Nintendo Marketshare At 14%

It doesn't take an industry insider to tell you that Nintendo is clearly trailing Sony and Microsoft in the so-called "console wars" but I didn't realize just how bad it was for them. According to an article on the front page of the business section in today's Seattle Times, Nintendo is lowering sales forecasts, seeing dips in profits, and is currently down to owning a scant 14% of the market. Now, a dip in sales is expected given that this is the end of the console's life cycle and that Nintendo hasn't released a must-buy mega hit for nearly 18 months. But 14%? For a company that dominated the industry just 20 years ago, this is indeed sad news.

When Nintendo unveiled their upcoming "Revolution" console earlier this year at the Tokyo Game Show, I wrote in this space that the uniqueness of the system (games are played with a wand-like remote control that is tracked in three-dimensional space) was a sign of them stepping out of the race and taking their own path to the finish line. My thoughts at the time were that they knew they couldn't compete with Microsoft and Sony in the horsepower division and would instead seek to corner a new division of gaming -- a division that they alone will invent, set the rules for, and be the only player. Now I'm convinced that not only is their new direction a wise decision, but one bore not simply out of a desire to innovate, but out of necessity.

The Revolution console, expected to release in the fall of 2006 is Nintendo's last chance to prove that they can remain a hardware manufacturer (handhelds excluded) and avoid following Sega down the road to third-party software publisher. And I don't think they will.

One of the most interesting facets at work in this discussion is that Nintendo has the most rabid fanbase of the three companies. While each company certainly has its devotees, none are more devoted than those who worship at the feet of Mario. They buy everything Nintendo creates: every sequel, every add-on, every thing. And yet, despite this loyal following, Nintendo is down to owning just 14% of the market. Call me stupid, but I don't think releasing a console that will alienate third-party software publishers and fly in the face of what the majority of gamers -- that other 86% -- enjoy is going to help them regain their edge.

Fighting Crime One Pint At a Time

Had to post the link to this column before I forgot. It was in yesterday's Seattle Times and is about a Neighborhood Watch group that got sick of watching illicit activity take place outside a local seedy bar and finally decided to go across the street, walk past the drug dealers and prostitutes, and go in and have a beer. Now, months later, they have several dozen folks from the community there every Monday night and, apparently, their mere presence has cleaned up the block and driven the dealers and "working women" elsewhere.

Happy Thanksgiving

Can't believe I forgot to post since Monday. I had so much to write about too. Oh well, I'll catch up tomorrow.

In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving! Usually, Kristin and I head to the slopes to go snowboarding on this particular holiday since our families are both back in NJ, but with no fresh snow in nearly two weeks, we decided to do up the whole big turkey-day dinner. I actually started cooking yesterday (after mowing the lawn for what I hope to be the last time of 2005). I made a pumpkin soup, a pumpkin pie, and the star attraction, a cranberry apple pie with a streudel-ish topping. It looks awesome and it was all I could do not to dig into it last night.

Speaking of last night, we walked over to the bistro by our house and sat at the bar and had a light dinner and a few drinks while watching the Gonzaga Vs Connecticut game. Afterwards, I somehow convinced Kristin to spend the night playing videogames with me. After fumbling around with the "Midway's Greatest Hits" disc and realizing that you can't always go home again, we finally wised up and popped in "Test Drive: Eve of Destruction" which has been sinfully ignored by the gaming masses. Not only does the game feature an extremely robust single player career mode, but also 1-4 player split-screen play with a flock of hysterical and entertaining mini-games. We got home from dinner around 9pm, made a pot of coffee, and didn't stop playing Test Drive: Eve of Destruction till 2am. If you ever had a penchant for demolition derby racing, or know deep down in your heart you want to be a member of the "redneck rodeo" then this is the game for you. Most definitely one of the hidden gems of 2005.

You heard it here first.

So Happy Thanksgiving everyone... but not to those of you who camped outside a Best Buy for 3 days trying to get an Xbox 360. No soup for you.


Sorry to bust in with a little baseball talk this morning, but the Mariners signed the first big-name free-agent of the off-season, thereby pushing the team hopefully that much closer to a .500 record next year. They signed the Japanese catcher, Kenji Johjima, who won seven straight Gold Gloves in Japan and has averaged a .305 batting average and 30 homers each of the past 5 years. The Mariners have been essentially playing without a catcher for three seasons now, so this should really help. How he gets aong with Ichiro is another story, altogether, as the word is Japanese superstars don't like sharing the spotlight.

But I digress... That's not really why I'm bothering to post this news here. I just needed an excuse to quote the team's GM, Bill Bavasi. When asked about Johjima having to learn the English language, Bavasi replied, "We're talking about [learning] enough to get the next hitter out, not to split the atom." It's nice to hear someone within the organization put things in perspective, but isn't it funny that despite the seemingly lack of importance of the task, guys are paid far more to catch fastballs than to, say, perform nuclear physics? If only 35,000 wanted to watch them do their jobs, things would be different for sure.

Anyway, I thought that was pretty funny. And on the sub-nucleic chance that Johjima's translator is reading this, make sure he learns to call for the title of this post. It's pronounced "high and inside", and it's a place Mariners pitchers have been scared to go for the past few seasons.

Recently Completed Games

Those who read my "Rekindling the Videogame Flame" article may recall that I am sort of conducting an experiment regarding my game playing. I've placed one game in each of my main consoles and am committed to leaving it in their until I complete the game. Well, it's working. And not only am I starting to actually complete some of the games that have resided on my bookshelf for lengthy periods of time, but I'm actually having a lot of fun too. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that I'm having more fun as a gamer now than I have in quite a long time. Here's some thoughts on the games I've recently completed.

Trace Memory - Nintendo DS
This is an adventure game that actually has a pretty interesting story that kept me interested all the way to the end. I've described the gameplay to others as "Myst for kids" and for sure much of the game is relatively sanitized and simplistic in that Nintendo way we're all so familiar with. But, for sure, there are also a couple of tricky puzzles in the game that make use of the handheld's dual screens and clamshell design in the most innovative way I've seen. If the game has a critical flaw, however, it's the length. The game only takes 5 to 6 hours to complete and although it's definitely worth playing if you happen to own the system, it's hard to recommend at full price because you'll be unlikely to play through it twice.

Ratchet & Clank - PS2
I finally got around to playing the original Ratchet & Clank and have to say that I can't wait to play the sequels. I just need a little time to cleanse my mind of the final boss fight. This is an action-platformer that features a lot of fun, inventive weaponry that is not only a blast to use (pun intended), but many put a smile on my face too. There are a wealth of planets to explore, and each of them pretty sizeable. The game takes about 15 hours to complete and for the most part, the difficulty curve is perfect. Although the camera could occasionally be troubling, the only real trouble-spot in the game was the final boss. It took me over two hours to finally get lucky and best him and I've spoken to other gamers who had similar troubles. There is a good amount of reason to play through a second time, such as new and improved weaponry, but I think I'll just take a break and pop in the sequel. The first three games in the series are all part of Sony's "Greatest Hits" collection and can be had for $20 or less, a total value in my opinion.

Ribbit King - Gamecube
What do you mean you haven't heard of Frolf? Frolf is the new sport of sports and it's one that you have to give a try. Ribbit King is a golf game that tosses aside the ball and opts to use a frog instead. Each "hole" is actually a large landscape with all sorts of various obstacles to use in setting up your shot. You can bounce your frog off spider-webs, have it swim across rivers and lakes, have it slide across ice, be carried on conveyor belts, you name it! And best of all, your frog has a mind of its own. Sometimes it will leap up and eat a fly and start a whole new combo you didn't expect. For sure, there is a method to the madness and as you compete, you'll gain access to new frogs that can tolerate lava or are better swimmers and whatnot, and similarly, you'll gain access to a plethora of power-ups to help replenish your frog's energy or give him special abilities. The brief cutscenes that play before each matchup are actually funny and the game is also good fun multiplayer. As ridiculous as this sounds, Ribbit King is one of my favorite games for the Gamecube and a must-play for everyone.

The X360: To Buy or Not to Buy

...on launch day. That is the question.

There's no arguing the fact that I will eventually own an X360, and probably by the end of the year. Nevertheless, I must say that as much as I have enjoyed gaming on my current Xbox, this will be the first console in a long time that I may not be getting on day one. There is a big part of me that sees the pile of games on my shelf and thinks that I need more time to wrap up the loose ends in this current generation of systems. On the other hand, I also crave a system whose entire library of games will take advantage of my HDTV and boast better audio and more robust online features. I also look forward to the enhanced physics and general more that is sure to come with the newer higher-tech gaming system.

For better or worse, however, the reason I won't be picking up a system on launch day is because of retail greed. Gamers looking to pre-order a console had essentially two choices. The first option involved going online to either Electronics Boutique's or Gamestop's websites (the companies are in the process of a merge) and pre-ordering a bundle. In what has to be the worst trend in retailing to ever hit the digital age, these stores don't allow you to simply purchase the Xbox 360 as a standalone entity, but rather you get to pick out which pre-configured bundle you'd like. And as if that wasn't bad enough, bundles built around the $399 Premium version of the X360 (i.e. the only version anybody with some common sense would want) start at $599 and go all the way up to $3600.

I'll give you a second to take that in.

They expect you to drop a minimum of $599 and simultaneously forfeit your decision-making ability at the door. It doesn't matter if you hate the games included in the $599 system, if you don't have enough money to get the next bigger bundle, you're S.O.L. Feel free to take a moment to mutter whatever homophobic mysogynistic phrase comes to mind.

And that brings us to the other option, actually going to Gamestop or Electronics Boutique and pre-ordering a console in person. There's been much written of late on how these stores have migrated to a pattern of only ordering enough merchandise to satisfy the pre-ordering faithful, and how it's all about pushing the sale of used games which yield these stores a much higher profit margin. But that's not the reason I stayed away from going this route. You see, I don't trust these stores. How can you when you see them take a game from a drawer, put it in a case and re-shrinkwrap it in front of your very eyes and then sell it to you as "new". I could go on, but I don't need to because my cause of suspicion was well-founded.

I didn't pre-order a console because I never in a million years expected Microsoft to be able to fully satisfy the demand while being committed to a global same-day launch. And when push came to shove and these stores received a fraction of the systems needed to satisfy their pre-orders, I fully expected them to take the most unethical, greed-laced route they possibly could. And, according to many separate accounts, that's exactly what they're doing. Faced with a shortage, one might expect a retailer to apologize, explain the situation, and go down the list of pre-orders giving the systems out on a first-come-first-served basis. And one would be wrong when dealing with Gamestop and Electronics Boutique. Instead, we have good reason to believe that these stores are being instructed at the national level to only hand over the systems to those customers who pre-ordered the most accessories and games. Forget the people who allowed Gamestop to hold onto their money for half a year! Instead, hold the X360 hostage and whoever buys the most shit they don't really want can have it. Oh, and good luck getting your money back on that pre-order. I'm sure they'll expedite your return.

I really hate the fact that my trepidation regarding these shady stores seems to be proven deserved, but to be honest, I'm not really surprised. If this does prove to be the case, I don't know if many people will bring themselves to shop at these stores again. There are plenty of specialty retailers online and the larger stores such as Best Buy and Toys R Us and Frye's get all the same games and never try to shove a used product down your throat (although that could be changing according to industry rumors). In no other area of retail can I think of an example in which the larger big-box stores act more ethical than the smaller boutiques, but when it comes to videogames this is definitely the case. Despite the miniscule floorspace of these stores, their actions showcase a level of greed of Wal-Mart proportions.

As for me and the X360, I'm still torn. I get access to a X360 test station whenever I need to use one for work, as I had when working on the guidebook for a launch title, and I have reason to believe I'll be working on guidebooks for at least one or two of the upcoming early 2006 titles. That being said, I'm a total Project Gotham whore and can't stand the idea of not getting online with PGR3 on day one with the rest of the sweaty masses. None of the other launch titles interest me, but PGR3? Drool. I may just have to camp outside Toys R Us on Monday night and wait for midnight like everyone else. I don't want to, but I think it will be at least four months before one can walk into a store and see an unclaimed X360 sitting on the shelf. I hate console launches.

Want to Ride Bikes?

Remember when it was that easy? You rolled up to a friend's house, lowered the kickstand, and rang the doorbell. "Want to ride bikes?" you'd ask. Your friend, depending on homework status, would either meet you near his garage or sadly decline your invitation -- the latter, usually following a brief plea attempt to the Garage Gatekeeper, also known as mom.

Now it's not so easy. Sure, club websites such as the one eternally linked on the right-hand side of this page make arranging for group rides much simpler (I attended two group rides just yesterday as a matter of fact) but it's not enough to hop on a bike and go for a spin anymore. Now we have to make sure we have the right bike.

It used to be that the question "What kind of bike do you have?" got one of the following responses, all entirely legit:

a) a blue Huffy BMX
b) a red Schwinn ten-speed
c) I don't know, it was my brother's bike and I repainted it.

Ask that question to today's riders and you'll listen to a laundry list of tech-specs, material types, dimensions, and various brandnames you've never heard of. Today's riders (and I'm talking primarily about mountain bikers if you haven't figured this out from past articles) spend as much time "dialing in" their suspension systems and cleaning the dirt out of their deraileurs (always with u) as they do riding their precious multi-thousand dollar steeds. Attend a ride with many of today's mountain bikers and you're more apt to hear a discussion of tyre (always with a y) tread designs and thicknesses than you are, say, of the previous night's Monday Night Football matchup.

And although I'm almost as guilty of worshipping at the feet of the bike technology demigods (I tithe to the Patron Saint of Carbon Fiber) as many of my fellow riders, I've always also secretly loathed the conversation as well. I hate discussing bicycle techno-jumbo. I rarely even adjust the height of my seat, let alone worry about making micro-adjustments to the suspension and tyre pressure. I'm a closet wannabe single-speeder with no desire to lose 26 of my gears. Every now and then the conversation shifts to frame materials and I could chime in about riding carbon and how light and stiff it is and how I'm glad the rear triangle is still aluminum. But even then, I would rather be talking about the latest Seahawks victory. Or, better yet, videogames.

This frustration was recently coming to a head for me when one of my riding buddies upgraded from a very lightweight Specialized Enduro with 5 inches of suspension to one of the very swanky, brand-new Santa Cruz Nomads featuring over 6 inches of suspension and all-around general beefiness. You see, I didn't think my friend really had the skills to take advantage of the extra suspension and heft and that his previous bike was already more than he needed -- not to mention, a really nice bike. You see, my bike has just 3 inches of suspension and when it comes to little jumps and drops and technical features on trails, there was nothing that he -- and most other people I ride with -- could do that I can't, depite my limited suspension.

And so he took me to a little place south of the airport yesterday where there are a number of dirt jumps and drop offs. And then he proceeded to put on a full-face helmet, and cloaked himself in body armor. He armored his chest and shoulders, his legs, and his arms. I was in shorts with a fleece sweater over a wicking layer. I wore a basic cross-country mountain bike helmet. I did, however, lower my seat.

Not even thirty minutes later, I knew that I was wrong. That, indeed, there were plenty of things that he could do on that new bike that I wouldn't dare try on mine. And a big part of it was the confidence that being on such a bike -- and wearing so much armor -- had given him. My skinny tyres, my stretched-out racing posture, my limited suspension. Gasp! The carbon fiber! I would break my bike in two if I hit the jumps he was hitting. Not to mention what I would do to myself.

And that's almost what happened. This particular place had different lines through the jumps that would accomodate people of all skill levels, from beginner to expert. After warming up on a couple of smaller little jumps and drop-offs, I started hitting this little kicker ramp atop a tabletop-style dirt mound. Well, after hitting it cleanly a couple times, I decided to try it with more speed. And that's when things went bad. My front wheel touched-down first and slid sideways and I went right over the bars. I essentially catapulted off the top of the transition down into the dirt and rocks beside the trail. My knees were bruised and I had a mother of a headache and my dirt-jumping for the day was over.

So I spent the rest of the time at the jump park photographing my buddy. He had moved up to the very respectable medium size terrain. He was hitting a couple of the larger drop offs and even some of the smaller gap jumps. And he was using every bit of that suspension, every extra tenth of an inch of those tyres, and that relaxed posture to make the most of it. And he looked awesome and you can see his skills improving wich each run through the park. Best of all, he came back out last night for a more traditional singletrack ride through some rooty, muddy, jump-free trails and seems to really love his new bike in all conditions.

I think what had me the most frustrated with his move to the "big bike" club was that I was going to lose a riding partner on those long cross-country epics. But if yesterday's pair of rides with him are any true indication, having a bigger bike doesn't mean you can't still enjoy the long distance stuff. It just means that you can also enjoy the bigger, more dangerous stuff too.

I got to get me one of them things...

New Guidebook: Gun

Without a doubt my favorite project of 2005 was authoring the strategy guide for Gun. It's been virtually forever since a good western-themed videogame has come along and never before has one captured the scale and beauty of the Old West such as Gun. The game pits you as Colton White, a frontiersman skilled in the ways of hunting and self-preservation. After an unexpected ambush on one of the Missouri River's steamboats, Colton learns that the man he's been callin "pop" all these years isn't his real father. Colton is pushed overboard to safety and watches in horror as his mentor is killed. But not before he is given a clue as to where he can learn his true heritage.

Gun is a third-person action-adventure game that features an expansive environment, loads of gunplay, gold mining, hunting, ranching, and even a little bit of gambling, not to mention several other Old West professions. As Colton seeks revenge and begins to unravel the threads of his past, he is caught up in the ongoing struggle between the rich railroad builders and the rebels fighting to keep the land free.

The strategy guide provides all the info you'll need to complete all 18 story missions and how to defeat each of the diabolical boss characters. Additionally, we show you where to find all 44 goldmines and how to max out Colton's stats with detailed tips for all of the game's dozens of side-missions. The book also has some really nice concept art scattered throughout its pages.

I'd offer to give away signed copies of the book , but I've already given a bunch away to people who asked early. Nevertheless, Gun was a lot of fun, is very easy to control (and easy to play depending on the difficulty setting you select), and my pick for one of the best games of 2005.

How the Other Half Lives

If you watch ESPN for any significant amount of time, you can't help but notice that teams outside the Boston-New York corridor don't get nearly as much attention. Sure, if you're one of the glamour boys around the country like Ladanian Tomlinson, Dwyane Wade, Peyton Manning, Roger Clemens, or Kobe Bryant you'll get plenty of showtime, but if you're just a good all-around team with a good record? Forget it. If you're not from the eastern seaboard you're going to have to settle for the hatchet-job highlight reels the local media's sports desks put together. That is, until you become an elite team. It's a simple matter of the bar being much higher for a team from, say, Seattle to be featured on "NFL Live".

For weeks, the conversation of best teams in the NFC has been limited to the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, and Carolina Panthers. This despite the fact that the Seattle Seawhawks had already bested two of those teams and had the same record as the others. They've had the NFL's most potent offense and the leading rusher in the game for several weeks now, but still, no mention on any of ESPN's primary shows such "Around the Horn" or "Pardon the Interruption".

Living in the Seattle area and chearing for local teams, I'm learning, is a bit of an exercise in frustration. As far as the sports-minded public is concerned, this is a city in which a mere spot on the podium or invitation to the dance seems reason to launch a celebration. For example, the Mariners spent the entire year honoring the 1995 ballclub. Why, you might ask? Did they win the World Series? No. Did they make it to the World Series? No. They just spent a year celebrating the ten-year anniversary of "The Double". For those whom this significance is understandably lost on, I'll tell you. The Double -- always capitalized, I'm told -- was hit by Edgar Martinez during the ALDS against the New York Yankees in 1995 and won the game and pushed the Mariners on to the second round of the playoffs that year. Granted, The Double created a buzz in the city that rallied support for a new stadium and did keep the team from moving to Florida, but come on? A season-long, 10 year anniversary celebration for a team that didn't even make it to the World Series? Forgive the analogy, but this is like the Special Olympics handing out Honorable Mention ribbons to everyone who completes a lap around the track.

So, as if the general malaise wasn't bad enough (which I'll attempt to explain in an article this week), when we do have a good team we still have to endure a wholesale lack of national attention. But hopefully not anymore. The Seahawks are now 7-2 and remain atop the standings in the NFC, with the short-track towards the NFC West Division Championship and also currently in possession of a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. No longer will I tune into my favorite shows on ESPN and listen as the constant chatter ignores our corner of the country. Last Friday, Shaun Alexander, our NFL-leading rusher, was the guest on "Pardon the Interruption" and several of the reporters scoffed at the notion of the Giants making the Super Bowl on "Around the Horn", citing Seattle as one such obstacle that they won't be able to hurdle.

This is indeed a good time to be a Seattle Seahawks fan. Not only are we undefeated at home this year (again!) but the team is actually good enough to win it all. The fans believe it, the team believes it, and the national media is starting to believe it. Last year,the Seahawks were a trendy pick to win the Super Bowl prior to the season starting. And too many people believed the hype. The Seahawks got bounced from the playoffs in the first round by a St. Louis Rams team that beat them three times last year. Everyone in the locker room continues to chant the mantra that "this is a different team" and, you know what? I believe them. And, this time around, you can believe the hype.

Readers Discuss the Videogame Flame

Thank you to everyone who took the time to read yesterday's article and to write me. There was a lot of really good discussion taking place via the comments, through direct email, and also on the forums at where I shamelessly linked to my own article. Hey, with nearly 7,000 posts there I figured a little self-promotion once in a blue moon wouldn't be too bad. Anyway, your compliments were very kind and I'm glad you all enjoyed the article. Also, I'm glad Michael "Horror Geek" Bracken was able to identify his "shrinkwrap shrine" phrase as his own. Lastly, I want to thank Bill Harris of the ever-popular and always-interesting Dubious Quality blog for linking to the article.

That being said, I want to reply to the excellent points many of you had made. For starters, the issue of being a collector was brought up several times and although I didn't mention this aspect of gaming consumerism, it was only because I wanted to save this topic for a later article. I completely understand the element of collecting -- as well as the mindset of being afraid of "missing out" on a less popular title and having to pay big on Ebay for it later -- and agree with you that it isn't something that should necessarily be avoided. However, I believe that there are a lot of people who, like me, gain satisfaction not from collecting per se, but through the act of purchasing. I used to hide this problem under the guise of being a collector, but to be perfectly honest, I was just being irresponsible with my money. For many it seems, the games they still have in shrinkwrap will be opened one day in the future but even in their unopened state, the owners find a value in having them. These are the collectors.

For me, I found no value in having the game as soon as I returned home from the store. It was the buildup and anticipation of purchasing the game that I was interested in. I wasn't a collector, but a compulsive shopper. Big difference. Take the SOCOM games for example. I have the first two installments in the series, both in shrinkwrap, with no intention of ever playing them. Had you have asked me 24 hours after I purchased them why I did, I would have told you that I had no idea. I fell for the hype, got caught up in the excitement about their release -- perhaps I read too many articles about the San Francisco Giants bullpen pitchers being expert SOCOM clansmen? I don't know. But I was excited to own them until I got home and placed them on the shelf. That's when they lost all value to me. And that's why I'm not only trying to limit my purchases, but also trying to sell and trade away many of the games I obtained through rash reasoning. I'm not a collector.

As much as the article may read like I'm trying to speak for gamers as a group, I do wholly understand that my specific habits are only my own. As someone with other hobbies that compete for my dollars, I find it necessary that I strive to limit my gaming purchases.

The other issue that came up a lot in people's comments was the notion of forcing oneself to complete a game. Many may have quickly read past the sentence which I said that surely not every game is worth playing, but in no way was I implying that every game should be completed. There are games that simply get too repetitive to be worthy of our time -- I should know, as I'm often paid to write books about such games -- and, as many of you said, RPG's are often the biggest offender. I wouldn't dare suggest that people are best served or "owe it to themselves" by spending 80 hours slogging through a game that realistically has only 20 hours of interesting gameplay. Hell no!

Instead, I was pointing more towards the idea that games often get frustrating and that it seems that, many of these times, this period of frustration is only an hour or two long. Often I would simply shelve the title and move on to another game. But, I'm finding, that with just a little dedication, the frustration goes away and the game takes on a whole new level of enjoyment. Clearly this is not the case for every game. If after an hour or so of frustration the game is still committing the same sins that left you originally annoyed and ready to fling the controller, then that is a sign of a game not worth your time. Hit that eject button and go elsewhere.

I think that addresses the two major issues you all raised. Thanks again for reading and feel free to keep the discussion alive.

Rekindling the Videogame Flame

Unlike listening to music, watching movies, or reading, I recently got to a point in which I simply couldn't stand to spend another minute playing videogames. In fact, I actually went nearly four months without picking up a controller to play a single game that I wasn't being paid to write about for work. It's easy to blame this on the dearth of good summer games, the scores of uninspired sequels to last year's sequels, or even just a shifting of priorities in my personal life. And while it's true that I did spend an abundant amount of time mountain biking this year, this is hardly the reason for the falling-out I've had with my lifelong hobby.

Looking to my left I see a bookshelf weighed down with nearly 400 games for consoles ranging from the Sega Master System to the Microsoft Xbox. I've actually seen the credits roll on a scant fraction of them and many are still in shrinkwrap. Based on conversations I've had online with other gamers -- one who had taken to referring to this phenomena as his "Shrinkwrap Shrine" -- I know I'm not alone. The notion of buying more games than we can possibly finish is a problem that seems to be afflicting many adult gamers and it, in my opinion has two root causes. It's important to distinguish between the unfinished game and the unopened game. I'll address the latter first.

Rags to Riches
Ever since I was a twelve year old subscriber to Nintendo Power, I've been an avid fan of videogames and have spent a small part of nearly every day seeking out information on upcoming releases. When I was a kid, I would read the game rags cover to cover, clip out previews, study screenshots, and ultimately decide upon the handful of games that I would strive to get in the upcoming year. After all, I was reliant primarily on my birthday and Christmas to increase my games collection and, knowing that a new game could be months away, I played each game repeatedly. It wasn't enough to complete the Legend of Zelda, but I strove to beat it on a single life. It wasn't enough to see the end credits of Life Force one time, but I made them roll nearly every day for several weeks straight. Similarly, I knocked Mike Tyson to the mat hundreds of times. And so did all the other kids I knew.

Flash forward to today. I'm a grown man with above-average household income and have the independence to purchase whatever games I so choose. Although I've recently made an effort to limit the number of games I purchase, for several years it was not uncommon for me to buy a new game every week or two. After all, one doesn't accumulate 80 Playstation 2 titles by filling out Christmas Lists and crossing their fingers. What myself and, I believe, many other adult gamers have experienced is a subconscious urge to swing the pendulum as far as it will go away from the gaming habits of our youth. We've paid our dues as children. We spent weeks if not months playing the same game repeatedly -- perhaps obsessively so -- and nobody is going to make us do it again. So we use our not-always-so-discretional income to buy every game that sparks our interest. We don't save money to buy a game. We don't wait for a special occasion. A run to the game store to check out the new releases every Tuesday has become as noneventful as stopping for milk and bread on the way home from work.

I could write a book on the many ways in which Americans have elevated the act of spending money to an artform, and the ease at which myself and my fellow gamers drop $50 on a new videogame would be right up there with in-car plasma televisions. For some, there is no shame in having a collection of unopened games. Some find it a reason to brag. I find it embarrassing. And despite having recently bought a stack of games at the big annual sale at Toys R' Us, the game I'm playing the most right now has been on my shelf unopened for nearly 4 years. It's the original Ratchet & Clank for those who are curious and it's just as good today as the reviewers said it was back in 2001. What this has taught me is that just because I didn't play the game when it was new, doesn't mean I need to rush out and buy the newest installment. The original can still knock your socks off. And I admit, this advice sounds rather obvious, and almost cliche, but until you dust off an overlooked game and give it a try you might find yourself continuing to spend more money adding to your collection than you spend time enjoying those games you already have.

Getting Over the Hump
One of the reasons we gamers buy so many games is that our attention spans have shrunk and we are more easily frustrated. Just as we have perfected the art of spending money, we have also developed very narrow ranges of acceptance as to what constitutes a good game, or even one that is deemed playable. Many times I find myself playing a game and actually looking for things to criticize about it. The camera isn't perfect, the controls are unintuitive, the enemy intelligence is weak, the graphics bland, the sound effects are canned, the save system is annoying, etc., etc. And instead of being entertained -- which is the ultimate goal of playing videogames as far as I'm concerned -- we're annoyed and frustrated. Granted, there are some really bad games out there that aren't worthy of our time, but for the most part we do it to ourselves.

Recently, I have made a conscious effort to leave one game in the Xbox, the Playstation 2, the Gamecube, and the Nintendo DS and not remove it until I have completed it. I rotate between the consoles depending on my mood and make sure to have a stylistically unique game in each system. For example, right now I'm playing Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, Ratchet & Clank, Ribbit King, and Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow on these machines, respectively. Since I've begun this force-gameplay I've completed Trace Memory on the Nintendo DS and am near completion on most of the forementioned games.

It's hard work to stick with a game when you have dozens of other games that you might want to dust off or go out and buy. So why do it? If we continue to allow ourselves to get so easily frustrated and so quick to "shelve" a title, all we're going to do is spend more and more money on games that will most assuredly meet the same end -- unfinished and dusty. I'm not suggesting that all games deserve to be finished and that spending moeny is a bad thing. Definitely not, but we need to do a better job of becoming self-aware.

Through my experiment these past couple weeks I have noticed something. Each and every time I have the urge to toss a controller or unleash a profanity-laden tyrade in the direction of the game console, it was because I was at the hump. You know the hump. It's the point in the game where for some reason the difficulty curve has dramatically steepened; or perhaps too many gameplay elements were clumsily introduced simultaneously; or perhaps where the gameplay briefly takes a stroll in left field. It's easy to become frustrated when hitting the hump. But, as I have found recently, the hump is often short-lived and it seems that not only do games get progressively more enjoyable on the other side of the hump, but they also get easier. The key is to acknowledge this spot as the hump, take a break from it, and come back to it fresh and positive. Accept that it might be frustrating and that it might not meet your lofty expectations, but also understand that it will likely get better again soon.

I recently hit the hump on Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath. I was starting to think the game was rubbish, that the reviewers were all on crack, and that the game was as annoying as could be. This was at approximately the fourth or fifth bounty mission in the game. But rather than shelve it and miss the majority of the experience, I simply went and played some Ribbit King and came back to it the next night. I ultimately summited the hump and a switch inside me was thrown. A connection was made. I have become one with the controls, more understanding of the gameplay, and feel as if I now know exactly what the developers expect of me. And I'm enjoying myself. I look forward to completing this game sometime this week.

The Kiss Goodnight
As someone who has been authoring videogame strategy guides for over 5 years now, it is entirely possible that my experiences with leisurely gaming are vastly different from the average gamer. I am often told by people that they can't believe I actually play games in my spare time, as they wouldn't dare perform their job duties as a hobby. This is where that whole issue of "passion" comes in. We see it mentioned all the time in interviews with game developers and even on some company websites as a fundamental job requirement. I was losing the passion. And despite still continuing to play games and forever buying new games, I think many other gamers have lost the passion as well.

Like any relationship, we need to work on it to make it work, to keep those flames of passion alive. By acknowledging what I was doing wrong with my approach to this wonderful hobby, I have not only rekindled my excitement for gaming, but I'm also finishing games. And, perhaps more importantly, I’m enjoying my time with them more than ever. In a perfect world, games wouldn’t have a hump or forever be tempting us with ever-shinier graphics and bullet-point features that don’t live up to the hype. But this world isn’t perfect and, as consumers and enthusiasts, we need to do right by ourselves. As I see it, we have a choice. We could forever be chasing the next great game and continue our downward spiral of pessimism or we could embrace the fact that ultimately, an hour’s worth of hump-ified frustration with a title is worth the satisfaction of having a completed game on the shelf and perhaps a number of hours of enjoyment.

She Knits, Therefore She's Cool

There's a book sitting on our bedroom dresser titled "The Cool Girls Guide to Knitting". No, it does not belong to me. It's my wife's and for the past year or so, she's been spending quite a lot of time knitting. A few scarfs, a shawl, and a pair of booties that look like they'd be more apt to fit an elephant than a human. But now, armed with this book, she's getting braver.

I never thought of knitting as something that a non-grandmother would do, let alone a non-mom, but there is a reason why she does it. It keeps her awake when watching television. We've been married for over 8 years now and if we've ever had any real arguments, it's been about her inability to stay awake while watching a movie. Yes, I can be that petty when I want to be. One day, as a joke at the time, I urged her to take up knitting so she can watch movies with me without falling asleep. Well, she did.

And now she wants to move up to blankets. I don't know about you, but when I think of knitting a blanket, two benefits come to mind: 1) it will keep her busy for at least a month, and 2) it will be a nicer blanket that is cheaper than you can buy in the store.


Kristin wanted to knit a blanket to give as a gift to someone in our family for Christmas so we went to the yarn store. Actually, I drove her to no less than four yarn stores because none had the kind she wanted--I did get to stop at the bike shop and buy the shoe covers I needed but it was still a pretty miserable time. Finally we found it. The balls of yarn sell for $4.99 each. She tells me to get a basket and start checking lot numbers on the packaging because apparently blue yarn made on Tuesday may be different than the blue yarn made on Thursday. Who knew?

And then she tells me to place 15 balls of yarn into the basket. Let me repeat that. Fifteen balls of yarn at $5 a pop. And that doesn't include the "fur" to make it feel nice. That stuff goes for $6 a ball and she needs 8 or 9 more balls of those. Maybe 10.

"You mean to tell me we're about to spend $140 on a blanket that you have to spend the next month making? Oh no you're not, she's getting a scarf."

See, I have no problem with Kristin dropping a bunch of money on stuff for herself or for the house or whatever, but $140 on a gift she then has to spend a month making? Well, that's not cool with me. And no book on the dresser is going to change that.

I'm Married to a Nerd

But a really attractive one.

Kristin scored a 45 on the Nerd Test (see below) which is 17 nerd-points higher than me. But that was to be expected, after all, as she is a biotech geek and was suffering from horrible nerd sydrome when I first met her in 1993. She's come along way under my tutelage but hipness is only skin deep whereas nerdiness goes all the way to the bone.

I'd make a crack about her upbringing here, but I think her family reads this from time to time so I'll refrain. Too late, huh?

Cold Weather Mountain Biking

She found me sitting on the floor of the bathroom, naked except for a small handtowel wrapped around my feet. I was shivering, breathing heavily, and trying to massage some warmth back into my feet while trying to steady my heartbeat.

"You didn't do a very good job washing", she says in reference to my dirty face. I snuck a glance in the mirror and sure enough, it looked as if Jackson Pollock created a dirt and grime masterpiece across my noggin. "What are you doing?" she inquires.

I got back from my wet, cold, training ride ten minutes earlier and despite wearing 2mm thick neoprene socks, my feet were soaked to the bone and seemed to be in an early state of frostbite. Robert and I rode just over 28 miles of trail and were out in the rain and cold (temps in the forties) for nearly two and a half hours and although I knew my feet were painfully cold, I had no idea how bad it was until I got in the shower.

Once in the shower, the normal tingly sensation of hot water against cold skin quickly gave way to an incredible pain. Moments later, I felt my heartrate quickening and I started to hyperventilate. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I was breathing heavily, getting scared, and had to get out of the shower. I pulled on the shower door to no avail for several moments before realizing it opens outward. I turned the water off, exited the shower and took a seat on the bathroom floor.

While trying to massage the pain away I thought of two things. First, as I sat there with my bare ass on the floor of our master bath, I was thankful that we hadn't yet ripped out the carpeting and installed tile in the bathroom. Secondly, being a bit of an armchair mountaineer, I thought of all the stories of frostbite that I had read over the years. The pain, the discoloration, the "burned" appearance of the skin, and even the amputations. As my heartrate slowed and my breathing became more regular I was able to relax and stop worrying that something horrible was happening. My feet were cold, possibly near frostbite, and now they're warming. Slowly.

My mistake was trying to warm them too suddenly with the hot shower. I should have put on slippers and socks and walked around the house for a little while, perhaps with a cup of cocoa or tea, and let them thaw a bit. I had no idea how cold they were, but even now, fully dressed, sitting here writing about this nearly an hour later, a flex of my foot yields a pain that feels like icicle daggers are piercing through my Achilles tendon. It does not tickle.

Post-ride frostbite scare aside, the ride was good. Our group of four was down to two as the self-described "weather weenies" opted out. Robert, who I never met before but lives just blocks from me, and I descended off Snoqualmie Ridge to the falls, rode Millpond road for a mile to the Snoqualmie Valley Trail (which stretches from outside Seattle to Idaho) and then pedaled up to Rattlesnake Lake. WIth fishing season over, and the rain coming down, the lake was relatively vacant except for a few dog walkers. After a few minutes of enjoying the view, we turned around and headed back down. Robert was on his wife's bike since his doesn't have fenders so I got a bit ahead on the descent back along the SVT. At one point I rounded a bend at about 22 mph and almost ran straight into a pair of black-tailed deer. They were two does and they were really large. Bigger than the deer I see in the neighborhoods, and larger than those I saw on Orcas Island last week. The near-deer collision withstanding, the ride was relatively uneventful. The climb back onto the Ridge was a good way to finish off the ride and make us feel like we earned those 28 miles.

After writing this earlier today, we headed over to the Vietnamese restaurant for a big bowl of piping-hot pho soup and then headed over to the bike shop, where I promptly purchased winter shoe covers for my bike shoes and a front fender.

How Nerdy Are You?

I am nerdier than 28% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

Apparently, I'm only nerdier than 28% of all people, which makes me feel good. Click the image and take the quiz. If you have a science background (which I do), know anything about computers, or went to graduate school and have a fondness for calculators, you'll at least score a "Wannabe Nerd" status.

Big Oil Price Gouging

Last week, in addition to being treated to a couple of juicy political stories, we also had the pleasure of learning that Exxon-Mobil profited in excess of 45 million dollars per hour during the third quarter, otherwise known as the Katrina Quarter. In fact, nearly all of the oil companies saw record profits during the Katrina Quarter, all the while we were paying record prices at the pump.

Oil industry insiders make themselves feel better by blaming this simply on "supply and demand" and by forwarding emails containing pictures of Middle Eastern royalty and their golden jet planes and lavish accoutrements. As if it was as simple as that...

I'm not buying it and it's about time people call it what it is -- price gouging. Why should it simply be "supply and demand" when the oil industry loses refineries during a hurricane and raises the prices 50% at the pump but "price gouging" when a hotel raises its rates during an evacuation? After all, haven't the available supply of hotel rooms decreased? Hasn't the demand gone up? Same with grocery stores, lumberyards, and - what's this? -- gas stations. It seems that as far as Big Oil is concerned, there's a double-standard. Only the little guy can get busted. Some of the first recipients of price-gouging penalties were individually-owned gas stations who severely raised the prices of their gasoline (some to $5.00 a gallon).

But what about the guys in the suits selling these stations their gasoline? They're charging more too -- because they're supply has been limited due to the loss of refining power -- but why are they exempt from the price gouging lawsuits when hotels and stores -- following the same laws of supply and demand -- are not.

And you know what stinks the most of all of this -- demand for gas was actually down. Even President Bush himself went on tv talking about limiting use of the Presidential motorpool and asking Americans to conserve fuel and not drive as much. And newspapers coast-to-coast carried accounts of reduced driving habits (not to mention school was in session and summer over so miles driven was down anyway). But they still made record profits. I don't know about you, but if I have four facilities that make me money, and I lose one of them to a natural disaster, I can expect to earn less money until that facitility is back up and running. I would not expect to turn in record profits.

Fortunately for us, not all Senators are shills to Big Oil and next week, many of them are planning to ask industry executives for some of that money back in the form of donations to public causes such as those affected by the storms. And if you need further proof that this whole thing stinks worse than a roadside refinery, all you have to do is see the list of Republican Senators on the hunt as well. Seems even some Republicans can lift their heads from the trough long enough to do what's right. Who knew?

***And since I can't stand it when people forward me emails without sources, here's mine:

Okay, one more...

This shot is from the webcam at Stevens Pass on the morning of November 1. Just last week we were talking about a backup plan for Thanksgiving in case there's no snow anywhere yet. I am happy to say that doesn't look like it's going to be a problem.

And you might be wondering about how we could spend our day on the slopes instead of eating? It's easy -- Thanksgiving dinner is just too much of a hassle when you're just two people 3,000 miles from family. Not to mention, after 1pm the entire mountain is yours with nobody else in sight. It's awesome.

Sight for Sore Eyes

Despite buying a house literally 25 minutes from where my wife and I have season lift tickets to four mountains, we only hit the slopes once last year. I usually go 2 to 3 times a week. Most of the mountains were closed for the majority of the year last year, hundreds of people were laid off, and those who went to the places that were open returned home with damaged equipment due to "early season conditions" extending from November right through March. Local ski shops have gone out of business, people wasted hundreds of dollars on unusable season lift tickets (one particularly generous mountain credited those people for the 2005-06 year), and all of the resorts are saying that it could be years before they ever recover financially.

And that's why this image is so important.

The snow level has fallen below 3,000 feet for the first time in almost a year and we're in for a ton of snow this week. Mount Baker, some 3 hours north of us, received 24" of snow this past weekend and could open by mid-November or sooner. Stevens Pass, where we'd like to go for Thanksgiving, is getting a bunch of snow too. And best of all the above webcam snapshot is from Snoqualmie Pass, right up the road from our house. Snoqualmie Pass isn't the best place to go snowboarding, but it's not only super close to home, but also the lowest of the mountains. When it gets good snow, everyone gets good snow.

Fingers are crossed. Now where did I put that snowboard wax?

Modern Day Bounty Hunting

There was an interesting article in the Seattle Times the other day about the state paying people -- average citizens with a rod and reel -- a bounty for each pikeminnow they catch. Apparently the pikeminnows are voracious predators that feed on newly-hatched salmon as they head downstream. Rarely does a day go by without one of the two major newspapers in the area printing a story about salmon. Without exaggeration, it's safe to say that salmon are to Washington what tobacco is to North Carolina and cattle is to Texas.

So you can imagine the pains the state takes to protect them. Typically, the stories are about fish ladder construction or pollution or over-fishing, and most often these stories just reak of bureacracy, greed, or regulatory headaches. But this is different. The money is going to anybody who wants to go and catch some pikeminnows.

This past season anglers earned $4 each for the first 100 fish they caught; $5 each for 101 to 400; and $8 each for any additional fish above 400.
Anglers who turn in their catch to check stations are paid for each fish that measures at least 9 inches long — the size at which they become a threat to young salmon.

State Fish and Wildlife also pays $500 for each tagged pikeminnow.

More than 5,000 anglers took part this past season, catching 240,955 fish and earning $1.5 million.

This year's top angler caught 4,740 pikeminnows, including six tagged fish. The second place fisher caught 4,800, but fewer tagged ones.

"The average angler in this fishery catches six to seven fish per day," Winther said. "But as with salmon or steelhead anglers, the top 5 percent catch 80 percent of the fish."

Wondering how much money the top two fisherman caught? In the five month season that this program takes place during the leading angler earned $39,620 and the runner-up took home $38,084.

I love this idea. $40,000 isn't much to the state, but to the guy who got to spend 5 months reeling in nearly 4,800 fish, that's damn good money doing something he likely loves to do. Just goes to show that sometimes the best solution to a large-scale problem is to just give the public a small monetary incentive and let them put their time and energy to work.