Monthly Archives: March 2015

Spaceship Warlock Adventure category

Title screen from Spaceship Warlock

You are stranded on the planet Stambul. To escape, you have to order tickets for a space flight over a public videophone. You’re meant to dial the operator and ask for the spaceport, but you can also prank-call the emergency line or find the number for the local bar. Then you can visit the bar, order your choice of alcoholic drink, and get thrown out onto the street. Open as those options seem, they’re only facsimiles of freedom: unless you incite the police to kill you, you’re inevitably going to the spaceport. So why not have a little fun and insult your cab driver along the way?

You can’t write the history of the adventure game or the interactive movie without mentioning the operatic sci-fi thriller Spaceship Warlock. As one of the first ever games on CD-ROM, it had the privilege to define what a modern cinematic game would look and play like. Without a roadmap of genre conventions, the game crafts a bizarre template that is somehow roller-coaster-esque in its linearity while still open-ended. Spaceship Warlock barely, barely pulls it off. Not everything gels – especially not the combat scenes – but what works stands out as a high-wire act of guided interactivity. Spaceship Warlock » Read more

Music Highlight: ClockWerx Music Highlights category

Music Highlight

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.

Composer Peter Drescher captured ClockWerx‘s tone perfectly with this song. The game moves quickly but encourages a methodical approach given all the obstacles and pitfalls. Like “Song H,” it’s eager but laid-back, upbeat but careful. Most of the other music from ClockWerx marches faster and feels giddier, but this one hits the right balance for the game’s cautious pacing. Many other puzzle games share the same speed, so in a way, “Song H” is the platonic ideal for puzzle-solving music.

And like all the music in ClockWerx, “Song H” has a hook like nobody’s business. Have fun getting this one out of your head.

The Groove Thing Macintosh categorySoftware category

Title screen from The Groove Thing

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. The Groove Thing » Read more

Obitus RPG category

Title screen from Obitus

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 that’s hard to look past. Obitus » Read more

Adios, Maxis: a look back and some Sim obscurities Essay categorySimulation category

Screenshot from SimAnt

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. If Maxis’s contributions stopped there, they would still sit among the titans in 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 have unexpected fun. Almost no one else has mastered that balance.

Of course, Maxis excelled at the little things, like sensible interface design and clear, friendly graphics. 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.  Adios, Maxis: a look back and some Sim obscurities » Read more

QuarterPole Simulation categorySports category

Title screen from QuarterPole

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. QuarterPole » Read more