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.

2 thoughts on “It Was Eighteen Years Ago Today

  1. Jon Shute

    Strange that Prince of Persia only got a 4/5, my memory has always been that it was universally loved. They released it again on xbox recently ( and although it’s short by todays standards it still plays shockingly well. It just goes to show that if you have good atmosphere in a game (and top notch animation in this case) a game can last 20 years.

    I don’t want to think how badly skewed my Wing Commander memories are. I’m sure the sprite based engine hasn’t exactly stood the test of time, but the plot and atmosphere were top notch for the time. I’d install it and have a play but my floppies that have it on started getting read errors a long time ago.

  2. Zoso

    Prince of Persia was rather splendid; I’m not sure PC Plus were so impressed by “graphics” or “gameplay”, though, they liked a nice macro programming language…

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