My long quest to revive a ’90s Windows gaming cult classic

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Written By Sedoso Feb

The elusive, addictive gameplay that has been haunting my dreams for years.

As 2023 draws to a close—and as we start to finalize our Game of the Year contenders—I really should be catching up on the embarrassingly long list of great recent releases that I haven’t put enough time into this year. Instead, over the last few days, I’ve found myself once again hooked on a simple, addictive, and utterly unique Japanese Windows freeware game from the late ’90s that, until recently, I thought I had lost forever.

Pendulumania is a cult classic in the truest sense of the word: Few people have heard of it, even in hardcore gaming circles, but those who have experienced it tend to have very fond memories of it. And while I shared those memories, it wasn’t until this week that I’ve been able to share my effusive praise for a game whose name and playable executable had eluded me for well over a decade.

Timeless design

The mechanics of Pendulumania are incredibly simple. You use the computer mouse to control a metal ring, which is attached via an elastic string to a white ball. The object is to carefully move the ring so the stretchy string and gravity can nudge the ball around a 2D plane, crashing into floating scoring orbs to collect points (colored orbs that randomly appear can make the ball larger or the string stronger as well). Be careful, though; if the elastic string stretches too far, it will break and your game will be over.

I wish I could claim this screenshot of a massive 128x combo as my own, but my skills are not back to that level yet.
MobyGames

The presentation of Pendulumania definitely betrays its late-’90s homebrew origins, complete with chunky pixels, day-glo explosions, scrolling backgrounds, and music that sounds like a dying cat walking across a synthesizer. Still, there’s something appealing about the game’s minimalist interface and sound effects, which provide key at-a-glance information about timing, scoring, future scoring orb positions, and how close you are to the limits of your string’s elastic.

Pendulumania‘s unique, indirect control scheme definitely takes some getting used to. It takes a bit of practice to learn how to gently but quickly nudge the ball without whipping the string so quickly that it breaks. After a bit of play, though, the elegant stretching and contracting of the string becomes part of your muscle memory, and you end up guiding your white ball in gentle, balletic arcs across the screen without much in the way of conscious thought.

Before long, you’ll find yourself planning the ball’s curves a few scoring orbs ahead, integrating complex wall bounces and tricky downward-pulling loops into your repertoire as you seek to stretch that score-enhancing combo multiplier as high as it will go. After each snap of the elastic line, it’s very easy to feel like a small adjustment could have led to a truly great run and that just “one more game” will result in an incredible high score.

Lost and found

I first stumbled on Pendulumania sometime in the late ’00s during one of those deep dives through random web links that were so common during the early days of the web. I quickly became hopelessly addicted to the game’s easy-to-learn but hard-to-master gameplay loop; for months, I would play daily, sometimes for hours at a time, improving my skills until I could occasionally stretch combos above 100x for truly huge scores.

Eventually, my skills hit a plateau, and I slowly drifted away from Pendulumania in favor of other digital distractions. I managed to largely forget about the game for years, until some stray thought once again brought back the relaxing images of swinging a pixelated ball on a string gently around the screen. By that point, though, I had moved on to a new computer and a fresh Windows installation, leaving behind many programs that I had installed on my old desktop tower.

And while I could easily remember how it felt to play the game, I could not for the life of me remember the title or how I had originally found it.

Periodic flailing Google searches for “Japanese elastic string ball game” and the like only led to dead ends in the subsequent years. And despite my desperation, I was never smart enough to reach out to my Twitter followers or the helpful folks at the Tip of My Joystick subreddit for help with this particular memory issue (someone else apparently dug up Pendulumania in a similar subreddit back in 2011).

The <em>Yoyozo</em> gameplay GIF that helped unlock my <em>Pendulumania</em> memory block.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/manual7.gif” width=”400″ height=”240″><figcaption class=
The Yoyozo gameplay GIF that helped unlock my Pendulumania memory block.

Fast forward to this weekend, when the long-neglected Playdate handheld on my desk alerted me that there were new games available on its downloadable store. My interest piqued a bit when I scrolled down to Yoyozo, a game where you “control a space yoyo—a small ring-shaped spaceship attached to a ball by an elastic beam,” according to its store description. That interest kicked into overdrive when I viewed an animated GIF on the Yoyozo store page, which looked like a grainy, black-and-white version of my hazy, name-not-found memories of that ball-swinging game.

One quick search for “Yoyozo inspiration” quickly confirmed that it wasn’t a coincidence and that Yoyozo “is a loving homage to Cano-Lab’s 1999 cult classic Pendulumania” (apparently, it is not the first game that Pendulumania has directly inspired, either). After years of periodic searching, I had stumbled across the title that had eluded me for so long!

Ballastic, released on Steam in 2018, also draws pretty direct inspiration from Pendulumania.”><em>Ballastic</em>, released on Steam in 2018, also draws pretty direct inspiration from <em>Pendulumania</em>.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/ballastic-640×360.jpg” width=”640″ height=”360″ srcset=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/ballastic-1280×720.jpg 2x”><figcaption class=
Enlarge / Ballastic, released on Steam in 2018, also draws pretty direct inspiration from Pendulumania.
Ballastic / Steam

I paid the $8 to download Yoyozo, in part as a way of saying thank you for the removal of my memory block. And while the Playdate title was a loving and authentic port of the gameplay I remembered so fondly from so long ago, I also found myself missing the colors—and especially the mouse controls—of the game I now once again know as Pendulumania. There was an itch in my brain that could only be scratched by playing the original release again.

Open the Windows

With the actual name of the game in hand, finding a copy of Pendulumania was surprisingly easy. The last version of the game has been stored as an 818kb RAR file on the Internet Archive since 2003, alongside multiple archived captures of the Japanese website for defunct developer Cano-Lab, where I no doubt originally downloaded the game years ago. Pendulumania is also downloadable via a handful of abandonware websites, practically all of which correctly identify the game as an addictive hidden gem.

Now we're getting somewhere...
Now we’re getting somewhere…
Kyle Orland / CANOLabs

Unfortunately, getting a game designed for Windows 9x/XP to run on a modern 64-bit Windows 10 installation wasn’t exactly a plug-and-play situation. My first hurdle was a “D3DRM.dll was not found” error, which I was able to remedy by downloading a copy of the ancient DLL from a shady-looking site.

A less-helpful-than-hoped error message.
A less-helpful-than-hoped error message.
Kyle Orland

That DLL let me load the menu but didn’t get me past a much more cryptic error message when I tried to load the actual game: “640x480x8bit?????????????????????????” While my system didn’t have the language support to translate those question marks into actual Japanese text, the English bit of the error seemed clear enough: I needed to downgrade my resolution and color depth before I could play.

Unfortunately, diving into Windows settings and forcing a 640×480 resolution on my monitor didn’t seem to help. A few scary-looking resolution-forcing utilities recommended by Ars’ resident retro-PC expert Benj Edwards didn’t provide what I needed, either. And though a bit of Googling suggested that Pendulumania might run on WINE, an hour of futzing with installation scripts and security settings on my Mac just left me with a hanging Terminal window for all my efforts.

Pendulumania runs just fine on a 20+-year-old Toshiba laptop.”>For what it's worth, <em>Pendulumania</em> runs just fine on a 20+-year-old Toshiba laptop.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/pmaniabenj-640×480.png” width=”640″ height=”480″ srcset=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/pmaniabenj-1280×960.png 2x”><figcaption class=
Enlarge / For what it’s worth, Pendulumania runs just fine on a 20+-year-old Toshiba laptop.
Benj Edwards

Meanwhile, Benj had managed to get the game running on an honest-to-goodness “fat Toshiba Laptop” running a native copy of Windows XP, making me wish I had also saved my ancient computer hardware. Benj’s efforts to set up a Virtual Machine to simulate that environment on a modern OS ran into error after error, though; he reported that even reinstalling Windows 98 from scratch on said Virtual Machine led to multiple incompatibilities and crashes.

After all this runaround, I stumbled upon the eventual answer to my problem in the description of one of the few extant YouTube videos of Pendulumania. That YouTuber pointed me to DxWND, a so-called “Windows hooker” designed to ensure compatibility between old 32-bit Windows programs and modern 64-bit systems. To my great relief, this tool worked with minimal setup, finally giving me access to Pendulumania for the first time in years.

While my ball-swinging skills have diminished a bit in the intervening period, the instant appeal of this gem of a game has not. And the fact that I can still play the game at all on my modern PC is a testament to the long arc of intergenerational Windows gaming compatibility over the decades (even if it did take some sleuthing for additional utilities to make it work). More extreme examples of this trend are easy to find in PC gaming, of course; GOG sells early ’80s games like Akalabeth and M.U.L.E. to modern PC audiences roughly four decades after their original releases through the help of the excellent DOSBox emulator.

More than just letting me relive a nostalgic gaming addiction, my Pendulumania saga has made me better appreciate the long sweep of PC gaming history. I can only wonder how many other obscure gaming gems are hiding out there, just waiting to create memories for a new audience.

Listing image by Benj Edwards

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