Playing with my new (old) iPod Classic

Spending time reminiscing about MP3 players of the past certainly got me in the mood to use one again. I actually spent a lot of time researching the best (and most affordable) modern devices, but my mind kept wandering back to the iPod Classic. After realizing that I could pick up a refurbished iPod on eBay for $40 that would easily hold all of my music, I decided that would be better as an impulse purchase than the $200 Sony Walkman that I had been eying.

A week later, and a very small package came in the mail with the unit, a charger, and earbuds. The iPod in question is the 5th Generation, AKA the iPod Video, so named for its ability to play movies and TV shows in addition to tunes.

What startled me is that I was expecting a much chunkier device — probably memories of the 3rd generation there in my head. The 2005 iPod is not that fat at all, maybe a little thinner than my iPhone with the battery case attached that I always carry around. Another surprise came when I discovered that the iPod synced up just fine with the modern version of iTunes. Now, I will never defend iTunes — it’s such a clunky and annoying app — but that’s nice that I didn’t have to research workarounds just to get music on the iPod. About a half-hour later, my core library of 4,500 tracks was loaded up, and I could just sit back and fiddle with it.

It was truly a wonderful trip back to the past, and I marveled over how elegant the click wheel functions here. Compared to the multitude of options with a smartphone, there’s so little to actually do here — adjust settings, scroll through music, play a trio of games — but really, the whole point is to focus down on just music. I think that’s the real appeal of going back to single-use devices, a kind of purity in what you use them for. I do enjoy reading on my Kindle more than, say, my phone or tablet, and here I just like that it’s all about music and nothing else.

My four-year-old son became fascinated with it as well. When he saw me listening to it on the couch, he sidled up to me and I popped one of the earbuds into his ear so we could enjoy the same music. Very quickly, he took the iPod from me and became obsessed with turning the volume up and down. I guess it’s that heady burst of control?

I can tell you that there’s been no buyer’s regret from me on this. It’s not something I’m using super-frequently, but it is really nice for when I’m just reading, or going for an evening walk, or knocking off at the end of the day. I know that I could get it modded out — maybe with a solid state drive and better software — but I’m happy to know that it works perfectly fine as it is right now.

Nostalgia Lane: MP3 players of the past

Lately I’ve been enraptured with the idea of getting back into the practice of using a dedicated DAP — digital audio player — despite having my music on my phone, computer, and even a flash drive in my car. I haven’t really thought about DAPs or MP3 players in a long time, other than having a sports one for biking, but ever since I’ve been reading up on the modern player scene, it’s been making me totally nostalgic for the gadgets I’ve had in the past.

My very, very first MP3 player was a Creative Jukebox Zen, which I got in the early 2000s back when iPods weren’t playing nice with Windows. This was a very bulky and heavy unit, but I fell in love with the ability to take all my music with me on the go, especially when I took plane trips. The device and interface wasn’t the most user friendly, which was typical of the era, but it definitely tided me over until I was able to afford an Apple product that would interface with my computer.

And that happened in 2004, when I sprung for an iPod Photo. This was part of the 4th generation of the devices, and it was an absolute beauty to behold. To this day, I think the click wheel is one of the best interfaces I’ve ever experienced on a gadget, and I’m really bummed that Apple doesn’t make iPods with these any more.

In any case, I cherished the heck out of this device, loading it up with all my music and even a few pictures. I liked that it had some simple games, too. Remember, this was before smartphones were everywhere, so the iPod was kind of *it* for my on-the-go entertainment. I could listen to music, look at a few pictures, or play solitaire or breakout. That was surprisingly enough!

I had one other iPod purchase after that, which was the 5th generation iPod video. I’m a little fuzzy on when I bought it, I think maybe 2007 or 2008, but I do know that it had a massive amount of storage for the time (over 100 GB). I loved the idea of being able to watch movies on the go, and I had loaded up a few to view in my car between classes at seminary when I had some free time.

It was an improvement as a device in every way over my previous iPod, but you know what? I’m still more nostalgic for the older curvy white model. I think once other functions started to invade my MP3 player — videos for the next iPod, apps for the iPhone — then I found myself getting distracted away from listening to just music. It’s exactly the same deal with Kindle on the phone versus the Paperwhite. It’s nice to have everything-in-one gadgets, but sometimes it’s better to have single-function devices that lets you focus on just one thing.

Idle Life Sim is the casual sim I didn’t know I needed

My relationship with mobile gaming is worlds apart from how I approach PC gaming. Mobile gaming is, for me, something to fill a couple of spare minutes — maybe when I’m waking up or having quality time in the bathroom. So these days I’m not looking for super deep or involved experiences, but rather something I can open up, having fun for a minute or two, and then walk away without feeling like I’m dropping the ball.

With that standard in mind, Idle Life Sim is perfect for me. It’s like someone took the basic concept of The Sims — outfit a virtual dollhouse and have an autonomous character fiddle around in it — and merged it with a clicker game. It’s nothing deep, but it is enjoyable to mess with for a little bit of time here and there.

In Idle Life Sim, you start out with a single character and a one-room house. Your character has a career of your choice and generates money from this on a constant timer. That money can be spent to upgrade his or her career, buy more outfits, purchase furniture, or upgrade to bigger houses. You also have to increase your popularity (which is accomplished by dressing up right for parties). But seriously, that’s about it.

Yes, it’s a total ad-driven game, in that they want you to watch ads to generate even more money or special currency. I don’t do this that often, to be honest, but the option is there. It doesn’t feel that grindy, though, and I think a lot of that has to do with the presentation.

Everything here is so laid back. Unlike most clicker games, Idle Life Sim isn’t about fighting. Most of the time your character is interacting with your house objects while you take trips over to the always-rotating in-game store to see what wallpaper, carpet, and furnishings you can afford. There are objectives to accomplish for premium currency, but I think the real objectives here are to make your sim and house into what you want to see. 

I do like the presentation here. It’s cute without being that derivative of any other mobile game I’ve seen. The interface is very fast and intuitive, and there are a lot of little details that are fun to check out (such as the outside changing seasons). The whole package has personality, and that’s pretty much why I find myself logging in to tweak my little house day after day.

Anyway, a light and breezy recommendation from me today.

TMNT: Mutant Madness and the weird appeal of gacha games

I wouldn’t call myself overly fond of or a big supporter of shady or aggressive business models in mobile games. These games are riddled with them, especially the free ones, and your enjoyment of a title is usually tempered by how bad the practices are and how much you can ignore or work around them.

One in particular that I’m bumping into a lot these days are games with gacha structures. Gacha is a format where your characters aren’t acquired or leveled up through fighting or questing, but rather opening up an obscene number of random-item packs for tokens inside.

Yet I do keep coming back to these because they do present a very attractive front. The latest mobile diversion that I’ve been enjoying is TMNT: Mutant Madness — an auto-battler with the whole TMNT franchise that is riddled with gacha silliness. You keep throwing your guys into battles, and if they can’t numerically or strategically overcome the opposition, then you sit at that wall until your “lair” in the game generates enough character-growing ooze or you manage to buy more hero packs to tip the odds in your favor.

I always feel that the meta of these games is not my little characters against other little characters, but me against the game developers and their marketing team. I want to beat them literally at their own game by enjoying it without spending any money. And usually there is a path to do that — as there is here — but it’s slower and requires a lot more in the way of delayed gratification and patience. I do appreciate that it’s not as in-your-face annoying with the gacha as these games sometimes are.

Until or unless Mutant Madness gets too frustrating, I can see myself opening it up for a minute here and there. It’s fun. The presentation is slick, and it definitely captures a lot of nostalgia I still harbor for the old ’80s TMNT cartoon. I like shaping a team and picking members that have complementary skills, and since the battles are so quick, it’s no problem to me if they lose. Can’t advance? I’ll just let the game generate free currency while I’m offline, then I’ll spend it later and see if I can clear that next hurdle.

I do see the TMNT franchise as being perfect for this. I forgot how large the cast of characters it has, so it’s already stacked with possibilities. And there’s just a smidge of base building and story to go with it, so it’s not a completely brain-dead experience.

Cowabunga!

Mobile gaming: Battle Legion and Hearthstone

Happy Monday! This morning I’m going to talk about a couple of mobile games that I’ve been dipping into as of late.

Probably the most interesting to both me and my children has been Battle Legion. Please ignore the uninspired title, because this is actually a pretty fun experience. You remember how you’d set up huge armies of plastic troops as a kid and have imaginary battles? Now you can do that with tons of digital troops.

Battle Legion is basically a PvP RTS game without any base building or map crawling. You have an allowance of points to spend to set up an army, and then you unleash that army to fight automatically against other players’ builds. At first, the game is pretty basic with just spearmen and archers and the like. But as you climb up in the ranks, more options are added to your arsenal, and before you know it, you’re using monks that can cast shields, plague throwers, catapults, ninjas, and so much more.

Even though the very quick (less than 30 seconds) battles are completely out of the hands of the player, there is a lot of strategy here in what units you pick and how you arrange them. For example, the assassins will instantly teleport to the very opposite spot at the start of a battle, so if you can guess where the enemy is going to position weak troops, then you can get an edge.

Some players like to bunch up their units on the top or bottom. Some build forts. Some opt for numbers, others for fewer higher-point specialists. In any case, it’s impossible to create a perfect army, but it’s fun to keep trying and refining while you let the game auto-battle over and over again.

I haven’t touched Hearthstone in years, but in building up a new World of Warcraft account, I keenly felt the absence of my trusty Hearthsteed. I loved that mount because it looks great on both land and air (I hate flying mounts that waddle around with wings when they can’t fly), and I knew I wanted it for Shadowlands.

So I had to create a new Hearthstone account as well and play long enough to win three games and unlock the mount. And that was fun enough to get me to log back into my old Hearthstone account, which is practically drowning in cards at this time. I’m pretty rusty, but it might be something to do on an occasional basis in the future.

iPhone games I’ve been playing: Disney Sorcerer’s Arena and Endless Cards

I don’t even want to TALK about my mobile gaming backlog, because it’s ridiculously huge and not likely to be tackled by me during my lifetime. Maybe my grandson’s. The thing is, in the rare moments when I do whip out my phone or iPad to play a game, I want something simple, mindless, and not requiring a lot of effort to learn. New game discovery just isn’t high up on my priority list; I usually gravitate toward old and tested staples.

That said, there are two new (to me) games I’ve been enjoying lately that I wanted to share, with the first being Disney Sorcerer’s Arena. This is, I realized, a Disneyfied version of Dungeon Boss, an old favorite of mine that involved slowly collecting and building up a team of heroes to run dungeon gauntlets. In this game, the big changes are that every character is from some Disney or Pixar animated film and that it’s more like stationary battles on a field rather than running through an instance.

Like Dungeon Boss, Sorcerer’s Arena is monetized within an inch of its life as it tries to get you to spend money on everything from seasonal passes to lockboxes to character tokens. Yet if you ignore all that — and I’m very good at ignoring F2P crud — there’s a somewhat entertaining and relaxing free game here. I particularly like the animations and design, as well as an emphasis on strategy. You can have the game automate battles, but I find that I’ll do much better if I manually pick targets and spells.

It’s also kind of amusing to see this weird mix-and-matching of all of Disney’s properties under one roof. Jack Skellington fighting Elsa, Gaston squaring off against Trigger from Robin Hood, that sort of thing. I’ve pretty much only been playing this for about 15 minutes in the morning while doing my exercise biking, but it’s proven a nice distraction.

The game I really wanted to recommend to you, however, is Endless Cards. This one set me back an entire dollar, and I have to say that it was worth every one of the 100 pennies I spent. It’s a minimalistic, cleverly designed game where you try to navigate a character through a field of cards to grab as much gold and survive as many fights as you can before dying. Gear and food help with armor and health, while enemies subtract from armor first and health second when you cross paths. There are the occasional items to get, store, and use as well.

What I love here is that (a) the games are pretty quick (quicker if you can’t survive long), (b) there’s a lot of strategy in picking paths and prioritizing cards, and (c) that by unlocking special cards and new characters, you get to change the rules of the game. One character, for example, affects gravity, so any cards touched will cause others to fall up or down instead of remaining in place.

The gold gathered can be spent on new cards and characters, and I hope that the devs continue to support this with even more additions in the future. It’s a perfect solitaire fix for the RPG nerd in me, and I think it deserves some more love than it’s currently getting.

Bio Break 2019 Wrap-up: Solo gaming

Merry Christmas everyone! And since I’m posting this on the one day of the year that virtually no one is going to be reading it, I could just cut and paste entire paragraphs from Jane Austen here. I won’t, but I could.

Instead, I wanted to share the 10 solo (non-MMO) games that I genuinely enjoyed this year. Looking back at 2019, I think I played more solo titles than I have in a very long time. I’m finding a nice balance between MMOs and these, and it’s great to have a change in the gameplay type when I’m in the mood for it.

Here’s what I liked the best out of what I played:

The Outer Worlds — Easily my “game of the year” pick for 2019, if I had awards and they carried weight with anyone. I loved this Firefly-Fallout homage, from its corporatism-run-amok-in-the-stars to its black humor to its diverse ways of solving each quest. Really looking forward to any DLC or expansions Obsidian wants to make for it.

Pillars of Eternity — Speaking of Obsidian, I finished up a long playthrough of this title back in January and was generally happy with it. I was planning on doing the expansion or the sequel, but somehow that still hasn’t materialized.

Return of the Obra Dinn — This got so many awards in 2018 that I had to play it last January, and I am truly glad I did. There’s nothing quite like this detective story at sea, even if it used graphics straight out of the 1980s.

The Avowed — I got this based on some strong word of mouth and was generally happy with it. The Avowed is a retro-styled adventure game that came out not too long ago about demon hunters in NYC. There are some choices, some good tales, and a few tricky puzzles.

The Long Dark — I absolutely loved the setting for this quiet, snowy post-apocalyptic game. Its survival aspects felt a little too brutal for me, but I’ve been told that there’s an easier mode I should go check out and play.

Subnautica — Along the lines of survival games, I didn’t expect Subnautica to win me over, but win me it did. And not just me, but my kids as well. My eldest son in particular loves exploring the sea and creating different vehicles and structures. It’s so pretty and definitely a nice change of pace than the usuals in this genre.

The Last Door — A modern horror adventure game with REALLY retro graphics that manages to actually be scary? It does just that, even though I ultimately was unsatisfied with the story.

Outer Wilds — Not to be confused with The Outer Worlds, this is a very odd Groundhog Day-in-space story of a doomed solar system and an intrepid band of alien explorers. I’d love to actually finish this game if it wasn’t for the wonky controls.

A Plague Tale — Took me a while to finish, but I really did like this alternate history take on the Black Plague. I think it lost its punch about midway through and was a little more gory than I would have liked, but there’s some great imagination with this one.

Shop Titans — As bashful as it was to admit it, this freemium game grabbed me and hasn’t let go since. Its simple premise of operating a fantasy store for heroes is one that appeals strongly, and I’ve found it’s a relaxing game for a minute or two here and there.

Shop Titans is the fantasy shopkeeping simulator I’ve been seeking

For a while now, I’ve been keeping my eye out for a good shopkeeping simulator — you know, a game where instead of being the heroes out in the wilderness, you’re the guy running the shop that supplies them. I’ve played a few titles here and there, but nothing has really filled this desire. Until now.

I have gotten in the habit of downloading interesting-looking free games onto my phone for that mythical moment when I’ll have free time to check them out. On a whim the other day, I booted this one up and — to my delight — found that it was exactly the fantasy shopkeeping sim that I’ve really wanted.

I’ll be up front on this: Shop Titans is a total freemium game. It’s got all the traps of this sort of free-to-play experience: lockboxes and energy timers and SPECIAL DEALS LIMITED TIME ONLY WOWZERS. Yet… yet it’s insanely relaxing and fun. I’m totally serious. I haven’t spent any money on this and have gotten a full week’s worth of satisfying play out of it.

The secret, I think, is that for all of its slightly annoying business model features, Shop Titans is a very well-done game. It has a bright and crisp art style, the UI is really responsive, the gameplay loop is oh so addicting, and the sounds pop. Even with timers, there’s almost always something to do or watch or plan, and it has become my go-to game when I have five minutes here or there.

At the start of Shop Titans, you get a small store and can use the ever-replenishing resources (ore, lumber, leather, herbs) to make goods. Those goods are displayed on racks, and random NPCs wander in and decide whether or not to purchase them. There’s a bit of strategy in this, as you can use energy (which replenishes with time or sales) to bargain customers down or buy items off of wandering vendors for cheap. You can even “small talk” customers as a way to gamble on more energy.

Part of the gameplay loop is equipping and sending out a small band of heroes on quests. They’ll progress through these automatically, and if successful, they’ll bring back rare crafting resources and other goodies to sell and use.

I’ve found that there’s a lot of planning ahead in Shop Titans, especially when you want to pursue more complicated recipes that will require stocking up on rare items and perhaps building intermediary items to use later. The more a good is crafted, it starts to accrue bonuses (more valuable, better chance at getting a quality upgrade, etc) until you max it out and it becomes a great staple to have around.

But really, for me, it’s just the satisfaction of watching customers trickle into my shop, check out my decorations, and pay me for stuff. Did I mention how the animations are pretty terrific too? It’s a small thing, but I’m impressed that when you sell a hero an item, he or she will then equip it right there. It feels less abstract that way. And did I mention that you get to decorate the place — and that decorations also have benefits (when they are admired by NPCs, you get a shot of energy)?

Anyway, I can understand why the freemium side of Shop Titans would earn it a lot of side eye, but I don’t feel that pressured into buying anything. I’m just playing for fun and figuring out what next steps I want to take in growing my store. I haven’t been this excited over an iPhone game in a while, and I thought I’d share.

Apple Arcade: Is renting games worth it?

About a week ago, Apple released iOS 13 for its mobile devices, and with it the vaunted Apple Arcade platform. The idea here is that instead of buying cheap/free (and heavily monetized) titles that are littering up the App Store, Apple Arcade would offer an all-you-can-play buffet of curated, high-quality titles for $5 a month.

And the first month is free. That’s how they get ya.

I checked it out just because I’ll take advantage of almost any trial that’s set in front of my face. So far? I’m kind of impressed. There definitely is a nice initial selection of titles, some of which I recognize from other platforms as moderately priced titles (such as Sayonara Wild Hearts and Overland). And there was a giddy moment when I just downloaded all the ones that I wanted to check out.

Of course, I don’t own these games. I don’t have any right to them. They exist on my phone as long as my subscription does, and when that free month goes poof, so will they.

There’s the trade-off for this kind of model. You get good quality, all you can enjoy, but like most subscriptions, you only can access it as long as you’re paying that monthly fee. And while the fee here is pretty low, I’m more than aware how multiple subscriptions can start to pile up.

Is it worth it? It’s definitely a good value, and I think Apple is going to see strong sales with this service. But its worth is a subjective matter. I’m sure I’d get five bucks of gaming enjoyment each month from it, but I already have so many other games on these devices I haven’t even played and some favorites I play every day that there’s not a huge demand in my lifestyle for a glut of high-quality titles on my phone or tablet.

For me, there’s also that psychological barrier between renting and owning entertainment. Apart from subscription-based MMOs, I don’t usually like to rent my games when I have the option to own them (even if that ownership is purely digital and could theoretically be taken away if the company decides to do such). My Audible subscription, as a point of comparison, doesn’t yank away all of my purchased books once the sub is up. I have that feeling of ownership and permanence that I won’t have with Apple Arcade. I also prefer to purchase TV seasons on DVD or through Amazon Video that I can access any time, sub-free.

It’s a small thing and not really worth getting worked up about, but we’re definitely heading into a future where such subscription services are going to be pushing all-you-can-consume entertainment… as long as you keep paying that monthly fee. I’m not quite on board with that.

10 of my favorite pick-up-and-play mobile games

While I certainly don’t acquire or purchase mobile games as much as I used to, there are several staples that have remained on my phone and tablet far longer than expected to give me brief bits of gaming pleasure when I need it. For today’s short Top 10 list, I’m going to share my go-to games for short sessions — not the longer RPGs or adventure games that I might have played and since deleted. Let’s go!

  1. Bloons 6: Probably my favorite tower defense game to play while on my exercise bike in the morning, as the popping of balloons is cathartic and each session clocks in at around 20-25 minutes. Has a great balance of fun to tricky.
  2. Clash Royale: While I don’t usually go for PvP games, this one has amused me for many years now and I’ve gotten good enough to muscle my way up into the double digit arenas without buying anything from the store. My kids also love this, even if they are far worse at it. C’mon, kids!
  3. Knights of Pen and Paper 1 & 2: Really excellent pocket RPGs with humor, a D&D tabletop theme, and lots of strategy. The first game is probably more simplistic with battles while the second one was awesome before the free-to-play update came along to ruin it.
  4. Dungeon Warfare 1 & 2: An addictive mix of tower defense and Dungeon Keeper-like gameplay. I’ve replayed the first game countless times and am only now starting to get into the sequel.
  5. Polytopia: Civilization stripped down into a sleek, engaging format that can be played in about 15 minutes. I’m so impressed at how this game handles empire building — and in portrait mode, no less!
  6. Tiny Tower: I used to be huge into this game and related sequels and spin-offs, and my wife still plays the Vegas version years later. Something fun about setting up businesses in your own tiny building.
  7. Pixel People: I’m glad to hear that a remake/improved version of this is coming out soon, because I really adored this bizarre city builder – slash – cloning simulator.
  8. Fallout Shelter: I play this one in spurts, but when I’m into it, I’m really into it. One of my favorite Fallout games of all time, actually. Wish they’d develop more for it — or a sequel!
  9. Card Crawl: A really underrated solitaire card game that has you trying to beat a dungeon with a set of cards. I’m still slowly unlocking new ability cards and looking forward to the day I can build my own decks.
  10. Battleheart series: All three of these RPG battlers are excellent, although I like Legacy the most because it’s the easiest to play (no toggling between characters). It’s like popcorn RPG, just fight and loot and level.

What are your go-to mobile games? I’d love to hear about them!