Monthly Archives: May 2009

Developerial Intentionality

I’ve never been the biggest Star Trek fan; I’d enjoy the odd episode of the original series or The Next Generation on BBC2 but didn’t religiously watch full series, and hardly caught any of Deep Space 9, Voyager or Enterprise. The new JJ Abrams-helmed film looked quite fun from the trailers, though, and sure enough turned out to be a rather splendid romp, which in turn has fuelled my previously low-key interest in Star Trek Online. Checking on their forums, though, it appears the game won’t tie in to the new film, being set after the end of the “old” timeline (at least according to Wikipedia, Star Trek Online being set 30 years after Nemesis). Understandable, given it’s been in development for a while and would presumably take a fair amount of effort to update, and setting the game slightly outside established events gives them a lot more freedom (Star Wars: The Old Republic takes a similar tack, of course, only setting itself well before the established timelines rather than afterwards; Lord of the Rings Online cunningly interleaves its story with the events of the books, but does need a certain amount of handwaving to explain away the hordes of Elven adventurers trooping around the Shire and endless stream of people standing next to Strider for photo ops). The new Star Trek film rather shakes things up, however, so in the best comic tradition “nothing will ever be the same again”…

(Warning: if you want to know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the new Star Trek film, look away now. I’m pretty sure the following includes no major spoilers, and unless you’ve been living with the the Toast King or Moon Nazis of Iron Sky you’ll probably have picked up more details in reviews, trailers and the like, but just to be safe…)

Star Trek (2009 film), as Wikipedia would title it, changes the (Star Trek) past slightly, unravelling the big ball of wibbley wobbley time-y wimey stuff such that the events of the original series didn’t really happen, a rather cunning mechanism that allows them to effectively reboot the franchise and start afresh, but without having to shout “LA LA LA LA LA the previous series don’t exist LA LA LA”. It’s no surprise, then, what one of the main talking points around the geekier forums is: the number of chairs on the bridge of the Enterprise in its various incarnations. It’s simply ludicrous that any starship would expect a crew member to perform their duties while standing, it just wouldn’t be efficient, especially for long periods, and spoils the whole film. (The Liberator of Blake’s 7 is much better seat-wise; Doctor Who’s TARDIS, total disaster.)

Actually that might just be the more ergonomically focussed forums. No, one of the main talking points is: timelines. What happened to the previous Star Trek series and films (apart from Enterprise)? There are two general schools of thought: firstly that the events of the new film caused a branch in time, and the new film runs in an alternative timeline parallel to the previous series, which still happen as portrayed. The second is that there is only a single timeline, and the changes wrought in the new film mean none of the previous series happened at all, disappearing in a puff of reboot. I say “two general schools of thought”, naturally there are several others including the ever-popular “what the hell are you talking about?”, the slightly missing the point on a sci-fi forum “you know it’s all fictional and none of it *actually* happened, right?”, and the more unusual “what does it matter, only The Cage is true Star Trek, everything else is non-canon apart from my own twenty seven volume fanfic epic Captain Pike and the Ocelots of Uncertainty”, but most of the debate is around single vs multiple timelines. In a wildly surprising turn of events, what may seem to the casual observer to be a largely esoteric matter is a fierce point of contention, both sides deploying a terrifying array of precedent from previous episodes, films, authorised novels, unauthorised novels, slightly authorised novels, interviews, commentaries and other references, not to mention light sprinklings of astrophysics, lashings of quantum mechanics, and, when all else fails, pictures of cats accompanied by grammatically suspect captions.

A key weapon in the multi-timeline armoury is an interview with Bob Orci, co-writer of the film, which states:

Anthony: So what happens (…) is the creation of an alternative timeline, but what happens to the prime timeline after (a character) leaves it? Does it continue or does it wink out of existence once he goes back and creates this new timeline.

Bob: It continues. According to the most successful, most tested scientific theory ever, quantum mechanics, it continues.

Anthony: So everyone in the prime timeline, like Picard and Riker, are still off doing there [sic] thing, it is just that (a character) is gone.

Bob: Yes, and you will notice that whenever the movie comes out, that whatever DVDs you have purchased, will continue to exist.

So Cryptic’s Star Trek Online can boldly go where no online game has gone before back in the “prime” timeline, and still be consistent with the “official” rebooted franchise (as far as anything in a long running sci-fi franchise can be consistent). I’m not sure if there are going to be any time travel elements in the game; I did have a brilliant (if I say so myself) idea to explain character respecs: you pop back in time, have a little chat with yourself, and suggest that you specialise in Engineering instead of Medicine at the Starfleet academy, and Bob’s your proverbial Uncle (who may also be your Nephew in another timeline). Course you’d have to avoid giving yourself a sporting almanac, or the secret of the Tension Sheet, but those are minor details.

Anyway, back to the sci-fi forums, and Orci’s quotes have resolved the debate, the new film is in a different timeline, everyone’s happy, right? Right. No, wait, not “right”, the other one… No; Orci’s quotes merely escalated the conflict into the new and yet more terrifying realm of authorial intentionality. In a nutshell: is the author’s intent important, or even relevant, compared to a reader’s/viewer’s interpretation of the work? Once a thread reaches the point where it’s simultaneously debating wavefunction collapse in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the deconstructionalist approach to internal, external and contextual evidence in a medium in which the notion of the “author” is highly fluid, I figure it’s time to run up the white flag, but the question of the importance of authorial intentionality struck me as Quite Interesting in relation to games, particularly in light of the recent happenings in City of Heroes regarding the Mission Architect.

So to translate the idea a bit to “developerial intentionality”: does it matter how the developers intend a game to be played, or is it entirely down to the player to decide how they should experience the game? It’s terribly easy to say “I’m the player, I know what ‘fun’ is, I should be allowed to play this game however I like to have the most fun, and anything the developers put in my way is a Bad Thing(tm)”, but I’m not sure the player is *always* the best arbiter; obviously they need to provide the bulk of the input (Developer: “this game is a plain black screen and consists entirely of pressing the ‘f’ key, which does absolutely nothing” Player: “erm… that’s no fun.” Developer: “YES IT IS!”), but a bit of developerial nudging can sometimes be useful. Difficulty is an obvious one; as players, we often tend towards a path of least resistance (well, I know I do). A while back, when playing the old superhero game Freedom Force vs the Third Reich, I hit quite a tricky mission, and after failing it a couple of times I thought I’d reinforce my team a bit by building my own hero with the editor it provided. I can’t remember if the game naturally allowed you to make stupidly powerful characters, or I just min-maxed seven shades of arse out of the system, but either way I ended up with someone who smote fascists with the greatest of ease, allowing me to easily finish the difficult mission. And the next one. And the next. All the way to the end of the game, in fact. In doing so, I didn’t get a great sense of accomplishment, it was all somewhat anticlimactic, but I also felt like I’d finished the game and didn’t have a strong desire to re-play it “properly”. My own fault entirely, but on the “fun” scale having amazing power and smashing through everything seemed like “a lot” of fun, but turned out to be “probably not as much fun as playing it ‘properly'”. Though perhaps the original mission was just too tough and I’d never have been able to get past it, which would have been “still less fun that that”. Tough business, this “fun” scale. And that’s just in single player games; any sort of multiplayer, especially massively multiplayer or player vs player content, dramatically increases the complexity as your “fun” interacts with that of other people. At which point I think it’s time to run up the white flag again before quantum physics comes into it.

In conclusion, then: the new Star Trek film is fun; I cannot prove this, but it *is*, in the same way that Mount Everest *is*, and Alma Cogan *isn’t*.

Yet in bold quest thereof, better to sink in boundless deeps, than float on vulgar shoals.

After regaining consciousness and finding myself lying on the floor of the lounge with my face bonded to the carpet by a tenuous glue of dried saliva, I spent a short while contemplating the sensibleness of spending a solid fours hours editing a podcast until two o’clock in the morning. My mind then drifted on to the health implications of heating one’s testicles to a somewhat alarming temperature through the unfortunate circumstance of them having happened to block the heat exhaust port on my Macbook as I collapsed comatose upon it. I would state for the record that I was still fully clothed and that this is not the prelude to some sort of strange Macbook mating fanfic, or a working draft of the explanation I plan to give to my doctor:

“ did I get first degree burns down there? You.. you wa..want to know how? Uh, well, it’s because I’m a part time podcaster you see; hazard of the occupation. Yes, I’m sure you want to take pictures. For some sort of medical journal I presume? Wait, what? Your blog?”.

I have the strangest nightmares.

Having regained my composure, and all feeling in my genitals, I moved swiftly on to the most important question of any day: what was I going to play? As I mentioned on the podcast, in a move which many would call madness but which I would propose is less mad than many of the things that occur inside my head cavity, I decided to have a nose around in Vanguard and see if the game is yet able to offer anything of interest to a jaded and cynical MMO veteran who is questing in their own right to find an MMO that restores that long lost sense of adventure and exploration that they once knew. Vanguard is known to be big. Really big. So with the offer of a fourteen day free trial I decided to brush the electronic dust from off of my Sony Station account. I then spent a good hour or so having an allergic reaction to its Fisher-Price front end and its bizarre configuration options nested away in window menus, until finally I got the game downloading. I’m not even going to venture a review, preview, first impression, call it what you will, because I really didn’t spend enough time in Vanguard to justify it. The races are varied and plentiful; the classes look interesting with some nice interpretations of the standard fare. When I entered the starter area and completed the first few quests up to level four or so it was surprisingly engaging, certainly compared to how I imagined it to be after reading various reports in the blogosphere and beyond upon its release, which left the impression that it was the MMO equivalent of Hannibal Lecter: something that teased and toyed with you, then utterly destroyed your will to live before serving you your own brain alongside a nice glass of Tuscan red.

The reason I stopped playing the tutorial was that everything was all so terribly familiar, I had played Vanguard before and in a far more accomplished form. I reactivated my subscription to Everquest 2.

I’ve never been an Everquester. I earned my MMO wings in Dark Age of Camelot, skipping Ultima, Everquest and several other MMOs that are generally accepted to be what Real Men (and Women; thanks Stan) played when MMOs were hard, computers were complicated, and blogging was something done by a martial artist with a bunged up nose. I did try Everquest 2 a year or so ago during one of my many bouts of MMO ennui and although I enjoyed pottering around in the character creator, I only managed to get one of the several hundred characters I created past the initial starter area and to a major city. I’m not sure why I didn’t get further, perhaps I was just generally burnt out, such that soloing another MMO – especially one as daunting as EQ2 is when you first stand at the base and peer neck-achingly up towards its summit which is hidden not in the midst of misty clouds as one would imagine, but somewhere behind the moon – was never going to do anything other than further the frustration felt.

I’m looking for an MMO that is impressive in scope and offers a sense of adventure and exploration, and Lord of the Rings online is impressive in graphical presentation and content, but is also greatly restricted by the IP. What’s more, every time Turbine attempts to add a third storey extension to the intellectual property in which they dwell, one pictures a giant eye staring down at them and all who would follow them; wreathed in flame, the lidless all-seeing eye of Tolkien, watching and waiting. So I have strapped on my backpack, taken my trusty walking stick in hand, and set out on my adventures in the lands of Norrath instead. I spent some time researching classes, and settled on one that was a little outside of my comfort zone in an attempt to spice things up yet further. Traditionally playing healer classes, more specifically hybrid healers, I decided to avoid them and instead picked from the DPS line. I couldn’t entirely resist the siren call of ‘group support’, the role I most enjoy playing but which does unfortunately have the – oft sadly unfulfilled – caveat of requiring a group. DPS to see me through solo content then, and tasty group buffs should I find myself in the strange and disorientating situation of participating in an amenable group in an MMO.

What with Champions Online being delayed, along with Jumpgate Evolution and I’m sure, as we mentioned on the podcast, soon to be every other MMO near release as they all frantically scramble to add the missing boars from their game in order to qualify as an MMO (hint to the sci-fi MMOs: Duke-Nukem-style boar headed mutants), I’ve got a few months to slowly wander my way through a few areas of EQ2. I’m not there for the levelling treadmill, the fact that it’s all new to me means that I want to explore this strange new world, seek out new life and new civilisations, and go boldly where only a few hundred thousand people have gone before.

If I can do all of that as a three foot tall man-rat with a penchant for singing, so much the better.

Kiasacast Episode 3

For those of you who are not monitoring our podcast RSS feed or stalking us on the Twitterverse, brace your main hats and hang on to your sails, because we’re pleased to announce that it’s time for Kiasacast episode 3: The Kiasacast Strikes Back!

This episode of the podcast includes:

– Listener’s mail

– Second Opinion: a Darkfall re-review

– This (Three) Month(s) In KiaSA: Don’t Believe the Hype

– What We’re Playing

– Book Corner, including:

     – Child 44

     – Fly by Night

– The brand new and incredibly innovative Listener’s Twitter Questions

– Search Sewage


     – Can you identify the music from this episode’s show?
       Answers on an aldis lamp, and then email an MPEG of the lamp to us.

     – Last episode’s tune: Xenon II Megablast, intro from the Amiga version, outro remix by daXX

Download Kiasacast Episode Three

It Was Eighteen Years Ago Today: Wing Commander Special

It’s 1991. PC Plus have awarded Wing Commander 4/5, obviously a libellous hatchet-job by some buffoon who’d barely played it for two hours, because Wing Commander was the very definition of “awesome”, and not just in a misprinted dictionary that had replaced random definitions with military ranks. So what was so great about it?

I’d upgraded my PC1512 to 640k of memory and a 32Mb hard drive, but that was about as far as you could go; the power supply for the whole system was in the monitor and you couldn’t over-ride the on-board graphics with an expansion card, so I was stuck with the four colours of CGA (or, on my mono screen, four shades of gray) and occasional “beep” of a PC speaker that, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, didn’t make for the most compelling audiovisual experience. Curse of the Azure Bonds had characters, a story and the mechanics of AD&D for thoughtful, tactical combat, but the sound and graphics were more functional than jaw-dropping, and sometimes you just wanted to beat up big colourful thugs (and in the game, ah), so I’d still troop off to arcades from time to time with piles of 10p coins for Final Fight, Golden Axe and the like.

Wing Commander is the first game I can remember that made me go “whoah, dude!” (for Bill and Ted were most excellent at the time). My PC wouldn’t even run it, but a friend’s dad had it for his VGA 80386, and I’d head around there at every opportunity. Not only did this machine of awesome power have VGA graphics (256 colours? Was that even possible? Did that many colours actually exist?), it had a sound card, so even the intro had us rapt. Where today we frantically mash mouse buttons and escape keys to skip past interminable splash screens to actually get to the game, back then, to silhouettes on the screen, you heard a genuine real life orchestra[1] tuning up, then the tap of a conductor’s batten, and as the Origin logo appeared amidst bursting fireworks, a symphonic score carried you into a deep-space dogfight between gloriously technicoloured craft.

The graphics alone would have made Wing Commander noteworthy, but it had substance to back them up, and it needed to as a “space-sim” for it had hefty space-boots to fill. We’d had a chance, after all, in the early 80s to clamber into the cockpit of an actual X-Wing[2] in the Star Wars arcade game and do battle with TIE fighters; though the gameplay may have been fairly simplistic, sitting in that cabinet with the flight yoke you just needed someone to stand behind you and randomly whistle now and again, and you were Luke Skywalker. With sufficient imagination and your own “pew! pew!” sound effects you didn’t even need to put any money in, much to the annoyance of arcade owners. On home computers there was the colossus of space games, Elite (for the full story of which I would highly recommend Francis Spufford’s The Backroom Boys, an extract of the Elite chapter available at The Guardian.) Although first released in 1984, so hardly fair as a direct comparison (there were probably single sprites in Wing Commander that were as large as the 32k that the entire game of Elite took up), Elite was still going strong in 1991; the very same issue of PC Plus that reviewed Wing Commander had a brief note in the news section that “Rainbird has enhanced the classic Elite space simulation to cater for EGA and VGA, plus Roland and AdLib sound cards”. I can hardly imagine how mind-blowing it must have been on its initial release.

To challenge Elite on freedom or scale would’ve been playing right to its strengths, the universe of Elite was a massive sandbox for you to explore, and tell your own story. Elite was a cold game, though, as cold as the depths of space you flew through. Beyond the stark black and white of space, effective vector graphics but showing their age, the raw algorithms of procedural generation were veiled enough to give the illusion of a living universe, but it was a universe of data on a screen, factoids about planets, price lists, friend or foe status; you never spoke to a soul. The novella that accompanied the game may have fleshed things out a bit more, but were an entirely hypothetical individual to have perhaps obtained the game in some way that didn’t include the book, they wouldn’t have that benefit. Wing Commander was more visceral, with its dynamic soundtrack, and vivid sprites and bitmaps taking full advantage of VGA. It worked on a much smaller scale, effectively the single carrier on which you were based, but with immersive detail right down to the interface; instead of a text menu with “Load” and “Save” options, you went to the barracks, and clicked on one of the beds to save the game. Between missions you could go to the bar and chat to the bartender and fellow pilots, before combat your Commanding Officer gave you a thorough briefing on what was happening and your objectives, klaxons sounded as you scrambled into your fighter craft. While out flying you could communicate with your wingman, and even enemy pilots for a bit of taunting if you wanted. Though your missions had strict pre-set objectives as opposed to the total freedom of Elite, the path of the game did depend on your performance, successful missions leading to a strike at the very heart of the enemy, unsuccessful missions leading to your retreat.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts I like a degree of freedom in games, but I also like some structure and guidance, so while the series of combat missions of Wing Commander could be seen as more restrictive than the freedom of the galaxies of Elite, that suited me fine. I loved Elite, enough to reach the titular rank, but trading was always a pretty subsidiary part of it for me, I was a bounty killer first and foremost (by which I mean a pirate hunter, rather than a popular dancehall artiste responsible for some fierce riddims), flying around, destroying pirates for reward money then picking up any loot they might drop to sell for further profit. Hmm. No wonder I got into MMOs.

Wing Commander was one of the major factors that spurred me to get a new PC, and one of the first games I installed on my shiny VGA 386SX was Wing Commander II, taking what seemed like (and quite possibly was) hours to install from a massive pile of 3.5″ disks. The second game in the series used pretty much the same engine, but had more of a story involving wrongful accusations of cowardice and treachery. Privateer followed, giving Elite-esque freedom and trading options, as well as main plot you could take part in or ignore as desired, but I remember it more as a decent enough follow-up than anything ground-breaking. For some reason I never picked up the later games in the series that switched to polygon graphics with full motion video cut-scenes; I think when Wing Commander III first came out my PC at the time wasn’t really powerful enough to handle it, plus with all the FMV it came on an unprecedented four CDs, so if there was an entirely hypothetical group of students at that time who exchanged the odd game here and there, they wouldn’t have been able to easily copy it. The series also had stiff competition from a descendant of that original Star Wars arcade game, the excellent X-Wing series that more than sated my space-sim needs for the mid-90s. Still, the original Wing Commander will always be that “whoah, dude!” game.

[1] Revisiting it might actually reveal a MIDI-synth orchestra sounding like a bad ringtone, but don’t spoil it…
[2] Not an actual X-Wing, they don’t exist, but don’t spoil it…

Through the Jungle very softly flits a shadow and a sigh.

Is anyone else hoping that Blizzard respond to the post with something along the lines of:

“Nessingwary and STV? Yeah, that was Crazy Colin the intern who did that. Worst design ever. What’s that? All our other content is so well thought out that you were sure that STV had to have some hidden high-brow design behind it too? No, no, no. All our other content was so good because we were able to concentrate on it while Crazy Colin dribbled over the design tools in a half-concious stupor; I mean he essentially created STV with his forehead.”


It’s unlikely, since Dr Bartle is a clever fellow. Like very many clever fellows though, he has that delightfully eccentric inability to express himself in words without causing massive misunderstanding and gnashing of teeth from everyone who isn’t in the club of twenty people who think that a normal conversation opens with an immediate insult to the intelligence of their fellow conversant.

In the Melmoth Test of Blogger Psychology he would probably fall under Inadvertent Flamebaiter.

Wii waits. That’s what wii does.

At the end of April, I said “(Rock Band 2 has) been delayed another couple of weeks, May 29th being the current release date (though that may just be a placeholder if the database behind the website can’t cope with inserting “when hell freezes over” into a datetime() field).” Sure enough today, just as I’m thinking “only another couple of weeks until Rock Band 2 for the Wii, gosh I’m looking forward to applying pressure to coloured buttons in a rhythmic fashion to the sounds of popular light entertainment combos”, an e-mail comes through announcing another four week delay, to June 26th. On the Tony Harrison outrage-o-meter, this is now officially a Level 4 Outrage.

With details of Guitar Hero 5 emerging including the first ten songs (Dylan! Woo!), bookies are currently taking bets on Which Guitar Hero Games Will Be Released In The UK Before Wii Rock Band 2:
Guitar Hero: Metallica. 1/1000000 on, no more bets being taken.
Guitar Hero: Smash Hits. 5/19 on, seems likely.
Guitar Hero 5. 8/9 on.
Guitar Hero 6. Evens.
Guitar Hero 7. 5/2.
Guitar Hero: Rocks the 20s (a nostalgia trip back through all your favourite hits of the 2020s). 10/1.
Guitar Hero 125th Anniversary Special Edition Tribute. 25/1.

All I can imagine is that Harmonix decided to save a bit of money, so the output of the Wii Rock Band Disk Manufacturing Plant in Timbuktu, instead of being loaded onto a ship, was formed into a rudimentary raft which is now being piloted through the choppy waters of the North Atlantic. Full access to the Captain’s Log sheds further light:

March 7th. Making good progress in calm waters. Estimated release date: April 24th.
April 16th. Reports of pirates off the coast of Morocco have forced us to sail much further west than we were planning, resulting in being caught in the North Equatorial current. Estimated release date: May 15th.
May 2nd. Storm-force conditions brought down the mainsail and put a hole in the hull that needed patching with several drumheads and a plastic Stratocaster. The mast has been re-rigged with promotional sticker sheets, reducing average speed to seven knots. Estimated release date: May 29th.
May 17th. Things not quite going according to plan. Stuck in the doldrums, use of plastic guitars as oars maintained progress, but attracted the attention of Ebirah, horror of the deep, who seized two members of crew before we drove him off by flinging drum sets at him. Europe will have to make do with Rock Band 1 peripherals for a while longer. Food supplies running low, drinking water down to half a cup per man per day. Morale kept up by imagining the endless amusement being derived on the Rock Band forums from telling Wii owners to get a proper console whenever they complain about the delay. Estimated release date: June 26th.

It Was Eighteen Years Ago Today

And so the roller-coaster ride through the back issues of PC magazines continues, reaching issue 53 of PC Plus, dated February 1991. Only a few months on from the last piece, the cover price is up to £2.60, and the page count up to 298. Prices of the systems on offer was fairly similar to the previous October, though most vendors added 80486-based systems to the top end of their range; the Multiplex Computer Group were offering a 14″ Super VGA 485-25 with 4Mb RAM and a 65Mb hard drive for £2,999. Though upgrade components had been a staple of advertising in all the previous issues, system fundamentals (moterboards, cases etc.) for scratch building were more unusual; Euro Bell had a nice selection in this issue, including a range of cases from flip top compact table top with 200 Watt PSU for £98 up to a monster floor standing tower with 250 Watts for £209. Speaking of cases, one thing that really stands out as you flick through the adverts is how astonishingly ugly every system was; acres of beige as far as the eye could see in boxes so rectangular that the slight ridge on the front of an IBM PS/2 was a dangerously abstract touch.

The Brief Encounters section contained a couple of interesting products. For £1,144,25 “Diskfax”, as the name suggests, was a chunky box you attached to a phone line, stuck in a disk (it supported both low and high density 3.5- and 5.25-inch disks), dialled up a number, and by the magic of telecommunication, a copy of the disk would emerge from a similar box at the other end of the line. The review pointed out a couple of flaws, firstly that the other party had to also have a Diskfax obviously, and secondly that somebody had to be at the other end to put in or swap disks (unless you went mad and got the version with a 20 Mbyte hard drive for £1,719.25), but “Overall the Diskfax was reasonably fast – sending a 60K WordStar document in just under 90 seconds”. The review concludes “In two year’s time every office may have a Diskfax – or it might have disappeared ignominiously! Who can really tell?” Well, I think with 18 years hindsight we can have a fair stab at that… Elsewhere, if you thought Twittering a status update on the move was a recent phenomenon, the Vodata CDLC modem attached directly to a laptop computer and Vodafone portable telephone (which, in the picture, was about the same size as the laptop) without the need for irritations such as accoustic couplers or untidy wiring; the reviewer hooked up a Tandy 1100 and a Panasonic C series phone, and was able to log on to Compuserve from the train. At £632 for the modem, though, and I shudder to think how much for the phone calls, it wasn’t cheap.

In Mailbox, Keith Parry of Norwich took issue with David Dala’s letter in the previous issue suggesting that icons in computer software were a backwards step and likely to lead to widespread illiteracy (O RLY? NO WAI!), arguing that they were actually making best use of our cognitive capabilities in pattern matching. Debate raged in both letters and on the CIX electronic conferencing system over the use of Pascal in the Open University’s Fundamentals of Computing course and whether this was useful to industry, with a couple of CIX shorthand terms spelled out for those not used to the jargon: IMHO – In My Humble Opinion, and TPTB – The Powers That Be.

The big group review was Notebook PCs, with four basic, low cost models assessed. Not exactly powerhouses, with CGA LCD displays, 640K RAM, a single 3.5″ disk drive and 8086 or 8088 processors, they did cram that all into tiny packages (the Tandy 1100 was 12″ x 9.75″ x 2.5″ and weighed a mere 6.4lb), for £500 to £1100. The main cover story, though, was “The Best of the Year”, the PC Plus awards for 1990. In no particular order, they were:

  • Peripheral of the Year – HP LaserJet III
  • Spreadsheets – Microsoft Excel
  • Desktop Publishing – DESKpress
  • PC of the Year – 386SX PCs
  • Word Processing – LetterPerfect
  • Integrated Software – Microsoft Works
  • Graphics – Digital Research Artline 2
  • Databases – Microrim R:Base 3.1
  • Accounting Packages – Sybiz Service Industry Accounting
  • Operating Systems and Utilities – Microsoft Windows 3
  • Programming and Development – Basic 7
  • Overall Winner – Windows 3

Going into a bit more detail for the Entertainment Program of the Year: “1990 was the year when leisure publishers finally realised that the PC can be an all-around business and pleasure computer. With innovative imports from America, increasingly polished home-grown products and some imaginative developments from across the Channel, there were many releases for sophisticated gamers. (…) In a year when everybody seemed to imitate Sierra with animated, arcade-based adventures, one company re-thought the classic, text-based game and brought it out of hibernation.”, the award going to Magnetic Scrolls Wonderland. I have to confess that one totally passed me by, I have no recollection of it at all, and an uncharitable person might suggest that its windows-based interface particularly appealed to a team who liked a nice WIMP application. There was certainly a better candidate later in the magazine, though probably ineligible for the 1990 award…

After Hours had a couple of little reviews for Jack Nicklaus Unlimited Golf and Course Designer (catchy title, 4/5) and Prince of Persia, for which “The beautiful backgrounds and fluidity of the animation put it in a class of its own” (also 4/5). The main reviews were Stratego (a fairly straight board game conversion by the looks of it, 3/5), Lost Patrol from Ocean, that saw you leading the survivors of a chopper crash through harsh Vietnamese terrain (ambitious but repetitive, 3/5), and a couple of other games I remember quite well.

In Mean Streets you played a hardboiled gumshoe in a Blade Runner-esque future, mostly as a point and click adventure searching for clues and talking to suspects, with the odd side scrolling shooter sequence if you got ambushed by hoods while out and about. What was really extraordinary, though, was the sound. The PC, being a Serious Business Thing, had no time for frivolity such as “music”, so the only sound output was from a single channel speaker that went “beep” and, on a good day, “boop”, not entirely conducive to a fully immersive multimedia experience. Through the use of Strange and Arcane Magicks (or, according to Wikipedia, controlling the speaker’s amplitude of displacement using pulse width modulation), Mean Streets *talked*! And had music, with drums! And gunshots! Granted it was a bit fuzzy, like somebody was relaying the effects to you over a walkie-talkie, but nevertheless it was a heck of a feature. PC Plus were also impressed, awarding it 4/5 for all four categories of Graphics, Instant Appeal, Lasting Appeal and the overall Value Verdict.

Finally, there was Wing Commander. Oh, sweet Wing Commander… Securing 5/5 for Graphics and 4/5 for Instant Appeal, Lasting Appeal and the Value Verdict sounds good, but to be honest I think they under-marked its awesome majesty. I could write a whole post on Wing Commander… which sounds like a pretty good idea, actually, so next up, a brief pause before we plough on to 1992 (with a new magazine title, this was the last PC Plus, ooh great excitement) to look at Origin’s space-sim extraordinaire.

Aural pleasure.

In case any readers are interested in listening to us blather for forty minutes or so in our so called ‘posh’ English accents (Zoso is exceedingly posh, I border on “Gor blimey Mahewy Poppins”), we were kindly allowed to intrude on the most recent episode of the VanHemlock podcast.

As an added bonus there’s also interactive audience input from our good friend PJ from