Saturday 22 June 2013

Gaming Memories

A friend of mine has been posting his personal top 100 games along with memories attached to those games and quite some of it is recognisable.
For instance, in his second post in his Top Games List, he briefly describes his memories of playing:
Snake Rattle 'n' Roll (NES) screenshot
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)
  • Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (Gameboy Advance)
  • Pokemon Emerald (Gameboy Advance)
  • Final Fantasy Legend 3 (Gameboy)
  • Gremlins 2 (NES)
  • Chip’s Challenge (PC)
  • Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom (PC)
  • Dynasty Warriors 5: Empires (Playstation 2)
  • Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out (NES)
  • Snake Rattle 'n' Roll (NES).
Of all those games, I think I only played Wing Commander, and perhaps Gremlins and Snake Rattle 'n Roll (but then for the Game Boy Classic if that is possible…)

It got me going down memory lane though, which made me wonder: are my memories about specific games in particular, or something more generic about gaming itself?

Renting games

The Videoland video store where we
rented most of our videogames.
Photograph is a screenshot of Google Streetview
For me it's mostly the gaming itself I think. Having saved up to buy a game, or being allowed to rent a game at the video store for instance. Every now and then my brother and I could pick 3 games and rent them for a short period; it was either for 3 days or a week, depending on how new the game was.

At first the games we rented were Game Boy Classic games. It was a great way of trying out games without having to fork over a lot of money only to find out it was a rubbish game after all. Especially when we were able to finish the game before we had to bring them back, it was both a feeling of achievement, and a feeling of relief that we didn't buy it. Other games proved to have a lot of replay value, and so either me or my brother would end up buying it.
Solomon's Club (GB)
Photograph by Filip H.F. "FiXato" Slagter
Licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0
We each had our own Game Boy games, but we would share the games with each other. I remember him getting Super Mario Land 1, The Hunt for Red October and Revenge of the Gator for instance, while I got Super Mario Land 2, Wario Land and Solomon's Club.

Super Nintendo Era

Super Nintendo Cabinet
Photograph by Jeremy Riel
Licensed as CC-BY-SA-2.0
Time passed, and Nintendo brought the Super Nintendo (SNES) on the market. The first time I briefly played the device was a bit of a magical moment. We had visited a zoo in Emmen and afterward we had gone into the city to shop around a bit. When we got to the electronics department of the local Vroom & Dreesman (a well-known Dutch department store), I quickly spotted the new console's playing cabinet. It was showing Super Mario World and I was instantly swept away by the music, the playful and gorgeous graphics and the smooth and refreshing gameplay. The playtime on the machine was limited, but I probably spent as long as I could playing on it.

It wasn't until quite some time later though that we were allowed to rent a SNES for about a week. I still remember that it was at the same day elections for some local government thing were being held; it's funny how memory works.
I think we ended up renting the whole package again some other time and eventually we got the system as a present from our parents; I guess my mother just loved playing it too much herself as well.
From then on we would leave the video store mostly with rented SNES games, and the Game Boy saw a decrease in playing time. It also meant looking for good deals on SNES games in game stores.
Secret of Mana (SNES)
Photograph by Filip H.F. "FiXato" Slagter
Licensed as CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

Secret of Mana

One of the SNES rental memories was of Secret of Mana. The first time we rented the game, we couldn't get the game to work —the characters didn't want to move, or the screen was full of glitches— the downside of rental games I guess. We returned it, but weeks later we gave it another try; possibly with a better NTSC/PAL converter as the rental game was an NTSC release and we had a PAL Super Nintendo.
That time it was playable and we ended up extending the rental period because the game was so addictive (despite the graphical glitches it still had at times). After saving up for several weeks or months, I ended up buying it in a local game shop, and I still regard it as one of my favourite SNES games. Maybe especially because it was one of the few RPGs I actually finished... but apart from that the music is still great and really set the mood for the wonderful story and refreshing game mechanics. I'm still surprised so few other games have adopted the ring menus.

Not just about games

But those memories aren't just about the games themselves. It's everything around it. Being fortunate enough to be able to afford the consoles and games, getting the random games and accessories as presents, having parents who saw the positive sides of video games (feeding an interest in the gaming- and computer-industries, improving hand-eye coordination, stimulating the social aspect by playing games with/against friends) and having a mother who was a wonderful gamer herself.

The best memory of it all

I guess that is the best memory of it all for me; playing those games with and/or against my mother while she was still alive. I still miss those gaming sessions... She was quite a games fan and together we played many games on MSX2, Game Boy, SNES and N64. Mostly puzzle games such as Tetris, but also a lot of RPGs. Heck, she even got further into some RPGs that I did! If I recall correctly, she did beat Lufia & the Fortress of Doom, while I still haven't.
She was one of my best gaming buddies and it's those memories I will cherish forever. Building a city together in Sim City, trying to beat each other's times in Super Mario Kart, exploring the castle and finding all the stars in Super Mario 64, working out the puzzles together in Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, visiting MSX fairs (I'll save my MSX-related memories for another post) and just spending time together.

So... What are your favourite memories? Are they related to specific games, or gaming in general?

Sunday 2 June 2013

Scratch Your Own Itches

Scratch Your Own Itches

or creating things you care about

How to create a useful project?

People sometimes ask me how to get started with programming, to which I usually respond with a question of my own: "do you have any itches of your own to scratch?"
Usually they don't get what I mean by that, and you probably don't either, so let me elaborate.
If you want to create something, it helps if it would be something you'd be using as well. If what you make doesn't solve a problem, or have a purpose, then there's a fair chance no one will use it.
Creating something for yourself, something that solves a problem for you —in other words a tool that scratches one of your own itches— will help you keep motivated, and even if others don't find it interesting, it won't be a waste of time as it will still have a very important user: you!

My own itches:

Over the years I've had a whole bunch of ideas, but imho the most interesting or useful ones are the ones I still use myself because they solved a daily/weekly issue for me or helped reduce repetitiveness of annoying tasks.

Reddit Enhancement Suite Dashboard

Default RES Dashboard
One of my most recent pet projects is my userstyle for the Reddit Enhancement Suite, a browser extension for Reddit power users. RES by itself adds a lot of useful features to the Reddit website, such as upvote counters, tags, highlights, notification popups, and my favourite: the Dashboard.
The default Dashboard has a lot of wasted space. If you want to follow a bunch of subreddits, you kind of have to limit the amount of rows to be able to view multiple ones at the same time.
I reckoned I could improve this, especially seeing how much empty black space is left on the screen. I wanted to make the widgets a lot smaller, and fit two next to each other. I also thought that some of the buttons had too much text or were too wide, so I would want to tweak those too.
Since the RES Dashboard is just a rendered website, I knew I could tweak things by writing my own userstyle; a Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) that overrides the existing styling rules. The easiest ways to implement one on Chrome is by using an extension such as Stylish or StyleBot and writing your override rules in that. Of course you can also prototype using the element inspector or Firebug, but those changes aren't permanent.
So, after installing either of those extensions (I'm still undecided which one I like best; though I'm leaning towards Stylish) I started prototyping. Using Chrome's built-in element inspector I found out the classnames of the elements I wanted to change, and began by making the widgets smaller and turning them into inline block elements so they could fit next to each other. It involved quite some experimenting to find the best fit, and a bunch of resizing and checking on my other computer to see if it worked okay on a different resolution as well.
As I started using it more and more, I also started experimenting with other tweaks; some of them successful —such as the overlay version of the expando boxes— while others were nicer in theory than in practice for instance the widgets that would expand while you hovered over them; the constant resizing was distracting— but every idea brought me more experience and sometimes new ideas.

Reddit Enhancement Suite Userstyle
My tweaked version of the RES Dashboard.
The 'end' result (though things like these never are truly finished) probably still isn't suitable for all screen resolutions and most people might find this layout to be too cluttered, but in the end that doesn't matter, as it makes the most important customer happy; me. It scratched an itch I was having, and it makes my experience of Reddit a better one. The possibility of others enjoying these tweaks as well is merely a bonus.

Google Plus' New Layout

G+ Default single-column layout
When Google Plus (G+ for short) introduced their new layout, a lot of people were complaining about how horrible the new columns layout was; sure you could switch to a single column layout, but that only left you with way too much whitespace.

G+: Default multi-column layout
Personally I quite liked the multi-columns layout, but I didn't like the smaller width of the cards (as the boxed posts are often called) as it made YouTube videos too small, and again brought too much greyspace/whitespace with it.

I knew I could just complain about it and hope for the problem to go away by itself and in the mean time have to get used to the new smaller content. However, I realised it most likely wouldn't get fixed any time soon (if at all), and that in the mean time I would just get more and more annoyed at the layout and it would ruin my experience. So, what was I to do?

Well, I could (and would) do the same as I did for my RES Dashboard: create a userstyle that would override the widths. Within an hour I had something usable; something that increased the width of the single column layout either to the full width of the page, or to a medium width single-column layout, which was still at a legible line length. I also had CSS rules for the two-column and three-column layout

I was mostly satisfied with the three-column tweaks myself, but decided to share all of them, and some people from the community loved me for it! Some of them improved upon it, others had already come up with their own solutions in the mean time. A couple users asked how they could further tweak certain aspects, or came with suggestions for other improvements.

My tweaked G+ Three Column Layout - one of the earliest revisions.

After some more tweaking I also released the code I had as-is on I didn't really keep it up-to-date though, especially since by now more custom stylesheets have become available, and I didn't feel like maintaining this with other solutions already out there. Besides, in the end I was satisfied with what I had, and I wanted to be able to instantly tweak things without worrying about breaking things for other users. Another reason was that I had support for various layouts that required commenting out CSS rules; something that didn't really work with the existing userstyle extensions as they would strip out comments.


I realise I haven't really talked about how to actually get started with programming, but I think it's best for someone to first think about what they will be creating and why/what for. The more they think about their project first, the more they can get excited about it, and the easier it eventually will be to get started.