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Here we are, in a brand new, just unwrapped year 2011, or as some would say, 2K11. Again, it's been a while since I posted here, but the last two years were weird, to say the least, and one could say that they were both busy, and not really, at the same time. If you can follow what that train of thought, then you deserve a beer. Unless you're not that big on beer, and you'd prefer something else.

Right after Christmas I finally got my copy of Pier Solar, which I ordered years ago, literally, but the WaterMelon took their sweet little time to finish it. I forgive them, though, as I'm aware how much work went into this project, and we should all be happy it got finished at all. So, it's cool that I finally got it, but it's not so cool I got it after Christmas, which means I wasn't really able to play it, aside from testing it for a few minutes to see if the cartridge works at all.

I've made some interesting and not so interesting purchases throughout the year 2010, but I haven't really had the time to enjoy any of them properly, and, as usual, it's the lack of time that keeps me away from both games, and this precious little blog. No time for fun and games means there's not much I'd like to share with the world through this place, and that's the way it's been for a long, long time, and things won't be changing any time soon, that's a promise.

I've been filling my music shelves as well, and a couple of months ago I've managed to score the deluxe edition of Kent's Röd, which consists of two vinyl records, a CD, an artbook and a USB memory stick, containing the the high resolution version of the album, all in a nice cardboard box. The initial price was far beyond what I was willing to pay, but good things come to those who wait, and in the end, I paid only a fraction of the original price.

I wish I had more to say to those who still come by this place, but I'll be cutting it short and that will be all for today. I just might write a bit more about Pier Solar, once I actually get to play it. It's made huge progress since the demo, that's for sure, and I'm happy to see that the game turned out as well as it did, so if you're interestet in my opinion, drop by in a month, or two, or three, and maybe - just maybe - there will be a new entry, smiling at you, waiting for you to read it.

Because of the increased spambot activity, I have decided to change the comment system entirely. The Ninja blog engine isn't exactly flexible, but I've managed to successfully implement Disqus, which from now on will replace the old [Ninja's own] comment system. I won't touch the old comments; I have removed the old form, but I left the comment display code intact. They will now appear under Disqus comments.

Note to those, who are using Adblock or any other ad removing plugin; the comment number under entries is generated by a script, which might get blocked. This goes for Disqus form as well. I've run some tests, and everything is working just fine. If it's not working for you, try disabling ad removing plugins. Also, some connection managers block Disqus IPs alltogether, so if you're running those, add Disqus to your whitelist.

I've configured Disqus to use Akismet and additional community plugins to ensure stability, connectivity and to protect the blog from spambots. If you have any thoughts, drop me a comment, using the new and improved system. Enjoy.

Three months of silence and now, suddenly, I'm writing a new entry? This can't be true, you might think, and it's not. I'm writing this because I've noticed, that my blog host decided to punish me for not posting anything for the last three months by placing an ugly ad box at the top of the main column. The message placed within this box stated, that it will be gone once I add a new entry, and that's exactly why I'm posting this. I did acquire some new games and hardware, but I somehow never bothered to post about it. I'll try to do better, so stay tuned, but don't hold your breath.

When a game developer has to figure out which time period his game will be set in, the answer is usually simple: The future. We all know that the future doesn't look too bright. Nobody expects waking up in a utopian world where nothing is broken, and thus nothing needs fixing. Our future is dark and it comes in two flavors: gloomy cyberpunk or post-apocalyptic chaos - not that there's anything wrong with that, at least when it comes to games. Korean developer Phantagram decided to go with the second flavor, placing the story of their Xbox game entitled Strident some years after World War III.

Strident is the game's title, but it's also the codename of the main character - A female agent with no recollection of her past, capable of killing just about anything with her bare hands. Who needs weapons, if you're an expert in martial arts and your acrobatics would probably win you a medal or two if you ever showed up at the Olympics? Strident is a death toy, and if you think you can stop her with a couple of rounds from your machine-gun, you're in for a surprise. We know who we'll be controlling, but what's out mission? Since our character lost her memory, in the end, the main objective has to be getting it back.

As it turns out, Strident is the last remaining member of FIST, a special unit operating under the orders of United Nations. Sent on a peacekeeping mission to the Middle East, the FIST unit disappeared from the face of the earth. During a mercenary attack on a research facility manufacturing cyborgs, our female lead gets a chance to escape, after being imprisoned for six months. This is where the player takes over. Memories have to be found and a huge conspiracy needs to be uncovered. For some reason, the United Nations are no longer on our side, so as usual, we'll have to deal with everything on our own.

The game sounds like a lot of fun, and I can imagine what would it be like to actually play it, but unfortunately, I won't ever get the chance to. Strident is one of those unfortunate titles that never made it past the development stage, and was eventually cancelled. All that we ever got to see were a couple of screenshots and some concept art. Phantagram also released a fully rendered cinematic that looked nothing like the actual game, so I won't even link it. Why am I writing about this? Because the moment I saw the screenshots, I knew this was a game for me, and if it ever came out, I'd love it. What's even worse, is that Strident wasn't the only title Phantagram cancelled.

As if losing Strident wasn't enough, we also lost Duality, another third person perspective game, developed by none other than Phantagram, who teamed up with Madrid based Trilobite Graphics. While similar to Strident in look and feel, Duality was supposed to be a breath of fresh air when it came to gameplay. Judging from the information released to the public, it was meant to be an action adventure, not unlike Quantic Dream's Omikron: The Nomad Soul.

The story begins with industrial espionage when Travis, a mercenary turned security agent, buys himself a place on a mega-corporation hit-list by not being able to prevent the theft of top secret blueprints. Escaping the company premises, our hero will have to track down the thieves and return the stolen property to get his old employers off his back. Along the way, Travis will encounter two other characters, which the player will be able to control: A hacker-extraordinaire named Sam, and an artificial intelligence being called Cube. Each of the characters will be able to explore a part of the story inaccessible others, eventually bringing everything together and tying up all loose ends.

I have always wondered for how long is a developer able to operate, paying its employees for their time, without actually releasing anything, and without going bankrupt. The year 2002 must have been a tough one for Phantagram, seeing as they've managed to start developing two potentially huge titles, only to see them get cancelled, with all the work going to waste. Is it better to abandon a project, or give it a shot, since it's already so far along? Developers always have to weigh their options against potential financial loss, but what about the credibility in the eyes of gamers?

Usually, when a title is being cancelled, developers, as well as gamers realize, that this particular title wouldn't have worked. Most of such projects are abandoned at an early stage, and no real harm is done, but I can't help myself but feel that these two titles had so much to offer. It's a common fact that relatively unknown developers tend to take risks, while those who made a name for themselves, usually play it safe. The audience is expecting a certain level of quality, and while innovative approach isn't necessarily bad, it might not be what gamers want.

Did Phantagram realize that both Strident and Duality would require enormous amount of work to make them shine? Maybe, but great games don't just happen - Money needs to be spent in order to be made again, and that's why I regret that Phantagram didn't have what it took to push these projects through. I can only assume that porting these titles to current generation hardware is out of question, since it would require a massive tech upgrade, unless we're talking about Wii. One can still hope, though. Just like I keep on hoping that LucasArts will release a sequel to Outlaws.

If you're one of those, who feel nostalgic when thinking back to the days of proper arcade gaming, you know how essential the arcade stick is. When you play a first person shooter, a mouse and keyboard setup just feels right for some reason. Today's digital game controllers are perfect for platform games, etc., but if you want to enjoy those fighting games and arcade classics, you need the proper tools for the job, and that's where the arcade stick comes in. I know that's some introduction to an entry featuring photos of Dragon Ball Z sticks, but you have to start somehow.

When it comes to arcade sticks, you have to spend big to get the quality that comes anywhere near the arcade experience. It's all about the genuine parts, proper button placement and weight. The hardware I bought fails to qualify in almost all of these categories. While I could accept the button placement, which is not unlike the Neo Geo setup, only double, the buttons themselves are terrible. They have this toy feel to them, and since they're mounted on top of a single PCB with rubber contacts, they don't feel like arcade buttons at all. The stick is no different. While it does seem pretty solid, the four plastic contacts make the movement extremely choppy, especially on the diagonal.

Why in the world would I buy these then? The answer is simple: They were $6.50 a piece. The price doesn't make it better if they're completely useless, right? Right, but they're not useless. On the contrary. These controllers are perfect if you're planning on building your own arcade stick. If you are, and you're planning on using it with the PlayStation 2, such a controller is a perfect base for your hardware, since you have the interface ready-made. All you need is a new box and proper parts, preferably Sanwa, which are really good and not all that expensive. The best stick Sanwa has to offer will set you back less than $20.

If you're not into arts and crafts, you can always buy one of those "high grade" sticks, which usually cost around $150, but that's a waste of money in most cases, especially if you're considering the overpriced X-Arcade, which uses knock-offs of Happ parts. Get yourself a cheapo Dragon Ball Z stick, an Astro City template, build a box and you're all set. Quite frankly, buying a whole two player Astro City panel will probably be cheaper than some high graders out there, and you can't even compare the quality.

Aside from cheap sticks, I bought some new games. I'm a sucker for SNK's compilations, so I got myself the Art of Fighting Anthology, which will join other anthologies, including the Metal Slug one. I also scored an incredibly cheap copy of Mercury Meltdown Remix, for which I paid a whopping $3.90. It's a great game by the way, so if you spot it for cheap, get it. I finally bought a copy of Bullet Witch, which I know isn't that good a game, but I always wanted it, and last but not least, Contact for the Nintendo DS. I usually stick to the less time consuming games nowadays, but I will find the time to play Contact, and that's a promise.
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