Thursday, June 28, 2007

Cedar Point : A Day of Ups and Downs

Monique and I returned to Cedar Point on Monday, and what a day it was. Like the many rides we enjoyed, it was a day of ups and downs.

We departed Columbus at 7 AM for the long drive northward, stopping only twice - once for a restroom break in Bucyrus, and later to wait on a train at a rural crossing. We checked into our hotel room in Sandusky and by 9:45 were waiting for the ten o'clock shuttle to Cedar Point.

The 10:00 shuttle for Cedar Point arrived about 10:30, and had a few other hotels to stop at along the way, so we probably weren't actually in the park until 11 AM. We quickly got a map, a locker, and Monique called her mom to let her know we had arrived safely.

Finally, it was time to ride. We choose, as we did in 2005, the Raptor to start out our day. It was a hot day, and the long queue line winded in and out of the shade. Early on in our wait, the Raptor broke down for a few minutes, with empty test cars running. It was only a few minutes before it was running again and the line was moving along.

But damn it was slow. And hot. We finally got to the stairs up to the loading area when the damn thing broke down again. We could see a crew of maintenance guys working on it, but we had no idea how long it would take. Most people were waiting, but as the minutes ticked by some were leaving the line. Monique finally pleaded with me for us to leave, too, citing an earlier year's experience with another roller coaster which took three hours to fix.

We left the Raptor line and got in line with the next closest coaster, the classic Blue Streak. Just as I suspected would happen, while we were in line for the Blue Streak the Raptor started running again. Ah, the anguish. After about a twenty minute wait for the Blue Streak, we finally rode our first ride at 1:20 PM. The day was not off to a good start.

I wanted to head to one of the bigger coasters next, but Monique wanted to ride everything in the part of the park we were in before moving on to other areas. So next we rode MaXair, a wild swinging ride that scares the crap out of me from its sheer height. It's awesome, but I still wasn't feeling good about the day.

Next was Wicked Twister, a short accelerated coaster that sends one up a twisted dead end rail and back down again a few times. It's kind of weak compared to the other rides in the park, but a quick thrill nonetheless. And there's a great view of the lake from the line.

Next we finally got to one of the good ones - Iron Dragon. The wait for this one was about ten minutes, which was nice. After riding that I was starting to feel better about the day. This put us within striking distance of the big daddy of all these roller coasters - the Millenium Force.

The line was about an hour long, and most of it was sheltered. This ride is just amazing - so tall, so fast. So much fun. After we got off, I purchased the souvenir picture:

By now, I was feeling much better about how the day was going.

Next, we put the picture in a second locker, and Monique surprised me by saying she wanted to ride Thunder Canyon, which is a water ride where you are guaranteed to get soaked. Usually she avoids water because of concerns about her hair, but she said that since she had a hair appointment scheduled for Wednesday that it would not matter. So we took the plunge and yes, we got soaked head to toe.

It was quite refreshing on such a hot day. We wandered further into Frontier Town and came up on the entrance to the Maverick, the newest ride, and one we were particularly looking forward to riding.

It was shut down. There were a few dozen people camped out in line, just in case it opened, and they said that it's been on and off all morning (just like the Raptor, I thought). Again I felt a pang of anguish after coming all this way and paying so much money to ride Cedar Point's newest ride. My heart sank, but right next to it was the entrance to the Mean Streak, an enormous and long - riding wooden roller coaster, so we got in line for that. Here's a picture of Monique, still soaked from Thunder Canyon while we waited in line for the Mean Streak:

Mean Streak was a blast. It's everything a wooden roller coaster should be - rickety and creaky, with a tendency to toss the rider around a bit. And damn, is it a long ride, with some breathtaking curves and sloping turns. This is the only ride where I do the whole raised hands thing for the entire ride. I'm not sure why.

I was in need of some food after the Mean Streak, so I stopped at a pretzel stand nearby. As I was purchasing my snack, Monique began hooting about something behind me. I turned to see a test car running on the Maverick, the people in line stirring, and Monique running to get us a place.

I joined her in the line, as more people were rushing toward it, and did not even have time to finish my pretzel before the line opened up and the crowd began pouring in. The first people in line were high-fiving the attendant as they entered. It was only a minute or so before Monique and I were loaded in the car and set up for the accelerated launch.

Maverick sends the car speeding up a hill with a straight - down drop, followed by a series of wrenching twists and turns, ending up in a tunnel, where the car slows down for a second before another set of accelerators shoots the car out the tunnel and to the left. It has to be seen to be believed, so check it out here.

I was so psyched after the Maverick, and gave some serious credit to Monique for noticing its re-opening. My day, from that point was completely salvaged from the earlier setbacks. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. When we left the Maverick, the line had become the standard one-hour behemoth and more people, no doubt noticing the cars on it now running, were headed toward it.

Monique and I decided to head back to the start of the Frontier Trail to get some kettle corn and put it in the locker where we had stashed the Millenium Force picture. We took the classic train ride, which to this day still has all the wild west skeleton towns along the route. They are quite funny, and date back decades. Along the way, though, I encountered another minor setback - my camera was full. I had forgotten to put the memory card back into it the last time I used it so the internal camera memory was what was full. Oh well.

I stashed the camera along with the kettle corn in the locker and we waited for the return train. Once back in Frontier Town, we hit the classic Mine Ride, followed by the Gemini. Back in 2005, we went to Cedar Point late in the season, so when I saw that the twin - railed Gemini was only running one car instead of two at a time (it's a two-car side-by-side racing roller coaster), I let it slide. This time, my heart sank to see that the once-mighty Gemini was only running the blue car again.

This coaster was king back in my youth. And the fun of two cars racing along the track side-by-side was a big part of the attraction. Now, the whole thing seemed sad. Nonetheless it is still a great roller coaster and I will ride it every time I go to Cedar Point. I feel a little fear about it's future, though, if they are only running one of the two cars during the peak season. Perhaps they run both on the weekends still, I cannot say since we went on a Monday.

Our next coaster was one of the big ones - the Magnum XL 200. Still a towering colossus of steel and speed, the slow crawl up the first hill always gives the acrophobic part of me the jitters. Monique in particular loved the three dark tunnels that the car goes rocketing through during the course of the ride.

Once again, we approached what we thought was going to be our next ride only to find it shut down. The Top Thrill Dragster has a long reputation of breaking down, so it was not that surprising, just disappointing. But we both knew that perhaps later the ride would be opened. So then it was time for a ride on the Corkscrew, another classic from my youth. Always a good time.

We were not only back on schedule, we were actually ahead. Our goal to ride every major ride (except the Mantis, a stand - up coaster which we both got a headache on back in 2005 due to its need to bang our brains against the head harness), and we had done that except for the Raptor and the Dragster. We decided to get our things out of locker #2 and consolidate them with locker #1, which would put us back in the area of the Raptor again.

We trekked back there and got in line for the Raptor. It was a smaller line this time, about a 45 minute wait. As we approached our previous position on the steps, it looked as if the ride had stopped again. It was just a short - lived delay, though, and soon we were riding one of the most unique coaster rides in the park. Raptor is a hanging coaster, so our feet dangled in the air below as we were pulled along. Simply awesome.

Now I felt really good about the day. All that remained was the Top Thrill Dragster. We decided to head back that way, and if the Dragster was still down, we'd just hit the nearby Magnum again. As we appraoched, though, our timing was once again on the mark as the Dragster opened up with very few people in line ahead of us. In fact, something that had been happening all day occured again in the Top Thrill Dragster line. People trying to queue up with their friends let us ahead so they could all ride together.

The Dragster is what it is. It shoots you off at 120 miles per hour, then straight up in a twisty track to the top of the tower 420 feet off the ground, where you linger long enough to see across Lake Erie and into Canada (and on a good day you have to duck to avoid low-orbit satellites), then straight down 400 feet and out where you brake. Short, but so very sweet.

So there we were, at 8:20 PM, having completed our goal to ride all the roller coasters that we wanted to ride, with time to spare. Monique was feeling brave, so we rode in the front seat of the Magnum, which was also incredible. What a rush it was to just hang over that hill waiting for the rest of the car behind us to clear.

With some more time to kill, I suggested that we check on the Maverick and see if we could get on again, but alas the line was huge. So we rode the Mean Streak again, at just the right moment to catch a beautiful sunset over Sandusky Bay and Lake Erie. Afterwards, we slowly made our way back to the front of the park, stopping at a few souvenir places along the way.

We left the park at 8:45 PM and caught our shuttle bus right away. Back at our hotel room, a hot shower and some chicken wings and onion rings refreshed us as we took in the whole amazing day. Although it had gotten off to a bad start, and had a few bumps along the way, our day at Cedar Point was as fun and as memorable as any that I had had in the past. It just gets better every year.

My Cedar Point Souvenir Map Collection

Before I write about the trip Monique and I took to Cedar Point a few days ago, I want to take a moment to blog about the history I have with the place, going back to the early 1970s. My hometown of Galion lies about an hour south of Cedar Point, so annual trips to the park were no big deal. Now that I live in Columbus, it's a bit harder, but Monique and I have made it twice since we met in 2005.

All that I have of those old trips are my memories and several souvenir maps that I acquired from various trips:

The first one, in the upper left corner of the picture, is from 1981. The ride that debuted that year was Ocean Motion, a giant swinging boat ride. Back then the biggest attractions were Gemini and Corkscrew. I am sure that at one point I had even older maps, but they were lost with time. The print shop where my Dad worked had the contract to print the maps back then, so I got one every year. Too bad I didn't save them all.

The next one (upper middle in the picture) is from 1982, where the new addition was White Water Landing, a large water ride that was removed at the end of the 2005 season.

The map in the upper right is from 1983 and the new ride then was the Demon Drop. After that, I missed a few years because I had moved to Columbus.

On the bottom left is the next time I visited the park in 1987, when the Iron Dragon opened. Sometime in those years I missed the Wildcat was moved from the front of the park by the Space Spiral to a more central location next to the Imax movie theater, where it remains to this very day. Also in these years the Frontier Lift was removed, which is regrettable since they made it very easy to get to the back of the park quickly.

After that, it looks like my next trip (and map) was in 1993, where the Mean Streak, the Magnum XL 200, and Snake River Falls had transformed the park from one of the most impressive roller coaster parks in the world to its undisputed champion. These new rides (Mean Streak and Magnum) set a new standard around the world for height and speed, and Cedar Point has worked hard ever since to maintain those records.

It was a twelve year gap for me before I returned to Cedar Point in 2005 with Monique for our first visit together. I failed to get a souvenir map that year for some reason, but brought home the little free map you get at the entrance. The park had added even more impressive rides during my long absence including the Top Thrill Dragster, Millenium Force, Mantis, Raptor, Wicked Twister, and MaxAir. The park had become an amazing arrangement of coasters and rides, with some of them completely intertwined.

And finally, just three days ago, Monique and I returned to the most amazing place on Earth for another day of fun. This time, I remembered to get the souvenir map, which features the new rides Skyhawk and Maverick. I have resolved to return to the park at least once a year, and to always, always get a map. I've grown older with Cedar Point, and while I may be slowing down, that place shows no signs of ever doing anything of the sort.

For a detailed history of the park , check it out here.

Ultima Online : Kingdom Stillborn

The beta test for Ultima Online : Kingdom Reborn has ended already, and EA is releasing it to the public for free (of course you have to have a paid Ultima Online account to use it). Being free does not excuse the horror that is this unfinished mess, with the new client being far from polished or in some cases, far from playable.

The performance is slow and laggy, the screen and environment full of unsightly glitches, the chat window is uncontrollable and ugly, and the in-game map still has the appearance of something drawn in crayon.

I could go into specifics about all of that but why bother. I've tested it and sent in my bugs and hoped for the best. In fairness, the large patches have been coming regularly and have been addressing some of the issues. But it will take a good year of such patches to make this client as smooth and appealing as the old 2D one.

I really, really, wanted to like Ultima Online again. Even when I realized that Kingdom Reborn would not include an ocean reborn, I still was hopeful that the new graphics and user interface would entice me back to the world of Sosaria. Alas, such was not the case as the current leadership at EA has decided to repeat the mistakes of the old Ultima Online : Third Dawn client from six years ago. That's all Kingdom Reborn is right now - a rehash of the Third Dawn client with some nice user interface options.

I'll probably stick around until Pirates of the Burning Sea comes out. And next week, on Saturday July 7, I will attend the UO Town Hall meeting here in Columbus and ask some really, really tough questions about this mess. That should make for an interesting blog entry.

Threshold of a Dream

Pirates of the Burning Sea has a publisher. This MMORPG, in development since, well, forever, looks like it's finally about to be released this fall. The publisher is Sony Online Entertainment, which sounds scary given their history, but the Flying Lab Software guys seem to have worked out a deal where SOE does not interfere with the design of the game - they just publish it, market it, and do the billing.

Sounds like a sensible deal to me for both sides. I can't wait to get my hands on this game. It's a dream come true for me, having spent the better part of the last decade trying to get the meager seafaring aspect of Ultima Online developed into something similar and failing miserably.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Back Where It All Began

Selling off my Commodore 64 and Vic 20 libraries made room in my office for the one system I'll never sell - indeed, my first system which I got for Christmas way back in 1981 - the Magnavox Odyssey 2. Oh, I had wanted an Atari for Christmas that year, but my parents, persuaded by a smooth sales clerk at a department store, choose to stick me with the system.

I certainly made the best of it, though. In fact it worked out quite nicely, as the games coming out for the system at the time were generally quite good, and in some cases better than their Atari counterparts. While my friends were lamenting the piss-poor adaption of Pac-Man available for the 2600, I was enjoying the awesomeness of K.C. Munchkin. Another aspect of this was the sleepovers we had in my basement where my friends and I set up both systems side-by-side and enjoyed the best of both worlds.

Like all the old systems I collected games for back in the nineties (via pre-eBay flea markets, thrift stores, and garage sales) I continued to build up my Odyssey 2 collection long after the system became a footnote in gaming history. And in recent years it has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts with the amazing homebrew scene. People are making all - new games for the Odyssey 2 that had they been released back in the 1980s would have been heralded as killer apps for the system.

So with only the Odyssey 2 and the Vectrex left from my once all-encompassing retrogame collection, I have decided to resume collecting for them, with the Odyssey 2 coming first. I want to get complete (box and documentation) copies of every North American release for the Odyssey 2, as well as all the amazing homebrews. I also need a new voice module, since my old one seems to be toast. I have lost two eBay auctions for The Voice so far in the last week, but I am hopeful another one will become available soon.

Last week I did win the only semi-rare Odyssey 2 game that I did not yet have - Atlantis by Imagic. This title was the second and last third-party game released for the Odyssey 2 back in the day, the other being Demon Attack which I already had. I have also ordered another homebrew, Mr Roboto, from Packrat Games and expect it in a few days.

Atlantis is really good, even though the center gun is missing in the Odyssey 2 version. One thing I've rediscovered since hooking the Odyssey 2 back up is that it has a number of amazing shooters available for it - UFO, Freedom Fighters, Kill The Attacking Aliens (an amazing homebrew game), as well as the aforementioned Imagic games. The maze chase games are also a treat with KC Munchkin, KC's Krazy Chase, and Turtles all offering great gameplay.

I have also set up my Odyssey 2 corner of my office with my gallery of flyers as well as my original Odyssey Adventure Club membership certificate, all framed and on display. I'm quite proud of it:

So I'm back where it all began, with the system my parents stuck me with all those years ago. Still, with the robust homebrew scene, it feels like everything old is new again.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Game Boy Micro - Now Is The Time

While on Nintendo's website ordering the new DS web browser (I'll write about it as soon as it arrives and I get to play with it), I noticed some links to the Game Boy Micro. This version of the Game Boy Advance came out in late 2005, I believe, as Nintendo's attempt to market the GBA to the iPod generation by making a very small and sleek design.

I don't think it did too well in the market. The GBA SP, which is also compact and has a bigger screen, was twenty dollars less than the $100 Game Boy Micro. In addition, the awesome Nintendo DS was really picking up steam at the time and has had continued growth.

Anyway, I decided to check EB Games' site and see if they were still selling Micros. To my amazement, they were, at a mere $50. I called my local EB and sure enough they still had a few in stock. Unfortunately, the model I wanted - the 20th Anniversary Famicom Collector's Edition, which has the styling of the 1985 Japanese Famicom - was still $70. So I actually ended up buying a used black Game Boy Micro for $40.

Both my fiancee' and the guy at EB cautioned me on the tiny screen size. However, I knew what I was getting and have no regrets. It's a system to be used with the right game in the right situation. Certain games without much text in them, for example. Certain situations where the GBA SP might be a little bulkier than desired.

Plus, I have a Game Boy collection of nearly every mainstream model starting back with the original, so that's another reason to acquire a Micro. Collectors, or those wishing to invest in a possible long-term retrogame item of value might want to pick one up now while the price and the demand for these are both low.

The above picture is the Game Boy Micro playing Wolfenstein 3D. Smallest first person shooter EVER.

More Fun In The UO : KR Beta Test

I've spent some more time messing around with the Ultima Online Kingdom Reborn Beta Test, in particular the much - touted user interface. It has a lot of bugs and frustrations in its use right now, but damn is it versatile.

I created on my screen a 4x4 grid of macros where I put my sailing commands. It's almost the same thing as an old third-party program called UO Rudder, which made sailing a lot easier for the old 2D client.

I've posted a full report on it at the Stratics Kingdom Reborn message board here. I've decided to stay with UO through the tenth anniversary in September, at least, and plan on attending the Town Hall meeting with the developers when they come to my town next month. Look for a full report on that event, with pictures, when the time comes.

I'm also thinking about upgrading my account to the Mondain's Legacy expansion, too. Scary.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

EBay Kicks Ass

Friday I heard back from eBay regarding the aforementioned attack by katsup123 on my auctions and feedback. They agreed that it appeared that he (or she) did indeed violate their rules, and provided a link to the detailed list of them. On that list, I found which one katsup123 violated:

Feedback left by a member who bid on or purchased an item solely to have the opportunity to leave negative feedback for the seller, with no intention of completing the transaction.

Yeah, that was katsup123. eBay said in their email, though, that there are real world legal issues involved with removing feedback, and that they had to take another look at the case before deleting it. So I still had to wait a few days.

The cool thing is that right after that email arrived, I decided to get the non-paying bidder process in motion for each of the seven items that katsup123 did this on. Usually this is about a ten day process, as eBay wants to give the buyer plenty of time to communicate back on the issue. However, since katsup123 had closed his account right after leaving those negative feedbacks, and was now showing as no longer registered on eBay, the system instantly considered the dispute closed (since he couldn't respond), refunded my lost fees, put a notation next to his feedback about it, removed the rating from my record restoring my feedback rating to 100%, and allowed me to relist the items.

All that was left was to get those comments he left removed from my record entirely, which they did tonight. All the damage, other than time lost and stress created, is gone. I contacted his other victim, prayingmantisman, and told him how to take care of the issue, and he was quite grateful.

In this day and age, it's rare to come across customer service as good as I experienced on eBay - both their process of dealing with this issue behind the scenes and thier live chat service which got me started on it. eBay kicks ass.