Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Archive for August, 2010

My So-Called Series

Posted by Trixter on August 12, 2010

I’d like to take a short break in my audio-cassettes-included-with-classic-computer-games series to ask a question:  What series have you tried to collect, and why?

Most collectors of classic game software tend to focus on an entire company (Sierra, Infocom, Adventure International, etc.) while others tend to hone in on a particular series (Wizardry, Ultima, etc.)  I am guilty of both, but my collection is biased towards series that may not seem to be worth collecting, have any relationship to each other, or have any rational pattern (even to fellow collectors!).  What I collect reflects why I like old PCs as a hobby:  Not because “old komputers R k00l” but because “what people did to get past old computers’ limits is k00l”.  If a game was really well-programmed, or had great graphics, or managed to produce audible sound out of the beeper, it gained my admiration.  Sure, story and gameplay mechanics are a contributing factor, but they’re not the main focus of my collection.

Another odd thing about what I collect:  It’s 99% PC.  I have some Apple II, Mac, and C64 titles, but those have been donations I’ve promised to take good care of, and I have.  My heart lies in the original PC, mostly because it was the hardest platform to get a decent game experience on, making successes all the more impressive.  This is atypical; most of my fellow collectors don’t discriminate platforms like I do.

Here’s an incomplete list of some “series” I’ve collected and why I consider them a series:

All the PC versions of Cinemaware adventure titles: Defender of the Crown (including the euro bootable EGA/Tandy/3-voice version), King of Chicago, S.D.I., Sinbad, The Three Stooges, It Came From The Desert, Rocket Ranger. Cinemaware games were a mixed bag:  Awesome graphics, music, and sound — on Amiga.  Other platforms usually got worse graphics and sound, but better gameplay because they would tweak some games between platforms.  Play the original Defender of the Crown for Amiga and you’ll find it is nearly impossible to win.  Play it on C64 or PC, and you’ll find it’s a much more balanced game.  Anyway, the graphics rocked CGA at the time.

EA Chuck Yeager flightsim series:  Chuck Yeager’s Flight Simulator, Chuck Yeager’s Flight Trainer 2.0, Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat. The first was a very fast simulator for an old PC with CGA; you could even flyby the “EOA” logo in the desert.  Then Microsoft sued over the “flight simulator” name and they quickly rebranded it as Flight Trainer.  Then came Flight Trainer 2.0 with more of a focus on training, and an audio cassette with many notes from Chuck himself.  Finally Air Combat, with a completely new engine by Brent Iverson which traded 20% less speed for 100% better graphics, models, video modes, clouds, cameras…

Deus Ex series: Deus Ex, Deus ex 2: Invisible War, Project: Snowblind. Snowblind?  Yes, Project: Snowblind was originally developed by Crystal Dynamics as a spin-off of Invisible War, but when DE2:IW sold poorly, the story and assets were changed somewhat to distance the game from a then-failing property.  Playing the game, however, reveals much of the familiar Deus Ex biomod mechanics, and the story — while taking a backseat to action — smells heavily of conspiracies, like all Deus Ex games.

Sierra Game Arts collection:  Thexder, Silpheed, Firehawk, Sorcerian, Zeliard.  All of these games were ports from the PC-88, and all of them look best in their native 640×200 16-color mode which you can see on a Tandy SL/RL/TL series computer or on an EGA card with more than 64K of video RAM.  For everything but Silpheed, the full-screen graphics updated very quickly by dividing the entire screen up into 16×8 tiles (8×8 if a 320×200 mode) and only repainting the tiles that change.  Since movement was quantized to tile locations, very little updated per frame even though it didn’t look like it.  These were essentially 40×25 textmode games but using graphical tiles — brilliant!  (Oh yeah, they also support Tandy 3-voice sound and all but Thexder supported a ton of extra sound devices for the time, but it’s the graphics mode and engine that I love.)

DSI road engine games: Test Drive, Test Drive II, Outrun, Grand Prix Circuit, The Cycles.  This is extremely obscure and deserves an explanation.  When Distinctive Software Inc. was an independent Canadian developer, they came up with a relatively simple-yet-effective road repainting engine that got used in several games published by Accolade:  Test Drive, Test Drive II, Grand Prix Circuit, and The Cycles.  During this time, they also took on a job for Sega porting Outrun to the PC.  They used the same engine, which one could argue they didn’t own because they developed it while under contract from Accolade.  They must have known something was up because they didn’t use their DSI name and logo, but instead used Unlimited Software Inc. Accolade felt they violated a working agreement, and filed a lawsuit.  (Ironically, the Outrun version of the engine is the smoothest, running much better on faster machines.  It’s playable even on gigahertz machines.)

Would you be fooled by this?


Access adventure Series:  Mean Streets, Martian Memorandum, Countdown, Amazon: Guardians of Eden, Under a Killing Moon, The Pandora Directive, Overseer. Access knew that the best technology could sell games, even if the story was a bit lacking.  Their engines had (crude) motion video, digitized audio, and 256-color graphics as early as 1989.  Later games like Under a Killing Moon and Pandora Directive also had a great engine with pre-rendered lights and a fully-textured world to explore.  While I loved all of them, my heart belongs to the Mean Streets engine because it used 256-color VGA graphics as the base data but would FS dither to all common lower graphics modes as well.

Here’s part of one shelf of my collection; I have five more shelves:

bookshelf filled with computer games

It’s a small collection compared to some of the superstars of my hobby, and I’ve had to pare it down over the years due to financial hardship, but I’m happy with what I have. It’s special to me, and that’s what counts.

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Stone Age Multimedia: Corruption

Posted by Trixter on August 7, 2010

(What follows is a continuation of an article about audio cassettes included with computer games; if you would like to start at the beginning, start with Homeword.)


Corruption was one of the legendary Magnetic Scrolls series: text adventures from the UK that are regarded by many to be on equal footing (if not better) than the venerable Infocom series of interactive fiction.

Playing the included audio tape before it’s required by the game isn’t recommended, but doing so sets up the basic premise of the story. The first track on the first side of the tape is a conversation with your boss that was used to frame you. In it, you hear your boss calling you into his office and confronting you about insider trading. (boss: “Using heavy inside knowledge — it’s a criminal offense.” you: “I agree.”) The conversation generally makes you out to be the bad guy (at one point, you bluntly answer accusations with “I’ll be frank: I admit it.”) For atmosphere, the tape has “Derek Rogers, March 25” scrawled on it in a kind of handwriting.

Sounds pretty damning, doesn’t it? There’s only one problem: You never had this conversation with your boss! You’ve been framed! You have to unravel your life and figure out the corporation’s secrets to win the game and get your life back.

C. E. Forman, an avid interactive fiction gamer, had this to add:

During the course of the game, you the player-character actually find this tape in one of your business partners’ offices, and can play it in the cassette deck of a car you break into. (Magnetic Scrolls also offerred a written transcript you could send for, in the event that the tape got damaged, since it’s a rather vital part of the plot.)

After the conversation, the theme music written by John Molloy starts. The title theme is extremely appropriate for the source material; the musical style evokes images of a mystery that needs to be solved, with sympathy for the hero. The other side of the tape, which is unlabeled, hides the original conversation you had with your boss from which the “framed” version was created. It’s a bit long, but is engaging to listen to as it demonstrates where your tormentor got all his sound bites from to make the version that framed you.

All in all, the tape adds a nicely textured clue that helps flesh out your purpose (and what you’re up against) in the game.

Highlight: The passage “Stupid sod spilled all the beans!” in the “framed” version of the conversation.

High Points: Good voice acting; realization that the “framed” conversation is very cleverly edited together once you hear the original conversation.

Low Points: Annoying reverb effect applied to both actor’s voices makes it hard for some to understand what they’re saying

Audio: For this installment, I’ve linked to the various available mp3s in the above article text.

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