Dinosaur Predators Educational categoryStrategy category

Title screen from Dinosaur Predators

If you were a child who didn’t like dinosaurs, please raise your hand. Then, stop lying. Every kid who ever existed loved dinosaurs.

The folks at Alive Software probably had a keen sense of this when they made Dinosaur Predators, the second installment in their educational strategy game series. A turn-based strategy game driven by encyclopedic data is a tough sell. But the same game with dinosaurs? Sign me up! Dinosaur Predators » Read more

Happy 18th, Myst! Blog categoryEssay category

Box art from Myst

Congratulations, Myst, go buy some lottery tickets!

Given that it has become something of a punchline for boring and uneventful games, it can be difficult to acknowledge the impact Myst had on gaming. Myst wasn’t the first CD-ROM game, nor the first point-and-click adventure game (even from that year – Return to Zork and The Journeyman Project beat it to the punch). It was the most accomplished, though, and the most technically stable given all the music and video flying around, and it hit at exactly the right moment.

Rolling Stone declared Myst to be “a breakthrough” and “as close to virtual reality as we’ve come.” The Village Voice went as far as calling it “one of those works that irrevocably changes the parameters of an artform, multimedia’s equivalent of Don Quixote or Sgt. Pepper’s.”

Myst got people thinking in terms of places instead of stages. There’s a popular refrain that Myst led the adventure game genre astray, kicking off a deluge of abstract, unengaging puzzle box games that removed characters from a format dependent on interaction and dialogue. But Myst also proved the merits of open-ended, environmental storytelling interlocked. It was okay to make an experience, even if people considered it more of a slide show than a game.

Best of all, you could play it in your home computer. Myst sold millions and drove interest in the CD-ROM format to a degree no other game had accomplished.

Myst gently but unquestionable curved the direction of future video games. It may not be a perfect adventure game, but from the perspective of this blog, it may be the most important.

SimTower: The Vertical Empire Simulation category

Title screen from SimTower: The Vertical Empire

Few franchises have the instant pedigree of the Sim series. Outside of SimCity, most of the Sim games never reached any kind of widespread success, but if you bought one, you knew what you were getting just based on the title. By their peak in the mid-90s, Sim games had become a genre unto themselves thanks to Maxis’s master craftsmanship. Each game was among the most engaging simulations a given subject had to offer.

So it comes as a surprise that on a number of occasions, Maxis recruited outside talent to make Sim games. And even more shockingly, one of these projects, SimTower: The Vertical Empire, is intimate enough to stand equal to – if not a head above – all the others. SimTower: The Vertical Empire » Read more

Music Highlight: Traffic Department 2192 Music Highlights category

Music Highlight

While I wrap up this semester and get ready for a relaxing summer, here’s another great sample of forgotten game music.

Traffic Department 2192 has an epic, bombastic score despite working with an incredibly limited selection of Sound Blaster instruments. Two particular pieces, INTRO and INTRO2 (so cleverly named), deserve special recognition for sounding like grand orchestral scores within their technical constraints. The two pieces play one after another during the game’s opening sequence and do a good job contrasting the triumphant beginning with the decidedly dark, somber shift in tone.

The soundtrack for Traffic Department was composed by three people: Robert A. Allen, John Pallett-Plowright (who only wrote one song), and Owen Pallett (also known as Michael Pallett-Plowright). Allen and Owen Pallett composed INTRO and INTRO2 respectively. Remarkably, Pallett was just 13 years old when he composed INTRO2! Little things that put your own life in perspective, and it makes the game’s music that much more engaging.

EDIT: Since this posting, Owen Pallett was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the soundtrack for Her. That’s some serious talent!

Remembering Norio Ohga Blog category

Just a quick and sad note: Norio Ohga, the Sony Computer Entertainment founder who’s generally credited with inventing the CD, died earlier this week. His design for the compact disc was hugely influential and paved the way for DVDs, Blu-Rays, and CD-ROMs. The CD was a crucial piece of technology for gaming’s coming-of-age, and it’s always unfortunate and a little distressing to see crucial figures from gaming history passing on. It’s a testament not only to how old this technology is, but also to how far we have come in just three decades or so.

Gravity Balls Action categoryMacintosh category

Title screen from Gravity Balls

Oftentimes, the simplest games are the most fun. When a formula doesn’t have much nuance or complexity, it can engage the player without being prohibitively hard to learn.

Enter Gravity Balls. There’s nothing brilliant about the design; in fact, the idea is simple enough that anyone could code it. But it’s so goddamn infuriating, and I can’t stop playing it. Gravity Balls » Read more

Zephyr Action categoryRacing categoryShooter category

Title screen from Zephyr

If there’s one concept that games have perfected, it’s the futuristic blood sport. Sure, movies like The Running Man came first, but Smash TV, MadWorld, and their ilk turned those fantasy game shows interactive and pretty much left no room for improvement. Just don’t tell that to Zephyr.

Designed by the team behind the Might and Magic series, Zephyr nails the hubbub of a gleefully televised cavalcade of murder. Nearly every second features a fictional sponsor, a cheesy commentator, and 90s electronic rock music. The ultraviolent vision is top-to-bottom perfect – including the bits where the rookies needlessly, endlessly die. Zephyr » Read more

Music Highlight: The Labyrinth of Time Music Highlights category

Music Highlight

Hey boys and girls! I decided that during downtime when I’m busier, I would throw some content up in the form of music highlights! So many of these weird old games have great tunes in them, so it’s worth pointing out some of the good ones.

This first one is the stock music piece “Telecom” used in The Labyrinth of Time in 1993. Whenever people reach out about the music from The Labyrinth of Time, “Telecom” is one of the bits that always gets the most praise. Understandably so; especially compared to the rest of the game’s music, “Telecom” is moving, complex, and multilayered. The last segment of the song richly combines half a dozen disparate instruments into a strange and elaborate noisescape.

The Labyrinth of Time‘s soundtrack consists of a 20-minute-or-so loop of music from the production archives at APM Music. This particular song by James Asher came from the album “Industry 2,” which seems to be filled with the blaring synth music that you’d find in a corporate training video in the 80s. With a few exceptions, the rest of the album is painful to hear. Thank goodness at least one interesting – nay, stellar! – track came out of it.

The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain Educational categoryPuzzle category

Title screen from The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain

Quick, name a great edutainment game.

No, not The Oregon Trail again. Think harder.

The game you just thought about probably taught a single subject really, really well. Classics like Carmen Sandiego, Math Blaster, or even Mario’s Time Machine all focused on a single topic – geography, math, history, etc. – and drove it into children’s skulls with the hawkishnses of a car salesman, hoping they’d retain at least a little bit of whatever subject.

The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain is a little more ambitious if generalized in scope. It tackles the subject of brain functions, trying to expand players’ minds in comprehension, logic, spatial cognition, and linguistics. Not only does it work, it’s fun, and I had just as good of a time playing it as a twentysomething as I did as a hyperactive kid. The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain » Read more

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