Video game history at Super MAGFest 2019 Blog category

Super MAGFest 2019 logo

I’m coming back to Super MAGFest 2019 on January 3-6, 2019 in National Harbor, MD! Super MAGFest is my favorite gaming event, and this time, I’m doing something different.

This year, I’ve helped put together a gaming history panel track, featuring an incredible lineup of video game historians, archivists, and curators. There’s been a need for a place where video game historians can talk with fans about their research – a middle ground where researchers and fans can interact. We’re making it happen at Super MAGFest.

I am incredibly proud of our panel selection. All panels will be part of the MAGES educational panel section in the MAGES 1 panel room:

Thursday, January 3:

  • Carly A. Kocurek (Illinois Institute of Technology) will walk through the history of video games by using ten gaming-related objects – and talk about the importance of preservation. 5:30pm
  • Kelsey Lewin will explore the legacy of Gunpei Yokoi, the famed developer behind the Game & Watch, Game Boy, and WonderSwan. 7:00pm

Friday, January 4:

  • Anne Ladyem McDivitt (The University of Alabama) will speak about women in video game culture in the early arcade era and the influence of Pac-Man on women in game development. 1:00pm
  • Kevin Bunch and Florencia Pierri (Sarnoff Collection at The College of New Jersey) will reveal the recently rediscovered history of RCA’s video game consoles and computers in the 70s, including a close-up look at lost games and prototype hardware, some of which have never been seen outside of museums. 2:30pm
  • Michael Hughes (Trinity University) will share his research on the history of video game fanzines and their role in video game culture. 4:00pm
  • Rachel Simone Weil (FEMICOM Museum) will share her insights on the history of video game hacking and homebrew games for old platforms. 5:30pm
  • Kelsey Lewin, Frank Cifaldi, Rachel Simone Weil, and I will hold a late-night panel about true weird stories from video game history. (I’ll be talking about Secret Writer’s Society!) Midnight

Saturday, January 5:

  • Retronauts (Jeremy Parish, Bob Mackey, and Chris Sims) will record a live episode of their podcast about the history of sound design from Nintendo’s R&D1 division. 1:00pm
  • Andrew Borman and Beth Lathrop (The Strong Museum of Play) will talk about the Museum of Play’s efforts to preserve video game history and their amazing collections of video game materials. 2:30pm
  • Campbell Parker/StrangetownFunk will give a look into the history of the Sims community and “the diverse ways that players interact with both their games and their fellows.” 4:00pm
  • Frank Cifaldi (Video Game History Foundation) will dive into the strange afterlife of the Nintendo Entertainment System and why the system keeps living on in unexpected places. 7:00pm

    (Frank will host another panel at Super MAGFest about his research on the recent SNK 40th Anniversary Collection in the Panels 4 room on Thursday at 4:00pm.)

A full schedule for Super MAGFest 2019 will be available in the coming weeks.

I am overjoyed by what these folks are presenting. We’re putting on a unique, insightful, subject-diverse panel track, and I can’t wait for everyone to join us. Less than one month is short notice, but I hope that folks on the east coast will be able to make a trip down, maybe even just a day trip!

I wanted to find the right gaming history event, so I helped make it. I hope you’re as excited as we are!

Visit the Super MAGFest 2019 website for more about what’s happening this year.

Visiting the old home of a multimedia studio Essay category

A building at nighttime. It is located along an overgrown canal. The side of the building is lit with purple columns of light. In the distance, a white smokestack is visible.

The building on the C&O Canal that in Georgetown used to house Magnet Interactive

Last night, I was in Georgetown in Washington, DC with friends to look at the public art that had been put up for the holidays. We passed this building on the C&O Canal, which you can see overgrown in the picture. This building was the former home to Magnet Interactive, a multimedia CD-ROM developer from the 90s that created titles like Icebreaker, Theresa Duncan’s Chop Suey, and the award-winning Beyond the Wall: Stories Behind the Vietnam Wall. Magnet was at the end of the building, near the smokestack, at 3255 Grace Street NW in what was once a historic Georgetown power house.

Back in 1996, The Washington Post ran a profile about Magnet Interactive; it touches on the precarious financial situation they and the entire CD-ROM industry found themselves in:

It is so volatile, currently in the midst of a wave of mergers and closings, that even some well-established companies with hit consumer products are in trouble — and six-year-old Magnet is still in the red and still waiting for its first hit. The most basic questions about the future of This Business — Will anyone still use CD-ROMs in five years? Can anyone figure out how to make money on the Web? How big is the audience for this stuff, anyway? — are in doubt.

So perhaps it is not so strange that at the same time Magnet’s executives are talking about taking the company public and creating a lot of rich 30-year-olds with its stock-option plan (“Everyone’s going to make out like a bandit,” co-founder Greg Johnson gleefully predicts), executives at other Washington multimedia companies suspect that Magnet may soon explode and fade like a supernova. Everyone in the industry says a shakeout is coming.

Visiting the former location of Magnet put the company’s mindset in context. Georgetown is a ritzy area of DC, mostly inaccessible by public transit and blanketed in upscale furniture stores and fancy restaurants in old buildings. Despite not turning a profit in six years, the company was renting offices on the canal. Even in 1996, it must have been expensive as hell. The Post‘s profile says the company “[spent] freely” on everything from their location and payroll to art for decorating the studio. They flaunted their expensive development workstations (“Most game companies can’t buy that. We can. Too bad.”). They spent on their image, on the status of being the hip renegade media company that the Post described. They must have been convinced that the big break was around the corner, that CD-ROMs were the next big cultural thing, and that they were the ones who would benefit from this new medium, even while the internet was on the horizon.

Of course, that didn’t happen. As Bob Stein recounted, CD-ROM multimedia was a stepping stone to the web and other formats. It’s unclear if Magnet struggled to adapt or simply spent themselves into oblivion. But it reminds me of the recent story about the digital publisher Mic effectively going out of business after they couldn’t find a sustainable business model for video content while shelling out for a full floor in one of the most expensive buildings on Earth.

Seeing Magnet’s old home brought all that into focus – the audacity of the multimedia era, wrapped up in one expensive office building.

Grizzly Fighting categoryMacintosh category

Title screen from Grizzly

The readme file for Grizzly, a fighting game with teddy bears, tries its best to explain the strategy for the game, but it can’t.

“I haven’t personally game tested Grizzly enough to say how involved the strategy is in Grizzly, but it does exist nonetheless,” developer Adam Winiecki says. He goes on to claim that some people play the game for eight hours a day, or at least he imagines those people are out there, and if they are, “[they] have strategies which are so complicated they couldn’t really explain them.”

If the creator of Grizzly can’t explain Grizzly, I can’t really either.

It doesn’t quite seem to know what it should be. It’s strangely, uncomfortably intense and dramatic while trying to be silly. The tonal mismatch in the game is severe – in a way that’s compulsively, compellingly wrong. » Read more about Grizzly

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.

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

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