Dr. Sulfur’s Night Lab Educational category

Box art for Dr. Sulfur's Night Lab, showing a collection of beakers filled with various colored liquid. Weird creatures lurk around the corner of the screen. "Enter this Virtual Chemistry Lab at Your Own Risk!"

Box art for Dr. Sulfur’s Night Lab, courtesy of Stuart Feldhamer via MobyGames.

Science is a tough subject for an educational game. Looking at a sample of edutainment games from the 80s and 90s, I’m willing to say that a large portion of them are about math, maybe because math is easier to randomly generate. The math action-adventure game Troggle Trouble Math, for example, can automatically spin up an endless number of story problems by plugging numbers into a handful of templates. Language arts are a good fit for a computer game too, because it’s another reproducible subject that mostly happens on paper.

Compare that with science, a subject that benefits so much from hands-on experimentation that a computer game can’t necessarily supply. The best science lessons are the ones where students get to mix liquids together or play with magnets or set things on fire. In fourth grade, my science teacher did an experiment where we had to identify sugar, salt, and flour by taste alone, and as hokey as that was, it’s stuck with me for two decades, so he must have been onto something. It’s more challenging for an educational game to reproduce the value of an exercise like that.

Last year, I talked about MECC’s Science Inquiry Collection, which taught scientific subjects — like water quality or dental health — through an investigative process. This is, I think, the right way to do it. But compared to math games that can infinitely generate math problems, there’s only so many types of unique investigations or experiments that developers can reasonably fit into one science game.

By that measure, Dr. Sulfur’s Night Lab might be the most ambitious science edutainment game I’ve ever encountered. Released by textbook publisher McGraw-Hill’s short-lived computer game division in 1996, Dr. Sulfur is a game about chemistry. And to achieve that, the designers tried to recreate the joy of playing around in science class. » Read more about Dr. Sulfur’s Night Lab

Teazle Arcade categoryBoard categoryPuzzle category

Title screen from Teazle

Part of the appeal of a minigame collection, I think, is that it offers a bite-size portion of a variety of different kinds of games. They last one minute, tops, and then you move on to a racing game,

or a trivia game, or a puzzle game, or just a game where you have to mash the buttons as fast as possible. A good minigame collection — like Bishi Bashi or the best Mario Parties — is like a good round of tapas, with different flavors and textures that complement each other.

Teazle contains 50 minigames, and while there’s a ton of variety, I’m still surprised how many of them involve math. » Read more about Teazle

Pre-order The Boxes of Hock Wah Yeo! Blog category

The cover of the book The Boxes of Hock Wah Yeo, showing the teal, pyramid-shaped boxed for <em>Spectre</em>.

Image courtesy of Colpa Press.

Earlier this year, I published an article about the work of Hock Wah Yeo, a graphic designer who created some of the most unconventional computer game box designs of the 90s. The article got a lot of attention, including from Gizmodo and Kotaku. It was great to see so much interest in Yeo’s work.

And now, his work is becoming a book! Colpa Press is publishing The Boxes of Hock Wah Yeo, an art book featuring some of Yeo’s iconic design work. The book also includes early development sketches of Yeo’s box designs, as well as an essay about his work by designer Chris Hamamoto. The book itself is a bit of an art object too; look at the exposed notebook-style binding!

Colpa Press is a small-run art book publisher, which previously handled the re-release of Osamu Sato’s The Art of Computer Designing. Only 100 copies of The Boxes of Hock Wah Yeo will be printed, so if you want a copy, pre-order it now!

One of the most rewarding parts of doing this blog is seeing games and designers coming to light again, so it’s especially exciting to see Yeo’s work back in prominence!

The Book of Watermarks Adventure categoryPlayStation category

Title screen from The Book of Watermarks

There was a commercial that aired constantly on TV in the mid-late-90s for Pure Moods, a compilation album of new-age and world music, featuring artists like Enya and Enigma. The commercials promised not just an album but an experience that transported you to a higher realm of inner peace and pure vibes. It was “the soundtrack for your way of life,” the announcer intoned in a deep, breathy voice. Also, for some reason, it had a rave remix of the X-Files theme song.

The Book of Watermarks feels like Pure Moods taking physical form and becoming an entire world. The setting of this 1999 PlayStation game — released exclusively in Japan but mostly in English with Japanese subtitles — is a sprawling Mediterranean villa with gargantuan cathedrals, libraries, and catacombs. Key music was co-composed by Moya Brennan, a musician best known as the lead vocalist of the new-age Celtic band Clannad, in which she briefly performed with her sister, Enya. Brennan’s non-lyrical vocal themes fade through a synthesized orchestra as the camera sweeps across the rocky shores of the islands. The whole production feels gauzy and dreamlike. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the game shares its name with Enya’s dreamy, breakthrough 1988 album Watermark.

What director Takashi Kobayashi and his team created isn’t exactly a living new-age album though, just like it isn’t exactly an adventure game, or an attempt at a cautionary tale about the internet, or a loose adaptation of The Tempest. Remarkably, The Book of Watermarks is all those things, to varying degrees. What they really created is an ornate puzzle box, one that’s more about a sense of place than it is about the puzzles themselves. » Read more about The Book of Watermarks

Talking game copyright on the Video Game History Hour Blog category

Video Game History Hour logo

Last month, the Copyright Office issued a new ruling that could have a big impact on how libraries, museums, and archives preserve software. But unless you’re enmeshed in the complicated world of game and software copyright policy, it’s a little confusing to unpack, assuming you even heard the news at all!

This week, I stopped by the Video Game History Hour podcast, along with Kendra Albert from the Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic, to explore what U.S. copyright law means for game preservation! We cover a wide range of topics, from the recent changes to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to an obscure part of copyright law called Section 108 and how it applies to video games. Do you know what the Copyright Office’s current definition of a “game” is? It might surprise you!

This is my second time joining Frank Cifaldi and Kelsey Lewin on the Video Game History Hour. I love being able to talk about these issues with the gaming community. There’s so much interesting game preservation work that’s happening out-of-view in Zoom meetings and policy groups, and it’s great to shine a light on the effort that goes into these incremental changes that’ll make game and software preservation more accessible.

Hands-on with Macromedia Director in ScummVM Essay category

Screenshot from The Journeyman Project demo showing the Pegasus time machine.

In terms of tools for running old software, ScummVM is in a class of its own. It’s a long-running project that “reimplements” old games, reconstructing the game code so they can be played on other platforms. Back when ScummVM was first under development twenty years ago (!), it was meant for games created with the SCUMM engine, a toolset by the developer LucasArts that powered their famous adventure games like The Secret of Monkey IslandIndiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Day of the Tentacle.

Since then, ScummVM has broadened considerably in scope. ScummVM now supports over 200 games, including other adventure game engines, like Sierra On-Line’s Adventure Game Interpreter; individual titles like The 7th Guest; and even unrelated vintage software like the Living Books interactive children’s book series by Brøderbund. The ability to run these games on modern platforms using a free, lightweight, open-source program — without needing to emulate an entire computer operating system — has made ScummVM a boon for video game preservation. In fact, several game publishers have turned to ScummVM when re-releasing their old games!

But ScummVM is about to get even bigger. Earlier this year, ScummVM added experimental support for Macromedia Director, one of the most widely used development tools from the CD-ROM multimedia era. This is a big deal, so big that it got press coverage, including an article that I spoke with Ars Technica for in August.

This month, to celebrate the project’s twentieth anniversary, the ScummVM team released ScummVM 2.5.0, the first version to officially support Macromedia Director games. There’s a lot of work to be done still, but I wanted to document where it stands right now — why it’s a big deal, how well it works, and what comes next. » Read more about Hands-on with Macromedia Director in ScummVM

Battle of the Eras Fighting category

Title screen for Battle of the Eras, depicting a bunch of kids fighting each other in various costumes inspired by fantasy and martial arts.

When I was a teenager, I loved the idea of making things. My brother and friends and I would spend hours dreaming up movies, or video games, or music projects, none of which would come to fruition. We had no resources or follow-through. Anything we completed was lovingly cobbled together from whatever household objects we had lying around, but usually, our projects wouldn’t make it past the first draft of the script, or we’d only make a title screen, and that was good enough for us. We were satisfied with the knowledge that, if we applied ourselves, maybe we could really make something.

I like to think that everyone flirted with an impractical creative dream at one point when they were kids. Maybe you did too. That’s why Battle of the Eras, a homemade live-action fighting game from 1995, is so enjoyable. It was made by a bunch of teenagers in their basement with big ideas and no budget, except they actually did it. » Read more about Battle of the Eras

3Xtreme PlayStation categoryRacing categorySports category

Title screen from 3xtreme

This year at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, two new extreme sports events joined the Olympic lineup: freestyle BMX and skateboarding. Putting aside the complications caused by the pandemic, getting into the Olympics is a big milestone for professional skateboarding, a sport that was once so disorganized that it once had a major competition officiated by judges who were allegedly high out of their minds and once gave a competitor extra time in the middle of the event because, as the announcer of the 1999 X Games explained, “We make up the rules as we go along.”1,2

But this was actually the second motocross competition at the Olympics this year. Back in 2008, BMX first made its Olympic debut as a racing event. Together, they’re two different sides of the same sport. Maybe this is a testament to the diversity within extreme sports, but it’s also an indication that there’s no single or correct way to adapt the creative, freeform energy of extreme sports into a competitive event.

When extreme sports catapulted into mainstream culture in the late 90s, video games faced with a similar challenge. How do you take an activity that defies structure and, well, impose structure on it? How do you make a rule-driven video game out of something that was, at that moment, barely a professional sport? » Read more about 3Xtreme

And we’re back! Blog category

Hello there! It’s been a while, huh?

After a couple of chaotic months, I’m finally in a place where I’m able to start writing again. I’ve recently settled into a new home, and while I still have weeks of unpacking and re-arranging ahead of me, I am relieved to have things situated once more. I’ve set up my writing desk in a beautiful well-lit corner of the room, and I feel ready to wind The Obscuritory back up.

My time away from The Obscuritory has helped me realize what I enjoy so much about this blog, and it’s made me grateful for the thoughtful audience I’ve cultivated over the years. I am so glad to be able to write for my own curiosity, and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you appreciate this stuff for the same reasons too, and I’m glad you’re along for the ride.

The Obscuritory is something I’m proud to do on my own terms. Researching weird old games and writing about them is rewarding for me on a personal level, and as I’m getting back into the writing process, I want this blog to be a more satisfying, balanced part of my life, so I’ll be moving at a purposefully slower pace. It’ll be longer between posts, and I’ll be happier for it, and the fact that I can approach this at my own speed will never stop being a source of joy.

It might still be a few weeks before I can publish the next article, but honestly, I wanted to check in now so that I could keep up the once-a-month posting streak I’ve had going since 2015. In the meantime, there’s a lot of comments and emails to catch up on.

Thanks again for your patience while I’ve taken time off to get myself in order. Like I keep saying, there’s still so much I want to write about, and I’m excited to put virtual pen to virtual paper again. See you here shortly!

Checking in Blog category

The view of the Puget Sound from Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle. A few boats are passing along the water

The Puget Sound, as seen from Olympic Sculpture Park.

Hello! I’m still here. I don’t like letting this blog go months without a check-in, so I wanted to pop in and say hello.

I’m continuing to deal with real-life stuff for a while, the biggest of which is that I’m in the process of moving, which is taking a lot of time and energy. I’m also chipping away at a big, sort-of-secret project behind the scenes, so I’m glad to have a little time to work on that quietly.

But I’m still here and I’m doing well! For the last two months, I’ve been catching up on the life I’ve missed since the start of the pandemic. I’ve been spending more time outdoors — having sold my soul to REI Co-op — and I even took an actual vacation to Seattle, which is just a lovely wonderful city that I can’t wait to go back to. It’s been good to have a readjusting period like this, and I highly recommend everyone take a little time to re-situate themselves now that we’re crawling out of the worst of the pandemic.

My hope is that I can resume normal Obscuritory activity sometime around August. The giant backlog of articles I want to write keeps getting longer, and pretty soon I’ll be in a place where I can get back to it at my own speed. Thanks for sticking around!

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