Saturday, December 31, 2022

Studicus Selects 2022

Once, long ago, I posted on the internet as Studicus, an in-joke nickname related to a skit from high school. When I first started blogging, I called my year-end entries "Studicus Selects." The tradition has continued since 2005...although I skipped 2006 for some unknown reason. 

You'll find past entries here (scroll down for the 2022 picks):

Studicus Selects 2021

Overall, 2022 was a decent year filled with some notable events. I wrote and released a book! We bought a new car! Thanksgiving was normal with no overarching concerns about COVID-19 like in 2020 and 2021. It wasn't the best year ever. Anne and I suffered the heartbreaking loss of our beloved leopard gecko, Lenny. Winter weather and illnesses prevented us from following our usual Christmas traditions. Oh, things also got way more expensive thanks to the economic body blow brought on by the pandemic and the resulting chaos in the supply chain and workforce.

All in all, 2022 was a year that felt a little more stable in the Adams household. Here's a look back.

Rest easy, sweet boy
Farewell, Lord Leonard. I'll start off with the saddest development of the year. Our leopard gecko, Lenny, started to go downhill. We took him to the vet and made some changes to his diet and habitat. Unfortunately, it didn't help. We had to put Lenny down in November. It happened very quickly. The vet's office provided us with an imprint of his tail and little feet. We miss the big guy, but we're also glad he's no longer suffering. We still included him on our Christmas card for 2022.

An imprint of Lenny's tail and feet
Our 2022 Christmas card featured an appearance from the late Lord Leonard
Best Howard, Howard Category. Howard had a pretty eventful year. He HATED the recent winter storm and didn't want to go outside--not that I could blame him. He had a growth removed from his neck, although it turned out to be benign. We had to put the poor guy on anxiety medication. He has also developed high blood pressure, requiring further medication. He got a rawhide chew that's bigger than he is for Christmas, so he's got that going for him.
Always let a sleeping Howard lie

The candy cane was bigger than him! We couldn't let him have the whole thing, however
Best Turtle, Northern Map Turtle Category. A much quieter year for Willy, who turned 20 in October! We got her in 2017 when she was 15. At the time, we also believed she was a dude. She is not a dude, the exotic vet informed us last year. We still get her out of her tank on a weekly basis; Howard's been better about not bothering her, mostly because she pretty much ignores him. Our favorite thing: when Willy's on a walkabout, she'll come up to you and tap on your foot if she wants you to pick her up.

Willy takes great offense to being photographed while basking
Hello, Elantra. I have a 30-minute commute to work. It's not the best and certainly not the worst, however, I started having trouble with my reliable Hyundai Sonata. In May, we decided to replace Sonata with a new Hyundai Elantra. It's got Bluetooth connectivity, a backup camera, heated seats, lane assist, blind spot alerts, and auto start. It also gets really good mileage and I'm happy we pulled the trigger.

The new car got a professional detailing job from one Mr. Ted Adams (pictured in background)
Best Novel Written by Matt Adams, Sega CD Summer Category. I still write! I tried an experiment this year and released a book on my own. Sega CD Summer tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who takes on a paper route to earn enough money to buy the Sega CD add-on for his Sega Genesis. Oh, he also has to endure youth baseball season and deal with a former-best-friend-turned-bully. The book is out now on digital and paperback. Learn more here. I was even on a podcast!

Copies still available! Tens of people have enjoyed it, and you can, too!
Best Streaming Option for Indiana Pacers, Mostly Because It's the Only Option, Sports Category. The Indiana Pacers were supposed to tank this season. Instead, they've been surprisingly good and fun to watch. For those of us without cable, however, watching games (legitimately) isn't easy. Bally Sports+ launched this year for $20 a month. It's worked pretty well, aside from one game in which the feed cut out and the app wouldn't load. Seeing the local teams shouldn't be so hard, professional sports leagues.

When you pay $20 a month for a service that exists solely for the purpose of streaming NBA games, this shouldn't ever happen
Worst Indianapolis Colts Team of 2022, Indianapolis Colts Category. I had high hopes for the Indianapolis Colts this season. I was mistaken. Moving on.

How bad were the Colts this season? This hat is better than the team
Most Time Consuming Xbox Game, Assassin's Creed: Vahalla Category. When November rolls around, I suddenly remember I have an Xbox. I've played a ton of Assassin's Creed: Vahalla over the past few weeks. I think I enjoyed the Greece-set AC: Odyssey a bit more, but I've still gotten a ton of fun out of the game. I'm not sure I'll get to 100% completion because there are a lot of collectibles and DLC packs. I will, however, finish the main game and collect stuff until I get tired of it.

Most Frustrating Insanity Mode, Mass Effect: Legendary Edition Category. I played a lot of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition during the summer. I was mostly determined to finish all the games on the hardest mode ("Insanity"), which was something I didn't accomplish with their original releases (I beat the first and third games, but ME2 was just too hard). Getting through the "Insanity" difficulty on Mass Effect 2 is one of the most frustrating gaming-related things I've done in my life, but I finally managed to do it. Man, it's really tough. I'm not ashamed to say I exploited a few glitches here and there to get it done.

Best Holiday Prime, Non-Amazon Category. Everyone should have an Optimus Prime Christmas figure. Thanks to Brian Krilich for this one!

An action figure masterpiece
Movie Year in Review. I'll split my long list of entertainment stuff into two sections: movies we saw at the theater and stuff we watched via streaming. Let's start with the movies first. As usual, there may be some spoilers.

The Batman. We probably don't need another Batman movie, but people love the Bat and Warner Bros. wants to make money, so we will inevitably get more Batman stuff. Thankfully, this one was really good. I liked the idea of an early Batman flexing some of his detective skills. The film is beautifully shot and atmospheric. I would've cut maybe 10 minutes, but that's a nitpick.

Uncharted. I kind of forgot we went to see this one. It's fine--the kind of movie you'll find unobjectionable on cable on a Sunday afternoon and watch for a bit. 

The Lost City. I enjoyed this one more than I expected! It got off to a great start when Channing Tatum's mimbo character came onto the stage and got his wig ripped off. Good chemistry between the leads.

Morbius. "It's Morbin' time!" Please, Sony. Just stop trying to make movies out of ancillary Spider-Man characters just because you have the license. You have no idea what to do with any of these characters and you're simultaneously damaging your own brand with this nonsense.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. I liked it, but I expected more of a madcap romp through the multiverse in this one. We kind of spent time in a couple places and that was about it. I enjoyed the characters, though, and some trippy visuals.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. This was another "movie that happened." I barely remember a thing, other than Eddie Redmayne mumbling his way through the proceedings and wondering why we've had our third different Grindelwald in three movies (oh don't worry, I know why).

Jurassic World: Dominion. Imagine bringing back the cast of the original Jurassic Park and having them fight giant locusts. Then re-read that sentence, add the cast from Jurassic World, and realize that's what the plot was. I wanted an exploration of a world with dinosaurs run amok; I got prehistoric locusts.

Top Gun: Maverick. This shouldn't have worked, right? I mean, a sequel to one of the eighties-ist eighties movies ever, made some 30 years later? Yet, it's great. Tom Cruise is fantastic and we get a great, heartfelt appearance from Val Kilmer plus some of the best aerial stunt work ever. Absolutely floored by this one.

Thor: Love and Thunder. Maybe my biggest disappointment of the year. When you don't rein in Taika Waititi just a little bit, things get too broad and silly. All the basics are there, including a compelling villain, but it just didn't come together for me.

Elvis. Austin Butler turned in an Oscar-worthy performance in this one. I can take or leave Tom Hanks' Foghorn Leghorn act. This movie is always moving, thanks to Baz Luhrmann, who's never afraid to just spin things around for whatever reason. It's worth seeing, though.

Black Adam. The box-office disappointment really did change the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe. It's an okay movie, made interesting by Pierce Brosnan's casting as Dr. Fate. 

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. How do you make a Black Panther sequel without Chadwick Boseman? You craft a movie about loss and moving forward in which he rarely appears on the screen but is always there. A couple story elements were shoehorned in (paging Agent Ross), but this was an admirable accomplishment and the best MCU movie of the year.

Avatar: The Way of Water. I will jokingly refer to this one as James Cameron's Three-Hour Video Game Cutscene, but it is remarkable in its visual presentation. I'm not an Avatar hater, but I'm pretty "meh" on the first one. The sequel had a better story while making a big leap in terms of visual storytelling.

Streaming Year in Review. We spent a lot more time watching stuff at home than we did at the theater! Here's a look at some of the shows we streamed in 2022.

Abbott Elementary. We have absolutely fallen in love with this ABC sitcom. Some of it hits really close to home because my mother is a retired teacher (although in a much different kind of school district!). The characters are wonderful and have great chemistry. The episode about the egg drop is one of my favorites so far ("It's okay, Ralph, you just have to believe!")

Vatican Girl. This multi-part documentary about a girl who disappeared in Vatican City in 1983 is absolutely packed with jaw-dropping twists and turns. The saddest of those twists, however, is that the case remains unsolved after all these years, leaving a grieving family with no answers in the decades-old mystery.

Andor. This is the most mature Star Wars show we've ever seen. I didn't think I'd care all that much about a show featuring Cassian Andor, the one-and-dead protagonist from Rogue One. But here we are with a terrific, tension-filled series about politics, espionage, and betrayal. The "prison arc" is some of the best storytelling of the year. The stellar supporting cast includes Andy Serkis and Stellan Skarsgård, the latter of whom delivers an absolutely amazing monologue about the cost of sacrifice.

She-Hulk, Attorney at Law. One of the many MCU shows from Disney Plus, this one took a lighter approach into straight-up comedy. Meta and a little uneven at times, I still enjoyed it for the most part despite some of the wonkiness of the not-quite-movie-quality CG effects for the main character. If you can make me laugh with some fun superhero antics, I'm there.

The Bear. This show about the restaurant business got a lot of love over the summer, so Anne and I decided to give it a try. Did we enjoy it? Yes, chef!

We Own This City. The Baltimore Police Department didn't cover itself in glory, that's for sure. This series based on a book about corruption in the department follows a special unit focused on guns and drugs. The problem? The members of the unit like to fudge how much money they collected during raids to take a cut of it themselves and were cozy with the bad guys. Oh, they also had racist tendencies and lied about overtime to make a lot of extra cash on top of it all.

Better Call Saul. I watched the first season of Better Call Saul and fell behind. Then, the series finale came and people were talking about it. I wanted to know what happened, so I shotgunned the first five seasons on Netflix and bought the digital version of the sixth season. Great character, great supporting cast, great show. Give these guys some Emmys already!

Reservation Dogs. This FX show follows a group of tight-knit Native American teens who endure life on the reservation and dream of a better future. Another show featuring great chemistry and plenty of humor, it'll also surprise you with its heart and commitment to character development. All of that is wrapped up in some true laugh-out-loud moments.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Amazon paid a lot of money to produce this show (and promote it on Thursday Night Football). I thought it started out pretty slow in its first couple episodes and got progressively better. I definitely tuned in every week and looked forward to it, even if I don't have strong feelings about the material itself.

The Dropout. I read the book about Elizabeth Holmes and watched the HBO documentary about the Theranos scandal. This Hulu version with Amanda Seyfried provided a pretty good distillation of the whole sordid affair. The leads gave great performances (Naveen Andrews brought a lot to Sunny Balwani). I still can't believe people gave her all that money.

Peacemaker. A lot--I mean A LOT--has happened with the DC Universe this year. This show premiered waaaaaay back in January on HBO Max. It featured Peacemaker, John Cena's character from James Gunn's The Suicide Squad. I wasn't sure what to expect, but the show was a blast with an absolutely hilarious finale.

Bullet Train. I meant to catch this in the theater but never went. I settled for watching it on Netflix. A fun, breezy, twisty heist movie with lots of style and character, it's definitely a ride worth taking. Brad Pitt is solid as usual, but I was absolutely floored by Aaron Taylor-Johnson's performance.

Nope. I don't know what I expected here, but it wasn't quite as creepy and unsettling as I thought it would be. Probably the most disturbing part of the movie involved the scenes with the chimp (if you know, you know). The main plot itself wasn't all that mysterious. Still worth seeing, I think.

Moon Knight. Another MCU show on Disney Plus, Moon Knight involves a guy with a split personality. My only previous exposure to the character came via Marvel Ultimate Alliance on the Xbox 360 (seriously), but I always thought Moon Knight looked cool. I'm glad they cast Oscar Isaac because the man can literally do anything.

Dopesick. Much like the Theranos case, I devoured some books and a documentary about the opioid scandal and the Sackler family's involvement in aggressively marketing the drug. The Hulu series shows the heartbreaking reality of the opioid crisis and how greed drove the whole thing. Tremendous performances here, especially from Michael Keaton as a doctor who starts out as a skeptic about the safety and efficacy of oxycodone before becoming an addict himself.

Only Murders in the Building. Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez blessed us with a second season of the Hulu murder mystery-comedy series. The characters play off each other really well, the mystery keeps you guessing, and the snark makes things worth watching. Sometimes I find myself humming the theme song for no reason.

Stranger Things 4. The characters went out with a bang! Wait, there's more coming? This is such a fun show filled with great characters and nostalgia. It does a good job of managing unsettling imagery with humor and likeable leads. I may not be a member of the Hellfire Club, but Eddie Munson is a freaking legend. 

Under the Banner of Heaven. I jokingly referred to this show as "Andrew Garfield's Mormon Jamboree." It follows an LDS detective who's investigating a homicide. The perpetrators turn out to be members of a radicalized branch of the church, leading Garfield's character to question his faith and the role of the church. It's the only thing I've ever seen in which Sam Worthington displays an ounce of charisma.

The Offer. Making The Godfather was a legendary Hollywood story in its own right, and Paramount Plus gave us a version of that story. While I've never been a big Miles Teller fan, he was good in this show. Matthew Goode, however, made the show as charismatic producer Robert Evans. Remember this man for awards season, please.

The Righteous Gemstones. An absurd show with an absurdly stacked cast, this HBO series tells the story of a dysfunctional family made rich (and morally bankrupt) in the megachurch world. John Goodman anchors things as the family patriarch while Danny McBride shines as his moronic son. Some memorable side characters, like "Baby Billy" (Walton Goggins) and Keefe (Tony Cavalero), really make the show.

Belfast. This movie won Kenneth Branagh an Oscar for best original screenplay. The coming-of-age drama chronicles the life of a young boy during "The Troubles" between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Good performances and a heartbreaking story make this one worth the watch.

House of the Dragon. For many, Games of Thrones ended in a rushed spectacle of ineptitude. Did people really need more from the grim world of Westeros? These things make money, so of course we're getting more of them. Thankfully, the first season of House of the Dragon turned out pretty well, mostly on the strength of great casting. 

A Christmas Story Christmas. Legacy sequels are the thing in Hollywood--a way to take an existing property and milk more money out of it. Sometimes they work (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Top Gun: Maverick), sometimes they fail epically (Independence Day: Resurgence, The Matrix Resurrections). This follow-up to A Christmas Story does a good job with callbacks to the original movie without remaking it. Funny and genuinely touching, it misses Jean Shepherd's narration, although Peter Billingsley, the original Ralphie reprising his signature role, holds his own.

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. James Gunn brings the MCU's odd bunch to Disney Plus with an enjoyable holiday romp in which Kevin Bacon (Peter Quill's hero) gets kidnapped as a surprise Christmas gift. My favorite part: Drax going off on an actor dressed as Cy-Kill from the GoBots, set up by this gem of a line from Mantis, "I'm sorry. GoBots killed his cousin."

Murderville. A spoof of procedural cop shows featuring hardboiled protagonists, Will Arnett stars as hard-luck homicide detective Terry Seattle, who brings in a guest star protégé to help him solve a crime in each episode. The gimmick is that the guest stars don't have a script and are supposed to just follow along with what Seattle tells them to do. It makes for an absurd, wildly entertaining show.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Sega CD Summer on the Stone Age Gamer Podcast

I had the opportunity to talk to the Stone Age Gamer Podcast about Sega CD Summer!

Hosts Kris and Dan cover retro video games on a weekly basis. I reached out to them about my book, and they were kind enough to read it and offer some feedback.

It all resulted in a fun interview in which we talked about the book's inspirations, video games, baseball, publishing, and more.

You can listen here or find the show on your favorite podcast app. I'll give you fair warning that there is some salty language here and there!

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Lenny's Last Ride

This is my all-time favorite picture of Lenny

In May 2018, Anne and I welcomed a leopard gecko into our home. The little guy was named Lenny, and we christened him Lord Leonard Attenborough Adams, Viscount of Quail Run. We believe Lenny was 6 years old at the time. 

He was uncertain about us. We were uncertain about him.

Eventually, we bonded, mostly because Lenny liked wax worms and dubia roaches and we could provide them.

Rest up, sweet boy

Lord Leonard was a mostly nocturnal creature, sleeping during the day and becoming more active at night. His habitat required daytime heat lamps and a heating pad for night. Before I'd go to bed, I'd see him pressing his little belly against the heating pad, which kept him warm and aided in digestion.

Sometimes, he liked to hang out in a pair of nets Anne had put in his tank. Sometimes, he sought refuge in his "moist hide," a little retained moisture to help him stay hydrated. During the day, Lenny spent most of his time inside his little cave, where he slept until he was ready to get a drink of water or grab some food.

Lenny in his moist hide

Reptiles aren't exactly known for being warm and cuddly, but Lenny eventually opened up. He'd let us hold him and sometimes liked to amble across the top of the couch when he was out of his habitat. Before we got our dog, Howard, we'd let Lenny clamber across the carpet. We had to keep a close eye on him, though, because he was tiny and could be easy to lose!

Once, he climbed underneath our recliner; we lifted the footstool to see him hiding proudly behind the chair's wooden foot. Another time, he got into our coat closet. Thankfully, we quickly found him and returned him to safety.

Unlike our other pets, Lenny didn't make much noise. Our turtle, Willy, has a shell and tends to bang it against things when she walks. Howard, our dog, barks and sniffs and snores on occasion (it's really cute). You didn't hear much from Lenny's tank, which we always took as a good sign. The only real sound we ever heard from him inside the tank was his little footfalls as he ascended the top of his tiny gecko house or perhaps the gentle lapping of water from his bowl.

Getting a drink

Honestly, the only time we ever heard him make an actual noise was the first time we introduced him to Howard, resulting in a high-pitched squeal we tried to avoid ever repeating.

In recent months, we noticed little changes in Lenny. He started to have some trouble shedding, so we tried to make sure his habitat had a little more humidity and also helped him pull off some of those difficult-to-shed pieces of skin. We noticed he wasn't eating quite as well and realized his night heating pad wasn't getting as warm as it should.

We ordered him a new pad just a few weeks ago, and it seemed to help. We also took him to the vet a couple times in the last two months, which was alarming. Of our three pets, Lenny seemed the heartiest, kind of like a tiny gecko tank with the constitution of a vending machine.

The noblest of geckos

But over the last few weeks, he didn't seem as active. A sure sign of a healthy gecko is a nice, plump tail. We noticed he was losing weight and his tail had thinned out considerably. He rarely ate his wax worms, one of his favorite foods, and the vet gave us some medication and a special diet powder.

We were hopeful these things would help him get back to normal. The new heating pad seemed to help. Just a few days ago, he actually ate a wax worm!

But those hopes were dashed over the last few days. Lenny was lethargic and his breathing was labored. I don't think I realized how bad it had gotten until I saw him in his tank last night (Nov. 9), where he barely moved and his breaths seemed sporadic.

Anne and I took him out of his tank and tried to get him to eat. He didn't want any of the powdered food, which you mixed with water to make a paste. He had loved the stuff. Last night, though, he refused to eat it. He showed absolutely no interest.

This picture is from Oct. 22, 2022, just about three weeks before we said goodbye

Usually, when I held Lenny, he'd climb all over my hands, up my sleeve, up my shoulder, and around my neck. He'd climb up and down my shirt, always exploring. But last night as I held him, he just sat in my palm, eyes closed, as if to say, "Thanks, Dad, but I don't feel good. I think I'll go to sleep right here."

He showed brief spurts of activity, but his breathing became labored and we called the emergency exotic vet. We had previously scheduled an appointment for him for today (Nov. 10), but we felt like it couldn't wait. We put him in his portable habitat and drove him 40 minutes to the north side for emergency care.

It's a funny thing: while I don't really remember the drive, I'll also never forget it. Anne, in the passenger seat, held Lenny's habitat on her lap, hands atop it as she whispered encouragement to our little leopard gecko. I would, on occasion, take my right hand off the steering wheel and place it atop the container, just hoping it would provide Lenny with some reassurance.

It was Lenny's Last Ride.

Comin' at ya!

When we arrived outside the vet's office, they took him in for an examination. He was breathing on his own, still, and his heart was still going. His breaths came slowly, however, and his heartbeat wasn't very strong. They could try to take life-saving measures, the vet told us, but we felt Lenny was suffering and wouldn't recover. The vet also noticed a mass that hadn't been there last month when they'd last seen him.

So, with heavy hearts and more than a few tears, we decided to let Lenny go. We didn't want him to suffer, and it would be selfish for us to try to prolong his life when he clearly didn't feel well. It is a sudden, devastating loss. As I type this, his habitat sits empty. We had his lights and heating pad on smart outlets that turned on and off on set schedules. Perhaps the hardest part was turning off those schedules last night, knowing our little gecko didn't need them anymore.

The vet took impressions of his little feet and tail so could take a part of him home with us.

A beloved gecko will forever live here

The worst thing about pets is their generally transitory nature--we will, in most cases, outlive them. But the best thing--and the thing I will remember most about our strong, gentle Lord Leonard--is how much we love them and how much they love us.

Right now, Lenny's loss is a gaping hole. In time, however, we'll heal and have a lifetime of memories about the leopard gecko who spent more than four years of his life with us in a loving home, his belly pressed up against his heating pad at night as he awaited his next adventure.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Magical Williamsburg

The little town of Williamsburg, Indiana, features prominently in Sega CD Summer.

It's where much of the action, such as it is, takes place. I grew up in Williamsburg and visit there several times a year. My parents still live in the same house I grew up in. My brother and his family live in Williamsburg, too, in a home my grandmother once owned.

Needless to say, the 'Burg means a lot to my family and me. It's not a particularly impressive place and is about as small as "small town" gets. We have a single traffic light at the intersection of U.S. 35 and Centerville Road. A volunteer fire station. A youth league ballpark. A community center.

Some of these locations are mentioned in the book. The post office, for example, is where that rogue Mr. James Glad posts a "wanted" poster featuring Tommy Guggenbiller. The ballparks play a big role in the book, as they're a major setting of the baseball scenes. Not much in the book happens at the community center or the volunteer fire station, but they're two of the few notable locations in my hometown.

Let's take a little tour of "Magical Williamsburg..."

The Ballpark

No baseball scene would be complete without baseball diamonds. When I was a kid, Williamsburg had basically three baseball fields, each of which could be used for a couple different leagues. 

This is now designated as Diamond 4 for Majors
There was the Pee Wee diamond, which could also be used for some Minor league games; the Minor/Major diamond, which as the name would suggest hosted Minor and Major games; and the Colt diamond, which could host Colt and Major league games. It probably hosted a Minor league game on occasion, too. There is a fourth field--a softball diamond--that wasn't there when I was growing up.

The Williamsburg Lions Club manages the ballparks. The sign reads, "Williamsburg Lions Club Community Park"
My family spent a lot of time at the ballpark. My dad and other volunteers cut the grass, maintained the fences, chalked the baselines, and dragged the ball fields to smooth out the dirt. Dad was also instrumental in getting the dugouts built. Before those were constructed, teams baked in the sun.

One of the ballparks; you can see one of the dugouts there on the right
What baseball experience would be complete without a concession stand? It's probably the most important building at the whole facility, right? The Williamsburg Youth League Concession Stand served up some pretty tasty popcorn along with a "curated" selection of candy and gum. You couldn't go wrong with a Snickers bar or Reese's Cups. The Super Ropes were pretty popular, too.

This building was essential to a good time at the ballpark
We also served up hot dogs and fountain drinks. My mother could change the soda syrup in a flash (those canisters are heavy, by the way). It was usually customary for someone to buy drinks for the team after the game. Some kids lived for ordering a "suicide," which was all the different soda flavors combined into one cup.

I was never a fan.

The Post Office

What is there to stay about the post office? It's where we get mail.

I've lived in the Indianapolis area long enough to get spoiled by mail delivery. I mean, that's how it works for most people, right? Residents in Williamsburg don't get their mail delivered. Sure, they'll get the occasional package from Amazon or another online retailer, but letters and magazines go to the post office. You have a postal box and a key; you have to drop by the post office every day to pick up your mail.

The P.O. box thing has caused all kinds of grief over the years. You see, my parents' house has a street address. However, that address is not the legal mailing address; the P.O. Box is. The thing is, P.O. boxes are so often used by scammers that some places won't ship stuff to them. And then the Postal Service gets a little bent out of shape if things end up going to the street address because, again, it's not their legal address. It's confusing and frustrating. My mom hates dealing with it.

And if you're wondering why the non-existent street address exists, it's so that emergency responders have an identifiable place to go in case of, well, an emergency.

A wanted poster of the paperboy would've been posted here circa the early '90s

The Community Center

The Williamsburg Community Center once housed a school. It contains a gymnasium that could double as an extra from Hoosiers. The place hosts events and the occasional basketball game or camp these days.

The exterior of the Williamsburg Community Center
One of my fondest memories of the Williamsburg Community Center didn't make it into the book. My family used to have a set of keys to the place, so my brother and I would go over there and shoot hoops on occasion. During one memorable afternoon, my brother and I delighted in singing the Gatorade "Be Like Mike" song while intentionally throwing up the worst shots imaginable in an attempt to parody the insanely popular ad campaign.

You really haven't lived until you've seen Craig the Baseball Prodigy jump 360 degrees in the air and brick a layup that hits the underside of the backboard.

Okay. Maybe you have lived. It was a good time, though.

The Volunteer Fire Station

Being a small town, Williamsburg has a volunteer fire department. It's located just past the town's single traffic light near the intersection of U.S. 35 and Centerville Road. This civic gathering place was used as a voting site for people in Williamsburg.

The exterior of the volunteer fire station

For a long time, the fire station had a pop machine (or soda machine, if you prefer). The thing looked absolutely ancient, but it had a nice selection and always made pizza night a little better if we were out of Coke at home. It wasn't uncommon for my brother or me gather up some quarters and come back with a couple cans.

The machine, as you can see, is no longer there.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Star Wars in the 1990s

Star Wars has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember, and it makes more than a few appearances in Sega CD Summer. I still remember going to see Return of the Jedi at the movie theater when I was a kid, my brother and I sitting in the back of our 1982 Oldsmobile Omega looking at movie trading cards while our parents drove us to the theater. The rancor looked absolutely huge on the big screen. I couldn't have been more than 3 or 4 years old.

Return of the Jedi remains my favorite of the Star Wars movies. Even as I've grown older, I still have so much affection for it even as I realize that Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are probably "better" movies. It's just that when something hits you that hard at that young of an age, it sticks with you.

And Return of the Jedi has stuck with me. Needless to say, the season two finale of The Mandalorian really hit me in the feels.

We had some original Star Wars action figures, including Luke in his Jedi outfit and Tatooine garb (and Hoth), Han Solo (vest and Hoth), Princess Leia (only the Hoth version for some reason), Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, Darth Vader, a stormtrooper, a biker scout, Logray (whom I always mistook for Chief Chirpa), Wicket, Bespin Lando, an AT-ST driver, an Imperial officer, and Admiral Ackbar. As for vehicles, I can only recall having an X-Wing and a TIE Fighter.

Sometimes I combined my Star Wars and G.I. Joe figures together, although the Star Wars toys were not as impressive as the Joes due to the limitations in articulation. We didn't have a hooded Cobra Commander for a while, so sometimes we'd put a piece of masking tape (get it?!) over Jedi Luke's face to turn him into Cobra Commander (I don't understand how that made sense either).

As the mid-80s came and went, Star Wars was quickly pushed aside in favor of competitors like the Joes, He-Man, Transformers, and the other '80s toys. With no new movies in production and only things like Droids and Ewoks (and those TV movies) keeping the series alive, Star Wars became dangerously close to irrelevance. 

I'm probably overstating that a bit, but Star Wars just wasn't in the public consciousness as much. A lot of the kids who grew up on it moved on to other things. Merchandising really slowed down. Unlike today, there were no Star Wars books or TV shows to talk about. No comics. No Grogu beach towels or Kylo Ren paper plates. No droid advent calendars or Yoda wrapping paper.

I still watched the movies, all of which I'd taped off TV. From Chapter 14 of Sega CD Summer:

My well-loved VHS cassette contained versions of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back I’d taped off network TV. To get a commercial-free trip to a galaxy far, far away, I had to pause and unpause during commercial breaks when the movies aired. Both broadcast versions were 4x3 pan and scan with a superimposed “edited for television” notification that appeared during the escape pod sequence in Star Wars and during the probe droid launch in The Empire Strikes Back. TV station logos also graced the recordings for each movie: CBS for Star Wars and NBC for Empire.

I later received "official" copies of the original trilogy for Christmas one year, the CBS-FOX video VHS tapes along with a making-of special called From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga. I gave the versions I'd taped off TV to a friend who didn't have any of the Star Wars movies at home.

After lying dormant for a few years, Star Wars came back with a vengeance. It started, as did "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," soft and slow, like a small earthquake, with the release of Timothy's Zahn's Heir to the Empire in 1991. The book, a continuation of the original trilogy set five years after Return of the Jedi, became a bestseller and put Star Wars front and center once again. Two more books, Dark Force Rising (1992) and The Last Command (1993) completed Zahn's own book trilogy, a truly worthy successor to the beloved Star Wars movies that is no longer canon after Disney's Great Purge.

Just like that, Star Wars was everywhere once again. Mugs, t-shirts, stamps, greeting cards, action figures and vehicles, Micro Machines, toy blasters and lightsabers, trading cards, video games (the Super Nintendo's exclusive Super Star Wars series launched in 1992, although there had been earlier games for the NES), beach towels, dinnerware, bubble bath, and comic books (courtesy of Dark Horse Comics). The Holy Trilogy got a VHS re-release in 1995 with THX remastered editions featuring distinctive artwork and pre-movie interview segments with George Lucas and film critic Leonard Maltin. I still have a sealed boxset.

We learned George Lucas planned to write and direct a prequel trilogy about the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker. An incessant tinkerer of his own work, Lucas would re-release the original trilogy in theaters via Special Editions in 1997 with retouched special effects and CGI enhancements.

Star Wars exploded once again. It's never left and isn't going anywhere soon, as Disney, now a decade into its stewardship of the franchise, tries to hit the right balance of new and nostalgic.

But there was definitely a time in which Star Wars almost faded away, a dark time in which few kids played with toys or talked about the movies on the playground. These were the days in which Sega CD Summer takes place, with Tommy, Andy, and Kyle being outliers among their peers.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

NBA Live '96 on the Sega Genesis

I tried to avoid anachronisms in Sega CD Summer and skirted some through the power of the book being told from the viewpoint of a narrator looking back on his childhood and thus having knowledge of certain future events.

Part of the reason I set the book in 1994 was so that the characters could play some of my favorite games. Having the book take place any earlier would've forced me to leave out at least one key game: Rebel Assault. As that game is one of the primary reasons Tommy wants a Sega CD in the first place, the events had to take place later than March 1994 for Rebel Assault to be included.

That did mean some other games got the shaft, including NBA Live '96.

The officially licensed NBA game from EA Sports was the latest in a long line of basketball games from the company. Some previous versions didn't include all NBA teams, such as Bulls vs. Lakers and the NBA Playoffs, which featured only 16 NBA playoff teams. Team USA Basketball used the same game engine to bring the "Dream Team" to life and incorporated international basketball rules. EA also released NBA Showdown in 1994 before rebranding the series as NBA Live for the 1995 edition of the game.

NBA Live '96 for the Sega Genesis

The game used a three-quarters overhead view that you'll either love or hate. I liked it and tend to favor a similar isometric view when playing the modern NBA 2K series of basketball games. These were solid basketball games with the ability to call different defensive sets and offensive plays. One nice feature was animated play diagrams that taught you how to run an offensive set, showing you the positions of screeners and where the ball needed to go.

I'm reasonably certain my copy of NBA Live '96 was a Christmas gift, which would mean I got it in December 1995. You'll be shocked to learn I almost always played as the Indiana Pacers. The game featured one of the rosters from the team's mid-90s to early 2000s era, memorable for players like Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, and the Davis "Brothers," Dale and Antonio.

EA Sports tried to bring a TV-style presentation to the game, and while it lacked a constant score overlay, the pop-up display that appeared after a scored basket was a nice touch. Basketball arenas didn't have a ton of character separating them one from another, but clever use of crowd reactions and in-game music beats provided some nice atmosphere.

NBA Live '96 allowed you to create players, which meant you could put yourself in the game or add rookies would who later be added via the NBA Draft. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were missing from the game for licensing reasons, but if you input "Michael Jordan" as the name of a created player, the game autofilled the rest of the information for His Airness. Same thing for Barkley--you'd end up creating a 6'6" dude who played college ball at Auburn.

The create-a-player fun extended to some NBA legends like Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, and Pete Maravich, among many others. The incoming rookie class was also represented, meaning you could add players like Jerry Stackhouse, Cuonzo Martin, Antonio McDyess, Kevin Garnett, and "Big Country" Bryant Reeves. 

Oh, you could also "create" Ed O'Bannon, which I'm sure made him really, really happy.

During a birthday party for one of my friends, I organized an NBA Live' 96 tournament in which we challenged each other for the coveted "Hoopster Doofus Award," a made-up trophy inspired by Seinfeld's "The Handicap Spot" episode in which a woman told Kramer he was a "hipster doofus."

I played this game a ton. Thanks to another magical battery backup, you could play an entire season with stat tracking.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Talkin' Baseball (Video Games)

Sega CD Summer isn't just about video games. There's a lot of baseball in there as well. You'll even find video games about baseball referenced in the book!

From Chapter 10, for example:

Newer baseball games had hit the market, but for my brother’s money, it didn’t get any better than Sports Talk Baseball. We had a few games in the RBI Baseball series, Tony La Russa Baseball, Hardball ‘94, and World Series Baseball. While those games had newer players and were, in some cases, officially licensed by Major League Baseball and the MLBPA, Sports Talk Baseball had a roster closest to that of the 1990 World Champion Cincinnati Reds. Most of the key players from that team were on the game, and Craig the Baseball Prodigy couldn’t let it go.

For this entry in the Inspirations Series, I wanted to take a closer look at some of the baseball video games I remember for the Sega Genesis. While there's pretty much one "real" baseball game out there now (the excellent MLB The Show series, which started on the PlayStation and is in now on the Xbox, which is wild), the 8- and 16-bit consoles had multiple video games from different developers and publishers. Some of them were even released in the same year!

Here are a few noteworthy baseball games for Sega's glorious 16-bit console.

Sports Talk Baseball (1992). A solid baseball game, Sports Talk Baseball was officially licensed by the MLBPA and featured real players with, well, let's just call them generic store brand cola teams that were just different enough from the real thing to avoid any lawsuits. The gimmick here was the play-by-play provided by Lon Simmons. It lagged behind the action a bit, especially on bang-bang plays, but the effect was impressive for its time.

I didn't own the game, although I rented it several times. It did feature a roster somewhat close to that of the wire-to-wire 1990 Cincinnati Reds team. Since I grew up in the eastern part of the state close to the Ohio state line, we were Reds fans with fond memories of that team. It's the last time the Reds won a title and they've plunged straight into irrelevancy in the years since. 

As for Sports Talk Baseball, I think it's a pretty solid baseball game.

RBI Baseball '93 (1993). This was a Genesis exclusive from Tengen. The graphics here tended more toward cartoony, although some of the ballparks were nicely detailed, like Oriole Park at Camden Yards (which was then brand-spanking new). Different animations, like the coach giving signs to the batter, played in little windows in the upper right or upper left corners of the screen when there were no baserunners.

The game had some decent-sounding voice samples, although the music was ever-present and could get grating at times. Sometimes the game triggered its own replays on close plays, which was a nice touch. Like Sports Talk Baseball before it, the game lacked an MLB license, although it featured real players and stadiums. I appreciated the home run scoreboard animation, which included the hitter's name along with the home run's distance in feet.

You could also have your pitcher throw an unhittable spitball in a crucial situation. Use it again, however, and the umpire would toss him out of the game, forcing you to pick a new pitcher.

Hardball '94 (1994). For a time, Accolade tried to challenge EA Sports with its own "Accolade Sport" series. The boxes even resembled EA Sports fare a little, what with the white background and all.

Hardball '94 may have been my favorite baseball game for the Genesis. There are a couple reasons for this: you could edit teams and create your own logos. Sure, the logo editor was the epitome of rudimentary, but it got the job done. I sometimes put friends and teammates into the game using the player editor. The game did carry the MLBPA license and had a nice overall feel as a baseball sim.

I have to stress this, however: of all the different baseball games available on the Sega Genesis, the Hardball series was definitely more simulation-heavy than some of the other offerings. If you were looking for a more arcade-like feel--even in a game with some realism--then you probably won't dig it.

There were some nice rotoscoped animations for the time and most of the ballparks looked really, really good. There was no distracting music, just a crowd that reacted to the action on the field and some sharp voice samples from the umpire and the occasional pop of a ballpark organ. The presentation was nice, too, with a behind-the-pitcher camera that gave things a TV-style look. A more traditional behind-the-batter camera was available for batting.

There was also a swanky tune that played when you knocked one out of the park. You could play a full season and track stats via battery backup.

The predecessor to Hardball '94, titled Hardball III, featured very Sports Talk-like play-by-play from Al Michaels, a feature dropped in the subsequent Genesis versions.

Oh, one more thing about Hardball '94: while the game isn't featured in the book, it did inspire Tommy's bet with his father. In real life, my dad told me he'd buy me a Genesis game if I hit .400 during the season. When I accomplished the feat, I chose Hardball '94 as my prize. 

My hard-earned copy of Hardball '94
Poor Dad didn't know what he was getting into and balked at the price! For a guy who didn't really understand "playing videos," it was a real wakeup call. He made good on the deal, though.

World Series Baseball (1994). I thought World Series Baseball looked absolutely amazing. The game featured real MLB teams and players and went for a far more realistic look than some of its predecessors. The batter sprite was absolutely huge for its time, and play-by-play commentary returned in the vein of Sports Talk Baseball (the sound didn't improve much and the commentary still lagged a bit, but it was an admirable effort).

This game really nailed the look and feel of baseball. The ballpark atmosphere was alive and well thanks to a fairly reactive crowd and some fun scoreboard animations. Reviews upon its release were universally positive, and it remains a terrific addition to any sports gamer's library. My version of World Series Baseball is a loose cartridge I bought from Hasting's in Richmond several years ago for a couple bucks.

You could play a full season with stat tracking thanks to a battery backup.

Triple Play Gold Edition (1996). This EA Sports entry lacked the MLB license, but it was a very impressive effort. Basically, EA made incredible sports games for the 16-bit era from about 1991 through 1997. Part of this was because other companies made competing sports games that forced EA to innovate every year and pack new features into games. By the early 2000s, though, EA dominated so much (and ended up scoring the exclusive NFL license) that innovation came at a trickle.

Triple Play Gold was a Genesis-exclusive sequel to Triple Play '96, a good baseball game itself. The game included the usual roster updates and that sort of thing. It had a considerable amount of depth and extensive stat tracking. Like some of the other titles listed here, a battery backup allowed players to save seasons in progress and track statistics over the course of a season. 

In terms of gameplay, something about Triple Play Gold felt slightly choppy to me. I can't quite explain it; I just remember the game didn't feel as smooth as some of the others on this list. Still, it boasts great atmosphere, some nice animations, and the ability to choose between an "aggressive" and "conservative" throw or catch attempt. This was a risk-reward system; aggressive throws sometimes resulted in great plays and other times ended up going off-target for an error. Conservative plays could get the job done but didn't put extra "juice" on throws or allow a fielder to make a spectacular catch.

The game did allow four players to play at the same time, which was certainly a unique feature. Definitely a solid option for the system.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Pump Up the (NBA) Jam

NBA Jam and NBA Jam: Tournament Edition for the Sega Genesis
Sega CD Summer has launched! This is the eleventh entry in the Sega Tote Series

Video games and sports are just one of those perfect combinations, like peanut butter and jelly or chocolate and peanut butter. They just go together.

Video games let us do things we're incapable of, like flying spaceships, blasting aliens, and dunking all the way from half court. NBA Jam excelled at the latter, of course.

The arcade hit came to the Sega Genesis in March 1994. It plays a minor role in Sega CD Summer, mentioned as one of the few sports games Tommy's friends would enthusiastically play with him. Tommy also comments on his love for the Indiana Pacers, a team featuring NBA all-timer Reggie Miller and the solid-in-real-life-but-kind-of-useless-in-the-game Derrick McKey. 

From the book:
As much as my friends and I liked giving each other crap, we were always supportive. Andy and Kyle didn’t have much interest in sports, but they didn’t mind it when I talked about the baseball team or wanted to play NHL ’94 or Madden. They drew the line at most baseball video games, and the only basketball game they could stand was NBA Jam.

Heck, Kyle even owned a copy of NBA Jam. The two-on-two, officially licensed basketball game was pure arcade craziness, with over-the-top dunks and players. I always played as the Indiana Pacers so I could rain three-pointers with the legendary Reggie Miller, while Derrick McKey brought surprisingly little to the table. While he could dunk okay, he was slow and couldn’t shoot. Also, his defensive rating was poor. The Tournament Edition added Rik Smits, who was also slow and couldn’t shoot. His Dunkin’ Dutchman power was completely misrepresented in the rankings, but he could block shots. I always stuck with Reggie Miller and Rik Smits—at least TE gave me the option of benching McKey.
NBA Jam was a certifiable phenomenon in the mid-90s, right up there with Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat in terms of gaming hype and hours logged. Because of the over-the-top gameplay and presentation ("BOOMSHAKALAKA!"; "He's on fire!"; "Rejected!"; "Is it the shoes?"), the game got that all-important crossover appeal that expanded the gaming audience beyond sports fans.

The game is simple, really, just two-on-two basketball featuring officially licensed NBA teams and players. Most basketball rules get tossed out the window, and the team with the most points at the end wins, obviously. An exuberant announcer and crowd reactions give each game great atmosphere. It's probably best known for jaw-dropping, turbo-enhanced dunks that have players going high into the air, windmilling or sometimes spinning as they throw one down.

The game had some wicked rubber-banding AI that always kept things close in CPU games, dropping your field goal percentage and upping the computer's success rate to keep things "interesting."

I almost always played as the Pacers, but there were some other fun duos, including Sean Elliott and David Robinson on the Spurs; Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning on the Hornets; Karl Malone and John Stockton on the Jazz; and Vernon Maxwell and Hakeem Olajuwon on the Rockets. I'll even begrudgingly throw in John Starks and Patrick Ewing on the Knicks, just because it gave me much satisfaction to beat them with Reggie Miller.

It's worth mentioning that, thanks to the complexities of licensing, the home ports lacked Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan. While some early Genesis/SNES versions had Charles Barkley, he was later replaced with Dan Majerle thanks to a deal with Accolade for Barkley: Shut Up and Jam, a venture I'm sure was worthwhile for everyone (eyeroll). 

NBA Jam also had several cheat codes and secret characters. You could play in Big Head Mode, for example, or throw one down as Al Gore or Bill Clinton, respectively the vice president and president at the time.

A year after the original Jam hit home consoles, NBA Jam: Tournament Edition arrived. It featured the same fast gameplay, secrets, and atmosphere. The game had expanded rosters and you could do substitutions between quarters. I liked the optional addition of "hotspots," different areas of the court that would light up and reward you with higher point values if you hit a shot.

The Sega CD and Game Gear also received ports of NBA Jam. The Sega CD version, as you'd expect, featured CD-quality music, a few roster updates, and FMV sequences at halftime. Players had to contend with long load times, however, and the graphics weren't much of an upgrade from the Genesis version. 

The Game Gear port tried hard, as Game Gear ports often did, and although it's graphically and aurally inferior, it's possible to have some fun with it.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Mall Madness Memories

Sega CD Summer is out now!

Malls still exist today, but they just aren't what they used to be.

I live on the south side of Indianapolis, and the closest one to us is the Greenwood Park Mall. Over the years, it's undergone renovations and additions in an effort to attract more customers. It seems like stores open and close all the time.

It's just not the same mall experience I had as a kid.

Richmond, Indiana, never had the greatest mall in the world. My mother always laughed at the "mall directory" because you could see all the stores from one end to the other from the entrance. Still, I liked going there. 

You had Waldenbooks, which was the bookstore where I bought the bulk of my books and video game magazines. There was just something great about asking the bookstore to hold a novel for you and then picking it up after it was released. I loved browsing through the big wall of magazines there and finding some issue of GamePro or Electronic Gaming Monthly with a cool cover. I also got the occasional sports magazine there.

My favorite section, of course, featured science fiction and fantasy books. To be honest, my "science fiction and fantasy" reading was pretty much limited to Star Wars and Star Trek books. I rarely left Waldenbooks without a paperback of some sort. Most of my Star Trek books were paperbacks while I had several hardcovers in the Star Wars series. Favorites included the Timothy Zahn Heir to the Empire trilogy and Steve Perry's Shadows of the Empire. None of those books "count" in the current Star Wars canon, of course.

Chapter 9 of Sega CD Summer dramatizes a trip to the mall, with Tommy visiting Electronics Boutique with his mother. I thought the store was incredible, packed with almost every game and system I could imagine. Electronics Boutique also featured PC games and components; it's the first place I can ever recall seeing a CD-ROM drive.

Games were arranged on wire shelves with the price marked on a placard below. If you wanted one, you took the case up to the register and paid for your game; the employee then retrieved a copy from a locked drawer. It was similar to the Target/Kmart/Sears purchasing process in which games were kept in locked cabinets. KB Toys, on the other hand, used a "ticket" system in which you pulled the ticket for the game you wanted and took it up to the counter.

Ah, yes. KB Games. Like most everything else in the mall, the products were overpriced and the store was kind of cramped. However, you could find things at KB that were hard to come by at Target or Kmart--you'd just pay a little more for them. For the most part, I was content with the selection of G.I. Joes at Target, but every once in a while, KB Toys would have that special figure I was looking for.

Five of the games pictured above came from the Sears bargain bin
KB also had a decent bargain bin for video games when it was clearing stock. A couple of games I remember buying from there include Zero Tolerance, a first-person shooter that was actually decent for a console shooter of the era, and Cosmic Spacehead, a game that wasn't worth the $15 I paid for it.

The champion of discount games, however, was Sears. The electronics section there was small, but Sears usually had discounted Sega CD games. I bought FIFA and NHL '94 there for cheap, along with Links: The Challenge of Golf. I believe AH-3 Thunderstrike and The Software Toolworks Star Wars Chess also came from Sears!

For the most part, Sears, JCPenney, and their ilk are irrelevant these days. But for those of us who grew up in the '80s and '90s, the mall was a magical place to hang out with friends, spend some time at the arcade, and do some clothes shopping. That's because the mall had everything all in one place.