Thursday 31 January 2008

The history books tell it (part 3)

My next PC, around 1990-91, was a 16Mhz 386SX built by whoever were the cheapest suppliers advertising in PC Plus at the time, some generic box-builders. I can't remember its exact spec, probably something like 1 or 2Mb of RAM, 3.5" disk drive and a 40Mb hard disk, but in gaming terms it was a quantum leap from the PC1512 for two reasons: a VGA display, allowing 256 entire colours instead of just 4, and an AdLib compatible soundcard, a similar upgrade in audio terms from the strangled beeps of a PC speaker (though there was at least one game on the 1512, Mean Streets I think, that included speech. Well, I say "speech", the PC speaker went "squuuuuwwwwww wwaaaafssshhhh", and you could just about distinguish words if you tried really hard, but it was speech to us). Finally, the 386sx was at least vaguely comparable to an Atari ST or Amiga for games!

As is doubtless familiar to anyone who's upgraded PCs over time, one of the first things to do was install stuff that just barely ran on the previous machine to enjoy it at blazing speed. I played through Curse of the Azure Bonds again (or maybe one of the Gold Box sequels), delighting in the ability to change the colours of my character's sprites, resulting in most of them having lurid primary coloured hair, skin and weapons (see, even then character customisation was important). I had another go at Xenon 2, probably the pinnacle of vertical shoot 'em ups (should've listed that in the previous post, as I actually finished it on the PC1512, the PC speaker doing its best to beep out Bomb the Bass; on the 386sx it turned out to be rather more difficult, as everything moved at (presumbly) the correct speed, where the 8Mhz of the 1512 must have struggled). I finally got to play through Wing Commander, and loved it. Possibly the first new game I got was Battletech 2: The Crescent Hawk's Revenge. I can still hum the theme music from it... It was a pretty good real-time squad of giant stompy robot command game, and who doesn't love giant stompy robots? I'd played a bit of the Battletech board game, particularly enjoying tinkering with the weapons set-ups, and apart from the very first I think I played and finished just about all the PC adaptations. Then there was Wing Commander 2, even better than the first, great days. Warlords, Chuck Yeager's Air Combat... I got Civilisation from a friend on a disk, no manual or anything, just a cursory demonstration of the gameplay, but that was more than enough to hook me for the longest time, with the added fun of figuring out various game/interface features as I went.

Something else I first got running on the 386sx was Windows 3.0; not really much cop for games (Solitaire excepted, of course) but kept the PC useful for "proper" stuff like word processing with Lotus Ami Pro. Games were still firmly DOS based, and started to need a few tricks playing with memory configuration and the like: you had your base memory up to 640k, then high memory from 640k to 1Mb, then after that either extended or expanded memory, I think... I'm a bit hazy on it these days! Different games would want more of different types of memory, leading to multiple configurations, and hunting around for the smallest possible mouse drivers and similar fun.

PC magazine cover disks (floppy disks, not CDs) were a primary source of software before the internet became prevalent (another momentary digression that should've been in the last post: I did actually get online with the PC1512, via an honest-to-goodness accoustic coupler; a friend had picked it up somewhere, but he had a new-fangled phone, the handset of which didn't fit; we still had a good old standard issue British Telecom rotary dial job. Unfortunately, it was in the hall, so getting online involved lugging the PC downstairs and balancing it on a stool next to the phone. Also, being stuck out in the middle of nowhere, there didn't seem to be any local bulletin boards, certainly not listed in the classified ads in the PC magazines, so that meant national phone calls and only being able to stay online for about ten minutes before incurring parental wrath over phone bills. Still, it was terribly exciting to play one turn of some space empire resource game type thing. Well, not that exciting actually. Especially not at 300 bits per second.) The contents of cover disks would vary, but tended to follow the patterns of the magazines to which they were attached, lots of "serious" stuff, utilities etc., and the odd shareware game here and there when there was space. There'd been plenty of shareware games, like some of the stuff I'd originally been given for the PC1512, but text or ASCII graphics tended to be the order of the day, fast-paced action less so. As VGA and Adlib/Soundblaster cards became more common companies like Epic Games, id Software and Apogee among others were producing fast paced EGA and VGA platform-type games like Captain Comic, Duke Nukem (the platform game before the FPS), Jill of the Jungle, Bio Menace and my personal favourites, the Commander Keen games, still holders of the "Best Use of Pogo Stick in a Game" award.

After a year or so, it was time for an upgrade, in the form of a Soundblaster Multimedia pack: a Soundblaster card, which also acted as the controller for the included CD-ROM drive, and came bundled with a couple of disks: an early version of Encarta (or similar encyclopedia), and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. This was hugely exciting! Video! Of people! A minor flaw, in common with most early FMV games, is that it was totally rubbish as a game, I don't think I ever bothered to solve a single one of the cases, but any visitor was still treated to the astonishing site of real (somewhat blocky and jerky) genuine *people* on a computer! The Soundblaster was also rather exciting, having a line-in socket that, coupled with Windows sound recorder, gave hours of fun of recording stuff, adding echo, reversing it, and generally hunting for satanic messages in Led Zeppelin songs. I had a sweet setup by then, a bunch of old hi-fi separates someone else was going to chuck out (probably because the CD player would deign to bother playing discs about 75% of the time), with the PC hooked up to the amp, so when I was making mix tapes I could drop in crazy .wav files between tracks.

Towards the end of my time with the 386sx, id Software came out with something a bit different: Wolfenstein 3D. I don't remember exactly how long I ran around, shooting Germans and trying to open every single wall in the entire castle in case it was a secret door, but it was quite a while. That spawned a few similar games, like Blake Stone, which used the same engine, but none really matched up to Wolfenstein, at least not until id's next game, but by that time I'd upgraded again...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for these trips down memory lane. I wish I were playing Wolfenstein right now.

Zoso said...

You can always have a crack at the shareware version... Worked surprisingly well on this system! It's very weird not being able to bind specific keys to strafe left and right, though, makes playing it with WASD and the mouse a bit odd.