How Madonna improved my Street Fighter II skills

Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection is the singer’s first greatest hits compilation. Released in November 1990, the album culled The Material Girl’s most-popular tracks from 1983-1990.

Capcom’s Street Fighter II is the game that put one-on-one versus fighting on the map and staved the arcade’s inevitable death by nearly a decade. Released months after The Immaculate Collection in March 1991, Street Fighter II forever changed the video game industry.

Oddly, I discovered both the record and the game in the same place: Coney Island’s legendary Faber’s Fascination arcade.

I grew up in the shadow of the world-famous Cyclone, as a poor kid from one of Coney Island’s dense New York City housing projects. Free time and loose change were spent in Faber’s Fascination (known among the C.I. denizens simply as “the arcade”) playing Lifeforce, Punch-Out!!, pinball machines, and other quarter-eating staples.

One particular summer, summer 1991, I entered Faber’s Fascination through its back entrance and discovered the establishment’s Street Fighter II machine–no one played it at the time. I now realize that I discovered Street Fighter II before the 2D fighting game craze descended on my area of Brooklyn.

Street Fighter II

Street Fighter II immediately caught my eye because I pumped a lot of allowance money into the original Street Fighter, an all around atrocious title. After eyeballing the attract mode, I ponied up a quarter, picked Chun-Li, and placed my fingertips on the punch and kick buttons.

The computer properly served me.

A few days later,  I returned to the arcade with a bevy of buds and pockets full of quarters. I popped coins into the machine, as did my friends, and started up. But as I exchanged fists, feet, and fireballs with friends, I noticed a series of Madonna songs blaring over Faber’s loudspeakers.

Now, I’d always been a Madonna fan; I was a child of the ’80s, after all. But hearing her pop sensibilities in the arcade–the grimy playthings of urbanites–was truly out-of-place. It felt wrong. Guile’s Jumping Fierce > Standing Fierce > Sonic Boom > Backfist shouldn’t be backed by “Lucky Star.”

I was getting my ass completely handed to me by a long-haired rocker type until Madonna’s “Live To Tell” crept into my ears. I was vaguely familiar with the song, but hadn’t actually taken time to listen to the lyrics or arrangements. It didn’t matter;  the slow, melancholy track moved something within. My hands’ frantic movements slowed to match the speed of the track as I hummed the melody–and it helped my game! Instead of attempting to rapidly fire off combos and specials, my fighting became more deliberate and timed.

I honestly don’t remember if I won that contest (chances are pretty slim), but it was the turning point in my fighting game play style. I learned that I didn’t need to mash; a more calculated approach led to me eating far less Dragon Punches and Flash Kicks.

The Madonna Effect isn’t very surprising, really. Music tinkers with something in my brain. When notes, melodies, and hooks latch in, I excel. It’s one of the reasons why I run roughshod through games like Dracula X: Rondo of Blood–its soundtrack pulls me into the game world and establishes a foe-wrecking flow.

Still, the Madge-Street Fighter II combination is a special one as it not only puts me in the zone, but carries the weight of nostalgia. ‘Til this day I fire up the Immaculate Collection, pop in Ultra Street Fighter IV, and drift away in a hazy dream of combos and counters where summertime discovery, laughs, and freedom last forever.

A wild podcast approaches!

Not very long ago, I ran a well-respected website devoted to video games and video game culture: 2D-X. For a number of reasons, both internal and external, I decided to shutter it in 2014 after a solid five-year run. I met great friends, made connections with a range of interesting people, and chopped it up with editorial icons that I’ve admired from afar for a long time.

Still, closing 2D-X was one of the smartest moves I’ve ever made.

2D-X was never intended to grow into something significant, which was clear by the many mistakes that were made as the site grew. I eventually found the winning formula, but by that time I was…tired. Monitoring traffic, editing stories, and acquiring product was something I did in my day job; 2D-X demanded that I do it at night, too. I even added a podcast that morphed into a videocast. It wasn’t meant to be that much work.

Birthed from the pain that came with working for a horrific company where checks bounced and employees were left broken people, 2D-X was pure escapism. It was a place where I could write happy nostalgia pieces about old games. It made me smile until it made me not smile.

But the urge to create has returned. And this time, it has nothing to do with job-related ills.

I’ve toyed with the idea of starting a podcast for a short time now. Actually, that’s an understatement. I have a notebook full of potential show names and hardware purchases. I’ve had a fine time researching, plotting, and planning. Surveying the podcast landscape for ideas has led to the discovery of many wonderful shows, including The Brilliant IdiotsFreakonomics Radio, and Spawn On Me. Informative. Entertaining. They represent what I love about the podcast medium. And I have the audacity to believe that I can produce something of similar quality.

I can’t reveal an exact date, as I’m still hammering out a recording schedule, but the podcast is definitely happening. I have a theme, topics, and potential guests lined up, and can’t wait to edit, blend, and fade audio clips into a beautiful sound-quilt.

Stay tuned. This is going to be fun.

Image courtesy of Sweet Water.

Baseball Stars, sports, and summer ’89

Baseball Stars NES Box ArtParents’ basements were made for safekeeping childhood memories.

I recently rediscovered a stack of Nintendo Entertainment System cartridges locked inside a storage bin in my folks’ home. The titles were part of an obviously curated collection that boasted some of my all-time NES games, including Contra, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, and River City Ransom. Honestly, I don’t remember when I purchased them. Was Contra the same cart that I picked up in ’88? Was Goonies II part of the game lot that came bundled with my top-loader NES eBay buy from a few years back? Those details are lost to time.

But when my eyes locked on the Baseball Stars cart, several major and minor dust-covered memories floated to the surface.

I remember buying Baseball Stars during the summer ’89 with money that I had saved since my mid-May birthday. I knew Baseball Stars was soon to hit retail due to write ups in various video game magazines, but in those days solid releases dates were incredibly rare. As a result, I held on to $50 for weeks, ignoring my desires to drop coin on Nerds candy and Daredevil and Uncanny X-Men comics.

That was a small miracle made possible by an overwhelming desire to own what I knew was going to be the best baseball video game ever made; a game that would enable me to create my all-time favorite players and teams and pitch, hit, and run all summer. And that’s exactly what I did after making the purchase. My friends and I devoted days to tweaking players and teams, and setting up elimination tournaments for nothing more than bragging rights. Days and nights melted away.

Rediscovering Baseball Stars also made me remember just how much I loved the sport during my teen years. I watched nearly every Mets and Yankees game that was broadcast during non-school hours, collected Topps, Donruss, Fleer, and Upper Deck trading cards, and obsessed over stats. I emulated Rickey Henderson’s offensive and defensive style when playing baseball with the boys. I began to casually wear batting gloves, too, a habit that continues until this day. Seriously. They help keep convention cooties at bay.

Nowadays, baseball’s plodding pace and overly long regular season don’t inspire me to do anything but turn the channel to the nearest MMA or NBA broadcast. And that’s fine.  I no longer have a desire to study box scores, or devote four hours of my day to watching men adjust their cups and spit brown sludge.

I’d rather take swings in Chelsea Piers’ batting cages or, now that it’s been reintroduced to my life, fire up Baseball Stars on a lazy weekend.

Obey, and you’ll be okay

Few things infuriate me more than people who automatically and wholeheartedly support a police officer who’s been caught wilding out against a person of color, because, almost without fail, someone says “Well, if s/he had simply listened to the officer, things would have been all right.”

You may as well advise people to not make eye contact, and lie down and play dead.

The argument pardons ill police behavior, and simultaneously states that civilians—Black civilians, especially—should be subservient. In other words, if don’t state that you’re tired of being harassed, then you won’t get choked out; if you don’t run away, then you won’t get shot in the back. Obey, and you’ll be OK (™).

Unfortunately, that’s the ultimate head-in-the-sand response for people who can’t, or won’t, accept that fact that there are police officers—armed people with the law on their side—who are out of control. Or, that there are Blacks who don’t deserve such treatment.

The “obey and you’ll be okay” sentiment—the cousin of respectability politics—places all the weight of the police-civilian interaction squarely on the shoulders of the person with the least power in the situation, and it doesn’t ensure safety. You can play nice and still get your rock knocked by an out-of-control police officer. I, and several of my friends, grew up knowing nightsticks, cheap shots, and thinly veiled threats. We were “good” kids, for the most part.

Only someone with a twisted sense of justice and/or immense racial issues truly believes that the amount of police force used in the various, well-documented acts of line-stepping suited the alleged crimes.

So, please, stop saying it.

Image courtesy of Vector 1.

Stone Age Gamer’s BitBox NES Cases spruce up your retro collection

BitBox NES game cases are super sexy. No, really, they are. I’ve discovered—after returning to the wild and surprisingly expensive world of NES collecting—that bare bones cartridges aren’t the most-exciting items to display on a shelf.

The carts are a dull gray color, and the decades-old sticker-art that fronts them no longer pops with vibrant colors. On top of that, many (if not most!) used NES games lack dust sleeves, so there isn’t a way to prevent crud from gunking up the carts’ interiors. So what does one do when it comes time to tidy up and protect the collection? Invest in BitBox NES cases.

A BitBox is a sturdy, plastic case that recalls a Disney ’90s-era VHS case. You can purchase plain, black BitBoxes, or opt to have Stone Age Gamer—BitBox’s official retailer—print insert art scanned from NES box art supplied by The Cover Project for an additional fee. Prices start at $3.99 and $2.00 for a BitBox and printed insert, respectively, but Stone Age Gamer offers discounts for those who buy in bulk. You can also order manual-holding Document Straps, which are free for a limited time. Stone Age Gamer ships its BitBox orders via UPS or USPS.

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If you order insert art, Stone Age Gamer emails you a link where you select BitBox covers. The Cover Project had images for the 10 inserts I  ordered, and in come cases, multiple versions.  I opted for covers that were especially made for BitBox, because they carry attractive borders that keep the art in the proper aspect ratio (the borderless, default NES box art scans are stretched a bit when printed to match a BitBox’s size).

Here’s a valuable knowledge nugget that will serve you well before placing  an order: Stone Age Gamer doesn’t place the inserts into the cases. When I opened the box, I thought Stone Age Gamer botched the order, because the art was tucked away in a padded envelope beneath the BitBoxes. After breathing a sigh of relief upon discovering the inserts, I began slipping the surprisingly sturdy covers into the BitBoxes.

I was immediately impressed. The inserts wonderfully duplicate the look of ’80s- and ’90s-era video game box art. The Ninja Gaiden 2: The Dark Sword of Chaos art has a bit of color bleeding in the lower-left corner, and screenshots on the back  of all the inserts aren’t quite as sharp as the overall art—a likely a carry-over from the games’ original box images. Still, I’m more than pleased with the purchase.

So, a doff of the cap to BitBox, as well as Stone Age Gamer and The Cover Project, for giving my retro NES collection a touch of  class.

The searing pain behind the Baltimore riots

The only Americans who truly understand the forces behind the Baltimore/Freddie Gray riots are Black people. That’s not to say that other races cannot sympathize; there are plenty of compassionate human beings of all shades who have marched, petitioned, and otherwise raised awareness about the all-too-frequent occurrences of police brutality to people of African descent. A Police brutality that’s just one aspect of the systemic, national attacks that have plagued Black communities from slavery to the Tulsa Riots to the present day. Black people get this, because we’ve lived this.

Yet, there are people who believe that nothing justifies an outburst from a race that’s been literally and figuratively pummeled since the 17th century. This isn’t a boo-hoo story; this is a fact. Any dismissal of the past with “well, that happened hundreds of years ago!” is incredibly short-sighted at best, and willfully hate-filled at worst.

If you apply enough stressors to an individual, then there’s a possibility that person could break. It could result in a relatively harmless action like punching a wall in a fit of anger, or something as complex as suffering a mental meltdown. Unfortunately, entire Black communities are suffering from multi-headed, multi-generational stressors. Stressors like:

Racism, stereotyping, the prison industrial complex, and resource roadblocks are a searing poison that claims many Black victims. Baltimore’s frustration and rage are real.

I feel it, too. I spent roughly half my life in the projects, so I empathize. I was dirt poor. I had my ass whopped by the police. I still deal with microaggressions on a regular basis. The playing field is uneven. There are potholes everywhere.

Riots don’t emerge out of the blue; riots emerge when many, many people feel the same pressure. So, America, look beyond the broken windows. There’s something there. Something ugly. And ditch the hypocritical audacity in how rioting is viewed.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any knuckleheads taking advantage of Baltimore’s tense situation. Some men just want to watch the world burn, after all, but they aren’t representative of the larger group who simply want a fair shot at life. There are Black people in Baltimore keeping the peace. There are Black people in Baltimore cleaning up the debris in the riots’ wake. We’re not animals.

“Black Lives Matter” is a slogan, a hashtag, and more importantly, a fact. We are human beings.

Treat us as such.

Image courtesy of Brendan Smialowski | AFP photo.

I lucked into seeing Letterman before he leaves ‘The Late Show’

April Fools Day is, without question, one of the most-annoying days of the year. An entire 24-hour period based on lies—or more lies than usual—doesn’t make for a particularly good time unless the pranks are skillfully executed (Note: The majority are not). That said, this April Fools Day was a completely different experience for me, because I avoided the shenanigans altogether by sitting in on a David Letterman taping.

Letterman was never my go-to late night host—at least not initially. As an adolescent, I stayed up past my bedtime to watch Johnny. As a teen and 20-something, I was into Arsenio. I didn’t appreciate Dave’s wit until a handful of years later, and by that time, I often crashed before his show aired due to being burnt out by a string of highly stressful jobs. I caught clips on YouTube and Entertainment Tonight whenever a celebrity did or said something stupid on the show. Letterman was always an entertaining gent who cracked wise in the peripheral.

That’s why sitting in the historic Ed Sullivan Theater was such a rewarding experience. I watched an entire episode of The Late Show for the first time in my life. Dave owned the show with a laid back sarcasm and witty banter with the audience,  Senator Al Franken, and the incredibly annoying host of Billy on the Street. It was glorious.

I had one regret after the show wrapped: I had zero photos to preserve the experience, as photography was understandably not allowed in the theater. Then it hit me—the camera ban  was the best thing that happened that afternoon. I didn’t fiddle in my seat adjusting flash and correcting zoom. Letterman, and his incredible house band fronted by Paul Shaffer and featuring jazz great David Sanborn, had my undivided attention for the first time in my life. It was an evening of great punchlines and dazzling musical segments.

There was a two-hour wait period in the time between picking up my tickets and being seated for the show. The impatient New Yorker in me began to bubble up, and I even questioned if the wait would be worth it. It was. Watching the television legend in his final days on the job—Dave exits late night on May 20—was magic. There were a couple of flat jokes, but the set was humorous, topical, and thoroughly enjoyable.

I wish I had done it sooner.

I’m kind of glad that I didn’t.

Image courtesy of CBS.

Tweaking my LinkedIn profile upped my expert status

When the word “expert” hits your ears, what images come to mind? A wizened man with salt-and-pepper hair in a tweed jacket? A scholarly woman sporting a bun and librarian glasses? How about a guy in a cheap sweater, Lucky jeans, and low-top suede Wallabees? If you didn’t imagine the last person, I don’t blame; I wouldn’t have envisioned him either—and that guy is me.

Recently, I decided to do my yearly LinkedIn profile update. It’s an annual task that I adopted after reading Jill Duffy’s “Get Organized: 5 Tips for Getting the Most from LinkedIn.” The helpful suggestions helped me tighten and strengthen my LinkedIn page, but there was one tip that I didn’t use until very recently that proved very valuable: think in keywords. Long story short, I tweaked my professional title into one that’s more SEO-friendly, so that it would catch the eye of people searching LinkedIn for, say, “tech editor.” And it’s worked!

High-profile news publications, freelance writers, college kids writing theses, and podcast hosts have asked me to drop knowledge in the last few weeks. It’s been an empowering experience. Although I’ve written about technology for a decade, I saw myself as an editor with valuable thoughts and analysis, but not necessarily an “expert.” That is until someone on the other end of the phone actually referred to me as such.

It legitimately surprised me. No false humbleness, here. It later dawned on me that by having so many friends and acquaintances working in the technology and/or video game fields, I’ve lost touch with the fact that not everyone knows—or cares to know—the PlayStation’s role in elevating video games a mainstream, billion dollar industry. Or the best Web hosting services for companies on a budget. That realization played an important role in how I view myself in terms of career goals. That realization also helped me identify the required steps that are needed to walk toward expertise.

  • You must have a high level of knowledge in a particular area
  • You must have a few years under your belt; people seek veterans for knowledge
  • You must have the ability to explain a topic in everything language to someone who’s unfamiliar with it

And that’s about it. I think. There’s a very good chance that I may have overlooked an essential tip, but I never claimed to be an expert about experts.

Image courtesy of ReliableSoft.

Is DreamWorks Animation burying the biracial Tip in its Home ads?

It’s not very often that a mainstream animated film features a biracial, female lead, but DreamWorks Animation’s Home does just that.
The move is a first for the studio, and one that I truly hope proves successful at the box office, because society needs this type of representation. As an ’80s kid, I didn’t see many brown faces in sci-fi and fantasy movies besides those belonging to warmongering Klingons. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Home centers on the relationship between Tip,  a curly-topped bi-racial teenager, and Oh,  a friendly alien invader. Let me reiterate: One of Home’s leads is a biracial female. I emphasize the racial aspect not just because its rare to see. There’s another angle to this, one that kills the importance of having such a character appear on the silver screen.

Occasional television spots are the only reason I know that Home has a biracial lead character. Every bus ad, taxi ad, and billboard that I’ve spotted while walking New York City’s streets have either highlighted Oh, or Oh paired with…Tip’s pet cat. I’ve yet to see a brown face and curls on any non-television marketing materials.

This saddens and infuriates me.

I recognize that these types of movies often push the manic alien/robot/magical/cutesy creature for merchandising purposes, but giving Tip less banner and billboard love than her cat screams “we have no faith that this will fly in certain markets.”  I have no hard evidence to support this; it’s speculation based on what I know about business and a portion of the American populace. The recent Annie remake apparently suffered similar marketing ills.

If DreamWorks Animation is tossing Tip into the background to court people who may be uncomfortable with the very idea of the character’s existence, it’s making a huge mistake. A company shouldn’t spend millions to bring a character to life only to partially bury it, especially when the character has the potential to touch millions of people of all shades.

DreamWorks Animation knows Tip’s importance. Play to the right audience.

Image courtesy of Dreamworks Animation