You Found a Secret Area!

My First Sony and my love for cassettes.

My family were packrats. For the longest time, we’d just hoard things that we might need someday. But as time goes on, we’re slowly culling away those things we held onto, often times just books and old toys we no longer need. Often times it’s just stuff we didn’t need to hold onto, but some of it was fairly sentimental.

During this process of unearthing storage, we discovered a bunch of old things I honestly thought we tossed away, like the Sega Dreamcast keyboard, various board games and electronic toys. But there was one thing that we found that suddenly caused a wave of nostalgic feelings: A kid’s cassette boombox.

If your reaction is “This looks like a kid’s toy!” you’d be right.

This is the “My First Sony” CFS-2050 cassette boombox, released around 1992-93. My First Sony was basically Sony trying to make music players that were more child-friendly, with a red-yellow-blue color scheme. This one also came with a microphone that could be used for recording onto the tape, or just doing amateur karaoke. It could also double as an AM/FM radio if that’s more your thing.

Much like a lot of old hardware, the system came with problems when it was unearthed out of the storage tub it was in: The tape mechanism didn’t work at all. One of the most common problems with cassette players of this vintage is that the belts that handle playback have disintegrated, turning into rubber goop upon use. Indeed, after trying to use it once, one of the belts broke off and just wrapped itself around the motor. The other belt was still on the cassette deck, but I figure it wasn’t gonna be long before that too would end up breaking.

Looks rather daunting, but I bet I can make this work.

I am not really much of a repair person, but this thing’s held a bunch of memories to me that I couldn’t toss it away. A brief web search made me find the service manual, which had the part names for the two belts, which I was able to find thanks to a website that sells replacement parts for old music players. (I’ve linked the site in question at the bottom of this post.)

After removing the old belts and using rubbing alcohol to clean off any residue that might be still be on the wheels, I replaced the belts. After testing it opened up with a tape I had, it sprung to life and started playing music again.

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Visiting The Last Blockbuster Video.

Perhaps this is my age showing, but there’s a time where I fondly remember going to a video rental store to pick out a movie and have fun with it for a few days. There was a local video store in my neighborhood where we’d constantly go to for movies, though most of the time I just rented from their NES games, usually the game show ones. Though I did constantly see stuff like Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode and Fester’s Quest but never really got curious enough to play them.

The “good old days” of Blockbuster. (Courtesy of Vintage Tv Commercials on YouTube.)

Then Blockbuster Video opened up in the late 1980s. When the 1990s hit, they started to expand, appearing all around the United States. At this point, the local video rental store wasn’t the hot place anymore as we rented from both Blockbuster and its rival Hollywood Video more often as they had the newest stuff more immediately. Said video store has since shut down and been replaced by a Mexican food store. I still kinda miss that place.

Blockbuster was often our family’s go to for recent movies and video games. A fair share of games I played during the SNES and Genesis era came from Blockbuster. In an old post I made about my mom’s love for ToeJam and Earl, I mentioned that I still have the cartridge which was engraved with “Blockbuster Video” on the back. Still do, and it brings some nostalgic memories of not just my mother but also this video store chain.

But then we get into the 2000s, with internet streaming slowly becoming a thing. Netflix comes around and does similar services to Blockbuster Video but without all those late fees. They try to compete but it’s too late. Even with trying to be antagonistic towards Netflix with a somewhat infamous tweet, it isn’t enough. Blockbuster Video stores start closing in the US. The one that was in my area gets replaced by various stores including a Cricket Wireless store and a doctor’s office.

Normally, that would be the end of the tale. A business that muscled its way into being the primary market for something, got blindsided by new technology, and then just fizzled away to a past nostalgic memory. Blockbuster Video isn’t much of an entity in the United States these days. Except for one.

The sun-faded look of the Blockbuster letters is charming, in a sense.

Bend, Oregon has what is considered to be “The Last Blockbuster Video on the Planet,” and that store became somewhat legendary because of its staying power, being the last open store as of 2019. I’ve gone on camping trips near La Pine, Oregon over the years and every time we always drove past that Blockbuster, even though we were aware of how famous it was now. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was genuinely worried about that place shutting down due to lagging sales as many other businesses did, thus not giving me the opportunity to visit what was considered a cultural landmark. Thankfully that didn’t happen, and I was able to visit it this year.

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The Mercy Rule: A proposal to fix unbalanced FPS matches.

It’s no secret that I play a lot of competitive first-person shooter games. While I vary in skill from an absolute noob to top of the leaderboards depending on the game and match I play, I do play a fair share of competitive games. Often times these become my podcast games, where I just mindlessly shoot things while hearing about video games, history, or forgotten TV shows. And yet, I seem to do okay most of the time with not that much focus.

However, there’s one particular quirk about these kind of games that bothers me. One that’s been set in stone since the early days of online deathmatching with Doom and Quake almost 30 years ago. Something that has become more of a problem in recent years: Unbalanced teams.

We’ve all likely had those kind of experiences, the ones where you realize the other team is just too good, and there’s no way in hell a victory is on the horizon. You get fragged frequently, oftentimes by people with reflexes so sharp that you’d swear they’re hopped up on amphetamines. You may get a lucky frag or two, get a “comeback” medal, but it’s not enough. The game ends with an outright blowout: 100-48.

Nothing more demoralizing than something like this, from a match of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.

Sometimes when players see the writing on the wall, they’ll bounce out of the game mid-match, forfeiting an XP bonus for staying with the match, ending up with a game that ends up being 6 vs 3, making it more lopsided and unbalanced, even as new players join in to make it balanced again. Back in the day you’d see players swapped over to the other team to try to balance things, but not anymore. Once a team’s in a game, that team’s set in stone until the game ends.

For some, it’s discouraging. It feels like one’s skills are inadequate enough to play these games. It demoralizes the player, so they may not give their best. Thus when the odds are stacked against your team, and they know the other team’s filled with the kind of player that’s likely doing sick YouTube frag videos, it just stops being a fun experience.

Granted, some games like Call of Duty have made it so if you joined a losing game in progress that it doesn’t count as a loss against you, but it’s a patchwork solution to a bigger problem. Even recent elements like Skill-Based Matchmaking, which has become sort of a bane to some high-level players, can only do so much to help out games that are clearly favoring one team.

Even being on the winning side of a crushing battle, from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019), doesn’t feel fun to me.

I’ve thought about this problem for a while. While I am not a game designer – I tried that in community college and it went over my head so much that one of our team members, a person with Actual Gamedev Skills and is likely in the industry nowadays, had to bail us out of our final class project – I am familiar with some of the tenets of game design that I think I can make an idea to resolve this. I’ve called it the “Mercy Rule.” It’s not a catchy title, but I think it works in theory.

How does the “Mercy Rule” work? Well, if there’s a large score discrepancy between two teams, the game ends early, regardless of time or frag limit. The winner is immediately decided, XP is rewarded, and everyone’s moved back to the lobby. A fairly simple rule that I think could make a slight difference in terms of multiplayer gaming. Letting games end early with this new Mercy Rule could make a difference when it comes to gameplay. It means matches don’t drag along to the finish line, games finish quicker, and there’s more incentive to stick around rather than ragequit, especially if there’s some extra incentive like bonus XP or something.

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Mods and Maps: Duke Nukem: Alien Armageddon – Alien asskicking goes nuclear.

The Build Engine is a fascinating piece of tech. Made by a young Ken Silverman, the engine was made as one of those engines that could rival Doom in features, and was used to great effect with its design, features and most importantly, interactivity. Build brought us some of the coolest mid-90s FPS games: Shadow Warrior, Blood, and of course, the granddaddy himself, Duke Nukem 3D.

Still looks cool as hell as it did in 1996.

With news breaking of someone leaking a work-in-progress build of Duke Nukem Forever from around 2001, I’d be kinda getting an itch to go back to the ‘roided up wisecracker. Problem was finding good Duke-related content.

While Doom’s mod community is well documented and reported upon, I feel the Duke Nukem 3D mod community is talked about a lot less. Granted, there isn’t a whole lot of outstanding mods, and some of the more notable ones like Plunder & Pillage have an unfortunate history behind it. But somehow, I found a modification for Duke Nukem 3D that for a good while was my go-to if I wanted to play a game that wasn’t a Call of Duty title.

Quite the content warning you got there.

Duke Nukem: Alien Armageddon is a modification for Duke Nukem 3D using the eDuke32 source port of Build. At first glance, you’d think this is just a few new levels and maybe a few monsters. Oh, it’s much, much more than that.

Made by a team called “Dukeboss,” the team mostly consists of sebabdukeboss20, a modder known for the AMC Squad for Duke Nukem 3D, and DeeperThought, whose Duke Nukem Attrition mod for Duke Nukem 3D was something I played constantly for years. There’s a myriad of other developers involved, including mappers, artists, even voice actors; but those are the most notable members of team Dukeboss.

New content, same old Doomed Space Marine.

Alien Armageddon is a combination of Duke Nukem 3D with a myriad of new items and features. The original episodes from Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition alongside two of the official expansion packs – Duke It Out in D.C. and Duke Caribbean: Life’s a Beach – which add new cutscenes, animated features and even abilities like an RPG system and an AI partner. I’ll get into that more in a bit.

Okay, I’m genuinely impressed about how they made this episode selection thing.
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Magrunner: Dark Pulse – Now you’re thinking with polarity!

It really cannot be overstated how much Portal made an impact to video games when released in 2007. Valve snatched up a few Digipen students with an ambitious project, gave it that high quality Valve polish and released it as part of The Orange Box. The game was considered tertiary to the rest of The Orange Box – the more hyped games being the long-awaited Team Fortress 2, and Half-Life 2: Episode Two, the continuation of the Half-Life 2 saga – but Portal somehow became that surprise smash hit that started making small waves in the puzzle platforming genre.

In the years following, a fair share of games would copy Portal’s first-person perspective but try it with different ideas. Antichamber did puzzle-solving in impossible spaces. Quantum Conundrum involved shifting between dimensions to affect objects in the world. Even something like The Ball had the titular ball be used to solve tricky puzzles. But I couldn’t think of a puzzle game that involved gravity and polarity. Until now.

He looks like Cole MacGrath from inFAMOUS‘s dorky half-brother. (Cover courtesy of Mobygames.)

Enter Magrunner: Dark Pulse. A first-person puzzle platformer that involves polarity and gravity to solve puzzles. Released in 2013 for the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it’s another one of those puzzle platformers that involve shooting objects to solve puzzles.

This was developed by 3AM Games, a small development studio based in Kyiv, Ukraine. They had done contract work with Frogwares, the developers of the myriad of Sherlock Holmes games. Funded on the crowdfunding site Ulele, they received €110,000 in funding, just barely hitting their €100,000 goal. With some help from Frogwares and distributor Focus Home Interactive, they were able to make this game a reality. As far as I know, this would end up being 3AM’s last known project, as most of the team joined Frogwares proper not long after. 

I had gotten this for free on GOG not long after its release, and had mostly thrown it into The Pile that is my neverending backlog. Struggling to figure out a game to play, I let The Backloggery’s Fortune Cookie feature do its magic, and it picked this. Though I opted to use my Steam copy, of which I don’t remember when I got it. Maybe around the same time as I snagged the GOG edition. So if you’re wondering why this game might be in your game library, that might be it.

2 Unlimited not included. You gotta go to BioMetal if you want that.

You play as Dax Ward, an orphaned child whose parents died rather unexpectedly. Being mentored by a mutant scientist named Gamaji, Ward enters a contest to be one of the first people to use MagTech’s space training program, sponsored by LifeNet, a major social media conglomerate. The whole Magrunner event is broadcast and shown, featuring Magrunners from all walks of life.

Everything starts out smoothly, where Magrunners are solving the puzzles within. Parts of Magrunner start out feeling very Portal-esque at first. Dax moves from test chamber to test chamber through elevators, the test chambers are very clean and scientific like Portal’s Aperture Science test chambers, stuff like that. So far you’d expect that it’s gonna be similar to that, right?

Then the power starts malfunctioning and people slowly are dying. Dax must survive and get to the bottom of this mess by solving puzzles involving polarity. Which sounds silly, but hey, it’s a puzzle game, those things don’t need that strong of a plot.

The polarity in action, with a fancy cube. Yes, it does look like Christmas by default.

If you’ve played Portal, most of Magrunner’s mechanics will make sense pretty quickly. Dax has two polarity colors – Red and Green by default, though they can be changed to any color – of which he can put onto objects highlighted in yellow. Much like magnets and polarity in real life, two objects of the same polarity color will often stick together, while two objects with different polarity colors will repel them away from each other.

Throughout Dax’s journey through the catastrophe, he’ll solve a multitude of polarity puzzles, flinging boxes, using platforms, trying to avoid turrets that’ll shoot him on contact – sorry, these ones don’t talk with a cutesy voice – all the typical puzzle platformer stuff.

This section required me to bring three platforms to an ideal height so I could jump off the box at the top. This… took a while to complete.
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