Saturday, April 28, 2018
Playing Games on Computers
My first computer game really wasn't my own, it was my brother's. I had two brothers, 6 and 7 years older than me, and the younger of the two had a Tandy Radio Shack TRS80 computer. It used our TV as a monitor, had a built-in keyboard, a game controller, and a cassette interface to back up and restore data, and to play games from.
It had a space invaders game where you went around the galaxy shooting up alien ships, periodically returning to your space station to refuel.
When I finally got a chance to play it, at about 14 or 15 years old, I had a nefarious plan. I shot up all the aliens except one, figured out where he was, then went back to the space station and refueled. As I left the space station I blew it up. A message about a pending court martial scrolled across my screen, but it let me continue on.
So I continued on to where the last alien ship was and blew it up. My plan had worked. I controlled the galaxy as supreme ruler (basically the only one with a space ship with weapons!)
When I finally got into computers myself, it was initially on mini-computers with ASCII terminals. Many of the terminals when I first started could not handle lower-case characters, and don't even think about graphics, so you were limited in what you could do.
I remember one game we played on our Reality systems, I think it was called Hammurabi. You were buying and selling on the open seas in the ancient world. There were money lenders, including Hammurabi, who'd charge ridiculous interest rates and would chase you down looking for payment periodically.
My brother-in-law got to playing the game, and discovered that when the money-lenders offered to lend money, you could type a negative number. They would basically have borrowed from you, and continued to charge (themselves) usurious interest rates and the money in your account would grow dramatically, with compound interest!. He got so rich, his wealth finally exceeding the numeric capability of the computer and it crashed the game!
When I finally got a personal computer, one of the first games I got was Microsoft Flight Simulator. This was an amazing game.
Apparently real pilots liked to use it, because it was so realistic in so many ways. You could select the type of plane you wanted to fly, and my pilot friend explained that the game would simulate both the correct cockpit controls and other quirky characteristics of the plane.
I loved that game and enjoyed quite a few hours on it. I was extremely disappointed when I finally upgraded from my old IBM PC XT with it's 4.77 megahertz clock-speed to an IBM AT clone with a 16 megahertz clock speed, and discovered that the game based its timing, not on the clock, but on CPU instruction times. At about 4 times faster, the game would get you up in the air and tunneled back into the ground so quickly you couldn't really control it!
I wasn't really into games that much, but as my son got a bit older, I began to look for games we could play on the computer and enjoy some family time. It was the latter half of the 1990s and my computer had progressed and it was now capable of VGA graphics and Soundblaster sound, so we began to find some really fun shareware games. While many of these would support game controllers, finding game controllers that were any good for a PC was a pursuit we gave up on.
We had several Commander Keen games, including our favourite, Keen Dreams. Little commander keen is wandering about in his dreams in PJs and slippers and defeating slugs to get back to his bedroom.
Another was Wacky Wheels. We could actually both play it at the same time by taking different sides of the keyboard. You were driving racing cars as hedge-hogs and shooting mini-hedge-hogs at the other driver. It was a blast!
We also found a number of Duke Nukem versions, and really enjoyed them.
Similar to Flight Simulator, as PCs progressed, these games "broke", yet using the virtualization of the PC, some very smart people came up with a program called DOSBOX that mimics the behaviour of an old DOS based PC, with Soundblaster sound cards and VGA graphics. I can still play the Commander Keen, Duke Nukem and Whacky Wheels games using DOSBOX, and occasionally do (my son does, too!)
A friend gave us a copy of a game called Arthur's Teacher Trouble, which was another cute game. We discovered some hidden Easter eggs in that game and it was a great favourite for our entire family, including nieces and nephews, for a long time, until Windows upgrades broke it, too.
As a result of my second stint as a Microsoft MVP, I got a copy of Monster Truck Madness, and more fun with my son and nephews ensued. There was a level where, if you went off-road, you could crash into cows and push them around. They'd "moo" and in the background a farmer's voice could be heard saying things like "Hey! You kids! Get off my farm!" Another level had a trailer park in the desert with outhouses. If you crashed into an outhouse, you'd hear people inside yelling at you to stop. As you can imagine, my preteen son and nephews got some great giggles from this.
One of the people it was my pleasure to work with was my friend Pardeep. After working for us for a time, he went on to a company called Sanctuary Woods, and helped them create a game called "The Riddle of Master Lu". This was a first person player game where you were Robert Ripley, looking for some treasure. He was very handsome and got chosen to play the part of a monk in the game. It was really cool to have a game where one of my former colleagues was an actor and a developer!
And so we come to my favourite game of all. About 25 years ago, I discovered a game at a trade-show. The graphics were amazing and it looked like a really fun first-person exploration game. It was called Myst.
My son and I both checked it out, and quickly realized that our current PC simply didn't have a powerful enough graphics card. Worse yet, our hardware was incapable of supporting any of the required graphics cards. Undaunted, for the first time ever, I upgraded a PC for personal reasons, not business reasons. I got a new PC that would support a required graphics card and had them install the card for me. Then I bought Myst. And Uru. And all the follow-up games that came out from Cyan in that series. We loved it!
The graphics were stunning. The story-line was amazing. The game was challenging, interesting, and engaging, so that you felt it was really you in there. The realism of the story line and how things progressed was very good. And as a parent I was quite pleased that it was pretty-well completely non-violent.
As operating systems matured, and the user interface layer was taken out of protected mode (to mitigate the impact of exploits to the graphics layer), the games were essentially broken. I understand that they were written to work with a limited set of specialized graphics cards. It became increasingly difficult to find computers that would run the games, and they fell out of the mainstream. There was one attempt to do an online version of the games, that I don't think went very well.
The good news it that Cyan is now running a Kickstarter campaign to create a 25th Anniversary Myst collection. Needless to say, I'm backing it and looking forward to getting my copy of the series this summer!