When I was a kid, there was nothing more relaxing than sitting down for an afternoon with a model kit. Snipping the parts off the board, patiently gluing everything together, painting each careful brushstroke, and delicately placing each decal was a process that was almost meditative. After leaving the hobby behind in my teenage years, I’ve been chasing the same feeling ever since.
Don’t ask me why I can’t simply go and buy a model kit today, for whatever reason it just doesn’t hit the same as it used to. But last week I came very close to recapturing those old vibes when I sat down with Last Call BBS, the last release from indie studio Zachtronics.
Presented as a computer-within-a-computer experience, you inherit an old PC and explore what was left on its drive (or available to it on an old dial-up connection). Last Call BBS is basically a collection of short, sharp puzzle experiences, exactly the kind of thing Zachtronics has become known for over the last decade.
Most of them are great (like the one about a mall food court factory), and the whole retro computer aesthetic tying it all together (and its crunchy, accompanying sound effects) is also wonderful, but one minigame in particular stood out for me: Steed Force Hobby Studio.
As you can see in the intro paragraph in the picture up top, it’s presented as a way for anime fans to get the same feeling they would from building an expensive, imported model kit, only without all the cost, hassle and glue. The pitch says it’s “just as cool, or maybe even better” than the real thing, and I’m almost inclined to agree.
The game gives you a model kit in its rawest, out-of-the-box state, equipping you with a set of tools, some paint, and then simply letting you at it. The entire process plays out in exactly the same way it would in real life: you need to snip every piece of plastic free of its backing, reading the instructions to find out where each component goes in relation to the others.
When you’re finished building the model—the only significant shortcut to the actual experience being a merciful lack of glue—then it’s time for the real fun to begin. The construction side of Steed Force Hobby Studio is streamlined and simplified, so you only need to bring two connecting pieces near each other and they’ll magnetically and perfectly snap into place. This would lead you to believe that painting the model is just as easy, but hahaha, lmao, no.
Aware of the truth inherent in model-building, SFHS knows that anyone can build the thing, because the pieces are made to come together and there’s a manual showing you how to do it. But painting a model, well, that requires something else. It takes skill.
So here, painting is a laborious process, requiring a huge amount of patience. You don’t just click on panels and magically turn them different colours; painting is instead done like an actual paint program, with paint going anywhere you point the airbrush, and so you need to use tape to mask areas off.
It’s a pain in the ass, and I made a ton of mistakes while learning how to do it, and then...well, and then I figured it out, and suddenly I’d mastered something that was both methodical (the building) and expressive (the painting) and that old meditative feeling came creeping back.
(Note that, yes, you can be a freak and paint every piece before assembling them, which is a bit easier, but what kind of psychopath is that prepared? If I want to be recapturing my youth I’ll be building my models like an idiot kid, thank you very much.)
The experience hasn’t been as messy, or as time-consuming, but it hads indeed come pretty close to the real thing. What’s more, the whole retro packaging of Last Call BBS really helps with the feelings of nostalgia, since the computer dated back to around the same time I had been into building models myself.
If you want to try Last Call BBS—or even just Steed Force Hobby Studio—I have good news and bad news. The good news is that it’s available now! The bad news is that this is the last new game Zachtronics is ever going to release.