THE SEARCH FOR WANDERING WILLOWS
between the ages of 8 to 12 years old the vast majority of the pc games i played came from a site called big fish games. a huge amount of the stuff they hosted (and continue to host, apparently) consisted of hidden object and match 3 games, but some of the games i remember most fondly were (predictably) those where the goal is to collect or care for basically any kind of creature.
which, of course, is how we got here.
wandering willows is a game developed and published in 2009 by playfirst, who you might recognize from the diner dash series or its multiple spin-offs. it starts with your character crash-landing on an island after a seagull flies into your hot air balloon, and your goal is to restore it to working order and ultimately fly back home.
i actually don't think i ever got to the end of the story as a kid, probably because i was too preoccupied with collecting the forty or so creatures scattered aroud the different map regions. i like them quite a lot.
it's been, if i had to guess, nearly ten years since i last thought about this game beyond a passing memory. i don't know what made it resurface this time - i was in the middle of drawing something pretty personal, actually - but unlike previous incidents i decided to humor it a little more and try to find a playable copy.
this turned out to be much more difficult than i expected.
as it turns out, wandering willows was actually available on steam for a while. i wouldn't have been opposed to shelling out a little cash to satisfy my curiosity, but the game was delisted from basically every single distributor that sold it in 2019. it wasn't on steam, it wasn't on big fish, it wasn't on goddamn amazon; it was like playfirst had just wiped this thing off the face of the earth for no discernable reason. somehow, this only fueled my interest. at this point i felt like i was trying to rediscover a piece of lite lost media. someone had to have it somewhere, right? if it was on steam at any point there must've been at least one person out there who'd bought it and reuploaded the files.
i obviously wasn't about to even visit one of those Free Download No Viruses sites that come up basically any time you google anything followed by the word "download," but neither of my other two usual sites for stuff like this had it either... i had to think a little deeper for it this time.
at this point, a name reappeared in my head, delivered unto my thoughts by an angel or perhaps a demon:
getting too much into specifics here would mean risking the revelation of something even more embarrassing than what i'm about to show to you right now but know that this laptop, this device of infinite good and evil, was the personal computer i used between the ages of 12 to 15. this is very, very evident.
i knew that i'd redownloaded wandering willows onto him years and years prior, along with a slew of obvious malware and bogus antivirus software in an attempt to combat it. i wanted to try salvaging it to at least some extent - there was a huge amount of old art on here that i didn't have backed up or uploaded anywhere else - but i could not for the life of me figure out how to given my apparent lack of administrator permissions. not to mention the keyboard, whos left-most keys were all completely nonfunctional. if my password happened to have a q, a, z, or 1 in it i would've been fucked.
fortunately, it didn't!
unfortunately, the situation was so much more dire than i ever expected.
i reduced this photo's resolution as much as i could without making it completely illegible for both your sake and mine. it's pretty bad.
like, really bad.
originally my plan was to find wandering willows and just dump the folder onto my google drive but as soon as i saw the sheer amount of malware seeping into every corner of this computer i was uncomfortable even logging into anything to do that. i had the files, sure, but how was i supposed to send them over without contaminating everything else in the process?
after an agonizing 15 minutes of searching, my saving grace was an old thumb drive i got from my high school graduation. it was originally supposed to have the yearbook photos of all my classmates but was completely empty when i received it. skipped the first step for me, at least.
so finally, finally, i had this game in my hands. before moving it off the drive i scanned it a good couple times to really make sure it was clean. i think, oh my god, i have it, this ever-elusive game that i was only able to retrieve by the skin of my teeth via an old computer. what if it really, truly isn't available anywhere online? a friend suggests uploading it to archive.org. i agree. i make a search.
there are already four uploads of wandering willows on archive.org.
in hindsight, i don't know how archive.org wasn't the first site to come to mind for this. this probably would not have been the case if the beginning of this search didn't happen to coincide with that of the reddit blackout (thus leaving r/abandonware and its FAQ page - which specifically recommends archive.org - inaccessible), but i guess we can call this a case of journey over destination. it makes me feel less bad.
in the end i had to use one of the archive uploads anyway after my version of the game crashed once and refused to boot up again. again, journey over destination. Please.
so, after all this... is the game good?
it's alright. it feels a lot like a game that 8 to 12 year olds and particularly bored moms might get really into for a little while, which i like. it's not particularly complicated by any means - its played exclusively via mouse controls and there's a tutorial prompt for basically everything for the first ten minutes - but there's actually a solid completionist aspect to it as well. there's a medal collection to work towards involving goals like collecting every pet or recipe, or maxing out your friendship with everyone in town.
it's definitely not perfect, though. it's pretty easy to cancel out your queued actions by misclicking, and your base movement is just slow enough to make walking back and forth across the map pretty grating sometimes. it also shows its age pretty often with its unexpectedly tiny window size and graphical bugs like this:
personally, though, these don't detract too much from the experience. i'm here for the Creatures.
the pets in wandering willows are probably the biggest draw of the game as a whole, and they honestly don't disappoint. every species has different stats and a skill that generally increases the odds of obtaining items of a certain category. your first pet, for example, has a skill that makes wild animals much more likely to drop eggs after charming them. none of the pets feel like theyre significantly better than one another, though, which i like - you can 100% just run through the game with whichever one you like best with little to no issue. i also appreciate that the stats of the eggs you find scale with that of your own pets', especially considering that their levels can increase very quickly and leave other pets in the dust.
as far as variety's concerned, wandering willows... is not bad. there's only a couple models thatre reused for "families" of similar pets with different textures, but the models themselves are pretty distinct from one another. i have yet to obtain all of them, but i would like to for the sake of making higher-quality images and documentation of them available. that might be the subject of a future blog entry if i manage to get around to it proper.
my favorite "families" are probably what i'm going to call the robots and the rhinos, of which these are a few variants:
in order, these four are called zeepzop, scooter, MX-9000, and lulu.
here's one of every other family as well, for good measure:
ultimately, i'm not really sure what i expected. it was a nice thing to revisit, though, however briefly, and i'd like to maybe look into decompiling the files to get higher-quality screenshots of the pets sometime. i even kind of liked getting the chance to see halftone again, even in the sorry state he's in. i don't know. i think sometimes i like to reflect on past memories for some combination of nostalgic and archival purposes, and this endeavor happened to fit somewhat nicely into both.
to cap this off i'm going to suggest that if you'd also like to play wandering willows after reading this, keep in mind it doesn't have autosave and has a nasty habit of closing without warning if you're tabbed out for too long. otherwise, i hope you can find something else to kill time. i think i'm going to play rimworld or something.