Rhapsody! A King Kong Battle Strategy category

Title screen from Rhapsody! A King Kong Battle

It’s not clear what spurred the existence of multiple tactical games in the early 90s about gorillas duking it out in the big city. The best known is Gorillas, a game that came bundled with the QBasic programming tool for the MS-DOS operating system, where two gorillas lob exploding bananas at each other from opposite ends of a city.

Then there’s the inexplicably but poetically named Rhapsody! A King Kong Battle. Who knows what that title means – maybe it’s trying to invoke the sweeping Americana of Rhapsody in Blue to go with the city? – but despite the musical name, it might be one of the most robotic games with a gorilla.

Screenshot from Rhapsody! A King Kong Battle

A mild sense of vertigo hanging over this poorly planned city

In a way, they’re fairly similar. Both games are about trial and error. In Gorillas, you take turns typing the angle and strength of your throw, like a game with artillery cannons, adjusting your aim until someone gets blown up by a fatal banana. In Rhapsody, instead of flinging anything, the gorillas are running around a city. You give the gorillas instructions about how many pixels to move – north 300, east 150, south 100 – and if they stop or hit a building, they go back to their starting place. The goal is to see who can reach the other one first. Like in Gorillas, the tension keeps rising as the apes get closer to their targets. It isn’t shown, but presumably, it ends with one gorilla beating the shit out of the gorilla.

The kicker is that the gorillas take their directions in the form of a single long string of characters – N300E150S100. This is not gorilla-like at all. It’s more like programming a robot. Or transmitting encrypted orders to a submarine running silent through Soviet waters. You can imagine an old mainframe spitting out ticker tape with gorilla code.

Typing out directions in this syntax is simple enough, but it’s an outstandingly arcane way to play a computer game. It could just as well be a game for a computer terminal from the 70s. Rhapsody runs on Windows 3.1, a more robust operating system than MS-DOS with built-in support for mouse input and window interfaces, but it’s even less intuitive than Gorillas is.

Games for Windows 3.1 can feel like they’re learning to take advantage of the capabilities of the platform. Rhapsody! A King Kong Battle looks that way too while actually doing nearly the opposite, stubbornly running on gorilla code.

TaskMaker Macintosh categoryRPG category

Title screen from TaskMaker

There’s a trick TaskMaker loves to pull where one tile in a wall looks slightly different than the others. It’s called a “passwall,” and if you spot one, you can walk through it into a hidden passage or shortcut. TaskMaker doesn’t treat them like secrets. They’re part of the tutorial, and sometimes they’re the only way to advance through the game.

Secrets like this are the language of David Cook’s eccentric role-playing game TaskMaker. » Read more about TaskMaker

Robomaze III Action category

Title screen from Robomaze III

When we last joined our robot hero at the end of Robomaze II, he had liberated the Tower, where the totalitarian government was building an army of killer robots. Now he turns his attention to the Dome, another massive structure, home to the evil dictator himself. With one final mission to infiltrate the Dome, he can defeat them for good.

But the Dome is very different from the Tower. Robomaze II was set in a skyscraper with robots. The Dome is an overgrown mystical forest with witches, monsters, and soothsaying hermits. The robot’s armor powers don’t work out here, and for a contrived reason to start the game without a weapon, he accidentally left his gun back in the Tower. With no modern defenses, he’s gotta fight his way to the evil dictator with a sword.

That is quite a change. It’s almost the opposite of the last game – from a super-powered hero in a narrow building to a defenseless scavenger in the open wilderness. It becomes clear this was probably an excuse by the developer Wetware to make a game like The Legend of Zelda, a sprawling fantasy adventure with treasures and secret dungeons. (Only four years after the original Zelda game was released in the United States, at a time before this was a cliché, Robomaze III copied the opening scene where an old man in a cave gives you a sword.)

Yet despite the drastic flip in the style, Robomaze III still ends up repeating many of the problems that afflicted Robomaze II. » Read more about Robomaze III

Imagination Express Educational categorySoftware category

Title screen from Imagination Express

Where can your imagination take you? You could travel to ancient Egypt or the bottom of the ocean. Or just to your backyard.

Edmark’s Imagination Express is storytelling software, a program to help children develop their language skills by writing stories and bringing them to life with pictures. Compared with other story-writing software like MECC’s Storybook Weaver, which lets kids mix and match characters, backgrounds, and sound effects in wacky combinations, Imagination Express puts more emphasis on the setting.

The program was divided up into six different themed “destinations,” each sold separately. But rather than going to faraway imaginary lands, as you might expect from the title, these destinations are based the real world, either from history of the present day, like a South American rainforest or a Medieval castle. That’s because Imagination Express has a double educational mission – to use creative writing as a way to teach children about different parts of the world.

Of course, you can have a great time avoiding learning anything too. » Read more about Imagination Express

Seize the Day lives on as the Living Worlds app Blog category

Screenshot from Living Worlds for Android

May 2nd, 5:34pm in the Living Worlds app

Back in 2012, I posted about Seize the Day, a planner program for Windows 3.1 and Macintosh. The highlight of Seize the Day is the “Living Worlds” art gallery – a collection of beautiful animated pixel art landscapes that change over the course of the day. They’re stunning and contemplative. You can stare off into the distance and imagine an entire world as the sun rises and sets.

The only way to view Living Worlds has been either to visit an excellent online version by one of the original developers or to run the original planner program in an emulator. But Seize the Day was a program you’d visit every day as part of your personal digital space, and neither of those methods has the same effect. Now Living Worlds has officially returned in an appropriately personal format – a phone app.

With the support of the artist, Mark J. Ferrari, Seize the Day developers Ian Gilman and Joseph Huckaby have adapted Living Worlds for Android and iOS. It’s a faithful reproduction of the original art, complete with a few more nifty features, like swiping to travel through time. I can’t speak to the iOS version, but on Android, you can set Living Worlds as a live wallpaper, so you get a peek into the worlds whenever you open your phone. As a phone background, it’s finally back in the right format to check throughout the day!

You can follow the development of the app on Ian Gilman’s Medium page. He seems to be regularly adding features to it, including a series of fictional journals written by Ferrari about his landscapes. Seize the Day was fairly literary and wordy for planner software, so that’s a fitting direction to take it in.

This is a terrific reimagining of Seize the Day. It’s great to see it living on in a new form where it belongs!

SimIsle: Missions In The Rainforest Simulation category

Title screen from SimIsle: Missions In The Rainforest

It would be easy to write off SimIsle: Missions In The Rainforest as “SimCity on an island.” This was the ninth commercially released Sim game published by Maxis, and by this point, the studio and their development partners may have looked predictable. How many SimNoun titles could they release?

What distinguished Maxis’s Sim games was that they weren’t just about making cities or farms. They were interactive toys where you could play around in a sandbox with concepts about science or society. Not necessarily accurate portrayals of those concepts, but a distillation of them, attempting to be faithful to the spirit of how they interact. SimIsle, developed for Maxis by the British company Intelligent Games, isn’t simply a new location: it’s also a new set of ideas to experiment with. And one of the most critical this time is your interaction with the environment.

You’re the manager of the development on a rainforest island, somewhere out in a cluster in the Pacific Ocean. In this self-contained setting, you can see how nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything has a background, and everything comes with a cost – transportation budget for trucks, boats, and planes moving people and supplies; maintenance costs for the structures you build; and salaries for your staff who keep the development running. The costs aren’t limited to money. You’ve basically invaded an island, and your actions will leave scars on its ecology and culture. » Read more about SimIsle: Missions In The Rainforest

Video Cube: Space Puzzle category

Title screen from Video Cube: Space

If MTV designed a puzzle game at the height of their popularity, it would look like Video Cube: Space. They both think there’s nothing more hip and sexy than the open-ended idea of video. The cube in Video Cube is a collage of images stacked together, like a wall of televisions you might find at a club or a mall in the 80s.

Video Cube was developed by Aris Multimedia Entertainment, a company that, based on the list of products they included with Video Cube, had up to that point mainly sold CD-ROMs of stock videos. It’s unclear if they were actually successful. (I’m guessing not.) But when the game came out in 1994, watching a video on your computer was a new concept, exciting enough that a company like Aris could try to sell CDs of video clips. It was an amazing feature at the time, and combined with a trendy interest in pop-art video, that’s the best reason I can imagine why Video Cube exists. » Read more about Video Cube: Space

Charlie Chaplin Other category

Title screen from Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin was more than the actor we remember him as. He was a filmmaker too, and he produced and directed most of his own films. Charlie Chaplin, U.S. Gold and Canvas Software’s tribute to the silent film icon, puts you in his shoes on both sides of the camera. It’s a loving imitation of Chaplin, though the developers couldn’t figure out the right way to translate his style of comedy into a game, which has a ripple effect on the story about Chaplin it tries to tell. » Read more about Charlie Chaplin

Two odd Monopoly games in context Board category

Empty board from Monopoly (1991)

With so many new options for social board games in the past decade, a consensus seems to have emerged: Monopoly sucks.

Yet despite the reputation as a monotonous game that ruins friendships and parties, Monopoly has endured. It survives because, thanks to aggressive licensing and marketing by Parker Brothers and Hasbro, it can become whatever it wants. It can be rethemed to any hit movie or basically any topic. It can adapt itself into a card game, a TV show, or a fast food promotion. Monopoly has learned how to be everywhere.

Monopoly is a shape-shifter, and it takes on the form of whatever it changes into to stay alive. That’s true of the video game adaptations too. Nearly every North American game system since the 80s has had a version of Monopoly, each one a little different to fit the expectations of the platform and the era.

I want to focus on two older, weirder video game editions – a Macintosh version and a PlayStation version – and what they can tell us. Although these two don’t substantially alter the rules or the game itself, the unique ways they present the same board game, six years apart, can explain the changing contexts they were released in. » Read more about Two odd Monopoly games in context

The Devil Inside Shooter category

Title screen from The Devil Inside

If you watch cable TV on the west coast, you’re probably watching The Devil Inside, a live paranormal investigation show on the WWWL@ network. In a world of race-to-the-bottom reality programming, The Devil Inside is your chance to see real murder – ghost hunters killing zombies and demons, like a gory, supernatural episode of Cops, while the Los Angeles studio audience cheers them on. It’s the network’s biggest hit.

Plenty of movies, games, television shows, and other works of fiction deal with the idea of watching sensationalist depravity as entertainment. When The Devil Inside came out in 2000, the concept was newly relevant. Reality TV was exploding; Survivor and Big Brother would debut in America that year. Audiences demanded more even as they criticized it. It was ripe for parody.

The Devil Inside looks like it’s going in that direction at first. The television studio is decked out in ironic glitz and brassy theme music, like a pre-apocalyptic Hunger Games. But once it gets rolling, it reveals itself to be a dingy horror game, one that embraces the exploitation themes you’d think it was joking about. » Read more about The Devil Inside

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