SimTower: The Vertical Empire Simulation category

Title screen from SimTower: The Vertical Empire

The manual for SimTower shares a funny story about how Japanese developer Yoot Saito ended up making a Sim game. Saito had a background in architecture, and one day, he found himself fascinated by how elevators work – how they decide which floors to go to and who’s responsible for making them efficient. When he called an elevator company to ask, they declined to give him an answer. So with the help from programmer Takumi Abe, he designed a simulation to see how elevators operate in a crowded building. It was more complex than he ever imagined. “[E]levator movements, like the steps of a dance, are almost impossible to describe it mere words,” he said. That elevator simulation became Yoot Saito’s first game, SimTower: The Vertical Empire.

It might come as a surprise that Maxis published another developer’s personal curiosity as part of their Sim series, but it fits in the tradition of Maxis games taking a real world concept, like urban planning in SimCity and blowing it up into a game. The big surprise is that Saito does the Sim formula better than Maxis did. His take on the Sim series is more intimate, working at a more human scale, and that makes it one of the strongest entries in the series. » Read more about SimTower: The Vertical Empire

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. » Read more about Gravity Balls

Zephyr Action categoryRacing categoryShooter category

Title screen from Zephyr

If there’s one concept that games have mastered, 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 nowhere else to go. 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. » Read more about Zephyr

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. » Read more about The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain

Lighthouse: The Dark Being Adventure category

Title screen from Lighthouse: The Dark Being

The company Sierra On-Line was once one of the biggest names in the adventure game genre. Eventually, their style of unforgiving third-person adventure stories fell out of favor, replaced by a new style of contemplative, first-person adventure games, popularized in 1994 by Myst. With the popularity of the genre shifting, they took one shot at making an adventure game in this new Myst-inspired style.

And it was, blatantly, inspired by Myst. Jon Bock, designer and art director of Lighthouse: The Dark Being, told me via email how the project got started. “[Sierra president] Ken Williams called me into his office one day, pulled out a copy of Myst and said; ‘Can you do this?'” Bock recalled. “I said yes, and the game went into development.”

On its surface, Lighthouse reads like it was designed by a committee trying to nail down what made Myst successful. You visit a bizarre uncharted world where you solve complicated puzzles in open-ended locales with complex mythology and lots of journals to read. In spite of that copycat-ery, Lighthouse manages to leave its own mark on the genre — partially because it manages the awkward feat of carrying Sierra’s frustrating, player-hostile house style over to this new style of adventure game, but also because of the world it creates, filled with risk, conflict, and a huge thematic swing for the fences that few Myst clones attempted. » Read more about Lighthouse: The Dark Being

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