Notice: This article was written for a jam on itch.io, located here: https://itch.io/jam/lost-histories-jam .
It’s currently 5am, Friday 15th of February 2019. I really should be in bed by now, but I’m coming hot off the heels of a game of Euro Truck Simulator 2 so my mind is still a little active despite my listening to ambient music whilst playing. Out of curiosity, I check out The Obscuritory to see if Shadsy has posted anything new that I missed and hey, turns out he did – specifically mentioning this Lost Histories Jam, dedicated to talking about personal histories with video games that most articles tend to leave out. So, if you’ll forgive my rather rambling writing style (it gets worse the more I stay awake), I’d like to discuss with you the first set of games I played when I first experienced the magic of computers. Oh, and as a side note, I’m also typing this with notepad…so please forgive any spelling errors.
Time as a concept here is irrelevant; namely because I’m terrible at keeping track of it. So let’s go by age instead – I’m about 4 or 5 years old at this point in time and I’m visiting my grandparents house. It’s a terraced house, but it’s very cozy and the winding back garden ends in a medium-large shed where my granddad occasionally makes toys for me, (formerly) my older sister, and my cousins. I recall climbing up the stairs and opening the door to his study, a room I don’t think I was in very often, if at all at this point. He’s sitting at his computer as he turns to greet me and I ask him about the computer. If memory serves right, he was in the middle of a game of Kyodai Mahjongg, an independantly produced and published mahjongg solitaire game, known for it’s wide variety of gamemodes including unrelated ones such as clones of Samegame and Columns. You may also know it as the Mahjongg solitaire game that inexplicably has mascots in the form of the “Manga Girls”, small anime-style illustrations of women that hung out in the lower right corner of the screen, whose expression changed depending on how well or badly you were doing in the game at hand. Immediately, I was fascinated by the entire thing, both the computer and Kyodai alike. Some time after that, we had a computer of our very own – I can’t exactly remember when though. My mind is currently conflicting two separate memories of getting the computer in the first place and getting a replacement computer because I had somehow accidentally broke the first computer via excessive tinkering. I was a right bugger for that back in the day. The important thing is that it was either obtained on the Christmas of that same year, or it was a random day after I came home from school.
Whilst my memory is very fuzzy on a lot of details about my childhood, the games I played on that computer remain sharp in my head. Very first game I ever played on that thing? Learning Land Volume 1: At The Playground. Learning Land was an edutainment series published by DeAgostini back in the day and starred four anthropomorphic cartoon animals, rendered in rudimendary pre-rendered 3d. Looking back, they’re a little uncanny and creepy now, what with their unblinking eyes and that. It was a simple little thing really; the minigames contained were things such as dot-to-dots, matching the picture with the word, and identifying certain items on a screen, in this case working out what items scattered about the park floor is litter and should consequently be thrown into the bin with eyes. I remember that my mother and grandad were rather impressed with me over how quickly I adapted to using the computer. I hadn’t really used them that often at all up to this point and yet immediately I knew how to work the mouse and press buttons on the keyboard and everything. Pretty much everything I learned on the computer up to a certain age was entirely from my Grandad, and after that the student became the teacher a few times! But we’re getting sidetracked. This is meant to be about games, not my life in general. My apologies.
Okay, so, we’ve visited Learning Land. Simple stuff. But it didn’t take me very long to move onto the bigger stuff. Cue a random PC Pro (?) demo disc that somehow came into our possession. This thing was notable for the copious amounts of game demos available on it. There are three main ones that I remember playing: 1) Orly’s Draw A Story, 2) Dungeon Keeper and 3) Woodstock: 25th Anniversary CD-ROM. Yeah, that last one is a bit of a random deep cut, huh? A demo for that software was contained on the disc with everything else and I must’ve had somewhat of an “install everything” mentality going because I remember playing it distinctly…to the point that I recognize it just from a tiny little sliver of the main menu shown on the back of the CD case. It’s nothing special. It’s Woodstock memorabilia. If that’s your thing, perhaps seek it out – interestingly it doesn’t seem to have a MobyGames page. As for the other two, well, Dungeon Keeper worked to a point but it kept freezing whilst in a game thus causing me to need to restart the computer in order to make it work again…that crumbling hand cursor has somewhat haunted me ever since. And then we come to the most interesting cut, Orly’s Draw-A-Story.
Orly’s was a kids drawing/storybook combo game, notably developed by Toejam & Earl Productions. It’s heavily themed around Jamaica and it’s culture, even down to the UI which for the most part takes place within the background comprised of a wooden wall in Orly’s house. The game features four different stories you can play through and they’re the same every time with the exact same outcome every time. But here’s the kicker, every so often the story cutscenes will stop right as a key cast member is introduced into the story…and YOU get to draw them in. Whatever you draw will be featured within the next cutscenes to come. Better yet, you can save the story with your works of art in for revisiting later so you can show other people your rad sea monster. It just oozes so much charm and there was clearly a lot of love and research put into it; the folks down at TJ&E took absolutely zero half measures with this thing…and yet it seems to have mostly faded into obscurity. The demo had only the one story, featuring the aforemention sea monster. I recall not understanding the concept enough to grasp that the point was to draw a cool monster, and often ended up with rectangles of colour, or even leopard print. I remember the dialogue being really good mind you; in the drawing screen not only would Orly speak directly to you (as she does throughout the games menus), but so would the thing you’re drawing, as well as the Undo and Redo buttons which were literally just two dudes called “Undo” and “Redo” respectively. In terms of fond memories, this one is really up there. You owe it to yourself to take a look at it and goddamn I would so love it to get a HD remake a la Zoombinis because it seriously deserves it and it would make a perfect fit on tablets nowadays.
It’s now 5:30am, and I’m getting a little worried about this not quite meeting the criteria for this jam in the first place. Too much overview, not enough reminiscing. Let’s move on regardless. In fact, let’s fast forward a touch, shall we? We’re getting into the parts of being able to get our own games from stores now. We’re still young and impressionable, so promises made by shareware compilations are very enticing. I’ll admit it up front: eGames completely got my number when I was a kid. I was hooked on their Galaxy of Games compilations and even bought the odd full game too. Hoo boy, lots to talk about in this time period. Let’s start with Gruntz.
Gruntz is a real-time-strategy-cum-puzzle game developed by Monolith Productions (yep, the same folks who brought us Blood and F.E.A.R.) and published by Microids; at least over here in the UK. MobyGames tells me that Monolith self-published it, but I distinctly remembers the old Microids logo sitting pretty on the front cover to the game, the case of which was adorned with half torn off Beanoland stickers. I didn’t get most of them at the time, but this game is loaded full of pop culture references to the point of absurdity. The titular Gruntz also talk every single time you tell them to do something or you interact with them. And when they do talk, it’s usually referencing something from pop culture. If it’s not obvious yet, this game is from the late 90s and boy oh boy does it ever show. Though honestly, at this point I can say that what would normally be disgust or cringe from such dated references has now rolled back around and reverted into its original charm. It makes random and inexplicable references to The Terminator and James Brown songs with gleeful abandon whilst you work out what you’re meant to do in order to beat the level and I can’t help but smile at it’s guts nowadays. Making constant pop culture references to me is the death of personality, and yet somehow the Gruntz are chockful of it. Perhaps it’s the fact that they’re these weird yet cute little clay-like critters made out of solidifed goo. To give a quick rundown of the game itself, it’s pretty self-explanatory stuff; you control orange Gruntz, using various Toolz to progress through the Levelz and avoiding other differently coloured Gruntz for they want nothing more than your Death…z. All the while you’re also trying to collect all the Warpstone pieces so you can eventually go back home because this entire thing started because the lot of you went into a sudden and random wormhole that appeared from them dicking about with strange purple switches in the intro cutscene (which actually shows you how that mechanic works before you even get to play with them in game, which is neat!) Now for the ever expected fun twist: Y’know how I said Gruntz are made out of solidified goo? Yeah, well, one of the Toolz is a plastic straw (or, as the game puts it, a Goober Straw) with which you can suck up the various puddles of goo that lay about some levels. Any goo sucked up will be automatically transferred into a cooker, accessed via the onscreen sidebar (which doubles up as the menu system), and when you’ve collected enough, you’ll have yourself a brand new Grunt to place into the level anywhere you want to do whatever you tell them to. It’s a really neat concept and method of creating new units to progress through levels, though the linearity of it all means you’ll only ever do this when it’s needed. From my recollection, there’s no levels where you can just create a random extra Grunt that you don’t actually need. This game holds an extra special memory for me in my heart as it’s one of the two games I played through with my mum. She was a massive help during the more difficult later levels and both of us fondly remember sitting together and playing it. It’s genuinely one of the best hidden gems for the Win9x era of games if you ask me. The other game I played with her a lot was the point n click adventure game Discworld: The Trouble With Dragons, which I don’t have anywhere near as much to say, other than it’s bloody good but it’s also bloody hard and we got completely stumped on the second act. At least that put me on the path of reading the Discworld books in the future, so hey.
OK so for “brevity’s” sake, I’m going to just do a quick triple rundown here of three games I remembered just now before moving onto a couple of the really big ones. Here goes.
Spooky Castle is perhaps better known as “Kid Mystic” and was developed by Mike Hommel, also known as Hamumu Games. Hamumu had a couple of their titles re-published by eGames from what I recall, the main one being Intergalatic Exterminator, or “Eddie Galaxy”, which was a simple Centipede/Millipede clone. Spooky Castle then, to put it in a very reductive sense, was a Zelda clone. You played as Kid Mystic, this small chap with a blue hat and clothes, going about the place defeating enemies for XP and Mana with which you can use to activate the various spells you find in books in each level. The game has a rather striking visual style, utilizing pseudo-3d models on a top-down 2d plane, causing any creature be it nice or not to look a bit unsettling if it had eyes. I remember the controls being pretty awkward back in the day and having replayed it a bit more recently (because it turns out Hamumu have popped all their old titles up for free download on an itch.io page), my memory was on the money. Kid Mystic slides around like he’s constantly on ice and the fact that the fire and use buttons are placed on the rather traditional Ctrl, Shift etc doesn’t exactly help it. Speaking of remembering; I just now recalled that this was also a game me and mum spent quite a bit of time on. Heck, I remember we got to the last level even. Every single ugprade, every single spell, every single piece of the Armageddon sword. But that end boss was just impossible to beat. Sad times, but we had a lot of fun getting there anyway.
Weird: Truth is Stranger Than Fiction was yet another multimedia title that somehow slipped through the cracks. I believe this was one of the many games I lended off one of my cousins and if I remember correctly, was a copy squished onto a floppy disk. I don’t recall any video clips, but upon looking back at it via MobyGames, there were definitely videos of paranormal investigator types talking about weird events and cryptids. As a result of the lack of explanatory video clips, my experience with Weird was, well, a lot weirder than usual. With nothing to tell me what exactly was going on and why so many areas were creepy and unnerving, it turned into perhaps one of the most unsettling “walking simulator” type games out there. The game utilized a point n click interface a la Myst, with you being plopped down in a seemingly infinite corridor, the walls lined completely with endless amounts of doors. Some open, others don’t. I remember being very paranoid of the game pulling a fast one on me and opening a door only to reveal a scary face complete with noise before closing again. My cousin told me that such a door does exist but at the same time he was also known for telling quite a few fibs about games (what do you expect when one of our pastimes was playing random PS2 games, getting out a dead old mobile phone (pre Nokia 3310) and pretending to call up a cheats hotline, shouting out random button presses to see if it did anything?) Intentionally unsettling atmosphere aside, the one distinct room I remember from the game was a weather dial room, where you could pick from different odd purported weather conditions such as raining fish, go out the door and enter another one down the hall to see it happen in the same room but lower down from where you were before. I’ll be honest, until I rediscovered this thing a few years back, I was pretty certain I had made the entire thing up. It’s so incredibly dreamlike in its presentation.
Quick update, now it’s 10:49pm on the 15th. Anyway, Gazillionaire should be a familiar name for some of you. Basically space trading strategy game set on a bunch of alien planets with a wide cast of unique characters with some astoundingly surreal character design. You’ve just started up your trading company and your goal is fairly basic: Using the 100,000 kubar loan given to you by your “good friend” Mr. Zinn, acquire yourself a nice ship (each with their own advantages and disadvantages) and bugger off into space, buying and selling things at the best deals possible, perhaps picking up some passengers to transport off to another planet along the way. Sounds simple, but you’re not alone in this effort; there’s about 5-6 rival companies that have also appeared and are in the exact same circumstances at you. And I can guarantee you: they know business far better than you do *and* they have better luck. Unless you play your cards right, you’re going to be going bankrupt VERY quickly in this game. I’m not exactly the best person strategy-wise, nor am I good at handling money, but god even on easy this thing kicks my ass. Did I mention it also has random events that happen often too? Cos those happen a lot, and a fairly big chunk of them are not in the least bit conducive toward your company succeeding in the galaxy. Gameplay aside, in addition to the wide cast of memorable characters, the game’s surreal art style continues into areas of the game such as planet exploration, which allow you to check up on local news and weather, potentially get in on a special offer or visit the planet’s unique event such as a fortune teller. The music is also brilliant from what I recall, though each track unfortunately ends as soon as it begins. As a result, most of my memory with this game aurally speaking is in the various sound effects. Each character has a distinctive noise or phrase they say every time you visit them (or the other way around), such as Mr. Zinn’s “WEHHHHH” or the Banker’s “Money, Money, Money!”. Gazillionaire is incredibly simple to grasp and yet deceivingly difficult to master, and It’s remained a favourite for many folks since.
So. Here we are, the big ones. The ones that stick out in my mind the most as being the things I played about with a lot. Shareware compilations. I still count my blessings that I got the the genuinely decent collections as a kid, having learned that a lot of the ones out there are incredibly cheaply made and, above all else, terrible. The main ones I got where I could was eGames’ “Galaxy of Games” collections. Specifically, I owned the Yellow, Red and Blue editions. The games varied from boring (e.g. Ludo, Word Search Mania) to genuinely fantastic (e.g. Speedy Eggbert, the aforementioned Spooky Castle), which is about par for the course for these compilations I find. The good thing is that the genuinely good games did a fantastic job of keeping me entertained for many hours. Speedy Eggbert, for example, is an absolute hallmark of a fantastic platformer on PC. I mean sure it’s no Jazz Jackrabbit (much as I just think it’s merely okay, if you’ll pardon the heresy), and it’s very rough around the edges but it’s an absolute blast to play through. You play as a lil yellow egg-like fella called Blupi (renamed to Eggbert for this eGames re-release), going about a variety of different, unconnected and unrelated worlds. There’s no plot to speak of, and the ending is a single screen that shows Blupi celebrating as he’s gotten a chest full of golden items…despite the fact that you pick up loads of those things throughout the levels because you actually *need* all of them in order to finish. The controls were very simple and surprisingly tight despite how rigid Blupi’s movement was; it was the standard DOS-Win9x controls, with your arrow keys to move, and your Ctrl to jump. Also interestingly, the space bar caused Blupi to move forward slowly, doing what feels like the 2D equivalent of a T-pose and making a clicking noise, before turning to the camera in an exasperated manner afterward. I still have absolutely no clue what that button is even for. In addition to the standard platforming, there were also a limited variety of vehicles at hand: A helicopter, a glue pellet shooting tank, and the old family favourite – a skateboard. Mostly these were used as just part of the levels, being the tool you need to utilise in order to move forward in the level but they worked in interesting ways. For example, the tank and the skateboard can move over mines on the ground with no problem, and when you combine the skateboard with the lollipop powerup, you’ll move absurdly fast and jump REALLY far, further than you would with just the lollipop alone. On top of all that, the game features a bopping MIDI soundtrack and a surprisingly in depth level editor that is pretty much the easiest level editor I’ve ever used in my life. The closest thing that’s come to it was Super Mario Maker on the Wii U and even then I’d still say that Speedy Eggbert’s editor was more intuitive. The developers of the game, Epsitec SA, also went on to make CoLoBot, an edutainment game meant to assist with teaching kids coding via a variety of puzzles. In addition to that, they had also made several more games starring Blupi – to be precise, Speedy Eggbert wasn’t actually the first game! The character dates back to 1994 and stars in a total of 8 games, including Speedy Eggbert. Recently, Epsitec SA did a very sudden and generous move and published all of their games as freeware online, along with the source code and an updated version of the game Planet Blupi. Meanwhile, CoLoBot is still being maintained by a 3rd party team. From what I can tell, a lot of folks remember Speedy Eggbert quite fondly and honestly I’m in total agreement. For what it was worth, it was an incredibly fun romp with some great MIDI tunes and incredibly addictive gameplay and is by far one of the best things eGames has ever put out.
Then comes the big boy. The GSP Arcade Games compilation. An asston of random shareware and freeware titles all packed onto a single CD-ROM. And my god, are there some real gems on here. Most fascinatingly to me, there is what appears to be a lost Housemarque (of Super Stardust fame) game on the disc, an advergame for an alcopop beverage called “Popper”. I can’t find a single thing about this drink ever existing, nor can I find much record of this game actually existing at any point. But my memory does not fail me: it exists, and it’s on this disc. It’s very simple: you control the bottle of Popper and collect the various ingredients in the form of different coloured stars and avoid the mysterious shuriken-like black stars as you propel upwards at an increasing rate. So, absolutely nothing to write home about, if it weren’t for the fact that its entire existence is one gigantic question mark. If anyone knows anything about either the drink or the making of the game itself, please do write in. Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, yes, the Arcade Games compilation. For the most part the disc contained a lot of really quality titles such as Pixel Painters’ “Dig It!”, or Rocksolid Software’s christian-tinged puzzler “Adventures With Chickens”. It also unfortunately came with a couple of bad eggs, such as the Wolf3D clone “Bad Toys 3D”, a game which gave me several nightmares thanks to its lack of in-game music and creepy laughing sound effects, or “Prairie Dog Hunter” which is just disgusting, quite frankly. Overall, it’s this fascinating little collection and deep-dive of some of the best (and the worst) shareware titles floating about the world at the time and it introduced me to so many great video games that I spent so much time with. Even if some of them terrified my younger self; for example Hunchback ’97, the title screen of which consists of pre-rendered 3d text simply reading “HUNCH”, which scared the daylights out of me as a child due to a fear of capital letters.
So, after mostly being raised on shareware titles on PC, where did that end up landing me as a person who plays video games in life? Well…mostly, still on PC, of course! Aside from the Wii, the only console I’ve really owned is the PS1 and my memories with either of them are good, but nowhere near as extensive as my time spent with the family computer (aside from getting REALLY into the song “Qi-Qi” from Bust-a-Move 2 DX, to the point of pretending I was a DJ playing it on Top of the Tops; in my head I had called the song “Twisted” for some reason.) But outside of platform choice, I feel it’s definitely had some what of an impact on how I perceive games. Triple A titles rarely interest me and I couldn’t care less about Nintendo in general outside of the odd game or IP. I naturally gravitate toward Indie titles and always have done, half because my laptop could never run anything better than the indie games but also because they were always more interesting to me. Games which are more rough around the edges and not quite as serious as others such as the somewhat infamous Candice DeBeBe’s Incredibly Trick Lifestyle hold special places in my heart, purely because of the wonderful proper “bedroom coder” feel they carry, alongside their comedic chops. And as we continue progressing into an ever more open and free space for video games, they’re only getting better. There’s never been a better time than now to be playing video games as indie titles are starting to get even more personal than ever, with a lot of old genres coming back into fashion with gleeful adoration across the board. CYOA and FMV games are a thing again, despite all odds. The indie games scene is just consistently exciting and interesting to keep watch of, just to see what happens next, whilst the Triple A scene gets hyperfixated on whatever genre is big right now, putting out the same guff again and again. I sometimes think about how different my outlook on video games in general would be if I had played more popular titles, or if I was a console gamer in the first place. Probably not much difference, granted, but it’s still a curiosity for me…there’s perhaps an alternate universe out there where I’m absolutely addicted to the ever popular Medal of Honor franchise, for example.
I know the above paragraph comes out of nowhere and is just incredibly out of place amongst the rest of this thing of me just remembering the weird shit I used to play as a kid. I can’t really make it any less awkward, I’ll be honest. It’s mainly because I figure I’ve been rattling on long enough about this stuff and all the while I’ve been constantly having doubts about if this even meets the criteria of the jam I’m posting it to. It probably doesn’t. I’ve kind of taken the concept a bit literally, in that this is my actual history with video games. Sure, I’ve definitely missed out a few things such as the brilliant Simpsons Cartoon Studio or Theme Park World, but I figured focusing on the more obscure and lesser known titles would make for more interesting discussion. If you’ve read up to this point and enjoyed it, then I personally thank you for dealing with my endless rambling. If this doesn’t actually meet the criteria of the jam, then I’d like to apologize to the creator of it, Coleo_Kin. But this is as much as I can really figure out what to write…I don’t think I really have much else to say. Thank you again for reading it, and especially so if you enjoyed it.