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.

Temple of Elemental Evil: The giant tick

(This is part of my journey playing through The Temple of Elemental Evil. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.) frogsOne frog massacre later, and we’re ready to move on further into the moathouse.  Everyone have his or her own fingers and heads?  Good.  Let’s go. spiderRight inside the moathouse is a tower containing a very large, very perturbed spider.  At him, fellows! The spider venom not only hurts Whiteberry but takes away one of her abilities.  I don’t know which one, D&D 3.0 was always complicated to me.  Other than that bite, we get out of the fight without any casualties and then loot a nearby chest for some gold and goodies.  As a bonus, this tower is apparently a safe resting zone, so I select “rest until healed” and the game takes eight days to recover about six hit points (as well as my one cleric healing skill).  Being a lowbie stinks.  I don’t even know if I have any magic attacks other than my cleric! banditsThe second we step into the courtyard, we’re ambushed by about seven brigands.  I have to say, I got really worried about this fight just by seeing the numbers of foes.  But then I forgot the upside of newbie D&D, which is that it’s not your traditional MMO hit point exchange.  Sometimes — a lot of times — attacks from low-level mobs don’t land at all.  I get through the entire fight with only suffering a single HP of damage to Zert, and that was because he walked through an attack of opportunity zone (if you pass near a mob without stopping, they get a free attack on you).  We get a little bit of loot and some confidence and move on. I want to mention that while ToEE is still an isometric D&D game, it’s very obvious that there were a lot of graphical upgrades compared to the old Icewind Dale/Baldur’s Gate engine.  Characters are so much more detailed and have a lot more animation, especially while fighting.  It comes across as something between Diablo II and III. ratsInside the moathouse proper, a parade of dire rats come out to say hello, but oddly enough, they don’t attack.  Fine with me.  Let’s plunder this place! leaderOops, plundering is going to have to wait until later.  First there’s a giant viper, followed by a (why not) giant tick, followed by a pack of bandits with their leader.  This latter fight is the trickiest yet in this game, mostly because we have the chokepoint of the doorway and a few strong attackers.  Two of my characters get knocked unconscious, but I manage to stabilize their bleeding and heal them back to functionality. Can I say how much I love my monk?  Her spin kicks of death are so dang awesome.  Bandit ’bout near exploded. zombiesThe basement of the moathouse is in better shape, although the hodge-podge of picks from the monster manual continues.  Zombies?  Giant ogre?  Green slime?  Sure, why not.  Makes total sense why a pack of brigands moved in.  “Larry, if you’re going to go pee in the basement, make sure you avoid the door on the left, as that is where the cannibalistic undead live.  Also, don’t pee too loudly, as the ogre will take that as a mating call.” Also, thank goodness for Turn Undead against packs of zombies.  Stunned a bunch of them so that my party wasn’t completely overrun, and even then both of our healers got knocked unconscious.  Zert also gets a disease, the Red Ache.  I don’t even know what to do for this. cataA secret ladder in the zombie area leads us down into the catacombs, where a few waves of ghouls await.  They’re quickly dispatched, at which most of my party gains a level.  Wahhoo!  I am… level 2.  Man, D&D is hard to adjust to when you come from the MMO world.

Temple of Elemental Evil: The Fellowship of the Elmo

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

vil1For all of the complex and time-intensive process of creating a party from scratch is in ToEE, the game sure does shove you right into the world with the barest of backstory.  I’m given a single sentence about how some druid elder wants to meet with me and then… we’re plopped down onto the landscape.  I guess back in 1985, when this module was originally written, D&D gamers didn’t need a lot of reason and motivation to go do something.  It might’ve been a grateful desperation at having a purpose: “Yes!  That druid elder dude!  HE WANTS TO SPEAK TO MEEEE!”

As with many RPGs of the 90s and early 2000s, Temple of Elemental Evil plays out in an isometric format, although it’s a little more 3Dish and detailed than Baldur’s Gate.  I love how some of my party members have hit points that can be measured on two hands.  That’s newbie D&D for ya.

vil2The druid elder is concerned that another druid, Jaroo, hasn’t reported back as he’s supposed to do once a month or so and asks us to go investigate at the local village of Hommlet.  Why he can’t climb on top of one of his bear bodyguards there and go see himself is symptomatic of lazy NPCs and the sole justification for wandering heroes such as myself.  We are the Fellowship of the Druid!

vil3Hommet is a pretty place, although fairly large for your standard RPG village — the world map features a north, south, and central hommet, if that gives any indication.

Our fellowship immediately stumbles upon a couple of farms belonging to one family.  Apparently, the two brothers are bickering a lot after their dad and one of the brothers’ wives died, and that’s caused a lot of grief for the families.  I’m given the option to go play matchmaker by convincing a carpenter to build a new barn as a dowry, and boy does that sound like a lot of work.  Where’s the temple already?  When can I start bashing heads?

vil4And then some drunk villager named — I kid not — Elmo stumbles into me and says that he’ll be a hired hand if we pay him 200 gold to come fight.  Gee, why wouldn’t I want a drunk Elmo to be a part of this band?  I pay up and he becomes our sixth member, which is so awesome because he’s stumbling all over the place while holding an axe PLUS he is level 4 with 41 hit points, which is a beefcake compared to the rest of my troupe.

We are now the Fellowship of the Elmo.

vil5After our long and arduous journey, um, up the street, we arrive at the Inn of the Welcome Wench.  I’m guessing this is the medieval version of Hooters or something?

Inside of the cozy tavern, we find a wizard with the unfortunate name of Spugnoir, who’s in the market for wizard scrolls.  He agrees to join our party if he gets to keep all of the scrolls we find.  Fine with me, Spuggy!

The inn is actually crawling with potential NPC party mates, all of whom will gladly join up as long as you have room.  I actually have to turn down a monk and his friend due to space limitations, but I do snatch up a knight named Zert (a breath mint?).  My party’s gone from five to eight people within ten minutes.  That’s weirdly fast for an RPG.

Anyway, Zert is all eager to explore the nearby moathouse that Spug was talking about (it was some wizard home back in the day) and offers an instant teleport option to go right there.  Sounds like fun fighting time to me!  Let’s do it.

vil6We arrive at the moathouse in the dead of the night and a giant frog lunges out of the water to nearly kill Ardwulf.  The fight is on!   ToEE has turn-based combat, so there’s no pressure to react quickly.  I’m not doing much more than clicking at a mob to tell my guys to move and/or attack, but it works and the frog soon falls over dead.  Three more evil frogs follow.  I get into the groove of things and we emerge victorious.  Over frogs.  It’s not a glorious victory.

vil7ToEE has a rather strange interface for a D&D CRPG, as it uses an unfolding radial menu to select options.  While it does look slick, in practice it’s rather cumbersome.  I’m sure there are hotkeys to shortcut all of this, but I’d rather have a handy hotbar instead.

My Cleric casts his one heal spell and then… I guess he’s done for the day.  No more heals left.  My poor Rogue has to heal herself with a potion.  And we haven’t even gotten past the first screen yet!