Nostalgia Lane: Flightmare

The underlying mission of doing Nostalgia Lane posts on this site is to reclaim lost bits of my memory — games that were moved into long-term storage decades ago and haven’t been seen since.

There was a particular game from my IBM PC days that I vaguely recalled — something about airplanes and bright magenta graphics — but I couldn’t remember the name. Then I stumbled across it a couple of days ago and experienced that pleasing rush of reclamation as long-term storage surged back into the forefront.

So the game that I was trying to think of was Flightmare, a 1984 title that remains a rather unique experience. It’s set during a post-apocalyptic world where all of the bad guys have total control of ground vehicles and the good guys have all of the planes. For some reason. Just go with it.

As a plane, your job is to fly out and intercept the motorcycles, trucks, and rockets that are gunning for your factories and airfields. If they reach them, they’re toast, and since the factories make new planes and the airfield stores them, this is a problem.

When you do intercept an incoming force, the game switches to the above screenshot that tries to simulate 3D in a non-3D gaming era. You get two views of your plane — from above and from the side — and you have to switch lanes from the above view and then dive down in the side view to blast the bad guys. This gets REALLY tricky when you have to shoot  the tires from a truck, since you can only do that when the truck goes up a hill — and those hills want to smash your plane like nobody’s business.

While all of this is happening, the world map keeps moving, so there’s an immense pressure to wrap up fights and jet to the next ones. But you also have to keep an eye on fuel and ammo, docking with a blimp when you’re low on either.

Flightmare was really tough, I remember, but pretty fun too. It was pure action with a little bit of snark in the form of battlefield messages from your foes and inspirational slogans from your side. I’ll always remember “Win one for the Gipper” from this game way before I knew who the “Gipper” actually was.

Nostalgia Lane: 9 more Atari 2600 games I liked

I’m going to try to work on cleaning out my drafts folder in the new year, so here’s a list that I started a while back of nine Atari 2600 games that I remember fondly

Desert Falcon: While it didn’t look as good as the 7800 version, obviously, it was kind of impressive that the 2600 could pull off a diagonal shooter like this. It was one of the late-era 2600 games and a lot of fun.

Superman: This was SUCH a confusing game, especially for kids, but I remember watching my babysitter play it and be impressed with all of the different features that the game designers tried to cram into this title.

Spider-Man: Basic, sure, but Spider-Man actually delivered on the core concept of wall-climbing and web-shooting. A little imagination behind it, and it was a fun distraction.

E.T.: Everyone loves to dump on this game in the modern era, but I have a different perspective. First of all, it’s not like we could just return games or buy new ones; getting a new Atari game back in the early 1980s was a big deal, and so we played the heck out of whatever it was. And I actually liked the complex gameplay. Pulling off a successful run in this game felt like a good achievement.

Megamania: I won’t lie — I played this to totally pretend I was piloting the Enterprise. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. And it was a far better Space Invaders-style game than Space Invaders.

Tennis: Activision had ALL the good games on this system, I swear. Even Tennis was kind of addicting, and a good two-player game with great controls. I played my mom in this all the time.

Defender: One of the best things about the 2600 was that many of its games let you slip into this zen-like state of just playing without thinking about it too much. Defender was like that, and I spent many afternoons shooting aliens and rescuing falling people before they went splat.

Astroblast: A halfway decent shooter that had a wide range of colorful and bizarre shapes to blast.

Chopper Command: Who didn’t love that sunset? Oh, and those tight controls and highly engaging gameplay as you piloted the most lethal choppa in the world?

Nostalgia Lane: Scorched Earth

In 1991, our high school moved from the old building to a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility. I still have very fond memories of the “new carpet smell” of my sophomore year, as well as the marker boards, the huge science lab, and the sprawling computer lab.

I took programming for a couple of years to build off of what I had self-taught with BASIC, but in all honesty, we only did coursework about half the time. The other half was spent playing smuggled games — the most popular being Scorched Earth.

I had no idea that Scorched Earth was a huge hit globally. All I knew is that my classmates and I were obsessed with this multiplayer artillery game.

Scorched Earth didn’t look immediately impressive, but that was deceptive. You would set up matches with a whole lot of options, and then every player would take turns lining up shots and trying to wipe each other out to be the last tank standing.

What made Scorched Earth so dang fun was that it was brimming with crazy options and weapons. You weren’t just shooting little artillery shells; you were lobbing nukes, MIRVs, napalm, bouncing bombs, and so on. Tanks could move and use various gadgets like shields and parachutes to try to extend their lifespan. And the battlefield could get really nuts with dirt geysering everywhere, wind blowing shots to and fro, and even gravity being switched off.

If you didn’t have friends to play against, the computer was always willing to take on the role of opponent. I liked how the different CPU tanks would have their own personalities and skill levels, sometimes even smack talking you while they tried to murder your face.

Scorched Earth put gameplay first over presentation, becoming a shareware classic for the ages. And, bonus, it got me through some really boring weeks of high school, so there’s that.

Nostalgia Lane: How shareware revolutionized my gaming

My career trajectory in the 1990s was almost equally divided between “completely broke high school student” and “completely broke college student.” Sure, I had jobs and even a couple of computers, but I was never so flush with disposable income to be snapping up any game or game system that caught my fancy. A brand-new boxed PC game was a major purchase for me — and I sweated the decisions to get the few I had. They had to be excellent or otherwise I was out 50 bucks and potential months of entertainment.

But all of this started to change during my high school years. One Sunday afternoon I went over to a friend’s house, where he showed me a free copy of Wolfenstein 3D that he got. Free? I asked. Free, he said. Apparently there was this new thing called “shareware” that made it actually legal to copy and pass along games.

Within a year or two, the shareware revolution was everywhere. All the kids at my school — and later at my college — would pass around shareware copies of Duke Nukem and DOOM and pretty much anything with “Apogee” stamped on it. I found my gaming library now filled to the brim with potential options, and it was glorious.

Shareware was an ingenious marketing tactic for the pre-internet gaming scene. The idea was that a company would freely distribute versions of its games with only part of it unlocked — the first “episode” or somesuch — and then encourage players to buy the code to unlock the rest of the levels (or send away for the full version). Players would do the footwork of copying and passing along the games, and studios would see a certain percentage of all recipients convert into paying users.

Of course, that didn’t always happen — the paying part. I don’t recall how many shareware games I bought in their entirety, but I don’t think it was too many. What I do remember, very vividly, is getting as much entertainment out of the “free” unlocked part of the game as possible.

And you actually did tend to get a lot for free, here. Duke Nukem 3D’s first episode could last you hours if you were hunting down all the secrets. Kroz was one of my favorites to explore. Wolfenstein and Doom made for great bite-sized gaming sessions. Commander Keen was one of the best platformers I experienced on the PC at that time. And there were numerous other shooters, pinball games, flight sims, and so on.

Shareware quickly faded once the internet spun up in the late 1990s. Now anyone could access demos and order full versions of games online, so there really wasn’t a need for this street-level marketing. But I am so thankful that it existed, because it put games in front of me that I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.

Nostalgia Lane: Webrings

The mid-to-late 1990s was a weird and wild time for websites. The internet and the web was practically new to all of us, so we were giddy just to get our own personal slice of it and make a virtual home. But yeah, it was really strange as everyone tried to figure out the best way to set up websites and connect to each other — especially as this was in the era before Google when search engines weren’t all that great or helpful.

So somewhere along the way, people got into their heads to invest in the idea of “webrings.” The concept here was to group up (mostly amateur) websites that covered the same topic or general theme so that visitors could easily surf — we said “surf” a lot back then — between them and discover new sites. It was a way to drive traffic and be discovered, even if it was awkward as all get it out.

Because it really was. One person would be the webring owner and then have to coordinate adding all participating sites onto a list. Every participating site would put one of these webring frames on their page with links back to the OG webring owner, an invitation to join it, and various navigation tools.

I think the best part about webrings is that you knew you were getting a curated list, so if the owner had any taste at all, you knew you could depend on where the webring would send you next.

While I most definitely had a Geocities site — animated GIFs and guestbook and MIDI player and all — I don’t specifically recall if I did participate in any webrings. I’m sure I must have. I do, however, recall using webrings a lot when I was bored and wanted to see other sites. Of course, loading up a page back then took up to a minute or more, so you wanted to make sure you were getting something good and not some 8-year-old’s “THIS IZ MY FIRST WEBBY PAGE!” announcement.

Slow as surfing was, there was something really fascinating to actually exploring the internet back then that I don’t feel in the slightest today. It’s that once-and-then-gone-forever moment where novelty and ignorance intersect, and I had a lot of fun just seeing the creations and information that other sites had. It’s what led me to meeting a good online friend in 1997, which in turn led to the creation of a mutual movie review site, which in turn led to my interest in blogging.

Nostalgia Lane: MP3 players of the past

Lately I’ve been enraptured with the idea of getting back into the practice of using a dedicated DAP — digital audio player — despite having my music on my phone, computer, and even a flash drive in my car. I haven’t really thought about DAPs or MP3 players in a long time, other than having a sports one for biking, but ever since I’ve been reading up on the modern player scene, it’s been making me totally nostalgic for the gadgets I’ve had in the past.

My very, very first MP3 player was a Creative Jukebox Zen, which I got in the early 2000s back when iPods weren’t playing nice with Windows. This was a very bulky and heavy unit, but I fell in love with the ability to take all my music with me on the go, especially when I took plane trips. The device and interface wasn’t the most user friendly, which was typical of the era, but it definitely tided me over until I was able to afford an Apple product that would interface with my computer.

And that happened in 2004, when I sprung for an iPod Photo. This was part of the 4th generation of the devices, and it was an absolute beauty to behold. To this day, I think the click wheel is one of the best interfaces I’ve ever experienced on a gadget, and I’m really bummed that Apple doesn’t make iPods with these any more.

In any case, I cherished the heck out of this device, loading it up with all my music and even a few pictures. I liked that it had some simple games, too. Remember, this was before smartphones were everywhere, so the iPod was kind of *it* for my on-the-go entertainment. I could listen to music, look at a few pictures, or play solitaire or breakout. That was surprisingly enough!

I had one other iPod purchase after that, which was the 5th generation iPod video. I’m a little fuzzy on when I bought it, I think maybe 2007 or 2008, but I do know that it had a massive amount of storage for the time (over 100 GB). I loved the idea of being able to watch movies on the go, and I had loaded up a few to view in my car between classes at seminary when I had some free time.

It was an improvement as a device in every way over my previous iPod, but you know what? I’m still more nostalgic for the older curvy white model. I think once other functions started to invade my MP3 player — videos for the next iPod, apps for the iPhone — then I found myself getting distracted away from listening to just music. It’s exactly the same deal with Kindle on the phone versus the Paperwhite. It’s nice to have everything-in-one gadgets, but sometimes it’s better to have single-function devices that lets you focus on just one thing.

Nostalgia Lane: F-15 Strike Eagle II

While I dearly loved getting a computer of my very own in high school, looking back I’m pretty sure I got ripped off by the sales guy who pushed a 386 on me when the 486s were hitting the market. I loved that computer and had a lot of fun gaming memories on it, but it never was able to handle some of the more graphically intensive games — especially flight sims, which were super-hot in the early 1990s.

Fortunately, I had a friend across the street who had a much beefier machine and pretty much any military sim that came out. They weren’t exactly the kinds of games I’d buy on my own, but I was happy to have fun with them for the sheer eye candy if nothing else.

F-15 Strike Eagle II was one of the more popular titles at the time, and for good reason. It struck a balance between the fiddly (but more accurate) pure flight simulators and straight-up arcade shooting. It was what we called “arcade sims,” where the focus was more on having fun than being accurate — but it had just enough flavor to it to believe that you were piloting one of these great birds of war.

The gameplay was pretty straight-forward: You picked a theater of war and took off to eliminate threats in the air and on sea and land. The F-15 had several different weapons, each with their own purpose, and a smart pilot would use the right tool for the right job.

Getting to shut off my brain and just go to town taking out targets and feeling like I was the master of this screaming fighter plane was a hoot. You’d get notices about enemy planes taking off or come into the radar range of enemy ground-based missiles, and suddenly everything got a whole lot more chaotic.

And you have to remember that this was 1992 or 1993 — fully 3-D gaming wasn’t quite realized, and anything that even approximated it was so novel and exciting. I think that’s one reason why flight sims (and soon, first-person shooters) ruled this period, because they offered that freedom of movement that other games didn’t. They looked like the future.

Anyway, it was another excellent Microprose product and a reason why this was one of my favorite studios back in the ’90s.

Nostalgia Lane: Max Payne

When 1999’s The Matrix added “bullet time” to our pop culture lexicon, it was only a matter of time before video games tried to replicate this sense of chaotic gun battles happening in slow motion. While many have tried it, the first and best to really pull this off was 2001’s Max Payne.

Seriously, when you look at it, there’s *nothing* original about Max Payne. Everything is borrowed from hoary tropes, casting the player in the role of a inward monologuing cop who gets embroiled in some skeevy gang fight/drug case on the eve of a huge snowstorm in the city. The story is broken up by comic panel cutscenes that push this notion of a hard boiled detective film noir setting, and about all of it is as over-exaggerated and cheesy as it can get without becoming an out-and-out parody.

But that was kind of the charm, too. By pushing these tropes so far, the game was telling us that it really didn’t take any of this super-seriously — this was a mindless action movie in which the player got to be the main star.

And for a game that hinged on a single innovative mechanic, Max Payne sure picked a good one. Bullet time was a marvelously fun thing for a third-person shooter, making the game less about pure reflexes and more about the ballet of carnage and bullets. 

In the game, you had a bullet time meter that would gradually fill up. As long as you had some juice left, you could activate it to greatly slow down everything while letting you aim and shoot like normal. This meant that the player could run, jump, and roll through crowds of bad guys, blowing them away in slow motion like they were in a John Woo flick.

The sequel was fun, but it also wasn’t quite as new or novel any more. The Max Payne games really are a one-trick pony that wears a film noir coat, and after the first experience, I was satisfied but not really champing at the bit for more.

Nostalgia Lane: After Dark and Star Trek

Are screensavers even a thing in 2020? I don’t recall seeing any these days; mostly a computer just automatically powers down into sleep mode if it’s being unused. And modern screens are much more resilient to having screen burn… or so I hear.

But back in the ’80s and ’90s, getting images burned onto a CRT screen was a real problem, especially if you had a static image up for too long. To solve that, screensavers were introduced to come on after a set amount of inactive time and feature motion so that your somewhat expensive monitor would be safe.

Screensavers were pretty boring at first, but some companies really put some effort into creating products with personality. Of these, Berkley Systems’ After Dark became the most famous by 1991. It featured a lot of options, but it was its absurd flying toasters that everyone loved and paid good money to put on their screens.

After Dark had a lot more than just flying toasters, of course, and you could set the program to randomly pull one up or cycle through them. There were flying stars (my favorite, since I was a Star Trek fan), aquariums with fish, cans of worms, and all sorts of ridiculous visuals.

Even though they were “just” screensavers, Berkley gave users a crazy amount of customization options, and it was kind of fun to experiment with all of them.

Speaking of being a Star Trek fan, I was overjoyed when Berkley released a Trek-themed screensaver package in 1993. This edition included 14 different modes, such as dropping tribbles, starships flying around, and Tholians spinning webs across the screen.

There were two screensavers in particular that stand out in my mind. The first was one in which Hortas — rock eating monsters from “Devil in the Dark” — tunneled through the screen and chased around red shirted security guards.

Then there was an option to bring Spock onto the screen and have him putter about doing all sorts of Spocky things, like taking tricorder readings, playing the harp, and shooting phasers. As a kid madly in love with Star Trek, I dearly loved having Spock hang out with me in this way.

Nostalgia Lane: Out of This World and Flashback

Today I want to give some love to a couple of classic titles made by France-based Delphine Software. The first is 1991’s Out of This World (originally called Another World), in which a physicist is teleported to an alien world during a lightning storm. He finds himself on the run in a very hostile world as he befriends one alien and ends up shooting many, many more.

It’s hard to exactly classify Delphine’s games, but they were a mixture of very deliberate and slow-paced platforming and adventure games. Just like in Sierra titles, everything was out to kill the player, and only through a whole lot of trial-and-error was the exact sequence of events uncovered to get through one area and on to the next. It also reminds me a bit of Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair in that way as well.

This game was really notable for its animation and visuals. On one hand, the characters were as flat and non-descript as could be, even in close-ups. But on the other hand, that style ended up making the game look more timeless. Plus, rotoscoping was involved to create very fluid, natural-looking movements that did a lot to draw the player into the game.

I was really horrible at Out of This World and never got too far, but I liked the concept at least.

Far better, in my opinion, was 1992’s Flashback. The graphics were better all around, as was the story. In a cyberpunk future, the main character discovers that aliens are infiltrating the world and then has to struggle with amnesia as he goes on the run. It was… pretty much Total Recall. Which wasn’t a bad thing.

Flashback definitely had a stronger adventure game feel, and I put in way more hours progressing through it and looking all suave as I’d do a running roll and then pop up with my gun — only to get zapped. I think I played this one on the PC and Out of This World on the SNES, but in both cases, the controls were a little stiff and exacting. It took some patience and being willing to die over and over again until you learned the right combination to get through areas.

My main complaint was that the first level — a jungle zone — went on and on forever and made the player wait to get to the cyberpunk areas after that. I always thought it was weird that there were doors in the jungle (?), but you just kind of roll with it.