Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Year I Discovered PC Games

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 6, 2012

I didn’t really have a DOS-based PC until 1991. By this point, the era of my beloved Commodore 64 was pretty much over, and while I really wanted an Amiga, its time was also rapidly coming to a close. This weekend, I stumbled across some music from Falcon 3.0 – the Spectrum Holobyte game from 1991. I was surprised how it brought back feelings, nostalgia, and excitement from that era of gaming. Sense memory and all that, I guess.

It really was an incredible time to be a PC gamer. The PC was in the midst of a surge of titles as publishers decided that it was the horse to bet on. It enjoyed four significant but then-recent changes that had turned it into the ultimate gaming computer. First of all, VGA had become standard. Suddenly, games could explode with sixteen times the number of colors of the previous standard, and of most previous computers. Secondly, the Adlib and Sound Blaster sound cards had also become ‘standard’ enough that even their competitors maintained compatibility. This meant pretty decent sound, for once, and even digitally recorded sounds or voices could be used in games for the increasing base of Sound Blaster users. Thirdly, the 386 CPU was really pretty dang powerful and overshadowed much of what had come before. Finally, expanded or extended memory managers had become common as most computers shipped with more than 640K.

All of these combined to make the DOS-based PC (the earlier versions of Windows was simply a layer on top of DOS that slowed down performance) the best non-console gaming platform. A couple of years earlier, and most titles simply included the PC as a platform for a port, but by 1990 the PC had become the lead platform for almost all computer game companies. With all the new technological power, game developers were able to really push things as they hadn’t before.

Then, even as today, I tended to pick up games a little late. Back then, it was mainly because I was a poor student with little money, so my games often came from the discount rack, or borrowed from friends when they were done.  I got to play catch-up on some really incredible titles from the late 80’s through 1990, marveling at how much things had changed from the Commodore 64 era. I was able to discover a few older games like Neuromancer, Ultima V and Ultima VI, Wing Commander I, Loom, Monkey Island I, Mechwarrior, and Pool of Radiance. I learned about shareware, and played a couple of amazing roguelikes.

1991 also saw a ton of great releases that are still remembered as classics. While I didn’t play them all as soon as they were released, this was clearly a time to be excited. Check out this list of the goodies that came out in 1991 (clearly skewed to my own personal preferences):  Civilization, Gunship 2000, Space Quest IV, Out of This World (1991 for DOS, I’m pretty sure…), Leisure Suit Larry 5, Wing Commander 2, Defender of the Crown, Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat, Eye of the Beholder 2, Might & Magic III: Isles of Terra, Scorched Earth (another one of the awesome shareware games that were really starting to kick butt in this era), Catacomb 3D (the largely unknown predecessor to Wolfenstein 3D), The Adventures of Willy Beamish, Bard’s Tale Construction Set, Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood (okay, nobody but me seemed to have played this one, but I loved it), Falcon 3.0, Lemmings, Police Quest 3, Spellcasting 201, Elite Plus, The Magic Candle II, Twilight: 2000 (again, I seem to be the only one who played it, and I did enjoy it up until the broken finale), Monkey Island 2, Commander Keen IV-VI, Duke Nukem, F-117 Stealth Fighter (Sort of a sequel to or deluxe version of the “F-19” game from a couple of years earlier), and some of the final games of the SSI “Gold Box” D&D series.

By 1992, I was hooked, devouring gaming magazines (mainly Computer Gaming World). The flood of  soon-to-be-classic titles kept coming: Wolfenstein 3D, Aces of the Pacific, Ultima VII, The Magic Candle III, Wizardry 7, Ultima Underworld, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, Star Control II, Might & Magic IV (not that I played it back then, but everybody was talking about it), Alone in the Dark, Dune II (the prototype for the RTS genre),  and … well, you get the idea.

So I’m dropping a lot of game names here. The point is (if there is one) that there was a lot happening in this time on the PC. We hadn’t even arrived in the era of true CD-ROM distribution (let alone hardware accelerated 3D, or high-speed Internet outside of the college campus), but the games were already doing some pretty amazing things. And even then, there was some interesting cross-pollination between computer games and the console realm. The indies were beginning to make a good showing for themselves, under the “shareware” term. Games were literally driving hardware sales for the PC – a trend that continued throughout the decade.

It’s not as if the supply of games for the PC has really diminished that much – except for certain genres. Back in early 90’s, RPGs and adventure games were kings. Flight simulators of various kinds were all but a license to print money for the publishers. Civilization took the popular formula of Empire and turned it into one of the biggest games – and biggest franchises – in history. And of course, there was the Space Combat Sim, a genre that really hit its peak in the first half of the decade. But we also saw several games that would be termed “casual” sitting on the shelf next to the “core” games. There was no real distinction. Genres blended and expanded.

And yeah, there were plenty of crap games back then, too. Fortunately they are mostly easy to forget. For the most part, the actual experience of gaming is a lot better now. Besides the massive tech improvements, games today are generally an improvement on those older experiences. They are far easier to install and run, and have a lot fewer issues with configuration or compatibility.  They are generally streamlined in a good way, and much easier to “pick up” and play. They’ve been built with the advantage of hindsight, built upon the foundations created by these earlier games. But in a lot of ways, they’ve also lost a bit of that raw energy and creative experimentation that also characterized the era, in my mind.

That early era of PC gaming was what made me consider making video games my career. I wish I had a better way of tapping into the feelings and energy of that era today.  This was an era that really inspired me. When I think about trying to recapture that “old school” RPG experience, I’m really talking about trying to bottle that feeling.

Was 1991 or 1992 the best year to get started playing PC games? It really worked well for me. Although if you take a look at the indie scene today, with around EIGHT HUNDRED entries into the IGF this year (if you combine standard and student entries – although admittedly many of them are not for the PC), it seems pretty easy to argue that today, twenty years later, things are looking better than ever.

Filed Under: Retro - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

  • Groboclown said,

    This is the first time I’ve really stopped to consider what “PC Gaming” means. I was playing Ultima III on a PC Jr. and Test Drive on a 8086 with a Hercules adapter with that lovely PC Speaker sound, and all this I considered “PC Gaming”. However, as you point out, there’s a huge difference in the types of games being made before and after the VGA standardization.

    However, we can’t forget to remind ourselves that the bad-old days of DOS gaming was truly a hobby for the dedicated individual. Who could forget fiddling with jumpers on the Sound Blaster to keep it from colliding on ports with your joystick card. Does this game work with a Gravis but not a Sound Blaster? Why does Ultima VII use its own perversion of a memory manager that forces me to boot with a custom config.sys, when Wolfenstein happily loads up the XMS and EMS memory that everything else uses?

    Yes, yes. Grab me a piece of grass so I can yell for everyone to get off it.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Oh, yeah. For what seemed like a long time (but it was really only a year or two) I had an “off-brand” sound card that was kind of a pain to configure. And also whether you were using Extended or Expanded memory. How many times would I create a custom autoexec.bat and reboot just to play a game?

    Yeah, that is all part of the experience that I really do NOT miss.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Boot disks! I had loads of them. Seemed like almost every game needed one at that time.

    I started PC gaming a bit earlier, in the late 80s. My Dad had a computer for work, and he bought a few games for me and my brother to play. They were mostly maths-based, but with a few “classics” like Alley Cat in the mix.

    The big hit though, was when we borrowed King’s Quest from a friend. It was amazing, and from that point on I was hooked. Thankfully, my Dad was always interested in new technology, so we could easily convince him to upgrade now and again in order to play new-ish games.

    Something to point out from that list, which I didn’t appreciate at the time, is that Wolfenstein 3D and Ultima Underworld both came out in the same year. The technological achievement and ambition of Ultima Underworld is rather impressive.

  • shaf said,

    Like you I started out with the C64 but then jumped to the Amiga in 1986 and used it until 1995 where a job required that I be more PC Saavy, so I Built my PC. I think my First PC Game was Dungeon Master II followed by Stonekeep.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – Dungeon Master & F-18 Interceptor were the reasons I wanted an Amiga.

  • Xian said,

    1991 is the year I really started gaming on the PC. I had a bridgeboard for the Amiga before that, basically a PC on a card that fit inside the Amiga 2000 and shared the monitor and peripherals, but I just used it for the titles that weren’t out on the Amiga or Atari ST – I had both.

    Ultima V was the title that finally made me switch to the PC. The Amiga bridgeboard would only output CGA graphics unless you would buy an EGA card and monitor. Playing Ultima V in CGA just wasn’t very visually appealing, so I bought a 386 with VGA instead of buying an EGA card and monitor. I alternated gaming between the 3 machines for a while, but more started coming out for the PC first, Wing Commander would be a prime example. By 1992 the PC was my primary game machine and has remained so to this day.

  • Wavinator said,

    Thanks for the great link to the Falcon 3.0 music. God I haven’t heard that in years and it immediately brought back memories! I remember feeling proud that I had graduated from the more “gamey” F-15 Strike Eagle to the more “serious” Falcon 3.0 and never in my life did I have more fun playing a game I barely understood! (Bombing missions were a case in point– you want me to fly out to the target, aim up, roll upside down and over, then hit that tiny speck at WHAT speed???? :D)

    Although I am heartened by your mention of how robust the indie gaming community is these days I wonder a bit if in refining and maturing we’ve lost some of that experimental flash that went hand in hand with not having strongly defined genre boundaries. When I try out many indie games these days I pretty much know what I’m in for at the start. If it says empire builder, I shouldn’t expect to be surprised by something wacky like a tactical shooter element, gambling game or dating sim. Yet it seems like in all sorts of games back then you could get very unexpected mixes– X-Com wasn’t just a tactical shooter, Rise of the Dragon gave you platform shooting mixed with your adventure game, Wing Commander was part choose your own adventure (esp. in allowing you to keep fighting after failing a mission), Midwinter was part action, strategy and management game, and you’ve already mentioned Civ– woe to the soul (like me) who was just expecting a campaign based war game and instead found digital crack.

    Maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking but I don’t see this as much today. With few exceptions (like maybe the hard to define AI War) things seem to be far more structured in that you have zillions of platformers and RPG-maker clones and SHMUPs and such, all fitting into neat buckets.

    Maybe part of the old school flavor was chaos in the form of unexpected surprise?

  • Keldryn said,

    Wow, those lists of games bring back a lot of fond memories.

    I started PC gaming in 1990. We originally had a 4.77/8 MHz 8088 PC with 640k of RAM and green Hercules monochrome, which my dad built as part of an NRI course in computer servicing. We bought a few games for that PC (Hero’s Quest, Ultima V, Times of Lore), but I had a C-64 and an NES at the time and preferred to play on those.

    My dad got tired of me laughing at his computer, so he bought an SVGA card and monitor. That got me to pay more attention to the PC. Within a couple of months, my dad tossed the 8088 and bought a 12 MHz 286 with 1MB of RAM, a 40MB hard disk, and an original Sound Blaster card. I spent that summer playing Ultima VI, Hero’s Quest, Loom, and Wing Commander. The C-64 became a distant memory.

    It didn’t take too long before my dad upgraded to a 20 MHz 386SX because Wing Commander and Worlds of Ultima: Savage Empire ran too slow on the 286.

    Hmm, how many others’ hardware upgrades were largely driven by Origin games?

    1991 and 1992 were awesome years to be a PC gamer though. I was lucky enough to have VGA and a Sound Blaster pretty much right from the start, so by 1991 most major game releases were supporting both.

    It was a great time to be a PC gamer because companies like Origin were producing games unlike anything we’d seen before. It was also a great time to be a PC gamer because I was in my last year of high school and still had enough free time to play all of these games!

  • Graciela said,

    I started gaming around 1993-1994. First game I ever bought was Myst, and I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. Never looked back. Now, if I go a day without playing some kind of game, I’m in serious withdrawal.

    I definitely remember the hassles of configuring new games though, LOL. I bought Stonekeep, and thought I was going to kill someone by the time I’d managed to get it to play!

  • The New CRPG Heyday… said,

    […] talked about how 1991 was a wonderful year for discovering PC games. And I talked about how 1991 was kind of the center-point of what I’d consider the […]