Ten years of The Obscuritory Blog categoryEssay category

Ten years of The Obscuritory

Some time in early summer 2008, I registered a Blogger account called What the Game? It was my personal goal for a while to start a game review website, and although my writing was unnecessarily mean and not great, I had the confidence to put words out there. For the past year or so, I had been rediscovering some of the old CD-ROM games I played as a kid, like Spaceship Warlock, and learned about many others I’d never heard of before. I wanted a place to share them.

The blog only got two posts before I abandoned it and went off to college. I told myself to put the game stuff behind me. But I couldn’t ignore the itch.

Ten years ago today, my friend Chris set me up with space on his website to install WordPress, and I started The Obscuritory.

The site evolved over the years. It began as an attempt to extensively document old games “in excruciating detail,” as I put it, with screenshots and videos. I found an old backup of this earliest version of the site, and like the old Blogger account, the writing was sometimes derisive and meandering. But I needed those first years to figure out my voice and decide what I really wanted to say.

I burned out on it quickly, but it motivated me to keep exploring. For a while, I focused on uploading playthrough videos to YouTube. Then, during a difficult time in my life in the summer of 2010, I rebooted the blog, starting with the Windows 3.1 theme and a post about RoboMaze II: The Tower.

I don’t know where I expected this to end up, but this is far beyond what I thought it would become. I’ve now been running The Obscuritory for over a third of my life. The blog has continued to grow and change alongside me. It’s seen me through career and lifestyle changes and personal episodes. It’s pushed me to improve my writing and to think more critically, curiously, and empathetically. It’s been an outlet for me to explore the weird side roads of gaming and software history and learn about digital preservation. It’s intersected with my professional life in surprising ways. It’s somehow brought me into the conversation talking about games alongside folks I respect and admire.

A lot has changed in a decade. The prevalence of YouTube and streaming have completely changed how people share games, and with the increased centralization of internet communication and social media, the idea of wanting to start a game website in 2008 might seem a little outdated. I think more than ever, it’s important for us to cultivate our own spaces. The world keeps demanding us to be part of large, noisy, destructive platforms that amplify the loudest voices, to chase engagement metrics. We can still be ourselves in a digital space on our own terms, in control of our own words and communities.

From the beginning, I told myself to do this because it was fun. I wanted to do it for me, and sometimes that wasn’t enough. There have been times when I’ve thought I should stop. (See 2013, the year of my depression diagnosis, when I made a grand total of four posts all year.) I’ve kept going because of how much it means to me to stay curious.

I want to keep looking in places that have been neglected or rejected. I want to share the unexpected things that excite me. I want to keep making gaming a more surprising place, where we can celebrate a deep, diverse, and broad cultural history. I hope The Obscuritory has encouraged you to do the same.

So what comes next? Honestly, I don’t know, and that’s really exciting to me. This blog still has the same bedrock as ever. I’ll keep writing about strange old software and sharing stories about them. I’ll keep rambling about preservation, history, and criticism. From there, the sky’s the limit.

For now, though, we’ve got some celebrating to do!

On the first day I started The Obscuritory, I posted a list of games that I wanted to cover. Some of them I did eventually post about. Several of them I still have to. (A couple of them weren’t even really obscure, or at least they aren’t now, and I just wanted an excuse to write about them.) This week, I’m gonna finally get around to posting one I’ve delayed talking about for ten years – plus one other that’s just really weird and seems right for the occasion.

This week on Tumblr, I’ll be resharing some of my favorite articles and stories from the last ten years, plus some fun art celebrating the games featured here.

There are a few particular people I want to thank who have encouraged me:

  • Chris, Rick, and Justin, three friends who have supported The Obscuritory since the beginning.
  • Anna, who one night over drinks and pinball told me she thought my perspective had value.
  • Molly, the first honest-to-god fan I met in person (and now a good friend).

I am grateful to have an audience that’s thoughtful and excited about all these weird topics. Thank you for your support and for coming along on this ride. Keep curious. Who knows where we go from here?

Atmosfear: The Third Dimension Board category

Title screen from Atmosfear: The Third Dimension

The popularity of VCRs in the 80s and 90s led to the odd trend of the video board game. It would come with a VHS tape – later, a DVD – that would have atmospheric sounds and visuals to put on in the background while you’re playing. During the game, the video would announce special events, like some misfortune happening to the current player or a change to the board or the rules. Often, you had to win and turn off the tape before time ran out, adding a sense of urgency.

They’re a sign of the importance of home entertainment to the era’s culture and consumerism. There was, inevitably, Star Wars video board game, as well as a regrettable game called Rap Rat which tells you everything you need to know about it and you should absolutely not click that link to the video.

One of the more successful video board games may have been Atmosfear, also called Nightmare, a series of horror games featuring characters inspired by infamous figures from folklore, history, and legend competing to escape from the afterlife. Much like video board games accompanying the rise of the VCR, when the CD-ROM became a big deal, Atmosfear made the leap to computers too, taking inspiration from the medium-defining ideas from Myst and similar titles released around then. Atmosfear isn’t a smooth fit for all of those ideas, and this version of the game makes for an interesting case of what’s gained and lost in reworking a board game for a computer. » Read more about Atmosfear: The Third Dimension

Hell Creatures Rotten Corpse Platform category

Title screen from Hell Creatures Rotten Corpse

If you must play Hell Creatures Rotten Corpse for one reason, do it for the enemy designs.

The incredibly titled Hell Creatures Rotten Corpse is a gruesome game, a slobbering mutant of a game, with a bestiary that seems to have crawled out of an irradiated Hot Topic. It draws blatantly from Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins arcade game series. Both start with an armored knight fighting through a graveyard of the undead to rescue a princess. Capcom’s game, though, doesn’t play a MIDI of Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” on the title screen.

After a long-winded backstory about a damsel-in-distress who can save the world with magic, the game puts you on a journey through the woods, up a mountain, and into the Forgotten Castle of Terror. Standing in your way are hundreds of weird fucked-up monsters, winged demons, malevolent trees, and assorted supernatural forces of nature. All of them must die. » Read more about Hell Creatures Rotten Corpse

Horror Zombies from the Crypt Platform category

Title screen from Horror Zombies from the Crypt

The best horror B movies treat their goofy subject matter sincerely. Parodies and homages to 40s and 50s horror movies seem to lapse too easily into tongue-in-cheek jokes about bad production values, cheap scares, and exaggerated cheesiness. Something like a Vincent Price film, or even a movie that’s fodder for Mystery Science Theater, plays it straight. They treat clichés with a straight face and are better for their earnestness towards shlocky material.

Horror Zombies from the Crypt does the same thing. It presents the game as an X-rated British horror film playing to a packed theater, but it doesn’t wink and nudge about the contents themselves, the haunted house, the zombies, the wolf men, and whatnot. It handles them like an actual campy horror movie would. At times, it’s fairly spooky. Less gracefully, it tries to bring the thrills of horror movie scares into the game too.
» Read more about Horror Zombies from the Crypt

Enigma Puzzle category

Title screen from Enigma

18 seconds into a level in Enigma, I have to pause the game. This is Advancing, the eighth stage in the seventh set of levels, and at first glance, it looks like it’s going to be a hellacious version of the puzzle Rush Hour. A series of long blocks stand between me and the rest of the stage, and I have to slide them around in the right order to get to the end. It soon becomes clear that there’s another layer to this level: I can also push the blocks into the water to make bridges. At the moment it hits me, I pause the game and mutter “Oh my god.”

It’s gonna be another one of those levels. They’re all one of those levels. There’s over 2000 of them.

That’s Enigma, a dastardly over-complex puzzle game so intricate and expansive that you can’t help but marvel at it. » Read more about Enigma

Lineality Action category

Title screen from Lineality

If you’ve been to a gaming event in the past few years, you might have seen Line Wobbler, a game that creator Robin Baumgarten calls “a one-dimensional dungeon crawler.” Instead of using a conventional screen, Line Wobbler is played on a string of LED lights, which can be curved or shaped around wherever it’s set up. It’s a really fun experiment that’s surprisingly clever and nuanced for a literally one-dimensional game.

That’s one way to do a 1D game. The other way, as seen in the 1997 freeware game Lineality, is to make it a joke. » Read more about Lineality

Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse Macintosh categoryMultimedia category

Screenshot from Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse

The mindboggling part of Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse how much there is. It’s presented as a collection of HyperCard programs from the belongings of an artist named Arthur Newkirk. It includes his digital art books, a fortune telling program, a 52-page article from an academic journal analyzing an album he recorded, his personal correspondences, and a program from a sci-fi convention he attended.

None of it is real. There is no Arthur Newkirk. He never recorded an album. And yet here’s 200 pages of his poetry and essays.

Your family supposedly knew Arthur Newkirk as Uncle Buddy. He disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and in accordance with his wishes, he has bequeathed to you a disc full of his personal items. Wait though. How does he know you? That’s a vague enough name that you could be convinced through the power of suggestion that your family knew someone like him. The letter from the office of Uncle Buddy’s estate carries a bizarre warning: you might not remember Arthur Newkirk because of “‘divergences’ of an unspecified nature.” Divergences?! Like something changed in reality?

Phantom Funhouse has you picking up the documents from someone else’s life, exploring the totally mundane objects that accumulate around you. It has a deeper, darker, surreal motive for exploring that, one that calls the premise of the program into question if you’re inclined to look for it. » Read more about Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse

The Madness of Roland Multimedia category

Title screen from The Madness of Roland

One of the strengths of multimedia was how it can tell a story, or share information, in a way that’s non-linear, even collaborative. It can link ideas together in different orders, enhancing them with sounds, images, and video. Bob Stein, the founder of The Voyager Company, one of the pioneers of multimedia, described it as the future of the book – the next step beyond publishing in print.

In terms of fiction, many existing books were adapted with illustrations, annotations, and commentary. Greg Roach’s The Madness of Roland imagines what a multimedia novel might look like from scratch. It doesn’t just enhance the text with visuals and commentary but uses those as important parts of telling the story and its meaning.

In chapter three, we get to the madness of the title, where the seductive magic of enchantress Angelica backfires and turns the legendary paladin Roland into a rabid, violent maniac. While the rest of The Madness of Roland has been text, the transformation scene is a surreal video sequence, a shifting collage of suggestive religious art, nudity, and horror imagery, creating the impression of Roland’s descent into feral anger. The other part of the chapter is text again, written about the other characters as they grapple with what they presume was Roland’s death. That all wouldn’t be possible in a print book.

Released early in the life of the CD-ROM format, The Madness of Roland crosses the lines between a novel, a play, a radio drama, and video art. Split across multiple perspectives and media, it unfurls a Medieval tale of magic, lust, and legacy, though the way it tells that story is more interesting than the story itself. » Read more about The Madness of Roland

Troggle Trouble Math Educational category

Title screen from Troggle Trouble Math

Besides The Oregon Trail, the best-loved games by the famed educational game company MECC might be the Munchers series. They were essentially the same game with different lessons swapped in. Whether the green googly-eyed Muncher was eating words, numbers, or general knowledge trivia, their shenanigans were a classroom fixture through the 80s and 90s.

The Munchers games feature a few characters, just the minimum to give the games personality and a setting. The troggles, a clan of nasty circular monsters, mostly made out of mouths, keep trying to eat the Muncher. In-between the rounds of educational matching games, you get to watch the Muncher foil the troggles’ Wile E. Coyote-style antics in parks and backyards. Super Munchers off-handedly mentions the evil Doctor Frankentroggle pulling the strings from his castle. The details mostly serve a functional purpose, but they’re enough to suggest that there’s more to the world of Munchers, and it looks like a Minnesota suburb.

MECC explored more of the unlikely Munchers universe in a spinoff game, Troggle Trouble Math. It takes the series in a very different direction, ditching the game board in favor of teaching math on a quest. » Read more about Troggle Trouble Math

The Frogs Of War Action category

Title screen from The Frogs Of War

The existence of The Frogs Of War is a testament to how games can be the right format for someone’s wild inspiration.

The Frogs Of War was based on a dream that developer Linus Sphinx kept having. He imagined he was a lizard man enslaved on an asteroid. He was forced to dig pathways with a mining robot, a frog-legged vehicle that emits slime. A revolution broke out on the asteroid mine, and the managers pitted their subjects against each other in a battle to the death over a promotion. Sphinx remembered this because he “took notes on a microcassette recorder,” which he kept under his pillow so he could write code during his sleep.

He turned that dream into a game, and it’s every bit as perplexing as it suggests. » Read more about The Frogs Of War

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