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Lo-Fi Let's Play: Critical Mass

Reaching It

[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.

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