Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Future Pinball

Now that I'm going to have a game room, I smartly subscribed to GameRoom magazine (great magazine so far). In the last couple issues, the were adamant about the coolness of a MAME-like pinball emulator project from Australia that's been around for a few years now called Future Pinball. At first, I was resistant. I have seen video pinball before and really just not liked it. If I'm going to play pinball, I said to myself, I want the physical aspects of the ball rolling around the table, and the clacking of actual flippers. Luckily, I caved and decided to check it out.

WOW. Future Pinball is just about as close to the real thing as a computer could get. It's light years ahead of anything I've seen before.

All you have to do is download and install the Future Pinball program, and then browse the collection of over 300 tables and download whatever you'd like into the tables folder within the Future Pinball directory. Then just launch the table, press "5" to add credits, and "1" to start. The shift keys work as the flippers, and enter launches the ball. There are many camera views to choose from, and you can either follow the ball's movement, or keep a static view of the whole table. I personally found that camera-scrolling with the ball was more exciting and gives you a nice view of the table details (F4 is my favorite view setting).

Many tables are recreations of actual classic pinball tables from manufacturers like Bally, Gottlieb, and Willams. The more complex tables like Addams Family and Medieval Madness don't seem to be there, but Pinbot, High Speed, and many others are faithfully recreated.

Some, however, are completely new creations. In my review of TILT, the pinball documentary, you may recall I said that George Gomez made me want to design pinball tables. Well, Future Pinball actually makes that possible to a pretty robust degree. Among the new tables I've enjoyed playing so far are War of the Worlds, Bubble Bobble, Halloween, The New Zealand Story, and Phantasm ("BOYYYYYYYY!..."). There's an Anarchy Online table, but surprisingly, no World of Warcraft-themed selection. Playing with your favorite theme will probably be one of the primary motivators for designing your own machine.

Future Pinball is one of those things that make you thankful for the intarwebz. Thanks, intarwebz! Now go check it out!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Top 10 Geekumentaries

In the last decade, making documentaries about the many niches of geek culture has become all the rage. This is due to the fact that geek culture itself is all the rage (or teh rage). The subject matter is varied and detailed, and its practitioners are generally quite passionate about their off-beat hobbies. Fruitful territory for documenting.

I'm not sure how it all went down, but one day somebody flipped over the rock where all the geeks and nerds were congregating (LAN party), and now we're all exposed, our pale flesh wriggling in the sunlight. It turned out we were actually kind of fascinating in a squirmy sort of way and... BAM! The geekumentary was born.

There are a multitude of geekumentaries out there you may or may not have heard of, so I whipped up my own Top 10 list (Top 10 lists are all teh rage).

10. Avatars Offline (2002)

This one came out quite some time ago and was all about people who meet online, and then in real life. It came out before World of Warcraft, however, so the online landscape was quite different from what it is now. That in itself makes Avatars Offline interesting to watch, though it is fairly difficult to find now. See it if you are interested in MMO history and online relationships, and can locate a copy.

The good news is, a new treatment of this subject matter is in the works in the form of Second Skin, due in theaters any day now, and DVD early 2009 (more info on that below).

9. Darkon (2006)

Darkon documents a group of weekend warriors in Maryland...literally, weekend warriors, as these guys are taking part in an honored geek tradition (oft considered geeky even among geeks), the LARP (Live-Action Roleplay).

The style of LARP featured in Darkon is very focused on land ownership and battles between kingdoms. It's more realistic than the style of LARP featured in Monster Camp, and the mere fact that there are enough sub-genres of LARP to result in two very different geekumentaries on the same subject is in itself impressive. Available on Netflix.

8. Wordplay (2006)

Wordplay explores the secret world of crossword puzzles, through the crafty eyes and at the newsprint-stained hands of those devoted to them. ("His thumb and forefinger are blackened, just as Brother William foretold!") Several celebrities talk about their love of crossword puzzles, including Ken Burns (the czar of documentaries). Available on Netflix.

7. Nerdcore Rising (2008)

Nerdcore Rising tells the tale of nerd rapper MC Frontalot and his first big tour, leading up to an appearance at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. Full of geeks and geek topics, and sporting interviews with Weird Al Yankovic, it's a worthy addition to the geekumentary family and will make you feel proud to be nerdcore (unless you played Hassle: The Dorkening once). Full review.

6. Spellbound (2002)

Spellbound is "the story of eight American children who set out to win the National Spelling Bee." Whenever children are involved in something highly competitive, you can't help but think about the pressures involved, and wonder if the parents are the ones who want the win, and are just living vicariously through their kids. Spellbound doesn't give me that impression. The parents of these competitors seem loving and encouraging, and the children appear to be growing in a healthy manner through the experience, win or lose. You also get to hear from some adults who were child spelling bee competitors. Available on Netflix.

5. Word Wars (2004)

Word Wars is all about Scrabble. Competitive Scrabble. If you didn't know there was such a thing, that's what geekumentaries are here for! In Word Wars, you'll meet a stable of satisfyingly quirky Scrabble players, including those that religiously travel the tournament circuit, as well as the "parkies" who play in Washington Square Park, New York, but are just as serious as the tournament players. One question to ponder; do mood enhancers and brain boosters count as steroids in a competition of the mind? Word Wars, also, is available on Netflix (heads-up: though 4-letter words don't make for great Scrabble scores, this movie contains some profanity).

4. Monster Camp (2007)

Like Darkon, Monster Camp is about a group of LARPers, this time it's the Seattle chapter of NERO (New England Roleplaying Organization). NERO is more monster-focused than the kingdom politics and factional warring flavor featured in Darkon, but both are rich with in-fighting and great geeky utterances. As geeks go, the ones featured in Monster Camp prove rather endearing, especially when their chapter is in danger of being shut down. Available on Netflix. Full review.

3. Trekkies (1997)

Trekkies documents the Star Trek phenomenon, and its devotees. Meet fully decked-out Klingon fans who actually speak Klingon as this film boldly goes into the trek convention space, and other places. Like Trek, this documentary's been around for a while, but is well-done, and even though the Trek scene is no longer at the level it was in 1997, Trek is such a core segment of geekdom that it would be highly illogical not to include it here. Available on Netflix.

1. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

I know people who couldn't care less about arcade games, yet were literally glued to The King of Kong for the duration of this movie. It's entertaining and weaves a classically accessible tale. You'll notice a slant to the way things are presented, but that's exactly what makes it an entertaining story and is, ultimately, a director's perrogative.

New Line's also got plans in the works to do a fictional comedy remake of the film. The King of Kong is a great gateway geekumentary, and one in which the saga continues beyond the film. Available on Netflix. Full review.

1. TILT: The Battle to Save Pinball (2007)

TILT tells the story of a last-ditch effort to reinvent pinball when one of the biggest manufacturers, Williams, had their pinball division on the chopping block in favor of the slot machine business.

TILT and The King of Kong get #1 here for different areas of strength. TILT does a great job of relating the early history of pinball, and telling the compelling story of the Pinball 2000 project in a visually beautiful manner. It's an insightful look at the external business factors that affect all creative projects. TILT also blows away any and all competition as far as extras; it's the only geekumentary I've seen with a bonus disc, and the quality of the nearly seven hours of bonus material is excellent. With any luck, you'll see it on Netflix soon, but it's one you should own anyway. Full review.

Honorable Mention
  • The Planet of the Doctor. This one's a multi-part documentary you can view online for free. Doctor Who is certainly a solid geek genre, and this documentary is a great primer for anybody not well-versed with the series (like ME, OK? I admit it!).
  • The Making of Army of Darkness. OK, this one's not strictly a standalone documentary, it's a bonus feature in the "Boomstick Edition" of Army of Darkness. But it deserves mention, because it was just so much FUN to watch them puppeting skeletons all over the place, doing crazy effects and stunts, and goofing off in typical Sam Raimi style. And...Bruce Campbell. Enough said.

Still on my "to see" list:
These are some films that my web crawling has unearthed, but are not redily available for rent.
On the TILT director's commentary, Greg Maletic also mentions another pinball documentary (Ball Saved correction, The Histsory of Pinball) and a pizza documentary that I'm now on the hunt for.

Some Promising Geekumentaries In Development
The following films are still in the works, but have the potential to break into the Top 10 list without too much trouble when they're released.
  • Chasing Ghosts, another serving of the classic arcade gaming scene.
  • Second Skin, a film covering MMOs and the people who play them, including a look into the life of a gold farmer.
  • Get Lamp, a documentary about early 80's text adventures (the Infocom-style games like Zork). Plus it features a theme song from MC Frontalot!

Know of a geekumentary I've missed? I'd love to hear about it!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Livin at the Corner of LaGuardia and Catastrophe

You know those times in The Amazing Race when they'd get to the airport, and the ticket window was closed, so they had to camp there till it opened at 4 AM the next day? I must say I really don't see the attraction at the moment...

After being at a business conference all week, a delayed flight and a missed connector has me stranded in LaGuardia airport tonight. I didn't even get to book a new flight, since by the time I had tracked down my checked bag, the ticket counter was closed. Yes, yes, I know this stuff happens all the time, but it was a first for me, and it's open bar at MY pity parties!

I'm over it now, actually. I'm tired, wanted to be home by now, and I've got a sore throat, but I've also got all my stuff, and a laptop, and even a cup of coffee now (cue angelic chorus). No headphones, so I can't listen to the Frontalot I've got or watch the rest of the Dr. Who episodes I took with me (don't worry, THEY were safely in my carry-on!). After buying wireless internet (LAME!), I did the only other thing one COULD do in this situation. Started downloading roms...

And I'm SO beating the other teams to the ticket counter 4 hours from now!

PS - aww, bummer. Warner Bros. has put the brakes on their He-Man Greyskull movie.

PPS - Now it's 3:30 in the morning, I'm wide awake, don't ask me how. This creepy guy came and sat at the table next to mine, you know, one of those times when there are maybe 1,000 open tables in the vicinity, but they sit RIGHT next to yours. So I had to stop playing MAME because it would have been a conversation-starter...He's gone now, but I'm suddenly reminded of the girl who spends most of Adventures in Babysitting at the bus terminal.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Geekumentary: TILT

In 1998 pinball was dying, thanks to a saturated market and shrinking player base. Williams, the world's largest pinball manufacturer, prepared to abandon the game that had made it a legend in favor of the more lucrative video slot machine business.

From its nostalgic opening jaunt though pinball history to its heartbreaking ending, employing remarkable animation throughout, TILT: The Battle to Save Pinball is a fascinating case study for anyone interested not just in pinball, but in the march of technology and the intersection of art and commerce.

I've never played a lot of pinball. I like the concept, like the lights and sounds and flipping those flippers, but it's not as if I'm good at it or a frequent player, certainly not a pinball enthusiast. But I'm on this geekumentary kick, and the only way I was going to see TILT was to buy it, so I did.

I'm glad I did, this was a really good one. Not only is the history of pinball an interesting one (it was years before the pair of flippers we're all familiar with were added to the bottom), the story of Pinball 2000 is one of those classic underdog tales. The subjects interviewed, mostly pinball designers and industry people, are not as colorful as the guys from The King of Kong, but I liked them, and I was pulling for them. George Gomez, one of the primary team members for Pinball 2000, made me want to be a pinball designer.

The Pinball 2000 project that the film documents was an attempt to update pinball by integrating video onto the pinball field. It was an exciting concept, and it looked great, and I was genuinely sad that I'd never gotten to see or play one. Only two models were completed, Revenge from Mars and Star Wars Episode 1, and as it turned out, Episode 1 played a large part in killing the project. And I thought I hated Jar-Jar before...

Not only is the feature presentation good, it comes with a bonus DVD packed with almost seven hours of really excellent extras, including a pivotal key note speech from a pinball convention, and a walkthrough on the process of creating a pinball machine. Even the Pinball 2000 launch video shown by Williams to its buyers. They really gathered together everything you could hope for on the topic of pinball.

This film caused me to do two things:

  1. I looked for Revenge from Mars on ebay. And it was THERE. Tempting, very tempting. I always said if I ever got a pinball machine, it would have to be Theater of Magic, but now I'd be sorely tempted to grab a Revenge from Mars if I had the chance.

  2. I headed up to Funspot to play pinball till my wrists hurt! Which didn't take very long at all (Pinball Wizard has such a carpal wriiiiist). Favorites from the trip were Pinbot and the Nightmare on Elm Street machine. Star Trek: Next Gen is also one of my favorites, but it was turned off that day, and they don't have Theater of Magic, my VERY favorite. They do have KISS and Adam's Family machines, featured in TILT.

To conclude, if you're at all interested in pinball or documentaries in general, buy this one! You'll enjoy it, and it stands up to multiple viewings.

Read about other geekumentaries in my Top 10 Geekumentaries article.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hammer, meet nail

What's Nathan Fillion been up to since Dr. Horrible? Well, when he's not Nailing Your Wife, he's writing crime dramas!

How does he find the time?

Rock Band account linkage

is freaking annoying.

You can now create pictures with your band members, action figures of them, and t-shirts, etc., featuring your band! Allegedly. If I could get the XBox account to link properly. I'm trying to be patient, but the process is buggy and not well-documented. It would probably help if I knew what our XBox live email-tied account was, but I'm pretty sure I have that part right. I'd request the password, but I'm afraid to mess up our game login. This leaves me no choice but to bring my husband in on the process, which is unfortunate because I was going to surprise him with bandmates of our characters for Christmas, and now he'll be on to me.

I've tried twice now and am quite frustrated. I'm sure I'll get it working eventually, but I wanted to grumble in the meantime.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Geekumentary: Nerdcore Rising

Nerdcore Rising follows MC Frontalot, the godfather of Nerdcore Hip Hop, on his first national tour. Along the way, Frontalot fanatics and music industry notables reveal the roots of the genre, the dorky complexity of its artists, and one MC's quest for nerd stardom.

It's 12:45 AM and I just finished watching the newly released Nerdcore Rising. As many as three of you may recall I stumbled onto Frontalot recently by way of the Get Lamp documentary (in development). Imagine my elation to hear that this was a 2 for 1 discovery! Frontalot was just coming out with his OWN documentary. There was a Boston screening of the film last week which I tragically missed, but held my own tonight on the couch, draped in a blanket and two cats.

Nerdcore Rising follows the MC Frontalot crew on their first big tour, which culminates in an appearance at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. I can't WAIT till PAX comes to Boston in 2010!

"I do get emotional when I read Harry Potter books" - MC Chris, Nerdcore rapper

I enjoyed this documentary, largely because I am all about this artist's music at the moment, but it was entertaining regardless. One thing that struck me was that these guys are just so normal. It's really quite endearing when you see their reactions to being snubbed by a college radio station, or how excited they are when they see the line of people at PAX that are waiting to see THEM. My very favorite part was when one of the band members issued the bubbly proclaimation, "So Kimmy says she wants to learn Magic: the Gathering, anyone else?" which elicits Frontalot's perfectly intoned, "You can't be #$%$@ serious." What followed brought me back to my early days learning M:tG. If you've played Hassle: the Dorkening (even once...especially once), you'll laugh.

"Frontalot raps about all the things I care about, like Magic: the Gathering...and internet porn addiction" - fan

Nerdcore Rising ranks in my top 10 geekumentaries list because the very nature of Frontalot's fanbase means that interviewing them hits on many geeky genres. There's frequent wookie yodeling by the band, and the fans include IT professionals, WoW players, LARPers...nerds. In a good way. The doc's also got interviews with Weird Al on the subject of nerdcore, which automatically gives it a +2 nerd check.

"...comic books, horror films, video games...all stuff that 15 year old kids love, and I'm not 15."
Right on, Brian Posehn, me too! I've been nerdcore all this time, and only now begun to appreciate it. Nerdcore is indeed rising. Hello, world!

Read about other geekumentaries in my Top 10 Geekumentaries article.