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Mothmen 1966 review - a journey to the wonderfully cursed early days of CGA gaming

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An eerie journey back to the days when all games were a bit eerie anyway.

The Mothman is my favourite cryptid. I am always willing to drop everything and make the case for him. I love the way Mothman wears the tattered grey shrouds of the most funereal of insects, and the way it offsets this with blazing red eyes. What does a Mothman smell like? The tomb, of course, and he is at home in forests, like Bigfoot, but also in the post-human spaces of abandoned factories and dried up industrial towns. Mothman seems drawn to the craters and wreckage of great dreams.

I have more, alas! The Mothman Prophecies is my favourite cryptid book, because it takes a bunch of sightings of shadowed beasts and UFOs and lights and what-have-you, and it just screws with them from page to page, a truly rangy postmodern text, playfully twitching at the fore-edges of belief and our sense of a shared reality. The movie, which I saw one rainy Sunday afternoon back when it came out, almost undone by a throbbing migraine, turned out to be the perfect movie for rain, for Sundays and migraines - again, taking the idea of horror films and extra-terrestrial investigations and turning it all into something where the detailing lines up and points towards a deep psychic wrongness. Look at this beautiful bit of business with a de-synchronised mirror. It takes a horrible kind of love to create that.

Now what would a fancy VGA version look like?

Anyway, finally Mothman gets the game he deserves. And guess what, it's weird and playful and unexpected. At times it lapses into being pretty awful, but its awfulness is brief and never enough to destroy my love for it. I love this game, because more than anything it takes the player back to a really odd place, or rather two really odd places. Back to 1966 and the woods of America where strange sightings are spooking the locals, sure. But also back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when schoolchildren would cluster round the weird hulking shapes of early PC monitors and play bizarre games with lurid colour schemes, the best of which completely defied genre, because genres themselves had not yet been ossified.

All of which is to say, I guess, that Mothmen 1966 is a nifty piece of interactive fiction, done up like one of those non-Lucasarts point-n-clicks of the late 1980s. The colours are the food-poisoning cyans and toxic-spill greens of the earliest CGA PC games I remember, and the pixel art works sickly wonders on the true-crime illustrative style, rendering backwoods locations in sudden pools of light floating in darkness, and emphasising the cragginess and shadows of the human face.

I'd even settle for an EGA version tbh.

Across a series of chapters you switch between a handful of characters who come to know the inhuman forces lurking in the night. For most of the game - the best part - you actually just hang out with these people, watching what happens and scrolling through text. A guy works late at a gas station and is menaced by Men in Black who turn up and want to do very odd things with the playing cards he is using for Solitaire. Two teens are out on a date - we get to see things from both perspectives and understand the separate worries that are chewing away at each of them. A reporter of sorts has come to write a book. All of these people converge one night as a meteor shower reaches its peak overhead. They are surrounded by trees and dilapidated capitalism and - what's that glowing in the amongst the branches?

Mothmen 1966 is better with literal monsters than I expected - it is happy for the cryptids to step into the light in a way that both the Mothman Prophecies book and film are not. When things kick off here, they properly kick off, the action somehow finding space for the soapy human plots to keep muddling along as well.

Here's the Mothmen 1966 teaser.

But on the flipside of that, Mothmen 1966 is definitely at its least confident when it's trying to be a traditional game. Multiple choice events often end in sudden death, which just means reloading and clicking on other options until you find one that allows you to live. Action set-pieces are rendered clunky through the text interface, as is a seriously good Solitaire variant that you have to play by selecting the right sentences, sadly. It feels like playing cards with your hands reaching into those glove-accessed sterile environments they use for manipulating poisons.

I can't believe I'm about to say this but, the truth is I didn't mind about any of the game's more awkward elements. Because part of Mothmen 1966 is a throwback to the games of the early 1990s, which in their weirdness, their halting ambitions, were frequently clumsy and infuriating and generally lacking in streamlined elegance. Mothmen really feels like that. More than anything it reminds me of nights spent around friends' houses, as we all picked through the Galapagos archipelagos of weird shareware software they had somehow accrued from places unknown.

Speaking of places unknown, I reached the end of my Mothmen adventure fairly quickly - a couple of hours. But I'm going back in to see what different choices - the different choices that do not lead to immediate death - bring me. The game may be a willing throwback, but it is very modern about tracking decisions and signalling where there are interesting absences you might wish to re-explore.

I won't play it during the day, though. Not any day, at least. A rainy Sunday might do it, if I had the right kind of migraine. Otherwise it's got to be Friday night, long after everyone's in bed, with only the tubular glow of an old monitor to illuminate the shapes in the living room.

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About the Author

Christian Donlan avatar

Christian Donlan

Features Editor

Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.

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