Creatures, if you’re unfamiliar, is an artificial life-raising game (not unlike Wobbledogs, heehee, you guys remember THAT one?) where you raise little – well, creatures – known as Norns. They eat, they drink, they talk, and they have a surprisingly comprehensive biological simulation running inside them.
There’s three games in the series, give-or-take a few games people choose to not acknowledge, and whether or not you consider Docking Station to be its own game or merely a free hanger-on to the much more robust Creatures 3. Whatever. Three games! But today I am focusing on the first one.
This game occupied an interesting niche in my life, not like any other game I can think of. I liked pet games, sure; Petz was my favorite computer game, second to none. But something about Creatures was so… meaty. There was so much to do in it, so much to poke around in and chew on.
But it was also unrelentingly terrifying. What was up with that?
If you are familiar with tabletop role playing games, you know Dungeons & Dragons. There’s a quote I like from the late, great Terry Pratchett, regarding J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence on the world of fantasy:
J.R.R. Tolkien has become a sort of mountain, appearing in all subsequent fantasy in the way that Mt. Fuji appears so often in Japanese prints. Sometimes it’s big and up close. Sometimes it’s a shape on the horizon. Sometimes it’s not there at all, which means that the artist either has made a deliberate decision against the mountain, which is interesting in itself, or is in fact standing on Mt. Fuji.
Dungeons and Dragons is like this in the world of tabletop gaming. If you’re making a TTRPG, you need to know where you stand on being compared to D&D. Will you try to differentiate yourself with interesting mechanics, a new setting, or will you try to learn from the game that invented tabletop roleplay? Like painting a scene of Japan without Fuji, it’s hard to not have D&D in the background somewhere, making its presence be known in the way you handled stats and skills, the shape of the dice you use, or even the deep, deep roots of your game’s concept.
What do you do when you are Mt. Fuji, though? How does the mountain learn to grow and change itself when the time comes to? What influences could Dungeons and Dragons itself draw from in the late 90s, the waning days of the Second Edition and the beginning of the Third?
Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition was a turning point for the game. It was D&D’s attempt to re-capture lightning in a bottle, to relive the heady days of its 80s fame, and make a Dungeons and Dragons game that was truly worthy of the name. It was… well, it certainly was a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons, that much can be said.
Lurking deep within the Disney Vault is one of their more bizarre decisions in the gaming industry. Why did they make a survival horror point-and-click game, and why for 101 Dalmatians of all things? Eh, who cares, it’s really fun.
We. Love. Chex Quest. It’s one of the best games of all time. It’s certainly the best Doom game of all time. AND it came with a free box of cereal – you can’t beat that for a bargain! In the classic shooter community, Chex Quest has always had a tiny but dedicated core of fans who have clamored for years for more cereal-based shooter content.
Limited Run is a company of game merchandise makers that, by no small coincidence, caters to small fandoms by making fun feely packs with trinkets and shirts and fun things like that. And wow, they made a CHEX QUEST BOX! Real Chex Quest merch for real Chex Quest fans! It was an instant buy, even if it cost 150 dollars. And so, in April of 2020, we placed our order the second we saw it. It was our little quarantine gift to ourselves. It would be worth it.
And so we waited. And waited. Just like how we were waiting for quarantine to end.
Our order did not arrive until January of 2021. Nine months later. We know it was a pre-order, we know there was a Dang Pandemic on, but oh man, that’s a long time to wait. We were almost at the point of giving up completely on this ever arriving when we finally got the notification it had shipped. Now it’s here, and has cemented us as Real Chex Quest fans. So why not go over it, and take a look at everything that came in it?
If you were a kid in the 90s playing CD-ROM games, you probably played at least one Disney Interactive game. For kids learning how to use the computer, Disney games were the best of the best, the cream of the crop. 101 Dalmatians: Escape from Devil Manor, Disney’s Animated Storybook: Mulan, Disney’s The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, you name it. All your favorite Disney franchises, right on your desktop!
Oh, and Nightmare Ned. You remember him, right? That great beloved Disney franchise? … No?
Nightmare Ned was a platformer game released sometime in late 1997 (it’s difficult to get an exact date, due to vague distribution of PC games at the time). It was, as far as I know, the only Disney Interactive game to not be based directly on an established IP – it only had a single season of a cartoon that was made after the game began development, and by the time the game released, the show was no longer airing even in reruns. It was Disney’s one voyage into making ‘original’ video games, and it disappeared as quickly as it came.
I’ve been kind of obsessed with this little RPG zine called Vaults of Vaarn, if my review of it didn’t tip you off. If you’re not going to click that link, it’s a really great little science-fantasy weirdo RPG setting placed in a post-post-post apocalyptic desert loaded with mutants, weirdos, and strange creatures.
Since an outsized portion of my brain has been dedicated to thinking about Vaarn, I decided to write some of those thoughts down and arrange them into a bit of new fan content for the setting. It’s implied that Urth, the planet that Vaults of Vaarn is set on, was once an advanced and prosperous world with immensely powerful technology. It seems obvious to me that space travel would be possible in this world – so why not add space aliens to the Vaults?
So, I present to you my Vaults of Vaarn fan race: the Visitors. Click the jump to enjoy. All credit goes to Leo Hunt, AKA graculusdroog for the creation of Vaults of Vaarn itself.
There’s something about the 101 Dalmatians franchise that enraptured me as a child against all odds.
Be outraged if you must, but truth be told, I’m not even sure if I had watched the original movie at that age. When I watched it as an adult, I remembered nothing about it, and I’ve never found a VHS of it in my family’s extensive Disney tape collection.
And I mean, what about it actually drew my attention? The main characters are British heterosexuals. Yes, somehow they managed to take the two most annoying groups of people in the world and combine them. And then they had the audacity to make the dogs British and heterosexual, as if dogs are capable of hate. Absolutely dreadful. Why do I like 101 Dalmatians?
Because of the puppies. Duh.
Even Disney knew the puppies were the only reason 101 Dalmatians is even relevant enough to talk about today. And boy, the merch they made. Sequels! Cartoons! Toys! I think I spent more time playing with my Dalmatians-themed snow globe than watching 101 Dalmatians: The Series (which, admittedly, still takes up way too much space in my heart).
There was one piece of Dalmatians-themed memorabilia that held my attention for the longest, though, and it was by far the least appropriate for the puppy-obsessed children they were marketing to. For little me, 101 Dalmatians: Escape from DeVil Manor was fun, emotionally stimulating, and also absolutely unnecessarily terrifying.
Tomba! is a rare case of a ‘cult favorite’ game that I sincerely feel like had no good reason to not be popular.
It was produced and directed by Tokuro Fujiwara, already known for producing and directing games like Mega Man, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and even creating the survival horror genre with his NES game Sweet Home which was later adapted into the goddamn Resident Evil franchise. Tomba! is built wholly from the same good game design concepts, with RPG elements that innovated the platformer genre without taking up too much space. It’s funny and cute, while still having a sizeable spooky side. As far as 2D platformers go, it’s the total package.
Despite all this, Tomba! never sold enough to qualify for a Greatest Hits reprint, and copies now regularly go for over $100 on eBay. I just really don’t know why, even trying my best to approach this from an objective perspective. Games with less production value have successfully been spun off into entire TV franchises, while Tomba! languished with a single sequel and some very obscure merchandise.
Even with my history in the video game industry, the whims of the market are completely opaque to me. I don’t really feel like it’s my place to speculate on if the game was marketed well enough or what-have-you. Still, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what the official promotional material was like.
Today we’re using the Wayback Machine to look at a whole 4 sites: Tomba! on the US PlayStation website, the independently hosted Tombi! site, the official Whoopee Camp site, and the very first official Tomba! site. I can’t give precise timestamps, but most of these are around the year 2000.
In case you aren’t keyed into the broader tabletop RPG universe, there’s something of an Old-School Revival or Renaissance (henceforth OSR) going on. Many RPG gamers are looking towards the past, to the RPG heydays of the 70s and 80s, to draw inspiration for the future of tabletop games. And what, exactly, does this imply? Well, the members of the OSR aren’t always sure themselves, but it’s typically a broader focus on player agency and dungeon crawling, increased risk of character death, and reduced focus on pre-written plots. The gamemaster of an OSR game is once again an impartial referee, whose role is to simply mediate the world that the players explore in a sandbox style. “Rulings, not rules” is a common refrain – instead of having granular rulesets that explore every possible corner-case, OSR games prefer lighter and simpler rules, giving the gamemaster the final say on what is and isn’t permissible.
But what I like about the OSR scene is the incredible bulk of content for it. There’s a lot, and I mean a lot, of really fantastic OSR blogs, zines, and books out in the world filled to the brim with imaginative and wild settings. One of these settings is Vaults of Vaarn, a pay-what-you-want zine by author Leo Hunt A.K.A. graculusdroog on itch.io.
I downloaded Vaults of Vaarn on a lark, looking for more interesting RPG content to consume, and found myself blown away. Hunt emphasizes strongly his influences, naming Dune, Hyperion, and The Book of the New Sun, as well as the art of Moebius. He says it’s fine if you’re not familiar with these works, because it’ll “make his theft seem original.” Well, I’m not familiar with any of these works (aside from the art of Moebius), and Vaarn seems pretty damn original to me. So original, in fact, I thought I’d do a little review of it, just because it’s got me so jazzed.
When’s the last time you’ve played a mascot platformer that wasn’t a Mario or a Sonic? It was probably a Crash or a Spyro if it was anything at all. The genre is dead, and I miss it very much.
Gex, at least to me personally, is the iconic failed mascot platformer. He’s everything bad about the genre: he talks way too much and thinks he’s clever, his world is made of cookie-cutter tropey levels that don’t fit together, he has way too many gameplay gimmicks, and in the grand scheme of things he’s been completely forgotten. These are all the reasons that I find Gex oddly enjoyable, as a game trilogy that just doesn’t really work and isn’t very fun.
Unlike most platformer mascots, Gex was not aiming to be the face of a single console: he was the catchphrase-spitting gecko mascot of Crystal Dynamics, a video game company founded by women in 1992. Crystal Dynamics had a broad ‘a little bit of anything’ approach to making games: they had many platformer games, an action-adventure franchise, a point-and-click, a fighting game, a racing game … you get the idea. I guess they also worked on some series named Tomb Raider.
But Gex was Crystal Dynamics’ thing. He was funny, he was memorable, and he was the face of the company, especially once the substantially more popular sequel Gex 2: Enter the Gecko was released in 1998. In that way, Gex was a fixture of the late 90s, a reminder of what things were like.
And what’s more ‘late 90s’ than a terrible website for a terrible video game?
Today I’m going to the Wayback Machine to see the Gex pages on the Crystal Dynamics website from 1998 to 1999. It’s tail time, as one might say.