Failures in Edutainment: the mid-’90s “girl game” fad

Paprika the Fortune Teller from 'Chop Suey'

Brandon Boyer, via Twitter, inadvertently (advertently? well, whatever) directed me toward this post at Jezebel about girl games.

Its writer, Anna Breslaw, opens her piece with a quick hat-tip to a 1995 computer game called Chop Suey, which I’ve mentioned on Infinite Lives thrice before and am about to mention again. That’s because it is a great game that isn’t mentioned often enough. I’m trying to change the world, here, people.

But yes, our coincident timing is totally awkward, ha ha. Earlier in the week I’d snuck a bunch of Chop Suey playthrough videos onto YouTube, hoping to jog memories. (For a long time the only footage of the game available online was Bruno’s.)

But also, I was already laboring over this Chop Suey retrospective. Please do read it! It is a tragedy Chop Suey isn’t better remembered: it was celebrated in its day, and with reason. But most people did not use the Internet in 1995, which is to say, Chop Suey and all its accolades have not been very well preserved. (Duncan’s extraordinarily bizarre death doesn’t help anything; it’s almost impossible to discuss Chop Suey without mentioning that part, too, and the game is thusly difficult to google.)

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were such a great time for edutainment, and while the medium isn’t entirely dead (your child’s school computer lab may yet have Storybook Weaver!), I do think the middle-’90s’ “girl game” craze went a long way in murdering it. Worse, the “girl game” genre probably scared a generation of woulda-been PC gamers away.

Most girls did not actually play girl games in the ‘90s, of course, because most “girl games” were stupid. Girls are not idiots. Girls are not boy-crazy strumpets. Girls are 8. Girls are 9. Girls play Oregon Trail and You Don’t Know Jack. Can people not picture 9-year olds?

This is what girls really want: girls want horse training simulations; they like fortune-telling; girls read spy stories and tales of adventure and daring; girls enjoy the Super Nintendo version of Mario Kart and computer games about being in outer space. Girls would like chemistry lab sets for Christmas, or planetariums and cheap telescopes, or periscopes and walkie-talkies. Girls like crafts. Girls like Minecraft! Girls like dolls, toy theaters, replicas, scale miniatures, and “character editors.” Girls like She-Ra. Girls like Labyrinth. Girls like sci-fi, unless it’s just a bunch of dweeby dudes standing around talking into their own lapels. Girls like pirates and especially stowaways, and especially stowaways who look like boys but are secretly girls. Girls like scrappy heroines—resourceful, freckle-nosed troublemakers—heroines with scraped knees and scuffed shoes. Girls are impatient to learn something new, and if you don’t give them brain-food they eventually wander off. There! There is your blueprint for a “girl game.”

So, yes, Breslaw’s and my Chop Suey -themed posts both went up on May 12, both incorporating that same playthrough footage. Oops! How embarrassing. It’s a little like arriving at a dance in matching dresses.

Fortunately, the dresses aren’t identical! (Ha, ha, ha!) Breslaw’s piece isn’t about Chop Suey at all, thank goodness. It’s actually about a new project called FEMICOM, an online museum that aspires to catalogue and archive every manner of game-for-girls. This is noble work—it’s why I’ve made Chop Suey evangelism one of my pet hobbies, actually—exactly because the project illustrates the enormity of the gulf between “this game or toy is edifying” and “why would you ever give your child that.”

The nicest thing about seeing this article about “girl games” on Jezebel, though? It’s elicited all these comments, where the readers themselves are essentially sorting the lady-treasures from the lady-tripe. One reader mentions Heavenly Sword for PS3. Oh, boy, do girls love that game. (Because we love third-person beat-em-ups starring She-Ra! It’s pretty much the only game you should give an adult woman. There, I said it.)

Other notable “girl-friendly” game mentions: Sim City. The Sims. Little Big Planet. Metroid. Zelda. Carmen Sandiego. Ecco. Pokemon. No One Lives Forever. Nancy Drew games. Street Fighter, Soul Calibur. Doom, Marathon, BioShock. Killer7 (most girls do really well with first-person rail-shooters; this has something to do with spatial attention). Final Fantasy. Fallout. Diablo. Starcraft. Mass Effect. Star Wars KOTOR. Guild Wars. Skyrim. Braid. Age of Empires. Civilization. Portal and its sequel. (“I loved that about Portal…really the only way you knew the character was female was from the brief glimpses you got of yourself if you lined Portals up right. Her female-ness wasn’t a factor one way or the other in the game.” Thank you, Susan Fry! I agree.)

And a thread, four comments long, about Woodruff and the Schnibble.

And also from the Jez comments,

See, this is why I get so frustrated with the whole conversation about games for girls. If you’d tried to design an ideal non-people based game for little girl me, it would have featured dinosaurs fighting each other, not dolphins swimming around being pretty.

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Adventures in Shit Games: Cho Aniki #1 and #3

from Cho Aniki: Bakuretsu Ranto Hen's opening titles

I promise, I’m really trying to not use Infinite Lives as my own professional pinboard these days, but I do have a column about Cho Aniki: Bakuretsu Rantou Hen at Vice Motherboard:

The game’s wackiness and camp are superficial. They’re just show. All the while, Bakuretsu’s characters and backdrops hint at something darker. To borrow from Baudrillard, there is a gradual “perversion of reality” until, at last, we are looking at a “facsimile” with “no original copy.”

Really, I’ve never had so much fun writing something in my life. Am I really serious? Who can tell!

I also made a supplementary video:

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Replay: ‘Scapeghost’ (1989)


A screenshot of 'Scapeghost' in DOS

AKA Spook
Level 9 · text adventure · text parser · 1989
Platform · Amiga · Amstrad CPC · Atari 8-bit · Atari ST · C64 · DOS · ZX Spectrum
Download · DOS · Spectrum

There is only one reason I would ever deign to tell you about some boring old text adventure, and here it is: Scapeghost is awesome.

For one thing, the game is well-written—we hardly get to applaud computer games for good writing anymore!—and for another, it is authentically creepy.

A lot of the creep factor is indebted to the atmospheric artwork that accompanies each new location’s block of text. (One 1990 review calls the VGA art “photorealistic,” which, no, but all the versions really are very good.) You can’t interact with the pictures—that’s the sort of thing you’d find in Déjà Vu, a super-duper-early Macintosh point-and-click adventure game—but each backdrop goes a long way in establishing the setting’s grim moodiness.

You were Alan Chance. You were a good cop; now you’re a dead cop. You were trying to bust a dirty drug deal and now, in death, everyone assumes the worst about you. You wake up at your own funeral. You can practically taste the mist.

From the get-go, this adventure is slim on real mystery. If you already know to follow the one especially-suspicious dude, he basically confesses to your murder under his breath. God, why do murderers always talk to themselves? I ask you.

So you already know the identity of the two-timing detective who offed you. All that’s left is to vindicate your own death… FROM BEYOND THE GRAAAAAAVE.

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Lost & Forgotten: ‘Extra Terrestrials’ for Atari 2600 rediscovered

One of the more interesting aspects of the pre-crash era of video games is the curious proliferation of fly-by-night game production houses. Since actually making a game for the retail market was comparatively inexpensive at the time—compared to the million-dollar landscape that a high-profile game can demand now—small companies like Spectravision, Apollo, and Starpath were releasing games alongside the higher-profile publishers such as Atari, Imagic, and Activision. Even companies such as Parker Brothers and 20th Century Fox were involved in the game publishing world. While the smallest companies, such as MenAvision or Commavid, produced games with incredibly small print runs before the industry crashed, game collectors and historians believed they had accounted for all of the released unique North American games by now, roughly 30 years on.

As such, the surprising news that Syd Bolton, curator of the PC Museum in Brantford, Ontario, had come into possession of a previously unknown retail release titled Extra Terrestrials, has come as quite a shock to the Atari gaming community.

Extra Terrestrials was developed by the Canadian company Skill Screen Games, and ended up being their sole creation. The company was a family business, operated by Tom, Peter, and J. Maitland Banting, and the game was manufactured by Telcom Research, a manufacturer of time code generators that Tom Banting was also the president of. The game had no official distribution channels; instead, the Bantings had to take the game door-to-door to individual retailers in early 1984. Peter Banting told Bolton that in the end only a couple hundred copies, at most, were sold to retailers in southern Ontario before the market collapsed and the entire venture ended. The game was designed and programmed by Herman Quast, though Bolton has not yet gotten in touch with him to ask for details about the game’s development.

History aside, the other major question for anyone with my gaming priorities would be: how does the game play? And what’s its point? Bolton has been painstakingly figuring the game out; the Banting family, who first donated the cart to Bolton’s PC Museum, believes the accompanying box and manual were thrown out long ago. So far, Bolton has determined that Extra Terrestrials is a two-player-only game, where one player controls an alien collecting dots, and the other player is a human trying to catch the alien. Bolton explained to the Atariage forums that there are also “invisible walls, and eating the pellets gets you points.” There are also a few different alien sprites available for the player to choose from, including one that pretty clearly rips off the title character’s sprite from the underrated Atari release E.T. The Extraterrestrial.

Bolton recorded a gameplay video and uploaded it to youtube:

Bolton has not yet been able to get the game’s ROM archived; however, he is seeking someone with the equipment in southwestern Ontario to help so that the game could be made available online. For those who are in the area, he intends on having the game playable at the upcoming PC Museum open-houses on October 15 and 22, 2011. Road trip?

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“Break out” your 2600s today: a ‘Breakout’ flashback

Screenshot: Breakout for 2600

Breakout, based on a concept by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, was designed by Steve Jobs (with pal Steve Wozniak doing all the heavy lifting, of course). The game was released in May 1976, just two months before Jobs and Wozniak unveiled their first creation as Apple Computer.

Here are some game-winning tips:


Fear and Shadows: a Mountain King retrospective

Atop the mountain where the perpetual flame burns: Mountain King's 5200 & 8-bit rendition.

Video game horror—that is, really effective, interactive horror—comes in all forms. Maybe good horror stems from easy, visceral jump scares, or from the anxiety of a timer, steadily counting down to zero. Maybe it owes to the dread of a moody atmosphere—eerie music, a creepy setting. Perhaps real feelings of fear come from an impotent or nonexistent combat system.

The Famicom game Sweet Home is often acknowledged by hobbyist historians as one of the first examples of the survival horror genre, and it may well be. But those of you with longer gaming histories know the truth—you might remember that unsettling adventure into the depths of a mountain, stealing treasure that ought never have been disturbed, and trying to escape with your life. This is the tale of Mountain King.

Mountain King was a multiplatform release primarily by CBS Electronics in 1983—with versions appearing on the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Colecovision, Commodore 64, VIC-20, and the Atari 8-bit computer line—though much of my personal experience came from the Atari 2600 port.

E.F. Dreyer Inc. is credited as the copyright owner for all these iterations, with Robert Matson generally credited as the program’s creator. Another programmer, Ed Salvo, put together the 2600 version in a mind-boggling six weeks as a contractor through VSS. (“I had an 800 version of the game, which I was to emulate,” Salvo told Digital Press’s Scott Stilphen.)

The game’s objectives are rather complex; without an instruction manual, however, they are downright arcane. As a child, I only knew that I had to collect these diamonds lying around the silent mountain corridors, the sole sound being the “ding” as the explorer treads across clusters of those gleaming gems.

In Mountain King your explorer is armed with nothing but a flashlight which, when its beam is trained on the darkness ahead, can sometimes reveal a shadowy chest full of treasure. Traveling the bottom floor of the cavern puts you in the domain of the giant spider, which will encase you in webbing as it skitters past. If you mash the joystick back and forth you might escape, but should the spider return while you are still trapped, you will be sucked dry as a spider meal.

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The Best Video Games… of the DECADE

Kevin and I wrote this end-of-decade wrap-up last Christmas, and even as we neared the piece’s natural end, we couldn’t stop adding to our joint Google Doc. Maybe our selections are obvious and not inventive, and probably we are blowhards who like the sound of our own writing, but here is the whole unwieldy mess, not even in its entirety, as it has appeared in my draft box since 01/01/2010. Blah, blah, blah. —ed.

When Jenn asked me if I’d assist in compiling this list, I was pretty excited! Ten years of games! I thought. Why, I have quite a few favorites in that lengthy time period I could mention.

Of course, narrowing it down is no easy feat. In terms of gameplay, video games haven’t exactly taken the huge technological leap the way they have in decades past, and graphically, the only real change is in visual detail. Nonetheless, this decade heralded the advent of downloading games and the return of in-console saving. Some games introduced these fresh innovative ideas; other games didn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table, but did what they did extremely well.

I’m not saying I played all the AAA titles and underground hits—I have eclectic gaming tastes, a low budget, and a proclivity for gaming mostly with other friends—but that has not stopped me from proselytizing the multiplayer goodness of Powerstone 2 or wild system-pushing 2600 homebrews like Adventure II to anyone unfortunate enough to get me started on the subject.

So here are some top picks from the gaming experiences of both Jenn and myself from the past 10 years, and hey, maybe you’ll find something interesting to check out! Kevin B.

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Bizarre game mash-up: a K.C.’s Krazy Chase retrospective

Not long ago, I sat down with Pac-Man CE DX, the new sequel to 2007’s stellar Pac-Man: Championship Edition for Xbox Live Arcade.

Like its predecessor, DX is a Pac-Man style maze gobbler with a shifting layout and a strict time limit, forcing you to go for the highest possible score before time runs out. DX adds in a “ghost train,” wherein sleeping ghosts around the maze wake up and begin chasing Pac-Man. Provided you don’t get yourself trapped—think Snake—you can use the train to rack up huge scores, grabbing a power pellet and chowing down on dozens of ghosts in one fell swoop.

I’d had a nagging feeling that this reminded me of another game, but I couldn’t pinpoint what. It wasn’t until my riveting game of Centipede at Ann Arbor’s Pinball Pete’s that my memory jogged: DX smacks of the Magnavox Odyssey2 game, K.C.’s Krazy Chase! That game was a curious mash-up of Centipede and Pac-Man, deliberately designed to prevent a lawsuit from Atari—a fate that had befallen the game’s antecedent, K.C. Munchkin.

K.C. Munchkin, released in 1981, was a huge hit for the Odyssey2, at least for its brief availability on the market. Beating the 2600’s notorious Pac-Man port to home consoles by nearly a year, Phillips, the parent company of Magnavox, found themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit by Atari, who argued that the maze game was too similar to their own, and that Atari had the sole rights to Pac-Man on home computer. To be sure, K.C. Munchkin had its differences—multiple mazes, a level editor long before editors were common (it used the Odyssey2’s attached keyboard), and dots that roamed the maze itself—but ultimately it was a game in which an impish munching character wandered a maze, eating dots and avoiding monsters. As if driving the point home, with a wink and a nudge, that K.C. really was Pac-Man in disguise, the game even had power pellets that would allow the player to hunt the three monsters for a limited amount of time. Of course Atari won the suit, and K.C. Munchkin was pulled from shelves. Still, the game’s success had blown the door wide open for a sequel.

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(The Bizarre Adventures of) Woodruff and the Schnibble (of Azimuth), 1995

Woodruff and the Schnibble—the box art specifies The Bizarre Adventures of Woodruff and the Schnibble, but the title screen touts Woodruff and the Schnibble of Azimuth—was lovingly localized and published in 1995 as YASA.

Oh, I like that acronym! I just made it up: Yet Another Sierra Adventure. I can’t be the first person to think of YASA, but let’s keep using it.

Woodruff looks like a Gobliiins game because—unofficially, anyway—it really is a Gobliiins game. Like the rest of the Gobliiins series, Woodruff was designed by the mad geniuses at French developer Coktel Vision, where artist Pierre Gilhodes first developed the series and its distinctive style.

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1995’s notable un-games: ‘Cosmology of Kyoto,’ ‘I Have No Mouth…’ and ‘Chop Suey’

I was looking something up online when I fell upon these really excellent gameplay videos by Bruno de Figueiredo (AKA “dieubussy,” AKA the Eastern Mind guy).

And I was really gladdened to see the videos because, not only do they illustrate PC games that are harder to obtain and get running, but these games are also absolutely essential non-games. All three titles are contemplative by anyone’s standards, but they feel especially slow now.

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Farm-fresh burgers, now with bad eggs: a Burgertime retrospective

If there is one self-evident truth to the history of the gaming industry, it would be that the early 80s welcomed utterly bizarre gaming concepts. Even more bizarre, though, were the ones based around food.

There was Mr. Do, a game in which a clown digs tunnels underground to collect cherries, all while avoiding dinosaurs and monsters that look vaguely like Cookie Monster. Or Atari’s Food Fight, wherein a kid must make his way to an ice cream cone before it melts, battling his way past angry chefs with a variety of ingredients. But Data East took the enchilada, so to speak, when it brought out Burgertime in 1982.

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Daily Linksplosion: Sunday, November 15, 2009

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Looking back at The Dig

What I remember most clearly about The Dig is my associated feelings of disappointment. The 2D point-and-click adventure game—released in 1995, soon after Myst—had beautiful, painterly, 1992-era graphics. That is to say, upon its release, The Dig was already dated as hell.


I was 13 when I played it—The Dig had been in development since I was 7—and it was the first time I’d played an adventure game so “on rails,” so “cinematic,” so a series of narrative moments and cutscenes, each one waiting for your trigger. I remember consciously thinking, “This game doesn’t even need me! It can just play itself if it wants to!” I’d felt, at the time, that the game was, somehow, overly directed, somehow too controlling and too, too linear, and I’d wondered if that wasn’t maybe because Steven Spielberg (!!!) was too protective of The Dig’s storyline. I was frustrated.

What’s interesting, though, is how well the too-dated parts of the game have aged: the 2009 eye can’t tell the difference, I guess, between 1992 and 1995. And contrarily, as John Walker notes in his excellent Dig retrospective for Eurogamer, the 1995-era stuff—those little moments of then-impressive CGI—look comparatively cheesy next to the game’s painted backdrops and setpieces.

Perhaps other aspects of the game have withstood time, too. Maybe the game’s painstakingly planned moments of revelation, and all its meticulous exchanges of dialogue—which, in 1995, were irritating and aggravating for an old pro with her very set ideas of how an adventure game should play and feel—can be accepted and amended by a 2009 eye and ear as simply part-and-parcel of “the way adventure games were back then.” In his article, John Walker even applauds those moments for their capability at pushing a story forward.

It isn’t that I feel at odds with John Walker’s retrospective—I really don’t—but I do wish I hadn’t played The Dig in 1995. If I hadn’t, perhaps I could play it now with Mr. Walker’s fresh, wide eyes.

John Walker writes,

But [that’s] not what I’ve taken away. What I’m left with is the feeling of isolation, the ambient loneliness, and most of all, of a sense of the potential for gaming to slowly, carefully tell a story.

I will say this: I do remember that feeling of alienation, some intrinsic melancholy, in playing The Dig. I’m relieved that Mr. Walker felt that, too, because for years after, I had—perhaps narcissistically—misattributed those feelings to simply being a 13-year old girl, and to being the sort of 13-year old girl who sits all cooped up, hours at a time, with a CD-ROM spinning and spinning in front of her.


Edit: Chris “Papapishu” Person left a really incredible, illuminating post about The Dig in the comments. I’ve never done this before, and I apologize: I edited his comment, albeit only slightly, and I’m linking to it here.

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Daily Linksplosion: Monday, July 06, 2009

So, this is sucking. My cron job, which is supposed to automagically chronograph things every midnight, is no longer cronning. I think I need to find a different way to cron.

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Daily Linksplosion: Thursday, May 28, 2009

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