Saturday 1 August 2009

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!”

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