Universe Sandbox: Smash galaxies together for fun

July 4, 2008

If you hit up the youtube page for the video, I’ve annotated it for better detail.

BLASTING FROM THE FIREWORKS — Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy recently linked to this excellent piece of software and I’ve just been having a ball with it. The program is called Universe Sandbox and it allows you to manipulate and play with planetary objects. By toying with gravity, time, and the mass/density/velocity of objects, the program can create a multitude of situations teaching users about planetary motion.

Developed by Dan Dixon, Universe Sandbox does a great job of making high school physics fun and interesting. There are so many settings and variables that you can mess with that the game will keep you occupied for several hours. It comes with several pre-made systems ranging from simple moon-planetary orbits to full-sized galaxy collisions. Currently you cannot create your own system files in the program, however they are just XML files so you can write your own if you want to do a little coding (it’s pretty simple if you just look at the other examples).

The game can be a little buggy at times, but it’s understandable for a first release. Also, some of the physics can go wacky if you mess with odd situations (black holes, for instance). Your computer might also take a beating if you set some of the variables too high or have to many objects on the screen at any one time. However, the game looks great and is really easy on the eyes. Multiple color schemes give the game a wonderful look as well as wonderful textures for the planets and objects.

Overall, I recommend you take a look at the game. It’s free to download and all Dixon asks is that if you want to pay, give as much or little as you want. And if you pay at least $25 you get spiffy 3D glasses which allow you to use the stereoscopic setting in the game to see 3D images. I highly recommend you check this one out — at least until Spore comes out.


YouTube Cinema: Super Mario Bros. (1993)

December 24, 2007

Trust the fungus.


FROM JASON’S 8-BIT DREAMS — So it’s come to this. In the 14 years since the debut of the very first video game movie — Super Mario Bros. — we’ve made very little progress. The sets are still ass-cheap, the characters are still cardboard, the plots are still riddled with plot holes.

And we’re still watching them. Today, audiences are lining up to see the CG-laden crapfest that is Hitman, based on the awesome game of the same name. French director Xavier Gens (who’s never directed anything worth note) is responsible for this latest travesty, but the video game-to-silver-screen genre has suffered its fair share at the hands of Uwe Boll, director of such low-budget, high-octane no-brainers as Bloodrayne 1+2, Alone In the Dark 1+2, and Dungeon Siege.

Other adaptations have resulted in Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat Annihilation, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the Resident Evil trilogy, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and its sequel, Doom, and Silent Hill.

They’re all horrible, and that wonderful, undeniable guilty pleasure tradition of watching them all started with the granddaddy of modern video games in 1993.

Andrew and I watched this one Sunday night over the web from Virginia and Ohio — a strange habit we picked up a few months ago. Every second was Chinese water torture.

Where to start? I guess the thing that bothered us most was that when boiled down to its core components, the movie had almost nothing to do with the Super Mario Brothers. Oh sure, their likenesses were there. But since when the Mushroom Kingdom a Blade Runner wanna-be dystopia? Where did all the post-industrial sets and Mad Max hairstyles come from?

Even the color pallet was strange — Mario games are always bright and cartoonish, but the movie skips World 1-1 in favor of 90 minutes of World 4-2 and World 5-4.

It’s clear that Allied Filmmakers and Cinergi Pictures were just trying to raise the spirit of the Grand Almighty Cash Cow. SMB was the ultimate cross-marketed brand, with 40.2 million copies of the NES game saturating the market. With Mario sleeping bags, coffee mugs, action figures, pajamas, Happy Meal tie-ins, Underoos, cereal, The Super Mario Brothers Super Show cartoon, and Spaghetti-Os, a movie was just the next big ka-ching at the register.

That in mind, I don’t the producers cared too much about plot, and it shows. In truth, the video game was far too surreal to be cobbled into any viable film. There’s no way to take magic mushrooms, floating bricks, flower power (the flower is conspicuously absent from the movie), or a dino-bad-guy work on a serious level.

What we get is an archaeological dig — in the middle of Manhattan no less — that opens a doorway to (gawd, here it comes) a PARALLEL DIMENSION! The Mushroom Kingdom and Earth are two divergent realities that sprung into being when an asteroid hit the planet 65 million years ago. On Earth, it killed the dinosaurs. But in the other reality, reptiles rose to be the dominant species. Somehow the evolved from scary scaled monsters into bipedals that look just like humans.

But the Mushroom world has a problem. The king (Princess Daisy’s father) was de-evolved into a huge fungus and Koopa took over. He’s not a very good ruler — during the last 20 years or so, the entire planet has been leeched into an enormous desert and only a huge, grimy city remains. Koopa wants Earth’s abundant resources and plans to merge the two dimensions together again using a shard of the original asteroid.

Daisy has the shard, and Koopa has her kidnapped. Luigi is infatuated with her and rushes to save her, with Mario at his side (let’s hear it for role reversal). From there, if it can be believed, the movie goes downhill:


  • The goombas are all small-headed giants with rocket launchers. In one scene, Mario and Luigi escape their clutches by getting the goombas to dance.
  • There’s a car chase in which we see that all automobiles in the Mushroom Kingdom run on a bumper car electrical grid.
  • An excruciating sequence shows a wind-up bomb-omb walking slowly toward its target over a five-minute period.
  • Koopa gets de-evolved for about 4 seconds (SPOILERS ZOMG) into a T-Rex.
  • Mario uses a mattress to rescue half a dozen Brooklyn girls kidnapped by Koopa. They slide down the frozen insides of well-lit pipes.

    About the only saving grace was a much-appreciated cameo by Yoshi.

    What is so surprising is that while the movie looks like it was made out of cardboard props, toothpicks, and masking tape, the studio spent millions on its talent. Bob Hoskins as Mario, John Leguizamo as Luigi, and Dennis Hopper were all slumming.

    Also, watch for B-movie idol Fisher Stevens (My Science Project, Short Circuit, Hackers) as a Koopa henchman with the coolest sideburns evar. The other goomba thug was Richard Edson, the parking garage attendant who took the Ferrari for a joy ride in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

    Review: Children of Mana is colorfully redundant

    December 14, 2007

    mana1.jpgFROM JASON’S RECHARGING DS — So I just got around to playing Children of Mana — only about a year and a half after its release. That’s how I roll with the discounted used titles.

    Actually, I got it for free with a trade-in at GameStop and have $5 left over, so I don’t feel like I lost anything with what turned out to be a slightly under-par game. It’s magically delicious, but seems to be pretty much just for kids.

    All cereal puns aside, Childen of Mana is an incredibly vibrant game with rich art. Unfortunately, it offers pretty shallow gameplay, repetitive quests into just a handful of different environments, and doesn’t advance your inventory often enough to make me care about hunting new stuff.

    I’m not saying it’s a horrible game; it’s actually pretty fun in an arcadish sort of way. But as a functional RPG it has a few drawbacks, and is more about hacking at the X and A buttons than forming strategy.

    There’s only one location with NPCs and it’s very small. The Isle of Illusia, which sounds cool but is only the size of my back yard, is home to the Tree of Mana, some elemental spirits, and a handful of humans. The later will give you fetch quest after fetch quest after fetch quest after… well, you get the point.

    From there you’ll dungeon dive into the same four or five locations the entire game. Even the rooms you visit there are endlessly recycled, though in random order each time. There’s the Mana Tower, which is a pretty typical dungeon; Topple, which has an old-school CGA blue and pink palette; Jadd, a desert that’s the best looking of the levels but which forces you to run around smashing cacti more often than is fun; and Lorimar, which puts you on the ramparts of a wintered fortress and mixes regular terrain with patches of ice.

    You don’t even have to do anything particularly clever to beat the levels — just kill all the monsters, a certain group of monsters, or smash chests or conspicuous parts of the environment until you get the key to move to the next floor. There’s a boss battle the first time you get to the end of each dungeon. The first one’s a bit tricky to figure out, but the others consist mainly of circling behind the boss and mashing the melee buttons for a few seconds.

    In some ways, Children of Mana has the same Playskool My-First-RPG feel as Fate, but at least there are more than just the one dungeon here, redundant as your constant return to them may be. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look quite as good as Fate, there aren’t as many or as impressive enemies, and only a fraction of the weapons, armor, and spells.

    There are four weapons in COM, and you can wield two at a time. Each even has two uses: The sword slashes and blocks arrows, the flail swings and can be used as a grappling hook (it’s nowhere near as cool as the one in Zelda: Phantom Hourglass), the bow shoots and can double as a harp to put enemies to sleep (useless), and the hammer can send enemies bouncing around the screen or ground-pound.

    There are also a bunch of elemental sidekicks that can be summoned in battle to deal explosive damage, heal, or a couple of other effects. You can only take one elemental into a dungeon at a time, though, and it’s always — ALWAYS — faster just to hack through the enemies or use an over-abundant healing item.

    Attack, defense and other attributes can be upgraded with traditional inventory items but also with gems. You weigh and choose which gems to activate (by putting them in a small grid according to size and shape) to grant special powers and stat bonuses. It’s a bit like the old FFVII materia deal, except extremely limited. The whole system is stunted because there’s little doubt which gems are optimum.

    There’s also a fusion system to make new gems from old ones, which is fun except that it requires obscene amounts of money. That, in turn, requires hours of painful dungeon crawling side-quests for small rewards.

    I would recommend this game if you are pretty young (up to maybe 10 or 12), or if you like uncomplicated, no-brainer action RPGs. There’s nothing really wrong with that, I guess, if it’s just a matter of taste. Not everybody wants a 40-hour deep magic epic.


  • Bright, exquisitely cartoonish art
  • Several main characters to choose and customize at the start of the game
  • Easy learning curve
  • Side-quest until your heart’s content
  • CONS:

  • Repetitive to the point of supreme annoyance
  • Few monster types
  • Side-quest until your heart weeps
  • A fairly shallow story that doesn’t really impact gameplay at all

  • You’ve never played an action RPG
  • You want an adventure without headache-y puzzles
  • You’re short on cash
  • You are Japanese (they apparently loved it over there)

  • You are older than 14
  • You put a premium on exploration
  • You’ve already played Fate
  • You like games with a ton of options and forks