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Gaming in the ’90s – PC, the other console

Today we hold the PC in the same high regard as gaming consoles. But back in the ‘90s, the PC was working hard to claim a seat amongst the respected. When I reminisce about those days I come to the daring conclusion that perhaps the PC gaming scene was more powerful than it is now. My reasons for this mindset, however, falls nowhere along the lines of technology and titles. Looking back, PC gaming was very involving in how it marketed its titles amongst varying age groups; illuminating the faces of many during late night hours.

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How we rolled

Nowadays, people can do a plethora of things to make their PC more than capable to handle any slew of games. Back then, such resources were still in development and very limited. RAM was a hot commodity.

When it comes to installing PC games, the process is as easy as using 1 or 2 CDs. Back then, the process was rather time consuming. In my days, it could take up to 4 or more floppy disks just to install a game, often interrupted by the thundering footsteps of dinosaurs. Before the first PlayStation, a number of PC games prompted players to insert the next CD of up to four to continue gameplay.

Before games were all made to run on the Windows interface, a lot of titles ran on the now defunct DOS. I don’t care what anyone says, learning how to utilize command prompts at such a young age was certainly bad ass.

All PCs and laptops today are complete with adept internal speakers, with the option of purchasing external speakers for higher quality or surround sound. This wasn’t the case back then: to get the quality of today’s default internal speakers involved having to purchase Soundblaster supported hardware. But when it came to running games on the computers’ “internal speakers”, you’d have to endure loud, excrutiating, 8-bit beeps.

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Graphics Archaeology

Many PC games back then utilized EGA graphics (pioneered by the developers of Commander Keen), hand-drawn graphics, the now prehistoric polygonal 3D, or FMV footage with live actors and sets. The latter provided exposure for a number of famous stars like Christopher Walken and Karen Allen in Ripper, and Jeff Goldblum in Goosebumps: Escape from HorrorLand. Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller featured the voice work of Grace Jones, and the late Dennis Hopper.

PC games were also known to be the first to use actual high production songs and scores.

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Learning through Gaming

A clear distinction between today’s and yesteryear’s PC scene was the presence of educational titles. These games were divided up by education levels to cater to children of different ages: pre-school to junior high.

Educational games’ popularity began in the ‘80s, many companies were founded to promote the distribution of learning games through schools, the most dominant developer being MECC. Memorable titles include Math Munchers and the legend itself, The Oregon Trail. MECC continued to be an influential figurehead in educational software throughout the ‘90s with the release of The Oregon Trail 2 and The Amazon Trail, both promoting the learning of history and geography.

Creating one of the ‘90s most sentimental classics was Broderbund Software’s Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? series. Before the subsequent TV shows, the franchise began as edutainment software from the ‘80s. The premise was to chase and capture the henchmen of Carmen Sandiego before eventually catching the famed villainess herself. This involved following clues that relate to history and global cultures.

Another giant of the edutainment industry was The Learning Company, famed for their Reader Rabbit series and Super Solver titles. Some may remember Treasure Mountain!, Midnight Rescue!, and Challenge of the Ancient Empires!. Each game involved playing as a ‘Super Solver’ whose mission was to track and capture Morty Maxwell, The Master of Mischief. Players took on multiple puzzle challenges that gradually increased in difficulty. The Super Solver series covered all the fundamental topics of reading, grammar, spelling, math, science, and history.

Scholastic also got involved in the edutainment scene with a few point-and-click releases of Goosebumps games to promote reading the books. Even Mario got his teaching on with titles like Mario’s Time Machine, Mario is Missing!, and Mario Teaches Typing, which was the first time Mario was ever given a voice.

The absence of edutainment titles today, and with you probably laughing at having all this brought up, is a sure sign of the times. Wikipedia, iOS, and reality television are apparently the new teachers of this world.

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Forefathers and Prophecies

The ‘90s gave rise to a number of genres that are responsible for the current explosion of online gaming, awarding ‘Cult Classic’ status to a number of series, and jump starting the careers of numerous industry giants. This includes the start of id Software and Epic MegaGames’ fame with their respective cult hits Commander Keen and Jazz Jackrabbit, the PC counterparts of Mario and Sonic.

The use of shareware brought attention to famous FPS series such as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Duke Nukem 3D. Included were the now lesser known titles of Hexen, Realms of the Haunting, Blood, Rise of the Triads, and System Shock. 1998 saw the release of the first Half-Life, which set the bar for implementing engaging storylines into the developing genre.

The ‘90s was also the time of the strategy boom. Classics include Civilization, Age of Empires, Command and Conquer, Master of Orion, and even Heroes of Might and Magic. An honorary mention to Dungeon Keeper. This was also the time when Blizzard rose rather quickly above the ranks with Warcraft and Starcraft, which has helped bridge the gaming communities of the West and Korea.

The Sims franchise also got its start during this decade with memorable titles such as SimCity 2000, SimEarth, and SimAnt.

Last, but definitely not least, titles such as Diablo, the first two Fallout games, and perhaps even the esoteric Might and Magic and Ultima series foretold the coming of days when Western RPGs would cast their shadow over JRPGs.

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Sleeper Genres

It’s now but a mere shadow of its former self, but point-and-click adventures definitely flourished 20 years ago. The late Sierra had been a pioneer of crafting interactive stories since the ‘80s. The intention was to promote less time spent in front of the television, and more times spent with a computer. Funny, we could use another revolution like that right about now.

In the ‘80s, graphic adventures began as text based adventures. Ten years later, as mouse technology developed, the genre turned into the more interactive point-and-click. Due to much focus on home console entertainment, the value and gameplay of point-and-click graphic adventures were under-appreciated. Much of these games involved intensive puzzle solving with extensive dialogue. Those who took the time to explore these titles, with an open mind, were greatly rewarded. Memorable titles include Sierra’s flagship series of King’s Quest, Police Quest and Space Quest, Cyan’s (now Cyan Worlds) Myst and Riven, Infocom’s Return to Zork, and LucasArts’ Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle.

Another genre, dried in prominence, was the flight simulator. Popular titles at the time include Wing Commander, Star Wars: TIE Fighter, and Descent. The genre’s decline in the late ’90s was due to the rise of RTS, RPG, and FPS genres. The open ended nature, often needed attention to details and complex controls were the three points of the genre’s unfortunate Bermuda triangle that ensured its lost flight into obscurity.

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”For Adults Only”

Before the ESRB, games catered towards adults were either identified by their sophisticated, recreational gameplay or by how “boring” the snapshots appeared on the back of the box. Sales magazines back then only had to give the adult warning in their product descriptions. (3D Realms at the time voluntarily rated their own titles.)

Prime examples include the Links golf series, pinball simulation games developed by Epic and Dynamix, and the sentimental Battle Chess by Interplay.

Due to their acquired taste, graphic adventures also served as a medium for games aimed at adult crowds. While Mortal Kombat caused an uproar amongst the general public, this perhaps served as the smoke screen for various mature titles slipping under the radar. Games like The 7th Guest and Sanitarium were known for their use of gore and dealing with mature subject matters, while Sierra’s Phantasmagoria series pushed harder with the inclusion of sex and increasing the voltage to all the above (the first game included a live action rape scene). Sierra was also known for its raunchy Leisure Suit Larry series that have extended to current home consoles. Though not a graphic adventure, Knights of Xentar was an eroge/hentai JRPG made for the PC, published by Megatech.

Sex and violence, however, was not always an abused gimmick towards adult titles. Most of the time it was a simple matter of telling an engaging story that would be considered overly complicated for young gamers. Examples include the hardboiled, sci-fi detective titles of Chris Jones’ Tex Murphy series and Take-Two’s Black Dahlia.

There were a lot of great games for the PC in the ‘90s, and it’s hard enough to pick just a few to talk about. What titles did you love from that era? Please let us know in the comments below!

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in August 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @S_Chyou.

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