Retro day

When game nerds take a day off from work, they play games. (Well, and they play their Taylor, which I cannot keep my hands offa.) Two oldies caught my attention today:

1) Doom, freshly released for Xbox Live Arcade. With no maps designed for deathmatch,it’s really only fun as a co-op or single-player experience, so I started single-player and…man, I remember where some of the stuff is, but not all. What I’m surprised at is how much fun I’m having. I thought it would be like Scramble, where I tried it and went “Yeah, that’s old and busted.” But Doom somehow seems a bit futureproof. Killing imps is still fun. Even if, um, I do have it already as a bonus game on Doom 3.

2) BloodStorm. I have had a strange fascination with this one for a while but I haven’t played it much. It’s not quite the sequel to Time Killers, but it’s from the same company mining the same gory territory. Fighters each have a gauntlet on their arm which does special stuff like stab you in the face or stab you in the neck. It’s a bad, unbalanced fighting game with cheesy AI–but even without a move list or knowing all the secret stuff that’s hidden in there, I really enjoyed banging away at it and reveling in the cheese. Somewhere in my junk I have a little official booklet with all the rare game info in it that Strata sent out to the press. I’ve also, for some reason, found the marquees for both BloodStorm and its alternate, friendlier name The Storm. Kat is of course very proud to be co-owner of said artifacts.

Joining OXM

As of Monday I’m full-time on OXM. This is a move that I’ve dreamed of for a long time. I’ve always liked the mag and I’ve liked it more since I’ve been under Future’s roof. GamesRadar is already the #3 site behind IGN and GameSpot (yes, the traffic’s like twice that of 1up – and Radar’s only been around for 7 or 8 months) and if I wanted to work in online, that’d be the young, hungry site to work on. But my heart is in magazines and I feel like a point guard who’s been asked to play power forward. Print is still where I’m at and it’s where I’m most creative.

Better still, I’m coming out of my two-year funk at last. I’m taking this as a chance to get back on track and make some other positive change while I’m at it–work on some personal projects, get some music stuff done, explore a few new creative outlets. And I’m noticing the new wave of energy in funny little ways. Like everybody else I get a lot of inspiration and comfort from music. I always work better when I have something familiar in the background so I tend to abuse the same few albums and artists when I need to concentrate and get stuff done. But all of a sudden, the songs I’ve been relying on just to keep my sanity are becoming emotionally stirring again; it’s like I just had a new set of ears installed, and everything I hear sounds so much more vibrant and inspirational. A very tiny switch has tripped in my head and I’m just starting to perceive life differently, more positively – kind of like I used to, but with a fresh spin. All the old power supplies are getting plugged in again. It feels great.

The Ballad of Davi and Moe

I joined a good 80s cover band with a talented punk drummer and a rhythm guitarist who didn’t know when not to play for the good of the song. Punk drummer plays too fast, doesn’t practice, drinks hard at every show and basically isn’t ready when the band says “Wow, let’s clean up our act and make some money having fun like this.” Drummer has the talent but no discipline and no desire to improve. Guitarist has poor tone, poor stage presence, and poor judgement. Intervention with drummer is attempted; instead of kicking problem member out, we tried to come up with an improvement plan. Plan rejected, then drummer quits when pressed for an alternate plan. Rhythm guitarist leaves out of solidarity. Drummer instantly replaced. I take over rhythm guitar duties, but the number of songs I actually need to play on can be counted on one hand. Songs sound better with non-punk drummer and no second guitarist cluttering the mix. We never even had to cancel a gig in the wake of their departure–instead, we started to see the hard work finally pay off. Private gigs start paying off handsomely, because we now operate professionally.

Drummer goes into the back-end of our websites and accounts and changes our passwords like a spiteful little troll. Drummer then starts new band that sounds quite good. Guitarist does nothing, apparently, but stews in own juices and yearns for the old days when he was a real live performer. Both hate hate hate hate hate the band that they chose to leave. Clearly, we’re to blame for their walkout.

The stunning part is that we did the math and it’s been three years since the split. They left in 2003. We’ve gone through several other drummers due to health issues, other commitments, you name it; our current guy is a total pro with dozens of years and high-profile gigs to his name. But these two knuckleheads are still pissed, as evidenced by their MySpace pages and crude Photochoppery of stage photos where they remove any evidence of their affiliation with the band. Friendships with other band members that span 15 years are shattered and attempts to repair are rebuffed.

Ask anybody who saw the band then who has also seen it since: Them leaving and success arriving is not a coincidence. What hurts them is they know it, but they don’t want to deal with it. They were holding the band back, and in their petty way, they’re still trying. It’s easier to hate us than to admit they failed.

So, I’m breaking the silence just this once, out of sheer incredulity, to speak my mind. And what I want to say is this.

Grow up, bitches.

OXM podcast

One of the high points of my week is co-hosting the OXM Podcast. We record the shows Wednesdays and they get posted Fridays, so this is fresh in my mind at the moment. I’ve been on the show since episode 9 or 10, but our numbers have gone up significantly lately – like, up by several thousand. Those of you who know me from college will appreciate how much I like being back behind a microphone.

So, go listen. Fire up the ol’ iTunes and subscribe, won’t you?

Dan Amrich, card-carrying geek

We can agree that nobody “gets” community the way that Microsoft gets it, right? PS2’s online venture was a failure and Nintendo didn’t even try. Microsoft had a good idea for its online gaming network, ran with it, made it significantly better for 360, and now Xbox Live membership is automatic if you’re an Xbox gamer; you get it just by plugging your console into an Internet connection. “What’s your Gamertag?” is a common question to new people I meet. So allow me to squeal with girlish glee at the fact that my Gamertag is on a physical membership card.

Microsoft quietly launched the Xbox Live Diamond card this past year as a weird but logical extension of that concept of community. Sign up for free and, as a card-carrying member of Xbox Live, get discounts at places both obvious ($10 off a $75 order at; $10 arcade credit at Dave & Busters; buy-a-dozen-get-a-dozen-free at Krispy Kreme) and head-scratching (free wine glasses with the purchase of a wine subscription at Cellars; 50% off your Golden Gate Yacht Club membership). And I’m shameless, I’ll use the card and get bargains. But really, I am unabashedly, stupidly happy that my virtual life now comes with physical evidence. There’s something about seeing my Gamertag embossed in a plastic card that I find…thrilling.

Look, they’ve already got all my demographic information and they are going to sell it to the highest bidder; why not get something back?

The only thing about Wii that doesn’t matter

I am looking forward to Wii, Nintendo’s next game system, just like everybody else. I thought the DS was gimmicky but I still bought it as soon as I could find it, and now that there’s software to support the system, I feel kind of ashamed that I wrote it off as a gimmick when I first saw it. There are some wonderful games and I’m glad to say I was wrong, glad to see the system deliver something truly new and fun.

But this week, with the whole Wii pricing announcements and everything, someone else in the biz mentioned that they had finally “gotten over” the name of the Wii. I still don’t see what there is to “get over.” Nintendo picking a unique, copyrightable name has so little to do with my enjoyment of the games, it doesn’t even chart. It’s literally not for me to judge. I guess other people feel that a name can’t exist unless they deem it worthy. Me, I try not to be that arrogant.

Did you have to “get over” the Dreamcast, the PlayStation, the Xbox, or any other made-up, we-own-it, search-Google-and-all-you’ll-find-is-us name? I really didn’t see what the big deal was when they announced the Wii name (in fact, to me, it made overwhelming sense on multiple levels), and I certainly don’t see why anybody would still have a problem with it now. To still be holding this grudge is not only childish, but also completely irrelevant.

I am also very happy to hear that Nintendo says there won’t be any shortages, that they’re ready to dump 4 million into retail (which, probably not coincidentally, is literally ten times the number of PS3s we’re expecting to see in stores at the same time). I want to believe it, and I am actually going to be a hopeful consumer and preorder, but not line up. I think, after the 360 debacle, I’m kind of done with the all-night camp-out thing.

iPod games

New iTunes 7.0 came out today. Love the new integration of the iPod updater with iTunes; it makes a lot of sense. But when I heard they had honest-to-goodness iPod games available, well, hey. I bought Texas Hold ‘Em immediately.

It’s like any other game system–use the controls available to you wisely and it will be a fun experience. Katamari Damacy gets it. Brain Age gets it. And after playing tons of crappy portable poker games, I’m pleasantly surprised to report that Texas Hold ‘Em gets it. Use the clickwheel to choose whether you want to raise, check, or fold. Simple, clean and minimal animations don’t get in the way of the game–and they’re skippable. Increase your bet but scrolling. The thing’s so damned intuitive. Five bucks well spent.

We’ll see how the AI holds up in the long term, but so far, so good.

OXM: My angel investor

By the way, if anybody’s wondering “Since when do you have the scrilla to shop for a $2K acoustic,” here’s the answer:

Not only was I ready to upgrade from the starterish acoustic I’ve had for 15 years, but I had the good fortune to do something I’ve never done as a freelancer: back-to-back cover stories for Official Xbox Magazine. I jumped on a last-minute flight to Chicago for the Mortal Kombat Armageddon feature for the September issue and then got the chance to swing down to SoCal and talk to the Tony Hawk’s Project 8 team for the October issue. The one-two setup struck me when I found the issues side-by-side in Target and I was suddenly very proud. I couldn’t resist snapping a pic.

It was a pretty intense one-two punch that took up a lot of weekend time, so Kat said “When that check comes in, you deserve something special–what about the acoustic?” So we earmarked a chunk of the check. The rest goes to bills.

I am reminded frequently that this splurge is a splurge to last a lifetime, and this will not be standard operating procedure…

The Acoustic Chronicles: A sudden, happy ending

The search is over. I fell in love. On my anniversary, no less.

We stopped at Gryphon on the way back from the ren faire yesterday. A friend at work recommended the store so I checked out the website and found a) they were acoustic experts, so they could answer my simple questions and b) they had stuff in stock that I should not be allowed to touch or stare directly at, let alone buy. Even much of their new stock was so exotic it was instantly out of my price range. But like ordering a hamburger in a steakhouse, I figured their “low-end” guitars were still better than I was likely to find anywhere else.

In poking around the website I spotted a used 2003 Taylor 410CE Limited Edition ES. After some research, I found that 2003’s limiteds were among the first Taylors to use the Expression System for on-board electronics, plus this particular guitar’s back and sides are a not the model’s standard ovangkol but imbuia, neither of which I knew anything about. It was also a dreaded dreadnought but I figured, hey, since it’s used, it’s actually well within my price range, and it would be worth playing if it were still there when I made it to the store. It was, so I tried it first.

I played it and Kat cried.

No, not because I suck.

I tried several other new models including OM Martins, two cedar-topped Taylor GS models (while very pretty with a great tone, it was biggish and simply wasn’t “mine”) and the Taylor 414ce and the (out of my budget) 514ce, which both felt comfortable but didn’t have that intangible, I-can’t-put-this-thing-down factor. I kept going back to that used one and it always sounded better than whatever I’d just played. I did not expect to buy today but I was ready to buy if I found The One. For me, this is unquestionably The One.

(Yes, that’s my actual guitar, as photographed by Gryphon.)

Other people online have described this guitar as particularly “balanced” in tone and I gotta join the chorus. It has the all-important balance that I could not find on other guitars, which seemed either best suited for fingerpicking or strumming, but never both. This responded perfectly to whatever I played, with none of the traditional dreadnought boom yet plenty of warm volume when strummed and sweet articulation when fingerpicked. The neck is a very managable C-shape and while my tiny hands know they’re holding wood, it’s not uncomfortable. The spruce top is slightly figured, as opposed to the plain, boring spruce I’ve seen on a lot of other instruments. And the Expression System is so subtle it practically hides–three little knobs on the shoulder for the electric bits with an endpin jack. It’s still an acoustic, just with a secret superpower.

What’s more, “used” apparently means “the previous owner played it maybe three times.” I could see some minor scuff marks on the pickguard, but only when i tilted it toward the light, and I might have put them there in the store for all I know. It came with a hardshell case, an extra set of strings, and they threw in a cool t-shirt, all for far less than I had expected to pay and with more of my optional features (the “ce” means “cutaway” and “electric”) than I expected to get. Originally I think it listed for about $2300 and retailed for $1800ish. So, good deal no matter how you slice it.

And now I’m part of an exclusive club of Taylor owners, along with my new close friends Suzanne Vega, Sammy Hagar, Micky Dolenz, Ricky Fataar (He’s a Rutle, baby!), Jack Black, and the only man cooler than Jack Black: Rick Fucking Springfield.

I dreamt about it last night.