The 1990s are regarded as the time that truly sparked innovation within the video game industry. A rivalry sparked, and a new player even joined the clash between the titanic companies. But what of the many startups that had tried and failed to become the next success story? Numerous smaller groups pushed mediocre releases in the pursuit of profit, though not every small company had this same goal.
The year is now 2021, and I find myself part of a cozy release group. We’re not entirely unlike piracy groups, but rather than targeting hot new games, we dig for prototypes and unreleased console games. Any of the big players in the gaming industry are generally avoided; we aren’t trying to find a lawsuit after all. Nothing we happen to find and show to the public garners much attention due to the obscurity of each piece, though it remains fun enough that we continue.
It’s a rainy, dreary morning when I receive a message in our group chat. It came from our “leader”, Victor. “hey tamara, i managed to score something amazing. can i send it to you, i don’t have time to work on it lol”. Always happy to look at something new, I replied with “Of course. Make sure it’s secure, alright?” Victor was across the pond in France, so anything would take some time to land here in the states. He didn’t want to reveal the exact contents of the package he was sending, but I assumed it was just another old disc of a computer game.
Weeks passed, until on a familiar morning, a bulky cardboard box arrived at my doorstep, addressed to “Tamara Krs--- “. Not wanting it to get soaked, I quickly brought it inside, struggling with the weight. Opening the package revealed a small variety of game cartridges, along with a console to run them. After bringing all the contents out, I started to examine each item closely. The console sported a peculiar design, using a rounded triangular shape over a typical rectangular one. The light green plastic shell held only one label, which had long since yellowed and had its text faded to an illegible point. Fixed to one edge was a cheap, two-prong power cable, along with video cables.
Looking at the game cartridges, however, left little to discover. Each used a gray shell with cheap, aged labels showing a simplified name and some numbers that were likely used as version codes. They were certainly prototypes, with such basic design. The controller was equally as visually uninteresting, being a clone of a 3-button Sega Genesis controller. It was at this point that I had enough of just looking, and I decided to start playing. Hooking everything up, I went with the first game I grabbed, labeled “ELECTRIC”.
Upon booting, it was clear that this was likely the first physical prototype produced for this game. Its title screen contained only a large, bold “ELECTRIC” at the top of the screen, with a much smaller “PRESS START” below it. Following that instruction queued a loud “lightning” sound, and the game itself began. Unpolished 16-bit graphics faded in, showing a Mario-style platformer. It felt much like a ripoff, with basic changes like “Mario” becoming “Marco”, and fireballs being lightning bolts instead. I played up to the fourth level of the first world, taking place in the typical bad guy castle. But rather than the final room being the chamber of some monster, it instead held only a chair. Figuring it was the bad guy’s throne, I jumped over to it figuring it might be the clear condition for the level. Instead, making contact with it cut the screen to a bright yellow, with the same lightning sound as when I started the game playing at an even greater volume.
That yellow screen persisted, so I simply turned the console off. Such a booming noise gave me a headache anyway, so I popped a painkiller and tried to take a nap. My phone ringing swiftly put an end to any attempt to sleep, however. Annoyed, I checked the caller… Victor? I answered and tried to speak, only to be interrupted with “I don’t care what’s happening, you need to go and play those other games. Now.” Only silence remained after he finished his piece. I was confused as to why he called me to say that, but I felt a genuine emotion in his words. Was it fear, was it demanding, was it even something he chose to say or was it forced? The pain in my head effectively killed any analytical ability I had, but I was able to tell that he was serious, regardless of his situation.
Despite my pain, I left my bed and returned to that console, inserting the next game, “MORPH”. MORPH had a title screen equally as basic as ELECTRIC used, but thankfully without any sounds after pressing Start. Rather than a game, it was a character creator. I was given a few options for body parts to use, such as hair, face, clothes, and body type. Not many options were present, but you could make full-sized 16-bit characters, and shrink them down to a sprite that looks like it would fit in ELECTRIC. There was a feature to name your character with a limit of five letters, so I called it “Anne”. I could select the sex of the character, though it didn’t affect appearance. The final option was… “Crimes”. Unusual, but I played along and said that Anne’s crime was “theft”. Once I hit “Complete”, there was a freeze, and then I was given a dialogue box saying “Saved to console memory.”
Console memory? That was an impressive feature to see on what appeared to be an old console, as most used memory cards or kept their memory on the actual game cartridges. After saving Anne to the memory, I powered off the console and inserted the final game I had, “STREET”. My headache was fading by this point, so I was prepared to play a real game. Once again it used a nearly identical background to the previous games, and like MORPH it lacked any sound effects. Entering the game did greet me with a simple MIDI song, in a minor key. I was immediately given a prompt: “Load character from console memory?”
Excited that I could use Anne, I picked “Yes” and she was placed into the dark, rainy streets of a metropolitan area. The controls were exactly like that of ELECTRIC, though there was far less platforming to do, and no enemies to fight or power-ups to collect. But unlike ELECTRIC, the level design was unique. Heavy rain poured from the sky, with puddles formed inside depressed parts of the road. Muted colors added to the overall mood, and my initial excitement turned to a more somber experience. Eventually, Anne reached the end of the gloomy area, and rather than advancing to the right into a new level, she stopped outside what appeared to be a corner store.
Player controls were disabled by this point, and Anne faced the door of the business, crashing it down and entering. Inside was the next “level”, where Anne would have a thought bubble appear above her head, and I had to collect that item she was thinking about. Each item collected would then prompt another to appear in its place. Despite appearing as a small shop from the outside, the interior was expansive, featuring some challenging platforming sections. Once I finally collected the last item Anne wanted, a message box appeared, saying “Good work, now we need to escape before someone shows up!” Concern started to grow by now.
After all, we just stole from this store. Theft, just like I put as her crime. Making our way back to the entrance of the level, a police officer was waiting right where we had started. A compressed “Halt!” was spoken from that officer before Anne promptly shot him, without any of my input. Lacking any control once again, she fled the building, returning to the streets level, and swiftly being surrounded by other officers, who brought her to the ground. Once they had sent her down, a dialogue box with “Saved to console memory.” appeared, and the game ended itself.
Shortly after was another call from Victor. “Electric. Classic code. All I can say.” It ended as quickly as it began, but I still went ahead with his instructions. Inserting and booting ELECTRIC again, I pondered what he meant with “classic code”, but then tried what was the most obvious. “Up up, down down, left right, left right, B, A, Start.” I said aloud to myself while entering the iconic cheat code. Hitting Start sent me into a debug menu, with the options of “FORCE LOAD FROM SYSMEM”, “START AT LEVEL:”, and “EXIT”. Selecting the Force Load prompted me with… Anne’s profile, this time with some new information. “NAME: Anne | SEX: FEMALE | CRIMES: THEFT, BREAKING AND ENTERING, MURDER”. It seems that our actions in STREET had overwritten her profile, and added to her list of crimes. “CONFIRM LOADED PROFILE: YES/NO”. Well, I won’t shy away from what we did, so I selected “YES” and was brought back to the initial debug menu. This time I selected to Start At Level, which had the options of “1-1, 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, 2-E”. 2-E was a level I couldn’t reach before, so I selected that, and was promptly loaded in.
Instead of a level, it was a single, confined room. A steel prison door stands in the foreground, locked tight. In the center of the room is a chair, facing the player. I didn’t have any trouble figuring out what the point of this room was. Still, I had Anne jump around and try to find anything hidden within the room, but to no avail. Our only option was to enter that chair. I could’ve gone first, but I forced Anne into it. I had her run right over to it, and she was instantly strapped inside, and the chair activated. Blinding yellow flashes filled the screen along with the deafening sounds of the lightning entering her constrained body and burning it from inside and out. The console shut itself off entirely after Anne’s punishment was complete.
We both committed those crimes, though. I brought Anne to that store, I led her to each item we stole and stood by as she spilled the blood of a man who tried to bring justice to us. I planted every bit of conductive material I owned into my desk chair and hauled it outside to the overpowering storm. Thunder clapped all around as I sat alone, drenched by the water that was now causing a flood. This failed to bother me, as retribution will soon reach me.
Just like it did with Anne.