Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Digger for the ColecoVision -- Reviewed!

Publisher: CollectorVision
Programmer: Mystery Man
1 player
During the early-to-mid 1980s,   and  inspired a number of tunnel-digging imitators, including Sega’s obscure Thunderground (1983) for the Atari 2600 and First Star Software’s popular Boulder Dash (1984) for a variety of consoles and computers. One of the more blatant copycats was Windmill Software’s Digger, a Canadian computer game developed by Rob Sleath in 1983 for the IBM PC.

Now, , publisher of such quality  ports as Bagman and Galaga, has brought Digger to everyone’s favorite Coleco console.

Guiding a motorized Digger Mobile around the screen, players tunnel underground to scoop up emeralds (similar to the cherries in Mr. Do!), creating mazes in the process. As you gather emeralds, little creatures called Nobbins will chase you through the maze pathways. Impatient Nobbins sometimes turn into Hobbins, which can burrow through maze walls (similar to the monsters in Mr. Do!). You can throw a rock bullet at the enemies (similar to the ball in Mr. Do!, but it doesn’t bounce around), but it takes a few seconds for the Digger Mobile to reload once a bullet has been fired.

Digger is clearly more of a Mr. Do! clone than a Dig Dug wannabe. This is especially evident regarding bags of gold that are positioned at various points around the screen. These are like the apples in Mr. Do! (as opposed to the rocks in Dig Dug) in that you can push them across the screen. And you can walk under the bags of gold to drop them on enemies, while making sure to get out of the way so you don’t get crushed. One thing that sets Digger apart from both of its more famous progenitors is that dropped bags break open to reveal gold that you can scoop up for extra points, a welcome feature.

Monsters in Digger spawn from the top/right corner of the screen. After you kill a certain number of monsters, a special prize cherry will appear in this area. If you grab the prize, you can turn the tables on the enemies for approximately 15 seconds (which decreases in later rounds of play). As such, the monsters will now run away from you, a la the ghosts in Pac-Man. The current level ends when you’ve grabbed all the emeralds or killed all the monsters, another nod to Mr. Do!

Unlike Mr. Do!, there are no letters spelling out EXTRA for an extra life. However, you do get an extra life for every 20,000 points you score.

Compared to the original Digger computer game, the ColecoVision port plays about the same, but there are some visual simplifications. The playfield for the ColecoVision game is colored with thick vertical stripes while the original has a more textured look with thin, wavy, and diagonal lines. The multi-colored Digger Mobile, Nobbins, and Hobbins of the computer semi-classic have been replaced by mono-colored versions of same, which once again evokes Mr. Do! as the arcade version had multi-colored characters while the ColecoVision port had mono-colored characters.

Like many video games, both versions of Digger make use of classic musical compositions. During the standard action, “Popcorn” by Gershon Kingsley plays. After you grab the bonus prize, you’ll hear Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” When you get killed by a monster or squashed by a bag of gold, Frédéric Chopin’s “Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor” (a.k.a. “The Funeral March”) will commemorate your death, complemented by a gravestone that rises from the ground.

Regarding sound effects, when you gather up emeralds in the ColecoVision port, it sounds exactly like picking cherries in the ColecoVision version of Mr. Do!

Overall, Digger is a cute, challenging game that sounds good and will entertain most any maze fan. It has solid controls, smooth difficulty progression, and a few differences (including altered enemy A.I.) that set it apart from similar games. Even though I’ve played a variety of tunnel-digging games countless times, I find myself playing Digger again and again to try and beat my high score.

Since Mr. Do! is readily available on the ColecoVision (it’s one of the more common post-launch titles and is only worth around $8 loose), Digger, which is packaged in an retro-style box with instruction manual, isn’t exactly a must-own for the system. However, collectors and diehard fans of the genre will want to hop online and grab a copy.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

I Was a Teenage Concert-Goer -- Or, How I Met Ozzy Osbourne & Paul Stanley

During the early-to-mid 1980s, when I was in high school, I was a terrible student. I wasn’t a slow learner, and I wasn’t disruptive, I was just preoccupied with things I thought were more fun than studying, such as basketball, video games, and the opposite sex. My senior year I nearly flunked English, which is ironic considering the fact that I now write for a living.

Along with shooting hoops, shooting alien invaders, and shooting the breeze with any good looking girl who would talk to me, I loved rock music, an obsession that went beyond merely listening to records in my room and blasting the radio in my car. My friends and I were addicted to the experience of seeing and hearing our favorite bands live and in person.
Between 1982 and 1985, the year I graduated, we went to more than 30 big-time, arena-based shows, including such popular acts as Elton John, Stevie Nicks, Iron Maiden, Styx, Bon Jovi, Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, and Foreigner. We also sat out in the boiling heat every summer at the Texxas Jam (a.k.a. the Texxas World Music Festival). Hosted by the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, the Texxas Jam was the type of post-Woodstock, post-Altamont, one-day event that grew out the early ’70s, when cities began outlawing weekend-long festivals.

Just as merely listening to music wasn’t adequate, going to concerts didn’t quite fulfill our rock and roll fantasies, so my friends and I started hanging around after shows to try and meet the bands, a strategy that, surprisingly enough, was highly effective. On one particularly memorable occasion in 1986, we followed Ozzy Osbourne’s tour bus about half-an-hour outside of Fort Worth to a greasy spoon called The Iron Skillet. While the roadies transferred the luggage and other supplies to another bus, Ozzy, his band--including guitarist Jake E. Lee, who had taken the place of the recently deceased legend, Randy Rhoads--and a couple of security guys went inside. We stalkers followed closely behind.

As Ozzy entered the restaurant, a waitress who was a dead-ringer for Florence Jean Castleberry from the TV show Alice exclaimed, “Ozzy Osbourne! Ozzy Osbourne! Oh my gawd! Ozzy Osbourne in my restaurant!” She proceeded to fawn and fuss over Ozzy and his bandmates, making a big show of getting their autographs: “Ozzy Osbourne! Ozzy Osbourne!” (This was decades before The Osbournes TV show, but the “Prince of Darkness” was a household name even then, thanks in part to several infamous events, including biting the head off a dove during a press conference and urinating on the Alamo.)

We approached Ozzy as well, but we were far too nervous and too “cool” to hoot and holler and otherwise make a big fuss, so we simply and sheepishly asked the former Black Sabbath singer if we could have his autograph, and if we could take a picture with him (in those days before everyone had a phone in their pocket, we always made sure to take a loaded camera with us to concerts). Ozzy, appearing dazed and confused—the word “sobriety” was not yet a part of his vocabulary—complied, and we had a great story to tell at work the next week, with photographic proof of our encounter.

Part of what made the story great is that I brazenly asked Ozzy as he was leaving the restaurant if he wanted to play Pac-Man (as with many establishments of the era, there was a mini-arcade in the lobby). Unfortunately, the “Godfather of Heavy Metal” declined, saying in his distinctly British accent, “I don’t play.”

During that golden age of metal, my concert buddies and I also met the guys in Metallica, W.A.S.P., Ratt, and Queensryche, along with frontman Paul Stanley and drummer Eric Carr from KISS. This was when the band was touring without their patented makeup for the first time. Needless to say, we got their autographs and snapped photos.
Regrettably, during the late 1990s, when eBay was new and exciting, I sold all my autographs, which were on scraps of paper we scrounged from hotels and restaurants—we rockers apparently weren’t savvy enough to bring albums or something more substantial to sign. I sold Ozzy Osbourne’s signature for $50, Paul Stanley’s for $35, and Eric Carr’s for $50. (The reason Carr’s autograph brought more than the more famous Stanley is that Carr, Peter Criss’s original replacement, had passed away.)

One thing I did keep was my collection of concert ticket stubs. This was because I wanted a record of the shows I had seen. After going through the stubs recently, it struck me how cheap concerts were three decades ago. My first concert was Journey on July 8, 1983, which was one month before my 16th birthday. The price? A paltry $11.00. My next three shows were Robert Plant (Sept. 22, 1983), $13.50; ZZ Top (Sept. 29, 1983), $13.50; and KISS (Jan. 13, 1984), $13.00.

I went to many more concerts throughout the 1980s and into the early ’90s, but having kids and tending to the responsibilities of being a married man slowed my concert-going considerably by the mid-1990s. Plus, concerts had priced me out of the market. The first show I wanted to go to, but didn’t because of the expense was the Eagles Hell Freezes Over Tour, which came to Texas Stadium in Irving (where the Dallas Cowboys used to play) on July 3, 1994. Tickets were a then-shocking $50 to $120 each.

I rarely go to concerts these days (I settle for watching cover bands in bars—pathetic, I know), and when the Rolling Stones announced a few months ago that they were coming to the AT&T Stadium in Arlington (where the Dallas Cowboys now play), I barely gave it a thought, despite the fact that they’re one of my favorite bands. I knew that the price for a pair of tickets—even in the nosebleed section—would be enough to pay my electric bill or car payment for the month.

As fate would have it, I ended up going to the show anyway, and it was awesome.

Two weeks before the Stones concert, I called an old friend—one I used to go to concerts with—to come over and fix my broken garage door, which he did for the price of lunch at a nearby restaurant. When I mentioned that the Stones were in town, he said, “Let’s go.” When I told him it was too expensive, he said that if I would drive and buy food, he would pay for the tickets ($150 each) and the parking ($50). I quickly agreed, knowing this would probably be my only chance to see the “World’s Greatest Rock Band,” and being super excited at the prospect of once again seeing a real rock concert.

Our seats were near the back of the stadium, but we had a great view of the band, thanks to giant screens behind the stage. Also, the sound was excellent, despite the massive size of the venue. I was a little concerned that the Stones were too old to rock—Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are 71, Ron Wood is 68, and Charlie Watts is 74—but they are still terrific after more than a half-century of performing. Watts kept a strong, steady beat on the drums while Richards and absolutely Woods killed it on guitar. And Jagger was seemingly ageless, prancing about the stage the entire show like a man in his 20s, his voice as strong as it was during the 1970s.

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed the show, so much so that if the Stones were to come back next year, I would strongly consider going again—even if I had to buy my own ticket.

While I do indeed have another rock concert under my belt, I don’t have another ticket stub in my collection—our tickets were printed out on computer paper. This got me to pondering the collectability of vintage ticket stubs. The next day after the show, I hopped on eBay and did some searching of completed auctions, only to discover that ticket stubs from the 1980s are only worth around $3 to $10 each, depending on the band, the condition, and a few other factors.

So I’ll probably just hang on to my old ticket stubs because the memories are worth far more than the money I could make on them. I may even keep the computer printout for the Rolling Stones concert as well. After all, it’s not every day that I get to go to a rock concert, especially one featuring a legendary band.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Patrick Stewart and Blunt Talk -- Guest Blog by Spencer Blohm

Guest blogger Spencer Blohm drops by BrettWeissWordsofWonder with another article. Take it away, Spencer!

Patrick Stewart and Blunt Talk

Let it be so.

Just like that, Sir Patrick Stewart jumped from the stage of Hamlet to hamming it up viral Internet videos. Stewart has been acting since the ripe young age of 15, enthralling audiences in Shakespearian dramas as well as on screen in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the popular X-Men series. He’s heretofore been largely averse to comedy.

That is, until recently. Now in his seventies, Stewart has decided to disseminate his charm across all forms of social media, doing so with the help fellow X-Men cast member and distinguished member of the British Empire, Sir Ian McKellen. Participating off-the-wall skits for late-night comedy shows and voicing characters on Seth MacFarlane hits Family Guy and American Dad!, Stewart has found a second life embracing his funny bone.

In Blunt Talk, the second pairing of Stewart and MacFarlane begs the question, why comedy and why now? Stewart seems not to be overthinking it. Even in the face of absurdism, Patrick Stewart follows one basic rule. "I just believe in saying the lines with conviction," he says. In a recent interview with Time, Stewart said that he enjoyed working with MacFarlane and doing the outrageous bits and voice-over work. It was a no-brainer when MacFarlane came to Stewart with a live-action sitcom.

Blunt Talk is written by Jonathan Ames, best known for his series Bored to Death. Inspired by journalists like Piers Morgan (and a healthy dose of Orwell), Ames formulated the premise of the show and wrote the part of Walter Blunt specifically for Stewart. Before one scene was even shot, Starz saw the potential and ordered two full seasons.

In the role of Blunt, a British journalist and former soldier who comes to America for a shot at cable news stardom, Stewart comes in full force. In the wild premiere episode, Patrick Stewart/Walter Blunt makes headlines himself when he goes on a bender and assaults a police after being caught with a transvestite prostitute (among other things). Instead of reporting the news, he quickly finds his own face on cable news channels and among Bill O’Reilly’s talking points.

Further antic ensure when we meet the rest of zany people in Walter Blunt's life. His right-hand man is Harry Chandler, a fellow soldier who was under Blunt's command. Actor Adrian Scarborough fills in this role - in the States, he may not be well-known, but Scarborough has been acting on British television for a while now. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Blunt's news team and various lackeys.

So far, Season One is admittedly a bit perplexing. While the novelty of watching Patrick Stewart not-act quite like Patrick Stewart is fun at first, it taps itself out within the first 15 minutes. Seeing the refined and dignified actor chatting up a sexually ambiguous hookers and aiming vitriol at ex-wives is a change of pace, and not a totally unwelcome one - but in the hands of Ames and McFarlane something is amiss. The concept of a big-name actor behaving badly has been done before, and even though audiences love nothing more than watching a superstar’s career crumble, this show misses the mark. But it is by no fault of Stewart. He could charm his way out of a snake pit.

With two seasons already ordered, MacFarlane and Stewart still have time to find their groove and settle in for a long ride. The first two episodes (streaming on Starz, check with your satellite tv provider for details) have, if nothing else, whet our appetites for more Stewart, and ignited hopes that he might be able to turn this into something worthy of his prodigious talents.