Friday, February 28, 2014

Kingdom Hearts: Early Blind Choices

At the very beginning of the tutorial level of Kingdom Hearts you get asked to pick an item and reject an item between the trio of sword, shield, and staff. Presumably the sword lets you beatdown more, the staff lets you cast spells, and the shield makes you tankier. But you don't know what those things actually do. The first time I played the game I believe I was living with Byung and Tom and we all picked different items to start. I took the shield and the difference was insane. The shield seemed to us to be by far the best, and for one key reason: Second Chance.

Second Chance is an ability that converts any attack that would kill you into an attack that lowers you to one health. An attack that hits you when you're already at one will actually kill you, but if you're at two or more you're invincible. If you start with the shield you get that ability at level 18. If you start with the staff you get it at level 48 and if you start with the sword you get it at level 51. I don't remember what level you're expected to be at when you beat the game, but by the time I was fighting the boss of the third world I could have been level 18 easily. That boss was able to kill me when I was at around 40% health, so I was stuck healing myself with a potion and an awkward menu every two attacks. I wasn't even falling into the 'low health beep beep beep' window. The boss could just burst me over that window. I actually ended up running out of potions and had to fly around a bunch to go buy more before I could win.

There's also a second blind choice section where you choose your experience progression by answering inane questions from young Selphie, Tidus, and Wakka. You can either have tougher levels early, late, or always have average progression. Early with the shield feels like it's by far the best for the early game and it's unclear if the actual game would even end before it peters out in power. I ended up taking the staff and going for the late game progression. I'll get to level 48 fastest this way! Assuming I don't get frustrated by not having Second Chance, anyway.

Having the staff means my magic is better and my attacks are worse. This feels wrong for me since I normally like to beat down in games, but I'm giving something new a try. It also turns out the staff significantly increases your spells (you get 25% more max mana and 25% more spell damage and deal 5% less physical damage). Will the extra max mana be worth losing a couple points of strength? I don't know!

I've now completed Alice in Wonderland, the first part of Hercules, and Tarzan. I'm a little sad that I don't have Second Chance since I've died a _lot_ so far. But you generally respawn in the same room where you died without losing any progress except for the fight that killed you, so it's only a little sad and not the absolute end of the world. I suspect I won't end up restarting to pick up the shield. Heck, if worse comes to worse I can just grind my way up to level 48, right? Right!

I think this is a terrible game mechanic though. I'm fine with different difficulty settings (the game actually has one of those as well!) but I don't like obfuscated difficulty settings. No one who just picked up the game would know that the shield is the best by far. And no one would know what answer combo to give the FF kids to get the right experience progression either. I like that there's this level of customization for difficulty, but I don't like that you wouldn't have a clue how to play the game you want to play without turning to the internet. Especially back in 2002, where turning to the internet was less of an expected thing, I think.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Kingdom Hearts: Plan

There is no plan. I'm not checking out the internet for a potential plan, either. I'm just going to play the game.

Ok, maybe that's not quite true. I played this game once quite some time ago and I'm pretty sure I did everything there was to do in the game. I definitely remember eventually beating the challenge boss: Sephiroth! I guess my plan is probably going to be have fun and try to kill Sephiroth again. Because while I don't remember much about the game, I do remember that fight was awesome.

It's funny, my mind thinks of Kingdom Hearts as a new game, but I last played it over a decade ago. It's almost like my brain is stuck in the early 2000s. Oh well!

Anyway, Kingdom Hearts is an action RPG where you team up with Donald Duck, Goofy, and stars from various Disney movies in an attempt to fight evil and save Mickey Mouse. It plays a little like Secret of Mana in that you have two allies trying to help you out in combat. The Final Fantasy twist comes in by the addition of Final Fantasy characters to the Disney universe where you end up hanging out with Squall and a bunch of other dudes in town and fight Sephiroth at one point. It's a bit of a stretch, but I remember having a lot of fun with this game so it counts!

One thing that does make me sad about this game is I haven't seen all of the movies the game uses for worlds. I don't know why, but when I was a kid I felt like Disney movies were for girls and little kids and therefore I shouldn't want to watch them. My little sister had a lot of the movies and I did end up watching many of them as a result. I liked them. But I felt like I shouldn't like them. So I may not have full context for every level, and that's sad, but I can platform and kill enemies even when I don't know what they are!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Final Fantasy IX Conclusions

Earlier this morning I plowed my way through the last two dungeons in Final Fantasy IX, beat up the final boss, and saved the world. Woo! It took me a little longer to beat this game than I would have liked, but that's partially due to watching a lot of Olympics coverage and it's partially due to being sick since the Olympics ended. Concentrating on manipulating the ATB system wasn't the easiest thing for my frazzled mind to do, so I kept pausing and wandering off to read pro wrestling recaps because that doesn't take any real thinking.

I really liked how this game went back to a more standard class based system. The last 4 games have featured essentially interchangeable characters with small differences. Sure, only Locke could steal, but everyone in Final Fantasy VI could learn all the spells and max whatever stats they wanted. In this game each of the 8 playable characters has a wildly different set of active and passive abilities to learn that make them all significantly different from each other. If you want to blow people up with black magic spells you simply have to use Vivi; there is no other choice. They have a good set of characters too, that interact in good ways, so there are a bunch of viable parties. This time I wanted to really max out Vivi so I built a party to make him better. So I used Freya for her mana restore ability, Zidane because I think you have to, and Dagger because she would also make use of the mana restore ability and having a healer had to be a good plan.

It turned out that I entered the final dungeon sequence with 81 ethers in my inventory so it's entirely possible I didn't need Freya at all. She did less damage than anyone else which seemed bad, but she did have the most health and the best defenses so that was probably a good thing. If I had to do it again I think I'd want my party to include Steiner and Amarant instead of Dagger and Freya, but they'd both be good parties. And I know the first time I played I put a heavy emphasis on Quina because that character is just plain awesome.

I really liked the art style used in the game. It took a step back from trying to use the hot new Playstation graphics to make 'realistic' people and went for a more cartoony feel. The resolution for the gameplay wasn't great on my tv, but I don't think FFVII or FFVIII would have faired any better (and likely would have been a lot worse). The FMVs were awesome. And I think Garnet may actually be the prettiest character in any of the Final Fantasy games.

The game had tons of little throw backs to previous games. Key items named after characters from Final Fantasy III that let you play music from that game. A dwarf village like the ones in Final Fantasy IV. Two planets merging to become one like in Final Fantasy V. Souls becoming a mist and feeding the planet like in Final Fantasy VII.

It wasn't all good though. The ATB battle system was even more frustrating in this game compared to previous ones. The fact that the optimal way to play was to have one of your characters never take an action and instead open the menu to pause time during animations was pretty terrible. Even worse was when I had auto-regen on my whole team and the best way to heal up was to cast a long animation spell and not open the menu. Bahamut should not be my best healing spell! It really made having a 'healer' pretty silly, though at least Dagger had a long animation spell to be a good fake healer on top of being a potential real healer, too.

The random encounter system is complete garbage. Normally in a game like this exploring a dungeon completely for all the treasure isn't much of a chore. Maybe you take 40% more steps, which gets you 40% more fights. That's fine! In FFIX the random encounter counter resets each time you change screens, and most screens are pretty short. So short, in fact, that it's possible to beat the game with only 5 random encounters total because you can run through almost every screen without getting a fight. Fights also take a long time to load in. Fully exploring a dungeon is probably more like 20 times as long, not 1.4 times as long. Which is frustrating now that I know it, and it really makes limited resource characters like Vivi terrible if you're getting into a ton of extra fights. My playthrough this time was a little over 34 hours, and there's a reward for making it to the final dungeon in under 12 hours, and other than putting off the chocobo stuff and card game stuff until later the main way to save time is to learn the path through each zone to minimize encounters. I don't like it one bit.

The game also put in an homage to Beyond the Beyond, and not in a good way. In the middle of the game Dagger gets stressed out and can't talk. You can put her in your party still but she loses her trance bar and about half of the time she gets distracted instead of taking the action assigned to her. Can't move... CURSED! This was not a good thing. In retrospect I think Eiko would be a better healer since she gets esuna, full-life, and holy. And you can keep using her in the middle of the game! Holy should have a long enough cast time to be a healing spell...

The card game was disappointing and most of the timing based mini-games didn't work on my tv. Chocobo Hot and Cold was still very good. And I don't feel like I should ding the game because it doesn't work well on a new tv. The card game was disappointing on every playthrough though!

One thing that blew my mind was the final boss... His name was Necron and you learned that he existed 10 seconds before fighting him. Kuja and Garland both could be the final boss from the story... But no. They both end up helping you after you beat them up. But then there's just this random dude after you beat the final Kuja form. A dude who wants to put an end to the entire universe, to be fair, so you sure want to kill him. But where did he come from? Why is he there? Who knows. Kill the scary thing and win the game.

The ending was nice and happy. I still want to know how Vivi had kids. It was nice to see that pretty much all of the characters had a happy ending. Steiner loosened up a little and ended up with Beatrix! I was watching a speedrun of the game and someone commented in chat about how Steiner always starts off as everyone's most hated character but eventually comes to grow on people. No one there disputed that assessment, and I think it's true for me too. It helps that he's probably the most powerful character.

Anyway... Where should this game go in my little ranking chart? I liked a lot of things about this game, and it's definitely a worthwhile play. But it has some pretty big flaws too, and it's never really stood out in my mind one way or the other. I think it's definitely better than the NES era games but I think it has to slot in as worse than the rest of the core series. And Tactics, for that matter. So for now it gets to be #7 on my list. That's still pretty good, and I really think the reason it's so low is that the games ahead of it are all fantastic games with fewer glaring flaws.

Next up would be Final Fantasy X, but I'm holding off on playing that game until the HD version comes out on March 18th. I'm going to skip ahead to the next game, which is one I've been looking forward to playing again and which is really only tangentially part of the marathon anyway: Kingdom Hearts.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Final Fantasy IX: Chocobo Hot and Cold

Yesterday I finally obtained the airship in Final Fantasy IX and the story is building up to a big climactic battle where my party has to assault a stronghold in order to break down a barrier and invade another planet. Instead of making haste directly there I take the 'minor' detour to go play the chocobo mini-game! A little under 6 hours later I've dug up all the chocographs, found all of their treasures around the world, and have a ton of awesome new cards and gear.

Chocobo Hot and Cold has a fairly straightforward premise. You pay a moogle some cash and he lets you dig for a minute. When you dig in a location you get told how close you are to a randomly generated treasure by how excited your chocobo sounds. Use those sounds and future digs to narrow down the treasure. Once you've found it, mash the button until you dig it up. Repeat until you find 8 treasures or the minute runs out. Mostly the treasures are worthless junk like potions but every now and then you'll find a chocograph which shows a little picture of the world along with a hint for what is being pictured. Head out into the world, find that spot, and dig again to get the loot! Some of those outside treasures power up your chocobo to let him swim, or climb mountains, or fly. Each new ability unlocks a new way to dig up chocographs and opens up more of the world for finding chocographs.

Anyway, this is at least the third time I've done this. I find it pretty easy to zone out and play the mini-game. It's fun, and it gives good rewards. One thing that changed this time is I didn't have to look up anything on the internet in order to finish it off! There's this one chocograph where the picture is just ocean and the hint isn't very useful. And it's not that I remembered where it was, either... No, this time I just refused to give up until I'd searched the entire area of the ocean. And I did pretty much that, too... Not only was it in the last place I looked (because I stopped looking when I found it, duh) but it was pretty much in the last place I was going to look. I was just about to give in and turn to the internet once more when I got it. Woo!

Final Fantasy IX has a lot of little mini-games in it, and most of them have fallen pretty flat for me this time around. The card game is tedious and a lot of the games rely on precise button timing which flat out don't work on a non-CRT tv. But the chocobo game remains a lot of fun. Think about it more, it's probably the 3rd best mini game in the series...

Monday, February 24, 2014

Twitch Plays Pokemon

A couple times in the last couple weeks I've been watching someone streaming a speed run of some kind on Twitch and the chat had prompted the streamer to talk about something going on called 'Twitch Plays Pokemon'. The basic idea is someone wrote a parser to grab the chat from a Twitch channel and scrub the chat comments for commands that correspond to the buttons on a Gameboy. Then he fed those button presses into an emulator and showed the result on screen.

It sounds pretty straightforward, especially since I'm pretty sure the Twitch chat system has a pretty good API. Path of Exile in-game chat integrates with it, after all, so just getting a text dump to parse has to be pretty easy. I also see plenty of streamers hook the chat into their stream (so you can watch in full screen and still see chat). So given that there's a way to get the chat and do stuff with it I guess it was only a matter of time before someone decided to use the chat to play the game for them.

There are some issues, of course. There's lag between typing chat and having it show up, and there's lag between when the streamer does something and when it actually gets shown on screen. So getting someone to actually make a relevant choice in real time is hard. Now consider that there are dozens or hundreds or thousands of people entering in commands... And that some of them aren't necessarily trying to be helpful...

I don't know that disaster is the right word for it, but it's not far off. The saving grace would be that Pokemon is completely turn based and doesn't really have a fail condition. Having all your guys get knocked out just causes you to respawn back in town. Even if disaster strikes and you release your good pokemon you can just go out and get more... Eventually!

The streamers I heard talking about it were saying whoever came up with the idea is a genius. Right now the stream has almost 50000 viewers. It's over 26 million all-time views in only a week and a half. It has 167k followers. Undoubtedly it has a lot of subscribers. This guy is making a lot of money, and he doesn't even need to be at his computer streaming!

He isn't just standing by idly though. He's made some improvements to the system. He throttled start button inputs to keep the game from getting stuck paused all the time. He added in a mode where instead of just using every input that shows up it would poll the audience for 20 seconds and then use the most common input. This one feels like it could actually cause people to play the game and do things... So of course there was an uproar when the change was made. Why would people want to play the game when they could spend all their time trying to use items that have no game effect and get error messages? Why not walk in a circle over and over again?

Eventually he set it up so you could switch between the modes. So now in addition to commands for the Gameboy inputs you can also enter commands to switch between anarchy mode and democracy mode. In the brief time I spent watching the chaos they were firmly in anarchy mode. Walking in circles, getting into random encounters, and running away. When they weren't trying to use a card key in combat and when they weren't checking out the pokedex, anyway.

I don't understand how this is a thing. I can see how the idea is an interesting one, and I can understand wanting to check it out. But how have so many people gotten so entrenched in participating in this?

Twitch apparently had to move the stream to their higher performance servers normally used for big eSport events. Because this is a big deal, and a lot of people are getting involved. 

I just don't understand. But I had to get my name in lights... When I typed in the word 'right' we were in a dungeon and near a door on the right. We'd need to walk down a couple steps and then move right... How would I possibly be able to make that happen? Anyway, by the time my command got in we were in combat, and we were trying to change Pokemon, and my right command would have no game effect. My one contribution to the cause, totally worthless. If I can take one thing away though, at least I didn't sabotage the cause. My little bit of noise in the signal was mostly harmless.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Bridge Match 2 - Board 43

Board 43 - Dealer South - None Vul

Opponents convention card: Jack
Opponents playing strength: Intermediate

My hand: K 5 2 T 5 T 8 4 J T 9 8 4

What a terrible hand. I pass in first seat. West opens 1 club (which could be short) and East responds 1 heart (Walsh). Partner and I pass a bunch and they end up in 4 hearts.

I lead the T of clubs.
J T 9 7
K 8 7 3
A K 6
K 7
K 5 2
T 5
T 8 4
J T 9 8 4
1Could be short

T-K-A-6. Partner switches to a spade. 6-4-K-7. What is partner's plan here? I don't see much hope in any suit so I might as well return his switch. 5-9-3-8. Guess declarer has spades wrapped up. He then ruffs a club. 7-Q-4 of hearts-4. Then trump gets drawn. 6-5-K-A. Partner is in and throws out a diamond in the hopes something good happens. 3-5-8-K.

Declarer draws more trump. 3-2-9-T. That was unexpected. Ten doubleton for the setting trick? On it! Maybe we can even get one more trick if partner can ruff a spade... 2-T-J of hearts-Q.

We get nothing else, but that's quite alright. Down two!
6 3
A J 2
J 7 3
A Q 5 3 2
J T 9 7
K 8 7 3
A K 6
K 7
A Q 8 4
Q 9 6 4
Q 9 5 2
K 5 2
T 5
T 8 4
J T 9 8 4
That extra undertrick was worth 5 MPs as we get a solo top board instead of tying with the 5 pairs that put 4 hearts down one. Some EW pairs stopped in 1NT or 3H and scored positive.

Captain Jack disagrees with returning a spade when I won the K. He wants me to fire back a useless club. Maybe he's right in general, I don't know, but returning the spade got us a top board.

Ranking after board 43/60: 1/16 with 56.98%

Friday, February 21, 2014

Final Fantasy IX: Card Game Leveling

I'm now a little over 20 hours into my Final Fantasy IX game and I've spent probably 6 of those hours just playing the Tetra Master card game. One of the things I've never done in this game is acquire the 'perfect' card collector rank which involves owning one copy of all 100 cards, all of which at the A attack type, and all of which have a different combination of arrows. After playing 6 hours I have 6 X cards and 1 A card. Well, actually, I only have 5 X cards because I lost one of them and couldn't win it back.

Supposedly the odds of a card leveling from X to A is .56%. If I was playing with 5 X cards, and if they all have an independent chance of leveling after each match, I'd be looking at a 2.77% chance of getting an A after each battle. I need 99 more As, so I'd be looking at needing to play 3576 more games to turn 99 Xs into 99 As. Given needing to sort for the cards I want, actually play the game, and periodically save so I don't lose needed cards I'm probably looking at 5 minutes per game? So only another 300 hours...

But wait! I don't have 99 Xs to turn into As. I have 5. I need to turn 94 more base cards into Xs before I even reach that point! I'm a little less than 3 times as likely to have a cards upgrade to X than to A, so with really hand-wavy math I probably need 100 hours to have that happen...

But wait! I don't have a copy of all 100 cards yet! And I'd need to make sure they have the right arrows! And I'd need to not lose critical cards!

Yeah... This was an interesting thing to think about, but I'm throwing it out the window right now. Playing the card game isn't even very fun and I'm really sad that I lost that X in a story battle. Sorry Tetra Master, you are the weakest link. Good-bye.

Oh, on the plus side, I did run into a random dude in town who had this to say...

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Path of Exile: League End

The 4 month leagues in Path of Exile will be ending in two days. At that time anyone who completed all 8 challenges can get a t-shirt! I am not one of those people. For a variety of reasons I ended up not playing very much at all in this last month and didn't really come close to doing the hard stuff. I wanted to watch the Olympics, I wanted to play Final Fantasy IX, I wasn't awake at the same times as Sceadeau and Tom, I really didn't like my characters, and I especially just didn't think I'd be able to do one of the challenges with my current characters (the one to kill all the unique bosses... I didn't think I'd even see the rarest one spawn and really didn't think I could kill her if she did).

They're having a small break between short duration leagues. The next set of leagues will open up on March 5th and will coincide with a major content patch that they're calling a mini expansion. They've shown a small number of things that will be coming in the expansion that look pretty cool. Rings with sockets, a 'corrupted' item mod that can give white sockets or change intrinsic item values, a new game mode more hardcore than hardcore? It's interesting...

They've also put out a couple patches since I last played, which included some pretty big minion changes that Sceadeau told me about. Zombies are tougher, and do more damage, and regenerate life, and have resists... They're smarter about what they attack. I decided to take my summoner out for a little spin to see what was going on and trivially smashed a 73 map. It dropped an unidentified rare 74 map so I stuck it in to see what would happen. I have no idea what mods were on the map except that it apparently had 2 bosses since there were two loot explosions at the end.

I feel like the summoner is probably still slower than a damage spec but it didn't seem nearly as slow as before, and it felt a lot safer. The resists and life regen meant I didn't really have to pay attention to that aspect anymore which was nice. I was able to pretty much zone out and walk in a straight line picking up experience and loot. Then I remembered this loot was irrelevant and just walked over it...

This is a definitely downside to temporary leagues. I want to play the game right now, but I understand that everything I do right now is getting wiped out and I'll need to restart at level 1 on the 5th anyway. On the other hand the idea that I could push to be on top next time around, and have a full 4 months to work on getting a t-shirt? It has definite appeal.

I'd been thinking before that whatever I did next league it wasn't going to be a summoner but I'm not so sure anymore. I really like the changes they put in, and I want a chance to fix the problems I ran into this time around. Going life instead of chaos inoculation, for example! And actually having my respec points to use in the middle since I won't have to burn off all the random fire damage nodes I picked up. The minion nodes have also all changed to get all those extra things stuck on them, so picking an order to level in will be interesting too.

Having a summoner in the group also seems very strong when it comes to generating loot. Most characters need to take gear to do more damage or to not die... If leveling as a summoner works the way it sounds like it will with the rebalanced zombie gem and tree I suspect I'd be able to level the 'glass merchant' build again while being a lot less glassy. And having it be so 'mindless' to play in maps is also a bonus as I can zone out and grind lower level maps again to build up a good set for leveling other people. 

So while I do really want to try out the perma-stun guy, and the righteous fire gal... I'll probably just make more zombies on March 5th.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bridge Base Online

A couple of times in the last couple weeks I've played bridge with Robb, Lino, and other people online. We get in a Skype call and play on Bridge Base Online and it's been pretty fun. Bridge Base is free to use and has a web interface so there's no client to download or anything. It's a little like playing on Yahoo except instead of being a generic bad interface it's a reasonable bridge specific interface.

The site is set up so you can enter in a convention card with different partners like if you were at a real life bridge event. You can site down and play with friends or with random people on the internet and the site will deal you the same hands it deals to other similar tables. This lets you see how other people played the same cards and compare results as if you were playing in a matchpoint tournament (like the thing I'm running on Jack Bridge every Sunday). I really like this feature because it lets you know what you might be doing wrong and gives you a way to compare your crazy bidding systems with what is presumably more standard fare.

It also has some other features like tournaments you can pay to join and a Vugraph setup so you can watch big real life tournaments live with commentators.

In short, it's a lot better than Yahoo for playing bridge! It also looks like they have some ACBL beginner tutorials on the site which might be worth checking out if you want to learn bridge?

We've been mostly playing when the League of Legends servers start sucking and we give up on playing laggy 3s. When this happens getting a 4th is useful, but can be tricky. My initial thought the first time was to try posting in the old Comfy Bridge group we had on Facebook but it turned out that group got purged during a Facebook group change a couple years ago. The group still existed, and I was still the administrator of it, but I was also the only person in the group. Everyone else got kicked or something. I think resurrecting that group could be useful? Maybe? Would people want in on some sort of pick up bridge group?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Final Fantasy IX: Graphics

One of the things I'm noticing on this playthrough is just how 'bad' the graphics are in Final Fantasy IX. I know there are a bunch of mitigating factors causing it to look worse than I remember, and worse than FFVII and FFVIII, but it's still a little jarring to play.

The first difference, and probably the most important one, is I'm playing the original PSX version of the game on a PS2. When I played FFVII and FFVIII I played the downloaded versions on my PSP. I don't think the games were changed in any way for the PS Network downloads but screen size and AV connection differences are probably a big deal. I do remember being impressed by how good the games looked on the PSP; maybe it is helping in some way.

I'm connecting my PS2 up to the tv with standard composite cables. I don't know the details behind it but people in the know say it's a pretty bad option. The steaming FAQs I've been reading place it above only the old AV cable switchbox thing from the really old days. S-video, component, and hdmi get better and better. I don't think the PS2 can do hdmi, but it can definitely do the others. I actually went looking for an S-video cable when I went out this weekend to visit Sky but the two game stores near where he live didn't have any. I'm probably going to order one online at some point. So probably I could get a better picture with better cables, and I can believe the PSP internally uses a better connection between GPU and the built in screen than whatever the PS2 is doing with the composite cables.

Resolution is a big deal because the PSX output images in 240p resolution and a 4:3 aspect ratio and my big screen tv is happiest with 1080p and 16:9 ratio. I figured out how to force it to go 4:3 by ignoring the sides of the screen but it's still upscaling the gameplay pretty heavily. Everything is pretty pixelated. It's still totally playable, don't get me wrong, but it looks off. I don't remember having quite the same problems with the SNES games, probably because while those games looked super outdated they were super outdated 2d games and felt more retro than low quality. Again, the PSP screen was undoubtedly built with the right dimensions and proportions for the games I was playing.

At any rate, the characters and combat and stuff seem pixelated but every now and then they play an FMV sequence and just like the other PSX era games the FMVs in this game are pretty fantastic. The blockiness from the regular game is gone, so I wonder if the FMVs are in a higher resolution or if the prerendering did something good for them. Here's a video from a sequence not too far into the game when the evil queen Brahne has finally figured out how to use summon magic and decides to use Odin to completely obliterate a poor town full of innocent dancers... And he's pretending to be the aliens from Independence Day!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Back to SolForge

Last month I finally got fed up with constructed in SolForge and got annoyed with how rarely I could draft so I stopped playing the game. I moved on to Hearthstone where I could draft much more frequently and could play more games per draft. I quickly moved on from Hearthstone because I found the games to not have interesting decisions and to take way too long to resolve. SolForge has faster games and actual decisions to make during the games in terms of playing for the short term or the long term when choosing which cards to play and level up. They just wouldn't let me draft without paying them a silly amount of money.

My sister let me know a couple weeks ago that they'd changed the way they gave out draft tickets in SolForge. They turned the 'first online win of the day' bonus from being 1/40th of a ticket to being a guaranteed ticket. You need 7 to draft, so even if you never got another ticket in any other way you'd still get to draft once per week by winning an online game each day. They also added in a small prize for winning any additional online game (about 1/400th of a ticket) which isn't very good but it's better than nothing like it was before.

Of course getting that online win each day isn't exactly tons of fun. The problem is everyone who kept playing has another month's worth of legendary cards and I don't. So the people currently around my hidden matchmaker rating now have substantially better decks than they used to, which means I lose way more often than I used to. It's a little frustrating.

On the plus side there is an out... I can draft and then just play until I win one draft game per day! Drafting is still so much fun in this game that it's been worth doing for the last week. I like how fast the games play out so I can see how my drafting did. I don't like needing to play constructed for tickets but at least now it's less constructed and I can somewhat mitigate it by portioning out my draft games but that goes against how fast I can conclude a draft...

I'll probably get fed up again, but for now SolForge is back in my good books. Hearthstone is probably dead to me for reals.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Bridge Match 2 - Board 42

Board 42 - Dealer East - All Vul

Opponents convention card: Jack
Opponents playing strength: Intermediate

My hand: A 6 3 T 9 6 5 Q J 3 K 3 2

East opens 1 club promising at least 2 clubs. I don't have a suit to bid and I don't like my shape for a double so I pass. West also passes and partner bids 1 heart. Is a jump to 3 hearts here a limit raise or preemptive? I feel like it should be preemptive and I should cuebid clubs. I wonder if that changes with the potenitally short club? I donno. I try 2 clubs, West doubles as a competitive bid and partner jumps to 3NT. Now should I sit here? I feel like we have a good heart fit but I have nothing to ruff over here. Partner jumping to NT makes me think he's probably 5-3-3-2 so we don't have a dummy reversal in hearts either. So I pass.

East leads the A of diamonds.
K T 8
A Q 7 4 2
K T 4
8 7
A 6 3
T 9 6 5
Q J 3
K 3 2
12+ clubs
2Constructive raise
3Competitive double

I have 2 diamonds, 2 spades, and probably 3 hearts. I get a club at some point unless all of West's points are the A of clubs. I need hearts to split well in order to get a 4th trick there since I don't get another trick anywhere else. A-Q-9-4. East shifts to a club. 5-3-J-7. West returns a club. 4-8-A-2. East decides to not pound out my last club and goes back to diamonds. 5-J-6-T.

I need to play hearts for one loser. I only have one more entry to dummy, too. I feel like I should float the T around then next time I'm in I'll probably play for the 2-2 drop? In that case shouldn't I finesse the Q first? I feel like the guy who opened is really favoured to have the K though... I'll have to look this one up afterwards to see what the 'right' play with no bidding would be. I lead the T. T-2 of spades...

Oh dear. East has KJ83. Well, there's no way to play this suit for one loser! I play low and East wins the J. East returns a club. I don't know what I can do. I can cash out for down 3. They actually can't take more than that even if I put East in and he started with 5 clubs. So I just give up another heart. Then I realize my math is bad because I'm playing during downtime of the Canada-Finland hockey game. Fortunately clubs split 4-4 so I'm still only down 3. Actually, I'm down 2... Because I was only in 3NT, not 4NT... Wow, my math sure was terrible!

K T 8
A Q 7 4 2
K T 4
8 7
Q 9 7 4 2

9 8 7 6
Q J 6 4
J 5
K J 8 3
A 5 2
A T 9 5
A 6 3
T 9 6 5
Q J 3
K 3 2
3NT down 2 or down 3 would have been the same result: a near bottom. We only beat the pair that went down 3 in 4 hearts doubled. 3 pairs went down 1 in 3 hearts, 1 made 1NT, and 2 EW pairs played in diamond partscores. I don't like partner's jump to 3NT here since his hand plus my minimum is in a terrible way there. 2NT feels a lot better. I pull to 3 hearts and we play that for likely 5MPs instead of 2.

Captain Jack disagrees with my 2 clubs bid and wonders what I had in mind. Oddly enough when I click on the description of what he thinks my bid means it says 9+ points, 3+ hearts. I have 10 points and 4 hearts! This seems like what I have! He also disagrees with my play at the end when I don't cash out for down 2 after East gives me a low heart trick. I blame hockey for that one, Jack. My bad.

Ranking after board 42/60: 2/16 with 55.95%

Friday, February 14, 2014

Job System Speedruns

Today I caught speedruns for a couple of games that seemed like they'd be very interesting to plan out. Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics are two gameplay heavy games using the Final Fantasy job system to change what each character can do on the fly. I found the runs really interesting and it had me waxing nostalgic for my time in University. That's a little weird since a lot of my current lifestyle is very similar to my lifestyle back then... The big difference is that I now live alone and play video games by myself instead of living in a little house with a half dozen other gamers. If speed running had been a thing back in 2000, or if I'd known about it back then, I can imagine sitting down and spending stupid amounts of time with James, Josh, Byung, Tom, and a whole slew of other people who would drop into Comfy Prime while working out how to puzzle out each of the boss fights in FFV properly. I miss watching people play video games and talking about them. But people had to go and move away, and have kids, and be responsible.

Anyway, Final Fantasy V seemed particularly interesting because each of the boss fights in the game can be 'trivialized' with the right combination of job abilities on the different characters. Things like having one person wear a shield, have cover, and use defense while the other people sit at low health and can't be damaged. A bunch of the later fights were won by the interesting combination of casting level 2 old on the enemy (old slowly decreases the enemy level, level 2 old only works on an enemy with a level divisible by 2), waiting a set amount of time, and then casting level 5 death. Any even leveled boss can be killed like this if you have the timing down to hit the level 5 death when their level falls the right amount!

But it's not just a matter of figuring out the right combination of abilities... You need to earn enough job points across different characters to have access to the right abilities at the right time. I really liked how the guy I was watching had two copies of an accessory that granted auto haste and he switched what character got to wear the shoes based on which job abilities were crucial for a given fight. The thief would wear them for random encounters so they could flee faster! He also made use of the mix command to get powerful buffs for some fights, and the catch command to save up one shot attacks, and consumable rods that could be used to do high level spells without needing to actually level up black mage.

Final Fantasy Tactics was a little less interesting to watch, probably because I tuned in halfway through and the guy was at the point of winning every fight with his first action. But planning out the route to know how to win each fight right away would have been a very interesting thing to do back in the day. Things like how on some fights the only way to kill all the enemies on your first turn was to also kill yourself (you'd be using the math command and the only thing they had in common was something you'd have in common like level or height) and the solution was to bring along a second person who would live. Ramza commits suicide and random jobber stands around to collect the loot!

The guy running FFT had a counter built into his timing program to track how many times he had to reset by getting a random encounter (which you can't pre-math out and which are wastes of time even if you could one shot everything) and a second counter tracking how many times his math plan didn't one shot a fight (enemies can spawn with random health totals, random magic resist values, and a random zodiac sign which all modify how much damage they take). That's a level of detail and tracking I can get behind!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor Realm Firsts

I tend to only read about games I'm actively playing, so I go through periods of time where I'll read a ton of stuff about World of Warcraft and then there will be periods where it's like the game doesn't exist at all. I pretty much haven't played the game in over a year except for a brief time when they gave me a free week last summer and I used it to discover the guild had been hacked. Anyway, earlier today a post showed up in my Blogger reading list from a crafting blog. The post itself wasn't about much of anything, just an explanation of why she hadn't been posting more often, but there was a comment that caught my attention...

It would seem Blizzard announced a few months ago at Blizzcon that the next expansion wouldn't have the now standard realm first achievements for doing things very fast at expansion launch. I went searching to try to find an explanation and pretty much only found people on the internet yelling things at each other. People who didn't like those achievements insulting the people who did. People who did sniping back. Not very much actual information about much of anything. Thanks internet. 

Anyway, it sounds like WoW has been doing a bunch of fake server mergers or something such that you play with people on other servers all the time which seems to negate the whole idea of a 'realm first' since you'd be working with and against people from lots of different realms. It also sounds like they might well be making this expansion take longer to level (it's back to 10 levels instead of just 5) and having a Blizzard encouraged excuse for people to play for days on end is probably not too wise?

Personally I've always liked the idea of realm first achievements. I have 5 of them from the last couple expansions, after all, and I had a lot of fun trying for them. On the other hand I also tried for the realm first 'all the reps' achievement last expansion and it totally burned me out. Mostly because it involved doing all of the daily quests every single day for months and there were a LOT of stupid daily quests. Apparently they're not putting any max level daily quests into the next expansion which is fantastic news to me! They're putting in some sort of RTS/player housing thing which will probably fill a similar role of giving 'casual' players something to do every day which sounds pretty sweet.

It makes me a little sad that they're removing the realm first stuff because even when I wasn't doing them myself I'm always intrigued by what sorts of things people would do in order to win them. Having out of party people healing you, or kill monsters you tagged, or finding a mob worth too much experience and just grinding it for hours and hours on end... This is probably why I like watching speed runs so much! Anyway, it's unfortunate that they're taking these things out, but realistically it's probably for the best. People are still going to play a ton at expansion launch anyway, I don't know that Blizzard really needs to trick people into playing even more in an attempt to get one of a very small handful of achievements.

Doing all that reading makes me want to play again! Well, mostly they make me want to play the new expansion which doesn't even have a release date... But I'm totally in when it comes out!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Final Fantasy IX: ATB System

One of my earlier blog posts back in 2006 complained about playing Final Fantasy IX and being unable to have my white mage shell up the entire team. Before she could cast shell on the third guy it had worn off of the first. Spending an action to halve the damage taken by 25% of my team for 2 turns is not a very good use of time. Chance are pretty good that the enemy won't even attack someone with shell on them! I noticed the same thing this time when I decided to try out Bungo's vanish blue magic spell. By the time it was his turn again the spell had already worn off! This sucks!

The problem comes down, unfortunately, to the ATB combat system. Time passes even while inputting commands for your characters and that includes the time for buff duration. It's actually a pretty frustrating system. The enemies don't seem to obey quite the same ATB rules and it definitely feels like they get to go way more often than they should. Probably because of how long my team spends with a full bar waiting patiently for their turn to resolve an inputted command! While their limited duration buffs tick away!

When I was reading the 'all the things' guide on gamefaqs one of the things that stood out for me was their strategy for gaining levels once they had the best stat boosting gear. They listed four characters and the actions they needed to be taking in order to win quickly. One of the four people's job was to do nothing. Any time any action was resolving on screen that character's job was to open the item menu which would pause the ATB system. It wouldn't pause the game so the long animation attack would keep resolving but the enemies wouldn't get to ready up attacks in the meantime. That this exists as an optimal strategy is stupid and I really want to play a game with a better system. FFX! You need to come out soon!

There is another way to abuse the ATB system which was pointed out to me by Dave. One of the things that keeps ticking as a long animation is played is the regen spell. He pointed out that the final boss actually couldn't possibly kill him when he had an item equipped that provided regen automatically. The time spent casting a spell would give enough time for regen to completely heal the damage done by the previous spell!

I did some poking around on the internet to find some of the formulas used for these things. The shell spell lasts for 360*spirit*4/14 ticks and the vanish spell lasts for 240*spirit*4/14 ticks. I get an action every (60-speed)*160/14 ticks. At least right now speed and spirit have similar values for each character with Bungo having about 15 of each. So vanish on Bungo would last 1028 ticks and if no time was ever wasted he'd get an action 514 ticks. That it wore off before he got a second action means I'm wasting at least half of my time! But it also means that even with optimal time use he'd only ever be able to have it up on two people at once. As we level up those stats should approach more like 50 each, so vanish would last 3428 ticks and Bungo would get an action every 114 ticks. That seems like maybe it would let him vanish up the whole team! Especially if I was abusing the item menu thing to keep it from ticking away during animations.

How about regen? It restores 1/16th of your max health every (60-spirit)*40*4/14 ticks. So it procs once per action if you have equivalent spirit and speed and no wasted time. With wasted time it'll proc over and over again. At max spirit (which is 50) it'd restore 1/16th of your max health every 114 ticks. With some of the lengthy attack animations that exist in games like this I can really see how that could make one completely invincible to anything except immediately lethal damage!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

League of Legends: Lane Freezing Revisited

A couple years ago I posted about the concept of freezing a lane in League of Legends. Adding that tool to my repertoire went a long way, I think, to my getting better at the game. Not just the ability to do it with Yorick but working out the how and the why and then practicing enough to be able to implement it as almost second nature with a variety of champions. But lately I've been watching the pro streams and often if someone gets into a frozen lane situation the commentators will talk about how bad it is. What's up with that?

Well, you need to look at what happens when a lane is properly frozen the way I described in the old post. Your opponent is completely locked out of an ability to participate in the lane and you're completely locked out of the the ability to do anything else. You also need to consider that freezing a lane up beside your turret requires killing fewer minions in the very short term. This means that unless the enemy has already been run off they will by necessity have earned more experience and could well have gained an extra level compared to you.

Two years ago, when I was playing in bronze and silver, none of those things mattered. Keeping my opponent from coming to my lane pretty much meant they didn't get to play at all. The jungle back then was much stronger so they probably couldn't have made a good return on time in there and even if they could it would probably just make their jungler angry. Being locked into this location was actually fantastic because it was guaranteed experience and gold and wandering around would probably just be a waste of my time just like it would be for my lane opponent. And no one was really good enough to plan out when they'd be leveling in order to actually take advantage of getting a level seconds before the other person.

In the pro scene? All of those things matter a lot. Scaring your opponent out of lane is just going to have him go somewhere else and do something relevant. Invade the enemy jungle with their jungler, or gank another lane, or push a turret, or kill dragon. Confusing people and making them waste time works against worse players but a pro isn't going to get thrown for a loop. Especially a pro on a premade team! Sticking yourself in one known spot is just going to let the other team make movements to punish it. By taking dragon or pushing a lane. By invading your nearby jungle. Or quite possibly just by tower diving you and killing you. And that minor level advantage? They'll just happen to have their jungler nearby to immediately punish you.

It's funny... Really bad players blindly push their lane by autoattacking. The first evolution to getting better is to stop pushing and focus on last hitting and farming. But then getting better again from there involves shifting back into a heavy pushing style. Of course you need to be able to push while still personally killing all the minions and while tracking likely jungler locations to make sure it's safe to do... Intelligent aggression is the name of the game, I guess!

I am not at the point where I can deal with these things myself. It's become pretty apparently recently as I've been playing a bunch of 3v3 matches with Robb and Lino. Some games I push my lane forward and then am stuck with the same problems I was forcing on other people. If I run up near the minions frozen at their turret I am vulnerable to getting ganked and killed. If I don't then I have nothing to do and get yelled at if I try to jungle. Other games I let the lane push up to me and then can get presented with the choice of giving up on experience by leaving the lane or letting my lane opponent wreck havoc on the other lane or our jungler or on the enemy altar.

It feels weird to get punished both ways, but the games where either happens tend to be the games against significantly better players. There's a website where you can look up the ranked tier of the people in your live game and the bad situations come up when we're playing people way better than we are. It's more than a little stupid that the matchmaker puts us against a team of 3 people who were diamond last season when we were gold, gold, platinum.

That said, there's got to be something I could be doing better. Maybe I need to play a really slippery champion so I can fight up near their turret when pushed up and expect to just run away if they react? Or someone who can wave clear really fast at low levels so I can reasonably expect to clear a big wave at my turret and still help contest an altar? Or just someone really good at low levels so I can push the lane and invade their jungler safely? Maybe I should just throw Robb under the bus and try to freeze the lane and let the enemy invade our jungle entirely? I don't know, but maybe thinking about it will lead to a solution!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Blood Bowl: Preseason Goals

One of the FumBBL leagues I'm in runs a 4 week preseason before the 14 week regular season. The league has a salary cap which applies before the preseason so the preseason is a way to let teams build back up a little after potentially having made some brutal cuts. (There's one dark elf team currently running with 1 reroll!) They also build the divisions for the season based on the standings of the swiss preseason in a snake format. Last season my division had the 3, 14, 19, and 30th teams from the preseason standings for example.

I've been thinking about what I should be trying to accomplish in the preseason. My team doesn't have any glaring weaknesses from the salary cap but I do have a couple of no-skill players who could use a cheap level. I've been thinking about buying a minotaur to level him in the preseason but since I had to light most of my cash on fire doing so would risk not playing with some positionals if I actually start having people die. Should I be trying to win the preseason? Should I be trying to kill my opposition? Should I just be trying to keep my own guys alive and screw winning?

Last season I went the protect my own guys route by inducing extra apothecaries whenever I had inducement money to spend. The idea being that while I like winning I wanted to be able to win in the regular season and that meant keeping people alive as I built up the money and skills to have a reasonable team. Apothecaries are not very good at winning games, certainly not compared to picking up star players, but the star player can steal the MVP experience and the apothecary can save someone's career. Not guaranteed to, of course, but Blood Bowl is a game of small edges and those felt like good edges to pick up.

I still tried to win, of course, since scoring is worth experience and winning is worth extra money. I went 1-2-1 which seemed like a decent result and made me #14. I also tried to hurt people because that's how Blood Bowl works. My last preseason game included 6 serious injuries on my opponent which set him way, way back. But doing so wasn't really to my advantage, especially since so many of the injuries weren't even worth experience (failed leaps mostly)! I did get to play that team in the season but I wasn't one of the first couple who got to take real advantage of the damage I did. So while doing damage is fun it isn't really profitable for the season.

Winning does have a tangible benefit in a salary cap boost for the next season for the top three teams. I didn't think anything of that last season but ended up well over the cap due to the great luck I had avoiding injuries all season long. My team this season is already at the cap for next season so any cap bonuses I could pick up would seem to be pretty relevant.

How about division seeding? Is that relevant? Winning the preseason would mean getting into a division with the teams that came 16, 17, and 32nd. If everyone is playing all out to win then getting two games against the worst team and having no one in the top 15 sounds awesome! But maybe with new teams every season and the randomness of swiss pairings in a 32 team pod the seedings won't actually have much meaning? Well... What happened last season? Did the preseason standings have much predictive power towards the final standings?

I plugged the preseason ranking from last season into Excel along with the points earned during the season by those teams. The two sets of data were moderately negatively correlated with an r value of -.594. So certainly not a guarantee but it does seem like it would be a decent predictor. All the teams that had really bad regular seasons also had a bad preseason. It looks like the teams in the 12-21 range all did better than would be expected and the teams in the 5-11 range did worse. I wonder if that has anything to do with the snake factor? Or if this is just a really small sample size? I couldn't find the final standings from previous seasons because the images look to have been removed or something so I couldn't check for prior results. I tried replacing preseason ranking with preseason points (avoiding tiebreakers) and r became .527. It still shows that the preseason and the regular season are correlated, but not a super lot. It's almost like Blood Bowl teams can change significantly over time!

Anyway, it's a big enough thing that at least getting into the top 8 seems like it could be a good thing? And getting all the way to first is probably really good. I do want the cap bonus and I'm becoming convinced that division seeding is at least a little relevant. But I don't think going super crazy to win is going to make sense. I'm still going to save my apothecary for a serious injury I think. Or maybe I won't! I am a bit of a wild man...

I've already played one game this preseason and my opponent induced up a claw star player and used him to blitz almost every turn. It seemed like a good way to damage my team and a questionable way to skill up his own team. But he did get 14 SPP on the rest of his team so I guess it worked out pretty well. I don't think I would have taken the risk of 2 star players getting the MVP but he didn't get dinged. And I actually ended up permanently injuring one of them, so maybe having a bomber as a lightning rod made sense. I won 2-0, which is good for me, but I suffered a stat loss which is bad for me. Well, quasi-bad. Now one of my dwarves has only 1 agility. It probably won't matter and certainly isn't worth retiring a 28 SPP dude over but I wish it hadn't happened. Poor Mrs White.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Bridge Match 2 - Board 41

Board 41 - Dealer North - EW Vul

Opponents convention card: Jack
Opponents playing strength: Intermediate

My hand: 9 6 2 4 Q J 8 5 4 J T 4 2

Partner opens 1 spade and East overcalls 1NT showing a strong NT without a huge heart suit. My hand is trash but I can at least eat up some bidding room by supporting partner's suit. I bid 2 spades. West jumps to 4NT which is apparently asking for aces for NT which seems really odd to me. That should be a quantitative slam invite. Anyway, East bids 5 clubs to show 1 or 4 and West signs off in 6 hearts of all things.

Partner leads the A of spades.
Q 8 5
K 2
K 9 6 3 2
A K 5
9 6 2
Q J 8 5 4
J T 4 2
1Ace asking for NT
21 or 4 aces

A-5-2-T. Partner keeps playing spades, presumably hoping I have the K for my supporting bid. Sorry partner. I played the 2 to try to discourage! 3-8-9-K. West now draws trump. 3-8-K-4. 2-6 of spades-5-J. What? Partner won with the J of hearts! Woo!

They play some spades and now I'm going to have to find some pitches. East and I both have 5 diamonds and East has 2 entries in clubs. So I may well need all my diamonds to protect against those getting set up. On the other hand I also have clubs stopped in case West has Qxxx. Is that even possible? He probably had 6 hearts and 2 spades? So yes, he could well have plenty of clubs since he probably doesn't have many diamonds. I don't know what to do. I'll start with a diamond pitch and hope that isn't terrible.

West ruffs the spade and draws trump. Dummy pitches a diamond from board. Ok, pitching diamonds is probably fine then so I'll pitch another too. More trump with partner pitching a low club and dummy pitching another diamond. If partner is pitching count then I can safely pitch a club. Ok, let's hope that's what is happening. Declarer then plays club to board and ruffs a club to hand. Guess he only had 1 club! In fact he only had 4 minor suit cards and he had AK of both suits so it didn't matter what he did. He could have claimed if the game allowed the AI to do that. Oh well. Down one!

A J 7 4 3
Q J 8

Q 9 8 6 3
A T 9 7 6 5 3
A T 7
Q 8 5
K 2
K 9 6 3 2
A K 5
9 6 2
Q J 8 5 4
J T 4 2

Three tables made their way to 6 hearts and all of them went down 1. So we get 12MPs for a shared top board. The other five tables played in a heart game and took 11 or 12 tricks. This result pushes us back into first! Yay partner!

Professor Jack agrees with me all the way!

Ranking after board 41/60: 1/16 with 56.97%

Friday, February 07, 2014

Final Fantasy IX: Stealing

One of the things I found myself doing obsessively in a jRPG is trying to get all of the things just in case I happen to need one of the things in the future. This means running around to get all of the treasures, buying all of the stuff in a store, doing all the side quests, and stealing all of the things from all of the enemies. Stealing tends to be rather slow, especially since often my best offensive character is also the one who can steal. Certainly Locke and Zidane were heavy hitters as well as the only people who could steal. I guess Rikku didn't do much damage? So for the most part taking the time to steal from enemies can drastically increase the amount of time it takes to get through a given fight. Especially some boss fights with a low percentage chance for steal to succeed where I'll just stop attacking with anyone else until it works!

With those factors taken into account I'd think stealing would be something that wouldn't happen in a speedrun but I've been seeing a lot of runs where people have been stealing stuff. They don't steal all of the things by any stretch of the imagination but they definitely know of a few things that are worth the time invested in stealing. I think the guy who I was watching play the start of FFIX was stealing things from bosses in order to sell them! I imagine skipping every treasure and running from every fight can leave you a little tight on cash.

Anyway, I am getting all the treasures and fighting all the fights and stealing all the things and I'm still tight on cash! But most of my stealing has boiled down to getting potions and debuff removers and not anything of actual value. I'd really prefer to start actually attacking most fights and keep the stealing for things that actually matter. So, how does stealing work and when should I really care?

Stealing in FFIX works under a two roll system. First you make a check to see if you succeed in your steal attempt. This check is based on your level, the enemy level, and your spirit. It's also a check that gets skipped if you have a certain passive ability equipped and I do have that ability so I get to skip this check entirely. Then if you succeed you roll a d256 to see what you steal. Each enemy can have up to 4 items, one in each of 4 categories of difficulty. If you rolled a 1 then you get the rarest item. 2-16 is the next rarest. 17-64 is the next rarest. Any other number gets you the common item. On the plus side you're allowed to steal multiple items from each enemy. On the minus side that means I feel the need to try to hit the 1 in 256 lottery over and over and over and over again. On the plus side there is a second stealing related passive that turns the 1/256 and 16/256 slots into 32/256 slots and has empty slots get passed over. I don't yet have that ability but I wants it so badly!

One other ability that's interesting is thievery which does damage equal to the number of successful steals over the course of the game time half of Zidane's speed. I don't have this ability yet either, but it's not inconceivable that this could be a really high damage ability if I keep stealing from all of the monsters.

How about stuff that's particularly important to steal? From what I can tell pretty much every boss has something worth stealing in a rarer slot, but worth is pretty subjective. For the first 3 disks it's all stuff you're going to be able to buy in a town or two. So having it will get you better stats and abilities a little faster, and it will save you the money of needing to buy it yourself, but you aren't really missing out on anything if you leave it behind. Trash mobs all suck. I read something that indicate this would no longer be the case on disk 4 but I just went through a list of every single item in the game and they all had alternate ways to get them other than stealing them. Maybe it was the 'all the things' guide that said something about stealing on disk 4 since it looked like a few of the items were only stolen or obtained from the chocobo mini game so to have n+1 for 'all the things' you probably need the stolen ones.

What does this mean? Well, I should probably stop worrying about stealing. Either that or I should keep stealing non-stop in an attempt to really max out that one attack whenever it shows up. I think I'm going to stop stealing from the random encounters but I'll keep giving it a few goes on the bosses just to pick up some gear on the cheap. I do like cheap...

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Final Fantasy IX: Tetra Master

The card game in Final Fantasy VIII was a pretty huge success I think which caused Square to stick a card game into Final Fantasy IX as well. But they didn't want to just do the same old thing so they added all kinds of crazy things to the mini game. Rather than have 4 directions of influence they added in diagonals to make it 8 directional. They made it so each card didn't necessarily work in every direction, instead it would have some combination of the 8 directions. They gave cards an attack value, a physical defense value, and a magic attack value. They made different cards attack physical or magical based on what the card represents. They added in a random component so even a weak card could sometimes beat a strong card. And they let the cards level up and get more powerful as you used them. They also removed pretty much any benefit you could get from playing the game. FFVIII had tons of powerful stuff you could make out of cards. FFIX has pretty much no reason to play the game other than the fun of playing it or the OCD need to 'catch them all'.

For the most part from the things I've read and the people I talked to about these games back in the day the changes were, by and large, a flop. The FFVIII card game was awesome and I can't remember talking to someone who hated it. But the changes in FFIX tended to remove player control from the game. You can't see your opponent's hand and sometimes you just lose to random chance. This is bad for the player because games are played for ante and while the computer can just restock and doesn't mind losing something leveled up the player can't just restock and certainly minds losing a card they've invested a lot of time into leveling. The computer will tend to use the cards they win so you can win them back, but you did lose with your best card... Your odds have to be worse with your opponent having it instead of you.

The randomness can be frustrating, so I don't know if I'm going to stick it out, but I'm going to try to build a maxxed out collection. There's a collector level in the game that awards you points based on owning cards with certain criteria and there is an absolute maximum level you can reach. It involves owning exactly one copy of each of the 100 cards in the game. Each of those cards needs to have a unique combination of the 8 possible directions (there are 2^8=256 such combinations and you can save/reload before earning a card to cause it to spawn with a new random combination) and each of them also needs to be leveled up to the maximum attack type. Each card has a 1.56% chance after each fight of upgrading from the starting attack type to attack type X and each X card has a .56% chance after each fight of upgrading from X to A. That's a lot of card battles... Especially since you'll need to be winning fights with some low level cards in order to level them up. But I think I'm up for the task! Maybe!

The most important thing to start with is making sure I can actually get my hand on one copy of every card. I certainly remember from playing before that some cards can only be found in one spot or in ante from one opponent and I need to make sure I don't miss any of them. I couldn't find an immediate list of cards that might be missed but I did find a list of locations for every card in the game. So I decided to go through that list and make note of anything I need to make sure I don't miss. Lots of cards, especially the low level stuff, can be won in random encounters or can be trivially won in a card battle so I don't need to worry about them at all.

It looks from the list like a lot of stuff can actually be won from guys in the card arena on disk 4. I'm going to assert that guys like Beast Master Gilbert is actually able to be fought many times to pay out the large number of seemingly rare cards he owns and therefore not worry about them. If that turns out to not be true, oh well, and I will learn for next time!

Here's what I do need to worry about:

Namingway card is the only one that can't be won in a card battle on disk 4. You can win it from Mario in the card tournament on disk 3, or you can find it in the desert palace/sanctum on disk 3.

Wow. I hope this card list is right. It feels so strange that you can just go and card battle dudes to win basically every card in the game. This certainly wasn't the case in FFVIII! I guess that's probably because the unique cards in that game could be converted into powerful items and here they're not worth anything at all except having them?

I'm a little worried there's something wrong with this card list but it would explain why I couldn't find a list of missable cards anywhere and why the only card really called out in the 'do absolutely everything' FAQ was Namingwary.

Oh, and on a side note... Apparently some German company actually made a board game version of Tetra Master! The BGG comments make it sound pretty bad, but I still have this urge to try to track it down...

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Final Fantasy IX: Plan

Ok, time to play some Final Fantasy IX! The question I've been mulling over the last couple days is how do I want to play it. There are all kinds of different options for how to play this game in particular. There's the standard stuff like trying to play with one character, or trying to play at low level. Given my recent obsession with watching speed runs I could try to win as fast as possible. (Not even a stretch for my Final Fantasy marathon since that's how I approached FFII. My time of 15 hours and 44 minutes pales a 'little' in comparison to the record on SDA of 2 hours and 32 minutes, though...)

Final Fantasy IX follows well in the footsteps of VII and VIII in that it has a ton of mini games like FFVII and a super extensive card game like FFVIII. A true speed run would skip these things and I don't know that I want to do that. On the other hand I know that every time I've played the game thus far I've done all of that stuff. Do I need to do it again? Do I want to do it again?

There's also the concept of a 'perfect' save file which I've been reading about on gamefaqs. FFIX has one item that is only available if you make it to disk 4 in under 12 hours. It has another item that is only available if you open practically every treasure chest in the game, many of which you have to open as you pass them on previous disks. On top of that people obsess about getting everything anyway, and getting max stats, and all sorts of other things. One group of people worked out a way to actually get everything you could miss while still getting to the end in under 12 hours, and then pick up all the other stuff you can still get. It sounds interesting and tedious and fun and boring which seems to be right up my alley... Except they then estimate it took them probably 800 hours to do. Not that I wouldn't spend 800 hours on a game, but I have the HD versions of FFX and FFX-2 showing up at my door in a month and a half and I don't want to still be on FFIX when that happens!

My biggest problem with watching speedruns of the Final Fantasy games has been that one of the things I really like about the games are the stories and the side quests. And while I am intrigued by eeking out small gains of time and pushing to be the best at something I don't think I want to do that on a game when it's the first time I'm playing it in 8 years. I also really don't think FFIX would be my game of choice for a FF speedrun... In fact it might be near the bottom of the list.

I think the answer is to just play the game straight up. I remember it has lots of little throwbacks to previous games and I'd like to have the chance to find those and enjoy them without worrying that I need to skip the dialogue or the cutscenes or whatever. I could do low level but it sounds like low level is actually pretty easy in this game so it wouldn't be adding too much challenge. If I want added challenge I want lots of added challenge, not just piddly bits. So it's going to just be a nice, casual playthrough.

Maybe I'll put a special focus on the card game this time around, make sure I don't miss anything in it and see if I can't max it out...

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Chocobo Racing

Chocobo Racing, to be blunt, is Mario Kart with cute Final Fantasy characters instead of Mario characters. Everyone gets their own cute little mode of transportation instead of just riding in a go-kart, though. Chocobo himself has rocket roller skates. White Mage rides a flying carpet. The goblin thing is in a mine cart, Mog is riding a powered scooter that Cid made for him. You do 3 laps of a track picking up question blocks to use to attack the other racers. It is very much a poorly implemented Mario Kart with a Final Fantasy theme pasted on.

Ok, calling it poorly implemented might not be completely fair, but it's not far off the mark. The controls are definitely worse than the controls in any Mario Kart game I've played. The attack items are certainly badly balanced in terms of making a fun game. One of the best things about Mario Kart is how the person in last place would get stronger power ups. It added a catch up mechanism to the game without being super blunt about it by having the guys in last just go faster or something. Chocobo Racing has no such concept. Each of the question spheres (they aren't really blocks) gives a random spell, or some of them just have the spell icon from the start so you know what you're about to drive over. You can hold up to 3 items at a time, and there's an added twist. Pick up the same thing you just picked up and instead of giving you a second copy of it they power up your first copy instead. One fire spell gives you a hard to aim green turtle shell. Two fire spells gives you a red turtle shell. Three fire spells gives you a red turtle shell for each of your opponents.

The problems here are three fold. First, everyone gets the same power ups so the person in first is apt to get a strangle hold on their lead. Next, they take some time to respawn, so while the person in first is guaranteed to get a power up from each section it's entirely possible other people won't get one and therefore the person in first actually gets more powerful stuff than the losers. The last problem is that the powered up attacks hit all players equally so the person in last place will get spun out just as often as the person in first. More often, even, since the guy in first is throwing out more attacks than the others!

One small mistake at the start of a race was the only difference between winning by a mile or getting stuck at the back. Front running is the only way to play this game, and that's unfortunate. Especially since the goal of every race is to win. If you don't come first you have to play it again. And again. And again. I actually gave up last night on an annoying castle that had a layout that punished the losers even more. (There was a cage that would go up and down blocking the road from time to time, but it seemed to get triggered when the first person got close to it. The timing was such that the first person would get under it, and maybe anyone really close to them, but everyone else would get stuck.) I played a little this morning to get a screenshot and beat that race in two tries because I managed to get into the lead heading into that section on the first lap and never looked back.

The other interesting thing about the game is each character can assign a super power. Mog can fly over attacks on the ground. Chocobo can dash fast. Goblin can mug items from other people. So on top of getting special abilities out of the question spheres you also get our own special ability that recharges with time. It adds more variety to the characters than just looks, which is nice.

The game has tons of modes. Story mode, which I was playing, was introducing the characters and tracks one at a time and had a cute little narration by Cid (who built the rocket skates and powered scooter). Mog sure is a jerk! Mog kept breaking kafabe by talking about other video games and once even talked about Squaresoft directly. (He was talking about how if he beat Chocobo in a race they'd have to name their next game Mog's Mysterious Dungeon 2. Apparently the games came out in a different order than I thought, or this release got delayed and there wasn't a chance to edit the text.) There are also grand prix and time trial modes as well.

I donno... This was an interesting enough game, but I feel like being set up to punish the losers and reward the winners actually makes for a terrible kart game. The whole point of variable powers is to let the losers think they can catch up. If only I get lucky and get that lightning bolt, I can win! That star man will give me a shot at 3rd place! It also makes multi player with people of different skill levels plausible. This game, not so much. I can't imagine playing this as a kid with a friend who was better than me, or worse than me. The better player would simply never lose. And maybe that's realistic, but it isn't what a kart game should be I don't think.

I'm not going to complete story mode, because learning the tracks enough to be able to jump out to an early unassailable lead without then ever making a mistake just doesn't appeal to me. Sorry Chocobo Racing. You are not good. In fact... You get to go right to the bottom of the pile thus far. Ehrgeiz was a poorly implemented fighting game, but at least it made decent fighting game design decisions. You did not make decent kart racer decisions.

Next up... Final Fantasy IX!

Monday, February 03, 2014

Chocobo's Abandoned Dungeon

It's been almost 6 months since I've made any progress in my Final Fantasy marathon. I keep thinking I'm going to start playing Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon 2 again, but it's been so long I feel like I'd need to start over entirely. It was actually a fairly interesting game, and I did a bunch of playing and reading about it since my intro post on the subject, but I never got around to posting what else I'd done or what I'd learned.

It turns out the game has a bit of a crafting system to it. You can throw stuff in a pot and new stuff comes out. It turns out the new stuff is entirely random and isn't based on what you throw in at all and none of it is useful so it's just kind of an annoying thing that exists but shouldn't be used. Then there's crafting weapons and armour and it turns out to be really intricate and require doing all kinds of crazy things. The game has one shot spell books but you get better at casting those spells the more you use them and there's ways to craft things that make the spells better.

Getting killed also isn't a game over in this game. Instead you respawn back in town with an empty inventory but you keep your levels. In some ways this was very good (it was the only way I found to unequip my cursed claw) but in other ways it meant it didn't really matter what I was doing. One of the key features on a roguelike to me is the fear of permanent death should you make a mistake. You died? Time to start over! Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon 2 seems a lot longer than something like FTL though. And it has a lot more RPG elements that build up over longer periods of time.

Was the game fun? Yeah, it was fun. But watching all these people shoot for world record times in games like Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy IX, and Final Fantasy X has made me really want to play more Final Fantasy. Not more random passable roguelike with Final Fantasy monsters. So in the interest of spurring things along I'm just going to call this one quits and move on to the next game in the marathon. Chocobo Racing. At least that sounds short. And then it's FFIX!

Finally, I need to rank this game among the rest of them. Well, I didn't finish it. So I think that means it has to go way near the end. It was definitely better than Ehrgeiz and I was so mad at FFLIII for letting me skip a mandatory item that this gets put above that one too. But I think it's got to go below FFL. Sorry Chocobo. Maybe your racing game will fare better.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Bridge Match 2 - Board 40

Board 40 - Dealer West - None Vul

Opponents convention card: Majeure cinquième
Opponents playing strength: Fair

My hand: A Q 4 J 8 2 J 7 6 Q 9 5 2

East opens 1 spade in 3rd chair. I can't bid with this hand. West raises to 2 spades and East moves on to 3 hearts which must show a pretty darn good hand. I still can't bid, but I hope they get out of hand. West settles into 4 spades. I don't think I can double.

I lead the 6 of diamonds.
T 9 5
T 9 8 5 4 3
A J 7
A Q 4
J 8 2
J 7 6
Q 9 5 2

6-3-Q-A. Declarer returns a club. 4-5-7-T. Partner decides to draw trump, presumably meaning he has heart tricks that he doesn't want ruffed out. Ok partner, I'm in. I draw 3 round of trump. Partner pitches the 3 of hearts on the third round. Declarer pounds out a diamond. 2-7-8-K. Partner returns a club. I hope he has the K of clubs or he's just given declarer an entry to the long diamonds. 3-8-Q-A. Looks like he does because declarer leads a heart, not a diamond. 5-7-T-J.

Ok, I'm in. I can force declarer to ruff by cashing a diamond, but then he's up if he has the high club. The other option is to play a club myself. I think my goal here is to not finesse partner out of his presumptive heart trick so I play the club. 2-J-K-8 of spades.

Declarer is eventually forced to lose a heart to partner. Down 3!
7 2
Q 7 6 4 3
K T 6 3
T 9 5
T 9 8 5 4 3
A J 7
K J 8 6 3
A K T 9
A 2
8 4
A Q 4
J 8 2
J 7 6
Q 9 5 2
4 spades down 3 is a solo top board. Everyone did play in spades but they varied between 2, 3, and 4. 3 boards made 10 tricks, 3 made 9 tricks, 1 made 8 tricks, and ours only made 7. Declarer misplay maybe? Or did we just defend way better than everyone else? I feel like we did play it well.

Professor Jack agrees with me all the way!

Ranking after board 40/60: 2/16 with 56.25%