There is no greater feeling in the world than discovering something new. Flush with excitement, anticipating your own enjoyment, brain on fire with the possibility of some new thing.
The best moment of discovery I ever experienced happened in a far away place. Tokyo is a well-known mecca of obscurity; districts full of stores with rare games and toys and comics spilling out into the street. Among the most famous shops is Super Potato – there’s a few of them dotted around the country – which is a game collector’s dream.
I stumbled around its three floors like a kid in some kind of store. The shelves were packed with sideways game boxes for every console stretching back twenty-five years. There were games I recognised, but mostly I gawped at Japanese writing and screenshots describing worlds that never travelled west.
There is a trickling feeling inside my head at moments like these. I never forget that the world is a big place with a lot more in it than I can ever see in my lifetime, but being able to visually represent the scale of that unknowable mass – equal parts divine inspiration and cosmic horror – sometimes requires seeing it neatly stacked on rows of shelves.
The best part of Super Potato is the top floor, where there are a handful of old arcade games available to playable for free. Arcades are still popular in downtown Tokyo, but mostly they’re full of pachinko machines, flying mech combat games, rhythm-based novelties, and in any case you’ll have to pay to play them.
I sat down at one of these free machines with an unusual name, a game of which I’d never heard. It was The Outfoxies. It’s an overlooked 1994 arcade fighting game, and it’s brilliant. I still play it today.
The setup is that a group of professional hitmen are hired to kill each other, seemingly for the entertainment of an unseen client who watches the fights on TV. Each rumble takes place in a different setting, and the environments are absurdly dynamic and reactive, in ways too few fighting games have copied. The first level takes place in what looks like an industrial building with a helicopter on the roof, except that there’s a lit fuse ticking upwards. When it reaches its destination, the ceiling explodes and the helicopter falls down a floor. Boxes tumble, and if they land on your head they’ll be fixed there for a moment as your character fumbles, suddenly in the dark. Water falls and flushes any characters it catches on its surface. Then the floor collapses again. Now you’re in a fancy dining room. There’s soup on the tables, which you can pick up and hurl as a weapon.
In its slapstick, almost choreographed violence, and its lively, cinematic environments, there’s something a bit Gang Beasts about it. Another level takes place in an aquarium with a whale hanging from the ceiling, and another fuse. Partway through the level, the whale collapses and lands on the sharp end of Poseidon’s trident. Then the building starts to flood, and you end up stood upon that whale’s back as it floats back up towards the ceiling. The water is full of sharks. Eventually you reach high enough to enter new floors of the building.
Other levels take place on a moving train, and a plane that keeps inclining and tipping its contents out the back. This isn’t a PC game, though you can play it on PC through MAME.
I’m telling you about The Outfoxies because I love it, and I like to share the things I love, but also because it’s illustrative of how wonderful it is to discover things. I didn’t know that The Outfoxies existed. It turned out to be great, under-appreciated, and a thing I can now rave about for a long time to the people I think will also like it. It’s a reminder that great games don’t always reside in easy-to-reach places, and that there’s more out there to play and remember and advocate than whatever the latest press release mentions or what consensus determines is part of the canon.
I want to stress also that this isn’t about being a willful obscurantist out of some wrongheaded notion of coolness. There’s nothing wrong with playing and liking popular things.
But if you’re a long-term gamer, you might know the feeling of your gaming horizons expanding. You might also know its close neighbour, the feeling of being stuck in a rut. I’ve been through it repeatedly during the past ten years of writing about games professionally and during the fifteen before that of playing them solely for fun.
Sometimes it’s because a single game is taking up all my attention. I get hooked on Football Manager or Counter-Strike or Sensible World of Soccer because I love them, and because they tickle something inside me which wants to be tickled everyday, but eventually I look up to discover I haven’t played anything else in months.
Sometimes it’s because I try game after game and don’t seem to get on with any of them. I load it up on Steam, mess around for an hour, then grow restless and abandon it. It seems too hard, or over-familiar, or I’m simply not in the mood for it right now. Sometimes this process happens entirely in my head, before I’ve ever laid hand to keyboard and mouse. I look at a screenshot, play the game in my head, and find it wanting.
Happily, my enthusiasm for games as a concept never dims. It’s not their fault that I’m occasionally trapped inside a mental hole. I dug that hole. It’s just that I, from time to time, must force myself to venture outside.
We often think of ‘discovery’ as something that best happens by accident – wandering into a Tokyo game store and coming away with new knowledge and a new love – but over the years I’ve learned that it can be just as fun when accomplished through deliberate effort.
There are places that can help. Have you considered the past?
Hardcore Gaming 101 is a website that promotes “the rich history of videogame culture throughout the ages.” What that means in practice is that they write frighteningly detailed articles about mostly obscure, mostly old, mostly Japanese PC and console games. Paw through its list of articles and ignore the games you recognise the name of and click on something you don’t. Here, at random, is an article on arcade game manufacturer Data East. Isn’t the box art fabulous?
Have you considered the near-future? I’ve written extensively about the fun of DevLogs, in which developers talk openly about their in-progress games. These very often contain free alpha builds or demos or early prototypes. TIGSource – once a great source of unknown indie games – is today a great source of exactly these. You might have played Minecraft and Spelunky before they were cool if you were lingering on these forums four or five years ago. You might be first to the next Minecraft or Spelunky if you linger there now.
Have you considered the present? TIGSource might no longer be updated, but there are a number of websites which perform a similar function. Forest Ambassador‘s Tumblr is a constant source of interesting and inventive and delightful freeware games, for example. Video Game Art Styles often turns up beautiful things by way of screenshots of unusal game art. (It was where I first saw Shape Of The World, for example.) Game Squares does something very similar, but in… squares.
Obviously, this is a service that RPS tries to offer you. Through Live Free Play Hard and now Freeware Garden and Have You Played, and through our reviews and our short ‘news’ posts, and our features and, well, all of it, we hope you’ll discover something you haven’t seen before. We’re all people who enjoy looking beyond the usual places. For me, finding things that are new to me – and maybe you – is the best part of the job. We hope you’ll reach beyond the month’s marketed new releases, and outside the borders of Steam, and come to appreciate something brilliant but rare.
But we can’t cover everything, so I’m curious: where else do you go when you’re on the hunt for the unknown or new? Do you visit charity shops, buy secondhand consoles, import rarities, or tunnel to dank corners of the forgotten web in search of something thrumming with untapped, unloved, or unknown potential?
Share it in the comments. We can expand each other’s minds and play habits.