Friday, May 29, 2015

Saving Money With Amazon -- My Top 5 Finds

I'm obsessed with Amazon. One-click ordering, with two-day delivery, is oh so satisfying.

I've ordered a lot of really cool things from Amazon. Last November, I snagged a copy of the best Thanksgiving movie ever, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, for a paltry $4.63.

"Those aren't pillows!"$4.63 for this classic? Del Griffith would be proud.

In July 2014, I picked up a pre-assembled Zoeller sump pump for just under $400. It's a high-end model that a basement specialist assured me I couldn't find for less than $800. Uh, hello, did he not think I'd take that as a DIY challenge? And, yes, it's kept everything dry this spring.

The basement specialist wanted about $1,500 to install this setup in my basement. I picked this beauty up on Amazon for $400. It came with terrific instructions and a control module. It was fully assembled.

Make sure you download the Amazon app on your smartphone. A lot of retailers have price-matching policies. So, just by comparing in-store prices with Amazon, you can save some significant money. Case in point: I had to purchase name badge refills for a work event in March. Office Max had 100 badges for $99. Amazon had the same product for $50. I was able to price match Amazon and paid $100 for two 100-pack bundles. Keep in mind that to price match Amazon, most retailers will require the product be Prime eligible. 

Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Amazon finds.

5. Cheapo sunglasses: I've never been willing to part with $100 for a pair of sunglasses. I'm likely to lose them or scratch them. So, I'll usually head over to Walmart and plunk down $20 for a pair of budget shades. This summer, I started thinking $20 was a bit exorbitant. Amazon to the rescue. I now own three pair of shades. Total spent was around $20 for all three.

4.  G-Shock watch: I purchased my first Casio G-Shock from Kohls. I bought a low-end model and paid around $80 for it. That night, I noticed Amazon had the same watch for $40. My eyes were opened. I promptly returned it and bought a slightly nicer one for $60. The same watch retails at Kohls for $99. 

3. Cree flashlights: These little things are amazing. Cree refers to the type of bulb they use, not the actual brand. You can get them on Amazon for around $5 each. At retailers, they cost a lot more. I purchased the Hausbell brand lights. They're extremely small, but put out a lot of light. And, they only take one AA battery. I've bought four so far. I'll probably buy another half dozen in the next year or so.

2. Tempered glass screen shields: Here's another product that has a tremendous markup if you buy it retail. My parents purchased tempered glass screen shields from AT&T when they bought their phones. They paid about $80 per shield. I picked up two for a total of $20. The thing is, they're super easy to install. Just make sure the screen is clean. Then place it on like a sticker. They claim to offer some drop protection too. The tempered glass is supposed to break, saving the actual screen under it. Lastly, they're a vast improvement over the old plastic shields. These things feel like you're actually touching the phone screen. And, they're extremely clear. 

1. Video game downloads: This is one of the best deals I've ever come across on Amazon. I picked up the latest two installments of Assassin's Creed for Xbox One for $30. That's two full games for less than the cost of one new game. If I'd purchased physical copies in a store, that would have cost me about $90. 

I think these download cards were part of a previous Xbox One bundle that didn't sell as well as anticipated. I've yet to come across a similar deal. Though, I did pick up the recent Tomb Raider game for $20. This was a physical copy. Retail price at the time was around $40. Not as great of a deal, but still that's a good savings. Lastly, if you're an Xbox Gold subscriber, make sure you're buying the cards from Amazon. The retail price if you renew through Xbox is $60 for a year. You can get the cards for around $35.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Top 3 Mom Punishments

One summer in the early 90s, I received a valuable economics lesson.

After an afternoon of swimming, I had to get ready for my little league baseball game. Standing by the pool, my uncle (whom most of you know as Coach Croft) made me a sinister offer. I was completely decked out in my cleats, team jersey and baseball pants. If I jumped in the pool, while wearing my uniform, he would pay me a crisp $5 bill. He even pulled it out of his wallet and showed it to me.

With the grandkids, my mom has turned into a real softie. She spoils them relentlessly. They'll never know how she spent years whipping my sister and me into shape.

It was a lot of money at the time, especially for a kid. I was seriously considering it. Then, I glanced over at my mom. One look, and I knew that there was no way $5 was worth the wrath that I would endure for ruining my uniform and being late.

This top 3 is dedicated to my mom. Throughout the years, she taught me some valuable lessons. To teach these lessons, she came up with some creative punishments to keep me in line. With kids of my own, I can now appreciate these punishments for what they were -- her molding me into a nice young man.

3. Laundry duty: Mom always washed and folded our clothes. But, there were a few rules. You had to put them away after they were folded. Before placing them in the hamper, it was your responsibility to remove anything from the pockets -- gum was the biggie.

At some point in my teenage years, I failed to abide by the pocket rule. Mom washed a stick of gum. Then, she washed another stick or two. I think it was after the third time that things got serious. As she meticulously picked gum out of the dryer, she came up with a brilliant idea. I would do my own laundry for a week.

It worked. I developed a new appreciation for something I'd taken for granted. It also set me up for college. I knew how to sort clothes and dispense fabric softener at the proper moment (we didn't have a timed-release function on our washing machine).

2. Sitting at the studio: I was in high school when this happened. It had to be my sophomore year, because I couldn't drive yet.

After school, on certain days, I would walk to Stephanie's School of Dance, where my mom worked as the secretary. She would finish up, and take 20 minutes to drive me home, and then go back to work.

On one particular day, I got impatient. I said some cranky, teenager things, like "Mom, can we go now?" Mom wasn't having it. For a week, I had to walk down to the studio and wait -- not until she got a break, but for the entire night. I sat and did my my homework or read a book. And, I did it quietly. I knew anymore complaining would tack on another week. Lesson learned.

1. Music grounding: This one happened when I was 16. I had a 1987 Toyota Celica. Dad had helped me install a CD player in the dash. It was a sweet setup.

I can't remember what I did to prompt this punishment, but it must have been bad. Mom grounded me from listening to music in the car. She literally took the faceplate off my CD player. I still remember giving friends a ride and them asking "what happened to your faceplate?" I didn't want to admit I was grounded so I lamely said, "Oh, I lost it."

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Top 5 NES Games

The 1987 Christmas was a magical one. At 5 years old, I unwrapped my first video game console -- the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Many a sleepover was spent huddled around the NES. Our lungs gradually developed to Olympic swimmer status as we underwent the time-honored ritual of blowing into cartridges countless times. Those were the days.

Just in case you forgot what NES graphics looked like, here's a screenshot from Ikari Warriors. Two dudes in the jungle, sans shirts, but pro headbands, rockin' and rollin' with their machine guns -- pure bliss.
Before we get started, I need to issue a few disclaimers. First, this list is limited to games I actually owned. This is my personal top 5, not an all-inclusive list. 

So, you won't see Super Mario 3 on this list. I didn't own it, and didn't really get into the Mario franchise until Super Mario World was released on the Super Nintendo. 

Next, you won't see any RPGs on this list. I didn't start to enjoy that genre until "action" became a significant part of RPGs. Mass Effect was the first RPG I thoroughly enjoyed. The turn-based system common for NES games was much too slow for my young attention span. 

For a little warm-up, I'm going to list my favorite two-player games. 

Ikari Warriors: This top-down shooter gave you control of a knock-off Rambo character (see above). And, you could drive tanks. Pure sweetness.

Jackal: Two Jeeps, guns and grenades. 'Nuff said.

Major League Baseball: Kenan and I would play this game for hours. You could bean batters and they would make an awesome "Ooompf" sound. Plus, you could steal. There was some secret where you could throw a sinker. Most times, you'd just end up throwing a slow-moving meat ball. Also, Ozzie Smith was on the cover.

Now, onto the top 5. 

5. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest: This side-scrolling quest was one of the first to introduce the concept of character upgrades. You felt so cool when you got that thorn whip. The flame whip was beastly. I guess in a sense, this was a sort of action RPG.

I love how you'd be adverturing and suddenly the screen would darken. That was a sign that $hi* was about to get real. All the extra tough baddies would come out and the music would change. Pure adrenaline. I still remember being confused by the phrase "The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night."

4. Contra: Played traditionally, with three lives and three continues, this game was nearly impossible. I never beat it that way. Rather, I'd enter the Konami code and see how few lives I could lose before beating the game.

Also, two words "spread gun." That thing was money. This was another great two-player game. Though, I hated how you could kill off the other guy buy jumping too quickly on certain levels.

3. Ninja Gaiden: Here's another super difficult NES classic. It was made even tougher by glitchy enemy respawns. I never beat it, but my dad was a ninja master. I think he got pretty darn close a couple times.

Look at that freaking awesome box art. I'd bet the art by itself sold 85% of the copies.
Remember how you could mis-time a jump, but Ryu would just barely grab the bottom of the ledge? Unfortunately, this amazingly-agile ninja couldn't just climb up a ledge. You had to jump off, and then quickly re-grab the ledge. If you were good enough, you could work your way up. Most of the times, though, you just fell to your death.

2. Mike Tyson's Punch Out: Yep, I had the original version that actually had Iron Mike on the cover. Later on, Nintendo removed him from the game.

This was a game of timing and patterns. Once you got it down, you felt like a brutal boxing warrior, eliminating opponents with extreme prejudice. It also had a cool code system where you could restart at the bottom of the highest circuit you'd obtained. FYI: I never beat Mike. I don't know that I actually saw anyone ever do so. Did you?

1. Legend of Zelda: For me, this is the pinnacle of NES gaming. The music was awesome, the puzzles were tough, and the item/area unlock system was so cool. I could never remember where to find that dang Magic Sword. Every playthrough, I'd wake up the entire graveyard trying to find the right tombstone.
I found my gold Zelda cartridge in my parent's basement last Christmas. It brought back such joyous memories.
My favorite boss has to be Dodongo. Remember, he was the big dinosaur/lizard thing? You had to feed him bombs. He'd swallow them and cough. After about three, he'd take a dirt nap. The most annoying enemy was the Like Like. He'd steal your shield, which would make fighting those knights a nightmare. Speaking of which, remember that screen in level 8? You'd walk in and the framerate would take a nosedive because it was full of about 15 knights.

Those are my top 5 NES games. Leave me a comment and tell me which ones are on your list.