Sunday, August 26, 2012

We chose to go the Moon...

Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is an indie  PC/MAC space sim that is part lego, part science project, and part physics class. There’s a free demo out.  The game isn’t complete yet, and is in heavy development but the team is already accepting $18 donations for a chance at getting future updates (demo versions stay at v0.13 with the current build at 0.16)

The premise is simple.  Build a rocket ship.  The Alpha release comes with liquid and solid fuel stages, a command module, a stock parachute and de-couplers for those awesome views of rockets jettisoning unused parts.

Players can build rockets of any configuration, but basic laws of physics must be obeyed.  Unstable rockets will fall apart or spin out of control and explode.  Admittedly, killing the Rabbids look-alikes is part of the fun, but this ‘game’ has a serious side.  Watching rockets soar gracefully into the sky aside, it is also great lesson on basic principles of Newtonian physics.

 Orbiting a spacecraft is a small exercise in basic orbital mechanics. Who would have thought there was so much involved in something most people assume would be easy.  I mean it always looked so easy in the movies!  In actuality, putting a spacecraft  into orbit is a tad bit more complicated than stringing a bunch of rockets together and letting it rip.  Too much thrust and chances are your spacecraft will fly into space and never  return, too little thrust and the rocket flies up through the atmosphere and back down in a giant parabolic U shape, not unlike what one might see from bottle rockets or  homemade rockets.  Orbiting requires reaching space with enough fuel left to level out the spacecraft, shutting off the engines and waiting for the craft to reach apogee before firing the rockets once more to turn the parabolic trajectory of a rocket into a circular orbit around the planet.

Advanced players have already landed on the Mun of Kerbal (the Moon, get it?) from using the stock parts provided in the (free) Alpha release, despite there being no lunar lander included.  I can only imagine what else might be instore from the full release.  A mission to Mars and the outer solar system?.   I need to play some more before deciding on spending the dollars to get the non-demo version.  Suffice to say that I am loving the demo so far.

While I sit at home with a sore ankle, I have decided to launch my own space program.  The goal is to reach the Mun (Moon).  The first step is to successfully orbit Kerbal several times.  I have already recorded one success so far, with my very own Tartarus II mk 3 rocket.

Next step is for a few more launches and successful orbits and to land safely back on Kerbal.  After that, I need to design a new rocket for the Mun.  The Tartarus III.

One small step for man, One giant leap for mankind.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

New Super Mario Brothers 2 + XL

After a comedy of errors in the morning, I finally walked out of my local Best Buy two hours later than I had hoped and arrived home with my Blue 3DS XL, with the my New Super Mario Bros. 2 title in tow. 
The XL is quite possibly the best handheld Nintendo had produced, outside of my beloved Game Boy Micro.   Though a common cynical complaint is that the XL failed to add anything new, notably lack of a 2nd analog or for the even more jaded in the crowd, lack of a higher resolution screen,  the increased screen real-estate makes a world of difference.   This isn’t immediately obvious playing a game like NSMB2 with its fairly tame 3D effect (although it does have a very neat effect tied to the slider- more on this later),  the 3D effect is more obvious in games that take advantage of 3D.  The larger screen real-estate has the effect of drawing your eye into the screen in a way OG 3DS could not. 

This improved effect is still obvious even when viewing still 3D photographs from the 3DS Photo Showcase.  Many of the AR photos look much better on the improved screen.  The ergonomics of the unit is also quite nice.  While I’ve gotten used to the square edges on the OG 3DS, the curved edges on the XL feels significantly more comfortable to hold over a long period of time.  Aesthetically, the blue 3DS XL looks a lot better than the promotional materials show.  The finish is metallic matte, which has the advantage of not being a fingerprint magnet but also having a reflective quality to it which makes it look metallic.

The XL will in my view become a required purchase for a lot of future titles.  I can only imagine what a 3DS Zelda, bet it cel-shaded, top-down, realistic or otherwise, might look on this thing.  I really can’t wait.

The only pain point with the XL is the transfer process and this mostly has to do with the transfer software and not the XL itself.  Having to double check youtube videos and aflowchart  to make sure I’m not incorrectly transferring my data was a little annoying.   Also it is not immediately obvious that the transfer process will ask for you to swap your SD card near the end of the process.  Thus, people who think too far ahead may swap out the SD card prematurely or be thrown off when the target (3DS XL) gives an error message about not being able to read anything from the 4GB card.  [Pro-tip:  The DSiWare titles in your OG 3DS would be first saved to the SD card in the host system (not the target 3DS XL system) and will then be rewritten onto the 3DS XL's internal memory AFTER you transfer the SD card from your original 3DS to the new XL machine]

On the subject of SD cards, the XL comes with a Lexar Class 4  4GB SDHC card, instead of the factory OEM Toshiba card found in the OG 3DS.

Another NSMB?

I’ve been fairly critical of Nintendo on the lack of freshness in their NEW Super Mario Bros. franchise, and many of my criticism remains.  I still don’t like the aesthetics, and the soundtrack is not the classic themes I’ve come to expect from a Mario soundtrack.  That said, playing NSMB2 on the XL, rather than passively looking at screengrabs has changed my mind.

The level designs are solid, the coin collecting is addictive and the SpotPass (global coins total) and streepass (coin rush) modes add a much needed social/communal dimension to a Mario game in a way the passive use of Streetpass in 3DLand can’t quite match.

The game also looks better in person.  Objects have a nice pop-up look to them, like a diorama, and the 3D slider is married masterfully to the background.  Setting the 3D slider to maximum not only adds 3D effect but sends the background into an out of focus depth-of-field effect.  Turning the slider off brings the background forward and into focus.    The effect is neat and very natural/analog, it’s  not an on/off effect, but fluidly shifts the background in and out of focus depending on your 3D Slider settings.

Though I had considered purchasing it on eshop purchase, I had opted to grab it at my local Best Buy for their RewardsZone points, and as it turns out, I got a free Toad statuette as well.  Not as neat as the Gamestop/EB Games bonus perhaps, but a nice bonus nonetheless.

So there you have it.  An expensive day, but well worth it!