Music Highlight: Realmz Music Highlights category

Music Highlight

Realmz has distinctive, sonorous sound design. The sound effects resonate, and they sweep, like a fast-moving magical aura. It fit excellently with game’s ornate sword-and-sorcery theme, which makes it stranger that the soundtrack is mostly house music.

The Realmz soundtrack seems to have been taken from demoscene tracker music, a homemade computer music style that leans towards techno. The music selected by developer Fantasoft straddles the line between wizards and club bangers, which can be jarring depending on the scene. The shop theme is one of the best of the bunch – a laid-back, trip-hop groove that, from the description, sounds really wrong for a shop in a role-playing game.

This piece, originally titled “Balthasar,” was composed by Antti Kujanpää, a member of the Finnish Amiga demoscene group Banal Projects. It was written for the Finnish demoparty Assembly 1995, where it placed 11th in the 4 Channel Music competition. (None of the composers appear to be credited in Realmz, which raises concerns about whether their music was used without permission.)

In its second life as background music for Realmz, “Balthasar” fits better than it should. RPGs shops are a place to regroup, and the music matches up with that mood. The main melody noodles with a calm, jazzy electric piano, while the dirty drum loops build anticipation for whatever comes next. “Balthasar” cools down and pumps up at the same time.

The game’s upbeat electronic soundtrack is a risky choice, but this track makes a case for the times when it can work. It helps that “Balthasar” is super smooth. Who can deny that keyboard break?

Knights of the Crystallion Other category

Title screen from Knights of the Crystallion

Bill Williams called Knights of the Crystallion “the game I threw the most of my soul into. […] It was going to be my epic, it was going to be my masterpiece – we called it a cultural simulation – and I thought I could pull it off.” It has a scope so ambitious that it’s absurd for one person to have undertaken: it tries to create an entire society.

Ages ago, a colossal sea monster called an Orodrid died in a canyon passage. Millions of years later, after the valley was eroded, a nomadic people found its hulking skeleton, “incomprehensible” in size, and declared it their new home. “Orodrid, the city of bone” became more than a shelter. It was the new center of their world, their source of spiritual energy.

In Knights of the Crystallion, you live within this society. That’s the game. It combines a group of confusing, seemingly random activities – like a Nine Men’s Morris-style board game and an action sequence set in twisting cave – to depict the many sides of the communal, religious life of the Orodrim. » Read more about Knights of the Crystallion

Magus RPG category

Title screen from Magus

Somewhere in the world of Magus, the Dark One awaits you, cackling in their evil castle. If you don’t want to bother them though, that’s fine. The castle’s tough to find anyway.

Ronny Wester’s role-playing game Magus takes place in one big, open location. It has a single quest – to wander. There are no stories to follow, mythologies to uncover, or people to meet, just a big place. It’s a simple, lighthearted RPG, and it gives you room to enjoy how great wandering can be. » Read more about Magus

Professional Underground League of Pain Sports category

Title screen from Professional Underground League of Pain

Pop culture seems convinced that we’re going to end up with a violent arena sport in the future. Not just ordinarily dangerous levels of violence like the NFL, but something totally destructive like Rollerball or Zephyr. It makes sense. They’re an exaggeration of our own sports and entertainment (plus a convenient way to stage action in a dystopian setting). We probably won’t get to that point, thankfully, but if we do, it might look a little more like Professional Underground League of Pain.

PULP has a lot of problems, mainly related to the evolution in controls and graphics happening when it was released. But its most insightful fault may be how, even with “Pain” right there in the title, it’s really not so extreme. » Read more about Professional Underground League of Pain

Preservation panel recap and Awesome Con 2018 Blog category

A few panel-related updates! Our game preservation panel from Super MAGFest 2018 is up on YouTube now:

Two things I wish I’d done differently. One is letting all questions wait until the end of the panel. This was my first time moderating a group discussion; lesson learned!

The other thing is, when talking about community-focused archiving and the importance of preserving smaller games, I forgot to mention how important sensitivity is. A lot of smaller games are very personal, or their creator might not be proud of them (think of dumb things you made as a teenager). Having them preserved outside the creator’s control, with their name attached, could be insensitive, disrespectful, or harmful. That’s one of the reasons why to collaborate with communities.

The panel went really well. The organizers let the Q&A run 10 minutes over the original panel time, and then we spilled over into another room to continue talking with attendees. It was an amazing experience, and we were glad to get so many people thinking about game preservation (plus the surprise appearance from the Internet Archive’s Jason Scott). Once again, I’m very grateful to the other panelists for participating! Thanks to all who attended.

Additionally, I’ll be running another panel very soon! Next week on Saturday, March 31st at 3pm, I’ll be at Awesome Con 2018 in Washington, DC hosting Gaming in the Grey Zone: Fangames, Hacks, and Mods. I’ll be speaking about the dubious DIY world of fangames and fan-made game modifications and how they interact with gaming culture. If you’ve ever wanted to hear about a Biblical Sonic the Hedgehog fangame at a comic convention, this is your chance!

Secret Writer’s Society, the best way to swear at children in 1998 Educational category

Title screen from Secret Writer's Society

Panasonic Interactive Media’s game Secret Writer’s Society was supposed to teach kids how to write well. Instead, it became infamous. The game had a text-to-speech feature that would read back what you wrote, and under the right circumstances in the Macintosh version of the game, it would read a list of obscenities instead.

“Computers are revolutionizing education, sometimes in surprising ways. Now there’s software that can teach kids how to cuss like a drunken stevedore,” raved Robert Cwiklik for the Wall Street Journal.1

According to PIM marketing manager Kari Gibbs, the company had begun replacing copies of Secret Writer’s Society by June 17, 1998,1 four months after it originally shipped on February 10.2 Panasonic officially blamed the issue on “an undetected bug” that would accidentally read words from the program’s language filter if the computer was slow or having memory issues.1,3

But their story doesn’t check out. Andrew Maisel, who was the first to discover the supposed glitch and reported it on his educational software review website SuperKids, says he reproduced it on “healthy Power Macs with lots of memory.”3 And in a shocking, hilarious twist, anti-corporate activist group RTMark claimed in October 1998 that it was a work of internal sabotage. An anonymous programmer contracted by Panasonic said they were trying to call attention to the dangers of parents handing their responsibilities to a computer game. “Letting a third-rate piece of software take over for you is wrong because it violates that contract,” they said. “What I did isn’t a crime. The crime is letting profits get in the way of education.” RTMark says they awarded the programmer $1000 for their action.

Despite this, Panasonic insisted that the rogue program was still just the result of a bug. Elizabeth Olson, Panasonic’s communications manager, told The Independent in November 1998 that “To our knowledge there is no truth to this claim. [RTMark] seem to be claiming responsibility for something they didn’t have anything to do with.” (As RTMark’s Ray Thomas also told The Independent, “It could be that they really do think it’s a bug.”) Either way, it did damage, and when Panasonic Interactive Media was shut down months later in March 1999, Consumer Electronics blamed Secret Writer’s Society for harming the group’s reputation.4

Secret Writer’s Society was quickly forgotten after that – probably to Panasonic’s relief – and has been missing ever since… until I managed to get a copy this week. And yes, it’s the version with the swears. » Read more about Secret Writer’s Society, the best way to swear at children in 1998

Muriel Tramis speaks about her career and the memory of Martinique Essay category

Screenshot from Méwilo

Muriel Tramis has a quiet but powerful legacy in gaming. As a designer and producer at French studio Coktel Vision starting in the late 80s, Tramis worked on about a dozen titles, like the puzzle series Gobliiins. But she may be known best for her socially charged games inspired by her family’s history on the Caribbean island Martinique, such as the colonial mystery game Méwilo and the incendiary slave rebellion game Freedom: Rebels in the Darkness.

Tramis left Coktel Vision in 2003 after the company merged with Vivendi Universal Games, and she’s kept a low profile since then. Now, Tramis is stepping back into games with a remake of Méwilo, her first game, for its 30th anniversary. Tramis launched a crowdfunding campaign for the game last week.

To promote her return to gaming, Tramis unexpectedly contacted me a few weeks ago and, in one of her first interviews in English, shared more about her time with Coktel Vision, the importance of historical memory to her work, and what she’s been up to for the last 15 years. » Read more about Muriel Tramis speaks about her career and the memory of Martinique

Kobo Deluxe Arcade category

Title screen from Kobo Deluxe

Kobo Deluxe rules. It rules because it creates simple, effortless drama with only a few pieces.

The game is a retooling of xKobo, a Unix action game by Akira Higuchi that itself was based on the 1981 arcade game Bosconian. With each iteration, the game has gotten a little faster, smoother, and snappier. Your targets are “fortresses,” these tree branch-like space stations. Blow up one node of a fortress, and the others under it will blow up too. The center node can take a while to reach depending on the size of the fortress.

From Kobo Deluxe

From every direction!

A flurry of bullets, missiles, plasma rings, and spacecraft will pipe out of the fortresses as soon as you close enough to one. (Or worse if there’s two or more.) But instead the focus being on dodging complex patterns of bullets, the better strategy is to duck away from them and then begin another approach. So you launch into a dance, circling in and out of the range of fortresses, searching for an opening to carve away at them until you can pluck out the center node and watch them unravel. Because your spaceship fires out of the front and back at the same time, you’re rewarded for retreating too. (With the funny side effect of sometimes hitting a fortress as you fly away from it and missing the explosions.)

This feels absolutely rock solid to play. Kobo Deluxe is a lean, punchy game. It moves quickly without being overwhelming. It has a clean, crisp aesthetic. It succeeds by being straightforward as hell: the game has one type of target, and the only controls are moving and firing ahead. You could turn on an “always fire” option and simplify it even more!

Once you adjust to the rules, the flow and cycle of the game become an automatic response. I never had to think about dodging missiles; I just did it. It’s that great kind of intense yet easy-to-play game that allows you to get into a zone and space out.

This Deluxe version of Kobo adds a health bar and a meter that regulates the speed of your weapon, but those inclusions take away from the appeal of its directness. The classic mode, pared to the basics, represents Kobo at its best.


Two separate sequels to Kobo were abandoned, a 3D version by Pierre-Loic Herve called zKobo and an overcomplicated followup to Kobo Deluxe titled Kobo II. The developer of Deluxe released a modernized version of the game, Kobo Redux, in 2017.

Lionel Trains Presents: Trans-Con! Educational category

Title screen from Trans-Con!

The first Transcontinental Railroad opened up the American West and ended the need for dangerous pioneer expeditions. So in a way, Knowledge Adventure’s Trans-Con!, an educational game about the railroad’s construction, is the real sequel to the spirit of The Oregon Trail.

Although the game is licensed by the model train set company Lionel, the actual trains aren’t the focus. Trans-Con! explores what the construction of the railroad was like. The game switches around between modes and perspectives, and while it occasionally goes off-topic, it always pulls from history to illustrate the West. » Read more about Lionel Trains Presents: Trans-Con!

Moraff’s Entrap Puzzle category

Screenshot from Moraff's Entrap

Steve Moraff was a singular game designer. Early in his career, before he exclusively worked on mahjong software, Moraff had independence from publishers, traditions, and standards to create his own games in his own voice. He produced more than a dozen games in a bunch of genres; although a few of those were team efforts, everything from his company MoraffWare bears his name as well as his unusual, technical style. You get the idea that despite MoraffWare being a business, he made games just for himself.

Moraff’s Entrap is unmistakably a Steve Moraff joint – punishing, graphically dense, and strangely tuned, with a dash of huckstering self-indulgence. » Read more about Moraff’s Entrap

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