Even without its prominent endorsement from Tetris‘s Alexey Pajitnov, ClockWerx would still be a minor success. Its rotating, clock-inspired mechanics put a clever twist on typical puzzle game movement. As many with many games of its kind, ClockWerx groups its various challenges into a few different thematic sets, each with its own graphics and some new background music.
Most of these songs are peppy lounge tunes, all of which are quite catchy. The piece for the sixth set of levels, unimaginatively titled “Song H,” stands out for its slower groove. Read more »
When visiting the mall as a kid, I’d usually stop by Spencer’s, a novelty store that specialized in crass and raunchy joke gifts. Among their usual fart-related T-shirts, the store always kept the back aisle dimly lit and well-stocked with plasma balls, blacklights, lava lamps, strobes, and other trippy decor. In retrospect, it was clearly intended for stoners, but I was too innocent to get that. It just felt cool. And I liked the glowy things.
Like a naive kid’s version of the back of Spencer’s, The Groove Thing is an in-your-face light show for its own sake. This kaleidoscopic art-and-music software would probably pair well with any sort of substance enhancement but is too earnest for that. It’s here to put you in a trance with the only tools in its bag: colors and patterns. Read more »
No game would benefit more from a built-in map than Obitus. Disorientation is Obitus‘s baseline, and your sense of place rarely improves from there.
This exploration-driven RPG has some neat parts, like simple combat and some very pretty, muted visuals. An oppressive sense of directionlessness overwhelms almost anything else the game tries, though, and it’s hard to look past that. Read more »
Last week we got the very sad news that legendary developer Maxis closed its doors after 28 years. The Maxis name and its related brands will live on for years under new stewardship, but the end of the original Maxis studio is a great symbolic loss. The company is rightfully most loved for SimCity and The Sims, two games that pushed the medium in exciting, unexplored directions. Those titles twice redefined the simulation genre and exposed gaming to millions who might not consider themselves the right audience for gaming. If Maxis’s contributions to gaming stopped there, they would still sit among the titans of gaming history.
But Maxis’s secret weapon (and the reason I’m mentioning them here) was their steady output of stranger, lesser-known stuff. Outside of their most notable franchises, Maxis released roughly a dozen other Sim games and served as publisher for many independent titles. They somehow made compelling experiences out of ant lifecycles, farm management, and hotel development, and they tackled simulations of such ambitious scope that they had to be named SimLife and SimEarth. The studio also invested in similarly spirited one-off oddities like Widget Workshop, an experiment-driven edutainment sandbox program. Maxis’s milieu (so to speak) proved that games could go anywhere and be anything – for everyone. Their signature blend of approachable design and endless depth ensured that anyone could play and have unexpected fun. Almost no one else has mastered that balance.
Maxis of course excelled at the little things, like sensible interface design, clear graphics, and friendly tutorials. At the same time, they tackled huge, insane ideas. Consider their experiment with SimCopter, a flight simulator that meshed with content from SimCity 2000, maybe the first game of its kind to meld content from multiple titles. Sometimes this ambition didn’t quite work, as arguably happened with Spore. But they shot high and weird, and they deserve ultimate respect for that.
To celebrate Maxis and their more obscure output, I want to look at the craziest Maxis games that you can’t play, whether because of cancellation, discontinuation, or rarity. Maxis was prolific, and their footnotes are as fascinating as their successes. Read more »
Let’s talk about horse racing. Not the actual cruel and outdated sport. I mean the popularly imagined horse race – the version romanticized in media like Guys and Dolls and Luck as a platonic ideal of sporting culture. Stripped to its essentials, horse racing is a slow-motion roulette wheel, a massive gamble in which second-to-second changes in race order lead to ultimate thrills and the chance for riches and glory. The “horse race” has evolved to a metaphor that captures that immediacy, the love of the chase and jockeying to the exclusion of all else.
The developers of QuarterPole clearly love both kinds of horse race. Their intensive knowledge of racing culture is evident, but despite the game’s often impenetrable density, it never loses sight of the base pleasures of the race and the bet. By offering multiple ways to play on both sides of the track, QuarterPole ensures you’re never far from the satiating drama of watching fortunes turn at the last second. Read more »
The platform game boom in the 90s begat an odd brand of artistically driven mascot games. Earthworm Jim, Plok, Zool, Cool Spot, and their ilk owed much of their success to their terrific cartoon stylings, especially if all else turned out poor or frustrating. There’s a lot to analyze about the balance those games struck between their visual accomplishments and their quality otherwise. That conversation deserves a greater breadth of games to scrutinize, and the first new name on the list should be Crazy Drake.
Not much distinguishes Crazy Drake from those other games, and it bears a suspiciously close resemblance to Earthworm Jim in particular. The similarity works in its benefit here. Like the rest of its breed, Crazy Drake is a pretty good action-platformer with the elastic panache of a Saturday morning cartoon. Another game in that vein doesn’t exactly break new ground, but it’s certainly a pleasant surprise. Read more »
3 in Three has some terrific world-building.
It feels weird to talk about a puzzle game in terms of its narrative achievements, but that’s why 3 in Three excels. From a gameplay standpoint, it’s roughly the digital equivalent of a big paperback Pennysaver puzzle book. There’s a bunch of puzzles – some fiendishly enjoyable and some dully frustrating – and not much else beyond this grab-bag assortment. But developer Cliff Johnson made the game special by wrapping the entire thing in a quirky story about computers, data, and language. It provides a fun context for puzzle-solving and props up some of the game’s inherent limitations. Read more »
I am impossibly excited to announce that I will be a panelist at the upcoming MAGFest 13 gaming festival!
MAGFest is the largest gaming event in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area, with attendance for 2015 expected to reach 15,000. I’ve attended MAGfest since 2012, and I’m unbelievably stoked to bring my obscure game-ery to the show this year.
Specifics like timing are still in progress, but I will be tentatively hosting a panel titled “Obscure Gaming Gems (and Why They Matter).” I’ll be talking about some great obscure games, but more importantly, I want to address why obscurities are important to the gaming discourse. I touched on it a little bit in an earlier essay: when we celebrate obscure games, we’re engaging gaming with an open mind and a curious spirit. It’s good for positivity and inclusiveness, and it makes the gaming landscape more exciting and critically engaging. There’s a lot to explore here, including the forgotten history of the Mac gaming scene, the works of Theresa Duncan, and – of course – Eastern Mind and its unlikely fan community.
I’ll be sure to post updates once we get closer to MAGFest 13 (January 23-26), but for now, I just wanted to share this exciting news. This is sort of a personal culmination of everything I’ve been working towards with this blog. I’m looking forward to spreading the good word about obscurities – and maybe even seeing a few friendly faces!
(If you plan on attending, please drop me a line so we can say hello!)
UPDATE: The official MAGFest schedule is out and has the panel slotted for 6pm on Saturday, January 24th, in the MAGES 2 room. It’s happening!
I don’t post about Kickstarters too often on here, just because of the extreme volume of retro revivals and similar projects. But this one is pretty special. New York-based digital art group Rhizome is attempting to preserve three CD-ROM games by developer Theresa Duncan – Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero – that were designed for girls ages 7 to 12. These games were released for Windows 95 and 98, a dark age for compatibility and emulation, and Rhizome wants to curate them for modern audiences. This combines two of my favorite things: Windows 9x CD-ROMs and diversity in gaming.
This is a really terrific cause, and it’s a great example of why obscure games matter. I had never heard of any of these games prior to this Kickstarter, and it excites me so much to know that they made a difference for young girls back in the day. We should be celebrating more of these creative, out-of-the-way games tailored to audiences that are usually overlooked by the industry at-large. They’re special, and they make the world of gaming a little bit brighter. More people should know about them! (Plus, CD-ROMs are super great.)
If you want to learn more about Theresa Duncan and her work, check out Jenn Frank’s article In a Field of ’90s Barbieland Wreckage, Chop Suey Got Gaming for Girls Totally Right.
Please consider kicking in a few dollars!
(Thanks to Eli Abbott for alerting me about this!)
UPDATE: Rhizome has reached their goal! I’ll be sure to post an update once the project is complete some time next year.
If you want to see the two diametrically opposed directions of games in 90s, look at The Dig and Doom. One is an adventure game with gorgeous visuals that fleshes out its narrative with character interactions and exploration. The other is a largely plotless first-person shooter that focuses on extreme speed and three-dimensional carnage. Both games succeed on their own terms, but their styles weren’t exactly compatible. At the time, many adventure games used pre-rendered scenery to convey detailed, elaborate settings and stories that were not otherwise possible, and they were, by necessity, a little clumsy. Games that don’t demand intense action can get away with this, but Doom needed to be slicker, quicker, and simpler.
Lunicus, the debut game from experimental developer Cyberflix, attempts to bridge these two worlds. Though primarily a first-person shooter, Lunicus borrows liberally from adventure games, using pre-rendered graphics, cinematic vignettes, and extensive narrative sections. Melding these once-opposed genres is a huge creative gamble, and unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. But it’s at least an intriguing failure worth a post-mortem. Read more »