Category Archives: Gaming

My two cents on gaming, particularly focussing on titles which shaped me the way I am today!

Android for x86

I do not know why, but the world is slowly moving towards smartphones. Ever since Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, we have seen a whole gamut of devices combining a cellphone, a touch-input based computing device along with some other bells and whistles based on a similar premise. While Apple, as usual, did not create anything new – touch screen phones were already there prior to the iPhone (Palm anyone?), the iPhone gave it mainstream popularity, smartphones became cool. Apple did the same thing to smartphones as it had previously done with the GUI in Macintosh or the portable media player with the iPod. Android was Google’s answer to the iPhone, with some heavy dose of open-source niceties.

I wont rant about the origins of the Android operating system – since a quick look through this article would give you a fair share of it. The biggest advantage of the Android OS, other than the fact that it is open-source is that it uses the Linux kernel – and given the propensity of Mr. Torvalds’ operating system, we are seeing this OS run on a whole slew of devices, even a (God forbid!) toaster!

Android was originally developed for the mobile platform, using the highly efficient ARM processor architecture to run it. As a result, the OS and its binaries were incompatible for the x86 architecture which Intel, AMD and other PC manufacturers use. Some nice people successfully ported the Android OS on to the x86 architecture, calling the project Android for x86 or Android-x86 in short. Currently these guys maintain a Google Code page where you can download the latest ISO to install on to your system. They provide stable as well as RC (run-time candidate) builds plus daily night-time builds. At the time of writing, they latest version is the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich RC2. Instead of generic ISOs though, these guys currently provide ISOs tuned for specific hardware like the Asus EEE PC family or the AMD Brazos system.

Installation

The Beginning!!

Installing Android was really very simple, if you have some idea about Linux distros – just download the ISO file, it is under 200MB; burn it on to a disk or write it to a USB thumb drive with UnetBootin and you are good to go! Like most modern Linux distros, the Android ISO file has a live-mode as well as a text-only installer mode.

I downloaded the Asus EEE PC tuned ISO to try it out on my three-month old Asus EEE PC 1015PX with 1GB RAM and an Intel Atom 570 Dual Core processor.

Just after the initial boot process, the Android system will ask you to log in with your Google user-name and password. Rest assured that like all Google services, the Android system is tightly integrated to the Google world – one single user-name/password combination is enough to let you access Android, Google Play Store, Gmail, Picasa etc. On the other hand, the Google sync automatically syncs my netbook Gallery with Picasa. So, if you have any naughty pics on your Android phone or tablet, it is already synced to Google Picasa! Moreover, if you want to buy paid apps from the Google Play Store, you have to provide your credit-card details too!

Hardware Compatibility

Notify!

Most of my hardware on the Asus EEE PC worked right out of the box, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the multi-touch touchpad. The screen resolution was maxed at 1024×600 pixels, which is the greatest for this netbook. Surprisingly, accelerated graphics also worked out of the box.

What was missing, and it is in my humble opinion a HUGE loss of usability is the lack of support for USB Modems. My Huawei EC159 simply refused to work on the system. Other than that, Android could not view my hard drives, especially the NTFS ones. It could detect FAT32 USB drives, but they were mounted at an obscure location at /mnt/USB.

First Look

HUGE CLOCK!

Is this my netbook???

The Android-x86 successfully transformed my Netbook screen to a tablet look-alike sans the touchscreen. On the top left corner is the prominent Google branding – which also acts as a search bar. The bottom left has three buttons; Back, Home Screen and Last Used Apps. The bottom right houses the notification area with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Cellular Strength, Current Downloads, Currently playing Tracks etc. The top right corner has the App-Page menu button.

Apps! Apps! Apps!

Get your apps here!

Quite a few apps are installed by default. You have the usual Google apps like Maps, Gmail, Gtalk and Google+. Then there are some multimedia apps such Movie Editor, Play Music and YouTube. The browser is there,which is totally based off Google Chrome. There are developer apps like the Terminal Emulator and Dev Tools and there are some really crappy games too! Oh, I forgot to mention the stupidest app installed, Global Time which just shows the Globe! On the whole it is close to the mobile/tablet experience. The developers have also ported the Google Play Store to let you buy more apps. But currently, there are only a few apps for the x86 architecture. There are a large number of widgets that you can add to the home screen to add some more visual jazz!

Youtube, what else?!?

Explore the World……..

As far as look-and-feel of Android-x86, the developers have successfully replicated the Android tablet experience on to the netbook. Though I prefer not to rant about it and be a troll, the system does not feel highly usable. I hate to admit it, but the Android UI lacks multi-tasking, a feature most Windows and Mac OS X users take for granted. (Not to forget GNOME, KDE, XFCE, LXDE users too!) Sure, it can play your MP3s while you browse the web, but the whole premise of “One-App-At-A-Time”is counter-productive on a laptop/desktop environment.

Under the Hood

BSOD!!!!

Seriously???

Everyone knows that Google’s Android is based on the Linux kernel, effectively doing what Apple did quite some years ago with FreeBSD. But the guys at Google just adapted a portion of the kernel. While it ensures a very stable and enriching mobile experience, the same cannot be said for a netbook. Any Windows user opening the file manager for the first time would surely be confused by the hierarchy (Same is true for Linux and Mac OS X!) while any seasoned UNIX/Linux user would feel that the system is incomplete. The Android-x86 ships with a terminal emulator with an ugly blue background, but it lacks even basic functionality of quite a few commands. Let me give you an example: If you type “lspci” or “lsusb” command to view the installed devices on the system, the output is just the bus id, vendor id and product id in hex. Even on the most basic Linux system, the product name is displayed too! Similarly, the C libraries are seriously deprecated too. Google chose Java for application development due to cross compatibility, but then if cross compatibility is present, why isn’t most Java-based games and apps not running on the x86 platform? Google could have developed a separate code base different architectures too! While it would have meant more work for the developer, it would have ensured better app development for operating system. On the whole, system feels like a half-assed implementation of UNIX!

Final Note

I hate to admit it, but I have to agree with Dedoimedo’s blog post about Android-x86. An OS built for a smartphone does not feel at home on a full-blown desktop-based system. Moreover, looking at the smartphone scenario, the move from feature-phones to smartphones isn’t that smart. A smartphone can never be that hallowed “All-in-One” device, replacing a camera, PSP and iPod all at once! Porting Android to a PC might be good to check cross-platform compatibility, but it robs the essence of a computer. A PC/Laptop/Netbook, whatever you might call it, is first and foremost a productivity device with entertainment add-ons. The Android for x86 makes it an entertainment device with productivity as an add on!

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Contra Coming Back to Haunt Me!

This is my trip down memory lane with my favourite NES games. For those who do not know, NES or Nintendo Entertainment System was one of the biggest video game consoles of the 80’s. It was so huge that it revived a whole industry and gave a whole generation of gamers some of the best game franchises like Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy and Contra that run riot even to this day!

Background

My first tryst with Contra was at this shady video game arcade I found in the neighbourhood, when I was 8-9 years old. What attracted me were the bright colours in the first stage. The lush green meadows, the azure blue waters….. Aaah! Memories! Anyways, when I got my first NES console a couple of years later, one of the first games I looked for was Contra! (Sorry Mario, you never gave me the entertainment Contra could!) Even later games from the Contra franchise never got my interest, except for Super C. (More on that in a later review.) As I had expected, my NES console gave up on me and stopped working. Moreover, games like Doom and Need For Speed caught my attention.

It was during 2005-2006 that I rediscovered my favourite classics through emulation. My systems (even my netbook) has NES and Genesis emulators. Enough of my ranting, let’s take a look at the game.

The plot of the game is very simple. There are two guys Bill and Lance (name them anything: Harry and Sally, Tom and Dick, ANYTHING!) with loads of attitude and big guns, who are out there to save the world against the evil Red Falcon, who with his horde of aliens and terrorists plan to take over the world. Pretty simple, eh! Anyways you get unlimited ammo to kick some serious ass and do impossible feats at jumping which would put an Olympic gymnast to shame!

First Look

You push the game cartridge into the console, boot it up and you are presented with a simple menu…

The beginning of the journey

The menu gives you an option for single player or two-player mayhem. This is he place where you get to enter the legendary Konami Cheat Code giving you 30 lives, instead of the regular 3. And let me tell you, this game is fucking hard! Meant to be an arcade game, using as many coins as possible, Konami designed one of their toughest games in Contra. If you have cracked it without using cheats, you surely have some amazing hand-eye coordination! (BTW, I have done it too, just once!). You have eight levels of mayhem to get to the finale. I’ll leave the visuals for you to decide.

Controls

The controls of Contra of NES is very easy to understand, extremely difficult to master! The NES controllers were very basic and Konami had to work with those limitations. The standard NES console came with two hard-wired controllers. Each had a D-Pad, and two buttons A and B. The first player controller also had the Select and Start buttons. A for firing bullets and B for jumping. If you had a 2nd generation NES console or a pirated one with detachable controllers, you could plug in the aftermarket controllers which had four buttons, containing Turbo A and B buttons.

Music and Sound

The music is pretty awesome in this game considering the limitations of the NES.It is mostly plain Heavy Metal fare, with some unique Japanese influences. The sound effects are realistic. Explosions are correctly mapped. Gunshot sounds are realistic. There are nifty touches here and there like the zapping sound of electrocution in levels 2 and 4 or the sound of incoming mortar shells in level 5. Overall, it adds to he immersive atmosphere of the game.

Gameplay

Green Grass, Azure Waters…

While it may look colorful, in reality, hell awaits. Every nook and corner is filled with snipers hiding in bushes, gunmen running and firing, wall mounted cannons, even a mini howitzer firing bullets! Being a side/vertical scroller, you cannot go back or go down. Death awaits in the form of bullets, contact with the enemy, falling…… the possibilities are many. One great aspect of the game is that the player has the same mortality as the enemy; one bullet kills the enemy and the enemy kills with just one bullet. This is of course except bosses and mini-bosses.

Most levels are standard horizontal scrollers. Each stage being slightly grim and complicated than the next. In level 1 named Jungle, at the beginning you can take cover by hiding under water, which is missing from the subsequent stages.

3D!

Shocked!

Level 2 and 4 of the game is in 3D, that is instead of a side-view perspective, there is a third-person view behind the player, similar to Max Payne and GTA III. I guess it was one of the first third person perspective games with “behind the back” view! Each level was a doorway which had to be broken and were protected by High-Voltage wires. You could also get electrocuted if you tried to move forward, but it wouldn’t kill. Also, the doorways had men lobbying grenades, firing bullets, shoving mines. The doors were themselves protected by turrets. The 3D bosses were really pain in the rear. Ugly, translucent and firing bluish eggs, It took hell lotta jumping and dodging to destroy them.

Waterfall Stage

Alien Contact

Level 3 is purely vertical. Called Waterfall, the level features one going up through a waterfall, with even more turrets and howitzers! The colour scheme is again azure waterfalls, with mossy horizontal steps and rocky brown rocks. At the end of the stage, an Alien boss is seen for the first time. Scary, ugly and sickeningly yellow….. Just makes you wish you could pulverize that bastard!

Pine Trees, Snow and Mortar….

Spiky Truck

Level 5 is more or less like Level 1, with snow and large pine trees replacing the lush greenery. You get large oval shaped stuff lobbed from the background, which make the sound of fired mortar shells! And metal parts replacing it afterwards to indicate that you are close to the lair of the bad guy! It also features the game’s first mini-boss. An ugly spiky truck that changes colour with damage and fires bullets from a movable cannon. The final boss is a UFO that drops explosive liquid and mini UFOs that run amok on the ground!

Energy Blast!

Who the fuck is THIS guy???

Level 6 titled Energy Zone is in my opinion the trickiest of all levels. You have to dodge the usual human-cannon-enemy hordes. Moreover there are leaky pipes which spew energy blasts. Some of them are timed, so you can dodge them smartly. But couple of them are more like proximity sensors. There is no way to dodge them, unless you want to lose a precious life. And the boss is a jumping lunatic. A cross between Spiderman and some villain from the ThunderCats, this guy is plain wierd!

Easiest boss in the game!

Level 7 is titled Hangar and it is again the similar to levels 1 and 5. Though it is called Hangar, I never saw any planes or UFOs. You have a railroad track, with some open carriages you can ride. There are some claw lifts that go down periodically, so they are easy to dodge. The boss is the easiest in this level, it has no defense at all! So just shoot at the pulsating mark above the final door, and its defeated!

 

 

 

Mommy, is that a dick?!?

Red Falcon

Level 8 is the finale, named Alien’s Lair. A couple of steps into it you face the game’s second mini-boss. While it looks like an alien mouth, you just cant stop comparing it to the male genitalia. I mean seriously! That Alien sure does look like a HUGE PENIS! After that, you get attacked by floating mothballs and near the finale, giant finger-like aliens, which look like face-huggers from Ridley Scott’s epic movie, Aliens. Lastly you get to meet Red Falcon, which is just a gob of alternating red and blue mass connected to the entire cave. He has four face-hugger spawn pods that he throws at you as defense. It is easy as pie to destroy the last two bosses compared to the rest of the game.

After defeating, you get a cutscene transporting you out of the island on a chopper and the island bursting and disintegrating to dust. The final game message says congratulates you, saying “Consider yourself a hero” and the end credits roll.

The end of the road….

Finally……

Contra had been a huge part of my childhood and early teens. Just coming out of the nostalgia of it all, I think it is one of the finest platformers created. Considering the fact that it was on a NES which was a huge technological block, Konami had developed an extremely immersive and nerve-wracking action game, honestly! Even in its little imperfections, it paved the way for future generations of action video games. Thank you Konami for giving us such a wonderful piece of gaming excellence.