Robot City Adventure category

Title screen from Robot City

Even people who have never read an Asimov story know of his famed Three Laws of Robotics, so ubiquitous that it would be redundant to list them. Asimov’s robots took on life and popularity beyond his novels and short stories, which eventually led the author to commission a series of books based on his famous motifs. The Robot City series acted almost like a perfunctory exercise in testing the Laws of Robotics in extreme circumstances, but it at least did so in the dressings of a murder mystery.

The game adaptation of Robot City is inherently more interesting. The game mines a surprising level of narrative intrigue out of the Three Laws, chiefly because you can interact with the robots rather than just reading about their reactions. In the process, Robot City nearly perfects the art of the dialogue puzzle. So let’s never speak of the devastatingly slow exploration sequences tucked in-between the puzzles.

…I suppose that now we have to, huh? » Read more about Robot City

Saddam’s Revenge Macintosh categoryPuzzle category

Introduction screen from Saddam's Revenge

Time for a quick one. I’m not a programmer, but Minesweeper strikes me as a fairly solid introductory project. There aren’t a ton of Minesweeper clones out there, but among them is Saddam’s Revenge, a Macintosh version by David Zwiefelhofer. Zwiefelhofer made Saddam’s Revenge while learning how to program, and given that it was created at the end of the Gulf War, the Saddam theme is appropriate (though he says there wasn’t any political motivation behind it). It is nearly indistinguishable from other versions of Minesweeper save for a denser field and a few shiny graphical effects, such your mouse getting blown up by bombs.

Screenshot from Saddam's Revenge Saddam’s Revenge is fun as a historical artifact. As with many Mac games developed at the cusp of the transition to color monitors, it’s available in both black-and-white and color with minor differences in the art style. If you ever wanted a game that successfully captures the 1992 Macintosh experience, this would be it: a half-color, garage-made shareware game about Saddam.

(As an odd footnote: the “About” screen for Saddam’s Revenge mentions that the shareware price of the game includes a reduced membership fee for something called The Gamer Project. Zwiefelhofer doesn’t remember what that was, and I cannot find any information about it from any source. It is lost for all time!)

Laser Light Puzzle category

Title screen from Laser Light

There are no shortage of puzzle games in the style of The Incredible Machine or Pipe Dream, games in which you have to construct a path in the allotted time with a limited selection of pieces. Laser Light puts an odd spin on that format by using lasers rather than water or object physics. Such a tweak changes the game dramatically, and the results are unique even when the base mechanics feel familiar.

Creativity be damned, the game is a victim of its fascination with mouse controls and pixel-to-pixel accuracy. By ditching the tile format that makes games like Pipe Dream simple to play, Laser Light adds a new layer of complexity that dramatically ‌– even unfairly ‌– raises the difficulty. » Read more about Laser Light

The Time Warp of Dr. Brain Educational categoryPuzzle category

Box art for The Time Warp of Dr. Brain

The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain pulled off what most educational games dare to dream: it engaged players by making the game’s format as compelling as its subject. Lost Mind took place in the brain and targeted all its functions. When it wanted players to think logically, it slowed down. But if the game needed to teach on-the-fly problem solving skills, it would throw out faster challenges. Such was the thematic balance that made the game a success.

Its sequel, The Time Warp of Dr. Brain, tries a similar form-as-function approach while adding an extra layer of historical context. The game has an intriguing time travel premise, in that you play as one of Dr. Brain’s many incarnations since the beginning of single-celled life.

To its credit, the game does an impressive job matching various brain exercises and activities to the different eras of life that it represents. Unfortunately, most of those periods are prehistoric, which means you’ll spend the bulk of Time Warp fighting for survival or drowning. That’s just not as compelling. » Read more about The Time Warp of Dr. Brain

Barrack Arcade categoryMacintosh category

Title screen from Barrack

Barrack seems a good of a point as any to introduce the unusual work of Ambrosia Software, a software and game company that hit its heyday developing for Macintosh in the 90s. Ambrosia specialized in weird, idiosyncratic arcade-style action games, usually remakes of classics like Centipede. Their games are an acquired taste but an important addition to the strange pantheon of 80s and 90s Mac games.

So we come to Barrack, Ambrosia’s 1996 clone of JezzBall. The premise is identical if you’re familiar with the original. You have to subdivide a field of bouncing balls into increasingly smaller sections while hitting as few of them as possible. The original JezzBall had a fatal flaw, in that the clutter of balls in the later stages made progress close-to-impossible. Barrack overcomes that problem with a neat selection of gimmicks and power-ups. This time, Ambrosia’s trademark overproduction pays off and brashly improves upon the original.  » Read more about Barrack

In which I meet Rand Miller: The Obscuritory goes to The Art of Video Games Essay category

Pac-Man and Hideo Kojima

This weekend, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art opened an exhibit on The Art of Video Games. I hugely recommend it; though physically small, it’s enormous in scope and successfully curates the entire four-decade history of video games into a manageable, hour-long primer that sums up the artistic limits and triumphs of the game medium.

Most interestingly, the opening ceremonies included a series of panel discussions with notable video game dignitaries such as Hideo Kojima and Ken Levine. I had the honor and privilege to attend the first panel, a discussion of the halcyon days of computer and video games featuring some of the key figures in the development of early terminal games and the Intellivision, as well as Rand Miller, the creator of Myst. Apart from the novelty of hearing from such distinguished professionals, the panel offered a few tantalizing insights. Namely that all the early days of game development were indeed chaotic, improvised, and eked out under the technical limitations of the day. » Read more about In which I meet Rand Miller: The Obscuritory goes to The Art of Video Games

Help out the artist from The Labyrinth of Time! Blog category

Art by Bradley W. Schenck

The Labyrinth of Time is a beautiful, forgotten game. Luckily, the artist is still going at it, and he has a new book coming out! But he needs some money before he can start publishing it.

That’s where you come in. If you have some spare change, please send a little money to Bradley W. Schenck’s Kickstarter project! He has 30 days to raise $7,800. Any amount you can kick in will help the effort – and as with all Kickstarter projects, the money won’t transfer until he’s raised it all.

As I’ve harped about, Schenck’s art has greatly personally affected me. It’d mean a lot if whoever’s reading could send over a few bucks.

Seize the Day Software category

Title screen from Seize the Day

Planner programs are one of the many relics of 90s computing. Nowadays we default to Google Docs, Outlook, iCal, or whatever we have on our phones, but before we synced up with the cloud, there was competing planning software. If computers could do nothing else right, they would still store contacts and remind you about your appointments. Each planner had to outdo the others with a richer feature set or a more exciting interface.

Enter Seize the Day. Forget the “daybook” part of this program. The biggest and best feature is its rotating gallery plug-in. Seriously, it’s beautiful. » Read more about Seize the Day

Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong Nou Adventure category

Title screen from Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong-Nou

The first time I played Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong Nou, I mistook it for a fever dream for nearly a decade afterward.

Eastern Mind is, unquestionably, one of the most surreal games of its time. It’s also deeply spiritual. It ruminates on the purpose of the soul while jumping erratically from moment to moment. It defies an easy explanation, but the longer you spend time with it, the more you can come to understand its rhythm, its purpose to help you understand your soul. » Read more about Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong Nou

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