Summary: FS goes retro - Paul reminisces about some of the old school games that made PC gaming so great back in the day. Yes, there was great PC gaming before there were 3D cards!
Get Your Motor Running
I love games. I think games are some of the best ways to explore your imagination, take out your aggressions and kill a few hours when you get bored. It is better than cruising the mall and certainly keeps me out of trouble. When I sit back and think about it, I realize not all people love PC games, but hey, that is their loss. Maybe they just did not have a positive first experience in gaming and that is why they feel the way they do. Luckily for me, I started off with some great games that help set the bar high enough so that I knew when games were made right, gaming could be an awesome experience. It may have started on the PC with Zork for me, but one of the biggest influences has got to be in the genre of space games.
Head Out On The Highway
Wing Commander and Wing Commander II are still two of the best games I have ever played in my life. Yeah, they were DOS only and yeah, they did not have the killer graphics that games of today have, but man, they had story and they had it big. I was drawn in so far, I was pretty much obsessed with the first game. It was not the cool joystick that I bought that did it for me, it was the feeling that somehow I was a part of the story. The cut scenes were full of blocky graphics, but who cared! The combination of fighting missions that actually felt like they meant something and those cut scenes that advanced the story was gaming nirvana for a young guy like me.
I spent hours turning into weeks turning into months immersing myself in the Wing Commander universe. The fighting was certainly a blast, but somehow the fact that what I did had a tangible impact on the outcome of the game was very cool. I came to care about the other characters in the game, which has to be a testament to how strong the Wing Commander story was. They added the Special Missions, then Wing Commander 2 and more add-on missions. I was so devoted to the game it rivaled the type of obsession I had with Science Fiction and Fantasy books when I read Conan pulp books, Asimov's Robot books and the Lord Of The Rings series. Ironically, the Wing Commander story was so strong, it also became a series of fiction novels. Very cool.
The series took a turn with Wing Commander 3 that at first seemed exciting, but ended up leaving a bad taste in my mouth. The whole "Full Motion Video" thing threw me for a loop. I was paying more attention to who was acting as the character than the characters themselves. I liked Mark Hamill, and I liked John Rhys-Davies and maybe that was the problem. It was not about Blair anymore; it was about the actors portraying these people I had grown to care about. I wish they had done it differently and focused more on advancing what they already had in place instead of changing the whole dynamic. Something got lost in the translation.
SIDEBAR: It was funny when I tried to play Wing Commander 1 and 2 on a faster PC, the game ran at hyper-speed. I tried to play it but the missions were impossible to complete. Still, it was worth a good laugh.
I have mentioned Descent before, but I have to say, it still ranks as one of the best gaming experiences ever. It was a dizzying ride, and made full use of some of those fantastic joysticks out there at the time. It was really the online cheating that made me so angry. That coupled with the pathetic follow-up, Descent 3, which seemed to lose touch with what made Descent 1 and 2 so fun to play, put an end to the franchise, at least for me.
As I mentioned above, one of the things that I liked about Descent 2 in particular was the patches that let you take full advantage of the Microsoft Sidewinder Pro 3D joystick and the Voodoo 2 card. The joystick allowed me to throttle forward and back with no sweat at all, and the buttons let me roll left and right to orient myself. At the very top of all that was the HAT switch, which allowed me to strafe up, down, left and right with such ease and speed, it made the game a total blast. When I had poured the hundreds into the Voodoo 2 SLI system (two 12 meg boards) and found a patch that got the graphics going at 640x480 in awesome clarity (for the time) it gave the game a whole new life for me. I even forked over the extra cash for the Infinite Abyss pack so I could play everything in full-blown Voodoo 2 awesomeness. I tried Descent 3 again the other day when I was prepping this article, and even with the Sidewinder Pro 3D, which I still have and love, it pales in comparison to Descent 2.
One of the great things about PC gaming has always been the vast selection. When you get all fed-up with online cheating in Descent 2, you can take a detour and try something else. If you wanted something cerebral but still had that urge to take out your frustrations, there was Battle Chess, a fighting Chess game of brain and brawn.
As the images above show, the first game was a royal King/Queen type of deal, and the animations were kind of fun for a low-res experience. Battle Chess II was a strange Chinese Chess mix, which I did not care for, but, there was another release called Battle Chess 4000, included in the popular Battle Chess collection, that was the best of breed, without a doubt. Killer 640x480 graphics (VESA driver support was key) and fun sounds made for a very fun experience. Too bad it relied on EMS instead of XMS, because getting it to run was hard at times.
SIDEBAR: Remember the NOEMS statement and the I=E000-EFFF option? That extra 64k was totally important for loading the mouse and sound drivers into upper memory. QEMM was ok, DOS 5 was better.
The Glory Of MechWarrior 2
How can I forget one of the best games in the history of the PC gaming world? MechWarrior 2, warts and all, was a joy to play from start to finish. I bought the game bundled with the Microsoft Sidewinder Pro 3D joystick and they were a nearly perfect combination. It was worth every penny of the $89.95 I paid for the combo back then. This specific version of MechWarrior 2 had a custom driver written to take full advantage of this legendary Microsoft joystick, and it gave me a real advantage over other MechWarriors.
With the Pro 3D and MechWarrior 2, I could control the entire game without touching the keyboard. I could torso-twist and go full throttle so I could literally run circles around my enemy and take shots at him like a sitting duck. Those players who did not have a torso-twist joystick had to coordinate the keyboard and regular joystick and not too many of them could do it well. I could do it all from one place, and learned to aim and shoot at all angles while still being a moving target that was hard for them to hit. I could switch weapons groups quickly and easily, launch salvos of missiles, whip out the laser pulse cannon and all the other great weapons. Man, what fun this was.
Evolution Of A Legend
Like Descent 2, the MechWarrior 2 series had a whole bunch of patches and other downloads that came along to help you get the most out of your game. As 3D accelerators became more prevalent, you could get high-resolution images generated in hardware, and even though they were chunky and blocky, I didn't care, because it was very cool and justified the cash spent on the 3dfx hardware.
After a while, MechWarrior 2 got an add-on pack called Ghost Bear Legacy, and it is perhaps the best expansion pack ever made! It added groups of mechs that you could command and lots of cool looking snow and ice scenarios. Man, what a rush. Then when NetMech came out and you could download it over the modem and then go online to blast people, life took on a whole new meaning. What a rush it was to go full-on 14.4 with dudes at work and take on all comers. Again, cheating eventually ruined some of the online fun, but if you limited yourself to the people you knew, it worked pretty well. Eventually they bundled the different versions together in Platinum and Titanium packs, so you could get the whole group with all the latest patches at once and play them in Windows 95, which made things easier. Unfortunately, Mercenaries was not such a good follow-up and Activision lost the MechWarrior franchise completely. I think MechWarrior 4 from Microsoft is good, but still, it is not as legendary as MechWarrior 2 was, and will never have the same level of reverence for many of us.
SIDEBAR: Heavy Gear II was a great game from Activision that it put out after it lost the rights to the Mech Warrior universe. It is still fun to play, but just lacked the same feeling of massiveness that the original Mech Warrior 2 lineup had.
Classic PC games are not the only ones that people love. There is a huge demand for classic Arcade games as well. I'm not talking about modern classics, but the old, old ones like Asteroids and Space Invaders. People my age used to throw buckets of quarters into those games, and we just couldn't get enough. Who would have thought that people would be clamoring for games that had only a few vector lines on a black motionless background? It looks like some of the grand old names have been at it too.
Williams has re-released their wild arcade titles, including Defender and Joust, which could be identified on their unique sound effects alone. Microsoft released some old Atari faves back in the day as Microsoft Arcade, but their biggest seller seems to be the newly updated anniversary edition, Return Of Arcade. They added Ms. Pac-Man to the mix, but it is the one game that doesn't fit into the standard interface that the other games do. Galaxian and Dig-Dug never played so well, especially with all the cheats, I mean "adjustments" you can make to the number of lives, rate of fire, etc. Atari got into the act and put a bunch of its classic arcade titles out in its own packages, the best and latest being the Anniversary Edition. They're all there - Asteroids, Centipede, Missile Command, Tempest, Battlezone and more. If you happen to have a trackball, you can really get the feel for Centipede, Missile Command and Tempest. Closest thing to being back in the old arcade. Luckily, pretty much all of these releases are Windows friendly, which makes it a whole lot easier than the old "Boot Disk" scenarios.
The Mame Game
Even though there are a lot of new arcade classic releases, there are still a large number that have never been released for the PC at all, and probably never will be. That is where emulators come in. The most popular emulator for these old classics is MAME. It can be found all over the web in various forms and versions, and does a pretty good job of letting you run old ROMs in a shell. Not only ROM's from old arcade machine chips, but even those from old console systems, like Colecovision, for instance.
The only problem with this system is that technically, unless you purchase one of the original ROM's from a machine salvage person, you may be skirting the law a bit. While many of these old companies don't exist any longer, the rights for the old ROM's were never released into the public domain, and as a result, it is not within the letter of the law to go download ROM's that you don't own. A case could be made that some of these titles have been abandoned, but I don't think it would hold up under scrutiny. Companies like Microsoft actually paid the originators for a license to these old ROM's and can therefore sell it legally. But if no company exists to buy the rights from, what are you supposed to do? It is a sticky gray area and one that I certainly don't want to pass judgment on. I wish there was a way you could pay 99 cents for a legal download of each of these old ROM's so you could play them without worrying about short-changing anybody, but until then, I guess you will have to use your own judgment on a case by case basis. I was able to download a single package that contained nearly 100 ROM's and the MAME program in a small bundle that installed and played within five minutes. I had totally forgotten just how fun these old games could be. Zoo Keeper? Donkey Kong Jr.? Phoenix? Qbert? Space Invaders? They were all there. I'm confident that if I had bothered to look, I could have found dozens more out there. In fact, I did a search for Star Castle, one of my favorites of all time, and sure enough, there it was, emulator and everything. Since it is vector, it can be run in a resizable window under Win 98 SE and still look great. I could stretch it to 1920x1440 and it didn't miss a beat. Ahh, the good old days...
SIDEBAR: I wish more companies would follow the lead of Microsoft, Atari and Williams and release bundles like that. Could you imagine what Nintendo could get for a collection of old titles on the PC?
The Final Frontier
There are two other games I want to mention that I look back on with fondness. They are two of the best Star Trek franchise games every made, and that includes recent offerings with newer crews. When Star Trek 25th Anniversary edition came out for DOS, it broke the mold. The original actors voiced the story and the plot actually felt like it was worthy of a real series of episodes. For huge Trek fans like me, it was the closest thing we could get on the PC to the real deal, and now that at least one of the original actors has passed on, it feels strange to have the passages immortalized on disk.
The first one was a huge success, and the gang got together for a sequel called Star Trek: Judgment Rights. This is one of the few times in my life that I ever bothered to get the special "Collectors Edition" of anything, and I'm still glad I did. I don't normally buy into the hype of such things. I think Comic Books should be read, not looked at behind glass. I think baseball cards were cool when you could still smell the bubble gum on them, have them in your back pocket while you slid into second and attach them to the spokes on your wheel with laundry pins. I think the whole collectible industry is a total rip-off, but this game was special because Star Trek was a part of my childhood and I felt that Science Fiction and Fantasy was a great way to escape from the misery of the world. Cheaper than drugs and still legal, at least for now. So these two games, with their excellent game play and their nostalgic voice work from the original crew are in a special category all by themselves. There are not that many games that I remember so fondly, particularly of the interactive quest variety.
There it is. Some 9 months after the first one, I've whipped out another look at some of the golden oldies. Sure, there are tons that I'm forgetting, but I'm only one man with a limited brain. I could dedicate endless pages to classic Sierra titles like the Kings Quest and Space Quest series, for example, but I'm sure that people all over the world remember those almost immediately. Funny how Sierra used to release some of the most incredible titles and now only a trickle seem to come out of that company. Still, Half-Life was no chew-toy.
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