Space Update Episode 1: Mars Solar Shuttle!

Makes no sense eh? This is part one in a supposedly regular round-up session of space related news. First up is…


The Mars Society have done a good essay on what they see as the truth being President Obama’s future of NASA speech; in short that the US is going to cancel most manned programs and replace them with nothing. To my annoyance they seem to be one of the few that agree with me on this issue; most of the mainstream press are reporting his announcements as a good thing. Sadly it looks like in the short term the closest we’ll be getting to Mars is the Mars500 experiment. This experiment, while in many ways redundant, will provide some very useful data for when we at last get our priories right.

I’m starting to lose hope that I’ll see a new daring space mission in my lifetime.


Ikaros probe

Japan is launching a solar sailed test probe on May 18th known as IKAROS. It has a 20 meter (diagonal) sail and while this is mostly just a proof of concept they have plans to make a larger one with a 50 meter sail (as well as a solar powered ion engine) for a mission to Jupiter in the next ten years. Will solar racing be here soon?

X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle

X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle

Oh my, this one is exciting! Originally developed by NASA as part of Space Shuttle research prior to running out of money, this craft finished develpment under DARPA. I thought it was pretty much a dead project, but it’s actually in orbit right now! What it is actually doing is a mystery, but personally I don’t care that much. It’s just great news that there is some research going on in regard to re-usable space craft.

While the X-37 is small (about 25% the size of a shuttle) and unmanned, it still is an important craft. It’s designed to have much greater endurance than the shuttle too; up to 9 months! (Not needing oxygen or food obviously helps a lot, as does it’s usage of solar panels.) In the short term it’ll probably used for spying on foreign satellites, but think of the potential even as is; it could be modified into a rescue craft, a space tug, or even a sample mission to an asteroid!

On the other hand, this launch could be motivated by deep rooted resentment over the Dyna-Soar cancellation and this first launch may be the all they wanted…


Falcon 9 is still on the pad, with the launch being delayed until May 8. Hardly news…

Review: Final Fantasy XIII

N.B. This is a fanboy perspective, and in part it’s a rebuttal to some of the negative Final Fantasy XIII reviews out there. I’ve tried to keep it free of major spoilers, but as a review it’s hard to avoid minor spoilers. Also, I took the screenshots with a camera, so I they aren’t the best representation of how the game looks.



Finished! After around 80 hours I finished the latest Final Fantasy game. (I did some side quests in the middle; you probably could finish it faster if you tried.) I planned to write a review instantly while it was all fresh in my mind, but due to time commitments I was unable. Thus I’m writing and posting this few weeks after the fact.

So what was it like? Well I’ll tackle that question in multiple parts and I’ll start with the obvious;


Obviously the answer here is “stunning”. This is (quite unfairly) the best looking RPG I’ve played. In particular the cut scenes have spoiled me; I’ll be expecting nothing less from games from now on! (Interestingly I was playing Halo 3 at around the same time for a bit of variety, and it was a rude shock how average theirs was. The game itself is less disappointing.) For the most part it was hard to fault the cut-scenes; lip sync, character detail, character expression, character movement, lighting… all perfect. I’d be happy if they don’t try to better this aspect in the next game. Sure after a while you pick out things like some aspects being squarer than they should be, but think it’ll be a while before hardware can achieve perfect textured circles in a home system.

I’ve already mentioned it, but the character movements were quite good also. With a lot of older games (especially FFX, but also more recent games like Lost Odyssey) there seems to be a limited number of movement patterns, which become obvious after a while. Not so with FFXIII! I might notice some next time I play, but not yet.


Pre-rendered scenes are especially stunning. I only have a 720 screen, yet I was wowed by the detail many times. Some scenes I suspect need a 1080 screen to be appreciated fully; I found the race track sequence a bit hard to tell what was going on at times, even on a second/third watch. (Advent Children is much like that too; the fight sequences make more sense on Blu-Ray.) Oddly the pre-rendered scenes in FFXII just didn’t seem “Square-ish” to me. I’m not sure why, but I suspect they (and the movies from Revenant Wings) were outsourced. Thus I was very pleased that the FFXIII scenes were to the same standard and style that I’m used to.

The fight scenes are spectacularly rendered as well. It was said that the goal was to have in a game a similar experience to Advent Children, and I think in regard to the fight scenes they succeeded. In particular there is lots of jumping, throwing and fast movement. Spells aren’t as flashy as they have often been in the past, but that I think is due to the faster nature of it all. However summons are very overdone, as usual and as expected. (More on the combat system later!)

Outside of fighting and just wondering around the worlds look beautiful as well. More than once I just stopped and rotated the view a bit to admire the sights. I found the The Sunleth Waterscape especially worth a half minute pause. The characters and backgrounds for the most part look the same in all four forms of the game, which adds a lot to the experience.

Sunleth Waterscape


First up, the voice talent is especially good by western standards. This has been happening more and more thankfully. The “Australian” accents are a bit annoying at first, but they made sense in the context of the story. While the music wasn’t by Nobuo Uematsu, it was still quite good. More subtle than I would like, but that’s better than being obvious and obnoxious! Masashi Hamauzu did most of the work on this one, he previously did Dirge of Cerberus for Square. (Now that’s an under-appreciated game… but that’s off topic!) Some parts I especially liked so I’m going to have to find the soundtrack. Other sounds I don’t have much to say about, but some aspects of the fighting sounds needed work. For example I found Hopes pain complaints especially annoying (they seemed the same every time and he made them a lot) and some of the character quotes linked to commands were played too commonly… especially potentially annoying ones line “We’ve gotta win this!” and “I have to see this through!”.

Whos' next?

The theme song was a pleasant surprise. I was smashing tables when I heard the double-blow news that Final Fantasy XIII would not only have a different theme song, but it wouldn’t be commissioned either. (Slight exaggeration.) However when I heard the song in the trailer I thought it was OK, and I must confess that after hearing it some more the song by Leona Lewis has grown on me somewhat. I still don’t understand why it needed to be changed in the first place though.


Lost Odyssey was a surprisingly good game. It persuaded me to buy a XBOX360 and when I first played it I found some parts of the combat system so beautiful that they made me cry. (True story; make fun of me if you want.) This may seem to be an irrelevant point but it’s not… because Lost Odyssey was let down by lack of polish. Much of the game felt unfinished to me, and certain aspects, such as the menu system, felt like they were designed for the Amiga 500.


Final Fantasy XIII for the most part is not a let down in this department. In particular the menus are beautiful (not tear worthy though) and there’s a nice flow to it all. The only aspect of the menu that I didn’t like was the Crystarium menu. (That’s the level-up system; it’s very similar to FFX.) By choice or design, I don’t know, it takes too long to open up and the process of switching another Role for the selected character seems clunky. That’s my only major complaint however; FFXIII even did good by showing in the inventory what is owned rather than just what is un-equipped and avoided my other not RPG-specific complaint of default-new-game-is-annoying.

I like the idea that you can complete the extras after the game. Sure this makes little sense from a story point of view, but casting Knights of the Round and winning each boss fight in FFVII with one summon is little better. This way at least you’re encouraged to finish the main game first at a less powerful level, and you can keep playing afterwards if you want. (As I am now!) I did however find annoying that yet again Square chose to not have easy access to movies and cut scenes. This is a feature that I really like as it means I don’t have to keep save games in certain spots to re-watch certain scenes… but Square hasn’t included this feature for a while. Why they do this I can only guess, with my best one being to encourage people to play the game again (or for the first time) rather than just watch videos.


On the subject of the extras, for the most part they are just “marks” otherwise known as really hard fights. Final Fantasy XIII does seem to have less diversity in mini-games, but since the main story can take 40+ hours I don’t really see a problem. (I’m almost up to 100 hours!)


No actual details will be given here, but it’s obviously a variant of the usual “group of people (often young) get thrown together and save the world” type. Considering the limitations of this kind of story (it has been done before after all) I think it’s a good version. Each character has their own motivations and they all are involved roughly equally. Unlike previous Final Fantasy games there is no non-audio dialog which does increase accessibility. (Some people just don’t like reading story text.) Probably due to this there is a small amount of additional text in a database that expands/clarifies certain story elements and characters which while not required reading it’s smart to do so. Some reviews make out that this is a massive undertaking but I don’t agree; I just spent a few minutes each session “catching up”. It’s funny; JRPGs often are insulted for having too many cut-scenes, but at the same time reviewers are saying that the database should have been made into one. Go figure. (As a side note/comparison, FFXII had more database text but it was less required from a story point of view. For example FFXIII doesn’t have any text for the monsters, and while it was mostly pointless, it was also one of the parts I liked about the FFXII.)


Final Fantasy XIII has been criticized by many as being linear, and for the most part this is true. It’s very similar in FFX in that; the story is constantly driving you forwards. Sure you can go back to a limited degree, but the story will generally progress in a way that prevents you going too far. Contry to most reviewers though, I preferred this to what they did in FFX. In FFXIII there is no way to go back most of the time so there’s no time wasted checking. As I found out after I played FFX, there are often good reasons to go back to previously visited locations, and some things can only be experienced/found prior to certain story points. Since up till near the end of the game you have no easy transport, doing so involves retracing your path, and suffering low-level random encounters the whole way back. So yeah, until Square return to a world map system (supposedly in Final Fantasy XIII Versus) I’d prefer things this way. (I strongly suspect that most of the game reviewers haven’t played FFX.) Besides, aren’t stories linear things? I realise that multiple endings are cool in their own way, but what’s wrong with a set story? To me Final Fantasy games have (in recent times) been about being part of a story and in that FFXIII succeeds.

Not everything is explained at the end however, but I think all Final Fantasy games are guilty of that. For example in FF7 who is Jenova? Is Jenova alive or is Sephiroth controlling her… or is the reverse true? Are there more Jenovas? In FF8 the obvious question is; Who landed and converted the Gardens? Why? How did people forget that these giant structures could fly? Do they run on EverReady or Duracell? I could go on, but in short unanswered questions is part of the Final Fantasy tradition.

Combat system

This has been a very mis-understood aspect of the game. Some reviewers I suspect have not played the game long at all as I’ve read things like…

You can finish the game by just pressing Auto
Characters don’t level up
Paradigm Shift is optional
Eidolon fights are un-winnable the first time
Fights are too long
The fight system is too different to other Final Fantasy games
The fight system doesn’t get good until the end

…and I agree with none of them. Some are sort of true, some are false and other are proof that the game isn’t for you. What follows is my take.

Preemptive Strike from the rear

In Final Fantasy XIII Square decided to increase the pace of the fighting without going for a “look mum, no hands” approach like in FFXII. (Every major fight in FFXII I left the room and came back a few hours later. My presence was not needed.) To achieve this they gave all character three main classes and instead of choosing what they do you choose what the can do. Once they are told that they just do it. What’s more, they do it locally. If you’ve met a monster before and he was immune to a spell it won’t be cast. I see this as a good thing; it ups the pace and reduces the tedium. To increase the pace further (and add to the strategy aspect) you pick the roles in groups (known as Paradigms) and you can only set six. It becomes clear soon that this is not enough, and you need to be careful when selecting. (You can change Paradigms only outside battles.) Aside from selecting Paradigms, you can select the actions of your party leader. Most of the time it’s impractical; you’re simply too slow. Thus unless you have an allergic reaction to pressing a button labeled “Auto” you should just press it. You’ll be too busy monitoring the enemies and the rest of the party and Shifting Paradigms to suit to feel guilty. The only time you should manually select what to do is if you want to use a special attack, an item, or summon an eidelon.

Eidelon? Oh yes, as usual, there is some form of summoning. It’s been a long time since summoning was as absolutely kick-arse as FF7… and to be honest it’s a good thing. They were so powerful and so unrestricted there that I often banned their usage in boss fights to make things seem more fair! Ever since summoning has been more restricted and/or less powerful. In FFXIII it is both. It takes time to build up a gauge to use them, an when called they are more useful as a tool than a weapon. For example they can be used to instantly weaken some enemies, and when they leave the fully heal the whole party. Their actual damage is rarely impressive… except in a visual sense! Like many Final Fantasy games they need to be won or defeated, and they vary. But that aspect is not as hard as some think. All you need to do is scan them (it’s an ability) and then that will tell you what you must do to impress them. Easy!


Characters do level up in FFXIII, but there’s no shown level, much like FFX. You are given points after each fight that you can spend on upping stats in a role, which also give you abilities, also much like FFX. (Any further explanations would be too convoluted.) Weapons can be upgraded as well, but this is better left to later in the game as money is really rare. But at the start you don’t even level up and many hours need to be spent (5-20, depending on speed and perspective) before the fight system gets good; prior to that you’re mostly pressing “auto” feeling sheepish. Even so, that’s always been the nature of Final Fantasy. It wasn’t until the last quarter of FFXII that you could get some of the best Gambits. Square give you one ability at a time to ease you into the game, and they do that as they change the system every time, no matter how popular the last system was.



I’ve said a lot and I have more I could say but I probably should leave it here! In short though, I think this is the best Final Fantasy yet. Sure, I’ll probably have Buster Swords thrown at me for saying so, but please note that this is a holistic point of view. I love Final Fantasy VII, and for years I’ve seen it as the best, but the combat system of FFXIII has won me over. FFVII is a great game, but after playing it 5+ times it’s really clear how unfinished and unpolished the game is. If Square ever get around to re-doing it and making the game characters look the same throughout the game (even Minfigs don’t have block hands!) and clean up some of the translations and other oddities I might feel different, but for the time being I have a new favorite! (In order; 13, 7, 10, 8, 12, 9, 10-2. Others are too old to compare and I haven’t played 6.) It’s not a perfect game, but it is a great experience and a lot of fun.

Paradigm Shift

One final word; if you have a choice, don’t buy the 360 version. While Square did a great job porting it over in a short time, it runs at a lower resolution and the videos are compressed. Why pay the same for a lesser experience?

grüne Plastik-Soldaten?

Green Army Men at home

I got the 7595 Green Army Men set last month and I was looking at the alternate names for different languages.

English Green Army Men
German grüne Plastik-Soldaten (Green Plastic Soldiers)
Polish? Soldats
Spanish? Soldados
Portuguese? Os Soldadinhos
Hungarian? zöld játékkatonák

Languages interest me as they are an evolving entity. TLG/Disney must have researched this and thought these were the right names, yet there seems to be a lot of variance for such a simple world-wide concept.

I took advantage of the fact that Eurobricks is a multinational site and asked some questions! I learnt a lot about different languages during this exercise, things like it’s standard practice to capitalise that way in German, and that the translators must have seen the “Plastic-Soldiers” as the name, and the green as an adjective. (That is grüne lower case and the “Plastik-Soldaten” capitalised and hyphenated.)

I also learnt that the Dutch version is:

Dutch Soldaten op patrouille (Soldiers on patrol)
Swedish Gröna armémän (Green army-men)

LEGO; educational for many reasons!

I love Apple Episode 1: iPad

My love for the company known as Apple is widely known. I love to be told what is and isn’t cool, how I must do something, and I especially love it when a company forces me to do things a certain way… OK maybe not.

In any case the Apple iPad reviews have been sickeningly glowing lately. Why a device that costs more than my Acer Aspire One, but can do far, far less has been receiving so much love is quite beyond me. So far I’ve read one fair review. But I did get a chuckle today. It turns out that Apple has decided that the random function of the iPad should be deemphasised and hidden as they feel their “Genius” function is superior. (No idea if this is true or not; I’d never install iTunes on any machine that I had any respect for.) CNET, ‘cos they love Apple so much, have provided a tutorial to access the old random function, but there’s one problem for the much suffering iPad users.

It’s in flash…

Uncharted 2 Glitch

I was playing Uncharted 2 a while back and while I was in the Monastery level, this happened;

Uncharted 2 glitch 1
These things are so freaky. I was busy minding my own business and these guys threw a grenade at me. I hid behind a nearby shield and I suspect that caused the problem. I must have been forced back and instead of hitting a wall I fell over an “edge”.

Uncharted 2 glitch 2
Something like the happened earlier in the same area. I’d just finished the car chase scene, beat the guards and I noticed the doors to the road were open. There are loads of “treasures” in the game so I though this would be a likely place. Instead I “fell” down a hole. I could climb up or down too safely. I didn’t take any photos of this as I thought it was a solid glitch, but it turns out that door is never supposed to be left open!

Uncharted 2 glitch 3
On a positive note, I did learn something. While I was hanging I watched the fight for a while. Elena (one of the co-stars) kept shooting and the guys kept throwing grenades, but no one died. Darn. I could swear that she seemed to help…

Uncharted 2 glitch 4
After I no longer found it amusing I tried to climb up, but I found I couldn’t, leaving me with the only option of falling to my doom.

Uncharted 2 glitch 5
Even so, it’s a great game; I’ve played it 1.95 times… (I’m playing it on hard this time and I’m stuck on the last stage.)

Killing the Dead

Back in 2007 there was a vig contest on Eurobricks where you needed to do MOC about how to kill skeletons. Here’s my entry!

Sinner was walking home to his Paddle Steamer one night after a long night of AD&D when he was attacked by four skeletons. Was he worried? Not a chance! He simply pulled out his AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979), turned to page 211, and started to explain to them the way it was. But he had barely started when they screamed and threw themselves over a nearby cliff, where they shattered into a thousand pieces. “But I haven’t even started telling you about what’s in the Monster Manual…” sighed the disappointed walrus.

Killing the Dead Pic 1

Killing the Dead Pic 2

Killing the Dead Pic 3

Shuttle Birthday

Today (depending on perspective) is the anniversary of the completion of the first Space Shuttle launch, 29 years ago. Sadly this is the last one she’ll have as the last flight is planned for the September 16, this year. Aside from the massive loss of capability that the retirement will bring, this (combined with other cuts at NASA) will result in 10,000 jobs being lost. This works out as roughly of their staff. Will the grand plan of outsourcing work? Many doubt that it will.

As Larry Niven once said, “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!” yet here goes the USA going down that path in the name of budget cuts. Obviously they don’t agree with the sentiment.

Right now US Astronauts are doing great work in orbit; even the loss of their Ku band antenna didn’t stop them. They just docked without radar! Could a robot do this? No. Could a commercial company do this? It’s hard to be sure, but I doubt it.

USB; Unlikely Special Bus?

I was reading news on ZDNet and I ran into this concept.


It’s an idea by a designer, Gonglue Jiang, and I must confess that it annoys me. Why? Well because it’s one of the classic things that “Ideas” people do; think of a concept but don’t look into if it’ll work or not… and in this case it won’t.

Why? For one, USB doesn’t work like that. The connection requirements of USB is very similar to the way that Ethernet over twisted pair works in that you can’t just link from one cable to another, a device called a hub or a switch is needed to do that. The space inside the plugs illustrated are not big enough to contain much at all; even the wiring would be tight. One could say (as they often do) that he’s a design guy not an engineer, but surely he’s noticed that hubs/switches are needed.

But that’s not all. While the plug is too small to fit a hub/switch, it’s too big to be a plug. This design would block other ports and thus would waste ports while creating new ones. Also, the weight of all these plugs would add more stress to the socket than it’s probably designed for.

This is the problem with many “Sci-Fi” shows… and Sci-Fi LEGO MOCs. Priority 1; appearance and coolness, Priority 99999; functionality and believability.

Single-stage-to-orbit light fighters? Not a problem!
Infinite range? Why not?
Species from different planets interbreeding? Sure!
Maneuvering in space just the same as in an atmosphere? Yep!

The funny thing is one of the more believable Sci-Fi TV shows in (relatively) recent times was Firefly, a space western! Anyway, getting back to USB, what really annoys me the most though is he won an award for this. Maybe it’s attitudes like this that make “Sci-Fi” like Star Wars so popular?

Fusion in my lifetime?

The 4th last Shuttle Mission (and the second last for Discovery) is in orbit leaving me feeling rather down about the future of the US space program. But today I read about a bright new possibility; fusion! I’ve been feeling down about that that too; all of the science seems to be pointing towards it not being possible due to the world supply of tritium being insufficient.

Count Gregory, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne

But this method is different. Instead of a deuterium–tritium reaction, this method uses hydrogen (not a rare isotope!) and boron-11 ignited by a laser. The end result is far more controllable than fission or deuterium–tritium fusion and produces virtually no radiation. The best thing is that the researchers feel that this could be “close at hand”. At this stage they only have computer models, but maybe in 5 years they’ll be able to demonstrate this; the lasers needed are being built right now.

(I’ll be using this as the “official” fusion method for De-Classic-Space from now on! It’s a far more practical method than what I envisioned and better still the research is being led from Australia!)