When I set up a Windows 98 virtual machine for the purposes of starting my godawful SimCity 2000 series, I also picked up a few different .iso files to run on it. One of those wasn’t a game, but rather a collection of screensavers bearing the title After Dark 4.0 Deluxe, released in 1996 by long-defunct developer Berkeley Systems.
What’s the big deal about a bunch of screensavers, you might be saying to your screen. The big deal is that screensavers were very much “the shit” back in the mythical period of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when flat-screen computer monitors were unheard of. At that time, everyone used CRT monitors, great bulky heavy things that made a satisfying smashing sound when you dropped broken ones out of a twelve-story window into an empty alleyway.* The primary trouble with the CRT, aside from its weight and size, was the fact that images left on the screen for a long enough period of time would become “burnt in”, leaving faint shadows of themselves behind even when the screen was turned off.
In order to prevent this, the first screensaver was developed and released in 1983. This screensaver and its immediate successors simply made a screen go black after several minutes of no activity, preventing the image of the desktop from being burnt into it. By 1989, however, Mac and later PC users could avail themselves of After Dark, a program that contained a whole collection of creative, colorful, and sometimes bizarre screensavers. They were often customizable and occasionally even interactive – a few contained pretty fun mini-games. After Dark quickly became a massive hit – sort of the pre-internet version of going viral, in which more and more screens seemed to be running After Dark screensavers. The 4.0 release was the final one, however; by the late 90s screen burn-in wasn’t really so much of a problem, and people apparently decided they were happy enough with the default Mac and Windows screensavers. Berkeley Systems was sold soon thereafter and eventually folded.
Since screen burn-in certainly isn’t a problem for me today, on my flat screen running VirtualBox, I downloaded the After Dark 4.0 .iso file for entirely nostalgic purposes. And since this is my god damn game review website, I can write a quasi-review of something that isn’t a game if I feel like it, and I do. The following are my favorite After Dark screensaver modules, loosely ordered:
This module features a spotted black and white dog that jumps onto your desktop and starts digging holes, tearing components of your computer out, and making a complete mess of things. I enjoyed watching this dog utterly destroy my family computer at home, mainly because the destruction was purely cosmetic and temporary. I can imagine a few old folks panicking at this screensaver, though, if they didn’t know quite how it worked. A nice prank to play on Grandpa, maybe.
For some reason, Bad Dog! turns my desktop red and blue on VirtualBox. I don’t know why. The screensaver isn’t supposed to do this.
Puzzle also wrecks your desktop, this time by turning it into a sliding-block game that never ends. This is yet another good potential “let’s prank Grandpa” screensaver, though he’s probably caught on by this point. I always wondered about whether the puzzle might somehow return the desktop to its original state at some point. The odds of that happening are probably incredibly small.
A factory full of steel bars and conveyor belts collects falling confetti that builds up into multi-colored mountains. Every once in a while, the factory staff goes on break, and ducks cross the screen while quacking. Like many of the After Dark screensavers, it doesn’t make sense, but it is relaxing to watch for some reason.
Rodger Dodger isn’t so much a screensaver as it is a game. You are the purple-green morphing soccer ball, and your object is to get through all 20 levels by collecting the green squiggles and getting to the goal while avoiding the spiky hazards that move either in one direction or randomly around the game board. It wasn’t anything special really, but it was surprisingly fun for a mini-game that came bundled with a screensaver collection, and I’m sure many thousands upon thousands of bored, dead-inside office workers wasted some company time with it. Just make sure to point your screen away from your boss and facing a wall so he can’t catch you goldbricking.
Rat Race is not a simulation of the soul-draining, suicidal-depression-inducing competition for material goods and meaningless honors that our society demands of us all, but rather of a literal race where rats are the contestants. It’s fun to bet with your friends on which rat will win, and then to scream at the screen when it turns out you picked the dipshit rat who doesn’t understand that he’s supposed to run in one direction around the track instead of running in circles and grooming himself. Damn it, Doug, what are you doing? I bet five dollars on you.
Yeah, of course Flying Toasters. Flying Toasters is maybe 99% of what people remember about After Dark and the company that developed it. A flying toaster is on the box of the physical copy of After Dark 4.0 that I don’t own and was more or less the mascot of its developer. The image of the flying toaster was featured in the 90s drama Beverly Hills 90210, and a band that somehow still exists and is touring named themselves The Flying Toasters. The flying toasters even inspired a lawsuit against Berkeley Systems by members of the 60s-70s band Jefferson Airplane, who complained that the image of a silver toaster with wings was too similar to the winged toaster on the cover of its 1973 live album Thirty Seconds Over Winterland to not be a violation of its copyright. (They lost.)**
There were at least three or four versions of the Flying Toasters screensaver, each one more complex than the last. The first was pretty simple – just a bunch of toasters with wings flying through a black sky alongside some flying pieces of toast. By 4.0, the newest Flying Toasters screensaver included baby toasters, speeding toasters being chased by police toasters (complete with red sirens), toasters juggling pieces of toast between each of their compartments, toasters performing loop-de-loops and barrel rolls, and even bagels. I prefer the simpler versions, myself.
My favorite screensaver ever. Starry Night was on the very first After Dark release in 1989, and it was one of the most commonly used together with Flying Toasters. Yellow pixels blink into existence eventually forming a city skyline against the night sky, full of multicolored stars, with an occasional falling meteor. You can adjust the height and number of buildings on screen, which generate randomly. Very simple, but very nice and relaxing to watch, especially on a dark night.
Unfortunately, screensavers are no longer much of a thing – who needs After Dark to waste time with at work when you have the internet? Especially now that we have smartphones that the boss can’t prevent us from using. Still, these were a small part of my childhood growing up in the 90s, and I felt like giving them a proper tribute. If you’re interested in playing with these old screensavers, you can find a copy of the .iso file here. You can also buy a physical copy online if you feel like paying someone for their old disc. You’ll probably need to set up a virtual machine, though – I don’t think there’s any way in hell any modern operating system will run it.
* This is purely hypothetical and not something that we did on a drunken dare one night when I was in college.
** Jefferson Airplane v. Berkeley Systems, Inc., 886 F. Supp. 713 (N.D. Cal. 1994). The court found that Jefferson Airplane could not properly bring a lawsuit against Berkeley Systems on the basis of copyright infringement because they hadn’t registered the image of the flying toaster on the cover of their album with the U.S. Copyright Office. In general, copyright can be established without registration, but a suit for infringement can’t be sustained without it. See 17 U.S.C. § 411(a).