Monday, June 22, 2015

Interview with Craig Skistimas -- ScrewAttack Game Convention

I recently had a quick word with Craig Skistimas in anticipation of ScrewAttack Game Convention, which is coming to Frisco (North of Dallas) July 17-19. If you've never been to SGC, which is known as "The Biggest Party in Gaming," you should check it out--it's a blast, as you may surmise from this interview. 
BRETT WEISS: What is your role in SGC? 

CRAIG SKISTIMAS: SGC started as my brainchild back in later 2008, and I ran the event its first two years. I'm currently Head of Live Programming, but I have graciously paced off the actual "Event Manager" role to Sean Hinz. My main responsibility is to organize all programming and make sure that anything that's happening is infinitely awesome.
WEISS: Please describe SGC to someone who has never been.

SKISTIMAS: SGC is everything that is right about video games. Imagine a giant party where you and 5,000 of your closest friends (some you don't even know yet!) get together and play games, hang out and meet some of the most popular gaming personalities on the internet. There are events that have 30, 40 or 50 thousand people at them. That's awesome but we don't want that. We purposely make SGC small and intimate. We want people to make new friends and memories from playing games, not waiting in lines.
WEISS: SGC seems to have an especially rabid fan base, with people flying in from all over the world to go to the show. Why? What sets it apart from other cons?
SKISTIMAS: Yeah, it's certainly a different beast. I've been to conventions across the world and can honestly say, without any bias, that SGC certainly has a different feel and atmosphere. For us that starts at the opening ceremonies and goes all the way until our last event. We don't like to call SGC a convention because it's not. Sure, it has elements of conventions, but we really try to take everything to the next step: the programming, the energy, the arcade, the sense of community. When people come to SGC they're not just at the event, they become part of the event!
WEISS: Is there anything new we can look forward to at SGC this year?

SKISTIMAS: Every year we have the challenge of trying to make SGC different and exciting while still making it feel familiar to past events. This summer we have quite a few really cool panels including a reunion of the American voice acting cast of Dragon Ball Z, a roast of Jon St. John (the voice actor of Duke Nukem), our huge cosplay contest and of course our incredible guest list that includes the immensely popular Rooster Teeth, DidYouKnowGaming and ScrewAttack's DEATH BATTLE! Of course we have some surprises in store as well. It's going to be an incredible weekend.

WEISS: How and when did SGC and the ScrewAttack website get started?

SKISTIMAS: ScrewAttack started right after I graduated from UNT. I knew I didn't want to work a standard 9 to 5 job and had two passions: sports and video games. I thought about trying to go the sports route but getting anywhere in sports broadcasting is all about chance and luck so I figured I'd try this crazy internet thing and make a podcast about video games with a buddy of mine at the time.  After launch we quickly turned to making videos about video games LONG before doing so was so easy and readily available. Fortunately our videos connected with our viewers and allowed us to grow and become trendsetters in online video.

SGC came a few years after we launched ScrewAttack on a trip back from the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle in 2008. I wanted to have an event built in the Dallas/Fort Worth area around the amazing video game community coupled with the craziness of the ScrewAttack website. To me, games are best when they're played with friends in a close knit environment like a game room or arcade. A week after getting off that plane I remember telling my staff we were going to make the event happen even though we had NO idea on how to do it. Sometimes you just have to go for it without having a plan and things will figure it out along the way. Turns out they did and now we have this amazing event we're lucky enough to produce every year!

ScrewAttack Game Convention
July 17-29
Embassy Suites
7600 John Q. Hammons Drive
Frisco, Texas 75034

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Beerslinger -- NES Homebrew Review

Nintendo NES
Publisher: Greeting Carts
Developer: Greeting Carts
Genre: Action

Created by Greeting Carts, a company “developed the world's first playable greeting card,” and that produces personalized Nintendo NES games for special occasions, Beerslinger side-steps this business model a bit by giving users a straightforward, arcade-style game that evokes the 1983 coin-op classic, Tapper, but with enough differences to make it stand out.
As a bartender, you walk back and forth between two horizontal bars, filling mugs from kegs placed at the top bar and bringing them down to customers that walk up to stools positioned on the lower bar. If a customer sits at his or her stool for too long before being served, you get one “miss.” If you get three misses, it’s game over.

A game begins with two kegs and two stools, but these increase to four kegs and six stools as you progress, forcing you to move quicker and be more alert. Each keg is filled with a different type of ale—Lager, IPA, Stout, or Wheat—and you must serve the correct type to each customer. In addition to text, audio cues let you know which type of beer each customer wants. 
Unlike Tapper, customers don’t walk along the bar(s) toward the end. Rather, they simply walk up and take a seat at their stool, waiting to be served. Also, Tapper has four customer bars per screen while Beerslinger has just one, and Tapper has themes: cowboys, athletes, punk rockers, and space aliens.

In short, Beerslinger is more simplistic than Tapper, but it’s still a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it has a fatal flaw that ruins the experience. Before I get to said flaw, let’s focus on some of the positives.

While it borrows from Tapper, Beerslinger carves out at a little niche of its own, as though it were a prequel of sorts. The cartoonish graphics and black backgrounds give the game a nice, classic look, and the voice effects and musical jingle are cool touches as well. Solid controls and the pick-up-and play aesthetic give the game the feel of a lost Atari 2600 title, but one with better  music and graphics than that machine can generate.

Sadly, the game ends abruptly after seven screens, and the difficulty level doesn’t really amp up until screen six. Even then it’s pretty easy to finish. I like that you can continue if you get three misses (at least in screens one through six), and the game has some nice comical flourishes, such as your bald boss telling you, “Maybe you’re not cut out for this job. You’re fired! But you can play this level again!” 

In summary, I wish the positives outweighed the negatives. In fact, iBeerslinger continued indefinitely (or at least for 10 more screens) after the seventh level, I could heartily recommend it. As it stands, I need more screen time.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Jurassic Park -- Jurassic World

Here's a story I wrote for AntiqueWeek about Jurassic Park collectibles and Jurassic World, which had just been announced at the time. The article was published in Sept. of 2013. 
Universal Pictures has announced the title and release date of the fourth movie in the Jurassic Park series. Jurassic World, filmed in 3D and directed by Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), will stomp into theaters June 12, 2015.

As with the first three films—Jurassic Park, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and Jurassic Park IIIJurassic World will be based on characters and situations created by Michael Crichton, who kick-started the popular dinosaur franchise in 1990 with his best-selling novel, Jurassic Park, in which genetically created dinosaurs run amok in an amusement park.
The Jurassic World announcement coincides (roughly) with the 20th anniversary of the original Jurassic Park movie, which came out in June of 1993, a busy summer that also saw the debut of such films as The Firm, The Fugitive, Sleepless in Seattle, Cliffhanger, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Backed by a $65 million marketing campaign, Jurassic Park earned more than $900 million worldwide, making it the highest grossing film of all time up until that point (Titanic passed it in 1997, followed by others). In April of this year, Jurassic Park was re-released in theaters in 3D to celebrate the film’s 20 years of enduring popularity, pushing it past the $1 billion mark and making it the 13th highest grossing film of all time.

The initial release of Jurassic Park, which wowed theater goers with its cutting edge special effects, was accompanied by a slew of merchandise (there were more than 100 licensees in all), much of which has skyrocketed in price. An unopened box of Topps trading cards will only set you back $15-$20 or so, same with an unopened paint-by-numbers kit and various small action figures, but the more desirable toys—the larger dinosaurs, vehicles, and playsets—are another story, as evidenced by the following recently completed eBay sales:

 *Boxed “Demon” Carnotaurus with Attacking Jaws: $505 (plus $16.85)
*Mint-in-box Electronic Command Compound 339.99 (plus $85.85 shipping).
*Mint-in-box Jungle Explorer: $199 (plus $18.39 shipping).
*Mint-in-box Capture Copter: $139.99 (plus $38.24 shipping).
*Mint-in-box Stegosaurus with Whip-Action Spiked Tail: $110 (free shipping).
The Carnotaurus mentioned above had a Wal-Mart sticker price of $13.96, so anyone who had the foresight to buy an extra (or two) to keep in the package made a wise investment.

Brook Andrews, the administrator of the YouTube channel, JurassicCollectables, is a big fan of the premium Jurassic Park items, especially the Tyrannosaurus Rex with Electronic Roar & Stomping Sound, which was in the first series of toys and is worth around $250 unopened. “It was the icon of the Jurassic Park toy world,” he said. “It’s just a fantastic toy. It’s giant—it represented the big brown Rex in the film. This was the toy everyone wanted when Jurassic Park came out. This was the daddy of the Jurassic Park toys.”

Andrews likes the look of the toy sitting on his shelf, but also the play action. “If you squeeze his chest around his ribs, he opens his jaws and makes an electronic roaring sound,” he said. “And if you slam him down on the ground, he makes a big foot-stomping sound, just like he did in the film…just brilliant.”

There’s no doubting that Jurassic World will spawn a merchandising blitz of its own. Only time will tell exactly what those products will be and if they’ll go up in price over time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Splatoon -- Nintendo Wii U

Nintendo's latest gaming franchise, Splatoon, is making a huge splash among critics. Below is a review of the game, reprinted from Business Insider. The review was written by Ben Gilbert. 

Nintendo Wii U
Publisher: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

When you think of Nintendo, heroic Italian plumbers and cartoon dinosaurs come to mind. Maybe you think of an angry gorilla, or an elvish boy with a sword and a penchant for saving a certain princess. 
You wouldn't think of a third-person shooter starring children that morph into squids. Nintendo's hoping that, soon, you will.
This is "Splatoon," the best new game franchise Nintendo's created in years.
"Splatoon" is colorful, full of character (and characters), and immensely fun to play. It's wildly different from other games Nintendo makes. It's also the first Nintendo game with brand new characters, in a brand new franchise, in the past... decade? There've been a few exceptions for Nintendo's handheld consoles, but, in general, this is the first Nintendo-produced new game franchise in many, many years.
But what makes it so good? 
The madness you see above is just part of the reason. Though it's ostensibly a game about shooting paint in an attempt to cover as much surface as possible before an opposing team can, "Splatoon" hangs with the likes of Super Mario and Donkey Kong by creating a unique world. You're not just playing a new game – you're stepping into a fully realized universe, hand-crafted by some of the finest game developers in the world.
This is the main hub of "Splatoon":
"Splatoon" on Wii U
It looks like a lost corner of Tokyo's Akihabara district, and that's assuredly intentional. It's from this hub that you access the game's single-player story mode, as well as the game's focus: online multiplayer. This is where you load into every time the game starts, and it feels alive. There are other players walking around – characters created by other actual human beings – who you can interact with.
There's an amazing update video that plays every time the game launches, hosted by two ladies known as the Squid Sisters. They fill you in on any updates to the game since you last played, as well as informing you of the two current multiplayer maps being played (the maps swap out every day). They sign off each video with this adorable statement:
That's not all, of course – the shops in the hub area are all open for your perusal. "Splatoon" is as much about shooting paint as it is about dressing up your character for battle. As the Squid Sisters put it, it's about looking "fresh." 
Go ahead and try to call these player-created characters anything less than super fresh:
"Splatoon" inklingsYou cannot!
By playing "Splatoon" online, you earn currency that can be exchanged for fresh new kicks, or a sweet hat, or new weapons. Not only does clothing make your character look distinct, but each conveys a subtle gameplay advantage. 
The good news is that playing "Splatoon" is even more fun than dressing up your character.
"Splatoon" is about shooting paint to cover ground. Once you've covered the ground (and walls) in paint, you're able to swim through the paint as a squid. That's basically it – like many great Nintendo games, "Splatoon" is very simple.
But "simple" doesn't mean shallow; what makes "Splatoon" great is that it's easy to learn and difficult to master. In the most basic sense, the goal in "Splatoon" is to cover a larger percentage of a closed battle area before the three-minute match ends. Those battles play out across six different areas, each with its own feel, and each player is built slightly differently. 
In one match, I might dress up my character in clothing that makes him run faster and equip him with a weapon that works well at close range. In the next, perhaps I dress him in clothing that makes his attack stronger and his weapon more suited to long-distance battles. 
Like the best of Nintendo's lineup, "Splatoon" is memorable. It's distinct. "Splatoon" is the kind of game that makes people love Nintendo, and you shouldn't miss it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Whispers Becomes the Latest Bradbury-Influenced Adaptation

By guest-blogger Spencer Blohm:
The timelessness of Ray Bradbury's impressive collection of science fiction and fantasy tales is once again evident in ABC's new summer series, The Whispers. Based on "Zero Hour," a story from Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, a collection of short stories focusing on the effect technology has on human psychology, the series explores the often vastly different ways in which adults and children react to paranormal activities. In honor of the series, which premiered on June 1st and is available to watch via ABC Go and local channels, let’s take a look at five of the best adaptations of his famous works. As any Bradbury fan knows, the dynamics of how humans react to the unexplained is a theme the legendary author enthusiastically embraced in many of his writings that have been adapted for the screen.

Bradbury often took a hands-on approach to his early adaptations, as was the case with "I Sing the Body Electric," the 100th episode of The Twilight Zone that originally aired in 1962. Based on a short story from Bradbury's anthology series of the same name, it's the tale of a widowed father who attempts to fill the void left after his wife's death by purchasing an android grandmother, specifically focusing on the oldest daughter's hesitation to accept "her" because of a fear of losing another loved one. Interestingly enough, Twilight Zone fans were disappointed, expecting more from a Bradbury-penned story. However, it's still a relevant observation on our natural inclination to form attachments with inanimate objects.

Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury's classic story about book burning, is set in a futuristic world where banned books are confiscated and destroyed. In a radio interview three years after the book's 1953 publication, Bradbury said that the story was inspired by the McCarthy era and a fear that the Red Scare of the time would soon extend to certain books being deemed objectionable. The story, adapted into a 1966 film, is also based on Bradbury's concern that newer forms of media would take away from what can be learned from reading books, the unintended consequences of censorship.

While Bradbury did write some original stories for The Ray Bradbury Theater anthology series, he also borrowed from his vast collection of short stories, including "Banshee" and "A Sound of Thunder," and repurposed characters from previous tales. Bradbury has said that he was often inspired by events in his own life, as is the case with the episode based on "The Pedestrian," about a man living in a society where everyone watches TV at night. The man habitually goes for a walk in the evenings, until he encounters a robotic police car that finds his actions suspicious, since no one else is ever walking around. It was inspired by an encounter Bradbury had with Los Angeles police officers when walking in a neighborhood not known for its pedestrian traffic.

Based on a Bradbury short story of the same name, "The Jar" first appeared as an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1964. The same story was adapted for the '80s revival of that series. Once again tapping into the human tendency to find inspiration in things, the story centers around a struggling artist who finds the success he craves after incorporating a mysterious jar into his exhibit. He later learns that there's more to the jar than meets the eye. On a broader level, it's a cautionary tale of the pitfalls associated with seeking success at any cost, and the price that's sometimes paid. The 1986 episode is also noteworthy because it was directed by a then-unknown Tim Burton.

Something Wicked This Way Comes, a 1983 film adaption of the Bradbury novel of the same name, tells the tale of a mysterious carnival that comes to town. Two local boys soon discover that it's not all that it appears to be, and they proceed to warn the townspeople. Bradbury himself had a hand in writing the screenplay, ensuring that the film retained the basic sense of something menacing through the use of imagery and foreshadowing, another technique common in Bradbury's writings. It's a story that stands out because it plays on the natural sense of curiosity that sometimes prevents people from realizing that something is not as it seems. You might not have to settle for the 80’s version for much longer though, given the fact that Disney is reportedly remaking the film.

Ray Bradbury is among those rare breed of authors who transcends generations. It's easy to see why he is credited with taking the sci-fi genre from its early reputation as a fringe niche to a form of entertainment that appeals to the masses in all of its forms. Clearly, Bradbury's ability to tap into our collective fears, wonders and imaginations is still relevant today - and likely to be just as fascinating to future generations.