Weekly status update [0063/????]

Let’s not even pretend.

  • I had surgery to remove my gall bladder Thursday morning. One of my old coworkers was kind enough to wake up before 6am (thanks, Jon!) and take me to the hospital; I was back home before noon, and now sport four sweet incisions on my belly that look like they were sealed with Krazy Glue. (I assume it’s super expensive medical-grade Krazy Glue, but Krazy Glue nonetheless.) Apparently the doctor was quite impressed with the size of the gallstone that had started to cause me problems, so I was quite lucky that the attacks had only started very recently. Anyhow, I drove myself to Walmart Friday morning and have been up and about (barring the occasional nap) ever since I got home, using heavy duty painkillers like, uh, the over-the-counter ibuprofen I used to take every night anyway. Sure, my lower stomach hurts quite a bit every time I stand up, sit down, or otherwise flex those muscles, but, y’know, it’s just pissed that there’s bits that have gone missing. Barring some catastrophic setback, as recoveries from surgeries go, this one is gonna be easy-peasy. Thanks to everyone for the well-wishes and checking-ups, both friends and family.
  • In other news, the long darkness of NickCapricorn’s Twitch channel is over, by which I mean he finally beat the hot mess that is Final Fantasy II late last night (or early this morning, depending on how you count it). I was co-pilot for almost all of the 37+ hours he played the game, and it acted as a constant reminder of why I should never, ever touch that miserable mess ever again in my life. (It’s the worst game I’ve ever beaten, I think, and I’ve beaten it three times: the Famicom fan translation that Nick was playing, the PlayStation Origins release, and the Gameboy Advance Dawn of Souls version.) He’s moving on to Shantae next at LisaLiisa‘s request, which is a game with its own problems… but nothing like FFII.
  • As I wrote about earlier this week, I also finished up a long game of my own on my stream, one that was much better than Final Fantasy II for about ninety percent of its length and then almost as bad right there at the end. You can read about that experience (and my thoughts on a particular brand of late-’80s game design) here.
  • We had an extended board game night on Tuesday where we played Concordia, which is still my favorite board game of all time. This was the first time we played with what I’d consider significant alternate rules; we used the “wine and cloth” Senator purchase row, along with the “Ægyptus” map board, which has several special rules on top of its quirky sail-down-the-Nile layout. One of the players was new to the game but had established that he picked up this sort of thing quite easily, and everyone had a great time. (Yes, I won, but that’s not why I enjoyed it so much.)
  • Despite still being under mild anesthetic effects, I managed to play a game of Dominion Thursday night online with friends thanks to the magic of dominion.games. I… kinda crushed them? It was nice having a computer arbitrate all the cards rather than having to fiddle with Tabletop Simulator, that’s for sure.
  • I continue to poke at Picross 3D Round 2‘s post game slowly but surely. It’s gotten brutally hard for some puzzles; I know I could dial the difficulty down, but… no. I simply can’t.
  • Dave Eggers’ The Parade was a fine, if unexceptional, short read. I have a stack of other books I checked out from the library, expecting a longer convalescence period than I’m likely to actually have, so I’m not sure how many of them I’m going to really get to.

Now it’s mostly just a matter of recovering further. The oddest result from my anesthesia, by the way, was that I got way worse at typing for about twenty-four hours. My best explanation is that Colemak is nowhere near as “deep” in my brain as QWERTY was for most of my life, and so I kept forgetting just where the damn letters were. Seriously, though, I was typing at something like half-speed until yesterday afternoon. It was weird.

Here’s a videogame thing: Destiny of an Emperor

Badness is worse when it’s surrounded by quality.

There are many terrible videogames. Most of them let you know they’re bad within the opening moments; they control poorly, play worse, and you immediately know, “yeah, this isn’t good.” If you soldier on, you do so with the knowledge of what you’re getting into. Hell, there’s a whole culture on YouTube and Twitch around playing bad games for the schadenfreude of it all: this person is doing this dumb thing, and we get to enjoy it, so doesn’t that make it–in a twisted way–good somehow1?

What I find much worse is slow-reveal awful. You’re enjoying a thing, be it a book or game or whatever, and slowly but surely it becomes more and more terrible. Characters make less sense, the game designers appear to have gone on vacation, and all the previous hours of pleasure are retroactively ruined by the sudden onset of suck. With literature, this often takes place across a long-running series, and so knowing when to get out while the getting’s good is important. (For example, I deny the existence of any Dune books past the second one, and sometimes even that one too. No, you can’t change my mind.) And that happens with videogame series as well… but it also tends to happen in individual games, due to a fundamental problem with how videogames are made. Namely: on a schedule, whether the game’s ready to be released or not.

Dragon Warrior II2 is notorious for having an absolutely relentless endgame, one that basically amounts to “is the pseudo-random number generator in this NES cartridge smiling upon me today?” in terms of how much control you the player have over its success. It sours an otherwise solid game, one that improves on the original along basically every axis, other than this one brutal misstep that pretty much pisses away all the goodwill the game built beforehand. And the folks who worked on the game later acknowledged the real source of the problem: they were in a rush, and the entire endgame went basically untested by any mortals before it was shipped out on carts to the world at large.

Well, Destiny of an Emperor is clearly inspired heavily by the Dragon Quest/Warrior series, from its menus down to many of its core mechanics, and apparently it took a little too much inspiration from Dragon Warrior II. I liked it at first, loved it for most of the midgame, and then right at the end the whole thing came tumbling down in a series of fights that basically amounted to, well, “is the pseudo-random number generator in this NES cartridge smiling upon me today?” Ugh.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game itself–which, I imagine, is most of you, as it’s definitely on the obscure end of the NES’ library–Destiny of an Emperor (hereafter DoaE) is a retelling of the extremely famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the formative pieces of Chinese literature. It’s a historical novel about the end of the Han dynasty, and it has been adapted mercilessly for film, television, and in videogames. Boy howdy has it been adapted for videogames. There is an entire series of strategy games that just steal the name outright, and the Dynasty Warriors hack-and-slash kill-’em-ups are all re-tellings of Romance. DoaE is a classic Japanese RPG rather than a strategy or action game, but otherwise fits in a very comfortable lineage of “things adapted from an old novel that is seminal to an entire culture.”

And, while DoaE is clearly, ah, let’s be polite and say heavily inspired by the Dragon Quest series, it also does some genuinely clever new things on its own. You control Liu Bei’s army, by way of leading a party of up to seven generals; each of those generals has some number of troops under his3 command which act like hit points in a more traditional JRPG. Weirdly, resting at an inn “heals” your dead soldiers, and by the end of the game you’re traversing caves with armies of a quarter million men or more, so it’s best not to think too much about that abstraction… but the game does some neat tricks with army size. Basically, each digit of troops you have active doubles your attack power, so you really want to hit 1,000 soldiers and keep over that number. By the end of the game you control generals with upwards of 30,000 troops apiece, and the scale of the battles feels genuinely significant.

The generals are handed in a very clever way as well. The army “levels up,” as in traditional RPGs, but that only affects a limited number of the generals’ troop sizes. Instead, you spend much of the game recruiting other generals–a procedure anyone who has played a Dynasty Warriors game will feel very familiar with–and popping them into and out of your party based on your needs. Some hit hard, some are good with tactics (the game’s equivalent of spells), and most have a fixed number of troops following them, so they can either immediately dramatically increase your armies’ survivability or are fodder for the recruitment office. The game only allows you to keep 64 generals back at the office–and just where are their massive armies?–and I had to clear out a bunch of dead weight at least once in the game to make room for more, higher-level generals.

The battles are also considerably more engaging than most JRPG combat of the time. You can have up to five generals in combat at a time, and they can pick their targets individually or use the aforementioned tactics to help themselves or hinder your enemies. Success is dependent on their strength for fighting or intelligence for tactics, and there’s quite a variety in what you can do to make tough fights easier. For the trivial ones, the game has an auto-battle feature where the two sides duke it out as quickly as the game engine allows, making the (too-frequent) random battles little more than a nuisance. Auto-battle? In a JRPG from the ’80s? Is this real life?

The game has a number of small-to-middling issues, unsurprising given its vintage. The tactics are untranslated from Chinese, other than being Romanized, so prepare to refer a lot to an instruction book or FAQ until you learn the names of the abilities and what they do. You should also take notes as to the locations of various towns and people, as you sometimes have to do non-trivial amounts of backtracking to similarly-named locations to find the next point to progress. And there are a couple of “dumb mechanics involving the fact that you’re playing a videogame” bits that probably felt clever at the time but now feel like unnecessary and obtuse fourth-wall breaking nonsense.

But those are all tolerable issues. No, the reason that Destiny of an Emperor soured hard on me is that the last series of plot-related battles all involve high-level enemy strategists. And those strategists use some pretty stupid abilities, which can:

  • cause your generals to literally not be able to attack for the next 1 to… I don’t know how many rounds, but I know at least one enemy use of it lasted ten turns… or
  • instantly heal the enemy general of all the “damage” (i.e. dead troops: are they zombies?) you’ve dealt them, potentially setting you back eight or more rounds of battle… or
  • decapitate one of your generals, causing all of their soldiers to instantly die. (Are they routed? Are they all decapitated too? Don’t think too much about this…)

Of course, rather than any of those patently ridiculous options, they can just choose to attack for a small amount of damage–they’re strategists, after all, weak on strength–while you wreck them in the face.

Which result will you get? Who knows! Only the PRNG can decide.

If I were still in the business of giving review scores to things4, I’d give the first ninety percent or so of Destiny of an Emperor a solid four stars out of five. It’s a little rough, sure, but the game came out in 1989 and is still quite captivating. (It also has an amazing soundtrack, and some really impressive spritework that I didn’t have time to get into, given how overly long this article already is.) But the last ten percent is a flat-out one-star experience. And it drags the whole thing down with it.

Is it still a good game? Yeah… sure… I guess. But it’s not great, and it could have been. It was so close. And that hurts a lot more than if it were just terrible from the start. What a shame.

The sequel’s supposed to be better, and despite being a Japanese-only release on the Famicom, it has a fan translation. I look forward to playing it… but not immediately. I need some distance from this particular take on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Right now, revisiting this world doesn’t seem very romantic at all.

Weekly status update [0062/????]

Ugh. I’m pretty sure I’m having a (mild) gall bladder attack right now, one that woke me up after only getting four or so hours of sleep. It’s not so bad that I can’t function, which is a nice change from the previous ones, but: can this damned thing be out of me already?

  • My streaming adventures continue apace. I’m still playing Destiny of an Emperor, which sadly decided for its last hour or so to become way, way too hard. A total party kill after a long, grueling path through a series of caves set me off on stream Friday afternoon, with a non-trivial amount of cursing. It’s all the more painful because, up until this point, the game has been a lot more fair than other titles from its time period. You were so close, game designers. So close.
  • Speaking of which, I got my first subscriber who is not someone I know personally, a major milestone for any Twitch affiliate. That prompted me to take the time to finally make subscriber badges (for those unfamiliar, they appear next to your name on my stream’s chat, based on how long you’ve subscribed) and the first emote assigned to the channel as well. I actually did the first draft of the pixel art on-screen, although I spent much of the rest of the day tweaking the badges bit by bit until I was happier with them. Behold:
Four subscriber badges showing a gradual sunset, plus a larger emote image of a Black Belt from Final Fantasy III brandishing his arms.
Hopefully I don’t have to explain the whole sunset thing, given my Twitch username… and, yes, I’m still taking those sweet, sweet free Twitch Prime subscriptions if you want these.
  • An online friend of mine has been interviewing at various big tech companies over the last couple of weeks, and that includes the one that once paid me moderate-to-substantial sums of money. Her experience was… negative, in several very stupid ways, which is deeply frustrating. This is not the first time that I’ve sent someone that company’s way to have said company stumble, and stumble hard, on the whole process. Ugh. Fortunately for her she already has one competing offer and is likely to get another in the next few days, so it’s not all bad, but still: get your shit together, former place of employment.
  • After not really touching them for a bit, I’ve swung back to puzzling some more. It’s been mostly digital; I’m still working my way through Picross 3D Round 2‘s post-game puzzles, which continue to be really hard, so much so that I generally can only tolerate one or two of them a day at most. I’ve also been poking at Mario no Picross 2, a Japan-only picross game that I’ve been playing off and on for over a decade now. It overcomes the limitations of the Game Boy’s screen size by making the full images out of four 15×15 quadrants which are solved individually. It’s a great game, but strictly for Picross Maniacs Only, as it starts harder than anything in the original Mario’s Picross–a game I’ve 100%ed at least twice–and escalates from there.
  • We finished up our Normal difficulty run-through of Earth Defense Force 5 and pretty much immediately started playing it through again on Hard. One of the regulars reminded me just yesterday that we actually also have the paid DLC missions to play through, which are always way harder than the core story missions, so hopefully we’ll be able to play again soon; we’ve had scheduling issues the last several days.
  • The usual Thursday evening digital tabletoppery occurred, this time with the son of one of the regulars joining us. We played Fine Sand, which is still a perfectly okay game, then switched over to dominion.games for a game of, well, Dominion. I screwed up in that game thanks to not noticing it was a Colony/Platinum joint but still came in a strong second after lagging hard most of the game.
  • Current attack aside, my apprehension for my upcoming surgery continues to grow. I wish it were already done so that I could be recovering rather than waiting for it to happen.
  • Chocolate Toast Crunch is amazing. It’s like a cereal version of Chuao’s stellar Spicy Maya chocolate bars, but without the cayenne pepper. Easily a top-ten cereal of all time. If you at all like chocolate-y sugar cereals, give it a try; I guarantee you’ll love it. (Guarantee not valid within one parsec of Sol. Limited time offer; some restrictions may apply.)

I feel a bit better after taking the time to write this up; that’s nice, at least. Chances of an early afternoon nap today: 95% and rising.

Phil’s Puzzle Primer: Kakuro

As discussed before, I’ve met several people who have been scared away from Sudoku due to the numbers. “I’m bad at math,” they say. “I just don’t have a head for it.” And I usually explain to them that, no, Sudoku doesn’t really use math, at least not in the sense that they mean, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking: don’t touch any kakuro, then.

A sample kakuro puzzle from Wikipedia. (Licensed CC-BY-SA by Octahedron80.)

Kakuro are sometimes referred to as “math crosswords.” That’s a name that better fits Figure Logics, a puzzle type I’ve never quite wrapped my head around, but it’s a reasonable stab at describing these gridded challenges as well. The rules of kakuro are very simple, if (almost necessarily) more complex than sudoku:

  • Each row and column sums up to the number on its top or left edge1,
  • Cells contain only the digits one through nine, and
  • A digit cannot repeat in a given row or column.

It’s that last rule that makes kakuro such an interesting design. For example, a clue of 4, which in a well-formed kakuro is always clued by two boxes rather than just one–they almost universally follow “American-style” crossword construction rather than Japanese- or British-style, with their looser cross-hatching–is always a 1 and a 3, because two 2s make for an invalid puzzle. If a 3 and a 4 cross each other, the only shared digit is 1, which gives you an easy “break in” to the puzzle.

And let me not sell this short: while all you have to do is a bunch of addition, you do a lot of addition when solving a kakuro. The math is relentless. The smallest number that fits in a four-cell row is 10 (1 2 3 4) and the largest is 30 (6 7 8 9), and there are sums other than the obvious ones that have hard-set requirements; 7-in-3 is always 1 2 4, for example, which is something you’ll have drilled into your head after you’ve solved a half-dozen of these whether you like it or not. I still count on my fingers sometimes to double-check my math, and I count on my fingers a lot while solving kakuro.

The solution to the example kakuro. Also from Wikipedia, of course. (Licensed CC-BY-SA by Octahedron80.)

Like sudoku, kakuro originated in the pages of Dell’s puzzle magazines here in the US, and like sudoku it blew up in Japan well before it became anything like a phenomenon in the rest of the world. That said, while kakuro are reasonably popular here and elsewhere, they’ve never reached anything like the same level of popularity as sudoku, and honestly they never will. Their fundamental reliance on math will always make them a little too scary for a large segment of the population, which is definitely a shame.

Kakuro’s format doesn’t lend itself to quite as much in the way of variation as sudoku, although there are definitely several tweaked versions available. I’ve seen ones that use multiplication rather than addition as the core operation–lots of big numbers!–and some that have rectangles drawn over portions of the puzzle that act like the rows and columns, their contents summing to a particular value with no repeated digits. But I suspect the format inherently lends itself to fewer wacky alternate takes than sudoku, never mind the fact that it’s a less-popular type and so inherently has less incentive to come up with interesting tweaks to the formula.

As for me? I’ve been seeing kakuro for decades, thanks to my early fascination with puzzles–they were called Cross Sums back then, although nowadays Dell fully embraces the kakuro name–and they always intimidated the heck out of me, even though I’m actually pretty good at math. Hey, look, I was part of the problem! I admit it. But about a year ago I finally buckled down and decided to Git Gud2 at them, and now I actually quite enjoy the type. It’s not my favorite, to be sure; I’m not always in the mood to show the world (or at least the ants in my living room) that I still have to count on my fingers whilst verging into middle age, and they can feel a little same-y, so even when I am in the mood I often intersperse them with other puzzle types. But there’s a good reason they’re one of the most popular puzzle types in Japan, and they’re definitely worth trying out.

Even if you don’t like math.

Getting started with kakuro

The most important part about getting going with kakuro is understanding some simple, but vital, solving techniques. The puzzle type simply isn’t as intuitive as sudoku, and so it’s a bit harder to break into. Fortunately there are plenty of excellent tutorials and guides online. I’ll point you to Krazydad’s superb step-by-step solving guide, which covers both basic and advanced techniques, but a quick Google search will turn up many, many options, including interactive formats if that’s your style.

One of the things you’ll want to have a copy of, at least until you internalize most of its contents, is the “forced number” chart that you’ll see in Krazydad’s guide (and most of the others as well). You’ll quickly remember off the top of your head that 29-in-4 has to be 5 7 8 9, but getting to that point takes some practice, and having that chart will make it easier in the early going.

Krazydad’s site also has a bunch of kakuro of all sizes to try. Here’s a link to a nice web-based implementation he wrote, starting with the smallest puzzles. You can of course find a whole bunch of other sites full of computer-generated puzzles online, at pretty much any size and difficulty you like.

Getting good kakuro

As is the case with sudoku, the best hand-made kakuro come from Japan. Nikoli has a long history of publishing the puzzle type, and they have tons of volumes of Kakuro that you can pick up off of their website or from amazon.co.jp. I’m also partial to 頭脳全開足し算クロス, a magazine you can snag from Amazon Japan that contains nothing but kakuro. It recently started including several of the “rectangle restriction” variation puzzles that I mentioned earlier, and in the back has a pair of puzzles on an enormous sheet of newsprint that will keep you busy for weeks, but the opening puzzles are easy enough for even a beginning kakuro solver to tackle.

That said, I definitely get less of a “feel” in terms of difference between hand-made and computer-generated kakuro than I do with sudoku. Maybe it’s because I’ve solved less, or maybe it’s inherent to the format, but in any event there are plenty of books and websites chock-full with more kakuro. Amazon has the “Martial Arts” series of books, Djape puts out a whole bunch, I’ve already linked Krazydad’s site… you should be able to find something that suits your timeframe and level of competence without too much effort. (Sadly, Simon Tatham’s Portable Puzzle Collection doesn’t have kakuro in it.)

Weekly status update [0061/????]

As Tom Petty once sang in that distinctly Tom Petty-y way: the wai~i~ting is the hard~est part.

  • The biggest thing I did this week was stepping up my streaming. I streamed almost every day, including last Saturday. Most mid-day streams have been old NES games; I finished up Final Fantasy III over the weekend and then moved onto Destiny of an Emperor, which so far is a quite excellent (if surprisingly hard) retelling of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms as an RPG. I’ve also done a couple of late-night streams where I did computerized logic puzzles on stream… and, surprisingly, at least a few people were willing to watch that. It’s kind of awesome building a small but non-zero set of regulars. I’m still not sure just how serious I am about this whole streaming thing, but for the time being I’m digging it.
  • Besides the on-stream stuff, I played a bit of Earth Defense Force 5 with the crew, some Borderlands cooperatively online with a friend, and also some Path of Exile with an online friend who is a big fan of the game. It’s basically Diablo II turned up to 11 (or maybe even 12), with roughly a million different knobs to tweak and builds to try. I’m not sure it’s really for me; I don’t know if I have the patience nowadays for its brand of maximal design. But I can appreciate it for what it is, and while some of its free-to-play systems are pretty scummy–paying for inventory tabs so you can actually hold a reasonable number of the various currencies in the game? Really?–you can get more than enough of “the experience” without ever dropping a penny on the title.
  • Having finished my big stack of books, I went to the library to check out some more, and… promptly haven’t touched them. I suspect I’m on a swing out away from reading, at least for the time being. (An exception: I’ve done some review/critiquing of someone’s writing, at their request. That engages a whole different part of my brain, though.)
  • Started to pay for the upcoming surgery, which brought to sharp understanding some of the differences between haves and have-nots in modern America. This is going to be expensive, totally blowing my planned budget for the year out of the water. Thankfully I have the ability to pay for it… but not everyone does. What a crappy, crappy system. Single-payer healthcare can’t come soon enough.

And I have another two weeks to wait… sigh.

An update on my gall bladder

A short one today: it’s definitely gallstones. I’m going to have surgery on the 18th, or 22nd, or 8th–it’s unclear at the moment, thanks to shifting it around in an attempt to ensure someone’s actually available to drive me there and back on the day–but surgery it is. I’m hoping that the 8th works out, since that means I might still be able to fit in a trip back home before the full suck of summer arrives… but getting this done is more important than leisure visits back to Louisiana.

An update on my update: Nope, the 18th it is.