Tag: Nostalgia

HyperCard

I was looking for something to post about, and then Jeremy Parish posted a mail call for HyperCard comments over on Retronauts.

And I've got a few things to say about HyperCard, because there's a straight line between HyperCard and what I do for a living (and for a hobby) today.

HyperCard was my first development environment. I was 7 or 8 years old and I wanted to make games. Today we've got Kodu and Super Mario Maker. In 1990, we had HyperCard.

HyperCard's interface bore a certain resemblance to PowerPoint, with drawing tools that looked a lot like MacPaint. You could show slides -- or "cards" -- in order, as in PowerPoint, but you could also use buttons to link to cards out of order. So it was a useful language for making Choose Your Own Adventure-style games. "If you want to examine the sound coming from the next room, turn to page 38. If you want to see what's going on outside, turn to page 44." That kind of thing, but with buttons to click.

My game, SEKR's Awesome Adventures, was mostly that sort of thing. (It's pronounced "Seeker", and it was my grandpa's dog's name.) There were a few roundabout ways to get to where you were going, some of which would result in your untimely death. The most complex sequence involved selecting two tools from a list that you'd be allowed to use later on -- and keeping track of your selection required just a bit of actual programming.

I mostly built SEKR through the simple point-and-click frontend, but HyperCard also came with its own programming language, HyperTalk. I used HyperTalk to track what weapons/tools the user selected, and the endgame would adjust accordingly: you're in a pit; did you bring the grappling hook? It's pitch-black; did you bring the night-vision goggles? Store a variable and test a conditional; this is absolutely as simple as programming gets. It was a pretty good place to start.

And that's more or less how the Web works: fundamentally, it's a set of pages, and users navigate between them using hyperlinks. For more complicated stuff than just moving between pages, your browser has built-in support for a scripting language.

The similarities aren't coincidental. The HyperCard Wikipedia entry says:

Through its influence on Robert Cailliau (who assisted in developing Tim Berners-Lee's first Web browser), HyperCard influenced the development of the Web in late 1990. Javascript was inspired by Hypertalk.

HyperCard is where I started programming. And while I never did make a career of game development, I'm still programming, and there's a more-than-passing resemblance between developing for HyperCard and developing for the Web.

My grandmother's been cleaning old stuff out of her house, and a few weeks ago she gave me a bunch of old 3.5" floppies. SEKR's Awesome Adventures is probably in there somewhere -- the original graphical HyperCard version, the text-only remake I put together in QBasic a few years later, and maybe even the unfinished Turbo Pascal port with PC speaker music (which played fine on the 286 I wrote it on but way too fast on a 486; you had to turn off Turbo to slow it down. Remember Turbo buttons?).

I really should buy a USB floppy drive and see if I can get any data off those disks.

Cassini and Me

In 2004, in the summer before my last year at NAU, I worked at USGS, on the Astrogeology Team. What I did there was nothing special, but it was a pretty special place to be, especially at that time.

I worked on a package called ISIS, Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers. It was software for processing high-resolution photos we received from sources including the Lunar Orbiter, the Mars Rover...and Cassini.

Cassini entered Saturn orbit shortly after I started working there. It was an exciting time. I got to spend a lot of time looking at images that looked a lot like these:

Enceladus features
Enceladus features.
I grabbed this image from FiveThirtyEight. Original source is, obviously, NASA.

My work on ISIS wasn't anything high-level or complicated. I edited makefiles, so that the ISIS source code (a mix of C and FORTRAN) would compile for different platforms. If memory serves, we supported Windows, OSX, Solaris, and x86 GNU/Linux.

My work wasn't glamorous, and I'm sure it's all long-gone for the codebase. But I was thrilled just to be on the team, to be part of something like that -- getting photos back from Saturn.

It's been more than thirteen years, and I've had nearly that many jobs, since my time at USGS. But I still feel that connection to the work and to the project. In all that time, every time I've see a headline about Cassini or Saturn, I've checked out the article. My favorite part is always the pictures.

Today, Cassini concludes its journey, burning up on entry into Saturn's atmosphere, transmitting data back for as long as it can.

It's been a good run. And I'll never forget the small part I played in it.

Actually, It's About How Games Journalism is a Pain in the Ass

Or, Why I Won't Be Doing That Again Any Time Soon: A Postmortem

So the last three posts comparing and contrasting five different Mega Man games required rather a lot of screenshots. It took a long time to get them all, for a number of reasons I'll get into in a moment. It wound up taking a lot longer to get those posts done and posted than planned, and it really wasn't a whole lot of fun.

The other day on Brontoforumus, I described it as taking two things I enjoy doing -- playing video games and talking about video games -- and turning them into work. More specifically, work I don't get paid for.

I like how the whole thing turned out, but it took hours and hours to put together, and playing a game to farm for screenshots is a pretty different and altogether less fun experience than playing it just to play it.

Some of it may be down to the tools I'm using, or just my lack of proficiency with them.

I opted to grab all the screenshots myself, rather than try and find a resource that already had them (or close enough). I think this was probably the right call; VG Museum has a perfectly good shot of the floating platforms in Ice Man's stage that I could have used, but it doesn't really have any other grabs of the Mega Man screens I needed, and it's got next to nothing from Mega Man X and nothing at all from the other three games I was capping.

So I could have poked around the Internet trying to find the screens I was looking for, either as static images on websites or as caps from Let's Play videos on YouTube. But I think that would have taken just as long as getting the damn things myself.

The next decision I made that made my life more difficult was to try and grab all the images at each device's native resolution, with graphical filters turned off.

Here are some of the screenshots I used in the last three posts:

  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

And here are what those games look like when I play the game scaled up for a 1080p screen and with a graphics filter turned on:

  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Highway Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Highway Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Highway Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Now, first of all, those images are pretty big. In fact, unless you've zoomed this page in, you're not even looking at them at full size right now, because they've been scaled to fit the content area of this post. That's 892px wide (unless you're viewing it on a mobile device, in which case it's less), whereas the images are between 1157 and 1920px wide.

And they're PNG's, which means they're also pretty big in terms of filesize (except the Mega Man Xtreme one). Unnecessarily big; you just loaded a 1920px-wide image just to display a scaled-down 892px version. Or less. If you're reading this on a 3G connection, then I probably owe you an apology.

Now, there are things I could do differently. I could set my emulators to output as JPEG instead of PNG, but that would result in a visible decrease in quality. I could resize the images manually, but that would be more work for me. I could set up a script to scale them automatically, but we'd still end up with a bunch of images all scaled to the same width. Which isn't really ideal; it doesn't make a lot of sense for the Game Boy screenshots to be the same size as the PSP ones, and 892px is just too damn big to get multiple images onscreen and get a good comparison anyway.

So, instead of that, what I did was turn off the filters and, when I was ready to take a screenshot, toggle fullscreen off to take it.

This is a pain in the ass, not just because it interrupts the flow of the game but because it's fucking difficult to set up a good screenshot in a tiny 160x144 window on a 1080p TV when you're sitting on the couch across the room.

And that's before you get into weird shit like this:

  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man

I don't know why the fuck RetroArch did this. I told it to size the window to native NES resolution, and it gave me these monstrosities instead. That is not native NES resolution. And it's not a problem with the core I was using, because I tried it with two different cores. (I thought it might be some weird leftover setting from when I'd done the Game Boy screen grabs, but that doesn't make sense; the Game Boy screen grabs were 160x144, while these are 205x191.)

And I took a bunch of screenshots before realizing what it had done. I had to go back and replay fucking Ice Man's stage and do it all over again.

So I think the best solution would be to use emulators that output screenshots at native resolution and without filters, regardless of what scaling and filters are applied as I'm playing them. I know I've used emulators like that before, but I can't remember which ones they were offhand.

And there's another requirement: I want to be able to take a screenshot without having to use the damn keyboard. I want to be able to use one of the buttons on my controller to take the screenshot. Because having to stage a shot and then quickly take my hands off the controller to hit F12 on a keyboard doesn't just interrupt the flow of the game, it's a good way to get yourself killed if you're trying to grab a screenshot of a particularly difficult section of game.

Snes9x let me map the screenshot button to my controller, and I think FCEUX did too, but I couldn't find any feature like that in PPSSPP or RetroArch.

So I guess what I'm looking for is an emulator that lets you output screenshots with no scaling or filters applied, and lets you map that function to a button on your controller.

That would make the whole exercise a lot quicker and easier, but it wouldn't fix a number of other problems -- I'd still have to wade through a bunch of files with names like ULUS10068_00017.png and RetroArch-1011-165734.png and find the ones I wanted, and then realize "Fuck, I forgot to take a screenshot of Spark Mandrill's stage" and have to go back and replay that section, and seriously, you have no idea how many times I did that.

And that's without even getting into the editing portion.

Remember this guy from the first post, with the measurements?

Mega Man is 33x54px

I added those rulers and numbers myself, manually, in Gimp (and it probably shows). And it wound up being way more fiddly and time-consuming than it should have. I guess I probably should have gone looking for plugins to see if somebody had already coded up a tool to draw a shape like that automatically so I wouldn't have to do it myself; that is what I ended up doing for this graphic, with the arrow in it:

Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X, with Giant Red Arrow

So, I dunno. Like I said, I'm pretty pleased with how the feature turned out (and it's gotten a positive response from the Brontos, which is nice), but it just took so long to put together, and it was not very fun. I might try it again sometime -- especially if somebody can steer me in the right direction and help make it easier next time -- but for now I'll probably go on back to my usual Wall of Text posts.

Course, in the old days I used to enjoy doing shit like this:

City of Heroes time-lapse

But there's a pretty important difference: we were already just fuckin' around and essentially posing for photos anyway; it's not like I was taking screenshots in the middle of a difficult mission. (And even if I were, it was pretty easy just to reach over and hit PrtScn without breaking stride in the game.) I wasn't trying to get a grab of any specific gameplay element -- let alone compare and contrast across five different games.

Maybe if I do this again I'll just pick an easier topic.

In the meantime, I think I'll go back to just playing games. Maybe I'll replay some more Mega Man X games. I never did get around to finishing X8. Fucking vehicle levels.


Mega Man ® 1989 and © 1987 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Powered Up and Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd
City of Heroes © 2004 NCsoft

I took all the screenshots myself.
I used the following emulators:
NES: FCEUX and Libretro with the FCEUmm and Nestopia cores
SNES: Snes9x and Libretro with the Snes9x Next core
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core
PSP: PPSSPP

Dueling Mega Men, Part 3: Rebalancing Act

As I've indicated in the last two posts, Mega Man: Powered Up has a lot more changes from the original game than Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X. And the changes to Powered Up are usually for the better, while the ones to MHX are usually for the worse.

There's a pretty simple reason for that: Mega Man has a lot more to improve than Mega Man X.

Back in the first post, I described Maverick Hunter X as "a pretty solid remake of an excellent game." Powered Up is the reverse: an excellent remake of a pretty solid game.

The original Mega Man is a classic, but it's got rough edges; it's an amazing first effort but it's got its share of flaws. There's a reason Mega Man 2 is universally considered to be a much better game.

The original Mega Man X, on the other hand, is pretty much perfect. It's exquisitely designed and balanced.

So, rebalancing Mega Man resulted in a better-balanced game, while rebalancing Mega Man X resulted in a worse-balanced one.

Let's start with Mega Man.

Powered Up changes the original game so fundamentally that it actually changes the boss weaknesses.

In the original Mega Man, the order is:
Bomb Man Guts Man Cut Man Elec Man Ice Man Fire Man

In Powered Up, it's:
Cut Man Bomb Man Ice Man Fire Man Oil Man Elec Man Time Man Guts Man.

The change in order does more than just accommodate the two new bosses; it makes for a more natural stage order.

The original game has two logical starting points: Bomb Man's level and Cut Man's. The trouble is, if you follow the order of weapon weaknesses, starting with Bomb Man means you go to Guts Man's famously difficult level second. Starting with Cut Man means you take Elec Man's stage before Guts Man and have to go back later to get the Magnet Beam (though, granted, this wouldn't be an issue in Powered Up, which removes the Magnet Beam entirely).

The weakness order in Powered Up puts the two easiest stages right at the start, first Cut Man and then Bomb Man, and puts trickier levels like Elec Man, Guts Man, and the new Time Man near the end.

Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X doesn't change the Mavericks' weaknesses, but it does play musical chairs with the capsules. And that's enough to wreak havoc on the original game's finely-crafted balance.

The most important of the four capsules, the one you need in order to get the other three, is the Leg Upgrade. Here's where it is in the original game:

Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man X

It's about halfway through Chill Penguin's stage (the easiest in the game), smack dab in the middle of the path. You literally can't miss it.

Whereas in Maverick Hunter X, not only is it possible to miss it, it's likely. Here's where it is in that version:

Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Don't see it? Let's try that again.

Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X, with Giant Red Arrow

That's right: the ledge you grab onto to reach the Leg Parts is covered up by the fucking HUD. It's so hard to see that you can walk right past it even if you know it's there.

Contrast with the same location in the original Mega Man X (which, in that game, had the Arm Parts capsule):

  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

The original game gives a very clear visual cue that there is something up there. Maverick Hunter X, on the other hand, once again fails to handle the conversion from 4:3 to 16:9, and makes the hanging section almost impossible to see. And if you don't find that tiny ledge, you can't get any of the other upgrade parts -- your mobility, offense, and defense are all severely limited, and the game is much harder. Not fun hard, unfair hard.

And if you do know the Leg Parts are on Flame Mammoth's stage, there's another problem: nobody in their right mind would pick Flame Mammoth's stage first.

It disrupts the entire stage order. Do you start with Chill Penguin and then end with Flame Mammoth? That makes the game a whole lot more difficult, going through seven stages with no capsule upgrades.

No, the best option here is to base the stage order around the capsules, not the bosses' weaknesses. Take out Chill Penguin first, then Flame Mammoth, with maybe a stop-over at Storm Eagle along the way (he's a relatively easy boss and Flame Mammoth is weak against his weapon, and it also makes Spark Mandrill's stage easier; on the other hand, it's got all the shitty vertical parts I mentioned in my previous post, and they're harder without the Leg Parts).

The other three capsules are rearranged too. Chill Penguin has the Head Parts instead of the Leg Parts, Sting Chameleon has the Arm Parts instead of the Body Parts, and Storm Eagle has the Body Parts instead of the Head Parts.

The Head Parts are damn near useless in the original game, and they're not any more useful in the remake. In the original game, they protect you from falling rocks in one section of Sting Chameleon's stage, and are also necessary to reach the Arm Parts capsule in Flame Mammoth's stage. Maverick Hunter X is much the same, except that in this case you need them to reach the Body Parts capsule in Storm Eagle's stage. Chill Penguin's stage -- which, again, is the easiest level and, in the original game, the best one to start with -- has gone from having the most useful of the four upgrades to the least useful. Storm Eagle's stage, on the other hand, ends up with a much more useful upgrade than it had in the original, and one more reason to hit that level earlier in this version of the game than in the SNES version.

The change to Sting Chaemeleon's stage probably makes the most sense of the four, though it removes the nice sense of symmetry the original game gives you of defeating a suit of robot armor to gain an armor upgrade.

If you follow the stage order implied by the capsule locations (ie fight Storm Eagle and Flame Mammoth early), then that means Sting Chameleon will be the last of the eight stages. Getting the Arm Parts right before the Sigma stages, or right at the beginning of the Sigma stages, matches the original game, where if you started with Chill Penguin you'd end with Flame Mammoth, and get a chance to get the Buster Upgrade -- and if you missed it, you'd get it on the very next level.

Which brings us to another change.

In Mega Man X, midway through the first Sigma stage, Zero confronts Vile, and sacrifices himself. If you didn't get the Buster Upgrade from the capsule, Zero will give it to you.

Maverick Hunter X changes this in two ways. First, it moves the battle to the third Sigma stage instead of the first. Second, instead of Zero giving you a Buster Upgrade that's identical to the one you would have gotten from the capsule, he gives you a different Buster Upgrade.

It's an interesting idea, but I don't think it's a very good one, for two reasons.

The first is that it messes up the narrative structure. There's a reason Zero dies, and passes the torch to X, in the first Sigma stage in the original game: it changes the atmosphere of the rest of the game. It establishes a sense of loneliness and isolation that lingers through the end. Nobody else is going to help you; you're humanity's last hope. And you've done what Zero said you'd do all the way back at the end of the first stage: you've become stronger. The student has become the master.

In Maverick Hunter X, on the other hand, you spend most of the Sigma stages playing catchup. Zero's gone on ahead. Even at full power, X is playing second fiddle, right up until the end.

Which brings us to the gameplay reason why it doesn't make sense to kill off Zero right before the end: it's right before the end. I understand the reasoning behind rewarding the player for getting almost to the end of the game without the Buster Upgrade with a cool, unique weapon -- but what the fuck good is it? You've got exactly half a level left in the game at that point, and then four bosses. (And I guess the caterpillar things in the last level, but they're pretty much just there to fill up your Sub Tanks.) The game rewards you by giving you a weapon you'll hardly get to use.

Aside from that, there are other weird little changes. The X-Buster takes longer to charge to its maximum level, and bosses are invulnerable for a longer period of time after you hit them.

And then there's stuff like this:

  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

In the original game, when Spark Mandrill's stage goes "dark", it's just a transparency effect; you can still see where you need to go.

In Maverick Hunter X, the lights cycle off and on; the platforms go from being completely illuminated to being completely invisible. This, combined with the reduction in height, makes the section a lot harder, the timing a lot trickier, and makes it damned difficult to get through this section without getting clipped by the fireflies that whiz through it.

In fact, this section seems to be taking a cue from the Mega Man Xtreme version of the stage.

Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme

(It may look like the platforms are visible in that screenshot, but I assure you that if you play the game on authentic Game Boy Color hardware, you can't see shit.)

Basically, the game's full of changes, great and small. And most of them are for the worse.

All of this stuff, all of these changes, the reordering of the Capsules and the Sigma stages and Zero's death scene -- I think they actually could have made for an interesting game, if they were only on Hard Mode. The way I see it, Normal Mode should have kept everything where it was in the original game (with some changes, of course, to accommodate the screen height), while Hard Mode could have jumbled things around and created a legitimate challenge for experienced players. Think of it like the original Legend of Zelda: the Second Quest is neat, but it would have made a pretty crummy first quest.

Instead, Hard Mode gives the bosses some additional attacks (that's good!) and ups the amount of damage all the enemies do (that's cheap and lazy).

And then there's Vile Mode, which makes for a pretty great addition but can be overwhelming in the sheer number of options provided. Vile gets a total of 45 weapons, and while it's great to have that kind of versatility, it also means it takes a lot of time testing out all those choices and deciding which ones fit your play style -- and it also makes it a lot harder to figure out which weapons are effective against which bosses. If you're X, you can swap weapons on the fly and keep trying until you find one that works; if you're Vile, you can only equip three weapons at a time, and if none of them do the job, you have to start the level over if you want to try other options.

Plus, when you're Vile they move the Heart Tanks and Sub Tanks around, and while the save screen has a counter for how many you've got, it doesn't tell you which ones you've gotten. Okay, I've got seven out of the eight Heart Tanks; guess I get to figure out which one I'm missing.

(Also, I sincerely hope the decision to make every fucking stage use the same music when you play as Vile was an accident. Giving him is own theme music on the first stage is fine; reusing it on the next eight is not.)

To summarize three long posts, it's really easy to recommend Mega Man: Powered Up. It's thoughtfully and exquisitely redesigned, and good enough to be considered the definitive version of the game, even before you get into all the extras like the many playable characters and the level design toolkit.

Maverick Hunter X isn't bad but it's a much harder sell. Play the SNES game first; it's better; it's that simple.

But if you've played the SNES game already, forward and backward and side-to-side, and you're interested in trying out a new take? Then I'd recommend you take a crack at Maverick Hunter X. But remember going in that things are going to be different, and sometimes maddeningly so.


Mega Man ® 1989 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd

I took all the screenshots myself, and tried to get them all at native resolution with no filters.
I used the following emulators:
SNES: Snes9x
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core
PSP: PPSSPP

Dueling Mega Men, Part 2: Verticality

The original Mega Man has some tricky platforming sequences. Mega Man Powered Up actually does a pretty solid job of redesigning them to make them more fair. Here's one of the most infamous examples, the gauntlet at the beginning of Guts Man's stage:

  • Guts Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Guts Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

Mega Man drops you right into what may be the toughest sequence in the game, and it's right at the beginning of the level. Powered Up, by contrast, starts you off with some training wheels.

Lest you think it's going easy on you, though, what it actually does is move that bastard platform to the end of the level:

Guts Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

On the one hand, that's a much better balance, putting the easy stuff at the beginning of the level and the tough stuff at the end. On the other, it's even more infuriating to repeatedly die right before the end of a level than right at the beginning. And it's actually even harder in Powered Up: note the spacing of the "safe" spots in the lower belt; there's much less time to land and jump than the original game.

There's another sequence, in Ice Man's stage, which is, for my money, the worst part of the original Mega Man.

  • Ice Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Ice Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

In the original game, you have to jump from moving platform to moving platform over a vast empty pit. The platforms' movements are not predictable, they shoot at you while you're trying to time your jumps (and, not shown, penguin guys fly at you too), and sometimes just for the sheer fuck of it instead of landing on a platform you will fall right through it and die.

Powered Up reduces the number of platforms to two, makes them move in consistent zigzag patterns, and eliminates the additional obstacles that you have to avoid (not to mention fixes the collision detection). And greatly reduces the amount of space you have to pass over.

It's a pretty perfect example of Powered Up finding something that was wrong with the original game and fixing it.

Maverick Hunter X does not do that.

Here's an example from Storm Eagle's stage:

  • Storm Eagle Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Storm Eagle Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

It's hard to tell from a static screenshot, but those three platforms all move up and down. And while it's easy to keep an eye on the next platform in the original Mega Man X, in Maverick Hunter X they move right off the screen.

It gets worse in Sigma's fortress.

  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Once again, Mega Man Xtreme actually does a better job than Maverick Hunter X; it reduces the number of platforms and their amount of vertical movement. It even turns the Sigma's Fortress sequence from a vertical section to a horizontal one.

  • Storm Eagle Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man Xtreme

(Of course, don't let any of this faint praise give you the mistaken impression that Mega Man Xtreme is a good game. Its version of the Sigma Fortress platform sequence ends with a blind leap off into nowhere.)

The pattern here is that, while the Mega Man: Powered Up devs were more than happy to retool tricky platform sequences, the Maverick Hunter X team seems oddly reluctant to change them, even just to accommodate the different aspect ratio. ("Oddly" because they made plenty of other, and much worse, changes; we'll get to some of them in a little bit.)

The other big problem is the underwater sequences, because of the increased height of your jump. In Maverick Hunter X, you jump so high that you can no longer see where you're going to land. Here's a miniboss from Launch Octopus's stage:

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

The enemy uses a weapon that pulls you towards the spikes; if you jump to get out of its range in the original Mega Man X, you'll still be able to see the platforms where it's safe to land, but in Maverick Hunter X, you'll scroll them right off the bottom of the screen.

And here's another miniboss from Launch Octopus's stage, a serpent which you can ride:

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

While you can ride the serpent past the point where the spikes and platforms scroll off the bottom of the screen in the original Mega Man X, you go higher before that happens -- and it's still not too hard to land safely.

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X

Riding the serpent and shooting it in the back of the head until it drops you is a viable strategy in the original game, but it's likely to get you killed in the remake.

Of course, for all the examples so far, there's at least an explanation for why these sequences are like that in Maverick Hunter X: because they were like that in the original. What's entirely baffling is when they add new vertical hazards, on purpose, and they have the same problems or worse.

Maverick Hunter X significantly redesigns the Sigma's Fortress stages (which, again, makes it even stranger that it leaves the sequence with the floating platforms as-is, albeit in a later level than in the original game). Early on in the first fortress level, there's another fight with one of the giant fish minibosses from Launch Octopus's stage, which wasn't in the original game.

  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Let's compare that to the one on Launch Octopus's level again.

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

The one on the Sigma stage is definitely worse: the spike traps are twice as wide, there's only one place where you can stand and it's half as wide as the Launch Octopus version, and the platform is at the same height as the spikes, so if you miss it you're dead, instead of having a chance to grab onto the side and jump back out.

The underwater section is followed by a reworked version of the vertical section from the original game, and I'll actually give some props here: this is one of the few instances where I like the Maverick Hunter X version better.

  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

There are several reasons the Maverick Hunter X version is better: it's shorter, there are fewer enemies, and there are more places to stand. But most of all, this is an instance where the devs understand that they're working with a different aspect ratio, and make it work for them. They don't try to preserve the narrow shaft, or keep the Joes on tiny platforms backed right up against the wall where it's nearly impossible to get them to attack, then hit them while their shields are down, and then get onto the platform they were standing on. It's not perfect, but it's a thoughtfully-designed sequence that's a legitimate improvement on the original. And it's a frustrating example of how good this remake could have been if this same kind of care had been applied to other vertical sequences.

And then it passes, and you're in another vexing vertical sequence that wasn't in the original game. It isn't as likely to cause cheap instant deaths as the aquatic sequence at the beginning of the level, but it is incredibly awkward and annoying because of the screen's limited height and your inability to see where you're going:

Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

But the worst new sequence of all is the end of Armored Armadillo's stage when you play as Vile:

Armored Armadillo Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

It's similar to the sequence in Sigma's Fortress, with platforms at multiple heights and those same helicopter dudes coming at you. But there are more of them, they're harder to hit when you're playing as Vile (and you can't just use a powered-up Rolling Shield to protect yourself like when you play as X), and you have to jump to platforms below you, not just ones above you. And of course when you jump, you may very well scroll your destination platform right off the bottom of the screen and have to guess where it's going to be by the time you land. It's a friggin' nightmare, and a great justification for savestate-scumming.

All in all, Maverick Hunter X does a terrible job with pretty much any sequence that deals with vertical scrolling.

Powered Up doesn't have that problem -- but the comparison's not entirely fair, because Powered Up has an advantage: it's a remake of a game that has no vertical scrolling.

There are lots of vertical sequences in Mega Man, but the screen never scrolls. When you have to traverse a section that's taller than a single screen, that means climbing from the bottom of the screen to the top and then climbing a ladder up to the next screen, where you end up back at the bottom. The screen doesn't move up and down as Mega Man does, only left and right.

  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up
  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

So it was easy for Powered Up to follow that pattern. As substantially as it changes some segments of the game (and adds two entirely new levels), it keeps that rule. No room is ever taller than one screen high; the screen doesn't scroll vertically -- and so the game never has to deal with the challenge of how to handle vertically-scrolling sequences.

Maverick Hunter X does. And it proves, time and again, that it's not up to the challenge. And then, bafflingly, it doubles down on this flaw and adds entirely new vertically-scrolling sequences. And they're even worse.

That's a major reason why, despite all its polish, despite all the effort that clearly went into it, and despite the many things it does right, Maverick Hunter X is an inferior game, both to the original Mega Man X and to Mega Man: Powered Up.

Another major reason is that it completely fucks up the balance of the original Mega Man X. And that's the topic of my next post.


Mega Man ® 1989 and © 1987 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Powered Up and Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd

I took all the screenshots myself, and tried to get them all at native resolution with no filters.
I used the following emulators:
NES: FCEUX
SNES: Snes9x
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core
PSP: PPSSPP

What Mega Man Powered Up Does Right and Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X Does Wrong, Part 1: Aspect Ratio

So the other day, I got to listening to OCRemix's Mega Man X: Maverick Hunter Rising album, and it got me jonesing to replay some Mega Man X.

I decided to take another crack at the 2006 PSP remake, Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X; it had disappointed me on my first playthrough, but I thought maybe I'd give it another chance.

And on a second playthrough, now that I'm familiar with its changes and idiosyncrasies, it went a lot smoother. Those changes and idiosyncrasies are glaring -- and they're what this series of posts is about -- but underneath them, it's a pretty solid remake of an excellent game.

But it's no substitute for the original.

And it's interesting to look at its immediate contemporary, Mega Man Powered Up, and see how much better Powered Up is than Maverick Hunter X.

There are a couple of reasons. One seems obvious -- in fact, it's the very first thing you notice:

  • Mega Man model
  • X model

Mega Man is short and squat, while X is tall and thin.

Now, these graphics tell you one thing right off the bat, and it's tone. Mega Man is fun and lighthearted; X takes himself seriously.

But the thing is, those designs affect every aspect of the game's design. And what you're looking at, in both cases, is a game that was originally designed for a 4:3 screen ratio, remade for a 16:9 one.

And which one of these guys do you suppose makes the transition better from 4:3 to 16:9 -- the one who's short and squat, or the one who's tall and thin?

At least, that's how it looks. But it's an illusion. Let's take a look at their actual dimensions, in-game:

  • Mega Man is 33x54px
  • X is 51x57px

Those are back-of-the-napkin measurements; I haven't taken the models through their full range of motion, and I'm not sure what the exact dimensions of their hitboxes are. But it's enough to see that Mega Man only looks shorter and squatter -- in terms of the dimensions rendered in-game, X isn't significantly taller than Mega Man, and he is significantly wider.

But it's not really just about the ratio of the character models -- it's about the design of the worlds they inhabit.

Both games face the same challenge: they have to substantially rework stage designs to fit a different screen ratio, while still making them feel like they play the same. Take a look at this screen from Cut Man's stage:

  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

It's pretty close.

In fact, it just hacks out the brick below the ladder, and the (inconsequential) top section of the ladder, above the range of the enemies.

It's got the same number of little eye-lantern guys, and nearly the same width to move around in. (The movable width of the screen in the original Mega Man is 12 "blocks", where in Powered Up it's a very close 11. And the height from the floor to the topmost enemy is 9 blocks in the original and 6 in Powered Up.)

There are places where Maverick Hunter X does a similarly good job, like here in Flame Mammoth's stage (after defeating Chill Penguin and freezing the lava):

  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

There's a lot less vertical space to move under that platform, but it's not important; it's still enough to fit, and still keep the entire room onscreen.

But other sections don't always fare as well. Look at the beginning of Spark Mandrill's stage:

  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

In the original SNES version of Spark Mandrill's stage, the sparks that run along the floor and ceiling are half X's height and half his width, and the gap between them gives you plenty of room to dodge them. In the Maverick Hunter X version, they're as big as X, and there's very little room in between them. Even the Game Boy Color Mega Man Xtreme, with its severely compromised screen size, didn't have that problem.

(On the plus side, this does mean that defeating Storm Eagle before Spark Mandrill (and thereby disabling the sparks in the floors) makes a much more significant difference in how the level plays than it does in the original game.)

Chill Penguin's stage has problems too:

  • Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

In the original, you can see the wheel coming and have time to get out of the way; in Maverick Hunter X, you can't and you don't. Though in this case, at least it's not being shown up by Xtreme, which has the same issue.

In a nutshell, Powered Up does a really good job of redesigning its vertical segments to fit a 16:9 screen, while Maverick Hunter X doesn't. And this really sticks out, because like Powered Up, MHX is a really polished remake. It shouldn't have these kinds of glaring issues with cropping; they're the hallmark of much lazier ports, like Mega Man for Game Gear, Mega Man and Bass for GBA, and, yes, Mega Man Xtreme.

But it's not just a few sucker punches by enemies that are too big, or that come out of nowhere. No, worst of all are the tricky platform segments where your limited field of vision can result in cheap, instant deaths. And I'll get to those in my next post.


Mega Man ® 1989 and © 1987 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Powered Up and Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd

Character models supplied by Models Resource

I took all the screenshots myself, and tried to get them all at native resolution with no filters.
I used the following emulators:
NES: FCEUX
SNES: Snes9x
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core
PSP: PPSSPP

My Favorite Episodes of The X-Files

So awhile back I started re-watching The X-Files. It's available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon (that last one's an affiliate link), and now available in a very nice HD remaster. (Apparently the entire series, except the pilot, was originally filmed in widescreen, so the remastered episodes aren't cropped, they're actually expanded -- except, again, the pilot. And also seasons 5-9, which aired in widescreen the first time, but now they're also in HD.)

I'm also working my way through Millennium (which is not available in any format other than DVD and illegal download), and I'll watch Lone Gunmen when I get to that point in the chronology.

And I got to thinking, you know, I should make a list of what episodes are worth watching -- since, let's be honest, there are a hell of a lot of them that aren't.

Now, X-Files episodes are generally broken down into two categories: mythology episodes (the continuity based ones that deal with the overarching plots about aliens and a massive government conspiracy) and monster-of-the-week episodes (the standalone, one-off episodes). Generally speaking, I like the monster-of-the-week episodes better; they have more variety in both content and tone, they're often a lot of fun, and they don't string you along with the idea that they're building toward some kind of grand resolution. (Spoiler alert: there is no grand resolution; the writers are making the mythology up as they go along.) But, on the other hand, there are mythology episodes I really like, and they're fun in their own way despite the continuity being a hodgepodge and a mess.

So I'm going to split this up into two sections: monster-of-the-week episodes and mythology episodes, and in my next post I'll tackle Millennium episodes. (So far every Millennium episode I've liked has been a mythology episode.) And I'll plan on keeping these posts updated as I work through the series, so expect more episodes to be added, and a post added for Lone Gunmen when I get around to it.

Lastly: I'd be remiss if I didn't link to Monster of the Week: The Complete Cartoon X-Files, a webcomic by Shaenon K Garrity which goes through the series one episode at a time and lampoons them. (Most of them. Some are so good that she plays them straight.) Oh, and if you want a really thorough breakdown, you could give Kumail Nanjiani's X-Files Files podcast a listen too.

Anyway, on to the actual recommendations.

Monster-of-the-Week Episodes

I thought of putting mythology first, but the monster-of-the-week episodes are easier to get into for a casual viewer, so I'm going to put those first. These episodes can, generally speaking, be watched in any order and without any knowledge going in besides "Mulder and Scully are FBI investigators who look into paranormal stuff; he's a believer and she's a skeptic."

Season 1, Episode 3: Squeeze

Introduces stretchy bad guy Eugene Tooms, probably the most memorable of the show's many Monsters of the Week, and one of the few to get a second appearance.

Season 1, Episode 8: Ice

An episode in the "People are trapped in a remote location and start turning on each other" mold.

Season 1, Episode 20: Darkness Falls

A good race-against-time episode with killer insects, albeit with kind of a disappointing ending.

Season 1, Episode 21: Tooms

Tooms's second and final appearance; first appearance of Walter Skinner.

Season 2, Episode 2: The Host

Darin Morgan plays a sewer monster called Flukeman, with some of the best monster makeup in the series; first appearance of Mr. X.

Season 2, Episode 20: Humbug

First episode written by Darin Morgan; first episode explicitly written as a comedy; features circus folk. X-Files is always a little uncomfortable when it deals with anybody who's different (be that ethnic minorities or people with disabilities), and I feel a little bit of that here, but I think it also comes across as a celebration of its guest stars.

Season 3, Episode 3: DPO

Giovanni Ribisi plays a slacker teenager with lightning powers who hangs out in an arcade (where the Sonic the Hedgehog music is inexplicably playing even though that is not an arcade game). Jack Black plays his sidekick.

Season 3, Episode 4: Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose

Okay, here we go. If you only watch one episode of X-Files, ever, it should be this one. It's pretty much perfect in every way, and it won two Emmys, one for writer Darin Morgan and the other for guest star Peter Boyle.

Boyle plays a lovable but curmudgeonly old psychic who can see the moment everyone around him dies.

I think I'd give a slight edge to Jose Chung's From Outer Space (also written by Darin Morgan) as my all-time favorite episode. But this one is more accessible.

Seriously, if you haven't seen Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose, you can skip the rest of this list until you've seen it. It's not just X-Files at its best, it's TV at its best.

Season 3, Episode 11: Revelations

Gets into Scully's Catholicism a bit; it's the second religious-themed episode where the leads reverse their roles and she plays the believer against Mulder as skeptic. (The first is Beyond the Sea; it's down below in the Mythology section.)

Season 3, Episode 12: War of the Coprophages

Another episode written by Darin Morgan. It has what may very well be the dumbest premise of any episode (people are being killed by swarms of cockroaches, which turn out to be alien robot cockroaches sent to observe us), but Morgan's script is sharp enough to overcome it. This one's got some of the funniest dialogue of the entire series.

Season 3, Episode 13: Syzygy

Mostly fun for Mulder and Scully being really bitchy toward each other. Guest starring Lisa Robin Kelly and (briefly) Ryan Reynolds.

Season 3, Episode 20: Jose Chung's From Outer Space

The final episode written by Darin Morgan (though he did a rewrite on Quagmire; see below). As noted above, I think this one edges out Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose as my favorite. It's got unreliable narratives within unreliable narratives, men in black played by surprise guest stars, stop-motion kaiju, and Charles Nelson Reilly.

Season 3, Episode 21: Avatar

Skinner episode.

Season 3, Episode 22: Quagmire

Lake monster episode. Mostly forgettable, except for a scene where Mulder and Scully get to talking while they're stranded on an island; that scene was written by Darin Morgan.

Season 4, Episode 2: Home

Okay, I'm going to say it: Home is overrated.

It's impeccably directed (by Kim Manners), and it's possibly the most memorable episode of the whole series. But it's memorable entirely because of cheap shock value.

I think it's one of those episodes you've just gotta watch once, and it will stick with you. It blew me away the first time I saw it. But when I came back to it 18 years later, I was a lot less impressed. (So okay, maybe this one shouldn't be on a list of my favorites. But it's definitely a must-watch episode, so I'm putting it here anyway.)

Season 4, Episode 5: The Field Where I Died

This one's got a few plot holes (how can the Cigarette Smoking Man be a reincarnated Nazi prison guard if he was alive during the Holocaust?), but it's got some great character moments for Mulder, and showcases Duchovny's acting range in a way that most of the rest of the series doesn't.

Season 4, Episode 10: Paper Hearts

Mulder matches wits with a child molester who he helped put in prison. Potential retcons to the story of Samantha's abduction, but then no they don't pan out and that's why this isn't under Mythology Episodes.

Season 4, Episode 11: El Mundo Gira

The Chupacabra episode!

Season 4, Episode 12: Leonard Betts

One of those "Nice unassuming man who starts killing people because he has a weird power" episodes. Also, foreshadows Scully's cancer.

Season 4, Episode 13: Never Again

A Scully-centric episode where she gets a tramp stamp of the Millennium logo and almost hooks up with a guy with an evil Bettie Page tattoo.

Season 4, Episode 20: Small Potatoes

An episode written by Vince Gilligan and guest starring Darin Morgan as a shapeshifter. The highlight of the episode, far and away, is a scene in which he shape-shifts into Mulder and then channels De Niro in Taxi Driver. This is probably Duchovny's finest performance in the show's entire run, and shows he's really got some serious comic chops; everything from his delivery to his body language to his facial expressions is brilliant.

Season 5, Episode 5: The Post-Modern Prometheus

So before I go and recommend this one, there's one caveat I need to get out of the way: this is an episode where two women are drugged and impregnated without their consent, and then the ethical implications of this premise are barely acknowledged.

And it's a shame that this episode has that ick factor hanging over it, because aside from that it's a delight. Carter handles both the writing and direction on this one, and it's an homage to classic monster movies, beautifully filmed in glorious black-and-white and guest-starring Seinfeld's John O'Hurley as its mad scientist. It delivers what its title promises: both a Frankenstein pastiche and postmodernism. It's weird, it's melancholy, it's funny, it's got Cher on its soundtrack, and there's more than one moment that feels like a Mel Brooks homage. If its morality is a little muddy, I'm inclined to be charitable and chalk it up to the episode's heightened reality. The plot doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense, but it's not supposed to; it feels like a dream and it prioritizes style over substance. And it is stylish as hell.

And man, that ending is beautiful.

Yes, there is a gap here.

I am still working my way through old X-Files and deciding which episodes to put on this list. However, I am also watching new episodes. I will be filling in the rest of seasons 5-9 as I go, but in the meantime here's one from season 10.

Season 10, Episode 3: Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster

Darin Morgan's still got it. A roaringly funny monster mystery guest-starring Rhys Darby, Kumail Nanjiani, and Tyler Labine, featuring Morgan's usual narratives-within-narratives and Mulder's midlife crisis. X-Files at its absolute goddamn finest -- and a pleasingly standalone episode, though longtime fans will enjoy a couple of callbacks to Clyde Bruckman and a nice tribute to the late, great Kim Manners.

Mythology Episodes

These aren't necessarily the most "important" mythology episodes, the ones with plot details that play out through the rest of the series (though some of them are); they're just the ones I like. And anyway, even if you do watch all the mythology episodes expecting them to eventually make sense, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment.

There are some spoilers down here, including character departures.

Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot

Season 1 is a little rough but I love it despite (or because of) its flaws. There's a lot of stuff the show gets right right from the beginning, and the chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson is at the top of the list.

Season 1, Episode 2: Deep Throat

A fun guest appearance by Seth Green and lots of Area 51 stuff.

Season 1, Episode 10: Fallen Angel

Mulder's got fanboys! Introduces abductee Max Fenig, who's something of a template for the Lone Gunmen.

(Max also shows back up in a two-parter in season 4, but it's not on this list because it's boring.)

Season 1, Episode 13: Beyond the Sea

Guest appearance by Brad Dourif; death of Scully's father; first time Mulder is the skeptic and Scully is the believer.

(You could argue that this one's not a mythology episode because it doesn't deal with the aliens/conspiracy arcs, but I'm putting it here because it establishes a lot of Scully's background that is referred to throughout the rest of the series.)

Season 1, Episode 17: EBE

First appearance of the Lone Gunmen.

Season 1, Episode 24: The Erlenmeyer Flask

This is one of those episodes where everything changes, except that it doesn't; everything snaps right back to status quo in season 2: the X-Files get reopened, Scully goes back to being a skeptic even though she's seen an alien fetus in a jar, and while Deep Throat's departure is made out to be a big deal, Mr. X takes over and fills the exact same role in seasons 2 and 3 (after which he's replaced by Marita Covarrubias, who still pretty much fills the same role). Regardless, this one's exciting, and a lot of stuff happens; we've got human/alien hybrids, the Crew Cut Man assassinating people, and the departure of Deep Throat.

Season 2, Episode 5: Duane Barry and Episode 6: Ascension

Scully's abduction and Krycek's betrayal, two plot points that continue to come back up for the rest of the series. It's also got a guest appearance by CCH Pounder.

Season 2, Episode 8: One Breath

Scully's return. She spends most of it in a coma dreaming she's in a boat, but the rest of the cast really gets a chance to shine. There are some great scenes between the Smoking Man and Skinner, Mulder and Skinner, and Mulder and the Smoking Man, and some excellent moments from Mr. X and Frohike too.

Season 2, Episode 16: Colony and Episode 17: End Game

More hybrids; Bounty Hunters; clone colony; first return of Samantha; first appearance of Mulder's father and revelation that he was part of the Syndicate.

Season 2, Episode 25: Anasazi, Season 3: Episode 1: The Blessing Way and Episode 2: Paper Clip

Some really cringe-inducing stuff with Native Americans, but aside from that it's the first appearance of Teena Mulder, and more on Bill Mulder's history with the Syndicate. And there's some Lone Gunmen stuff and a Nazi scientist.

Season 3, Episode 9: Nise and Episode 10: 731

Mulder investigates an alien autopsy video; Scully finds an alien abductee support group (and the first hint that she may have cancer).

Season 3, Episode 15: Piper Maru and Episode 16: Apocrypha

First appearance of black oil; return of Krycek; some more stuff about CSM and Bill Mulder.

Season 3, Episode 24: Talitha Cumi and Season 4, Episode 1: Herrenvolk

More hybrids; more Bounty Hunters; more clone colonies; first hints that the Cigarette Smoking Man may be Mulder's biological father; departure of Mr. X and his immediate replacement by Marita Covarrubias.

Season 4, Episode 7: Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man

A lot of fans hate this one, and I guess I can understand the perspective that it demystifies the CSM in a way that makes him less interesting.

But I don't agree, and I love it, because it's so deliciously over-the-top. And the reason it's over-the-top is that it's all unreliable-narrator stuff; this is CSM's backstory filtered through his own fiction, published in a porno magazine (whose staff changed some of the details), and then related to Mulder by Frohike.

Basically, it's a tall tale, which ties the Cancer Man to the Kennedy and King assassinations and every other alleged government conspiracy of the twentieth century -- and all because he couldn't get his short stories published.

Season 4, Episode 8: Tunguska and Episode 9: Terma

Return of Krycek and the Black Oil; Mulder and Krycek go to Russia.

Season 4, Episode 14: Memento Mori

This is the "Scully Has Cancer" episode. It's loaded up with Chris Carter purple prose monologues. It's also got the Lone Gunmen, clones, and a callback to that episode where she met the other abductees.

Season 4, Episode 22: Gethsemane

The script is generic cliffhanger-finale fare (though the first act has some nice bits with Mulder, briefly, expressing skepticism), but it's got some truly gorgeous mountain shots that make a great argument for the widescreen HD remaster, some of the coolest creature effects of the series, and some great dramatic work from Anderson. But don't get too excited when you see "John Oliver" in the credits; it's not the John Oliver you're (probably) thinking of.

While this episode is the first of a three-parter, I don't recommend the other two parts; they are boring as fuck. All you really need to know is that Mulder isn't dead and Scully doesn't have cancer anymore.

Season 5, Episode 3: Unusual Suspects

The first episode to focus on the Lone Gunmen as its main characters (with Mulder in a minor role and Scully not present at all) tells their origin story and would eventually lead to their own spinoff. Written by Vince Gilligan, directed by Kim Manners, and for some reason guest starring Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch. (Which I guess puts X-Files, Lone Gunmen, and, by extension, Millennium in the Tommy Westphall Universe.)

Web Design Got Complicated

It's probably not surprising that rebuilding my website has gotten me thinking about web development.

The first six years I ran this site, I did it all by hand -- my own HTML, my own CSS, no scripting languages. I thought that CMS software was for pussies.

But ultimately, plain old HTML just doesn't scale. I conceded that when I started using b2evolution for my blog back in '06, and it's truer now than it was then.

You can poke around some of the old sections of the site a bit, the ones that haven't been updated significantly since the turn of the century -- KateStory's a good one, or the Features page (though I'd like to get at least the Features page up to date sooner than later, and maybe the KateStory one too, so maybe there'll be people reading this post well after those pages shed their 1990's style) -- and they get the job done. Breadcrumb navigation at the bottom of every section, leading you back to either the parent page or the main index.

But Jesus, you can only manually copy and paste "Back to Features / Back to Index" so many times.

And maintaining a years-long blog archive without a CMS to automate it for you? It gets old.

So, you want some automation? You're going to need a scripting language. That usually means PHP for server-side, and JavaScript for client-side.

I got to thinking the other day -- man, it's weird that you need extra toolsets to perform such common tasks as, say, reusing a navigation bar. It's weird that there's not some way just to write up a navigation bar and then write code, in HTML, no scripting required, to embed that common HTML block on the current page.

I thought this was a pretty smart observation.

For about three seconds.

At which point I realized I had just described fucking frames.

Course, the biggest problem with frames is that they weren't exactly what I'm describing. I'm talking about just an HTML snippet in some secondary file that you call from a primary file -- like an include in PHP.

That's not what frames were. Frames were complete fucking HTML pages -- <html>, <head>, <body> (or, more likely, <HTML>, <HEAD>, <BODY>, because in the old days we wrote HTML tags in all-caps) -- which is, most times, downright stupid and wasteful, and was much moreso in the days of 14.4 dialup. Even worse than the load time was the logistics -- if you used frames to build a website with a header, a footer, and a sidebar, you'd have a total of five separate web pages -- a content area, the three other sections, and some kind of main page that all of them were embedded into. This was a fucking nightmare for linking, both for the developer (who had to remember to set the target attribute on every single link, lest the page load in the navigation bar instead of the content area) and the end user (because the URL in the location bar would be the container page that called all the other pages, not the content page the user was currently looking at).

In a way, it's kinda weird that nobody's gone back to that well and tried to do it again, but do it right this time. Update the HTML spec to allow an HTML file to call a reusable snippet of HTML from another file, one that isn't a complete page.

Given all the concessions HTML5 has made to the modern Web, it's surprising that hasn't happened, even given how slowly it takes for a spec to be approved. We've got a <nav> tag, which is nice and all, but who the hell uses a <nav> tag without calling some kind of scripting language that automates code reuse? There really aren't that damn many reasons to use the <nav> tag for code that isn't going to be reused on multiple pages throughout a site.

And I dunno, I'm sure somebody's brought this up, maybe it's on the itinerary as a consideration for HTML6.

Which is another thing, really: the people making the decisions on the specs do not want the same things I want.

I liked XHTML. (In fact, lest this whole thing come off as a curmudgeonly damn-kids-get-off-my-lawn diatribe against new technologies and standards, I'd like to note that I was using XHTML Strict back when you pretty much had to be using a beta version of Phoenix -- before it was Firebird, before it was Firefox -- for it to render correctly.) I thought it was the future. I wish XHTML2 had taken off. HTML5 feels ugly and inconsistent by comparison, and, as legitimately goddamn useful as it is to be able to put something like data-reveal aria-hidden="true" in the middle of a tag's attributes, it always feels dirty somehow.

But I digress.

Point is, in 2006, I switched the blog from just plain old HTML and CSS, and added two more elements: a MySQL database to actually store all the shit, and a PHP CMS (originally b2evolution, later switched to WordPress).

And then came smartphones.

We live in a world now where every website has to be designed for multiple layouts at multiple resolutions. You wanna try doing that without using an existing library as a base? Try it for a few days. I guarantee you will no longer want that.

I think my resistance to picking up new libraries is that every time you do it, you cede a measure of control for the sake of convenience. I don't like ceding control. I like my website to do what the fuck I tell it to, not what some piece of software thinks I want it to.

I've spent the last decade arguing with blogging software to get it to quit doing stupid shit like turn my straight quotes into "smart" quotes and my double-hyphens into dashes. Just the other day, I built a page in WordPress and discovered that it replaced all my HTML comments with fucking empty paragraphs. Why would I want that? Why would anyone want that?! And that's after I put all the remove_filter code in my functions.php.

And that's the thing: WordPress isn't built for guys like me. Guys like me use it, extensively (it is the world's most popular CMS), because it automates a bunch of shit that we'd rather not have to deal with ourselves and because when we're done we can hand it off to end users so they can update their own site.

But I still write these posts in HTML. I want to define my own paragraph breaks, my own code tags, the difference between an <em> and a <cite> even though they look the same to an end user.

(And okay, I still use <em> and <strong> over <i> and <b>; there's really no explaining that except as a ridiculous affectation. I recently learned Markdown and used it to write a short story -- I'll come back to that at a later date -- and I could see switching to that. HTML really is too damn verbose.)

...and that was another lengthy digression.

So. Mobile design.

Bootstrap is the most commonly used toolkit for responsive websites. I've used it, it works well, but it's not my favorite idiom, and I've decided I prefer Zurb Foundation. So that's what I used to build the new site layout.

Except, of course, then you've got to get two dueling design kits to play nice to each other. Square the circle between WordPress and Foundation.

I started to build the new theme from scratch, and I'm glad I was only a few hours into that project when I discovered JointsWP, because that would have been one hell of a project.

JointsWP is poorly documented but has proven pretty easy to pick up anyway.

So. I've gone from HTML and CSS to HTML, CSS, and WordPress (HTML/CSS/PHP/MySQL), to HTML, CSS, WordPress, Foundation (HTML/SCSS/JavaScript, importing libraries including jQuery), and JointsWP (ditto plus PHP). And on top of that I'm using Git for version tracking, Gulp to process the SCSS, and Bower to download all the other scripts and toolkits I need and keep them updated.

So, going with Foundation (or Bootstrap, or whatever) as a standard toolkit, you get somebody else's codebase to start from. That comes with some elements that are a necessary evil (I hate fucking CSS resets, and think writing p { margin: 0; } is an abomination in the sight of God and Nature -- but if it means I can assume my site will look more or less correct in Mobile Safari without having to go out and buy an iPhone, then I guess I'll take it), and others that are actually pretty great -- I find SCSS to be really exciting, a huge saver of time and tedium, and it's hard to go back to vanilla CSS now that I've used it.

Course, with increasing complexity, you still hit those things that don't quite work right. One example I've found is that Foundation sets your placeholder text (the gray letters that appear in an "empty" input field) too light to be legible, and does not have a simple definition in _settings.scss to let you adjust it to darker. I've found a mixin that allows you to create such a definition pretty simply, but for some reason JointsWP doesn't like it (or maybe Gulp doesn't). So until I get around to finding a fix, the text stays light, and I'll just have to trust that you the user will be able to determine that the input field under the phrase "Search for:" and to the left of the big blue button that says "Search" is a search box.

I've also got loads of optimization still to do; part of that's going to mean figuring out what parts of Foundation's CSS and JS I'm not actually using and cutting them out of the calls, and part of it's probably going to mean minification.

Minification is one of those things I resisted for awhile but have come around on. It can be a real hassle for debugging, not being able to view a stylesheet or script in full, and it may not be practical just to save a few kilobytes (or a few dozen, rarely a few hundred) -- but on the other hand, well, it's not so different from compiling source code to binary; the end result is still that you take something human-readable and turn it into something much less human-readable.

And of course now that I'm using a preprocessor, my CSS file isn't my real source code anyway; it's already the result of taking my code, feeding it through an interpreter, and outputting something that is not my code. If you want to look at the stylesheet for this site, you want to look at the SCSS file anyway (it's on Github), not the CSS file. And if I'm already telling people "Look at the SCSS file, not the CSS file," then what's the harm in minifying the CSS file and making it harder for people to read?

For now -- prior to removing unnecessary code calls and minifying everything -- I feel like the site design's a lot more bloated than it needs to be. And even once I slim it down, there are going to be some compromises that go against my sensibilities -- for example, when you loaded this page, you loaded two separate navigation systems, the desktop version (top navigation and sidebar) and the mobile version (just a sidebar, which contains many of the same elements as the topnav and sidebar from the desktop version but is not exactly the same), even though you can only see one of them. That redundancy makes me wince a little bit, but ultimately I think it's the best and simplest way of doing it. Sometimes, good design does require some redundancy.

All that to say -- man, there have been a lot of changes to web design in the last twenty years. And while there are trends I really don't like (if I never have to build another slideshow it'll be too soon; gradients are usually dumb and pointless; and the trend of making visited links the same color as unvisited ones feels like a step backward into 1995), there are also a lot that I've eventually warmed up to, or at least accepted as something I've gotta deal with.

Anyway. Welcome to the new corporate-sellout.com.

And one more thing about the site before I go: it's probably worth noting that this site is different from the other sites I build, because it's mine. Its primary audience is me. I like having an audience, but frankly I'm always a little (pleasantly) surprised whenever anyone actually tells me they enjoyed something I put on this site.

Because this site isn't one of my professional sites. I didn't build it for a client. It's not my portfolio site, which I built to attract clients. This one? It's for me. As should be clear from this rambling, 2200-word stream-of-consciousness post about the technical ins and outs of web design, as it applies specifically to me and to this site.

Frankly I'm always surprised when anyone actually reads anything like this.

More from Busiek on that Final Fantasy Comic

For those of you just joining us by way of a link from Kurt Busiek or CBR, welcome. I guess I should probably figure out something interesting to say so you'll feel like sticking around for a bit. For what it's worth, I've written quite a bit about Final Fantasy over the years, and three posts I wrote about FF7 back in 2011 (the first on mods for the PC version, the second on iconic images, and the third a general look back on the game) are pretty consistently the most popular thing on the site.

In lieu of me saying anything interesting, I'm going to quote a little bit more from Kurt Busiek on the unfinished Final Fantasy comic, in the comments section of the Robot 6 article on the subject.

I will also add that if the book came out, I don’t think that Final Fantasy fans would be particularly happy with it. It was 1991, and I was a workmanlike-but-not-particularly-noted writer. Dell Barras was a workmanlike artist, and, well, the covers were gorgeous.

But I don’t think I really started to make strides creatively as a writer until VAMPIRELLA: MORNING IN AMERICA (late that year) and the industry didn’t notice ’til MARVELS in 1993.

So, while I barely remember the details, I expect it was a workmanlike story that made sense but wasn’t particularly memorable, with workmanlike art and great covers.

And heresy upon heresies, I changed things (with Squaresoft’s permission). I thought it was so odd that the manly heroic lead was named Cecil and his loyal buddy was named Cain (really? You name the loyal guy Cain?) that I suggested maybe they needed Americanized names, and Squarest agreed. I don’t remember what I changed them to, but Squarest liked them enough that they asked if I’d be interested in a staff position making the games more American-appropriate. We never talked much about it, because I wanted to freelance. But I bet fans devoted to the game wouldn’t have liked the changes, especially not from a current POV, looking back.

What can I say? I wasn’t particularly a Final Fantasy fan — I’d played their first US game a little, and the second wasn’t even done yet.

He adds, in a later comment, that the bible he'd been given didn't even mention that Kain spends half the game betraying Cecil, and talks a little bit more about the original (FF1-based) outline he wrote.

(If he had been involved in localizing the game, I'm willing to bet it would have been better than what we initially got. But he'd have still been contending with cartridge space limitations and weird Nintendo censorship.)

Mignola Final Fantasy Covers

Well now. It appears that Kurt Busiek just reblogged a Tumblr post by Alex Chung, which, in turn, links back to a post I wrote back in '012 about Busiek, Barras, and Mignola's unfinished Final Fantasy comic (based on Final Fantasy 4).

So since that old post is probably getting a little bit of new traffic, I should follow it up, now that I have a couple of Mignola's covers for the series.

This one is via Chung's post, and would have been the cover to issue #2:
Final Fantasy #2 cover

And this was sent to me just over a year ago by Dale Jackson, who owns the original art; it would have been the cover of #4:
Final Fantasy #4 cover

Alex, thanks for linking to my post and for including the #2 cover; Dale, thanks for the heads-up on the #4 cover and I'm sorry it took so long to post it.