Symbian is dead; long live Symbian?

One of those recent pieces of technological news which caught my eye was that Nokia’s N8 smartphone will be the last of its Nseries range to use the venerable Symbian operating system, and that future phones in the range will use Meego, a Linux variant previously used on the Nokia N900 and its internet tablets. The news hardly comes as a surprise. It seems that the Nseries has finally outgrown Symbian, and with smartphones continuing to resemble mobile computers more than simple telephones, the powerful Linux basis of MeeGo (formerly Maemo) will serve to assist Nokia’s own efforts in this market.

MeeGo is a remarkably flexible operating system, possessing more freedom of use and areas for customisation than many of its competitors. It also takes advantage of the growing power of new smartphones better than Symbian, with a full variant of Mozilla Firefox possessing full Flash capabilities, and the ability to run fully-fledged desktop Linux applications. In contrast, Symbian didn’t exactly acquit itself perfectly in direct contest with the iPhone and Android-based phones which have occupied the higher end of the smartphone market, with a touch-screen interface which might not be as unresponsive as some critics have suggested, but which certainly isn’t as “thumbable” as the iPhone. It’s clear that Symbian was made for a phone with buttons – which are becoming secondary to recent smartphones.

Some commentators have suggested in the past that Symbian’s time is through, and with it disappearing from the Nseries after the N8, it would seem that this viewpoint has some credence. It seems an awfully short-sighted comment to me, ignoring some of the key factors of Symbian as things stand currently. Symbian is still by far the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, and weak sales in the United States don’t reflect Symbian’s success in the rest of the world. In fact, last year, Symbian-based phones outsold the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry platforms combined. That hardly seems to me like the swan-song of a dying platform.

The fact is that Symbian still has some technical advantages which will grant it an extra lease of life. It may not be able to compete directly with the flashy experience of the iPhone or Maemo, but Symbian is a lot more lightweight, not requiring a battery-draining powerhouse to run. For currently extant phone series like the Eseries, some things are more important than the ability to run videos and play games, and the less substantial basis of Symbian will serve these phones much better than MeeGo or any other of its competitors.

There’s another market where Symbian may thrive, and one that hasn’t really been tapped by any competing platform. The iPhone may be the device that comes to most people’s minds when they think about smartphones, but it’s expensive, and so are its direct rivals. Not everybody can afford one of these expensive devices, and the smartphone market will have to open itself up to less costly devices without compromising too much on the features. There are two mobile platforms which seem ready to provide smartphone capacity to affordable devices: Android and Symbian, and only one of these has the weight of the world’s largest mobile-phone company behind it.

We’ve already seen some of the attempts by Nokia to tap into this market; the 5530 and 5800 XpressMusic models and the 5230 are examples. It’ll take a while yet before new devices slot into the market currently held by non-smartphone models, but Nokia at least have more momentum than their competitors there. It’ll be interesting to watch.

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Threads – A Cinematic Review

 

Author’s Note: As a computer gamer, I probably encounter post-apocalyptic scenarios more often than other people, and as a result, it may occur to me that I might survive better in these scenarios than my contemporaries. Sometimes, though, it’s useful to take a step back and realise that I am no less vulnerable than anybody else, and no film expresses this like Threads.

 

In the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was at the height of its military power, possessing thousands of active nuclear warheads and vast conscript armies. With this overwhelming firepower aimed directly at them, it comes as no surprise that the prevailing mood in the United States and Western Europe involved a certain amount of paranoia. It was in this state of paranoia that a number of films, comics and other media were produced dealing with the myriad of “what if?” scenarios which the Cold War was rife with, and among these films was Threads, a BBC-made film dealing with the consequences of a Soviet nuclear attack on Great Britain.

 

Threads, made in 1984, is set in the city of Sheffield, one of Britain’s industrial centres and one of the prime targets for Soviet nuclear weapons. Part documentary, part narrative, Threads takes a narrow focus by focusing on a few select groups of people, but predominantly focusing on two families, the Becketts and the Kemps, who are entwined by an unplanned pregnancy and a prospective marriage. However, in the wider scope, the Soviet Union has invaded Iran following a coup d’etat, and American and Soviet forces begin to fight over possession of the oil-rich deserts of the Middle East.

 

The general premise of Threads is hardly unique – nuclear apocalypses have been a staple of fiction ever since the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, there is a level of detail and a realistic presentation in this film which sets it far apart from the fantasies which usually accompany the portrayal of the nuclear scenario in media.

 

In order to tell its story, a story of ordinary people subjected to extraordinary pressures, the film approaches the scenario in several ways. The predominant method is by using a standard narrative, following the Becketts and Kemps, along with several municipal government staff selected to lead the city in what were then current “continuity of government” directives. By focusing on a small number of people, the film enhances the emotional response towards the characters as well as the drama of the situation that the characters find themselves in.

 

Threads also takes a documentary approach, with informative details occasionally being displayed on screen and reinforced by the narrative elsewhere in the film, which graphically portrays the numerical and textual data shown on screen. With high-quality research throughout the film, including an army of researchers which includes the late Carl Sagan, the film ably manages to demonstrate its data in a realistic fashion, with as few concessions to fantasy as possible.

 

The realistic factor doesn’t just extend to the research – the actors manage to play their parts authentically and realistically, with proper accents and believable dialogue which makes it easier to sympathise and understand the characters. It could be counted among the greatest strengths of the film that it manages to portray such a harrowing and difficult subject without ever seeming mawkish and without hammy acting.

 

Another of the film’s great strengths is the detail and authenticity of the setting. Not only is the wider detail of the setting captured, with trade unionists protesting against the government and CND activists protesting against the potential use of nuclear weapons by the belligerent sides, the minor details are captured as well, including the use of the infamous Protect and Survive commercials which were designed to be played in the run-up to a potential nuclear attack.


I don’t think the irony was lost on the director.

It seems obvious considering the genre, but it stands to be repeated: Threads is not a happy film, nor is it optimistic. The film pulls no punches when it comes to its central message: In a real-life nuclear war, you are probably going to die, and if you don’t die, you will soon wish that you were dead. There is no happy ending – just a slow, horrifying decline towards the end of humanity.

As such, this movie is among the most frightening and disturbing things ever put to film. Unlike the horror films of that decade, though, this isn’t frightening because of cheap scares and sudden shocks – this is frightening because it could have happened and could still happen today. During the actual nuclear attack, people are burned to a crisp by the enormous heat-wave emerging from the hypocentre of the explosion, while in the aftermath, radiation poisoning has its slow, painful and terminal effects on many of the survivors. Yet, after all of this devastation, there is still more suffering to come – overwhelmed hospitals, plagues of cholera and typhoid and widespread starvation.

This film could be admired for its presentation and its detail alone, but even more impressive is the way it manages to portray its very important message without seeming over-the-top or exaggerated. Threads could easily be argued to be one of the most important and significant films ever discussing the subject of the nuclear apocalypse – as the tagline goes, it really is the closest that you’ll ever want to come to a nuclear war.

Bottom Line: Hard-hitting and uncompromising, Threads is a detailed and often-terrifying representation of one of the most powerful threats to ever befall the human race. If this film doesn’t make you think twice about nuclear war, nothing will.

 

Mega Games 1 – A Retrospective Gaming Review

In the early 1990s, Sega was still a major player in the console market, riding high on the success of the Mega Drive and their collection of arcade machines. In 1992, taking advantage of increasing cartridge sizes, Sega released Mega Games 1, a collection of three games from Sega’s back catalogue, and included the game with the European Mega Drive II bundle.

First in the line-up is World Cup Italia ’90. As the name suggests, this is a football game, tying in with the World Cup in Italy in 1990 – exactly as it says on the tin. There are two game modes – the exhibition match mode which allows you to play any team available against any other, and the World Cup mode which portrays the tournament itself.

Graphically, the game is quite colourful and still looks serviceable today, although there is too much reliance on somewhat overcoloured still pictures when the flow of the game moves away from the standard perspective. The sound is reasonable, if not fantastic, although the one attempt at speech synthesis – the commentator shouting, “Goal!” – really shows up the limitations of the sound processor on the Mega Drive.

Unfortunately, once one gets into the gameplay, it soon becomes apparent that this is probably the weakest offering on the cartridge. Games portraying field sports have a tendency not to age well, and this is exactly what has happened with World Cup Italia ’90. The game is played from a top-down perspective, which looks very outdated compared to the isometric and 3D perspectives that were to follow, and limits the portrayal of the sport. As such, World Cup Italia ’90 is not a particularly deep game, with more emphasis on shuffling the ball slowly towards your opponent’s goal than chaining together impressive pass combinations or using superior dribbling methods to outwit your opponents.

Matters aren’t assisted by the lack of licensing for player names, instead relying on lists of generic players for each team. Considering that this was an officially-licensed game, this move seems rather perplexing, and somehow, this move serves to make the game seem even more quaint than including a list of players from a tournament that occurred twenty years ago; at least some of these names are still in common parlance. Ultimately, it doesn’t improve the game’s atmosphere to have such generic player names and only adds another reason to avoid the game.

Well, at least it isn’t as boring as the actual 1990 World Cup – which holds the record for the lowest goals-per-game average.

The next game on the cartridge is Super Hang-On, a motorcycle racing game derived from Sega’s arcade game of the same name. As with World Cup Italia ’90, the game is comprised of two modes, the Arcade Mode and Original Mode. The Arcade Mode follows the gameplay of the arcade Super Hang-On machine, where the player has to race against the clock to beat multi-stage courses before time runs out, similar to the likes of OutRun. The Original Mode, on the other hand, is a new mode designed for the home version of the game, in which the player takes the role of a professional motorcyclist racing for money to upgrade their motorcycle and take on increasingly difficult challengers and racing tracks.

Super Hang-On is easily the most elaborate game on the cartridge, and would be so even if the Original Mode has not been included. With the Original Mode, the game easily overtakes the other games in the compilation for complexity. Starting off with an inexpensive motorcycle, which has handling and acceleration which leaves much to be desired, the player is tasked with winning races against a rival in order to make enough money to improve their motorcycle. Winning five races in a row will bring a new sponsor, providing more money, along with a new rival and racing track.

Unlike the Arcade Mode, where crashing will do nothing but lose you time, the Original Mode takes account of damage to the bike caused by crashes or general wear-and-tear, which requires replacement of components. Some of these components, like the brakes and oil, will only compromise your lap times if they fail to work, while others, like the frame and engine, will immediately lead to your retirement if they fail during the race, and will cause you to be unable to race until they’re replaced. To assist with the task of replacing these components, you get a mechanic. Like the components of the bike, you can purchase the services of a superior mechanic, who will give you better advice on how close the components are to failure.

When you get into the actual racing action itself, the game proves to be pretty good, particularly by the standards of the time. The races are simple time-trials, while trying to avoid other competitors on the track and the obstacles on the sides of the track. The Arcade Mode lends itself well to fast, competitive action, although smoothness rules the day when it comes to racing styles. Conversely, the Original Mode, with its longer tracks, requires a smooth touch at all times in order to preserve the components of the bike.

Considering that there is an omnipresent rival in the Original Mode, you may expect a standard race format, but instead, it’s more like an elaborate time-trial, with your opponent storming off into the lead at the start, and you tasked with trying to overtake him or her. While a time-trial race makes sense within the context of motorcycle racing, particularly road racing – the Isle of Man TT is a true time-trial with bikes setting off with ten-second separations, while the Cookstown 100 is among the road races with staggered packs setting off at different separations, with the quickest overall time winning the race – I don’t believe that Japan, with its busy road network and dense population has a culture of domestic motorcycle road racing, even with their extensive circuit racing experience and massive motorcycle manufacturing industry. It isn’t a feature which detracts from the game, but it is an odd decision, and one that isn’t necessarily explained all that well.

To be fair, the game often seems like it’s being run on roads rather than purpose-built circuits.

The game’s graphics are reasonably competent, and they certainly don’t detract from the racing action. There are plenty of nice details, including the flames emerging from the exhaust pipes when the boost mode is activated and the signposts on the side of the road which mimic entities such as NGK and Marlboro. The game’s sound works well, with nice engine noises and tyre squeals, and the game’s music is nice, if somewhat repetitive when listened to repeatedly.

Overall, Super Hang-On is a solid game, with exciting racing action and plenty of gameplay in the Original Mode, but there are some minor niggles. The necessity to win five times on the same track in Original Mode leads to it feeling rather repetitive after the third or fourth race on the same track. The technical limitations and limited graphics mean that the tracks lack distinctive features, and therefore can be difficult to learn. The game shows its age in other ways as well, like the password system used to save the game, which can be irritating and tedious – particularly as sheets of paper with codes on them can be lost more easily than the actual game cartridge. Ultimately, motorcycle racing has been portrayed better in more recent games, but Super Hang-On still acquits itself acceptably.

The final game in the compilation is Columns, a simple Tetris-style game based on another of Sega’s arcade machines, in which the aim is to get three or more jewels of the same colour in a row by stacking three-jewel pieces in a grid. The general gameplay should be familiar to anybody who has played any sort of puzzle game, and the game is rather simple overall. Out of the games in the compilation, this one has probably aged the best; variants of the game can be found on more recent platforms, and the elements of the game are still applicable to some of today’s “casual gaming” titles.

As with the other games on the cartridge, there are multiple game modes. The Arcade mode throws you straight into the game, with the option of choosing a higher starting difficulty in exchange for more points. The Original Game mode is similar to the Arcade mode, but gives you more flexibility in starting options. The Flash Columns mode is a unique sort of gameplay, where a certain number of rows are already filled, and the objective is to create a reaction with a specific jewel on the bottom row as quickly as possible.

The most basic combinations come from simple three-jewel groupings, but the real fun begins when you try to create chain reactions – large sets of groupings of multiple jewel colours which react one after the other to eliminate large portions of the occupied grid. As with the likes of Tetris, the game can be very addictive and can involve surprisingly complex strategies.

Simple but entertaining – on par with most puzzle games, then.

While two of the games on the Mega Games 1 pack may be individually decent, they have to be taken in context of the compilation as a whole. Columns may be the most palatable game to a modern audience, but doesn’t have much to distinguish it from other, similar puzzle games. Super Hang-On is more distinctive and has a lot more content, but can be frustratingly repetitive at times. As World Cup Italia ’90 isn’t worth bothering with, and Columns can be acquired more easily elsewhere, the appeal of this compilation would appear to be linked to one’s nostalgia for Super Hang-On.

Bottom Line: When it was a bundled compilation with the Mega Drive, Mega Games 1 was certainly a fun experience, but considering that only two of the three games are competent, it doesn’t seem like such a great purchase now.

Recommendation: If you’re desperate to play Super Hang-On, consider buying one of the Mega Games 6 packs instead – Mega Games 6 Vol. 1 contains all of the three games on this cartridge, plus Golden Axe and Streets of Rage, while Mega Games 6 Vol. 2 has Alien Storm and Super Monaco GP instead.