Nostalgia Lane: 4 bizarre shareware titles from the 90s


keen1. Commander Keen

PCs were never the platforming powerhouse that consoles were, and we mostly had to go to shareware to find decent substitutes for Super Mario Bros., etc. Commander Keen was a particularly good one, I recall, as it boasted a lot of personality as you played as an imaginative kid going up against space aliens and other bizarre enemies.

Probably my favorite detail is if you left Keen alone, he’d eventually start tapping his foot and going through other annoyed animations.  I can get it on Steam now and I probably should.

jill2. Jill of the Jungle

Jill was kind of the Tarzan contemporary who explored a jungle in a somewhat non-linear fashion. Lots of platforming and tricky jumps, along with some fighting against oversized ants and the like. I thought the animation here was pretty impressive for the time, especially with everything Jill had to do. Although I always thought that her lack of pants  meant that she must have had scratched up legs.

wolf3. Wolfenstein 3-D

Everyone knows Wolfenstein, although not as many remember its predecessor (a top-down stealth game that I played on a friend’s Amiga) or how it used to be segmented into different episodes. There was an episode, the second I think, that was more about zombies. I just loved the fluid, non-stop action, the secrets, and feeling like a Rambo going up against Hitler.

bio4. Bio Menace

OK, I admit that I remember nothing from this game itself, but when I saw this splash screen I was awash in “oh yeaaaaah.” Because how wonderfully cheesy is this? I think it’s the hero’s ‘stache and mullet that really sells it.

Nostalgia Lane: Gaming in the early 1980s

tronI certainly didn’t realize it at the time, but when I was growing up, I happened to be right smack dab in the middle of the video game revolution.

Sure, there were arcade cabinets and even a couple of the older consoles that released prior to my birth in 1976, but thereafter we saw exponential growth (marred, of course, by the video game crash of ’83). I wasn’t aware of any of the larger scope of it, of the industry, of anything outside of my personal sphere. But video games popped into my life more and more regularly as the years went on.

There was a night when our family went to our pastor’s house for a Christmas party and I ended up watching his son play Adventure (a text adventure game) with wide eyes and an even wider imagination.

There was the joy of getting to go to the Spaghetti Warehouse for dinner, because we knew that it had cabinets like the Star Wars Arcade game. Really, any time that we got to visit a place with cabinets was a special time, whether it be Pizza Hut’s tabletop Castlevania, Indianapolis’ Union Station, the Pole Position cabinet at our local IGA, or even the rare arcade room loaded with more games than we could digest.

There was the excitement of having the Atari 2600 come into our house, with games like Ms. Pacman and Defender and Asteroids. It became our family’s go-to console for most of the decade.

There was the envy of seeing my friends and cousins play on the newer Nintendo Entertainment System (and occasionally getting to play myself). Even though a NES never graced our house, Zelda, Contra, Spy Hunter, and the rest all played a big part of my childhood and sparked my imagination about what could be in games.

There was the shady purchases of shareware disks at kiosks at the mall, with dot matrix printer labels proclaiming “100 programs!” and the like. Less shady were computer stores with their giant game boxes, most of them with system requirements past our family’s PC.

There was the invasion of video games into movie and TV culture, particularly cartoons: Captain N, Super Mario Bros., Zelda, The Wizard.

There were the days that I tried to make “video games” with legos (like pinball machines) or started programming my own in BASIC. And the day that my friend showed off Manic Mansion on his computer — using a cassette tape drive.

To me, it’s surprising how clearly I can remember playing certain games even at a young age, like Tron and Gauntlet and Centipede with its track ball. Even so, I can’t say that my youth was dominated by games; they were merely a fraction of my experiences and interests. I’m happy to say that my parents kicked us out of the house every day to play across the neighborhood, go swimming, and do chores. My friends and I talked about games once in a while, but just as important were stickers, crawdads, Garbage Pail Kids, and how awesome transformable robots were.

Nostalgia Lane: Windows 95

winWerit reminded me today that it’s the 20th anniversary of Windows 95, the game-changing OS that lurched PCs forward. It was of course buggy and problematic — this was a Microsoft product, after all — but it was also quite significant.

I had grown up using DOS for most of my childhood, although when I purchased my first PC it came with a copy of Windows 3.0. That’s not a typo — 3.0. I got a free upgrade to Windows 3.1 a couple of months later and used that for a good three or four years. This was back when I was getting over my mistrust of mice — cursor keys were good enough for me, thank you very much — and wrapping my head around graphic menus with movable icons instead of a fixed text menu. The numbers one through 10 were good enough for me, thank you very much.

So fast-forward to 1995, my second year of college. We all had these laptops as part of some new initiative to equip every student with a computer (in 1995 it wasn’t taken for granted that everyone would have a PC), and our class being the first wave, we had these incredibly ancient, clunky machines that we loved. They ran Windows 3.1, but when Windows 95 came out we were informed that we could get a free RAM upgrade (from 4 to 8 megs!) and get the new OS. So that’s what I did.

Windows 95 wasn’t as huge of a leap as going from DOS to Windows was, but it was still a bit of a tech shock. The big feature was the new “start” button that kept all of the applications tucked away in nested menus, which was a nice change from the cluttered screen of Windows 3.1.

I liked being able to customize my desktop a bit more with Windows 95, although I probably overdid it with whatever I could find on the internet. And it wasn’t too long that we were so comfortable with 95 that going back to 3.1 was painful.

Nostalgia Lane: My childhood as a BASIC game programmer

basic_largeMy parents often said that I was destined to be a video game developer when I grew up, mostly because that’s where my attention was as a kid — both in playing and making them. Our family’s first PC came with a gigantic instruction manual for BASIC/A, a simple programming language supported by DOS and accessible to weirdos like me who wanted to try their hand at making playable games.

Throughout my junior high and senior high years, I grew into a (in my mind) master of BASIC. I would whip up thousands of lines of code based on game design documents that I drew up in class, and even though the finished product was a tangled mess of spaghetti code (which drove my computer teacher nuts), it tended to work.

It’s one of my big life regrets that none of the games that I made survived. The 5 1/4″ floppies on which they resided were no doubt thrown out a long time ago, back before I had the means to back them up elsewhere. And no, unlike Richard Garriott, I did not print out my code so that I could type it in later. In any case, little of it was pure genius, but it was personally interesting.

My biggest series was “Starship Simulator,” which actually worked unlike certain Derek Smart products I could name*. I recall four in the series, with the first three giving you command over a starship to modify and then send out in battle. There wasn’t a lot of narrative here, just customization and battling. Starship Simulator 2 was the only game I remember that was actively played by friends and family members; I think I hit on a sweet spot of fun. Starship Simulator 4 put the player in the role of a captured captain who had to fight his way out of a starbase, room by room. It was incredibly difficult to make, with the program keeping track of a grid of 100 rooms and what was in each, but I liked it.

I was enraptured with the idea of taking all of the pen-and-paper RPG manuals I had lying around and turning them into computer games, so I made a lot of RPGs. Not great ones, again, but somewhat technically accomplished. I did a Terminator 2 RPG (you had to fight more difficult terminators until you beat the T-1000) and a couple generic fantasy RPGs probably based on my fascination with Zelda.

I also did more than a few adventure games, as I might have written about earlier. These were fun to make, since they involved a lot of writing and weren’t that hard to program. Keeping track of variables and puzzles was the trickiest part.

For my sports-oriented friends, I created Battle Golf, which mixed golf with land mines, volcanos, and other death traps.

Unfortunately, making graphics and bits that moved on screen was a little out of my league (and out of the capabilities of BASIC back then). I did as much as I could with simple line drawings and ASCII art, but the most I was able to accomplish were small shooters or racers where you would drive a car (an asterisk) between dots. I did as much as I could with colors, however, and used BASIC to make fun music tracks for my game (sometimes I would reverse-engineer a song, like the Star Trek theme, into BASIC notation).

BASIC was a bit of a pop culture fad in the 80s, too. There were one or two kids’ book series where you’d read a story and occasionally have to type in a program into your computer to advance the plot (so to speak). And I picked up more than one magazine that had several pages of code to copy onto your computer. Later on, I would spend a lot of time modifying someone else’s code and trying to improve on it or twist it to my own ideas.

In college I had a computer degree and took a couple of programming classes — C++ and FORTRAN and even assembly — but by then the magic of programming had vanished for me. I was more interested in writing and playing than trying to wrangle the increasingly complicated code to make games. Maybe in some other universe, alternate me stuck with it and became a game designer or (more likely) an IT guy.

*All of them

Site alert: Changes to the Retro Gaming page

In anticipation of returning to the fertile lands of retro gaming next week, I reorganized the Reto Gaming page here on Bio Break. There are two significant changes:

1. I clearly separated and outlined the Retro Gaming (playthroughs) vs. the Nostalgia Lane (memories) sections.

2. I added a Retro Gaming On Deck section with all of my to-play games (mostly for my reference, and which may or may not ever get played).

Nostalgia Lane: Wolfenstein 3-D

I was dubious. “So… it’s a game where you go from room to room and shoot people? Doesn’t sound that great to me.”

“Just you wait until you play it,” my friend James assured me.

It was after church in the fall of 1992, and I was hanging out with my twin friends at their house. While we didn’t always have a lot in common (they were sports nuts, me a sci-fi geek), video games were where we could always agree. They had just attained a shareware copy of some game called Wolfenstein 3-D, and although I didn’t know it then, I was about to enter the world of first-person shooters.

Using the shareware model — where the first episode of a game was released for free and you would pay for (or pirate) the remaining episodes — id’s Wolfenstein 3-D exploded among the gaming population. It used an older 2-D property that was mostly about stealthing around Nazi castles and turned it into a rip-roaring action fest.

Despite the name, Wolfenstein 3-D wasn’t 3-D at all, but a pseudo 3-D (2.5-D) that used a lot of visual trickery to convince you that you were moving around in a 3-D environment. There was no jumping, no aiming up or down, and not an awful lot of weapon variety — but it was a blast.

I think it had to do with the whole Nazi angle. You start out as a prisoner of war who kills his guard, takes his knife, and begins a rampage through several German fortresses. Each level had tons to explore, with locked doors, secret passages/rooms, treasure to pick up, and lots of unsympathetic mobs to mow down.

wolf3Weapon-wise, there was the default knife, the pistol, the submachine gun, and the minigun. Everything other than the knife used the same pool of ammo, so if one wasn’t careful, you’d run out of bullets with the minigun and be stuck stabbing guards at point-blank range.

There were so many small details about Wolfenstein that made it endearing:

  • Being attacked by German shepherds was actually scary, even though they were weak
  • The guards barking out simple German phrases (“achtung!” forever became a part of my vocabulary)
  • The thrill of running along a wall slamming on the space bar and eventually finding a secret room bursting with treasure
  • How id would taunt you with the different difficulty level descriptions
  • BJ’s face becoming bloodier the more hurt you became

But really, for me it was about getting into the zone of rushing through levels, taking out Nazis, and becoming good about staying alive. Like any classic video game, there was that moment of zen-like gaming where you’re just playing on a whole different level.

Wolfenstein 3-D probably became the most notorious for its depiction of Hitler wearing a mechanical battle suit and shooting rockets, which is why most kids from the early 90s have a horrible grasp on history. Still… I can’t deny that it felt really satisfying to take him down in a red puddly mess.

Doom’s arrival on the scene quickly made Wolf a game of the past, but for me it’ll always have a special spot as a new experience and an introduction into 3-D gaming.

Temple of Elemental Evil: Showdown with the Master

(This is part of my journey playing through The Temple of Elemental Evil. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

cr1The Fellowship of Elmo’s adventures pick up today deep in the catacombs underneath the basement at the bottom of the moathouse.  Naturally, we stumble upon a giant crawfish guarding a treasure chest because the monster manual isn’t depleted of giant things-that-are-normally-small yet.  My favorite part of this fight is that we surround it and then the crawfish tries to move, opening itself up to about seven attacks of opportunity in a row.

cr2Next up on our tour of this fantastically weird place, we come across a pack of gnolls that are more angry at a “Master” whose poor planning has cost them lives on raids than homicidal toward me.  For a bargained 150 gold, they not only leave but also tell me where the Master is.  O…kay.  Guess that’s good.

nastyJust around the corner from the gnolls is a secret bandit base with more bandits than I can shake a stick at.  We burst into this room and find ourselves in deep, deep trouble, as there are almost a dozen of them, many with long spears and bows.  Trying to move through this room and position attacks is difficult, and I lose two guys before reloading.

The next time, I keep my pocket army in the hallway and send my meatshield around to drag a few bad guys onto my turf.  Doesn’t work; the guards just stay in the room.  Guess we have to rush it and hope for the best.

I eventually prevail with a few casualties, praying that I’m almost done with this place.

masterIn the final (?) room is The Master, the gnolls’ hated enemy.  We have a brief fight, but one guy against eight is not much of a battle, and he begins talking before we skewer him.  Apparently, he knows the way to the game’s titular Temple of Elemental Evil, if we’ll spare him and let him join the party.  Fine with me… but first I have to ditch someone and I’m not quite sure how to do that.

spoonyI reload an earlier save file and talk to “Spoony” (Spug) and tell his worthless butt to leave.  So far he’s been an eight-hit-point floozy with a dagger and no magic spells to speak of, so I’ll gladly trade him for the much more proficient Master.

Hilariously, in the ensuing fight, Spoony actually attacks my party (as he hasn’t gone anywhere) — and over-exterts himself and falls unconscious and dies without me doing a thing.  That’s how worthless he was.

masterThe Master joins our team and brings with him a delightful attitude of supervillainy.  That’s what I need!  More evil geniuses!  I don’t even mind that he cavorts with Lolth, as long as he keeps the prayer chanting down during nap time.

Well that’s it for the moathouse — it was a good run that netted us some loot, some experience, and a (hopefully) better teammate.  We return to Hommet… and apparently everyone wants us dead.  Seriously, I try to go back to the farmhouse to sell loot, and the widow and her kids come at us like they’re possessed.  Of course, they’re of no real threat and we kill them with a single blow, but still, that’s disturbing.  Is it because we killed Spoony or that we have the Master with us now?  This might make selling our stuff a problem.