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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!

Talking Maxis Business Simulations on Ireland’s Newstalk! Blog category

Screenshot from SimCity. A river runs through a large city with a marina and a stadium.

Even while I’ve been taking a break, things are still happening. In fact, this week, I stopped by an Irish talk radio program, of all things!

On Friday morning, I joined Moncrieff on Ireland’s Newstalk radio to talk about Maxis, SimCity, and SimRefinery. This was totally unexpected — Irish talk radio?! — and it was a great experience! It’s always exciting to share the Thinking Tools story with a new audience.

(This was my first time doing live radio, and I think I like it? I just recently bought a new fancy microphone, and now I want to do more!)

You can listen to the segment, “When Sim City Got Serious,” on the Highlights from Moncrieff podcast, available on the Newstalk website or wherever you listen to podcasts.

With the world unpausing Blog category

One year ago, I wrote a post about how The Obscuritory was slowing down with the onset of the pandemic. Now I’m writing a post about the opposite — how the blog is slowing down again because the pandemic is approaching its end.

I’ve been fully vaccinated for a few weeks now, and the world is starting to open back up again for me. I’ve been spending more time with friends, going on adventures, and getting my life back in order, and that means that I’m spending less time in front of the computer than usual. I’m happy, excited, and grateful to get more of my life back.

But beyond that, I’m also hitting a transitional point in my life, and I need to figure out what comes next. You may have noticed the rate of new posts here has slowed down significantly since the start of the year, and that’s because I’ve been deliberately spending more time taking care of myself and trying to figure out where I’m headed personally and professionally. The pandemic has been a clarifying moment for me, and it’s helped me understand what I want to prioritize in my life. And part of that means focusing on the other parts of my life that have been atrophying.

The Obscuritory isn’t going anywhere, but it’s going to be quiet for a bit. Writing is one of the things that I’ve realized I value most in my life, and it’s not going away, but this is a point in my life when I need to put other things first for a while. I’m so thankful for everyone who’s continued to read and offer their support, and I’ll be back here soon.

Cunningham Falls in Maryland. The waterfall is running under a rocky crevice in a wooded area.

Cunningham Falls in Maryland

If you’re new to The Obscuritory, this is a good time to read some of the back issues! I recently did some re-organization and created a new tag, “recommended posts,” that features what I think are the best articles on this blog. If you’ve wanted to dive back into the blog, this is a great place to start.

Cleanwater Detectives Educational category

Title screen for Cleanwater Detectives. The title screen features the logo for the Science Inquiry Collection

If you went to school in the United States in the 80s and 90s, and if your school had a computer lab, you probably played something by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. MECC were the developers of beloved educational games like The Oregon Trail, the Munchers series, and Storybook Weaver, but that barely scratches the surface of their enormous library of software. Beyond their biggest hits, they put out a ton of low-key educational games that aren’t so well-remembered.

If you look through a catalog of MECC’s software for the Apple II computer, you’ll find games like Subtraction Puzzles, a game that teaches kids about subtraction, or my personal favorite, Salt and You, an interactive slideshow about the dangers of a high-sodium diet. That’s certainly a wide range of products! It goes all the way back to MECC’s origins as a state-owned organization, when they developed software for use in Minnesota schools. A game like Salt and You might not’ve been as exciting as Number Munchers, but teachers could easily fit it into their classes, and all things considered, it wasn’t a bad way to use a computer in the classroom in the 1980s.

One of those unassuming school-friendly products was Cleanwater Detectives, a science education game that MECC released in 1991. And while it’s not the sort of game that schoolkids fondly remember 30 years later, it gave teachers something that was still a bit of a novelty — a way to add some depth and hands-on learning to their science lessons by using a computer. » Read more about Cleanwater Detectives

The incredible boxes of Hock Wah Yeo Essay category

The box for the Asciiware Sphere 360 PlayStation controller. The controller itself is barely visible. The box is a bizarre steel-colored cube with air holes in the side, giving it an industrial appearance. In the picture, the box is glowing purple.

Packaging for the Asciiware Sphere 360 PlayStation controller (photo courtesy of Hock Wah Yeo)

When Hock Wah Yeo was hired by the game publisher Velocity, the head of the company gave him an unusual order: “Scare me.”1

Yeo wasn’t a game designer or a writer. He was designing their packaging.

 

 

Let’s say you go to the store and buy a video game. What does it look like? Chances are, it comes in a plastic box, roughly the size of a DVD case, and there’s a logo on the top that tells you what platform it’s for — Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo. It’s easy to understand, and it’s easy to fit on shelves. Retailers like it. The platform owners like it. This is the way it’s been for decades — simple, predictable, and safe.

It wasn’t always this way, especially in the computer game industry, where anyone could make a game without needing to get permission. In the early years before the industry was standardized, computer game packaging ran the gamut from loose floppy disks in Ziploc bags2 to big, intimidating boxes as thick as a dictionary. But why stop there? How about something even weirder or wilder? If there were no rules, why did you have to sell games in a rectangular box at all?

If you really wanted your game to make an impression, you called Hock Wah Yeo.

Yeo is a graphic designer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and through the 80s and 90s, he created the boldest, most unusual packaging in the game industry. While other game publishers were trying to get attention with flashy, colorful, in-your-face aesthetics, Yeo was deconstructing the idea of what a game box could be altogether. He made boxes shaped like pyramids and trapezoids, boxes that conveyed emotions and movement with their physical shape, designed to stop people in their tracks and get them to pick it up. And whether he intended it or not, his work landed him right in the middle of a battle for the future of retail space.

In this article, we’re going deep into the game packaging design work by Hock Wah Yeo, the developers who hired him, and the industry that could barely keep up. » Read more about The incredible boxes of Hock Wah Yeo

Comic Bakery Arcade category

Title screen from Comic Bakery. A chef has just dropped a loaf of bread and is angrily chasing a raccoon.

Comic Bakery is a strong entry in the extremely specific subgenre of “early computer games about animals causing problems.” You are the owner of a bakery that’s under siege from a horde of hungry raccoons, who are not only snatching your bread as it comes out of the oven but are actually turning off the bakery’s equipment when you’re not looking. It’s not enough to score some free food; they also want to put you out of business.

An assembly line at the bakery. Two loaves of bread are moving down the conveyor built. Two raccoons are following the bread, one above and one below.

The bakery has limited supply today for raccoon reasons

Trying to save your bakery from the onslaught of hungry hungry raccoons is a completely hopeless endeavor. They keep coming back, crawling around in the ceiling and scooping up your delicious bread. When dinner time rolls around at 5 o’clock, you have to march out to the front of the bakery with whatever pitiful amount of bread you’ve managed to salvage and face the disappointment of your customers. It’s truly pathetic, and I have no idea how this place stays in business.

There’s something unnerving about these raccoons knowing how to operate machinery and using that knowledge to shut down the bakery. It would be one thing if it was a bunch of cutesy raccoons running around stealing loaves of bread and making a ruckus, but no, these are realistically drawn raccoons with an understanding of tools and malevolent intent. While funny, the game is also deeply weird in a way I don’t think the designers intended when they were going for slapstick mischief instead.

Today, Comic Bakery mostly seems to be known for the catchy title screen music from the Commodore 64 version. It would be even better remembered as a great companion to Aaargh! Condor, another game about people and animals trapped in a frantic, mutually destructive race to ruin each other.

Ultimate Ride Simulation category

Title screen from Ultimate Ride

Out of all the games published by Disney, Ultimate Ride is the only one credited to Disney Imagineering – the legendary, secretive R&D division of the company’s theme parks.

Granted, Imagineering has designed their share of interactive experiences, notably the defunct, hyper-stylized digital indoor theme park concept DisneyQuest. And they didn’t actually develop Ultimate Ride themselves, besides giving their “support and guidance,” according to the credits. But if they felt comfortable putting the Disney Imagineering brand name on a video game, that reads like an endorsement. That makes Ultimate Ride even more interesting, because it’s a game where, like Imagineering, you design your own theme park rides. » Read more about Ultimate Ride

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