Stars Wars is NOT Mark Hamill’s greatest role

Fat Abbot

Controversy! That’s the way to get people to read stuff, right? Clickbait. But I do have a point to make.

The latest episodes of Star Wars are well on the way to being the most successful films of all time. Yes, it seems that the franchise has survived the serious physical and mental abuse inflicted upon it by its own father – a bit like Luke Skywalker.

Not including the five seconds of beard-in-a-hood footage at the end of The Force Awakens **BELATED SPOILER ALERT**, there’s been a big gap since we last saw Luke Skywalker himself, aka Mark Hamill, on our screens. Or has there? He’s been on my screen quite a lot through my life, and I’m not talking about a weird Google images search either.

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As you may be aware, Mr Skywalker is also one of the most talented actors in videogames. He’s been the obese villain of beloved motorbike adventure Full Throttle, but he’s chiefly recognised for being everyone’s favourite Joker – in the recent Batman videogame revivals of Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Arkham Knight. His laugh, his mannerisms, his delight in others’ despair – yes, Heath Ledger got nothin’ on Mark.

But still, all of this is but a shadow to what Mark means to me in games. For he is the saviour of the galaxy in yet another of the greatest sci-fi space opera stories of all time: Wing Commander.

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The Future of Entertainment

So what is a Wing Commander anyway? Back in 1990, a man named Chris Roberts had a glimpse of the future. He’s a bit like a gaming Yoda, but less old and less green.

He saw a way of telling a story like a film, but a film in which you played a part. Your decisions and actions would shape the course of history, would decide the fate of your friends, your enemies, and the whole galaxy.

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Wing Commander is the story of a future human race fighting to defend the known universe against aggression. Over the course of many games (over ten now, including spinoffs) you fight intense dogfights in the vacuum of space to fight the good fight.

The first two games were very basic indeed – but 1994’s Wing Commander III was a breakthrough. Finally, Chris Roberts’ vision had been realised: it featured live-action cutscenes with actual movie stars, including Biff from Back to the Future (Tom Wilson), Gimli off Lord of the Rings (John Rhys-Davies), and the legendary Malcolm McDowell (a ‘British person’ off South Park). Roberts was director, and basic set designs were supplemented by green screen CGI – impressive for the time.

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The story was shaped both through dialogue choices in these cutscenes, and in the in-game action: whether you decided to disagree with someone and pick a fight, or whether you failed objectives or destroyed your targets. The actors were bemused by Roberts’ ideas – the way they had film scenes multiple times, with different reactions, responses and emotions depending on what the player chose. It was hard work, and it was complicated at the time – but it works. It basically beat Mass Effect to the punch by years.

The main part of the game is space combat – and damn good that is too. The first two games are hard as nails, but as the series found its feet both commercially and artistically, so too the game improved. Wing Commander IV, in 1996, is almost perfection (and marks no.102 in the 1001 games to play before you die).

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However, the most ambitious part of the whole franchise is the concept of a branching mission tree. It rarely works in practice, because if you fail you simply try again – but in theory, it’s an incredible idea. Should you fail a mission, or a objective doesn’t go your way – like when the giant space cats called the ‘Kilrathi’ fuck up your plans – the story takes a different route. You can sometimes correct your course with success in later missions, but sometimes you end up fighting to the bitter Game Over. The idea was to step up that feeling of immersion to the max, the idea that your efforts really were part of a greater whole.

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So what about Mark Hamill?

The hero of the original Wing Commander never end had a name. I guess the idea was that had he been given one, the immersion breaks – they are no longer you. However, the developers had to call him something, and because of his slightly unusual colouration of Blue Hair, he became known as.. Blair.

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The name stuck. By the time of Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, technology had moved on from sprite-based graphics, and Colonel Christopher “Maverick” Blair had now the face of Mark Hamill. Live action cutscenes may seem archaic in these times, but back then it was still revolutionary.

The game was a huge hit – and rightly so. The intricate plot draws you in, with twists and turns and betrayals – backed up by blitzing dogfights with intelligent AI. Two years later came Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom and, with a then-unheard-of budget of $12M, took it further. With the galaxy in turmoil in the aftermath of the war, some former allies turn renegade – the question of ‘do the ends justify the means?’ becomes a pivotal one.

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Throughout these games, Mark Hamill’s presence grounds you with a believable character: a regular hero, whose struggles (despite being mostly against giant space cats) can relate to your own. Because you inhibit his story, and because your choices become his choices, it becomes a much more personal tale than sitting in a cinema – and this, really, is the joy of games. But it also makes Mark Hamill’s Wing Commander that much more relatable than the superhuman Skywalker.

And to the future…

What’s most exciting is that Chris Roberts continues to push gaming forward – with his long-awaited Star Citizen. With a crowdfunded budget of now well over $50 million, it’s certainly ambitious – and the single campaign, known as Squadron 42, stars a certain familiar face…

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PC gaming’s come a long way in 20 years…

Fat Abbot

The Mug-Off Massacre

Yes, it’s that time of year – Halloween. Or as we at the UCHG call it – “the time of year in which to play Splatterhouse”.

In our 4th year in this continuing mission/inflicted punishment, we play through the remaining stages of Splatterhouse 2. 2015 saw us enter the house… will Rick/Vin Diesel make it through in 2016?

Prepare to enter The Mug-Off Project, and say Mug-Off 6 times while looking in the mirror – if you dare. Happy Halloween.

Project SKIPPER – Build It And They Will Cum

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So here we go. Sit down, strap in and watch the beast come to life. (Oh yeah, that’s not a typo in the title)

Now isn’t she a real beauty? All the planning, failing, cutting and screwing paid off. My very own Raspberry Pi power Cocktail Arcade Cab lives! There were certainly moments where it looked like the whole thing would fail harder than a new Formula 1 Qualifying format, but somehow we pulled it off.

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Now I concede that it is not original hardware. That said there is still something oh so satisfying about sitting opposite your mates, with a beer on the top and your joystick in hand – Perfection.

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I have to be honest here and admit that the costs did spiral a tad over budget. The materials came to a little more than expected and I had the expense of all the fuck-ups during its early life. Overall though it came in well under the cost of buying a pre built one online and was way more rewarding.

I have to thank all who contributed to making yet another one of my childish ideas a reality. Thanks to the men of the UCHG for all the assistance leading up and including the build. To everyone who listened, acted interested, provided tools, space and inspiration – Thank you. I wont list you all here, you know who you are.

All that is left for me to do now is a find a way of knocking Steve and Fen off the Juno First leader board and take my rightful place at the top. It’s my God damn machine!

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Project SKIPPER – The Hole Conundrum

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Welcome back! My apologies for the epic delay in getting this out, first a few things in life got in the way. Then the new Hitman game came out! And we all know how much I love a Hitman game.

Before we crack on let us have a little recap on what’s gone down so far. In a nutshell I have completed step one in my 3 point plan – wire controls up to Pi. Now I have to conquer step 2 – build a cocktail cabinet. How hard can that be? Turns out extremely hard, that’s how hard that can be.

When you look at a cocktail cab it does not appear to pose all that much of a threat. It is essentially a rectangle with a wider lid and a control deck on each side. With this in mind I drew up some plans and went to buy some wood.

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I opted for a large sheet of MDF and got the kind man in the shop to cut it into manageable chunks using his massive wall mounted saw. This was all going to plan and no sooner had the ink dried on the plans, the wood was loaded into the car and transported to my Dads garage. This is where I started to struggle.

You see. When you look at a cocktail cab it does not appear to pose all that much of a threat. It is essentially a rectangle with a wider lid and a control deck on each side. That’s a rectangle with a wider lid that has a monitor smack bang in the middle of it! I was not entirely sure how I was going to cut the hole out of the top to house the monitor. Let alone how the bloody hell I was going to mount the damn thing into said hole. I took to the internet for help. After many images of women in various stages of undress, I found the answer. There is a bracket used to mount LCD monitors into racks. It was perfect! Not only would it mount the monitor where I needed it to be, it was as simple screwing three bits of metal together and bolting them into the top. All for the bargain price of £20.

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Now I had to overcome the hole conundrum. The done thing here would be to take your plunge router and plunge route a nice monitor shaped window bang in the middle of the lid. One problem – I don’t own a plunge router and those puppies are not cheap. Even if I did own one of the plungey little bastards I sure as hell have no idea how they work. This left me with no choice but to drill out each corner of the window and take a jigsaw to it. Here is where my utter lack of woodworking came shining through. No matter how hard I tried I just could not cut lines as straight as I needed. This was causing a major issue. If I wanted to achieve that “bit of furniture” look I was aiming for, there had to be another way.

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Many months passed. With every failed attempt my wood handling powers increased but I was still falling short of the finish I was so keen to achieve. As the summer gave way to autumn I had managed to produce as close to a perfect top and two control decks as I was ever going to craft with my own two hands. It was still shockingly poor and I was beaten. As I sat in defeat, looking to buy a cabinet off eBay, I stumbled across a lifeline – Plans. Plans that would allow a machine to cut the wood to glorious perfection, lines so straight you could use them to test the straightness of other lines, or something.

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It turns out a CNC milling machine is quite a beast. As you would expect they are expensive and not all that easy to buy. It was now late November and I was deep into the hunt for a man with the right tool to satisfy my wood based needs. As luck would have it the husband of a friend knew just the fella. He hooked us up and we met in a bar to discuss the idea. Huddled over a laptop we revised the plans a little and agreed that it could be done. The MDF was swapped out for black vinyl wrapped chipboard, an access hatch that would also house the coin mech was added and we were away. Come early January I had all the parts I would need, even a cool little plinth thing that would add to that quality finish.

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With the machine having done all the hard work I set about mounting the speakers, coin mech and antlers. Yeah that’s right – antlers. The monitor was bolted into its perfectly sized window using the £20 bracket and all the t-moulding edges were glued into place. The edges then all pinged out and where re-glued back into place. This happened more than once. I ordered a Perspex top and it was time to see if it would all go together. Things were progressing so well that I even started to think about the decoration.

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To Be Continued…

Project SKIPPER – The Beginning

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Growing up I was lucky enough to be surrounded by technology. Between my Electrical Engineer of a Father and my highly technical, and somewhat nerdy, Grandfather I was granted detailed access to everything from arcade machines to CB radios and more.

As I got older my friends also contributed to the mix. We set up LANs for gaming, messed about with software applications and built many a bad-ass gaming PC. We also made a circa 300 mile round trip to pick up the shell of an old arcade machine – then we made it work again before turning it into a monster MAME rig!

One of my earliest memories of tech is when Grandfather (or Pappy as he was known) produced a PONG games console. Now I can’t be sure if he made the thing from scratch or not, but to 4yr old me it was the best thing ever. In my mind he had made the whole thing and was a computing God. We tuned it in to the TV, set the paddles so the ball wouldn’t fly clean through them and got our game on. To this day I can still vividly recall the strange hammered green metal that housed all of the electrical innards. He is the reason I own a Binatone TV Master 10. It is not even close to an original PONG machine but it reminds me of that day.

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It is the experiences outlined above that led me to where I am today. My ingrained interest in technology led me to the Raspberry Pi. Mix that with the engineering input from my Pappy and my Old Man, throw in the countless projects completed alongside some of the greatest men in history and there was to be only one outcome

A Raspberry Pi Powered MAME Arcade Machine!

This couldn’t be your usual upright style of arcade machine. We already have one of those in the collection thanks to Fen and the epic drive to Manchester– You can read all about that here. Despite wanting an upright of my own since the day we started on Fens I could not bring myself to build one. I had to push my limits. I had to build a cocktail cabinet – from scratch!

I was convinced that if I split this up into 3 stages I could get it all done in around 6 months. My plan was simple – 1 wire controls up to Pi. 2 build cocktail cabinet. 3 place Pi in cabinet. How hard could it be?

I got off to a good start and ordered up a Raspberry Pi 2 Model B. It was not long until I had it playing all the old classics. This was all down to PiPLAY. A super cool package that allows you to get MAME up and running on a Pi with minimal effort or knowledge of Linux – Double win!

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With a working instance of MAME in place I moved on to the controls. Fen had been kind enough to gift me an I-Pac board that would map the inputs from joysticks and buttons to keyboard inputs. This meant all I had to do was wire in all the micro switches to the correct places. Simple – right?

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Well – no. Once I had got hold of the right sized spade connectors it was pretty easy to wire all the buttons and joysticks up to create some working control decks. The I-Pac was preconfigured to work in MAME so all the button press combinations to select games and the like were all ready to go. Ross was kind enough to risk his sight (and life) as I got to grips with drill bits that cut big holes in wood. It was not long until we had a working test board in place. The problems came with the coin mech.

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I really wanted this machine to be token operated and that meant installing a coin mech. My first obstacle was power. The Pi has none. That is not entirely true. You can use the GPIO to get 5v but I needed 12. This lead nicely on to obstacle number two – The I-Pac took 5v input signals and the coin mech pumped out 12v. Not ideal. I tackled the first issue by wiring the mech up to a 12v power adapter I had lying around the house, I think it used to power an old router. Next I spent a few hours at my Dads place when he came up with the Zener diode. This little bastard would knock my 12v output down to a more acceptable 5v. A quick bit of wiring later and we were there. Check it out!

 

So there I was, a few months in and I had a working arcade machine without a cabinet. Feeling pretty pleased with myself I played a game of Donkey Kong, powered everything down, took off my headphones and started to think about wood. Wait a second! Took my headphones off?! Yeah that’s right – I had forgotten about the bloody speakers. The whole time I had been using headphones plugged directly into the Pi’s 3.5mm audio jack. You can’t be playing in headphones! This needed to be addressed, and fast!

Now I confess, I did make this part a little more difficult then it needed to be. I have a pair of old Kenwood S-62 speakers that used to belong to Pappy.  The amp that used to drive them had recently gone to the great WEEE recycling centre in the sky and I was just itching to find a reason to reuse them.

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My problem was getting these two 70w speakers into the cabinet and running off the 3.5mm audio jack. The audio out on the Pi is unamplified so the speakers were virtually silent when rigged up. Even when connected to an amplified source, an MP3 player, they were still too quiet. If I was going to use these speakers I was going to need a small, efficient and powerful amp – Time for another trip to my Dads kitchen.

It turns out compact and powerful amps are not cheap. However, if you are willing to get your solder on, you can build a conveniently tiny and powerful one of your own.  So that’s what I did. To be more accurate I should say – After popping a few capacitors and melting the odd bit of PCB, that’s what I did.

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With this little baby powered up the speakers were plenty loud enough when it came to pumping out that 8bit goodness. Overkill? Maybe. Satisfying? Oh yeah.

So NOW I had all the working parts of an arcade machine I could go back to thinking about wood…

To Be Continued.

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