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Excellent little video in which the old-school video game characters strike back. Watch out for frogger and see if you can spot the C-64 sign :)

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I was feeling a bit nostalgic the other day as I slumped in front of my 360 blasting away mutants in full HD and reflected on the simplicity of video games of yore.  The C64 was the first real computer we had at home. I remember my brother and myself pooling our money with our dad, to become part owners of this miracle of modern technology. And though it was used for the occasional database application or beginners’ lessons in basic, to me it always remained a gaming machine first.

So in honour of countless rainy days spent loading games from tape or floppy, here’s my top 10 of best C64 games ever. These are only games I actually played, so a couple of classics may be missing.

10. Decathlon

Placed poetically at number 10, this sporting game extravaganza became the ruin of many a joystick. Only our original arcade survived the arm-numbing rattling, as we went through one poorly rendered athletics event after another. Gameplay was pretty much limited to how fast you could move the joystick left and right or up and down, with the final 1500 meters run being particularly painful. Still an honorable mention.

9. Colossal Cave Adventure/Hoehlenspiel

You are in a large cave. In front of you is a dragon.
Kill dragon
With  what? You bare hands?
Kill dragon with bare hands
The dragon is dead

Text adventures. The original interactive stories that leapt onto our monochrome computer screens in the 1970s, promising to take you to a magical land where legends were yours to be had at the input of 2-word commands. Go west, pick lock, drop bottle. I played dozens of them, drawing maps by hand to make sense of the illogical spaces, where retracing your steps could lead you somewhere else entirely. One of the earliest ported to the C64 was the original Adventure, which for some reason we had in German, so it was a language course and computer game wrapped in one. This surely was the limit of modern gaming.

8. Blue Max

One of the simplest games around. As a WWI fighter pilot you had to fly diagonally across the screen, taking out incoming baddies and dropping heavy ordinance on enemy arms factories. I’m putting it on the list just because we spent such an enormous amount of time playing it, getting ever further into German territory until you inevitably got shot down just before the end. The first game that got the mix of ascending difficulty just about right, as finishing it gave quite the rush.

7. Defender of the Crown

Now in all fairness I have to admit I played this game more on the Amiga than on the C64. On the latter the load times really got a bit on your nerves, but the core concept was still excellent. A knight in medieval England you go about conquering your neighbour’s lands, ransacking the odd castle and participate in jousting tournaments to woo your lady. If you ever wondered where those bodacious Evony ads get their inspiration from, it’s the original Defender of the Crown.

6. Turrican 2

One of the last games I actually owned on tape, which notched up the ratio of originally bought games to conveniently shared games to the 1% mark. Turrican 2 was simply excellent. Don’t ask me what the story was about. You played a Robocop lookalike, capable of such interesting transformations as turning into a moving circular saw, who had to shoot his way through a vast cave system. It had power ups galore, challenging boss battles and hidden bonus filled caves. Everything you still see in today’s 3d shooters.

5. A Bard’s Tale

The first Role Playing Game I’ve ever played, A Bard’s Tale took place within the stone walls of the bustling medieval city of Skara Brae, where a stranger striking up a conversation in the local tavern, always led to intrepid adventures. Looking back at the game, which at it’s core was a straightforward dungeon crawl, I’m amazed at the patience video games once required. Not only did you have to map out dozens of large labyrinths by hand or risk going in circles for hours, but you were forced to manage character inventories, leveling up, and of course walk into the wrong dungeon and you’d get killed every two minutes or so.

Still you were part of legend, bards sang songs of your brave deeds and many wintry nights went by in quest of Skara Brae’s deliverance.

4. Paradroid

A quirky little game this was. Starting off as a lowly maintenance bot, you scour the corridors of a mammoth space ship for other droids to take over. The battle for command was handled by a one-on-one puzzle game, and the stronger your opponent the smaller the chance of success. Get control over an armed robot and you could blast others from your path. We never quite managed to finish the game, but reading up on it on Wikipedia, my conscience is clear. It apparently had no end.

3. Maniac Mansion

Somewhere in the eighties people began to realize that reading and typing your way through a text adventure was perhaps not the most engaging and visual experience imaginable, so when LucasArts came along and created the SCUMM engine, there was a collective iPhone like, wow moment. The Script Utility for Maniac Mansion changed the game. Instead of reading that the room was large, you could actually see that it was large. Instead of typing, you could point and click your verbal commands together.

Yes, it was still clunky, but as a B-horror spoof it was also one of the funniest games ever. Game play became more open ended as MM sported multiple endings and different choices depending on the character you picked. The surfer dude, alas, was no match against the evil tentacle.

2. Beach Head

Another game on the list purely by hours of game play. The story is a pixilated version of the Longest Day, cut up into 5 distinct levels. The first sees the player navigate his ships across a map to get close to the beaches. After this opening the most entertaining level has you shooting incoming aircraft out of the sky, after which a battle ship type altercation ensues with the enemy fleet. The last level I never cared for too much as battle moved terrestrial and you move your troops inland, but hey, after playing for that long, you’d have to give it a shot.

1. Aztec Challenge

Ahhhh, the frustration. You’ve just spent 10 minutes dodging and jumping across spears. The gate of the Aztec temple is in sight. The music has reached it’s climax. When. Crap! You push the joystick in the wrong direction. The player crumbles to the ground. You begin again.

So many memories of this game, which by the way you shouldn’t play on a b&w television, because you can’t see the piranhas in the 6th level. It has all the hallmarks of classic C64 gaming. Music that sticks in your head. A random back story. And most importantly, oodles of frustration where every move can kill you and send you back to the start. Check out the video for the haunting, seminal score.

2010. We’re here. There’s no denying it and though I’ve stayed clear of new year’s resolutions, I do feeling like posting a bit more this year. There hasn’t been enough random associations as of late. So to start us off:

Top 5 Mountaineering Books

Ever since I first clambered through the Polish Tatra at the tender age of 19, I’ve had a thing for mountains. Perhaps it’s the fact that I grew up in the Netherlands, a country whose very name evokes an utter lack of heights. I hail from the north, which is the flat part of the country, contrary to the hilly south whose highest peak is the downright vertiginous 322m Vaalseberg. So for the fellow armchair mountaineer, here’s my top 5 of dizziness-enducing books:

5. Touching the Void – Joe Simpson (1988)

One of the great controversies of mountaineering (and there’s quite a few of those) is at the heart of this outstanding book. Simon Yates and Joe Simpson are the first to climb the west face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. On the descent things go horribly wrong. Connected to each other by a rope around the waste, Simpson slips and falls over the edge of a precipice. Yates digs in his heels and holds onto the rope. As time passes and Simpson is unable to climb back up, he takes out his knife and cuts the rope. Was he right or not?

As a tale of human persistance in the face of despair there is no equal. The book was made into an award-winning documentary in 2003. Joe Simpson survived to tell the tale and is now a speaker much in demand at corporate events around the world.

4. The Ascent of Rum Doodle – W.E. Bowman (1956)

For those who’ve read it all, it doesn’t come more satisfying than the epic ascent of Rum Doodle. Bowman takes every cliche of mountaineering, mulitplies it by ten and ads some absurdity for good measure. The book chronicles a motley crew of dapper adventurers, under the intrepid leadership of Binder, an Englishman of the stiff upper lip type. Their goal? The ascent of the legendary 40,000 foot Rum Doodle. On their way they face more obstacles from their companions than the elements. A navigator who’d get lost in his own living room, an army of porters  who outnumber and outclimb the mountaineers and the faithful cook whose attrocious concoctions form the greatest motivation for the climb upward.

A classic in mountaineering circles, it has given it’s name to a bar in Kathmandu and a peak in South America. Frequently out of print, it’s worthwhile to try and get your hands on a copy. It was recently rereleased with Bill Bryson’s blessing.

3. The Crystal Horizon – Reinhold Messner (1982)

To many Reinhold Messner is the greatest mountaineer of all time. He was the first to climb all fourteen eight-thousanders (peaks higher than 8,000m above sea level). Always controversial and headstrong, he advocated the alpine style of climbing, which favors light-weight equipment and quick ascents over the more traditional expedition climbs which use porters and multiple high-altitude camps to assault a summit.

The Crystal Horizon is Messner’s personal account of his solo ascent of Mount Everest from the Tibetan side, generally considered to be the single most daring act of mountaineering. Apart from the hardships and ecstasy of the climb itself, what comes across is Messner’s obsessive personality in which mountains are everything, a place where he can experience a zen-like high, and for which all else, including human relationships, must give way. A fascinating insight into the mind of a master.

2. Annapurna – Maurice Herzog (1956)

Annapurna was the first eight-thousander to be climbed and the book which describes the French expedition that succeeded remains the great classic of moutaineering literature. It has all the elements of an epic adventure story and is irresistible to any man who’s still a boy at heart. A near impossible mission, a long trek through exotic lands, from jungles to white mountain peaks (no helicopter rides in those days). There’s treachourous uncharted routes,  scenes of a brilliant beauty and unimaginable suffering.

At one point Herzog drops his gloves and sees them roll off the mountain side as if in slow-motion, fully aware that he will lose his hands to frostbite. And that’s just the start of his trials. Mallory once said in response to why he wanted to climb Everest, Because it’s there. Read Annapurna and decide for yourself if it’s worth it.

1. Into thin air – Jon Krakauer (1996)

At number one is Krakauer’s riveting book on the 1996 Everest tragedy. A page turner if ever there was one, the book relates how Krakauer joins an expedition to write an expose on the increasing commercialisation of the Everest climbing scene. When a storm sweeps in it turns into a blow-by-blow thriller as a large group of climbers are caught out attempting to summit. A scramble begins to get the tourists and their guides safely off the mountain, but the death zone got its name for a reason.

What follows is a tale like no other: heroic, tragic, miraculous and existential as every decision becomes one of life and death. Like any great mountaineering book this one also has its fair share of controversies and several of the climbers present that day in May have published their own, sometimes differing, accounts. Among them are Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb and Beck Weathers’ Left for Dead. Footage of the events can be seen in the Everest imax movie.

Happy Reading!

There’s a thing about Kochi that gives it a different feel from any other city I’ve been to in India. It has something to do with the way its parts are spread across several islands; compartmentalized bits of Indian culture.

Mall on MG Road

On the mainland lies Ernakulam, which exudes some of the metropolitan vibe of the HiTec cities of the south, such as Bangalore and Hyderabad. It’s loud, dusty, hectic, with pollution-belching traffic clogging the streets and alleys. Air-conditioned malls, many dedicated to the wedding stalwarts of silk sarees and gold jewellery, line central MG Road; new constructions arise from barren lots in the side streets and there’s not a pedestrian crossing in sight.

Unloading sulpher

Then comes Willington Island, a long, narrow strip of land half a kilometer out to sea. It houses a part of India that is central to most coastal cities, but which is usually hidden from view: the commerical port,  stockyards and warehouses, and a large naval base.

Another 500 meters across the waters lies Fort Cochin, officially part of the mainland, but with a distinct island feel. It’s the old colonial city. Narrow streets with stone buildings on either side, 16th century Portuguese churches, a Dutch cemetery, remains of the old fort, cannon in place, and plenty of facilities for the modern independent tourist: homestays, outdoor restaurants and the occasional internet cafe to complete the picture.

Fishing net

Along the northern coast gargantuan Chinese fishing nets are plunged into the water by four men crews, and at an informal fish market the daily catch is traded as fishermen motor their small crafts onto the beach. In the background, ferries ply between the half dozen main islands.

In Kochi you get to experience India in bits and pieces. It is like a thali with Ernakulam, the Fort and industrial areas served in small portions to be enjoyed one by one. Never too overwhelming, but containing everything you’d want.

Our life on this here earth is ever so brief and transient, but once in a while mankind  succeeds in creating something that stands the test of time, that is made for all eternity so to speak. To some these works – the Gizeh pyramids, the Great Wall, Domino D-Day –  are testament to the greatness of man, to others they bear witness to his follies. The final judgment is often in the eye of the beholder.

Once in a while, though, we can all agree on something. Take the Ooty Thread Garden for instance. A certain Anthony Joseph, playing around with some ideas in his workshop, came up with a novel way of creating fake flowers by winding coloured threads around pieces of canvas. A nice hobby, one might say, quite artistic in its own right even and something that could be a nice addition to any country fair. If only he would have left it at the workshop.

But no. Anthony had bigger plans. He dreamt of greatness, threaded greatness that is.

12 years, 50 female volunteers and 60 million meters of thread later the garden was a fact. It is housed next to the Ooty lake and boat house in a ramshackle structure with disused advertising signs for a roof. Entry is gained through a small corridor, after which the threaded spectacle unfolds in all its splendor.

It’s quite the feat. Honestly, very beautifully done. But it’s hard to get over the astounding pointlessness of it all. Such an incredible amount of work to create fake flowers. The question begs. Why?

It’s obvious that I’m hopelessly opinionated about this, so to make sure that doubters such as myself are put on the correct appreciative path, they’ve installed a series of explanatory signs:

“Once seen memory will not willingly let it pale”

I’m still writing about this, so fair point.

“As an artistic creation par excellence challenging the human imagination it occupies the position of unique and innovative miracle in this era”

Alright. We’re getting somewhere. But there’s more, no?

“In all respects thread garden can be rated as highest art creation of manual effort that brought about successfully in the world”

Now we’re talking. But still, some ultimate doubters may not be convinced. Fear not, the final sign puts all to rest:

“Really. Tourists adore this millenium miracle”

And there you go. The Hindu Business Line reports that Anthony Jacobs is planning similar labours of love overseas, so soon you too may bear witness to the greatness of man.

Look on my works ye mighty and despair!

(As usual pictures will be added once I’ve uploaded them)

After spending a couple of days catching up with friends in Hyderabad, I took the night train to Hampi, the old capital of the Vijayanagar kingdom. Once a city grand enough to invite comparisons to Rome by a 16th century Portuguese traveler, these days it consists of a small dusty village,  surrounded by miles of abandoned ruins.

Hampi is an interesting place to visit. It grows on you. The first day, still groggy from the overnight journey, I wandered about the village streets. The sights were familiar: children walking by full of smiles, saying hi, sometimes asking for a pen; souvenir salesmen and ayurvedic masseurs trying to lure you into their shops; and all around the boulder strewn landscape covered in the remains of the once great temples.

After visiting the three or four most important ones – the ones recommended by the guidebooks and consequently the ones where the tour buses gather-,  I’m tired as evening falls and feel a little ruined out. How much more can one really see and appreciate?

On the second day, though, I venture out further afield and all of a sudden I’m on my own. Vast temple complexes with monkeys clambering across crumbling gopurams, even vaster market places stretching out hundreds of meters into the green grass, and there’s only myself and the occasional caretaker.

That’s the thing about Hampi. You can roam around for days discovering new places never mentioned in any guidebook and only appearing as a few dots on a local map. The ruins line all the hillsides and valleys down to the smooth flowing river that continues to provide a lifeline to local population.

They navigate the currents in what appear to be upturned two-meter wide round baskets. There are signs warning of wily crocodiles, represented in full technicolor, and deadly whirlpools, but undeterred I take a trip upriver after the boatsman rubbishes the warnings. Even here the ruins are visible. We pass temples and hermits’ caves, which disappear each year  under the roaring monsoon tides. At one stage we’re caught out by a sudden downpour, but the boat turns out the be multi-functional as we go ashore and flip it over to create a makeshift shelter.

On my last day I cycle downstream along the river passing the remains of what once was a 400 meter bridge connecting the embankments. I’m trying to get to Anegundi on the left bank, but when I get to the site of the new bridge, which was due to open only this year, I find its two middle sections collapsed in the river. The scene is quiet. A few men amble around a foursome of concrete-pouring trucks, but evidently work has stopped since the accident.

On the opposite bank a massive slab of concrete slants at a 45 degree angle into the water. An old lady uses the convenient surface for washing clothes, slapping the cloth harshly against the road surface before rinsing it out in the passing current.

And just to make sure you stay alert in such peaceful surroundings:

As I park my bicycle in front of the archaeological museum, a man sitting in the shade of the empty ticket office takes four Rs. off me and gestures me inside. A few meters in, a security guard stops me. Where’s my ticket? I try to explain I didn’t get one and go out again, but the man is gone. I buy a ticket, an actual one, from the lady who’s suddenly appeared in the office. That’s India for you.

They Paved Paradise and put up a Parking Lot OR Paradise Lost. Pick your favorite cliche and apply it most appropriately to Ko Phi Phi.

We knew something was amiss when the minibus pulled into the ferry carpark, dropping off the nine of us. Dozens of similar minivans and some fifteen large touring buses were busy disgorging pockets of stunned-looking tourists. Several uniformed attendants armed with piercing whistles shepherded the crowd unto a trio of waiting boats. We were distributed according to the color of the stickers we’d been given and off we went.

A swell was running in from the south-west, which made the ship lurch to and fro quite uncomfortably and soon plastic sick bags were being handed around. I don’t get scared too easily on the water, but the seemingly uncontrollable rolling, which sent the unsecured luggage flying around the bottom deck, combined with a total lack of safety measures – we counted eight life vests for 300 hundred odd people on board, which were mysteriously being dumped down the stairwell, perhaps to cushion the suitcases – put the fright in me. Oh yeah, and one of these sank a few years ago.

After an hour and a half of sweaty palms, only enlivened by the highly entertaining auto translated subtitles to the onboard movie,  ‘Very abundantly please”, Ko Phi Phi Leh, the group’s smallest island, came into view. An astoundingly beautiful sight. Sheer limestone cliffs rising vertically from an azure sea, covered in lush green tropical forest, and at the bottom, appearing as if a mirage, the most perfect crescent of clear white sand. Maya Bay.

And then you get closer. And you realise that this is the beach, that beach, from the eponymous movie. How do you know? Well, those twenty odd boats and two hundred people on that beach kinda give it away. We admired the view for a few minutes and the boat pulled away and rounded the island, passing secluded inlets and caves carved out by the slow-pounding surf. Everywhere it was the same. A fleet of speed and longboats ferrying brown-baked foreigners and locals alike to experience the marvelous beauty in a crowd usually reserved for football stadiums.

From Leh we made our way over to Don, the big island, which gave much the same picture. What once must have been the most perfect ishtmus of sparkling sand connecting forming two placid bays, now lay chock-a-block with hotels, souvenir shops and other concrete outcrops, hardly a speck of sand left untouched.

Tourism here is trying to imagine what the tourists before you saw. Those first ones to whom the island was a deserted tropical paradise, uninhabited only twenty years ago.

Today it’s off to the mainland where we’ll be making our way up to Bangkok. (Need to catch up Malaysia still, I know)

Okay, this one is a long time coming, but after a year or so of silence, we’re back and we’re on the road. Before I kick off, let it be known that I haven’t brought the upload cable for my camera, so pictures will arrive late October.

Over the past three weeks we drove a campervan through the astonishingly beautiful country of New Zealand. So blessed it is with rolling green hills, smoky mist-shrouded mountains, dense forest ever so green that were it located anywhere close to anything, it would be one of the world’s top destinations. As it happens, it’s not close to anywhere at all. The first thing that strikes you when flying here is how perfectly isolated and far, far away it really is.

After spending 11 hours couped up in a jet tin can, you’re only half way there. The closest city of any decent size is Sydney, a mere 3.5 hours flight away. It’s so far in fact that were we ever to get that long-promised apocalyptic nuclear war, New Zealand is definitely the place to ride it out. It’s pretty much self-sufficient in anything and who would go through the trouble of bombing it.

The country reminds you a lot of the United States. Driving down the wide streets, directions on green traffic signs, traffic lights raised like an inverted L over junctions, pick-up trucks and 18-ton semis straight out of Convoy; there’s the drive-in restaurants, the motorlodges with parking bays in front of paint-peeling cabins and an outsize sign proclaiming you’ve arrived at Cosy Cottages or the Pinewood Motor Inn; above all there’s the small towns laid out on a two-by-two grid of low-slung bungalows, with wide pavements, yes, but designed primarily for the automobile.

Another thing you notice quickly once you leave Auckland’s high-rises behind is how empty this country is. With a population of only four million, and 270k square kilometers to put them in, it can get lonely out here. Towns are few and far between, sometimes as much as a 100km apart, and ones you pass have an eerie abandoned feel to them. Saturday night in Rotorua with nary a soul in sight. Sunday brunch in Napier, capital of Hawke’s Bay wine district and not a single licensed restaurant is open. You begin to understand why so many young kiwis decide to leave for foreign, more exciting shores.

Speaking of excitement. With such a big place to look after, kiwis decided to entertain themselves by getting active. Starting with the clear skies, from which you can do some rather tame sight-seeing by helicopter or plane, though of course you’d much rather sky-dive (whatever happened to parachute jumping by the way?). Continuing on with the mountains, ideal for skiing, snow-boarding, para- and hangliding or climbing of course. On to bridges and the like, which are just made for bungy-jumping, anywhere from 40 to 130 meters, or the terrifyingly superswings of Queenstown: imagine being tied to a hundred meter long cable and then dropped into the ravine to rocket back and forth. What fun! Rivers are for rafting, kayaking or jetboating. The list goes on…

We drove our reconfigured VW stretch van, which boasted bathroom and shower (tiny, tiny) first along the North Island towards Wellington. Stopping along the way to burn our bums at hot water beach, where literally boiling water bubbles up through the sand and Rotorua, a volcanic hotbed (some of them are still active) of thermal pools and geysers, covered perpetually in rotten egg smelling fog. Then we passed through Napier, a town entirely built in Art Deco after being destroyed by a 1931 earthquake and made our way down to Lord of the Rings central windy welly.

It was here that Peter Jackson based himself for the trilogy’s filming and pretty much everyone has a story to tell. We were staying at the Harcourt Holiday Park, where in the adjacent Harcourt Park the Isengard tree-felling scene was filmed. A piece of the original tree which was brought down so cruelly by Saruman’s orcs adourned a notice board at the reception. The proprietor of the park, after asking if we were at all interested in the movie, launched immediately into a story of the shoot and pointed himself out in a framed copy of the Middle Earth news, a broadsheet that circulated during production.

Taking the ferry across the Cook Straight, we took a tour of the Marlborough wine region, white good – red bad, before heading down to Kaikoura, where we chased and watched whales. An exciting thing, tracked by sonar, jetboats powering through the seas, helicopters and planes circling above. All to capture a glimpse of the leviathan.


Then across the mountains through the old mining towns, through tropical rain forests (rains a lot there), which oddly enough are right next to glaciers and looping back up to Christchurch. Along the way not mentioned yet, we saw dolphins and seals, walked two hours to see some well hidden penguins (too well hidden for us in any case), and experienced the original bungy jump from the observation deck. Still working up my courage for that piece of simulated suicide, though Sujatha was rearing to go. We more or less agreed on a tandem jump one, hopefully far off, day.

Now it’s off to Malaysia!

The day of reckoning is finally upon us. The Tribe of the Irish will battle it out with the Soldiers of Destiny. Swords have been drawn. Minions roam the streets of Dublin. Oh, and Labour is expecting a share of the vote as well.

Political parties in Ireland have funny names.

Irish elections are interesting for a couple of reasons. For starters, the voting system is incredibly complicated using single transferable votes in multi-seat constituencies. Whatever that means…

More importantly there seem to be no laws regulating the amount of posters each party can put up. As a result the city is plastered with unisex election posters: Medium close-ups of sincere looking candidates with non-descript slogans and all carrying the word ‘Vote‘; in case you get confused.

There are so many of these, no one notices if a few get messy or disappear along the way. Here is another tribute to Ireland’s neglected objects:

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