The 1987 puzzle game seemingly builds itself around the Tarot—which itself has an inbuilt sequence and circular narrative—beginning with the Major Arcana and then moving toward made-up arcana like ‘the Humbug’ and ‘the Not-A-Merchant’.
Johnson has made Fool’s Errand and all its extras available as free downloads. While he himself prefers the Windows and Macintosh versions of the game, they might require a little finagling. Intel MacBook users like me might do well to install the much uglier, 16-color DOS version instead:
This is the first in a series of articles about homebrew games. Quite simply, outside of the fanbase for a particular system, a number of these go clear under the radar. It’s a terrible shame, given that a lot of these homebrews end up being better than commercial releases. As such, I’m going to highlight some of my particular favorites for a variety of systems!
I had written previously on the subject of gravity in Spacewar, one of the earliest computer games ever made. The concept of gravity’s effect on games has extended beyond that, but only a few noteworthy games have ever stood out. One in particular, a BBC Acorn game (later ported, famously, to the Commodore 64, among others) entitled Thrust, became something of a cult classic.
Thrust was something of an evolution from Atari’s arcade game, Gravitar. In that game, you were flying from planet to planet, destroying guns and grabbing fuel before taking off to the next one. Ever present was the gravity each planet would ensnare you in, forcing you to make your moves carefully, lest you fall too far and crash.
Thrust took this a step further—instead of flying from planet to planet, now you were warping onto a planet, battling turrets and the forces of physics as you made your way deep into planetary chasms to grab a fuel cell. Once you had latched onto it with your tractor beam, you had to carefully maneuver your way back out, all the while fighting with the weight and inertia of your cargo.
You have to give it to Sega: they have made some absolutely iconic franchises over the years. Consider Sonic the Hedgehog, Panzer Dragoon, or Virtual On. None of them are particularly new anymore, but they’re pretty well known, despite Sega’s incredible mismanagement of their properties. Contrast this to Nintendo, who at least acknowledges the existence of something random like Clu Clu Land. Consider the case of Metroid, revived after eight years of practically nothing but the hype of the fanbase. As a result, Sega’s own answer to Metroid has practically been lost to the ages.
Zillion is a two-game series on the Sega Master System. The second game is a bizarre amalgamation of a shooter and a platformer, and isn’t really the focus here. But the first game, on the other hand, is easily one of my favorite Sega titles, period. Released in 1987, Zillion was actually a joint production of Sega and Tatsunoko Productions (which has gone on to do other projects) based, incredibly enough, on a laser tag game. Tatsunoko produced a cartoon called Red Photon Zillion, while Sega did the games.
To say the NES’s musical capabilities are famous is an understatement. With tunes like the Super Mario theme and the soundtracks to Mega Man 2, Castlevania, Contra, and dozens of other games, the system’s little sound chip can pump out some incredible music. The NES is practically a founding member of the chiptune musical genre, alongside such luminaries as the Commodore 64 and the Atari 800. Thus when I heard about an oddball, Famicom Disk System-only ‘musical shooter’ entitled Otocky my interest was piqued.
Otocky is the brainchild of Toshio Iwai, known more recently as the developer for Nintendo’s Electroplankton, and was released in 1987 by the ASCII Corporation. You play a weird little orange thing with cartoony eyes, arms, and legs that flies through inconsequential backgrounds populated with even stranger enemies. Your objective is to collect musical notes to fill a meter at the bottom of the screen, at which point the stage will end and you will face off with a giant, foe-spewing musical note. You must then fire off your collected musical notes at the holes in the boss until you’ve used them all. You can collect a bomb power-up, and your normal, boomeranging shot can be tweaked by collecting certain items.
It’s been nearly four and a half years since the release of Halo 2 on the original Xbox console. The game is remembered for a number of reasons—online functionality, the story, perhaps even the hype. But for a select group of fans, Halo 2 is remembered fondly not for its play features, but for the Halo 2 ad campaign: The Haunted Apiary, or I Love Bees.
I Love Bees is an ARG, or alternate reality game. What that means specifically is hard to quantify, but ARGs tend to share a few common characteristics. They are played in real time over a finite length of time; they involve group efforts in puzzle-solving, either online or in the real world; their stories are told in rather unconventional ways, ranging from clothing lines to trading cards to false newspapers to in-game websites in games over the years. As for I Love Bees, the main action of the game occurred at the website of the same name.
Retro WIRED is a continuing retrospective of WIRED Magazine, 1996-2000.
By the mid-2000s, we’d realized we preferred to hide our game consoles. The 360’s faceplate, for instance, could be made to match the furniture, while the Wii was a slim, discreet box. The PS3 irked consumers: it was big and bold, all black gloss and chrome shine, totally undisguisable.
In the post-yuppie 1990s, though, we brashly displayed our technology. Ikea TV stands, with their frosted glass doors, deliberately paraded every component and console within, concealing only the wiring. Surround-sound speakers were mounted in the corners of the room or perched on willowy spires.
In Wired 6.08 (August 1998), Kevin Kelly—then Wired Magazine’s executive editor—tried to find the politest way to ask Martha Stewart whether she were actually ashamed of her computer. Stewart, herself an unlikely computer whiz, insisted that computers needn’t be ugly.
Something I’ve noticed in a few puzzle games that came out last year, such as Strange Attractors 2 and Orbient, is the focus on gravity and velocity. In both games you are completely at the mercy of these two forces of nature, and you can only indirectly interact with objects around you.
In a sense these games, as well as a fewotherexamples, owe a great deal to arguably the first major game, Spacewar. Spacewar was initially released in 1962 by a group of computer hackers at MIT who, upon getting access to the university’s fancy new PDP-1 computer, proceeded to pool their efforts and write one awesome head-to-head game. The premise is simple enough—each player controls a ship and tries to blow up the other guy while utilizing a limited supply of fuel and ammunition.
What makes the game interesting is the role of gravity. The ships are circling a star, and crashing into it will destroy you. The star’s gravity will pull you in or fling you out, depending on how well you can utilize it. Though you do have direct control over your ship, your thruster isn’t good for much more than maneuvering. Firing the rocket long enough to actually move independently of the star will drain your fuel in about 28 seconds. The winner is the person who can keep gravity from becoming an enemy.
I remember the first time I saw Mass Effect in action, months ago. Here was a game where you could travel from solar system to solar system, exploring worlds in your ATV and interacting with alien races. And I couldn’t help but feel that I had done this before, years ago, with the Genesis.
Starflight is a now-obscure EA game that originally saw release on Microsoft’s old DOS platform, before being ported to the Genesis and a slew of other computers systems, where you essentially traveled through the galaxy, exploring planets, meeting aliens, and either talking with them and getting information or blasting each other to bits. Part of the appeal of the game is simply how fleshed out the world is; each of the alien races have histories together, and each will tell you slightly different stories about one other and themselves. Some will come after you for having a particular species of crew member on your vessel, while others will just try to blow you away immediately.
This summer, my friend Chris and I went, along with our friend A.J., to Video Games New York. I browsed the glass case full of Virtual Boy games, then beelined to the counter to ask, in a breathy stage whisper, “Hey, hi. Do you have that Japanese Virtual Boy game? The first-person shooter that is based on Lovecraft? The one where you shoot fish-people?” No, they did not have that game.
I immediately called bullshit on her, since things that awesome just don’t exist, ever.
Then I googled it.
Turns out she was totally not making it up. It’s called “Insmouse no Yakata” (Innsmouth Mansion) and was a first person shooter.
So now you know: the legend is true. The ill-fated Virtual Boy did, indeed, have exactly one 3D first-person shooter, and it took place in Innsmouth, and in it, you actually shot freaky fish people. Except for the time I insisted Mary Tyler Moore had briefly served in the Senate, I have never lost a bet.