Archive for November, 2009


Hey, Trep.  Your use of a screenshot from Fallout 3 in your post on illustrators got me to thinking about a conversation we had once, concerning the “best game” lists that populate the intertubes.  Today out of curiosity I looked up a few lists of the best PC role-playing games ever.  As you noted in our conversation, such lists are legion.

Final Fantasy, especially VII, topped a lot of lists, although Morrowind and Knights of the Old Republic (a Star Wars knockoff) appeared regularly as well.  But the good old games that you and I used to play together, like King’s Quest, were nowhere listed.  Perhaps it’s not quite right to call the old Sierra games RPGs, because they were billed as action-adventures.  But they filled the bill for us, right?  The only real difference between them and fullblown RPGs was that player-character development was pretty much limited to your choice of hero (fighter?  thief?  mage?).

I remember fondly the Christmas we hauled your PC with its spanking new color monitor (the first I’d ever seen) over to my house for some reason (maybe it was warmer there), and loaded up KQ IV.  Once we got it installed, we were delighted to discover that it had a heroine–a princess named Rosella!  The game was a text parser, where players had to type instructions into a space on the screen.  It took us hours to figure out that we had to “put the bridle on the unicorn.”  I still have the notes and maps you made while we played, although most of them are illegible.  I wonder why?

Most of the lists I looked at today feel like they were created by thirteen-year-olds who started playing on consoles, because there is a distinct preference for combat and flashy graphics.  I prefer strong narratives and enthralling characters, and I’m pretty sure you do too.  So here is my list, in no particular order, of RPGs in which narrative and character are important.  (As you know, I haven’t played FF, so it’s not here).

1.  Ultima.  There were nine games in the Ultima series, but Ultima VII was the best IMHO.  We played some of this together (and VI as well, as I recall, on my old Tandy.  Tandy!  Can’t  believe I once had one of those).  The player-avatar’s companions accompanied her through the series until Ultima VIII:  studly Dupre, wily Shamino, wise Iolo.  The story took place in the world of Britannia, realm of Lord British, which was maintained throughout the series so that we players became familiar with Britannia’s cities–Cove, Paws, Vesper–and knew roughly the sort of people we would find there:  librarians in Moonglow, pirates in Bucaneers’ Den.  Ultima also had a strong ethical component represented by the eight virtues.  Its creator, Richard Garriott, started out programming for Apples, Commodores and Amigas.  I and II were simple tile-based games, but there was nothing simple about their plots. Thanks to Ultima’s devoted fans, who created the Exult engine and loving restorations of the older games, we can now play Ultima V, VI, and VII on contemporary computers, and more restorations are underway.

2.  The Elder Scrolls.  There are four games in the series: Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Oblivion.  The graphics and complex gameplay of Arena and Daggerfall are now too outdated for most players to deal with, that is, if you can even get them running (I use Dos-Box, which works just fine).  Morrowind and Oblivion are state of the art, stunningly beautiful, and both have captivating main quests.  All are massive, with hundreds of locations to explore and hundreds of quests to pursue.  All four games are set in the mythical world of Tamriel, which has a long history and multiple cultures, all of which you can learn about in myriad books scattered throughout the games.  While Ultima had a rudimentary development scheme for the player character, based on your answers to several questions, the Elder Scrolls perfected the fine art of player character development, allowing players to choose their race, occupation, religion, birthplace, and appearance, among other things.

3.  Hero’s Quest (Quest for Glory).  I discovered the second installment of this Sierra series quite by accident at Radio Shack (while my Tandy was being serviced, no doubt).   The game, Trial by Fire, is now reckoned to be the best in a series of five.  I still play it today on occasion.  The motto of these games was:  “So you want to be a hero?”  Your character wandered through forests, jungles, deserts, and haunted houses in the unending quest to become same.

4.  Fallout.  The player character is marooned in a post-apocalyptic landscape, her ancestors having escaped nuclear war by fleeing to one of several underground vaults.  There are three games in this series, and all take place on maps depicting some part of America: California and environs in 1 and 2, and Washington DC in Fallout 3.  Fallout 2 is generally reckoned to be the best among them for its narrative.  You can now play through a wonderful add-on to this game that restores some of the original developers’ abandoned plot lines.  For my money, though, Fallout 3 bests previous games in the series.  Its plot is intriguing and its graphics are stunning;  the devastated Washington monument made me cry the first time I saw it (yeah, I’m a patriotic sucker in some regards).  I was delighted when I ran across Harold, the mutant in 3, whose position was a little better and a little worse than in 1 and 2.  Dogmeat, your faithful companion, also appears in all three games.

5.  Might and Magic.   This series has nine entries, and most players agree that M&M VI is the best of the lot, although I’m partial toward VII.  The series creates an imaginary world filled with nasty villains (vampires and dragons and titans, oh my!) and all the magic potions and spells you could ever want or need.   It has a popular companion, Heroes of Might and Magic, a series of five strategy game spun out of the same world.

Right now I’m playing The Witcher, which amply meets my requirements for complex narrative and enthralling character.  (From a female perspective,

characters don’t get much more enthralling than Geralt, the White Wolf.  (That’s him in the                  screenshot).  From there I’ll move onto Dragon Age: Origins, which has great reviews.  So far none of these games has taxed my aging Mach V, but that day will soon come, I’m sure.

Lots of other great series and stand-alones come to mind:  Zork, Monkey Island, Kyrandia, King’s Quest, Lands of Lore, Baldur’s Gate, Space Quest, Wizardry, Eye of the Beholder, Icewind Dale, Gabriel Knight.  I tried both Neverwinter Nights games, but never finished either one, I guess because the plots didn’t interest me all that much.  I own Knights of the Old Republic, but have not played it yet (before I retired I collected every game I thought might interest me, because I knew I wouldn’t have the money later).  I think I will install it as soon as I finish The Witcher and Dragon Age, because KOTOR gets really good reviews on the net.

Here’s hoping you keep your wits about you and your magic always fires!


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Hello Ralphie

In this iconic photo from the Lincoln Journal-Star, a Husker fan seems bemused by the mascot of the Colorado Buffaloes.

Or maybe she isn’t bemused.  Maybe it’s just that her nose is in excellent working order.

I’ve always found it strange that the buffalo, who was hunted almost to extinction by white Americans, is now a point of pride.  Of course they are now caged or fenced up for the most part.  Can’t have them roaming through back yards or eating the garden.

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Other Bowls

Yow, Doc, I can’t think of any subject on which I could discourse as broadly as you have on College Football.  Certainly not sports.  We didn’t ‘do’ sports when I was a kid.  My dad watched football, but his real love was car races, the enjoyment of which was even harder for me to grasp than football.  I can ‘see’ the appeal of sports, I think – the great displays of skill and expertise, the real-time suspense, the non-predetermined outcomes, the huge backstories, for fans, of the coaches, players and teams – but I don’t feel it.  Dunno why that is.

Yesterday, imagining a convergence of our interests, I envisioned a Sci-fi Fantasy Bowl.  The football has a strange, purple glowing aura to it.  The players’ costumes – uh, excuse me, that is ‘uniforms’ – glow too of course, in various pulsating, mysterious yet meaningful shades.  Heck, the players’ eyes glow.  The quarterback doesn’t throw the football so much as speedily levitate it.  And a lot of the action takes place up in the air since the receivers and defense players, not needing to wait for the ball to come back down, zoom up to intercept it, replete with lots of sparks and lightning bolts as they all collide.

Then, admiring the vast amounts of info stored in your head, I ventured to mingle some of your interests.  Players in a Metaphor Bowl might not be all that awesome to look at, but they’d be pros at tackling issues, lobbing insults, tossing accusations and running with assumptions.

By the end of yesterday though, one of the day’s themes being what it is, I’d switched from those Bowls to the Food Bowl – wherein somewhat football-sized trussed-up turkeys, cheese blintzes, sweet potatos, chocolate eclairs and the like are put in to play, the object being to get them down the field before they’re consumed.

I may have eaten a football’s worth of food yesterday myself.  Have fun watching all those games, Doc, and Go Big Red!


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The Big 12

The Big 12 evolved out old Big 8, which consisted of Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State.  In 1994, four Texas schools joined the conference:  Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech.  The Oklahoma and Texas teams constitute the Big 12 South while the remainder are in the North division.  In recent years the South has dominated the north.  I remember Coach Osborne saying at the time of the merger that this was a bad idea for old Big 8 schools, because the south would beat them up regularly.  He was right; since 1996, when Big 12 play began, the south has won nine championships to the north’s four (Nebraska won three of those).

Since 1939 the national championship has been won 18 times by Big 12 schools.  Oklahoma owns seven of those, while Nebraska has five and Texas two.  (Texas is eyeing a third this year.  We’ll see about that).  These three teams are the perennial powerhouses in the conference, although lately Texas Tech and Oklahoma State have put together good programs that win steadily.

The best-known Big 8/Big 12 rivalry is that between Oklahoma and Nebraska (for the reason, see the stats given above for championships).  They only play one another every other year now, but some fans are agitating for a change in the rules so that the game can become an annual affair once again.  Both teams have recently fallen on relatively hard times, though, and for the most part the fabled rivalry has assumed a nostalgic tinge.  Osborne and Switzer appeared arm-in-arm during Homecoming weekend at NU this year, while Johnny Rodgers and Billy Sims signed autographs together and smiled for the cameras.

Nationally, the Big 12 has waxed and waned in relation to other conferences.  Right now I’d rank them fourth nationally behind the SEC, the PAC-10, and the Big Ten, because the North has been especially crazy this year.  Kansas, Missouri, Kansas State, and Nebraska, who all ranked in the top 25 at some time during the season, were up and down, up and down, winning big games and the next week losing to Baylor or Colorado or Iowa State.  Pundits on ESPN began to ask: “Does anyone want to win the Big 12 north?”

Iowa has sort of saved the Big Ten’s reputation this year, and aside from a loss to USC, Ohio State has done very well, as has Penn State.  But the rest of the conference is not much to shout about (the less said about Michigan, the better).  And I don’t mean to imply that exciting football is not played in the ACC and the Big East–I just have a hard time getting interested in those teams for some reason.  Well, I do know one reason:  Nebraska played Florida State and Miami often in the Orange Bowl, and they whomped us for a couple of heartbreakers (1983 anyone?)  ACC teams did finally prove to the Big 8 that speed and a passing game can beat old-fashioned brawn and the option.  (I notice, though, that the option is coming back–Nebraska has started using it again, and Vince Young, a former Texas Longhorn, is employing it to good effect with the Tennessee Titans).

Well, Trep, that’s all I have to say about football today.  I have to get ready now for a veritable orgy of it, beginning tomorrow (Texas vs. A&M), Friday (Nebraska vs. Colorado), and a delicious plethora of rivalry games on Saturday.  Not to mention pro games on Thursday, Sunday, and Monday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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College Football Conferences

Well, Trep, I had so much fun researching the history of college football that I have more to say on the subject.  You know I will go on until you stop me.   Yesterday I told you about how  teams are selected to go to the end-of-season bowl games.  Today I write about the relationships that exist among the conferences.

At present, the SEC is probably the best football conference in the country.  (It hurts to admit this, but facts are facts, and I claim proud membership in the reality-based community).   The schools that play in that conference are all in the south:  Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana State University, Mississippi (known nearly universally among sports fans as Ole Miss), Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt.  The teams are divided into East and West divisions, and the winner of each of those plays the other for the conference championship.

Historically, Alabama has been a football powerhouse.  If you measure since the beginning of time (that is, since the beginning of football in the late nineteenth-century), ‘Bama has won 12 national championships. Or, if you count just from 1950, when people got serious about keeping consensus records, Alabama has five national championships.  Their closest SEC competitor in this regard is LSU, but Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss, and Tennessee have also won championships since 1950.  Between them, LSU and Florida won the national championship in 2006, 2007, and 2008.  Right now, Florida and Alabama are ranked first and second in the BCS poll, while LSU and Ole Miss are ranked in the top 25.  In some ways it is a shame that Florida and Alabama will play each other for the SEC championship, because both may be better teams than whoever ends up in third place.

PAC-10 schools are located in the sunny west and the rainy northwest.   They are: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington, and Washington State.  USC is the traditional powerhouse in this conference, having won a whopping six national championships since 1950.  The only other PAC-10 team to haul down a consensus national championship during that period is UCLA, in 1954.

A few sports fans will argue that the PAC-10 is the toughest football conference.  It is certainly the most fun if you like offense.  The fabled “West Coast Offense,” which features lots of flashy passing and fast receivers was invented out there. There is a reason for this:  it’s hard to imagine, say, Michigan or Minnesota using such an offense in late November when snow begins to fly.  The conference is roughly at parity this year because its traditional mowing machine, USC, is having a very bad season, and Stanford, its traditional whipping post, is beating up on everyone, including USC, under the coaching of former pro standout Jim Harbaugh.  The game between Arizona and Oregon was the most exciting game on teevee this last weekend (and I say this as a Nebraska fan whose favorite team was on another channel at the same time–but I managed to see the last quarter of the Arizona-Oregon game).

The Big 10 is the oldest of currently active football conferences, having been established in 1896.   The Big Ten schools are:  Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, and Wisconsin.   The Big Ten hasn’t been competitive with other conferences of late, but it has a glorious history.  The conference owns most of the national championships achieved prior to 1950, and since then, they have won 11 more (Ohio State owns six of those).

Big Ten football games are probably what most non-fans imagine when they think of college football.  These games features huge stadiums, crisp fall weather, snappy marching bands.   In 2000, ESPN named the the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry the greatest in football history.  It’s certainly the oldest outside of the Ivy League:  these two teams first played one another in 1897.

I have been associated with two Big Ten schools, and I can attest that football spirit is as intense there as it is anywhere.  When I hired on at Penn State, a dean gave me the best advice I ever got from a dean:  “don’t wear your red hat on campus.”  Turns out she was also from Nebraska.  The campus bookstore featured a lifesize  cutout of Joe Paterno and a display of t-shirts featuring NU and PSU helmets with a challenge inscribed below:  “anytime, anywhere.”  Fans of these teams will recognize that the year was 1995, and the then-new BCS had awarded the most recent national championship to the Cornhuskers instead of the Nittany Lions.   In the fall of 1995, during my first year at Penn State, Nebraska fielded one of the best teams ever to play the game  (http://espn.go.com/page2/s/list/colfootball).  I left my red hat mostly in the closet that fall, but I sure as hell wore it when nobody was around.

I don’t know much about the other football conferences (or care, for that matter).  So that’s it for now.  Tomorrow, on to the Big 12.

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Going Bowling

Nebraska won last night (yay!), and so we are on our way to the Big 12 Championship.  But first we have to play Colorado in the last of the regular season games.  The Buffaloes have been up and down this year (mostly down).  Colorado once wanted to make this annual game at season’s end into the sort of rivalry that Oklahoma-Nebraska was in the old Big 8, but the rivalry never quite gelled.  Maybe that’s because Nebraska is ahead in the series 16 games to 4.  Whatever happens in Boulder won’t change the fact that Nebraska is champion of the Big 12 North for the first time in a long long while.  On December 5 we play the champion of the South division, that is, Texas, which has been ranked third nationally nearly all year.  Gulp.

This football stuff must seem like gibberish to you, Trep, but nonetheless you have been faithfully listening to me whoop and moan about Big Red’s fortunes for many years now, which is much appreciated.  (The favor is barely returned by my listening to extended narratives about the plots of Final Fantasy or the ingredients of your most recent concoction to treat ailing elderly felines).

So I thought I’d write a little primer on college football conferences and the current bowl setup which can also serve as a heuristic for me, because friendly wagers will soon begin to be made on the outcome of the bowl games, and I need to know what bets are winners and which are not.

Bigtime football programs participate in conferences—groups of teams that regularly play one another.  (There are independent teams, meaning they don’t officially belong to conferences:  Notre Dame, Army, and Navy).  But
most large universities that are geographically close to one
another have organized into conferences.  Some intra-conference rivalries
go back a long time (Ohio State and Michigan, Harvard and Yale) and some have an annual game whose winner gets a trophy.

Yesterday, for example, Iowa won the Floyd of Rosedale trophy by beating Minnesota.  Floyd has a fascinating history, including real or implied racism, that you can look up on Wikipedia should you care to.

The winners of six conferences automatically participate in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which consists of five Bowl games: The Championship, usually played between teams ranked first and second for the year;  The Rose Bowl in Pasadena;  the Orange Bowl in Miami;  the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans; and the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe.   There are other less important bowls as well, such as the Alamo and the Holiday and the Gator, but they don’t get to choose teams until the BCS bowls have figured out who they want.  

Automatically qualifying conferences for the BCS bowls are:  The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), The Big 12, The Big East, the Big 10, the Pacific 10 (PAC-10), and the Southeastern Conference (SEC).  That is, winners of these conferences go to one of the bowls unless, of course, they are in the championship game. 

Currently, the SEC is probably the best football conference;   Florida and Alabama are ranked first and second and they have held these spots for most of the season.  They will play one another next week in the SEC conference championship game, and only the winner will get to go to the national championship game.  The loser of this game will play some lower-ranked team in a different bowl .  If Texas remains undefeated (as I now hope they won’t) they will play in the national championship.  If Texas loses any of their upcoming games (which I now hope they will) whoever is ranked number 3 at the end of the season will probably play the winner of the SEC championship.

The winners of five other conferences do not automatically qualify for bowl consideration;  they or outstanding member teams have to be invited.  These non-automatic qualifiers are Conference USA (CUSA), the Mid-American (MAC), the Mountain West, the Sun Belt, and the Western Atlantic (WAC).  These conferences consist of smaller schools but they sometimes field real powerhouses.  This year, for example, Texas Christian (Mountain West) and Boise State (WAC) have consistently ranked among the top ten teams in the country.

Analysts are always divided about how well these teams rank against the qualifying conferences, which makes for great arguments.  I am a football snob and so I never give these teams much credit.  I’ve been to Boise, after all, and it ain’t much of a town (although the setting is stunningly beautiful).  Come to think of it, though, I’ve been to Norman Oklahoma, too, and might say the same for it, except about the beauty part.  And lately, teams from smaller schools have been making it hard for me to maintain my smugness.  Boise State handily defeated Oklahom in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, and Utah whomped Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

I owe my football snobbery to the fact that I became a fan before there was a BCS.  In those good old days, there were lots of bowls, just as there are now, but they were usually put on by cities independently, without much input from anybody else.  Bowls and college football rankings both began in the 1930s, which, coincidently, is about the same time that universities changed over from a liberal arts curriculum to the present research model with more sciences and social sciences.  By the time I got interested in football in the 1950s, everybody knew which bowls were best.  The Rose Bowl invited winners of the Big Ten and the Pacific Coast Conference (now the PAC-10);   the Orange Bowl usually invited winners of the ACC and Big 8 (now part of the Big 12);   the Sugar Bowl generally hosted an SEC team and somebody else, and the Cotton Bowl invited teams from the Big 8 and the SEC.   That’s why, back in my day, fans would throw oranges on the field if Nebraska won the Big 8—we all knew the team would be invited to the Orange Bowl.

The minor bowls still try to invite the best teams they can get, although teams that “travel well”–that is, teams that bring lots of fans with them who spend lots of money–can usually count on an invite to a minor bowl if they become bowl-eligible, that is, if they win six or more games during the season.  So Nebraska at 8-3 will go bowling this year.  Just where depends on how well they play in their next two games.

More tomorrow, unless you forbid me to take up more space maundering on about football.

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I read in the news recently that an illustrator named Bernie Fuchs had died.  Just the fact of an illustrator’s death being news made me google him out of curiosity.  What an unexpected blast of nostalgia I got.  His illustrations and illustrative style were all over when I was young.  He showed us the Barbie and Ken dream life we were all supposed to aspire to in the 50’s and early 60’s.  Examples:

These images epitomize the glossification of that era just as Maxfield Parrish does for me with the 20’s and 30’s, and Norman Rockwell with mid last-(gasp, that sounds so long ago) century.  Looking at them now with affection, I can’t help but wonder who’s sleeping with who, which guy is about to screw over his business associates, how much valium is being downed with that soda.  Hee hee.  Mr. Fuchs had a much wider range than this, though.  Here’re a couple more.

The intertubes being what they are, I soon came across another acclaimed, recently deceased illustrator named Bob Peak.

Fun stuff.  It makes me wonder, in this visually oriented age, how much we define ourselves to the future by our ads.  I often find, in conversations wherein tv comes up, that the discussion turns to the ads.   Some of them really are little works of art, their only drawback being that they’re repeated so incessantly that people lose any appreciation for them.

In older works of fiction, characters at times spout off a few lines from Shakespeare or other iconic authors now and then to reinforce their points.  But current writers can’t quote others’ new work for fear of copyright infringement.  Which is a shame, because people in the real world quote tv characters and lines from tv ads all the time.   The ‘stylists’ at DV8 where I used to get my hair cut used to keep a running conversation of dialog from tv shows and ad jingles.

I wonder what imagery will evoke the present to folks in the future.

This is by Sven Prim

From the movie Final Fantasy Advent Children

From the video game Fallout 3

What do you think?  Is this a common theme, or just my take on what we’re thinking about now?

Poor Barbie and Ken, retired in south Florida and Apache Junction respectively, worrying about their Social Security and their grandkids’ future, with this sort of stuff on the collective anxiety-(if not real) horizon.

Another ‘What do you think?’:  Did Barbie and Ken ever have kids?

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