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Forgotten Classics: CD-ROM Adventure Games

Forgotten_CD-ROM_classics_Toonstruck

We come now at last to December, which is all about video games. That’s all you wanted for Christmas as a kid was video games. That’s all you remember about Christmas now, is how you were careful to politely thank grandma for the new socks and express measured appreciation for your new coat. But you know you were just dying to pop that new CD into the desktop computer as soon as the rest of this holiday nonsense played out.

We’re going to point out some forgotten classics that are worth seeking out again. This time we’ll revisit CD-ROM adventure games, because modern game developers just don’t seem to capture quite the same magic. We’ll leave out the more obvious ones like the Myst series or the better-known point-and-click puzzle games – because duh, it’s right there in the title, “forgotten!” No Grim Fandango here (we’ll save that for a whole post someday). We actually want you to learn sumthin’ for the trouble of clicking here.

By the way, this time I’m sticking to games for sale on Steam or GoG. None of that manually unzipping stuff and figuring out what to do with an .ISO file here. Buy; install; play. That’s how we do Christmas.

Omikron: The Nomad Soul

Steam : Windows only (currently $9.99)

Once upon a time, there was a console called the Sega Dreamcast and a multi-talented musician and artist known as David Bowie. Both of them are sadly gone, but hardworking gnomes in the game industry have ported this forgotten EIDOS Interactive classic to the PC. David Bowie not only produced ten original songs for the soundtrack, but had some input into the game’s general production, including storyline and game mechanics – because he was just that kind of stud! Omikron: The Nomad Soul released at the crux of the turn of the century and was rave-reviewed, but sold well only in Europe while being almost unheard of here. Capture this treasure of gaming history and relive the Thin White Duke’s magic.

Blade Runner

GoG: all platforms (currently $9.99)

OK, you probably did know about this one, given that it’s hailed as one of the best games based on a movie. Unca Pete promised to larn yah a sumthin’ and sumthins you will larn in the rest of this list, but come on: BLADE RUNNER AS A GAME! Look at it! It reproduces the movie so well that it’s seamless. Blade Runner breathes the soul of its source movie and I dare you to find any game that replicates the atmosphere of cyberpunk so well. Some reviewers have a few grumbles about the gameplay itself, but any screenshot of this tremendous Westwood Studios effort for 1997 overcomes all objections. You don’t have to play it, just stand there and soak in it.

Outcast

Steam: Windows only (currently $5.99)

It is quite fitting to re-introduce Outcast to a modern audience, because it was definitely a fish out of water in its own time. A physics experiment goes wrong and sucks you into an alternate world, but this isn’t Half-Life. You’re running around in an open world in 3rd-person view shooting monsters, but this is neither Grand-Theft Auto nor Doom. What we have here is an original, immersive world – actually several worlds as you zap between stargates – which you explore as an action hero in an adventure game framework, more like Tomb Raider meets Ringworld. There are some grumbles among reviewers about clunky controls and slow travel pace, but still for a turn-of-the-century Infogrames number it’s worth a few hours to explore.

Toonstruck

GoG: all platforms (currenty $9.99)

Here we go with another easy sell: A cast composed of Christopher Lloyd, Tim Curry, Dan Castellanata (voice of Homer Simpson), and Tress MacNeille (voice of Babs Bunny from Tiny Toon Adventures) in an adventure game where a cartoonist is sucked into the cartoon world and has to redeem himself to escape. It’s an experience often described as a spiritual successor to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I don’t need to go on, you already wet yourself and scampered off to buy it. If you’re not a fan of inventory-based puzzles and long fetch quests – too bad! This game’s chock full of them. But even then, this Virgin Interactive classic from 1997 is just too gosh darned cute to ignore.

Bad Mojo

Steam: Windows only ($5.99)

From cute we come to… this. Yeah, I’m sorry, but look at my taste in things. Of course I’m going to love a Kafkaesque adventure game where you literally play as a cockroach. It’s like an interactive Twilight of the Cockroaches. Now that we have that out of the way, this could have been some dumb Flash quickie posted on Newgrounds and tied into Beavis and Butthead, but reviewers were amazed to report that it’s actually a fun, interesting, and provocative adventure game. For Acclaim Entertainment, no less, this 1996 visionary art piece knocks all expectations out of the park.

Titanic: Adventure Out of Time

Steam: Windows only (currently $5.99)

Starship Titanic wasn’t the only adventure game with “Titanic” in the title. In fact, the Douglas Addams game barely referenced history’s most doomed cruise except by the title, whereas this game puts you on the actual boat. They did their homework too, with tons of detail accurate to history. With that said, this game is more an excuse to hang an adventure quest within a historical framework as an interactive period piece. The ship is almost irrelevant, except its familiar to cultural memory. An adventure game taking place within the flight time of the Hindenburg probably wouldn’t be as fun.

Spycraft: The Great Game

Steam: Windows only (currently $5.99)

If you set out looking within the CD-ROM adventure game era (a small gaming culture to itself) and then limit yourself only to forgotten gems, you’re going to have a few quirks in the list, such as Spycraft: The Great Game. I’m recommending it simply because it’s so dang unique. It’s on the FMV interactive movie end of adventure gaming – sorry! – but redeems itself with its credentials. It was made with joint effort between US and Russian intel experts, in 1996 just years after the Cold War was declared over. There are some caveats: If you’re not a big Ace Attorney fan, this game is not nearly as action-packed as you’d hope. It’s largely research and puzzle-solving. The plot is straight out of a Hogan’s Heroes episode, while the mechanics of the game are meticulously realistic. It’s corny and stimulating by turns. We’re recommending this Activision title solely on novelty alone.

There we have it!

Weren’t the late ’90s a weird time in gaming? There was no standardization, everything was up for grabs. Games were starting to get the budget of movies and yet still had to fight to be considered art. Visuals could be full-motion video to cartoons to 3D-meshes to voxels or anything in between. Most of all, games had story, characters, and an actual attempt at being about something.

Current generations of console games have caught up now that we have wireframe and motion capture down to a better science. But nothing will ever feel like a late-90s CD-ROM adventure. They just had too much heart to exist in the grim 21st century.