Friday, March 31, 2017

Making the Most of Disneyland in 1-2 days


So you've only got a day or maybe a weekend to spend at Disneyland and you want to know how to make the most of your trip. Should you get park hoppers? Can you do both parks in one day? How can you make sure you'll get to go on all the best rides without spending all day in line?

Never fear.. my wife and I have been to Disneyland and California Adventure so many times that it's (almost) embarrassing to admit. While I'm sure many kids dream of going to Disneyland someday, we are two quasi-adults who have gone more times than we can count or is appropriate for a couple without any kids. As an official Disney employee though, it would feel like a waste not to take advantage of free entry into the happiest place on earth as much as possible. We've learned a lot about Disneyland in the past few years and definitely have our own personal favorite rides, but here are a few tips to help you be the most efficient Disney guest you can be.
  • Avoid going on peak days if possible - The first step you can take to avoid standing in line is to choose when you go to Disneyland. You can check on the Disneyland website to see when the peak, regular, and value days are, which should give a good indication of which days are the most crowded. https://disneyland.disney.go.com/tickets/
  • Buy your tickets in advance to avoid the ticket lines outside of Disney.
  • If you're at downtown disney or staying at the disneyland hotels, you can use the monorail to enter the park and avoid the regular line.
  • Get the official Disneyland app. It gives you a nice map, accurate wait times for all the rides, show/parade times, and lets you manage all of your PhotoPass/Ride pics in once place.
  • Show up early. If you're staying at a Disney hotel, on some days you'll be able to take advantage of the fabled "magic hour" where you can enter the park an hour before everyone else. Even if you're not part of the magic hour, if you can get there right when the park opens to the general pubilc, you'll be able to hit up busiest rides before the lines get too long and even ride on them multiple times in a row.  Suggested rides (that usually have long lines) to go on if you're at the park early:
    • Cars (California Adventure)
    • Midway Mania (California Adventure)
    • Soarin' Around the World (California Adventure)
    • Hyperspace Mountain (Disneyland)
    • Indiana Jones (Disneyland)
    • Star Tours (Disneyland)
    • Casey Jr Circus Train (Disneyland) - JUST KIDDING. This ride sucks. Don't waste time standing in line for this.
  • Stay late - Sometimes (but not always) if you stay till very late, the lines will thin out and you can go on some rides with wait times usually under 30 minutes. A few might be even shorter than that. Here are some rides I've noticed that may have much shorter wait times at the end of the evening (so don't go on these during the day if you have to wait longer than 30 minutes in line).
    • Haunted Mansion (Disneyland)
    • Pirates of the Caribbean (Disneyland) 
    • Big Thunder Mountain (Disneyland)
    • Matterhorn Bobsleds (Disneyland)
    • It's a small world (Disneyland)
  • Take advantage of Fastpasses. This is crucial if you want to avoid standing in line as much as possible. Certain rides have fastpasses which let you skip the regular line (check the disneyland app and when you select an attraction it should tell you if there's a fastpass or not and what time the fastpass will be valid. To get a fastpass, you need to scan your ticket at the ride's fastpass booth and come back during the indicated times on the ticket. You can only get one fastpass (per park) every two hours, so to make the most of this, you'll want to get a designated person (usually someone who doesn't mind walking a lot, who's already been to the park before and knows his/her way around and who's not worried about missing some rides/attractions) to run around getting fastpasses for everyone in your group while they either get food/go to the bathroom/watch a parade, etc. You'll need to keep close track of when the fast passes become available again and what times your fast passes are for. Also getting fast passes for California Adventure's World of Color are separate and don't affect fastpasses for rides. Here's another article going into more detail about fastpasses.
  • Ask the Disney photographers standing around to take pictures for your group. If you're into taking group pictures and don't want to awkwardly ask other people to take pictures for you, you can take advantage of Disney's photographers who are paid to take pictures of guests. You can use the Disneyland app which they will scan and the pictures they take will appear in the app. You should also ask them to take pictures with your own camera too though, because the PhotoPass pics cost a lot of money to print or download.
  • Park Hop with Caution. If you plan to hop between parks, keep in mind that the time it takes to walk out of the park, get through the entrance line of the other park, and walk to a ride over there could take upwards of 20-30 minutes. Try to do as much as you can in one park before moving on to the next park and only jump back to use a big fastpass (like Cars) or watch one of the big shows (like World of Color)
  • Get a Dole Whip Float and watch the Tiki Room show to rest and cool off. The line for the Dole Whips are usually shorter from inside the Tiki Room waiting area.
  • Don't bring kids with you (just kidding... sorta)
  • My favorite rides at the parks:
    • California Screamin' (California Adventure)
    • Goofy's Flying School (California Adventure) *(most underrated ride in either park)*
    • Star Tours (Disneyland) *(different every time you go on it)*
Let's say you can't get into the park early, which can happen when your group oversleeps or if you're driving in and arrive after the park opening. You can still hit the highlights of each park in one day using the tips above (and see an example itinerary below). If you have two days--even better: you can spend one day at California Adventure and one day at Disneyland (and save a little money by not buying park hopper tickets).

Example Itinerary for California Adventure/Disneyland in a day (requires Park hopper tickets of course):

  • 10am: Enter California Adventure, pass all the tickets to one person (the "runner") while the rest of your group lines up for Soarin' Around the World. The runner goes to get fast passes for Cars and World of Color. Usually World of Color is at late in the evening and the Cars fast pass (if available) will also be very late (If Cars is out of fast passes, which it very may well be, you'll have to bite the bullet and wait in line for over an hour or just skip it this time). The runner should then cross over to Disneyland and get fast passes for one of the busiest rides like Hyperspace Mountain or Indiana Jones. The goal early on is to gather as many fast passes as soon as you can to use for later in the day, where you can reap the benefits of skipping the long lines. It's also important to remember that fastpasses tend to run out quickly on the more popular rides, so the earlier you get fastpasses, the better. For the purposes of this sample itinerary, let's say you got Hyperspace Mountain at 8pm and Cars at 8pm as well.
  • 11am: Depending on your group, you may want to try California Screamin' if they really like roller coasters. If not, you could start lining up for the Frozen show or go on Grizzly River Rapids. Goofy's Flying School may have short wait times around this time too.
  • 12pm: lunch... I'd suggest getting something to go if you're only here one day and want to save time. The lunch hour may have decreased wait times on rides due to people grabbing lunch at this hour. It should be about time to grab more fastpasses from both California Adventure and Disneyland again..perhaps Big Thunder Mountain or Star Tours? For the purpose of this itinerary, let's say you got Star Tours at 7pm.
  • 1pm-2pm: Have your group cross over to Disneyland. get in line for something short or watch a parade/take pictures until it is time.
  • 2-4pm:  Time get more Disneyland fast passes. Let's get one for Big Thunder Mountain and assume it's for 5pm. Have your group stop by the Tiki Room for Dole Whips while they wait for the runner to get fastpasses.
  • 5pm-6pm: Use the Big Thunder Mountain fastpass. Have the runner get a new one for Indian Jones (let's say it's for 10pm). Go to Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean if the line is short (under 30 minutes). 
  • 7pm: Time to use your Star Tours fast pass so head back over to Tomorrowland. You should probably grab some quick dinner around this time, too. If you have a little more time for dinner, I recommend Plaza Inn's fried chicken. Then head over to California Adventure to use your Cars fast passes.
  • 8pm-10pm: Use your Cars fastpass then run back to Disneyland to use the Hyperspace Mountain fastpass. Now, you'll need to choose between watching the fireworks at Disneyland or going back California Adventure for the World of Color show. Lately there has been a nighttime parade at Disneyland around this time so if you decide to watch fireworks, you could line up for the parade, then stick around for the fireworks right after that.
  • 10pm-12am: California Adventure should be closed by this time so head back over to Disneyland and try to go on rides with shorter lines (see above) and use that Indiana Jones fastpass.
  • 1am: Wait in line one more time, for the tram back to the parking lot
This is just an example. This one is extra intense because it involves a lot of park hopping. Feel free to stick to one park to avoid the extra walking if you have the time and also go ahead and substitute the rides that your group wants to go on and the shows/parades you want to see as necessary. Also remember this itinerary is contrived and that you may not always get the fastpasses you want or the times may not always be convenient for you and may conflict with other shows/fastpasses. Lastly, remember that you're in the (allegedly) happiest place on earth so just go with the flow and have a great time there!


Related Link:
Sept 2013 Disneyland blog entry (sadly outdated because it still refers to the Michael Jackson Captain EO movie and the dearly departed Aladdin show):

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Nintendo Switch Review / Zelda: Breath of the Wild Thoughts


Note: this is less of a formal review and more of a random collection of thoughts and impressions after playing Zelda on the Nintendo Switch for about a week.

When details about the Nintendo Switch came out, I wanted to take a "wait and see" approach. I passed on the Wii U and that turns out to have been the right decision so I wanted to be cautious again about Nintendo's next system, despite being a pretty devoted Nintendo fanboy for most of my life. As March 3, 2017 drew nearer and as hype for the system and especially for the new Zelda started building, I eventually became obsessed (as I often do with new gadgets) and decided I must get one.. by this point it was too late to preorder and availability of the new console was (and still is) scarce.

Making the "Switch"



I waited in line at multiple Target stores early on Sunday morning two days after the official Switch release but there just weren't enough Switches to go around. Eventually I lucked out because my two friends Chris and Bianca picked up a Switch for me at a Target in the middle of nowhere (somewhere near Gilroy) on their drive back up from LA.

Target had a buy 2 get 1 game free promotion going on but I'm not sure if it would have worked on Nintendo Switch games and I also couldn't think of three launch titles that I really wanted anyway (more on the dearth of games available later). I ended up ordering Zelda (and preordering Mario Kart) through a friend's Amazon Prime account, in order to get 20% off.

While waiting for Zelda to arrive, I had to go for a full two days with a Nintendo Switch without any games. How did I survive? Well, I still actively play XCOM 2 multiplayer on PS4 so that kept me distracted, but I also used that time to become familiar with the Switch interface and discovered how to get demos from other regions. I got the Puyo Puyo Tetris demo from the Japan eshop (yay no region locking!), which has local multiplayer so even my wife Carissa was into it. Might be fun to also try out Snipperclips or 1-2 Switch with her to see if she enjoys those games too.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Not bad for a "handheld" game

The main event, of course, is Zelda Breath of the Wild and boy does it deliver. I was worried from some of the pre-launch gameplay videos that the animation looked a little stiff and that it would pretty much be the same Zelda without much new innovation. My fears were unfounded however, and Breath of the Wild lives up to the hype so far. (Please keep in mind that I'm not very far into the main game yet. These are just some of my early impressions)

Nintendo sure knows how to make a fun game. They've been doing this for so long that they are just masters of game design. The Zelda formula already made exploring fun, but Nintendo added some great new RPGish gameplay elements that make you want to explore even more. The cooking mechanic makes you want to search for cooking ingredients. The varieties of weapons (as well as having a limited amount of inventory space and fragility of weapons) makes you want to find and save up the best weapons possible (I use bombs for about 80% of my attacks since they're unlimited)... Even the clothing/armor you can purchase is more involved and interesting than previous Zelda games.

Though the world of the new Zelda is huge, lots of the things you can do are divided into smaller chunks or tasks so you definitely could pick up the game, play for a few meaningful minutes then stop. More often than not, however, it causes me to play on for far too long because of you'll always feel like, "I'll just do this one last thing before I stop playing" which leads to the next thing and the next until it's 4am and you realize you still have work the next day.

Nothing to see here...just thinking of the best way to murder this group of bokoblins in cold blood and take their stuff


Nintendo Switch Impressions

Just want to say that I love the Nintendo Switch so far, but this is the part where I mostly rant about random problems/issues I've encountered so far. I'll try to balance my complaints with the positives as well.

The Left Joycon Problem

Left joycon is out of sync sometimes
As others have reported, I do consistently experience problems with the left Joycon desyncing and almost causing me to run in the same direction endlessly (or off a cliff). Hopefully Nintendo will offer a solution for this issue. Currently, I have no plans to buy the expensive $70 pro controller, as the joycons in the grip are more than adequate for me. It is annoying though that as a workaround I have to sit nearer to the console and also make sure there's a clear line of sight between the joycon and the Switch otherwise.

Framerate Issues and Loading Screens

Playing the Switch on your TV is just as you'd expect, but I did notice some framerate slowdowns during certain times in Zelda. The consensus seems to be that Zelda runs better in handheld mode than in docked mode. While the framerate drops haven't been too bad, I do sincerely hope this is the exception and not the norm. In handheld mode, the Switch runs at 720p so if it turns out many games run better in handheld mode, that kinda takes away from one of the Switch's main selling points of having the same experience playing at home or on the go. I also was surprised to see so many loading screens for Zelda. Although they go by quickly and I'm sure the size of the game made them necessary, I hope as I progress further in the game that the loading times won't be as frequent as I fear. 

The Switch as a Handheld and the 3DS's future

Playing the Switch in handheld mode is amazing.. the screen is huge and dwarfs even the 3DS XL screen (haven't played the PS Vita much so can't make a comparison there). Playing with the joycons attached to the screen feels pretty natural to me and I have no problems playing it this way. I'm also just in awe that a game with the magnitude of Zelda can be held in your hands and played anywhere (although I'm not whipping this thing out on the SF BART or Muni public transit yet...). It will be interesting to see what happens to the 3DS in the coming months/years. Nintendo claims the 3DS still has a place in Nintendo's lineup due to its different audience and cheaper price point, but it remains to be seen how long people will keep making games for it. Personally for me, It would be hard to justify making space for both the Switch and the 3DS if I'm going on a trip, but the 3DS does have a better battery life, is smaller/sturdier, and its touch screen is a more prominent input method that developers could still take advantage of (not sure how or if touch will be incorporated into Switch games since you can't use the touch screen when it's docked). I can see the 3DS becoming a platform for 2D retro-style games (METROID PLEASE), remakes of older titles, and experimental games while the Switch gets all the AAA games and "top-tier" indie games.

Dead Pixels, Scratches, Memory, and Charging

I haven't had any issues with dead pixels or other glitches some people have reported, but hopefully Nintendo's response to customers experiencing problems will be more tactful than "Dead pixels are your problem." I definitely feel better now that I have a screen protector since there are reports that the screen easily scratches since it's made with plastic and not gorilla glass. On the positive side, it won't shatter like a gorilla glass screen. 

The three hour battery life seems to be adequate in some situations but if you're playing on a long plane flight or road trip, you'll need another way to charge it, either with a car charger or an external battery that works with the Nintendo Switch. Also, you may need a separate stand if you plan to play in kickstand mode while charging since the USB-C port is at the bottom of the Switch. With only 32 GB of internal memory, you'll almost definitely need to get a micro SD card to expand your system storage. Memory cards are cheap and the prices are always falling but it is kind of a shame that Nintendo didn't include more memory to begin. It also would be nice if Nintendo would provide more control over what we would like to go into main storage and what we would like to go to the sd card.

The Switch OS User Interface

The interface is adequate, but like Nintendo's other interfaces, it's bare minimum and feels like it was dumbed down for kids, and thus a step behind the PS4's much more polished interface (IMHO). At the time of writing there's no granular activity log like the 3DS (there is a workaround using the Parental controls though) has but hopefully they can add a real log in a future update. I like that they followed Sony and Microsoft and have a dedicated button for screen captures and easy sharing on social media, but they need to add video capture in order to keep up with the rest (which I hear is coming eventually). I've also had issues when posting screencaps to Twitter: sometimes there will be a connectivity error and you'll have to retype your post all over again. Not fun. I've also had problems downloading from the eShop... downloads can be painfully slow (not sure if it's due to network traffic on Nintendo's end or to my local connection, but I never had problems with connectivity on my PS4 like this before).

The Cost

Although the cost of the system is $300, that doesn't fully take into account the rest of the Switch-related expenses. It doesn't come with a game (it probably should have come with 1-2 Switch for free like Wii Sports did for the Wii), so add $50-60 (and $20 extra if you want the DLC for Zelda). Many will want to use the pro controller ($70) or add extra joycons ($80). Add in a carrying case ($15-$20+), screen protector ($10), and memory card (I paid $40 for 128 GB)... and you're looking at spending almost $500 in the first week of owning a Switch alone. That's in addition to, eventually paying for Nintendo's online service when it rolls out later this year. I know that it's already standard practice to charge for online play these days, but I'm still trying to get used to it. Hopefully it'll be worth it with free monthly games or other extras, but it's just another expense among many. Luckily there are reports the service will be cheaper than Sony or Microsoft's services.

Switch Games other than Zelda

While Zelda is obviously the system seller here, I was a little disappointed with the other launch titles. $50 for Bomberman or 1-2 Switch seems a bit excessive. Looking at the list of confirmed games for the Switch, I'm not seeing very many must-have games other than perhaps Mario Kart and Mario Oddyssey. From Nintendo, I'd like to see more from its classic lineup, especially Metroid or Punch-Out. From third parties I'd like to see games that could take advantage of the Switch's portable nature that other consoles can't. For example, if we never get XCOM 2 on mobile, maybe it could be ported to the Switch? Or how about GTA or Red Dead Redemption 2 from Rockstar? It's encouraging that so many indie titles were announced, but from what I've seen, I don't consider those games to be ones that take full advantage of the Switch. Many of those indie titles could have easily been (and probably are) on other systems. I'm still hoping more developers will come into Nintendo's fold and make more game announcements, especially since the Switch is selling in record numbers.

Conclusion

There's so much to like about the Switch, and yet still so many things that could be cause for concern. Hopefully Nintendo gracefully handles and addresses any glitches or hardware problems first. Then, I hope Nintendo and third party companies start making tons of games for the Switch to keep interest in the system going for hopefully many, many years to come. In my opinion, if Nintendo does well, it bodes well for the rest of the video game industry. Not all of their oftentimes crazy ideas stick, but when they do, they change the industry for the better.

Related links:

https://zig2101.wordpress.com/2006/05/21/oops-they-did-it-again/

Friday, March 10, 2017

Are Archons Overpowered/Underpriced in XCOM 2 Multiplayer or What?

This is old news, but archons are overpowered/underpriced and I hope Firaxis addresses this imbalance (though not getting my hopes up). This reddit post posits that in XCOM 2 Multiplayer, the more archons you have on your team, the greater your chances are of winning.. and so far that appears to be pretty accurate. Here are a few reasons why (summarized from the link):
  • Archons have a lot of hit points (18, only 2 less than a berserker)
  • Archons have high aim (compounded with an extra aim bonus when they fly to an elevated position) and a powerful weapon that does 7-8 damage and shreads armor
  • Archons have high mobility and can easily get to the high ground/flank you, especially if their battle frenzy ability activates when they get wounded.
  • Archons have great defensive stats. They have built-in defense (100), high will (100), a high dodge stat (25), can't be flanked, and don't need cover
  • Archons only cost 2000 points. That's less than the cost of any XCOM unit for an arguably superior unit
The post lays all of this out in more detail, but anecdotally, I always get my butt kicked by archon squads. Not that I don't usually get my butt kicked by other XCOM 2 players but the butt-kicking is especially pronounced against archons. I have plenty of embarrassing vidcaps of my team getting wasted by archons but I've posted one of the more interesting matches here (3 archons, 2 mecs, 1 codex):

After getting demolished a couple of times by archons, I decided to just incorporate more archons into my team. Like Kevin Durant always says, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."


Update: Maybe Archons aren't so overpowered at all. They're still really good, but seems like the really good players are know how to use all the abilities of XCOM soldiers enough to counter Archons. So now I think more Archons doesn't necessarily mean more wins, as I experienced when my mostly-Archon teams got crushed by opponents who made use of gunslingers and grenediers. Perhaps gunslingers are the new underpriced units now? Or maybe snipers need to come down in price since they're clearly inferior to the gunslingers variant.

Update 2: The X-Com 2 community decided to try to fix the problem of spamming by setting some rules... a gentlemen's agreement if you will, that goes like this: For units that cost 1500 and above, you can only have one on your team. For anything below 1500, you can have up to two of that type of unit. The jury's still out whether you can have two X-Com soldiers of the same class, like a heavy gunner and a demolition expert on one team.


Related Links:

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Never Give up in XCOM 2 Multiplayer (Never Stop Never Stopping)

A few recent multiplayer games I played in XCOM 2. Just a reminder to never give up and never to trust the percentages that XCOM gives you.

A match full of WTF moments and unbelievably bad aim

Outnumbered and outgunned... 
inspired by the true story of Liam Neeson's character from "Taken"