Monday, August 22, 2005

PC Gaming

At the end of last year, I was heavily into the PC game, Battlefield 1942, a Second World War 3rd person shooter and one of the most popular online games. I would come home from work, grab a coffee and fire up the PC. A simple button click and I was onto a server, chatting and gaming with people from across the globe.
It was during an after game top-up coffee that I started to remember how different it was some 10 years previously, as an unassuming 14 year old with a 486 SX and a friend's copy of Doom. Allow me to set the scene...

It was the summer of 1994... Wet Wet Wet's version of Love is All Around seemed destined to stay at the top of the charts for eternity, and the internet was still mostly unknown. I was a bespectacled, Metallica loving teenager who had a strange fascination with Pamela Anderson (as most teenagers at the time did).Until that summer, the family PC had sat in the dining room, its plodding Windows 3.1 system storing my Microsoft Paint-created Speedball 2 characters, my dad's business invoices and some very rudimentary games (nibbles, scorched earth, and others). Then the midteenage world of me changed considerably. I discovered Doom.

With all the smoothly-rendered, free-roaming 3d shooters on the market nowadays, it's often overlooked just how important Doom and Doom 2 were. Here we had games that looked, at the time, pretty realistic. There were shadows, explosions, gunfire, dramatic skies and bloodstains. The sound effects were particularly impressive at the time. Remember that this was before real, CD style music appeared in games (Heavy Metal sticks in my mind as one of the first great soundtrack games). Doom's guns sounded like guns. The chainsaw sounded like a chainsaw. The background music was suitably sinister. Doom was a game that raised the bar. It took the ease of use of Wolfenstein 3d and boosted it in every conceivable department. However, it wasn't perfect. Even at the time, whilst in the glow of Doom mania, there were a couple of things in the game that I disliked, namely:

  • The fact that you couldn't look up or down.
  • The way that certain enemies would run on the spot.

That said, the good by far outweighed the bad. Some time later, there was Doom 2 (perhaps I had it in '95, I can't really recall), which upped the ante even more with improved levels and, gasp, a level editor. The ability to modify and create levels was what really cemented Doom as my computer mainstay. One summer (I think it would be '95) I did nothing for 6 weeks other than kill hundreds of flies with a champion elastic band, and build Doom 2 levels. Before the summer, my levels were very basic, typically just a polygonal room with stretched sides to make corridors. But at the start of that summer I printed off the Doom Editor Utility text file from Dos, and now I had a manual to aid with the building. Of course, this was when the internet was first taking off, and I only knew of one boy in my school who had that pleasure. If you wanted help with a game in 1995, you had to hope that the help file was decent or face the high charges of a game hotline.

The lack of internet wasn't the only trouble with gaming back then. The fact that Doom 2 came on about 10 floppy disks meant for a harrowing, lottery of an installation process. If just one of those disks had an error, the others were useless (if memory serves, it was possible to contact the company and purchase a replacement, but it all took time). Another problem was (shudder) hardware configuration. This was the thing that really tested the patience and sanity of me and my friends back then. Anyone reading this who didn't play PC games before the late nineties, here's the story. Even if you had a game, chances are that if you just installed it, it wouldn't work perfectly, if at all. Because computer components weren't so standardised back then, you had to contend with the now defunct DOS, and fiddle around with two files that still cause cold sweats - config.sys and autoexec.bat. Only by tweaking these could you hope to run your game perfectly. And for those gamers like me who were novices, it was a bit like laying the PC on the table, opening it up and operating on it with surgeon tools. Sound and graphics needed to be calibrated. Different cards needed different tweaks. As with the installation, this was a crap shoot and no mistake. And how about if you wanted a break from a game, and fancied playing another? If you were like most teenage gamers at the time, you had a hard drive with about 250mb of space, which with all the other Windowsy stuff meant that you only had enough room for one modern game at a time. That's right, uninstall the entire game, reinstall the new game. And re-calibrate everything again.

Game lending was common then too. I certainly couldn't afford many modern games on my pocket money, and I'm sure it was the same for others too. It was convenient for us, but another problem arose - the anti piracy protection. Nowadays, cds and dvds are encoded to only work on one machine, or they have inbuilt codes (yes, I'm still a novice... forgive me), but back in the mid '90s there were all sorts of weird and wonderful things to be done before you could get into a game. The ones I remember the most are the word wheels, having to type a specific word from a specific page, paragraph and line of the manual and having to match the sillouette with the correct picture in the manual. (This was time consuming for legitimate owners of games too, and provided one of the ironies of PC gaming - that a law abiding gamer was given a harder time than the software pirate with his cracked, fast loading game.)

Despite the obstacles that littered the field, PC gaming continued, and began to evolve dramatically. Quake upped the ante, and Unreal and Quake 2 made Doom 2 seem painfully archaic. Windows became infinitely more user friendly, and DOS, our old friend for years, slipped off for a well-earned retirement. I feel quite sorry for the 14 year olds of today, sat browsing the net at 100mb a second, downloading patches and leading a squadron of soldiers into battle into a multi-national online war. For theirs is a tepid glory, as they have no appreciation of what it used to be like.


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