Maybe I was six? My father and I had taken an extended tour of the Toys R Us, a scouting mission in advance of the Christmas season. On the other side of the model train aisle were the remains of the video game industry, dozens of titles reduced to pennies on the dollar. We emptied the shelves, and he spent maybe $50 for the whole lot.
This led to pulling out the venerable, wood-grained Intellivision system for the first time in months. After some searching we located the RF adapter, and I was left to my own devices with the games. Star Strike, Burger Time, Mission X, Lock n’ Chase, Night Stalker … these were games I knew well. But at the top of this virgin pile sat something unusual. The red box read “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”. I slid in the controller overlays, read through the manual, and put in few good hours looking for goblin scat and listening for dragons. And then I lost interest.
It took me years to really understand and appreciate the game. Up until then all I knew were endless high score chases, but this one had a beginning, middle and an end. It was the first game I'd ever beat, despite the how impenetrable the graphics were and how my adventurer controlled like a truck.
In the mood to return to my roots, TinyHack is right up my alley. It seems almost like a wry koan for the games industry to meditate on. How much can we cut down the graphics of the game and still have it make sense? What are the least number of gameplay elements we can use to communicate a story arc? With the multitude of cores and shader options and particle effects available to designers, what is there that really makes you want to finish a game?
TinyHack reduces the screen to a 9x9 pixel, top-down map. Move and attack with the arrow keys. Find the 16 gold artifacts, avoid the red monsters or fight them with your sword and shield. Use the gray pressure plates to open the white gates. Find the boat to reach the island fortress. If things aren’t going your way, drown your sorrows at the pub. Every time you play, you are treated to another random Mad Lib-esque game description, another fantastical fantasy image, and another trip down memory lane. You can’t go home again, but TinyHack definitely feels fresh in all the old ways.
Talking points: Think back to your earliest gaming memory. What was it? Where were you? What did the room look like, feel like? Can you put yourself back there? What are those sounds and smells? What were those controls like? How much time did you spend analyzing the box art on those early games, trying to divine what the image on the screen had to do with the image on the box? When you distill a genre to its basest elements, what remains? What other games would you actually want to play on a 9x9 field? What other game genres would you even be able to play?