More thoughts on emulation and the access barrier Essay category

A string of events this month reminded me of the continued importance of making historical games available for anyone to play. I hammer on this point a lot, but the challenges and possibilities have been especially clear lately.

Last month, a university history professor researching the French Caribbean contacted me to learn more about Freedom: Rebels in the Darkness. I helped them set up an Amiga emulator; until then, they hadn’t been able to play the game themselves and didn’t know they could.

For most people, playing old games and software presents a unique challenge.

Some films and books come in a peculiar format. A novel like S. comes with dozens of pieces and inserts, and it can’t exist only as a PDF. David Lynch’s short film Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) was meant to be projected onto sculptures. At the risk of oversimplifying, these are, for the most part, exceptions. Most every electronic device today can stream a movie, and nobody needs specialized or expensive equipment for that.

Software, meanwhile, is entirely dependent on format. A game designed for the Nintendo 64 will only run on a Nintendo 64. A computer game might rely on a specific graphics card that hasn’t been manufactured in decades. To play an older game, you need to have the old system or know how to use an emulator.

Earlier this week, Nintendo announced the Super NES Classic, a limited-run console that emulates Super Nintendo games. It costs $80, plugs right into most TVs, and works out of the box. Although we don’t know how closely it mimics an actual Super Nintendo, it’s a boon for people who might not have much experience with games and want to play notable titles from Nintendo’s back catalog without researching emulation software or wading into the costly game collecting market where a copy of EarthBound costs hundreds of dollars. But those people probably won’t be able to buy it in a year. Nintendo super-fans and nostalgists will devour this thing and cause it to sell out instantly; they’ve also been the first ones to decry it as inauthentic compared to owning the original hardware.

Asking people to use original hardware is impractical. Beyond availability issues and the price barrier, outside of a library, archive, or museum, we can’t expect someone to make room for a Windows 95 desktop computer or to figure out how to plug an out-of-date video cable into their home A/V system if they want to play a game that came out over ten years ago.

And as it stands now, the emulation route often isn’t more convenient. Assuming you know to seek out emulation software at all, setting it up can demand hours of experimentation, sifting through message forum posts, and browsing sketchy emulation websites. DOSBox, the de facto standard for DOS computer emulation, still uses arcane text-based settings, leaving third-party programs like D-Fend Reloaded to work around its major usability issues. I’ve spent days of my life configuring a PlayStation emulator, and it still isn’t perfect. How does a curious person without time, money, or technical skills address those problems? More thoughts on emulation and the access barrier » Read more

Music Brush Software category

Title screen from Music Brush

Painting can be a meditative experience, like in the shareware art program Music Brush. Child-friendly art software was hardly rare in the 90s, and Music Brush stands apart by focusing on the process – painting, motion, the rhythm of your brush – instead of the end result. Music Brush is all about how music interacts with that performance side of art, either in the form of an animation you can watch or as a way to collect your thoughts. Music Brush » Read more

Solarian II Arcade categoryMacintosh category

Title screen from Solarian II

In Space Invaders, sometimes a UFO will fly past the top of the screen as a bonus target. Although Solarian II is also set in space, the bonus target is a stork.

Solarian II has a weird sense of humor. The game isn’t particularly wild, but it does get about as odd as it can while still looking and acting like a space shoot-em-up. That limits how seriously you can take the game, for the better, and quietly reminds you to have fun. Solarian II » Read more

Welcome to Macintosh Week Blog categoryMacintosh category

Welcome to Macintosh Week

Today kicks off Macintosh Week on The Obscuritory! May 13th is the anniversary of the release of Apple’s System 7 operating system, which added color to the Macintosh interface. It’s an arbitrary holiday and good enough reason to do a special week.

Through May 19th, the blog will have this novelty Mac theme, lovingly named Clarus after the unofficial Mac mascot Clarus the Dogcow. I’m planning two Macintosh posts on here and will be sharing more Mac-related content on the Obscuritory Tumblr. Follow along on both!

Like the Galapagos Islands, the Macintosh gaming ecosystem evolved independently. The Mac kindled a unique, silly community willing to experiment and play with the platform’s quirks, like its high resolution, early support for color graphics and multimedia, and the first widely available computer mouse. Coincidentally, this week the gaming podcast Retronauts released an episode about the early years of the Macintosh if you want to hear more about early Mac history. (And stay tuned for Richard Moss’s book next year!)

Thanks to a rising focus on Mac games in the past few years, there are more resources than ever for helping you play them. As always, check out the Resources pages for a guide on how to set up Mac emulators and places to discover Mac games. You can also now try early black-and-white Macintosh games and software through the Internet Archive’s collections. For a taste of Mac peculiarity, I recommend trying out The Lawn Zapper, a lawn mower game by Imperial Software.

UPDATE: Whoops… the second article I planned for Macintosh Week ended up having an incorrect premise, so I’m choosing not to publish it. Sorry!

Legacy Of The Golden Hammer Platform category

Title screen from Legacy Of The Golden Hammer

Here’s a confession: over a decade ago, in a former life, I helped run a Mario fangame website. By the time I left around 2008, the community’s tools and skills had grown enough that they could make imitation Mario games that looked and played close to the originals. But the early years were when the real magic happened. The fangames from those days shared more with outsider art than Super Mario World. Their creators had no game design experience, an excess of ambition, and absolutely nothing in their way.

From that clamor emerged Legacy Of The Golden Hammer by Jacob Dean Martin, age 14 (according to the game’s About screen), alias Dr. Wario. What starts out as a shoddy Mario fangame quickly turns into an unchecked stream-of-consciousness power fantasy that spirals so far out of control it inspires wonder. Legacy Of The Golden Hammer » Read more

Cooking with Windows recap Essay categorySoftware category

Cooking with Windows recap

Last week, I hosted Cooking with Windows, a livestream where we made a three-course meal and cocktails from CD-ROM cookbooks. Thanks once again to my friends Jessica and Joe for lending a hand! You can watch the 3-hour stream here.

We went over five different programs spanning the full range of cooking software, from recipe databases to tailored multimedia showcases. What made for a better program? And perhaps most critically, was the food any good? Let’s compare… Cooking with Windows recap » Read more

Explore multimedia history in Denise Caruso’s Digital Media Blog category

In 1991, Denise Caruso founded Digital Media, a newsletter covering the then-nascent multimedia industry. Caruso’s newsletter is a great read if you want a ground-level view of the early years of multimedia and the CD-ROM format.

Caruso used to provide issues of the newsletter through her website, which currently isn’t online. For easier access, I’m uploading them to the Internet Archive. Browse through the collection so far here. They’re a treasure trove, especially the “I/O” editorials, which feature comments from notable figures like game developer Chris Crawford, Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins, and Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe.

The September 1991 issue is particular interesting; it discusses Spaceship Warlock, the Voyager Company, the expected future of the Philips CD-i, and Brøderbund’s strategy for producing inexpensive multimedia content. Paul Saffo compares interface challenges faced by early developers to an “electronic piñata,” an unwieldy but fun metaphor. (I had previously featured this issue in an old post I’ve removed for quality and accuracy reasons.)

When completed, the collection will have all 30 issues Caruso edited. It’ll take a bit, and I’ll update once it’s ready!

This Saturday, we’re cooking with Windows Software categoryStreaming category

Cooking with Windows banner

Icon from Delrina Daily Planner 3.0

Time to try something different…

This Saturday, we’re digging up some CD-ROM cookbooks. And we’re gonna cook with them.

The CD-ROM and multimedia era was a heyday for lifestyle software – programs for managing finances, scheduling your week, or picking out a movie to watch. The internet would soon consume almost all these functions, but a self-contained CD-ROM could bundle together tools, writing, and video and audio clips into a unique interactive package unachievable with previous technology. Hundreds of megabytes of storage space let developers run wild with features and how much they could fit in.

Digital recipe managers, which had existed as far back as 1969, could now hold multiple cookbooks worth of recipes with photos and instructional videos. Major brands like Better Homes and Gardens published their own CD-ROM cookbooks, each with their own approach to helping you plan a meal with a computer.

So, with the help of a few friends, we’ll be preparing food and drinks from recipe programs for Windows 3.1 and Windows 95:

  • Cooking with Dom DeLuise by Allegro New Media
  • MasterCook Cooking Light by Sierra Home
  • Williams-Sonoma Guide to Good Cooking by Broderbund
  • Cocktail Hour by Global Star Software

We’ll demonstrate each of the programs, talk a bit about their history, and do a couple different dishes. To complete the 90s computer dinner party vibe, we’ll play a digital party game. I’ll write-up our thoughts on the software (and our cooking!) afterwards. We’ll see if Dom DeLuise’s jokes about bread help us at all.

The food won’t be too unusual, but these recipes haven’t been made in 20 years. Let’s call it technoculinary archaeology.

This is one of the silliest projects I’ve attempted. It could be amazing or a complete disaster. Maybe both! Join us on Saturday, April 8 at 5pm EDT on the Obscuritory Twitch channel for a delicious adventure!

popol maya Adventure category

Title screen from popol maya

According to its introduction, popol maya is “not just a game” but a belief system. Supposedly, its tenets are based on Maya mythology, though it flagrantly misinterprets everything about that culture save for a vaguely tropical setting. The game stumbles onto its own ideas instead, attempting to solve that universal question of how to find meaning in a disorderly, malevolent world.

The game settles on communication. We need to listen to each other. popol maya wraps its answer under layers of groaning animals and dancing, and somewhere along the line, it forgets to link its spiritual dilemma more closely to the bizarre happenings at hand. The message comes through from the whole of your Maya adventure, but it might have shone stronger if – ironically for the theme – the game spoke to you more. popol maya » Read more

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