Armagideon Time

This is the season when dead things spring back to a horrid semblance of life, right?

Recommended listening: The heavy, heavy monster sound.

I just wanted to play Virtual On. That’s all.

The mecha-based arena fighter was one of the first games I picked up for my Sega Saturn in the day, and it been decades since I’d last booted it up. The wrinkle was that I didn’t want to play the Saturn version.

Don’t get me wrong: the Saturn is tied only with the Master System when it comes to personal nostalgic resonance — something I’ll discuss in more depth down the line — but its port of Virtual On was a competent but compromised shadow of the arcade original. Plus, while it would have been possible to map the special twin-stick controls via the Saturn emulator I use, there was too high a risk of accidentally breaking the joypad mappings for every other Saturn game in my library in the process.

Ideally, I wanted to experience the original version either by later console port or direct emulation of the arcade hardware. The Japan-only Sega Ages version for the PS2 seemed like a promising lead, but again there were display and configuration issues. MAME was also a bust, but a little digging turned up the Model 2 emulator, named after the arcade board Virtual On used.

The emulator peaked and went inactive during the decade or so I’d lost touch with the retrogaming scene, so it was both new-to-me and a long dormant deal. Finding a working download link was an exercise in linkrot and dodgy pop-ups, but I eventually stumbled on a preconfigured bundle with the final version of the program along with the full suite of supported games.

I was only interested in Virtual On, but the entire package was only 650 MB, so what the heck. I could always bin the rest of it once it was up and running. I unpacked it, did some initial configuration work, mapped the twin stick controls to my USB joypad, and booted up the object of my quest…

…only to find out that the final version of the emulator had a bug which broke twin-stick controller support. There were workarounds and front-ends which could supposedly resolve the issue, but there’s only so much shit I’m comfortable with piling onto my hard drive. At a certain point, it becomes easier to either crack my original Saturn console out of storage or settle for the equally inferior PC port from back in the day.

Since I’d gone through the effort of securing and setting up the emulator, I figured I might as well check out the rest of the Model 2 suite of games bundled with it — and I’m glad I did, even though none of them really lit a fire under me at first.

The Model 2 marked the Polygon Era of Videogames truly coming into its own, mainly by virtue of its ability to apply texture maps to what had previously been featureless surfaces. This upped the visual stakes in other ways, because clever use of gradients could be used to mask what were — by today’s standards — fairly low polygon counts.

What experiences I’d had with these games came from Saturn ports full of the “jaggies,” “tearing,” and other familiar glitches of downgraded visuals. I wasn’t expecting how crisp and solid these games looked almost three decades on, even before any upscaling magic was applied.

I fell in love, not just with old favorites but by games I would’ve never imagined becoming captivated with before that moment. I’ll eventually get around to discussing several of them in time….

…but none sums up my whirlwind Model 2 romance like Sega Water Ski does.

The 1997 release falls under the “amusement cabinet” rubric, which is to say that it was as much carnival ride as it was videogame. Players stood on a pair of simulated water skis and controlled the game via body movements. That, along with the relative simplicity and brevity of the game itself, kept it from getting a home port…though the controls can be adequately mapped to a joypad.

While playing Sega Water Ski on a 15-inch laptop screen with a Dualshock modeled controller might seem like defeating the entire purpose of the game, it still became a critical part of my pandemic coping routine.


Because it is pure eye candy in motion, something that screen shots can’t really convey. The courses are dynamic, full of cavorting dolphins, buzzing biplanes, cheeky monkeys, and other environmental spectacles. They have no impact on the actual gameplay, but they’re as much a part of the immersive fantasy package as the novel haptic controls were.

The gameplay itself is incredibly simple — a waterborne slalom run through buoy gates with some scattered ramps for pulling off trick jumps. It’s incredibly forgiving as far as 1990s Sega arcade offerings, with little chance of wiping out or running short of time before crossing the finish line, even on the most difficult course. The challenge comes from scoring, which only comes from pulling off ramp tricks or sideways flips, something which I’ve yet to fully master according to the metrics the game presents as “doing well.”

This was where the limitations of joypad-for-amusement-cab mapping were most evident. There are clearly some nuances of body English which I’m missing, and it’s not as if there’s a FAQ specifically written for my customized control scheme. I’d love to know what the missing piece of that puzzle might be, but it’s not a dealbreaker by any stretch.

Which brings me to the final and most important component of my unbridled passion for Sega Water Ski: Similar to OutRun (another Sega fave of mine and subject of a future post), it serves up a right-sized dose of stress-free escapism against exotic backdrops. It was the perfect antidote for getting past the burnout caused by a half-decade of live service gaming.

This wasn’t an unpaid second job fueled by FOMO. It was a mental palette cleanser, a short break in a virtual tropical paradise requiring only the most basic motor skills to navigate.

It’s just plain fun, and crossed my path at the moment I needed exactly that.

And I’m a sucker for any Japanese videogame which employs “island” music jams in its soundtrack.

(By the way, I did finally get to play Virtual On as desired but, again, that’s something for another post.)

On returning (2020-2023)

May 17th, 2023

First things first: I am incredibly lazy do not lack for well-considered (and self-serving) reasons not to do something.

This site has always been something I worked on when I couldn’t do the things I’d rather be doing — be it playing video games, napping next to the puppy, or staring into space for hours on end. Any notions of the pandemic shutdown being a golden opportunity to get back into the writing groove died a quick and ignominious death before the first week of lockdown had ended.

The only bit of self-discipline I did observe and stick to was to jump off the treadmill of “live service” gaming. While I wasn’t sure how I was going to fill the next two weeks two months two-and-a-half years, I didn’t want to spend them chasing the shiny bauble du jour in Destiny, DCUO, GTA Online, et cetera.

It was one of the wisest decisions I ever made, because the contours of my pandemic period experience rapidly took shape along lines which I hadn’t expected yet I probably should’ve. In the half decade leading up to the spring of 2020, I’d been engaged a multi-front attempt to revisit/reassess/reclaim/reconsider various artifacts from my past — rebuilding a record collection around stone cold favorites, obtaining representative samples of childhood playthings, consolidating my funnybook collection into trade paperbacks covering the parts I’d actually re-read on a semi-regular basis.

There was no grand plan involved, just the multimedia meanderings of a middle-aged nerd caught up in a nostalgia-trauma loop. That’s what has kept me from writing about it until now even though the notion of doing so came to me sometime last fall. My sense of narrative coherence kept demanding a contextual framework for it all, even though it was an impossible task. Diving into the nostalgia middens is a convoluted and very personal process. An old magazine ad for A reminds you of B, the search for which uncovers C which in turn leads to D.

Or you just wake up one morning and think “jeez, I’d love to play Burning Rangers again,” and a whole month of tooling around with Sega Saturn emulation flows from there.

I also held back from documenting this process because I didn’t want to fall into the performative “did it to blog about it” routine. That short pipeline lends itself to snarky zingers and shameless mugging to the crowd, which runs contrary to the whole reason I took a header down this warren of rabbit holes — I was doing it for me, not for the fleeting dopamine rush of pageviews and comment section plaudits. I wanted to be able to digest my discoveries, feelings, and reactions on my own time, see how they internally settled, and how they meshed with other shit I’d absorbed.

And again, I’m an incredibly lazy person.

The upshot of all this is that I plan on making an effort to spotlight some of the things which helped keep me (arguably) sane during the pandemic era. I think it’s a good fit for this site, which had a recurring focus on the conflict between nostalgia and reality as filtered through one grumpy old Gen X nerd.

If a greater framework emerges, great, but it’s not going to be a priority for me here. Expect some repetition when it comes to related items, because if I try to start grouping stuff together, I’ll never get around to writing about any of it.

I didn’t know where this process was going when I started and I still don’t, so why start pretending otherwise now?

…and so we reach the final movement of this year’s danse macabre.

It was a bit skeletal as far as content went, but my real purpose was to see if I still had it in me to stick to a daily schedule, even if only for a month. I apparently do, though I have no idea what I’ll do with this knowledge.

For now, I’m going to kick back and enjoy today’s dark celebration.

Recommended listening:

Though the role was silent and didn’t offer much in the way of facial expression, Christopher Lee’s turn as the bandage-clad revenant in Hammer’s The Mummy is an all-time favorite of mine. Lee’s lean but towering frame combined with skilled physical acting to perfectly portray the shambling menace of an undead powerhouse.

And those eyes! Dear lord, those eyes — capable of expressing the depths of rage, sorrow, and pain despite an otherwise silent and still visage. I can see why Lee wanted to get away from this type of plodding monster role, but I’m glad he took this one on.

Recommended listening:

GIANT SPIDERS! They like to interfere with road crews for kicks!

GIANT SPIDERS! They like to picnic in the grass!

GIANT SPIDERS! Always looking for a good deal on a firm but comfortable queen-size mattress!

GIANT SPIDERS! They greatly overestimate their abilities as pick-up artists!

GIANT SPIDERS! Sometimes they are powered by a rear-mounted 1600 cc engine with twin-port cylinder heads!

Recommended listening:

While love the entire pantheon of old school fight flick archetypes, I have a particular soft spot for the Invisible Man.

Perhaps it’s because he’s more sci-fi than horror, a tragic example of science gone wrong that prefigured so many of the characters which inhabited the superhero comics I read as a kid.

Or maybe I just dig the stylishly creepy aesthetics of his signature combo of full-face bandages and dark glasses.

In any case, the concept always made for an interesting on-screen spectacle combining the celluloid wizardry of the process shot with an assortment of wire-based practical effects that were old hat back when Euripides was a tyke.

Even the absurd bits — where a supposedly naked individual somehow leaves boot tracks, or fight sequences and the requisite unwrapping scenes which suggest that the transparent terror has six-foot-long arms — are endearing to me as part of the overall package.

Whether played as a tragic figure, comedic foil, see-through superspy, or Ben Murphy sporting a bedazzled denim jacket, I’ll always make time to watch some Invisible Man or Woman strut their stuff.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

Recommended listening:

Poor misbegotten creature. He only crawled out of his lair to catch a Guided By Voices show and maybe hit up that new barcade down the block for some craft brews and Ms. Pac-Man.

Little did he realize that he would be attacked by a mob who thought Monster was the best R.E.M. album, and did not care that he had seen the band perform at State Theatre in Kalamazoo — with The Three O’Clock as openers — on the Fables of the Reconstruction tour.

His last thoughts were of his collection of antique bowler hats, and regretted he had not worn the crimson one with the white satin band more often.

Recommended listening:

For Robert Scott Carey, this was the most terrifying day of his life.

But for me, it was just another Tuesday.

Gosh, I hate when I’m forced to spend the night in an old dark house and a decorative skull (which just happens to be in the room) falls on top of a small animal (which also just happens to be in the room), which then proceeds to strut and squawk around where only I can see it, thus making my roommates doubt my sanity until the creature indulges in a dramatic outburst and we all shout “A G-G-G-G-GHOST!” and get jammed up trying to squeeze through the door at once.

Always a bad scene, that.

Recommended listening:

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