The PS5 saga

Peanut standing guard
Peanut standing guard

I’ve been buying most consoles at launch since the N64, when Nintendo brought its console to these shores with an initial shipment of only 20,000 machines, and I was able to walk into an independent retailer (remember those?) on a random Saturday a couple of months before launch and put my name down.

An optimist can take the current absurd difficulties in getting hold of a PS5, now three months after launch, as evidence of how the industry has grown since then, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Even the absurdities of the PS2 hype cycle didn’t feel this bad.

The truth is almost certainly a perfect storm of factors causing shortages and supercharging demand. It’s a pandemic, so people are stuck at home and looking for new toys. Also, it’s a pandemic, so manufacturing and logistics have been severely affected. Furthermore, it’s a pandemic, and chip shortages are affecting everything from GPUs to in-car entertainment systems, and no doubt consoles as well.

And, notoriously, this particularly high demand means scalpers abound, and this time more than ever they’re packing bots that can seemingly order dozens of machines while mere humans are still loading the page.

I actually skipped out on the launches of the new consoles this generation, mainly due to being in the middle of moving house and so occasionally having less than no money. I rather naively expected to be able to waltz onto Amazon come February or March and be able to grab one whenever.

This proved optimistic.

I’d followed a number of Twitter accounts and Discord servers that shared intelligence on incoming shipments, and eventually managed to purchase one from Game. I missed out in the initial wave, but grabbed one in the third of the day, after they’ve filtered out the bots and repeat buyers.

But then, an hour and a half later, this same system filtered me out and they cancelled my order. That or, I suspect, they simply oversold their stock.

A couple of days later I managed to get an order in with Very. Unlike Game, Very charged me, so I thought I was safe. But then, like Game, Very cancelled my order. They held onto my money for an expensive PS5 bundle for almost a week after that so yeah, I’ll be avoiding Very in future.

At this point, I was increasingly despondent and even chanced a couple of eBay bids as the average selling price – currently about £200 above RRP – approached what I was willing to pay.

But then, last week, I happened to be looking at my phone when this tweet pinged a notification.

Some of the prominent alert services missed this one, so on the off chance, I checked Smyths’ disc consoles as well. They were in stock and I ordered one without trouble. It was such a low-key drop that people on Discord were questioning whether it even happened.

In other words, I love Smyths now. I’ve always liked them in the absence of Toys R Us and for their convenient location in Bournemouth, but my feelings are now more romantic in nature.

The PS5 is lovely. Not to look at – it’s an ugly abomination – but in its performance and the visuals it can put out. My launch PS4 has not kept pace with the ambitions of developers nor modern TVs, meaning anything recent on my 65″ OLED runs like a PowerPoint presentation on a hazy day, with the audio accompaniment of a jet engine.

This one, though? I’ve never seen such pristine image quality. Close-ups in Spider-Man: Miles Morales look absolutely flawless, with no aliasing, shimmering or any undesirable artefacts like that, and all in 4K, HDR, 60 frames per second. With ray-traced reflections in people’s eyes.

It’s astonishing – certainly the most impressive generational leap in a while, assuming you have the TV to get the most out of it.

Those screenshots are 15MB each in full quality PNG, incidentally 😬

It’s early days on this generation, though, and it’s looking like COVID-related developments will have taken a belated toll on numerous 2021 releases – Gran Turismo 7 has slipped in the last few days and rumours are swirling around Horizon: Forbidden West – so that post-launch lean period could be longer than usual.

At least I’ve got all those PS4 games that I’ve stopped playing in the last couple of years because they ran like arse. Like Shenmue III… 🤔

Teaching myself programming under lockdown

As with many of us, COVID-19 has given me an abundance of free time, and I’ve been using it to do something I’ve tried and failed to do numerous times over the years: to teach myself to code.

I can remember going straight from devouring HTML For Dummies and using it to build the Shenmue Fan Site, circa 1998, to C For Dummies – how different could they be? The realisation of those surefire smash hit game ideas I’d sent to my favourite developers as a kid was imminent.

That plan lasted all of an evening. HTML and C are quite different, as it turns out.

Since then JavaScript, PHP, more attempts at C, Python and Swift have fallen by the wayside. Books, PDFs, online tutorials, and even children’s learning resources clutter my hard drive. I’d done enough to understand the fundamentals but have always failed to find the time or impetus to make it stick.

So, in the early days of lockdown, when I was climbing the walls with boredom, I had a go with Swift Playgrounds, which has recently made its way to macOS from the iPad. It’s designed for kids, but I found myself sitting up late, replaying levels and trying to craft more efficient solutions or get my head around the logic.

At a certain point, though, it seemed like a waste to be putting so much effort into a kids’ game, when I could be learning the real thing. I had time with a three-week furlough coming up, so I set a lockdown resolution: I will learn to code.

Python Crash Course cover
Python Crash Course by Eric Matthes

The book that finally cracked it for me was Python Crash Course by Eric Matthes, which I got in a Humble Bundle and, at the time of writing, is once again available there. Python is a popular choice as a first programming language and it gets a thumbs-up from me – it’s quite straightforward, and an interpreted language is more friendly when you’re making those beginner’s mistakes.

What’s more, Python is the de facto programming language of the Raspberry Pi if you want to get into hardware projects and is a big player in proper fields like machine learning too.

Anyway, like most coding books, it takes you through the principles of programming chapter-by-chapter, then into several larger projects that apply your new knowledge into crafting actual useful software. Get that far and the sense of achievement when hours of work takes you from a blank text file to an actual playable game – the first I’ve written in 30-odd years of merely playing them – is something else.

I wrote that! So will anyone else who works through that book, admittedly, but I’ve carried on working on it until my version has music and sound effects, and I replaced the single, ephemeral high score with a persistent top 10 leaderboard. Even writing the lion’s share of the game’s functionality parrot-fashion has taught me so much about the inner workings of how a game is structured.

A project like this, which will give you a useful skill and a sense of achievement, is what everyone needs in these strange times. I’m now confident enough to try putting together a few software ideas that have been rattling around in my head for a while, I’m dabbling in more applied Python books, and I’ve got my eye on finally cracking C this time.

Stay safe, and take advantage of lockdown while you’ve got it.

Grandia: An upbeat adventure for these bleak times

As what has been a rather shitty status quo continues to get worse, I didn’t feel like the big new releases in Doom Eternal or the Resident Evil 3 remake were the appropriate antidotes. Instead, I’ve been relying on a little glimmer of light that’s been occupying my Switch since “social distancing” entered the vernacular: Grandia HD Collection.

The End of the World
The End of the World… or is it? No, of course not.

The first game’s relentlessly optimistic adventure makes it perfect for these bleak times. It was something of a throwback even at release, with its Saturday morning cartoon storyline and colourful, sprite-based characters bucking the trend of dark and gritty post-FFVII RPGs. There are no brooding antagonists and tortured antiheroes – the main character is a young boy, the son of an adventurer and a pirate because why not, intent on making his name as a first-class adventurer by exploring uncharted continents and discovering ancient civilisations with his friends. There’s a militaristic empire on the party’s heels, of course, but it wouldn’t be a Saturday morning cartoon without its Cobra.

Justin doesn’t have a brooding bone in his body. His optimism is infectious.

It’s a perfectly upbeat change of pace. Not overly challenging, with no esoteric systems to potentially snooker you later on. And it has what remains my favourite RPG battle system ever designed – a perfect mix of turn-based, active time and the spatial awareness of real-time combat that seems simple and yet, once mastered, rewards flawless victories with this soaring, gloriously of-its-time riff. I’ve spent most of my time with the game with a smile on my face. It’s a proper warm blanket of a game.

A little too anime for my tastes, but we forgive it.

The HD collection also contains Grandia II, which is still a great game with Dreamcast era 3D graphics that upscale better than Grandia’s sprites – my one complaint about the first game’s remaster is the smeared filtering job on the sprites, which is bearable on the Switch’s screen but looks worse the bigger your display gets. But the sequel comes with a touch of post-FFVII brooding that I can’t bring myself to like as much. Think of it as a nice freebie, with the first game as the real reason to buy this collection.

There are those who said this day would never come. What are they to say now?

Shenmue III in hand

I’m holding a copy of Shenmue III. I’ve got another two on the way, but that’s not important right now. It’s still hard to believe. It had been a punchline for so long, and even that bonkers E3 was four long years ago. But 18 years after I put down the controller to watch the end credits of Shenmue II, not knowing that the series would spend quite that long in stasis but perhaps suspecting its future wasn’t quite assured, the long wait is over.

Silly as it sounds, it’s actually quite an emotional moment for me. I never really lost hope, even as I’ve become less involved in the community. At some point I reacquired the domain of the old Shenmue Fan Site when I noticed it become available again. Tempted? Nah. But those were fun times.

Shenmue (December 1999), Shenmue II (September 2001) and Shenmue III (November 2019)

These are my Japanese copies of the first two games. Going from my purchase of the first one, which would have been in the early days of 2000, as soon after the 29 December 1999 Japanese launch as the Video Game Centre (naturally) could get them, these three represent a little shy of a 20-year journey.

There are even some people who I might send a cheeky tweet with a link to this post. Those dirty non-believers on Twitter and my editorial teams who told me to let it go, that it would never happen.

I’m planning to post some more detailed impressions when I’ve spent some time with the game, but given how sparse my updates here have become, I couldn’t let this day pass without some acknowledgement that I’m still here — and so is Shenmue.

Shenmue I & II remaster

While not as earth-shattering as the Shenmue III announcement, the weekend’s news that the first two games are getting a remaster has been almost as long coming. It’s multiplatform, it has a physical release, it has dual languages, and considering that even Sonic Adventure didn’t justify a standalone release back when Sega was pushing Dreamcast ports, this series getting one is pretty fucking vindicating.

And even with my intention to support the series by buying every version, it won’t cost me as much as the Shenmue III Kickstarter did.

I posted last year with a few of my wishes for a then-hypothetical remaster, so it’ll be interesting to see how many we actually get. From what I can tell, these are in the bag:

  • Japanese language option – The most important feature, without a doubt, and the one thing that will guarantee my happiness with this port. This is the first time, short of messing around with CD-Rs and hacked undubs, that it’s been possible to play Shenmue in Japanese with English subtitles. My life feels kind of empty without this drum to bang. What do I complain about now?
  • Widescreen – It’s unclear from the trailer what exactly will be offered here, as the announcement trailer shows both gameplay and cut-scenes from Shenmue II in 16:9, with the first game’s gameplay in 16:9 but cut-scenes in letterboxed 4:3. But while we wait for all the details, the important thing we do know is that Shenmue and Shenmue II will both be playable in widescreen.
  • Fixes for pop-in and slowdown – No mention of this but I’m taking it as a gimme. No way does this get the widescreen TLC and interface polish without making sure it’s running smoother than a Dreamcast.
  • Dual-analogue controls – Admittedly all we know for sure is that “choice of modern or classic controls”, but it would be inexplicable for them to not take movement off the D-pad. I’m claiming this one. Giving us the choice is good too – everyone should experience the hideous claw hand required to run and look around at the same time, like Ryo was always doing in the trailers.

It’s in widescreen! And it has a new interface! (Note the icons in the bottom right.)

Whether or not it’s based on the Japanese Dreamcast versions won’t become clear until more media is available but I think it unlikely, simply because of (a) licensing issues and (b) using the Xbox port of Shenmue II saves a lot of work. Online leaderboards/Shenmue Passport are moonshots, but I’ve seen lower-profile remasters with comparable supplemental material, so let’s see.

Unfortunately the backporting of the time skip is a no, which is disappointing given that interface work is happening elsewhere. But even so, enough is going on here to suggest more than simple emulation, as simply making the original game function glitch-free in widescreen, which has so far been impossible with emulators, is no mean feat.

Naturally, I’ll be following this one closely.

Running with the Apple Watch

Apple Watch Workout appI’ve been running for a couple of years now, having started with a C25K programme and working my way up to regular 10Ks, 10 miles, obstacle runs, and several 5Ks a week. I’m doing my first half marathon in April and, assuming that goes well, might do a full one in October. Rain (sometimes) or shine, on a weekday evening I’m a regular somewhere along Bournemouth seafront, where you’ll find me somewhere between Boscombe and Sandbanks.

Until now I’d been tracking my runs with my phone strapped to my arm with Strava, but waking up on Christmas morning to a brand new Apple Watch provided an opportunity to improve my fitness tracking.

Integrating Apple’s Workout app with Strava

Apple Workout run in progressApple’s Workout app is excellent, offering support for tons of different activities and providing lots of lovely stats afterwards. It can track my heart rate during and after a run, syncs with numerous other devices without needing to pay a premium subscription, and doesn’t provide the bafflingly inflated calorie estimates that Strava is known to do.

My problem was that I had several years of runs and a handful of similarly inclined friends on Strava, and I didn’t fancy losing that social aspect, not to mention my PBs on the numerous Strava segments I regularly run.

Strava has its own Apple Watch app, of course, and it’s perfectly functional and capable of depositing its runs into the Activity app alongside any Apple-tracked workouts. In fact, my first run with an Apple Watch, on Boxing Day, was tracked with the Strava app. But it lacks some of the stats, including heart rate recovery (being a native app, Apple’s Workout can keep tracking your heart rate after the run has ended) and those all-important GPS-tagged route maps. And since I was going to be using Activity for tracking weight training and other workouts anyway (Strava is limited to running and cycling), I was keen to streamline things by using one app for all my exercise.

The solution, then, would appear to be liberating my Apple-tracked data and dropping it into Strava. But that’s not always an easy thing to do with Apple.

HealthFit solves the problem

Trying a failing with a few apps, I came across HealthFit, which, wonderfully, does exactly what I need it to and nothing else – the last thing I wanted was to bring a third fitness-tracking service into this. All it does is export your workouts from Apple’s Activity app in the widely supported Garmin .FIT file format, where they can be saved to your iCloud Drive, emailed or automatically uploaded to a number of different services, Strava among them (the others are TrainingPeaks, SportTracks, Final Surge, Selfloops and Dropbox).

Exporting an Apple Watch Workout run to Strava in HealthFit
Exporting an Apple Watch Workout run to Strava

A few taps and my run is exported, and it’s a matter of moments before Strava pops up a notification that it’s ready to view in its app, indistinguishable from a Strava-tracked run. Better, in fact, since my exported runs feature heart rate charts – a Strava Premium feature if I used their Apple Watch app.

The only niggle was that, since Strava was installed on my phone and allowed to write its workouts to the Health and Workout apps, anything exported into Strava through HealthFit was appearing twice. That was solved by simply revoking that permission in the Health app (in the Sources menu), giving Strava read-only access.

Conclusion

Were I not into fitness, I’m not sure I’d find the Apple Watch worth it. A timekeeping and notification machine is cool, but a questionable value proposition. However, if you throw in comparable fitness-tracking to the high-end offerings from Fitbit – at the time of writing the only Fitbit with built-in GPS is the Ionic watch, which starts at £299, or only £30 less than the much more flexible Apple Watch Series 3 – and it becomes much more justifiable. The fitness-tracking focus of watchOS 4 suggests that a couple of years on the market has led Apple to a similar conclusion.

The Apple Watch is the absolute definition of a technological luxury item, completely unnecessary but kind of cool when you have one. It’s a fantastic fitness-tracker, though, particularly for outdoor activities, and the sheer omnipresence of iOS means, by proximity, any fitness-focused online service is likely to have some level of support. This comprehensiveness, coupled with the constant nudges to close my rings, is often enough to get me out when the cold weather and post-work fatigue might otherwise tempt me to take an evening off.

See you in Southampton!