Minijam MP3 Player add-on Review

Every once in a while, when he’s not busy giving us plagues or earthquakes, the Lord does us a good turn by giving us groovy tech like the MP3 music format. Now we can have digital-clear audio on just about anything that can hold an electrical charge. Innogear has helped the world along by releasing an MP3 player that plugs into the expansion slot of the Handspring Visor. It’s a handy tool that can hold two separate 64MB flash RAM cards, comes with simple software and sounds pretty good. However, both the hardware and software interfaces are still a little clunky, and the built-in photo viewer and e-book reader aren’t very useful either. Nonetheless, for Handspring owners who want to groove to some tunes on the plane or in a taxi, the Minijam will work just fine.

The installation for the Minijam is simple and intuitive. Just install the CD, plug the 64MB RAM card into one of the two slots — the other has to be bought separately — and slide the Minijam into your Handspring. Once the software has been installed to your desktop and transferred to your Handspring’s OS, moving MP3s back and forth is a simple matter of just clicking “add” or “subtract” in the Fileloader interface. The transfer rates through the USB cradle were excellent, and the pack-in ram card comes equipped with an eclectic mix of songs ready to go. It also comes with a spiffy new pair of ear buds and a padded carrying case.

While moving MP3s back and forth from the palm to the desktop is fairly simple, the actual software and hardware interface still need some work. The Minijam itself, which comes in both “Ice” and “Graphite,” has seven buttons on the top. The “previous,” “play” and “next” buttons can also be used to pause and stop the music, and there are two tiny buttons for adjusting the volume — if you can spot them. There are two equally small buttons that can be used to cycle through the Minijam’s sound presets, which simply change the levels of bass and treble. Finally, a headphone jack and an AC adapter input round out what is a nice-looking but not remarkably attractive piece of hardware.

The software input features, among other things, a standard interface with three different “skins,” a play list editor, the file manager and a sound setup program that lets users select various bass and treble presets or simply create their own. Two of the various skins had buttons on them that were so small they demanded a stylus if we wanted to switch tracks or suddenly mute the sound. But the ability to import new skins in the future should resolve this problem.

But more important than the interface is the actual sound of the Minijam. And considering that this is the first MP3 player for the Handspring, it sounds pretty good. We tried it out with everything from “Dream On” by Aerosmith and “Praise You” by Fatboy Slim to a spoken-word piece with John Cleese and the Cowboy Junkies’ cover of “Sweet Jane.” There is a surprising amount of volume from the little unit, but adjusting the bass and treble doesn’t really bring much of a dynamic range. For dedicated audiophiles, a pricier and more flexible MP3 player is in order, but for regular Handspring owners who just want to groove to some private tunes while at their desks, it will work just fine.

However, there are two important drawbacks Visor owners should consider. The unit only comes with one 64MB flash card. So, depending on the recording quality of the MP3s, that card could hold anywhere from 30 to 70 minutes’ worth of music. Buying an additional 64MB card for the other slot in the Minijam obviously doubles the playtime but adds considerably to the cost, as those little buggers aren’t cheap. And moving between the cards can only be done from the software interface, not from the unit itself.

Also, despite the Innogear’s warnings that the Minijam is a drain on the battery, we could practically hear our AAAs scream in agony inside their little plastic cribs. The manual says we could expect five to six hours of playback while not using the Handspring, but our experience was closer to four to five, even with fresh batteries. Naturally, playing a game of chess while listening to the music will drain the batteries even more quickly. The music software, however, does turn off the Handspring’s Visor automatically if untouched for a minute or two, which is certainly a welcome feature.

Less welcome features include the Minijam’s photo/slide shower viewer and e-book reader. The Handspring’s limited, monochromatic resolution is simply not the best vehicle for the a photo viewer, and the e-book reader has always struck us as compromise no matter what PDA we’re using it on. It’s nice of Innogear to include such functions, but after a brief investigation, we didn’t really touch them again.

Both MP3 players and personal digital assistants are going through a massive puberty right now, with growth spurts coming every six months. So it should not be surprising that early versions of both PDAs and these sorts of players still have some design and storage issues to work out. But early adopters of new technology have always been willing to pay a high price — both in cash and convenience — for the new gadgets.

An Interview with SimCity Buildit Developers

Gamers are being invited into a rich world of fantasy and strategy with SimCity Buildit,  courtesy of EA Games. Boasting a range of twelve worlds and well over a hundred maps in its grimoires, SimCity Buildit should keep strategists immersed in its world for some time. The game invites a player to choose a city and use it to build the best out of it. All of the usual suspects from simulation games are present in the highly detailed environments — buildings, sims, and environment will all be cropping up in the towns and villages which players can explore, conquer, and design.

Of obvious interest to those of us who played out our fantasies with pen and paper RPGs, SimCity Buildit boasts a simultaneous gameplay mode. With 12 players each taking the role of one of the available cities to action. Although it’s not strictly real-time, it’s as close as anyone has come with a game as immersive as this. Is this the missing link that will conjoin the two similar but disparate genres of real-time and turn-based strategy?

SimCity Buildit is fully complete with the new hack system found in this link. Basically we were just tweaking the artificial intelligence and the game balance to the end. We got a lot of good feedback from the demo that we released and from our own internal testers, and we’re quite happy with the final product we’ll release.

Simultaneous player mode. We really feel we got the feature to work in the game, and it provides a multiplayer experience we feel was somewhat lacking in other turn-based games on the market.

Primarily we designed it still as a turn-based game. So although it’s more similar to RTS, we still see it as a turn-based game that has something extra. Anything on top of the turn-based game is an extra. We have the standard turn-based crowd, and anyone we can snatch from the RTS crowd is cool. There is very fierce competition — a lot of people think that the RTS genre is pretty saturated, and maybe something like SimCity Buildit is something different to change that. It’s not an RTS game, but maybe some people who are sick of the cloning that is going on in that genre will appreciate something like this that offers more depth. We’ll have to see what happens.

There’s a few things. For example, I’d love to have made a random scenario generator. That is an important feature for hard-core players. We’d maybe like to release these as extras in the future, but not just yet. That might be looking a bit too far away. We’ll see what happens. Being honest it all comes down to how many game units have been sold. Plus, we’ve been working on this for so long, if anyone came up and asked us to do more it’d be like ‘No more!’

In terms of turn-based games, there are a few competitors that fall into the same category but the gameplay is different. Mainly I suppose there’s the add-on pack that will be out the same time. Plus, we’ll get competition from games like Cities XXL, but there is always this competition around the season.

Mainly the sheer size of the project. There’s so much customization, and although it’s very complex we’ve also added a tutorial to guide people in. We also really tried to get, in the sense of novels, this epic storyline feel. Console play would be very hard, so probably not. Even RTS games like Command and Conquer don’t translate extremely well to consoles. The mouse is not standard for those games. Also, SimCity Buildit will run in a very high resolution, which is very nice to see. On console all the little details would be lost. It’s not likely — I’m not saying no, but I’d certainly say it’s not likely.

Alien Resurrection – In Depth Review

With the possible exception of the Star Wars trilogy, no sci-fi film series seems to have as much rich potential for an easy translation as 20th Century Fox’s Alien films. Gritty sci-fi cool, a gripping storyline, gorgeously gruesome visuals and excessive gunfire should make for an equally engaging interactive experience, but capturing all (if any) of those elements in a videogame has historically proven to be as pesky a pest as, well, an alien with acid for blood. There have been a few exceptions, of course, but Alien Resurrection — like the movie that inspired it — doesn’t quite make the cut.

Everything here is straight-up first-person shooter fare – which, in the case of the PSX, hasn’t always meant a lot. Gamers are required to make their way through miles and miles of metal scaffolding and tunnels, shooting aliens, acquiring keys and backtracking all along the way. The game begins on the decks of the USM Auriga, where a cloned Ripley awakes to find the ship in the midst of an experiment gone terribly wrong. The long-term goal involves exterminating the alien plague and escaping the doomed spaceship, which is where the aforementioned backtracking comes into play. Along the way, she encounters numerous adversaries in the form of marines, sentry tanks, an Alien Queen and even the freakish human/alien hybrid seen at the film’s conclusion.

Of course, Ripley doesn’t have to go at it alone — all of the characters from the film make an appearance, and several crewmembers of the Betty, a mercenary freighter, are playable at appropriate times. Some of these, such as the android Call, have their own specialized weapons to accompany a standard complement of weaponry, which includes shotguns, pulse rifles and the rocket launcher. Gameplay certainly won’t offend, but it’s nowhere near as smooth as what gamers have come to expect from their shooters. Particularly niggling is the jerky targeting, which is handled by the Dual Shock’s right analog stick — with no run feature available, lining up a bead on a squad of marines (who don’t even move around much) can fast become an exercise in livid frustration. This, coupled with unforgiving (difficult) gameplay parameters, is sure to keep the player locked in for hours, although we don’t quite mean that in the best way.

Visually, the game is fine — with the requisite stretches of shadowy corridor, nice steam, spark and smoke effects and that nauseating bobbing animation as players make their way down the hall (although, admittedly, this can be turned off.) The levels are massive and load directly from the disc (cutting out that dreaded load time), but after a few hours of dark tunnels we found ourselves wishing they’d been pared down or spiced up just a bit. Character animations are generally lacking in polish or dynamism — even those of the aliens themselves. It’s a bad sign when the animated aliens rendered on a PlayStation fail to chill us as much as a rubber-suited actor from a film that’s nearly a quarter century old. The sound effects are actually slick and quite spooky, and judicious use of the Dual Shock’s rumble feature adds as much to the suspense as the plodding pace.

What’s most problematic is that the game’s developers have chosen to stick so closely to the story of the film, which was generally accepted as a less than stellar fourth outing for Ripley and those dogged chestbursters. For some strange reason, game publishers insist on releasing what amounts to little more than a skeletal outline of a story, fleshed out with the actual game in between. And frankly, who wants to read/play through a movie they’ve most likely already seen? Of course, such standardized translations are a frequent occurrence in a time when “games” are churned out for every conceivable license and franchise – it’s a wonder we haven’t already seen a Starbucks game yet. Which is not to say it’s not coming.

It’s not that there’s anything significantly wrong with this game but if you are playing any game with exploits like Clash Royale cheats, but it’s such a banal misuse of a popular franchise that its mediocrity really shines through. It’s had a long history of being held up — having once been designed as a third-person shooter — and, as is often the case with these delays, the final product isn’t on par with similar titles we’d spend our money on. We love Aliens, we love first-person shooters and we love the PlayStation — but precious little about this title, much like the movie that it’s based upon, makes us want to visit it a second time.