Sunday, October 15, 2017

Super Mario Kart

So a few days ago I played through all of Super Mario Kart's 4 cups on both 100cc and 150cc modes, courtesy of our new SNES Classic! (<3)  It was absolutely glorious.  I don't know if I've had that much intense fun playing video games in quite a while.

Like many others, I was first introduced to Super Mario Kart back in my childhood.  It was one of the very few Super Nintendo games that featured a 2-player mode that wasn't just a head-to-head competitive battle -- you could both enter GP mode together and race against the CPUs.  I was in elementary school at the time, maybe 5-8 years old?  It was before my brother went off to college, at any rate.  So there I was, playing with my brother, who is 9 years older than me, with of course a proportionally better ability at playing games -- but I could certainly hold my own too.  I was very lucky to have grown up around video games in a way that probably few others did at the time (or at least I could tell judging from the way that I trounced everyone else in my age group at them, lol).

As a principle, my brother always picked Toad and I would always pick Koopa Troopa, simply because those were the characters that we liked best.  They had the best handling (ability to take turns well), which I think appealed to both of us (there was also Bowser and Donkey Kong, who had the highest top speed, Yoshi and Princess, who accelerated the quickest, and Mario and Luigi, who were basically balanced).

Koopa Troopa will always have a special place in my heart because of this, and Toad too, although to a lesser extent because Toad's later incarnations tended to be...less pleasant.  It's worth noting that each character had their own musical theme that played when you took 1st place with them, and that Toad's theme in particular became oh-so-familiar to me due to my brother taking 1st place so often, though of course I would also hear Koopa's theme a lot too.  I actually still use Toad's theme as a custom ringtone when my best friend calls me, so it's still present in my day even now. (I'm actually also fond of Princess's theme as well, though I didn't hear it too much at the time)

A core mechanic of the entire Mario Kart series is the ability to "drift" or "power slide", usually by pressing the shoulder buttons of the controller, which initiates a drift turn, which (depending on the exact game) usually allows you to conserve speed through a turn, corner more effectively, and sometimes get a speed boost when exiting a turn.  Super Mario Kart's drifts are triggered by pressing L or R (which causes you to do a hop) while turning, which initiates the slide.

Something that's really interesting is that when I first played SMK way back when, I actually didn't use drifting!  I took corners without doing power slides at all and just used normal turning, which looks something like this:

This actually works reasonably well in terms of just being able to navigate the course (particularly because Koopa and Toad have the best normal turning!), but ends up costing you speed.  I believe (?) there may also be some turns that are just too tight to get around with normal non-drift turning, and I think in those cases I would just bump into the walls (!).  So obviously I wasn't playing optimally at all, but somehow it actually worked out pretty well for me.  I was still holding the accelerate button the whole time and never touched the brake button.  It's great, of course, that you can still be pretty decent at the game with just the basics.  But maybe this is part of the reason that my brother was just better at the game than I was.  It's worth noting that in Donut Plains there are several turns where your kart will actually spin out if you try to take them with normal cornering, so I actually DID use the power slides for that level specifically.

Of course, the ideal way to play the game is with the power slides, which is what I started doing once I was older (and again now too).  You end up starting the turn way earlier and =sliding= around the corners, which looks something like this:

Notice how the approach to the turn is completely different.  Without the drift, the best strategy is to start on the =outside= of the turn so that you don't have to take such a sharp angle.  But with the drift, since you start turning way earlier but slide sideways around the corner, you can actually hug the inside of the corner, which results in a shorter distance traveled (in addition to you preserving your speed better).  Taken to its extreme, it looks like this:

...except you are probably not taking the corners THAT aggressively unless you are a speedrunner (the above gif is pushing the game to its limits).

In SMK, once you start a drift, your kart continues to slide around a bit, even after you've let go of the turn direction.  To counteract this, you actually have to =countersteer= for a brief moment at the end of a drift, which straightens your kart out and sets you up to go straight again.  The timing and execution of this countersteer is actually really important and a slight screwup can mean you exit out of the turn pointed totally wrong instead of being lined up with the track.

One really important thing I'd like to get across in this post is just how different this implementation of the power slide physics is compared to the way that it is in later mario kart games, including Mario Kart 64 all the way up to Mario Kart 8.  Here's what the newer version of drifting looks like:

I am of course glossing over a whole world of significant differences in the way that drifting works in these different newer games, but let's just use these gifs as an example.  In the newer Mario Kart games, drifts are usually =controllable=.  Once you initiate a power slide turning to the right, you are "locked in" turning to the right until you let go of the L or R button and during this time, you can actually press right to make your turn sharper, or alternatively press left to slow down your rate of turning.  You can see Yoshi in the first GIF start the turn relatively aggressively, then ease off for a bit before turning more sharply again.  Back in Super Mario Kart this wasn't possible -- you could let go of the direction of the turn for bits at a time, but pressing in the opposite direction (counter-steer!) would just result in the slide ending altogether.

Speaking of counter-steer, since you end a drift by letting go of L or R, the counter-steer element is gone entirely and instead when you end a drift by letting go of the shoulder button, your kart straightens out automatically, as you can see by toad's boost in the second GIF.

So to drift in SMK, you usually:
- Start on the =inside= of the track (ideally)
- =Commit= to when you start the drift
- At the right moment, =counter-steer= in the opposite direction, enough to straighten out, but not too much to throw you off alignment

Whereas to drift in MK8, you usually:
- Start on the =outside= of the track (ideally)
- Start the drift, then =adjust= your steering during the entirety of the turn 
- Let go of the drift button (and automatically straighten out)

So basically in SMK the drift is super committal and you really need to be precise about where and when you start the drift, whereas in MK8 you can just adjust your steering as soon as the drift starts, so it's no big deal.  In SMK too you have to manually countersteer and straighten yourself out.  It's way more difficult in general and I can see why they moved away from it.

...but MAN is it satisfying to do.  I think requiring such precision is exhilirating and really feels like a true test of your driving abilities.  There are a lot of turns in SMK that are really challenging to execute properly, with obstacles and boost pads and whatnot to make things even more interesting.  This time around I even used the technique of tapping the brakes sometimes when I needed to cut a corner really sharply or abort a drift that threatened to swing wide, as tapping the brakes seems to stop you from sliding and straighten you out much faster.

Don't get me wrong, the newer mario kart games are fun (especially MK8 I think.  And MKDS was...well, that was sort of its own thing).  But I think something about the physics of SMK really, truly shines out to me in a way that I love, and it's no wonder that MK64 doesn't garner nearly the same amount of respect from me as SMK does.

So anyways, we played through the 100cc races and then moved onto 150cc and that where things get real.  150cc is pretty unforgiving in that all of your slip-ups are really amplified because everyone is moving so much faster, so running into an obstacle or going off-course is so much worse.  Plus, you're just going at a much faster speed so you can't just leisurely approach each turn conservatively -- you really have to go for it and start the slides early, and even string them together.  It's =exhilarating=.  And then of course, there's the CPU players, who can be a royal pain in the butt sometimes.  I was playing as Koopa, which meant that the Luigi CPU was always the one I was fighting with for 1st place, and man, both Mario and Luigi are insanely annoying when you are trying to compete with them because their special ability is basically to flash invincible as if they have a Star, basically at will -- and touching them in that state makes you spin out.  So basically getting close to them is always super frightening at any moment, not to mention you're also going really fast through really challenging courses with turns and narrow straightaways, little room to maneuver, etc.  This time I actually had quite a few times where I just slammed on the brakes because it's better to just slow down and avoid trying to pass Luigi until you have a good chance rather than run into him and spin out, which is a disaster.

150cc Special Cup (like many other things in the game, to be honest) holds special significance for me since me and my brother spent so much time trying to clear it.  Some of the courses in that GP are really brutal and I have to say, even now it truly pushed my abilities as a gamer.  I had to try it quite a few times and on the last try, I reached the last course, the glorious Rainbow Road (with its epic music and all) with 3 lives remaining.  I failed my first attempt, and then also my second, and it was down to my last shot remaining.  I was off to a great start, but slipped up in the middle and fell behind, but somehow managed to super duper clutch it out and catch back up safely, taking some really crazy maneuvers as well as avoiding all of the CPUs to regain 1st place and finish the race.

All that is to say that Super Mario Kart is and probably always will be my favorite racing game of all time.  It's really all in the way that the karts handle and I'm really amazed they were able to create something so unique, skill-testing, and satisfying all at once.  I love SMK!!!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Smoke is everywhere and the trains have stopped running

What a week

Feel really bad for all the people who are just sitting at the train station breathing in a bunch of smoke right now...

Monday, October 9, 2017

There is a fallacy in trying to live by your own ideals and setting an example to "be the change you wish to see", in that other people have no obligation (or even incentive?) to share the same values that you do.  It is not simply that others "suck dirt" (as I so often believed), but also just that they simply value and prioritize different things that you do.

But how can one expect to hold ideals and standards if one does not follow them him/herself?

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Jammix, Social Fatigue

Jammix was good fun, and nice getting to see people, but also socially "tiring".  And perhaps not in the normal manner of being socially draining and in general wanting to shy away from people, but maybe something different, too.  I realized tonight as I was there, that the more I think about people at dance, the more depressing and unhappy thoughts start to come into my mind.  I was thinking about it some more and I think it is because dance is just such an exposing activity where everyone is really putting themselves out there.  I mean, that is great, and I think that is part of the reason why it's a good activity too, but a lot of the time, especially recently, when I am standing there or walking through the dance, I get filled with more negative thoughts than positive ones.

Is it wrong to judge someone based on their dancing?  So often, incredibly often now, I find myself judging people not based on their dance ability, but on their dance character.  It's rough because a lot of the time I feel like it really is an accurate reflection of who they are as a person, but sometimes it's unintentional and just because they don't know better.  But there are definitely people whom I dance with and I just get disheartened, not because they are a bad dancer, but because I feel something in their dance that shows a side of their character that I just dislike.  I've been dancing for quite some time now, so it's quite easy for me to pick apart someone's style.  Those leads that jerk you around -- do they really care about me as a person??  Those follows who go off on their own volition and overdo everything -- why does it feel like you are just snubbing me off??  It's not all bad though, of course.  There are people whom I really love dancing with now just because of the character of their dancing.  But for the rest, it's so easy for me to make these snap judgments.  I can't help it.  And I myself am not exempt from it either, as I know better than anyone that my flaws and weaknesses show through in my dancing as well. 

But it doesn't stop there, either.  Dance is also where I become acutely, sometimes painfully aware of gender roles in our community and society.  How much people fall into gender roles, not just in dance, but also in socialization.  And every time I go and interact with someone during those times, I feel my own biases too.  And I can't help thinking about how I interact with people differently based on their gender.  It makes me feel uncomfortable with myself sometimes.

And of course, everything else.  The cliques.  How the older dancers don't get any attention from the young kids.  How couples who are dating stick together and somehow become unapproachable.

Maybe it is easier if I just try to be aloof and lose myself in my own world.  I don't know, really.  Maybe I am just jaded.  Or maybe I just need to try and not think about it so much.

Rest In Peace, AIM

As you may have heard, AOL Instant Messenger is shutting down (finally, for good) this December.  While I won't spend =too= much time reminiscing or even bemoaning that, I do want to express my gratitude to the service as a whole for cultivating relationships in a way that sadly I don't think I will ever experience again.

But before I delve into that, let me just point out that the official reasoning for "Why is AIM shutting down?", as given by this FAQ, is:

We know there are so many loyal fans who have used AIM for decades; and we loved working and building the first chat app of its kind since 1997. Our focus will always be on providing the kind of innovative experiences consumers want. We’re more excited than ever to focus on building the next generation of iconic brands and life-changing products.
...which, of course, basically says nothing.  I think "lol" is truly a proper response here.

To me the passing of AIM marks more than just the death of the service itself, but a sad reminder that this old form of communicating and establishing relationships through online chatting seems to be virtually nonexistent anymore.  It didn't matter whether it was AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo Messenger, or whether you were one of the cool kids like me using a multi-protocol client -- online interaction was =different= back then.  And dare I was better.

Of course, AIM itself is not really such a big deal -- everyone and their parents (sometimes quite literally) have moved onto the new kids on the block, which include facebook messenger, google hangouts, skype, and phone-based messaging, whether it be SMS, Line, WhatsApp, or anything else.  Though I will say that it annoys me how everyone jumped ship from AIM despite it being a perfectly fine service that we had used extensively for years.  In my mind it was due to two reasons, neither of which I like at all...the first reason being that everyone was using gmail (in their browsers, of course), and gchat at the time was a hand-in-hand deal with that.  So everybody always had their browser window open to gmail all the time.  Do people still do this???  I have always used a separate mail client, and a separate IM client...I never saw a reason to conflate these things, and especially not into my web browser of all things.  The second reason was, of course, that it was just not "the cool thing" to do anymore.  So the herd moved on, and left AIM behind, just as it had left Xanga and Livejournal behind, and just as it had left Myspace behind as well.  And I shake my head in dismay as I stick to my ways and probably seem like a dogmatic old fart, what with my 5:4 aspect ratio monitors and pixel art.  (Speaking of which, we got an SNES classic today, hyyyppeeeee!!!)

But no, the death of the service itself isn't so sad.  What is really depressing is that online chat relationships just...aren't what they used to be.  Yes, of course, I still keep at it -- I always try, and I'm not saying that there aren't still great conversations being had and everything.  But no, I mean, back then, in the 2000-2010 era, things were =different=.  There were people for whom I =waited= to come online, people whom I messaged almost daily.  It didn't matter what we talked about -- probably silly stuff like Starcraft or crushes or how stupid the homework assignments were or fangirling over pretty hair or =whatever=.  But I talked with these people...I talked with them so often.  It was something real, something special.  I had so many chats with my best friend in high school (whom I also talked with on the phone!!!).  Even at my first internship, I had late night chats with a co-worker there that became a really good friend -- I'll never forget how nice that was.  All these relationships, built after school, after work, all on the back of these IMs.  The last time I felt really invested in online IMs was a few years ago, and that was part of a long-distance relationship.

But perhaps it's not that the times are a-changing -- perhaps it's not that at all, but rather that my age group has all moved on and left these things behind.  Maybe all the kids now are doing the same things that I did, just without all of the colloquialisms like custom formatting and screen names.  Maybe they are texting each other every day after school (I guess even during school?), forming bonds, and making relationships.  Sure, an old fogey like me would complain and say "gosh darned kids; in my day we used a computer and we actually focused on our conversations...", but honestly...if the kids nowadays are going crazy with their texting or whatever, then you know what, that is great.

But what, then, of my age group?  Is online messaging just not the "cool" thing to do anymore?  Has it just taken other forms like twitch chat and slack channels? (which, remember, are really just the cool hip version of IRC)  Are we just too distracted by our hipster silicon valley workaholic lives to pay attention to an online conversation?  Are we too focused on getting married and having kids to care about making new friends and just talking about random things over IM?  Or are we too jaded by the social relationships we've had and no longer feeling the excitement of conversations?

I don't like growing up.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I am sorry for all the times that I did not put in the proper effort to carry through with our conversations.  For turning my back on life, and humanity in general, too.  I'll try to remind myself that the opportunity to smile is always there, I just have to choose to take it.