Nostalgia Lane: Myst

When I went off to college in 1994, computer technology was lurching ahead at crazy speeds. We went from toting around bulky laptops with no modem whatsoever to experiencing internet in our dorm rooms and the huge storage of zip drives. One of the biggest revolution points of the mid-1990s definitely had to be the CD-ROM, which helped put an end to those boxes with 15 floppy discs. The huge storage capacity on a single CD (well, for the time) was a boon for game makers, who in turn went nuts making games with tons of detailed graphics and soundtracks.

Most likely no game benefited more greatly from the CD-ROM invasion than Myst, which sold like a billion copies and was the most successful PC game before The Sims arrived in 2000. What’s weird about it is that Myst is, at its core, a rather stripped-down adventure game. It’s barely an adventure game, it’s more like a puzzle game with theming. Players wandered all over a deserted island to solve puzzles in the hopes of uncovering a backstory about two bickering brothers. There’s… very little narrative here. It’s just a lot of exploration.

The reason why Myst hit it big was that it was juicy eye candy to everyone who wanted to show off their CD-ROM and believe in the power of M U L T I M E D I A. Today, it looks as fake as most ’90s CGI looks, but in 1993, this was a pretty world in comparison to most video game settings. People loved getting immersed into this world and didn’t mind spending hours and hours trying to figure out the puzzles. I guess when it’s a nice place to be, you’ll put up with anything.

So here’s the thing: This may be the first Nostalgia Lane article I’ve written where I really didn’t care about the game in question. The Myst bug never bit me; I couldn’t see the attraction, and I still can’t today. I’d rather play adventure games with far more storytelling and world building than what this had.

But I’m including it because there was a good six months or so when everyone at my college was hooked on Myst — if they could get their hands on a CD-ROM drive. It made its way into our dorm room and transformed a lot of my friends into evangelicals proclaiming the great word of Atrus. I tried it out a few times, it was OK, but I rather would have spent time playing Command and Conquer or X-Com. I guess if you play adventure games despite puzzles instead of for them, then Myst wasn’t for you.

Nostalgia Lane: 7 favorite DOS games from the ’80s

Seeing as how the 1980s were so long ago now, my memory of what computer games I used to play on our family’s old IBM are starting to fade. However, I was looking through lists and screenshots to recall these, and came up with six titles that I experienced back then on MS-DOS.

Thexder was about the closest thing I got to playing a great Transformers game. In it, you’re this robot who’s exploring a Metroid-like base and can transform back and forth between a robot and a spaceship. It was pretty cool, and I loved how my laser attack would automatically target enemies.

Karateka was a decent beat-em-up with (I think) different moves. I was never very good at it, but that’s the story of my life.

Since we never got an NES, I eagerly leaped at the opportunity to play pretty crappy PC ports of console games like Shinobi here. I mean, at least it was something.

Test Drive was a huge hit among my circle of friends, probably because hot cars was a big thing for teenage boys in the ’80s. The game itself had a great concept but was tough to play, what with all the crashes, the cliffside venue, and police chasing you. At least your car came with a fuzzbuster.

Sopwith was a silly dumb game where you got to do all these stunts as a WWI-era biplane and also shoot and bomb things. I crashed so many times with this, guys.

Silpheed was a great-looking shmup that I struggled to get working on the aging computer. That was the story of a lot of the games I tried to get running in the late 80s.

I didn’t really like sports or sports games, but I played the latter because I was limited to whatever free games I could get. Olympic Decathalon was one of them, a series of badly drawn minigames where you compete in the Olympics. That shotput game was the death of me.

Nostalgia Lane: PC Gamer demo discs

Computer gaming was in a different place in the mid and late 1990s. While widespread internet rolled out by 1995 or so, the connection speeds were really too low to get a lot of content fast — and downloading games was pretty much out of the question unless they were small or packed into zip files. I still relied a lot on print media for my gaming news, such as PC Gamer.

My subscription to this magazine came with a huge bonus, which was the monthly demo discs that would come with them. Seriously, every time an issue would arrive in my college mailbox, I felt like I was being gifted this two-for-one boon — lots of gaming stuff to read, and some free games to boot.

The demo discs were usually chock-full of different titles to try, ranging from very bare-bones demos to some games that could occupy hours. I loved that the magazine actually went to the effort of creating these odd CGI interfaces upon booting up the disc, often showcasing the Coconut Monkey mascot and shadowy, steampunk-looking underground offices.

Again, it’s not as if we had a massive selection of instant gaming at our fingertips back then. It was whatever games we had paid for or shared between us. A good demo disc could deliver hours and hours of gaming fun, even if the types of games weren’t usually the ones we’d go for in the store. I actually liked that I was being encouraged to try new things.

I don’t remember any specific games that I played through these, although I know that it was a really great day if one of the demos happened to be a title that I was anticipating. Getting a preview of that would help me decide if the eventual purchase was worth it or not. There were also extras for existing games, such as maps and missions to tack on more play hours.

Often the discs would also include dumb Coconut Monkey-themed games made in-house, but what was the real score was when the discs would include full versions of older games (such as Wing Commander or The Curse of Monkey Island) for free.

Anyway, faster internet pretty much made the demo disc obsolete, but for a while there, it was a godsend to us starved gamers. Thank you, Coconut Monkey, for the fun!

Nostalgia Lane: Atari 2600’s Starmaster and Star Raiders

For today’s Nostalgia Lane trip, I wanted to head back to the ’80s for two of my favorite titles on the Atari 2600. We were all nuts about scifi, Star Trek, and Star Wars back then, and there were several games on the console that tried to give us a knock-off feeling of having your own ship and blasting through the cosmos.

1982’s Starmaster was the simpler and more streamlined of the two titles. It was pretty impressive for what it offered with a one-button joystick setup: The player got to be a pilot of a ship racing around outer space trying to destroy all of the enemy fighters before the fighters destroyed the starbases and/or the player. The game utilized a couple of the switches on the console itself to handle navigation and even offered a real-time strategy component (all of the enemy ships were constantly moving around in the map screen even as the player did).

There was a lot of strategy here, what with conserving fuel, making trips to the starbase to repair and refuel, and deciding which fighter groups to tackle next. The combat itself was simple but satisfying, with lots of loud sounds and flashes when either ship got hit. And considering that your ship could have components damaged and there were four difficulty levels, it was a surprisingly deep title. I had a lot of fun jumping in the cockpit and zooming around for a quick game, even if space was nothing but white dots floating by.

Star Raiders also came out in 1982 and offered a bit of the same setup, although it ran to a more complicated design. The game required the little-used Atari keypad for additional input, which was a bit cumbersome but also more immersive. Punching in buttons for ship commands and navigation helped to flesh out the fantasy of being a spaceship captain.

There was more enemy variety and arguably better graphics than Starmaster, but most of the gameplay was pretty similar: warp around, protect starbases, refuel, and blast bad guys. It definitely stole from other scifi franchises, such as Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica with the ship design, but video game copyright infringement cases weren’t as much a thing back then. And since we weren’t getting a really great Star Wars arcade experience on the 2600, these titles were acceptable substitutes.

I liked Star Raiders, but because I’d have to plug in the touch pad every time to play it, I didn’t get around to Star Raiders quite as much as Starmaster. The combat wasn’t as good, either. Starmaster had you blasting with fast lasers, whereas Star Raiders had you shooting what looked like a pair of balled-up socks. Maybe rocks. It felt jankier, too. However, there could be more than one enemy ship on the screen at a time, and there was cool battle damage like losing one of your two guns and having to make do with the remainder.

Both of these games were strong predecessors to Wing Commander, which took the freeform flight concept and went in a more narrative direction.

Nostalgia Lane: Doom

1992’s Wolfenstein 3-D introduced many of us to the fast, silky-smooth world of first-person shooters, to the point where my friends and I poured dozens if not hundreds of hours into it. But two years later, id Software bested itself with its best-known game ever — and helped to further revolutionize the FPS genre.

In late 1993, Doom arrived on the scene. It was fast, it was bloody, it was violent, it was immensely popular, and it was vilified by politicians and media alike. For myself, I felt downright scandalized the first time I played it, due to Doom’s dark themes (you’re literally fighting demons from hell in an isolated Mars facility). I also started to see the potential for FPS games with Doom’s jump to 2.5-D that included ramps and different elevations on the same map.

I don’t remember the first time I ever played Doom, but I know that it was incredibly hot right from the get-go. It was the shareware era, after all, where everyone was encouraged to make copies and share the first episode of all of these games between friends, so Doom spread like a contagious virus.

What I do recall was the slick production values that greeted me when I started in on the first level. Doom simply *worked*. It had a fast frame rate that supported a whole lot of action and events on the screen, and zooming through the levels firing weapons like a crazed lunatic was a mindless joy in and of itself.

Boy, was it bloody, though. I mean, looking at it today it’s almost quaint with its pixelated graphics, but there was still a whole lot of blood ‘n’ guts to go around. I guess that after fighting Nazis in Wolfenstein, id figured that the next best cannon fodder for a shooter would be hell’s spawn. Hard to argue that we’re on the side of evil if we are actively gunning it down, right?

Doom also had a way better arsenal than Wolfenstein (which just had the same gun in various rates of fire). There was a basic pistol, a chainsaw (which gave us feelings of being Ash from The Evil Dead), a plasma rifle, and the BFG 9000. Finding and feeding this arsenal prompted a lot of exploration through each level, because sometimes the best stuff was hidden or tucked away in easy-to-miss passages.

While I did play Wolfenstein, Doom, and especially Duke Nuke Em in the 1990s, they never really were my mainstay the way that FPS games were to others. They were guilty pleasures, ways to blow off steam for a half-hour here and there, but I would usually gravitate more toward RPGs and RTSs if I was looking for something a little more long term. As such, I completely skipped over id’s Quake and other late-1990 shooters.

Nostalgia Lane: Dungeon!

Back when I was a kid, I’d say that a majority of the vacations our family took was to visit other members of our family. Every so often we’d make the long drive down from Indiana to Texas to see our aunt, uncle, and four cousins, which was just fine with us. Not only did we like having cousins to play with, they had great toys — an NES (which was amazing to us NES-deprived Olivetti kids) and a closet full of board games.

One Thanksgiving in particular (I forget which year), we all got hooked on playing a particular fantasy board game that was in my cousin’s room. It was a bit like D&D, just more simplistic and fast-paced. We raced around a dungeon, fought monsters, grabbed loot, and enjoyed the fantasy of it all. There weren’t a lot of board games that me and my brothers all liked to play together, but this one seemed to fit the bill.

Years passed and I forgot about this game as I did about so much from childhood. However, something this year triggered a faint memory of the board game, and out of curiosity I tried to track it down. I asked my brothers, but seeing as how they were younger than I when we played it, they have no recollection. Or as my brother Jared said, “You were always more into that fantasy roleplaying stuff than we were.” True that.

Many, many Google searches later, and I finally found the title of my mysterious dungeon-themed board game. It was… Dungeon! Probably should have started with that, but oh well. I found it! I know it’s silly, but reclaiming parts of my long-forgotten childhood is important to me, especially when I can pass it on to my own kids.

Anyway, Dungeon! is a very old game, dating back to 1975 in its original incarnation. It’s kind of like a gateway to D&D proper, containing the stripped-down mechanics of dungeon crawling and looting. It got reprinted a few times, and the pictures above are the ones that I saw when we played it.

In Dungeon!, you pick a starting hero (human fighter, elf wizard, dwarf cleric, halfling rogue), each with their own strengths and weaknesses. They then start to explore and conquer a sprawling dungeon made up of six levels. Earlier levels contain weaker monsters and lesser treasures, but it gets tougher when you move up in levels.

There’s a bit of dice rolling involved during combat encounters that offer something different than just whittling down hit points. For example, make some bad rolls, and you could lose treasure or even die and have to grab a new hero. There are some items and spells that can be used during adventures, and the whole aim is to gather a set amount of treasure (which varies depending on the class) before anyone else.

Nothing super deep, but it was fun — and I did ask for it on my Christmas wish list this year in the hopes that I can try it out on my fledgling household heroes.

Nostalgia Lane: Project Space Station

I took it for granted that I grew up during the Space Shuttle Age of NASA. Maybe it wasn’t as history-shattering as the landing on the moon, but the space shuttle was a huge icon of my childhood, from the Challenger to SpaceCamp to an interesting computer game in 1985 called Project Space Station.

Project Space Station was, in essence, a NASA simulator in which you had a small fleet of space shuttles and was tasked with building a space station while operating a financially successful organization. As a kid, I was pretty horrible at this, never able to turn a profit or figure out what needed to be done to become stable and start working my way up to a huge, bustling space station.

One of the unique factors was that this game’s clock (mostly) kept ticking forward. This mattered, because you were juggling several things at once: shuttles on the ground, shuttles orbiting, the space station, projects, yearly budgets, and the like. The idea was to start small, get a module or two in space, and start doing experiments to make money for bigger and better missions.

In theory, this game was totally up my alley. I was a scifi nut back then (still am) and in love with the space shuttle. But there were two things that kept me from playing it after a while. Well, three if you count the fact that I always went broke.

The first was the arcade sequences that happened with launch and landing. I was *terrible* at these, especially considering all I had was a clunky IBM PC keyboard to work with. Joysticks? On an IBM in the 80s? We weren’t royalty, you know. Failing at these sequences meant lost time and position and a continued loss of money.

The second factor was losing astronauts in space. I killed them off a depressing number of times, usually from forgetting that they were up there orbiting too long. They’d run out of air or water or something, and now I had a giant floating casket that I had to retrieve via EVA and bring back to earth. As a kid with an overactive imagination, this genuinely creeped me out, even if I never saw the actual astronauts. I still didn’t want them to die.

I had forgotten about this game for many years afterward until recently stumbling upon a screenshot and doing some research into what the game was even called. Project Space Station wasn’t a runaway success, but it did well enough for itself and was a good indicator of my love of sims to come.

Nostalgia Lane: Lemmings and Tetris

Back in the 1980s, I’d say that I was so game-starved that I would play just about anything that we could get access to and running on our aging IBM PC. And you know what ran on just about any computer at the time? Tetris.

I have a soft spot for puzzle games, and I think that Tetris is where all of this began. There was something so hypnotic and zen-like when I got into a long stretch of Tetris. I could shut my brain off and bask in the satisfaction of making the blocks line up just so. Seeing lines — and the occasional tetris — vanish was a thing of joy. I spent countless hours late in the evening playing this, and I think it helped a little to distract me from a lot of the problems that I was facing at school and in my own teenage-addled head.

One thing I get super-nostalgic for is the backgrounds that came with the PC version, like that space station up there. I vividly felt the influence of the Russians — then our sworn enemies — in every screen, and while that had a foreign feel to it, I couldn’t help but love the game even so.

And since I’m on the subject of puzzle games, let’s talk about Lemmings. Ah, Lemmings! This is what happens when you take constantly moving puzzle games, give them personality, and then allow the player to blow them up at will.

Lemmings was a game that really benefited from the improved VGA and SVGA graphics of the early 1990s. That allowed us to see smaller and more colorful sprites, and those sprites came in the form of green-haired lemmings who would wander around — usually right toward something that killed them — until you guided them safely to the next gate.

The ingenious part is that the players’ tools in this game were turning normal lemmings into special ones. You could make a lemming a digger who would dig straight down, for example, or one who would stop everyone from going past him, or one who would build a diagonal bridge. Trying to create a safe path for the majority to the gate while the lemmings were bustling about was nerve-wracking at times, but it was amusing as well. I never got tired of blowing them up! Probably why I never beat the game.

Nostalgia Lane: Castlevania Symphony of the Night

One of my favorite game series back on retro consoles is Castlevania. From the first game, with its pulse-pounding soundtrack and lethargic whip action to Super Castlevania IV on the SNES, I adored the tone and fun of these hunted house games. Things seemed to go off the rails with the N64 game, but the PlayStation brought it back in style for the surprisingly amazing 1997 game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Poorly translated and pretentious as all get out, SOTN was nevertheless an astounding action-RPG. This time around, players jumped into the shoes of Dracula’s son who had to explore his dad’s castle and put an end to evil, etc. While the game started players out with high stats and powerful equipment, after the first boss battle we were all knocked back to a weakened state with minimal gear and had to scrounge and explore and grind to get good again.

I’m not lying when I said that this game came out of nowhere. I don’t think anyone was anticipating it when it arrived in the US, but I happened to pick it up and then spent dozens of gleeful hours jumping around this castle, experimenting with different weapons, and digging the amazing soundtrack (which is highly worth checking out even today). The RPG elements in the gear and level added a nice additional layer of complexity past the platforming elements, as did the fact that when you beat the game… the castle flipped over and you had to navigate an upside-down realm. Take that, Stranger Things.

There were pets. There were magic attacks. There were meme quotes and shapeshifting. There were boomerang razer discs that became my go-to weapon. There were also atrocious loading times that happened at every single death, which was highly unfortunate. There were even multiple endings.

While it was still Castlevania, it felt like more, you know? I got far more playtime out of this game than other titles in the franchise and fed that inner yearning to explore. I also appreciated that the series went back to lush 2-D sprites instead of the muddled, ugly 3-D graphics that consoles of the late 1990s were spitting out. It made the game more attractive and timeless.

Was it perfect? No, but it looked and sounded so top-notch that I was willing to forgive it for its sometimes flawed level design and haphazard creature placing. Thinking about this game right now makes me want to play it — and unless I go the ROM route, I have no easy way of making that happen.

Nostalgia Lane: Diablo II

The other day I was thinking about titles that will never arrive on GOG.com — happy 10th birthday, by the way! — and in addition to The Sims franchise, I know we’ll never see anything from Blizzard’s library. That’s a shame, because Diablo II would be a great fit for GOG, especially considering how big this game was for many people back in the early 2000s.

I wasn’t a Diablo II fanatic, but I did put many hours into this action RPG in 2000. The first title largely escaped my notice, but it was hard to ignore the phenomenon that swirled around this hit sequel. Blizzard took what worked from the first game and added a lot more to the sequel — more classes, skill trees, areas, and online functionality.

Compared to StarCraft and Warcraft, Diablo skewed far more to the gothic grimdark than Blizzard’s other games. That gloomy and gory atmosphere added a lot to the unique feel, but Diablo II wouldn’t have been as big of a hit if it wasn’t for that trademark Blizzard polish and the addictive gameplay loop.

Watching loot explode out of enemies was certainly compelling. It always made me feel as though I had won some sort of casino game, over and over again. I’m sure I was never very good at the game — I can’t recall getting further past Act II — but I did have a blast playing it and trying out the different classes. My favorite was the Necromancer (because pets), although I came to severely dislike Diablo II’s rigid talent trees that refused any refunds or respecs. It really discouraged experimentation and sometimes resulted in a botched character that would necessitate a reroll.

Diablo II could have been an entry point into MMOs, now that I look back at it, except that I never did engage in the online mode nor stuck with it past a few months. At the time I was much more in love with RTS and straight-up RPGs, but there was a good stretch when I’d come home and do nothing else than click-click-click my way to victory and loot.