and it's insane price tag, I began to ask what games I wanted to play that were out for it. In short, Resistance: Fall of Man was the only PS3 exclusive title that I really cared about. On the other hand, the Xbox 360 had Gears of War, the Halo Series, and Project Gotham Racing 3. That was three games to one, and it cost half as much. I looked at the market, and the 360 was kicking butt over the PS3, so I decided to go for it.

I liked Gears of War, and had a great time playing all three halo games, but none of those make my "greatest games ever" list. That honor goes to Mass Effect. The first game to be added to the list in about eight years, Mass Effect is a stunning achievement. The game has one of the best stories ever for a video game. Good characters, political intrigue, and lots of depth. I love the fact that you can walk by people and they are talking about stuff that matters. If you just cruise by you will never hear it, but if you stop and listen, you will learn more about what is going on.

The game mixes RPG with first person shooter elements, and you have a team of three people drawn from a group of seven (your character is always there, and you pick two companions for every mission out of the six possible). One of the keys to this game is knowing when is the optimal time to use each character. If you choose wisely, the game is a lot easier.

The game is very engaging. I felt like I had just been part of an epic movie when I reached the end of the game. I found myself reading about random planets that I couldn't even visit, and excited to complete every last side mission. The 360 has something called achievements, and Mass Effect is the first game that ever had me care about getting those.

As great as Mass Effect is, it isn't perfect. Driving the mako gets annoying after a while, and the repeating layouts of compounds and caves is a little disappointing. But none of that matters. The game is so great on its good merits that it still deserves a ten. It also deserves the latest place on my list.

When I finished Mass Effect, I watched the credits, stared at the title screen for a moment, and then hit the start button and started over. I have never done that before with _any_ game, even the other games on my list. It is one of the very few games I have ever played through twice (Marathon and Halo were the other two, and Halo didn't even make my list!).

Gaming is a fun hobby. It is also interactive instead of just sitting there watching tv or movies. The games I've listed here are the games that have proven to be the very best of the very best over the last 27 years. If you like games and have access to any of them, you should definitely give them a try. You won't regret it.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Cross

Today's entry comes from a guest author, a friend of mine named Jon Sizelove. He sent me this as an email this morning and I thought it was wonderful and needed to be shared with you all. Jon is a pastor in Northern California. Enjoy! - Joel

This morning I walked into my office and found that something horrific happened during the night.

You see, I made this large 6 foot high by 4 foot wide acrylic 50% white cross. I use it for a number of things. Since it is 50% white I use it in services and back light it with color changing lights. I also use it as a table for communion, back lit of course. I've also had people write on it during response times. It really is a cool and useful tool, and I store it in my office.

This morning I open my door and there up against the wall was a neat stack of acrylic shards!

I stood in my doorway stunned.

The last time I used the cross I had everyone come up on stage and write on it a statement or thought about how they feel about the love that they have received from God. I had not erased these yet. As I stood there I started reading all these responses.

Upon these broken shards was the heart of people who had experienced God's deep love and were simply saying thank you!

It really touched me, I was overwhelmed with emotion.

Then it hit me that it is appropriate that the cross is broken. The cross is the ubiquitous symbol of Christianity, and I personally am very fond of the imagery of the cross, heck over the years I have made a number of crosses as reverential art. As I walked around my office I started to ponder why the cross is so important to me. It seemed strange to me that I love Jesus and worship Him as the living God, yet I carry around and create images of the weapon which was used in His murder. Yet Christ is no longer dead, He is alive! So why do I focus on the cross?

In the New Testament I had known that the early church focused more on Christ's resurrection then they did on His death. I just did a little searching and it seems that in the epistles the ratio is greater then 3 to 1 that Christ's resurrection is mentioned more then His death on the cross. For the early church Christ is not the one who died, He is the one who is alive! He is the one who conquered death. He is not simply the one who paid the price for their sin through death. Christ is the one who brings them life through His resurrection.

In some ways to me the cross is looking back. The cross deals with my sin. The cross paved the way for my reconciliation with God. But now, now He is alive. Now I am reconciled with God. What Now! Who is Christ now? How do I go forward? What do I look forward too? Christ is the future! Who will Christ be? How will I address Him in the future? How should I address Him now?

I am feeling like I should address Him as King. Christ is my King! He is my God!

Maybe instead of using a cross as a symbol I should use a crown. Not a crown of thorns. I mean a real crown, one that truly is a symbol of HIs majesty and rule. A royal seal. Something that states that I am a citizen of His kingdom. Something that shows that I am under His rule. Something that shows how proud I am to be called by His name. Christian! Something that is a statement of how much I truly love Him.

Jesus Christ is the living King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Amen!

In the service of the Christ my King.


Just some thoughts on a beautiful Tuesday morning.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Those who cannot learn

from history are doomed to repeat it.

When this primary season opened, Romney and Giuliani were the favorites for the Republican Nomination.

They are both history. Romney dropped out at the right time for the right reasons, but what happened to Giuliani? How did he go from being a favorite to being out of the race so early?

Less than a month ago Giuliani was campaigning up a storm in Florida. Why Florida? Because it was the first "big prize" of the primary race, and Rudy's strategy was to sit out the early races and focus his resources on winning Florida.

But a funny little thing happened on the way to the Republican nomination. By sitting out the early races, Giuliani came to be viewed as a non-factor. From front runner to also-ran, by the time Florida came those very voters he was courting considered him out of the race. And all of the money he spent ($50 Million so far, a lot of that on Florida), and time he spent, got him third place in florida, just barely above Mike Huckabee who had spent like $20 plus a couple of free taco coupons campaigning in Florida.

Sitting out the little guys to wait for the big prize doesn't work. So why is Hillary's campaign trying the same thing? With each loss to Obama we hear "Hillary is focusing on the March contests in the big prize states" and I'm thinking that Giuliani is history, and Hillary is doomed to repeat his failure.

Hillary has been the democratic front runner pretty much since November 4, 2004. Now Obama is winning primaries and Hillary is playing the Giuliani game. "Just wait until March!" But by the time March rolls around, the voters in the very states she is counting on may view her as an also ran. The candidate with no momentum and no chance to win in November.

Just an observation.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Don't they have computers?

The MItt Romney campaign called my house FIVE times yesterday. The McCain campaign called three times.

Call me crazy, but it seems like the Romney campaign spent five times the money they should have on getting their message out to my household, and the McCain campaign spent three times as much as they should have.

Don't these guys have computers? It's a fairly simple process to sort a database by phone number and remove duplicates. Five phone calls is inexcusable. Will they be this wasteful when the actual presidential campaign comes?

I also heard on the radio that the Indian tribes spent $160 MILLION to convince California to let them put in an additional 17,000 slot machines. Last I checked, gambling was illegal in this state. Why would we allow one racial group to run casinos and nobody else? This is madness. But people will vote for them because the promise is there of "free" money for the state. Nevermind the gambling addicts and poor people who will squander their money there and then drain the system because they can't stop wasting it at casinos.

Regardless of all the annoyances, I did go vote already today. And all those phone calls were wasted on me :-)


Monday, February 4, 2008

The Rule of St. Benedict

So after attending the "Monk Habits" lecture, I decided I should read the Rule of St. Benedict. I already had a copy, I got it for Christmas a couple of years ago. It's one of the many books in the pile of "read me soon" books that sits by my bed. I have the Vintage Spiritual Classics edition. I really like the Vintage Spiritual Classics series. They do a great job of presented the texts, and the covers are nice as well. The text of the rule was originally in Latin, the translation presented in this text is known as RB1980 which was translated by Timothy Fry.

The rule is not very long. In my copy the text of the rule takes 63 pages. The most interesting (and relevant) part of the rule is the first seven chapters. These chapters talk about the qualifications of the abbot, how a monk should go about his business, obedience, restraint in speech, humility etc. There is really great stuff in here! You can read the text here if you don't have a printed copy available to you.

Here's a great example of the kind of stuff in the rule: "Your way of acting should be different from the world's way; the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when somebody needs your love. Bind yourself to no oath lest it prove false, but speak the truth with heart and tongue."

I can't see anything there that requires you to be monk to benefit! Beyond the first seven chapters, there are very interesting things to be gleaned from the rule. The psalms are the heart of the monastic life, prayer the chief concern. The rule provides for spiritual guidance as well as how a group of men will get along living together every day.

On the whole I think the rule is fantastic. I have no desire to be a monk, I'd much rather be married :-) But I think we can learn from the rule and from the life of the monastics. I don't know that I would recommend you run out and buy the book, I'd say read the text online and see if you want to own a copy first.