What is a shovelware game? These were games that were made on a tight budget and with juuust enough time put into the coding to call it complete, but without any real quality testing or bug checks. They often weren’t especially fun after the first ten minutes unless the designer lucked into something clever accidentally. Even given good mechanics, many shovelware games were poorly made. Action 52 is infamous for not only glitches, but a number of repeats disguised as new games within the cartridge, using the same game mechanics under new names and graphics to bulk up the game count.
Once word-of-mouth got into magazine reviews, and then into online reviews that anyone could access, cheap, poorly made games stopped turning a profit, and the studios either had to adapt or go out of business. The best they could hope for was a quick buck before word got out and the cartridges got returned.
The games themselves, though, didn’t do either of those. The truest concept of the shovelware game lived on, in cheap garbage mobile games.
Shovelware didn’t disappear. It just changed shape.
Ads Show The Whole Game
Much like earlier shovelware, these mobile games advertise themselves with the shotgun mentality. If you have apps like Duolingo, for example, you’ve probably seen footage of these games being played. Redecorate the house. Help the girl get revenge on her ex. Pull the pins without killing the knight with lava. Help the butler match symbols to fix the window. Things of that sort. For bonus points, the ad is often deliberately showing you what not to do in an attempt to trigger your curiosity, just in case the premise itself isn’t actually interesting enough to hold your attention. You would see the entire game in thirty seconds if they didn’t. The mobile games market isn’t exactly full of the deep-cutting mechanics-driven indie games you can find all over Steam, but these are especially bad examples of what is technically ‘a game’. They’re riddled with ads for other games, the graphics are simple, there aren’t very many levels, it’s repetitive, et cetera.
By every definition, this is where shovelware went! The new generation can offer up the game for free in exchange for ad revenue, making the sale a lot easier and reducing customer expectations. Do good versions of these games exist? Absolutely! The same could be said for the original shovelwares too. Good platformers are always trying to out-advertise bad ones.
“Yeah! You Want ‘Those Games’ Right?”
Most people know those games are bad – the good games have good reviews and don’t advertise nearly as much. A parody of the very idea, called ‘Yeah! You Want “Those Games,” Right? So Here You Go! Now, Let’s See You Clear Them!’ (Shortened just to ‘Those Games’ by most reviewers) does exactly what it says on the tin. It takes the games seen in the mobile ads, redresses them, and then presents them as clearable levels. The common joke about those ads is that nobody in the ad can play the game right – Those Games dares you to try, without the game itself getting in its own way. By condensing them like this, Those Games actually fixes many of the issues with the games. It becomes more like WarioWare and less like Action 52.
Shovelware won’t be going anywhere any time soon, but hey – at least now there’s a better version of it.
The internet is not and has never been a place of decorum and manners. Small pockets can be – big open areas accessible to everyone are not.
Direct, face-to-face society requires one set of rules, between strangers at the grocery store or family eating dinner together. Familiar, non-anonymous internet requires another – Discord servers and forums expect a certain level of politeness from members, but it’s a little looser than face-to-face. Jokes might be a bit ruder, and advice might be blunter, but that can be a good thing if users are trying to be constructive instead of destructive. Tone tags, a recent development that has been semi-successfully introduced in these tide-pool like communities, help ease communication further.
Past that, we get into public social media. To say people are ruder (both by accident and on purpose) is an understatement. While most people are nice just because they are, there is a small percentage of people who are nice to avoid social consequences, and once they think those consequences won’t apply, they start trolling. They may not even be doing it on purpose! The online public assumes bad faith. If something can be read wrong, it will be.
As a general trend, the bigger an online community or space gets, the worse the mood gets. Strangers get meaner to other strangers than they do to their online friends or strangers in real life. They’re more casual. They’re ‘stans’, hyper-fans of their favorite singer, who will defend them from any criticism to the death. They’re bizarrely obsessed with correcting information in forums that don’t have the space for nuanced discussions of the thing being corrected. In real life, they’re polite, but online, they don’t need to be. There aren’t any consequences outside of a potential blocking. That is, until terrible data security comes into play.
Bad Data Security
The online public is rapidly approaching the same information saturation as the in-person public. Trolls used to be mostly anonymous – now, when someone leaves a weird or mean comment on someone else’s Instagram or TikTok page, there’s a solid chance they’ve left their real name, video footage of their face, and possibly footage showing the outside of their home or major local landmarks somewhere on their profile. You could find that person. This is no longer a fuzzy, indistinct image of someone smashing on their keyboard from their parent’s attic – it’s a thirteen-year-old who just posted about their football team winning the regionals, and the guy in the Tiger mascot suit totally tripped and scraped up the head part when they all went to a local family burger joint named ‘Buckley’s Burgers’ on Swanrise Blvd. after the game ended at 8 PM, Eastern time. Their full name is in their bio, as well as their diagnosis of anxiety and their real age. Friends of theirs are shown on their profile. They probably even have their Instagram linked. Anyone could find this kid. It would be a matter of three Google searches to find the town that restaurant is in, schools in the area, and then which of those schools has a tiger mascot. That’s all it would take.
Being so casual online about being mean, and also being so casual about the data they’re releasing, makes doxxing and cyberbullying easier than ever. The average cyberbully has enough semi-private information to send their target into a breakdown. Sure, everyone knows that people are mean online, but the data – that’s totally new. This upcoming generation of children has not been taught to avoid sharing this data. The generation of adults currently making up most of the internet does not care anymore. Constant whistleblowing about how Facebook is harvesting everyone’s data has made the average Redditor, TikToker, Instagrammer, et cetera complacent about what they’re sharing because ‘Facebook knows anyway’. Yeah – but Facebook is selling to advertisers, not giving this information freely to people who would just love to make a point out of showing up somewhere to bump into their nemesis in public.
Worse, some corners expect users to freely give out info that could put them in danger for safety’s sake. Age is a big one: labelling accounts run by minors as such is supposed to keep both adults and those minors safe, without forcing either of them off the platform. Adults can block minors, and minors can block adults, and both get to stay in their bubble and only interact with who they are ‘allowed’ to. But it doesn’t actually work that well. Firstly, kids lie about their age to get accounts with more permissions all the time, and secondly, adults do too! Having a minor marked as a minor is not a magic forcefield protecting them from harm. The same goes for mental illnesses, neurodivergencies, disabilities, and more. Demanding these labels be in a bio before a member is allowed to comment in a forum or on a video means that member now has to show the entire online public that they may be easy to lie to, that they could seize if DM’ed pictures of flashing lights, that certain pictures or audio clips might trigger PTSD episodes, and more.
If you’re a part of these platforms, remember – you don’t owe strangers anything more than base-level politeness!
When a company is big enough to become an official channel of communication for the White House, it’s not shocking that jerking it around in an effort to break things off of it is going to break a lot more than leadership bargained for. Twitter, now X, is experiencing quite a bit of seismic activity in response to their rebrand.
Purely From A ‘Visibility of Leadership’ Viewpoint
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the current CEO’s reputation as a funny rich guy is going down the pipes. He launched a car into space! Haha, what a Bond villain! He sold a flamethrower! Haha, what a Bond villain! He smoked a joint on Joe Rogan’s show! Haha, what an Everyman. He illegally started taking Twitter’s old sign down and replaced it with an incredibly bright one that strobes every twenty seconds! Haha…. what… but that’s not….that’s like… Lex Luthor, not Tony Stark. A man who made a program that Twitter bought had to tweet at Twitter leadership to ask whether or not he was still going to receive the money he was owed for his work, and the CEO, barely researching the issue at all, tried to embarrass him into dropping it with private medical info that Twitter The Company did not have the right to share. That’s not even Lex Luthor – that’s abominable.
It’s important to know these things for context. Musk, the current CEO, is not and has never been playing 4-D chess with this purchase. Turning Twitter into X instead of simply making X is a result of impulsive tweets and communications that (falsely) boosted the hopes for Tesla’s stock price. Remember how hard he was trying to get out of it? Especially the stuff about the bot count? He didn’t want it. But not following through would have landed him in hot water with the US government for stock manipulation, perhaps even insider trading.
He could have made his own social media platform instead of buying the most expensive one on the market, and he probably would have been better off for it if he hadn’t been memeing, but he had something to prove. He had to prove he was funny and cool and so rich he could just buy Twitter on impulse.
Musk’s incredible wealth has insulated him from consequences. Worse, Twitter’s status as an important communications tool is delaying further consequences for the company itself. The companies hosting the servers are reluctant to shut it down or throttle. Advertisers pulled away from Twitter, but losing their money didn’t turn off the lights like so many predicted it would. Meeting the definition of ‘doing business with’ terrorist organizations may have already triggered investigations by the US government, but they’re moving so slow it’s impossible to tell what’s happening. The company itself is running on a skeleton crew, but the people remaining are effectively held hostage by visa requirements or somehow believe they can fix what’s been broken. View rate limits keep people from scrolling perpetually like they always have. Despite everything, despite waves and waves of bad choices, bad updates, firings, missed rent payments, bad sources of income, all the things that used to take down giants like Sears, MySpace, Kmart, et cetera, Twitter lumbers on, a giant among giants. The landlord can’t even get them out of the building despite Twitter tampering with the signs outside of it without a permit. Part of the reason people are so eager for the ship to go down is because by all rights, Twitter should have died already. And yet users keep going back! Twitter keeps limping forward! Few websites have ever been able to keep crawling forward like this after getting kneecapped, but by golly Twitter is hanging in there.
One More Sign, One More Change, One More Anything
The sign’s hanging in there too! The sign(s), actually. The whole reason I’m writing this article is because of the signs and what they represent within Twitter, now X. We know rebranding to X is wiping out a ton of brand recognition. How does Musk intend to make up for all the lost years of bird? By changing the sign on the San Francisco Twitter building into a giant, blinding white Unicode character X. This is after Twitter tried to take down the old sign without getting the building’s permission first, and the cops came and stopped them taking letters off before they were even half done. Both signs, both bad, were on the building at the same time, and neither had the necessary permits from the city to be in the state they were in, either partially torn down or powered up.
Musk’s blinding X sign was an unusual sight on the San Francisco streets because those signs are a genuine danger to drivers at night, so nobody else puts them up. It’s likely that they’re not allowed to. Twitter happened to be right across from a residential building (which is occupied even on the weekends) but even if it wasn’t, several thousand lumens of strobing, flashing light is irritating unless you’re actively seeking it out at shows and such. It didn’t stay. Like the process for removing the sign, Musk did not get permits to put this new one up – it wouldn’t have strobed like that if he had. It wouldn’t have been as bright, or as annoying, if he’d just gone through the process and let someone tell him no.
The culture of the clapback has been around for far longer than social media. It’s the snappy one liner that turns an argument, the callout for hypocrisy or manipulation that makes it clear to passerby the other guy is a fool. It goes back far enough that it’s written into myth! For example: it is rumored that Diogenes barged into the philosopher Plato’s lecture with a plucked chicken, shouting “Behold! A Man!”, after Plato defined a human as a featherless biped. That could be considered a clapback.
Plato and Diogenes knew each other pretty well, and Plato’s students knew of Diogenes well enough to know he was a nuisance, albeit a funny one. He was a philosopher, but he was also mostly just some guy, and by poking holes in the way Plato and others were attempting to define the world, he was forcing them to come up with better answers to these questions of meaning. His approach fundamentally altered theirs, and they were forced to consider ‘what is Diogenes going to say about the thing I’m saying?’ when pondering before sharing their ideas.
How Does That Work Out Online?
The spiritual identity of the clapback has not actually changed that much since Roman times. What has changed is the way we talk to each other in general. Social media makes reaching for clapbacks about a person’s background significantly easier than it was even ten or twenty years ago, and what people are calling clapbacks are becoming less like what Diogenes was doing to Plato and more like… doxxing, and/or bullying, especially now that the average Instagram user is much worse about data privacy than they were even five years ago. As a result, people online who think they’re making a clapback are given a huge arsenal of information to hurt the poster with, and end up overstepping a snappy comeback well into cyberbullying.
These two things have not combined well at all!
TikTok is a shining example of this poor mix. It’s filled with kids, teens, and young adults who don’t think twice about edgy jokes and also don’t think about their posting history. In a world where clapback videos go viral on the app, it is inevitable that some of the people trying desperately to get internet famous off of the philosophy are going to completely miss the point. Instead of calling out hypocrisy, or forcing people to think through what they’re saying before they say it, they just point at something unrelated and say ‘haha, blue hair. Opinion Irrelevant’. It’s usually done to negative comments, but there’s a spectrum to how negative a comment is, and some don’t deserve what they get back in response. Especially since it’s so hard to tell when someone is actually saying something seriously, or if they’re just trying to be sarcastic and failed. There is a view- and like-based incentive to read things wrong and overreact. While commenting on a mental illness a troll has written in their bio stops them from commenting, so would blocking them.
One example: a user on TikTok made a video of a teen’s profile where a dove emoji and the phrase ‘fly high [name]’ were visible in their bio. That’s generally recognized online as a memorial for a dead loved one. That user made the video to make fun of the kid for daring to comment anything even slightly mean when they had a memorial on their profile. Another one came from ‘person A’ posting a video of themselves, and ‘person B’ leaving a vaguely impolite comment about their hair, not the subject of the video but certainly visible enough in it to comment on. Person A then proceeded to dig through a full year of Instagram photos to find a single image in which self-harm scars were barely visible in order to mock person B… for making a hair joke.
That is an insane thing to do! Worse, since neither of these were obvious grabs, it’s not even really a clapback. It’s just being mean.
Is There Room For Better Clapbacks on Social Media?
The thing about clapbacks is that they’re usually funny for most of the parties involved, even the person getting it. Someone has said something dumb or lacking self-awareness, and someone else points it out. The humor is in finding an obvious contradiction, not just saying something mean in return! For maximum effect, it has to actually be related. Diogenes storming in with a chicken, calling it a man using Plato’s criteria, is funny. Commenting on a dead relative being dead? Not really, once the shock wears off. Clapping back on someone for commenting on your hair when you both have goofy hairstyles? That’s funny. Digging through a year of photos for a 15 second response video? A lot of work for basically no real payoff.
It’s no secret that a swarm of content creation accounts have made huge empires out of making things on camera. The twist, however, is that the final product is either dangerous, flimsy, or not even useful at all. You can repair flip flops with hot glue! You can make secret shelves with hot glue! You can make little dinosaur planters with hot glue! Hot glue is like 3D printing for people who don’t have a 3D printer! Don’t even get me started on the microwave. Ignore all of the people maimed by hot oil or microwaved eggs.
The content is usually either deeply unhelpful, targeted towards people with specific fixations, barely possible, or moderately dangerous. Lipstick shoes! DIY oil popcorn cookers made out of soda cans! Microwaved poached eggs! Why don’t you go ahead and pop the transformer out of your microwave and use it to burn wood? It’s only like, what, 2000 volts? It’ll kill you, and it’ll hurt the whole time it’s doing it, but the burned wood looks so cool!
This is rage bait. Cheap content not meant for humans to actually absorb and make use of. It didn’t start that way – those channels used to produce content that was bad, but still doable. When they started getting bad, or when people tried to recreate them in a funny way, Youtube (and other social media platforms) started promoting them to the front page because they were getting a lot of views and a lot of interaction. Ironically, by trying to show people how dumb and un-useful the hacks were, commentary channels only gave them strength.
Ragebait is great for views. Ridiculous stuff that could harm people trying to recreate it is also great for views. They don’t think you’ll actually make any of the stuff they feature in the video, but hey, even if you do, you’ll credit them and film it. Right? So they don’t actually need to make videos about DIYs that work.
Good channels showing projects you can do yourself still exist, but the big content farms seem to go out of their way to avoid making useful things. Nothing online can be taken at face value.
Do It Yourself (But Don’t Copy Pls)
Even when the DIYers are showing people things they made that do work, sometimes they don’t mean for other people to actually Do It Themselves. Two DIY TikTok accounts run by people with similar visions for their homes have come into conflict on TikTok: Kaarin Joy, a DIYer, was recently accused of copying TayBeepBoop, another DIYer. Both have posted videos about turning their houses into their dream homes, and both are maximalists.
Maximalism as it exists today draws in a lot of bright colors and wacky, strange, and fun furniture. There are different flavors of it (There’s a sort of Victorian kind, a Boho kind, etc.) but these two both went to the Nickelodeon School of maximalism. One cohesive color palette, a commitment to squiggly lines, and a bunch of brightly colored plastic decorations. Tay received DMs from fans framing Kaarin’s work as “an exact copy” of Tay’s projects, and decided to go through Kaarin’s account and point out the similarities as well as blocking her in a callout video. Were there similarities? Yes. Both are maximalists. Both post DIY content explaining how they did what they did. Both like the color green. Both have orange couches and both created a furniture item that could be described as a ‘moss mirror’.
But having the same style (maximalism) is not the same as copying. Tay’s moss mirror and Kaarin’s moss mirror are both the results of improvising around different problems, and they look completely different for both being the ‘same thing’. The people who tattled on Kaarin for copying were correct on a surface level, but not any deeper. Of course there’s overlap: they both like the same style. It’s like calling out a minimalist for using a lot of white in their decorating.
Even if Kaarin was copying, Tay is a content creator who shows people how she put together her home step by step! If she’s not creating stuff she intends for other people to DIY themselves, she’s doing a bad job of warning them off of it. Tay said she wasn’t even aware of Kaarin until the DMers offered her up as a copycat. Tay then went in expecting to see a shameless copier and didn’t give benefit of the doubt. Tay seems reasonable most of the time, but in this case she was pointing out years-old maximalist trends and furniture colors as evidence of copying. Furniture colors! If you were to buy an orange couch, and put some art behind it, you might be copying Tay. If you were to buy Tay’s wallpaper, which is not only in her house but also something she sells, then you’re definitely copying. Again, I want to believe the person doing the call-out didn’t actually look at what they were calling out. If she was actually saying ‘this wallpaper is copying’, she would be tacitly saying ‘don’t buy my wallpaper’. That just doesn’t make any sense. The drive to create content trips plenty of people up across all genres.
This conflict is almost inconsequential, a result of many thousands of people running out of freshly made TV drama to watch thanks to a strike and turning to online drama instead, but at the same time, deciding that using the same trends to get the same rough vibe in your house is somehow wrong is indicative of a deeper problem with creators. She knew it was petty (she says so in the video), but instead of blocking and moving on, she made a video about it. Personal twists on a larger idea are essential to style movements, not a problem with them.
DIY For Who?
Most DIY content is made, liked, and saved aspirationally. There are so many people with so many cool tips for fixing drywall, or painting a table, or doing something cool with pictures on a wall. The average person is not buying tables every two weeks and patching drywall every three days, though! The DIY content treadmill is a strange place to be, full of strangers who are looking to the creator for tips and tricks on things they may do later, or even admit in the comment section that they have no use for at all, and simply watched because the process was cool.
Optical storage is defined by IBM as any storage medium that uses a laser to read and write the information. The use of lasers means that more information can be packed into a smaller space than tape could manage (at the time)! Better quality and longer media time are natural results. A laser burns information into the surface of the media, and then the reading laser, which is less powerful, can decipher these burnt areas into usable data. The surface is usually some sort of metal or dye sandwiched between protective layers of plastic that burns easily, producing ‘pits’ or less reflective areas for the laser to read.
This is why fingerprints and scratches can pose such a problem for reading data; even though you aren’t damaging the actual data storage, like you would be if you scratched a hard drive disk, fingerprints prevent the laser from being able to read the data. Scratch up the plastic layer above the dye, and the data’s as good as destroyed.
Destroying data can be even more complete than that, even. Shredding the disc in a capable paper shredder (ONLY IF IT SAYS IT CAN SHRED DISCS) destroys the data, as does microwaving the disc. Don’t microwave the disc unless you plan on trashing the microwave soon, though. Most discs contain some amount of metal, and that can wear the microwave out faster. Fun!
“Burning a CD” replaced “making a mix tape” when both CDs and downloadable music were available to teenagers, and for good reason. The amount of content may be roughly the same, but the quality is significantly higher.
Most CDs are CD-Rs – disks that can only be written on once but can be read until the end of time. A CD-ROM is just a CD-R that’s been used! The average CD-R has room for about an album’s worth of music, and maybe a hidden track or two, about 75-80 minutes depending on the manufacturer of the disc. Alternatively, if you’d like to store data instead of high-quality audio, you’ll get about 700 MB of data onto a single disc.
To burn a CD, you’d need an optical drive that’s capable of also lasering information into the disc, which wasn’t always the standard. The laser will burn the information into the metal-dye mix behind the plastic coating the outside of the disc, which permanently changes how reflective those sections are. This makes it possible to visually tell what has and hasn’t been used on a disc yet, and CD-Rs can be burnt in multiple sessions! Data is typically burnt from the center outwards.
But everybody knows about CD-Rs. What about CD-RWs, their much fussier brethren?
The primary difference between a CD-R and a CD-RW is the dye used in the layers that the optical drives can read. CD-RWs are burnt less deeply than CD-Rs, but as a result, they take a more sensitive reader. Early disc readers sometimes can’t read more modern CD-RWs as a result!
To reuse the disc, one has to blank it first (the same drive that can write a CD-RW in the first place should also be able to blank it), which takes time. After it’s been wiped, new data can be put onto the disc again. CD-RWs wear out quicker than other memory media as a result of their medium. That wafer-thin dye layer can only handle being rearranged so many times before it loses the ability to actually hold the data. It’s pretty unlikely that the average user could hit that re-write limit, but it’s more possible than, say, a hard drive, which has a re-write life about 100 times longer than the re-write life of a CD-RW.
DVDs store significantly more data than CDs do, even though they take up about the same space. Where a CD can hold about 700 MB, a DVD can hold up to 4.7 GB. This is enough for most movies, but if the movie is especially long or has a lot of other extra features, it has to be double layered, which can store up to 9 GB. Why can it hold so much more in the same space?
The long answer is that there are a number of small differences that ultimately lead to a DVD having more burnable space, including a closer ‘laser spiral’ (the track a laser burns, like the grooves in a vinyl record), as well as smaller readable pockets. It all adds up into more data storage, but a more expensive product as well.
DVD +R DL
That double-layering mentioned earlier isn’t present on every disc. Sometime in the later 2000s, double layer discs hit the market at about the same price as single layer discs (although that changed over time). The first layer that the laser can read is made of a semi-transparent dye, so the laser can penetrate it to reach the other layer.
Most modern DVD drives can read dual layer, but if your computer is especially old, it would be wise to check its specs first – DVD readers programmed before their release might not understand the second layer, and readers that can read them might not be able to write to them. DLs are a great invention, it’s just a struggle to find good disc readers when everything is switching to digital.
CD players aren’t usually also able to play DVDs. CDs came first, and the reader would have to be forwards compatible. Obviously, this would have taken a time machine to actually assemble. Picture expecting a record player to read a CD! The gap between the two is almost that large. Nowadays, the manufacturing standard seems to be a DVD player with CD compatibility tacked on. You should double check before you buy a disc reader to be sure it can do everything you want it to, but it’s less common to see CD-Only tech when a DVD reader is only slightly more expensive to create, and can work backwards.
DVDs also carve out pits (or burn marks) into the shiny material of the disk. Just like CDs, a DVD can only be written on once, although DVD-RWs do exist (and struggle like CD-RWs do).
FlexPlay Self-Destructing Entertainment
Remember FlexPlay self-destructing entertainment? The disc that was meant to simulate a rental and could have generated literal tons of trash per family, per year? The self-destructing medium that the disc was coated in turned very dark red to thwart the disc reader’s lasers! The pits aren’t directly on the surface of the DVD, they’re under a couple of layers of plastic. All FlexPlay had to do was sandwich an additional layer of dye between the plastic and the metal/dye that’s being inscribed upon. When that dye obscures the data below it, it’s as good as gone! The laser can no longer get through to the information and read it. Even Blu-Ray tech was thwarted by the dye.
Blu-Ray discs have higher visual quality than DVDs because they hold even more information. The blue-ray technology enables the pits to be even closer together, so more optical data can be crammed into the same space. Blue light has a shorter wavelength than red light, which shrinks the necessary pit size! A single-layer Blu-Ray disc can hold up to 25 GB of information! Blu-Ray discs are most commonly used for entertainment media rather than storage. Disc readers have to be specifically compatible with that blue laser technology, rather than just programmed for it. An ordinary DVD player may be able to play a CD, but it wouldn’t be able to fully read a pit in a Blu-Ray disc before that pit’s passed the reader.
Right now, the state of the art is Blu-Ray: most good Blu-Ray readers are backwards compatible with DVDs and CDs. However, many companies still sell ordinary DVDs alongside their Blu-ray releases due to cost. If you have a DVD player, you can probably hold off on upgrading, at least for a little while longer.
Old Nintendo games look very different from what people remembered them as. They’re not crazy, or blinded by nostalgia – the games really did look a lot better.
The secret is the CRT monitor.
The CRT – and Pixels
A pixel is defined as the smallest controllable unit of an image on-screen. This has changed some over time! In old digital clocks, the bars making up the numbers would act as its pixels. In CRTs, it was little cubes where the red, green, blue, and white projection lights lined up to give that cube the right color.
Old-style living-room CRTs usually had a resolution of 480p. When you see a number followed by ‘p’, like 480p, it’s referring to the number of rows of pixels lined up top-to-bottom, so any screen could theoretically be 480p – it’s just more impressive the smaller the screen is. 480p was the standard for many late 90’s/early 2000’s games, because CRTs were widely available. CRTs weren’t bad, for the time! Rear-projection models could get huge, but the kind that blasted the image directly onto the screen was limited to a size of about 30”.
CRTs also had the unique ‘CRT grid’. Because of how CRTs work, the individual pixels didn’t connect to each other neatly like they do on modern screens – a small outline of darkness surrounds each pixel. The pixel inside said outline isn’t perfectly ‘square’, either, like they are on modern displays. If you get up close to a CRT screen (don’t, it’s bad for your eyes) you’d be able to see the three colors being projected onto the glass of said screen, and they form a squarish blob or a series of colored lines, depending on brand. When you back up, it looks like a picture, and your brain automatically fills in the gaps left by the un-connected parts. This is a huge part of why these games don’t look as good as they used to! Current monitors don’t have gaps visible to the naked eye between pixels.
Game designers were able to factor this in to give the illusion that the image was much clearer than it was – Pikachu in 480P looked incredible back then, but terrible today in that same 480p. Nostalgia hasn’t clouded vision, Pikachu really did look a lot less blocky. The CRT’s rounded off pixel-corners meant that developers could fill those pixels in right to the edge and still get a polished, rounded appearance – your brain, as mentioned previously, is also filling in gaps for you, as a sort of optical illusion. They couldn’t make a perfectly smooth curve, so they let you do it.
In absolute terms, games looked slightly worse before they got much better. 3-D games especially. Two-dimensional sprites could be fudged – there’s only so many positions for the characters to be in, so animate a jumping sequence, an attacking sequence, etc. and you’re good to go. Those games often still look great on modern monitors. 3-Dimensional games had to build a doll that the player could control and view from every angle, which was a lot for early computers. Their saving grace was that CRT – characters could be flawed and un-specific without being unreadable. With CRTs in the mix, many people didn’t notice that the PS1 games looked very different from PS2 games at the time, unless they were fancy and upgraded their screen without also upgrading to the next console. With the benefit of hindsight, games that were only a few years apart do look really different: Resident Evil 4 doesn’t look too bad on a modern screen, while Resident Evil 2 looks noticeably dated in comparison! But at the time, Resident Evil 3 looked marginally better than 2, and 4 only looked a little better than 3.
Most gamers never noticed that their old games were secretly ugly until many years down the line, in the modern era. Even that’s not a really fair statement – they weren’t ugly when they went in. It’s like trying to watch one of the old-style 3-D movies without the glasses, they were designed to be played on CRTs. We’re just noticing this now because emulators and ROMs for dead or missing games are more available than ever!
Nowadays, with our perfectly square pixels, Pikachu looks much more… square. In fact, everything from old games does. Old games had very limited computer power to work with, so little hacks and tricks like this kept the games running smoothly. Blocky Pikachu is barely noticeable, but leaving him without fine detail frees up enough space to add extra plant textures to the island. Unfortunately, ROMs bring the old game to life without its limitations – the CRT monitor’s grid isn’t easy to recreate in a visually appealing way.
The original games with this art style weren’t meant for modern screens. The consoles are producing the same images now as they did back then, it’s just much clearer. I’m sure when we get to a point where projection or VR games are common, these old “3-D” games will look like trash compared to real 3-D, and it won’t be an accurate representation of the way we played those games.
Right now, the best option to get those nice-looking characters back is to recreate the CRT’s grid over top of the image, which many ROM creators are reluctant to do – many players would rather have a slightly uglier game in high-res than a more attractive game in low-res.
As a result, players are unintentionally led to believe the game really was that ugly. It just wasn’t.
An emulator is a program that emulates a game console, usually for the purpose of playing a game that is – either by price, age, or device – inaccessible. Streamers commonly use emulators to play Pokemon games made for the Gameboy, so they can screen-record their gameplay directly from their computer instead of having to somehow hook the Gameboy up to it. Zelda fans might want to play Ocarina of Time, but they might also find that the console to play it on is awfully expensive for one game, but an emulator is pretty cheap! In certain cases, games are geolocked – countries restrict access to certain forms of art as a means of censorship. Emulators can make those games accessible to people who want to play them in that country.
In the 1990s, consoles were on top when it came to games. Computers were rapidly gaining in power, however, and some folks realized that the console could be recreated using a home computer. The first emulators were born via reverse-engineering console coding. They evaded legal action by only copying devices that were outdated, but that changed too with a major emulator made for the Nintendo 64 while it was still in production. Nintendo pursued legal action to stop the primary creators, but other folks who had already gotten their hands on the source code kept the project going.
Ever since then, emulators have lived in a delicate balance of making games available and making them so available that the parent company decides to step in and try to wipe it out, which is nearly impossible once it’s out on the open web. Gamers simply won’t allow a good emulator to die!
Copyrights are crucial to the gaming ecosystem, and it’s a delicate balance of allowing fan art, but disallowing unauthorized gameplay. Allowing game mods, but disallowing tampering that could lead to free copies being distributed against the company’s wishes. Copyright laws are always evolving – new tech comes with new ways to copy, create, and distribute intellectual property. Generally, though, copyright falls back to permission: did the original company intend for their IP to be used in this way?
Emulators and copyright don’t get along very well at all! Emulators are, by their very definition, creating access to the game in a way the original company didn’t intend. As such, it’s unofficial, and if money is exchanged, it’s not normally between the copyright holder company and the customer, it’s the customer and some third unauthorized party.
Games aren’t selling you just the physical disk. You’re buying a license to play the game. If you take it as far as Xbox intended to back when the Xbox One was coming out, friends are only allowed to come over and play with you on your license because the company can’t enforce it. It’s a limitation of the system that they can’t keep you from sharing disks.
Not every company thinks like this (see the Playstation 5), but that’s the most extreme possible interpretation. You bought a disk so you could play a copy of their game that they have licensed out to you. You own the right to play that copy of the game, you don’t own the game itself.
Consider: Death of a Console
When a console dies, it’s taking all of its content with it. There is no more money to be made off of it, and the games are going to slowly disappear into collections and trash bins.
Does art need to exist forever, or is it okay if some art is temporary? Not every Rembrandt sketch is still in trade – some of it was just sketches, and he obviously discarded some of his own, immature art. Immature art is interesting to see, but it’s not what the artist wanted their audience to see. Otherwise it would have been better kept. Think about the ill-fated E.T. game that Atari made. They weren’t proud of it, they didn’t want it seen, and they saw fit to bury it. So they buried it. It was directly against their wishes for people to find this game and then play it. Emulating it is obviously not what the programmers who made it wanted for it.
But then consider all the little games included on a cartridge that’s just forgotten to the sands of time, made by a programmer who didn’t want it to fade away? Acrobat, also for the Atari, isn’t very well-remembered, but it still made it onto Atari’s anniversary console sold in-stores. 97 games on that bad boy, and Acrobat was included. It’s not a deep game, it’s nearly a single player Pong. But the programmers who made it didn’t ask for it to be excluded from the collection, so some amount of pride must exist over it, right? Does the game have to be good to be emulated? Is only good art allowed to continue existing officially?
Is all art meant to be accessible to everyone?
If some art is made with the intent to last forever, is it disregarding the creator’s wishes to not emulate it, against their production company’s wishes?
If art’s made to last forever but the artist (and society) accepts that that’s simply unrealistic, is it weird to emulate it, in the same way it’s weird to make chat-bots out of dead people? Every tomb we find, we open – even against the wishes of the grave owner, in the case of the Egyptians, or against the wishes of the living relatives, in the case of Native Americans. Video games are kind of like tombs for games that have lived their life and then died. But they’re also kind of like art.
When you get past the copyright, it’s a strange, strange world to be in.
Stealing goes against the ethics of most societies, modern or not. The case against emulators is that it’s stealing. It often is! An emulator/ROM (ROMs act as the ‘disc’ or ‘cartridge’ for the emulator) for Breath of the Wild was ready just a few weeks after the game launched, which could have seriously dampened sales if Nintendo didn’t step in to try and stop that. That first emulator, the one for the Nintendo 64, also drew a lot of negative attention for the same reasons, potentially siphoning away vital sales.
However, there’s a case to be made for games and consoles that aren’t in production anymore.
Is this a victimless crime, if the original game company really can’t make any more money off of it? It’s one thing to condemn piracy when the company is still relying on that income to make more games and pay their workers, it’s another entirely when the game studio isn’t interested in continuing support, and the console had a fatal fault in it that caused many of them to die after 10 years. That game is as good as gone forever without emulators. With no money to be made, why not emulate it?
In less extreme circumstances, the console’s still functioning, but the cartridges that went to it are incredibly rare. The company could potentially make money off of the game if they someday decided to remaster it, but that’s unknowable. Licenses could be available for purchases… but they aren’t right now.
Or, even better, the cartridges are still available for purchase in the secondary market. You just don’t happen to have the console, which has now spiked to a cost of 400 dollars due to reduced supply over time. You buy the cartridge – you’re still buying the license, you just don’t have the car, right?
According to copyright, you need a specific car for a specific license, but ethically, you’ve done the best you can as a consumer.
Assuming you have tried to buy a license for the car. The biggest issue with emulators is that they allow unlicensed drivers access to cars, making piracy much easier than it should be.
Much like Disney did with Club Penguin’s many spinoffs, emulators are kind-of sort-of overlooked up until they start eating into sales. Most companies just don’t want to spend money to enforce an issue like emulators – their game is still being played, their brand is still out there, and the users are going to be very upset if this big company decides to step in and ruin fun when they don’t need to. It may do more harm than good to try and wipe the emulator out when most people want to do the right thing.
Obviously, they’ll need to put a stop to emulating new games – the goal is to spend just enough money to do that effectively without also overstepping and destroying emulators for consoles no longer in production. It takes money to make games, games should earn money as a result. Removing emulators for games and consoles no longer in production isn’t helping them earn money – as such, many are allowed to stay. For now.
Chaotic videos of teens and mascots across all sorts of brands trying the Grimace shake only for something indescribable to happen to them litter social media. Why? Why does the Grimace shake inspire such a reaction?
And why did it make people want the shake more?
It’s no secret that songs with trends attached usually do better on TikTok. Drake’s song “Kiki” started a somewhat dangerous trend of dancing beside a moving car. Tessa Violet’s “Crush” inspired a trend of makeup videos. We have evidence it works for stuff outside of music, too – Martinelli Apple Cider containers blew up big time when teens on the app discovered that they sounded sort of like apples when crushed. Not really, but the incredulity only sold more apple cider.
If you can get something to trend on TikTok, you can sell tons of it. However, this comes with a downside: once the trend is over, the sales go back down. Pink sauce comes to mind – once it was no longer a spectacle, the desire to buy it went out the window for most. Now it’s at Walmart. In many pictures, it’s in the clearance section, a rainbow of inconsistent beige-pink sauce dominating the shelf.
Knowing that, a limited, never-been-done before promotion for Grimace’s birthday was a great idea. The McRib? Shamrock shakes? Who cares, those are things the adults talk about when they come back. The real killer is something new to the teens who go to McDonald’s, and by golly the Grimace Shake delivered.
It’s purple! It’s allegedly blueberry flavored. It comes in a special cup. It’s the sort of cutesy, visually appealing, and easy to imagine beverage that social media loves. It was destined for success. But something bizarre started happening.
TikTok loves horror. They love liminal horror, they love personal horror, they love dreamlike Subway orders and nightmarish song generator accounts both featuring clever editing and implications never outright stated. In this environment, the thought “hey, wouldn’t it be funny if the grimace shake was secretly evil or something?” came to multiple creators almost at the same time. Predictably, the results were completely bizarre. The Grimace shake took on an almost Eldritch status, and consumers of it would do everything from chugging it to bathing in it to cutting to themselves in the Family Guy arm-behind-the-back death pose after drinking it. Truly, it was a phenomenon.
Ultimately, the marketing was a huge success. Teens made funny, trendy videos with the milkshake, kids enjoyed the taste and usually never saw those videos, and since the campaign had a clear ending time, it didn’t have time to start turning cringe. People didn’t run out of ideas before McDonalds stopped selling the shake, at least. As a marketing campaign, it was about the best McDonalds could hope for from a generation of ever-more jaded youngsters looking for something fun to do. Why not make a video with a McDonalds product for the internet? That sounds fun. And it was fun. Something weird happened to a business’s product and everyone just kept running with it. It’s wholesome in comparison to the treatment brands normally get online!
Yeah, CDs are impressive or whatever, but have you ever seen the inside of a VCR?
What makes a VHS different from other options?
Many things! It’s entertainment predecessor, film, was dropped for a couple of reasons. Film is composed of individual images on thin, photosensitive tape, where magnetic tape is the image’s information translated into computer language. A reel film projector is shining a light behind the reel to show the image. If you shined a light behind a VHS’s tape, you’d see nothing but brown! Plus, you can pause VHS tapes. Pause a reel film on the projector without moving the tape, and you risk burning it.
Betamax, VHS’s primary competitor, is arguably superior in every way. Betamax had better resolution, better sound quality, etc. and it came out at the same time as the original VHSs. What separated the two was cost: a Betamax tape was more expensive than VHS, and since VHS was only marginally worse, companies picked it up. Secondly, VHS tapes could record more, but since most movies were under three hours anyway that didn’t do as much for it as pricing did. CED tapes, Hi8 tapes, better, smaller reel tapes, and the rest were also vying for the ‘primary choice’ crown – and the VHS beat them all with durability.
From the beginning, VHSs were kind of an underdog. Radically new tech was always coming and going, VHSs could be another flash in the pan and disappear the next day, like CEDs did. The first company to launch VHS tapes set up standards to prevent VHSs from dying out due to quality issues, but widespread adoption would be up to marketing and luck. Plenty of good ideas on paper died once they were actually put into manufacturing.
How does the tape itself work?
Where CDs and DVDs have no moving parts, VHS tapes are full of them. The tape itself moves on spools, and that forces VCRs to read the data linearly (instead of randomly). All that means is that that the VCR had to read the rest of the tape before it can get to the part you’re looking for, where something like a hard drive can pick a file without reading other files first.
Additionally, the tape is not a loop, it’s a strip. Many media types got caught up in trying to make a self-rewinding form of media, but the tech simply wasn’t there yet to do that cheaply. if you got to go to a Blockbuster before they switched away from tapes, they would kindly remind you to rewind the tape after you were done watching it so the next person to rent the movie doesn’t have to rewind it first. Since the reader works on the tape in both directions, having to do that can spoil the movie.
The information is encoded onto the tape in a couple of areas: there’s a control track, an audio track, and a visual track. The reader can’t read the tape without the audio or control track – trimming either off will cause the tape to fail. A reader head is actively looking for the control track to synchronize with the other tracks, which will ‘pulse’ in sync with each other to ensure correct alignment. If it can’t find it, it doesn’t have a backup plan!
Visual information is encoded onto the tape using two separate writing heads held at a slight angle. The data is magnetized into the tape in an almost herringbone-like pattern, which the VHS can read fast enough to generate smooth images on-screen. This has the added benefit of ‘self-correcting’ – each reader head only reads the data slots that are at its angle, so there’s no weird flashing or jumping between frames. Given the end-user is not doing something strange to the tape, VHSs run pretty smoothly as a result.
How does the reader work?
The reader is composed of a motor, some internal mechanisms to control the speed of the tape, and a couple of reading and writing heads. To play content, the VCR pulls the tape in front of it’s readers, which then decode the information written on the magnetic tape into video. The tape itself is divided into separate areas for audio and video, as well as a timing track. Different heads along the inside of the VCR read the tape as it’s pulled by, and rollers keep it taut between them to prevent tangling.
If one wants to write to a VHS tape, their VCR should be capable – all but the cheapest usually are. VCRs completely revolutionized the entertainment industry by enabling the consumer to record particular episodes or events cheaply. Suddenly, a TV show didn’t need to re-run an episode five or six times to be sure their fans saw it. Their other revolutionary trait was being able to do this when the user wasn’t home – again, all but the cheapest of VCRs were able to record at a set time, with minimal user interference.
VCRs are specially adapted to reuse VHS tapes. It’s possible to tape over other tapes because the VCR, while in writing mode, erases the tape as it goes by so that the writing head has a clean surface to write to. “Taping Over” something persists to this day, even though very few consumer devices use tape anymore!
VHS tapes are pretty durable – but they aren’t invincible. No form of media is! VHS tapes are vulnerable to many of the same things hard drives are: excessive heat may cause warping and a loss of quality, cold and radiation exposure can ruin the information on the tape. Unlike reel film, however, VHSs don’t become worthless when exposed to light. The tape shouldn’t be out of the container, but it’s not ruined if it somehow gets stuck outside the casing for a little while.
It takes a little bit of hunting to find working VCRs, but luckily they’re so simple that even broken ones can be used again. Replacement parts are still sold in specialty stores and online!
Assuming digital content really is the future forever and physical media declines, there are things you can do to convert tapes if you’re worried your home movies aren’t storing well in the attic. VHS-to-digital converters are available for purchase, for example, and places that do photo-printing also frequently offer mail-out services for conversion.