The other day I was watching a video that was showcasing a lot of MS-DOS games from the ’80s and ’90s — some I played, a lot I didn’t. But when I spied a rather obscure old favorite of mine, Snipes (above), in the bunch, I felt that tidal wave of nostalgia hit me. However, this time it wasn’t for a specific game — Snipes was fine, but I haven’t been holding a torch for it — but rather the unique transition in computer gaming between two distinct graphical eras.
You see, I grew up playing titles on an early ’80s IBM PC and continued to do so until 1992. It’s all we had, so I made the most of it. But this machine that was marvelous in 1982 was starting to get creaking by 1985 and was a dinosaur by the time the new decade came. I scrounged for any games at stores that’d actually work on it, often resorting to jumbled collections of freeware rather than the latest hottest titles.
And all of these old PC games either were done in ASCII (like Snipes) or CGA. ASCII had its advantages, such as a full array of 16 (!) colors and relatively fast gameplay, but it could never not be basic-looking. So most of the bigger stuff I played was CGA. And let me tell you kids, if you’re of a younger generation, you have no idea how much we suffered with CGA. Every game had four colors, and two of them were *weird.* There was black, white, bright magenta, and bright cyan.
It all looked like this:
Why magenta and cyan? It’s something technical about how PC graphics used to work and how the companies who made these computers weren’t really thinking about gaming. No matter what the explanation, every single non-ASCII title I played was decked out in these unnatural garish colors. King’s Quest? Silpheed? Sudoken? Magenta, black, white, and cyan. Even the NES had a better color palette.
(Yes, there were other four-color palette sets, but it was very very rare that I saw games that used them.)
So I spent a decade struggling to get games to run on this machine, and when they did, I had to endure that color scheme (and pretty bad gameplay speeds and controls).
But then something wonderful happened. Something marvelous.
We entered the ’90s, and computers seemed like they lurched forward in power and features. The 386s and 486s that were flooding the market were truly “next gen” in the games department. That’s around the time when we graduated to EGA and (especially) VGA, and the difference was like night and day from how things used to look:
Colors. COLORS. Shades! Beautiful, beautiful pixel art. Higher resolutions. Smoother animations.
I might be slightly fond for the old MS-DOS games I cut my teeth on, but I am powerfully nostalgic for the ’90s VGA revolution. There was something about how cool and advanced all of it looked, and I found it a joy to watch game developers come up with different ways to take advantage fewer artistic restrictions. And when you coupled the vastly improved visuals with SoundBlaster and AdLib sound cards (which took the PC out of the bleep and bloop speaker era), these games became so rad.
Even shareware games of a lesser quality than the AAA games still had a huge appeal because of their look and style. A simple pinball game, platformer, or shmup was a whole lot more entertaining when your eyes weren’t bleeding from the visuals.
And it just kept getting better.