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PC gaming is doomed. No, really, it’s going to cop it any day now. In fact, it may even have expired by the time you read this introduction. After all, people have been predicting its demise for 20 years now – it’s all piracy this, expensive hardware that, niche appeal this, compatibility problems that… Oh, shuddup. PC gaming isn’t going anywhere.
The platform’s infinitely adaptable, it’s hand-in-hand with the rise of casual, ad-supported and subscription-based games, and it’s got a back catalogue several hundred orders of magnitude huger than any other gaming system. In terms of that incredible back catalogue, the PC’s currently undergoing two very important changes that may rescue it from the impotence of dusty floppy disks and pop-up-infected abandonware sites.
First, PC gamers’ values are changing – the audience is moving away from graphics-hungry teenagers and into a breed that’s more prepared to judge a game on its less superficial merits. In short, a game consisting of 320×240 pixels, each the size of a baby’s fist, no longer causes quite so many people to scoff dismissively at it. Secondly, digital distribution services – notably Valve’s Steam and the great-in-the-States-but-crap-over-here Gametap – are gradually adding classic games to their online stores – legal, free from floppy disks, and dirt-cheap. A slight spot of whimsy and a few dollars is all it takes to enjoy yesterday’s finest.
While it’s early days for this, things can only get better. On Steam alone, the last few months have seen the rediscovery of ancient treasures such as the earliest Wolfenstein, Unreal, Doom and GTA games. The past is indeed another country – but, when it comes to old PC games, lately we’re talking more Isle of Man than North Korea.
Until these electro-stores are fully stocked, plenty of options remain to locate your desired fragment of yesterday – eBay, second-hand stores, free fan remakes and (mumble) bittorrent (mumble) abandonware (mumble), for instance. Somewhat sadly, old PC games don’t seem to retain much value, even for mint-condition boxes. I’d be lucky to get a hundred bucks for one of my proudest possessions, my still-sealed copy of Dungeon Keeper.
Still, that’s great news for buyers. But where to start? Over 20 years of PC gaming is an impossibly large subject, so how we’re going to approach it is by breaking it into key genres (albeit composited ones) and looking at the games which defined them, or alternatively took it to interesting places that have been sadly left unexplored since. The obvious names – yer Dooms and C&Cs – will go unspoken in favor of games you’re less likely to have played. For the sake of argument, history began in 1987 – a year that saw, among other epochal events, the dawn of VGA and its wondrous 640×480, 256-color pixels, LucasArts defined point’n’click adventure games with Manioc Mansion and the first real-time 3D RPG, Dungeon Master.
To start at the most obvious – but, in some ways, least interesting – point, let’s talk action games. The earliest first-person-shooter was 1973’s Maze War, but it was id software’s 1991 fantasy shooter Catacomb 3D that really birthed the form as we know it. Until then, we didn’t even get an onscreen hand reinforcing the sense that the player was the game’s character. From that came Wolfenstein 3D and Doom and – well, you know the rest. Its the point between then and now that contains lost wonders.
1994’s Marathon is a fine example. One of the earliest games by future Halo creator Bungle, though this didn’t prove a runaway success on PC, it was one of the first post-Doom FPS games to introduce elements beyond repeatedly shooting monsters in the face. Friendly Al characters, alternate fire modes, co-op play, swimming and, particularly, a strong layered plot (which was a major inspiration for System Shock and Halo, among others) made it an altogether more grown-up affair than other Doom-a-likes. Though its superior sequel Durandol was the only Marathon game to see an official Windows release, Bungee now offers free versions of all three instalments’ Mac versions, which fans duly ported to PC.
Skip ahead to the second half of the 1990s and 3D-accelerated gaming is in full swing. There were a great many ways to kill pretend things – including expertly-adapted licensed fare such as 1999’s Aliens versus Predator and 1997’s Star Wars: Jedi Knight 1998’s Thief The Dark Project, from the dearly-missed Looking Glass Studios (the key members of which went on to form Ion Storm, the developer behind Deus Ex), was a revelation in such violent climes. Essentially, the design document for the subsequent decade of stealth games – count Splinter Cell, Hitman and Assassin’s Creed among its followers – murder took a distinct backseat to using the environment to create your own non-linear path through the game.
Playing a character poorly suited to direct combat, using shadow and sound to avoid beef cake enemies, and emphasizing the need for patience and attentiveness over reflex gives Thief a pounding tension few games have touched. On top of that, it’s about unified design and atmosphere to create a sense of place and menace, whereas so many of its peers contented themselves with a jumble-sale muddle of second-hand sci-fi ideas. If you’re spitting like a bucktoothed viper at the idea of 1998 polgyons, direct your ocular organs to modetwo.net/darkmod/, where there’s an ongoing project to remake Thief in the shadowtastic Doom 3 engine – they released a demo version not long ago.
One of the most interesting areas of PC gaming is the crossover point from FPS into other genres. System Shock 2 and Deus Ex are the best-known examples of introducing roleplaying elements – tailoring the character to your own tastes, managing inventories, handing choice of action and path to the player – into a real-time action environment, but point your mind earlier than that. Another Looking Glass effort, the 1992’s Ultima Underworld, offered a genuine 3D world (an early build of which was id’s ‘inspiration’ for Wolfenstein 3D) and first-person-perspective monster-stabbing augmented by RPG trappings and non-linear exploration.
Most recently, the likes of Oblivion and S.T.A.L.K.E.R owe a great debt to UU and its sole sequel, but fans feel it’s never been done better. Make your own mind up with one of the various remakes at tinyurl.com/3yzvz8.
Two years later, the first System Shock was doing things with environmental interaction – stacking boxes to form a ladder to higher places, for instance – that most games don’t offer even now. While you’ll need to have your own moral dilemma about whether or not you should download the so-called ‘abandonware’ version of Shock, it is worth mentioning that there’s a near-complete fan project that makes it run happily under modern Windowses and with improved graphics at tinyurl.com/2sc5n9. Or, if you want an absurdly violent, foul-mouthed alternative to these more cerebral FPS+ wonders, 1999’s Quake 2-powered Kingpin: Life Of Crime sported branching dialogue, the buying and selling of weapons and recruitable NPC companions alongside its granny-baiting blood ‘n’ maiming.
For RPGs themselves, well, there’s a wealth. No platform has ever done roleplaying as well as the PC. With Fallout3 due later this year from the makers of Oblivion, now’s the time to play the first two post-apocalyptic open-worlders. They’re turn-based, which makes combat a tactical matter of how you’ve developed your character’s abilities and the best way to approach a situation, rather than how fast you can click fire. Most of all, it offers choice – how your character behaves, who his allies and enemies are, and the reputation he has with the game’s populace. It’s also vicious, funny and still the aesthetic benchmark for any game set on a scorched Earth.
More traditional fantasy roleplaying is best served by Ultima VII, the best of the long-running series that earned Richard Garriot his name, and one with which Looking Glass/Ion Storm big fish Warren Spector was heavily involved. As with the Fallout games, there’s little need to stick to the straight and narrow here – this is roleplaying that encompasses morality, not simply whether you fight with a sword or a bow. It’s also a world in which you can interact with almost anything in the game – whether it’s to craft your own food or weapons, or just strumming away on an unclaimed lute. The presentation may be crude, but modern RPGs generally lag far behind it in most other respects. It’s another game whose fans are battling to keep it alive – while you’ll need to track down the original game files yourself, the Exult engine (exult.sourceforge.net) will make ’em run tickety-boo on your new-fangled modern operating system.
Another semi-free-form RPG milestone is 1993’s Betrayal at Krone/or (whose creators later went on to create the Tribes series), which blends first-person exploration with third-person fighting – and handily it’s available for free
While it doesn’t offer the freedom of a Fallout or Ultimo VII, arguably the aged RPG to play if you haven’t is 1999’s Planescape: Torment. A beautifully-written tale of guilt, identity and atonement that’ll tear your heart out, stamp on it repeatedly then roughly shove it back inside your shattered ribcage, this is a game about words more than deeds. Around 800,000 of ’em. There’s nothing else quite like Planescape, and it’s the staple of any discussion about gaming narrative.
Stepping sideways into strategy, again you’ve got Battlezone combining FPS, RTS and military sim, or the absolutely, awe-inspiringly unique Sacrifice (example spell:’bovine intervention’) boldly mixing action, roleplaying, comedy and a thousand new ideas-a-minute in alongside more familiar real-time strategy tropes. Both threw down experimental gauntlets no-one else dared to pick up. On the more tactical side of the coin is Syndicate, from gone-but-not-forgotten British uber-developer Bullfrog – a still gloriously immoral real-time squad tactics game that makes GTA look like Theme Park.
Peter Molyneux’s been muttering about reviving Syndicate’s satirical dystopia of corporate oppression and violence, but until (if ever) that happens, there’s a fan remake in the works, which the first level now complete, at freesynd.sourceforge.net.
More conventional RTS nostalgia is perhaps best served by Starcraft – still the template for ultra-balanced multiplayer strategizing with distinct playable races, not just differently-colored clones of each other – and Dune 2, the father of commanding and conquering, and even today surprisingly way ahead in terms of offering a convincing narrative explanation for resource-collection and perma-war. There’s an impressive free remake of the latter at d2tm.duneii.com. Another one to look up is 2000’s Ground Control, one of very few RTS games to ditch resource management in favor of using your cunning to blow up tanks with a fixed retinue. Its sequel was miserably generic, but did have one thing going for it – the original game was released for free to promote it. Grab it from tinyurl.com/38wt7.
It would be remiss of us to mention turn-based strategy without bringing up Sid Meier, but frankly the recent Civilization 4’s good enough, or you can dabble with FreeCiv (freeciv.wikia.com), for a less accessible but simpler game more in keeping with the original Civ. But what you should really do is play 1994’s Colonization, a Civ sequel that centers solely on conquest of the New World. While Civ tries to encompass everything, and logic is gradually eroded over time even as complexity snowballs, Colonization is utterly focused. You’ve a single goal – win independence from your mother nation, and the journey to that is a fascinating arc of scrabbling out a few pennies from trade or conquest, building up to self-sufficiency and finally to all-out war. Why Sid hasn’t revisited Colonization is a mystery.
The curious no-man’s land between strategy and management gaming is occupied by Dungeon Keeper, another Bullfrog game. The central gimmick-you play the bad guy, an unseen lord of the underworld raising a bestial army to fend off do-gooder heroes – is a little too panto to pay off, but what it’s really got going for it is that you’re trying to impose order onto chaos. Your monsters either don’t want or are too stupid to be managed, underground cave systems aren’t suited to logical architecture, and your most powerful unit, the Horned Reaper, will just as happily slay your own troops as he will the enemy’s. It’s a juggling act, only the balls are on fire, someone keeps throwing rocks at you and you’ve only got one hand.
A thousand dusty treats go unmentioned. For adventure gaming, eschew the more obvious Monkey Island/Sam 6- Max fare and nose at the branching options of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, the heartstring-tugging of The Longest Journey, the fiendish puzzles and oh-so-French wit of Gobliins 2, or the artful grimness and wealth of choices of Blade Runner. Less earthly pursuits, meanwhile, are best exemplified by TIE Fighter’s coolly wicked space simming, Privateer’s open-universe exploring ‘n’ fighting VT trading or Stunt Island’s fusion of set piece dare devilling and proto-movie-editing.
If there’s one undisputed must-play from the annals of PC gaming though, X-COM is it. First game UFO: Enemy Unknown remains the best of the series, but sterling sequel Terror From The Deep can be had for a few dollars from Steam. Famed for its artful juggling of global strategizing (building and upgrading bases to track alien invasions, and research new weapons to defeat ’em), astoundingly tense turn-based squad combat and gentle roleplaying, nothing’s come close to X-COM, though many have tried.
It’s the nexus of all PC gaming, a super-smart meeting point of action, strategy, RPG, management that promised a future of constant creativity, but instead we saw one that splintered into feature-creep variations on each of those single themes. Only now, with the new surge of indie gaming exploring places big-budget studios fear to tread, are we seeing a return to the inventiveness of early 1990s PC gaming. Go remind yourself quite how incredible a time it was.