Monday, December 17, 2012

#13 Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist

I don’t have a standout memory to share about Sierra’s classic adventure game Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist, but yet the game sticks out in my memory of one of my favorite games from my childhood. I’ve played many other adventure games that are arguably better, but few others left the lasting impression that this game did.

By the time this game was made Sierra had polished their adventure game craft to the point where they were at the pinnacle of not only the genre, but also the computer gaming world. Although it was overshadowed by games like King’s Quest VI (which up until Warcraft II came along was the best-selling computer game of all time), Freddy Pharkas is one of Sierra’s finest games,  an example of their wonderful hand-painted landscapes, engaging storytelling, unique characters, streamlined interface and exceptional voice acting coming together to form a undeniably fun game. Even the frequent deaths that required obsessive saving indicative of Sierra’s adventure games just a few years earlier which many (most notably LucasArts) had criticized as an unwanted distraction from the player’s engagement in the game world, had been scaled back. Freddy Pharkas might not always be remembered as one of Sierra’s best games since it did nothing to blaze new territory and, being a stand-alone game, is not remembered with as much adoration as their more beloved series like King’s Quest or Quest for Glory, but few other adventure games draw you into their world with such force while also cracking you up the entire time.

FPFP was designed by Al Lowe of Leisure Suit Larry fame during what was probably Sierra’s peak in 1993. Ken Williams, founder of Sierra, wanted to creature adventure games of various genres similar to those popular in literary industry (fantasy, science fiction, comedy, mystery, police dramas). Freddy Pharkas was one of the last attempts Sierra made along these lines as the representative of the western genre, but with the twist of combining it with Al Lowe’s signature brand of cornball/dirty old man humor.

One of the biggest joys of playing Freddy Pharkas is how crammed full of jokes it is. Descriptions of every object even down to the most mundane item in Willy’s store include all sorts of puns, potty humor and pop culture references. No opportunity for a joke is left untaken and a tremendous amount of work must have gone into composing the countless lines of dialogue and descriptions in the game, an example that even modern adventure games would do well to follow.

The plot of Freddy Pharkas, a former gunslinger who turned Pharmacist once his ear was shot off by our villain, follows Freddy as he is attempting to discover why the economy has dried up in the town of Coarsegold. Along the way, Freddy has to solve a problem of a backed up outhouse and use his medical skills to find a way to stop the town from being poisoned by horse flatulence. Owing its inspiration to Blazing Saddles, the story leans on poking fun at a lot of clichés from old western movies. As you might expect from a parody, the plot is little more than a vehicle to keep the jokes coming down the manufacturing line with just enough of a story to keep you along for the ride.

Where Freddy Pharkas really shines is in its characters. Characters are often a politically incorrect caricature of common western tropes, but each one is beautifully realized from the spot-on voice acting to the gorgeous portraits to the funny dialogue. Like most comedies, Freddy Pharkas is not the kind of game that will leave a strong emotional impression with you, but it makes the town of Coarsegold come alive with each character’s unique persona and, considering the high stakes in the game’s plot, leaves you feeling an attachment to the town, like you want to revisit it someday.

The most frustrating part about Freddy Pharkas is the in-game copy protection. The game comes with a hilarious manual pretending to be a guide to medicine of the old west. However, in what seems like a never ending sequence in the first act, this manual is required to mix a series medicines in your pharmacy for multiple of customers. Each must be mixed with the exact amounts of powders and liquids and such and the correct procedures which usually ends up taking a few tries to get right. Combine this with the 3 customers during this part of the game and this copy protection scheme ends up taking about half an hour to get through, serving as a major distraction from your engagement in the game world.

Other than this, the biggest downside of Freddy Pharkas is that too short and leaves you wanting more. At the end of the day, I want three things from an adventure game: to be sucked into the game world, to laugh my ass off and after beating it to be sad to leave. Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist passes each of these in spades.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

#14 Sid & Al's Incredible Toons

Back in 1994 or 1995, the hard drive of our 386 started making weird buzzing noises one morning while I was playing Quest for Glory III. I walked in to speak to the oracle atop of Tarna and within a few seconds the computer shut down and would not power on again. While it was tough being without a newer computer for a few months, the best thing that came out of this crash was that we got a new computer: the Compact Presario 586. For months, I had be reading Sierra Interaction magazines and longing for a variety of CD ROM adventure games, like King’s Quest VI or Quest for Glory IV, that I could play if only we had a CD ROM drive. The adventure games would all have voice acting and even videos. It would open up a whole new world of gaming that would not be constrained by the handful of megabytes that would fit onto a few (or sometimes more than a few) floppy disks.

The first few times booting up the Compact Presario was like opening up a window to a whole world you didn’t know existed. It had videos with grainy women who served as our guide to the new computer living in some sort of strange lobby area that showed us all of the functions of our new computer. More importantly though, it came with games that had talking, animated characters. Somehow, even though the graphics and gameplay really weren’t any better, it felt like our gaming had taken a huge leap forward.

Around this same time, my mom and dad decided to start a weekly date night. This meant that I got paid  to babysit Tommy every Saturday night. My philosophy on babysitting was that if I was being paid to watch someone then I was going to spend the entire time doing activities together with them. This meant that Tommy and I would play with legos or watch tv or, most often, play computer games together, taking a break only to heat up and eat a tombstone pizza usually with sausages and little cubes of pepperoni and ham.

Tommy was about 4 or 5 years at this time and played mostly educational kids games on the computer through a launcher program that came with the Compact Presario called Kids’ Desk. There were a few games that were Tommy’s favorites at this time, including the interactive storybook Slater and Charlie Go Camping and the politically incorrect Spelling Jungle. However, the game that left me with the best memories of us playing together was Dynamax’s Sid and Al’s Incredible Toons.

Sid and Al’s Incredible Toons was a contraption puzzle game starring Sid the tiny yellow and Al the fat blue cat in the spirit of The Incredible Machine, but more cartoony. It has a series of increasingly difficult puzzles where you have to combine various strange objects including sneezing tea kettles, elephants that were scared of mice, but sucked any nearby peanuts and little wooden men who ate raw eggs, to achieve some preset goal.

But what Tommy and I ended up spending the most time doing, was constructing our own levels out for our own devious desires. Our favorite world to create was where numerous Sids and Als surrounded by bombs falling from the sky. We’d start the puzzle, unleashing the carnage to see if any of them would survive. Sure this wasn’t the purpose of the puzzle designer, but we found it incredibly amusing repeating basically the same idea over and over to slightly different effect.

Sid and Al was a derivative game that didn’t break new ground or win any awards, but damn if it wasn’t fun to discover all of the zany animations through combining different objects. The classy cartoony charm of Sid and Al feels just like watching roadrunner and coyote cartoons in you footy pajamas on Saturday mornings. And who really cares about puzzles when you can feel like that all week long?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

#15 Subspace

I first saw Justin in the hallway when one of the guidance counselors was showing him around our high school on his first day there in the winter of our junior year. A few minutes later he came into my chemistry class and ended up sitting next to me. Justin and I were also in world history together and over the first couple of days working on chemistry problems and answering questions about the Ancient Greeks, we became friends and started sitting together at lunch.

One of the first things I found out about Justin was that he was not entirely happy with moving to Raleigh away from all his friends in Texas, so his parents had agreed to buy him upgrades for his computer. When I would go over to his house, we would usually partake of a selection of the Mr. Reed stash of Doritos and Cokes and then head upstairs to Justin’s room in the attic. The first games he showed me on one of my first visits over to his house was Fallout II (which almost made the list, but, after many days of intense mental struggle while in isolation in the west wing meditating to prepare this list, didn’t). Shortly afterward, he showed me Subspace which he had played since the beta version with his friends in Texas. My first reaction to the game was, “wow you can play asteroids against other people from all over the world. What an awesome idea!”

Subspace, originally released by Virgin Interactive in 1997 and later abandoned to be resurrected by the fan community as Subspace Continuum, is a massive multiplayer online game where, at its most basic, players navigate a spaceship around collecting powerups (represented as tiny green boxes) and fighting with other players in combat for points and rankings in different zones. Players can choose from 8 different ships to pilot, each with its own unique strengths, although the warbird with its unparalleled maneuverability was widely considered the superior ship. Your weapons included regular bullets, bombs and occasional thor’s hammers which were glowing purple and could travel through walls. Later fan modifications to the game changed or rebalanced all the ships to fit the unique design of each zone.

One of the most unique and ingenious elements of Subspace, was the fact that your life meter went down, not only when you took a hit from enemy fire, but also whenever you fired a shot. Unlike countless other shooters where it is correct to just hold down the fire button and spray bullets all over the screen, this mechanic made mastering the game quite difficult as you figured out how to be conservative with your bullets, only taking shots that had a good chance of hitting your opponent. Being aggressive and pursuing your weak opponents as they fled attempting to regenerate their health was critical to get kills, but being too aggressive would get you killed quickly and repeatedly. It was often easy to spot a newer player because they would spray bullets everywhere and it would take only a shot or two to bring them down.

The original version of the game designed by Virgin had only chaos zones where you were competing against most of the other players on the board, attempting to kill as many of them as you could to raise your rating. One of the most annoying parts of this zone was that you had to collect those little green boxes for a few minutes every time you died for your ship to be powerful enough to fight other ships. However, not to mention how boring this was when you were someone who died as much as I did, there always seemed to be people coming after you after you had just spawned attempting to get a cheap kill. People would go for other kinds of cheap kills like vultcing where you waited until someone was weak from fighting another opponent and then you moved in for the kill while you were at full health. After having fought an intense and epic battle against another players of comparable skill for many minutes (one of the biggest joys of Subspace), it was incredible frustrating to end up being taken out by someone who uncloaked and shot you a few times.

Subspace really shone with the alternate formats like my favorite: capture the flag, involving working together with half of the other players on the board to collect flags, bring them to bases, protect them from enemy capture and attempt to capture the enemies’ flags. My best memories of playing Subspace involved intense fights over flags that would last for many minutes where you would be frantically moving your ship around attempting to dodge enemy bullets within the confined area of the bases. Coordinating your attack with your teammates was essentially since sending in volleys of a few individuals at a time would be futile against a well-defended base.  

It was in these capture the flag zones that I started to get to know other players and even formed my own squad called the Puritans, since for some reason I was especially impressed with their philosophy after learning about them in U.S. History class. I frequently attempted to recruit new members in the chat and ended up getting members into double digits. One of our members designed us a logo which was a yellow lightning bolt (what that had to do with Puritans, I’m not sure). Most of the other squads were composed of skilled and experienced players who competed to top the leader boards and we didn’t have any of the top players in the Puritans and were sometimes mocked by other squads. However, I was happy just to have brought a squad together and on a few occasions we even had a team of mostly Puritans win a game of capture the flag.

Subspace is the only massive multiplayer online game I have ever gotten very deep into (I played World of Warcraft for about an hour and a half and got bored with just killing boars for gold pieces) and, since I am afraid of getting too suck in, I don’t know that I will ever get into another MMO game. With its simplicity, Subspace is fun but doesn’t have that insanely addictive nature of most MMO games nowadays that sucks hours of your life away. It stands as a remarkable testament to the lasting of subspace that, despite it unimpressive graphics and sound even by 1997 standards, now 15 years after its initial release Subspace still has an active community posting on its forums and playing the game.

You can download Subspace Continuum for free at:

Sunday, December 9, 2012

#16 Warning Forever

Around the same time I was working on “Cutting Leaves of Grass,” I was had a job at Quiznos. As a “sandwich artist” at Quiznos, we would be hit with intense RTP lunch rushes from about 11:30am to 2pm where time would fly by as I made one sandwich after another only breaking to grab more ingredients out of the cooler.  During these moments my muscles would take over without much conscious effort from my brain. My arms knew how to cut the bread without looking, the right amount of meat without weighting it, the right order to stack the tomatoes and cheese and the way to slide the sandwich into the oven.  My muscles worked like a computer: customers would say their order to me and my muscles would output the sandwich within a few seconds over and over and over.

After nights of closing the store at Quiznos, I would come home and play Warning Forever, still dressed in my black collard Quiznos shirt and think about Chris’s racist theories on black customers or which evening station was the easiest: dishes, moping or stations. With practice, my fingers took over for my brain in Warning Forever the same way they did at Quiznos.

Although different from Carax’95 in subtle ways, the ultimate joy of Warning Forever is the same: simple futuristic graphics combined with intense button-mashing action where mastery requires devising a deliberate plan of attack. Like Carax’95, Warning Forever is a simplistic Japanese freeware space shooter game, but, unlike Carax’95, it is not a continuous wave of levels that are identical on every playthrough.

Given its randomly generated nature, it is difficult to deconstruct the specific strategy you need for each level like in Carax’95, but instead you have to apply certain basic principles to each random boss. Most chess players, except for the masters who have memorized countless different board states and have a deep understanding of the appropriate strategies in each situation to the point that it requires little mental processing time, approach chess in the same way, using some overarching principles and strategies to help them make each decision in the game. Warning Forever works in a similar way where generalized strategy serves you well regardless of what kind of boss the game throws your way.

In Warning Forever, you navigate your tiny space ship around randomly generated and increasingly gigantic bosses with a variety of moving parts and different kinds of weapons. After the first few easy levels with relatively small bosses, the bosses start to take up the majority of the screen giving you more than a little corner to dodge bullets. Being aggressively intentional about taking out certain areas of the ship is critical in these later levels to afford yourself more screen real estate to maneuver. Targeting weak structural points in the boss’s ship can blow off an entire limb. Destroying specific weapons like the torpedo cannons is also critical to your survival.

As you will see from most of the rest of the list (save two other games including the next one), few hand-eye coordination, arcade style games have captured my attention enough to become one of my favorite games. Whereas most action games and especially first person shooters require keen hearing and seeing to be able to react quickly and decisively, I prefer games that use my internal skills, allowing me to think and strategize and understand and deconstruct. Therefore, both Carax’95 and Warning Forever are special games to me in that they feel comforting, allowing me to go onto meditative autopilot while playing and at the same time allowing me to think of new techniques in between games. As evident by the fact that there are nothing but more simple action games on this list, this combination of simple repetition and strategic depth create an experience that, like a perfectly crafted pop song (Good Vibrations is better than any Beatles song), is perfect in its coat of sublime simplicity. Many, many more unique and intricate action games have come and gone, but few can recreate the same experience of Warning Forever.

Warning Forever can be downloaded here:

Saturday, December 8, 2012

#17 Photopia

Our house in Jefferson, Maryland had an enormous quartz rock sitting in the corner of the front yard. My best friend Wes Rowh and I used to play on that rock while waiting for the school bus. Going over the Wes’s house that year was my first exposure to video games where we would play Duck Hunt and Super Mario Brothers on his NES for hours and it was a frequent topic for imaginary play during our bus stop time. We touched the tulips in the flower beds like they were fire flowers and then pretended to shoot fireballs at the cats like they were goombas.

My interested in designing computer and video games started one day when we decided we were going to make our own video game system called Nintari (a combination of Nintendo and Atari). We brought papers and crayons out to the rock and scribbled tons of game designs. I don’t remember any of the games we invented except for one: Fire Against Water, where one person played fire and the other play water and then you fought against each other. Somehow it never occurred to me that the water would extinguish the fire every time.

In 2004, after graduating from Hope College, I had moved back home to Raleigh and was looking for a job with my degree in English and Psychology. I had spent a lot of my time in college focused on improving my craft at writing poetry and short stories, immersing myself in the work of improving my craft without a great deal of concern about my post-graduation plan. I had applied to MFA programs in creative writing earlier that spring and been rejected from all of them and I was feeling anxious and burnt out with regards to my writing ability and also full of questions about my future.

During this time, I decided that I needed a new creative outlet other than writing. So I combined my love of writing with my love of computer games and decided to create a comedic interactive fiction game. Given my love of adventure games and my writing background, writing interactive fiction seemed like a natural transition from. So, I immersed myself in learning how to code in the TADS interpreter, playing award-winning IF games and reading numerous articles about IF game design. I set a goal to enter the yearly interactive fiction competition that fall. With a few weeks to go before the competition I had completed the first functional draft of my game “Cutting Leaves of Grass,” a story of a heartbroken slacker with a psychopathic plastic surgeon neighbor that was an odd combination of The Big Lebowski and a cheesy romantic comedy with lots of Walt Whitman references thrown in for good measure.

I submitted it to an online site for help with playtesting and discovered that the game was rough around the edges with many illogical puzzles. I did not feel that I had the time to polish the game as much as I would like for the competition, so I did not submit it. Unfortunately, when I was in Japan a year later, the jump drive containing the game crashed and “Cutting Leaves of Grass” is now lost to the great hard drive in the sky.

The best game I discovered during this time was Photopia by Adam Cadre. It was one of those rare creative works that erupts out of the box of your understanding of its art form like a jack-in-the-box. I’d seen numerous pieces of art, writing and dance that exploded their genres, but never had I seen a computer game dig so deep into realm of emotional depth and complex storytelling. It is difficult to talk too much in depth about Photopia without giving away the story, but it is the computer game that has produced the strongest emotional reaction out of me. After my first play-through, I had to take a quiet moment to sit and stare at the computer monitor to think about what I had just experienced.

While simultaneously a game that tugs at your heartstrings and asks important existential questions, Photopia’s non-linear storytelling has few if any puzzles causing some to dismiss it as an interactive story more so than a game, where you are just pushing the buttons to see the story unfold as opposed to your actions having much of an impact on the outcome of the game. Few computer games before or since have attempted this style of non-interactivity and such a game could easily come off as confounding and unfun in the hands of a less capable writer. However, Photopia stands as one of the most ambitious and unique computer games ever made.

Photopia can be downloaded here:

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Come On Eileen: #18 Carax’95

Doing something simple over and over and over again can cause frustration in attaining the same undesirable results, like a bullying victim who repeatedly does nothing but ignore the insults and the swirlies. Doing something over and over and over again can cause boredom with an overly familiar task like searching out every line of code in a program to prevent the Y2K bug. However, with the right kind of task that has the right balance of challenge, hand-eye coordination and the that wonderful release of dopamine that video games provide, such repetition can be a comforting and even spiritual experience.

I discovered Carax’95, a Japanese freeware space shooter developed by BIO 100%, while in a freeware downloading phase during my senior year in high school and quickly became engrossed. A few hours after walking across the stage at my high school graduation, I arrived back home and wondered why I didn't feel any different. I was now a high school graduate and would be heading off to Hope College in the fall, but I didn't feel any sense of accomplishment. Everything felt the same as it did when I was in high school. So while I imagined most of my graduating peers to be crammed in suburban basements and attics drinking wine coolers and cheap beer purchased by their older brothers, I played Carax’95 until I went to bed. Something about it felt safe, like despite all the changes that would come in the next few months, I could always find return to the comfort of driving my little blue spaceship through an ocean of twinkling stars.

After a few weeks, I ended up leaving it behind to play some other games, but it never lost its spot on my hard drive. Months later at Hope College, I was anxious that college was going to be much more difficult that high school and worried that people would think I was weird if I played too many computer games, so I deleted most of the games off my hard drive (even civilization II) and, with my new group of friends and my intense focus on my schoolwork, didn't end up having the time to play any computer games anyway. Except for Carax’95. My first semester of freshman year, it made an excellent study break game, the kind of game I could play twice to escape my reading or I could play compulsively attempting to beat my highest score and delve further into the waves of alien spaceships (I guess I don’t know for sure that I am fighting alien ships for sure since there is no backstory to the game--maybe my enemies think I am the alien invading them). I played it every day like brushing my teeth or praying to God that He will bring me a new Hot Wheels.

After playing it so many times and getting about as adept at it as my hand-eye coordination would allow, my obsession with Carax’95 starting coming down to tweaking small elements of my strategy to get an incremental advantage. I developed a systematic plan for all of the earlier levels of the game: each movement of my ship was choreographed to avoid enemy bullets and each break in my shooting was intentionally planned to maximize my hit percentage and attempt to accrue bonus time added back to the clock. Even though I knew that I was never going to be a professional gamer and imagined that Martin would be able to beat my highest score on maybe his 3rd try at the game, I strived to understand every nut and bolt of how the simple game worked, which enemy ships to attack first and which ways to move my ship to avoid their bullets. The challenge of mastery motivated me to practice while the uniformity of the game brought normalcy as my world was changing around me in my transition to college away from home.

From pong to angry birds, many of the best games ever are also the simplest. Of course, games nowadays are all over the map when it comes to complexity from the simple, accessible android games to the daunting and unapologetically open-ended Dwarven Fortress. I love being able to understand the inner workings of complicated games (OOTP Baseball is one of the most complex games this side of Dwarven Fortress) , but I also love reaching  a meditative , zen-like state playing the same level of the same game over and over and over. The endless random nature of games like Diablo or Berzerk or countless other games can do wonders for replay value and help bust that Y2K bug style boredom. However, when it comes to shooters or platformers, I’ll take a well-polished and well-designed game like Carax’95 with constant, repetitive game play any day.

Carax’95 can be downloaded here:

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle: #19 Rockstar

In my 8th grade math and language arts classes, I stood on top of chairs and sang silly songs about imitation mayonnaise and Inky the Cat. One day in social studies we watched a video about Africa in which, for some reason, they played the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” My friends Ben and Danny were amused at the long and high part of the song and we starting singing it for the rest of the period. On my turns, I decided to go all out and sung with a squealing, high pitched voice, holding out all the notes for as long as possible for dramatic effect (aweeeeeaeeeeeeeeuu!). My friends found my rendition hilarious and encouraged me to sing it repeatedly throughout the rest of the week.

With my new found stardom, the next logical step was to go to the recording studio and lay down a full length album. So, I spent the night at Ben’s house, he left me listen to his Green Day cassette, we played NBA Jam on Sega Genesis in his basement, we wrote out a track list and recorded every goofy 20 second song in one sitting. By the next week at school, with the help of Ben’s promotional skills, I handed out printed and autographed tracklists to my classmates and my teachers. That week I started taking requests to sing songs from the album on the bus and on the playground. Even my teachers got into it and let me stand up on chairs and sing at the end of class.

While I was reluctant to thrust myself into the limelight, my friends found my songs an amusement that broken up the monotony of school and my teachers seemed surprised to see this showmanship coming out of a reserved student. It became an integral part of my identity the rest of my 8th grade year to the point where other students wanted to be part of it, taking on roles as my bodyguards, my manager and my accountant.
This middle school experience served as the inspiration for Shadow Puppet Disco when I started having goofy songs about Lewis and Clark and Kung Pow Chicken pop into my head as I was playing basketball. Knowing that my friend Matt McReynolds (or as Kyle Blair called him “old Irish Matt”) was a serious rock musician, I decided he needed to hear the songs. So one day I sung them to him during lunch in the cafeteria loud enough so that all the other tables around us glared at me. Matt found the songs amusing and said I had a decent nasal rock and roll voice kind of like Tom Petty. I wrote more songs, Justin, Joey, Martin and Alex got involved and SPD blew up from there.

As goofy as the songs were, I loved the rush of all the eyes in the class being on me, each person listening to something I had written. Performing for my classmates made me feel like I was making school a little more fun for everyone, like I was making everyone’s life a little better. Playing the text-based DOS shareware game Rockstar from 1989, always ignites a nostalgia in me for this mix of adrenaline and joy.

Like Oregon Trail, Rockstar is another game where it is more about immersing you in the decisions and lifestyle of being a rockstar than about compelling game mechanics and solving strategic puzzles. With a little trial and error and a pinch of common sense, it is easy to figure out that you need to balance touring to promote your band, writing songs to make good albums and relaxing to not get worn out while avoiding taking any hard drugs that destroy your alertness in turn ruining your live shows. You slowly build up your popularity by touring, releasing singles and albums, and doing every radio and television spot you get offered. This simple strategy is all you need to win the game even on the hardest setting, but true elegance of this game isn't so much in trying to win but rather in exploring the world of the game and vicariously living out the life of a rockstar. For example, taking drugs that you are offered by groupies or other bands can do nothing at all or it can induce a psychedelic and seizure-inducing multi-colored explosion of different characters on the screen. Likewise getting into fights with your bandmates might cause your tour to get cancelled or touring too relentlessly might make you depressed and your manager will force you to go to therapy or doing too many drugs and your label will force you to go to a sanitarium and eat nothing but vegetables. All the sexiest and the most rock-bottom parts from those behind the music specials are all captured with flair in Rockstar.

The first of four text-only games on this list, one of the most remarkable elements of Rockstar is that it is able to create such a rich world and strong level of immersive progression with nothing but PC speaker beeps and ASCII characters. It is cliché and overly simplistic to say that books allow you to fill in all the details with your imagination and that doesn't seem to quite encapsulate the majesty of this game. However, I do not believe Rockstar would be a better with graphics no matter how good. The game’s wacky drug trips masterfully done with nothing but ASCII characters would not have the same effect any other way and the game simply does not need them to spark your imagination into images of being on stage in front of thousands of adoring fans all singing along to your number one hit.

Rockstar can be downloaded here:

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

#20 Oregon Trail

The last week of summer vacation before 5th grade, Lynn Swanson told me that I was going to enjoy Mr. Nykerk’s class next year. I was dreading coming back to school after summer vacation, attempting and failing to slow down time in my mind and I certainly wasn't sure how any teacher was going to make me feel any better about it. Sure, I had had good teachers in the past, but how could any teacher make me excited about leaving behind the freedom and fun of summer vacation? I looked at Lynn skeptically and thought that Mr. Nykerk better give us ice cream and let us play video games every day to make me change my mind.

Fifth grade with Mr. Nykerk ended up being one of the best years of my life. Every day I was excited to come to school. I developed lifelong passions for creative writing and fantasy baseball. I blossomed socially from a quiet kid into a classroom leader. My grades improved and my confidence soared. If I had had a terrible teacher in 5th grade, I might be passed out drunk in a ditch in some major metropolitan area, smelling of urine and egg salad sandwiches and holding a sign saying I need money to repair my spaceship to go save the Ewok planet Endor.

Mr. Nykerk was unlike any other teacher I have ever had.  Even mundane tasks and procedures in his class were fun. We earned merits (multi-color stock paper cutouts with goofy hand drawings) for doing well on assignments and behaving in class. Every Friday, we could use these merits to enter a contest and, if we were in the top three points of anyone who entered that week, we got to sit in a comfortable padded chair behind a luxuriously large desk for the whole next week.

To learn about civics and economics, we campaigned for public office (my slogan was “Take a Chill Pill, Vote for Phil”), and wrote our own laws. Joey Dean’s father worked at some kind of place with a nice copy machine and he had far more and far nicer posters than anyone else, with full color photos and America flag trimmings. Still Joey didn't win since he was a spaz and always chewed on ball point pins. Then we created our own free market economy where we created our own businesses. Wes Rowh and I used glue guns, lifesavers, and Hershey’s kisses to create tiny trains made out of candy. My third grade teacher negotiated me down to half price on the trains while Wes was away and I felt guilty I had gone down so low. It’s probably good I never went into business.

When we learned about the Civil War, we got to reenact the battles in the cafeteria, dressed in uniforms and holding broomsticks as rifles. I can still remember seeing two students sitting outside Mr. “Don’t Break the Sugar Bowl” Harper’s office in fourth grade because they had brought their hunting rifles to school for these reenactments. My fifth grade year, Mr. Nykerk mentioned to us many times that we should not bring real guns to school.

After studying the Civil War, we learn about westward expansion and manifest destiny. One day, to help us learn about those brave Americans who traveled west in search of better fortunes, we got to trek into our computer lab full of Apple computers and play Oregon Trail. Mr. Nykerk promised us merits if we completed the game alive. I had played a bit of Oregon Trail the previous summer at a computer camp and I was determined to get those merits. While many of my classmates spent the majority of their money on bullets and used their time shooting at buffalo without making it out of Ohio, I choose the banker from Boston and used his generous bankroll to buy a well-balanced and ample load of supplies. To play it safe, I took ferries across all of the rivers to and left during April so I would not risk disease from the Rocky Mountain winter cold or getting my wagon stuck in the snow.  After nearly an hour of playing, all of my other classmates had lost their entire family and had returned back to the classroom, but I had beaten the game with all but one of my family members alive. My classmates were impressed and asked how I did it. I felt smart.

Every so often, I boot up the XT to see that little oxen dragging the little wagon behind it across the bright green grass. Now as an adult, I can see that the game is remarkably easy with simple mechanics that are little more than a series of random events that you need to be prepared for to win. However, the point of Oregon Trail isn't so much to challenge your problem solving skills, but to put you into history, into that covered wagon, to make you cringe when your little sister get bitten by a snake, to frustrate you into cursing the bandits who steal your last 4 sets of clothing and to enrage you into banging the keyboard when your bullet just missed that buffalo.

Few computer games in history have been able to make you feel so engaged in their world while offering such minimal game play, but, as you will see from many other games on this list, I love this style of game. Although few computer games take such a hard line towards story and immersion away from in depth game play, these kinds of games are capable of being unparalleled works of art in the realm of gaming, telling a compelling and engaging story in a different way than novels or movies. Oregon Trail stands after all these years as a shining example of this style of game play. Indeed it is a rare game that creates a moment where a shy fifth grade boy can be inspired to explain survival skills to the listening ears of his entire class.

Monday, December 3, 2012

This Year's List

Even though I skipped it last year (damn that Egyptian Rat Snake that enslaved me and forced me to polish his porcelain pig collection in an underground cavern all last winter!), this post marks the triumphant return of my year-end top ten lists. Except this time, I’m doing twenty instead of just ten! Partially this is to make up for the ten all of you, my adoring readers, missed out on last year, but mostly it is because I had so much trouble getting my list narrowed down so I decided I should just do 20. Therefore, without further ado, I present to you my list for this year: My Top 20 Favorite Computer Games!!!

So, I know before I attempted to make a list of the top twenty best computer games of all time, but I abandoned it for a few reasons:

1. Lists like that are so subjective. It is often leans more towards a list of games that the author liked most or is most familiar with, not so much the best ones. Also, it’s not like I have any hard data on number of sales/size of the computer gaming market/meta-analysis of critical reviews to give more legitimacy to my placement of each game.

2. What qualities do you even use to measure what game belongs on the list: innovation, popularity, style, fun, replayability, influence? Based on whatever you are looking for, the list of games change pretty dramatically.

3. The main reason, however, is there are many genres of games, like first-person shooters, I am not familiar with or interested in and there are many famous games I have not played. So I don’t feel entirely qualified to make a definitive list of the top games. My list would have been more the games that I had the best memories of and had the most fun with. So that’s the list I decided to make instead.

Now granted some use the cop out that any top computer games list is subjective and everybody has their own unique opinion, but, while this is true to some degree, why would you purport to make a definite list of the best games ever without putting in ample research and without trying to empirically state what the definition of best is and why your games are the best. Ultimately, I wanted to do a list that would be more genuine than something that you see on many similar best lists of games where the authors pretending to make a non-biased list but their list only includes one game made before 1993 and include one adventure game and 60% first person shooters and 30% real time strategy games.  After years of thought, I have determined that as opposed to trying to do a lot of research to make a factually-based and non-biased best games list, what I really want to write about is the games I enjoy playing the most and the wonderful memories I have of playing them.

Starting tomorrow, I will be posting about why I love each of these 20 computer games, how I fell in love with them including stories of all of you (well, except you Veronica, I don’t think I have ever played a computer game with you and also, not you nan bread), and why each of them stand the test of time in my heart despite the constant stream of new games with better graphics, innovative ideas, and streamlined modern gameplay and despite that time they had an affair with Betsy from marketing.

So, put on your favorite footie pajamas, grab a cup of hot chocolate, snuggle up with your favorite stuffed animal in front of the fireplace and get ready for story time where Grandpa Phil tells you what computerized games were like back in his day.

#15 Subspace
#16 Warning Forever
#17 Photopia
Come on Eileen: #18 Carax'95
In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle: #19 Rockstar
#20 Oregon Trail