Music to hear with your ears and brain: Moe Shop

I am going through a horribly stressful period in my life right now in which my inevitable death seems more like a comforting promise made by a friend than a threat made by an enemy. What can relieve this feeling? Maybe drugs, and certainly alcohol. But also good music. Namely Moe Moe, the latest EP release by French group Moe Shop.  These guys put together funk basslines and synths straight out of the 70s/80s and join them with cute female vocals.  Moreover, every song on the EP is hypnotically catchy.  See above for my favorite track, “Virtual”.  However, unlike previous Moe Shop EPs featuring absolute standouts like “You Look So Good”, this one is extremely even throughout. If you like this kind of music, moe moe disco/funk like Parliament-Funkadelic if it was entirely composed of cute anime girls, you should check out Moe Shop. Moreover, they wrote the ultimate yandere girl anthem seen below (highly NSFW, I guess???) What more do you want in your entertainment. You can’t get this shit from LA or Nashville or Atlanta.

Retrospective: Encarta 97

Apparently I really have run out of old games to talk about, because this is the second in a row of my world-renowned, award-winning retrospective series dealing with a program that isn’t a game.  Much like After Dark, Encarta is a relic of the 1990s, a period when I was a young strapping lad mystified by all the new features that computers were offering and by the novelty of the internet.  Upon buying our second family computer in the mid-90s after moving across an ocean and leaving the old one behind (might have been sold or put in storage; I never was sure what its fate was) we received a bundled disc labeled Encarta 97, an electronic encyclopedia published by Microsoft.

I’m running this copy on Windows XP, but try to imagine Windows 95 instead.  Also, there are unused icons on my desktop.

If you’re under 20 years of age, you likely have no idea what an Encarta is.  The best description I can come up with today, twenty years into the age of the internet, is that it is an extremely gimped version of Wikipedia with some amusing tools and features added.  Microsoft began producing the Encarta series in 1993, a few years before the average family had a dial-up subscription and several years before the internet was more than a mess of bad corporate websites and pornography hosted on Angelfire pages.  The idea behind Encarta, at least as I understand it, was that it would provide said average family with all the information contained in a massive, heavy, extremely expensive set of Encyclopedia Britannica or World Book volumes without being expensive or weighty.  I’m not sure whether Microsoft ever succeeded in that goal, but in 1996 when Encarta 97 was released it sure seemed to have a hell of a lot of articles.

Yes, at the time 31,000 articles seemed crazy. By way of contrast, Wikipedia as of this writing has 50,000 articles written in Luxembourgish, a language spoken primarily in a tiny west European state wedged between Belgium and Germany.

If the Encarta experience had merely been reading unadorned blocks of text about the letter A and El Aaiun, it might not have been so memorable.  However, the single Encarta 97 CD-ROM contained a lot more than text.  Many of its articles also contained relevant images, and a few even featured really terrible-quality video.  This was one of the things that set it apart from physical encyclopedia sets, which contained no videos and only very small illustrations, sometimes just in black and white.

I learned more than I ever wanted to about Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The encyclopedia itself was the centerpiece of Encarta, but the program also offered several other features that could be used to waste some time that your parents thought you were spending at your studies.  Most of these were contained in the “Interactivities” section.

One of my favorites was the Personal Nutrition feature, which calculated your daily intake of calories, proteins, cholesterol, and other nutrition-related stuff based on your diet.

Apparently a diet of fried wontons, chocolate cake, and White Russians isn’t good for you. Thanks for the information, Encarta.

Another feature I enjoyed was Orbit.  At this stage in my life I still had some notion of becoming an astronaut, and I took an interest in anything related to space or space travel.  Orbit gave the student a basic education in the essentials of orbital paths and gravity and acceleration, and all that physics stuff that is extremely complicated if you get down to the math.  In Orbit, you didn’t have to deal with any of that: just set a path for a moon to circle its planet and watch as it attains a stable orbit, flies into space, or collides into the planet.

hypnotic

One of the more standard features in Encarta 97 was the Atlas, an interactive globe that you could click on to zoom in and find information on the world’s countries and major cities and towns.

Atlas is interesting to me because it’s a sort of Google Earth before Google Earth – infinitely less detailed, showing only the vague outlines of the Earth and its various states.  Still, this was several years before the first Google Earth release, and several more years before Google Earth really got good and you could explore New York and Berlin and Tokyo in 3D, down to their multitudes of alleyways and hole-in-the-wall bars.

If there’s one single thing that most people around my age remember about Encarta, though, it is Mind Maze.

Yes, my name in Mind Maze is Max Action, because it perfectly describes me.

I say that Encarta was not a game, but like the screensaver program After Dark, it was a non-game program that contained a game within it.  Mind Maze was a trivia game set in a cursed castle in which the inhabitants were trapped.  You, the player, had to travel from room to room answering “riddles” in the form of questions about various subjects contained in the electronic pages of Encarta.  The player could choose from four difficulty levels and a variety of topics or a mix of all topics to test his knowledge.  The game was won when the player accumulated 20,000 points, which could take a while depending upon the difficulty of the questions, more difficult questions being worth more points.

The creators of Mind Maze didn’t just throw the game into Encarta as a trifle to go along with the rest of its features – there was some care put into its art, and each room contained a character who usually had something amusing to say to the player.  It was usually a complaint about their shitty king and the curse that they were suffering through.

I don’t think time-and-a-half was a thing in medieval days.

All in all, Mind Maze was a really nice addition to Encarta.  It’s not anything amazing, really, but it was a real novelty at the time and was, to me, the most memorable part of Encarta.

So what was the fate of Encarta?  The shrewd reader might have already guessed that the program has been long dead, killed by the internet and specifically by the user-edited monster that is Wikipedia.  By the early 2000s, there was simply no longer much of a need for an electronic encyclopedia that you paid for when Wikipedia was around.  Microsoft did take steps to introduce a few online features into this and future editions of Encarta, and in 2000 all of the program’s content became free to access online.  But by 2009, Microsoft apparently felt it was time to let Encarta go, and the program was completely discontinued.

Despite its obsolescence (perhaps because of it?) Encarta still has a little nostalgic appeal to me and to a lot of other people who were also bored kids in the 90s on their family computers.  It’s a bit like Blockbuster Video – massive in its day, but made useless by the modern internet.  Unfortunately, you can’t visit a Blockbuster anymore unless you happen to live near the several locations that are somehow left operating (mostly in Alaska – because of poor internet connectivity up there?) but you can check out Encarta thanks to the good people at the CD-ROM Software Library at archive.org.

Retrospective: After Dark

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.

After Dark 4.0, which also contained a collection of screensavers from older versions.

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:

Bad Dog!

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

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.

Confetti Factory

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

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

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.

Flying Toasters

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.

Starry Night

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).