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Noir: A Shadowy Thriller Adventure category

Title screen from Noir: A Shadowy Thriller

Private eye Jack Slayton kept a file on Charles Winthrop, a philanthropist with something to hide. Winthrop’s prize horse Pegasus died, and Slayton suspected an insurance scam. In his notes, he mused, “I’ve had a few horses die on me too, usually in the stretch.” He has the voice of a stock hardboiled detective, cracking a stereotypical case of corrupt wealth, working on a nondescript street in Los Angeles.

As far as Noir: A Shadowy Thriller is concerned, that’s perfect.

Like the name implies, the game is a tribute to the noir genre, the idealized version that pop culture remembers – stories about a gumshoe drifting through decadent clubs and dim alleyways, swept up in the city’s rotten underbelly. For a CD-ROM game especially, it’s a feat of tone and setting. » Read more about Noir: A Shadowy Thriller

Lexi-Cross Board category

Title screen from Lexi-Cross

Lexi-Cross puts cyborgs and aliens on a 1970s game show. Without the futuristic touches, it might as well be an adaptation of The $10,000 Pyramid.

The game begins in an audition interview with a television producer. When the game show starts, it opens on a shot from the studio audience, an “ON AIR” light blinking as the cameras move into place. The vaguely David Hasselhoff-looking host, with a perm and a half-metal face, stands in front of an angular, beige set while the program’s brassy theme music plays. The game manual looks like a fake TV Guide, complete with ads for pay-per-view boxing and Chinese takeout. Lexi-Cross fully commits to the features of both the format and the era, transplanted into a future when there’s still broadcast television and primetime game shows.

It also copies the rules of 1970s game shows, and it inherits their pacing, for good and bad. » Read more about Lexi-Cross

Control Monger Shooter category

Title screen from Control Monger

Control Monger was free, and then it was gone.

The game was a team-based multiplayer first-person shooter, one of many from the early-to-mid 2000s. Developed at accelerated speed by a group of volunteers, it was released for free in 2005. A few years later, the official website went silent, and the game and its community gradually disappeared.

It has a few clever ideas, incorporating territory control and base defense into the usual first-person shooter template. But to find out what this game was actually like, I had to play it with other people.

Last week, I invited a group of friends and readers to play two hours of Control Monger to get a feel for how it works with a big crowd. (The game can support up to 255 players, which would be a disaster, so we stuck with the default size of 16.) Since it’s unlikely that another large group will get together to play this game, I want to go into detail discussing our thoughts on the game’s strengths, weaknesses, and balance. And to learn more about its development, I contacted Clyde Bielss, one of Control Monger‘s producers. » Read more about Control Monger

Heaven & Earth Macintosh categoryPuzzle category

Title screen from Heaven & Earth

Why do we solve puzzles? Maybe we want that “a-ha” moment, when the solution becomes clear and we can suddenly see the whole picture of the complexities we’ve been dealing with. It imparts a sense of mastery.

Heaven & Earth gets something different out of puzzles than the satisfaction of beating a challenge. It finds peace. » Read more about Heaven & Earth

Temporary leave Blog category

Hi everyone. In light of recent events, I’m taking a mental health break. I understand and appreciate the interest this topic received this week, but I went about it the wrong way and I regret possibly causing additional damage. I’m sorry, and I’m stepping away for a bit.

I want to repeat what I said in an earlier post: Although I’m glad more historical games will be available, this isn’t a sustainable way to preserve games. Leaks play a role in getting things out, but they’re not a healthy foundation for a gaming culture that values preservation. There’s often a tense relationship between private collectors who value rare games and folks who want to release things online. We’re all in this together, and to preserve our shared cultural history, we need to build trust.

Private collectors have saved historical objects that otherwise might’ve been lost, and rather than demonizing people who are reluctant to make their collections available, we have to collaborate with them on the importance of preservation. Folks like Joseph Redon are doing incredible work bridging the cultural differences between Japanese collectors and game preservationists. By the same token, we also need to show patience and understanding when things aren’t immediately available. Sometimes there are good reasons; many prototype or development materials have only been preserved because they were provided to a person or museum that restricted their access. Trust is difficult to built, and it takes time.

UPDATE 6/8: I recognize the interest that the recent game leak has generated. I’ve chosen to no longer be involved in this situation. On further reflection, I think it’s the ethically right thing for the long term of game preservation not to release anything else from this collection now. I hope we can use the events of this week to start a necessary conversation about the relationship between collection and preservation. Preservation is a long-term goal that we have to cooperate on.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue to take time off from all this for my well-being. Looking forward to coming back later.

Sierra LandDesigner 3D Software category

Title screen from Sierra LandDesigner 3D

Could a CD-ROM be as good as hiring an expert? Or in other words, why hire a landscaper to design your yard when you could get Sierra LandDesigner 3D? (Yes, that Sierra!)

Sierra LandDesigner 3D brings together the information you need to design a garden – and it lets you build the garden yourself using 3D graphics. This is a vision where software could help you plan a complicated, logistically challenging project, something you’d normally need a professional’s skills to create. Imagine you’re a middle-class homeowner in the late 90s who’s gotten comfortable with the computer they’ve now owned for a few years. Could you really go to the electronics store and buy a program that could do the work of a professional planner?

Well, nearly. Although LandDesigner 3D doesn’t take enough advantage of all its gardening knowledge to replace an expert, it does successfully turn 3D design software into a welcoming product. » Read more about Sierra LandDesigner 3D

Star Wars: Demolition PlayStation categoryRacing categoryShooter category

Title screen from Star Wars: Demolition

When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, it was the first Star Wars movie in 16 years. The franchise had been through a dormant period, and in the years leading up with a real new Star Wars film on the horizon, Lucasfilm launched a bombardment of merchandise, tie-ins, and spinoffs to support the brand. There had always been Star Wars games, and now there would be many more, encompassing a broad assortment of formats and genres like a fighting gameseveral strategy games, a CD-ROM encyclopedia, and a whole bunch of software for children under the new Lucas Learning label. After The Phantom Menace, the engine kept roaring.

At the same time, multiplayer car combat games were having a brief heyday. While the peak lasted only a few years, titles like Activision’s Vigilante 8, halfway between driving and shooting, acted like a edgy, destructive companion to the era’s kart racing games. Inevitably, the aggressive blockbuster merchandise campaign laid its sights on the hot new violent game genre, and so became Star Wars: Demolition.

Cars shooting each other, as you could imagine, is not a practical fit for Star Wars. The game goes through contortions to justify its existence, and it tries very hard to assemble a serviceable roster of characters and explain why they’re fighting on Dagobah or the Death Star. It just isn’t organic. It was never going to be. The pretense does at least give Demolition an opportunity to play with some Star Wars-ier ideas. » Read more about Star Wars: Demolition

Aaargh! Condor Arcade category

Title screen from Aaargh! Condor

In Aaargh! Condor, you play as a man who really hates a large bird.

There’s a condor flying around, and in about 10 seconds, it’s gonna steal a child. According to one of the only contemporary reviews of Aaargh! Condor – a name that I will repeat as many times as possible in this short post – the child is a damsel in distress, sadly, but it’s irrelevant. You’ve gotta kill that condor.

At the top of a hill, there is a spear. Hazards litter the road to the top. You’ve got snakes, porcupines, fires, falling condor eggs, a strange man who shoot arrows at you, and something that looks like a pair of eyeballs sticking out of the ground. Once you dodge all of them and climb to the top, you hurl the spear off the hill at the condor. If you kill it, another condor appears, and you do it again. Aaargh, condor!

Screenshot from Aaargh! Condor

Aaargh, condor!

Aaargh! Condor goes extremely quickly. You only get a fraction of a second to react to the hazards, especially the arrow man, who comes out of nowhere. The challenge depends half on reaction time and half on memorizing when something will jump out. You get points for dodging attacks too, so you can run up a decent score even if you let the child get eaten.

This has to be one of the most inane premises for a game like this, and god help me, I wanted to keep trying to get that condor. It was almost a compulsive reaction. Aaargh! Condor wastes absolutely no time between the start of the game and fighting a huge bird. And then fighting another huge bird. Aaargh! Condor!

Biosys Adventure categorySimulation category

Title screen from Biosys

On its face, Biosys hits all the clichés of a mystery first-person adventure game. You wake up with no memory. Something has gone disastrously wrong. The last survivors left clues and diaries that explain what happened. We’ve heard this story many times before in many similar games. But it’s a template, and Biosys takes the clichés in an unexpected, genre-twisting direction with one hell of a setting.

The entire game takes place in a self-contained biosphere experiment. Instead of using that solely as a backdrop, Biosys simulates the artificial environment – temperature, humidity, water level, plant growth, the systems powering the biosphere – and makes it an integral part of the game. It creates a simulation in the form of a mystery adventure game, attempting an unusual, ungainly cross between adventure and earth science. Parts of the experience even seem like a precursor to the survival game genre. The game has some trouble balancing those elements, but it shows how elastic the adventure format can be. » Read more about Biosys

Factory: The Industrial Devolution Macintosh categoryPuzzle categorySimulation category

Screenshot from Factory: The Industrial Devolution

When factory automation was ramping up, the 1993 game Factory: The Industrial Devolution imagined what could go wrong. When all work has been automated and nobody needs a job anymore, what happens when the machines that build everything break down?

The answer, according to Factory, is the most stressful job on earth. You’re a specialist called in to operate broken factories, manually routing products around so kids will get their boxes of cereal on time. The last time the cereal plant shut down, the kids went on a riot.

There are some creepy implications in that premise about the distant future of consumerism. Mostly, that stays in the manual. In its heart, Factory is a hectic multitasking challenge that always goes wrong, and it drags you along for fun. » Read more about Factory: The Industrial Devolution

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