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October 05, 2008

How to Control Samba de Amigo (Wii)

Samba de Amigo was released for the Wii about a week and a half ago. I had played this game on a friend's Sega Dreamcast system, and we thought this game would be a natural port to the Wii, where it could use the motion sensitive Wii Remote instead of an expensive custom controller.

I bought the game. I played it. I had some trouble with the controls. I looked around online and discovered that a lot of people have had trouble with the controls. In fact, the most common complaint is that the game doesn't control very well. I found some well-intentioned recommendations online but they didn't help me very much.

Then I stated experimenting, and I've figured it out. The controls are actually excellent, perhaps better than on the Dreamcast, but only if you use the proper technique when playing.

The trick is to think like an accelerometer. Samba de Amigo does not use the IR-emitting Wii Sensor Bar during gameplay. It uses the accelerometers in the Wii Remote (or Nunchuk). First of all, the game does not know how high you're holding your hands. It determines whether you're aiming at the upper, middle, or lower targets purely on the pitch of the controller. (You can hold the controller at your knees, but point it straight up, and the game will register that as aiming at the upper targets.)

For cross-overs — using your left hand to aim at the targets on the right side, or vice versa — the yaw and roll are also used. In the calibration screen you're taught to do a cross-over to the middle target by holding both controllers on their sides (pointing both left or both right) with their tops facing your body. (By "top" I mean the side of the Wii Remote with buttons on it, not the "front" that houses the IR receiver.) The calibration screen doesn't teach you how to cross-over to the upper or lower targets. It should, because this isn't as intuitive. For the upper target, do exactly like the middle target but hold the controller at a 45° angle instead of horizontally. For the lower target, you again want the 45° angle, but you need to rotate the controller so its top points away from your body rather than toward it. (This makes sense: for the middle target you point the controllers at the television, with tops toward the ceiling. When you drop your arms to point down at the lower targets, the buttons face away from you, not toward you.)

After figuring how how to reliably hit all six targets with either hand, I was able to progress farther in the game, but often had trouble when switching rapidly between the high and low targets. Especially when moving from low to high, my shake was often not recognized. I noticed that when the movement was slower, or if I had time to let the controller "rest" at its new position before I needed to shake, things worked better. But on some songs there just isn't enough time to do that!

I put on my engineer's hat, thought about how the system works, and realized that the way I shake the controllers was part of the problem. In addition to positioning the controllers correctly, you also need to shake them correctly.

The insight came when I thought about letting the controller "rest" at its new position before the game shows the white circle at that target. If I swung the controller from low to high, it took a moment before the game realized I was holding the controller up. The programming difficulty here is that the game knows the controller's pitch only due to the acceleration of gravity. If I'm moving the controller with my hands, the influence of gravity is being overwhelmed by the influence of my hands — hence the game not recognizing a new pitch until I stop my hands for a moment and let the accelerometers report what gravity alone is doing to them.

In order for the game to know that I'm pointing "up" when I shake the controllers, I need to shake in an upward direction. I had been tilting the controllers up but then shaking by pushing forward, toward the television. No! Bad! The correct method is to shake by thrusting straight up, toward the ceiling. That motion makes the acceleration of the shake in exactly the same direction as the acceleration of gravity when the controller is aimed up, so the game interprets this as a shake on the upper target. With this, I could reliably hit in the upper targets, no matter what position I was moving from. For the middle targets I shake out, horizontally away from my body. (I probably ought to be shaking forward, not to my sides, but the middle targets seem to be the most forgiving.) For the lower targets I shake down, toward the floor.

To make this as effective as possible, I had to adjust my positioning. The game will recognize that you're aiming for the upper or lower targets with just a 45° pitch, but I needed to position the controllers at a 90° pitch so that my shaking up or down would be directly along the axis of the controller, rather than at an angle. (However, it should also work to keep the 45° angle if you shake out along that same angle. The key is to shake along the axis of the controller.)

I've found that this method of playing is a lot more tiring than what I had been doing before, and certainly more tiring than some of the advice I had read online (like "don't move your arms at all, just tilt the controller.") But this method of playing is a lot more fun! The forceful and energetic motions make the game more immersive. And naturally, they make the game more fun because they work.

I wish that the game's instruction manual included information like this. Clearly, a lot of people have had trouble with the control scheme. It does work, but it's not fully intuitive, and does benefit from being explained in detail.

(Yes, I have completed the superhard difficulty level in career mode. When controlling the game properly, this isn't superhard after all.)

Vegas Vacation Report

I recently vacationed for three days in Las Vegas, Thursday afternoon until Sunday afternoon, and had such a great time that I can't resist writing about it. Enjoy this rare economics- and politics-free post. :)

I was there with my main squeeze (who wishes to remain anonymous) and we stayed at Treasure Island (natch). Almost everything we did was on the strip, but it was still an excellent idea to rent a car because we spent time at four different casinos and had many errands to run, too.

I can happily recommend Treasure Island. The room was great: spacious, clean, attractive and comfortable furniture, and the shower/bathtub was excellent. In fact I only have three complaints about the room: 1) It didn't have a phone book. 2) The toilet ran a little (but you couldn't hear it outside the bathroom). 3) The alarm clock didn't work. It was originally stuck at 11:10pm with no apparent means for the guest to set the time. Housekeeping eventually fixed that but they got AM/PM reversed, so the alarm didn't go off.

I was hoping for a lot of pirate-themed stuff at Treasure Island, but it isn't very themed at all. It felt like a hotel and casino, not like a pirate adventure. <sigh> But speaking of pirate adventure, one night we did see the free "Sirens of TI" show at Treasure Island, and… once was enough. Almost from the beginning we both thought the show was awful. The lip-syncing and revealing costumes I can understand, but they should have taken some of the special effects budget — or some of the casting budget — and spent it on the script. The dialogue and song lyrics were groan-inducing. Literally. I groaned.

Even though I didn't enjoy that particular show, I still marvel at Las Vegas for its private provision of public goods. All that free entertainment! Oops, I did say this would be an economics-free post, didn't I?

The free entertainment at Bellagio — the water fountains — was much more enjoyable than the Treasure Island show. (But it really snarls traffic. Driving southbound past the Bellagio is painful. I think the problem is pedestrians ignoring traffic signals. They don't let cars through, so several lanes of traffic back up.) But my favorite free entertainment was at the Venetian. Singers in costume perform at several spots along the indoor canal, and always drew a crowd.

Of course the paid entertainment is better than the free entertainment. We saw four shows: Blue Man Group (Venetian), Cirque du Soleil's O (Bellagio), Zumanity, (New York New York), and Mystère (Treasure Island).

We saw Blue Man Group shortly after arriving, and I was amazed. It far exceeded my expectations, and I said that it was the best show I had ever seen. (It was also the most expensive show I had ever seen, and the economist in me can't avoid making that connection. Oops, right, no economics in this post…) The show is exciting, funny, energetic, surprising, and entertaining. You won't realize until it's over that you just thoroughly enjoyed a mime act.

That first show set the tone for the whole weekend. The Cirque du Soleil shows were also fantastic. The shows are so varied, and there's so much inside each show, that I don't know how to begin summarizing them. O is a water show, with a stage in several sections that submerge, permitting diving and swimming stunts. Zumanity, my favorite of the three, is very much an adult-themed show — sensual and beautiful and erotic, and the finale is incredible. Mystère was my least favorite of the shows, but was still an impressive showcase of acrobatics and music, and extra points if you love trampolines.

We had a specific mission when we went to Vegas. It has a reputation as a city couples elope in, and we took advantage of that. My companion dropped hints to a few of her friends along the lines of running off to Vegas and getting married as she discussed me with her friends. I told my parents that we were taking a vacation together but didn't say where we were going. So, on the strip, we looked for a seedy authentic Vegas chapel to get a picture in front of. We found two.

The one we wanted to use, but ultimately couldn't because it wasn't lit well at night, was a small chapel right next to an adult video store. We would have arranged the picture to have both signs visible simultaneously. The one we used was the Chapel of the Bells, where they'll chauffer you to a courthouse to obtain a marriage license… and yes, they even have an Elvis package!

When we arrived we asked the security guard to take our picture, which he was happy to do… until a strung-out hooker walked toward the area and the guard had to do his job and take care of the situation. Happily, at almost the same time, another couple showed up who wanted to do the exact same thing! We all laughed at the situation, took pictures of each other in front of the chapel, and went our separate ways. My companion sent a cell phone to a few of her friends immediately, and to some of mine the next day. We each had one person believe we had gotten married. Much fun!

This was a superb vacation. We knew that we would enjoy it simply because we could spend that time together. It turned out to be tremendously fun, too, much better than either of us expected. It was thoroughly wonderful and highly memorable.

And yes, we took a gondola ride at the Venetian. :)

Us in front of the Chapel of the Bells

Us in front of the Bellagio

October 04, 2008

Rep. David Wu on the Bailout

My "representative" in Congress, David Wu, voted against the bailout package on 9/29 but then voted for it on 10/3. He released statements explaining his actions on both votes and, shockingly, he cited the "sweeteners" added to the bill after it was originally rejected as the reason he changed his vote.

I now have a simple litmus test for the next election. If there is a difference in positions on the bailout among the candidates, I will support the one who voted against the bailout, or says they would have voted against the bailout. A candidate who pledges to introduce a bill to repeal the bailout automatically gets my vote.

I hope my local readers will join me in voting Rep. Wu out of office.

Tiny Island