RetroCON 2021

by Sir Slice

2021

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Inoffensive minigames, December 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Okay, real talk: I found RetroCON 2021 – a low-key, low-plot collection of minigames – kind of boring. But as the last game to come up in my Comp queue, actually it was kind of pleasant to have something so inoffensive to close things out. It was nice to dip into the seven different activities on offer, dig into the one or two that interested me, and quit without feeling like I needed to exhaust everything the game has to offer. It’s an inoffensive time-waster – and an impressive demonstration of programming skill – that’s not especially memorable, but sometimes there’s a place for that.

There is a thin frame story tying this all together: you’re in Vegas for a retro gaming convention, providing justification for the three different games on offer as well as four opportunities for gambling. But there are no characters to interact with in this layer, or any consequences so far as I could tell for winning games or money, so it’s really just there as a semi-elaborate menu for the minigames. I’d roughly divide these into the fun ones, the duds, and those that are fine but left me cold. In the third bucket I’d put all the gambling ones – I’ve never found straight games of chance at all compelling, so the horse-betting, keno, and slot machine didn’t hold my attention for more than a minute. The fourth gambling game – video poker – I’d technically classify as fun, though there’s nothing novel about this implementation so I didn’t feel inclined to spend much time on it either.

That leaves the three games, which are presented as retro throwbacks to old, late 70s-early 80s video games. Two of them fall into my dud category, sad to say: there’s a zombie-themed card game you play against the computer that relies heavily on take-that gameplay, meaning that in my first go-round it took me 22 turns before I could do anything at all useful, at which point the computer was a turn away from winning. There’s also a text-based football game that’s got a complex and interesting set of choices, though I found it was tuned too hard to be fun (my passes failed just about every time, even when the defense was focusing on the running game).

Thankfully, the final game is a full, albeit small text adventure, with a text parser integrated into Twine. This isn’t anything to write home about, as the parser is pretty bare bones, the adventure has a generic plot (you’re searching for a hidden inheritance from your uncle), and there’s only one and a half puzzles to solve, though there are two solutions. But again, at least for me at the end of the Comp, I enjoyed going through the generic house and yard, searching the furniture for hidden keys, and working out simple challenges that don’t overstay their welcome. With a more robust frame story, some incentives to reward success in the minigames, and a smoother difficulty curve for some of the rougher ones, RetroCON 2021 could have been more than the sum of its parts – but eh, as is there are still worse ways to kill twenty minutes.

Highlight: I took two runs through the horse-racing game, and in the second one I won big putting my money on the dark-horse contender, so that was fun (and a nice justification for stopping gambling now that I was ahead).

Lowlight: I only dimly remembered what Keno was, and then once I clicked on it I remembered that it’s the world’s most boring “game” (you pick a bunch of numbers, then they get called or not).

How I failed the author: I played this one with only half my brain at best, but I think that’s more or less the expectation here so hopefully it’s not too big a failure to wrap up on!