2018 Weeknote 4

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Another week of various estate inspections, though fortunately nothing too dire – no more trees down. The Suburb didn’t escape the windy weather entirely though – I saw signs of damage to buildings, including St Jude’s, unfortunately.

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Lots of winter gardening going on – turning over of soil and tidying up here and there. And we’re almost ready to instruct our contractors to do the annual tree work on the estate. It’s one of the biggest jobs of the year, but we’ve got it down to a pretty fine art so far (I say that; it’s all down to my colleagues having done a grand job of it in years past).

I had a couple of evening meetings this week, which is unusual for me, but they do happen. Both estate management related, and both needing my input. It’s good to do these meetings now and again as the people who attend are good at asking questions about the things we do which we might not have considered. And it’s just nice to be able to do a periodic round-up of achievements and good news stories too.

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Earlier in the week, I met up with Jonty for a pint and a ramble about all sorts of things – initially radio-related but increasingly varied as our interests wove their way through one another. I came away pleased to have found a kindred spirit with so many shared obsessions, and the conversation left me scribbling away in my notebook for days afterwards. Some new projects, perhaps?

Fortunately for having a head bursting with ideas, I was able to take Thursday off. Unfortunately, I gave myself a little too much to do, and set myself up for the inevitable disappointment of missing a bunch of goals.

But I did get to muck around with some radio stuff – I satisfied myself that my RTL-SDR dongle is, in fact, working… But just not particularly well. I think my main problem is the antenna. So that’s another avenue to investigate. At the moment I’m favouring the ‘build one yourself with two pizza trays and some soldering’ over ‘buy one’ – but we’ll see.

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I also had a bash at filing some disparate audio recordings which were scattered over various hard drives. I found a handful that have some merit – they’re either clear enough, or they’re of an interesting thing – and I’ll try and do something with them.

Others were… a little disappointing. I was pleased to find a MiniDisc entitled ‘New Zealand Journal’, and knew it was an audio diary recorded on an early 2002 trip. I didn’t know much more about it, but was pleased to see the disc contained 41 minutes of audio. I left it digitising in Audacity, and was eager to hear it once it had finished.

To my surprise, there is about six minutes of me talking – I’m pleased to have that, at least – followed by about 30 minutes of various clips of what I think is NZ TV. I *think* what was going through my mind at the time was that it would be nice to have some snippets of NZ TV/radio to listen back on one day. But, a bit like looking back at holiday snaps to find ten photographs of the same tree, it’s actually sometimes better to have recordings of oneself rather than just the fluff around. Well, I suppose a mixture of both, if I’m honest.

Still, like I say, it was a slight disappointment. The holy grail (and I should know better than to set myself up for abject anticlimaxes) will be digitising the contents of a handful of microcassettes made on a Dictaphone when I was in year 7. The bulk of it is me dicking around while on a school trip to France, aged 11. I can’t wait to sample the delights contained on those.

Meanwhile, I spent some of this week playing Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, which is an all-time favourite of mine.

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It’s pretty easy, and the art and music is a delight. I was actually quite surprised how quickly I played through it, although I made good use of save states, which I wouldn’t have been able to the first time around. Still, it was nice to start and finish a game, and especially one so familiar.

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I plan to work my way through the roughly linear range of Mario games going forward, including the Wario games. Super Mario Bros. 3 is next. This one is much less familiar.

Saturday I messed listened to some radio, including logging some London pirate stations. As always, I found a cross-section. One station which I’ve grown rather fond of was playing a great mix on Saturday evening which included videogame samples. Another was, out of their peak hours, just playing a great playlist which I kept Shazam-ing (for want of a better verb) and adding to a Spotify playlist.

One station made me rather cross, however, as not only did they steal the hourly news of another commercial station, but they played out repetitive adverts for a herbal cancer remedy, gleefully listing the various other ailments it’s also good for. The thing that really got me though is that the station’s mission statement is all about the good it’s doing for the community. It’s basically operating as a community station, just without the license. So that wound me up.

I cook during the week, but usually from a limited list of staples that I am now confident with. The weekend is the time for me to grab a new recipe, usually from Good Food, but increasingly from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, it seems. This weekend was the former, and I chucked harissa paste all over some sea bass and some potatoes and made a killer Mediterranean salad.

I also made a start on the Buster Keaton Blu-ray set I got for Christmas. It’s a collection of his early short films, starting with the Fatty Arbuckle collaborations. I get a unique joy from watching well-restored hundred-year-old films. Partly it’s the way you can see the seams between theatre and film as it makes the transition from one to the other. And partly it’s the crisp, clear footage of real-world scenes, or at least mock-ups of them.

The other achievement of the weekend was getting the current website project to an almost-finished standard. It even has a shiny new URL (which is quite a pleasant outcome at the request of the client). I hope we’ll get the final tweaks sorted shortly and then it’ll be ready to go.

Sunday I went to see my mum, who seems well and happy. It was nice to visit Amersham briefly, to see what’s changed and what’s still the same. The old Iceland building (which was also the site of a cinema way back when) has gone, leaving a vast hole in the streetscape.

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I picked up some beers from a new(ish) place that does microbrewery beer on tap, as well as food, which I’d like to go back to another time. It was also heartening to see my childhood pet shop which sadly closed last year has (re?) opened as a pet shop once more.

And the longstanding independent mobile phone shop next to it (where I bought a Siemens S8 many, many years ago) is now… a vape shop.

Because of course it is.

 

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Game review – Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale

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I recently finished Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale on 2DS.

I’d stumbled on it in lists of 2/3DS games worth checking out that were a little off the beaten track. I’d also read that it was a relatively short game, and occasionally sold with quite a discount in the Nintendo eShop. So I decided to check it out.

It’s a gorgeous little game in which you control a small boy wandering around a small town speaking to people, picking up orbs that you use in an in-game game, and generally trying to progress the story.

In terms of gameplay it’s part point-and-click and part visual novel. The story itself is initially very sweet and silly – a decent rendering of the imagination of a ten-year-old child making their own fun in a small town. It progresses into a weird, semi-fictional climax that you’re left wondering whether it’s ‘real’ in the game, or just a further extension of the hyperactive mind of a young child. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

It’s also, for that reason, a fairly shallow and childish story. There are some elements of family/fatherly pride thrown in, and the white lies parents tell their children, but it’s really all quite two dimensional. You’re basically thrown into a 1970s small town where all is quite sleepy, and the majority of the residents bide their time during the week until the broadcast of the Friday evening monster show on TV.

Story aside, the game’s general ambience is what won me over. It features beautiful ‘painted’ backgrounds and there’s a constant small-town soundtrack with buzzing cicadas, chattering locals, and the surprisingly frequent train and level-crossing sounds. It’s soothing and does well to transport the player to a small Japanese town. Headphones recommended.

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(Irritating side rant: I’m unable to take screenshots in this game. Some 2/3DS games let you take them natively. Others you can utilise a workaround where you post to MiiVerse first. But this only works for games with a MiiVerse community, which (bafflingly!) AotFM lacks. So I’ve had to grab the ones you see hear from the web, along with some related artwork.)

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The in-game game I mentioned is just a little semi-random Top Trumps-style card battling system which is basically of no consequence in the game’s story (apart from once). But it’s a cute little extra addition to the world of the children, and it pushes the player to explore the town in search of the glowing orbs that are collected to top up the cards.

The story takes quite a sharp turn towards the end – the ‘Friday Monsters’ of the game’s title make something of an appearance, and you’re left feeling a bit disconnected from the simplicity of running round with your friends wearing a backpack. It doesn’t ruin the game by any means, but it comes as quite a surprise. In many ways it’s the right plot twist for this game.

Overall, it’s a lovely little game. I’d stop short of repeating the line from other reviews that draw comparisons with Studio Ghibli films. It’s not quite there, but it’s in the same neighbourhood.

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The biggest drawback – which I entered into knowing full well – is the game’s diminutive length. I kept putting off playing it as I knew it would be over in one sitting, and that was basically the case. My play-time journal reports between two and three hours’ play, which is about on par with what I’d read. And that’s from the word go to the end of the story and the credits having rolled. The game’s value for money is questionable on a time/cost graph but you have to consider its charm as well, and this is a strong feature of AotFM.

I could probably squeeze out another 30 minutes or so by collecting the few remaining cards and having some unnecessary card battles, but I’m not sure I will. To be fair, it would be worth it to just hear a few minutes of cicada-buzz, or the soft dinging of the railway level crossing. Playing through the story again would be pretty dull as there are no real options. The game uses ‘chapters’ – there are twenty-six of them – but they’re short, and they overlap, so you can be working through four or five at once, and complete one just by talking to someone, for example.

I want more of this game. And games like it.

I loved Shenmue on Dreamcast, but never got very far with it. The game’s story and ‘combat’ wasn’t so interesting to me, but the ambience and sense of place was palpable.

More recently I have developed a bit of a crush on the teenage girl life-sim Life is Strange. And I’m the type of guy to fire up Red Dead Redemption or Just Cause 2 and simply head down a rough trail until I reach a rocky point from which to watch the clouds roll overhead.

The maker of AotFM was previously involved with a Japan-only series named Boku no Natsuyasumi which seems strikingly similar to this game in terms of visual style and gameplay. It’s a shame that those games are Japanese language only, and by their very nature rely on text to drive the story. They look like exactly the kind of thing I want to sink a few hours into, but I’ll have to keep looking.

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on StreetPass

About a month ago, after some amount of umming and ahhing, I bought a Nintendo 2DS.

I’d been interested in picking one up for a while, and the promise of price-drops around Black Friday had me checking every now and then. I’m not a massive gamer, but there are a handful of games on the system that looked appealing to me.

article-2412249-1ba413ba000005dc-179_468x385The 2DS is the cheaper version of the 3DS. For one thing it, obviously, omits the 3D screen. This wasn’t a huge concern to me. It also has a simple, flat construction rather than the 3DS’ hinged, folding clamshell approach. This makes the 2DS less neat and pocketable, but still quite portable.

(Trivia: the flat construction means that although the 2DS appears to have two separate screens, it’s actually one big slab under the plastic shell to save money. Clever!)

I’ll talk about the games another time – I’m dozens of hours into Weeaboo Junction alone – but today I’m thinking about one of the system’s core functions: StreetPass.

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2DS and 3DS devices all have WiFi built in. This lets the user download games, play online multiplayer, and browse the web (to some degree). So far, so ordinary for a games console these days.

But 2DSes and 3DSes can also talk to eachother, primarily for local multiplayer, but also for StreetPass functionality. Contrary to most device-to-device communications, StreetPass actually allows devices to talk without any input from the users.

relay-pointsAs long as a 2DS or 3DS is on standby/in sleep mode, it is constantly seeking other devices to talk to. And when it finds one, it will perform a sort of ‘handshake’ with the other device. Later, both users will see a green LED notification light on the device, and they’ll have any one of a number of things to check/play with.

Obviously, this kind of exchange only happens when two devices are in close proximity, so it’s more likely in busier places, like cities and public transport hubs. Therefore, it can be hugely beneficial to take your 2DS anywhere you go, leaving it in standby mode, just on the off-chance you pass another user.

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It me.

This quite unique system function was one of the things that attracted me to the console. I rather like the idea of pseudo-random exchanges with strangers within the walled garden of Nintendo’s network and games.

“But Paul!” you cry.

“Don’t you know the 3DS was first launched six years ago?! Just how many users do you think there will be still bumbling around on the streets of London?”

Fair point.

My experiences with StreetPass have been… Well, pretty much as I’d expected. I’ve had a handful of exchanges so far, usually near busier transport interchanges, like Golders Green, Euston station, and other busy trains/stations I’ve passed through recently.

But frequenting locations such as these is by no means a dead cert in terms of receiving StreetPasses. I’ve carried my 2DS in my bag when visiting Euston station, Oxford Street, etc, and had no ‘hits’. I tell myself that other factors may be at play – too many other devices interfering with WiFi reception, or the limited range of each device. But I really think it’s just down to a low install base. Which, in a way, makes each StreetPass all the sweeter.

The other way to get StreetPass hits is via a Nintendo Zone.

These are public WiFi hotspots and there used to be loads in the UK, but now it appears to be limited to branches of GAME, the videogame retailer. Above, left, shows the remaining Nintendo Zones within the M25, and, right, the map shows the European countries still with Nintendo Zones. Source.

Users who StreetPass within a Nintendo Zone get the data from, I believe, the last six users to also do the same. This makes it a good way to bulk up your StreetPass hits without actually needing to be in proximity with the other users. The clever bit is, much like an actual StreetPass, you don’t need to do anything to connect to a Nintendo Zone. It just works when you’re in range. I tested this out recently by stuffing my 2DS into my running backpack and passing my nearest branch of GAME. It worked perfectly, and gave the expected boost to my StreetPass hit count.

So what do you get when you StreetPass with someone? It depends.

The main port of call is a sort-of game called Mii Plaza, where other users’ Miis will be gathered. Miis are Nintendo’s weird bobble-headed avatars which you can tweak to vaguely resemble you or whomever you please. The associated metadata is limited: your birthday (DD/MM only), the latest 3DS game you’ve been playing, and a few other child-friendly tidbits.

You’re quite limited in what data you can include in the free text fields. It would be a stretch, even, to hack your contact details into it. And that’s sort of the point. Nintendo intentionally made this system pseudo-anonymous. They have a two-way handshake friend code system for real-life buddies, but StreetPass is just kind of vague. Miis, as avatars, are kind of ageless. It’s hard to tell if you’ve StreetPassed with a ten-year-old or a fifty-year-old.

Anyway, in Mii Plaza there are a handful of cute mini-games, and you also see a frankly horrifying army of all the Miis you’ve ‘met’ recently, lined up and grinning. But Mii Plaza is pre-installed and is just one bit of 3DS software that makes use of StreetPass.

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Other games for the system such as Mario Kart 7 and Animal Crossing: New Leaf can trade data with other users via StreetPass, including fastest lap times in the former and sharing home interior designs with the latter. There are a ton of other examples.

There’s even a music player built into the 2DS/3DS, and if you add some tracks to your favourites, StreetPass will work a bit of Last.FM-style magic and notify you if you share any favourite tracks with other users.

Even with my limited experiences with StreetPass, I’ve had a number of quite charming ‘interactions’ (these are only ever after the fact, never real-time) with other users, particularly seeing their Animal Crossing homes.

The age of the system and the lack of remaining Nintendo Zones means the opportunities to StreetPass are getting fewer and fewer. I wish there were still more Zones available – I think they also used to use the ubiquitous ‘The Cloud’ WiFi hotspots, which would’ve really boosted your chances. But still, it’s a fun little bonus feature of the system which adds some charm and some unexpected surprises now and then.

The fact that StreetPass isn’t coming to the Nintendo Switch means I guess its days are numbered. Hopefully the 2DS/3DS system will live on alongside the Switch, as the new system isn’t truly portable – or certainly not pocketable – and I believe Nintendo has indicated that the two platforms will co-exist for the time being.

Even if StreetPass ceased to exist tomorrow, the vast library of games for the 3DS, not to mention DS and Virtual Console titles, means I will have plenty to keep me going for a while yet.

Postscript

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a closed system run by someone like Nintendo, the technology behind StreetPass is proving hard to research. Online, in the marketing bumf, you’ll find real-world scenarios and in-game features, rather than frequencies, power consumption transmission ranges, amount and format of data transmitted or time needed for a successful StreetPass.

Some of these factors are applicable to the WiFi standard generally. But other factors remain a bit of a mystery. And perhaps that’s best. Certainly it makes sense to keep it simple for the purposes of a mainstream, predominantly kid-friendly console.

The more information a company releases on functions like this, the more likely it is to be hacked or gamed. There are, or were, ways to create your own bootleg Nintendo Zones with a hacked router, which intrigues me greatly. But I also like that it all just works for the average user.

Anyway, the whole concept has got me thinking about near field communications (NFC), local WiFi and Bluetooth handshakes and beacons, mesh networks, and other possibilities with similar technologies.

I had some reckons on StreetPass in general, and I have further reckons on the wider concept of device-to-device communications and other potential applications. Watch this space.