Lo-Fi Let’s Play: Critical Mass

[I’ve been doing a series of Let’s Play videos exploring old adventures, text games and lost design forms from the 1980s Apple IIe and Commodore 64 era. In a time when young men shout over new action games, I will talk softly over strange old ones. Come along on a visitation of a different era that’s one part meditations on my childhood, one part adventure game criticism, and one part preservation effort. Bonus: Everyone says the quiet talk, lo-fi handmade feel and keyboard tapping triggers ASMR responses. Please enjoy!]

Like Sirius Software’s Gruds in Space, the same company’s Critical Mass was one of my main childhood demons — absorbing, unsolvable, inspiring. Time is a factor in this game, and each move causes it to pass — taking planes to new places can eat up great swathes of it. When the time is up, a bomb goes off. I didn’t know exactly who I was or why I was traveling the world, fearing the great animated nuclear mushroom cloud that would eventually destroy the world if I took too long, but I loved doing it.

There was something Carmen Sandiego-esque about all the airport-hopping, the ability to choose your destinations. As a kid, I couldn’t perform the kind of math necessary to know how much time I had to travel, so I’d find myself in an airport, wondering if I could go to Paris, or if the world would end if I stepped on that plane.

Now, of course, I understand that apparently you’re a secret agent of some kind, racing to stop the detonation, and you have to visit the necessary destinations in a precise order to avoid wasting time by backtracking. Disappointingly, I can’t get any further with Critical Mass than I could when I was a child, because of its “action sequences” — a brutally-unforgiving waterski minigame is necessary to complete the adventure, and I just can’t do it. It didn’t work well even in its time, and exacerbated by emulation, the problem is hopeless (yes, I’m challenging you).

These action sequences are actually a hallmark of the game’s creator, Bob Blauschild, who also implemented them in Escape From Rungistan, another brutal old favorite. The sudden shift from adventure game into timed death-plummet properly terrified me as a kid. I’m a little uneasy of elevators to this day, because of the bit you’ll see early on in this Let’s Play. Once I fake-angrily wrote an open letter to Mr. Blauschild and published it on my website — to my great surprise, Mr. Blauschild actually responded. “If they in any way led to developing a passion for thinking through challenges, then I’ll take just a little credit,” he wrote.

For its time, Critical Mass really nailed the serio-comic tone that would go on to predominate adventure games — where the game is asking you to do something deeply difficult and deathly-serious, but is laughing at you and scolding you all along. If you want to give Critical Mass a try yourself, go here, and seriously, if you can find and defeat the waterski sequence, send me some screenshots or something.

I recorded this particular Lo-Fi Let’s Play a few months ago — unfortunately, I planned to show you the excellent Mask of the Sun this week, but my emulator bugged during recording. Will try again next week, and meanwhile, absolutely check out this PDF of the flimsy, dot-matrix manual that apparently came with Mask of the Sun at the time. You’ll need to be up on the elaborate backstory, obviously.

The entire Lo-Fi Let’s Play series is available and regularly updated at my YouTube channel if you’d like to subscribe, but my friends at RPS are graciously syndicating them here from now on, with some additional written analysis and commentary.

17 Comments

  1. owenllharris says:

    Just in time…… my favourite voice in games, here to sooth my afternoon.

    • strange_headache says:

      After declaring gamers for dead, calling them “obtuse shitslingers, wailing hyper-consumers and childish internet-arguers”, thus stifling any reasonable discussion and her very biased and one-sided article for the Times Magazine, Leigh wasted the last shred of good-will I had towards her.

      “I am a megaphone, I am much less kind than Rami and won’t mind making an example out of you.” – Leigh Alexander

      • Captain Joyless says:

        can’t wait for this strange_headache to go away

      • Leigh Alexander says:

        Thank you for sharing the out of context quote that you found on an internet meme. You are right; my op-ed for The Times Magazine was incredibly biased, and clearly ‘obtuse shitslinger’ was wayyyy off as a characterization.

        • Laurentius says:

          Ahahahaha – shakes head /atthesametime

          Brilliant comment, inducing two responses at once, applause for its wittiness and resignation for its pettienes.

        • Azradesh says:

          Why do you sometimes mock ‘nerds’ and ‘gamers’ so virulently? Isn’t that the same kind of bullying you rail against?

          A lot of ‘proud nerds’ are people who used the fact they were picked on for their interests as children to maintain, as adults and and fathers (they are most often privileged men, now) a ‘secret clubhouse’ that lets them victimize and oppress other participants — despite the fact games are now a multi-billion dollar industry, increasingly stigma-free, and desperately in need of the creative and professional participation of multitudes of new voices.

          Self-identified nerds are often so obsessed with their identity as cultural outcasts that they are willfully blind to their privilege, and for the sake of relatively-absurd fandoms — space marines, dragons, zombies, endless war simulations — take their myopic and insular attitudes to “art” and “culture” with tunnel-visioned, inflexible, embarrassing seriousness that often leads to homogeneity, racism, sexism and bullying.

          Nerds escaped high school. Some of them made millions making video games. Digital literacy doesn’t make you special anymore, it makes you baseline employable. Fantasy is on mainstream cable.

          Meanwhile, actual systemic oppression is punishing people not just where they wish to participate in games, but in every day of the rest of their lives. For many people, profound and violating inequalities show no sign of ease, and their “fellow outcasts” collude to reject them from the clubhouse when they try to join in .

          My adult life in games and internet culture frequently involves brutal gendered language. Over video games. So if you want someone who feels sorry for you because your family grew up with a Super Nintendo, don’t ask me.

          The fact you got a Game Boy for Christmas and liked it so much you stopped doing anything else doesn’t entitle you to a revolution. Your fandom is not your identity. Your fandom is not a race.

          If you think it is, then you’re in our way, and the work I do specifically exists to dispossess you of your sense of relevance.

          – Leigh Alexander

          Also,

          “silly kids. i AM game journalism”

          link to twitter.com

          – Leigh Alexander

          Apparently it’s ok to bully and threaten people who disagree with you?

          link to twitter.com

          In short, you seem to be a deeply bitter and angry person, and just not very nice.

        • honkskillet says:

          At some point you are going to have to
          1) turn the comments back on and
          2) turn the other cheek / not engage in the pettiness of the internets.
          You won’t be able to do the former until you do the later.

          [Edit] Mansplainer! That is rich. Thanks for self identifying as someone not to be taken seriously.

          • AlwaysRight says:

            At some point YOU are going to HAVE to:
            1) Stop being a condescending mansplainer.
            2) Stop being a condescending mansplainer.
            You won’t be able to do the former until you do the latTer.

      • AlwaysRight says:

        Are people just not reading that “Gamers are over” article properly, or do they genuinely believe that Monster fuelled, trash talking, screaming kids are a culture worth fighting for?

    • thedosbox says:

      Indeed. Happy to see Leigh continue with these.

  2. Bugamn says:

    Oh, for a moment I thought it would be about Sean O’Connor’s Critical Mass.

    • AlwaysRight says:

      I remember there was also a game called Critical Mass for the Amstrad Cpc

      • Retrofrank says:

        Looks like it´s been a straight port, of the Sinclair Spectrum version.The Amstrad could have done so many more colours that that.Have a look, at the C64-Version.

        [youtube link to youtube.com

        • AlwaysRight says:

          What technical wizardry is this? look at all those colours!

  3. Gog Magog says:

    Just wanted to say,

    I’ll never understand the people who enjoy ASMRs. This stupid, weird, unwanted feeling somewhere between your eyes and somewhere near the back of year head. Don’t know bout others but to me it’s almost like pain and it drives me nuts when people speak with that weird slight popping sound to their words like they’re savoring them. I just can’t handle it. Makes me wanna go “yo cut that shit out k”.

    Thankfully, Leigh’s videos don’t have this effect on me and so I don’t feel the need to slice off my ears and drive railroad spikes through my eye sockets