When I was little, my next door neighbor was my best friend. He was a few years older, but he had a lot of similar interests – namely video games. We both had Ataris and Nintendos, but one thing he had that I lacked was a Commodore 64. I used to love going next door and playing games like Forbidden Forest, The Movie Monster Game, the port of Dragon’s Lair that was completely different from the arcade game, and Archon. I wanted a C64 so bad, but our family’s first home computer was the cheaper Vic-20. It was cool in its own right with its cartridges. I played a lot of Donkey Kong, Dig Dug, and Radar Rat Race, a clone of Namco’s Rally X with mice instead of cars. We also had a fair amount of text adventures such as Adventureland, The Count, and Pirate Cove (aka Pirate Adventure), which I distinctly remember for the ability to pick up diseased chiggers that would bite, infect, and ultimately kill you.
The Vic-20 served us pretty well, but it was no match for the C64 or even the NES. It wasn’t until the early 90s when we finally took the plunge and bought our first real IBM PC. When I say “IBM PC,” I mean a literal IBM-manufactured machine, not IBM compatible. Yes, this was back when IBM themselves made home computers. I remember it well. We bought the machine from CompUSA (remember those?); an IBM 386sx with a clock speed of 25MHz, 3.5” and 5.25” disk drives, 256-color VGA graphics, 2 MB of RAM (yes, MEGAbytes), a 2400 kbps modem, and a whopping 170 MB hard drive. No kids, that’s not a typo. That’s 170 megabytes which, at the time, was pretty big. It originally came with nothing more than the stock PC speaker, but a friend sold me a SoundBlaster clone card for $20, and I later expanded the system with a CD-ROM drive and doubled the RAM. At the time, PC components were not unified, so I mistakenly bought the wrong RAM chips and had to return them.
The PC was an entirely different beast from the consoles I was used to. It wasn’t just a gaming device. Windows 3.1 came with a word processor, a paint program, and a sound recorder. Games needed to be installed, and some of them required elaborate tinkering to get running. Many would run right in Windows with no problems, but others required you to make boot disks to load only the most basic necessities in order to conserve enough memory to run the game. PCs today are more simplified and intuitive, but back then you had to learn how to use MS-DOS, a simple black screen where you manually typed in commands. Windows essentially ran on top of DOS, hogging up extra memory, so many games required you to boot directly to DOS to free that up – and don’t even get me started on EMS.
Was all the work worth it? You bet it was! PC games were light years beyond what consoles were capable of in the 80s and 90s. They offered far more complexity, superior graphics and sound, but they also had their own caveats too. The PC excelled at things like flight simulators, strategy and role-playing games, and especially point and click adventures. In the rare instance a PC game was ported to a console, it was usually heavily dumbed down and paled in comparison visually. Even games that had relatively low system requirements often had features cut from their console counterparts, such as SSI’s Pool of Radiance (ported to the NES) and Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (ported to the Genesis), both of which had races and character classes missing.
Some games were redesigned from the ground up. Sierra’s King’s Quest was redesigned for the Sega Master System and used an interface similar to LucasArts’ PC adventures, while King’s Quest V saw a severely lacking port on the NES. SSI’s DragonStrike, a 3D flight simulator where players flew on the back of a dragon in a flat-shaded polygonal world, was turned into an overhead vertical shooter on the NES. That’s not to say they were all bad ports. DragonStrike was fun on both platforms in its own unique ways, and the Genesis received a completely overhauled and updated port of the classic StarFlight that ranks among my favorite games on the console.
Even in the 16 and 32-bit eras, console ports were generally inferior to their PC counterparts. Syndicate, a science-fiction themed early action-strategy title from Peter Molyneux’s Bullfrog Productions, received simplified ports to the Genesis and Super NES. The groundbreaking Doom was ported to almost every system imaginable, but even the powerful PlayStation had levels and monsters missing due to memory constraints. The Super NES got a technically impressive port of the relatively archaic Wolfenstein 3D, as well as Doom, but both lacked the graphical fidelity of the PC versions. Other popular 3D shooters such as Quake and Hexen got ports to the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64 – all of them with their own separate concessions.
Unlike cartridge-based games, PC games were easy to copy and share with friends. This was in no way legal, obviously, but that didn't stop my friends and I from trading pre-cracked copies of games. Sometimes games would come with elaborate copy protections like codewheels, or require you to look up specific words on a specific page of the game's manual, and still others had a large chart of codes or symbols on dark paper that made it difficult to photocopy. We would often painstakingly recreate these, sometimes copying entire manuals. All of my friends had several cases of pirated diskettes because they were so relatively easy to copy and distribute.
For all the things the PC could do, they couldn’t do it all – or rather, they couldn’t do it all very well. Early PC games lacked the ability to scroll smoothly as in games like Super Mario Bros., instead redrawing new screens each time the player reached the far edge of the previous one. That is, until id Software’s Commander Keen, which originally began life as a port of Super Mario Bros. 3. When Nintendo would not allow the developer to release its port, they made an entirely new game to show that the PC could do platformers just as well as consoles. The market, however, just wasn’t there on the PC. Id, and its partner Apogee, made several solid platformers, which included several Keen sequels, the original Duke Nukem games (yes children, Duke Nukem was originally a side-scrolling run-and-gun game), and Hocus Pocus (God I loved that game!), but they were no match for Mario and Sonic and, for the most part, PC gamers didn’t want the same experiences they could get on consoles.
Fighting games also struggled on the PC. Gamepads were less common than analog joysticks and flightsticks, meaning a lot of players could only play using a keyboard, and once again, consoles proved to be capable of handing the games better. The differences in control setups would remain a major factor well into the 2000s. Even as console controllers became more complex and overcrowded with buttons, they were still no replacement for a keyboard and a mouse. As the technology gap between consoles and computers closed, even flight simulators found their way to consoles, but unless you were willing to shell out extra cash for a console-specific, limited-use flightstick, you weren’t getting the best experience; or worse, you could play Wing Commander on the SNES or Sega CD with your d-pad. Ugh.
I’ve talked a lot about PCs in general, but it’s time to get down to specifics, and boy howdy, there are a lot of them. I’ve already talked about my love of Sierra On-line in an older article so I won’t go into greater detail, but it is worth repeating the story of my first PC game. Before my family bought our computer, they had to make the decision to buy one. Once that decision was finalized, I went to my local Babbage’s (now swallowed whole by the monolithic GameStop corporation) and bought the recently-released VGA remake of Quest For Glory: So You Want To Be A Hero. I remember reading a feature on the game in Sierra’s quarterly promotional magazine, InterAction, and staring in awe at the hand-painted backgrounds and the Claymation monsters. I knew that had to be my first PC game, so several weeks before we even had the computer, I bought the game. I remember showing it to my best friend, now a schoolmate, and together we turned a wholly single-player experience into a cooperative one as we’d try and solve the puzzles together after school. Before school, I’d wake up early just to play a little bit more. Quest For Glory, as a franchise, remains one of the most beloved and endearing in all of gaming history to me.
Sierra also put out excellent titles under their subsidiaries. Coktel Visions released a trio of brain-breaking games in the Gobliiins franchise, and a little known, under-appreciated point and click game called The Prophecy. Dynamix was even more prolific, releasing the Blade Runner-inspired cyberpunk cult classic Rise of the Dragon (which saw a very respectable Sega CD port containing full voice acting, but noticeably uglier graphics thanks to the limited color palette), several iconic flight sims such as Red Baron and Aces of the Pacific, and one of the greatest CRPGs of all-time, Betrayal at Krondor.
Based on fantasy author Raymond E. Feist’s world of Midkemia, BAK features characters from the books in a new adventure that was eventually canonized in a novelization itself. The majority of the game was written by designers Neal Hallford and John Cutter, with Feist giving final editorial approval, resulting in a richly detailed story unlike anything I’d played. The digitized graphics and expansive world were, for their time, cutting edge (though they’ve aged poorly), and the game offered a fairly non-linear quest, allowing players to go where they pleased, often at their own peril. I still vividly remember buying Krondor, and the agonizing wait to go home and play it as my mom and aunt drug me around to various stores at an outlet mall for hours.
The genre that PCs really excelled at were 3D games. First person shooters and flight simulators were extremely popular with players, and they were largely PC-exclusive experiences. It may not technically have been the first, but Wolfenstein 3D was a revolutionary game. That sound card I mentioned buying off a friend was specifically so I could play Wolf3D. The digitized voices and sounds immersed you in the experience. Gunning down Nazis was one thing, but hearing them scream “Aieeee!” was even more satisfying. I remember finding a Wolfenstein 3D level editor on an old BBS and having a blast designing new levels.
It was through various BBSes that I first stumbled upon games like Sango Fighter, and the similarly titled Super Fighter. Two of the better PC-exclusive fighting games rooted from Taiwanese developers, these were rooted in Asian history but played similarly to the arcade hit Street Fighter II. Most BBSes were filled with interesting knock-offs of popular arcade games, like CD-Man, an obvious Pac-Man clone, and later the excellent Champ arcade games. Champ was essentially a single developer – John W. Champeau – who painstakingly recreated classic arcade games. The names were slightly altered (Pac ‘Em, Galagon, etc.) but the gameplay and most of the graphics and sound were as spot-on as you could get in the days before emulation.
Most BBSes ran on a ratio system; the more you uploaded, the more you were allowed to download. If someone else downloaded something you had uploaded, you got credits for that too. Elite users were free to download at will. But BBSes weren’t just a cool place to download ill-gotten games; they had some pretty interesting games of their own. Though largely text-based, games like Drug Wars and The Pit were wildly popular. The latter definitely stole many hours of my time thanks to its simple but addictive fantasy arena-style combat. Winning fights earned you gold which you could then spend to buy new equipment and such. Some of the games were so popular, there were even offline versions of them.
But as cool as all of that was, BBSes were historically significant for another reason – shareware. This new distribution method gave users the first part of a game for free! They could send money (in an envelope; this was before PayPal) and receive fully registered versions with the complete game in the mail. Id Software and Apogee popularized the shareware method with their shooters like Wolfenstein 3D, Blake Stone, and of course, Doom.
Ironically, I didn’t discover Doom through a shareware demo or a BBS. Another friend of mine showed it to me, and like most people who saw it for the first time back in 1993, my mind was blown. This wasn’t just a step up from Wolfenstein, this was a gigantic leap forward. The graphics were stunning, the environments detailed. Everything looked more realistic. It was smoother, faster, and there were way more enemies to dispatch. The sound was mesmerizing from the cocking of your shotgun and distant monster growls to the heavy metal-inspired tunes. Most shocking of all was the gore. Wolfenstein had blood, but not like this. In Doom, you could tear demons to shreds with a chainsaw and they’d fall apart into puddles of blood and guts. What’s more, it was truly, legitimately scary. It may seem silly now, but in 1993 there was nothing like it. Walking through a dark corridor, the lights flickering, and coming face-to-face with an imp ready to tear you limb from limb was a frightening, edge-of-your-seat experience. Doom relied on quick reflexes to survive. It offered up tons of secrets to uncover and challenges to master. Playing it today, it’s still remarkable how well it has held up. The pacing was and still is absolutely masterful, as are the level designs, the weapons, the enemies, and everything else. Doom has rightfully cemented its place in history as one of the greatest video games of all-time, and I’ll certainly never forget the first time I saw it.
Unfortunately, my computer was already starting to show signs of aging. I could run Doom, but I had to minimize the screen a bit to make it playable. In those days, computer hardware evolved at a dizzying rate, unlike today where a system may last a casual user several years before becoming truly obsolete. I played Doom, small screen and all, as much as I could. When I found out that you could download new WADs off the internet (such as it was), the obsession got even stronger. It wasn’t unhealthy – I didn’t kill my parents or worship the devil or anything – but I didn’t see any reason to play other games. Countless user-created levels were available for free, and some WADs were even total conversions that made Doom look like the Aliens or Star Wars films! Doom was the reason I stopped Trick or Treating on Halloween. Instead, I’d turn off the lights, get myself some bite-sized Butterfingers, and play Doom between handing out candy to other kids. Occasionally they’d ask what I was playing, since our family computer was in the living room. Some would instantly recognize it and say, “Cool!” Others would be jealous because their friends could play it, but their own parents wouldn’t let them. To this day, I still play several levels of the original Doom every Halloween out of loving tradition.
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is that when publishers and developers see a chance to make some money by copying someone else’s work, they’ll jump at the opportunity. “Doom clones” became a colloquial term for just about every first person shooter that followed id’s masterpiece. Sometimes it was deserved. Games like Capstone’s Corridor 7: Alien Invasion tried to capitalize on Doom’s popularity, but failed to impress. Other times it was an unfair label. Raven Software’s Heretic was built on the Doom engine, so the similarities are apparent, but it stood on its own as a fantastic fantasy-themed shooter. These days, however, most of these games have been relegated to footnotes at best. The id logo became the gold standard in the genre
Over at 3D Realms, something else was happening. Id had dominated the shooter market for years, but the release of Duke Nukem 3D gave them some real competition. Using a new engine called Build, Duke 3D was irreverent, violent, fast, and uproarious fun. Suddenly Doom looked completely outdated and kids were spouting Duke’s one-liners (many of them stolen from other popular culture like the Evil Dead films). This new engine was capable of far more elaborate levels than the old Doom engine, but the game retained the frenetic pace and awesome weaponry. Loaded with juvenile toilet humor, gore, and risqué content (women in bikinis! Shocking!), Duke 3D knew exactly who its target audience was and we ate it up. In fairness, it is actually a damn good game. The pitiful sequel and its legendarily long time spent in purgatory can’t diminish how great Duke 3D was, and still is. By the time Quake came out, I had switched allegiances, not that id’s newest IP needed my help. Quake was wildly popular too, and it’s a great game in its own right, but it always felt too much like Doom with a new engine. The core gameplay had barely changed, and it started to feel stale in comparison to Duke.
But it was another Build engine game that tickled my fancy the most. With a name like Blood, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re in store for, but nothing prepared me for just how flat out incredible the game was. Blood took a lot of the irreverence of Duke 3D and transplanted it to a horror-themed shooter, chock full of pop culture references. The levels were as unique and diverse as its weaponry. In what other game could you shoot mimes with a flare gun and watch them run around screaming or kick zombie heads around like soccer balls? Like Doom years before, Blood was soaked in atmosphere (and, of course, pixelated blood), and like Duke, the protagonist would spew clever one-liners. It borrowed the best bits from other shooters and sewed them together like Frankenstein’s FPS. Blood still stands as my personal favorite FPS ever made. It didn’t have the impact Doom did, but for pure fun factor (and challenge, for it was indeed extremely difficult) nothing beats it. Years later Monolith Software would create a middling fully 3D polygonal sequel, bereft of the original’s charm, but they would redeem themselves with Shogo: Mobile Armor Division. Heavily inspired by Japanese anime, Shogo allowed players to run around on foot and in giant mechs, squishing anything in their way, and was tons of fun.
PCs weren’t all about shooters. RPGs and military strategy games were also extremely popular. One of the most prominent suppliers of both was Strategic Simulations Inc. (SSI). Second only to Sierra as my most beloved PC game developer and publisher, SSI made fantastic use of their licenses. I never much cared for military strategy, but their Advanced Dungeons & Dragons licensed Goldbox games set the standard by which I judged all other RPGs for years to come. Ironically, my first Goldbox game was one of the last ones produced – 1992’s The Dark Queen of Krynn. Already a steadfast reader of DragonLance novels, I immediately recognized the image on the box of Queen Takhisis, the Dark Queen herself, holding Raistlin Majere prisoner while browsing the shelves of CompUSA. At the time, I was unaware it was the third game in the DragonLance Krynn series, or that there were a host of similar games in other TSR role-playing universes like Forgotten Realms and Buck Rogers. Naturally, once I discovered the other games, I went back and purchased them, starting with the seminal Pool of Radiance.
The Goldbox games were my introduction to D&D. My friends and I soon began playing real adventures, but when we couldn’t get together the Goldbox games were the closest you could get to playing a module with your friends. Looking back, they’re extremely linear and they more or less force you along the path of the hero, regardless of your chosen alignment, but their adherence to the core D&D rules made them fun and challenging. Even better, finishing one adventure in a series meant you could import your characters into the next – just like real D&D.
SSI also released a handful of lesser-known D&D licensed games. SpellJammer: Pirates of Realmspace remains the only video game ever based on TSR’s criminally short-lived space-faring fantasy universe. The game was rushed and released full of bugs, but it was an ambitious project that coupled standard Goldbox style turn-based combat with realtime ship-to-ship battles in 3D. With a little more polish, it could have been great, though fans like myself can still manage to enjoy it in spite of the technical problems. Perhaps even lesser known is Al-Qadim: The Genie’s Curse, an Arabian Nights themed action-RPG. There were also two outstanding realtime adventures in the Ravenloft universe, played from a first person perspective. These were a little tough to control, but the unique horror setting was bone-chilling for its time.
Last, but certainly not least, two games in the Dark Sun world were published: Shattered Lands and Wake of the Ravager. The Dark Sun engine was supposed to supplant the aging Goldbox engine, but sadly the relative obscurity of Dark Sun meant the games never quite took off the way they should have. Personally, Shattered Lands still ranks in my top ten RPGs of all-time in any format. Unlike previous D&D based outings, you were truly free to play how you wanted. You could be the consummate hero, helping others out of kindness, or refuse to lift a finger until rewards were promised, or you could outright slaughter everyone in your path. It was up to you. The harsh desert world of Athas gave rise to a host of unique creatures, while players were able to form their party from unusual races such as half-giants and the insect-like Thri-kreen. Dark Sun was to be a birthday present, but I convinced my mother to let me open the box so I could “read the manual.” By this time, my grades had been slipping and I’d been banned from the computer unless given special permission. It was a simple password, which my brother foolishly wrote down in an obvious place. Naturally, I installed the game and would play it when I got home from school, before anyone else came home from work – until that one day when I lost track of time and my brother came home to find me engaged in combat with a bunch of monsters. Oops.
SSI also produced several one-off titles of their own that featured no license. They published Archon Ultra, an updated version of the classic action-strategy developed by Freefall Associates. Dark Legions, a later disk or CD-ROM title, owed much to Archon, with realtime battles and strategic turn-based creature movement and management. The Summoning was an action-RPG, similar in many ways to Diablo. It was fun, if a bit unspectacular. However, another game running on the same engine was far more memorable. I first saw Veil of Darkness at CompUSA on an appropriately rainy evening. The terrifying visage of a vampire’s face, his fangs stained with blood, definitely stood out. Veil of Darkness was an isometric action-adventure where you play a young man whose small cargo plane crash lands in a mysterious valley not found on any map. The citizens of the town live in fear of their vampire lord, Kairn. Your arrival seems to coincide with an ancient prophecy (of course there’s one of those), so you get tasked with stopping Kairn and freeing the people from his grip. The horror theme is very pervasive with lots of gruesome little touches. The world is incredibly, remarkably atmospheric, thanks in large part to an unforgettable soundtrack and one of the greatest opening cinematics any computer game was ever blessed with. Veil of Darkness is an overlooked classic that still gives me the creeps to this day.
When it comes to horror games, most people credit Resident Evil with popularizing the survival horror genre. Certainly, it was the game that brought it to the masses, but Infogrames’ Alone in the Dark is widely considered to be the progenitor of the genre. Using fully 3D polygonal characters in pre-rendered environments, AITD told a heavily Lovecraftian story of a private investigator trapped in a mansion filled with zombies, weird puzzles, traps, and weird dog-like monster things… I don’t know. I do know that while it looks laughable by today’s standards with its flat-shaded polygons vaguely resembling human shapes, it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen in 1992. The clunky control has not aged well at all, but for those of us who grew up playing it (and its two sequels), Alone in the Dark was a frightening, unforgettable experience where danger and death lurked around every corner. Even the intro would send shivers down your spine as Edward Carnby approached Derceto Mansion, watching by some unspeakable horror through an attic window. This was another one of those franchises, like Quest For Glory, that became a social gaming experience for me and my childhood best friend, despite being a strictly one player game. Sadly, the franchise today is a shell of its former self, with its last release being a much maligned CO-OP shooter (so, not very “alone”).
In 1990, Origin Systems released a game by Chris Roberts called Wing Commander that would blow my tiny 11-year-old mind. A 3D space combat simulator with incredible graphics and sound, Wing Commander was the closest I could get to sitting in the cockpit of an X-Wing. Instead of the Galactic Empire, you fought a race of cat-people known as the Kilrathi. Wing Commander was a smash hit and spawned numerous sequels, ports, and spin-offs – most notably Wing Commander: Privateer, which eschewed the traditional Good Guys vs. Bad Guys stories of the core series for a more open-ended experience, allowing the player to decide whether they wanted to be heroic pilots or ruthless space pirates. Later entries in the Wing Commander series also saw the addition of full-motion video scenes with professional actors Malcolm McDowell and Mark Hamill in key roles, while Privateer 2, which dropped the Wing Commander name, starred a young Clive Owen.
Origin Systems were a prolific development/publishing house. In addition to the Wing Commander franchise, they developed the legendary Ultima series, including the grandfather of the MMORPG, Ultima Online, and published two seminal games from Blue Sky Productions, Ultima Underworld, and as the newly renamed Looking Glass Studios, System Shock. Both games meshed RPG mechanics with realtime exploration and first-person combat, the former in the established fantasy world of Britania, and the latter in a science-fiction setting. Looking Glass would later become known as Irrational Games, whose BioShock series was the spiritual successor to System Shock, and whose founder Ken Levine often cites Underworld as one of his greatest influences. The depth and complexity of Ultima Underworld still inspired open-world RPGs to this day, seen mostly in the Elder Scrolls franchise.
After a string of incredibly successful and memorable adventure games that rivaled, and at times even surpassed Sierra’s, LucasArts saw the success of Wing Commander and took advantage of their most profitable brand, giving fans the chance to experience the Death Star Trench Run first hand with X-Wing. The complex controls were almost overwhelming, but the dogfights were harrowing and the graphics and sound, for their time, were unbelievable. The sequel offered a different perspective, putting you in the cockpit of the iconic TIE fighters, shooting down Rebel scum. I still remember the TIE Fighter demo disk that came with a PC gaming magazine and featured an unskippable ad for the new Dodge Neon. Both games were exceptionally difficult, but satisfying experiences that eclipsed anything I’d played on consoles at the time. The problem was that our family PC was getting very long in the tooth and TIE Fighter could barely run, even with all the fancy effects turned off.
Our next system was cutting edge. At the time, the Pentium 100 was the fastest processor on the market, so that’s what we got. I don’t remember all the specs, but I do remember it ran the revolutionary Windows 95 operating system. It was a huge step up, but like Windows 3.1, it was still a resource hog, so boot disks were still a necessity for many games. One of those was LucasArts’ other Star Wars venture, the FPS Dark Forces. After poring over every screenshot and article I could find in magazines, I came home from school one afternoon to find a copy of the game sitting on my bed. My mom had bought it for me as a surprise! I couldn’t have been more excited to start blasting away stormtroopers in 3D. Star Wars Doom was cool and all, but this…this was OFFICIAL! My excitement quickly turned to disappointment when our new, fancy PC told me I didn’t have enough memory to run the game. How could that be?! It met all the requirements on the box! After hours (literally, hours) of tweaking every setting to squeeze as much free memory as possible out of the system, I finally got it working.
Dark Forces is still one of my favorite Star Wars games ever made. The sounds of the blasters, the muffled shouts of Stormtroopers, the stunning dynamic music – it all put you right in the shoes of mercenary Kyle Katarn as he uncovered the mystery of the Galactic Empire’s newest threat. Exploring locales from the movies and new ones never seen before was a treat. The game was eventually ported to the PlayStation, but it was so hideously ugly you couldn’t tell what you were shooting at and the controls were downright terrible.
Dark Forces was a smash hit, and spawned three sequels. The most notable was the direct sequel, Jedi Knight. Ditching the sprite-based engine for a 3D rendered one, Jedi Knight mixed the first-person shooting action of Dark Forces with the ability to wield a lightsaber and use Force powers in full 3D. It was the first game of its kind. FMV cinematics between levels told the story as Kyle struggled with his newfound Force sensitivity. The dynamic iMuse soundtrack of Dark Forces (and the X-Wing games) was replaced by CD quality audio versions of John Williams’ Star Wars themes. The game even supported the new-fangled 3D accelerator cards from 3DFX for even better graphics! Jedi Knight is widely considered the best in the franchise, but shockingly it didn’t grab me like the original Dark Forces did. It wasn’t until I revisted the game only a handful of years ago that I truly learned to appreciate it.
Another notable developer was Peter Molyneux’s Bullfrog Productions. Long before he became known for over-promising and under-delivering, he essentially created the God game with Populous. Bullfrog’s games were usually outside the box, inventive affairs. The same friend who’d introduced me to Doom also introduced me to Syndicate, a realtime action-strategy game where players controlled cybernetically enhanced agents in a bid to take over the world, one country at a time. Between missions you could research new equipment, enhance your agents’ capabilities, and decide how much to tax dominated regions. Missions ranged from assassinations and all-out warfare to persuading and extracting important people via a nifty gadget known as the Persuadatron. With this little device, you could theoretically have dozens of average citizens following you around, which was handy when rival syndicates would ambush you. Though it was played from a ¾ overhead view, the graphics were surprisingly detailed. The environments had that retro-futuristic look seen in films like Blade Runner, and the game was surprisingly violent, allowing players to mow down whomever they pleased in a number of different ways or try and maintain a low profile. Syndicate is still a classic I can lose myself in for hours.
Then there was Dungeon Keeper, another realtime strategy game with a cool role-reversal. Instead of playing the heroes, out to save the kingdom, you played a dastardly lord of your very own dungeon. You could design it as you saw fit, but you needed to be careful because certain rooms attracted certain creatures, and certain creatures hated other ones. This game spawned an expansion pack, a full sequel, and most recently an absolutely vile mobile game where nearly everything is locked behind a paywall.
By the mid-90s, the gaming landscape was changing. Console RPGs had gone from a niche market to mass appeal. Popular 3D shooters were starting to make their way to 32-bit CD-based consoles. PCs began losing ground to the simpler plug-and-play model of console gaming, especially when it came to RPGs. Square’s Final Fantasy VII blew everybody away. It was hailed as the best game of all-time by numerous publications, and it was only on the PlayStation. That all changed with Fallout.
My friend and I were scouring the CompUSA shelves for a new game when he brought the Fallout box over to me. “This looks cool,” he said. I opened the flap, perused the screenshots, read the description and features, and agreed. We were hooked instantly the moment we started playing. In those days, Fallout was a far cry from what it is today. It was an isometric turn-based RPG. In many ways, it felt a lot like D&D, offered plenty of player choice, and a captivating story in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The other half of that one-two punch came a year later when Interplay, the publisher behind Fallout, released BioWare’s Dungeons & Dragons RPG, Baldur’s Gate. Even if the Forgotten Realms setting was far more traditional, the gameplay was anything but. It appears to be in realtime, but it’s actually turn-based with the option to pause and issue commands to your party of up to six adventurers. Like the Goldbox games years before, Baldur’s Gate did a fantastic job of adapting the AD&D rules into a computer game, as well as making them accessible for anyone who’s never thrown polyhedral dice. The epic quest would take dozens of hours to complete even if you ignored the multitude of side quests, although the game more or less forces you to grind if you want to progress through its challenging battles.
Together, Fallout and Baldur’s Gate helped revitalize the PC RPG genre, reminding players that PCs were still capable of experiences you simply couldn’t get on consoles. Interplay also released a terrific dungeon crawler called Stonekeep, which originally came packaged in a tombstone-shaped box that definitely caught the eye.
I could honestly go on forever about all the PC games I have such fond memories of. The Legend of Kyrandia, Hunter/Hunted, Lode Runner: The Legend Returns, Ripper, Conquests of the Longbow, Day of the Tentacle, Ignition, Simon the Sorcerer, the list goes on and on and on. To me, it was never really about PCs vs. Consoles. To me, you were missing out if you lacked one or the other. Nowadays, the line between PC and console is blurred thanks to unified architecture and hardware, but when I was growing up both had their strengths and weaknesses, and both offered incredible games. These days, many of these classics can still be run thanks to virtual machines such as DOSbox, and digital stores like GOG and Steam sell them bundled with simple installers. I still find myself spending hours playing games like Doom, Blood, Syndicate, X-COM: UFO Defense, Police Quest, Quest For Glory, TIE Fighter, and more. For all the modern hardware in my Alienware, I use it mostly to play vintage games because there is still nothing like the vast majority of them to be found anywhere else but the PC.