Places in Spain I wish I had visited

I didn’t want to close this way too long-drawn out Spain travel series without noting some cities and sites in Spain that, had I had the time and money, I would have visited. Next time, of course, but next time is a long time from now for me. Even so, I can travel to these places in my mind – it’s the best I can do for the moment.

Cordoba

The Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba (Source: Timor Espallargas, Creative Commons)

The Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba (Source: Timor Espallargas, Creative Commons)

Cordoba was, for a few centuries following the Arab conquest of Spain, the center of the Emirate (later Caliphate) of Cordoba. The city became known throughout the Muslim world as a center of learning and art, and was home to great thinkers such as the Muslim scholar and mathematician Ibn Rushid, the Jewish historian Moses Maimonides, and the Berber inventor Abbas ibn Firnas, who is believed to have attempted flight (and survived the attempt!)

Cordoba has long passed that period, but it still features several interesting sites, the most famous of which is the 10th century Mosque-Cathedral. As its name suggests, this structure was initially built as the caliphate’s central mosque in the Muslim Andalusian style, but was converted to a cathedral after the Christian conquest of the city. This has created some interesting issues recently, with some Spanish Muslims unsuccessfully lobbying their government to allow them to conduct prayer services in the Mosque-Cathedral.

Seville

The Alcazar of Seville (Source: Magnus Manske, Creative Commons)

The Alcazar of Seville (Source: Magnus Manske, Creative Commons)

As one of southern Spain’s largest and oldest cities, Seville seems like an interesting place to visit. The city was under Muslim rule until 1248, and it features examples of both Muslims and Christian Spanish architecture. It also houses the above-pictured Alcazar, a palace built by the Almohad dynasty and expanded by later Christian kings. Adjacent is the Giralda, a great minaret-turned-bell tower that speaks of the city’s conflicted past.

In the United States, Seville is best known for flamenco, a traditional form of Spanish music and dance that has roots in Romani art. Flamenco seems to feature one or more ladies, often wearing red dresses, dancing to a dude playing a classical guitar and backing percussion. It looks pretty cool to me, and it might be an interesting thing to check out if you’re in the area.

Barcelona

The Sagrada Familia, Europe's strangest cathedral (Source: Bernard Gagnon, Creative Commons)

The Sagrada Familia, Europe’s strangest cathedral (Source: Bernard Gagnon, Creative Commons)

Barcelona was well out of the way during my trip, but I’d like to check it out someday. Spain’s second city, Barcelona is a large, bustling seaport and the center of Catalan culture. It’s also well known for its vibrant art scene.

One of the most interesting projects in Europe is taking place in Barcelona right now. The Sagrada Familia, the large cathedral pictured above, is the product of the great architect Antoni Gaudi, who seemed to picture a modern take on the old Gothic style that so many of Spain’s cathedrals are built in. The Sagrada Familia also has the distinction of being one of the slowest construction projects in modern history – it was begun in 1882 and continues to this day, halted at various points by civil war and funding problems. Hopefully it will be finished some time before we all die.

Valencia/Balearic Islands

Spain’s most eastern provinces, including the coastal region of Valencia and the Balearic Islands, are great places to visit if you like the beach. I don’t like the beach, so I didn’t bother visiting. They also have plenty of history, and Valencia is an important city it its own right, but both were too far out of my way. But hey, if you like the beach, you should probably consider visiting them.

So that’s it. There are certainly many more interesting places to see and things to do in Spain, but my series of posts on Spain is complete. It’s a country with a fascinating history and a variety of cultures and artistic forms, and it’s also a great place to just have a good time for a while. I hope to have the chance to travel there again and start a second Spain travelogue.

Retrospective: Knuckles Chaotix

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As a former child growing up in the 90s, I remember when Mario and Sonic were the go-to guys for video game-related fun and time-wasting. They still are, I suppose – but in the early 90s, they were a whole lot more prominent, complete with massive ad campaigns and a running war over the world’s game console market.

As it turned out, neither Nintendo nor SEGA won that war, because Sony pretty much screwed both of them with the Playstation. But while Nintendo managed to hang on with the Nintendo 64 and carve out a niche for themselves as a purveyor of excellent first-party titles, SEGA spun completely out of control and crashed into the NASCAR bleachers, killing and maiming hundreds of spectators. The Saturn debacle could be taught at business schools as a case study in marketing ineptitude, but SEGA’s earlier hardware add-ons to the popular Genesis console were almost as misguided.

The SEGA CD system was the first of these disasters, a 1993 CD attachment that sold poorly and should have tipped SEGA off to the fact that nobody was interested in new consoles that attached to consoles they already owned. But SEGA hadn’t learned their lesson, because Christmas 1994 brought the SEGA 32X, yet another add-on to the Genesis that could run 32-bit games. As far as I can remember, none of us at school really knew it existed – and we were exactly the same little shits that SEGA was directly targeting with their ad campaigns.

Bad marketing decision, or worst marketing decision?

Bad marketing decision, or worst marketing decision?

Okay, enough of the video game console wars history stuff. The 32X, despite the general shittiness of its concept, did have at least a couple of interesting games on it, as I learned when visiting the house of a friend from school (who was also the only person I knew in the world who owned a 32X. Seriously, next to nobody bought it.) One of these was Knuckles Chaotix, a game spun off of the wildly popular Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Knuckles was supposedly an echidna, which as far as I can tell is a sort of Australian anteater thing, and he was Sonic’s rival in Sonic & Knuckles, which was and still is an amazing platformer. In Chaotix, Knuckles joins up with a new team of animal-people to do whatever the hell it is you’re trying to do in this game (I don’t quite remember, but “stop Dr. Robotnik” probably covers it.)

Yes, it says "WELCOME TO THE NEXT LEVEL IN 32X WORLD."  Too bad nobody cared to take the invitation.

Yes, it says “WELCOME TO THE NEXT LEVEL IN 32X WORLD.” Too bad nobody cared to take the invitation.

It really is too bad that nobody played it, because Knuckles Chaotix is an interesting game. It might not be a good game, exactly – but it’s certainly not a bad one, and if you have a friend to play it with, it can be pretty fun.

Having a friend around is vital, actually, because Chaotix is really a two-player game. In some ways, it resembles other Sonic Genesis titles: it’s a platformer with lots of curves and loops and straight areas that let you build up speed, and Dr. Robotnik is the bad guy you’re fighting. However, Chaotix distinguishes itself from every other game in the series by featuring 1) a mandatory policy of two characters on screen at all times 2) who are tethered together by a magical sparkly rope that never breaks. This bond allows each character to “slingshot” each other across a level, quickly building up insane amounts of speed and allowing wild leaps that would never be possible to make with a single character. Characters could also pick up and throw each other up onto higher ledges (or pick each other up for no reason and run around – not especially productive, but a great way to piss off your friend.)

This golden tether keeps you and your partner tied together and allows you to build up massive speed by slingshotting each other up curves.

This golden tether keeps you and your partner tied together and allows you to build up massive speed by slingshotting each other up curves.

Knuckles Chaotix is interesting for the way it forces teamwork and cooperation between its players. It’s also interesting for how it takes control away from the player when choosing a new level to play (picked randomly by the computer) and a new partner to play with. Each player has seven characters to choose from, including Knuckles himself, his friends (who each have special abilities) and two really shitty, slow characters called Bomb and Heavy that seem to have been inserted into the game solely to piss players off. Unfortunately, you might have to play as these guys, because in order to switch up your team mid-stride one character has to play a game akin to that ripoff carnival grabber game that features a seemingly random collection of possible new partners. You’ll need decent reflexes to grab the character you want.

The strange character select screen

The strange character select screen

So this is definitely an interesting game (how many times have I said that this review? Way too many times.) But Knuckles Chaotix does have some issues that put its overall quality into question. Firstly, the layout of the game’s stages can be confusing – it’s often not clear which direction you have to travel to reach the end of the stage. Sonic CD also had this problem, but Chaotix takes it to the extreme. This can obviously produce a lot of frustration.

Secondly, Chaotix pretty much sucks if it’s played alone. It can be played alone, but, as I learned when playing it a bit recently on an emulator, it’s quite aggravating and unintuitive to control two characters at the same time, even though it is possible through the carrying and slingshot methods. Besides, from what little I can remember about playing this game with a friend almost 20 years ago, most of the fun of Chaotix comes from screwing over your partner and laughing at the general weirdness of the game’s features and mechanics.

There are some doors that will only open through teamwork.  Also note the negative ring count.

There are some doors that will only open through teamwork. Also note the negative ring count.

So is Knuckles Chaotix worth playing? The question is pretty much moot because, as far as I can tell, the game was never re-released after the almost immediate failure of the 32X. One might have expected SEGA to slap Chaotix onto a compilation to give it a new lease on life, as they did with the equally forgotten Sonic CD, but for whatever reason they never have. If you want to play this thing, you’ll either have to go the emulator route and find a way to set up a two-player thing around your computer or buy a 32X (and a Genesis, if you don’t own one already) and a copy of the game on eBay. Knuckles Chaotix is a strange and fascinating title, but I can’t honestly say it’s worth tracking down a 20 year-old Genesis add-on for. If, however, you are a Sonic fan with lots of disposable income and you know someone else who actually gives a shit about playing this, I say go for it.

Anyway, that was entirely too many words I just wrote about this game. I blame it on the half-pot of coffee I drank. I’m going to lie down now.

A review of Atelier Rorona Plus

Since the following year at school is going to be rough going, I decided to cram one more game into my summer schedule, one that was recommended to me specially. Atelier Rorona Plus is the latest in the long-running Atelier JRPG series by developer Gust. This title is a Vita download-only game, meaning you won’t find it on the shelves. As the “Plus” suggests, it’s also an extended remake (and judging from a video I’ve seen of the original, a vastly improved remake) of the original on the PS3. A better title for this game, though, might have been Cute Girls Doing Science, or maybe Deadline Simulator, because those together describe everything about Rorona.

When you own a game with a cover like this, you know you've entered the true depths

When you own a game with a cover like this, you know you’ve entered the true depths

The plot of Atelier Rorona is tied into a much larger web of stories and characters that I don’t understand because I haven’t played any of the other 15+ Atelier games out. The basic gist, though, is that you are Rorona, a girl who is forced to study alchemy under her master to pay off debt or something. Luckily, Rorona seems to enjoy alchemy, although her master, who owns the local alchemy workshop, is a real pain to work for. She’s such a pain to everyone she meets, in fact, that her laziness and bitchiness has caused the government to declare that they will shut down her workshop unless she can fulfill twelve government orders over a period of three years in three-month increments. Naturally, the very same day your boss hands over ownership of the workshop to you and palms the whole task off on you. Despite all this, she’s still your boss somehow and still hangs around the workshop.

Atelier Rorona Plus is a fantasy game, but even in this world your boss is an asshole.

Atelier Rorona Plus is a fantasy game, but even in this world your boss is an asshole.

So despite the flowers and cuteness and everything, this game is not exactly for little girls (I imagine a kid would get bored of this game within one minute, in fact.) It is all about gathering ingredients and cooking them up into new things that you can learn how to make by reading alchemy books, and a lot of those things can be combined to make even more things. To keep the workshop from closing, you’ll have to fulfill government orders before each deadline by gathering and crafting certain required items and bringing them to the government office for evaluation and collection. Are you excited yet?

You'll be looking at screens like this one a lot.

You’ll be looking at screens like this one a lot.

No, actually, this is a pretty fun game. It incorporates a lot of typical RPG elements – you have friends in town that you’ll be able to bring with you to look for elements and ingredients in the various field areas. There’s also a pretty basic turn-based RPG combat system that activates when you meet enemies while on your ingredient hunts. The nice thing about combat in this game is that you can use items you create in your workshop to kill enemies in the field.

Rorona, dressed properly for the battlefield

Rorona, dressed properly for the battlefield

Atelier Rorona Plus has enough optional content to hold your interest, and there are plenty of jobs to take alongside your required tasks. There are apparently also lots of different endings that depend upon how well you do in filling your orders and increasing the popularity of your shop around town.

So my verdict is this: it’s a good game. You have to have a high tolerance for cute ditzy anime girls and stuff like that, and it helps if you’re an obsessive-compulsive of the sort who has to collect everything and unlock every secret in every game you ever play, but Atelier Rorona Plus stands well on its own merits.

Retrospective: SimTower

When I was young and not having to worry about my diet or bills or loans or getting a job or taking horrifically terrible exams, I played a lot of computer games, and at the time the Sim series of games was massively popular. Sort of like how it is now, only The Sims blessedly did not exist (even after 15 years I don’t understand the appeal of The Sims. A smaller, duller version of my own already boring life? Amazing! The only fun thing about The Sims is building a death trap house and watching its eight luckless inhabitants slowly go insane and/or die.)

(Don’t look at me like that. Everyone who’s ever owned The Sims has done that at least once.)

No, back in the 90s, the Sim series was known for SimCity, and namely for the far improved sequel SimCity 2000 that confusingly came out in 1993. But the Sim series didn’t stop at cities: you could also build your own farm, ant colony or really terrible-looking helicopter. One of the more successful of these spinoff titles was SimTower, a game that Maxis published in the West on behalf of weirdo Japanese game designer Yoot Saito in 1994.

Finally, the chance to recreate the shitty office building you work in

Finally, the chance to recreate the shitty office building you work in!

SimTower, on its face, is simple. It’s a 2D building management game. The general formula you’ll follow goes like so: build a lobby, build offices/hotel rooms/condos and rent/sell them to your tenants, build restaurants and shops for your tenants and outside visitors both to enjoy.

You’ll quickly learn, however, that building management is a frustrating job. Office workers and condo tenants placed too close to restaurants will complain about the noise. All your tenants will complain about travel time, especially if they have to navigate a circuitous route down stairs and elevators to get where they’re going (and it will be impossible not to build these kinds of paths if your building is greater than 15 stories tall.) Your businesses will be happy and pay you rent as long as they’re in the black, but if they’re doing poorly, they’ll lose money for you and become a drain on your funds. Condos are a great way to make a one-time profit for a quick cash influx, but they’re also difficult to maintain and take up a lot of space. Offices and hotel rooms are at least guaranteed income as long as they are occupied, but if the general happiness of the tenants falls enough, you’ll have to push the rents and rates down to keep them in your building. Forget the tower: at its core, SimTower is a happiness management simulator.

If someone is red, it means they're pissed off, possibly because they're having to wait three hours to ride an elevator.  You will see a lot of red people as you play SimTower.

If someone is red, it means they’re pissed off, possibly because they’re having to wait three hours to ride an elevator. You will see a lot of red people as you play SimTower.

All of the above might make SimTower seem like a chore to play, but it’s not. It’s strangely satisfying to watch new tenants snap up the offices and other properties you place in your tower as it rises to the skies. The game features a tiered rewards system that unlocks new properties and services for you to use as your tower’s population increases. And, like every good Sim game, SimTower features random scenarios: the arrival of a VIP who will cast judgment upon your tower at the end of his visit, outbreaks of fire, and even terrorist bomb threats.

It also has day/night cycles!  Well, it's not that impressive considering the relative primitiveness of the graphics, but still.

It also has day/night cycles! Well, it’s not that impressive considering the relative primitiveness of the graphics, but still.

Although I doubt very much that it even came close to the success of SimCity, SimTower sold well enough to inspire a sequel, Yoot Tower. Yoot Tower came out in 1998 and added some new features while keeping the same old visual style and general concept of its predecessor. While it might have done well in its home country, though, Yoot Tower seems to have been a flop in the US. Maybe it looked and played too similar to SimTower to be accepted as a truly new title. Or maybe it was the fact that the economy of Yoot Tower is completely fucked, with certain building options being guaranteed money-losers no matter what. I still like the game, probably just out of nostalgia for the original, but Yoot Tower feels like a broken remake of SimTower. Thankfully, Yoot Saito would move on to make Seaman and Odama and other bizarre titles that had nothing to do with buildings.

Don't even bother with the ramen shop.  It sucks.  Must have gotten bad reviews online.

Don’t even bother with the ramen shop. It sucks. Must have gotten bad reviews online.

Despite the fact that SimTower is now 20 years old, the game is still fun and holds up pretty well. Best of all, both SimTower and its sequel seem to qualify as abandonware now, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find them online and play them through a virtual machine (though I believe both can actually run on Windows 7/8, which is amazing.) At any rate, SimTower isn’t on Steam, which is really a shame: it would make for a great download for five dollars or so. Especially considering the fact that, unlike SimCity and The Sims, the SimTower concept hasn’t truly been improved upon from the 1994 original. Unless I’ve missed something, which is entirely possible.

Notes on Spain: San Fermin

One of the greatest spectacles in Europe occurs every July in Pamplona, a city in the Basque Country in northern Spain. You’ve almost definitely heard of it – in fact, it’s going on right now as I write this. It’s the San Fermin festival, aka the Running of the Bulls.

Pure insanity, every July in Pamplona.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Pure insanity, every July in Pamplona. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I haven’t been to Pamplona, much less to Pamplona during San Fermin. However, I know people who have been, and I know even more people who think the people in the first part of this sentence are idiots. Thousands of people go to Pamplona every summer, drink several million gallons of alcohol and run down narrow streets after six bulls are loosed on them. The bulls are led along the streets by way of gates and barriers put up for that purpose into an arena, where they later fight matadors and then get stabbed with swords and slaughtered (this is the part a lot of people in the US don’t seem to know about.) The bull run, or encierro, is an event that occurs throughout Spain and in other parts of the world, but Pamplona’s is by far the largest and most famous.

So almost all my countrymen know about this festival, but why? Apparently because of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which prominently features the festival. It’s just the kind of thing that Hemingway would have enjoyed, too, given his love for doing crazy shit to show his masculinity (judging by some of his work, at least. I am a fan, though.)

A statue in Pamplona.  You'd think this would put at least a few people off of the bull run idea.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A statue in Pamplona. You’d think this would put at least a few people off of the bull run idea. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The whole bull cruelty thing aside (this isn’t an animal rights blog after all) is it really stupid to run with the bulls in Pamplona? I think I can really understand the mindset of the people who go there. Regular life can be dull and grating, and running away from a bull while drunk and/or hung over is the exact opposite of that. One of my mother’s bosses, a chief at the accounting office of a real estate management company, went to San Fermin every year. I imagine a lot of accountants, clerks, real estate agents (and lawyers? hmm) on those streets alongside all the young idiot drunk college students.

The beginning of the festival (not pictured: gross drunkenness and flashing.) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The beginning of the festival (not pictured: gross drunkenness and flashing.) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

What do you think of the people who participate in the San Fermin bull run? Is it idiotic? Understandable? Both?

Amazon thinks I’m a pervert

Why else would it have sent me an email suggesting I pre-order Xseed’s Akiba’s Trip, a game about going to Tokyo’s Akihabara nerdtopia district and fighting vampires by stripping their clothes off and exposing them to sunlight?

Note the way the title is printed.  Clever.

Note the way the title is printed. Clever.

Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed is being released in the first week of August for the PS3 and the Vita. According to the preorder site, it features:

- A “faithful recreation of Japan’s Electronics Mecca”, with over 130 actual shops depicted
– “Unique and customizable brawler-style combat” that lets you use signposts and other pieces of the environment as weapons
– Irreverent takes on “common anime and video game tropes for social satire” (is it still really “social satire” when it’s aimed at a subculture of fans?)
– The ability to strip opponents and wear their clothes

Pictured: The protagonist (probably.)  Is the girl to his right going to be attacked and stripped to her skivvies for the sake of protecting the human race from vampires?  It seems likely.

Pictured: The protagonist (probably.) Is the girl to his right going to be attacked and stripped to her skivvies for the sake of protecting the human race from vampires? It seems likely.

Aside from the fact that the gameplay does sound fun (assuming Xseed pulls off good “brawler-style” gameplay) there are a few strange points here. Well, just one: the stripping. The game remains unrated, but I’d bet cash money on its being stamped with an M rating.

The strangest part of this whole deal is the quote from an Xseed executive talking about the dub: ‘This is the biggest voiceover project ever at Xseed. Part of the reason we’re doing it is we feel this game can appeal to more of a mainstream audience and just not otakus,” said Executive Vice President Ken Berry.’

What better game to win over the fence-sitters than one where you assault and strip women on a public street?

What better game to win over the fence-sitters than one where you assault and strip women on a public street?

To be fair, Akiba isn’t out yet. But for some reason, I don’t feel like this particular game is going to attract a lot of “non-otakus”. Maybe Ken Berry knows something I don’t. I might buy it if I hear the gameplay is good, but I am one of those nerds Berry is referring to (also kind of perverted, but that’s true for almost everyone, right?) If I do, though, I’ll definitely have to buy it online – there’s no way I can approach another human intending to purchase a game like this.

Retrospective: Montezuma’s Revenge

Some games are constant favorite, titles that you wish you could replay over and over. Others are favorites, but only because you played them when you were a kid and associate them with your early childhood. Montezuma’s Revenge is in the latter category.

Montezuma’s Revenge is a puzzle-based platformer from the 80s with an Aztec pyramid treasure hunting theme. Your character must collect coins, keys and swords (which will kill an enemy on the screen) while avoiding enemies such as rolling skulls and snakes. The game concept of “go to this temple/dungeon/pyramid and find gold and kill undead enemies” is a timeless one and Montezuma’s Revenge does it well, albeit with the kind of old-school cheap shots that made games in the 80s and early 90s so frustrating to play.

This screen is everything that you'll ever have to know about Montezuma's Revenge.  Your lives are represented by hats.  If you touch the skull here, you will lose one hat.

This screen is everything that you’ll ever have to know about Montezuma’s Revenge. Your lives are represented by hats. If you touch the skull here, you will lose one hat.

Why Montezuma’s Revenge is remembered while other, similar games have been forgotten probably turns on the fact that it was pretty damn advanced for a game released in 1984. The controls are janky as expected for an Atari/C64 game, but there’s usually a lot going on at any one time and the game is rarely boring. It’s not a timeless classic like Super Mario Bros., but it was great for its time and is still playable and fun. It was also at least partly responsible for later, far deeper 2d platformers like Cave Story and Spelunky. Well, actually, I don’t know that for sure, but I would bet that some of the makers of those games played Montezuma’s Revenge as kids.

Really, though, the most telling thing about the staying power of Montezuma’s Revenge is that, even ten years after its release, it was still installed on the Apple IIes at my school. Why my school let seven year-olds play games about jumping over skulls and collecting coins is a mystery. Maybe they thought computer game = educational? By that logic, they should have let us play Doom too, but they didn’t.

m3

The Master System Montezuma’s Revenge box is kind of amusing if only for how it proudly announces that it is “featuring PANAMA JOE”. Even though nobody knew who the hell PANAMA JOE was before Montezuma’s Revenge came out, and even then nobody cared. We just referred to him as “guy.” Ex: don’t let the guy fall into the fire pit.

If you want to play Montezuma’s Revenge today, you can probably get a rom and run it on DOSBox or something. You might enjoy it, though it helps if you also played it as a kid.