Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Tax Day frugal update

Filing taxes presented two challenges this year. The first was finding a service that would do them for free, which required some in-depth searching. The complication for me was that during last year's hard times, I'd sold some of my investments and most of the free services think that this extra form calls for an upgrade to their $40-70(!) premium services. Luckily, FreeTaxUSA stayed faithful to its moniker, unlike the other dopey sites.

The other challenge to paying taxes this year is where that money is going right now. At the city level, when my car was vandalized last year and the thief left blood and a knife at the scene (in an apartment complex with children), the Lynnwood PD took a look, told me that they rarely catch the suspects in these cases, and promptly left. Also, calling the public works department was fruitless in asking if I should be concerned about my orange bathwater. At the state level, the governor punched Comcast in the face with a super-strict net neutrality law, so that's a bonus. Also, Washington state healthcare benefits when I was unemployed were awesome to have and easy to sign up for, so no grudges there. Taxes at the federal level? That was the biggest barrier to not filing an extension or just mailing the IRS a recycled envelope with a photocopy of my middle finger (black and white, of course, it's cheaper.) I don't recommend running from the IRS, but it's hard not to ignore the fact that the highest office in the land won't release taxes (because he didn't pay them,) and big douchebag companies like Apple and Google haven't paid a cent in corporate taxes for years. I'm going to stop there because this blog is supposed to be about frugality, Japan and video games. I'm also simplifying something I don't understand and I want to keep some integrity in this blog.

Back to the update: I have socked away $2150 of the year's $8000 goal so far. That is about $500 behind schedule, but if I put most of my tax refund into the market, that will sync things up again.

Frugal steps taken in 2018, in no particular order:

I have only spent money in a cafe once, using a gift card. The balance is that I spend about $30 per month on my favorite coffee from LaVazza and Costco espresso beans.

Comcast emails me a few weeks before my actual billing, and I noticed that my premium was going to jump from the usual $60 to $80. They restructured their speed tiers and were about to charge me more for the same level of service. I spent my first work break clearing that shit up. By the way, the speed boost is a silver-plated crock of shit, I have speed test screenshots to prove that this company is lying and tried to take my money. Anyway, stay on top of those subscriptions, folks!

I've been using Movie Pass, a service that's $10 per month and lets you see movies in theaters. Big flicks, multiple viewings of Black Panther, get you one!

I've been cooking dinner at home, having 10-cent oatmeal for breakfast on weekdays, and mostly brought lunch. I'm not completely boring and joyless - I've broken down and bought lunch at work less than 10 times this year. It's that...there's just...there's an Indian buffet 3 minutes away!

Hosting friends instead of going out. Putting that big ass TV and uncomfortable furniture to good use!

I live 20 miles from work and take the express bus instead of driving. People really wrinkle their nose at taking the bus, but the commuter ones are really comfortable, plus I can goof off, read or just look for hot drivers of other cars. The last time I put gas in the car, frat boys and sorority girls were puking green beer in celebration of a dude who got rid of snakes!

To tack onto living so far away from work: Seattle rent sucks, the apartments are old and small, and it's loud as hell. Sure, there's a 10-minute walk on both sides of the trip, and the rent is a lot more affordable, $800 for a 700 sq ft apartment. In the city are $1000 150 sq ft micro studios without kitchens! Lots of people are gearing up to move: factor transportation into your rent and see if the next neighborhood away could ease your financial burden.

2.50 per month for my phone. I read books and listen to music in my spare time outside of home, neither of which need a $40 data plan.

I sound like a broken record because these are habits 4 years in the making. Anyone can do it, especially if you start with one change at a time. Start with cutting out the Starbucks and making your own drinks...those people don't pay their taxes, anyway!

Gaming in Ape-ril: DKC and other titles

It's been a while, Folks! Working, studying and attending one of my closest friends' wedding were all priorities over the last 5 weeks. I also saw Ready Player One and am now halfway through the book. It's nice to see one of the shallowest things about the movie get addressed in the first 10 pages of the book, and I like that both formats give an awesome context for the pop culture miasma. See it, read it!

You can bet that I put in some work on the SNES mini, putting 40 hours into completing Final Fantasy 6. My memory of the game had as many stories as playable characters, and going through it again showed me that the story still spends more than half its time with Terra, the human-Esper hybrid and the fate of a world that tries to suppress magic for the good of humanity. I skipped a few sidequests, and completed the game around level 60, only having put about 6 hours into endgame grinding. The old me would have maxed everyone out and spent 80 hours completing the game from memory, but time is more valuable these days.

Besides, as this entry is titled, I had a hankering to play Donkey Kong Country. The first handful of levels are super fun, bouncing around and being shot out of barrels and then the difficulty hits like a freight train. There's a mine cart level that's not really about reflexes so much as memorizing enemy patterns, and that's about when I started to check out. It might take a week to scrape off some salt and try again, but boy did it suck for all the fun to stop so quickly.

Ohh well, at least I have 20 days to enjoy another bullshit Overwatch limited event. I call BS just because the loot usually gets locked away for an entire year before you get another chance at it. The events themselves are usually decently thought out, in all fairness. 

I mostly scratched the FPS itch via StarWars Battlefront 2, which revamped their progression system yet again. This iteration, where the classes and characters you use level up as you use them, and you can choose which skills to upgrade, is how the game should have worked from the get-go. They added some heroes and levels, and the only complaint is that the CTF mode where you have jetpacks is awful on Bespin. Bespin, a city in the clouds, has lots of places to fall off the map, and this is terrible because there's no air control with said jetpack. There are also issues with the flag spawning, and not being marked properly, so when it's picked up, the icon stays in the center of the map. I already hate this map, but it doesn't even work properly to boot! The result is that this map takes easily triple the amount of time to finish, and this is not a good thing.

Griping aside, I started playing the mother of all FPS games: Metroid Prime. This is the first time the game went 3D, and Nintendo and Retro Studios handled it gracefully. The graphics at the time were great, the soundtrack is incredible with just the right amount of remixes, and the environmental design is perfect. Moreover, Metroid Prime is an action game with a clever collectible system. You'll spend 20% of the game in a scan visor that allows you to glean combat strategies, read up on the game's lore, and most importantly allows you to explore the story at your own pace. When using your scan visor, your targets are orange and red. Red targets are vital information and switches, while orange are the background info and narrative, which is about anything from the native population's reaction to being invaded, the colonizer's difficulties with a mysterious (badass) bounty hunter, and their screwed up experiments with alien technology. My only drawback is the controls, which force you to use the Wiimote and nunchuck. This would be much better if the physical bar could mount my TV and stay in place. The controller itself mimics Samus' right-hand cannon and adds to the experience of the most immersive game I've ever enjoyed. However, nothing breaks this like this stupid device falling off your TV and Samus reacting by spinning in a circle while you cuss the engineers for using porous plastic and expecting tape to stick to it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mid-March update

Well that dispute is settled.
I had Jones to be rewarded with violence for stringing together some button presses, and the PSN had Moral Kombat XL on sale. I remember getting grossed out by this game a few years back, but maybe my recent playthrough of Doom hardened my resolve. Either way, the developer has spent the last 3 titles building a legitimately good fighting system. In addition to the animators and modelers who have PhDs in anatomy, the jumpy battles are komplete with quick flips, snappy kombos, and kcertain moves have a great sense of impact. To hear the kreator Ed Boon talk in his Midwestern accent and witness friendly demeanor, you'd be hard pressed to imagine a guy like that signing off on Jax's fatality where he shoves your extended arms into your body, rips your head in half and ashes his cigar on your tongue. The roster is huge, and the horror franchise guest stars Predator, Leatherface, Jason Voorhees, and the Xenomorph from Alien feel right at home in this expanded title.

I started Broken Age, a strange point-and-click adventure about two characters whose destinies intertwine. I started as Vella, who is the only girl with any sense in a village that sacrifices maidens to appease some obscure god. During the first part when you're trying to escape the ritual, Vella makes quips and komm--err, not talking about Mortal Kombat anymore--comments about complacency with ridiculous and unfair traditions. In short: Vella is woke.

The other half of the story is Shay, who despite being at least a teenager, is stuck aboard a space ship where all his comforts are met, but everything on the ship panders to him as if he were a toddler. For example, you're wandering space in your ship, "rescuing lost aliens" in what turns out to be a crane grabber machine that's collecting stuffed animals. It's all pretty dang cute, but the point is to break the fantasy and get woke.

Milking people out of money for
mobile games is a business chra-di-shin!
I am also playing Frozen Free Fall, a gem-matching mobile game that was ported to consoles. There are 400 levels, and you get 5-8 lives at a time before you have to wait 15 minutes to get more lives. There is one repetitive music track, and this game has no shame about coming from the awful business practices that are associated with mobile games. Frugal me, of course is simply planning on getting all the trophies over the next 6 months - year instead of ponying up the dough. That'll teach em!

I've been making progress through Final Fantasy 6, which spends at least 50% of the story focused on Terra, an magic using demi-goddess. Now that I'm playing it this month, I think it qualifies as a female-lead game, despite the multiple narratives and story branching. I'm about 20 hours into the game, and the world as I know it is about to be destroyed. If any of you remember the Floating Continent, you'll remember that the battles jump significantly in difficulty. You may also recall the music there, too. If not, Youtube it!

Finally, I started Nex Machina. This is a twin stick shooter by the dev team Housemarque, the folks who made Super Stardust HD and Resogun. That means dope electronic music, flashy effects and hard-but-fun boss fights. Nex Machina is a little different in standard twin stick shooter level design. It features a bunch of smaller maps that you navigate through instead of the usual area that you're bound inside of as wave after wave chases you. I'd better make up the rest of March with more girl games, cause this certainly doesn't have anything there. It's still dope and addictive, dho.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Still Cheap in March

K-Mart Jimmy Smits reacting to Loudmouth 45
For those of you in warmer climates, Seattle is still scooching along with 40F/4C degree days that are deceptively sunny. For those of you who recently invested, you might have gotten a recent shock when our illustrious president flapped his mouth about the economy and trade deals, and confused his Koreas. The news, as usual, blew the falling stock market out of proportion, and, while the cowards panicked and withdrew, the steadfast survived the...week that it took to recover. The more opportune took that window of vulnerability to buy some stock at a discount! Then everyone woke up and realized that when it comes to Wall Street quakes, people like us who don't need their investments until decades later should completely ignore the newsfolk who speculate on a hiccup in the market. I'm not calling it fake news, mind you. All of that shit is irrelevant until you need to draw on your investments.


My man here has the right idea
How have I stayed frugal lately? Same old story: keeping on top of subscriptions, knowing good alternative brands, cooking for myself, making my own coffee, and inviting friends over instead of going out. Same old story, right? Well, I've been putting in more time with friends and driving more as well as changing snacking habits to nuts, which are much more expensive than sugary stuff from the overstock grocery store. I also went hog-wild with the latest PSN sale, spending a whopping $60 on games to stock my Women's Games Months (Jan and March). All of this is overshadowed by $100 heating bills for the last 5 months, and that can shake the faith in frugality a bit.

The point? Just like cheat days on diets being necessary to go longer, you're going to have periods where you feel like you're hemorrhaging money. If you're already pretty good at saving, don't feel too bad; just try and limit it. I was raving all about triple-paycheck months, and these are definitely the best times to have a little fun. This might run a bit contradictory to a previous post, but the point here is that you should also have fun adding some of that "extra" cash to your investments, too. Just don't blow the whole check on silly shit.

Fill your belly in the house and heat that house!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Gaming Marches on...

Whoosh! In the last few days of Black History February, I ran across an article that mentioned March being Women's History Month. That fact had whooshed right by me for all my time on this planet! This comes as a relief because I spent most of February reading and whittling away at trophies on games I'd already started. Luckily, there are quire a few games with leading femmes left in my library that I never got to. While there are certainly a list of reasons to play these titles independent of playing as an underrepresented badass, it's just the perfect month to repeat January's theme! This time, I'll do my best to start Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice and Broken Age. Finishing 2016's Doom for the second time also reminded me how much I need to play Metroid Prime, which is also on my plate in March.

I'm also taking a single graduate-level course that is more homework than I've ever had, so let me just hide behind that as my recent drain on free time. It's for the better, as is calling attention to games with girls! Play on!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Game tropes

There are just some things that pop up all the time in games. While tropes might be defined as writing-related and not really mechanical, I'm going to use this as a blanket term for certain recurring elements that I see and happen to like.

Top dog, under dog, super dog

You might start the game as an all-powerful badass, but then you hit the wall, meet the boss, get sent back in time, or experience some other kind of trauma that makes you lose everything. The majority of the story is spent getting back to your beginning state, just to surpass it and get (overpowered) vengeance. This trope rules because you get a whiff of your character's potential, and it really maps out your skill progression. Super Metroid is a great example of this.

The Endgame choir

After losing an important character/city and spending hours catching up with the final boss, the time has come for you to face the greatest challenge of all (hopefully). The reckoning is usually accompanied by a unique music track, and how much better is it when there's a choir involved? Bonus points if there's another boss stage/form with more intense music. Final Fantasy games do all of this amazingly.

Press X to keep from dying

People diss quick-time events, but shame on you for putting the controller down in a God of War game! Sure, Heavy Rain has ridiculous moments like shaking the controller back and forth to shake your shaving cream, and then taking broad strokes with motion control to shave. However, dodging the titan's fist, running up his arm to stab him in the eye--if you get the timing correct--adds extra satisfaction when you could otherwise passively watch a cinematic. I just ask that the games be consistent and not have sporadic QTEs in a game that has none.

Dem gainz

I don't have a fantastic body, but if I'm already in the fantasy of playing someone who can jump two stories high, hold a rocket launcher with one hand, and shrug off a bullet like a cold breeze, then I don't mind being a mega-babe or hunk. Sure, body image is a thing, and there are just as many 8-pack-wielding men with perfect asses as there are zero-sag DD-cup leading ladies. Get over it and onto kicking perfectly-sculpted ass! Though that does remind me that while the DOA games overdid it with tit physics, apparently none of the graphical designers have ever seen a nice female butt before. People talk about Miranda's butt from Mass Effect, but it doesn't even look very good, nor has any physics to it. The part of me that's an ass-man has always been offended that such talented game designers are missing such an important feature of the physique!

Black bars

Barn door opening for levels, black bars at the top
and bottom inside buildings. Games were cinematic 30 years ago!
When I play old games, I like to think about what the gaming climate was like when they were released and how relevant the titles used to be. Gears of War was a big deal because you could smoothly stick yourself down behind a wall, pop out and gun down your unfortunate adversaries. Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time were both amazing transitions from 2d to 3d and the latter title had a really cinematic feel to it. Remember at the end of the first dungeon in the Deku Tree when the cinematic black bars lock your controls, the door behind Link gets barred, and the camera pans over to Gohma? Regardless of if there are too many cutscenes or not, the black bars drawing your focus as if you're a squinting observer are an awesome addition to games. Kudos if you noticed this in the original Legend of Zelda on the NES!

Saving Private AI

AI teammates are the shit. Usually invincible and full of indispensable quips and banter, they provide a great distraction for the bad guys. In the case of Elena Fisher from the Uncharted series, they can also be deadly and quite smart. Also related is your squadron radio chatter, especially with over-acted dying pilots and soldiers screaming, "RPG!" Star Wars Battlefront and Call of Duty games feature this.

What are your favorite and least favorite tropes in games? 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

2018 February II

Also, this game was released less than a week
after I posted the article!
My last post might've been a bit salty about not being able to play games with black characters. Well, there are at least 100 titles out there with brown characters. This turned out to be a great extension from what I was doing in January, moving to another underrepresented group in gaming. While most of these games are on older systems, Windows or mobile platforms, Broken Age was a free PS+ title that's been resting on my PS4 for over a year. Shame. On. Me. Well, I guess I'd better play it soon!

This image toooootally belongs to The CW
In the first half of February, I've done more TV-watching: Black Lightning has a long large, low-hanging pendulum that swings between cool and corny. While most of it's the former, with a dope soundtrack, beautiful actresses, current and timeless issues in the black community, and level-headed people in power doing their best, the show has taken the time to flush out the villains, so far. On the corny side, Black Lightning's suit looks ridiculous, and some of VFX reveal the show's budget; though they spent enough resources on some compelling writing. So far, Jefferson Pierce (the alter ego) has been more entertaining to watch than the superhero: he's a high school principal with influence and connections, as well as a kick-ass father.

CBS totally owns this hella Photoshopped image
Star Trek Discovery regained some of the ground it'd lost; I wasn't a fan of the writing in the show's second half, but the first season finished up alright. My girl Sonequa is still standing up for what's right, and kicking ass all over the universe in the name of Federation values.

Odds and ends. I finished up the platinum trophies for the Uncharted Collection, though I left the expansion trophies unfinished, since that would require beating each title 2 more times! Star Wars Battlefront II is a continued slog through killing hero ships as an XWing or TiE Fighter. There's also the fact that the community is getting really good at the game and there are fewer noobs to take out your frustrations on. I had a Jones to play Doom about a week before it went on sale for $5 at RedBoxes. That's been a welcome distraction in February, and Doom reminds me of a super-gory (and fun) version of Metroid Prime.

Mina can be descriptive at times...
Iconoclasts has proven to be a really fun game with only a few hard moments. I talked before about one factor of the great gameplay being how you traverse the map in less-than-linear fashion. Another hallmark of this game is the boss fights. You have a wrench that gets powered up, and a few different types of guns, and all the boss fights involve a combination of your newest powers, some aiming, and some pattern-learning. The fights are unique but easy to figure out,  and end with a badass explosion. I started the game on HARD, and found out how to defeat bosses after 2 or 3 deaths on average. The only non-positive thing I have to say is that I tuned out of the story because I couldn't follow it. The exchanges between characters are funny and full of energy; I just have no idea what they're talking about. All in all, this game is super easy to recommend, and getting the full trophy list isn't particularly hard, and you can even get it on the normal difficulty setting, as far as I know. The music rules, the sprites are crisp and well-done, the cast is mostly babes, and the boss fights will keep you going.

I was also either struck by lightning or saw Black Panther and got an SNES mini classic used off Amazon in the same week. I will put out an entry about Black Panther soon, but the SNES mini is kinda cheap looking, but the interface is awesome, and I started Final Fantasy VI and hopefully will be able to keep the story intact. This game feels so good to play, and the soundtrack is one of the top. I remember finding out new secrets in this game from friends in middle and high school; there were hella. The 21-game library is something to savor, and if you're looking for one, I'd encourage you to do a search every couple days: I wonder if the hype wore off and they're more available now.

Gotta go, readers! Do any of you have an SNES or NES Classic Mini? What games did you beat? What memories were triggered with some of the games you played?

At work and in your personal life, how many accounts do you have that require a login?

Dudes. Chicks. Calm that consumer rush. This is a hard one, cause I try harder than the average Joe to be frugal and not financially wast...