GifCities

GeoCities has been gone for fifteen years now, about as long as it was alive, and it’s still sorely missed. It was shut down by Yahoo, which seems to exist purely to kill good things during downturns. (See also: Yahoo Directory.) It’s just a “brand” now; the company formerly known as that changed its name to “Altaba,” and then itself died.

GeoCities was a place where anyone could make a static website, for free (although with frames and ads). This isn’t the place to recount the full story, but at the time it had kind of a reputation. Since anyone could make a site there, and having a site was a big thing in those heady early World Wide Web days, a lot of people did make them. It was their first site in a lot of cases; in many cases, it was their only site. And before social media and Google’s decay, you could even reasonably expect to find GeoCities sites, if they were good.

So a lot of web newbies made sites, and they perpetrated all kinds of design atrocities in the process. Back then we rolled our eyes and held our noses, but now that time is remembered with fondness.

There are multiple places where you can go back and explore old GeoCities sites, although with varying degrees of stability. Try checking Restorativland or Oocities. Or the Internet Archive’s GeoCities collection.

One of the most egregious of the many sins made by GeoCities users was the overuse of animated GIFs. GIFs themselves are their own throwback to the early era, and actually predate the World Wide Web. The image format was created at Compuserve in 1987, while the first web browser was released on Christmas Day, 1990. Now Compuserve is long gone, although their website, amazingly, is still up, offering an early 2000’s style web portal experience, and while it’s likely no one human is curating its links, some one, or thing, is still updating its copyright date.

I seem to be discursing a lot today, but I am actually closing in on today’s true subject, just with a flight plan best described as a wide, lazy spiral. Here we go. GIFs, that relic of ancient Compuserve, once the subject of an infamous software patent owned by even older pre-web tech company Unisys that threatened to strike the format from the internet, is the only thing of Compuserve that really thrives today.

There are other animation file formats. There’s MP4 and its progeny, of course. Google has a version of webp that has animation, but people don’t trust Google so much anymore. GIFs are also limited: it’s an indexed graphics format that maxes out at 256 colors. But there are many ways to make them, all the major browsers support them, many social media sites support them, and they doesn’t have Google’s sterile, chlorine-like stink about them, so they survive. Improbably, awesomely, people still make, use and view GIFs today.

Google Meetup(?)’s message input bar with GIF button
Discord’s message input bar with GIF button

Google Meetup, or whatever the hell they call it now, has an interface for searching for GIFs to use, and Discord does too. There’s a site, the slightly-incorrectly named GIPHY, that hosts them and lets you search for them. Arguably GIFs are more popular than ever. But the acknowledged Golden (well, maybe Tarnished Bronze) Age of GIFs was the Geocitiene Era.

Well, now the Internet Archive has an amusingly-styled site, GifCities, where you can search through an archives of the GeoCities site collection.

Comic Sans! A spinning rendered dollar sign! Party like it’s 200X!

It doesn’t seem to have a lot to go by when doing its text search? My “Nethack” search only turned up two GIFs, both found from the term’s inclusion in their origin URLs. These are them:

I don’t get that eye one, but the second one’s kind of snazzy, if not really that useful. Still-someone worked to construct each of them, and I like that their work is commemorated, and even available for others to use today. Most of the Old Web, by weight, is lost now, so let’s cherish what remains.

Oldweb: Remembering ionpool.net

The World Wide Web is now over thirty years old. In that time, more content has vanished from it than remains now, but some of it can still be dredged up from the shadowy archives of the Wayback Machine. This is the latest chapter in our never-ending search to find the cool gaming stuff that time forgot….

It used to be that the internet was full of thousands of tiny sites. Many of them might only have gotten a few visits a year, if that, but they were there, quietly and earnestly providing a resource for people who might be looking for it.

One of these sites was ionpool.net, which used to host a listing of classic gaming information. Here it is from its last archived version on the Wayback Machine from December 29, 2020. There’s a lot of links there, and the nature of the Wayback is, unless I check every one of those links, I can’t be sure if any of them will work. The few I’ve tried do, which is something at least.

ionpool.net in 2013, this is just the beginning of the list

There’s a lot of interesting documents there, presented in the classic List Of Tiny Links format. There’s far more there than I can summarize in a simple throwaway daily blog post like this one, but I particular point out to KLAX In Three Lessons, a series of Usenet posts written by Lyle Rains of Atari Games himself. In fact, those posts are so interesting that I might call them out in a later post….

Back to ionpool.net. The thing that saddens me is that the site still exists, but instead of providing the information that it helpfully offered back in 2013, now it’s just a black page with a graphic reading “END OF LINE.” This:

I can understand that even the slight resources necessary to preserve a website can, over time, become onerous. But I’d think it would be an equivalent cost to host an image like that, instead of leaving the old content up indefinitely. It was largely text files anyway.

Ah well. There is still the Wayback Machine, after all, slow and incomplete as it might be and difficult to sort through like it is. I can’t help but think that we should have more alternatives, though. The Internet Archive is not forever either.

The Original Neverwinter Nights

The World Wide Web is now over thirty years old. In that time, more content has vanished from it than remains now, but some of it can still be dredged up from the shadowy archives of the Wayback Machine. This is the latest chapter in our never-ending search to find the cool gaming stuff that time forgot….

I feel sometimes like the kid from The Sixth Sense. That reference probably dates me to an extent, it’s from 1999 which feels like practically yesterday. It’s pretty recent as my references go: I know who Kojak was, and remember M*A*S*H.

I feel like that kid because when I look over the internet, sometimes I see ghosts. The shades of dead games. When something disappears from the web, it’s really gone, there is no corpse and its server leaves practically no trace of its existence. But sometimes signs can be found, like archived client uploads, broken hyperlinks, site snapshots on the Internet Archive, or still-active fansites.

One of those ghosts that flickers into my hazy vision sometimes is the original Neverwinter Nights. Not the Bioware game by that name, which really has very little to do with it. The first Neverwinter Nights was a SSI-produced MMORPG on America On-Line, that lasted from 1991 to 1997, a contemporary of Island of Kesmai, and of WorldsAway,which I’ve brought up here before.

NWN might have been a MMORPG, but it was also a MS-DOS game, and it ran on a modified version of SSI’s Gold Box engine, and (I presume) used the 2nd Edition D&D ruleset. That may have been what doomed it in the long run, for the license expired, and AOL, TSR and SSI couldn’t reach an agreement that would allow the game to continue. It is worthy of note that of those three companies, two don’t exist now, and the remaining one is nowadays nearly a ghost itself. I’m not going to say it happened because they couldn’t reach an agreement on continuing NWN, in fact it probably wasn’t, but it’s a little comforting to think it might have contributed. Two things that are equally disposable, it seems, are old MMORPGs and the hide-bound corporations that ran them.

There is a fansite devoted to the AOL Neverwinter Nights, apparently continuous in existence from the days the game was live. It hosts a fan recreation called Neverwinter Nights Offline, which is not an exact recreation of the original but recreates a large portion. Of course, without other human players inhabiting the game’s world, it’s nowhere near the same. It runs in DOS, so Dosbox might be of some use to you.

There is also ForgottenWorld (no relation to Capcom’s arcade game), a fan-made recreation of Neverwinter Nights. The note on the fansite dates to 2004, but ForgottenWorld still survives, and even has a Discord. I haven’t tried it myself yet, nor the offline version of NWN linked above. That’s because I see ghosts like these all the time, and I cannot devote the time or energy to any of them that they truly deserve. But maybe, you can.

On Neverwinter Nights Offline, there is a series of Youtube videos where aulddragon plays it for four hours. The first video in the sequence follows. Check out that Gold Box combat style!

Fansite: The Original Neverwinter Nights 1991-1997
Let’s Briefly Play “Neverwinter Nights AOL” (Youtube playlist, about 4 hours)

The Many Revivals of Toontown Online

planet clue on Youtube posted a roundup of the many recreations of Disney’s defunct MMORPG Toontown Online, which range from strict remakes to expanded projects that add a considerable number of features to the original.

Fan-made MMORPG recreations and revivals, sadly, never manage to gain even a small fraction of the users of the originals. This is for several reasons, particularly the lack of ad budget, and a desire to stay partially under the radar, necessary to avoid legal reprisals from the original publisher–which, I remind you, in this case is Disney, the 2,000 lb. gorilla-mouse of lawsuits.

These F2P MMOs are a large part of many people’s childhoods though, and it’s inevitable that there be community interest in reviving them, if just to be able to visit old virtual stomping grounds once again. The people that I shed a tear for are those who played old Compuserve and AOL-era MMOs like Island of Kesmai (which exists in two fan-run forms, LOKFreedom and Lands of Kes) and, particularly, the original AOL-based Neverwinter Nights. But more on that tomorrow….

I think it’s possible that Disney will come to realize how many people have fond memories of Toontown Online, and also Club Penguin (which also has a fan revival), and bring them back after some time. They are not insensible to bringing in yet another revenue stream, and they’ve been open to revivals of other old video game properties of theirs like Ducktales Remastered. If that happens though, will they then launch their legal-nuclear missiles at the many fan remakes of Toontown Online? It remains to be seen.

The Death, and Many Many Rebirths of Toontown Online (20 minutes)

Oldweb: Flying Omelette Lives

The World Wide Web is now over thirty years old. In that time, more content has vanished from it than remains now, but some of it can still be dredged up from the shadowy archives of the Wayback Machine. This is the latest chapter in our never-ending search to find the cool gaming stuff that time forgot….

Considering its longevity, I can almost forgive the broken image links in the right sidebar!

A brief but happy statement: the website Flying Omelette, dating back to 1998, is not only still online, but its most recent update was this past November, and it saw frequent updates throughout 2023. Rock on, levitating eggfood!

There’s a lot of things to find on the site, including collections of MP3, nine hosted shrines and a number of guides. Please show it some love, because you can be sure that Google won’t.

Flying Omelette (flyingomelette.com)

Cam’s Pac-Man Fun Page

From the linked page. Piranha is one of a whole category of Pac-Man bootlegs that try to obscure their origin.

I’m considering writing more on the subject of the male-gendered Pac, which I assume is a mere matter of social custom among the Pac-People since they have no genitalia or clothing. Pac-Man bootlegs, in particular, are bizarre and wonderful, even if they often aren’t very fun to play.

But Cam has a nice page devoted to Pac mutants. And these old Geocities-style pages need much more love these days, so for now I’ll link to them. Have a look!

A little remarked-upon aspect of these Pac-legs is how their character name is strictly determined by how many letters long it is, so that they can fit on this screen in the same amount of space that PAC-MAN did.

Advance Wars By Web

Advance Wars By Web is a long-standing website allowing for Advance Wars games to take place between players online. It’s old enough that it came out before Advance Wars Dual Strike, the first DS Advance Wars game, and has survived long enough to see the release of Dual Strike, Advance Wars Days of Ruin, and now Advance Wars 1+2: Reboot Camp.

The first Advance Wars game had a legendary awkward launch date: September 10, 2001. I don’t know if world events following it had any influence on its popularity, but Advance Wars had the advantage of being a long-running series, going back to the Famicom, that had never been given a chance in Western territories. (One reason? Super Famicom Wars had a notorious character named Hister, with a moustache that made its inspiration unmistakable.)

The first two Advance Wars titles, taking their name, like previous versions, from its release platform the Gameboy Advance, were unexpectedly popular. The gaming groups I was in in college played an incredible amount of Advance Wars 2. We maxed out the game’s timer at 999 hours! I have no doubt that, if our group hadn’t broken up from people graduating and leaving, we’d still be playing it today.

Both of these games are preserved in proper fashion by Wayforward’s Switch remake of Advance Wars and its immediate sequel. Of the two games after it, Dual Strike leans a bit too hard on CO powers (already a creeping problem in AW2), and Days of Ruin implemented a lot of gameplay adjustments and fixed but, alas, lost the weird sense of fun from the semi-cartoony characters and setting of the first two games.

The Gameboy Advance Advance Wars games did not have internet-enabled multiplayer. The DS versions had better options, but they’re unavailable now, at least without some technical effort, due to the shutdown of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection.

Advance Wars By Web both allows a game much like AW2 to be played over the internet, and it does so with features that make it feel like a play-by-mail game, with the site handling the state involved with turn-based multiplayer. It does this at the of having any form of single-player: all of its battles are against other human players. So it’s not an excellent way to learn to play Advance Wars games interactively, as with the official games, which easy you into the game a bit at a time. But as for learning how to play this online version, there’s a number of useful videos available on their Tutorials Page. I especially like their video on overcoming first turn advantage, which they do by spotting the second player one Infantry unit. It’s not a perfect solution, but one that works out fairly well in play. And the video on designing balanced multiplayer maps, which offers a lot of practical advice that can be carried over into designing maps for the original games. And there’s a huge library of over 3,800 games to view, if you want to see how the community plays.

I don’t know if Reboot Camp is helping to sustain the avid fandom that the first Advance Wars games did, but I’ve enjoyed it a lot. If you enjoy it too, you can go from Reboot Camp right into playing against people online on AWBW. I can’t offer much more about it than that, for Advance Wars is a deceptively deep game and I have to make a post here, on the average, every day, but it’s been offering online play between humans for nearly twenty years now! That has to count for something.

Advance Wars By Web (awbw.amarriner.com)

Gamebase 64 is in Trouble

According to this forum post, classic Commodore 64 database and information archive site Gamebase 64 has been stricken by the death of their webmaster Steven Feurer, and unless they can find someone to replace him soon, and likely provide alternate hosting too, their site will follow him into the Great Beyond.

As time passes, these kinds of events will happen more and more often, so please, if you maintain a website, of any kind sure but our remit is games so let’s say game-related site, please take measures to ensure its continuity in the unfortunate event of your passing. And if you can help Gamebase64 out, please consider it?

Bye, bye, Gamebase64?

The Website of the Blue Sky Rangers

I’m surprised these folks are still around! The Intellivision was an ancient property even by the time the Blue Sky Rangers were founded, and their site is still up, even now in this blasted dystopian year of 2023.

They’ve been making collections and remakes of, and retro consoles containing, the old Intellivision games since 1997, and once in a while they make a new package to keep the memory of the old games alive. My own shelf has the Gamecube version of Intellivision Lives on it.

You might find it edifying to visit their site. That is my hope. My dream? Look and see.

The Website of the Blue Sky Rangers and Blue Sky Rangers History

Preserving Monkey Ball Flash Games

Adobe (formerly Shockwave) Flash had a good long reign on the web as the premier means of presenting snappy interactive content without requiring repeated trips to the server. For ages, Javascript wouldn’t cut it for many purposes. Being tied to a full authoring environment helped it gain in popularity. Whole careers were built off of creating Flash content for the web.

Flash was easy enough to work in that many companies would produce Flash applets, even games, merely as promotional content, intended to be cheap and quick to make and ultimately disposable. Many of these games were lost when the websites they were a part of were taken down.

The Flashpoint Archive project, headed (I think) by BlueMaxima, has as its mission the preservation of these ephemeral creations. A post on Flashpoint will be coming eventually, but in the meantime I’d like to point out a 2021 Youtube video by (adjusts glasses) “Goober13md,” although I suspect that he may not actually be a medical doctor.

Goober13md’s beat is all things Monkey Ball. He made a video about the search for, and ultimate rediscovery, of three Flash games commissioned by Sega to promote the first Super Monkey Ball titles, as well as one for Super Monkey Ball Adventure (which Goober13md is understandably reluctant to mention by name). It’s an informative story about the difficulty of content preservation in a time, which is still ongoing might I add, where companies don’t see their web presences as anything more than transitory. Look look, see see!

The Super Monkey Ball Flash Games That Were Lost For Over a Decade (Youtube, 29 minutes)

On Finding and Preserving Discord and Youtube

This editorial doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of this blog. However, blogs don’t have views anyway, so what would that even mean?

This is a slightly edited version of a diatribe I emitted on mefi.social. I really want people to see it and think about what it means though.

A dismaying thing is how much of current gaming culture is locked behind Discords, and/or is revealed to the world only through Youtube videos.

These two phenomena are the result of the Myth of the Benevolent Corporation, which was largely started by early Google and their “Do No Evil” policy, which sustained the early web for a good while but itself did huge damage to online culture, and yet promises to do much much more, when they decided that profits mattered more.

When Youtube started, everyone saw it as a kind of miracle. In the early days videos were limited to 10 minutes, but even so they began attracting a huge amount of material. When they switch to just letting people upload anything for free, that exploded.

I love this page, at http://cs.gettysburg.edu/~duncjo01/archive/icons/iconolog/pavilion/iconHall.html. I’m really sad that the world depicted within has shrunken so much, and of the list of links on this page only three survive.

It’s not just gaming stuff that I’m talking about really, although as a popular fixation for people it’s kind of a hint of things to come. Lots of information is currently exposed to the world through Youtube videos and minidocs.

From U Can Beat Videogames’s video on Shadowrun. It’s great, but some day it’ll be gone. How will people beat an ancient obscure SNES game like this then?

But Youtube has always been a time bomb for all this content. It’s inevitable that Youtube will someday begin deleting things. If not sooner, then later. Yet there are few entities capable of preserving all of it, or even most of it. All of this will [get destroyed] like [crying] in [a downpour].

Of course, it’s not like videos like these have any other hope as it stands. A collection of the incredible size of Youtube’s is so big that only a government could realistically do it, and most of those have their own issues when it comes to continuity of mission and funding.

But combined with Discords as a means of communication, and (bizarrely) information, a lot of online culture is currently a black box to outsiders, unless they sign up to dozens of miscellaneous Discords. And there is a limit to the number of servers you can follow, which is reputed to be 100. (It used to be that Google could get you a quick answer to a question like how many Discord servers can one user follow, but now I’m not sure.)

Social media companies, who all seem to be racing each other to make their services as crappy as possible to non-paying users, are no solution either.

There used to be a Mastodon search engine, at search.noc.social. This is what remains of it. (Yes, it’s just a white page with the text “project has been removed.”)

Fediverse to the rescue! But no, a lot of it is transitory, sometimes intentionally so! In some circles even suggesting that Mastodon be just searchable, let alone preservable, will subject you to a storm of criticism. It’s true that being opaque to general search helps protect vulnerable users, a noble cause, but it also makes Mastodon’s discoverability very low. (One solution, which I think I mentioned here before, is an opt-in search solution called tootfinder, but it currently only goes back three months.)

And I don’t see many other people talking about this, even though the sudden decay of Twitter and Reddit has made this essential problem more visible than its been for a long time.

I feel like going onto every Discord I follow, gaming research ones in particular, and ringing alarm bells, but it’s a task just to find them out, and really what good would it do. People use Discord because it’s free and easy and they even maintain the server for you. These kinds of spaces have always relied on some patron to uphold them; the only real differences are before they were visible to search and the Wayback Machine, and now, it’s a single company that will increasingly hold access to these places obscured behind a storm of pleas to subscribe to Nitro, and someday will delete them entirely.

The Zelda II Randomizer Discord. As a community, it works okay. As a way of storing information, well, it sucks rocks. As a way of preserving everything, it’s DOOOOOMED.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, there are vast swaths of online culture that are already lost permanently: the Compuserve forums of the era immediately preceding the rise of the web. Compuserve was once the biggest online presence. And AOL, which grew to eclipse it in size, likewise holds (still? I don’t know, it’s on AOL!) a vast amount of early internet culture.

Newsgroup archives are a bit better off because of their openness, although nowadays it’s mostly seen as just a way to enable piracy.

Still, essential web services are at least preservable. The Fediverse resembles those, at least in principle, so it’s immediately better off than Discords and Youtube, for making old information findable, even if it’s currently really hard to do it (and some people are outright opposed to it).

It is time to wrap this all up. I say things like this frequently these days. Maybe someday someone will listen. The power and reach of the internet doesn’t have to rely on big companies. I also have qualms about the ability of a even a horde of individual servers to keep things going, mind you. All those dead links on all those surviving old websites, they once represented living projects too.

I think what we ultimately need is an independent organization that can keep up old sites and communities, and provide a place for new ones, maybe supported by donations, without the explicit profit motive of the bigcorps. Something that looks like the Internet Archive or Wikipedia. There’s places where you can host plain websites even today, like the Tildeverse (but its individual pieces, like Fediverse servers, always feel like they could vanish at any time), ancient-yet-still-here Angelfire (of which, like the Lycos it’s a part of, it’s amazing still survives), or the newer, enthusiast-focused Neocities (which too has no guarantee of longevity).

Companies can live longer than people, or their interest cycles. It doesn’t feel right that something like a website require someone to dedicate their life to maintaining it, but due to the dysfunctional way our economic has come to see companies (involving the hateful words fiduciary duty) are also vulnerable to the winds of change. It feels like a non-profit, or at least a durable privately-held company that isn’t pushed by rapacious groups to chase every profit lead no matter how disastrous, may be a solution. I don’t know if it really is, though. I’m just watching this, mostly from the outside. I hope someone can do something though, to overturn the cold tides of entropy. I really do.

The Guardian Legend Shrine

The World Wide Web is now over thirty years old. In that time, more content has vanished from it than remains now, but some of it can still be dredged up from the shadowy archives of the Wayback Machine. This is the latest chapter in our never-ending search to find the cool gaming stuff that time forgot….

Part of the network of the similarly venerable shmups.com, The Guardian Legend Shrine is nearly the ideal game shrine, a static site crammed full of screenshots, strategy tips, fan art and fiction, and generally just everything of interest to a fan of the NES game.

“BOO!” Who is this supposed to be though? A villain? There’s no one looking anything like this in the game.

The Guardian Legend, recently covered by Jeremy Parish within Metroidvania Works as part of his penance for coining the term in the Before Times, is a cult classic in the genre. Design by “Moo” Niitani at Compile, it combines their deadly-sharp shooters with the exploratory gameplay of The Legend of Zelda. It even has its own form of the confusion as to who the main character is supposed to be. In this case, it’s pretty obvious in play that she’s a cyborg bikini girl out to blast aliens, but you wouldn’t know it at all from the manual or US box art. She’s just “The Guardian,” because otherwise it’d be more evident that you play as a girl.

Naria’s fanart. I like this one, it’s fairly tasteful.

Last updated in 2002, the heyday of the age of the internet fan shrine, its art section is full of crudely-drawn sent-in art of its main character Miya, or Alyssa, or whatever she’s called. Most of it is chaste, thankfully-this isn’t DeviantArt we’re talking sbout here. I wonder about the people who sent those drawings now, and how they feel about work they made probably as a kid still floating around the internet. The game was already nine years old at that time, so they really couldn’t have been that young?

Okay. We’ve found the perfect fan art. The rest of you can wrap it up, you can’t defeat this.

It seems likely that no one’s worked on the site for a long long while. The hit counter and guestbook don’t work, and the link to an archive of NES manuals is broken. The newest entry on the News page says they had lost their FTP password, but then found it again, and a new update should be coming soon. That was in 2002, so you know, any day now.

That Blue Randar is, as they say, totes adorbs.

The Downloads page has links to the game’s roms, shamelessly promulgated to all passers-by, as well as a lot of other media taken-from and inspired-by the game. As just one more example of just how old this is, the suggested emulator for playing the roms is Nesticle.

The original game is 34 years old now, and not getting younger. The age of the web fan shrine is long past, and its parent site Shmups hasn’t itself been updated since 2010. Who knows how much longer it’ll be with it. SO please, take a few moments to explore this relic of a past age. Do it for me. Do it for “Moo” Niitani. Do it for Miya/Alyssa/The Guardian/whatever. And especially, do it for Blue Rendar. Look into those googly eyes, how could you say no to them?

Christopher Emirzian’s Guardian Legend Shrine