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Sawasdee Bee Mai

Sawasdee bee mai (happy new year) from Apple and me here in Thailand. We’ve finally rid ourselves of 2008, in which approximately 70% of the world fell apart, or at least that’s how it seems from the cornucopia of apocalyptic headlines that flew past our eyes during the last twelve months. Not that simply switching from December 31st to January 1st is a cure-all, but symbolically, it’s a nice way to clear away the past and start anew.

The last couple of weeks have been pretty standard, despite the Christmas and New Years’ holidays that usually turn American life into a whirlwind around this time. Christmas is celebrated in Thailand, but not universally, and it’s not a government or bank holiday. The Gregorian New Year is celebrated, though, so last night there were the traditional fireworks, countdowns and variety shows on TV. For the last week straight, we’ve been hearing fireworks and firecrackers going off around our house, and it all culminated last night in a warzone-like barrage of constant rumbles and bangs. (The constantly-barking dog across the street is probably pretty hoarse this morning.)

In addition to school vacations, some lucky Thai businessfolk (including the husband of my sister-in-law) have the whole week off. In my case, I haven’t taken any days off since I’ve been here, finding that a free weekend is rare enough to be enjoyed like a holiday when I can get one. And admittedly, today (New Year’s Day) I did basically work very little. After we got up this morning, we got together with Apple’s immediate family and had a celebratory lunch at a wonderful seafood restaurant, and then, after working for a few hours, we basically gave up and started playing computer games together. Which is also how we spent last night, incidentally.

Speaking of our lunch junket today, I have to record (if for no other reason that posterity) the fact that the Ruanmai Punnagann restaurant over by Prince of Songkhla University is absolutely fantastic. We had an array of somewhat cosmopolitan dishes that included one of the best renditions of “chicken and cashew nuts” that I’ve ever tasted, excellent fried sea bass in fish sauce, a huge platter of sweet-and-sour grouper with vegetables and pineapple, a big omelet filled with miniature shrimp, and a variety of other traditional Thai dishes (like Apple’s favorite clear noodle salad, yum woon sen). It was one of the best meals I’ve had at a restaurant in Thailand, so I’m happily adding it to my short list for future reference.

New Year’s Eve was spent in our traditional family style: Staying at home, playing computer games, listening to the fireworks outside and watching the countdown on TV. Apple and I discovered this game called Fitness Dash (her nephew likes to play it, otherwise we’d never have known about it), which I guess is designed for kids, and despite the fact that we’re not kids (although I have been known to act like one) we promptly became addicted to it. It’s a hand/eye coordination type of game where you play the owner of a gym, and you have to tend to all of your customers, equipment and operations to keep everything running smoothly. If you don’t take care of customers’ needs, broken equipment or other things that compete for your attention, the customers will get mad and leave, meaning you lose money. You have to do everything super-fast, so it’s basically a game of coordination with a bit of strategy mixed in.

Despite my usually preferring more “adult” fare like Fallout 3 or Silent Hill: Homecoming — both of which I am also playing and vastly enjoying on the side — I am not a bit sorry to admit that Fitness Dash is great fun as well. In fact, Apple is back there playing it right now. When she has trouble getting past a certain level, she occasionally offers for me to step in and help. Usually I can get it done. I suppose 22 years of using computers has made me a bit of a natural speedster when it comes to this sort of thing.

I am still playing my Xbox games, though, as I mentioned. My latest discovery is Silent Hill: Homecoming, the fifth game in the series (if you don’t count Origins for the PSP) and the first to be developed by a U.S.-based studio instead of Japan’s own Team Silent. This “changing of the guard” had me really anxious about the quality of the game, but I’m pleased to report that, in my opinion, Homecoming is a rousing success. It’s the first Silent Hill game designed for the current crop of consoles, so the graphics are breathtaking like never before. There’s more focus on combat this time, and the control system seems reasonably well-implemented (with the exception of the dodge function, which sometimes fails me in the heat of the moment). The voice acting quality is at an all-time series high, and Akira Yamaoka has delivered another of his hauntingly original musical scores.

Perhaps best of all, the atmosphere is every bit as deep and disturbing as ever, if not even more so than the previous games in the franchise. The tie-ins to Silent Hill 2, my favorite game in the series, are abundant, and the game oozes with a psychological/medical horror theme similar to the one that pervaded SH:2. For three or four nights in a row, I socked away several straight hours playing Homecoming and loving every minute of it. The “Descent into Hell” that leads you to the very disturbed Doctor Fitch is truly one of the weirdest, most nightmarish gaming moments I’ve ever had, with the possible exception of the alternate Brookhaven Hospital in Silent Hill 3.

So, I’d like to congratulate Homecoming developer Double Helix for putting together a hell of a good game. SH purists may bitch about the inclusion of some of the elements from the feature film, namely the visible transformation to the “alternate world,” but I think I’ve gotten too old to care about that kind of nitpicky shit. I haven’t finished the game yet, so hopefully nothing will happen to change my positive opinion of it. But the way it’s going so far, let’s just say that I think it would be out of character for the game to suddenly start sucking.

At work, things are going quite well. It’s funny how I seem able to so easily learn new things and improve my skills in others while I am in Thailand. I suppose it’s because I have little else to do besides work, particularly this time, when money is tight for everyone and nobody’s doing a lot of touring, dining out or otherwise gallivanting around.

For starters, I’ve gotten incredibly proficient with Flash CS3, at least to the degree that I can create simple and lightweight corporate animations to demonstrate products, features and soforth. I’m still not gonna be creating any interactive Flash games anytime soon, but I’ve finally moved past my Flash 4.0-style reliance on the timeline and am working with third-party classes in Actionscript 3 to handle all sorts of advanced tweens. Finally, I don’t have to bitch and moan every time somebody gives me a Flash assignment. And my boss has uncharacteristically (in the sense that he doesn’t usually get so worked up about such things) loved the Flash stuff I’ve put together so far.

This week I also worked directly with the source code of one of our major products, a product that was designed almost exclusively by a programmer who no longer works for us. From a user interface and HTML assembly standpoint, I’m probably the only employee left with any significant insight into the inner workings of this thing. We recently tasked one of our developers with reworking the centerpiece screen of the app, which he did, but he also messed up the UI something fierce. After we ironed out a means by which I could actually work with the Visual Studio project, I got in there and started squashing bugs.

I normally dislike this kind of stuff at the onset, because this application is very complicated and much of its inner workings look like spaghetti code. You have to invest a few hours in just poking and prodding it until you get your bearings, during which I complained mightily, until I finally got into the swing of things. Today, I think I finished up the last of the bugfixes — and I even identified some other areas that needed improvement and fixed them too. In fact, some of those areas have been needing improvement since day one. It’s just that the lead developer never implemented the HTML exactly as my prototype specified, wasn’t interested in fixing it when I brought it up (because it was mostly aesthetic stuff), and I never had access to the source code to fix it myself. When I finally got that access this week, I sorta went to town on it. Even if nobody else noticed those bugs, at least I feel better about it.

So the beat marches on here in Thailand: I get up, eat breakfast, work, do my exercise routine, have lunch, work some more, have dinner, goof around until bedtime, and read myself to sleep. It’s not a bad routine, and in fact is the kind of life that recharges my batteries for the most part, which start depleting as soon as I leave the house — but like a battery that goes bad when left on the charger too long, sometimes you have to get out and get some air, see something different, even if it’s just going to the grocery store or something. So we do that too, once in a while.

Last weekend we went back to the spa I posted about, and I got a foot massage. It was quite lovely. Next time we go, Apple wants me to get the full, two-hour Thai massage with her, because it’s only a few dollars more. The total cost? About $20. No kidding. (We just giggle when her mom says she can’t understand how we can spend so much money on massages every other week. What she’s missing is that, to an American, that’s like being able to buy a new car for a hundred bucks. Who cares if you don’t need another one?)

I’m also getting geeked because it’s about time to buy some more computer equipment, one of my favorite pasttimes. The Linksys wireless router we’re using here at the house is actually on loan from my sister-in-law’s husband, but it turns out he’s getting DSL at his house in a couple of weeks, so he’s going to need it back. As it happens, just a few days ago I saw a Linksys WRT54GL — the same one I just bought for myself at home in Florida — on sale at a kiosk at Carrefour plaza. A WRT54GL! In a retail store! (This is classified as an “enthusiast product” and would be something you’d have to order online back at home, ironically enough.) So now I know exactly where to go to get a router to replace the borrowed one. As a bonus, it’ll be my router, so I’m going to load Tomato firmware on the thing and go absolutely to town on it.

When I’m back at the home office, I intersperse my working lifestyle with personal pursuits that I’ve been following for years, just to keep the familiar close at hand. This time it’s all things Star Trek — including the complete set of The Original Series DVDs, all three seasons fully remastered with all of those cool new CGI effects. I’ve also collected almost the complete library of Star Trek eBooks, which sets me up essentially for a life of reading entertainment. I’m down to the last two books of the Deep Space Nine Relaunch series, which is even more incredible since I went back to the beginning and started reading them in order from book one. I don’t think I’ve been this gleefully immersed in the Trek world since the late ’80s or early ’90s. But to be fair to my nine-year-old self, I’m still not nitpicking over the exact hue and color saturation values of Spock’s shirt or begging to go to conventions. That’s just gluoy (Thai for bananas).

That’s it for me right now. After while, I plan to post my response to a “New Year’s meme” that Apple sent me yesterday. Got a whole bunch of pictures I need to upload too. I just can’t do it right now…Apple’s playing Fitness Dash on my computer! (You need a mouse to have any hope of winning, and I only brought one. Next time we go out shopping, we’ve got to buy another one for her to use with the laptop.)

Catcha later, all.

4 thoughts to “Sawasdee Bee Mai”

  1. Happy New Year!

    I’m really liking Silent Hill: Homecoming, too. However, it took me nearly two-thirds of the game before I “got” the combat mechanic, so as a result I’m at the end boss with little to no health — I think I’ll have to try going through it again (luckily, the game isn’t very long). I guess I just wasn’t used to a Silent Hill game where combat was not only welcomed, but almost mandatory in many spots. I also miss being able to hoard ammo — I really could have used it against the boffos from The Order who often decide to brandish their own firearms.

    I also agree with your grudge against the dodge move. Three-quarters of the time, it works like a charm. The rest of the time, though, I furiously bash the dodge button, only to see Alex get impaled, stomped, sliced, or whatever. Very flaky.

    And just a heads up: they ported Silent Hill: Origins to the PS2 if you don’t want to give it a try on the PSP. It’s not the best game ever, but it was enjoyable and I was able to finish it, which is more than I can say for Silent Hill 4: The Room (which is a shame, because I really like the setting and storyline for 4; it was just the damn invincible ghosts that ruined it for me).

  2. I seem to be doing pretty well with the combat system in Homecoming, although occasionally I get seriously flustered, whip out Wheeler’s shotgun and just start blowing the living hell out of everything I can see. I usually don’t even wind up feeling bad about it, because as you mentioned, you can’t hoard ammo, so you might as well use it up. I feel even worse when I come across a tasty ammo pickup and my stockpiles are already full.

    Is it just me, or do you also hate hate hate the Smogs? Frak those things. I’ve seemingly discovered the “correct” weapon to use against everything else, but the Smogs…ugh. Just a nightmare. Also, I tried the “In-Game Tip!” about shooting the Needlers in the head, but my entire magazine was blocked by the thing’s arachnid-like metal legs, so that seemed like a pretty useless tip.

    And yeah, the dodge move will sometimes just not do anything, or at least, not what I expect. I ran into this somewhat often toward the end of the sewer level. In fact, I blew all of my health pickups during the final sewer battle because the dodge function kept nerfing me over and over. I think I am gonna reload a savegame from prior to that point, because I am seriously hurting now and have no way to heal. Not good in a Silent Hill game.

    I agree with your remarks about SH4: The Room, incidentally. I thought the story was one of the best of the series, with all the intricate tie-ins to SH2, the massively creepy motivations behind Walter, and the seriously well-executed sense of dread in the apartment itself. But I thought there was a lot of cheapness to the enemies and too much repetitiveness to some of the levels, and then the laughing Walter chasing you with a chainsaw was just kind of cliche. I never finished it either, but I came very close. Sadly, that was all on the old Xbox, naturally, so if I want to pick up where I left off, I have to plug in that old box. SH4 is backwards compatible with the 360 now, but there’s no way to bring the saves over.

    BTW, did you know that SH2 is playable on the 360 as well? Bonus. I don’t know what the deal was with SH3 only getting a PS2 release, but it works on my PS3 at least. I hear all of the new PS3s don’t do backwards compatibility anymore!

    Speaking of Playstation, they ported Origins to the PS2? Ohhhh, now I want. I just hate the controls on the PSP, otherwise I would have picked up the PSP version. But I can’t imagine trying to actually play something on that thing. One of these days I think I should sell it.

    Jesus, talking about Homecoming makes me want to go play it now! And sense I don’t have a mouse, I have a good excuse. 🙂

    Happy New Year again, my good sir! Perhaps I’ll go watch a celebratory episode of Spock’s Brain. I kid, I kid.

  3. Oddly enough, I ended up using the knife to kill most things, because of the way they re-did the aiming mechanic. Whereas the first-person reticle increases accuracy, it’s not feasible in a crowded fight. In the old games, it was just “hold button, shoot.” The axe is pretty slow and useless, and the steel pipe is somewhere in-between.

    Oh yes, the Smogs. Apparently the “best” way to kill them is to wait until they expand their lungs (before they spew their smog), and shoot the exposed lungs. I actually did have some success with that, but generally when I encounter them I’m low on ammo (or there’s too many of them to make shooting them all a feasible strategy). Also, the game’s associate producer (who posts on a message board I frequent) says the best way with melee weapons is to wait until it expands its lungs, then dodge and do a forward thrust (or something like that). Regardless, I generally try to run away from the Smogs when I encounter them. They’re just not worth the hassle.

    I can generally manage the Needlers one-on-one, and even sometimes with two together. Even more amazingly, during that battle in the sewers I successfully managed to take out two or the three Needlers with my handgun (don’t ask me how; I just kept shooting). I ended up having more trouble with the monster after the Needlers, once again because the Dodge move kept failing me.

    SH4 definitely had the potential to be a great game, but I think the designers over-thought a lot of things. The victims/vengeful ghosts angle was a decent idea, but making them all invincible outside of staking them to the ground with the special sword was a horrible idea — especially since there are only a few swords in the game, and around half a dozen “special” ghosts. The one dude who was constantly on fire pissed the hell out of me, I seem to recall. And yeah, invincible Walter chasing you down (with the — of course — slow as molasses Eileen bumbling around taking damage from him) was a pretty crappy thing, too. At least Elle isn’t as bad to walk around with in Homecoming.

    I was aware that both SH2 and 4 are now backwards compatible, but seeing as my original Xbox is still hooked up, it’s not much of a concern for me. 🙂 If there was a way to transfer saves, though, I’d be all over that. Especially with games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame, which you spend tons of time unlocking stuff and doing this and that, only to not be able to move the save files to your 360. I wonder if Microsoft even bothered looking into a way to do that, or if was just completely unfeasible, or what.

    Indeed, PS3s are no longer being built with backwards-compatibility. The only way to get full-PS2 compatibility now is to hope you can find a used first-gen 60GB machine from Gamestop or something. However, I believe the PS3 bundle that came with Metal Gear Solid 4 has limited software backwards compatibility (not unlike the 360!). Leave it to Sony to react to poor PS3 sales by axing the one thing that people would surely buy the machine for (especially since those original PS3s upscale all the old PS2 games as well).

    Yeah, SH: Origins was ported to PS2 — that’s how I was able to play it. 🙂 It’s — as the title suggests — a prequel to the first SH game, dealing with Dhalia and Alessa and that whole shebang. There’s a pretty transparent rip-off of Pyramid Head in the game that a lot of people complained about, but it’s not a game-breaker. One of the interesting things about the game, though, is that you consciously travel back and forth between the “real” world and the “alternate” world through the use of mirrors — often, the only way to complete your objective is to traverse back and forth between worlds to solve puzzles and stuff. It’s not the best SH game out there, but it was fun.

  4. You’re right; the knife is pretty darn useful. I found the pipe especially useful against the Needlers, ironically. When I was up against them, I was able to use the pipe to block their attacks, then counter with an A+A+X combo, and then usually perform a finishing move on them (impale them with the pipe). Likewise, the knife turned out to be the best for the Nurses because of the speed. Although on my last playthrough, when that gaggle of Nurses walked out of Fitch’s office, I went all John McClane on them and unloaded every last pistol round I had until they were all dead. (That’s another reason I want to return to a previous save…too much panicked lead-wasting.)

    That thing in the sewer with the huge arms — it’s called a Siam, I think — is what did me in, too. Actually the Needlers wore me down more than usual, but then the Siam came out and I just COULD. NOT. DODGE. PROPERLY. Then I’d fall down, and it would attack me again while I was getting up, and I’d fall again, etc. etc. Ugh. Just a clash of bad luck and poorly-timed button mashing conspiring against me.

    Yeah, SH4 could have been better than it was. Originally it wasn’t even supposed to be a Silent Hill game, or so I heard. I too was really pissed about the limited number of swords, and how if you missed finding one at the one time it was available, you could never get to it again. I think they might have done that so you’d be forced to strategically choose which ghosts to pin down, but it’s just too annoying to appreciate for its strategy factor IMO.

    I completely don’t understand Sony’s deal with removing the backwards compatibility. I mean, that’s a huge selling point of the system, right? I’d think it would be, what with the humongous PS2 catalog. I have one of the first 80GB systems they put out, which is backwards compatible only by way of software-based emulation. The original 60GB units are the only ones that actually have PS2 hardware in them, which makes for a 100% accurate PS2 experience. The software emulation on the 80GBs is somewhat buggy on certain titles, but that’s only what I hear; none of my PS2 games have given me any problems.

    At first I thought maybe it was a cost-cutting measure, since I think Sony still loses a bunch of money on every PS3, but the change from hardware to software PS2 emulation was the money saver. How much could not including the emulation code possibly save them? Anything at all? Boggles my mind.

    I’m definitely going to give Origins a try. I had heard that it was a prequel to the original SH. Hopefully that’s not one of the games that has issues with the software emulation on my PS3!

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