Category Archives: retro

It was still sixteen years ago today

Computer Shopper wasn’t the only computer magazine I bought in October 1993; that post concluded: “Though no one would have believed, in the last months of the the twentieth century (give or take seven years) PC gaming was being reported upon elsewhere in the timeless worlds of publishing…”, and the elsewhere in question was PC Zone.

In the last piece in this series I looked back at The Games Machine, a multi-format games magazine from 1988 that didn’t have an awful lot for a PC-owning games enthusiast in it, which is why I’d switched to PC Plus, Computer Shopper and the like afterwards. 16-bit gaming in the late 80s and early 90s in the UK was dominated by the Atari ST and Amiga, with Sega’s Megadrive also propelling Sonic the Hedgehog into national consciousness. The PC fought back, especially as VGA and the Adlib and Soundblaster cards gave it video and audio parity with the Atari and Commodore machines, and the odd game like Wing Commander finally caused some jealous glances from the other camps (it took a couple of years to get from PC to Amiga), but for the most part the PC was still the beige-boxed office workhorse.

By 1993 the PC was poised to take over at the vanguard of non-console gaming, one of the signs being we finally had a couple of magazines devoted to games, the first of which was PC Zone. There had been other less business-oriented PC magazines, particularly PC Format, but they tended to cover the whole gamut of leisure-type activities. PC Zone was, as it boldly proclaimed on the cover, “100% games”, and up to issue 7 in October 1993.

Compared to the £1.49 for 582 pages of Computer Shopper, PC Zone was £3.95 for a mere 130 pages, but contained far less advertising, and came with no less than three 3.5″ cover disks: 5 playable levels of Sink or Swim (“go beyond Lemmings with Zeppelin’s puzzler”), the complete game of Bio Menace (“Apogee’s orgy of death & destruction”) and Manga Mayhem (“stunning gallery of Anime graphics”). The latter tied in with one of the cover stories, “Manga: fun with girls and guns”, and I’d be lying if I said its illustration of scantily clad fox-girl-things wasn’t at all a factor in picking up the magazine. The other main cover story was Lands of Lore, “exclusive review – classic game”.

On the news pages we had a couple of screenshots of Freelancer, “in its very early stages of design”, due in the first quarter of ’94. For fans of Terry Pratchett, “Teeny Weeny Games has acquired the much sought after licence to Pratchett’s Discworld books and is developing a game for the PC and PC CD ROM (along with other formats). However the game won’t see the light of day until next summer at the earliest.” A more in-depth four page preview looked at Beneath a Steel Sky, with lots of Dave Gibbons artwork including the evolution from his early sketches to a screenshot of the game, and an interesting annotated screen illustrating some of the challenges of designing for the game engine, such as limiting vertical movement to prevent sprite scaling, and avoiding exits on the Y-axis.

The review section kicked off with Lands of Lore from the cover, David McCandless being sufficiently impressed to award it 90 for “PC Zone Classic” status. I vaguely remember playing Lands of Lore, and I’m not sure I’d call it a classic; it was one of the last of the tile-based rotate-90-degree type RPGs a la Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder, and with games like Ultima Underworld already offering more freedom I found it slightly same-y.

Seal Team from Electronic Arts was an ambitious attempt at using a flight sim engine for a first-person squad-based tactical shooter sort of thing set in Vietnam. Rather more considered than something like the all-guns-blazing Wolfenstein 3D, Seal Team was praised for its atmosphere, as your squad cautiously crept through the South East Asian jungle to investigate a village, but the graphics were somewhat lacking, especially for a game that needed pretty beefy hardware to run well, so came out with a score of 77. I tried a demo, but couldn’t really get on with it.

Platformer The Lost Vikings was Recommended with a score of 80; hex-based wargame Clash of Steel got 67, one for the grognards really, while Ambush at Sorinor, a fantasy strategy wargame did slightly better with 70. Trading game The Patrician (“It’s up to you to trade, lie, cheat and bribe your way to the top (try to imagine Howard’s Way with German names and funny hats)”) got 65, with the conclusion “Desperate for a trading game set in the Hanseatic League but which could have been given more zap? Look no further.” NHL Hockey, an early EA Sports offering (they hadn’t even tacked the year on the end) got a big thumbs up with 91. Simon the Sorcerer, a point n’ click adventure, got a score of 86, being welcomed as a British take on the genre dominated by Monkey Island and the like, even if the humour didn’t always quite work.

Back in the Bargain Bin LHX Attack Chopper got 88 (at least it ran on a CGA machine, I quite enjoyed that on my old 1512 while hankering after Wing Commander on a 386), F-15 Strike Eagle got 85, and I’m not sure of Loom’s final score as I’d cut out a coupon from the other side of the page, but it shows how staple adventure games and flight sims were at the time.

A whole feature looked at upgrades; not new hardware, but game expansions, data disks, and “deluxe versions”, overhauling previous games. As a couple of examples, Wing Commander Academy was a standalone game, based on the Wing Commander II engine, but removing the plot, and giving you the ability to design your own missions. A couple of years after Wing Commander had been such a revelation the engine was a little dated, and Academy only scored 60. As the review said, “Wing Commander Academy has one major problem. It’s coming out of the shadow of X-Wing. After spending hours in flud and smooth and exciting full screen space combat, it’s difficult to go back to Wing Commander’s jerky, halting, quite repetitive one third screen experience.” To prove the point, also reviewed was Imperial Pursuit, a data disk expansion for X-Wing, scoring 80; much as I’d loved Wing Commander at the time, X-Wing, and even more Tie Fighter after it, took the space sim to the next level so I never went back for the third Wing Commander game.

After the reviews came The HackMasters, starting with an exhortation to back up any files you might tinker with, then a couple of quick guides to hexadecimal and the DOS debug command. Who said games couldn’t be educational? Suitably forearmed, the rest of the section was then a mix of conventional passwords and cheat codes for games like Flashback, The Incredible Machine Part II, Robocod and Syndicate, and debug commands to edit save games of Worlds of Legend, Betrayal At Krondor, Zool and Space Hulk, for kitting out your marines with extra flamers and assault cannon. The TruePlayers, on the other hand, went with more conventional walkthroughs, this issue including Day of the Tentacle and Shadow of the Comet.

With all the furore over the pricing of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 recently, it’s interesting looking back at the prices of games back in 1993. Lands of Lore, with an RRP of £35.99, was a positive bargain; Clash of Steel and Simon the Sorcerer were £39.99, and Seal Team and NHL Hockey were £44.99. Those were just the floppy disk versions; a multimedia verision of King’s Quest VI on CD ROM was another fiver on top at £49.99. Mail order companies at least knocked a bit off the prices; “Only the Best Computer Software” of Bristol listed Lands of Lore at £24.99, and the CD ROM King’s Quest VI at £32.99, but it was easy to see the appeal of Shareware.

Speaking of which… a couple of pages in from the back cover was a full page advert for the game that would firmly install the PC as a viable games machine. With a green-armoured space marine blasting the horde of demons surrounding him, “ID Software’s DOOM is real-time, three-dimensional, 256 colour, fully texture-mapped, multi-player battle from the safe shores of our universe into the horrifying depths of the netherworld! Choose one of four characters and you’re off to war with hideous hellish hulks bent on chaos and death! See your friends bite it! Cause your friends to bite it! Bite it yourself! And if you won’t bite it, there are plenty of demonic denizens to bite it for you!”

It was twenty one years ago today

If you’ve been following the series of posts looking back at old PC magazines (now with handy added “retro” tag) you might have noticed a common theme: from PC Plus to PC Magazine to Computer Shopper, they only included a couple of pages dedicated to games, or even “leisure software” in general. Games were what I was really interested in, I couldn’t care less about a round-up of spreadsheets or networking hardware, so why was I buying these serious magazines? Cranking the time machine back another five years or so…

My formative computing experiences started with a ZX Spectrum around the age of eight or nine, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to go out and buy a computer magazine; reading material of choice from the newsagent was Battle! Picture Weekly, and computer games existed alongside Action Man, plastic soldiers, Star Wars stickers, Transformers, MASK and whatever other tat was being pushed by Saturday morning cartoons. Nine year olds seldom made informed decisions based upon independently researched data when judging whether a particular toy, sticker collection or Spectrum game was “ace!” or indeed “brill!”, prevailing playground opinion ruled. Elsewhere I imagine little gangs of Spectrum or Commodore owners would get together, swap games and tips, and hurl abuse and conkers at rival Commodore or Spectrum owners, but circumstances conspired to stump popular playground opinion on computer games at my school. I had the ZX Spectrum with Starquake and Saboteur; Alan had an Amstrad CPC464 with Beach Head and Knight Tyme; Will had a BBC Micro (his dad’s estate agency had computerised with BBCs, so they had one at home too) with Repton and Track N’ Field; Pete had… something with Commando on it, maybe a Commodore 64. Tim had an Atari of some kind, possibly a 600XL or 65XE, with a wargame set on the Eastern Front that sounded amazing (armies and tanks and planes and stuff!), but went way over our heads with its hex-based map and unit symbols. Darren had an MSX, apparently, I had no idea what an MSX was.

It seems unlikely that there’d been a town meeting where our parents had taken Wikipedia’s “List of 8-bit home computers available in 1984” and assigned a different one to each family, if for no other reason than Wikipedia didn’t exist at the time, but you have to wonder. My other pet theory is the school was part of a FAST experiment into combating piracy. “Piracy rate: 0%. Experiment: successful. Possible problems with implementing plan on national scale: would need to increase number of different, incompatible 8-bit computer formats from 6 to 974,232 to ensure nobody knows anyone they can copy games from.”

I think I was slightly too young to really appreciate that first home computing boom, and the fragmentation with all the different systems meant none of them developed a “scene” or community at school that might’ve got me more interested. Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, on the other hand, could far more easily be swapped around, sweeping a bunch of us into Dungeons and Dragons and wargaming, so after the Battle! Action Force comic I moved on to White Dwarf rather than something like Your Sinclair or Crash, especially as the Spectrum was becoming increasingly temperamental when trying to load games via an old and creaky cassette player.

1988, and the arrival of our Amstrad PC1512, rekindled that interest in computing, and I trundled off down to the newsagents to find out more about this magical machine. The dedicated PC magazines looked a bit dull, but The Games Machine promised coverage of “Computer & Electronic Entertainment”, and as an added bonus had Operation Wolf on the cover, so I figured that’d do.

Issue 13 of The Games Machine, dated December 1988, cost £1.25 (DM 7.50, US $3.50, CAN $3.95) for its 154 pages. It opened with news of a “Console Fight” (illustrated slightly oddly with a photo of an M113 armoured personnel carrier): Nintendo and Sega were planning new 16 bit consoles, and “Console experts say only one or two machines can survive the fierce competition which will develop among five top models: Atari’s VCS2600, the Nintendo, the Sega, the PC Engine and the planned Konix Slipstream. Many tip the 16-bit Slipstream, which TGM exclusively revealed last month, as the winner when it’s launched next summer. Among the £130 Slipstream’s strong selling points will be digitised sound, RISC graphics chips, and an add-on hydraulic chair for less than £100 extra. Code Masters Operations Manager Bruce Everiss, whose software house is believed to have been planning a console last year, enthuses: ‘I think Konix has the potential to be another Amstrad. He [boss Wynn Holloway] has wreaked miracles.’ Even a spokesman for Micro Media, the sole UK outlet for the PC Engine, admits: ‘I’d expect the Slipstream to have an open road until 1990.'”

If you’re wondering why this wunder-console failed to destroy Nintendo and Sega, is a rather interesting read.

Back to the big players, Nintendo were suffering from slow software development and chip shortages with their “Nintendo II” (the SNES-to-be), while “Sega’s 16-bit Megadelve (sic) is expected to appear about this time next year with stereo sound, high resolution graphics and £49-50 games on two-inch discs”. The “Consoles: what they’ve sold” sidebar contained some rather interesting industry best-guesses of console sales of the time. Atari VCS2600: “claim of more than 3 million in UK since 1981 release. Interest slowed down mid-Eighties, now reviving.” Nintendo: “NESI claim 30 million worldwide but reliable reports say figure is closer to 20-25 million. Breakdown: 12 million in Japan (sales slowing down), 7 million in US (sales soaring – 10 to 12 million predicted by the New Year), 45,000 in UK, 25,000 in Scandinavia.” PC Engine: “Possibly up to 600,000 in Japan, certainly much less elsewhere.” Sega: “45,000 in UK”.

In the run-up to Christmas retailers were predicting Afterburner would be the big seasonal hit, with possible rivals including Operation Wolf, Thunder Blade, Double Dragon and R-Type, all coin-op conversions. On the hardware front Dixons and WH Smiths were going to be stocking the Atari ST, only Dixons were taking the Amiga, but Comet, Dixons and WH Smiths all offered the aged Atari VCS2600. The venerable Spectrum was beginning to fade, with Smiths dropping it to concentrate on the ST and VCS2600, but Comet, Dixons and Tandy were still planning to offer the +2 and +3 versions. Dixons were also the only place stocking the Commodore 64. TGM didn’t just cover games, the news also covered Sir Clive Sinclar launching a cheap satellite dish, the £149.95 Cambridge satellite receiver, going up against Amstrad for the first time since Sir Clive had sold the Spectrum computing brand to them.

In a preview piece, TGM visited Ere Informatique in Paris for a look at Purple Saturn Day, Billiard Simulator I, Teenage Queen (“… a strip-poker game, and if you don’t know how to play strip poker we suggest you ask your teacher”) and The Temple of Flying Saucers, which sounds frankly bonkers: “our hero, A von Spacekraft, is kidnapped by rebel electric toasters. And they want bread.” A couple of pages of assorted preview screenshots followed, lots of glossy ST and Amiga shots from games like F-16 Combat Pilot, Double Dragon, Thunder Blade and Motor Massacre, with a token Spectrum shot from AfterBurner to prove they weren’t entirely neglecting the 8-bits.

Again demonstrating its wider remit, Mel Croucher’s feature “Who Needs Reality Anyway?” was all about telecommuting, predicting “supermarkers will be hit by home teleshopping, as will high-street estate agents, travel agents, banks and all other businesses that will gradually be replaced by the interactive domestic screen.” Not bad, considering this pre-dates the World Wide Web by several years.

Arcades were still going great guns, a couple of pages covered news from the JAMMA/JAPEA Annual Amusement Machine Show in Japan of the hot games to come in 1989, Taito’s Chase HQ and Namco’s Splatter House being a couple I remember pumping 10p coins into.

Into the main review section, the Lead Review was Powerdrome, a 3D polygon-based racing game for the Atari ST that scored 93% (looked a bit blocky to me, but the stills probably didn’t do the sense of speed justice). Rocket Ranger for the Amiga got 90% for “Excellent graphics, breathtaking sound effects and sampled speech”, and really looked the business. Pac-Mania, also for the Amiga, got 92% for its arcade-accurate take on the isometric 3D pill-muncher. Multi-format games got separate scores per platform, so Operation Wolf got 89% on the Amstrad CPC, 87% on the Spectrum and 79% on the Commodore 64 (suffering a slight loss in graphic definition, and requiring pixel-perfect use of the gun sight), with 16-bit versions to follow later. The reviews section also included version updates, shorter roundups of previously reviewed games that had been released on new platforms, so Revenge of the Mutant Camels II that scored 63% for the Atari ST in issue 8 got 49% for the Amiga version update in this issue, earning criticism for the superior capabilities of the machine being used to only marginally improve the graphics.

After the reviews, another article looked at the world of pirates (yarr, me hearty etc.), talking to members of groups like The Kent Team, PCB and Divisional Distribution. Showing how little has changed over twenty years except the amounts, Bob Hays, co-ordinator of the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) estimated that piracy amounted to £7.5 million a year in illegal games, but the pirates dismissed such figures, pointing out they wouldn’t have bought the game anyway in most cases, and some were more attracted by the fun and challenge of breaking copy protection rather than the game itself.

A few pages of playing tips offered a variety of tactics and passwords for various games, including Double Dragon: “When in dual player mode if you go up to a Putz and grab him from behind the other player can hit the unfortunate victim as many times as he likes with the whip. He won’t die, your points go up like mad (200 at a time) and you can do this ad infinitum”. And in the game, ah!

Branching out again from games there was a book column, on something of a cyberpunk trip with a couple of Bruce Sterling novels (Islands in the Net and a reprint of Involution Ocean) and the Sterling-edited anthology Mirrorshades getting the thumbs up, but Pat Cadigan’s Mindplayers received a more lukewarm response. Raymond E Feist’s Faerie Tale strained credibility, but was exciting enough to suspend disbelief. A roleplay column reviewed a couple of RuneQuest supplements, Gods of Glorantha (60 Religions for RuneQuest), and the Gloranthan Bestiary.

The letters page was mostly a fairly dull spat between Amiga and ST owners over who had the better machine, with some further fallout from an advert for “Psycho Pigs UXB” in a previous issue featuring a scantily clad model that presumably had attracted some complaints, this month featuring complains about the complaints (“just what is wrong with the human body?”).

Finally, the Back Bytes section included some handy reference material, including a guide to computer systems starting with the 32 bit Acorn Archimedes (£800+, with “over 200 releases for the Archimedes – but only 13 games at last count”), the 16-bit Atari ST (£300 for the 520STFM), Amiga (£400 for an A500 pack including software and TV modulator) and PC (£350 to “well over £4000”, with “… more games than you might expect, largely because of the many PC game-players in America. However, poor display and sound are problems and PC-compatiles are not recommended if you’re only into games, graphics or music”), the 8-bit Amstrad CPC (£299 for the CPC464 with colour monitor), Commodore C64/C128 (£150 for the C64 and ten games) and Sinclair ZX Spectrum (£139 for the +2), and finishing off with the Nintendo Entertainment System (£130), PC Engine (£175) and Sega Master System (£80, including light gun) consoles.

An excellent and laudable magazine, then, covering all facets of gaming with a few books and RPGs thrown in, everything an aspiring geek could want, right? What on earth possessed me to eschew it the following month for a copy of PC Plus with a picture of a networking kit on the cover? The basic problem was page 37, the index of reviews that listed them by system. Spectrum: 6 games; Amstrad CPC: 3 games; Commodore: 7 games; Atari ST: 13 games; Amiga: 13 games; PC: 4 games; Sega: 4 games. The 4 PC games were Bubble Ghost (79%), a dull looking platform-ish thing that had been out on the ST for a year, Captain Blood (68%), a couple of paragraphs pointing out it wasn’t as good the ST or Amiga versions from 6 months back, The Games: Summer Edition (76%), a slightly updated Daley Thompson-esque waggle-fest and the only brand new review as opposed to a version update, and Rasterscan (44%), a hasty 8-bit port. Meanwhile, the cover story of “Watch out, solider! Kill! Kill! Kill!” referred to Operation Wolf plus two distinctly influenced-by-(as in shamelessly-ripped-off) Operation Wolf games, POW for the Amiga and Veteran for the Atari ST. That was what I wanted, all-action mowing down hordes of enemy soldiers, not a ghost blowing a bubble. It felt like The Games Machine was actively taunting me, waving these shiny graphics and action packed games in my face while I was stuck with four shades of grey and the odd “beep”. Prominent in the middle of the magazine was a double page advert for the Atari ST, advertising the £399.99 “Super Pack” including £450 worth of software: Marble Madness, Test Drive, Beyond the Ice Palace, Buggy Boy, Eddie Edwards Super Ski, Ikari Warriors, Ranarama, Thundercats, Zynaps, Quadralien, Starquake, Chopper X, Roadwars, Xenon, Arkanoid II, Wizball, Black Lamp, Genesis, Thrust, Seconds Out, Summer Olympiad 88 and Organiser Business Software. What wouldn’t I have given for a pile of games like that; the magazine felt like 150 pages of Jim Bowen saying “here’s what you could have won…”

Looking back, it’s not quite that bad; many games promised a PC version to come, and there was even a foretaste of things to come with a review of the Amiga version of Ultima IV that had been out for the PC since 1986, but that was scant consolation. Nope, it was PC Plus for me after that, it came with a cover disk that had the odd game on it, and at least I’d only be bored by a spreadsheet face-off rather than driven mad with jealousy.

It was sixteen years ago today

October 1993. Military forces stormed the Russian parliament, Benazir Bhutto was elected in Pakistan, and I’d bought an issue of Computer Shopper. For £1.49 it had a hefty 582 pages, much of it advertising in the era of catalogue adverts, companies like Software Warehouse and Computers by Post taking ten to fifteen pages to showcase their wares. Inside the front cover fold-out was the familiar Dell logo; their Dimension range started with a 25Mhz 486SX with 4MBb RAM, an 80Mb hard drive and SVGA for £859, and went up to a 66Mhz 486DX with 8Mb RAM and 230Mb hard drive for £1,819. Anyone who’d bought the “Pentium ready” machine from August ’92 must have been a bit miffed; still no sign of Intel’s latest uberchip, and Dan were selling a 64 bit “dantium” system, just poised to upgrade to a FULL BLOWN PENTIUM(tm) via a CPU card as soon as it became available, at £2848 for the 486DX2/66 model with 1.05GB hard drive. Amstrad were still going, with their 7486SLC coming it at a fairly reasonable £699; rather more intriguing was their “MEGA PC”, a curious hybrid of a 386SX PC and a Sega Mega Drive. I remember someone at school talking of this mythical beast, a PC that transformed at the slide of a panel into a console, and I thought it was their fevered imagination, but no, such a thing actually existed; this very advert was on page 511. Notebook PCs with beefy processors and colour VGA screens offered power on the move, but at a price; £2699 for a 486/33 from Mitac. More compact than that, Time were offering a Sharp Palmtop PC (though you’d need pretty big palms) weighing a mere 1lb, toting DOS 3.3, a CGA LCD screen and 1Mb RAM for £239. Alternatively, if you wanted to eschew the keyboard, Amstrad were branching out with the PenPad PDA600 for £229: “with the latest in technology Amstrad bring you the PenPad PDA600; a comprehensive Personal Digital Assistant which is as natural to use as a traditional organiser. Just pick up the pen and write on the screen!”

As part of a fairly thorough buying guide, the PriceTrack feature tracked average prices of some sample systems over the course of the past six months; as would be expected, desktop PC prices had been fairly steadily falling, but the column advised buying sooner rather than later, or holding off for a while, as an explosion at a Japanese epoxy resin plant caused a worldwide Ram shortage. Notebook PCs also fell in price over the six months, albeit by a smaller percentage, while printers had held steady, indeed the average 24 pin dot matrix had slightly increased in price.

After 276 pages of almost solid adverts, the news pages started. Microsoft were beta testing the final upgrade for Windows 3, codenamed “Snowball”, a stepping stone towards the 32-bit “Chicago”, at that point due to appear the next year as Windows 4.0, while Windows NT has finally arrived in the UK after many delays. IBM had announced a record quarterly loss of $8 billion, but hoped the latest round of cuts would return it to profitability. Apple had just unveiled the Newton MessagePad, the £599 price tag doubtless contributing to its subsequent lack of success. Colour LCD displays were taking off, Compaq being unable to clear an order backlog for its TFT-equipped laptops, prompting Philips to invest in a TFT LCD screen factory. Microsoft and Borland were duking it out in the 32-bit development space with Visual C++ for Windows NT and Borland’s C++ for OS/2; the caption of “yes, honestly, a third-party product for OS/2” suggests how well IBM’s operating system was doing.

With the introduction of Apple’s Newton, the Analysis section looked at the new buzzword in town: Stici. Pronounced “sticky” (apparently), it stood for “Self-teaching interpretive communicating interface”, the successor to the GUI. US analyst BIS Strategic Decisions predicted this would be the next big thing, with 60.4% of the US installed base of PCs and PDAs using a “Stici” interface by 1998. Maybe not, eh?

Group reviews included a bumper roundup of 21 386s, with machines from Acer, Brother and Watford getting the Best Buy nod, and budget databases, rounding up a number of packages under £100.

The “Using MSDOS” column in this issue was on creating multiple configurations in the Config.sys and Autoexec.bat files, extremely useful for gamers when you had to juggle expanded, extended and high memory, along with assorted drivers for mice, soundcards and other gubbins, depending on the game. DEVICE=C:\DOS\EMM386.EXE RAM i=e000-efff x=A000-c7ff x=DC00-DFFF 1024, eh? Those were the days… Other columns covered Windows, programming, and, being a multi-format magazine, the Amiga, Atari and Mac. Although 99% of the advertising was IBM-compatible focused, it was often interesting to see what was going on with other systems, and this month’s Amiga column included news of the CD32 Amiga Console launch from July at the Science Museum that involved “drinking champagne and being sprayed with a water pistol by Chris ‘Big Breakfast’ Evans if we weren’t paying attention”. The basic machine cost £299.99, with a full-motion video (FMV) cartridge add-on for another £200. Phil South wasn’t impressed, though, having several problems with the name (“CD32 is a crap name with as much charisma as a boiled egg”), the case (“the CD32 is charcoal grey and all sharp edges like a cheap stereo out of a home shopping catalogue”), and the idea of the idea of music CDs also containing an FMV video. His suggestion: “follow the advice of a firm that Commodore consulted early on in the life of the CD32: make some really good soft-porn FMVs to pull in the adults, and have some really gory games to pull in the teenagers. Get some of the software banned and you won’t be able to shift the machines fast enough.” Wonder if that consultant was Jack Thompson?

Presumably some old charter or something compelled all PC magazines to have a section called “After Hours”, Computer Shopper being no exception. A whole two pages, this month saw reviews of Beauty and the Beast, a tie-in for the Disney film, Patience Games, 15 solo card games for DOS, and DesignaKnit. Not really the cutting edge of PC gaming, but no matter; though no one would have believed, in the last months of the the twentieth century (give or take seven years) PC gaming was being reported upon elsewhere in the timeless worlds of publishing…

It was seventeen years ago today

And so we move on to 1992. By this point I’d upgraded to a 16Mhz 386SX system with colour VGA display, so could finally run Wing Commander and the like, and after subscribing to PC Plus for a couple of years I was also branching out to other PC magazines, in this instance the “does exactly what it says on the masthead” PC Magazine.

PC Magazine was pretty new in the UK, only being up to its fifth issue in August 1992. It was a rather heavyweight tome, both in number of pages (426) and the depth of its articles. The cover story of this issue was Windows vs OS/2, obviously something of a foregone conclusion in hindsight, but while Windows 3 had sold incredibly well for Microsoft and they’d recently brought out the improved Windows 3.1, OS/2 was technically superior, breaking away from the DOS infrastructure that Windows still sat on.

PC Magazine had in depth analysis of many aspects of the two systems over 22 pages, concluding that “OS/2 2.0 is just too big, too slow, too clumsy, too buggy and too incompatible – despite its superior multitasking and technical advancement”, and awarding Windows 3.1 the Editors’ choice. It wasn’t an unreserved recommendation, though: “Not that Windows 3.1 is perfect. To say that a major new software release crashes less often than the previous version is like saying that strychnine is less poisonous than arsenic.”

Alan Holland, author of the letter of the month, didn’t hold with these fancy GUIs, though, he was perfectly happy with DOS and hoping PC Magazine wouldn’t entirely devote itself to Windows. Peter Lloyd went one better; not only did he “hate the Windows environment”, but he had “yet to find a programmer who doesn’t hate DOS”, and generally was disgusted with the whole world of PCs. Alan Norman of Siemens Nixdorf also sounded slightly miffed that a previous issue had performed a “drop test” of their notebook without telling them, and returned it broken.

In the editorial columns Steve Malone highlighted the prospect of a worldwide 3.5″ disk shortage as programs got bigger and bigger, Windows taking up seven disks and many of its application a similar number, but forward thinking suppliers were already starting to move to CD-ROMs for distribution. Then, as now, the economy was in recession, and another piece offered some warning signs to watch out for when buying kit to avoid companies on the brink of collapse.

In reviews, Autodesk had brought out version 2 of 3D Studio, an “excellent upgrade” for £1,950. ATI’s 8514 Ultra graphics card brought “instant relief from sluggish Windows” for £499 for the 1Mb model with an unusual design with an ISA connector on one side and MCA on the other. Intel hadn’t yet released the Pentium, but the DECpc 400ST from Digital Research incorporated Intel’s Xpress architecture, designed to fully support the “P5 (586) family of processors”, at a bargain £6,337 for a 33MHz 486. Intel were being challenged on the processor front by AMD and Cyrix, the big group review of the issue being 28 AMD powered 386s, the Editors’ choices coming from Western Systems and Dan. Elsewhere in the magazine, the 8086 and 286 were all but extinct. £999 would get you a 25Mhz colour SVGA 386SX with 4MB RAM and a 100MB hard disk from Viglen, or for a bit more power MJN offered a 50Mhz 486 with a 325MB SCSI hard drive for £2945, pre-loaded with MS-DOS 5, Windows 3.1, Excel 3.0 and Word for Windows 3.0

PC Magazine wasn’t really a bundle of laughs, though; a Windows section on calling DLLs got four pages, the “After Hours” section got three. Of those three pages, one was devoted to the crazy knockabout fun of “The Perfect CV” and the training program “Professor Windows”. A second covered an electronic version of The Qur’an and the Gravis Mousestick, a joystick that could impersonate a mouse (in function, not form), an idea only hampered slightly by the fact that “it’s more cumbersome and less precise than using an ordinary mouse”, cost £90, and needed its own expansion card. There was a game review, though! Yes, in one slim sidebar, SimCity for Windows got a positive write-up, a be-Windowed update of the DOS version, yours for £44.95. The final item of After Hours was quite interesting, though: “The Logitech Fotoman aims to be the Box Brownie of the digitised picture. It’s a portable, easy-to-use unit that takes simple, monochrome snapshots which transfer to the PC with as little fuss as possible.” It took 376×284 pixel images with 256 shades of grey that transferred over RS232 in about a minute; seems almost unthinkable in this age of multimegapixel ubiquity, but it was quite remarkable at the time, though the review suggested the “£559 price tag is way too high with fully-featured colour cameras with better transfer rates coming onto the market”.

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…

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.

It Was Nineteen Years Ago Today

In the continuing look back at old PC magazines, twelve months on from the last piece we’re up to Issue 49 of PC Plus from October 1990. The £2.30 cover price was the same as in October 1989, but the page count was up from 170 to 234, a fair chunk of it in additional advertising from 189 companies, up from 112 the previous year. PCs were starting to take off in the UK with many more companies offering their own systems, mostly 286 and 386s with the odd 8086 or 8088 box at the low end (I still had my Amstrad 1512 at the time). £1000 would *almost* get you a colour VGA 16Mhz 386SX system with 1MB of RAM and 20MB hard disk (£1093, excluding VAT, from Dan Technology); the 33Mhz 386DX was the flagship of most ranges, with Mesh offering a 386-33 with 4MB of memory and a 150MB hard disk for £3595 (if you wanted to install every program in the world, you could even step up to a 766MB hard drive if you had £5475 kicking around.) For upgrading your existing system, a Soundblaster card (“Makes all Sierra games sound like epics!”) could be had for £199, while a 16 bit DFI VGA card with a massive 512K of RAM offered the frankly insane resolution of 1024×758 for £169. A Compact Disk ROM drive was available for £399, though needed a £129 SCSI interface kit if you didn’t already have one of those.

The main reviews were for a couple of new systems. Amstrad, having had major problems with their PC2000 range including having to recall the models with hard drives to replace them, were launching the PC3000 range aiming at more of a business market, with fairly standard components and expansion options and no bundled items (no mouse, no Windows). PC Plus were impressed, giving it 4/5. IBM, meanwhile, were heading in the other direction, trying to branch out into the home market with the PS/1, hoping everyone had forgotten the PC Junior of a few years previous. Though well packaged (“the whole system does come in a single box, and the first thing you see when you unpack it is a booklet already open at the page that says ‘start here’ (…) We had our test machine up and running within six minutes of cutting the parcel tape”) and including IBM DOS 4 on ROM and a copy of Microsoft Works, the PS/1 had negligible expansion capability (it required a whole extra system unit to add any expansion cards, and another system unit for a 5.25″ disk drive) and wasn’t a great performer, with a 10Mhz 286 processor and only 512K of memory in the single floppy versions. Illustrating the difference in take-up of online services, the UK version of the PS/1 came with an RS232 serial port instead of the modem built in to the US version. The PS/1 got 3/5 as an excellent package for the first-time user prepared to pay for the brand name and convenience, though power users and businesses would probably find it somewhat lacking. Though neither range would turn out to be a total disaster, they were never wildly successful. IBM never established itself in the UK home market, and as the PC3000 review pointed out: “the days when Amstrad could open up a huge price gap between itself and the rest of the field are long gone. The PC3000s are undoubtedly very keenly priced but they are not the cheapest on the market”. Extremely price sensitive consumers (like me!) would switch to smaller more agile box-builders, and Amstrad never really gained a significant foothold in businesses, the PC2000 débâcle doubtless not helping.

Also reviewed was Wingz from Informix, a brand new spreadsheet running under either Windows 3.0 or OS/2 Presentation Manager (impressive graphical capabilities, but as a result had heft hardware requirements), and Lotus Magellan 2.0, a file management program that allowed you to search a disk for both file names and strings within files, view several popular file formats without having to fire up seperate applications and backup, restore, undelete, zip and unzip files for £132 (no mouse support, though.) “On The Write Track” was the final instalment in a survey of optical storage technology covering erasable optical disks, not as common as CD ROMs or WORM (Write Once Read Many) drives, possibly because a drive cost £3885, with each 600Mb disc costing a further £285. In the book section, “Alan Sugar – The Amstrad Story” could probably do with an update now to reflect that he’s better known for his role in The Apprentice than cheap consumer electronics.

News announcements included Lotus being sued for patent infringement over sorting sequence routines, WordPerfect introducing LetterPerfect, a cut down word processor that would run on only 330K of memory from a single 720K floppy, and Microsoft releasing version 1.1 of Word for Windows. It was a mixed month for Microsoft. On the plus side, celebrating its 15th anniversary, following the launch of Windows 3 in May they’d already shipped more than 500,000 copies, and reported revenues of $1.18 billion, making them the very first PC software supplier to achieve annual sales of more than £1 billion. It wasn’t all good news, though; C J Gaskell of Preston vowed to never buy any of their products again on the letters page after having great difficulty obtaining disk 8 of Microsoft’s Basic Compiler Verison 7.

The games section is a bit of a disappointment with reviews of Global Dilemma, Breach 2 and King’s Quest IV, none of which I recall playing, though a growing interest in PC games was possibly reflected in several shiny full page colour adverts for Team Yankee (the definitive action simulation of modern tank warfare), Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (“Cowabunga!! The heroes in a half shell (TM) are coming”) and Kick Off 2.

It Was Still Twenty(ish) Years Ago Today

Continuing a look back at PC magazines of yesteryear, moving on almost a year to PC Plus from October 1989. A noticeable change is the break in Amstrad’s PC1512/1640 stranglehold on the UK home PC market, with advertisers offering PCs from Tandon, Packard Bell, Epson, Atari and Commodore amongst others, as well as a few places building their own. M3 were offering a 16Mhz 386SX machine with 1Mb of RAM and VGA display for a fairly reasonable £1769, an uber-powerful 33Mhz 386 with 4Mb of RAM ran to £3969.

Reviews in the issue included Desktop Publishing packages (Timeworks DTP getting the thumbs up), colour printers (HP’s Paintjet winning for its good colours and crisp definition), and databases (a four-way tie between Paradox 3, dBase IV, R:Base and Delta Five). MS-DOS 4.0 was well received, though not seen as much of a step-up from version 3.3. “Specific” was the order of the day for some packages; if you needed to print spreadsheets sideways and print banners using very large sideways text, then £44.99 would get you “Twist & Shout” to do just that (I can’t help but feel they started with the name of that one, and worked out what it would actually do later).

If space on your desk was at a premium, a “breakthrough in computer technology” (according to the press release) resulted in a mono LCD monitor, only 6.5cm deep, for £684. Great excitement in communications news, with Telecom Gold catching up to the latest high-speed standards and offering 2400 bit per second access to its subscribers (no, that’s not missing a kilo- or mega- prefix); no e-mail address for the on-line correspondent who could be reached at 76:MTR007 or 919993843, depending on which service you subscribed to, while another column bemoaned the various incompatible on-line services about to be (temporarily) swept aside by the fax machine: “It takes a long time for a deeply held enthusiasm to evaporate completely, but six years is long enough if you spend it watching Prestel and Telecom Gold petrify, bulletin boards turn to pornography, racism and piracy, and unabashed hackers parading their self-importance before a credulous and uncomprehending media”. Plus ca change… Speaking of which, reader Peter M. Biss wrote in to whole-heartedly agree with a previous reader’s view that “software houses should not use anti-piracy schemes which inconvenience the very users who have parted with their hard earned cash for their products”.

Over in “Games Plus”, there was news of the soon-to-be released Bomber, with six flyable aircraft “each drawn with up to 120 polygons” and reviews of Kult (doesn’t ring any bells with me); Total Eclipse, a pyramid-exploring game using the Freescape 3D system (I vaguely recall one of the previous games in the series, Driller or Dark Side, a harbinger of much to come with its first person view, though the frame rate was possibly best measured in frames-per-minute, so not quite high speed twitch gaming at that point); Purple Saturn Day, a slightly psychedelic sounding space-sport game, and Curse of the Azure Bonds. Azure Bonds got a fairly middling review (“it may not be the most sophisticated computer role-playing game ever, but the plot is reasonably well thought out and there are some challenging puzzles to solve as well as plenty of fierce combat”), but I really loved that game and spent many hours guiding my DIY/garden tool-themed party on their quest (Games Workshop were quite into their Chainsaw Warrior phase at the time, inspiring Qualcast the Fighter, Blackndekka the Cleric and their chums). In the back of the magazine, a “Good Software Guide” rounded up recommendations in various categories, the games including Ultima V, 688 Attack Sub, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Cribbage/Gin King (the card game, not a Hogarth-inspired swig ’em up) and Tetris: “a totally new type of game that needs fast reactions and very quick thinking.”

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

A bit of recent tidying up has turned up some dusty old PC magazines, so I thought it might be a bit of fun to look back at The World of 1989 *wobbly screen flashback effect*

In the UK in 1988 the consumer PC market was ruled by Amstrad, Alan Sugar’s IBM-compatibles being far cheaper than their rivals; almost every company advertising in Issue 28 of PC Plus from January 1989 (likely published a month or two before) were only offering Amstrads. In a sign of things to come, though, one company, Watford Electronics, were offering their own PCs; the recently introduced Amstrad PC2000 range wouldn’t have the same success as their initial offerings as a host of other companies started assembling their own systems and competing on price, but at the start of 1989 it was Amstrad all the way. Including 13% VAT, £440 would get you a basic PC1512 (8Mhz 8086 processor, 512Kb memory, mono CGA screen, single 360k 5.25″ disk drive), while a top-of-the-range PC1640 (same 8Mhz processor but 640k memory, colour EGA screen and 20Mb hard drive) would set you back £1320. 80286 and 80386 processors and VGA screens were just starting to filter through to consumers, an Amstrad PC2286 (12Mhz 80286, 1Mb memory, 14″ high-resolution VGA screen) wouldn’t give much change from £2000, but you did get Windows 2.1 with that.

If you wanted to upgrade your PC, £200 would get you a 20Mb hard drive, or for £250 a “hard card”, combining the hard drive and a controller card; £50 would secure an extra 128Kb RAM for your Amstrad 1512. Amstrads came with mice, which was a good thing with a Microsoft mouse costing £105. Printers were mostly dot matrix (£130 for a 9 pin Citizen 120D, £1000 for a 24 pin, colour, 136 column Epson LQ2550) unless you wanted to spend as much as an uber-PC on a laser (£1500 minimum), though Hewlett Packard were bringing inkjets to the world with the £600 Deskjet.

The cover story of PC Plus was “Now We’re Talking! Full test of Amstrad’s new price-bustng network kit” Yes, for a mere £459 you got three network cards and the requisite cables and software to connect up a file server and two workstations. Elsewhere “comms” were something of a black art of V21, V22, V22bis and Hayes compatibility, scarcely a hint of bulletin boards or electronic mail around the place, though fax cards offered the opportunity to turn your PC into a low-price (£300-500!) alternative to a dedicated fax machine (£1000+).

Enough of all that, though, what about the good stuff? Well, in games news “Players of The Bard’s Tale will be pleased to hear of The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, due in December at £24.95.” Also out in December, Electronic Arts’ Zany Golf would offer nine “wild and imaginative holes that cannot be recreated in real life”. I remember a bouncing hamburger in that… Reviewed were Grand Prix Circuit, giving you a chance to drive a Ferrari, Williams or McLaren on eight circuits; Airborne Ranger from Microprose, the first proper PC game I bought, possibly on the strength of the review; the classic arcade conversion of Double Dragon, smoothly done and with a two player mode, and Jet Bike PC, a budget offering from Code Masters at £15 compared to £25 for the other games with only CGA graphics, but well received for compulsive gameplay. Finally The Three Stooges was praised for superb graphics and sound, but the five arcade mini-game snippets were deemed too simplistic, easy and repetitive, especially for the £30 price tag. A quick scan of the adverts doesn’t really turn up any classic games listed, flight sims and adventures to the fore; PC gaming was still very much in its early days, playing second fiddle to the Amiga and Atarti ST.