DOStant Memories

By Alec Meer on June 26th, 2014 at 3:00 pm.

Reflecting on things I take for granted, things which are an everyday part of how I play videogames today, I think of what used to constitute that for me. What was my Steam forums, my C:\Program Files (x86), my Catalyst Control Center, my YouTube clips, my memes, my take-the-side-off-the-case-to-stop-it-overheating? What seemed so important that it burned?

This is nothing more than nostalgia – I realise that entirely. I just forget so much these days that the act of trying to remember seems precious. There are the odd little things that stay with me:

  • Laboriously creating a hidden virtual drive containing games pirated from people at school. My mum complained that she couldn’t understand why our tiny hard drive was so full, but was otherwise none the wiser.
  • Being banned from using the pc for a week for repeatedly shouting “Jesus Christ aaaargh just come on” during a particularly challenging Syndicate level. This was seen as a sign that I was becoming a Bad Kid, which was and is laughable.
  • Refusing to show an older kid on the bus the copy of Fury of the Furries (I know, I know) I’d just bought, because I believed that this cover art was so enticing that he would surely steal it:

  • The one kid at school who had a copy of Doom Shareware before anyone else did, but refused to share it and instead regaled us, as we all sat rapt, with tales of how inconceivably terrifying and violent it was.
  • Being humiliated in front of the entire class by my history teacher, who was furious that I’d covered my exercise book in drawings of Ornithopters from Dune II.
  • Being so bad at mouse and keyboard controls that I couldn’t even manage the jump across the bridge that was required to select Hard difficulty in Quake.

  • Running up the family phone bill with multiple calls to the Lucasarts helpline when stuck in Sam & Max. I’m pretty certain my dad thought I was calling phone sex lines.
  • Getting a Soundblaster Pro for my birthday, primarily because I wanted to hear the music in Monkey Island 2. To this day I have no idea where my dad acquired it from, but it arrived unboxed and loose in a jiffy bag. Also in the jiffy bag were a series of floppy discs with ‘Monkey Island 1′ hand-scrawled onto them, and photocopies of its anti-piracy code wheel that I had to cut out and assemble myself.

  • The tiny, horrible white speakers bought to accompany said Soundblaster containing no magnetic shielding, and thus playing Monkey Island 1 (and 2) with a rainbow effect on each side of the screen. It was worth it just to hear that music.
  • Deep into my brief Dragonlance obsession, having a friend around to visit but then making him just sit there and watch me play through some side-scrolling and extremely unfair side-scrolling Dragonlance game. It was dreadful to play, and must have been exponentially more dreadful to watch. Today was the first time since then that I’ve revisited that game. Look what I subjected that poor bastard to – no wonder we haven’t spoken since school.
  • The last mission in my first playthrough of the original X-COM. Until that point I’d done an awful lot of save-scumming, restarting whole missions in order to resurrect one soldier, but up there on Cydonia, the stakes seemed so different. I knew this was a one way trip. I knew there was no point in preserving anyone. My team were slowly whittled down to two, and when eventually they stood there and took it in turns to awkwardly shook chunks off that giant eyeball, it felt like profound victory.
  • config.sys
    autoexec.bat
    DEVICE=C:\Windows\HIMEM.SYS
    SET BLASTER=A220 I5 D1 T2

  • Drilling holes in the corner of floppy disks to double their storage.
  • Floppy disks no longer working because plastic dust from my slapdash drilling was all over the magnetic inner.

  • Star Wars Rebel Assault being a near-mythical entity – none of us had CD-ROM drives, none of us could believe that full motion video and 3D graphics were possible, all we could do was look at pictures in magazines and lust and dream. This was surely and would always be the zenith of computer games: to own and play this thing was sheer fantasy, and when one day we did, life would be complete. None of us believed the middling to negative reviews, because just look at it. To this day I have never played Rebel Assault (or it sequel), and I tell you this: I will go to my grave without that changing, because some fantasies should be left unspoiled, no matter how foolish they may be.
  • Lurid, hyper-real box art (more seen in magazines than on actual boxes, as I had very few of them) that I started at and scrutinised endlessly, puzzled by how little they resembled the games they advertised and striving to reconcile the differences. There must be a reason – it can’t be a mistake that his gun looks different or her hair is a different colour. There must be. Games and their boxes back then were an ultimate authority to me- the idea that they might in some way deceive me was inconceivable.
  • Nothing working. Nothing ever bloody working properly. Learning how to use a PC, how to solve problems, how to extricate the whole system from the disasters I’d imposed on it. Learning if not patience then at least an iron determination to never, ever be defeated by a PC or by PC games, to keep on trying to get everything to work no matter the cost to my time or sanity. Whatever else has been lost – innocence, naivety, wonder, experimentation – that determination stays with me to this day.

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170 Comments »

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  1. apa says:

    FdFormat and getting the 1,44MB disks to have 1,72MB. And at least we didn’t have to patch and update games all the time!

  2. Dewi says:

    I remember, I was about 12 or so, when we got our first family PC (we had an Amiga 500 before that).

    16MB of RAM, 4GB HDD and 133MHz CPU. That’s all I remember about it.

    After a year or so, I convinced my folks to upgrade it, not for any reason other than to have a better machine than my friend down the road, as you do. At the time, none of us had a clue about these things, so my mum took it into a shop where it took 2 weeks (2 WEEKS!? WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY DOING!?) to upgrade the RAM to 64MB, the CPU to 333MHz and install a voodoo gfx card, I don’t remember which, but I had a voodoo!

    Well in the car on the way back from the shop, another car went into the back of my mum’s. She was fine, but the boot and the computer within were not.. I was devastated.

    We brought it home and tried starting it up, but it wouldn’t get past trying to load Windows 95. I was told that since it was just after Christmas, we couldn’t afford the repairs, so there it sat for months. The summer holidays rolled around and I found myself bored one day and decided “Screw it, I’m gonna fix this fucker since my buddy has a demo of this game called “Half Life” and he says it looks awesome.”

    So I opened it up and saw a tiny crack along one of the chips on what I now know to be the motherboard. We had no internet, let alone anything internet capable, so I was on my own. I had an idea. I started booting the machine and thought I’d hit some buttons. I discovered that if you press “delete” during windows loading the splash screen would give way to the files it was trying to load. I always stopped on the same file.

    Turns out it was the sound drivers it was having issues with. Loaded up safe mode and holy crap, it works! I removed the offending file (really bad idea, i got lucky with this bit) and the machine started up perfectly, albeit with no sound.

    I saved up money from helping my grandfather at the market and doing chores for 2 weeks, then I bought myself a Sound Blaster, put it in myself, installed the new drivers and voila, I’d managed to fix my first PC.

    Kinda what made me fall in love with PC’s, the mystery of it back then was amazing. Now, each problem faced is another challenge like this, albeit a little more complicated now.

  3. Premium User Badge

    mpk says:

    The first time I bought extra an extra RAM stick, it was 4Mb and it cost £100.

  4. frantrell says:

    Using windows 3.11 virtual memory to get a 286 with 1mb ram to run warcraft 2, which required 4. What a sense of accomplishment for my 13 year old self. Couldn’t play it anyway – it ran at 2 fps or so – but I still remember that day.

  5. SpacemanSpliff says:

    You should really have Flint in the front and Raistlin in the back. IMO

  6. katinkabot says:

    Memories of my dad’s sticky notes that littered the desk with all the DOS shortcuts. My dad’s custom menu that he “built” for me and my sister so we could get to our edu-tainment games easily. My favorite floppy disk that contained all my save games – it was more precious to me than my most expensive toy. I remember I put a glitter sticker of a unicorn on it and that it was blue. I hope I still have it somewhere in my old bedroom.

  7. n0m0n says:

    Discovering the internet (at age 10)! This was the point where I realized maybe paying attention in English class had a point (as a non-native speaker).

    Realizing how easy it was to play games on the school computers by pressing f8 just as windows started loading and booting into DOS rather than windows, thereby bypassing pesky passwords and locks!

    Teaching my friends how to play games on the school computers.

    Getting grounded for a week after my dad found me and my friends in the computer lab at school around 9.30 pm on a school night.

    Finally managing to save up for that 3dfx voodoo card – 3D graphics were indeed possible! This also meant the end of gaming in the computer lab – Quake just couldn’t run on those machines, while with the wonderful glide API and the monster Pentium P54CQS 120MHz processor at home were the envy of all the kids at school…

    Spending way too much money on the local cyber café playing through the Diablo 1 campaign with three friends. I still remember how scared we all were of the original “The Butcher” in act 1 – arguing for several minutes over who would be the one to have to open the door to his den on every play through…

  8. HothMonster says:

    Spending days biking back and forth between my friends houses trying to get everyone’s modem to work right so we could play duke nukem matches against each other.I don’t remember why this was so particularly difficult I but do remember a week of extreme popularity because I was the only one who could manage to get it to work.

    Playing irq port Russian roulette

    My mother buying this massive tomb from the grocery store that was supposedly filled with source code for games. All you had to do was copy it into a file and, tada, game and the book had 100s of awesome sounding games.

    But I said supposedly because despite spending hours per attempt carefully copying the code onto the computer no one in my family ever got a game to work.

  9. Chorltonwheelie says:

    Prestel!
    Telephone handset pressed firmly into the modem speaker/mic.

    Jumpers for goalposts…..

  10. jalf says:

    FURY OF THE FURRIES! YESSSS!

    Ahem… That is all.

    It was an awesome game though.

  11. MadJax says:

    One of my fondest memories is when my uncle bought a new PC with an actual CD drive! (Those things cost a bundle when first released, at least in our eyes at the time). “Holy crap! listen to the music of Monkey Island on CD!” “HOO! LOOM HAS VOICES! ACTUAL VOICES!!!”

  12. thekelvingreen says:

    What is all this talk of disks and CDs? My memory is of trying to find the right kind of cable to connect the Panasonic cassette player to the Spectrum so that I could sit and listen to screeching for three minutes before watching my brother play Daley Thompson’s Decathlon.

    Being banned from using the pc for a week for repeatedly shouting “Jesus Christ aaaargh just come on” during a particularly challenging Syndicate level.

    It was the Atlantic Accelerator wasn’t it?

    It was worth it just to hear that music

    The Amiga version was better. Platform wars!

  13. PopeRatzo says:

    Why, when I was a kid, the only game we had was throwing rocks at my baby sister.

    But I was the best at it. This is why today I atone by only playing games with heroic female protagonists, and zero female hostages to save. Actually, I don’t really play those games because their boring, but I scold everyone else about it. My favorite game is Hotline:Miami, but I do make a little “tsk-ing” sound whenever I’m required by the game to kill hookers. Fortunately, they are ironic, lo-res hookers.

  14. Neurotic says:

    “Learning if not patience then at least an iron determination to never, ever be defeated by a PC or by PC games, to keep on trying to get everything to work no matter the cost to my time or sanity.”

    YES..

  15. Nova says:

    Yes to that last point. Yes!

  16. MikeStarkweather says:

    Indeed. I recall spending a solid week trying to get Ultima VII to run on my 386, along with the elation of finally getting it and DOS to cooperate.

  17. Beebop says:

    The last one. So very much the last one.

  18. somnolentsurfer says:

    Rebel Assault was the start of the death of LucasArts. I think it may well also have been the first PC game I finished.

    (My mum did a deal with the man in the shop on finding out 7th Guest was an 18 certificate, so instead of that we got Day of the Tentacle with our CD-ROM drive. These days I know we got the better deal there, but it took me years to complete, until I saw a letter someone else had sent to the tips page of a magazine about the last puzzle in the game.)

    • ZephyrSB says:

      My brother wrote a play guide for Rebel Assault which I think managed to show up in some-such-or-another magazine at the time. The only thing I remember is the advice for one level which I think pretty much sums up the entire game.

      ‘Simple. Avoid these polystyrene rocks.’

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    Bluerps says:

    I remember playing Monkey Island with my big brother, late at night. He was playing (because it was his PC), but I still had a lot of fun just watching, occasionally contributing a possible puzzle solution and laughing at the jokes I understood.

    That PC was the first one I got to use on a regular basis. It was a 386 and had a hard drive around 120MB big. I remember that I annoyed my brother to no end, because I always wanted to install more games (or sometimes just one game that was really big, like Ultima VII) and he needed the space for software he needed for university.

    I played so many classics on that machine: X-COM, several Ultimas, Wing Commander 2, most of the Lucas Arts adventures. And then my father got me a 486 that he managed to buy cheap somewhere, and I never used my brother’s PC again.

  20. AceJohnny says:

    Oh oh me too! Me too!

    Corrupting my dad’s hard drive after plugging in the amazing brand new cd rom drive onto the IDE cable. Wondering why it doesn’t work when plugging it in to the Sound Blaster 16’s ATAPI IDE interface.

    To this day, I still don’t understand how that failed. I had to buy an extra controller card.

    (My dad was able to have his files recovered at his office. I still admire his (mostly) patience in dealing with my shenanigans)

  21. HisDivineOrder says:

    Haha, I remember when I used to have INSANE arguments with my friends about mouse vs kb for controlling a FPS. Playing Doom 2 and Descent in the high school PC lab that had JUST been upgraded.

  22. MistaJah says:

    You can make your own 2D DOS game in LÖVE (lua): https://github.com/rxi/lovedos

  23. Premium User Badge

    The King K says:

    Ohh, the memories. Before I knew what what I was doing, somehow deleting DOS from the system. Somehow destroying my giant (40 MB!) folder of games with a hex editor, then a friend restoring it with…scandisk? Was that something that existed?
    Upgrading from an internal gfx card to a 512 KB gfx card I scavenged from somewhere.
    Losing all computer access for over a year due to bad grades. Running the Microsoft antivirus that came with dos 6.11 and finding hundreds of viruses (viri?), then not doing anything about it (because really, my PC was still running).

  24. Spacewalk says:

    QBasic and ZZT.

  25. rebb says:

    Few things are as scary as a floppy drive read error sound.

  26. Audiocide says:

    “Whatever else has been lost – innocence, naivety, wonder, experimentation – that determination stays with me to this day.”

    This.

  27. Paul.Power says:

    I had that rare beast, the Amstrad Mega PC – a dual-mode PC and Mega Drive. It was a lot of fun, but the downside was that the PC part was kinda obsolete from the start, so I had to deal with 1MB of RAM, 40MB of hard disk space, VGA graphics and DOS 5.0. Eventually we upgraded the RAM to 4MB and installed Windows 3.1 (mostly so I could install Creative Writer, which I had a bit of an obsession about at the time).

    Favourite games for me included Links: The Challenge of Golf, Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker, SimEarth and (of all things) Fun School 4 and Fun School Paint and Create. And lots of messing around in QBasic.

  28. Humppakummitus says:

    Your SOUNDCARD works PERFECTLY!

  29. TuneIntoCh0 says:

    Being envious of all things CREATIVE hardware. The Soundblasters, their video cards – never had one (except a cheap SB), but always wanted one at the time, for some strange reason. They must have been one of the first to incorporate artwork into their boxes and something as simple as that made them desirable to me.

    PC Powerplay magazine. Nuff said.

    “Dad, the computer needs a 3D card.” x1000….. eventually, “Here’s a 3D card son! happy birthday!”. Oh jeez oh jeez, could it be a Voodoo 3? Nope. A Savage S4. Still nerdgasm’d though. It wasn’t even the most obscure card I had though – the Kyro II takes that crown.

    Overclocking that beast K6-2 350MHz all the way to 450MHz (theme of my early PC experience: Intel? 3DFX? Creative? pfft, get that leading edge stuff out of my face). In fact, overclocking in general – before it was a matter of navigating the BIOS or software based.

    Creating custom skins for trucks in MTM2 and for cars in Nascar Racing Season.

  30. FyberOptic says:

    Coincidentally, Mini-Ludum Dare 52 just ended, and the theme was making something for a retro platform. I made a little maze-based game for DOS, during the development of which I was quickly reminded of the tiny tiny box you’re trapped inside of, and of the graphics hardware in PCs which was never designed for games!

    http://www.ludumdare.com/compo/minild-52/?action=preview&uid=36171

  31. drvoke says:

    Our first PC was a Tandy 1000 when i was 5 (1986). It was great, played MS Flight Simulator and Jet from SubLogic on it manically. Remember first encountering shareware and occasionally getting mom to pony up to get disks (diskettes not discs!) full of the stuff from some catalog i got sent to our house.

    Being totally blown away when I first discovered BASIC. I can program? For free? By myself?? By God, this world of computerized wonders will never cease! Having an actual legit copy of MS-DOS 3.something, with several manuals in three-ring binders, flipping through it, trying commands, until i wore out the holes in the beautiful glossy punched pages. Bookmarked the ASCII code page with a post-it for use in BASIC programming.

    When i was 14, for christmas, my parents knew how much i loved the Wing Commander games, and how gutted i was our current rig couldn’t play WC3, so they looked up the system requirements, and bought me all the components i needed to build a computer from scratch that would run it, and the game itself. I spent two days teaching myself how to build a PC from scratch. When i finally booted it up and watched that opening cinematic, i could have (and maybe did, a little) cried. Fucking glorious. They were more supportive of my PC addiction than i had any right for them to be (probably because i did use it for schoolwork when i needed to), and I will always be thankful.

    That was the best Christmas ever. No other Christmas before or since has topped it. I have built every other computer I’ve owned from scratch since then. And while i don’t necessarily miss the days of config.sys and autoexec.bat, or dip switches, or IRQs and DMAs, through all the trials and tribulations of getting software to run on minimum specs on a PC running DOS, I developed a love for the PC that will never die.

  32. Myrdinn says:

    - Figuring out as 10 year old what type of soundcard you had by painfully trying every frigging option, from Ad-Lib with 8 channels to Sound Blaster with 32 channels or whateverthehell. But oh boy if the sound effects AND the music worked!

    – Figuring out you could actually -play with other people- with this weird stuff called the internet (which could strangely enough only connect to national IP adresses). Surfing the internet (using my 28.8k), looking up Quake servers and being able to connect them using the quake console was something which made my 10-12 year old feel like a real-life wizard!

  33. altum videtur says:

    Hey I remember those things!
    Hazily.

  34. UKPartisan says:

    My very first PC was a 640kb IBM XT that my dad brought home from work in the mid 80’s, I loved it. Horrible beepy internal sound and 4 colour CGA graphics, not as cool or funky as my C64 or later Amiga you felt more sophisticated because you knew how to use DOS commands.

    The IT suite at my school had loads of Olivetti IBM compatibles (M24’s I think) on a network, we’d bring games in and copy them to the network so those of us with IBM compatibles could make copies of them and take them home. Rogue was probably the most popular game because you had the administrator key F10, which would bring up a DOS prompt, handy for when our Computer Studies teacher was on the prowl.

    I remember putting the DOS version of Elite on the network with my save game that I had worked at for months to get Elite status, in the days that followed other kids started coming to class and bragging how they were now Elite status pilots…Yea right.

    DOS was clunky, a pain in the arse to use but I was genuinely sad when Microsoft removed real mode MSDOS support from Windows, very glad we have DOSBOX these days.