My gaming life started with a mouse and keyboard.
It was the late 80’s and I, still a youngster in the low single digit age range, was thrust in front of a PC and taught how to access the one thing I’d be interested in: the games. For the most part these games were solely keyboard based affairs but as time went on more and more mousey titles made their way into my gaming library. Whilst I did spend much of my pre-adolescent life playing numerous games on consoles once I was granted my very own PC it became my gaming platform of choice and has been for the better part of 2 decades. This has meant that playing games on a console/controller has become somewhat foreign to me, feeling clusmy and awkward. However after spending an inordinate amount of time with a particular console based title I’ve managed to become quite competent, so much so that playing the same game with a mouse and keyboard felt incredibly weird.
The game is, of course, Destiny which is a first person shooter. FPS titles, whilst not being the worst games for controllers (I’d probably go with RTS for that one), are one of the games I feel are much better played on a mouse and keyboard. This is mostly due to the quick and precise movements you can accomplish with a mouse and keyboard, something you really can’t achieve on a controller. Whilst my feelings on this matter haven’t changed much after spending 150+ hours in Destiny I have come to appreciate the skills required to use a controller effectively and, more importantly, the design requirements for making a FPS title work well on a controller.
The fundamental difference between a controller based FPS and a mouse and keyboard one (apart from the obvious) stems from the difference in muscles required to perform the same functions. When you’re using a mouse and keyboard many of the motions are completed using your wrist and rest of your arm. By comparison the controller uses your thumbs, a drastically different set of muscles that share almost no function between the two platforms. This is why jumping between your preferred platform and the other feels so clumsy, you’ve lost all the muscle memory you’ve built up and have to redevelop all those habits all over again. Suffice to say the span of most games doesn’t give you enough time to accomplish this and I only found myself becoming competent after 40 hours or so of dedicated practice.
There are compensations made for the platform however, most notably in the form of the subtle (or sometimes not-so) auto-aim which attempts to smooth over the imprecision and slow response times of the analog thumbsticks. Over time you get to know when it will kick in and how to use it to maximum effect but it’s definitely one of the harder aspects to get used to if you’re transitioning from a mouse and keyboard. Each game implements their own version of this differently as well which can make developing proper muscle memory difficult if you’re playing a number of games. There are others of course (like deadzones and turn rates) which factor into it as well which, as I found out, can actually preclude a title from working well with a mouse and keyboard.
I know this because I bought myself a CronusMAX adapter which allows me to use my PC mouse and keyboard as an input to my PlayStation4. Since I have a capture card in my PC this allowed me to play Destiny like any other PC game, albeit with some noticeable ghosting in high action scenes, but it’s very playable. This was well after I had managed to become somewhat decent with the controller however and I quickly realised that attempting to transition to the mouse and keyboard at this point was likely a lost cause. I had simply gotten used to playing it a particular way and no matter how hard I tried to get the mappings and sensitivities just right I simply couldn’t do so. Once another console FPS comes out that, for some reason, doesn’t see a PC release I might give it a go again but for now I’m far more comfortable playing Destiny with a controller than I am with a mouse and keyboard.
It’s been interesting to see how my skills on the controller have developed over the past couple months as it was honestly something I’d never overcome and necessitated the purchase of the CronusMAX to alleviate it. The awkwardness I felt using my mouse and keyboard then was incredibly surprising and was what spurred me to continue plugging away with the controller in the hopes of getting better. Since then I’ve been able to compete quite well in all aspects of Destiny, even some of those which I thought were just going to be beyond me (read: PVP). So whilst I haven’t become a full convert to the controller world I do see where it fits into the grand scheme of things and appreciate it when it’s done well.
I like to think of myself as a good customer, having spent a good 6 years on the other side of the consumer equation. Whilst I might be ruthless in my product selection once your product is past that hurdle you’re guaranteed a whole bunch of free marketing from me, usually in the form of recommendations to my friends and sometimes even here on this blog. It’s not much but I’ll be damned if I haven’t swayed dozens of people to products that I’ve bought solely on my recommendation. It goes both ways though so if your product (or business practices) are terrible then you can be assured I’ll be voting with my wallet and encouraging others to do so.
Today, I’m going to do exactly that.
So for my birthday last year my loving wife bought me one of the TRON keyboards from Razer. It’s a very pretty keyboard but it’s unfortunately not all that great for gaming thanks to the extraordinarily large keys and tendency for the keys to get stuck in the on position when several are pressed together. Figuring that it would make a great keyboard for either my spare test machine or media PC I set about looking for a potential replacement keyboard, something more suited to my main purpose of gaming.
I had heard good things about the Razer series of mechanical keyboards. These are preferred for gaming due to their distinct actuation points rather than the rubber domes that are common on most keyboards today (including the TRON keyboard I have now). They’re also renowned for being quite loud due to their mechanical action and the keyboard I had my eye on, the Razer BlackWidow Ultimate is known for having some of the loudest keys around thanks to Cherry MX Blue¹ type switches. Razer does make the same keyboard in a stealth option which uses the quieter MX Brown switches, something that I’d prefer to have so I don’t get driven insane by the loud clicking.
So of course I started looking around for somewhere to get the keyboard. Strange though all my usual sites don’t seem to stock it, but they do stock every other keyboard. Frustrated I check Razer’s store and it’s available through there for US$139.99. Googling around reveals that the stealth version is exclusive to the Razer online store. Fair enough I thought, the price is a little on the high side but it’s one of those things that you buy once and don’t replace for a good while. Attempting to follow the order screen through to see how much the total would be lead me to a brick wall, not being able to ship it to Australia.
Undeterred I saw that they had an Australian version of the store and the keyboard was available in there. The price, however, was no where near what I expected being a whopping $90 greater than its USA counterpart. Now Australia is renowned for getting gouged on pretty much everything, including in places where distribution doesn’t matter like Steam, but I still don’t tolerate companies that do it. Frustrated I tweeted at Razer about it, hoping for some kind of response but alas I got nothing. I could use a remailer service to get the keyboard here but then I’d be giving my money to a company that obviously doesn’t respect its customers enough to price their products fairly.
So instead I went looking elsewhere for a similar product and not 5 minutes later did I come across the Corsair K90 which ticks all the same boxes and has the better Cherry MX Red switches to boot. It might be more expensive than the stealth Razer in the USA but it’s available here from pretty much everywhere. Corsair also have a history of not treating their customers like crap either, I’ve sent several sticks of faulty memory back to them only to get better memory in return. I’m more than happy to give them my money, especially when it means not giving any more to Razer.
Will Razer respond to this post? Probably not, but it needs to be known that Razer have no respect for Australian consumers if it’s trying to pull crap like this. I’m doing the only thing a consumer can: voice their discontent and then vote with their wallet. If enough people don’t put up with these kind of shenanigans then maybe one day we’ll be able to buy products in Australia at fair market prices rather than at the garbage, price gouging levels we get today.
¹If you’re wondering what the hell I’m on about here check out this guide to mechanical keyboards on overlock.net to get the low down on the different types.
So last week saw me pick up the components that would form my new PC, the first real upgrade I have bought in about 3 years. Getting new hardware is always an exciting experience for someone like me which is probably why I enjoy being in the datacenter so much these days, with all that new kit that I get to play with. I didn’t really have the time to build the PC until the weekend though and so I spent a good 5 days with all the parts laid out on the dining table beside me, begging me to put them together right now rather than waiting. My resolve held however and Saturday morning saw me settle down with a cup of coffee to begin the longest build I’ve ever undertaken.
I won’t go over the specifications again since I’ve already mentioned them a dozen times elsewhere but this particular build had a few unique challenges that you don’t see in regular PCs. For starters this would be my first home PC that had a RAID set in it, comprising of 4 1TB Seagate drives that would be held in a drive bay enclosure. Secondly the CPU would be watercooled using a Corsair H70 fully sealed system and since I hadn’t measured anything I wasn’t 100% sure I’d be able to fit it where I thought I could. Lastly with all these drives, watercooling and other nonsense the number of power cables required also posed a unique challenge as I wasn’t 100% sure I could get them all to fit in my mid-sized tower.
The build started off quite well as I was able to remove the old components without issue and give the case a good clean before installing bits and pieces in it. The motherboard, CPU and RAM all went together quite easily as you’d expect but when it came time to affix the mounting bracket for the watercooling I hit a bit of a stumbling block. You see the motherboard I purchased does you the favor of having the old style LGA775 mounting holes, letting you use old style coolers on the newer CPUs. This is all well and good but since the holes are only labelled properly on one side attempting to line up the backing plate with the right holes proved to be somewhat of a nightmare, especially considering that when it did line up it was at a rather odd angle. Still it mounted and fit flush to the motherboard so there was no issues there.
The next challenge was getting all the hard drives in. Taking off the front of my case to to do a dry fit of the drive bay extension showed that there was a shelf right smack bang in the middle of the 4 bays. No problem though it looked to just be screwed in however upon closer inspection it showed that the screws in the front could only be accessed by a right angle screw driver, since the holes that needed to be drilled for a regular driver hadn’t been done. After attempting several goes with a drive bit and a pair of pliers I gave up and got the drill out, leaving aluminium shavings all over the place and the shelf removed. Thankfully the drive bay extender mounted with no complaints at all after that.
Next came the fun part, figuring out where the hell the watercooling radiator would go. Initially I had planned to put it at the front of the case but the hosing was just a bit too short. I hadn’t bought any fan adapters either so mounting it on the back would’ve been a half arsed effort with cable ties and screws in the wrong place. After fooling around for a while I found that it actually fit quite snuggly under the floppy drive bays, enough so that it barely moved when I shook the case. This gave me the extra length to get to the CPU whilst also still being pretty much at the front of the case, although this also meant I could only attach one of the fans since part of the radiator was mere millimeters away from the end of the graphics card.
With everything all put together and wired up it was now the moment of truth, I took a deep breath and pressed the power button. After a tense couple milliseconds (it seemed like forever) the computer whirred into life and I was greeted with the BIOS screen. Checking around in the BIOS though revealed that it couldn’t see the 4 drives I had attached to the external SATA 6Gbps controller so I quickly booted into the windows installer to make sure they were all there. They did in fact come up and after a furious 2 hours of prodding around I found that the external controller didn’t support RAID at all, only the slower ports did. This was extremely disappointing as it was pretty much the reason why I got this particular board but figuring that the drives couldn’t saturate the old SATA ports anyway I hooked them up and was on my merry way with the Windows install being over in less than 10 minutes.
I’ve been putting the rig through its paces over the past week and I must say the biggest improvement in performance comes solely from the SSD. The longest part of the boot process is the motherboard initializing the 3 different controllers with Windows loading in under 30 seconds and being usable instantly after logging in. I no longer have to wait for things to load, every program loads pretty much instantaneously. The RAID array is none too shabby either with most games loading in a fraction of the time they used to.
Sadly with all games being optimized for consoles these days the actual performance improvement in nearly every game I’ve thrown at it has been very minimal. Still Crysis 2 with all the settings set to their maximum looks incredibly gorgeous even if I can’t seem to make it chug even on the biggest multi-player maps. The new mouse I bought (Logitech G700) is quite an amazing bit of kit too and the TRON keyboard my wife got me for my birthday just adds to the feeling that I’m using a computer from the future. Overall I’m immensely satisfied with it and I’m sure it’ll prove its worth once I throw a few more programs at it.
Speaking of which, I can’t wait to code on that beasty.
I consider myself to be pretty good at video games. More often than not I’ll go for the hardest difficulty setting as otherwise the game will just feel too easy and beating the challenges the game puts before me just won’t be as satisfying. Still I lived through a time where making a game extraordinarily difficult was one way to make the game last longer, like the insane level of difficulty in the game Battletoads. I spent years playing that game and I believe I only ever made it to level 4 a couple times and the experiencing was so scarring that I’ve never been back to defeat my old foe. Still when I came head to head with Super Meat Boy I felt like I had been sent back 15 years to my youth, where the games were simple and incredibly hard.
Well this looks easy enough…
You play as Meat Boy a little red block who’s girlfriend, Bandage Girl, is taken away by the evil Dr. Fetus. At its heart the game is a good old fashioned platformer challenging you to get from the starting area of the level to the other end where Bandage Girl is. Of course every time you reach her Dr. Fetus appears and takes her away again, usually giving her a firm beating right in front of you before disappearing again. There are of course numerous obstacles that are in your way when you’re trying to navigate the levels and a good chunk of them will turn Meat Boy into a lovely explosion of gibs, sending you right back to the start of the level.
Super Meat Boy differs from the old school traditional platformers in several ways, most of which are done in order to keep the game play fast paced and incredibly intense. For starters each level is quite short, with many of the early levels over in under 6 seconds. Towards the end they do get quite a bit longer but even then none of them are longer than a minute (the non-boss levels anyway). There are no lives in this game either (save for the special Warp Zone levels) and the re-spawn time is incredibly quick, so much so that sometimes when you die you’ll be able to see your previous Meat Boy’s gibs still exploding as you respawn. This is not to say the game encourages you to just bash your head randomly against the keyboard until you finish the level, far from it. There are many additional elements to the game that encourage precise, carefully timed movements and finding the most optimal path to the end goal.
Oh what the hell!?!?!
Each level has a set time there for you to beat and doing so will earn you a “Grade A” mark for that level. It will also let you switch to the Dark Side of that level which is usually an incredibly more sadistic version of the same place, requiring even more precise timing in order to get through to the end. Additionally most levels have a bandage in them which can be used to purchase additional characters to use in place of Meat Boy. The bandages are usually placed so out of the way that you really have to go out of your way to get them and if you’re vying for Grade A status you’re usually going to miss them (as I did, I think I have 4). I’ve heard unlocking the additional characters can make the game quite a bit easier than the insanity that I experienced by doing the entire game with just Meat Boy.
Woah, single rainbow all the way.
When I first started out playing Super Meat Boy I relished the challenge that it presented to me. As a long time gamer I pride myself on being able to conquer most modern games without having to break too much of a sweat. As many gamers will agree the past decade has seen many games go the route of not being particularly hard in order to drive their adoption rates and thus games with difficulty that decades ago wouldn’t have been out of place are now infamous for their difficulty. The trick is not making a game difficult for difficult’s sake, more it is to teach the player to overcome what they once thought was impossible and rewarding them as they learn.
Super Meat Boy does this quite consistently, presenting you with challenges that on the surface look nigh on impossible until you start having a crack at them. The last 5 levels are brilliant examples of this having stumped me to the point of staring blankly at the screen for minutes on end trying to figure out just how the heck I was going to beat the puzzle laid out before me. The learning curve is pretty smooth at the start but quickly ramps up into insane territory towards the end. I think this is best shown by my played time which sat at a 8 hours as I hit the last zone and 12 hours after finishing the game¹.
My Twitter followers will probably perk up at this point and say “Dave, wait a sec, didn’t you say you used a trainer to finish this game”. Yes I most assuredly did thanks to the last level requiring a key sequence that I just couldn’t master after 2 hours of trying to. The game tells you every time that you start it up that the keyboard is an inferior input device for Super Meat Boy but I had gone this far without using one and couldn’t be bothered setting up my PS3 controller with it. So I did what any programmer out there would do, I coded up a program in AutoIt to press the right keys with the right timing for me:
Sweet, sweet AutoIt.
If you look at that script you’ll get a sense for just how precise timing you need in order to execute the right moves in order to complete some of the levels. This script only gets you past the first major obstacle on the last level but that was more than enough as I was able to complete every other part of the level after an hour or so. It doesn’t work perfectly every time either with the sleep timer usually being off by a couple milliseconds either way, leaving Meat Boy standing there doing nothing or foolishly leaping to his death.
This sums up how I felt after finishing it.
Super Meat Boy sucked me in with its nostalgic feel and hat tips to classic gaming only to turn up the nostalgia even further by adding in punishing levels of difficulty. Immediately after finishing it I swore that I’d never go back to it, the sheer insanity of difficulty ruining the prospects of ever going back. However I hadn’t taken any screenshots of my adventure so I had to play for a bit to get some pictures for this review. 2 hours later I emerged after unlocking the Bit Trip Runner and playing through a couple of the warp zones I hadn’t seen. Truly Super Meat Boy had me experiencing beaten wife syndrome on a whole new level, I just couldn’t stay away from it no matter how much pain it put me through. Still this game is definitely not for everyone but at $20 on steam (and can be had at sale for $5) it’s hard to go wrong with Super Meat Boy, especially if you’re keen to revisit the world of games as it was almost 2 decades ago.
Super Meat Boy is available right now on Xbox360 and PC right now for $20. Game was played on the PC using a keyboard for the entire game, with a grand total of 14 hours played.
¹I do not care if it’s the real end or not. I got the achievement that said “The End” that’s it, it’s done! *puts fingers in ears* LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!!!!!
There’s something to said for the longevity of the mouse and keyboard as the primary input devices for computers. Although we’ve come a long way in terms of alternatives you’d still be hard pressed to use those alternatives as full on replacements, save for a few niche applications such as graphic design. Still that hasn’t stopped the input innovators from trying and we’ve had many different devices and schemes thrown at us. In the end however they all meet the same fate: the mouse and keyboard just plain work for their purpose and none of them have really managed to take over.
Now I’m a bit of an input fanatic having churned through nearly every imaginable input device over the past few years and even buildinga couple of my own. Still on my desk at home you’ll find a mouse and keyboard just like everybody else. The reason? Simplicity. Nothing else really comes close to making me as functional as I can possibly be than my keyboard and mouse. I might include the microphone on my headset as well but apart from chatting on Ventrilo I couldn’t really say I use it as a primary interface for my computer. No out of all the alternatives I’ve tried nothing really fits as well as the old K and M but it seems like some companies think otherwise.
A couple days ago saw Apple revamp some old products whilst launching a couple new ones. Amongst the refresh of their iMac and MacPro line there was a curiosity that caught everyone’s eye and I’m not talking about the Apple Battery Charger. No the apple of everyone’s eye was the Magic Trackpad, a large multitouch bluetooth device that some have been saying is a mouse killer. Whilst I can appreciate the idea that any kind of device that Apple releases will garner this kind of attention I can’t help but think that calling it a mouse killer is a bit premature at the very least and, more likely, completely wrong. Sure it’s a nice looking piece of kit and I’m sure it will find a home with many people but if you think the computer of the future will come equipped with something similar I’d probably rethink your position.
You see about 15 years ago I actually had something quite similar to this, it was a trackpad that plugged into the PS/2 port that emulated a mouse. Now it wasn’t as large nor did it have multi-touch, but then again this was quite a while ago. It was functional enough that I could have used it as a direct replacement for my mouse at the time. You might be wondering what a 10 year old was doing with something like that, well it was given to me by my dad. He’d bought it thinking it would be a good replacement for his mouse but after a day or so of trying to get used to it he didn’t like it and gave it to me to tinker with. I put up with it for about as long as he did with the pad finally ending up in the computer parts pile.
For us mere mortals the mouse is actually quite a refined and elegant input device. The shape conforms to the natural at rest shape of our hands and minimal effort is required to move the cursor on the screen. The track pad however with much more limited tracking area and lack of sensitivity made both normal and precision work quite tedious. Additionally, and I know this will be squarely in the “don’t care” area for most people, gamers will tell you that anything bar a mouse and keyboard for gaming will instantly put you at a disadvantage save for something like a flight or racing sim. If you get one of these trackpads you’ll find yourself trying to pick it up every so often as you try to scroll across the screen unless it happens to be the first input device you’ve ever used.
Taking a step back from Apple’s offering for a second you’d notice that they aren’t the first ones to release a multi-touch trackpad either. Whilst most of the devices aren’t as slick looking as Apple’s device they certaintly have been around for quite a while yet you don’t see them on every computing device, not even all laptops. There’s also the integration to consider as whilst they might have integrated the gestures into their OSX line of products but unfortunately that won’t translate across to their competitors. You could argue that’s not Apple’s intent but if you’re going to call this thing a mouse killer you’d better start thinking about how that product is going to work cross platform, or it isn’t killing anything (apart from your wallet).
All this being said I still think it’s a rather cool looking piece of kit and I can see it as a viable alternative to a mouse for those who want to shell out for it. However if your needs extend past the usual email/web requirement or if you don’t run OSX then there’s no real need for you to rush out and buy this latest “innovation” from Apple, save for the fact that you can’t contain your rabid fanboyism for all things Apple. In my eyes this should have gotten just about as much press as Apple’s new battery charger (which is actually not bad) but of course anything that they do in the multi-touch space will ultimately be trumped up as the next revolution in computing. Of course no one will remember this when the mouse isn’t killed and is still here for decades to come, but I’ll let that one go for now.