Review – Tape Recovery Simulator 96K
Did you ever have a friend who loved to make edgy jokes? People who couldn’t help making some kind of six inch sandwich comment when mentioning Subway and Jared, or the guy who basically found a way to be like “Just like Bill Clinton, right?” whenever there was some snarky thing on the news? These folks love to get their humor from shock value, and generally seem to understand the line. But then, every so often, they’ll go too far and try to riff on something that is a bit too recent or perhaps too hot. I don’t even want to give an example because I’ll get canceled mid article, but you’ve all seen the classy reactions to the state of the world in the last year or so. When that occurs, the polite term we use is “tone-deaf”. There is a way to create humor and atmosphere in the world around us, and the best comedians, even watercooler comedians, know the time and place on how to use it.
Tape Recovery Simulator 96K (fairly ominous intro, isn’t it?) is the simulation game that literally no one asked for, but was still created anyways. For all the children who won’t get off my lawn, computer data used to be backed up on actual tapes, from massive tape rolls down to literal cassette tapes: you know, the kind your dad made a mixtape on in order to get your mom to go to the prom with him. Anyone who’s used a cassette tape for music knows the dangers of the tape getting mangled and torn, the reels getting broken, or just the arduous task of needing to rewind it whenever you finish a song or need to get back to a certain point.
That was a pain in the butt just for listening to The Rembrandts, since you bought the album just for the one song. Try imagining that for actual data, as in, programs you’ve coded, images you’ve painstakingly crafted in ASCII, and important documents that your company will need for the future of everything. Unsurprisingly, the idea of this data becoming corrupt was a waking nightmare for computer people of the 70s and 80s, and it was a very real problem that occurred on a semi-regular basis. Thankfully, there were wizards who used machines and an understanding of tapes that no human should ever need to commit to memory that were able to recover the data, at least in some capacity, and save your hours of hard work from the trash heap.
To its credit, Tape Recovery Simulator 96K does an interesting job of setting up what it is you need to do and how to do it. The interface is a series of floating windows that give the feeling of a Windows 3.1 application suite. The different tapes are loaded through a set of side decks, and you have a number of tutorial videos in order to show you what needs to happen. From the beginning, it becomes a matter of patience and trial and error in order to get the job done. You need to load up the tape, scan it to see the different data sectors, use an emulator to see the tape in real time as it’s being processed, and then adjust different levels of volume and speed in order to get to the heart of the matter.
As you find out in the final “test” before beginning the game, sometimes you’ll need to skip around on the tape, stopping and starting it in different places to jankily assemble the data in a very magpie sort of way. Once everything is said and done, you’ll use a memory screen to capture the completed recovery and then email it back to your boss, who will then either berate you mercilessly or crow about how great of a boss he is. More on that in a moment.
There is not a precise save system in place, so players are at the mercy of an imaginary set of checkpoints in order to continue their playing from where they last left off. That is to say, if you don’t finish a tape to satisfaction and completion, be ready to do it again from square one once you boot the game back up again. Also, be prepared to constantly keep shifting around the windows if they aren’t to your liking from the default position: the game will reset them regardless of how they were placed prior to quitting.
If you aren’t a fan of the digital noise of the handshaking from 90’s dialup computers, be forewarned that the sound of the tapes compiling and reading their own data is very similar and can be grating (though I personally enjoyed it, nostalgia and all that jazz). You can’t play muted, either, as being able to discern how the noise is being read by the computer is important, and emulated volume will sometimes need to be adjusted on the fly so that the data read can continue. Oh, and the game will sometimes stop responding. Not crash, mind you, but you suddenly won’t be able to type code, change tapes or reply to emails. Anything that happened in this aspect I’m writing up to ironing the bugs out, so take that with a grain of salt depending on how unforgiving you are of a game.
I’ve had the pleasure of delving into games within games, like Hypnospace Outlaws, Emily is Away Too and Her Story. Being able to elevate the gameplay through an interesting interface helps to make for an overall better game, and makes it both memorable in what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. With Tape Recovery Simulator 96K, there’s no story to speak of that really works from the beginning. You’re an employee at a company, and you’re recovering data. A lot, and I mean a LOT, of the success comes from almost dumb luck. With full honesty, there’s the opinion to ask your coworker to tell you how to pass the initial test before you can start the game, and I still didn’t fully understand what I was being asked/told to do.
You’re instructed to use a different load option during the third tutorial of the game, and then it’s hammered into you that that’s the better way to do it, but, if you do that for the final test, you’ll never pass: you need to basically ignore your new instructions to get ahead. As a result, you never know if the next tape should be “LOAD “”” or “LOAD “” SCREEN$.” You have to keep guessing and trying to hope that what you need is what you’ll stumble upon in a good amount of time: I spent over an hour just getting through the tutorial before making it to the main game.
But what takes Tape Recovery Simulator 96K from simply “not for me” to “not for anyone” is the atmosphere and tone of the game. You have an email inbox that is your only way to communicate with the rest of your company (all three members), and it’s also how you check in on work missions and understand the reasoning for everything. First and foremost, this game doesn’t take place in the past, but the present day, fully acknowledging the existence of optical media, solid state and even cloud servers for backing up information.
Your employer likes to view their services as extremely niche, catering towards clients either too old or too crazy to care about the superior options. While this should set a fun thematic moving forward (stubbornly holding onto outdated technology like someone obsessed with Laserdisc), it instead really drives home the futility of it all. Why in hell are you doing all of this when there’s better ways to do it? I know that gaming, especially simulators, go with the maverick idea of “because we can!”, but something almost seems inherently wrong about the whole ordeal.
Additionally, and perhaps too tellingly, Tape Recovery Simulator 96K starts each game with a disclaimer that it’s a fictitious world, all names are coincidences, and that the CEO’s managerial style should, in no way, be emulated by real workers. This is thrown out there to justify the fact that your job is one that no one in their right mind should be working. You are harangued, almost nonstop, by the CEO about how fast you’re working, why he’s losing money right now, how you’re incompetent, etc.
When you successfully do something, he celebrates his awesome hiring skills, not your work skills, and the rest of the company (again, two other people) will email you and commiserate about their narcissistic, pigheaded boss. But why does this even exist? It adds nothing to the short game and completely takes away the motivation to want to keep doing something. With VR games like I’m Hungry or The Cooking Game VR, the thrill comes from doing a job that might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but having fun with zany interactions and customers who reward your feats, no matter how inept. When you have a job that’s mostly chance and guess work, receive nothing of satisfaction from completion, AND are actively being belittled and harassed in a powertrip, why would you stay? Additionally, why would you play this as a free time activity?
If you were honestly neck-deep in the programming world of COBOL and BASIC, this might have some kind of nostalgic appeal, and you can chuckle, saying “Yea, my boss was like that. But I was getting paid insane 1960s money, so it was okay.” However, amid a massive movement of people walking away from abusive, underpaying jobs, Tape Recovery Simulator 96K couldn’t have picked a worse theme to float their already tiny boat upon in a huge sea of games. It’s boring, it’s frustrating, it’s unintuitive and, worst of all, it makes me feel bad trying to play a game. I can’t stress this enough: avoid at all cost and please find something, anything better to do with your time.
Not enough variety of tape styles, but did a solid job capturing why we stopped using Windows 3.1.
Pretend to understand the controls. Keep fiddling until it works. Maybe move forward.
The noise is alright, but it’s literally noise, so if that’s not your thing, then here we are.
I don’t think I’ve hated anything this much since the last time I was in civil court.
Final Verdict: 1.5
Tape Recovery Simulator 96K is available now on Steam.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of Tape Recovery Simulator 96K was provided by the publisher.