Monday, September 24, 2007

Even Less

I've spent my free time this week playing Metroid Prime 3, and trying to resolve my computer situation.

Last weekend I bought an eMachines T5230 from Best Buy. It's an Athlon 64 machine with 1 GB of RAM and an NForce chipset, so it's got an integrated NVidia video card. I thought that it ought to be at least as fast as my three-year-old Dell with the hard drive that went kaput. I was wrong. It was not even half as fast. I'm a programmer, not a computer expert, so I don't know exactly why it was so bad. I bought an $80 hard drive, put it in my old Dell, and returned the eMachines box. Then I spent the rest of the day installing Windows and its various updates.

The days of easy performance progress in computers are over. I've bought a new computer approximately every three years since 1994 or so. Through the 90s my computers would get about four times faster for the same price or less, every three years. Once processor speeds started outstripping memory clock speeds (I believe the 66 MHz 486 was the last computer with the same clock speed for CPU and RAM) the apparent performance increases withered away. It turns out that we use computers not so much for computing as for shuttling large quantities of data around, so faster CPUs don't do a whole lot.

Now, we have hit a wall on CPU speed. My three-year-old Dell is clocked at 3 GHz. You can hardly buy any computer today that fast. Instead, they are all going multi-core. (The eMachines machine was clocked around 2.2 GHz, but had two cores.) Existing applications won't get any faster. Instead, we programmers will have to attempt to eke the CPUs' full potential out with sweat and tears.

Metroid Prime 3 is fun, albeit pretty much the same game as its two predecessors. They did some good work to make the game use the Wii's control scheme. Motion sensing is inherently weaker than buttons and joysticks for many things, though. First, you get no tactile feedback, so you have to rely on visual feedback to know if you've made the correct input. Second, with a joystick you are free to remove your hand to do other things, such as scratching your nose. I find myself holding a rigid position for long stretches when playing with the Wii, which is far less comfortable.

In hindsight I think Nintendo may have goofed up in a few ways with their latest controller. The “hardcore” games like Metroid and Zelda all end up using all the buttons on the wand controller, even though the buttons weren't designed to be used when holding it like a wand. Only A and B are readily accessible; the rest require contortions. I think their idea of making the wand holdable in two different positions (as a wand, and sideways as a more classic NES controller) was a mistake.

I also don't understand why Nintendo didn't make the camera on the front of the wand have a fisheye lens. The field of view is too narrow. I was watching my niece and nephew play Duck Hunt and they were continually having problems with letting the pointer drift off-screen, and then it just kind of got stuck. Other games in Wii Play are especially bad this way. For instance, in the air hockey game the paddle gets stuck when the wand loses sight of the tracking LEDs, and it can be very hard for people who aren't used to keeping the wand pointed right at the screen.

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