Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Untimely Death of Mario Kart

Update: I have started a thread on the Mario Kart Wii forum about this. Some interesting discussion has started up, most people seem to support the change. I suspect people will be talking about it a lot in MK circles.

It's time to take a break from ukuleles and talk about something much more serious and dark.

The world changed on 4/28 (the release date of Mario Kart Wii), but it's taken me two slow days of denial and vain hope to realize it. I didn't want to believe it was true, but it is. It's been documented in Wikipedia, and I quote:

The ability to "snake" in previous Mario Kart games, which creates speed boosts by repeatedly drifting, has been abandoned in favor of a new speed boost system based on how long the player actually drifts and the angle at which they drift.

The ability to snake "has been abandoned".

The unique controls of Mario Kart have been abandoned. The "ability to snake", as if it's just some wacky trick move, was taken out.

No, "the ability to snake" was the ability to have complete control over your turns and to get speed boosts as a reward. When you watch a good player play any version of Mario Karts past, they "snake" through the game. The world champions of Mario Kart are good because they know how to turn. They know how Mario Kart works, how it has always worked. Speed turns, drifting, snaking, whatever you call it, is what makes Mario Kart different than EVERY OTHER RACING GAME EVER.

It's not the items, it's not the characters, it's not the levels. It's the game control. It's the reason Diddy Kong racing never went anywhere. Similar characters, similar levels, similar items. Boring, unresponsive standard racing controls. It's the reason Crash Bandicoot's wacky Kart madness emporium fandango driving game with every bell and whistle in the world disappeared without anyone caring. Nobody wants to race with "press the fast button and move left and right" controls. It's been done. Over and over and over again.

Nintendo was on to something big, and apparently they had no idea. I always respect them for taking the extra time to make their major releases perfect. They make us wait the extra year because they want every Smash Bros. character to be balanced. They want 5 years to get Link's story to be complete. They delayed Mario Kart and any major release whenever they had to to make it perfect, and that was fine with me. But somewhere long the way they forgot how it rose from anonymity in the first place.

What makes (made) Mario Kart different is the controls. No other game has controls anything like Mario Kart.

The ability to drift to get speed boosts is what separated the good from the great, and the ability to snake expertly separated the great from the godlike. They could look at a turn and see the perfect angles, the perfect line of attack, and drive up a ridiculous number of speed boosts along the way.

By abandoning snaking, Nintendo is abandoning those hardcore Mario Karters. The "game of Mariokart" as it's been played for the last 15 years, has become half of what it was.

Now, some Mariokart fans won't care. There are a substantial number of people who are huge fans of Mariokart, but don't care too much for the details of the driving and turning portion of the game, or never got comfortable with "snaking".

They are the ones who've never beat all (or any) of the ghosts in time trials. They play with a heavy reliance on items and item strategy. Most people I know play like this.

But they were just scratching the surface of what Mariokart had to offer. If they were half as good at drifting and doing speed turns as I am, I would never have won a game. They excel at using their items and knowing the course, but they never took their driving to the next level. Every karter can be divided into where they lie on a graph of their skills in different areas: Driving and Items.

There will never be another race like this. Or this. Or these. Snaking is how Mariokart is played at a high level. It is the skill portion of the driving. There are other skills in the game, but it was the ability to snake that made driving in Mario Kart unique and amazing.

I should have seen this coming, but I never imagined they would go so far. Double Dash represented a strong shift away from snaking by increasing the power of the items and giving stronger items to people in higher places. It was the first move towards reducing the advantage of snaking.

An expert driver on MK64 might never lose a game to someone who couldn't snake, no matter what items they got. For example-- if I knew someone didn't turn with the speed boosts, I knew I could beat them by 15, 20 seconds at least and there wasn't going to be a competitive game. The game creators noticed the imbalance and took major steps to correct it. Double Dash had smaller speed boosts, more powerful items, and the programming gave better items to people only a few spots behind. On the 64, you were getting mostly bananas and shells until you were past 5th, on the Gamecube you could get a star as high up as 3rd place.

Double Dash was a near perfect balance of driving skill and items strategy. They even had a two-player mode to separate the two components, to let one person drive and one person shoot. It was a fully aware, carefully balanced game.

But it still wasn't enough for them. They had to take out the snaking. They had to dumb down the controls, to get rid of the hard part so "wii" can all play. Their all-inclusive gaming philosophy on the new system outweighed their sense of tradition or their series continuity.

It used to be simple to learn, difficult to master. Now they are moving away even from difficult to master. They need to accommodate their new players and their new technology. Snaking would be basically impossible on the new wii-mote wheel. It's not precise enough, not sensitive enough to handle the quick joystick maneuvering it would take.

This is what's so distressing about this move. It's a permanent, consistent part of Nintendo's new philosophy. They want to make games for everyone, and they will eliminate any part of a game that's too difficult because of the potential to alienate new and part-time gamers. Great for new gamers-- but us old-timers, and the record-holders, and the tournament players, and the devoted fans who've grown up with Mario Kart and mastered it's amazingly precise controls are left to play a dumbed-down, simplified version of the game we love.

The worst part is that the new game has everything hardcore karters could have ever wanted. The new tracks are amazing, the bikes cut corners better than any kart could, and there are legacy tracks from every previous game. Finally, we can play internationally and get a rating like in chess.

It's torturous to make it so good without giving us all the necessary tools. It's not just that the turning is different, it's that it's worse and slower. We're forced to see everything in the game through a frustrating haze of poor, wide turns and painfully slow snake-free straightaways.

I look ahead while I'm driving in this game and I can see exactly how I want to slide to cut the shortest path, to get the most speed, to skirt the edge. After fifteen years, I can see the best route every time. But the route I see doesn't exist anymore.

Nintendo abandoned it.

This may not prove to be a mistake on Nintendo's part. The game controls are simplified, the world is expanded, there are more items, and it is finally online. Those few among us who still appreciate games with high ceilings are probably outnumbered a million to one by casual gamers who hate to lose to jerks who are too good at complicated maneuvers.

It is the end of an era, maybe not so much for Nintendo as for me.

Disclaimer: I'm still going to play the game for fun, I just won't be any better at it than, say, Need for Speed 4 or Diddy Kong racing or whatever. Luckily it's not all about winning. Oh, and the next post will be about ukuleles again.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Ask Ukulala Vol. 1: Mark Twain to John McCain

Welcome to the first ever "Ask Ukulala Anything" post!

I recognize that anyone learning the ukulele sometimes has questions, and this section of the blog is about answering those questions. Sometimes they are about ukuleles, sometimes they are about other stuff. It doesn't matter, this is the place to ask them. There's a little box over on the left hand side of the main page now.

Whatever the question, Ukulala has* the** answer***. It's like I always say: "You ask it, we ____ it!" Actually I can't think of a good rhyme there. Good slogan or no, let's jump right in with C-Dawg from Allston:

how do I get my hair to be like Mark Twain's?
C-Dawg - Allston

Well, I guess it depends on your age. If you're already really old, then it's just a matter of letting your hair grow out a bit.

However, based on your location (Allston, MA), I can put your age between 18-30 with a 95% degree of confidence. And because nobody has used the nickname "(Letter)-Dawg" in about a decade, I am going to also assume that you were in middle and high school throughout the 90s.

That puts your age... right in the late 20s. A very difficult age to have hair like Mark Twain.

If you can't wait 40 years, I recommend increasing the amount of stress in your daily life to speed the process along. Keep a running mental list of all the things you've done wrong this year, and then try to expand on it when you should be sleeping. Question each of your own decisions until you're sure it was wrong. Stress over exes: every one, every day. Think about your own death a lot.

And if that's still not fast enough, try a terrifying near-death experience.

why do you suck so much?
Rog - Semi Professional Rock Star -Boston, MA

I almost forgot to ask myself this question in the mirror this morning, thanks for bringing it back to my constant attention. Still no concrete answer, but every day I'm hearing all kinds of suggested reasons.

How do you tune that thing?
Rog- Urinal Cake Taste Tester - Allston, MA

I'm assuming you mean the ukulele. Some people can tune it by ear, but I think that's almost impossible. I use a computer program called AP Tuner, probably the best tuning program out there. It's precise to any note, so it's not instrument-specific.

The standard tuning for a ukulele is
starting at the top string and going down. These are the same notes (although not the same octaves) as a guitar if you were to put a capo on the fifth fret of the guitar and only play the bottom four strings, so as you learn the chords you will notice the finger positions are similar to guitar positions even though the chords themselves are different.

My ukulele has traditional tuning pegs, so they don't have an extra gear. Based on this description of the types of tuning pegs, I think that's called a "friction" peg. The lack of a gear makes tuning the ukulele more difficult for beginners (compared to a guitar), although you can find ones out there with the gear.

What's the difference between a ukelele and a guitar?
-Rog- Big Jerk- Boston, MA

The top 10 differences between a ukulele and a guitar:

10) A ukulele has four strings, a guitar has six.

9) A ukulele can probably fit inside a guitar.

8) The top string on a ukulele is higher in pitch than the one beneath it, whereas guitar strings go from lowest to highest.

7) Ukuleles have two "u"s in their name, guitars only have one (except in the UK, where it's spelled "ukelele" so they each have one u).

6) Ukuleles party with more girls in grass skirts.

5) The International Ukulele Council (IUC) has significantly less global influence than the Global Guitar Consortium (GGC), although both have a U.N Security Council vote.

4) Someone named "Tiny Tim" didn't actively destroy the public image of the guitar for three generations.

3) Ukuleles come in all kinds of crazy shapes.

2) Ukuleles can be used as hilarious tiny props to make someone look bigger. Bruddah Iz, for example, was actually only 170 pounds.

...and the number one way a ukulele is different than a guitar:

1) Hawaiians love ukuleles... but they hate guitars.

That's probably about it.

For now.

What's the difference between a ukelele and this?
Rog- Big Jerk- Boston, MA

I'm not sure there is a technical difference when it comes to classification. The video appears to just show some sort of hairy, living ukulele. It can be played similarly, but the sound it makes is... awful. The hissing and the screeching, it's just unpleasant.

do we ask you here, or at ukulala?
Aaron - Vagrant Stomper - Boston

I'm not sure where "here" is, but yeah, asking anywhere is fine. Probably the web site is best because then it will actually be recorded and sent to me.

Dear Paz, How big (or small) can a ukulele get before it can no longer be considered a ukulele?
Shotgun O'Douls - Enchilada Washer - Augusta, ME

Ukuleles come in all shapes and sizes, but there is of course a limit to how big they can get and still be called a ukulele. To wit:

Does that Noah and the Whale band have any albums released in the US?
JPS - Boston

They do not appear to.

They seem to be part of the Young and Lost Club, a British Indie record label without any clear album releases. They have a single coming out May 4th, available if you can pay for it in POUNDS (socialist).

I guess us Americans can just keep watching this awesome video (and learning how to play it, of course) and going to their Myspace for free samples.

Where's my hat?
Who are you?

What are you doing to my dog?

Are you going to clean that up?

Sir, you sound old and confus---oh, wait a minute I recognize these questions. Senator McCain--for the LAST TIME, I have NO IDEA where your hat is, or where you are, or what you think is happening with any of your dogs right now.

Also, please take my phone number off your cell phone. I think I speak for every phone number in there when I say we're sick of getting those angry 5am phone calls with your voice asking "why won't this remote turn the TV on", and "which button makes the bed tilt back up?"

Dear Paz,

Good soda, huh?
Jimmo - Little Rock, AR

Fuck. You.

Does you sister play the Ukulele too? What other instruments do you play? How about your sister?
Raya on Phuket, Thailand

Flora and I both started playing the ukulele at the beginning of this year. Before that I had been trying to learn guitar off and on for a couple years, and she had messed around on the piano.

I have almost no ear for music, so I try to make up for it by playing a lot and by learning theory. My sister, on the other hand, seems to be somewhat of a natural so far. She can hear notes, add melody, and figure out songs in a way that seems strange and mysterious to me.

Do you take requests? (if so, i might have some, although you already play a lot of the songs i love) What do you like about Mareva? Have you noticed ALL HER VIDEOS ARE THE SAME?! It's a little disoncerting.
R. - Eutaw, Alabama

The short answer is no, I don't do requests. But I am very interested in introductions. If you have music that--based on what you've seen in the ukulala repertoire--you think I might like, then please tell me and direct me to it.

If I really really like it (and that is very rare), then I'll try to learn it and put a video up. It's unlikely, but it is exactly what happened with the Noah and Whale song Five Years Time.

And yeah, I'm not that crazy about Mareva's music or videos. It's kind of repetitive and pop-boring. She is very cute and French though, and she does at least sometimes hold a ukulele. I think those qualifications alone are enough for a shout-out from a ukulele blog run by a guy.

If you have a cute picture of yourself holding a ukulele, I bet you could get a mention here too!

Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon?
Related: Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grins?

Follow up: Can you sing with all the voices of the mountains?

Final Question: Can You Paint with all the Colors of the Wind?

Anonymous -

No, all I have left in my set is cool breeze blue.

From whence did come this strange harpsichord known as "ukulele"? From the yonder savage land of Xanadu I presume?
How do I tie an ascot?

Cadwallader P. F. Wiffleplotz IV, Esq. - Lord of Commons - 18th century England

Again, Mr. McCain? Nice try, but your boyhood playmate Cadwallader has been dead for 130 years.

But since your questions (sort of) made sense this time, I'll do my best to answer them.

Ukuleles were created in Hawaii in the 19th century (~your midlife crisis), apparently rising from a Portuguese stringed-instrument influence. The name roughly translates to "jumping flea", which makes sense because ukuleles are... also known to... jump onto and live off the blood of mammals and birds? Ok, so I don't know what the etymology of that is, maybe I'll find out if anyone asks.

And if you really need to tie that ascot right, follow this carefully. Although I wouldn't recommend using the word "ascot" on the campaign trail--for any number of reasons.

Peace out!

*may have
**one possible
***meaningless remark


Sunday, April 13, 2008

How to play Five Years Time by Noah and the Whale

First off, many thanks to youtuber marcthaine for introducing me to this song a few weeks ago. It's a fun, simple, cute song, and a good video too.

Check out the original song here: Five Years Time by Noah and the Whale.
And the chords and lyrics from ukulelehunt.com here.

And my tutorial video here:

Video breakdown:
0:00 - Intro
0:08 - Tuning (GCEA)
0:14 - Chords (C, F, and G)
1:42 - Chorder
2:05 - Strumming pattern (down - up - hit - up, switch and repeat)
2:53 - Tricky part in strumming (hiccup on the C only)
3:33 - Demonstration (starts slow, speeds up)

The song itself has only three chords: C, F, and G. The video goes over two possible options for which G to play. I think it's easier to play the standard G, but if you bar the second fret and put your fingers in the F position, you'll get the exact G he plays in the video, which might be worth it if you can do it well.

The chorder just repeats: C, F, G, F over and ver and voeover and over and voer anbdnvoer.....etc

The strumming pattern is
1) down
2) up
3) hit
4) up
(switch chords and repeat)