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The Armchair Empire Sidebars

 

Sony's EyeToy

 

 

Sony’s Eye Toy is little more than a standard, low-quality web cam that connects to the PS2 and allows players to put a poorly focused version of themselves into a series of shallow mini-games that are only a few steps up in game-play from a Tiger Electronics handheld.  There is absolutely no reason why this product should be entertaining, much less insanely addictive—but, goodness is it ever.  Since the package containing it arrived on my doorstep until the time I write this review ninety-six hours have moved into the past.  For nearly thirty of those hours, the Eye Toy has been in constant use.  The games and the technology behind them are as simple as can be, but the entire package together is a stunning bit of fun.

 

The Eye Toy is a small, USB web cam that looks like a miniature PS2.  I was surprised when I got it out of the box because I was expecting something more festive looking.  Hooking up the device is as easy as plugging in a controller (which you won’t need in any way for the included games, by the way).  Once the Play disk is loaded up, players have the option to record visual profiles that contain snapshots of themselves looking happy, sad, and goofy.  These photos are used during the games to reflect how the player is doing.  Additionally, when players achieve high scores, the device records a snapshot to accompany the score.   It is a neat feature, but each profile uses a good deal of space on a memory card.  The quality of the digitized image varies according to the amount of lighting in the room, but it never rises above the level of slightly blurry.  It is, however, always possible to tell who is playing the game and what kind of expression they are making.  If you have any experience with VGA quality web cameras, then you know what to expect. 

 

The Eye Toy comes with a disc of twelve mini-games called Play.  Graphically, things are colorful and sharply drawn.  All of the games’ graphics are 2D and drawn in an anime style that reminds me a little of the Jet Grind Radio games.  Overall, the games are very attractive. The games are familiar bits of digital candy.  Games on Play include a football (soccer) game, a couple of Bemani-inspired rhythm games, a few of variants on whack-a-mole, a simplistic boxing game, a couple of variations on plate-spinning games, a ghost catching game, and a fireworks game.  None of the games are particularly deep, but none are real duds either.  Even better, a couple of the games are real standouts.  Though the technology of the gadget isn’t that impressive, the collision detection and accuracy of the game engines is awesome.  In good lighting, a player can count on the game knowing where his or her body parts are at all times.  Poor lighting can really affect the tracking of movement however. 

 

A breakdown of the twelve games follows:

 

Beat Freak:  This is a rhythm game that requires the player to hit one of four speakers in rhythm to a musical track.  This is accomplished by timing the hitting of the speakers to coincide with the passing of little CDs that emerge from the center of the screen and cross over the speakers. 

 

Kung Foo:  One of my favorites, this game is basically Whack-a-Mole on acid (though come to think of Whack-a-Mole is already pretty weird).  Players attempt to hit little ninjas and other villains as they appear on the edges of the screen and attempt to reach the player.  Three hits from the ninjas end the game.

 

Wishi Washi:  One of the weirdest games of the bunch, Wishi Washi has players cleaning soap bubbles off the television screen.  It isn’t a lot of fun, but it sure is neat looking.  Players compete to clean as many windows as they can in two minutes.

 

Soccer Craze: This is another one I really enjoyed.  Players use their heads, elbows and knees to keep a soccer ball afloat for as long as possible.  Arkanoid like power-ups, in the form of spectators, give the game lots of variety.

 

Boxing Chump:  This is simple boxing game which basically boils down to hitting the boxing robot either high or low, whichever it is not protecting at the time.  Not good game, but a pretty good workout.

 

UFO Juggler:  One of two variations on plate-spinning themes.  In this one players try to spin UFOs into orbit.

 

Slap Stream:  This is another Whack-a-mole variation.  This time players must hit the ratmen that pop up from four clouds in the sky but must avoid hitting the cute chicks in bunny costumes that also pop up. 

 

Plate Spinner:  Players must keep the plates spinning, but I bet you already knew that. 

 

Disco Stars:  Another rhythm game, but this one is mixed with the old Simon electronic game.  A dancer goes through a series of moves then the player must mimic those moves in an identical time frame.  This is actually quite fun—kind of a DDR for the hands.

 

Ghost Eliminator:  Players find ethereal ghost on the screen and then wave their hands in front of them until they explode.  Really.

 

Mirror Time:  Mirror Time is one of the most frustrating game experiences I’ve had in a while.  Luckily, this is on purpose.  In the game, players must touch the corners of the screen that light up green while avoiding the corners that light up red.  The catch is that the image continually inverts and reverses, so it is difficult to tell what is up, down, left, or right from your current perspective.  Very difficult and addictive.

 

Rocket Rumble:  The best is saved for last.  Rocket Rumble is kind of Fantavision-lite.  Players try to link similarly colored fireworks together and then detonate them, or, better yet, players try to link multi-color chains of fireworks using white fireworks between each set of color.  I’ve played this one over and over since I received the Eye Toy in an attempt to get higher and higher scores.  It is highly addictive.

 

On top of the games, the Eye Toy also features a video message option which will save a short video clip to a memory card that you can then give to another PS2 owner with an Eye Toy to watch. 

 

For my money, the Eye Toy is one of the best videogame accessories ever designed.  It really seems like a bargain considering it costs exactly as much as other new PS2 game that don’t come with a neat gadget.

 


 

GameBoy Player (for GameCube)

 

 

At first glance I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to buy the GameBoy Advance Player. The Player plugs easily into the button of your GameCube (adding about an 1" of height) and allows you to play GameBoy games on your TV. To get it working you insert the Player disc in the GameCube, then install a GameBoy cartridge and away you go.

 

Setup is a snap, but getting the cartridge removed is difficult at best. Nintendo should have designed some kind button to pop out the cartridge (like they had with the SNES).

The graphics are bigger and match what we’ve always seen in the magazines and on websites. I tried the Player on many different GBA titles and besides being bigger, they look better (particularly if you’ve only ever played with the regular GBA, and not the SP). I’m not talking GameCube good but you can see more of the small details.

 

I’ve got a five-speaker setup at home and for whatever reason I was under the delusion that I’d be hearing surround sound. No. No. No. Make no mistake, there’s no surround or even stereo for that matter. But the sound reproduction is still good.

 

The inevitable question is, why would you want to play GBA games on your TV? I gave this quite a bit of thought. Number one would be to help people with vision impairments play GBA games that formerly were restricted to squinting at a relatively tiny screen. At $50US, it’s quite a bit cheaper than a GBA SP so it's a good option for anyone that has trouble seeing the GBA’s small screen. The other reason that comes to mind is that you have a couple of kids who want to play GBA games, but can’t because you take your GBA to work.

 

Is it an indispensable peripheral for the GameCube? Depends on how much of a GameBoy fan you are.

 


 

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture (June 2003)

 

 

Most of us have heard the stories or, more accurately, the rumors and myths of how id Software came into being and how they produced some of the most influential games ever. Possibly this is why David Kushner’s Masters of Doom proves to be such a fascinating read but more likely because he takes a thorough look at the Two Johns: John Carmack and John Romero. I read through Masters of Doom in almost one sitting thanks to Kushner’s style and the tale he weaves, rendered all the more compelling as it’s true and exposes secrets I never thought I’d find answers for such as why Romero’s head’s on a spike in Doom 2 and what goes on behind closed doors at id.

After putting the book down I couldn’t escape the idea that Carmack is a borderline psychopath with a high IQ – a real-life foil for Batman or James Bond – or some kind of advanced robot (powered by pizza and diet Coke) sent from the future to alter the past. Up until reading the book, I figured he was just a misunderstood artist/hacker, lacking social graces, that worked in programming languages instead of oils or clay.

At times in Kushner’s book, Carmack takes on the dimensions of a paranoid Joseph Stalin, but suffers bouts of being a crybaby. On more than one occasion, Carmack threatened to walk – and take his latest graphics engine with him. Since he was the brains behind the coding, id could have quite easily sunk. Carmack’s passion is coding – making graphics move faster, look smoother and be more real-to-life. So much so, you get the impression he could easily crack the Matrix. The scary part is that I get the feeling he’s only scratched the surface of his abilities – just as long as he stays in gaming and doesn’t turn his attention to world domination.

At first glance, Romero is completely the opposite. He comes off as a nice guy and knowing more about games than anyone else. Romero is almost too nice for his own good, unable to fire all but the biggest cretins (which is in part why Ion Storm collapsed, something else Kushner explores but only in broad details) . One of the biggest surprises is that Romero is a pack-rat, keeping anything and everything in his travels, which is in part why Kushner’s book is so complete. (Kushner also spent a lot of time interviewing Carmack, Romero and many other people connected to id.)

The scope of the book is broad enough to include issues that have surrounded gaming for the longest time: violence stemming from videogames, supposed delinquency of minors caused by videogames (ironic considering Carmack spent time in juvenile hall for stealing computers in his youth), and how games (in general) are created, from coding to making publishing deals.

Kushner takes us to places we’ve never been, like id’s early meeting with Sierra Online’s Ken Williams, before Castle Wolfenstein hit gaming. He also paints a pretty picture of what happened at a Microsoft press event as Bill Gates attempted to promote Windows95 as a gaming platform. In his taped address he sported a black trench coat and shotgun, which he used at one point to blow away an imp. Needless to say, Microsoft’s PR handlers scooped the tape (and probably buried it).

The most striking revelation comes early in the book. Although a culminating event can never be traced back to one particular origin – cause and effect is never that simple – one can’t help but come away with the idea that Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake would not have come about without the world’s most famous plumber. In the earlier days of PC gaming, consoles were more advanced than PCs and it was the Super Mario games on the Nintendo Entertainment System that Carmack used as inspiration to create scrolling technology for the PC. Without that step, there would have been no Commander Keen, no Wolfenstein, no Doom, no Quake – quite possibly without Mario, Carmack may have turned his attention to global domination. (And the mainstream media is always making out videogames to be a bad thing!)

Without a doubt, anyone even with a passing interest in gaming – PC gaming in particular – should read this book because it’s not just about two guy named John and their relationship, it’s about how games are made and presents the idea that every company and game out there has a history.

On the whole, Masters of Doom is an invaluable resource and a good read. Definitely recommended.

- Omni

 


 

 

Altec Lansing XA3051 (April 2003)

 

 

Let’s get to the specs out of the way first so we know what we’re dealing with.

 

- 56 Watts Total Continuous Power RMS (4x5 W/Satellites; 17.5 W/Center; 18.25 W/Sub)

- 100 Watts Total Peak Power

- 6-Speaker Dolby Surround Pro Logic

- Deep Bass, Ported Subwoofer

- Performance Speakers

- Dual Mode Selector

- Full-Function Wired Digital Controller

- Total Connectivity

- Dual Headphone Jacks

- Auxiliary Input Jack

- Color-Coded Cables

- Wall Brackets

- Shielded Satellites

 

My adulation of the XA3021 (see review below) is somewhat tempered by what it’s big brother, the XA3051, can do. Instead of a mere two speakers (plus subwoofer), the XA3051 sports true 5.1 surround sound with a 100W subwoofer, which helps to crank the immersion factor up a notch for any game or movie. For sports games this means it truly does sound like you are there.

 

But before the praise continues there are some downsides to the XA3051.

 

All the satellite speakers are wired through the subwoofer, which is fine but the rear speakers should have been made wireless. Their size and extra-long wires allows them to be tucked out of the way but the wires can become an unsightly mess and dangerous if you have small gamers (i.e. kids) in the house. Even with the length of the cables your placement options become limited – but I suppose that will depend on how your games room is set up.

 

And speaking of set-up, the XA3051 is a snap to plug together and arrange. Be warned, the subwoofer, like its smaller brother, is not shielded so you have to consider location. Another problem is with the wired control. I like the fact it’s wired to the subwoofer – I can always find it – but the problem comes with balancing the sound. So much is packed into the control that I couldn’t help but wonder if control knobs on the subwoofer would have been a better option. Almost all the buttons have dual purposes and it takes some time to get the levels just right. The good thing is that the XA3051 remembers the settings even after it’s unplugged. Even with all that, you’ll still find yourself tweaking the settings depending on the game or movie you’re watching. For quick adjustments, switching from Surround to Stereo is a good bet, but Altec Lansing could have gone one up. The XA3021 has three preset bass level buttons, but there are no preset buttons on the XA3051. Even two presets would have eliminated some of the necessary adjustments.

 

What a sound system is judged on is the sound it can produce. If you’re after clear and loud, the XA3051 has you covered. If you’re after subtlety, it has you covered too. I put the XA3051 through a battery of games and movies to test both aspects:

 

Medal of Honor: Frontline (XB, GC)

Super Mario Sunshine (GC)

Metroid Primes (GC)

GTO Volume 4 (DVD)

All-Star Baseball 2004 (GC)

State of Emergency (XB)

Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee (GC)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (DVD)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (XB)

Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader (GC)

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (GC)

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (DVD)

Bridge on the River Kwai (DVD)

Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones (Okay, just the last ½ hour)

Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus (XB)

Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb (XB)

Conker’s Bad Fur Day (N64)

Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc (XB)

 

Playing games like Eternal Darkness with surround is a great way to make a brown pair of pants and even deeper shade of brown. The XA3051 let’s you finally appreciate the subtle (and not so subtle) audio cues the game developers work so hard to get right.

 

At a suggested retail price of $200US, you can’t go wrong if you demand bang for your buck. If loud stereo sound and headphone jacks are more your speed (or space is a factor) the XA3021, comes recommended over the XA3051. However, if you want to really experience the sound – get right in the middle of it – the XA3051 is the way to go. It’s not the easiest unit to configure and there are lots of wires to deal with but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper that a "real" sound system and you finally get to hear the games (and movies) the way the designers envisioned. (This is all based on the premise that you don’t have a stereo setup now.)

 

- Omni

 


 

 

Altec Lansing XA3021 (February 2003)

 

 

I’ll admit that I didn’t expect much from the XA3021.  I associate big sound with big speakers and the XA3021 sports satellite speakers that are cute as a button and small.  The subwoofer, with its mini-R2D2 sensibility, didn’t seem all that impressive either.  Possibly this is why the XA3021 impressed me so much, but more probable is that it’s a very good setup, especially for gamers on a budget.

 

I could bore you with technical details like its overall power of 40 Watts, 5.25” long-throw subwoofer, or a signal to noise ratio at 1kHz input at >76dB but I’d rather talk about setup.

 

Out of the box, it takes about ten minutes to hook-up to your console.  Then another ten minutes to rearrange the unit when you read the manual and discover the subwoofer is not magnetically shielded.  Fortunately the included wires are pretty long so finding a suitable place to keep the subwoofer is not a problem.

 

One problem you will encounter if you own more than one console, is the constant switching of audio cables to the sub’s inputs.  (Heading over to the local electronics store for a switch is the best way to solve the problem.)

 

The XA3021’s biggest and best feature are the two headphone jacks at the end of the wired volume controller.  This comes in extremely handy for late night gaming sessions if you don’t want to wake up your neighbor’s or your family.  The fact that the volume control is wired to the subwoofer is also a great feature.  If you’ve ever spent time looking for your TV remote you’ll really appreciate always being able to find XA3021’s volume control.

 

And speaking of volume, your ears will give out before the XA3021 does.  I tried playing audio chicken with the XA3021 and I always had to turn it down before hitting the max levels.  This was especially true at the highest bass levels.  There is a bass control knob on the subwoofer and three preset bass buttons on the wire controller (that are affected by the bass knob).  It can take a bit of experimentation to get the levels just right for your ears, but when it’s maxed out, your bones will start to feel funny.

 

I tested the XA3021 with the following games and DVDs:

 

Spider-Man (the movie and game)

The Back to the Future Trilogy

Top Gun

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

DOA Xtreme Beach Volleyball (XB)

Metroid Prime (GC)

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (XB)

Zapper (GC, PS2)

Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee (GC)

Splinter Cell (XB)

Medal of Honor: Frontline (GC, PS2, XB)

Bounty Hunter (GC)

SSX Tricky (XB)

BloodRayne (XB)

Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance (GC)

 

For some titles the XA3021 dramatically changed the gaming/viewing experience.  I was blown away by the thunder that Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee produced – so much so that I wanted to revisit my review and up the score.  Then there are scenes like Back to the Future’s amplifier scene (in Part 1) and Balin’s Tomb fight scene from Lord of the Rings that are, I realize now, only half-experienced without the audio to back up the visuals.  Even with the volume pumped, the sound was clear and didn’t suffer any “pops”.

 

With a price of $100US, the XA3021 is an affordable addition to your console gear.  It may not be surround sound and it does have a couple of drawbacks but it’s a worthy accessory to your console of choice (if you don’t already have it wired to a stereo).  It’s easy to hook-up, is fairly unobtrusive, and produces good solid sound.  All this and headphone jacks too!

 

- Omni

 


 

Controller S for Microsoft’s Xbox (July 2002)

After having the Controller S plunk down on my desk, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Obviously, someone at the big M was listening to complaints surrounding the monolith proportions of the original Xbox controller. (At least in North America – Japan had this general design from the get-go.) The three biggest improvements of the Controller S over the Regular is the repositioning of the black and white buttons, the better definition of the directional pad, and the reduced size. It fits comfortably in your hands – unlike the Regular control that felt like you were holding two cucumbers. The buttons are bigger as well and the "start" and "resume" buttons have been moved to the left where they sit just under the analog stick. Admittedly, it took me a little while to "unlearn" the hulking feel of the Regular control and get used to the new button layout playing some games, but after that there was no looking back. Now during multiplayer games there are arguments over who gets the "S". If you’re looking to get another controller for your Xbox, get an "S".

 

- Omni

 


 

 

Xbox DVD Playback Kit (June 2002)
Face it, you weren’t really worrying first and foremost about the DVD playback capabilities for either the PS2 or Xbox when you plunked down your $200-300 bucks (depending when you bought it) to purchase one. But every owner of both systems had that same thought in their head after bringing their console of choice home: “Hey, for the amount of money I just spent I better be able to play my damn DVDs on this thing too!” The answer of course is that, yes, you can. To access the Xbox’s DVD functionality, you need to obtain the first-party Microsoft Xbox DVD Playback Kit, the singular method allowing you to open up the DVD features of your Xbox. But is it worth the 30 additional dollars you have to spend to buy it?

The kit comes with a DVD remote control plus the small infrared playback attachment that you plug into any one of the Xbox's four controller ports. The standard RCA-style remote control itself is basic to the core, a little sparse in the amount of selection buttons compared to the available PS2 DVD remote controls on the market. It's missing even a simple power "ON" button. But all you have to know is that the DVD playback of the Xbox is much better than the PS2, providing a crisper picture and smoother viewing experience. To test out the playback kit, I used The Simpsons: The Complete First Season DVDs, which introduced us to television’s most dysfunctional family ever, the Simpsons’ clan of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. In the words of the Simpson’s next-door neighbor, Springfield’s resident holy roller Ned Flanders, the Xbox DVD operated t-didilly-errific, performing at least as well as the moderately priced Zenith DVD player that I already owned.

At $30 dollars, the kit is higher than its PS2 counterparts. Third-party PS2 versions can be had for as low as $10 dollars. But the Xbox tradeoff is a much better performance as a DVD player. The way I see it, you bought your Xbox for the gaming experience, so paying just a little bit more to get a good DVD player out of your purchase makes the Xbox DVD Playback Kit worth the moolah you will shell out for it.

 - Lee Cieniawa

 


 

 

HyperSnap 4.0 by HyperIonics (February 2002)

HyperSnap 4.0 is a full-featured screen capture program of the highest order, while still remaining fairly easy to learn and use.  Not only does it allow you to capture screens from your favorite PC games, it also does a decent job of snagging frames from your favorite DVDs.  Images are easily altered to suite your needs.  Screenshot look a little dark?  Boost the gamma.  Want it smaller?  Simply alter the pixel width.  The name of the game is ease of use and used in conjunction with drawing programs you can really let your imagination go nuts.  There are options for advanced users and newcomers – managing to walk the middle ground while still leaving advanced users the option to really explore the options.  (For a full list of features go here.)  HyperIonics also has a demo version for download.  The highest praise that can be heaped on HyperSnap 4.0 is that we use it around the Armchair Empire for virtually all our screenshot needs.

 

- Omni

 

 

 

 

 

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