Let’s talk about horse racing. Not the actual cruel and outdated sport. I mean the popularly imagined horse race – the version romanticized in media like Guys and Dolls and Luck as a platonic ideal of sporting culture. Stripped to its essentials, horse racing is a slow-motion roulette wheel, a massive gamble in which second-to-second changes in race order lead to ultimate thrills and the chance for riches and glory. The “horse race” has evolved to a metaphor that captures that immediacy, the love of the chase and jockeying to the exclusion of all else.
The developers of QuarterPole clearly love both kinds of horse race. Their intensive knowledge of racing culture is evident, but despite the game’s often impenetrable density, it never loses sight of the base pleasures of the race and the bet. By offering multiple ways to play on both sides of the track, QuarterPole ensures you’re never far from the satiating drama of watching fortunes turn at the last second. » Read more about QuarterPole
The platform game boom in the 90s begat an odd brand of artistically driven mascot games. Earthworm Jim, Plok, Zool, Cool Spot, and their ilk owed much of their success to their terrific cartoon styles. There’s an argument that their visual accomplishments could sometimes come at the expense of the rest of their quality. That conversation deserves a greater breadth of games to scrutinize, and one additional name on that the list should be Crazy Drake.
Not much distinguishes Crazy Drake from those other games, and it bears a suspiciously close resemblance to Earthworm Jim in particular. The similarity works in its benefit here. Like the rest of its breed, Crazy Drake is a pretty good action-platformer with the cartoony, elastic panache. Another game in that vein doesn’t exactly break new ground, but it’s certainly a pleasant surprise. » Read more about Crazy Drake
3 in Three has some terrific world-building.
It feels weird to talk about a puzzle game in terms of its narrative achievements, but that’s why 3 in Three excels. From a gameplay standpoint, it’s roughly the digital equivalent of a big paperback Pennysaver puzzle book. There’s a grab-bag assortment of puzzles – some fiendishly enjoyable and some dully frustrating. But developer Cliff Johnson made the game special by wrapping the entire thing in a quirky story about computers, data, and language. It provides a fun context for puzzle-solving and props up some of the game’s inherent limitations. » Read more about 3 in Three
I am impossibly excited to announce that I will be a panelist at the upcoming MAGFest 13 gaming festival!
MAGFest is the largest gaming event in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area, with attendance for 2015 expected to reach 15,000. I’ve attended MAGfest since 2012, and I’m unbelievably stoked to bring my obscure game-ery to the show this year.
Specifics like timing are still in progress, but I will be tentatively hosting a panel titled “Obscure Gaming Gems (and Why They Matter).” I’ll be talking about some great obscure games, but more importantly, I want to address why obscurities are important to the gaming discourse. I touched on it a little bit in an earlier essay: when we celebrate obscure games, we’re engaging gaming with an open mind and a curious spirit. It’s good for positivity and inclusiveness, and it makes the gaming landscape more exciting and critically engaging. There’s a lot to explore here, including the forgotten history of the Mac gaming scene, the works of Theresa Duncan, and – of course – Eastern Mind and its unlikely fan community.
I’ll be sure to post updates once we get closer to MAGFest 13 (January 23-26), but for now, I just wanted to share this exciting news. This is sort of a personal culmination of everything I’ve been working towards with this blog. I’m looking forward to spreading the good word about obscurities – and maybe even seeing a few friendly faces!
(If you plan on attending, please drop me a line so we can say hello!)
UPDATE: The official MAGFest schedule is out and has the panel slotted for 6pm on Saturday, January 24th, in the MAGES 2 room. It’s happening!
I don’t post about Kickstarters too often on here, just because of the extreme volume of retro revivals and similar projects. But this one is pretty special. New York-based digital art group Rhizome is attempting to preserve three CD-ROM games by developer Theresa Duncan – Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero – that were designed for girls ages 7 to 12. These games were released for Windows 95 and 98, a dark age for compatibility and emulation, and Rhizome wants to curate them for modern audiences. This combines two of my favorite things: Windows 9x CD-ROMs and diversity in gaming.
This is a really terrific cause, and it’s a great example of why obscure games matter. I had never heard of any of these games prior to this Kickstarter, and it excites me so much to know that they made a difference for young girls back in the day. We should be celebrating more of these creative, out-of-the-way games tailored to audiences that are usually overlooked by the industry at-large. They’re special, and they make the world of gaming a little bit brighter. More people should know about them! (Plus, CD-ROMs are super great.)
If you want to learn more about Theresa Duncan and her work, check out Jenn Frank’s article In a Field of ’90s Barbieland Wreckage, Chop Suey Got Gaming for Girls Totally Right.
Please consider kicking in a few dollars!
(Thanks to Eli Abbott for alerting me about this!)
UPDATE: Rhizome has reached their goal! I’ll be sure to post an update once the project is complete some time next year.
If you want to see the two diametrically opposed directions of games in 90s, look at The Dig and Doom. One is an adventure game with gorgeous visuals that fleshes out its narrative with character interactions and exploration. The other is a largely plotless first-person shooter that focuses on extreme speed and three-dimensional carnage. Both games succeed on their own terms, but their styles weren’t exactly compatible. At the time, many adventure games used pre-rendered scenery to convey detailed, elaborate settings and stories that were not otherwise possible, and they were, by necessity, a little clumsy. Games that don’t demand intense action can get away with this, but Doom needed to be slicker, quicker, and simpler.
Lunicus, the debut game from experimental developer Cyberflix, attempts to bridge these two worlds. Though primarily a first-person shooter, Lunicus borrows liberally from adventure games, using pre-rendered graphics, cinematic vignettes, and extensive narrative sections. Melding these once-opposed genres is a huge creative gamble, and unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. But it’s at least an intriguing failure worth a post-mortem. » Read more about Lunicus
The most surprising quality of Win Elvis-n-Space is how relatively normal it is. If you replaced all the Elvis elements, you’d have a competent-but-messy miniature space exploration game in the style of Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space. But it’s not. This is a game about a mission to rescue Elvis from aliens. » Read more about Win Elvis-n-Space
Loops and pathways have been institutionalized as puzzle mechanics, popping up in everything from classic board games like Tantrix to modern blockbusters such as Bioshock and Warframe. Something in our reptile brains loves connecting lines into bigger and bigger chains. But it’s telling that these puzzles have been relegated to minigames in recent years: they can be monotonous beyond short-term investment. How do you make these linking games fun?
The solution might lie within Troubled Souls, one of the better puzzle game derivatives from the 90s. Beyond its heavily Gothic, body horror-influenced theme, Troubled Souls adds a clever progression system and forgiving mechanics that keep the game lively and constantly moving. And as a bonus, it’s scary. » Read more about Troubled Souls
In the interim between the sporadic articles I post on here, I’ve been posting screenshots, videos, and other tidbits to the Obscuritory Tumblr page. I use Tumblr as sort of a clearing house for all the content that hasn’t made it onto this site, which often means artistic screengrabs, quick blurbs for games I haven’t written articles about, and updates on weird stuff I’m adding to my collection (like my copy of Iron Helix!) I try to post new content every day, so there’ll always be more obscurities to check out. If you’re on Tumblr, swing by and say hello!
About six years ago, I realized that I wanted to share my love for forgotten games with the rest of the world. A lot has happened since then, both personally and culturally. I have largely left the “core” gaming world and found some much-needed perspective that I would feel negligent not to discuss here. Put simply, the insularity, prejudice, and anger that surrounds video games is horrifying and, if left unchecked, will surely destroy this terrific and expressive medium.
More now than ever, I find it essential to celebrate the weird and out-of-the-way games of yesteryear. Serendipity and discovery are merits on their own, but they also promote a healthier, more fun, more vibrant, and more inclusive culture. I want to reaffirm my commitment to this site and to emphasize the good things that obscurities can bring about. » Read more about Six years in: reflections on gaming culture and a revised mission statement