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Nintendo Switch Online gets SNES games September 5, plus new SNES controllers – TechCrunch

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Nintendo Switch Online, the subscription-based online services component of Nintendo’s Switch console, will get SNES games starting on September 5 — yes, that’s right, the first games are available to play tomorrow. There are 20 games available initially, with more planned in the future.

Alongside the new software, there’s also the new SNES system wireless controller for Switch, which charges via USB-C and retails for $29.99 directly from Nintendo.

The launch lineup for the SNES portion of Nintendo Switch Online looks pretty promising, and includes highlight favorites like Star Fox, Breath of Fire, F-ZERO, Super Mario World and Super Metroid (you can see the full list below).

We got a strong indication that this was happening earlier this month, thanks to an FCC filing that detailed the SNES controller hardware. Nintendo likewise released an NES controller alongside its launch of the Nintendo Online Service when it debuted last year.

The best part about this surprise drop is that it’s available basically right now — check your Nintendo Online app on your Switch tomorrow to begin playing these nostalgic gaming classics.

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Review: WandaVision sticks the landing with a very Marvel-esque finale

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For all its touted meta-elements celebrating different TV decades, WandaVision wrapped up its nine-episode run in classic Marvel fashion, with Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda and Paul Bettany’s Vision valiantly defending their suburban nuclear family from the nefarious forces lined up against them. It was a satisfying, quite moving finale to this imaginative series. But fans expecting a surprise big-name cameo—Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange was a favorite of the pre-finale rumor mill—were disappointed.

(Some spoilers below; major reveals for finale below the gallery. We’ll give you a heads up when we get there,)

Frankly, I was skeptical of the WandaVision concept when the studio offered a brief sneak peek during D23 Expo 2019, Disney’s annual fan extravaganza. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige—a fan of classic sitcoms—envisioned the series as a love letter to the golden age of television, with each episode channeling a sitcom style from a particular decade. Head writer Jac Schaeffer (Captain Marvel, Black Widow) championed the concept from the start, despite a brief backlash against the perceived silliness of the title. Schaeffer thought viewers would change their minds once they actually saw the series, and she was right: WandaVision currently boasts a 92 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It even won over my skeptical soul.

WandaVision clearly draws on elements from the House of M limited series, in which a grief-stricken Wanda warps reality to create a pocket dimension where everyone’s dreams are realized. There are also elements from The Vision and the Scarlet Witch series, as well as Avengers: Disassembled and the “Vision Quest” storyline from West Coast Avengers.

Set immediately after the events of Avengers: Endgame (but before Spiderman: Far From Home), WandaVision opens with newlyweds Wanda and Vision starting their married life in the town of Westview, New Jersey, in an homage to 1950s sitcoms. Wacky hijinks ensue as the couple tries to lead a normal life while hiding their superpowers from their neighbors—especially the nosy Agnes (Kathryn Hahn). We move quickly through a 1960s-influenced episode, and a 1970s-centric episode, as Wanda and Vision welcome twins. But they notice more and more jarring elements—a full-color drone, a voice calling out to Wanda over the radio, neighbors briefly breaking character—hinting that this seemingly idyllic suburban existence might not be what it seems.

Ars Tech Culture Editor Sam Machkovech reviewed the first two episodes when they premiered on Disney+ in mid-January, pronouncing them to be “65 minutes of goofiness, dread, and a sense that this weird series is only going to get weirder.” As it turns out, the opposite happens: WandaVision starts to feel more and more like standard Marvel fare—particularly its jam-packed finale, but beginning with the abrupt shift in perspective in the fourth episode (“We Interrupt This Program”), which takes us out of Wanda’s warped pocket dimension for the first time.

Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris)—daughter of Carol Danver’s BFF in Captain Marvel—returns from oblivion with millions of others who disappeared in the Snappening, and teams up with S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient Weapon Observation Response Division) to investigate the mysterious case of the town of Westview. It is surrounded by a hexagonal-shaped field of cosmic microwave background radiation, dubbed “the hex.” There is a signal encoded within that field: the broadcast of the WandaVision “sitcom” starring two Avengers, Wanda and Vision. The jarring elements of the earlier episodes were S.W.O.R.D.’s attempts to infiltrate the hex and communicate with Wanda, to little avail.

(Major spoilers for finale below. Stop reading now if you haven’t watched it yet.)

Gradually we learn that the hex originated from Wanda’s profound grief over the loss of Vision when she visits the plot of land he bought for their future dream home in Westview. The original town residents are trapped inside with her, forced by her reality-warping powers to play their assigned roles. But Wanda isn’t the only one in Westview with magical powers. Agnes turns out to be Agatha Harkness, a powerful witch from the comics. She has the ability to absorb the power of other witches, and she wants Wanda’s “chaos magic,” correctly identifying her as the Scarlet Witch described in the Darkhold grimoire. Meanwhile, outside the hex, S.W.O.R.D. acting director Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg) has built a new White Vision, programmed to destroy both Wanda and her sitcom Vision.

In a nice twist, although Wanda thinks she has created a paradise for all the residents of Westview, in truth, it is her neighbors who are bearing the pain of her grief as she seeks to escape it. That is the ultimate theme of the series, as Wanda realizes what her grief has wrought and decides to set things right. In the process, she fully becomes the Scarlet Witch from the comics, at a terrible cost. The existence of sitcom Vision and her twin sons are both tied to the hex. She can’t undo it without losing her family. Wanda must dispense with denial about her loss and say goodbye to Vision a second, final time—although is death ever really final in the comic books?

Olsen and Bettany have always had terrific onscreen chemistry, and they make a believable and charming sitcom couple. Plus, it’s nice to see both characters finally get some serious screentime, away from the crowded ensemble action of the Avengers films. Equally delightful is Hahn’s Agnes/Agatha Harkness, who brings just the right note of creepiness to the cheery nosy neighbor archetype early on, before going all-in as a cackling, power-hungry supervillain. And it’s always a pleasure to spend some screen time with Thor‘s Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park, Ant Man and the Wasp), who foil Hayward’s scheming.

“Who’s been messing up everything/It’s been Agatha all along.” From WandaVision Ep. 7 (“Breaking the Fourth Wall”).

The period details for each sitcom decade are a delight, never devolving into outright parody. (I caught sly allusions to The Dick van Dyke Show, Bewitched, Good Times, The Brady Bunch, Roseanne, Full House, Malcolm in the Middle, and even The Office, and eagle-eyed readers no doubt noticed many more.) This extends to the technology: the black-and-white first two episodes are shot with a 4:3 aspect ratio, while scenes set outside the hex boast a more cinematic ratio of 2:40:1. The crew used period-appropriate camera lenses (47 different lenses in all), lighting (no LEDs until the 2000s episodes), and live special effects. The show toggles between multi-camera and single-camera shots, and the pilot episode was filmed before a live audience.

For some reason, WandaVision has become a lightning rod for heated debates over binge-watching versus dribbling out one episode per week. Personally, I approach the question on a case-by-case basis. Having now seen the entire series twice—first in serial installments and then as a binge watch—I think it ultimately works best as a binge-viewing experience. The episode-per-week formula can certainly still work, even on a streaming platform, as The Mandalorian made clear.  But WandaVision‘s central mystery and core concept, while a lot of fun, are ultimately just not substantial enough, particularly the first half of the series.

All in all, I commend Marvel for taking advantage of the strength of their media empire to create something as quirkily inventive and unique as WandaVision. There are no plans right now for a second season; it seems its primary purpose was to serve as a kind of entr’acte between Endgame and Marvel’s Phase 4 plans, starting with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Two post-credit scenes offer tantalizing hints about what comes next.

In the first, Jimmy Woo is heading up cleanup efforts in Westview as Monica Rambeau meets privately with another FBI agent, who reveals herself to be a Skrull—the shape-shifting alien race featured in Captain Marvel. The Skrull tells Monica she is there on behalf of an old friend of her mother who’d heard Monica had been grounded, and wants to meet with her, presumably in space. This is most likely Nick Fury, last seen hanging out on a Skrull base in space, while his Skrull buddy, Talos, impersonated him in Spiderman: Far From Home. Presumably this foreshadows Rambeau’s role in the Captain Marvel sequel now in development.

The second shows Wanda in a remote mountain cabin, relaxing with a cup of coffee, while her Scarlet Witch persona—an astral projection—is seen reading up on the lore in the Darkhold, just before she hears the voices of her sons calling for help. The astral projection trick is how Steven Strange, current Sorcerer Supreme, learned so much about magic, so fast, in Doctor Strange. WandaVision was originally planned to lead directly into Multiverse of Madness, but the pandemic put the kibosh on those plans. We learned from Agatha that the Scarlet Witch is more powerful than the Sorcerer Supreme and is destined to destroy the world, so Wanda is almost certain to play a significant role in that film.

All episodes of WandaVision are now streaming on Disney+. If you’re keen to go behind the scenes, Disney+ will release a documentary, Assembled: The Making of WandaVision, on March 12, 2021—the first documentary in a planned series.

 

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We’re living on a planet of ants

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Susanne Foitzik is a proud myrmecologist: an entomologist who specializes in ants (it was a new vocab word for me, too). Her lab at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich studies the dynamics between slave-making ant species, which capture ants of other species and get them to work for them, and the host species they exploit. What genetic changes have turned a species of diligent worker ants like Temnothorax longispinosus into ravaging hordes of slave makers like Temnothorax americanus?

And what induces the enslaved ant workers to rise up in revolt, killing their oppressor’s pupae? (This is not metaphorical; it really happens). Ant eggs and larvae don’t yet make a species-specific scent, so the enslaved nursemaids caring for them think they’re rearing the young of their own colony. Once the babes hit the pupal stage, though, they start to stink like the slave-makers they are destined to become and their caretakers realize they’ve been duped. At that point they “bite the defenseless young insects to death, rip them to shreds, and throw them out of the nesting chamber.”

A labor of love

Dr. Foitzik really, really loves ants—even the slave-making kind. That love shines through on every page of her new book, Empire of Ants: The Hidden Worlds and Extraordinary Lives of Earth’s Tiny Conquerors, co-authored with Olaf Fritsche. She loves them so much, in fact, that she’s chosen to start each chapter with her charming drawings of different ant species engaged in their daily activities (see example above). 

She writes that there are at least 16,000 known species of ants on Earth, and while she doesn’t introduce us to every single one, we meet plenty of standouts. There’s Anoplolepis gracilipes, the yellow crazy ant, an invasive species that has taken over Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean and killed tens of millions of the native red Christmas Island crabs since the 1990s. Jaglavak is the driver ant that the Morfu people of Northern Cameroon refer to as the Prince of Insects and who they enlist to fight and expel any termites infiltrating the walls of their dwellings. And Myrmelachista schumanni make the monocultural “devil’s gardens” dotting the jungles of Peru and Brazil by killing any plant except for the single species they cultivate as hosts for their nests. 

The author lovingly introduces every chapter with her own hand-drawn images.
Enlarge / The author lovingly introduces every chapter with her own hand-drawn images.

Then there’s Odontomachus bauri, which has mandibles that snap together in 130 millionths of a second, at 143 miles per hour—”one of the fastest phenomena recorded in the animal world.” No prey can escape. These jaws are used for movement, too: When one of these ants points her jaws down at the ground and bites, the backlash catapults her through the air.

Ant societies are meticulously efficient and organized; every individual has a job which she performs without any question, discontent, or hesitation. The queens lay eggs. Different workers tend the larvae, build and maintain the nest, and scout out and forage food. The soldiers guard the entrance to the nest and find and kill prey. Older leafcutter ants go cut up leaves and bring them back for younger leafcutter ants to feed to the fungus that the colony farms as food. 

Oh, and the males? “Male ants are little more than flying bundles of sperm and by far the most boring ants in a perfectly organized matriarchal state,” writes Dr. Foitzik. They develop from unfertilized eggs, and after one chance of delivering their sperm, they die and are eaten by whoever finds them, often their sisters. 

A first-person tale

We characterize these ants with human labels: scouts, foragers, wet nurses, queens, soldiers, even farmers and shepherds. But as Dr. Foitzik points out, ants enact their assigned roles purely because of the workings of genetics and natural selection. They are little automatons. We have free will, and moral and rational reasoning. Ant roles are not human roles, and ant societies are not human societies. We just see them and describe them that way because it’s hard for us to imagine any other.

As seems to be the trend in poppy science books since The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this one is told from a first person perspective and very prominently features the author. We hear about all the trials and travails poor Dr. Foitzik and her fellow myrmecologists must undergo in their ant studies, both in the field and in the lab. They get all dirty; their research subjects bite them, sting them, and cause them to get detained by customs agents. Sometimes, to their chagrin, the ants even show up on menus. 

The actual research isn’t easy, either. Apparently it can be really hard to tell individuals apart in the colony they’re studying. And extracting and dissecting the ants’ tiny brains can be technically quite challenging. This can be irksome reading because, presumably, the myrmecologists chose their path; no one forced them to crawl around digging up ant colonies, bring them home on planes, and cut them apart. 

But overall Empire of Ants provides a great overview of ant life cycles, communication, and colony formation, sprinkled through with really fascinating depictions of some of the weirder species as outlined above. It ends by outlining the ways in which our world and society intersects with theirs. If bugs are your thing (and yes, I know that ants are not technically bugs), it’s worth checking out.   

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How to beat Paper Mario really fast by… playing Ocarina of Time?

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Probably the only Paper Mario speedrun you’ve ever seen that includes extensive Ocarina of Time gameplay.

The idea of using video games as a way to achieve some form of Arbitrary Code Execution (ACE) on classic hardware has come a long way since seven years ago, when TASbot publicly reprogrammed a Super NES on the fly via Super Mario World. There are now dozens of examples of similar glitches that use nothing but controller inputs to insert new programming instructions into classic games, including many that can be performed by humans (and not just button-mashing robots).

Even given all that history, though, we’re still a bit wowed by the speedrunning community that found a way to insert new code into Paper Mario for the N64, leading to a new record-setting speedrun of the game. Their new method requires some extremely careful character positioning, the exploitation of “junk” memory in the N64’s RAM expansion pack and, amazingly, playing a couple of games of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Enter the effects matrix

The story of how this incredible method was discovered goes back two months, when a Paper Mario speedrunner who goes by Morpheus stumbled on a mysterious game crash in the middle of a livestreamed run. Players eventually discovered that Morpheus had accidentally triggered a situation where the game was storing too much data in the “effects matrix,” a data structure the game uses to store details of visual effects like smoke from Mario’s hammer blows.

By using a menu glitch to permanently store what are usually temporary effects, a player can overflow that matrix and enter a portion of unrelated memory, which the game interprets as “garbage” machine code, leading to a crash.

From there, players got to work figuring out how to use the overloaded effects matrix to run useful code rather than game-breaking junk. Doing that meant careful manipulation of Mario’s position in the game’s three-dimensional coordinate system so those positional values could be inserted into precise positions in the effects matrix. This was made harder because Mario’s vertical position in the in-game world is heavily limited by, uh, gravity.

Fray’s proof-of-concept video goes into some detail on how the Paper Mario glitch actually works.

By mid-February, though, Paper Mario runner Fray had done the positional calculations and shown off a code execution proof of concept that could be performed with the assistance of emulation tools. A few days later ,another runner, Rain, showed off a complete tool-assisted speedrun that warps the player to the game’s credits scene much faster than even the fastest glitch-exploiting speedruns could do previously.

Unfortunately, the extremely precise positioning required for this method means a human would have no chance of replicating it. And that’s where Ocarina of Time and the N64 RAM expansion pak come into play.

Stopping and “Swopping”

Remember that buffer overflow crash Morpheus discovered in January? It turns out that “by sheer crazy coincidence, this [buffer overflow] jumps execution to a part of memory where there are player flags and an idle timer,” explained Paper Mario streamer JCog. “If we let that idle timer reach anywhere from 0x810 to 0x81f, which is 69 seconds (nice), before releasing the stored effects, then execution jumps to expansion pak memory, which Paper Mario doesn’t use, and then it crashes from garbage data.”

Going from one set of garbage data to another doesn’t seem very useful, unless you also have a way to edit that expansion pak memory first. Fortunately, another ACE method in Ocarina of Time gives us a way in there. We won’t discuss the intricate steps necessary for that glitch here, but the process is broadly similar to the one used to insert Star Fox arwings into the game, as we described in detail last year. By repeating this method twice (using a couple of carefully constructed file names), an Ocarina of Time runner can load a specific assembly instruction into that area of expansion pak memory.

Enlarge / Neither Ocarina of Time nor Paper Mario officially use the N64 memory expansion pak, but it’s key to making this in-game hack work.

You might think that expansion RAM memory would become unusable after you turn the system off. But early editions of the N64 hardware actually have a quirk where that memory persists for a few seconds after the system powers down. That idiosyncrasy was actually key to Rare’s plans for a “Stop n Swop” system, which would have let players unlock items and content in one Rare game by playing a different game and then quickly swapping the cartridges. Unfortunately, later revisions to the hardware changed that unintended memory persistence and forced Rare to abandon those plans.

Today, though, players can still exploit the vagaries of early N64 hardware to move memory from one game to another. As JCog explained, “If we quickly turn off the console, swap cartridges to Paper Mario, and turn the console back on, that instruction will still be there in memory (luckily when [Ocarina of Time] boots, it clears the expansion pak memory, but Paper Mario just ignores it).”

With the Ocarina-inserted instruction still stored in expansion pak memory, Morpheus’ glitch doesn’t crash the system but instead jumps the game to the credits cut scene, making for a human-repeatable speedrun solution. You can see the cartridge swap involved at 45:00 in this video, followed by the Paper Mario glitch that takes advantage of that leftover Ocarina of Time memory.

JCog noted that this extreme method probably shouldn’t count for the Paper Mario speedrun leaderboards, since it requires setup from outside the game. Still, the fact that it’s possible at all is a testament to the research, ingenuity, and hacking chops of a dedicated group of players determined to unlock the inner workings of classic gaming hardware.

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