Tuesday 5 February 2008

The history books tell it (part 4)

The 486 Years

After the quantum leaps of floppy disk to hard drive and CD-ROM, CGA to VGA and PC speaker to Soundblaster, I can't recall any particularly astounding developments in PC hardware. After the 386SX, it was pretty much a case of more of the same (but faster, with more memory, more hard drive space, more colours on the screen and a slightly different shade of beige for the case). Somewhere around 1993 I upgraded to a 33Mhz 486DLC (a budget Cyrix chip roughly on par with a 486SX) system, just in time for Doom. What more can you say about Doom? Literally hours of chainsaw, shotgun and BFG fun. Doom also felt like the tipping point, from the PC being a bit of an afterthough for games, meekly trailing behind other systems saying "please sir, may I have a port?" to an Intel (or Cyrix) powered gaming-Cyberdemon, stomping around crushing lesser systems beneath its robo-hooves. In my mind, at least. And the mind of newsagents too (well, publishers more likely), as magazines like PC Zone and PC Gamer appeared next to PC Plus and the ever-imaginatively titled PC Magazine. PC Format had turned up a bit earlier as possibly the first not-really-business-oriented PC publication, but it was still a bit too "lifestyle" for me, rather than the ideal of games, games and extra games, with a couple of games on the cover and some extra games coverage. There might even have been magazines that didn't feature "PC" in the title, but I can't remember any of them offhand which serves them right for veering into such absurdism.

Being cash-strapped (though the knowledge gained from a few years of PC-tinkering had at least enabled me to escape from paper rounds and weekends in a godawful gift shop in favour of doing some spreadsheet and database work), magazine cover disks (still mostly 3.5" disks, though with an occasional CD-ROM starting to appear) were a major source of games, mostly shareware or demos. Doom itself had a free shareware episode, Jazz Jackrabbit, Epic Pinball... One Must Fall: 2097 was an excellent robot fighting game, a genre usually overlooked on the PC, I could probably still perform most of the special attacks of the Jaguar robot from the shareware version of it. I never really succumbed to Tetris, I think I initially experienced it as a poor CGA knock-off that rather put me off, but I did spend an awfully long time on the block-shuffler Squarez.

I took the 486 off to university, and fell in with a bad crowd there. That's "bad" in the "street" sense, my home people, because I am down with that. Noun. Though the few of us with PCs at school had copied a few games around, with photocopies of word lists or similar copy protection, it wasn't exactly a large scale operation. At university there were a bunch of us computer science students, some who'd been part of the cracking/demo scene, with access to the internet at high speed, someone had an early CD burner (though the blank disks were madly expensive as I recall, maybe a fiver a time?)... There was quite a bit of software floating around. In my defence, I did still buy a few games, even as a poor destitute student, and those years so thoroughly inculcated me into PC gaming at just the time the original PlayStation was really taking off that I barely glanced at a console until the Wii, so I'm sure I've paid my debts to society (or PC games publishers at least) since. Anyway, my chronology is pretty hazy, but around that general time were games like...

Dune II, which might've been on the 386SX come to think of it, the prototypical RTS game, and a real revelation at the time. After that was Warcraft, Command and Conquer, Warcraft 2, possibly a couple of others, and by the time I finished that lot I pretty much burned out on the RTS genre and only really went back to it recently in Company of Heroes.

Flight sims were going strong with Aces of the Pacific, Aces over Europe, Gunship 2000 and 1942: Pacific Air War amongst others. Comanche Maximum Overkill was one of the first games I installed on the 486 for its voxel landscapes, graphically very impressive, but I really preferred space combat (no ground to crash into, apart from anything else), so after Wing Commander 2, X-Wing - Space Combat Simulator and its sequel TIE Fighter were firm favourites. They actually had stories too, which made them more engaging than the standard flight sim that generally just packed you off to bomb/shoot down the enemy until you got shot down yourself, or got bored. Wing Commander itself was followed by Privateer, which was decent enough, but eclipsed by the Star Wars games.

I entirely neglected RPGs in the last post, I think I worked through a couple of other Gold Box AD&D games previous to getting the 486, but aside from extra dragons, they weren't wildly different from Curse of the Azure Bonds. I played Ultima VI, though I don't think I got very close to finishing it, I think the scale of the world put me off a bit, but I'm fairly sure I completed The Savage Empire, a Lost World type "World Of Ultima" spin-off using the Ultima VI engine, with extra dinosaurs. Eye of the Beholder was a Dungeon Master-esque AD&D game, but I never really got into that first person move-one-grid-square rotate-90-degrees type of RPG so much (I think Lands of Lore used a similar engine). On the 486, though hugely impressed by Ultima VII, I think the scale did for me again, and I never actually finished it, then I hardly played CRPGs for a few years. Daggerfall was probably the next one I seriously played, which might not have been on the 486.

I really enjoyed a couple of squad-based research 'em ups; the real-time Syndicate, and turn based UFO: Enemy Unknown. Researching new weapons and deploying them in the field, either in the chaotic city flame-fests of Syndicate or the tense landscapes of UFO, deploying from your transport aircraft, carefully hunting for downed alien craft, never quite sure where you'd find the occupant(s)... UFO in particular was really engrossing, right up to taking the fight back to the alien base on Mars (by which time I'd developed my psychic troopers to such an extent, I think most of the final mission consisted of spotting aliens with a hover-tank, then mind-controlling them to toddle off and shoot their comrades...)

Doom spawned a whole wave of first person shooters like Heretic, Hexen, Rise of the Triad, Duke Nukem 3D, of course; one of the best was Dark Forces, a Star Wars FPS with the added fun of stromtrooper shooting. Descent as well, not really technically an FPS, was most impressive, with its total freedom. I was strictly a keyboard player then, not using WASD and mouselook until Quake II, so I played Descent entirely around the cursor keys... I think the cursors themselves for pitch and yaw, 7 and 9 for roll, 1 and 3 for strafe left and right, / and ins for strafing up and down... something like that. I got fairly handy with them, at any rate. When System Shock arrived, the 486 only just coped with it, but even with slightly jerky gameplay and low detail graphics it totally blew me away, amazing game.

Descent and Doom in particular were early vehicles for networked gameplay too, about four of us kitted out our PCs with network cards, though the eternal fun of DOS networking rather restricted the amount of time we actually played. In fact, once we got the games going over the network, it wasn't so much as a deathmatch, more a "Hey! Look! It's a (trooper/spaceship) controlled by an actual person! WHOAH!"-match; we mostly stuck with XPilot on the university workstations for multiplayer mayhem.

Aside from games, one of the early magazine cover disks included the Second Reality demo that was utterly mind-blowing, and could rapidly gather a crowd in the halls of residence, especially when followed up with Cthugha (from the same disk). The inexorable march of Windows also brought Windows 95, which the 486 could just about handle, though I was more impressed by a digitised (probably predating MP3... AIFF maybe?) version of the "Start Me Up" parody, "Windows 95 Sucks" (widely misattributed like 95% of comedy songs to Weird Al) doing the rounds.

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