You Found a Secret Area!

Darwinia: An early Steam darling.

I’ve had a Steam account for about 18 years. I got mine the day it was available to the public: September 12, 2003. More than half of my life has been giving money to Gabe Newell and the folks in Bellevue so I can play PC games. It’s kinda surreal when you think about it.

It took Valve several years to make Steam a reliable service. Those first few years of Steam were not very great: The always-online factor, an unreliable community service where alternatives like Xfire shined, having to get used to not being able to play games on day one due to server overloads, the works.

A handful of companies weren’t on board with Valve, one of them being 3DRealms, who opted to sell their gravity-defying shooter Prey on rival service Triton first. And that’s not even getting into the recent kerfuffle Epic Games has been doing by trying to posture themselves as the David to Valve’s Goliath.

Those early years were pretty much bolstered by Valve’s offerings and any small-time developer or publisher that was willing to support their endeavor. Stuff like Rag Doll Kung Fu and Shadowgrounds. But a small fledgling UK company by the name of Introversion Software, who self-proclaimed themselves as “the last of the bedroom programmers,” decided to try putting one of their games on Steam, and it was quite a game.

This was available to people on Patreon one week early. Thankfully you don’t need any computer skills, just $1. You can support me here.

One of the many intros the game will play after the initial launch. Others include a cracktro, a dedication to Cannon Fodder, and even a reference to the ZX Spectrum.

Darwinia is one of those early Steam darlings. Originally released in 2005, the game would be Introversion’s second game after Uplink, and featured a similar theme of computers. Though instead of being a hacker like in Uplink, you’re a user trying to stop an evil threat on a network.

Wow, a free keychain and poster? Sweet!

Back then I wasn’t 100% on-board with digital distribution – technically I’m still not on-board, but regardless –  thus I ended up getting this game not through Steam, but through a physical copy published by Cinemaware Marquee, a publishing label known for taking niche games and bringing them to US audiences. In essence, Cinemaware Marquee was the Limited Run Games of the 2000s.

It came with the game, a poster and a keychain of one of the little Darwinians. Funny enough, since the game is so tiny, the game comes with a 500MB video splash screen that is about 10 times more than the size of the game. While I still have that physical copy, I eventually grabbed Darwinia on Steam proper along with a bunch of other Introversion games years later.

They don’t take long to throw you into the fray.

Darwinia is a real-time strategy game with some action game elements. You play as the unseen, unnamed player who’s entered the world of Darwinia, a life simulator with little characters called Darwinians. Darwinia has been infected by a mysterious virus which is slowly corrupting the world, of which you join in just as it’s happening. After being briefly scolded by creator Dr. Sepulveda, he lets you learn the mechanics to hopefully stop the virus.

This is quite a simple start compared to other RTSes….
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Pat Sajak’s Lucky Letters: A crossword game by the Wheel of Fortune guy.

Late last year, I had written about Interplay and Platinumware’s attempt at trying to make a fake game show, Lexi-Cross. It was surprisingly interesting if a bit flawed. At the end of that article, I was reminded of a similar crossword-puzzle driven fake game show. This one came out during the big casual games boom of the mid-2000s, and actually featured someone that until recently, was rather elusive to the world of video games.

He looks… rather airbrushed here. (Cover courtesy of Mobygames.)

Pat Sajak’s Lucky Letters is an interesting breed of game. Developed by Playtonium Games and published by Uclick, it’s a crossword puzzle game stylized like a TV game show, and features an actual host: Pat Sajak, the famous host of Wheel of Fortune. Originally released as a digital game with a trial mode, a later physical “Deluxe” release published by Atari came out in sometime in 2006 on bargain bin shelves everywhere.

I got my copy of this many years ago back in Year One: From a (now-defunct) Value Village in Seattle while I was visiting PAX West – then known as PAX Prime – that I also got complete-in-box copies of The Colonel’s Bequest and Police Quest II: The Vengeance. There were several copies there, one of which had been price-marked down from its normal $20 price down to $1. Knowing my love for dumb game show games, I couldn’t resist the $3 price tag.

I can’t assure you if this is actually on the set of the show or if he’s behind a green screen.

Before I continue, I should clarify a bit who Pat Sajak is for those unaware: He’s the host of Wheel of Fortune, one of the more popular game shows in the United States. Taking over from previous host (and future die-hard conservative Trump supporter) Chuck Woolery in 1981, Sajak has been hosting the perennial game show ever since. Sajak currently holds the record for longest-running tenure of hosting the same game show in the United States – 39 years, beating out the late Alex Trebek’s 36 years on Jeopardy! and Bob Barker’s 35 years on The Price Is Right, respectively – and shows no signs of retiring any time soon.

“And now, here’s your host… Vanna White?”

But interestingly, he never did video games. Like most game shows, there’s been an absolute glut of video games based on the famous puzzle game. But for a good long while, most Wheel of Fortune adaptations usually featured co-host and puzzle board operator Vanna White as host instead, even some of the later games featuring announcer Charlie O’Donnell. But no Pat to be seen, something he’s even pointed out on the show in the past.

In the mid-2000s, he started a puzzle game brand called Pat Sajak Games that briefly existed to sell puzzle books featuring him and his likeness, but it would also branch out to something that until then had been rather elusive to him: the burgeoning video game market. Which leads us to Lucky Letters.

It’s almost like I’m on an actual game show!

The game has three modes of play, all around the concept of crossword puzzles. One is the main Lucky Letters mode, which is the meat of the game. The others, the Lucky 10 and Lucky Players we’ll get into in a bit. But how does Pat Sajak’s Lucky Letters play?

Excuse me, Pat, am I supposed to be seeing the circuitry on this podium?

The rules go a little something like this: There’s a crossword puzzle based on a theme (TV shows, locations, current events, etc). When the game starts, the player can choose a few letters randomly chosen to fill out the board. After that, the game will randomly pick a word out of the crossword, and give it a cash value from three slot machines of various values. The goal is to fill in the crossword clue by selecting correct letters from a pile of random letters. Each correct letter gives you money, but you lose money if you pick a letter not in the word, which will also end that turn.

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Gemini: Heroes Reborn – A puzzle platformer based on the biggest TV show of the 2000s.

If there’s anything I kinda miss about the modern age of video games is that there’s not enough tie-in games based on TV shows or movies. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s where we had classics like Disney’s DuckTales and Goldeneye, and were rather ubiquitous during that 8 and 16-bit video game boom. They slowly started dying off by the early 2010s, during the start of the Xbox One/PlayStation 4 era, and haven’t really shown up since. These days when I think of promotions with licensed properties, it’s usually as crossovers in other games, like Bingo Story and The Price Is Right, or John McClane of Die Hard fame in Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War. The most recent tie-in game I can think of is, amusingly, a game based on Space Jam: A New Legacy made by the people at Digital Eclipse.

Even though they’re not as common these days, there is still a video game based on a TV series or movie released here and there. Most of them are relegated to mobile devices, but sometimes a game or two does make it to the mainstream gaming consoles – or in my case, Steam. Gemini: Heroes Reborn is one of those rare cases.

“Hey, could you like, help me here? I can’t dodge bullets and lift people forever!”

Developed by Phosphor Games – a studio mostly known for making mobile games and Virtual Reality titles – the game was released in early 2016 as a tie-in to the TV series Heroes Reborn, a science-fiction drama that is a sequel series to one of the biggest 2000s-era TV shows: Heroes.

Would you believe it was pretty hard to find a good promotional image like this?

Admittedly I don’t watch a lot of television, so my knowledge of Heroes is through friends that did watch it: The show’s premise involves a giant corporation simply called “The Company” that was experimenting with human beings and giving them superpowers, of which a small group of people slowly find out that they have through a solar eclipse. Eventually they team up to stop the big-bad-of-the-week and eventually figure out the Company’s ulterior motives. Basically a serial TV show that would sow the seeds for things like the later Marvel Cinematic Universe.

From what I gathered, Heroes started out great in its first season, then the Writers Guild of America had a strike midway through the second season. The strike basically threw the whole planned storyline out of whack in such a way that the show never really recovered, eventually getting canceled after the fourth season concluded in 2010. In 2016, a sequel series called Heroes Reborn came and went for a single season, of which its story is the basis for Gemini‘s plot.

(Warning: Plot spoilers for Gemini: Heroes Reborn follow.)

I assure you that this game doesn’t have cutscenes that look like they were hastily made in Photoshop.

You play as Cassandra Hays, a woman who suffered amnesia as a teenager. She’s taken to an abandoned military base called “The Quarry” by her friend Alex to hopefully make sense of what happened to her. Eventually Alex gets captured by soldiers who apparently are still at the building, and Cassandra must find a way to save him. Cassandra later finds out she has special powers that allow her to travel through time, switching her between the then-present timeline of 2016 and the near-past of 2008, when the building was still operating. Eventually acquiring telekinesis powers in the past, she uses that and her time abilities to figure out what happened to her and what the purpose of “The Quarry” was.

Our antagonist, Trevor Mason. I wonder if he has a brother named Alex

The plot itself isn’t particularly remarkable. It falls into a lot of the common fiction tropes of characters double-crossing you and having to do bidding for the big bad – who’s unique to this game, voiced by Robin Atkin Downes of all people – while also figuring out the mystery of Cassandra’s family and her past.

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Peggle spinoffs: Popcap has the crossover fever.

As of this writing, the famous Electronic Entertainment Expo – E3 for short – has come and gone. Lots of companies announcing hot new games slated to come out later this year or the next, people pushing polygons to the limit, and your favorite franchises coming back for a new installment, often yearly.

Electronic Arts, being the rebellious type, decided to skip E3 this year for a catch-all “EA Play” event sometime in July. I fully expect them to show more of their notable franchises such as Madden NFL 22 and FIFA 22 and Battlefield 2042. And I expect them to once again ignore one of their notable franchises from when they acquired Popcap Games in 2011. One that has a notoriety due to its announcement at a past E3. The one of memes everywhere.

It’s a shame we’ll never see this guy announce a Peggle game like this ever again.

I’m talking about Peggle, the simple bouncing ball and peg game loosely inspired by pachinko. Originally released in 2007, the game became a big hit for Popcap Games, primarily due to its simple yet challenging nature and cutesy design. Oh, and the smart use of using “Ode to Joy” when you successfully completed a level.

Admittedly my experience with Peggle is the original game and no further. The game’s followups have not been reliably available on PC, with the infamous Peggle 2 being locked away to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, consoles I don’t own; and Peggle Blast, which is only on mobile phones. But there are other Peggle games, of which I’ve actually played.

Likely as good cross-promotion, Popcap Games decided to make two Peggle spinoff games, crossing over with two major video game companies around 2007-09. While ostensibly similar to the original game, they have their own little quirks.

That sun with the G-Man face is… rather offputting.

The first is Peggle Extreme, released in 2007 and available on Steam. 2007 would be a lucrative year for Valve as they released the critically acclaimed The Orange Box, which featured the second expansion in the Half-Life 2 saga, the long-awaited Team Fortress 2, and a quirky little puzzle game called Portal. As promotion, Popcap’s Peggle Extreme would be released alongside it, free to owners of The Orange Box. Nowadays if you have a Steam account, you can play it for free regardless of whether you own any of the Orange Box games.

This really doesn’t jell with Peggle’s overall aesthetic, but I guess that doesn’t matter.

If you’re not familiar with Peggle, I do recommend playing Extreme to get a good handle on the game’s mechanics. The basic goal is to eliminate all the orange-colored pegs around the arena. You shoot a ball to have it bounce around the various pegs and score for points. The more orange pegs you hit, the more points you get. In addition there’s purple pegs which give huge points, and green pegs that do special abilities depending on the playable character you choose. Finish off all the orange pegs before running out of balls and you get an Extreme Fever, where you score big points on any extra blue pegs you hit before dropping it down a hole for a huge bonus. It’s a really simple game that anyone can play, and it’s pretty fun.

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Taken from the Secret Area Vault.

For a good long time I was feverishly recording all kinds of stuff off VHS, just in the off-chance I have something interesting to remember by. Most of these were game shows, since that was my favorite thing for a long while (and still is!). Eventually I stopped recording things regularly, and had amassed over 80 VHS tapes of different things recorded from 1992-2007.

From then on, those tapes sat on shelves in my room, collecting dust. While hanging out with a few friends on Discord, I had mentioned I was casually watching game shows, which spurred the idea of watching said shows with friends. After mentioning I had these tapes, I was encouraged to finally tackle one of my passion projects: Converting the tapes to digital files.

A sampling of some of the tapes I had converted.

In April I bought a simple capture device – an Elgato video capture – and later, a better VCR – a JVC HR-S3800U to replace my Panasonic VCR/DVD-R combo unit – and got to work converting some of the tapes. The following month in May, I started phase two of this project: Putting this stuff on YouTube. That’s where the Secret Area Vault comes in.

The Vault’s premise is simple: Preserving bits and bobs of TV ephemera I’ve accumulated from these tapes. Since I’m a game show junkie, About 90% of the content will be random episodes of classic game shows. Some of these shows, such as the 1980s revival of Hollywood Squares hosted by John Davidson, and a game show based on the board game Scrabble, haven’t been aired on television in nearly 30 years. Other times, it’ll be episodes of shows not readily available else, like Family Feud and The Newlywed Game.

In addition to the game shows, I’ve also been compiling other interesting bits from my VHS collection that I think is worth showing off, such as commercials. As far as I know, most of this stuff hasn’t been seen on YouTube, and I think these are just as important to highlight as much as the game shows.

You’re probably wondering why I still have all these tapes. Well, keep in mind that before the days of streaming services and DVRs, it was entirely possible a show may never run again, even if it’s a rerun of a show from 30 years ago. Even these days, I’ve been finding the stuff that isn’t readily available online, and the Vault is a good repository for TV preservation.

Before I get started, I’d like to thank maple mavica syrup for giving me inspiration to start this VHS project in earnest; and Matt of Dinosaur Dracula fame, who’s done similar commercial montages on his blogs, and his site was a minor influence on the Secret Area’s humble beginnings. That being said, let’s get started.


Nyquil advertisement circa 1993 (with Nathan Lane!)

What better way to start off this compilation but with a now fairly notable actor shilling cold medicine?

Granted, Nathan Lane is a fairly ubiquitous actor nowadays – the voice of Timon in Disney’s The Lion King films, The Birdcage, a supporting role on Modern Family, The Producers on Broadway – but in the early 90s, he was much like any other struggling actor, doing any gig that’ll give him work and money.

The premise is a bit silly: Lane’s character is feeling sick, so he starts asking his neighbors for Nyquil, constantly getting shut out until… a guardian angel appears with a full bottle? I can’t tell if he’s having a fever dream or they didn’t want to shoot a scene of him walking to the corner store in his pajamas to grab a bottle. He eventually feels triumphant, getting his cold medicine so he can properly sleep.

I wish *I* had a guardian angel to give me free over-the-counter medicine…

Surprisingly Nathan Lane did at least one more Nyquil commercial, which is already online elsewhere. But I thought this one was more surreal than that one.

I’m honestly glad I have this one recorded. At the time young me didn’t understand preserving stuff very well, so I often over-recorded over shows on the same tape. One time I accidentally hit record while the TV was on a show called Street Justice, a police procedural starring Carl Weathers that aired for two seasons in syndication. This commercial comes from that accidental over-record session. Granted that meant I lost some USA Network game shows, but getting a commercial like this was worth the over-record.

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