Pop Culture Questions: Pest Control Edition

Friday, July 5th, 2013
Say "cheese," Ronald! See what I did there?

This little rat was thankfully spared during the most recent dungeon raid. He is currently enjoying a steady recovery at Dr. Rodent’s Rat Rehab, home of the world-famous “Vermin Swimmin’ Spa,” in Reno, Nevada.

Welcome to another installment of my series, Pop Culture Questions.  This time, I’m going to tackle two conundrums involving things that I find annoying, irritating, or just a big old pest.  Get out the DDT and mousetraps because it’s time for some long-overdue extermination.

How come medieval dungeons are always filled with giant rats and spiders?

I have been playing a new game, Warhammer Quest, on my iPad and am repeatedly running into dungeons filled to the brim with orcs, goblins, and all sorts of other nasty creatures.  The most revolting creatures I’ve come up against so far, however, have been some grossly oversized rats and spiders.  It seems to me that in every castle dungeon I have ever seen, whether in movies, TV shows, or, lately, video games, I have always seen a healthy (or is that unhealthy?) assortment of jumbo-sized rats, spiders, bats, and other humongous vermin.  What compelled these critters to reside in such dark, dank, miserable places?  I think it’s probably due to the cold, moist environments and the steady supply of fresh meat in the form of traveling adventurers hapless enough to walk into the next random cave entrance only to find it’s a den of starving creatures waiting for a human feast.  The real question on my mind, though, as stated above, is: How come the majority of these rats, spiders, etc. are always of the “Triple Deluxe Whopper” variety?  From whence did these rodents and their disgusting friends gain the ability to grow to such a large size?  Someone must have left a magical potion lying around or been dumping something especially powerful into the sewage, because it looks like these huge monsters are here to stay, especially if they keep breeding like, well, rats.

What is “The Most Annoying Song in the World?”

A little while back, I came across a video for a song from the Disney TV show Phineas and Ferb called, “This Is the Most Annoying Song in the World (Woop Woop).”  Despite the claims of Dr. Doofenshmirtz, the show’s resident mad scientist and the lead singer here, that  his creation is the most mind-numbingly annoying song ever, I find that a bit hard to believe.  I think the song is actually quite catchy and pleasing to the ear.  In fact, I can come up with much more annoying songs than this pathetic attempt.  For instance, I personally don’t mind Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You, You Love Me,” but apparently there’s many other people who, if they don’t have any preschool-aged children around, set up bunkers and call civil defense authorities once this song starts playing on their TVs.  How about “The Song That Doesn’t End,” the classic that’s great for ending an episode of Lamb Chop’s Play Along  but turns into sheer torture when you’re forced to listen to it for 10 hours straight?  On that note, there’s also a lot of YouTube videos of annoying songs played on near-infinite loops, or at least as long as the person making the video can stand before finding something better to do with their time.  For example, have a taste of the “Nom Nom” song accompanied by 10 hours of hamsters and gerbils eating food, or for something a bit shorter, Pac-Man eating  dots for 58 seconds or one minute of some bizarrely cute Photoshops

I think I’ll pass this question on to you now, too.  Are there any songs that drive you up the wall any time you hear them?  Leave your songs in the comments, and if possible, give links to videos or sound files of the songs in question so I can hear them as well.  Hope you don’t find my request too annoying! 🙂

Random Top Five: Obscure “Starcade” Games I Think Would Be Fun to Play

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013
Not bad for a TV screen and a wooden box.

Life’s all fun and games!

One of my favorite game shows of all time is Starcade, a show from the early 1980s in which kids played new arcade games in order to win such prizes as their very own arcade machine, a personal robot, a jukebox, and in a rare case, vacations to Hawaii with a large supply of quarters to spend in arcades in that state.  I became familiar with this show through frequent reruns on the G4 cable network and was entranced by some of the more unusual games featured on the show.  Tucked in between Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were some unique games which I think I would greatly enjoy playing if I were to come across them in a real arcade.  The following is a catalog of five of those games as well as links to videos of the games in action.  If you’re interested in learning more about the Starcade show itself, I highly recommend checking out the official website set up by JM Productions, the company responsible for making the show; it contains a lot of cool stuff including complete episodes, videos and trivia of all of the games featured on the show, and music from those games, the show itself, and some of JM’s other shows.

5. Pooyan

One fine day in a nondescript virtual forest somewhere in the arcade, Mama Pig’s little piglets were kidnapped by a band of wolves.  Apparently the wolves decided to celebrate by freefalling from the top of a tree with balloons attached to their backs (Why balloons instead of parachutes?  Oh well, that’s video game logic for ya!).  Unbeknownst to them, Mama Pig will soon be taking revenge on them by firing darts at their balloons from the safety of an elevator controlled by some of her liberated children.  You, the player, must move the elevator up and down and fire darts at the wolves while avoiding the pinecones (or are they acorns?  Oranges?  They definitely look like circular objects, at least!) the wolves throw back.  It seemed to me that Pooyan was the game I saw being played most often on Starcade, as it was picked by one of the contestants in just about every single show in which it was one of the featured games.  I have wondered what made it so popular.  Is it because it was a horizontal shooter in an era when vertical shooters like Space Invaders and Galaga were still considered the norm?  Is is because the characters could quite possibly be the cutest-looking video game characters ever?  Whatever it’s appeal was, the Starcaders flocked to it like groupies at a rock concert.  I’d like to experience that phenomenon firsthand and see what all the fuss was about.

4. Pengo (not to be confused with the animated penguin character Pingu)

As announcer Kevin McMahan states at the start of the video I linked to above, “Pengo is a penguin.”  He is trapped in a maze of ice blocks with the Snowbees, round Q-bert imposters, chasing him down.  They are trying to stop him from completing his mission of lining up three specially marked ice blocks in a row for big points.  Fortunately, Pengo can fight back by sliding ice blocks across the playing field and over the Snowbees to make them vanish for a few seconds.  He can also destroy ice blocks to create new paths through the maze and to get rid of places where the Snowbees can regenerate.  Like Pooyan, I think this game has some very cute characters and provides a nice twist on an established arcade game genre, in this case maze games like Pac-Man and its ilk.  I also find it interesting that it seems to be a variation of an old Japanese game called Sokoban in which you push crates around a warehouse (ice blocks around an ice field?  Pretty much the same thing to me.).  I feel this game would appeal greatly to Pac-Man fans who want to see a different kind of maze game, and I think it’s a very “cool” game concept (come on, the pun was right there!).  (Incidentally, I love the background music this game has.  It sounds like a classical piece to me, but I’m not sure which one it is.  The Wikipedia page doesn’t seem to have the answer I’m looking for.  Does anyone else know?)

3. Popeye

Before Nintendo hit the big time with Donkey Kong, a game about an average man trying to rescue his girlfriend from a big hulking brute, they tried their luck in arcades with a game focused on, get this, an average man trying to rescue his girlfriend from a big hulking brute.  In this case, Popeye is attempting to beat the stuffing out of Bluto in order to rescue Olive Oyl, just like in all of his classic cartoons.  Popeye doesn’t have much of a fighting chance against the much stronger Bluto in his normal state, but luckily, the game makers have provided a few cans of spinach for the sailor to gulp down.  Naturally, eating one of these gives Popeye tremendous strength so he can knock Bluto’s block off and send him down into the water below the playing field.  In addition, Popeye can grab hearts and notes of love that Olive sends down from above for extra points.  I’m surprised that I haven’t seen this game outside of Starcade as it looks like a solidly built basic aracde game that could’ve been a big hit.  I’ve heard that Nintendo had a bit of trouble with King Features over the license to use the Popeye characters.  The game did get a release on the Japanese Nintendo Famicom (the original version of the NES) and Namco made a new game based on it for mobile phones in 2008, so at least some people are still able to play it in some form.  I’d still like to play the original arcade version, though.  It’s an interesting footnote in video game history, and I would be interested in playing it myself to see if it’s just as fun as Donkey Kong.

2. Cliffhanger (not to be confused with that Price is Right game with the mountain climber; that one’s spelled “Cliffhangers” with an added “s,” but I do think that yodeling music is very catchy!)

I think this game is probably the most unusual one on this list because it’s not really much of a game at all.  It’s actually an interactive version of a classic Japanese animated movie!  Actually, there’s two movies featured in the game: according to this Wikipedia page, the bulk of the game is based on Castle of Cagliostro with a small bit extracted from Mystery of Mamo.  In any case, the player is tasked with guiding the dapper chap Cliff in an attempt to rescue his girlfriend Clarissa from the clutches of the fiendish Count Draco.  You don’t control Cliff or his friends directly, though: instead you move a joystick around and tap a button to play the next section of the movie.  This game was one of many such “interactive movie” games including Dragon’s LairSpace Ace, and Mach 3.  I’ve played all of those other games except Mach 3, and I think this type of game is very fun, if a bit limited.  I’d like to seek the Cliffhanger game out and play through it to complete my quest through all of this genre’s most notable games.  I wonder if such a bizarre source of footage would indeed make for compelling game play.

1. Super Pac-Man

 Since Starcade did focus on the world of arcade games, of course Pac-Man would be a fixture on the show.  In addition to Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, there was also a trio of unusual spin-off titles.  Pac-Man Plus was a souped-up version of the original game in which all of the characters moved faster and Pac-Man could consume a soda can which made all of the ghosts invisible (a bad thing if you hadn’t eaten a power pellet yet; those ghosts could pop out of nowhere Alien-style and get you when you least expected it!).  Professor Pac-Man wasn’t a maze game at all but rather a math quiz game with a graduation cap-wearing Pac-Man as the quizmaster.  The spin-off game I would most like to play, though, is Super Pac-Man.  In this game, Pac-Man is still playing “chase or be chased” with the ghosts and can still swallow power pellets to turn his enemies blue and then chomp them away for a time.  However, the familiar small dots have been replaced with more nutritious-looking apples for Pac-Man to consume.  Also, there’s a bunch of doors which block off certain sections of the maze.  Thankfully, someone apparently keeps dropping keys into the maze; whenever Pac-Man swallows one, he turns into Super Pac-Man and grows to ten times his regular size.  In this huge form, the ghosts can’t harm him and he can unlock the doors.  Even though the style of game play is, for all intents and purposes, fairly typical for a Pac-Man game, the small differences in this game is what I like.  It adds a couple of new wrinkles to the usual Pac-Man strategy: Do you want to unlock this new portion of the maze and give the ghosts more space to roam?  Which power-up do you want more at the moment: the key for the Super Pac-Man form or the old power pellet to get rid of your ghostly adversaries?  I’m not sure what my strategy would be, but I would like to play this game to find out.  Not to mention Pac-Man is just plain fun in any form, so ten times the size could surely equal ten times the fun!

There were a lot of neat games featured on Starcade that I liked to see or was interested in.  Would you like to hear more about them or about the show itself?  Are there any arcade games you really enjoyed or still enjoy?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.  And until next time, in the words of host Geoff Edwards, “May all your troubles get zapped!”

Random Top Five: The Greatest Pac-Man Dots

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

 

I'll take Wakka Wakka Wakka for $100, Alex.

The maze of life: a box with dots and ghosts.

From time to time on this site, there will be short top five lists based on random topics.  For this particular list, I have decided to count down the top five greatest dots or groups of dots that appear in the original maze in Pac-Man. Please note that for the purposes of this list, only the 236 regular dots which Pac-Man must consume as part of his daily travels throughout the maze are in the running.  The four power pellets, the large ones in the four corners of the maze which give Pac-Man the ability to chomp up his ghostly pursuers, are disqualified because of their unique nature (in addition to the performance-enhancing drugs scandal they were part of some years back).

5. The paths of dots in the two S-curves at the maze’s bottom. 

These dots are in areas that are radically different from the straight lines found everywhere else in the maze, so you get a nice bit of variety in terms of scenery.  The eight dots that each curve offers make for a good snack to keep your energy up for the next straightaway. They also highlight a good bit of strategy: if you plan your route right, ducking down these winding corridors can throw the ghosts off your tail a bit as they’re forced to compensate for the slight change in architecture.

4. The dots on either end of the warp tunnel at the maze’s right and left walls.

These dots may not seem like much on their own, but the tunnel openings they sit in front of make them all the more appetizing.  After you swallow either one of them, make a hard left or right into the warp tunnel.  Through some kind of magical space-time warp which has still yet to be explained, Pac-Man will appear on the other side of the maze, promptly chomping up the dot waiting at the other end of the tunnel and continuing his mission of eating everything in sight.  If you have a bunch of ghosts ganging up on you, taking this escape route can be a godsend.  Watching the ghosts scramble around like the Keystone Kops while I relax far away from them has provided me with a bit of hilarity many times.

3. The two dots to your right and left when you start a new game.  

 Do you remember the first thing you saw when you were born?  I can bet that Pac-Man vividly remembers seeing two small dots floating beside him in the inky blackness of the maze soon after he came into the world.  I’m sure he was curious about what these new things were for and if they were exciting.  He would have quickly moved toward one of them, putting his gigantic mouth over it and swallowing it whole.  He then would have seen another one in front of him, so he would have eaten that one, too.  Then another and another and another, and pretty soon, he was addicted to the darn things.  He couldn’t complete a maze without swallowing all of them; they became his life’s calling.  But he’ll always remember that first dot.  That first stinking dot.  It’s all that dot’s fault that his life’s all out of sorts!  Oh sure, the maze gives him fruit to eat and ghosts to torment (and be tormented by), but the rest of the time it’s just regular, plain vanilla-flavored dots.  It’s enough to make anyone want to become a carpenter and dodge barrels thrown by a giant ape…  But like I said, all great stories have to start somewhere, and those two dots are it.

2. The first dot you eat after swallowing a power pellet.

This dot (any one of eight regular dots depending on in which direction you approach the pellet) knows its place in line.  It does not matter what happens to me, it thinks to itself.  I am no more important then those in front or behind me.  The yellow god has become death incarnate, and woe betide all who stand in his wake.  That little dot is right, you know.  What’s a mere ten points compared to the 1600 that Pac-Man can get after eating a power pellet then pulling off the spectacular feat of eating four ghosts in rapid succession?  This dot could never hope to equal that greatness, so it resigns itself to its fate and prepares itself for the day its world ends.  Goodbye, world, it thinks as it enters the yellow god’s mouth and blinks out of existence.  The points will go on, but alas, my days are done. 

1. The last dot you eat before swallowing a power pellet.

Those same eight dots that I mentioned above can sometimes play another role.  In this state, they are not the nervous citizens of a new deadly world recognizing that their time has passed.  They are instead young, free, excited to become part of something bigger than themselves.  These power pellet parties have apparently become seen as the best places to be in the maze.  The young dot stands in line along with the other dots, watching the thumping lights of the big round  club and waiting for its chance to walk through those doors, let loose, and enjoy itself  for the first time in its life.  Maybe it’ll meet a nice girl dot and they can swap numbers, maybe even go out for a movie later.  Yes, these dots are young, but they’re also hopelessly naive.  How could they know the pain that will come after the yellow god harvests their bodies and uses their power to turn ghosts into so much liverwurst?  How could they ever know?  All the difference in the world is thus made depending on what side of the pellet you’re on.  Better to be number one than number two.

I hope you didn’t find this list too hard to swallow.  Did it suit your appetite?  Are you craving more?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Real Advice for Fictional Characters No. 1: Mind Games

Friday, February 22nd, 2013
You send mail, you'd better get mail.

Look, you’ve got a letter!

I enjoy helping people however I can, both in my personal life and through my writing.  As a fun exercise in providing such help and in the spirit of such great advice-givers as Ann Landers, “Dear Abby”, and Dr. Phil, I decided to start an advice column for fictional characters in need of help.  For the sake of privacy, the help-seekers have kept their identities hidden (however, I have linked their nicknames to their Wikipedia pages, just in case any of you are curious as to who they really are).  I hope you enjoy the fruits of my efforts.  Let’s get to some letters.

 

Dear Kellogg Thoughts,

I always felt like a rat in a maze, but now I’m in a real tight spot.  I’ve been trying to achieve my goals and, for a while, I was on a straight path to happiness.  Now, though, the ghosts of my past are coming back to haunt me.  I’ve looked for any and all paths to freedom, but it doesn’t look like there’s any place to turn or escape.  I’ve lost my way and my appetite mulling over this problem.  What do I do?  Signed, Pellet Muncher

Dear Pellet Muncher,

It does indeed sound like these “ghosts of the past” have got you cornered.  I’m not too surprised by this outcome, though.  These tight situations often happen when you follow a singular path for a long time without considering other and, in some cases, better options that may appear along the way.  Don’t worry too much.  Stop and look at your problems from a larger perspective.  It may seem like you’re trapped now, but if you back up a little and see all of the other options you can take, you may find a better way to go.  If all else fails, remember to trust the people and things around you that have helped you the most (at the moment, those would be the power pellets and that tunnel that can shoot you out to the other side of the maze).  I hope this helps, and don’t forget that fruit will keep you very healthy!  Ben

 

Dear Kellogg Thoughts,

Mamma mia!  Have I got a doozy for you!  There’s someone special I really want to see, but she keeps playing hard to get.  I’ve been hopping mad trying to get to her.  Life has put a lot of obstacles in my way, namely turtles, chestnuts, man-eating plants, etc.  But with a good bit of athleticism and agility (and a few mushrooms, but trust me, they are for healing purposes only!), I have powered through everything.  Every time I show up at her castle, though, one of her friends always tells me, “Thank you, but our princess is in another castle!”  I’m tired of this routine, and I’m starting to think she’s not really worth all this trouble.  Should I keep going or should I pack up my wrench and go home?  Signed, Perplexed Plumber

Dear Perplexed Plumber,

I’d say keep going.  It sounds like you have been through a lot lately, and I’m sure the path has been rough at times, but it sounds like you really are enamoured of this girl.  Just look at all you’ve been through just to get to this girl’s house.  It takes a lot of dedication and perseverance to go through so much trouble just for one person.  Even though you know the world around you has made it very difficult to see this young lady that you profess has captured a special place in your heart, you keep trying anyway.  I will give you one more small piece of advice though.  After all that you have done, this girl had better be worth the time you’ve put into getting to her!  If she still does the whole “missing in action” bit, then feel free to find some other person or goal, but at this point in time, I think you shouldn’t give up just yet.  Keep on hopping!  Ben

 

Dear Kellogg Thoughts,

I’ll keep this short; I don’t want to waste your time.  A little while ago, I was speeding through life like I always do.  I was making split-second jumps, bopping the bad guys, and grabbing all the brass rings I can (actually, they’re more like gold rings in my case, but you know what I mean, right?).  All of a sudden, though, I ran right into a wall (covered in spikes, no less)!  All my progress stopped, I lost track of what I was doing, and now I’m having trouble getting back up to speed.  Can you give me a running start?  Signed, Blue Blur 

 Dear Blue Blur,

Don’t worry, you aren’t wasting my time; I’ve got plenty of it.  Actually, I’d suggest you slow down, a good deal slower in fact.  The reason you ran into that wall is because you were going too fast to begin with.  I’m certain you couldn’t possibly have noticed the wall or anything else while you were moving at the speed of sound.  Next time, cool your jets and move a bit slower.  Soon, you might notice that you can see everything more clearly including those bumps in the road.  If you take time to look where you’re going, you can avoid a lot of trouble for yourself.  I’m not saying you have to slow down too much, for you can still go pretty fast and know what’s in front of you.  Just don’t go so fast that you end up hurting yourself even more if you don’t stop.  There’s truth in the saying, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.”  And by all means, keep reaching for those gold rings.  I always thought they sounded better than brass anyway!  Have a blast!  Ben

 

That’s all the advice I’ve got this time around, folks.  I’ve got plenty more messages from fictional characters I want to get to; the mail never seems to stop coming in!  If you’d like to see more or if there’s a fictional character that you know could use some help, let me know in the comments.  I believe that while a good piece of advice can help you get through a tough situation, a great piece of advice can keep on helping you for the rest of your life.  I definitely want to give great advice.